Monday, February 14, 2011

seedlings of brief history

These are seedlings that I'm germinating here, to be potted on if they show any sign of maturing.

Che Guevara, Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War.

This, along with his manual of guerilla warfare, used to be published in Pelican Books, Penguin's remarkable series of informative books that was finally discontinued in 1990. Yes, even before the Internet, there have always been means by which information-hungry people have been able to access the world in one form or another. And let's face it isn't reading a primary source a lot more "access" than you can get from any amount of Wikipedia ruminations on Che's iconic hyperreality and influence on Hollywood (The Motorcycle Diaries). But perhaps debate about his supervision of post-revolutionary executions cannot so easily be dismissed as trivia. I'd only remark that most victorious revolutionary struggles have in fact required executions. Oppressive regimes do not suddenly lose all their threat overnight when a new state is formed. Oppressive regimes pay well and have foreign well-wishers. The new, insecure, authority cannot immediately assume the benevolent tolerance to opposition that characterizes an old entrenched powerbase. (But old entrenched powerbases naturally benefit from portraying revolutionaries as bloodthirsty savages. We don't want that kind of thing over here.)

Duque de Rivas, Don Alvaro, o la fuerza del sino.

This is my latest challenge in reading Spanish, and it's great. It is one of the key dramas in Spain that signalled the triumph of romanticism over classicism. The Duque was a political radical, in later years a more moderate liberal. In the anglo-zone, where we never experienced a triumph of romanticism (not in the theatre, anyhow) - it was somehow aborted by the pre-existence of Shakespeare, - the play is best known as the source of Verdi's opera, The Force of Destiny. The superb variety of scene and location is what impresses now.

Galdos, Fortunata y Jacinta.

Thomas Robinson, The Life and Death of Mary Magdalene.

Coming across this previously unknown Early English Text Society volume, you might reasonably assume (as I did) that you're about to read a medieval, Catholic, saint's life. All three of these assumptions are wrong. TR (otherwise unknown) wrote the poem in around 1620. It is in the Protestant tradition (Mary's story is essentially an allegory on the redeemed soul) and is post-Spenserian in manner. It rather defies generic classification - "religious epic" (The Spenser Encyclopaedia) doesn't seem to press the right buttons, but might make a bit more sense to me if I'd read Giles Fletcher, perhaps. Sacred epyllion might be more like it, but imagining (if you can) an epyllion that's thoroughgoingly allegorical.

This excellent poem survives in two mss, but was never printed until Heinrich Sommer's EETS edition in the 1880s. EETS, like the Vatican, thinks in centuries not years, and no-one has yet seen fit to replace (or merely delete) Furnivall's inadequate notes, which are based on radically false assumptions about the date and author.

William Congreve, Love for Love.

A Lover of Unreason (biography of Assia Wevill, by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev).

This retailed at £20 when published but is currently available (guess the price) in your local branch of Poundland - Get down there now!

Assia was Ted Hughes' partner, the second one to commit suicide by gassing herself. (but Assia also gassed their 4-year-old daughter Shura.) I'm only intermittently interested in Hughes and Plath as poets, but even if I wasn't interested at all I'd still be enthralled by Assia's life, which has so far moved chaotically from Russia to Berlin (Nazis coming to power), to Pisa, to Tel Aviv in British Palestine - and she's only just had her first kiss.


Family, It's Only a Movie (1973).

I've had it in mind to write this piece for ages, and perhaps I never will, I've got cold feet. The truth is I'm not particularly happy with my writings about music. For that matter I don't particularly like anyone else's, either. Which is odd in a way, because in my youth I thrilled to Barney Hoskins, Richard Cook, Ian Penman, even The Boy Looked at Johnny. But the most precious thing about music I ever possessed came from a few years earlier. It was a feature length restrospective interview with Roger Chapman and Charlie Whitney, just after Family had announced their farewell, and it talked through the band's whole turmoiled history. I can't remember who published it, and you can't read it online. You can read a 1994 interview with Chapman though, and that's interesting too, but different. At the time of the earlier retrospective they had still been friends and working together. They had spoken more warmly about the spirit of the band, and more embarrassedly about the psychedelic gimmickry of - what then seemed so far off, all of five years before - Music in a Doll's House, their debut album. In 1994 Chapman, after 12 years as a solo artist, could take a cooler view. From this vantage point all of Family's work sounded equally of-an-era. He evidently never forgave Whitney for ending their writing partnership, in 1979-ish; he just forgot about it and moved on. (Christian theorists please note: forgetting ISN'T the same as forgiving, indeed can be vengeful.) It's one of the mysteries of rock what Whitney, who had briefly been one of our greatest guitarists and songwriters, did to earn his keep after that. He was barely forty and could hardly subsist on Family's royalties, you'd imagine. Rock is of course long since dead (yes it is), and all its best mysteries are of the "Whatever happened to.." type. The most intriguing of all, I think, is Tim Harrison, erstwhile genius of Evesham's The Dancing Did. It's impossible to rest satisfied with the idea of TH as a magazine designer with no further musical involvement (Wikipedia) - a highly dubious story, what are these magazines, why aren't they named? Why does a visionary mythmaker in the Alan Garner class not even have any internet presence? Obviously the true story is quite different: he went off into the greenwood, or took to the roads in a painted wagon, as was always supposed at the time. One day I believe I'll run into him, not in an office. (What does strike the authentic Dancing Did note is that the Wikipedia entry carries a warning that it may shortly be removed for failing to meet the criteria for music notability.) Anyway mention of the Dancing Did says everything about why Chapman-Whitney, in any form, had no future in the IK. The Dancing Did epitomized the new primitivism that was suddenly - no irony here - imperative. This was folk music gone feral, no MBE for services to industry (such as Martin Carthy's) remotely in prospect. Punk had arrived and the world had swung off its axis. Family had no US audience to fall back on, and their fanbase here was a highly elite segment of the rock audience (much too discerning to be taken in by Pink Floyd, e.g.) , - exactly the kind of listeners who, when 1976 happened, promptly deserted their own past heroes and embraced the new radicalism of punk. Heavy Metal and Prog-rock behemoths could ride out this storm and eventually return to a sort of ghastly esteem as Widow Twankey parodies of themselves. But for C-W there were really only two possibilities, dwindle into total obscurity (Whitney) or set off, as Roger Chapman did, to forge a new and very respectable career in the land that punk forgot(Germany).

But I'm trivialising the issue to imply that C-W were too principled to debase themselves, or that Family's legacy was somehow undebaseable. After all, Streetwalkers (the band they formed around 1975-77) had been at best an unambitious operation in the Vertigo tradition, even before they became merely rubbish (Vicious but Fair). It was a dumbing-down comparable to the way Thin Lizzy developed from Shades of a Blue Orphanage to Jailbreak, shedding braincells by the year. But Lizzy, of course, triumphed. There was more than this to why punk was so especially destructive to C-W, a fundamental discord of imaginative visions.

A suppose the easiest way of seeing this is as age vs youth. Within the new ethos of punk, youth was violently asserted. Mick Farren's seminal call to arms in June 1976, "The Titanic Sails At Dawn" registered that it had suddenly occurred to several people that "the best, most healthy kind of rock and roll is produced by and for the same generation". Musicians should really be twenty or under. They should have no history, except of doing college covers of "Communication Breakdown".
(An excuse to make my second reference to the music of Evesham: Paul Rencher's brilliant memoir of Satan's Rats). In 1976, the reality of generational change could no longer be ignored.

But drill back a few years to the late 60s and you see something else, a kind of exploratory reaching out for age, or agedness, or agelessness : at any rate, the opposite of whatever youth implied. Where it started I'm not sure, maybe John Wesley Harding, or the folk revival generally. You can associate it with hairiness and bulk (Beach Boys ca Friends), or The Band's songs from "The Weight" onwards. Anyhow, the thing is, there were no old rock musicians at the time (now, it's the opposite). If anyone had been really old, that would have complicated things. Instead, a vision of timeless mythical agedness fascinated the young musicians who wanted to break away from the limitations of youth-contents. That image of age represented an intention to conjure with new elements of history and culture that lay outside the everyday props of youth. In the UK, think of Led Zep's "Hats Off the Harper" (Robert Plant as an ageless bluesist), or the persona of Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson, or the sleeve of Stackridge's Friendliness. Rock began to reach out to the ageless territories of British folk music and US country music.

And then there was the completely ageless voice that Roger Chapman had astonished with, ever since the opening notes of "The Chase" in 1968. The imagery, here and in the following song "Mellowing Grey", indeed throughout that first album, was timeless, it contained no trappings of youth culture at all. In their songs, Family exploited this quality to write about long cycles, as in "The Weaver's Answer" and "Seasons". A change began around the time of Fearless (1971) and became more overt in Bandstand (1972). Up to this time Family had taken very little interest in love songs, and especially sex songs. Now this theme emerged, and it tends to be interestingly combined with the theme of age. In It's Only a Movie (1973), this leads to the raddled lust of "Boom Bang" and the casual horniness of "Sweet Desiree". (The theme would continue in Chapman-Whitney's Streetwalkers (1974).)




More on Rock of Ages, early70s-style:

Then there's Rod Stewart's somewhat sexist but irresistible courtship song "You Wear It Well" (1972).

Suddenly the past is sexy - not just the past, but the past reflected in a present where we are older people.
("You Wear It Well", like "Maggie May", was co-written by Martin Quittenton, a person of incredible obscurity considering what massive hits these were, and what evergreens they remain.)

Part of the fascination of "You Wear It Well", too, is that the man is imaginable as an Everyman but also as a transatlantic rock star. Jagger played this card in a different way, combining the role of outsider (ragged clothes) and courtier. They wanted to grow out of rock and roll, but they could only see how to in nostalgic, conservative, entering-the-Establishment terms: to be aboard the Titanic

Johannes Wallmark and the Wildflowers, Akron OH.

As often happens when I do these miscellanies, this turns out to have a mysterious link with the above. Johannes Wallmark and his band make a kind of American-style preppy melodic rock (kind of a bit like Shaun Mullins) and they do it pretty well. This album (his second one - the first was called 69 Oakdale) is completely American-flavored and JW's stateside connections (he went to a US university) are in a sense the angle he's selling - a marketing concept carried right through to the album's title. (All the songs are his, apart from a cover of Tom Petty's American Girl.) But what's funny and pleasing about this piece of vintage Americana is that JW's market is in fact exclusively Scandinavia and Germany. So you actually have to switch it all round in your head and see it as an authentically Scandinavian product, or rather, as a typical postmodern product, genuine by dint of not being quite authentic anywhere at all. Johannes writes melodic heartfelt songs; the lyrics often partly autobiographical, so we feel we know something about the woman on the sleeve who is carrying a child - we sat beside her reading an in-flight magazine - and it may be that the song to a loved one who's died (can you tell me what heaven is like, eventually running out of words, and into a majestically sad swans-beat of a riff) is connected to the sculpture on the sleeve "To the Memory of Our Daughter". At any rate the album lets us into a life that has known some heartbreak but the tone of the songs is radiantly youthful and optimistic; there's no edgy darkness wanted here. The best songs are the first one, irresistible, Falling Down (loud bleach-pop Byrds Bach chord progression) and the last, crackly-vinyl piano, hung-over-but-in-love At Brady's. I said "radiantly youthful" but youthfulness itself has nuances, and is as hyperreal as anything else. Youth lasts so long. This particularly brand of youthfulness is the youth of youngish parents, people with established jobs. (Obviously, the archaic musical style - rock? guitars? - would be fairly irrelevant to most very very young people i.e. under 25).

James Joyce, Dubliners (finished in 1907, but not published until 1914). You can perhaps imagine why I am currently motivated to read (or, as in this case, re-read) classic short story collections! It seems vaguely paradoxical to describe Dubliners in that kind of way. As if one forgets about it, a literary-historical phenomenon that indeed goes right back to its delayed publication (by which time Portrait was already being serialized and Joyce's early stories already seemed of minor importance). But in another way Joyce feels too big an author for the curiously friendly and democratic atmosphere of the short story genre (in which e.g. "classic collection" tends to suggest Milk Tray). What am I trying to say here? That while there are few literary experiences more intensely stisfying than the greatest short stories, yet in a way the short story genre does sometimes feel like a diminished, popular art, or even craft. Like ships in bottles, say. The milestones of cultural history always seem to be GRAND. But I believe it's a good, healthy thing that almost any writer whatever their main genre can also write a good short story or two. Yet there are a lot of things you can't do in a short story. It's interesting to press against the glass.

Joyce was twenty-five when he wrote these stories, and his command, for example of the social and economic detail of Dublin, is already so comprehensive it leaves me at first awestruck, and then puzzled. I am also jealous of, for instance, the second of these sentences:

Old Jack raked the cinders together with a piece of cardboard and spread them judiciously over the whitening dome of coals. When the dome was thinly covered his face lapsed into darkness but, as he set himself to fan the fire again, his crouching shadow ascended the opposite wall and his face slowly re-emerged into light.

Still the short story, like the novel, involves some sleight of hand.

So, in "Clay", the divination episode referred to in the title is included to make an epiphany in which Maria's rather patronizing friends are all very fond of her. We are supposed to think that Maria does not know what the change of atmosphere in the room is all about, but how could she possibly not? We are also perhaps meant to believe ourselves that the clay is prescient, which is cheap, considered rationally. Un-rationally, we understand that the short story needs its cliches and must even be granted its atavistic, supernatural atmospheres. It is factitiously topped off, but this is what allows it to be a great story.

In "A Painful Case", Joyce covers so much ground that the active relationship between Duffy and Emily Sinico is dealt with in a couple of pages. Years later, Duffy's successive reactions to the newspaper story are portrayed brilliantly. But why, after all, did that relationship end the way it did? How can Duffy's obvious loneliness be squared with his churlish behaviour? His dismal rectitude doesn't really fit with his patent pursuit of Mrs Sinico, however much Duffy claims to dislike underhand means. How can he be "very much surprised" by her response? (presumably Joyce intends us to infer some internal posturing here, but in view of the upshot Duffy must be at any rate surprised). As others have pointed out, this part of the story has seemed to lead very directly to a romantic conclusion, so that Duffy's sudden rejection of his friend is affronting to us. It really needs to be so. If Duffy had lost interest in Mrs Sinico after a couple of meetings, had never offered more or permitted more than his rectitude seems to require, he could hardly implicate himself in guilt for her death. That he is not the only guilty party does not excuse him. He behaved revoltingly - Joyce's description makes his behaviour revolting - we infer, as elsewhere, the powerful Dubliners theme of casual damage done by men to women. (He soon begins to excuse himself, by feeling relievedly alone, freed of the spectral voice and hand; though this irony of a selfish "alone" is not the only meaning it carries.) The story does not make it possible to fully understand Duffy's rejection, or the impact of that rejection on Mrs Sinico, or the causes of her reported intemperance, which is the other affronting event in the story; i.e. it does not seem to fit well with what we think we know of Emily Sinico. Here, as with Duffy's chilly rejection, we find ourselves scraping around for psychological "clues", which are present, but too feebly to be conclusive. You can speculate, (oh if Emily spoke so readily to a stranger perhaps she was already incontinent literally or spiritually; Mr Duffy's epigram suggests he is really homosexual by inclination..etc) and sure, you can find reasons (Mr Duffy does) why Emily might comprehensibly decline into intemperance, but you can also see a good few reasons why she probably wouldn't and doesn't really seem to be the type. The shock is a shock, in other words. It's indeed our lack of full comprehension that allows the story to roam powerfully in our thoughts. Mr Duffy, for example, though he affects us unpleasantly at various points through the story, also betrays his origin in an imaginary fancy about brother Stanislaus. And indeed in being the author (or brotherly reader?) of Joyce's own translation of a German play. There is an underlying fondness for Mr Duffy that his actions do not quite seem to deserve, and this is the other pitying meaning of "alone", the last word of the story, the author protectively wrapping the night around Mr Duffy as if he was a rather fragile child; though this wrap of solitude is also his fate. Duffy's conviction that Emily died for him (absurd - or true?) connects him with Mrs Conroy in "The Dead", hence with that Galway reminiscence of Nora Barnacle's old flame, and there is, faintly audible, strains of the same sort of mournfully romantic music that Joyce was always drawn to.

Arto Paasilinna, The Year of The Hare (1975). (Translated by Herbert Lomas).

This is one of Finland's most popular novels, and also one of the rather few novels it has struck me as a privilege to read - an odd sensation, like when I first read Alan Garner's Red Shift. The second half is a miracle of controlled acceleration, as Vatanen, once a journalist gone wild with a hare, develops like a pupa and eventually jailbreaks forth into godlike stature. But it wouldn't have any of its power without the comparatively quiet and idyllic earlier chapters. In Paasilinna's vision, the attachment of this man to this wild creature produces a feral hybrid that is lovely and innocent, rough, humiliated, lawless and inevitably on collision course with civilization.

Fallen Leaves, photocopied pamphlet, 32 pages, no publisher, no date, by G.E.B and M.W.B. I would guess it was put together in about the 1980s, though some of the poems might be much older; a purely domestic collection, for circulation to friends or to boost the church organ fund. G.E.B (a retired teacher, as I imagine) is heady with verse and the language of verse, nothing modern of course, but some of these concoctions are lovely.

Across the lake where shallops glide
With seated couples flouting ballads wide
Beneath the willow trees and the glycines
And wide meadows strewn with capucines
Where time flits with the aroma of thyme...
("Chinoiseries")
nb glycines, capucines:- the French for wisterias and nasturtiums, respectively.

The most impressive perhaps are "The Skylark" (unbosomed rush of words, domesticated Shelley), "Love Rejected" (pastoral dialogue between idealistic swain and earthy maid), and "Three Blind Beggars" (well-handled tale in Chaucer's easiest vein). This has given me abundant entertainment for the 50p I paid for it in Save the Children.

I've written a piece for Intercapillary Space about the excellent though long-neglected poet Charlotte Smith (1749-1806).

I was almost-alarmingly thrilled to see Colin Herd's review of The Littlest Feeling, for 3:AM Magazine. (Highly recommended magazine, btw. In particular, S.J. Fowler's "Maintenant" series of interviews, now more than 50 of them, is a totally essential education in the flourishing of experimental poetry worlds outside the UK and US spheres. Each interview comes accompanied with a small sample of the interviewee's work. I suppose a format like this will only tend to attract anglophile and established interviewees, i.e. well-published writers who can speak English well enough to be interviewed and who pass through London occasionally. Nevertheless, it's great to see Cia Rinne, UKON (Ulf Karl Olov Nilsson), Yuri Andrukhovych among the recent clutch.

The title of Colin's review, Ceci n'est pas un roman, is as oblique as the titles of my stories, but is evidently a quite well-known phrase in some circles who are better educated than I am - for example Charles T. Downey used it for one of his posts on Ionarts. At the moment my best guess is that it originated with André Breton's Nadja (1928) and is generally used in the context of Surrealist writing - with further reference to Magritte's famous painting "Ceci n'est pas une pomme". Still I feel I'm missing something, a whole cultural debate perhaps, maybe around the Nouveau Roman or Oulipo, and I'd welcome enlightenment!

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