Friday, April 24, 2009

Julian Barnes - Nothing to Be Frightened of

The reviews for NTBFO were marvellous, I generally enjoy Julian Barnes in both his Barnes and Kavanagh guises, and I loved his last novel, Arthur & George, about the involvement of Arthur Conan Doyle in the trial of an Anglo-Indian youth falsely accused and convicted of mutilating livestock. Barnes writes with extreme clarity and perception of both his protagonists and George Edalji is particularly interestingly depicted, or at least to me, as a fellow half-sub-Continental. So I was well set up for NTBFO. I am still surprised by how moving and vivid and plain funny it is. Of course, it is erudite, littered with references and allusions to other great writers and also to perhaps greater thinkers, but it is also refreshingly full of the conundrum that beats at the heart of every really interesting book, which is our inability to know another's heart. Barnes writes about his family, and in particular his mother and his philosopher brother in lucid prose, and writes most perceptively about the impossibility of really getting to the heart of a character unless that character is fictional.

In exploring this impossibility, he touches on the perpetual attractions of fiction, from our Biblical heritage through Beowulf and the Wanderer, Chaucer's vivid pilgrims and Shakespeare's shining gallery of individuals. The best books achieve exactly what life does, which is to expose to us the quirks and twists and truths of human experience and nature, while preserving their mystery. We can never definitively know why Iago is so malevolent, why Viola is so sane and sage, how Hermione can forgive Leontes, we feel that these are not simply characters, but people. Dorothea's insistence on marrying Casaubon, Lady Dedlock's inner workings, Guy Crouchback's pain, when I think of these, I cannot believe that narrative will ever perish. Ultimately, the best stories, the ones that will go on and on for ever refreshing the parts no other artform can reach, will always be written down, shared, discussed, loved because they are full of people, and consequently, of radiance.

Curious to be reminded of this in a book about death - but sadder still to think that Barnes has been so closely touched in the last six months by death. The publication of the book was too closely followed by the death of Barnes's wife (and agent), Pat Kavanagh. Reading the book and knowing this makes his words all the more poignant. I am not sure he could have written with the same élan if he had had to write this book after October 2008. I am also relieved that it was written at all. Full of wisdom, light of touch, elegantly conceived and constructed, Nothing to Be Frightened Of is a wonderful, enriching book.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A week away...

Cross your fingers, TR/WT will be upgrading in a week or sister-in-law ( is designing me...we're working on the content at the moment, and hopefully will go live this time next week.

Reading/watching round-up

I'm reading some primary texts that the heroine of the current WIP might have read: Lucretius, who was still PNG where the Pope was concerned, but whose transmission of Epicurus's ideas through his poem On the Nature of Things had been widely translated and disseminated by humanists, and Boccaccio's Famous Women, which is really interesting because of the things that Boccaccio perceived as admirable qualities in women - primarily stoicism and intelligence and loyalty and honour, which he regarded as masculine qualities and consequently rare in women. Harrumph!

Finished a slight chicklit, called Sugar and Spice, which reminded me why I don't really enjoy chicklit: 1) too much like reading a glossy magazine - total candyfloss; 2) whiny whiny whiny heroine. The heroines in too many of the chicklit books that I've read are too victim-y. Stuff happens to them, there is a passivity that doesn't really work for me. I remember watching Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky a little while ago, about a primary school teacher beautifully played by Sally Hawkins, who does meet an interesting kind of guy, and it struck me that the film was the material of chicklit, but of course, Leigh just makes it real and original where most chicklit books are too predictable.

Saw Duplicity with Clive Owen and Julia Roberts, which was very light and fluffy, perfect for a Friday evening, with an especially bravura turn by Tom Wilkinson who is one of those totally watchable actors. Clive Owen fascinates me because he and my own DH look not dissimilar (tall, swarthy) but there are subtle differences, so I quite like watching CO to check where the differences are. This meant that when BBC1 showed King Arthur the other day, I was up for it, even though the reviews were distinctly lukewarm. Who are they kidding, it was terrific! Lots of hunky men galloping about very pretty scenery, lots of swordfighting and archery and good guys winning against apparently insuperable odds, and blissfully hammy dialogue. It's a classic Saturday afternoon action flick, taking me back to the days of Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis - bring on The Black Shield of Falworth and the Son of Ali Baba, The Vikings and best of all, Taras Bulba... King Arthur was an honorary mention in that category of film, and if you like the cheesy histo-flick, then it's a goody with a lot of tasty eye-candy for us ladies (Ioann Gruffud making beards look as good as they can get, Mads Mikkelsens, Hugh Dancy) and Keira Knightley not wearing much for the men in your life.

Also saw the Doctor Who Easter special, which I thought was a distinct improvement on the Christmas special - the oncoming evil was very creepy, and the plot hung together much better. There are those who worry about the doctor doing all this kissing of his guest companions, but I don't mind that terribly, and in this case, the heroine was a very kick-assy kind of girl who it would be lovely to see in action again. Despite her terrible fringe.

Finally, I have to confess to watching what has to be one of the worst series ever shown by the BBC, called All the Small Things. It has terrific actors in it - Neil Pearson, Sarah Lancashire, Sarah Alexander, Clive Rowe, but it is a humming, suppurating pile of over-ripe gorgonzola, cataclysmically addictive and I just can't stop watching it. It's the characters, who are ambulant clichés written larger than advertising hoardings, the plotting which is like one of those Early Learning Centre slot-the-shape in the hole 'first' jigsaws and the considerable gap between the set design and any form of financial reality - English lecturer with big suburban detached house, flat of special needs gardener looking like a spread in Living etc, Serbian economic migrants dining on elegant china with exquisite glassware, woman with no perceivable income in swish brand new minimalist flat with Liberace baby grand and matching poodle...Give me a break... until next week, when I will be watching again to see what implausibility will be foisted on me next.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Charles Murray and American Exceptionalism

Ah, The Sunday Times, that wonderful organ of the press guaranteed to make me riled pretty much every time I open it (I know which question that begs, but I think it's pretty dangerous to sit reading only the papers that make one feel the warm-fuzzy of recognition of one's own perhaps limited vistas and views in print). This week, it was a condensed version of Charles Murray's speech for the 2009 Irving Kristol lecture.

The lecture is a two-fold attack on certain ideas. Here we go:

"First, I will argue that the European model is fundamentally flawed because, despite its material successes, it is not suited to the way that human beings flourish--it does not conduce to Aristotelian happiness. Second, I will argue that twenty-first-century science will prove me right."

Umm, sure, Mr Murray. That's why five out of the ten happiest countries are European...I'm not counting Iceland, as it is bang in the middle of the Atlantic and perhaps two years after the University of Leicester study on which I've based that assertion, is in a severe case of financial meltdown, but it is worth noting that there are nine European countries ahead of the US in the survey apart from Iceland.

Murray is mistaking the nature of Europe: despite the best efforts of the European Commission and Council, there actually is no 'European model' and there is no uniformity in the way in which governments approach the issues of social justice and regulation that exercise Murray. So he's fundamentally misunderstanding the way 'Europe' works.

Murray has an apocalyptic vision of Europe where because of falling birth-rates and increasing immigration 'from cultures with alien values' the 'European model' is doomed, the barbarians are at our gates and Europeans cannot and will not experience what he defines as Arisotetelian happiness, which he defines as a '
sense of lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole'. As if America, with its huddled masses from here, there and everywhere is not the epitome of a country made by immigration from 'cultures with alien values' - it is not so long ago that only WASPS were welcome at most country clubs: if you were Jewish or Catholic or Asian, let alone black, fuggedaboutit. Oh, and as if our planet needs more and more humans.

Of course, my perspective from a hunka chunka Old Europe which has plenty of its own craziness (no need to do much more than mention the weirdness of Flemish-Walloon rivalry and Flem on Flem rivalry that continues to snap, crackle and pop in Belgium) is different. Murray is clearly a man jealous of our general trend towards long holidays (i.e. more than 10 days a year), beautiful countryside, fine food, excellent wine and beer, families who actually sit down and eat together instead of snarfing up microwaved garbage in front of the TV, town squares where people walk (yes, that most unAmerican of activities, walking) together and meet up and chat to their friends at cafes, watch lovely non-obese girls go by, and gaze in pleasure at the church spires where they are neither compelled to go nor to finance through tithes equivalent to 10% of their incomes, where science is well-respected and some might argue, rather too well-funded, where faith is a matter of private conscience not public display with all its attendant hypocrisy.

Murray builds his vision of happiness on four pillars: family, community, vocation and faith. He feels that America excels in modelling all of these four pillars, where the 'European model' is 'sclerotic'. This is based chiefly on his observation that Sweden is dotted with squeaky clean, well-maintained and empty Lutheran churches. He fails to acknowledge that in America, family is falling apart (let's look at those Palins, shall we, that model of American family life, held up before the Republicans as the way to go - I believe the latest in the soap is that Todd's half-sister is in the dock and Bristol won't let the father of her child see the baby). He fails to acknowledge that the American worship of the car has led to the destruction of the small independent retailer and the consequent emptying out of small-town America. He somehow misses the American worship of money that has led to the US producing a generation of Harvard MBAs who have happily led us to the poorhouse with their great sub-prime gimmickry and an equivalent worship of celebrity that permits vacant bimbettes like Paris Hilton to occupy people's minds to the extent that children in the US and UK believe that 'celebrity' is a viable career option. And finally, he cannot see that religion is a hypocritical straitjacket constraining the very science that he believes will come to substantiate his views.

So let's come to the science now...Murray believes that equality is a premise that will soon lose its underpinning thanks to advances in neuroscience. Interesting idea from a man whose Founding Fathers wrote: "
we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal". Equality and social justice are blind alleys according to Murray, and genetics will explain all. Well, not quite. Scientists are quite frank about their considerable uncertainty over the interface between nature and nurture: there are all sorts of studies going on, but genetic predisposition to breast cancer, say, is quite different to genetic predisposition to violence, which has been by no means proven...and the effects of diet, chemicals, pollution, tv and a host of other day to day influences on our personalities, hormones and behaviour are by no means clear. Of course, Murray has fallen for this kind of theory before - he is the co-author of the notorious book, The Bell Curve, which sought to explain all the inequalities and dysfunctions in US society and the particular lack of achievement in the Afro-American sections of US society based on IQ tests... The book was not properly researched or peer-reviewed and came in for a considerable pasting from real scientists like Stephen Jay Gould.

No surprise that Murdoch would provide a platform for Murray, given the press baron's anti-European views. But it only discredits him and his newspaper, for Murray, with his divisive, unsubstantiated and error-laden aspirations for American triumphalism - sorry, 'exceptionalism' - is the kind of man who takes the chic out of retro and stamps on it. The American Dream has been so thoroughly debunked by America's own thinkers and writers that it is quite odd to see an American claiming that Americans assume that they are in control of their own destinies just as the shadow of mass unemployment falls over a nation. Mass unemployment caused by handing over the destinies of the American people to free-market capitalists who have made a royal mess of just about every consumer market that exists in the US.

Anyway, if you'd like to laugh, roll your eyes or raise your blood pressure, here's the link to Murray's own words:

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Deborah 13: Servant of God & Scandal

I finally caught up, thanks to the wonders of YouTube with a doc I'd meant to watch when it was on BBC3, namely Deborah 13: Servant of God. The programme is an extended biography of a 13 year old girl whose parents are devout members of the United Reform Church. The parents,as the mother put it, 'allow the Lord to open and close the womb so we allow God to give us many children as he wants to give us.' This means Andrew and Ruth have eleven children. Deborah is number 4, and the documentary interviewed her over the course of 9 weeks, including the few days she spent with her brother in Buxton, where he's studying to be a chef.

The family come across as loving, warm, full of cuddles, kisses, and then the little touches of fanaticism emerged: the morning Bible meeting, the annual puppet show warning holiday makers at the local campsite of the hell-fire that awaits them come judgement day; the children lulled to sleep by online creationist preachers or bible readings. The children are home-schooled, and come across as articulate, funny and as well-adjusted as any child except that they are brought up in isolation from modern culture. The house seems to have few books other than the Bible or biblical-related literature, from Deborah's tracts which she uses to help her proselytise at the stray lambs of Bridport and Buxton to children's books of David and Goliath, no television, but plenty of computers and internet access, the parents clearly trust their children, and they by and large seem to live an idyllic lifestyle of romping the fields and playing with one another. Deborah has internet pen-pals, but her social life is bound up with her family.

The only disquieting element is Deborah's insistence on her own faith. But then, children often experience a phase of intense devotion - I remember my own friends around the time of confirmation suddenly taking up Bible reading and discussion with considerable fervour, sporting crosses and heading off to Chapel with enthusiasm. I might have gone in for a muted version of same myself. I remember secretly cycling off to Sunday services at the Episcopal church in Aberdeen as a student, largely for comfort at a time of homesickness, a reminder of the patterns and rituals of childhood. My only reservations regarding Deborah were that she seems to have absorbed a particularly grisly and gloomy approach to religion, convinced that we are all innately evil, doomed to hell which was for an imaginative child, clearly a terrifying prospect. She is also taking refuge in the common creationist view that scientific theories are unproven beliefs and consequently, no more valid than her own beliefs.

The documentary was irritating primarily for its omissions. I wanted to know more about the rest of the family, I wondered about the motives of young Matthew, the 20 year old 'making his own life in Buxton' in bringing his sister face to face with modern youth and mores and I really wondered about what the parents thought of their daughter presenting their faith in such a weird and wonderful light for gawpers to watch. But I did not feel the revulsion and anger that others have felt towards the programme and towards the Drapper family. I absolutely approve of eating as a family together, spending as much time together as possible, of not having TVs in rooms (and I go further than the Drappers, because our children don't have computers with internet access in their bedrooms either). It struck me as nothing but refreshing when Deborah couldn't identify Posh Spice or Britney.

What would be interesting would be to revisit Deborah and her brother Matthew in perhaps seven or eight years, when she is hitting her twenties and he is heading out of them. Quite coincidentally, I have been watching with one class the film Son of Rambow, about a small boy brought up in a Plymouth Brethren family and rejecting the narrow vision he was permitted in the sect. Deborah's situation seemed far less hemmed in and restricted - but I wondered what her parents' response would be if any of their flock showed signs of rejecting the teaching they had ingested.

Meanwhile, I picked up my monthly romance, this time a book that has received pretty much A all around the review zone, but for me it was a bit of a meh. Same old, same old, characters didn't seem real, situation didn't ring true, and it was all Ye Olde Englande teashoppe type setting, where suddenly you were deep in rural England only a few hours by carriage out of London. I know places like Fulham and Hampstead were villages two hundred years ago, but we were back in Fake-Disneyfied-England where there are castles round every corner and instead of living in a proper house in Mayfair our earl owned a Gothic/Tudor pile which took up a whole block...Sigh. The last decent historical romance I read was An Accomplished Woman by Jude Morgan and that was last summer.