Saturday, March 28, 2009

Annie Dillard – ‘The Writing Life’

Well blow me down – another book about an island. At least in part:

That island on Haro Strait haunts me. The few people there, unconnected to the mainland – lacking ferryboat, electrical cables, and telephone cables – lived lonesome and half mad out in the wind and current like petrels. (p. 83)
True to this sub-genre I have stumbled upon (The Awakening, The Summer Book and The Story of San Michele so far), Dillard spends her summers on the island, her winters on the mainland. But although the island is useful for the isolation it provides, she can find isolation in town too: give her a desk and a blank wall, and she’ll sit at it and write. It seems an age ago that the Bookworld blog was so taken with The Writing Life, quoting from it again and again, though it is a short book. Parts of it were familiar to me from this, but it isn’t at all what I was expecting, particularly towards the end when it unexpectedly veers into Wind, Sand and Stars territory with some brutal accounts of Dave Rahn’s stunt flying (it even quotes Mermoz: ‘It’s worth it […] It’s worth the final smashup’ (p. 106)). The tone has some of the violent awe of that book:

The g’s slammed me into my seat like thugs and pinned me while my heart pounded and the plane turned over slowly and compacted each organ in turn. (p. 104)
Also much of its lyrical quality:
Like any fine artist, he controlled the tension of the audience’s longing. You desired, unwittingly, a certain kind of roll or climb, or a return to a certain portion of the air, and he fulfilled your hope slantingly, like a poet, or evaded it until you thought you would burst, and then fulfilled it surprisingly, so you gasped and cried out. (p. 96)
But although these scenes make a good climax for the book, Dillard is equally good (unlike Saint-Exupéry) at drawing inspiration from more ordinary circumstances. Early on she describes a caterpillar climbing blades of grass, which bend as it reaches the top and it doesn’t know what to do, it ‘flings its upper body out into the void, and panics’ (p. 8). There is a section in which Dillard learns, at length, how to split wood to burn in the hut she has for a study (the trick is to aim for the chopping block). Another time her work room is in an academic library, where she goes at night, and plays chess, one move a day, with an unknown opponent. On the island, a man ties a cedar log to his rowing boat trying to salvage it, but is caught by the tide, and though he continues to row, he is pulled in the opposite direction until the tide turns. Mostly the stories end up being metaphors for writing, but they are varied enough not to become stale. One thing they do have in common is that they all involve losing control – not wildly, just enough that something unexpected can happen, something you can’t trace. In this passage she just comes out and says it:
The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes. (pp. 78-9)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Axel Munthe – ‘The Story of San Michele’

So, aside from the resemblance of the covers of recent editions, how similar is this to Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book? Writing about that in January, I remarked that it witnessed only summer, when the family lived on their tiny idyllic island. Winter was spent elsewhere, and was therefore unimportant. The Story of San Michele also idolises an island: Capri, on which Munthe expended ‘five long summers’ incessant toil’ (p. 294) building Villa San Michele according to such carefully laid plans as these:

This is a colonade with twisted Gothic columns surrounding the chapel and here looking out over the bay of Naples we are going to hoist an enormous Egyptian sphinx of red granite, older than Tiberius himself. It is the very place for a sphinx. I do not see for the present where I shall get it from but I am sure it will turn up in time. (pp. 230-1)
He further specifies that the sphinx has to be thousands of years old, and that it will have been waiting all this time to fulfil its destiny. Later on, the sphinx is noted in the passing, it has been found and installed without further comment. Things just happen in this book, the causes and the practicalities are almost always hidden.

Time spent away from San Michele is not hidden, though. In fact, the largest and most interesting portion of the book (all bar the last 60 pages or so) only mentions the project infrequently. It is always to be understood that Munthe’s efforts as a doctor are made in order to finance his building scheme, but it remains mostly in the background. In the foreground is his unusually entertaining career, which lurches from high society in France, to the lowest poverty in Italy. Here he is parading around the Faubourg Saint-Germain:

My diagnosis, in most of these cases, was over-eating, too many cakes or sweets during the day or too heavy dinners at night. It was probably the most correct diagnosis I ever made in those days, but it met with no success. Nobody wanted to hear anything more about it, nobody liked it. What they all liked was appendicitis. (p. 30)
Appendicitis not being distinctive enough for a young doctor out to make his mark in fashionable society, he starts diagnosing colitis as an alternative – soon, everyone wants to be cured of colitis, though no-one quite knows what it is (least of all Munthe). It becomes the must-have disease of the season. From France he travels to Lapland (he was Swedish, which might explain that leap), and it is here that he reads the headline: ‘TERRIBLE OUTBREAK OF CHOLERA IN NAPLES; OVER A THOUSAND CASES A DAY.’ (p. 110). He travels non stop to the scene of the tragedy, and within three chapters takes the reader from Parisian farce via Lapland folklore to this:
Must I operate at once, with not even a table to put the child on, on this low bed or on its mother’s lap, by the light of this wretched oil-lamp and no other assistant than a street-sweeper? Can’t I wait till tomorrow and try to get hold of somebody who is more of a surgeon than I am? Can I wait, dare I wait? Alas! I have waited till to-morrow when it was too late and seen the child die before my eyes. I have also operated at once and no doubt saved the life of a child, but I have also operated at once and seen the child die under my knife. (p. 64)
The only thing holding any of this together is Munthe’s big hearted approach to his own life: he bombards the reader with so many emotive stories all at once, the effect is a wide perspective, without the loss of small scale affection. I haven’t scratched the surface here of the stories he tells: there is child trafficking, hypnotism, a duel with an exceptionally well drawn cad (Vicomte Maurice), the aftermath of an earthquake, the brightening up of the last days of old Monsieur Alphonse (who spends his time in poverty brushing a top hat behind a screen), an outbreak of diphtheria, a terrifying housekeeper, rivalries between doctors. There is also a lot on animals: Munthe is always surrounded by dogs, monkeys and birds. On Capri he buys a mountain so that it can no longer be used to catch small birds, which would be shipped out to be eaten as delicacies in restaurants. Mostly the balance is well kept, and the big-heartedness always convinces, even if the details – such as they are – don’t. Thomas Jones suggested recently in the London Review of Books that the whole of the chapter ‘The Corpse-Conductor’ is fabricated, and that much else here has been moved around to improve the way the events work as stories. But they work so well.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Fence Records Pre-Season Friendly, Edinburgh, 7th March

The idea of a gig in a church hall made me nervous. Most things to do with Christianity make me nervous. Some I can acclimatise to (there are swathes of vicars in my family, so it’s kinda necessary), others not. The Fence all-day event was held in Old St Paul’s Church Hall, a large room painted as only a church hall can be painted, in pale green and pink. Why, I wondered, waiting for A. to emerge from interviewing The Red Well (for Is This Music?), have I come to a church hall for a day’s worth of protest singing? Was that sensible? But count the pros: Electrelane were playing quietly through the PA, and the Rozi Plain album on Fence written about recently by A jumped-up pantry boy is a lovely and a soothing thing. She didn’t play, though she did apparently supply some mix CDs to be put on between sets. But before the music started, the thing that really made me feel at home was the presence at the merch stall of some 7" singles by Found, on the Aufgeladen und Bereit label. Beautiful looking things, as with all of that labels 7"s: coloured vinyl in clear sleeves, the artwork confined to the record label itself and the sticker which seals the sleeve shut. I ordered some after this gig: one by The Sexual Objects, one by Future Pilot AKA. They arrived on Friday, and the parcel included in addition a single by Found, in bright orange, which I hadn’t ordered. And there it was again, on the merch table in Old St Paul’s Church Hall. Following me.

To begin with there were some solo acoustic sets, and in line with the above mentioned prejudices they mostly washed over me. King Creosote had a nice line in deep repetitive full sounding riffs, though; Little Pebble sounded light in comparison, and though he was alone on stage, synth lines accompanied his choruses, which seemed a little unnecessary. The Red Well were more impressive, with the sight of a double bass and a pedal steel to gladden the heart, and a good solid country / folk sound to... I don’t know, reassure, probably. The Fence site says of their new album that: ‘It doesn’t do any of that “era-defining” crap. But it’s really f**king good. And it rocks like a mother.’ This acoustic set didn’t rock, obviously, but it felt good, friendly, proficient. If that sounds like faint praise, it’s not intended as such, but for me the dry sparkle of it didn’t carry over to their electric set later in the day. They seemed too polite to genuinely rock like mothers. Or motherfuckers, which is presumably what they were too polite to say there.

From there it was back to solo acts and duos, but the acoustic guitar homogeneity I had been slightly dreading never materialised. Animal Magic Tricks were tremulous without being precious, playing small and intimate songs using small home-made samples, love lorn, one with a line about insects which reminded me of The Soft Boys’ ‘Kingdom of Love’, with its ‘You’ve been laying eggs under my skin / Now they’re hatching out under my chin / Now there’s tiny insects showing through / And all the tiny insects look like you.’ But less gleeful. Wee Baby Jesus, apart from invoking the best pun of all time with their name, were convincing with their Walkabouts-like deep south gloom. Which doesn’t explain why they were so fun to watch. Their last song was dedicated to the man in the audience ‘wearing the Johnny Cash / June Carter tour t-shirt from the late ’80s – even though it’s trying a wee bit too hard.’ Meursault, who followed, actually lived up to his moniker, which had seemed like it might be trying a lot too hard. Bald with a trimmed beard, thin as a rake, awkward movements, a wail like Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, it took a few songs to adjust to him, but it was the awkwardness which mesmerised. Attempting banter, he said, ‘This is my last song, it’s been a long day,’ before realising and amending this to ‘No, it’s been a really quick day’, then just giving up and getting on with it. He played my favourite set of the day, in any case.

Which left: the most physical solo acoustic set I have seen in a long time, from this chap (don’t have his name), who went from hushed tones to foot stomping and shouting to finally leaping between spaces in the audience area, narrowly avoiding smashing my little pile of records. He was great. Doug Johnstone was a little too jokey, Player Piano too surly and American, but the last band, Found (they of the mysterious orange single), played an amazing finale. By some margin the most danceable act on the bill, their sound was light, poppy, full of grooves and odd little samples. They were a lot of laid back fun. They are in the process of selling things to fund an imminent trip to SXSW – wisdom, kisses, and hair, according to the singer, going round the band in turn. The one selling the hair was not a pretty sight when he took his woolly hat off, so that part might well have been true. The penultimate song inspired a few folk in the corner to gyrate somewhat, until a few minutes in when two of them strutted across into the area in front of the stage. Two more minutes on, and the whole area was alive with dancing. My preconceptions had been knocked into a cocked hat. A great day.


It may previously have been suggested hereabouts that The Wildhouse’s song ‘Doug and Billy’ is about Doug Yule and Billy Name. This is wrong, it is about Doug Yule and his brother Billy, as Mark from the Wildhouse camp told me on Friday. Billy stood in for Moe Tucker in the Velvet Underground when she was too pregnant to drum, he said. He also noted that my review of The Wildhouse’s Poet:Saint could ‘be read either way’, in terms of whether it was favourable or not. He was right. I liked the record, but I had reservations. But I had none at all about their gig that night, a feedback frenzy which culminated in so many broken strings and a guitar twirled repeatedly on its head not to mention used as a drum stick, plus a chant which only emerged as audible once the screeches had begun to subside, the words ‘I AM YOUR SHEPHERD’ and Christ this is how blasphemy should be. Best £3 I have ever spent. Somebody give them an Oscar. Their flyer too was perfection.

There is a video here of the opening song.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Charlotte Brontë – ‘Jane Eyre’

When I’ve written about Charlotte Brontë previously (on Tales of Angria and The Professor), it has been in the light of Villette, her best novel. It is always such a pleasure to re-read, so sure is it of its ground: how hard it is for shy and sensitive people to find true and reciprocated affection, but how rewarding once the struggle is over. Going back to the earlier novels, it is always surprising to find them less sure of themselves – but they are, and Charlotte seems to have worked her way towards her masterpiece in the same tentative way that its protagonist Lucy Snowe makes her way in the world. Jane Eyre, of course, is her most popular book, but I have never understood why. It is wilder and more single-minded than her other books, but if you want that from a Brontë, Wuthering Heights is probably a better bet. It makes more sense if you flip it around: shyness as a popular subject is almost a contradiction in terms. If the media is constituted of people who aren’t shy, then why would they celebrate a book which evokes so perfectly that condition? But equally, it is not constituted of idiots, so how could they ever be taken in by Mr Rochester?

And, OK, it makes sense too because Jane Eyre is written from the point of view of a fiercely independent woman, whose plain speaking was, at the time it was published, refreshingly provocative (or just provocative, to some). It was noticeable in Tales of Angria that characters were described largely in negative terms, and it is true here too:

Mrs Fairfax turned out to be what she appeared, a placid-tempered, kind-natured woman, of competent education and average intelligence. (p. 113)
This is someone Jane likes! Though not someone she could be induced to like very much. The housekeeper at Thornfield Hall (Rochester’s residence, where Jane is to be governess to his ward Adèle) is one of very few people to have shown Jane kindness by this stage in the novel, but she is not influenced into a higher estimation of the lady’s character than is deserved. Prior to this there have been only two characters who have gained Jane’s affection: Helen Burns, the saintly pupil at Lowood, where Jane receives a schooling under the most deprived of circumstances, and Miss Temple, a teacher there, who is a mentor to Jane when she becomes a teacher herself. When she leaves, Jane remarks:
It did not seem as if a prop were withdrawn, but rather as if a motive were gone: it was not the power to be tranquil which had failed me, but the reason for tranquillity was no more. (p. 88)
Which is rather poignant, and an indication that Jane can be fiercely affectionate as well as fiercely independent. The contrast between the way she regards Miss Temple and Mrs Fairfax prefigures the difference in her feelings for Rochester and St John Rivers, to which much of the novel is devoted after Jane leaves Thornfield, about halfway through. St John is a clergyman, of the active, restless variety, bored of life in a small parish and determined to go and do good work somewhere foreign and deprived. He is passionate about this objective, to the extent of denying himself a marriage to someone with whom he is besotted, but which he recognises would preclude his emigration. And indeed his admission into heaven, which he regards as contingent on going to India and saving a quantity of Indians from their poverty-stricken and / or non-Christian ways. He tries to talk Jane into marrying him, so that she can accompany him as a support worker. There is no talk of love on either side, and, because she has some sympathy with his plans, and because she simply can’t imagine loving anyone other than Rochester (to whom she believes she is lost forever), she is almost tempted to agree. But she eventually comes to this realisation:
I was almost as hard beset by him now as I had been once before, in a different way, by another. I was a fool both times. To have yielded then would have been an error of principle; to have yielded now would have been an error of judgement. (p. 441)
So – not to yield because of a principle is foolish? It depends on whose the principle is – society’s, or one’s own. Jane is saying nothing new here: she is recognisably still the little girl who unhappily judged her cousins inferior, though they were her only companions, and who stole into Helen Burns’ death bed, so that she would not die alone. The point is that her character has remained constant through all kinds of struggles and tragedies, and the chief trait of that character – strong personal affection – is shown in contrast to St John’s absolute lack of it. He may be a good man (that is what his arguments are supposed to convey, though they are outdated now), and Rochester may be a bad one, but Rochester’s first duty is to the person he loves, rather than the species. This is the basis on which Jane makes her choice.

Watching a (very good) BBC dramatisation of Jane Eyre from 1983 some time ago, one line stood out, and it was good to be able to track it down. It occurs during one of Jane and Rochester’s heated debates, in chapter 11:

I mentally shake hands with you. (p. 141)
Delivered by Timothy Dalton with the utmost earnestness, it is laugh out loud funny. This is not his fault – it is a terrible line. It is certainly not a line of naturalistic dialogue. But Jane Eyre is not a novel in which characters interact naturalistically. It is more a series of dialogues, through which Jane develops her thoughts about independence and interdependence. The characters who share these dialogues are not fleshed out, are not important for anything other than helping Jane make her journey. Rochester seems particularly ridiculous because he is the most prominent. I was a bit harsh in the first paragraph: Jane Eyre is very far from being un-moving, or a bad book. It is an interesting stepping stone, but Charlotte still had to learn to trust other people enough to let them into her fiction: she is the only character here.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Liechtenstein, The Sexual Objects and Peter Parker at Stereo, Glasgow, 27th February

Last month, the impeccably enthusiastic Brogues announced that he had organised a pop show. This seemed, to say the least, a splendid idea. I had no idea who any of the bands were, but when Brogues says pop, you had better believe he means pop. A big thank you to him for putting it on. The next morning, these were the things I could remember...

Two of Peter Parker had polka dot dresses. A third had a cherry coloured bob, shiny and immaculate. A fourth was male, and I forget what he was wearing, but between him and the bob were woven ringing staccato guitar lines that had me thinking of The Royal We, whilst the bob and the foremost polka dot traded call and response pop tunes which were less spiky altogether. Polka dot #2, on drums, stood for the first song (stand up drumming is back in, you know), then sat down. I should really look up their names, but back at A’s the following morning I already seem to have broken the curtains (you pull curtains, right?) and the TV aerial socket, above which hung until recently a small but heavy hardwood African mask. Turning on the laptop would be asking for trouble. But yeah, Peter Parker were fab. Songs were introduced, ‘this is about boys’, ‘this is about girls’, or ‘this is about boys and girls’, and what more can you ask of songs, really? I wish I knew some of them so I had more to say, but this will be getting fixed shortly, I’m sure.

The Sexual Objects are, I believe, something to do with The Fire Engines. From left to right, they had a bass that looked like it had been knocked up in (or out of) an old shed, a red Jazzmaster, a white Jazzmaster, and one of those thick bodied semi-acoustics on which rock ’n’ roll was probably invented. The latter sported by a man who didn’t seem to know whether he was Elvis Presley or George Michael – tall hair, pink / red jacket, white jeans. In fact, Jazzmasters apart, the look of The Sexual Objects was all over the place: Jazzmaster 2 could have played timpani on Berlin, Jazzmaster 1 (at a guess I’d say he was the Fire Engines chap) could have been the only sheriff in town, with maybe a cobra snake for a neck tie. He said hello to ‘the west coast of Scotland... no, the west of Europe’, started rambling about the show being beamed by satellite. ‘Twat!’ exclaimed S., who, having danced delightedly to the whole of Peter Parker’s set (and fuelled by several ciders), was affronted by the intrusion of pretentiousness into proceedings. The first song didn’t help – a folky dirge, sung by the whole band. It wasn’t ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’, but that was the general effect. Where did all the pop music go? But they were only fooling with us: from the second song onwards a raucous sleaze oozed. Towards the end of the set the sheriff announced with lazy glee, ‘this one’s called “Full Penetration”’. They got up and used us, it felt good.

Lastly came Liechtenstein, a Swedish three-piece. Rumbling Shop Assistants drums, harmonies. The singer had short blonde hair and a white T-shirt which read ‘Dolly Mixture’. All of which sounds fairly (very) cutesy, but for that kind of band, Liechtenstein are unusually regimented, there is a hardness there too. Would it be lazy to mention The Slits, vocals-wise? And then there is their single ‘Apathy’, which reverses the description I’ve just given: soft as snow, from the sound alone it could easily be a lament for a boy who fell short of perfection. Instead, the lyrics are a subdued renunciation of all things girly: ‘Abolish all cute princesses in pink dresses’ and ‘No gossip no girl talk no trendy catwalk / No spreading rumours no stabbing backs’. It’s an interesting disconnect. I don’t remember them actually playing it, though – the set kicked off with the rowdier ‘Stalking Skills’, and pretty much stuck with that level of energy. Palpably frostier than Peter Parker, but more intense, Renée’s unblinking eyes in the glare of the stage lights the fixed point around which the set revolved. And right at the front of the crowd Brogues danced to it all, grinning. I can’t help thinking that this is not the way gigs normally happen. More, please!

horsemeatpie’s photos

MySpaces: Liechtenstein, Peter Parker, The Sexual Objects

Update: More there is to be, as it says here, or, if you prefer, there. There has a slight edge, for saying ‘Cost: Glasgow!

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