The War of the Worlds

waroftheworldsThe War of the Worlds
H. G. Wells

At long last, I’ve got round to reading The War of the Worlds.  I had really low expectations of H G Wells’ novel about a martian invasion of Surrey during the late nineteenth century and I think this is because that I already knew the story so well.  As a child, Jeff Wayne’s prog rock version of War of the Worlds was compulsory listening for long car journeys, and I think that made me believe that I didn’t need to actually read the book.

I was very wrong – it’s probably the novel I have most enjoyed reading this year.  H G Wells’ interest in science, astronomy and philosophy feed into the novel and make it more than just an adventure story.  Although, the plot moves along at an exciting pace and is very entertaining in itself.  I particularly enjoyed reading about places I know, such as Richmond and Putney, and imagining them overwhelmed by red weed from outer space.  In fact, it is so geographically specific, that it would be interesting to plot the journey of H G Wells’ nameless narrator on a map and do a ‘War of the Worlds’ walking tour.  (I’m sure some nerdy person must have already done this!).

I mentioned in a previous blog post about The Intellectuals and the Masses that John Carey thought that Wells had a loathing of suburbanites and fantasised about them being wiped out.  I don’t get that impression at all from reading War of the Worlds – in fact, in some ways it seems like a precursor of Michel Faber’s novel Under the Skin, in its examination of how mankind has dominated the natural world and what would happen if we were to be toppled from our pinnacle at the top of the food chain by a more intelligent and sophisticated predator.

War of the Worlds has been so influential on literature and cinema, that I can now see its blueprint in many of my favourite books and films.  The paranoia of being part of a surveillance society without one’s knowledge, the destruction of famous landmarks and the shock of what is familiar being obliterated, the existential threat from a colonising enemy; all have been recurring themes in science fiction since Wells’ tripods first menaced Victorian London.

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Stasiland

Stasiland – Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall

Anna Funder

I think about the feeling I’ve developed for the former German Democratic Republic.  It is a country which no longer exists, but here I am on a train hurtling through it – its tumbledown houses and bewildered people. This feeling needs a sticklebrick word: I can only describe it as horror-romance.

Anna Funder’s Stasiland is a mixture of travelogue, memoir and anecdotal history, based on her conversations with some of those survived the German Democratic Republic.  I found some of the stories very moving, particularly that of the couple who were separated from their critically ill infant son, when the Berlin Wall was erected.

The book gets its name from the East German secret police, or Stasi, whose power and scrutiny reached into the lives of every citizen through a network of informers and operatives, reinforced by punitive systems of interrogation, prison and torture.

Although I found Funder’s tendency to self-romanticise and write herself too much into the story somewhat irritating, I would still recommend this book for the light it sheds on life under a totalitarian regime and its lasting effects on East Germans once the Berlin Wall fell.

I haven’t returned to Berlin since the collapse of the regime, so I’m not sure if Funder’s melancholy view of the city is accurate, or a mere fancy based on her own emotional state when she lived there.  I visited East Berlin in the summer of 1989 and found it very eerie: extremely clean and empty of people, but with a sense of it being fake, like a Disney version of a Communist city.  This is just my view, based on a single day spent there, unable to find anything in the shops to buy or to find anywhere to eat, apart from fancy ice cream parlours.  The strange experience has stayed with me and I can therefore forgive Funder’s tendency towards “horror-romance” in her description of her time living in a grotty apartment and chasing Stasiland ghosts.

Animal Farm, George Orwell

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Animal Farm
Penguin Modern Classics

It’s about thirty years since I last read Animal Farm and I would say that I definitely enjoyed it more now that I’m older and more experienced.  (I don’t think that I could comprehend actual tyranny when I read it in my youth).

Although it is a satire on Soviet Russia it seems just as relevant today.  I’m dismayed by the current political climate, as it seems we have learned absolutely nothing from history.  Indeed, we seem to be stuck in some sort of time loop where the evils of both Communism and Fascism are in danger of revival.

I’m mightily sick of politics, particularly the politicisation of absolutely everything, whereby I can’t even enjoy a nice cup of tea without thinking about colonialism and cultural appropriation.  George Orwell loved a cup of tea, by the way.  He took it very strong, like ‘builder’s tea’. and would think my wishy-washy ‘just show it the tea bag’ brew, a complete waste of time.

If you are tempted to read or re-read Animal Farm then I would recommend also reading Orwell’s original preface, entitled Freedom of the Press.  In it he explains the political climate of the time and his struggle to get the book published due to the English intelligensia’s veneration of Stalin and the Soviet regime.  In his defence Orwell quotes Milton:

“By the known rules of ancient liberty”

and then goes on to say:

The word ancient emphasizes the fact that intellectual freedom is a deep-rooted tradition without which our characteristic western culture could only doubtfully exist.

“Liberty”: that is, freedom of thought and speech, were vitally important to Orwell.  He identified in the British press of his era a tendency towards self-censorship that we would perhaps now call “political correctness”.  He justified the publication of his fable against totalitarianism in the these terms:

If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.

In fact, even though Orwell had a specific totalitarian regime in mind when he wrote it, I would say that you could gain a great deal from reading it, even if you knew nothing of Soviet Russia.  Though, because of Animal Farm, I now intend to gen up on the Russian Revolution, but first I am reading Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.  

I’m only a few chapters in, but I had a shiver down my spine when I read Orwell’s description of revolutionary Barcelona, as the experience was obviously a direct influence on his final novel Nineteen-eighty-four.  I’m not sure why, but I felt there was something uncanny in reading of his true life experience and seeing how it developed in his fiction.  For that reason, I feel compelled to read everything Orwell wrote, to see how it all fits together and how it culminated in one of the most influential novels of the twentieth century.

Me Before You

Me Before You
Jojo Moyes

Then said his wife unto him, Dost thou still retain thine integrity? curse God, and die. But he said unto her, Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? In all this did not Job sin with his lips.

Job 2:7 – 10

On Saturday, after a day spent packing boxes and painting over my daughter’s Sharpie doodles on the walls of my bedroom cupboard, I crashed out on the sofa and scrolled through the uninspiring offerings on Netflix.  I know, I thought, I’ll watch Me Before You, just to confirm how truly dreadful it is.  Even if the film is rubbish, I’ll have Sam Claflin’s gorgeous face to admire for a couple of hours.

I’m really not a chick flick or a chick lit person.  However, I have to say that I quite enjoyed the film, in a brain dead sort of way.  So much so, that I decided to read the book the next day.

I had seen a lot of controversy stirred up on Twitter about its apparent ‘ableism’ and wanted to see for myself, if the novel was really saying that it was better to be dead than quadriplegic.  My conclusion is that it wasn’t saying that at all.  It takes great pains to include the idea that there is a possibility of a different sort of life for someone with a spinal injury, even one that includes love or adventure, if that’s what the person wants.  However, life in a wheelchair, isn’t what the disabled character, Will Traynor, is prepared to endure, as it also comes with a great deal of pain, illness and a complete loss of control.

Anyway, that wasn’t what interested me about the novel. What I found incredible, was that Jojo Moyes had the nerve to examine the topic of euthanasia within the confines of the romantic comedy genre.  Is chick lit the place for such a weighty discussion?  I suppose that within a culture where most people’s opinions are formed by red top newspapers and the BBC, it will suffice.  In this novel, the two people who seem to have any moral objections to ‘assisted suicide’ are middle-aged mothers, who are also Christians.  The romantic lead, Louisa’s main objection, is that Will’s decision to end his life, is in effect saying that she is not enough.  Her love for him is not sufficient reason for him to want to live.

Which is fair enough, because she has all the emotional maturity of a fifteen-year-old.

I think that we are heading down the road of acceptance of euthanasia without any proper debate.  It is a creeping acceptance by degrees and before you know it, those who can afford to end their lives, at the time and in the manner of their choice, will no longer have to fly to Switzerland to do so.  I’m not really sure how I feel about this.  I worry that it is open to abuse and a recent case in The Netherlands, where a woman in her twenties was allowed ‘assisted suicide’ by her doctors because she had ‘incurable PTSD’, really caused me concern.

It seems to be taking the matter of death very lightly.  The idea that life is about fulfillment and happiness is a very modern falsehood.  Life is largely about suffering and how you deal with it.  If you’re not prepared for this fact, then of course you will want to check out as soon as the going gets tough.  Perhaps we should be arming ourselves with ways to deal with loss and grief and pain, rather than presenting death (painless, sterile, clinically induced death) as the easy option?

In Me Before You bereavement is an emotional event which can be alleviated by the panacea of inherited wealth and a nice trip to Paris.  In Me Before You, death really is a simple matter: one which can be arranged as easily as booking a holiday.

High Rise

7993637950_a7218e4030_zImage copyright Phil Loach

High-Rise
J G Ballard

I was slightly disappointed with this book. Ballard is a wonderful writer: it is full of pithy sentences and has an interesting premise, but I felt that it lacked suspense and an emotional hook. Its emotional detachment meant that I didn’t really care what happened to any of the characters. However, I understood why it was written that way, as it underlines the social engineering aspect of the high rise experiment. In fact, I read that J G Ballard’s first draft of the novel was written in the style of a social services report.

The novel is set in a huge high rise building, which is populated by affluent, professional people, such as doctors and orthodontists. However, their middle class manners soon break down as the building descends into promiscuity, hedonism, tribalism and violence. There is no catalyst for this entropy, nor is it as a result of any ideological force; it is almost as though disintegration is written into the fabric of the building. The high rise is an entity with a self-destruct mechanism built-in: like a ticking time bomb.

As a student, I lived in a ten floor tower block near Hulme in Manchester.  At the time, I ascribed the residents’ degenerate behaviour to our youth and access to cheap alcohol.  However, while reading High-Rise, I began to wonder if the building was also in some way to blame. As in J G Ballard’s novel, there was a tribalism and antagonism between floors, which manifested in raiding parties, theft and wanton vandalism. Strangely, the most disruptive floor was the one at the top of the building, which we put down to the predominance of male students; they would engage in senseless chaotic acts, such as wedging the lift doors open, or stealing clothes and throwing them out of the windows.  However, this is as far as things went – the atmosphere in the halls of residence was one of stupidity and high jinks, as opposed to the brutality of High-Rise.

High-Rise is the antithesis of Le Corbusier’s ‘machine for living in’, where the architect envisaged that his pristine tower blocks would produce social order, rather than moral decay.  The tower block in High-Rise becomes more like the infamous Pruitt-Igoe, a housing development in St Louis, Missouri, which became a  hotbed of gang violence.  Although, in the case of Pruitt-Igoe, it was the neglect by its owners, which precipitated the buildings’ descent into hell.  At first, the residents protested about the lack of building maintenance, and the disintegration of the forsaken development’s physical structure, led to a rupture of its social fabric, culminating in a downwards spiral into chaos.

The same is true in High-Rise.  Only here, the residents are not the poorest members of society, but supposedly the British class system’s more ‘civilised’ subjects; arbiters of sophistication and good manners.  The enthusiasm with which they embrace the psychopathic elements of their characters, makes this a fascinating novel, although I felt no emotional investment in their survival.

 

You can have too many books…

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or what homelessness has taught me.

I’m between homes at the moment.  In that I’m in the process of being evicted and have nowhere else to go. So I guess that makes me technically homeless.

I just wanted to share my thoughts on this with regards to possessions.

Possessions are a burden.
I had seen this meme on the internet and always thought that it sounded a bit new age hippyish. However, in light of my current circumstances, I can see a great deal of truth in the statement. The rest of the quote reads, that the reason they are a burden, is that you have to take care of them. To which I would add – yes, but you also can’t take them with you.  I mean this spiritually, but also practically.  I have accumulated many hundreds of books over the past ten years in my home and I now find that I will have to pay someone to move them, or get rid of them.

Yesterday, a lovely Oxfam volunteer drove away with her car loaded with my surplus books.  I probably have the same amount left to take with me to my next home (think positive).  Deciding which ones to give up wasn’t altogether simple; some I hadn’t even had chance to read yet; others were classics that I’d read, but reckoned I could pick them up again very cheaply if I desperately needed to, or else borrow from the library.  Some were ones I’d kept because I liked the cover, or were anthologies I’d held onto because they had just one short story or poem in them that I really loved.  However, I had to be ruthless.

I still have numerous boxes of my favourites, but I realise that even these need to be held onto lightly.  To cling to objects is just going to cause you pain.  Better perhaps, to see them as things over which you have temporary stewardship.

And the future?  Well, the booksellers in my town are going to be seeing less of me.  I have some new rules:

Not to buy books on impulse.

Only buy books that are beautiful – otherwise you may as well get them on Kindle.

Go to the library first.  Public libraries will order books for you, if they don’t have them.  Better to see if it’s a book that you will enjoy and re-read, than waste money on something that will end up going to the charity shop next time you move house.

All the money I’ve spent on books this year, I could have been putting by for a ‘rainy day’.  Lesson learned.

However, if you’re rich – buy as many books as you like! Create a huge fuck off library.

I know I would.

A Confederacy of Dunces

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So dry your tears. Fortune has not yet turned her hatred against all your blessings. The storm has not yet broken upon you with too much violence. Your anchors are holding firm and they permit you both comfort in the present, and hope in the future.
― Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

“Oh, Fortuna, blind, heedless goddess, I am strapped to your wheel,” Ignatius belched. “Do not crush me beneath your spokes. Raise me on high, divinity.”

Fortuna’s wheel has recently taken an unpleasant turn in my life, which has resulted in a frantic burst of activity to keep myself afloat.  The past week has been a flurry of job applications, form filling and other brushes with bureaucracy.

More mundanely, I also had an hour to kill at the supermarket, waiting for a taxi, and I happened to spy John Kennedy Toole’s, A Confederacy of Dunces on their charity bookshelf.  I pounced on it, even though I already have a beautiful cloth bound edition at home, because I knew that at least with Ignatius J Reilly for company, the hour would pass quickly.

I read this book last year and absolutely loved it. Ignatius J Reilly is one of my favourite characters in literature.  Why? Well, I hate to say it, but because I can see a lot of myself in him!

Ignatius has a master’s degree and is obsessed with the late Roman philosopher, Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy; and writing one paragraph a month on this great work, is the nearest the indolent slob gets to any form of industry.  Yes, Ignatius is very lazy, but he is also pretty much unemployable, due to his unique mindset and eccentric behaviour.  Later in the novel, we see him attempt to hold down jobs as an invoice clerk and a hotdog salesman, with hilarious results.

Now, I’m far from feckless and unemployable – in fact, my jobs are so numerous that I have to leave many of them off my CV.  However, I do find it very difficult to get corporate jobs, as I’m a bit too, what shall we say? Individual?  A case in point, I failed to even make it through the psychometric test for a supermarket cashier job this week (for the second time in my life, in fact).  The rejection email helpfully suggested that I read the questions more carefully next time, but I know this wouldn’t do any good.  In true Ignatius J Reilly style, I maintain that my mode of thinking was correct and that Sainsburys are a bunch of idiots.

Unfortunately, like Ignatius J Reilly, I’m so out of step, that I think this quite a lot of the time.  Although, unlike my literary hero, I don’t think that the collapse of civilisation was ushered in by the Age of Reason:

“With the breakdown of the Medieval system, the gods of Chaos, Lunacy and Bad Taste gained ascendancy.” Ignatius was writing in one of his Big Chief tablets.[…] “Merchants and charlatans gained control of Europe, calling their insidious gospel “The Enlightenment.”

Though it may well have been. My own personal bugbear is the rise of bureaucracy; which removes the individual from all state and corporate processes.  In fact, I had a flash of enlightenment while walking round the Holocaust galleries at the Imperial War Museum one day – that the slaughter of millions was made possible by the efficiency and refinement of the Deutsches Reich’s bureaucratic machine.

Anyway, I digress.  Plus, I’m in no way suggesting that Sainsburys are akin to the Nazis. I’m just not their type.

Oh, Fortuna, please smile on me soon.

What I’ve read this week

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I’ve been brushing up on my postmodernist theory this week.  I’m not sure why exactly.  I still have a few university text books in my possession, from twenty years ago, and I spotted John Docker’s Postmodernism and Popular Culture on my bookshelf and started leafing through it.  No doubt there are more up-to-date overviews of Postmodern theory available, but as academic books go, it’s quite accessible.

I was reading about Frederic Jameson’s, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, in which he discusses the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles as postmodern space (although other cultural theorists say it’s actually Late Modernist architecture due to the lack of pastiche, blah, blah, blah…) and I started wondering if I’d ever stayed there.  I’ve definitely been to a hotel in the states with glass elevators and a revolving restaurant, but really don’t remember much about it.  Perhaps there are lots of similar hotels in California?

Anyway, this memory loss is quite postmodern in itself, as my amnesia puts me in mind of Blade Runner’s Nexus 6 replicants, who can pass as humans, partly because they have implanted memories.  Perhaps I’m a robot?

I also stumbled across Donna Haraway’s, A Cyborg Manifesto, written in 1984, which is incredibly prescient and actually highlights much of what I dislike about destructive postmodern Feminist ideology, in that it sees all established taxonomies as problematic and envisages the “utopian dream” of a “world without gender”.  In Haraway’s view the hybridisation of people and technology (I guess what we, nowadays, would call transhumanism) provides a challenge to dualities such as human/machine, natural/artificial, self/other and so on.  I’d say it was all pretty wacky, if it wasn’t actually happening at this moment.

My brain is currently a jumble of all the things I’ve seen and read this week and I find that the only way to make sense of them is to write – but not fiction, because it’s like when you have too many windows open on your computer and your screen freezes.

I could try writing a dystopian story, in which the hero goes to a hotel in a desert and can’t find the entrance and then gets lost in its city-like interior space, which is a jumble of stylistic parodies and has a confusing layout and perhaps this experience would induce in the hero, “a state of terror proper to the schizophrenic, of too great a proximity of everything which touches, invests and penetrates without resistance”, as described by Baudrillard.  Perhaps the hero will never be able to find his way out and will be doomed to wander the corridors forever?

I have been that person.  As a child, I would be sent out with an empty ice bucket and some unfamiliar money and somehow end up getting lost and wandering round the hotel for hours, because for some reason, even if I could remember our room number, it seemed to bear no relation to what I was experiencing.  If you watch the video below, you will discover that the Hotel Bonaventure has the effect on visitors of making their internal GPS systems malfunction.

I’m not sure if Will Self ever gets lost*, but he managed to walk from London to New York without getting run over; which, considering the unfriendliness of urban planners towards pedestrians, is quite an achievement.   I also read his Psychogeography this week and found it entertaining.  My brain being what it is at the moment, I can’t think of anything else to say.

I should probably read something less stimulating next.

*If Will Self does ever get lost, then he probably says he was being a Situationist, to save face.

 

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K Dick

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I’m not a Dickhead.  This is the first Philip K Dick novel I’ve ever read (and quite possibly the last).  I thought I would give it a go, as it’s the book on which Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is based, and I was interested to see how they would compare.

I have a strange relationship with the film Blade Runner, as I was first introduced to it in a darkened lecture theatre, rather than seeing it at the cinema.  There was a brief introduction by the lecturer, in which he told us that the movie was an example of postmodern cinema, and he kept pausing throughout, to discuss elements of Film Noir pastiche and so on.  So you see, I have never been able to relate to it as an ordinary, passive viewer, only as a student frantically scribbling notes on an A4 pad.

I can see what my lecturer meant.  If I ever had to explain postmodernism to someone who has been in a coma for the past twenty years, then I’d make them watch Blade Runner first.  Though, postmodernism is so ubiquitous a term nowadays, I imagine that everyone else has a handle on it.  Do I like the film?  Not especially, but I am sort of obsessed with it.  I enjoy it as visual spectacle and think the cityscapes are particularly wonderful (can you believe they are just little cardboard models?).  In terms of plot, dialogue, and so forth, it is quite superficial, but to misquote Leon in the movie, it’s like an itch I can’t scratch.  It even crops up in a story I wrote, as a perpetual source of torment – an essay that the story’s heroine can never finish.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is very different in atmosphere to the movie Blade Runner, although the main plot elements are there.  The novel is a product of the late 1960s, first published in 1968 to be precise, and seems very influenced by the drug culture of the time and Philip K Dick’s own prodigious drug intake.  The ‘Mood Organ’ which allows Deckard to dial an emotion (like taking uppers and downers), the shifting sense of reality, the paranoia, the eastern mysticism of the Mercer cult and the novel’s shallow philosophical musings reek of pot smoke, dirty Afghan coats and patchouli oil.  In fact, they put me in mind of a bloke called ‘Simon the Hippy’ in my halls of residence, who used to get stoned and talk boring bollocks at me.

Perhaps the anti-Vietnam war protests and political assassinations of the era feed into it too.  Although Dick has said that he was preoccupied with Nazi Germany at the time of writing.  Rick Deckard struggles with his task of killing an android he feels empathy for, leading him to question the human/android distinction, and wonder if it doesn’t “violate his own identity” to do so.  Add to this, Deckard’s constant fears that the Voigt-Kampff test, used to identify an android, may not be accurate and might lead him to accidentally kill a human.

Like the movie Blade Runner, these philosophical themes, such as ‘what makes us human?’ are not dealt with in any meaningful way, they are mere conundrums for the brain, or frustratingly unscratchable itches.  But for me, reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was very much like being forced to discuss the meaning of life with Simon the Hippy.