The Atrocity Exhibition

I did something very naughty yesterday. It was my day off work and the weather was awful – rain, sleet, snow, icy gusts of wind – so I curled up in bed and read a book.

The book in question was The Atrocity Exhibition by JG Ballard. I haven’t got on with Ballard in the past, because there is something so clinically cold about his work, but once you accept that he’s an experimental writer who isn’t particularly interested in creating accessible characters, then he is very interesting.

The Atrocity Exhibition isn’t a collection of short stories, but neither is it a novel. It reminds me of art house cinema. It is a collection of visions which eventually combine in your mind into a cohesive whole. In the Author’s Note, Ballard suggests that the reader flick through the book and pick a passage at random, because “you will be reading the book in the way it was written”.

Thematically, there seems to be an obsession with violence, war, the presentation of celebrity and the erotic potential of car crashes. This really is a thing: symphorophilia is sexual fetish involving the staging or witnessing of a disaster, such as a fire or a car accident.

I’ve been in the sort of car crash that would normally result in death and there was nothing erotic about it. It was absolutely terrifying. I suppose there’s no accounting for people’s sexual perversions. However, I can see that there is a potential for excitement in the witnessing of a disaster. I’m sure we have all rubber-necked a motorway accident, feeling pity, but fascinated by the carnage.

I was lucky, the people who stopped and helped after my accident were wonderful, as were the paramedics. It was only once I reached the hospital that I realised the capacity for sadism when you’re a medic dealing with powerless patients. It was pretty inhumane and I would honestly rather die at home in my bed, than step foot in another hospital.

I notice that Ballard has a fixation with doctors – in the sense that doctors feature heavily in his work and are strange creatures, cold, emotionally detached and all potential Dr Mengeles. I don’t share this view of the medical profession, but it makes for interesting reading, particularly in his choice of language, which uses lots of scientific and anatomical terms.

The writing is very strange and beautiful – extremely sophisticated and intellectual. Ballard makes me feel like a clumsy caveman in comparison. If words are tools, then Ballard was creating incredible futuristic cathedrals, while I’m still bashing a couple of rocks together.

 

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In praise of the Seventies

The past is a foreign country and I’m from the nineteen-seventies. We did things differently there. If you don’t believe me; watch a vintage helping of Top of the Pops and soak up all of its life affirming exuberance. Look at the audience, how do they seem to you? Happy? Yes, that thing they’re doing with their mouths, it’s called smiling.

Now, I was very poor in the seventies and I was being raised by a violent psychopath, but I still hold out, that it was better than now. Why? Because we were free. We could say what we liked, we could do what we liked, we could think what we liked.

I was only a child, but I was free to roam. I could take my bike over the waste ground, I could build camps out of rubbish, I could set fire to things, I could climb trees (and fall out of them), I could drink beer straight from the barrel behind the working mens’ club, I could get into fights with big boys and go home with a fat lip and no one was bothered. I could fall over and scrape the skin off my knees and the adults would just say, “you’ll live”, stick a plaster on them and send me off on my merry way again.

Yes, there was neglect, but there was also something much more precious to me – freedom.

We were free, but weren’t out of control. We were raised to respect adults, because they warned us what they would do to us, if we didn’t. If you swore once, your mum would threaten to “wash your mouth out with soap” and if you did it again, then you would be held over the sink while a toothbrush full of Lifebuoy was rammed into your gob. Or Lux, Palmolive or Camay… I never swore at my Nan’s, but she had Pear’s soap, which I always imagine has cinnamon in it. I’m sure it still tastes disgusting though.

Now, back to Top of the Pops, which was the highlight of my week. Thursdays after tea, I’d be ready on the sofa with my thumbs primed for judgement of the top forty count down – thumbs up and a big hurray for Blondie, thumbs down and loud boos for boring Leo Sayer.

If you watch the back catalogue, say from 1973 to 1982, you’ll notice that there are lots of semi-clad women prancing around like poodles; these are called Pan’s People (later Legs & Co.). Aren’t they pretty?

It was ok to be pretty in the seventies if you were a lady and men were allowed to show their appreciation of it too – they could even say something a bit ‘saucy’ to make women giggle and flutter their eyelashes at them. I had extremely attractive aunties, who looked like Charlie’s Angels, and they would have been disappointed, I think, if their beauty had gone unnoticed. It wasn’t thought of as ‘hate speech’ in the seventies to tell a woman she was ‘sexy’ or ‘gorgeous’. Even in public. I think it was called ‘flirting’ or something old fashioned. Nowadays, you just DM a photo of your dick to someone whose selfie you like the look of and ask if they enjoy it up the arse. This is obviously much less sexist, because the woman can swipe left or right – she’s in control of the situation. It’s far less complicated and time consuming and allows her to elucidate her ‘sexual boundaries’ right from the start.

That’s what I’m led to believe, anyway.

Now, look at the men. The Top of the Pops presenters look like pervy old men, don’t they? That’s because they are. We weren’t stupid in the seventies, you know – they look like the sort of teachers you would avoid being alone in a classroom with at school. We had one of those – he would put the classroom key down the girls’ t-shirts, just so he could fish it out again. He had a comb-over, which is always a good indicator. Learn to read the signs!

Depending on which year you’re watching, the men on the stage – the pop stars – may have long hair or short. Some of them may even look a bit like girls. If it’s 1973, then they could look like they’ve covered themselves with glue and jumped in a vat of glitter. That’s fine. It was called ‘glam rock’. We didn’t think they were women. We had a very simple way of working things out in the seventies – if you had a cock, you were a bloke. It’s always held me in good stead since then, when choosing a sexual partner.

I have never asked what someone’s pronouns are. And do you know what? I’m never going to. Because I couldn’t give a fuck. Wear what you like, do what you like. I don’t hate anyone, I’m not scared of them, I’m just very old fashioned.

Welcome to the Seventies. Join me. Be free.

Imagining the future

I’m typing this on my laptop.  It’s a very old Eee PC and if I try to open too many tabs at once, or attempt to use more than two programmes at the same time, it says, “I’ve got a headache – I need a little lie down” and refuses to do anything for half an hour.  I try to not be too judgy about this, as I feel exactly the same way.  When I get over stimulated – watch too much television, read too many different books, spend too long on Twitter – my brain crashes.

“Have you tried switching it off and on again?”

Nope, it doesn’t work.  I will have to write some nonsense to ease the pressure in my head.  It’s the only thing that works.

I saw a video on YouTube today and I was so utterly appalled that I need to say something about it, and as this is a book blog, I can tie it into what I’m reading nowadays.  I’m still on a bit of a H G Wells tip, and I have read The War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr Moreau and I’m now on The Sleeper Awakes.  I loved the first two, but The Sleeper Awakes is too slow for me: Wells spends ages describing his vision of the future in minute detail.  Perhaps his audience enjoyed this at the time, but the problem with imagined futures, is that they soon seem dated.  I’m waiting for something to actually happen, now that I’ve read past the pages of moving pavements.  Yes, H G Wells predicted those moving walkway things you get at the airport.  Sorry, but they’re not that interesting to a 21st century person.

When you were a child – how did you imagine the future?  I was heavily influenced by my brother’s pop-up book which predicted that we would one day live under the ocean in submarine pods.  I was never into space stations.  Outer space always seemed like a sterile environment to me.  Although, I did very much enjoy watching Space 1999.

I never imagined that 2017 would be like this and when I gave birth to my daughter, I never imagined that her future would be spent undertaking “Lock Down” drills at secondary school and learning to run and hide during a terrorist attack.

Perhaps it won’t affect her. In the same way that 1970s public information films haven’t made me paranoid about playing next to railway lines or climbing on electricity pylons.

It’s a bloody weird film.  For a start, the characters are called Nur, Edih and Llet.  Have you ever met anyone with those names? I haven’t.  I move in circles where people still have human names, rather than being called after household appliances.  The whole video is trippy and ambient.  Perhaps it’s to show that the characters have PTSD?  Why are the teenagers in the film spaced-out zombies?  My daughter and her friends don’t sound like robots…

yet.

What are they really preparing us for?  A future where hiding from gunmen is a normal part of a trip to Maccy Ds? Or for the cognitive dissonance engendered by our children growing up with an outwardly human appearance, but the shallow emotional affect and synthesized vocal tones of C-P3O?

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.

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 who 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.