Monday, 1 June 2020

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes


Arthur Conan Doyle The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
I seem to recall that I hated The Lost World and regarded Doyle's Professor Challenger as a massive twat, while Doyle himself regarded The Lost World as one of his proper novels, unlike all that populist detective stuff; and Sherlock Holmes seems to have enjoyed a significant resurgence in popularity of late, most of which I've tried to avoid, the exception being a novel by Philip Purser-Hallard because I'd happily pay full price to read an Andy Capp novel if Philip Purser-Hallard had written it. We've had Cucumber as Holmes on the telly, an ingenious update in which Watson is advised to deal with his PTSD by writing a blog, which is well peng and edgy and shit; and we've had Elementary because apparently we'll now watch any old shit described by Netflix as bingeworthy if there's some homeopathic trace of Sherlock in the mix.

So why did I read this thing again?

Firstly, it was free, something which caught my eye at a lockdown bookswap event when not much else did; secondly, because I loved the Basil Rathbone movies when I was a teenager, and even to the point of reading one of the novels, possibly The Sign of Four, which I seem to remember enjoying; and thirdly, I suppose, to see what the fuss was about.

Not much, as it happens. Adventures collects a load of the short stories from The Strand or whatever it was in which they were published, and they're very short - mostly twenty pages or so, which doesn't really allow much room in which anything can happen. That said, Doyle's Holmes is more engaging than his Challenger, and it's quite nice to read something of modest narrative consequence; and they're nicely written with an elegant turn of phrase.

The problem is that at this length, these stories don't have the space in which to be anything more elaborate than crossword puzzles, and so become repetitive very quickly as one proceeds through the collection - possibly depending upon how much one enjoys crossword puzzles. Typically, most of the story is anecdotal, reported to Holmes, or to Watson, or else by one to the other. Usually someone or something will be missing and the details will seem almost ostentatiously resistant to analysis, which of course guarantees that they'll yield in about another fifteen pages; then we find out that Holmes was right, and why, and onto the next tale, repeat to fade…

I'm sure these tales had their charm when in isolation in whatever periodical, but the cramming only serves to expose their flaws, how thin they actually are, how absolutely lacking in ambition they were, wishing only to divert the reader for thirty minutes or so. Here and there we have glimpses of Doyle's thoughts on detection, even how we perceive the world around us, what we notice and what we miss, but in each case, just as it gets interesting, space demands we suddenly think about an intriguingly shaped stain on some cunt's trousers for the next few paragraphs. Being as I don't actually sploodge in my pants every time someone mentions Victorian England, top hats, or most exceedingly delightful difference engines, the appeal of these things began to wear thin for me after the first hundred or so pages, and by the half-way point I was no longer able to keep my concentration affixed to whatever inconsequential observation of nothing particularly interesting was being made upon the page; so I gave up and read something better.

Lesson learned.

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

The Lord of the Rings


J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings (1955)
I suspect this one may take some time so, as I did with both Philip K. Dick's Exegesis and Alan Moore's bloody awful Jerusalem, I'm going to write the review as a diary.

As a child, The Lord of the Rings appealed to me because of its apparent sense of scale, and because of its drawing so heavily on a mythology so firmly rooted in the world I saw outside my window, a mythology which seemingly redefined the trappings of modern life as ephemeral and therefore lacking substance. The world outside my window was almost oppressively rural, beginning on a farm, then moving to a small market town when I was eleven; and in a shire, specifically Warwickshire - half a day from the Oxfordshire landscape which so obviously inspired Tolkien. Reading the opening chapters of this book, I couldn't help but see the fields and villages I knew growing up. I suspect I'd either read The Hobbit - or it had been read to me - and I'd seen Ralph Bakshi's animated adaptation at the cinema in Stratford-upon-Avon, so I'd been thinking about the book when I was awarded some sort of school English prize in what I assume would have been the Summer of 1979. I've no idea why I was awarded the prize, and suspect it said more about the standard of the competition than any real aptitude on my part, but anyway, they asked what I would like, so I said The Lord of the Rings. I recall my parents being required to supplement my prize money which didn't quite cover the full cost of the three paperback volumes published by George Allen & Unwin, which would have come to a whopping £3.75. When we went on holiday that year, I took the books with me for a fortnight in either Wales or Cornwall.

I read the first two, then began the third in the car as we were coming home, but lost interest. It felt as though I'd spent the previous couple of days reading nothing but descriptions of battles, and I'd lost track of who was fighting who and why. I never got any further, aside from following a radio adaptation in 1981, of which I have no actual recollection and only know because I wrote it down in my diary.

I had no further thoughts or opinions on The Lord of the Rings for a long time, at least not until the Peter Jackson movies came out. The first was sort of watchable in so much as that they had clearly spent a shitload of money on the effects. It did it's job, beyond which I found it difficult to get that excited about it.

My cousin and his wife, on the other hand, got quite evangelical, as they often did about anything harking back to a tweedier, more rustic age when it was a whole lot easier to be middle class. I met them in a pub in West Dulwich immediately following their having been to see the second movie, and they talked about nothing else. I explained, and at diplomatic length, how I'd stalled on the third volume, hoping to communicate that I didn't actually care about the thing one way or the other and would be happy to move onto almost any other topic of conversation.

'If you like,' proposed my cousin like a genial form master, 'Andrea and I could put in a good word when we return it to the library, and they may set it aside for you.'

'Set what aside?' I wondered out loud, absolutely lost. 'What are you talking about now?'

'The Lord of the Rings trilogy - the original books.' He spoke as though addressing a person who hadn't realised that the film he'd just seen was based on a novel.

'I've read them,' I said, slightly shocked, 'or at least the first two.'

'Oh - you've read them?'

'Yes. That's what I've been telling you for the last ten minutes. What the hell did you think I was talking about?'

He didn't answer and looked a little awkward as he sat there, five years younger than myself, puffing away on his fucking pipe. I could feel blood rushing in my ears, such was my anger. Here was proof that the fucker never listened to a word anyone said, and I was additionally niggled by the idea that he presumed to have a word on my behalf at the local library, apparently imagining himself a nineteenth century philanthropist encouraging the rest of us serfs to read a book every once in a while.

This doesn't really have much bearing on anything beyond my cousin being just the sort of individual I've come to associate with The Lord of the Rings - deeply conservative despite certain folksy affectations, a group encompassing everyone from the aforementioned cousin to fannish types who dress as elves and attend conventions.

I saw the other two movies, or possibly just the second one, but my inability to summon enthusiasm had turned to active nausea. They were too long, too much time spent on lingering homoerotic glances shared between Sam and his beloved Master Frodo, their eyes CGI-magnified into moist blobs of Hallmark sentiment. The movies were a series of explosions and flashing lights, twinkling Thomas Kinkade paintings stretched out to four hours of screen time; and The Hobbit was even worse, or the first part was. I never bothered with the other two, because I'd enjoyed the book and could still recall having enjoyed it. Paul Ebbs, an author of Who fiction who once penned an episode of Casualty and therefore knows all about how to do writing and that, opined that the only possible reason anyone might dislike the Peter Jackson movies could be that they simply didn't understand Tolkien; you know, like how some people don't understand fucking Schopenhauer.

By around 2005, my admittedly increasingly vague opinion of The Lord of the Rings had settled into a state approximately summarised by my facebook friend Tommy Ross, who wrote:

I'd really loved The Hobbit, so I had high hopes when I picked up Lord of the Rings from the town library and read it, with great concentration, in the space of three weeks.

I thought it was fucking dreadful, but I didn't really trust my original impression, so I renewed it and read it all again. Was my first impression all wrong? No - it was rubbish.

All the characters in it are boring. Everything they do is either egotistical, ill-advised, pointless or in some way accepting of a shitty situation. The only vaguely interesting characters are Gandalf (an old man who is sort-of-Jesus) and Sauron, who arguably doesn't exist at all - the book would make just as much sense if he was a shared hallucination.

The evils in the book are so paltry, a few little hairy-footed people can defeat them by the power of daggers and resting their heads in each other's laps. There are a load of side-stories that don't go anywhere, save for Pippin coming back with some sort of potion to throw the naughty humans out.

Sauron could motivate armies to fight, but surely that was going to happen all the time anyway in a feudalist crapsack world where there's nothing to do but wage wars, especially when the main enemies are orcs. Mount Doom is the kind of hacky bullshit name you'd expect from a Scooby Doo cartoon, not a classic novel. The battle scenes, intended to be epic, are so badly written they end up conveying nothing much at all - the sentence he hit things with a sword conveys all the weight of a Tolkien fight scene. Then there's all the fucking awful singing and poetry, which are at least picked out in italics so you can skip past them with a minimum of effort.

Finally, the moral heart of the story, as I recall, is that it's a complete waste of time doing anything, going anywhere or trying to change, because all we should be doing is living in holes, eating sausages and smoking pipes. Now come on, that's piss poor!

Nevertheless, here I am, giving this thing another crack of the whip after all this time, partially feeling that I somehow owe it to myself to at least finish what I began on that Cornish (or possibly Welsh) holiday forty years ago.

We kick off with The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), which I've now been reading for three days and am very much enjoying, much to my surprise. Very little has happened beyond that the hobbits have arrived at some spooky woodland as the author laboriously extricates them from their comfort zone at a bumbling pace entirely absent from the Peter Jackson version, despite whatever Paul Ebbs may have told you. Michael Moorcock famously described Lord of the Rings as Epic Pooh in a critical essay* of that name, presumably because, as with Milne's Winnie, our point of view is equivalent to that of a child and is similarly fixated on comfort, security, and whatever may threaten either - albeit restated in terms of a mythic saga. The hobbits are children without the burden of actually being children, so they can smoke, drink, and probably screw without destabilising the narrative beyond its already stretched credibility.

The landscape is, as I said, familiar from my own childhood, and I presume this has been equally true for many readers over the years. Where Tolkien invokes his setting with a degree of rustic whimsy, it never quite becomes cloying, but is balanced with a degree of wit which has been entirely absent from any of the adaptations. Admittedly it's a parochial wit, the sort of thing I recall from  childhood, observations made by old farts outside the pub as you pass en route to the village shop, the stock of which probably depends on whether you found such observations funny at the time.

I've heard it said that Lord of the Rings is an allegory for the rise of Nazism and the second world war, although Tolkien denies this in his introduction and - seven chapters in - I'm not finding it a convincing comparison. If anything, the story seems a broader parable about how we relate to the wider world and that which may intrude upon our sense of security. The comforting familiarity of the hobbits' world is established in these opening chapters, and gives contrast to their fear of the unquantified and unknown; but I'm not yet convinced of Tolkien's motives being entirely conservative. Rather, I suspect they constitute a dialogue concerning the same. Frodo, for example, is at least able to see some way beyond his own love of home and hearth.

'I should like to save the Shire, if I could - though there have been times when I thought the inhabitants too stupid and dull for words, and have felt that an earthquake or an invasion of dragons might be good for them. But I don't feel like that now. I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again.'

Gildor the elf seems to have an ever better view of the bigger picture.

'Others dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more. The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot forever fence it out.'

Of course, he might be talking about Hitler, but if we accept hobbits as at least childlike, the mood of these opening chapters seems more likely to be drawn from a child's conditional sense of security along with its knowledge of a generational horizon beyond which life will become inevitably complicated and characterised by the unfamiliar and presently incomprehensible.

Day 4. Frodo and pals spend an entire chapter in the company of Tom Bombadil. Tom Bombadil seems to be the mythic green man, give or take some small change, and the chapters which feature him have the rhythm of fairy tale, as distinct from the cosy realism of preceding chapters, and are accordingly a bit on the twee side. This section has a slightly Victorian feel and I guess it's significant that Tolkien admired William Morris. Nothing much happens aside from feasting and the singing of songs about how much they've enjoyed the feasting, seguing into some random scrap with a bunch of ghosts, the point of which seems to be to furnish our lads with mystic daggers. It feels a little arbitrary, almost as though Tolkien suddenly noticed how much wasn't actually happening in his epic saga.

Tolkien was a scholar of language, poetry, mythology, and all of that good stuff. I get the impression that his main passion was the construction of languages, notably those spoken by elves and the like, complete with the mythological, pseudo-historical, and geographical background which would account for their evolution; and Lord of the Rings is, very roughly speaking, his attempt to describe those constructions by moving little men up and down the landscape so as to reveal its shape. Hence the questing aspect, and the difficulty he has in giving his hobbits anything to do of real consequence beyond moving them all to another part of the map.

This is probably most likely why, as Mr. Ross observes, they don't really have much in the way of character, unless stuffing your face counts as a personality trait, and they make their way as would children, complete with moments of bewildering petulance - notably when Frodo gets pissy with the busy landlord of the Prancing Pony for failing to dutifully forward an email from Gandalf due to his already having a full time job and not actually being a postman; and we've already established that Middle-earth has postmen in the first few chapters, in case you were wondering.

'He deserves roasting. If I had got this at once, we might all have been safe in Rivendell by now.'

Nevertheless, this isn't actually inconsistent with the narrative having begun to carry a certain je ne sais quoi of Daily Mail readership - nothing overt, or at least nothing quite so strong as the shit my dad comes out with, but it's there.

The Shire-hobbits referred to those of Bree, and to any others that lived beyond the borders, as Outsiders, and took very little interest in them, considering them dull and uncouth. There were probably many more Outsiders scattered about in the West of the World in those days than the people of the Shire imagined. Some, doubtless, were no better than tramps, ready to dig a hole in any bank and stay only as long as it suited them.

Remember how I mentioned growing up in a part of the country upon which Tolkien's Shire was most likely modelled? Well, that's why I moved away just as soon as I was old enough and never went back.

There was trouble away in the South, and it seemed that the men who had come up the Greenway were on the move, looking for lands where they could find some peace. The Bree-folk were sympathetic, but plainly not very ready to take a large number of strangers into their little land. Middle-earth is full up, they protested.

I may actually have added that last sentence for the sake of emphasis and because it amuses me. Reading up on the man, there can be little doubt that Tolkien was essentially decent, and was in addition at least as vocally opposed to racism and xenophobia as he was to the modern world, but he was unavoidably a man of his time and culture in certain respects, and even though we've already met the Black Riders and understood them to be dark, vaguely supernatural figures, it's still a bit weird when the pub landlord comes out with, no black man shall pass my doors.

Day 5. More trecking yonder. We've made it to where the fairies live, so it's mostly another round of feasting and singing songs. I've tried to read a few of the songs but I still can't see the point of them. I'm now half-way through Fellowship and it's difficult to miss that not much has happened, besides travel from one place to another interspersed with songs and feasting. What few dramatic encounters have occurred have been resolved by dumb luck or things occurring in the nick of time, almost as though the author resents the dramatic conventions of conflict in tales such as the one he's decided to write; and yet the specifics of travel and landscape are pored over with laborious attention to detail, even to the point of Tolkien describing, for example, what someone would see were they to climb such and such a hill and look west, even if they don't, meaning the information related has no actual bearing on anything. Fellowship is thus far reading a lot like an afterthought to the world Tolkien built for the sake of accounting for his invented languages, and now that he's actually sat down to write the story, it feels as though he doesn't know what to do with it, having been happier describing it in mythic terms as something which occurred off camera, so to speak; which leaves us with somewhat repetitive sentiment for the pre-industrial landscape.

It occurs to me that at the core of this thing is something which isn't so different from people learning to speak Klingon, and Middle-earth seems to be very much a precursor to the whole shared universe deal of Marvel, DC, Star Trek, Doctor Who and so on, hence its appeal to the same sort of individual. It's a faux-mythology based on collectibles, albeit as ideas rather than action figures and plastic bobble-headed monstrosities at the time of publication. In keeping with the nerd credentials, by page two-hundred, it's not even that well written - not terrible, but workmanlike and with very little genuine poetry for something with such a William Morris fixation. Even the wit has sunk to the level of generic cracks about whether or not it might be time for dinner and - oh look - Sam's stuffing his fat fucking face again. Ha ha.

Day 6. We've made it to Rivendell, so that's pretty much an entire chapter of elves, dwarves and others stood around explaining the plot to each other, mostly things we haven't yet seen and which is therefore a bit more interesting than the previous couple of chapters. Sam stuffs his face with cakes, breaks wind, and everyone laughs, and we learn that Saruman, the wizard Prime Minister, has gone over to the dark side of the force, just as Darth Vader did many centuries before in a galaxy far, far away.

In truth there was too, much more song,
Rendering the tale so overly long,
The author methinks sought to add a touch of class,
But really it's just a pain in the arse,
For no cunt wants to read that shit,
Unless they're mental, at least a bit,
Tis like unto being stuck in a lift with some wanker,
Who doth sup his ale from pewter tankard,
All the while singing a-hey-nonny-plughole,
One finger lodged so surely in his lughole.
Pootle-pottle-poo and a ninny-nonny noo.

Otherwise it was okay, nothing mind-bending, and once they've had their conference, they head for the hills which is a bit more interesting than it has been for a few days.

Day 7. The gang take a shortcut through a mountain hollowed out by dwarves, Gandalf seemingly pegs it, and I realise that Star Wars was basically Lord of the Rings but with robots. I'm not sure why I've only just noticed this. Anyway, despite any reservations I may have, or may have had, Fellowship is fairly readable at the moment, at least providing you skip all the fucking singing.

Day 8. A domestic difference of opinion over dishes left me without much enthusiasm for yet more Lord of the Rings at bedtime, so I've only read half the usual page count. Anyway, they've made it out of the mountain. Gandalf hasn't yet come back to life, so I expect that will happen later. Surprisingly they've ended up in yet another Elven realm, meaning lots of stuff which probably seems awe-inspiring if you're easily swayed by overstated mystery and speeches wherein deeds are doth rather than did or done, and not much in the way of wisecracks or funnies excepting the usual stuff about how much Sam has eaten. Galadriel, whom I assume was probably Gwyneth Paltrow in the movie, shows Frodo - or possibly Sam during the three seconds when he's not stuffing his face - a magic mirror, revealing that the Shire has become subject to urban renewal in their absence. Everyone agrees that they miss home, and not for the first time. Also, it turns out that Frodo is wearing some kind of mystic vest of power. I suppose it must have been mentioned earlier, although I don't remember it at all.

Day 9. I finished the first one, and it was generally okay, really just an exercise in establishing a landscape by moving figures from one end to the other so as to give us an impression of shape; and I'm reminded how the book seems secondary to its own mythology. I suspect its author was a big fan of lists and sets and tallies.

All hobbits were, in any case, clannish and reckoned up their relationships with great care. They drew long and elaborate family-trees with innumerable branches. In dealing with hobbits it is important to remember who is related to whom, and in what degree.

Four-hundred pages is one fuck of a long haul for what little actually happens within those pages, but it wasn't a chore given that I've committed to reading this thing even if it kills me. Unfortunately though, it does rather build up one's expectation of something occurring in The Two Towers (1954) which has started off well, at least with an increased sense of purpose. Boromir is dead, although he was never really established as a personality beyond the usual generic warrior shite - lots of valiantly being, swearing fealty, gazing grimly at the northern weald and all that sort of thing, so I'm not sure how much it matters.

The names are beginning to grate a little as I've never found them convincing, and certainly not Legolas who sounds like a plastic brick themed member of the Legion of Super Heroes. There was a pony named Bill at the end of the first book, so I don't see why J.R.R. couldn't simply have used familiar and therefore more plausible names which at least don't get in the way of the story. Then again, I've always thought elves were a bit wanky so I don't suppose it matters.

Day 10. Book two seems to get off to a good start, picking up the pace which the first one lacked, with a much stronger sense of forward motion compensating for a continued lack of clarity regarding the direction in which we're actually heading. Also, they've now split into three groups which makes it a bit more engaging. It has occurred to me that orc sounds somewhat like oik, and accordingly - now that we actually spend time with them - they're an uncultured, loutish rabble, as distinct from our heroes who seem much more akin to the chaps one may recall from one's jolly old varsity days. I'm not sure whether there's much point in reading anything into this, or into the suggestion that Saruman may actually be a foreigner from across the sea and not from around these parts, but it's there if you want it. The theme of progress, or more specifically industrialised society, as a bad thing is reiterated in passing - Saruman is described as having a mind of metal and wheels, and the land clearance campaign of his orcs - trees cut and burned with belching flames and black smoke aplenty - is hardly ambiguous in its symbolism. Taking this theme to a potentially ridiculous limit, we also meet the ents - tree spirits who have, as one, lost their wives and have thus failed to produce a younger generation. The wives, we are told, had all sorts of fancy ideas about growing fruit and farming, so I guess even agriculture represented the first step on a slippery slope for Tolkien.

Day 11. As the sun was westering, I turned once more to my book, yet found its tale as unto the ascent of a mountain made in heavy boots, mayhap resulting from the path which did lead to this divertment being paved with a long and tiring day. Returned to the book did I once the sun rose again and I had revived from slumber, and to a refrain similar to that already sung in these very pages, that nature shalt rise up from the depths to smite the folly of human progress, and that nature's sword shalt be swung by the ents, the people of the trees.

Delivered this message was by Gandalf, returned from that which we had taken for his certain death without an overly generous helping of surprise, but neither with much of an explanation as to why the daisies in the field must yet push themselves towards the light unaided by his wizardly hand. More better was this tale told even by George fucking Lucas, or at least with greater veracity and from a cloth less easily rent asunder by disbelief.

To the court of the Horse Lords did the company then go, where the regent is found to be under the devious spell of a man known as Wormtongue who bends the king's ear with only fake news and its like. Most strange it doth seem that none should wonder at the testimony of a man so named, but then these were the olden days many centuries before moving pictures brought forth the image of the scheming fellow who twirls his moustache between forefinger and thumb as he secures a young lady before the advance of an iron carriage.

Then did they wage war at Helm's Deep, the first of the great battles, sending my thoughts back to that Welsh (or possibly Cornish) holiday of my youth when first I roved my eyes upon this page and found it less than toothsome.

Day 12. I'm sure I recall this part of the second book shrugging off my attention span during one of those battles where I lost track of who was who, but it doesn't seem to be here; so either I've remembered wrongly or Pippin's laborious account of everything that's ever happened was simply too much for me at the age of fourteen. Anyway, the gang trounce Saruman, driving him from Isengard, a realm written as what I assume would be Tolkien's idea of a hellish industrial wasteland, at least allowing for the fact that we're probably not going to find cellphone towers in Lord of the Rings; so, you know, progress is bad and stuff, yeah?

Much is made of the friendship of Gimli and Legolas, and to the point at which it becomes a bit tiresome. Gimli is a dwarf and Legolas is an elf, so they're natural enemies who've overcome their mutual antipathy, and boy - don't we know it. There's actually an entire chapter, The Door of Flangelfoom, where Gimli and Legolas each insist that the other go through the named door first.

'After you, my very good friend.'

'No - after you, I must insist, my dear sir.'

It goes on like that for fifty pages, or it would do had it been written by Tolkien and included in the book, which it wasn't; although it sort of feels as though it was.

Day 13. We're back with Sam and Frodo for the second half of Two Towers as they trek across the mountains, which I vaguely remember from the movie. Thankfully Tolkien's Sam is merely an unusually loyal and slightly basic friend to Mr. Frodo, unlike in the film where it looks as though he's about to start rummaging down the front of his pal's trousers any minute. I found some of those lingering glances really hard to watch. All I can recall of this section, aside from the homoerotic subtext, is the two hobbits crossing the mountain range with Gollum in tow before getting caught by a giant spider. Flipping through the rest of the book I see they don't actually encounter the giant spider for at least another four million chapters, so I assume there's going to be a fuck of a lot of singing in the mean time. I'm beginning to wonder why Lord of the Rings needed to be three books, but then I suppose scale is the whole point.

Day 14. I only managed a handful of pages due to a dental appointment impinging upon my customary reading time, but Sam, Frodo and Gollum have made it to somewhere a bit more pastoral, which I don't remember at all from either being fourteen or the more recent movie - although that's probably not too surprising given that I was bored shitless more or less for the duration of both.

Day 15. Now they're hanging around with Faramir, brother of Boromir, for no immediately obvious reason. Possibly the point of this interlude is so as to increase our sympathy for Gollum whom Faramir regards as monstrous; in contrast with Frodo and possibly also Tolkien's view of Gollum as a victim of the terrible power of the ring more than its agent; or it could be for the sake of delivering this line which, if not a flat out condemnation of industrialisation, is arguably concerned with associated aspects of progress.

'We are become Middle Men, of the Twilight, but with memory of other things. For as the Rohirrim do, we now love war and valour as things good in themselves, both a sport and an end; and though we still hold that a warrior should have more skills and knowledge than only the craft of weapons and slaying, we esteem a warrior, nonetheless, above men of other crafts.'

In unrelated news, I came across this from Roger Ebert's review of Kyle Newman's Fanboys.

A lot of fans are basically fans of fandom itself. It's all about them. They have mastered the Star Wars or Star Trek universes or whatever, but their objects of veneration are useful mainly as a backdrop to their own devotion. Anyone who would camp out in a tent on the sidewalk for weeks in order to be first in line for a movie is more into camping on the sidewalk than movies.

Extreme fandom may serve as a security blanket for the socially inept, who use its extreme structure as a substitute for social skills. If you are Luke Skywalker and she is Princess Leia, you already know what to say to each other, which is so much safer than having to ad-lib it. Your fannish obsession is your beard. If you know absolutely all the trivia about your cubbyhole of pop culture, it saves you from having to know anything about anything else. That's why it's excruciatingly boring to talk to such people: They're always asking you questions they know the answer to.

I'd say this applies, or at least explains some of the continued appeal of Lord of the Rings as something with an inordinately complex and arguably extraneous backstory over which fannish types may work themselves into a lather, just like all those people who learned to speak Klingon; and as with Star Trek and others, this is how it was designed, rather than simply being something tagged on as an afterthought by persons with too much time on their hands.

At least Star Trek is fun.

Day 16. I'm now onto The Return of the King (1955) so the end is in sight, not least because half of the final volume comprises background material, essays and lists which I have no interest in reading. The Two Towers closes with a scrap between Frodo and a giant spider whom I recall not so much from either the movie or the last time I tried to read this thing, as from my friend Carl's startling recollection of a Joy Division gig, reproduced here in full because it's arguably more entertaining than Lord of the Rings:

At the Music Machine they were chugging along through their impressive ska set when Ian Curtis announced a special guest during an instrumental break whilst all the band members were doing a jazz improv piece. Imagine my surprise when the special guest turned out to be celebrity spider Shelob!

She grabbed the microphone stand and roared out Slade's Get Down and Get With It with the band tearing into the song displaying incredible gusto. I swear Stephen Morris' drum kit caught alight from all the heavy pounding, he ended up playing a set of oil drums with lump hammers. By this point Ian Curtis was completely naked and hurling his stools at Shelob, he somehow managed to fit an entire fire extinguisher into his anus, much to the approval of the mainly teddy boy audience. After this they performed the entire Slade catalogue with Shelob wading into the crowd wearing a giant necklace made of television sets.

If I remember correctly the concert ended up later than usual by a month or so due to the airforce bombing us out of the venue. They don't do gigs like that anymore.

Actually, the closing chapters of The Two Towers are fairly readable, conspicuously lacking those lengthy descriptions of battles wherein I'd lost track of who was fighting who and why, as mentioned above; so I don't know what happened there. I assume it was simply all a bit above my reading age when I was fourteen, given that I was more acclimated to the somewhat lighter fare of Terrance Dicks and 2000AD comic, which is embarrassing because there's nothing deep about Lord of the Rings. Mostly it's simply long-winded and self-important, stylistically speaking.

Anyway, as I say Two Towers is approximately readable, and there's a nice little aside in chapter eight where they all take to wondering whether anyone will eventually tell Frodo's story, just as Frodo and pals themselves do tell of those even more ancient sagas which Tolkien invented in much the same spirit as whoever it was who came up with the reason for the Klingons in Patrick Stewart's version of Star Trek being significantly hairier and lumpier than those encountered by William Shatner.

Contrasting with the close of The Two Towers wherein we overhear orcs conversing in the manner of pie-scoffing working class types, The Return of the King opens with a resumption of courtly language as Gandalf and Pippin arrive in Gondor, the realm from which noble Boromir didst sally forth, so we're back to page after page of Marvel Shakespearean old timey talk with lots of things being yonder. It's tempting to interpret this as some sort of class deal with regal types from better homes who've had the benefit of a proper education set in contrast with orc chavs who probably voted for Hitler because they're a bunch of fucking thickies, but the whole world war two analogy still seems a bit thin beyond the general mood of conflict on an epic scale.

By the same token, I've had occasion to wonder at Gollum, the hunched subterranean troll who creams his loincloth over the precious. Specifically I've wondered at his originally being identified with the superficially Semitic sounding name of Sméagol, where other hobbit names mostly sound vaguely faux-Celtic; but if there's even a thing here, it seems most likely that Tolkien may have simply been drawing on existing mythology rooted in old racial stereotypes, because otherwise I'd say you would probably have to dig so deep as to start tunnelling in search of any dubious subtext. Gollum may even be the most interesting character in the book. He's revolting yet with faint glimpses of former redeeming features, and even Gandalf speaks in his defence when someone suggests that Gollum deserves death back in the second chapter of Fellowship.

'Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.'

So that's nice.

Day 17. Well, I definitely read another fifty or so pages and had things to say about them, but that was this morning and now it seems to have gone, so fuck knows what happened. The chapters I read mostly covered the two lesser hobbits hanging around with kingly types and everyone getting ready for a punch-up with Mordor. I suspect this was the section I found so dry and hard to process with my fourteen-year old attention span that I've remembered it as nothing but descriptions of battles, and I'd lost track of who was fighting who and why. On the other hand, it's nice to know I was actually right about something at the age of fourteen.

Day 18. I couldn't face any more of the behold and yonder last night and switched to the Tintin book, Destination Moon, because I hadn't read it in probably fifty years and didn't realise I actually had a copy. In fact I had the impression that of all the Tintin books I owned as a kid, only two remained, and yet there's a whole stack of them on my shelf neatly filed between Geoff Tibball's Golden Age of Children's Television and issues of To Feet! To Feet! fanzine, and I have no memory of having come by them. They look unread. I presume I must have picked up a job lot on the cheap at some point and forgotten all about it.

Anyway, I came back to Lord of the Rings this morning and we've definitely reached those chapters comprising nothing but descriptions of battles, although this time I at least have a vague idea of who is fighting who; not sure about the why. Reasons why Sauron might desire dominion over all Middle-earth are implied rather than stated, the implication mostly being for he is most dark and such deeds are as unto the doings of those who from the light have turned; speaking of which.

The black rider flung back his hood and behold! he had a kingly crown; and yet upon no head visible was it set. The red fires shone between it and the mantled shoulders vast and dark. From a mouth unseen there came a deadly laughter.

See, setting the words down in the wrong order doesn't necessarily lend the text any greater sense of authenticity, whatever that may be, any more than it leaves the narrative any spookier or more portentous. Upon no head visible was it set, for example, barely makes sense, and this sort of syntax really gets in the way of one's comprehension of chapters which needed all the help they could get. I'm not sure that writing the words upon no head visible was it set in the year 1955 is really much different to introducing a French character who exclaims zut alors and oh la la every other sentence.

Anyway, as to the actual battles described, it strikes me as slightly odd that someone should have been writing anything of such composition so soon after two world wars of such unprecedented brutality, and yet in the wake of the trenches, death camps, shoeless prisoners frog-marched across the entirety of Poland in the snow, here we have swords clashing and noble browed sons of the north wind whom their chins they do steel forth and doth stand fast against the hordes of Mordor.

Day 19. Mostly scrapping embellished with conversations regarding the same, of which those involving hobbits seem marginally more engaging, as though that's what Tolkien really wanted to write but had committed himself to composing the biggest big thing ever, requiring shitloads of grunting men in helmets sternly vowing this, that and the other. Also, I've just realised that beyond the sort of vague animism one might expect in something involving elves, there's no actual religion described in this book, which seems odd. There's a mention of some evil of which Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary, but that seems to be it. If Tolkien is mimicking the narrative form of ancient texts, this seems an oversight to me. I'm pretty sure I recall Arthurian legend featuring some kind of Christian element, as suggested by all that stuff about the grail, although more quantifiable narratives such as - off the top of my head - the epics of Beowulf, Gilgamesh, and pre-Colombian Mexico tend to incorporate supernatural figures - even Gods by some definition - as characters within whatever story is being told; and neither approach is quite the case here. It just strikes me as odd.

Day 20. Couldn't face it last night due to inebriation from tequila ingested so as to dull my anger over Lulu Publishing now requiring book cover files to be uploaded as PDF documents. This morning I find I've made it to book six (or the second half of part three, if you prefer) so we're back with Sam and Frodo, and it's so obvious that this is what Tolkien really wanted to write that it hurts, or at least so it seems to me. Not that the Sam and Frodo chronicles aren't without their sappy tendencies, but I'll take sappy over grunting beardies who talk like Yoda and do face the north wind in their bold metal helms any fucking day. Haven't yet reached the chapter during which Sam is caught parading around in Mr. Frodo's underwear and must be punished, but I'm sure it's coming.

Day 21. The war is at last won, except it all occurs off screen sparing us any of the actual slaughter, which is all very tidy. Sauron has conveniently fled, as have all of the orcs so far as anyone can tell. After however many hundreds of pages it's been, this all comes as something of an anticlimax; and hints dropped during previous chapters about how we were doing quite well but Sauron wasn't leave this feeling somewhat like a rigged match, the point of which - if there is one - being further speechifying about victory, valour, chivalry and nobility from Aragorn and his helmeted pals. This amounting to what I suppose must have been Tolkien's experience of the second world war, real conflict is remote with nothing so messy as to make our desire for happier, leafier times seem self-involved. Gollum is redeemed by having thrown himself into a volcano with the ring, sparing us the burden of thanking him or pretending to be his mate, so that's wrapped up nicely too. Also, Éowyn, a woman who feistily dons a suit of armour and goes to war just like the men and whom I vaguely recall reading about earlier on, now declares that she's into pretty dresses and baking muffins seeing as how all the fighting and grunting are done and dusted, so that's a relief.

Day 22. The hobbits return to the Shire and the slightly cloying, rose-tinted syntax of earlier, but the Shire has been developed by ruffians who speak like villains in Cagney movies, see? Frodo therefore forms something akin to the Countryside Alliance so that they can take their country back, as stated in more or less those terms. Saruman is found to be at the heart of it all and is revealed as an actual Scooby Doo villain with Wormtongue as his loyal Ygor, which highlights one problem of this book, namely that the characters are subservient to the landscape in which they appear, and pseudo-Wagnerian warriors who do raise their swords for to slash and rend them against the terrible canvas of Mordor turn back into something from Enid Blyton in more temperate surroundings.

There was also a hundred pages of related notes and fictional narrative but I couldn't be arsed.

The Lord of the Rings isn't the worst thing I've ever read, but it's massively underwhelming for something routinely described as a classic. It isn't without enjoyable passages, but there's a lot of padding in the form of general mythic huffing and puffing because, as I said, it seems to be about the map more than it is about the story by which the map is described. I wouldn't entirely agree with Mr. Ross's observation of the message at the heart of the book being that it's a complete waste of time doing anything, going anywhere or trying to change, because all we should be doing is living in holes, eating sausages and smoking pipes, but it's certainly something in that direction, and is essentially conservative and insular. As stated, it's been suggested that Lord of the Rings was a metaphor for the second world war, which Tolkien rejected, and which I don't find entirely convincing; but it's absolutely informed by Tolkien's experience of both world wars and the political and social factors which brought them about. Indeed, the parallels are so difficult to miss - right down to Sauron's preference for red and black - as to render Tolkien's protestations at least a little redundant, even if there's not much joy to be had in reading Saruman as Oswald Mosley in a pointy hat; and given Tolkien having served in the trenches, it seems significant that he should have chosen to write about a world of good and evil as easily defined black and white concepts, a world harking back to those unambiguous heroes of myth and legend before Adolf Hitler ruined Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelung for the rest of us.

Tolkien's military career seems to have been patchy. He served as an officer who found his sympathies usually lay with the lower orders more than they did with those of his own background which, I would imagine, informs the world of at least the hobbits. They're good-hearted rustic folk, simple without being stupid, but not massively interested in anything of the outside world. I grew up with these people and Tolkien's apparent view has a taint of the anthropological as he is charmed by individuals I would have habitually crossed the road to avoid back in my own 'shire where, if someone was described as a bit of a character, you could bet your life they were a borderline alcoholic who routinely killed or tortured the local wildlife for the sheer fun of it. I lost count of the tales I heard of fireworks ignited and shoved up the arse of something living, and whilst those untutored wags might be a hoot should one simply be popping into this wonderful little country pub we've discovered just outside of Oxford, growing up with the cunts as your contemporaries was fucking murder.

So the orcs are braying chavs who facilitate the rise of persons such as Hitler, the hobbits are an idealised working class - salt of the earth as Robert Elms would doubtless have it - and the rest are either toffs or, more likely, just Tolkien wishing the world were a simpler, more noble place; which doesn't really justify a thousand or so pages, and particularly not in the expectation of anyone reading the thing. As another one of those things which has taken up weeks of my time, I'm not sure The Lord of the Rings is even as good as Jerusalem - which isn't saying much - and it's nothing like so weird or interesting as The Exegesis. I'd say Epic Pooh is about right.

*: Which I hadn't read at the time of writing so as to avoid potential bias, although I note with amusement that Tolkien's defenders have mostly responded to Moorcock's criticism by suggesting that he simply doesn't understand epic fantasy, foreshadowing Paul Ebbs' more recent defence of Peter Jackson's tiresome movies. The last defence of the barely articulate and fannish is always that you be a hater.

Destination Moon / Explorers on the Moon



Hergé Destination Moon (1950) Explorers on the Moon (1953)
The first Tintin book I read as a child was either Flight 714 or Destination Moon, and the second was whichever of those two hadn't been first. We lived on a farm in rural Warwickshire serviced every two weeks by a mobile library, a sort of bread van full of books arranged upon shelves in the back, the arrival of which I found both magical and mysterious. I was working my way through their selection of Angela Banner's Ant & Bee books when I first noticed Tintin, which probably gives some indication of my age at the time. The cover of either Flight 714 or Destination Moon - whichever it was - intrigued me, displayed on the lower shelves with other larger format books such as Asterix in Spain, which I recall finding annoying because the characters on the cover seemed somehow arrogant. Then one day I guess my mother decided I was old enough to cope with Tintin, so that's where it started.

I read most of the Tintin books over the next couple of years, then graduated to Asterix's altogether wittier adventures, having at last overcome my weird aversion to the cover of the Spanish one. The books vanished from my shelves over the years, eventually reducing to just the hardback Tintin and the Lake of Sharks; and then the other night, seeking some more succinct, less aggravating relief from Tolkien, I realised I actually have a good few of these books and with no memory of their having returned to my collection, which is weird; so fuck it - Destination Moon, let's go, seeing as it's probably fifty years since I first read the thing, or indeed anything featuring Tintin.

Destination Moon and its sequel might be deemed hard science-fiction by certain definitions. Space travel was hardly a new idea in the fifties, having been a staple of the pulps for at least half a century, but Tintin belonged to an approximately sober, essentially realistic world for which Gernsbackian superscience would have been a poor fit. The forties had seen major advances in rocketry in the wake of the second world war, so it was only natural that Tintin should poke his investigative nose in at some point. Naturally the story conforms to the traditions of its kind, and so the first moon rocket is designed by Tintin's friend, Professor Calculus, then piloted by Tintin himself with all arrangements made according to nods, personal favours, and whoever feels they might like to give it a go. It's all very casual, even improbable, and yet it works because the story in which these characters are embedded is solid, as rigorously scientific as it can manage without quite lecturing. The timing is perfect and the art is breathtaking - both wonderfully simple and yet capable of dynamic elegance while conveying a technical sophistication which leaves your mouth hanging open.





So I'm reading something I probably first read when I was five, and yet it works just fine, not once leaving me feeling as though Destination Moon should be beneath me in the same way as - sorry - Harry Potter. Hergé apparently credited his readers with some intelligence and avoided talking down to them, and the humour, if gentle, is slapstick and more or less timeless aside from the slightly disconcerting realisation of just how much of it relies upon Captain Haddock's love of whisky. Being Tintin and hence a detective story at heart, there is inevitably a thread of nefarious deeds by representatives of foreign powers, typically culminating in revelations, exposure of the culprits, and arrest, but the thread runs through the story without overpowering it or turning it into Dick Barton; and it all remains quietly gripping, which is impressive when we consider the medium - a story told mostly inside a control centre then a rocket, with panels wherein those speaking are squashed into the lower third by dialogue. The sense of restraint induces a certain rhythm which carries everything along, so that when we come to the infrequent splash pages of that red and white chequered rocket in space or on the moon or about to take off, it's shocking and breathtaking all at once because it feels vaguely real, and it doesn't matter in the slightest that technology has since made such formative designs seem antiquated, along with the notion of a spacecraft piloted by levers and buttons.

Regardless of Hergé's having shot himself in the foot on several occasions with the institutional racism of the very first stories - and that whole grey area one tends to encounter with persons who collaborate during a Nazi occupation - lessons had been learned by this point and there's something good natured and wholesome about Tintin without it being preachy, sappy, or sentimental. The characters are likeable without bearing the burden of providing role models, and there's no dumbing down. Tintin was a wonderful start for me, progressive and inspiring my interest in a much wider world than the one I knew. I'm impressed that it has lost none of its power, and that it's still fun.

Monday, 11 May 2020

Days of Obligation


Richard Rodriguez Days of Obligation (1992)
I feel I should probably come clean and admit to buying this one purely because of the Mexican thing, yet at the same time I'm not sure why I feel this should constitute a confession. My experience of every book I've ever bought from a book shop has begun with my taking it from the shelf and thinking, oh - this looks interesting, so I don't know why this should be any different, aside from the absence of either spacecraft or robots on the cover. I suppose it could be that it was purchased with some awareness of my aiming high, at least at the time, at least by some definition. It seemed like a slightly pretentious purchase on my part.

On the other hand, only minutes ago I stumbled across my wife's cousin's Goodreads page and found myself drawn in, intrigued by the peculiar fact of her having given Brave New World just one star. The woman is in her late twenties and among the titles to which she has awarded five stars we find Clifford the Big Red Dog, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed. Maybe I shouldn't feel so awkward where my choices seem to expose a degree of vanity or pretence.

That said, it's probably significant that I remember this book as being so great that I lent it to my mother, probably thinking, it be just like one of they reet fancy books what youm read by that Jane Eyre or someone; and also that I remember Days of Obligation as a travelogue wherein Rodriguez has arguments with his Mexican father, something to do with a television production in which he's involved; and significant because this is a completely different book to the thing I remember reading, so I assume it actually did go way over my head.

Days of Obligation is a series of essays wherein the author's father is, at best, a peripheral and mostly symbolic presence, and I have no fucking clue where the television production came from. On the other hand, it is at least as good as I remember - despite the unfamiliar content - and possibly better. Rodriguez maps his place in the world as what might now be termed a psychogeographical exercise via the history of Catholicism, ethnicity, San Francisco, Sacramento, Mexico, California, and other places drawn into the equation along innumerable strands of cause and effect. Going back to Goodreads, den of barely literate shitehawks that it is, I noticed one member of that same virtual parish lambasting Days of Obligation as the work of a man unable to complete a sentence - a misunderstanding presumably arisen from Rodriguez tackling subjects for which there were never black or white, yes or no answers; and so his analysis more resembles a landscape painting in terms of discussion and conclusion, which is what makes this such a tremendous book. It's not even that these subjects aren't otherwise discussed so much as that Rodriguez tackles issues of racial identity and psychology which no-one quite knows how to discuss, presenting particular insight, for one example, on Mexico's peculiar relationship with itself, where the native is the celebrated source of all major cultural icons in firm opposition to the Spanish, while the indigenous remains excluded from a daily life which somehow aspires to what it perceives as European, or at least white American, sophistication. His analysis of the infrastructure of San Francisco as an expression of its gay populace is likewise astonishing, perceptive, and even inspiring.

Having re-read this for what feels as though it may actually have been the first time, I still don't know quite where it fits in the broad span of my reading habits, but I actually feel a little more intelligent than I did this time last week, which I guess is what a decent book will do.

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Frayed


Tara Samms Frayed (2003)
I obsessively collected Who fiction up until the thing returned to the telly in 2005, at which point it all revealed itself as pretty much a complete waste of time. The generally decent screen version had originally gone tits up back in 1989, to be reborn a couple of years later as a series of novels; and if there was an occasional dud here and there, the crucial thing was that the novels were generally better than the thing they were based on, at least enough so as to rise above being only a series of adventures. They weren't just fan fiction, placeholders, merchandise, or substitutes for the experience of watching a weekly TV show - or so it seemed to me. At their best, they were the next logical stage. They were a progression.

Then it popped back up on the screen once someone noticed they could still make money out of the thing, and we were back with captured companions and flashy CGI versions of the traditional man in a rubber suit; and it felt like a massive step backwards, just as the novels published by the BBC had felt like a backwards step after those published by Virgin.

The novellas published by Telos were another thing entirely. I initially resisted adding them to my obsessive monthly shopping list because it felt as though I was being played. We didn't need yet more Who product, and these books were a tenner for something fairly slim, or considerably more than a tenner if you wished to invest in the deluxe edition with a frontispiece. They were hardbacks, some by established authors, and each with an introduction by someone vaguely famous, usually Neil Gaiman or whoever explaining how he used to watch Who on the telly when he was a kid, because this was a quality product, the sort of novella one might read while scoffing Ferrero Rocher.

Novella sounds a bit French really, innit. Very sophisticated.

There was a sketch on That Mitchell and Webb Look wherein David Mitchell plays a Bond style master criminal looking to upgrade his hideout, his discussion with the builder being conducted before a stately wall of leather-bound books, one of which is revealed to be a volume of Miss Katie Price's Being Jordan; and even now, that's what these things feel like, a bit.




Still, I overcame my reticence because Kim Newman's Time and Relative was genuinely great, and at least as good as anything which Virgin had published, and excepting one absolute stinker, the rest approximately maintained the same high standard until the BBC withdrew the license, having decided that henceforth they would be milking this particular cow themselves without bringing in outside contractors. This was among the last Telos Who novellas to be published, and one I never got around to reading. I'd begun to experience a degree of Time Lord indigestion, and then before I got to this one, I discovered it had been written by Stephen Cole under a pseudonym; and if Stephen Cole was a merely competent rather than actively unreadable writer, as co-author of The Ancestor Cell - which was pure shite - I found it difficult to drum up much enthusiasm for Frayed, until now.

Against expectation, Frayed is actually decent, and at least as good as any other Telos novella. It's set prior to the television series, before the Doctor arrives on Earth, and - as an aside - explains a couple of things no-one had actually wondered about, yet without any of it feeling like fanwank; and best of all it reads like a book rather than something which wishes it had been on the box and spends its time asking you to imagine what that would have been like. The fancy edition, the introduction like what you have in a serious book, and general ostentation remain superfluous because this is a genuinely fine bit of science-fiction, or possibly science-horror, and enough so as to leave me wondering if I should take another look at a few of Cole's other efforts. Above all, this one has come as a pleasant reminder of how it was before Russell T. Davies and Billie Piper soured the well.

Monday, 4 May 2020

Ludmila's Broken English


DBC Pierre Ludmila's Broken English (2006)
Still aglow from Vernon God Little and having regarded it as the greatest novel I'd ever read, I rushed out and bought a copy of this, Pierre's second novel, the day it hit the shops, or specifically the day it hit Waterstone's on Oxford Street. In fact I was so quick off the blocks that I found I'd bought a copy signed by the author without even meaning too. I guess I might even have met the man himself had I made it to Waterstone's before five in the evening, but Marian had decided we should make a day of it, like couples do, so it's probably a miracle that we actually made it to the store before closing time. Marian bought something from the self-help section, a book with a title like How to Better Manage Your Money or How to Not Spend Money on Shit You Don't Actually Need, something along those lines. It cost twenty quid, the irony of which was, as ever, lost on her.

In the wider world, Ludmila's Broken English met with a lukewarm reception as I recall, that difficult second book by someone with a lot to live up to, although it probably didn't help that most of the critics had apparently mistaken Vernon God Little for Tom Sharpe does Deliverance.

Ludmila, like her predecessor, is darkly comic, but with significantly less chance of anyone mistaking the gallow's humour for an episode of Filthy, Rich & Catflap. Also problematic, I would guess, would have been the broken English of the title, conjoined twins, now separated, respectively named Blair and Gordon, and blatantly based on Tony and Mr. Brown. Weirder still is that they seem to be the offspring of Ted Heath, although I suppose politically speaking it's not such a massive leap for something so obviously satirical. The novel is about their progress and eventual meeting with Ludmila, Blair's bride to be from the former Soviet Union and now inhabitant of a homeland comprising mainly grinding poverty and explosions. So the frame to which these characters find themselves bolted is frankly fucking ridiculous, and I know I found this aspect a bit of a stumbling block first time around, as I guess did most of the reviewers; but fifteen years later, sat in a country run by a man who has just told us to inject bleach, the sledgehammer elements of the narrative seem less obstructive. In fact they remind me a bit of Gogol, which is odd.

This time around, the parallels - not least Tony Blair and Gordon Brown - seem more like starting points than direct statements in and of themselves, although Pierre has Blair's woolly speech patterns down to a tee; and their exchanges are wonderfully horrible, Harold Pinter writing Hancock's Half Hour as one of Francis Bacon's more biologically distraught canvases. Everything is cutting and witty and darkly poetic, and this is probably part of the problem: lacking the grounding in directly experienced reality which clearly informed Vernon God Little, the narrative becomes relentless, even exhausting - a great idea which didn't quite fit the frame. A lawn dart tossed blindfold at Ludmila's Broken English will find ruthless, devastating prose every single time, but the whole lacks plasma, a written medium by which the material is delivered. My guess would be that the pressure of Vernon blowing up as it did could be to blame, but who knows?

Ludmila's Broken English is, roughly speaking, about neoliberalism and more or less everything that's been wrong with the world at least since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It's argument is clearly stated with all due venom and without sermonising. It's only real failure is that it should have been better.

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Flying Saucers are Hostile


Brad Steiger & Joan Whritenour Flying Saucers are Hostile (1966)
Steiger wrote about a million books, many of which have been described as sensationalist, and even most tin-foil hatted of History Channel junkies seem to regard him as unreliable. I'm sure his critics have a point - despite the raw irony of one group of saucer nutcases looking at another group of saucer nutcases askance whilst muttering about the dubious credibility of their evidence - but the fact is that Steiger wrote some massively weird and entertaining stuff, regardless of whether or not any of it's actually true.

Once was that the charity shops runneth over with cheap saucer paperbacks, and aside from a few of the same blurry photographs which turned up again and again - even those which had been long since proven fake when someone found the actual model and length of fishing line - most of them were as dull as fuck: page after page after page of a farmer who saw a light and how it definitely wasn't a weather balloon. Steiger on the other hand never seemed bothered by whether anyone actually believed him and happily shared even the most preposterous and hence entertaining reports in a spirit which was more Charles Fort than J. Allen Hynek - and to give credit where credit is due, Steiger's tentative theorising about what it could all mean is usually less ridiculous than that of Fort with his silly ideas about stars being volcanoes in the sky.

As might be gathered from the title, this one focusses on accounts of the saucer people acting like wankers, marking a shift from the previously held folk mythology of benign space brothers as reported by George Adamski and others. Whether or not one believes, the book remains a fascinating record of its time, a world in which mass communication was very much a new thing, back when there was still a lot of darkness around the edges where the inexplicable might still lurk; and it works because a mountain of horseshit with some element of truth will always feel a more intuitively plausible description of the preposterous than pure horseshit and nothing else. In other words, maybe some of it happened, or at the very least, for something which didn't happen there seem to be a hell of a lot of people who think it did, which is in itself interesting.

Steiger churned this stuff out at least as fast as people could buy it, and his back catalogue brims with titles such as Discover Your Own Past Lives, The Wisdom Teachings of Archangel Michael, and others I wouldn't even touch with yours; but regardless of the actual homeopathic truth quotient of whatever tale he's spinning, I can't help but be impressed by the cut of the cloth.