Friday, 31 October 2014

Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut Jr


Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr is a work of genius. It's a work of art that has the power to disturb. It's as simple as that.
Not everyone would agree with this, of course, and there are some who would even have a problem with the book, not least Kurt Vonnegut Jr himself although the problem he had with it was unlike anyone else’s. Slaughterhouse Five, you see, is about the destruction of the German city of Dresden during World War Two and from it Vonnegut made a substantial amount of money and became an internationally known writer of repute. To Vonnegut this meant that for the thousands upon thousands of people killed in the Dresden blitz, he was the only one in the world who had actually gained anything from it. There are some, of course, who would argue that Dresden's destruction hastened the end of the war; meaning the whole world gained from it but... but... but what can you say to that? There are no words. And this, precisely, is what Slaughterhouse Five communicates: There are no words.

Vonnegut was a serving soldier during World War Two and along with British, Russian, and fellow American soldiers was held captive in Dresden by the Germans. Dresden at that time was of little military significance and had even become a destination for refugees seeking a kind of sanctuary. For three days in February of 1945 British and American planes conducted an all-out attack on the city, dropping tons of bombs and incendiary devices upon it with the planned intention of razing it to the ground and inflicting mass civilian death. The incendiary devices whipped up massive fire storms that swept through the city, sucking the air away and reducing anything that would burn to ash or charcoal. Dresden was turned into a hellish inferno.
Vonnegut, along with his fellow American prisoners and their German guards were sheltered in an old abattoir called Schlachthof-funf - in English, Slaughterhouse five - which by some miracle was one of the very few places in Dresden that withstood the fires. When the bombing ceased they left the shelter only to find that Dresden - famously known as being a city of refined culture - was now, in the words of Vonnegut "like the moon". Everything was dead. What was once men, women, children and babies was now charcoaled stumps. Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of charcoaled stumps.

This was no longer war. This was beyond any such description. There was no valour here, no bravery, no heroism, no morality. This was the greatest massacre in European history. This was beyond a war crime, beyond madness, beyond imagination. Beyond words.

Vonnegut tells us in Slaughterhouse Five that he'd been wanting and trying to write about his experience in Dresden for years but had always been stuck for words; finally, only succeeding and brilliantly so when he became unstuck.
He relays his story through a fictional character by the name of Billy Pilgrim who, finding life meaningless even before Dresden has become unstuck in time and now ricochets between periods, episodes and events like a proverbial pinball. Everything is connected yet simultaneously disconnected. There is no sense and even less meaning. One moment he's on honeymoon with his wife, the next he's a little boy being thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool by his father. One moment he's visiting his decrepit mother in an old peoples home, the next he's at his wedding anniversary party with a fictional writer of science fiction books called Kilgore Trout. One moment he's in Dresden, the next he's in a glass cage on a planet called Tralfamadore being observed by aliens like a specimen in a zoo.
Every event is equally credible yet at the same time equally incredible. If such an event as the burning of Dresden has happened in his life then why not such an event as being in a zoo on another planet? Birth, time, place and death are simply moments like beads on a string, with no real beginning and no end. He's forever a little boy being thrown into a swimming pool and he's forever on honeymoon with his wife. He's forever in a glass cage on another planet and he's forever present whilst Dresden burns.

Slaughterhouse Five isn't a difficult book to read at all but there's so much going on in it that the only way to do it justice is for anyone to read it themselves and then make of it what they will. At one point in the book, Billy Pilgrim has committed himself to a veterans psychiatric hospital because he feels he's going crazy. In the bed next to him is another former soldier who tells Billy that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov by Feodor Dostoevsky, adding "But that isn't enough anymore". When Billy is asked about the war a thought occurs to him that he thinks would make a good epitaph: 'Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt'. Vonnegut himself then interjects into the story and says "and for me, too", causing the narrative to be further fragmented. He does it again when Billy is entering a latrine where his fellow American prisoners are being sick and excreting profusely. "That was I." Vonnegut writes. "That was me. That was the author of this book."
Every time death is mentioned, Vonnegut writes 'So it goes', creating a catchphrase that crops up throughout the whole book. This, along with 'Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt' has been turned into popular choices for tattoos, and when something like that occurs - for my money - it's always a sign of cultural significance. How many other books are there that have inspired tattoos?

Though written in 1968, Slaughterhouse Five has dated only slightly and remains an essential book to read at least once. The film of the book, directed by George Roy Hill  in 1971 following his success with Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid is equally worth watching. Vonnegut's message (however it might be construed) is an important one that's very much worth considering. And whilst the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still remembered it's important to also never forget Dresden and if Slaughterhouse Five in any way helps in that, then all power to it.

John Serpico

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Guilty Pleasures (Part 5)


The King is dead.

Alvin Stardust is dead.

All dreams of him playing one day at the Exmouth Pavilion have now been dashed. Instead, on the streets of Exmouth his loyal disciples walk now in stunned silence. In pubs throughout the town, grown men (or at least, those old enough to remember) weep silently into their beer glasses, trying hard to accept that he is no longer with them. They drink to his name. They drink to his memory. Mothers at home sob into pillows, knowing their children will never now experience what they did as children. They will never know the joy, the thrill, the emotional frisson he could instigate by simply standing motionless, sideways on, microphone held level; just looking, cooing, singing.

What to do? What words of comfort are there?

Stalker of dreams. Haunter of childhoods. Black leather pop demigod. He of the black glove, the ruby ring, and the clutching hand. The exaggerated quiff. The sideburns. The raised eyebrow. The steely eye.

He has gone.
Here in Exmouth we were awaiting his return. His presence. His gifts.
But no more.

Who will lead us now?

This night, throughout Exmouth, candles are being lit.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

The Turn Of The Screw - Henry James

A bit of a dry writer is Henry James which doesn't make for him being the easiest of reads but this, his best book by far as opined by a good many people is simply sublime. The Turn Of The Screw is a ghost story. Or is it? And it's this very equivocation that makes it so very interesting.

Written in 1898, it's the story of a young woman taking employment as a governess to two orphaned children in a mansion house in Essex. Her employer is a gentleman bachelor based in London and he's the children's uncle. Their parents have both died in India and though he feels it's his duty to now take care of the children, having no experience in such matters he makes available his countryside residence for them to live where he has staff running the house but needs a governess for the children. His only proviso being that under no circumstances must he be contacted with regards to the children and that any problems be dealt with entirely by the governess.

The two children - Miles and Flora - turn out to be the most well-behaved, beautiful, angelic creatures imaginable which makes it impossible to understand why for some unexplained reason Miles has been expelled from his boarding school and is not going to be allowed back. The governess can only presume that some grave misjudgement has occurred and quickly settles down to tutoring and looking after them both.
Everything is sweetness and light until one sunny afternoon the governess spies a stranger peering down at her from up on the balcony of one of the mansion's towers. The only conclusion she can come to is that the man is an intruder, though simply curious about old houses, who has made his way to the top of the mansion to take in the view then stolen out as he came. Thus, she makes no more of it, assuring herself that she'll see no more of him. Her rather naive conclusion, however, is shattered some days later when upon entering a room she sees the same stranger peering in through the window from outside but after rushing out to confront him, she finds he's vanished. On describing the man to the housekeeper, the governess is informed that she has just described Peter Quint, the uncle's old valet. The only problem being that Quint is dead.
Days later, whilst sitting with Flora next to the mansion's lake, the governess realises there is a figure of a woman standing amongst the reeds on the lake's far side. To her horror, she realises Flora is also aware of the woman's presence but is not acknowledging it.

The governess learns that during his time at the mansion house, Quint had exerted much influence upon both staff and the children, and had been particularly close to Miles. According to the housekeeper, Quint was "much too free - with everyone" and took many liberties. She also learns that Quint and the previous governess to the children had been having an affair that had ended horribly. Quint had been found frozen dead on the road, suspected of falling over whilst drunk when returning one night from the village. The previous governess - Miss Jessel - had abandoned her job through shame of the affair and had moved away, only to be reported to have later died also.

The governess concludes that the figures she is seeing are demonic apparitions; the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel who have returned to the mansion to possess and stamp their claim upon the children. She also believes that the children are both fully aware of their presence but are keeping it secret. Miles never talks of his close past-relationship with Quint and never hints as to why he's been expelled from his boarding school. Flora denies being able to see Miss Jessel even when she appears again and the governess tries to force her to admit that she's there: "She's there, you little unhappy thing - there, there, there, and you see her as well as you see me!" But Flora simply won't have it and the situation isn't helped by the housekeeper taking Flora's side and denying that she can see anything also. The governess decides that only she can save the children and tells the housekeeper to take Flora away from the mansion, leaving her alone with Miles to confront Quint. The story concludes, as might be expected, in tragedy.

There is a lot of ambiguity throughout The Turn Of The Screw, with deeds and relationships being hinted at but never openly expressed. Henry James may well have been inhibited by the times in which he was living and by what was deemed suitable to be openly spoken of. The governess in the story is herself an innocent though in the full flush of her very pent up emotions. The housekeeper, though having bore witness to past unscrupulous events and interactions is unable to bring herself to talk about them in any detail. The children, though mere infants are mature beyond their years and their angelic behaviour seems only to be a facade; a mask to hide the horribleness they have suffered and that has manifested within them. Quint and Miss Jessel are silent figures, bonded together by potentially dark and unacceptable secrets.
Did something occur between Quint, Miss Jessel and the children? What did Quint teach Miles that seems to have led him to be expelled from boarding school? Quint, as disclosed by the housekeeper was certainly a manipulative individual; able to worm his way into having the trust of his employer, bypass class distinctions and conduct an affair with the governess at the time, plus enjoy the close companionship of a young boy. Is there something paedophilic being hinted at here? Or is it indeed the governess who is the corrupter? Feeding the children and the housekeeper disturbing ideas but to what ends? Just as she tells the housekeeper how the children manoeuvre situations so that one or the other may be alone with the apparitions, does she do likewise so as to end up alone with Miles at the end? Or is the governess simply imagining she can see Quint and Miss Jessel and it is actually she who is possessed by a madness?

The Turn Of The Screw has been cited as one of the greatest ghost stories ever written and this may well be true but only because it can be read as so much more than a ghost story. The film version - The Innocents - made in 1961 and directed by Jack Clayton features a tour-de-force performance by Deborah Kerr and is without any question one of the greatest ghost/horror films ever produced. Both book and film are well worth reading and watching and are guaranteed to remain in the memory for a very, very long time.
John Serpico

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Street Art Exmouth Style (Part 6)


Daubed upon the wall of a seemingly derelict building in one of the old back streets in the heart of Exmouth, an incongruous piece of graffiti hangs in view of all who pass by. Its origin, its meaning and to what it refers has long been forgotten over the many years it's been there. It's neither a statement, a slogan or a declaration but a question, and it's precisely this that makes it so beguiling. It may well have originally been put there with but one very simple meaning but to what it alluded has long since gone leaving it now to take on any meaning that anyone cares to bestow upon it. Or even no meaning at all.
If it wasn't before, it has now become a work of art and is as much a part of Exmouth as a freckle might be on the face of a child.
Let it fade in it's own right and let it never be erased because it's street art - Exmouth style.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

A Fistful Of Dynamite - James Lewis


It's impossible to separate James Lewis's A Fistful Of Dynamite novel from the Sergio Leone film of the same name and view it as an entity unto itself but then I don't suppose you're meant to. Lewis's book is a movie tie-in and as is the point of these kind of books they're meant to be viewed as a companion to the movie or at least as some kind of memento of it. The problem with Leone's film, however, is that it's a work of flawed genius whose grandeur casts an extremely long shadow, thus effecting how the book is read.

Set in Mexico, 1913, A Fistful Of Dynamite is a story of friendship and revolution. Juan Miranda Ibanez is a Mexican bandit in the same mould as the Eli Wallach character, Tuco, in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. He leads his gang - comprised essentially of his children and his father - in the robbing of stagecoaches and it's just after one such robbery that he encounters John Mallory who is in the employ of a German silver mining company. Mallory is an IRA revolutionary on the run from the British army and is an explosives expert. He's loaded with dynamite and nitroglycerine, and through foul means Juan persuades him to join him in the robbery of the biggest bank outside of Mexico City.
"Hey, what's your name anyway?" asks Juan. "John" Mallory replies. "Hah, like Juan. The same name" Juan exclaims. "So what?" says Mallory. "I thought that maybe having the same name was destiny" says Juan. "You don't wanna be my partner? You don't wanna get rich? We'll be famous. Juan and John, specialists in banks. No, no, I got it: 'Johnny and Johnny!' Sounds better, more American."

The country, however, is in a state of turmoil due to the revolution going on and when they get to the bank they find the whole town over-run with Mexican soldiers. They join with the rebels who are planning an assault upon all the key positions in the town and opt for the bank as their own specific target. Mallory is fully aware, however, that the bank no longer holds any money and is being used instead as a prison for captured rebels though he keeps this information from Juan. Their raid on the bank is successful but rather than liberating it of money and gold, they liberate instead the prisoners and Juan is unwittingly hailed as a hero of the revolution.

After another battle with the Mexican army, the local leader of the rebels - a doctor by the name of Villega - is captured and under torture reveals the identities of all the supporters of the revolution who are then summarily rounded up and executed. Mallory bears witness to Villega's betrayal of the rebels but unbeknownst to him the hideaway of Juan's children and his fellow fighters has also been revealed and on returning to the hideaway with Juan discovers they have all been slaughtered. Juan heads off to seek vengeance only to be captured by the army. Mallory rescues him and whilst escaping on a train sees the tyrant governor of the town - the sworn enemy of the rebels - is a fellow passenger. Juan kills him, resulting in him once again being hailed a hero of the revolution.

In the final battle between the rebels and the Mexican army, Mallory heads off on a potentially suicidal mission; his plan being to ram a train head on into an another approaching train full of soldiers so as to take out as many of them as possible. He needs just one person to help him and though Juan volunteers, he chooses instead Villega, who at that point realises that Mallory knows of his act of betrayal.
The trains duly collide and whilst Mallory manages to jump free ahead of the collision, Villega remains on board to be killed in the ensuing explosion. As the rebels led by Juan descend upon the surviving soldiers in a final gun battle, Juan and Mallory come face-to-face again but it's for the last time as Mallory is shot in the back and dies in Juan's arms, though not before setting off another massive explosion.
The book ends with Juan looking up into the darkness and asking: "Oh, Johnny. What about me?"

Sergio Leone ends his film with the same question being asked and a freeze-frame shot of Juan (played by Rod Steiger) staring into the camera. It's a poignant and meaningful question when put into the context of the film's two main themes of friendship and revolution.
Over the course of the film (and likewise the book) Juan and Mallory's relationship develops from hostility, to curiosity, to bemusement to ultimately mutual respect. Come the end, they're even like brothers but with the death of Mallory, Juan's dream of a great bank-robbing partnership - Johnny and Johnny - dies also.
As his family has been wiped out, Juan is alone, and the only real place left for him is among the rebels in the revolution. The problem with this, however, is that Juan has all along been mightily cynical and mocking of that revolution. Never mind 'Land and liberty', Juan has only ever been interested in 'Gold and Money'. For Juan, a revolution is a pointless exercise; an endless game of cat and mouse where the land owners and the rich once ousted are simply and very quickly replaced by a new set of land owners and rich who must then be ousted themselves. On and on and so it goes, and at the end of the day all that a revolution leaves is dead poor people and a new set of rulers. This is borne out by the death of Juan's family and then underscored by the death of his friend Mallory. If Juan is an example of the kind of person a revolution is meant to help, as well as an example of a hero of that revolution, then what hope for him?

In an earlier argument with Mallory, Juan states that the only country he knows is that of him and his family. Once his family has been destroyed this obviously means that so too has his country. So what is there left to fight for? During that same argument in the film, Mallory (played by James Coburn) is reading a book and Juan lambastes the people who read books for telling poor people who can't read books that they need revolution. So the poor people make a revolution whilst the book readers continue to sit and eat and talk. But as for the poor people - they end up dead. That, to Juan, is what a revolution means. Mallory throws the book he's reading into the dirt and the camera zooms in to the cover to show its title. It's 'The Patriotism' by the Russian godfather of Anarchism, Mikhail Bakunin.

What Leone brilliantly illustrates at the start of the movie, however, is that Juan is actually conducting a revolution any way, without being spurred on by intellectuals or political leaders. The stage coach he and his family rob is bedecked in plush velvet with gold-plated handles and is populated by an American land owner and his wife, a salesman, a Mexican noble, and a priest. They're depicted as all sucking food into already overstuffed mouths and washing it down with wine; all talking disparagingly about Mexican peasantry. Juan and his children rob them of all their valuables, ravages the wife, strips them of their clothes, packs them all off in an old mule cart and commandeers the stage coach as a new home. Leone makes it very clear that this isn't just robbery that is being conducted - it's a class war.

The original name for the film was going to be Once Upon A Time... The Revolution, which is actually a much better title. Leone debunks the myth of the romance of revolution and shows it instead to be a violent, dirty and horrible affair. He entwines this with the subject of friendship, showing how it can grow but also be betrayed and destroyed. Just like a revolution.

Whilst all this makes for a very good story and a very good subject for a film, Leone's final creation is flawed and it's not the masterpiece it so nearly could have been. That particular accolade was achieved earlier with The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and then again later with Once Upon A Time In America. A lot of the blame for it being flawed must be laid at the door of Leone's American producers, and their interference with his vision and original plans. It was they who insisted on the role of Juan being played by Rod Steiger but it was a classic case of miscasting and his portrayal of a Mexican bandit is nowhere near as good as Eli Wallach's in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. Wallach was Leone's first choice for the role but his American producers insisted on Steiger - apparently for his potential appeal to a large American audience - which was all well and good but Steiger's Mexican accent is atrocious and jars throughout the film, causing a negative effect even upon James Coburn's sterling performance. It was they also who messed about with the film's title, insisting it be called Duck You Sucker in America, A Fistful Of Dynamite in Britain, and Once Upon A Time... Revolution for some reason only in France. Presenting and publicising it as a comedy western didn't help either.

For all that, A Fistful Of Dynamite is still an exceptionally good film and as a companion to/memento of the film, the book is also very good. And as an example of how different it is as a film to so many others of the same genre, how many other western movies begin with a quote from Mao Tse-Tung: 'The revolution is not a social dinner, a literary event, a drawing or an embroidery; it cannot be done with elegance and courtesy. The revolution is an act of violence... by which one class overthrows another.'

John Serpico

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Under Exmouth Skies (Part 8)


"And there ain't no day.
 And there ain't no night."

"Ain't nothing to see. 
Ain't nothing in sight."

"Into the white."

"Into the white... "

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Guilty Pleasures (Part 4)


All the world's a stage just as it's also a hall of mirrors. Refracting, reflecting into infinity it echoes. Exmouth is a prism of rainbow light, iridescent against the beckoning sea. And if music be the food of love, play on.
The hungry and the hunted no longer explode into rock'n'roll bands but was a time when music offered a way out from lives pre-determined by place of birth. What could a poor boy do but to play in a rock'n'roll band? Though these are the days where the mode is retro the beat still goes on. Just put your ear to the ground and listen very carefully. Like a dim, distant signal from a dying star - the beat goes on. Kids walk around with their head in the clouds. Cities burn in the summertime. And the beat goes on. From this mad ball of confusion - oh, the beat goes on.

Can you hear it? We want the world and we want it now? Can you smell it? Something burning?

But in the pubs of Exmouth and I'm sure throughout the land, the majority of bands play covers of their favourite songs or pander to what they presume the punters want. It's the 1970s all over again but without the Glam, without the glitz, and without a 1960s hangover. The new groups seem unconcerned with what there is to be learned; not turning rebellion into money let alone turning money into rebellion. But the bands play on.

Hope, however, springs eternal because cover bands are actually really strange and very weird and with weirdness comes the potential for innovation. Which brings us neatly to Dr Feelgood.

Hailing from Canvey Island, in Essex, Dr Feelgood specialised in raw R&B honed into lacerating perfection through constant gigging. Arguably they were at their prime during the early 1970s when they would play to packed crowds in pubs and clubs in and around the Greater London area, spearheading what was to be known as 'pub rock'. The energy and malevolent sense of menace they exuded was tangible and in the opinion of many were the British godfathers of punk rock. With growling, shouting vocals, singer Lee Brilleaux spat out lyrics like hateful accusations as lead guitarist Wilko Johnson chopped out riffs and hurtled around the stage propelled by an amphetamine-fueled psychosis.
Dr Feelgood are still gigging to this day although the band contains no original members, which suggests that to all intent and purpose they're a covers band though that's in no way meant to belittle them. If you're going to have a covers band then why not have one of the very best? Why not have Dr Feelgood because with them points the way to an example of endless possibility.
Dr Feelgood in the 1970s inspired by rejuvenating energy into the pub-based gig, paving the way for the youth-quake of punk rock. If these days are an echo of the 1970s then an echo of a band such as Dr Feelgood can only be a good thing if only as an example of the potential for innovation.

Turn and face the strange, as Bowie sang. Check out Dr Feelgood at the Exmouth Pavilion this month or at a town near you. At the same time, check out Oil City Confidential, the 2009 film documenting the early days of Dr Feelgood which is not only director Julian Temple's best film by far but also in my opinion one of the best films concerning music that has ever been made.

John Serpico