Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Fludd - Hilary Mantel


I used to live in Budleigh Salterton which is where Hilary Mantel lives, and she was my neighbour. Budleigh, in case anyone is unaware, is the next town along the coast past Exmouth. Budleigh's such a small town and news travels faster than a sigh. Everybody there wants to know the next man's secret so every time we'd meet upon the street we had to keep it like sister and brother. We'd wave to each other as we didn't want all the world to know we were really lovers, so we'd talk about the weather until we were alone together.

It's a strange place, actually, Budleigh. As with every small town there's always gossip but that gossip never goes beyond its boundaries. It's where Lady Di used to go when she was seeing James Hewitt, presumably because they thought they wouldn't be bothered by anyone there. And they were right. Everyone who saw them walking along the beach knew who they were but they never caused a fuss or said anything.
When Hilary Mantel moved there, it was just after her winning the Man Booker Prize so anyone who knew anything about books knew exactly who she was but again, no-one caused a fuss. I certainly didn't, anyway.
What first caught my attention about her was when she said in an interview that she didn't have a bohemian bone in her body and I thought this quite interesting. Most people I knew who possessed a so-called 'awareness' were always steeped in so-called bohemian culture and there was never any surprise when I'd peruse their book shelves or rifle through their record collection. We all seemed to have read the same books and liked the same kind of music. It was all a bit boring, really. I mean, I don't want all people to be the same as me and to share my tastes. If that was what I wanted then I'd join the Jehovah Witnesses.

With her winning the Man Booker, Hilary's fame suddenly grew and then for some inexplicable reason she became a hate figure for the Daily Mail. Following a speech she gave regarding the royals and Kate Middleton, the Mail took a few lines from what was quite a long talk and twisted them out of context, in the process turning her words into a 'venomous attack'. The on-line bile then unleashed by readers of the Mail, the Telegraph and even the Independent was astonishing, ending up with even David Cameron and Ed Miliband joining in with the condemnation.
Bruised but unbowed, Hilary stood her ground and replied that she had nothing to apologise for. With the publication of her collection of short stories going under the title The Assassination Of Margaret Thatcher, she induced further near apoplexy in Tory MPs and the Daily Mail again who subsequently accused her of being warped, perverted, sick and deranged; with one old Tory gimp even suggesting she should be investigated by the police. Can you imagine? Investigated for imagining the assassination of somebody already dead? Only in the mind of a Tory fool could such an absurdity blossom.

The amusing thing about all of this is that Hilary Mantel is a really intelligent writer and to see her being criticised and attacked by those who also profess to write - as in the columnists and hacks at the Daily Mail - makes for high comedy. It's like charlatans in fear of the genuine article who make further fools of themselves by pulling down their pants and waving their rudimentary scribbles about, as though they had something to be proud of when in fact they have everything to be embarrassed about. They are lightweights under the impression that their views count for something when in fact they're simply relics of a past now fossilised and obsolete, who wither away on the vine of conservatism whilst those they are scared of (immigrants, single mothers, the unemployed, chavs, Hilary Mantel - the list is actually endless) move into the future.

As a writer, Hilary is probably perceived nowadays as a purveyor of weighty, historical tomes but this isn't the only string to her bow, her novel Fludd being a good example to highlight, it being a strange brew of comedy, magical realism, and Christian eccentricity.

First published in 1989, it centres around a make-believe village in the North of England in the 1950s where the Church and religion are still dominant forces in people's lives though where everyone has theological misgivings, grave concerns and doubts, not least of all the local vicar himself. Following an order from the bishop that various statues be removed from the church so as to focus the minds of parishioners upon God rather than saints, a stranger arrives who is taken to be an envoy of said bishop. He is, however, not all he would seem and though it's never made clear, he could well be an angel, a devil or possibly an alchemist.
Much fun and mischief is had in playing with the themes of religious ridiculousness and the thankless task of presiding over a diocese of what is termed 'simple people'. At times - for the first half of the book, in fact - it reads like an episode of Father Ted, which seeing as it's written by Hilary Mantel makes it all doubly amusing.
I don't think Hilary gets the balance quite right throughout the whole book and you do tend to wonder at times where she's going with her story but in the end it does all make sense. It also makes you think; particularly when profound thought is drawn from the most basic theological ponderings. There's a fair bit of symbolism going on and a constant swing between reality and unreality, ending up in a space somewhere between the two. For all that, it's still a very good book and another fine example of beautiful, intelligent writing.

In the good sense of it (if there can be any other?), Hilary Mantel is a classic, English eccentric who in her own quiet way is also rather brave. Whether that's by accident or design is beside the point. Anyone or anything that provokes the ire of the Daily Mail must be doing something right. A curious thing also: in Budleigh Salterton there's a lot of money. It's not only rich people there, of course, but in certain parts of it there's a lot of wealth on display and subsequently it leans heavily into Conservative politics. In such a setting - as to be expected - there's also a fair few Daily Mail and Telegraph readers and what all these people think of Hilary is anyone's guess? What they make of the Daily Mail and its editorial opinions in the context of it's attacks upon Hilary is also open to questioning, as is also Hilary's view of the Mail nowadays?
Next time we meet (like sister and brother) I'll have to ask her.
John Serpico

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The Siege Of Sidney Street - Frederick Oughton


I presume we're all up to speed and fully au fait regarding the siege of Sidney Street? Peter the Painter? Good.
Essentially, Frederick Oughton's book The Siege Of Sidney Street is the novelization of the film of the same name made in 1960 starring Donald Sinden, Kieron Moore, and Peter Wyngarde. The screenplay was written by Jimmy Sangster who also wrote the screenplays for many of the Hammer horror movies and it's Sangster's screenplay that Oughton's book is based on.

The blurb on the back cover of the book is interesting as it reads like a Daily Mail headline and for that reason alone deserves to be quoted in full: 'The Day Anarchy Clutched At London. London's East End - January 3rd 1911. Bullets whine in Sidney Street, holding back hundreds of police, guardsmen and the Home Secretary - Winston Churchill. Three anarchist fanatics - Peter the Painter, Yoska, Svaars - had robbed and killed for their cause. Now had come the bloody day of reckoning... Here is a sensational story with a scaffolding of truth - of the gaslit, gin-soaked era when marauding anarchists took whatever they could grab.'
Sounds good doesn't it? I particularly like the phrase 'with a scaffolding of truth'. It could well be the Daily Mail. I must say, however, that the book actually takes a diabolical liberty with the truth but that's okay. Nothing wrong with that.
The historical, real life event is turned into a story of cops and robbers with a love interest, the twist in the tale to differentiate it from a hundred other cops and robbers stories being that the robbers are Russian anarchists, spurred on not by any desire to get rich but by ideology. They're appropriating money to help fund the revolution as explained to an incredulous police detective by an informer: "These people in London are anarchists, dey get money for friends in Russia." "To help them escape?" Mannering asked. Beran huddled deeper into his thick overcoat as though the temperature had dropped. "For der revolution. Der is going to be a revolution in Russia; dat is why dey want so much money. Revolutions costs money, sir."

And indeed they do. In my day, when me and my fellow comrades-in-arms wanted money for the revolution we'd call on Chumbawamba or any number of anarcho-leaning bands to play a benefit gig and they'd always oblige. In fact, when Chumbawamba were flush with the success of Tubthumping we wouldn't even have to go through the rigmarole of setting up a gig - they'd simply donate money straightaway, bless 'em - and much respect to them.
There's a lesson in this, actually. If Chumbawamba were around in 1911 then perhaps anarchist gangs wouldn't have needed to rob banks? Subsequently, when Chumbawamba were actively donating funds to anarchist causes not so long ago, perhaps in doing so they were keeping crime down? But I digress.

A good bit in the book is when the police detective is seeking information about the club where all the Russian immigrants congregate. He talks to the landlord of a pub situated opposite the club who is only too happy to offer up information about his neighbours: "It's a club a'right! Gawd, you c'n 'ear 'em jabb'r'n' away fifty ter the dozen right dahn the perishin' street. Club they calls it! Whore 'ouse more like! Gawd, you should 'ear 'em. I'll tell you somethin' else too. All they drinks there is tea. Tea. Round 'ere folks say as they're vegetarians."
"Perhaps they don't like meat, that's all," says the detective.
"Meat?" replies the landlord "Who said anythin' about meat? Vegetarians, that's what I said. That or them anarchists. Wouldn't be surprised to 'ear they was atheists too. Tell you, that club's got a bit of a name round this district, sir."
Vegetarians! And atheists to boot! How brilliant is that?

Another bit that deserves to be highlighted is when the anarchist Svaars is observing Peter the Painter saying goodbye to his lover: 'He would never have thought Peter was capable of such a display in front of others, for in the anarchist movement love was relegated to the level of sexual function, and nothing more, so as to avoid unnecessary entanglements and jealousies.'
Surely, that can't be right? I know it was decades later and he was no anarchist but Che Guevara once said "At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love." I tend to go with that, personally. It's good to know who to hate, I believe, but you're on a hiding to nothing if you discount or give up on the notion of love. Or perhaps I'm just an old romantic at heart?

But where am I going with this? Well, The Siege Of Sidney Street is a ripping yarn and surprisingly violent and bloody in some of its descriptions. Whilst its stock in characters is fairly standard as in the world weary detective, the 'gangster's' moll (whom the detective falls in love with) and so on, the outcome is quite unusual in the fact that the 'villain' (Peter the Painter) escapes and it's the detective who seems to have lost the most because the woman he's fallen in love with has been killed by a stray bullet in the final shootout.
In reality, Peter the Painter was indeed thought to have escaped the Sidney Street siege and over the following years was reported to have been spotted in Australia and even on the Titanic. Such is the stuff of legends. To the consternation of the Daily Mail and the Metropolitan Police Federation, in Whitechapel, London, two housing blocks have been named after him and plaques erected explaining who this 'anti-hero' was.

Frederick Oughton's book is probably out of print now but as well as being a fairly enjoyable read, in its own peculiar way it too serves as a dedication to the memory of Peter the Painter and that fateful and historical day in Sidney Street.
And there's nothing wrong with that.                                                                                                                                                      John Serpico

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

The Rebel - Alan Holmes


Written by Alan Holmes, based on the screenplay by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson for the film starring Tony Hancock, The Rebel is an amusing tale of artistic expression, the perception of art and the appreciation of it.
The main character is referred to only as The Rebel and we're first introduced to him as he's making his way to work on the 8.32 train to London Bridge, taking him to the offices of the United International Transatlantic Consolidated Amalgamation Ltd where he's been employed for the last 14 years as an office clerk. The Rebel, we discover, is a frustrated artist who feels his talent has for too long gone unrecognised. His vocation, he feels, is not to be a City worker but an internationally acclaimed artist.

On the morning we meet him, he's not only dismissed from his job for drawing all over his accounts ledger but also given notice to leave his lodgings by his landlady who fails to appreciate the beauty of the immense stone sculpture he's created in his room that has fallen through the ceiling into the room below due to its sheer weight.
So, having burnt his boats he heads off to Paris to make a name for himself: 'The Left Bank, the Artists' Quarter of gay, intellectual, stimulating Paris. A place where talent was recognised, where the conventional was despised, and life was more than a round of drudgery.'
By the time The Rebel gets there, however, he has hardly any money and nowhere to live but by chance he encounters Paul, a struggling English artist who offers him a place at his studio where he can not only stay sharing half the rent but can paint in too. The Rebel, of course, is delighted.

Paul, it turns out, is at the end of his tether; disillusioned at his failure in being recognised as an artist of any merit even amongst his fellow artists of the Left Bank. Being in such a low mood he is impressed by The Rebel's confidant but ultimately meaningless art babble, mistakingly perceiving it to be a totally new and unique perspective on art. Similarly, when he sees The Rebel's paintings, which are essentially childish daubings, he is susceptible to The Rebel's view of them as being a new conception of art.
News of this highly original art master in town soon spreads and on meeting other artists, The Rebel's patter and self confidence wins them all over, blinding them all with his art theories without also revealing the lamentable holes in them.
Disillusioned further by realising how little he knows about art and how minor his own talent is compared to The Rebel's, Paul soon packs his bags and heads back home to England leaving The Rebel's star to ascend ever higher.

A renowned art dealer who has some extremely rich clients on his books pays The Rebel a visit at his studio and is flabbergasted at the art he sees there, believing he's discovered a genius. The problem, however, is that the paintings he's in awe of are actually Paul's and The Rebel's own paintings he dismisses as rubbish. This, of course, puts The Rebel in a dilemma.

Always with the intention of passing the money from the sale of the paintings back to Paul, The Rebel decides there's no harm in basking in the glory for a little while though maintaining the charade without getting into precarious situations proves impossible. His hand is soon forced, and after fleeing from a jealous husband he sets off to find Paul and inform him of everything. The twist in the tale is that since leaving Paris, Paul has continued to paint but has changed his style completely and taking The Rebel as an influence is now producing art far more childish and far worse than The Rebel's ever was. When the renowned art dealer sees it, however, to the consternation of The Rebel, he declares it an absolute work of genius.

The book is written (and the film played, of course) for laughs and it contains some rather good lines. At one point early on in the book, The Rebel's landlady is looking aghast upon his art: 'Well, what do you call this horrible thing?' she asks. 'That' The Rebel snaps 'is a self portrait.' 'What of?' she asks.
Later on in Paris he's invited to a party being held by Existentialists where a woman with green hair and green lipstick informs him of how she's been waiting to meet him for so long. 'I've heard so much about you,' she says 'This new approach to art - the Infantile School, isn't it? It is brilliant. So primitive. It holds messages.' Before going on to explain her Existentialism: 'We believe life is immediate. The future does not exist. Why kill time when you can kill yourself?'
The titles The Rebel gives to his paintings are quite inventive too: Sunset Over Suburbia Reservoir, The Chain Puller's Tibia, Exhaust Fumes on a Wet Thursday Night, Sodium Light on a Left Buttock.

Though written for comedic effect, the book actually makes some interesting points, most notably the idea (from the William Blake school of thought) that it's not the recognition or the monetary gain that's important but the actual act of creativity itself. Anything that anyone does creative is worthwhile because art, as with beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
The film was released in 1961 so Albert Camus would never have seen it as he was killed in a car crash the year before but I do wonder if Jean-Paul Sartre (who is name-checked in the book) ever saw it and what he might have made of it?
I guess it's just one of those things we'll never know.
John Serpico
Action painting!

Friday, 5 June 2015

The Rebel - Albert Camus


So, back to square one. Back to Albert Camus and back to the reason for existence. Oh, what desperate lives we lead! What a merry song and dance it all is as we head toward our execution! Isn't life just one long St Vitus dance in the End of Days?
So what to do? If we care to, how can we make sense of it all? What might give life cause or meaning? 'Find the answer within' said once a man from Liverpool and he wasn't wrong but rather than using our hands to dig as we scrabble around in the dirt, why don't we get ourselves some shovels? Or use dynamite! Anything to just make or blast a hole in the fabric of our being so that we may peer within and find the answer we're seeking. To fall to Hell or soar angelic, try a pinch of psychedelic! I'm using metaphors here, of course, so let's cut to the quick shall we? What I'm really saying is: Read a book.

Having explored the Absurdity of life and the question of suicide in The Myth Of Sisyphus, moving his philosophy forward, Albert Camus delved into the subject of revolt, rebellion and revolution; substituting Descartes' 'I think therefore I am' for 'I rebel therefore we are'. Solitude in an absurd world, he deduced, could turn into significant solidarity.
'What is a rebel?' Camus asks. 'A man who says No: but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation.' he answers. 'He is also a man who says Yes as soon as he begins to think for himself.' In rebelling, a person chooses what is preferable to what is not, and in the process knowledge is born and conscience awakened. An attitude of All or Nothing is adopted and when thinking in absolutes this notion of All or Nothing is an important one. The 'All' that the rebel gains knowledge of might well be obscure and whether it's called freedom or anarchy or whatever, it's still enough to live for, to fight for, and to die for. It's that or the awakened conscience be destroyed by the governing power, be it physical or metaphysical. Better to die on one's feet than to live on one's knees, as my mother once advised me when I was a child - as she loaded petrol bombs into crates during the Brixton riots.

Camus, of course, was a philosopher par excellence who delved deeper than most, so when he writes something like 'I rebel - therefore we exist', you just know it isn't simply a throwaway statement but something that's been arrived at through a lot of very deep thought. The Rebel is that thought, along with the investigation, the critique, the analysis, the blood, the sweat and the tears shed to arrive at such a statement. All captured and laid down in words that flow seamlessly.

Six years it took Camus to write The Rebel and the end result is a work of intellectual genius. Step by step he wades into the mire leaving no stone unturned. Starting with a discourse on metaphysical rebellion he throws up Sade as an ultimate example of someone who rebels against all creation, then throws up Baudellaire as an example of dandyism and rebellion against a world dedicated to death. 'To live and die before a mirror' Baudellaire is quoted as saying but if the mirror is other people then when he's alone there is no mirror, and for the dandy to be alone means not to exist.
As to be expected, Dostoyevsky is introduced as the point at which All or Nothing becomes All or No-one, referring specifically to Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov. Nietzsche is also entertained, with Camus highlighting some of his ingenious conclusions such as God being dead having been killed by Christianity, socialism being only a degenerate form of Christian decadence, and deeds not faith being Christ's real message. Camus, in fact, writes very supportingly of Nietzsche and tries to wrestle him back from Germany's national socialists who claimed him for their own.

For Camus, 1789 and the French Revolution is the point at which the divine right of Kings is done away with, underscored by the execution of Louis XVI. 'We do not want to condemn the King,' says Danton 'We want to kill him.' What is different about this particular regicide, however, is that for the first time it's the principle of the King, not the person that is being attacked because monarchy, as Saint-Just explains, is not a King, it is crime. Not a crime, but crime itself.

Hegel is mulled over and certain aspects of his philosophy pronounced as suspect before shifting attention to Russia where Bakunin is declaring the State as being the incarnation of crime, and is seeking 'the universal and authentically democratic Church of freedom'. Bakunin is eclipsed when it comes to All or Nothing, however, by Nechagev who even Bakunin is taken aback by.
Faced with the unwillingness of the oppressed to rise up with them and march forward to their liberation, the anarchists and revolutionaries stand alone against autocracy and from here individual terrorism is elevated into a principle. This is the point at which terrorists are born.
According to Camus, 1905 marks the highest peak of revolutionary momentum where 'in the midst of a world which rejects them, the anarchists, one after another, like all courageous men, try to reconstruct a brotherhood of man'. But whilst individual terrorism hunts down the last representatives of divine right, State terrorism is getting ready to destroy divine right definitively, at the very root of human society.

So to the rise of the Fascist State as embodied by Hitler's Germany and though it was a revolution of sorts, it was one that had no hope of a future. Rather, it was 'a primitive impulse whose ravages were greater than its real ambitions'. Interestingly, the destruction of Lidice is cited as an example of the utter emptiness of the Nazi, servile soul with only the power to kill and degrade left to fill it in any way. (And for anyone reading this who doesn't know what Lidice is, I would urge them to Google it. Moreover, if anyone doesn't know about Lidice then they perhaps should wonder why - in 2015 - this might be?).

And then to Marx, Lenin and the Russian Revolution - and perhaps the instigating factor for Camus writing The Rebel? Camus knew full well that what he was writing about Marxism was going to lose him friends and gain him enemies, and he was right. Most famously, The Rebel and in particular the criticism of Marxism within its pages caused a fall-out with Sartre that was never repaired - and it's easy to see why. Camus cuts deeply into Russian communism with scalpel precision leaving it dissected on a slab with its guts exposed. It's not a pretty sight. The establishment of the Russian proletarian State and Lenin's admission that there was nothing to guarantee the advent of the higher phase of communism signifies for Camus the death of freedom, leading logically to the betrayal of Makhno and the crushing of the sailors of Krondstadt. (Remember Lidice but don't also ever forget Krondstadt). As Camus puts it in summing up: Fascism represents the exaltation of the executioner by the executioner, whilst Russian communism represents the exaltation of the executioner by the victim.

Can The Rebel be criticised? Of course it can, and Les Temps Modernes under the editorship of Sartre tore it to pieces shortly after it was first published. I do wonder, however, if criticising it serves any purpose? Much better, I suspect, that it be discussed or if it is to be criticised then it be constructive criticism. There's much about The Rebel that warrants thinking about even though since first being published in 1950 the world has moved on somewhat. The Berlin Wall, for a start has since fallen and neo-liberalism is now the order of the day. And not to mention amongst many other things Pol Pot, Year Zero, the Thatcher/Reagan axis, 9/11, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and of late the unswerving ambitions of Islamic State. What Camus wrote in 1950, however, is still absolutely relevant today if not more so. It's even possible to view David Cameron's government through Camus' prism.

Camus was killed in 1960 in a car crash so the world was left never knowing where his genius might have taken him next. What he left the world in the form of The Rebel and all his other books, however, is more than enough to keep us going though it doesn't end there. Camus isn't the be all and end all as there's plenty of other books to read in addition to the ones that he wrote. But he's certainly a good starting point.

John Serpico

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

The Mostar Diving Club


During the recent Exmouth Festival an unknown band (to me, at least) headlined on the Sunday evening who in hindsight can only be described as 'mesmerising'. In the festival programme it described them thus: 'Going against the grain, not only have the band been met with great critical acclaim but their music has also been featured on many TV shows and films. You may not have known the name Mostar Diving Club but you may have heard their songs used by Honda, Visa, Persil, Asda, Greys Anatomy, Castle, various documentaries and films including Waiting For Forever.' Well, I don't watch a lot of television and I'd never heard of them before.

Fronted by a guy looking like a laid-back Jarvis Cocker with a voice like a cross between Babybird and Tim Booth of James, they held sway over the festival for a full hour, keeping it practically on a knife-edge. A large number of the audience clearly wanted something upbeat that they could dance to but the band were having none of it and held them all at bay. It was like a hostage situation developing into Stockholm Syndrome.
The guy sang with such a gentle, beautiful voice accompanied by inventive, sublime music; occupying a space that was totally their own. Like the moment just before the dawn when everything can be either reborn into a new day or come horribly crashing down.

The band were called The Mostar Diving Club.