From Dust cover til Red Dawn
Those of us old enough to remember life in the 1980s will no doubt recall the very real fear of thermonuclear annihilation. We tried to make light of it at the time, with movies like Rocky IV or off-the-cuff black humour – how it was better to be close to ground zero than to suffer the slow, cancerous demise occasioned by a nuclear winter. Still, it haunted us at night. As children, we awoke in cold war sweats, to stare out our bedroom windows and watch imaginary mushroom clouds dominating the night sky.
But as the 80s drew to a close, the fear ended too. David Hasselhoff stood on the Berlin Wall wearing piano keys. And as every non-German marvelled at the fact that Knight Rider could kinda sing, the conflict and angst that defined two generations crumbled into legend. The mighty Soviet Union was reduced to an alcoholic Russian joke, in the person of Boris Yeltsin.
Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
Thus were born the 1990s. A decade when any remaining questions the world had asked about Western dominance seemed to be answered. The slow progression of liberal values looked inevitable. Sure the Third World was still a mess, but give us a bit of time and we’d sort that out too. Bob Geldof was, after all, recording a second version of Band Aid, and after U2’s musical death in a custom-graffittied Trabant, Bono was soon to reveal himself at Emmaus.
And so slipped by the Golden Decade. Our thoughts turned to home affairs perhaps, with only a distracting glance in Dan Rather’s direction, to see if the glove fitted on OJ’s hand, or if the cigar fitted into Monika Lewinsky’s … version of events. The news had become a light distraction, a welcome interruption from the humdrum of our civilisation’s happy ending.
As you undermine our security, we undermine yours
And with a whiff of not-too-genuine concern about the Y2K bug, we set about partying like it’s 1999. But the Golden Decade had a little more to give. Which is why we failed to brace for impact when, 20 months later, it all came crashing down in a heap of dust and debris, and a new shadow swept over the West – the spectre of Islamic terrorism. Like the current crisis, the reality of terrorist threats was nothing near as deadly as our overreaction to it – in this sense the terrorists succeeded in every goal they had. With a couple of box cutters, they got us to submit to any and all kinds of security checks, extraordinary rendition or the waging of reckless, endless war on petty despots and the civilians they oppressed. The enduring impact of 9/11 was not the bullets of Kalishnikov-wielding theocrats, but the subtle abandonment of our liberal values; the precedent that when our fear is great enough, we will throw away everything we pretended to hold dear.
Rohan, my lord, is ready to fall
After this traumatic early childhood, the Millenium’s awakening into teenagerdom was little better. There was no single drama that defined the crappiness of the 2010s, rather we were caught in an emotional pinser movement by three slow-moving threats: Immigration, Climate Angst and the inequality which followed the Great Recession. What belief we might once have had in our own civilisation was just about thoroughly beaten down, and as any casual glimpse at the Netflix catalogue will reveal, by mid-decade we could hardly imagine any kind of fiction that didn’t sport the adjective ‘dystopian’. We valued our democracies as little as we valued our data, all to be given away for trinkets in the clouds. We were ready for something like Donald Trump’s tweets. Oh and we got them. We got Rachel Maddow in ‘literal’ [sic.] hysterics over imagined Russian collusion. We got slick, Youtube-ready comedians dispensing sanatised, corporatist Identity Politics by the sound bite. And we kept giving away our privacy to enjoy more of the show.
This background helps us make sense of the madness that is 2020 – how a seemingly mighty tree can topple with only a slight gust of wind, once its core has been allowed to rot away for twenty years. How three hundred years of enlightment principles could be uprooted in a single storm.
Rediscovering the lost decade
And it’s also why, looking back on them now, the 1990s seem so damn appealing. It’s why Nineties-stalgia is the way to go. I defy anyone to tune in to the first few seasons of Friends and not find themselves longing for a time when music sucked but we still had public payphones. Your job might have been a joke, you might have been broke, but if you were young in the 1990s, Western Civilisation was there for you.
Even better than Friends is Dawson’s Creek. Not actually ‘better’. The scripting is at times painfully bad, the accoustic underscores are suburban coffee-shop cringeworthy and the teenagers are, even by the standards of the Golden Decade, implausibly articulate and self-confident. But it is the most perfect encapsulation of the optimism that came to those who grew up in the long Indian summer of a victorious empire.
One that did not yet see its downfall coming.
Life is that time you played
What started out as hide-and-seek
Then someone added Nerf guns
Secret bases, boys-vee-girls
And finally a rope swing and a dare
Water so cold it warmed the after-swimming air.
Treats meant to last the week eaten then and there.
Nothing ever tasted so sweet.
No one saw the June sun duck below the trees
behind the river line.
Well past supper time!
On legs sore from running you nonetheless peeled
Across the fields
To a half-meant ‘sorry momma’, and a half-cold spaghetti meal.
Life is the buzzing sound
From music played too loud
And the noise of the college crowd.
That lingers still in ears and on your clothes
All down September’s rain-painted side-walk home,
Reminds you of that second pint,
The little smile she bore you
Sideways, mid sentence to her friends,
That might – just might – some future night, blossom into much, much more.
Life is those endless minutes waiting, anticipating
The breaking of the swept and polished order of long-kept
Knick-knacks, unmoved since last They stormed the door;
That in two violent minutes of shedding little coats and mittens triggered
More noise than needles make in all the winter weeks of knitting new ones, one size bigger.
Then They finally appear, you find
Little faces so filled with Now and so in likeness of Their parent-child, standing, smiling just behind,
It calls to mind, every school lunch prepared, every memory shared
and all those times bygone.
This rich reward, this weekend chaos, is the reason why you struggle on.
Life is never ‘staying safe’,
Waiting, clutching to existence,
Until every living risk fades to nothing.
It happened the other day, while I was reading George du Maurier’s Trilby, that a young man asked me whether I read mainly fiction or non-fiction – his preference clearly being for the latter. I answered the former, and had to supress within me a slight sense of shame. Does the fiction reader not, after all, sunbathe in supercillious fantasy while lazing on the beach; whereas the non-fiction reader applies his mind to the ‘hard facts’?
Maybe it is engrained in us to think so. But the distinction is shallow and meaningless when you dig a little deeper. For one thing, if 2020 has anything to teach us, it is that the ‘hard facts’, even those that are as hard as rock, are so numerous and tiny that they give way to the cudgel of dogma and zealotry, like grains of sand on that very same beach. One eye-catching event, propelled by the right algorithms, can trump an entire discipline of rigorous empiricism.
Non-fiction can easily fall into the trap of pretending the ‘castle of truth’ which the author has built up is structurally sound. Fiction, as written from the perspective of the narrator, or better still, the third persons who inhabit the narration, harbours no such pretense of architectural stability. The reader knows that the truth on which a novel is based is a shifty one; changing with the tide and giving way to the footprints left by the author’s own biases, those of his characters and those of the reader.
In this respect, a book like ‘Trilby’ helps us gain perspective on the ‘truthiness’ of our own age. It places fantastical events in a historical and subjective context, and in doing so removes us from the fantastical context of our own time, allowing us to regard these as no less subjective and ephemeral.
At the time of its publication, ‘Trilby’ was a sensation – the ‘Da Vinci Code’ of its day. Upon reading it, it’s easy to see why. Borrowing with self-effacing openness from Thackery, Dickens and Dumas, this festival of vanity, a tale set in Two Cities, chronicles the adventures of three very British ‘musketeers of the brush’ (artists) and their acquaintance with the Anglo-Irish Parisian washerwoman of the title. The narrative is light and fun, rich in the tradition of turn-of-the-Century satirists like Wilde or Saki. The plot is compelling, though perhaps somewhat too linear for modern tastes.
Mostly though, I read it as an antidote to the irrationality and illiberalism of the dominant ‘Liberal’ world view. If we must inhabit sand castles in order to have a coherent frame of reference, let’s at least decorate them with the colourful seashells of funny, well-written Victorian prose.
I came across this poem that I’d written ten years ago to mark the passing of Gary Gygax – creator of Dungeons & Dragons
Eulogy For A Dungeon Master
Countless the basements
You transformed to caverns;
Nameless the kitchen tables
fabled, formed as tabled taverns
Where a pimply 16 year old
Did his best
to bluff the role
Of rugged half-elf grimly
Assigning the next quest or tale
From o’er the rim
Of a dinted pint of frothy ginger ale.
We saw not the chinks
In our own teen-male armour
Nor did we stop to think
If days of playing roles might harm our
Hold on a real world so much more alarming
Than a hoard of charging orcs.
For in that four foot table space
Of paper, dice and figures made of lead
There thrived a truly magic place
where teenies meek were brave instead.
No slick slew of game designers needed we
No 3-D graphics, LANs or fancy Wiis.
With one hardbound spellbook you made the spark
That filled our teenage years with something more
than boredom and a high school pecking order.
Maybe your DM’s rolled a 20 now
Or just grew up and found
a girl, a job, a better place in whatever
World is real to Him.
And in a box in some cosmic attic
Your long forgotten character sheet
Will fade to dust, crumpled up against
An old SAT study guide.
But know this, Gary Gygax:
In every memory that still persists
In every fighter, cleric, thief or mage
Reborn upon a line-ruled page
A piece of you comes back to life.
And so we say adieu and thanks
Until we meet again as NPCs.
When you get used to reading inferior books, even a nibble of a great masterpiece can challenge your digestive system in ways that cause stomach cramps. Franz Kafka is no light read. After a diet of heavily processed modern literature, Franz Kafka’s The Trial is as hard to digest as a meal of wholegrain rice and raw vegetables would be to a junk food aficionado. And yet like its gastronomical equivalent, Kafka’s prose stays with you and nourishes you much longer.
Though hard to digest, The Trial is not hard to chew. The prose is in fact deceptively accessible, inviting the reader into a world that is familiar enough, and well rendered enough, to suspend one’s disbelief, despite the many incongruities that make that world so intriguing and so mysterious. This, indeed, is the fine art of surrealism: To lure the reader with hyper-realistically crafted descriptions into the acceptance of things he might otherwise dismiss as simply absurd.
But unlike, say, a Magritte painting, Kafka’s Trial does not stop at flaunting absurdity. Instead, it takes the reader well beyond the ridiculous into something far more dangerous, as we accompany Joseph K., our middle-aged protagonist, on his descent into insanity. We begin our journey in his bedroom, following him into the bank at which he holds a mid-ranking position, into a farcical courtroom and through the various sordid relationships that belie his repressed sexuality. At no point are we sure of what is truly real and what is a projection of his mental illness. Yet the quality of the prose is such that we can glimpse through the cracks in the protagonist’s madness the light of a more solid world; one that is just beyond his grasp, the existence of which is indispensable for us to appreciate what Joseph K. is experiencing.
The narrative device which Kafka uses to set up this surreality is the bureaucracy of a modern judicial system. This is particularly effective for any reader who has had the displeasure of knowing the vagaries of an inefficient and often self-contradictory public administration; in particular, the infuriating functioning of the legal system. Bureaucracies really are insane, which makes it all the easier for us to accept what Joseph K. is going through. Yet we are reminded at regular intervals that this device is only a metaphor, and that the trial, the court which hosts it and the many court attendants we meet throughout the story, are all of the protagonist’s own making.
It’s possible, if one reads about Kafka’s life, to draw parallels and seek explanations for this or that aspect of the book. But I feel doing so adds nothing to the reader’s experience. My best advice is to sit down at the table, clear your palate and take small and deliberate bites.
But be prepared to spend a lot of time digesting.
Should old acquaintance be forgot…
New Year’s for most of us has been more a question of ringing out the Old Year, rather than ringing in the New. It’s more or less universally accepted that 2016 has been a crummy one, at least within my circle of acquaintances. One particular feature has been the remarkable number of deaths, with George Michael and Carrie Fischer being but the last in a long list of casualties claimed by that angry teenager, Not-so-sweet ’16.
However, in actual fact, as a proportion of the total population, fewer people died in 2016 than in 2015. What’s more: as a percentage of the population, fewer people died in 2016 than in any year in the history of humankind. That’s right: In 2016, 0.76% of humans on earth kicked the bucket. By contrast, back in the ‘good ol’ days’ of say, 1960, that number was a whopping 1.77%. If you went back a Century, when the Great War was raging, it might have been closer to 3 or 4%. So in fact 2016 was the safest year ever to be a living human being.
This was thanks to lower infant mortality rates, better access to medicine, improved diets and – despite what has happened in Syria and a few other places – overall a reduction in violent death.
Adieu to the former artist formerly known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.
But the good news doesn’t seem to apply if you were a celebrity. The BBC has a good article which tracks obituaries for 2016 compared to previous years and yes, we’re not all just imagining it: The hard data backs up the commonly held opinion that 2016 has been a grim year for the rich and famous.
Which got me thinking about why we care so much. Why does it matter to us that someone – a singer or an actor – has passed away? Sure, they produced art which gave joy to our lives. But in almost all of these cases, the people in question were well past their artistic primes. And the art they gave us can still be enjoyed, even if they have now moved on to the Great Dressing Room in the Sky. Yet we seem to care, not just about their art, but about them, as people.
Which on the face of it is very weird. It hardly needs saying, but these people are strangers to us. We don’t know them personally, they certainly don’t know us or even want to know us, and even if by some freak chance we found ourselves snowed in to an alpine cabin in the company of a selection of Hollywood A-listers, we would quickly discover that they have nothing in common with us. So instead of cursing 2016 for the handful of complete strangers it has taken away, why don’t we choose to raise a glass of New Year’s bubbly and thank 2016 for sparing our friends and family?
Thou shall have no other gods before me, except perhaps the Kardashians
Of course we are grateful for our loved ones. But the fact is, celebs do matter to us. They fulfil a need which appears to be very human, that is, the role of the idol. This is nothing new to our age. The desire of the masses to look up to quasi-real demi-gods and follow their every movements is as old as mankind itself. Is our fascination with Angelina Jolie’s shocking decision to divorce Brad Pitt not the same kind as what the ancient Greeks must have felt about the decision by the mythological Jason, leader of the Argonauts, to divorce the powerful Witch-Princess Medea of Colchis, in order to tie the knot with the Corinthian princess Glauce? Did the plebs of Ancient Rome look upon Cleopatra any differently to the way the plebs of New York saw Marilyn Monroe? And the Hollywood Walk of Fame, can it not be seen upon the walls of any Catholic church, in the form of a star-studded line-up of Academy Award-winning saints?
In a sense, it is the decline in religion which has left a void in us; a void we seek to fill through celebrity culture. The image of callipygous Freya, the most beautiful female form imaginable, riding in a chariot pulled by two great cats through the Norse woods, together with her omnipotent husband Odin, is lost to us. But in its place we have bootylicious Kim and her theomaniac husband Kanye, riding in a sleek SUV along the highways of Los Angeles.
There’s one degree of separation between me and you: Kevin Bacon
And yet, while celebrity idolatry may always have served the purpose of setting a distant horizon to our plebeian ambitions, it seems that in recent years, the phenomenon has grown even more pervasive . I speculate that this is because, as cities become more vast and anonymous, and society more fragmented, we feel an ever larger yearning within ourselves to have something that connects us. With greater labour mobility and smaller families, more and more of us are moving about, lonely and disconnected. Shared references and common history are scarce, lost in the back of a rented U-Haul truck. Yet celebrities can restore that bond. We all know these beautiful super-humans from our one common altar – the TV screen. Taking an interest in their fate, becoming intimately acquainted with their ridiculously-named offspring and keeping track of their drug addictions and failed marriages becomes a vital source of shared reference. In the cold urban jungle, it is a comfort to me to think that while I may not know my neighbours, at least I know that they are watching the Oscars too. These saintly figures who float down the red carpets, in a mythological universe that seems planets away; they are the one true bond between us plebs.
The Art of Joy
The thought has often occurred to me that there is an imbalance in the way we value artistic quality, when it comes to rendering negative versus positive emotions. The expression through art of negative emotions is very often seen by critics and the public as particularly laudable. Poignant, gripping, gut-wrenching. One only needs to look at the cinematic offerings that plague the screens of Arthouse movie theatres the world over. Most are dreary, depressing affairs, detailing sordid experiences which culminate in unimaginable tragedy. And we, the middle class connoisseurs, gush appreciation as we discuss the deeper meaning behind this vitriol, in between snatches from the circulating plate of canapés and sips from our glasses of Pinot Grigio.
In reality of course, the portrayal of misery on screen or through other artistic media is not particularly challenging, at least to the extent that it provokes some sort of strong emotional reaction in the viewer. That is because our brains are hard-wired to react to negative images, which in an evolutionary sense might signal threats to our safety or well-being. We quite literally respond more quickly to negativity. As a result, fear and distaste are perhaps the easiest emotions for an artist to excite in his audience (with the possible exception of the titillation provoked by pornography). Consider the multitude of poor quality horror films out there. Even mediocre acting, direction and cinematography are no deterrent to the achievement of their intended effect – to make us recoil from the abhorrent.
What is much more difficult to convey artistically – and hence what I consider to be a higher form of art – is the opposite: Moments of pure, unadulterated joy or quiet contentment. In art as in real life, joy is something elusive. It is fleeting and often only retrospective. Do you for instance remember that summer’s day, when you were perhaps seven or eight, and you played badminton in the park with your cousins? Late in the afternoon, someone produced a five pound note which some auntie or other had bestowed for the general good of the group, and you all ran, barefoot, towards the jingle of the ice cream truck that pulled up at the gate to the park? The sun was low in the sky when finally you all crossed the bridge of stones that led back to your uncle’s house, where the smell of fish and chips awakened in you an appetite you had been too busy to realise you had? Of course you remember that day. It was perhaps the happiest of your life. But the very fact of this happy day is only something you have registered in retrospect, which itself evokes a certain melancholy…If you were to describe that day in art – a sequence of images perhaps – how hard would it be to convey that youthful, carefree spirit, without seeming banal or clichéd!
For contentment, the case is even more difficult. To be content is to be free of negative experience or feeling, and an absence is a thing very hard for an artist to capture and convey.
This thought is not new to me, and I daresay it’s been pondered by many’s an artist or writer before me. But it returned to me in full force the other day, as I chanced to visit, in the company of my brother, a museum dedicated to the works of the iconic 20th Century American artist Norman Rockwell, whose work my snobbery had previously always dismissed as “mere illustration”.
How wrong I was to do so. Rockwell, more than any artist I know, captures the elusive quality of joy in many of his paintings in ways ‘greater’ artists would surely struggle to emulate. The happiness in his work is inescapable, and doubtless contributed in no small measure to the mythos of the golden age that was 1950s America. One such scene is “The Runaway”, in which a friendly Massachusetts State Trooper converses earnestly with a little boy who has run away from home and made it as far as the high counter stool of the local diner. As the two speak, the grubby waiter behind the counter listens in and can barely contain his mirth. We imagine their conversation: perhaps the boy is explaining to the policeman his plans to join the circus and become a famous trapeze artist. We know the trooper will be taking note of the encounter in the little black book we see tucked into his rear pocket. He will be sure to check in with the boy’s parents that evening, just to make certain the truant has returned home safely before it gets dark. The image is basked in an air of familiarity, comfort and benevolence that makes the soul sing.
As my brother and I paced the halls of the museum, we briefly debated whether or not the happy sentiment Rockwell was leaving us with could be considered artistically valid. After all, so much of what is styled serious art is bent on reminding us that the human soul is a tortured thing; that doom is our natural condition. Yet why is joy not as valid an emotion as suffering?
In my opinion, joy is just as valid as its negative counterpart. Let Rockwell’s paintings be an inspiration to us all. Fellow artists: Let’s try to paint, compose or write some happiness. Make your audience feel your joy.