Archive for February, 2016

The Picasso of hip-hop

Aficionados of Laurel and Hardy will need no recap of this scene, but on the off-chance that there are some readers out there who are not aficionados – and such readers really should have a word with themselves – I’ll describe it anyway. It occurs quite early in the short film Below Zero. Stan and Ollie are out in the snow and ice, busking in the bitter cold, and singing, rather incongruously, “In the Good Old Summertime”. A passer-by hits Ollie in the face with a snowball, and Ollie, after stoically allowing the snow to fall from his face, sets out to confront his assailant. But at this point, Stan holds him back with the sage advice, “Ignore him: he is just one of the lower elements”.

It is a piece of advice that I am often told I should take myself. That there are bound to be, I am told, all sorts of things that will enrage me for all sorts of reasons: ignoring them is by far the best option. And the fact is, I do. Most of the time, at any rate. But every now and then there comes that proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, and I can no longer ignore. After all, I say to myself, I have a blog at my disposal, and the very least I can do is to go there and let off some steam about it.

And so, while instances of my forbearance pass by unnoticed, the instances of my rage do not, and, over the years, the blog becomes filled with intemperate rants. As a consequence, far from being perceived as the gentle, avuncular soul that I think I am, radiating a warm conviviality and a quite Pickwickian goodwill to one and all, I show myself instead to be a bitter and angry hothead, forever at or near the boiling point. It is all most unfortunate, but what can one do?

The straw that has most recently broken my camel-back may be considered by many to be too slight a matter to get very upset about. Well, of course it is: it is but a straw, after all. But it is nonetheless an example of the sheer witless drivel and inane triviality into which mainstream commentary on the arts has sunk, and which, yes, I confess, does enrage me. Here it is. It is taken from the arts pages of a serious and prestigious British newspaper, the Guardian, and is written by one of their regular arts columnists.

(For those of you who do not want to give the Guardian website extra hits, the headline reads “Is Kanye West Hip-Hop’s Greatest Cubist?” and the sub-heading reads “Whether West’s latest album The Life of Pablo is a homage to Picasso or not, the two artists share a genius for presenting the world in creative collage”. Both the headline and the sub-heading are entirely consistent with the gobbledegook that follows.)

Now, those readers who think that Kanye West is possessed not merely of genius, but of genius of such magnitude that bracketing him with Picasso is not incongruous, and that to question genius such as his is but elitist and snobbish, and even, perhaps, racist, may well be wondering what I could possibly have found in all this that is enraging. I won’t argue those points. “Why Picasso Is a Greater Artist than Kanye West” is a post that a blogger with greater patience than I possess may care to write: I do not wish to go there myself. Rather, I would like to focus on matters I find more interesting – such as why and how we have come to the stage where professional writers plying their craft in mainstream and prestigious papers can pen such embarrassing nonsense without so much as batting an eyelid.

Not so long ago – at least, an oldie such as I can remember those halcyon days – arts commentators had a fairly fixed idea of what constitutes “art”. Michelangelo and Rembrandt, Dante and Shakespeare, Bach and Beethoven – not only are they “great”, but they, and others like them, define what greatness is; and our part is not to question, but to take the time and have the patience and make the effort to understand. Of course, this was never going to last very long in an age such as ours that is, often for very valid reasons, suspicious of and frequently hostile to the very concept of authority. Also, it was pointed out, such an approach to the arts excluded the immense contributions made to the enrichment of our lives by popular art: it is blinkered, at best, to sing the praises of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko while ignoring a popular artist such as, say, Edward Hopper; it is foolish to consider the art of fiction by focussing on Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, but overlooking Agatha Christie and P. G. Wodehouse; and that if we are to talk about the art of song-writing, why focus on Schumann and Mahler and Berg but leave out Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Bob Dylan, Lennon & McCartney? These are all entirely valid points: to exclude the popular, merely on the grounds that it is popular, is certainly snobbery.

But not excluding merely on the basis of popularity is not quite the same as praising on the basis of popularity. If popularity is deemed the principal, or even the sole, criterion of artistic merit, then  sales figures alone determine quality; judgement and discernment then become pointless, and there is really nothing further to talk about. And that, it seems to me, is where we have arrived: arts pages, even in prestigious publications, are filled with utter garbage simply because there is nothing further to talk about. It is not so much that discourse on the arts has become diminished – it has become meaningless. And, even taking Stan’s advice on board, it does become difficult, at least for myself, to keep ignoring this, for, after a while, constantly ignoring it is effectively to condone it. One can at least express one’s dissent – even if it is just a post on a personal blog that not many people will even read.

So is Kanye West really the Picasso of Hip-Hop? Yes, absolutely – why not? As I said, I don’t want to argue that point. So let Kanye West be the Picasso of hip-hop by all means! But only if the Carpenters can be the Proust of Easy Listening.

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Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

I seem to have started this year immersed in late Shakespeare. First, there was the cinema broadcast of Kenneth Branagh’s fine production of The Winter’s Tale. And, in a fit of bank-balance-depleting enthusiasm late last year, I bought myself tickets to all three of the late threesome (I hesitate to call it a “trilogy”) of Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, that beautiful little theatre attached to the Globe that attempts to recreate the environment in which these plays would originally have been performed. I reported on their production of Cymbeline a few weeks ago, and, earlier this week, I was back there to see The Winter’s Tale. The Tempest will follow in a couple of weeks’ time.

(The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse are also putting on the late play Pericles, and perhaps I should have gone along to that too: but I refuse to believe that Shakespeare wrote more than a few scenes at most of that work; and, further, my bank balance was in a parlous state as it was…)

I find these plays fascinating, but maddeningly, sometimes frustratingly, elusive. Cymbeline has particularly puzzled me. When I first wrote about it in this blog, I presented it as a work in which Shakespeare was setting out in a new direction, but in which he had not quite found his feet; that he was experimenting, though not always successfully. When I read that post again before sitting down to write this, I found myself embarrassed by my presumption. That Shakespeare was moving into a new direction – a direction already foreshadowed, incidentally, by the earlier All’s Well That Ends Well – is undeniable, but the more I read that play, the more certain I am that the old boy knew precisely what he was doing.

The production I saw last month at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse seemed to confirm this: for all the play’s manifold absurdities – none of them, I think, unintentional – Cymbeline, in performance, came across as a cogent and highly satisfactory piece of theatre. As in All’s Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare seemed fascinated by the plotlines and the conventions of the fairy tale: this was, in many ways, Shakespeare’s re-writing of the story of Snow White (variations of which, I gather, had been widespread long before the Brothers Grimm included it in their collection). To the fairy story element, Shakespeare added knockabout humour – an element that the production I saw played up to the hilt. Nonetheless, through all this, we seemed transported at points into what I can only describe as another dimension. I am not sure how this happened.

Cymbeline ends – as do, in their different ways, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest – in reconciliation and in joy: it seems as if Shakespeare, having depicted in his tragedies the darkest of visions, looked beyond the tragic in his late plays; but what he glimpsed when he looked beyond remains, though wondrous, enigmatic and elusive.

Of the three plays, I tend to find The Winter’s Tale the most approachable. By that I mean this this is the play I think I understand best. This is in no small measure due to the first half of the play returning us with the utmost force back into the world of his earlier tragedies. And yet, there is a difference. When thinking about the earlier tragedies, we must, if our thought is to be more than merely superficial, consider the source and the nature of the evil that is depicted as engulfing humanity; but in The Winter’s Tale, neither the source nor the nature is debatable: they just are – brute facts, beyond analysis, beyond discussion, beyond thought. The evil emerges from nowhere: Leontes is Iago to his own Othello. It wreaks havoc, destroying all in its path: never has Yeats’ famous line “the ceremony of innocence is drowned” seemed more appropriate. And, having destroyed all in its path, it disappears as mysteriously as it had appeared. There’s no point looking for reason here: it’s all beyond reason. And as the first half ends, and we emerges dazed into the interval, what we have witnessed seems to challenge us: after such evil, what reconciliation?

We can never tell whether or not Shakespeare knew Greek. There certainly were scholars of Greek in London – Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson, for a start – and it is not, I think, stretching credulity too far to imagine that Shakespeare, given his literary curiosity and his mastery of language, may well have taken the trouble of learning Greek, and reading its literature. We simply do not know. But, whether by design or by accident, this first half of The Winter’s Tale seems to me to be in many ways a recasting of Euripides’ Heracles: there, too, we see a man in the grips of an irrational madness, and who, beset by delusions, destroys that which is most precious to him – his own family; and, having done this, the sanity cruelly returns, so he has now to live not merely with his loss, but also with his guilt. At this point, Euripides’ play ends, but Shakespeare was determined to pursue the drama further: the end he has in sight seems to look towards another play by Euripides – Alcestis, which finishes, like The Winter’s Tale, with a dead queen brought back from the dead, and with subsequent reconciliation. The question is how to work one’s way to such an ending from the total devastation with which the first half finishes.

Shakespeare’s solution is a curious one, and one that I am not sure I quite understand: he negotiates the path back from tragedy to reconciliation through a pastoral, through song and dance, and through earthy, rustic comedy. Admittedly, the sudden outburst of rage from Polixenes threatens even here to turn the plot back towards the tragic, but that possibility is quickly averted. The knockabout humour continues even into the final act, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, Shakespeare rounds off the drama with a scene that is miraculous in all respects: Hermione is miraculously restored to life, and, for reasons which seem to defy analysis, the audience miraculously accepts this. I don’t think I have come across any other scene in any other plays that conveys such a sense of wonder.

I have seen quite a few productions of The Winter’s Tale now, both on stage and on screen, but I don’t think I have seen any that projects, as this production does, the horror of the first half with such unremitting power. As I sat there watching the scenes I thought I already knew, I could almost physically feel a knot in my stomach, tightening. The closing scenes of that first half were particularly affecting: the candles – the entire hall is lit only by candles – all went out, the physical darkness engulfing us an apt metaphor for the spiritual darkness; and Antigonus, charged with abandoning the newborn baby in the wilderness, entered with the helpless child, lit only by a hand-held lantern. Some commentators have suggested that the infamous “Exit, pursued by a bear” should be played for laughs, but this production, quite rightly, doesn’t go for that. Instead, a terrifying bear-like shape moves vaguely in the profound darkness behind Antigonus, and the lantern extinguishes, leaving the entire hall in utter darkness. And then, the audience, still in utter darkness, hears the eerie moans of Antigonus’ mariners perishing in the shipwreck. Nature itself seems to be taking its revenge, indiscriminately, on errant mankind. And I, for one, could not help asking myself: after this, what reconciliation can be possible?

I must admit that the long, pastoral fourth act, with its knockabout comedy, continues to puzzle me. It all works in the theatre, and for many, that is a justification in itself. Perhaps it is I who am at fault for trying to rationalize that which is beyond rational thought.

The joy engendered in the final scene always seems to me a subdued joy: it acknowledges rather than banishes the tragedy. Productions at the Globe Theatre – and in the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, its indoor venue – end, as the original productions seemingly did, with an elaborate dance in which the entire cast takes part, but, after the subdued nature of the final scene, I could have wished the dance here to have been less exuberant. Such exuberance as was conveyed seems not to fit with what had gone before: a solemn dance would, I think, have been more appropriate. But if that indeed was a false step, it was the only false step in the entire production. Everything else about it seemed perfect: John Light’s frightening portrayal of the mad Leontes; Rachel Stirling’s passionate Hermione; the compassionate Antigonus of David Yelland; the superbly feisty Paulina of Niamh Cusack (whom I had seen all of thirty years ago playing Juliet at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre); the earthiness of the pastoral comedy; and, of course, the splendidly judged direction of Michael Longhurst. I do not think I’ll see a better production of this play. The power and intensity of the first half, especially, will henceforth remain, I suspect, firmly etched in my mind.

Two weeks later, I am back in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to see The Tempest, another late play that I find elusive. Having now seen the other two late plays of this late threesome, expectations are, I admit, very high.

“The Heat of the Day” by Elizabeth Bowen

This was not what I had expected.

I had been expecting a spy thriller. That is not to say I wasn’t expecting seriousness of purpose, but, as various authors have demonstrated, spy thrillers need not eschew seriousness. I have, indeed, heard of this book specifically referred to as a spy thriller. The way the plot is set up leads one to expect a work of narrative tension: during the Blitz, a man claiming to be a government agent tells a woman that she will have to sleep with him if she wants to protect her lover, who is known to be supplying secrets to the enemy. Not, perhaps, the most original of set-ups: it is reminiscent of, amongst other things, the plotline of Puccini’s Tosca. But it’s certainly a most promising start to a thriller. And given such a set-up, I was expecting, as they say, a rollicking good read, full of tension and generating a narrative momentum.

In the event, I got neither. It didn’t really take too long to figure out that Elizabeth Bowen, a consummate writer of short stories, is more interested in situation rather than in plot. She can communicate atmosphere, describe the inner workings of the mind, depict characters interacting with each other; but what she isn’t interested in doing is moving the plot forward, creating tension, or even generating some kind of narrative momentum. It can, of course, be argued that momentum isn’t merely pace: it is a product of velocity and mass, and what the narrative lacks in the former it can compensate with the latter. For Bowen’s prose certainly has great “mass” to it: it is intricately wrought, subtly nuanced, and laden with imagery; but it is so lacking in pace that, even with its mass, the momentum generated is negligible.

After a few chapters, I had to re-adjust my expectations. There is, after all, no point criticising a novel for not being something it never set out to be in the first place. But even with my expectations re-adjusted, I must confess I came across grave difficulties.

My main difficulty concerned the shaping of the novel. In the first chapter, Louie, a young working class girl whose husband is serving in the army, tries to flirt with a man at an open air concert in Regent’s Park, and is rebuffed. The impression is given in this chapter that it is Louie who is the novel’s principal character, but after this chapter, she disappears from the novel entirely until she appears in another chapter about half way through.

Neither is the man with whom she tries to flirt the novel’s central character. The true central character, introduced in the second chapter, is the person whom the man at the open-air concert visits after having rebuffed Louie. And it is here, I suppose, the “plot”, such as it is, gets going. The man gives his name as Harrison, and he tells Stella, the woman he is visiting, of her lover’s treasonous activities; and makes to her his indecent proposal on how she could save him. Even at this stage, I thought this would be a spy thriller, and that the earlier focus on Louie had simply been to wrong-foot the reader – as a good spy thriller should. But it wasn’t. After this chapter, instead of moving the plot forward, we are taken backwards rather than forwards: we have a long flashback, in the course of which any narrative tension generated is allowed to dissipate. Then we have a long chapter describing a visit to the family home of Stella’s lover, and by this stage, the spy-thriller element that had been introduced earlier seems entirely forgotten. And so on.

I got the picture: this was not a plot-led novel. Fine, I could take that – but it did leave me rather puzzled as to why the spy-thriller element had been introduced in the first place. It also left me puzzled about Louie: why give her so central a role in the first chapter and then allow her to disappear from the novel till we’re some half-way through it? And when she does appear half way through, we see her inhabiting a world quite disconnected with that inhabited by the other characters. I appreciate that the plot is not the point here, but I couldn’t really see any thematic connection either between the different strands; and I couldn’t help wondering what purpose Louie served in the novel.

Louie appears again towards the end of the novel, and this time, she meets with Stella, but it’s a rather inconsequential meeting: nothing much leads up to it, and nothing much comes out of it either. Of course, it is entirely valid for a novel to have more than a single centre of gravity, but such novels are big, multi-stranded novels – Bleak House, War and Peace, and the like; in a novel of a mere three hundred or so pages, as this one is, structural unity tends to demand that there be one single centre of gravity, with, perhaps, a few orbiting satellites – subsidiary strands related to, but less important than, the principal one. In this novel, Stella clearly forms the novel’s centre of gravity, but the various satellites that orbit around her seem so tenuously related, that one wonders why they have all been forced together in the same work.

For instance, we are taken to Stella’s lover’s family home, and introduced to his authoritarian mother and to his rather bumptious sister, but once again, I couldn’t figure out what part they play in the novel: they certainly don’t advance the plot (Bowen seems to have lost interest in the plot almost as soon as she has introduced it), and neither do they advance the work thematically, or even, I think, in terms of character. We are taken to Ireland, where Stella’s son has inherited some property, and are introduced to a new set of characters: once again, they seem unrelated either to the central plot or to the novel’s principal themes. Elizabeth Bowen is fine in depicting atmosphere and describing situations, but a novel needs to be more than what seems to me a series of more or less random collection of situations: these situations never seem to cohere into a satisfying unity.

There were also certain sudden shifts of narrative perspective that I found jarring. Most of the novel has Stella at its centre, and it is Stella’s mind that we principally occupy. Yet, in one chapter very conspicuously isolated from the rest, we have Stella’s son, Roderick – who is mostly a character on the periphery of the novel’s action – meeting with a cousin who had not appeared earlier in the novel, and who is forgotten about immediately afterwards. And the entire purpose of this curious chapter is to impart to the reader a detail of the plot. Admittedly, this plot detail does give us an insight into Stella’s character, but setting the whole thing up in so elaborate (and so disruptive) a manner simply to give us a plot detail – and this in a novel in which the plot is relatively unimportant – seems to me clumsy in the extreme.

And what of Stella herself? We are given the impression that she is an intelligent and thoughtful person, and are taken quite deeply into her mind. And yet, although she works in some government department, she never thinks about her work, and we, the reader, never get to find out what exactly her work is. Neither does she think about the war. When her lover, towards the end of the novel, spouts his fascist ideology, she appears to have no response, either spoken, or in her thoughts. Had she opposed fascist ideology, she would have been repulsed; had she supported fascism, she would have been in agreement; had she been ambivalent about fascism, she would have had some shade of reaction in between; but not to have any response at all seems to indicate that she has never even thought about fascism. And it is simply not credible for an intelligent person living during the Blitz, with Nazis just across the channel threatening to invade, never even to have thought about the nature of fascism. It is all very well praising Bowen for entering so well into the mind of Stella, and delving so deeply into her consciousness, but if, after all that delving, all one finds are the trivial thoughts of a trivial person, the one can’t help wondering what the point is.

Of course, yes, the book is not devoid of merits. The atmosphere of the Blitz is very strikingly conveyed; there are many subtle parallels drawn between various characters; there is a sense also of time itself distended: there are references throughout to time, to watches and clocks, and to photographs that freeze moments in time, and so on – all those things that book groups take delight in spotting and which earn bonus marks when laid out in school essay assignments. But what purpose all this serves, I do not know.

***

I normally do not write about books I do not like, as, quite apart from anything else, I don’t want to rain, as the bowdlerised saying goes, on anyone’s parade. And one tends not be too perceptive about things one doesn’t like: I am sure I have missed a lot here. I am sure that were I to look at this novel from a different perspective, I would find many riches. I know this because this novel has many admirers, and, presumably, they admire it because they find things in it that I couldn’t. I’d be very happy to hear from such admirers: it’s not that I will necessarily change my mind about this novel, but I would genuinely like to know why this novel is so admired. I myself have often admired many of Bowen’ short stories, but I’m afraid I could find little here other than a misshapen and unfocussed narrative.

The Poo of Chairman Mao

In the third part of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver visits the scientific academy at Lagado, where, amongst various outlandish studies and experiments, he comes across this:

Another professor showed me a large paper of instructions for discovering plots and conspiracies against the government. He advised great statesmen to examine into the diet of all suspected persons; their times of eating; upon which side they lay in bed; with which hand they wipe their posteriors; take a strict view of their excrements, and, from the colour, the odour, the taste, the consistence, the crudeness or maturity of digestion, form a judgment of their thoughts and designs; because men are never so serious, thoughtful, and intent, as when they are at stool, which he found by frequent experiment; for, in such conjunctures, when he used, merely as a trial, to consider which was the best way of murdering the king, his ordure would have a tincture of green; but quite different, when he thought only of raising an insurrection, or burning the metropolis.

(from Part 3, Chapter 6)

What a wonderful idea, I thought reading this. It is, of course, true that “men are never so serious, thoughtful, and intent, as when they are at stool”, so it is entirely reasonable that examination of human excrement should reveal their thoughts and intentions. Ah, I thought to myself, if only Stalin had thought of this!

I had, however, seriously underestimated Stalin in this matter, for, as I recently discovered, he had indeed thought of this. From this report that recently appeared on the BBC website, it seems that Uncle Joe had put his chief henchman Beria in charge of a top secret laboratory in which the excrements of foreign leaders –and, who knows, possibly others – were analysed in an attempt to figure out what was in their minds. Stalin, it seems, was particularly interested in the poo of Chairman Mao, going so far as to build special plumbing that would carry his ordure into special boxes, and, hence, to a laboratory for analysis.

What will the shade of Swift be doing now, I wonder? Shaking his head sadly? Throwing up his arms in despair? Laughing uproariously?  Venting his fury and his disgust? I suppose it goes to show that there’s no lengths to which totalitarianism will not go, and no satire so outlandish that it cannot become a reality.