It’s Here! It’s Queer! It’s all smoke and mirrors, I fear!

Step right this way, step inside, and see the greatest show ever to amaze your senses and baffle your mind. Watch! As a budding friendship is slowly but completely transformed before your very eyes! Marvel! At how stupid four very intelligent young people can actually be when confronted with life’s mysteries! Gasp! With indignation at the skullduggery and bad manners brought in the pursuits of love, fame, wealth, and let’s be honest, a lot more wealth. Blush! At some of the language! Laugh! Primarily at some of those waistcoats! Tremble! At the revelation of worlds beyond worlds and compacts most rare and Faustian!

Buy! This! Book!

Buy it:

On Amazon Kindle (US | UK), on Lulu (print | eBook), on iBooks, on Nook, on Kobo…

What’s it about? What’s it about? You’ve heard all this and you still need to know more? Allow me:

The year is 1900. An Earl, an engineer, a suburban philosopher, and an enigma meet at University and make a pact to learn the art of conjuring.

But nothing among the friends is quite as it seems, and soon the happy four are plunged into worlds of political activism, crime, despair, sordid trysts, and a Faustian compact which seems set to threaten their very lives, one by one…

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The Collapsing Upper Lip: Loving The Unlovable Early 20th Century Masculinity

If one was so inclined (which I am) it would be easy enough to argue that Western Masculinity has been undergoing a dramatic change in nature over the last century, far more rigorous and bewildering than that of Industrialisation and the rise of the merchantile classes spreading the notions of masculine power and responsibility through more individuals. Improvements in communication, I think, may have a lot to do with it: women more able to speak to each other without interruption, across countries and continents, are more able to organise and achieve what their forebears were already battling for.
It would be hard to pinpoint the exact moment when the notion of the All Powerful Upper Class White Empire Male began to decline, because it hasn’t been an abrupt descent, but a series of small jerks and crunches. Doubtless each of the World Wars have played a part in crushing class barriers and gender inequalities. For Britain, the dissolution of the Empire brought more and more knocks to the notion of Natural Leader role we’d collectively brainwashed ourselves into thinking we deserved.
The imminent crash of Western Masculinity & Power, and the conflict between a fully-bought subscription to the idea of Masculine Power & Responsibility/The Empire and the necessary sense of Otherness derived from being homosexual (or merely not-heterosexual) is, I think, a potent source of fascination for me and at least partially at root in my interest in figures like T. E. Lawrence and Siegfried Sassoon.
T. E. Lawrence as a cadet at Newport Beach, near Falmouth, Henry Scott Tuke, 1921-22, Clouds Hill (National Trust), Dorset
Siegfried Sassoon in a rare smiling shot.
There is none of the sense of righteous struggle that there is in more visibly maligned demographics of the time: while there is the sense of secrecy and imposition of internal struggle due to societal homophobia, sexual orientation is one of the few things than CAN remain secret, festering as an internal wound comprised of self-disgust and fear of exposure. With the misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, classism, and other vicious prejudices in the last days at the height of an already-fading empire, there was no option for recipients of this treatment to participate in expected rule while carrying their own weight of internal self-horror with them.
Righteousness without hypocrisy bores me as a reader: it interests me more to see individuals unpicking their own beliefs and in conflict with themselves, and T. E., at least, is a rich seam of internal conflict. He is rabidly, ashamedly self-aware, and in later life filled up letters to Charlotte Shaw with self-analysis and recrimination for earlier views. Even in the midst of driving the engine of Empire he was engaged in doubt, piling transparent (even to him) self-deception over his too-soon clarity at what he was enabling. In hypocrisy and in self-pity, in high-mindedness born of torturous childhoods (the standard fare for men destined to Run An Empire: psychological destruction and the attempted murder of compassion), queer manhood in the upper and upper middle classes as the Empire reached the brink is a specific and heady drug.
There is again, I think, a particular idea that role models and subjections of historical fascination must be morally upright, and people we want to emulate rather than learn from, which remains with us from childhood. Peter Pevensie, who becomes a fine and wise heroic figure of a man, is a children’s role model. Sad, flawed, mistake-making men who are not quite brave enough to completely destroy their own privileges or buck the narrative that claims they somehow deserve them – who eat themselves from the inside while pouring their best efforts into Not Failing those they feel responsible for* are mine. Not because I think I ought to be like them, but because I think there’s a lot to be learned about how to improve from both their failures and their successes, and from their blind spots as well as their self-awareness.
More than this, I suspect I have a certain amount of fondness for them because it is handy to be reminded that at least some people felt that the powerful place they occupied in society conferred a responsibility of care onto them. I don’t believe it was universal, and I am sure there are people who still hold that belief, but it feels less as if that is the case; perhaps it is only that the few individuals who feel a real sense of responsibility for those less powerful than them no longer have such eloquent and self-assured figureheads.
Perhaps I will be optimistic, and suggest that the power in society is more evenly shared. It doesn’t look that way from here.

August Links Post

Things my friends have done

Things strangers have done

  • Someone has discovered – how, I don’t know – that there is a squid that can break off its arms and throw them at enemies. The world can always, always get weirder.
  • Made a note, at a fiction magazine, on why writing what you know isn’t always the best advice.
  • Some kind soul has uploaded a selection of public domain films, including The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, to Youtube.
  • Created an amusing little toy which will generate chunks of “Fifty Shades of Grey”-esque prose at the press of a button.
  • Made a tool which allows you to find that word that’s right on the tip of your tongue.
  • Posted a wide variety of documentaries, with a slant towards British history (the tumblr page is something of a clusterfuck of add-ons and annoying cursor-follows).
  • Made an easy-to-follow tutorial on how to make custom lipsticks using wax crayons!
  • Reported that science populariser and neurologist Oliver Sacks struggles with prosopagnosia, or “face blindness”, a neurological disorder which prevents him from recognising faces. The article itself is being used in part to promote Sacks’ new book, The Mind’s Eye. 
  • Compiled a list of the “6 Most Certifiably Insane Acts of Writing“, although it is from Cracked.com so you may wish to take it with an entire cellar of salt.
  • Posted a tutorial on how to turn a t-shirt into a “tank top” which I think is Americanese for “strappy top”.
  • Laurie Penny wrote a post using her personal experience to talk about definitions of rape in the media; as you might expect from that description it is not a comfortable read.
  • Created a handy website that will transform handwriting into a font.
  • Made an interactive map of surname frequency in London.

100 Works of Art: (Visual) A man walks towards the chimneys of the steel foundry in West Hartlepool, Don McCullin

For an overview of why this series of posts is all personal and not very intelligent, please see the first post in the series.

10. A man walks towards the chimneys of the steel foundry in West Hartlepool, Don McCullin (1963)

Alongside Robert Mapplethorpe (whose work I will be talking about later), Don McCullin is one of the photographers I was introduced to by my secondary school art teacher, Ros Wilson. While the majority of the teachers at my school were … sub-optimal … Ros was keen to introduce us to new art which we might enjoy, and some of the photography books she kept around were compilations of the work of Don McCullin. I would say then that I’ve been a fan of his work since I was 15/16, and when I went to the Imperial War Museum for my last birthday it was to see Shaped By War, their exhibition on the war photography and later works of that renowned photographer. It was extremely moving, and in some parts too much to bear.

The picture I would have liked to include here is virtually impossible to find online, and I do not have the requisite book to scan it from: India. The picture in question is of a woman with cholera, slowly dying or perhaps already dead, on a mattressless bedstead in a flooded and inadequate hospital. The image has haunted me for well over a decade, and has inspired at least one short story and countless poems.

A man walks towards the   chimneys of the steel foundry in West Hartlepool, Don McCullin
A man walks towards the chimneys of the steel foundry in West Hartlepool by Don McCullin

This image also haunts me. It is the same as a photograph of a dead relative, peered at through the shroud of years; this is the England that was in its final death throes when I was very young. My earliest years were sound-tracked by news reports of nuclear weapons and the death of British Industry, and images like this one came to my ears in the doleful modern folk music my mother taped covertly from Radio 2 specials.

It is more evocative of the death of an era than older paintings of the green and pleasant land have ever been, because it’s the death of a corpse; England the industrial nation devoured England the agricultural nation, and the spat-out remains of industry: the black-lunged miners, the steel-workers trudging through smoky skies in a perfect vision of what 19th and 20th century writers thought was a perfect vision of hell, the darkened hive.

This bleak landscape, oft complained-of, was giving way to a different bleakness when I was young. But it was still ingrained in our national consciousness, and the ghost it represents is almost solid. This is the landscape of the youth of my generations’ parents, this underpinning the righteous march of progress and liberty that the hippies were so sure of: a sky turned to night by smoke.

It is the lonely figure that makes the image special. He is in silhouette, his head down, as much as stack as the chimneys, lying vertical while smoke, land, and fencing lies horizontally. He becomes a part of the brutal scenery while standing out from it as the focus. He is walking away from us, into the belching chimneys, into the grind. His shoulders are up: he is probably cold. The walk may be long.

In this image the steel worker may be a thousand mythic heroes, each one of them trudging resolutely into Hell or Hades for a showdown, and he has the impact of pathos that your Orpheuses lack.