IT’S HERE! Architects of the Flesh is available for sale!

Do you like your socialism angry, your body horror Lamarckian, your alternate histories brutal and convoluted and your protagonists greyer than a London sky?

You’d better, because that’s what’s on offer, just in time for Christmas if you hurry!

(Unless you’re buying an ebook version, which case you can pretty much just buy it on Christmas day and hide in a corner devouring the misery, vengeance, and weirdness without listening to your family!)

If you don’t do Christmas, this book also serves brilliant as a Generic Winter Experience.

There is basically no reason not to buy, on Kindle (all regions, link goes to UK), iBooks, Nook, Barnes & Noble online, or in print and ebook at Lulu.com. You can also request it at many major bookshops!

the book cover for Architect of the Flesh shows the title, author attribution, and an image of a sketched medusa head on one piece of paper being menaced by a diagram of a surgeon's knife on another piece of paper: the background is Charles Booth's London Poverty Map

The Alchemy of Reading.

An anti-abstract: I’m not going to use this post to talk about people who deliberately misinterpret Barthes in order to give a psychological assessment to long-dead authors and put words into the mouths of living ones, Tumblr. That would be pointless, and it wouldn’t be fun.

An abstract: I’m going to talk about what I think reading, or indeed watching, or any form of apparently one-sided, supposedly non-interactive communicative art is.

What is reading?

What a bizarre question. What happens when you read something?

Well, your brain makes an attempt to decode the verbal and visual encoding of non-verbal ideas and emotions encoded by someone else’s brain into that medium in an attempt to communicate those ideas to another person, like so:

(Image originates here)

That little overlap in the middle is to do with shared cultural references, experiences in common (whether culturally expected, like Western children being expected to have some experience of “Christmas”, or universal human experiences, like having a poo), common observations, and of course shared language, whether that language is verbal (I am talking to you in English because my attempts to learn any other languages so far have led to hysterically funny failure; I am a bear of very little brain), or non-verbal (semiotics, sociomusicology, have at you).

When you read, you are trying to extract meaning from a meaning-carrying device primed by someone else.

Reading is a creative act.

In order to read, you create a new universe.

The foundations of that universe are laid in the head or heads of the creator/s of the meaning-carrying device. A code is laid down to be read, a set of instructions to the brain which are both direct and descriptive (“I have hit my foot”, said Peter.) and figurative and evocative (The red fog enveloped Peter’s heart as he swore at the throbbing mass his foot had become.); direct and descriptive code relies a little on shared experience (we assume you have hit your foot, know what a foot is, and what hitting it entails), filling in gaps (it is most likely Peter did not deliberately strike his foot with his own hand, and that he has bumped it against something unnamed, probably while in motion), and so on. Figurative and evocative code requires more faith in the shared experience with the reader, and shared cultural references (red is equal to anger, fog is absence of clarity in thought due to emotional upheaval, we know that Peter’s foot is still a foot but the sensation of pain has transfigured it on an experiential level).

When code is laid down it is inert. A film that is not watched and a book that is not read have no meaning. They have potential meaning, in the way that a rock balanced on top of a gantry has potential energy. This is authorial intent. Without anyone to read it, the intent has no function.

When a reader comes to a text they decode it, but this term implies a simple undoing of the coding process.

What actually takes place is creative interpretation of the code, and in the process of this, a story, or version, is created. Sometimes these deviate drastically from the intended content of the code.

No two stories/versions of the same code are the same.

Every person’s reading of a text, every reading by the same person of the same text, is unique, regardless of what shared opinion of the text they come in with.

How?

Because no two people are the same, and what causes a particular interpretation and emotional reaction – alchemical reaction – is the amalgamation of every single experience, thought, belief, and resonance that one person has had throughout their life, which will inevitably pick out different emphases among the text and trigger different emotional experiences, memories, prejudices, and fears.

In literary criticism, in order to present an interpretation of the text as valid it must be supported with evidence from the text and an argument which convinces and which typically draws on an accredited theoretical framework, or builds it own. In reading, all interpretations are valid, and equally valid, and no one reader’s interpretation may supersede another’s by virtue of authority alone. In fact, the attempt to communicate the experience of reading creates another story/version, that of the experience-telling, which exists between the various readers of the work, and at second-hand, as a catalyst, the creator of the work.

In other words, the story created in the interaction between the creator/s of a work and each individual reader is a private and unique story as it is experienced by the reader. This act of creation is not duplicated, not possible to share in its entirety with anyone, and is not owned by the work’s creator (they only made the code to be read), and not owned by the reader (they brought their self and attendant experiences to the code to read it, but the code is not theirs). It exists independently of both.

Each reading is a temporary and private work of art.

Exit from the desert

If I were a complete dick, I could say “it seems fitting that at a time when hideous military things are happening in Syria, I have just finished reading about the liberation of Damascus in 1918”, but I am not the kind of dick who wants to tie that stuff together. That’s a job for journalists and historians, not people who write weird books about London and cry about T E Lawrence at inopportune moments.

The desert I’m leaving is the remembered desert of Seven Pillars of Wisdom: the book is finished. I’ve ploughed through the 9000-odd Kindle pages (this is not an exaggeration) of description, introspection, isolation, photographs, and guerilla warfare, and Lawrence has had his last whisper in my ear until I pick up The Mint

I’ve had a lot of thoughts about this book already. They’ve wavered between being impressed by his prose, impressed by his exploits, horrified by the activities of both himself against others and others against him, fascinated by the landscape so eloquently given voice in this book that it feels like a series of still photographs supplemented by memories of travelogues and nature documentaries, exasperated by Lawrence’s outbursts of what feel like very juvenile whining (forgetting of course that he was younger than me while doing most of this), and often quietly in awe of the scope and seat-of-the-pants nature of several of the victories. 

In completing the book there’s a sense of relief and loss, as there usually is at the end of any good book; the creeping horror of the oncoming scenes at Damascus turned out to be unfounded as it turned out that I’d misremembered the account from A Prince of Our Disorder and that the David Lean movie was as full of lies in this regard as in every other; the chaos did not end in disaster but rather in the return to function of the city. 

Overall in spite of the jittery action and the push and pull of military minutiae, in spite of the electric relations between the men of the Arab Revolt and Lawrence’s occasionally tenuous grip both on his plans and on his person, the cast of the book is of a kind of peaceful reminiscence: coming away from it, the stresses of a military campaign appear like faded memories in a rear view mirror. It is, initially, a hard book to break into: Lawrence makes his prose unfriendly, almost, to intruders: but soon he slackens off and as the campaign begins to shape up so does the ease of reading.

In A Prince of Our Disorder, John E Mack comments that a lot of the men who spoke with Lawrence throughout his life found he gave something to them, and that they saw parts of themselves in him. It seems to be a common theme: I’ve already joked a few times about getting a “what would lawrence do” bracelet with “do the opposite of that” on the other side (for a start: always wear a motorcycle helmet when riding a motorbike, especially when riding a Brough Superior at preposterous speeds on winding country roads; do not utterly refuse to get into any kind of relationship on the basis of some mad ideals which cause you emotional distress, etc), and it occurs to me that there are a few lessons to be learned from him in the course of this book and the circumstances of its publication which could well be applicable to me.

First, with regards to his back-and-forthing on and lack of confidence in his manuscript, leading an exasperated Siegfried Sassoon to send him a testy letter containing the phrase “you have written a great book, blast you”: his eventual decision to produce a small print run funded by subscribers is remarkably similar to my own idea for what to do with my next novel. It is of course a different matter, I’m not trying to hide my work because I have issues with the quality of it (if you like, I have long since ceased to care whether what I’ve written is perfect or not as long as it says what I need it to say), but because I can’t fund the thing on my own. And unlike Lawrence I don’t have an eager public desperate to hear what I have to say because unlike Lawrence I’m somewhat not a hero of a gruelling war and an eloquent Oxford alumni with a great wealth of friends in hundreds of places. 

… Also I’m taller than him by about two inches.

Second, a less practical consideration. In the latter chapters of the book especially I “saw” Lawrence come into conflict with people who found his manner inappropriate or his attitude ungentlemanly, and both chastened him for it and occasionally physically assaulted him (one officer “struck him across the face”, for example). His sense of vision generally kept him from being smothered or particularly bothered by attacks on his persona: while  he was prone to introspection, and also to what looked like self-hatred, this was at the instigation of his own conscience and comparison of his awkwardness, his “other”ness, to those around him. He fretted about his guilt and despised himself for his deceptions, necessary though he believed they were, but did not care for propriety or “what others might think” of his demands for resources or his person unless the manipulation of his image in their eyes was vital to the fighting strength of his little army. He talked often of flattering or phrasing things in specific ways, but not of feeling ashamed of pursuing the things necessary to his task.

This represents a lesson in that while it is important to consider the possibility of harming others it’s not actually necessary to concern oneself overly with whether or not their approval is bestowed. I’m on the verge of stifling myself for the sake of not appearing ridiculous, for the sake of not being “talked about behind my back”, and in a timely manner have read an example of why that’s not feasible or worthwhile: it doesn’t matter if you look ridiculous, and it doesn’t matter if people gas and gossip. The thing you set yourself to should be more important than the vagrancies of strangers and acquaintances, and if your real friends have doubts they will voice them honestly and without spite.

I plan to start reading Lawrence’s book about the conditions of the fledgling RAF – The Mint – by the end of this year, and I’m eager to see what I can learn from that, as well as to listen to a voice separated from mine by a good eighty years.

Immoderation and the pitfall of the superlative

Currently I am editing (very slowly, because I hate editing) Brown Bread Boys, and reading Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker, and contemplating something I find off-putting in fiction, in order to prevent myself from deploying it and putting other, like-minded readers off.

In grammar, the superlative is the form of an adverb or adjective that expresses a degree of the adverb or adjective being used that is greater than any other possible degree of the given descriptor.

Thanks, Wikipedia

By this I mean: the most, the best, the worst, the least, the dramatic bookend of the spectrum of whatever quality is being discussed. The greatest prize-fighter the world has ever seen; the most beautiful love interest; the worst catastrophe. The kind of demarcation the news, circus barkers, and people who write adverts for beer are enamoured of. As I’ve previously written while trying to explain litotes, I’m not keen on the use of hyperbole unless it’s ironic: standing in front of a zoo containing three animals and bellowing that it is the most exceptional selection of wildlife the world has ever allowed to congregate in one urban environment, for example, is both funny and sad. It’s a wonderful, almost cruel humour. Using it with sincerity just strikes me as over-saturating every colour until none of them stand out, providing no effect at all.

Hyperbole isn’t the only offender: we all know that flawless characters are unforgivably tedious, and far more coherent writers than me have waxed lengthy about which particular “flaws” are most often wheeled out in order to disguise someone having been written as off-puttingly flawless (clumsiness, inability to sing, and being ‘plain’ by nomination but not by description for female characters; being unable to fight, bad at relationships, or functionally alcoholic to a point that does not damage their health in male characters; and “aloof” for both genders). Sometimes a character can be rendered boring by simply being too good at things.

The real problem comes when, after the author has taken pains to make their characters different, and their settings three-dimensional, and they are still naggingly dull because everything is the most. The worst dive, the best restaurant, the best fighter, the worst crook, the cleverest scientist, the greatest defeat, the biggest victory. Peril fatigue happens often in serial fiction (televised or comics) when every drama is the end of the fucking world yet again (particularly when you know the world isn’t going to end because they’re coming back next week).

This kind of amplification of features is understandable in fairytales, where the story itself is required to be big and bold and in broad strokes, the characters easily-transferred archetypes, and the moral of the narrative is the most important part. You are not being asked to suspend your disbelief in talking wolves in order to examine the character growth of Little Red Riding Hood, but because the story “be careful with strangers and things may not be as they seem” is an important lesson.

When we come to adult fiction, the point at which childhood reliance on big bright colours and “VERY GOOD” and “VERY BAD” is supposed to die away, narratives need to focus on personal importance: when we grow up, we understand that our personal dramas do not have global importance, but that they are also still worthwhile and have value to us (and that other people’s do to them, too). Stories reflect this change by giving us validation as adults: your non-superlative life still matters.

What I find is that this is somewhat undercut when there is no one in a story who isn’t a caricature, or no situation that isn’t life-or-death. And saying “well these people lead more interesting lives” doesn’t cut it, either: real life spies have quiet days, real life soldiers have long periods of boring nothingness, real life astronauts have to do mundane reporting duties (and brilliant videos of them singing in a space station), real life explorers have moments in which they twiddle their thumbs and wait for the weather to change. Of course the purpose of stories is to bring form and heightened feeling to reality, but it’s hard to believe in a story where everyone is conveniently the MOSTEST BESTEST EVER, particularly when the setting doesn’t lend itself to that. There have to be people who aren’t the best but are good; there have to be people who aren’t the worst but are lousy, in the same way that muted shades allow for a more engaging picture, with deeper shadows and lighter highlights no long baffling or blinding or robbing all meaning.

This is not, despite what it sounds like, to suggest that world-saving narratives have no value. I enjoyed Pacific Rim as much as the next person who loves watching a bunch of giant robots punching a bunch of enormous interdimensional monsters.

But right now, I’m reading a book which is so full of self-consciously “cool” ideas that it’s beginning to grate. The characters are all wonderful, but they’re the same kind of wonderful, with the same kind of sparkly, witty, circumlocutive dialogue. They all have an excess of snark, even the few not blessed with Harkaway’s thesaurus-filling vocabulary, and it occurs to me that what I want from fiction is recognisable characters. I want people who make dumb mistakes or aren’t the best but are the best you can get at short notice. They can’t bend the world to their will, they just think they can. I don’t mind delusions of perfection from a character PoV when the reality of the story is showing me they’re full of shit: I mind when the author believes them. I mind when someone shows me a palace of proportions perplexing and perfection untold and there are no scuffs on the skirting board.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up on Pratchett. Terry’s writing has always carried in it a good-humoured but sharp-edged first-hand appreciation of poverty. There are consequences, levels, and depths in his characters even when he’s taking on dark vs light world-saving narratives (and as his writing matured, the frequency of those narratives diminished rapidly. Most of the time the dramas are small, personal, or at best civic and national; Terry champions throughout all his work the importance of individuals); people are almost never the best in the world and even when they are they don’t win by being “the best”. They win by luck, or desperation, or a momentary reprieve. They win, often, by being unflinchingly human: Douglas Adams used to pull of the same trick, of the heroic mediocre and the banality of evil.

Perhaps it’s because I’m post-war British, and I simply don’t believe in big moral narratives, and I can’t make myself. Perhaps I just have too much cynicism thanks to errant brainwaves making me observe that even the greatest athletes do fucking stupid things and the people in positions of political power get there by lying, cronyism, nepotism, bribery, and more lying. Perhaps rationalism and materialism, two terrible habits I have developed too late in life to do me any good (where were these things when I was being dragged around homeopaths while my mother tried to cure me of my personality?), refuse to allow me to take the idea of a quantifiable Best Person; perhaps too many sociology essays and discussions about cultural bias and classism have taken their toll and I can’t take seriously the idea that the person labelled the “best” is actually “the best” (rather than the recipient of privilege, luck, or a biased measuring system).

Evolution allows mad things to pass through the net of extinction simply because they managed to not die. And if evolution by natural selection doesn’t require that things be the best, and various religions require only that individual souls try to be the best that is possible for them, I am pretty sure that narratives don’t need and are diminished by their constituent characters being the unquestioned superlatives of their category.


For more effectively worthless opinionated writing advice, why not buy “How Not To Write“? It’s cheap.

 

More Reports From My Favourite Book Genre

Because of medical service interaction making me into a singularity of unnecessary stress (I am the kind of person who can worry themselves into a black hole-level panic over a GP’s appointment, and this one was the next stop along the line), I abandoned anything remotely responsibility-like over the weekend and following two days, and proceeded to plough through a newly-purchased (and signed!) copy of “Broken Homes” by Ben Aaronovitch in a single afternoon.

It was a return to form, hovering somewhere around the first book in the series (“Rivers of London”) and the third (“Whispers Underground”) in terms of quality, and chasing the major plot arc that was introduced in the second (“Moon Over Soho”). The series has a genuinely engaging selection of regular characters and treats the one-offs as potential returnees, so everything feels solid, real, and well-constructed. This unremitting attention to the dimensions of characters extends to the landscape – it’s a cliche to say that the city is a major character in any given book, but when the book is set in London that’s almost a requirement. Ours is a city with a great deal of character, and to neglect that would be borderline criminal.

Happily Ben Aaronovitch has not at any point in this series been in the habit of neglecting the character, shape, or foundations of my beloved home. He’s also given such seamless attention to two fictional locations (Skygarden and the Stromberg House) that until the aftermatter I was convinced that both of them were real, and was even plotting to see if my Art Fund card would get me into the Stromberg house (a National Trust property in the book) for free! I’m not sure whether this is a testament to my gullibility or to Aaronovitch’s well-painted landscapes, but it made for an amused feeling after finishing the book.

The copy I got, from the Covent Garden Waterstones, also contains a short story concerning a genius loci of that very bookshop, which was charming and pleasant and reminded me strongly of Neil Gaiman in ways that occasionally make me shake my head when Neil Gaiman does it. That, I suspect, is a case of familiarity breeding contempt: when you read a lot of someone’s work, you start to see the strings and hear their voice and see their preoccupations in their text.

Granted, if the someone is China Mieville it’s one book and half-way through it that you see the preoccupations and favoured word of the month…

Having finished “Broken Homes” one day, I decided to make good my sudden surge of desire to read fiction again and ate up “Dodger” by Terry Pratchett in less than an afternoon.

My only reason for choosing it was that I’d been loaned the book a while back and it had proceeded to sit on my “read this sooner or later because you’ve borrowed it you dickhead” pile for an egregious amount of time, but it’s thematically appropriate. After “Broken Homes”, a book about dodgy geezers in London, I read “Dodger”, a book about dodgy geezers in (Victorian) London.

As I have been a fan of Pratchet since I was roughly 11, and am 30 now, it’s probably no surprise that I had a wonderful time, as one tends to while reading Pratchett. There were no alarms and no surprises, and that, too, was an entirely pleasant process given that I was straining my intestines in fear over going to a hospital appointment in two days time.

Pratchett brought all of the humanity and wryness and gentle combination of affection and unflinching acknowledgement of the darker sides of mankind and specifically poverty-stricken mankind that he usually brought to the Discworld novels, and applied it to early-Victorian London. I appreciate that as I appreciate Aaronovitch’s witty, familiar poetics about the modern city; they are both writers who have poured a deluge of research into their cities – Pratchett drawing a great deal on the history of London for the unshakeable and distinctive foundations of Ankh-Morpork. I was in love with AM from very early in my life, and I suppose one can credit that for the delight with which I now absorb London’s seedier parts.

My favourite part of “Dodger” is the ease and joy with which Pratchett picked up the most unpleasant failing of “Oliver Twist” – the anti-semitic caricature of Fagin – and gracefully inverted it, making Solomon Cohen a genius, a fugitive, a kind man, and a man full of wit and sarcasm and references that fly over the narrator’s head but land with a satisfying plop in the mind of the reader. Again, “affection” is probably the word I’d use to describe the process; Solomon Cohen is a character written with a great deal of love.

Two books about dodgy geezers in London down, I merely picked up the largest book on the “you’ve borrowed this, hurry up and ever read it” pile, and it, too, turned out to be – so far – about a dodgy geezer, in London. It even references toshers, the profession attached to the titular character in the Pratchett book.

This third book, Nick Harkaway’s “Angelmaker”, is much denser than the Aaronovitch or the Pratchett. Harkaway relies on cramming in every possible detail and thought of the characters to illustrate both the individuals and the landscape, which makes for slower going than the well-timed touches of Aaronovitch and Pratchett, but it is still a highly enjoyable read: Harkaway’s “show AND tell” approach to storytelling is not too off-putting. Also, so far there have been clockwork bees, and I am easily sold on gimmicks like that.


(for those keeping track, I am also sporadically reading “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” on the Kindle and have reached the 90% mark; Lawrence is nearing Damascus and I am distressed by what will surely follow; for non-fiction I am ploughing through “Hiding the Elephant” and taking copious notes).

The Awkward Moment When Your Great WW1 Hero Sounds Like A Teenager On Tumblr

In which your blogger reaches another period of Lawrence’s introspection in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and identifies a little, but mostly feels moved to make fun of him for sounding like an angst-ridden fifteen-year-old.

It irritated me, this silly confusion of shyness, which was conduct, with modesty, which was a point of view. I was not modest, but ashamed of my awkwardness, of my physical envelope, and of my solitary unlikeness which made me no companion, but an acquaintance, complete, angular, uncomfortable, as a crystal.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T E Lawrence.

Lawrence here complains of being shy and awkward and of people mistaking these “vices” for the “virtue” of modesty, which I see on Tumblr every other day in the form of people belabouring the fact that just because they’re awful at socialising doesn’t mean that they’re not also horribly arrogant, usually while demonstrating entirely the opposite. The more sophisticated manipulators will sigh tragically about how they wish they were any good at something and how terribly embarrassed they are to be putting something online but … if you insist … I say “sophisticated” here and I mean the opposite; Lawrence’s pre-emptive thuggery towards his own supposed modesty is infinitely more complicated.

But wait! There’s more.

There was my craving to be liked — so strong and nervous that never could I open myself friendly to another. The terror of failure in an effort so important made me shrink from trying; besides, there was the standard; for intimacy seemed shameful unless the other could make the perfect reply, in the same language, after the same method, for the same reasons.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T E Lawrence

Would unsettled, self-loathing teenage girls on the internet get more respect for their short-term internal miseries if they phrased “I’m just so unique and alone and it’s terrible and I can never love anyone because I might fuck it up and besides nothing will ever be perfect so why bother” – a common refrain I remember from my diaries aged 16-19 or so – in the same educated voice as Lawrence does here? Because he is communicating exactly the same sentiments.

There was a craving to be famous; and a horror of being known to like being known. Contempt for my passion for distinction made me refuse every offered honour.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T E Lawrence

In which Lawrence manages to bruise a perfectly normal desire for recognition (hardly surprising given his upbringing and his background) with the idea that it’s somehow beneath him, which demonstrates partly the notions of religious cleanliness of the soul and correct conduct pummelled into him by his mother (A Prince of Our Disorder, John E Mack), and partly a kind of classism evident from the time. The idea that wanting to be known was uncouth, lacking in taste. Or, to put it in the critiques of teenage girls on Tumblr, he is disgusted in himself for being like those attention whoring bitches.

I liked the things underneath me and took my pleasures and adventures downward. There seemed a certainty in degradation, a final safety. Man could rise to any height, but there was an animal level beneath which he could not fall. It was a satisfaction on which to rest.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T E Lawrence

Here Lawrence departs from giving an elevated preview of blog complaints from teenage girls, but I’m not sure it’s much of a leap in the direction of insight and praiseworthy sentiment. Rather he’s displaying a very obvious secret of his own nature, something which comes as no surprise to anyone who has read a) A Defence Of Masochism by Anita Phillips or indeed b) the rest of this same damn book. As demonstrated in several more quotes:

Always in working I had tried to serve, for the scrutiny of leading was too prominent. Subjection to order achieved economy of thought, the painful, and was a cold-storage for character and Will, leading painlessly to the oblivion of activity. It was a part of my failure never to have found a chief to use me. All of them, through incapacity or timidity or liking, allowed me too free a hand; as if they could not see that voluntary slavery was the deep pride of a morbid spirit, and vicarious pain its gladdest decoration.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T E Lawrence

As the pressures of leading or at least finessing an entire revolt bear down on his shoulders, Lawrence finds himself fantasising more and more about not having to make difficult decisions and being able to trust his superiors to carry things, even though he has placed himself in the position he is in and keeps himself there. Besides this, he is being brutally unsubtle about things which are to follow both in his life and in his legend.

Thus we’re straying onto what I like to think of as a different part of Tumblr, the one that is being carefully segregated. But never fear, Lawrence will now return to bleating about self-hatred and the difference between his view of himself and his view of everyone else in terms which sound almost identical to my Livejournal before I pulled my head out of my own arse:

The hearing other people praised made me despair jealousy of myself, for I took it at its face value; whereas, had they spoken ten times as well of me, I would have discounted it to nothing.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T E Lawrence

You and everyone in Year 10, Lawrence.

When a thing was in my reach, I no longer wanted it; my delight lay in the desire.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T E Lawrence

The premise of an ungodly number of pop songs.

Indeed, the truth was I did not like the ‘myself’ I could see and hear.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T E Lawrence

Welcome to the internet, Ned, I hope you enjoy your stay among people who are exactly like you.

And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.

I am still reading Seven Pillars of Wisdom (because it is a very long book) and for the most part I’m too caught up in the daily minutae of a desert campaign to pay much attention to the purportedly florid quality of Lawrence’s writing outside of noting his interest in and mild obsession with the geology of the desert places he passes through.

As with any good book I am largely unconscious of it as a written work at all, only allowing a flow of unfamiliar names and places to pass through me and a selection of well-illustrated scenes to arise in my mind with no doubt a mess of inaccuracies based on my lack of first-hand knowledge of what is being communicated. Appreciation of the prose and the structure of a work tend to come in the aftermath of reading, when the first full-blown blush of action and excitement have died down and there is time to contemplate just how the pulse was made to stampede and the blood rise: even in moments, quotable and poetic moments (such as Mary Renault’s “The touch of autumn struck from his youth that cosmic sadness, which time will tame like the bite of spring” in The Charioteer) which strike the reading mind like a hammer blow, it is only the appreciation of the words and never the sudden awareness of the author. Works which make me aware of the author before I have finished reading tend to be works where I am exasperated by the author: Yes, China, we know you’re clever, put the thesaurus down.

So it is with Seven Pillars that when I am reading I am only aware of Lawrence the narrator, Lawrence the figure in his own story telling his own story, a small and determined figure grinning into sandstorms (At this stifling price they kept their flesh unbroken, for they feared the sand particles which would wear open the chaps into a painful wound: but, for my part, I always rather liked a khamsin, since its torment seemed to fight against mankind with ordered conscious malevolence, and it was pleasant to outface it so directly, challenging its strength, and conquering its extremity.) and trying to achieve objectives that his conscience would not always support him in. When I look up from this dense report of raids, marches, and the cataloguing of water, I am occasionally struck by the presence of the author.

Not so much the mental image, romanticised, of Lawrence plugging away disconsolately in his attic, subsisting on chocolate bars and self-hatred; not so much the hard-chinned short Englishman eyeballing the ever-present reader from the pages, as he writes with the acute awareness of what people are already saying about him; more the cousin to a sensation I had recently (-ish) flying over the Gobi Desert, when I looked down through some very insubstantial clouds. An avid watcher of wildlife documentaries, I find there are whole landscapes I am familiar with from BBC Wildlife which occupy a position of near-mythology, lands where animals roam unconcerned by the trivial political whinging of humankind, and the sky is vast, and the storms are the size of cities. They are rendered unreal by the TV screen, and it was only with the jolt of understanding as I peered out of a tiny dirty window a mile up that I grasped the reality of that place: able afterwards only to say “I realised it was the actual fucking Gobi desert and I was annoyed because there wasn’t anyone I could tell so that they’d get it as well”.

The moments after reading Seven Pillars of Wisdom are the same: there is a moment of incredible height and realisation that he was a real person, and that he really wrote the words I’ve been reading. Part of me scolds the other part of me for being awestruck: the man was just a man. There are millions of books in the world, each of them really written by real people, all of whom would be worthy of awe. Why this one? Why experience an atheistic spiritual vertigo and hero-cultish these words came from his mind over this particular person? And I don’t have an answer for that, not a real and proper answer that stands up to analysis and doesn’t become ugly and revealing, much in the same way that I can’t give an analytical answer for why I love London, or my partner.

Perhaps it is the mythos, the pantheon of depictions that I was immersed in before I began to read what the man had to say for himself, which makes it such a revelatory moment when I remember that what I’m reading was written by the person it describes. As to his worthiness for adulation, I’ve no real, proper understanding of why so-and-so can be the hero of our dreams but such-and-such is abhorrent.

The great thing about dead people is that we can make them be anything we need them to be.

100 Works of Art: (Visual) Le Bec du Hoc, Grandchamp, Georges Seurat

For an idea of what the point of this series of posts is, please see the first post in the series.

11. Le Bec du Hoc, Grandchamp, Georges Seurat (1885)

So far I have written a great deal about paintings and photographs with which I already have a relationship, but I thought now I might say something about a work of art which I came to only recently. Being engaged in a leisurely stroll through the vast wonderland of the National Gallery once more (isn’t it lovely that it’s free? Let’s keep it that way), I passed through to the more modern rooms by accident more than by design. My habit at that gallery is usually to visit L’Ortolano, to gush over some Caravaggios, snigger at Marriage A-la-Mode by William Hogarth, and then mill around the more bonkers bits of medieval iconography before exiting as all good museum-goes do: through the gift shop. I have, for example, a positive allergy to entering the Flemish rooms.

However, the Degas and the Monets and the Seurats are gathered about not far from the main entrance/exit, and I was happily cataloguing paintings for my vast imaginary gallery of stolen art that I will have when I am a criminal mastermind, so I popped in and stumbled all the people looking at whichever version of Van Gogh’s bloody Sunflowers the National has got.

Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp, Georges Seurat
Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp by Georges Seurat

After a certain amount of thought I have in my head what it is about this painting which caught my eye. Pointilism is a strange and alienating technique which, to me at least, renders an image a lot like a grainy photograph of a memory. A sort of Instagram for an image which already exists only inside your mind, if you will. And something about the colours and the quality of like in this unassuming piece of French landscape as preserved by Seurat puts me very strongly in mind of “The Island” at St Ives (it is actually a promontory).

Sadly for anyone who is looking for analysis of this painting beyond my enjoyment of the colours and the bright summer coastal feeling it inevitably evokes, this means the rest of this entry will be not even an anecdote, but a smear of memories from a decade ago.

I am very fond of The Island, and when I was a teenager I was adamant that I was going to live on Teetotal Street, for  reasons that time and, ironically, alcohol have hidden from me. One exceptionally fine summer’s day about ten or eleven years ago, my darling mother dumped me in St Ives for the day with some money for food so that she could go to a dance workshop somewhere and I wouldn’t annihilate the house with boredom remaining at home for yet another day.

It was one of the most delightful days I’ve ever spent in my own company. I had a library book (I Sing The Body Electric, relevant perhaps in light of the recent death of Ray Bradbury: it inspired me to write a short story about a man who was in love with the sea as if the sea was a person, and I believe I still have that somewhere), a sketchbook, and took a proper breakfast at a harbour cafe for over an hour. At that point in my life, the idea that I could just eat whatever I wanted and damn the cost, that I could sit in a cafe by myself and read and perhaps have a second drink if I felt like it, was new and exhilarating and, I dare say, it still is a little.

Over the course of my day I was assaulted by a seagull which nicked my Battenberg cake while I was reading on the habour wall (not so good), visited the Tate St Ives and was intrigued by the single-line drawings of an artist whose name I have since forgotten (else he’d be included too: Richard someone…), which led me to the cafe at the top of the gallery. Here I drank a pot of tea and attempted some line drawings of my own of the view from the window, which included a tiny, tiny church.

I made up my mind to visit the tiny, tiny church, and somewhere between the gallery and making my presence felt upon The Island, this turned into me scaling a semi-sheer cliff face in platform boots, a tattered black ballgown, and a corset while carrying a parasol and a bag with some books in. The sea was the same colour as this Seurat painting, the grass the same grass, and the sense of the world going on forever beyond the edge of the land was the same, too.

It’s not my belief that all works of art should trigger some personal connection in their audience: some should be meaninglessly beautiful, some should start riots, some should remind you of things, some should make you fall in love, some should make you want to destroy them. My feeling is mostly that good art results in a reaction of some sort. I never like to be indifferent to these things. And therefore, it’s reassuring that even an alien, quiet Pointilist painting of a rock outcropping on the coast can conjure up a whole happy, entirely personal and private memory. Not least because that was a day that made pleasant, without needing anyone else at all. Similarly, the communion between artist and viewer, the art, is something that is experienced on a private level.

A little update about nothing in particular

Hello, I’m not posting very much at the moment because I’m trying to force myself to edit; this is resulting in a lot of tantrum-throwing on Twitter and one-sided arguments with myself which sadly cannot be won by shouting “you’re not my real dad” and slamming a door. The process of editing is not being helped by the weather being blindingly nice and making me long to go and sit in a park and drink wine and not edit; by Word Starter on my netbook being held together with glue and stupidity and therefore crashing every few minutes; and by my own self-sabotaging need to start trying to draw bad cartoons of Loki from The Avengers crying on the floor at 1am with a copy of Photoshop 7.0 which only works after you’ve opened it and closed it three times (while drinking and watching 90s movies, because I am a cool cat).

I do have plans for partaking of the 100 Blog Things challenge on the subject of the Arts, but every day that I think “I shall write my first blog post on this challenge” is a day when I reach 1am and still haven’t finished editing whichever chapter I’m working on.

So as a show of faith or an “I ain’tnt dead”, here’s a brief run-down of Things What I Have Been Doing:

  • A visit to the Natural History Museum to see the inside-out animals; plastinated animal bodies showing their capillaries (which looks astonishing and very artistic, like someone has grown a duck or a rabbit out of some delicate, vibrant red fern) or musculature and ligaments, the crowning glory of which are a pair: a running giraffe and a kind of three-dimensional exploded diagram of a female Asiatic elephant, which is made all the more exciting for being an actual elephant. My main criticism of this other than “not enough exhibition” which I would have said even if it had been the length of the Bayeux Tapestry (which I have seen and been enormously bored by), is that as with so many museum exhibitions, the level of information provided was decidedly entry-level. As remarked by my companion for the day, scientist-and-comedian-and-designer-and-general-polymath Holly Yagoda, if you know anything about biology it’s assumed that you don’t want to learn any more by coming to a museum.
  • That same day out also included a walk through Hyde Park and a walk through St James Park, the latter of which involved an encounter with some wildfowl that I was unable to identity. Roughly the sound of a small goose/large duck, with a ruddy patch in the middle of a white breast, a very narrow black bar across a white area of the wing, dark head, and a cry like a car that won’t start. Any ideas?
  • I’ve been reading The Persian Boy by Mary Renault. Another of Mary Renault’s books, The Charioteer, is one of my absolute favourites, and so I went into this with high expectations. As someone overly invested in the relationship between Alexander of Macedon and Hephaestion I find I’m irritated by the attitude of the narrator (shut up, Bagoas), but it seems very realistic of the character to behave and think that way considering the kind of person he is and life he has led. I have no criticisms to level at the author for this historical fiction, but my God I want to slap the narrator a lot.
  • Continuing the theme of science, last night I accompanied a couple of people to see Robin Ince’s current stand up show, Happiness Through Science. I have seen several of his various tours and rank him close to the top of my favourite comedians list, if not the number one slot. I’d describe his style as “manic”, peppered with impressions and tangents and excitement and cynicism. A self-styled curmudgeon, he actually comes across as being extremely warm and enthusiastic (as many self-styled curmudgeons tend to), brimming with knowledge he wants to share, and of course appropriately self-effacing (we are after all British). It is always pleasant to spend an evening being talked to as an intelligent adult rather than a fool or a child, and more so when explanations for things one might not already know are presented as “things I didn’t know, I don’t know if you know them, you probably already do”. Stand out moments included Robin interrupting himself to wail “I wish this was a fucking character!” of his own babbling and self-distraction, and a member of the audience towards the end standing up to offer an evidence-based heckle about the correct order of amino acids in a genome. That is the kind of audience one can expect at a Robin Ince gig.
  • Aside from being a consumer of entertainment and enjoyer of this sudden burst of sunshine, I have also been patiently trying to rein in my propensity for feeling guilty about reading things I enjoy “because I ought to be doing something else”. So far it’s not going very well.

Personal Post: A World Of Meaning In Four Words

Yesterday I took the train from my workplace (Elephant and Castle) to my tattooist (Greenwich, or more specifically Maze Hill) in order to book an appointment, as one of the rituals of acquiring paid employment for me these days is to waste large chunks of my income on permanent additions to the body I’ve been left with by genes and circumstance.

On my return from this brisk, slightly disorienting visit to Living Image Tattoo, I found two things: one, that the train passing from Greenwich station to Deptford headed directly into the setting sun – a ball of red and orange balanced precariously on the skyline of the incoming city – and gave me the powerful sensation that I was living inside a poem, and two, that it being the season of short sleeves on the Underground once more, I was back to catching people trying to read my tattoos without me noticing.

The woman I caught examining the tattoo on my left inside elbow (“every time i let myself lose, i have won“) gave me an embarrassed look (she was wearing a mustard-coloured duffel coat and had the keen expression of someone who knows she is intelligent but hasn’t often been told that she is attractive). I merely rotated my arm so that she could read it, and said, “Is that better?”

She nodded at the tattoo in a worried fashion as if reading something that she would be examined on later, and looked away. I am used to a variety of reactions to my tattoos, although happily since moving to London the majority of them have been salutatory or curious rather than, as in my more provincial hometown, abusive. Once, at the Comedy Store in Piccadilly Circus a woman in the queue for the toilets during an interval struck up a long conversation with me because she was curious as to the meaning of the opposite number in text tattoos: the right inner elbow, which reads “anything you do to me, i will learn to enjoy“.

As almost every one of the more visible text tattoos I have can be interpreted in a number of ways, I’m usually at ease with explaining them to strangers, but this woman was so inquisitive and so delighted in hearing that it came from a story I’d written (I didn’t dare tell her it was a lurid piece of Torchwood fan fiction!) that I grew nervous and was eager to get away…

This latest appointment will “deface” (as my mother so disdainfully describes it) my upper left arm, and the inside bones of my right wrist. The left arm is to be an image, although of what I wish to leave a surprise as I rather enjoy surprising my friends with tattoos (I also enjoy buying them tattoos as birthday presents, when I can afford to). The right wrist is a quote from my best-beloved series of books:

from "The Ghost Road" by Pat Barker

As with all my text tattoos there are myriad reasons for this specific sentence fragment. First, context – which will contain spoilers for The Ghost Road – this is part of a slightly longer sentiment:

I think it’s a way of claiming immunity. First-person narrators can’t die, so as long as we keep telling the story of our own lives we’re safe. Ha bloody fucking ha.

The Ghost Road, Pat Barker

The words are written by Billy Prior, the protagonist of the series (or one of them), in reference to all his fellow-soldiers on the WW1 Western Front who are compulsively keeping diaries, scribbling poems, sending lengthy descriptive letters home. His theory is that by turning their sufferings into stories they are granting themselves some notional escape from the near-inevitability of their death and (subtextually) their total lack of control over the situation they are in.

For this reason, first, the quote is a good one for a tattoo: I have been keeping diaries for fifteen years now, and can attest to the power of writing down events in turning them into manageable fictions rather than unmanageable horrors (even if I have quite obviously never experienced anything so mind-destroyingly dire as the young men at the Front). The claiming of safety created by story is a powerful delusion, and in part it is an accurate one, for in fictionalising our traumas we remove them from the forefront of experience and turn them into someone else’s problem.

Secondly, Prior is a character with whom I have a great deal of sympathy. Vicious at times, intelligent, belligerent, underestimated, “neither fish nor fowl” both in terms of sexuality (he is bisexual) and class (educated working class, exceeding his parents but acutely aware that he does not “pass” for the middle classes’ requirements), suffering from PTSD and utterly disdaining his own misery, he is filled with conflict so acute that he develops, for a time, a protective split personality.

Prior’s bitter, bitter cynicism and fatalism expressed in the four words are what draws me most inexorably to this quote: ha bloody fucking ha. It is very English, to make humour out of one’s own pain, and the statement – dry and without mirth – speaks of so many layered-on emotions it’s almost impossible to unpick them all.

He has been wrestling with himself over the morality of what he is doing, and with the knowledge that his desire to return to the Front is for what others might deem squalid, ungallant reasons. He is, whether he chooses to accept it or not, afraid of going forward, and unable to go back. He continues onward because he has been given no choice, but strove, fought, and argued to have that particular choice removed from him. He seeks both annihilation and survival, experiences both vicious self-loathing and a strange freedom in the terror of oncoming combat, and embodies in ha bloody fucking ha an unspoken, unneeded torrent of words. Billy Prior has fought for his right to surrender to the decisions of people he does not trust; he has everything to live for back in England and pushes towards death. He remains, even in the midst of the “bloodiest conflict in human history”, at war with himself.

And he acknowledges this, the absurdity of his mental state and the absurdity of the war, his anger and his resignation, in four words:

ha bloody fucking ha

Not only is this a tribute to my favourite series of books, and my most-studied period of history, but it is to me at least the phrase which best reflects the combination of nihilism and dark humour with which I find it most sensible to live my life.

I’m looking forwards to it.