The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Thursday, July 28, 2005


Just came across this site when looking for an online image of Max Ernst's The Angel of Hearth and Home. It's probably incredibly well-known among surfing cognoscenti, but for what it's worth, I pass it on. It has two of the great virtues of the internet - instant cross-referencing, and an absence of intellectual snobbery. Of course, it may well suffer from the great vice - the frequent absence of editorial or peer review to ensure factual accuracy (I refuse to support Wikipedia for this reason - only one of Kidnapped's main characters is fictional - a real howler) but I know practically nothing about art, so can't say.

Recall a thrilling moment from movies - Tarkovsky's Solaris. The crew of the space station are meeting to discuss what to do about the dreadful hauntings they are suffering from. And for no apparent reason the camera picks up on a reproduction of The Hunters in the Snow, and lingers on it, focussing on details in the picture. Just that, and music - but it's a long moment of humanity. It really is a case of the image being able to express what words fall short of.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005


Forthfreighter sailing along the edge of the world at Portobello.

Monday, July 25, 2005


Frederick Forsyth recently presented a half-hour programme on R4 on John Buchan, celebrating his life and writing, and trying to clear of him of the charge of racism, especially anti-semitism, which apparently dogs his reputation. It doesn't appear to have been archived on the BBC site, which is a shame because it was extremely well done. Forsyth may be an ardent royalist and arch-conservative, but his breezy enthusiasm is refreshing.

The infamous passage is from early in The 39 Steps, where Hannay's confidant tells him that, as with every conspiracy, if you chisel away at it long enough you will find the prime mover, the evil genius, is "a little white-faced Jew...with an eye like a rattlesnake". The description is extended and particularly vitriolic, so striking that one wonders what on earth it is doing in a novel which otherwise is a romp. Buchan did write it in haste (it shows) and one wonders how much revision he put into it, and if he had, whether he'd have had second thoughts.

Forsyth was at pains to absolve Buchan in both his life (friends who were Jews; exemplary conduct in private and public) and writing (views expressed are those of characters, which shouldn't be taken to reflect Buchan's own - fair enough). One of his talking heads (if one can use that term of radio) maintained that Prester John, which is set mostly in South Africa and involves the foiling of an attempted black - Kaffir, in the book - uprising by David Crawfurd, a young, enterprising Scot, was in fact very sympathetic towards native grievances and made a genuine hero out of Laputa, their leader.

I began reading Prester John in about 1984, and have just finished it (lost my father's old Nelson edition in the school canteen, which explains the 20-year hiatus). The writing is as good as one would expect, rising to excellent in places (Buchan is particularly strong at extended passages of solitary hardship) though the story leans in places on King Solomon's Mines, and there are times when credibility is seriously strained. There's no doubt that Laputa, the Prester John of the title, is energetically and sympathetically portrayed, but it's done with an underlying tone of condescension. It finally comes to the surface here:

"Yet it was an experience for which I shall ever be grateful, for it turned me from a rash boy into a serious man. I knew then the meaning of the white man’s duty. He has to take all risks, recking nothing of his life or fortunes, and well content to find his reward in the fulfilment of his task. That is the difference between white and black, the gift of responsibility, the power of being in a little way a king; and so long as we know this and practise it, we will rule not in Africa alone but wherever there are dark men who live only for the day and their own bellies. I learned much of the untold grievances of the natives, and saw something of their strange, twisted reasoning. Before we had got Laputa’s army back to their kraals, with food enough to tide them over the spring sowing, Aitken and I had got sounder policy in our heads than you will find in the towns, where men sit in their offices and see the world through a mist of papers."

There’s so much in this statement which one can applaud: self-sacrifice, indifference to hardship, a taste for relentless hard work, all in the pursuit of an ideal far beyond individual gain - the values of Kipling, Empire and The Breed; yet it's fatally compromised by something that Andy McNab revealed about working undercover for the SAS in Northern Ireland: you can have understanding - near-total understanding - of the other, without sympathy. The barriers stay up, however close one gets to them.

Buchan had an undoubted talent with words, but it seems to me he relied on it too much to tide him over weaknesses in plot, motivation, structure. I’d really like to read something where for once he takes his time - The Courts of the Morning, perhaps? - or some of his short stories, where the demands and dangers of the novel ("It is the length that kills" - RLS) are absent.

Sunday, July 24, 2005


Neither Bob nor Thomas, but Moran, when he described listening to the news on Radio 4 as being without equal for making you feel both bored and angry. (From his really excellent stand-up routine Monster.) The beef is that in a review of the papers this morning, columnists in the likes of the Torygraph and News of the Screws are putting the blame for the death of Jean Charles de Menezes on the London terrorists and clearing the polis of virtually all responsibility; others are condemning the police for killing an innocent man. It's wonderful the heights of stupidity you can rise to when you're unencumbered by fact.

From my reading of Times, Guardian and BBC reports, I gather that 1) material from the failed bombings had led police to put the house where Mr de Menezes lived under surveillance 2) he went out unseasonably dressed, in a heavy coat 3) he ran when challenged by armed plain-clothes police 4) he jumped a ticket barrier at Stockwell Tube station 5) he was shot five times at close range while lying on the floor of a train.

Now, after that things get a little hazy. It's not clear, for example, how de Menezes wound up on the floor - some say he was pushed, others that he tripped. One account (in the Times) says that an armed officer put a gun down to him before firing. Anti-terrorism police have apparently been told to fire at the head of suspected suicide bombers rather than the torso, for fear of setting off explosives. Given that the head is a far smaller target, I suppose that you would want to have the gun close before you fired.

But if police were that close to him, close enough to push him over and shoot at near point-blank range, why not restrain him physically? Well, an individual who is sufficiently angry, afraid or desperate takes one hell of a lot of restraining, even by people who have been trained. I'm sure any prison officer or psychiatric nurse would say that. Geoff Thompson (martial artist and former bouncer) has a story about a ju-jitsu man who was mugged and put an armlock on his attacker, a technique which had people tapping out almost instantly in the dojo. The mugger head-butted him and ran off nursing a broken arm.

Now imagine what a suicide bomber could do in the half-second when one of his arms isn't quite under control.

I'm no supporter of trigger-happy police (see the case of Harry Stanley) and I don't want to say they definitely did or didn't do the right thing, not before all the facts are out (if that's even possible). But one can see how what might look like an execution-style killing to witnesses would be justified in the mind of someone who had only a second to decide.

It's terrible, no mistake, what happened to Mr de Menezes, but I just wish the columnists would shut the fuck up and ask more questions, instead of rushing to excuse or condemn. It does no-one any good, and it's just a cheap way of filling papers.

Why did de Menezes run? Having started running, why didn't he stop? Did the officers identify themselves properly? Did they know who de Menezes was? Was de Menezes restrained when he was shot? And so on.

Oh, and whether or not the police acted properly, whether or not their victim was innocent, they are responsible for killing him, regardless of the circumstances, which can at best be mitigating. Don't try and hide from that one.

Incidentally, the Times piece is the best-written, the Guardian the most rambling, and the BBC the slightest.,16132,1535246,00.html,,2087-1706793,00.html

Tuesday, July 19, 2005


Late into work on Monday, as the first I knew of the bus strike was when I was actually waiting for the bus. Took some flak for this because it was reported in the Evening News, the Metro, etc etc. Well, I don't read the Evening News, don't know anyone who does; I do occasionally read the Metro because the entire thing fits nicely into a 15-minute tea break; I don't even read the Scotsman or the Guardian anymore, not the former since it was taken over by mates of Thatcher, and not the latter since I belatedly figured out that 94% of news, even in the Guardian, is about entertainment.

See Neil Postman's book Amusing Ourselves to Death (Methuen, 1985, still in print) for a sidelight on this. It's about the rise of thinking based on a TV paradigm (which he argues is inescapably about soliciting an immediate reaction, and therefore entertainment) as opposed to a print paradigm (which he says inevitably requires distance, consideration, sober reflection on the part of the reader). I'm not sure that this latter point holds up when you look at, f'rinstance, any Sun article; however, there's some great material in there, some fascinating history (Lincoln giving a seven-hour speech, admittedly with a break so everyone could go home for dinner, on completion of which his audience presented him with questions), and the central idea that entertaining people keeps them from thinking, which is an oldie but needs to be repeated as often as possible. It's Commodus' trick in Gladiator. Bread and circuses.

On a tip from a colleague have been looking at medialens, which claims to free hacks of the restraints of so-called impartiality imposed by the Beeb, ITV and the mainstream media. I have to say I'm not bowled over by it, though there is an archive of good reportage, particularly from Robert Fisk and John Pilger - in other words, from the guys who have actually done the groundwork. The problem with so much of what comes from the Left, for want of a better word, is that it's shrill, overwritten and self-righteous. All you have to do is present the facts, which are so terrible they speak for themselves. Still, worth a look, and anything that stands against media collusion with atrocity is worth supporting.

Moving on, kind of, a couple of quotes:

"Here I saw an ugly sight: a British officer interrogating [a civilian], and repeatedly hitting him about the head with a chair; treatment which [the civilian], his face a mask of blood, suffered with stoicism. At the end of the interrogation, which had not been considered successful, the officer called in a private...and asked him in a pleasant, conversational sort of manner, 'Would you like to take this man away, and shoot him?' The private's reply was to spit on his hands, and say, 'I don't mind if I do, sir.' The most revolting episode I have seen since joining the forces."

Not from Iraq, as you'll have gathered from the tone, but from Norman Lewis' Naples '44.

And this:

"They bound their hands and feet together round a fallen tree in such a way that their backsides...were sticking up nicely in the air. Then they pulled down their trousers, took several yards of fuse, tied knots in it and ran it up and down in their arses to such effect that the blood came pouring out. The peasants screamed pitifully, but the soldiers were enjoying it and did not stop their sawing until they were through the skin and flesh and down to the bone."

Not Bosnia, not Chechnya, but from Grimmelshausen's Simplicissimus, first published in 1668, and based on the author's experience of the Thirty Years War, a conflict so devastating, I read, that Germany knew nothing that came even close to it until the Second World War, 300 years later.

The point being the old one that literature is news that stays news. How long will we have to wait before the true accounts of what's been going on in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya emerge and become acknowledged as "classics"? Where are the latter-day accounts which will match Homage to Catalonia or All Quiet on the Western Front?

Possibly it'll never happen. Postman may be right to this extent: that the ephemeral nature of TV militates against memory. We think that the record has been established, that it's all on tape somewhere, but what memory really requires is narrative.

And in the meantime, a little truth wouldn't hurt.


A grand day out on Sunday, and a climb up North Berwick Law for the first time in about six years. I see they've filled in the old open-air seawater swimming pool to make a parking space for these wee two-man dinghies (for nerds only, from the Hindi dingi - a rowing boat once used on Indian rivers). Which I suppose is practical, but offers rather less imaginative potential for the J G Ballard fans among us. Take six Ballard short stories at random and I can almost guarantee there'll be an empty swimming pool in at least one of them.


Craigleith, with North Berwick in the foreground

Bass Rock
(as featured in Catriona by RLS - a lousy novel containing some terrific writing. The Bass Rock section is particularly worth a look and includes a good ghost story - but skip all of the Holland stuff in the second half. It really is that bad.)

Thursday, July 14, 2005


As Sprog has reached the age where day-to-day New Dad comments and advice are likely enough redundant (apart from these: hang on in there, and invest in blackout blinds) this is more of a kinda test post to see how things will look...

So here are the Top Ten desert island books, in no particular order. This list is subject to change without warning.

Davy by Edgar Pangborn
Red Shift by Alan Garner
Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson
Open Letters by Vaclav Havel
United States by Gore Vidal
Grey is the Colour of Hope by Irina Ratushinskaya
Essays by George Orwell
Life's a Dream by Pedro Calderon de la Barca (trans. Adrian Mitchell)

and, er,

Swords in the Mist by Fritz Leiber

No, really. Read Donna Tartt's introduction to True Grit (recently re-published in the UK) for a definition of what constitutes a favourite book. It's not about quality, or peer recognition, or perceived worthiness. It's about the sense of coming home and being welcomed, every time you open it. There's a surprisingly good page on Leiber's work on the TSR website, the only comment to which one can take exception being something along the lines of the D&D novels being the closest of current fantasies to the adventures of Fafhrd and the Mouser. One salutes their chutzpah even as one winces.