The Silver Eel

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

Saturday, February 25, 2006


Have posted a very long comment on Le Guin and the Earthsea novels in reply to a query. See PRO-SCRIPTIVE (Feb 17th, 2006). It has a couple of typos - apologies.

Friday, February 24, 2006


Who says I don't know how to show a lady the sights?

Thursday, February 23, 2006


Been reading the first volume of Anthony Burgess’s autobiography Little Wilson and Big God with huge enjoyment. This is the first sustained attempt I’ve made at something by Burgess, and my impression is that he’s no great prose stylist - it’s all bolts and spot welding and exposed gears, a Mustang rather than a Jaguar - but no matter how unbeautiful it can be, by gum, it works.

There are dozens of pieces I could quote, and I’m only about a quarter of the way through. This one made some impression. Burgess is 11 and recovering in Monsall Isolation Hospital from scarlet fever:

“This meant, among other things, the meeting of the desquamated [“To shed, peel, or come off in scales. Used of skin.”] from the girls’ wards in some neutral zone of the grounds. The meeting was always collective, with spokesman and spokeswoman. Our spokesman was nicknamed ‘Angin Out because, crying for an urgent bedpan, he had said that was what the faeces were doing. […] The social ritual featured male aggression, though it was purely verbal, and female reasonableness. ‘What wards are you lads in, then?’ - ‘Who wants to know?’ - ‘That’s not a nice way to speak.’ - ‘We’re not ‘ere to be nice.’ - ‘What are you here for, then?’ And so on. When I said to ‘Angin Out that the spokesgirl was not exactly pretty, he said that there was more to a girl than prettiness. There was a good ‘art and nice manners. He told me this with immense seriousness.

“But it was with a pretty girl that I rolled naked on the grass behind the shrubbery. We had shed all our skin like snakes and were proud of our new bodies. So we showed our bodies to each other and to the Monsall sun; we embraced and rolled. We rolled to a concealed hollow and kissed and stroked and said we loved each other.”

That was as far as it went - probably as far as it was able to go. I scratched my ear and thought how it was rather a lot further than I got to at that age, and for an embarrassingly long time afterwards; but I remembered primary-school kissing games, and proto-girlfriends of pre-adolescence, and our teacher’s irritation one day at the class’s low-level but constant preoccupation over who was “going” with whom. We had an amorphous idea of what male and female was about, though we were incapable of doing anything about it.

Then I read this and this, and was shocked.

I particularly like Ravenhill’s line “The spectacle of sex dominates our lives - but the humanity of it is absent”. There was Page 3 when I was a kid, though it was an enigma of the adult world, a secret source of puzzlement rather than titillation. Nowadays…Jesus.

Should any lawyers or other miscreants be reading, this doesn't mean that I’m in favour of changing the law. Sixteen seems to me about right, though principally to protect children from adults rather than each other. Judging from the newspaper pieces linked to above, some psychic as well as physical protection may be in order.


As a totally leftfield postscript, Neil Diamond ain’t cool now and never has been, and my cool radar is bargain-basement.

Sunday, February 19, 2006


A friend whose brother is a music therapist reports that music and food are the two things which can arouse genuine pleasure and offer comfort to even the most demented elderly patients. Which is interesting, because they are Hannibal Lecter's principal pleasures too; in fact in Hannibal he says something along the lines of, taste and smell are our oldest senses, Clarice, the closest to our reptile ancestry and the furthest from that part of the brain which houses pity; and pity has no place at my table.

(Well, not far off: "Clarice, dinner appeals to taste and smell, the oldest senses and the closest to the centre of the mind. Taste and smell are housed in parts of the mind that precede pity, and pity has no place at my table.")


A real disappointment - worthy but dull. The tone of it remains constant throughout (by which I mean there's no involvement of the audience through the contrast between emotional highs and lows), the settings remain almost exclusively limited to the CBS offices (I don't think there's one external shot) which induces claustrophobia without tension, there's little sense of conflict, little sense of the stakes being played for, little historical or social context, almost no human interest, almost no sense of what McCarthyism meant to ordinary Americans (many of whom had to live with the stigma of having been labelled "Un-American" for decades afterwards and were often unable to find work because of it) save for one poor nobbled schmoe whose role is limited to archive footage. In fact, the lasting impression of the film is "liberal media elite goes after straw man and gets him". There's no real sense of victory because there's no sense of the threat posed by McCarthy, or how popular he was. Shamelessly one-sided. And I say that as a liberal, and someone who agrees with Murrow (as portrayed here) and Clooney, and someone who wanted to like the film. It fails as art, and it won't win over the propellerheads in the Amnesian heartland, for whom it is far too cerebral. Two things I will concede - the lighting and the music (jazz numbers shot as live broadcasts) are terrific, but that's no real compensation, or reason enough to go and see the movie.

Apparently there's an episode of Lou Grant in which a young reporter has done a piece on a right-wing politician. Lou watches the tape and calls him into his office. "You really hate this guy, don't you?" "Sure I do," says the reporter. "I can tell. And I shouldn't be able to!" That's what this film makes me think.

Not a patch on All the President's Men (wherein there is a real, contaminating sense of dread), or Bob Roberts, or even The Insider. Not even as good as The Contender. And light-years away from the all-time greatest American political movie, The Manchurian Candidate.

P.S. There is one other aspect of the film to praise, indeed to be thankful for. I assume that Murrow's speeches in the film are taken from actual broadcasts: whether they are or not, they are intelligent, precise and elegant, often made up of extended and structurally complex (by today's standards!) sentences. They refuse to treat the audience as anything other than intelligent in turn, assuming it can follow allusion and make associations, and that it doesn't need to be led by the hand step by step through an argument. It's amazing to think that an American news programme used to be written in such a way, and got big audiences and swayed public opinion. In 1968 the average length of the TV soundbite was 42.3 seconds; by 1997 it was 9.9 seconds.


This probably goes to explain rather a lot:

"One of the strangest facts in British history, and one which had the most lasting consequences, was that Parliament was six hundred years old before universal suffrage emerged in 1918. In most European states, parliamentary life only began at the same time, or shortly before, the arrival of full democracy. In Britain, it was possible to be parliamentary without being democratic, which in the rest of Europe was largely impossible. Whigs were parliamentarians but not democrats. They passionately defended all the liberties associated with regular debate, the rule of law and a respect for majorities, but thought that universal suffrage might well put all this in jeopardy. Europe had no Whiggery because Europe had no parliamentary life before democracy. It was an exclusively British experience."

The author, Leslie Mitchell, goes on to write:

"If Parliament [today] is controlled by public opinion, and that public opinion is moulded by an international media, who then effectively governs? Should it be a matter of concern that the bulk of public opinion may be neither educated, interested or informed? Why, having achieved universal suffrage, are fewer and fewer people inclined to vote?"

Good questions indeed, but they proceed from a flawed premise. In surveys, the British public often shows itself to be far more left-wing than the vast majority of politicians representing it, and than the vaster majority of the media supposedly informing it. Politicians may be concerned about what they think the public thinks, and even more concerned about what the papers say, but I'm far from convinced they worry too much about - or even know - what the public really thinks. Viz, the reaction to the protests over Iraq. Can we really say that Parliament is controlled by public opinion? Only when that opinion coincides with a share of the big money. The notion that these poor politicians are cowering under the threat of the baying, manipulated mob is pure bunk.

Further, it's impossible for the public to be adequately educated or informed by mainstream media, and given that, why should they be interested? It's simply the case that the interests of the public and those of most Parliamentarians do not coincide. Hence the falling vote.

* * *

Robert Lindsay tells a story about how he was going up the red carpet in New York one time as he'd been nominated for a Tony for Me and My Girl. Feeling rather pleased with himself, he was smiling and waving to all the press and public when some wag in the crowd shouted "Freedom for Tooting!". My God, he thought, will this never go away?

Friday, February 17, 2006


I went through what's become a familiar procession of emotions on hearing about and then reading the semi-recent recommendations for essential school-age books. Curiosity followed by interest, eagerness and finally irritation. I do sympathise with Nick Hornby's comment at the end of the Guardian piece. Motion's list is clearly political, and impractical, but he makes a necessary point. Pullman's list seems light, though I agree with what he says about Kipling; Rowling's isn't bad. For what it's worth, here's mine:

Winnie-the-Pooh/The House at Pooh Corner
The Wind in the Willows
The Jungle Books
Tales of Robin Hood [not the Roger Lancelyn Green version]
The Hill of the Red Fox
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
The Lord of the Rings

I've cheated like mad, putting two books in as the first entry; also, The Jungle Books count as two, Earthsea counts as three; and it's maybe hard to read The Lord of the Rings without having first read The Hobbit. However, that's it squeezed down to ten entries and I really can't reduce it any further. I'm embarassed by the absence of female protagonists, save for Tenar in The Tombs of Atuan and Susan in Weirdstone, who doesn't count because she and Colin are personality-free.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is not Garner's best book, but The Owl Service gave me such difficulty as an adult before I licked it that I shy from recommending it. A child who has read Weirdstone may go on to try the rest of Garner - it's a first step, and in any case it's a terrific, frightening adventure story. The Lord of the Rings I now have many reservations about, though I read and re-read it obsessively from the age of about 12 to 15, but the strength of the narrative will carry a kid past the interminable descriptive paragraphs on flora. Indeed I think it's a book which is far easier to read as a child than as an adult. Also, its length is in its favour - once you've read that, size alone is likely to hold less fear.

I could happily have added Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Dr Seuss, The Eagle of the Ninth, Tales of King Arthur, The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Dark is Rising, the Narnia novels, and with great reluctance I have taken out a selection of Robert Westall novels (including Anne, female protag. of The Watch House). I notice that many of them are overtly or obliquely about the natural world, and that many are fantasies. In children's books that counts as a plus because they deal in archetypes, and that makes them imaginatively portable - they are capable of going in deep and forming a foundation for later reading. Doubtless other novels would do as well as these, but I can't vouch for them - these I know from experience, and can count on. We read I Am David and The Silver Sword at school, acknowledged classics and "serious" (i.e. about the war), but for some reason they never made much impression.

The list excludes the innumerable Hardy Boys, Three Investigators, Doctor Who novelisations and Willard Price adventures that I read as a kid. As Ursula Le Guin has said, children consume enormous amounts of garbage, and it is good for them - which is why I don't get too worked up any more about Harry Potter. (I was, I admit, genuinely delighted to see the real-life Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross recently.)

It also excludes stuff which I considered putting on because it was worthy and improving - the worst reasons. Hence no Animal Farm, The Outsider, Metamorphosis, A Man for All Seasons, Shakespeare, Wilfred Owen, Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov. These are not kids' books - they are pieces of literature which are fundamental, yes, simple, yes, capable of being read by children, yes, but they're the books you read after you've read the other stuff. At least, I did. Gore Vidal may have been reading Henry James at 13, and good for him, but it doesn't make it children's literature. Literature of this sort is geared towards an adult sensibility, and just because you can read it doesn't mean you'll grasp it, or that it will shape you. It may, but I can't see the hit-rate for Henry James being great for contemporary children.

The only exception to this rule is Davy, which I read once at 13 and didn't need to go near again, until I decided to check it out a few years ago, and found it to my joy as strong, strange, dirty and vital as it had been when I'd read it under the covers with a Durabeam torch and marvelled at all the fucking in it. It's about a boy's transition to manhood (and the sex is only part of it) on the road in a post-Apocalyptic, neo-rustic America, learning to apprehend the world and the cruelty and compassion and contradiction of it, written with tremendous inventiveness and humanity. I can't think of a better book with which to leave childhood.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Yep, still going with it. I've read of people taking their time with books because they didn't want them to end, but it's the first time I've done it myself. It's very rarely that you find yourself thinking as you go along, this is a masterpiece, but that's precisely what it is. The bar just got raised.

I note with interest that on the Random House site, the book is simply called "Leopard", di Lampedusa is De Lampedusa, and an author interview is coming soon. This is inexcusable. I further note the idiocy of the "starting points for your discussion". Probably worst of all is the underlying assumption that a work of art is created rather than discovered, that something is done in such a way in order to create an effect, rather than because it seemed to the author to be true. Next up is the notion that a piece of writing provides the opportunity to carry out a little home psychoanalysis of the writer. Next up is simple misreading: "There is a sense in which Don Fabrizio is imprisoned by the history and topography of Sicily..." Yes, a sense, a sense, which one might call total. Give me strength. What is it about people who wouldn't dream about tinkering aimlessly under their car bonnet that they've prepared to roll up their sleeves and assault in the most ham-fisted way possible ... etc, etc.

Horrible Elitists 'R' Us.

Thursday, February 02, 2006


I've had to stop reading Broken April by Ismail Kadare, about 50 pages before the end - just under a quarter of its total length. It got to the point where I really couldn't manage more than a couple of pages before wanting to put it down. Reading a novel hasn't been this much of an effort since Iain Banks' A Song of Stone (a terrible book, which doesn't detract from the quality of The Wasp Factory, The Bridge, Complicity or The Crow Road). Not that it's badly written (or rather, that the translation is badly written) but I don't think it's stopped raining since I began, very little has happened, no character has made a decision which reveals something about themselves or challenges the situation they're in - essentially, there's been no real variation in terms of plot, theme, setting or personality, and worst of all, I don't care enough to find out what happens in the end. There have been about three or four good, interesting paragraphs dotted about, and that's it. I accept I may be missing something - is the whole thing designed as an allegory of life under communism, which must certainly have been this dreary and seemingly interminable? An associate is having comparable difficulties with The General of the Dead Army.

I have begun The Leopard instead, having put it off for long enough, and am enjoying it hugely, though relief is probably part of it. Useful that I read the Giovanni Verga stories collected in Life in the Country in January, which provide something by way of context, though I didn't think much of J.G. Nichols' translation. From what I remember sampling, the ones by D. H. Lawrence in Sparrow, Temptation and Cavalleria Rusticana are far better.

If this isn't a niche recommendation, I don't know what is.