The Silver Eel

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

Thursday, March 30, 2006


Do away with it all, then. At no matter what cost, start in to alter it. Never mind about wages or industrial squabbling. Turn the attention elsewhere. Pull down my native village to the last brick. Plan a nucleus. Fix the focus. Make a handsome gesture of radiation from the focus. And then put up big buildings, handsome, that sweep to a civic centre. And furnish them with beauty. And make an absolute clean start. Do it place by place. Make a new England. Away with little homes! Away with scrabbling pettiness and paltriness. Look at the contours of the land, and build up from these, with a sufficient nobility. The English may be spiritually or mentally developed. But as citizens of splendid cities they are more ignominious than rabbits. And they nag, nag, nag all the time about politics and wages and all that, like mean narrow housewives.

From "Nottingham and the Mining Country" (1929)

There's a lot wrong with this in all sorts of ways, but by gum, when his blood's up, he's impressive; and the cadence of the final sentences is magnificent. Easy to see why he travelled so much - one of those Englishmen who found it difficult to remain in England. (There have been one or two Scots like that, too.) He makes me think of Orwell, without Orwell's skill, insight or precision, but with more raw passion.

Friday, March 24, 2006


One of my concerns about the internet and blogosphere is the absence of peer review. It seems I'm shamefully out of date. There's an article on Slate about the way American academics view blogging, along with some examples of online peer review in action. The FAQ on Slashdot is particularly informative and encouraging, although the writing seems a little sloppy in places.

It's tempting to believe that online publication is merely an extension of print publication - just faster, cheaper, more widely available and easier to edit and reference, all of which are significant steps forward. Sure, you can choose to limit it to that, but after reading the Slate and Slashdot articles, I wonder if it goes beyond that. It seems to me that with these big sites, with their thousands of contributors, it's as close as you're going to get to collective text-based experience. It's a medium which facilitates, for the first time, mass involvement in a way that a rally or an election or a print publication doesn't, because everyone has a voice. No wonder the corporations are nervous.

The amount of information out there is simply staggering, and it's difficult trying to find a conceptual architecture which will order and contain it. At the moment I feel like one of the people one sees in bookshops at Christmas, making their annual visit and wandering about in a state of culture shock and disorientation. I had to wiki troll, flame-war and lamer, which probably makes me one of the last-mentioned.

I'm not too concerned that online content will make books redundant, though, any more than I am that virtual experience outdoes actual experience. We are physical creatures, and we need substance and place.


As to exorcising the "why do I blog?" meme, well, for the same reasons one writes in any medium - to unload the head, to find out what one thinks, to share what one knows or feels or imagines. Writing, as Gore Vidal said, is an extension of thinking, and that's something to which we're doomed.


From The Mind in the Cave by David Lewis-Williams:

Structure and meaning

‘Structuralism’ was one of the great informing notions of the second half of the twentieth century. It was a philosophical movement that had roots deep in Western thought. It has also been a diverse movement that has opened up enquiries into the relationship between the human mind and the material world. To guide us through the maze of structural approaches it is useful to distinguish between, on the one hand, ‘structural analysis’, a general method of analysis that examines the ways in which a ‘structure’, framework or mental template, of which people may not be aware, orders the ways in which they think and act, and, on the other, ‘Structuralism’ (with an upper-case S) which refers to a specific kind of structure comprising binary oppositions and mediations of those oppositions. Both kinds of structural theory can be discerned in an important eighteenth-century book.

Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) was an Italian jurist and classical scholar. In 1734 he published Principii di una scienza nuova (Principles of a New Science). Impressed by the work of such natural scientists as Newton and Galileo, Vico proposed a science of human society, what today we would call ‘social science’, as opposed to the ‘natural science’ of physicists, zoologists, astronomers, chemists, and so forth.

Writing in a period of European expansion and intense interest in the ‘primitive’ people and ‘savages’ whom the explorers were encountering, Vico began by challenging the current notion that such people had a different kind of mind from ‘civilized’ people. Rather, he said, the myths and explanations that they gave for natural phenomena were not simply nonsense based on ignorance; they were ‘poetic’ or ‘metaphoric’ and not intended to be taken literally. Way ahead of his time, Vico was ignored and the notion of a ‘primitive mentality’ endured through to the beginning of the twentieth century - and beyond.

Vico was astonishingly modern, even post-modern, in another way. He argued that the human mind gives shape to the material world, and it is this shape, or coherence, that allows people to understand and relate to the world in effective ways. The world is shaped by, and in the shape of, the human mind, despite the fact that people see the world as ‘natural’ or ‘given’. In performing this task of shaping the world, humanity created itself. This being so, there must be a universal ‘language of the mind’, common to all communities. Structuring, making something coherent out of the chaos of the natural world, is the essence of being human. [pp 50-51]

I include the first paragraph more out of curiosity than anything else. I’m never sure whether this sort of complex theory, which often uses familiar words in unusual ways, requiring quite a lot of mental gear-changes on the part of the reader, is genuinely useful or merely another example of human intelligence being self-indulgent and generally too clever for its own good. (I got very frustrated at university because so much time was spent comparing the theory of Professor X to that of Professor Y, neither of which seemed to have much to do with the real world, or seemed determined to ignore the half of it that wouldn’t fit. Probably very good for maintaining academic careers, but not very educative. But then what is the real world? What is real? What is is? Ad nauseum.)

The bit that took my interest is in the last paragraph, because it chimed with this, from a paper given by Alan Garner:

‘What a piece of work is a Man? How noble in reason? That is the question. And I think that the answer may be “flint”. For a long time the dividing line between Homo and other animals was the definition of Homo as the only tool user. But many animals have been seen to use tools in order to solve problems. The important difference is that the tool is used, then abandoned after the problem is solved; whereas Homo makes a tool, and therefore has an image of its intended form before it can exist [my italics]; and after use, keeps it.’

One wonders to what degree the way in which we view the world is part of our hardwiring. Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar (if I’ve got this right) suggests that the rules of language are built into us, because there is no other way to explain how an infant manages to learn so quickly something so big and mind-bogglingly complex as a language. While in a conversation with Matthew last year, he was explaining to me how the theory of ten (possibly eleven) dimensions and infinite parallel universes manages to knit together quantum theory and relativity, and is supported by what maths we have, but is routinely rejected by scientists with such vehemence that some are beginning to wonder if we’re physically incapable of coming to terms with it.

In re-reading Garner’s speech in order to find the quote above, I found another one:

‘University teachers, from all parts of the world, tell me of their concern that the majority of colleagues concentrate primarily on the critic, then on the theory, so that the student is in danger of not seeing the importance of reading the texts that were written, but not written in order to produce theory or clothe critics.’

I suppose there’s a link here, in that one could view this as a misuse of the pre-formed image, of placing a total reliance on it, regardless of the reality it’s supposed to help us relate to. It might also explain the attraction of various forms of Buddhism, which try to suppress the human perspective in pursuit of the ideal mind ‘like a mirror’, reflecting all things, and bound by none.

Deep thoughts. On a Zen note, it’s bloomin’ cold in Embra tonight.

Monday, March 20, 2006


German WWII fortification in France. No wonder Ballard said he photographed them obsessively. This particular one used to serve as a summer venue for local bands in the '60s.

Postscript 20/3/06: well, there you have it. J G Ballard in the Guardian today on modernist architecture, including the Normandy blockhouses.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


I used to rent a room in a house which had an honest-to-God wine cellar. It was still being used for its intended purpose by a former tenant, who had literally thousands of pounds worth of vino there. He'd turn up, say hello, and amble down to the cellar, from which he'd emerge an hour or two later with, as often as not, a couple of bottles to sample and share with whoever happened to be there at the time. Yeah, it wasn't exactly the toughest place I've ever lived. But what does he do when he's down there, I asked my landlady. Well, she said vaguely, you know...spends time with the wine...

The practice of laying down is something which can be done profitably with books, and it's something I've been doing more of over the past few years. There is a low and disgraceful element of hoarding in it, I'll admit, something of the mania which George Orwell wrote about in his essay on bookselling, but frequently I'll cast an eye over something and just make a mental note of it, or buy it and set it to one side, thinking, yes, but not yet. Let it sit. When it's ready, or when I am, then it'll be time. The accumulated gain is personal, not financial - I've no time for profiteering from first editions and suchlike (though I like the sense of connection with the past you get with a physically old book).

I was the surprised beneficiary of my own practice recently. Came across an old Penguin paperback of Selected Essays by D. H. Lawrence in a five year-old storage box at my parents' while rooting around for something else. God knows what had made me hang onto it, since I knew nothing about Lawrence at the time and had no interest in pursuing him - the hoarding instinct, most likely, which I doubtless justified on the excuse that I might be interested in it one day. Turns out I was right.

From a sample of four essays so far, Lawrence is a scrappy writer when his interest is only partially engaged, or when he simply doesn't have that much to say. Lots of repetition, not all of it effective. Untidy prose. And sentences which seem broken, like this. But even when there's no grace and seemingly no structure in the essay as a whole, the perception he shows in some of the fragments is extremely interesting:

"The main motive, the gross vision of all the nineteenth-century literature, is what we may call the emotional-democratic vision or motive [It is? Oh, okay...]. It seems to me that since 1860 or even 1830, the Italians have always borrowed their ideals of democracy from the northern nations, and poured great emotion into them without ever being really grafted by them. Some of the most wonderful martyrs for democracy have been Neapolitan men of birth and breeding. But none the less, it seems a mistake: an attempt to live by someone else's lights."

I imagine many a contemporary Italian could read this and nod sadly, particularly over the part about the graft not taking hold, though from recent news it would seem they've grown tired of this one-way traffic and have decided to turn it around, commencing an export trade in corruption.

A little later in the same essay (on Giovanni Verga), he writes:

"In most books of the period - even in Madame Bovary, to say nothing of Balzac's earlier Lys dans la Vallee - one has to take off about twenty per cent of the tragedy. One does it in Dickens, one does it in Hawthorne, one does it all the time, with all the great writers. Then why not with Verga? Just knock off about twenty percent of the tragedy in I Malavoglia, and see what a great book remains. Most books that live, live in spite of the author's laying it on thick. Think of Wuthering Heights. It is quite as impossible to an Italian as even I Malavoglia is to us. But it is a great book."

Not a bad technique, and worth applying, and a sad reminder that most fiction of length is in some respect disappointing. To come across the real good stuff, that makes your mouth tingle like a divvy's at a car boot sale, is a rare pleasure.

At the beginning of the essay:

"A hundred years ago, when Manzoni's I Promessi Sposi [The Betrothed] came out, it met with European applause. Along with Sir Walter Scott and Byron, Manzoni stood for 'Romance' to all Europe. Yet where is Manzoni now, even compared to Scott and Byron? Actually, I mean. Nominally, I Promessi Sposi is a classic, in fact, it is usually considered the classic Italian novel. It is set in all 'literature courses' [those quotes are interesting - presumably 'literature' was a relatively new field of study, and still regarded as not quite the real thing as far as an education was concerned, unlike Latin and Greek]. But who reads it? Even in Italy, who reads it? And yet, to my thinking, it is one of the best and most interesting novels ever written: surely a greater book than Ivanhoe or Paul et Virginie or Werther. Why then does nobody read it?"

He goes on to pose the same question regarding Verga. I was delighted to read this about Manzoni, because I keep coming across semi-totemic references to him and The Betrothed, and think, who the hell is he? Now, as in Lawrence's day - nearly another hundred years ago! - a great unread writer, apparently. I had a conversation on a train recently with an Italian who spoke virtually no English but who was not letting that hold him back. I had just begun reading The Leopard and showed it to him, and he nodded offhandedly and said something about Gattopardo (which is leopard), and then I Promessi Sposi, so there was another flag. I tried running Sciascia's name past him but he didn't bite - maybe Sciascia is still too near the knuckle. It was an odd conversation. We'd made all the progress we were going to make inside about fifteen seconds, and frankly I was quite keen to get back to my book, but he kept on. Whenever I responded with a little more effort, a little more active interest, he would suddenly look away, very proud and aloof. Well, okay, I thought, and I'd let the silence return. Then he'd start up again, as eagerly as before. It was weird.

The Betrothed is in print as a Penguin classic, but at £12.99 and 720 pages I can't see many takers, although the summary on the Penguin website sounds pretty enticing.


Very sad to see that both Granite Island by Dorothy Carrington and The Mechanical Turk by Tom Standage have gone out of print. Granite Island is a simply superb book, with terrific descriptive passages, so good you feel you're actually there, fine reportage, personal reflections, and loads of interesting history and anthropology which provide the ballast without ever slowing it down. It is very slightly marred in a few places by what comes across as wishful thinking, a flaw which becomes more obvious in her later, terrifying The Dream Hunters of Corsica, but this is a quibble. It's an outstanding book, the achievement of a lifetime's work and commitment, and for it to become unavailable is an insult to civilisation. I'll admit to not having read The Mechanical Turk, but Joe did and was still waxing lyrical about it two years later (and most probably will again, if you give him a prod).

When we bitch about the decline of the midlist, this is what we're talking about, and everyone loses, whether they know it or not.

Saturday, March 04, 2006


I've probably been very slow in picking this up, but there's an extremely worrying article posted on The Nation about the supposed plans of telecommunications companies in the US to make internet users pay for every single thing they do online. The implication of greater private control over access seems to be that - as in the real world - those with the most money will be able to promote themselves most effectively, while those with none (most users, I'd imagine) will be sidelined or even excluded. It makes sense that they'd give it a go, extending the logic of the mass media to the most massive medium of all, and cutting out all that pesky free speech.

Which reminds me that there was a link on George Walkley's blog a while back to an article about companies getting very nervous about blogs, and seeing them as a real threat to - inevitably - liberty.

I'd never seen The Nation before - no wonder Gore Vidal's had a lot of essays published here.