The Silver Eel

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

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


The older I get, the fewer things there are that make me really, blood-spitting angry, but this is one of them:

8.00pm Property Developing Abroad Having been stationed in Iraq, Charlie and Sascha took early retirement from the Army to become developers in Bulgaria, and are now looking to buy up as much property as possible on its Black Sea coast. With the help of presenter Gary McCausland, the couple view potential purchases and consider how best to increase their profits by targeting British holiday-makers seeking luxury villas (888) (Stereo)

Place is not about profit, it's about belonging - unless you're Bulgarian - or Greek Cypriot - or - or - or - in which case, good luck. If this was happening in Wales you'd get your luxury villa burnt to the fuckin' ground and rightly so. But this is a lost debate in the UK, ever since Margaret bloody Thatcher decided to create a class of kulaks by selling off the decent council housing stock and leaving the poorest to rot.

The most interesting thing - and the one I've never seen properly addressed - about all these programmes on whinging poms buying abroad is why they decide to leave in the first place. What has gone so badly wrong with the country that they are not prepared to stick and try to make it work? How have they become deracinated, so that not only do they not belong in the place they move to, they don't even belong to the place they've come from?

Saturday, June 17, 2006


"Youth is a time of melancholy."
- Lawrence Durrell, Balthazar

"By the time you're nineteen you have a pretty good idea of some of the things you're not going to be; but more often, this sense of one's limitations, the really penetrating understanding, happens in late youth or early middle age."
- Raymond Carver, 'John Gardner: The Writer as Teacher', in Call If You Need Me

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


In Tony Hawk's autobiography Occupation: Skateboarder, a photo of the author with none other than Monica Lewinsky, both of them grinning at the camera. The caption reads, "Close, but no cigar".

Sunday, June 11, 2006


It may be a factor of age, or possibly parenthood, that I rarely seem to be able to read a book all the way through these days, not at the one attempt. Simplicissimus took three or four, with gaps of months - the best part of a year to get from cover to cover. It doesn't appear to have affected my ability to enjoy them - not so long as I stop and switch to something else when I start to get bored - or to remember what's happened, more or less, when I pick them up again. So I have put down December Bride for the time being and restarted The Count of Monte Cristo. The padding in it is outrageous, but I'm managing to forgive Dumas for being such a hack, and taking pleasure from his nonpareil eye for a good yarn.

It may also be a sign of age that I'm taking equal pleasure from the footnotes by Robin Buss, viz:

"The sinister byways of Italian history held a peculiar fascination for French writers at the start of the nineteenth century, particularly for liberals who saw political capital to be made out of relating past papal misdeeds. But there is more to it than that: Stendhal, who tells similar stories in his Chroniques italiennes and Promenades dans Rome, admired the mixture of refinement and savagery that he perceived in Italian culture, and was fascinated by its reversals of expectations (noble bandits, degenerate nobles). The Italian scenes in Dumas' novel are an interesting reflection of the image of Italy in his time and suggest the appeal of a country that French visitors often found liberating after Restoration France."

Stendhal's not the first, or last. Shakespeare and his contemporaries made use of Italian stories on a regular basis (there's an Everyman book of selected original translations, now seemingly out of print), and Thomas Harris had Hannibal Lecter seek refuge in Florence. Refinement and savagery - about right.

And (one for Joe):

"The short novel, Lord Ruthwen, or The Vampire (first published in 1819 in the New Monthly Magazine), was written by Byron's companion and physician, Dr Polidori, who did not discourage the attribution to the poet himself. It was soon translated into French by Henri Faber (1819) and again by Amédée Pichot (1820), and helped to fuel an extraordinary vogue for vampire stories and melodramas, including Cyprien Bérard’s Lord Rutwen, and the melodrama Le Vampire (1820), co-authored by Charles Nodier. Dumas saw this in 1823 and devoted several chapters to it in his memoirs (3rd series, 1863).

"Nodier’s play was promptly re-translated into English by James Planché, as The Vampire, or The Bride of the Isles (1820), and before the end of the same year in France there had been at least five other vampire productions on the Parisian stage: a burlesque, a farce, a comic opera, a vampire Punch [interesting!] and a ‘vaudeville folly’ in which one character says: ‘Vampires! They have come from England…That’s another nice present those gentlemen have sent us!’ Nodier observed that ‘the myth of the vampire is perhaps the most universal of our superstitions’. It revived, of course, with Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1899); and lives on in our own century in a medium which might be said to feature only the shadowy figures of the Undead - the cinema."

- most of which he'll already be familiar with, I'm sure.

Then there's this, from the text itself:

'Do so, my dear guest, do so. But do not be content with just one experiment: as with everything, the senses must become accustomed to a new impression, whether it is pleasant or not, happy or sad. Nature wrestles with this divine substance, because our nature is not made for joy but clings to pain. Nature must be defeated in this struggle, reality must follow dreams; and then the dream will rule, will become the master, the dream will become life and life become a dream. What a difference is made by this transfiguration! When you compare the sorrows of real life to the pleasures of the imaginary one, you will never want to live again, only to dream for ever. When you leave your world for that of others, you will feel as if you have travelled from spring in Naples to winter in Lapland, from paradise to earth, from heaven to hell. Try some hashish, my friend! Try it!'

Which, as a pitch, beats "Wan' a score some grass ther pal, likezey?"


I note, with the grim satisfaction of one whose end-is-nigh prognostications have been proved correct, that Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy is now out of print in the UK. Oh, the irony.

Friday, June 02, 2006


What I like about this image (never having seen the painting, I gotta say image - I'm told that reproductions, no matter how good, never match the original) is that though the subject appears to be the bridge, which is precise and definite and firmly rooted, what takes my attention is the the sky beyond and above it, the way it seems to go on forever, not in spite of, but because the bridge itself is so limited and particular.

It strikes me as an illustration of what prose can do, when used properly - the right words used with full intent. Have recently begun a book bought ten years ago and by happy indolence neither read nor re-sold nor thrown out, just laid down until one or other of us was ready: Sam Hanna Bell's December Bride. They made a film of it in 1990, which I saw at the Filmhouse in the days when just about every film seemed to contain hidden meanings, and if I hadn't fallen slightly for Saskia Reeves at the time, I'd probably never have bought the book. Here's an extract:

'Let us be going now,' said Andrew. The ram was urged to the water's edge and hoisted into the boat. Sarah was snatched up by Frank, and as he stood thigh-deep in the water he turned a little towards Pentland with his burden before he seated her in the stern. Already the two men on the beach were vague and indistinct, and their shouts of farewell came torn and disjointed to those afloat. 'He's a crabbit ould blirt, too,' grumbled the servingman, referring to Andrew, as he and Pentland turned away. But his master only grunted. He was preoccupied with the image of the sturdy, pale, smooth-haired woman in whose company he had been for the past three hours. He remembered Frank Echlin's fingers sunk in her thigh and waist and a tremor ran through him. The slipe [sledge] caught on a stone, and Pentland turned round to look down on the lough. the boat had vanished and the grey fretted water was hardly distinguishable from the rain and mist that swept across it.

Bell's compression of time (something Garner goes on about, but which I'm only now coming to appreciate) in this passage is superb, and he gives you what is required, no more, in the way of description and narrative. In limiting himself he creates space, suggests tension, though nothing very dramatic is happening. Though it may not be evident here, in other parts of the novel the evocation of silence underlying action or behind the dialogue is quite incredible - rather like the sky in the Van Gogh - something they brought out well in the film, as I remember.


A lot of it seems to be written in Scots - but I didn't know that Bell was born in Scotland, or that his father was manager of the Glasgow Herald - or even of the existence of Ulster Scots, shame on me. It comes as no surprise, however, that he was a folklorist - from the sounds of it much like Hamish Henderson or David Thomson or George Ewart Evans.


Through no fault of my own, have been hearing a fair bit of frog rock recently, including the perennially silly "Je t' non plus". It's worth reflecting that Jane Birkin will be 60 this December, and it makes you wonder if, were she our mother or aunt, we wouldn't be a tad embarrassed at her heavy breathing being broadcast for the benefit of all. In a personal or family context, this sort of thing would be locked away, only occasionally brought out for reminiscing with one's peers or amusing the children. Stuck on a public record, of course, it becomes timeless.

And, as Barry Norman used to say, why not? It chills me to see a pensioner with a book on Frank Zappa, and it amuses me to see a student with a biography of Edie Sedgwick. The uses of the '60s. In the early '90s, when I was a student, we looked back to it for inspiration - read the Beats and Hunter S. Thompson, listened to the Velvet Underground and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and Frank was on the back of the bathroom door, sitting on the can with his pants around his ankles. So it should be. There's an excellent essay by Harlan Ellison called "The Song the Sixties Sang" which lays out why they were, and are, important. No young person's education is complete without knowing something about them, and being fired by it.