The Silver Eel

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

Monday, September 18, 2006


The South Bank Show this evening profiled and interviewed J.G. Ballard. In discussing the film of Crash, Ballard noted that at Cannes the Spanish, Italian and French critics all got what it was about, while Alexander Walker (film critic of the Evening Standard) stormed out, and the film was banned in Norway. It was those viewers from Catholic countries, with an appreciation of original sin, the notion that fundamentally we are all rather perverse (and, Bragg interjected, have a death at the centre of their religion - right, said Ballard [and Protestants don't?]) who were equipped to deal with it.

They didn't go on - at least I don't think they did - to consider what Protestantism has at its centre instead. I guess, unequivocal salvation or damnation, with no grey area in which perversity can take place. The notion of perfection, the city on the the hill. As I've mentioned before, Garner has stated he thought the English people cut themselves off from an imaginative tap-root with Protestantism.

One of the things I find very interesting is an idea that can follow from this: that even if you don't consider yourself to have religious faith, the matrix of thought laid down by a religious tradition will continue to operate long after the practice of that religion had faded. Over recent years I've become aware of how important a weak but persistent ambience of Scottish Calvinism in my background has been to shaping my world-view. I escaped, thankfully, the genuinely traumatising blood-and-hellfire sermons of my father's youth.


I was most relieved to see Martin Amis admitting he didn't get what Crash was about until his third or fourth reading of it, in preparation for reviewing the Cronenberg film, and that in his 1970s review of it, he used sarcasm to cover his ignorance.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


My father has recently finished Smiley's People. One of the attractions of spy fiction is that it is, even at its most downbeat (e.g. The Looking-Glass War), an extension of boyhood fantasies, of stepping beyond the banalities of everyday life into a world of danger and excitement which few others are privy to. One can think of any number of popular kids' books which draw on this - the Alex Rider books, Artemis Fowl, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials - and going back a bit, The 39 Steps and Treasure Island. Also The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. I suppose that's one of the things that draws people into spying in real life. I can understand the romantic attraction, but it's a false one, I think: at root it's a profession which depends on lying to people. That's before you consider the uses, or abuses of it - CND, miners, Northern Ireland, Spycatcher, Iraq. Doris Lessing was on Desert Island Discs a while back and said there was something dreadfully childish about the spies she met.

Thinking on Sciascia's work, and trying to figure out why it attracts me, I realise that it is, similarly, the portrayal of a hidden world underlying the everyday one, with this additional, horrific element - it doesn't so much underlie it as suffuse it. Everyone knows what is going on, and no-one acknowledges it (it was routine for a long time to deny that the mafia even existed). This notion of the mundane life being continually subverted by a nightmarish one is fascinating, and true to experience.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


Thanks to Joe for this link to an article on the Guerilla News Network. There's little that's new here for sandal-wearing, tofu-munching Grauniad readers like myself, but Markey is articulate, and because he has served in Iraq what he has to say carries weight. The most interesting comment he makes is this piece of analysis:

What is really at stake here, and what stands to suffer the most is U.S. credibility. The term may ring paradoxical to some these days, but most in Washington can say it with a straight face because they understand the functional usage of the term.

At this stage of the game “U.S. credibility” has less to do with fulfilling our pledge to bring a democratic Iraq to fruition. It has nothing to do with the long abandoned search for weapons of mass destruction. What U.S. credibility hinges on now is our refusal to accept humiliation (political or military) at the hands of a third world insurgency. Often I hear the argument that “cutting and running” in Iraq will embolden these faceless enemies of ours to install a “terror vacuum” in the failed Iraq, from which they would soon launch terrorist attacks against the U.S. and her allies. This is not the outcome that our policy makers fear. This is propaganda that means to keep the American public believing that their own personal safety somehow depends on the outcome of this war.

Our perceived enemies must never be given cause to believe that the U.S. will ever relent in the fight to destroy them. This is the school of thought to which U.S. policymakers subscribe. That is what is meant by U.S. credibility. Everything else you hear is window dressing.

The Iraq war is rapidly becoming a referendum on U.S. credibility.
This ties in absolutely with a comment Gore Vidal reports, from the time of the founding of what he calls the National Security State, in 1950: "If you want this to work [unprecedented spending on the military in peacetime] you're going to have to scare hell out of the American people." America has effectively been on a war footing ever since.

As to the trigger-happy nature of US troops, that has been the case since at least WW2. My mother served in the RAF in the 1950s, and told me that she knew of Aussie troops who refused to fight with the Americans because they considered them too dangerous, not to the enemy, but to themselves and their allies. Norman Lewis reports the same in Naples '44.


I have a couple of friends in the army. Friend #1 held a bash in January which my wife and I attended. The military bods there were (ironically) the liveliest. I actually got asked a couple of times which newspapers I read - I said, well, The Guardian. In one case this actually resulted in the chap I was talking to backing further and further away, with an expression simultaneously friendly and fixed. When I reported this to Friend #2 a few months later he just shook his head slowly and said, nope, the answer to that one is, The Daily Telegraph and The Sun, without exception.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

UNKNOWN ROUSSEAU least to me. I don't claim to have any kind of knowledge of art, beyond knowing what I like. I've had a print of Rousseau's The Snake Charmer for ages, and remember how it had an almost physical impact on me when I first saw it: Yes - that's it! That's how it is! though the 'it' in question was and is beyond articulation. Some perspective, some sense of mental ordering or state of imagination. Certainly it had a lot to do with my personal dream-world. Dali's Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee... and Ernst's The Angel of Hearth and Home had a similar effect. It's not something that happens now, sadly, but I like how in the above image it seems the lion is a product of the gypsy's dreaming, yet it still presents a threat to him.

Friday, September 08, 2006


From Shop Talk, part of a conversation between Philip Roth and Aharon Appelfeld:
AA: I have never written about things as they happened. All my works are indeed chapters from my most personal experience, but nevertheless they are not "the story of my life". The things that happened to me in my life have already happened, they are already formed, and time has kneaded them and given them shape. To write things as they happened is to enslave oneself to memory, which is only a minor element in the creative process. To my mind, to create means to order, sort out, and choose the words and the pace that fits the work. The materials are indeed materials from one's life, but ultimately the creation is an independent creature.

I tried several times to write "the story of my life" in the woods after I ran away from the camp. But all my efforts were in vain. I wanted to be faithful to reality and to what really happened. But the chronicle that emerged proved to be a weak scaffolding. The result was rather meager, an unconvincing imaginary tale. The things that are most true are easily falsified.
This ties in, though not exactly, with what I was trying to say earlier about narrative and our sense of time: that one of the uses of story is to make sense of and reflect the way we feel experience to be, rather than on the terms of the calendar or clock - inner time, not outer. Or indeed, dreamtime.

Thursday, September 07, 2006


I found Terry Jones' series Barbarians a little lightweight, as with most BBC documentaries these days, but fascinating nonetheless. The book covers the same ground and presents the same arguments, but in much more depth. I didn't know, though should have guessed, that Caesar's invasion of Gaul was carried out on the pretext of protecting a client tribe from its enemies - who, Jones says, weren't enemies at all, but just happened to be migrating across their territory. The real reason was gold. The Celts of Gaul were rich, and Caesar was broke.

Given how close this is in nature if not time to America's Middle Eastern adventures, I should have remembered the following quote, from Gore Vidal's Dreaming War:

Many commentators of a certain age have noted how Hitlerian our Junta sounds as it threatens first one country for harbouring terrorists and then another. It is true that Hitler liked to pretend to be the injured - or threatened - party before he struck. But he had a great many predecessors not least Imperial Rome. Stephen Gowans' War in Afghanistan: A $28 Billion Racket quotes Joseph Schumpteter, who in 1919,

'described ancient Rome in a way that sounds eerily like the United States in 2001: "There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack. If the interests were not Roman, they were those of Rome's allies; and if Rome had no allies, the allies would be invented....The fight was always invested with an aura of legality. Rome was always being attacked by evil-minded neighbours."'

Monday, September 04, 2006


Joe took issue with Hilary Spurling's comment. There are two sides to this - every woman a Joan, every man a Napoleon, and the Long Tail of e-publishing to support them all, as the hive mind of the internet elevates all of us into a higher state.

The other finds voice in Isaiah Berlin's observation that while the general standard of university students seemed to be improving with the years, the really brilliant minds didn't seem to be around any more; and, more darkly, Kingsley Amis's maxim "More will mean worse!"

Both, of course, have a long pedigree, and unfortunately I can't tell which one I'm more tempted by. I do ponder, from time to time, on the fact that Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and Kit Marlowe all wrote pre-internet, pre-just about everything, and that England's population was - what? Three million?


Irritated beyond measure that I failed to Listen Again to the Radio 4 programme Watching the Doomwatchers before the week was out, as I enjoyed it so much the first time. There is an article about it here. If you ever get the chance to hear or see Rear Admiral Chris Parry, take it. Quite the most cogent and balanced assessment of Al Qaida and global security threats I've heard in a long time - since Jason Burke on Adam Curtis's The Power of Nightmares. The soundbites, unfortunately, don't do him justice. And thirty-plus years after Rendezvous with Rama the government still isn't taking the posibility of asteroid collision seriously.


I read on Michael Gilleland's blog a while back a quote from George Gissing, which chimed with me, as it made me think about my own continuing interest in the culture of Southern Italy, which is a little irrational as it's a place I have never been and whose language I don't speak. Chimed twice over, in fact, as Gissing himself was in Southern Italy when he wrote it.

Then I came across this in a poem by Wilfred Owen:

For after Spring had bloomed in early Greece,
And Summer blazed her glory out with Rome,

An Autumn softly fell, a harvest home,
A slow grand age, and rich with all increase.
But now, for us, wild Winter, and the need
Of sowings for new Spring, and blood for seed.

This fetishistic attitude to ancient Rome and Greece has of course been going on for centuries, and is more than a little ridiculous. I suspect it has to do with a deeply ingrained notion of the Fall, at least in the Christian West, or possibly a more general belief in a lost paradise. As the introduction to Kevin Rushby's new book on the subject points out, we only start believing in paradise when we feel that we have fallen from it, that things have been going to the dogs ever since - and in the comfortably solid artifacts and literature of Greece and Rome - comfortably distant so that we can project out hopes and fears onto them - we have the proof that it really used to exist. It even gets into Star Trek.

Then again, when I was listening to The Odyssey recently, I suddenly realised, my God, this is Star Trek - captain and crew land on strange island, mysterious seductive woman with tame monsters beguiles them and tries to seduce captain, who has to use his wits get them all out of trouble, etc etc.


From Shop Talk by Philip Roth:

Isaac Bashevis Singer: I once was sitting in the subway with the Yiddish writer S, who had a beard, and at this time, forty years ago, very few people had beards. And he liked women, so he looked over and sitting across from him was a young woman, and he seemed to be highly interested. I sat on the side and I saw it - he didn't see me. Suddenly right near him came in another man also with a beard, and he began to look at the same woman. When S saw another one with a beard, he got up and left. He suddenly realised his own ridiculous situation. And this woman, as soon as this other man came in, she must have thought, What's going on here, already two beards?

Philip Roth: You had no beard.

Isaac Bashevis Singer: No, no. Do I need everything? A bald head and a beard?