The Silver Eel

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

Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Good news, boss, good news, as Rosco P. Coltrane used to say. Though it's been out for a couple of months now, I've recently been taking the time to dip into the latest collection of Orwell's writing, Orwell in Tribune, and I report that it's excellent. The pieces are from his column "As I Please", published in the '40s, and it's a blog in all but name: he'll write at length about some weighty political issue of the day, or a literary dispute, then there'll be an asterisk, and "Have you noticed how the price of postage stamps has shot up?" or somesuch will follow.

I was trying to figure out just what it is that makes Orwell's writing so good, so compelling, other than the range of his interests, the depth of his reading, and the passion with which he discusses both. What is it about the writing itself? - and I woke up this morning and realised that it lies in how completely he closes the gap between what he thinks and what he manages to get down on paper. As anyone who's written even a postcard knows, that gap can be punishingly wide. Most of the time you wind up with an approximation - an awful lot of professional writers complain about how their finished work fell short of what they imagined and hoped it could be - but in Orwell, in his essays, anyway, there's no sense of any codge. His thought and his pen fadge perfectly.


Seeing and flicking through Hazlitt in Love gave me the impetus - that, and remembering Bernard Crick's comment that Orwell was the best essayist in English since Hazlitt. Two years after purchase I realised the time was right and I've begun reading a collection of Hazlitt's essays. I did try once before, but got beaten back by the language, which is ornamental by modern standards. The solution I've found is the same one I used when reading The Last of the Mohicans - take a deeper mental breath before each sentence, and that'll carry you through. True, I've had to re-read some sections a few times to get the sense of them, but not too often.

In life, Hazlitt seems to have been pretty disagreeable - he fell out with almost everyone he knew - but I guess he saved the best of himself for print, and the strongest impression is one of tremendous enthusiasm. One of his most famous essays, "The Fight", which I've just finished, involves nothing more than getting to the fight, a bare-knuckle match, describing it, and getting home again. That's it. What keeps you reading is the immediacy, the freshness he brings to even the smallest observation. Everything seems to play directly on his nerves. I remember being like that in my late teens and early twenties, when I was raw and even trivial experiences could be brutal, but a little age covers you up. It's a real delight to come across someone like Hazlitt, or Kipling, so you feel the jolt of electricity coming off the page, and the carapace being split open.


Interesting times he lived through, as well. I've been surfing Wikipedia this evening. I knew a little about Peterloo and the United Scotsmen, but nothing about the Cato Street Conspiracy, or the Six Acts, or the Radical War in Scotland.


The father of a friend of mine once said to me, "If Scotland had won the World Cup in 1978 we would be independent today." Given that a fair amount of psychic stock is still (wrongly) invested in the fortunes of the national team, and given that Scotland is currently head of Group B in Euro 2008 (which includes France and Italy), and given that the SNP is currently doing well in the polls ahead of the elections in May to the Scottish Parliament, is it too much to imagine that Walter Smith's baffling departure from the Scotland manager's job has been engineered for political purposes?

No, I have not, pace Gore Vidal, arrived in the studio by flying saucer. The only harbour in the UK capable of taking nuclear subs is in Scotland. If Scotland goes independent and implements a no-nukes policy - something the SNP is actively promoting at the moment - the remnant of the UK has nowhere to put them. Moreover, the UK's diminished military and geographical status would likely call into question its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Of course, given our recent behaviour, the rest of the world would probably see this as a good thing.

This makes Scottish independence a matter of national security rather than constitutional affairs, and means anything - or indeed, everything - is possible regarding a UK response.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


Friday, January 12, 2007


Really rather worrying news from a story on BoingBoing about a - perhaps the - U.S. book distributor being closed down for bankruptcy. The comments about an Enron-style culture within it, and about how this can be considered an example of monopoly capitalism, make interesting reading.

I'd like to say I came across it while reading BoingBoing, but it was through a link on Publishing News.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


A View of the Certosa di San Martino with the Castel Sant'Elmo in Naples by Thomas Jones (thanks to CGFA Virtual Art Museum).



I'm really beginning to enjoy Herrick. He doesn't seem to my under-educated poetic ear and eye to be polished, not for the most part, and some of the poems are no more than doggerel, but he's bawdy, rich, fulsome. I like the way he grabs hold of life:
Come, let us go while we are in our prime,
And take the harmless folly of the time.
We shall grow old apace, and die
Before we know our liberty.
Our life is short, and our days run
As fast away as does the sun,
And, as a vapour or a drop of rain,
Once lost can ne'er be found again:
So when you or I are made
A fable song, or fleeting shade,
All love, all liking, all delight
Lies drowned with us in endless night.
Then, when time serves, and we are but decaying,
Come, my Corinna, come: let's go a-maying.

[From "Corinna's Going a-Maying"]
Here he is in praise of contrasts, or indeed, lingerie:
So, though you're white as swan, or snow,
And have the power to move
A world of men to love:
Yet, when your lawns and silks shall flow,
And that white cloud divide
Into a doubtful twilight, then,
Then will your hidden pride
Raise greater fires in men.

[From "The Lily in a Crystal"]
And on giving up wine (for Lent?):
Let others drink thee freely, and desire
Thee and their lips espoused, while I admire
And love thee - but not taste thee. Let my Muse
Fail of thy former helps, and only use
Her inadulterate strength: what's done by me
Hereafter shall smell of the lamp, not thee.

[From "His Farewell to Sack"]

This last poem is right for me. Last month I realised that my continually-referred-to "recent" bout of detox took place ten years ago, and so, for the next couple of months, I hope, I'm cutting out caffeine and fast sugar, and strictly regulating my alcohol consumption. The last time I did this I felt physically lighter and more energetic quite quickly, and saw just how powerful these stimulants are. So today, one coffee (I'm breaking myself in slowly, giving myself a week or two before I cut it out totally); no buns, cakes or biscuits; one whisky after supper, purely for medishinal purposes. I read somewhere once that a large malt, preferably well-peated, is good for the blood.


50 pages to go before I finish Huckleberry Finn. I'm really not enjoying it that much, partly I suspect because I went into it with certain expectations or preconceptions which have, of course, been disappointed. Nevertheless, I keep finding myself wanting to roll my sleeves up, dismantle the narrative and take it in the direction I think it should be going. Partly it's Clemens' writing, which I find believable (especially his dialogue) but not charming, not artful, not exciting, with the exception of one line: "And he wanted to know all about it right off; because it was a grand adventure, and mysterious, and so it hit him where he lived."

Partly it's a question of tone and structure: the novel starts off being one thing, a sequel to Tom Sawyer, then turns into another. That's fair enough - The Lord of the Rings does the same thing, but Tolkien had the huge backdrop of the First Age of Middle-Earth to draw on, and went back and revised his text several times. Clemens may have done the same, but the novel was put aside for years halfway through, and the gap between the two halves doesn't feel as if it's been well-bridged. Although this development, as it's called, is praised as a sign of the work maturing as it goes on, there's a significant difference in tone, including depiction of character, which I find fatal.

One can have an episodic novel, like a picaresque, in which one has no development of character, and no plot, but the vitality of the scenes and language keeps you going; one can have plot and narrative tension featuring characters who are no more than ciphers; one can have beautiful, descriptive prose without much happening at all (I'm thinking of The Leopard) - but you need something to hang onto, and I'm just not finding it.

There are scenes, moments, throwaway lines which provide an insight into the brutality, ignorance and crudity of life in the South, and they are fascinating, and shocking - men standing around with nothing to enjoy, save when they pour kerosene on a stray dog and set light to it, or tie a pan to its tail and watch it run itself to death - the description of mud in the main street of a small town - the casual way in which "nigger" families are broken up, some sent north, some south - which is fascinating, but it's by the way, it doesn't feel as if that's what the novel's concerned with. It's merely one of the ingredients, and hasn't been well-blended with the others.

In short it is nowhere near as good - and I really am sorry to keep banging on about this all the time - as Edgar Pangborn's Davy, which Damon Knight compared to Huck Finn. Fairly, I think: it's possible, probable maybe, that Davy would not exist without the model or template of the older book to draw on, but Pangborn does so much more with it, in terms of weight, tone, language, insight and depth of character. I read it again for the third time last year (1st reading 1986 age 14; 2nd in 2001 age 29) and yes, it is a masterpiece and deserves a place in the Fantasy or SF Masterworks series without a doubt. On this reading I found one weak line in it, a repetition of a gag he'd used two pages earlier, and that was it. I admit it's love, not an uncommon reaction for those who admire Pangborn's writing.

Huckleberry Finn will not stop me reading other things by Clemens, though I think I'll go for non-fiction the next time. I'm pleased to see that Tom Sawyer draws much of his appetite for romance and adventure from the likes of Casanova, Cellini and Dumas, however confusedly. He's better-read than I am.

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