Monday, 31 December 2012

L'art pour l'art, Napoleon and the nature of things

MG writes:

Hope you like the revamped design!

Pictorial or plastic 'art', whether representational or symbolic, has permeated cultures around the globe for at least 40,000 years. What prompted early humans to seek to make sense of their environment, or to reflect it, by daubing pictures or by making three dimensional carvings of those things which they saw around them? We can surely never know. At root, it may be merely that those few with the skill, as today, chose to make their mark not with stories, musical or otherwise, but with more tangible representations; ones less prone to the vagaries of language and its ability to accurately delimit and describe the world in which we live..

Until the dawn of the 'artist' during the renaissance and the autobiographical or biographical descriptions of their work, and the motivations for that work, we wander through a fog of interpretation in both assessing and analysing the 'art' of earlier times. What motivated the cave paintings of Cro-Magnon or Neanderthal man at Cantabria or Ardèche? Did they serve a religious purpose, animal worship; were they a means of communicating, or educating, what exactly was to be hunted; did the representation of a successful hunt lead to a belief of success in the minds of early man; were they meant to placate a divine 'God', or gods, with images of man's success and thus ensure that God, or the gods, would favour such an outcome; were they merely an early manifestation of "l'art pour l'art" (art for art's sake), 'I do this simply because I am able'?

What of the totemic representations of the North Americans, the Polynesians, the Meso-Americans and other so-called, 'primitive' culture around the globe; why did their representations follow highly stylised archetypes? Why did the Muslims, denied the opportunity by the Qu'ran of faithfully representing the world around them, turn to the magnificent geometry of the designs on the walls of the Alhambra and the 'Dome of the Rock'. Does the architecture of the early Egyptians, the Mayans, the builders of Anghar Wat merely represent another manifestation of the desire to represent a vision of the world but in monumental form? Denied their state of mind, their beliefs, their social community or adequate written records, we gaze through the same vague clouds of interpretation which obscure the designs of our earliest 'cultured' ancestors.

As a mediocre painter and 'drorer' of birds, and the occasional, Chris Foss-inspired spaceship, myself ('pac-a-mac Will', curse of the sand dunes*), I believe that I know now why I paint and, more importantly, wish to paint; self esteem, the knowledge that I can do something which is so often denied to others; the approval of others, that others may wish to expend the fruits of THEIR labour (money) on something that I have done; the visceral joy to be derived from simple praise, irrespective of who gives it; the enormous personal satisfaction which is derived from starting out with a 'blank canvas' and seeing it slowly metamorphose into something somehow beautiful, however banal or mediocre it might be.

However, such explanations do not truly explain my motivations; for how to explain why I took up the practise in the first place? What led me to want to represent my world, or at least a very small part of it,  in pictorial form? What prompted me to spend hours, days, weeks, years in honing, and enhancing, whatever skill I might possess into a semblance of achievement? Where did the notion come from that I might have any skill worth the honing? Answers to these, more fundamental, questions are as shrouded in mystery as my 'primitive' ancestors.

Steeped in the traditions of a 'classical', 'grammar school' education, I have been exposed to the 'art' of countless generations of 'artists': the classical beauty of Phidias and Praxiteles (Roman 'imitators' are, to all and intents and purposes, unknown); the sublime icons of Andrei Rublev; the 'devotional' works of Bellini or Giotto and the high-Renaissance of Michelangelo and Raphael; the nature-inspired works of Constable and Turner, Corot and Courbet; the birth of "l'art pour art", Monet, Manet, Pissaro, Sisely and Duchamp's 'Objets trouvés' performing duty as midwives; the dreamscapes of Dali, De Chirico, Magritte; the abstractions of Rothko, Marc and de Kooning.

Whatever the musings of the artists themselves and the (often) pseudo-intellectual proclamations of the critics and art historians, I have always had a deep distrust of the reasons given for any one artist's, or group of artists', motivations for their work. In my experience, 'art' which has a 'purpose', communist or Nazi inspired art of the twentieth century spring readily to mind, is not art, merely painting or sculpture or architecture. This may, of course, stem ultimately from the Renaissance concept, most succinctly put by Albrecht Dürer, 'the artist is chosen by God to fulfil his commands', that the artist is privileged in a way denied to other mortals, 'truly chosen', and has a knowledge and a skill which is denied to others but substitute 'instinct' or 'unknowable reason' for 'God' and you perhaps come up with the real reason why human beings paint or sculpt or build; or compose music or write.

It is strange sometimes, the things that prompt you to think, be creative, to write or to paint. This little piece ultimately stems from a news report of a statue of the 'young Hitler praying', sculpted about ten years ago, which is currently displayed in what was the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland; that scene of so much hunger, deprivation, inhumanity and pointless loss of life which led inextricably to the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Treblinka.. The statue, first seen only from the rear down a long 'passageway', as in all of its previous installations, only has its significance, if any, revealed as you are finally able to see exactly what the statue is depicted as doing and the identity of the 'child'; needless to say, its position in the former Warsaw Ghetto has generated some controversy.

A statement about how evil can come from the most benign of sources; a memorial to the Jewish dead; a cheap exploitative trick and attempt to shock? I doubt that the artist, or the 'committee' that decided to place it there, can truly fathom why it is there and not in some other place at this time.

* 'Pac-a-mac-Will'** was an epithet given to the late, great, British cartoonist, Bill Tidy, by Mike Harding, whose book of 'poetry', 'Napoleon's retreat from Wigan'***, Tidy illustrated.

** 'Pac-a-mac', a brand of plastic raincoat, common in the nineteen-sixties, which could be folded down to a size convenient for your trouser pocket and which always had, to my nose at least, the scent of a baby's regurgitated milk.  I have, since the book was published, a notion of Tidy as a rather 'down-on-his-luck' flasher!

***The opening stanzas of which were:

It was on the plains of Irlam, the year was 1815
Napoleon were sat in his long-johns, supping brasso**** with Josephine.

He'd chewed his nails to the very quick, so he chewed them down t' slow
He were chewin' very hard, when up the back yard, came a corporal, his nose all aglow.

"Eh been mon capitaine," he cried. "Sakrit Bloo, murd alors parlez voox."
And Boney spat out a big lump of nail and said: "Bugger me, what's to do?"

**** 'Brasso' is a brand of liquid metal polish.

Throughout the poem, Harding postulates inveterate nail biting, and Napoleon's embarrassment about the practise, for the common portrayal of Napoleon with his hand tucked inside his waistcoat

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Satyrs, Centaurs and the little green men from Mars

For thousands of years, humanity has held certain truths to be self-evident. The belief that all that we are is not all that we could be; how else to explain the inexorable rise of civilisation after civilisation over the millennia? The belief that the knowledge which we have accumulated is not all the knowledge that is available to us in a universe which we hold to be infinite. The belief that we are, at root, a social species; at our happiest and most content when we band together in communities and that the occasional deviations from this norm are just simply minor aberrations in extremely small numbers of individuals. The belief that we are not alone in the infinite expanses of time and space despite our complete absence of certain knowledge that this is indeed the case; we have no better estimation of our lack of uniqueness as sentient beings than mere statistics and probabilities, though of the same kind of probabilities which underpin our most coherent and complete theory, however imperfect, about how the universe functions.

That sense of being unique and yet, in some way, not unique fuels the most basic and fundamental stories about ourselves; our creation myths. The place whence we came which is not our parents; our true origins. Throughout recorded history, and surely beyond; humanity has held the firm conviction that something cannot spring from nothing, even quantum mechanics must invoke the virtual particles of 'quantum foam' to escape from the paradox to best all paradoxes; how the uncertainty inherent in the very fabric of the universe allows 'loans' to be taken out providing they are all repaid on the due date. (I have yet to hear a convincing explanation which deals with the unlikely event of the universe defaulting on its obligations and it may, at best, be a pointless speculation.)

It is surely this belief that we are 'not alone' that provides the kindling for the fire of the 'spirits of the ancestors'; the immortal souls of a hundred religions, the cycle of life, death and subsequent rebirth; the ghosts of headless horseman and every kind of nymph, satyr, God and gods; that we surely cannot be the only beings able to talk, or think, or write in the entire expanse of the cosmos. We are apt to dismiss each manifestation of our lack of 'aloneless' with calls to logic and rational or scientific thought and yet it is our rational minds that bring us to the paradoxical conclusion that we are not alone.

We dismiss the shaman's dialogue with the spirits as an overuse of such narcotics as peyote or mescaline; the divine soul as an inability to properly phrase the question of mind/body duality; ghosts, a trick of the light or a misfiring in the visual cortex; nymphs, satyrs, centaurs and their ilk are merely consigned to imaginative fiction writers, no less well versed than existing writers of fantasy; God or a pantheon of gods are rejected for their all too obvious and very human traits, which we feel deep down, instinctively, to be somehow unworthy of a divine figurehead, or figureheads, responsible for the whole of creation..

In recent years, over the past half-century or so, extra-terrestrials have entered the mix as a preferred choice for those that seek the divine in the 'other'. Whilst there can be no doubt that the rise in UFO sightings and alien abductions have increased exponentially since the second world war and garnered much from the achievements of the space race during the 1960s and the growth of cosmology and astrophysics in the last two or three decades, there can surely be no conjecture that this is not simply a manifestation of exactly the same type of belief which encouraged ancestor worship.

There are, I think, few of a rational or scientific bent, that will seek to deny with any conviction that ET is, or has been, most likely out there somewhere. There are so many stars, and therefore potential planets, out there and then so many galaxies of stars that the belief that we could be the only star in hundreds of billions of stars that might support life to actually do so, defies credibility. The real question is not whether ET is 'out there', we can almost take that for a given, but whether we can communicate with him, or her, or it. For, if we cannot communicate, we are still 'alone' for all intents and purposes. And unless some new physics comes along where the speed of light is no longer an absolute barrier, the prospects of communicating with ET are very remote, almost infinitesimal; unless humanity is prepared to wait 1,000,000 years or so for the response to 'How are you hanging, dude?'

When all is said and done (which it isn't, not by a long way, cherub), humanity really ought to get used to being alone; there is no 'other' out there with which we could, or ought, to communicate. We are on our own and the sooner we accept that fact, the better we will get along with each other.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Last Chance Harvey, Shrek and the Age of Innocence

Christmas and the ensuing (and necessary) recovery from a surfeit of turkey (goose without the fat), cranberry sauce (apple sauce for the nouveau riche), mincemeat pies (which are neither minced nor filled with meat), Christmas pudding (mince pies without the shortcrust pastry but with added coinage) and cheap, sparkling Blanc du Blancs or Cava (Epernay for the hoi-polloi) is a time for relaxation, detoxing, sleeping and reminiscing, bathed in the joys of Christmasses past and present and the utter dread at the prospect of the year to come.

It was in this spirit that I chose to engage in a marathon; a marathon of children's films. I cannot, in the normal course of events, last much longer than two hours in front of a TV screen before I start to shake uncontrollably, although I have been known to sit transfixed through all six episodes of the Star Wars saga taken 'back-to-back' but chronologically in the timeline of the saga - makes for a less unsatisfying ending to the tale - or the extended versions of the six DVD collection that is 'The Fellowship of the Ring', 'The Two Towers' and 'The Return of the King, pausing only to go to the toilet, eject and reload the DVDs from the machine and raid the freezer for yet another 'Calyppo' ice or 'Magnum' ice cream (a post- surfeit surfeit, if you will). Some of the DVDs were from my own collection of 'timeless' classics and some from the BBC who have learnt through long experience of the wisdom of showing such films in the morning and thereby ensuring the heartfelt thanks, and loyalty, of parents everywhere who are still suffering from the hangovers, indigestion and chronic lack of sleep which are so much a part of this jolly, festive season.

Watching so many films, with scarce an interruption and in no particular order led to a thought which I have no doubt has occurred to me before but which crystallised so clearly that it was a genuine surprise. Quite clearly, the nature of the films have changed over time; the difference between Disney's 'Cinderella' and the fondly mocking tone of 'Shrek' is palpable however it was not this that struck me. If one of the purposes, if not the primary purpose, of such visual tales is to tell an educational story whereby children learn about the fundamental tenets of the society that we live in, it is how that message has been subtly altered over the years. Whatever the actual plot of animation of the 'Golden Age' of Disney, they all share one common ethos; love will conquer all. From 'Cinderella' and 'Snow White' who, despite their poverty, snag their own Prince Charming, through the 'Sleeping Beauty' and 'Beauty and the Beast' where the only truth is that 'someday my prince will come' to the bizarre attraction of 'Lady' and 'the tramp', which, incidentally, has the most touching moment in any animation - where Lady and the tramp both try to suck up the same strand of spaghetti from the plate outside Tony's.

What struck me as I watched the more recent animations, Shrek aside and deliberately so since it very much harks back to those same Disney films and seeks to turn them on their head, was how loyalty to your friends has replaced love as the prime motivating factor in the characters portrayed. From 'Monster Inc' to 'Monsters vs Aliens'; from 'Toy Story' to 'Finding Nemo';  from 'Ratatouille' to 'Who framed Roger Rabbit', the primary consideration appears to be not letting your friends down. Perhaps the one real exception to this is 'the Incredibles' which, while predominantly about 'family values' can also be seen in this way if one takes the line that the 'super-heroes' are so diverse in the powers that they have that they might as well be friends rather than parents and their children.

Is is possible that this all stems from 'Toy Story' and merely represents a desire by capitalist animation companies to cash in on that film's lasting attraction but it also, I think, reflects a fundamental shift in society's own views about itself. The fairy-tale Princess who finds true love in the face of so much adversity is no longer viable even as a fantasy. When it does serve as a plot device , it is invariably in a mocking or ironic tone; think of 'The Princess Bride', 'Shrek' or more recently, 'Enchanted'. While we may hanker after the quaint notions of a bygone era, which has almost seen the death of the 'romantic comedy' and the 'musical', we nonetheless cannot quite stomach the naive and 'sentimental' without a liberal dosing of sarcasm. O tempora, O mores!

Curiously, amidst all of this childhood nostalgia, I watched a modern day 'Rom Com'; 'Last Chance Harvey' with Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. I do not know quite why I watched it, although I suspect that it's for the same reason that I watch any Dustin Hoffman film; one day he is going to live up to all the hype about what a great actor he is.  The only reason why I continued watching until the end was Emma Thompson's supreme ability to play the 'ditzy' women of a certain age who is continually unlucky in love; much better than Renee Zellwegger or Reece Witherspoon. Actually that was not the only reason.

The film tells the story of a divorcee (Hoffman) who comes to London for his daughter's wedding. As he exits the airport, he is somewhat rude to a women who is seeking answers to a questionnaire (Thompson). Cue subsequent, accidental meeting between the two and long walks until five am in the morning.. The potentially happy-ever-after event occurs at the very end the film. What is strange is that I walked the same walks not two weeks before with a visiting American, although not, I hasten to add, until five am in the morning and not with quite the same ending! Just as happy, though!

In case you have not seen the film and, after my brief review, now have an aching desire to see a greying Hoffman in a suit walking along the Victoria Embankment by the Thames, you have been warned. I have no doubt that there was an excellent film here to be made, some of the improvisational scenes between the two leads are quite wonderful, but these are the film's only saving grace. Trimmed down to a one act play, it would have made an excellent way to spend a quiet, relaxing half an hour; padded with sub-plots and Hoffman's frankly awful, cloying speech at the wedding dinner make of it a fairly interimable ninety minutes.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Christmas time, mistletoe and wine - pass the sick bucket

MG writes:

It is customary at this time of the year, in fashionable circles, to be rudely cynical about Christmas. How the 'festival' has become an over-commercialised exercise whose sole aim is merely to make money for greedy capitalists hell bent on extracting the last ounce of flesh from increasingly impoverished inhabitants of the Western World. Steeped in nostalgia, the cynics look back to a time when the real meaning of Christmas was still remembered and the festive season was not dominated by a merciless grab for (your) cash.

Unfortunately for the cynics, they are looking through the rose-tinted spectacles of a long lost childhood. Christmas, for anyone who could afford it, has been commercialised since at least Victorian times, way beyond a living individual's power to remember; the only thing that has changed over the past century or so is that more people are able to afford it.

Who invented Christmas cards? That great bonus for jobbing (read not very good) artists, practised in the art of the snow scene and the robin,  even more mediocre verse writers and finally the Post Office, who get a return on their investment for machinery to deliver post more effectively throughout the year in one fell, winter-time coup. You guessed it, the Victorians! 

Who invented the custom of inserting a dead tree into every living room in the land. A tree, cut down in its prime, and too large for your living-room, whose sole purpose, at great expense, is to shed pine needles over your shag-pile, cream carpet, like ejaculate on satin sheets. A tree festooned with imitation candles, imitation glass baubles, foul-tasting chocolate imitation money and imitation silver and gold 'snow' (tinsel). The Victorians.

Whence comes the ubiquitous turkey instead of the goose of earlier times? The Victorians, keen to assimilate the traditional Thanksgiving dish of its erstwhile colony.  The turkey is not native to these shores. It is said that the turkey population of the UK two weeks before Christmas is 10,000,000. By 26 December it is zero or as close to zero as to make no difference;. Bernard Matthews built an empire of turkey farms upon a single day, a day when the collective conscienceness of a nation takes a 'sickie' day off!

When did 'Sinta Klaus', St Nicholas, Santa Claus, gain the popularity that it, he, enjoys today? Why are children encouraged to believe in a mythical figure, who not only manages to appear in a grotto in every department store in the weeks preceding 25 December but also manages to visit every household on the night of Christmas Eve to deliver presents. You guessed it; blame the Victorians! And who came up with the idea of the chimney, who gave names to the reindeer? (Comet and Cupid, Dancer and Prancer, Dasher and Vixen, Donner and Blitzen, if you are at all interested). Yes, the usual suspects. (Rudolph was added later to the roll-call of reindeer by the Americans; you need a central character if you want to make a story.)

I have been sending home-made Christmas cards for many years except that they do not say 'Merry Christmas'; they say 'Happy Saturnalia'. For that it is what Christmas has become. A time for the exchange of gifts, a time of celebration of a God (Mithras or Mammon, it matters not; both are false), a time of over-indulgence, a time of celebration that winter has turned the corner and will soon become spring. If early Christians hi-jacked the 'Feast of Mithras' for a feast in celebration of Jesus' birth, it is no less true that the Romans hi-jacked the festival of the 'Winter Solstice' for Saturnalia and the Feast of Mithras'.

If you have a penchant to believe in the the hype of cynics, if you want to believe in the over-commercialisation of Christmas, if you want to believe that it is all a waste of resources, be my guest! I merely ask that you look into the eyes of a child as they unwrap their presents on Christmas morning and say to me: 'Christmas doesn't mean anything anymore.'

I would like to say that I wrote this in the early hours of Christmas morning, oblivious and disregarding to the 'festive season', but I did not.  I wrote it some days ago and will soon be firmly ensconced in front of my 'TV' watching 'the Great Escape', 'Mary Poppins' and 'Casablanca' and desperately trying to remember what it was like to be five years old"

Monday, 24 December 2012

'Twas the night before Christmas....

It's funny, or at least I conjecture that it might be just a little weird, that in completely abandonning Christmas this year, no giving, no receiving, no turkey roasts, no tree, no enforced bonhomie, I find myself thinking about Christmas. Perhaps I have become, or am starting to become,  dear old Ebenezer who, so far, has been restricted to Marley.

I wrote something yesterday which prompted an attempt to return to my childhood and the magic which surrounds a young child on Christmas morning; it is difficult, my childhood is far removed in time. Being a working class oik, well aquainted with poverty, or at least a semblance of poverty, Christmas morning, before breakfast, was the time for opening presents; not for us the long wait until after lunch so beloved of the upper class and middle class wannabes.

I never, as far as I can remember, waited up for Santa to arrive. As far as I remember, I never believed in Santa Claus; I always knew that it was my parents and that the man sporting a long, white beard and a red coat in Gammidges, a toy store to rival Hamley's which is sadly long gone, was a mere imposter. Nonetheless, I would always wake up around 4.00am with an air of excited anticipation. To open the presents under the tree, which always stretched from the floor to the ceiling of our little terraced house's 'front room', we didn't call them lounges or living rooms then, was forbidden but there was always a thick, wooly sock at the foot of the bed or hanging from a hook on the door which was filled with little treats. Some nuts, although nothing with which to break the hard shells, a couple of tangerines or clementines, a once a year treat at Christmas and perhaps a small bag of sweets; 'dolly mixtures', a 'sherbet dab' with its liquorice 'wand', four ounces of pear drops from the jar, almost as big as myself, in the local newsagent wrapped in a white paper bag.

These kept me going as I waited for the inevitable ascent of the creaking stairs by one, or both, of my parents from their bedroom on the ground floor. My parents had retained the quaint notion of a parlour, which was next to my bedroon on the upper floor. This led onto the kitchen, although it could scarcely be called a kitchen; a room not four feet wide and ten feet long. I would wait for the whistling of the kettle for that morning's first cup of tea before I dared venture out, out through the door of my bedroom. I would gaze longingly at the crates of soft drinks, limeade, orangeade, cherryade, lemonade which were stored outside my bedroom door in an unknowingly sadistic fashion and which I was forbidden to even think about consuming until Christmas afternoon and I would make my way into the parlour.

"Can I open my presents now?"

These were the days before blanket TV advertising when parents could only be guided by their own intuition; the child's wishes were not a part of the equation because we had no expectations. We did not know of 'Cabbage Patch Dolls', 'Action Man', 'the Johnny Five multi-purpose gun which fired 'rockets', the Nintendo Wii. So, every present was always a surprise!

My earliest memory of Christmas morning is walking into the room, I must have been three or perhaps four, and finding the largest present I could have imagined sitting by the side of the tree; it was too large to go under it. I knew that it wasn't a bicycle as my mother had forbidden my father to buy one, a routine she has maintained to this day (!), too dangerous she said, but it was of similar size; all wrapped in sheet upon sheet of Christmas wrapping paper. It was a rocking horse! That, together with a plastic breastplate, helmet with visor, a plastic sword and an old broom handle for a lance provided much amusement in the ensuing years; I even went as far as fitting a old twill cotton sheet, with appropriate holes for the head and the tail, to serve as a carparison, although I did not have the skill at that age to make actual barding (look it up!). It is perhaps indicative that I should choose to play as a European knight rather then the ubiquitous American cowbow even after I had subsequently acquired chaps, a waistcoat, a hat and a six gun and holster.

Poverty is always relative but despite the fact that my childhood diet consisted mainly of spam and chips, egg and chips, bacon pudding and suet pudding with jam or treacle, our house was lit by a solitary coal fire and the toilet could only be reached through the garden, my parents never skimped on my Christmas presents; they were always the largest, and most expensive, of whatever I received.  The Triang 'TT' guage railway set; the four-lane Scalextric motor racing set, the Meccano constuction set, the enormous box of Lego bricks, the largest Cadbury's Selection box with enough chocolate bars to last a fortnight but which were gone by Boxing Day.

There were rituals to perform; stuffing the capon, my father's only task on Christmas morning;  being let out into the street mid-morning into an orgy of 'look what I got for Christmas' enjoyed by every child, save the poorest, in the road; the arrival mid-afternoon of uncles, aunts and cousins, there for tea with my Gran; the 'phut-phut-phut' as George's 1940's Ariel motorbike and sidecar turned the corner of our street; the hours spent by my cousins and I prising pint after pint of winkles, whelks and cockles from their shell with a pin for tea; George's home movies and getting sent out of the room to play in the parlour while the grown-ups watched Harrison Marks shorts.

It is symptomatic of every generation to look backwards with fond memories of Christmas past; the 'once in a lifetime' snog with one of your colleagues under the mistletoe at the office party; the shared smoked salmon, scrambled eggs and vintage Bollinger or Dom Perignon in the early hours of Christmas morning; arriving home to frosty glares, without the slightest memory of how you got there, after a 'skinful' with your colleagues on Christmas Eve and the subsequent and inevitable reconciliation over said Dom Perignon; making mulled wine at 8;00am for your neighbours; Midnight Mass in a Catholic Cathedral on Christmas Eve; curling up on the sofa at midnight to watch 'Casablanca' for the umpteenth time. As pleasant as these memories might be, they must surely pale beside the excited, little child, tearing off yard after yard of festive wrapping paper and gazing in wonder and joy at what 'Santa has brought you for Christmas'!

Saturday, 22 December 2012

The world is still here and a peculiarly British phenomenon

MG writes:

As far as I can tell, the world hasn't ended, although the only evidence that I have is that the hedge outside my front door and the houses for the disabled beyond still appear to be there and at least one Google and one BBC server would appear to still be functioning; at least they were up until five minutes ago. It would be a little troubling, don't you think, if that were all that was left and I, my records, CDs and my books are somehow privileged to have escaped the global catastrophe; that the entire history of the literature and music of our civilisation is somehow maintained and preserved only through the vagaries of my own taste; that an alien vistation far into the future would surmise that 'Paper Plane' by Status Quo and 'Asterix le Gaulois' by Uderzo and Goscinny were the highpoints of a long lost culture; that the pictorial art of a myriad of peoples is only preserved in a few of my piss-poor sketches of birds. I shall have to venture out later and see if Sainsbury Savacentre and the Tesco Express (open 24 hours) have somehow also survived Armageddon; strangely, for one of my inclinations, I have little desire to be 'the only living boy' (in New York or anywhere else) just yet.

At this time of the year, Yuletide, a quite oddly British phenomenon appears. It is quite recent, only in the last twenty five or so years, but it is as ubiquitous as Norwegian pines, the Queen's Christmas message to the nation, fairy lights, the strains of 'I'm dreaming of a white Christmas' and the gross over-indulgence on turkey and wine. Of course, I am talking of the unavoidability of escaping the sound of 'Slade', and more importantly Noddy Holder, intoning 'Merry Xmas Everybody'. It's played interminally on the radio, is piped through the speakers of every supermarket and store in the land and is always played last and loud at the plethora of Christmas office parties up and down the country.

Slade were the biggest pop group in Britain in the early seventies, only ABBA came close, and were, strangely and rare enough, a corking live band to boot (I saw them once). Looking more like 'Ken Dood's Diddy Men' than pop stars; a lead singer who looked more like some mutton-chopped, Dickensian Mr Pecksniff than David Cassidy; record labels that held the inability to spell correctly as the pinnacle of high art; the singer who couldn't sing, only shout in a black-country, Wolverhampton accent; a guitarist who had a haircut that anyone who was even vaguely sane would not be seen dead in. Despite all of my 'prog', noodling pretensions fuelled by 'Pink Floyd', 'Yes', 'Van der Graaf Generator' and 'Emerson, Lake and Palmer', Slade permuate those musical memories with a soundtrack as catchy and uplifting as it is insiduous. Whatever their gifts, or lack of them, as musicians and songwriters, Slade just make you feel happy!

I say that is a British phenomenon because America, in the early to mid-seventies, just never 'got them'. As Slade were busy pumping out, seemingly ad infinitum, feel-good hits, 'Coz I luv you', 'Mama, weer all crazee now', 'Take me bak ome' to name but three, Britain was experiencing its darkest days since the Blitz. The miner's strike during the worst of the winter; closure of schools nationwide because there was nothing to heat them with; the three-day working week, and resultant three-days a week salary, because there was no electricity to power the machines from the coal-fired power stations; working in the office or shopping by candlelight because four-hour power cuts were a daily occurance; living in Britain during the strike had all the hallmarks of living in a third world country. Into that mix, Slade invested their anthemic 'let the good times roll' songs as though we had any real prospect of the possibilty of seeing  'good times' ever again.

When Slade atttempted America in 1975, it seemed that America too would succumb. The Vietnam war had just been lost and surely America was ripe for a transfusion of Slade's 'feelgood' factor VIII; it never happened. I suspect that America by this time was just too depressed to wake up and 'Cum on, feel the noize' and merely wanted to endlessly navel-gaze at the sorry loss of life and the vast financial cost of a war that they never had any chance of winning or even settling for a draw with those in Hanoi.

Their success, in a way, is even more remarkable, given the dire social circumstances in Britain at the time, as, not five years later, with the winter of discontent in full swing, rubbish piled eight stories high in Leicester Square and job prospects for the young less than zero, the outcome was not a surge in musical popularity for Slade but the very opposite; the despair, nihilism and calls for revolution of the Sex Pistols' 'God save the Queen' and 'Pretty Vacant', the Damned's 'New Rose' ("a deathless anthem of nuclear-strength romantic angst"), the Specials' 'Ghost Town'. Britain had become, almost overnight, a hot-bed of highly politicised anarchists; an excellent advertisement for Richard Hell's 'Blank Generation'! The days of the Blitz mentality, the days of sitting huddled round the fire singing songs of hope had all gone up in a puff of smoke.

Britain has never regained, as a nation, that optimism even during the heady days of Harry Enfield's 'Loadsa Money' and wheeling your end-of-year bonuses home in wheelbarrows.

Incidentally, the film 'Slade in Flame', made purely to cash in on their fame, much like the Beatles' 'Hard day's night' and 'Help!' is one of the best films about the music industry ever made, much better than 'Stardust'.which follows a similar plot line. It was only to be expected. Flame has Noddy Holder, Stardust had to settle for 'pretty boy', 'useless singer' David Essex!

Thursday, 20 December 2012

It's the end of the world as we know it........

Thank you Michael Stipe and REM for the title today.

Yes, it's the fateful day tomorrow; all the hype concerning the end of the long Mayan calender will finally be over on Saturday and we can all go back to dealing with the petty and tiny exigencies of this life.....until the next time some crank formulates a theory based on wobbly 'science', blind faith and some degree of mental inbalance.

Quite clearly, no-one believes a word of this and yet some people do! The ubiquity of the internet and the world-wide-web among developed, and some undeveloped, nations ensures that there will be a rapid and extensive circulation of 'crackpot' ideas, especially if the mainstream media, who should know better, join in the fairy-tale circus in the hope of boosting circulation, or hits to the website, from the gullible, intensely stupid or just the stark staring bonkers members in every community.

One of the great joys about the internet is the complete lack of control by Governments, Corporations or any other agency solely concerned with their own self interest; it is one of the first, probably THE first example of true 'free speech' in civilisation's history and yet it comes with such a heavy price. There is no requirement on the contents of the web for facts, for evidence-based research, even anecdotal-evidence-based research and any damn fool, even me, can write whatever they want and have it accessible from around the globe in seconds.

It is a common misconception that Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding father of the American Nation, once said; "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance." This is almost certainly untrue. The earliest recorded and researched example which I can find of such an idea comes from a speech made by John Philpot Curran, in a speech on the 'Rights of election' in 1790 in which he said: "It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt." And yet it is not only eternal vigilance that must be maintained if our essential freedoms, including the right to free and open speech, are to be perserved. We must act on the outcomes of that vigilance.

If we do not speak out when crazy and insane ideas become accepted as 'fact' or 'informed speculation' then we are passively contributing to the dissemination of ideas for which there is no substance whether of a scientific, moral or philosophical basis whatsoever.

I was reminded of this by a short piece which dealt with Mayan calender anxiety in children, yes children. Anyone who remembers the 1960's and, inter alia, the Cuban Missile Crisis, will recall the widespead anxiety over the very real prospect of an impending nuclear holocaust; have little doubt, the threat was very real and Kennedy's and Kruschev's brinkmanship was some of the most alarming examples of such diplomacy, or lack of it, in the history of the planet. Children as well as adults in the West and the Soviet Union were rightly concerned; the missiles were on their way, albeit by ship. The Mayan Calender syndrome is simply a result of an inability to apply even a modicum of critical thinking to the issue and then inculcating naive children with the same unfounded ideas.

This might, at an extreme stretch of the imagination, bear some scrutiny if we all adhered to the Mayan religion or had complete confidence in the abilities of the Mayans' astronomy, in the complete absence of telescopes, but we don't! We give crendence to the Mayans' idea only in so far as they accord, in the main, with our own 21st century ideas.

In the end, Saturday will come, just as the world didn't end in the year 1,000 or 2,000 and just like the day after the notional coming of the 'Rapture' came;  all of the usual excuses will be made by those that have metaphorical egg on their faces. The question is: how do you prevent people believing such unsubstantiated nonsense? Clearly education is the key but how do you get the horse to drink even after you have thrust its snout into the stream!

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Education, the Passion and Babylon

'Universal' education has brought many things in its wake over the past half-century: a higher standard of living in general; greater opportunities for the general population to achieve something more than subsistance living; widespread access to, and appreciation of, the art, the literature and the music of a wide range of different cultures; a veritable explosion in the depth and breadth of discovery in the physical sciences, quantum physics, molecular biology, computing and information theory, geology; greater thought about the consequences of the 'soft' sciences, sociology, philosophy, economics, psychology. All of these things were once the domain of the privileged few; now they are open to all who, in whatever way, can, and do, acquire an education.

However, education is a double-edged sword; with all the advantages comes a host of disadvantages. Dissatisfaction, alienation, the despair that comes from the knowledge that what we know is never enough to satiate the thirst for knowledge and, the subject for today (!) the fragmentation of art and, specifically, literature.

Prior to the nineteenth century, books were books. There were really only two kinds of books; the religious or philosophical* treatise and books which told a story, whether in dramatic, poetic or narrative form. Few were written and one might call those that were the 'golden age' of 'high art'. However, with the growth of universal education, more of the general population learnt to read and write, albeit on a basic level, and 'literature' began to be written for 'the masses'; the so-called 'penny dreadfuls'. These were simple stories, simply told, about romance, mystery, crime. They were largely written by the hacks on 'Grub Street', journalists taking a break from their 'day job' and had little invention or style or literary merit; they were, and were always intended to be, infinitely disposable. Those inclined to a more literary flavour could bask in the serialisations of Dickens, Conan Doyle or H G Wells.

After the first world war, a new publishing tradition grew up, predominantly in the United States, of 'fiction magazines', a number of which, in the light of advances in technology, built on the legacy of Jules Verne, H.G.Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs. It was the dawn of the Golden Age of Science Fiction and the genre flourished under the expert tutelage of John Campbell who became editor of 'Astounding Science Fiction' in the 1930s using authors as diverse as Isaac Asimov, Damon Knight, Frederick Pohl and James Blish and, subsequently, such writers as E.E (Doc) Smith, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C Clarke, Ray Bradbury and Stanislaw Lem.

It is customary amongst followers of 'high art' to deride science fiction as so much fodder for the masses and yet who can doubt the skill of Bradbury, Philip Dick or Ursula Le Guin. While the general setting, a future, whether utopian or dystopian, whether hard or soft sci-fi, was not to everybody's taste, the real 'meat' of the best of science fiction must rival the best of any other kind of fiction in terms of the relationship of characters with each other and with their environment.

Unfortunately, irrespective of their merits as 'entertainment', the triple-edged sword** that was 'Star Trek', the first 'Battlestar Galactica' and the first 'Star Wars' trilogy only reinforced the cogniscenti's view of science fiction as simplistic candy for the not-so-very-bright. Roddenberry's vision of an ideal system, free from everything that made the post-war period so depressing, was simple wish fulfilment in an age of optimism; Lucas' 'Star Wars', 'Shane' and every western like it but in outer space complete with heavy nods to 'Dune', and its bastard offspring, 'Battlestar Galactica', was merely 'Buck Rogers' repurposed with better visual effects. It is little wonder that the intelligentsia dismissed science fiction as trite, simplistic and not worthy of serious consideration; not that the juvenalia of E E (Doc) Smith did anything to alleviate this!

In the mid-nineties, an attempt, though seriously flawed, was made to try to redress this balance by producing a television series which not only tried to deal with the kind of issues that were being dealt with in mainstream science fiction literature but also attempted to divorce itself from the prevailing manner of series and serials which had been so endemic in American TV up to that point. From 'the Fugitive' to 'Star Trek', from 'the Time Tunnel' to 'Lost in Space', each episode stood alone; no prior viewing was required, each episode was prefaced with as much of the background story as you, the first-time viewer, needed to know. Into that rigid formula, J Michael Straczynski parachuted 'Babylon 5'. A five year mini epic with the novel, in both senses of the word, structure of a distinct beginning, middle and an end.

It is difficult, and I suspect that Straczynski himself is no better guide than conjecture would be, to ascertain exactly where the underlying raison d'etre was compromised by the networks or the people who ultimately stumped up the cash for what must have seemed like a gross piece of self-indulgence, Straczynski wrote 95% of the scripts for the 110 episodes, 22 per season at a cost of around $750,000 per episode, but what is clear is that compromises were made.

Straczynski himself has stated that he wanted to write a televisual novel, however the evidence belies such a claim. In a novel, the size of the book expands or contracts relative to the story being told. There are certainly sections in a novel which seek to expand upon the nature of the world or universe that the story takes place in but these, nonetheless, also move the tale along; the stand alone episodes in Babylon 5 very often do not. In fact, fewer than half of all the episodes actually drive the plot and therein lies, perhaps, Babylon 5's single biggest weakness if it is to be viewed as a coherent narrative. 'Deep Space 9', a Star Trek franchise, suffered the same problems which is not too hard to fathiom. Straczynski first 'pitched' Babylon 5 to Paramount, makers of Star trek, and to say that they stole the idea, lock, stock and smoking barrels, for Deep Space 9 is surely the grossest understatement in the entirety of science-fiction.

And yet, for all of its faults, the characters in Babylon 5 are the very architypes of literary fiction; the hero, the man of action (Sheridan); his love, more spiritual, sensitive, more cerebral (Delenn); the 'stay-at-home' dutiful 'wife', who is not wife, (Ivanova); the fatally flawed 'best-friend' (Garibaldi and Lennier); the philosopher (G'Kar); the amoral and opportunist schemer (Londo Morali) and his 'Jiminy Cricket', his conscience (Vir); the sage who speaks only in riddles (Ambassador Koch). These form the nucleus of an ensemble cast which is augmented with occasional, but regularly occuring, characters; Lyte Alexander, the 'rogue' telepath, augmented in her abilities by Ambassador Koch; Zack Allen, Garibaldi's plodding and rather boring replacement as Security Chief; the Centauri Emperor, Cartagia, who is so modelled on the later Roman historians' view of Caligula as to become almost a figure of fun and ridicule, lacking any real menace; Bester, the psy-cop, a telepath engaged in ensurung conformity among telepaths, who could have played a much greater part in proceedings and, the nonsensical character development notwithstanding, must surely lay to rest the spectre of Pavel Checkov for actor, Walter Koenig.

The themes of resurrection and redemption lie at the heart of the story; Sheridan's resurrection from death at Z'ha'dum, which is surely an attempt to mirror Gandalf's fall and subsequent rise in Khazad Dum, the mines of Moria, as well as the obvious Christian overtones of a saviour, risen from the dead; G'kar's redemption from the hate-filled, belligerant protagonist of early episodes who transforms himself onto a being of peace and co-operation, someone who is able to temper the hate with a semblance of compassion***; Londo Morali.

Anyone who has ever written about a fictional character will, at some stage, find that the character develops into someone undreamt of at the outset; a character alive and very real and too strongly loved by the author to be given a left of centre role whatever the exigencies of the plot may be. You get the impression that, for Straczynski, Londo became the central character even if the 'plot' did not determine that. His materialistic rise, subsequent fall and his metaphorical, and moral, rise to a state of grace surely outweigh any such consideration given to the 'hero', Sheridan.

And finally, an observation. Is it just me, or was Straczynski trying to undo the fascistic leanings of E E (Doc) Smith's  'Lensman' series, which may have been de riguer in the 'anti-communist' 1950s but were scarcely appropriate for the 1990s.

When all is said and done, for all of its faults, for all of its pseudo-intellectual dialogue, Babylon 5 paved the way for that most intelligent of sci-fi, the re-boot of Battlestar Galactica. To even think of weaving the concept of 'suicide bombings' and its ultimate moral diemma into the narrative of a US mainstream television show would have been, I think, unthinkable without Babylon 5.  J Michael Straczynski, pretentious arsehole that you are, we salute you!

* I use the word in its broadest sense to include 'natural philosophy', ie science.
** To paraphrase 'Ambassador Koch', truth is a triple edged sword; (your truth, my truth and the truth).
*** Interestingly, it is G'kar who has the most 'Christ-like' moments. It is he who has to decide whether to go on a journey to almost certain death at the hands of a conqueror; he that is subjected to the 'thirty-nine lashes'; he who is paraded around his home world bearing a yoke that looks suspiciously like the 'T-piece' to a cross;  it is he who succumbs to the 'St Veronica' moment - the Veronica of sudarium fame.