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Bearing Witness

Tuesday, 31 May 2005

The Wars Against Saddam
John Simpson
(Pan Macmillan, 2003)

It struck me at a party this last weekend – whilst I explained that I was reading this book and why – that I have an odd non-fiction kink: I like reading journalism. Not just this book, which outlines events from the late 70s through the Iran/Iraq war and the two Gulf Wars, but a favourite read a few years back was All the Presidents’ Men. Which has sprung back to mind due to Deep Throat finally revealing himself. You can also read Woodward and Bernstein’s notes on Watergate online, which is a rather fabulous use of the net. And there’s the strangeness that so far both my novels have contained real life journalists (Orwell in History 101, George Morrison in Warring States).

I can trace it back to reading a collection of Martha Gellhorn reports, The Face of War, which ranged from the Spanish Civil War to Nicaragura and El Salvador in the 80s. Whilst these writers all have distinctive voices – you can’t mistake the careful procedure of W&B or Simpson’s BBC house style – they also have a burning urge to tell you things, to draw events together and show truths and consequences. Still, it’s a strange reading kink.

Simpson’s book does occassionally repeat itself but primarily when his outrage at the number of independant journalists (as opposed to embedded ones) who were killed by friendly fire in the most recent war comes to the fore. He presents the case against Saddam with eye-witness accounts of the aftermath of the Halabja attack, or the brutal suppression of uprisings, but also outlines why the invasion was driven not merely by moral outrage by the West but by revenge and the new imperialism. There are unpleasant characters on all sides, and charming ones. This is the sort of journalism which wants to bear witness, so you’re left with clearer concepts and understanding. And, as with all war journalism, a bile-inducing horror of war and its dehumanising effects.

I need to read more fiction and kick my non-fic jag…

Girl With a Pearl Earring

Friday, 20 May 2005

Girl With a Pearl Earring
Tracy Chevalier

Wow. Short, clear and ravishing. The descriptive style is very beautiful and the scene with the earrings made me catch my breath. This is one of those novels which make me sit afterwards, the finished novel in my hands, and wonder both why I write and if I could ever write anything as evocative and subtle as this. I love works which make me reassess what I want to achieve, make me think about how to write cleanly yet sumptuously. And this makes Vemeer paintings glow in prose – a doubly impressive feat given that a) it is very hard to describe paintings in prose and b) I’m not a fan of Dutch painting in general.

Universally Acknowledged Truths

Tuesday, 10 May 2005

Pemberley: Or Pride And Prejudice Continued
by Emma Tennant

It is a truth universally acknowlegded that all Pride & Prejudice pastishes, spoofs or reviews must be in want of an opening line which mimics the opening line of P&P. Right, that’s that over with.

I’m pro-fanfic. My Microcon talk a couple of years back was on the history of forms of fanfiction and the idea that, once a story is ‘out there’ a sign of its universality is if becomes reworked, rewritten and generally posessed by the audience. You can argue that the myth cycles (Arthur, Norse, Indian) etc are such stories: they capture your imagination to such an extent that you want more about the characters and situation. It is only in the industrial age that the notion of copyright, and the related idea of idea theft, comes into its own (I could disgress here about the commercialisation of the printed word but this isn’t the review for that). There’s notions of ‘canon’ and ‘fanon’ etc etc. It’s a fun world of shifting ownership of ideas.

Pride and Prejudice (1813) is one of the first novels to gain a fan following, way before Dickens was packing them into the theatres or queues were forming outside the Strand magazine for the next Holmes installment[1]. P&P echoes through English culture: Gaskell’s North & South (185?) suggests the Mancunian novelist was utterly smitten by Elizabeth and Darcy’s sparky romance whilst Bridget Jones’ Diary reworks it as a modern chicklit novel. Obviously Lizzy & Darcy are not unsimilar to earlier romances (Beatrix and Benedict spring obviously to mind[2]) but they are the ur-romance of the last two centuries. Women still fall for Darcy.

Which is where Pemberley, Or Pride & Prejudice Continued comes in. Austen herself continued to consider her heroines’ lives but she had no knowledge of the intimacies of marriage. Indeed, there’s an argument that we never see happily married couples in Austen (Mr & Mrs Bennett being the most extreme example but Maria and Mr Collins is clearly only a sanguine relationship due to Maria’s diligence in avoiding her husband’s company). Tennant picks up the story of Lizzy Bennett a year into her marriage to Mr Darcy and, as one might expect, things are not perfect in this ‘happy ever after’.

Tennant, as far as I can tell from having read about half of The Bad Sister, writes about the interior lives of women and Pemberley, naturally, focuses on Elizabeth’s reaction to her new life. Jane is married to Bingley and about to produce a second child. Lydia has a whole passel of brats with Wickham. Mr Bennent has been summarily despatched to the great beyond and Mrs Bennent is concerned to secure a future for her two as-yet unmarried daughters, bookish Mary and impressionable Kitty. Elizabeth has yet to have a child and Lady de Burgh is preparing to ship in a distant cousin to take over should no heir arrive. And it’s going to be a family Christmas at Pemberley.

As with P&P, the differences between exterior and interior life – both mental and physical – are played with: the extended families go on a shooting party to the Yorkshire moors and Lizzy chided for wandering about the countryside. Confusions abound, causing Lizzy and Darcy to seperate. One major element is Lizzy’s belief that Darcy has had a child with “the Frenchwoman” who has now died. Combined with the Yorkshire moors and Lizzy’s running off to become a governess there are moments where this seems to be borrowing as heavily from Jane Eyre as from P&P (I must get around to Wide Sargasso Sea).

This could be a great sequel but for one key element: I didn’t find Tennant’s authorical voice convincing enough. We’ll slide over the fact she gives Mrs Bennent a narrative point-of-view (unlike the almost entirely Lizzy-based narrative of P&P) because really it’s the lack of a wickedly sly authorical voice which meant the novella left me cold. A Lizzy who lacks her spark is not terribly interesting, and Darcy’s absence makes this into a rather lacklustre sequel. Obviously, some of the point is to show the banality and new worries and fears of an older woman who is now married into social and familial responsibilies but it doesn’t put any relish into the authorial commentary on Lizzie’s behaviour.

Having been searching for this book for a while, as it helps me move into a more literary discussion of the story-reclaiming urge, I was pleased to find it in a charity shop. Having read it I’m vaguely disappointed that it does not make me want to believe it is ‘canon’.

[1] Although the Doctor’s “I’m your biggest fan!” scene with Dickens in the new Who made me roar with delight.

[2] “I do love nothing in the world so much as you, is that not strange?” Benedict remarks – a sentiment Darcy shares with his “I have struggled against my reason…” proposal.

Murder in Baker Street

Friday, 25 March 2005

Murder in Baker Street
edited by Greenberg, Lellenberg & Stashower

I’ve been having a bit of a Sherlockian craze over the last few months and, having reread the Canon, I’ve moved onto the non-Canon. (Some of this I can blame of Kelly Hale, whose non-Canon Holmes novel I read a couple of years ago and which is finally getting published.)

This is a collection of short stories featuring Holmes and Watson by modern crime writers. There’s nothing very wrong, just the occassional jarring Americanism or a not-quite-right Watson voice, but they do seem to lack a certain something. It’s not that I am wedded to the Canon – I thoroughly enjoyed the recent Rupert Everett non-Canon adventure on the BBC – but the devilish detail doesn’t work in most of these. Some suffered from what we in the Doctor Who trade would call the HGWells effect: let’s get our famous fictional character to meet a famous author/person of the time and the historical one will be inspired by him! Thus Holmes is brought into a case, involving mysterious marks on someone’s neck and Mittel European servants getting all superstitious, by one Abraham Stoker.

The best was, I thought, A Hansom for Holmes which put aside Watson as a narrator in favour of a cabman who gets entangled in a case. This had the lively narration you want from Holmes, without trying to mimic ACD’s style.

Ah well, it passed the time until the New Annotated… arrived.

Whatja readin’ for?

Monday, 7 March 2005

Love All the People: Letters, Lyrics, Routines
Bill Hicks

I went to a Waffle House. I’m not proud of it, I was hungry. And I’m alone, I’m eating and I’m reading a book, right? Waitress walks over to me: “Hey, whatja readin’ for?”

Isn’t that the weirdest fucking question you’ve ever heard? Not what am I reading, but what am I reading for? Well, godammit, ya stumped me! Why do I read? Well… hmmm… I dunno… I guess I read for a lot of reasons, and one of the main ones is so I don’t end up being a fucking waffle waitress like you.

I know Bill Hicks‘s Dangerous and Relentless albums well. Really well. I can recite The Gulf War Distraction (“it’s so pretty and it takes our minds offa domestic issues”) more easily than a Monty Python sketch. It was the early 90s: Cobain had been blasting through our eardrums with his particular brand of nilhisism, Hicks and Leary were on constant play because all the British comedians had run out of anger after yet another Conservative election victory[*], and I was in tattoo parlours. That I know Hicks’ material well cannot be a shock. I’m not really sure what I wanted from this book. New insight into someone whose career is one of the seminal influences on modern standup? Perhaps. To revel in his style? I can do that by putting the albums on.

This transcribes many of the recordings of material. After the fourth time you’ve read that Hicks, like UFOs, is appearing in small rural communities all over America I realised what this primarily does is a forensic autopsy of his comedy. You can see the slight changes he makes, the comments to hecklers, and the way, like all pro comedians, he hauls himself back onto his script and keeps on going. This is the body of his work lain out on a slab to be dissected.

It may be of interest to aspiring comedians, and it did still provoke the odd smirk from me, but it is step one on the road of deification. Cobain’s diaries, every element of his life, is churned out for obsessive consumption by the eager fans. We’ve been saved from seeing either he or Hicks degenerate or sell out to the Man by their early deaths (one from suicide, the other from pancreatic cancer). So now their legacy is being packaged up and sold to us, their images becoming safe, unchanging icons. Just as I’d rather stick some Nirvana on the mp3player than read Cobain’s diaries, I’d rather whack the Hicks tapes back into the machine and play them at 10 than read this book.

[*] this, I feel, is one reason for the return of British surrealism (Izzard, Hill etc) and music hall slapstick (Reeves & Mortimore). A decade of angry young comics hadn’t changed a damn thing and we wanted something new.

Traitor’s Purse

Thursday, 23 September 2004

Traitor’s Purse
Margary Allingham
( Penguin, 1941)
One of my favourite Campion novels, which I bought just to have it in the classic Penguin green and cream design. An amnesiac Campion wakes in a hospital, suspected of murder.

One of the reasons I like the Campion novels is that he goes through WW2 and emerges a different character. You can contrast the early novels like Mystery Mile in which he is a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Bertie Wooster with these later novels (Traitor’s Purse, More Work for the Undertaker etc) in which he has ended up a government agent albeit one still with Woosterish mannerisms. Allingham writes war and post-War Britain with a staggering grinding sense of impoverishment so Campion’s changing character reflects the changing eras.

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