Saturday, 14 March 2015

I was Mark Watson's Double

I was first mistaken for Mark Watson at a party around 2005. A fellow guest accosted me, full of excitement, and told me that I’d performed well on Mock the Week the previous night. I foolishly explained that I had never appeared on the show, after which her interest waned fast. Over the next couple of years this happened a few more times. There would be the same rush of Watson-prompted attention followed by subsequent disappointment and scorn. What’s more, my own parents began to tell me that there was “a boy on the telly” who looked just like me, hinting that they would take comfort during periods when I wasn’t getting in touch a lot by watching his regular appearances. Here, it seemed, was a Better Me, dutiful in showing up in their front room, conversationally amusing; rarely, if ever, asking them for money. My mum could happily read his fiction without flinching at the rude bits. He was, it appeared, published, just like I hoped to be. My feelings became ambiguous. Of course, there was a basic facial solidarity, the obvious empathy and compassion one has to have for someone hampered with my physiognomy. But did he have to be so good at stuff? (I remain unsure if it is okay to take an interest in someone because they look just like you or if it is, in a very small way, exactly how racism started).

I finally met my doppelganger (oh, who I am I kidding? I am his doppelganger and so it shall ever be) at a show in Leicester Square. Once he had got past the initial fear and trembling (remember I’d had years to prepare myself), I could tell he planned to make use of this coincidence. He is, after all, a professional silly person and having an exact replica was too good an opportunity for him to miss. Like controversial politico Saddam Hussein, he would make good use of a double. Consequently I got the call to take part in his 25 hour show for Comic Relief. This involved me (unsuccessfully) pitching a novel to his editor, signing copies of his own novels in Waterstones (this with more success) and going to the opticians to pick up his prescription (at which point the role of humorous lookalike blends, perhaps permanently, with that of dogsbody). After which my facesake has often been in touch with life-advice, literary encouragement and occasional free-of-charge witticisms. He is, I must report, a thoroughly good egg. And so when I was called out of retirement for a 27 hour show, I reported for duty with eagerness.

Mark warned me before the show there were numerous comedy tasks in store for me over the stretch of the show. I might, for example, have to go to Bristol for dinner with his parents. If this was the game, then I ought to take his kids to the park or visit Ikea with his wife (it is possible that, as a celebrity, Mark doesn’t go to Ikea but I felt like his audience should be able to relate to the tasks). As a hardened veteran of the long form shows I felt like I could handle this. However, as a hardened etc I also knew that many of these ideas get forgotten in the course of the show and so it wasn’t a great surprise when approximately none of them came about. Instead my tasks for this show included:

  1. being awake
  2. mooching onstage now and again. Not as much as the actual funny people but slightly more than the rest of us groundlings
  3. taking over Mark’s Twitter and hassling his celebrity friends to get them to come down.
  4. trying and failing to secure a taser, Jarvis Cocker and a live goat

As a hardened blah blah I am in the position to give advice to young lookalikes hoping for the life changing position of comedian’s double. Here are some valuable tips culled from harsh experience.

  1. Remember, the other people onstage have been trained, or at least shown aptitude, in being funny. You might think yourself the wag of your social circle but when you are sharing stage space with Jennifer Saunders it is good manners to pipe down.
  2. Staying awake isn’t as hard as you’d think. Some sort of adrenal upsurge keeps you going for most of it. The difficulty is the week after, tackled below
  3. Long form shows, in the words of Mark, “radically alter your relationship with time”. If I was sitting down for a comedy show I knew would last 8 hours I might feel a little fidgety. You hear there’s 8 hours left of a long show and you feel slightly sorry it’s almost over
  4. Long form shows also “radically alter your relationship with Mark Watson”. A cultish devotion takes over the audience by sometime around 9am. Chanting is known to take place. The word “goats” acquires a significance it always lacked in the outside world.
  5. Long forms shows “radically alter your relationship with goats”
  6. Lots of people you fancied off the telly in the 90s will show up. Just so you’re warned.
  7. Just cos you look exactly like the person everyone has come to see, ain’t nobody going to ask for your autograph.

As for the after-effects of the show it is probably best to take some time off work. A week has gone by and my sleep patterns are only just back to normal. For a few days I was unusually sensitive to slights, as though I’d shed a protective layer. I found I could no longer get any writing done. While proud of taking part, a nagging fear of not having done so properly sets in. I know from speaking to other participants that a weird feeling of having not done our respective silly tasks as well as we might haunts us all. The real world can seem less focused, stripped of the heightened reality of the show. Perhaps, we think, it would be best not to do one again. Perhaps, we decide, we should give our poor brains and our bodies a rest. We settle down to our routines, our everyday jobs, our relationships, our own non-Watson based creative endeavours. The years pass. And then one day we get the call again. 29 hours. 48? We should be able to manage. We can do this, one last time.

(You can still donate to my efforts at )

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Punks in Parliament: Pussy Riot in Portcullis House

Here are some things that the Henry Jackson Society are interested in: A strong military, the “promotion” of liberal democracy if necessary by the use of said military, “two cheers” for capitalism. And here are some things they aren't: radical feminism, punk rock, grass-roots anarchism, Judith Butler, conceptual art. But the world of politics can sometimes resemble an especially tipsy game of spin-the-bottle and tonight the HJS pay host to Pussy Riot.

To enter Portcullis House you have to put your belt and wallet in a tray and walk through a metal detecting doorway. The airport mood continues once you’re in. With its pot plants, beige walls and the air of bored expectancy that comes with being an adjunct to the action, it is a little like a duty free lounge with the ads for wristwatches replaced by portraits of Margaret Beckett. Up the stairs and inside one of the meeting rooms, the HJS event on Russia is about to begin. By now it is standing room only –it may be that this is always the way with the Society’s events but it might just be celebrity exerting its gravitational drag. Three chairs at the front have “reserved for Pussy Riot” notices placed on them. The audience do not, at first glance, look very punk rock. The floor is unspeckled with gob, faces are unpierced and no one seems to be taking amphetamine sulphate. Tweets from the event mention a coalition of leftists, dissidents, capitalists and MPs but if you had to guess you’d put the latter two in the majority. There are an awful lot of men in suits here, sleekly barbered, comfortable with proximity to power. Women wear unshowily expensive looking dresses. Scarily fresh faced HJS members welcome us with leaflets and smiles. They look like adolescent cult members except with realistic hopes of one day running cults of their very own. It is hard to imagine joining such a group at 22, but then some people save their infantile leftism for their actual infancy and hit ambitious maturity at sixteen. One day they will write op-eds calling for transformative violence –they may even order the violence themselves- but for now they smile winningly, usher and take photographs. Several people look like how you imagine a spad to look. You see someone you think you recognise but then realise you’re recalling a character from the Thick of It.

The host for the event is Chris Bryant MP, a man whose every movement screams that he was once a left-leaning vicar. He has the body language of someone perpetually accepting another cup of tea. It feels a little odd, even now, to see a Labour MP in this company, although not as odd as seeing Pussy Riot. From early bipartisanship HJS has, if wonderfully named ex-member Dr. Marco Attila Hoare is to be believed, declined into a very right wing sect indeed. The chief controversy –and the comings and goings of HJS members rival Pussy Riots’ for complexity- is the appointment of Douglas Murray as Associate Director. Mr. Murray began his career very young, as the author of a biography that sympathetically charted Lord Alfred Douglas’ descent from lovely and promising boy to froth-chopped reactionary. (I mention this without comment). Since this interesting start he has given qualified praise to the English Defence League and called for a total end to Muslim immigration into Europe. Dr. Hoare is a defender of the Muslims of Bosnia and a sympathiser with the Arab Spring. A church broad enough to comfortably fit his views and Mr. Murray’s would be about the size of the Pantheon. But if Chris Bryant feels tainted he doesn’t show it.

The first set of speakers comprises a journalist, an opposition mayoral candidate and environmentalist, a European politician, an anti-Putin businessman and the former Russian Prime Minister. Together they make an eloquent case for a Magnitsky law, named for the murdered oppositionist the event commemorates. This would prohibit Russians suspected of crimes from entering the EU, banking within the EU or sending their offspring for European private schools. About the semi-clad thug who runs Russia the room seems in agreement. At the front, meanwhile, are Nadya and Masha. They are tweeting or texting or, for all I know, playing Angry Birds. With their hair (green rimmed and platinum respectively) and lipstick (deepest red) they are the brightest things in the room, parakeets among pigeons. From the front we hear of Putin’s expansionism, his convenient social bigotry, his environmental destruction, his (successful as a glance at a typical Facebook wall shows) propaganda outfits, his crimes up to and including murder. People begin photographing the backs of Pussy Riot’s heads. Happily, someone mentions Chechnya. Everyone agrees on Putin, if not, perhaps, on what on earth can or should be done about him. Someone asks if he can be made to leave peacefully and seems slightly saddened when told he maybe can.

When the initial talk is over, Geoffrey Robertson QC stands up. He has been attached to good causes since the Oz trial, has an actorly manner and a face the same shade as the contents of a decent cellar. He is also, as you’d expect, a tremendous speaker. He summarises the need for a Magnitsky law in about a minute of florid hand-sawing and gags. “We should punish them through their children,” he says, biblically. “Stop them going to our schools.” He sits back down- you feel he could have done this for hours- and the two members of Pussy Riot head to the front desk, together with Nadya’s husband. 

“Do we sit behind the desk or on it? Or do we stand on it?” asks Masha. But they sit behind the desk.

It’s been possible to wonder if, in the days since their imprisonment, Pussy Riot have been declawed. What Putin couldn’t do to them –shut them up, quell their commitment- looked like it might be done instead by celebrity group hugs and the sudden love of Western figures not known to be fans of, say, Crass. When Russian dissident artists come to the attention of the Reader’s Digest mentality it can be at the expense of everything awkward in their art. If there’s going to be a new Cold War, or, god help us, a hot one, then we’re going to need a Pasternak (we might also need a Pollock, the better to showcase our thriving and enviable weirdness). But in picking a dissident, one must always be cautious. When Solzhenitsyn was invited to the US he promptly alienated his hosts with a rambling denunciation of the very freedoms he was supposed to symbolise. 

Pussy Riot don’t quite do this: they seem exhausted and slightly bewildered. They complain about the microphones, they fidget punkishly. Nadya decides to do an impression of Ali G. She has the look of an overcoated nihilist student, the sort who spent the 1890s lobbing bombs at as many crowned heads as she could. She is by a long way the most charismatic person in this room and probably every other room too. Masha looks like someone about to tell a very good joke. At the far end, next to Masha, Pyotr acts as translator. He looks like a smaller Ed Snowden, only with a beard halfway between Lenin and Lennon. Chris Bryant does not know who he is. The presence of Pussy Riot seems to have sent him straight back into vicarhood. He makes bad jokes, he blusters. He asks them, inexplicably, if Bunga Bunga parties are punk rock. For a moment we’re back on the Bill Grundy show. But will Pussy Riot say something outrageous? Over the last few days they’ve been hosted by Amnesty and the Guardian and taken a St. Petersburg Hermitage’s worth of selfies. And now Masha and Pyotr seem to be getting on each other’s nerves. She questions his translation, grabs the microphone off him. They are possibly bemused. It must be odd to step out of prison and enter this world instead. Still they are pleased at how anti-Putin we are.

“We should say, we know a bit about American prisons,” says Nadya. She speaks with the confident seriousness of someone utterly unhampered by cowardice or doubt. “It’s good that you have these values but you know in America someone from Occupy, Cecily McMillan, she was jailed. And you are right to complain about what Putin does in Ukraine but he can point to what you did in Iraq.” The applause that greets this statement fails to sweep the room.

“We also don’t think you should have the European Extradition treaty,” adds Masha, clutching the microphone. “We met Julian Assange today and we want him to continue his work.” It is fair to say not many present are admirers of Mr. Assange. Geoffrey Robertson lets out a solitary whoop. A glance at Twitter shows Nadya and Masha flanking the former Russia Today mainstay in his strange semi-exile. Next to them he looks even paler, his skin the colour of unbaked pastry.

“Putin knows the West won’t go to war with him,” says an audience member.

“We don’t want an actual war,” says Nadya. It is possibly unfair to say that this disappoints people. Either Pussy Riot don’t know their audience, or they do but haven’t abandoned their trollish commitment to provocation. They don’t seem ready to be anyone’s toy dissident. So what will they become? The title of the meeting –Russia after Putin- might well apply to them. What happens to Pussy Riot when Putin has gone? (two years according to one speaker). The untrained informality that works to wonderfully disrupt the airless atmosphere of a conventional political gathering could easily become mannered, Rottenish. Despite the carnival colourfulness they are essentially serious –serious enough to go to jail- and committed to prison reform, a field in which they might do a lot of good. They have their convictions, in every sense of the word. How they fit this around being adored by Madonna and by Chomsky, by Slavoj Zizek and by neoconservative think tanks, remains to be seen. Their presence and charisma seem to be helping but it is easy to imagine it getting in the way. What will happen when Putin retires, to his dascha or the wrong end of a lamppost and Times op-eds and liberal front benchers lose their newfound love of disruptive protest art? It will be interesting to watch.

Right now they have flesh to press. Nadya stands, upright and tiny in a scrum of looming middle aged men in suits while Masha leans into a Dictaphone, talking softly about prisons.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

How I nearly Died and What I Did While I Was Doing That

Like most people, I expect, I associate the British farce tradition with sudden brutal reminders of mortality and death. Unlike most people I have some biographical cause for this association. The other year, the morning after watching a pretty good performance of Noises Off by Michael Frayn, I fell to my bathroom floor after suffering a sudden massive brain haemorrhage. I did quite a lot of vomiting, as you can imagine. Screaming was also involved and there was a longish period where I thought I might be a Chinese peasant (I am not). For about a fortnight I was in the tenuous middle ground between being alive and life's opposite. When I finally got a correct diagnosis I was told that I had a blood clot the size of a golf ball in my head. 

This sort of news makes you quickly re-evaluate any opinions you might have had about the relative smallness of golf balls.  I had always previously looked on them as being on the fiddly side. From now on I would view them with a proper respect. I was also informed, in a frank way, that my brain was gearing up for having another go at the whole haemorrhage project, with the intention of correcting the first one’s failure to finish me off. Did I mention I couldn’t see? I couldn’t see, or not much. The haemorrhage had squashed a good part of my visual cortex. Again, when faced with this kind of news one quickly re-evaluates things. You remember the game about what sort of hypothetical impairment would hinder you the least? Few people opt for loss of vision but when made aware that a haemorrhage occurring a few inches to the right or left might have wiped out your ability to walk, say, or your memory, then losing, as I did, most of my peripheral vision strikes me as relatively fortunate. In one of his (silly but anecdotally abundant) books Oliver Sacks tells of someone who had a brain haemorrhage which, like mine, affected the visual cortex, only with far greater impact. Not only could they not see at all, the haemorrhage had erased any memory of having had seen. Like I said, relatively fortunate.
The immediate effect of all this, once the (exemplary and wonderful) NHS staff had saved my life and sent me home, was a worrying one. I became a nicer person. I like to think, in retrospect, it was some looming knowledge that my brain had designs on me, but in the months leading up to the incident I was something of a horror. Grumpy, morose, prone to small-scale tantrums and with a premature fear of getting old, I was rarely mistaken for a joy to be around. And that went, at least for a while. Nothing rids you of the fear of getting old like almost dying young. After this, middle age, responsibility, senility itself, seem like eagerly anticipated treats. I became benign, avuncular, appreciative of the smaller pleasures (a decent book, a good cup of tea, the company of loved ones… that sort of thing). I developed a childlike glee at the company of mammals, in zoos and in the home. (My cat, it should be said, while ill-tempered enough, was stalwart throughout this period). I treated my girlfriend, now my wife, with the loving-kindness that was surely her due. Bedridden and blessed with a new found aptitude for life, I chose for myself a task that would suck away at all this fresh wisdom like a zombie with a straw. A task that would render me, by the end of the year, an anxious self-torturing pain in the arse. I chose to write a novel.
Before you dash in panic from the screen, I should stress that this wasn’t a completely absurd choice. I had attempted twice before to get one started, but abandoned them both due to laziness and the vague belief that no one has anything useful to say until out of their twenties (I recognise that this belief puts me at odds with the wider culture which tends to assert the opposite). I had written scraps of stories and I had read a great deal of literature which I was naive enough to think would help. Proust, I reminded myself, had written much of his best stuff while prone. Homer, Joyce, Huxley and Milton would all have needed help crossing the road but were none of them slouches with a quill. (It was around this time I was awarded a white-stick by the council. It was unnaturally short and made me look like a drunken Sooty). Lying on my back, I set to work.
I was determined not to address the issue of my illness in this work. (What’s that, you say? I should? Well one day, perhaps). Instead I had chosen for a theme the romantic lives of the conspiracy theorists. In my day job I’d had various dealings with the differing movements and sects that make up the UK conspiracy movement, such as it is, and found their differences and similarities intriguing. I thought, that, allowing for some exaggeration, their shifting worldviews could tell us something about life and about fiction, and the perils of confusing the two. Characters and plots sprung up and reported for duty. I was enjoying this. Free from the demands of readership, I could pretty much do as I liked. The problems came later.
Flaubertian perfectionism is maybe a little unfashionable nowadays, when the preferred literary model is the confessional blog or opinion column, but I found I just couldn’t give up on an urge to get the words right. Never mind my girlfriend’s argument that this was what editors were for (there are still editors right? Like, four or five, of them, somewhere). I was confident, if that is the right word, that for my book to be even considered by a publisher there could not be a word out of place. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever had a brain haemorrhage,-maybe you did and it worked wonders- but one thing it failed to do in my case was give my vocabulary a boost. Instead one thinks through a gauze of befuddlement, a hangover made permanent. On more than one occasion my girlfriend returned home to see me weeping over an adjective. My unedited prose had the power to make me physically sick, like hearing your voice played back and hearing a nasal shriek. And when, I was done torturing myself over word-orderings then the extra-textual anxieties would kick in. Was my novel too anti-realist or was it too wedded to realism? It was set in the North of England and this would surely repel publishers? What publishers, anyway? The book game was surely over, was slowly being replaced by downloadable vampire porn written by and for horny Baptists. I didn’t go to Oxbridge –none of my characters went to Oxbridge- did this make me an autodidact? Was I any good and would it make any difference if I was?
Reader, you will be relieved to hear I passed through this phase. The book sits, strange, on my computer, taunting me with the suspicion that it might be good. It deals with a lot of things –conspiracies and fiction, love and the loss of love. It has sentient cats, Men’s Right activists, astrologers, rationalists and quite a lot about motorway service stations. While I can’t say every word is perfect and in place, I can say with confidence that some of them are lovely enough. I am perversely proud, in a sub-Oulippian way, that the word “conspiracy” does not appear anywhere in the text. I think it’s rather funny, in parts. On the whole I think you’ll like it. If you’re a publisher or an agent you might want to get in touch (there are still four or five of you out there, right?)

Despite vowing not to address my illness in the work, I find upon re-reading that the haemorrhage has snuck its way onto the page. Two major plot points factor on characters being hit painfully on the head. Characters experience the loss of beliefs or relationships as small deaths, blurring their fixed and static selves, opening themselves to the point where they become different, transformed beings. The image of the mind as a struck, reverberating gong appears and reappears. More to the point I realised, during the writing, that trauma, physical or emotional, makes conspiracy theorists of us all. We force our minds down narrow and circling tracks, too scared to leap towards the bumpy grasslands to the side. We repeat, we fixate, we go over until we perfect. Eventually if you are lucky you jump. My novel is about those who find they can’t. It is called The Movement and I hope one day it will be read. My next one will be started in full health, although I cannot promise how I’ll be by the time it’s finished.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

On Being Made Anxious by Sheila Heti

I am a re-drafter. Here is what I do on a writing day: I sit and I get myself in a mess about sentences. I rock backwards and forwards, I consult my thesaurus, I pace in circles tugging at my moulting hair. On more than one occasion, my girlfriend has come home to find me weeping over the correct placing of a comma, as if it were a tormenting pea hidden under my mattress. And, when I reach the requisite number of pages, I print the whole thing out and I start again. (It’s worth remembering that I’m not writing Madame Bovary here. My novel features pornography-addicted cats, chiliastic cults and a Men’s Rights activist called Furious Patrick. I am quite possibly putting myself through hell for no good reason).

Still, Flaubert, I tell myself, would be on my side. Perfectionism is time-warranted, proven to work even at the cost of sanity and good health. Then the other day Sheila Heti, talking at the LRB shop, sweetly announced that “oh, no one drafts anymore”. She was, she said, no longer interested in style. There was something vaguely illicit about this, something naughty. My girlfriend nudged me with an air of triumph -see? Not everyone does this crazy shit- as the author began to read an excerpt from her autobiographical work. Hackles on alert, I waited for sloppiness, for errors. And, obviously, there were a few if you were looking. The odd word I might have removed, the odd phrase I would have struck a line through. But the main thing was; it worked. It was direct, it felt true, whatever true is, it was funny and naïve and open and fresh. A naivety that could only be the result, I hoped, of deliberate agonised craft. Couldn’t it?

As she read on, I felt, with my rewrites, my struggled-over plots and my prematurely creased forehead, like Rick Wakeman, interrupted in creating a triple gatefold, flugelhorn-heavy concept album by the sound of Pretty Vacant crunching from the speakers. Instantly obsolete, a brontosaurus lumbering through my paragraphs while sprightlier beasts leap on ahead. Now, if I have a belief system it lies in a) making stuff up and b) rewriting it an awful lot. And these beliefs are beginning to seem, well, a little bit old-hat. Not quite pre-Copernican but getting there.

A few words of caution. Ms Heti has told me via Twitter that she does redraft, just not in the laborious, faintly mad physical sense I described. Two, even if she doesn’t, she speaks in naturally beautiful finished sentences. Not everyone could dash out an autobiographical piece and make it read like hers (and her new book did take six years- she's not doing some Jack Kerouac spontaneous prose thing). Three, she said later on that she has, in fact, rediscovered fiction and can’t be placed naturally in any anti-making-things-up camp.

Still, it’s fair to say that in recent years the literary world (or the very narrow part of it known to English speakers) has experienced a loss of faith, both in literary stylishness and in the novel itself. A lot of writers find they no longer can sign up to the making-things-up and then-making-them-read-well project. Off the top of my head (in the new spirit of instantaneity) there’s David Shields calling for us to make it essayistic, make it a memoir, make it true. There’s Zadie Smith worrying if Tom McCarthy’s Spartan modernism is actually where it’s at. There’s Ian McEwan falling out of love with the novel, Will Self’s anxiety about the fictive conventions he’s used in most of his work, Karl Knausgard setting out to write his whole life. There’s been the critical backlash against the confident excesses of the 80s Granta generation, with their wars against clichés and their unfashionable belief in the value of stories. Clearly I’m conflating different arguments and examples here (you can be pro or anti literariness without being pro or anti fiction and many or most of those I mention would see themselves as revitalising not getting rid of novels), but you sense the general trend. If these discussions end in unconvincing affirmations of the need for fresh fictions, these tend to have an arriere garde feel to them. Resolute defenders of stylish novels can have a Fustian, High Anglican, quality, as though holding out against the barbarians, half-revelling in the dying of a form.  

I can think of a few reasons why the novel looks in trouble although obviously I’d be grateful for more. The Granta novel of the turn of the decade, with its ever-expanding cast-lists and forced desert-suited cosmopolitanism had become a silly thing, well worthy of a backlash. Critical theory has now reached the point that even novelists read it, with the sometimes paralysing results you might expect. TV shows have annexed a great deal of what used to be the turf of the novel (how many fat sagas has The Wire rendered instantly unnecessary?) When the book itself is under threat, then the future of the novel is hardly to be taken for granted. Technology has made patient Flaubertian redrafting seem oddly affected, like baking your own bread. Davids Foster-Wallace and Eggers have led to a new cult of sincerity. “Literariness” may even be subliminally associated with male power, with patriarch connoisseurs like Amis and Bloom. Time is short and if you have something to say, there’s the temptation to get on and say it with the minimum of artifice. Jot it down, upload it, make it sincere. Make it true.

It’s also quite possible that the novel has had a good run and is going the way of verse drama and music hall to be replaced by quick-scribbled autobiographies, instantly available online. Intriguing as many of the attempts to forge new forms are (I definitely look forward to reading Heti’s book), I find myself hoping otherwise; that in the end they end up lending fresh strength to, rather than replacing, the novel itself. If the novel has survived so long, it is surely because of the sponginess of the form, its ability to borrow from its rivals. Although this may just be my own feeble affirmation of faith. Certainly if the novel is to survive it will need serious thinking about what it can do. It will need hard work. It may even need a lot of re-drafting.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

The Other Side of Orwell

I’ve been reading the large Everyman edition of Orwell’s Essays and discovering how instrumental the shorter Penguin version has been in fixing the idea of Orwell beloved of a certain sort of English leftist (and, I should say, by myself). The Penguin Orwell is right about everything. On the rare occasions he gets things wrong, he at least does so in quixotic, admirably wrong, so that you wish that he'd been right. He takes the correct and decent Labour reformist view on British Imperialism, the Spanish Civil War, the struggle against fascism and the Soviet Union, in that order and with the emphasis, in the Penguin, on the last two.

The Everyman Orwell is a stranger writer, closer to the Marxist left, more open to crankish enthusiasms (he comes close to recommending Esperanto in an essay that also shows him to have a more flexible view on language than he’s often credited for), and much more obsessed with Catholicism – to the extent of denying that Catholics can write decent novels (when Waugh and Greene were in their respective primes). He is also wrong about things. He insists until very late in the day that fighting Nazism will only lead to British Fascism, an opinion he went on to mock in exactly the same cocksure tone he used in making it. He is unconcerned about the bombardment of civilians, on the strange grounds that civilians call the loudest for war anyway, a theme he returns to repeatedly. He recycles material, often for use in entirely different arguments. He is more flawed and more interesting than the saintly radical-patriot of the Penguin.

Despite all these changes, the familiar pleasures of reading Orwell are all here. We have the entertaining and sometimes unfair swipes at the proto-Guardian gang of pacifists, middle class liberals and high minded fellow travellers whose descendants still litter the English scene.  We have the analytic enthusiasm for "late-capitalist" (he uses this expression) flotsam –junk shops, penny dreadfuls and “good-bad books”- that make Orwell the nearest Britain has come to Walter Benjamin. We have a morally driven worldview that never loses sight of the ordinary and the everyday. And we have a test, that of returning, repeatedly, to the defence of the underdog, of making sure that one is always on the victim’s side. It is a test that those of us who consciously write "after Orwell" should set ourselves more often.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

In Defence of Book Snobbery

Matt Haig, a novelist and Twitter personage, recently posted a list of 30 Things to Tell a Book-Snob, to general delight. The consensus was that this was one in the eye for the highbrows, viewed as turtle-necked Martin Amis enthusiasts with thin lips and sneers of cold command. While I applaud much of what Matt says –about the weird privileging of realism and the way literary fiction pretends to itself it isn’t another genre- something about it bothered me.

My first concern is that Matt’s list –ostensibly anti-snob- seems to have a problem with pretension  Now for me, the act of consciously making art is always going to be a pretentious one. Shakespeare, who Matt approvingly cites, would probably have stayed a glove-maker if he hadn’t had the pretension to do otherwise. Matt and I are both Northern writers, and have probably inherited that area’s distrust of the Affected and “Fancy”. But as artists will be called pretentious even if they write like Tony Parsons they may as well embrace it. Would you rather be Oasis, grimly clinging to the mundane, or a dazzling butterfly like David Bowie? Pretension is what art is all about.

A fear –of fanciness, of the highbrow- infects the whole list, despite its many good points. So we are told approvingly that Shakespeare “didn’t go to university”, as if Shakespeare were a bluff Richard Branson type rather than one of the most complex and genuinely snobbish writers in English. We are told that Matt’s attempt at being “highbrow” was unsuccessful as though this were a general rule. There is much talk of magic and wonder and how “many of the greatest writers were children’s writers.” The overall tendency seems to be to that a book should be easily understood by almost anyone who picks it up, and engage the same parts of the mind as a conjuring show. We are told that walls are tyrannous, which seems unfair to the vital role they play in keeping us dry and warm. As an example of the universal artwork, Matt gives us the roof of the Sistine Chapel, which we are told every human being would have the same reaction to. Every human being apart from iconoclastic Protestants, Salafist Muslims and atheists, presumably.

I can’t help feeling this list confuses snobbery, which we can all oppose, with judgement, which we shouldn’t. As readers, unless we are entirely indiscriminate, we form value judgements and preferences, we make decisions. Is this snobbery? Only if we let it be. But to like everything is equivalent to liking nothing.

My main gripe with the list though is that I am unclear who it is targeting. The polo-necked Harold Blooms of this world are a dying breed. I am at the stage of trying to sell a novel myself and thus far no agents have asked me to make it more wilfully un-commercial and complex, less plot driven and “universal”. The non-snobs won- they teamed up with post-modern relativism and market forces and they kicked the highbrows out of town. Richard and Judy triumphed and TS Eliot’s boys took a hell of a kicking. We live in an age where Booker Prize judges calls for zippily accessible “thumping-good-reads”, where preferring James Joyce to JK Rowling is a mark of snobbery and where Kindles let everyone read porn on the tube. In kicking the book snob, Matt’s list kicks a strawman when he’s down.