Top 10 Shakespearean stories in modern fiction

For the Guardian:

Countless books have the Bard’s dramas at their core. From Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk to Withnail and I, here are some of the best:

Some years ago, I went to see a production of King Lear and read a theory in the programme that he married twice. Regan and Goneril were the children of his first marriage – so the production proposed – but the younger daughter, Cordelia, on whom Lear so dementedly doted, was the child of his second wife and the love of his life. I have no idea if this thesis has any credence in academic circles but the thought stayed with me.
And so, when I came to write my new novel, Let Go My Hand, I decided to blend this idea with my story plan. Or, rather, to play with it a little; to make the three daughters into three sons and to narrate from the point of view of the youngest. This seemed like a way to revivify the relationships between four such characters; to refigure the complex emotional geometries of fraternity, paternity and filiality.

There’s something tectonic about Shakespeare’s work that appeals endlessly to other writers – not just the language (although that, too) but the dramatic structures, the simple-but-then-again-complicated trigonometry of the relationships, which can be drawn and redrawn. As is the way with the writing of long-form fiction, my own story soon started to germinate in ways that had little obvious resemblance to the initial thought. But, still, that seed is still buried deep in the novel somewhere … And so it is with these books, which likewise take the great man’s plays as their point of departure.

1. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov
First published in Dostoevsky’s magazine Epoch, this is a terrifying novella of sex, murder, madness and flagellation and is the better known companion piece to Turgenev’s short story Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District – probably because Shostakovich made it into an opera. There’s something about Shakespeare that appeals directly to Russians. I have a pet theory that this is because Shakespeare was also writing on the border between the medieval and the modern – just a few hundred years earlier.
2. Asterix and the Great Divide by Albert Uderzo
After the heavy Russian opening, a little light relief. I loved Asterix as a boy and this is one of the funniest. Two chieftains divide their town in two with a big ditch and fight for supremacy. But Histrionix, the son of one, and Melodrama, the daughter of the other, are deeply in love and their love reaches across the divide. Romeo and Juliet are reborn as cartoon Gauls.

3. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
When this came out, I was trying to write a (mercifully unpublished) novel of my own and had been reading too many British writers bogged down in the class system. But this was just a wide-open, soul-raging prairie epic based on King Lear – about three daughters and their monstrous dad who leaves them (and their husbands) his farm. I was electrified – and powerfully reminded that contemporary fiction could be so intelligent, so readable, and so widescreen.
4. The Diviners by Margaret Laurence
Published in 1974, this is one of the great classics of Canadian literature. Laurence was an early supporter of Nobel laureate Alice Munro and is considered one of Canada’s great novelists. This book is loosely based on The Tempest and swirls across time and space with magic, depth and darkness. Ostensibly, it’s about the relationship between a Scottish-descended single mother, Morag, and Jules, a Métis songwriter. But it ends up being about everything. A hidden gem worth digging out.

5. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
A sneak-in. One of my English teachers made us read this, even though it wasn’t on any syllabus. My eyes and ears were opened by the fast, elliptical, clever, musical dialogue. The sheer verve of it. This is the story of Hamlet’s two friends who have been asked by his parents to hang around Elsinore and divine what the hell is the matter with the mopey prince. Except, of course, Hamlet is going to send them to their death. Just brilliant.
6. Indigo by Marina Warner
Another novel by a shimmeringly intelligent writer.

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Review of The Nix by Nathan Hill

Written for The Guardian:

The best thing a reviewer can do when faced with a novel of this calibre and breadth is to urge you to read it for yourselves – especially if your taste is for deeply engaged and engaging contemporary American prose fiction of real quality and verve.

The Nix is Hill’s debut. He is in his early 40s and I suspect he has been drafting various sections of this book for most of his adult life. Many chapters feel like separate novel fragments that have been skilfully woven together over time and – since Hill’s talents as a writer are so abundant – the resulting 200,000-word leviathan is replete with a great many passages of lush reading pleasure.

With near-absurd brevity, therefore, let me say that this is the story of Samuel whose mother, Faye, abandoned him when he was a boy. She comes back into his life via the news networks as the “radical hippie prostitute teacher” who has been captured on a phone camera throwing gravel at a faux-folksy governor presumed to be running for president. The video has gone viral and Samuel has been tracked down. At first he refuses to have anything to do with Faye. But when he is faced with the cancellation of a pre-existing book contract and repaying the big advance, writing a quick and savage “tell all” about his mother seems the only way to avoid bankruptcy and save his literary career. Thus Samuel’s investigation into the reasons for his own maternal rejection begin …

And this is merely the framing. The Nix is really a novel about growing up in the US, about the two childhoods of mother and son, about coming of age, awkward friendships and first loves, about the loneliness of intelligence, about loss and mishandled relationships. The word “Nix” refers to a malevolent life-haunting homunculus that deceives its victims into loving those that hurt them the most – and so furnishes the book with a metaphorical organising principle.

Hill is an assiduous selector of words whose artistic concentration seldom lapses
The writing is a delight; Hill is an assiduous selector of words whose artistic concentration seldom lapses. He is also a very musical stylist – the book is full of long, beautifully counterweighted sentences and subtle cadences that change from voice to voice as different characters take up the narrative. His descriptions are apposite and are telling: for instance, Samuel describes Periwinkle, his agent, as “like a flashlight aimed at all your shortcomings”.

I really loved, too, that the book was so intelligently funny. (Why are these two indispensable qualities so seldom bedfellows?) And I was impressed by the psychological layering throughout. Most of all, I relished the unstrained profundity that emerged at odd moments. The novel’s credo owes a great deal to Virginia Woolf’s “for nothing was simply one thing” (from To the Lighthouse): “There is one true self,” Hill writes, “hidden by many other true ones.”

For all its mighty accomplishments, though, The Nix suffers from several missteps and a few things that – to my mind at least – don’t quite work. It is overlong to its own detriment. Description reoccurs. There are many sections that the novel could have done without – those concerning vice president Hubert Humphrey, certainly, or the chapters devoted to Pwnage, the console-gaming obsessive. Sure, Hill writes with flair about World of Elfscape, his fictional computer game, but he has already got Samuel as an avid gamer and thus a repository for this material.

There are also several narrative hinges that do not hang right. The worst of these is the student and cop sadomasochistic sex-on-the-police-car-bonnet storyline, which is heavily laboured and ill-joined to the wider narrative. Indeed, the plot as a whole takes two turns too many to be plausible, and this has a corrosive effect on the manner in which the reader experiences the book. Hill suspects as much, of course, and has Samuel say “I cannot believe this” when Periwinkle ties the story up for him.

In a similar vein, the comic sections sometimes collapse into burlesque – such as in the re-encounter scene between son and mother, which takes place in the presence of a ludicrous small-footed lawyer who needs to go to the bathroom every 10 minutes and who sweats so much his shirt looks as though it “were being swallowed by a jelly fish”. One defect would have been enough. Again, the lampooning plays off-key against the scene’s natural power and the reader recalibrates into oh-it’s-a-joke reading mode.

And yet, in the final analysis, none of this matters because The Nix outflanks its own weaknesses with such copious strengths and collusive warmth that … well, let me urge you again to read it for yourselves.

 

Esperanto: the language that never was

Witten for Prospect Magazine:

 

The Komedia Kvizo had started. Perhaps this would be instructive. I had hoped to get to the heart of the matter straight away. I had hoped to re-examine the biggest question of our times—the European Union referendum—but to come at it from deep within the pan-European hinterlands of Remainia. But instead, the question we were all facing was: “Kiom ofte mi uzas drogojn?”

Welcome, friends, to the British Esperanto Conference 2016, “emanating” this year from Merseyside. Truth be told, things had not looked promising in the beginning. Sky like a sodden ashtray. Potato juice rain beading on all the windows of the buses going by. People hunched and harried on the pavement hurrying home. None of them going my way. No other writers. No journalists. No news crews. (It can be lonely at the top.) I had been directed to the single most anonymous and forlorn conference centre in the UK. There I had found a forgotten glass door on which was thinly gummed a single blue A4 poster: “Esperanto—Asocio de Britio”; the “o” of the word “Esperanto” having been replaced with a globe.

Once inside though… Once inside, everything turned colour and warm and iridescent. And what a welcome. No doubt about it: these were la belaj homoj. Seventy or so of the most sexy katoj you are ever going to meet in your life. I felt like I’d walked into a shiny multi-coloured electric Kool-Aid dream of an impossible future from long ago. Like it was Buck Rogers’s birthday all over again. (The word “Esperanto” means “a person who hopes”… in Esperanto). Like I’d left behind some terrible 1950s black-and-white nightmare of a purse-lipped Michael Gove-led rump-Britannia and instead entered a joyful Elysian of Enlightenment. Were Boris Johnson ever to re-spawn here, I thought to myself, it would be back in his rightful place—as a chubby eunuch-mute charged with the sole task of silently serving champagne by way of penance for his previous lifetime of deepest disingenuousness.

This was going to be my world. For three days. All good. All more than good. Except, I have to confess, for one thing: I was totally unable to understand a word that anybody said. Or any of the events. Or pretty much anything at all that was happening.

I remember I sat through Kalle Kniivilä (no relation to Evel Knievel—I checked) talking about “Putin—pri la naturo de la rusia re^gimo, la kialoj de ^gia subteno inter rusianoj, kaj la ^san^goj okazintaj lige kun la anekso de Krimeo.” And there was a guy called Guilherme Fians speaking on the subject of “Brazilo: pri la lando kaj ^gia nuntempa Esperanto-movado.” I might have missed Mudie: la pinta pioniro. And the Beatles amika konkursado pri Beatles-kanzonoj. Or I might not have missed it—or them, or something.

But I was back for the Komedia Kvizo because this was something I had a chance of almost understanding. Yes, crucially, the comedy quiz questions were being written up on the projector and, like Gulliver on his travels, I thought I might therefore mobilise an unholy concoction of Latin, Greek and French in the hope of gleaning something of what I was reading. I say “almost” understand because I didn’t have Belarusian, Yiddish, Polish or Slavic. Although, of course, the whole point of Esperanto is that you don’t need any of these languages to learn it or, according to the fundamentalists, any of these languages at all.

The host of the comedy quiz was a genial 35-year-old man by the (actual) name of Rolf Fantom. (Did I mention that this was a totally surreal weekend?) Fantom was famous for being that rarest of human incarnations: a second-generation native Esperanto speaker; that is to say, his mother’s parents met through Esperanto and this was their common language; they thus bequeathed Esperanto to their daughter who, in turn, brought up young Rolf to speak it as his denaska lingvo. Fantom’s immediate job, though, was to see which of the Komedia Kvizo contestants could talk for just a minute without ripetado, hezito a˘u devio on a subject of his choice. So he repeated the question: “Kiom ofte mi uzas drogojn?”

“What does it mean?” I whispered to the guy sitting beside me. His name was Matt, he was 36 years old and the closest I came all weekend to an interpreter. He was elliptically insane, of course, but maybe a little less so than everyone else and I will forever be grateful to him since he was later to invite me to the curry to end all curries. “Why is everyone laughing?” I asked.

“He’s just asked them…” Matt whispered back, trying not to laugh himself. “He has just asked them how often he uses drugs.”
Wait—what? How often does the Esperanto community use drugs? No wonder, I was thinking, no wonder. I see it all now.
“Right.” I whispered back. “Is the ‘j’ pronounced like an ‘i’?”

But Matt could say no more. Not in English. There’s a phrase in Esperanto “ne krokodilo” meaning “no crocodiling.” To crocodile is when two people, who have learnt Esperanto, speak to one another in another language. This was an offence punishable by banishment—a kind of community-enforced personal Brexit. And I didn’t want to be responsible for ruining lives. So I returned to my shiny happy confusion. I would have to pick them off one by one in the corridors, on the stairwells.

The night before, as yet unfamiliar with the protocols and proprieties, I had gone up to the front of the gathering and blithely unleashed the Brexit beast of my own. In stoutly unintellectual English I had asked for a show of hands as to who wanted to leave the EU and who wanted to stay in. There was laughter of the sort you might get at a Star Trek conference when making a distasteful joke in Klingon (another constructed language) but—surprise—five hands out of roughly 70 went up for “Leave.” So glister the dire snakes even in Paradise.

Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, inventor of the language Esperanto ©Forum/Bridgeman Images
Esperanto was invented by LL Zamenhof, a Polish ophthalmologist, who published his first book detailing Esperanto, Unua Libro, in 1887. He was born in Białystok—once a Prussian city, then Russian, now Polish—the epitome of the European hinterland indeed. Esperanto probably had its apogee in the period immediately following the First World War when the League of Nations almost voted to accept it as their working language. (The proposal was blocked by a single French veto; on such pique can history turn.) Thereafter the language suffered badly under the totalitarian regimes of the middle 20th century, for being internationalist and in the case of Nazi Germany on account of Zamenhof being Jewish. One of the delegates at the conference, Elizabeth from Stow-on-the-Wold, put it thus: “Languages follow the biggest armies and there’s never been an Esperanto army.” (Or, interestingly, as Fantom told me: “language is possession.”) The 1960s and 1970s saw Esperanto enter a cultish phase—never widespread or mainstream but an offbeat and peripheral part of a more optimistic forward-looking cultural idealism wherein the dream of a universal global second language still seemed plausible. (It is surprising and touching how many of the more senior delegitoj met their life partners through Esperanto; Terry and Anica, for example, who found each other on a platform at Amsterdam Station after a Kongreso in Rotterdam.) In the 1990s, things looked grim for Esperanto—but then came the internet, saviour and haven of all things niche and suddenly the language was being taken seriously enough to put in an appearance on Google Translate. There are now estimated to be around 2,000 speakers in the UK. Worldwide, the society claims two million users. Personally, though, I’d be surprised if the number were that high because…

…Because, of course, the massive, trumpeting, stamping, ear-flapping, blanka elefanto in the room is… English; English; English; the English language; the widespread global adoption thereof. I felt terrible bringing this up. Like telling Buck Rogers that it wasn’t the 25th century after all.

“Well,” said Matt, “if the EU were to say we want a standard language, then everybody would revolt. And rightly so.” But neither are the other countries going to accept English as a standard, he contended. So why not instead make the case for Esperanto being the universal second language people learn?

Geoffrey weighed in. He was 74. “Why is my rate bill in about six different languages?” he demanded. “Yes, some people speak English but a lot of people don’t.” I conceded the point. Wistfully, he added: “It would have been great if David Cameron had come back with a plan for Esperanto as everyone’s second language.”

Kelly had brought Maggie, the only child at the conference (“I love it,” said Maggie) and Kelly echoed Geoffrey. “Definitely,” she said: “Europe needs to get on with it and Esperanto could be a second language for everyone.”

Elizabeth (speaking outside and away from accusations of crocodiling) was even more effusive: “Yes, Yes, Yes,” she said. “The EU is about discussing rather than fighting. It’s hard for the UK to understand what the point is sometimes. But, for example, imagine you want to agree that the Danube should not be polluted. Well, that involves at least seven countries and you suddenly know why you need the EU. On a practical point, Esperanto would be incredibly useful: instead of having to archive everything in 23 languages… just think.”

“The massive, trumpeting blanka elefanto in the room is… English. The widespread global adoption thereof”
At its simplest, Matt’s case—Esperanto’s case—is this. First, that it is very easy to learn, simpler and more logical than non-constructed languages. (They say you can learn it five times as fast.) Second, that Esperanto is a great politically-neutral equaliser; two people from anywhere can meet and, if they both have Esperanto as their second language, then neither is at a cultural disadvantage, nether feels inferior or apologetic. Third and related, that it could bring the world together in a genuinely internationalist exchange of ideas and information—travel in, say, Japan or Iran or Vietnam need no longer be a farrago of wrong turns and shouting. Fourth, that Esperanto is an extremely useful basic grounding in the learning of languages per se without the necessity of everyone going on to become professional speakers, as with say learning the recorder vis-à-vis music in schools. By way of demonstrating this last point, Matt had invited me out for that curry.

Which was off-the-scale strange. Past surreal.
And stunningly successful and convincing as a validation.

There are few times in your life that you can be certain that you are doing what nobody else in the world is doing—or has ever done—or will likely do again. This was one of them. I was sitting at a table of six, with a Catalan, a Brazilian, a Belgian, a Londoner and a Slovakian, while they munched and guzzled their way through their kareos and had what I can only describe as the most kinetic, exciting and involving conversation in Esperanto that Spice City (of Stanley Street, Liverpool) is ever going to witness. The animation. The jokes. The asides. The soliloquys. The antanaclasis. Oh, if only I had known what they were talking about I could have… I could have told you. But I was converted. The whole idea and application of Esperanto was so obviously amazing, so demonstrably persuasive, so self-evidently practical that I forget all over again about English; English; English.

Two things I did learn, though, that evening. One, that none other than Neil Kinnock was in charge of the EU committee tasked with getting Esperanto up the agenda and more widely used. (Another failure.) And two, that there was among the Esperanto hardliners a mysterious and potent idea called… La Fina Venko. This is the concept of the “Final Victory” and denotes the moment when Esperanto will be used as the main second language throughout the world. A Finavenkist is therefore someone who hopes for and works towards this “Final Victory” of Esperanto. I am not sure but I have a suspicion that the Catalonian at our table was just such a one. Think Opus Dei. Think KGB. The Bilderberg Group.

But back to the conference and back to the Brexit question. I had found the ideological heart of Remania, no doubt, but I had one more task. To track down the snakes therein. The Outers did not want to give their names, preferring to go under elaborate pseudonyms, and to bunch and chunter in curmudgeonly myopic knots like Brexiteers up and down the land. I found them lurking in the corridor outside the resplendent buffet. (Oh, the metaphors.) How, I asked, how on Earth could they possibly be Esperantists and want out of Europe?

Came one reply: the problem with the EU is that, from the people’s perspective, it’s not European enough.

How Hamlet Became Prospero: On Bob Dylan’s 75th Birthday

For Prospect Magazine:

 

The first time I came to London on my own, I came to see Bob Dylan. He was playing at the Hammersmith Apollo. I had tickets for three of the shows. I remember freezing in the queues outside. I remember the stampede to get to the front when the bastards finally opened the door. And I remember the sheer visceral excitement—awe, relief, disbelief, euphoria—of the moment when he appeared on stage from out of the darkness. The strange affirmation of being in the same physical space as him. The gratitude that I wasn’t too late to witness him live. Sure, I had not had the chance to see him in the 1960s, but at least I had the chance to see him at all.

Back then—in 1990—Dylan was already 28 years into his career and nobody had any idea that he had more than another quarter of a century of great works and live concerts ahead of him. Indeed, as it has turned out, I was seeing him for the first time at roughly the halfway point of his career.

Dylan turns 75 on 24th May. For millions of devotees like myself—many of whom consider him the world’s greatest living artist—it is a moment of celebration tinged with apprehension. Joan Baez, his most significant early anointer-disciple (Joan the Baptist), best expresses what might be described as “the Dylan feeling” in the excellent Martin Scorsese 2005 documentary when she says: “There are no veils, curtains, doors, walls, anything, between what pours out of Bob’s hand on to the page and what is somehow available to the core of people who are believers in him. Some people would say, ‘not interested,’ but if you are interested, he goes way, way deep.” I love this for lots of reasons but most of all because it captures not only the religious devotion that many who love him feel, but also the bemused indifference of the sane and secular who do not.

Of course, the first order of business when writing about Dylan is to urge readers to ignore writers who write about Dylan. We are like Jehovah’s Witnesses, forever tramping door to door with our clumsy bonhomie and earnest smudgy leaflets; in all honesty, you would be much better off seeking out the resonant majesty of the actual work. Indeed, you’ll be relieved—and possibly endeared—to hear that Dylan himself considers his disciples to be deranged. “Why is it when people talk about me they have to go crazy?” Dylan asked in a recent interview for Rolling Stone. “What the fuck is the matter with them?”

I should say in passing that I am only mildly afflicted by comparison. There are tens of thousands of Dylan fans who are in a far more advanced state of insanity. Fervent purveyors of set-lists and bootlegs and best-of-performances; the blue-faced blogging battalions; the tens of millions who watch YouTube footage of him changing the lyrics to a song here or performing an unreleased track there. Soon these poor folk will be sifting the brand new 6,000-piece literary archive of his ephemera (acquired in March by the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, for a rumoured $60m) for clues as to his state of mind sequestered in the addenda to his legal contracts. There are already hundreds of “Dylanologists” who like to listen to individual instrumental tracks of his gazillion bootleg recordings—“stems” as they are called—so as to focus in on his rhythm guitar playing or keyboards. Then there are the serial show-goers stretching all the way back to the Gaslight Café in New York in 1962. There’s no other songwriter that comes anywhere near this kind of… what? Devotion, loyalty, study, analysis, contemplation, regard, fixation.

What has Britain’s Most Commercially Successful Artist been up to?

Written for The New Republic Magazine (USA):  

 

Despite being just a short hop across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament, Vauxhall used to be London’s least fashionable borough, an area known only for its outdoor urinals and irredeemably depressed bus station. But this atmosphere is now changing. Damien Hirst, ex-enfant terrible of the art world and once agitator-in-chief of the Young British Artists (YBAs), has chosen Vauxhall as the venue for his first and very own art gallery. Suddenly the whole place is interesting, plausible, a destination. But as well as renewing interest in an overlooked post code, Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery has occasioned a rash of questions. Central to which, as ever, is what is Hirst up to?

The legacy of his life and work thus far is such that—regardless of his standing as a maker—Hirst’s every act continues to be scrutinized for further evidence of his undeniable artistic genius or his undeniable marketeering cynicism. Or both—if, like me, you consider his principal artistic subject not to be death (as he himself often claims) but the commodification of art.

Hirst is now 50, and his career thus far has been a downhill slalom of provocation and pound signs.

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The Batman of Obscenity

 

Written for The Guardian:

 

Myles Jackman is on a mission to change Britain’s obscenity laws. For him, it’s more than a job, it’s a moral calling…

 

1. Tiger Porn

One evening in the late autumn of 2008, Andrew Holland returned from holiday to discover that the front door to his home in Wrexham had been smashed in. Thinking he had been burgled, he phoned the police. They came straight round – and arrested him.

It was the police themselves who had forced entry to his home. They had taken his computers in pursuit of what turned out to be an unfounded allegation; however, in searching the hard drives, they found something else. The original charges were duly dropped and instead, in the spring of 2009, the police indicted him with possession of two images under the new Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. One image was from a sadomasochistic series called the Body Modification Extreme Pain Olympics; the other showed – as the law has it – “an act of intercourse with a live animal”. The animal in question was a tiger.
On the streets of north Wales, in the newspapers and all over the internet, Holland quickly became known as “the tiger-porn guy”. As he told me, the consequences were “worse than being dead”. Vigilantes staked out his house. Hate mail and excrement were posted through his letterbox. He was banned from seeing his daughter for 18 months. He had a heart attack.

Meanwhile, from the roost of his London flat, Myles Jackman was watching. His was a constant vigil – Google alerts, Twitter, the forums, the court reports – for he was a man with a mission so unique that he alone considered Holland’s case to be an opportunity. More than that: a chance to change the world.

Myles Jackman is Britain’s leading obscenity lawyer. But he does not merely defend the accused: his life’s great plan and purpose is to rid this country once and for all of its laws criminalising extreme pornography – laws that he regards as morally and socially iniquitous. Jackman is broad and tall with plaintive eyes and a beard like Bedlam straw. From a distance, he looks vast and indomitable, a figure of great appetites and refusals, the rogue lawman in a spaghetti western. But close up, he’s softer, sensitive, comradely, far more Hagrid than Sergio Leone villain. (The invite for his 40th birthday, last November, asked friends to “a funeral – for the death of youth”.)

Jackman fervently believes he has to lead a crusade against what he sees as the unjust obscenity laws and that he absolutely must succeed – or else fail himself, his allies and the wider cause of civilisation as he sees it. He maintains that pornography is a class issue, a gender issue, a philosophical issue, a freedom issue, an everything issue. (One of his many dicta: “Pornography is the canary in the coal mine of free speech.”) And his campaign is against both state and statutes alike. By day, beneath the dark lawyerly suits that strain to contain him, he likes to wear Batman socks; by night, he wears Batman T-shirts. In the last six years or so, he has transformed himself from being just another lawyer into the Batman of obscenity.

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Walking with Karl

 

For Prospect Magazine

 

 

I am at the House of Commons. Karl lives less than three miles down the road. So I leave it late and I’m crossing the river on a bus when I get the message: “A very close friend of mine was stabbed severely in the chest yesterday and passed away an hour ago. I’m in the hospital now and won’t be able to meet with you today.”

The sun has fallen behind Westminster Abbey and the water below is the colour of charcoal. For half a minute, I think maybe Karl’s making it up because he’s changed his mind. Last time we met, he was shy and wary. I go through all the usual media organisations on my phone trying to find news of a stabbing and what is now a murder. It takes me almost 20 minutes to locate even a paragraph. Eventually, I have a name and a place: Dwayne Simpson, Brixton.

I find some words to text back to Karl, but even on my own screen, the exchange is unreal to me. Three days later, I receive the following: “The young man was more a brother than a friend and though the effect its had on me is unwordable, this pain must fuel a purpose.”

My purpose—my plan—had been to spend some time walking and talking with Karl through the streets, the scruffy asphalt parks and the estates of his childhood. I wanted to see our capital through the eyes of a man who for more than five years lived in the midst of intense physical violence.

Karl is 24 years old. He grew up in and around the Myatt’s Field estate in Brixton. His mother, Elizabeth, whom I later meet, is Ghanaian, like his father. She’s smiling, doting, warm, indulgent and cheerfully Christian. They moved to Britain about 30 years ago. In Ghana she was a teacher, but her qualifications were not recognised here, so she did various “hand to mouth” jobs and worked as a nurse. Karl’s father, whom he doesn’t want to name, “does a few jobs now, delivery work and security stuff.” He has one older brother who was in “some sort of menial job” the last time Karl heard about him.
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Leonard Cohen is John Donne to Bob Dylan’s Shakespeare

Written for The Guardian:

The first time I thought consciously about Leonard Cohen’s death was in 2002. I was listening to his 2001 album Ten New Songs while crawling my way through the writing of a novel in which each chapter took its title from one of the poems in The Songs and Sonnets of John Donne. I remember hearing the following lines, among the hundreds of Cohen’s that I’ve come to revere: “So come, my friends, be not afraid/ We are so lightly here/ It is in love that we are made/ In love we disappear.”

In that moment, a network of biographical and thematic connections between Donne and Cohen suddenly rose up in my mind. No man is an island. Death be not proud. The bearable and the unbearable lightness of our being. The way that love makes us and remakes us. The secular sacrament of our lovemaking itself. The lover as saint. The high seriousness of love and death so entwined. The abiding generosity towards their listeners. Can there be two poets who credit their audience with more intelligence than Donne and Cohen? I wrote a few notes about the idea, the last line of which I underlined: Leonard Cohen is John Donne to Bob Dylan’s Shakespeare.

The pair have long been linked in my mind. And ever since I was a teenager, Dylan and Cohen have been an essential gloss on my experience, a significant part of my feeling for human iniquity and transcendence. This is to do with their eloquence, of course, their revivifying poetic intelligence, their seasoned wit. But also the sensibility they share – that their affirmations are narrowly won after much hand-to-hand fighting with discouragement in both the private and the public realms. “The world’s whole sap is sunk” – so Donne says – but intimately to know this and then to write and sing about such a defeat is somehow to seize something back. “I’m junk,” Cohen sings, “but I’m still holding up this little wild bouquet.” The fallen state is the only state and, it turns out, the holiest, most resonant and most truthful.

And yet while Dylan’s lyrical gift is wild, copious, and immoderate, Cohen’s is precise, supplicatory and cloistral. Where Dylan rambunctiously inhabits the multifarious world, Cohen more often circles the many mortal contrarieties that lie between the lovers’ bed and the altar – regularly, for him, the same thing. Where Dylan’s genius often has a dizzying and effortless quality, Cohen’s feels mesmerisingly measured. You have your Dylan days and your Cohen days, and they’re very different.

Like Donne, Cohen began as the great lover-poet anatomist of the heart and ended as the priestly-poetical anatomist of the soul. And, of course, as with Donne, when you start to look a little closer, you find that the amorous and the ascetic, the profane and the sacred, Eros and Thanatos have been intimately bound throughout. “I’ve heard the soul unfolds,” Cohen sings, “In the chambers of its longing.”

There’s also consonance in the way the verse itself is made. Like Donne, Cohen has that rare ability to render the concerns of the mind, body and spirit with equal fidelity in a single work, or sometimes in a single line, and none at the expense of the other. His writing has that same feeling of being wrought to its purpose by a fierce animus – “there’s a blaze of light in every word” – of being vividly alive with the intelligent energy of human paradox: assertions are instantly countered, beliefs undermined, theses overtaken by antitheses, the profound and serious valiantly foregrounded only to disappear through trapdoors of irony, wit and self-mockery. Thus, the drama of Cohen’s intelligence, as with Donne’s, somehow becomes the drama of every human intelligence; for we are all of us busy deep down with the back and forth between love and death; between the redemptions of human intimacy and our need for a redeemer God to rescue us from transience. A God, by the way, in whom Cohen and Donne have a great deal of trouble believing. “Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?” (Donne). “A million candles burning for the love that never came” (Cohen). Their holy verses are not so much about the divine as they are about humankind’s search for the divine; for both of them, God is the Great Absentee who nonetheless presents his long list of demands.

Perhaps some of these correspondences can be attributed to a surprising similarity in certain aspects of their biographies. Donne was born in 1572 into an eminent Catholic family when persecution was the Catholic birth-right. On his mother’s side, he was descended from Sir Thomas More and his uncle was the head of the secret Jesuit mission to England. Cohen was born in 1934 into an eminent Jewish family in Montreal. On his mother’s side he was descended from a rabbi and Talmudic writer. The boyhood of both was lived with close awareness of brutal religious oppression: for Cohen elsewhere, in Europe, but terrifyingly extensive; for Donne right there in his own family and terrifyingly particular. Both came from families that prized intelligence, both knew the Bible intimately and both sought salve for their wounds – maybe even salvation – in their relationships with women.

It is this fusing of the sacred and the sensual that they share most of all. Think of the end of Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 14” where the speaker startingly addresses God as if wishing for a violent lover: “Take me to you, imprison me, for I, / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.” Think of the couplet in the fifth verse of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” which seems, on first hearing, to contain a non sequitur: “Maybe there’s a God above/ As for me all I’ve ever learned from Love …” Until, that is, you realise that for Cohen, love and God are one and the same.

The last recorded words on the last song of Cohen’s last album – released only last month – seem to me to be the ultimate distillation of this mingling. The human lover and the love of a difficult God addressed together – in one final, beautiful breath of unrequitable longing: “I wish there was a treaty we could sign/ Between your love and mine.”

The Right to Bear Arms is Anti-Democratic

 

Written for Prospect Magazine:

When President Obama stood behind his familiar podium at the White House following the recent mass shooting at a college in Oregon, he made one of the most telling, angry and moving speeches he has ever given. The speech is worth watching for all kinds of reasons—not least because it is both oddly restorative in that it demonstrates that politics can still produce enlightened, humane and decent leaders and yet utterly disheartening in that it demonstrates that such leaders on this issue in America seem powerless.

It was the 15th time Obama had made such an address after a mass shooting. According to Shootingtracker.com, this was the 994th mass gun attack since he began his second term in November 2012. Meanwhile, the US Centre for Disease Control has robust figures to show that firearms caused the death of around 33,000 people in the USA in 2013 as opposed to 21 American deaths from terrorism worldwide (including Afghanistan). This was the contrast to which Obama himself drew attention.

The part of the speech that I want to highlight here, though, is a less obviously persuasive passage containing what might best be called moral philosophy. Obama often gets labelled professorial—as if this were an insult—but the question of what rights we have, what duties we owe one another and from where these rights and duties are derived is the central enquiry and pre-occupation of all the greatest thinkers from Socrates to Foucault via Kant.
The issue of gun ownership, Obama says, “…is relevant to our common life together, to the body politic … This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America.  We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction.” Hold those thoughts for a second—especially that final sentence. There is a deep (liberal) democratic principle at work here and one that bears unpacking since it resonates beyond this particular tragedy and seems to me to categorically defeat any of the arguments run by the pro-gun lobby—lead by the National Rifle Association and traditionally supported by the Republicans.

In passing, it’s worth noting the responses of some of the Republican Presidential candidates. Jeb Bush argued against gun-control: “I don’t think more government is necessarily the answer to this. It’s very sad to see, and I resist this notion because we had this challenge as governor—stuff happens.” Donald Trump said: “It sounds like another mental health problem.” And Marco Rubio, the Florida senator, another Republican candidate, commented: “This is a complex issue that may not have a federal solution.” The general theme being resistance and hostility to government intervention.

Let’s turn now to the “right to bear arms.” The (in)famous 1791 second amendment to the American constitution states that: “a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” I want to leave aside all the other (interesting) issues to do with the historical context of the American war of Independence (1775-1782) and the semantic confusion over the words “state” and “militia,” and just focus here on “the right of people to keep and bear arms.” The issue of rights.

Here Come The Druids

Written for Prospect Magazine:

 

I am on the rail replacement bus service outside East Midlands Parkway train station, which itself lies resplendent beneath the ravishing architectural solicitation that is Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station in the rain. I am on the top deck with three other men. One has a gold tooth, another a shaven head and a feverish red beard, and the third a ponytail and a couple of vehement face piercings. Down below a man I will come to know as Nuka Raven is biding his time dressed in a black tunic and cloak with silver trim. We’re 10 miles outside Nottingham.

“Don’t worry,” says Tim Spicer, the gold-toothed 36 year old, “it’s not just warlocks. They’re not elitist. Everyone is welcome. It’s very… affirmative.”

“Druids?” I ask.

“Oh yeah. And maybe some wicca chicks.”

Forty-five minutes later and I’m marching resolutely up a hill with several hundred men and women who look as if they’re heading straight for the gates of Mordor. There are banners saying “Welcome to Pagan Pride Parade 2013.” There are time-smoothed staffs, purple runic-patterned dresses, bright yellow and pale blue flowers and several people are drumming. Sure, I’m not pagan, but I am a sucker for people who mean it—so I join right on in when the shout goes up: “We are pagan! And we are proud! We are pagan! And we are proud!”

We arrive at the Arboretum in central Nottingham. This is one of the UK’s biggest pagan gatherings and has been roughly timed to coincide with Lammas on 1st August—a date that originally marked the first harvest festival of the year.

Paganism was finally recognised as a religion in the UK at the 2001 census. The numbers are rising: in 2001 about 42,000 people identified as pagan; in 2011 the number was 75,000. Informal estimates are three times this number. Until recently, many a pagan has been chary of coming out. But as the doors of our busy national closet have begun to ease open, so too the pagans are venturing on to the streets. I find myself ignorant of even the basics, so I’m here trying to find out what being a pagan entails. More than 20,000 people gathered to celebrate the summer solstice at Stonehenge on 21st June. But why are people turning to “the old religion”? Who are they? And is modern Paganism really anything to do with pre-Christian traditions?

I snag a passing shaman. I’m hoping to be reconnected with my soul.

“How long does it take to get to the spirit world?” I ask.

Flash Fish

This is the age of aquariums: young men are paying a fortune to “aqua-scape” their indoor fish tanks—and parting with up to £250,000 for a single fish. Why? 

Written for Prospect Magazine:

 

We’re waiting for the suicide fish. It is Monday night. We’re in expensive territory—Notting Hill, west London—and we’re staring at a huge aquarium roughly 14 feet long and three feet tall. There’s water and there’s rock in there. Not much else.

“When they due?”

“Pretty soon.”

“What are they called?”

“I don’t know, man.”

The protein skimmers whirr and hum in the intervening silence. “You have to feel for them,” I say, after a while. “I mean, if you’re going to be a fish, then you don’t want to be one of these suicide guys. You want to be… second wave.”

“Yes. But we’re trying to prevent wipeout here. That’s what it’s all about. If you don’t use the suicide guys to test the water, and something goes wrong, you could have a very expensive mass extermination event on your hands. Could be carbon dioxide, could be pH balance, could be salt, could be temperature, could be anything—but you lose the whole tank.” He draws slow and sober breath. “Wipeout.”

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The curious case of the Sherlock pilgrims

Written for Prospect Magazine:

 

I have just arrived. I am standing in the square in the small Swiss valley town of Meiringen. On all sides, fir trees and high alpine meadows give way to cragged grey faces of rock that are veined in ice. Here and there louring clouds snag the serrated peaks.

“What’s going on?” I ask the Swiss woman next to me.

“I think they’re starting,” she replies, confidentially.

“Starting what?”

But now a brass band embarks upon some deafening mountain lament and nothing further can be heard.

I fall back upon my powers of observation and deduction. A rotund cardinal comports himself across the cobbles in full scarlet regalia to converse with a man who appears to be some kind of itinerant manure shoveller. A chubby boy in the guise of a 19th century mountain guide sits on a sedan chair with his accordion; from time to time and for no reason, he pops on a false beard, then pops it off again, the elastic cutting into his cheeks. A sly, fastidious man is half-introduced. His name is Snork, he says, or Stark or Hark or Bark or Snark—it’s impossible to hear him until the music stops; at which moment, I catch only the end of his sentence “… and so this is where they invented meringue.’”

“My name is Peter Steiler,” shouts an elderly Swiss man in a lemon-coloured bowler hat. “I am a very intelligent man.’”

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Weather Anxiety

Written For Prospect Magazine:

 

I was powering along the French autoroute in my truly awful car wishing I had gone into mining precious metals or something when my travelling companion piped up from the passenger seat: “Why are you driving so fast?”

It was a good question. We were heading to a small town called Beaune. There was no rush. We weren’t late. We hadn’t even booked anywhere to stay. Nobody was expecting us. The world was even more indifferent to our progress than usual.

“I don’t know,” I replied, backing off a little.

“At least it’s not raining anymore.”

“That’s it,” I said, turning to her. “That’s it.”

“What’s what?” she frowned. “Keep your eyes on the road, you idiot.”

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Model Britain: One Man’s Quest to Understand Fashion Week

 

Written For Prospect Magazine

 

Day four. London Fashion Week. I’m heading backstage half an hour before yet another show. I pass a neo-Ottoman grouse-beater, a man with rabbit ears, a slouch of camp rockabilly-punks, DH Lawrence and a six-foot female Day-Glo clown-witch. I’m a grizzled veteran of the scene by now, but even so, I double back. Someone has to have the definitive answer. Maybe it’s her.

“Can you tell me what this is all about?” I ask.

“What?”

“London. Fashion. London Fashion Week?”

“It’s about…” She considers. “It’s about dramatic but joyful.”

One of the best answers so far. Her name is Sadie Clayton. She is a fashion student. She seems confident. And at least it’s an answer that she embodies. She’s a witch-clown, I realise, not the other way round. I reassess my life—so much to learn—and I look to her friend. “Anything else?” I ask.

“Neoprene,” she says.

“Got it. Thanks.” I nod. “Dramatic but joyful. Neoprene.”

I’m getting closer, I think. I press on.

Security here is intense. I need separate passes to breathe, walk, speak, see and micturate. Indeed, faced with the demeanour of the various press officers, most non-fashion writers would assume that they had inadvertently stumbled upon some kind of top-secret peace summit between Israel and Palestine that was being personally brokered by President Obama and Angelina Jolie in the nude.

“I’m with the hair team,” I say, when I reach the VVVIP security door. This is also code.

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Among the Russians: Giving the Tolstoy Lecture at Yasnaya Polyana

 

Visiting Tolstoy’s estate, Edward Docx met writers who live gloriously and furiously—and took a beating on behalf of the former head of MI5

 

Written for Prospect Magazine:

 

We are walking through birch trees that quaver and drip with a steady but refreshing rain. We are on our way to Yasnaya Polyana, the country house of Leo Tolstoy. I am with two fellow writers: Evgeny Vodolazkin and Igor Malyshev. The path is muddy here and there and sometimes we go in single file.

“Perhaps it’s because Tolstoy doesn’t have a sense of humour—or not a very good one,” says Evgeny from the back.

“Or maybe it’s because with Dostoyevsky something is always moving,” says Igor, up front.

“Yes, it’s more dynamic,” I venture, “but maybe that’s because there’s more at stake. Unlike Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky has a preoccupation with how to eat as well as how to live.”

“Yes, Dostoyevsky was… what is the English?” Igor asks.

“Skint,” I say.

This is a more than usually germane point since the Tolstoy estate (which remains in that family) stretches away in all directions around us: heavily wooded and undulating with scattered, scruffy villages and sudden long-grassed fields that put me in mind of those scenes in Anna Karenina when Levin goes out scything with his serfs and resolves to eschew all human falsity in favour of a sweat-drenched agrarian redemption.
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The Prophet – Dylan Live: Review

 

The World’s Greatest Living Artist written for Prospect Magazine:

 

As ever, the big question is: what are we all doing here? But I’m distracted from this because the room has started thrumming with that most peculiar of energies—tangible but invisible, personal but shared: human expectation. I’m with my excellent friend Will Smith, the British comedian and actor. We’re at the very front of the balcony. Below, there are hands raised in anticipation, voices calling out and people pressing forward. We are some five thousand in number. But it would be hard to say which of us are the more excited: those who can have no inkling of the bizarre beauty of what they are about to see and hear; or those, like myself, who know what’s coming.

I’m not exactly sure how many times I have done this… I lost count in 2004 and it was past 70 then. I admit: I am entirely without reason or sense when it comes to Bob Dylan. I remember the first time, of course. I was still at school. I went to three out of six freezing February nights at the Hammersmith Odeon. I remember the numbness in my toes as I stood queuing (for hours) to be admitted first and so get as close as possible to the stage. And I remember being caught out by how just how fast the other lunatics ran the second those doors opened.

 

That was 1990 and in the intervening 21 years, whenever funds and geography have conspired to make it possible, I’ve been back for more. I’ve given up trying to be at the front—such wisdom these days, such dignity—but nonetheless it is to the very same Hammersmith venue that I’ll be returning later this week with Will. He’s not a very sensible person either.

Of course, we’re only middle-ranking extremists. Even back then, I was already 25 years behind the rest of the crowd—many of them here tonight, (60, 70, 80 years old), grizzled veterans of the 1960s. Paradoxically, I now look at the new recruits—in their teens or twenties—with the same mixture of fondness, ruefulness, and condescension that I myself once received. Fellas, I think, I love the frizzy hair and the ponchos and everything but were you there when he played “I and I” and Winston Watson on the drums kicked his ass?

We’re in Bournemouth tonight, by the way. I know, I know. What am I doing here? What are they doing here? What is he doing here? I’m coming to it…

But now the house lights go dim and the noise of the crowd rises and—this is it, this is it—a disembodied voice in the darkness intones: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll. The voice of the promise of the 60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock. Who donned makeup in the 70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse. Who emerged to find Jesus. Who was written off as a has-been by the end of the 80s, and who suddenly shifted gears releasing some of the strongest music of his career in the late 90s. Ladies and gentlemen—Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan!”

And here he comes—70 years old, dressed as a harlequin-cowboy, hat-brim tipped down low, white shoes, white-piped dark suit, crazy hair, crazy grin-grimace, crazy way of walking, and looking for all the world like a man who has just been asked to play both King Lear and the Fool in some mad production set wherever the Old West meets the Deep South. He seldom speaks to the crowd and there is very little by way of acknowledgement—a half-nod perhaps—before he takes up station sideways-on behind his keyboards.

Darkness again. Will and I crane forward. There’s about a minute of maddened cacophony while his band seem to detune their instruments in order to tune them up afresh and the drummer tests everything he has got as if entirely new to drums, drumming, any notion of order. Then, abruptly, astonishingly, the six men on stage converge—in harmony and in time—and the miracle of music is born among us. The spotlight falls. And Dylan begins to sing.

***

I say sing. Imagine an Old Testament prophet come down from the mountains of the desert. Imagine he has 70 years’ worth of visions to impart in rich and vivid verse—visions comprised for the most part of searing and timeless human truth about love and god and man. But imagine that he has neither heard nor spoken a single word during his many decades alone—that his voice is therefore as cracked as the tablets he bears and as croaky as the rocks among which he has lived, and that furthermore he has no sense of the speed, nor the sound, nor the stresses, nor the syntax of conventional speech. Now imagine that an unusually convincing joker selling ecstasy tablets and helium balloons has waylaid him on the way to the amphitheatre. And, finally, imagine that when at last he steps up before you to discourse upon what is undoubtedly the quintessence of existence, he chooses to do so by intoning through a hookah pipe using only the five notes of the pentatonic scale. That’s what I mean by singing.

We reach the end of the first song and return to the dark abyss of uncertainty while his band de-tune, re-tune, and the drummer hits a few arrhythmic drums. Insanely, every new song is born from this chaos. Why this should be so—like everything else about this Dylan phenomenon—is a mystery. Dylan has played on average 100 shows a year, every year, (think about that a second), since I first went to see him in 1990. It’s really not that much of an exaggeration, therefore, to say that he and his musicians are the tightest rock band playing anywhere in the world today. So why the confusion between every single song? Why the wide-eyed concentration with which they appear to watch him as if expecting at any moment to find themselves plunging panic-stricken, embarrassed and unprofessional into an entirely different universe—a song by, say, Kate Bush?

New spotlights. What’s happening? Hang on—yes, yes—here comes Dylan himself out from behind the keyboards to centre stage. And we’re into the second song. He’s got the microphone in one hand and his harmonica in the other and he’s dancing like a punch-drunk boxer, a marionette, Kafka’s favourite uncle.

On so many levels, the theatre of his performance is extraordinary. He moves quickly, then slows, then freezes. He throws himself into angled positions—stretched out, oblique, hunched—as if dodging bullets that only he can see. He delivers a line, straightens, delivers another, compelled, it seems, to wring new inflections from his songs physically as well as aurally. And that voice again: a keening, a wailing, a lament for the end of time.

“What song is it?” I shout at Will.

“Not sure, not sure,” Will mouths back.

We are lost. We’re not alone. Nobody seems to know. Not the veterans. Not the lunatics down at the front. Maybe not the band, yet. Maybe not even Dylan himself.

We dig deep. Dylan has written more than 450 songs (think about that for another second) and I know all of them inside out but I’m still not sure. He seems to enjoy catching everyone out (including his musicians) by randomly changing the set list or pretending one song is another song for a few bars. Will makes the observation that Bob could happily play song-bingo with his catalogue every night: he could have one of the madmen in the audience shout out a random number between one and 500 and still play a more interesting, powerful, poetical and well-known set than any other living artist. Maybe this is what he’s been doing. Meanwhile, something is happening here…

A spell is being cast. The man on the stage is leading us all in conjuring up the ghosts of Dylan past, Dylan present and Dylan future. And now, as the song progresses, we are retuning our ears, refiguring our eyes. We hear the crazy intonations clearly. We understand this antic demeanour. The magic is working.

“Is this one of his?” I ask.

Will looks baffled. Sometimes Dylan plays The Clash, sometimes Elvis. Maybe it is Kate Bush.

“I think it is ‘This wheel’s on fire,’” I shout.

Will nods. We’ve got it. This is not bad. Only two verses in. We’ve been entirely beaten before. And, oh, we now realise, what a song it is…

Why? Because we, the half of the audience who do this a lot, we all thought this was a song written when Dylan was 26, (already seven world-changing albums into his career—think about that for another second) about his famous motorcycle “accident.” Or, if not that, then a song that in some way refigured King Lear’s words to Cordelia: “Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound/Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears/Do scald like molten lead.” Or, if not that, then a song that somehow channels the prophet Ezekiel’s vision: “As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire with horses of fire suddenly appeared.”

But no. What we didn’t realise was that this song, now that we listen to it again—here, tonight—this song is actually about the relationship between a 70-year-old singer-poet-musician and his audience, about the memory and continuing life of the songs, about all that has happened since it was written in 1967: “If your memory serves you well/We were going to meet again and wait/So I’m going to unpack all my things/And sit before it gets too late/ No man alive will come to you/ With another tale to tell…” Now how does he do that? How can this be? How is it that a relatively minor song written 44 years ago means all these new things to us, to him, here in 2011 in, of all places, Bournemouth?

Which brings us to the answer to the big question: what are we doing here?

What the uninitiated do not seem to understand about Dylan’s work is that it’s not really poetry, nor is it really music, but rather the much more powerful intersection of the two. Lots of Dylan does stand up on the page, but lots of Dylan doesn’t. Instead, it’s when you hear him that his tremendous imaginative power reveals itself. And it’s when you hear him live that this happens most of all. Each night, with astonishing verve and energy, he seeks to find, then connect with, and then highlight some new strand in the tapestry of his verse. Sometimes he succeeds, sometimes he doesn’t. And it is for this particular reason that we are all here—and why we are driven to return again and again.

“Oh Christ, he’s doing a guitar solo,” Will says.

I shake my head, bewildered. We’re into song three. Now there are three other guitarists on stage. One of them is Mark Knopfler. But the truth is that they are all—by some distance—better lead guitarists than Dylan. I have about 50 live recordings of his concerts; on no occasion has he ever played a good guitar solo.

But of course there are deeper and more general reasons as to why we are here—reasons to do with art and art’s concerns. We’re after something real and authentic and spellbinding and heartfelt that is not packaged or contrived or facetiously achieved, something full of feeling and insight, but something that is not delivered at the expense of human intelligence or subtlety or wit. Such sustenance is plentiful with Dylan because, like all great artists, he is—and has always been —forcefully and seriously engaged with the quiddity of life. How are we to live, given this? How am I to love, given that? Can you forgive me, given this? Can I forgive you, given that? Can there be a creator, given what we know? How do we sustain ourselves and endure, if not? Who am I to myself, to others, to you? What is happening here? How does it feel?

I know what you are beginning to suspect. And—yes—it’s no coincidence that besides Shakespeare I’ve also sounded some Biblical notes in this essay.  (The step from art to religion was ever a short one.) So, OK, as a robust agnostic, I’m prepared to admit it: seeing Dylan is the closest I come to a religious experience. But forget all the stuff you have read about him by people who are 40 years out of date, this is what he himself has recently said: “Here’s the thing with me and religion. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else… I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe in the songs.”

Which bring us, finally, to the question of what Dylan himself is doing playing 100 nights year at 70. Of course, there are simple answers to this question: enjoying himself, making money, working. But there are also more complex answers. He breathes life into his songs each night in order to keep them alive to himself because he, too, is seeking transcendence and meaning and purpose in his work.

Whenever I meet someone new, it is always a huge relief to discover that they know and like Dylan. Such taste guarantees an attitude to the world and a freight of emotional intelligence that I feel I can trust. Similarly, when I meet people who say that they don’t like him or don’t get it, then I feel a momentary despair—in much the way as when people say they don’t like classical music or art galleries or reading or a particular country. It’s all in my head, of course, but then everything is all in all of our heads. (What else is there?) Besides, what Dylan is really about is protest—not narrow political protest anymore—but a kind of existential protest. And you just don’t get that on The X Factor.

Postmodernism is Dead: Essay

Written for Prospect Magazine

 

I have some good news—kick back, relax, enjoy the rest of the summer, stop worrying about where your life is and isn’t heading. What news? Well, on 24th September, we can officially and definitively declare that postmodernism is dead. Finished. History. A difficult period in human thought over and done with. How do I know this? Because that is the date when the Victoria and Albert Museum opens what it calls “the first comprehensive retrospective” in the world: “Postmodernism—Style and Subversion 1970-1990.” Wait, I hear you cry. How do they know? And what was it? Postmodernism—I didn’t understand it. I never understood it. How can it be over?

You are not alone. If there’s one word that confuses, upsets, angers, beleaguers, exhausts and contaminates us all, then it is postmodernism. And yet, properly understood, postmodernism is playful, intelligent, funny and fascinating. From Grace Jones to Lady Gaga, from Andy Warhol to Gilbert and George, from Paul Auster to David Foster Wallace, its influence has been everywhere and continues. It has been the dominant idea of our age.

So what was it? Well, the best way to begin to understand postmodernism is with reference to what went before: modernism. Unlike, say, the Enlightenment or Romanticism, postmodernism (even as a word) summons up the movement it intends to overturn. In this way, postmodernism might be seen as the delayed germination of an older seed, planted by artists like Marcel Duchamp, during modernism’s high noon of the 1920s and 1930s. (Seen in this light, the start-date that the V&A offers for postmodernism—1970—is quite late.)

Thus, if modernists like Picasso and Cézanne focused on design, hierarchy, mastery, the one-off, then postmodernists, such as Andy Warhol and Willem de Kooning, were concerned with collage, chance, anarchy, repetition. If modernists such as Virginia Woolf relished depth and metaphysics, then postmodernists such as Martin Amis favoured surface and irony. As for composers, modernists like Béla Bartók were hieratic and formalist, and postmodernists, like John Adams, were playful and interested in deconstructing. In other words, modernism preferred connoisseurship, tended to be European and dealt in universals. Postmodernism preferred commodity and America, and embraced as many circumstances as the world contained.

In the beginning, postmodernism was not merely ironical, merely gesture, some kind of clever sham, a hotchpotch for the sake of it. It became these things later in lesser works by lesser artists: Michael Nyman, Takashi Murakami, Tracey Emin and Jonathan Safran Foer. Rather, in the beginning artists, philosophers, linguists, writers and musicians were bound up in a movement of great force that sought to break with the past, and which did so with great energy. A new and radical permissiveness was the result. Postmodernism was a high-energy revolt, an attack, a strategy for destruction. It was a set of critical and rhetorical practices that sought to destabilise the modernist touchstones of identity, historical progress and epistemic certainty.

Above all, it was a way of thinking and making that sought to strip privilege from any one ethos and to deny the consensus of taste. Like all the big ideas, it was an artistic tendency that grew to take on social and political significance. As Ihab Hassan, the Egyptian-American philosopher, has said, there moved through this (our) period “a vast will to un-making, affecting the body politic, the body cognitive, the erotic body, the individual psyche, the entire realm of discourse in the west.”

Lost in Translation

 

Novelist Edward Docx had to know what it feels like to be lost—truly lost—in the Amazon. So he went to Brazil and hired some men to leave him in the jungle. Written for Prospect Magazine:

 

Our troubles began with the translator. Undeniably, José was a well-meaning man with a great many characteristics that the guide, Abi, and I both admired. It was a matter of regret to all concerned, therefore, that proficiency in Portuguese or English turned out not to be among them. A native Spanish speaker, he had arrived on the busy quay in Manaus accompanied by numerous madrigals of endorsement from the various agents, boatmen and interested parties involved in our little expedition. Indeed, so exceptionally fluent had he seemed in his acknowledgement of his own abilities that it had also appeared certain that they must extend far beyond the scope of the mere three advertised languages. But now here we were—standing deep in the Amazon jungle and, if anything, his linguistic facility seemed to be receding.

“So, let’s say just one hour,” I said.

José looked at both of us, nodded with childish enthusiasm and said nothing.

I tried again: “I need to understand what it’s like—to be alone here. In the rainforest. For my book. You leave me here for one hour and then we meet at exactly this spot.”
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If I Ruled The World

 

Most novelists and poets are broke. But why aren’t we getting a bailout? We’ve been no worse at our jobs than the bankers. Written for Prospect Magazine:

 

“Dude, where’s my cheque? Either this is not a recovery, or you forgot to mail out our cheques while the recession was on.”

“That’s what you’d open with?”

“Yes, he’s the prime minister so he’s probably busy, right? And I think we would need to get in on him straight off—prevent him from using his famous charm.”

Early in September, my poet friend Mitch and I were sitting beneath skies of sodden sugar attempting to enjoy our second barbecue of the day. Sometime in May, we had inadvertently bought 200 bags of charcoal. (Online—Paypal—a tip from a malicious playwright of our acquaintance.) The summer months had passed in a blaze of drizzle and James Purnell and we had never got around to lighting a single briquette. So now that autumn was all but upon us, we were flame-grilling pretty much every meal.

We were discussing the much-whispered end to the recession. Specifically, we were going over what we would say to Gordon Brown in the event of our finally being called into Downing Street. This idea had first flourished during an earlier “if I ruled the world” conversation, back in 2008, along the lines that if the government was bailing out the banks, it was surely only a matter of time before they started bailing out novelists and poets.

“We’re even more of an essential part of the national fabric,” Mitch had argued. “If we go down, the nation goes down. Before the bankers, I would have called in all the writers and promised that—as long as we undertook to stop all high-risk stuff—there would be taxpayer funds made available.”

 

“What do you mean high-risk stuff?” I had asked.

“The sub-genre market,” Mitch had explained. “The poets would have to undertake to keep it strictly metrical and rhyming. And the novelists would have to quit bundling up bad biography with bad fiction and trying to sell it on as ‘memoir.’ At least for a few years until everyone forgets again.”

“What about the playwrights?”

“Fuck them.”

Back in 2008, we had both come to believe that Downing Street would definitely call. No doubt, we would have been required to sit though an atrocious late night curry… but then, soon enough, the chancellor would have been writing us cheques, paying off our debts, buying up our foreign rights and offering us copper-bottomed royalty guarantees for all future works. Rushdie and Motion would probably have to be nationalised but the rest of us would get the assurances we needed.

It made a great deal of sense. After all, Mitch was right about the national fabric: writers are at the very heart of how a nation thinks about itself. What country names its streets and its pubs after bankers? None. Will there ever be a Victor Blank Road? No. The HSBC and Duck Tavern? Unlikely. ABN AMRO night on BBC2? I doubt it. Would people cross the globe in 400 years’ time to stand outside the house where Fred Goodwin was born? Not unless they were planning to put another brick through his window. When bankers want love, they have to pay for it.

So why not a bailout for us? Mitch and I—and lots of other writers we knew—were all about to go bankrupt. And we had surely been no worse at our jobs than the bankers had been at theirs. Indeed, between us, Mitch and I had involved less than a dozen readers in our mistakes. With relatively modest taxpayer support, we could keep our works flowing exactly as we have done before and guarantee all 11 of our readers their money back should they suddenly ask for it at the same time.

Plus, there was a precedent. Soon after the outbreak of the first world war in August 1914, Lloyd George, then chancellor, invited 25 leading authors to Wellington House, headquarters of the war propaganda bureau, to discuss ways of best maintaining Britain’s interests in the impending crises. Those who attended the meeting included Kipling, Hardy, Conan Doyle, Ford Madox Ford, HG Wells… Indeed, had not Shelley once (rightly, sagely) said that “the poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”?

The time had come for a little acknowledgement. So we had reasoned.

And yet, incredibly, as I write this… still no call and still no cheques. Either the recession is not actually over and they are waiting for things to get really bad, or Mitch is right and Gordon has simply forgotten. Still, at least we’re not suffering all the draconian controls and regulations that the bankers have had to work within since they were bailed out by the state. I hear that they are really struggling to come to terms with how different things are now. Ease up on them, I say. Otherwise we risk crushing their elliptical wits, their elegant imaginations and their eloquent humanity. Which would be a tragedy

To Whom It May Concern

For The Telegraph

There are some novelists who will tell you that it’s the characters or the plot that cause all the trouble, or the research, or the pacing, or managing point of view, or controlling tone; but you would do better not to believe them. All of these are exasperating. But the thing that really screws you up is the dedication.
The book may be good, bad or both, but once it is finished you can dodge it, stand by it, disown it, move on, say you did or didn’t mean it, point out that you made it up, insist that it has nothing to do with you or anything that has happened in the past. The dedication, on the other hand, is where you have to say exactly what you mean. The dedication is where you can balls up the rest of your life.
To whom, then? And how do you say it? It’s an almost impossible choice for, aside from the chosen one, every person you hold dear is going to be disappointed. Put it another way: writing a dedication to a novel is a bit like composing an email to your closest friends and family, explaining that you don’t like them as much as you have been pretending, hitting “send all” and cc-ing the rest of the world. Where to start?
There’s your mother – the first choice, you might think. But what about your father? Maybe both: “To my parents?” Sounds somehow adolescent, though. Better to write another book and split them up. What about your partner? Your wife, husband, boyfriend or girlfriend? Surely she (in this case) deserves the dedication over family members – after all, you didn’t write the book when locked in your childhood bedroom.
Hang on, though: which partner? Because, of course, you were with someone else before your current partner and for much longer – when you began the book, now you come to think of it, and your previous partner definitely helped on those early stages. She is going to be really pissed off if you dedicate it to her usurper. Though that is as nothing compared to what said usurper might feel if you dedicate it to the bitch you used to go out with.

Forget lovers, what about one of your brothers or your sisters? But which one? All of them together? Too weak, too smug. (How many books are you going to have to write in order to keep everyone happy?) Let’s sideline all family members, partners and bedfellows past or present.

What about your best friend? Not bad, but nobody is that much “better” a friend than the others – not really; different people fit into different parts of your life. How about your friends taken all together? Too general. So just mention a few by name. But who do you not mention?

How about going for something non-personal. A school or university? Teachers in general, or one teacher in particular, or maybe a regiment, or a pet, or a country, or a special place, or the queen, or the pope, or the bank manager (that bastard), or the publishers, or the booksellers or … potential readers? Yes, why not? After all, they are the ones you really want to thank. But it’s hardly very personal is it? What about future partners? Monica Bellucci?

The history of dedications is as long as the history of writing (Horace’s odes and Virgil’s Georgics were dedicated to Maecenas, a wealthy patron) and all of the above dedicatees have been tried at one time or another. What is interesting is the amount of information that there is to be gleaned about the author from his or her decision. Because – be in no doubt – he or she was careful in the deciding.

This is Geoffrey Chaucer’s curiously touching dedication to his son from A Treatise on the Astrolabe (1391): “To Litel Lowis my sone…. purpose to teche thee a certayn nombre of conclusions pertayning to this same instrument.”

Here is J D Salinger dedicating Franny and Zooey (1961) to his friend and editor: “As nearly as possible in the spirit of Matthew Salinger, age one, urging a luncheon companion to accept a cool lima bean, I urge my editor, mentor and (heaven help him) closest friend, William Shawn… lover of the long shot, protector of the unprolific, defender of the hopelessly flamboyant… to accept this pretty skimpy-looking book.”

One way to deal with the “which woman” problem is to take a cue from Norman Mailer, who dedicated The Presidential Papers (1963) to “some ladies who have aided and impeded the author in his composition”. (Another solution is to dedicate your work to your pipe – as Jerome K Jerome did in Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, 1886.)

The more a person writes, the greater the opportunity for flexibility: Agatha Christie dedicated her first novel to her mother, her second, “To all those who lead monotonous lives”, and her third to two friends “with apologies for using their swimming pool as the scene of a murder”.

In the past, however, the dedicatee was more likely to be a monarch or a patron. The dedication to the patron, in particular, is responsible for some of the most oleaginous writing ever committed to paper. You may have come across the kind of thing: “To the most Luminous, Beautiful, and Accomplished Lady Purse-Strings, Meritoriously Dignified with all the titles Religion, Vertue, Honour, Beautie might bestow, without Worthinesse on the part of the Author, the following few unfit Lines are offered.” Men whose lives were devoted to the refinement of words were reduced to unctuous panegyric.

This was as nothing compared to the dedications to kings and queens. As ever, it took Jonathan Swift and Henry Fielding to rescue us: “To His Royal Highness Prince Posterity” is the dedicatee of A Tale of a Tub (1704), while Tom Jones (1749) is dedicated to George Lyttleton Esquire “notwithstanding” his “constant refusal” to accept the dedication.

Meanwhile, there is the long tradition of beloved pets. Colonel Buchanan dedicated Sahara (1926) to “Feri n’Gashi, Only a camel, But steel true and Great of Heart”. And here’s Larry McMurtry – grappling with split loyalties perhaps – “For Leslie, for the use of her goat.” (The Desert Rose, 1983).

These examples illustrate another problem: should a dedication be “for” or “to”? “For” implies the work was undertaken specifically as a gift for the dedicatee; while “to” implies the work is being addressed to the dedicatee – much as you might traditionally address a letter or a poem. Modern writers might consider that “dedicate” derives not from the Latin dare (“to give”, with dedi as past tense), but from a form of dicere – “to speak”.

The dedication – in exceptional circumstances – can also cause public ructions. Probably the most famous dedication of all is that inscribed by Thomas Thorpe, the publisher of Shakespeare’s sonnets: “TO. THE. ONLIE. BEGETTER. OF. THESE. INSUING. SONNETS, MR. W.H.” Was Mr W H the “fair young man” of the sonnets? William Herbert, perhaps, who became the Earl of Pembroke, or Henry Wriothesley to whom Shakespeare wrote dedicatory letters? Was Shakespeare gay? Or was Mr W H the “begetter” merely the “getter”, the man who procured the sonnets for Thorpe’s publication – one of Thorpe’s mates?

A respectable second in the ructions stakes is the dedication to William Thackeray, which appeared in the second edition of Jane Eyre (1847). Charlotte Brontë must have been the only person in literary England who did not know that Thackeray (like her fictional Mr Rochester) was married to a woman who had gone insane. This wasn’t helped when it came to light that Thackeray had just published a novel in which a scheming governess attempts to seduce her employer. Needless to say, sections of the press were not slow in imagining that “Currer Bell” had worked for Thackeray and the two were lovers.

Those determined to avoid lovers, family, pets or patrons usually find themselves turning to the reader. Ben Jonson, sick of the persistent idiocy of critics, dedicated his play The New Inn (1629) to his audience. In more modern times, Robert Beckman has updated the spirit of this approach with his excellent “to those persons whose actions are deflected by thought along with the few remaining people of intelligence who are still able to read and who do sometimes purchase books”.

The dedication which negotiates the whole thing most eloquently is that written by William Hogarth in 1753. It took him so long that he never finished the work for which it was intended: “The No-Dedication, not dedicated to any prince in Christendom, for fear it might be thought an idle piece of arrogance, nor dedicated to any man of quality for fear that it might be thought too assuming, not dedicated to any learned body of men, as either of the Universities or the Royal Society, for fear that it might be thought an uncommon piece of vanity, not dedicated to any one particular friend, for fear of offending another; therefore dedicated to nobody; but if for once we may suppose nobody to be everybody, as everybody is often said to be nobody, then this work is dedicated to everybody. By their humble and devoted, William Hogarth.”