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Monday, 13 January 2020

Review essay: Roger Scruton on Sexual Desire

The English philosopher Roger Scruton has died at the age of 75. I always thought his books on art and aesthetics very good and assigned them for student reading. At the same time I thought his politics bad.  The review of his book Sexual Desire, republished here for the first time since its original publication in 1986, sets itself the task of driving a wedge between the philosophy and the politics. If I was re-writing it I would be more critical of a Kantianism which is too morally serious to accommodate the playful elements which are an ordinary part of human sexuality and that would open up a different and rather bigger wedge. But if a smaller one is enough to do the job, that's fine.

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Sunday, 12 January 2020

Review: Jon Day, Homing




This is a book where the fascination is in the detail. But to make detail fascinating requires a great deal of sense and skill. Without those, a writer will simply get bogged down, followed in short order by the reader. Jon Day succeeds in the task he has set himself by making frequent back and forth switches between his family life, his pigeons, the long scientific backlog of research into pigeon homing, literary treatments of pigeons, the more general  themes of home and homing, and so on. In other words, he does not behave like a Victorian novelist who reckons that until you have done the local topography exhaustively you mustn’t switch to the next topic. (Those geography lessons might be regarded as antecedents of the modern academic article’s  literature review …).

I read the book because I have admired Jon Day’s work as a book reviewer, work in which he is unusually thorough and insightful. This book also has an understated thoroughness to it and plenty of insight. It’s a very patient book, as if the work of a master craftsman. It belongs to the booming genre of creative non-fiction which has proved a haven for university lecturers who have little enthusiasm for writing unreadable and unread academic papers but who do actually know an awful lot about an awful lot of things and would like to share the knowledge.

Jon Day is a King’s College London university lecturer in English who cycles off to work, to his job  down the road,  without making any fuss about it in these pages. But in the context of settling down and starting a family, he develops a passion for pigeon racing, builds a pigeon loft in his garden, joins his local club, and very soon starts to compete in the races which are at the heart of the hobby.

As I understand it, pigeon fancying was one of those elaborate, working-class pastimes which developed in mostly urban areas in the Victorian period and were pursued exclusively by men. Those men were often migrants from the countryside, like those agricultural labourers who left the land of East Anglia for the not so far away slums of East London, a shortish train journey to Liverpool Street able to completely change your world.

Like dog racing and gooseberry fancying, the pastimes developed an elaborate language, lore, and extensive organisational infrastructure. And like academic life,  they were highly competitive activities. So the camaraderie of the clubs was always infused with rivalries which might break out into hostilities. Jon Day is a relatively young (born 1984) London professional getting involved with the pastime at the end of its life. The working class life into which it fitted now barely exists, certainly not in London’s East End. The big factories have gone, the docks,  the warehouses, the printing works, the breweries (Brick Lane was once dominated by Truman’s vast working brewery; now it is only the shell which remains). He has read the pigeon breeding and racing  manuals which even though they may be over a hundred years old still guide the novice into the fancy, but one of the few things he doesn’t do in this book is situate his pastime in this social past. My guess is that he could do that well if he wanted to. Maybe the archives are there.

I am sure we are going to read a lot more from Jon Day; he is a very good writer. A quick search shows he has an academic book out in 2020. He has already published other creative fiction on the topics of cycling in the city and fishing. 

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Review: Bram Stoker, Dracula




The story usually told is that the idea for Penguin Books came to Allen Lane when searching a 1930s railway station bookstall for something to read and finding only trash. I was reminded of that the other day when, having finished my book on a long outward journey to Leeds, looked for something to read on the way back. At first, it seemed that the W H Smith at this major rail station did not have any books at all, only arrays of magazines in which you could read about the latest outfit with which your Duchess of choice has wowed us; what adorable thing some royal child has contrived to do (smile adorably, wave adorably,….); and for those with more cosmopolitan tastes: What the Kardashians Did This Week.

But, losing hope and turning away, I spotted a very small and dismal display of books, mostly down-market self-help and genre novels. I picked the only one which looked as if it might be tolerable. I had never read Dracula but of course knew of it and knew that it was published in the nineteenth century (1897 in fact) and inferred that it might therefore have some meat to it. The publisher? Penguin Random House, though in conjunction with the EBC (the Establishment Broadcasting Corporation) which has done some adaptation of this now out-of-copyright work.

Dracula is a good read. It is a Victorian book and therefore long - 421 pages in my edition, much longer than a train journey’s read. Even I, who do not count myself a modern reader, found the final chase just a bit too drawn out. I am sure the EBC will find a way of dealing with that and adjusting the story to our modern attention spans.

But I liked the central stylistic choice in which the main characters take turns to write up each day’s events. I thought a long passage in which a clearly vulnerable Mina Harker is being left unattended very well-done: a passage which you read with increasing impatience and a growing desire to shout out to the bishops and knights You  have left your Queen unprotected! 

I was intrigued by a bit-part character who delivers a fascinating discourse on tombstones as fake-news frauds: the bodies aren’t underneath and even if they are, not the bodies of those memorialised above. I knew that there was a common Victorian horror of being buried alive (it did happen and the fear is played on in Dracula) but this was a different take on graveyards, about which I write in the book Between Remembering and Forgetting advertised in the immediately preceding Blog post here. 

And in a rare passage of light relief, Stoker has great fun  evading Victorian censorship in a passage in which a bit-character speaks with many blooms and bloods allowing the reader to reconstruct a discourse peppered with blooming and bloody. (Stoker worked as a London theatre manager at a time when stage plays were subject to fearsome pre-production censorship and must have had intimate knowledge of the problem). The whole passage made our dreary censored F***s and B******s look mechanical by comparison - and, indeed, they are increasingly mechanical secured by prurient little Apps. and their conglomerate users.

Those incidental passages are not the heart of the book, but they are perhaps places in which the author comes alive and escapes a little from the constraints of fidelity to his characters which he set himself when he decided to  use their diaries and letters as the vehicle for telling their story. Interestingly, both passages involve rude mechanicals speaking in faithfully-transcribed dialect; from his work in theatre,  Bram Stoker would have been intimately acquainted with how Shakespeare deploys his own mechanicals.

I won't spoil the plot by summarising it or telling you What Happens At the End.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Forthcoming February 2020: Trevor Pateman, Between Remembering and Forgetting


 Click on Image to Magnify


A linked set of twenty six essays exploring topics around individual and collective memory. There are discussions of the internet as  prosthetic memory; memorials and statues; oral history, notably in the work of Svetlana Alexievich; sentimental objects; forgetfulness as part of what enables both individual and cultural change. And much more ....

Hardback, 144 pages.       ISBN 9780993587962             £15

Review copies going out from 2 January 2020 so discarded ones  will soon appear on Amazon; regular stockists will include Waterstones. Enquiries to degreezeropublisher@gmail.com

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Review: Emma Dabiri, Don't Touch My Hair



Hard on the heels of Coca Cola, international conglomerate publishers have discovered diversity. It’s partly a function of modern book production technology which has drastically reduced the cost of producing physical books. The biggest  printing companies can deliver two thousand attractive hard bound books printed (in black and white - colour is still expensive) on good paper for five thousand pounds ($6500 at today’s rate) or less, including the cost of typesetting and jacket design (both often the work of freelancers working cheaply from home). They can do a thousand books for half that. A big publisher can use its existing publicity and distribution network to place two or even one thousand books into a niche on Amazon or Waterstones and end up with  a small profit even if they do not sell more than the initial print run. So far, good news. There is a catch. A publishing house editor’s time is valuable, like that of a lawyer. An editor carries overheads - London or New York office space, for example. So an editor’s time has to be costed at maybe a hundred maybe two hundred pounds or dollars per hour. Five hours devoted to a single niche/diversity book risks killing  the profit. Twenty and you would lose your job.

It’s my belief (expressed here in an essay published on 5 March 2016) that quite a few books are now published to all intents and purposes unread by anyone but the author and, maybe, their partner. Neither content nor style has been subject to serious external review. Emma Dabiri’s Don’t Touch My Hair is a readable combination of memoir, rant, history and critique but it’s a ramshackle affair - a work of what we now call cut and paste. Her final page Acknowledgements are unusually short and non-specific so they provide some kind of  indirect confirmation for my claim simply by what they don’t say. But there is one place in the book  where I suspect a reader has pointed to a problem, and another where a critic is quoted. I will come to them in a moment.

Emma Dabiri’s background is Irish-Nigerian, a niche not quite in the same category as snakes in Ireland but in her childhood, getting close. She has Black Hair almost off the Richter scale on the chart she provides at page 18 which runs through 1 (straight), 2a,2b,2c (seriously curly), 3a, 3b,3c, 4a,4b (seriously kinky, double helix stuff, and the point at which Dabirie locates herself),4c. By way of aside, I discovered when I was in my late teens and freed from the regimen of short back and sides required by school rules and convention, that I was a 2b or 2c. Before then, I did not know I had curly hair. I let it grow, which was the thing to do at that time, and there are photos to prove it. My first girlfriend (this was the 1960s) was up there in the 4’s, one reason I read this book. But I am now simply Bald. That is a category not on Dabiri’s scale, partly because she is almost exclusively concerned with female hair. That is  problematic because hair grooming seems to be almost always structured by the binary divide and can only be understood in terms of the contrasts the binary allows. In passing, Dabiri provides a nice photographic illustration of that truth - a photograph captioned, “While Masai men had long, ornate and intricate hairstyles, Masai women favoured shaved heads annointed with red cohre and oils” (page 169). That is the kind of thing which should be at the centre of a structural sociological or anthropological analysis of hair but is here merely an aside.

Black hair has history as well as  structural location, a grooming history which starts in Africa and a stigma history which starts in America. One of the most interesting small sections in Dabiri’s book (pages 65-68) comprises quotations and summaries of the accounts of early European visitors to the old pre-colonial African kingdoms, notably the kingdom of Benin. They are complimentary about many things, including hairstyles. Stigma develops in tandem with the slave trade, colonialism, and Christian missionaries (the experts in stigma) and Dabiri’s book gives chapter and verse.

I want to pick out two places where there is an acknowledgment of difficulties. At the end of a fairly long and predictable rant about cultural appropriation (p 178ff), Dabiri writes, “[Fred] Astaire is certainly worth further consideration when discussing the important distinction between appropriation and borrowing, the latter undoubtedly the basis of evolving culture” (page 190). That is a tacked-on remark which goes nowhere, and was maybe added in response to some criticism. But if it’s true it ought to be worth quite a few pages trying to establish where evolutionarily-dynamic borrowing ends and appropriation begins. Evolution has never been very popular in the U S of A, the main focus of this book, and is still disbelieved by a significant part of the population, drawn to fundamentalist world views of one kind or another. It’s arguable (I’d argue it) that the hair police Twitter-rants are religious-fundamentalist in character, opposing themselves to any evolution of culture. The ranters prefer their cultures in museums where they can be celebrated as history and heritage. (New Year’s Resolution: Avoid the word Heritage for twelve months).

That does connect to a second moment where there is an intervention, unusually in the form of an actual quote. The search for “Roots” (forgive the pun) is problematic because it usually stops when satisfying ones are found. Dabiri’s Africa is characterised by “wholeness” (a word which belongs in a chain which goes down all the way to wholesome and wholegrain). There isn’t much local violence in the African past which interests her and none at all in the African present: kleptocrats and tyrants don’t figure in the story at all. Her history remains fairly firmly in the realms of Uplifting Story, which publishers like. But she quotes an email from someone (Ron Eglash) who it seems to me is trying to re-focus her Roots-based approach toward something more structural:

“The temptation is to dive into the competition over ‘who discovered it first’. But that kind of competition is a framework created for Intellectual Property rights…. Reversal never works. ‘We discovered it first’ is not a rebuke of white supremacy, it is just adopting their tactics. That is what Audre Lorde meant when she said, ‘ the master’s tools will never tear down the master’s house’ (pages 216 - 17)

That isn’t going to trend on Twitter.

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Review: Stefan Collini, The Nostalgic Imagination




Reading this book, I had the sense of someone successfully making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Stefan Collini is a conscientious researcher, who gets deep into the archives; a very alert and astute reader, able to pick up the significance of a parenthetic concession or an adverbial emphasis; and a fluent writer. He also constructs and sustains an interesting thesis which has wider implications than the local ones with which he is primarily concerned.

At the same time, I often felt that the authors and books  selected for analysis scarcely merit the very careful attention given to them. At times, something of what may be his exasperation shows through in asides which reveal a very nice, dry sense of humour. But his even-handedness does not allow him to go much further than that.

As universities began to develop imperial ambitions in the late nineteenth century,  new professionalised subject departments  put the squeeze on older forms of (often amateur) writing. In the new academic history, there was soon to be no place for the kind of general overview which cheerfully assumed both a general theory and a short set of moral, political or religious values to sustain narratives which offered readers a ready-made sense of how they (and, usually, their own country) had got to be where they now were. In England - and Collini is writing only about England -  a main victim of university professionalisation was what, as  a sixth former in the 1960s, I learnt to call The Whig Interpretation of History.

But there were still readers who wanted those general overviews and Collini’s principal thesis is that, in England, some part of the demand was met by the work of a group of writers and academics (nearly all with strong links to Cambridge University) whose official concern was with the teaching of English Literature, itself a new university subject, and officially focussed on its internal history and on text-focussed criticism. But, perhaps because less secure in its identity than academic history, university English Literature found room for historical and critical works which were stuffed with both general theory and moralising lessons. 

The general theory was most often pessimist, a story of cultural decline (T S Eliot, the Leavises) or, at least, fragmentation (maybe good-enough shorthand for Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams) - combined with ideas about how the situation might be reversed, redeemed, or at least made tolerable to the sensitive. The proposed remedies seem to indicate some weakness in the original nostalgic diagnosis: the Church of England, hill-walking, cycling, adult education. I had assumed there were  flirtations with fascism among those Collini discusses, but he does not mention any. It would have been good to have had a disclaimer.

Collini does not at any point mention Imperialism, even though the period he covers (roughly from 1918 to the 1960s) embraces both the peak moments of British Imperialism in the 1920s and 1930s and its precipitous decline after 1945. I infer not a failure on his part but a likelihood that, for his authors,  the Empire was a bit like your income or your sex life; it was something there but not talked about, as if you didn’t have one or any. You just drank the tea, sweetened with the sugar. In terms of his main thesis, that his authors all gravitated to nostalgia about the past, not thinking about Empire may have helped leave the nostalgia untroubled.

In retrospect, though they were reasonably well informed about history, the group of critics with whom Collini is concerned had no access to an adequate analytical understanding of language (pace Empson). That did not really become available  until the work of Wittgenstein, J L Austin, H P Grice - and from another source, Mikhail Bakhtin - enabled the kind of work then accomplished by writers like Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson. The main achievement has been to create clear and useable distinctions between sentence and utterance, sentence meaning and utterance meaning, semantics and pragmatics. This has allowed a  recasting of  traditional rhetoric (which never distinguished sentence and utterance) and a  more sophisticated account of the field of author - narrator - implied reader - actual reader relations.

“Continental” semiology and semiotics as practised by Roland Barthes in the 1950s got underway in no better an analytical  position than the Cambridge critics, with Barthes professing to stare at images on the page much as the Cambridge critics professed to attend to words on the page. Both could only do it because of a great deal of only half-formed theory.

The general interest of Collini’s very readable book lies in its connection to the broader topic of changes in the hierarchy and distribution of writing genres brought about by twentieth century university expansion, an expansion which proceeded at an exponential rate. One result was a fairly long period when it seemed that the job of the non-science academic was to write unreadable and unread books, many to be published at astronomic prices by specialised publishing houses. At the same time, anything readable and read was regarded as inferior. But in  the last couple of decades  a clear movement has arisen to create “cross-over” books which can both function as core texts in serious university courses and appeal to a wider readership. Some of the American university presses have played an important part in this movement, though inhibited by increasingly censorious university environments.


Friday, 11 October 2019

Essay: Thirty Eight Minutes with Olga Tokarczuk


Olga Tokarczuk, two of whose books have been reviewed previously on this Blog in their English translations published by Fitzcarraldo, has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Here is an essay spun off from her work which I include in my book of essays, Between Remembering and Forgetting (published 15 February 2020):

The Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk loves obscure facts and strange little stories which are not just the stuff of competitive quizzes but capable of setting our minds racing. Thus at page 109 in the English translation of her novel Flights, she tells us that

The shortest war in history was waged between Zanzibar and England in 1896, lasting thirty-eight minutes.

If that yields a smile, it is because we discover that we have always sort of assumed that, well, wars - properly speaking - are the sort of thing that have to last a bit longer. How much longer? Well, we have never actually considered that question and right now we don’t have a definite answer. Nonetheless, thirty-eight minutes, no, that’s not long enough. How can you start and finish a war in thirty-eight minutes? Wikipedia tells us that you can:

The ultimatum expired at 09:00 East Africa Time (EAT) on 27 August, by which time the British had gathered three cruisers, two gunboats, 150 marines and sailors, and 900 Zanzibaris in the harbour area…. Around 2,800 Zanzibaris defended the palace; most were recruited from the civilian population, but they also included the sultan's palace guard and several hundred of his servants and slaves. The defenders had several artillery pieces and machine guns, which were set in front of the palace sighted at the British ships. A bombardment, opened at 09:02, set the palace on fire and disabled the defending artillery. A small naval action took place, with the British sinking the Zanzibari royal yacht  HHS Glasgow  and two smaller vessels, and some shots were fired ineffectually at the pro-British Zanzibari troops as they approached the palace. The flag at the palace was shot down and fire ceased at 09:40.
The sultan's forces sustained roughly 500 casualties, while only one British sailor was injured….The war marked the end of the Zanzibar Sultanate as a sovereign state and the start of a period of heavy British influence.

No doubt about it: a proper war with a bombardment for a beginning, a casualty-strewn middle, and victory for British imperialism at the end.

*

But my mind is still racing. Thirty-eight minutes. Can you be in love for thirty-eight minutes? Can you mourn for thirty-eight minutes? These are also things which happen in time, in real time, and which have duration so it must be possible to say something about that duration. You fall in love with someone and later you fall out of love, that is normal; but if it is love must not some time elapse before the second can follow the first? Make the time too short and you have a passing infatuation or simply the hots. We have words to describe such short-lived states. The same for mourning. In thirty-eight minutes you can be upset and then stop being upset, but you can’t really mourn, can you? Wittgenstein thought about such problems:

What is a deep feeling? Could someone have a feeling of ardent love or hope for one second - no matter what preceded or followed this second …. The surroundings give it [the feeling - TP] its importance. (Philosophical Investigations, para. 583)

To understand what he is getting at, think of negligence. It isn’t a state of mind, like forgetfulness. A plane comes in to land and the pilot forgets to lower the undercarriage; the plane crashes. Those “surroundings” turn the pilot’s forgetfulness into negligence.

Now look at things another way. Love and mourning are sometimes unending. There are people who marry, live together for sixty years or more, and who still describe themselves as in love with each other. It’s very rare, but the newspapers tell us that such enduring love does happen – but of course, rarely, in the same way that it is rare to live to be older than a hundred.

Some people never stop mourning a loss, but in that case we are less likely to admire and more likely to introduce a new word, melancholy, to describe what has happened. In the middle of the carnage of the First World War, Freud wrote his Mourning and Melancholia which distinguishes the two states, with the one treated as normal and the other as pathological. But the difference was already well-established and the anatomy of melancholy well-understood. A melancholy disposition is just about tolerable in a person, though we may wish sometimes that they would snap out of it, but full-blown and life-long melancholy is something we cannot accommodate. Miss Havisham, jilted at the altar and wearing her wedding dress for the rest of her life, is not an admirable character.

I have deferred the question. How long must it last for it to be love or mourning? We have some vague notions which relate to our sense of the human scale of things. A week in politics is a long time, but a week in love surely not. And if your husband or wife dies, it is offensive to some sense of - what? decorum?- that you should re-marry before a certain period has elapsed. If you do, it suggests that you did not love the person who died or that you do not love the new person you are marrying. Either way, or both, it suggests that you are rather too concerned with your own creature comforts. So there is a moral dimension involved in our assessment.

Unfortunately, there is no Wikipedia page to tell us the story of the shortest love in history or the briefest of sincere mourning. The internet can tell you how many seconds it takes to fall in love (four is popular), for how long the  Roman Catholic church expects you to mourn a loss, and much more besides. But that still doesn’t answer the question, How long must it last, at a minimum?