This may be well-known to a lot of people, but before I’d read this article on Dangerous Minds | Watch Richard Pryor’s jaw-dropping ‘Willie’ sketch featuring Maya Angelou I didn’t know anything about this extraordinary slice of popular culture, during which a very troubled but brilliant man performs a comic sketch about drinking, at the end of which he collapses unconscious onto a sofa to be lamented by his wife, with words that would not have disgraces Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill.
The wife is played by Maya Angelou.
I can’t think of anything remotely like this in British comedy.
The Economist’s rated 150 countries on a scale of 1-4 based on the likelihood of unrest that ‘poses a serious threat to governments or the existing political order.’ Britain as unstable as Equatorial Guinea.
I’ve written before about the gaping holes in my reading, which I’m slowly trying to fill. But there are equally vast holes in my historical knowledge. Embarrassingly large, to be honest. And perhaps the largest of them was this one: how did modern Europe evolve from the ruins of the Roman Empire? What happened in those years between the sacking of Rome and the Renaissance? I’m old enough to have been taught that these were the ‘Dark Ages’, a time of ignorance and fear, when the light of knowledge was kept aflame by a handful of dutiful monks on windswept rocks while the rest of Europe ate itself.
Essentially bollocks, of course, and I have thankfully found the book which vividly describes the pulsating, crazy, untidy and brilliant truth. That book is Millennium by Tom Holland.
It came out in 2008 and was widely lauded for attempting something insane – a description of Europe from the Mediterranean to the Arctic Circle, from Ireland to Kiev and Byzantium, in the two centuries either side of the first Millennium. The ambition is, I repeat, insane. The fact that he’s pulled it off is somehow miraculous (and miracles, and visions, play a significant part in Holland’s story – one of his great achievements, I think, is to combine the visionary with the real in a way that pays respect to the ‘reality’ of miracles to the people of the 10th century).
I won’t try and describe it here. I’ll just say this: Tom Holland’s prose is remorselessly energetic. It rockets around the time and the continent with an almost demonic intensity. The bibliography is enough to make you weep, and to wonder how he did it. But did it he did.
Find out how the Holy Roman Empire was founded, hope popes and emperors reached accommodations, how Cluny became a vision of Paradise on Earth, how Muslim Spain declined and how the Vikings got bloody everywhere. The chapter on the first knights, and their status as no more than than well-armed thugs with a taste for land and gold, is worth the price of the book alone. For lovers of history written on a massive canvas, this is an essential read. Brilliant.
So, it is done. After several months, I can start a new bedtime book. I can put my great task down. I can live the rest of my life knowing that it is done.
I have read War and Peace.
I finished it two nights ago, and haven’t started a new book yet. It would be like going out to a restaurant for breakfast the night after the richest, most filling meal imaginable. Though not necessarily the most delicious.
There are a few works of literature for which the question ‘did you like it?’ seems entirely inappropriate. Their greatness is a pointless thing to debate. War and Peace has topped so many lists of the greatest ever novels that to ask whether it’s any good or not is to ask whether Mount Everest is pleasing to the eye. It’s just there. It’s unavoidably part of the world. You either climb it, or you don’t climb it.
Did I learn much about the human condition reading this novel? No, I don’t think so, particularly. The characters in the story seem to be subject to enormous external changes which are out of their control, such that their impulses are almost secondary. They are objects on which something operates. And it is that something which, I think, the book is about.
What is this something? It’s most obvious, perhaps (God, I’m being tentative here), in Tolstoy’s lengthy, repetitive and vigorous debates on History and Historians. His thesis is that History is not the result of the actions of great individuals, that these individuals, like all of us, are subject to enormous social and cultural forces beyond our understanding. So Natasha is as in control of her destiny as Napoleon. The only way of navigating through human existence is through acceptance and love. It is a profoundly hippy worldview.
Is this profound? Yes, I suppose it it. Is it useful? In some ways, perhaps. Does it make for a good read?
Ah, well, there’s the rub.
Reading War and Peace is like spending some time in the presence of a great mind, or perhaps a great soul. A soul at peace with its universe and its way of thinking, but at the same time contemptuous of lesser souls. A mind with little patience, preaching love. A snappy paradox. I’ve never encountered a work of art of such majestic achievement which has demanded so much of me and yet which has remained so oddly unlikeable.
A glorious hair shirt, then, rather than a brilliant read. A book to climb up onto and look down from, as its author seems to have done.
Did I like War and Peace? The question has no purpose.
But I loved Anna Karenina.
I think this, from David Mitchell, is brilliant on self-editing. He said it during the Humber School for Writers Summer Workshop in 2009:
A consolation: as you perform the necessary editing, it really hurts. “I love that line, its such a neat bit, its brilliant!” Brilliant isn’t actually enough–its got to be brilliant, and have a place there. And oddly enough, you cut it, but in a weird way, its still there. It’s gone but it hasn’t actually gone. It’s still there in your denser, and your richer and your better text. It’s in the texture. Books are palimpsests of your earlier drafts. So don’t be too disheartened because its gone, because it isn’t really. Or to give you some Confucianism: what the pruning shears remove remains on the tree in its enhanced vigour. A good rule of thumb: if you have to think more than five seconds about whether or not a thing should be cut, that means do it. In the age of word processors, I’ve got a file called “may be useful one day,” where I put things that are great and that I can’t bear to lose. I cut and paste and put it in the file, so at least its there in case I ever want to go back and retrieve it. How often do I go back and retrieve it? Never. Not once. Which I feel proves my point.
The wonderful Bookseller Crow in Crystal Palace runs a monthly subscription service called Flight Club. I’m delighted that this month’s choice is my book The Poisoned Island. I’ve just been up to the shop to sign and line and date the copies to be mailed out. Big thanks to Jonathan Main for choosing the book and being such a great supporter over the last couple of years.
Find out more about The Flight Club over here. Previous selections include Teju Cole, Edward Hogan and Miriam Toews. That last sentence is in the nature of a #humblebrag.
They say (well, I say, at least) that the music you listen to in your teens is the music that stays with you the longest, but this effect is so pronounced that even music you didn’t know you were listening to remains wedged in the lizard brain, impossible to shift. When I was at my most musically aware, it seemed that every girl I knew had a copy of Aztec Camera’s High Land Hard Rain, and every one of them was a little bit in love with Roddy Frame, the skinny genius from East Kilbride who’d essentially recorded it. Aztec Camera never quite resonated with me back then: too smooth, too mellow, too (ahem) girly at a time when I liked my music exciting, spiky and chest-beltingly robust.
Or so I thought. Fast forward three decades (three decades!) and I get an email from a very old friend saying he’s got a ticket to the 30th anniversary concert for High Land Hard Rain, and would I like to go? I’ll admit that the venue – the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, of all places – was at least as intriguing as the talent, but I said yes without hesitation. And I’m very glad I did.
Roddy Frame is two years older and about four stone lighter than I am. He’s also modest, gentle, very funny and still so ferociously talented that those of us who play a little bit of guitar were breaking our own fingers by the end of the gig. Roddy played a small solo set to start, and then we were into High Land Hard Rain itself.
Song after song washed over me, played beautifully and all of them wistfully familiar. Some I recognised straight away, others took me a while, but all of them reminded me of quiet evenings in bedrooms in Kent with cigarettes and beer, talking about the future and planning the coming weekend’s parties. The lyrics of the songs seemed to be bravely hopeful and blissed-out; none of your postmodern ironic distance here, thanks very much.
People – most of them women – sang along to the songs, and the old theatre did begin to feel like the biggest bedroom in the world, full of your best mates. I really did have a huge soppy smile on my face the whole night. It might have been the wine. It almost certainly wasn’t just the wine. These songs had crept under my skin and waited there for thirty years to be rediscovered, like old friends you didn’t know the value of when you had them.
So thanks, Tim, for the ticket. Thanks to those old friends – most of them girls – who shared High Land Hard Rain with me back when music was the most important thing in the world. And thanks Roddy Frame for such a delicious evening of modest brilliance.
I don’t read as many graphic novels as I used to, and I’ve become alarmingly narrow in my repertoire. As I get older I find my patience for experiment has faded. Thus, I buy everything new by my three favourite comic book writers: Alan Moore, Garth Ennis and Warren Ellis. I can’t really ascribe a ’British sensibility’ to them given that Ennis is from Northern Ireland and Ellis and Moore would be culturally offended by such a thing, but there’s definitely something warmly cynical and defiantly subversive in all their work which must have been incubated in a mongrel mix of Celtic, Saxon and Viking blood. No puritans here.
Fashion Beast is the latest from Alan Moore. Well, sort of. It was actually written as a feature film in collaboration with Malcolm McLaren (I say collaboration, and Moore enthusiastically credits McLaren in that way, but like all McLaren collaborations it seemed to involve a mad idea, a drink and quite a lot of drugs before the disciplined creative work got done in McLaren’s absence). The comic version was adapted from the film script, with Moore’s cooperation, by Antony Johnston. As others have pointed out this is a nice inversion of what normally happens with Moore’s work – that it’s adapted for film and recklessly ruined in the process.
Moore wrote the film script in 1985 (or thereabouts – he seems somewhat confused by the dates, can’t think why) and while the final comic works really well (there, my review, in summary) it does occasionally wobble away from Moore’s always-elegant pacing and impeccable timing. But only occasionally, and not by much. Johnston has done an amazing job, and this reads very much like an Alan Moore Joint. The artwork, by Facundo Piero, is stunning.
And the story? There isn’t a great deal of one, and I won’t summarise too much. It’s a dystopian winter. There’s been a nuclear war and now there’s a nuclear winter. There are unspecified wars in unspecified irradiated zones. It’s defiantly Orwellian. The only light in a dark world is provided by fashion – specifically, the fashion of Jean-Claude Celestine. Doll Seguin is a girl who looks like a boy who looks like a girl (this is a phrase attributed by Moore to McLaren) who is chosen to model Celestine’s clothes, while a boy who looks like a girl who looks like a boy, Jonni Tare, is a wardrobe assistant and wannabe designer who admires, hates and desires Doll in almost equal measures.
What this canvas affords Moore is room for satire of a particularly capacious kind. He satirises the shallow pretensions of fashion, but he also satirises the killjoys who hate it. He satirises the inequality of this brutal society, but he also satirises the prejudices of the poor. The only escape from this dreary reality is creativity and beauty; the only people worth admiring are those who find something to savour in life; the worst people are the unthinkingly complicit and obedient. I think you can see why Moore agreed to collaborate with McLaren.
I finished Fashion Beast with one thought: nostalgia. It made me miss the early 1980s, before fashion turned into the cold industrial machine it is today, when Vivienne Westwood ruled the world, and where mad creativity and deliberate ugliness were celebrated over hard bodies, hard faces and submissive conformity. Thank God we still have Alan Moore. Boo sucks that we lost Malcolm McLaren, the mad cynical beautiful bastard.