The Financial Lives of the Poets – a review

The Financial Lives of the Poetby Jess Walter  (Penguin, 2010)

The current plight of America’s middle classes, a traditionally upwardly mobile and prosperous demographic who now find themselves caught in a mire of repossessions and debt, is not inherently funny. Though try telling that to Jess Walter, whose entertaining fifth novel turns its attentions to the recession-hit American middle.

His self-deprecating, debt-riddled protagonist, Matthew Prior (a name he shares with the seventeenth-century poet of Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets) is in trouble precisely because he has done that previously acceptable American thing: followed his dream. Unfortunately for him, his increasingly remote wife Lisa, two children and senile father, that dream involved giving up his job as a business journalist to start – a financial news site delivering the latest updates in verse.

In case we were ever in any doubt as to the merits of this plan, each chapter starts with and contains examples of his banal lines: ‘Buffeted by fuel costs soaring / and with labor costs surging / Delta and Northwest are exploring / the possibility of merging.’

With six sleep-deprived days to save his house from repossession, all logical solutions seem surreally unfeasible to Matt: ‘This is my life now: set as far back as it will go’. And on a late-night trip to 7/11 he finds himself smoking powerful weed with some kids in his dad-mobile, the Nissan Maxima (which he still owes months of repayments on), and concocting a fuddled and desperate plan to start selling the stuff to his equally disappointed-in-life, but at least employed, friends and enemies. As his paranoid dealer and would-be lawyer Dave explains, Matt has the potential to tap into ‘a demographic we weren’t reaching’.

Illegality aside, it’s not such a terrible business plan, but its implications are worrying – the quality of life Prior has come to expect can no longer be sustained by hardworking all-American values. Something’s got to give. And quite naturally, when a clueless forty-six-year-old man (who thought was a good idea) tries to make a quick buck on skunk, something does.

Prior is an everyman – kind, normal, misguided – who responds to his difficulties with a sort of crazed somnambulant optimism that makes him consistently likeable. Diverting sub-plots come in the form of his efforts to stop Lisa’s virtual affair with dull but solvent lumber merchant, Chuck, from getting too real; and his senile father’s repetitive thought patterns: “‘You know what I miss?” […] I go with the odds: “Chipped beef?” “Rockford Files,” Dad says.’

The figure of Prior’s dementia-suffering Dad, whilst providing many comic interludes, also serves to highlight the painful reality his son can no longer avoid. Dad worked hard all his life to support his family in a two-bit job at Sears, and now he can’t remember how he lost all his money – for your interest, a stripper called Charity stole his savings and maxed out all his credit options. So, whilst he leers over the twenty-four-hour newsgirls – ‘“God, I wouldn’t mind planting my carrot in that garden”’ – his son is left reflecting on the cruelty of fate:

Should anyone doubt that our miserable time here on Earth is just a sad existential joke […] my father (who is obsessed with sex, like a lot of dementia sufferers) […] recently had ten days of crazy sex with a twenty-two-year-old stripper […] and the poor son-of-a-bitch doesn’t remember a thing about it.

The novel is concerned with loss, not just of the fiscal kind, but by the end, its darker aspects seem to have been neatly tidied away. Not that the finale is unrealistic, more that it feels rushed and, after everything, doesn’t seem all that painful. But the novel is both entertaining and at times darkly amusing as it skilfully dances between class satire, slapstick comedy and a sort of late-developer bildungsroman.

As Johnson said, ‘Life is a pill which none of us can bear to swallow without gilding’. Walter’s funny and bittersweet tale of a family caught up in its own and a nation’s folly is a reminder that many will now have to face an unsweetened reality.


Untold Stories – Hilary Mantel at the London Book Fair

With the critical and commercial success of her audaciously brilliant novel about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel has shown, as someone reassuringly does once in a while, that great literature can also shift serious numbers of units. It was particularly fitting, therefore, that she kicked off this year’s travel-chaos-depleted London Book Fair.

Being the author of many acclaimed novels and not one afraid to write about key historical figures – A Place of Greater Safety portrayed the French Revolution through the eyes of Robespierre, Desmoulins and Danton – Mantel is hardly a publishing gamble. Still, Wolf Hall blazes with inspiration against a landscape of often safe and/or hopeful fiction choices from British publishers at present.

The novel’s narrative structure mirrors Mantel’s description of Cromwell to the captivated book fair crowd: he was a visionary, but one who understood and was obsessive about detail and therefore could make things happen – ‘and that is very rare, I think’. Similarly Wolf Hall’s narrative faultlessly melds the events of one of English history’s most volatile and significant periods with the heartbeat of individual experience.

Mantel’s motivation, she tells us, are the untold stories. In writing Wolf Hall she explains she was less interested in the pomp and circumstance of power’s façade, than in the shadowy figures dressed in black, whispering, plotting and negotiating in dark corners. This is where real power lies and this novel is all about power.

Initially Cromwell is calculated and calm in his dealings, manoeuvring his way expertly to the heart of the court, making himself indispensable. Machiavellian at work, loving generous and loyal in his domestic life, Cromwell bewitches the reader. But something changes, as it must.

The pivotal moment comes when Cromwell is called for by the king in the middle of the night. Henry, still married to Catherine of Aragon but desperately trying to get the union annulled, has suffered a bad dream in which his dead brother, and Catherine’s former husband, Prince Arthur has appeared to him. He senses the dream is some form of reproach, and he cannot recover his peace. So he has called for Cromwell.

His loyal servant duly and very skilfully comforts the king into believing that the dream is a benign one; he grips ‘the royal person’ firmly by the arm in the king’s own bed chamber as he convinces him it is so. Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is present throughout and when the two are turfed out into the dawn-streaked corridor he remarks, ‘And that hand of yours, to take a grip on circumstance – when you took the king’s arm in your grasp, I winced myself. And Henry, he felt it. […] You are a person of great force of will.’

So the blacksmith’s son can influence the king, is called in the night as the only man who can bring him comfort? The intoxicating nature of power, the arrogance of it, has truly entered his veins and one feels that it is from this point in the narrative that his path to the executioner’s block has begun. But this time, we are on Cromwell’s side.

Great fiction is capable of illuminating hidden stories and telling us something new; Wolf Hall invites us to understand a world that, although we know it from the history books, still seems utterly remote from ours, and it succeeds completely. Its value is not via the clunking connections we can draw between our own politics and Tudor intrigue, or between today’s religious extremists and those Catholics who were prepared to burn at the stake for what they believed. On the contrary, Mantel argues that the past is interesting for its own sake. She seeks to show us that the dead were as real then as we are now, uncertain of what was to come, progressing through time blind, hopeful and anxious.

Mantel took a gamble telling Cromwell’s story through his own beady eyes, to believe she could inhabit Tudor England and King Henry’s court, imagine its historical players and richly draw their inner lives on the page. But like her protagonist-hero her risk is a calculated one due to the powerful intellect that lies behind it, the confidence she must have as a writer. Perhaps she can also inspire writers and publishers to take bigger gambles on ambitious literary fiction.


Big Bang! London Word Festival 2010

‘Is it really that time of year again?’ one asks oneself like a wizened old relative. Yes, it is indeed. But don’t worry, it’s not Christmas… It’s time for the ever-inventive and always entertaining London Word Festival.

Running throughout March, this festival, now in its fourth year, is masterminded by a small and dedicated team – Tom Chivers, Sam Hawkins & Marie McPartline – and since its inception in 2007 the festival has gone from strength to strength.

It officially kicked off on Sunday, but I wended my merry way to the third event of the festival – a Big Bang edition of Robin Ince’s School for Gifted Children.

As the evening’s host, Robin Ince, remarked very early on in the night, if you look up the word cosmology in the dictionary, it means ‘everything’; well, you get what he means… Not an ambitious theme for an evening’s entertainment, then? This brief dash through elementary particle science via the mediums of stand up, song & entertaining talks also took place in St Leonard’s Church with its imposing but refined Palladian structure.

So we were entertained with songs about astrophysics from The Sound of the Ladies’ Martin Austwick, taken on an amusing and nifty dash through the origins of the US space programme by Helen Keen – a surname that suits her well – and treated to an oddly-affecting song about the fourth man on the moon.

And this is the essence of the London Word Festival – unusual connections and unexpected illuminations. You find yourself in a candlelit church of a Thursday evening, the stone arches and impressive stained glass windows almost disappearing in the gloom, half-wondering what you’re doing there as the introductory strains of the Dr Who theme echo out around you (this was a somewhat geeky event and I have to say I wasn’t getting most of the “in” jokes), but you end up experiencing something new and something inspirational.

In my case this occurred with the advent of Professor Brian Cox on to the stage – I’d never heard of him before but I thought he was fantastic. On a huge screen behind him with the lights down low, in a church, he showed us pictures of galaxies billions of years away from us; of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons that has more water underneath its surface than can be found on the whole of the Earth, and therefore suggests life; mentioned that the edge of the observable universe (observable being the key word here) is 46 billion years away; showed us an iridescent image of Saturn’s rings with a tiny star just below – ‘that’s Earth’.

It was magical and he explained it all in such a simple and enthusiastic way, commenting often about how beautiful it all was, how extraordinary, and made a compelling argument for why all that money spent on space exploration is worth it: ‘A physicist is only ever a hydrogen atom away from learning about a hydrogen atom.’ Asking when would you have stopped space exploration in the past? Listing inventions we now take for granted that have come about because of it. He really made the universe seem as if it was perfectly understandable, even to forgetful GCSE science graduates like myself.

Unfortunately at this point I had to leave as, and Professor Cox will know this better than anyone what with the universe’s ever-expanding nature, the world won’t wait, and Betty the schnauzer puppy had to be rescued from her night in alone. So I crept away leaving the audience to enjoy the fun, which included performances from Josie Long and Toby Hadoke. Sorry to have missed the rest of the night, but I thoroughly enjoyed what I did see. I suggest you all get yourselves along to at least one event at the festival. You won’t be disappointed.

Literary highlights include:

Fri 12 Mar

Music from Led Bib & Get The Blessing 
Dark fiction from Toby Litt, 
Cathi Unsworth, Courttia Newland
& Ray Banks

Tue 23 Mar

+ A Pint for the Ghost by Helen Mort

Wed 24 Mar

+ Laura Dockrill 
+ Luke Kennard 
+ Instructions for Heartbreak 
by Francesca Millican-Slater

Good Habits

Alan Bennett’s new play explores the art of creating art…

The recent news of the death of the reclusive man but enduringly great and globally famous writer JD Salinger, coupled with having just put down Carey’s biography of William Golding and finished AS Byatt’s novel The Children’s Book, meant that the themes running through Alan Bennett’s hugely enjoyable new play at the Lyttleton, The Habit of Art, could not have seemed more relevant when I went to see it the other night. N.B. It’s sold out but you can get £10 tickets in an area called the ‘slips’ – pretty good view and lots of legroom.

The action takes the form of a play within a play, the play within centering on an imagined meeting, twenty-five years after they irrevocably fell out, between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten in the former’s disgracefully messy Oxford rooms where he is wiling away his later years. Entitled Caliban’s Day it portrays the unlikely reunion of the two men and their discussion about creativity, art and the self.

But before you groan at this potentially hackneyed format, wait. Here it is the perfect device and is beautifully used to enliven, illustrate and add comedic value to the play’s central concern: what is the relationship between great art and its creator?

The setting is a rehearsal for Caliban’s Day, dangerously close to its opening night. The actors are getting nervous and difficult, the director – the most powerful figure in any rehearsal room – is conspicuously absent, away on business, and has left instructions to just ‘run it’. The smug but insecure writer of the play, however, is present, much to everyone’s annoyance. The producer, brilliantly played by Frances de la Tour, is the only one keeping the show on track by masterfully keeping all the ‘creative’ and ridiculous male egos in the room in check.

The interplay between realised drama and the rehearsal room is enjoyable and playful. It’s all here: the illusion of theatre; the friction between a writer and the release of his work into the world; the egos of actors and writers, and yet their slavish devotion to their craft; the powerful desire for success and yet disdain and fear of it once it has arrived.

The cast is magnificent featuring the aforementioned de la Tour, Richard Griffiths not overdoing it as the actor who is Auden, and Alex Jennings as the actor playing the uptight Britten.

Ironically in a direct inversion of the historical characters, Bennett makes Griffiths’s actor more conservative, less camp, constantly asking for the more lewd references to be removed, whilst Jennings’s actor character switches effortlessly from his excellent portrayal of the uptight and precise Britten, to camp comments, advising that the rent boy who in the play is visiting the openly lascivious Auden in his rooms should be carrying a shoulder bag for lube, etc, and telling a suspiciously autobiographical story about ‘a friend’ at drama college who became a rent boy to pay the bills.

Bennett purposefully interrupts the flow of the play ‘within’ just at moments when he knows the audience will just be totally absorbed in the conversation between Auden and Britten  – which is most enjoyable. Suddenly you’re snapped back to the rehearsal space as someone forgets what’s next, tells a rude joke or complains about a line. The illusion of art is before us. We may be moved to tears by a actor’s performance, but the chances are they’ll be thinking how badly the thing is written and wondering how the talentless queen, stage left, ever the got the lead role.

The power politics within this theatrical company provides a microcosm of those found in art, and Bennett uses the inter-textual quality of his work to discourse and explore the nature and desire for control and power in art – and, by its very nature, the impossibility of this.

In the play, Auden discusses how he cannot break ‘the habit of art’: he writes every day, but no one wants to read it now; whereas his earlier poems are so well-loved that when he wants to tinker with them he upsets people greatly, as if they own those poems, as if they are no longer his. The narrator in Caliban’s Day is both men’s future biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, who further emphasises this, telling Britten and Auden that they – the public – are all just waiting for you to die so that they can draw a line under you. (For further comedic effect the actor playing the assured pompous narratorial voice of Humphrey, in the rehearsal is comically neurotic, bemoaning the fact that as the narrator, he is just a device, and trying to make the part psychologically convincing… much to everyone’s despair.)

But his presence as the narrator is important: it is natural for the critic and the reader to compartmentalise in order to understand and essentially to control the meaning of a work within their own experience; the author/creator can never be satisfied with this. It is the unresolved struggle between art and audience.

It reminds me of Golding complaining endlessly about Lord of the Flies as the only work he was known for, even though it brought him the fame and money he so wanted, his despair over criticism for his work, the autobiographical themes running so strongly through his work and yet his irritation that anyone should pick up on these; of Salinger: an iconic author locking himself away in New Hampshire apparently driven mad by his own success and the lack of perceived distance available in the world between work and its creator; and Byatt’s eventually heartbreaking story of a son who ultimately becomes a victim of art – used and destroyed by it.

There is a fascinating exchange between Auden and Britten in the play within, adding a further dimension to this idea, where Britten expresses his concern over his planned operatic work of Death in Venice, which, would you believe, is causing a few raised eyebrows amongst the devoted ladies of Snape Maltings back in Suffolk. The conversation gives rise to an even more complex multi-layering – two actors playing two actors playing Auden and Britten discuss a work that is considered an autobiographic account portrayed as fiction in a scene entirely imagined by Bennett.

The divide between self and art is certainly not a simple one – just as everything in The Habit of Art can swerve from the sublime to the ridiculous in an instant. As they argue, Britten is insistent that Mann is the victim of the Apollo-like boy and plans a scene in the opera where Apollo appears … An idea Auden swiftly mocks, saying simply and directly to Britten the man, ‘You just like young boys’ [sic]. But Britten cannot deal with this.

Perhaps it is a comment about the dangers of hiding behind art, however unsubtly, as a way of not coming to terms with oneself by raising desire to a higher echelon of meaning, or perhaps it is suggested as a good way of communicating that desire. I’m not sure.

But the message of both plays is clear: Auden, garrulous, honest, and didactic rambles on to the tightly taciturn Britten – fine, fine, forget what I said, use Apollo, do whatever you have to, but you must go on, you must do whatever it takes to make the opera happen…. You must go on! He shouts it to him down the stairs.

As it happens the imaginary Auden needn’t have worried – the opera opened in Suffolk in June 1973, the same year that Caliban’s Day is set. The habit of art, however painful, is a hard one to break.

The Golding Rush

Happy New Year to all Pen Pushers… twenty-one days late, but someone told me last night that it is permitted to give a new year greeting until the end of the month, so I immediately took this as fact.

Much of my holiday and the weeks since have been spent in reading books, which has been an enjoyable indulgence: James M Cain, Chandler, William Trevor, Edward St Aubyn (which I had to put down very close to the end due to irritation), Erle Stanley Gardner (of course)… and most recently, in fact, now, John Carey’s comprehensive biography of William Golding, which I am reading in anticipation of an event I am due to attend at the Savile Club (of which Golding was a member) where Carey will discuss the book.

I’m very interested to hear him speak about Golding. The book is excellently written giving great insights into Golding’s writing processes…  and unusually for a literary biography one that is oddly encouraging to aspiring writers: Golding’s experiences as an author are defined by early rejection and obscurity until middle age, continuing self-doubt, an openness to editorial suggestions, and Golding’s own changing, unfixed and at times contradictory opinions on his own work. The idea of the ‘author-god’, so endlessly promoted in literary writing, interviews and essays, that omnipresent greater intelligence constantly in control and in understanding of what he/she has written, is writing, will write has no place here… Rather at times Golding hardly seems to know how he has written what he has and what he really meant by it. Surely a good sign when taken in context… ie, that he wrote great novels.

All this is fascinating stuff – not least in the intimate and productive relationship between the writer and his publisher Monteith – and yet despite all this information, to me at least, no clear sense of the man himself seems possible to gain. I don’t know if this is because Carey wisely seeks to use his researched material only – documents, discussions with family and friends, publishing facts – and not to spin his own opinions into his detailed researches, or if Golding was very difficult to pin down as a ‘character’, or even just that Golding had a lack of concern about presenting a coherent picture of himself – perhaps all contribute.

He reads both as a standard character – all the press about the ‘rape’ admission amounts to nothing more than the usual appalling fumblings of the repressed, guilty and sexually unknowledgeable, such as almost any young man of his generation might have experienced, and with this background he is also a misogynist although not one worth worrying in terms of biography – and also as a complex man, an oblique and changeable character. Although his novels are, as Carey makes absolutely clear, often based on autobiographical experiences, it is somehow hard to marry the man he presents with his work despite the clarity of Carey’s writing.

The book has also brought to my attention the large number of books Golding wrote that are not, as far as I know, much read these days. Perhaps this will change. I certainly intend to look up a few and get acquainted with more than my school-time knowledge of Lord of Flies.

Satisfyingly, in retrospect only and certainly not at the time for the struggling, unhappy schoolmaster, this extraordinary first novel was turned down by publisher after publisher, until picked up out of the ‘R’, that is rejects, pile by the bright young publisher, Charles Monteith, who had just been appointed at Faber, and who was to remain Golding’s publisher and friend for the rest of his life.

It’s easy to be blessed with hindsight, but then again it’s so fun to enjoy the comments of the professional reader who rejected the manuscript from this obscure and unpopular school teacher in Salisbury: one Polly Perkins dubbed it an, ‘Absurd and uninteresting fantasy […] A group of children who land in jungle-country near New Guinea. Rubbish & dull. Pointless.’

Carey’s book is fairly strictly chronological as it discusses each of Golding’s works and how it was written/the collaborative editorial processes in turn and in order, set against his correspondence with Monteith and others, and details of what was happening in his life – his travels, his drinking, family problems and other gossip and notes.

For example, the account of Golding’s war years in the navy, especially when captaining a LCTR as part of the D-Day landings and the lesser-known Battle of Walcheren are brilliant to read, and at the same time give us a sense that he could put on a show  – his crew remarked that in dangerous situations he used to grin slightly fixedly but show no fear, whilst he admitted to feeling shamefully petrified.

Shame was an emotion Golding was not a stranger to, and came perhaps from his upbringing by his atheist father Alec – a believer who didn’t believe – and who was very morally upright and a rationalist, yet not a contented one. As Golding’s own personal struggles, and his fictional works attest, and as Carey notes in his introduction and constantly refers to, ‘The spiritual and the miraculous, and their collision with science and rationality, were the centre of his creative life’, and had been ever since he was a child.

Also carefully logged in Carey’s account is the divisions Golding created amongst critics: Frank Kermode was an early champion, but almost all struggled with his work initially and the reviews were normally divided with those against quite virulently so. His books with their themes of the darkness of human nature, the breakdown of societies and his tackling of universal themes, uncomfortable ideas and a willingness to experiment always succeeded in upsetting people and perhaps did not seem very English. The bad reviews hurt him much too much, the good ones inflating his ego the opposite way.

Golding’s humble beginnings as the son of a schoolteacher always haunted him, made him feel ashamed, and he hated the class system, actively resenting its social hierarchy – he wrote a review of one book in which he suggested Eton should be by demolished by using TNT. I haven’t got to the end of the book yet (!) but don’t think that Golding ever felt accepted, quite, even when famous and successful – something that many writers profess. He had the quality, most needed by the writer, of feeling himself a permanent outsider, at once enabling him to cast his keen eye upon the world, critically, ruthlessly; and at the same providing endless supplies of self-doubt and lack of self-confidence to keep the creative engine humming, to keep the brain constantly asking questions. He seemed to have that sense of never being comfortable, always questioning himself, structures of society, and belief as absolute or redemptive, yet he wants to believe in something… and he is constantly unsatisfied with what he finds.


Festive Fun

This blog entry is really an excuse to say a big thank you to everyone who has been involved with Pen Pusher this year: whether as a writer or reader; a performer or listener. It’s been a great year and we hope you’ll be joining us for more in 2010. Meanwhile, here’s a brief overview of what we’ve been up to…

It’s been a really good few months for Pen Pusher since we relaunched the magazine in March ’09… We’ve been selling in shops all round London and have even reached over the pond to our first distributor in New York – McNally Jackson – and are also now being sold in the legendary Shakespeare & Co. We’ve also been accepting submissions online via out account system and it’s fantastic how many of you have signed up for an online account. We should have much more to offer you next year via our website so keep your online eyes peeled…

We are also delighted with the PP ‘Featured Author’ section we began with the relaunch issue, #12. This feature offers writers a chance to showcase an extract from a longer work-in-progress or as-yet unpublished novel. For me as an editor the chance to publish extracts from longer works of fiction has added a totally new dimension to the editing process and the character of the magazine; and for writers it offers a chance to showcase their talents, as well as giving them the possibility to see their work-in-progress in print, which can illuminate aspects of the story/writing process and help them rework or reassess their piece. I think it’s a great way of working more closely with talented writers and we look forward to publishing more extracts next year. Many thanks to the authors whose work we published this year: Pia Chatterjee, author of Unreal City; Susan Barker, author of The Beijing Taxi Driver; and Nikesh Shukla author of Coconut Unlimited. (And you can read Pia in conversation with Essential Writers where she talks about her publication in Pen Pusher here.

We’ve also had three fantastic events to launch issues 12, 13 & 14 featuring some incredible poets and authors & you can remind yourself of some of the action here. Highlights included Hugo Williams and John Hegley at PP12; Roddy Lumsden, Ashna Sarkar and Joe Dunthorne at PP13 & just a few weeks ago at The Castle in Farringdon, readers included Ross Sutherland, Sam Riviere, Dean Wilson and an incredible rabble-rousing performance from Nikesh Shukla.

Favourite new reads of 2009:

Let the Great World Spin by Collum McCann – a brilliant New York novel. Read my review of it at Untitled Books here

Leviathan by Phillip Hoare – bizarrely enjoyable history of the whale that’s also made me want to ready Moby Dick which no one else has ever managed.

The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy provides a hypnotically mundane and fascinating account of Tolstoy’s domestic world and the pain and problems his difficult nature caused – Sofia is exasperating, strong and brilliantly honest.

The Paris Review – all collected volumes and new issues. It’s simple – read everything.

Obsessive reread of the year

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters by Salinger – another masterpiece about the Glass family that I have reread a couple more times this year. Slight dream of mine to be in some stuffy New York apartment and offered a Tom Collins.

If you feel like commenting, let us know what your favourite read of 2009 has been.

And, just before PP signs off for the festive season, we’d like to introduce you all to the newest member of the Pen Pusher team – Betty. A polymath with a frighteningly short attention span she’s a myriad of contradictions, but she’s brought some strong ideas to the table – more exercise, more snack breaks and more naps. And she gets through books very quickly, severely damaging my Frank S Pepper 20th Cenutry Quotations and my copy of The Cossacks by Tolstoy in a matter of seconds…

Happy Christmas!!!

Down and Out…

A pet hate of mine are those opinion/lifestyle columns that you find in the broadsheet weekend magazines, complete with a photo of the journalist responsible wearing a regulation smug and-yet apologetic expression.

The subject matter is nearly almost always ‘I’; and ‘I’ is horribly insecure about the idea of offending anyone, but desperate to show, in a strictly self-deprecating way, its intelligence. It doesn’t leave much room for good writing. Of course, it’s easy to attack this sort of writing, but I just wonder why it is so popular, so prevalent?

In much journalism that isn’t strictly news reporting, the wish to either gloss-over and sentimentalise seems the order of the  day. For example the word ‘humble’ seems very popular at the moment. People seem to be humble about everything; I would suggest it’s a very rare emotion. Or that type of interview with a star, supposedly to bring us closer to them and the opening paragraph contains something like this: ‘In real life she is astonishingly petite, almost doll-like, and her face takes on an angelic quality as she takes tiny sips of her mineral water’. Ad nauseum.

Very few of these ‘commentators’ seem at all interested in other people – I mean in an observant way. Perhaps the way novelists look at people, with the air of devouring their prey: keenly observant, possibly for selfish reasons, but able to look and see clearly all the same. Political correctness and badly concealed status anxiety  cut out sympathy and interest in others which is why this style of writing is so creepy and annoying.

The reason I’ve been thinking about this is that I have been reading a lot of Orwell non-fiction recently and enjoying its obvious quality. I know Orwell is an exceptional writer and is far from unbiased in his views, but his journalism/non-fiction writing is so clear, and it very much wants to be clear – that is its raison d’être. It does not sentimentalise in any way though he can’t help but make a good story out of what he sees, most of the time – except when he goes off on Socialist rants, which can get dull. (Having said this, someone just told me that The Road to Wigan Pier is really sentimental … I’ve never read it – is this so?)

In Down and Out in Paris and London (1933),in which Orwell records his time spent as a Paris plongeur at ‘Hotel X’ and then as a tramp in England, hanging out with screevers and staying in spikes, Orwell describes people as clearly as he is able: eccentric, foolish, greedy, stupid, idiotic, funny, kind, essentially good, stoic in their bizarre and minor struggles. He also puts their lives into some context.

This passage is taken from the introduction:

‘The Paris slums are a gathering-place for eccentric people – people who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or decent […] Some of the lodgers in our hotel lived lives that were curious beyond words.’ […] ‘Poverty is what I am writing about […] The slum, with its dirt and its queer lives, was first an object-lesson in poverty, and then the background of my own experiences. It is for this reason that I try to give some idea of what life was like there.’

As a review of the book in The New Yorker aptly put it: ‘The harshness of this book is an expression of its basic sympathy’.  You cannot truly sympathise, observe and comment unless you try as best you can to tell the truth– in this case to look at the sometimes ugly mundanity of poverty and record it.

Whereas some current writing reminds me of one of Orwell’s old tramps: afraid to loiter on any subject too deeply in case it gets moved on or feels compelled to expose itself. Like Paddy, Orwell’s tramping companion for whom ‘two years of bread and margarine had lowered his standards hopelessly’, who has forgotten what good food tastes like.

In the meantime, though, read Orwell. Penguin are doing a really appealing little volumes of his essays and non-fiction works at the moment.

Of course, Orwell could leave these situations at any time, he was an observer, but he really tried to understand poverty and the less privileged parts of society, and to examine the ideals behind the society he found himself in. Essays like ‘How the Poor Die’, ‘A Hanging’ and ‘The Prevention of Literature’ are all as serious as they sound, though always there is dry wit. And there are more satirical pieces also. In ‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’ (Orwell at one time reviewed large numbers of books for English publications) he describes a man sitting in a dishevelled state in a chaotic room full of waste paper, unopened packages of books, and final demand bills: ‘He has lost his address book, and the thought of looking for it, or indeed looking for anything, afflicts him with acute suicidal impulses.’

And ‘Bookshops Memories’ – ‘[B]ooks give off more and nastier dust than any other class of objects yet invented and the top of a book is the place where every bluebottle prefers to die.’

Well that’s true enough…