Even more newvian

Hello beautiful human. Yes, it is true that I often feel, especially early in the morning when I stare bleakly at the screen with the bleary eyes of the restless non-sleeper, that I am an alien from some other place in the universe who somehow got stranded here on Earth, and that my task (which I have had to accept regardless of what the dude* in Mission Impossible had to say about it) is to schmooze with this planet’s inhabitants, meaning that I am doing a terrible job so may as well get started afresh with a well-deserved compliment. I hope you are doing very well indeed.

Anyway it is a fresh morning in the small town in New Zealand where I live. It is a very nice town that was originally settled by Scandinavians from Norway, Denmark and Sweden though there have been plenty of others jostling for their place in the community history and consciousness, among them the alien! It is a coincidence that I have settled here and that I am a fan of “Scandi” film and television, but it is a nice coincidence. A recent post in this blog was about The Killing, a Danish “noir” series that had three seasons. After finishing that harrowing excursion into the genre, I picked up almost by accident The Bridge, a Swedish-Danish co-production.

The Bridge has had three seasons and its creators promise a fourth, to be released next year. There will be endless elaborations in other countries – there has already been an American spin-off – of the adventures of Swedish detective Saga Noren and a Danish counterpart as the usual line of Scandinastian villain does ever more horrific things to a string of victims who surely, whatever their faults, did not deserve to be treated in that way.

Like The Killing, the storyline of The Bridge is mind-bogglingly elaborate, full of herrings red and otherwise. It may or may not be a sign of my own incisive mind that I picked the villain out from the lineup on first appearance, just like that.

Whodunnit is not, however, what is attractive about this series. Nor is the ever more inventive gore. Saga Noren steals the show, taking The Killing‘s Sarah Lund-style fractured personality and developing it into the most deeply read and sensitively realised portrayal I have ever seen. The Bridge might not be television as it ought to be, but it is nonetheless better not only than The Killing, but also the Swedish Wallander.

Arguably this is the result of the extended development of Noren’s personality. My usual complaints of TV series are present in The Bridge – the apparent need (presumably financial at root) to have a template that is repeated each episode may begin as something eye-catching and even heart-clutching, but after a few instalments is merely irritating.

What is amazing about Noren is the development of a personality that at the outset is already extremely intense. The actress portraying her, Sofia Helin, has said that the character she has brought to life so tellingly is autistic in some unspecified way. Noren is fascinating, and it is a tribute to the actress and to the producers that the character can not only be individual and well portrayed but change and develop through 30 episodes. As her relations with those around her become increasingly complex and the pressure goes on, her responses are heart-wrenching. One can imagine the whole of humanity, plus one alien, cheering her on.

The Killing ended ambiguously (sorry, no spoiler) and the fourth series of The Bridge may follow suit but  I hope it doesn’t. Saga! Triumph over all! We are on your side!

*The man who told the star, Peter Graves, that the tape would self-destruct in five seconds. Graves had a choice, though it seems he always accepted the challenge. See however “You don’t wait ages for a post, and then. . .” on this blog, wearing if you feel the need a tinfoil hat.




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Posted by on February 21, 2017 in Uncategorized


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Zen of golf

Back in the 1950s one of the west’s most popular sayings about Zen Buddhism related to what are called “koans”. These are puzzles designed to help novices break through the confines of rational thinking to something more profound. The koan making the rounds back then was “you know the sound of two hands clapping, but what is the sound of one hand clapping?” It was even used by comedian Shelley Berman in his routine.

As a writer, and even as a human being I am very, very familiar with the sound of no hands clapping. The koan remains what it is.

Zen comes into my mind when I am playing golf. There is a state of mind, of consciousness, that is the key to good play. Yes, a bad hit is a bad hit and a good swing is a good one, and these are physical issues. There is a complex intellectual dimension to golf too. But avoiding the bad hits and making the good swings, and thinking the right approach, has something to do with what is going on in my head at the time.

In this sense golf is a game of temperament, and I am not always any good at it.

However, I am getting better at the course where I play and before long hope to enjoy the game completely instead of partially as now. When I am calm and focused, my play is better, and it is genuinely fun. When I am not, many interesting things may happen, but few of them are good things.

I want to play well partly because when I do it can be a great pleasure as well as good exercise, but also because it is a measure to me of shall we say spiritual maturity, and a reflection of my ethnic make-up.

Like many Americans, my ethnic make-up is a congeries. Where I live in New Zealand this is actually fairly odd. Most native-born Kiwis and those who are immigrants from Britain are at most of two or three cultures – say, English and Irish, or Scottish and Irish, or Welsh and English, possibly with indigenous Maori part of the mix etc. Despite my surname – which I adopted for personal reasons – I have no Welsh in me, but there is plenty of Celt.

My paternal half is Scots, possibly Irish, and some English.

My maternal part is Slavic. This region of the world is a kind of ethnological doormat, though not one people walked on to get into a home. They just kept on walking, usually after demolishing the structure, eating all the food, carting off the furniture, and impregnating the women. So while it would seem my mother’s parents were Polish as this is where they were born, at a time when Poland was a part of the Russian Empire, their actual ethnic makeup may very well be much more widely shared.

For my paternal half, I think of myself as Scots. The other bits may be there, but they don’t count. Scotland itself has a varied ethnic makeup and two “native” languages apart from English – one of these, Scots, is related to English. The other, Gaelic, is a Celtic tongue once confined to the Highlands though there are more Gaelic speakers in Glasgow than anywhere else.

It is the Scots in me that is attracted to golf. Golf was originally a Scottish game, presumably played with clubs and rocks in the glens running through the hills and the dunes along the shores. Today it is played all over the world, and my introduction to it, in the United States, was just one of those sports my friends were trying out during my teenage years.

Since then I have played fitfully – and mostly very badly. I not only had no skill, but my temperament was wrong. Those cartoons of men wrapping their clubs around trees in apocalyptic anger were based on me.

Somehow I improved, and today I actually enjoy playing, and am getting better, and am feeling that my nature meets this game in its essence. There is a long way to go before I can feel that I am really expressing the Celtic/Scottish part of me, that I am living up to my genetic code. Mark Twain called golf “a good walk spoiled”. It can be that. But it can be  a good walk and more. The courses of the world, their sweeping fairways among majestic forests, beautiful ponds, carpets of green and sandy expanses dotted here and there among the lushness, can be simply magic to experience, and wonderful to play.

Arnold Palmer, the great American golfer, once said that he didn’t understand poetry but that when he hit a good one, that was poetry to him. I understand that. It is the same when striking a billiard ball with a pool cue just so, knowing it will go into the pocket, or any of a number of other “bat sports”.

But there is more – the Zen of golf is real. Stepping through the contradictions and frustrations of this beautiful game is an expression of art, of humanity, of maturity and wisdom and for me in all my ethnic complexity, an existential account of how I came to be where I am today.  This eludes me still, but I will know when I get there, the sound of one hand clapping.

Thanks for reading.







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Posted by on February 12, 2017 in Uncategorized


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Hi there. It’s a time when many people eat too much, drink too much, and are miserable for lots of other reasons too. If this is you, I really am very sorry and hope things improve soon. You can console yourself with the thought that this occasion only comes once a year.

I’m no expert, but the occasion of this occasion is the birth of someone who remarked that he brought “not peace but the sword”. He went on to give some unpleasant details about this, and how right he has been proved! The “Prince of Peace” said he wasn’t, straight out, but for some reason people keep wanting to not believe it.

It is true that we don’t have to think like this. We don’t need to feel that we’ve got to get down with the swordplay, and that makes it our own doing, that we go on  doing terrible things. It’s our fault – all sides. We really can do something about it, if we want to.

This year, 2016, is about to conclude, and it won’t be back. Good.

While it’s been unraveling before my astonished gaze, I’ve been watching a Danish “noir” television series, The Killing. This had three seasons and I’ve brought the lot on DVD after seeing the final ten-part epic.

Generally I don’t watch television – see my blog post, “Scandinoirvian nights”. But like the Swedish police thriller Wallander, The Killing lifted television beyond its limitations to reach the standard of fine film-making – just. Television’s self-imposed limitations are present in The Killing, especially the apparent need to follow a template – each episode repeats the format so that by the end of the second installment the structure is an obstruction, artifice standing squarely in the way of art: the same music at the same place, the way the opening is interfaced with credits, etc. A film doesn’t have to succumb to this allure, though “franchises” inevitably face the same dilemma – witness the “Indiana Jones” spinoffs, or Star Wars, or James Bond: the very qualities that make the first take  a success, tend to render successors trivial. These challenges to film are however splattered all over television series as if they are de rigeur, and it’s not pretty.

Despite this, The Killing is worth watching. It is unlike Wallander in that the episodes are not complete in themselves; each of the three series needs to be seen entire. Fortunately the template was tweaked for each and the last series – which your unworthy correspondent saw first – is better than the first.

The Killing has a lot to say, but it is not always clear whether it means to say it. The series focused on a police homicide detective, Sarah Lund, who was the only woman on the squad. The acrress portraying her, Sophie Grabol, said that initially she had a hard time working out Lund’s personality, but when she realised the character was a man in a woman’s body, it became easier.

The brains behind the series, Soren Sveistrup, might or might not have enjoyed this characterisation. Certainly Lund is a fractured person with an intensity of focus that rattles her colleagues; once the bit is between her teeth she doesn’t let up, even when she is suspended. She is a genius at solving horrific murders, sees things others miss, and is thus invaluable. . .but. . .well, I’m not going to offer any spoilers here.

The series succeeds despite its limitations. If it is to be believed, Denmark is a festering sinkhole of envy, intrigue and corruption – still rotten despite Hamlet’s stable cleansing efforts all those centuries ago. The police force is not only not exempt, but also so flagrantly incompetent it is a wonder any crimes are ever solved, leaping to conclusion after conclusion in the rush to get a conviction. Innocent suspects are dragged into the station to be verbally abused and often have their lives ruined, to be replaced by other innocent suspects, while the police officers spend a lot of time blaming and talking past each other, when not ordering someone else to do something. Meanwhile, victims’ families’ lives are torn apart, politicians are dragged into the affair, while the culprit’s machinations suggest that Hamlet’s* ability to concoct and carry out an involved plan behind a facade was not a one-off and may even be a Danish character trait.

So Sarah Lund succeeds in a man’s world by being more than a man, and it is hard on her psyche. This says something, and for those of you who have followed this blog, you will know what I think, or if you don’t, try “Grand Larssony” and “Toiling with Troilus”. We are talking epochal realignments here, true progress – or not.

Scandinoirvian crime depiction is gruesome. Both Wallander and this series feature murders ranging from draining the blood of the victim while still conscious, torture and dismemberment, to the most brutal rapes and beyond. That the true focus lies in the human relationships of the series verges on contradiction, but ultimately that is the underlying point, and it is a political one, whether authors mean it or not. Certainly Henning Mankell, the man behind Wallander, was a “leftist” radical, and Millennium trilogy author Stieg Larsson’s politics were also well out there.

All this blood and guts and tension, and the year we are finishing up has included a new word imported from Danish into English: “hygge”, which means a kind of comfort that one finds in mug of tea and a blanket on a cold night, especially when shared with loved ones. In Norwegian the concept is given a name that is a semi-cognate of our “cosy”.

The murderers may go out and do despicable things before heading home for a quiet cuppa and a nuzzle with someone dear.

Hopefully this isn’t you, dear reader. Please enjoy this time, and head into 2017 with hope in your heart, a smile on your beautiful lips, and a song in your throat ready to greet the world.


*It has always seemed to me that Hamlet has been unfairly maligned for his supposed inability to act. On the contrary he was plainly a genius who overcame many obstacles to avenge the murder of his father and clean up a corrupt regime, though he was thwarted and died in the attempt.









Posted by on December 24, 2016 in Uncategorized


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So far behind the curve. . .

There is a Russian scientist who believes, or says he believes, that the United States is developing a variety of human being low in intelligence, capable of living on next to nothing, working all hours, and reproducing only when wanted. The scientist heads a nuclear research institute and his brother, a banker, is close to the leadership of the country.

While he is beetling away on nuke projects US President-elect Donald Trump – for yes it is he! – says it is ridiculous that Russian government hackers could  have swayed the election that is heading him to the leadership of the world’s most powerful country. He disputes a CIA report to that effect and has pooh-poohed Congressional concerns, including from his own party.

He says he isn’t too interested in intelligence briefings anyway because he is a “smart guy”.

It is true that he is a smart guy, and if he says it follows that being a smart guy means he doesn’t need to be told things every day, who am I to doubt him? A nobody, that’s who.

Meanwhile, in Balkania – actually it is Macedonia, but it’s probably going on elsewhere in that mercurial region – people are riding around in fine cars on the proceeds of “fake news”. “Fake news” makers cut and paste from whatever sources seem useful into plausible if sensational stories and then put the results on Facebook pages made up to look like news sites. If these generate hits, the hits generate advertising, and the advertising generates income, and the income generates BMWs, flash motorbikes, designer everything, and girlfriends or boyfriends or pet sheep depending on one’s proclivities.

Facebook’s founder, a Mr Zuckerberg, says this is actually no big deal. If a man worth billions, who is handing out zillions to fake news producers says it is no big deal, who am I? etc. Nobody, that’s who.

And the great stories! During the election in the US, people in Macedonia left no stone unturned to find and publish the secrets of the campaign, especially the devilish Clinton plans to usurp the democratic process and destroy freedom everywhere. If there wasn’t a story saying the devil incarnate had entered Ms Clinton’s body and feasted each morning on live babies, it was purely accidental.

Some of these sensational accounts found their way, as they would naturally do, being “truthful” though untrue, into the mainstream press via other websites. Flick, flick, flick – and then shazam!

A man from North Carolina was arrested in Washington DC in a fast food parlour, come to investigate to see if a cabal involving Hillary Clinton – yes, the same former presidential candidate – was going on there. Fortunately no one was injured. However, a man part of President-elect Trump’s “transition team” and the son of a general picked to be his national security adviser, lost his job over this incident as he sent a “tweet” about it to the world. The cabal hadn’t been categorically disproved, his message said.

The poor fellow’s father had assisted his state of mind by repeating other unrelated fake news stories during the campaign.

A question in my mind, insofar as I have one, is whether this is evidence that “Project American sub-human”  revealed to the world by the Russian nuclear scientist is actually much more advanced than even he realises.

Many years ago the British magazine Private Eye used to satirise the work of a man named McKay, referred to as “McHacky” by having “him” write, “Isn’t life grandy and dandy” as he celebrated the wonders of modern times. As indeed it is truly is – especially if you are a smart guy, like Donald Trump!

Well, it is troubling to this poor hack. Reality as revealed by the existence of the Russian nuke master and the illusion of reality as portrayed in “fake news” have so inflamed our imaginations that works intended to be seen as of the imagination, fiction to me and fiction to you, don’t stand a chance.  Anything a spiritually impoverished writer such as myself can dream up is made trivial when a man hits a pizza stand to see if Hillary Clinton is in the toilet or wherever she was meant to be, conspiring mightily, and a judicious and principled member of a victorious Presidential candidate’s entourage, who simply wants proof of her absence, loses his job! How can I write a novel about anything at all and expect it to be disbelieved?

If the displaced Trumpster is crowd-funding a campaign to get his job back, should I contribute?

Well, you very well may not know me, but if you did know me, you would know that I am reaching into my e-pocket as soon as I can to help the poor man out, even as I lose yet more readers to Facebook illusion. It’s unjust, but help we must.

Thanks for reading.

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Posted by on December 11, 2016 in Uncategorized


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Thank you, Bob

Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first song-writer to receive the world’s most coveted literary award. Wow!

Of course Dylan is not only a song-writer and singer. He has written prose as well as verse, painted, acted, but to my mind beyond all these, been. Dylan has been an amazing force in the cultural life not merely of his native United States, or even the Anglophone world, but every country on earth. More than 50 years since he began to perform, he is still out there – apparently in Las Vegas as I write.

There is a post on this blog about him, and he figures in another, “Fifty years with and without Frank Sinatra.”

It is often said that Dylan’s words are what matter and that he can’t sing. This is, like much else about the man, very unfair. Dylan chooses to sing as he does, and his voice is an effective instrument. True, the words stick with us, but so does the sly, insinuating, intelligent voice that brings them to our ears.

The words do matter. They are important for what they say, and for the devices they use – as a writer, Dylan is a true genius.

But he is much more than that. He has made the words matter by who he is, has opened doors for artists of every stripe, legitimised what was previously unthinkable in popular music but far beyond it.  The huge cultural changes that have taken place in my lifetime have been charted but also partly created by this elusive force for good.

Thank you, Bob.



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Posted by on October 13, 2016 in Uncategorized


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Saint Jane

Hello there. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Life can interfere with my very best and well-meant plans, and such it is now. Two posts I have been thinking of writing remain figments of my admittedly feverish imagination. Meanwhile, I have had other things to do as well as think about.

These nettlesome intrusions have not prevented at least a tiny amount of effort on my part to become educated. I really want to do this! One of my many lacunae is 19th century English literature. Writers as diverse as Trollope and the Brontes are totally foreign to me, while Dickens is a chance acquaintance. My excuse for ignorance is that I am still, after more decades than I wish to concede, enthralled by the English renaissance, the renaissance full stop, and the classics. Euripides! Wow! That fellow strode the boards ahead of all others for about 2000 years. Two thousand! He had competition too – Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Sophocles among the Greeks, Plautus, Terence and other Romans. . .There is a post in this blog on the man, though perhaps not a very good one, but if you have not tried The Trojan Women, or The Medea, or the Iphigenia plays, or Alcestis* you too need some larnin’. Honest. Anyway I haven’t finished with the oldies, and keep telling myself to work up to the moderns. . .the 18th and 19th century moderns. Sheridan I know but. . .

So lately I have been schooling myself in the scandal of Jane Austen. When a film of Pride and Prejudice came out, I read the novel and was mightily impressed. It seemed to me – and still seems – that Austen showed herself to be the first truly modern writer. Her airy and concise style and her ironic detachment from the characters she created, made for a very good read. Her style stands up very well against later, more florid writers like Balzac, whatever their respective intellectual grunt

Lately I’ve decided to try some of her other works. Emma put me off and so did Northanger Abbey but I have got through Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility.

Were my first impressions^ justified? Well, yes. Austen wrote in a genre peopled by thousands perhaps and stands out. She still seems to me a pathbreaker. Naturally pathbreakers are riddled with faults – look at my books!**  The wrinkles get ironed out by those who follow and it can be easy to criticise in that patronising way writers  employ. Mark Twain ridiculed her though it is unclear if he really meant it***.

Certainly in a writing sense she does not conform to the rules of our time, and probably not of her own. As happened then, her books would likely be spiked if submitted to publishers today: on a superficial level they “tell, not show” well past a fault. To give a ccntrasting example, one of Graham Greene’s later novels, Monsignor Quixote, begins as a Spanish priest picks up a Vatican bigwig whose car has broken down, and while  waiting for it to be repaired, takes the man to his home for lunch. The larder is bare apart from horsemeat, and the priest tells his cook/housekeeper to serve it up.

The Vatican fellow eats the meat with gusto, and several weeks later the priest discovers he has been made a monsignor.

This is an example of “show, don’t tell”. Greene never tells the reader that the reason for this award is that the priest showed his humility in serving what he had to his guest.

Austen does this too, but it is harder to decide when she really means it. She tells, and tells, and tells so often that any attempt to say what she “really meant” otherwise inevitably runs into opposition. What rescues her for “modernity” is the ironic detachment she shows in the telling. She mocks and scorns characters, even nice ones.

There are some negatives; there always are. Reading her books one after the other shows a sameness that is pretty much a yawn really. Mansfield Park, her most controversial, is also her most overwritten – it is perhaps twice as long as it needed to be. Sense and Sensibility could also do with a trim. Nonetheless there are sparkling dialogues well worth the effort, and Sense especially, after a slow start, is a real ripper for the most part, before stuttering to a bizarre and unbelievable conclusion that had me thinking, Nonsense and insensibility.

In Mansfield Park and Sense Austen addresses the reader directly in what today might be seen as experimental and to her might have been an attempt at seeming to be reading to her audience, as she read her books to her family. It’s nice.

Yet to me the most attractive and intriguing feature of her style is a willingness to be really mean. Here for example, the Middletons, Sir John and his Lady, who have gone out of their way to provide the heroines a place to live, and want them to come visit, often:

“. . .they kept more company of every kind than any other family in the neighbourhood. It was necessary for the happiness of both; for however dissimilar in temper and outward behaviour, they strongly resembled each other in that total want of talent and taste which confined their employments, unconnected as such which society produced, within a very narrow compass. Sir John was a sportsman, Lady Middleton a mother. He hunted and shot, and she humoured her children, and these were their only resources.”


Lady Middleton gets both barrels a short time later, as the Dashwoods (heroines) visit the Middleton mansion:

“There was nothing in any of the party which could recommend them as companions to the Dashwoods, but the cold insipidity of Lady Middleton was so particularly repulsive, that in comparison of it the gravity of Colonel Brandon, and even the boisterous mirth of Sir John and his mother-in-law was interesting.”

Austen’s remarks are often said to be “gently mocking”.

Readers of this blog know that I am partial to a French writer, Celine, who was amazing for his insights and appalling for his beliefs. Celine got his shrewd perceptions of humanity from what are sometimes styled “petit bourgeois” origins. His family had a lace shop in an arcade in Paris and his father, who worked for an insurance company, was a wannabe all his life. Their son was sent to Germany and to England to learn the local language in a strategy designed to make him successful at business. Instead, he became a doctor and one of the most notorious authors of the 20th century.

Celine’s nightmare visions of the whole of humanity sprang from hatred and envy of those above, and fear and loathing of those below. Always on the edge of being tipped into the latter, careful not to offend and desirous of joining the former, the precarious existence of the petit bourgeois in early 19th century England is strikingly brought to life by Austen. Her main characters are genteel poor single women seeking to marry a man at least able to look after them, and having very little alternative. Austen’s caustic eye never fails to judge the landed wealthy and those associated with them, finding the good among them much more rare than the morally bankrupt. These last attain their status in a plethora of ways, from fornication, adultery, and blithe materialism  to profiting from slavery. Their code of values reeks of hypocritical sanctimony.

Much of the talk in Austen’s books revolves around money. No man is really eligible for marriage without a good amount of it, usually as interest income from some principal, and the fortunate woman endowed with the same is much admired and desired. So-and-so is “worth 20,000” or “has an income of 2,000 a year” is rating talk among would-be brides and their advisors.

Despite this trenchant critique of the English moneyed and landed classes of her time, Austen’s books have happy endings. The good do not die though they may get sick. They are rejected, but are lucky in it. They marry the right fellow after all. . .their morality sees them through.

Nice, innit? Austen thus ends up supporting and bolstering the society she otherwise ridicules. There is no hint that those caught up in the forms of servitude of the vast mass of English people – as servants in homes, workers in factories or fields, or desperate paupers – are anything but jolly glad to be alive; for the most part, they do not even exist. In Sense for example, the lovely widow Mrs Jennings takes two unmarried sisters from their country cottage to her home in London. They arrive, and dinner is served two hours later. Mrs Jennings has been in the country for quite some time, and whoever cooked the meal was.  . .was. . .was. . .doing what while she was away? The widow tries to find employment for a sister of one of her staff, giving her a glowing reference (as she does). That’s about it.

Throughout her books, things get done by this faceless mass, who when they are seen at all seem overjoyed to serve. Horses are fed and retrieved, coaches are driven, washing is washed, needlework needled, gardens are dug and maintained, entire villages belonging to the gentry are peopled, their tithes providing income for the lesser sons of the manse who get a “living” from preaching the virtues of stoic acceptance, or so one supposes.

As a backdrop, as the stuff of her narratives, then, “the system” of Austen’s novels stinks. The beneficiaries of its hypocritical values are almost universally excruciatingly  unworthy to receive its largesse. The exceptions cannot prove the rule. And yet – one and all, happy endings. The virtuous women who have resisted the evil that surround them do find the honorable man whose honesty and integrity saves them, and by implication, the world.

This is not a contradiction Austen can escape really. Yet her many admirers wish her perfect in every way, and flay any brave enough to think otherwise.

Of course the critics can get it wrong. Edward Said famously excoriated Austen’s “failure” to condemn slavery and the society it enriched, yet at least arguably Austen (who was known to oppose slavery) was showing in Mansfield Park that the slave-owning Bertram family whose estate owes its wealth and family its luxury to slave holdings in the West Indies was morally ruined by it. The heroine, Fanny Price, queries the patriarch Sir Thomas Bertram, about it, but receives no answer. It is not what is said by Austen that matters, but what happens – the family of four children corrupted by their ease and its source. The oldest son nearly dies and is a profligate wastrel; the two daughters are immoral quasi trollops, one eloping and the other running away from her husband with a man who had been unsuccessfully pursuing Fanny. Only the fourth, who escapes the clutches of an unworthy but wealthy woman, has the moral strength one can admire.

To my mind, that’s what counts. Wicked wealth has wicked consequences, yeah? Yeah. Showing not telling.

Austen’s reputation can need rescuing from her fans, too. Also in Mansfield Park is the single bawdy remark in the Austen “canon”. It is disputed.

Mary Crawford and her brother Henry come to stay in the parsonage of the Bertram estate. They had been living with their retired admiral uncle but he installed a mistress in his home after his wife died and it was no longer seemly for respectable people to stay. Of course not!

Mary and the second son of the family, Edmund, flirt. She is worldly where he is not, having been in company of seafaring men who evidently have very different ideas about what is acceptable discourse, and she tells Edmund so in the following passage:

Of various admirals, I could tell you a great deal; of them and their flags, and the gradation of their pay, and their bickerings and jealousies.  But in general, I can assure you that they are all passed over, and all very ill used.  Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals.  Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough.  Now, do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.

This is a very clever way of showing worldliness. Mary shows that she knows what “rears and vices” together mean while giving herself the ability to deny it. A surprising number of attempts to exonerate Austen (and in the process Mary) by Austenphiles seems to me to fail, though it is true that it is easy to be anachronistic. But hey – in this case, it’s what it says on the tin.

Austen puritans allege that their darling was highly moral and would not have written this with sexual intent. One counter explanation is that it refers to flogging, because buggery was a capital offence at the time, with more hangings for it than murders in the navy, while flogging was legal.

That won’t wash really. If flogging was meant, why was it a vice instead of a punishment? Unless. . .but that would never do. And if there were more hangings for buggery than murder, it just might be because there was rather a lot of it about. It would certainly be the occasion of jokes then as now. Austen had relations who were admirals and may be assumed to have a good knowledge of salty talk. She does not shy in Mansfield Park from writing of adultery, or in Sense and Sensibility of fornication.

And her purpose in this passage is to show a low character as Mary turns out to be. Austen is not approving of buggery any more than she is of adultery by Mary’s brother, or fornication by the jilting beau of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility.

And and and! there must have been some purpose behind burning Austen’s letters and papers after her death. Her tongue was sharp and she may have had rude things to say about powerful people^^^, but she may just as well also have peppered her private correspondence with sauce.

Rule on, Saint Jane.

*Alcestis has been rendered into English by Ted Hughes. It is truly frightening.

^This is a joke. If you get it, you know more about Jane Austen than I do.

** OK, OK. Just having fun.

***Twain enjoyed jousting with his admirer and good friend William Dean Howells (Howells aptly called Twain “the Lincoln of our literature”), who was also an admirer of Austen. Twain took a very pointed stick to James Fenimore Cooper, trashing him for stated literary crimes, but only fulminates over Austen. His tongue may have been in his cheek.

^^^See Wiki for an example of Austen’s kicking against the pricks by satirising the librarian of the Prince Regent, an admirer.



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Posted by on September 3, 2016 in Uncategorized


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Shakespeare to a T

Hello readers – it is fine but a bit windy on an autumn day in New Zealand, where I live. Wherever you are, I hope your weather is at least as fine.

My part of the universe is otherwise mostly OK too. Just now I am thinking and researching a new novel, while I try to persuade the part of the universe that is not my part to buy my latest one. And all the other ones. And even the ones people think I wrote but didn’t.

The new one has the working title of Lapchicken Rules, and the aim is to write something funny for a change. If I have a contemporary model in this, it would be Tom Sharpe. His best books are funny while retaining a serious – and even savage – purpose: witness The Throwback and The Great Pursuit.

Writing humour is not easy, especially at length. Some of my posts in this blog are meant to raise a smile at least but sixty thousand words or more of guffaws are a different matter altogether. And I do not mean just to be funny.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 masterpiece film, Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is a good example. This film starred Peter Sellers in three roles, including Dr Strangelove, an ex-Nazi physicist in a wheelchair who kept having to drag his arm down from a Hitler salute, the president of the United States, looking suspiciously like Adlai Stevenson, and an English flight lieutenant who almost but not quite saves the world.

It would be nice to digress here, so I will. Adlai Stevenson was one of many American politicians with an odd first name. You would think a weird name would tend to disqualify but it seems to have acted as a magnet for the bearer to wish to be President of the Yew-nited States! I mean, Adlai! Harry Truman you think was normal but his middle name was an initial – S. Lyndon Johnson may have put a stop to this agreeable tradition until Barack Obama, as all the Presidents in between have had normal names, if sometimes a bit boring and candidates with odd ones have gone south. I mean, would you want a President named Mitt? This is a baseball glove! Or Hubert? He lost to a Richard, who really was a dick. This election year has a Donald, a Marco, a Rafael (“Ted” Cruz), and a Bernard, but nothing like Dwight or Adlai or Ulysses, or Millard. Millard Fillmore! Wow! Adlai’s grandfather was actually Vice-President (1893-1897) so it wasn’t a handicap back then but it was in 1952 and 1956 against a Dwight. Dwight isn’t that great either so he called himself “Ike” to compensate for his surname being so long and German – Eisenhower.There is a musician whose surname was Dwight but he changed it to John. His first name was Reginald and he wasn’t too keen on that either and struck out wildly for a catchy “Elton”. Elton’s new middle name is Hercules. You probably already knew this. He doesn’t want to be President – or if he does, is  disqualified by being British. Is he resentful? Write him and ask.

I am back! If you are still here hope you enjoyed that side trip. Dr Strangelove was rightly termed a comedy of terrors rather than errors as Shakespeare had it. This was a film about the end of the cold war via meltdown, through a nutty American Air Force general who kept muttering about “precious bodily fluids” and sent his nuclear squadrons off to flatten the Commos. One does. End of film and story, and us!

Kubrick’s film is often very funny. It is full of gags – one liners it would be wrong to put here for those who have not seen the film.

My idea is to write something funny  like that, only different – of course. But just as brill.

Shakespeare as always is a kind of exemplar. The bard’s comedies are not necessarily all funny, and typically they have an underlying life-threatening premise. There are heaps of laughs but the characters may need death defying courage before they discover bliss and (usually) true love. As You Like It is how we like it! The more serious dramas, and tragedies, can also have humorous interludes that give point to the terrible events that surround them. There are, for example, quite a number of gags in Hamlet.

The storyline of the new one is not yet complete, and the research is ongoing and will be right through the final passages. But so far, it’s fun! Writing is not always fun, and the writing part quite frequently is as terrifying as it is satisfying – even simultaneously!

You could say that’s part of the point for a writer. My best prose – according to me of course – has given me goosebumps as I’ve written it, and repeated re-readings have still held that delicious frisson, if at a reduced rate. Sometimes this blog does that too and when a reader writes that s/he has laughed out loud at something, my anaemic chest swells with pride. “Not enough plumage, bird-brain” is my self-criticism, but I do it anyway.

So the adventure continues. There is a lot between here and there – characters ah “fleshed out”, storyline ditto, which includes place, time, duration of time, and lots more. . .but the idea is there and the premise. And I’m beetling on.

Thanks for reading.



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Posted by on April 17, 2016 in Uncategorized


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