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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.”

Well!

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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I want to tell you. . .

The title of this post is from a George Harrison song that had a very insistent beat. George, the best-looking Beatle in my opinion, wanted to convince people of things. He went beyond observation and statement. He really wanted to tell us!

That could be satire. On an earlier album, Revolver, he got stuck into the British government over its tax policies with “Taxman”. At the time the top marginal rate there was 95 per cent, and no doubt the Beatles’ advisors were hard at it avoiding that grim reaper. “If five per cent appears too small,” George sang, “be thankful I don’t take it all – cause I’m the tax man (yeah, I’m the tax man) and you’re working for no one but me.”

Once George got turned on to Hindu philosophy he went quite otherworldly for the most part, forgot about the tax man and kept badgering us about love, spending the rest of his life Hare Krishna bound. For me, this became a bit twee really, especially watching interviews with him where he was breathing spirituality through cigarette smoke. It killed him.

All the same, he had this message and he kept at it: “We were talking”, “While my guitar gently weeps”, “My sweet lord”. . .and that is admirable for its openness and its commitment.

I’m just not built like that. The stickability required for flower power and beads is absent. Sorry, life.

There is, however, stickability and stickability, and I’ve got some other forms of the stuff, even unto absurd proportions. For more than fifteen years I’ve been trying to make it as a novelist, in my own way, ignoring practically all advice including “you really aren’t very good at this are you, Steve?”

And I’ll keep going. There is something in me that makes me write – this kind of navel-gazing stuff, and fiction, and who knows what all.

Not only that, I want to be read! That may be an absurd proposition after all this time, but it is true. I’m not going to speak for other writers but for me writing carries with it that desire to communicate, if only to coax a grin or a tear on some far-away cheek, the belief of having something to say, about the world, about life as it really is and as it may be, about love and hate and all that amazing stuff that we fill it up with.

My latest book, The living end, is not actually – not the end for me. I won’t give up. This Don Quixote of the spiritual wastes has his lance and there is quite a beguiling number of windmills out yonder, waiting for me to tilt at them. And the pen as lance can be infinitely sharpened according to me. Tom Paine too. . .it really is mightier than the sword, even unto and after death.

My latest wheeze of attracting readers is to cut the price of my books, to the minimum allowed apart from giving them away: US 0.99. Yes, 99 cents – for you, dear reader of this blog! I’ll leave it it there I think. . .maybe a few of you decide to leap boldly with your credit card where you have not previously ventured. Go on – it’s ok. I promise. The worst that can happen to you is boredom.

Thanks for reading.

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Shaking our Willies

Esteemed readers! It’s not as it seems! Please! Relax! It’s going to be OK! . . .

It is 2016. It’s a big year. Immense. Really, I do mean this! It is a time travel spectacular in which millions of people will move backwards in their minds to London in the early 17th century, or even further, to the late 16th, or if they abandon all pretense, to some very old place like Troy, or Rome at the time Julius or Anthony or further, Coriolanus, shook the earth with ominous tread.

They might even flip their inspired lids completely and lose every contact with any past or present reality and soak up the magic, the true magic, of the man who penetrated more deeply into and cut a wider swathe through the human condition than any before or since – William Shakespeare.

If you didn’t know that 2016 marks 400 years since the great one’s death well, you do now.

Actually, there is even more severance from reality on offer, given that there are more than a few who, seeing a man  identified on a theatre marquee as William Shakespeare, will transform him magically into another man altogether – Francis Bacon, say.  There’s a lot of it about.

Such a man as Shakespeare existed, these people say, but he was not the author of the plays. Some one else done them. A number of people have been put up as the real deal: Francis Bacon was the first*, and most notable. Bacon was, after all, a writer as well as a scientist and is known for a utopian novel. And as a crook – which he very definitely was – he had the devious mind required to secretly write some 37 plays,  many in collaboration with other conspirators able to keep their mouths shut, as well as poems galore. Bacon was even able to keep a straight face when the collected works were published in 1623 with a preface by a fellow playwright who said he “loved the man this side idolatry” and criticised his learning and some of his writing.

Bacon is not alone. What he shares with the other pretenders is what Shakespeare lacked: noble blood. It just doesn’t do for these people that a commoner, with “little Latin and less Greek” as Jonson put it, from a dubious background, could have learned the crafts and arts of literature and beyond, and swept all before him.

So far as I know no one has put forth the notion that a woman really wrote Shakespeare’s stuff but given the times…

These determined souls will participate in the proceedings of 2016 with the grim satisfaction that it was not at all Shakespeare. . .it was X, Y,  or Z. ..

They spout nonsense, as anyone who goes deeply enough into the works themselves will come to realise. There is also a wealth of material about the man that circumstantially boxes in the authorship so that it was that one – himself – and none other.

What is striking about the people who think they’ve found the real author is that they have in their minds someone who is not the man himself, and relate, as they must, to him. When they read or watch, they see meanings and nuance applicable only to this champion of letters.

The “canon” of Shakespeare becomes indisputably and irrevocably not just different in authorship, but in kind. It’s new work. Universes of interpretation open up depending on the author in question.

It is easy to smile at this kind of elitism. I do. See the post on this blog, “Charles’ secret spell on the throne”. Attempts to ennoble Shakespeare in another’s skin actually diminish him. Shakespeare’s genius rose from his common origins, his ready familiarity with the wide avenues of humanity thronging the narrow streets of London and wherever else he traveled. Of course he piled more onto his common upbringing with its “little Latin and less Greek” – a ready wit, an excellent mimicry, a terrific ear, and a creative spark that four hundred years later lights raging fires in the heart.

It is true there are those who don’t get it. They find Shakespeare boring, or worse – impenetrable. If you, dear reader, are among these, I wish for you to discover this amazing writer and embark on a journey that will tire you only at the end.

I cut my Bardo-teeth on Classics Illustrated, a wonderful comic book series for kids,so had an idea,  but didn’t then really get stuck into him until I was around 40. Then the magic hit.

The edition that did it for me was the Arden series, each play being given an entire book, with a good-length forward, notes on the text as it went along, and a sort of postscript of materials that Shakespeare used when writing.

And the Arden that was first off the rank for me was Frank Kermode’s edition of The Tempest. Now, I had seen this play a few times, and enjoyed it, but Kermode opened my eyes to a much bigger play than I thought I’d seen. The Tempest is a multifaceted marvel. It canvases classical (or “pagan” meaning Greek and Roman) lore and symbolism, the emerging colonial empire of Britain, voyages of discovery, the “noble savage”, racism,  magic, philosophy, morals, and more, all while providing a masque for the aristocratic patrons of Shakespeare and his company, including James I (who began his royal career as James VI of Scotland). Even tiny sidelights can have an abiding significance for me, as for example the model for Prospero, the “white magician”** who is the centre of the play. See my post “Storm splashes out of teacup, washes over saucer, stains tablecloth, trousers and reputation”, which attempts to show that the magus is based not on the Englishman John Dee, a contemporary of Shakespeare, but Giovanni Pico dellla Mirandola, a Renaissance philosopher quite a long time dead.  The title of my post is misleading in that I don’t have a reputation to stain, but it is my proud footnote to the play and the Bard, and so far I’m sticking to it!

That is just one play! And while it is taken to be Shakespeare’s crowning achievement by many, there are heaps more to behold in wonder. The great tragedies – Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear – comedies like Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Midsummer Night’s Dream, the “history plays”. . .one Arden argues that Shakespeare conceived an eight-parter before writing  King John through Henry IV one and two, Henry V, Henry VI in three, ending in Richard III. That’s amazing to me. True, he had a ready source in Holinshed’s Chronicles, but even so. . .he didn’t find Falstaff in Holinshed, and even the historical characters in the series get a life they surely did not live through the quick quill of the man from Stratford.

Diligent followers of this blog – that’s you, isn’t it? – will know that the play that most gets me going is Troilus and Cressida (see the post “Toiling with Troilus” in case you have forgotten). It has so many mysteries attached to it – starting with the conundrum of whether it is a tragedy, or a comedy, but there is much, much more to that astonishing  play. . .give it a try. . .with the David Bevington edition.

Whatever I write, there is more to Shakespeare. So many facets to behold, glittering jewels turned this way and that. When Ted Hughes wrote Shakespeare and the goddess of complete being he mounted an argument about 14 of the plays. – just over a third of his dramatic works that have come down to us – that is in itself a marvel of imaginative argument.

So what I would like is for the entire planet to get as turned on, as transfixed by Shakespeare as I am over this “festival” year. It won’t happen, but I’d still like it.

For those who do discover, or rediscover, or just keep discovering the amazing qualities of the man and through him his times, his contemporaries, the reality of living then and living today, all masks for the reality and meaning of life itself, this will be a supercharged  year. Each of us will have our special Bard, the one who belongs to us and no one else, and hence – you’ve been waiting, haven’t you? and here it is! – the title of this post. Whatever your gender, your age or your interests, you will have your own personal Willie the Shake. We may learn much, have our idea of Shakespeare transformed, ah, “shaken”, but  down in the part of our souls where we hold tight to our hard-won understandings and insights, this man remains ours alone.

Thanks for reading,

*There is a chapter on the authorship question in Bill Bryson’s popular biography that is worth reading.

** During the Renaissance a distinction was made between black magic – evil, evil, evil – and its opposite which was practised for good.  This distinction enabled philosophers like Pico to delve into these arts, but authorities were always on the lookout for the horned one lurking behind the exalted claims.

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Nike says so – what are you waiting for?

Hello again – yes, dear reader, I seem to be firing at will. There are reasons for this, not least because I am trying to convince you if you are not already convinced, to read my latest offering, The Living End, and even to go on to read others in my “writer’s stable”. There is a bunch – something for anyone! No horses though – not the right sort of course.

There is another way of looking at this, which is that having finished a book and “got it out there”, that I no longer know what to do with myself, so am resorting in desperation to blogging it up large.

In my more intimate moments, when I am reproaching myself for so many things unsuitable for family entertainment, I admit this to myself.

This time, I have a slight excuse. Next week, March 6 onward, there is a “read an e-book week” promotion. The publisher of my titles, Smashwords, is taking part in this, and as a gesture of gratitude and hope I have put some of my work on special, mostly free.

Now, I have a Kobo, and when I don’t read e-material on it, I make do mainly with my PC, which has a programme called Adobe Digital Editions that gives a book the look of a book.

However, a friend and Shakespeare scholar a while back gave me some heaps for praising e-readers like the Kobo and Kindle. He denounced them as doomed technology.

His reasoning was and is that the single application of these devices -reading – means they will be killed off by multipurpose items like iPads and their clones. I have to admit there is something in this, especially given that you can’t read an art book on a Kobo as it is black and white.

That said, I have a Kobo and  do not have – nor do I want – an Apple anything. And I like it. If suddenly I became wealthier than all my tribe through the sale of say a million or two of my works, then I might “cogitate over its veritability” as a song almost goes.*

Then I will be able to report back on the inestimable advantages of the iPad or its equivalent. Try me.

Meanwhile, you can do worse than rise early on March 6, flex your mouse-tickler, put on those Nike trainers to be sure, and get a passle of free e-books. Whatever your pleasure in e-reader, or e-book, you can take advantage.

Here is a link:

https://www.smashwords.com/ebookweek

Enjoy.

Thanks for reading

*”That’s when I’ll come back to you” by Frank Biggs, as recorded by Louis Armstrong. It’s a very amusing song despite some of the implications not quoted here. This is definitely not bad: “When box cars are flying around/and blue turns to brown/then I might abandon the canyons of my mind/and soar into the air. . .over you/darling, you fake.” It also says, “you lost… a gold mine, a silver mine, a cobalt mine, when you lost me.”

Well, Louis could say that, but I can’t.

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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You don’t wait ages for a post, and then. . .

. . .two come along in short order. Dear reader, how nice it is of you to pop along again after so brief a break.

If you have been reading my blog with the attention you surely have been paying to it, you will know that I have been slaving away on a new, apocalyptic novel, trying to beat the end of it all as threatened by practically everyone everywhere who has a grudge, and there are quite a few of those.

As I write, the Russians are bombing away in Syria hours before a ceasefire there. Whether they will stop is moot. The US Secretary of State, a man with hair that will go down in history as “muss-proof” if there is a history, says that if the Russians break their word – surely, they would never do that! – things will “get uglier”. How things can get uglier in that horrible war is hard to imagine, bu I guess they can.

Anyway I managed to complete my novel about the end of the human race before it actually self-destructed in five seconds like the tape in Mission Impossible,with Peter Graves*, and it  is now available. Smashwords, the e-publisher, offers it for the generous price of US$2.99. The title is The Living End.

Reader, it would be great if you read this book. I don’t want to spoil your pleasure even a tiny bit, if pleasure  is the right expression, and won’t tell you any more about it.

What I will say is that while good  writing is always hard, this book was enjoyable to write. As my own worst critic, I think it is well-written too. There is more though – there are “technical aspects” that were difficult to work out but exciting in the end. My aim, apart from providing a good read, is as I set myself when I first started out – to fulfill a serious purpose in a frivolous genre.

Put another way, I’ve got some sneaky bits in there.

One of the books that has influenced my writing is Ted Hughes’ Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. Among other arguments in that strange analysis of a cycle of Shakespeare’s plays, Hughes claims the great man wrote partly in a secret code, that there was a surface story that anyone could get, but that within that story were coded references to another, deeper theme, that were addressed to the members of an elect group. What’s more, this theme could even contradict the surface yarn. This idea is quite interesting and even inspirational, and with some of my books I have tried very hard to make this work, though the elect group in my case self-selects as readers who get it.

The Living End has that, or is meant to. Perhaps it’s too obvious, or so subtle no one can pick it. I wrote the thing so I can’t tell really.

Anyway give it a burl and see what you think.  In your millions! It’s ok! I don’t mind – honest!

*Peter Graves was the bad guy in Stalag 17, the Oscar-winning prisoner of war drama. He was also the brother of James Arness, who starred in Gunsmoke and appeared in it over an astonishing length of time. Arness was very tall – 6’7″ in old style measurement if memory serves me right – so during the D-Day landing in WWII was given the task of jumping out of the landing craft to see how deep the water was. How Arness must have loved his commander! He was wounded and ended up back in the US having surgery, and was released from hospital in Iowa City, Iowa on the day I was born there. You read it here first!

Arness’ role as “Marshall Dillon” in Gunsmoke was mocked in another TV western, Maverick, starring James Garner. Garner went on to star in the prisoner of war film to beat them all, The Great Escape, slyly erasing Arness’ brother’s dubious claim to infamy. Conspiracy theorists – don those tinfoil hats!

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Thorstein Veblen hates my lawn

Hello there readers -I began this post on a cool fine day where I live in New Zealand, having just emailed my new novel to what are called “beta readers”. These are people who are meant to read your work and if you are lucky, savage it so that you can make it good or at least improve it, rather than totally embarrass yourself. Partial embarrassment is better than total embarrassment apparently.

“Why Steve your left ear is red!”

So I was waiting with the proverbial breath for their verdicts and comments.

While doing that, I mowed my lawn. When I do this steam percolates from my spirit into the ether and adds to the planet’s global heating misery. My unhappiness at mowing sends me to thinking about Thorstein Veblen and how he would sneer at doing anything at all relating to a lawn.

If you don’t know about Thorstein Veblen you can do worse than slip out of this wee blog to Wiki and have a read. What a dude!

Veblen came to the world’s notice with a book, Theory of the Leisure Class, and it was a cracker. He wrote heaps of other books but none of them has ever had the cachet of that one. Its significant contribution was to consider our modern society in the same light as one would consider a tribe of jungle dwellers. It was both hilarious and embarrassing at the same time. No one can read Leisure Class seriously without feeling very uncomfortable. The things we do! The habits we have that we think are “cultured”  are explained by Veblen in ways that are at once convincing and devastating.

Veblen coined a number of expressions to colour in his thesis, the most famous being “conspicuous consumption”. The idea is that people with real money – the leisure class not needing to work – are compelled to show off their wealth by spending what they don’t need to spend. While others might decry the waste involved in this, as if it is accidental and inefficient, Veblen realised that the waste was the point.

Turning his exacting eye on fashion, he traced the evolution of the bustle of his time from a wee bump on the bum to an exaggerated promontory capable of hosting a luncheon by the unfortunate wearer’s companions. This article actually created new architectural features in homes so that the bustler could get from one room to another.

The point of this torture device was to display to any and all the fact that the wearer did not need to do any physical work. The woman was thus a symbol of the man’s wealth, and an appendage to him, like something in a museum. And to show that a man had more of everything than a rival, the bustle needed to be a bit larger, and then a bit larger still, until finally. . .*

Tribal people use similar devices to make women of the wealthy and powerful immobile – for example by putting gold necklaces layer upon layer around the unfortunate woman’s neck until she cannot move, thus showing how much wealth the owner (literally) possesses, making the female a sort of display cabinet, and a challenge to a rival: If you want the gold, get the woman. Or die.

Veblen didn’t stop there. He argued – persuasively say I – that the waste of the leisure class was emulated by those beneath them, who couldn’t actually afford waste, but could manage to represent it. Workers’ cottages, to take another example, could have little pointless features like wrought ironwork over the porch, serving no purpose but display. Clothing was similar – if  a man couldn’t afford to have his wife immobilised all the time, perhaps she could be movement free some of the time. And if that wasn’t possible, how about putting something on the clothing that showed the desire to do it, or at least to waste something, somehow. . .

Once seen in this way, fashion becomes completely new. To be fashionable involves being wasteful. Pointlessness is the point!

The women among my readers may wish to reflect on the otherwise pointless decoration of their underthings. I have asked a large number of women if they wear “frilly knickers” – they do, and they don’t really know why until there is a discussion about dear Thorstein.

Veblen’s insight is at best a  guilty secret in the fashion world. His name is never mentioned by those supposedly in the know about this exotic arena. The “experts” have probably never heard of him, or of Quentin Bell, the nephew of Viriginia Woolf who wrote an admiring account of Veblen’s fashion expose, On human finery.  But once you, dear reader, know the truth, looking at clothes will never be the same again.

Veblen wrote at the time of a global revolt by women against the slavery of their clothing. The “rational dress” movement punctured the fashion balloon, but society’s unending demand to keep up with Mr and Ms Jones won out. . .today, our clothing is more reasonable if not rational. Women still however imprison themselves in bizarre contraptions, especially for “special occasions”, when they adorn themselves in ways that are pointedly pointless. Men are less susceptible to this demand but still affected. The time when men and women wore very similar clothing – a kind of dress that went down to the ankles, as in renaissance Italy – has gone, though it may return. Nonetheless, for men the point of “formal wear” is partly that it is uncomfortable as the “need” to wear a tie in many occupations attests. “I am doing this to show that I am willing to humiliate myself to be here.” The tie is now thankfully in retreat.

Where was I? Ah yes, my lawn. For most people, the lawn is something that has always been there, a bit of grass surrounding a house. This is a  delusion. The lawn is a relatively recent invention and the man responsible, or most responsible, was one Lancelot “Capability” Brown. Brown was an 18th century landscape architect who transformed the British sense of space with close to 200 estates and parklands. Many of these still exist. Working for the new rich of his time, whose wealth included landed property, he produced the wonderful “natural” and graceful vistas we associate with Jane Austen novels and films.

Brown was a genius and his gardens beautiful. He cannot be held morally responsible for the ripple effect that created, for example, the grass around my house that I have to mow when it gets too long. But it is his doing. Brown’s wealthy patrons liked these vast open spaces that showed they did not need them. By the time they arrived at my humble cottage on the edge of the central city of Palmerston North, New Zealand, they no longer are vast, not spacious, but very definitely pointless. They show, that the occupant – myself – has the time, the energy, the equipment, and the self-abasement to cut it.

Veblen’s sneer is justified. As I push the mower along, I ponder, every single time, what I can do to avoid this humiliating extravagance. I would like to put the whole thing into shrubs producing fruit, and just may. Sadly there is a kerbside border belonging to the council that I will not be able to do that with, but the rest.

Meanwhile as I go along I still beat myself up, thinking of Veblen and my own miniature replication of conspicuous consumption. One day: cranberries. Or something. . .

Thanks for reading.

*An adjunct of Veblen’s analysis is that a fashion trend starts small and gets extreme before collapsing. The bustle reached extraordinary size and then disappeared. In the 1960s the miniskirt became very, very mini before dropping down to the ankles. Bell’s account says that we are fortunate to live in a time where fashion is less demanding and people can wear what they like more or less. There is definitely something in what he says.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on February 25, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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