Friday, 4 April 2014

Vendertag, avril 4, 2014

Chiera a bonny tag. Molty bonny! Vadded a' Canterbury nellamattina do Deal, y guarded lay molty persones in Canterbury - italiano, franchesci, germanian. Io speso la plupart della tag nella bibliotechno do ey ledged l'Economist, TLS. Het - la bibliotchno - no avo The New Statesman or The Spectator - pur la seconda

Monday, 24 March 2014

in The Catholic Herald, February 21, 2014


Laughing aloud

Patrick West doesn't know whether to laugh or cry at The Smiths' lead singer's autobiography


Autobiography
By Morrissey
Penguin Classics £8.99

Even before most people had read Morrissey’s autobiography, it had caused a stir, owing to Penguin’s decision to publish it as a Classic. How could the musings of a mere pop star be placed in the same category as Virgil and Homer? While Penguin tried to pass it off as a literary joke, others weren’t convinced. Morrissey, lead singer for the seminal 1980s group the Smiths, is notorious for his sense of self-importance. He is a legend in his own head, and like all divas, he is surrounded by acolytes who cater for every whim and fantasy. “Penguin Classic” indeed.

Steven Morrissey forged a career singing about loneliness, alienation and despair - a famous Smiths songs is called Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now - so one might expect Autobiography to read like the diary of maudlin, bookish teenager. In this department, it does not disappoint.

“My childhood is streets upon streets upon streets upon streets. Streets to define you and streets to confine you, with no sign of motorway, freeway or highway,” it opens sonorously, like an aspiring T. S. Eliot. He morosely depicts the Manchester of his youth, “where aborted babies found deathly peace instead of unforgiving life”, peppering his prose with alliteration and rhyme, writing of “shells of shabby shops” and “glamour and clamor” (he insists on American English spelling throughout).

From the outset, it‘s clear this isn’t to be a regular self-aggrandising autobiography or a misery memoir. One of his teachers, Miss Redmond, “is aging, and will never marry, and will die smelling of attics”. He is confronted by Vanessa Redgrave, who “goes on about social injustice in Namibia, and how we must all build a raft by late afternoon - preferably out of coconut matting“. Bad artwork for one of his album covers was “enough to have made van Gogh chop of both ears” (he also insists on italics for emphasis).

Elsewhere, Julie Burchill arouses “loud yawns of national disinterest“, while Sarah Ferguson is the “overly untalented… Duchess of Nothing”, an ungallant if irrefutable observation. When and old friend Simon Topping appeared on the cover of the NME he exclaims: “I died a thousand deaths of sorry and lay down on the woods to die.” I found myself laughing aloud uneasily at these passages, unsure whether Autobiography was adolescent dross, something close to genius or some meta-ironic joke going over my head.

Perhaps it‘s because Morrissey is so candid and lacking in self-censorship. Morrissey decided to drop his first name, Steven, because “classical composers were known by just their surnames, and this suited my mud lark temperament quite nicely.” He knows that he’s seen for his “intolerable egocentricity and dramatized depression” and strikes back by announcing early: “Naturally my birth almost kills my mother, for my head is too big.”

Autobiography is thin on details and chronology, and he tells us little about the music that made his name. His bitter, whiny, self-pity and ingratitude can be grating, and a braver editor would have cut the tedious court struggle that mar a solid fifty pages towards the end. And the only genuinely conventional passages are those in relation to his Irish-Catholic background. “Catholicism has you tracked and trailed for life with an overwhelming sense of self-doubt”, he laments, as many have done before him.

Yet the memoir is genuinely affecting in parts. His friend, the singer Kirsty MacColl, died in 2000 in a boating accident in Mexico, after he had urged her to go there. Morrissey’s palpable feeling of guilt is compounded when he receives from her a posthumous postcard. “I cry myself blind for yet another lost friend“, he writes, and you believe him. Upon the death of his aunt Rita, he reflects with some profundity: “I shall catch up with you in the afterlife, and if there is not to be one at all, then neither of us shall be alert enough to be disappointed.”

Morrissey - blunt, queeny, self-absorbed - has by accident or design created an absurd, brilliant and disconcertingly hilarious memoir. It’s like reading the diary of a teenage Alan Partridge who wants to be Oscar Wilde. It’s probably the best and worst book I read in the past year.


in spiked, February 19, 2014

 

It's mental to give 16‑year‑olds the vote

Sunday, 16 February 2014

in spiked, February 10, 2014

 

An Englishman speaking Dutch? Dank u wel!

in The Catholic Herald, February 7, 2014


The Victorians era had its share of Russell Brands

The Victorian age was stuffed with eccentrics touting counter-cultural creeds, says Patrick West
 
Victoria's Madmen
by Clive Bloom
Palgrave MacMillan, £20


The Victorians were prudish in their morals, solemn in their temper and adherents to order, progress, Church and Empire. Or so the caricature goes – the one created in the 1920s that persists to this day. Popular wisdom still has it that they were a stuffy lot and the word “Victorian” continues to be pejorative shorthand for dusty and sclerotic.

The 19th century was, however, also an era of great turmoil. Most of us know about the rise of the conventional popular ideologies of democracy, nationalism, imperialism and socialism, but this was also a time for more fevered counter-cultural creeds. Communism, anarchism, feminism, the occult, environmentalism, exoticism and mysticism: all jockeyed to capture the imagination of those who sought not to improve the world but to re-imagine it. 

Structured in a series of mini-biographies, Victoria’s Madmen seeks to illustrate “the imagination of a generation bored with inertia and complacency”. It features familiar figures as Oscar Wilde, Karl Marx and Arthur Conan Doyle, alongside lesser-known characters such as the painter-madman Richard Dadd, the occultist Aleister Crowley, aspiring messiah James Jezreeel, the worshippers of Pan and the Latvian anarchists of London’s East End. The book is a cross between a Daily Telegraph book of obituaries and the Fortean Times.

What’s so striking here is how Victorian society, particularly at its dawn and tail end, resembles our own. We live in a time of deep introspection, one consumed with identity politics, “personal goals“, “self-esteem”, the number of “likes” and “retweets” on social media and the Selfie. We are reminded that the early-19th century was also a period for self-reflection, if not sheer self-obsession. The Enlightenment had promoted the autonomy of the individual through reason. But after Napoleon, this begat the narcissism of the Romantic era, the “disease of self-expression, individualism” so exalted by the poets. This spirit led Coleridge to oblivion. “I was heart-sick and almost stomach-sick of speaking, writing, and thinking about myself.” he lamented in 1804, describing his descent into opium addiction. The Marquis de Sade was another consequence of the “Byronic personality which … had unwittingly discovered the path to hell alongside the path to heaven.” 

While we associate the mid-Victorian period with scientific and industrial progress – Darwin and Brunel – “the last two decades of the 19th century was both a period of intense complacency and intense doubt.” There was a feeling that the price of industrialisation had been man’s soul. The “back to the land” movement of the 1880s was one consequence. In his book Merrie England (1893), Robert Blatchford imagined a return to primitive socialist values. He wanted to “restrict our mines, furnaces and chemical works … stop the smoke nuisance … Then I would set men to work to grow wheat and fruit and to rear cattle and poultry for our own use”. He was kind of Victorian George Monbiot.

The late 19th-century and Edwardian era of nostalgia and escapism gave life to the folk music movement (with its Morris Dancers), the cult of Pan, paganism, nudism, occultism, Futurism and Imagism. 

It was the paradoxical time of Jekyll and Hyde, when even Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, that arch-sceptic and rationalist, could be an ardent Spiritualist. It was a time of country house decadence, champagne and drug addiction. Rather than being an age of calm and progress, the late Victorian era was one deeply uneasy with itself. Society, wrote G K Chesterton, was “plunging deeper and deeper as in a blind spiritual suicide”. People were turning inwards, regressing. “Pan represented to many late Victorians and Edwardians a dream of social escape and personal release, expressed sometimes as a return to magical thinking and sometimes as a rush towards sexual excess and free love,” writes Bloom. Like Russell Brand, Victoria’s madmen believed society needed a spiritual revolution and, more portentously, that it was decadent and in need of cleansing.

With its centenary approaching, much has been written recently about the First World War, whether it was just and who was to blame for it. Revisionists are keen to question the consensus established in the 1960s that it was a futile war of lions led by donkeys. Historians such as Max Hastings maintain that imperial Germany was itching for a fight. The truth, as Victoria’s Madmen reminds us, is that by 1914, there was a widespread belief in Europe that “the old world must be blown up to be born anew”. Everyone in 1914 was eager for conflict. “We wish to glorify War,” the first Futurist manifesto proclaimed, “the only health-giver of the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive arm of the Anarchist, the beautiful Ideas that kill”. The Irish poet revolutionary Patrick Pearse believed “bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing”, while according to Bloom, Gerard Manley Hopkins believed that “to die young and beautiful was better than to die old and decayed”.
 
Bloom concludes: “By 1913, the idea of violent insurrection and war would be the rhetorical position of almost all advanced thinkers, their imaginative metaphors filled with crusades, apocalyptic violence and images of heroic death.” Only after the trenches, after the gas attacks and the Somme would heroic death lose its mindless, romantic allure.
 
Victoria’s Madmen is a fine achievement, if somewhat cramped. I would have preferred a deeper focus on fewer characters. Nonetheless, it is a engaging read and a cautionary tale for our times. It’s a reminder that the most dangerous revolutionaries are those with full bellies and empty heads.

in spiked, December 18, 2013

Mandela v Thatcher: the mourning wars