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If you accept that loneliness is the great existential terror that we all, in our different ways, try to escape, it isn’t hard to apprehend the fraught relationship that this gives us to our own bodies, because it’s our bodies that keep us so basically and dreadfully apart. It’s interesting to note how often words used to express the value of literature (or art more generally) conjure up kinds of immaterialism: ‘seeing the world through different eyes,’ ‘being transported’, forging a ‘psychic connection’ with the author, ‘losing yourself’ in a book – all of these are expressions that run against what seems to be the brute material truth: that we are locked inside our skulls.

There was a time there where I could not have a conversation about books with a stranger at a party say, without them launching into a speech about how amazing Atomised by Michel Houellebecq was. This became increasingly annoying for me because these ‘fans’ seemed unable to describe exactly what the appeal of the book was. They were astonished by the sense of shock that the writer had elicited and sometimes a conspiratorial feeling of belonging to a fellow-traveler – yes that is how the world really is – but both of these reactions seemed entirely self-directed. My conversational partners were unable to enlighten me as to why I should read the book too. I suspect fans of Portnoy’s Complaint were similarly cultish back in the day, but that was another time and polite conversation so firmly stratified, that the risk Roth-fans ran of offending was far greater. By the late nineties this was less of a concern.

Ben Jeffery tackles the meaning behind Houellebecq’s writings head on, placing the fictional exertions of the French literary enfant terrible within a far broader context  in order to draw out exactly what the egotism of the author is aiming at. In effect, he has done a massive service to a writer occasionally dismissed as being a reactionary whose deconstruction of modern society as being nothing more than a series of sexual power exchanges lies somewhere between Foucault and a depressing Carry On.

Instead Jeffery runs the gamut from Schopenhauer to David Foster Wallace to properly situate the likes of Atomised and The Possibility of an Island, revealing that Houellebecq is investigating the relevance of any literary action at all. Engaging in fiction is in and of itself an ephemeral act, itself an echo of how we attempt to escape our own sense of mortality. What is most worthwhile about Anti-Matter is that Jeffery does not fall victim to the typical trap of Houellebecq critics. This is an intellectual salvage operation, that avoids rampant speculation about the personal life of the headline-bating writer, not to mention the rancorous testimonies of the author’s own mother.

What I am saying is I am grateful someone finally took the time to try and explain the point of Houellebecq to me. I have not had an easy time with the writer’s work myself. I thought his essay on Lovecraft bitterly disappointing for one, but Jeffery cites it prominently in Anti-Matter. The New England fantasist’s own ‘depressive realism’* is tied into Houellebecq’s, both arguing that life is essentially pointless. The latter’s own jaunts into sf utopias demonstrates his continuing interest in using imaginary worlds to illustrate how incomplete, fleeting and immaterial the engagement humans have with reality is. Fiction/fantasy are decadent acts that in Houellebecq’s assessment squander what is vital about life itself – hence his obsession with sex – but Jeffery’s astute addendum is that whatever sense of truth, or engagement with our existence that we enjoy is equally a ‘lie’. Realism is concerned primarily with seeming real and Houellebecq’s pessimism punches through the nadir point to the ‘truth’ – we need the lies.

Ben Jeffery has produced not only an excellent critical assessment of Houellebecq’s writings, but a fantastic think-piece in and of itself, refining the intentions of his subject, as well as opening up this erudite discussion of art to the act of living in the world.

With thanks to Zero Books for my review copy.

*Excepting your occasional ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn – of course.

Anti-matter: Michel Houllebecq and Depressive Realism

The common factor linking Blair and Blur is that they made thoroughly sure to get their sell-out in first, to make perfectly clear that the dream was over, that there would be no more experiments, no more utopias, only a constricted, and as the still-unfolding financial crisis makes clear, utterly misnamed ‘realism’. The generation that came of age in the mid-late 1990s were perhaps the most apolitical of the 20th century. leaving a mess which those born in that decade are struggling to clear up, through the student movement against the Tory-Whig Coalition government – whose Prime Minister, a fan of the Smiths and the Jam, displays impeccably Britpop tastes. Pulp were alone at the time in holding onto the possibility of utopias and alternatives, in being able to use the world ‘socialism’ without smirking – although they didn’t create an alternative so much as carry the idea through a most unsympathetic period.

I have a memory of an Irish Times music journo summing up the Blur versus Oasis pop rivalry with, and I am obviously paraphrasing here, ‘while both sides fought over chart positions it was Jarvis on his push-bike who swooped in to steal the crown’. I was a fan of Pulp‘s music (I am horrified to discover having followed that link that I just missed their Sydney gig), both due to the catchy songs as well as my own contrary desire to stand apart from the mainstream taste-setters. Of course Pulp were not exactly underground, although following Jarvis led me to the amazing Oedipus Schmoedipus album by Barry Adamson, so I am grateful for that.

Owen Hatherley makes it quite clear early in this work that Uncommon is not intended as a prosaic discography – or even a biography of the magnetic Jarvis – intead it is an account of the band Pulp represents, the contrary associations it projected against the background of New Labour and Britpop at its height, an uncomfortable reminder for this narrow politically-minded  subset of public school demagogues and PR denizens that Britain’s class culture was far less bucolic than their press releases would have the public believe. Damon Albarn’s mockney facade is here twinned with Blair’s ‘yeah yeah yeah‘ deceptive superficiality.

The 90’s were awash in a pre-packaged faux nostalgia for previous periods – the mono-cultural setting of Britain’s past cited in order to eclipse its multicultural present; the fashions and empty rebellion of the sixties stripped of any political comment. Even Northern rockers Oasis were at it, Noel Gallagher’s lyrics summarising the druged up euphoria of rave culture, but weighed down with post-Beatles musical ballast. Pulp, Hatherley argues, instead situated their music and lyrics in the band’s experiences coming up in the politically marginalised urban environment of Sheffield, with the promises of reform and social improvements made during their childhood repeatedly betrayed.

The evolving abilities of Jarvis Cocker as a lyricist is also examined. The song ‘My Legendary Girlfriend‘ released in1990 is liberally quoted from, demonstrating the singer’s talent not just at evoking a time and a place, but in telling a story. As the band progressed Pulp’s lyrics became decididly risqué, with Jarvis casting himself as a suburban lothario, an insatiable in his pursuit married women instead of the teenage girls that populate the chart ballads. Black humour becomes more prominent in the music, with an evident desire to expose the listener to a rage of emotions beyond simple titillation and yes, even expose the political hypocrisy of the era. One find of Hatherley’s in particular is the little-known, bombastic b-side Cocaine Socialism, a blistering indictment of New Labour.

Of course singles like Common People and Disco 2000 (which I recall Jarvis blithely revealing in an interview he wrote to secure royalties for the Millennium) from the best-selling album Different Class launched the band into a difficult period of fame, confounding their attempts to use it to their own ends. The decline of the band is treated as a further opportunity to describe the frustrations of the neo-liberal 90’s and early 2000’s, as much as result of internatl pressures as it was their failure to be pidgeon-holed by the music industry.

Hatherley has produced a perfect tribute to Pulp and the time that produced them as a band, invoking the sincerity of their ambitions as musicians and story-tellers. This account of their career is an excellent excoriation of Britpop and New Labour hagiographies.

With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.

Take us out Mr Cocker

Uncommon by Owen Hatherley Zer0 Books

 

Lint’s first novel was published by Dean Rodence’s Never Never company in New York. The relationship between Rodence and Lint was one of complete mistrust, rage and bloody violence. When submitting work in person, Lint insisted on appearing dressed as some kind of majorette. ‘He was a large man and clearly wasn’t happy at having to do this,’ explains Fleece. ‘He blamed Rodence, was resentful. I still don’t know where he got the idea he had to dress that way when handing his stuff in.’

Some months ago I reviewed a book by Steve Aylett titled Only An Alligator which I reported left my brain melted, as I was reduced to moaning softly on the carpet.

Obviously I had to come back for more.

Lint is the biography of a eccentric science fiction author named Jeff Lint, detailing his career writing for pulp magazines such as ‘Startling, Astounding, Baffling, Useless and Terrible to his abortive animated show Catty and the Major and finally his retreat into reclusiveness, interrupted by the occasional obsessive fan. Steve Aylett describes the circumstances surrounding the conception of novels such as One Less Bastard, The Stupid Conversation and I Blame Ferns, as well as his controversial comic book The Caterer.

Aylett also discusses Lint’s series of failed marriages, including one union which collapsed when a presumed facial scar belonging to the author was revealed to be a sleep-crease and then there’s his fractious rivalry with fellow author Cameo Herzog, who goes out of his way to destroy the career of the bemused Lint. Success came tantalisingly close for the writer. His forays into entertainment produced scripts that eventually became Patton and Funny Girl - although the final screenplays were entirely different (George C. Scott is revealed to have been quite fond of Lint’s original piece Kiss Me, Mister Patton) He had less success with Star Trek, deciding to emphasise the essential boredom of Gene Roddenberry‘s future utopia with an episode titled The Encroaching Threat. While the teleplay was never filmed, Aylett shares with readers some highlights of the script including:

For the duration of ‘The Encroaching Threat’ the new character Chekov is said to be ‘flirting with McCoy’ and Sulu is repeatedly seen ‘lurking’ near a doorway while ‘sinister theramin music’ plays.

As it happens this book has been made into a film, a documentary in fact on the life of the mysterious Lint, with the likes of Stewart Lee, Jeff Vandermeer and Alan Moore appearing to discuss the legacy of the author. Here‘s one of the teaser trailers released.

This is possibly the funniest book I have read in….it’s the funniest book I have read! Jeff Lint is part Philip K. Dick, part L. Ron Hubbard, with a couple of other parodies thrown in to the mix as well. Aylett’s insistence on the writer’s genius, investing great meaning into his every utterance such as this line from his autobiography The Man Who Gave Birth To His Arse: ‘What I wrote then was a surrender to the bathysphere part of the human mind. Despite platitude universes beyond the door, I dealt in squalls of unimaginable intensity. I was in the fully-fledged moment. Happy and volatile, I roared through the labyrinth of bad gems,’ - making for a very amusing, neat satire of academic overanalysis. 

One final story. While I was enjoying Lint on the train home from work one evening this young woman across the aisle started loudly conversing with a friend on the phone. I very quickly knew more than I cared to know about her social life, her education and opinions on said friend’s intelligence – so I, in turn, began to read from Lint, loudly and clearly, declaiming Aylett’s absurdist wonderland to the carriage at large.

I still maintain that my obnoxious performance was the more entertaining of the two.

Read Lint. It’s good.

Lint by Steve Aylett

Strapped on, wheeled out, forklifted, locked

In position for the drive,

Bone-shaken, bumped at speed,

The nurse a passenger in front, you ensconced

In her vacated corner seat, me flat on my back –

Our postures all the journey still the same,

Everything and nothing spoken,

Our eyebeams threaded laser-fast, no transport

Ever like it until then, in the sunlit cold

Of a Sunday morning ambulance

When we might, O my love, have quoted Donne

On love on hold, body and soul apart.

Seamus Heaney? Oh it’s on now. I haven’t forgiven you yet, you vino voleur, you grog guzzler – I will have my vengeance!

‘cough’

And yet – when I read the poem quoted above, titled Chanson d’Aventure one of the early entries to this collection, I could not help but remember my father back home in Ireland. That frustration with wanting to say what is on your mind, but incapable of giving expression to these thoughts due to physical infirmity. Heaney’s words are instantly evocative for me of witnessing my dad’s irritation at his condition. The poem itself refers to the writer’s own stroke in 2006 (I just wasted ten minutes searching the Irish Times website to find mention of this. A golden goose for whoever can find it for me).

I should not be surprised really. A lot of Heaney’s work conjures up images of an Ireland I know, instantly familiar and well realized here through verse. The title is take from one of the poems collected here, which is dedicated to Terence Brown and describes the action of passing ‘bags of meal‘, along a line of aid workers. In this moment the individual becomes a part of a chain of humans, united in a rare moment of communal activity. The work is true, the goal worthy, allowing the insecurities and seperateness of the individual to vanish. An annihilation of self that he suspects can only be equaled by death itself: “A letting go which will not come again/ Or it will, once. And for all.”

My favourite poem from the selection here is The Conway Stewart, a beautiful transformation of a new pen into a living creature, an ally for the poet to help in the composition of future works:

The nib uncapped,

Treating it to its first deep snorkel

In a newly opened ink-bottle,

I am also fond of An Old Refrain which contrasts the ordinary English words for countryside fauna with the local idomatic descriptors of Heaney’s Northern Irish childhood.

Where I start to look in askance at the page is the later poems referring to the Aeneid and provincial French poetry. On the one hand I admire the effort to place poetry drawing a connection between Irish countryside life with Provence, but it is not an association that comes naturally. For one the poet mentioned here Eugène Guillevic seems like a more natural companion to English masters like William Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy. Peppering verse with different French words does not help the attempt at solidifying the connection between Ireland and the Continent. Ireland is part of Europe, but I feel as if this attempt to be more European only succeeds at turning a blind eye to life in my homeland. I am reminded of John Banville‘s early attempts to be a more European author:

“So I decided, with no cosmopolitan experience, to turn myself into a European novelist of ideas: Banville, the modern European master. I was young. I was reckless. There are people who tell me they think Doctor Copernicus and Kepler were my best books, but I feel now that in those novels I took a wrong direction, that I should have done something else.”

Even that famous neologism of Ireland’s most famous literary expat James Joyce – ‘riverrun‘ – appears in the poem Colum Cille Cecinit. Joyce is literary Ireland, but how many of the Irish have read Ulysses, or even A Portrait of an Artist As A Young Man? Perhaps that is an unfair question, but it played on my mind when reading some of these poems. They seem isolated from life at home.

Yes the material is familiar to me and I do not think Seamus Heaney could fail to evoke strong memories of home and the past if he tried, but I suspect for me it is not enough.

 

And so the blog, like its name, is a mongrel. Its genes come from a long lineage of campaigning reporting and old Fleet Street hackery. But it also contains the DNA of an entirely new breed of “citizen journalism” – researching, publishing and marketing from the kitchen table. The question remained: could a blogger with no investigations budget, no marketing spend and – at the beginning – precious few readers ever have any influence? Can journalism take place without a newspaper?

Yesterday I was privileged to have the opportunity to interview John Pilger, currently promoting  his documentary The War You Don’t See. The film itself is fascinating, featuring previously untelevised footage of armed conflict (and the aftermath) in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. Above all it presents an impassioned argument defending the integrity and necessity for investigative journalism. Disillusionment with corporate takeovers of media outlets and political analysis that is openly partisan have led us to the era of Wikileaks, where raw data has replaced the function of the journalist, or the broadcaster who can be trusted to relay the news to the public.

It is therefore serendipitous that I should pick Brendan Montague’s book to read today, with all these thoughts about freedom of the press and the proliferation of political propaganda in recent years bouncing around in my head. Montague was a former Fleet Street journalist who started his own blog in lieu of approaching sundry defanged newspapers with his hat out looking for a job. Unlike many other bloggers he had the training and discipline from working a newsroom desk and doorstepping sources. Another distinguishing feature of his blog, The Sauce, was that it came from a leftist perspective, freed from the politically right drift of the mainstream press (or the likes of Guido Fawkes in the blogosphere).

Ultimately what Montague is describing in this collection of pieces previously featured on The Sauce is quite similar to Pilger’s argument in his latest film – the complete collapse of journalistic objectivity. However, The Sauce embraces the opportunities offered by this abandonment of unbiased reporting in the press, by releasing critical articles that are not above suggesting how Friedrich Engels could apply to global warming for example. Montague found a curious freedom online that was denied to him by the compromised paper and ink brigade.

Many of the items featured here identify stories that were either ignored for being considered too sensitive, or were not treated of enough. The Global Financial Crisis, rather than ushering in an opportunity to review from first principles the circumstances that had led to disaster, instead was used as a smokescreen to justify massive cut-backs and lay-offs of staff, all the while continuing with the same methods of profiteering that led to the crisis in the first place. Then there was the disturbing resurgence of support in Britain for the BNP. Montague contrasts the macho posturing of the party and its leader when delivering racist screeds against immigrants and naturalised Britons, with his reaction to an organised protest of his policies witnessed by the blogger: Nick Griffin, who has denied the Holocaust and wants a white-only Britain, was ashen faced. There was terror in his eyes. He quaked like a child.

He describes how the death of Ian Tomlinson, who happened to be walking past a protest rally, would have been spun with the full co-operation of the mainstream media as the result of ‘mob violence’, where it not for the intervention of a witness on the scene who just happened to film the event and released it. Another piece reveals how former MP Tony Benn was himself questioned for possessing a camera, under new anti-terrorist legislation. The threat of citizen journalism has made all civilians possible targets for questioning.

One major story that happened to involve Montague personally was the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. Currently still on-going, with many who are suspected to have been involved still in the clear for now, Montague’s own story was hacked while he was in the process of negotiating the sale of a story. He concludes that the phone hacking is a consequence of the lowered standards of journalism, as a result of staff-cuts and the neglect of sources. In lieu of working to prove a story, newspapers would rather violate privacy in order to secure a front-page.

A Year on the Sauce presents a politically astute and informed perspective on the threats facing legitimate journalism today. A refreshing and inspired critique.

With thanks to Zero Books for my review copy.

 

The Camino is full of strange and wonderful experiences, and this is just another one of these moments. I’m not known as someone who bestows blessings on strangers, or one who appreciates poorly made timber products for that matter. But here in Spain, these things become so much more than just superficial. Somehow I catch the emotion behind what I see, the true spirit behind the words, and in this case, the actions, and it seems to make all the difference. Things become vibrant and the world becomes alive.

The second time I came to Australia, I thought of it as my great adventure. I had travelled around the world in pursuit of a relationship, leaving family, friends and employment behind. It was a big risk. So when my relationship with Stephanie continued to grow from strength to strength and I had successfully established myself in Sydney, I really thought that risk had paid off quite nicely.

Then two friends of mine announced that they were climbing to Mount Everest base camp. Suddenly my grand adventure seemed little more than a exchange of one homogenous environment for another, my lifestyle just a generic middle-class wage-slave existence in a metropolitan city.

One of the great pleasures of writing this blog is that occasionally I get to share in someone else’s adventure, read their thoughts and feelings while undertaking incredible challenges.

Brad Kyle explains in the book’s opening the circuitous journey taken by the eventual inspiration that led to him setting off along the Camino trail in Spain. Initially he learned of the pilgrimage trail from an anonymous girl one summers day in London, who introduced him to Paulo Coelho‘s The Pilgrimage. Following the death of his father eight years later, Kyle is reminded of that happy evening when he encounters a second book – Shirley MacLaine’s The Camino – A Journey of the Spirit, which finally sets him on the path to Santiago.

Between jobs, feeling adrift and in possession of some savings, Kyle flies from Melbourne to London and then across the water to the eventual starting point Saint Jean Pied de Port. Suddenly conscious that he may well be unprepared for the road ahead – the foul weather, steep terrain, blisters! – he also becomes acutely aware of just how alone he is, having set himself the challenge of marching across two countries over a period of five weeks.

Physical discomfort and the vagaries of hostel curfews aside, Kyle soon begins to get the hang of life on the pilgrim trail. Initial fleeting encounters with fellow travellers soon grow into genuine relationships. The spectacular scenery and encounters with some local animals – at one point Kyle gives a silent thank you to Dr. Harry for his advice on greeting horses – soon dwarfs the aches and pains. There are even stirrings of romance. In effect, this is a story of one man’s rediscovery of what makes life worth living.

Kyle describes his journey in a very personable and thoughtful manner. Often his reminiscences are grounded in terms that can be easily understood. For example he has a tendency of comparing certain experiences to popular films, such as Finding Nemo, Men in Black and Amelie.

In fact the style of writing here is deeply personal, with the emotions described obviously keenly felt. At times it reads much like an attempt by Bill Bryson to rewrite Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. The travelogue has moved on from overtly literary fare designed for the consumption of 19th century high class salons, evolving into personal accounts leavened with a lot of humour. I had a strong sense of familiarity while reading Memoirs of a Pilgrim – it felt as intimate as reading a friend’s blog on some far-flung adventure.

This is a touching, heart-felt and engaging story of an incredible journey through a timeless landscape.

With thanks to the author for my review copy.

One of the reasons the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the middle class struggles in debt is because the subject of money is taught at home, not in school. Most of us learn about money from our parents. So what can a poor parent tell their child about money? They simply say “Stay in school and study hard.” The child may graduate with excellent grades but with a poor person’s financial programming and mind-set. It was learned while the child was young.

Yesterday my friend Dan and I were approached outside of Central Station in Sydney by two college students. They asked if we were free to answer a few questions on record. We agreed and they asked us a series of questions alluding to the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. At first I could not understand why our replies were exciting the two so much. Each question was a variation of the same one, whether we would holiday in New Zealand due to a cheap economy following the earthquake. We answered that we would, in order to help the business and community in New Zealand recover.

When the interview was concluded one of the students said “if only we could get ten more like you”. Turns out most people were stating that they would visit New Zealand purely because of the cheap air-fares.

Rich Dad Poor Dad is not just a single book explaining the importance of financial awareness. It has blossomed into a mini-industry, a franchise managed by co-authors Kiyosaki and Lechter. However, all I knew about this book before this afternoon was that Will Smith really admires it.

‘cough’ Occasionally I have watched an episode of Oprah.

The book opens with an introduction from Lechter, explaining how she met Kiyosaki, a guru of finances and entrepreneurship skills. Confusingly the book’s opening, and much of the novel, features extended dialogue sequences with teenagers and children speaking in quite a verbose manner. This confuses me as the whole style of Rich Dad Poor Dad is to present a series of educational fables, supposedly drawn from ordinary life and yet the ‘characters’, speak in this stilted prose.

Kiyosaki is the ‘son’, of this rich dad – a mentor figure who instructs him in the finer points of capitalism – and the poor dad – who is his biological father, financially crippled due to his public servant mentality. The one father-figure advises pragmatic individualism, the other reliance upon the state, or pension funds, or health care. When presented with a choice between which philosophy he will adopt, Kiyosaki of course opts for the ‘rich dad’. He learns the value of a good day’s work; that schools do not educate students to become dynamic leaders, but unimaginative employees; that the most important thing in life is to learn how to make money work for you and not the other way around.

When Kiyosaki’s biography approaches the present day, rich dad drops out of the story. We learn that his own father was eventually fired from his government job and embraced trade unionism itself, but died with personal debts. ‘Rich dad’, created a vast business empire, which he then passed on to his son. Kiyosaki explains how he has become a public speaker and an educator, attacking the archaic educational systems in public schools for failing to prepare students to cope with the real world.

I was left immensely conflicted by this book. On the one hand I absolutely agree that schools should teach more to students about balancing cheque books and managing debts. On the other this ‘rich dad’, figure seems like a hybrid of Uncle Tom and John Galt. Government is depicted as the source of all evil and taxes a conspiracy theory designed to exploit the middle classes and the poor. In effect the poor dad is a straw man for Kiyosaki’s argument, a target for a series of rebuttals to any residual socialist principles in the American bureaucratic system.

I am a former art student and tax worker. I imagine Kiyosaki would have me burned at the stake.

This book suffers from the same blinkered perspective as A Colossal Failure of Common Sense. The world desperately does not need more ‘Bill Gateses’, more rich dads. It needs folk who are dedicated to the principles of a shared society if we are all to survive. The corporations had their shot with a deregulated world economy. It crashed. Lesson learned – if only.

A false dichotomy of greed.

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