You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future, by Jonathon Keats (OUP, 2016)

Keats Jon (2016)

Fuller is intriguing and Keats’s account of him brisk and enjoyable, but it slightly lost focus as it went on — or perhaps it found a different focus from the one it started with. After a brief biographical introduction that notes the extent of Fuller’s self-mythologization, the core of the book consists of six chapters exploring themes that Fuller himself was intrigued by: mobility, shelter, education, planning, environment, and peace. By the last two, Keats freely wanders away from Fuller’s actual works and instead gives considerable space to more recent projects that have parallels to what Fuller envisaged. In the last of these chapters, which considers strategy games and simulations, Fuller is a marginal presence.

Keats writes crisply and punchily, like a good long-form journalist, though it felt as if the writing were looser by the end. It’s surprising, indeed astonishing, that there are no illustrations. I guess any likely reader of this book knows what a geodesic dome looks like, but I’d have liked a photo or a diagram of his Dymaxion vehicle, for instance.

Virginia Woolf, 28 November 1916

On 28 November 1916, Virginia Woolf began writing what is now chapter XV of her second novel, Night and Day.


The chapter falls in the part of the novel where the main characters take a Christmas holiday in Lincolnshire. As is clear from the manuscript (the original is held in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library), in her first conception of the novel, Woolf imagined it being set on the border of the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. This was a part of England she was much more familiar with than Lincolnshire: in 1906 she had stayed at Blo’ Norton in Norfolk, and the imaginary place-name Disham probably derives from Diss, which is only 6 miles away.  At one point in the published text, the minor character Henry Otway is described as occasionally giving violin lessons to someone in Bungay (in Suffolk), a journey that would be probable if he were starting from near Diss, but much less so if he were starting from somewhere near Lincoln, which is 99 miles away.

My scholarly edition of Night and Day, due for publication in 2017 as part of the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Virginia Woolf, provides a full account of the novel’s place names and topographical idiosyncrasies.

Grant and I, by Robert Forster

Robert Forster’s memoir of Grant McLennan is a love-story, pitch-perfect in its telling of the story of their early years and of McLennan’s slow decline. Forster and McLennan were the two singer-songwriters in Australian band The Go-Betweens, active from the late 1970s until McLennan’s death in 2006. I’ve been fond of their best-known songs for a long time, but never an obsessive or completist fan, and so I might not be the target audience for the book; but the extract that appeared in Rolling Stone hooked me in.


What’s perfect in the early chapters is the balance he strikes between being judging the young Forster for his naivety, foolishness, and idealism, and presenting a sympathetic account. They arrived in London in 1979 without a clue about how the English music business worked: ‘We’d travelled sixteen thousand kilometres to advance the career of the band without bringing one telephone number.’ Forster never completely robs the young muscians of agency or intelligence, but he also gives a sense of how out of their depth they potentially were.

Throughout the book Forster is completely confident in his belief in the value of what the Go-Betweens achieved, and in the relative merits of their albums. Memoirs of this sort can sink into score-settling with critics and other musicians, but Forster has a settled and clear-eyed evaluation of the band’s work and complete confidence that the reader shares it.  He recognises that some albums suffered from the standard practices of the music industry at the time, and gives a very revealing account of the making of Spring Hill Fair at Miraval studios in the south of France: confident and subtle drummer Lindy being replaced by a drum-machine; the painstaking and painful recording process sucking out the band’s unity and spontaneity.  He’s also clear about the problem the band had in a market where most successful bands had a clearly identifiable front-man who would engage with the media and in other ways be the voice of the band: The Go-Betweens had two singers writing songs in distinct styles and singing them in very different voices.  Yet while he’s clear about these things, some things about The Go-Betweens apparently remain a mystery to him, as if the whole constituted something greater than the sum of its parts (as  is always the case with great bands) and he doesn’t know how it came to be.

There’s also an interesting double-vision about McLennan.  Forster and he worked closely together from first meeting in the late 1970s through to the split of the band in 1989; and again from 1996 to 2006, and in some respects Forster has great clarity about McLennan’s qualities as a person and as a songwriter. But as a person he was also profoundly private in some respects, and throughout Forster also conveys a sense of his unfathomability — ‘mystery’ would suggest that he was putting on an act. Forster never comes across as frustrated by this quality; he seems early on to have accepted it.

Even the most uncommitted of fans of the band will know, as I did, that McLennan died of a heart attack at the age of 48, quite unexpectedly, and this event hangs over the entire account, darkening every moment. Forster makes clear that McLennan wasn’t mentally or physically in good shape in his final years — in particular, he was drinking more frequently — but the shock of his death is still there.  The narrative of the final third of the memoir is shaped by a sense that Forster had left behind his wilder years, having been given a wake-up call by a hepatitis-C diagnosis and by meeting his wife Karin, while McLennan became the more reckless and wild one.

In spite of McLennan’s unfathomability, the narrative comes across as a platonic love-story from the beginning, and Forster hits the nail on the head in the closing pages. He reflects on the last time they spoke face to face, with no expectation that McLennan would die days later.  The last words were casual words, Forster having noticed a copy of the New York Review of Books in McLennan’s letterbox: ‘I’ll lend you some’.

I’ll lend you some.  Our friendship was grounded in that. And more often than not, the outstretched hand was his.  The first thing I gave him, I think, was the sight of a person he knew doing something artistically valid: playing ‘Karen’ in a Battle of the Bands competition, at a  very particular point in his life. He then did what I did — wrote and sang songs — and we created the most romantic thing two heterosexual men can, a pop group. Between us it was always an exchange, and his last words to me in person honoured that.

Although the memoir ends with McLennan’s death and funeral, and Forster doesn’t dwell on the loss, he is also moving in his account of it.

I found out that when someone dies the conversation with them doesn’t necessarily end there.  How can you listen and talk to a close friend, exchange songs with them, for almost three decades, for their voice to vanish in a moment?  There’s an echo. For four days I had Grant in my head.  It was as if an earpiece were plugged in, with him intermittently on the line.

I’m not sure Grant & I would appeal to someone who knew nothing at all of the band: it was particularly powerful for me because, when Forster discussed the songs that I know, they came back into my head; and so much of my reading of it has been mentally accompanied by ‘Cattle and Cane’ and ‘Bachelor Kisses’. But it doesn’t assume intimate knowledge of the band’s history or their songs; what matters is the relationship.

(To my great surprise, the book hasn’t been published in the UK, but it can be obtained through

Pretentiousness: Why it Matters, by Dan Fox

As soon as I saw Dan Fox’s Pretentiousness (Fitzcarraldo, 2016) I knew I had to read it.  I knew nothing about the author or the publisher, and it was entirely possible that it would make its case by being a prime example of its subject matter; the austere cover didn’t entirely dispel those misgivings.  But I like Brian Eno’s defence of pretension in popular music in his A Year: With Swollen Appendices, and was interested to see a more sustained argument. Recently I’ve contemplated writing about a band who were in their time described as ‘incredibly pretentious’, ‘stiflingly pretentious’, and — by one of their more sympathetic critics — ‘occasionally pretentious.’  I was interested in what might be said by way of defence.

Fox Pretentiousness

Pretentiousness is a book-length essay, and although Fox sometimes writes in ways one might associate with a more formal academic work (analysing ‘pretence’ through its etymology, for example), it’s always personal, exploratory, and unsystematic.  Fox’s prose is precise but never dry, and at times he is passionate in his defence of pretension.  He is eclectic in his range of reference, so that in the space of a paragraph he can go from a Fry and Laurie sketch, to a contemporary artist’s view of cubism, to a neuroscientist’s account of the cognitive demands of complexity and simplicity.  Summarised thus, the eclecticism might sound itself pretentious or at least ostentatious, but it’s never forced; it feels more as if he’s working quickly, resourcefully, and urgently with whatever materials happened to be at hand.

The core of Fox’s argument is that accusations of pretentiousness are closely linked to social class: ‘Used as an insult, it’s an informal tool of class surveillance, a stick with which to beat someone for putting on airs and graces’ (p.55).  In itself, that argument aims only to disarm the use of ‘pretentious’ as an insult, but there’s a more positive defence: that by pretending, by trying on costumes, we can grow as artists and/or as people. Fox is aware of how much informal education he received by listening to popular music and reading interviews with musicians:

Notes on the back of a Bowie sleeve could lead you to the Velvet Underground, its front cover to the German Expressionists, and for those growing up in the high modern phase of pop — roughly from the late 1960s to the early 1990s — a form of cultural literacy was nurtured through references found on album artwork or music videos.  These were spaces that encouraged curiosity, gateways to art, literature, radical politics, and cinema (pp.96-7).

I had similar experiences myself.  There’s a degree of nostalgic regret in this viewpoint, but it’s underpinned with a material analysis: that ‘high modern’ phase of ambitious popular music was sustained by the art schools; with their decline, and with the introduction of tuition fees, educational pathways have become narrower and less adventurous, more focused on instrumental outcomes.

Fox’s postscript takes a more autobiographical turn, which I liked, though my liking it was partly because his background and range of reference aren’t so far removed from mine: he grew up in Wheatley, ten miles from Oxford, and went to the comprehensive school there. He’s about nine years younger than me, so his description of Oxford in his early teens is the time I was there as a student in my early twenties; I’m not sure the students in VU-influenced striped tees, black jeans, winkle pickers and shades were quite so thick on the ground in Broad Street or even at the Jericho Tavern.

I like his defence of pretentiousness, but I wondered whether it extends to all forms of it, or to all — what’s the word? — pretentionists. He makes a good case for the defence of pretentiousness for someone from a working-class and middle-class background, but are there not also forms of pretension being practiced by the more comfortably off upper-middle classes, the trust-fund kids and the like, and would he wish to extend the same generosity to them?  Perhaps he would — it’s a generous book, one which makes a class analysis without any bitterness — and from a liberal point of view anyone’s right to explore unfamiliar ideas, identities, and forms of expression ought to be defended. Fox does touch on the pretentiousness of privileged kids slumming it (p.59), but that’s not the only form it can take; and there’s more to be said about the difference between pretension against a background of family wealth and pretension enacted without a safety net.  And there’s a whole other account to be made of pretension and gender: Fox is alive to the respects in which the accusation of inauthenticity sometimes carries overtones of sexual deviancy, but I wondered on finishing the book whether men are more often accused of pretension than women, and whether their accusers are more often male than female.

The Other Child (2015), by Lucy Atkins

Your fantasies of domestic and marital perfection rest on the flimsiest of foundations, subject to destruction at any moment by madness, deceit, revenge, and the emergence of hidden pasts.  This is the narrative burden of The Other Child, by Lucy Atkins, or at least part of it.  I was prompted to read it partly because Lucy chaired the discussion I took part in at the Oxford Literary Festival last year, and made the whole thing effortless and pleasurable when I’d been unconfident and anxious about it; and partly because I’ve been interested lately in reading works in a tradition of popular genres.  The novel’s online blurb categorises it as ‘psychological thriller’, which seems as accurate a label as one can hope for, given the difficult of categorising any literary work. It’s a novel about relationships too, so there’s an element of romantic fiction to it as well.

Atkins Other Child

The Other Child concerns Tess, a photographer, and her new husband, an American surgeon called Greg, and their move from England to a new house and a new life in America.  Tess has a school-age son, Joe, from a previous relationship, and, as we begin the novel, she is expecting another child.  Elements of the plot feel familiar from films: the perfect middle-class couple who move to a comfortable home but find things starting to unravel.  At first there’s a faint element of Gothic to it: Tess and Joe move into the new home before Greg, as he is busy with work, and the unfamiliarity of the new home is evoked powerfully.  Someone phones mysteriously but never speaks; Tess isn’t sure if someone is letting themself into the house and moving things around, and she doesn’t altogether trust their immediate neighbours. Unheimlich, but it’s not a haunted-house mystery.

Greg is a paediatric heart surgeon who has been offered a dream contract in Boston, Massachusetts.  I was concerned at his being given this professional role, which seemed the stuff of Mills and Boon (no-one ever swooned over a brilliant gerontologist, did they? and still less a proctologist), but Atkins avoids the sentimentality that might come with it: above all, the job means that Greg travels often, and comes home exhausted and can use his tiredness to avoid the difficult questions that begin to arise in his relationship with Tess; it also seems to inform his reluctance to have children, and his ambivalence about the child that’s on the way.  Greg has a secret in his past, or indeed several secrets, that he’s reluctant to talk about; Tess’s need to reach the truth is what drives the plot. As I don’t want to give too much away, I shall remain reticent about them myself.  The secret-in-the-past is a very familiar plot, and the particular form of Greg’s secret has well-known precedents in fiction and film; but Atkins handles it so that his secret comes across as personally his, and not one bestowed upon him by the genre; and, however far-fetched it might seem in real life, it seems entirely plausible in the world of the novel. It’s plausible in part because it’s emotionally powerful: it embodies truths about what we have to do to survive difficult circumstances and events, and truths about self-transformation and what it necessitates doing to your past.

Tess’s pregnancy is at the centre of the novel. It gives the narrative a very strong sense of the relentless movement of  time, and a strong sense of the stakes involved in the relationship. And — although biologically I’m really not qualified to make this claim — it’s brilliant at evoking the feeling of carrying a child, its constant movements and readjustments.  Atkins at time hints that the unborn child is responding to the increasing emotional turbulence around it, but at other times equally suggests that the child is in its own world and moving according to its own unfathomable logic.  Towards the end of the novel, when it has been born, and when Tess needs to drive through the snow to ensure Joe’s safety, there’s a curious moment when the calm temporality of baby feeding intersects with the urgent temporality of the thriller.  Atkins manages this without making either seem out of place.  Tess’s pregnancy and the new-born baby keep the novel grounded. And although the novel is often filmic, its descriptions of pregnancy would be very hard ever to convey adequately on screen: written narrative can convey bodily feeling so much more immediately.  Though the novel plays on our fears about the precariousness of our comfortable lives, there’s also a more optimistic side, and it’s connected to the pregnancy and the new child: there’s an authenticity in intimacy  that can survive disasters; the glimpses of love seen in someone deceitful might be worth holding on to.

(NOTE: When I was about half-way through the novel, I came across a 2014 article by Lucy Atkins in the Guardian about the family history that lies behind the novel, and its predecessor The Missing One; it’s a powerful piece of writing in itself (here it is), but I’d suggest leaving it until after you’ve finished The Other Child.)

Serendipity and literary research

The current official discourse surrounding scholarly research in the humanities is that it’s rationally controlled and highly focused: from the outset you define your research question, your research methods, your research context; and then you set about doing your work. There’s no room for chance or inspiration. I would agree that it’s crucial that we have some idea of what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and why. But the controlled and directed process of official discourse isn’t always the entire story. Sometimes more unexpected elements come in.

Notes and Queries have just published a short note by me, ‘Wordsworth’s 1802 “Preface” to the Lyrical Ballads and 1 Corinthians 15.53.’ It’s unlikely to change the face of Wordsworth scholarship, but here’s the core discovery. In the 1802 version of the Preface, William Wordsworth wonders about science becoming available to poetry:

If the time should ever come when what is now called Science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the Being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.

The passage in which this quotation appears became, by the early twentieth-century, a standard point of reference in discussions about the relation of science and poetry, and so although I don’t usually research on or teach Romantic-era writing, it’s long been familiar to me.  What I realised is that there’s a faint echo of a passage from the Bible. In spite of the efforts of the Church of England primary school I attended in the 1970s, I’m not deeply familiar with the Bible.  So how did I make the connection?


In January 2015, my partner and I decided it would be fun to start reading the same novel simultaneously, so that we could discuss it as we went.  We chose Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. The reading-in-sync project worked out fairly badly, as she’s either a faster reader than me, or she’s better at fitting reading into odd minutes of the day, or both; but I enjoyed Faber’s novel, read mostly on my Kindle or my phone late at night, and it led to my note on Wordsworth.  Faber’s novel is science fiction, of a sort, about Peter, a recovering drug addict who has become an evangelical Christian, who travels to a distant planet to spread the word to a race of hooded, not-quite-human things, the Oasans. The title of Faber’s novel is also their name for the Bible. At one point, speaking to the converted Oasans, Peter finds himself discussing what will happen to his body after his death.  One of the Oasans insists that Peter’s body will not die, and Peter uses a passage from 1 Corinthians to argue against them:

So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption‘, he recited, ‘and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting?  O grave, where is thy victory?’

This brought to mind the passage from Wordsworth in several respects, and made me wonder whether the ‘put on’ was an echo from Corinthians; and whether the ‘as it were’ was a way of hinting that this was a metaphor, and a metaphor about which Wordsworth wasn’t entirely sure.  It’s not just the ‘put on’: there’s the implication of a contrast between body and spirit as well, though Wordsworth’s use reverses some elements.

At this point it was possible to construct something more like the approved research model: I had a question (what is the relation of 1 Corinthians 53-54 to Wordsworth’s Preface?); I had a context (what has been said before about that passage in the 1802 Preface, and what has been said about Wordsworth’s knowledge of the Bible and Corinthians in particular?), and, as I decided early on that I only wanted to write a factual note, I had a method (stick to the facts).  But my larger point is that these kinds of textual echo are often discovered accidentally, and sometimes are discovered in out-of-hours reading. It’s possible to improve one’s chances of finding a writer’s sources, above all by producing a list of their known reading and working one’s way through it; I’ve done something like this in annotating Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day and in pursuing Hugh MacDiarmid’s sources.  But when you have texts accessible to memory (if not exactly memorised), then serendipity can should not be ruled out; and that means there’s a justification for activities that go beyond rational planning.

Beyond happening across relevant information, there’s another aspect of serendipity that might be beneficial. It struck me, writing the note, that many people with greater familiarity with the Bible must have read the passage in Wordsworth’s Preface and been in a position to note the similarity, and yet never did so. Why not? Possibly it’s because ‘put on’, even in such a relevant context, seemed too slight a similarity; but I wonder if they didn’t have the excitement of the unexpected discovery. Irrational though it is, the excitement provides an impetus to record the discovery.

[My Notes and Queries article is linked here, but I suspect the link will  work only if you or your institution have a subscription.]


Dirty Tricks (1991), by Michael Dibdin

Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks is a satirical thriller set in Oxford at the end of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.  Its narrator is a forty-something tutor at the Oxford International Language College, someone who by his own estimation hasn’t risen to the heights of professional or financial success that his Oxford degree had led him to expect. He’s a cynical malcontent, with a clear-eyed understanding of the mechanisms of social class and cultural capital. He embarks on an affair with Karen Parsons, wife of Dennis Parsons, the accountant for the language college.  There’s lust and covetousness involved, but little passion and no empathy. By the end of the novel, Dennis and Karen are both dead, and the narrator has fled to South America. (At a notional level, the novel is his account of events in response to an extradition request; there’s a slight framing narrative that consists of letters between diplomats).  The narrator describes himself in Thatcherite jargon, speaking of his belated conversion to ‘the doctrine of self-help and free enterprise’, but his knowingness about such things makes descriptions of him as a ‘Thatcherite’ reductive or at least inadequate to the complexities of the narration. When untrustworthy narrators define themselves as being this or that, you have to wonder whether they’re engaged in deception and/or self-delusion.  The novel was published in June 1991, and I imagine it was completed shortly before Thatcher was ousted as Prime Minister in November 1990.

I can’t remember where I first heard of the novel, but I think it was on a list of ‘Novels Set in Oxford’ (perhaps Val McDermid’s), and I was particularly interested because it was set in contemporary Oxford (as it was back then), and because it’s about a social world that’s not directly connected to the University. To be sure, the narrator uses University education (or its absence) to define and place the people he meets: as far as he’s concerned, there’s a divide between the materialistic characters like Dennis, and others who supposedly define their lives by reference to culture and ‘higher things.’  But the action is mostly set in the residential suburbs — Summertown, Divinity Road, Headington, and on a brief holiday in the Dordogne — and University people appear only in passing as socially difficult dinner-party guests.  Near the end, as the second of the deaths is reinvestigated, the narrator is called into Oxford police station by ‘Chief Inspector Moss, or some such name’: Moss is a ‘paunchy, balding bloke in is mid-fifties’, sitting at a table doing a crossword puzzle. As the narrator enters the room, ‘he started whistling a phrase which I recognized with some surprise as the Fate motif from Wagner’s Ring cycle.’  This joke — not at all typical of Dirty Tricks — reminds us that this is not, on the whole, the world of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse.

The sharpness of the narrator’s analyses of social pretensions makes him enjoyable company for a while, but the depth of his cynicism, and particularly the way it manifests as misogyny, makes him an uncomfortable companion. He dislikes Karen’s ‘Merseyside vowels’, he dislikes her botched pretentious taste; he doesn’t even find her physically attractive.  The affair is best accounted for using something like René Girard’s notion of mimetic desire: the narrator desires Karen not out of any fundamental romantic or biological urge, but because he wants to be, or be like, Dennis and the other materially successful men in the novel.  The affair makes sense at that level, but that doesn’t make the narrator a likeable person to spend time with. Moreover, as he becomes more preoccupied with the plot of his own devising, the narrator has less time to make the kinds of social observations that had made him initially interesting; or, to put it another way, the narrative no longer requires him to think that way.

The novel’s social observations are subtle enough to have survived. By 1990, there were plenty of stock characters available to a novelist wishing to write some sort of Condition of England novel about Thatcher’s Britain: in works such as Martin Amis’s Money (1984), Hanif Kureishi’s My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), or David Lodge’s Nice Work (1988).  It would have been possible to construct a plausible satirical novel that relied as much on recycled literary materials as it did on direct observation and original thinking.  By tying the characters to a particular part of the economy — language schools — characterised by short-term contracts, and their employment of tutors who are typically over-qualified for the work that they’re doing, and by their selling of the cultural capital that comes through acquiring the English language, Dibdin locates the novel concretely in Thatcherite Britain. The accountants and businessmen are types, and they drive the appropriate makes of car, but they don’t feel recycled.  There are also obvious risks in writing about Oxford, in that the place is over-layered with other people’s literary versions of it, but Dibdin makes it seem real: he makes the social distinctions between its different districts seem plausible, and the appearance of the city is never fetishized or employed merely for scenic effect.  It’s interesting to speculate how Dirty Tricks will look as a novel in ten or twenty years time: how convincing a portrait of the era it will seem, compared to other novels and films from the time.  (I was living in Oxford in 1990, and knew people working in the language-school world, so I’m also curious to know how it reads to people more distant from those milieux).  My guess is that it will stand up quite well; but the exclusive focus on the consciousness of the narrator, and the consequent flatness of the characters who surround him, particularly the women, means that it misses some of the complexity of the times.


Let’s Talk about Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, by Carl Wilson (33 1/3 series)

Carl Wilson’s book about Céline Dion’s Let’s Talk about Love is apparently the best-selling volume in the 33 1/3 series; of those I’ve read so far, it’s also the one that diverges most boldly from the usual parameters. Whether its success is because of its unusual approach, or simply because it’s about a best-selling artist, I don’t know; one would have to undertake the same kind of sociological survey of its buyers that at one point Wilson draws upon in relation to Dion’s audience.  My guess — by which I mean my prejudice — is that this sold to the usual 33 1/3 readership, and didn’t make great inroads into the Dion fanbase; but that’s just the sort of prejudice that Wilson seeks to examine.

Wilson 333 jacket

I was sceptical at first about Wilson’s style, and the way that he seemed to be stretching out relatively thin materials with verbal inventiveness; but I was gradually won over, especially by the ease and simplicity with which he applied Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas about taste to the question of why people identify with Dion and her music.  The sort of thing that annoyed me is best represented by the opening sentences of chapter 4:

Céline’s passage through the stations of Quebec’s fleur-de-lys-shaped cross, from shameful hick to emblem of national self-realization, tells one story about what Line Grenier calls the “usefulness of global pop.” But it explains less about the globalness of global pop; you could argue her rehabilitation at home reflects Quebec’s contentment to ride along with the steamroller of Anglo-American monoculture as it flattens the world, mowing down regional cultures like so many hectares of rainforest, clearing ground for a Starbucks at every river mouth and a McDonald’s at each desertified crossroads.  Indeed, being a stealth operative of globalization is the most substantial charge Quebec intellectuals still lay against her. (p.39)

I got the point at “Anglo-American monoculture”; the rest of that sentence is designed, if you’re charitable, to inflate the idea and make it memorable; or, less charitably, to pad out the paragraph to the requisite size.

The opening chapter begins very much in the first person, with Wilson recalling the 1998 Oscars, at which Dion was up against (among others) indie songwriter Elliott Smith in the Best Original Song category. Wilson’s extended account of that evening allows him to establish iconic representations of two major forms of taste in popular music: mass-market commercial pop, and self-consciously ‘minor’ indie work. The same Oscars also set James Cameron’s Titanic (in which Dion’s rendition of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ was featured) against Harmony Korine’s Gummo: again, mass-market vs. indie.  The rest of the book works to investigate why we create such oppositions, and to find a way of standing outside the reader’s presumed preference for the ‘elite’ segment of popular culture.

Chapter 2 offers more of an argument, an account of how taste is wrapped up with personal identity. Wilson is interestingly reflexive about how ‘difficult’, ‘underground’, and innovative music might signify: he admits that he prefers to write about ‘knotty music like art rock, psych-folk, post-punk, free jazz or the more abstract ends of techno and hip-hop’, and identifies his underlying justification for this preference in the idea ‘that “difficult” music can help shake up perceptions, push us past habitual limits’; in other words, though he doesn’t cite a theorist, the sort of justification for difficulty advanced by Victor Shklovsky in his essay ‘Art as Technique’ (1917). But for him, he realises, Dion’s music is more ‘difficult’ than any ‘postmodern noise collage.’  We might want to stop and ask whether those two kinds of difficulty are really the same, but Wilson strides over that problem, and launches himself into his ‘experiment in taste.’

Chapter 3 begins a strand in the book that considers the specifically Canadian aspects of DIon’s identity, and, within that, the the specifically Québécois aspects of it. Wilson outlines the division of the Canadian Francophone music market into ‘chanson’ (the more highbrow end) and ‘variety-pop’. International ignorance of Quebec means much of what Dion says doesn’t make sense to the outside world. North American cultural coding of music markets into ‘black’ and ‘non-black’ don’t have a space for Québécois.

Chapter 4, the one that begins with the overblown paragraph above, tackles Dion’s place in the international market.  Here, for a few pages, there is almost too much information, and too little digestion, as Wilson quotes eight accounts of Dion’s place in different national cultures from around the world.  I’d have welcomed a bit more analysis of the subtle differences between these quotations, but Wilson’s argument is that global hegemony is often complicated by creolisation: those in the Anglophone world who criticise globalisation presume that the world ‘will automatically become more like us‘ are betraying a chauvinistic assumption.  One version of the argument is that the music is consumed according to local practices, and the songs that become successful and for which the singer becomes known will depend on those practices; another version, which is relevant in Dion’s case, is that the global corporation selling her music will encourage her to record or re-work material for the tastes of local markets: she has approached Japan, France, and Latin America in this way.

‘Let’s Talk about Schmaltz’, the fifth chapter, provides some historical context for the American love of ‘parlor songs’ and other sentimental popular forms, with Charles Hamm’s study Yesterdays (1979) providing some authoritative support. It’s notable that these forms have often been associated with recent waves of immigrants, whether Irish, Italian, or European Jewish. ‘Céline Dion’s music and career’, comments Wilson, ‘are more understandable if she is added to the long line of ethnic “outsiders” who expressed emotions too outsized for white American performers but in non-African-American codes, letting white audiences loosen up without crossing the “color line”‘ (p.58). More immediate antecedents in the 1970s are found not in Barbra Streisand (too Broadway, too self-conscious), but in ‘the nostalgic showmanship of Barry Manilow or Neil Diamond’ (p.60).

Chapters 6 and 7 were less interesting to me: the first of them, ‘Let’s Sing Really Loud’, is about the bigness of Dion’s voice, and the troubling sense that there is no personality behind it.  In this, she may be contrasted again with Streisand: Streisand imposes herself on a song, while Dion appears to be the impersonal conduit for her material.  The following chapter is more theoretical, considering the apparent incompatibility of ideas of taste with ideas of democracy and popular satisfaction.  Vitaly Komar and Alexandir Melamid’s Painting By Numbers (1997) is Wilson’s key text here, with its hilarious statistical identification of the most popular possible painting, a ‘dishwasher sized’ picture of rolling hills, blue skies, and blue water (p.75).

Chapter 8 is where Bourdieu comes in explicitly. There’s a lovely concise analysis of the indie-kid cliché of ‘I used to like that band’ as meaning I used to like them ‘until people like you liked them’ (p.93): it’s all about differentiation of personal identities. I was also interested to read about Richard Petersen and Roger Kern’s idea of ‘omnivore’ taste, even if, on a little reflection, it’s only what Jean-Francois Lyotard had identified in the late 1970s as postmodern eclecticism: ‘one listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonald’s food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and retro clothes in Hong Kong’.  The upper classes, rather than adopting the taste position of the snob, are now eclectic; Petersen and Kern speculate ‘that the shift corresponds to a new elite requirement to be able to “code switch” in varied cultural settings, due to multiculturalism and globalization’ (p.96). However, cautions Wilson, no one is a true omnivore: to have taste is to exclude (p.97).  Your omnivorousness is thoughtless in its eclecticism, while mine is carefully ‘curated’; your code-switching smacks of desperation, while mine displays the approved brand of self-aware irony. Or so I like to believe.  The chapter ends with Wilson following in Bourdieu’s path and analysing a market-research company’s account of the demographics of Dion’s American consumers.

In the next chapter Wilson as first-person persona looms larger again, as he attempts to go beyond the abstract market-research statistics and meet some real Dion fans in Las Vegas.  (Dion had a show there for several years.) Tragi-comically, as soon as he’s arrived he realises he can’t go through with it, and he ends up making contact through the internet with a very small sample of fans. Most interesting of these, because the most self-aware about how her love of Dion didn’t fit her interests in serious literature and experimental theatre, was the fourth interviewee. Her lack of patience with the way that ‘indie’ taste is just as motivated by external pressures as mass-market taste is a particularly illuminating confirmation of the more theoretical arguments in the book:

“the concept of trying to know who the next-big-thing is just seems so difficulty and exhausting . . . And if someone goes, ‘You don’t like that, you’re not cool’, I’m like, ‘I’m not cool. That’s okay.’  . .  I’m fine with my obsession because I don’t think it makes me any less intelligent.” (p.116)

(One might remark from that last phrase that this is someone whose sense of distinction comes from her belief in her own intelligence and sincerity, rather than from her sense of ‘taste’ being important.) Likewise:

“I just don’t like being told what i want.  It almost comes full circle: People who go out of their way to make sure they don’t listen to anything mainstream, they’ve been told, ‘You’re supposed to like this,’ and then they’re like ‘I don’t want to like this.’  But then these people have their own ‘Celine,’ and everyone is supposed to like that.” (p.116)

What this also points to is that, if we agree with Bourdieu, having good taste was never really about the internal possession of good taste, and was much more about the public display of that taste, the making of statements (explicitly or otherwise) that would help to differentiate you from others.

Chapter ten considers cover versions of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ in a punk mode, and asks what such ‘ironic’ reworkings of a mass-market song do in terms of cultural value.  There’s a good account of the way that elite culture disdains sentimentality as the worst possible aesthetic sin, and a sceptical step back to ask whether within elite taste ‘subversion’ fulfils the same function as sentiment.  And he notes, following Thomas Frank (The Conquest of Cool) and Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter (The Rebel Sell), that ‘anticonformist impulses are the octane of consumerism’ (p.125):

The kind of change implored in the music of strident sarcasm — freedom, equality, less authority — aligns handily with a ‘new economy’ whose trade and labor market needs require a more ‘flexible’, mobile, multicultural social structure (pp.125-6)

In other words, the slogans of enlightenment modernity have been co-opted by a consumerist modernity.

Chapter Eleven finally engages with Let’s Talk about Love on a track-by-track basis, but not in the usual 33 1/3 mode of close analytical reading, but in the form of a review for a fictional music magazine.   Chapter Twelve turns to larger questions: about the different ways that we might love music, and about the tragic decline of what Richard Sennett terms ‘public man’ (in a gender-inclusive way): we don’t have a democratic public realm: what Wilson means by democracy is not ‘a limp open-mindedness’ but ‘actively grappling with people and things not like me’ (p.151).

It’s often the case that a good 33 1/3 book sends me back to an album to listen to it again; ideally I hear things that I’d never heard before, or appreciate it with a new depth.  That was never going to be the case with Let’s Talk About Love. Not just because I have never knowingly heard the album or any of its songs, but because the object of the discussion isn’t so much the album as the things that surround it.  For all that Wilson engages with schmaltz and the distinctive qualities of Dion’s voice and her readings of established songs, it’s not the musical fine detail that he wishes to discuss; rather, it’s the fine detail of the social processes that shape her reception. Books in this series that focus on context at the expense of the music can be frustrating, but in this case Wilson’s approach has created a fascinating survey of the production of value in modern popular culture, and a good introduction to Bourdieu for a general readership.

A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting, by Richard Burton

A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting (2013), by Richard Burton


I’ve finally caught up with Richard Burton’s biography of poet Basil Bunting (1900-1985), published two years ago.  It’s a hefty, generous biography: generous in the length of its quotations from never-printed, rarely reprinted, and otherwise difficult-to-obtain materials; generous in providing both a biography and a series of critical readings, in the old critical-biography mode, and indeed a fairly detailed account of the critical reception of Bunting’s books; and generous to Bunting in — unlike many classic critical-biographies — not judging him or offering any overt interpretation of his character or his behaviour. If there is a covert interpretation of the life inscribed in the narrative, it’s the well-known one: that he was neglected for much of his lifetime and redeemed by the composition and publication of Briggflatts. It’s also seems to be implied that, until the Second World War, Bunting as man hadn’t completely come into adulthood, and that he was transformed by his wartime roles and responsibilities. A moment in Bunting’s mid-teens, when he threatened to leave the Quaker boarding school to which he had been sent, becomes a kind of reference point for later self-destructive moments, but only in the vaguest of ways: Burton is reluctant to interpret what was going on in Bunting’s faintly angry, frustrated, and mildly paranoid teenage outburst, so while the later episodes are similar, the narrative repetition doesn’t  amount to interpretation of the poet’s psyche or to narrative patterning.

All that is good. I enjoy reading biographies, but I worry about the distortions that they involve in order to create a compelling narrative, and I worry about the marketing-driven need to have a major new revelation (usually sexual) to offer to the world, around which the narrative must then be shaped.  Bunting’s teenage crush (or whatever it was) on Peggy Greenback, and his being reunited with her 50 years later, offers potential to create that kind of biography, but Burton doesn’t over-work it.  (In the Literary Review, Matthew Sperling drew attention to Bunting’s relationships with teenage girls, and Burton has responded briefly on the Infinite Ideas website about the difficulty of interpreting what was going on.)

Burton can get away with writing a biography without an overbearing interpretation or narrative line because Bunting’s life is itself full of interesting developments.  His Quaker-inspired opposition to the First World War is moving and fascinating.  His adventures in Persia are sometimes hilarious — I’d previously heard the one about his joining a mob who were baying for his blood — but Burton also conveys Bunting’s love for the country and its culture.  Bunting’s contempt for a southern English political and cultural establishment is a consistent connecting thread.

Generous = Hefty

Generous = Hefty

Burton can also get away with it because Bunting himself is such a vivid and at times hilarious teller of his own life. As Burton acknowledges, Bunting the anecdotalist at times seems to have taken a leaf from the master of unreliable memoirs, Ford Madox Ford, who was briefly his employer, so the record may well be exaggerated and in other ways distorted, but the stories are consistently engaging.  As well as being sceptical about the written record, Burton is alert to the theatrical elements in Bunting’s self-fashioning, especially late in life when he was able to play the role of Grand Old Man and Last-Living-Modernist. But his scepticism isn’t pushed into the position of reductive debunking.

If there’s a weakness in the narrative, it comes in the post-Briggflatts years, from 1966 to Bunting’s death, where Bunting himself seems to have begun to believe that his best years were behind him, creatively, and where Burton cannot find, or is unwilling to impose, any other narrative shape. The narrative can only be one of waiting for death; or, worse still, waiting for death while being forced, through financial necessity, to take a series of visiting professorships at universities. This phase is kept lively by Bunting’s contempt for universities, north American Creative Writing programmes, and the Arts Council, but by the late 1970s even those possibilities have evaporated.  Burton tends to flit around more freely in his source materials, so that a 1983 letter to Jonathan Williams will be followed by one from 1973 to Hugh MacDiarmid (p.488) (and of course, between those two letters, MacDiarmid had died, so that Bunting’s remarks about having ‘just’ written to MacDiarmid, when ‘just’ might seem to refer to 1983, is momentarily disorienting.)

I imagine most readers will come to this biography because they already know and love Bunting’s poetry. Reading it is no substitute for reading the  poetry, and only in small details does the biography (as distinct from Burton’s critical discussions) illuminate the poetry.  But Bunting is an intriguing character, and, by standing at one remove from him, quoting generously and framing documents sensitively and sympathetically, Burton allows us to reach our own conclusions.