Virginia Woolf in recent novels

26 March 2015 was the centenary of the publication of Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out.  That’s an extraordinary and disconcerting fact for me.  In so many ways she still feels so in touch with modernity, and not just an abstract ‘modernity’ that you might read about in a textbook on modernism, but our observable, lived modernity.  But at the same time, there are things in her novels that feels as if they come from another world.  Her works are not unique in this: modernist writing and culture can seem simultaneously contemporary and antiquated.  Daring adventures in fragmentation and self-consciousness: contemporary.  Hierarchical ideas about race, class, and gender: antiquated.  A conception of modernity and the modern city as an endless flux of bodies, vehicles, and information: contemporary.  Actual pictures of London in 1922: horse-drawn carriages and men loafing in straw boaters.

Two recent novels take Virginia Woolf as a central character, and this, along with other novels that adapt her work — Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Robin Lippincott’s Mr Dalloway, and Gail Jones’s Five Bells — suggests that there might be a continuing relevance in her works, or a continuing viability in the tradition that she represents, or something about the woman herself that is interesting.  What might it be?  The two recent novels are Maggie Gee’s Virginia Woolf in Manhattan and Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and her Sister.

Gee Maggie jacketParmar P jacket

The scenarios of both are relatively simple to describe; the interest lies in their tone and in other aspects of their handling.  In Maggie Gee’s novel, Virginia Woolf reappears in the present day, in the Berg Collection of New York Public Library (where many of Woolf’s diaries, letters, and manuscripts are held), and latches on to Angela Lamb, an English critic and novelist who has gone to New York to research Woolf’s papers.  Angela has to help Virginia through her sometimes shaky transition into a new life into our modern world; Woolf comes across like a much-loved but eccentric elderly relative who can provoke delight and anxiety in rapid succession in those charged with looking after her; Woolf’s enthusiasm and curiosity come across.  Eventually Virginia and Angela travel to Turkey, where Angela is due to speak on Woolf at a scholarly conference.  Meanwhile, Angela’s feisty and hard-to-impress teenage daughter Gerda has run away from boarding school and followed Angela to New York, only to find that her mother has already left for Turkey.

Priya Parmar’s novel fictionalises the period of Vanessa and Virginia’s life from 1906 to 1912: the core of the narrative is the disruption to the sisters’ relationship caused by the death of her brother Thoby Stephen and by Vanessa’s marriage to Clive Bell soon afterwards; and then the further disruption caused to Vanessa’s marriage by Clive’s infidelities, particularly the close relationship he struck up with Virginia; and then the happiness that came through Vanessa’s relationship with Roger Fry.  As the title suggests, the story is told primarily from Vanessa’s perspective, in what is ostensibly a diary form, though interleaved with Vanessa’s diary are letters between other members of her circle.

There are all sorts of great and admirable things happening in both novels.  Gee’s is the easier read: its narrative form is simpler, both in the sense of the straightforward rhythm of passages alternating between Virginia’s and Angela’s perspectives (as well as Gerda’s), and in the sense that the plot has a clearer outline.  Parmar’s diary and letter form is more fragmented, and keeps us on our toes.  Gee’s command of tone is brilliant: essentially the novel is light, and yet it raises serious questions about our relation to the great cultural figures of the past, and the ethics of reading them. Her Virginia can be a two-dimensional cartoonish figure at times, and yet at other times she’s a figure of great pathos; in saying she’s two-dimensional I don’t mean that those passages are weaker; Gee keeps the tone light so that the deeper moments can resonate.

Parmar’s crafting of a diary-voice for Vanessa is an impressive achievement. Although there are a few moments where Vanessa’s reflections echo those of Virginia in her diaries, essentially Vanessa speaks differently, with more sustained concentration on a subject, and less of Virginia’s rapid flitting about; Virginia’s diary voice would be hard to turn to the requirements of narrative. (At the Oxford Literary Festival, Parmar said that her main source for Vanessa’s voice was the published and unpublished letters by Vanessa.)  As someone who has intensively researched Woolf and her circle in the period 1908 to 1919 for the purposes of my edition of Night and Day, and as someone who can’t quite shut down the scholarly urge to annotate and investigate, I’m not the best reader for this novel. With my historicist hat on I felt there were some phrases and grammatical constructions in Vanessa’s and Leonard’s voices that were later twentieth-century, and that someone from her background wouldn’t have used at that date. The phrases in question aren’t on the same scale as the errors of idiom in Lippincott’s Mr Dalloway, where British characters are found speaking (or thinking) American English; they’re much subtler and harder-to-call; indeed, one might argue that a degree of cross-period intermingling of idioms is valuable, as it allows Vanessa to speak to us now.  But a detailed account of that question may have to wait for another blog.  What’s impressive about the voices in Parmar’s novel is that she’s clearly steeped herself in the writings of the originals and then allowed herself to cut loose. When, in The Hours, Cunningham has Virginia worry about Mrs Dalloway being “too tinselly”, it felt at best like a piece of undigested research (Woolf writes exactly that in her diary), and at worst like a deliberately paraded piece of research.  When Parmar has characters assess someone or something by how “civilised” it is, it sets the right Bloomsbury flavour, but it’s not conspicuous in the sentence or the paragraph.

In The Hours, the representation of “Virginia Woolf” allowed Cunningham to ask questions about the posthumous presence of authors in later lives; the connection between the Laura Brown and Virginia Woolf sections is a demystified version of the relation between Nicholas Hawksmoor and Nicholas Dyer in Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor.  But while the relationship of past to present (Laura Brown’s present) doesn’t have the uncanny quality found in Ackroyd’s novel, there’s still a celebration of the greatness of the “great” author and her power to reach across generations that amounts to a kind of mystification; Cunningham’s novel draws its power from the fact of Woolf’s suicide, and while it can’t be said actively to glorify it, it makes it a significant fact in her life, the end which gives meaning to every act and sign.

If Gee’s novel were to be read as a response to Cunningham’s novel — and it’s richer and more interesting than that reading would allow it to be — then it’s asking us to realize what a terrible loss her suicide was; not so much to us as readers, as to Virginia Woolf as a living, lively, inquisitive human being.  It’s getting us to think about how much she missed by her untimely death. At some level I think Gee’s novel still needs Woolf to have died by suicide, but it wants to undo the romanticisation attached to it.  When Virginia first reappears, she smells dankly of pondweed, as while there’s a degree of emotion attached to the fact, Gee mostly plays up the comic incongruity of it, and the awkwardness for Angela.  As Virginia establishes herself in the modern world, her curiosity becomes her most prominent quality.  At times she is comically unable to grasp present-day technologies — she can’t understand paperless typing on a laptop, for example — but she generally grows accustomed to them.  Much more than correcting the emphasis of Cunningham’s novel, the presence of “Virginia Woolf” allows Gee to investigate our modernity, to render it strange to us, and in particular to investigate the place of America in the modern world. For those purposes, perhaps any revenant from the early twentieth century would have sufficed, but Woolf in particular allows Gee to think about the awkward ethics of reading a dead writer’s diaries: there’s a section where Angela realises that Woolf’s doesn’t know that Leonard did not destroy the diaries and that they have been published; and that Virginia doesn’t know how many personal secrets are now public knowledge.  And having a revenant of Woolf’s gender and class allows Gee to raise questions about the material advantages that enabled Woolf to succeed as a writer.

Virginia isn’t central to Priya Parmar’s novel, but she’s essential to the narrative. The title captures this peculiar centre of gravity quite neatly: you know, it implies, who the sister is; she’s the famous one; but this novel is about Vanessa.  However, at the Oxford Literary Festival, Parmar said that at her first public reading from the novel, the first audience question was “Who was Virginia Woolf?” and she had to rapidly recalibrate.  It’s interesting to contemplate how the novel reads to someone who knows nothing of Virginia, and presumably therefore nothing of the other personages; but I’ll have to skip those speculations.  For the reader with some knowledge of Woolf, there’s an odd sensation throughout of seeing a familiar person and familiar events from an unexpected angle.  It’s not a comic change of perspective like Woolf’s Flush sometimes is, or Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is, because Vanessa is fully realised as a presence and there’s too much emotionally at stake in what unfolds.  Notoriously, the Bloomsbury Group “lived in squares and loved in triangles”, and the main love-triangle in this novel is that involving Vanessa, Clive, and Virginia; and later another involving, in a subtler sense, Vanessa, Clive, and Roger.  And in a novel full of triangles, the reader who begins it more knowledgeable about Virginia than Vanessa find him- or herself in a sort of triangle, registering Virginia through the medium of Vanessa. The nature of the passions reminded me of René Girard’s ideas about “imitative” or “mimetic” desire: we desire a person or thing not because of any inherently desirable qualities in the thing, but because we want to be like another person who also desires the object of desire.  (Sure, this raises the problem of whether there was ever an original “pure” or “real” desire, but I’ve leave that for now.)  In this novel, Virginia “desires” Clive because she wants to be Vanessa; and at the close, Clive’s feelings for Vanessa are rekindled because he wants to be Roger.  And one wonders whether the desirability of the Stephen sisters to their various Cambridge suitors was because the suitors wanted to be Thoby Stephen.  As a theory, it seems to work best when discussing affections that seem creepily empty; it’s less successful in explaining Vanessa’s love for Roger, for example.  And Virginia’s responding to Clive’s advances can be explained more simply as her attempt to regain her sister’s attention.  She emerges as not entirely likeable: exasperating to her sister; emotionally insecure and thoughtless in her means of securing affection, but not consciously calculating.  The final letter of the novel indicates that the sisters’ bond has been irreparably weakened by Virginia’s involvement with Clive.

I’ve suggested that the reader gets drawn into these triangles too, but it’s also the case that the narrative form of the novel places a certain distance between readers and characters.  I think this would be the case if the story were told solely through Vanessa’s diary, just because diaries are necessarily fragmentary and immersed in the day of their writing; but by interspersing the diary with others’ letters, Parmar distances us in another way. The contents of the letters don’t ever place Vanessa as the unknowing one in a situation of cold dramatic irony, but they make us aware that her tone and attitude isn’t the only one available: most conspicuously, Lytton Strachey’s brilliantly done letters, witty, detached, epigrammatic (all somewhat Wildean, in fact), offer a sharp contrast to Vanessa’s more deeply felt diary.

If Gee’s novel refocuses our attention away from Woolf the tragic suicide onto Woolf the lively and inquisitive mind, Parmar’s refocuses it away from the mature Virginia Woolf altogether and on to the as-yet-unmarried Virginia Stephen, a young writer who is publishing her first book reviews and essays, and working on her first novel, but who is far from an established figure. Moreover, Parmar’s Virginia is presented to the reader only through the medium of other characters. If the two novels have something in common, it could be that they both start from the point of view that we know — or we think we know — a great deal about Woolf, and while that’s mostly to the good, sometimes the various strands of knowledge tighten into a mythology, and we need to unknot them, and try to reshape our knowledge in a different way.


#31songs (14): ‘. . . And Stones’, by the Blue Aeroplanes

#31songs (14): A song you used to put on a mixtape

‘… And Stones’, by The Blue Aeroplanes, from Swagger

Around 1991-92, I used to love to start mixtapes with Michelle-Shocked’s ‘When I grow up I want to be an old woman’, from her Short Sharp Shocked album, and then follow it with ‘. . . And Stones.’  Although ‘When I grow up’ is an altogether more laid-back piece, it’s got an insistent rhythm that seems to lay the ground for ‘. . . And Stones’; it made a great prologue to a mixtape, with The Blue Aeroplanes then taking it up a notch.

There should be a copy of the official video on the Blue Aeroplanes website; but if that doesn’t work, there’s one on Muzu.TV.

Musically what I love in this the balance between the very tight groove of the drums, bass, and echoing guitars, and on the other hand, the wild, overdriven lead guitar, notes that stretch off in all directions, chords bent on the tremolo-arm, sounding sometimes desperate, almost strangled. The neat side of the music has several precedents in the Blue Aeroplanes music, with ‘Etiquette’ the one that comes to mind first of all, but there are other precedents in ‘Ups‘ from the Tolerance LP, and in the Art Objects’ ‘Hard Objects.’  However, the combination with the raw, overdriven guitar is new with this song, and it complements something in the lyrics.  The key to the lyrics, the basic scenario of the song, is there in the first two lines: it’s about someone meeting an ex-lover, and being caught in a confusion of identity in which she is simultaneously the person she used to be, and the person she now is. ‘Hey you in that dress’ isn’t a phrase likely to be used in speaking to someone you’re familiar with; indeed it could be the language of street harassment. I guess the point is that the ‘long ex’ is simultaneously the desirable unfamiliar woman and the familiar one.

The song works towards a climax in which the lovers are seemingly reconciled, but in a kind of simulacrum of the real relationship. The imperatives in the last verse suggest that the speaker is  like the film director of the scene (‘smile, and hold your head back’); think of T. S. Eliot’s ‘La Figlia che piange’ (‘Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair’).  The ‘altogether’ now might seem strange, as the verse still seems to be addressed to a single person (smile and throw your head — not heads — back), but if the addressee is simultaneously her old self and her present self, then this verse is the point in which they come together, or seem to. But the payoff line, ‘throw your arms around whoever you think it is’ indicates that the speaker knows — knows bitterly — this is all fantasy, and that he is just as much her projection as she is his.  It’s great too that the music comes to an end around that line, as if its dynamism and up-beat mood were all part of the illusion that has just been punctured.

What are the stones of the title? In the context of ex-lovers slipping in little blames, mutual recriminations, I can’t help wondering if they’re the biblical stones of the episode of the woman ‘taken in adultery’: let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone. Granted, the bible doesn’t seem an important source for Gerard Langley in other songs (we’re not dealing with Bono here …), but it’s a sufficiently well known phrase that I guess most atheists in Britain know it.  (Did I pick it up at C of E primary school, or would adultery and stoning to death have been off limits there?  Perhaps in RE lessons in the first few years at secondary?)  In the second mention (‘send flattering dreams / send love send stones send structures’), the stones seem to be more straightforwardly offensive weapons, something to undercut the dreams and the love that the addressee might send.


Hey you in that dress
met up as long-ex-.
that nervousness now much shared
and I wondered as we worked
business to slip in little blames
about miles apart
styles apart and stones

Lovers uptown we went uptown
there were lovers uptown we went uptown

So we were close
close on the one hand
remembered on the other
but how we got too close in that mood
how I walked to your town
it was always someone else’s
it was never neat or sparse
there were never clues in there like ours

Lovers all around we went all around
there were lovers all around we went all around

I can say that for you
but don’t repeat it, don’t even think it
we’re going backwards in division
cross everyone else
give me a description
of what’s joint in this town
describe an arc* of your own
describe yourself

Smaller than thought
wayward in intention
not as wicked as people say
send me a letter with clues
send flattering dreams
send love send stones send structures

Love is uptown we went uptown
there were lovers uptown we went uptown.

Altogether now
say my name and hi!
smile and hold your head back
close your eyes and take as read
close your eyes then throw your arms around
whoever you think it is.

*Not in the printed lyrics.  Presumably ‘arc’, with ‘describe’ intended in its mathematical sense, and not an ‘ark’ as in Noah’s ark. (Or might it be ‘art’?)

#31songs (13): ‘Weightless’, by the Blue Aeroplanes

#31songs (13): A song about other worlds

‘Weightless’, by The Blue Aeroplanes, from Swagger

The ‘song about’ formula doesn’t suit The Blue Aeroplanes, as, like a lot of symbolist and modernist poetry, Gerard Langley’s lyrics resist reduction to a theme or a message.  How we interpret the lyrics to ‘Weightless’ depends a lot on the music, and if I say these are lyrics about ‘other worlds’, it’s because of various references to space-flight, and particularly the line repeated regretfully and yet self-deprecatingly after the song has subsided from its climax: ‘I liked being weightless best’.  The lyrics manage to articulate the listener’s own regret that the song will soon be over, and a feeling that its intensity can never be regained.

YouTube video

The song starts gently; the melodic guitar line has a folky flavour that I can’t help but think of as Scottish; perhaps because of the hammer-on from B to D, perhaps because of the way that the interval of G to D dominates.  (Compare the instrumental ‘For Tim Collins’ on Friendloverplane 2, which has a similar electric guitar sound in it, or the opening of ‘Autumn Journal XXIV‘, which I hope to come back to in a later post.) The bass comes in with a descending line, interplaying delicately with the other guitars. The first 25 seconds are perfection; then there’s heavily reverbed drum part that sounded just fine in 1990 but is now the one thing in the whole song that feels dated. But it can be forgiven. The whole pace suggests a band utterly confident in themselves: they can create an atmosphere that leads us into the core of the song and they’re sure we won’t grow impatient; each new bar, or at least each return to the start of the sequence of chords, brings something new.

In contrast with the attention-grabbing opening of ‘Jacket Hangs’, the vocals here begin in an understated way, as if picking up a conversation that had already been underway.  The expressive variety in this song makes it one of Gerard Langley’s greatest performances. What the ‘it’ of the opening verse might be we can only infer: it could be some unarticulated disagreement that’s destroying a relationship from within; with the phrase about drink that follows, we seem to be in the same lyrical territory as some of the Spitting Out Miracles songs.  But what is ‘the guide’?  In being ‘shuttle-bound’ are they on their way to an airport shuttle-bus, moving on without having really resolved things, or on their way to the space shuttle?  I don’t think of Langley as a writer of science-fiction lyrics, but this one is titled ‘Weightless’, so it’s not impossible to think of it as set in outer space.  That too would make sense of ‘half the world’s / floating in space’: one side of the globe, seen from space.  (According to Richard Bell’s blog, the song was part of the live set in the October-November 1988 tour, and it was around this time that Space Shuttle flights resumed following the Challenger disaster of January 1986. In that context, being ‘shuttle-bound’ has connotations of defiant determination.)

One of my biggest problems in interpreting this lyric is a crucial difference between the printed text and what Gerard performs on the record.  It comes as the song rises to a climax and the vocals come back in after an instrumental break.  The sleeve notes have people ‘swaying and guinea-wormed’, but in the performance it sounds more like ‘swaying and scrubland‘ or maybe ‘swaying and scrubbed-out‘.  The guinea-worm makes sense of much else in the lyric, especially the something ‘growing inside’ and ‘when it’s out it’ll just / poison the bloody water again’, and ‘working down the body slowly’ might be a reference to the worm coming out of a limb.  The guinea-worm could be the ‘it’ of the opening verse.  Whatever the ‘it’ might be, it’s parasitic and destructive, but the fifth and sixth verses propose something even more complex — ‘That what’s living / inside comes from a shared necessity’ — which might also explain the ‘sinister babies’: they’ve made this things together, and can never get rid of it.

The coda to the song, ‘Ok, we can go for a quick drink after work’, manages an astonishing though abrupt transition of tone, as if the speaker were trying to cover up the passionate confrontation (sinister parasites, spaceflight, and so on) with socially conventional compromises. Musically, too, the band manage a wonderful transition of atmosphere, from the powerful middle section to something that resembles the opening in its quiet reflective tone, but isn’t exactly the same.  I especially like the descending chromatic sequence of notes on one of the guitars (A, G#, G, F#), which brings a tone of foreboding to the conclusion, as if the whatever poisoned the bloody water is already preparing to come back.  And of course on the album, they start to fade in the echoing notes that introduce ‘… And Stones’.



If we can’t destroy it straight,
we could at least murder it,
burn it out as we crash the guide.
But no, we’re shuttle-bound
and poker-faced, we talk it
under the table, thinking hearts

And dry flowers played against us
crook the bloody circumstance.
That said, violence is like drink.
One’s too many and a hundred’s
not enough. Or one’s too many
and a hundred brooks no argument.

The sound of violins drowned in
gunfire. It’s the water of life.
At the edge of our sight, half
the world’s floating in space
like diagrams with consequence,
and how much falls to anyone else?

Walking down this hillside
to clear water, there’s something
breathing, growing inside like
sinister babies, the trees
pollarded like love gone awry.
Now swaying and guinea-wormed,

people in the way of crowds grown
aimless and bitter crack the ground.
The skies light with satellites,
the windows light with booby-traps.
Working down the body slowly,
hit on this! That what’s living

inside comes from a shared necessity
and when it’s out it’ll just
poison the bloody water again.
Ok, we can go for a quick drink
after work, it’s a way of life, sure
but I liked being weightless best …

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and the country house

My blog post on Woolf’s Orlando is now available on the OUP blog:

The source for the quotations from Angela Carter is a YouTube video of Tom Paulin’s notorious J’accuse programme about Woolf. The two parts available are labelled as parts 2 and 3, but I’ve not been able to find part 1 anywhere:

Angela Carter’s contribution comes just after 1m 27s in “part 2”; I’d first come across the ‘slobbering valentine’ bit in a newspaper review of the programme.  I must admit I’ve not watched both parts: the arguments are so tendentious that it’s hard to take seriously: for example, Clarissa Dalloway’s patriotic statement in The Voyage Out is offered as if it reflects its author’s views (which it obviously does not); the error in the reading is acknowledged, and then Paulin ploughs on regardless, treating a piece of unpleasantness in the diaries as if it rescued his argument about Clarissa.

#31songs (12): Jacket Hangs, by the Blue Aeroplanes

#31songs (12): Best opening

‘Jacket Hangs’, by the Blue Aeroplanes, from Swagger (1990)

There’s an official video for this one, or alternatively a YouTube version.

If there’s a single song on Swagger that earns the album its title, it’s the opening one.  There’s a confidence about the performances that hadn’t come through on the previous albums, and it all starts with Gerard’s opening line of ‘Jacket Hangs’: ‘Pick a card, any card … Wrong!’  But the swagger is there in the music as well, and especially on this track, which builds on the heave-ho sea shanty rhythm that I mentioned in ‘Bury Your Love Like Treasure’.  You can hear it coming through in ‘Warhol’s Fifteen’, a song the band first recorded on Tolerance, but which they later reworked; the characteristic rhythm is much stronger in the version that was collected on Friendloverplane.

Warhol’s Fifteen (YouTube of the Tolerance version)

Warhol’s Fifteen (Spotify of the Friendloverplane version)

It’s never exactly the same rhythm in any of these songs, but there’s a family resemblance.  There’s more swaggering in ‘Jacket Hangs’ in the lead guitar line, sometimes striding up and down the fretboard, sometimes cascading down it.  The guitar solo, when it comes, is actually nothing special, but it doesn’t need to be: there’s so much going on elsewhere.  After the solo the song strips down (around 2.25) and then after eight bars builds up again: another guitar comes in playing quickly strummed small chords (just the high strings), as if it wants to butt into the conversation, and then another guitar playing high chiming notes.

There’s a lot going on in the lyrics, too, some of the most insistently punning lyrics on any of the Aeroplanes’ albums; puns have a place in a certain kind of witty pop song (Andy Partridge is fond of them), but that kind of ostentatious wit isn’t usually Gerard Langley’s mode.  We ‘press and suit’; ‘Just so’ for ‘just sew’.  ‘Jacket Hangs’ is about surface and depths, appearance and identity, about the costumes we might wear in order to press a suit (to become a suitor?), to get from outside to inside in an emotional and sexual way.


Pick a card, any card.  Wrong. Pick nineteenth-century
twin-set pearls in a new clasp, brass neck, collar me
right. We need a suit, we press a suit

so collar me. Collar me siamese cat drapes,
roughneck honey.  [Quite the test for the unused boy.
Jacket hangs just so and you’re inside.]*

I believe in what passes for a centre, collar me
in spite of dress, your boyfriend link, crooked arm.
I want to see inside our most difficult act.

We press a suit, we swan about, from rack shop
to hanger blade, that line around your eyes means
you can see, see better than I can, than I see you.

Then I make contact. Swing, loosen up. Let those arms
Rotate like helicopter blades, lift. Little jump and skip
The rest. Like coral or groves the cards are marked

Your eyes are mine, coloured anew and set in train.
I passed the test, I think I passed, I think I’m fine.
Yes, jacket hangs just so and you’re inside.

*Lyrics in the liner notes that aren’t in the recorded version.

Pink Flag, by Wilson Neate

Pink Flag, by Wilson Neate

There’s a lot to like and a lot to admire about Wilson Neate’s Pink Flag (2008) in the 33 1/3rd series, and if in the end I have my reservations, they’re primarily reservations about the album, and reservations about the book only because Neate didn’t anticipate me as its reader.

Neate Pink Flag

Neate opens personally, narrating over two and a half pages how he first heard Wire, but the book really begins with the second chapter.  Here Neate introduces us to the band, member-by-member.  Doing this also enables him to establish some of the main reference points: the bands they were listening to in the 1960s and early 1970s; art school and Brian Eno. Here, as throughout the book, Neate draws on extensive new interviews with the band members.  Chapter three traces how they fitted into the punk scene, which they were part of, but which was settling into cliché by the time of their first performance. They were significantly older than many punk bands (the oldest, Bruce Gilbert, turned 30 in 1976), and their experience and their art-school background gave them some critical distance from the scene.  Chapter four gives us both an analysis of the main concepts at play in the structures of Wire’s songs, in particular, ideas about framing and subtraction.  And it also extracts the maximum comedic potential from the presence, personality, and removal of George Gill, one of the band’s guitarists in its early phase:

Gill was Keith Richards played by a Yorkshireman, a blunt, acerbic blues-rock purist …. flatmate Slim Smith remembers: “He was the college’s main rabble-rouser, always causing trouble in class and drinking heavily, which occasionally resulted in getting into fights.” Gilbert goes further, commenting that Gill often “looked like he was about to break into a fight with himself.” (p.59)

 The fifth chapter turns to the recording of the album. Neate points to there being disagreement about how important producer Mike Thorne was in creating Wire’s distinctive aesthetic and sound: the release in 2006 of their 1977 gig at the Roxy seems to have demonstrated that the band had nailed it before the producer became involved; on the other hand, the interviews with Thorne that Neate draws on throughout the book create a very sympathetic impression of him, both as regards the technicalities of production and the management of a band who were new to the studio environment and somewhat overawed by it.  There’s also a fabulous anecdote of Bruce Gilbert overindulging in Thorne’s herbal cigarettes on the first day to the extent that he thought they’d completed the recording and could pack up and go home.  (In fact the recording took about three weeks, with another three needed for mixing.)

The chapter of track-by-track analyses draws out the more general ideas in relation to particular songs, and sets further ideas in motion, placing songs on a spectrum of orthodox to experimental.  As there are twenty-one tracks on the album, each analysis is necessarily brief, some of them not more than a page, and in consequence, and by contrast to what went before, the chapter somewhat disjointed.  The final chapter, a mere six pages, considers the afterlife of the album, particularly as regards the revision of songwriting credits.  Neate takes what could is potentially a dry and technical question and uses it to reopen the larger conceptual issues underpinning Wire’s work — above all, what is a song — but it’s still not the conclusion I’d hope for in a really great book.

But I may not be Neate’s ideal reader.  I came to Wire relatively late, via their On Returning compilation CD, and have mixed feelings about them. On the one hand, they were capable of writing the most insanely catchy high-tempo guitar songs —  ‘Dot Dash’ in particular never fails to delight — but in spite of the energy and the at times snarly vocals, there’s something dry and cerebral about their work that means it feels one dimensional.  In this respect they’re like several other late 1970s bands: Talking Heads, another band with an art-school background, similarly accentuate the cerebral.  Likewise with them, I’m always pleased to hear their music, but in some way it doesn’t stay with me.

Neate’s book makes me admire Pink Flag more, but it doesn’t make me love it.  He does acknowledge that the band were sometimes ‘seen as too intellectual’ (p.40) and as ‘sterile’ (p.43), but his book isn’t designed to engage with those sorts of criticism: discussing Wire’s work in terms of framing keeps them at the cerebral level.  It’s much harder to devise a critical vocabulary that will allow the reader to recognise a flicker of an emotional reaction to a band and then to nurture that reaction into some kind of love for them. I wonder if, by interviewing the band and the producer, and building his book around those interviews, Neate got a narrow perspective, as any historian might if working with a limited set of sources.  There’s relatively little by way of quotation from contemporary reviews: how might the book have read if Neate had taken negative reviews as his starting point and worked outward from there?  Having said that, I’ve enjoyed Neate’s writing and analysis, and am tempted to read his later book, Read & Burn: A Book about Wire (2013).

Five Bells, by Gail Jones

Five Bells, by Gail Jones

Five Bells, Gail Jones’s 2011 novel of four characters in one day in Sydney, first came to my attention through Jem Poster’s review for The Guardian, which made much of its similarities to Mrs Dalloway. My 2005 Authors in Context book on Virginia Woolf had included a chapter on the ways in which Woolf’s work is recontextualized by film adaptation and by the kinds of rewriting we find in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Robin Lippincott’s Mr Dalloway, so I was naturally interested to hear of another what might be another such work.  More recently I’ve been working on a reader’s guide to criticism of Mrs Dalloway, and thinking about what creative adaptations (principally The Hours) mean for our understanding of the original novel.  Critical articles that purport to be about both Mrs Dalloway and The Hours are often really only about the latter; they’re uninterested in how Cunningham’s adaptation might make us see the 1925 novel in a new light, or might simply remind us of its strengths.  (Seymour Chatman’s 2005 narratological comparison of the two is the most impressive exception to this rule.)

Jones Gail Five Bells

The novel concerns four characters on a January day in Sydney, all converging on the Circular Quay, from which the Sydney Opera House is visible. Two, Ellie and James, are Australian born (though James’s Italian ancestry is something he is particularly conscious of), and they were friends and lovers as teenagers. Now in their thirties (I think it’s set in 2010 or 2011), they have come to Circular Quay to meet again after many years; it slowly emerges that James, who for many years has been in poor mental health, has recently been involved in a tragic incident and wishes to tell Ellie about it.  The other two characters are Pei Xing, a Chinese-born woman who has settled in Australia, and Catherine, a young Irish woman who is there on holiday.  Each is preoccupied by memories: Pei Xing by her family’s persecution in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and by her father’s work as a translator of Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago; Catherine by  the death of her sparky, iconoclastic brother; James by a succession of traumatic incidents; Ellie, by less conspicuously painful memories of her teenage years.  In among these, several of them remember other bits and pieces, phrases from poems and novel and songs, so that when ‘No direction home’ turns up (p.174), you don’t doubt that ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is being invoked.  (I can’t think of another novel that’s as relaxed as this one about popular song being part of the fabric of people’s emotional lives.)  Thematically, Five Bells is about the way we hold memories and that memories hold us; it’s about healthy and unhealthy relationships with the past; it’s about the value of re-engaging with the past, but also the value of detachment and disengagement.

On a first reading, prompted by Jem Poster’s comparison to Mrs Dalloway, it seems as if James is going to be an equivalent to Septimus Warren Smith, but this isn’t The Hours, and Jones isn’t attempting any straightforward mapping of Woolf’s characters on to her own.  Most importantly, there isn’t a Clarissa, no sane truth to set alongside James’s insane truth, no upper middle-class woman whose power contrasts with that of the lower middle-class male, no hostess of parties who might be seen (rightly or wrongly) as a redemptive figure. James is mentally unwell and taking medication, but his illness is nothing like as severe as Septimus’s.  Ellie is predisposed to happiness (I’m paraphrasing), but that attitude is significantly different from Clarissa’s more self-conscious and artificial celebratory trait.

Poster’s comparison is more relevant to what the characters (and Jones’s prose) register as they wander round central Sydney.  Five Bells is particularly good at noticing the urban soundscape:

[Ellie] was filled with corny delight and ordinary elation. Behind her, raddled train-noise reverberated up high, and the didgeridoo, now barely audible, continued its low soft moaning.  A child sounded a squeal. A ferry churned away.  From another came the clang of a falling gang-plank and the sound of passengers embarking (pp.3-4)

There’s an echo here of one of the passages early in Mrs Dalloway that defines Clarissa’s outlook:

In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.

But it doesn’t feel like Jones is following Woolf slavishly; more that she’s selected the same palate, but modernised it and transposed it to contemporary Australia.  (The next thing we hear in the passage from Five Bells is ‘Jumping Jack Flash’.)

It’s modernised too in that eventually, but with an impressive inevitability, CCTV and contemporary surveillance culture comes into play.  Quite how Jones hints that this will be so, I’ve not determined, having read it only once, but halfway through I found myself wondering who or what was watching the four characters, and then, in the sixth and final chapter, there it was: a CCTV image capturing two of them.  It may be these expectations came from a recollection of Woolf’s plans for Mrs Dalloway, in which sketchy version Septimus would attempt assassinate the Prime Minister; that led me to wondering what James or another character might do, and how quickly they’d be spotted in a modern city centre.  Perhaps also a hazy recollection of Barbara Vine’s King Solomon’s Carpet, in which I think there might have been a terrorist. But it might simply come from the opening account of the four characters passing through a train station, talk of glimpses and ‘blurred partial vision’, and from Ellie’s reflections in chapter two about this being an age of mediation, and ‘relentless repetition’ of generic images of death and grief in newspapers and on TV. (It’s great though, that alongside those relatively conventional accounts of surveillance culture we can have Ellie’s recollection of her father’s word for old-fashioned aimless people-watching: lollygagging.)

What Five Bells illuminates about Mrs Dalloway is the way that Woolf’s novel relates the extraordinary to the everyday, the epoch-making to the quotidian.  Woolf’s account of Septimus’s insanity is intensely sympathetic, but Five Bells leads to the reflection that there’s something unfortunate about the way that Septimus’s illness has to be yoked to and derived from the Great War; the fact that the novel hints at other aetiologies (above all, Septimus’s sexuality) doesn’t diminish the problem.  Five Bells never really commits to an explanation of James’s illness. There is an early incident involving the slaughter of a chicken, which seems to have become a traumatic memory in the sense of a memory that can’t be assimilated into the main life narrative.  (The grammar describing it is tellingly ambiguous: ‘all of them caught in this drama with the headless chicken that would not do the right thing and straightaway, as it should, just lie down and die’ [p.61].  Is it the memory or the chicken that refuses to die?) But there are other factors for James — his family history, his mother’s own mental illness, the recent tragic incident — and the novel doesn’t want to place them in any kind of hierarchy.  In Catherine’s life, the epoch-changing event is the murder of the Irish journalist Veronica Guerin, but when we eventually learn about the cause of her brother’s death, it has no meaning on a worldwide scale.  (It’s interesting that we’re told Catherine adored U2 from an early age, as their songs so revel in the epic and the epoch-making, whether Bloody Sunday or Martin Luther King, but haven’t found much space for the everyday.  That preference, and the repeated references to Guerin, leave us expecting a more significant death for her brother.)  Its not that Five Bells doesn’t include the Significant Events of History — most obviously it does so in Pei XIng’s experience of the Cultural Revolution — but rather that it refuses to subordinate the everyday to those events.  By contrast, Mrs Dalloway‘s focus on the everyday is always overshadowed by the Great War: the aeroplanes refers back to it; the car backfiring refers back to the trenches and the assassination of the Archduke.  Recently, Elyse Graham and Pericles Lewis have questioned whether Woolf really believes in the sacrificial-redemptive logic that might seem to be implied by Septimus’s suicide and Clarissa’s response to it, and Five Bells also seems to distance itself from that aspect of Woolf’s novel.

A novel as deeply committed to the everyday as Five Bells necessarily has some trouble reaching a conclusion, and the solution that Jones has found in the final chapter involves a modulation into a slightly different style of narrative, a more dramatic one that we aren’t fully prepared for.  (I don’t want to say too much, for the sake of those who haven’t read it yet.)  There’s a kind of Thomas Hardy-like bitter irony about the conclusion, where trivial causes and a failure to communicate have terrible consequences.

Podcast: An Introduction to Orlando (1928), by Virginia Woolf

Podcast: An Introduction to Orlando (1928), by Virginia Woolf

I’ve uploaded an MP3 of an introductory lecture on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. I was invited to give the lecture by the producer of a theatrical adaptation of it at Keble College; as the audience was reckoned to consist mostly of school pupils (presumably sixth-form), the lecture tries not to assume much familiarity with Woolf or the novel.  I begin with biographical background about Virginia and Vita, go on to narrate their relationship, and mention Logan Pearsall Smith as background to Nick Greene / Sir Nicholas Greene;  I then talk about genre (biography and fantasy), discover I’ve left far too little time to talk about sexuality, and conclude by addressing Angela Carter’s accusation that it’s ‘an orgy of snobbery’, caught up in the ideological myth of the English country house.

I hadn’t had an opportunity to see the play — and sadly, due to other commitments, wasn’t able to — so it doesn’t discuss that at all.

It’s all largely improvised, and two-thirds through when I’m discussing Sally Potter’s film adaptation, I completely forget Tilda Swinton’s name.

#31songs (11): Severn Beach, by The Blue Aeroplanes

#31songs (11): A song with a number in the title (sort of)

‘Severn Beach’, by The Blue Aeroplanes, from Friendloverplane (1988)

I could have chosen ‘Days of 49’, of which there are versions on both Friendloverplane and Spitting Out Miracles, or ‘Warhol’s Fifteen’ or ’88 Out’ from Friendloverplane, but instead here’s one that doesn’t really have a number in its title, even if it sounds that way, the wonderfully catchy and straightforward ‘Severn Beach’:

There’s a raucous rockabilly garage-band feel to the song: it’s there in the big crude echo on the vocals, in the riff, and in the fuzzy and out-of-tune guitar solo. There’s a counting-song aspect to the lyrics, which takes us back to Manfred Mann’s ‘5-4-3-2-1’ via XTC’s ‘Senses Working Overtime’: my son loved this when he first heard it a few months ago, and he’s only just turned five.

If there’s a drawback to the garage-band feel, it’s that the lyrics are largely incomprehensible.  I have tried, but in the verses got nothing more definite than ‘… cardboard box to get out to Severn Beach’, ‘where the mud flats howl’, ‘like buried pots’, and ‘they got nothing to say but plenty to do before they die.’

Podcast: Science and Poetry in the 1920s and 1930s

Podcast: Science and Poetry in the 1920s and 1930s

The audio file of my seminar paper on science and poetry is now available on SoundCloud; I hope in due course to have it uploaded to iTunesU, at which point I might delete the SoundCloud version.

Will Abberley kindly made a video, so if you’d like hear the same thing but with additional hand gestures and a few powerpoint slides, here it is.

As in the first half I do a close reading of a poem, Michael Roberts’s ‘Schneider Cup’, I’ve reproduced the text here.