Category Archives: Books

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.

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A Body of Work: An Anthology of Poetry and Medicine, ed. Corinna Wagner and Andy Brown

Wagner and Brown

My review of A Body of Work: An Anthology of Poetry and Medicine, ed. Corinna Wagner and Andy Brown has appeared on the BSLS website

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.

woolf-nd-28-nov-1916

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.

forster-book-cover

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 bookdepository.com)

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.)

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.