Friday, January 13, 2006

Life? Don't Talk to Me About Life.

I was listening last night, to an Open University CD, support material for the A103 Arts/Humanities Foundation Course. It wasn't exactly rocket-science stuff but interesting for any number of reasons.

In Flanders Fields (by John Macrae)
Memorial Tablet (Siegfried Sassoon)
Where Have All the Flowers Gone (Pete Seeger)
Universal Soldier (Crucified by Buffy St Marie)
Futility (Wilfred Owen)

Then Benjamin Britten mashing that poem with some over-the-top arrangement

What struck me was remembering how, as a youngster songs like "Universal Soldier", "Eve of Destruction", "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", "It's Good News Week" (and God Help me, stuff like "Let's Go to San Franscisco") were, at the time, DEEP & MEANINGFUL whereas in fact they are trivial, simplistic, lacking depth or reality.

Hey, I LIKED these songs, but are they naive, or what?

But what struck me was the pop-idealism (and the fact that they were hits) (and the fact that at the time they "mattered" to me) is paralleled to some extent with what I see winning short-story competitions.

The tidy, neat, with a touch-of-rhythm, a quick-simple "hit" of an idea, instantly accessible, nothing-to-ponder. Smooth vanilla that doesn't frighten the competition readers, with a tiny flourish, almost the equivalent of a great single line in a song, or a memorable riff. In the end though, the songs were mere feel-good, transient, making no changes.

Do we imagine, for example, that after hearing "Eve of Destruction" soldiers put down their rifles and walked away?

I have a theory that many readers for competitions are excited by stories that they think THEY could write (on a good day, with a following wind, downhill). Stories that are MORE than this; rich, complex, challenging, deep, or languaged are "frightening" or the reader perhaps feels "insulted".

My way of dealing with difficult stuff when I was younger was to ATTACK it, to disparage. It was "lah-dee-dah" or "posh crap" or "poofy public-school stuff". The writers were "disappearing up their own arses". This wasn't WRITING, wasn't COMMUNICATION. It was just poncing around.

But then I loved Mickey Spillane books back then and then moved up to Dick Francis. I probably would have devoured Harry Potter whereas these days the very mention makes me think of kittens, knotted sacks and stinking canal water.

So rich, right?

No, not necessarily.

It's more about truth, honesty, clarity.

Last night, for the first time, I heard the Britten butchering of the Owen poem. It was like finding a perfect piece of delicate fish and dropping it in a barrel of cheap curry sauce. All those sopranos lathering on the latin mass, and then some horrendous middle-class operatic baritone, all performance and no heart, somehow managing to take away all the raw simplicity, the power, the sadness.

I felt like I was sitting in the back of a Rolls Royce and my fellow passengers were looking out and saying, "Ooooh, POOR people!"

Fuck that.

Underneath, poem, song, story, we must have a story that matters. Everything else should be subordinate. That doesn't mean I never use "language" (in the sense that the story is obviously word-heavy)...

Jack Sherman's word today is miasma. He is thinking of the morningfaint stench of misplaced semen, pussy, of feet and toenails and armpits, visitors, paper, print, of red wine drying to a sediment in glasses by the sink, the tiny ozones of television, carpetmites and spilled coffee, aerosol-dampened shit, wash'n'go, exhaust fumes, tyre-slick, colours of sirens, CD residue, atoms.

Yesterday - (milieu) - Jack had thought of lies, protestations, fabrications and confabulations, of subtle underdigging, of sexgame alluding, of hurt and scathe and fluttering, the words first. He thought of proximities, knees which parted, pale hamstrings flashing, of stretches, openings, arms, mouths, legs (briefly), fingers flexing, intellects and raw ape.

I critiqued a story in Boot Camp today (that was depressing) and it was Benjamin Brittened. Whatever story there might have been was swamped by the "performance".

The author was aiming at tricksy techniques, not because they added meaning, but because they seemed cool. We had big words, "clever" allusions and the result was that after a little while ALL WE SEE IS THE WORDS.

But worse, the more we concentrate on performance, the less attention we pay to content, to the plot, the structure, the actual themes.

In the end I trashed the story and I await the backlash (others rated it).

It seems to me that much of literature is the Universal Soldier, dittyish, cute, superficially attractive, or it's the Britten end. All sauce, no food for the soul. The best example of that must be the laughable, appalling Booker winner this year.

Banville and Rowling should be put in the sack together, and dropped quietly in that canal...


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