Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Sweet Tweeters

‘…what gives me hope and reassurance as I approach my eightieth birthday is the remarkable passion for justice and peace that I have experienced when meeting and speaking to thousands of young people around the world in these first years of the twenty-first century. When I see their level of commitment, I know the world is in safe hands.’

Desmond Tutu

When I read the words above, I was immediately put in mind of some internet acquaintances of mine. I hardly dare call them my friends (though I'd be honoured if they think of me as theirs), as I know them only through tweets and they’re all almost young enough to be my grandchildren. But they inspire me with hope for humanity.

The reason for this is simple. An endless outpouring of love. Now, if I tell you that much of this love is given over to TV shows and characters (in particular Doctor Who & Sherlock), you might immediately dismiss the idea that these girls (and yes, they are all female) have anything to teach anyone. But that would be a mistake. I think it’s true to say that most of them found each other through a mutual love of TV shows, and a great many of their tweets do still consist of excited or downcast outbursts over same, but the devotion they display to fictional characters and the people who play them is symptomatic of their approach to life as a whole. Their hearts instinctively go out — they don’t hedge, they don’t restrain themselves. They just love.

And nowhere is this better reflected than in their attitude to each other. There is not a single trace of the rivalry and jealousy that some would have you believe is an essential component of female friendships; instead, there is constant support, an instantaneous rush to comfort in the event of even the smallest mishap, and an unabashed delight in the achievements of others. Even if the achievement is to do something they desperately wish to do themselves, i.e. meet the actor of their dreams.

(The gentleness of these girls even extends to their enemies – on ask.fm they are victims of the attentions of the inevitable trolls, but their response is always polite, if necessarily occasionally firm!)

And to anyone who might think that their passion for things that are not ‘real’ is unhealthy, it seems to me that however they first came into contact, their devotion to each other is now so much greater than their feeling for their favourite shows/performers that if it came to a choice between one and the other, they would unhesitatingly choose their friend. No danger of their not being able to distinguish fiction from reality.

And it goes deeper. There’s Ayesha, who runs a blog designed to help anyone who needs advice on anything at all – and in this she is assisted by Ella (a mere 14!), who desperately wants to bring peace to the world in any way she can (Both of them also volunteer for charity during their spare time). Then there’s Anne, whose entire existence seems to be given over to selfless and unstinting support of others in whatever they do; I have never encountered a gentler and sweeter soul. Unless it’s Poppy, whose special brand of straightforward charm and utterly guileless devotion to David Tennant has netted her a staggering 5,000 followers. There are others, possibly just as remarkable for their passion and generosity – these are simply the ones I know best.

I don’t know how representative of their generation these girls are. But their open-hearted approach to every aspect of life makes me hope they’re typical. We are well on the way to making a mess of much of this world, but if the future is in the hands of these angels who lead with their hearts, all may not be lost.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The new Love Generation

I love facebook.

Not primarily for myself, although it has been invaluable for making new contacts and organising the filmmaking which seems to have taken over what used to be a literary and solitary life.

No, not for myself.

Of course there are many, many ways to waste time on facebook; it’s all too easy to spend 15, 30, 40 minutes following up threads of comment or reading responses to jokes. I understand why some people might consider facebook a dangerous phenomenon, keeping young people glued to computer screens – addicted to endless, trivial gossip.

But I wonder if even those young people truly appreciate the gift they’ve been given. I am in contact with perhaps two dozen students, and through them I catch glimpses of their friends and their lives – and it’s for what it has given them (and thus indirectly me, suppose) that I love facebook.

Myspace is just too…claustrophobic somehow. The beauty of facebook is its clean simplicity – it is primarily for communication, not display. It’s an entirely new form of community. And rather than distracting its users from the real world, it seems to me it enhances their experience of and interaction with the other community - the physical one. So many of the messages exchanged by my younger friends are about meeting up, going out, supporting contemporaries in shows or exhibitions – living, in short. (And this is to say nothing of the many events that would pass me by completely without this kind of information exchange)

But there is something even more important on display than the complete normality of this generation’s social life.

There is love. Over and over and over again, I have been struck by how closely bonded these youngsters are, how easily they share jokes and fears and hopes and dreams – and most of all how they rush to comfort or reassure or support any of their friends who seem to be faltering. Of course there are some unkind comments, outbursts of anger – but these seem very much the exception. And this generosity of spirit seems to extend to a far wider circle than anything I remember in the common rooms of my own youth. Maybe it’s the girls – maybe facebook is the perfect showcase for the talent women have for easy intimacy and selfless emotional openness. Maybe this generation of boys are different to mine.

I don’t know exactly what it is. But this gift, this community, will go with them even when they separate and make new friends in University; they will always, with a couple of clicks, be able to talk to not just one of their friends, but a whole group of them at once, to catch up and re-affirm their affection for one another. And to discuss the new Doctor Who.

I sincerely hope I will remain friends with all of them. I want to continue to experience (even peripherally) that warm-heartedness, that wit, that intelligence…that occasionally baffling slang. But even if I do lose touch – it’s been a genuine privilege to share this much. Thank you all.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

The Way We Live Now

Sometimes I shock myself. I do wonder if human beings really deserve the name - if to be labelled 'human' is to imply being humane. I know from observation that my attitude to other people is generally on the right side of the dividing line between concern and indifference, and yet...

An example. I lent a DVD box set to a colleague at work. This woman suffers from ill-health, and disappeared from work for a few weeks without explanation. And it was perfectly plain to me that I was far more concerned about whether I would see my DVDs again than...you get the picture. Of course if someone had offered me the straight choice of the importance of any person's life versus a DVD set, I'd say, 'the person' and yet...

And yet...

I make the opposite choice every day. It was worth nearly £90 to me to have the Beckett on Film set a few years back - how many of those little anti-diarrhea packets(at a cost then of about 3p) is that? Every one a life potentially saved. Three thousand people 'dead' so I can watch some plays.

Of course it's not quite that simple. The link is not that direct, and even if it was...I could give that money away - but there are all sorts of complexities involving what charities actually do with their money, to do with patronising attitudes and self-conscious self-righteousness and guilt. And yet...

History is written by the 'winners'. What history are we writing now (assuming 'we' win in the battle against climate change)? Among my immediate circle on facebook far more people seemed concerned about the Xmas No. 1 than about any of the issues surrounding the Copenhagen Summit. No, scratch that - no one seemed concerned about Copenhagen until I brought it up on my page. This is not to trumpet my own dedication to the cause; since then I've read Climate Progress ( http://climateprogress.org/ ) posts with dutiful semi-attention, told myself this is the month I must go to the local FOE meeting - and done, in fact, fuck all.

This blog has been a continually difficult prospect for me because I am not an ordered thinker. Everything that comes into my mind brings up too many associated ideas, too many possibilities. Maybe it's a symptom of the times; the world we live in now is impossibly complex. For every opinion there are five alternative views. So I can only speak for myself, for what I know to be true from my own inner sense of how things are/how they should be. Of course there is immense value, immense aesthetic and even spiritual value in Fiction Books or great films, and even the question of what is to be the Xmas No. 1 is bound up with questions of whether we respond to the easy and superficial or the more challlenging. It is better to care about something than about nothing.

And yet...

I began today by saying that I shock myself. But the real problem is that I do not shock myself. I am so immersed in a certain lifestyle that I have no easy way of tapping into the reality of much that happens in the world, and most of the time I hardly give that insensitivity a thought. I bought four books from Oxfam yesterday, but not to support charity - and without a thought in my mind about the money involved other than that I shouldn't be spending it when I have 1000 unread books already at home. Fuck your starving families, I have books in my kitchen cupboards instead of food, and some of my friends think that's really weird. If only, if only that was the weirdest fucking thing about the way I live.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Break On Through To The Other Side

Rascal/sage Gurdjieff’s friend Pogossian never stood still; he was always snapping his fingers and swinging his arms, because he said, the organism was naturally lazy and he needed to keep it accustomed to work. I’m sure most of us recognise this; work is a habit that has to be acquired through repetition, not just in writing Fiction Books but even in simply reading them.

How often have I passed over a more challenging tome, letting my fingers grasp instead something that I know will slip down so much more easily? We all get tired, but to return to Gurdjieff, we too easily forget what lies on the other side of tiredness; if we make what he called ‘super effort’, then a second wind arrives and we break through to what seems almost another state of being. This is surely every bit as true of intellectual effort as any other. A little more mental exertion and we taste delights that the shallower waters of literature cannot afford. (A little further exertion and we may even achieve the blessed state of non-mixed metaphorishness…)

Critic Harold Bloom is one of the most outspoken champions of this: ‘all strong poetry is difficult’ he says, and he also proselytises on behalf of Finnegan’s Wake. I have my doubts (see previous Fiction Books post, ‘Versus Verse’) but deep down I know he’s right. Not necessarily, specifically, about the Wake (not for all of us, anyway), but about strength and pleasure. ‘We read to enlarge a solitary existence’ is another of his tenets, and I know without question that the long struggle I had with Shakespeare was more than worthwhile and has greatly enlarged this existence (though perhaps not as fundamentally as the Bloomster might claim). No matter how seductive the superlative comic art of Gene Colan can be, the words it supports will not bear more than the most superficial scrutiny. If we want the rewards, the enrichment of the heart and mind and soul that is almost like being in love (to coin a phrase), we must challenge ourselves.

I wonder if this only follows the pattern of the universe as a whole. Creation, the Advaitic tradition says, is only God hiding from Himself – because without the effort involved in seeing through the illusion of the material world, all that Doing that needs to be done, He cannot really appreciate what it is to simply Be. (Please excuse masculine gender used for simplicity's sake!)It is obviously true that effort makes us appreciate things (except that I would be happier to find £20 floating down the street than to have worked for it – I wonder what that might say about money?); the best literature, the ‘hardest’ literature, may go one better and make us appreciate everything - remind us what it is to be alive.

Now, where did I put that Essential Fantastic Four...?

Monday, 25 January 2010

Versus Verse

It took me a long time to like poetry.

Oh, there were always favourite lines and ringing phrases that stuck in my mind as utterances of both truth and beauty, but as for actually sitting down and reading poetry...it wouldn’t go in. My eyes would pass over the page three, four times and I still had no conscious memory of what I’d read, and no understanding of the meaning of it.

There are still poets who sometimes do that to me; Geoffrey Hill and Emily Dickinson spring immediately to mind. There is still, occasionally, the nagging thought that this is all some kind of elaborate hoax or joke, that words are being strewn haphazardly across the page to create an illusion of profundity. I know that I’m wrong about this, but still...

Possibly the compression of poetry is an obstacle to me. I am far more excited by the idea of Kazantzakis’ sprawling modern Odyssey than I am by any poem of Dickinson’s. I am always attracted to things on a large scale. If I must have poetry I dislike selected poems – I want a poet’s complete works, as if by having that I can hold in my hand the entire person. (Or at least the complete contents of their mind.) The more a poetry collection resembles a story, a life – an epic verse novel – the happier I am.

But then do I read these gigantic books? Only rarely. Because the other factor that causes me to stumble when I approach poetry is the focus in on the words, rather than what they are saying. I am a great believer in what is said being more important than the precise means of expressing it (allowing a certain facility in the writer in the first place); even Flaubert, after all his labours, said that too much attention paid to the words was the mark of a second rate artist. I don’t believe in anything that comes between writer and reader – and too conscious an effort over words will do that.

But then, that’s what poetry is. Something that might be an arguable point when looking at Fiction Books cannot be applied to verse. So perhaps this has been my problem; I am a storyteller, a portrayer of character. I have no time for metaphor or elaborate descriptions; words for me are merely a means to an end. I don’t want the surface; I want to get at the meaning. And I find that difficult, still, with some poetry.

But I haven’t given up. Reading aloud has controlled my thirst for narrative, has slowed me down enough to better appreciate the rhythm, the metre, the cadences of poetry: I know that there are pleasures in there purer than any contained in the Fiction Books that I generally prefer. And I have no doubt that anything that causes us to slow down and take notice in this hurried and harried world can only be a force for the greatest good.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

A Great Reade

“Not a day passes over the earth, but men and women of no note do great deeds, speak great words, and suffer noble sorrows.”

The book that begins thus was one of the greatest reading experiences of my life, but it is comparatively little known today. It is The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade. I read it perhaps eight to ten years ago, and no book since (and possibly no book before Fiction Books ) has involved me so deeply with its characters, or made me care so much about their fate. I can think of no higher recommendation for any work of fiction.

Next year The Cloister and the Hearth will be 150 years old, and in many ways it shows its age; it’s too long, mostly due to the fact that the plot wanders all over the place, and Reade’s use of language might be a barrier for the modern reader (though clearly not for this reader!). The book is an extended demonstration that the strictures in regard to a normal family life imposed on clerics by the Catholic faith are inhuman and unworkable, but this never gets in the way of the most important thing in the story (in any story) – the portrayal of the people. That is all that’s needed to make it a success in my eyes; it is a book to awaken and educate the heart (beside which Sir Walter Scott considered everything else as "moonshine").

Reade wrote other books, Fiction Books the most notable being It’s Never Too Late To Mend. I haven’t read any of them, but I will, someday, return to The Cloister and the Hearth. I recommend giving it a go; and if 775 pages (in the 1912 Chatto edition I have) seems like a lot to get through (unless, like me, you happen to prefer big books), I would also add it is lightened by sly flashes of unexpected humour:
“…it was an age in which artists sought out and loved one another [C & H is set in the 15th Century]. Should this last statement stagger a writer or painter of our day, let me remind him that even Christians loved one another at first starting.”

If anyone does manage to get around to it, I’d be interested to hear what you think…

Monday, 14 December 2009

Le Fiasco..? ( a sort of continuation)

Sex is a part of life, obviously, but it’s not just any part of life. Double entendres, well timed and conceived (ahem) can still afford even the most sophisticated of us some amusement – so clearly there’s something about sex that sets it apart from everything else we do. It is the very exemplar of marketable commodities, the thing the whole world supposedly wants more of…

And yet there are, with the honourable exceptions of Lawrence, Miller and Nin, no recognised ‘great’ writers on sex – not even sex-genre masters of similar stature to, say, Elmore Leonard or Robert Heinlein (though Heinlein dealt with sex in his SF and Fantasy). De Sade is certainly no Proust. Is there a good reason for this? The privacy aspect? Tolstoy and Dostoevsky both wrote openly about violence, but sex in War and Peace is present mostly in the shape of Helene Kuragin’s shoulders. Or is it that most writers feel description of sex is simply not essential to the development of their story? Fiction Books Perhaps; The Corrections author Jonathan Franzen nodded approvingly at Nick Hornby passing lightly over a sexual encounter in High Fidelity, but in his puzzling over why other authors didn’t do the same, Franzen seemed to (deliberately?) overlook the possibility that in some cases, showing characters having sex is precisely what will reveal most about them, about the way they view each other or even themselves. There is still, somehow, a nagging feeling that writing about sex is not something mature authors should do. Maybe this is partly because it’s so easy to do badly; even the likes of Will Self have not escaped censure in this field.

Or maybe I’m perceiving a problem where there isn’t one – but somehow I don’t think so. Sex has its place on psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs just above the basics of food and shelter, but while we’ll all happily browse cookbooks and look longingly into estate agents’ windows, we’re less sanguine about being seen scanning the shelves of adult stores. And yet is bondage any less unnatural, fundamentally, than cooking food? Children are fiercely protected from sex, but how many of them have to eat up their greens…? (Food doesn’t have the same psychological complexities surrounding it? Consult an anorexic.)

There is another aspect to this. Pornography, of the most explicit/hardcore kind, tends to be very boring. I suspect this is because there is no tension, no real yin-yang about it. Sexual desire is fuelled precisely by the sense of other, of division, of a gap to be bridged – which is in essence the same force that drives writing. (‘Why do writers write? Fiction Books Because it isn’t there.’ T. Berger) Pornography has an inevitability about it that dispels all possibility of drama. And maybe something of the same holds true for most sex scenes; the goal has been achieved, what more is there to be said? (cf. William James’ reaction to the Chautauqua community as cited in ‘What Makes A Life Significant’)

Is it possible that despite its great significance in our lives, despite it being perhaps the provider of many of our greatest personal experiences, sex is simply too trivial a subject, viewed on a broader canvas, to be worthy of sustained attention?