Early October Miscellany (2010)

I have decided to start posting my Miscellanies as and when they are of sufficient length, rather than waiting to the end of the month; the latter practice has resulted in some absurdly long entries.

A very interesting article by John Sutherland in The Times on October 2nd. Formerly I would merely have directed readers to a web-link so everyone could read it for themselves, but now the Murdochs have decided they are short of cash and need to charge for on-line access to The Times, I can no longer do this. I am therefore forced into making an inadequate summary. Sutherland’s subject is Monica Jones, Philip Larkin’s long-time lover. Sutherland was a student of her’s at Leicester University and subsequently a close companion. Jones shared with Larkin a dyspeptic and jaundiced view of life. She refused to conform and did the absolute minimum required by her job (she came to lectures with an alarm clock). She refused to publish ; it was what Sutherland calls a ‘conscientious objection’. She said that ‘it is more distinguished not to publish’. As a result of this non-conformity she was never promoted and harried into retirement. She was very badly treated by Amis who put her in Lucky Jim as Margaret Peel (Jim is Larkin),which led to many ‘mocking, misogynistic sniggers’ [what a bully and – there is no other word really – shit, Amis was: Lucky Jim is a third-rate book, the product of a fourth-rate mind. He has no excuses.]. Larkin himself was little better; refusing to commit or to defend her properly. Jones’ favourite authors were Thackeray, Trollope and above all Scott – it is to her that Sutherland owes his life-long passions. ” ‘Gold in your pocket for life’ she said when she instructed me to write an essay on Old Mortality. It was.”  This is not to say that she was any kind of saint. Her own political views were reactionary and became racist – she told Sutherland late in her life that she intended to vote for the (Fascist) BNP; and it is clear that she could be acerbic and unkind herself. Nonetheless she suffered a great deal at the hands of Larkin and above all Amis [it is the latter who is far more unforgivable since we cannot really know the truth of her and Larkin’s relationship: Amis’s behaviour is just wanton cruelty]. The article is itself moving because Sutherland accuses himself of not doing more to keep up the friendship ; he wanted academic recognition and success, and suspected Monica would not help him with this – ‘It wasn’t a noble decision’. It is the self-accusatory note which lifts this article into something which has its own artistic integrity.

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From the Lists

I am a member of a number of Yahoo lists (to which there are Links on the right of my main page) and when well try to contribute to them. They cover a variety of interests : three are mystery lists which mainly pertain to my mystery blog; two are Ellen Moody’s list – Eighteenth Century Worlds and Trollope and the 19th Century (her third – WomenWritersThroughTheAges – is also excellent but my resources do not allow me to be involved in it); finally there is the Anthony Powell list. From these lists I gain quite a lot of information and inspiration so I thought I would start this new section drawing attention to posts and discussions which have especially interested me.

A wholly disheartening story from the US which Ellen Moody alerted me to…http://www.womensenews.org/story/labor/101001/senate-tanf-vote-means-pink-slips-thousands?page=0,1. I commented on Eighteenth Century Worlds and Trollope 19thC studies that…

when one reads……”The gap between rich and poor is now the largest on record.’ (and a similar trend is at work in the UK which will soon be intensified) we are finding ourselves in societies which increasingly resemble the 18th and 19th centuries. Is the 20thC when this gap shrank in so many ways (not merely the financial) going to become some kind of historical aberration? Are we regressing to vast disparities of wealth and poverty? These pervade almost everything we read on these lists, whether stated or unstated. But one hoped that one read them as history, not as something which one would be able to observe first hand in one’s own country.

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There was a discussion on the GoldenAge Mystery list which actually had wider resonances. It reflected a concern about the average age of List Members and, by extension, the general readership for GA mysteries. I have always been sceptical of these arguments and wrote…

There are quite a few reasons why I am suspicious of these lines of argument and concerns (about an ageing fan-base, membership etc), which are applied in many areas of human and artistic life. Some reasons are….

1) As far as Yahoo lists (or other such Internet lists) are concerned my suspicion would be that the membership tends to be fairly elderly. I am sure this is true of most of those I am on (others of which have nothing to do with any kind of mystery novel). This is partly for very obvious reasons – if you are at work you are going to have a great deal less time for this sort of thing. I can spend my time participating because I am retired.

2) Some things are just more attractive when you get older. Excellent examples of this include classical music, opera, serious literature and drama. People often cite the fact that audiences for these (especially the first) tend to the elderly: the question is whether they are any more elderly than they were 10,20,30,50,100 years ago? I have only started taking any kind of serious interest in classical music in my 50’s. I suspect that the same may well be true of GA mysteries. Where this is true, the attempt to attract younger audiences by devices which are intended to make something ‘cool’ or ‘relevant’ (horrid word) are not merely embarrassing (sometimes intensely so) but misplaced.  And one should remember that in countries (which are certainly all Western ones) with an increasingly elderly population appealing to the elderly is no bad thing! An elderly audience does not mean that something is going to die out – it can just mean that is replaced by a new elderly one.

3) If somethings are better appreciated by the mature attempting to force them on the young can be positively harmful. A genuinely elderly (93) Aunt of mine whom I have recently re-introduced to Trollope (a fine example of someone you are unlikely to start appreciating till you are 40) remarked on how sad she was at having missed so many years of reading pleasure from having been put off him at school. Discovering someone for oneself is always so much better than being co-erced.

Of course none of the above applies to the issue of writers dropping off the radar altogether because their books become unavailable. Even here however I do not think that GA mysteries are by any means unique. Lots of writers, once hugely popular, from 50,100,200 years ago have disappeared – and then some re-appear as tastes and critical fashions change. Still there is no question that ‘keeping the flame alive’ is very valuable in such instances.

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On ECW Ellen posted two strongly contrasting articles on the work of Charlotte Smith. Taken together they serve as templates for good and bad academic practice.

First the good….http://groups.yahoo.com/group/EighteenthCenturyWorlds/message/17698

then the bad…..http://groups.yahoo.com/group/EighteenthCenturyWorlds/message/17699

and finally my commments….http://groups.yahoo.com/group/EighteenthCenturyWorlds/message/17701

 

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On  Trollope and the 19th Century we have just commenced a reading of The Way We Live Now (TWWLN). This my first experience of one of Trollope’s great mature masterpieces and the book’s sharpness and harshness come as, in some ways, surprising. Of course the most commented upon feature of TWWLN is its absolute modernity and this is evident from the start. As  a part of my comments on the first ten chapter I wrote, staring with a quotation….

“There was not one of them then present who had not after some fashion been given to understand that his fortune was to be made, not by the construction of the railway, but by the floating of the railway shares.  They had all whispered to each other their convictions on this head.  Even Montague did not beguile himself into an idea that he was really a director in a company to be employed in the making and working of a railway.  People out of doors were to be advertised into buying shares, and they who were so to say indoors were to have the privilege of manufacturing the shares thus to be sold.”

A wonderful exposition of finance capitalism. Here is Trollope succinctly explaining the basic conception which has, in ever more fantastic variants, landed the world in disaster upon disaster, including the latest one which Governments across the globe are now imposing massive cuts in services to the poor, the weak and the vulnerable to pay for. We are all Melmotte and his partners victims, while his ilk are still sitting pretty in the City of London and Wall Street and every other financial centre continuing to laugh at us. Plus ca change.

 

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 Film

Cracks (2009) directed by Jordan Scott (daughter of Ridley) shares with The Bitter Tears of Petra Kant the distinction of being a film which would satisfy a sort of reverse Bechdel test, in that the only men who appear or speak are in extremely minor roles. And the women (and girls) who are in it certainly do not spend all their time talking about men. Unfortunately this is about the only things the films do have in common. Cracks, as has been repeatedly observed by critics, is a kind of cross of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie with Lord of the Flies. It is massively inferior to both and suffers from the inevitable parallels; even if these are ignored however the film is a distinctly average affair.

Briefly (and the plot is scanty) Cracks is set in a remote girl’s boarding school in Ireland (for some extraordinary reason imdb describes it as elite – elite only if your standard of comparison was St Trinian’s!). Miss G. (Eva Green) is the Brodie figure who has a set of girls whom she inculcates with various Fascist ideas ; the girl’s leader and Miss G’s favourite is Di (Juno Temple). This order is utterly disrupted by the arrival of Fiamma (Maria Valverde) who has been sent to the school for attempting to run away with a Marxist peasant. Fiamma sees through Miss G’s pretences (she tells travel stories which are all culled from books), but at the same time Miss G. falls heavily in love with her. When finally Miss G. seduces a drunkenly unconscious Fiamma she is seen by Di who believes that Fiamma has been doing the seducing. Spurred on by Miss G., who says she will have to leave the school, Di leads her pack in a hunt and assault upon Fiamma, who is finally murdered by Miss G. not giving her the asthma inhaler she needs. The school hushes the affair up though Miss G. is sent on temporary leave of absence. The final shots are of Di running away on the boat to the mainland. While the Irish landscape is occasionally enjoyable to watch there is nothing of visual interest in either the cinematography or editing of the film.

One of the odd things about this film it that it is based on a novel by Sheila Kohler which, quite apart from the fact that it is set in South Africa, from the description given is definitely a kind of cross of Lord of the Flies and Donna Tartt (The Secret History) with no real elements of Brodie. But Jordan Scott says that the reason she was attracted to the project was the stories resemblance to her favourite boarding school movies like Picnic at Hanging Rock and Brodie. Now apart from the fact that Brodie is not set in a boarding-school I find this an odd description of a genre, and the two movies mentioned are utterly disparate. It is this kind of messy thought which is reflected in Cracks. Prior to Fiamma’s arrival we have a pretty straightforward, if vastly inferior, Brodie clone with Miss G. spouting nonsense about Desire being the most important thing in life; being able to achieve anything if you have Will; drilling ‘her’ girls in diving which is filmed a la Riefenstahl, and other Fascist nonsenses. With the arrival of Fiamma a sort of love triangle ensues, which is crossed with the Lord of the Flies stuff ( and I should declare an interest that I have never liked or believed in either the original book nor the film based upon it). In particular though we suddenly stray into something which is vaguely Gothic or horror influenced; fantastic anyway. What is this school in which these people are immured? It clearly has no relation to any sort of reality and there is a suggestion at one point that everyone is permanently trapped there (although at another people speak of going away for the holidays). Really though I am averse to spending too much time discussing this further. Cracks is visually average, thematically a complete mess and is in some ways rather exploitative and nasty – do we need to see midnight nude swims of supposedly teenage girls filmed from underwater? Finally one doesn’t much care for any of these people, and the movies only accomplishment is to make one want to go and re-watch The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

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