Shōgun: A Love Letter

It’s been a while since I blogged. Shit happens and your days get filled with things you hadn’t anticipated. “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans” as the divine St John of Lennon says.

Anyway. I have just been re-re-re-re-reading (I normally read it once a year, and first read it in 1990 – you do the math(s)) Shōgun, the incredible novel by James Clavell, and thought I should due obeisance to its wonders. (I also must give my appreciation to my dad, who gave it to me when I was but 11. He was in many ways a fuck-up, but he was a pathfinder, the one amongst his peers who discovered and passed on Tolkien and Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and The Orb and all that good stuff).

In brief, Shōgun is a story of the first Englishman to set foot in Japan in the year 1600. Piloting a Dutch ship from Amsterdam which was the first ship outside the Portuguese and Spanish monopoly on the Cape of Good Hope and Magellan’s Strait, he lands with around ten men remaining from the three hundred who first sailed, all weakened with scurvy and a year-long voyage. Japan had then had Portuguese in it for around forty years, though in a far more controlled way than the Conquistadores and priests who had plundered and destroyed the civilisations of South America. Trading was restricted to one port, Nagasaki, though the priests were free to move where they would if they were decorous. Japan then was still largely a feudal society, its lands controlled by around two hundred warlords (daimyos), its people divided into castes with the warrior caste of samurai at the top, then peasants, then merchants (as commerce is widely despised) and then the despised eta, who butcher and handle the dead. What’s great is how Clavell immediately sets up these oppositions and conflicts: the immaculate and decorous Japanese landfall village of Anjiro compared to the cockroach-ridden, death-rich ship Erasmus; the polite Japanese villagers as against the foul-mouthed and unrestrained rabble of the remaining sailors; the arrogant samurai and the deferential and silent-hating villagers; the Portuguese desperate to retain their toe-hold on Japan and the English and Dutch aching to dislodge them; the Catholic and Protestant schism; the New World and Old; East and West… Clavell invests much of these in his characters and sparks fly right from the off. But these aren’t one-dimensional characters who only speak according to their types (if you’ve seen Wall Street you’ll know what I mean). The first daimyo we meet, Kasigi Yabu, has a torture fetish and the morality of a shark; the village head man is a Christian (and, as we later learn, a lot more besides); Blackthorne is an intelligent sea-faring man with five languages, a family he misses, a fondness for Shakespeare (a late scene with men digging for earthquake-lost swords is straight out of Hamlet and the gravediggers) and a temper; and Toranaga, perhaps the most complex and great man I’ve ever read of. (Well, maybe excluding Gandalf, if you count him as a man).

So immediately the setting is vivid, despite its complexity to someone four hundred years distant. What’s even better than that though is they way Clavell guides you, the reader, through the gradations of Japanese society, all the way to the highest daimyo, and to the intricacies of Japanese politics. Like R2D2 and C3PO in Star Wars, Blackthorne is our guide, the outsider in the midst of great events. After twenty years of Japanese unity under the dictatorship of the Taiko, he had died leaving only a seven year-old son and an appointed Council of Regents to rule until his heir comes of age at fifteen. When Blackthorne lands the Taiko had been dead a year and the Council split between Toranaga, the greatest general of the age, and Ishido, the Guard to the Heir and protector of Osaka Castle, the strongest military and political stronghold (where the Heir resides) in Japan. Clavell makes Japanese politics – its regard for “face”, the self-control, the concealment of one’s inner desires, the manipulation, the outer courtesies and protocol – wonderfully vivid. One way he repeatedly does so is to contrast what characters are saying in a dialogue, and what they are actually feeling. (You might say Shōgun predates Peep Show by thirty years in this technique, though obviously Peep Show does it for comedic effect and Shōgun more for dramatic purposes). This also heightens conflict, so that any conversation (with useful plot-moving properties) can have double the impact, or even more, if the character’s true feelings illuminate helpful backstory. For example, at one point Kiri (the chief consort of Toranaga) and Mariko (the daughter-in-law of Hiro-Matsu, Toranaga’s chief general, and one of the book’s leading characters) talk. Clavell fills us in about Kiri’s feelings about Buntaro, Mariko’s husband; about Mariko’s father, who is important to her psychologically and thus to the outcome of the whole book; and about the backstory of the Taiko and Toranaga, how they had battled together and won Japan). But on the outside the conversation is polite and little more than formal.

(The veneration for face and self-control, in fact, makes you see politics in a different, less emotional light. I do sometimes despair of people who say they just want politicians to be honest, not seeming to realize that politicians reflect the hypocrisies of the electorate, not from any natural or developed drive. Drugs and tax policies are two of the best examples. This is not to say that I welcome the grotesque cynicism of Karl Rove or the pseudo-wonkery of Paul Ryan, but to say that you see political moves more analytically. Someone fucked you over? Well, are you going to need them tomorrow? Better stay on good terms. Rivals with someone? Better to conceal your disdain until ready to strike. And so on.)

Another marvellous aspect of the novel is the range of characters and the humanity Clavell displays in evoking them. It goes from pit-digging villagers (Uo, the fisherman, once won the inter-village farting competition) who bawdily lust after the beautiful geisha Kiku to the inscrutable grand vizier Jesuit Martin Alvito, thirty years in Japan and official translator to the leading daimyos, from the ferocious guileless aged general Hiro-Matsu to the plump primped pimp mama-san Gyoko, holder of secrets and threats. Toranaga stands supreme amongst them all, the spider at the center of an incredible web. His humanity too shines through: here is a man of majesty and power, with more men under arms than the King of Spain, but who prefers low-born consorts (always zesty and grateful) and simple peasant dishes and enjoys a piss and a fart. Then again he is no vulgarian: he is a man who enjoys poetry and expanding his mind. The scene where he encounters Blackthorne dancing a hornpipe and insists on learning the steps is indicative of Toranaga’s lack of ego, his hunger to learn, his openness to new influences. (No mean feat for a man in his fifties: already, in my thirties, I find it hard to keep my mind open to new music and books etc).

Shōgun is obviously a novel to savour, and it bears repeated re-readings. Despite the complexity (for newcomers) of its setting, the prose style is functional, and the story-telling always focusing on character. There are immense amounts of dialogue and surprisingly little amounts of physical description. The characterization, as I’ve suggested, is supreme: Clavell’s humanity and instinct for the desires of all sections of society are miraculous. This above all is what makes Shogun one of the best novels I have ever read, a trait he shares with other supreme writers like Shakespeare, Stephen King, and Dickens. (Clavell wrote a series of other Asian novels, with dates ranging from the 1960s (Nobel House) to the 1800s (Tai Pan). His novel King Rat has a very good film version, with a bunch of actors you’ll definitely recognise. But Shōgun is at the apex of them all, in its range, drama and exotic setting. Go read!

Books On Modern China

After a year-long hiatus after leaving the country, I’ve recently been getting back into books about China, having just bought China’s Great Economic Transformation (on the Chinese economy, 1979-present) and Mao’s Last Revolution (on the Cultural Revolution). Here are the best books on modern China that I’ve read. (The text for these reviews are taken from my articles on agendabeijing.com).

Martin Jacques – When China Rules The World

Extrapolating the future from the past is always tempting, and that’s what Jacques seems to do here. Assuming that China’s astonishing growth will continue and that with this will come the political liberalisation seen in other Asian economies like Singapore and Taiwan, Jacques sets out a future scheme of China as the essential state, as once was the case – in Asia at least. (His historical section is better, because the facts speak for themselves, but there’s some amazing factoids in there). Jacques is something of an economic determinist (as a former editor of Marxism Today), and downplays the political obstacles before much of this can transpire. In the long term he may be right, but it won’t be the smooth sailing he makes it appear.

Susan Shirk – China: Fragile Superpower

Formerly the US deputy assistant Secretary of State responsible for China under President Clinton, Shirk’s book is an examination of the tensions on the fault-lines of China’s national security structure. With a job remit focused on China’s most sensitive neuralgic areas, she perhaps inevitably sees China as insecure, while the book is also very US-centric. The section on the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 is perhaps the most interesting section, but I came away with a sense that much more could be said. (I really don’t buy the “accident” line). Still, as an introduction to the areas of greatest external tension, this is a useful and interesting book.

G.E. Anderson – Designated Drivers

Policy formation in China is opaque, to say the least. Pronouncements come from as on high, and everyone below better listen up, buddy. This book is a marvellous introduction into Chinese economic policy and the numerous actors – and just because several are state actors does not mean that they are homogenous – behind the scenes, through the prism of the car industry. With the Japanese and South Korean auto industries doing well, China has designs to be a world-player in that area, though it remains some way off. Anderson explains why and how, and what this means for future economic policy development in China.

Wen-Szu Lin – The China Twist

Every single entrepreneur or businessperson thinking about entering the Chinese market should first read this. It is a fascinating story of an attempt to run a franchise business in China and the (very!) numerous pitfalls and problems Lin and his partners encounter. From dissembling agents to crooked officials to dubious partners, the whole cast of China’s rackety business infrastructure is here. The book is both hair-raising and eye-opening: you’ll definitely look at the untold promise of China’s domestic market differently thereafter.

Richard McGregor – The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers

The leader’s compound at Zhongnanhai, as China correspondents from the world over come to realise, is a “black box”. What goes on in there we don’t know. But piecing together stories form news reports and people who do have encounters from those inside, McGregor paints a picture of the Leninist framework underpinning the Chinese state. Its very efficiency is proved by how inconspicuous it is. As one (anonymous) official says, it’s like air: you cannot see it; it’s everywhere.

Henry KissengerOn China

As the Secretary of State to Nixon and architect of the “China policy”, Kissenger’s book is a first rate analysis of relations between the US and China. (The title is something of a misnomer: it should be On Sino-US Diplomacy). Tracing Chinese attitudes and state reactions to waiguoren from the first encounters to Obama, the book is naturally at its most vivid and penetrating when talking about Kissenger’s time as head of the National Security Council then as Secretary of State. Fortunately this comprises the bulk of the book. Kissinger’s explication of the demands of geopolitics and the niceties of diplomacy are fascinating – you literally learn how states interact on a real time basis. On the other hand, his reputation as an obsequious fawner comes through in the exchanges between himself, Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong.

Richard Burger – Behind The Red Door

China has a somewhat schizophrenic reputation as a civilization based on the primacy of the family and one where prostitution is endemic. But as Burger shows, perhaps these two aspects are not as contradictory as you might think – when sexuality is corralled into marriage which are subject to parental approval, there will be desires unmet elsewhere. Thus, pornography, homosexuality, prostitution and affairs receive almost tacit approval. Burger also takes the reader through a whirlwind tour of attitudes and practices, from the permissive Tang to the ludicrously repressive Maoist epochs, and divides subsequent chapters into useful sections, like The Family”, “Homosexuality”, “Dating and Marriage”, “The Sex Trade”. The book is never prurient, but humane and empathetic towards people in their most intimate moments.

Andrew Hupert – The Fragile Bridge

Doing business in China has many pitfalls and necessary strategies. This book of chockful of conflict management and resolution techniques, illuminating subtleties of which you may not have been aware and ways of playing the game, when you didn’t even know which game was being played! This is essential reading for anyone with business to transact, especially anyone conducting negotiations.

Tom Miller – China’s Urban Billion

This book by Tom Miller, managing editor of the China Economic Quarterly, is a timely examination of this “biggest human migration in history”. Miller divides his material into six key areas: an overview of the lives of migrant workers; the hukou system; land grabs; urban construction; ghost towns and urban planning; and transitioning the new urban classes into active economic agents. Perhaps the most consternating chapter is that on the hukou. In some ways it can be shown to be a success – by preventing migrants from coming to large cities willy-nilly, it has prevented Chinese cities from degenerating into the slums and shantytowns which scar India, Brazil and South Africa (for example). On the other hand, the human cost is high. Locking people who work and labor in the cities out of the benefits of living there condemns many to a half-life, trapped between their place of origin and place of work, unable to settle and shorn of their rights. Their living conditions are inevitably dreadful. As with each chapter Miller suggests means for ameliorating the system, one requiring sustained effort and investment from provincial and central government. Given the glacial rate of reform in the Hu-Wen years, one can only hope for a quickening.

Christopher Dillon – Landed China

Landed China is not just tips on buying door handles, or the percentage required for stamp duty (though it does address both). It opens with a historical overview of the housing market in China, which itself is fascinating, though I would have like this to have been both longer and deeper, before going on to examine current market dynamics, bubble concerns and demographics which will shape the future market. Dillon then goes on to the meat of the book: the “Your New Home” and “Finance” sections. The former examines the process of buying property, advises on what and where to buy, gives good advice on renovations (almost all new apartments being sold as empty concrete shells), and then gives a long, useful but rather worrying section on risks. While buying property here is possible, that does not mean it is easy, with scams coming left, right and center, and the buyer suffering from severe information poverty in comparison to developers, agents and banks. If that doesn’t have you running screaming from the very idea of buying a place in China, this might well be the most useful section.

Stanley Chao – Selling To China

Chao repeatedly emphasizes is that business in China is not some mysterious alchemic process. Agreements and partnerships which are mutually beneficial will succeed. This is not to say that it’s actually easy. On the contrary! For SMEs without the clout to make threats to withdraw from China worth attending to, operating here is stuffed with potholes and quagmires. Contracts, which the rule-bound Western mind thinks the last word on agreements, to Chinese should be updated on any change in market conditions. Negotiations will play on the fact that visiting businesspeople are necessarily time-bound and will desire to make the deal, at almost silly lengths. Independent translation is crucial. Choose partners with great care, after numerous visits to plant and office. Sweat the details – cover all the angles where you might be shafted, have a Plan B, and remove all the assumptions implicit in your business plan.

Selling To China is very well organized, with handy chapter reviews, a sensible progression through the material (from personal relations to the complexities of JVs and WOFEs) and a summarizing final thirteen rules for doing business in China. Chao – MD of a consulting firm assisting companies make it in China – clearly knows his stuff, and peppers the narrative with anecdotes and hard-won experience. For this, and its common sense, street-smarts and savoir-faire, this is a great book for anyone interested in entering the Chinese market.

Michael Griffiths – Consumers and Individuals In China

Taking a poststructuralist perspective on sociological and ethnographic practices, Michael Griffiths (Director of Ethnography, Ogilvy & Mather Greater China) examines various aspects of day-to-day urban Chinese life, as lived in the city of Anhan, Liaoning province. With empathy and humane understanding, Griffiths shows how individuals claim agency within the everyday structures they find in their environment. For example, in the “Sociability” chapter, he shows how the rules of courtesy and face must be negotiated to maintain social status. Some will refuse a dinner that they cannot reciprocate, even if it’s made clear that no return is expected or desired; some may strive too hard to claim generosity as a social distinction when the intimacy it relies upon has not actually been formed; while yet others, lacking the everyday means to treat others, prefer to formalise their munificence into “a rare orgy of success”.

What is most pleasing is the sense that Griffiths really knows what he’s talking about. Living in Anshan for several years conducting field research, he evidently engaged in local life in a real grassroots manner. Too often talk of “Chinese consumers” has referred to the high-end, high net-worth end of the market, omitting the lives and cultures of the 99%. Griffiths’ book however sets itself squarely within the migrant workers, low-scale entrepreneurs, farmers and former factory workers of Anshan. This shows to the benefit of each section, where he records the rites and rituals of Chinese life, and also gives (often pungent) tastes of local opinion on these areas. This is no bland marketing exercise, but rather a frank truth-telling. Long-term expats will find themselves nodding in agreement and recognition, particularly if they have lived outwith the major cities.

My Intellectual Heroes

As I’ve got older, I’ve come to read an increasing proportion of non-fiction. And within that, I’ve veered away from biographies and history towards the heavier stuff as time has gone by. Not that I ever shied away from a good thick doorstopper as a teenager. It sometimes tickles me to remember reading Peter Hennessy’s magisterial Whitehall, on the history, incumbents, current (1988) structure and performance of the British civil service, or The Development of the British Economy, 1914-90 while I was fifteen, for example. I always was an insanely ambitious reader (you can interpret that as “massive geek”, if you prefer).

Nowadays I have found my bearings intellectually with those I regard as my main influences. Oddly enough this process only began when I was at university: prior to that I was mostly literary, my favourite writers perhaps being James Kelman, Irvine Welsh and William Burroughs. But once I started reading the political and economic thinkers, that’s when I found my bearings. So here is a history of my heroes.

Karl Marx

I’m not going to apologise for this, either for its tabloid shock value, nor for its student trendiness. Marx remains a staggeringly powerful thinker and one well worth reading. (I was going to say “worth studying”, but as with any thinker, you should be able to engage with them for fun). Encountering Marx was something of a revelation – throughout my adolescent years I’d formed strong opinions on what I didn’t like (Christianity, “family values” types) but never found anything broader on which I could base it all. Upon hearing the main tenets of Marxism – that capitalism is inherently monopolistic, that the middle-class will be swallowed up, that economic development is the engine of history, and so on – I suddenly thought, “Holy shit! That’s just what I think!”

I was never, let me stress, a Rik from the Young Ones student revolutionary, nor was I ever into the Socialist Worker Party, the Trots or even the Scottish Socialist Party. My engagement with politics has always been intellectual rather than active. You might think I’m a lazy-do nothing arse if you’re a busy activist, but hey, that’s just the way I am. The political aspect of Marxism I never bought, insofar as talking about a vanguard party, dictatorship of the proletariat or the future withering of the state; it seemed (and still seems) absurd, and anyway is often more of a Leninist development according to his political opportunities. But the materialist conception of history, and the dialectic, and the view of history as a series of class struggles, were electrifying, illuminating, ideas. I feel a great deal of fondness for the eccentric old boy, and forever grateful to him for clarifying and sharpening many of my muddled thoughts. If you’re really not familiar with Marx either as a thinker or as a real person, try his biography by Francis Wheen, which is a highly readable delight.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche is another endlessly-misunderstood thinker and writer. Bastardized and misquoted by his anti-Semitic brother-in-law, unable to defend himself once he became helplessly insane in 1889 aged just 44 (the suspicion being it was caused by syphilis), Nietzsche did however tempt fate with his the overblown furious prose of his late works. His contempt for Christianity, his belief in an “Superman” and his disdain for the “slave mentality” – well, you can see where people would get the wrong end of the stick. Read the right way, though, without assuming that Nietzsche was arguing against types of people and seeing that it was against modes of thought, and Nietzsche is an invigorating, positive, indeed affirmative (one of his favourite words) thinker. (In some ways, he’s quite close to Buddhism). But rather than having a sustained, totalizing philosophy, I always feel that Nietzsche is best read as a coiner of provocative epigrams and thoughtlets. Have a browse through Twilight of the Idols, rather than the preposterous Thus Spake Zarathustra, for example.

Jean Baudrillard

Though Marx is of course hugely powerful and enlightening, I always felt – as many people feel – him better as a critic of capitalism than suggesting a positive program. And even then, his critique of capitalism is naturally suited to the classical Victorian capitalism of his era. Marx did, of course, foresee the development to the knowledge economy, but you really need to be within that context of that era to see the developments and implications of what is going on. I knew that, but where to go with that, how Marx could be updated to the (post)modern era, I couldn’t figure out.

Then one day I took Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers by John Lechte (a stunningly good book) out the library, and when I got to Baudrillard – BAM! POWEE! SHAZAAM! Fireworks went off, synaptic connections snap, crackled and popped, and I felt that immense intellectual excitement that you either know or you don’t. Baudrillard essentially works through Marxism into a semiotic perspective, and there you have it – Marxism synthesized into postmodernism. Baudrillard’s trajectory did take him to an almost Derrida-esque (Derridean?) obscurity, which is irritating. But his early works, on the object and the consumer society, and his more groundbreaking works, on simulations and networks for example, are staggeringly prescient and utterly fascinating. Read and never think the same way again. For me his The Consumer Society remains his best work.

JK Galbraith

I discovered Galbraith via Baudrillard, as The Consumer Society is in large part a critique of Galbraith’s The Affluent Society. In comparison to the above, Galbraith may seem rather conventional. (You thought I’d be extolling Noam Chomsky or Edward de Bono, I bet). Certainly he was a paid up member of the “Establishment”, a lifelong academic at Harvard, ambassador to India under Kennedy, highly garlanded. Nonetheless, his analysis of modern (i.e. post WWII) capitalism, the behaviour of business, the imperatives of capital, his explication of the role of the state in advanced economies, the necessity of planning and the implications of this, the reality of competition, the desire for vertical integration, all advanced or built on what I understood of the economy as it actually operates. One of the oddities of American capitalism is that it provides little theoretical understanding of itself as it actually words (I’m sure the real smart people have this understanding, but the political narrative of our era operates against it). The founding-myth of the individual farmer/landowner struggling alone and making his own fortune is still so strong that it sets the terms of debate within the US: self-reliance, standing on your own feet, “freedom” etc etc. No matter that the (sub)urban experience (as lived by 82% of Americans) is entirely different from that, or that the modern economy, where large corporations and government control the majority of economic output. The degree of interconnection, institutionalisation and wage-labour, rather than independent small capitalists, makes it an entirely different world. Still, the founding-myth carries on, so that American politics (on the right) has a strong libertarian bent, denying any communality. This might be alright for the farmer in New Mexico, but for the urban population in Cleveland or Bakersfield or Jacksonville, it surely runs counter to their experience.

Galbraith is in fact the great analyst of the corporation, its needs, drives and behaviours, and how it interacts with the state. He is a Keynesian, aware of failures in the market (his book The Great Crash 1929 is still a best-seller) and dismissive of simple remedies (he invented the phrase “conventional wisdom”) like tax cuts and cutting regulation to increase economic activity. (This is not to say that I don’t believe that these actions can have any positive effect on the economy, but they are not a panacea). He writes with elegance, wit and irony; he is clear, persuasive, and in masterful control of complex concepts and material.

I first found Galbraith through his book The New Industrial State in 2003 or so, and it blew me away; in its clarity, depth of understanding and analytical rigour it trumped anything I’d ever read before. Here was an ideas-led, sophisticated analysis of the world and the economy, not as it could be or ought to be, but as it is. He is my current, and most long-standing, intellectual hero. I just think he’s the tops, man.

My Favourite Characters

I’ve been busy running my new blog of late, hence the lack of posts. If you have any interest in Chinese business, or business in China, check it out.

Anyhoo, yesterday I answered a question in Reddit about which characters seemed the most “complete”. I immediately thought of Toranaga, the warlord from the brilliant novel Shogun. This made me think on about other characters I have loved, laughed at/with, felt fond of, empathised with, sympathised, admired, etc etc. Fiction (in whatever medium) is such a glorious way of expanding your acquaintanceship with a broader section of humanity. Whenever people ask me what kind of films I like, I tend not not say a genre (so reductive), but reply, “One’s with good characters”. This is really what makes a good film, nine times out of ten. You can admire cinematography all you want, but if the people on screen ain’t doing shit, then it’ll be a boring film. A good film, or book, will have this humanity. It is the irreducible core of fiction.

Anyway, here’s some that I have liked.

Richie Tozier from IT (Stephen King)

Richie Tozier is one of the “Losers”, that group of disparate and unhappy children in King’s best novel. He is an endlessly wisecracking smart-ass whose mind runs ten times too fast for his sense of decorum, whose comic absurdity mirrors the folly of the world he sees in his sharp eye, and whose belief and imagination are inchoate yet rich with potential. He’s an eleven year-old who views the stodgy hypocrisies and self-delusion of adults somewhere between wise cynicism and hysterical laughter. And, boy, he makes me laugh. I don’t think any fictional character (outside of comedy) has ever made me laugh so much – i.e. not by being set up for comedy, but simply by being himself and reacting off the other characters.

King is clearly partial to Ritchie (as he often is with his characters), and indulges him. About the first time we see him in IT, he’s introduced to the chubby Ben Hanscombe, as the Losers build a dam: Ritchie performs a series of “salaams” in front of the bewildered Ben, wades into the stream to place sod on their dam, trainers on and all, and does a salute to Ben whenever he returns for more instructions. This overacting and hyperactivity just reminds me of what it was like to be in Scouts, when we all had boundless energy and boyish enthusiasm – when we’d go camping at the drop of a hat and ten-miles walks were a regular Sunday stroll. But Richie’s manic wise-assism, to coin a phrase, also reminds me of being in primary school when it felt like my mind worked completely differently to the football jocks I then consorted with (I didn’t really know there was any different types of boy at that age), and the bafflement when they didn’t get what I was prattling on about, what I was referring or alluding to, and so on. That sort of poignancy is a rare thing, and sets King so far above the meat-and-potato slasher writers like James Herbert.

Toranaga from Shogun (James Clavell)

Shogun, if you don’t know (you really should!) is a novel set in the year 1600, following the adventures of John Blackthorne, the first Briton to set foot in Japan during its time of samurai warlords and first contact with European missionaries and traders. You follow Blackthorne as he makes his way through the levels of Japanese society, from the peasants and fishermen in the landfall village of Anjiro to the nobles and daimyos (warlords) of feudal Japan, kind of like how you follow the hobbits in Lord Of The Rings, or R2D2 and C3P0 in Star Wars. At the very center, or apex, of this war-torn land is Toranaga – Yoshi Toranaga noh-Minowara, head of the Yoshi family of the Minowara clan.

One of the numerous delights of Shogun is how it presents the intricate Japanese politics of the era and makes it comprehensible, even admirable. With the nation torn between around 260 daimyos, Machiavelli would have a field day, for the balance of power can shift on a feather’s touch. At the start of the novel, Toranaga is president of a council of regents appointed to rule Japan until the son of the Taiko (military ruler), who had died the year previous, comes of age at fifteen. Though Toranaga is president, his hated rival, Ishido, rules Osaka Castle, constructed by the Taiko to be the ultimate power in the land, unconquerable in its strength and wealth, with the nation split between those aligned to Toranaga, and those to Ishido. Toranaga’s political intrigues and manoeuvres are wonderfully subtle, and as the book comes to its climax, devastatingly effective. He rules over his generals, samurai, family, consorts and peasants with a fiercely attentive eye, the ability to make a man feel a foot taller just by a word of praise, and also – what’s perhaps most endearing – an wonderful lack of decorum. (The section where he discusses the penis size of his fellow regents is hilarious). Though arrogant and power-driven, Toranaga never resembles a stuffed shirt – or as Alan Clark so memorably described Douglas Hurd, “he’d be as well having a corn cob stuffed up his arse”. Toranaga relishes the basics pleasures of life – sex, simple food, kinship and family, bawdy humour, even peeing. The completeness of this portrait is staggering, and unique in anything I’ve ever read.

Mark Renton from Trainspotting (Irvine Welsh)

Renton is I suppose the closest person to me I’ve encountered in fiction. (Although cynical, underachieving, drink-loving, smart ass Brian from Family Guy would be up there too). He’s an intellectual from a Scottish working-class family who don’t really value that sort of thing. He is ginger. He is a football and music fan. He is deeply cynical about the social and political structures around him, both of government and the working-class institutions. He attended university but remained closest to his friends from back home. He reads a great deal, but mostly aimlessly. Of course there’s the junkie thing as a difference – I didn’t spend my early 20s in a heroin haze, nor did I need to get into theft and fraud to keep myself afloat. I did get into the clubbing scene enough to get a perspective on it all, though.

There is something of a tradition of the alienated Scottish working-class intellectual. It runs through House With The Green Shutters by George Mackay Brown, Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book, the (I think awful) Lanark by Alasdair Gray, and James Kelman’s A Disaffection, and even flavours Iain Banks’ finest novel The Bridge. With education in Scotland practically synonymous with “getting-on” and ultimately Anglicisation, those who refuse to be assimilated into the middle-class suffer (or take upon themselves) a double alienation – from their background, and from the class/society they have rejected. This is a harsher problem than say the working-classes in England, where at least their background remains their own, should they decline to rise socially. Or so it seems to me. Renton exemplifies these problems in a way I relate to far more than the alienated protagonists in the other books. Trocchi’s “Necchi” character is a drug addict and existentialist, but far out of his time in the early 1960s. Patrick Doyle of A Disaffection is a painfully sensitive disappointed romantic, the sort of guy you can imagine proselyting about the dignity of labour and being a member of the Socialist Workers Party and all that nostalgic shite. No: Renton is very much a character of his time and place. You never hear Patrick Doyle talk about his tastes in music, as you do with Renton – instead when sitting with a group of regular working men he starts jabbering about Karl Marx. Christ. Renton (who’s name I take to mean a split, between his educated, intellectual side and his self-destructive social grouping) may be intellectually superior to most of the people around him, but unusually – and thankfully – there’s none of the usual moral smugness associated with this: he’s deeply flawed, a junkie and thief, often described as physically repellent, who has mother-issues, a small penis and a fair amount of narcissism. But all this just makes him a more believable character: far from the absurd alpha-males of working class fiction – check William McIllvanney for egregious examples of this pish – but something more brutal, more honest and more true.

Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man (James Joyce)

This is another example of personal identification (and perhaps egotism on my part). But Joyce’s evocation of the development of the Dedalus’ intellect, from childhood to young manhood, is magnificent, just the sort of thing which anyone who lives the life of the mind will get and empathise with and feel excited by. While the bildungsroman is a well-known genre in charting the growth and development of the narrator/author/protagonist, most of this tends to be experiential, as you follow him/her (it’s usually him) through his early experiences. It’s harder to convey, and more satisfying to read, of the development of the mind. With the language in each chapter mirroring the language ability of Dedalus, and the text far more focused on Dedalus’ mental preoccupations than on the externals of school, family and explorations of the psychogeography of Dublin, Portrait is the best example of fiction portraying intellectual development I have ever read. (Second place goes to Edmund White’s The Beautiful Room Is Empty, which conveys the mind of the narrator, if not its development).

This is not to say that Dedalus is a a hero, someone to look up – not the triumphant student hero that you encounter on books like Tom Brown’s Schooldays or even Enid Blyton’s boarding school books (which I loved to read as a lad). Dedalus is weedy, self-righteous, veers between religious ecstasy and frequenting cheap prostitutes, and often acts superior. Yet there’s something wonderful about reading his development because it feels real, lived, genuine. You feel his ambition, his likes and dislikes, his personality, his mind. This is such a rare thing. For those, like me, who live the life of the mind, whose most important events are internal, whose forebears are literary rather than familial, Portrait is the definitive, you know, portrait of a mind attaining maturity. It’s utterly magnificent.

The Death Of Inspiration: Stephen King

Much though I like Stephen King’s earlier works (well, much but not all), he has a maddening habit of making his protagonists writers, and then imbuing that with some especial moral significance. This trait has grown more pronounced as time has gone by, to the point where you wonder why he doesn’t notice what a cliché it has become. In The Shining, Jack Torrance being a writer has some thematic/symbolic significance (in the way that The Overlook Hotel captures and then consumes his imagination); while Paul Sheldon in Misery demonstrates the endurance and comfort of fiction. (King’s original plan was that Sheldon’s skin would end up the cover for a single-edition of his next book, heh-heh-heh). But most of the time, the adoration of the writer figure is a tiresome, simple, self-projection. (See here for a schematic of fictional writers and books in King’s fiction). “Whoo, Steve,” we’re evidently supposed to cheer. “You’re a writer – isn’t that amazing!?”

Bollocks, of course. Such a strategy is adolescent and transparently self-serving. No doubt King is sometimes staggered by the success of his own life and career – who would ever think they would be the world’s biggest selling author? But as with many who achieve staggering popularity, the slings and arrows of critics seem to take particular sting, and King seems to want to imbue his craft with moral significance, as though writing is not just a job, but a quest. (Note King’s fondness for The Lord Of The Rings and his take on it, the Dark Tower series). Now, I don’t doubt there is great virtue in creating: but no more than there is in pregnancy, teaching, making a new dish or writing a song. To think otherwise reminds me of Larkin’s poem “A Study Of Reading Habits”, and the adolescent hero-identification:

When getting my nose in a book
Cured most things short of school,
It was worth ruining my eyes
To know I could still keep cool,
And deal out the old right hook
To dirty dogs twice my size.

Larkin then goes on to show how we then tend to identify with the anti-hero, then in adulthood realise that we are really the minor, unimpressive characters:

Later, with inch-thick specs,
Evil was just my lark:
Me and my cloak and fangs
Had ripping times in the dark.
The women I clubbed with sex!
I broke them up like meringues.

Don’t read much now: the dude
Who lets the girl down before
The hero arrives, the chap
Who’s yellow and keeps the store
Seem far too familiar. Get stewed:
Books are a load of crap.

“Yellow” meaning cowardly, of course. But for King, this realisation, this typically Larkinesque undeception, seems never to have happened. The worst of this (of the books I’ve read: it takes a particularly devoted fan to have read all King’s books) is in Bag Of Bones, where (of course) writer Mike Noonan is (of course) successful, owning (of course) several houses and (of course) having the intelligence, bravery and empathy worthy of any author-as-protagonist. There’s nothing wrong with the bildungsroman, of course; it’s a worthy literary genre. But the best examples are where the author/protagonist is fully aware of their weaknesses and is able to dramatise these: for example, Joyce’s A Portrait Of The Artist and Edmund White’s A Beautiful Room Is Empty (though it has a happy ending, it’s rather more bracing and piercing than the preceding A Boy’s Own Story).

King’s later books seem to me to lack vision. I don’t mean his ability to visualise the events: he has a great gift for this, so that it’s no wonder so many of his books have been turned into films (well, apart from their regular successes). I mean in his ability to imagine a wide range of humanity. I particularly like early stories like “Grey Matter” and “Night Shift” because of their low, mean, settings, and their nasty, low, mean, characters. The prose is tight and economical, the characterisation deft, and the horror fierce and noxious. In larger works, King had a problem in conjuring endings to fit the size of the canvas: the conclusion of novels like The Shining and The Stand suffer from a cheesy melodrama. But in these books you can forgive that, because the characters are so memorable, the setting well evoked, the story gripping, the tension rich. However, in Bag Of Bones and Cell and Lisey’s Story and The Regulators and Desperation.… man, I just don’t care about these rich successful writers, and their prosperous American backgrounds, and their pleasant lives. I really don’t give two flying fucks about Mike Noonan’s literary career, so it’s hard to care about his reaction to the death of his wife. I only care about Bill Denbrough (the writer in IT) because I like the boy he was. As a man, Bill is a bit of a tedious prick. (Ritchie in the other hand is always glorious to read about, man and boy).

King’s self-eulogizing takes off in IT, discussing Bill Denbrough’s time in a writing class. How’s this for a wanky, self-indulgent piece of self-mythologization?

Bill Denbrough, meanwhile, has written one locked-room mystery tale, three science-fiction stories, and several horror tales which owe a great deal to Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and Richard Matheson – in later years he will say those stories resembled a mid-1800s funeral hack equipped with a supercharger and painted Day-Glo red.

One of the sf tales earns him a B.

This is better,’ the instructor writes on the title page. ‘In the alien counterstrike we see the vicious circle in which violence begets violence. I particularly liked the “needle-nosed” spacecraft as a symbol of socio0-sexual incursion. While this remains a slightly confused undertone throughout, it is interesting.’

All the others do no better than a C.

Finally he stands up in class one day, after a discussion of a sallow young woman’s vignette about a cow’s examination of a discarded engine block in a deserted field (this may or may not be after a nuclear war) has gone on for seventy minutes or so… When Bill stands up, the class looks at him. He is tall, and has a certain presence.

Speaking carefully… he says, “I don’t understand this at all. I don’t understand any of this. Why does a story have to be socio-anything? Politics… culture… history… aren’t those natural ingredients in any story, if it’s told well? I mean… ‘ He looks around, sees hostile eyes, and realized dimly that they see this as some sort of attack. Maybe it even is…. ‘I mean… can’t you guys just let a story be a story?’

So brave Bill goes and writes the kind of thing he likes:

Bill leaves… but returns the next week, determined to stick with it. In the time between he has written a story called ‘The Dark’, a tale about a small boy who discovers a monster in the cellar of his house. The little boy faces it, battles it, finally kills it. He feels a kind holy exaltation as he goes about the business of writing this story; he even feels that he is not so much telling the story as he is allowing the story to flow through him. At one point he puts his pen down and takes his hot and aching hand out into ten-defree December cold whewre it nearly smokes from the temperature change. He walks around, green cut-off boots squeaking in the snow like tiny shutter-hinges which need oil, and his head seems to bulge with the story; it is a little scary the way it seems to need to get out. He feels that if it cannot escape by way of his racing hand that it will pop his eyes out in its urgency to escape and be concrete. ‘Going to knock the shit out of it,’ he confides to the blowing winter dark, and laughs a little – a shaky laugh. He is aware that is has finally discovered how to do just that – after years of trying he has finally found the starter button on the vast dead bulldozer taking up so much space inside his head. It is revving, revving. It is nothing pretty, this big machine. It was not made for taking pretty girls to proms. It is not a status symbol. It means business. It can knock things down. If he isn’t careful, it will knock him down.

Oh dear. This kind of thing is almost like the author glorification which Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace so brilliantly mocked:

From then on, the role of the writer gets increasingly venerated in King’s fiction, and the range of King’s fiction thins, in character particularly, but also in setting, as King gets smug about his own life and fails to expand his experience (and therefore vision), and keeps to the same nice, upper middle-class American setting. This disconnection from real life is death to a writer. While IT is to me the greatest book in King’s canon, it also heralds his demise as a creative author.

Charlie Brooker, RedLetterMedia and the Critical Stance

There have always been critics in society, those who explicate, analyse and comment upon other people’s creative efforts.  They first went professional, I suppose, in the era of the first daily newspapers in the early 1800s: people like William Hazlitt (Michael Foot’s favourite essayist), and so on. The previous generation of critics had generally been published in pamphlets; writing for an intellectual audience, they included writers and thinkers from Adam Smith to Jonathan Swift. Further back, the critic can be seen in religious enquiry such as by St Thomas Aquinas, and all the way back to the philosophical debates of the Ancient Greeks. From the beginning, the critic has been a figure of intellectual authority, bringing deep knowledge of his or her field and authoritative judgement to the edification of their readers (or listeners, in the case of Plato and chums). This tradition worked across fields from film and music to politics to, I don’t know, queer studies and post-gender body dismorphia. (Completely off-topic: I once read a queer-studies analysis of William S Burroughs that is probably the best book on him out there – it totally makes his works comprehensible, if not, you know, that much better). Famous critics include Roger Ebert, Lester Bangs, and Noam Chomsky, to take three disparate examples. You’ll doubtless have a few favourites of your own: mine include George Orwell (90% of the time, a better essayist than novelist), Stephen Thomas Erlewine (of Allmusic fame – surely the best music review website on the internet), Jon Savage, Michael White and Paul Krugman.

With the internet making everyone a critic nowadays, it has thereby necessitated a change in the stance in the critic. While their essential function is still the same – they look at what other people have done and make observations, hopefully in an entertaining way – the way they present themselves and their information has shifted dramatically. This can be seen in two of the most popular critics to come from the post-2000s, namely Charlie Brooker (of Screen Wipe and the Guardian) and “Mr Plinkett” of the RedLetterMedia Star Wars prequels analyses fame. (See: The Phantom Menace, Attack Of The Clones, and Revenge Of The Sith; each one is about 70 minutes long).

With Charlie Brooker I actually wasn’t overly aware of his broader work until recently. Though I am a pretty devoted “Guardianista” (I curdle with shame at how I used to read the Independent, because I thought it actually was  independent – it became intensely “Blair-lite” in the mid-90s, probably chasing market share), I only read Brooker’s columns and no more. I was in China when Screen Wipe was on, so missed it completely. I did see Dead Set, the zombie show he wrote, and Nathan Barley, a satire of the “Shoreditch Twat“, but found both far too heavy-handed to be genuinely enjoyable. The targets were too obvious, the humour too self-satisfied. But recently, freshly back in the UK, I watched several episodes of Screen Wipe, and found them to be extremely good. Their dissection of TV, media and popular culture is blisteringly funny, fiercely acute and scatologically profane – so the three things I enjoy most, then.

I can’t remember how I encountered the RedLetterMedia analyses – probably just through YouTube’s “Suggested Videos” sidebar. Their flaying of George Lucas and the prequels were just so absolutely dead on-the-money, though, that I recommend them to any fan of cinema, not just Star Wars fanboys. Laced with comic surreality and intense black humour, the reviews are some of the most intelligent takes on film I’ve read in a long time, when sadly the media has abdicated its critical faculties in the pursuit of advertising and movie star (imagine as a blinking gif – MoViE StAr!!!!!1!) access. This is even true of supposed “film journals” like Total Film and Empire. (This is even more observable in music media, from NME to Q to Mojo, where sycophancy runs desperate riot).

What do Charlie Brooker and Mr Plinkett have in common that I’ve lumped then together? They both take the traditional role of the critic, true – they analyse, dissect, observe, and pass judgement in an entertaining and enlightening way – but that’s not their USP. Both of them make repeated efforts to present themselves as idiots, even as deeply unlikeable. The stance of the critic, urbane, sophisticated and effortlessly knowledgeable (think Roger Ebert, Barry Norman, Frank (or indeed Mark) Kermode and Lord Kenneth Clark), is unsustainable in a world where any idiot with a computer can pass judgement. (Just look at me, heh-heh-heh). Those critics were better than us. Instead, Brooker and Mr Plinkett acknowledge the impossibility of being this kind of critic any more and – to show they aren’t superior to us – present themselves as deviants and plain misanthropes. Mr Plinkett has his voice slowed, making him sound almost like Buffalo Bill in The Silence Of The Lambs, while his creepily tongue-in-cheek asides present him as a abductor of women, murderer, and rapist. Brooker meanwhile contents himself with visceral hatred (of himself and all others), leering, profanity, and mimed (I hope) masturbation.

The democratisation of knowledge the internet brings has not, of course, led to a democratisation of insight, wit, or learning, yet the opening of access (to content) makes it harder to present yourself as an expert when there’s been no equal opening of access (to media opportunity). It’s not harder to be an expert these days, but it is harder to present yourself as one, when there are thousands of others out there who can claim to have better knowledge of your field. So if the social value of the critic is devalued by its inflation (just look at how many crappy blogs there are out there), best to satirise yourself first. The criticism of the critic extends first of all to themselves. There is, too, a touch of “get your retaliation first” about their stances – call yourself a sad, ludicrous prick before anyone else does, and you seem less aloof, and less vulnerable if anyone else does it. Brooker and Mr Plinkett therefore adopt the ironic stance of seeming as grimly pathetic as the rest of us – “sitting next to Mr. Waddilove, stinking of shit!” as Pauline from The League of Gentlemen says – to head off criticism, ingratiate themselves with the masses, and attest to the absurdity of their position in society.

So is the critic dead? No, he’s merely in his basement, cutting off someone’s head, or wanking off to low grade Albanian porn. Just like the rest of us, so we feel less patronised. But what does that say about us?

Books That Have Been Crushing Disappointments

Crap booksI really should focus on books a bit more. I guess it’s because there’s very few authors who I like throughout their entire oeuvre, unlike with bands where you can relatively easily compare and contrast across albums. Take two of my favourite authors, George Orwell and EM Forster – both of them were pretty so-so until their final two novels, but then both pairs (Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four; and Howards End and A Passage To India, of course) are some of the finest in the twentieth century. I’m excluding Orwell’s non-fiction here, of course. Where bands can reproduce essentially the same album over and over again (I’m looking at you, AC/DC), writers can get stale very quickly (I’m looking at you, Irvine Welsh) and attempts to branch out can be bewilder their audience (I’m looking at you, James Joyce). It rather depends on their style, of course. Character-based writers like Irvine Welsh use up their share of meaningful stories early on, and then have to fall back on increasingly-hackneyed plots and melodrama; whereas plot-driven writers, such as those working in crime or mysteries, or genre fiction, where you work within set parameters (such as horror, fantasy or westerns).

Nonetheless, there have been a number of books which been intensely disappointing, whether following an outstanding precedent or which fail to capture their potential.

The Autograph Man, Zadie Smith

On Beauty, Smith’s third novel, was the first of hers I’d read. It’s a homage to Howards End, set in a New England campus, so it has the traditional campus comedy (of manners) in the mix too: departmental politics, the clash of ego and political correctness, the hilarity of smart people having oh-so-human weaknesses. It’s really pretty damn good, even if the media epithet of “prose wizard” overcooks Smith’s talent: she is deft, for sure, but too much in love with writing and novelising to prevent a certain obtrusiveness. Still, it was one of the best novels I’d read for some time, certainly for  new writer. I was in China at the time, so I could only find The Autograph Man, rather than her much-lauded debut White Teeth. But my, how completely boring was The Autograph Man! It completely failed as both fiction and as literature. It was awful fiction because there was no compelling plot or characters (protagonist Alex-Li Tandem (gettit?) only seems to be mixed race Chinese-Jewish, but have no other traits worth notice or mention: his career of autograph hunting is only because it’s easy), nor are there memorable character arcs. There was, most damningly, no sense of pattern: there was some events you didn’t care for, then another event, then… dribbling pointlessness. It failed too as literature because the symbols and themes were either not brought out (the emptiness of fame and celebrity is a decent idea, but it was never really elucidated) or obvious: yes, autograph hunters are parasites, etc etc. No doubt Smith had a publisher clamouring for product to keep the public and media interest high – collections of short stories are often good holding-manouveres – but The Autograph Man will have to go down as “the difficult second novel”. If Smith can grow out of the precious “I’m a writer” attitude and stick to her craft, I’ve no doubt she will produce compelling work.

The Silmarillion, JRR Tolkien

Much though I love The Lord of the Rings, I simply cannot make any headway on The Silmarillion. All those bloody elves! I find them the least interesting of the races and forms in LOTR, with their righteousness and effeteness. Boring! I far far prefer the homeliness of the hobbits, and much enjoy the opening and closing chapters set in the Shire. The rustic humour and essentially suburban concerns of the Shirefolk make a terrific contrast to the awesome devilry of Mordor and the pride and majesty of Minas Tirith. Remove this, and an essential antithesis is removed. The Silmarillion even takes away men and and dwarves,: it may be mythic and majestic, but its poetic frame of mind is not congenial to me.

Post-Misery Stephen King

Writers, like musicians, dry up. Their inspiration declines, their vision expires. Creativity, in composing something entirely new, is brain-busting, intense, utterly demanding work. After a time, most artists stick to the parameters they have set out in their early work. With Stephen King, though he was always quite hit and miss (I don’t care for early books like The Tommyknockers or Salem’s Lot), he seems to me to have dried up almost entirely after Misery, or after about 1992, or after (though this is an uncomfortable thought), since he kicked drugs and alcohol. Since then, several characteristics seem to have set in: his protagonists are far too often writers and the setting is generally upper-middle class north-east USA. In other words, his experience of life has become too thin to sustain sustained creativity; he has come too far from his period of struggle to remember the broader range of emotional experience and of humanity. His earlier works (particularly some of the short stories) were enlivened by thoroughly nasty situations and people: “Night Shift” remains one of the best horror stories I have ever read, while the demented black humour of “Survivor Type” is very much to my taste. (I did write a gruesomely vivid zombie novel as a joke, you know). But since 1992 or so, King’s fictional world has been repetitive and boring. Bag Of Bones, The Ghost Of Tom Gordon, Gerald’s Game, Needful Things, Cell – every single one of them has been ultimately tedious. That’s five for five out of his post-1992 work. He can still create character effectively, but his weaknesses – the insane overwriting, the melodramatic ending, the thinness of the conception – are no longer concealed by his strengths.

Still, an eighteen year (1974-1992) period of creativity is a good one for any artist – especially a writer who produces two novels a year.

John Lennon Letters

I thought Lennon’s letters would be quite literary, in the same style as those of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin: lengthy, revelatory, funny, insightful. But the “letters” are in fact often postcards and notes – one of them is even a shopping list! There is only one letter to Cynthia whilst the Beatles are in Hamburg, none to Yoko (allegedly because when apart they were on the phone “twenty times a day” – I call bullshit), none to friends like Shotton. Only the ones to Derek Taylor sustain the interest; the rest seem to be scribbled notes to fans, postcards to family and colleagues, and the odd half-page letter, to Julian or musicians. The legend of Lennon the literary intellectual gets shot in flames by this book; though it’s my guess that Yoko Ono has a cache of correspondence which she refuses to release.

While Lennon’s style is of course distinctive, with his puns and neologisms and Joycean coinings, it will be familiar to anyone who has read In His Own Write or A Spaniard In The Works. In the end, the sole interest of the Lennon letters is for biographical revelation, and on that count it is remarkably thin. Lennon was never one to examine himself and his methodology, or rather to verbalise this: he preferred to keep it instinctive, visceral, natural. This is probably of benefit to his creativity, but it makes the book a weak, insubstantial, unsatisfying book.