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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

The Decline of Irvine Welsh

I am currently reading Skagboys, the much-anticipated (in certain households at least) prequel to Trainspotting and the subsequent Porno. I am reading it in the same way that I read Porno – namely, knowing that it will have moments varying between decent, good and total crap. (With Welsh’s other books like Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs and Glue, I didn’t have even such low expectations: Welsh’s trajectory and entire style has been agonisingly familiar after Filth). I contend that Trainspotting, The Acid House and Marabou Stork Nightmares are all excellent books, but the decline in quality in Welsh’s subsequent work has been painful, similar to (and perhaps caused by the same factors as) the decline of bands like Guns N’ Roses, where an early energy and vitality is supplanted by a bloated pretension or grandiosity. (I still get violently angry when I think about GN’R’s fucking brass section).

The difference in quality is what I think demonstrates the difference between literature and popular fiction. Stephen King, in his excellent book on the horror genre Danse Macabre, denies the validity of this distinction, contending a snobbishness in literary critics causes them to occasionally appropriate books that had previously been thought simple popular fiction, such as… – I think he cited Richard Matheson for one. Bullshit. Literature is qualitatively different from fiction, in that fiction depends on the basic/elemental pleasures of storytelling (plot arc, characters, resolution), whereas literature depends on technique (metaphor (in the broadest sense), motifs, foreshadowing, irony, satire, framing devices etc). Fiction essentially is a great story, whereas literature tells you something about the condition of mankind. James Clavell’s novel Shōgun, a dazzling introduction to 17th century Japan through the eyes of the first Englishman to land there (John Blackthorne, as based on the real-life William Adams), is a magnificent read but is essentially just a great story. On the other hand, James Joyce’s short stories in Dubliners are magnificently rich in detail and symbolism, despite their surface realism. Consider the brilliance of this opening paragraph (I’ve highlighted in bold the words which are suggestive or allusive):

North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two storeys stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbours in a square ground. The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.

To be sure, some books are re-evaluated when, with the perspective of time, they come to take on greater significance. Charlotte Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” did not attract much attention upon publication in 1892, but subsequent readings demonstrate its subversion of patriarchal assumptions and its gothic power, and it’s now seen as an important early feminist text.

Anyway: back to Welsh. Anyone first reading Trainspotting in 1993 could not help being utterly impressed. It’s an enormously brave book, one which stood up and charged headfirst into any number of Scottish and British illusions and received opinions. It was the first novel I had ever read which faced up to Scotland’s endemic sectarianism, to the results of British military force (I hesitate to say colonialism: it’s such a loaded word; but it can certainly be viewed that way) on the people at the frontline, to the grim brutality of lives in the underclass, to the pervasive self-destructive escapism of drugs and alcohol, to the crisis of masculinity caused by the decline in heavy industries. These themes had of course been handled in some form before: William McIllvanney‘s books like Laidlaw and Docherty examine working-class masculinity, in what seems to me to be a hopelessly idealistic fashion; James Kelman, whom I discovered just after Welsh, has moderately similar subject matter but does something completely different with it, always insistent on the essential decency of his protagonists; Alexander Trocchi, naively held up as a father figure by some Scottish writers, wrote about the drug addict’s life from an explicitly intellectual-bohemian perspective, rather than from the working classes; Duncan Maclean, whose very fine collection of short stories Bucket of Tongues seemed something of a precursor to Welsh, perhaps came closest in challenging the problems of Scotland, but lacked a broader vision tying personal injustice with political . But it was Trainspotting in which these all first coalesced and exploded outwards, like nuclear fission of national rage. THIS IS WHAT IS HAPPENING TO ORDINARY PEOPLE IN SCOTLAND, it screamed, AND NOBODY IN POWER GIVES A FUCK.

But this is not to say that Trainspotting is a formless rant: on the contrary, the novel is quite artful. There is a sustained philosophical subtext, whose existential implications are handled with some subtlety. While university-dropout Renton is prone to using more educated vocabulary (“on the subject of drugs, we wir classic liberals, vehemently opposed to state intervention in any form”), the subtext is made clear when he is ‘before the law’:

– Mr Renton, you did not intend to sell the books?

– Naw. Eh, no, your honour. They were for reading.

– So you read Kierkegaard. Tell us about him, Mr Renton, the patronising cunt sais.

– I’m interested in his concepts of subjectivity and truth, and particularly his ideas concerning choice; the notion that genuine choice is made out of doubt and uncertainty, and without recourse to the experience or advice of others. It could be argued, with some justification, that it’s primarily a bourgeois, existential philosophy and would therefore seek to undermine collective societal wisdom. However, it’s also a liberating philosophy, because when such societal wisdom is negated, the basis for social control over the individual becomes weakened and . . . but I’m rabbiting a bit here. Ah cut myself short. They hate a smart cunt.

Existentialism is essentially a denial of society, the belief that one is utterly alone in the universe. One is free from social control (in the form of advice, praise and condemnation, etc), for better or for worse. It seems to me a fundamentally adolescent state of mind – the disputation of the merit of one’s elders, as one strikes out in life. But as you get older you realise that you’re not unique and that many people have been through the same situations; also the inter-connectedness of society and the rhythms of the generations become more evident. (Or so it has been with me). Renton’s passage through Trainspotting thus exactly embodies his desire to escape the “collective societal wisdom” (such as it is) of his background, to abrogate the “social control over the individual”, liberating himself.

After overdosing, he says “Ah huv tae git oot ay Leith, oot ay Scotland. For good. Right away, no jist doon tae London fir six months. The limitations and ugliness ay this place hud been exposed tae us and ah could never see it in the same light again.” His subsequent time in London is a blackly hilarious demonstration of the temptations of the bigger city and the freedoms of a more atomised society. His return to Edinburgh shows the inevitable consequence of transgression, with his friends literally disintegrating: Johnny Swan has had a leg amputated, Tommy has HIV, and Matty died an appalling death. His final departure, having burned his bridges with his remaining friends, is a glorious hymn to freedom, and where plot and subtext finally meet:

He had done what he wanted to do. He could now never go back to Leith, to Edinburgh, even to Scotland, ever again. There, he could not be anything other than he was. Now, free from them all, for good, he could be what he wanted to be. He’d stand or fall alone. This thought both terrified and excited him as he contemplated life in Amsterdam.

Clearly this is good stuff. The blistering talent demonstrated by Trainspotting was then consolidated by The Acid House and Marabou Stork Nightmares. Collections of short stories tend to have a desk-clearing aspect to them and Acid House is no exception, with some stories which don’t come off at all (“The House of John Deaf”, “Wayne Foster”, “Vat ’96″). But in my experience there’s very few short story writers can sustain quality in diversity: not Chekov, not James Kelman, not Stephen King, not Katherine Mansfield. (Only  Dubliners is uniformly excellent, that I know of). Acid House does have moments of astounding inspiration: “The Two Philosophers” is probably the best shaggy-dog story I have ever heard, with an absolute killer punchline; “The Shooter” is Welsh at his most realistic, showing his incisive eye and skill at characterisation; “Eurotrash” is transgressive but humane and, at the end, deeply empathetic; “The Granton Star Cause” and “The Acid House” are both works of Rabelaisian imagination. The novella at the end, “A Smart Cunt”, I believe perhaps the finest thing Welsh has ever written. It is moderately similar to Trainspotting but is more tightly focused, following one character (in first-person only) through various scenes: alcohol/heroin/ecstasy, Edinburgh/London, gay/straight. In its more subtle way, it is as existential as Trainspotting: but rather than rejecting society, “A Smart Cunt” denies the essence of the self, showing the protagonist Euan becoming a different person as he adapts to the different scenes. The recurrent mise-en-scene opening to each chapter emphasises this, removing any transition and showing Euan knee-deep in whatever situation he is in.

Marabou Stork Nightmares, meanwhile, is similarly inventive. Using the multiple-narrative and [SPOILER ALERT] comatose protagonist structure of Iain Banks’ exceptional novel The Bridge (Banks’ personal favourite), Welsh examines the roots of violence and abuse through a realistic narrative and a Freudian/Boys Own Adventure/Jungian symbolic counterpoint. While the form of The Bridge and Marabou Stork might be similar, Welsh does something completely different with it, to his great credit. As with The Bridge, the narrative strands start to merge towards the end of the novel, making its symbolism apparent. (I’m afraid I don’t have a copy with me in China so you’ll just have to believe me). It is though a dense stew of sexual symbolism and working class demotic – see this essay for a more detailed (if sophomoric) analysis.

So: three fine books within three years (1993-1995). Welsh then followed them up with Ecstasy (1996), Filth (1998), Glue (2001) , Porno (2002) and The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs (2006) – after which I lost patience and hadn’t read anything else until Skagboys (2012).  (Welsh is a man for the one-word titles, huh? Just like Gary Numan’s The Pleasure Principle). While Ecstasy was a hurriedly tossed-off piece of crap, the others are broadly similar, utilising the “trajectory” narrative inspired by American Pyscho, where events are less important than the trajectory they demonstrate the protagonist(s) to be on – usually working towards some kind of breakdown. Glue is the exception, being I think mostly in third person; but all tend to downplay character at the expense of plotting. I use plotting in the loose sense, for Welsh is hardly a detective-writer style tight-plotter. Nonetheless, in all these later novels, Welsh moves from the seedy psychodrama of his initial work to uninspired melodrama. He continually uses inane plot devices to keep things moving along: the chance encounter, the near-miss, the ridiculous scene of unnecessary but grotesque sex or violence (the one in Porno involving Spud and Chizzie is unbelievably grim but essentially redundant; the one in Filth is so over-the-top as to be cartoonish), the rush towards the melodramatic conclusion, the fatuous symbolic realisation. This last is most egregiously seen in Porno and in Masters Chefs. Porno‘s Nikki Fuller-Smith somehow shoehorns her betrayal by Sickboy into a allegory for the lazy irony of post-2000s culture, while in Master Chefs, as the Guardian review has it, “an intermittent attempt to elevate Skinner’s abuse-by-proxy into a symbol for Bush and Blair’s war in Iraq – ‘they get other people to deal with the shit they make through their own twisted vanity’ – seems especially forced”. And the endings! My god, what a farrago of cheap melodrama, naff symbolic resolutions and lazy cliches. Porno is the worst of all – I won’t spoil it if you haven’t read it, but it is a shockingly cheap way to handle the Begbie-Renton confrontation to which practically the entire fucking novel had been building up. It might be a naff joke for a book whose narrative engine is the production of a skin flick to have a terrible faked climax; but then, it might just be bad writing. My money is on the latter.

Throughout all of these later novels, there are to be sure good moments. Welsh’s eye never deserts him; his insights into Scottish/British politics and culture are often thought-provoking; and his handling of character is generally (though certainly not always) superb. But with his occasionally pretentious prose, weak plotting, use of shabby narrative devices and ham-fisted thematic MEANINGFUL SECTIONS, the decline has been all too apparent. Considering the magnificent achievement of Trainspotting, his career has been a visceral disappointment.

Skagboys however still held out some hope. (I didn’t even bother reading Crime or If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work, such has been my exasperation with Welsh). His love for those original characters is patent; while Porno was weak in many ways, the voicing of Sick Boy, Renton, Spud, Begbie et al in their 40s was a consistent strength, even a delight. (Begbie’s first-person narratives in particular are frequently hilariously ironic, while Spud’s are grievously touching). The premise of Skagboys, in taking Renton and Sickboy from the punk scene into heroin addiction, also augured well. I will examine the novel in detail next week.

Albums And What They Mean To Me #6

As might be obvious from my list of favourite bands through time, I have quite an eclectic taste. More than this, as I made my way through adolescence  and young-adulthood, my entire self-conception shifted a few times. This is awkward and annoying, especially when people still regard you as you were, but never mind: the main thing is to grow. For example, at school I was a nerdy good-boy (in Scouts, going to the chess club, having rapt discussions about A Brief History of Time); but I had a few years after graduating where I ran a bit wild. Underground nightclubs, techno, drum n’ bass, jungle, drinking like a bloody fish, smoking pot like it was going out of fashion, ecstasy, LSD, mushrooms, all that. Fun, though very very easy to burn yourself out on it.

I did. Big time. Towards the end of 2000 I had an almost catastrophic event – nothing life-threatening, but totally head-frying. It fucked me up so bad that for a few months afterwards I felt like I was always mildly tripping, and the general after-effects of  defamiliarisation (everything appeared strange and unfamiliar), depersonalisation (like I was watching myself from within) and what I later found was called “Hallucinogen persisting perception disorder” (half-seeing things out of the corner of my eye, and visual snow) lasted about a year. Longer, in fact, in times of stress or hangover-dom. Obviously this was a enormous kick up the arse, and I haven’t really touched drugs since.

This happened when I was working in some tedious and temporary office job in Edinburgh. There’s a nice bit in the “A Smart Cunt” novella in Irvine Welsh’s collection The Acid House, where the protagonist Euan talks about his girlfriend’s friends – they were always talking about what they wanted to be (painters, writers, actors, etc), obscuring the fact that they were office workers, local government officials, sales staff, etc. That was us, alright: everybody used to talk about the postgrads they were going to study, the bands they were in, the books they were wanting to write (though were never writing), the hip Edinburgh bars they were going to go to (though never did), the goals for the future. There is something awesomely depressing about being a new graduate, especially if you’ve studied the Arts or Humanities. Your knowledge of 19th century socialist parties or French existentialist novels isn’t worth donkey shit. The entire merit system to which you are accustomed and in which you have succeeded is replaced by the imperatives of business. No wonder so many wanted to go to graduate school. I, of course, was totally into getting a Masters in English. Then a PhD! I was so worth it! No matter that I was earning 5 quid an hour and barely had enough money to buy food.

Anyways. Naturally this was all rather depressing. I felt cheated out of the grand future I had so blithely imagined for myself. This fuelled my self-destruction, and I had a bit of a mad weekend etc: cut to the chase, head got fried and I was all fucked up. Worse thing was, the temporary job which we’d been told would last until March turned out to be coming to an end in December. The job agency which had recruited us all pretended that they’d “place” us all in new posts: I got offered two not-even-full weeks either side of Xmas. I conceded defeat at this point and moved back to the parental home.

You can imagine my mood. “Bleak” just don’t capture it. Monsters seemed to lurk under the stairs, ready to pounce. Day-to-day functioning was difficult: I kept thinking I was seeing things, and people looking into my eyes gave me the fear. I was as always listening to music, as I had no job and playing Championship Manager was the only other thing occupying my time. The key album (if you’ll forgive so much back story) was Death In Vegas’ Contino Sessions.

The second album by the Glaswegian electronica band, Contino Sessions was a considerable leap from their first, Dead Elvis. It combined the abrasive guitar and drones of Banana Album-era Velvet Underground with the rumbling beats of Rhythm and Stealth-era Leftfield. Which is to say that it was rocky, had dark rhythms, prominent bass, and this crippling sense of foreboding. The best song, “Death Threat”, encapsulates this: an enormous grinding of vast black thunder clouds producing bolts of sheet lightning, it is brooding, portentous and magnificently atmospheric. The electricity is so rich, you can almost smell the ozone.

The Velvet Underground inspiration is obvious in their recurrent use of drones and repetition. (This obviously is a recurrent technique in electronica, too). This often works well – as with “Dirge”, which creates a powerful tension between the repeated vocal line (and, only ever saying “La, la, la”, its implied dispassion), and the surging, powerful, alternative rock.

Sometimes, though, it just gets dreary and monotonous. “Broken Little Sister” is unrelieved by varieties in texture and tone: and the dirgey, grim atmosphere gets tedious without the creativity to illuminate it (this is why Radiohead’s “The National Anthem“, which is even more bleak, is a fucking masterpiece).

It’s not all bleakness, fortunately. There are some nice changes of atmosphere (if not pace – it’s nearly all mid-paced, gradual-accumulation-of-tension frameworks), such as the instrumental tour-de-force “Flying”. Inspired by The Beatles’ instrumental of the same name? Dunno, but both are atmospheric, visual instrumentals.

The Stooges-y “Aisha”, snarled by The Ig himself, is a setpiece in malevolence, though it always seems like a genre exercise. The postmodern video makes this obvious. It’s pretty juvenile, really.

This was obviously a low point for me, and Contino Sessions fit my mood perfectly. It is a great album, one I really believe is one of the best of the 1990s. But it isn’t something I return to often, now. The atmospheres are too evocative.

Irvine Welsh…?

No, I still haven’t finished the post about Irvine Welsh. I’ve got to the part where I’ve discussed his previous books and his basic trajectory, and am just away to turn to discussing Skagboys. Suffice it to say, it just isn’t very good (despite what the majority of Amazon reviewers seem to think). I’m afraid I don’t have the time or energy to really go through it and discuss the key points – which would mean a concerted re-reading.

It’s weird. When I was young, I had such a voracious appetite for books and culture in general that it now amazes me. By age 16, I had already read DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow and Sons and Lovers; EM Forster’s Howards End, A Passage To India, The Longest Journey, A Room With A View and Maurice; James Kelman’s The Burn, A Disaffection and Not Not While The Giro; Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, Marabou Stork Nightmares and The Acid  House; Orwell’s Animal Farm, Burmese Days and Nineteen Eighty Four; and William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Queer, and The Soft Machine. The sheer desire, the ferocious hunger, to become familiar with these great writers I distinctly remember. It was almost physical in intensity. Similarly, in one year, from age 15 to 16, my total writing output (creative writing, diarising and recording events I went on – i.e stuff done entirely spontaneously), was something  like 400,000 words – about 2/3 the length of Lord of the Rings, say. (I tore it all up, which I really regret doing now).

I say this not to boast but to point out the contrast. In recent years, I have entirely lost touch with current films, books, TV, and music. I simply do not have the mental energy to watch new films or TV, listen to new albums, or read new fiction (I still have the appetite for non-fiction). The time I do have to relax, I watch old comfortable stuff: The Empire Strikes Back, Roseanne, Alien, Spaced, Ghostbusters, Frasier. I re-re-re-re-re-re-read books that I know and love.

Does this happen to everyone? I remember talking with my Scout leader many a moon ago. He was telling me about a book, Wild Swans, that his wife was reading and raving about.

“You should read it, then,” I said.

He shrugged. “I just don’t have time.”

I didn’t say anything, but in my adolescent certainty, felt that one should always make the time to read. This guy was married, had two sons in their tweens, ran a Scout troop and had a professional career (a land sureyor, I think he was). Now I’m astonished he had time to be talking with, never mind arranging activities for, wee nyaffs like me.

Placeholder

You might have expected another blog sooner. I am working on one about Irvine Welsh and his maddening decline, in the odd moment I can scrape to do so. It’s already at two thousand words – I think it’s going to be a long one. In the meantime, what do you think of him?