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 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.

Legends I Just Don’t Get

antimusic

I remember when in my final year of studying English and working on my dissertation (“Philosophical Subtexts in the Works of James Kelman and Irvine Welsh”). Talking with others, I was always a bit mystified by their choices. Why would they choose Yeats, or Sir Walter Scott, or Derrida (whom I consider an absolute fucking charlatan)? But of course taste is always personal, and, as I once read somewhere, somebody who quite likes everything doesn’t really like anything. Studying English brought immense pleasure from those I liked (Larkin, Eliot, Pinter, Ginsberg, Joyce, Keats, Woolf, Forster, Lawrence, Baurdillard, etc) but immense yawns from those I didn’t (Austen, Scott, Plath, McIllvanney, Shelley).

It’s the same with music. There are some greats that I simply can’t get my head around. People whose opinion I respect rave about them, but somehow it just passes me by. I’m not talking about stuff I actively despise, like Coldplay, Kean and all that mortgage rock/landfill indie banality; the Stereophonics and their gormless stupidity, or Snoop Dogg and all that ghetto mentality hip hop. (I can just about appreciate Ice T, because he talks about it with dramatic irony). There are some greats that I just don’t get…

1. Bob Dylan

According to the excellent allmusic.com, Dylan’s “influence on popular music is incalculable“. I don’t dispute the excellence of songs like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Like A Rolling Stone”, but when I listen to Bringing It All Back Home or Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde, I come away thinking, “…Meh”. I just don’t come away with any sense of delight or wonder or rapt pleasure that I would expect for someone so rabidly esteemed. It’s not that I don’t like folky music: when I listen to Nick Drake (for example his magnificent songs “Hazey Jane I” or “Cello Song“), I am prostrate before such eloquence and vision. I just don’t understand what Dylan is trying to do or say, and this annoys me! (The exception is Nashville Skyline, his first all-out country rock album, where he clearly has a vision and executes it beautifully).

2.  Bruce Springsteen

To be honest, I haven’t listened a great deal to Springsteen, only Born To Run and Born In The USA. Maybe his darker albums Nebraska and Tunnel Of Love are better. But it seems to me that Springsteen suffers from a fairly common trait (one also suffered by New Order, XTC, Moby, The Verve, U2 and later REM) – utter blandness. It doesn’t matter how emotionally you posture (check his “passing a kidney stone” level of emoting in the “We Are The World” video), if the music is bland it’s all meaningless. Though I guess you can’t deny the power of “Born In The USA”, most of Springsteen’s other songs are just so much “meh”. Even with a sax player as good as Clarence Clemons!

3. Tool

Although a metaller when young, I had pretty much grown out of it by 1994ish. My taste in metal is thus utterly stagnant – good old Metallica, Slayer, Guns N’ Roses, Faith No More, Megadeth, etc. After that, my interest fades severely. Numerous friends however have extolled the virtues of Tool, citing their dark intelligence and sharp musicianship. Trouble is, the singer’s whiny nasal voice bugs the shit out of me.

4. The Police

Same as with Bruce Springsteen – “Every Move You Make”, great song. The rest, meh. There’s roughly a zillion bands from the same period who are far more interesting.

5. David Bowie

I guess this is the same as my feelings about Dylan – I have listened to his great albums on numerous occasions and come away feeling mildly pleased but also puzzled. Where’s the immensity, the awesomeness, the majesty? Now, I think Hunky Dory is a very good album (probably because of its overt similarity to Transformer), Low leaves me staggered at his vision and future-awareness, and who can resist the swagger of “Jean Genie”? (Can someone tell me if The Sweet pinched the riff for “Blockbuster”, or was it the other way round?) But…! Station To Station, Diamond Dogs, Aladdin Sane, The Rise and Fall…, Heroes – all of these are critically esteemed as exceptionally good albums, and which leave me cold.

6. Deep Purple/Rainbow

My prog rocker dad and uncles were natural fans of the Purp, and would extol them as great musicians, intelligent music, etc etc. Trouble is, if you’re a musician trying to convince people of your technical skills or intelligence, you’re going to forget to do basic things like entertain or convey emotion. Deep Purple and Rainbow seem to me to be long-winded pompous smug selfindulgent wanky “intelligent” crap. I don’t care how long you can do a solo, I don’t care about how technical your music is, I don’t care how many literary allusions are in your lyrics: it matters not one rat’s ass. The only thing that matters is what emotion is conveyed. In Deep Purple and Rainbow’s case, the emotion I perceive is overcompensation.

How about you?

Three Top British Films

(N.B this, with a little judicious editing, is taken from my old blog.)

I’m not really a film buff. The films I really like I watch over and over again, sucking the marrow out of them as you would with a good album or novel, but rare is the movie which repays that close attention. Generally (but not always), the ones I get obsessed by are British. Not that Hollywood doesn’t produce some good films – Fight Club, Pulp Fiction, Chinatown and so on – but the best British films seem to be more truthful, more lifelike, where the best American films seem more stylised. Films like Personal Services, Get Carter, Kes, Scum, Withnail and I, Trainspotting, Wish You Were Here, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, hell, even Educating Rita, capture a reality I relate to far easier than any other films. (I know there are large amounts of British-made pish, but I’m talking about the best ones, as compared with the best American or French films for example. I’m not going to defend The Sex Lives of the Potato Men).

So here then are my top three:

Quadrophenia

This is my favourite youth-orientated film of all-time. It’s the film of The Who’s 1973 concept album of the same name, the story of Jimmy, a mod, who is unsure of his identity and subsumes his own within the mod movement. Mods, of course, were the youth culture of the day, who dressed sharp, took speed in the form of pills called purple hearts and blues, rode Vespa scooters and listened to sharp modern pop. They were in opposition to, and antagonistic towards rockers, who rode larger motorbikes, wore leather and idolised fifties rock like Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. Being a mod gives Jimmy a sense of identity at a time (he must be seventeen or so) when you are unsure of yourself and need to fit in: but this comes at a cost, as Jimmy eventually finds.

Amongst the numerous qualities of this film is a absolute dedication to the reality of the context. There are no compromises in setting, dialogue or tone. The strong London accents are undiluted, giving some memorable exchanges, such as “Feel asleep on the train and waahnd up in bloody Neasden!” or “The people who ride these things are state, third-class tickets.” Similarly, the setting is unvarnished but completely recognisable as a working-class environment: Jimmy’s home is a plain council house, with crude newspaper cut-outs adorning his bedroom wall and evidently no bath. The scene where Jimmy sleeps out in their shed and just misses his dad leaving for work, with flat cap and wax jacket, is tiny but acutely detailed, which goes for the film throughout.

Despite this verite, there is a depth to the film which is constantly dramatising larger themes. The way it does this using everyday dialogue is just amazing, and a real lesson: you don’t need to be “educated” to have ideas, you don’t need to have upper-class characters to illustrate larger issues. (James Kelman, the greatest writer Scotland has produced since Lewis Grassic Gibbon, was no doubt taking notes). To take one example: we see Jimmy paying another HP installment on his suit (no store cards in those days – and where else have you ever seen such a frank depiction of the realities of consumer spending for the young?). As he pays, another mod and his friend is being measured for a suit, angrily querying the tailor, insisting it be made much tighter and sharper. “Stop fuckin around and bring it in ere!” To which the agitated tailor loses his temper, insisting, “Look here, sonny! You keep that kind of language to yourself! You don’t like it, you can go and get your own suit.” The mod asks his friend what he thinks. “Fucking rent-a-tent, innit.” The tailor looks angry but does nothing; he doesn’t want to lose the sale. There, in a nut-shell, are big themes like Youth Consumption and Generation Clash and Consumerism.

Or to take another scene: a former school friend Kevin, now a rocker (the enemy) pays Jimmy a visit, biking up Jimmy’s garden path. Jimmy is in the shed tinkering with his scooter, and hearing the deep thrum of the bike and fearing assault, picks up a spanner. They talk about why one is a mod, one is a rocker. The conversation is just brilliant:

Jimmy: But it’s not just the bikes, it’s the people. And the people who ride these things [gestures to Kevin’s motorbike] are states, third-class tickets.

Kevin: Do what?

Jimmy: Rockers, all that greasy hair and clobber. It’s diabolical!

Kevin: I don’t give a monkey’s arsehole about mods and rockers. Underneath, we’re all the same, ain’t we?

Jimmy: Nah, Kev, that’s it. I don’t wanna be the same as everybody else. That’s why I’m a mod, see? I mean, you gotta be somebody, ain’t ya? Or you might as well jump in the sea and drown.

Kevin: That’s why I joined the army: to be different. To get away from all this! But wherever you go, there’s always some cunt in stars and stripes who wants to push you about.

God, that’s great. Identity, conformism, ambition, belonging, group identity – all in one completely realistic conversation. (And the irony of going into the army to be different – delivered completely straight-faced, whereas any hamming it up would shatter your belief in the character).

So there’s all that. But I haven’t even mentioned the Brighton scene yet! This must be one of the most visceral scenes in all cinema – those fuckers are really beating each other up on that beach! It’s completely compelling, sheer euphoric teenage kicks: not just the fighting, but when they are “kettled” by the police into one small street, the battle cry of “We are the mods! We are the mods! We are, we are, we are the mods!” sets your hair on end. It’s just electric.

As with speed (which Jimmy is shown taking fairly often), or any stimulant, there’s the rush and then the hangover. So it is with Jimmy. After the amazing climax of Brighton, the rest of the film is an unravelling, as Jimmy finds being a mod can’t support a life. The euphoric camaraderie splits apart as soon as it achieved. Jimmy retraces his steps, unable to let go and clinging on to the mod identity. He returns to Brighton, but what was once alive with mods is now a sleepy resort. And once all his illusions are shattered, eventually he manages to let go. At the end he’s shown walking away from it all, alone.

Other things worthy of attention: the direction is excellent with the camera inobtrusive; you really do get the sense of watching a slice-of-life. It’s not flashy or showy, concealing its artfulness behind a self-effacing realism. The cast are terrific (a show-case for acting talent – Phil Daniels, Leslie Ash, Ray Winstone, Sting, Toyah Wilcox, Michael Elphick, and Benjamin Whitrow) with the characters well-sketched. You really get a sense of the group dynamic, the boys aiming for the leadership of the mod gang, and the top girl knowing it all too well.

Still not sure? Here’s a clip to prove it.

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2. if…

Whipsif… was famously filmed at the time of the evenements of May 68 in France – as the film is an allegory for revolution against the repressive, reactionary old-order, this was entirely fitting. (John Lennon was at the same time writing “Revolution” while meditating in India – clearly there was something in the air). It is also the first film of Malcolm MacDowell, and while he doesn’t steal the show (for a film almost entrely about boys who are actually played by boys, he cast is highly impressive), he does grab the attention.

I said if… is an allegory of revolution – but the school is also an allegory of Britain, with its all from past glories, repression, incompetent, class-based leadership, absurd rules, appalling education, and gross archaic longings. It works remarkably well as a simple story of school boys revolting against repressive discipline (enforced by prefects called “whips” – a magnificent little detail), but almost every scene has a symbolic meaning. For example: one boy confessing to having “dirty thoughts” (presumably homosexual) to the Chaplain, who can offer no real advice – a condemnation of British sexual ignorance and hypocrisy. The new boy being told by a senior boy that “You don’t talk to us” and that the youngest boys are called “scum” – the power of seniority. The chaplain being (literally!) kept in a drawer in the headmaster’s office – the use of religion in controlling and disciplining the masses.

As suggested by the chaplain being in the drawer, the film flips between realism and surrealism. The realism is noteworthy – there’s no idealisation of the boys, who are no Hollywood lookers and the film looks frankly at bullying, public-school homosexuality, beatings, and pretentious pseudo-intellectualism, and the school itself is shabby and past its best. But remarkably this realism is commented upon by the surreality of some episodes, such as the schoolmaster’s wife wandering naked through the school (a comment on sexual repression and longing) and the encounter with “the girl”, especially the tiger-fight between her and Mick (the leader of the rebels, played by MacDowell). Similarly, while the pretty junior boy is realistically portayed as having older boys prey upon him, he is surrealistically seen in bed with one of the rebels, who had actually taken the time to talk to him.

The film itself similarly filps between colour and black and white. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that parts were shot to save money, as parts of the same scenes alternate. It’s another trick to break up the film, a Brechtian “alienation effect”, as with the realism/surrealism dialectic. Both add to and heighten the other.

The rebellion gradually gathers pace, once the school and the characters are established. (Viewers may note the pictures of revolutionaries pinned up throughout the boys rooms, such as Mao and Che – it was that kind of era). The end is obviously allegorical, ending on a freeze-frame of MacDowell raining down shots on the school and the gathered dignitaries. After Columbine this feels awkward to me, but no-one is suggesting that this should be taken literally. It’s a fantasy – that’s why the film is called if...

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1. Performance

OK. The best British film ever is Performance from 1970, co-directed by Nic Roeg and Donald Cammel, and featuring (I’m loath to say “starring”) James Fox, Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg and some real East End heavies. (Let’s not get too public-school boy/Guy Ritchie excited about that – but they do add to a convincingly brutal opening half of a subsequently psychedelic film). It’s worth noting the directors, too: Roeg made his name as a cinematographer (Performance and his later films such as Walkabout and The Man Who Fell To Earth are highly arresting visually), whereas Cammel was a painter and writer soaked in Genet, Borges, Burroughs and London/Parisian bohemia.

Performance is a film where nothing is as it seems. It questions the various dualities which make up our culture: male and female, nature and culture, fantasy and reality, heterosexual and homosexual, interior and exterior, image and reflection. Obviously this isn’t a straightforward plot-driven film: it’s something of a diptych (a film in two distinct parts, jargon-fans), with a violent gangster opener and a psychedelic mind-fuck closer. The relation between the two sections of the film only gradually becomes apparent; texturally, cinematically, atmospherically they are completely different.

Performance is a master-class of cinematography. It is densely allusive, symbolically rich and eyeball-grabbing visually. I do not exaggerate when I say I have never seen a film like it; although Walkabout has some visual similarities, they are nothing alike in terms of theme and tone. Perhaps the real union of minds in Performance is not between Chas and Turner, but between Roeg and Cammel, the visual genius and the ideas man.

The plot is relatively straightforward (bearing in mind, this is not a plot-driven film). Chas (played by Fox) specialises in “putting the frighteners up flash little twerps” for his gangland boss. When he oversteps the mark and kills a fellow mobster, Chas goes on the run, hiding from “the firm”. He takes refuge in the basement flat of a reclusive faded pop star called Turner, played by Jagger, and his household of two women (played by Pallenberg and Michèle Breton) and one odd servant girl. The longer Chas stays in Turner’s house, and the more he interacts with the residents, the more his boundaries and sense of identity are unsettled, through mindgames and psychedelic mushrooms. But this works both ways, and the similarities between Chas and Turner become increasingly apparent, to the point where both share the same death.

Much of this is suggested visually rather than dramatised. For example, when Chas goes further into Turner’s house, seeking a telephone, this suggests his further entry into Turner’s world and mindspace. This is shown by a juxtaposition of their two faces whilst they talk, which evokes a deeply uncanny feeling.
Chas/TurnerSimilarly, there is a constant use of both mirrors and mirror images throughout the film, to suggest two things. Firstly, mirrors suggest the dualities such as male/female and fantasy/reality which are explored during the film. But secondly, mirrors symbolise the self-projection with which both Chas and Turner are fundamentally concerned, both being “performers”. Performance shows how the gangster and the rock star are all too similar in their masculine, violent displays, suggesting the male ego’s need for dominance and power, whether expressed sexually or through group dominance.

But Performance also critiques this, with Chas undergoing psychedelic initiation, altering his “image”, and having his masculinity and sexuality questioned. Pherber (played by Pallenberg) uses mirrors upon Chas, projecting his face upon hers, and having both faces side by side (see top photo), and asking if he has a male and female half, like Turner. Chas angrily replies, “There’s nothing wrong with me – I’m normal!
Chas/PherberThe film also plays with the androgyny of Lucy (played by Breton) and Turner: at one point we see Chas in bed caressing someone who appears to be Turner; a moment later it turns out to be Lucy. The recurrent tactic of dislocation (further heightened by the extremely jumpy editing) effectively suggests Chas’ disorientated mind.

Further aspects of the film which merit mention for their imaginative use are the music, with some nice early synthesiser work, deep blues, rock and roll (the “Memo To Turner” scene, where Jagger sings to what is more like a conventional rock video, must be the only time where Warner Bros actually got what they wanted), proto-rap, and an eerily unsettling orchestral finale. The editing, as mentioned above, is extremely jumpy, so that you really have to watch the film a few times to understand what’s happening, as scenes intercut rapidly. Camera angles, in case you didn’t guess already, are somewhat extreme. All of which may seem somewhat overcooked, but Performance is one of those rare and happy times where content and method match exactly.

Obviously, Hollywood, this is not: the nearest comparison I can think of is Pink Floyd’s The Wall, a film which is similarly non-linear and told through images and music rather than narrative. But Performance is a far more literary film (with Borges being a major inspiration), where The Wall is naturally more musical, with next to no dialogue. And Performance captures a specific moment in British 60s culture, when the rock/drug subculture met with the criminal world, as embodied by the Kray twins (whereas The Wall captures Roger Water’s alienation and little else). The utopian dreams of 1967 would turn darker and more violent, reaching a deadly apothesis in Altamont in 1969.

Consequently, numerous myths have sprung up around Performance, also prompted by Pallenberg’s subsequent heroin addiction and Fox’s retreat from acting to door-knocking evangelical Christianity. (Jagger, typically, walked away unharmed, like a cat daintily leaving the scene of a carcrash). There was, too, the sticky matter of Jagger’s love-scene with Pallenberg being rather too graphic for Keith Richards, her then-partner. But this is essentially gossip. What we have a film which is both specific and timeless, literal and metaphorical, intensely visual and deeply literary, and ultimately an astonishing piece of cinema. That’s why it’s the best British film ever made.