My Favourite Characters


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

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

Anyway, here’s some that I have liked.

Richie Tozier from IT (Stephen King)

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

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

Toranaga from Shogun (James Clavell)

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

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

Mark Renton from Trainspotting (Irvine Welsh)

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

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

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

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

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

The Death Of Inspiration: Stephen King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the sf tales earns him a B.

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

All the others do no better than a C.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Of, 2012


This blog has been running about 18 months now, and I’ve managed to keep going at about a post a week. Hopefully you can see that the posts I write are mostly quite lengthy (about 1000 words) and so do take time. I haven’t really gone out of my way to publicise it – I don’t even tweet or Facebook most posts, so the audience (you lovely people) has grown slowly, steadily and organically. Thanks to everyone for stopping by, and especially to those who have commented. It really does spur you to keep on writing when you feel there’s an audience there.

To round off 2012, I thought I would simply take a leaf out of Froog’s book and recap on what I feel were the most interesting posts. Here’s six of the best from me to you (again). The order is simply chronological.

1. “Biographies”

Bit of a monster post, going over ten of my favorite biographies (by which I also include memoirs, letters and diaries). Being a lapsed intensive diarist and journal-keeper myself, I find these kind of books fascinating and just devour them. From William Burroughs to Oscar Wilde to Alistair Campbell to Philip Larkin, here are some of my most recurrent interests/obsession.

2. Punk-Rock-O-Rama

Twenty great videos from twenty different punk (in the broadest sense) bands, from X-Ray Spex to The Exploited to 999 to Stiff Little Fingers. Yup! 😀


I like this post for the opening sentence:

I may have given the impression in the blog that I take music waaaay too seriously, that I sit and pore over every last bar and nuance like a lepidopterist gingerly analysing the skeletal remains of a rare and exotic butterfly.

Also a nice and perhaps slightly off-the-beaten-track selection, for me at least. I mean, no Beatles??

4. Favourite Bands Through Time

Interesting to look back in time and see the bands and artists who entranced you. Fortunately, nothing too embarrassing there! My journey through music, from Queen to Tricky to Miles Davis, has been enormously entertaining and endlessly interesting.

5. Three Top British Films

Bit of a monster post here, too, culled from three individual posts from my old blog. Obviously I’m more of a cultist when it comes to films; I just get so utterly bored by films which lack imagination or creativity (hello 2012!). Maybe I should do a Three Top American Films in counterpoint?

6. An Introduction to John Lennon

This is by far the most viewed single post in the blog, though not the most commented (that’s the “I Hate Peter Jackson’s “Lord Of The Rings” post, now at 22 comments and counting – they’re still coming in!). It’s the introduction to the putative biography of Lennon during his Beatle years which I have been yearning to write. I think this is probably the best writing I’ve posted.

How about you, dear reader? Were there any posts you liked more than this selection?

Life Changers

I’ve rather neglected the books aspect of this blog so far: mostly ideas for posts occur to me as I’ve been sat on the laptop, listening to music with headphones on, working away at something else. (Is there any greater spur to blog than having some work to do?). But obviously books are very important to me: I’m a voracious reader, always have been. Some books have had a massive effect – what was it Cathy said to Nellie Dean in Wuthering Heights?

I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.

If books are waking dreams, then this is undoubtedly true for me. Books have affected the colour of my mind, the shape of my ideas, the texture of my imaginings. So in this blog I want to chart the books that have been deeply influential.

1. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardobe

This is the first “great” book I ever read, where it just kept getting better and better as I kept reading. I think at the time I had mostly been reading Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl, but TLTWATW felt magnificent, epic, compared to them. Not, of course, that there’s anything wrong but Blyton or Dahl – I loved all the Famous Five, Malory Towers, Twins at St. Clairs, and Five Find-Outer series, and Dahl’s gruesome imagination tickles my humour-spot, even now. But TLTWATW had great themes, like sacrifice and betrayal and redemption (I didn’t pick up the whole Christian symbolism until much later on), even while its setting seemed familiar and (as with Mr and Mrs Beaver) homely. It was the first book I ever read which expanded my vision of what life was about.

2. The Lord of the Rings

My dad and uncles, being 1970s prog rock types, were natural Tolkien fans, and were keen to press The Hobbit onto me as soon as I was old enough. Oddly enough, I didn’t think it was all that great (it suffers, as Tolkien himself regretted, occassional instances of him writing down to his audience). It did though clear the way to Lord of the Rings, and I still vividly remember the first time I took it out the library. I asked the elderly gentleman librarian (he used to wear a panama hat) if they had it; he was standing by the stack of books to be returned to the shelves, and by happenstance had it to hand. He passed it over with a great look in his eyes, one that said “You are REALLY going to enjoy this, my lad.” I spent about an hour just leafing through it before I took it out: I loved the dwarvish runes and the elven script in the opening pages; I loved the cover, a magnificent, monstrous depiction of Mount Doom; I loved the appendices with the alphabets and timelines and family trees; I loved the sense of a complete world, an imaginary universe, just waiting to be explored.

Though I barely had the reading maturity to comprehend it all (I remember getting confused between Sauron and Saruman and having to backtrack several chapters), Lord of the Rings completely swamped me. My first attempts at writing were absurd imitations, and I spent ages trying to read sundry Tolkien books like The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales before I realised that I wasn’t interested in the “unexplored vistas” of Middle Earth. But there can be no doubt that LOTR truly is an astonishing creative effort, one in which many people are indeed happy enough to reside in.

3. Educating Rita

After Lord of the Rings, I spent a lot of time reading horror (mostly Stephen King, Shaun Hutson, and James Herbert) – hey, I was 13-14 and massively into heavy metal. Goes with the territory. I can’t say that, except from King’s fine novel IT, many of them left much of an impression. Eventually, though, we started doing books at school which spoke to me in some fashion. Educating Rita was the first: the story of a working-class woman who wants to improve her mind through an Open University course in English Lit., it dazzled me with its demonstration of how one’s mind, one’s life, could be improved through literature. Though my family were readers,  they inclined towards best-sellers rather than literary novels etc. Not that there’s anything so wrong with that, but there was a whole world out there beyond my ken. Suddenly, there was Rita reading Ibsen, Forster, Blake, Shakespeare, Ferlinghetti, and the like. This led me to seriously extend my own reading range, and I became an insanely ambitious reader, trying out DH Lawrence, EM Forster, James Joyce, Martin Amis, William Burroughs, Oscar Wilde and James Kelman within the next year. Which leads me to:

4. Maurice

Yeah, EM Forster’s homosexual-themed novel. What can I say? I was young, callow, adolescent – in other words, I was 15. But I loved Forster’s feeling for the countryside, his subtlety and lyricism, his symbolism and his rejection of conventional, unthinking morality. Maurice led me, of course, to Howards End and A Passage To India, the true greats in his canon.

5. Trainspotting

Irvine Welsh exploded into my life like the Sex Pistols: noisy, anarchic, visceral, ugly, truthful, real. Living in Scotland was then to wallow in this great sentimental image of national life, one of twee Scottishness and a ridiculous feeling of superiority over England. (Measured ever-watchfully, of course). They (the English, of course) were racist, were hooligans, had more poverty and worse schools, were less community-minded, were war-mongering, Thatcher-voting snobs. You name the lazy prejudice, it was smugly applied. Welsh exploded all those myths with a novel of extreme bravery: the first book I’d ever read which mocked the Scottish cultural cringe, the first which explored the council estates in all their gaudy, brutal, helpless squalor. (Kelman’s characters were usually so good, so honest, so stymied-by-exterior-circumstances: Welsh’s were the full technicolour range of characters you might meet down your local pub).

I immediately recognised the truth of what Welsh was saying and spent ages trying to write like him, in dialect, with working-class characters, concerning drugs and crime etc. Took me a while to realise that these weren’t really my subjects, or to find a way to something different with them. Also, Welsh’s career has been a sad decline from the visceral Trainspotting to the adequate Filth and Porno to the abject Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs. Still, I very much look forward to reading his prequel, Skag Boys.

6. Bad Wisdom

Being Scottish, I absorbed all the new Scottish writing, things like James Kelman, Irvine Welsh, Duncan Maclean, Jeff Torrington. All are good writers – at one point I felt Kelman was as good as Joyce, which I now think highly overvalues Kelman, who isn’t much fun to read – but most of them have a highly realist style, jagged and impressionistic perhaps, but always trying to avoid seeming literary. Fidelity to the moment and capturing the reality were always the priority. There wasn’t much space for florid metaphors, put it that way. But as Wilde says, a truth in art is one whose opposite is also true. Consequently, when I first discovered Bad Wisdom I was absolutely enthralled precisely by its overblown prose, its insistence on imagination and fantasy. Written by two musicians, Bill Drummond (formerly of the KLF) and Mark Manning (Zodiac Mindwarp), chunk by chunk, the Manning sections contain the most (intentionally) ludicrously over-the-top prose you are ever likely to read: it makes Nabokov read like Hemingway. The subject matter is as OTT, with insane fantastical sections about supermodels wrestling in shit, biker vikings with a chainsaw execution ceremony, shamanistic rituals concerning “the Lost Chord” and the destruction of the world, and the key of Elvis to world peace. It’s just jaw-droppingly mind-blowing. Never have I read such rich metaphors, such juicy adjectives, such dazzling lush prose. Bad Wisdom is an amazing tour-de-force and one which completely changed the way I look at the world. As Hamlet said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.

7. The New Industrial State

Bilbo tells Frodo in Lord of the Rings that paths lead to paths, that the road is endless. The same is true if you’re a reader: books lead to other books, albums lead to others. For example, the Velvet Underground is one of my all-time favourite bands, and reading that their “Sister Ray” was an attempt to do a free-form jazz song in a rock style led to me explore Ornette Coleman, Cecil Tyaylor, Archie Shepp, as well as less wild stuff like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, which I rather prefer! Reading a book from the library called Fifty Key Modern Thinkers, I was blown away by the entry on Jean Baudrillard, my head exploding with understanding and implications. Unfortunately, I don’t find many of Baudrillard’s works very comprehensible: I can read explications of his theories and understand, but I don’t have much of an engagement with him personally. Anyway, so one book of his I did like and which is easy enough to understand is The Consumer Society, much of which is a critique of The Affluent Society by someone called JK Galbraith. I hadn’t heard of Galbraith before, but one day browsing through a second-hand book store I found a copy of The New Industrial State, and so bought it. Until then, my understanding of industry and work had been adolescently Marxist (yeah, I know), but reading TNIS gave me a sense of how the post-war economic structure actually operated. Galbraith is essentially a Keynesian, but his analysis of how corporations function and how they aggregate into a broader system seemed to accord with reality far more than anything I had ever encountered. Some of his descriptions are pre-1973, or pre-Reaganite, or pre-Milton Friedman, however you prefer to look at it, but given the current world economic troubles, Galbraith’s points seem more salient than ever.

TNIS gave me a taste for books about finance and economics, and those are the books I still tend to read: for some reason, I don’t have much of an appetite for fiction these days. So this is the last life changer amongst the books I have read.

How  about you?

On Being Cheesy

When I was a student in the late 1990s, there was a terrible enthusiasm for all things cheesy – cheesy music in particular, but also cheesy TV and cheesy fashion. A night at the student union nightclub called “Up The Glitter”, featuring songs like “99 Red Balloons”, “Making Your Mind Up”, “Come On Eileen” and “Funky Town”, went from a midweek once monthly (the preserve of the out and proud gay types) to the prized Saturday spot every week and even spawning imitators, such was its popularity. Teletubbies was openly watched and talked about. The Eurovision Song Contest drew appreciative parties. We mock-referred to anyone insistent on their way as “fascist”, and hid our own appreciations behind a wall of cynicism and irony. It was the done thing to read The Sun or Loaded (“for the tits”), rather than The Guardian or The Economist, which were much closer to our real interests.

Looking back, the cheesy trend fits well into our pre-millennial pop-culture overload take on modern life. Cheesy is to a large extent a result of being too well versed in pop culture. Aspects of culture which become overly familiar become first clichés, then cheesy, then cause revulsion, then lose their power entirely, to become historical documents rather than art. (This process is not however linear; there can be jumps from one to the other stage). Cheesiness is hence largely an overfamiliarity with certain stylistic moves and techniques in popular culture, engendering an ironic awareness of the text as artistic construct. (The text here can be considered not just the music or film etc, but also the performer or actor, if they have a recognizable repertoire – a known body of signs, in other words. Jack Nicholson’s post-Witches of Eastwick eyebrow raising is one such example of a familiar move becoming contemptible). Consider Elvis Presley – at one time vital and dangerous, by the time I encountered him, he was seen as a grotesque parody, subject of bad pictures in dole-scum livingrooms and tacky presentation plates sold in illiterate magazines. He was progressing from cheesy to revulsion. He came back in popularity thanks to the strength of his musical catalogue, but his films are already historical documents rather than living entries in the cinematic canon. James Dean can be considered likewise; similarly, cultural symbols as disparate Abba, Ice-T, Jaws, South Park clothes, John Travolta, the entire disco genre, The Evil Dead and John Grisham have all progressed from edgy to cheesy. They become assimilated into the culture; their tricks and angles become too well known, and “that thing you do” doesn’t work anymore. If all political careers end in failure, then all pop culture careers follow the process outlined above, except sometimes in cases of early death. (No-one ever called Jimi Hendrix cheesy, even after Wayne’s World’s rendition of ‘Foxy Lady’.) Nowadays it’s 1980s culture which is considered cheesy. That’s simply because tastemakers were children in that decade. It’s not long ago that 1970s culture was considered the epitome of cheesiness – now, in some respects, it seems like a golden age.

But cheesy also applies on the micro level, to small cultural methods and styles. The cinematic habit of dragging on the death of a supporting character as they gasp their dying, vitally important words, for example – Star Wars tore the arse out of it, and by the time Boromir declared his fealty to Aragorn in The Fellowship of the Ring, you just wanted the prick to fuck off and die quietly. Adverts involving The Simpsons – you know Homer is going to say “Doh!”, whatever happens. Kitchen sink dramas were forever scuppered the moment Monty Python had a sketch featuring a young man returning from mining coal to visit his working-class parents, with his mother fretting over his father who had injured his hand writing a sonnet sequence. Top Gun was so chock-full of extremely simplistic and effective moves that a whole movie was made of the parodies they enabled. “Hair metal”, with its masculine posturing and sub-Van Halen guitar, never survived the sniggers of Nirvana and the broader grunge generation, for whom its simple moves were all too obvious. Horror movie protagonists who dumbly make their way to the basement, or investigate some nameless horror, nowadays have cinema audiences berating them rather than cowering in their seats. Swelling orchestral strings at totally, like, emotional parts of power ballads these days create a sense of ennui rather than punching the air or proudly holding aloft that cigarette lighter. In all these moves, they’ve become overfamiliar clichés, and go on to be despised. “God, how cheesy!”

There’s a deeper angle to cheesy, however. Saussure showed the arbitrary connection the sign (the textual word) and the signified (the meaning or concept), and that signs were only explicable relative to each other. Cat is cat because it is not mat, bat, fat or hat. Structuralism then showed that this could be applied on a broader perspective, where items other than words could be considered signs, and thus form their own language, their own semiotic code. Claude Levi-Strauss applied it to anthropology, showing that human rituals had no essential connection to their meaning, and could only be understood within a social context. Baudrillard applied it to houseware, considering each item relative to others, while Roland Barthe’s Mythologies looked at everyday phenomena, from wrestling to wine, teasing out the underlying meanings and archetypes in everyday objects and events. In pop culture, stylistic moves and trends over time become assimilated, familiar and clichéd. The connection between signifier and signifier, the stylistic move and the desired effect, becomes apparent, self-evident, where it should remain unremarked, unobtrusive. Once it is apparent, it appears inauthentic, because for art to work the methodology cannot be seen. Bruce Springsteen’s performances are as “staged” as those of hair metal rockers, but because his music remains fresher than that of Ratt or Poison or Motley Crue (thanks to the greater skill of the E Street Band, in all likelihood), he gets away with it. (His “passing a kidney stone” performance in “We Are The World” has to be seen to be believed). Heavy metal is notorious for demanding authenticity, which is really a cry of frustration when something new is attempted unsuccessfully. The connection between move and effect becomes all too apparent, and anger cannot appear staged; it must appear immediate and self-present. Dr. Who, of course, descended deep into a pit of cheesiness in the 1980s, viewer suspension of disbelief ruined by shoddy effects and over-familiarity. Stock movie characters like the “tart with the heart” and the Machiavellian businessman have similarly lost all power and gained a distinct aroma of le fromage.

Some art is never cheesy. It remains fresh. It has a depth and complexity which enables those who enjoy it to constantly discover new things. One might cite Pink Floyd, John Coltrane, The Godfather films (despite the parodies and homages), Bjork, Kraftwerk, Bob Marley. But the days of artistic mystique, predicated upon unavailability, are gone. Cultural overexposure, thanks to the internet, is now the norm. Familiarity breeds contempt; it also breeds cheese.

I Hate Peter Jackson’s “Lord Of The Rings”

(N.B. this was previously published on my old Bucket of Tongues blog, but I think the post bears repeating. I have also added some pictures and further comments).

I have a confession to make – lean close and I’ll whisper it in your ear… I’m a Lord of the Rings nerd. Only the novel mind you (not a trilogy!! It is a novel which was published in three parts due to the postwar paper shortage); I’ve never managed to get into The Silmarillion, despite numerous attempts. I first read it in 1990, and have read it at least once a year since then; it’s one of the staples of my reading life, along with Shogun, Bad Wisdom, and Howards End.

So when the film trilogy came out  I was pleased. I saw them all at the cinema and was astounded at numerous scenes – jumping the falling bridge in Moria, the battle of Helms Deep, the magnificent part played by Andy Serkis. I devoured the extended versions and savoured the success of the films, financially and critically. (Especially when Return of the King was awarded so many Oscars – it almost made up for the monstrosity that is Titanic being so grossly overrewarded).

However, as time has gone on, the weaknesses of the films have become ever more apparent. They are not films which age well, films which merit repeated viewings (like Chinatown or Pulp Fiction or Groundhog Day). I can imagine them in ten or twenty years time being viewed as historical curiosities, like epics such as Ben Hur or Cleopatra, rather than living parts of cinema which are vital parts of beloved film collections. I’d go so far as to say that the 1978 animated version by Ralph Bakshi is a superior cinematic experience which is far closer to the spirit of the novel, although it’s not by any means perfect.

Peter Jackson took a lot of credit for the success of the films. He must take the blame for their failings. (There is a story that he only read the book once – whether it’s true or not I don’t know. But it would explain a lot, especially his superficial treatment of the whole concept).

So what are the failings? Let’s go through them. (I have a feeling I might be some time on this…)

Characterisation. This is frequently completely off, to such a degree that it must be deliberate. While some modifications and condensations are to be expected (especially in such a large novel), why Jackson felt the need to change numerous characters for the worse I’ll never know. Gimli for example – reduced from a representative of the noble dwarf race to a Snarf (from Thundercats), a figure of fun for cheap laughs. Frodo loses all his nobility and “stature”, becoming a tepid victim. Merry and Pippin are reduced in a similar way to Gimli, becoming joke-figures – and without their apotheosis in “The Scouring of the Shire” chapter, there’s not enough development. For Gandalf, the difference between him pre- and post-Moria is too great; it’s like he’s a different character, rather than revealing different aspects of the same person. In Fellowship, he’s a kindly old man, with a bit of a temper; in Return he’s a  a philosopher-warrior-king: there’s little connection between the two. Sauron – apparently this source of all evil, this destroyer of worlds, this ancient power and unholy dread, is a glorified lighthouse. What a fucking joke! Denethor should be stern, cold and proud – introducing him as broken by the death of Boromir removes all the dramatic tension from his escalating hopelessness, and reduces the impact of the palantir. And what they hell is with his eating scene? What a waste of time!

Mishandling Scenes. Several scenes are understandably telescoped or skipped altogether (we’re dealing with a novel that’s over one thousand pages long and whose principal action takes place over one calender year). I doubt many would complain about the loss of Tom Bombadil or Ghan Buri Ghan. Nonetheless, there are several examples of Jackson getting scenes completely wrong, to such an extent that you wonder if he understood the book at all! The Council of Elrond for example – Jackson usefully gives some backstory at the start of each part of the trilogy, which reduces the need for such a lengthy, unwieldy scene. So what does he do with it instead? He has the various characters squabbling and then Frodo pipes up with “I will take the ring!” and all fall silent. This is just utterly ridiculous. Arwen making the river rise up is foolish, suggesting that any old elf can do “magic”, whereas it is Elrond does it, as he possesses one of the Three Rings. The fight between Gandalf and Saruman in Orthanc is just absurd – why the hell would two wizards have a glorified stick fight?! The scene between Theoden, Gandalf and Saruman in the ruins of Isengard is also handled appallingly, with all tension removed, and a complete lack of subtlety. Jackson, as always, goes for the conflict without considering what it might mean symbolically or thematically: it’s just good people against bad people, i.e. simplistic, reductionist nonsense. In Moria, we see the skulls of dead dwarves right away, rather than an rising feel of dread through the emptiness and darkness, and the battle in the Chamber of Records is much longer than it should be, and the troll unnecessary, reducing the impact of the later climactic scene with the Balrog. And what the hell is with that scene with Aragorn being nearly drowned in The Two Towers? With so much choice material being cut, why add more? We know he loves Arwen already, for christ’s sake! I also hate the entire section with Faramir – gone is Frodo’s nobility, gone is Faramir’s ability to resist the temptation of the Ring. It’s his ability to withstand the temptations of power which make him worthy of it – just as Aragorn announces that he will never set foot in the Shire. But such subtleties seem beyond Jackson, who seems more concerned with action and fighting than with conveying Tolkien’s thematic points.

Directorial Tics. There are several terrible examples of these littered throughout the films, things which become increasingly grating. The habit of showing the Ring in Frodo’s hand, the camera zooming in on the hand and Ring is one. The ridiculous elven music which comes out of nowhere at especially vital moments (Gandalf riding out to rescue Faramir, for example) is unwarranted by any dramatic necessity, and just seems absurd. And worst of all, the Hulk Hogan-esque displays performed by Gandalf and Galadriel when they display their hidden powers – these are frankly embarrassing. Tolkien was a man of great sensibility and subtlety – there is not the slightest chance he would have them rampaging in such an absurd fashion. And when Frodo is variously injured, the camera lingers on his pained expression far too long, emphasising his victimhood at the expense of his other qualities (which are never really shown).

The Scouring of the Shire. This chapter may have added little to the overall plot and action of the film, but it is absolutely fundamental in terms of theme, atmosphere and dramatic synchronicity. Tolkien himself said “it is an essential part of the book, foreseen from the outset”. The chapter shows not only how much the hobbits have grown, but that after wars, the Shirefolk choose to revert to their prior mode of life. Wars traditionally bring mechanisation, regimentation and industrialisation, all of which Tolkien deeply opposed. The Lord of the Rings is not (let me emphasis this a million times over) a sword-and-sorcery epic, it is a deeply-felt parable on the hidden powers of the “little people” based on the heroism of ordinary men Tolkien saw during the First World War, and is based on Tolkien’s anarchism and opposition to government. That the hobbits come back and reclaim their land from the usurpers and despoilers is a metaphor for what Tolkien wished, after the war brought increasing regimentation and government control. In this sense, it is similar to Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, where the First World War is won at the cost of the freedom of the small farmers amongst whom Gibbon sets his novel.

Frodo and Sam. Frodo (still less Gandalf or Aragorn) is not the hero of the book, Sam is. It’s that simple, and Tolkien himself acknowledged as much. Although Frodo gets top billing, this just goes to show Tolkien’s ultimate sympathy is with the underdog. To be fair, Jackson does acknowledge this to some extent by showing Sam and Rose’s wedding near the end, but because Jackson omits the Scouring of the Shire chapter, there’s nowhere to show Sam’s real growth, his leading role in the restoration of the Shire,  his planting of the mallorn tree (trees being a symbol of lineage, as Tolkien well knew); nor do we see Frodo’s pacifism, illness and withdrawal from Shire life, which lead to his desire to leave for the Grey Havens. Given the addition of some pointless if not absurd scenes (Gimli getting drunk, Aragorn revealing his real age), it is endlessly irritating that vital sections were chopped.

Religious subtext. Though not religious myself, I think it is fatal to Lord of the Rings if the religious aspect is not conveyed. By “religious”, I mean the sense of perhaps mystical power some characters and indeed some places demonstrate. The wizards, Elrond and Galadriel are clearly angel-like, while Sauron is a Satanic figure – their powers are obviously hard to demonstrate, but Jackson never seems to bother his arse in even attempting to do so, with little revealed about Elrond, his lineage and his importance. The Old Forest, Rivendell, Fangorn, Lothlorien, Mordor, and the Shire meanwhile all have a power of their own, something beyond an atmosphere, a power that’s not quite sentient or tangible but can be felt in the soil, whether for good or ill. Little of this is ever conveyed, yet one does get a sense of the bucolic richness of the Shire, the horror and damnation of Mordor, and the timelessness of Rivendell (albeit in a kinda hippyish way) in the Bakshi film. Jackson’s vision of Mordor seems to be a place where your face gets dirty.

More could easily be said. But my fundamental faulting of Jackson’s films are that they are action films, sword-and-sorcery epics. They fundamentally miss the archaic tone and atmosphere of the book, the freedom, the sense of maps with areas not yet explored. The films do the action sequences remarkably well; the scene at Helm’s Deep is astonishing, and the race through Moria, and the collapsing bridge, a remarkable piece of cinema. But I expect more than that from any adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, of which Jackson only ever captures the surface. For such a thorough, all-encompassing, deep book, that has to count as an failure.