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.


Books That Have Been Crushing Disappointments

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

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

The Autograph Man, Zadie Smith

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

The Silmarillion, JRR Tolkien

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

Post-Misery Stephen King

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

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

John Lennon Letters

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

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

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?


I am an inveterate reader of biographies. Being (just about) a relative youngster myself, there is something fascinating about being privy to someone’s entire character arc throughout the course of their life. Also seeing how different people handle the various stages and struggles of life is always interesting – I sometimes read through sections of a biography when the protagonist is going through the same kind of scene, if only for motivational purposes! It is always worth remembering that all things have occurred before – this can only reduce any hubris and increase your empathy. (It’s one of the ways that you can always tell people who are well-read, if they read the right books: they have a humane empathy beyond their actual life experiences).

Unfortunately it seems to me there are two kinds of biography: literary, academic biographies, and the bog-standard kind. The former are distinguished (I use the word deliberately) by their intensive footnoting and historian’s evaluation of sources. They are likely to have several hundred footnotes citing sources per chapter, an extensive bibliography, and a critical evaluation of the work of their subject. Proper. Your bog-standard, common-or-garden biographies contrariwise will cite no footnotes, nor cite any sources, and often will rehash commonly told stories or indeed myths. (For example, I must have read a dozen Beatle, Lennon, and McCartney biographies: nearly all state what (if anything) happened between Lennon and Brian Epstein sexually, but not one (not a solitary one!) has ever cited a source for it. And at the bottom of the pile is the clippings job, a hurried book compiled from newspaper sources (“clippings”) rather than interviews or textual research. These are truly the bastard children of the genre.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a great desire to write a biography of John Lennon in his Beatle years (1960-1970), as I don’t think he has yet received the biography he deserves. Ah, if only I had the time – the despairing cry of every half-assed writer to ever live! But wanting to do this has made me try to look at the biographer’s craft more objectively, and to consider which are the cream of the crop.

Wilde: The Biography by Richard Ellman

Hands-down, the best biog I have ever read. The thing about Wilde is that his story is better than most of his written work. To me, only his essays (particularly The Soul of Man Under Socialism), some of his childrens stories (especially The Selfish Giant, which left me awestruck the first time I read it) and The Importance of Being Earnest stand as irrefutable classics. His poems are stews of Hellenic references and overwrought aestheticism (with too many “methinks” for comfort), his other plays successful West End dramas but nothing ultimately memorable. But of course as Wilde said he put his talent into his work and his genius into his life, and the stories of how he conquered London, America, and Paris are rich with wonderful anecdotes and majestic phrases. The drama of his downfall gave Wilde the moral authority to criticise his era no-one else: the 1890s remain the Wilde decade.

This is all captured with magisterial aplomb by Ellman. Magnificently researched, told with acute relish and a gift for  epigram, he tells the story of how Wilde symbolised his age with vast learning and deep humanity.

Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S Burroughs by Ted Morgan

As a rebellious smartarse, I read Naked Lunch (and even The Soft Machine, Junky and Queer) as a teenager. I don’t think any of them are much good these days (though Naked Lunch is the best of them – it has an absolutely ferocious humour), but it has to be said Burroughs lived an absolutely fascinating life. Born in 1914, he studied in Vienna between the wars, lived  in New York (inaugurating the Beats), Texas and Mexico, hunted yage in the Columbian jungle, lived a half-life as a junky in Tangiers, wrote “cut-up” texts with Brion Gysin in Paris, met the demi-monde in London, was feted as a punk precursor in New York then retired, like Dorothy, to Kansas. The salacious content of Burroughs’ life – the William Tell death of his wife, his homosexuality, his drug addiction – is handled with empathy and tact by Morgan, though there are some curious lapses. At one point after Naked Lunch, Burroughs seems to go through some intense heterosexual phase (gasping in a letter that “I must have some cunt”), but what happened to revert things to normal isn’t mentioned. Nor is enough made of “The Yage Letters” to Allen Ginsberg. Despite these, this is a tour-de-force, a fantastic introduction to the Beats, and Burroughs’ central place in the American counterculture.

Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life by Andrew Motion

Larkin’s reputation took a shredding when his biography and Selected Letters came out. Fair enough; he was evidently a racist pisshead, in his latter years anyroads, and his treatment of the women in his life is often unfortunate at best. (Though to be fair he also had a romantic, spiritual side which has been rather occluded in recent years). The interest in this biography is the centrality of Larkin’s writing in his life. Motion as a poet himself understands the way that Larkin’s poetry is formed by and is a response to his experiences, and thus places it in a pivotal position throughout the book, contextualising and explicating with sympathetic insight. So many biographies (the “bog standard” type) fail to put their subject’s work in the context of their life and the broader world – Motion does this with aplomb. Thus, Larkin’s increasingly caustic poetry is seen in the light of Larkin’s deepening gloom, as caused by his fear of death, his painful relation with his mother, his playing two women against each other, and (I would guess) the British post-war decline. All the same, what does emerge is rather a somber portrait – if you read Larkin’s brilliant Selected Letters, you’ll find out that the guy was often deeply hilarious.

Churchill by Roy Jenkins

I am a complete political biography/memoirs nerd. I’m just fascinated by Westminster, the green benches, the bearpit of PMQs,  the battles that echo down the years: the Miners Strike (still in the news); In Place of Strife; Maastricht; the IMF rescue (which turned out to have been unnecessary, didya know?); the Falklands; Thatcher’s routing of the wets; Major’s destruction by the Euroscpetics; Wilson vs Heath, Callaghan vs Thatcher, Blair vs Brown, Benn vs Healey, Thatcher vs Heseltine, Kinnock vs the hard left… they continue to resonate. The best though is Roy Jenkins’ splendid biography of Churchill. Though Jenkins unabashedly admits he hasn’t done any original research, as he says there’s little need, with Churchill’s archive available and all those connected with him who have written about him having had their pieces published. Jenkins writes about Churchill very much through the prism of his own experience, namely as a long-serving member of the House of Commons, a much-stationed Cabinet minister (Churchill became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1924, but it took another 16 years before he went one better to actually lead an administration) and a extraordinarily productive writer and journalist.  Being a privy counsellor and thus with access to Cabinet and civil service papers is an terrific advantage for Jenkins, but he makes full use of them. What is also most pleasing about this book is Jenkins’ readiness to evaluate his sources, especially when they conflict, as often happens with a man of Churchill’s preeminence. The prose style is however somewhat flabby, sentences having too many clauses, and there’s also too many Latin tags for my liking. Nonetheless, the book is a magnificent achievement, one which helps me feel close to Churchill’s overpowering personality, his relish, his vigour and his astonishing verbal prolixity.

Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up by Bob Colacello

This is a tremendous book, a biography of Warhol which primarily focuses on the time Colacello worked with him, from about 1968 to 1981, as a reviewer in and then editor of Warlhol’s magazine Interview (originally inter/VIEW – how 60s!). As well as that it’s a memoir of Colacello’s time with him (and these were plentiful, for Colacello often was as much Warhol’s room-worker in their incredibly hectic and ambitious social life), and a portrait of the disco era, as well as the coming of the Reaganite 1980, not to mention a frank portrait of many celebrities, from Elizabeth Taylor to Jean-Michel Basquiat via Bianca Jagger and Imelda Marcos. It’s ambitious in scope, then.

Fortunately Colacello does not get bogged down in all this, dividing the book episodically, and with great detail and amounts of dialogue (he kept a daily diary, and like Warhol recorded his telephone calls). But this means that Warhol’s early life, and in particular the period of the “Silver Factory”, are covered somewhat cursorily, when this is what Warhol is best known for – the underground films like “Empire” and “Sleep”, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable with the Velvet Underground, and his shooting by Valerie Salonis. This is covered in detail elsewhere, so it was more enlightening to read of Warhol’s 50s period as a successful commercial artist and social misfit, as his trajectory and tactics seem to never have changed – always further in, wanting more and more.

The book really acts as a memoir of Colacello’s time with Warhol, and so is a portrait of his 1970s factory – Fred Hughes, Jed Johnston, Pat Hackett – and businesses, where Interview, Warhol’s art and his commissioned portraits combine, sometimes unfortunately but more often successfully. For this period was when Warhol, having conquered the art world, conquered the social elite that he lusted to join. The world of New York’s fashion elite, with their Parisian and Roman counterparts, are drawn with a satirical eye. Colacello, like Warhol, was an outsider entering this world, much like the reader, and he guides us deftly through a veritable torrent of names. (This is not a book to read at one sitting, for the plethora of passing characters can be slightly confusing over too long a period – a minor fault with the episodic narrative).

Colacello shows us how Warhol was driven to reach the top in the artistic, social, financial and political worlds of the time, while maintaining an indifferent facade. But the cost of this was large. Warhol was a huge control freak and he could never reciprocate in his affairs with people – he could only take, never give anyone any real affection, and consequently was unable to have sex or have any real relationship. This soured and poisoned him inside, which only compounded the problem. So, like a tragedy, just when everything seems to reach a peak, it all starts to fall apart. Not only with Warhol – the price of the drug-fuelled disco era shows, with drug busts, AIDS and other illnesses taking their grim toll. The last few chapters, on Warhol’s life in the 1980s (after Colacello departed Interview), have a kind of ghostliness to them, as though Warhol were waiting to die, or perhaps as though Colacello feels that.

This is a wonderful book, elegantly written, with just the right amount of irony to let the name-dropping pass (like when his date was Estee Lauder), politically and culturally sharp, and funny with it too. Anyone with an interest in Warhol, New York in the 1970s, the fashion elites of the time, or in sexuality pre-AIDS, will enjoy it immensely.

Hitler: A Study In Tyranny by Alan Bullock

Amongst my various interests and obsessions is the Third Reich. That such a collective insanity could take place in a country as developed, educated and civillised as Germany (a country for which I have a great respect and admiration) is – I don’t know any words to sufficiently convey it – grimly fascinating, brutally horrifying, morbidly intriguing. This book might not be the most in-depth or detailed on the life of Hitler, but as an overview into his grotesque yet pitiful mind, his strategic triumphs and military-meddling disasters, his dismal private life and hypernarcissism, it’s tough to beat.

Diaries, Letters and Memoirs:

A Life At The Centre by Roy Jenkins

Given Jenkins’ achievements as a biographer (with Attlee, Gladstone, Churchill, Asquith and Dilke only some of his tomes), it should be no surprise that his own memoirs are an entertaining read. This isn’t entertainment in the crash!bang! tabloid sense, but through wit, irony and elegant prose. Compared with Tony Blair’s The Journey, it is rather more elliptic, but also far more sophisticated. (Oh my, but Blair’s writing style is awful). Jenkins is a big man, a man of real substance, and knows it: but then, as someone who was Chancellor, President of the European Commission (still the only Briton to do so), founder of the SDP, Chancellor of Oxford University, prolific biographer and esteemed historian, he’s got plenty to back that up. This is one of the great books where style and content match – Jenkins gives the sense of being a man of great power, wit, learning, and intelligence.

The Kenneth Williams Diaries

Poor bastard. Poor, poor bastard. I’ve read this book a number of times and increasingly the feeling I have towards Williams is pity: the pathos of someone who refuses to let love into his life is acute. Homosexual but intensely conflicted, intensely narcissistic and equally self-loathing, intellectual and yet famous for films which by the 1970s scraped the barrel of flatulent bawdy “humour”, Williams never found happiness in his professional or personal life. And yet his diaries are testament to a man of great kindness (if matched by acts of astonishing rudeness), compassion, intelligence and sensitivity. Naturally the diaries are also filled with pen portraits of many in the UK entertainment business, from Sid James (whom Williams despised) to Joe Orton to Tony Hancock to Maggie Smith, and behind the scenes gossip (Sid James bellowing “I AM A SERIOUS ACTOR!” when Williams ad-libs is utter quality). But the real story is that if you refuse to let others into your life, you are left with an empty shell of an existence. Poor poor bastard.

The Downing Street Years by Alastair Campbell

Simply put, this is top-level politics in the raw. Unadorned, functional prose suits Campbell’s method – this is governance and policy as an endless series of conflicts which he is Rottweiler-determined to win, each and every one of them.

Many cynical political types and naive socialists blame Campbell for creating “a culture of spin”. As should be obvious to anyone who reads the book, Campbell is simply supremely professional in handling the insane demands of a 24-hour media in which appearance is far more important than policy or governance. (Thus the same papers which decry the loss of independence for Cabinet ministers are the same which shriek up “Cabinet Split!” on any occasion of intimations of disagreement, and the ones which position themselves as serious newspapers are as likely to ask inane questions about the Downing Street cat). Of course, Campbell does take this too far, as is his wont – and there still isn’t, to my mind, a satisfactory explanation for the invasion of Iraq – maybe this was deliberately excised and expunged. Similarly, the references to Gordon Brown must have been severely pruned, for he does not really fully feature – there’s rather more about Robin Cook, for example. Nonetheless, this is a brilliant demonstration of the brutal effectiveness of the New Labour political operation, Tony Blair’s masterful people- and strategic skills and Campbell’s scorching dedication.

Diaries: In Power by Alan Clark

He might be a racist neo-Nazi skirt-chasing snobbish misanthrope, but he does have a wonderful turn of phrase. (To wit, “These Nordic tours are a complete fuckface”). There might be something very vicarious about peering into the life of one so privileged (cars, property, etc), but the good thing about Clark is 1. he knows he’s upper-class, and 2. there’s no agonising about it. This is how they live. So all progressive movements are trendy fripperies, all protests due to resentment and bitterness, all other classes swiftly placed and despised.

Also, his account of being a minister is almost gauchely revealing: no bland niceties here. The vanities, the cruelties, the snobberies (Heseltine mocked for “having to buy his own furniture”; absurd aristocratic attempts to claim Thatcher as one of their own, perhaps the miscegenation of a blueblood affair), the day-to-day practises, the immense pressure on the new minister, the politicking, the treachery (his treatment of Tom King really is quite dreadful, but it’s all in a day’s work) – all are laid bare. Governments like to present themselves as benevolent, almost neutral in highmindedly doing what is right for the country. Balls, of course. Like every other large organisation, governments seethe with intrigue and gossip, powergames and human frailty. Seeing behind the bureaucratic wall is therefore a tremendous chance to gawp.


What about you?

Amis and Larkin: A Friendship Revalued

I’m a big Philip Larkin fan, and I mean big – I have loved reading his poetry since 1995 (for some reason I have both editions of his Collected Poems, the superior chronological version and the baffling as-they-were-published edition), have copies of his prose collections Required Writing, Further Requirements and Trouble At Willow Gables And Other Fictions (note that additional “s” – so post-modern), and I must have read his Life (by Andrew Motion) and Selected  Letters (edited by Anthony Thwaite), I don’t know, at least a dozen times each. I say this not to boast but simply to show that I love Larkin’s poetry and I love reading about him.

You might think he’s a racist sexist terrible bastard, and there’s plenty evidence to back that up. I’m not going to deny that he could act stupidly, even grotesquely, especially in his later years. There’s a quite dreadful recording of him and Monica Jones drunkenly singing “Niggers… niggers… niggers”, from the late 70s or early 80s by which time the drink had really got them both. It’s stomach-turning. All the same, I don’t think that a writer’s life is of much importance in deciding the merit of their work. This isn’t to deny the value of biography, or to argue about “the death of the author” but simply to say that ethical or social concerns rank low on my criteria for judging writers. (H.P. Lovecraft similarly – “Nazi bastard”, Mark Renton says in Trainspotting, “but he can spin a good yarn.”) So no matter – Larkin’s scrupulous standards, his mastery of verse forms, his pessimism, his desire for transcendence, his grouchy-tender capturing of the welfare state, his frank confronting of the elemental truths of life, make him a great writer.

Thus, I constantly enjoy reading him, and reading about him. I wouldn’t consider myself an expert – I don’t know much at all about Yeats, Hardy, Vernon Watkins or Auden, so I can’t really judge his influences and how they work upon him, for example. So let’s just say I’m an enthusiastic amateur on Larkinalia. Recently, however, I have been reading about Kingsley Amis, in his Life and Selected Letters (written and edited, respectively, by Zachary Leader). And what has struck me is that Amis’ role in Larkin’s life is seriously under-represented. It might be said that Larkin’s role in Amis’ life is perhaps given undue weight, given the preponderance of letters to Larkin which make up the first ten years of the Amis Letters, and their use in establishing Amis’ life. (Key figures in Amis’ earlier life are unfortunately lacking as recipients. Amis’ first wife, Hilly, tore up the letters he sent her after their split, while letters to Amis’ other main contemporary, Bruce Montgomery, are deposited in the Bodleian and may not be consulted until after 2035).

However, regardless, there is still I would say a serious, and perhaps deliberate, dilution of the importance of Amis upon Larkin in his official representations by Motion and Thwaite. It would seem clear that Motion, for example, had access to Larkin’s letters to Amis (Larkin, a librarian of course, was a far better letter-keeper than Amis; tragically few of Larkin’s to Amis prior to the mid-70s have survived), and he makes some reference to them in Larkin’s Life, so there is no reason for the sustained diminution – unless it was deliberate, of course.

Reading Amis’ letters makes this clear. First, Amis’ tone and manner suggest how close they are, with their frequent semi-ironic endearments (“dalling”), obscure neologisms, private codes and soul-barings. Amis’ tone is often nearly homoerotic: sometimes mockingly so, but often clearly in simple adoration. In 1946, he says:

I enjoy talking to you more than to anybody because I never feel I am giving myself away and so can admit to shady, dishonest, crawling, cowardly, brutal, unjust, arrogant, snobbish, lecherous, perverted and generally shameful feelings that I don’t want anyone else to know about; but most of all because I am always on the verge of almost violent laughter when talking to you, and because you are savagely uninterested in all the things I am uninterested in.

Larkin’s letters to Amis occasion some of his most hilarious moments, such as when he goes to a tailors and notes their reaction to not wanting a waistcoat: “looking as if I’d asked to have ‘Slay ’em, Bronx’ worked in cerise on the back of the jacket”. Second, the depth, range and frequency of Amis’ correspondence to Larkin suggest that Larkin must have been equally forthcoming, as indeed many reference make clear. Amis’ letters about Hilly’s first pregnancy, the possibility of getting a back-street abortion and their decision to marry are remarkably honest and self-revealing. Larkin’s late letters are justly famous for the comic savagery of their gloom: “God I hate news – can’t watch it – to see these awful shits marching or picketing or saying the ma’er wi’ noo be referred back to thu Na’ional Exe’u’ive is too much for me. Why don’t they show NAKED WOMEN, or PROS AND CONS OF CORPORAL PUNISHMENT IN GIRLS’ SCHOOLS oh for God’s sake Phil can’t you NO I CAN’T”. While Larkin’s Letters are dominated in the early years by those to James Sutton, their constant fixation on D.H. Lawrence and pessimism about women suggest a relationship that did not develop; meanwhile, the Amis letters to Larkin are extremely wide-ranging (on writers ancient and modern, jazz, their own writing, drink, literary gossip, contemporaries and friends, and day-to-day living), with more humour and give-and-take. Third, numerous biographical facts revealed by the Amis Letters show how the relation was closer than Motion suggests. For example, Larkin’s crucial role in revising Lucky Jim is mentioned, but with little sense of his crucial importance to the revisions; his regular visits to Amis hardly register, while his weekend in Paris with Bruce Montgomery gets about two pages; there is no mention of Amis visiting Larkin in Belfast, while his visits to Leicester are only mentioned because of the quote about the inspiration for Lucky Jim. It wAS Amis, indeed, who gave the eulogy at Larkin’s funeral. Fourth, several depredations about Amis’ behaviour are undermined. Motion notes that Amis never visited Larkin in Hull, saying that at one point he cancelled at the last moment, and as if to suggest Larkin’s great offence, says that the invite was never repeated. I think this is nonsense. Motion must surely have known that at this time, Amis’ first marriage had barely survived, after repeated adultery by Amis and a serious affair between Hilly and the journalist Henry Fairlie (coiner of the phrase “the Establishment”), that Sally Amis had recently suffered a fractured skull, and that one of Amis’ girlfriends had recently dropped him. It is little wonder that Amis wished to lick his wounds, alone. But more than this, Amis had a chronic antipathy, even a phobia, to travelling alone. With Hilly looking after the children, it’s unlikely that Amis could travel to Hull without difficulty – thus, the two more often met in London. Either way, I think Motion does Amis a disservice here, and indeed throughout the Life. Zachary Leader goes into detail about another (potential) contretemps, Amis’ caricaturing of Larkin’s companion and lover Monica Jones, in Lucky Jim. Motion suggests that Amis was either astonishingly ignorant or astonishingly careless of Larkin’s feelings towards Jones; Leader on the other hand suggests that Amis well knew both Larkin’s ambivalent attitude about Jones and what he would allow said about her. Leader notes elsewhere about Larkin’s comments on Lucky Jim that he expressed himself freely about sections that made him angry (with typical phrases like “Hideous smell of arse” and “Gruesome aroma of bum”): the absence of any such comments on the portrait of Jones is therefore revealing.

It is true, of course, that Larkin and Amis had a cooling of relations during the 1960s. This is not particularly surprising, given the longevity of their friendship (some forty years). But it is clear from Amis’ letters that the two were extremely close from 1943-1956 or so, and (primarily in an epistolary manner) from 1975-1985. It might be thought that physical distance in the latter period debars it from being a genuine closeness. But the brutal truths, the savage black humour, the shared rants and miscontents, suggest they have their match and equal in the other. While Larkin’s reputation took longer to establish, by the mid-70s he was seen as easily Amis’ equal, and perhaps il miglior fabbro. (Amis’ reputation was then perhaps beginning to slide, with his 1980 novel Russian Hide And Seek considered his worst). This gives their late correspondence a real piquancy, with their ability to talk (and grouse) freely with an equal, both in talent, fame, and experience, and to unburden themselves of all their prejudices, complaints and fears.

Why, then, such a downplaying of Amis on Larkin? What influenced Motion – after all a respect biographer as well as an exceptional poet – in this way? At the risk of making her into a Yoko Ono or Sonia Orwell figure, I think the hand of Monica Jones is clear. Motion makes clear the antipathy between Jones and Amis from the outset; and both in his portrayal of her in the Life and in the subsequent footnotes, his allegiance is clear. In the Life, he says “[w]ith her inability to suffer fools, her slightly pouting mouth and her abrupt speech, she contended with the world with style”, and it’s clear that she was the major source for Larkin’s’ life, meeting so often that Motion decides not to give dates in the footnotes, simply citing it “MJ to author”. It is, of course, hard to work around the feelings of the living when it comes to biographies. But given what we know from subsequent biographical evidence (including the recent Letters To Monica, of which only a sliver appear in the Letters), it seems clear that Jones was hard to love and hard to be around. Thus, I contend, Motion deliberately downplayed Amis and emphasised Jones’ role in the life of Larkin, under the influence of Jones herself. There is little, for example, about the alcoholic intake of Jones during the latter period of Larkin’s life, when it appears that she was matching him, drink for drink, and nothing about the chilling letter Larkin sends her about her unfortunate social behaviours (seen only in Letters To Monica): I say this not to denigrate her but to demonstrate that Motion consistently downplays or elides her negative characteristics. Perhaps this is through kindness, perhaps this is because he simply believes her side of the story, but overall it shows him as partial and weakens his biography.

It rather seems that, while she was alive, there was something of a policy to be nice to Jones and to respect her wishes regarding the presentation of the life of Larkin. Her opinions about Amis prevailed, her less fortunate aspects toned down. But with Martin Amis’ Experience, and the biographical material on Kingsley Amis, the truth of the situation between Larkin and Amis can be reconstructed. It turns out that the two of them truly were old devils, joshing, mocking, grousing, satirising, complaining, leering, deriding and “horsepissing” their way into the annals of literature. “What a feast is awaiting chaps when we’re both dead and our complete letters come out,” Amis wrote at one point in 1956. Damn right.