Saturday, February 27, 2010

Where are they now? A meditation on how pointless being famous is. With references to Fred Kite and Joe Stalin

When I read about or hear talk of Martin Amis, I am always reminded of Hugh Walpole. Who he? you might ask. Exactly. Who he? But that is the point I am making. Walpole (you can find a potted biography of the chap here) was, for many years in the Twenties and Thirties, the popular novelist, celebrated by everyone who mattered, made wealthy through his work and generally l’homme du jour. But: who he? Amis fulfils rather the same role. Years ago, when he was all the rage, the Eighties’ l’homme du jour and one of the young Turks of Anglo-Saxon literature, I tried to read a novel by Amis, but couldn’t. Not only did it not grab me — one reason for that might be that I was the wrong demographic, being, in the mid-Eighties, already in my mid-30s, but I didn’t think it was particularly well-written. (Will Self another: keeps using obscure words and I can’t but suspect that all he wants to do is make us sit back in admiration.)
Since then, of course, Amis (see here if you are in the slightest bit interested. I’m not but there’s no harm in being charitable) has remained, for those who take these things seriously, in the literary spotlight, although he is by no means any more a young Turk, but has followed in his father Kingsley’s footsteps to become a voice of modern reaction. I suspect that he us still rather prosperous because when the going was good and he still was a name, he cracked the U.S. market and still has sufficient readers there to pay for the Highgate flat and weekend cottage. The U.S. market is so vast that even an also-ran with comparatively poor sales seems to be able, to a certain extent, to cream it. Amis must be in his 60s (er, like me), and I doubt he will be quoted or remembered 30 years from now.
I thought of Hugh Walpole (‘who he?’) and then Amis because I was looking up a quotation. It is something a character said in the film I’m All Right, Jack, a character called Fred Kite, a Communist shop steward (played by the incomparable and highly neurotic Peter Sellers) who is the foil to Ian Carmichael’s young toff working on the shop floor and who falls for Kite’s very pretty daughter. During a conversation when Carmichael is asked for supper at the Kite household, Kite waxes lyrical about Soviet Russia and his lines highlight the fatuous nature of those benighted folk who continued — and continue — to support Joe Stalin despite knowledge of his murderous ways becoming widespread. “Ah, Russia,” says Kite, “all them corn fields and ballet in the evening.” Or not, as we now know.
Looking up that quote, I came across the name Alan Hackney (which sounds as though it is made up, like my fictitious shop steward Ken Vauxhall, but isn’t). Hackney, according to his obituary in the Daily Telegraph, ‘wrote some 30 screenplays, countless television scripts, half a dozen novels – including an international best-seller – and contributed comic pieces to Punch for several decades’. The film I’m All Right, Jack, was based on his novel Private Life, and he also wrote the screenplay.
And the point of it all? Alan Hackney: who he? Barbara Pym, who she? There was a time, believe it or not, when people were asking ‘Johann Sebastian Bach: who he? Despite his widespread reputation during his lifetime both as a an outstanding musician, improviser and composer, Bach was forgotten and almost entirely obscure until he was ‘re-discovered’ 100 years after his death.
Walpole, Pym, Hackney to which we might add Sillitoe, Lawrence, the Flemings (Peter and Ian) and any number over nameless Victorian writers. Who in his or her right mind would be intent on making their name in literature. A fool perhaps. Someone like me. The only definite outcome is bitter, bitter disappointment.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A quick note - and something of an apology - to those who arrive here after using the search term 'philosophy'. (But don't despair)

A year or so ago, I signed up with some website which ‘monitors the traffic to your blog’. The point of the website, I think, is to get you interested in other — paid for — services it offers which, as far as I can tell, involved ‘directing more traffic to your site’. Well, as I don’t give a tinker’s cuss for ‘directing more traffic to my site’ and as I am loath to part with money for that kind of thing, I have forgotten about the site. However, I am still signed in and I still get an email from it every time this blog is viewed after it is tracked down using one of the ‘buzzwords’ in my profile (I think. As I have said, it is all in the realms of unimportant gobbledegook to me).
Now one of those ‘buzzwords’ is ‘philosophy’ but I should imagine that punters viewing this will be somewhat disappointed to discover that the closest it gets to ‘discussing philosophy’ is pretty damn far from what they might be interested in.
As it happens, I studied philosophy at Dundee University in the days when attending university didn’t cost you an arm and a leg and there are various questions which still interest me (of which more in a future entry). But experience has taught me that all-to-often punters who profess ‘an interest in philosophy’ are simply interested in discovering ‘what it’s all about’, which is not the point of philosophy (or rather is not the point of philosophy in which I was schooled at Dundee — schooled being an acceptable euphemism for attending the occasional lecture, although I was conscientious about attending seminars and tutorials because, well, it interested me).
In fact, I rather doubt you could get any kind of agreement on what philosophy ‘is’.
So: my apologies to all those who look up my blog seeking some kind of enlightenment, but who are rapidly reduced to asking themselves ‘who is this pillock?’ But there is the promise of future entries to come, including one on the stranglehold relativism has acquired on thought, how on earth people can insist on the absolute nature of ‘human right’ but, in the same breath write of any talk of ‘God’ as complete bollocks, why, essentially, almost all philosophical ‘problems’ can be boiled down to an aspect of what, in the area of moral philosophy, can be described as ‘the is/ought gap’, and whether First Great Western provides by far the words inter-city train service in Great Britain. But don’t hold your breath.

On another topic entirely, Manchester United will, I think, be pipped at the post for the Premier League title this season. They keep trailing by one point, then two points, then one point etc, but if they carry on dropping points in silly ways, they don’t deserve the title.

Friday, February 19, 2010

My kind of blog: a drawback. Followed by a short joke to show just how cheerful we Brits are in adversity. Cue cheerful whistling.

There are blogs by BBC journalists, blogs by whacky wannabe backwoodsmen, highly artificial blogs by companies who just want to sell you financial ‘products’ and this kind of semi-personal blog. I know I have four readers, although how often they tune in I don’t know. The trouble is that knowing one is read and having a vague acquaintance with one’s readers is rather inhibiting. I find I have painted myself into a corner and have now somehow restricted myself in these entries to listing the cars I have owned and various middlebrow pseudo-intellectual musings, but I no longer feel I can write anything more personal.
That was the problem earlier on today. I had a row with my wife (who drives me up the wall — here I’ll restrict myself to the unchivalrous comment that she is not the sharpest blade in the box and possesses more half-understood, undigested knowledge about this, that and t’other than is, I think, entirely legal) and felt tempted to record one or two choice comments on marriage, mine in particular and the institution in general. But I couldn’t. And that inhibition is beginning to piss me off a little. The one solution is to start a second, more anonymous blog but — well, even that seems rather pointless. And that, unfortunately, is all I can say on the matter.

Q. What do the donkeys get for lunch on Blackpool beach?

A. Half-an-hour, same as everyone else.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The end of empires (and even the United States - utterly inconceivable only to those poor souls who don't listen to Radio Four)

There is a very good, not to say quite fascinating, series running on Radio Four at the moment called A History Of The World In 100 Objects. The presenter, who, I think also wrote the series, chooses one of the many artefacts in the British museum and expands on it and thereby brings the history of the world to life. And it is series such as this which can demonstrate, as it is demonstrating to me, how essentially ignorant one is. For example, I had previously heard mention of the Indus civilisation but knew little else. And although, tantalisingly, we know remarkably little to this day, I now know a lot more. Most fascinating was that the Indus cities were exceptionally well-built with a sanitation system and that to this day archaelogists have found no evidence that the people of that civilisation went to war or even had a standing army. Another equally fascinating programme detailed (and this I did already know) that people throughout the Middle East had a flood legend quite apart from the Henrews and that they predate the mention of Noah in the Old Testament by many years.
Today the chap chose something or other from the Assyrian empire (I don’t now what as I missed the first five minutes but I think it was an account, or rather two accounts, one from each side, of the conquest of the Assyrians of Judea). After hearing it, I looked up the Assyrian empire on the net and was astounded to learn that it lasted almost 1,500 years (from the 2,000BC until around 600BC, although its existence straddled two distinct phases with at one point the Assyrians being vassals of the Babylonians. Those 1,500 years rather knock into a cocked hat our own British empire, which at its peak was effective for a mere 120 or thereabouts - if you agree with me that the empire’s slow decline began after the end of the Great War - but also rather put in context what might be referred to as the American empire. Granted that the U.S. doesn’t behave as empires of the past have done, but I think a good argument could be made to suggest that there is a de facto American empire. That has lasted - what? - 60 years. At present it seems inconceivable that the United States could ever ‘break up’ and even less conceivable that it might be ‘broken up’, but then an end to the Assyrian, Roman and Byzantine empires would also have seemed inconceivable to those who lived in them when each was at the height of its powers. Ashes to ashes . . .

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Joke of the day, an occasional series - 3

At the risk of sounding tactless, if not out and out callous, the old chap who was apparently at death’s door a week or two ago has rallied. So there is nothing to report along those lines, whether ironical or not. I shall be seeing him this coming Wednesday night on my way back from London, and I shall do my best to cheer him up. It’s not that he is ill, simply that he is 83 and that his body is slowly packing up. I managed to cheer him up and get him to laugh again the last time I saw him, but it is so crass to chat along the lines of: ‘Look, I don't know what you’re worrying about, it might never happen’, when, in fact, it will happen and unless I end up in a horrible motorway crash tomorrow on my way to work, it will happen to him rather sooner than it will happen to me. The only thing I can do, or one of the only things I can do, is to remind him of his Anglican faith and to ensure he becomes less anxious.

Having said all that, here’s another joke to be getting one with.

The wedding reception was held at a lovely hotel and everyone agreed that it was one of the nicest occasions they had ever attended. Finally, at about two in the morning, the last few guests drifted off and the newly-wed couple retired to the honeymoon suite where they decided to have a last glass of champagne. They were discussing out the day had gone and who had been there, when the bride noticed that her new husband had grown a little silent.
‘What’s wrong?’ she asked.
‘Oh, nothing, darling, nothing at all, nothing my dear,’ he said.
‘Come on, something’s bothering you, what is is?’
‘Really, it’s nothing,’ said her husband, ‘nothing at all it’s just . . . it’ll keep, really.’
‘Look,’ said the bride, ‘tell me now. Let’s start as we mean to go on and be completely open with each other.’
‘Well . . . ah, no, it’s nothing, seriously, nothing at all, it’s just, y’know, something I’ve been wondering about, but, y’know, another time, really.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake out with it.’
‘I don’t, y’know, I don’t want to upset you.’
‘You’ll upset me if you don’t stop beating about the bush,’ said the bride, ‘now come on, out with it.’
‘Well . . . it’s just y’know, I’ve often wondered . . .’ The newly-wed man fell silent.
‘Wondered what?’
‘Well, y’know, I’ve often wondered whether, er, y’know . . .’ Again he drifted off into silence.
‘Whether what?’ the bride asked, now sounding a little impatient.
‘Well . . . OK, I’ve often wondered, y’know . . . I’ve often wondered whether, er, whether I was your first.’
The bride was silent for a moment, and then she sighed. ‘Oh God, if I had a pound for every man who’s asked me that!’

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Joke of the day, an occasional series - 2

I had intended publishing my next blog entry along the lines of the imminent death of an elderly friend, how sad I was blah, blah, blah and meditations on how profoundly the demise of someone very, very close can impact on the ego, especially the sensitive, ineffably well-developed ego of the remorselessly self-centred blogger. Reflections on irony were to play a large part in that entry. However, I usually draft these entries on before publishing them and the draft to that particular entry is on another laptop (officially I have two, in fact, for reasons it would be far to tedious to go into here, I have four), so that shall have to wait until another day to be published. In the meantime I shall tell you another joke, one which has gained a certain status on the Daily Mail feature subs’ desk as ‘Pat’s Polish farmer joke’.
Here it is:

At the end of World War II when Poland gained a large chunk of the east of Germany and Soviet Russia gained a large chunk of east of Poland, the Soviet and Polish authorities set about deciding where the frontier should be between Poland and Soviet Russia. They finally agreed on a suitable frontier whose only drawback was that it went right through a Polish farmer’s property. So they called him in, sat him down and explained the situation to him. They asked him where he would rather have his farm: in Poland or Soviet Russia.
‘Oh Poland,’ he told them, ‘without a doubt, without a doubt, it has to be Poland. Those Russian winters are terrible.’

Monday, February 1, 2010

Joke of the day, an occasional series - 1

David and Maurice were two Jewish friends who had known grown up together, worked together and known each other all their lives. Now that they were both retired, they met up two or three times a week at a French cafe in North London to gossip and read their newspapers. David was always a Daily Telegraph man and Maurice preferred The Times, but one day, David is amazed to see that Maurice is reading The Flame, the newspaper of the National Front.
‘For God’s sake, Maurice, why are you reading that bloody awful rag?’
‘Oh, I don’t know, David,’ says Maurice, ‘I like The Times, but it was beginning to depress me. It was all so negative and downbeat, nothing but inflation, misery, scandal, horror, crime and disaster . But The Flame is so different, it’s much, much more positive and upbeat. Did you know that, apparently, we own all the world's banks, run Hollywood and have complete control of the White House?’