Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Robinson: appendix 2 – Graham Greene



[These appendices add Robinsons to those already in the book (Robinson) or glance again at Crusoe. See also previous post, 'Robinson: appendix 1'.]

‘Gloom was apt to descend on all of them as soon as the taxi entered the deep shade of the laurel drive which led to the high-gabled Edwardian house that his father had bought for his retirement because it was near a golf course.’ Well, yes.

Graham Greene’s The Human Factor (recommended for its Robinson link by TH: thank you) is to me a disappointment, all the more so because I remember a time when I enjoyed reading Greene. Maurice Castle is a low-level member of the intelligence services working in a London office. He has a black South African wife and a son; his wife worries about the son going to prep school but Castle reassures her: ‘He’s a good runner. In England there’s no trouble if you are good at any sort of games.’ So many stereotypes are in play here that I can't be bothered to begin. Games-playing is how Castle’s colleagues think of their intelligence work: ‘We are playing games, Daintry, games, all of us. It’s important not to take a game too seriously or we may lose it.’

(How important is it not to take games ‘too seriously’? Seriously important. Careers and livelihoods depend upon just the right degree of non-seriousness. It’s a British code.)

Women in The Human Factor are off to the side: secretaries, ‘tarts’, wives who are remote. Even Sarah, Castle’s wife, a character essential to the book, which has to do with how love rather than ideology can be reason for betrayal, is a blank. Much alcohol is drunk in these pages, mainly whisky and port. Lunch at the Reform Club is steak-and-kidney pudding followed by treacle tart. At the Travellers Club, roast beef (‘Perhaps a little overdone?’). The English stodginess is compounded, for most of the book, by the clunky, writing-by-numbers way the plot is advanced.

At the end of the novel Castle – whose interpretation of the rules of the game has been naïve – is alone, marooned in a bleak apartment in Moscow. ‘In the evening he would warm some soup and sit huddled near the radiator, with the dusty disconnected telephone at his elbow, and read Robinson Crusoe.’ Another marooned Englishman comes across Castle reading Crusoe: ‘Ah ha, the great Daniel. He was one of us.’ ‘One of us?’ ‘Well, Defoe perhaps was more an MI5 type.’

Castle’s reading matter is appropriate. The other books available to Castle include ‘school editions’ of Shakespeare and a couple of Dickens novels: these school editions are what he grew up with (along with Rider Haggard: Allan Quatermain was his ‘childhood hero’). Throughout Greene’s novel, all the men playing the game of running the world and sworn to an official Secrets Act, married or not, are lonely and have difficulty in relating to others. Robinson argues that this state of affairs is the inevitable result of elevating Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to the status of a kind of national set text. And though in obvious ways Greene's novel feels dated (it’s pre-internet), the gloom of the high-gabled Edwardian house and the adjacent golf course feels horribly familiar.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Robinson: appendix 1 – Elizabeth Bowen



As Tom Sabine suggests in his kind note on Robinson (here; and then here), once Robinson is on the radar he keeps cropping up.

Following up Tom Sabine’s suggestion, here’s Robinson in Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘Summer Night’, the final story in her 1941 collection Look at All the Roses: ‘Robinson did not frequent drawing rooms … When he was met, his imperturbable male personality stood out to the women unpleasingly, and stood out most of all in that married society in which women aspire to break the male in a man … When Robinson showed up, late, at the tennis club, his manner with women was easy and teasing, but abstract and perfectly automatic. From this had probably come the legend that he liked women “only in one way” … Robinson had on him the touch of some foreign sun.’

Did Bowen name this character knowingly? I doubt it. Still, he is in the club (whose other members, as surveyed in Robinson, include the Robinsons of Céline, Kafka, Patrick Keiller, Chris Petit, Sherwood Anderson, Muriel Spark, et al), even if less for his own awkwardness than for the disconcerting effect he has on others. Justin, in company with Robinson, becomes ‘prone, like a perverse person in love, to expose all his own piques, crotchets and weaknesses’. The woman who at the start of the story is driving to Robinson to spend the night with him becomes, when at last she is alone with him, stranded: ‘The adventure (even, the pilgrimage) died at its root, in the childish part of her mind.’ Only Justin’s sister, completely deaf, is at ease with him (‘She does not hear with her ears, he does not hear with his mind. No wonder they can communicate.’).

It’s a fine story: a late summer light, three generations (including a child dancing naked on her parents’ bed with snakes chalked on her skin), inconvenient guests, urgency and ennui, wartime (‘Now that there’s enough death to challenge being alive we’re facing it that, anyhow, we don’t live. We’re confronted by the impossibility of living’). Nothing, really, happens. Elizabeth Bowen is to me a touchstone, but I hadn’t read this story before: thank you for the cue.

Robinson in this story is the outsider. He’s a ‘factory manager’. He has been in this town for three years, which sounds a reasonable length of time but, in a small town, isn’t. He ‘had at first been taken to be a bachelor’ but he’s not; he’s living apart from his wife and children (three, one dead). The woman who is driving to him is also married, also has children. Victoria Glendinning, in her biography of Bowen (which I’d forgotten I had; I found it while perched on a stool looking for another book entirely), says that ‘the starting point’ for Robinson was a man named Jim Gates, ‘the manager of a creamery in Kildorrey’: ‘completely non-intellectual, genial, a life-and-souller’. With Jim Gates, Glendinning writes, Bowen ‘had, simply, a good time, with lots of drinks and lots of cigarettes and easy laughter … His company was a liberation not only from the excessive sensibility of others but from her own – that sensibility which was at the centre of her talent and also, some have thought, its limitation’. Bowen, Glendinning writes, ‘needed men like Jim Gates: extrovert, practical, a little coarse.’ I’m very uncomfortable with literary biographers telling me what their subjects needed, or didn’t need, but I think I know a Robinson when he turns up.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Robinson: an update

A nice note on Robinson’s Robinson is here (courtesy The Brooknerian). The book itself is here. Thank you to those who have alerted me to other members of the family.

I’m not sure that Robinson even voted in the EU referendum in June last year, and I haven’t asked. Sometimes a dank torpor seems to settle over him. If he didn't vote, it may well have been because the referendum campaigns were a shoddy advertisement for democracy: ill-prepared, poorly delivered, cheap rhetoric displacing valid information. Very few people – including the politicians – had any realistic notion of the consequences of a vote to leave the EU. Many still don't. Robinson believes that many who voted to leave were not voting specifically about the EU; rather, they were sticking up a finger to a political establishment that didn’t appear to listen to anyone outside the London, the media and its own woodworm-infested corridors. They were saying: we exist, and we’re fed up with being taken for granted, a plague on both your houses, and we’re not going to vote X just because you tell us we should.

There is no clear mandate for Brexit. The difference between the leave vote (51.9%) and the remain vote (48.1%) was just over 1.25 million. Nearly 13 million of the electorate chose not to vote at all. Out of a total electorate of 46.5 million, just 17.4 million voted to leave. Anyone declaring that Brexit is ‘the people’s will’ is unfit for office. Anyone declaring that ‘getting on with the job’ of Brexit is ‘in the national interest’ – as May does, May who herself believed before the referendum that Brexit was not in the national interest at all – needs their head looking at.

Robinson once hated rhubarb, now he likes it. Robinson once married an heiress, thinking it would solve all his problems, and it didn’t, and now he is not married. The whole point of having a mind is that one can change it. In general, British democracy allows for this: we vote a government in and if we decide we’ve made a mistake, we can vote it out. Brexit is different. To press ahead with a decision recklessly based on such a narrow vote, with consequences that will affect people's lives for generations, without a fail-safe mechanism – whoops, we may have pressed the wrong button there – maybe rhubarb isn’t so bad after all – is just daft. Even Robinson can see that.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

The word ‘funny’

The prizes tend to go to books about grief, or dystopias. Or oppression. Or sexual abuse, or any kind of sexual dysfunction.

‘Light verse’ – about as dispiriting a two-word combination as, for example, ‘conference centre’ or ‘sanitary solutions’ (the latter a sign on a local factory that made toilets, now demolished, making way for luxury flats, add that in, 'luxury flats').

Can I send you my book, please? It will, I promise, be (quote from a recent submission, standing in for many) ‘bleak, confused, disturbing, harrowing’.

I’ll pass. I’ll also pass, of course, on submissions that promise to be uplifting, redeeming, or (another quote) ‘celebrating our common humanity’. Or funny.

‘Funny’ is a word that on the dating sites might well be algorithmically matched up with ‘silly’. There’s a vocab problem here. Funny = makes you laugh. Funny = comedy. And there’s an obvious problem with writers who get labelled, or marketed, as ‘comic’ writers, which is this: I feel I’m being manipulated, I feel buttons are being pushed to make me laugh. So I resist. I’ll decide what I find funny, thank you. Don’t tell me when to laugh.

Pitching a book is one of the more absurd activities that humans engage in. It requires a skill that has nothing to do with the writing of the book and an impossible degree of tact and is almost bound to fail, even though the book itself may not, and awareness of this engenders a kind of daft desperation which often ends up as being, yes, funny.

For the record: misery, dystopia, ‘bleak’, no. Don’t even try. I’m in my sixties, not my twenties. I prefer Shakespeare’s comedies to his tragedies. Tragedy can include comedy but only as a bit part; comedy relishes tragedy because comedy is more inclusive, more generous, more silly, and is about life going on, not ending, and comedy, so far, is winning out, though it knows it’s as doomed as any other way of taking on the world, it takes no pride in this, it despairs, and that is its essence, as comedy. Comedy is stupid heroism.

Writers who do make me laugh include, obviously, Chekhov, Thomas Bernhard, Kafka, Beckett, Cioran, Pinter. They make me laugh, out loud, but how to say this without using the word ‘funny’. Adding in ‘deeply’ or ‘seriously’ gestures, but doesn’t do it. Is there a word in another language – I’m asking translators here – for this? To describe the way in which, for example, the above writers manage being true to human fatuity and at the same time hilarious? Because in English we are not capable. Is an English Hrabal impossible? (There are English Hrabals, but no one attends.)

Bleak. A badge: we’re doomed. A whole aesthetic of this, a very pretty aesthetic, lovely composition, an aesthetic of doom and desolation and decay and ruins and rust and rot. Decomposition. Failure: of, not least, how males and females relate to each other, who populate this planet roughly equally but who very few of them of them have any idea how to sort this.

Failure: authentic. Doom, apocalypse, misery: click-bait, reinforcing.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Pollsters, hucksters

After starting as the most boring ever, this election has become seriously interesting, not least because of the polls. The Cameron-led Conservatives (Tories, from here on) were pretty sure, largely because of the polls, they were going to win the Brexit vote (I mean, so sure that the UK would vote to remain, as was in the manifesto, he won on that, and the polls) and they lost. The May-led Tories (May herself a remainer, now U-turned, and the U-turning become her signature) were then sure, because of the polls, that calling this coming election would deliver a surefire landslide victory, barely any need (again) to campaign, certainly no need for the PM to bother debating one-to-one with the leader of the opposition, and now no one is so pretty pretty sure. Long before this, the polls had it so wrong on Corbyn getting Labour leadership.

There’s a fun article on the BBC website titled ‘How do opinion polls work?’, January 2016, which begins, hilariously: ‘The 2015 general election result took political pollsters by surprise and a of experts panel has now said that, put simply, their predictions were wrong because they spoke to the wrong people.’(I wasn’t among the wrong people, by the way; I’ve never been polled in my life. Maybe they just make it all up and take the money.) Which implies that the pollsters just got in with the wrong crowd, as any intelligent teenager does. And implies that the pollsters, though they may be experts – people pay them, they make a living from this – are always going to be ?smaller experts than the bigger experts, this other ‘panel of experts’: who they, and who pays them?

It’s fun, that BBC article, because it includes sentences such as: ‘Tory voters in general are also said by pollsters to be more likely to put the phone down [Ed: but how do they know the phone-slammers are Tory if they can’t even ask them?] or be ex-directory, and less likely to answer the door.’ Because the person knocking on the door might be one of those ex-offenders who want sell you severely overpriced tea-towels? But the knocking-on-the-door may be delivery of that thing you’ve ordered off the net, that thing that will make your life a little smarter ... And you sign with a scriggle on their pad. Dilemma. Tory dilemma.

Just open the door, ffs.

Polls are not cheap; someone is paying; who?; there’s very little transparency on this, or on their methodology. Meanwhile, the polls (‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ A pollster?) do influence how people vote. People, on the whole, follow other people. That's the only reason why polls are even vaguely interesting, and then not. They were why Cameron took in the EU referendum to get elected, and then had to resign. They were why May called this election. The polls work in mysterious ways.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Fierce and beautiful world

I wrote most of this post last night, shortly before the unspeakable mass murder in Manchester of young people “without any protection against all the sudden, hostile forces loose in our fierce and beautiful world” (Andrei Platonov), and today I couldn’t decide whether to post it. The juxtaposition of joy and horror is not to be borne. I’m posting it.

On the wall in Ken Garland’s house there’s a black-and-white photograph of some people sitting around a table in the middle of a field on a summer day – I’ve no idea who the people are or how they or the food and the wine and the tablecloth came to the table, or how the table itself got to the middle of the field, but when I first happened to glance at that photo I immediately recognised what it was showing. It’s a picture of heaven.

Last Sunday, something too close for comfort. I went into town to meet David Collard in Holborn, where we were going to pick up his wife and go back to his home for lunch. David called his wife: she’d finished her work early, we’d meet her in the pub. The pub was the Seven Stars, also known as Roxy’s, in Carey Street, and there – no? really? – was Christopher Reid. Well, Christopher likes a good pub, so not a total surprise. An hour before, on the Tube on the way into town from Shepherds Bush, I’d been sitting next to the one vacant seat in the carriage and Nicholas Lezard had dropped into that seat – these things happen. Oh, hold on – there is Lezard again, in the pub. And Lara Pawson. And Will Eaves. And Patrick Mackie and Nancy Gaffield and Nicky Singer and Julian Stannard and Tony Lurcock and Tony White and Gabriel Josipovici and Alba Arikha and Stephen Knight and David Henningham and who … this is Paulette Jonguitud, who I have not met before but who has come from Mexico to be here today. As one might catch a bus to see a friend down the road. And it was a sunny day in May and there was a feast, plate upon plate of home-cooked food, and wine, and though it said 'No pudding' on the proper printed menu (with its list of all CBe titles and its quotation from Stendhal) there was of course a cake, a Lara-cake. And over the course of the afternoon, Cécile, Natalia, Michael, Houman, others …

In the New Statesman this week, which happens to feature a poem by Patrick Mackie ('A nasty, grotesque, impatient year ended,/ and the new one will be bitter, tired,/ opaque'), there’s a photo of a unicorn. Very, very rare, and bringing all the elements together in conditions of secrecy takes months of planning, but they do exist.

Two years ago Matthew Siegel (San Francisco) came over from the US and he and I and May-Lan Tan (born Hong Kong, then US before London, currently Berlin) took a bus to Oxford, where Matthew was going to read, and we walked around and went to a pub before the reading and he pretty well wept for strange joy, then me too. And here’s a photo from a few years back of Miha Mazzini (Slovenia) and Beverley Bie Brahic (California/Paris) in that tiny bookshop-in-a-greenhouse that used to be in Wapping:



A number of other CBe writers were unable to gather round the table on Sunday – Fergus Allen, Nina Bogin, Andrew Elliott, Todd McEwen, J. O. Morgan, D. Nurkse (but he’ll be over from Brooklyn at the end of this week and reading at the Troubadour on Monday), Dan O’Brien, Wiesiek Powaga, Marjorie-Ann Watts, Diane Williams – but actually they were there (and others too who, though not published by CBe, are part of the gang) in the form of words or drawings assembled in a box-of-a-book (like a custom-made Anne Carson) designed and made by the Henningham Family Press:



What’s been going on for the past few years has been partly to do with books but mainly to do with a group of people finding one another out and bringing one another to the table. Christopher (who is a very good finder indeed) found Beverley who found Paulette; Gabriel and Nina found Kristof, who was also found by May-Lan, a finding which led to me finding her, and May-Lan found Matthew and Diane, or was that the other way round, and there are many more of these links. I understand this, and I don’t understand it at all. There was Sunday, and then there was Monday.

If you haven’t had enough of CBe, come to Vout-O-Reenees (30 Prescot Steet, E1 8BB) this Thursday, the 25th, from 6.30, to hear Will Eaves, M John Harrison, Lara Pawson and Jack Robinson (launching his book Robinson). I was at Vouts last July on the night 86 people were killed by a truck driver in Nice, and we will go to Vouts again and again and again.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The Robinson diptych



About the two CBe titles this year, both by me under a previously established pen-name, here’s a little background.

1
An Overcoat: Scenes from the Afterlife of H.B. was several years in the making. I read Stendhal’s The Red and the Black in my teens, but it wasn’t until I bought a copy of an English translation of Memoirs of an Egotist in a second-hand bookshop (long gone) in Hammersmith in, I think, the 1980s, that a switch clicked fully on. There are poems featuring Stendhal in the collections I published between around 1990 and 2001. That translation of Memoirs of an Egotist, by the way, was published by D. J. Enright at Chatto. In Cairo in the late 1970s I bought a copy of Enright’s first poetry collection, published in Alexandria in 1948, for the original cover price, 5 piastres, and I wrote to him; and then I met him regularly on the Tube – he travelling in daily from Wimbledon to Chatto, me on the same line from Fulham Broadway to a job near Green Park. We talked, strap-hanging, awkwardly. I also met him on a train from Kings Cross to Leeds; I’d just bought his OUP Collected Poems, 1981, and as I was unpacking it to read I noticed Enright himself in the seat behind me, lighting his pipe. This is one of the few books I possess that’s signed by the author (a convention I don’t really understand). Enright wrote to me that the Stendhal book and another were the end of his ‘career as a whizz-kid publisher’: co-publishers went bankrupt, warehouses burnt down. He – Enright – quotes my son’s school homework in one of the riffs on quasi-literary matters that featured in his last three books, this one in Injury Time: What’s the name we give to the period between the ages of around 11 and 14 when the body rapidly develops and the mind too gets a little excited and confused? ‘Purgatory.’

I seem to have wandered. (But I miss Enright. He was a very fine writer, enormously well-read and often funny, without selling anything short.) Digression is a part of what An Overcoat is about. To get back to Stendhal, you’ll need the book. Review here.

2
Having stuck with Jack Robinson as a pen-name, and having re-watched one of the Patrick Keiller Robinson films, I thought I’d send Robinson into the family archives: Defoe, obviously, but then a whole mad sequence of offspring, interestingly dysfunctional. (Having a new project was of course also a way of putting Stendhal finally, perhaps, to bed.) I thought this little hobby might keep me occupied for a year at least, ticking along in the background – like one of those unfinishable PhDs that people embark on and I can see why – but given that I started on this soon after the Brexit vote in June of last year, and given that in June this year the UK is being asked make a decision (though only a part of the electorate will bother) about what kind of country it is, or wants to be, the book began to feel more foreground than background.

Bits of Robinson are cooked, bits are raw. If the book had an index, its entries would include (along with Céline, Coetzee, Defoe, Kafka, Keiller, Rimbaud, et al): author’s mother; books read by author at age 12; Colonel Fawcett; English public schools; First World War; housing crisis; male duos (Holmes and Watson, Jeeves and Wooster, Vladimir and Estragon, a host of others); migrants; the Sixties; smoking; time-share apartments; trees; Trump; Uxbridge Road; Volkswagen camper vans.

3
You – or I – may well ask, what am I doing self-publishing these books. The basic answer is simply, because I can. (I have an imprint, I have a cache of available ISBNs.) And because of a degree of megalomania: for better or worse, I enjoy having complete control over design, cover, the setting, etc. Though of course if any other publisher I respected wanted the rights to publish the books and offered me a large sum of money to do that, I’d say yes. I did send An Overcoat to three other publishers; all declined. Robinson is a little different: it feels, to me, topical, of its moment. And in general, the publishing trade works very slowly; the gap between a publisher taking on a book and putting it out into the world is usually nine months or longer. (It doesn’t have to be this way. In 1992 I worked on a Faber book about the general election campaigns that was printed and in the shops 24 hours after the results were declared. But that was an exception; as a rule, the lighter, more flexible small presses are better at getting things done fast.)

Robinson will be launched on Thursday of next week, 25 May, at Vout-O-Reenees, 30 Prescot Street, London E1 8BB, from 6.30 pm. There will be other writers with something to say, directly or indirectly, about the coming election: Will Eaves, M. John Harrison, Lara Pawson. All are welcome. (Is that a sentence anyone has ever heard spoken by Theresa May?)