Tag Archives: literature

Far beyond Toad Hall

It’s hard to explain just what I felt when I saw her.

She was incredible. Standing there on the Northern line like she hadn’t just rocked my world. It hit me like lightning, a tidal wave and a right hook rolled into one. I reeled a little, regained my balance, tried to pass it off like the driver must have hit a jumper coming into Goodge Street. They were maybe the strongest feelings I’ve ever felt for another human being.

Because when I saw her standing there, reading ‘Moomin and the Moonlight Adventure’, it’s possible I’ve never been so angry.

Continue reading Far beyond Toad Hall

To mourn a mischief that is past and gone

“To mourn a mischief that is past and gone is the next way to draw new mischief on.”

With this line from Othello, William Shakespeare’s prescience knew no bounds. From the moment the great playwright died, four centuries ago this year, he has been lauded through continual reproduction of his work and countless volumes of professorial study. He has successfully installed himself as the finest writer of the English language in the minds of most right-thinking people. He is mourned in the sense that we can hope for no-one of such astounding talent to grace life’s stage again.

And he was, and continues to be, a fucking mischief.

It’s of no small horror to certain people I know that I think it’s high time Shakespeare’s back catalogue was packaged up and sent to landfill alongside every second of footage of the Mighty Boosh and all those boxes of Lostprophets CDs. Shakespeare’s work is so omnipresent it forces worthwhile art to the margins, despite being more wearisome than a party political broadcast read by Melvyn Bragg. If a day goes by where you haven’t heard the name Shakespeare mentioned at some point then, well, you died yesterday, sorry about that.

Not a week goes by, not a week, without some fool declaring they’ve found a new way to present Shakespeare’s plays to an audience who cannot, physically cannot, have avoided being subjected to a good number of them at various points in their life, whether they were willing recipients of this drippy tedium or not. Two days ago a fine British actor, Ian McKellan, known for his willingness to take on unlikely roles, was on the television to promote his new project. A mad new series of sci-fi epics where a brave resistance fights alien invaders who’ve arrived to judge humanity for its crimes against the universe? A kaleidoscopic children’s fantasy set in a world where black, white and grey have been banned and a council of rainbow unicorns hands out lollipops that taste like dreams?

Not quite – he’ll be starring alongside Judi Dench in ‘Shakespeare Live’. I don’t know what that is, but it’ll be presented by David Tennant, who said this: “We have opera, we have ballet, we have hip-hop – all celebrating Shakespeare and what he’s done for our cultural heritage.” Oh, wonderful, wonderful. Let there be no area of British culture left uncontaminated by dickheads in frilly tights.

The principal issue I have with Shakespeare is that we, 400 years later, don’t get to decide whether his work’s any good; it’s been decided for us over many a previous generation, and to err is to spit on our ancestors. Perhaps Shakespeare was the finest playwright in England when he was alive, I don’t know, but once he’d died he began to be feted as the nation’s greatest, against which all other playwrights must be compared. As the decades and centuries wore on, there can be no doubt whatsoever that other writers will have made plays, had careers, that on an objective level will have been the match of William Shakespeare’s, but we’ll have heard nothing about them given they’ll have been drowned out by the ovine howling of lovers of such seizure-inducing comedy as The Merry Wives of Windsor. Without it we’d never have had Birds of a Feather, you know.

Given it’s a safe assumption that every last one of Shakespeare’s plays is being performed somewhere in the world today, it could be argued that the man’s work is a crutch for those who’ve run out of ideas. Can’t get your new play off the ground? Dust down that tatty copy of As You Like It and start readying your Rosalind. Desperate to penetrate the public consciousness before your prostate heaves and the donepezil takes over? There’s nothing like a run through Julius Caesar to stoke the fires one final time. Spaffed the last of your cash on an ill-judged, self-financed remake of Police Academy: Mission to Moscow? Fuck it, let’s Macbeth.

Of course the man himself is hardly to blame for all this; presumably he died as oblivious to the column inches his deeds would generate as that chap off the television with the mad hair who stuck his cock in all those kids. Maybe Shakespeare didn’t even write the plays himself. Just think, you may be unwittingly infatuated with a cipher while the true genius remains unlauded and unknown. Know what that makes you? A Belieber.

Perhaps if the obsession with Shakespeare would serve to ‘draw new mischief on’, he wouldn’t be such an irritant. I’ve no doubt there are some tremendous playwrights around today, yet no writer alive can hope to smash through Shakespeare’s glass ceiling. We have reached the point where it would undermine the fabric of humanity to admit Shakespeare wasn’t the finest writer since God. Any playwright refusing to acknowledge that Shakespeare will reign for eternity will have their next show tomatoed to extinction by a booing mob of English literature students desperate to reaffirm that it’s all right to call Jews money-grabbing bastards so long as you wear a silly hat and pretend to be Italian.

Yes, the Shakespearean horror bestowed on me as a schoolboy was The Merchant of Venice. Though it failed to teach me all people with big noses are evil, it did succeed in demonstrating that popularity doesn’t necessarily equate to quality. This play is a classic, we were told. Why, I asked. I didn’t hear the answer if there was one, given I’d been ordered up the corridor for a caning. Just because everyone says it’s great, doesn’t make it great. I think Mr Blobby was at number one at the time, cracking my point into an open goal for me.

Declaring you’re not a fan of Shakespeare is sacrilege on a par with saying Prince Harry is a spawny rich bastard playing at soldiers rather than a ‘good bloke’, or you always thought Des Lynam was shit on Match of the Day. Views of this type are met with the full force of the British subconscious that doesn’t know why it’s obsessed with a long-dead courtesan from Warwickshire but knows it will flay the first fucker to disparage him.

But how about we agree to give the old boy a rest for a while? You can have your 400-year celebration, but after the imminent Shakespearaganza let’s agree not to talk about the man or his work for, say, 18 months. Scholars will unearth great non-Shakespeare works until-now suppressed by the intolerable weight of the First Folio, new playwrights and new styles will emerge from the long shadow of the Bard, and I can once again do the Saturday crossword without tripping up on the final clue: Secret Moorish lover of Tamora in Titus Andronicus, in no way intended to portray dark-skinned people as untrustworthy and evil (5).

That it should come to this. True is it that we have seen better days. Do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?

Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them,


The Start-Up of You

Quick tip for book lenders: unless someone has asked you to borrow the book, they don’t want it. They’ll probably accept it, because they don’t want to insult you or your reading habits. But they’ll resent you for it, because when they get home, it will sit in the corner, looking at them for weeks, and making them feel guilty for not having started it yet. If you begin asking them questions about it, like “Did you get a chance to read it yet?” they’ll start avoiding you like you have Ebola or something. This will be your fault.

Eventually, out of guilt and resentment, they will return the book and say they ‘couldn’t get on with it’. What they mean is, they haven’t looked at it, and never intended to. Let that be a lesson to you.

Anyway, the other day, a well-meaning friend lent me a book. Actually, it’s my own fault. Since I complain about my job all the time, sometimes well-meaning friends get the funny idea that it’s a cry for help of some sort, and not just my favourite pastime, and they offer suggestions or advice about shifting jobs or careers, unaware that for me, shifting careers has about the same appeal as selecting coffins does for someone on Death Row.

This book was called ‘The Start-Up of You’, a title which manages to combine all the things I hate about modern publishing, or actually life, in a pithy and disgusting four-word phrase. Well done. The subtitle was: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career.

Transform Your Career? Transform it into what? What are they talking about? Naturally, I was terrified, and threw it in the corner. Later on, sheer morbidity prompted me to pick it up and browse the contents page. The first chapter was called “All Humans Are Entrepreneurs”. What? Was this book written by an alien? Or are there other species on Earth who can read now? I continued. Later chapters developed the theme: “New World of Work”, “Strengthening Risks”, “Structure and Maintain Your Network”, and so on.

I’m sure you are getting the gist. The gist is, the world of work isn’t what it used to be. Gone are the days when you left school and cosily snuggled up under the protective wing of a large and benevolent enterprise, who would pay you a steadily increasing salary, plus healthcare and pension, as you moved inexorably up the escalator. These days, wages are stagnant, add-ons cost extra and, where once you could confidently say, ‘the world will always need customer service subscriber managers’, now things are not quite so predictable. Quite frankly, an answering machine could probably do your job better than you, and next week it probably will.

The keyword now is ‘flexibility’. The Start-Up of You teaches you how to think and act like an entrepreneur, all the time.  The usual examples are trotted out: that wanker who started Facebook, and look how rich he is, and what about Fuckface who invented that app nobody likes but everybody uses? How did Fuckface get to start his Fortune 500 company? Why, by exploiting his network, you imbecile. There are many other similar examples. You have to be thinking creatively, pivoting constantly, and if you do nothing, then a career tsunami is going to come along and sweep you out into the street where you’ll be eating cat food out of bins for the rest of your life, and you’ll deserve it.

The whole prospect, of course, is designed to terrify. Nothing sells like total fear, and for those of us (like me), who spent the first thirty years of life just  getting over the trauma of being alive, and never bothered about career until it was too late, the prospect of having to suddenly build network intelligence and navigate career opportunities is pure gothic horror. Already, in my reasonably steady, horrible job, I spend a fair amount of time with my hands resting on the keyboard, staring out of the window thinking, “What the fuck am I doing? What the fuck am I doing?” over and over again. In the past we were allowed to be quietly but complacently miserable. Those days are gone.

Back in the old days, you sold your soul to a company, but at least when you’d put in your working hours they let you alone, to go home and watch TV or something. Now, unless you bounce out of bed with fifteen different ideas about how you can maximise your skill set and generate career opportunities, you are basically a slacker, an old-world caveman who deserves to be swept away in the tsunami.

The world of work, formerly contained in offices and factories, has come spilling out into the streets and cafes, where hipsters line up their identical Macbook Pros and develop their profiles. Work follows you home like some blob from a 1950s horror movie, and it sits in your house, making you feel guilty for watching TV instead of expanding your network. TV is no escape. Everyone is at it on every channel – thinking like an entrepreneur. Christ, round me, even the beggars have been reading The Start-Up of You. They used to just beg. Now they all have a sideline in selling stolen books or doing performance outsider art. Soon they will be asking me to endorse them on LinkedIn for smelling of piss and drinking K cider. What chance have I got?

The Start-Up of Me makes an executive decision. I decide to place The Start-Up of You in an out-of-the-way spot where it can languish for enough time so I can give it back to my friend. Later on, I will tell him it was interesting in parts but I couldn’t really get on with it. I enjoy a horror story as much as the next guy, but some things are just too awful to contemplate.

Glorifying grubby slavery

I don’t hate porn because I’m some upstanding moral guardian. Those kinds of people secretly love the stuff and only pretend to disapprove of it. I hate porn because, despite having the lowest production values, the least talented crew and the worst acting of any entertainment medium, it somehow sees fit to take itself so fucking seriously.

“Oh baby, yeah! Yeah! You’re so good! How do you get to be this good? You’re so big, baby! Much bigger than anybody watching this shit! I can’t believe you’re doing things to me that no self-respecting girl would ever, ever, allow to happen to her body in a million fucking years! Oh yes! Give me those unrealistic expectations! Harder! Harder!”

Sex is not meant to be taken seriously. If you take sex seriously it’s either because you’re not getting any, because you feel inadequate in some way or another, or because your relationship is in trouble. The best sex any of us will ever have is the jolly, farcical fucking that puts one in mind of trying to adjust a television aerial in a bad 1970’s sketch show. “There! Right there! Hold it! Hold it!”

Sex is where you lose your inhibitions. You don’t care what you look like or how you’re doing it. Sex is fun and cheerful. Sex is a laugh. Sex should not scare or intimidate you and if it does there’s obviously something seriously wrong.

And yet the sex in Fifty Shades of Grey, both book and film trailer, looks pretty damned intimidating and scary to me. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t because it’s BDSM. I had a friend who was into BDSM once and they told me the key to the scene is that those who submit do so willingly and without fear. Let me emphasise again: without fear.

And yet from what I can gather the entire book and film is dominated with serious issues regarding depression, insecurity, vulnerability and a load of physiological crap that posits to be an in-depth study of the human mind, when in reality it’s just another grubby little soft-core porno made even worse by delusions of grandeur and a highly suspicious borderline sex offender as the main character. And who in the hell goes to watch a porno to find out why the main characters want to fuck?

It is true to say most feminists are not a particularly sympathetic bunch. Recently the male-hating militancy has become more and more virulent as individuals attempt to blame their ageless, sexless failings on their being of the supposed gentler sex, and I cannot help but think this has driven most reasonable women away from the movement. Nonetheless I find it very hard to believe that a single badly written book and inevitably worse film has suddenly had most of the female population yearning to be transformed into simpering, beaten slaves controlled by a sloany little yuppy who seems, to all intents and purposes, to be the lovechild of Patrick Bateman and Margaret Thatcher.

Perhaps Fifty Shades is a rebellion of sorts against the modern feminist movement that seems more interested in dictating to women than empowering them. Perhaps it is a woman’s way of telling these people that they have the right to choose to submit to a man just as they have the right to raise their children themselves or stay at home whilst their husband works. Perhaps it is all about choice.

But Fifty Shades of Grey is a lousy book that completely misunderstands the very concept of mental illness and ends up glorifying total, willing slavery, something no novel has attempted to do for over a hundred years. A sure sign, if ever one was needed, that we should be careful what we wish for.