Lucy and Todd

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Judging Shaw — Fintan O’Toole

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on April 9, 2018 at 9:27 am

Judging Shaw: The Radicalism of GBS

 

GBS was one of history’s great high-wire acts, and it was performed solo and without a safety net,” writes Fintan O’Toole in this entertaining, insightful and wonderfully produced book. For three-quarters of a century, George Bernard Shaw was the most exciting and disturbing voice in English letters. He was the bane of politicians, coxcombs and bad musicians, and loved every minute of it. He was also the most-read socialist thinker of the 20th century, even though no political philosopher has ever quoted him.

Shaw was the first literary “brand” in the era of modern communications. “GBS”, a persona Shaw couldn’t always control and which began eventually to irritate him, was often portrayed as an imp, a devil, a self-anointer – one cartoon shows him with a laurel wreath to which is affixed a tag: “plucked by myself”. He was, and was seen as, a shameless self-promoter, a manipulator, a puppeteer. See the famous Al Hirschfeld drawing in the artwork associated with My Fair Lady: Shaw’s up on a cloud jiggling strings attached to Henry Higgins, who in turn has his own puppet, Liza Doolittle.

Putting aside his vast oeuvre, the plays, pamphlets, articles, books, postcards and letters, and Shaw’s contrarian, acid analyses of just about everything, his greatest achievement may ultimately have been a simple kick in the pants for us all. Go ahead, he said to the world. Read some books and work it out for yourself.

Strange, then, that what defeated Shaw, and almost ruined his career – twice – was politics. Not the play politics of taunting the English for their stuffiness and backwardness. Not the kind of politics that can be made fun of in newspapers and wry drama, but the real, looming disasters of two world wars. He got it wrong both times.

At the outbreak of the First World War he got up on his hind legs and bellowed that for England to fight Germany was nonsense, since the two nations were practically one and the same. He compared the Junkers to the English oligarchy (rightly) and debated whether it might be best for British soldiers to stay at home and start a revolution instead. Reaction was swift. The Establishment turned on him as a crank and a traitor. His books were withdrawn from libraries and bookshops, his membership in professional associations cancelled. For the popular press, always annoyed by him, the gloves were off.

Things were never the same for him, but Shaw, being Shaw, went on to write some of his best polemics in the 1920s: The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism contains a shrewd explanation of How the War Was Paid For that can still make your blood boil.

Then he did it again! At a luncheon in the late 1920s, Beatrice Webb noted that Shaw was “gabbling” about Mussolini, insisting that everyone agree that Il Duce was the best thing since dried macaroni. At this point Webb wrote Shaw off as a political thinker.

Shaw totally failed to notice that the Final Solution was not a sideline to Nazism but the essence of it. He thought he could talk Hitler out of it, one vegetarian to another. Always impatient for change, Shaw supported the dictators until the last possible moment: Hitler’s invasion of the USSR. He apologised to his compatriots. Pretty late. Pretty lame.

O’Toole casts Shaw as a hybrid of Oscar Wilde (his near contemporary and a fellow Dubliner) and Leo Tolstoy: half fanciful gadfly and half bearded dietary sage. After the First World War there wasn’t any of the gadfly left, or at least any market for what the gadfly had to say. And by 1945, Shaw was nearly 90 and his stinger was weak.

Shaw was anything but a sumptuary, excepting with words, but Judging Shaw is sumptuous. It’s full of skilfully chosen pictures, cartoons, reproductions of autograph letters and manuscripts that draw you into Shaw’s time and place.

A commemorative postage stamp issued by the Soviet Union in 1956 gives Shaw that glowing, Lenin-Stalin upward gaze. A photo shows GBS wearing only a loincloth and espadrilles, sitting on an uncomfortable-looking rock in the pose of Rodin’s The Thinker.

The continuing value of Shaw is his insistence that we stop ignoring what we are constantly being told – the “brain-dead megaphone” of politics and media, as George Saunders has it. Or stop swallowing it whole – whichever sin you commit. Get sceptical. And get critical.

TMcE

This review appeared in the Herald on April 7, 2018

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Robin Robertson — The Long Take

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on April 9, 2018 at 9:22 am

 

The Long Take, a narrative poem, is the story of a guy called Walker: his “name and nature”. He was born in Nova Scotia and was alive to what you might call an old-fashioned natural world, out of a Robert Flaherty film. He fought in France. Feeling soiled, disjointed, he believes he cannot return to the purity of his home place, so he washes up in New York City, in 1946, and experiences life there in the stark chiaroscuro of new cinema.

In this black and white world he begins to write. From an island beginning he becomes a sharp, cinematographic observer of urban humanity – in the latter half of the 20th century, what other kind is there? He hears from men how New York works: “Up there …” he gestured at the bright/jewelry of the towers,/the wasted light of penthouses and suites,/’… are all the girls and all the money.” Walker encounters some people from Hollywood and gradually ideas of it work on him and he lights out for there. Walker you could easily imagine as the actor Robert Walker: a world-weary, battle-hardened, acutely sensitive man, scarred and unbalanced.

Any narrative poem about New York City reminds you of Hart Crane’s The Bridge; California brings to mind Robinson Jeffers, a writer with whom Robin Robertson has much in common. In its beginning, The Long Take remarkably captures linguistic styles of 1940s American writing – Saroyan and Steinbeck. As it progresses into the mid-1950s, we’re hearing Ginsberg and Baldwin.

You also sense the paintings of John Sloan and hear Joseph Moncur March and Les Murray (whose Fredy Neptune is another shattering narrative of a damaged fighting man). David Jones’s In Parenthesis, Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (to our disappointment, Walker is also a drinker) – you will be washed in all these when you read this poem. Dust, the dust and sand natural to Los Angeles, but also that raised by the constant, insane development and re-development of the city, is John Fante’s dust.

Walker gets a job on a newspaper, easy as pie. Those were the days. But everything in Los Angeles has always been happenstance, in turmoil, endangered, unreliable – just like the houses and the iffy, oily soil they rest on. Assigned to the city desk, he covers murders. There are so many of them. Then as now, LA is a shifting and shiftless society. Dead bodies: “Like they’re dolls … How they’re still holding on to something that might save them – their purse or their newspaper or a dollar bill.” Walker is also appalled by the staggering number of indigents – many of them ex-servicemen – and on his own bat he begins to write exposés on the subject.

Admirers of Robertson will be familiar with his attentions to the human body and the thousand ways in which it can, with deliberate evil, be injured or destroyed; some of them still wake up screaming remembering his early poem The Flaying Of Marsyas. Don’t dare to think that you will be disappointed here: Walker can’t forget things he’s seen, done, and the things he sees, even now. He thinks he’s watching a man, pursued by the LAPD, unfurling a red handkerchief; its bullets taking him apart. Another guy’s smile is described as crossing his features like a fly exploring a wound.

Walker’s awful recollections are thrown against memories of the ever-changing beauty of his birthplace and the rapid, increasingly Dante-esque carnival of wilful self-destruction he finds Los Angeles to be. Bigotry and racial violence are an ongoing, frighteningly natural extension of the war: people being torn down in the same way as buildings – buildings that cannot be allowed to live out their natural lives: “They call this progress, when it’s really only greed.”

At one point Walker gets time off from his newspaper to look into the plight of bums in San Francisco, yet another kind of city for him to surgically, magically refract. He travels there on a bus, seated across from a woman who is eating a big bag of funnel cake. One had hoped that a writer of Robin Robertson’s sensibility, flaps of flesh and bubbling blood notwithstanding, would never have had to know about funnel cake.

Suddenly, we realise that Walker can’t handle his insights: he becomes as bad an alcoholic as the people he’s writing about. The corrupt city gives up on itself and Walker witnesses its destruction, exactly as predicted by a literate though homeless pal.

Walker’s downfall is heartbreaking, because it’s not only his. A woman razzes him in a bar, and he replies, as Los Angeles, as America, for all of us: “I know why I’m drinking. I just don’t know why I’m here.”

The Long Take owes much to film noir – that is its texture. And this is an apt language for speaking about the US now. Noir was a kind of underground, semi-sanctioned Hollywood grumble about the real state of the country, a sub-political lens on the chirpy, too-highly burnished official version of the new American life that ignored racism, poverty and the persecution of ideas.

So the poem becomes completely up to date: Robertson has chosen a supremely uncomfortable, recognisable flashpoint in US history, an almost perfect mirror image of the nation today: crude, newly unleashed material ambitions mix with off-the-chart levels of fear and paranoia. The only difference is that then it was Russkies and immigrants, and now, uh …

TMcE

This review appeared in the Herald on 18 March 2018

Carrington’s Letters — edited by Anne Chisolm

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on January 22, 2018 at 1:34 pm

 

 

Ah, the Bloomsbury crowd. There must be fewer people every year who covet details of their every ménage à trois. They produced one great writer: Virginia Woolf. The rest were hangers-on and lazybones.

‘The world is rather tiresome,’ wrote Lytton Strachey, one of the lesser figures, ‘…ladies in love with buggers, and buggers in love with womanisers, and the price of coal going up too. Where will it all end?’ This languid, elusive companion was to be the love of Dora Carrington’s life – and the source of much pain. She describes herself sitting ‘like a poached egg’ on his blue chair, soaking up his ‘unreality, and coldness’. Within weeks of his death in 1932, she shot herself with the gun she customarily used to hunt his dinner.

Carrington trained at the Slade but, under the cloying influence of the Bloomsbury crowd’s bent for decorative arts, ended up spending a good deal of her time producing pub signs, trompe l’oeil glass-paintings, book plates, tiles and lampshades for the Omega Workshop, and book covers she was never happy with for the Hogarth Press. But she was primarily consumed by her adoration of Lytton.

He tolerated this unexpected passion good-naturedly, and benefited from it hugely. Carrington tended to his every need for more than a decade and a half, including the excremental at times of severe illness. ‘Please start taking your Sanatogen instantly,’ she pleaded.

For his part, Strachey encouraged her to paint, and to read, in between jaunts to London where he badmouthed her to the ‘Woolves’ (Leonard and Virginia) and shared her letters with enemies. Indiscretion, betrayal and deceit were the Bloomsbury set’s meat and potatoes.

Introduced to us here by a sexploitative cover photo reminiscent of naturist magazines, Carrington first seems a bit of a flibbertigibbet who does not know herself. Like the rest of the Bloomsbury bunch, she’s a name-dropping, skinny-dipping, punt-hogging, house-hunting, knee-jerk Jew-hating snob, and a habitual, Trump-style, self-appointed evaluator of ‘attractiveness’.

She and Lytton sport sickening epistolary nicknames: he Count Lytoff, grandfather, Bugger-wug, Old Egotistical HumBug, and Toad in the Hole; she Doric, Mopsa, incubus, Pollypuss, your pen wiper, votre grosse bébé, and periwinkle Crinkle Crinkle.

With the complicity of other Bloomsburyites (and lectures on virginity from their patroness, Lady Ottoline Morrell), Carrington was treated as a skittish coquette and bullied, often simultaneously, by several needy, possessive men. Everybody wanted her to just grow up and be heterosexual.

But a long honest letter to Lytton on the eve of her marriage to her major oppressor, Ralph Partridge, transforms Carrington halfway through the book. Suddenly she’s the real deal, though abject – a thinking, feeling, breathing person.

Imagining that it’s all over now with Lytton (it wasn’t), she says their friends ‘all wondered how you could’ve stood me for so long…as I didn’t understand a word of literature and we had nothing in common intellectually or physically. That was wrong… I had one of the most self abasing loves that a person could have… How I adored every hair, every curl on your beard. How I devoured you whilst you read to me at night. How I loved the smell of your face in your sponge.’

She starts to come across as endearingly confused, dreamy, fun-loving, thoughtful, tender, clingy and curious. She’s better-read than they all made out too, mentioning Blake here, Rimbaud there – though Daisy Ashford was her favourite. Amongst visual artists, she valued Goya, Cézanne and Matisse.

The letters reveal a painterly eye. ‘Does one ever see two hares fight in London?’ she asks. She preferred a nine-mile walk in the country, ‘with only a half sucked acid-drop of a moon for company’. And, ‘Do you ever go out when everything is over at night? The corn field was greeny purple, & poppies making dark black red stains, and you grabbed at them, for they seemed only stains on the waving mane of wheat, and Lane’s nightdress shone a wonderful colour in the midst of the field.”

Self-critical, she’s a much better letter-writer than she realizes. She compares Lady Ottoline’s literary salon at Garsington to ‘a lunatic asylum at tea. Everybody equally enchanted.’ She characterizes nostalgia as a form of masturbation. She mocks D. H. Lawrence. And, though a pacifist, she wishes the Germans would bomb Cheltenham, ‘of all English towns the most stagnant and over grown with seedy colonels & their wives.’

Though she liked sex with women, she complains bitterly about being female herself, loathing menstruation and being ‘tied with female encumbrances, & hanging flesh.’ Explaining why Lytton was right for her, ‘Somehow it is always easier if I am treated negatively, a little as if I was not a female.’

Parturition revolted her, and she’s even more pained by the insouciance of mothers once it’s over, looking so happy ‘with a grub in the cot’ beside them. She despised her own do-use-the-proper-butter-knife mother too, writing of ‘the sordidness of her life & the lives of all these people who live in these neat little houses with closed windows’.

Bloomsbury freed Carrington from that, but ultimately disappointed her with its incestuous hypocrisies. She herself had a real talent for love, concluding that ‘if one wasn’t reserved, and hadn’t a sense of “what is possible” one could be very fond of certainly two or three people at a time.’ In her life and letters she threw a spanner into the conventions of sexual desire. Always worth doing.

LE

 

(This review first appeared in The Herald on January 14, 2018)

 

Fire and Fury — Michael Wolff

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on January 22, 2018 at 1:23 pm

 

The terms used to describe the President of the United States in this book include clown, idiot, moron and fucking moron. And those are from the people who work for him. Last weekend, defending himself against some of the many charges in Fire and Fury, Donald Trump tweeted that he is a ‘stable genius’. The jury’s out on the genius part, but he certainly belongs in a stable.

This president is the definition of a moving target. In order to get him to think about something essential, even for a single second, his helpers have to convince him that it was his idea. Except that he doesn’t have any ideas. On top of this, he has several hours of total irrationality per day, cause unknown.

Dealing with him is ‘like trying to figure out what a child wants,’ according to one member of his transition team. The last person to speak to the president, at any given moment, is the only influence on his thinking. It can take hours to get him steered in the right direction.

But. Then he goes to bed, eats a shedload of cheeseburgers, and watches right-wing cable news until he’s foaming at the mouth. (Trump’s supposed 35% base of support in the population will never see anything wrong in his conduct, because they get their ‘news’ from the same filthy outlets that he does.)

In the middle of the night he phones his billionaire pals for long rambling confabs. Any American over the age of eight knows this is not the way to run the White House, but it sounds like Trump’s mental age is lower than that.

He eschews preparation or scripts and ad-libs instead, creating many a ‘wackadoo moment’, as Michael Wolff puts it. Trump prefers EOs (Executive Orders) to legislation – he seems never to have heard of the other two branches of government. And he longs for his old chums, Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie, to join his team, but so far can’t find jobs for which they’d ever be confirmed.

Trump believes it’s perfectly okay to lie to the media, but feels they get him all wrong: ‘My exaggerations are exaggerated’. He’s fixated on Time Magazine covers, which he figures should portray him every week, and longs for the New York Times’s ‘nut job’ Maggie Haberman to write just one nice article about him, which seems unlikely.

The White House is now a cross between King Lear and an episode of “Dallas”, a maelstrom of brainlessness, founded on bigotry, vulgarity, inertia and family. Trump’s an ‘idiot surrounded by clowns’, as one insider put it. They’re all dumber than each other, and Trump’s putty in their hands. Silly putty.

Having nothing but contempt for expertise, he put his own kids in charge. ‘Jared has this’, Trump said about his son-in-law and the Russia investigation. No, Jared screwed it up. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, or Jarvanka as Steve Bannon named the couple, are good at putting their yuppie oar in and making everything even worse.

Psychologically incapable of taking a close look at himself, Trump never wanted to win the election. He was just hoping to expand his brand. With no real ideology, no principles either guiding or otherwise, the White House under Trump has descended into one long damage-limitation exercise.

He is tended by an undisciplined team of back-stabbers, who chase behind him, sweeping things under the carpet. They’re now all agreed that the job is to muffle him as much as possible, and stifle incoming information under the blankets of their own fear. Melania often doesn’t know where her husband is. Isn’t she lucky?

Michael Wolff, for some reason, was allowed to take a seat amongst them all in the West Wing. He was like a real fly on the wall, unwanted and unnoticed. A good writer, probably a real wit, he seems to be applying a curious restraint here, given the grand guignol he found himself in.

But he unearthed a genuine narrative in the middle of this giant political disaster, by focusing on what’s really dangerous and chilling. When the going got tough, there was Wolff, still sitting on his little sofa! By that point, everybody had probably permanently forgotten who he was, because they forget everything around that place.

This is not a gossipy book, as the Trumparatchik Sarah Huckabee Sanders has tried to characterize it, but a serious look at the predicament we’re all in, at the mercy of a mentally challenged man with his fingers on that ‘big’ nuclear button.

‘He’s a guy who really hated school’, says Bannon, Trump’s head anarchist. Trump won’t read. He can’t. Not even the shortest position paper. He’s ‘total television’. If you try to brief him on something, his eyes roll back into his head and he flees the room. He can’t even sit still for a PowerPoint.

But neither, in a real sense, do any of these people read. Kushner went to Harvard, so he may have read at least one book. Bannon seems dimly aware of Shakespeare – perhaps he thinks he’s Iago. Mike Pence, as we know, reads the bible. Does that count? Where there is no reading there is no thought.

This is quite a portrait of the ‘postliterate’ pussy-grabber-in-chief. Trump speaks of himself in the third person: he’s ‘the Trumpster’. He’s afraid everybody wants to touch his toothbrush. He finds the White House slummy, can’t work the light switches, and is phobic about its rodent problems. The bigger rats he hired himself.

He has a craving for other men’s wives, whom he occasionally wins by painstakingly convincing them of their husbands’ infidelity. He assesses everyone, including potential government appointees, by how they look: he goes for second-rate generals with plenty of ‘fruit salad’ on their chests. Just a sucker for a guy in uniform.

Our faults are not in our stars. They are in the President of the United States, and he’s moving on us like a bitch.

LE and TMcE

 

(This review originally appeared in The Herald on January 13, 2018.)

Books of 2017

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd, The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on January 2, 2018 at 8:15 am

Todd McEwen’s choice:

Gila Lustiger’s We Are Not Afraid (Notting Hill Editions, £14.99), written in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, is a ferocious evaluation of both ISIS and our governments. A must for all the complacent on your Christmas list. Buy in quantity.

David Thomson in Warner Bros (Yale University Press, £16.99) offers a compelling précis of the Hollywood studio that ‘was’ America from the 20s through the 70s: ‘America has become a tedious doom-ridden country now, but in those precious years it hated to be boring. It would kiss you if it hadn’t just washed its hair.’

Novel of the year simply has to be Lincoln in the Bardo, by the almost-can’t-stand-it incredible George Saunders (Bloomsbury, £18.99), an urgent cacophony of American confusion and rage. Regret and sorrow seep from it as rust dripping from the iron letters on a marble tomb. You’ll feel like a bug stuck on a pin, your legs wriggling. And you won’t want it to stop.

 

Lucy Ellmann’s choice:

How many people in the UK have been wasted, do you think, because they happened to be black? Not just wasted but trampled and tormented. Journalist and campaigner Reni Eddo-Lodge hasn’t really stopped talking to white people (yet). In Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race (Bloomsbury, £16.99), she tells of Britain’s ignoble history of discrimination, the Stephen Lawrence charade, the craven prioritization of the white working-class, and the ‘white feminism’ endorsed by establishment fakes. She’s great when she’s angry. Echoing the eloquent James Baldwin (whose appearance in the film, I Am Not Your Negro, was one of the highlights of my year), Eddo-Lodge says ‘The onus is not on me to change…racism is a white problem.’ Brava! She’s begging white people to acknowledge their complicity in racism and do something about it. ‘White privilege is a manipulative, suffocating blanket of power that envelops everything we know, like a snowy day.’ Enough of these white Christmases!

(From The Herald, December, 2017)