Lucy and Todd

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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)

 

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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)

 

What Happened — Hillary Rodham Clinton

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on September 24, 2017 at 1:37 pm

 

 

What’s a girl to do? She said she wanted to be prez, Wall Street backed her as prez, Bill and Barack said she should be prez, and the Democratic National Committee got up to all kinds of dirty tricks to make her prez. Some people even voted for her (more than voted for Trump). But she’s not the prez!

Clinton wonders why she lost the U.S. election every day. So she got together a large team to write a book about it in her name. Like the giraffe, this group-effort apologia’s all over the place. The story’s told backwards, starting with Trump’s inauguration and George W. Bush’s appraisal of his speech: ‘That was some weird shit’.

Then it’s the morning after election night and time for Clinton’s painful concession. Then come the reasons she decided to run, unconvincing even if she genuinely cares ‘about struggling working-class families in fading small towns’ (it sounds like a Bruce Springsteen music theory mnemonic). To hear her tell it, she’s a real sweetie. She seems to see herself as some kind of overgrown Shirley Temple from the Good Ship Doolally.

Most of all, she wanted ‘to make life better for children and families’. Her interest in children is sickening, given that she presided over civilian drone strikes as secretary of state. Awash in American exceptionalism, she says the lead-poisoning of children in Flint, Michigan, ‘is not something that should happen in America.’ Where should it happen?

Let’s be clear. Women undoubtedly need to take over the world – it’s our only hope. But Thatcher, May, Imelda Marcos and Hillary Clinton will never help anyone eliminate patriarchy. Hillary couldn’t even bring herself to espouse the $15 minimum wage, the least she could do for women, who are the poorest of the poor. This ‘pragmatic progressive’ is actually a corporate-entrenched, business-as-usual capitalist nursed at the nipple of Walmart. But what’s a little slave labor between friends?

The Clintons invented Blairism, a money-grubbing centrism founded on indifference. To this Hillary added her own brand of Nixonian secrecy, torpor and contempt. The few actual beliefs she has turn out to be wishy-washy: feminism lite, healthcare lite, gun control lite. It’s all about strategy with her, and polls and data and focus groups and policy teams; caution, never passion. She likes the idea of a universal basic income so much she never even mentioned it in the campaign.

She writes of ‘the problem’ of income inequality when she should be talking about the obscenity of it. She claims to want to make her country ‘freer, fairer, and stronger’. Why not just free, fair, and strong? Next she’ll want equaler pay for women.

She’s right about all the sexism and misogyny in the 2016 election, and the beauty contest aspects of being a woman in politics. Clinton had to wear contact lenses, get her hair done daily, employ a makeup expert recommended by Anna Wintour (ouch), and buy a ‘uniform’ designed by Ralph Lauren: the pantsuits. This was another missed opportunity for feminist rebellion: for the sake of other female politicians, Clinton should have worn her beloved yoga pants.

Next comes a nauseating chapter on family and friends. Chelsea, the apple of her eye. Bill, her best pal and great fun to be with. How they love their bedroom in Chappaqua, with its many windows (hints here of lifestyle porn). From her father she learned unconditional love, and she loved her tough mother too, who endured a harsh upbringing. She’s also got hundreds of male and female friends who are always there for her, including (apparently) the Obamas.

The Clintons are philistines, their house full of biographies of past presidents. Bill reads spy novels, Hillary mysteries. But after the election all she did was watch box sets of TV series and practice nostril breathing. Bill’s a night owl (that’s not all he is). They walk the dogs together, and he edits her speeches. She calls him every night and buys him presents when she’s on the road. A martyr to the snooze button and snacks, she likes Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers, hot sauce, and ice cream bars. She’s a grandma, bigly, and a Methodist: she reads a morning devotional every day, prays quite a bit, and they say grace before dinner. She seems to think having a ‘faith’ is something to be proud of! But religion has killed America. It really stinks up the joint.

One chapter deals with gun violence, which Clinton rather bravely made an issue in her presidential campaign, risking the ire of the NRA. Sanders disappointingly stalled on the subject, treating gun ownership as a civil liberties matter, and the gun industry as the source of manufacturing jobs. Meanwhile, the Sandy Hook massacre has been labelled a hoax, and the parents get death threats. Not only the American people but the police need their weaponry confiscated.

But Clinton’s commendable stance on domestic guns vies weirdly with her hawkish behaviour in foreign affairs. She voted for the Iraq War, is always up for bombing people and, chuckling on camera over the savage slaughter of Qadaffi, once boasted: “We came, we saw, he died.” On top of that, where the Clinton Foundation goes, an arms deal always seems to follow. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence.

She offers an interminable recap on the ‘damn emails’, but the most significant chapter arrives near the end. It should have come first. Here she deals with Russia’s unprecedented interference in the election, which she deems an act of war. A Russian coup d’état has occurred in America and nobody’s noticed. (She suggests Russian government interference with Brexit too, shifty operations in Holland, Germany, Denmark and Norway, and a failed attempt to insert Le Pen in France.) While Trump tweeted that he wished the Russians would hack into Clinton’s missing emails, others concluded he himself had been (perhaps) unwittingly recruited as a Russian agent. Maybe Melania’s a KGB robot. That would explain a lot.

Was the ‘misguided’ Comey unwittingly recruited too, along with Sessions, Kushner, Assange and Mitch McConnell? Clinton reckons that the combination of Russian espionage, Comey’s last-minute pronouncements, the Republican very successful voter suppression efforts, the reckless inanities of mainstream TV news reporting, the misogynistic witch-hunt, the outdated Electoral College system, which she deems undemocratic, and her own deplorable ‘deplorables’ moment, cost her the election.

A terrible trick was played on the American people. But it wasn’t that Clinton lost; it was that Bernie Sanders, riding a groundswell of true popularity, was denied the Democratic nomination. Bernie would have had a landslide. Clinton couldn’t beat the outright nincompoop who won with a mere 25% of the electorate.

So she’s freed women in one way: to screw up. If you ever feel you’ve really made a mess of things, just think of HRC. It takes a village idiot.

 

LE

 

A version of this review appeared in the Herald, Sept. 23, 2017.

 

 

 

Gila Lustiger — We Are Not Afraid

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 24, 2017 at 9:59 am

NOTTING Hill Editions is an imprint devoted to the art of the essay. Whereas some essays appear in pamphlet or broadside form, or on dreary blogs, NHE recognises that an important essay is potentially as meaningful for us as a longer treatise or a novel, and so they treat the essay with respect and put it between hard covers, in elegant, considerable editions designed to make their way in the world for some time.

This is important. Where can we look for detailed considerations of serious matters? Newspapers no longer have the space for in-depth essays, or the money to pay the people who ought to write them. Magazines, really, no longer exist. Intellectual writing disappeared from the airwaves decades ago.

The web is directionless and un-indexable. Urgent, important ideas belong where they always have: on paper.

You might say that the art of the essay embodies something noble about us in the West: the tradition of free, creative individual thought, unafraid to criticise persons or institutions when the going gets tough. In Paris, the going got very tough in 2015. Attacks on the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo on January 7 and at a supermarket on January 9 were followed by the events of November 13, when 130 people were killed and more than 350 seriously injured by religious extremists.

Gila Lustiger, a German writer living in France, spent six weeks “day and night” writing her response to those attacks, We Are Not Afraid. She became an “information junkie”, reading and listening to every account she could of the attacks, and individual and state responses to them. And yet she began to wonder what this cascade of information was for, more aware of the medium than the messages: “Now by this brilliantly organised attack in the very heart of one of the world’s most respected metropolises, the so-called IS had, in a very short space of time, managed to capture the attention of all media news reporting. IS was manipulating its media image almost as slickly as Coca-Cola, Marlboro, Sony, Nike, Disney or Mercedes.”

She demonstrates that IS’s agenda is political, not religious. They’re fascists. Lustiger, below, was led to examine the pretty hideous political stasis in Europe which has played a big part in the rise of religious radicalisation among the young, particularly those living in the “banlieues”, depressed artificial suburbs of French cities. “What could incite a young man to yearn so passionately for the ‘adventure’ of death? …

And when we call for the defence of our values, what, exactly, do we mean: what should we be defending?” In the course of her meditations, Lustiger examines the current state of refugees in Germany (and the coordinated New Year’s 2015 attack on women in Cologne and Hamburg). She is prompted to go further back in time, to 2005, when a wave of unrest and violence swept the banlieues. These dubious zones were built for an earlier cohort of immigrants to France, immigrants who found work. Their children, however, have traditionally faced unemployment rates of well over 50 per cent.

In a novel published in 2015, Lustiger wrote: “What they wanted was to get high on destruction … but this generation wasn’t protesting against anything, wasn’t calling for anything, wasn’t seeking anything because they knew for certain, and had always known, that no-one gave a toss about them.” Nicholas Sarkozy publicly called these young French citizens “scum”.

There’s a grimly amusing and properly depressing account of the government’s (at best) half-hearted attempts to “do something” for this generation. Mostly it involved renaming and renaming and renaming the agencies supposed to educate and to help the young; the fact is that French society was, and is, utterly indifferent to them. In the end it was Jacques Chirac who rather unexpectedly challenged the public to bring these people into society, and so into government, which would make things very different, as Lustiger points out. It never happened. The youth of the cités were so culturally disenfranchised and confused that in their rioting they destroyed around 70 public libraries, and Lustiger takes this up as a particularly emotional, thorny example of the clash between extremists and the democracies.

“Many of the rioters were school drop-outs and their hatred was directed not just towards books but towards the written word in general which they saw as an instrument of their subjugation … the realms of language and the written word stood for only one thing: bureaucracy.”

Bad idea, ignoring people.

After 2015 things went topsy-turvy in France. “Even left-wing politicians have taken ownership of republican emblems, they respond to atrocities by singing the Marseillaise and get misty-eyed before the tricolore flags hanging from many a Paris balcony.” Lustiger describes an interesting moment in November 2015 when the left-wing press were hanging on every word of the public prosecutor – that really is a world turned upside down.

Though it’s won prizes, this is not so much a grande essaie as it is an arresting attempt to understand the place of terrorism in our lives, using the tools of a journalist, a novelist, a citizen and a mother. That Lustiger’s essay is a book, an attractive, physical, western book, is crucial. She quotes Hannah Arendt, who said education was nothing other than creating the basis which allows it just to be possible to readjust the world’s bearings. We all must act on that possibility every day.

 

TMcE

 

This review first appeared in The National on July 17, 2017