A Trio of Carols


There must be something in my blood

Of bears, that tires at Christmastide,

Slows, loses hope in snow; throwback

To ice-drove humanoids who cowed

In lairs, misconceived, abortive:

Not made for the rage and blunder of

The world – winter shocked them

Every time as though they dreamed

That cruelty could not be defied,

Or this was forgotten every sleep.

Bedtime comes; I can, I hope,

Remember – dread the summer’s end:

Frost bites, snow drowns, winds burn,

Lovers leave, lessons learn.


Vièrge Retrouvée


St. Germain-des-Prés, December 2010



Item of devotion, greater passions moved in

Diggers and workmen echoing from pale crypts

Mundane bedesmen and curés had forgotten;

Prayer-tool, curiosity, cleft statuary lens into


What God may look at, love; accidental capsule

Of Parisian hearts’ migration, well kept

Your coif and barbette tilts tender beside

Where is no head, no grafted orchard-blush


Of infant cheek, whole hands invisible groping

The sumptuary of silk stone where your breasts

Cleave. This load of brute broken rock cracks

Your smile: mother’s delight, arrested ludic fête.


From what sewers what scenes of us dredged

And picked over as by crows shall yield us up

Intact (albeit ravaged by excesses not, for once,

Our own) to sate the idyll future makes of past?




There have been glimpses beyond what

Was thought the range of thought,

Seeing darkly once into the addled mind

Of God, new worlds on the wind,

Bedridden wisdom, what madmen taught.


I have seen the night sudden shook caught

Unawares, winter trees fraught

With snow wild horses neighed behind.

There have been glimpses.


One Christmas morning walking brought

A pheasant sighting, red that he wrought

In gouts, blue bruised against the grind

Of snow, half-reminder I had sinned;

Even of flesh by which sin may be bought

There have been glimpses.

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On Sadism

In Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Medea (1969), a character screeches “All is sacred! All is sacred!” The director, a homosexual, Marxist and reluctant atheist, when quizzed in 1966 by a journalist on his habitual regressio to religious themes, replied: “I may be an unbeliever, but I have a nostalgia for religious belief.”

It is no mistake, then, that Pasolini was to film a version of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. The sexualised violence that de Sade depicts having passed into the language eponymously, there is a strange effect in that it is almost as if the pathology were aesthetic rather than psychological, as if de Sade “invented” sadism rather than to have treated it explicitly (though not for the first time – della Mirandola describes a man achieving arousal through flogging.)

What is interesting and often overlooked in the rather overburdened use of sadism in contemporary speech is that de Sade’s oeuvre had many facets – libertarian tendencies as political as they were privatised, literary scruples, a tension between the rigours of noblesse oblige and his revolutionary sentiments. One preoccupation on a par with the depiction of sexualised violence or violent sex was de Sade’s almost apostle-like devotion to blasphemy, which perhaps instigates Pasolini’s curiosity in this recondite figure.

Marcel Proust was the first to notice the secret fault-line in de Sade’s carefully-constructed, gargantuan involvement in cruelty. In the sequence from Swann’s Way where the narrator spies on Mlle Vinteuil and her lesbian lover from the bushes, the connections between sadism, sentiment and the sacred are mercilessly laid bare. Reflecting on Mlle Vinteuil’s Sapphic intercourse, including coyly encouraging (while seeming to protest) her lover to spit on her dead father’s picture, the narrator observes:

“It is possible that, without being in the least inclined towards sadism, a daughter might be guilty of equally cruel offences as those of Mlle Vinteuil against the memory and the wishes of her dead father, but she would not give them deliberate expression in an act so crude in its symbolism, so lacking in subtlety… Sadists of Mlle Vinteuil’s sort are creatures so purely sentimental, so naturally virtuous, that even sensual pleasure appears to them as something bad, the prerogative of the wicked” (Moncrieff & Kilmartin, Enright, 231).

Proust eviscerates the sadistic as a language, a mode of clunky symbolism parasitic on the virtues it degrades. This is why de Sade can truly be said to have “invented” sadism, in the sense that sadism is an aesthetic rather than moral or amoral category. It is purely involved with artifice, with dramatising and melodramatising the moment of inversion and degradation of an already-established holiness. This is why de Sade was so passionate about desecrating the Eucharist in so many ways – only a believer in the Real Presence would circumvent the indifference that Proust thought the much more monstrous cruelty. Somehow, despite the aesthetic extremity of de Sade’s position, as Pasolini’s fascination with him seems to intimate, the carnival of depravity is drawn to the liturgy of the saints.

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Wade – short story


The hand of God lays heavy on a man in a faithless age til he becomes changed, physically I mean: cracked like an old tree done by lightning. I first met Wade Manning in ’82, the year floods ripped through the county and left McCavana’s wheat fields like wet ash and that old Indian couple washed up dead in the sandbars. There was a run of influenza in the surgery and talk of pneumonia amongst the hillfolk, course none of them would come into town for me to take a look over them. I’d gone to Caldbrook for Dover’s powder, quinine, other diaphoretics. The dispensary had already doled out to Young Watkins from Bell’s Station up-river and the NCO was under orders to ration further distribution. I knew from the war that at a pinch butterfly-root and sanguinaria would do the work of Dover’s powder, but I wasn’t keen for it to come to that.

I was on my way back to Pallston and I’d made the Twelve Trees reckoning on two hours left of daylight when I saw him by the side of the road. First I thought it was someone out tracking deer, the hour it was, til I got closer. He was covered in ages of dirt; between that and the beard you couldn’t even say for certain he wasn’t a coloured. Toes showed out the McKay-Bryants he was wearing: Union boots, caked in dried rivermud. The reins coiled my fist, his flat eyes watching as I drew near. They were queer eyes, set deep in that broad badger skull; sometimes dull, other times bleeding into a red mist and then you had better watch out, for he was about the Lord’s work and that never spelled anything but grief and sorrow.

I admit I find it hard figuring how I faced the guns at First Manassas and yet was scared of that drifter; I had seen some things that don’t leave you even when the years traipse by you – a young boy running toward me with the white blast and noise of the guns firing over the ridge, blood drying in his philtrum, panicking like a wild turkey. When I grabbed him I saw it was only a nosebleed. It’s stuff like that, not the maimings and the squeals that stays with you. Still, I never truly felt afraid until I rode up on Wade Manning waiting by the side of the road.

Truth was, it was me who brought him riding into Pallston that day, riding up beside me showing them teeth like a beauty queen on a big city float.

‘Evenin’, Mister.’

‘Pleasant evening to you.’

‘Say, where’s the nearest town from here, Mister?’

I waved back the way I had come, the sky bellying low over the trees. ‘Caldbrook’s that way about ten miles, probably have to set down for the night.’

With Mephistophelean patience, that debutante grin, he said, ‘Yea, but the nearest town, Mister?’

I swore an oath once, something dignified and Greek; it seems queer to think it applied there, in the woods, the first owls of dusk starting to shriek. ‘I’m returning to Pallston,’ I said finally; ‘I can take you to the town, but I can’t offer you a place to stay.’

‘The ride into town is all the charidee I’d ‘spect, Mister!’

With more hauteur than intended I said, ‘It ain’t Mister, neither. I’m a physician.’

I wish I’d never said that; I wish I’d kept my damn mouth shut and just kept looking on at the path. His eyes glistered. ‘Pleasure making your ‘quaintance, Doc!’

Couldn’t I just have said no, made on my way, slept as good a night’s sleep as I could manage and never had to do with Wade Manning? I could have; but then I’d still have felt the need to justify myself, give that raggedy stranger the reason for my hardness, which I could not do. Anyway, and I sensed this instinctually at the time, a man like Wade had no need for reasoning, excuses, justifications: he just understood everything that came along, like a serpent understanding the ankle crushing its head underfoot. All I could do was look ahead, trying to ignore those wicked toes worming into my buckboard.

I should say that those years after the war we got used to different types blowing in and out of our little town: there was a Roman priest passed through, and a magician that stayed a while, casting his spell over the town, fire-blowing, making coins appear out of people’s ears. Then they found out he had taken little boys out into the fields when he had been at Bell’s Station; he hung himself from an apple tree before they could. Still none of them was the equal of Wade. Against all our advice he built a shack out of a ruined hog-shed on the edge of McCavana’s land right where the river had burst the banks. Buck McCavana spoke loud about his intoleration of defecting sonsofbitches trespassing but him and those sons of his did nothing about it, far as I can tell. Wade got himself the name of an odd job man, and spinsters and widows in particular had a good word, said he was more reliable than the blacks ever since the Bureau poked its nose in. I’d pass him on my way to a call, sweat slick on his brow as he split logs; he would cry out to me in that goat bleat voice of his, ‘There goes the Doc!’ I’d lower my eyes and give him the curtest how-do, and it seemed to me he got a fair bit of satisfaction out of that.

Whatever my feelings about Wade I couldn’t fault his conduct. The only time he ever got onerous was when someone tried to church him: that got his hackles up.

‘What would I want with going to yer church fur, to listen to hymns of human contrivance?’

At the time we all thought he just had enmity for anything unbiblical. Not so long back, as I have said, a priest had passed through on a skinny mule, en route to Scarborough, black robes flapping like crows wings; the ladies of the Association sent a tornado of letters to the state capitol. In any case, Wade’s not going to church got the goat of the Reverend, a sandy haired young man who was too bookish for Pallston but civil enough; it also peeved some of the old girls Wade did jobs for, but they hired him all the same cause he was cheap; there soon came a time when people would talk about outsiders with Wade in company, as if there were never a time when he wasn’t a part of Pallston.

The night of the barnfire the church bell rung about a quarter hour after I went to bed. I’m still surprised that I tend to set up longer now, letting the night drop a bit more fully. I discern that to be an effect of not having married.

I couldn’t take it in, the fire: the orange power of it, heat on my jowls. Almost as powerful was the sight of Buck McCavana on his knees, crying like a huge ornery baby, Percy and Bo dumb from never having seen their Pa that way.

The barn was a honeycomb of struts wilting and crashing. Breaking Buck’s gigantic heart was the sound of his horses whinnying as the flames ate their flesh and bone. I don’t think the breeches and waistcoat I was wearing that night ever got that tannery smell out of them, like a dog’s vomit going hard and sweet in the sun.

Round the back of the barn a colt was doing a quickstep on the end of a rope held by one of McCavana’s negroes. They were chucking water on it and in the light of the fire a mist rose off its back. The whites of its eyes reflected umber.

‘Bettuh take a look over here, Doc. Man swallowed hisself a lot uh smoke.’

He was set in the middle of the circle, men shaking their heads trying to square it with good sense: his face blacker than ever, still wearing that grin, like even on this night of hell broke its gates he wanted a rise out of me.

‘I’d like to say yer right on time, Doc, but I reckon yer too fine a man not to figger me fur a liar.’

‘I would do no such thing, Mr. Manning.’ I instantly regretted addressing him so: I could feel the circle of eyes.

I told them, go back so he can have the air. I got him to spit on a clean handkerchief. The expectorate was clear.

‘You saved the colt?’

‘Surprised, Doc?’

‘Well, no, not… I meant that’s how you ended up…’

‘Like a barbequed hog?’

I changed tack. ‘You’re a brave individual, Wade. Risking your life for a nervy colt.’

The deep-set eyes narrowed.

‘I knew this here fire were going to happen.’

He broke in on my silence: ‘I mean a knew about it fore anybody ded.’

‘You mean..’

‘I dreamt it, Doc. Yea. I dreamt about the fire.’

Wade’s meetings started after that. At first it was mostly negroes; he had only spoke of the dream within their earshot before the fire. They had their gatherings out by the hollows, where the negro men sometimes went trapping. There was plenty of discussing done about it in the general store. That old girl Mary Ellen Crothers said it was a witches’ coven and Wade Manning wouldn’t see a penny from her purse again. I had trouble imagining him ever getting that much out of her before.

Months went by before news came to me in the surgery that Wade was prophesying another flood. The farm hands attending his meetings demanded to be paid out for the week: Buck McCavana told them they could leave but they’d never get a day’s work from him again. There had been some rains; still, it was nothing like those the year Wade arrived in Pallston, and the state had since sent engineers to take a look at the floodplain and levees had been built. There was nothing to indicate any immediate danger.

The second flood wiped out everything below Crabtree Street., including the church. Three people died, a little baby I treated for dysentery. I was present at its going, its warm body coiling in on itself for a fraction of a second, as if it were going to let out the most appalling bawl conceivable, a cry to shake the rooks from the trees. Wasn’t that way, though; it just shivered, and went blue.

Pallston picked itself out of the sludge that covered everything and began the rebuilding and Wade picked up a few converts. Bo McCavana was seen at one of his camps, drunk, slurring the name of his dead mare over and over like the name of an inamorata. Now and then the latest vision would be heard – that’s what they called them, Wade’s “visions.” Mostly it was inconsequential: somebody was going to lose hens to foxes, and sure enough somebody would. It was always toeing catastrophe, though: never good news. Hasn’t it always been the same? All those old men out howling in the desert about blood and destruction, least til the angel Gabriel appeared and sang something about a birth. Even then, wasn’t it that the newborn would get grown and be served on high, a buffet for the crows?

I never voice these opinions aloud. I try not to upset the Reverend. He is, as I said, a civil soul; and he accepts that I am a believer, in my fashion. I do my best not to try his nerves.

Mary Ellen Crothers was hard as the box they buried her in when the niece found the body. Her glasses had fallen into the lap where she had never dandled a child, receipts with the names of northern banks curling on her bureau, her mouth open in a sigh of eternal disappointment.

John Halpin wanted to know and I told him no, there weren’t no signs of it so far as I could tell. All the same I couldn’t give him the cause of death. It was the first time in forty years I’ve not been able to give the law a cause of death when they needed to hear it.

Wade had of course foretold Miss Crothers’s death, in a language both generic and menacing: Woe to them who curse True Prophets, They shall get Theirs, The Lord Giveth, et cetera. The thing that I couldn’t credit was the warning about the second flood: there wasn’t no foreknowing such a thing. Or way of inducing it. Then the colt: I couldn’t get it right in my head why Wade should risk his life in a fire he had lit himself, it was too perverse. That night I found it harder getting over than usual, so I lit a lamp and went down to the surgery. I liked it there, sitting in the quiet amongst the dully glinting instruments. I was thinking about a corpse: not the hard, clean, unloved body of Mary Ellen Crothers. Nor was it the bodies of boys in grey uniforms shredded by Gatlings. It just shivered, I thought, and went blue.

After a while most of the town went to listen; some had become true believers and the rest out of fear half-mythic half-practical. The Reverend continued to hold church services in Percy McCavana’s new barn; Percy had taken over after Buck had a massive heart attack, shortly after he’d sold off acres to pay his debts.

It was a light evening walking up the hill to the service, the sun dashing white and gold on the pines. The axes rang out their song, the song of the Atlantic Lumber Company.

‘Evening, Reverend.’

‘Good evening, Doc. A very fine evening it is, too.’

I had seen his look before, on the face of an officer when a troublemaker had buckled under his authority just before a crucial battle. The loyalty of a malcontent always counts for something with folk.

The service started and lingered past the lanterns being lit. Voices rose with the shadows into the freshly-sanded hayloft. The Reverend spoke poorly, arcane meanderings down the byways of the Montanists and Emperor Justinian, ending by stuttering Deuteronomy 12:32. We sang hymns. We sang ‘Comfort, comfort ye people,’ and some of the children cried, sensing the mood with creaturely perception.

I sat for a while in the flickering shadows until the barn cleared, and after a while I realised someone was there. It was John Halpin.

We walked out into the cool night. ‘First time in forty years I’ve felt a thing during the service,’ Halpin said.

‘“Cutting a finger on a splinter of grace,” the Reverend’d call it. Better late than never.’

His blue eyes lighted on me in the darkness. ‘I had other consolations.’


‘I’m sorry,’ he said, his voice quavering as if his throat still held the last note of the hymn. ‘Weren’t called for.’

‘You didn’t mean anything by it. She was a good woman, John – too good for you.’

He was quiet, inclined to agree.

‘And me,’ I added kindly.

The fireflies flitted up into the chimney of the night; out by the pines a watchdog barked and an Atlantic Lumber man cursed it. On the way back to town a boy met us saying the sheriff was wanted. Halpin and I hurried into town and saw the crowd gathered at the statue of Beauregard: Wade was standing on the plinth before the thunderous legs of the general, his pewter eyes burning.

‘Now brothers, this is the hour, the hour when faith is tested and found worthy, the noisome hour of trumpet blast and flashing sword, when the wicked’ll get thur wages of sin. What was thur sin, brothers? Fornication? Violence? Drunkenness? Followin after false gods and makin the Lord maddern a wasp shook in bottle??’ His voice had grown higher and higher. Some shouted yea. ‘No. Nosir. No brothers; bad as all these are they aint the root of sin, the reason why no matter how they roil and tear thur beards now that they hear the footsteps of the Lord a-comin, He’ll still divine the rot in thur hearts and throw em all into the pit. That was the dream given to me. Now what was the root of thur sin, brothers?’

Wade stopped preaching and there wasn’t a sound, not from the crowd, not from the woods or the Atlantic Lumber camp on the edge of Percy’s land; not from the river, or the hillfolk, or the hamlets and towns all through the county, and maybe not in the world, the whole earth holding its breath.

‘Deafness. Deafness, brothers; all these sinners shut up thur ears to the Word of the Lord comin to them through his chosen prophet. They took a look at what the Lord sent and judged it foolish and evil, yea evil by their standards, the standards of the stinkin, filthy, putrefyin world; and wellsir they clogged thur ears til they couldn’t hear a single word of what was being told to them, about the doom that’s being prepared fur them since before the stars.

‘And so comes the hour. The herd is parted, my dear ones, and there aint no cure in the world for what is on its way here, moving out there in the darkness, this turrible judgment.’

Halpin had managed to signal to his deputies with some delicacy of eye movement impenetrable to me.

‘Wade, now you just come down from your pulpit.’

‘Unner whose authority, sheriff?’

‘The county: you’re under arrest.’

‘For what?’

‘Breach of the peace.’

‘Aint no peace to be breached, sheriff. Aint peace wot’s out there licking itself in the dark. Besides I’m as meek as a lamb.’ His words were like honey in the carcass of a lion.

‘If you don’t drag yourself down from there I’ll blow the lying tongue out your head.’ It was Bo McCavana, drunker than ever, his gun wobblingly aimed at Wade’s head but close enough that even a poor shot would shatter his skull. He had become a heretic, finally realising who was responsible for the barnfire.

‘You do it then or shut that trap o yours,’ said Wade.

‘You killed Blue. Bastard.’

‘Lower your gun, McCavana.’ It was Halpin. ‘Have you got wet brain, boy? I told you to put that gun down.’

Bo dropped his arm and staggered; one of Halpin’s deputies moved in to drag him off.

Wade continued; ‘And so comes the hour: let’s leave this Sodom to its destruction, brothers. When the sun fails to come up tomorrow Pallston will be a word and nothin more, no meaning – just a sound in the wind.’

He moved into the crowd, and they massed him like buffalo forming a caravan around their young so Halpin’s men couldn’t grab him. They moved down Samuel Street and out into the woods towards the hollows. Some of those who had been at the church service joined them. Halpin told the rest of us to go home, that he would wire the Marshall’s office in the morning and his men would be on watch the night, and none of us were to get any ideas like Bo.

That night I doubt a single one of us shut an eye, except for maybe Bo McCavana snoring off the liquor. Out in woods there were noises like drums, batteries firing: I could see ghosts in the dark, inside my room men who I had known years before and who had died: the major of my regiment, the young man with the nosebleed. I saw the ghost of Jeannie Halpin.

Before dawn I dressed and shaved as if it was another day in surgery and I went out to Wade’s camp out by the hollows. Halpin was already there, some of his men twitching behind rocks in the hills.

Before dawn: even the saying of it would have sounded foreign, like something they might have said in the old days when they had just discovered the world was an orb and not a plane, and in saying it corrected themselves: before dawn: I meant before – I couldn’t finish the sentence. I didn’t know. I just didn’t know.

People were on their knees in the brackish sandbars, praying; these were people I knew, that I had treated in the surgery. Wade stood with his eyes to the east from whence would come darkness and deliverance. He looked at them, his brothers as he called them, like a butcher looking over his abattoir; he scanned the hills, spotting Halpin’s snipers right away; then he looked at me, stared until I felt myself redden, and he winked a pewter eye.

Minutes passed. I don’t know who was the first to see it – someone let out a groan, it could have been of ecstasy or horror; then we all saw it; it was the most magnificent sight I’ve ever laid eyes on. Just under the rim of the sky which looked like a blotted line of blue ink, black where there were trees, far, far in the distance, the sun.

Silent prayers turned to shouts of joy, these to tears; then murmurings. Wade stared dumbly at the sun, which had broken the horizon now. Halpin waved in his men but it was too late; the crowd surged forward and engulfed Wade, bearing him away like floodwater.

A delegation from Atlanta found that the levees had burst during the second flood, whether during the high tides or before with help from human hand, they couldn’t say. The money Wade had embezzled from his disciples was never found.

Young Watkins has come down from Bell’s Station to take over most of my surgery duties. I keep a hand in; I’ve made visits to the hill families twice in the past month. Watkins tells me all about the papers they’re writing in the city medical schools, the discoveries chemists are making in Boston, Paris. He keeps talking about “the tragedy” it makes of traditional methods. He’s a smart young man.

John Halpin comes by sometimes. He asked me if I remembered the old Indian couple that died in the ’82 flood, the first one, and if I remembered what the squaw used to wear on her feet.

‘Why, far’s I recollect it was…’ I realised.


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The Enormous Condescension of Posterity

Last night, I watched a video made and produced by Occupy LSX and listened with a mixture of disappointment and, increasingly, incredulous amusement at the inane commentary provided by (I presume) the cameraman. Judge for yourself:


The first comment was to point out that the splendid architecture of the Guildhall was “medieval,” snigger. A friend greeted this conspicious fact as if it shed much light on the current economic crisis: “the architecture matches the social system.” Of course, it doesn’t, as any first-year economic or history student could inform you: indeed, it was the nascent-capitalism of the early-modern period that obliterated medieval feudalism – it’s one of the most famous lines in Das Kapital, for God’s sake: the substitution of naked, shameless, direct and brutal exploitation where religious illusion held sway, and all that. It’s in chapter one. And it’s a lyric in a Belle and Sebastian song: I would’ve hoped that between Marx and the indie heroes this much was understood.

The cameraman denigrated the Guildhall as “old and dated.” Of course, capitalism isn’t at all fearful of change per se, of what is new – in fact, it positively embraces that aspect of modernity, putting a price on it. For capitalism, the waves of trends, of generational conflict, of the battle for “authenticity”, to use the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s term – it all equals an opportunity to insert itself ever more effectively into the emotional make-up of its willing, co-operative victims. Things change, profit remains the bottom line.  Plus ca change…

The protestors go on to mock members of the corporation – an elderly man described as “an old bastard,” though, so far as the video’s exposition has allowed, the extent of his bastardy is to walk down the flight of stairs into the conference room. Indeed, age seems to be a problem for them, reminiscent of the anti-gerontic protestors of ’68. On the basis of the fact they are “old” and wearing suits – you heard me – they are “investment bankers, basically.” Well, no. They are by and large public servants of the kind whose jobs are under increasing strain from a Coalition govt intent on cutting the tripe out of public services and de-centralising, i.e. passing the buck to local councils such as the Corporation. Are they completely free from special interest influence? I doubt it – that would be a valuable point, but it is lost in the adolescent contempt these members of OccupyLSX have for sartorial “conformity.”

I almost laughed when one protestor commented on one of the Corporation, “Look at him, hands in his pockets,” to which a compatriot sneers “Nonchalance.” Indeed, the infamous nonchalance of the investment banker cum alderman with his avaricious hands stuffed nonchalantly in his pockets. There is a touch of Pol Potism about this – glasses = intellectual = bad. Suit = investment banker = bad. I was suddenly reminded of a Derek and Clive skit – Peter Cook: “This bloke came up to me and said hello,” to which Dud without losing a beat rejoins, “Provocative fucker.” They go on to compare the “suited and booted” to the “complete individuals” who are “dressed normally,” an almost spectacular paradox. The problem is, capitalism is fond of “normal individualism” – the fact that a protestor wears an arabic scarf with corduroys and a Noah and the Whale t shirt doesn’t really bother it. It affirms and buoys it up.

I’m annoyed with myself for writing this, because like many, I broadly support the protest and see it as both a sign of some healthiness in our rather moribund democracy, and who could argue at large with its general sense of dissatisfaction with the wrong-headed policies that have triggered two recessions (well, we imagine, two) in the space of three years? Record unemployment, soaring student debt, housing shortage, eurozone in meltdown – and the rest. I was as happy as the next to see the obnoxious Louise Mensch get hers from Merton and Hislop on Have I Got News for You, and yet I am disappointed by this totally- posturing revelation of what is actually going on in the minds of at least some OccupyLSX members, not to mention their viciousness (in some quarters) re: St Paul’s, who has been a friend.

The great Marxist historian EP Thompson called looking back on what has gone before with contempt and disdain as “the enormous condescension of posterity.” Lose it, guys, or risk undermining your point with self-ridicule.

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The London Riots: Reasons without exculpations

I believe man is ultimately a rational animal. Albeit that Freud and Darwin revealed the urges – biological and psychological – that shadow and crosshatch our most basic and simple actions, I maintain that we do x to bring about y, or to bring about z, also, in a greater or lesser degree. Motives may not be linear or unilateral: there is no reduction of our complexity in the world to a coda, but they are nevertheless comprehensible.

I have read much righteous condemnation of the violence and brutality that has erupted with sudden and treacherously unpredictable force onto the streets of London. The photographs and videos of fire, skeletons of listed buildings, riot police and shadowy mobs offer a glut of imagery to capture the chaotic and sense-reeling essence of the riots, with one Guardian commentator describing it as not so much a throwback to the eighties, but a sci-fi dystopia – The Road, or Children of Men.

Two videos already stand out as iconic; the first is of a gang surrounding a wounded black youth, briefly seeming to come to his aid only to open his rucksack, with an almost inhuman delicacy and lack of haste, taking what’s inside and sauntering off, casting the plastic and cellophane debris behind them. The second is a voice-recorded interview of a journalist with two girls gloating at the riots, treating it all as a bit of lark, where “the rich” will be shown that “we can do what we want.”

There is nothing meritorious in these riots. They are despicable acts of violence in numbers, self-injuring already marginalised communities, and – let’s be clear – they aren’t bread riots or hunger marches such as were witnessed in the 1930s. Kids as young as nine and ten are coming away from burning jewellery stores in Enfield with gold watches, and hooded looters fleeing Debenhams with designer clothes and aftershave.

Yet anyone with an iota of historical and political sense can see that these riots have been building like floodwaters at strained levees. Not only are we talking about communities now that only receive brief mentions when a beautiful sixteen year old girl dies in a pizza shop, or when a child is stabbed in a supermarket car park, but we are in the midst of a global downturn in which our political leaders have utterly failed to grasp one of the most incendiary issues of our time: a disenfranchised generation. Youth unemployment is at its highest in twenty years, and shaky financial markets make recovery unlikely any time soon.

To be fair to the ConDems, deficit reduction is their bungling attempt to throw a bone to what some commentators are calling a Lost Generation – that is, those masses of unemployed young people who are seeing services decimated, university fees soar, degree value tumble. And there has been an excellent and provocative academic study on the matter made not by a Labour MP as you would imagine, but by David Willets (Con). Yet the deficit reduction comes at the expense of the exigent need for government stimulus to create jobs, lessen the burden of the individual taxpayer; it exacerbates the very inequity it is attempting to curtail. As most moderate-Left economists are tired telling the slashers on the Right (even when that exhausting argument comes at the expense of a downgraded credit rating as in the US), the economy needs to be stabilised before deficit reduction can begin.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Riots of 2011 shall come to be seen as the perverse result of unethical and unfettered liberalism in the economic sphere. These youths are getting what they want the only way they know how. How can a parliament that nigh-unanimously fiddled expenses look a looter in the eye and tell him – do as I say, not as I do? How can it but fail to lodge in the mind of an under-schooled and angry young black man that hedge-fund bankers who made a Klondike selling to foreign investors both the corporate bonds AND the insurance on those bonds be rewarded for his greed and incompetence with massive bonuses? Nor did the world let the banks rot – as Senator John McCain and others urged: No. The taxpayer bailed them out, and he is told as a result that his services will be slashed and prospects scuppered. How can we hold up peaceful protest as a model, when mass demonstrations against the War in Iraq were treated with contempt by a hawkish parliament, and an innocent bystander, Ian Tomlinson, unlawfully killed in the G20 demos, which achieved – well, what, precisely? It’s all too rich to hear Boris Johnson shout down any economic or social reasoning behind the London riots. Much better to have an irrational bogey man – greedy demonic youths out for themselves. Osama’s dead, there’s a space to be filled.

The youths attacking police and looting small businesses on the street are a forgotten underclass – what Marx called with venom the “lumpenproletariat” – blinded by short-term thrills of violence and theft as to the true motive that lie at the heart of their blundering, sprawling, and awful acts: the only language that seems to be spoken in politics is that of threat and intimidation. It’s imitation, which is the best form of flattery. Gone are leaders of the moral stature of Roosevelt; the Aneurin Bevans, the Nehrus and, let’s face it, the De Gaulles, Churchills and Eisenhowers – to be replaced by these suited Bourbons of the so-called Third Way, with their lips expressing concern and their hearts crowing, après moi, la deluge.

The riots may seem like an eerie fantasia of violence and man’s predation on man: homo homini lupus. But to a rational animal, which ultimately is what we must believe man is if we are to weather our current crisis, then the scene is nothing more than an ugly and more blatant mimicry of our emaciated democracy: history played as tragedy, then as farce.

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The curiosity of gargoyles

Today I passed a homeless man in the Botanical gardens. There were dozens of people scattered around the park in little islands, taking the sun; a couple lay side by side, her hand touching his back under the cool of his t-shirt, as their two whippets loped about, brindling the green grass. A child ran into the rose garden; his mother, unseen, called to him in Polish.

The man with his trolley of possessions was in the shade, a big oak near to where the bowling green lies. In between his cupped hands he was holding a pigeon. I couldn’t slow down and take a look; unspoken etiquette of the street means that what is normally eye-catching or unusual in the main when it comes to the homeless must pass unremarked. Them’s the rules.

The pigeon aside, the vignette recalled an encounter I had about two years ago in Washington. It was on Easter Sunday after 11 o’clock mass in Holy Trinity. I was a bit full of myself, and of the joys of spring; I decided to do something for one of the homeless people begging for Easter alms outside the church – the church that Kennedy attended when he lived in Georgetown; sedate and Greek amidst the townhouses, its white columns brilliant in the sun.

I asked two of the men (black men, in case there was much of a doubt) hanging around the railings if they had eaten breakfast. They told me they hadn’t. I crossed the street to Wisey’s and ordered three bagel breakfasts and three coffees. I forget what fillings they had: cream cheese, probably. Playing it safe. When I returned, one of the homeless men had wandered up the street to chat to the rest of the group: one of them wore a felt top hat in the shape of a whale: something from a carnival or a sport arena.

The man I sat down next to on the knee-high wall below the railings of the church introduced himself as Jimmy. He looked somewhere in his forties, but although it’s a truism, it’s genuinely hard to say what age a person is when they have spent a good percentage of their life on the street.

So Jimmy and me talked about this and that. I told him about Belfast, my studies at Georgetown; a grandfather was walking up and down the pavement with a little girl in a new dress who had obviously misbehaved during the next mass. Jimmy devoured his bagel (I remember –  it was egg and bacon); he didn’t touch his coffee. “I can’t, man. My kidneys are shot. Been clean three years, but can’t touch coffee.”

They were all waiting around to attend a funeral later in the day. One of their number had stepped out in front of a car, drunk or high, and was killed instantly.

Jimmy told me about growing up in Georgetown, when it was a different neighbourhood. He told me he used to get into all kinds of mischief: come home late and his ma would raise hell on him. He told me about going into the woods and the river. Jimmy loved nature. Once, he had been working for a friend in the Appalachians. He found a book on birdwatching, and he would use binoculars to try and identify the beautiful mountain birds diving and flitting in and out of the wildflower meadows beyond the cabin window.

Jimmy’s friend drank whiskey, but Jimmy was always a beer man. His friend knew to keep Jimmy in beer-supply, or the whiskey would get drunk. He spoke about the mountain flowers. Here, he said, people would think they were just weeds, trying to choke their roses.

I knew this direction of the conversation was for my benefit and I suddenly felt ashamed. Yes, it was a charitable act, but it was so easy and it smacked of emotional tourism, not to mention some Catholic works-righteousness. It was also paternalistic: I don’t trust you to spend this money on something that won’t poison you, cannibalise you, mutilate your spirit – I’m going to buy you some bacon and egg bagels and coffee which you can’t drink because if I don’t know any better, I’d say that’s exactly what you need.

I think all our responses to homelessness and the ills that attend it are hamstrung by this neurotic welter of self-doubt, delusion, and the very human need to feel holy, and loving. We do so many cruel and thoughtless things, and we have such moments of ingratitude; or our days pass peaceably, but without any strain in the direction of others and their benefit. It’s no wonder we try, in whatever compromised way, to do our bit when the opportunity presents itself.

But for all that, something pretty prosaic yet moving happened to me while Jimmy was talking. He was becoming a person in my eyes. He wasn’t a means to a charitable act, or an anonymous, shuffling black presence on the street; he wasn’t one of life’s unfortunates, or a disgrace who needed to get his act together and stop relying upon others. He wasn’t even the victim of a brutal system that dehumanises people – at least he was no longer just that. He was a person with a story: a past, a present, and yes, a future. Suddenly, his features, his rich voice, his passions gave him a reality beyond me: neither my earnestness nor my scruples were relevant, really. It seems to me this wasn’t just another anodyne attempt to come to terms with guilt and dissolve the problems: I’m still living in a house, and Jimmy is in all likelihood living on the streets; God is in his heaven, maybe: but all is not right with the world. It was just that I had a sudden epiphany in the Joycean sense: an overwhelming sense of the richness of being, and the tawdriness surrounding it. And I felt empathy not in the usual places, but rather in being able to see Jimmy for a brief moment as an absolute individual, complex and mysterious.

Wislawa Szymborska has a wonderful poem about the kind of emotions I am trying to articulate:


In Paris, on a day that stayed morning until dusk,

in a Paris like –

in a Paris which –

(save me, sacred folly of description!)

in a garden by a stone cathedral

(bit built, no, rather

played upon a lute)

a clochard, a lay monk, a naysayer

sleeps sprawled like a knight in effigy.

If he ever owned anything, he has lost it,

and having lost it doesn’t want it back.

He’s still owed soldier’s pay for the conquest of Gaul –

but he’s got over that, it doesn’t matter.

And they never paid him in the fifteenth century

for posing as the thief on Christ’s left hand –

he has forgotten all about it, he’s not waiting.

He earns his red wine

by trimming the neighborhood dogs.

He sleeps with the air of an inventor of dreams,

his thick beard swarming towards the sun.

The gray chimeras (to wit, bulldogryphons,

hellephants, hippopotoads, croakodilloes, rhinocerberuses,

behemammoths, and demonopods,

that omnibestial Gothic allegro vivace)


and examine him with a curiosity

they never turn on me or you,

prudent Peter,

zealous Michael,

enterprising Eve,

Barbara, Clare.

How wonderfully Szymborska undercuts what W.H. Auden called “the vice of pity.” Her carnival of grotesques and gargoyles (‘that omnibestial Gothic allegro vivace’) are mesmerised by the snoozing clochard (for some reason, this image reminds me of the Michael Sowa paintings in Amélie, discussing the romantic fate of the eponymous heroine). Prudence, zealousness, enterprisingness are workaday virtues as far as the cathedral menagerie is concerned: instead, the clochard has history in his blood – he is owed pay for modelling as the wicked thief of the Gospels, and for his role in the sacking of Gaul. He sleeps, we are told, ‘with the air of an inventor of dreams.’ To be sure, this is a fantasia about what is a social ill – picturesque poverty, to paraphrase Anthony Trollope. But it is also more bracing and vivifying than the usual hectoring about poverty and homelessness, always resulting in dehumanisation – reductio ad politicum. John Milbank has some good things to say about this – “the poor are not us”; you can read some of his thoughts here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/nov/11/workfare-labour-cautious-christian-attitude-poor

We do not need to create an aesthetic of poverty – a literary equivalent to the Derlicte fashion range from Zoolander. We do need a sensitivity to the real experience and dignity of the people living rough on our streets that goes beyond pity and diagnostics. Sometimes we do need to be arrested and surprised. We need to crane our necks and look at tame pigeons. We need the curiosity of gargoyles.

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Paper Thin Modernity: Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock

Graham Greene, in fetching fur coat

In 2004, Vintage issued special editions of Graham Greene’s novels to commemorate the centenary of his birth, complete with forewords by luminaries of the literary world. JM Coetzee introduced Brighton Rock, Greene’s 1938 novel about racecourse gangs set in seedy prewar Brighton. In his Foreword, Coetzee confidently casts Pinkie as the villain of the piece, and Ida Arnold as its heroine:

Pinkie may do his best to elevate his acts to the sphere of sin and damnation, but to the doughty Ida Arnold they are simply crimes that deserve punishment of the law, and in this world, which is the only world we have, it is Ida’s view that prevails.

A bald plot outline make Coetzee’s case plausible: on a bank holiday weekend in Brighton, Hale, pressman for the Evening Star, is murdered by Pinkie, the young hoodlum and tormented Catholic vying for control of Brighton’s racecourse gangs. Ida Arnold, a free-spirited goodtime girl in whose company Hale passes his final hours, resolves to bring Pinkie to justice. A second arena of action involves Pinkie’s relationship with the naïve Rose, also Catholic: a potential witness in the criminal investigation. Pinkie marries Rose in order to silence her, while Ida “works on” the girl in an attempt to persuade her to talk.

In the corpus of criticism on Greene’s work, Coetzee’s view has been in the ascendant: Harold Bloom dismisses the novel’s “theological tendentiousness,” Frank Kermode concludes that Greene is of the Devil’s party “and comes near to knowing it”; with few exceptions (Waugh a notable dissenter), criticism on the novel has subscribed to George Orwell’s famous denunciation: “He [Greene] appears to share the idea, which has been floating around ever since Baudelaire, that there is something rather distingué in being damned.”

I have argued elsewhere that Coetzee et al. seriously fail to understand the novel, even when they are Greene enthusiasts. Ian McEwan, for example, is keen to secularise Greene’s fiction into the realm of mere psychological thrillerdom; his first encounter with Brighton Rock convinced him that “the novel of adventure could also be the novel of ideas.” McEwan is perfectly correct that Greene’s novel straddles two camps; but, keen to laicise what he sees as theological melodrama, McEwan is left with a thriller of no real consequence: if “sin and damnation” are not at issue, then the novel loses its appalling strangeness – it becomes convoluted psycho-babble.

Moreover, in the secular reading, it is impossible to do justice to Greene’s ambivalence when it comes to his characters: his chameleon ability to sound out and render sympathetically the motives of the wicked, while casting doubt upon the motives of the good. “The doughty Ida Arnold” championed by Coetzee is a flagrant mischaracterisation, one that seems to derive more from post-9/11 political anxieties and a wilful refusal to engage with Greene’s heterodox Catholicism than a faithful reading of the text (it is also worth remembering that Coetzee’s liberal convictions were tempered in the climate of South African apartheid, and he is understandably suspicious of anything that smells dogmatic and tribal).

Rather than trying to tame Greene’s theological imagination for contemporary secular appetites, a much more rewarding revisionist approach that nevertheless engages substantially with the novel is to view Brighton Rock as the work of an early convert trying to come to terms with modernity. As the process of slow assimilation of English Catholics began, and the Church started to emerge from what some critics have called its long nineteenth century, Catholic intellectuals entered a ferment of critical debate about the Church’s relation to the modern world, the fruits of which became the basis for Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes. It produced a kaleidoscope of positions and stances: Waugh invested Catholicism with the singular power to stave off the widening gyre of destruction he perceived in modernity; GK Chesterton was much more on the side of the common man, who possessed a sensus fidei recognised by the great social encyclicals of the late nineteenth century. Greene became the axiom of what a liberal Catholic looked like in the latter half of the twentieth century: disobedient, cosmopolitan, sexually-louche, slightly tortured. His starting position was much more puzzling. On the one hand, he seemed to dismiss his 1926 conversion to Catholicism as either a ploy to win the hand of his wife, Vivienne, and on the other, a cold intellectual transaction, effected by the untiring arguments of the fat Fr. Trollope as Greene journeyed with his catechist around Nottingham in a car. In fact, it was a more vexing issue of what Greene thought about the modern world: where it horrified him, and by turns where it enlivened and attracted him.

Greene’s novel is, in one sense, a work of antimodern Catholic fiction. He was hypercritical of his liberal, Edwardian literary forebearers: Woolf, Forster, Bernard Shaw. For him, the absence of the religious sense in their oeuvres spelled the death of the novel, characters “wandering like cardboard symbols through a world that was paper thin.” Like Eliot’s Hollow Men, Greene’s secular characters were perhaps fundamentally alright, but that was precisely the problem – they were just alright. The quest for meaning, the feeling of joy, even chaos had been lost to moderns – replaced instead by shiny things that could be bought, mortgages, smutty seaside postcards, billboards promising ‘Guinness is good for you.’

Ida Arnold is a symbol wandering through such a world. Ostensibly, she is a solid, warm, life-embracing character that Coetzee is right to admire. Pinkie, on the other hand, is an antimodern monster, a figure of pure evil, described in his first appearance as he stalks the pressman as “a boy of about seventeen – a shabby smart suit, the cloth too thin for much wear, a face of starved intensity, a kind of hideous and unnatural pride.” Indeed, sometimes it seems that the real division in the novel is not between right & wrong and good & evil, rather between right & wrong and evil tout court – a sign of Greene’s debt to Bernanos.

The reality of a malign intelligence aside, Brighton Rock frames Pinkie’s crazed religious belief as a perverse cri de coeur against the “paper thin” optimism of modernity, amidst the poverty, viciousness, and human abasement that contradicts it. While he is acutely proud of his status as a “Roman” in secularising-Britain and the gnosis that this uncommon belonging extends to him, he is a thoroughly unorthodox one; to his mind, Heaven is irrelevant. Hell is the singularly convincing reality of Christian doctrine:

‘Of course it’s true… What else could there be?’ he went scornfully on. ‘Why,’ he said, ‘it’s the only thing that fits. These atheists, they don’t know nothing. Of course there’s Hell. Flames and damnation,’ he said with his eyes on the dark shifting water and the lightning and the lamps going out above the black struts of the Palace Pier, ‘torments.’

‘And Heaven too,’ Rose said with anxiety, while the rain fell interminably on.

‘Oh, maybe,’ the Boy said, ‘maybe.’

The poetry of Greene’s fiction has a Websterian intensity in such scenes, where the inner world of the character bleeds seamlessly into the external world: “‘Flames and damnation,’ he said with his eyes on the dark shifting water and the lightning and the lamps going out above the back struts of the Palace Pier, ‘torments.’” The character’s speech is punctuated by a rhythmic depiction of the black phantasmagoria of Pinkie’s Brighton, and through the fluid use of polysyndeton (“the dark shifting water and the lightning and the lamps”) there is no disjunction between Pinkie’s demonic rhetoric and the objective world around him – the torments of his speech are one with the lightning and the lamps. Pinkie melds together the figurative and the literal: the world and Hell are the same.

Pinkie nurses a severe inferiority complex, palpable in his meeting with the crimelord, Colleoni: “A stout woman in a white fox fur came out of a lift and stared at the Boy, then she got back into the lift again and moved weightily upwards. A little bitch sniffed at him and then talked him over with another little bitch on a settee. Mr. Colleoni came across an acre of deep carpet from the Louis Seize writing room, walking on tiptoe in glacé shoes.” Pinkie is an outsider in this world of voluptuous luxury. Again, the narrative, while it remains de jure third-person, strains the boundaries between objectivity and Pinkie’s subjectivity to the breaking point: (“a little bitch sniffed at him and then talked him over with another little bitch…”).

Pinkie’s feelings of inferiority breed a dangerous misanthropy; contemplating killing Rose in a fake suicide-pact to secure his position, he fantasises:

He told himself he would soon be free again – they’d see the note. He hadn’t known she was all that unhappy, he would say, because they’d got to part… Life would go on. No more human contacts, other people’s emotions washing at the brain – he would be free again: nothing to think about but himself. Myself: the word echoed hygienically among the porcelain basins, the taps and plugs and wastes.

The incongruous adjective, ‘hygienically,’ draws the reader’s attention to the Nietzschean overtones of Pinkie’s egocentrism, and implies the drastic cleansing that Pinkie is willing to commit in order to achieve it – in the climactic scene as Ida arrives with the police in tow he screams, “My God, do I have to have a massacre?” D.H. Lawrence’s characters have a similar baleful self-reliance, as with Birkin in Women in Love, who postulates a human-free utopia, “a beautiful clean thought, a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass, a hare sitting up.”

For Pinkie, modernity’s banality, its disenchantment, its alienation effects create a hell on earth, leading to his fanatical religious fervour – a violent antimodernism. This antimodern Catholic religiosity shares with atheist practitioners of the postmodern a drift towards the post-human, as Stefanos Gerulanos discusses in his new study: http://www.sup.org/book.cgi?id=17806. Charles Maurras was such a Catholic.

It is also often tied to religious violence, as Charles Taylor has examined. Taylor identifies two ways of dealing with the threats to life in a violent and broken world: one involves seeing “destruction as divine,” thereby domesticating it while submitting to a higher power; the other involves claiming that power for oneself, facing down destruction: “we accept the possibility of violent death.” There is a third possibility that combines the two: “we submit to the god to whom we offer our blood; but the sacrificers also become agents of violence; they do it instead of just submitting to it; they wade in blood and gore; but now with sacred intent.” Pinkie embraces this third strain, disdaining the buffered self of secular modernity to open his being to the infernal powers of darkness. His god is Satan (“‘Credo in unum Satanum,’ the Boy said,”) and he must bring all souls to the maw of the Beast: “He trailed the clouds of his own glory after him: Hell lay about him in his infancy. He was ready for more deaths.”

Pinkie manifests his hate primarily in a pathological aversion to embodied being, his own as well as that of others. His death drive is impelled by his longing to escape the carnal world, to spiritually transcend it through numinous violence. His weapon of choice is normally a razor-blade, rather than a gun, suggesting his desire to intimately enact his hatred and disgust on the skins of his victims. The sadistic denial of corporeality in seeking to slash through it is tied up with questions of Pinkie’s “soured virginity”; he has a revulsion of sex, constantly revisiting in his mind the lonely ritual of his parents’ weekly lovemaking that he had seen as a child: “It was Saturday night, his father panted like a man at the end of a race and his mother made a horrifying sound of pleasurable pain… he was completely abandoned: he had no share in their thoughts – for the space of a few minutes he was dead, he was like a soul in purgatory watching the shameless act of a beloved person.” Born in the poverty of Paradise Place where families made do with a common sleeping area, Pinkie witnesses the extreme physicality of his parents having sex (his mother cries with the agony of sensual pleasure), which disembodies him, marginalising him to the liminal status of a soul in Purgatory, neither pure spirit nor matter. There is a repressed sexual content to his violent streak: “‘That music.’ It moaned in his head in the hot electric night, it was the nearest he knew to sorrow, just as a faint secret sensual pleasure he felt, touching the bottle of vitriol with his fingers, as Rose came hurrying by the concert-hall, was his nearest approach to passion.”  The intimacy of torture is in a certain sense Pinkie’s gruesome substitute for sex, just as Ida’s self-oriented pleasure seeking is to real sexual communion as passion is to a peepshow.

Critics have savaged Greene for Brighton Rock’s morbidity: Sean O’Casey complains: “Everything and everyone seems to be on the road of evil. Talk of James Joyce! Joyce had humour, Greene has none; and in the darkest part of Joyce there are always bright flashes of light; here the very light itself is rotten. Even the blessed sun ‘slid off the sea like cuttlefish shot into the sky with the stain of agonies and endurance’” Perhaps the most enduring criticism of the work is that which is implicit in Coetzee’s defence of “the doughty Ida Arnold”: another critic, John Atkins, is much more forthright: “It is a Catholic misconception that we follow our worst while they follow their best. On the other hand, Pinkie is not their best. It is insulting that he should be presented to us, in all his evil, as our spiritual superior.”

Atkins strikes on a genuine insight in his disjunctive two-hander against Greene: on the one hand, Greene creates a scarecrow of secular modernity, while on the other, he does not even bother to paint Pinkie, the representative of religious antimodernism, as anything other than a bloodthirsty thug. Which raises the question: is Brighton Rock best understood as an antimodern novel? Stay tuned for part II of this essay!

In the meantime, avoid the Joffre remake of Brighton Rock and head for the Boutling brothers splendid 1947 original starring Richard Attenborough; better still, pick up a copy of the novel – nothing beats that cold opening: “Hale knew they meant to murder him before he had been in Brighton three hours.” And just for fun, John Cale’s song. Everybody now in Valleys accent: You’re having Tea with Grayham Grrreeene….


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The Circle Closes

Le Cercle rouge, dir. Jean Pierre Melville (1970).

Starring Alain Delon, Bourvil, Gian Maria Volonté, Yves Montand.

Surrendering to fate: Delon in JP Melville's 'Le Cercle rouge


“All men are guilty. They are born innocent, but it doesn’t last.” This is the tried and tested philosophy of the chief of police in Melville’s crime thriller Le Cercle rouge, though the film infuriates the typical conventions of the genre with its disdain for exposition and elephantine pacing. Original sin is foreign to the film’s theology of man: they are instead compromised by fate and, it would seem, the society they keep.

The red circle derives from the film’s opening, an epigraph putatively spoken by the Buddha:

Siddharta Gautama, the Buddha, drew a circle with a piece of red chalk and said: ‘When men, even unknowingly, are to meet one day, whatever may befall each, whatever the diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come into the red circle.’

The three men drawn into the red circle are Vogel, an escaped convict (Volonté); Corey, a rising star in the mob with a gift for stoic violence (Delon); and Jansen, an alcoholic former marksman in the police (Montand). The trio plan a jewellery heist, fastidiously shot by Melville in the second half of the film.

At rare moments, the red circle becomes a brief visual signifier against the dominant palette of grey-blue: the alarm bell on the wall of the heisted jewellers, tail-lights on silent buses and traffic stops. Silence reigns in this film: the famous twenty seven minute heist sequence, meticulous in detail and notable for its absence of shimmying from ceilings, is conducted without a word, and in Jansen’s case, without shoes. “Ils sont pas très bavard,” comments the Commissaire de police while watching the security tapes.

The red circle is primarily that which is drawn in blood by Commissaire Mattei (Bourvil in an excellent last outing); the Commissaire is not above coercing informants – he arrests the teenage son of a nightclub owner on a trumped-up charge; the boy overdoses in a lonely interview room. From the chilling dragnet of police combing a field at the start of the film, to its violent climax when all three robbers come into Mattei’s clutches and mistakes by the police cost lives, the director does not shirk from closing the circle on his protagonists, like Thomas Hardy leading Tess to Stonehenge. The Commissaire is the director’s vicar in the film: the way in which the cruelty of the work and integrity of life are held in balance is underscored by the pitiable domesticity of Mattei, who returns home every forty eight hours to feed his troupe of longhaired cats (incidentally, the auteur once remarked that he was “a solitary to the power of five – myself, my wife, and three cats.”) The director and Mattei are the only “actors” capable of moral choice: that the Buddha quotation is a Melville original shows us in whose hands lies the compass drawing the red circle.

Melville’s film seems to juggle fate and society as the twin causes of evil; in this, it mines two polarities of the French psyche: the Hugenot obsession with predestination (naming the afflicted drunk Jansen is a nod in this direction), and the anthro-political doctrine of Jean Jacques Rousseau that everything degenerates in the hands of man.

On the one hand, Le Cercle rouge is convinced that innocence is slowly destroyed by mendacity, greed, and human frailty: men are born pure as snow, but it doesn’t last. We never know who sold out Corey: the nightclub owner, finally impelled to talk by pressures out of his control? Or Jansen, who dying of a gunshot wound cryptically remarks to the Commissaire, “Still as stupid as ever on the force, eh, old friend?”

On the other hand, fate seems to descend with such brutal finality that the moral character of the individual is irrelevant, an idea inflected with Calvinism. In what is perhaps the best scene in the film, the hallucinations of the alcoholic Jansen are rendered literally: spider crabs, lizards, snakes, and rats swarm over the terrified body of the flesh-haunted former policeman. During the heist he allows himself a lingering sniff at his flask of liquor, able to keep the beasts at bay, but we are almost certain that the reprieve is temporary. Shortly before his death he opens the door to his bottle-strewn bedroom, and darkness floods outward into the camera lens. The relentless circle closes.

At the end of the film, the one man who seemed outside its purlieus is at risk. Mattei, whose file has been scrutinised by the chief of police, is reminded tersely, “All men are at fault, Mr. Mattei.” He walks into the darkness, his thin-lipped, indomitable face suddenly fearful. And the credits roll.

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The country of long shadows

English writers have long sought to have it both ways: to learn the secret name of their nation, a virgin mistress whose footfall they alone have heard – ‘England, my England’; and yet simultaneously they have strained to write the nation, to conquer its essence so that others will nod, convinced – that is my England, too.

In the process, myth casts a shadow on reality, and vice versa. John Major, whose skin shall nevermore seem pink thanks to the Spitting Image team, famously prophesied:

Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pool fillers, and, as George Orwell said, “Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist.”

The problem is not so much what is obvious – that such an England does not exist now, did not exist in 1993 when Major made the speech, and is unlikely by virtue of these facts alone to exist fifty years from now. The difficulty is rather that of dismissing even the most egregious sentimental mythmaking out of hand. The difficulty – which Orwell understood with much more perspicuity than Major’s selective quoting allows – was realising that the nation was fragmentary, but its fragments were characteristic (as well as Major’s Tory-voting Anglican spinsters, Orwell includes the clatter of clogs in Lancashire mill towns, and the rattle of pin-tables in Soho pubs). I might add that the difficulty in capturing the essence of Englishness is to balance private renderings with a recognisable public reality.

In an essay on postcolonial literature, Salman Rushdie, with nation states specifically in mind, savages essentialism, the idea that “sources, forms, style, language and symbol [must] all derive from a supposedly homogenous and unbroken tradition. Or else.” This is the point to Major’s arcadian reverie – no other future for Britain is conceivable; and a Conservative government will ensure that the old maids of your parish can bicycle to holy communion through the morning mist without fear of being mugged or worse by young delinquents. Society needs to condemn cold beer more, and understand it less.

Yet there is a world of difference between taking issue with a specific essentialism, and the current postmodern orthodoxy that trying to sum things up in a word or sentence is in itself to be condemned. This reaches its extreme form in a nihilistic theory about identity, self, and, in particular, language. I am not here going to attempt to subject a disparate swathe of such orthodoxies to philosophical critique, a project well begun in the writings of others much more qualified (Norris, Taylor, Eagleton). What I am interested in is what the extreme postmodern position – which, thankfully, seems to have outlived its vogue – does when it is taken seriously by literary people, and the more modest alternatives available.

For instance, I cannot but feel that the postmodern critique makes poetry impossible. Poetry is, after all, an act of compression, even when it is not: Louis MacNeice may have looked at spitted-out tangerine pips and felt the world “crazier and more of it than we think,” yet he still had to write, to find the correlation in language between event and perception (he also composed the most harrowingly lovely and accurate poem about Dublin ever written by a Northern Protestant).

Critics would have an equally tough time. I love Martin Amis’s evocation of Philip Larkin’s poetry as “crepuscular.” It is a wonderfully limpid assignation, which combines Larkin’s morbidity and his tendency to dwell on dark places and things, but a postmodern stickler would probably point out that Larkin wrote some very fine poems about dawn and sunlight (even though he was a racist sexist bastard). More than anything, though, poetry is taken up with trying to say something worthwhile, instead of trying to say it all – a peculiarly contemporary anxiety.

The postmodern mentality makes the difficulty that Orwell perceived in trying to identify the connection between the fragments that compose Englishness insurmountable. Take an anti-Major vision of England: ‘Albion’ by Pete Doherty. This incredible song might well be an actual riposte to the old maids and cricket grounds: it opens ‘Down in Albion/They’re black and blue/But we don’t talk about that.’ Albion is Doherty’s vision of England, expropriating the ancient name for Britain and in the process declaring his role as mythmaker and troubadour. The word itself, possibly derived from albus, the Latin for white (the Cliffs of Dover being the first sighting for the Romans of England), jars against the other colours here: black and blue, which aren’t to be talked about. John Major didn’t talk about that, anyway. In the postmodern vision, however, there is no way to adjudicate between the two myths, when all is myth: reality is parasitic on myth rather than the other way around, which, from a political perspective if not a literary one, is unsupportable.

The song goes on to mention ‘gin in teacups’ (a Queen-Mumsy image) and ‘leaves on the lawn’: here, Major’s ‘invincible suburbs’ are transposed into autumnal plots, filling with detritus from lack of care; a solemn reminder that it will soon be that time of year when, as Larkin put it, ‘the lights come on at four.’ A crepuscular image, indeed. ‘Violence in dole queues’: this is about as un-Majorish a scene you are likely to conceive of, a world far removed from the old dears pedalling furiously to St. Alban’s. Yet Orwell mentions both phenomena in the same breath, a matter judiciously glossed over by John Major: he writes of ‘queues outside the Labour Exchanges,’ to which Doherty adds ‘violence.’ The quintessential English rose becomes ‘a pale thin girl’ who works at a checkout. Major’s asexual Britannia is in Albion a world of brooding, self-loathing sexual desire: cheap tarts and false anticipation.

Doherty clearly conceives of ‘Albion’ as ‘an English song.’ His vision of the land is both romantic (in the literary sense), tragic, and one of disgust: in this he is Larkin’s heir apparent, though he retains Orwell’s sense of England as a ‘land of two nations, the rich and the poor.’ Perhaps he would introduce a third: the middle class from which he disowned himself, with its literary pretensions (yellowing classics) and latent-imperial obsession with Starbucks (coffee wallahs).

Larkin’s heir apparent?

At the heart of Doherty’s vision is a gorgeous irony. Albion, which he documents with an imaginative fidelity which might be described as love, is a place to be escaped from: ‘so come away, won’t you come away.’ There follows the list of assonantal destinations, a grubby train line, which Doherty sings with mounting passion: ‘Bedtown, Oldham, Nunthorp, Rowlam, Bristol/ Aaa-nywhere in Albion.’ In Yeats’s poem ‘The Stolen Child,’ the faery abductor promises a similar release from mundane ugliness, but here, the best on offer is a round trip of that ugly world.

Albion is a personal myth, yet it is recognisable for all that as characteristically English. What Doherty does is take the postwar sense of disappointment in an ailing England, and transform it into an elegy of hate and love: Albion becomes a mythic parent figure against which he, the troubled romantic, rebels, and yet it remains his muse. He is, after Larkin, the quintessential (I said it) English poet. The balance between myth and reality remain vexed, but it is only in such a tricky duality that art becomes actual. To talk only of myth, as the postmodernists would, is to spell the end of the ability to communicate a personal fantasy wrought from shared experiences – that is, for Albion to make sense as a lambent, albeit fragmentary, vision of England, our England.

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