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Monday, Aug 13, 2007

Reading Henry Treece’s The Green Man, which climaxes in a long spasm of apocalyptic violence—death by sword, buildings on fire, women eaten by pigs, that sort of thing—it’s startling to remember that the author lived out his professional life as a well-liked schoolteacher and after his retirement gave history lectures to children. “He was such a stimulating person to talk to,” commented one librarian less than a month before his death in 1966. Green Man is a mash-up of Hamlet and Beowulf, drunk, savage, breathless, even laughing at its own atrocities, a strange and little-known book.


Treece was a poet before he became a fiction writer. He authored the first lengthy critical assessment of Dylan Thomas (Dylan Thomas: Dog Among the Fairies—Thomas called it, “This stinking book”) and in the late 1930s co-founded an amorphous Romantic movement named the New Apocalyptics. “The New Apocalypse, in a sense, derives from Surrealism,” he wrote in the movement’s manifesto. It was his awareness of Surrealism—a writer’s movement as well as a painter’s, although that’s not how it has been popularly remembered—that lent his historical fiction its air of alien authenticity and strangeness.


It gave him a standpoint from which he could look with equanimity at ancient Europe’s faith in portents and signs. In Treece’s first published novel, The Dark Island, a Belgaic warrior sees his brother shot in the throat, and, unable to comprehend this sudden horror, he believes that a raven comes down from the sky, screaming, “Caradoc, he is calling for you! The blood is coming out of his mouth!” This combination of old imagery, modern shellshock, and Romantic Surreal dreamshock is a bridge Treece would often use to bring his contemporary readers into sympathy with ancient peoples whose mindset would otherwise seem inexplicable. They were human too, he suggests; they understood things differently but their ideas seemed as valid to them as ours seem valid to us.


He has empathy, even, with the dead. In The Great Captains, one corpse “stared up at the sky, pleasantly, as though trying to weight up what sort of day it was going to be. He seemed to have died thinking of the last barley crop ... Medrawt noticed the broken nails of his hand, a hard-working hand ...” and we go on to speculate on this man for half a page, not because he, personally, is a vital part of the story (he isn’t; we don’t even know his name) but because he is human, he is there, part of the world, and it could have been one of the named characters, the ones we like, staring up at the sky, seeming to think about barley crops or “a new milch cow he had bought in the market last week.” Medrawt wonders over him, looking at the marks scratched into his bracelet, considering the possible nationality of his wife (foreigner or native?), and we learn something about the composition of Britain at this point in its history. The idea of Treece as a history teacher, a pupil’s favourite, makes sense when you read passages like this.


His characters are everything a reader would want them to be: tough yet too intelligent not to be weak sometimes, loving or cruel, curious about magic and about the gods (Christian or pagan, which to choose—his Vikings pragmatically dole out a bit of worship to everyone, just in case). His prose voice holds to a backbone of slight bardic formality that seems appropriate to the books’ subject matter without ever descending into thees and thous and other bits of cod-Ye Olde slang. He was always a better author than a poet. His poetry is mannered and outdated for its time. He was fighting against the forces of T.S. Eliot and modernism and the fight hobbled him, leaving him unable to move either forward into the future, or backwards into the past. Prose was his native medium.


He is dead, however. His books are not often reprinted. One day he will be forgotten: at one with the dead Jutes, the lost Picts, and the barley crops of history.


Read Henry Treece’s essay, “Notes on Perception and Vision.”


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Thursday, Aug 9, 2007
by Duncan Edwards
John Peel: Margrave of the Marshesby John Peel, Sheila RavenscroftChicago Review PressJune 2007, 432 pages, $19.95

John Peel: Margrave of the Marshes
by John Peel, Sheila Ravenscroft
Chicago Review Press
June 2007, 432 pages, $19.95


A portrait of the life of John Peel, not only the best radio DJ ever, but arguably the most important cultural figure in Britain in the last 50 years. Margrave Of The Marshes is a love story, or several: the love between John and his wife Sheila and their kids, for Liverpool FC, between John and music, and for John from his very fortunate listeners. 


No one needs have heard John Peel on the radio, or even be a huge music fan to appreciate this beautiful book. It contains enough intimate tales from John’s childhood and schooling to entertain and shock. His reference to the smoking of blotting paper at boarding school with the accompanying talk of the effects of different colors, brilliantly skewers drug-culture and pokes fun at himself. Included are refreshingly ordinary examples of his shyness and insecurity to which many people can relate, and there are hundreds of amusing asides and plenty of magnificent anecdotes. The book is a vivid joyful celebration of a life well lived, though tinged with sorrow that a terrific marriage is interrupted by his passing.


Another strength lies in the fact that Margrave of the Marshes is far from a litany of My Life With Various Rock Stars. For sure there are some low-key tales of a few musicians that will delight: John and Marc Bolan feeding their rabid addiction to Scaletrix, phone calls with Captain Beefheart about keeping chickens, messages from Bowie before he hit it big, but name-dropping was never John’s style. Instead, he spends more time talking about the people who wrote to him over the years, (like the disturbed person who simply would not accept that he did not share an apartment with Stevie Wonder and Lou Reed), or telling of characters he met during his National Service or while living near the White Rock Lake area of Dallas, than focusing on Mark E.Smith or the Undertones. Whilst the writing has a keen edge with a tone that is mostly gentle, enthusiastic, warm and dry, a sense emerges that the very few people of whom he speaks badly probably deserved worse.


John’s time in America could stand alone as reason to read this book. His interaction with JFK is both startling and a sad depiction of a bygone age of innocent connection. His comments on the attitudes of the time and of his adventures in cars, bowling alleys, and bars have a magical quality. Elsewhere, we can chuckle at photographs showing John trying to be Gene Vincent, and at his school reports, including remarks from the astute R.H.J. Brooke who also taught Michael Palin. Brooke appears to have been instrumental in giving the young Peel a lot of lasting confidence, though he wrote: “It’s possible that John can form some kind of nightmarish career out of his enthusiasm for unlistenable records and his delight in writing long and facetious essays ...”


The love between John and Sheila (for decades the woman referred to on-air and off as The Pig) is conveyed in many ways, from little notes and gestures, to her detailed understanding of his emotions. He was a great man and it’s not hard to conclude that she is a great woman. Their bond may be best summed up by John’s reaction when called by his daughter to learn of Sheila’s brain hemorrhage: “Do you realise that if your mum goes, I go too?” he blurted. “I don’t want to go on living without her.” Some aspects of John’s relationship with his children illustrate his vulnerability, particularly being convinced that the young Danda hated him, and fear of the infant Thomas. Nevertheless, the descriptions of him broadcasting from their house, always mockingly referred to as Peel Acres, and family photographs show a relaxed unity. The picture of Tom, in his “The Mighty Wah” t-shirt is interesting. Often John would announce some track and claim it was “a big favorite in our house” or “one of the Pig’s favorites”. It sounded true, and the overlap between music and family life is laid bare, not least with the picture of the White Stripes playing in the house. Sheila leaves us in no doubt that John was the emotional fellow his on-air tone drollery could never disguise. Sheila writes “I don’t think he ever shed quite so many tears as when the children left home” and John’s words when the youngest left for college should strike a chord with every father: “I felt as low as I can remember feeling in all my life as Floss disappeared down the lane.”


I follow a different team but can respect the clear evidence of John and Sheila’s devotion to Liverpool FC: the middle names given to the children, getting married in red, the framed photograph of Bill Shankly and even a Kenny Dalgliesh pillow-case in the house. The depiction of their thoughts and deeds on and after the sad tragedies at Heysel and Hillsborough are extremely moving. Maybe best of all is the whole family praying for John to intervene during the 2005 European Champions League Final and subsequently pouring champagne onto his grave when the Pool came back from a 0-3 deficit to claim the trophy! These, and other examples, strip away any idea that the famous should be considered fundamentally different from the rest of us. Peel has a measure of fame, yet his refusal to embrace celebrity was maintained with such natural aplomb that he never lost his accessibility. So, (although he would have heartily disapproved of my team) now I don’t feel so daft for naming my son Ryan and (after the name Erika was rejected) giving my daughter the initials EC.


That John’s love of music was an all-consuming obsession is an understatement. Excusing himself when friends were over for dinner so he could go and listen to something, music always on in the house, in the car, summers at festivals, rare family holidays punctuated by trips to record stores, thousands of demo tapes endlessly pored over and sometimes sadly discarded without being heard (presumably when the sheer weight threatened the foundation of Peel Acres, or when access to external doors became blocked). As with the notes for forthcoming volumes of his autobiography we are left with a sad feeling that there is so much now that we will never get to hear.


The surprising origin of the Peel Sessions is mentioned and like other more shocking episodes in Margrave of the Marshes I won’t spoil it by mentioning them here. Some of John’s favorite stories reappear in the book, not least concerning the Radio One Roadshow and the Bay City Rollers. I take issue with his dates concerning the Buxton Pop Festival, but the telling of the story is the thing, not exactly when it occurred. It’s fair to assume that John’s favorite record was the next undiscovered gem for which he endlessly searched. That he had access to the airwaves for so long is something for which millions of people will always be grateful. If only we could have cloned him.


A lot of words have been written about John Peel since he died in 2004, grand statements about his importance in bringing fresh music to several generations, tributes from artists giving him credit for their careers, heartfelt messages of thanks from listeners. All the words I’ve read seem to come, not out of a manufactured hysteria, but from a deep and genuine sense of the loss of somebody whose contribution to a broad section of cultural life was really appreciated. In Margrave of fhe Marshes John’s wife, Sheila, talks about how the public response has helped his grieving family, how respectful and real it has seemed, and how much it has meant to them.


Amongst many quotes is one from Harold Pinter:
“I pay tribute to John Peel. It is to John Peel that I pay tribute. The guy that kicked shit. And not only did he kick shit, but he kicked it right back up the arsehole, where it fucking belonged ... and he made sure it fucking stayed there.”


That he always did it with a self-effacing charm and a down-to-earth wit makes it all the more impressive. John Peel, is quite simply, irreplaceable


More of the reviewer’s thoughts on the late, great, John Peel can be seen here:


 


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Tuesday, Aug 7, 2007

“Is it possible that, instead of heaving a huge biological sigh of relief, the world without us would miss us?” It’s hard to imagine this scenario of Gaia-istic empathy actually happening, but it is nonetheless an interesting question, particularly when one considers the source. Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us is a doomsday scenario but a more thoughtful kind; one that’s focused not so much on how the human race vacates Earth—deadly plague, the Rapture, sudden discovery of interstellar flight and innumerable inhabitable planets within easy range—but on what happens afterward. What does the planet do without humans around doing all of that building, eating, breathing, and polluting that we’re known for? How fast does the kudzu grow back over all those chain stores? Would the planet actually be able to repair itself in any decent amount of time or has the devastation been too serious? Does the earth retreat to a serene garden like in the Talking Heads’ “Flowers” (“There was a shopping mall, now it’s all covered with flowers”)?

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Sunday, Aug 5, 2007

Jon Krakauer on his recent rereading of Capote’s In Cold Blood:


“After I learned of his boast that he wrote all the dialogue from memory, much of it struck me as having been invented.”


You know, that’s a good point. A good point, of course, only a writer of Krakauer’s intensity is allowed make and not seem snide, bitchy, or entirely misinformed. He makes the statement in the 13 August issue of Newsweek in an article focusing mainly on his five favourite books, Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father and Tracy Kidder’s House among them. Capote’s groundbreaker falls under the provocative category “a classic that, upon re-reading, [I found] disappointing”.


This tiny, fascinating article sent me on a mission to find other lists, in which published authors discuss their favourite books. Lists aplenty showed up on my Google search—though, sadly, not so many “classics that really suck” lists, but I’m still looking. Here’s a sample ...


My First Literary Crush at Slate.com
Check out what Harold Bloom, Christopher Hitchens, and Judd Apatow found ‘mesmerizing” in college. It’s a good list, if a little bit male (though a Seinfeld writer lists Erica Jong as influential, which shakes things up slightly).


Barnes and Noble: Meet the Writers
These snippety interviews / profiles are excellent in gaining better insight into your favourite writers. Check out the “author recommendations” sections and find out what Lisa See, Chuck Klosterman, and Gregory Maguire want us to read over the summer.


Best Adaptations at Book Forum
A bit off-track but nonetheless fascinating, this recent Book Forum article is essentially a list of authors’ favourite film adaptations. Armond White, Joy Press, and Francine Prose are among the participants. 


What Writers Read at The Main Switch
This article from late last month takes a close look at what local Maine authors are reading over the summer. Meet Joel Ross, Lily King, and Hannah Holmes and discover just how diverse and exciting their reading choices are.


As for books not to read, the best I could find was Lucy Day’s Books I Hate webpage. She hates a lot, particularly books by L. Ron Hubbard. Her summation of Stephen King and Peter Straub’s The Talisman: “This book is supposedly fantasy/horror. Emphasis on the horror. I read this book on the recommendation of a friend, but this is not a genre I am comfortable with. Noble quest, yes.  Magical worlds and creatures, yes. But worth reading?  No.”


Fair enough. Still, there’s just not enough author-hate out there. Like I said, I’m looking.


 


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Wednesday, Aug 1, 2007

The Laura Albert / JT Leroy fraud case might be over, but I figure Albert’s arguments as far as Leroy’s “existence” will become an unsolved artistic mystery to be debated for the ages. Albert claims that the abused, tortured young Leroy was an aesthetic tool created to allow her freedom to write down all those things she couldn’t bring herself to face. (The story goes that much of what LeRoy writes, Albert experienced.) The claim isn’t all that incredible considering the same thing apparently happens when writers use the “Anonymous” nom de plume—just ask Nikki Gemmell. Albert, though, might have gotten away with her method had she not signed tax cheques in LeRoy’s name. She also went so far as to have friend Savannah Knoop dress up as LeRoy to attend interviews and parties.


From BBC News:


She denied the character was a hoax, saying she believed LeRoy was inside her. “It was my respirator,” she told the court in New York. “If you take JT, you take my other and I die.”



Then what’s Knoop? Apparently Knoop was as attached to LeRoy—her reasons, though, are yet to be substantially argued. Whatever the case, Albert has lost this round. Antidote Films, which was slated to make a film from LeRoy’s book, Sarah, sued the author for fraud. They called the LeRoy situation “one of the biggest literary hoaxes of all time”. Albert now owes Antidote $350,000. The New York Times has a piece here.


This piece in the The Independent digs right to the bone of the issue and presents several of Albert’s artistic ideals as clearly as to (almost) make them believable. Still, it’s rather coincidental that LeRoy is officially “out” of Albert now that no one is able to witness the character’s “taking over” of the author. Albert sure recovered quickly from her psychological quibbles (so big they required this level of public deception). And is anyone really questioning the author’s right to a pseudonym? Not really. The problem here is the heavily disguised waif-like being who pretended to be LeRoy on the arms of Winona Ryder and Courtney Love.


James Stafford, a friend of Albert’s, reveals in The Independent the lengths to which the Albert group went in perpetuating their hoax. What kind of aesthetic tool needs to be calmed at an interview with “a Bible and a Barbie doll” only to end up jumping on a couch playing with a fairy wand? Again, Albert’s story could have seemed credible if not for some of that other wildness.


What a mess. 


LeRoy might be unpublishable, but he’s apparently still a bankable product. The IMDb lists an Untitled JT LeRoy Project scheduled for 2008.


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