Dirt, meat and death: a city childhood.

 

I am what one historian calls post-domestic.  Unless you are a hill farmer, or a herder (in which case you are an anachronism, which won’t come as a surprise since making a living in either of those ways is very difficult) so are you.  It isn’t just that I was born in the mid-twentieth century in the dead centre of a great city.  It isn’t just that I’m Jewish and almost by definition urban. My grandparents came from the shtetl: they were traders, furriers, tailors, but at some point they must have ridden horses, or used them to pull carts.  They would have kept chickens and killed them under the watchful eye of the rabbi.  My mother, although born in London in 1912, knew how to singe and dress chickens that came, head and feet on, insides inside, from the kosher butcher.  Even so, the children of immigrants like my parents put the shtetls behind them as much as possible.  Their old people were old world embarrassments, for all that they had made the bold journey from a hostile middle Europe to unknown and far-away city centres.

Neat, clean clothes confirmed how far we had come from the old country.  My mother was adept at defining a lady.  A lady always wears pale gloves, carries a clean handkerchief.  A lady does not mess with dirtying nature, except in the kitchen to prepare it to look other than what it was by chopping and cooking, and, I would like to suppose, sometimes at least, in bed.  My mother and father both fled into the urbane.  When I was young we lived in a centrally-heated block of flats, a man way down in the basement stoked the boiler, another man came every week and took the dirty sheets and brought them back washed and ironed.  My ladylike gloves were white.  We had a little more to prove, but I don’t think we were exceptional among the many families of the Fifties: the goal was to achieve and hang on to respectability.  Falling over was frowned on, not just because you hurt yourself, but because it dirtied you up: stuff from the pavement on your clothes, blood, no longer contained, staining those nice neat socks and handkerchiefs. We walked or went on buses or taxis to shops or to the park, where children have to be taken.  Russell Square, a small patch of green in central London, or the larger patch of Regent’s Park in the other direction.  When I was old enough – seven or eight I went alone or with friends.  But be careful not to sit on the grass without putting something down first.  Those patches of unpaved earth were what Americans call it: dirt.  Near enough to nature to be reminiscent of  countryside.

My mother spent her days dusting and polishing and cleaning, but our flat was so small, I can’t imagine how it occupied her for more than half an hour a day.  She washed herself and me as if we spent our lives in dark and dusty tunnels.  Especially down there, in the animal – the natural – the private – parts.  Not that they had much opportunity to get dirty – clean knickers every morning and careful lessons in how to wipe yourself after urinating or defecating.  My mother was prepared to confront the dirty animal but only to ensure that it never, never got a hold on our existence.  My father shaved with a strap-sharpened razor, left a manicured garden of moustache on his upper lip, forced his wavy hair flat on his head with a hair cream and splashed more scented stuff on him to keep the smell of body at bay.  But according to my mother, he was not as fastidious as she was in matter of washing or in matters of other people’s natural parts.  My mother abhorred his washing and sexual behaviours as ‘filthy’.  Good things were ‘nice’, bad things were ‘not nice’.  Clean was ‘nice and clean’.  Good was not making a mess of the clothes that were specifically chosen to show how much we were not people of the countryside.  My woollen vests, in the days when we could still afford them, came from shops in ‘Brussels’ not from Belgium where they kept the sheep.  Clean knickers and a clean private part were, as mothers everywhere explained, in case of an accident on the street, not impossible in an urban environment and public, in order to show those who assisted us or pronounced us dead how far we were from country dirtiness.  Post-domestic.

Dogs, cats and birds encountered on the streets were always to be ignored and avoided. But there were exceptions. The great masses of starlings in central London at that time were a sight to see, worth stopping and looking up at, swarming in their thousands on the roof of the National Gallery in the late afternoons and taking off simultaneously in a fluttering, shrieking cloud that swooped all of a piece across the London sky.  And I regularly fed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square which stood ravenously on my hands, shoulders and head to get at the corn on my open palm.  A strange anomaly of urban animal-loving.  Now they are flying rats, filthy, disease-ridden.  They have been hounded out of Trafalgar Square and are shot in the dead of night to discourage their presence on public buildings and under bridges.  But I have a photograph of my mother and me with pigeons perched on our heads and shoulders, and my mother smiling quite benignly.

I went with her to the butcher and sat in my pushchair, close to the pale sawdust, looking at dead chickens hanging by the neck from hooks, and slabs of meat being tidied with string into unfleshy shapes that bore no relation to anything that had ever lived.  It was a shop where they neatened death into food.  And it was a kosher butcher, which meant that the meat had been drained of its life blood and prayed over.  Processed away from living creatures as far as it was possible and the processing continued back home in the kitchen.  Salt beef was an oval cylinder tied up with string, fish was filleted and covered in matzo meal batter, liver was chopped into a patė.  Only chickens remained somewhat lifelike, though dead and featherless.  A little bit of bucolic reality.  They even retained their shape and features in the cooking.  Chicken soup, essential Jewish food, was made with the whole chicken, minus the head, including the giblets (gizzard, liver, heart, neck) any unlaid eggs (a special treat, little hard-boiled yolklets), and the feet.  Actually as Chinese as Jewish, but gnawing on a chicken’s claw, all gristle and bone, and being presented with the chewy gizzard, was a weekly childhood happiness.   So my experience of the non-human animal was the smell in the butchers, various unmediated parts of a cooked chicken, close encounters with disease-ridden pests and an appreciation of starlings.

 

There was, of course, Georgie, the budgie, who had every week to have his cage ritually cleaned, which indicates that my parents were not as harshly averse to animals as I suggest. And once I found a baby bird fallen from a nest in Regent’s Park.  I brought it home to the flat.  My mother, confronted with the poor, helpless, squealing thing, got a saucer of bread soaked in milk and we tried to feed it with tweezers, but it wouldn’t or couldn’t eat, and writhing in our nervous, urban hands, wriggled away and fled at its first opportunity to the darkness and warmth behind the radiator, where it got stuck.  It was a grim nature lesson.  My mother, panicking, as I would now in the same circumstances, tried to tease it and then poke it out with a stick of some kind – a wooden spoon, a fish slice?  The wretched little creature screamed for its own kind, and shrank from the probe, and we wailed and flailed around trying to get at the trapped bird, making it retreat even further into stuckness, and us all the more appalled.  It was doubly in the wrong place.  Not at the foot of a tree under its nest.  Wedged in the space between a far-too-hot metal radiator and the living-room wall.  Eventually, the cheeping stopped.  My mother flapped on the phone to the porters in the entrance hall and one of them arrived to dig out and dispose of the corpse.

It was an experience that was much worse than watching my mother prepare a dead chicken for the pot.  Baby birds, like baby anything else, are fearsomely attractive, with those same big eyes and rounded head that evolution happened upon to make hearts melt.  It was helpless and I rescued it, as I thought, and then it all went terribly wrong.  This was the danger, and always has been with befriended animals, even the ones we call pets. It would not behave as a rescued creature was supposed to behave.  It didn’t understand enough.  It wouldn’t eat, it didn’t love us or trust us, it tried to get away from us, and turned itself from a sweet baby creature into a trapped and dying animal.  A disappointment.  A let-down.  A regret.  Unlike my three stuffed bears who were completely reliable.  Once the baby bird was behind the radiator, I didn’t want it any more.  I only wanted it not to be there, never to have seen it, not to have picked it up.  I knew it wouldn’t survive, and that I hadn’t saved it.  It was a baby thing that I had brought home to die a much worse death than if I had left it alone.  At any rate a death in my presence.  My fault, but its fault, too, for not behaving properly.  For not complying with the rules about humans saving animals; but having a life – a nature – of its own.  I was disgusted by its horrible end in my flat.  As soon as it was stuck behind the radiator, actually, as soon as it refused to eat, I wished it would shut up and die immediately.

 

This is a version of the beginning of my book What I Don’t Know About Animals. The excerpt was published originally by Drawbridge magazine.

 

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Movies, Movies, Movies

A friend of mine in his mid-twenties is a Film Studies graduate, and like a typical old person – both somewhat right and very annoying – I’m always mentioning old movies to him, being surprised he hasn’t seen them, and pointing out earlier connections to films he has seen, as if he can’t really know a film properly without knowing what came before. The films he studied at University seem to have made in and after the 1990s, with a few nods to earlier movies like Apocalypse Now and Blade Runner, some early Scorsese films, but not, for example, the work of Robert Altman. He’s a whizz on mise-en-scene, and shot analysis, but he’s never seen a film by Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Max Ophuls or Ernst Lubitsch. He isn’t, in other words, impassioned by film enough to have seen everything crucial (and even pointless) the form has to offer. Since he’s not planning to devote his life to the subject, it doesn’t matter. But it occurred to me to wonder if, perhaps, even if he wanted to, it would even be possible in the 21st century to take in the whole history and breadth of cinema. It’s another reminder of how my generation of post-war babies has probably been the most fortunate in history.

As a young reader, I was dismayed by the impossibility of how much I would have to read to ‘catch up’, and eventually understood that there could be no real, final catching up with literature. Or art, or music. But cinema being one of the newest art forms had a limited corpus, and I was perfectly placed as a teenager in the mid to late 1960s to catch up on almost everything I had missed, good and not so good, as well as to see the contemporary films as they arrived, some of which have now become classics of the distant past.

I was passionate about movies. As well catching up on the still-amazing A Taste of Honey and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, I watched the Bond films, Biblical epics and the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leoni, as they arrived, and I queued for Mutiny on the Bounty, Tom Jones, The Charge of the Light Brigade, and the latest films by Karel Reisz and Lindsey Anderson. When a new Fellini or Antonioni movie came out (8 ½, Giulietta Degli Spiriti, Il Deserto Rosso), I’d truant from school and head off to Oxford Street, and the blessed Academy Cinema, where on the first afternoon of a new film, just a handful of people would be scattered around the auditorium, the atmosphere clouded with smoke and overhead light, buzzing with the rather solemn excitement of film buffery, as well as the occasional grim masturbator. I caught up with The Seventh Seal and Summer With Monica and took my estranged, visiting father to see Persona when it was released, in an attempt, I think, to show him what I thought I was like. (He said he didn’t understand why there had to be so much sex in it and had no more to say on the subject.) I’d stand in the queue for Les Enfants du Paradis yet again, and nod to the familiar people in front of and behind me. I went back to Pierrot le Fou eight times, enchanted by its mix of doomed but joyous romance and politics – and saw it again recently with as much, though slightly nostalgic, delight. They were coming from all over Europe, these films, shown in a handful of London cinemas, as I was becoming ready to spend as much of my life as necessary in the dark, attentive to the foreign lilts and unfamiliar northern English accents, reading subtitles, and siphoning up, it seemed to me, all the wisdom and the questions, spoken and unspoken, that needed to be asked by a subjective consciousness in the world.

But the Academy, the Paris Pullman and the Hampstead Everyman cinemas weren’t all. There was television. During the 1960s and 70s British television seemed to have a commitment to re-presenting all the great Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s. Melodramas, musicals and westerns. Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Robert Mitchum, James Stewart, Cary Grant, The Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton (I never got on very well with Chaplin). TV filled a good deal of its broadcasting time with old movies, bought in as Hollywood was fading, and shown in seasons devoted to actors or directors. Nothing would get me out of the house on the nights they were broadcast. There were movies I had heard about and was longing to see, and movies I knew nothing about, full of surprises. I can’t remember if I thought of films in terms of genre in the modern, studied use of the word, but I know that it would never have occurred to me not to see a film because it wasn’t ‘the kind of thing’ I didn’t care for. Nor did I didn’t mind much if a film was ‘good’ or ‘bad’, although I thought I could tell which was which.

When I got a taste for a particular actor or director, it was time to check the schedule of the National Film Theatre, to complete my education. They put on seasons of Hollywood movies, silent movies, German expressionism, world cinema (as it wasn’t called then). The NFT showed three or four different films every twenty-four hours, and you could gorge yourself on all of it day after day and night after night. At one all-night sitting I saw Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy – Pather Panchali, Aparjito, and Apur Sansar. At another I survived an exhausting and gluttonous viewing of Les Vampires, a seven hour, non-stop showing of a 1915 silent ten-part serial directed by Louis Feuillade, that I would certainly not have either the passion or patience for now. I went back day after day for a Vincente Minnelli or Hitchcock season, watched all the Orson Welles movies, caught a rare viewing of Lola Montes and discovered Kurosawa. Although Paris was the quintessential movie city, with queues at independent cinemas on practically every street, London had enough venues to enable a devourer of film to catch up and stay in touch with what was going on.

I used to daydream about an impossible world in which you could watch any movie you wanted, any time you liked, at home. It was largely a wish to have access to films, but even then I liked my films best in solitude, and most enjoyed those afternoons in almost empty cinemas. Going to the movies with someone as a social outing was never my best way to see a film. And the idea of the community of an audience enhancing the watching of a film didn’t much work for me. I didn’t want to see or hear others. I didn’t want to join in knowing laughter or gasps of fear. I really wanted to sit on my own, perhaps with a handful of other people who also wanted to be on their own, and be absorbed into the film. So you won’t be too surprised to hear that I haven’t been to a cinema for years. Really years. I’m not a genuine cineaste at all, because I’m prepared to sacrifice the big screen for which films are made, and sound-surround, for my sofa: I want the remote control and the intense privacy of just the movie and me – although the Poet’s allowed in too so long as he doesn’t chatter. I never was a purist.

I still love the idea of film but I’ve lost the passion to keep up. I care much more whether a film is good or bad, and happily eject those that don’t work for me. Although even now it feels a little odd, even alarming, not going to see every movie that comes out, I’m very selective when choosing DVDs of contemporary movies. My young friend could quite reasonably counter my surprise at what he hasn’t seen by pointing out the number of modern popular and good films I haven’t seen, which must be climbing close now in number to the old movies he hasn’t watched. I pre-order anything by Charlie Kaufman or Todd Solondz, but I’ve happily allowed Avatar, The Lord of the Rings and numberless rom-coms to pass me by. I think I’ve got the best of the deal, but then I would think that, wouldn’t I?

First published in Swedish in the Goteborg-Posten in May 2012.

Erasing the Memories of Sleeping Mice

Scientists Erase the Memories of Sleeping Mice  according to Nature (via Gizmodo) They mean erase the bad effects of memory and PTSD. The suggestion is that distressing experiences can be separated from the physiological trauma with a protein-blocking drug. This was written about in Memory: Fragments of a Modern History by Alison Winter (Chicago, 319 pp, £19.50, January, ISBN 978 0 226 90258 6) which I wrote an essay about in the London Review of Books: The Me Who Knew It.

Happy Birthday, Cuban Missile Crisis or The Girl Who Stayed Out on the Beach in Hove

Another piece by me, published in the Goteborg-Posten, last year.

 

 

Unlike most American children born after World War II, who were hiding under school desks as a regular exercise against a nuclear strike, being English, I didn’t really wake up to the Cold War until October 22nd 1962.  I was in a small psychiatric hospital in Hove near Brighton, aged 15, and during the crucial days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when President Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev testosteroned up to each other, I spent a lot of time sitting on the stony beach staring out to sea. To tell the truth, I was generally in a mopey frame of mind and sat there staring solipsistically out to sea quite a lot, regardless of the ambient or political weather. But suddenly it was the whole world, not just me in trouble. Though trouble wasn’t the right word. Trouble was what I got into and it felt like the end of the world. This was the actual end of the world. People of my age and older will recall knowing for certain that we were all going to be blown up within a few days. My adolescent narcissism took a terrible beating at the idea that everyone was going to die, and that there would be no one left to mourn me. My relief when Khrushchev blinked on October 28th and agreed to dismantle his missiles was more like gratitude. Rather than losing the game of chicken, as most commentators seemed to say, it struck me that someone was grown up enough to decide not to destroy the planet. I think I may have grown up too (though only a little) that day.

But every terror has its cultural silver lining, as well as, eventually, its myth-busting story of the absurdity of human beings. There had always been spies, of course, but when two great superpowers divide the world’s loyalties between them, the resulting network of secret agents and double-agents can only be good for fiction and the movies. The cold war happily coincided with the working class ‘kitchen sink’ fiction of the late 1950s so that John le Carré’s early novels (Call For The Dead, A Murder of Quality and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold) looked like genre spin-offs that rebuked the snobbish, slick James Bond novels, just as Room At the Top and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning took down the smug bourgeois fiction that filled the bookshops (and, if truth be know, mostly still does). Le Carré, still employed then by MI6, depicted a world that was gritty and grey – both the postwar landscapes of early 1960s Europe, and the done-down withered souls of the protagonists. Of course, Graham Green and Carol Reed had already offered that world, and those souls, in the 1949 film The Third Man, but now there were some decently written novels that took on its colour and timbre, too.

Nevertheless, alongside the grit, woven into it actually, Le Carré was always dealing with a romantic, understated world of upper-middle-class English consciousness, conscience and heroism – sentimentality, even – that fully revealed itself in the not entirely ironic title of his 1977 The Honourable Schoolboy. Few of Smiley’s people who inhabited ‘the Circus’ were working-class and state-educated (and even fewer were women). These honourable schoolboys had gone to the better (if not the best) public (by which we English mean ‘private’) schools and were emotionally troubled, not to say excruciated, by the residue of their elite, brutal, male-bonding, female-excluding, family-ostracizing, though classically excellent education. They were hopeless at relationships with women, choosing the wrong ones, or driving the right ones to drink or (popular word then) nymphomania, and turning to their work and their men friends for distraction, unuttered love and gruff understanding. So much unspoken, so much unresolved. Well then, they were perfectly suited to become spies: ones who led double lives, or multiples of double lives, who lied with conviction, who sliced their conscience like smoked salmon, who pretended friendship but whose hearts were elsewhere, who peered into secrets and the lives of others and were sometimes affected, but whose heads won the argument, and who were able to function in a world where betrayal was synonymous with honour. These men were of their intellectual time – they breathed out existentialism and relativism along with their cigarette smoke and whisky fumes.

The thought processes of Le Carré’s characters became increasingly tortuous. As a reader, you tried to follow their exquisite interior conflicts, elliptical thoughts, contradictory actions, half-expressed feelings, but you were always Ariadne in the dark, and never quite sure you were following the right thread. At any rate, so it seemed to me as a woman not of the honourable schoolboy brotherhood. The hazy complexity made the books engaging, intelligent and flattering to read, like doing an elegant crossword puzzle or decoding a secret message. The perpetual ambiguity gave a feeling not just of mystery but of depth, though increasingly I began to wonder whether the mystery and ambiguity signified not so very much after all, and substituted too easily for depth.

The world of the ‘Circus’ was very remote from the beach in Hove where I waited for the H-bomb to drop. There were multiple cold wars, depending on who you were. Le Carré’s was the elite version at the sharp end. The games they played in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy brilliantly and leisurely dramatised for BBC television in 1979 over seven hours (unlike the current two hour movie), were Byzantine, whether they played the Kremlin or each other. So long as you were no longer fifteen, sitting on a beach, or in the US crouching under a school desk during four-minute-warning drill, they constituted a re-made machiavellian literature, marvellously complex and really, it seemed, dangerous only to each other. Though they dealt in death, it was a highly personal, gentlemanly risk, they weren’t anxiously waiting for common mass obliteration. Also, of course, they were brilliant, even if emotionally flawed.

But the truth, for all the apparent accuracy of Le Carré’s insider knowledge, is, as truth is inclined to be, much cruder and more hilarious. What you seem to learn as you grow older, actually the only thing I seem to have learned, is how utterly wrong was your youthful assumption of competence and know-how in experts and those running things (think banks, foreign policy, education, drug policy, oh, everything). Recently we discovered that in 2006 the masters of twenty-first century British Intelligence placed a fake rock with communications electronics inside it in a Moscow street. The Kremlin released a video showing individuals placing the rock, and others picking it up and downloading information into it. Yes, a fake rock, like the one you wouldn’t be so stupid as to put your spare keys into. Eventually, Tony Blair’s then Chief of Staff had to admit the truth and shame of Moscow’s revelation. The reality turns out to be much more James Bond plus incompetence than ‘Circus’ subtlety. I can’t bear to think of George Smiley’s response. Of course, he would say nothing, only feel the pain.

A Very Special Generation

This is an essay I wrote for Harper’s Magazine last year based on two books about post-war Britain.

 

I was born in central London in 1947, a child in a very special generation. In no time at all it became perfectly clear to me that not just my parents but everyone had been awaiting my arrival and was delighted to see me. Grown-up people of all ages and genders peered into my pram and then my pushchair as if they were slightly distant relatives. They stopped on the street to chuck me under the chin and pinch my cheek (yes, well-fed, rosy with health) and congratulate the adult pushing me on bringing me into the world. Even old Queen Mary, Edwardian widow of George V, had her chauffeur stop the Rolls in St. James’s Park, where my father had taken me to feed the ducks. The window lowered and her long, ancient face appeared. “What a lovely child,” she said, lacy and coiffed, with a right regal smile. People smiled and nodded at small children all the time, approving of the fresh start. During the previous seven years those already on the planet had lived through the separations and loss of their youth; the deaths of their children, siblings, wives, and husbands; civilian bombings, invasions, occupations; all manner of necessary sacrifice and fear of and for the future. Now all that was over. They had suffered and come through, overcome the worst that human beings can do, and created a safe, decent place in which to make babies.

Directly across the road from my block of flats was a huge bomb site, to me an ancient ruin, an enticement of tumbled and broken brick, wildflowers pushing through the rubble. It became a forbidden playground for the kids on our block. The lethal remains of a few walls still stood, one or two with that clichéd tattered bit of curtain flapping through the window frame. We rebuilt civilization, as our parents had, with real bricks. We played cowboys and Indians, pirates and princesses, and reenacted the war we’d heard of. At home my parents told me about the bold world they’d lived in and the night the last V-2 rocket landed across the road on March 25, 1945, creating the wonderful bomb site. They had been playing chemin de fer with friends in their third-floor flat and hadn’t bothered to go down into the basement when the air-raid siren went off. Blasé and glamorous. That was the other side of the war—the one we had missed. It sounded so much fun. But then neither of my parents was much given to telling the truth, and my father, too old at forty to be called up, had spent the war, professional con man that he was, making money on the black market. Yet even with a crook for a father, I still understood what a thing it was to be given a fresh egg for breakfast, and I watched from my pushchair as my mother licked her finger to separate a ration coupon carefully at the butcher to get the meat for the week.

Memories, myths, half-true recollection, fantasy: this is the difficult and exciting territory of social history. David Kynaston’s massive projected history of postwar Britain from 1945 to 1979 is titled Tales of a New Jerusalem, echoing William Blake. Its first volume, consisting of two books, covers the period from 1945 to 1951 and was published as Austerity Britain in 2008. The new volume, Family Britain, also two books, takes us from 1951, the year of the Festival of Britain, when it was still possible for at least some of the nation to celebrate grandly as if we had remained a world power, to 1957, the year after the tastrophic British intervention in the Suez, when only the deluded could believe, or wish to believe, such a proposition. Kynaston tells the story of people’s lives during this time by compiling a range of contemporary voices from varied backgrounds and applying an historian’s retrospective structure and gentle analysis. He gathers material from private and archived diaries and from novels and memoirs by professional writers, biographers, and others whose lives publishers deemed worth recording. He also makes use of the archives of that extraordinary British phenomenon of the late 1930s onward, Mass Observation, which organized innumerable teams of eavesdroppers to write down everything they heard as they went about their lives, while volunteers of all classes and conditions sent in minute descriptions of their own daily doings. By the 1950s the Mass Observation movement had shifted from its original, quite radical conception as an “anthropology of ourselves” toward the commercial market-research organization it finally became. Nevertheless, it offers Kynaston a trove of opinionated, first-person observations and activities, collected at a time when it was still just possible to believe in the objective recording of real life.

Austerity hardly went away with the declaration of peace in Europe. Food rationing didn’t disappear until 1954, and only in 1957 did the prime minister, Harold Macmillan, dare to say that we’d “never had it so good.” What he actually said was, “Most of our people have never had it so good.” He was at a Conservative Party rally, talking up postwar industrial growth, and even then he warned about the difficulty of maintaining increased production and employment while keeping prices steady. Like many others, my bomb site across the road remained as it was until the mid-1950s, when significant slum clearance began. Military call-up wasn’t discontinued until 1960. British troops were being sent to wars in Malaya and Korea, and the Cold War began to look ominous well before Macmillan was telling “most of our people” to feel good(ish) about the economy. Black and white is how everyone remembers the 1950s. To me (except for a few musicals and westerns from the United States, land of Technicolor) it seems a pale dove gray.

In 1945, the new Labour government, with nationalization of some major industries already in place from the war, instituted a welfare state for the population who had had it so bad. The National Health Service, the right to public housing, unemployment pay, the security of knowing that the community would take care of you in sickness and in health—all these were embedded in the postwar promise of a better life for everyone. Kynaston quotes Anthony Crosland, a young MP, later a minister in the Wilson government, who welcomed “the higher employment, generous social services, less flagrant inequalities of wealth and opportunity.” There was, Crosland believed, a shift toward “post-capitalism,” and he declared “the new society . . . infinitely more humane and decent than the old.” It’s certainly true that I grew up and have lived until now without the fear that I couldn’t afford to get ill. Yet by the general election of 1950, Kynaston suggests, most Britons were leading lives of quiet desperation, and the Labour government’s great experiment was in trouble. Asked by pollsters what the Labour Party stood for, a traveling salesman believed the answer was “Giving the working classes power they are not fitted to use”; a dentist replied, “Pampering the working man”; and a butcher’s wife said, “To keep down the people with money.” Even so, whereas in 1936 nearly one third of York’s working-class population had been living in poverty, by 1950 the figure had dropped to one fortieth.

Perhaps all sorts of people did muck in together during the war (although reports of muggings during the blackout and rape in the Underground during air raids tell a more complicated story), but the class system, at the root of all this alarm at least as much as the war’s economic drain, was not thereby dissolved. Free grammar school places created by the 1944 Education Act were designed to give bright working-class children greater opportunity, but in 1953 the children of professionals and businessmen were significantly more likely than their working-class cohort to pass the eleven-plus exams required to get into those grammar schools. Social class told you everything. You learned, well before you got the alphabet by heart, to recognize microdistinctions of class and precisely where everyone belonged on the ladder of being. A single spoken word, a vowel, a look in the eye, the way a scarf or tie was worn and knotted, practically the quality of the air around an individual were, and are even today, instant giveaways of social, economic, and educational status. I do it without thinking about it, without wanting to. But what I could never be sure of while I was growing up in Britain was my own class.

Being Jewish made it hard to find your place. Although I am as English, born and bred, as Camilla Parker Bowles, and nowadays almost as middle-class as my mother once hoped, there was always an absolute difference in my mind between “English” (of any class) and “Jewish.” It wasn’t any religious practice—we were almost entirely secular. It was to do with how we lived, what we ate, how we spoke, what we said, and, I suppose, what we knew without knowing from my parents’ parents who had arrived in London in the first decade of the twentieth century. I was told by other children at school that I was Jewish, not English, and, although I insisted otherwise, secretly I more or less agreed with them. I was sent first of all to a private school, and then a few years later, when my family broke up and went broke, to a state school in a working-class area. Then (having been deemed “maladjusted” but good at IQ tests) the local council paid for me to attend a bohemian but middle-class progressive boarding school. My accent rose and fell and rose again, according to need. When I was about twelve I overheard a couple of girls in the boarding-school cloakroom agreeing that if I joined the drama club as I wanted to, I’d only be able to play servants (working-class kitchen-sink drama hadn’t yet filtered down to the classroom). I adjusted my accent accordingly, although I withdrew my application.

For that reason I don’t see myself in David Kynaston’s book, although I recognize and remember the lay of the land. Much of what he recounts seems archaic, although similar attitudes still exist in different words and forms. The Liberal politician and admirably early anti-fascist Lady Violet Bonham Carter wrote in her diary about the disturbing experience of being on a radio program with George Brown, a raucous Labour MP and the son of a van driver. During the program, she recalled, “George Brown’s form cld not I thought have been worse.” Back at their hotel,

He hectored & harangued us & addressed me repeatedly as “my dear Violet.” I was frozen—but did not I fear freeze him. I have never before—in the course of an unsheltered life, spent among all sorts & conditions of men—met anyone so completely un-house-trained.

I imagine that most of the men of other conditions she had met understood and accepted the necessity of deference to a Lady and kept her rather more sheltered than she knew. And in the 1930s, decades before the Russians and Israelis thought of it, a seven-foot-high wall with revolving spikes was built in North Oxford between a private middle-class estate and working-class council housing. In 1956, those on the posh side of the wall wanted it retained: “After all we are private owners and pay a lot more money. . . . And there is a lot of riff-raff on the other side.” Those on the council-housing side wanted the wall taken down: “People over there are no better than we are.”

A closely related and recurring concern in Kynaston’s chronology is the matter of race relations, the specially British form of racism that learned so much from the indigenous class system. The exquisite understanding of difference was made easier when skin color was involved. In the 1950s, shiploads of West Indians arrived to keep our hospitals, canteens, buses, and trains going and to boost the workforce for the industrial boom. As boom turned to bust, the unions began to talk about “coloured” workers taking “white” jobs, and demanded quotas and redundancies. Landladies put up cards in their front windows saying “No Coloureds,” or, if they were more genteel, simply announced, once they’d answered the door and seen, that the room advertised had just gone.

In tiny corners of London life became a little livelier. There was some jazz, and easier manners, but even though I lived just a few yards from Soho, London then seemed about as cosmopolitan as Antarctica. The only black people I knew as a small child were a wandering racing tipster called Prince Monolulu who lived nearby and wore a feathered headdress (and who was commemorated by a pub on Maple Street), and two young men from the Indian subcontinent training with the Royal Air Force whom I’d picked up (literally) at a skating rink and who came round to tea whenever they were on leave. During the late Sixties, several black South African refugees from apartheid told me that they actually preferred the racism of South Africa to the polite, insinuating English variety. The first of London’s major race riots began in 1958 when white youths were said to have attacked a white woman seen with a Caribbean man in Notting Hill. By 1968, Conservative politician Enoch Powell was warning of the rivers of blood that would run if immigration were not stopped.

Kynaston deals with the totality of social life in his book, and occasionally the equal weight he gives to all the issues feels a little odd. The ongoing rumblings about the projected arrival of commercial television, for example, seem pretty unimportant compared with the upheavals of race, class, and the economy (although it’s true I watched my first television advertisement in a state of ecstasy—we “sat around” the TV as if it were a fire—even though it was for toothpaste).

It’s clear from his 2008 book, Our Times: The Age of Elizabeth II, that the novelist and social historian A. N. Wilson believes the commercialization and Americanization of the culture to be as serious a cause of the changes he bemoans in Britain as is the immigration he deplores.

For the reign of Elizabeth is the one in which Britain effectively stopped being British. The chief reason for this is mass immigration on a scale that has utterly transformed our nation.

The Britain Wilson would like to live in is so utterly lost—deference, order, world influence, good manners, spirituality, Englishness . . . gone, all gone—that I felt almost sorry for the poor old thing, until I realized that he is three years younger than I am and is moping about a vanished way of life that certainly hasn’t existed since the Victorians, and very likely didn’t actually exist then. Except, of course, if you were, as Wilson seems to have been, already of pensionable age and opinion when you were born. As the quintessential Young Fogey, he remains quaint up to a point, until you read his views on “the lumpenproletariat” who, in the nineteenth century, he explains, had been hidden from view, “cruelly dragooned into semi-slavery, either as factory hands or as domestic servants or foot soldiers. If they positively refused to work, they were consigned to the workhouse” and died by the time they were forty. Looking back over sixty years, Wilson explains how the lamentably guilt-ridden liberal democracy that has ineluctably developed since the war (along with immigration, the decline of religious institutions, slack morals, and comprehensive schooling) has caused the downfall of the nation by

performing the optimistic and charitable task of sending these people to school, trying to persuade them to eat wholesome food, and extending their lives, in spite of their habits of smoking and drinking, to the point where they would require, along life’s path, expensive prisons, hospitals and eventually old folks’ care homes specially built for them. . . . Almost no one in public life . . . was impolite enough to see it as a problem at all, though as the ranks of the lumpenproletariat in all senses swelled—becoming more numerous and more obese—it was not a phenomenon which it was easy to ignore. . . . There had never been a time in history when everyone else—from the working classes to the classes at the top of the economic scale—had been compelled through decency to live as if the “unemployable” were just like everyone else.

In fact, England is remarkably resistant to real social mobility. In January, a newly published government report revealed that 50 percent of South Asian minorities live in poverty and survive on incomes 13–21 percent lower than those of white, Christian men, that women’s hourly rates are 21 percent below those of men, and that inequality between the rich and the poor is now greater than at any time since the Second World War.

Wilson rejoices in his exquisite snobbery. He despises Michael Heseltine, a Tory cabinet minister implicated in bringing down Margaret Thatcher, for his moderate views, which Wilson could more easily excuse if they came from the landed gentry. For Heseltine (“with his bought furniture and his Palladian house”) is merely nouveau riche—not born to his position and therefore not entitled to the “wet,” vapid liberal opinions of those “politicians who had inherited such houses.” Social upstarts in the Tory party were supposed to be radical right-wing Thatcherites, like Thatcher herself. Inherited versus bought furniture is a classic English test of proper social standing (you can never buy real class), which Wilson firmly equates with innate and decent values, although he is not, I think, an inheritor of furniture and estate himself, his father having been a managing director of Wedgwood pottery, and therefore trade(you see, it gets to us all).

None of this, including the orotund language, is to be taken seriously—it is the kind of grumbling often heard from civil-service types in the Mass Observation archives—but it is instructive to read about this mythological land of England. Wilson’s England is placed firmly in the land of the Hobbit. His literary hero, J.R.R. Tolkien, wistfully depicted Anglo-Saxon English feudalism as an idyll of little hairy-footed salt-of-the-earth types who go to the ends of the earth to maintain tradition and happily do what they are told by their betters. I’m afraid, though, that if your grandparents came from a shtetl or a colonized Caribbean island, Middle-earth’s middle England is an old country to which you don’t want to return, even if it never existed.

Family Britain, by David Kynaston. Walker & Company. 776 pages. $47.50.

Our Times: The Age of Elizabeth II, by A. N. Wilson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 482 pages. $30.

Why I’m Not In Love With Don Draper: Mad Men versus Lover Come Back, North by Northwest and The Apartment

 

This is a piece  by me that was published by Harper’s Magazine, in January 2012.

 

In 1959, by pure accident, Roger O. Thornhill was mistaken for another man. Actually, he was taken for a man who did not and had never existed. Thornhill’s initials spell ROT, which is printed on his monogrammed matchbooks, and when asked what the O stands for, he replies, “Nothing.” That O in the center of his name zeros in on Thornhill’s lack of identity, an all-style-no-substance absence that first allows and then forces him to be whomever anyone else wants him to be. The cipher is actually a Madison Avenue advertising executive, played by Cary Grant at his most elegantly slippery, wearing a dolphin gray single-breasted suit and a melting, noncommittal smile. Between them, in the very first scene of North by Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock and Grant nail the handsome, sophisticated Thornhill as a moral sliver. The rest is largely adventure, but it is also Thornhill finding his own substance through his nonexistent double.

The televison show Mad Men’s central emptiness is heard in its echoes. The series derives directly from the movies of the time it is portraying. It doesn’t just hint or casually nod at North by Northwest, or that film’s near contemporaries The Apartment (Billy Wilder, with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine) and Lover Come Back (Delbert Mann, with Doris Day and Rock Hudson), it rolls them as credits. The crucial difference between these movies and the modern series that nods at them is that each of the movies was made about their time in their time. They offer, as thriller, drama, romance, and high comedy, their contemporary view of social relations and notions of self-worth in the period that concerns Mad Men’s makers and viewers only retrospectively.

The O through the middle of Roger Thornhill becomes the ghostly absence in the existence of Dick Whitman, a.k.a. Don Draper. For all that he chooses to live his life as a man who died beside him in the Korean War, Don Draper isn’t drawn into an external adventure; instead, over four seasons, he leads a remorselessly stereotypical life as a 1960s advertising executive. Mad Men shows in extensive detail—including suits furnished by Brooks Brothers—what we see briefly in the early moments of North by Northwest: how Roger Thornhill lived on regular days when he wasn’t being mistaken for a CIA straw man. Like Thornhill, Draper has too many amorous women to manage, constant meetings with other professionally predatory males in offices and hotel bars to the sound of bourbon glasses clinking, a nagging woman forever trying to housebreak him, and an overweening sense of his own talent and superiority.

Audiences are mad for Mad Men’s nostalgic vision of urban and suburban America, and quite besotted with Don Draper in particular. In 2009, readers of the web magazine Ask Men voted him (Draper, not the actor, Jon Hamm) the most influential man in the world, ahead of Usain Bolt and Barack Obama. Women want him, men want to be him—copying his crisp notched lapels and slender ties, adopting his swagger, trying for his craggy but very limited set of facial expressions (don’t we miss Grant, terribly?). I have to admit, I don’t get it. Maybe you had to not be there. Whereas Roger Thornhill was his own non-man in his own era, Draper strikes me as a retro-puppet in a stylized shadow play.

Unless, of course, the unconvincing stiffness at the heart of Mad Men is precisely the point. Are the clever writers of the series slyly dramatizing, to the tune of the 1960s, much of what still goes on and wrong in the world of work and gender relations? I’d like to imagine that the positive, downright idolatrous, response to Don Draper & Co. is part one of a double take that the makers of Mad Men are hoping to encourage in their audience. If so, it seems the second look has yet to come. We aren’t really supposed to take rugged Draper and lush Joanie as role models, are we? Surely not, since both of them are such victims of the social and business climate of the Sixties. Yet there’s such style and gloss, so much devotion, money, and time paid to hyper-real period detail (the designer Michael Kors called the recreation of Sixties fashion in Mad Men “beyond forensic”) that it’s easy to stay as comfortably amused and mildly entertained by Mad Men as it is by the frothy (and sometimes wittier) Desperate Housewives, or the Eighties high camp of Dynasty. Is the series simply a soap, lubricating the audience, rather than considered drama?

The fixation on style seeps into the drama itself, as if the perfect tailoring justified the pre-assembled plotlines and characterizations. The writers never choose to walk away from a rehashed metaphor: Don has his ghostly vision of Anna—wife of the real Don Draper—standing in his room with a forgiving smile and a suitcase on the night she dies on the other side of the continent. A mouse scuttles across his office and vanishes, so Don has to murmur to his secretary Peggy Olson that there seems to be some other way out of his office but he can’t find it. Does the ever-unreconstructed Betty Draper, with the insight of a frozen petit pois, have to be so hopelessly dim and trim, so perfectly turned out, while the somewhat smarter, more questioning Olson, with her awkward fashion sense, is obliged to be socially and sexually gawky in her struggle to find her place as a modern career woman? Must Don Draper relive The Lost Weekend every week in order for him to get the message that he’s drinking and screwing around too much, and then, in the middle of the fourth season, suddenly begin a diary in voice-over, so that the writers can be sure we’ve got the message that his unpleasantness is the result of the human condition?

Yes, if all the received opinions and typologies are to remain in place. Because everyone in the series really does conform to an expected type. Spoiler alert: Draper proposes to the willowy yet maternal secretary rather than the too-smart Jewish psychologist. It’s supposed to be a surprise in the final episode of the fourth season, but it isn’t, it fits so neatly with what we know these days about men’s fear of women in those days. There are the women of wasted intelligence who get lost because they are too busty and good-looking, or not busty and good-looking enough; women who struggle to negotiate the pressures of social conformity, the women who are negated by it or who benefit from it. There are the men who crack in manly ways from the burden of playing their manly role, the men without qualities who luxuriate in the status quo, the men who can’t keep up with Change. Historical moments get ticked: Kennedy has been assassinated, nothing will ever be easy again. Listen, is that the sound of trouble down South? I see Joan’s husband is off to Vietnam, I guess the times they are a-changin’.

The social, sexual, gender, and work relations of the Sixties are rigorously defined, but they are defined from the perspective of a smugly knowing present. The show often wags a moralistic finger during the closing credits with old hit songs of shallow love and angst, or warning: Marilyn Monroe, “I’m Through with Love”; Doris Day, “I Enjoy Being a Girl”; Brenda Lee, “Break It to Me Gently”; Bob Dylan, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” We watch in wonder at those crazy fellows inhaling tobacco and at their heavily pregnant women freely imbibing, as if we were children at a pantomime, our eyes as wide and round as Roger Thornhill’s middle initial. It’s extravagant so that it can be also a little gross. We love the S-curve of Joan’s bosom and buttocks, even feel deprived of the womanly ripeness that was appreciated back then, but we are aware, too, of all the corsetry that’s needed to prevent her seeming plain overblown. Even at the time ripeness was not all: imagine Joan in the group changing room of the Biba boutique where the clothes never went above a size ten. She is the only ample sexy woman in the show; all the other attractive women are stick-thin “dolly birds” in waiting. Don’t we love to ogle, while noting with regret and satisfaction that Joanie’s other, less fleshly gifts would be more readily recognized now? So our eyes enjoy the feast and our superegos enjoy the shock of her curtailed life.

The clothes and cigarettes have received the most acclaim. People admire the authenticity, but it’s a curious authenticity that screams at you with its excessiveness. Everything is so carefully of its time in a way that things during actual times are not. You see this in those carefully researched Agatha Christie shows set in the 1930s where everyone lives in curvy, white modernist houses with the very latest Art Deco furniture and clothing, all marabou feathers and walnut sideboards. In fact, people mostly live somewhat behind their times. They live with much of the previous generation’s furniture: a not-quite-up-to-date gramophone; clothes, hair, and brassieres that span several years either side of now. The Sixties (or come to that the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties) look like the Sixties only once they’re over; at the time they look like the present as the present always does. The style of the Sixties in Mad Men is so relentless and polished in every detail that it actually deals a death blow to authenticity. It is caricature not authenticity, and although that, in a David Lynch sort of way, can be thrilling and effective if you subvert the style to darker devices, Mad Men isn’t sure whether it wants to be pastiche or historical realism. It wants it both ways, and, for me, it is this indecision, which feels muddy and expedient as opposed to subtle or sly, that is Mad Men’s self-sabotage—“simultaneously contemptuous and pandering,” as Daniel Mendelsohn put it last year in The New York Review of Books.

It makes a lot of sense to read that the cigarettes the characters incessantly and a bit awkwardly smoke (I speak as a former smoker) are in fact not tobacco but something herbally acceptable to twenty-first-century on-set regulations. (Jon Hamm says they taste “like a mixture between pot and soap.”) It all looks too deliberate. Back then people just smoked; in Mad Men, they smoke. Today’s blue carcinogenic haze is noticed only by non-smokers, or people who have been out of the room a long time. Here, it signifies the willful ignorance of the period, something we have apparently outgrown. The cast always look as if they know they’re in fancy dress, and that their problems, too, are costume details from the past.

Should I even be thinking of Mad Men as serious drama at all? Is “seriousness” only for high art? I hesitate, because, in a Facebook flame war I instantly regretted engaging in, I suggested in passing that Mad Men struck me as overdetermined by style, someone responded angrily that the show was “just a piece of great entertainment and some good storytelling.” This commenter wished that even a small percentage of the dramas on television were half as good, and went on to ask whether we were to be “this harsh on everything else on TV?”

It’s an interesting question in that I was quite shocked by it. My answer is a simple “Yes, we should be equally harsh,” or in my terms “thoughtful.” Are we to be grateful for whatever we can get on TV that isn’t complete dross and not want better, or do we give the work of television writers and producers the same consideration we would give to literature or stage drama, to anything that we would want to call art? Shall we be gratefully content with “half as good” as Mad Men, or do we take television seriously enough to suppose it can do all the things other serious art can do, as well as entertain? When such series as Deadwood and The Wire offer astonishing, original writing and complex structures, it is surely patronizing to apply a lesser standard to what we call “good” television than the one by which we evaluate books or film or theater—unless we don’t anymore.

Lover Come Back (1961) does a better job of critiquing the advertising business than Man Men ever sustains. A man in his thirties of my acquaintance recently watched this film insisting throughout that it was a satire. It is, instead, a sophisticated comedy that quite accepts its time. Watching it now, it plays as excruciatingly sexist and very funny: a brilliantly slick movie that takes the assumptions of its day as gospel, allows the merest hint that there might be other views, and then winks hugely at that idiotic notion, returning the audience to the comfort of proper gender roles, domesticity, and all being unthreatening in the world. Throughout the film, executive ad-woman Doris Day is dressed in pencil skirts cut so sharp they look painful (as near as she can get in that business world to wearing the trousers). Doris Day/Peggy Olson confronts Rock Hudson’s version of Roger Thornhill, who wins a client by plying him with drink and women rather than beavering away on the fine new pitch she has stayed up all night preparing. She takes her rival to an advertising morals court, all male executives, who exonerate him when faced with the irresistible breasts of his chosen representative. In order to make a fool of Day, Hudson advertises a nonexistent product which, naturally, the real world goes mad for, and he very nearly seduces (which is to say punishes) the “frigid,” professional Day by pretending to be a hapless scientist. At last they both end up accidentally drunk and in bed, to discover, after a moment of titillation, that they conveniently got married while in their cups (which takes care of the Hays Office), and then, nine months after the wedding has been annulled by Day, humiliated and wrong-footed from start to finish, Hudson races to the rescue just as she is braving her contractions all alone, bringing with him a minister to remarry them and set domestic bliss in motion.

Everything we need to know about Mad Men is here, although we might wonder how Day broke through the glass ceiling so early—Hudson suggests that it was her dogged virginity. The bogus product “VIP” gets the entire U.S. population to want something that doesn’t exist (yet), and man gets the uppity woman back where she belongs: on her back with a wedding ring thrust on her finger while a baby batters at her cervix for a lifetime’s attention.

The Apartment (1960) attempts a slightly more severe look at its time. Mad Men mimics the gossamer style of Lover Come Back but wants to take its weight from the monochrome Billy Wilder film, whose style is as close a thing to unglamorous documentary realism as Hollywood would allow. Set in the insurance rather than the advertising business, The Apartment gives Jack Lemmon free rein to play C. C. Baxter, that funny, alarmingly dark and bitter little guy at which he excelled, while Shirley MacLaine, as Fran Kubelik, an elevator operator, established her signature role: the gamine but brave loser in love. These two sad put-upon people are brought together by the ruthless entitlement of business executives who use Baxter’s flat and Kubelik’s body for their extramarital entertainment. Baxter is promised the key to the executive washroom for what amounts to his pandering, and Kubelik has a ring dangled in front of her that will never be put on her finger—for all her kooky charm, she is always the mistress, never the bride. Baxter and Kubelik spend time together in the brothel/apartment after her suicide attempt there and the hasty withdrawal of her executive lover into his family Christmas. Baxter takes the social flack for his boss’s indiscretion and looks after Kubelik over the holidays.

Finally, the schnook and the loser (“Some people take, some people get took”) see that they can have each other if they give up their corporate, social, and marital ambitions. The rising music and Kubelik racing back to Baxter at his apartment on New Year’s Eve, where he is packing, having returned the key to the executive washroom and left his job rather than continue to supply his boss with the woman he loves, ding all the right emotional bells, and the lump rises in the throat. But it isn’t love triumphant; it’s a recognition of the way things are, “corporate-wise” and “marriage-wise.” In the final scene, they sit side by side on the sofa, neither executive nor trophy wife, playing gin rummy. The last lines of The Apartment always trouble me:

Schnook Lemmon: Did you hear what I said, Miss Kubelik? I absolutely adore you.

Loser MacLaine: Shut up and deal . . .

Joanie of Mad Men comes close to Fran Kubelik, but there’s no obvious candidate for the redeemed C. C. Baxter. The series has plenty of executive true-believers like Pete Campbell and Harry Crane, but no heroic schnooks (although maybe Ken Cosgrove is shaping up that way for the next season, having refused to inveigle his father-in-law into a meeting with account-hungry sharks). Don Draper writes his supposedly world-shaking anti-smoking advertorial for the New York Times, but only after he’s been dumped by Lucky Strike and has nothing to lose.

There is a moderate kind of payback suggested in the two 1960s movies: Rock Hudson gives up bachelorhood to settle down with one woman (theoretically), and maybe in their quiet contentment Baxter and Kubelik never give the executives another thought. Yet we know the executives won’t give the schnook and loser another thought either, will carry on skimming all the bonuses and bonbons they know to be their right. (Unless the schnook and loser become really obnoxious and start a revolution.) Some moral questions raised, the status quo is restored. Nevertheless, what The Apartment knows about its own time is that there’s a problem. And what is essentially missing in Mad Men—even if its subject is the past—is the knowledge that the present is the problem.

 

HARPER’S MAGAZINE / JANUARY 2012

Stare

Here’s an unpublished thing I wrote as I started to write What I Don’t Know About Animals, a non-fiction book about animals and the way people imagine them, but which I didn’t put into the book.

 

Stare

In the wild…orangs have not provided ethologists with the glamorous behaviours that, say, Jane Goodall’s chimps have given her.  I found no reports of orangs doing anything like the equivalent of fashioning special sticks to fish for termites, for instance. Orang observers instead report such exciting phenomena as the “fruit stare” which some people say is a function of the difficulty orangutans have foraging for food in the wild. Orangutans need to develop the fruit stare because trees can be coy about when, where, and how much they fruit, and the fruit is often hidden in the canopy of leaves. The fruit stare is an expression of reverie, but it is a reverie directed outward rather than inward – “like thinking with your eyes,’ naturalist Sy Montgomery has said. ‘That’s why they are so spaced-out.” 

Vickie Hearne,  Can an Ape Tell a Joke, Harper’s Magazine, Nov. 1993

 

 

The first lesson:  finding.  Actually, the only lesson: what you do when you find what you want is another lesson entirely, and not one that will be taught.  Finding is a question of looking, my child.  Of looking in the right way.  That’s looking not to see, do you see, but to allow what you want to present itself to your vision.  Vision is not the right word.  It supposes the possibility of a lack of vision.  There can be no lack of vision, otherwise how would you see anything, and without seeing anything…well, obviously what you can’t see doesn’t exist. To put it simply.  Middle-distance staring better expresses it.

The trick of forest-dwelling is to reinvent the forest every day.  Oh, for sure, the tree trunks hold firm and the branches can be grasped, in a quotidian sort of way, once you’ve grasped that some branches can be grasped better than others.  But the fact of the matter is that every dawn, as the light troubles your eyelids open, it is necessary to re-make this solidity and reliability.  It’s done by staring.  Stare the trees straight, gaze the branches – the right ones – into weight-bearing.  It takes time to build the forest.  Start with the structure, the pathways, the upright, the horizontal.  Make sure of them and then let them be.  They are stared enough into existence. Brachiating is a leap of faith.  Trust me.

Foliage is the hardest thing to stare.  It takes the most gazing, the longest look.  Foliage is where the living is done: the dream leafscape that creates the light – dim and dappled – and the damp greygreen air.  Foliage is canopy and carpet, the key, the muddle from which what we want emerges.  That is the point, remember?  Finding what we want.  First you have to stare the muddle into existence and then you have to look into the muddle for…well, for everything.  Stare, then look, look and then stare.  For those without understanding, it all looks like the same look.  But the staring we do is not for staring at.  Looking at looking is a mug’s game.  The looking is inside the stare.  The making behind the eyes.  Look, you’ll see.

Don’t get me wrong.  It doesn’t just happen.  We’re not talking magic.  Millennia of effort have gone into developing the gaze behind the stare, and every day the stare has to be reinvented before the forest can be brought into being.  It’s a job of work.  It’s what we do for a living, my child. Without us, no forest would imagined into existence, and without the forest there would be nothing to look for, nothing to want, no wanting.  We are dedicated to desire, to finding what we want with our behind-the-scenes gaze, to marking the days between sunrise and sunset with the creation and perception of our desires.  And all you have to do is stare, that easy look into the muddle, effortless, persistent, until out of the chaos of branch and leaf what we want emerges and you simply extend your long, sinewy arm, stretch your fingers towards it, and pluck it.  Once you get the hang of it, you can do it with your eyes closed, my child.

 

Jenny Diski

2nd February 2009

When I grew up I wanted to be a proper writer…

‘All pens are filled with potential’. So begins an advertisement in the Guardian newspaper for its ‘new idea’. The paper is offering weekend masterclasses in creative writing and publishing, taught by novelists (‘discover the novelist within’), historical fiction writers (‘Historical novels have been riding high in the best-seller lists of late. Fancy writing one of your own?’) and editors (‘Getting your novel published’). Ink, actually, is what my pen is filled with, although the ink has dried up in my best ever pen (a Pilot Decimo, the only fountain pen that has a retractible nib like a biro so doesn’t have a lid to lose), and I need to soak it overnight in water to get it back to having any potential as a pen at all. I don’t write anything other than notes with my pen, but I do have a longstanding writer’s fetish for the objects that might be considered to be relevant to my trade.

My longing for a typewriter began when I was 7 years old, and that’s what I got for Christmas. It was called a Petite Typewriter, and was a toy, which wasn’t really what I wanted. It was supposed to work but it didn’t, not properly, it kept getting stuck, and my disappointment was so palpable that it was the worst Christmas I can remember. I tried to pretend I was happy with it, but my unmissable ingratitude ruined the day. My mother screamed, my father shouted, there was weeping and gnashing of teeth. Awful. I had to wait until I was sixteen before I got a real working typewriter: one of those sit-up-and-beg, black shiny monsters, a proper machine, which I bought second-hand, and loved as people are supposed to love the person with whom they have their first kiss. All typewriters are filled with potential.

Why did I want a typewriter so badly for so long? Because as far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a writer (a reporter, a novelist, a poet? Anything that involved sitting at a desk putting words or the world in good order). I think I believed at seven that what I wrote – a diary, perhaps, a story or a journalistic report on family life – would be more like a real book if it was typed. I was clear even then that writers had to have typewriters, I can’t remember exactly why. Films probably gave me the image of a writer as a figure tapping out words on a contraption. Clearly, pen and paper are far more portable and flexible (until my beloved 11inch Macbook Air came along), but a typewriter (and later a computer) would somehow ground me into a being I wanted to be. It settled me in a place and in a position of work. I wanted to be a professional writer. I never saw writing as an activity done reclining, ladylike, on my bed or pacing the romantic hollows of Coleridge’s Quantock hills and valleys.

Nevertheless, the typewriter was only always only an adjunct. I knew perfectly well that the potential had to come from me. The machine just made me feel more like a grown-up writer – I knew exactly what I meant by that: authoritative in my use of language and thought in a way that would convince me (and secondarily any readers I might have) that I was indeed A Writer. I’ve been striving for that since I was seven and I still don’t feel I’m there and doubt now that I ever will be. I keep trying, and that, as well as having to pay bills, is why I keep writing. But I worry sometimes about what would happen if I ever believed I’d achieved it. If I ever woke up one morning convinced that I was the writer I always wanted to be, and not always falling short, what would I do? Very likely never get out of bed again. Or be someone entirely different. That might be a relief of sorts, but I’m too old now to go out and get a proper job.

I have never thought of writing as ‘creative’. I’ve wondered constantly if I had any imagination, or ability, or talent, or anything to write about, but I’ve never used the word ‘creative’ to describe anything I do (apart from lying). ‘Creative’ is not a word I can use even to myself without embarrassment, and placing in distancing quotation marks. Yet the quite recent marriage of ‘creative’ with ‘writing’ has brought very large amounts of money to universities and colleges who institute such courses (almost all of them now), and it secures a livelihood for many writers who, like all of us, are finding it increasingly hard to live from their own work. It isn’t just the Guardian; Faber and Faber, a publishing house of great repute, now has the ‘Faber Academy’, which offers courses tutored by its own writers and staff for  large sums of money. Finding your inner novelist doesn’t come cheap.

University courses, especially the most desirable ones, also and crucially offer the opportunity to network. Students are introduced to professional writers and, much more importantly, literary agents and editors. I’ve been to one of their ‘network’ parties and it was grim. Students eyeing up your usefulness, getting speedily around the room. Perhaps the creative writing course will eventually become the only way to get published – why read manuscripts on spec when you can get them from your students who are actually paying you to tell them what you want them to write? Why write on spec when you can pay for a course to ensure that someone close to the business will read and assist you with your manuscript? The creative fiction writing/travel writing/screen writing/life-writing/nature-writing courses now offered are an important new income stream for newspapers, publishers and universities, all of whom are suffering devastating losses in their businesses and grants. Is it good for aspiring writers? For some, I imagine. Those who are good writers anyway will benefit from the time, space and editing expertise, while those who aren’t will produce something they will be told they can be proud of, and, if the PR is right, be poorer but apparently more satisfied with their lives. They’ve discovered their novelist within even if no one else will. What is more important than self-fulfilment, these days?

And here’s my problem. Why, since I’m living the dream with 17 books published, and a 25 year career as a writer, do I not feel fulfilled? All I wanted was to ‘be a writer’ when I grew up. I am. However, nothing about writing and being published has fulfilled me, justified me, or made me feel better about myself – but then I never thought that writing was supposed to make me feel better about myself. The satisfaction you get is ten minutes in the bath feeling relief that a manuscript is finished and sent away, and then it’s all anxiety about what didn’t work in the last one and whether you can make the next one more like the book you really wanted to write. But I admit that my vision of being a writer is just as – actually more – romantic than those who pay good money to be taught to write and get published. My daydream of writing comes from a time (the 1950s and 60s) when angst was in fashion, when writing was angelic and crazy. Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Beckett, Duras, the Beats, they all anguished about writing, as if it was the most important thing a person could do. It was a vocation, the writer was the monk, the nun, who devoted themselves to the written word, to extracting some sort of special insight about existence from the combining of discrete letters of the alphabet. It was a dogged quest that was conducted by keeping as still and alone as possible. Something to live and die for. Both at the same time, always. And that was the writer I wanted to be. It is, as any modern publisher will tell you (and has told me), a hopelessly sentimental view of the literary world. But I did know people who lived that sort of life, who were published in spite of selling only a few copies, because their publishers were excited about what they did. They didn’t make much or even any money, and they weren’t mobbed in the streets. They didn’t, unless they were poets, go about doing readings or book signings. They didn’t figure which genres they should write according to market demands. They didn’t attend focus groups (as novelists have done recently) of ‘ordinary readers’ set up by publishers to ask chapter by chapter how they were doing and what should be altered. They just wrote and worried.

Nor did they win prizes – apart obviously from the Nobel (‘Catastrophe,’ said Beckett when he was told). Early on in my writing career, I said to my then publisher that I didn’t want to be entered for prizes, not the Booker, certainly not the Orange Prize for women, none of them. I hated the idea of being in competition with other writers, of books being judged winners or losers by committee. I was told that they wouldn’t publish me unless I changed my attitude. Prizes are essential, even more now than then. They are in fact the only lifeline left for ‘literary’ writers. Publishing houses, like any other business (and they usually are also several other businesses, including in some cases arms dealers) are interested in profit. I am repeatedly told that. They will not spend money on publicity or lay out between £20,000 and £80,000 for a good spot on the front table of bookshop, unless they are certain the product will recoup the investment. The supermarkets and large distributors tell publishers what will and won’t sell. If yours is deemed one that won’t, no one will know you have a book out unless you get some reviews; bookshops will buy a single copy but won’t display it, and the only hope you have of getting sales is if you go head-to-head with other writers and manage to beat them or at least get shortlisted. The public love a race, they might take enough interest to buy a copy of your book. Writers become winners or losers in the eyes of publishers even if they admire your writing in the old fashioned way that publishers used to. If you don’t play the game or don’t get shortlisted your shelf-life is up.

I’m told that this is fine. That books are a market like everything else. Even young literature undergraduates have told me that a book which doesn’t sell is, by definition, not a good book. Popular books that please and don’t demand too much of readers once subsidised new non-bestselling writers. Now that doesn’t make economic sense. Why wouldn’t you engineer more bestsellers and make more profit? Though it seems a shame to me, I can’t say that the books that won’t be published would necessarily have improved the world. Perhaps it’s not a tragedy, but I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to daydream about being a writer, before the world became more sensible.

This original English version published in Swedish in the Goteborgs-Posten 2011