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November and its challenges – where did it all go…..?

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November was a *very* busy month with reading events, and I had lots of plans – as I revealed in this post… I’m not sure it has gone entirely as I intended, although I *have* ticked the box for each one. But some were read before November, and I did have a bit of a slump in the middle of the month when work was ridiculously busy and then I had a hideous head cold (HOW! How could I catch a cold when I have basically been wearing a mask since March??????) I found it very hard to settle while the American Election drama was taking place, too – so much seemed to hinge on it and thank goodness for the result. Anyway, this is the small pile of books read during November:

Although it’s a smaller pile than I usually feature at the end of the month, there are some really interesting titles and authors in there. The Gallic Revolutionary Women books are something I’m covering for Shiny New Books. There are items from some of my bookish subscriptions, Penguin Moderns, crime, Atwood and Barthes! I did enjoy all the books I read, and there will be a review of the Barthes coming up this week; I will count that as a Non-Fiction November read as it’s definitely non-fiction and was definitely read in November! 😀

Looking forward to December, with all the stress and strain and confusion in the world at the moment, it’s going to be a difficult one I feel. So I plan to try to keep the reading simple and go with things I really want to read, and which will give me some escapism from rotten reality. One of the main issues I’ve been having is feeling overwhelmed with the amount of book piles lying around unread, so I had a bit of a tidy up and coralled a lot of the pending titles onto a little bookshelf which now looks like this:

This has made me feel a lot calmer and now I feel I can just pick what I fancy off the shelves and enjoy following my reading mojo. To look more specifically at the options, here are the possibles in the various rows…

The top shelf has some beautiful books sent by BL Publishing – Sci Fi Classics, Crime Classics and Women Writers. Any of these would be perfect comfort reads for a long month. Then there are subscription books from Fum d’Estampa, Renard Press and Sulunary Editions – I want to read them all at once…. There are review copies of Chekhov and Penguin classic sci fi, all of which look and sound lovely. And at the end, my collection of Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” sequence. I’ve wanted to re-read these for ages, and of course December is the time to do it. Should I? Could I?

Here’s the middle shelf! There are some incredibly beautiful NYRB editions here, and all of them are screaming for attention. Then there are some lovely books that wonderful people have sent me (thank you Olga Zilberbourg and QC Fiction). I still have a little stack of unread Fitzcarraldos, which I could read now, or hang onto in case Lizzy and I decide to do another Fitzcarraldo Fortnight! And I have a huge pile of Mike Walmer’s lovely editions to catch up on – such wonderful titles!!

The bottom shelf is more of a mish-mash, with a number of books which have been lying around for a while with no real connection between them. Again, all are interesting and would be good reads – it’s just a case of deciding! 😀

However, decisions are a little more complex thanks to the arrival of some new titles this week:

Some are review copies, and some are purchases (thank you Blackwells and Hive!) However, the arrival of five new Penguin Great Ideas editions has thrown a bit of a spanner in the works as far as my reading plans are concerned!

I had intended to read all 120(!!!!) in order, although after the first set of 20 I only have a piecemeal collection. These five were the ones I most wanted from the new set, and I got them at very reasonable prices. And now I’m thinking – as I don’t own the whole lot, would it be cheating to read them in whatever order took my fancy?? Do I actually *need* to read them in the order 1 to 120, bearing in mind that that wouldn’t be chronological beause each set of 20 starts with an ancient classic and ends with a more modern work? So I could maybe just read whichever one I wanted when the mood takes me….?

So what to you think? *Is* that cheating? Should I just read the Great Ideas in whatever order suits my reading mojo? And which of these books appeals most? Really, I don’t know what to pick up next!! ;D

“Hunger is a powerful incentive to introspection.” @renardpress #willacather

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If you encounter me at all on social media, you may well have seen me singing the praises of a new indie publishing imprint, Renard Press. Run by Will Dady, Renard has an ambitious publishing programme lined up and has already produced some intriguing titles. Pleasingly, they offer subscriptions and having had lovely experiences with other bookish subs this year, I just couldn’t resist… The first book I received was a beautiful edition of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” (as well as a gorgeous tote bag); the second package contained two beautiful hand-bound booklets – Tolstoy’s “A Letter to a Hindu” and Willa Cather’s short story “The Burglar’s Christmas”.

Now, Cather is an author I’m familiar with in that I own a number of her books; yet I have actually read very few of them which is silly really, because what I have read I’ve loved. And my BFF J. adores her… So as I was in a vague kind of reading slump, I decided to pick this one up now and I raced through it!

“Burglar’s..” is a simple seasonal tale, first published in 1896. We are in wintry Chicago and as it opens we encounter two men who are on their beam ends. With no money, no food and nowhere to go, Christmas doesn’t seem to hold much promise for the men and as they go their separate ways, we follow the younger one. As his life and character are gradually revealed, it seems he’s struck out on his own away from a comfortable background, yet has failed at every juncture. He decides to hit rock bottom and go for a seasonal burglary in an attempt to stave off starvation, with little hope of carrying on his life much further. However fate, and perhaps the spirit of Christmas, have something else in store for him…

I’m not going to say any more about the story as I don’t want to spoil it; all I will say is that the resolution is unexpected and did bring a bit of a glow to my heart! Cather writes beautifully and evocatively, really bringing her setting to life in such a short work; and I loved the writing so much I went back and read the story again! It’s a tale which would make perfect Christmas reading…

I also have to say something about the loveliness of the little hand-bound booklet. It has a plain blue cover with title band and a patterned lining paper and is just gorgeous. As someone who enjoys making their own hand-bound journals, I really appreciate a lovely object like this which so enhances the reading experience. Renard Press obviously have many strings to their bow, and I do love the fact that they’re releasing such a range of formats.

So encountering this Willa Cather short work was a real joy (and hopefully will impel me to pick up one of the books on my shelves by her sooner rather than later). Kudos to Renard for releasing such a lovely edition; and NB – anyone who knows me and would be likely to want to read this and who’s likely to get a Christmas card from me – don’t rush out and buy it… More than this I cannot say! ;D

Penguin Moderns 33 and 34 – hobos and pre-war Germany…

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Next up on the Ramblings is the latest pair of Penguin Moderns from my lovely box set. Numbers 33 and 34 feature two male authors who really couldn’t be more different – yet reading them both was extremely enjoyable and convinced me I should try to pick up books by them sooner rather than later! 😀

Penguin Modern 33 – Piers of the Homeless Night by Jack Kerouac

I am on very familiar ground with Kerouac, as back in my teens I read pretty much everything available by him (and I’ve hoovered up most of what’s been released in the interim). Inevitably, because of the period in which his works were written I have occasional issues with his attitudes to women, but when his prose soars I love him. “Piers…” contains two short sections extracted from “Lonesome Traveler”, his account of his travels around American which was first published in 1960. The title piece is a beautifully written evocation of his encounter with an old buddy in San Pedro, and his failure to ship out as a crew-member on a boat as does his friend.

Kerouac was always drawn to the sea – it’s a recurrent motif in his work, if I recall correctly from my readings all those decades ago – and the prose here is so hypnotic. The second piece is “The Vanishing American Hobo”; it finds Kerouac in philosophical mood, musing on the changes taking place in his country and the modern difficulties of bumming your way around America. It was no longer easy to hop a freight train or sleep under the stars without the authorities moving you on; I imagine it would be nigh on impossible nowadays, and that’s another kind of freedom gone…

I don’t go back to Kerouac often; maybe part of me is worried that I won’t find the magic in his prose that I did before. However, on the evidence of this I obviously should!

Penguin Modern 34 – Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch? by Hans Fallada

In contrast to Kerouac, Fallada is an author who’s come to prominence in the English-speaking world relatively recently; his novel, “Alone in Berlin” caused a stir on its release in 2010, and many of his works have now been published widely in translation. I tried (and failed!) to read “Alone…” pre-blog, so I was very interested to see how I would find the three short works collected here. Spoiler alert – I loved them! 😀

There are three short stories featured in the Penguin Modern, all drawn from the collection “Tales from the Underworld” (2014). The title tale is a humorous ‘cry wolf’ story of a watchmaker’s son who seems to find it impossible to hold on to the timepieces given to him by his father; “War Monument or Urinal?” brilliantly captures the range of small town politics in pre-war Germany, and the tensions that existed; and “Fifty Marks and a Merry Christmas” is a touching story of a couple trying to make ends meet at the edge of the poverty line.

I found these stories wonderful and compelling, so I can’t understand, looking back, why I struggled with “Alone…” unless it was simply a case of right book, wrong time. Whatever – Fallada writes wonderfully, brilliantly capturing so much of his times in these short works!

*****

So PMs 33 and 34 were winners! A revisit to a favourite author and an introduction to a new one, both of which I loved. The Penguin Moderns really are proving to be the best way to meet new authors and rediscover old ones – can’t wait to see who comes up next!  ;D

“Writing itself is a little peculiar” #MARM

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Although I am often rubbish with challenges, I have managed reasonably so far with November’s, fitting in some non-fiction, a novella and a German book (even though the last two were one and the same…!) So I was determined I would also read something by Margaret Atwood; I love her writing very much, and it’s always a joy to revisit her, but the hardest thing was choosing what to actually pick up. I’ve not been so much in the mood for fiction lately, and had earmarked poetry or essays; in the end, it was the latter I went with, in the form of her collection “On Writers and Writing” (originally published as “Negotiating with the Dead”).

As I mentioned in my post on November challenges, it turns out that I purchased on “On Writers…” not realising it was the same as “Negotiating…”, which I already own. After reading it, I’m still unsure as to whether I’ve read it before! Some of the material seemed familiar, particularly the parts dealing with her early life; but as this has turned up in other non-fiction writings by her which I’ve read, it could simply be that I’m remembering that. Anyway, reading Atwood is always a joy, so in the end it didn’t really matter if this was a new read or a re-read.

“On Writers…” has its roots in a series of essays Atwood presented to the University of Cambridge for their Empson Lectures series, and was first published by Cambridge University Press in 2002. In the essays, Atwood explores the whole ethos of writers and writing: why a writer writes; their role in the world; the way they regard themselves and the reader; and much, much more. Spanning autobiography, thoughts on great writers and their works, the conflict between art and money, and whether it’s essential to sell your soul to the Devil, Atwood ranges far and wide over these and other topics in a way that is always entertaining and thought-provoking.

What to do? Where to turn? How to proceed? Is there a self-identity for the writer that combines responsibility with artistic integrity? If there is, what might it be? Ask the age we live in, and it might reply – the witness. And, if possible, the eyewitness. (On the relationship between the artist and the real world)

Atwood is an excellent and erudite commentator; and she’s also a humorous one, with her dry wit cutting through the chaff to get to her point. Her discussion of the relationship between reader and writer, with the necessary distance they should keep between them, is particularly fascinating; and her understanding of our need to make a mark on the world during our transient existence, to leave some kind of sign saying “I was here!”, is telling. We write for ourselves but we also write for others; and that can be a complex tightrope to walk.

In what ways, if any, does talent set you apart? Does it exempt you from the duties and responsibilities expected of others? Or does it load you up with even more duties and responsibilities, but of a different kind? Are you to be a detached observer, pursuing your art for its own sake, and having arcane kinds of fun – or rather, experiences that will enrich your understanding of Life and the Human Condition…

Although I know a reasonable amount about Atwood’s life from documentaries and her essays, I found the sections which dealt with her life and experiences really interesting. Spending many of her young years in the backwoods of Quebec, becauses of her father’s work, she had a non-traditional upbringing; it was fascinating to read about this, and the effects it had on her attitudes to her life and work. Her drily self-deprecating take on her journey to becoming a poet and then an author of fiction is wonderful, and as I read I couldn’t help but hear her words as if they were being spoken in her very distinctive voice.

Needless to say, I loved reading this book; I’m rarely disappointed with an Atwood, and I’ve come to appreciate her non-fiction work much more in recent years. She’s clear-eyed about her profession, willing to discuss all shades of opinion about writers and writing and reading, witty and erudite. The more I read (and I have read a lot…) the more I admire writers who communicate their ideas well, and do it in prose that’s engrossing and transformative. Atwood is an author who changes the way you look at things, and these essays will certainly make you think more about why writers write, why readers read and what you’re doing with that book you’re holding in your hand! Highly recommended!

*****

So there you have it. Full house! I have managed to read books that fit into each of the categories for November challenges (and it’s entirely possible I shall read more non-fiction this month, the way things are going!) Onward and upward! 😀

 

A dazzling exploration of classical music – over @shinynewbooks :D #paulmorley #asoundmind

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I have a review up on Shiny New Books today I want to share with you, and it’s of a real chunkster – as you can see from the image below….!

The book is called “A Sound Mind” and it’s by a favourite author of mind, Paul Morley. I’ve read every book he’s published, and a good number of his other uncollected writings, as I started reading his work back in the heyday of the NME in the 1970s. Ever since he’s been an author I love to spend time with – his books are always stimulating, original and very wordy (which I like!) And “A Sound Mind” was particularly intriguing, at it follows Morley’s exploration of classical music in all its forms, from Bach to Birtwistle. As you might guess from the sheaf of post-its peeking out of my copy, I absolutely adored spending a half-term week reading this book – and you can read my full review here!

“We have puns on our lips and constrained songs….” @NYRBpoets #surrealism

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The Magnetic Fields by Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault
Translated by Charlotte Mandell

I first stumbled across the Surrealist Andre Breton a looooooong time ago – 1976 to be precise – although at the time I didn’t know it was him….. On the insert sheet of Patti Smith’s “Radio Ethiopia” album was a quote: “Beauty will be convulsive or not at all – Nadja” . I had no idea who “Nadja” was or where the quote came from; it wasn’t until much later in my reading life that I stumbled across the surrealist authors of the twentieth century and discovered that “Nadja” was actually a book by Andre Breton. I obtained my copy (I think!) in my twenties, and haven’t returned to it since. However, the Surrealists fascinate me, and a programmes about them which debuted on the inaugural night of the nascent BBC4 channel, “Surrealissimo!”, was a real joy, signalling what the channel would be at its best. Alas, it only occasionally reaches those heights nowadays, but that’s another matter…

Anyway, apart from “Nadja”, I don’t think I’ve read anything else by Breton; but I was very interested to see that NYRB were bringing out a new translation of the seminal work “The Magnetic Fields” by Breton and Philippe Soupault (co-founder, with Breton, of the Surrealist movement), translated by Charlotte Mandell. Composed in the spring of 1919, when both men were recovering from the horrors of WW1, it was conceived of as a reaction to over-composed literary works. Instead, the authors embraced ‘automatic writing’, a form of composition involving writing without consciously engaging with or controlling the words which would come out. Breton and Soupault would write every day for a week, as fast as they could, in secrecy and without revisions. The results would be left to stand exactly as they were; and that process created what has been called the first work of literary Surrealism.

On these shores of bloodstained pebbles, you can hear the tender murmurs of the stars.

Excited as I was to be able to read this, the question *did* arise as to how to approach it! There’s quite a lot of baggage and expectation built into this book, but in the end I just plunged in and wallowed in the language. And I think that’s key here; automatic writing of whatever form is not going to be linear, or tell a story, or necessarily make sense. There are nine sections, some of which are written in poetic form and some in prose, and each is filled with the most beautiful language. As you read through suddenly wonderful imagery springs out, or a sentence which lodges in the brain, and it’s full of the most stunning phrases. The pictures the writing paints are often vivid and, yes, surreal because of the unexpected juxtapositions. As I read on, the writings sparked my imagination and sent it off in all manner of directions – this was really unlike anything else I’d read (the nearest comparison I can think of off the top of my head is maybe Burroughs’ cut-ups but they’re more controlled).

We shatter like stars into incomprehensible directions, among the great blue veins of distance and in mineral deposits.

You might be wondering, well what does it all mean? Frankly, I think it means what you want it to mean and what you take from it is up to you. The fact that early in the text the authors refer to “constrained songs” immediately made me think of the OuLiPo group and their writing constraints, and in a way the Surrealists and their automatic writing were early precursors of this. In the end, I think what matters most here is the beauty of the words, rendered most wonderfully in Charlotte Mandell’s translation. Interestingly, in her afterword she reveals that the order in which the images appear in the verse was crucial to her, and I think that brings out a key element; these are words which create striking visuals, and they may cause the reader to bypass conscious controls when reading in the same way as the authors did when writing. If that causes you to dig more deeply into your unconcious, that’s an interesting side-effect of this book of beautiful words. And in the same way as surrealistic art succeeds by using unusual juxtapositions of visual items to expand the mind, so do the unusual word sequences in this book.

I dream of summer in the dormitory
They said to me What do you have in place of a heart

As you might have guessed, I found reading “The Magnetic Fields” a fascinating and stimulating experience! I’ve mentioned before how I love to wallow in words, not always worrying about meanings but instead taking images and emotions from them. Certainly, this kind of writing seems to me to be very much about stepping away from regular narrative and into something looser, more experimental and very exciting to read. “The Magnetic Fields” was everything I hoped and expected it would be, and if you want to have your preconceptions challenged concerning what writing should be like, this is definitely the book for you! 😀

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

Does poetry count as non-fiction? i think so!

“There is really nothing that people get used to so readily as miracles…” #GermanLitMonth #NovNov

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Well, astonishingly enough, not only have I read some non-fiction for November, I have also managed to read a book which ticks two boxes at once for this month’s challenges! The work in question is “The Legend of the Holy Drinker” by Joseph Roth (translated by Michael Hofmann) – a contender for not only German Literature but also for Novellas in November! Truth be told, at 49 pages of reasonably large sized type, “Legend…” could almost qualify as a short story! But as my copy is published in a separate volume on its own, we’ll count it as a novella, won’t we? ;D

Roth is an author who’s made a number of appearances on the Ramblings; as well as reading his works “The Hotel Savoy” and “Confession of a Murderer (told in one night)“, he also featured in “Summer Before The Dark” and of course has connections with both Irmgard Keun and Stefan Zweig. I have several other works of his lurking on the TBR, but “Legend…” intrigues for a number of reasons. Firstly, its brevity (many of the Roth books are quite long); then there’s the fact that it was Roth’s last work, written just before his death in May 1939. Add to this the fact that the story seems to draw from Roth’s own alcoholism and it becomes irresistible!

The holy drinker of the title is Andreas, a homeless alcoholic living in poverty under the bridges over the Seine in Paris. One evening, a well dressed gentleman presents him with a gift of 200 francs; why, we never know, although the benevolent man seems to be a recent Christian convert. He asks nothing of Andreas except that he repay the debt if he can by returning the money to the Chapelle de Sainte Marie des Batignolles; here, there is a statue of St. Therese of Lisieux, instrumental in the well dressed gentleman’s conversion. This single act of charity seems to transform Andreas’s life; and every time it appears he has lost his money, or is in a difficult situation, a small miracle will save him. Remembering his beneficiary’s kindness, he does indeed try to turn his life around and return the money, although events intervene at every point. Andreas’s life may be edging closer to its end, but at least his last days will be happier ones…

“Legend…” is a quick read, but one which certainly raises more questions than it gives answers! Really, you could interpret the story however you want, because Roth gives no hard and fast explanations for what happens, nor the motivation of Andreas’s benefactor in choosing who to gift the money too. At times it seems that the fates (or the angels or luck or whatever you happen to believe in) are watching out for Andreas – and it was lovely to see him taking joy from his experiences – but nothing is spelled out. Whether these events really *were* miracles, or whether they’re being related by a drink-fuddled unreliable narrator isn’t really clear; but the story certainly makes fascinating reading.

I was left pondering for a long time after reading this; about luck and fate, whether we should try to take control of our lives or just go along with the route events send us on, and whether it’s better to live fast and burn out young. “The Legend of the Holy Drinker” is a fascinating story, particularly as it’s the work Roth chose to spend his last few months writing and refining; and I’m drawn now to explore some of the other books of his I have on the shelf. A fascinating read and I’m glad I picked this up for these two November challenges!

“…it sweeps towards us, the rim of an eclipse.” #edinburgh #poetry

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Well, after that lovely diversion into interviewing and semiotics, back to some of the books which have been languishing on the stacks! I’ve regularly lamented the bad influences of other Book Bloggers and Tweeters on my TBR, which is an ever-increasing mountain at the moment. And I can pinpoint exactly who’s reponsible for the subject of this post – it was Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life, who featured the book and made it look and sound so lovely that I just had to have a copy! 😀

The book in question is “Aspects of Edinburgh“, a slim collection of verse and illustrations which is the result of the joint work of Stewart Conn and John Knight. Conn was Edinburgh’s inaugural makar (or laureate); Knight has worked as an architect with Historic Scotland; and both men combine their talents here to produce a book which paints an absolutely beautiful portrait of the city of my birth.

Regular readers will know of my love for Edinburgh; we left when I was six and I had an emotional revisit with my mother three years ago; and the place does of course lodge deeply in my heart. So this book was really made for me! Conn’s verse explores the Old and New Towns, specific streets and areas, the weather, the history and the atmosphere of the city. Ranging in style from more formal verse to prose-like pieces, the poetry has an immediacy I loved, capturing the feel of the city way up in the far north-east.

And the poems are punctuated with wonderful drawings by Knight which really encapsulate Edinburgh. Most of these are black and white, but suddenly you’ll turn a page and come across a lovely colour illustration – beautiful!

17 Heriot Row, where RLS grew up – I have stood outside that very building in awe! 😀

Did I have particular favourites? Well, I often find it hard to pick out poems I liked best if I’ve responded to a whole collection! However, I loved “Footage of RLS” with its quirky take on Robert Louis Stevenson; “Ice Cool” was a brilliant three-verse work with only a single full stop; and “From Arthur’s Seat” wonderfully conjured up an impression of the skyline of the great city.

So thank you, Lizzy, for bringing this lovely book to my attention. I lost myself in it happily, revisiting Edinburgh in my head (which is all I can do at the moment until restrictions are lifted…) “Aspects of Edinburgh” is a joy for anyone who loves the city – and perhaps a nice introduction and enticement to visit for those of you who don’t… ;D

(NB Apart from the title of this post I’ve not quoted from any of the poems because I think the book should be read as a whole, each poem in its entirety reflecting on a particular aspect of the city!)

 

“After Mythologies, the world never looked or meant the same.” #richardclay #rolandbarthes #mythologies

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Intrigued by the ideas of twentieth-century French thinker Roland Barthes, but a little intimidated by his reputation as ‘difficult’? Keen to explore further but wondering whether he’s still relevant in the twenty-first century? Curious as to how he would interpret our modern world? Fear not! A recent documentary is just the solution! 😀

c. ClearStory/BBC

Twenty First Century Mythologies“, written and presented by Professor Richard Clay, aired last night on BBC4. Richard has featured on the Ramblings on numerous occasions – reviews, interviews and inspiration – and I obviously think very highly of his work. He made a welcome revisit to the blog last week, providing a fascinating new interview, some of which is relevant to the programme and you can read it here. However, I think Richard may well have outdone himself on this occasion… His latest programme is focused around the continuing relevance of Roland Barthes; and as I’ve been spending much time in the last year with that great thinker, the documentary had a particular resonance for me.

“Myths” (let’s call the programme that for convenience) takes as its starting point Barthes’ seminal book “Mythologies” and his concept (and exploration) of the forces that shape our lives. Opening the programme atmospherically and poignantly with Barthes’ untimely death, Clay gives a useful summary of Barthes’ thinking. He then goes on to tackle a number of myths, past and present, exploring how relevant they still are; and looks at situations Barthes would not have encountered but would have instantly understood. His aim, as he states it, is to find out how Barthes’ ideas have permeated our culture and how relevant they still are today. And, well – they really are!

The Myth of Plastic (c. ClearStory/BBC)

So the documentary is structured round these sections on specific myths, interspersed with biographical Barthes bites, which works beautifully in giving a picture of the thinker and his work. Richard begins by exploring the myth of plastics, a topic Barthes predicted might affect the world negatively in the long term, as indeed it does; and as the documentary makes clear, despite being aware of the awful problems it causes, we are still using it… In this section, as with many of the others, Clay meets with modern artists of all kinds to explore how they engage with the issues he finds, and this adds a fascinating element to the programme.

The Myth of Money (c. ClearStory/BBC)

Then there is the myth of money, surely the thing which most affects how our world is run nowadays; and the complex, mythical existence of cryptocurrency, which seems as elusive as smoke to me! This feeds into the myth of the Internet, something Barthes never could have foreseen. Richard’s exploration of this is particularly enlightening, exposing as fake the myth of the freedom we supposedly get from Internet with a welcoming burst of scepticism; revealing that it’s a double edged sword, serving those those in control. This is a programme at its mythbusting best, debunking any idea that the internet is controlled by anything other than money

This also linked into a particularly telling section on the myth of the Madonna, looking at the portrayal of women. The art historian in Clay emerged as he explored the history of the portrayal of the Madonna and the pressure on women to conform to images of perfection. Some have turned to self-documentation to supposedly subvert the stereotype; however, I’ve always had doubts about this and as the programme discusses, this has simply replaced the imposed image with a self-imposed one. Another commentator pointed out that this is most definitely a myth as women have simply become objects of their own making, trying to sell themselves within a system created and controlled in the main by young, white men. Which is chilling… I wondered what Barthes would have made of this, particularly as his notions of women very much stemmed from the idealisation of his mother.

c. ClearStory/BBC

The study of signs and symbols can appear a little exotic if you’re unfamiliar, and Richard provides a very handy semiotics 101 explaining Barthes’ system of signs: the signifier being a sign that transmits a meaning to us (e.g. a no entry sign) and the signified being that message or meaning (e.g. don’t drive down this road!) For someone who’s occasionally got a bit woolly about those terms, this was most helpful! Interestingly, with shifts in culture, a signifier can have more than one signified/meaning, that meaning changing according to current perceptions – a good example Clay gives being the yellow vest, once a sign of someone in charge, and now subverted by French protesters. All this, of course, ties in with Richard’s work on iconoclasm and sign transformation – very relevant at the moment with the protests this year, which have seen the meanings conveyed by certain statues of dead white men becoming unacceptable in public places. I’ve often felt that semiotics and iconoclasm are branches on the same tree, but that’s by the by… Anyway, It was certainly entertaining seeing Clay help a graffiti artist recoding traffic signs with stickers in an attempt to cause the public to think about what they’re actually seeing.

Contemplating the Myth of Copyright (c. ClearStory/BBC)

Other myths explored were copyright and authenticity, a knotty subject and one which divides opinions strongly; if you create something, you have a right to have control over it, but that seems impossible in the digital age. The argument of copyright vs creativity is not one I would like to take a definitive stand on, though if anyone ripped off the Ramblings I’d probably be a bit peeved! And the myth of the gun as the ultimate righter of wrongs is unnerving in our modern age of violence, particularly when there’s often such an unrealistic portrayal in the media which establishes that myth, letting us accept the existence of guns. As Richard reminds us, repetition normalises a myth so that we regard it as part of our everyday life; and that’s never more true than of the advertising with which we’re constantly bombarded. Back when “Mythologies” was originally published, Barthes was already aware of the effect of images embedded in culture – how much more is that evident nowadays!

The Myth of Race (c. ClearStory/BBC)

“Myths” concludes with a most powerful section at the end concerning race. Barthes was aware of the contradictions which existed in French society of his time, living in a country in the middle of an imperialist war with Algeria. In his book he deconstructed a troubling “Paris Match” cover; and Clay takes this as his jumping off point to consider the myth of race. Interviewing historian Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, both men acknowledge that less than 1% of 1% of DNA differs between so-called different races of people. However, it’s chilling to hear Bunch state that despite those infinitesimal variances in DNA, we are visual beings and so see and judge by the superficial differences we perceive. It’s a potent piece with which to round off what has been an entertaining yet deeply thought-provoking piece of TV. The documentary closes with the myth of Barthes’ meaningless end; was it really an accident or had he simply given up the will to live, devastated as he had been by his mother’s death? I guess we’ll never know…

“Twenty First Century Mythologies” is a wonderful introduction to the concepts of Roland Barthes and a powerful reminder of how relevant his ideas still are to the times in which we live. Tracing the evolution of Barthes’ life and thought, Clay reveals how the French thinker deconstructed and challenged many of the myths we take for granted nowadays, and goes on to lay bare the myths that came after Barthes. At the end of the documentary, Richard considers whether we can be “post myth”? I don’t think so personally, as the cultural controls imposed by the signs and symbols fed to us by those in charge are too embedded, and most people still don’t think enough about the norms to which they’re expected to conform. We need certain myths to structure the world; what we need to try to do is not let them control us.

Professor Richard Clay (c. ClearStory/BBC)

As I mentioned in my review of “Viral“, Clay wears his erudition lightly, but his commentary here draws on decades of his own research; for example, the defacing of money and coins reminds me of the part of “Utopia” dealing with Thomas Spence. There are sly hints at the Situationists, with the Beach Beneath the Streets becoming Wi Fi Beneath the Streets. What’s especially interesting for me, as someone who’s followed Richard’s work for some time now as well as watching his documentaries from the very start, is seeing how his ideas have evolved, observing how he expands on concepts hinted at in previous programmes. He’s a brilliant communicator, adept at getting complex ideas across in an accessible way and I have to applaud him for continuing with his one-man mission to sneak semiotics into the mainstream! These can be complex topics, but in the hands of an experienced and erudite commentator like Clay, they become wonderfully clear.

As you can tell, I absolutely *loved* this programme – it could have been made for me! It’s quite clear that we can’t underestimate the importance of Barthes’ thinking nowadays, in a world where the population is distracted by consumer society; which I guess is why, even in these days of lies and fake news and no leadership worth talking about, we still put up with so much and don’t rebel. If there is a lesson to be taken from Roland and Richard, I would say that it is to try to look past the constant daily bombardment of signs and symbols, ignoring the distractions, really *seeing* what is in front of us in everyday quotidian life – and question it. That is the liberation of understanding how these myths work. “Twenty First Century Mythologies” is on the iPlayer here at the moment, and I strongly urge you to catch it while you can – definitely my documentary of the decade!

“…asking questions about processes of meaning making…” – A new interview with Professor Richard Clay #c21stmyths @BBCFOUR @clearstoryuk

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If you’re a regular reader of the Ramblings, you’ll know of my love of a good documentary! BBC4 is my channel of choice, and I’ve been known to witter on endlessly about my favourite programmes. I was delighted to have the opportunity last year to interview Professor Richard Clay, the man who’s behind my favourite shows over the last several years; you can visit the two parts here and here. The interview coincided with the transmission of his excellent documentary “How to go Viral: The Art of the Meme”, and you can read my post about that here.

(c. ClearStory/BBC)

Naturally, therefore, I was thrilled to hear that Richard was making a new film, particularly when I found out the subject; the new show is entitled “21st Century Mythologies”, and it takes a look at the work of Roland Barthes, an author who seems to have been haunting my reading in recent months! The documentary takes a look at his relevance in our modern world and airs on BBC4 next week. Ahead of its transmission, I asked Richard if he’d be kind enough to make a repeat visit to the Ramblings and I’m happy to say that he agreed! 😀

KBR: Richard, welcome back to the Ramblings! You last visited around the time of your excellent documentary “How to Go Viral” last year. Apart from your new programme, which we’ll get onto later, have you been working on any interesting projects since then which you can share with us?

RC: Ah, all kinds of stuff! I particularly enjoyed doing a short film, called ‘Revolution Up North’, about the surprising links between the North East and French revolutions. We filmed at the Bowes Museum; it was founded around the collection of Josephine Bowes and her British husband. She was the daughter of a sans-culottes of the first French Revolution and escaped Paris during the revolutions of 1848.

The Bowes Museum (Alden Chadwick, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

Myself, a colleague (Dr Gillian Jein), a PhD student (Lauren Dudley), and an undergraduate fine artist (Lauren Kelly) chatted on camera at the Bowes about its amazing collection and the stash of incredible 1968 revolutionary posters produced by Atelier Populaire artists that are down the road at Brancepeth Castle in County Durham (why is another story).

Our film was basically a pitch for an exhibition that we would love to do, bringing modern Parisian street artists, Lek and Sowat, to County Durham to keep the tradition alive! And that is without getting into the claim that the revolutionary martyr Jean-Paul Marat might have studied medicine in Newcastle (maybe he spoke English with a Geordie accent!) or the survival of copper plates used to print fake revolutionary French money in the North East as an act of 1790s economic warfare! One day, I’m sure we will put the film on YouTube.

You’re currently based at Newcastle University, with the intriguing-sounding job title of Professor of Digital Cultures. Could you expand a little on the kind of thing which that (possibly unique) role entails?

There are other academics out there with a Digital Cultures brief. I’m a bit unusual because I’m a ‘translational prof’ and my role spans across subject areas. I’m a kind of champion of working across academic disciplines and sectors of the economy to do stuff together that has digital dimensions. For example, I’m involved with the Creative Fuse North East project that has been going for more than 5 years and involves all 5 of the region’s universities working in collaboration with creative industries (http://www.creativefusene.org.uk).

For someone who appears on TV you have a relatively low online profile. In these days of constant surveillance, either from external sources or self-inflicted, is this a deliberate decision?

It’s a deliberate decision. I’m aware of how our data is harvested and sold by websites and the risks that poses. Hence, I surf the web with cookies turned off to leave less of a trail and I don’t engage with social media. Social media companies are able to gather a few key points of information about each user and establish surprisingly accurate profiles of the products and services they are likely to buy when targeted with adverts. Users’ clicks and cookie data helps sharpen that picture by telling each site you visit where you’ve been previously. Hence, social media platforms are increasingly replacing print publishing as preferred platforms for advertisers because they can micro target their ads at users.

As the saying goes, ‘If it’s free online, you’re the product’. While many people feel okay with that as being a kind of quid pro quo, I am concerned by the ways in which, for example, such data is being used in often highly targeted political campaigns that are divisive and discourage the kinds of dialogue between citizens that seem ever more crucial. As the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed, the sale of huge social media datasets is being used in pretty shady ways by a range of political and commercial players. Plus, I’m not a big fan of accessing news on platforms whose algorithms are designed to give you more and more of the stuff your clicks suggest that you like. I prefer accessing more diverse bodies of opinion. And that’s without even getting into the ‘clickbait’ culture of much web design….

All of that might make me sound like I’m somehow anti-web, which I most certainly am not! Yeah, I choose to surf in particular ways (cookies turned off, clearing my surfing history periodically, having an email address I only use when I need to give one to purchase something online). But I still surf, getting my news, doing research, being a consumer and so on. As I think I said in our last interview, the web is a truly revolutionary tool that is bringing vast benefits to global society. I don’t want to turn it off, I just don’t want to be manipulated.

Moving on to your new documentary, it’s based around the seminal figure of Roland Barthes (who’s made many an appearance on the Ramblings) and is called “21st Century Mythologies”. Can you tell us a little about the show and what sparked the idea of making it?

Well, I was talking to BBC staff about how to do semiotics on television and Cassian Harrison (BBC4 Channel Editor) said, ‘Why not do a C20th take on Barthes’ “Mythologies”?’ I said, ‘Yeah, definitely!’ Then I had to actually read the book which was first published in 1957 and written before Barthes really engaged with semiotics! I loved it. It’s a collection of short essays that Barthes wrote for a magazine about a series of modern myths and then some heavier weight pieces that unpack what he means by a myth – something that is endlessly repeated as if it’s true to the point that we don’t question it. For example, he pointed to strip tease and asked whether it’s actually sexy to sit with strangers watching someone disrobe for money, and to professional wrestling which we know is closer to theatre than competitive sport. So, I selected a bunch of C21st myths and we set about unpicking them through interviews in the U.K., USA, and Italy. Oh, and we snook in some semiotics en route!

When did you first encounter the work of Barthes?

That was at UCL as a Masters student. I read his essay ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ and it blew my mind. I read it every year for 7 years before I realised that the one point that he made that I couldn’t comprehend was about something he later changed his mind about. I love the serious attention he devoted to popular culture. He didn’t see ‘fine art’ as inherently more interesting or worthy of consideration than advertising. It was liberating. Plus, he helped me got my head around semiotics…

“Mythologies” deals, of course, with semiotics and that subject might not appear on first glance to be related your specialism of iconoclasm. However, you’ve discussed the latter in terms of material sign transformation; could you expand on what connections you see between the two disciplines?

Well, I’d say that semiotics is the name given to the study of sign systems and it offers a range of concepts that can be used in such efforts. For example, a statue can be regarded as being a sign that has two components: the signifier (i.e. a statue of, say, a Confederate officer) and the signifieds that it points to (i.e. the meanings that ‘Confederate officer’ has for any given viewer). The signier + signifieds = statue as sign. Thinking about a statue in this way helps us to describe how and why iconoclasm (image breaking) comes about. For many people who know about the Confederacy’s defence of slavery, a statue of a Confederate officer connotes on-going acceptance and, indeed, heroicisation of that cause in a public space. To other people, the same statue’s ‘signifieds’ (its meanings) are more or less acceptable representations of events that took place generations ago. So, the same statue has multiple meanings to different people at any given time.

Caitlin Hobbs, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

As discourse around the Confederacy and its legacies mutates, people have new knowledge to apply in making sense of the statue’s meanings; when another innocent African American is murdered in the street by police officers, those people can come to use material alteration of contested signifiers (statues) to make the object point legibly and publicly to new meanings in public. Hence, the Black Lives Matter graffiti appearing all over Confederate statues in the USA that was then photographed and shared globally online and across the media publicising that the legacies of historic racism are rejected by many people. As protests around such signifiers grew, eventually, activists came to take matters into their own hands and pulled the statues down, often breaking them up, transforming them physically so that what was left (usually just an empty plinth) aligned with their opinions of acceptable meanings (signifiers) in public space and of acceptable behaviour. Hence, I’ve written about the material transformation of signs; but I also write about how those acts are always preceded, accompanied, and followed by transformations of signifiers at the level of discourse which make new meanings available for them and render material transformation imaginable and desirable to some people.

So yeah, I’ve found semiotics useful in terms of thinking about how signs are used to mediate conflicts within societies. But semiotics could equally be used to talk through why some people turn their nose up when they see the signifier that is a jar of Marmite (i.e. it connotes negative meanings for them). We really do live in a republic of signs (a res publica, a public thing) that occupies the material world through which we move and the world of ideas that shapes the sense that we make of that which we see (or hear, or taste, or touch!).

A casual viewer might think that these are abstract ideas which aren’t particularly relevant to them. Why do you think they’re important to our everyday life?

I just think that some of the basic concepts of semiotics are useful tools for thinking with: signifier + signifieds = sign; a symbol as a kind of sign that points to meanings if the viewer knows a rule (i.e. a no entry sign doesn’t look like not entering somewhere; connotation; polysemicity [multiple meanings]; polyvalency [multiple values].) These kinds of notions allow us to deconstruct what is going on when, say, a website tries to get us to make sense of the news it is presenting in a particular way using the signifiers of words, images, film, and/or sound. Thinking semiotically involves asking questions about processes of meaning making and the impact that they have on all aspects of our lives.

Of course, words are signs too. The signifiers that are the written words ‘nation state’ point to meanings in our heads that that vary from person to person, sometimes subtly and sometimes profoundly. Yet, whole tranches of public debate assume that participants are using the words in the same way. In Barthes’s terms, ‘nation state’ is a myth – a notion that is widely used and rarely queried. Yet, armies are mobilised and sent to war in defence of nation states (most of which were not even claimed to exist until after the second half of the nineteenth-century).

Without revealing too much, “21st Century Mythologies” builds to some very powerful concluding sections; it’s perhaps your most impactful programme so far. Did you envisage this when initially planning it?

Yep. I really wanted to end with the myth of ‘race’; a pseudo-scientific myth but probably the most pernicious social reality. I’m always amazed that people speak so readily of, for example, African Americans, as being members of a different ‘race’ to non-African Americans. Yet, Europeans only started to describe people of differing skin tones (varying shades of brown) as belonging to different races at a point in history when ‘white’ people began to enslave other ‘races’ for slavers’ commercial gain? I think that all citizens need to reflect on the world around them as Barthes did and be alert to the fact that there are interest groups out there who do not wish us to unpack and challenge myths like ‘race’ and ask how can they still persist.

Dr. Lonnie Bunch of the Smithsonian Institution with Richard (c. ClearStory/BBC)

Barthes has a long cultural reach, influencing works as diverse as “The 7th Function of Language” by Laurent Binet and “This Little Art” by Kate Briggs. Why do you think he still inspires such interest?

Well, he was properly clever!

It’s hard at the moment to ignore current world circumstances. How has this impacted on your working and teaching – and, indeed, the making of the documentary?

Well, filming was complete before the first lockdown and the finished edit was sent to the BBC during the first month of that lockdown. But contemporary affairs other than the current pandemic had impacted on the film during its development and production. I don’t claim to make objective films any more than I’d claim to write objective history; objectivity is a laudable but unattainable goal. I’ve always thought that history is more or less consciously written in the present, about the past, with an eye on the future and the same applies to documentary film making.

As for the impact of the global pandemic on teaching, most of mine is in one-to-one supervisions with undergraduate and postgraduate students writing a dissertation or thesis. It isn’t quite the same having our discussions over Zoom or Teams, but it’s not as problematic as it is for many other forms of teaching. I really feel for my colleagues and our students, but they are all doing their very best to make the most of deeply challenging circumstances.

You’ve talked in the past about the challenge of condensing your work into a relatively short television format, as well as the difficulty of getting semiotics on camera. Do you think that sometimes TV companies underestimate the interest of their audiences in engaging with more complex ideas?

I think that independent TV companies who make films don’t underestimate audiences’ interests in engaging with challenging ideas, but I’m not sure that the same is the case for all broadcasters. I’ve been lucky because BBC4 took a liking to the kinds of films I’m interested in making. But whether that will last is another matter.

In our previous interview you described yourself as a synthesist, and you’ve explored this path widely with initiatives such as the C.A.K.E. (Collaboration and Knowledge Exchange) events. “21st Century Mythologies”, as with your earlier programmes, draws on a wide range of contributors from different disciplines. Do you regard this cross-curricular approach as crucial?

It is for me! I just like being challenged to think in new ways that help me to look at the world afresh, to ask new questions, to reach new conclusions, to query my own assumptions. But then I’m the kind of person who’d start a conversation at a bus stop; you just never know what you might learn.

You’ve been quite vocal in the past about the focus on STEM in education, championing instead the STEAM model, integrating arts into the mix along with sciences. Do you believe in the continued need for the arts to help us make sense of our world?

I do! Many moons ago I heard the then Director of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) telling a story about his predecessor listening to his equivalent at the Medical Research Council saying, quite rightly, that their work saved lives. The AHRC head said, ‘Yes, but our Council makes people’s lives worth living’.

David’s masterly image

We covered your early career and training as an art historian in our first interview. Popping your art historian hat back on for a moment, do you have a favourite artist and/or painting?

Jacques-Louis David, ‘Marat at his last breath’, oil on canvas, 1793 (Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts, Brussels).

Finally, having gone from strength to strength with your series of wonderful documentaries, do you have any plans for future programmes?

Ah, thanks! The challenge is finding an idea that appeals to commissioning editors; otherwise, it just remains an idea. I’ve been pondering Henri Lefebvre’s argument that all space is coded and how my take on his thinking could shape some good films. But maybe there won’t be more TV commissions for me, and I’ll need to think about whether to make and share films in different ways. Broadcast is being revolutionised by YouTube and streaming. Perhaps it’s time for me to go back to that technology that has stood the test of time for sharing complex ideas – the book!

*****

Well, let’s hope that last sentence comes to pass, because it would be wonderful to see Richard share some new writings! I’d very much like to thank Richard for being prepared to make a revisit to the Ramblings and providing such an utterly fascinating and thought-provoking interview, as brim full of ideas as his documentaries and writings always are. “21st Century Mythologies” premieres on BBC4 on Monday 9th November at 9 a.m. – don’t miss it! 😀

Interview c. Richard Clay/Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings – no unauthorised reproduction, please.

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