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2020 in Books – in which I once again fail to pick an outright winner…. ;D

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As is traditional on the Ramblings, I’m going to take a look back over my year of reading to pick out some highlights. It certainly has been a very strange and unpleasant year, unlike any I’ve known – I hope 2021 will be better, but who knows what’s to come. Books have, as always, been a comfort and my coping mechanism; and I *have* read a little more than usual, despite the strains of coping with a pandemic world. As usual, I’m not going to do any kind of countdown or top ten – let’s just look at the bookish things which have kept me going!

Comfort reading

A favourite from this year’s BLCC’s releases!

2020 has most definitely been year when there’s been a need for comfort reading. My go-to books are Golden Age crime and once again the British Library Crime Classics have been a source of great joy. I’ve read a good number, and not a dud amongst them! I’ve also felt the urge to do a sudden bit of re-reading – for example, at one point needing pick up Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and revisit the wonderfully perfect ending. Longing for less complex times, I guess.

Indie Presses and Subscriptions

Some of the treats from my Renard Press sub.

If this year has been anything for me, it’s been the year of indie presses and subscriptions! Despite the lockdowns and restrictions, it’s been a joy to see independent publishers flourishing, supported by the love of serious readers and booklovers. I have spent happy hours with many wonderful indie imprints, authors and books, including Notting Hill Editions, Little Toller, Fum d’Estampa, Salt, Galley Beggar, Sublunary Editions and Renard Press; in fact, I did a nice little Q&A with Will Dady, the man behind the latter, for Shiny New Books. And of course it’s been lovely to keep up with Fizcarraldo Editions, who’ve released some quite marvellous volumes this year.

Which leads me on to…

Challenges/Events

I tend to steer away from most of these nowadays, as I find I get all enthusiastic about joining in then instantly want to go off in another direction! However, I did get involved in a Twitter-based readalong of the marvellous Malicroix (published by NYRB Classics), thanks to the influence of Dorian Stuber! A wonderful book and a great joy to take part in this! I’ve managed to reboot some of my personal reading projects, and even expand their scope – let’s see how that works out then…

Fitzcarraldos – I love Fitzcarraldos…

I also ended up co-hosting a two week celebration of the aforementioned Fitzcarraldo with Lizzy – Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight. Not only was this great fun, but it also got me reading quite a bit of my TBR – result! 😀

Which leads me on to…

Reading Weeks

As usual, Simon and I co-hosted two Reading Club Weeks this year, focused on 1920 and 1956. These are always such fun – if you haven’t encountered them, we basically read whatever we want from the year in question, review, post on blogs and other social media and share ideas of great books from the year. We’ll be hosting another in April 2021 so do join in! 😀

Social Media

Social media of all kinds has become pretty much a lifeline over 2020 and it’s been great to be able to keep in touch over the various platforms. Book Twitter is particularly lovely and I have been lucky enough to interact with some wonderful people on there. There have been postcards going around the world and moral support offered to our online friends who have suffered losses over the year. It is a lovely place to visit. Of course, there are always so many reading events to tempt me there, but mostly I manage to hold back because I know I will fail… I didn’t with Malicroix though, so result!

A little pile of my Harvill Leopards!

Twitter was also responsible for the Harvill Leopard Hunt, as it shall be titled, where a number of interested bookish people contributed to a wonderful master list of books issued in that imprint by Tim at Half Print Press. It was huge fun being involved in the detective work, and the resulting checklist is a thing of great beauty and use – you can check it out here! (Do take a look at Half Pint Press too – they produce some gorgeous things!)

Roland Barthes, a documentary and another interview!

Although I was often looking for comfort reads, it hasn’t all been lightweight this year. In particular, I seem to have been haunted by the spirit of Roland Barthes! I first read his Mythologies back at the end of 2019, reviewing it in January this year, and have revisited his work at various points over the year. He’s not always an easy read, but certainly fascinating, stimulating and thought-provoking!

Professor Richard Clay with Dr. Lonnie Bunch (c. Clearstory/BBC)

This also tied in with my Documentary of Year (and Decade!) 21st Century Mythologies with Richard Clay – it was quite superb, and I was delighted to welcome Richard back onto the Ramblings for a return interview. He’s always such an interesting interviewee, brimming with ideas! No doubt I shall continue to return to Barthes – there are several titles I have lurking on the TBR…

Shiny New Books

I continued to provide some reviews for Shiny New Books, the wonderful independent recommendations website. I always enjoy reading other people’s contributions and SNB covers such a wide range of books. Always worth checking out if you’re not sure what to read next, or want to find out what’s come out recently and is worth reading!

Trends in my reading

A translated work I enjoyed very much this year, which led on to many other reading ideas…

I’ve continued to read a lot in translation, from the Russian of course but also from French, German, Portuguese, Polish…. I’ve enjoyed poetry, and also a lot of non-fiction this year. There have been times when I’ve felt that I couldn’t engage properly with fiction, and so essays, philosophy, history, nature writing, travel writing and books which don’t actually fit into any category have been there for me to turn to in times of need. I plan to continue to follow no path but my own and read what I *need* to read!

Outstanding books

I’m not going to pick a best of the year, because I can’t. The kind of books I read are so disparate that it seems unfair to measure them against each other. However, I *shall* highlight some particularly special reads from 2020.

First up, I have ended the year reading Robert Macfarlane’s Underland and it’s a stunning book. Mesmerising writing and brimming with ideas and visions, it certainly lives up to its hype and it was the perfect book with which to finish off the year.

I’m a huge fan of Paul Morley’s writing, and so was delighted to be able to review his latest book, A Sound Mind, for Shiny New Books. A wonderfully Morley-esque exploration of classic music in all its shapes and forms, I absolutely loved it.

Another author whose work I’ve loved for a long time is M. John Harrison. He’s hit the public eye a bit more than usual recently, and this year saw the release of a new novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. It’s another stunning read, proof that Harrison’s powers only increase with the years, and I was so pleased to see it win the Goldsmiths Prize! Lovely Comma Press also released a collection of his stories, Settling the World, which was another outstanding read.

A newer discovery for me is Andrew Lees; I read his wonderful book Mentored by a Madman last year, in a lovely paperback from Notting Hill Editions; it was a marvellous read, and Lees is such a good writer – in this book proving that literature and science go together. NHE published a new book by Lees this year, Brazil That Never Was, and I absolutely loved it. I described it in my review as a “wonderful blend of travelogue, memoir and reflection”, and Lees’ storytelling skills produced an atmospheric and memorable read. I can’t wait for his next book!

I can’t finish this section without mention of Square Haunting, which I covered in February for Shiny New Books. A quite brilliant book covering the lives of five inspirational women living in the same square in London, although at different times, it was an unforgettable read as well as an amazing work of scholarship – and it deserves all the praise it’s had!

*****

Frankly, that’s probably enough for one post – if I go on any longer I shall end up reliving the whole year and with 2020, that’s not something I necessarily want to do. The books I’ve read this year have been 99.9% pure joy (with the very occasional dud…) Whatever 2021 chucks our way I shall hang onto books as a way of maintaining some kind of sanity. Here’s to a better year for us all!

“I remain behind the door” #rolandbarthes

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Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes
Translated by Richard Howard

Even after all these decades of reading, I still find that there are some books I finish and I just don’t know what to say about them – in a good way, but I still find myself a bit speechless! “Roland Barthes” by Roland Barthes is just such a book; I found it a stunning and absorbing read, yet what can I actually tell you about it? What is it saying to me or anyone else – what is Barthes revealing or concealing? I’ll trying to string something together, but what kind of sense it might make is anyone’s guess! 😀

Well, it’s Roland Barthes again, for a start; a man who’s been haunting the Ramblings this year, either in the form of books of his that I’ve read or documentaries I’ve been watching. I’ve only read a few of his works – he was a prolific man (and “properly clever”, as Richard Clay says!) – so I’m not sure what impelled me to pick up this particular book of his at this time, especially as I have both “Image, Music, Text” and “Cameria Lucida” lurking. But I did, anyway.

“Roland Barthes…” is ostensibly autobiography, but this being Barthes, it’s never going to be a straightforward look at his life. The book opens with a selection of photographs from the thinker’s past – what he describes as a ‘treat to himself’ – and bearing in mind his writings on the effects of images, these are particularly moving and telling. The captions reveal much about Barthes’ early life and family. However, these are followed by no linear narrative; instead, in a format closer to the structure of the “Mourning Diary”, Barthes uses headed paragraphs of varying lengths to explore his life obliquely through his work. It’s an intriguing conceit, and perhaps not surprising from someone who’s used to deconstructing the everyday!

…I myself am my own symbol, I am the story which happens to me: freewheeling in language, I have nothing to compare myself to…

As you can see from the amount of post-its sticking out of this relatively slim book, it’s a deeply thought-provoking piece of work. By looking at his life through the lens of his work, Barthes reveals himself gradually and indirectly – his likes and dislikes (I share his love of the Marx Brothers!), his beliefs and feelings, things which he recalls from his childhood and which still inform his life up to that point. His childhood in Bayonne is a touchstone, shown in the photographs at the start and often recurring in the text sections of the book. Barthes’ voice takes on a dual role, sometimes narrating his life in the first person and sometimes in the third; blurring the line between objectivity and subjectivity perhaps?

Propensity for division: fragments, miniatures, partitions, glittering details (according to Baudelaire, the effect of hashish), a bird’s-eye view of fields, windows, haiku, line drawing, script, photography, in plays the “scene” à l’italienne, in short, depending on your point of view, all the articulation of the semanticist or all the raw material of the fetishist. This propensity is labeled progressive: art of the rising classes proceeds by just such framing (Brecht, Diderot, Eisenstein).

I would be lying if I said this book was an easy read; it explores any number of complex topics and had me reaching for a dictionary at many points. But it’s a fascinating and evocative book to spend time with as not only does it raise all manner of intriguing ideas with phrases jumping at you which need more exploration (hence all the coloured markers!); it also does reveal much about the man himself. He was brilliant, yet apparently full of doubt about his life and his achievement; and I ended up wondering whether he realised that his thinking would become so important to how we decode the modern world.

“Roland Barthes” by Roland Barthes turned out to be unlike any other autobiography I’ve read – but then, Barthes is like no other writer I’ve read! He says at the start of this book that it “must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel” and that’s perhaps a good way to approach it. The real Barthes is often elusive and evasive here – but his ideas shine through and in the end maybe that’s what really matters.

(Although this post is going up in December, I’m going to claim the book for Nonfiction November! I read it in November, wrote the bulk of the above in November, and even if Barthes is obscuring some of the facts, it’s definitely not fiction! :D)

“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.

Some thoughts on the @VersoBooks Book Club – plus a little giveaway! :D

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If you follow me on Twitter you’ll no doubt have seen me regularly complaining ruefully about the wonderful offers the left-wing publisher Verso Books often runs; they’ve been responsible for any number of volumes arriving on the TBR, and a quick glance over the shelves revealed I have a surprising number of their books lurking on there! I’m refusing to say how many are hanging about digitally…..

Just a few of my Verso books….

So when they announced not only offers to celebrate their 50th birthday but also a new book club, I was really sorely tempted. In the end I caved in – first off, these two books arrived on the shelves at half price and I was *very* excited! Another Saramago plus a book about walking (of which I do a lot…) – treats!

However, the book club was also appealing. At half price for the first few months, I would get a physical book every month (a choice of two) as well as digital copies of all new releases. Plus the Verso diary and a notebook as well. Blimey – what’s not to love! I’m a big fan of Verso, because their focus is pretty wide – though they lean to the left, it isn’t all just dry politics, they cover art, culture, philosophy, gender studies, architecture, history, sociology, ecology, music, economics, race – you name it, they probably have a book which fits into the category in which you’re interested. And there are so many favourite authors – Sartre, Benjamin, Saramago, Berger – well, you can see why I’m often tempted.

So needless to say I succumbed… I signed up for the Verso Book Club, and the first two months have brought forth the physical delights shown above! The digital delights are – well, there’s tons of them (as you can see from the list below)!! I probably have at least a year’s reading already, which is rather wonderful, and there are lots of titles I’ve wanted to read for ages so that’s a bonus! October’s looking good too…

The observant amongst you might have noticed that there are two copies of “Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal” on the stacks above and there’s a good reason for that, which I’ll come to. This was the September Book Club title, and I was very excited about this, as Noam Chomsky is an author I first encountered in my teens and for whom I have a great deal of respect. I’ve begun to dip into this book which looks scarily relevant; the first pages reveal that the Doomsday Clock is now pointing to 100 seconds…

You might recall my coverage of Richard Clay’s excellent radio programme “Two Minutes to Midnight” back in 2018, which looked at our attitude to nuclear annihilation. To realise that we’ve now reached an even closer point is shocking, and you can still catch up with Richard’s programme here – it makes sobering and fascinating listening…

But I digress… Owing to a glitch in their systems, Verso sent out two copies of “Climate Change…” to me this month. I contacted them and offered to return it, but they were happy that I didn’t and so instead I thought I would offer this as a giveaway to anyone who is interested. This will have to be UK only I’m afraid, as overseas postage has shot up horrendously lately. So if you would like the book, please leave a comment and perhaps suggest an independent publisher you recommend that I should support – as I’m most definitely in the state of mind to keep doing that at the moment!

Meantime, if you’re interested in reading thought-provoking books, I definitely recommend you take a look at Verso’s list – there’s an awful lot of good stuff there! As for me – well, I’m thinking I may have to start a dedicated Verso bookshelf… ;D

“A light without a shadow generates an emotion without reserve” #mythologies #rolandbarthes

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Mythologies by Roland Barthes

Well – I may not quite have had a Barthes Binge (except in shopping terms…) but I *have* finished “Mythologies”; and what a fascinating and brain-pummeling book it turned out to be. I read it during December, finishing it close to the end of the month (yes, I’m very behind with my reviewing); and I let it sit and settle over the Christmas and New Year period. If I’m truly honest, I’m not quite sure how I’m going to approach this post as so much has been said about the book over the years that I find myself wondering if I’m really qualified to comment (or, indeed, clever enough…) But for what it’s worth I’ll throw my two penn’orth into the discussion…

Barthes on the train…

According to Wikipedia, “Barthes was a French literary theorist, philosopher, critic, and semiotician. Barthes’ ideas explored a diverse range of fields and he influenced the development of many schools of theory, including structuralism, semiotics, social theory, design theory, anthropology, and post-structuralism.” For a non-academic like me, that’s fairly scary to start with; but in fact I’ve owned a Barthes book since 2015 when I picked up “Camera Lucida“; and I considered reading “A Lover’s Discourse” for our 1977 Club reading week, but ran out of time. So Barthes has slipped in and out of my line of sight for some time now, turning up most recently in Richard Clay’s “Viral…” documentary; and frankly he seemed like an author I had to read, so after a bit of thought I decided to start with his most famous work – “Mythologies“.

The book was first published in 1957, and is split into two parts; the first section collects together a series of essays Barthes wrote on modern myths. Covering anything from wrestling to soap powder to toys to the face of Greta Garbo, he discusses the signs and symbols which affect us on a daily basis. This was a time in the 20th century where the mass media was taking hold and bombarding us with all kinds of imagery designed to sell stuff, control us and mould our thinking; imagine how much more powerful that media control is nowadays… Anyway, these essays were fascinating; a glittering series of pieces, full of so many ideas and observations that linger in the mind. The wrestling essay struck a number of bells as I can remember this being on the TV when I was growing up, with its (what seemed to me) ridiculous ritualistic format; and Barthes identified it as a form of theatre, as subject to signs and symbols as is any drama.

Advertising, of course, is one place where semiotics are vital (and this element turned up in the “Viral…” documentary); Barthes deconstructs this wonderfully and I shall try to keep his comments in mind when next being tempted to splurge on something I really don’t need! The essays sparkle with trenchant and often very funny analysis – I hadn’t quite expected to find myself laughing out loud at Barthes! His essay on the differing on-screen representations of historical Romans by French and American cinema was hilarious, with his discussion of Spectacle as a concept perhaps prefiguring the Situationists (“What matters is not what it thinks but what it sees”). “Blind and Dumb Criticism” is quite brilliant, and actually makes me think I should stop implying I don’t know what I’m talking about and have the belief that I’m making some kind of sense.

Part two of the book contains an extended section entitled “Myth Today”, and I have to confess to finding this a little more difficult than the essays. In fact, I wish I’d discovered the graphic below earlier to help clarify signified, signifier etc in my head a bit more clearly… However, it was worth persevering with, because in particular his insights into the effects of bourgeois cultural norms on our everyday lives were utterly fascinating.

Katyabogomol [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Semiology can sound scary, but the more I read and think about this, the more I believe we need to pay attention to the objects around us and what they signify. And interestingly, there seems to me to be a strong relationship between semiotics and iconoclasm; if we study the signs and symbols around us and there is a disjuncture between these and our beliefs, then naturally we’re going to want to tear down those symbols…

“Mythologies” is a book that is still so very relevant, particularly in our modern world where the cultural norms seem to be all over the place at times, and there are multiple media competing for our attention. Commenting on celebrity culture, Barthes bemoans the “regrettably materialistic times, and the glamour status which bourgeois society liberally grants its spiritual representatives (so long as they remain harmless)“, a statement that still sounds fresh today. And he’s very clear-eyed about the aspirations fed to the general public to keep them distracted from the real issues, saying of bourgeois culture:

The whole of France is seeped in this anonymous ideology: our press, our films, our theatre, our pulp literature, our rituals, our Justice, our diplomacy, our conversations, our remarks about the weather, a murder trial, a touching wedding, the cooking we dream of, the garments we wear, everything, in everyday life, is dependent on the representation which the bourgeoisie has and makes us have of the relations between man and the world.

Semiotics is not something I’ve really thought about until recent years, but I do feel that it’s such an important element of understanding our world. Part of our inherited survival skills come from our ability to correctly decipher the signs and symbols around us; on the most basic level, “Is that rustle in the bushes over there a ferocious threatening beast or just the wind?” I guess the risk is that you could end up analysing your responses to everything around you so thoroughly that you become paralysed and unable to take any action! However, I do think we need to look morely closely at the signs and symbols we’re being fed, and resist the forms of control society is trying to enforce.

The Barthes pile has increased slightly…

Well – that’s my (hopefully not too dumb) non-academic take on Barthes’ “Mythologies”. Although at times a testing read, it was fascinating and in plenty of places I got those “Yes!” moments you sometimes get when reading a book, realising how we’re often surrounded by cliche and cultural shorthand, really not thinking very deeply about the world. Although it’s over 60 years old, so much of the book seems remarkable relevant; and in this day and age, when the signs and symbols being fed to us daily by our mogul-controlled mass media are becoming hard and harder to decipher and decode, we need Barthes and his “Mythologies” even more than we ever did.

2019 in books – *why* do I find it hard to pick favourites?? :D

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As we slide into a new decade, it’s time for a look back over 2019 and the books I read – and there really were some crackers in there! But I really struggle to pick favourites, because so many of my reads are outstanding for different reasons. I can’t possibly do a Top Ten, so instead I thought I’d post some thoughts about favourite books, publishers and genres – here goes!

Russians

Inevitably I have read more Russian authors this year, although there was a slight hiatus at one point so that I ended up thinking the blog was suffering from Russian Reading Deficiency! However, a quick dose of the Gogols soon sorted that out! Spring was the season of Dostoevsky’s “The Devils”, in a lovely new edition from Alma Classics, and it was an intense read which absorbed me for some time; it was a bit of a marathon in the end, but worth every minute spent reading it. A really epic book in many ways, full of the humour and drama you’d expect from Dosty – wonderful!

I’ve also been enjoying some more modern works from the wonderful publisher Glagoslav; they’ve put out some excellent titles from countries I haven’t always read from before. A really interesting imprint, and one to watch.

Golden Age Crime

There has been, I’m pleased to say, a lot of Golden Age Crime on the Ramblings this year. It’s a favourite reading genre of mine and much has come from the wonderful British Library Crime Classics imprint. There have been some excellent books released, lots of new authors and some really great anthologies. Plus plenty of Reggie Fortune, which makes me happy! I also revisited the Queen of Crime, who’s always a joy to read; next year, I must spend some time with Lord Peter Wimsey!

Poetry

There has also been much poetry on the Ramblings in 2019, which makes me very happy. I discovered the Morden Tower poets, Basil Bunting, Tom Pickard and the vastly entertaining (and very clever) Brian Bilston. I also went back to Philip Larkin, one of my favourite poets ever. I still don’t read enough of the wonderful verse volumes I have on my shelves so that’s another thing I need to rectify in 2020. Interesting how many of the poets I love are from the cold North (a place I’m often drawn back to) – and published by Bloodaxe Books!

Essays and Non-Fiction

I’m not sure why I’ve been drawn to non-fiction works so much this year, but I seem to have read quite a lot! There are of course all the lovely books put out by Notting Hill Editions, who make an art of issuing fascinating essay collections which are also beautiful to look at. If I can find my Shostakovich, I’ll share a picture of all my NHE books at some point…

Equally, Fitzcarraldo Editions release some really thought-provoking works and I rather crave adjoining book shelves with my Fitzcarraldo and Notting Hills next to each other. The Ian Penman collection was a particular treat this year from Fitzcarraldo; and other publishers have produced equally fascinating books, like the marvellous “Selfies”.  A lot of these books lie outside any strict definition of fiction or non-fiction, and I do find I like that kind of book nowadays.

Translated Literature

Mention of Fitzcarraldo brings me by necessity to Olga Tokarczuk’s “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” which definitely *is* one of my books of the year. I was blown away by her “Flights” last year, and this title didn’t disappoint. I read a lot of translated works, and am eternally grateful to translators. NYRB and Pushkin Press have issued numerous wonderful books in translation that I’m so happy to have read, like “Isolde” and “Rock, Paper, Scissors” and “Portraits without Frames”…. I was also so happy to rediscover Mishima and find that I loved his work just as much as ever. Well, I could go on and on, but suffice to say that I am made a happy reader thanks to the efforts of all those fine people who translate books! 😀

John Berger

Berger deserves a special mention; I’ve read a number of his books this year (and there is a review pending of one I finished very recently) and each has been a wonderful, thought-provoking and unique experience. Several have been in beautiful editions from Notting Hill; and he’s proved to be a a very human (and humane) writer with so much to say. I really have no doubt that I’ll continue to read him in 2020.

Reading Clubs

I’ve been very happy to once more co-host two Reading Club weeks during 2019 with Simon from Stuck in a Book. This year, we focused on books from 1965 and 1930, and it was such fun! We plan to continue in 2020, with the 1920 Club happening in April, so do join in – we have the most wonderful discussions and it’s a great way to pick up ideas for books to read!

Documentaries and Interviews!

c. ClearStory/BBC

I took a slight tangent on what is, after all, a book blog in March when Professor Richard Clay’s “How to Go Viral” documentary aired on UK TV. I first became aware of his work back in 2014 via his documentary on French Revolutionary iconoclasm, followed by his fascinating look at the history of graffiti and then his epic series “Utopia”; and so I was delighted when Richard agreed to be interviewed for the blog. I do love a good documentary (and apart from a few notable exceptions, there’s been a bit of a dearth lately). Richard’s ideas are so very interesting, and you can read the interview here and here. He’s been filming a new documentary recently, so that’s something to look forward in 2020! 🙂

The Summer Big Book

The Notebooks

I can’t finish this rather rambly post without mention of a very special reading experience I had in the summer; if I was forced at gunpoint to pick a read of the year, I would probably have to mention Victor Serge’s Notebooks, published by NYRB. I’ve raved about Serge’s writing many times on the Ramblings, and was ridiculously excited about the release of this very chunky collection. At just under 600 pages, it’s no quick read, but a wonderfully rich and rewarding one; it accompanied me on my travels during the summer, giving me a glimpse into Serge’s life and mind, as well as all the notable people and places he encountered. A brilliant and immersive read, and one I won’t forget.

It has been a very difficult time out there in Real Life recently, with a feeling (here, at least) that the world is slipping gradually into being a more harsh and intolerant place; reading and books and ideas have always been my coping mechanism, and will continue to be essential I suspect. Anyway – this post will have to do as a bit of a snapshot of my 2019 reading, although I can’t help feeling I’ve missed too many out. There are *so* many books I’ve read and loved this year that I feel mean not mentioning them; I’ll just suggest you go and read my posts to see what books have meant the most to me! 2019 has been a great reading year, and here’s hoping 2020 is as good!

*****

A lot of people have been doing their “Books of the Decade” this month, and I did consider this for a brief moment. However, the blog’s only been here since 2012, and frankly before that I couldn’t tell you what I was reading!! My end of year posts during the blog’s life would no doubt give you a flavour of how my reading tastes have evolved – and I’m sure they have – so check them out if you wish!

Three Things #6 …… difficult reading, documentaries (again!) and dancing

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The “Three Things” meme was created by Paula at Book Jotter, and I haven’t done one for literally months! However, as I was crashing out of the “Berlin Alexanderplatz” readalong, I thought it might be time to revive the meme! So, time to share thoughts on things I’ve been reading, looking at and thinking… ;D

Reading

As you might have noticed, I’ve been wrestling during November with a challenging book, during the readalong of Alfred Doblin’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz” for German Literature Month. It’s a book I struggled with at the start, and although I found at points that I did become quite engaged, I eventually lost the will to live (or at least read on with it) and abandoned ship. I confess to having interspersed the reading of it with other books, and a complete (and pleasant!) contrast was “Noted Murder Mysteries” by Marie Belloc Lowndes. I have her crime novel “The Lodger” lurking on the TBR; this is her re-telling of several true crimes which has just been reissued by Michael Walmer. It’s very entertaining and a review will follow when I catch up with these; I’m a bit behind with them at the moment, and things aren’t helped by an attack of raging indecision about what to read next: should it be a Barthes Binge or an Attack of the Gides????? ;D

Looking (at)

I do love a good documentary, as is probably blindingly obvious to anyone who drops into the Ramblings, but I’ve been struggling recently to find any decent ones. I do lose patience with some of them; the content can be trite, the music over-done and the points often lost. I had high hopes of the recent slew of Cold War programmes, but in the end only two held my interest – “Letters from London”, about a propaganda radio show, and “A British Guide to the End of the World”, a very thought-provoking work about the effects of nuclear testing and the daft films put out to guide us how to survive an attack. I really could do with a decent documentary, along the lines of Professor Richard Clay’s “Utopia” (which is currently repeating on BBC4 in the wee small hours, if you’ve not seen it) or “Viral“, both of which I enjoyed hugely. Fortunately, a little hint of a glimpse of a rumour reaches me that he might be in the process of filming something new, which is excellent, as his ideas are so very interesting and the subject matter sounds quite fascinating!

Thinking

I’m going to bend this category a little bit, as I spent some time recently looking at a live event as well as searching for documentaries, and that set me thinking about past times! That live event was an OMD concert at a lovely venue in the local Big Town; I’ve seen the band there four times now and they never disappoint, presenting a highly-charged and enjoyable set full of hits old and new. Despite my increasing age (hah!) I refuse to conform to anyone’s expectations of how I should behave; and so I spent the two hours of the gig happily dancing my little socks off right in front of the stage. It was a wonderful night and rest assured, I will be there at the front again when they make their next visit!

Andy McCluskey of OMD

The venue itself is a wonderful one, with a long history. It was previously a Gaumont and back in the 1960s hosted visits from both the Beatles and the Stones (and Mr. Kaggsy, being somewhat older than me, was at both concerts!) In my time, I’ve seen some inspirational musicians play there, including Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Clash, The Teardrop Explodes, Tori Amos, and Morrissey (ahem…) to name a few. In fact, when I think back I’ve seem some incredible acts perform over the years: Bob Dylan, Echo and the Bunnymen, Patti Smith umpteen times, The Velvet Underground on their 1990s reunion tour, and the great John Cale on more occasions than I can recall. I love music almost as much as I love books, and there’s nothing better than a really good live gig! 😀

*****

So there you go. Three aspects of where I am at the moment: glad to be out of Berlin Alexanderplatz, looking forward to new documentaries and wishing more decent bands would play locally! “Three Things” is a fun meme – do join in if you want to! 🙂

 

“All committees are clay in the hands of determined men who fix agendas” #JLCarr

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How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup by J.L. Carr

…which is possibly the longest book title I’ve reviewed – and it’s the second book about football on the Ramblings! Or is it?

I read and loved and reviewed Carr’s best-known work, “A Month in the Country” back in 2013. It’s pretty much universally loved, from what I can gather, and is a perfect and evocative novella set in the English countryside in the summer. I wasn’t really aware of any other works by Carr until recently, when I spotted a copy of this one in the charity shop. Alas, I didn’t buy it, and then regretted it. Then I read a review on someone’s blog that made me very keen to read it (and I’m sorry but I can’t remember where…) Then I kept looking for a second hand copy and it never came up and so basically I cracked, and picked up a copy at my local Waterstones. I have no willpower…

“Steeple…” is billed very much as a comedy, and it *is* funny. Narrated by Joe Gidner, who’s been sent down from an ecclesiastical college for an unspecified misdemeanour, the story is set in the small community of Steeple Sinderby. The location is vague, but this is Middle England in the early 1970s and it’s a world which I found very recognisable. The title gives away exactly what the book is going to be about, and Joe (who’s secretary and general factotum for the Wanderers) has been instructed by Mr. Fangfoss, the Chairman, to write a straightforward history of what happened. That history is wonderfully entertaining, enlivened with extracts from the committee minutes, newspaper reports, and possibly suspect recollections. It’s fab!

An Englishman is partial to doom-talk and always has been, as is demonstrated by the nightmare stone carvings all over Barchester Cathedral, and misses it now that the Church doesn’t go in for Religion raw, red and bleeding anymore. Our countrymen appreciate confirmation that Hell yet prevails and that it is well on the cards that they are thither bound.

The idea of training a small local team up to win the biggest football trophy in the land is generated by Dr. Kossuth, a Hungarian refugee who heads the local school. A remarkably inventive man, he comes up with a series of scientific rules which, if applied, should make a team invincible. Enter Alex Slingsby, a teacher at the school who abandoned his footballing career to look after his invalid wife. Alex is in exactly the right frame of mind to take on this kind of challenge, and starts to build a local team. This in itself is hilarious, as they seek out the ideal goalkeeper from a local milkman, and use the tub-thumping sister of the local vicar to lure a former soccer star, languishing with an attack of melancholia, back to the fold. And once the team is built up and trained, the matches begin…

The road to cup fame, of course, is not without its bumps and potholes; and it will take all of the strength, training and willpower of Steeple Sinderby Wanderers to get to that final and win their cup. How they do and what happens afterwards is a real blast and has some wonderful laughs. So on the surface, this might seem like a very different book to “A Month in the Country”; but scratch the surface of the humour and you find there’s an awful lot going on underneath.

For a start, there’s the wonderful portrait of English country life; not the bucolic, pretty tourist type village you might see in adverts or on vapid TV programmes, but a much more realistic take on it.

People don’t know about rural England between the last Mystery Autumn Foliage Coach Trip and the Mystery Blossom Journey into Spring. Mud, fog, dripping trees, blackness, floods, mighty rushing winds under doors that don’t fit, damp hassocks, sticking organ keys, stone floors and that dreadful smell of decay.

There are feuds and infighting, poverty and stupidity; and underlying much of the narrative is a real sense of despair. There is pathos in Alex’s relationship with his wife; in Gidner’s loneliness; and in the lack of purpose in many of the characters’ lives. The modern world is encroaching on Steeple Sinderby, and that place just doesn’t like it much. The book is as much a study of the effect of mass publicity and a sudden spotlight on a quiet little place as anything else, and it’s quite fascinating to see how the locals react.

Carr is a remarkably clever writer, and it’s clear he’s on top form here. He plays with reality, adding in spurious quotes from Pevsner’s guidebooks, inventing histories which involve Steeple Sinderby, creating a locality and a topography for it; all of which obfuscation succeeds in hiding up where the place actually might be! He’s happy to send up football and its fans, local MPs and bigwigs, any of his characters and the general backwardness of the country. His melancholic outlook seeps through and the story ends up being surprisingly moving.

Part of the success of “Steeple…” is of course down to the characterisations. Carr peoples his story with some wonderfully alive characters with the most outlandish names, and yet I came to love them. There’s the wonderfully named Mr. Fangfoss, a local farmer who’s the club’s chairman and has things under control most of the time. He’s not a fan of the modern world, preferring to have out of work people forced to take jobs and certain people castrated (yes, really!); yet you can’t help but cheer him on, whether he’s standing up to a local Lord who wants to come in and make money out of the situation, or a jumped up TV interviewer who tries to get the better of him on live TV and fails. Fangfoss is an unusual character, with a very dodgy home set up, and yet he becomes lovable. Joe Gidner is someone you really want to get to make more of himself rather than just festering away in a village writing verses for greetings cards; there’s the lively Alice ‘Ginchy’ Trigger whose mangled prose is employed to write up the matches in the local paper, and is just too influenced by Thomas Hardy; and of course Alex Slingby, the driving force behind the team who’s so obviously crushed by his love for his wife and her plight. There are so many wonderful players in this book – basically, you need to read it and get to know them for yourself.

via Wikimedia Commons. Although Steeple Sinderby is set in the 1970s, it frankly feels more like the team should look like this…. 😀

“Steeple…” is brilliantly constructed; Carr’s narrative sucks you in and cleverly draws out the strangeness of the story in a way that keeps you hooked. Of course, the British love to see an underdog win (Leicester City, anyone?) and so the plot is an appealing one to start with. But there *is* so much more to this book, from comments on the national character, the national game, and basically life itself. “Steeple…” may *appear* to be a lighter, more superficial story than “A Month…”, but it really isn’t…

But the great and abiding Truth I learnt these weeks was how many people in this world have no Purpose in life, people who live second-hand, sitting all the hours God gives them free of drudgery, staring at either picture papers or TV, waiting like little kids for just another story or for Guidance.

I could say so much more about this book; about its quiet despair at the modern world and its longing for the past; about the sense it gives that life can often be pointless but sometimes magnificent; about the effect the media can have on a place, and the aftermath when the attention has moved on elsewhere; and about the underlying pathos of most human stories. Even such a simple paragraph as Carr/Gidner’s comment on an opposing side reveals much about the need to escape from our everyday lives:

Mostly, they were very respectable men, muffled against the winter day in home-knitted cardigans with large leather buttons; a phlegmatic, shuffling, stamping lot, grey men who had handed over 20p to cram close to grey men, huddling under a grey sky in a grey landscape on their grey way to the town cemetery. Here, lost in the throng, they had bought another identity for ninety minutes. They bellowed disbelief at incompetence, cried scornfully to the great heavens in godlike despair, clamoured angrily for revenge. For 20p they did all this and were not called to account.

(Is that a kind of Utopia? Yes, according to Richard Clay in part one of his documentary on the subject, where he suggests the ritual of Saturday football as a search for the fabled land! But I digress…)

I picked up “Steeple Sinderby…” because I rated Carr’s most famous work so highly, and despite the fact it was apparently about football it sounded – intriguing… It’s more than that, it’s a remarkable piece of art; funny, provocative, entertaining and with surprising depths, it completely absorbed me and left me quite moved at the end. If you want a book that amuses and gets you thinking, as well as giving a glimpse of a kind of small-town England that may well be gone, I recommend you get acquainted with Joe, Alex, Mr. Fangfoss, Ginchy Trigger, Giles the Vicar, his sister Biddy, Sid Swift, Monkey Tonks and all their fellows – you really won’t regret it! 😀

(As an aside, I can’t help wondering if the “Golden Gordon” episode of Michael Palin’s “Ripping Yarns” was just a teeny bit influenced by this book!)

“…the future’s uncertain and the end is always near…” @BL_Publishing #murieljaeger #sciencefictionclassics

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The Question Mark by Muriel Jaeger

Ah, Utopias! I seem to have been circling, and repeatedly coming back to, the subject since first watching Richard Clay‘s “Utopia” series back in 2017. Then there’s the vexed subject of the loose Utopian reading list I set up for myself, which I haven’t actually got very near to approaching in recent months. However, a recent arrival from the lovely British Library, in the form of one of their Science Fiction Classics, has nudged me back closer again – as it’s a lost work that ties in with utopian/dystopian literature very significantly. It’s also a very thought-provoking read…

The book’s author, Muriel Jaeger, is an interesting subject herself. She attended Somerville College in the early 1910s, moving in a circle which included Dorothy L. Sayers and Winifred Holtby; Sayers, in particular, was a close friend. Jaeger went on to work for “Time and Tide” magazine, as well as writing her novels and scraping a precarious living; however, at the time, her novels were not particularly well received and she eventually abandoned writing. “The Question Mark” was originally published in 1926, and as the newly-reissued edition from the British Library (in their Science Fiction Classics series) reveals, it was put out by the Hogarth Press! The new edition reproduces a letter from Leonard Woolf to Jaeger about the publication of the book, as well as a striking portrait of the author; and the excellent introduction by Dr. Mo Moulton gives background on Jaeger’s life as well as putting her book in context.

“The Question Mark” takes a timely look at projections of the future, a popular subject in early science fiction, and draws on works like Wells’ “The Time Machine”. The main protagonist, a very ordinary and lowly clerk, one Guy Martin, is sent 200 years into the future. Martin is not a happy man; scraping a living, constantly short of money and struggling to make his way in the capitalist world, he finds the world of the future initially to be a blissfully comfortable and, yes, utopian one. Poverty has been wiped out; no-one wants for anything; and all manner of modern technologies provide for humanity’s every need. However, it isn’t long before Guy starts to see beneath the superficial reality of the future; because despite the comfort and convenience, something is missing. Complications come in the form of Ena, the daughter of the doctor treating Guy, who seems to be oddly immature despite her years and somewhat fixated on the visitor from the past. Guy begins to encounter humans who are not the rational, intelligent beings he first came across on his awakening; and he comes to realise that humanity seems to have replaced the capitalist class system with a new kind of system of its own…

“Do you mean that we might have had – all this,” Guy spread his hands in a wide gesture to the countryside, “if we had chosen?”

“Certainly, most of it, if you had set about getting rich collectively instead of individually.”

Jaeger’s book is an absolutely fascinating look at human behaviour and where it might go; and as I read on I sensed elements in it that were similar to another lost classic I read recently, Rose Macaulay’s “What Not“. The troubled subject of eugenics is bubbling under the surface of both narratives, and it becomes clear that instead of dividing humans into a complex strata of various classes, the future world is separated on simple lines between those deemed “intellectuals” and those deemed “normals”. The latter are portrayed as vapid and easily led; they’ll worship the latest sporting hero as easily as they will a preacher who claims to have a direct line to God. And the media feed on this, fuel the hysteria created and are a damaging influence on the whole of society (sounds familiar, that…) Once Guy realises this, he’s shocked and repelled by the world in which he finds himself; and in fact both classes seem to struggle to find a purpose in life, as all need for work and striving has actually gone. Our hero even starts to miss the past, despite the depression and alienation he felt; but as the story reveals, he may have no choice about where he lives and the book *does* end on a slightly ambiguous note.

I found “The Question Mark” absolutely compelling from start to finish. Jaeger writes really well, capturing brilliantly the depths of despair Martin sinks into before his journey to future; and painting equally well her portrait of a future world which is gradually revealed to both Guy and the reader. There are so many interesting issues here; whether human beings will always divide into types; whether we need work and a purpose to feel any worth in our lives; whether the influence of the media really *should* be dramatically curtailed; and so on. It raises difficult questions about collective responsibility and state control: at one point, Guy encounters a situation where he discovers that women can choose to be part of a harem and live in a situation where a man has multiple wives. Should humanity intervene or allow the women their choice? That’s another topic which has very modern resonances… Again, it needs to be remembered that Jaeger was publishing before “Brave New World” was written and as the introduction makes clear, took the utopian writing of Wells and his ilk which had gone before and gave it a twist. Her hero is given no easy answers, especially when faced by the response from one particular resident of the future. Ena, the product of a marriage of an “intellectual” and a “normal”, and who is classed as the latter, is portrayed as wanting to step outside that limited definition and she sees the possibility of more. The “normal” characters are motivated pretty much by romance, sex and violence; yet Ena touchingly perceives a world where she and Guy could be just ‘pals’, and that’s a heartbreaking element of the story.

Oh, what have you done with the world? What have you done with it? You have everything we ever wanted and everything to make you happy. I thought when I first came that all the nightmare was over. I thought you were all happy at last; and you are miserable – worse than miserable – so damn doubly hopeless that you clutch at every straw.

Underlying so much of the narrative are the many failed opportunities of humanity (another theme which resonates…) Guy comes to recognise that the inequalities are just the same as in his time, and that the intellectuals are detached and uncaring, leaving their fellow humans to get on with it in their overexcited and hysterical lives. The authorities will step in when there’s been a violent murder or such, and a visit to the location where euthanasia takes place is chilling in its matter-of-factness…

Jaeger’s portrait in the book

So “The Question Mark” turned out to be such an absorbing and interesting (and enjoyable!) read. It raises all manner of issues which are still sitting in my brain while I muse on them. In her own foreword, Jaeger takes issue with the utopias that have come before her – she accepts the worlds that have been created but she finds herself unable to accept that the inhabitants are realistic enough. As she says “At this point my effort to realise Utopia fails. With the best will in the world, I have found myself quite unable to believe in these wise, virtuous, gentle, artistic people. They do not seem to have any relation to humanity as I know it – even by the most distant descent; they suggest, rather, Special Creation.” Jaeger’s people are instantly recognisable to us, and I guess at the heart of subtext of the book is nature vs nurture: are we born a particular way or can we learn? It’s a subject that’s still debated (a recent example might be “Educating Rita”); and possibly always will be – because I don’t think there are any easy answers when it comes to humanity! Anyway; I think Leonard Woolf was right when he took a risk on “The Question Mark” – I found it a brilliant and thought-provoking book, another winner from the British Library and definitely most unjustly neglected!

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

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