Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Back for the dog days of summer

Hello everybody. How I've missed you all. I had a few days in south-western Ireland, soaking up the rain and cursing Michael Gove, The Rose of Tralee and many other cultural and political excreta. It was of course extremely relaxing. No phone, no Twitter, no blogging, no laptop, no camera. Just me, the rain, a daily newspaper, good company, enormous mounds of fine food, some books and a bit of primal scream therapy. And magnificent mountains and swimming in the Atlantic of course. Thankfully nobody mistook me for this poor chap while I humped my enormous carcass through the waves.

It was a very successful week for books: I didn't buy any and I read Paul Mason's 2010 dissection of the economic crash, Meltdown, which holds up pretty well and is beautifully written, Keith Brooke's SF thriller Alt. Human and John Carey's magnificent The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among The Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939 (link is to a very interesting Jonathan Rose essay on the book and working-class autodidacticism). How I wish I'd come across it years ago - it beautifully summarises loads of the points I made in the early chapters of my PhD, only with much greater erudition and range. I don't think I've ever turned down so many page corners on a single book. Carey's thesis is that even the 'progressive' intellectuals of the period were simultaneously horrified by and fascinated by the non-existent 'masses', invented by the snobbish as a way to differentiate themselves and justify their own existence. Lots of them, from H. G. Wells to W. B. Yeats, seriously proposed to eliminate (i.e. kill) the working classes, while their horror of the suburbs masked a deeper fear of democracy and mass education. Wells comes out of it slightly better than others - his 'scientific' writing is barely distinguishable from Nietzsche, Hitler and some of the Stalinists, while his earlier fiction is full of sympathy for the downtrodden 'clerkly' classes. We're all scum, they felt: genetic failures whose bare literacy only serves to mistakenly persuade us we're better than animals. Rather than wasting time giving us hopes and dreams, we should toil like beasts to give the artistic aristocracy the lives they - as the only sensitive souls on the planet - deserve. Art has to be difficult, otherwise the rest of us might like it, and we can't have that!

Best of all is Carey's rehabilitation of Arnold Bennett, the wildly popular Stoke-born novelist and short story writer whose literary reputation was damned by Virginia Woolf in 'Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown'. Using Bennett as the antithesis of the kind of modernist fiction she and her generation were writing, Woolf damns Bennett as a kind of descriptive, shopping-list writer, substituting the strangeness of consciousness for visual and factual detail - Carey painstakingly demolishes Woolf's critique through close reading of Bennett's novels, and suggests that Woolf's perspective is the product of upper-middle class snobbishness: servants appear in Woolf's work, he points out, whereas servants' feelings are the preserve of Mr Bennett.

It's not a perfect book - there are significant omissions: Arnold, Marx and more, but it's thought-provoking and a great way to raise the big questions about industrial society, the role of Literature and its connection to social structures.

How has the world fared in my absence? The Hegemon appears still to be standing and we've reached our (reduced) quota of new students, some of whom may have previously read a book. Graduation beckons in a few days, the emotional border of each year's past and future. The government is still in disarray, my apple-mint plant has thrived in the absence of my incompetent care, the office still reeks of organisational failure and my armpits, and my ironing pile is undiminished. I have papers to write, lectures to prepare and even some enthusiasm to get on with it. I didn't - shamefully - get round to reading the self-help book my 'occupational psychologist' left me, but no doubt this failure is explicable due to some deep-seated psychological cause. A few books have arrived: Will Paynter's 1972 autobiography My Generation (given he was a 1930s Communist, International Brigadier and trades unionist, any Who references are entirely coincidental) and two Jeff Noon books I mistakenly thought I had: Falling Out of Cars and Pixel Juice.

Time for a swim. No massive Atlantic waves to buoy me up, but avoiding harpoons should be motivation enough.

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