Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Death by a thousand sequels

I'm drowning in work this week: mostly induction talks and trying to find out where the students who missed induction talks might be and working out how many students we actually have and whether that's an astonishingly good number all things considered or an astonishingly bad one and where we're going to teach them and whether there's an ethical or moral problem with teaching (e.g) the Holocaust while lounging on the bean bags furnishing our new teaching space and so on and so forth. In a word: your normal Freshers' Week. The bright spot is meeting new students – my admittedly limited contact with them leads me to be hopeful.

In the midst of all this, I've managed to do some reading and listen to some music. Thanks to a friend's performance from memory of Sonic Youth's grossly offensive yet seductive 'Tunic (Song for Karen)' (Carpenter, that is) and the discovery that I don't actually own any of their LPs – possibly part of the vinyl haul I sobbingly sold during the Great Teaching Hours Drought of 2003) I've acquired several in one go:

So far the one I'm enjoying most is Goo, followed by Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star. Which reminds me: Dinosaur Jr. released a new album last month that I still haven't bought. The other album I've just acquired is an NMC release of Emily Howard's compositions. I remember a few years ago looking through my classical section and realising that I didn't own a single piece of music by a female composer other than a collection of Hildegard of Bingen sacred settings. Having read Joanna Russ's wonderful How To Suppress Women's Writing I knew that there must be oceans of good music out there, lost, silenced, unperformed or unpublished and that I'd missed out badly, so I've started seeking it out. I haven't yet been disappointed, though some is less to my taste than others. Howard's great: she has a background in maths and science, and her music tackles the forces that drive the universe.

Amongst the recent discoveries, I've really got into Pauline Oliveros. An accordionist into drone electronica: what's not to like?

I'm also very partial to a bit of Sally Beamish, particularly her Viola Concerto: much more classical modernist than experimental, but moving and thought-provoking.

Others I've listened to recently: Deirdre Gribbin, Imogen Holst, Kaija Saariaho, Roxana Panufnik (her father Andrzej is underrated too) and Julia Wolfe.

And now to books: this week I've read one good one and one terrible, shameful waste of ink. The good one is Anthony Burgess's A Dead Man in Deptford, a beautifully written – speculative – romp through the short life and untimely death of Christopher Marlowe who in this novel loves boys, poetry and pub brawling, but is less keen on spying and the violent deaths that ensue from his espionage activity. There are walk-on parts for Shakespeare, Greene and various other contemporaries, and it's written with a nod to the speech, vocabulary and orthography of the day. I wouldn't rely on it to write an essay on Marlowe but it's diverting and thoughtful.

The terrible book I read saddens me. I loved Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife, her fictional, imaginary biography of Laura Bush: it had so much to say about American, sexual relations and power. It led me to read her other novels too, including Prep, a fascinating look at the chilly schooldays of the WASPs. And so, liking Sittenfeld and being an Austen nut, there's no way I wasn't going to read her retelling of Pride and Prejudice, entitled Eligible

Not that I was entirely starry-eyed: I have already read several Austen retellings that did no good for my blood pressure. I'm happy to admit that Clueless is by far the best adaptation I've ever seen: a perfect example of how the spirit of Austen's social structures and plots can be reproduced without slavishly photocopying the original. The worst one – by far – is PD James's 'sequel' to P and P: Death Comes to Pemberley, in which the characters assemble while the killer of Mr Wickham is sought. Reader: I cannot remember reading so dreadful a novel, especially one by a long-established, acclaimed author. It's like PD James had a personal grudge against both Jane Austen and the English language and sought to do to them what she does to Mr Wickham. The original Austen mash-up, Pride and Prejudice With Zombies is far, far more faithful to the spirit and style of Jane's work, while Bridget Jones's Diary (Bridget, like me, is unfairly mocked for being a graduate of Bangor University's very fine English and Linguistics department) wears its debt to Austen both visibly and lightly. The other one I rather like is The Price of Butcher's Meat, Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe police procedural retelling of Austen's fragment Sanditon.

 I thought that Death Comes was the worst anyone could do to Austen until I started reading Eligible. I thought that given Sittenfeld's excellent track record in anatomising upper-class American life she might to a decent job. It's set in Cincinnati, which must be the equivalent of Netherfield – self-regarding, provincial, smug but rich. Mr Bingley is now 'Chip' Bingley, a wonderful doctor who appeared on a series called Eligible (modelled on Love Island) but not entirely willingly: his 'manager' is his sister Caroline. Darcy is a pompous surgeon, and the Bennet girls are older than in Austen's original, and their social situation is rather different. Lizzy is a style journalist, Jane is a yoga instructor, Mary's a permanent student probable lesbian and perhaps even a feminist (outrageous!), while the younger two are foul-mouthed gym bunnies. Mr Bennet has recently had a heart attack and Mrs Bennet is a shallow shrew. Essentially it's like buying a posh car to discover that someone's ripped out the good bits and added go-faster stripes, bucket seats and a Trump bumper sticker. It manages to maintain Austen's attack on snobbery while being supremely snobbish.

Worst of all, however, is the writing. I cannot adequately convey the awfulness of the dialogue, from the abysmally-failing attempts to make Mr Bennet and others sound dryly witty, to the obsessive addition of 'she said' or 'he said' to every utterance as though the implied reader cannot follow a conversation even if it lasts no more than two sentences.
“That wasn’t bad,” Liz said. “Especially for someone who scored as low as you did on the verbal part of the SATs.”
“Stop quarrelling, girls,” Mrs Bennet said. “It’s unbecoming.”
“They’d never speak to one another otherwise,” Mr Bennet said.
It's not a satirical reproduction of degraded Cincinnati posh parasites' slang: it's just cloth-eared, crude, leaden, lumpen and patronising. Austen may be conservative and didactic but her wit and intelligence shine through in ways that Sittenfeld – in this novel anyway – can't manage.

I own Joanna Trollope and Val McDermid's Austen's retellings in the same series: I'm now dreading reading them. There's a long tradition of appropriating characters, texts and plots to do something new with them – in the 18th century people didn't even wait for authors to die before rushing out cheap and unauthorised sequels to best-sellers – and many of them are successful on their own terms. Eligible may just have cured me of the habit of reading them. Though I have just bought the Manga Emma.

Friday, 23 September 2016


The week has had two or three main themes: toothache, work and culture. The toothache is self-explanatory. My wonderful dentist, who had an MA in English and (I hope) dentistry qualifications retired due to ill-health three years ago and I haven't dared go back. The resulting misery is therefore self-inflicted and therefore deserves no sympathy. And the piercing nature of the pain is a useful counterpoint to the dull throbbing gloom of the more objectionable aspects of being at work – basically anything involving Powerpoint, acronyms graphs and spreadsheets. I'm a literature specialist, not an actuary! (There's also the self-harm pain of being a member of the Labour Party but my thoughts are too incoherent even for this medium and I don't like being abused on Twitter so I'll keep my opinions on that one to myself.

The culture bit is the bright spot. Last night I went to a cinema for a live-stream of the National Theatre's production of The Threepenny Opera, Brecht and Weill's exploration of the effects of poverty and exploitation on those at the bottom of society.

It was an English-language production, with plenty of editing and alteration to suit a contemporary audience, though still set in a stylised version of 1928. It is an opera but it verges on being a dark musical – I'd have coped happily with fewer songs, but the music is astonishing: rough jazzy classical matching the text's determination to confront the classic opera audience with a cold, sharp slice of reality. It's a morality tale which denies morality: the message is that morality is a disguise worn by the bourgeoisie. The poor don't have that luxury and the rich don't care for it. People do dreadful things in dreadful circumstances, and there's no reward for doing good and moo punishment for doing evil: it's a nihilistic, amoral universe in which survival is all that matters…a timely revival.

If I get all my induction speeches written in time (can you tell I'm on sabbatical?), I'm off to see The Gloaming on Sunday: they're an Irish-language experimental, often melancholy folk group, currently on their second album.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

The wanderer returns

It's been a strange couple of weeks. New office (still being built). Job interview (failed again, but at least they met me before deciding they'd rather not, unlike most institutions). Working out what it means to have a semester's sabbatical while also being an acting course leader. Going to presentations for my boss's job. And I did the School Games for the Northern Ireland fencing team. Much of what went on is the subject of investigation by no less than three governing bodies so I can't go into it in any detail, but suffice to say that spending several days with other people's children is a highly persuasive form of contraception.

One of my favourite moments was turning up and asking who the Northern Ireland coach was this year. The answer? 'You'. Shame nobody mentioned it in advance, or I'd have brought some kit. Oh well: my colleagues were lovely and highly professional, as were the vast majority of the kids. I'd also like to thank Sainsbury's for pulling out of their sponsorship deal: an unbranded Games was very pleasant.

I took some photos: click here for almost the full set or click on those below to enlarge.

The label is not related to Northern Irish politics at all. 

This is how you give a medal to a 6'10" 15-yr old.

A coaching session


Towers Hall, Loughborough University

And I made this to mark the departure of David Cameron from public life (and the arrival of £5 with the image of that murderous imperialist Winston Churchill). The guy who said he wouldn't resign the prime ministership if he lost the referendum, then did, and who said he'd serve a full term as MP, then quit.