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Archive for the ‘Autobiographies’ Category

The Orchid Hunter: A Young Botanist’s Search for Happiness, Leif Bersweden (Short Books 2017)

Was this book inspired by Patrick Barkham’s excellent The Butterfly Isles (2010), in which the author sets out to see all native species of British butterfly in a single year? I assume so. It has a similar premise — “52 species of wild British orchid… one summer to find them all” — and contains a similar mixture of natural history and autobiography. But The Orchid Hunter is a good book in its own right and maybe Barkham was inspired by a find-against-time book I don’t know about.

Either way, if you read both books they’ll enrich and illuminate each other. Butterflies and orchids are both eye-catching, but orchids are much stranger in their subtler, stiller, photosynthetic way. One of the chapter headings here is a quote from the great orchidologist Jocelyn Brooke: “There is, about all orchids, something rather perverse and ambiguous, something even a trifle sinister.” (ch. 10, “The Curse of the Coralroot”, pg. 179) You can see that particularly well in an orchid that doesn’t, in fact, photosynthesize:

The Bird’s-nest Orchid is one of the weirdest plants I’ve ever seen. Completely brown, it appears at first glance to be dead, but a closer examination proves otherwise. Each flower is velvety caramel and has two feet that look as if they’ve been drawn by children: big, clumsy and sticking out sideways. Some plants are still in bud, looking like bizarre trees covered in peanuts. This orchid never produces chlorophyll – the green pigment used in photosynthesis to help produce sugars […] (“Swords of the Hampshire Hangers”, pg. 110)

Instead, Bird’s-nest Orchids, Neottia nidus-avis, parasitize an underground fungus that’s a symbiont of beeches and other trees: “One end of the fungus is attached to the tree, receiving carbon produced by photosynthesis; the other end is attached to the orchid, which is siphoning off this carbon.” Leif Bersweden calls the orchids “outlaws, sneaky thieves who execute their criminality with perfection.” But you could say that the original thief is the tree, whose branches and leaves steal the sun from the sky of smaller plants that try to grow beneath it. Because the Bird’s-nest Orchid isn’t dependent on sunlight, it can grow in the deepest shade.

So can the Ghost Orchid, Epipogium aphyllum, which is a fungus-feeding sciophile that’s even stranger than its relative. But it’s called the Ghost Orchid not just because it’s pale and haunts the shadows, but also because it’s elusive, short-lived and “seldom reappears in the same spot” (pg. 308). Bersweden went “Ghost Hunting”, as he puts it in the title of chapter 18, but the Ghost Orchid got away. He doesn’t succeed in finding one and Epipogium aphyllum is missing from the “Gallery of Gotchas” in the photo section. If it had been there, it still might not have been the strangest orchid on display. It certainly wouldn’t have been the most salacious:

Early Spider Orchids are one of the four species of the genus Ophrys that can regularly be found growing in Britain, the others being Bee, Fly and Late Spider. Their flowers are remarkably insect-like and have a fascinating, yet diabolical sex life. While most plants attract pollinators with the promise of nectar, these orchids lure them in with the promise of bee sex. This deception is accomplished by imitating the scent, appearance and texture of virgin female bees. (“Shakespeare’s Long Purples”, pp. 34-5)

You could say that the Ophrys orchids manufacture floral sex-dolls. Male bees are drawn in by the “alluring female scents”, fooled by the appearance and feel of the flower, and attempt “to mate with the ‘female’, often vigorously and for long periods.” In the process, the male bee acquires “two tiny, sticky pollen sacs”, which he’ll carry off to another Ophrys sex-doll when he gets tired of humping his present partner. At least, that’s what the Ophrys intends. Not that intention is the right word: this botanic deception was created blindly and slowly by natural selection. But nervous systems were definitely involved. And perhaps consciousness was too. The male bees have to smell, see and feel the floral sex-doll, which must have been fine-tuned over evolutionary history to become a better and better mimic of a buxom mate.

The nervous systems of insects and other animals have had a decisive influence on the evolution of mindless plants. Most flowers use shape, scent and colour not to fool insects, but to invite them to a draught of nectar or munch of pollen: “Within minutes of the sun dropping below the horizon, the orchids release an overpowering fragrance into the warm evening air that moths find irresistible” (“Finding the Fragrants”, pg. 201) That’s the Chalk Fragrant Orchid, Gymnadenia conopsea, which grows on “calcareous soils” in the south of England.

Each species of orchid has its own preferences of light, moisture and soil chemistry. Sometimes they’re very particular preferences. This book is almost as much about geology and meteorology as it is about botany. When the cover says “52 species of wild British orchid”, it really does mean “British”. Bersweden visits all five nations of the British Isles, travelling as far south as the Isle of Wight, as far north as the Outer Hebrides to find and photograph orchids, and as far west as the Atlantic coast of Ireland, where he searches for Early Purple Orchids, Orchis mascula, on the Burren, a “barren sea of pale limestone” rising “lunar and desolate, in the north of County Clare.”

At least, it looks barren and desolate from afar. Appearances are deceptive, as one of the best passages in the book reveals. I think it’s an excellent encapsulation of the appeal not just of botany but of natural history in general:

There were plants everywhere. Every crack in the limestone was sprouting green. Common bird’s-foot trefoil, rue-leaved saxifrage, heath dog-violets, milkworts and hawthorn. The snowy-white flowers of mountain everlasting sprang from the pavement, spring gentians bejewelled the grass with an electric blue, and I was left speechless by the sheer number of Early Purple orchids. There were thousands of them, speckling the slope.

Lying down on my stomach, I gazed greedily into a deep crevice and encountered a miniature jungle. Hundreds of plants thronged every crack and root-hold. There were plantains, crane’s-bills, ferns, trefoils and saxifrages. Mosses and liverworts encased the smooth limestone, tiny sporophytic stalks peering upwards like periscopes. They grew over and under one other, making it difficult to distinguish one plant from the next. This was chaotic, unadulterated wilderness. (“Stumped by Ireland’s Mediterranean Orchid”, pg. 52)

You can almost see the plants and feel the limestone beneath your feet. And the plant-names, common and scientific, are almost as rich and strange as the reality. Biology is about nomenclature, not just about nature. As the sub-title of this book reveals, Bersweden is still a “Young Botanist”, so he’s still training his eyes and other senses to make the sometimes minute distinctions between one species and other. In chapter two, he’s “Stumped by Ireland’s Mediterranean Orchid”. But in chapter nine, he’s after an orchid that’s instantly recognizable even to a complete amateur: Cypripedium calceolus, the Lady’s Slipper. It’s the Empress of British orchids, once thought to have been driven into extinction by collectors, then re-discovered in 1930 by the Jarman brothers, two cotton-weavers who worked at a factory in the Yorkshire town of Silsden.

The precise location of their discovery, deep in the Yorkshire Dales, has been kept secret ever since. And the original orchid is still alive, guarded by fences and an on-site warden. Other specimens have been re-introduced to the wild, propagated from domesticated Lady Slippers, and Bersweden visits one of these in the “Gait Burrow Nature Reserve on the Lancashire-Cumbria border”. He’d never seen one in the flesh before:

It’s difficult to describe the emotional impact. Over the years, I’ve read a lot about [these] orchids and ogled hundreds of photos of their unmistakeable flowers, but nothing could have prepared me for that first glimpse of the fragile, jaw-dropping beauty of the Lady’s Slipper. (ch. 9, “The Lady’s Slipper, pg. 169)

But that wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to find the only known truly wild specimen in its secret, security-ringed location. “It might be futile,” he says, “but I had to try. […] Somewhere out there, hidden in the secluded folds of the Dales, the Lady’s Slipper was waiting.” He succeeds in his quest – “Suddenly I saw it: a flash of gold between two hazels” – but as he stands “gawking” over the fence at an orchid he “could only just see”, he’s joined by the watchful warden, who regretfully declines to allow him any closer. “Defeated”, he retreats, dreaming of other truly wild specimens that may still lie undiscovered somewhere in the Dales.

Orchids attract obsessive people and Leif Bersweden is definitely one of those: he snatches time during his mother’s fiftieth birthday party to tick the Burnt Orchid, Neotinea ustulata, off his list (ch. 8, “Butterflies and Burnt Tips”, pp. 143-157). Obsession makes for good scientists, but doesn’t necessarily make for good writers. In this case it does: The Orchid Hunter is one of the best natural history books I’ve ever read. It’s also an excellent introduction to what its author calls “the furtive, capricious, enigmatic world of orchids” (pg. 255). That’s in chapter 14, entitled “Queen of the Cotswolds” and devoted to the Red Helleborine, Cephalanthera rubra. But if you want to know exactly what Helleborines are, you have to read the book or look elsewhere: The Orchid Hunter doesn’t, alas, have an index. That’s a big flaw in what is otherwise a very good book.

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The Tunnel, Eric Williams (1951)

Eric Williams’ The Wooden Horse (1949) is a classic not just of its genre but of English literature as a whole, I’d say. This later book about an earlier time isn’t a classic even in its genre. Or maybe it just suffers by comparison. Either way, it’s definitely better at describing what life in a German prisoner-of-war camp was like, because most of it is set in one. In The Wooden Horse, Williams is beyond the wire and on the run much of the time.

Not that he names himself: both of these books are written in the third person about two prisoners called Peter Howard, who’s Williams himself, and John Clinton, who’s a friend of his. The third person gives The Tunnel a novelistic quality, as though Williams is thinking himself in a character’s head rather than describing what it was really like to be that character:

As the tunnel moved steadily on towards the wire the possibility of escape loomed larger and larger in Peter’s head. […] From waking until sleeping he carried with him the warm comforting thought of that long, dark, slippery, suffocating burrow that would, one day, take him and John under the barbed wire and away to that free, almost unreal world that lay beyond. Whenever he walked along the path between the cookhouse and the Russian compound he knew he was walking over the tunnel, remembering lying there and hearing the footsteps walking as he was walking now. (Part 2, ch. V)

Those adjectives – “long, dark, slippery” – make the tunnel sound like a vagina that he’ll pass through to a second birth. But that’s what Williams himself thought: being in the tunnel, he says to his friend John, is “almost like going into a woman.” And tunnelling is “a sort of retreat, almost like burrowing back into the womb.” Despite the simplicity and clarity of their prose, The Tunnel and The Wooden Horse are profound and psychologically sophisticated books. They conjure both the external and the internal world of the POW camps: what it was like to be there physically and what it was like to be there emotionally.

And even before his second birth, the tunnel-vagina offered him another kind of escape:

He enjoyed working at the tunnel face. Lying flat on his stomach, picking away unseeing at the clay in front of his head, he felt that he was really getting somewhere, really doing something towards getting out of the camp. Moreover he was alone, lying there in the darkness and dank air of the tunnel: alone in a small world of silence, a world bounded by the feeble rays of the lamp that guttered by his head. He was more alone than he could be anywhere else in the camp. Up there in the crowded barrack block, on the teeming circuit, he was aware all the time of his fellow prisoners; their habits of speech and the almost maddening proximity – the body odour and the unconscious elbow in the ribs. But down in the tunnel it was dark and lonely, and he sang to himself as he picked away at the hard clay and felt sorry when it was his turn to leave the tunnel to go back to his place in the shaft. (Part 2, ch. V)

But I corrected part of that as I transcribed it: in the paperback from 1973 that I own, it says “a world hounded by the feeble rays of the lamp”. I like the typo and the serendipity of its meaning. And I liked correcting it as though I were a scribe many centuries ago. In some ways the paperback and Williams’ story are closer to scribal times than they are to the twenty-first century. Paperback and story are pre-internet, and the story is effectively pre-electronic. The POW camp didn’t have surveillance cameras, only a seismograph. The prisoners could get away with much more than they could have today.

Williams couldn’t have been aware of that, but he was aware that he was writing in a very long tradition: “What was it Marcus Aurelius had said? At what time soever thou wilt, it is in thy power to retire into thyself, and to be at rest, and free from all businesses?” (Part 2, ch. X) The quote is from the Meditations (161-180 AD) and The Tunnel asks questions about human existence in a similar way. Why are we here? How should we act? How should we respond to frustration, suffering and injustice?

The Wooden Horse asks and answers the questions better. Or doesn’t answer them better. Williams did not discover the meaning of life while he was imprisoned or on the run. But he did discover the importance of consciousness and the beauty of small aspects of a very large world, which was here long before we existed and will be here long after we’re gone. After the war, he conveyed the importance and beauty in his writing. The Wooden Horse is the classic that made his name, but The Tunnel is definitely worth a read too.


Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Escape and Essence — review of Williams’ The Wooden Horse (1949)

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Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, Peter Hook (Simon & Schuster 2012)

It’s not bad going to have been central to two of the biggest and most important bands in British musical history. This is the autobiography of the man who achieved exactly that: Peter Hook, who was bassist first in Joy Division and then in New Order. If I were a fan of either of those bands, I’d’ve liked the book even more. I’m not, but I can see their importance.

I can also see that Peter Hook was not one of the two “thick bastards” in Joy Division. That’s what he calls himself and Bernard Sumner, the guitarist who accompanied him into New Order. It’s not true. Hook doesn’t acknowledge a co-writer on this book and although it sometimes reads as though it’s transcribed from a session down the pub, it reads well too and is full of intelligent commentary on Joy Division’s music. Okay, the singer Ian Curtis might have been the most intelligent and creative member of Joy Division. He was certainly the best-looking, most charismatic and attention-grabbing, first because of his epilepsy and then because of his suicide.

But he was also the sort of person who would say “in terms of”. Peter Hook wasn’t and I hope he still isn’t. He didn’t have the background for it or acquire the artistic pretensions when he was growing up. His background was rough: he was born Peter Woodhead in Salford in 1956. Then his parents divorced and he acquired a stepfather called William Hook, who took his new family off to Jamaica, where Hook Snr had found work as an engineer in a glass-works. Jamaica was quite a contrast with dour, drab, drizzly Manchester. As Peter Hook says: “You know how I said that life in Salford had been in black and white? Well in Jamaica it was definitely in colour.” (pg. 7)

That’s in chapter one, which is entitled: “For seventeen days that’s all we had, chicken and chips.” That’s a reference to what they ate on the boat over to Jamaica, because Hook’s mother, like many working-class Brits, was resolutely unadventurous in her gustatory habits: “She could hardly bear to eat anything that came from south of Salford.” (pg. 5) She passed that conservatism onto her son and he wouldn’t lose it until he was in his twenties and, inter alia, tried a curry being eaten by a member of Cabaret Voltaire (pg. 239). He’d probably have lost it sooner if he’d stayed in Jamaica. And who knows where he’d be today if he had?

But he didn’t. His mother got homesick and the family came back to the black-and-white of Salford. That was one of Hook’s early lessons in the what-might-have-beens of life. If he’d stayed in Jamaica, he might still have become a famous and successful musician. But he wouldn’t have been playing anything like the music of Joy Division. Maybe only Mancunians could have produced that and maybe only Mancunians born in the 1950s.

One thing is certain: they had to be intelligent Mancunians and Hook was intelligent enough to pass his Eleven Plus and win a place at Salford Grammar School. He gives the credit for that to his time in a more demanding Jamaican school and maybe that was part of it. But a school can demand and not get if the pupil isn’t bright enough. Hook was. So was Bernard Sumner, who was also born in 1956 in Salford and who also passed his Eleven Plus. That’s how he and Hook began their long but sometimes prickly friendship: “I met Barney in that first year at Salford Grammar. He still gets really annoyed when I call him Barney.” (pg. 10)

He is probably also annoyed by chapter headings like “Barney would always eat on his own or in the bath” and by the descriptions of his “infamous sleeping bag”. Hook is undoubtedly mythologizing, telling in-jokes and taking the piss at times, because a book like this has two audiences. Insiders and outsiders, or people who were there at the time and people who weren’t. Either way, they’ll interested to hear Hook’s side of the story. And he emphasizes that it is always his side of the story. Other people remember things differently. And they’re not necessarily wrong to do so: Hook says that Ian Curtis is remembered in very different ways because he was a “chameleon” could put on very different characters depending on who he was with. (pg. 235)

But that’s much later in the book. Before then, Hook had to live through his time as a lazy schoolboy who became a thieving Salford skinhead and scally, then his time as a local government clerk and chalet-worker. As for the working-class boys of Black Sabbath, music was his way out. And the Sex Pistols were the sign-post. Hook and Sumner were among the fifty or so who attended the now-legendary Sex Pistols gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 4th June 1976. Tickets were 50p, the support was Solstice, and the impact of the headliners was life-transforming. The Sex Pistols came, were seen, and conquered. Hook describes them like this:

What made them special, without a shadow of a doubt, was Johnny Rotten. The tunes were only part of the package – and probably the least important part of it, if I’m honest. Close your eyes and like I say you had a conventional pub-rock band with a soundman who either didn’t have a clue or was being very clever indeed. But who was going to close their eyes when he, Johnny Rotten, was standing there? (“Normal band, normal night, few people watching”, pg. 38)

Hook and Sumner were immediately inspired to form their own band. They had the usual trouble with finding and keeping a good drummer, then had the luck to pick up a singer who could rival Johnny Rotten for charisma and intelligence. But in a very different way: Ian Curtis was literary and “arty” in a way that John Lydon wasn’t. For example, he was a fan of William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard, as Joy Division’s song-titles and lyrics would show. But writers like that meant nothing to Hook and he says he didn’t pay proper attention to Curtis’s lyrics until after the suicide.

That doesn’t mean he was a passenger on the S.S. Joy Division. His bass was central to their sound and his appearance was central to their gigs. I got the impression that he was very tall because he carried his bass very low. But he wasn’t. He says he was inspired to use a “long strap” by Paul Simonon of The Clash (pg. 111), but:

Sound-wise I was most influenced by Jean-Jacques Burnel of the Stranglers. I used to listen to his bass on “Peaches” and “Five Minutes” and think, That’s how I want to sound. When I went to see them at the Bingley Hall in Stafford I wrote down his equipment, a Vox 2×15 cab and Hi-Watt head, then went out and bought the lot, and it was magnificent, sounded wonderful. So, I got my sound from Jean-Jacques and my strap from Paul Simonon. I’m so pleased I never got into Level 42. (“We need to get rid of this Nazi artwork”, pg. 112)

I laughed at that last line, because I’m old enough to know about Level 42. But you won’t need to know about bands or anything else from that time and place to find this book very funny in places:

That was when we discovered that it was easier to give drink away than it was to get people to pay for it – an important lesson, that, and one we made great use of during the Haçienda years. (“Timeline Four: January-December 1979”, pg. 232)

Hook has a sly and sardonic wit. He and Barney enjoyed playing practical jokes on other band-members and on other bands (Barney “can’t take them, mind, as you’ll discover”). But he says that he wishes he’d spent less time doing that and more time paying attention to the problems Ian Curtis was having. Most readers won’t have heard of one of those problems before:

Having piles was a feature of being in Joy Division. Ian got them from sitting on the heater at T.J. Davidson’s [a cold rehearsal studio] and both Twinny [a roadie] and I got them from the van during the European tour in 1980. [JD’s manager] Terry Mason’s would regularly explode. But you know what? As far as I know, Bernard never had piles, just a sore arse. (“Timeline Two: June 1976-December 1977”, pg. 90)

Hook isn’t a hagiographer and Curtis wasn’t hagiographable. Like Kurt Cobain’s, his suicide starts to look more and more inevitable in hindsight. And there were big similarities between Cobain and Curtis: both were highly intelligent and autodidactic, both had tortured, introspective psychologies and serious chronic illnesses, both had troubled relationships with their wives and friends. They left “young and good-looking corpses” by different means, Curtis with a rope and Cobain with a shot-gun, but that reflects the nations they lived in. Not that their corpses were good-looking, of course. It was the photographs and films taken before then that were good-looking.

Image is an essential part of rock music. But Joy Division had much more of a hinterland than Nirvana, I’d say. They were more innovative and original in their music, more intelligent in their lyrics, more eclectic in their influences. The “thick bastard” Peter Hook can claim a lot of credit for the musical innovation and originality. So can his fellow thickie Bernard Sumner, whose obsession with the Second World War influenced the image and designs that helped the band to fame. Those designs included the picture of a “Hitler Youth banging a drum” on their Ideal for Living EP.

But it was Ian Curtis who took the name “Joy Division” from the supposed Holocaust-memoir House of Dolls (1955), where it was given to women working as prostitutes in a concentration camp. Joy Division would have been a good sardonic name if it had been invented from nothing. Alas for Hooky and Co, it wasn’t. The source of their name and the drumming Hitler-Youth inspired the first of the “Are you Nazis?” questions that would haunt the band for the rest of their career. That’s why Hook ends his autobiography with these words, describing how the remaining members of Joy Division decided to carry on after Ian Curtis’s suicide:

Then there was the business of finding a new name. We sat down one day to come up with one, thinking that we were going to learn our lesson this time, and that whatever name we came up with wouldn’t be anything even vaguely Nazi-sounding.

No way, we thought. No fucking way were we going to make that mistake again. (“Epilogue”, pg. 274)

They did make that mistake again, of course. Only it can’t really have been a mistake. They were being sardonic again. And stubborn. It was northern bloody-mindedness. But although Hook often refers to the north and being northern, he doesn’t have the northern inferiority-complex you can see in his fellow Mancunian’s Anthony Burgess’s Little Wilson and Big God (1986). As a self-proclaimed “thick bastard”, he doesn’t mind being inferior.

Only Hook isn’t a Mancunian: he’s a Salfordian. The late great Tony Wilson introduced Joy Division’s first TV appearance like this: “They’re a Manchester band, with the exception of the guitarist, who comes from Salford – very important difference.” Hook reacted like this:

Fucking tosser – “the guitarist who comes from Salford”? Two of us came from Salford. I was really annoyed. I was proud of my roots, whereas Bernard always played them down. (“We need to get rid of this Nazi artwork”, pg. 110)

“Fucking tosser” is how many people reacted to Tony Wilson, but Wilson didn’t mind. Like Ian Curtis, he was the kind of person who would say “in terms of”; unlike Ian Curtis, the phrase suited him. He and his Factory label are central to the story of Joy Division and New Order, and he maybe doesn’t get the space he deserves here. He certainly wouldn’t think so and he was certainly an interesting character: flamboyant, narcissistic, publicity-hungry, and Svengali-esque. Or so he no doubt liked to think of himself. As Hook writes: “One of Tony’s favourite sayings was: ‘Always keep your bands poor. That way they make great music.’” (pg. 245)

Hook thinks he was right. Being poor and literally hungry has been responsible for a lot of great music. Joy Division are one example and if you’re a fan you should definitely read this book. It doesn’t have any hot groupie-action, but it has a lot more that you don’t usually find in a rock autobiography, like Hook’s encounter with some huge, home-invading Jamaican spiders and the time he was questioned by the police as a possible Yorkshire Ripper. That was because his van had been spotted regularly in the red-light districts of “Bradford, Huddersfield, Leeds, Moss Side…” (pg. 118) He explained to the police that he was playing clubs there in a band called Joy Division. The police “had never heard of them.” Hook comments: “Probably Level 42 fans.”

A few years later, though, the same policemen might well have been New Order fans. Hook writes about New Order in a later autobiography and I’d definitely like to read that after finishing this. I’d also like to read Hook’s The Haçienda: How Not to Run a Club (2010). If it’s funnier than this book, and it probably is, then it must be very funny.

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Morbid: The Mephitic Memoirs of Miriam B. Stimbers, Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (TransVisceral Books 2018)

(This is a guest-review by Dr Benjamin H. Rubinberg)

Miriam Stimbers is, in my opinion, the most important psychoanalyst at work anywhere in the world today. When she began her career, the prospects within academia for psychoanalysis must have seemed less than rosy. Unrelentingly vicious and increasingly underhand attacks had been made on Freud’s golden legacy since the end of the Second World War. We had been told that psychoanalysis was irrational and anti-empirical, authoritarian and misogynistic, that it was a pseudo-scientific cult for the superstitious, simplistic and statistically illiterate.

Miriam responded to these attacks by defiantly taking Freudian techniques to new heights of psychoanalytic sophistication and seismographic subtlety. She began her career detecting “Angst, Abjection and Anthropophagy” in the seemingly carefree music of Suzi Quatro. She went on to unearth “Barbarism, Brutalism and Bestial Bloodlust” in the apparently mild-mannered music of Simon and Garfunkel. More recently, in what is perhaps her greatest triumph to date, she has laid bare “Castration, Clitoridolatry and Communal Cannibalism” in the superficially ‘civilized’ novels of Jane Austen. And anyone who has read a single paragraph in any one of these jaw-dropping studies must have asked her- or himself: What is the back-story of this remarkable scholar?

Morbid: The Mephitic Memoirs of Miriam B. Stimbers is Miriam’s own attempt to answer that question, containing what she describes as “an uncompromising chronicle of my first fifty years on Earth.” The opening fifteen of those years were difficult ones, to put it mildly. Miriam was born in the notoriously rough-hewn Scottish city of Glasgow and had authentically atrocious “Parents from Hell.” Both were alcoholics, both were addicted to violence, both seemed to thrive on chaos and conflict. Miriam admits that she may well have inherited her own “committed contrarianism” from her “tram-conductress” mother, but she says that memories like the following still have the power to chill her blood at several decades’ distance:

Ma stood swaying in the door of the living-room, flushed with a mixture of cheap whiskey and vindictive triumph.

“Weel, Ah’ve done it!” she announced.

“Done whit, ye auld bitch?” responded Pa with a belch, scarcely troubling to look up from where he sat slumped in his armchair, listening to the racing results on our battered 1950s radio.

“Ah’ve joint the fuckin’ Tories!”

That attracted Pa’s attention.

“The fuck ye have!”

“Aye, an’ Ah have at that.”

“Ah’ll no have nae fuckin’ Tory under this roof!”

“An’ there ye’re wrang, ye auld cunt. ’Cos Ah’m a fuckin’ Tory an’ Ah’m under this roof right noo, see?”

“Weel, then, ye can clear yer fuckin’ airse off oot of it!”

“The fuck Ah will!”

“Ye will an’ all, woman, or Ah’ll boot ye oot!”

Most days, Pa would have thrown something hard and heavy by now, but I could see him squinting and blinking first at Ma in the doorway, then at the bottles sitting on the floor by his chair. He was seeing double again. (ch. 2, “Ye Can Take the Girrul Oot-a Glasgae…”, pp. 23-4)

That episode from Miriam’s home-life is horrifying on many levels, no? But it was not so bad as it might seem. Despite her shocking avowal, Miriam’s mother was being deceitful: she had not in fact joined “the Tories,” that is, Britain’s loathsomely racist and white-supremacist Conservative party. She was merely seeking to provoke her husband into a fight. In this, as so often before and later, she succeeded and the young Miriam was soon once again ringing for a pair of ambulances and mopping blood off the carpet. It is little wonder that Miriam sought a refuge from the violence and vindictiveness of her home-life in the calmer, kinder and caringer world of books and literature, nor that she should have set her heart on winning a scholarship and becoming the first person in her extended family of “boozers and brawlers” to attend university.

The scholarship – “my magic carpet to a better world,” as Miriam calls it – took her to Merton College, Oxford, and introduced her to some of the most exciting and up-to-date developments in literary theory. But she had already lost her heart to a certain roguish revolutionary from Vienna: Herr Sigmund Freud. Miriam has proved unflinchingly faithful to Freud and Freudianism right to the present day. Her move from Britain to the United States has merely strengthened her commitment and deepened her respect. Indeed, on the day that disaster struck her new homeland and a “bouffant buffoon” (as Miriam cuttingly puts it) was elected to the White House, she says that she found herself “literally praying to my wise old Meister.”

Despair was nevertheless an ever-present temptation in the wake of Trump’s “toxic triumph,” but Miriam says that she was determined to remain strong both for the the planet’s sake and for the sake of her life-partner Dr Nigel M. Goldbaum, who is, in her own words, “a proud member of the Black-African Diaspora (despite the racist assumptions made by sickeningly many people on first hearing his name).” Miriam has never taken the comfortable route or sought the quiet life. “It would have been very easy,” she writes of her trans-Atlantic move, “to take advantage of white privilege, to sleep with powerful white men, and to coast to superficial success in America. I could not do that. I will not do that. Hier stehe Ich – Ich kann nicht anders.”

She’s right. She won’t do that. But we can be sure that she will continue to thrust the boundaries of psychoanalysis outward, upward, and downward, just as we can be sure that she will continue to alternately intrigue her adventurous readers and traumatize her timid colleagues. Miriam Stimbers is the psychoanalyst of the century and Morbid is a must-read autobiography for fans old and new alike.


A Seriously Stimbulating Stimbibliography

Penetrating the (Pernicious) Portal: Towards a Pre-Anthropology of the Knock-Knock Joke (Oxford University Press 1992)
Miscegenation, Misogyny, and (Mephitic) Mimesis: Towards a Post-Anthropology of the Lightbulb Joke (O.U.P. 1995)
Can the Cannibal? Aspects of Angst, Abjection and Anthropophagy in the Music of Suzi Quatro, 1974-1986 (University of Nebraska Press 2004)
Doubled Slaughter: Barbarism, Brutalism and Bestial Bloodlust in the Music of Simon and Garfunkel, 1965-2010 (Serpent’s Tail 2007)
Law of the ’Saw: Terror, Teratology, and Tmetic Tenebrosity in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (U.N.P. 2010)
Kentucky Fried Freud: Candid Confessions of a 21st-Century Psychoanalyst… (TransVisceral Books 2012)
Re-Light My Führer: Nausea, Noxiousness and Neo-Nazism in the Music of Take That, 1988-2007 (U.N.P. 2013)
Base Citizens Raping: Revulsion, Repulsion and Rabidity in the Music of the Bay City Rollers, 1972-2002 (U.N.P. 2014)
Botty: An Unnatural History of the Backside (TransVisceral Books 2014) (reviewed here)
Jane in Blood: Castration, Clitoridolatry and Communal Cannibalism in the Novels of Jane Austen (U.N.P. 2014)
Underground, Jehovahground: Ferality, Fetidity and Fundamentalist Phantasmality in the Music of the Wombles, August 1974-January 1975 (TransVisceral Books 2015)
Komfort Korps: Cuddles, Calmatives and Cosy Cups of Cocoa in the Music of Korpse-Hump Kannibale, 2003-2010 (U.N.P. 2015)

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Risingtidefallingstar, Philip Hoare (Fourth Estate 2017)

The best thing about this book is, I was disappointed to learn, the photo by Mary Martin on the front cover. The black clothes, the scarlet cap, the bursting wave in the distance and the blurred, jumping feet: it’s intense, instantaneous art. If the text had lived up to it, this would have been a very good book. But it doesn’t live up to it and I’d call it good only in patches. Robert Macfarlane, who’s included in the “Thanks” at the end, is better at turning his encounters with earth and sea into digressive, rambling, allusive and anecdotal literature.

That’s what I’ve found, anyway. Hoare’s prose seems a bit stiff and constrained. I don’t find it easy to read and I wish I did, because he has some interesting ideas and writes about some interesting people, all the way from Wilfred Owen and Stephen Tennant to Sylvia Plath and David Bowie. And there are interesting black-and-white images to accompany everything. That’s why the lack of an index is such a serious flaw: when a book is full of information, it should have sign-posts.

But the lack of one sign-post is a good thing. Hoare is homosexual, but doesn’t write about being so here. He isn’t self-obsessed: he’s sea-obsessed. He describes swimming in the sea again and again in this book and he tries hard to make his writing into a swirling, surging sea of sounds, sights and symbolism. For me, he fails, but the effort was worthwhile.

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Æsthete’s Foot — Quennell, Acton and Powell on Waugh, Oxford and Crowley

Coo’ on Wu — extracts about Evelyn Waugh from Diana Cooper’s letters to her son John Julius Norwich.

Pinal Chap — Max Beerbohm’s memoir of Swinburne

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Cover of The Maximum Security Yoga Club by Mikita BrottmanThe Maximum Security Yoga Club, Mikita Brottman (TransVisceral Books 2017)

(This is a guest review by Dr Rachel Edelstein)

June 2015. Anglo-American academic Mikita Brottman sets off in her eco-friendly Honda Hopi to the Jessup Correctional Facility on the outskirts of Baltimore. It will be her first day running a yoga club for prisoners at the notorious maximum-security jail — and her hopes are high. For the next eight months those hopes seem to be fully realized. That first session goes very well and those succeeding it go even better. Dozens of new prisoners are soon clamoring to join the club.

Then Mikita introduces her by now tight-knit group of eager students to a new asana – a posture she has invented herself with just them in mind…

The following day her yoga club is abruptly canceled by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (MDPSCS). Mikita reaches out in an increasingly bewildered and desperate attempt to uncover why the authorities have taken this harsh and completely unexpected step, cutting her off from all contact with prisoners with whom she has bonded deeply and whose personalities and psychology she has been observing with an incisive but compassionate eye. As she writes in chapter four:

The MDPSCS at first refused to return my calls or answer any of my letters and emails, but I finally managed to get an “unofficial” response from one of the prison-guards with whom I had worked, and with whom – so I thought – I had forged a mutually respectful and considerate professional relationship. I had to read his email several times before its meaning fully sank in, so disconnected, incoherent and (frankly) illogical did it seem to my disbelieving gaze. I quote here an extract: “Your so-called club has killed two prisoners and left three others paralyzed for life. You can count yourself lucky that the Department is not suing your pasty-white posterior to Alaska and back. And you have the effrontery to ask why the club has been canceled? Please, Dr Brottman: give me a break!”

I was deeply disturbed by the tone and dismissiveness of this communication. Yes, there was a grain of truth in its assertions: the new asana had not gone as well as I might have liked. And yes, five members of the club did break their necks, of whom two died on the spot and three were, in the email’s cold and clinical phraseology, “left paralyzed for life.” But was this any reason to cancel a club that had been fatality-free on no fewer than forty-six previous occasions? To my mind, it was not. I continued to probe for the true reason behind the MDPSCS’s abrupt and shocking decision. (chapter 4, “Orwell’s Shadow”, pg. 124)

Her efforts are unavailing – but worse is to come for the mild-mannered literary scholar and yoga-enthusiast. As the US presidential campaign begins and the appalling rhetoric of Donald Trump incites the most reprehensible elements of so-called white America, Mikita finds herself adopted as an “alt-right icon” by vile racists who believe that the unfortunate events at that final session of her yoga-club were no accident. She quotes a typical email: “Way to go, girl! You should get a Congressional Medal for smuggling yourself into the jail and tricking all them dumb n*****s into trusting you like that! 88!”

Needless to say, these unjust, unfair and totally unfounded insinuations are an additional and almost unbearable burden for Mikita to carry. And be in no doubt: The Maximum Security Yoga Club is certainly a tale of trauma and tragedy. But it is ultimately one also of hope, as Mikita finds a chink of light amid the darkness by adopting a false name and starting a Tantric aromatherapy-and-origami club at a maximum-security psychiatric facility (which she leaves unnamed for obvious reasons).

Combining cutting-edge psychoanalysis with deeply personal memoir, The Maximum Security Yoga Club will take you on a roller-coaster ride of extreme emotion and edgy insight as it interrogates a seething underbelly of obstreperous obstructionism right at the heart of Maryland officialdom.

 


STOP-PRESS A TransVisceral Books press-release brings the unhappy news that the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has followed tiny clues in The Maximum Security Yoga Club and unmasked the false identity Mikita used to gain access to the Hyman T. Rubinstein Ultra-Max Mental Hospital. Her Tantric aromatherapy-and-origami club there has been canceled and she is now threatened with prosecution for impersonation, fraud and misuse of federal facilities. Please see the TransVisceral website for further details of this devastating new development.

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Lytton Strachey by Dora Carrington (1916)

Lytton Strachey by Dora Carrington (1916)


I’d prefer to have met Strachey’s work first in this book rather than in Eminent Victorians (1918). Then the best would have been still to come. As it was, I first read Eminent Victorians, then sought out more of his work and was disappointed. Victoria (1921) is dull, Elizabeth and Essex (1928) duller.

The Shorter Strachey is much better than those two. Indeed, one short essay on Lodowick Muggleton is worthy to stand beside the long essay on Cardinal Manning that opens Eminent Victorians. This is very good writing:

Never did the human mind attain such a magnificent height of self-assertiveness as in England about the year 1650. Then it was that the disintegration of religious authority which had begun with Luther reached its culminating point. The Bible, containing the absolute truth as to the nature and the workings of the Universe, lay open to all; it was only necessary to interpret its assertions; and to do so all that was wanted was the decision of the individual conscience. In those days the individual conscience decided with extraordinary facility. Prophets and prophetesses ranged in crowds through the streets of London, proclaiming, with complete certainty, the explanation of everything. The explanations were extremely varied: so much the better — one could pick and choose. One could become a Behmenist, a Bidellian, a Coppinist, a Salmonist, a Dipper, a Traskite, a Tryonist, a Philadelphian, a Christadelphian, or a Seventh Day Baptist, just as one pleased. Samuel Butler might fleer and flout at

petulant, capricious sects,
The maggots of corrupted texts;

but he, too, was deciding according to the light of his individual conscience. By what rule could men determine whether a text was corrupted, or what it meant? The rule of the Catholic Church was gone, and henceforward Eternal Truth might with perfect reason be expected to speak through the mouth of any fish-wife in Billingsgate. (“Muggleton”, in Portraits in Miniature, 1931)

Elsewhere, Strachey writes well but not exceptionally on subjects as varied as Voltaire and Frederick the Great, the acting of Sarah Bernhardt, the humour of Dostoevsky, and his own life. He’s witty, perceptive, and, in the autobiographical pieces at least, unblushingly candid. His day-description “Monday June 26th 1916”, in which he longs for a flyweight boxer in the Daily Mirror and tries to realize a daydream of seducing “that young postman with the fair hair and lovely country complexion who had smiled at me and said ‘Good evening, sir’, as he passed on his bicycle”, couldn’t have been published in his lifetime.

Which didn’t last long. It began in 1880 and ended in 1932. There were big changes in those five decades and Strachey was at the heart of some of them. Eminent Victorians was an important book, part of the revolt against the old order provoked by the slaughter and futility of the First World War, but it wouldn’t have been so successful if it hadn’t been so well-written.

You’ll see here that Strachey was rebelling against part of himself: there’s Victorian stodginess in some of the essays and reviews, even if they were written after Eminent Victorians. But “Muggleton” is as light as a soufflé. It’s also affectionate rather than acid. It would have been a foretaste of literary bliss, if I’d read this book first.

I’d didn’t, but you should if you don’t know Strachey. If you do, you’ll learn a lot more about him here. There are also glimpses of others in the Bloomsbury Set, like Ottoline Morrell and Dora Carrington. And The Shorter Strachey closes with four essays on French literature and culture, which were both very important to Strachey. The French writer Jean Giradoux supplies his epitaph: « Seuls les médiocres sont toujours à leur meilleur. » – “Only the mediocre are always at their best.” Strachey wasn’t mediocre and wasn’t always at his best. But he got there in “Muggleton” and got close elsewhere in this book.

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19186368.jpgA Buzz in the Meadow, Dave Goulson (Jonathan Cape 2014)

A book that is both a rhapsody and a threnody: Dave Goulson celebrates nature and laments what we’re losing of it. This is what he says in the preface:

In 2003 I bought a derelict farm deep in the heart of rural France, together with thirteen hectares of surrounding meadow. My aim was to create a wildlife sanctuary, a place where butterflies, dragonflies, voles and newts could thrive, free from the pressures of modern agriculture. In particular I was keen to create a space for my beloved bumblebees, creatures I have spent the last twenty years studying and attempting to conserve. (pg. ix)

Bumblebees were the subject of his previous book, A Sting in the Tale (2013). I haven’t read that, but if it’s half as good as this I will certainly enjoy it. Perhaps it’s better: Goulson is a biologist who can both educate and entertain. Expect the unexpected here: he writes about bumblebees and wild-flowers with the same enthusiasm as he writes about cheese and wine.

He’s also good at using the particular to illustrate the general. You’ll learn a lot about science and the scientific method here, from the “robotic beetle drum” he used to study death-watch beetles to the creation of “mathematical models” for predicting outbreaks of flies at a landfill site. Biology is full of puzzles and solving one often creates another. Not that they are always easy to solve: failure and frustration are part of science too and Goulson is happy to admit his own.

But he isn’t happy about the loss of wild habitats and the quickening pace of extinctions. Homo sapiens could also be called Homo exterminans:

New Zealand was colonised much more recently, about 1,000 years ago. As there were no mammals apart from bats, giant birds evolved there, including at least eleven species of moa, the largest of which stood 3.6 metres high, the tallest bird ever to live. They must have been terribly easy to track and kill, for carbon-dating of Maori middens suggests that all eleven species were driven to extinction within just 100 years of man’s arrival. (ch. 15, pg. 242; his emphasis)

It’s a long way from French meadows to Maori middens, as the crow flies, but similar themes apply: humans have exercised power over nature without proper thought for the consequences. Science is giving us more power all the time, but will it kill us or cure us? Dave Goulson is a scientist who increases my hope of the latter.

He also links apparently disparate parts of biology: parasites are part of both botany and entomology. Yellow rattle is a hemi-parasitic plant that exploits grasses and the bumblebees that visit it are parasitized by mites. The world is a web in more ways than one and many aspects of the web are described in this happy, hopeful and highly enjoyable book.

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You've Had Your Time by Anthony Burgess
You’ve Had Your Time: Being the Second Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess, Anthony Burgess (Heinemann 1990)

After the excellent Little Wilson and Big God, this was a big disappointment. Burgess’s life before fame seems to have been much more interesting than his life after it. This is partly because of his wife before fame: the alcoholic Welshwoman Lynne Burgess, née Llewela Isherwood Jones, is much more memorable than the scholarly Italian Liana Burgess. He ended Little Wilson thinking that he had a year to live and a year to create a pension for Lynne.

That was in 1959, but he was still alive in 1968 when Lynne died of cirrhosis of the liver. Before that, again and again, “she drank deep” and “became fierce-eyed and lively, ready for argument, anecdote, fist-fights.” (Part 2, pg. 111) As Burgess says: “She was, God help her, never dull.” Nor was he. But his life became less interesting as his fame increased. Or perhaps he simply grew less interested in it. He evoked pre-war Manchester and post-war Malaya vividly in Little Wilson, but Italy, Malta, America and Monaco don’t live on the page here. This is a rare flash of memorability:

We were in brutal country [in Sicily], the land of the Mafia. Taking coffee in a side-street, we heard a young man, swarthy as an Arab, tell his friend of his forthcoming marriage. He was going to paint his penis purple, he said, and if his bride evinced surprise he was going to cut her throat. (Part 3, pg. 182)

I wonder if that was a joke when the young man noticed them eavesdropping. Elsewhere, Burgess encountered folk who were swarthier still. This is about his time as a “Distinguished Professor” at “New York City College”, where he gave a course on Shakespeare:

The sessions were held in a large lecture hall on Convent Avenue, and outside this lecture hall was a cashier’s office complete with guichet before which black students waited to receive a weekly subsistence allowance. Whether they were more than merely nominal students I never discovered; I know only that they waited with competing cassette recorders of the kind called ghetto blasters, and that their noise prevented me from making a start on my lecture. I rebuked them and received coarse threats in return, as well as scatological abuse which was unseemly in any circumstances but monstrous when directed at even an undistinguished professor. (Part Four, pp. 274-5)

If you are shocked and disgusted by such uncouth and uncivilized behaviour, imagine how the poor Black students must have felt. That was in 1973 and it’s sad to see that, nearly half-a-century later, the fetid stench of white supremacism hangs as heavy as ever on the air of American colleges.

Burgess plainly was – and plainly is – one of the white males responsible for this sorry situation. As both volumes of his autobiography reveal, he was much more concerned with literature, music and art than with social justice. Time and again he attempts to defend his white privilege and male privilege with appeals to universalism and the supremacy of the imagination. That defence isn’t good enough and perhaps, as his long day waned, he recognized his failure to fight for equality and was enervated by it. That would also explain why You’ve Had Your Time is so much duller than Little Wilson and Big God.

Encroaching senility is another explanation. In the introduction to this book, Burgess says one of the most fatuous things I have ever read: “I was in the Catholic church long enough to know that anyone may confess and, indeed, has to.” How long does one have to be in the Catholic church to know that? Or out of it? That’s writing on auto-pilot, like much of what follows. If you’re interested in Burgess, you should definitely read this book, but I’m certain that it doesn’t receive as many second and third readings as Little Wilson.

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