Saturday, 22 October 2011

The Politics of Farcing - Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by PG Wodehouse

It's extraordinarily difficult to review a Wodehouse novel and finding something new or different to say.  And that applies on both the level of a single novel and his output as a whole.  It's de rigeur to note the immaculate nature of his story construction, the clockwork precision of  his farce. They're comedy symphonies, each note in the right place, each theme and instrument expertly foreshadowed and coming in at precisely the right time.  Farce has had a bad reputation in my lifetime, the sophisticates of the Eighties dismissing them as uncool and beneath them, primarily due to their associations with the seaside postcard humour of the Carry On films or the trouser dropping of Brian Rix.  Bawdy, unsophisticated and reliant on nudges and winks, they were as embarrassing as Eric Idle's character in the Monty Python 'nudge nudge, wink wink' sketch.  Arguably, given the decline of the farce through the Seventies and the desperation to avoid the label in subsequent decades you can trace the apparent decline of the genre back to that Python sketch, and perhaps to the satire boom heralded by Private Eye and Beyond the Fringe.  What one generation saw as sophisticated replacing the entertainments of previous generations.

Arguably that's down to a decline in the quality of farce during the Sixties too - it happens when a genre becomes popular, every writer cashes in, no matter how ill suited they are to writing it, or how tapped out of ideas they are.  Eventually you end up with the likes of Carry On Emmanuelle, an attempt to spoof soft porn via sex farce. My generation, the children of the baby boomers, grew up with farce as a dirty word.  Which might explain why I came to Wodehouse relatively late, subconsciously tarring him by association.  But on a nuts and bolts level there's little difference between Wodehouse and Talbot Rothwell, it's simply a matter of presentation and class.  Sex is too vulgar to impinge on Wodehouse's interwar aristocratic bliss, it's Rothwell's only trick - Wodehouse deals almost exclusively with the upper classes, Rothwell with the lower.  But the embarrassment, the characters only entangling themselves deeper in the web as they struggle to escape it, are common to both.  Wodehouse is simply classier, an exemplar from before it was debased by the inevitable lowest common denominator reintroduction of sex as a prime plot driver - a return to the roots of the form after its appropriation by the dilettante upper classes.

But then perhaps it's best to come to Wodehouse late.  It really wouldn't have said enough to the me of twenty years ago, it wasn't daring or angry about anything. Not on the surface anyway.   Instead he's content to be entertaining, to be light and funny.  And therein lies Wodehouse's brilliance.  Overtly there's no point to the stories but to entertain, to make people laugh with something of no real consequence.  But under the surface, whether Wodehouse meant it or not, it's scathing of the upper classes.  The whole series of Jeeves novels revolves around the idiocy of Bertie Wooster and similarly solipsistic upper classes. The boom of the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression of the Thirties - they have little effect on Wooster's world, perhaps only through the parodying of the British fascists in The Code of the Woosters.  If nothing else, Wodehouse's immediate reaction, to laugh at Moseley's Blackshirts, should tell anyone precisely why fascism never really took hold of Britain whilst it rose in other cultures.  Which might be precisely why we should worry about the prominence of the right wing press in Britain now, who seem to have had their sense of humour and perspective surgically extracted.  But anyway...  really, Wodehouse might be the first popular modern satirist, encouraging laughter at the aristocratic classes and providing the roots of the comedy form that eventually supplanted farce as the most popular form of comedy.  And all under the cover of perfectly constructed popular entertainment, where the satire is only an extra level to enjoy. It's there that the likes of Rothwell fell down, trying to apply farce to complex issues such as trade unionism.  Wodehouse is clever enough to be broad in his targets, so as not to offend, Rothwell too specific and engaging with issues beyond his capability to deal with.  It's the difference between a Da Vinci or Van Gogh and a child's drawing.

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit itself?  It's a quintessential Wodehouse farce, Wooster amiably stupid and eventually rescued from his well-intentioned misdoings by Jeeves.  All done with typical Wodehousian charm, another trademark.  Unlike other authors Wodehouse never descends to contempt for his characters, no matter how much he writes for them.  That might be the best lesson to learn from these books, particularly for the less adept of the satirists that became the comedy establishment.  Simple contempt can be ill directed, an ill reasoned view based on one's own prejudices.  And it's unattractive.  Gentle ribbing, using characters who audiences can sympathise with work better, and endure longer.  Being inclusive can increase the audience, being caustic only erodes that audience.  Wodehouse was clever enough that the world he created, of feckless aristocrats, became timeless, transcending those times to become almost a bubble outside the times.    It's proof that satire's most effective when it's an iron fist in a velvet glove.  Spearing the targets of your time specifically is a quick way to ensure your work becomes dated, that it won't survive time's inevitable effect of altering language and context.  Wodehouse's amiability and way with a well turned phrase doesn't mean he'll necessarily survive forever, but it's given him a longevity beyond that of many peers.  Wheaton's Law* it seems, has always held true, even if you're dead.

* Don't be a dick

Pop Has Eaten Itself - Retromania by Simon Reynolds

Retromania feels like an immensely important piece of work - given Reynolds' track record, it almost couldn't be anything else. I'd go so far as to say it feels like a book his career's been building up to, and given the quality of his work to date I mean that as a high compliment. This isn't a simple genre history a la Rip It Up... or Energy Flash, it's a sustained piece of critical thinking drawing on his lifetime of listening to music and attempting to take stock, deliver a verdict on where we are, why we're there and where we might go next. A description of it as a 'state of the musical nation' is pretty close, though I'd argue that it does in places attempt to go even wider and talk about the state of the cultural nation in general. Hell, Ian Levine gets a whole boxout to himself here and not just in relation to his Northern Soul activities.

It's that attempt to address the entire state of pop music that's the book's big flaw. Reynolds admits in his introduction that this time the book is essentially being made up as he goes along, hence changing his usual working practice of writing the introduction last in an attempt to find some focus to his theory. It means the books a little looser than his previous work, flitting between ideas but essentially lacking a true narrative drive to present a bigger picture. I don't mind that though, to me that allows Reynolds' theories to be explored without imposing an ideology - I admire him for allowing himself to muse on whether his theories are correct or whether it's the product of advancing age and musical saturation. Lesser writers wouldn't have dared acknowledge that in fear that their ideas might be undermined.

Where I might draw issue with Reynolds (aside from him possibly looking in the wrong places) is in his view of music. I'm open to correction but up til recently Reynolds seems to have viewed music as an ever advancing wave of progress, moving inexorably forward. I couldn't shake the feeling that Retromania was him reaching the natural limits of that view. Maybe we are reaching an edge and instead of going forwards we have to look back and expand on the nooks and crevices we might have missed first time round. Or maybe we're waiting for a second coming of punk* so that we can, to wear out a phrase, rip it up and start again. Perhaps we need that energy of going back to basics so we can strike out in a completely different direction to the one we've been going in. Or hey, maybe we're all just getting old and haven't the innocence to hear music in a fresh way any more.

Do I agree with his thesis? I certainly wouldn't disagree on the general thrust of the book regarding auto-cannibalisation of the past. But then perhaps it's simply influences are more obvious than they used to be. It is, after all, near impossible to be completely original, every musical movement has grown from or in reaction to another. Complete originality is a difficult concept to quantify and I think perhaps the point Reynolds makes regarding the greater access to culture leading paradoxically to a shrinking pool of influences is more key than it appears. Perhaps pop culture's subsiding into a distinct set of niche ecologies with genres or aspects being thoroughly explored rather than interacting with each other in unexpected ways. Perhaps the future lies in twisting old ideas to new uses, retooling them so they're relevant rather than drive ourselves mad trying to think entirely outside the notional box of our cultural reference points.

I think it gives an important critical focus to this issue though - certainly if the number of music journalists who were tweeting or writing about it is anything to go by it's likely to prove a very influential piece of thinking simply by the way it'll feed into their writing. There's a certain irony about the possibility of a book about the fetishisation of the old seeding new ideas.

* by which I mean an ideological second coming, not simply borrowing the outfits and sounds of previous generations once more.

(originally posted as part of the Retromania thread on GallifreyBase, thoroughly recommended along with the thread about The Strokes' Is This It)

Friday, 21 October 2011

Ice Ice Baby - Doctor Who: The Silent Stars Go By by Dan Abnett

I confess to having a soft spot for Dan Abnett's writing.  Back in the dim and distant days of yore, when the show was being treated as an anachronism by a BBC management predisposed to try to quietly strangle it to death rather than rectify glaring production deficiencies, Abnett wrote a few DWM comic strips.  It was at a time when the comic strip was at a low ebb, when good stories were so thin on the ground that getting a single frame image of all seven Doctors was enough to win seemingly wild acclaim for one story.  Of course, I might have been suffering from post-Frobisher depression, but then I really didn't like Lee Sullivan's artwork at all, a problem when he was the main artist on the strip.  My kind disposition toward Abnett's work might have been due to his debut on the strip, Echoes of the Mogor, being drawn by John Ridgway, a reminder of what was arguably the strip's high water mark, the Sixth Doctor era.  Abnett's main contribution was the only story of the Seventh Doctor's comic strip that remotely approached the ambition of The Tides of Time or Voyager, The Mark of Mandragora.  Even then it depended partly on derivative thrills, but it was at least trying.

I haven't really followed Abnett's career outside of the strip (and the odd Torchwood novel) since - apparently he's quietly become a New York Times bestseller since, so he's certainly done well for himself.  Well enough that his first Doctor Who novel is the second of BBC Books' prestige hardbacks, following on from Michael Moorcock's The Coming of the Terraphiles.  It's a slight eyebrow raiser - for all Abnett's New York Times bestseller status he's not as respected a name as Moorcock (or even Alastair Reynolds or Stephen Baxter who're penning subsequent volumes in the series).  Nor does it demand extra space for the story to be told, as Terraphiles did - it's not a great deal longer than the standard NSA and could probably easily have fitted that length by having a set piece or two cut.  It does allow for some fine design work on the cover by Lee Binding though, an action pose by two Ice Warriors apparently viewed between close up snowflakes.  There's some thought gone into this, using the cover to feed  into the wintry atmosphere Abnett's trying to evoke with his story.  It helped, particularly given I started to read this on an unseasonably warm October day when it's clearly designed to be unwrapped and read on a freezing cold Christmas Day.

But beyond expectations the presentation might encourage, what do we get?  It's a perfectly competent story, the Doctor and companions in constant motion as they try to find out what the Ice Warriors are up to and why they're trying to wipe out the Morphans.  It's a decent translation of the style and pace of a TV episode to the page, right down to his spot on portrayal of the TV regulars, and it comes with a beautifully executed twist as to the nature of the planet.  Creditably too, he doesn't build up the appearance of the Ice Warriors as a big revelatory movement, instead playing with the expectations of the audience who know them (and those who don't know them but expect a Big Evil Monster).  They're well-worn tricks, and their deployment is well-timed by the author but again, it doesn't try and tell a different type of story or aim for an epic scale.  We don't get any big revelations about the Ice Warriors, although there's clearly great thought gone into their use here. 

So - it's not particularly innovative, the guest characters are pretty much cardboard, there's a decent but not mindblowing use of an old enemy.  I can't help but feel this would've made a decent, but forgettable typical NSA, but the expectations of something above and beyond a normal Who novel mean it seems overpromoted, blown up to a status it can never quite live up to.  It's perfectly acceptable, perfectly enjoyable if half forgotten the second you put it down.  But it's not the book the prestige format demands.

Ooh Ah... Just a Little Bit - Cantona by Philipe Auclair

If the deeds of footballers as related via their autobiography are all that survives of our civilisation, the future inhabitants of our planet might wonder why we chose such mediocre (though well toned) gods.  Over the course of my footie watching lifetime, footballers of the top echelon have gradually ascended from mere heroes to gods.  No longer are they perceived as mere mortals, men performing glorious deeds on a field of sporting combat, now, after a process of celebritisation, they're portrayed as distant deities with superhuman skills capable of acts beyond the ken of mere mortals.   They're more remote than they used to be, even mediocre players earning in a week or two what might otherwise be considered a very good yearly wage. They live in mansions rendered remote from the public by the kind of security a spectacular wage can buy.   Most of all, they're no longer someone we could become given the right training and opportunities (no, the best we mere mortals can hope for is Football League or, if you're spectacularly unlucky, you could wind up in Scottish or Welsh football).

Of course, it's easy to ascribe this entirely to the interlinked rise of the Premier League and Sky.  The moving of football from a relatively rarity to a weekly event was underway before Sky bought the Premier League rights, but the current status quo, where football saturates TV schedules even outside major international tournaments, would be almost unimaginable twenty years ago.  Thirty years back? Anyone told that live football would become common, with even foreign league matches routinely broadcast live, would have laughed in your face.  There are other factors involved beyond the excellent timing of Sky and the Premier League - English clubs had returned to European competition after the Heysel ban, England's run to the semi-finals of Italia' 90 had made football cool again (along with one of the few genuinely credible football related songs, EnglandNewOrder's World In Motion) and, post-Hillsborough, grounds were being made safer, encouraging the more timid of the middle class fans who'd been scared off by tales of hooliganism to return to grounds. And make no mistake, there were middle class football fans back then, though perhaps not as many. It was simply that football wasn't a topic of conversation, wasn't the social glue it is now.  The Premier League's great trick was in tapping into the support that saw going to an actual game as too expensive or too much trouble, making England's top league accessible to them week in week out without them having to leave their living room.  And in that situation, tapping into a market previously beyond football, the game's popularity could only grow. Sky built the pedestals for the stars of their new show, most of the footballers happily scrambled on to them.  Who wouldn't wanna be adored?

From the perspective of today, with rich owners and huge TV and commercial income allowing the league to be gilded by some of the finest players in the world, the lack of glamour of twenty years ago is a reminder of reality rather than SkySports rewritten history.  The reigning champions were the functional Arsenal side of George Graham, Graeme Souness was busy replacing the artists of an aging Liverpool side with expensive artisans and the side who'd take the title in 1991-92 was an unmemorable Leeds side, livened by the spark of Strachan and sublime passing of Gary McAllister but largely dependent on long balls and the head of Lee Chapman.  It was a brutal world in which the likes of Vinnie Jones prospered in midfield and the sheer physical presence of the likes of Mick Harford and Dion Dublin made them prized strikers.  An insular, almost agrarian environment where foreigners, particularly the skillful players, were largely distrusted - the likes of Jan Molby were glaring exceptions to the rule.  This was the point at which the eccentric career trajectory of Eric Cantona collided with English football and the seeds of English football becoming entertainment as much as sport were sown.  Cantona, with seemingly more charisma than the rest of the league put together, provided the glamour that SkySports had desperately tried to inject with desperate measures such as the SkyStrikers cheerleaders. 

Philippe Auclair's biography is far from a simple study of Cantona's time in the English game - it's only around halfway through the book that the account of his time in England begins. Neither is it a comprehensive biography which covers his post-football exploits including his acting and beach football (and, lately, management) careers.  Instead it concentrates solely on Cantona as a footballer,and his activities relating to that career.  It ends with his retirement in 1997, only briefly seeking even to contextualise what legacy he may have left in football or what legacy football left to Cantona.  This is the cliche of 'football being my life' being exploited to shape the story, with retirement attempts referred to as 'suicide' and 'death'.  That might sound overly dramatic, but it isn't, it's a conceit which allows Auclair to fully bring home the drama and intensity of his subject.  This is an exploration of how Cantona's style of play and his career in the game were an extension of his personality; as concerned with character as it is with narrative.   At one point Auclair makes the point that the tendency of football biographies to hermetically seal themselves from the real world is preposterous, that the actions of footballers are nothing without the context being given of what they mean to the fans. Not only does Auclair put events in the context of clubs and fans, he's always at pains to see the even wider context, both in terms of football and society.  For normal footballers who often appear oblivious to wider events, it may not matter, but in a biography of Cantona, a man often defined as much by what he was reacting against as what he was in himself, it's a stroke of brilliance.  It immediately negates the tendency of football writers to view events in isolation, the sort of writing which leads to a complete lack of understanding as to why things happen.  Auclair's approach allows the reader to delve behind the headlines of Cantona as a nomadic troublemaker and instead seeks to explain his reasons for moving on in each instance.   Whilst it's clear his sympathies lie more with Cantona than those he kicks against, he's not judgemental, allowing the reader to judge actions for themselves.  It's a proper journalistic approach that echews the tendency of footballing biographies to either sensationalise events or justify them.  Each stage of Cantona's career leads to understanding of why events happened, why he failed to fit in at so many clubs. After this you'll understand (if not necessarily agree with) his actions, from his departure from Auxerre, through to the Selhurst Park incident and his eventual retirement. It's a book length illustration of a character, a portrait in the truest sense.  Even for a Liverpool fan, with the painful story of the rise of United to the top of the English game (where the story told here ends) it's compelling.  Fittingly, for Cantona, it's a very different type of biography for a very different type of footballer.

Everything Picture 6 - Timey Wimey Remix

Even if you removed the cover images and the names and descriptions of the Doctor and his companions from the text, you could easily tell these books are based on Moffat's version of Doctor Who - all of them play tricks with time and all three take place in different time zones, although all three come up with very different variations on the timey-wimey theme.

Touched by an Angel comes across as an attempt to rewrite One Day as a Doctor Who novel via (I assume) the Highway to Heaven-esque US TV show from which the book steals its title.  Given that much of the best Doctor Who is stolen from recognisable stories, it's a matter of taste as to whether you think it's a good thing or not - many of the best stories have been openly based on obvious antecedents.  Morris opens the novel with the tragedy that forms the book's MacGuffin, a woman called Rebecca dying a meaningless early death in an accident on a minor country road.  Morris' way of integrating One Day into the Doctor Who format is to make the story about Mark, Rebecca's husband, being offered the chance to prevent the accident via a mysterious letter from a Magwitch style benefactor.  And the price of one man's happiness?  The end of Earth's history just to provide a feast for a band of Weeping Angels.  It's well executed stuff, with the Morris using the Angels as the omnipresent threat they were in Blink and Mark and Rebecca being as convincing as they need to be to carry the novel.  Morris perhaps overdoes the use of pop music as shorthand to show when the book's set, and takes a turn to the saccharine for the ending but the book retains enough charm to more than compensate for those faults.

My previous encounters with George Mann were both via short story, one in the Short Trips collection Transmissions and the other from Obverse Books' Iris Abroad. It's a rarity for me to say that I enjoyed both as Doctor Who can be a difficult format to condense into a short story.  Mann's short story experience isn't quite as irrelevant as it may seem, as with the other two books here it's shaped around one main guest character who the author spends plenty of time establishing.  Angelchrist is an Edwardian adventurer in the literary lineage of Professor Challenger or Allen Quartermain, a one man forerunner of UNIT.  As such, he couldn't really fail to be thoroughly entertaining and you can easily imagine a veteran British character actor making a memorable success of the part were he ever translated to screen.  The antagonists of the book are the Squall, a hive mind creature that resembles a gargoyle and feeds on minds.  Of course, if they manage to spread their infection beyond the confines of the part of London we meet them in they'll suck the Earth dry and irrevocably change galactic history.  They're an ingenious and effective race, and I wouldn't be sorry to see them make a return appearance.  The major paradox is perhaps a little too straightforwardly resolved for my taste, but again, it's a flaw overcome by some good prose and excellent characterisation.

The final book in this batch is easily the best to feature Matt Smith's Doctor, perhaps even the best of the NSAs full stop.  Doctor Who's previous satire about the monetary system, The Sunmakers, was something of a sour attack by Robert Holmes on the tax system of the 1970s, the usual profusion of droll lines not concealing an ill disguised ire on the part of the writer which blunted the satiric intent.  Naomi Alderman's satire is equally as unsubtle, perhaps less, but as it's less judgemental it works much better.  Alderman uses the notion of a satirical portrayal of the banking practices to underpin the whole novel, letting it feed into everything from the nature of her villains to the settings, characters and resolution.  The temptation offered by the villains - more time - is one few people could refuse, a desired convenience out of our current technological reach.  And as it's one you can imagine normal humans falling for in a heartbeat, there's already a note of verisimilitude to characters that, say, everyone in the world having the same satnav system doesn't really provide.  You can sympathise with the characters because they're acting in a believable way from the start.  Alderman's use of the regulars to take a sly poke at corporate culture is ingenious too - it uses our familiarity with them, and Amy and Rory's normality, to point out the little idiocies that build up in any workplace, particularly high powered ones.  Alderman delivers a solid gold idea wrapped up in a rollicking adventure with a soupcon of wit.

In short then, easily the best batch of books the NSAs have yet delivered.  The future's bright... unless, of course, it's destroyed by dastardly aliens...