Coincidences, Priests And Other Nightmares

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I seem these days to be haunted more than ever by coincidence. Perhaps it’s a sign of advancing age: the number of things I think I know have begun to loop back in on each other. Maybe someone in a dark matter dimension is trying to send me urgent messages, a la the movie ‘Interstellar.’

But here, as in the movie, I can’t help wondering why the messages are so difficult to decipher. I mean, if these pan-dimensional beings are as smart as their mastery of multiple dimensions might suggest, why haven’t they figured out the need to seriously dumb things down for my benefit?

The art writer and polymath John Berger has suggested that nature is full of coded messages, but that these messages aren’t necessarily intended for us, and are therefore beyond (or even beneath) our understanding. Ok, but why should we be able to sense them, however imperfectly, in the first place? What possible reason is there for such flawed perception, other than the purpose of gently steering us all towards insanity?

I once dismissed the great Polish film maker Krystof Kieslowski’s ‘Three Colours Red’ as being far too driven by coincidence. Kieslowski explained in a later interview that he believed fervently in coincidences, that he wasn’t sure what they meant but knew they were always at work, beside and beneath the reality we think we know. I was sniffy about all this before. I’m not any more. They’ve just been happening far too often.

Once, during a heroic bout of insomnia, I tried putting myself to sleep by recalling the names of all the 92 teams who had comprised the English Football League when I was a boy (I have a funny head for such things, it’s probably why I can’t sleep).

I managed all but four particularly obscure clubs, and those four were all mentioned by name in a sports broadcast later that morning. Another head bender involved a key moment in Thomas Pynchon’s novel ‘V’ and an old Apple Mac I used to own, but I’m not going there yet. It’s just too mental.

Coincidence struck again only this week. I’d discovered the old 1980 series ‘The Martian Chronicles’ in one of those online vaults of the TV undead. I’d seen the show as a child. In most respects, it’s very much of its time, but it does contain some beautiful ideas, including one of the very best imaginings of a completely alien culture ever attempted on TV or film.

I was struck then and now by the peculiar intensity of Fritz Weaver’s performance as a Priest who comes to Mars both to save souls and find the Martian version of Christ. Only a day or two after watching the episode online came the news of Weaver’s death. Ok, he was 90, but still, you see where I’m going.

Weaver, of course, was primarily a stage actor (he loved Shakespeare and man can you see it even in his TV work) who nevertheless became a familiar presence through many supporting parts in film and TV. His distinctive features and style made him a sort of distant uncle, an eccentric yet mostly charming presence who came to call every couple of years or so.martian-chronicles_fritzmonk

He was the scientist who accidentally creates a new form of computer / human hybrid in ‘Demon Seed.’ He appears on ‘Frasier’ as a high camp old man of the stage, and he features as Miles O’ Brien’s hilariously inept Cardassian defence counsel on Deep Space Nine.

Interestingly, there’s a scene in The Martian Chronicles which must have been pretty taboo busting at the time, and which might even raise a couple of hackles today.

The Martian race is mostly extinct, but was telepathic and lives on through the odd straggler and occasional mental echoes in the minds of the humans who have displaced them.

A Martian’s appearance and identity will change in response to the very powerful desires of the humans around them. They’re a race of alien Zeligs if you will. A fugitive Martian finds his way into Father Peregrine’s (Weaver) church in a human settlement. There, the intensity of Father Peregrine’s desire to meet his Saviour forces the Martian to take on the appearance of Jesus Christ, complete with crown of thorns and bleeding hands.

Father Peregrine’s Jesus pleads with him for release. “Don’t look at me. I am not he.” He says maintaining the form imposed on him by the Priest is killing him. With desperate reluctance, Father Peregrine agrees. He looks away, and Jesus disappears.

The part of Jesus in The Martian Chronicles is played by an English actor named Jon Finch, and if quantum voodoo turns out to be true, and there are an endless number of parallel universes slightly to the west of reality, then there must be a goodly percentage of these in which Finch is the biggest star in the world.

He seems to have been the ultimate nearly man of megastardom. Finch’s most famous role was in the unexpectedly raunchy and creepy late Hitchcock movie ‘Frenzy,’ in which he plays a man wrongly accused of being a rapist and murderer. Fantastically, he actually turned down the chance to succeed Sean Connery as James Bond in the early 70’s, and the part went to Roger Moore instead. Look him up online and try and imagine how that would have been different.

His brushes with greater fame didn’t stop there. He was the original choice to play Kane in Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien.’ Kane is the guy who has an alien erupt from his chest in one of the most shocking scenes ever committed to celluloid. Finch was cast but had to drop out after two days because of a diabetic attack, and the part went to John Hurt instead.

The scene in ‘The Martian Chronicles’ is short, but Finch brings all the necessary charisma and pathos to what must have been a very challenging proposition. As with many actors that history seems to have forgotten, you wonder what might have been. Finch died in 2012.

I sometimes think it would be nice to visit these parallel universes in which things turn out differently. Maybe I’ll find one in which Mars is home to a rich and complex culture, humans only visit it under strictly controlled conditions; I was one of the privileged few, and during the course of the visit, the Martians explained what all the coincidences mean and also cured my insomnia.

They say it is important to dream.

 

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Barbarism And Other Heresies In These Places

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It must be owned that poor old Brian Friel, the Irish playwright who passed away just over a year ago, wrote some marvellous lines. Not quite so many, perhaps, as the Irish would like to believe he did, but then we’ve never been the best judges of this kind of thing, whatever the tourist brochures might say.

The sad occasion of the great man’s passing excited much comment in his native country, but strangely, not so much elsewhere. Where was the obituary in Arts and Letters Daily? They measure things differently over there. It had, after all, been an impressive 24 years since Friel’s last original big hit.

Personally, I think there’s a great deal to recommend plays like ‘Making History,’ ‘Freedom of the City’ and ‘Aristocrats,’ not so much as kinetic dramas perhaps, but as solid and weighty and impressively thought out and occasionally very moving texts. They are among those plays where Friel was most explicitly concerned with themes of history and politics, and this has always tended to render them into minority pursuits.

It’s only become cool to write about politics since the invasion of Iraq, and even then, the conventional wisdom has it that people will at best attend such things grudgingly.

When it comes to writing about Irish history, Ireland’s Cultural Cosa Nostra are deeply leery of anything that might sniff of coming from a nationalist perspective. Friel could do it only because he was so much bigger and older than the Cosa Nostra; later writers find it very difficult indeed to gain an airing.

History which appeals to some sentimental notion the greying bits of Irish America still hold about Ireland is far more likely to sell, and this accounts for a lot of the success of ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ in the early 90’s. I still feel it’s possibly Friel’s most overrated play, a step backward where texts like ‘Faith Healer’ and ‘Translations’ were carefully pondered leaps into an occasionally terrifying unknown.

In fairness to Friel himself however, I doubt commercial calculations about ageing Irish America even entered his head when writing the play. Dancing at Lughnasa’s main themes continue to revolve around history, memory and the mad making inadequacy of language – that tool he had worked with all his life – to express what is really inside the human heart.

It often seems that any truth has a paradox dwelling in its centre, like a black hole in the middle of a galaxy. The relentless interrogation of the properties of language was both part of Friel’s claim to greatness and arguably his most frustrating quality.

I read once that the great Cuban chess grandmaster, Capablanca, bored with games where he kept winning with pretty much the same moves, once called for the enhancement of chess by adding extra pieces and squares to the board. This was back in the 1920’s, and yet other masters came up with ingenious new tactical wrinkles, and in due course dethroned Capablanca.

To put it crudely, the preoccupation with language and all its faults could sometimes make Friel forget about the drama. ‘Faith Healer’ contains some of the most haunting and spectacular language you’re ever likely to read anywhere. It has attracted the talents of no less a figure than Ralph Fiennes, yet I still can’t understand why it’s a play, rather than, say, a brilliantly written short story or novella.

My favourite Friel play is probably ‘Translations’ (it’s also his most quoted), that haunting, relatively short and desperately sad drama set at a pivotal point in Irish history, when the British Army had begun the process of translating every single place name in the Irish language (and there were a lot of them) into ungainly English facsimiles. They were literally annihilating an entire culture through supposedly peaceful assimilation, and someone of Friel’s background and interests couldn’t help but see this as a key moment in terms of designing the future maladies of the Irish State and culture.

‘Translations’ contains one of the cleverest and most poignant love scenes ever written by any dramatist. The peasant girl, Maire, falls in love with an English officer named Yolland. The two break away by themselves and attempt to have a conversation even though neither can speak the other’s language: ‘say anything, I love to hear you speak.’ It is Friel at his deceptively simple best, though now that I think of it, maybe he was on to even more than critics suspected at the time: imagine how many romantic relationships might be enhanced and prolonged by the continued inability to understand what the other person is actually saying.

The play’s most tragic figure is the hedge school master and classical scholar, Hugh O’ Donnell (presumably a descendant of Ulster Kings) whom, if he had born in any country other than Ireland, would have occupied some illustrious chair in some impossibly venerable European University. Instead, he spends his days drinking and obsessing about soda bread to a dwindling band of peasant scholars.

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It is Hugh who utters what I consider Friel’s most quotable line, at least in the sense that I have quoted it too often for comfort. The only problem, of course, is that the line isn’t actually Friel’s, but Ovid’s.

“Barbarus ego sum quia non intelligar ulles.” As translated in the play, it says “I am a barbarian in this place because I am not understood by anybody.”

Were truer words ever spoke?

“On Which The Sun Never Sets”

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It was partly to take refuge from the present (this is what motivates most of our leisure activities, let’s face it) that I stole inside a dusty footnote to history, and an ancient edition of a novel by the 19th Century English Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli.

One of England’s most famous statesmen, much admired by Queen Victoria, ‘Dizzy’ was also famous for writing novels. I have heard him referred to as the Jeffrey Archer of this day. I had thought that this might be profoundly unfair to the man, but changed my mind when I actually started reading ‘Lothair.’

It’s an unintentionally hilarious, Sunday afternoon garden party romp in which heavily bearded English lords find their collars growing even stiffer as they fret over the problems of the Empire, and to a lesser extent, the world, the world being obviously a lot less important.

All gloom (and indeed coherence) is happily banished however, when a ravishingly attractive, ringleted daughter steps forward with a plate full of begonias freshly plucked from the garden. ‘Heah faw-theh, aaan’t they simply delightful?’

They are indeed, thinks Lord Trufflebrain, ruminating further that life shall always be perfect so long as a man has eleven virtually identical ringleted daughters to bestow flowers upon him at all manner of times during the day or night, an empire on which the sun never sets, gardens the size of Chesire, and a small army of stooping servants to take care of them all for half a farthing a week, plus all the mulch they can eat.

Only much later perhaps, during the throes of a very brief existential crisis round about Chapter CXXXVIIIX or somewhere, might Lord Trufflebrain wonder if his daughters should have been educated to do something other than walk up on him in gardens with platefuls of begonias. It is 4am. He is in his garden, reflecting that the begonias are disappearing quicker than the crawling army of servants can replace them, and wondering how far the art of carrying begonias randomly up to strangers will sustain his daughters in life once (God forbid) Lord Trufflebrain has gone to his reward.

Suddenly, a daughter pops out from behind him, impeccably ringleted and clad in a flowing white gown in spite of the earliness of the hour. She is holding out another plate. ‘Heah, faw-theh, aaaan’t they simply delightful.’ ‘Oh well,’ thinks Lord Trufflebrain, ‘that’s all right then,’ and proceeds to happily devour the late night feast.

If Lord Trufflebrain was around now, he might ruminate next to a microphone about each of his eleven daughters having remarkable asses, and how, if it wasn’t for pesky laws against polygamy and incest (surely intended mainly to keep the poor in check, and not to constrain the liberty of men like Lord Trufflebrain), he might marry the whole eleven of them at once. But we are speaking of a different time, an entirely different fake reality.

A perusal of ‘Lothair’ produced two thoughts. One, crap books, also known as ‘chick lit,’ or, to employ briefly their proper title, ‘shit,’ didn’t just happen a few years ago. They have always been with us, it’s that now there are so many more of them, and their authors seem to own the airwaves.

The other thought was occasioned by a fascinating discussion which occurs somewhere around Page 101,896 (give or take) of the novel. At the end of yet another nine hour banquet, during which the girls have done their begonia bringing thing, the men have smoked and drunk themselves into oblivion and the maids have deftly removed all the pee and puke pots, a lady who lives near the west coast (wherever the hell that is) is asked whether she thinks the gulf stream is changing direction.

This lady is described to us as ‘a serious woman.’ I’m not too sure what that means in the context of a Disraeli novel, but I suppose we can infer that there is slightly more to her life than the relentless presentation of plates of decorative flowers to senior male relatives.

She replies that she has seen much extreme climate of late, but that talk of the gulf stream shifting is premature, not to say hysterical, and people should not get carried away so much.

This, by the way, was sometime in the 1850’s or 60’s. There are times, I admit, when I succumb to these moments of Philip K Dick paranoia and wonder if any of the change we claim to see around us every day is even slightly real, whether, in a sense, we’re simply living through tableaux of the same moments, over and over and over again. Only the costumes are slightly different. The ringlets are among the very few things to have really changed.

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Year Of The Obit: What’s Up with 2016?

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There is a chilling sense about this year of decks being cleared, of business being liquidated in a hurry. It is as if the Universe is engaged in a throat clearing exercise, tensing its muscle and vacating the tubeways for … what? A massive belch?

Some of our most fabulous beasts have left the planet. They almost seemed happy to do so. Think of Leonard Cohen’s joyful farewell to the dying woman who inspired ‘So Long Marianne.’ Hold the door, my love, I’m right behind you.

Is it supposed to be like this? Whatever happened to raging against dying light? Trailblazers always, have the likes of Cohen and David Bowie even managed to subtly shift the culture’s perception of death?

But how ever much we may boggle at the way these show makers crafted our experience of their deaths, the fact remains that it’s a rum sort of a year.

Trump won the election. How many of us saw that, really, really saw it? The Chicago what’s their names won the World Series for the first time in 108 years. In English soccer, Leicester City won the Premier League, an event which, trust me, was so bizarre that anyone who predicted it a year ago would have been safely and compassionately conveyed to the waiting chemical arms of the nearest mental hospital. Best place for them really.

Strange happenings haven’t just confined themselves to the celebrity sporting level either, although Bob Dylan winning the Nobel is worthy of pause. I lost two people close to me this year, both in circumstances that I don’t feel I could have predicted. So it goes, as old Kurt Vonnegut is sometimes excoriated for saying.

But I really don’t know what else he should have said. So it goes. So it goes.

Let’s be honest: as kids we all hated Leonard Cohen. The ear of a child is attuned to seek out beautiful sounds, a primal manifestation, perhaps, of that timeless longing for beauty which undoes us all, sooner or later, one way or another (so it goes). We close our eyes and quest for magic glamour, shutting out the noise of Leonard strumming and warbling while the adults in the room below get louder and drunker.

It’s only later that the words come in and make pictures. And you start to walk inside the pictures. There is no one alive, man or woman, who hasn’t dreamed once of spending the night beside Suzanne, listening to the lap of water on the river bank, dreaming of going looking for God knows what among the flowers in the morning.

At parties, Leonard was the 3am guy, only coming on when morbid introspection began to settle in. If you had got lucky and found someone to share that witching hour with, then more power to you, and Leonard was your delicious, nihilistic crooner, your mood music to beautiful futility, all the more beautiful for being sweetly suffered together. If not, it was just you and him, two bleak birds on a wire, waiting for the morning and sleep.

It helped when I began to hear other people doing versions of Leonard songs. Shorn of his own sound – and think for a moment of how rare this is – they began to sound cool, even beautiful. It isn’t the bohemian dream of Suzanne, but there’s something desperately seductive about the ironic detachment of lines like:

“They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom

Trying to change the system from within.

I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them

First we take Manhattan: then we take Berlin.”

Just like David Bowie, Leonard had become a chameleon. The bucolic wistfulness of the 60’s was replaced by something darker (for we like it darker, apparently), something that managed to be both playful and cool, something that, partly with the aid of a dance beat, had become quite funky. It helped, I suppose, that advanced age had made Leonard’s voice more interesting. He still couldn’t sing, not really, but woe betide a proper singer who tried to imitate that utterly unique sound.

Curiously, he now became the best interpreter of his own songs. A song like ‘Dance me to the end of love,’ with its frank yet ironic eroticism, its sense of lust and self-deprecation, would sound awful inside the chords of some conventional chanteuse or crooner (think Ronan Keating doing ‘Fairytale of New York’).

Like his idol Yeats, Cohen’s voice conveyed perfectly the sense of an old man caught forever inside the sensual dance, glorying in it while it mocks and (probably) consumes him.

‘Everybody Knows,’ as interpreted by its author, is every angry paranoid bore who’s ever drenched your collar with bile in a pub, yet it also manages to say something that’s all the more exciting because it sounds profound, even while it shouldn’t: it somehow manages to make humiliation, that slow, existential crush of all our spirits, into something cool:

“Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful

Give or take a night or two …

Everybody knows you’ve been discreet

But there were always those people you just had to meet

Without your clothes … And everybody knows.”

Like David Bowie at the outset of the year, Leonard released what it seems was always intended to be a farewell album, a thing forever enshrouded and defined by the death of its creator. I’m not sure that I like the new ‘Death Rock’ genre, although as some have pointed out, it’s actually been around for quite a while. Johnny Cash surely had death big on his mind when he covered songs like ‘Hurt,’ and people tell me Eliot Smith was at it a while ago as well.

Where have our fabulous beasts gone? More immediately, from our point of view perhaps, is the question of what unfolding thing they leave behind? Maybe the supermoon will offer us clues.

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The Slow Death Of ‘Class’ In Politics

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There is a press conference given by George HW Bush (Bush 1) which has entered the annals of US Presidential history. The Berlin Wall had just come down, the Soviet Bloc in Eastern Europe was rapidly disintegrating, and the old Cold War enemy was in unprecedented disarray at home. The Cold War had come to a sudden, unpredicted end after 44 years, and the United States was the undisputed winner.

Strange, then, that despite numerous promptings from the White House press corps, Bush 1 went to bizarre lengths to avoid sounding even slightly triumphalist. ‘Come on,’ one of them implored him at one point, ‘you’ve fought in the Cold War all your adult life, you’ve worked for this all your life. Aren’t you the slightest bit emotional?’

‘Well, eh, no,” the elder Bush replied, “I’m just not an emotional guy I guess.”

The reason Bush refused to sound triumphalist was that he was still being the President, and from where he sat, the stakes were now huge. Mikhail Gorbachev was still nominally in charge of the flailing, wounded Soviet beast, and the 41st President desperately wanted to avoid saying anything that might make life even more difficult for his onetime rival, now beleaguered partner.

So he refused to toot his own horn, so as not to endanger an already fragile peace in an uncertain world. It is possible to argue that Bush’s refusal to issue an immediate ‘How I won the Cold War’ press release contributed greatly to his defeat in the subsequent election against Bill Clinton in 1992, but at the time – to him at least – doing the job was far more important.

Is it possible to even imagine any of the leading contenders for the most powerful job in the world engaging in anything like the same behaviour today? And the answer to this rhetorical question offers a substantial clue to why – more than 25 years after the Cold War – the world is actually a far more dangerous place.

To put it perhaps too simply: class has gone out of the game. I use the word ‘class’ here in its American sense, which on the other side of the Atlantic would translate into something like ‘decency,’ or ‘fair play.’ Nobody thinks beyond the next press release. Politicians have become like sugar dependent teenagers: it’s all about the next hit, the next high. Bush 1 is probably the very last example in our time of an American President attempting to play a longer game, conscious that he is simply one point in a continuum, and that something has to be left in place for the next guy.

Now, no sane person would expect their political leaders to behave like Abraham Lincoln in that ridiculous biopic by Spielberg: a man who clearly never farted or spent any time in the toilet, who never had a single conversation that wasn’t about legislation or emancipating the slaves, whose main party piece during a good old knees up was about the need to reunify the country. Worthy though the idea may have been, movies like ‘Lincoln’ actually contribute to the problem by giving their viewers a cartoonish version of history. Nobody is that good, just as very few people are that bad.

But it isn’t unreasonable to believe that you are entitled to hold someone who wants you to give them outrageous power up to some sort of standard. This may be the age when pretty much anything goes in the sexual, financial or moral sphere, but the last two and a half decades have shown us that, when it comes to politics at least, standards do matter.

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In the years after Bush 1, we’ve seen his successor, Bill Clinton, leaving biological souvenirs of himself on the dress of a White House intern (she was apparently going to keep it as some sort of heirloom), initially lie about it, then sort of admit it. And while Bill’s misdeeds may seem trivial and silly by the standards of today, they mark a point on a graph which has proceeded steadily downward, all the way to now.

And in case you think it’s all about Trump; it’s not. All that bullying and demagoguery and ass grabbling didn’t just boil up into the Universe out of some random, Russian generated black hole. The conditions which would allow for the rise of Trump have been fermenting for years.

After Bill, we had the unspeakable stupidity of Bush 1’s idiot son. This execrable clown would face arguably the biggest challenge to the world’s security since the Cold War, and proceed to make things a thousand times worse. Most of the fault lines in global security today – ISIS, the Syrian Civil War, the migrant crisis in Europe, even Brexit and the possible break up of the European Union – are directly traceable to this rabid cretin’s decision to destabilise the frontier states of the Middle East, beginning with Iraq, without any idea of what might fill the vacuum he generated.

Domestically, Bush 2’s lack of anything approaching a Presidential persona made life impossible for satirists everywhere, and many have simply starved, or started writing books for children. How could you come up with some hilarious piece of Presidential nonsense when Bush 2 would always trump (there’s that word again) you from his own mouth? My personal favourite: “our enemies never stop thinking about new ways to hurt this country [pause while he did his stupid little simper thing to camera] and neither do we.”

If satirists thought things would get better after Bush 2, they were sadly mistaken. It became a Federal offence to satirise anything the new Lord President of NICE, Barack Obama, was likely to say or do for eight years. In the new political cartoon, making fun of the President of NICE in any way marked you out as a racist, sociopathic scumbag who probably owned a basement full of guns and kept a trunk full of dead bunnies. Just as class was oozing out of politics like air from a dying balloon, so the media had decided to simply stop doing its job. Nobody wants to be the bad guy in a cartoon.

And while forests have been slaughtered in the rush to praise Obama’s style, grace and bearing while in office, consider: would Bush 1, or Lincoln for that matter, have gone on television to boast about the assassination of an enemy? In the old dispensation, the United States might very well have sanctioned cold blooded execution of someone it perceived as an enemy, but its leaders would never have publicly crowed about it. Politics is as much about perception as reality (indeed, it is almost impossible to know where one ends and the other begins), the reason you don’t crow about tawdry deeds is that, sooner or later, someone else will start crowing about something even worse.

Which brings us to today, and the wackiest, most jaw dropping election in American (or anyone else’s) history. The people who profess to be shocked by the depths to which it has sunk really should have paid more attention to what’s been going on over the last twenty years. There is a line in Robert Graves’ ‘I Claudius’ about each new Roman Emperor being a little bit worse than the one who went before. It seems that very little has changed.

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And in case you’re still naïve enough to think this is all about Trump, consider Hillary Clinton’s reaction on being told of the horrible death of the Libyan dictator Muammar Gadafi – literally torn apart by a mob – with the consequent degeneration of that country into a lawless, feral kill zone.

“We came, we saw, he died,” she proclaimed. The world is not getting any better anytime soon.