How Jane Austen Accidentally Invented Chick Lit

Jane was some mighty woman, not, as Blackadder would have you believe, a big Yorkshireman with a beard like a rhododendron bush. The magnitude of her achievement is pointed by the way it has grown with time.

We’re due yet another movie version of Pride and Prejudice any year now. Austenworld is already a kind of global virtual reality archetype, into which those sensitive souls horrified by everyday reality can slip, donning their imaginary corsets and entering an age which was gentler, kinder and airier, for those who weren’t poor anyway.

One regrettable fact of Jane’s eminence is the way she’s held up as a sort of literary fig leaf for today’s chick lit purveyors. When challenged, as they seldom are these days, about the repetitive plot lines, the cliched characters, the endless search for tall, dark and handsome non-entities, today’s chick lit millionaire is quite likely to pipe up ‘I’m not doing anything that Jane Austen wouldn’t. She’s my role model, my spiritual mother.’

It’s a charge that isn’t entirely baseless. Austen is a remarkable novelist, an acute observer of her time, capable of writing with great perception about both women and men. But she too has her tropes, her literary tics.

My favourite Austen novel is ‘Persuasion,’ and this is in spite of the fact that, in the character of Anne Elliot, Austen may have written the template for a billion chick lit protagonists. Anne is kind, patient to the point of madness, and of course infinitely put upon. No one in her family understands her quiet, giving nature. They of course merely exploit it.

Early in life, she bows to family pressure and abandons plans to marry the dashing Captain Wentworth, a figure straight from Austenworld central casting. We know almost nothing about him save that he is handsome and noble, and Anne has the hots for him. Oh well, as women readers will no doubt point out, men have been writing such female ciphers for centuries.

But in spite of Wentworth’s appealing lack of anything resembling an actual character trait, he’s not suitable because Anne’s father doesn’t consider him rich or aristocratic enough.

Rather than sulk or shout or throw things or do any of those things we know women would never do, Anne meekly submits, goes a little bit paler and thinner, and goes back to being infinitely put upon.

Austen writes with sublime passive-aggressiveness about Sir Walter, Anne’s father, couching an absolute contempt inside phrases of respectful elegance.

She could have saved an enormous amount of paper by writing something like ‘Sir Walter was a brain dead fart who spent his days practising his signature and colouring in pictures of himself.’ But that is not how things were done in those days. Indeed, if they were done these days, then an awful lot of chick lit novels would be an awful lot shorter.

Wentworth returns (I apologise for any unintended spoilers here). We are subtly given to understand that Anne is all a flutter deep beneath her petticoats. Wentworth seems to be interested in marrying one of Anne’s sister’s in-laws. Anne takes it all in her martyr like stride, goes back to caring for the unlovable offspring of her sister, goes on endless walks listening to the vacuous prattle of her sister and the in laws, and never experiences so much as an unworthy thought.

In other novels, Austen is prepared to admit faults in her main heroines: Lizzie Bennett is fiery and quick to judge, Emma is an inveterate meddler, and this makes them so much more real and even lovable as characters. But Anne is apparently born without fault, and therein lies the problem for much of what has come after.

It’s a testament to how gifted a writer Austen was that ‘Persuasion’ manages to be a fine novel in spite of glaring defects in the portrayal of its two main characters.

Are we legitimately expected to believe that, in all those decades of being dissed by her family, Anne never once thought ‘God, Dad is such a f***wit,’ or ‘if Mary doesn’t shut her stupid mouth soon, I’m going to break that overflowing chamber pot on her cranium’?

For that matter, are we also expected to believe that Wentworth never got into any trysts with exotic native girls out there in the South Seas, or wherever he was supposed to be?

You see, Anne really is a kind of saint. She should be out there infinitely caring for the sick, or maybe away in the South Seas looking after lepers (perhaps she could have met Wentworth that way, with a couple of native girls dangling off his manly arms. She would, of course, have forgiven him.).

Instead, she’s a paragon of domestic saintliness that is mostly bogus, and in creating her, the very fine writer that was Jane Austen spawned a myth that has been tapped into by a million far lesser ones.

‘Don’t change. You’re perfect.’ As someone wryly observed, tell somebody that and of course they’ll buy your books. Today’s chick lit heroines are rarely wrong about anything. They are watered down Anne Elliots for today.

Everything that’s gone wrong in their lives is the fault of their spineless, cheating husbands, their unfeeling boyfriends, their inability to meet the right man, their psychotic mothers, their bitchy sisters, their friends.

Being a Saint confers upon you the greatest gift of all, the cloak of unaccountability. How can you ever be wrong about anything, you’re a Saint for f***s sake?

Chick lit taps into the lazier, less self-aware instincts of its readership by recasting them as Anne Elliot, and God how they drink it up.

Jane Austen’s legacy is truly a great one, but like most great legacies, it has its downside as well. That ineffably meek, quiet, pale Anne is the ship that launched a million literary catastrophes.



Star Wars And The Death of Dreams

I think I’d be pretty pissed off if I was a member of the Resistance / Rebellion in the Star Wars Universe. Not a senior member mind, just a card carrying foot soldier who votes for democracy when he can, maybe contributes any spare Galactic credits he can shake together to the movement.

I think I’d be asking frustrated questions. I think I’d be looking for new leaders. I mean, we won the war last time, didn’t we? How come the Empire still has all the cool tech, the really badass spaceships, while we still have to make do with stubby little X-wings and the Millennium Falcon?

Puh-lease! I mean it hasn’t even been washed in forty years. It must stink to high heaven. No wonder Chewie’s always in such a bad mood. How is it that when we did crush the Empire, we didn’t nick all their stuff?

While we’re at it: what the hell happened to all our soldiers? I mean, I counted about twenty left in ‘The Last Jedi,’ and even they kept fighting among themselves.

And who in the galaxy would have imagined that Luke Skywalker would turn out to be so shit at running a Jedi School? I mean, he never realized until too late that this snotty little kid with the weird resemblance to a Goth Darth Vader would turn out to be trouble?

No wonder he wants to stay on that island. In fact, having demonstrated such spectacular incompetence, the real wonder is why the rebels would want him back in the first place.

The cyclical nature of the Star Wars saga makes it a little depressing for those of us, now middle aged (sorry to break the news) who were first delighted by it all as children. It feels a little too much like life, no real progress made, the same old shit.

Of course we were going to screw up victory in ‘Return of the Jedi’ because that’s the way life goes. It’s crap. The much maligned Star Wars prequels show how difficult it is to construct a story where, essentially, the good guys are in control, sort of anyway.

It’s much easier to return to the simplistic tableau where the bad guys are back in charge, their commitment to dynamic, innovative capitalism meaning that they’re now able to construct planet sized Death Stars, while the sandal wearing rebels have gone backwards, only forsaking their cosmic muesli at the very last second to go rooting around for fifty year old blasters.

Much of the controversy surrounding the latest iteration of the franchise, ‘The Last Jedi,’ has to do with the fact that our generation’s heroes are being phased out to make way for ones designed to appeal to this generation.

It’s a bit like when we foolishly imagine that McDonald’s serve decent coffee because they care about us. They don’t. They just want to keep us in the room while they’re capturing our children. Han Solo and Luke Skywalker are basically the coffee, Rey, Fin, Kylo and the rest are the Happy Meals.

We can quail about this all we like on our keyboards, but it’s not going to stop. This is what capitalism defines as progress, i.e. making sure we can repeat the same old cycles lucratively through the generations.

Sometime before ‘The Last Jedi’ was released, someone I know tweeted that she would never go to see another Star Wars movie if they made her watch Luke Skywalker die. It seems the execs at Disney had fretted about this as well, so the question of Luke’s death is sort of soft-soaped, like the way a gossamer curtain used to fall across a putative sex scene in Hays Code Hollywood.

Arguably though, what we actually got was worse: middle aged Luke, embittered Luke, a Luke whose gorgeous dreams have dissolved into ageing paranoia. It would have been entirely fitting if he’d been downing a bottle of whiskey a day on that island. The fact that he wasn’t actually seems like a bit of an omission.

Mark Hamill has suggested that it wasn’t the Luke he remembered, that the Luke he played way back when would never have given up. But he’s missing the point. We all are. To paraphrase The Simpsons, this is Diz-nee baby, and we’re sorry, but there’s money to be had.

Cold comfort, I know. But if Disney’s plans for the franchise fail to encounter the law of diminishing returns, and we’re on movie 54 by the year 2040 or something, then our beloved children, the luminous apples of our eyes, will themselves have to behold the sight of an embittered, alcoholic Rey, a Fin whose marriage to a Porg never worked out, a Poe Damoren with nothing to fly anymore.

Because we know now that that’s just life, both in this galaxy and the one far, far away.

It’s a harsh lesson, and the only remarkable thing, really, is the strange way we’re being taught it. What are those mighty corporations softening us up for, I wonder?

A Voice That Will Linger As Long As Memory

There are events that shock us by seeming to happen out of any natural sequence. They attack that increasingly limited span of things we think we can rely on as facts of life. They leave us grasping. Is there anything we can be certain of, in the end, other than death?

Such an event was the passing of Cranberries singer Dolores O’ Riordan yesterday, at the age of just 46. While she had experienced some publicised struggles with mental health, there appears to have been no indication that something like this might happen.

The sudden arrival of The Cranberries as a global pop phenomenon in the early 1990’s took many on the east side of the Atlantic by surprise, not least the Dublin 4 rock press who, like every other Irish institution, are really only interested in how their buddies are doing.

The band’s galactic sized success proved difficult to argue against, so D4 rock journos either attempted to ignore them, or to damn with faint praise. They were basically just The Corrs, one or two of them sniffed, except from the wrong side of the Shannon.

Undemanding pop most of their stuff may have been, but The Cranberries passed the ultimate pop test by producing a sound that will outlast the band. Is there a single Corrs tune that can be recalled without significant mental effort?

What made them stand out was O’ Riordan’s incredible voice, sweet and husky and gentle and hurt. Even her trademark wail had a plaintiveness that yanked at the heart.

And if it seems faint praise to single out her voice as the one thing that made The Cranberries special, then what about all those years when The Edge’s guitar was the only truly unique thing about U2, at least until Brian Eno came along?

She was a person on whom fame never seemed to sit easily. This was probably to her credit, as well as a product of the fact that this unexpected success came when she was desperately young and – as it later emerged – damaged.

She outspokenness usually came out raw and ill advised. She didn’t say things just to produce some public effect. She spoke from the heart, shot from the hip. She was pretty much an ordinary Limerick girl, wild in the way Limerick girls are, uncomfortably set apart from the rest of humanity by that extraordinary voice.

Her voice gave the band and the world a handful of songs that will breeze free and easy through minds for as long as people continue to listen to music.

For me, there really is no song quite like ‘Linger,’ something of a guilty pleasure, with its perfect expression of a moment, the soundtrack to a dozen teenage romances I never had.

I once had a disagreement upon the relative vocal merits of Dolores and Sinead O’ Connor with someone whom, I later realized, was one of the genuinely nastiest people I would ever meet. She referred to ‘that wan from Limerick with the voice like a braying donkey.’

I really should have taken the remark as a clincher: failure to appreciate all the magnificent and noble things going on inside that haunting voice offered a clue that you weren’t really human, that you failed some basic test. Acting on that clue would have saved me a lot of time.

I only read yesterday that part of her struggles with mental health had to do with sexual abuse she suffered as a young girl at the hands of one of those ubiquitous ‘family friends.’ It is horrible to think of her, as it is horrible to think of anyone, being a casualty of something that appears to have been absolutely endemic in Ireland at that time.

The number of women of O’ Riordan’s generation, famous and otherwise, who tell stories of precisely the same kind of violation is something I’ve been finding profoundly disturbing for years now. Who were all these ‘family friends’? Shouldn’t we be trying to find them out, give them a call? Shouldn’t we be asking just what the hell was going on in society at the time?

The silencing of Dolores O’ Riordan’s magical voice isn’t just a sadness for Limerick, but for the world. It is a tragedy for her three children and family, the kind of loss that can’t be expressed.

Her voice is silenced. The memory will linger. May she rest in peace.

The Orgiastic Old Nature Of The Christmas Beast

Shaking away that post – Christmas torpor is dreadful difficult. After all that frenzy, all that screaming bone exhausting intensity, you’re left with … what?

It’s been observed by many others that people get a little more nuts every year. Christmas is that time when people who are already nuts stretch themselves that special extra mile to greater nuttiness. It hardly seem fair.

It’s become a truism to say that ‘Christmas’ actually has very little to do with ‘Christmas’, but do we actually know what we mean when we say this?

Believe it or not, our ancient pagan chieftains were actually quite clever old dudes. They don’t get nearly enough credit for that.

Long ago, they realized that once summer – with all its wars, harvests and associated orgies – was done, people were apt to get a little blue, what with all the cold, dark and lack of any nearby orgies.

Perhaps the witch doctors even came to them: ‘you’ve got to do something, oh mighty one. People is gettin’ fierce depressed with nothin’ to do until the fishin’ and orgy season starts. They keep saying to me: ‘what’s the point of going on living?’ I mean, existentialism isn’t due to be invented for at least another twenty centuries. What the hell am I supposed to tell them?’

So the mighty chieftains came up with a spiffing wheeze. ‘Let’s have a great big festival, right smack bang in the dead of winter, for no reason other than it’s in the dead of winter. We can say it’s – erm – to appease the Gods so that the sun comes back, or – um – to give thanks to the Gods for all the sunshine, and remind them that it’d be nice if they could see their way to bringing it back, in their own time like.

‘We’ll break out the really good mead, not that horse pee that everyone drinks in summer. Let’s face it, in summer people will drink anything, and maybe we can persuade some of those buxom flame haired lassies to enter into the spirit like. God, I do like those buxom flame haired lassies.’

Thus the festivals of Yuletide and Saturnalia and a hundred other names were born. Of course, from our present standpoint, it might have made more sense if they were shifted out to middle or late January or something, but climate patterns were presumably different back then.

Later, as Christianity mounted its hostile takeover of a million pagan cultures, the software underpinning the old festivals was rewritten to indicate reverence for events in the Christian tradition.

Yet it seems the change never quite took. The old orgiastic nature of the beast remains under all the faux peace and love; just spend some time in a pub over Christmas and see what I mean.

Now of course, the old pagan chieftains and the fearsome avatars they sought to appease are long gone. We have different Gods and chieftains now. They are called corporations and retailers, and isn’t it interesting how consumerism has managed to tap so cleverly into the underlying DNA of the beast?

How skilfully they awaken our ancient orgy hunger: let’s go nuts. You know you want to. It’s in your nature. Plus it helps the economy.

The idea of Christmas being about children isn’t real either. It’s largely an invention of Charles Dickens, and our consumerist gods long ago realized that the best way to stifle debate about anything is to say ‘this is about the children.’

Think about it: why should Scrooge have picked Christmas to start being nice to people? Why couldn’t he have done it at some other time of the year, when the birds were singing in the trees and his withered soul was suddenly moved by the smell of the spring wind caressing the foliage?

Further, if Christianity had successfully overwritten our base pagan urges, there wouldn’t actually be any need for Christmas. If people were nice to each other all the time, then what would be the point of a special festival telling people they had to be nice to each other?

Every day would be like Christmas. Every February 28th would be like Christmas, Midsummer’s Eve would be replete with people being unbearably nice to each other. Beach parties would be sandy explosions of niceness. Halloween would involve us being just as nice to each other as ever, and we probably wouldn’t go around spooking people unless they really wanted to be spooked.

Now, one obvious consequence of this is that the economy – at least in the form we are enslaved to – would collapse. Another less obvious result is that literature and moves would probably come to an end as well.

It would be very hard to sustain a 300 page novel with a plot in which the main characters keep turning the other cheek. Sooner or later, you’d run out of cheeks.

Imagine Wagner’s Ring Cycle as reinterpreted in an age where Christianity has truly reprogrammed the human spirit. The Gods and dwarves spend the first five acts squabbling over who should take the Ring of Power: ‘no, no. You have it.’ ‘No. I absolutely insist that you have it. And the last thing I want to do is pull rank here, but I am a God, after all, so…’

Later, in Act 900, Siegfried takes revenge upon his enemies by being even nicer to them than they were to him etc.

All this, I suppose, demonstrates how alien Christianity remains to our basic, pagan, conflict ridden, lust and envy filled natures. There’s just so much of this software in our DNA that it’s naive to think any set of ideas, no matter how well intentioned, can rewrite it, simply by virtue of being heard.

But please let’s fool ourselves no longer with the fig leaf that Christianity is somehow about nobility, or kindness, or being nice to children. It is simply about paying stressed out homage to your consumerist Gods, to those who truly rule your life, in ways that were fascinatingly laid down thousands of years ago by wise old men with very dirty beards.

Top 10 Songs People Should Never Sing

I think it was the novel (and later movie) ‘High Fidelity’ that gave the term ‘listomania’ to the world. ‘Listomania’ refers to the penchant for slackers of a certain generation to compulsively compile lists of just about everything.

‘Top 10 break up songs,’ ‘Top 10 movies you wish you’d never seen,’ ‘Top 10 musical pieces to make love to’ (Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ comes out on top apparently. Odd considering he wrote it after he had a stroke.) It’s had so many follow on consequences too. What would Clickbait be without lists? Just a collection of awkward photos of actresses in various (promised) states of undress.

‘Top 10 songs to listen to while feeling vague existential uncertainty whilst sipping G and T and gazing out at an increasingly misty horizon.’ Ok, it’s a little wordy for clickbait, but can the day be that far away?

I could go on, very possibly until the end of the Universe, but one of those lists most conspicuously absent goes something like this: ‘Top 10 songs people really shouldn’t sing at parties, but insist on doing so anyway.’

Now everyone will have their own personal favourites, based most often on bitter personal experience. Inebriation shared inside a group has that unique ability to sink the collective IQ below the theoretical limit considered necessary for survival. It’s like spending six happy boozy hours on the dead zone of Everest, the place where nothing can possibly live.

Nowhere is the absolute flight of the survival reflex more evident than in that debauched, debased and mutually degrading ritual known as the group singsong. Here are my suggestions, in no particular order of demerit. Do feel free to let me know what you think, or even respond with some of your own.

No. 10: ‘The Boxer’ by Simon and Garfunkel

Somehow, tearful sentimentality and rapidly winking out brain cells never fail to blind people to the reality that going ‘Lie Lie Lie’ and making swish swish noises can only ever get you so far through a song. I’ve never been present at any group rendition of ‘The Boxer’ that didn’t end in an unholy, embarrassing mess, like a group sex experiment that finishes up with people rushing away from each other at lightspeed with hoods drawn over their faces.

The problem is that, at a given point in an evening, people decide they want to get all kind of meaningful. They go hunting around for catchy cultural tropes to make everybody kind of emotional. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many meaningful cultural tropes left out there, at least not ones that people can remember, so they hit upon ‘The Boxer,’ even though nobody, but nobody on the planet – with the possible exception of Simon and Garfunkel – can actually get to the end of the first verse.

No. 9: ‘Both Sides Now’ by Joni Mitchell

It’s the drunken singsong equivalent of attempting to invade Russia. Drink can indeed be a dangerous thing, especially when it gives people such delusions of grandeur. Even so, it’s still hard to get your head around the kind of polluted ego that believes it can take on this multi-faceted ballad about the twists of life which already seem to have been quite disappointing for Joni, even though she was only about 10 when she wrote it.

You have to be quite dangerously hammered in the first place to imagine that you can remember the words, never mind do them emotional justice.

Word of advice: if you happen to be at a party where this ditty breaks out, the best thing is to leave immediately by the nearest available exit, be it a window or whatever. You see, once it has degenerated into the inevitable amnesiac mess, it will quickly be followed by tears, vomit and some form of violence, especially if there are ladies present (and they’re usually the only ones who try to sing it).

No. 8 ‘Leaving On A Jet Plane’ by John Denver

Nothing quite compares to the special feeling of trying to sleep in a city centre apartment while a small squad of inebriated hotties in the street outside has decided to give vent to their love for each other by launching into a full throated bellowing out of this much maligned bagatelle.

The sound they produce, interspersed with and inevitably followed by copious vomiting, wailing for missing handbags and clothes, and the occasional breaking of ankles on nine inch heels, is beyond the ability of any writer, other than Dante, to describe, and Dante never had to live through it.

John Denver gets a lot of unfair bad press, but surely even he never had the slightest iota of how he would be complicit in such nighttime aural atrocities. Of course he didn’t, he was too busy leaving places on jet planes.

No. 7 ‘I Will Survive’ by Gloria Gaynor

‘Fuhst ah waz afwaid, ah waz putre-fahd.’

Much of the previous entry goes double for this, though its less gentle lyrics mean that the gathering in question also isn’t far away from thoughts of violence. Maybe this is something to do with the fact that men have been getting in on the act as well.

This is kind of funny, because I’d always thought of the song as a kind of much put upon, self-righteous anthem of femalehood. Maybe male participation is actually a sign of the growing emasculation of the gender, not to mention having heroically imbibed so much cortex corroding hooch that you’re now unsure of whether you’re a boy or a girl, or indeed what your own name is.

No. 6 ‘Freebird’ by Lynyrd Skynrd.

When you get down to it, there’s nothing quite like booze when it comes to liberating your inner redneck. Just look at Steve Bannon. Whiskey or bourbon (naturally) are particularly good at this. Three or four shots and your swank little money pit has disappeared to become a trailer parked beside all the other good ole boys. You and your buddies have completely forgotten that you’re all wearing Pierre Cardin shirts, and instead are rolling around in imaginary outsized t-shirts, waving your imaginary Confederate flags and wailing about how the man just ain’t ever gonna appreciate the good people of Dixie.

Unfortunately, this chemical change of identity comes with all the trimmings, including loss of basic literacy and mobility skills, a spot of cousin fancying and a sort of lazy voluptuous lust for violence in all its forms. No one, naturally, can remember anything past line one (does it actually have any other lyrics anyway?) and the air guitar solos will inevitably lead to some form of poorly coordinated violence.

Again, parties in which this car crash breaks out are best exited with all possible speed, but then, if you’ve found your inner redneck, the ability to do anything quickly, other than barf, will have left you at around the same time as your dignity.

No 5 ‘Bird On A Wire’ by Leonard Cohen

A slightly special case, this. Because if you’ve launched into it then you are most certainly on your own. The party is over, or has at least left you far, far behind. You are by yourself in a carefully avoided corner, or possibly lying on a park bench with half-undone trousers, grasping in vain for some form of consciousness, or indeed anything resembling an actual lyric you can remember.

This has been the terrible fate of many a Cohen ditty. It’s his fault for writing stuff that, whatever about the great man’s voice, was so tuneful, so apparently accessible. Have you noticed: no one other than the very worst kind of psychopath attempts to sing Bob Dylan at a party. I bet Charles Manson sang him all the time.

No 4: Anything by Bruce Springsteen

Really? Come on, you’re not even being serious now. Let’s think for just a second: anything designed to be bellowed into a giant amp system by some dude standing at one end of a football stadium isn’t going to sound good at a party, now is it?

We all know that one blissful facet of inebriation is not caring about the feelings of others, or indeed about the impact our disembowelment of popular songs is having upon the brains of our listeners, but this is going to be horrible. People are going to start feeling threatened, justifiably so, because it’s now clear that you’re some kind of violent nut job. Please go home. Go home now, or we’ll have to call the cops.

No. 3: ‘White Rabbit’ by Jefferson Airplane

By the time most people attempt this song, they’re in precisely the same realm as the people who wrote it i.e. completely and utterly stoned beyond sensation. The remembering of lyrics isn’t just impossible, it’s completely irrelevant.

There are studies which have shown that, if anyone less stoned happens to be in the same room, then all they hear is a kind of distant whining sound, something like that made by a dying insect, while you believe you are literally up there singing with the angels, and who knows, maybe you are.

No. 2: Any Scottish or Irish folk song.

No one remembers the words to any Scottish or Irish folk songs. For a start, many of them aren’t even in English, and if drink has already rendered tenuous one’s grip on the lingua franca, then I don’t see what hope there is for any other tongue.

A lot of them also contain words that aren’t really words, like ‘fiddle dee dee’ or ‘wagga wagga wee.’ It was many years before I realized that one song’s invitation to ‘go to the waxy Dargle’ actually meant visiting a river, not some colourful local slang for puking.

One of the side effects of communal drinking is the occasional need to assert some kind of bogus shared identity. Shur wurrunt we all diggin’ praties out of the reeks with one hand, breastfeeding children and fighting off the hated English with the other.

It isn’t even a proper race thing either, because I’ve witnessed plenty of English people becoming just as inarticulate and upset over the alleged atrocities that may or may not be recounted in these ditties, if only someone could remember the lines.

And if you don’t believe me, then ask this guy:

No 1: ‘Heart Shaped Box’ by Nirvana

I was a very, very angry young man.

Trying To Stand On Giants

Things build on other things, we know about that. It was a facet of science books that used to irritate me greatly as a kid. I want to know all the cool new stuff about Pluto now now now, my impatient little nerd brain would shriek, but no, they’d have to take me through the entire history of the thing first: through Ptolemy and the ancient Greeks, Galileo and his lens grinding, Newton locking himself in darkened rooms.

As some astronomer once said on one of those manipulative ads for some telecom concern: “if I can see further than you, it’s because I’m standing on the shoulders of giants.” I don’t know what the above has to do with giving all your money to Vodafone, but it is certainly true of literature.

Any prose writer over the last eighty years who has fancied themselves as having something serious and artistic to say cannot possibly operate in blissful ignorance of the likes of Joyce, Nabokov or Beckett. You might quite legitimately hate them, but acting as though they’re not there isn’t likely to get you far.

In the case of Joyce, many writers spend frustrating years trying to separate the good from the shit in a way that conforms with the diktats of whoever happens to pass for the literary establishment at the time.

This can be tough: there’s no doubt that the man who wrote ‘The Dead’ was an awe-inspiring talent, in such total and frightening command of his craft that nearly eighty years later, when John Huston chose to make the movie which would be the glorious swan song to his career, he used Joyce’s precise text, word for heartrending word.

But later: there are parts of Ulysses so powerful and accomplished that it’s almost obligatory to go for a long walk and a stiff drink, maybe stare out at the shapeless sea and wonder if you wouldn’t be better off going into I.T. or something, something that pays (by the way, if I.T. had been around in Joyce’s day, he would certainly asked himself the same question more than once. He might actually have been good at it.)

And yet there are the other parts, the bits where this bible of modernism makes about as much sense as the parts in the other bible concerning the best way to skin someone who’s stolen your goat.

One Irish critic controversially – and very bravely – suggested that a really good Editor might have bent Joyce over his or her lap and cut Ulysses by about 50%.

Maybe. But I don’t know which bits she’d have left in. Neither does anyone else. Therein lies the problem. And as for Finnegan’s Wake …

Well, I have met a couple of people who claimed to understand it thoroughly. They would smile at me in a kind of blowsy mysticism, as if they’d taken secret knowledge down from a mountain only they knew about. They’d mutter something about music and then smile vaguely again as the nice men came back to return them to the secure facility in which they had been housed, for their own good and that of everyone else.

I want to write a science fiction story in which people, for reasons only obscurely explained, choose to enter a virtual reality simulation known as ‘Beckettworld,’ in which you get to hang around grey landscapes in long shabby coats, ruminate upon the meaninglessness of existence and wonder if the figure coming towards you might be in possession of a sandwich.

Here’s the thing: I think such a simulation might actually be a surprise hit. The older you get – and maybe it’s not actually to do with getting older – the more there’s actually something terribly comforting about a lot of Beckett. Maybe it’s partly the familiarity of the land, those dreamscapes in which nothing ever happens. After all, as David Byrne has said, isn’t Heaven really a place where nothing ever happens?

There is also a paradoxical comfort to be had in the grimness of Beckett’s subject matter. After all: if we’re totally screwed, then there’s no point in worrying about anything, is there? Why fret about the outcome of a game whose rules were bent long before you entered?

Just sit back and have another weird, elliptical conversation. Maybe even have a little nap: try out Beckettworld.

Every so often, someone tries to pass water on the Nabokov thing by pointing out, entirely reasonably, that ‘Lolita’ is an attempt to humanise paedos.

Fair enough, and I’m not exactly mad about Vlad either. I find the stylistic flurries, the literary preenings and poutings, a little too much, a little precious. But the cognoscenti have spoken. And when it comes to stuff like this, literature is even more reverential than science, than religion.

You’ve got to give every appearance of dancing most gratefully on that giant’s shoulders, even if you secretly think they’re not that much of a giant.

Our New Mirror Gazing Leaders

Until very recently, in countries which essayed some stab at democracy, it was normal for seekers after high office to at least pretend some form of common cause with the ordinary citizen.

The practice has actually been common since ancient times. More than 2,000 years ago in ancient Rome, your average everyday sewer dweller could stand and watch as rich politicians like Julius Caesar, bred to centuries of aristocracy, passionately feigned a genuine interest in questions such as why the toilets of the poor smelled so bad, or why they always had to drink wine out of pots that were cracked at the bottom, or had leeches in them.

It’s part of what has been called democracy, and which has been decried over centuries by many different commentators at many different times. The likes of Nietzsche considered democracy an abomination, because why should strong men have to pander towards weak ones?

Real or imagined, the covenant between strong men and weak ones has driven much of what we like to think of as our history, and in many cases, some of the most important changes to society have been made by deeply conservative aristocrats who had been awakened to the need for change by political turmoil.

Thus, the first examples of what we now call organised social protection were initiated in Germany by Otto von Bismarck, a chap who was anything but a pinko do-gooder.

The ‘New Deal’ in America, conceived to respond to the wreckage of millions of lives by the Great Depression – itself, like the Irish Famine, the product of untrammelled, unfettered and carnivorous capitalism – was steered through by Franklin D Roosevelt, a man who, whatever his personal beliefs, was anything but a humble son of the soil.

It was part of what used to be known as the ‘post war consensus’ that every politician seeking high office had to have something in his bag of goodies for poor people. Even when Margaret Thatcher was attempting to rewrite that consensus in the 1980’s – with consequences that have gone on to almost destroy western society – she felt it necessary to dress the f**k the poor message in populist soundbytes.

Instead of belonging to horrible unions, she promised, ordinary people would all become stockholders, literally the owners of their own economy, just as important as the Banks and Hedge Funds and Satan knows what else.

It was all bollocks, of course, but only through such rank dishonesty could people be persuaded to part with so many fundamental rights.

One side-effect (and there have been many) of Thatcherite politics is that a key pillar of democratic politics has been changed, or done away with altogether. We now have – more so than ever before – entrenched elites in politics, business and media. Their sole aim is to perpetuate their own existence and privilege, if necessary in brutal defiance of popular hatred (look at the banking riots, for example).

In the political sphere, this change manifests itself in politicians like Hillary Clinton – and her enormously powerful amen corner, including luminaries like Harvey Weinstein – who seek high office on the basis of entitlement, on the belief that, like some wronged medieval queen, it is hers by right.

But this didn’t start with poor old Hill, still wandering the planet in bemused despair at how those deplorables took away her crown. The CNN brigade love to tell us that George W Bush is no longer the worst President in US history. As far as these fearless truth seekers are concerned, all bets are off until that horrible man Trump is out of the White House.

But Trump has yet to launch an illegal war, egged on by a Vice President – Dick Cheney – far too scary ever to win election to anything in his own right.

Cheney’s career itself was a dramatic indicator that democracy is on life support.

He turned the entire world upside down. He ruined or ended the lives of millions of people, and he never had to put any of it to a single vote. Even Hitler had to go in front of a ballot box now and again.

Like Thatcher, Cheney’s career has had all sorts of unfortunate knock ons. The much vaunted tide of populist anger has not prevented the growth of a strange class of politicians, of no conspicuous ability or ideological commitment, who claim a right of infinite self-perpetuation simply because they tick a designated series of liberal elite boxes.

These are leaders like Justin Trudeau in Canada, whose main claim to fame seems to be that he’s inordinately good looking and went to school with a lot of famous people (at least one of whom, Matthew Perry, claims to have beaten him up, and to think I never really cared for ‘Friends’). Justin smiles a lot and is seen at a lot of ‘right on’ stuff like Pride Marches.

He’s to be seen everywhere, fixing that wide beam smile and indulging in the box ticking ritual denunciation of whatever that awful man Trump has done or said this week.

As to whether Justin is any good or gives a single wet shite about the life of any ordinary person, well, I know that tar sands advocates in Alberta have decided he’s basically just as bad as the other crowd, but you won’t be hearing much about that on CNN.

This seems to be the main difference between Justin and people like Trump, and it is entirely cosmetic. Prior to the last US election, the left wing Slovenian philosopher Slavov Zisek was asked who he was rooting for. He no doubt shocked his interviewer by saying ‘Trump. Because Trump does not wear a mask.’

Ireland’s ruling party recently installed as Prime Minister a politician who ticks a ludicrous set of liberal elite boxes. Leo Varadkar is openly gay, financially well off, the son of an Indian immigrant and utterly beloved by the tiny media elites of the nation’s capital, none of whom think darling Leo should be held to blame in any way for the numbers of people sleeping rough and dying on the streets of that same capital.

Until Leo, every single Irish leader has found it necessary to at least pretend that they are in some way interested in the things that bother normal people. Leo is the first I can remember to more or less explicitly state that he’s only interested in people above a certain income threshold, members of a certain moneyed class, and so long as he continues to tick all those lovely liberal boxes, no one in the Dublin media even comments on what is actually a major sea change to what is left of our democracy.

It all makes you wonder whether old Adolf might have fared better in 21st Century politics. After all, he sort of ticked a number of liberal boxes. He had a lot of gay supporters (until he shot them all), claimed to be vegetarian (though this has been challenged) and his ‘Kraft durch Freude’ youth programmes were basically bonkfests for German youth, so long as they produced plenty of healthy Aryan children.

If he’d attended pride marches in that fabulously camp uniform, maybe even delighted the crowd with his silly walk, then who knows?

Goodbye To All That

There were moments last Monday when it almost felt like Ireland was a real country again, as if twenty plus years of recent history had been suddenly blown aside by Hurricane Ophelia. This is not meant to disrespect or detract in any way from the grief of those three families who lost loved ones to the storm. This is more about the rest of us.

For one storm tossed day we became as little children again, listening to the nursery rhyme of nationhood. We crowded around RTE radio and television, because suddenly its mission of speaking whatever the Government wants us to hear seemed important, like it actually meant something. Stay inside if you want to stay safe.

We huddled around our radio sets, made cups of tea and briefly became a people again. Even Varadkar took time off from gazing in the mirror to sound like a bluff Fine Gael Taoiseach of old, like the very recently departed Liam Cosgrave, ‘stay indoors or else.’ A good old traditional Fine Gael message delivered in traditional ‘we know what’s good for you’ style.

If there ever was such a thing as modern Ireland, its story is essentially one of television and radio, of the chief organ of the state – and biggest family business in the country – imparting its always heavily mediated message to the peasants. And for once the message was actually of some genuine use to actual, real people.

Yes, the prudent thing was to stay indoors, stay hanging on every gobbet to fall from the lips of Bryan Dobson or Sean O’ Rourke – not to mention the increasingly exhausted and incoherent sounding Met Eireann lady – while sandwiched in the middle was Joe Duffy, pretending to empathise with everything, offering state validated emotional colour to the nationwide tapestry of falling trees, ruined clothes lines, dodgily stitched together roofs and homicidal tides.

Oh stay inside yeh poor craythurs. You mind that wind now. I’ve heard what it can do to yah.

What matter that it’s all kind of been done before, and previous storm overkills from the national broadcaster led to some people quite logically figuring that perhaps it wouldn’t be such a big deal this time either.

Even Ray Darcy sounded engaged, concerned, instead of, well, somebody who’s being paid a fortune not to give a shite. Oh for a day we were fantastic again, not in the shrill, tongue in stranger hysteria of Italia ’90, but in a sober, more concerned old Irish way, a sort of ‘are you sure you’re ok there now?’ A kind of ‘how about a cup of tea’ sensibility, and don’t forget to check on all those old people and animals, but only, you know, once the wind has died down.

And it was all so terribly, terribly comforting, like a bedtime story or a jug of hot milk. In a way, I’ll almost miss it, and experiencing it reminded me of all the things I’d forgotten I missed about the place I used to think I lived in.

There hasn’t been any Irish state worth talking about since the early 1990’s – if indeed, such an entity can actually be said to have existed back then – when the senior Irish Civil Service realized that all the big action and money was in Europe and that their focus now was on being the best little boys and girls in the Euro class, the better to secure those lucrative sinecures in Brussels once their careers in Dublin had run their natural course.

Since then, any important Irish Government decision – such as the one to rape the citizenry in order to pay off the debts of bankers – has actually been taken in Brussels, or more precisely, Berlin. RTE, like all the rest of the Irish Government, is engaged in persuading its dwindling band of listeners that the stuff it talks about actually has some sort of meaning in the real world, wherever that may be.

But Fine Gael told us to stay indoors and not go to work. And as the denizens of Leo’s ‘Republic of Opportunity’ made their way back to work over the cracks and runnels left behind by the country sized scam that was Irish Water, it still felt kind of comforting, as if they in some way cared about us.

For those of us who had to go back, next day, to the reality of living inside a fiction, the memory – false as its precept was – still felt kind of nice.

We’re Just Machines Inside A Machine: Stanley Kubrick

There is very little that can compare with two hours plus inside the imagination of Stanley Kubrick. His films are unlike any other. Their astonishing visual clarity make them feel like a peculiarly vivid hallucination, a dream viewed through the lens of a madman cursed with the inability to blink.

The best of them make you think in ways you perhaps wished you never would. They call strongly for a brisk walks and stiff drinks.

As in dreams, the normal emotional focus which holds a waking day together for most of us – which supplies what we think of as our context – is missing from Kubrick’s films, and this makes them all the more unsettling.

We should probably hate Alex in ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ after all, he’s a nasty nihilistic thug. Instead, we are mostly indifferent to him, seeing him perhaps as a singularly unappealing child. In this and other instances, Kubrick’s much vaunted lack of empathy actually contributes to the dizzying intensity of the work.

The movies are an often fantastical vision of a situation that is essentially hopeless. Kubrick’s view of his fellow humans and what they could reasonably look forward to could best be described as a kind of medieval mechanistic determinism. We can’t act outside our programming: it’s as simple as that. Our prospects are fixed, just like in a medieval cosmology, but without the all purpose balm of God.

The ultimate seed of Barry Lyndon’s undoing is his failure to even think of reaching some kind of understanding with his stepson, Lord Bullingdon. Already the target of Bullingdon’s resentment for being a parvenu who married his mother, Barry proceeds to mistreat Bullingdon while spoiling his own son, and even savagely beats the teenager in front of a large gathering at their home. Inevitably, when Bullingdon reaches majority and inherits his late father’s titles and wealth, that’s the end of Barry.

Had Barry been capable of thinking outside his programming and acting in his own longer term interests, he would have attempted some sort of approach along the lines of: ‘listen kid, I’m not too happy about this situation either, but can we just try to get along, huh? How about a lollipop?” Instead, he’s utterly a creature of the Universe that created him – you don’t make deals with children, you either beat or spoil them – and like the astronauts in 2001, he has to face an unprecedented situation within the excruciating limits of his own training. It is a vision of humanity which is bleak, to say the least.

The paradox of Kubrick lies in the fantastical clarity of his often staggeringly beautiful images – they are supra-real, better than real – coupled with a philosophical vision that even Beckett might have found a bit depressing. This isn’t entirely a throwaway remark, either. Bleak and all as he believed our condition to be, I suspect Beckett might have found Kubrick’s lack of compassion a bit repellent.

In a retrospective documentary about Kubrick released not long after his death, Jack Nicholson tells a revealing story from during the filming of ‘The Shining.’ During a rare break between those endless takes that gave poor old Shelly Duvall a breakdown, Kubrick tells his lead actor that ‘The Shining’ is actually a feelgood story.

Jack does a subdued version of his famous disbelieving leer and says ‘How’s that Stanley?’ Kubrick replies “the notion that there’s anything out there after death. That’s good. That’s optimistic.”

In spite of our technological accomplishments (and I suppose ‘we’ speak of ‘our’ technological accomplishments as if ‘we’ somehow made them. I can’t design a PC or build an aeroplane. Real change, as Kubrick would probably have pointed out, is actually generated by very small groups of humans), Kubrick’s view of our experience and capabilities is cruelly limited.

Jack Torrance can’t do anything other than go mad. It’s his training. It’s his trajectory. Like in a medieval tale of caution, Tom Cruise’s character in ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ is transported out of his rightful caste and level by sheer chance. Such an interruption to the fixed laws of the Universe leads to all sorts of Hell breaking loose, he teeters on the precipice of madness and death.

But he gets very lucky. He’s able to resume his former existence, sort of, albeit with all sorts of stuff he wishes he didn’t know about his wife (is Kubrick the real reason Tom and Nicole Kidman split up? You know, I have my suspicions.)

Medieval it is in many ways, but it actually chimes oddly with much of today’s intellectual orthodoxy in the West. This orthodoxy preaches, for example, that you should never look outside the alleged wisdom of received opinion. At its most self-loathing, it regards human consciousness itself as some sort of nasty STD.

The idea of the Universe as some sort of inanimate – and possibly fake – machine is something which has been gaining a lot of traction lately, and it’s pure Kubrick.

In Kubrick, no human being can act outside their programming in a way that is transformative. The humanitarianism of Colonel Dax in ‘Paths of Glory’ is as admirable as it is pointless, because the French High Command is going to execute its innocent soldiers anyway. The astronauts in 2001 are presumably among the best trained people on the planet, but Kubrick explicitly identifies them with the ape-man who’s just learned how to kill with a bone, and they are powerless to do anything once the machines stop working.

In such a world, the notion of any progress at all seems improbable. In 2001, Kubrick has to resort to the deus ex machina of invisible yet all powerful aliens to explain how apes leaned how to fly spaceships, but aren’t they just the medieval God by any other non-name?

‘The Shining ‘ is the only one of Kubrick’s movies to make any reference to the possibility of the supernatural, contributing perhaps to the one clunky plot flaw in his entire oeuvre, i.e. when the ‘ghosts’ open the locked door for Jack. Even here, any influence from beyond is entirely malign and only hastens Jack Torrance towards his predetermined, mechanistic end.

Kubrick’s film are high definition visual trips unlike any other. They are unrivalled in terms of visual clarity and unforgettable moments, but don’t go looking to them for reasons to feel good about yourself and the future.

Why Luck Is So Much Better Than Talent

Of all things, perhaps, the very worst station in life is probably to be a person of talent – or, at least, the belief you have talent – who is forced to live without luck.

It’s like being poor old Alfred Russell Wallace instead of Charles Darwin. Wallace had famously worked out most of the principles of Evolution years before Darwin, but never got around to publishing them in the right journal, and so six whole generations of humanity have lived under the shadow of Darwinism, rather than Wallaceism.

Perhaps Alfred’s bad luck was the good fortune of his namesakes, since people named ‘Wallace’ in the Deep South of America might have had to move, or change their names.

It’s a sad fact that you can’t get very far in life without luck. Think of the luckiest people you know, JK Rowling for instance. Was Harry Potter really the most outstanding fantasy written anywhere in the world for young people in the last twenty years? Really? Come on.

And I’ve never really believed all that rags to riches stuff about being a young single mother breastfeeding and writing in coffee shops. I mean, it’s a good story, but really? Trying to write while being in sole charge of a young child is unbelievably difficult, I know; I’ve tried it.

Also, it’s pretty much impossible to get the ear of any publisher these days without some sort of an ‘in,’ without the space in your life to do some ‘schmoozing.’ Try as I might, I can’t imagine anyone balancing the demands of truly single parenting with ‘schmoozing.’ Maybe some people have managed it, but I can’t see how.

The enigmatic ineffability of luck is sort of reflected in the fiction too. While George RR Martin’s characters are products of an intricately imagined world who endure all manner of horror and humiliation on their way to ultimately bloody fates, Rowling’s characters just sort of, like, have stuff happen to them.

Harry wakes up one morning to discover that he’s the most famous person in the wizard world, that his life has been mapped out and made fantastic by incredible things which happened before he was born. Because that’s the way it is for everyone, right?

Winston Churchill was a depressive who drank his own weight in brandy daily and long bemoaned what he reckoned was his execrable luck, most notably when he was left outside the mainstream of British politics for 15 years before 1940.

In reality, he was one of the luckiest gits imaginable: membership of a high born British family allowed him to get away with a lifetime of outrageous behaviour (rather like a certain Mr Johnson today), and it meant his career survived disasters which would have instantly obliterated the legacy of many a lesser born man.

You’d never have heard of the brains behind the Gallipoli offensive in World War I if it hadn’t been Winston Churchill. Likewise, it is a little noted irony of British history that the same man who commanded British soldiers to fire on their own citizens during the general strike of the mid-1920s became its greatest wartime Prime Minister less than a generation later. Would Roosevelt have survived such a calamity?

The most successful politician in the ancient Roman Republic was a man called Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Indeed, so successful was Sulla that his career pretty much led to the death of the Republic, though this would not be officially pronounced until Caesar a generation later.

Though of great ability, Sulla seemed to be able to come back from disaster again and again. He openly boasted of the reason for this. It wasn’t that he was the smartest, bravest or the best looking (have you seen his picture?), it was simply that he was the luckiest. He proclaimed again and again that the Goddess Fortuna was in love with him, and so bestowed most special favours.

Sulla knew more than a thing or two about life. He is possibly the only dictatorial leader in recorded history to have voluntarily and successfully given up power, i.e. managing to survive and enjoy a healthy retirement.

One of his political descendants, Julius Caesar, used to boast of exactly the same kind of luck, and he seemed to be dead right until that unfortunate business on the Ides of March.

It’s become something of a cliché to mourn the way ancient wisdom about the way life really works has been thrown away in the so called Age of Reason. Luck is important. Luck changes lives in ways Science can only dream about, but luck seems to have no logic, no discernible pattern; therefore we mistrust it, do our best to ignore it, in public at least.

There is one fascinating reference to the power of luck in a 1970’s science fiction novel called ‘The Ringworld Engineers,’ by Larry Niven. In one important sub-plot, an alien race known as Pierson’s Puppeteers turn out to have selectively bred human beings for luck. They end up with an individual who is the descendant of seven generations of lottery winners.

But you would probably need to be an alien to think so outlandishly, so far outside the box. For all our supposedly incredible achievements these days, people rarely move outside tightly prescribed circles of thought.

Or am I wrong? Is there some covert University study under way as I speak? I bet Google are working on it right now, or possibly the Illuminati (assuming, of course, that they’re not the same thing).