Friday 13 March 2020

By Force Alone - random thoughts!

Be aware..
I haven't written anything for about 2 years! 
Read an interview with Lavie here – I think it is fair to say that the author of By Force Alone might be slightly bemused by what follows! His starting point and mine are a long way apart. Though, I should say, I loved it.

I – anatomy of a love – ancient forests, greenery, winter, music.

I don’t know when I first saw John Boorman’s Excalibur but it was at some point during my teen years and I fell for it hard. I still love it – it is bonkers in all the right ways: low comedy and inflated gravitas (is that a tautology!?); weird giggles and absurd seriousness; Nigel Terry and Nicol Williamson! Later I tried watching BBCs Merlin and hated its tepid lack of risk and anaesthetising safe-blanket of mediocrity (lol).  Camelot, despite the mad genius of Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero is unwatchable. I didn’t really watch Robin of Sherwood when it was first on – we were one of those bizarre households that shied away from ITV - but I watched the repeats. Actually I can watch almost any incarnation of Hood and be happy. As a (young) 13 year old I loved the mysterious wintery atmosphere of the BBC’s Box of Delights. Weirdly perhaps I associate Blakes 7 with all of this too, partly to do with tone and atmosphere. A favourite episode was/is Season 1’s Project Avalon – even the word is enough to set me off - and there were enough woods and forests in various episodes to reinforce the connection. The evocative music that accompanied all of these – Wagner and Orff (yes, problematic I know), Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony, Clannad (!), THE BLAKES 7 THEME (!!) – were all incredibly important for connecting meaning, atmosphere and tone in my yearning, impressionable brain.
Clearly I am a child of popular culture. No Geoffrey of Monmouth or Thomas Mallory for me, even in adulthood. Later in life I relished Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. As a school librarian I finally got round to Alan Garner (love) and Susan Cooper (wanted to love) too. There is something about the mystery and the history of it all that I find irresistible. Plus I love swords and monsters, weirdness and witches, ancient forests and dreams of a better world. So can I happily romanticism all that Celtic, foresty, standing stones, myths of Britain nonsense? Indubitably yes. 
Love and critique can go hand in hand of course - my other favourite Arthurian tale is Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur. And I’m sure there have been other irreverent takes on mythic Britain without having to reference Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
But is the residing emotion in all this nostalgia? Or something infected with nostalgia? Well, I think there are good reasons to appreciate, or love, all the books, films and TV programmes above. By Force Alone critiques the Arthurian legend - and rightly so – but it is also imbued with wonder and mystery, weirdness and a surreal atmosphere at one with many of those other loves.

II – patriotism, yawn.

By Force Alone raises questions about nationalism, Englishness and other thorny issues and so is extremely relevant and topical.
We’re being fed the poison of nationalism in larger and larger doses by a ruling class beginning to choose reaction, and fascism, over democracy and law.
We’ve always had progressives, from George Orwell, through Billy Bragg to Rebecca Bailey Long try to reclaim patriotism for the left. Now we have the reactionary environmental nationalism of Paul Kingsnorth and his ilk crystallizing into even more dangerous formulations as the Right comes to terms with the climate crisis. Nationalists call on every resource they can summon up to convince us that Englishness is a Thing to be treasured and protected, nurtured and returned to its former glory. 

III – anachronism (and I don’t mean the Blade Runner or the Talking Heads references)

The risk with anachronism in By Force Alone is that you might reinforce the idea that certain concepts and ideologies really did exist before their time. That risk – when it comes to ideas about nationalism – is worth considering because most people are unaware of how new these ideas really are. Most nationalists won’t have read Anderson, Gellner and Hobsbaum, let alone recent books by Valluvan, Niven and others. Nor will they care. They are content with spinning common sense, founding myths, supposed golden ages and the rest. Does By Force Alone destabilise and ridicule nationalism whilst still, paradoxically, keeping it in place? [Genuine question and I would have to reread the novel to take it, and myself, more seriously]

IV - serendipity

I knew nothing about By Force Alone. It has just been serendipity that my renewed ability – more, urgent need - to read coincided with a new Tidhar novel. Arthur, Excalibur, Camelot…wtf, I thought. But I love Tidhar’s writing so…wtfn, I thought.

V – the profane and the sacred

There is some on the nose silliness in this novel. There are parts I might even call cheesy. There were moments when I worried that writing nationalism back into the Dark Ages, as discussed above, was a dangerous game. There were moments when this reader who generally tries to think the best of his fellow humans was dismayed by the tired view of humanity, the violence and the miserableness on display.


Tidhar uses bathos and anti-climax in VERY funny ways. It is funny in a way that reminded me of Douglas Adams. I’d suggest that this is more Hitchhiker’s Guide for the 2020s than a companion to the novels of Richard Morgan or Joe Abercrombie. I was reminded again of comparisons I made between Tidhar and Mike Harrison when I reviewed Central Station. Something to do with skill involved in the use of lists and language, and the way they build their worlds.
It works as a bestiary and compendium of mythical Britain. It works as a book of monsters. It works because Tidhar’s love and relish for the writing of all this stuff is so apparent. It works because somehow it is incredibly moving – despite the Pythonesque irreverence, the changes in tone that should be jarring, the abundance of references to popular culture that should be jarring. It works because, somehow, the book manages to set its righteous anger and its harshness alongside genuine compassion. It works because it is, to sound far too much like a blurb, a work of wonderous imagination and extraordinary skill. It works because there is reverence for history, for learning and the wonders of the universe that sits side by side with its low humour and burning fury. It works because of the ZONE!

VI – a disagreement

Warren Ellis has just recommended the novel and concludes that it is “very, very cold”. I couldn’t disagree more. It’s full of heart. If Tidhar’s Guinevere has a little bit of The Bride in her then By Force Alone is for me is more Kill Bill than Goodfellas (make sure you read the interview above!). And I think Kill Bill has a LOT of heart. I raced through it, and kept trying to slow myself down so I could relish the details. Fool that I am, it made me cry. I loved it. I refer you to Part I….


Don’t you love how the sequence of your reading raises new questions and forces you to rethink? The book I’m reading now is also mind-blowingly good (in very different ways) - Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor and translated by Sophie Hughes. Blimey, if I thought there was some pessimism and misanthropy in By Force Alone then I’ve been forced to rethink!

Tuesday 14 January 2020

Little Women and the climate crisis.

I wrote this for Letterboxd and am posting it here in the hope I will continue to write again.

I’ve seen this twice now. Let me begin with where I stand on the main issues: 
• I love Gerwig’s direction and most of the choices behind the camera – though, does Alexandre Desplat’s score lead us a little too often? Yes.
• Don’t hate me BUT I am, it seems, one of the few human beings unconvinced by Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet, but they’re both great here and, as awful – racist, sexist - as the Oscar (and Bafta) nominations are, I believe she totally deserves her nomination. She is FANTASTIC.
• Is it feminist enough? This is a debate on the left with which you may be unfamiliar. It’s partly, but far from completely, a book v film argument. I don’t like the book and cannot remember all the details so I try to judge the film versions on their own merits. I like that we get more of older Amy, I like the ending. I like the time-altered structure that may on occasion be a little awkward – the repetition on Beth’s death scene? – but more often gives us interesting and thoughtful juxtapositions…
• …and so it seems to me that we still, urgently, need narratives about sisterhood, community, play, kindness and compassion that intertwine with stories about equality and justice, self-definition and self expression, the need for art and artists and much more.
• It is, like the other great adaptations, a big, warm hug of a film that gives us a serious tale wrapped up in nostalgia, beautiful landscapes, warm and comforting interiors, familiar and relatable characters…
• …thus Gerwig begins her film with that title card: “I had lots of troubles; so I write jolly tales.” Despite her structure and the playful ending …
• …this is still a very familiar kind of film. It runs on a very fine border between earned sentiment and universal sentimentality. It runs on a fine distinction between hope and optimism. It runs on familiar structures – and yes, to take one example, Beth’s death feels like a very familiar device that allows us to feel the pain of loss but with a very quick closure and without the real-life consequences of such a loss. It is sad but cathartic rather than challenging or difficult. I do, of course (!) cry at Beth, the piano and Mr Laurence - AND try to read it in terms of loss and love - BUT Little Women glosses over, in a very romantic way, class conflict. 

And that’s where my problem lies. First let me be clear that I’m not picking on this film. I’d happily have Little Women win Best Picture over most of those other snooze fests/really stupid films/tired late works. I’ll watch it again with great pleasure. It’s just that at the beginning of the new decade somehow my questions and thoughts won’t be swallowed down any more.

My problem is with fantasy and nostalgia. My problem is with happy endings. My problem is with carrying on as normal. My problem is with rushing things and glossing over pain and distress. And even though I know I’m entering a dangerous maze-like path - the idea that we should be prescriptive in any way when it comes to art has always been abhorrent to me - I’m wondering if there are films we need far more.

Time is running out. I still feel like a mad person for saying it but the evidence in 2019 was OVERWHELMING. Think of it as Year 1 of the new normal and that things are only going to get worse. I’m not suggesting that people won’t find ways of fighting back or that there won’t be resistance – we will be forced to fight back and sometimes they will succeed. I am suggesting that we’re already locked into enough warming that we are facing challenges – political, social, practical – that we haven’t got answers for – and that billions will suffer or die as a result. And much sooner than most people can imagine. Happy endings are running out. Normal lives – or what white people in the developed world thought of as normal – are coming to an end. And as usual it will be poor and working class people of colour around the world who will suffer the most to begin with and always.

This HAS to have consequences for art doesn’t it? The art that we need to imagine differently. The art we need to reflect (?) the perilousness of our circumstances. The art that will provide a sense of ‘Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will’ [and maybe Little Women gives you that?] The art that will help us chart a path between giving up or stupid optimism, or between waiting for others to lead the way or forging a path ourselves.

And my sense is that we have to start challenging every little degree of fantasy and sentimentality in our treasured narratives that pretend to make sense of the world or give us hope for the future. My whole experience of art - actually it's my whole experience of life and making decisions - is being framed in a new way: part of my brain is now, always, screaming “But, we’re running out of time” "Wake up!" “Half of the world is in the grip of vile nationalist governments with fascism just around the corner”

I wish I didn’t hear that scream but I know I need to listen to it