Sunday 20 January 2013

Eric Arthur Blair: The Death of Idealism

Eric Arthur Blair - tallest figure - poses with the POUM militia. His wife Eileen O'Shaughnessy Blair crouches beside him.
Tomorrow, Eric Arthur Blair will have been dead for 63 years. Better known to most as George Orwell – prolific author, journalist and thinker – Blair contributed a great deal to our national literary consciousness, even adding a few new words and phrases to our language along the way. But I’m not here to wax lyrical about George Orwell – there are plenty of writers who are in a better position to do so – instead I want to illustrate what the man and his work means to me. My favourite George Orwell work is “A Homage to Catalonia”. Published in 1938, the book details its author’s involvement in the civil war in Spain, a conflict which was still raging at the time of “A Homage…”’s release and one which was continuing to set the tone for the dark years that would follow in the continent’s history. As someone who is fascinated both by the Spanish Civil War and by Orwell’s politics, I decided to read the book ahead of a one month trip that would be spent exploring Portugal and Spain. I had – rather naively – viewed the Spanish Civil War as one of the last truly great ideological struggles; a crusade to which idealists with strong views and the moral character to back them up flocked from all over Europe. Reading the book, I began to doubt this assertion. I began to doubt whether any conflict in the history of mankind could ever be defined as a “truly great ideological struggle.” Without giving too much away, the book follows an idealistic Orwell as he heads to Barcelona and joins up with the POUM socialist militia. Using Orwell’s own experiences of the alternate horror and tedium of life on the frontline, the book becomes a stunning piece of proto-gonzo journalism. Through the author’s eyes we are able to witness the two totemic Republican powers – the anarchists and the communists – grow increasingly distrustful of one another. In a piece of narration that is almost too convenient to be true – although not, I would imagine, particularly convenient for Orwell himself at the time – the author returns from the rugged frontline at Jaca in search of some much needed r’n’r in Barcelona, only to discover that the city has been torn in two by fighting between the anarchist CNT and the communist UGT factions. Orwell – although then more ideologically more aligned to the anarchists – takes up arms with his comrades in the communist POUM, defending their headquarters from the chaos unfolding around them. I won’t give away too much more; “A Homage to Catalonia” is a wonderful book and I urge you to read it for yourself. For me, it permanently altered the way in which I view politics and even the way I approach the study of history. To say it has influenced my life would be an understatement. There is far more in Eric Arthur Blair’s back catalogue to amaze and excite readers – just as there are far more expansive pieces of writing on the civil conflict in Spain – but as a starting point, a reader cannot go far wrong with “A Homage to Catalonia”.

Sunday 6 January 2013

Gate Way Books

When I was a child I read, a lot. Nothing in particular, just whatever I could get my hands on. Then, I became a teenager, discovered drinking and other such evils, and gradually I stopped reading.
It wasn’t a conscious decision, it was just that one day I discovered that I didn’t have the time to do all the things I wanted to do in that day, and so it was reading that was cut from the schedule.
When I was 18 and getting ready to go to University, I found a book in Eastwood Library, Nottinghamshire that brought reading well and truly back into my consciousness. That book was "M/F" by Anthony Burgess.
Those who are unaware of "M/F" will surely be aware of Anthony Burgess’ more famous work “A Clockwork Orange”. “M/F” is an altogether weirder proposition and, while it lacks the full-blooded violence and darkness of Burgess’ earlier work, its bizarrely Oedipal, carnivalesque characters and situations come together to form a truly nightmarish atmosphere wholly unto itself.
The protagonist, Miles Faber – himself a sort of Caulfield-esque college dropout – finds himself on a nightmarish pilgrimage across the Caribbean in pursuit of the poet Sib Leguru, his intellectual idol and muse. On his travels he meets a bizarre lion-headed man, a bird woman, and his freaklike estranged twin Llew – events which are played out in front of the backdrop of a noisy, frightening and chaotic West Indian carnival.
Freudian in almost every sense, the book draws upon evocations of the ego and the id, as well as the power of childish nightmares and even the more incestuous aspects of Dr Sigmund’s philosophies. But while freakish and labyrinthine are two words often used to describe this book, it remains the book that caused me to fall back into love with literature, and for that I am eternally grateful.
Of course it “lead me onto harder stuff”, but had this not have occurred, god knows what I would have been doing right now instead.
What were the “gate way books” that got you back into reading after a long period of literal-inactivity? Let me know…

The International Anthony Burgess Foundation hosts We4Poets Live this November. Click here for more info.

Daily Mail Proclaims YA Fiction “Sick”

Never ones to shy away from a ‘morally outraged’ headline, the Daily Mail recently ran a story about the ‘evils’ of young adult books that have the audacity to tackle weighty themes, or worse, themes which are important to their target audience.

Tanith Carey, writing for the Mail, described the plotlines of books like “The Fault In Our Stars” – a bestselling children’s novel centring on a 13 year old cancer sufferer – and “Thirteen Reasons Why” – a book dealing with the suicide of a young teenage girl – as “mawkish” and “distasteful”, evidently decreeing them to be unsuitable reading material for members of our fragile younger generation.

I wonder what it is in particular about these subjects that Tanith Carey finds so obscene. Scanning her article in the Mail, I can only conclude that it is their realism that she finds so shocking; the fact that – at some point in most of our lives – we are going to have to confront these things head on.

What the author seems not to recognise – or to wilfully ignore, depending on your viewpoint – is that these issues are real issues for youngsters as well as for adults. Rather than allowing children to use literature to negotiate and work through these themes in a Bakhtinian sense, Tanith Carey would sooner see them not explored at all.

Carey also calls upon two of the traditional tenets of the Daily Mail’s canon of immorality: “sex” and “foul language”. Anyone who thinks that sex and swearing are somehow beyond the radar or vocabulary of an average teenager has been reading too much “Just William”.

So what exactly is Carey’s point? That children’s fiction should deal only with football and adventuring for boys and ponies and light romance (no sex) for girls? Surely Carey realises that modern teenagers have bank accounts and internet access; any child with the inclination could easily pick up “American Psycho” from Amazon, or find something far darker on the internet itself.

Or is Carey trying to make the point that the regulatory codes governing the publishing industry are not stringent enough to protect our youngsters? Maybe, then, children should not read at all until certification falls into line with that of films and video games.

The fact is, under close scrutiny, it becomes abundantly clear that Tanith Carey does not have a coherent point at all. Instead this is just another story of faux moral outrage that the Mail concocts every now and again to give their strait-laced, Audi-owning readers heart palpitations over breakfast.

Don’t let the Daily Mail’s insincere moral crusading guilt-trip you into thinking you’re in some way a bad parent because you let your 13 year old read a book about cancer, and don’t let the Mail’s kneejerk censorial attitude dictate what you or your children read.