What do nineteenth-century French novels teach us now?

mcd

http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/nov/30/class-war-is-back-again

Think of the number of times you’ve said: I just can’t do that! Really, I can’t. You’d expect a Noel Edmonds-like figure to pop up on your shoulder, although perhaps not with a gingery beard, to tell you off for being negative. Give some advice about having the right mindset and some superbabble about if you want something enough the universe will provide it. I love that kinda crap. In the nineteen-century novel such dreams are anchored in reality. It’s all about the money.

Let’s do a thought experiment. Set you back straight against the chair take deep breathes. I want you to imagine you work in McDonald’s. Open yourself to the universe. You’re a male worker. You’ve been working for the same company for three years. You work over fifty hours every week. Even when you were sick you never phone in for a sick day. You’re positive about that.  Imagine what the CEO of your company makes. Shorten the gap in your mind so it doesn’t take you 864 years on the wage you now receive to what he makes in a year. Lighten up. You’re obviously doing something wrong. The universe hates you.

The universe hates everyone equally. You’ve got to laugh at some of those nineteenth-century nostrums and notions.  Look at the way Pere Goriot is cured enough to die properly. The universe doesn’t care.  Tisane. If it tastes of bitter herbs and is awful it must be good for you.  Mustard poultice from neck to spine. Bloodletting. Leeches. Moxas. I admit I didn’t know what moxas was. It’s rolls of cotton set on fire and applied to the skin, a jump up from mustard baths. Pere Goriot dies penniless grateful that his two daughters have finally visited him, but he is delusional. He clasps instead the heads of the two penniless students that stay in the same boarding house and have helped ‘treat’ him. He is buried in a pauper’s grave.  The service costs 70 francs, but it is not a Mass, that is too expensive, but Vespers. One of the students Eugene de Rastignac pawns his watch to pay for the old man’s burial, but has to borrow five francs from a servant that works in the boarding house they live in to give to the grave diggers. Lesson learned, even having God and the universe on your side costs a minimum of 75 francs. But that was then. Now it’s Noel Edmond prices.

Honore de Balzac precisely quantifies in terms of the food the lodgers ate, drink, furniture, clothes and past-times of the poor and idle rich in monetary terms. An old man dying in poverty alone in a foul-smelling garret room is only part of the story. He also shows that the rich were rich not because of innate superiority but because after a certain threshold of wealth only a true imbecile could not remain wealthy and watch their wealth grow and multiply—much as it does today.

Balzac does this through the cynical Vautrin who lodges in the ‘Family Boarding House’ run by Madame Vauquer who has seven guests who stay in the house with her and another 18 who paid 30 francs a month for dinner in a dining room that can hold 20. Pere Goriot pays 45 francs a month, for board and lodgings, as does the law student Rastignac. Vautrin who pays 72 francs a month but has special privileges that allow him to come and go as he please is an interesting character. He is amoral in the way that  Jean Valjean in Les Misérables cannot afford to be and flits in and out of upper-class and lower-society in a way that Edmond Dantès, Le Comte de Monte-Cristo cannot, and he is more homosexually inclined than many of Shakespeare’s best love sonnets, but with no softness.  The best apartment is occupied by the widow Madame Couture and her young charge Victorine Taillefer who pay 1800 francs a month. Looking at these figures it’s easy to see who is whom. The rooms at the top, occupied by the hired help, is the working class at the bottom.

Gustave Flaubert’s, A Simple Heart, is set around the same period 1809 (give or take ten years). Here Madame Auburn has married a ‘comely youth’ who just as promptly dies, leaving her with two young children, debts and an annual income ‘which barely amounted to 5000 francs’. Rastignac’s family income in Pere Goriot, for comparison is around 4000 francs, which leaves after paying his digs,  130 francs a quarter for education and personal needs. His father mother, brother, sisters and aunt make do with  200 francs a month. His two sisters are unmarried for whom a marriage dowry must also be found.

Madame Bovary begins with a dowry. Charles Bovary’s father, retired assistant-surgeon major, ‘compromised’ in 1812, about some conscription scandal, marries a hosier’s daughter with a dowry of 60 000 francs. For 200 francs a year he shuts himself, his wife and son in a kind of half house, half farm.

Goriot’s daughters of a vermicelli maker are, in comparison, each given a dowry of 800 000 francs by their father so they can make a proper match. Goriot rises from his death bed and sells all he owns to pay off a 1000 franc debt owed to a dressmaker by his daughter La comtesse Anastasie de Restaud who needs it paid immediately, her credit is not good, so she can be seen at a socially important ball, an occasion that demands the best – and the worst.

Jump forward fifty years into the coal mines of newly industrialised France in Emile Zola’s Germinal. Money still does all the talking. Maheu is a model worker, widely respected in the Montsou colliery. He works for the Company and mines coal at a rate set by the them. He is paid three francs a week for price work and employs Zacharie his twenty-one year old son, who is also paid three francs (but he has a partner who lives next door and they are parents to two children). Catherine who is fifteen, when the story begins, works as a putter, pushing the underground trolleys full of coal along a line, much like a pit pony, only cheaper and more adaptible, is paid two francs.  Maheu’s father, Bonnemort (named after the good death that has chased him all his working life) is an old man, who works above ground as a banksman. He’s fifty-eight and near retirement age, but the reader understand spitting up an ink-like soot and with dropsy and rheumatics he’ll never retire. Jenlin aged eleven makes one franc. The pit boss, Hennbeau has a frigid relationship, but loves his wife despite being continually cuckolded by her. Hennebeau, on a salary thousands of times greater than his lowly workers. Here it’s easy to look at his and make comparisons with McDonald’s worker and the CEO of his company. But Zola takes the analysis further. The Gregoires have a share in the Company. It was once worth one million francs but the share price has fallen to around 600 000 francs, less than the dowry Pere Goriot offers for his daughters. Gregoire is almost the same age as Bonnemort, but the former is content for those scuttling below ground for him and his family. It takes 10 000 Bonnemorts working together below ground to make one Gregoire.

All money flows to Paris. Vautrin’s education of Rastignac (4000 francs a year) is increasingly relevant.  ‘Love and church,’ declares Vautrin, ‘demand fine cloth on the altar’. He breaks this down for the reader. A young man needs at least three horses and a tilbury for the day, and a brougham for the evening. 9000 francs for your carriages. 3000 francs for your tailor. 600 for the perfumer.  300 for hats. Laundry 1000 francs. Gambling/walking-about-money 2000 francs, basic necessities 6000 francs. Not be the laughing stock requires 20 000 francs a year. When Rastignac visits on foot his distant cousin La vicomtesse de Beauséant her lover’s carriage and horse is estimated to be worth over 30 000 francs.

Vautrin contrasts this with the salary the young student can expect to make when he qualifies from his studies. By the age of 30, possibly a judge, with an annual salary 1200 francs. If he finds a political patron a royal prosecutor 5000 francs, if he does a little dirty work for his political masters prosecutor general by the time he is 50, but with 20 000 applicants for such a position his chances of getting it are slim. And in the meantime he must spend 1000 francs a month to have any chance of getting the lowest office. His answer is to marry one of the potentially richest woman in Paris with a dowry of over 1 000 000 francs, which offers an annual income of over 50 000 francs. The rule of patrimony applies. Mademoiselle Victorine who shares a boarding house with them has a brother who shall inherit, but for a man like Vautrin that is a quibble that can easily be erased – for a small cut.  It does come as a surprise when Noel Edmonds appears on Rastignac’s shoulder.

At today values, it would come to around 100 000 000 euros (over £125 million) which would be something of an underestimate, but it’s still not enough, he would probably want McDonald’s tomato sauce and chips with that. Dream on for that pay rise. Dream on equality.  McDonald’s workers unite. The nineteenth-century novel teaches us twentieth-first century readers. Voila! plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

http://unbound.co.uk/books/lily-poole

 

 

Advertisements

Channel 4, 9pm, The Paedophile Next Door.

woodsman

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-paedophile-next-door/on-demand/57601-001

Historian Steve Humphries narrates and produced this programme. Going back thirty years to a conversation I had with a girl named Joyce who had big tits, I was quite keen on that kind of thing in those days, long eyelashes which she batted at me when she spoke, and she was now I come to think of it, more and more, quite pretty, but we never actually did it, not that I didn’t want to, I was also very keen on that kind of things in those days, in fact more than keen, but I was also a trifle shy, and less keen on her top lip that seemed to have some kind of fuzz growing like a bone above it, what would I think? what would other people think, if they’d known? but having established my non-paedophilic and perfectly natural tendencies to shyness and big tits, I told her that all paedophiles should have their nobs ripped off. She said it was a power thing, being a busty bustling woman, she was always right, but I was also right. This programme ostensibly looks at the two sides of the argument, the nob rippers and a more educational approach to paedophilic tendencies.

Establishing a baseline is often difficult. Think of Lewis Carroll’s (Charles Dodgson) innocent (?) obsession with a young girl that led to the creation of Alice in Wonderland, or Vladimir Nabokov’s sexually charged Lolita. The former is the good paedophile, who does not act on his incipient sexual attraction, the former an active fictional paedophile, whose only regret is his love grows up and he no longer loves or is attracted to her. Somewhere in between these two is Kevin Bacon, footloose, and charging around as a convicted paedophile in the 2004 film The Woodsman in an effort at atonement, and to help capture other rogue paedophiles. He was lauded for his courage in taking such a role. The message is they’re out there, which is the wrong message. Paedophiles are inside the building. They’ve always been inside the building, inside with us, squirming to get out, and they are not always male.

Jon Brown from the NSPCC estimates that 70%-80% of paedophilic crimes are committed by family or extended family members. Size matters. An adult can simply pick up a child and do with him or her what he wants. In this programme Sarah talked about her father’s dirty little secret. Jane Godley Handstands in the Dark (http://www.abctales.com/blog/celticman/janey-godley-2005-handstands-dark)   tells the reader about the way these things work. Ian McFadyen, in the programme (and also writing for the Observer) tells us how paedophilia is outsources beyond the family to institutions acting in loco parentis and this extends in particular to children’s’ homes such as  the one Sarah was moved to after her father’s sexual abuse, where she was also abused by members of staff. A double betrayal of faith. We could go on to the Westminster scandal involving the likes of Liberal MP Cyril Smith who was investigated by allowed to retain his position in the Commons and M15 notes sent to newspaper editors prohibiting them from publishing accounts of links with a local children’s home. Papers implicating other MPs and well-known figures were conveniently lost.  In sum, child abuse is classless, but the wealthier are far better at hiding the trail.

The aptly names Dr Sarah Goode claims an epidemic of child sexual abuse: one in four girls can expect to be abused before they are sixteen and one in eight boys. Every case destroys a child’s hopes and dreams and distorts their life. But there is no way of knowing, little or no empirical evidence to support Goode’s claims. Paedophiles remain hidden. They only seem to surface when some teacher or scout leader is caught with some incriminating evidence in his hard drive.

The programme offered the usual talking heads, such as retired inspector Jonathon Taylor, who dealt with child pornography in the 1990s, and his counterpart today, who logged into chatrooms under the alias of a thirteen-year-old girl. I admit I was shocked here. I’ve a vague idea of what a chatroom is, but it seems a stupid idea and waste of time, but any grown men entering such rooms must be suspect and I was back in my cut their bollacks off mindset. In general I don’t envy Taylor or his counterparts. I could not or would not want to watch video images of children being tortured for any reason. Whatever they are being paid should be double, tripled, quadrupled immediately. They do that hard job, the rest of society would rather not look at.

The programme offers the viewer something new and something old. Eddie agreed to be interviewed on camera. He has no criminal convictions, but admits he is attracted to children as young as four-years old. He also admits to being sexually attracted to grown woman. So this is not an either or choice beloved of our filmmakers. It helps explain why most paedophiles are married, but alas, doesn’t really explain why they’re all scout leaders, or headmasters. I admire Eddie for being upfront about his feelings, but I wouldn’t want him for a friend and I would never trust him to babysit. (That was a joke).

The something new model unveiled in the programme is normalisation and treatment. Adverts from Germany were shown.  People like Eddie who outed themselves would be treated not condemned. This is the same model Dr Sarah Goode advocated and lost her academic tenure over. In Californian prisons they offer both solutions. Convicted paedophiles are treated, but never let out. It’s easier and cheaper in these cost conscious times to go back to my conversation thirty years ago and suggest cutting people’s balls off. The truth is we don’t want treatment, we want punishment and we want it to hurt. How much is a pair of pliers?

 

http://unbound.co.uk/books/lily-poole

A simple contract

cherry

Anybody that knows me should by now know I’m under contract to UNITED AUTHORS PUBLISHING LIMITED trading as UNBOUND.  I’ve agreed to deliver a novel currently entitled Lily Poole and it will be around 72 000 words (ahem, 84 000, but that’s word inflation for you). The Deliver Date will be 1st October 2014 or a later date agreed between the two parties, or in more simple terms – whenever.  The production costs currently stand around £5 100 and I’m about 40% of the way to achieving that target. So far, so boring.

The agreement is made on behalf of three parties. I’ve already named two of them Unbound and myself, but I’ve also got an agent representing me, Luke Neima c/o of ABCtales.com, Burgeon Creative Ideas Ltd.  Well, Luke Neima is no longer c/o ABCtales, he works for Granta (or some other publisher) and also for Unbound. I’ve only met Luke once and he’s the kind of likeable guy that even guys like me that usually don’t like likeable guys, like. He is a secret agent.

You see in his short tenure at ABCtales he looked round for things to sell. It hasn’t really got any assets, runs at a deficit,  but that didn’t really stop some start-up companies going for millions in the  hyperinflated stock exchange bubbles in modern global economies of the late 1980 and early 1990s and as late as the banking-induced shocks of 2008.

Unbound belongs to this latter slow-growth period. But it bucked the trends of businesses going bust by recently announcing its publishing portfolio’s one-millionth pound sale of books and ebooks. Putting this into content Unbound as a publisher is the size of a field mouse. Amazon is, in comparison, a Shard-sized tyrannosaurus. It has what Joe Nye called ‘soft power’ and with each second that passes it adds more byte. Unbound and Amazon do not compete in the same markets. Unbound offers luxury goods-books that are priced accordingly.  But Amazon determines market prices, which most books can be charged.   Under monopolistic pressure it screws down prices so low that smaller publishers—and all publishers are smaller than Amazon—cannot compete and professional writers are generally being paid less and less. This is being reinforced by a greater number of writers seeking publishing deals, and self-publishing, which has never been easier or cheaper, and this is reflected in the price charged to the consumer. Often this work is offered free –which is the new consumer baseline price, or sold at discounted prices often around, or less, than the price of a box of Christmas’ crackers.  There are exceptions to the mass-quantity rule, in which an increase supply, while demand remains the same, brings down market prices. Superstars of writing such as Rushdie, Amis, and J.K. Rowling (fill the name in of your favourite writer here) get paid a premium.  There is another, what seems at first sight, a contradictory trend self-published writers epitomized by the aptly named Fifty Shades of Grey sell so many units of their self-published books that they too are paid a premium and join the pantheon of established writers working for more mainstream publishers. This is easily explained. Successful writers are only successful as long as they can consistently sell a certain number of units. Thank You for This Moment, for example, sold 200 000 copies in two months in France and the English edition is now out. The success of books, or luxury goods,  like Lily Poole are premised on pre-selling around 200 copies at around £20 for the first print run. When the figure for Valerie Trierweiler’s memoir drops, she too will be dropped. Success is all about the numbers. We inhabit different worlds, but with many of the same rules.

Author needs to write books that sell. Laurie, or Ewan or myself from ABCtales, for example, have been parachuted into this new business model of crowd funding, we need to write the books and sell the product we have made. Unbound allow us to legitimize our unpaid work by using their logo, or imprint, to help our selling.  How we do that is really up to us. But in a standard business model sellers are in search of buyers.  Unbound outsources direct selling but reaps the benefit of us harvesting family and friends. In simple terms, it is vanity publishing with a real publisher.

Unbound only sell a limited run of each book. Printing is outsourced. Most products under the Unbound imprint have tended to be more novella- sized than novels (well under 60 000 words) which tends to keep printing cost down.  Proof reading is outsourced to Luke Neima, and his zelig like transformation from ABC to Unbound, to proof reader, is complete when he also turns up to help make the provisionary video needed for promoting the book and the author to the paying public, which is added to costs. Books do not get published until all costs are paid for in advance by pledges.

Writing a book and selling a product are two different skills.  I’ll simplify the selling process for you. Online sales nominally depend of the use social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc. Sellers directly ask people for money or what is termed ‘pledges’ for our unpublished book. Success, or failure, is hypothetically dependent on how many people you know online and also to a certain extent on your online presence.

My experience is nothing much works. The Clydebank Post, for example, ran a story about my crowd-funded book Lily Poole. It featured a photo of me standing gormless beside a gravestone. Nobody pledged. I tried selling a free editing service. It wasn’t free, so perhaps ‘free’ should be in quotation marks, as I was seeking pledges before aspiring writers submitted their work to me. Then again perhaps the use of quotation marks around ‘free’ is an unnecessary affectation as nobody pledged using this route.

Yet this is contradictory. Unbound is a successful, publishing firm and Laurie and Ewan from almost the same starting position achieved sales targets of over 100% to my 40%. I’d explain that in a number of ways. The last 10% of sales is, in a sense, a free-sales run. Success is predicated on success. After achieving sales of 90% Unbound begin to advertise their latest successful product and, this is crucial, to a ready-made reservoir of book buyers. Laurie and Ewan for example are no longer dependent on asking  people that they know directly or indirectly for money.

Laurie had another marketing strategy for selling his product. He piggy-backed on a well-known charity. That way he could legitimately suggest he was not just selling himself and a book, he was selling for a charity. This added around 10% to the total cost of the book, but as this was paid through a slight increase in pledge levels so the cost was spread.

He also acknowledged he had hundreds of friends. Crucially, I’d argue, he also had the right type of friends. Let’s call them middle class people that own houses. Ewan, I’d guess, has similar middle-class friends and he also contributes online to UKAuthors who also supported his work.

Those that have pledged to Lily Poole, so far, have been immediate family, a few friends and fellow writers on ABCtales. My friends tend not to be middle class home owners. They generally don’t have an interest in books (or me, unless I’ve done something stupid, which I’d guess nullifies the friendship scenario. Loser!).

I’m working class, but a reader, so it’s also worth mentioning the idea beloved of certain types such as hedge-fund managers that there’s a hierarchy of human capital and they tend to be rewarded at the top with an income to match their skill sets and lesser mortals at the bottom.  I’m not in this elect group. I do know Laurie and Ewan spent more time online than me, translated into dour Presbyterian terms, which means they worked harder than me and deserved success. Whether they used a particular cultural skill-set, I lack, I can only make an educational a priori guess. Asking for money is never easy. Asking friends for money they don’t have, for a product they don’t need, is more difficult for non-home owning working class folk. Perhaps the laws of diminishing returns is applicable here. I like to think so.

ABCtales has been good to me in lots of different ways. I piggy-backed on Abctalers to help sell Lily Poole.   I don’t think of myself as a writer, but I like to write. Sooz, a fellow ABCtaler, expressed it so well. The need to write is almost a physical act, a bit like masturbation, but onanism has its limits and for writing to reach any kind of climax it needs a reader. ABCtales is a community or writers, but it is also (or should be) a community of readers. When I first showed my work online Ewan kinda ran the site himself. That might not have been other users experience but it was certainly mine. He was encouraging and very good at nudging me along with things I should be paying attention to, for example, spelling, syntax, sentences, meaning and what the fuck was that about? but all in a thoroughly nice way.  He disappeared as ABCtalers do over the years only to turn up later as competing for crowd-sourced pledges for publishing.

ABCtales act as my agent. They receive 25% of net profit. That’s the money that’s left after the costs of paying Luke and other zeligs have been met for editing, publishing etc. If you look at the figures for the first print run it’s not very much. But I’m sure Unbound and ABCtales would hope for the kind of Harry Potter magic that makes small publishing houses into large conglomerates.  I’m not a fan of agents. Their parasitical and cancer-like growth have outsourced many of the rights accrued to ordinary workers offer the last seventy years. But ABCtales has been a service I’ve freely used.  It has also given me the chance to get published.  I don’t begrudge and have no great interest in the possible and what remains more a hypothetical—rather than actual—profit, especially as it would subsidize other would-be writers.

Unbound take 50% of net profit. The average long-term return on capital investments stands around 5% per annum. ABCtales has offered writers’ content which Unbound need to keep growing.  Creative industries with around 10% of GDP are one of the few growth areas in the economy. Unbound needs to keep growing, making superprofit, and needs to keep selling to stand still. It’s a symbiotic relationship with ABCtales.

My concern is simpler, finish what I started, but I’m not sure I can. I’m not moaning about it, simply highlighting a trend based on factual analysis. When I write things down, as I have here, I understand them better with a cherry on top.

George Saunders (2013 [2014]) tenth of december

george saunders

George Saunder’s book of ten short stories, tenth of december, won The Folio Prize. Anyone that knows me knows that tenth of December is a very lucky and was a very propitious date for me and I should look upon this book favourably, but let’s be honest Saunders is already a success, he’s a New York Times bestseller, his short stories regularly appear in the New Yorker and  Harper’s, he’s won the genius award MacArthur fellowship and in the introduction Joel Lovell New York Times Magazine begins with the headline: ‘GEORGE SAUNDERS HAS WRITTEN THE BEST BOOK YOU’LL READ THIS YEAR and your thinking—really? The truth is I didn’t really like this book.

There is, of course, more than one truth and I don’t have a monopoly on them (although I think and act as if I do). Some stores are like a long drink of water – figurative language Saunders uses on one or two occasions to describe a particular character. Other stories have stickability in that they’re memorable. Sticks, for example, is just two pages. It begins with ‘Every year Thanksgiving night we flocked out behind Dad as he dragged the Santa suit to the road and draped it over a kind of crucifix he’d built out of metal poles in the yard’. Time passes. His kids fall away.  Dad has grandchildren. But he sticks with this weird obsession with dressing the metal poles in the yard with different guises. That’s it. It’s kinda sad and gives us insight into a kinda half-life of others. Job done. It sticks.

The first story in the collection Victory Lap I didn’t like, and if a reader doesn’t like the first story, the truth is s/he rarely ventures beyond it, but again, there was a kind of truth in the ending. It starts conventionally enough ‘Three days shy of her fifteenth birthday, Alison Pope paused at the top of the stairs.’ Then it gets a bit weird. I’m not sure who is narrating the second paragraph. It sounds like {a pastiche} on the Olde Worlde English and later the pretend French argot of a bygone era that should never have existed and Yes it does have ‘{special one}’ in brackets like I’ve shown. And for a reader not really sure what pastiche is, or what it should mean in a story, this can be a bit frightening and off-putting. I persevered because I’m an Olde Worlde type of guy that also doesn’t exist. Alison is the town beauty. Her neighbour Kyle Boot, who she spent many an hour in the sandpit with, she describes as ‘the palest kid in all the land?’ Sorry, that’s a rhetorical question that’s not a question. Begad, but does not Kyle love and worship the most beauteous Alison as all men born of flesh are prone to do, even perverts with borrowed work vans that plan to have her for his own and make her his queen, as they did in the old days, even if it was only for a borrowed hour and if she does not come round to loving and honouring him?

There are two stories that stick out. Escape from Spiderhead and The Semplica Girl Diaries.

Jeff, the narrator in Escape from Spiderhead, is being held in a prison. We learn later in the story that he’s a murderer. He got into a fight, he was losing, with a puny younger guy and he picked up a rock and killed him. Could happen to any of us. Particularly stupid older men that drink in pubs and should know better. The narrator’s mum has used her life saving to get him moved to a research facility where he should be having an easier time. It certainly seems that way. Roll over any rock and you’ll see they have ‘voluntarily’ tested drugs on prisoners and psychiatric units. Abnesti is the head-researcher in both meanings of the word. ‘Verbaluce’ for example makes the prisoner/experimental subject more verbose and quicker thinking. A theme My Chivalric Fiasco explores more fully in a small-town dependent on passing tourist income. Abnesti has at his disposal an arsenal of different kinds of drugs. The one he is currently testing and which the company have great hopes for is ‘ED763’. ED763 reduces love to a biochemical reaction. Jeff is set up with another experimental subject Heather and, after lunch, Rachel. They make passionate love to each other exactly three times and are enraptured by each other, but only as long as ED763 is in their bloodstream. When it is withdrawn, they are indifferent to each other. Heather and Rachel have made love and been enraptured by another two male experimental subjects that day and also made love to them exactly three times. To test Jeff’s post-study indifference Abnesti asks Jeff to choose whether to administer ‘Darkenfloxx’—‘Imagine the worst you have ever felt times 10’—to either Heather or Rachel.

The Simplica Girl Diaries is a simple story of a dad, ‘Having just turned 40’,  trying to do the right thing by his girls, but doing the wrong thing for everyone. The narrator’s takes his daughter Lily to a school- girl party that has got everything they’ve not. ‘That treehouse is twice the actual size of our house’. Ha. Ha. But it’s no joke. The diarist is particularly impressed  ‘on the front of the house, with sweeping lawns, largest SG arrangement ever seen, all in white, white smocks blowing in breeze’. His daughter’s birthday is in a few days and she’s asked for a few classical figurines that cost a few hundred bucks that the narrator has not got, but he maxes out his credit cards before pay-check day in an attempt to keep her happy. It doesn’t work, but then a windfall, a $10 000 lottery-card win. He goes for the best little-girl party ever for the best little girl. He splashes out even leasing four SG units to hang on microfiche on his front lawn. SG units are Third World poor people who live in such terrible conditions the diarist tells us they are happy to come to America, have a wire put through their head, which doesn’t hurt at all, and hang on that wire for the duration of their contract. It’s a win-win situation, until someone cuts the microfiche and they shuffle off, still attached together and the sheriff explains that there’s some strange groups intent on liberating SG’s and explains that, no, they don’t usually get them back. The owner of the leased SG units also explains that if he had read the contract he was responsible for them and would have to pay all costs. Lose-lose, but a lesson learned?

 

 

Downton Abbey

Downton

Nostalgia is good for you. Americans it seem love Downton Abbey and weep over the history they never had. Nostalgia sells. I should know that better than most. Writing is an act of nostalgia, an attempt to capture the past that’s never been, or to re-create the past as we remember it. This can be applied equally to fact or fiction. Downton Abbey is  set on that golden past when everybody knew their place. The master was always right, even when he was wrong. Everybody dressed up, even the servants, especially the servants, for we would never want to confuse them with people that mattered, people with the right kind of education and accent, people that knew which fork and knife to use, people that bought other people and made them bow and scrape in their presence, people that made those socially below them use secret doors and tunnels underneath their Gothic piles, built and maintained by other people that didn’t matter, so that they could avoid sharing the air with people that really mattered, those same people who required help to get dressed and cleaned, people that needed other people to stand to attention and hand them the right spoon and fork, people that never bent down when they dropped something, people that had their trouser pockets sewn shut, because they never needed to carry anything,  lived in luxury, as was their due, people that didn’t like Johnny Foreigner much, were suspicious of women that wanted anything more that to dress well and undress when required, and hated the workshy even more, people who believed that some people have a God given right to punish the poor for their sins, to enforce a moral code that didn’t apply to people like them, to fight for what they believed in, or at least employ the right sort of people to fight for what they believed in, which was, of course, the rights of maintaining their wealth and property.

You probably guessed I’ve never seen an episode of Downton Abbey and you’d be right. I’d be waiting for the servants to poison the soup and rid us of these parasitic growths. I don’t need to watch Downton Abbey. We are returning to the eighteenth and nineteenth century narratives of the rich employing increasingly more servants to maintain their big piles. Narratives of the rich being so much better deserving than the poor.  Having servants to shop and clean, and bring their children up, speaks of a certain kind of class.  Truth is crueler than fiction.

http://unbound.co.uk/books/lily-poole

Jhumpa Lahiri (2000) Interpreter of maladies.

 

jhumpaThis collection of nine short stories was winner of the Pulitzer Prize 2000. It gets my vote. Not that anyone asked me to vote, or even to read the long list or the short list. But if anybody had asked me which was the best of these short stories I would be flummoxed. I’d ask myself if they were all equally good. Janice Galloway, a writer I hold in the highest esteem, in comparison, wrote about the same number of stories in her collection of short stories and I’d have said seven were pretty rubbish, one quite good and one good. Lahari has nine exceptionally good short stories. That’s the kind of batting average that Alice Munro would be proud of.

The first story in the collection, ‘A Temporary Matter,’ takes the European reader into a different Asian culture, near the Muslim butchers, Haymarket, Calcutta, in which Shoba shops. But it is also Shoba who goes out to work as a proof-reader, the breadwinner in the family, leaving the gangly Shukaumar studying to gain academic qualifications, so he could gain tenure, or at least get a foot in the job market. They both have become ‘expert at avoiding each other’. This is classical storytelling, their arrangement is temporary, as is the notice they receive that ‘for five days their electricity would be cut off for one hour, beginning at eight pm’.

In the darkness of that hour they talk freely for the first time and tell each other stories of the things they would not dare tell in the light. They grow more intimate. When the electricity is fixed there is a pause. The future current could go backwards to the way it had been before, or forwards to a new beginning. And it does seem to be moving in the former direction, but when the denouement comes it is both unexpected and highly plausible as a volte-face typical of Munro at her best.

In ‘When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dinner’ and ‘A Real Durwan’ the narrative follows Bangladesh refugees from the war and split from Pakistani, but on different continents. Boori Ma, ‘sweeper of the stairwell,’ is in Calcutta,  Mr. Pirzada is in America studying, as Shukumar also had been. ‘Mrs. Sen’s, husband in one of other stories has an academic position, and in ‘The Third and Final Continent, the first person narrator, leaves India 1964, travels to a job in London and gets a job in the library at MIT, another kind of tenure, but what is common in many of these stories is dissociation, living in one country, but longing to be in another with the family and friends they have left behind. Assimilation is never easy and, in ‘The Treatment of Bibi Haldar’, only occurs after she is raped. There are no chocolate-book answers, but gritty and absorbing narratives that leave you wondering and wanting more.

Broadmoor

 

https://www.itv.com/itvplayer/broadmoor/series-1/episode-1

Broadmoor is a bleak sounding name. Its  150-years old, an  asylum, sixty miles from London that is expanding out to meet it. It used provide a daytrip for gentile Londoners to go and gawk at Broadmoor’s inmates. Now the cameras have been invited inside. I’m not really sure why.

Broadmoor we are told holds 200 ‘patients’ at a cost of £300 000 per year, per patient, an annual cost to the NHS of £60 million pounds a year (or one Millenium Dome). Note the word patient. In the world of the sad, the bad and the mad these are classified as the the last of these. So it’s home to Peter Sutcliffe and the Krays and somebody else whose name I can’t remember, but I’m sure must have killed a number of folk. The other residents that were shown seemed far more sad than bad. A young boy in particular, with a working diagnosis of Asperger’s had, we were told, tried to murder his family. His artwork was stunning.

Then we had middle-aged Lennie, who seemed a bit hyper. He had threatened to cut a psychiatrist’s head off with a machete. Some people might think that wouldn’t be a bad thing. But it got him moved pretty quickly from one mental health unit to Broadmoor.

So far, so blah, blah. Security was Broadmoor’s main concern. We were told that behaviour was controlled. Residents who modified their behaviour and were able to interact with their peers were given greater freedom. Drama came with giving a patient in his room (not his cell, although the door was locked 23 hours a day) a glass of milk. A tag-team of six staff hung about as the door was opened and a glass of milk pushed in. Safety first.

What interested me was that most of the staff were heavy and coloured. That’s the nature of the job. Lots of sitting about and a tendency towards obesity in patients, but also in staff. The coloured bit interested me more because in the mid-seventies when Jimmy Savile gave Rolf Harris a guided tour of Broadmoor most of the staff would have been white and lived in subsidized housing close to the hospital. Jimmy Savile had his own set of keys (so much for security) and was said to have blackmailed staff over the amount in overtime payments they claimed for.

Staff after each ‘incident’ had ‘time out’ to discuss it before going back to work.

Compare Broadmoor with Russia’s Toughest Prison where they keep ‘the Condemned’.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04m3k1q

They employ the same system of rewards and punishments for prisoners. These are societies sick. Prisoners who were until recently executed — a change that the warden and some prisoners lament as a change for the worse.

Care was basic. Live or die.

I’m pretty sure you could move patients from Broadmoor to Russia’s toughest prison with annual savings of £55 million pound a year, £550 million in ten years, multiply that by 1000 in property and land sales and we’d almost have enough to buy a Trident missile to save us from the Russians. Needs thinking about in these cost-conscious times.

http://unbound.co.uk/books/lily-poole


broadmoor