Julian Barnes (2011) Pulse

I’ve got Flaubert’s Parrot kicking about the house somewhere, god knows where.  My mate Brendan asked me the other day in the pub what I was reading and I couldn’t remember. I looked over at the pool table and the board beside it to see if anything was scrawled up there. Sure enough Julian Barnes’ Pulse was chalked up below Martin Ford’s The Rise of the Robots. Writing things down is a sure way to forget to remember.  I have enough problems remembering my own name and should really wear a name tag. All people should. And no swapping allowed.  But I do know that Flaubert’s Parrot isn’t really about a parrot. I like short stories because I can always remember where I am.

Pulse is the last story in Book Two of Pulse and the best of both books, (apart from one which I’ll keep you in suspense about because I can’t remember the name of it). I like Pulse because I didn’t know if it was true or not. If between the sheets lurked a youngerish Julian Barnes.  I won’t spoil the ending by telling you the narrator’s mother gets motor neurone disease and dies at the end. Or that the narrator’s father is overly uxorious. A stolid kind of bloke that worked all his life as a family lawyer and owns a particular kind of shirt, which he has a number of faded copies. And he loses his sense of smell. He’s a just-get-on-with it type of chap and doesn’t want to bother the doctor, but he does miss the intimacy of knowing how his wife through smell. That’s a lovely detail. I laughed at “‘hormones’ is a catch-all word for when women don’t want to tell you something,” and later when he has the not having a conversation about Janice with his mother, and she admitting she loves him unconditionally as a son, but loves he future daughter-in-law on the condition that she makes him happy. Lawerly adivce, she does and doesn’t, but that’s the nature of the short.

There are four other stories in Book Two. Carcasonne takes a quote from Ford Maddox Ford as a jumping off point. ‘I just wanted to marry her in the way some people want to go to Carcassone.’ I’ve read The Good Soldier, can vaguely remember the opening being about the saddest man I’d ever known. The rest is a void, as Carcossone itself is. But I’m sure I hitchhiked through it, spent a night in an auberge. A medieval feel to the town? Not sure. Carcasonne has the feel of Flaubert’s Parrot. It jumps from Garibaldi as a romantic hero of European history. How he captured towns and captured heart. Coup de foudre. Garibaldi looks through the telescope on the schooner Itaparica and inspects the Brazilian coastal town of Laguina. What he sees is Anita Riberas, eighteen, dark hair, large breasts “ a virile carriage”.  She speaks no Italian (a difficulty since there is not yet such a place as Italy) and he speaks little more than pigeon Portuguese. When they meet he tells her, “You must be mine”. And she is, but Barnes shows it’s not that simple. It never is. “The expectation of an experience governs and distorts the experience itself…” Barnes tells the reader this after segueing away from Garibaldi to a bookseller conference in Glasgow, where two women discuss the effects of different food types in the taste of a man’s sperm. Obviously if book conference in Glasgow are that interesting I might start attending some myself.

I’ve no idea why Barnes split Pulse into Books One and Two. If pushed I’d say it’s because Book One is shite, with the exception of the first story, East Wind, about a man delving too deep into woman’s territory which I liked very much. There are four stories Phil & Joanna’s something or other about middle-class people talking twaddle. And another few which aren’t quite as bad. Apologies. My memory isn’t what it was. Marriage Lines, which also appears in That Glimpse of Truth: 100 of The Finest Short Stories Ever Written is outstanding. The best short story in Pulse, well that and Pulse, but worth buying for that story alone.

Barnes has the capacity to climb inside other’s heads and I liked this riposte – to among others Oscar Wilde – quoted in The Observer, from the viewpoint of a narrator inside the mind of Shostakovich: ‘Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake; it exists for people’s sake. But which people and who defined them?’

Art for the people’s sake.  Meme and match. For the people’s sake we should have artists like Barnes. Science has its place. But Art needs its space, but I guess that’s an outdated idea. No use parroting on.

There’s a hole in my bucket

hole in bucket.jpg

You can’t blame the Conservative Government for the weather. But you can blame the Labour Government for the banking crisis of 2008. David Cameron made merry with the note left by Liam Byrne, chief secretary to the Treasury under Gordon Brown, to his successor ‘I’m afraid there is no money’ [left]. A throwaway line, much like Cameron talking about ‘all that green crap’. Because there is always money. How a government spends the money it has and the money it borrows determines what type of government it is. The Conservative Party takes money from poor people and gives it to rich people is a simple formula that holds true.

The simplest way the government does this is by printing money which they then buy back in the form of bonds. Arbitrage is a process by which a trader uses the price difference between the banks buy money at and the price they sell it at to make a guaranteed profit. Thank you Bank of England. Banks then increase the liquidity of the nation by loaning this money to an indebted nation, while wages have stagnated at or below 2008 levels, borrowing has increased to fill the gap. Productivity between 2008 and 2014 is almost zero.

The barometer of how well a nation is doing can be counted in terms of GDP, how much a nations’ goods and services increase. In a good year we experience less than 1% growth but beggars can’t be choosers.

Only they can if they call for increasing levels of self-regulation are met. Royal Bank of Scotland, for example, rescued with £45 billion of public money. Increasing arbitrage between buyer and seller by Libor fixing, selling dodgy debt wrapped up in mortgages, fixing the price of gold. But, of course data shows we’re back to the bonus culture. Average of quarter of a million pound bonuses paid to 900 lucky bankers in the US last year. They’re worth it. Arbitrage gaming a refund on the tax you’ve paid on losses, or bonuses for bosses you’ve made. Arbitrage moving global profits made in one country to another no-tax or low-tax country such as Ireland or the Seychelles. Alistair Darling as Chancellor of the Exchequer set out a deficit reduction plan. Later he followed the path of most high ranking politicians and joined the board of Deutsche Bank.  Imagine Sean Connery fighting against Al Capone and suddenly swapping sides and joining his bootlegging gang.  Only poor people pay tax.

Weather is a matter of liquidity. But climate change is not a matter of days or weeks, but longer term. That’s the Third Word War. And we’ve already lost. The cost is going to be tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of refugees on the move, famine and wars. Our economy is premised on a discredited notion of liquidity, but monetarism can’t fix the hole in our bucket. When the levee broke, as it did in New Orleans in 2006, what seemed dumb, directly spending public money on infrastructure was flipped. Not directly spending public money, because fiscal spending was a bad thing, was the stupidest thing since Reaganomics as clean-up costs soared. Public spending on infrastructure. That’s the cruellest joke. There’s a hole in my bucket and the water’s rising.


The Sapphires



I went to my local last night for a quick pint. All this New Year stuff doesn’t really bother me. But they wouldn’t serve me because I didn’t have a ticket for the New Year bash. That’s fair enough.

I had a can of beer and watched once of those daft movies on BBC 2. The Sapphires. I wasn’t expecting much, which makes it even better when it turns out to be a surprise hit. It was set in 1960’s Australia in one of those godforsaken missionary towns that sound like WongaWonga, and that was part of the joke about how an all-girl Aboriginal group came to be called The Sapphires. When the four girl audition for their big break, which admittedly isn’t much of a big break, a tour of Vietnam, entertaining US soldiers drafted to fight in a foreign country, then the WongaWongaWonga girls didn’t sound professional enough. The Sapphires cuts the mustard and sounds a bit like The Supremes. And boy can those girls kick ass with their singing. I was blown away in the same way I was with that other classic The Commitments.

Here we had the real deal. Not the black sound of soul from the black Irish. But Chris O’Dowd playing the bumbling Irishman who comes to manage a group of girls from a no-water town that are far too smart for him, far too good for him, but you know there’s that love thing. There’s racism. There’s sexism. There’s Vietnam and what used to be called Saigon. It was a nice way to welcome in the New Year.  Great music. Great harmony and solos. And like the Commitments it left me wondering where the stars of this show are now? Surely with so much talent they couldn’t fade back into obscurity. Then again, any sentence that begins with surely is surely suspect. And surely my local pub, where I drink all the time would have served me with a pint of beer, even at this time of year. Their loss. My gain.