Derren Brown (2016) Happy: Why more or less everything is fine.


I like Derren Brown which makes everything easier. As Billy Connolly said when people approach him they are usually smiling. Derren Brown doesn’t make me happy. You can only do that yourself and he’s not really sure that happiness exists, except as a transitory experience, a bi-product of something else. Derren Brown’s book reminds me f those chap-books heroines in nineteenth-century novels, written by Jane Austen, who were, for example, always scribbling in it remembrances such as   ‘Where our treasure is there will our hearts be also’.

I’m not knocking it. That’s what this blog is. Derren is a great debunker. I like that too. He’s got an inside track on how magic works and debunks mystics, especially charlatans that prey on the needy searching for answers that involve the afterlife. For Derren there’s no after life. The theme of his book is it’s this life we should concentrate on.

First up on the firing line are those selling the notion of positive thinking as a panacea for…well, just about everything positive. The negative stuff is your fault, for not being positive enough. If you’ve got cancer, it’s your fault for not being positive. As it progresses it’s your fault for not being positive enough. Derren isn’t saying positive thinking isn’t a good idea, but it’s not a cure, but a marketing strategy to hook the gullible and snake-oil for the most vulnerable and needy.  We don’t for example give a dog a tablet and tell it to think positively about it, or give a horse an injection and then complain that it no longer gallops as fast.

The problem as Derren (and economists) see it is our needs are limited our wants unlimited. The solution is asking why we want something, what story is being told to sell it? When we change ourselves we change the narratives of our lives.

Derren looks at the considered life. Stoicism and hedonism as propounded by the ancient Greek Epicureans. He flings in a bit of everything: Aristotle, Christianity, Renaissance and Marxism and stirs with a big spoon. (I’m going to look at that bit again, I’m always interested in Marxist dialectic because it sounds quite intellectual.)

The next major means of achieving happiness and redemption from the encumbrance of society was offered by the Marxists: work will set you free.  

(No it willnae, I hear myself saying).

To Marx, a bourgeois society alienates its working class from rewarding or creative labour.

(That’s more in line with my viewpoint. We all tell ourselves stories that resonate within us and seem true.)

Next up are the Stoic building blocks for a proper life. I can’t remember what they are, but they sounded to me like one of the steps in the AA handbook about powerlessness. To paraphrase, accepting the things you cannot change and having the wisdom to know the difference. You can get somebody (like Alexander the Great) to step out of the way so you can get the sunlight, but you can’t move the sun.

Derren rattles through more of life’s lessons, regarding being famous, being rich and being loved. As Meatloaf says 2 out of 3 ain’t bad. But Darren gives us the secret magic formula for success (which I’ve forgotten and will need to look up, again, but I’m happy too).

TALENT + ENERGY = SUCCESS

STYLE + ATTITUDE = BEING A STAR

Twinkle, twinkle I say, but Derren does allow for the Greek idea of FATE. This is shorthand for saying I don’t know. I often use it to bemoan my own fate. I’m often happy to do so.

The ending of the book is about death and happy endings. Funnily enough they’re not mutually exclusive. I recently came face to face with death. I like Derren’s take on all that positive thinking crap. He’s reiterating what I’ve often thought and written about. ‘How to Die Well’ is not often on the agenda. We ignore death until we cannot. His idea of ‘a good-enough death’ is lovely. He quotes Donald Winnicott:

I have extended the ‘good enough’ theory to most of my life and now my death. We are at times so obsessed or feel pressurised into ‘being the best at…the fastest at…the cleverest at…’ I genuinely worry about all this positive thinking/ life coaching!

…It is undoubtedly excellent to try to achieve one’s maximum potential, but that should be to please ourselves, not be judged by others, and for living a ‘good-enough’ life with its shares of wonders and disasters…

We’ve came to the end, as does Derren Brown, with a chapter And in the End. And Now. He’s perhaps gone too far, but hey, it’s entertaining and informative and I do like the guy.   

Richard Holloway (2004) Looking in the Distance: The Human Search for Meaning.

looking into the distance.

Richard Holloway’s Looking in the Distance, predates, his classic autobiographical account, Leaving Alexandria of leaving the Anglican church, where he was a Bishop of Edinburgh, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church and Gresham Professor of Divinity, which is quite a mouthful for an agnostic.  This is a short volume. A working out of ideas, a companion piece to Godless Morality, which I’ve not read and not likely to read. It reminds me a bit of the kind of chapbooks properly brought-up, young, women such as, Jane Austen’s heroine Catherine Morland kept in Northanger Abbey. A personal note of things they should know and others should know that they know. If that sounds old fashioned then Richard Holloway is old fashioned and so am I. My reviews tend to remind me what I’ve read and what I thought of it. I’d forgotten, for example, I’ve read Holloway’s A Little History of Religion. My memory is appalling. I write something down and forget what I’ve written and what I thought of it. There’s a bit of showing off, as well, of course, but since nobody reads my reviews I’m quiet safe. The problem for me is time. If I continually review books and films I’m not writing fiction and that’s what I choose to write. But it’s not that simple. Reading is the engine of writing.

The polymath Umberto Eco tackled the problem of memory in his novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. The protagonist Yambo has had a stroke and he has to reconstruct himself from the books he’s read and the early films he saw. Memory is who we are, he is told.

Memory can be beautiful…Someone said it acts like a convergent lens in a camera obscura, it focuses everything, and the image that results from it is much more beautiful than the original.

Holloway makes the point that there comes a time when most of our life is behind us. Death is not on the horizon, but waiting to tap us on the shoulder. In the first part of the book he begins with Still Looking and quotes Vasili Rozanov:

All religions will pass, but this will remain: simply sitting in a chair and looking into the distance.

Holloway deserves tremendous respect. Most folk make a ghetto of their lives. To turn aside from a role he has carefully crafted and grafted and  saying,  no, I no longer believe in religion, or god, is courageous. It sets an example. The example of Jesus is one that the moron’s moron, the American President, pays lip service to. In books such as The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist the counterweight to capitalism is nationalism and religion based on Calvinism and the gospel of Holy Willie’s Prayer.

O Thou, who in heaven must dwell,

Wha, as it pleases best thysel’.

Send ane to heaven and ten to hell,

A’for thy glory.

And no for ony guid or ill

They’ve done afore thee!

I bless and praise thy matchless might,

When thousands thou has left in night,

That I am here afore thy sight,

For gifts and grace,

A burnin’ an’ a shinin’ light,

To a’ this place.’

Robert Burns delighted in undermining class and religion pomposity. It’s not surprise that his poem To a Louse, takes place during a Kirk service, but could just as well have been the inauguration of the 45th American President.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!

It wad frae mony a blunder free us,

An’ foolish notion:

Holloway sees that hypocrisy of saying one thing and doing another. Morality can be complex or it can be a simple precept based on the notion of doing unto others what you would (or would not) do to yourself, which is the footstool of all the major religions. The authority he quotes and the question he asks comes from the Russian novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Karamazov Brothers and the character Ivan:

Tell me honestly, I challenge you – answer me, imagine you are charged with building an the edifice of human destiny, whose ultimate aim is to bring people happiness, to give them peace and contentment at last, but in order to achieve this it is essential and unavoidable to torture just one little speck or creation, the same little child beating his breasts with his little fists, and imagine this edifice to be erected on her unexpiated tears. Would you agree to be the architect under these conditions?’

To move away from Holloway’s creed, this is familiar Stephen King territory. Would you, for example, murder Hitler in his crib?

Thomas Piketty Capital  quotes Balzac to suggest inequalities are so entrenched that if in order to move up someone must be harmed or murdered, would you allow it? Eh, aye, probably, is the same answer as those Christian folk that mourn 22 children murdered in Manchester, but Mail-hate cheerleaders are  quite happy for over 200 folks to drown in the Mediterranean in the same week.

Holloway has something to say about fundamentalism and it applies equally to Trump supporters as it does to the Sunni (Saudi sponsored) branch of Islam in which ‘the gates of interpretation is closed’. ‘Immobolism’ Holloway calls it. What he means is Holy Willie is right, to a god given right,  and you are wrong if you believe otherwise. For Holloway there is nothing more dangerous than a fundamentalist. This book was written pre-Trump Presidency. Such an idea then would have been laughable.

Moral relativism. I had to think of an example for this. It comes from another Scottish writer, John Buchan, The Herd of Standlan. The irony here is the author of the First World War bestseller The Thirty Nine Steps later became a Conservative MP, but in this short story a humble Scottish shepherd, has a choice, whether to let go of the hand of Mr Aither and let him drown or hold on, even though he’s got a broken arm and might drown himself. The shepherd does hold on, or there’d be no narrative, but later regrets it, because Mr Aither, goes onto become Lord Brodaker and a prominent Scottish Tory.

‘I did what I thocht my duty at the time and I was rale glad I saved the callant’s life. But now I think on a’ the ill he’s daen’ to the country and the Guid Cause, I whiles think I wad hae been daein better if I had just drappit him in.’

Imagine you’re holding onto the hand of a young Donald Trump, he’s at his mother’s old croft, would you drappit him in?

 

Karl Wiggins (2015) Self-Publishing! In the Eye of the Storm!

karl

I’m not sure why Self-Publishing should have an exclamation mark! But I’m not going to argue with an exclamation mark. This book cost less than a pint of beer and more importantly I spent about five hours reading it. I dutifully followed all the links to some impressive Amazon sites that featured self-published authors have set up to sell their novels. I was familiar with some of the names featured. Joe Lawrence and East End Butcher Boy is mentioned, which is a terrific book. Vera Clarke, writer, is mentioned. Linda Cresswell and Denise Marr and the chief executive of ABCtales Tony Cook also get air-kissed. Karl Wiggins has according to Amazon listings self-published seven books. He has gained the experience necessary to give aspiring authors such as myself  advice. And he is generous in the praise of other self-published authors. The problem with Karl Wiggins is Karl Wiggins.

A typical blurb features in the same format several times. Someone is falling over and pissing themselves laughing.

‘…Anyone who …doesn’t mind peeing slightly when they laugh too hard…’

‘…you will have a damp patch in an embarrassing place.’

‘…Due to the laughter you owe my secretary one pair of knickers.’

‘…Best not to read this book on the train if you have a full bladder.’

‘Publishing is easy, but you need to get your name out there.’ The line between selling books and self-aggrandisement, where does it begin or end? Karl Wiggins tells the reader he is no Mark Twain, but he also tells us several times he has been compared to Socrates and Bukowski. What advice would the budding Socrates give Jane Austen, for example? No Facebook page or profile. No Twitter account.  She published her work anonymously and little is known about her life.  I’d be inclined to follow humourist like Twain and his suggestion:  ‘Any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen.’   Take him or leave him, Karl Wiggins is the equivalent of Bernard Manning talking about those coloured chaps with big lips is all he asks. Jane Austen get your tits out for the boys.  ‘…To use piss-taking humour to bring to the fore situations that don’t stack up.’ ‘Oh, the banter,’ as comedian Ford Kiernan as Jack in Still Game is apt to say, before raise his eyebrows to signal dramatic irony to the camera.

‘Can you imagine arriving back on a time machine in the 60’s [sic]  with the quick, ready banter from the 21st century while everyone’s still laughing at a pie in the face?’

Yes, I can, and it wearies me. The sixties were not ruff collars and Elizabethan England. The Rolling Stones as far as I’m aware are still touring. The theory that how the speaker perceives and reacts to the world is dependent on the language they have at their disposal (Whorf’s hypothesis) is not new. Humour was not invented in the twenty-first century as Mark Twain and Laurel and Hardy show.

Other straw men include chavs: ‘I hate toilet seats because they is better than me. At least they have a job’.

The beardie is the kind of highbrow that Karl Wiggin’s despises. He’s skint because of his ‘superior intelligence’. I’d guess an online group such as the Mc Renegades fall into the beardie category: ‘We’re a bunch of Scottish writers who have some things in common. We write for pleasure, not money…’ I write for pleasure too, but I’d be more inclined to follow Spike Milligan’s lead: ‘This book is dedicated to my bank balance’. But as anyone knows the average earning of an author are under £4000 per annum. Even ‘vegetarian bicycle wearing, [I’m not sure what a vegetarian bicycle is or how to wear it] frowning, long-faced, stupid hat, stupid beard, stupid glasses, miserable twat, disapproving wanker into the broken, bitter mind, that is Bearded Hattie’ or people like me, would find that difficult to live on.

Harpie, one of my favourite authors, but one or two punctuation errors such as putting ‘Lizards Leap’ in italics and adding apostrophes [one or the other, but italics for the modern writer is better] gives ready ammunition to Beardies that self-publishing is not real publishing. In ‘Delusions’, she put it this way, her son ‘has gone without to fund my vanity and ego’. Later she says ‘Amazon sales is the definition of fool’s gold.’ But for the self-publishing author Amazon’s algorithm is god. Twitter’s algorithm tells others who we think we are. And the Facebook algorithm is fairground hall of mirrors in which nobody looks at the same thing, but everybody seems to be laughing. This book is a hotchpotch of different elements drawn from different sources. It needs a good edit. Would the real Karl Wiggins please stand up?

Val McDermid (2014) Northanger Abbey.

 

Northanger Abbey isn’t so much a place as a time. In the introduction to Jane Austen’s (2000) Northanger Abbey the reader is informed it was written in 1897-8, but not in publication until 1803. So it’s a relatively old book, written in English, in a style of indirect free discourse (whatever that means) which Austen patented. It is also steeped in the sensibilities and, in particular, the Gothic literature of the time. The reader is addressed directly and enters into a conspiracy with the writer as she maps out, in a knowingly ironic tone, Catherine Morland’s episodic  journey into society; a journey from innocence to experience – or something like that.

Look at the opening of both books and guess the modern reading. ‘No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her to be born a heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition were all equally against her.’

‘It was a source of constant disappointment to Catherine Morland that her life did not resemble her books. Or rather, the books in which she found its likeness were so unexciting. Plenty of novels were set in small country villages and towns like the Dorset hamlet where she lived…Piddle Valley…Cat as she preferred to be known.’

Cat, in Jane Austen’s time, was of course, something you skinned or kicked on the way to the barn. Moore’s law has led to many innovations. I hope that one day we can sic one book, like fighting dogs, against the other and watch them battle it out. My money would be firmly on Jane Austen.

The plot demands that Cat is mistaken for sole heiress to Mr Allen’s fortune. Write what you know is a literary convention. The spa town of Bath were socialites gathered like pigeon shit around an open loft is updated to contemporary Edinburgh with its theatre and book festivals.  General Tilney when he finds this not to be the case flouts social convention and sends Catherine home -ALONE- from Northanger Abbey, unescorted by a gentleman relative or lady friend. Shock, horror, gasp. It doesn’t really translate nowadays. The right of primogeniture is a more nuanced foreign concept to a contemporary audience, but perhaps the rights of a married lady as a chattel to be herded like sheep is more easily understood. Henry Tilney’s impotence can only be understood in reference to the former and Eleanor Tilney’s quite courage in terms of the former.

Similarly, the boorish and ill-bred John Thorpe is a stock character. His ability to see shortcomings in all but himself translates into logorrhea about his two-seater red sports car, how fast it goes, and how much he paid for it – and how he always duped the other fellow – to Austen’s John Thorpe, who purchased a two-seater gig and how his horse is a marvel. Simply a marvel.

But when John Thorpe interrogates Catherine about her relationship to Mr Allen and he tries to wheedle from her how much her benefactor is worth he refers to him as an ‘old Jew’. This is a term McDermid’s Thorpe also uses. The structure in the book is broadly identical, but the meaning is lost in translation. McDermid, as an ex-reporter, adopts punchy sentences and a Bridget Jones- type approach which lacks the subtlety and melodic variation of Austen’s prose. There’s no sin in that.

I’d sic, Grace, a character from Alice Munro’s story, ‘Passion’, on both of them: ‘she hated spoiled rich girls of whom nothing was ever asked but they wheedle and demand’.

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