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Monthly Archives: May 2009

Man's Best Friend, And A Dog.

Man's best friend, with a dog.

David Cameron made a speech at the Open University this week on reforming government, but before he did so he published it in basic form as an essay in The Guardian. The paper was sceptical about Cameron’s promises, writing in a leader that, “Although the Cameronian canvas for reform is broad, some extraordinarily big spaces are left blank.” (This could be taken to describe the whole Cameronian project.) The next day, Simon Jenkins took him apart with less politesse. But the details of what Cameron was promising – or, given his slippery language and equivocating constructions, not, as the case may be – were less important than what he was really doing in the piece: folding the current political crisis into his long-standing narrative, the Tory diagnosis of what is rotten in heart of modern Britain. “The anger [experience by voters] [... is] the result of people’s slow but sure realisation that they have very little control over the world around them,” he wrote, immediately linked any proper response to the expenses scandal with what are already Tory positions.

In an interview in today’s Telegraph, Cameron takes a more party political approach and inevitably winds up sounding less like a crusading reformer and more like a calculating party leader. In the Guardian piece, he promised fewer MPs and a redrawing of boundaries, but no proportional representation – an obvious attack on Labour’s ability to mount successful assaults on the Tories at election time. To this end, the Telegraph’s other frontpage story today – that Brown is considering drafting LibDems into his government at the next reshuffle – is more interesting, being a bold and inclusive response to crisis, rather than a nakedly self-interested one. Yet the strength of Cameron’s narrative (supported on the very day of its publication by none other than Boris Johnson) should not be undermined – as Drew Westen has argued, the ability to establish narratives is in politics the key to high office. From the usual cheerleaders like Iain Dale to more sceptical voices at LabourHome, Cameron’s ideas – and the reasoning behind them – gained traction and acceptance.

This is very clever stuff. Even if the reforming manifesto is piecemeal and patchy, it is at least a manifesto, and one with a strong supporting architecture. It’s more than Gordon Brown has so far mustered, for sure, and Political Betting has the figures: not good times for Labour. The Tories are making the running. They remain a party committed to dismantling this country’s means of protecting its most vulnerable citizens (turning instead to what amounts to enlightened philanthropy as an alternative) – but Cameron in particular has a means of framing policies coherently which Labour grossly lacks. In the wake of yet more MPs resigning, and widespread cynicism and scepticism with politicians of every stripe, Cameron’s narrative may not yet have sunk to the roots of discourse. But, barring a credible alternative, it assuredly will.

Ed Burns, David Simon and George Pelecanos

Ed Burns, David Simon and George Pelecanos

I’ve just finished watching the fifth season of David Simon’s epic of urban decay, The Wire. This is of course the series’ final run of episodes. What to say about this canonical work of American fiction which has not already been said? How to frame the show in such a way that what I write is both fresh and not off on some critical tangent? Impossible, of course; but for starters, as the final episode faded to black, I felt a greater sense of if not loss then something close to it than I did as the credits rolled for the last time on Angel, or Deadwood or The West Wing. The completeness of the statement made by The Wire by the time of its closing moments was such a wonder that, perversely, it could only make the viewer wish for more.

Adam Roberts, an obvious fan of the show, wrote recently that both The Wire and Deadwood are a “representation of a whole believably interconnected and functioning town,” and this is obviously spot-on. But what strikes me most about The Wire is that this representation developed throughout the show. In Deadwood, each season was more an evolution of – a variation upon – the season before. The Wire, as Roberts said right here on this blog just the other day, begins at one level of that town and slowly builds upwards and outwards. That is, its representation is not complete until the final seconds of the show; in Deadwood, smaller though its town is, there is a strong sense of what the show is doing very early on. In The Wire, the argument is built more slowly.

Now, I’ve written before that it may well be that I prefer Deadwood to The Wire – that aesthetically it is a show which suits me better. The Wire may well be too determinist – certainly its final season at times feels to be straining to screw its characters over, rather than than letting the Fates have them as they will. This may be a function of season five’s last minute cut from 13 to 10 episodes (well, 9 and a feature length finale), but nevertheless Deadwood tended to focus more on personal choice than systemic will, and that appeals to me (as does the stylized language). Yet the strength of the finale of David Milch’s show was its inevitability, the extent to which the viewer simultaneously expected something different but knew what the town’s fate must be; in The Wire, no less subtly, the viewer knows the system is rotten to the core, but time and again the show seeks to add more nuance to that lesson. Deadwood‘s thesis was relatively simple; The Wire, on the other hand, is as multi-faceted as the American city.

If both shows focused on the evils of corporatisation, The Wire did more than merely depict the process. Season Five rounded the series off by the simple flourish of asking – and showing – why the bankrupt system is not represented, analysed or even questioned anywhere else. Newspapers are shown to be carried by currents at total odds with depicting the broken society; politics is shown as the relentless effort to hide from the people the consequences and causes of collapse; police work, as always, is a tool of triage only. All the characters seem to be struggling against the great unacknowledged weight; even Omar, usually the most clear-sighted of Baltimore’s inhabitants, is lost to blind fury and vengeance – leg broken, he is a pale shadow of his old self. The stick-up artist who replaces him – the betrayed Stanfield solder Mikey – is motivated less by Omar’s alternative moral code so much as mere survival. In this sense, the show’s run takes us from bad to worse: Stanfield is a more corrosive force than Avon Barksdale; Commissioner Burrell, a vain but competent officer, is succeeded by Stan Valchek, a man without even professional ability; only Bubbles, the show’s sympathetic addict, is given anything close to a happy ending – and that an ambivalent one. This slow build to collapse inverts the televisual form more surely than anything else The Wire ever did.

The Wire Box SetThe show’s progression from the first season’s depiction of the basic problem of policing the modern American city, through to the second’s exposition of how an under-class is created, and beyond to the system’s resistance to change, its self-destructive construction of its citizens, and finally its own pathological blindness to itself, is what lends The Wire‘s five seasons such power. On an episode-by-episode basis, the writing and acting is stellar, of course; the surety and intensity of its analysis is pungent and informed, naturally; it is a brilliantly shot, superbly realised artifact. But, most importantly, as an arc and an argument it is always moving, and always growing. Not in the sense that it alters its formula or its cast  (though it does), but in the thorough expansiveness and endless applicability of its vision of the world. What raises The Wire above almost all television and indeed many novels is its intellectual facility, the way in which its structure informs and develops its central proposition. It is hard to think of many works of fiction which so seriously apply themselves to sustained inquiry in this way.

None of which is very fresh framing. But as the screen went to black, that’s what came to me. In other words: all the pieces mattered.

Narratives, Many

Narratives, Many

Thanks to Nick and everyone else involved in Carnivalesque for including a post from this blog in the 50th edition of said early modern blog carnival. Also in the issue was Gilbert Mabbott (or indeed Patrick Ludolph) on post-modern post-revisionism. Regular readers here might have noticed me circling around the  brave new inconclusiveness of modern historiography. A different old teacher than the one I mentioned last week once told a friend who was quaintly attached, with the naivety only A-Level study can provide, to constitutional history that three weeks at university would turn him into an inveterate post-modernist. An exagerration, of course, but surely almost all of us are (albeit grudgingly) somewhere on the post-modernist spectrum now? That is, we’re all  abit ditherery.

Characterising Peter Lake, the post at Gilbert Mabbot says: “Lake is looking for a “multiplicity of narratives” to replace the master narrative.” We’re big Lake fans in this parish, but of course it’d be hard to call this approach Lakeian: everyone’s at it. I was reminded, for instance, of Michael Braddick’s comment on Ted Vallance’s blog (yes, it’s so not Lakeian that it’s even getting posted on the internet). On the purported inconclusiveness of his God’s Fury, England’s Fire, Braddick wrote, “I did not though insist that readers should accept that there was one particular significance to be derived from these experiences, or one voice which was really representative of the revolution.”

I’m not sure about Braddick’s argument in the comment that a summary is necessarily a conclusion, but at the same time I’m nervous like him about branding anyone without a dogma to be a full-blooded post-modernist (or indeed anywhere close to one on that dirty old spectrum). At the same time, a fear of dogma risks not just a multiplicity but a mess of narratives, doesn’t it?

Also in Carnivalesque 50 was Lisa Diller on the relevance of early modern study. Refusing the relevance of big narratives is dangerous in this sense; but at the same time, one man’s inconclusiveness is another’s broad applicability. Braddick links the English Civil War with the American and French revolutions, the rise of England as a great power, the history of European republicanism and the Enlightment. If it gives no grand sweep or explicatory arc for historical events, the many strands of narrative multiplicity provide at least a great many reasons to care about them. Contemporary relevancy is a whole nother issue, but those of us who like our conclusions meaty should always spare a thought for the expansiveness of the alternative.

It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen to write these the last words in which I shall ever record the singular gifts by which my friend Sherlock Holmes was distinguised.

"A Personal Contest Between The Two Men Ended"

"A Personal Contest Between The Two Men Ended"

The Final Problem and The Empty House, published 10 years apart, represent more than any of their 54 sister stories the means by which Holmes has become not a character in detective fiction but a figure of modern myth. Christopher Morley once wrote of “the wave of dismay that went around the English-reading world when Sherlock and Professor Moriarty supposedly perished together in the Reichenbach Fall,” and that strength of response  to Holmes’s demise, and that attachment to his life, has never faltered. Conan Doyle had famously come to loathe his creation – we saw last week how even the longest story, and the freshest genres, could not breathe life into the detective’s cases for their composer – but in destroying him the poor fellow merely ensured Holmes’s immortality.

The Final Problem sees a whole new Holmes: he is not a dilettante fascinated by minutiae and driven by ego, but a crusader for justice who would happily retire if he could only defeat the “Napoleon of crime”; a man engaged not in quiet consultation but in an epic struggle for years, straining “to break through the veil” of a vast criminal conspiracy overseen by a single man; and, of course, in that individual Holmes obtains his opposite, his evil twin, against whom he has been pitted by the Fates, to the death. We first see Holmes in this story bloodied and harried, admitting for perhaps the first time that “I have been pressed a little of late.” He is in fear, nervous of stealthy attack, and in the very teeth of a titanic struggle of intellect and will.

There is still enough of our Holmes here to recognise him – in changing trains at Canterbury, he neatly outsmarts Moriarty, and in his final stoic missive he retains that inhuman calm. But undoubtedly this story represents something of a retcon, refashioning Holmes not as a fabulous problem-solver but a man on a close to mythical quest, who gratefully embraces death so as to free the world of a great evil. His resurrection in The Empty House completes this Arthurian transformation: Holmes returns to Watson, and to us, and recommits himself to the good of the polity. Conan Doyle, in bowing to the pressure of his public and bank manager, has only fattened the albatross around his neck.

Indeed, The Empty House is a reboot where The Final Problem was a retcon: Watson’s wife is dead, leading us back to the bachelor days of A Study in Scarlet (though Watson’s matrimonial status is deeply confused). Likewise, Lestrade is once again the butt of Holmes’s jokes, and the great detective remains unschooled in human emotion (“I had no idea that you would be so affected,” he protests when Watson faints upon his old friend’s return). The murder of Roland Adair is a classic locked-room mystery, and Holmes has little time for nostalgia – he is, almost immediately, immersed in this new case. His travels – again, epic in scale, ranging from Tibet to Khartoum, Persia to Montpellier – have changed him not a bit, and he has returned to London, to Watson, and to us – of course – merely to solve a tricky little problem. “I trust that age doth not wither nor custom stale my infinite variety,” he laughs in the course of the story, and this resurrection has indeed imbued Holmes with something close to the magical.

How a reader might have responded to The Final Problem when it was exactly that we cannot know – after all, it is largely taken up with reportage and dialogue, and though it proceeds at an exciting pace, it only ever tells us of its vast import, rarely showing it – but taken together (though The Empty House begs the question why, if Colonel Moran knew Holmes was alive, did the detective take such pains to pretend he wasn’t), the two stories are to the modern reader something very simple: Holmes as Orpheus, returning, multi-talented and preternaturally wise, from the underworld – and in the process becoming something more than a mere character from some old detective novels. Poor old Arthur.

“… and once again Sherlock Holmes is free to devote his life to examining those interesting little problems which the complex life of London so plentifully presents.”

Steve Earle, 'Townes'

Steve Earle, 'Townes'

“We were witnesses to his genius and participants in his legend,” writes Steve Earle of Townes Van Zandt in the liner nights of his latest record, “which we helped to forge, repeating the personal accounts and the rumors alike.” A musician I know has a Townes story which he, in turn, passed on to me. This one takes place late in Van Zandt’s all-too-short life, and the itinerant singer-songwriter is backstage, talking to some aspiring troubadors. “If you want this,” he is quoted in the story as saying of a career in music, “you have to leave everything else behind: family, women, money. You can only have the music.” By this time, Van Zandt would have been married for 10 years or more, to a woman with whom he remained until his death; his son, William, had been born in 1983; in the money thing alone might the man who spent most of his life touring dives have had a leg to stand on.

So the story may be false, or Townes may have been talking nonsense. That isn’t the point of course – Van Zandt’s story has gone beyond much need of anything so dull as the truth. Earle’s new album is another contribution to this legened; his younger self new Van Zandt well, and the student went on to outstrip the master in terms of commercial success, but Van Zandt’s humane and unblinking approach has always informed his songwriting. To an extent, it’s a surprise Earle has taken so long about recording an album of Townes’s songs; on the other hand, you wonder what the point is. Earle has always been a better songwriter than a performer, and it’s a shame this is not an original collection, particularly after the disappointing Washington Square Serenade.

Still, in many ways the LP sounds better than anything Earle has done since his collaborate with the Del McCoury Band, The Mountain: his vocals are versatile, ragged and touching, there’s some fine playing from the guest musicians, and the production is delicately clever. Most of what come closest to Van Zandt’s hits are here – ‘Pancho and Lefty’, ‘To Live Is To Fly’, and ‘No Place To Fall’. Other highlights include a rollicking ‘White Freightliner Blues’, a ‘Rake’ which is satisfyingly grimy, and a duet with Earle’s son, Justin, on ‘Mr Mudd and Mr Gold’. The album as a whole feels a little too mid-tempo, but if all these faithful arrangements sort of drift pass they succeed through this in achieving an elegiac air. Still, it’s hard not to see Townes as a simply decent record and a pleasant listen rather than anything more substantial, and given the talent of both the songwriter and his interpreter that’s a bit of a shame. Townes is in short a well executed record not without strong moments, but ultimately it’s perhaps just a little too reverential.

Feels Like Years Since It's Been Here...

Feels Like Years Since It's Been Here...

England’s weekend has been gloriously sunny: in particular, Sunday was the sort of day we seem to get all too rarely, cloudless and bright. Unfortunately, we were inside for much of it – Dan had a gig at Acoustic Lunch, in The Old Rectifying House of Worcester. The pub is right on the river, and though a very fine and relaxed afternoon was had with music, papers and good friends, upon walking to the train around 6pm we did sort of wish we’d been outside!

We managed a sun day on Saturday, though, enjoying the Georgian charms of Bewdley, and more specifically the excellent fish and chips of its famous (in these parts) fish bar. Tradition has it that Bewdley played home to Charles II on his retreat from Worcester, and boasts not one but two Black Boy Inns named after the fugitive king. It also has a station on the Severn Valley Railway, which the steam geeks in us had to visit in time to see an engine pull in: Anna’s granddad was a huge fan of old trains, and we like to think we’re checking up on the old place for him.

And while the jam at Ashwood Nurseries today was too rich for the blood of some, our walk on Highgate Common was just the thing for a warm bank holiday: not too taxing, but just enough to enjoy the weather. Thanks, sun! See you again in a few months, we should think…

The Three Amigos

The Three Amigos

The word is that at 6.30pm on Monday evening, at the meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, most members present were supportive of Michael Martin. It was not Kate Hoey or the Daily Mail which did for him; it was his own lamentably tone deaf performance on Tuesday, forestalling any discussion of his position with an unwon arrogance.

To that extent, it’s hard to feel sympathy for the soon-to-be-erstwhile Speaker: he bears much of the responsibility for his own fall. It is for sure a great shame, given his dedication to and emergence from the Labour movement, but not entirely the fault of the snobs at the Mail (whose sketchwriter Quentin Letts gave him the classist and possibly racist nickname ‘Gorbals Mick’). The wrangling to secure his successor has already begun, and MPs will trip over themselves to emphasise their reformist credentials. This will be an interesting sideshow, but a sideshow it will remain.

The main party leaders probably wish otherwise: each has in his own way failed to develop an appropriate political response to the mess. Both Brown and Cameron are using the controversy to score points in long-running vendettas, Brown against Hazel Blears and Cameron against the older ‘bed-blocking’ Tory MPs who have until now seemed immovable both in terms of giving up their seat and the modernising project. Yet, when Brown refuses to censure more favoured ministers like Geoff Hoon and James Purnell, or Cameron gives a pass to Francis Maude or Alan Duncan, they risk transparency of the wrong kind entirely.

Resignations have been forced in every party: Nick Clegg, for instance, managed to thrown Lord Rennard under the bus to some fanfare. But this isn’t enough. I was with a colleague at a parking meter this week, and suggested to him that he get a receipt, since we had parked for a work meeting. The man behind us chuckled, “That won’t work – he’s not an MP.” Here is that rare thing – a political story which has become common currency. Spotted responses, like the resignation of a Speaker or the suspension of a backbench MP, cannot match this sort of furore. Something systemic must happen.

The problem for party leaders in systemic responses is that they are as likely as not to inflict self-harm. Gordon Brown in particular has long been guilty of tactical rather than strategic decisions, but every political leader is currently worrying around the edges of this problem. Tactical adjustments will not do: the strategic aim of purging this poison must be put above the day-to-day political calculations of who gains what from which mood will ultimately prove to be self-defeating.

With an election on June 4th, though, it’s hard to expect much else for now. Yet I for one did not expect Michael Martin to fall on Monday night – and that alone is reason to suggest that this unprecedented mess might still force a few hands.

China Mieville’s The City and The City has just been published by Macmillan. It’s been getting some good press, yet I didn’t feel entirely convinced by it. Nor did Torque Control’s Niall Harrison, so we’ve been talking over the book and trying to get at why we weren’t as impressed as other reviewers. The first part of this conversation can be found over at Torque Control. The second starts here, though those intending to read it should avoid both these installments – unlike other reviews of the book, we couldn’t contrive in this format to avoid discussing the central conceit of the novel, which Mieville has been quietly encouraging critics to obscure. Anyway … onwards.

"The City and The City", UK cover

"The City and The City" in the UK

Dan:

Thanks for that Encyclopedia quote — I think it’s clear that the uncomfortable slush of elements is part of the point, then. That makes the book interesting as a lark, but winds up being integral to its failure. Mieville’s love of the neologism and pun isn’t new to this book, though, is it? He’s used termplay to do some heavy lifting in each of his novels, and in fact I’d say it’s central to his technique. It seems to me that one of the ways he inspires that ol’ sensawunda is by keeping things so vague: his characters, his cities, his political structures very often seem to be at one remove from the reader. We never quite understand them, and that deliberate inscrutability is key to his art. It’s on show here, too — those clever wordplays hint at without expositing different ways of thinking and being, whilst all of the characters, even Borlu, remain just in one way or another undrawn, unknowable.

And, again, this is where the ‘In Our World’ stuff intrudes. You can’t make a world so similar to ours as to be exactly that unknowable, you can’t hold it at one remove from us for a long enough period of time for us to begin to believe in its impossibility. As we’re agreed, it is very difficult to imagine the ways in which the Cleavage was enacted and sustain because we do know how the world works, and the author cannot succeed in dangling that knowledge just a little out of reach. I think you summarise the ambivalence of the book’s political position well — the complexity of the issues are not underplayed, and the book allows even hardline nationalists to be simulatneously both right and wrong — but, again, much of it is too familiar to us to fit this radically different way of living. I know exactly what you mean about thinking Borlu a dolt, but as I said I can believe he has been conditioned — or as you put it, believe he believes — but despite that the concept, too, remains doltish. This is fatal: it makes the complex politics fall down, because the ‘nationalism’ on show is so obviously a false iteration, and the depiction of culture so gratingly artificial. The book tries hard to depict a difficult world which must be inter-connected to survive, but in which borders are crucial and cannot be ignored; yet that conceptual failure undermines the whole edifice.

So, sure, globalised business exists apart from both unity and division, of course, which is why the businessman appears hypocritical from both perspectives — but whether the nationalists criticise the ‘false consciousness’ of the twin cities, their nationalism is in turn equally false because of the novel’s own weaknesses. I’d like to think that all this falseness is some clever piece of cultural criticism, but I fear the novel is in fact just poorly conceived. The mystery stuff is a case in point: undoubtedly, this is an homage to noir and suchlike, and in particular its first chapter is very strained in its attempt to read like Chandler (a much harder effect to achieve than is often allowed). The twists and turns of the story are quintessential mystery novel, and the nearly comedic summary by the detective at the end a study in the form. But none of that part of the novel ever felt to me remotely as inventive as Mieville’s fantasy stuff — imagine the mystery without the fantasy setting, and you get something close to the masterfully over-cooked genre parody in Cloud Atlas.

Over on his blog, MJH is saying ‘read that book whatever you do’. I don’t get it.

Niall:

Without wanting to put words in that other Mr Harrison’s mouth, my guess is that what he values about the book is that it challenges us to think about what we mean by “fantasy”: not in the taxonomic/lexicographic literary sense we’ve just been discussing, but in the real-world sense. Why do we choose to believe the narratives by which our day-to-day real-world lives are shaped — narratives, in the end, as virtual as any “fantasy novel”? What do we gain and lose by it? That sort of thing. You say that wordplay is not a new feature of Mieville’s works, and that’s true, but I’d say that in The City & The City the way in which words actively shape reality, rather than merely reflecting it, is more foregrounded than in anything else he’s written, precisely because it is a version of our world being shaped.

Of course, if you read it and remain un-shaped, it’s less impressive. Your point that we already know how the world works, and Mieville can’t hide it from us, is an excellent one, I think. I appreciated the extent to which Mieville added more and more exceptions to the rules, ultimately making it clear that everyone who believes in the separation does so because they choose to do so. I thought the Ul-Qoma ex-pat community in Beszel was really very well handled, nicely disorienting; and I appreciated that he acknowledged that unsmelling or unhearing would be rather more difficult than unseeing, to the point of it sometimes being impossible to know whether to un-sense something or not. But again, ultimately these are portrayed as temporary, resolvable confusions, whereas it seems to me they would quickly become catastrophic, peoples’ choice or no.

"The City and The City" US Cover

"The City and The City" in the US

As to the book’s other advocates … I’m waiting on a review from Clute at the moment, and I gather he liked it; I’ll let you know what his arguments are. Gary Wolfe, in the April Locus, feels that it is Mieville’s “most disciplined and sharply focused novel to date” (I suppose it is), that “what’s most impressive … is not what amazes us about these imaginary cities, but what is familiar about them” (which I take to mean he bought into the conceit more than I did), that it’s “quite unlike anything [he's] seen before” (to an extent, although there are books like Hav); and he’s pleased by “the manner in which [Mieville] respects and maintains the integrity of the police procedural”, even while unpacking the book’s mysteries. That last one I thought was a bit of a problem, actually. Borlu’s job requires him to be highly observant; but his life requires him to be highly selectively observant. Surely a deliberate contradiction, but also one that handicaps the novel a bit, since Mieville resolves it by having Borlu’s narrative be basically un-visual (until near the end, when he really does see both cities at once). Points for impressive technical achievement, somewhat fewer points for a believable detective protagonist.

Dan:

I’m still not sure I was as impressed as you by the wordplay stuff: sure, the way the residents of the cities use language shapes their reality, but this isn’t restricted to fantasy novels, or even very good ones. That Mieville finds some useful ways to depict this common process is power to him, but I don’t find it that noteworthy, within his oeuvre or outside it. As for what we think might be MJH’s reasons for liking it … well, OK. The book certainly does that, but for all the reasons we’ve been discussing it does not manage to do it very well. Again, why give a book a pass because it merely tries to something? Likewise, Wolfe is right on all his counts in terms of what the book does but, as you say, whether it does those things well is a trickier question. I don’t at all find the detective fiction stuff particularly clever — in fact, I kept thinking that Martin Cruz Smith should have been in Mieville’s acknowledgements. At times, The City & the City reads so much like Gorky Park that I find it hard to believe Mieville is unfamiliar with it (though he may be). Gorky Park was a bestseller, but in terms of the genre of police procedural it is as by the numbers as Mieville.

This is less maintaining the integrity of a form to my mind, and more using it as a crutch as everything else falls down around you. What keeps the novel together is its tight crime focus — it could not work as a straight fantasy novel, because its elements do not cohere. Yes, the tension between the two forms (as personified in Borlu) is deliberate: but it sets up something for us to watch, to focus on, so that we pay attention to the world largely as background to the mystery. Canny. Mieville says here that he’s always seen something of the fantastic in detective novels, that they pretend to exist in our world but in truth do not. Going through all those Sherlock Holmes stories, it’s not difficult to accept what he’s saying. But if he’s right, then what detective fiction manages better than The City & the City is to convince us that the world of its fiction is very much ours, and that what happens in the story could happen in our lives. MJH may like the central questions of the novel, but Mieville’s attempt to write them large is to my mind what dooms the book to failure in this key generic regard.

I agree that Mieville is as clever as he can be with the conceit — I too enjoyed watching, as the book went on, all the imperfect ways in which unseeing and unsensing were at times negotiated — but ultimately you come back to that failure to hold our world in this world together. I’m glad others have been more convinced by the book — but I think we can agree that we weren’t, and that there are serious problems with the book that tell us why.

Obviously A Cavalier...

Obviously A Cavalier...

The Historic Present had a post at the beginning of the month in which Lori Stokes linked the American Revolution to the English Civil Wars: essentially, the post argued that the event of a Puritan government in England, far from pleasing their co-religionists in the colonies, instead offended both their own puritanism and their sense of independence. (The Protectorate oversaw, after all, a significant strengthening of colonial government.) This exacerbated social tensions within the colonies, and by the Restoration America knew only conflict with England. This theory doesn’t quite explain why the breach was yet a hundred years off, but it goes some way I think to indicating the moment at which colonial society and culture began to separate more prominently from the mother country’s.

It also reminded me of Kevin Phillips’s The Cousins’ Wars, the thesis of which is that shared strands run right through the English Civil Wars, out the other side of the Revolution, and into the American Civil War of 1861-5. I was sold the volume in the bookstore on the site of the battlefield of Shiloh (I assume based largely on the fact that I was English), and didn’t expect a greal deal from it, despite its size. Yet I still regularly think about its central arguments, even though I rarely see it referred to by anyone else. The book’s premise is certainly contentious and historically difficult (Phillips is a political analyst, not a historian). Yet I’ve aways been guiltily attracted to its neatness.

The grand framework of The Cousins’ Wars [can be stated as ...]: putting a new political religious, and war-based perspective around the dual emergence of America and Great Britain. This framework, in turn, yields the following thesis: that from the seventeenth century, the English-speaking peoples on both continents defined themselves by wars that upheld, at least for a while, a guiding political culture of Low Church, Calvinistic Protestantism, commerically adept, militantly expansionist, and highly convinced, in Old World, New World, or both, that it represented a chosen people ad manifest destiny. In the full, three-century context, Cavaliers, aristocrats, and bishops pretty much lost and Puritans, Yankees, self-made entrepeneurs, Anglo-Saxon nationalists, and expansionists had the edge, especially in America. [pp xiv-xv]

Though the book admits its martial focus, I think it still conflates an awful lot of historical patterns and movements in this grand design: can Anglo-Saxon nationalism really be usefully identified in the politics of 1640-60, and is it useful to think of the Union Army as fighting for Calvinistic Protestantism? (The fierce Christianity of Stonewall Jackson, a general for the Confederacy, shares far more with Cromwell than would Ulysses S. Grant’s, after all.) Yet Phillips does some good work in tracing ethnocultural links between England and America which can inform the historian tempted to make links.

The historiography of the English Civil War in particular is notoriously hot-tempered, and historians of the period currently seem locked in to a holding pattern of preaching caution and ambivalence: make no conclusions and suspect frameworks to be generalisations-by-stealth. Phillips’s work is at times guilty of making assertions which sit uncomfortably with this carefulness. Nevertheless, it remains a nourishing and informative – if not finally convincing – argument, and is worthy of more attention … and perhaps more studied research.

"Holmes was working hard over a chemical investigation."

"Holmes was working hard over a chemical investigation."

The Naval Treaty feels unusual: not only is it finally a full write-up of on of Holmes’s political cases, with which Watson has routinely teased his readers but of which not a single one has he ever offered up; it is also a relatively long story, by the far the longest of the Adventures and Memoirs. This gives it more time to introduce the characters and to layer the clues – as Holmes points out at the story’s end, the principal difficulty of the case was shaving away all the extraneous detail.

In a sense, this makes the story frustrating – an awful lot of it proves to be irrelevant. Yet much of it has such lovely colour that it doesn’t matter: there’s the cleaning woman’s tart retort about the difference between an omnibus and the detectives’ hansom, Phelps’s unabased admission that he got his high-ranking position in the Foreign Office through familial influence, and Holmes’s own encomium to flowers. There are Downing Street drawing rooms and Woking cottages, Cabinet ministers and commissionaires. Homes moves through this milieu with his usual focus, but the story itself is uniquely expansive. (Indeed, it was originally published in The Strand in two parts.)

The mystery itself recalls The Beryl Coronet: a priceless artifact is lost, and the culprit is not who at first it seems obviously to be. Mark at the excellent Good Night Mister Sherlock Holmes recently pointed out that The Beryl Coronet doesn’t quite make sense (though you’ll remember I disagree with his contention that the story is nothing special), and The Naval Treaty has a similar flaw: surely Phelps’s fault is in losing the Treaty in the first place, and its return will not save his reputation as a safe pair of hands. Of course, Holmes’s wink that Phelps and his uncle, Lord Holdhurst, won’t want the case come to court suggests that he (and we) are party to a cover-up, but nevertheless the return of the Treaty is secondary to its loss.

Similarly, the thief’s immediate recognition of the value of the Treaty strains credibility – many government documents are fairly dull things, after all, and the mystery itself feels less satisfying than its mise en scene. There is a sense, in his penultimate of the first round of Holmes stories, that Conan Doyle is growing weary: he acknowledges in his reference to The Speckled Band that he is recycling ideas, and though this is approaches an early instance of the spy story, it is a story which still struggles to wring new life out of Holmes’s profession. Its moments – Holmes’s admission that he solves cases for his own sake as much as his client’s, and Harrison’s, “For a moment I thought you’d done something clever” – are spot-on, but moments they remain. Holmes remains engaged by his adventures, but does the author?

To which end, this week’s post wouldn’t be complete without a comment on the great detective’s latest reinvention. Scott Monty rather likes it, and certainly Communicator’s commenters are right when they identify its broad farce elements as so-bad-they-could-be-good. But it’s hard not to think that Ritchie is making a Hollywood comic book romp and appropriating a famous character to stand in as its protagonist, merely for the extra PR bump. Reinventions and reboots can do a series a bucket of good, but a reconceptualisation is quite a different animal.

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