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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.

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