Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category
Tuesday, September 16th, 2014
Schrodinger’s cat, you may recall, was neither alive nor dead. It only became one or the other when the box in which it was imprisoned was opened and the experimenter could feel its pulse or whatever. This was an explanation of one interpretation of quantum theory, but it’s an equally good comment on some of the more awkward aspects of art.
Having finally finished all six series of The Sopranos – seven years too late, I know – I came upon the awkward issue of whether Tony is now dead or not. The final scene is tantalisingly inexplicit, though I, either out of sentimental feelings for the evil slob or because I find it more aesthetically satisfying, incline towards the view that Tony is fit and well and as fat and evil as ever in New Jersey. I won’t go into this matter at length because it is all covered in excessive and neurotic detail elsewhere – and, anyway, it is irrelevant.
What the various Tony Alive/Tony Dead theorists omit to mention is that he is, like that cat, neither. He is, you see, a fictional character, not a real, mortal person and, unlike that cat, the box in which Tony is locked cannot be opened. Unresolvable ambiguity is one of the supreme privileges of art. I am not saying David Chase, the show’s creator, doesn’t have his own view on the subject but, once the last episode was broadcast, it was out of his hands. Tony Soprano became his admirers, as Auden said of Yeats. In any case, it is obvious that Chase was playing games by editing the last few minutes of the show in the way he did – ie by neither showing Tony bleeding on the floor nor happily eating his dinner, his favourite hobby. It was a triumphant denouement – not in the banal form of an Agatha Christie thriller where everything is neatly wrapped up, but, rather, in the wild-eyed, wondering, speculative form of a Shakespearean tragedy. We can talk about the ending but we can’t, as it were, end it.
The desire to Agatha-ise the show is a sign of literal mindedness, a phenomenon I noticed while reading some of the commentaries. There was, for example, a discussion of the ‘symbolism’ of the cat in the last episode. This suggested poor education. Writers do use symbols, of course, but only sparingly because a fixed connection between an object and a meaning is an awkward and rather ugly concept. (During my interview the Coen Brothers were very firm on the a-symbolic and non-metaphorical nature of the objects and incidents on their movies, they just wanted to make something ‘pretty’.) There is much that can be said about how that cat works in the concluding episode, none of it involves symbolism.
I suppose people are taught to look too eagerly for ‘meaning’ in the most banal sense. No great work of art has this kind of meaning, rather it has the kind that expands in the mind to include many, if not all, meanings. Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature should be required reading from the age of, say, ten, simply to enforce this view and eliminate the curse of literal-mindedness
Such is ending of The Sopranos, a delicious, witty, unliteral and ambiguous theatrical coup, an unopenable box containing all possible states of Tony. That’s how art works and why, most of the time, it’s better than life.
Saturday, May 24th, 2014
Here is a statement of the obvious: problems with mass immigration may be caused by racists (closet or otherwise) but they will, nonetheless, be problems. Also obvious is the fact that racism intrudes in the imaginations of most – perhaps all – people. The left, for example, can say things about Israel which, if said about Palestine would attract charges of racism, if not violence. Racism is a very bad thing indeed and, like all really bad things, we won’t understand it unless we recognise it in ourselves. Original sin is still a very powerful explanatory tool.
Having drifted to the leftward in the past decade – what conscious person would not when confronted by the intellectual inanition of transatlantic conservatism? – I tend to be more acutely aware of the confusions and obsessions of the left, also of some of its more mean-minded strategies. Using racism as an multi-purpose condemnation is one of the meanest.
To be clear, it is not racist to criticise, condemn or satirise a nation because nations are not races, they are political entities (I’ve been down this road before). Secondly, a fear of the destruction of your neighbourhood by a sudden influx of strangers is not racist, it is a reasonable anxiety that may or may not be unfounded. Thirdly, concern about the pressure put on our economy – health, housing, jobs etc – by massive immigration is perfectly rational. Personally, I like immigration because I like variety but I’m privileged and I live in London. To turn my comfortable situation into a blind ideology is foolish and politically absurd. Yet that is what the left has done and why it now finds it so hard to deal with UKIP – see John Harris’s wise words of warning in the Guardian.
Now, bear with me, the secular, materialist imagination is suffused with a rather perverse mysticism, most obviously manifested in the claims made by scientists. I have always know this and tried to explain it, but I never seem to get it quite right. Take, for example, the ideas that neurosciences ‘proves’ we have no free will, that the self is an illusion and that we are but an assemblage of matter which was inevitable from the moment of the Big Bang. (All of these claims are pretty much mainstream.) The striking things about these claims is they can only be made intelligible if we assume there is another non-human consciousness that sees the world in a way we cannot. I, for example, act and live as if I have free will, my self is not an illusion and on the basis that I was not inevitable at the time of the Big Bang. I cannot imagine living in any other way and, indeed, the only way to do so would be to turn myself into zombie. Yet my sense of these things, according to the ‘scientists’, is not as true as their view, indeed, it is a complete illusion. These scientists, however, are not zombies so, in making these claims, they seem to be positing the existence of another form of consciousness that can see my awareness – and theirs – as less true than these other explanations for, of course, they would have to be zombies to genuinely see them as true. This other consciousness, apparently, can see a world in which human consciousness is, at best, irrelevant or, at worst, does not exist. Pure mysticism or, in fact, superstition.
What does this have to do with racism and the left? I think – actually I am sure but I am trying to be humble – that this mystical scientism has infected thinking on the left much more than on the right. The structure of much left thinking is that there is a greater truth visible only to the initiated. This truth may be Marxist or it may simply be some cocktail of social justice, technological progress, historical inevitability, whatever. The exact content is not the point, the anti-democratic conviction that the people must be led to see what is good for them is.
(Conservatism betrayed its own pragmatic roots when it embraced a similar structure world view in the forms of neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism. The very prefix ‘neo.’ was an affront to the tradition.)
What I am saying is there is a fatally scientistic aspect to the idea that racism (or sexism, or any ism) can be detected in all the things one dislikes most. There is a link between the reflex charge of racism and and the pitying gaze of the scientists when one points out that they haven’t even begun to disprove free will or establish determinism. Such scientism makes it impossible to understand human affairs, other minds or, to bring this back to the topical, Nigel Farage.
Wednesday, March 19th, 2014
Bertrand Russell’s celestial teapot is an object orbiting the sun somewhere between Earth and Mars. It is too small to be detectable so any insistence that the teapot exists cannot be refuted. Russell made the point to show that such unfalsifiable claims demand proof from the believer rather than disproof from the sceptic. In other words, the belief is itself carries no special authority.
The teapot – rather than, say, an oddly shaped asteroid – is chosen to make the assertion seem as absurd as possible. Russell concludes by implying it is no more absurd than the dogma preached in churches every Sunday, a dogma which has, down the centuries, carried special authority.
The teapot argument was tweeted in my direction by Adrian Perry (@Tregeare) who is amazed that I could believe in God (I am an agnostic but I won’t, for the moment, quibble). That, in turn, arose from my tweet expressing my dislike of the Richard Dawkins-Lawrence Krauss anti-religion ‘tour’, specifically my horror that an artist as great as Werner Herzog should support such nonsense. These neo-atheist preaching to the converted love-ins must be dismal, smug affairs. They also shock me in the same way Dawkins shocked me when he told me, years ago, he was writing a book on God. Why? Arguments against the existence of God are obvious, numerous and, in their own terms, irrefutable; they hardly need repetition.
Of course, 9/11 and American fundamentalism were the real targets – in other words, certain forms of very extreme behaviour and belief. Fair enough, I suppose, but the argument did not stop there, it expanded to become an assault on religion in general, the abolition of which, it was claimed, would make a better world. This is nonsense, of course – as, to my astonishment, Christopher Hitchens admitted on a US radio show. Religion is just an occasion for human evil, as were communism and fascism. The argument then further expanded to assert science as the one true way.
This last assertion is based on the belief – and it is a belief, a total teapot in fact – that science is capable of a final and full account of the the world. This leads to scientism in which every problem is approached with the presupposition that there is a scientific solution – read Roger Scruton on this particular abuse of reason.
All of which has tended to polarise people’s responses to religion. Neo-atheism has made non-believers and believers more strident. On one side, some people now seem scared of even referring to religion; a recent interviewee stammered an apology to me when he happened to use a religious reference. On the other side, faith in its most destructive forms is ever more entrenched.
But about that teapot. The first point to make is that Russell’s thought experiment is rigged. Nobody, as far as I know, believes in that teapot, billions believe in God. In other words, God is not a teapot because there is, indeed, evidence for his existence – primarily his persistence in the human mind. Here’s a teapot-centric account of this type of argument. That God is in the human mind and imagination is irrefutable on the grounds of history and, in my case at least, introspection. This may be a mass delusion or an expression of some psychological disorder in me, but I don’t think so, not least because, by other names and with other attributes, something like God appears in so much human discourse – the omni-competence of science being one obvious example.
The real issue in all this is the intensity of belief. Wisdom should teach us that we are wrong about almost everything almost all the time and that we pass through the world in a cloud of unsubstantiated beliefs. We can’t abandon them – we would cease to function – but we should all cling to them weakly. (This is, in fact, what scientists used to claim to do.) We shouldn’t go on ‘tour’ to prove ourselves right and we shouldn’t kill unbelievers. I don’t expect anybody to be impressed by or even to react to my own teapottish tendencies, but I will say that, in return, you shouldn’t deny the existence of yours.
Thursday, December 19th, 2013
I have been interviewing an unconscionable number of very famous actors lately. You know of Dench and de Niro and there are more to come in the New Year. In the course of doing one phoner with a very big actor indeed, I was stopped in my tracks when she apologised for talking about the film in question because she knew actors sounded so boring when they did that.
Well, I’m afraid she was right, they often do. Indeed, years ago I used to liven up drab dinner parties with tales of the most boring actors I had ever met. How we used to laugh at the luvvies! The exceptions were actors I understood as I did Monica Bellucci, the chemistry of which encounter Clive James was kind enough – and surgical enough – to dissect. But, on the whole, actors were a gruelling task.
Yet, as Clive pointed out, the actor interview is a journalistic staple. Meeting big stars is something that can happen surprisingly early in your career. Getting good at it is another matter. I watch videos of actor interviews conducted by journalists and I am often amazed they can stay awake. Also when mainstream news shows on TV or radio wander, all innocent, into ‘the arts’, they invariably end up producing an uninformative, soupy promo for the film or play. But, in fairness, I admit I still come out of actor interviews feeling a miserable failure. Why is this?
Well, as the anonymous lady who apologised made clear, there is something a bit odd about actors talking about the works in which they appear. Why should they know anything except the necessities of their own part? Indeed, I am always noticing that even the most actor-friendly directors tend to conceal the big themes of the work from their stars. The themes would get in the way. They can talk about other things of course but these tend to be much more boring than art – my cocaine hell, my battle with fat/drink/the law, my love rat husband etc.
These thoughts have, in recent years, made me much more understanding of actors. Asking them how they did it is rather like asking them to explain how they ride a bike. Also, in spite of the rabid, contractually necessary self-promotion, unless they are in the very highest reaches of fame and sometimes even then, they are vulnerable creatures. I have seen them stare in almost pathetic wonder and gratitude as I rambled on about some aspect of their performances. They also tend to have become accustomed to deliberately constructing what they take to be an interesting persona, sometimes involving bad politics. This has to be got out of the way asap. Some act their way through the entire thing and, when that works, it is pure fun – Helen Mirren being my best example. But I find it easier these days to make them interesting – basically you start with the amazingly banal, thereby putting the being interesting ball in their court. Acting, after all, is just another art, once mastered it becomes all but impossible to explain how you do it. This is why I find indirection is often the best approach.
After years of laughing at them, I have mellowed into acceptance. No, I would go further, I find, to my surprise, that I love the luvvies.
Saturday, December 14th, 2013
This may sound a bit specialised and I know I’m a photo bore, but, bear with me, it’s might be worth it.
’The death of photography: are camera phones destroying an art form?’ runs the headline. Standing up this line is Antonio Olmos who says, ‘Photography has never been so popular, but it’s getting destroyed. There have never been so many photographs taken, but photography is dying.’
I think this is daft. It’s good lots more people are taking pictures because the more thoughtful among them will come to realise the greatness of Don McCullin – the democratisation of literacy has the same effect with Shakespeare and Keats.
But Olmos is not being half as daft as Nick Knight, a professional photographer who has taken to using an iPhone on his assignments.
‘What I’m into,’ he says, ‘is visual connection to what I’m taking, not pin-sharp clarity. It’s absurd for people to think all photos need to be high-resolution – what matters, artistically, is not how many pixels it has, but if the image works. People fetishise the technology in photography more than any other medium. You don’t get anybody but paintbrush nerds fixating on what brush the Chapman brothers use. The machinery you create your art on is irrelevant.’
To say you can produce great images with your iPhone is to say nothing. You can produce great images with a hammer and a slice of Battenberg or, as Robert Rauschenberg did, with a goat and a tyre. And no, of course, we, the audience, don’t have to worry about paintbrushes, but artists do. I’m pretty sure from Titian to Hockney they’ve gone for the best, not because they’re gadget neurotics but because they don’t want anything to get in the way. You can do more with good brushes. Equally, you can do more with good cameras. I can do everything – I think – the iPhone can do with my Leica ME and later, I hope, with a Nikon D800, plus a million other things. Of course, you don’t pursue resolution and sharpness for their own sake, it is just that, if you have them, you are freer.
The non-specialised point is the philistinism implicit in these arguments. I am not sure it is meaningful to talk of destroying an art form, though people do all the time. If the novel ‘died’ tomorrow would people stop telling stories? One may mourn, as I sometimes do, the passing of a technology – vinyl records or film – but music and photography haven’t died and, anyway, you can still get film and vinyl. And, note, despite dark forebodings in the 1840s, photography did not stop people painting. On the other hand it is certainly true that digital photography has engendered a manic pursuit of some kind of perfection that is, in itself, aesthetically meaningless and that this should be rejected. But McCullin and his peers can deal with that and show the way.
So, if you’re getting a camera for Christmas, make sure it the most expensive one the giver can afford, but don’t unbox it until you have had a go with a hammer and a slice of Battenberg.
Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013
The core of Stefan Zweig’s magnificent story Chess is summarised in the observation, ‘the more a man restricts himself the closer he is, conversely, to infinity’. This is said of Mirko Czentovic, a grandmaster who knows nothing but chess; he can barely communicate and has no social skills, he inhabits the game and the world is, to him, just the place where it is played. Nothing can lie beyond chess, it is, therefore, infinity.
Published in 1942, the year of Zweig’s death, it seems to echo Vladimir Nabokov’s Zashchita Luzhina (The Defence) published in 1930. The hero, Grandmaster Luzhin, also inhabits the game but has a more lively awareness of the outside world, until, that is, he becomes convinced, with tragic consequences, that the world is, in fact, a chess game.
The last work in this Eastern Europe triad is Franz Kafka’s The Burrow (published posthumously in 1931), which is not about chess. It is an unfinished story told in the first person by a mole or, possibly, a badger. This creature is desperately maintaining its systems of tunnels as a defence against the possibility of attack by some beast or other.
All three are about being locked in a world which, to outside observers, is plainly narrow and limited, but which, to the protagonist, is the whole of existence. The point is, of course, that we all live in such constricted worlds, we delude ourselves when we think otherwise. Travel may convince us we know a wider world, but we take out little minds with us wherever we go and return always to our burrows/games.
Shakespeare, as ever, got there first. He has Hamlet say, ‘O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.’ Hamlet, the supremely conscious man, cannot delude himself about the scope of his world; he has ‘bad dreams’ that tell him there is more. The modernist heroes are less conscious than Hamlet (isn’t everybody?): Czentovic who does not dream, Luzhin whose dreams are nightmares of chess and Kafka’s creature, preserving its world against the possibility of an outside.
(In taking photographs, incidentally, I always regard myself as being inside a sphere, capturing the shapes that move on its surface. This is a modernist posture, not the renaissance one of Shakespeare. It is hard to imagine a renaissance photographer.)
Twitter, Facebook and the like want to make barely conscious, modernist heroes of us all, locking us in bubbles, translucent spheres, walled gardens that only look like the world. It is a more comfortable place than the mind of Hamlet, though it leads to psyhopathic callousness (Czentovic), to madness (Luzhin) and to neurosis and paranoia (The Burrow). Which, I suppose, means that blogging is a slightly less risky activity than tweeting, but only slightly.
Saturday, November 30th, 2013
I am a Manchester City fan so you can aim off for a degree of prejudice in what follows. I also think more about photography than anything else at the moment so you can also aim off for obsession.
‘For his 40th birthday @ManUtd have published a pic of Ryan Giggs in a fascist pose with a violent caption. Classy’
This tweet produced some odd responses: bafflement, derision and one responder who said it was ‘just’ a head shot. This last would be remarkable at any time – all images carry a distinct set of meanings – but in the age of Photoshop it was simply naive. I know photographs have always been manipulated but the advent of Photoshop made manipulation so powerful and so easy that it now takes precedence over the shooting of the original picture. This means we no longer see pictures ‘of’ anything. The magazine picture of Jennifer Aniston is not an image of THE Jen, but, rather of A Jen, a version that exists only in the imagination of the star and her retoucher.
The Giggs image is heavily manipulated. It is also very ugly, not because he is ugly but because it excites revulsion. My initial explanation for this revulsion was that the lighting, the pose and the composition reminded me of fascist ‘hero’ imagery, as in the films and photography of Leni Riefenstahl. Matters were made worse by the violence of the words, which, I now know, are Joy Division lyrics often sung by fans in honour of Giggs. This, of course, does not alter the fact that they evoke violence.
Without abandoning this reading, I have since come up with two further interpretations which take into account the colouring. Giggs’s skin is silvery grey, suggesting a corpse. But, lower down, it is suffused with the red that rises up from his collar. I take it this is intended to be United red, but it is not, it is the deep red of arterial blood. In this reading he becomes a zombie rather than a Nazi. The expresson in the eyes is no longer that of an SS officer moved by the singing of the Horst Wessel, but of a dead man puzzled by his continued existence. This reading provides an even better explanation for the words – or it would if ‘and eat you’ followed ‘apart’.
The final reading is that this image has been doctored to make him look like a figure in a violent computer game – Call of Duty perhaps. This arises from the hyper-realism of what I suspect is a heavily sharpened image. Photoshopped hyper-realism looks anything but realistic because that is not how our eyes see things, but I suppose people think it is how they should see things.
This is all, I suppose, frivolity. Or it would be if it weren’t for the fact that there now seems to be a cult of Photoshopped ugliness. I am looking at a full page Louis Vuitton ad in the FT which shows a model in the Doge’s Palace looking back over her should at the viewer. Her expression is very nasty, she seems to be saying, ‘Sod off, you can’t afford me’, which is almost certainly true but does not raise my spirits to the point where I might feel inspired to dash out and spend what little money I have saved to cover the next ruinous energy bill at LV, though I can see it might appeal to some masochists.
There are many other examples. The shift of photographic power from the taker to the processor has produced this new ugliness. It is as if in abandoning the real world occasion of the photograph, some retouchers have also abandoned the culturally acquired meanings of imagery – or perhaps they are exploiting them deliberately to upset us. Or, like certain PR firms, they are avenging themselves on clients they dislike. Whatever the explanation, the world is becoming a more dangerous place for the tutored eye. Oh and City rule
Friday, September 6th, 2013
The concave glass walls of Rafael Vinoly’s 20 Fenchurch Street in the City of London focus sunlight so effectively that they melted parts of a parked car, a Jaguar XJ to be exact. Vinoly’s earlier building, the Vdara Hotel in Las Vegas, singed the hair of at least one visitor by the same mechanism. The fact that nobody in the City of London noticed this in the planning process is a very funny comment on the continued competence of our financial sector.
But the real story here is the glass building. I suspect Vinoly had no choice when he designed a glass-walled block, it is what companies and cities seem to expect. It is, they think, ‘modernism’. In fact, it isn’t. Of the great modernists, it is true that Mies van der Rohe favoured glass walls, but Le Corbusier didn’t and neither did Frank Lloyd Wright. If you close your eyes and think of the classical era of modernism, what you should see is white painted concrete rather than glass. However, the technology of non-structural ‘curtain’ walls, of reinforced glass and, latterly, of computer-aided design all made glass walls seem like the last word in modernity. The ensuing glass towers have become the dominant features in most of the cities of the world.
I am sure there are reasons – financial, environmental – why this should be, though my own experience of architects suggests they have a rare ability to provide almost any practical justification for what is, in reality, a purely aesthetic choice. There’s nothing wrong with that but, when it comes to aesthetics, glass is a limited and now entirely exhausted medium. Vinoly distorted his building with car-burning curves just to add a new twist (literally) to a rather routine office block. Nearby, at 122 Leadenhall Street, Richard Rogers has built his so-called ‘cheese-grater’ which gets round the tedium of glass walls with a strange shape, extravagantly exposed structure and exterior elevators. But the supreme London example of the glass tower is Renzo Piano’s Shard on the south bank of the Thames. This is the tallest building in Europe and it appear to be nothing but glass, even its shape and name signal that this is, indeed, a shard of glass and very little else but glass. It felt outdated before it was finished, the last building of the twentieth century, as Stephen Bayley put it, rather than the first of the twenty-first.
Glass, in short, has become a burden to cities, turning them all into the same city of jagged, twisted, burning, gleaming, sharp towers. From a distance, this is dull, from close-up it is worse. Thomas Heatherwick, the designer of among many other things, the London Olympic flame, explained to me exactly what was wrong with big glass sheets at street level.
‘A building landing on a street with such large singular components reminds human beings how tiny they are. They have very little of human scale and perspective and when you come up close there’s a sterilising effect. You feel you need to speed up to get past something like that.’
Glass, in short, is both deathly and dead. Designers of buildings on a smaller scale are now kicking the glass habit and, slowly, the street level is improving. But, above, the burning glass towers still threaten our cars and our souls.
Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013
Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity – a ‘fall’ blockbuster as they say – is a post-human film. Its two stars – George Clooney and Sandra Bullock – could have been played by robots. Clooney plays a standard non-threatening alpha male with a gruff manner and one minor character quirk – an urge to tell stories. Bullock plays her usual sweaty, scared but, when the chips are down, brave and competent woman in a life-threatening crisis. Algorithms for either performance would taken an averagely gifted geek no more than a couple of hours of programming. The plot algorithm would have taken him five minutes and, being a geek, he would have taken special pride in his specification of tight shorts for Bullock.
The story is an accident on a space shuttle which they must somehow survive and return to earth. ‘Gravity’ is a rather arbitrary title and, in fact, ‘stars’ is a misleading term for Clooney and Bullock. The real star is the kit – shuttles. space stations, re-entry capsules and so on. Finally, ‘director’ is an altogether absurd description of Cuaron’s role in this fiasco, unless directing entails the same shots endlessly repeated and the systematic elimination of all credibility and dramatic interest.
I can see the attraction of all the kit stuff and I can imagine being gripped by the film at the age of, say nine, but certainly not at the age of twelve. Still, lots of people seem to like it. Why? Because, I suppose, audiences are becoming more interested in machines than people. These two very good actors just phoned in two routine performances. We know, from the first minute, that one character/algorithm will survive and one won’t and, soon afterwards, we know which one it must be. What keeps us going (not me, I actually rose to walk out at one point but then felt an anthropological urge to stay) is the machinery, how it works, how it stops working and how it falls apart. Even I felt a more intimate contact with the Chinese version of Soyuz than I did with Bullock, shorts or no shorts.
Gravity, like so many things I have encountered, may represent the end of civilisation as we know it, but more likely it’s just a stupid movie. Don’t go and see it, you will only be encouraging them.
Saturday, August 31st, 2013
Staying at Mountain Village in the Colorado Rockies, I need to catch what the locals call the gondola but we would call a cable car to get down to Telluride. I start at about 9000 feet above sea level. The car first rises up to 10,500 feet and then falls 2000 feet to drop me downtown where the Film Festival is in progress.
For 13 minutes I skim through the ghostly aspens. I have not yet been alone. People jump into the cars together and then they talk. They tell stories about themselves and expect yours in response. I have drifted up in complete darkness with a retired Texan hedge funder who asked me if I knew Jeremy Clarkson and skimmed downwards with a local kid who wanted to study at the Royal Academy. One family from Philadelphia included me in a debate about the finer points of canyoneering and mountaineering. A lady explained something of the biology of aspens. Only once have I sat in silence – a high school girl and some college students were discussing their lives in terms far beyond my sphere of competence.
Meanwhile, Nige reminds me that it is 50 years since William Zantzinger received a six month sentence for killing Hattie Carroll, a casual, racist injustice that would have been forgotten but for the fact that it produced a very great work of art – Bob Dylan’s The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol, which was, as Nige says, ‘one of the first songs to reveal his talent in all its blazing glory’. Christopher Ricks told me he regarded it as was one of three perfect songs by Dylan, the others being I Want You and Sign on the Window.
What strikes me most about Hattie Carroll is its dazzling storytelling through the use of startling syntax and unexpected detail. You can read the lyrics for yourself, but here’s just one example – Carroll, sings Dylan, ‘Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane/That sailed through the air and came down through the room.’ This takes my breath away. That ‘down through the room’ is shocking in its oddity. It is obviously surplus to requirements – what else would it come down through? – but, somehow, it puts you right there at that fateful moment; you can feel the air disturbed by the cane’s movement on your face. I could go on…
The British tend to think of poetry as a matter of economy, of compression. Dylan, like Whitman, like America, sees it as an occasion for extension. And why not? Life should be extended. That’s what stories are all about.
It’s also what America, at her glorious best, is all about. Those gondola conversations will stay with me as evidence of a sweet, gracious, courteous, polite, curious, friendly, storytelling society. That is my normal experience of this country. Of course, I know the rest – the sentimental attachment to violence, a dim-witted respect for money, an appalling vulgarity, the creation of a vicious kleptocracy that is expropriating the wealth of the middle and working classes and now, probably, another unwise military adventure. But, strange as it may be, those things all become less not more apparent when you are actually here. What becomes most apparent is the urge to tell stories, perhaps because there are still remnants of settler/frontier society or – and I am pretty sure this is the most important factor – simply because it is very big country whose wildernesses inspire a strong sense of place and home and a desire to celebrate that in stories.
The gondola tales are like poems, yet further occasions of extension and little moments of sweetness and grace. Hattie Carroll lives on, having changed the world for the better. This land is not my land but sometimes I wish it was.