Monday, 18 July 2011

Philistine! O uncultured lout! Procul este, o profani!

I needed to go to Manchester today, and the reason is exciting and glorious to recount. No, it isn't, but did you momentarily take me for a millionaire  spelunker and basejumper? More fool you. Anyway, I was having lunch. Alone. Cue violins and mourners. So I had a potter round Blackwell's bookstore and picked out Graham Greene, The Quiet American. I was drawn to Greene as last week I discovered a quartet of his works (Our Man in Havana, Brighton Rock, Travels with my Aunt and The Honorary Consul adorning a bookshelf downstairs), and happily chanced on the first, which is an utter delight - making me more tolerant of his depression-riddled other works. It turns out Dad just picked these things up in '83, and they've been an unread adornment on the wood ever since. I knew we had books nobody else would read: I have my Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships, Dad has histories of the LNWR and Mum has genealogical thingummies, but I didn't know we had unread books in the house.

Why hadn't I spotted this before? Well, there's the origin of the title. Back in school my teachers worthily introduced us to classic literature, and I spent nigh on twenty years too shell-shocked and appalled to approach anything bearing such a title again. I confined myself to interesting stories: The Prisoner of Zenda, Midshipman's Hope, and far too many of Clive Cussler's stories, which are almost all precisely the same as every other book he's written. I would compare him to Dan Brown, but Dan Brown is so dire I gave up after a chapter of . . . that thing with Mary Magdalene. That brings me back to classic literature in school: Charles Dickens' Great Expectations was the first book I gave up on. The characters didn't interest me. The story bored me. magwitch? Joe whatsisname? Miss Stella? Yeah, whatever. Then we has old Bill Shakespeare. I think most of my readers will have been through school. There is probably something to be said for Bill when he is undertaken by proper actors. They appreciate the rhythm of his words, his innovative use of language and can add their own flavour to things. When one is sat behind a table on a rickety stool, then the only thing appealing about Shakey is faffing about with his language. Analysing it for this or that is no joy.

To cut a long story short "Too late!" I was driven off "classic literature" as surely as children whose priests rant about hellfire are driven off Christianity. It wasn't a subject worth my time, because it didn't deserve my time. So I thought. I had the occasional moment of self-doubt. Well, I've spent twenty years in depression, riddled with self-doubt, so let's say I sometimes felt that I should give it a go in the hope of self-improvement. Maybe I would go from caterpillar to butterfly. Reader, don't try to do that with an outdated OUP edition of Marlowe's plays which lacks any notes at all. "What's that mean? Who's this guy? Why should I care?" I got that from the bookshelf downstairs, too. Sometimes I wouldn't give something a fair chance. I think Jane Austen (at whose tedious work I had a stab last summer) got short shrift when, twenty pages in, I could see how something could be funny if I had someone else's sense of humour. No, I do myself down. Jane Austen could be funny if I had Dad's sense of humour, say, but he enjoys Aristophanes, so mm.

"Aristophanes? Pete, are you subtly hinting that you know Literary Classics which are of the Classical World and not from the last few centuries?" I guess, but the problems there are similar to those with Bill Shakin' Stevens, uh, Shakespeare. "This is a marvellous passage! See how he used the metre to blah! And this use of language is blah-blah! But even better, have you seen the blah-blah-blah?" The only time I've appreciated The Aeneid was in a final exam when suddenly a beautiful passage of Latin just burst splendidly into my mind's eye. I don't generally get that from verse, although Sappho and Plath have both got themselves into my head. Aristophanes may be the Spitting Image of the Ancient World (The Onion, if you're an American, and my apologies for failing to provide more kinda contemporary references to my other readers), but I just don't get that much humour out of a guy shitting on the floor in the middle of the street, regardless of the context. Apologies to my more delicate readers for the language, but it's apposite.

So where are we? I've beaten back boring attempts to mould me into some sort of literary apostle. I recall an English teacher (the best of them all, in fact) irritably taking me from the classroom to a sixth-form room, interrupting their lesson and making me read a poem off a wall, and it having no impact on me. At the time. I subsequently realised that my position that poems must rhyme was silly. Good work, Mr Martin! I still haven't got on board with the idea that poems need no metre, though. Give me another few decades to accept such un-Classical blasphemy. ;-) So verse I have beaten back. Prose I have denounced. The story I have embraced. I still do. That's how Graham Greene has got his claws into me.

He has not told me I must like this example of synecdoche nor that use of inverted commas to signify disdain. But nor is he vacuous like Dan Brown. There is a story. It can be appreciated just as it is, and it is like an onion, possessed of more layers. Peel off this layer and there's another. Given the author's bipolar, one might say that it's also like an onion insofar as it can make you cry. But there's a story. There are characters, flawed, incontrovertibly human and they ain't done gone been a speakin' funny. This is a problem with any verse production: t'aint natural. If I slip sibilants singly or severally into sentences it sounds deliberate. If I say/That I may/Make some hay/With your day, it sounds artificial. I don't think this is evil or bad, but it ain't me, and it don't appeal, padre. I want a tale, told not by an idiot but an equal or better, and by all means let it be full of sound and fury, but let it signify something. Ted doesn't have to get the girl, nor does Barney have to inveigle Lily into his schemes, but let there be interest. If you re-wrote The Prisoner of Zenda with Prince Michael victorious, you would have an estimable work, and one I'd read!

So where does this leave us? "We have well-written and dreadfully-written books that Pete hates, and well-written and dreadfully-written books that he loves. That's unhelpful. Surely I should say you only can read Defoe or Tacitus and must put aside Thucydides and Shakespeare." Thing is, I like bits of Shakespeare . . . now I don't have to. You can too, or whichever author they told you that you must love, but who shat indecorously in your eyes and ears. When it comes to authors, don't give all your attention to your teachers, for they only know their own loves and mechanical, technical ones which remark on rhythm and cover Colonial colloquialisms. If you want to cover Colonial colloquialisms, do! but don't let your officers order you into the No-Man's land of Literature. Don't get gunned-down by the maxims of criticism.

I mentioned My Little Pony the other week, and I feel I should man my Maxim say that if you're of a certain age, you really shouldn't be watching it. I mean . . . I can see myself settling down to watch Count Duckula or something likewise frivolous. But I cannot see me sitting through a whole half hour of it, unless I am particularly drunk. I've had my childhood, and I don't need it back. I'm here now, and what I have here is what I want. If you're thirty and want an ice cream, ok, but if you demand CBeebies, you may be peculiar. So go out and find what you want to read or see or do. Do it all, if you can! But, er, if you find yourself watching rainbow-splayed unicorns, you may be on the wrong path. That said, I do have a slight desire to watch Dangermouse now. He's got the suaveness of Bond, but he's an one-eyed mouse. David Jason voiced everything back in the day, it seems.

Anyway, dear reader, my apologies for not posting the hoped-for description of how to make the sides of vehicles. Dad's on the PC downstairs, and my brother, Niall, will no doubt shortly nab it to fiddle with stocks and shares. He's been giving me black looks all evening on account of my Mancunian Excursion earlier today. I believe he will be out tomorrow morning, however (why do I sound like that red-headed sexagenarian on The Weakest Link?), so I should be able to post it then. I mean also to append some pictures of my most recently completed vehicles! So until then, perspicacious and delectable reader - (TJ, forgive me for stealing your calling card, please. It has so firmly welded itself to my brain that I had not realised until now that I was so doing.) - fare you well!

P.S. if you've missed my Ebaying thus far, this post and this one contain all the doodahs I am sadly selling. Sequential sibilants - see! Sorry situation, soldier.

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