Tuesday, May 23, 2023

About Martin Amis

I was never a diehard Amis fanboy (and it was almost always boys) at the level of some of my contemporaries. But when I first moved to London in the early 90s I embarked on a major catch-up session, reading everything from The Rachel Papers to London Fields in the course of a few weeks. 

What dampened my ardour a little was not just the declining quality of the books themselves through the coming decades (although that is evident) but the fact that Amis had become a bit of a punchline, with the strange story of the new agent and the sweary letter from his ex-friend Julian Barnes (also wife of his old agent) and, yes, his dental bill. These days I’m scrupulous about distinguishing the Art from the Artist and as such I really can’t be doing with numpties chopping bits of Eric Gill statues, his crimes notwithstanding. Back then there was an element of self-branding going on, ostentatiously retrieving my copy of Dead Babies from my ICA carrier bag as I strap-hung from Brixton to Victoria. And then the name on the front became just a tad embarrassing, and I transferred my affections to McEwan and Ishiguro and Winterson and more...

So, even though I sneered when the BBC kept the Phil/Holly saga at the top of the bulletin, even on Radio 4, even as the news of Amis’s demise was trickling in, I’d have to admit that we’re all susceptible to a bit of celebrity gossip once in a while.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

About actors’ names

I chanced upon an enjoyable play this afternoon, about an (invented) encounter between Syd Barrett, leader of Pink Floyd before they got boring, and EM Forster, a novelist now better known for the spate of movie adaptations of his works that erupted in the 1980s/90s than for the books themselves. It wasn’t an entirely implausible meeting, since they both lived in Cambridge at the same time, but the connection was more how they responded the end of their period of creative genius. Forster settled into an amiable semi-retirement in King’s College; Barrett slipped into mental ill health from which he never fully recovered.

But the aspect of the play that really tickled me was the casting, or more specifically the names of the actors, which felt deliciously appropriate to the characters. “Simon Russell Beale” might well have been a character in one of Forster’s books, perhaps a first draft for the Reverend Arthur Beebe in A Room With a View. And “Tyger Drew-Honey” is surely a Blakean rant, chorus to an outtake from The Madcap Laughs. And if not, it should be.

PS: If you haven’t seen it, another encounter between Syd and the old guard, and one that actually happened:

Friday, May 19, 2023

About SATS

There was a commotion a few weeks ago after 10-year-olds in England sat a SATS reading paper that drove many of them to tears. Now the paper itself has been released, it appears that the problem wasn’t so much the level of literacy required as the children’s experience of the things being discussed; they haven’t been camping, they’ve never seen a bat and they certainly haven’t visited Austin, Texas. Fair enough, but that doesn’t stop them from knowing about these things, possibly from books. And as for the teacher who didn’t know what sheep rustling was...

PS: On reflection, I wonder whether my response to my story might be a reflect of my own state of privilege, especially when it comes to cultural capital. And, to be fair, by the age of 10 I would have experienced more than a few nights under canvas, although this was partly down to the fact that my parents couldn’t afford hotels. That said, I’d never seen a bat at that age, and I hadn’t (still haven’t) been to Texas. But I knew what the last two were, if only thanks to the opening sequence of Scooby Doo and any number of elderly Westerns on TV, specifically John Wayne’s take on The Alamo.

Maybe that’s the problem with kids today. They don’t watch enough telly.

Monday, May 01, 2023

About Lyly and Dickens and Fielding

I’m not that familiar with the work of the Elizabethan writer John Lyly so I’m not going to judge whether those behind a new production of his play Galatea are justified in calling it “explicitly queer, explicitly feminist, explicitly trans.” I’m rather more interested in their thinking once they’d incorporated British Sign Language into the mix: 

Once they had made translations for deaf actors, they extended the idea. “Why not translate the text to fit better in the mouth of someone using spoken English, too?” Frankland asks. And so Lyly’s text stretched to fit the new hosts of its words.

Which sounds good, until you realise that what they’re really doing is erasing Lyly’s own text because it’s too old and difficult and they don’t expect the audience or even the actors to understand it. 

See also the just-concluded BBC adaptation of Great Expectations, with its utterly baffling amendments to the plot (no Dolge Orlick; no trip to Cairo; Miss Havisham doesn’t die in the fire, but does shoot Compeyson; Estella doesn’t marry Drummle; Pip ends up marrying Biddy). And while we’re at it, pray for the soul of ITV’s incoming Tom Jones, the star of which thought  at first it was a biography of the Welsh singer and only managed to read the first 10 pages of the novel, complaining, “It’s so beautiful but so dense.”