I would, of course, have written about JG Ballard last week, but I was at the London Book Fair at Earl’s Court, an orgy of such hellish proportions, and in such bleak midcentury-commercial modernist surroundings, that Ballard would certainly have approved.
My own first contact with Ballard would have been the one that most obituaries have mentioned first: the autobiographical The Empire of the Sun, and it’s subsequent Spielberg adaptation. But it was Empire‘s sequel, The Kindness of Women, or more specifically, its banning by my mother on the grounds that it was “not suitable”, that got me hooked.
My mum can’t remember now why she took this attitude—and I never read the book—but it spurred me on to discover more, and, of course, I discovered much, much more. From the utopic post-apocalyptic vision of The Drowned World, to the feverish, disturbing The Day of Creation, leading ultimately to the motherlodes of Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition. And in recent years, the late flowering of Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes and the others: concentrated distillations of the immediate; a writer still at the height of his powers; a writer in his seventies still the most vital that we had.
Crash remains my favourite work, a work as central to the development of my own tastes as Naked Lunch or Ulysses, and the one that most successfully embedded itself in the world I saw around me, and made it strange, unreal, terrifying and exciting. I am lucky to live in London, where a brief blast along the Westway is all that is required to re-enter one of the primary literary landscapes of the Twentieth Century.
His work has spawned so much, including the films (he loved Cronenberg’s Crash, apparently, but Jonathan Weiss’ necessarily strange adaptation of The Atrocity Exhibition is well worth seeking out as well). Ballardian remains an exemplar of what internet-enabled criticism can achieve, a network of philosophy and exposition. Iain Sinclair was a natural choice to lead the tributes over the last weekend, as his work—pressing beneath the skin, obsessing over architecture, sparking one-word ejaculations—marks him out as one of Ballard’s closest followers. Appropriate too, as it was with Sinclair, at the Barbican around the publication of London Orbital, and at the South Bank, that I strained to catch a glimpse of the Sage of Shepperton. It never happened; too late, illness always intervened. A cardboard cutout of Ballard sat between Sinclair and Chris Petit, looking, in his monochromatic gauntness and in my memory, more like Burroughs than himself.
It’s a cold, wet day in London today, and John Hall Wheelock’s poem of the snow-cold sea, the dawn-light and the wind seems to let a little brightness in, despite its insistence on stillness and seaweed. Happy Monday.
Dark-eyed, out of the snow-cold sea you came,
The young blood under the cheek like dawn-light showing,
Stray tendrils of dark hair in the sea-wind blowing,
Comely and grave, out of the sea you came.
Slim covered thigh and slender stockinged foot
In swift strides over the burnished shingle swinging,
Sweet silence of your smile, soft sea-weed clinging,
Here and there, to the wet bathing-suit.
O fierce and shy, your glance so piercing-true
Shot fire to the struck heart that was as tinder—
The fire of your still loveliness, the tender
High fortitude of the spirit shining through.
And the world was young. O love and song and fame
Were part of youth’s still ever believed-in story,
And hope crowned all, when in dear and in queenly glory,
Out of the snow-cold sea to me you came.
Yesterday was the 185th anniversary of the irrepressible Lord Byron’s death at Missolonghi from a violent fever as he prepared to assault Lepanto.
Byron’s love for Greece – the attack on the Ottoman fort at the mouth of the Bay of Corinth was part of a wider campaign for Greek indepence, in aid of which Byron had refitted the Greek fleet out of his own pocket – was mirrored in his love for Greek boys. Indeed, as well as his lifelong attachments to women and his ongoing and somewhat self-created reputation as a Don Juan, it was the death of his friend Nicolo Giraud, who died fighting the Turks, that precipitated his final involvement in Greek affairs, and his final months were spent pining with unrequited passion for another youth, his teenaged page, Lukas Chalandritsano.
Love and Death, written in 1824, was one of Byron’s last works, and was dedicated to Lukas.
I watched thee when the foe was at our side,
Ready to strike at him–or thee and me,
Were safety hopeless—rather than divide
Aught with one loved, save love and liberty.
I watched thee on the breakers, when the rock
Received our prow, and all was storm and fear,
And bade thee cling to me through every shock;
This arm would be thy bark, or breast thy bier.
I watched thee when the fever glazed thine eyes,
Yielding my couch, and stretched me on the ground
When overworn with watching, ne’er to rise
From thence, if thou an early grave hadst found.
The earthquake came, and rocked the quivering
And men and nature reeled as if with wine.
Whom did I seek around the tottering hall?
For thee. Whose safety first provide for? Thine
And when convulsive throes denied my breath
The faultest utterance to my fading thought,
To thee–to thee–e’en in the gasp of death
My spirit turned, oh! oftener than it ought.
Thus much and more; and yet thou lov’st me not,
And never wilt! Love dwells not in our will.
Nor can I blame thee, though it be my lot
To strongly, wrongly, vainly love thee still.
There’s a lot of post-Amazonfail discussion on the blogs at the moment. We wrote up our own experiences here, but we’d like to do a bit of a debrief on this, and the recent Dubai Literature Festival controversy, to explain why this is important, and why it’s not over.
First of all, let’s get a couple of things clear: it wasn’t a troll and it wasn’t all a big glitch. The troll/user-tagging argument relies on the assumption that it was only LGBT (Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) books that were targetted: Bookkake’s own examples contradict this (and, contrary to many reports, there’s no facility on Amazon to flag up products you dislike, only other user comments). And Amazon’s “glitch” excuse does not in any way explain why LGBT books – all of them, books with no sexual content, books about parenting, marriage and advice for young people – got shunted into the ‘adult’, family-unfriendly reaches of the catalogue.
We understand these arguments, and we sympathise with them. We don’t endorse the mindless mob, and in our own reporting of the event, we tried to stick to our own experiences, and we kept our minds open. But now Amazon has had a chance to respond, it’s time to talk about what’s really the matter here, and we’ll start by going back a couple of months, to Dubai.
As regular readers will know, a comparable situation occurred back in February over the alleged “banning” of a book with gay content by the Dubai Literature Festival. There was a similar (if far smaller) outcry in the book world, with calls for a boycott—in which Bookkake participated, gathering contact details for attendees, soliciting statements from those involved, and collating information as the event unfolded. Margaret Atwood, no less, changed her plans to attend. Others reconsidered.
Some days later, it turned out that the book had not been banned, but simply not selected for the festival, and the director had written a rather naive letter to the publisher saying she didn’t think the book would sit well with “local sensibilities”. Well, OK then, said everyone, what a silly hoo-hah over nothing. Poor new festival director who got it in the neck. They even put together, at short notice, a special panel on censorship, with several prominent Middle Eastern writers, representatives from PEN, the international writers’ human rights organisation, and Atwood beamed in by satellite. Job done.
Well, sorry, but no. Here’s a thing: in the whole two-hour panel, which you can watch online, in its entirety, on Vimeo and on the festival’s website, nobody talks about homosexuality. (Andrey Kurkov – author of the excellent Death and the Penguin – says the word ‘homosexual’ around 82:50, as part of a throwaway remark with little relevance to the discussion. That’s it.) That bears repeating: in a two-hour panel on censorship, set up specifically in response to accusations of homophobia, not a single participant talks about homosexuality.
You don’t play these sort of games with literature, with peoples’ lives. The book in question is still not on sale in Dubai, and the local media can’t discuss it. The Dubai Literature Festival’s tagline was “There are places only books can take you.” If you’re gay in Dubai, the only place you’ll go is to prison, for up to ten years. This issue vanished from the debate, which became one of general censorship, rather than one of specific discrimination against lesbians and gays.
On the panel, in the video, Margaret Atwood, International PEN Vice-President, talked about how books can be a lifeline to those who read them (64:00). Rachel Billington, previous President Of English PEN, spoke of how authors’ self-censorship is often the greatest danger (71:35). Eugene Schoulgin, International Secretary of International PEN, said that “it is our responsibility as writers not to close our eyes to what is going on” (80:15). And yet: no one spoke of homosexuality.
Likewise, the issue at the heart of #amazonfail is not – should not be – whether Amazon’s recategorisation was accidental or not, but how LGBT books came to be classified as not suitable for “family” viewing. How Amazon attempted to place them in the category of things of which we shall not speak. There is an effort to recoup and reform the discussion going on right now, to make this an issue of social media, of its use – and misuse – to “victimise” Amazon. But Amazon started applying these filters two months ago, and when it was just the gays who complained, as recently as last week, Amazon did nothing. Homosexual speech is not heard; it is unimportant; it is recategorised; it is censored and banned and imprisoned.
It took the full weight of the social web hue and cry—yes, an ugly thing at times—to turn Amazon around. Which they have now done. But is it enough? No. If Amazon really want to rebuild their credibility, they need to tell us exactly what happened, how it happened, and promise that it won’t happen again. We won’t let you play these kinds of games with literature. We won’t let you weasel out of this debate; we won’t be sidetracked by the issues of social media, mob rule and poor reporting; we won’t just move on as the short-attention-span of internet outrage passes. We’re willing to give you a fair hearing, but you must speak so that we all can hear.
For Easter Monday, possibly the most controversial poem of recent decades: James Kirkup’s “The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name”. When it was first published in Gay News in 1976, it caused a furore led by the British “moral campaigner” Mary Whitehouse, which led to the eventual prosecution and conviction for Blasphemy of the editor of Gay News, Denis Lemon.
Blasphemous libel was an offence under the common law of England and Wales until it was abolished on 8 July 2008 by the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, having been replaced with the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, another piece of legislation which has been accused of poor phrasing, dubious intent, and of more likelihood to create tensions between communities than prevent them.
Poetry can be dangerous, and rarely more so than in Kirkup’s poem, which uses the same religious themes and setting employed by countless artists over centuries to throw light on current issues, and highlight in the story of Christ not the savagery of his execution, but the love he brought into the world.
The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name
As they took him from the cross
I, the centurion, took him in my arms—
the tough lean body
of a man no longer young,
but well hung.
He was still warm.
While they prepared the tomb
I kept guard over him.
His mother and the Magdalen
had gone to fetch clean linen
to shroud his nakedness.
I was alone with him.
For the last time
I kissed his mouth. My tongue
found his, bitter with death.
I licked his wound—
the blood was harsh
For the last time
I laid my lips around the tip
of that great cock, the instrument
of our salvation, our eternal joy.
The shaft, still throbbed, anointed
with death’s final ejaculation
I knew he’d had it off with other men—
with Herod’s guards, with Pontius Pilate,
With John the Baptist, with Paul of Tarsus
with foxy Judas, a great kisser, with
the rest of the Twelve, together and apart.
He loved all men, body, soul and spirit. — even me.
So now I took off my uniform, and, naked,
lay together with him in his desolation,
caressing every shadow of his cooling flesh,
hugging him and trying to warm him back to life.
Slowly the fire in his thighs went out,
while I grew hotter with unearthly love.
It was the only way I knew to speak our love’s proud name,
to tell him of my long devotion, my desire, my dread—
something we had never talked about. My spear, wet with blood,
his dear, broken body all open wounds,
and in each wound his side, his back,
his mouth—I came and came and came
as if each coming was my last.
And then the miracle possessed us.
I felt him enter into me, and fiercely spend
his spirit’s final seed within my hole, my soul,
pulse upon pulse, unto the ends of the earth-
he crucified me with him into kingdom come.
This is the passionate and blissful crucifixion
same-sex lovers suffer, patiently and gladly.
They inflict these loving injuries of joy and grace
one upon the other, till they die of lust and pain
within the horny paradise of one anothers’ limbs,
with one voice cry to heaven in a last divine release.
Then lie long together, peacefully entwined, with hope
of resurrection, as we did, on that green hill far away.
But before we rose again, they came and took him from me.
They knew not what we had done, but felt
no shame or anger. Rather they were glad for us,
and blessed us, as would he, who loved all men.
And after three long, lonely days, like years,
in which I roamed the gardens of my grief
seeking for him, my one friend who had gone from me,
he rose from sleep, at dawn, and showed himself to me before
all others. And took me to him with
the love that now forever dares to speak its name.
On Sunday—yesterday—we performed a number of trial searches, and found that it was almost impossible to find any of our books through basic searches, with many totally unrelated items ranking higher in searches than the books we were quite obviously looking for, in much the way Kassia notes in her post.
Today—Monday—this seems to have changed. Our books are once again appearing as would be expected in normal searches, although they still don’t have any sales rank data attached, which they had previously. We’re not sure what’s going on, and it appears to still be in flux, but we don’t have much confidence in Amazon’s statement that it was all a “glitch”, and we’ll keep monitoring the situation for now.
What this highlights is the growing power of the new generation of massively pervasive retailers such as Amazon—and the search engines that support them—as well as the damage they can do if they choose to censor or de-list literature. On the flip side, the controversy it raised shows the power consumers have to fight back: if nothing else, we can be sure that corporations are more interested in making money than making policy, and the loudest political voice among their consumers will trump any moral outrage on the other side.
We’ve recently started baking, and the physical pleasures of breadmaking are immediately obvious, even to the amateur: kneading the gooey dough until it becomes a springy, living mass, letting it rise quietly and joyfully for an hour or two, before cooking and the satisfied consumption. This week’s recipe is taken from Elizabeth’s David classic English Bread and Yeast Cookery, although the presentation is ours.
Even we are prepared to admit that this week’s escapades shade dangerously into juvenilia. But we have our justifications. It is, after all, Eastertide.
Bread has a central role in the Easter celebrations: the hot cross bun (which the early Protestants tried to ban as overly Papist), Italian cakes of anise and candied fruits, French plaits, Greek Tsoureki, and of course, the bread which represents the body of the risen Lord.
Easter’s pre-Christian origins in the festivals of Ēostre, Attis/Osiris and Adonis are filled with images of fertility and rebirth that have survived and been incorporated into our modern rituals: the hare and the egg, the fiery equinox, the risen dough. Fecundity and carnal pleasure.
The French word “baguette” literally means stick or rod: “baguette magique” is the Magician’s wand, itself a stand-in for the phallus. Bread’s growth and engorgement is the ultimate foodie metaphor for arousal, and latterly, gestation: the bun in the oven which results.
To recap, Upward and Isherwood were bosom chums at Repton and at Cambridge: huge admirers of each others’ work, and partners in a conspiracy of imagination against the stuffy world of school and university between the wars, and the larger society it both echoed and helped to build. Isherwood, who went on to become both better known and more highly regarded than his friend, wrote of Upward (as the disguised Chalmers in Lions and Shadows) that “He was a natural anarchist, a born romantic revolutionary; I was an upper-middle-class Puritan, cautious, a bit stingy, with a stake in the land. Chalmers had refused to be confirmed.”
Such were the opportunites for outward rebellion available to young men of the time; but Isherwood and Upward conducted a more private rebellion in their withdrawal from University life and the creation of a shared fantasy world that found expression in a series of stories and fragments of stories: the world of Montmere. Many of these were later destroyed, but the surviving episodes were eventually published by Enitharmon in 1994 – with the help of Upward, then enjoying a late creative renaissance, and eight years after the death of his friend.
The stories, such as they are, frequently tail off, unfinished, after a few pages, giving only a glimpse of the strangeness of Montmere and its approximations: a village, somewhere in England, perhaps in Derbyshire or Lancashire but far from anywhere else, with the usual complement of Lordly Hall, accompanying estate, Rectory, School, pub and railway station. They are enough to see that the village is a doomed, damned place: every fragment contains some fresh abhorrance: a gruesome murder at a manor ball; a gallows masquerading as a quiet railway signal; armies of electrically-controlled mannekins; huge air-ships with scarlet-throated steam-sirens and quick-firing guns.
It’s in the complete stories that the full delicious flavour of Montmere comes through: “The Horror in the Tower”, “The Garage in Drover’s Hollow” and “The Railway Accident” showcase a Lovecraftian appreciation for unnamed, nameless abominations, and the kind of disgust and horror of the rural that England specialises in.
Christopher Hitchens wrote in his introduction to Scoop that he had always thought that Straw Dogs and Withnail and I represented the finest counterpoints to “the apple-blossom propaganda of the countryside idyll”, but Evelyn Waugh had “both of these two hellish expeditions mapped out in advance” in Scoop:
There was something un-English and not quite right about ‘the country’, with its solitude and self-sufficiency, its bloody recreations, its darkness and silence and sudden, inexplicable noises, the kind of place where you never know from one minute to the next that you may not be tossed by a bull or pitchforked by a yokel or rolled over and broken up by a pack of hounds.
But Scoop did not appear until 1938: Isherwood and Upward had got there first, but by their own, private routes. Isherwood’s “The Horror in the Tower”, of 1925, follows a young man on a visit to a friend at Wranvers Hall, where he is subjected to an incestuous conspiracy of such scatalogical horror as to rival Mirbeau, de Sade, or Lovecraft himself. But then, the omens weren’t that good:
I shall find it difficult to convey to you anything more than a faint impression of Wranvers. In the opaque light of dusk, it resembled one of those old factories, long since deserted, memorials to the pioneers of the eighteenth century… A single tower, slender as a column, and not lacking in a certain incongruous beauty, rose high above the crooked chimneys, the sharply pointed gables and the narrow dormer windows of the mansion. It was impossible to detect the spot at which this tower left the main building… The front door was small and heavily studded with iron nails. Many panes of glass had been smashed in the mullioned windows, but they were far too narrow to admit of the passage of any human body, however thin. Above the entrance an inscription had ben chiselled in the stone. It had now been almost obliterated, but I thought I could discern the words “Ursus Ipse” and, some way farther on, “Mortis”. The mist streamed between the horse’s legs like water. The ground beneath our wheels was invisible.
Likewise in “The Garage in Drover’s Hollow”, two young men find themselves trapped in a remote gas-station, the back wheel of their “powerful and costly machine” ripped through by “a small spiked object made of steel and not unlike a burr in size and appearance.”
“You seem to have expected visitors,” said my friend, a trifle sarcastically.
“Well, yes, sir,” replied the foreman, bending over the kettle. “We do get a good many in, expecially this time of year, when the roads are so dark. Little accidents will happen. Of course, we scarcely get a car for garaging from one year’s end to another. It’s all repairs.”
“And no wonder,” said the doctor, exhibiting the burr-like object, “when the road is littered with things like this!”
The foreman examined it.
“Well, now,” he exclaimed, with an ingenuousness which was almost reptilian in its unreality, “to think that I’ve been in the business all my life and never seen one of them things before! I wonder what it could be, now? A new type of ball-bearing, do you think, sir?”
“Ball-bearing be raped!” said Dr Mears abruptly, for his temper was still ruffled. “Let’s get on with our tea and go and see about the car.”
Needless to say, it doesn’t end well.
The stories are also stuffed with malicious and mysterious characters who reappear throughout, often in different guises. What began as caricatures of their least favourite dons and fellows become archetypes of minor English tyrants, like Shreeve, headmaster of Frisbald College, and Wherry, train-wrecker and architect to Mortmere Rural Council.
Upward destroyed most of his Mortmere stories, but his surviving “The Railway Accident” is the longest and most accomplished among them. On the long train journey up the branch line to Mortmere, Shreeve unfolds a tale of such bureaucratic, avaricious and shameless complexity that it would beggar belief, if it did not so perfectly illuminate the mindsets of both conspirator and conspiracy theorist, locked in a dance of mutual depravity and corruption.
The imaginative supernaturalalways Isherwood’s forte over Upwards’is here overlaid as an afterthought, to give some higher meaning to the base graspings of its little protagonists. Figures flicker in the undergrowth, ghost stations rush by, deserted, a corpse swings from a warning-light – “an omen, a warning in the quiet of the day, a visible prefiguration it may be of death as we comfortably roll through the frozen countryside.”
The climax, when it comes, is more mechanical and physical:
An iron echo approached us. Clambering the lower rocks, I turned. The express had taken the points. Booster-fitted, excessively rolling, the racing Mogul engine rounded the curve, bounded into the rear of the carriages we had left. Coaches mounted like viciously copulating bulls, telescoped like ventilator hatches. Nostril gaps in a tunnel clogged with wreckage instantly flamed. A faint jet of blood sprayed from a vacant window. Frog-sprawling bodies fumed in blazing reeds. The architrave of the tunnel crested with daffodils fell compact as hinged scenery. Tall rag-feathered birds with corrugated red wattles limped from holes among the rocks.
Much of the Mortmere mythos is highly entertaining juvenilia, body shock and plain old creepiness. But a passage like this, where Upward takes the reader from the first echo of the train’s approach, through vicious impact to bloody aftermath and the breathless hush that follows it, in the space of a single paragraph, demonstrate the writers’ abilities.
So Mortmere is a wonderful place to visit, and a fascinating rescue job on a strange corner of literature. But more than this, it illuminates the hidden contours of its writers’ lives, personal and political. Frustrated Upward, a lifelong Communist, and Isherwood, repeatedly implicated by Anthony Blunt in the Cambridge spy ring, achieve in language what their contemporaries Burgess, Blunt and Maclean failed to do in life: rupture the quiet placidness of English life and reveal the hypocrisy and corruption of “poshocratic” society.
At Bookkake Towers, we have a subscription to the excellent STACK, which pops an interesting independent magazine through our letterbox every month or so. Last month it was the turn of Electric Sheep Magazine, the very Bookkake-appropriate “deviant’s view of cinema”.
The most recent issue takes, er, issue with “Tainted Love”: doomed passions and secret obsessions. Among excellent articles on Berlin cinema and the intricacies of vampire love (spurred by the creepy and rather good-looking Let The Right One In), I got hooked by an article on Tsai Ming-Liang’s The Wayward Cloud. Elena Gorfinkel unpicks the themes of alienation and nihilist sexuality in the Taiwanese director’s work – what she calls his “formalist perversity”.
In the humidity of deep summer, there is a drought—water is scarce, taps have run dry. The city of Taipei has resorted to drinking watermelon juice…. Here is where the brilliance of the scene directly following the opening shot is viscerally felt. We see a woman in a nurse’s outfit lying on a white bed—between her legs is a halved red watermelon, both concealing and transforming (into) her genitalia… Literal and figurative collapse onto each other—as the watermelon gets fingered, licked and juiced by Hsiao-Kang [Lee Kang-sheng], and as his partner, Japanese porn star Sumomo Yozakura, performs her pleasure vocally in concert to the the rythms of the slapping rind against her inner thighs. (If this description reads too disconcertingly fecund, it only evokes the corporeal effect that Tsai’s film produces in the viewer).
No, Ms Gorfinkel, not disconcerting at all, but teasing, yes. Obviously we had to go and find the film immediately, and it’s very good indeed: all long, languorous takes, highly stylised erotic tableaux and minimalist urban fantasy. As well of plenty of sex, involving watermelons, lizard costumes, water-saving showers, song-and-dance routines, and much else. Unlike Ms Gorfinkel, we won’t tease, and the opening scene to which she refers is excerpted below, but we highly advise you to seek out a DVD or screening soon.
The Wayward Cloud is available on DVD in the UK from Axiom Films. Electric Sheep Magazine is a product of the rather wonderful Wallflower Press, a fairly new publisher specialising in cinema and the moving image, and you can treat yourself to regular doses of strange and independent magazines by subscribing to STACK.
Pierre Louÿs was quite a one, and is an old favourite of Bookkake. He was among a number of writers we seriously considered but ultimately didn’t include in the first Bookkake set. An intimate of Gide and Wilde, his work often entwined classical and lesbian themes, and his Songs of Bilitis went on to inspire the Daughters of Bilitis, the first Lesbian rights organisation in the United States.
Wikipedia has the ultimate, and enviable, epitaph: “Even while on his deathbed, Pierre Louÿs continued to write delicately obscene verses.”
The Breasts of Mnasidice
Carefully she opened her tunic with one
hand and offered me her warm soft breasts as
one offers a pair of living pigeons to the
goddess. ‘Love them well,’ she said to me,
‘I love them so much! They are dears, they are
like little children. I amuse myself with them
when I am alone. I play with them and give
them pleasure. I sprinkle them with milk. I
powder them with flowers. Their little tips
love the fine hair with which I wipe them. I
caress them with a shiver. I lay them to
sleep in wool. Since I shall never have
children and since they are so far from my
mouth, kiss them for me.