Morrissey Autobiography

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A thought bubble appeared in the hours after finishing the Morrissey autobiography.  ‘Is Morrissey the world’s best salesman?’

It’s not an obvious reaction to the book, nor have many other people come to anything close to this conclusion about Morrissey, and yet I still have that feeling as if I have been hoodwinked.

Morrissey’s autobiography is like Morrissey himself -in no way typical, I felt cautious while reading it, in that being a fan that I was being lured into forgetting that he is a superstar, forgetting that the book is now a Penguin classic.

I have always seen myself as a Morrissey, Smiths fan, his music has been a huge part of my life. I never have gotten sick of his music, it never becomes dated and has an uncanny property to transpire trends, he is a musician and a writer on the level of intellectual that many other popular artists never even come close to.

There are certain things that as a fan I just take for granted (and love) about Morrissey, and I found those things in his Autobiography, his narrative setting starting in Manchester was so masterfully written that I had to put the book down for a week or so, it had that sort of hard emotional impact. It was so intense that I had to go back reassess Morrissey and his music, I felt for years that much of his lyrics were him being…well lyrical. But it turns out in a song like ‘The Headmaster Ritual” it seems to actually worse than the song permits.

There is something powerful underpinning this Autobiography that kept my mind ticking over while reading this, here is someone who everyone thought would fail, who record companies failed to sign up, who’s personality did not play into the business model of the recording industry, who’s talent was underestimated by the press, who’s demeanour did not fit comfortably to what people class as a successful artist, yet he was a success…he overcame all odds.

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His years with the Smiths which recordings people still listen to every single day, he admits where short, and I was surprised how little detail we have about Marr or his friendship with him. In many ways Morrissey is a closed book, forever an enigma, always a labyrinth to navigate, this struck me as being odd as we are invited to learn everything in his autobiography.Many things where missing from his his narrative, like how his family reacted to him becoming a superstar for example, or about  his battles with depression which we know with all respect that he has had, or how success had changed him from that innocent Manchester kid who showed up backstage at Roxy music concerts,  to multi mega-star whisked away to the sounds of adoring fans.

In his modest way he seems to be amused by his success befuddled, surprised by it.

Morrissey, spends a huge amount of time clearing the decks and attempting to set the record straight, he takes myriad swipes at people never forgetting anything, it is one of his many indulgences that as fans we forgive him for. Yet in this format it does become very tiresome, especially when we encounter his trial with Mike Joyce that goes into the intimate legal details for many pages.

Morrissey has a terrific turn of phrase, some of his passages are pure poetry, yet it is fragmented, a hotch potch recalling of his career, he lingers far from things we want access to, the last quarter of the book reads more like his touring diary with notes rather than a sophisticated wrap up of his whole working career.

The autobiography was intoxicating at times yet I was left with my face pressed against the glass window watching him walk by from afar.

 

The Penguin History of the World J.M Roberts

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As you float down through the centuries very deep thoughts about humanity appear and then fade away, great images and civilizations pass briefly like falling leaves.

Individuals are part of something bigger, sometimes people loom larger than others, Jesus, Siddhartha, Confucius, Plato, Mohammad, Newton, Marx, Darwin, and Freud.

There is something surreal about reading about history like this, for me it brings comfort, joy, it reminds me of warm cups of and tea leather armchairs on rainy days.

The smell of the page and the enjoyment of a mental journey, that you alone are about to undertake…this is no small task this is ALL OF HUMAN HISTORY.

I have two other world histories recently completed that help me with this journey – IDEAS: A history from fire to Freud by Peter Watson, The Passion of the Western Mind by Richard Tarnas 

I excitedly dived in to this project, savouring every page expecting images of Persians, Romans and sparkling clad soldiers headed into battle.

However as I began a disturbing set of thoughts started to take hold and have been slowly clouding my vision of history. The first cloud occurs in pre-history, there seems to be literally hundreds and thousands of years of pre-history missing, that is nothing really occurred not even a simple scratch on a cave wall.

Just think about that for a while, we live in an age where humanity has a serious case of attention deficit disorder, it simply can’t go anywhere without covering every blank space available with tags, posters and advertising, here are our very distant ancestors who shared identical grey matter and facilities living in a giant and what must of seemed like a very devoid world, with no graphic art or media for hundreds and thousands of years.

No matter how much thought I put into this subject I can’t fathom it, it is beyond my imagination.

As you move forward on your magical mystery tour of history the carnival throws up all sorts of questions, there are plenty of gaps and guesses at simple things that we ought to really know a great deal more about. The gaps and guesses pile up even right into recorded history by the time you reach the classical age the history reader is so burdened by the massive and apparent holes in our knowledge that you find yourself unable to stop thinking ‘Maybe that is in another book you haven’t read, just forget about it and move on’.

Take the curious case of the same technology (Agriculture, Iron smelting, Pottery, Writing)  arising independently sometimes simultaneously in supposedly totally isolated civilizations, or why some civilizations took eons to make any move forward while others seem to make huge strides in a relatively minuscule period of time, or major historical events within written history that have gone ‘missing’, or in some cases altered to suit later rulers or religions. Some of the writings and objects we have found that supply us with huge amounts of information like cuneiform tablets seem to come to us totally by accident a mere fluke of history that we have uncovered and deciphered them.

In Penguin History of the world, a small passage is spent wondering about how the peasants of ancient China actually spent their daily lives and slowly and finally it hit me, the reality of history

Why am I different to a peasant that lived 3000 years ago? or a normal Egyptian worker, A Greek farmhand or slave?

I had the same feeling when I visited the Louvre, it was not only the great number of beautiful artworks it was the scale of humanity that had to transpire to create them, the sweat the toil and oil and brushes, stone and marble, but more interestingly every now and then you passed a glimpse of an ordinary person who lived hundreds of years ago just like you living their lives that are now gone and that portrait is all we have.

Real history has this effect, it reminds you of the eons and eons of families and workers that have gone leaving nothing behind not a scratch. In history books whole civilizations are treated as people, that is millions of people and their lives come and go they wax and wane in a few passages, it just seems obscene when you consider the scale of it all.

In my own life I have been witness of six prime ministers of Australia, five presidents of the United States, a Bosnian war, two Gulf wars and an incursion in Afghanistan, a terrorist attack on New York and a global financial crisis and yet in all that time there has been only one monarch – Queen Elizabeth, she is on all our coins here in Australia and in the future people will look back at these coins and see her face, this is history.

It is therefore difficult to get any kind of scale here in Australia, a country relatively devoid of civilizations great achievements (Besides some remarkable early cave art by aboriginal people) In this relatively new country the past is the stuff of a short ABC documentary and a few scuffed sandstone blocks in Sydney, for us here it almost entirely abstract. We don’t live with the past here, history does not infiltrate our daily lives or our ideas it’s largely all a subconscious handing down of the western tradition and many people are only dimly aware of what that means.

The Penguin history is a monumental, yet as a history book it can only ever brush a little of the dust away from the vast and complex dialog of human history.

 

Murder In Mississippi by John Safran

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The first few weeks after reading this book, I wanted to say something about it but I frustratingly hadn’t really the energy to tackle such a difficult subject or pretend I had any idea about true crime books.

However the subject matter of the book seemed to raise itself in the form of the movie Fruitvale station (2013) the story of Oscar Grant a black man who was shot by police, in Oakland California in 2009.

The movie and Safrans book are geographically miles apart, but the subject matter seems to have plenty in common, especially for a white Australian audience that has practically no idea about what life is like for black Americans living on the edge of poverty.

Safran at first concentrates in on the many layers of Richard Barrett a white supremacist who was found murdered in his home by a 23 year old black man Vincent McGee. Strangely Barrett turns out to be one seriously odd character with enough problems of his own to easily fill the pages of this novel, the murdered seems to form the psychology and profile of the murderer.

At first Safran thinks this is a race hate murder from the other side of the fence, a black man who decides to get revenge and murder a well known white supremacist, however as it unfolds we discover that Vincent McGee had no idea about Richard Barrett’s activities as a white supremacist.

This poses a bit of a problem for Safran, his main angle (and reason for being there in the first place) has been removed, and he is left looking for a different angle for why he killed Barrett.

Safran struggles for the rest of the book and I felt he never got to terms with the reality of the situation.  Fruitvale station for me made the message in Safrans book clearer, the story is not a cryptic adventure to find out why McGee killed Barrett, it is just a really sad story about an under privileged black American living in poverty with a bad upbringing in the poorest state in America.

Oscar Grant was essentially a good person who loved his family and was killed by police, Vincent McGee had a bad upbringing was violent neglected and maybe even had some mental illnesses, but just like Vincent McGee, Oscar had been to prison and had to have aggressive behavior to survive. They lived on opposite sides of the country but to me had a a sadly similar story. How many other black people get arrested so easily for doing so little? How many lives taken away or ruined for what seems like crazy small offenses?

I look at it like this, if I was walking down a busy street even in Newcastle’s worst suburb the chances that I would see a police officer or be searched randomly are very slim.  In Newcastle I have more chance of getting booked for drink driving than from dealing drugs, my world and life story is miles apart from Oscar Grant and Vincent McGee. It is that first few offenses that set both Oscar Grant and Vincent McGee hurtling down terrible life directions.

For his first book I was impressed by Safrans writing style, I had trouble coming to terms that I am a fan of his and this was the reason for me reading his book, but the views of Mississippi by Safran where so good it kept me glued to the book. It was so good I began to wonder what Safran would be like as a travel writer like Bill Bryson.

Goethe’s Faust Part 1

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T’was Saturday morning and I had somewhat of a hangover, I hadn’t the energy for emerging myself in a whole novel only something with short bursts – poetry maybe.

I decided to ‘casually read’ Faust Part 1, I knew that this is a book that is considered an epic masterpiece and this was one of the reasons why it had been sitting on my shelf gathering dust for years, epic masterpieces are by default epic undertakings to undertake.

Three weeks later I had finished, engrossed by every stanza. I felt a sort of quiet unease as if I had missed something or that I had actually not missed anything and I was supposed to feel like I missed something. I wandered over different directions in Goethe’s thinking, some brilliant others confusing. I began thinking in rhyming verse as if my mind had caught a kind of disease.

I came to a solid conclusion that many others have arrived at:  Faust is a masterpiece, it is one that is little worn and battered and somewhat difficult to understand but still a masterpiece.

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Faust was a bit of a surprise, sometimes I find poetry a little bit extravagant, and in the case of epic poems by say Homer or Dante, I find them difficult (but not impossible) to access due to the translation issues and the vast gulf in time and culture between me and the poet.

In Faust there are translation issues, some stanzas just didn’t seem to have the rhythm of others or even rhyme at all,  I guess not every German word is going to rhyme perfectly with an English translated one. Although it is surprising just how much work translators have put into making it flow and rhyme. I did wonder what Faust the German version was like, if I where able to read it in German would I be a little more critical about the short stanzas that do not flow or rhyme or have any link to the narrative?

Translation issues aside, Faust did surprise me, it turned out to be many different things, it can be candid, humorous, subtle, serious, insightful and clear. The poetry has so many nuances, the carefully selected words mix emotions like a paint palette, skillfully rendering a picture that becomes more interesting as you progress.

The central narrative is interesting and hard to unpick, superficially the story is fairly simple: A educated professor and doctor has had enough of the world and feels he has come to an end of all knowledge, he courts Mephistopheles who brokers a deal with him that he can give him what he wants. Mephistopheles promises he can give him what he wants if he only signs a pact with him. Faust signs the pact and they begin the adventure.

Faust starts by drinking a witches brew which I was lead to believe was a fountain of youth elixir to make him young again. Before Mephistopheles can even introduce him to any of his devilish plans, Faust has a chance meeting with Gretchen a 14 year old girl who Faust is prepared to peruse at all costs.

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It is funny here that Mephistopheles seems a bit surprised at his choice, nevertheless Faust choses his poison and he goes about doing his job weaving and manipulating events to let Faust get what he wants. Gretchen works out to be a faithful christian and tricky for the Mephistopheles to turn to the dark side, but she turns and the whole thing predictably turns to tears.

Faust kills Gretchen’s brother Valentin after he tries to get revenge for ruining Gretchen’s good name and Faust exits the scene descending into a kind of weird sort of underworld where he finds out the fate of Gretchen who murdered her mother with a sleeping potion (so Faust could sneak in and get a quickly) Faust finds the he got Gretchen pregnant and she then had to kill her infant child in shame.

We find Gretchen then in jail where she has gone into a kind of insanity and Faust tries to get her out but her own guilt and shame makes her stay where she awaits gods judgment. Part 1 ends with both Faust and Mephistopheles leaving together.

The poem it reads more like some kind of waking nightmare, it is really very odd at times in a lyrical and enjoyable way. Faust’s interrelationship with the devil is interesting, you are never quite sure who is leading who. Sometimes you feel that Faust is actually leading the devil and he is just sort of standing back in awe of Faust’s desire. 

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The world in which Faust inhabits seemed very remote to the modern reader, Faust has this ‘troubled intellectual’ narrative that so often appears in literature from this time. The main character (usually male) troubles over a female and spends the entirety of the book, novel, poem trying to find ways to get into bed with her. In this case it was a 14 year old girl, and besides the obvious creepiness of the situation I was left wondering why we are being burdened with it. Some critics have likened Gretchen to the German state, or representing other things but there is no attempt to persuade the reader she is anything but a 14 year old girl.

The story is undeniably alluring even with it’s flaws, there are shining gems of wisdom and prose that easily outdo those of Shakespeare. Because of it’s ambiguity the reader is forced to think for themselves and this creates a power that draws you in even further. Faust is deep, so deep and thick its like being stuck in molasses.

However it is worth the effort and anyone who has an interest in poetry should make this part of their canon.

The Mosquito Coast – Paul Theroux

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The little Haddy makes it’s way up a Guatemalan river, Mr Haddy sits on the bow of the boat directing where to go. The dark green emerald forest abounds all around, it is thick and beautifully alive.

Harrison Ford is Allie Fox,  he is wearing a yellow Cuban style shirt and is dripping with sweat in the Guatemalan jungle. River Phoenix plays Charlie Fox and he stares off into the wilderness in a wise and thoughtful way, he is our guide to this difficult tale. These are the overwhelming images that Peter Weir has gifted us, I remember watching this film as a child and feeling absorbed and engrossed in the story of this family.

I was always acutely aware that my mother disliked the movie, I think it frightened her the way that Allie Fox dragged his innocent family through those trials and tribulations.

This was the 80’s, it was a different world, the nuclear family was still at the forefront of peoples minds. The Cosby show and Family Ties and other shows like it reinforced this tight family unit.

I was part of a family just like Charlie Fox, I was about the same age and the story reached out to me, the sheer escapism of it. The destruction of a family the fear of the unknown.

It is interesting now to re-visit this movie and novel 25 years later, the world has changed a great deal and I feel it’s time to have another closer look at this story.

For those of you who have never seen the movie or read the novel the Mosquito Coast is about an Inventor from Massachusetts who decides he has had enough of consumerism and migrates to Guatemala with his family.

He attempts to set up a new civilization in the jungle and creates a giant ice maker, and attempts to take ice to the most remote Indians tribes to show them civilization.

However in his attempts to make contact with the Indians he courts the attention of some rebels, the rebels who seem merely curious are trapped and killed when he blows up his highly toxic ice-maker filled with Ammonia and Hydrogen. This destroys and poisons his civilization and the family are left to drift to the coast where they have to live out a very ordinary existence. He keeps them there by telling his family that America has been wiped out in a Nuclear holocaust.

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From here on in the family are left to drift, they settle again and are driven away again by the rising tide during a bad flood, after being warned by Haddy. Gradually the family start to turn on Allie until eventually he reaches his old nemesis the Reverend Spellgood and is shot for blowing up his Cessna light aircraft.

Allie becomes the worst kind of dictator and everyone he meets he forces to bend to his will. His family trustingly follow him through the whole ordeal, disgruntled Charlie has to deal with his increasing hate for his father while Jerry his brother and his other sisters are too young to understand what is going on.

As a character Allie sometimes feels a little empty, you never quite get under his skin. He has an air of mystery about him, I kept wondering about what made Allie the way he is? What made him behave in this way? Was he wrapped up in the civil rights movement? What about his family?

The story sometimes feels like a fable with a simple moral lesson for us to absorb:  “Really bad things happen to people who don’t listen to anyone”

It ponders, nature and environmentalism and plays it between the figures of a father who wants to ‘improve things’ and a mother who is happy to ‘accept the way things are’.

Underneath is a deep discontent of the modern world, he is an escapee from Twinkies and television and yet he feels the need to improve and modernise the empty jungle. By doing this he inadvertently becomes the thing he hates the most, the thing he was trying to escape from.

The American pioneer is here and so is the protestant work ethic, as an atheist American he becomes a modern day Benjamin Franklin and maybe Franklin would of despised modern American consumerism too?

I remember very clearly people talking in my world about this movie, It sat uncomfortably and many people where not ready then for this kind of thing.

These days many people think organic and sustainable, I have solar panels on my roof and the nuclear family just isn’t a major thing anymore. Allie Fox would be surprised at the way society is going, maybe not enough to make him stay in America but certainly some of the things that seemed like a rant then are now becoming a reality.

There is certainly plenty here still to think about, it hasn’t past it’s expiry date in anyway.

The history of luminous motion – Scott Bradfield

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Here is a world of shadows, where nothing is what it seems.

The moment you establish some kind of ground, it moves. The jumping-castle world of Scott Bradfield causes a kind of nausea, one that inspires a feeling for internal escape.

When I first tackled this novel I was totally unprepared, I hardly knew how icy this water could be or what type of book this could be. So I put it down for many months and just let it languish.

Eventually after a while I started to get into Bradfields flow.

At first we are ‘on the road’ like Kerouac but we are firmly fixated on our mother figure who is a totally empty void. No mother available. There are no bearings, the world is a vacuum where we don’t know ages, dates and just vaguely know places. This is a world of minimalism Donald Judd style. This is a Campbell soup can without the label, This is just the shelves, empty spaces have been placed back in the areas of life that should be filled with what you expect.

Donald Judd, 1973 Stainless Steel Sculpture

Donald Judd, 1973 Stainless Steel Sculpture

This an America that is void of anything, void of parents, void of direction, void of responsibility.

I never once believed that Philip was a real person whatever ‘real’ is. Nor did I believe that his mother or the other people in the novel where real people.

They where all metaphors, all examples of void. They where children with adult minds and adults with child like minds (or no minds at all) The two murders did they happen? I am still not sure.

Something about the novel reminded me of a David Lynch movie, especially in its more macabre moments. I was uncomfortable, but I was also aware that I was meant to be uncomfortable.

The book also has a translucent delicate quality that reflects the subtle qualities of Bradfields writing, this style envelopes you and protects you from the harsh cold that is the overhanging reality of the situation.

It’s only short book, (196 pg) and it’s challenging. I did love the way Bradfield painted the mother as an empty but complex vessel, I started to feel that the mother actually was symbolizing America.

She was a wasteland, wasteland America, a wasteland which right at the end of a long and exhausting void-less search for meaning asks politely ‘I don’t want to see you anymore’.

Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy Series

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As a big science fiction fan, I have avoided the Hitchhikers Guide for a long time, mainly because I associated it with the 80’s BBC series and remember hiding behind the couch every time it was on. I think all those 70’s latex alien suits had a lasting effect on a timid 4 year old kid in country Australia.

In 2005 the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy movie came out and with this I started being dragged into the trajectory of Douglas Adams. I downloaded all five books and began my quest to understand the adventures of Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect and in a way Douglas Adams himself.

The books go in this order:

Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (1979)

The Restaurant at the end of the Universe (1980)

Life, the Universe and Everything (1982)

So long and thanks for all the Fish (1984)

Mostly Harmless (1992)

It’s worthwhile just letting those dates sink in and reminding ourselves that these books are firmly a product of the early 80’s. There are times within the series where you are painfully reminded of just how 80’s these books are.

The books are still a great enjoyment and it was a great pleasure as I whittled through each page usually over a bowl of hot noodles at work during my lunch break. The central draw of the stories are it’s main characters: Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect and to a lesser degree Marvin the Robot, Tricia Macmillion and Zaphod Beeblebrox.

Adams is distant at times from the protagonist Arthur Dent and feels as if he develops a quiet loathing for him which can only be a result of Adams imagining Arthur as himself. Arthur blames Ford all the way through the series for all his misadventures. However most of the time Ford seems like a harmless sometimes difficult but essentially likable guy. This works out to be really important because its the relationship between these two friends that is the glue that holds the series together.

The multi-verse under Adams is big, super massive with a million naughts. It has a kind of Monty pythonsesque style that is heavily dependent on irony which gives it an English private school ring to it.  Often like in Monty python you catch Adams out repeating his style.  He likes to do this: “The universe is so super-massive so huge so mindbogglingly large that the only possible thing that can comprehend the hugeness is the brain of an ant.”

Sometimes you feel Adams is doing a speech at TED and it is a formula he repeats quite often in all the series.  It is Adam’s style, and it get’s pretty tiresome especially when it gets entwined in his own logical wordplay and begins to swallow up part of the plot.

The universe under Adams is confusing but intelligent mess of crazy logic, weird planets and talking mattresses. The clever invention of the infinite probability machine drive creates an excuse to write whatever he wants and not have an adequate linear storyline. Often Adams makes unique commentary on things very English like the Vogon’s which reminds us of an old barrister or someone from the house of Lords there is lots of talk of cricket and cups of tea.

Within each book I read little snippets about Adams and his style, some of it reads like more of a defense than an appraisal.  Apparently they had to force Adams to write the series and it was a difficult road to get him to pump out each novel on time. I found this hard to forget when reading the series.

It becomes painfully obvious in ‘So long and thanks for all the fish’ where Adam’s seems to pursue a story about a love interest Fenchurch and drifts so far away from the  original story and characters you begin to wonder if your reading a book from the same series. He even tries to make a kind of defense for why his story line was disjointed in the actual novel, as if he totally gave up writing the novel and said to the reader……hey I don’t care what you think. (Never a good novel writing direction)

Hitchhikers is a much loved series, people have been reading this now for 20 years or so and have very fond memories of it. As a whole Adams style is original and creative, but it also lacks a bit of discipline and the plot sometimes seems to go horribly awry.

Overall Adams is a great science fiction writer, who is witty, humorous sometimes deadpan and a little depressing but also occasionally upbeat mainly about things relating to science and the universe.