I knew I’d seen it somewhere else recently when I mentioned frogs using drainpipes as echo chambers in my last post, but I’ve only just realised it was in one of the books I did scant justice to here on Lillabullero before going away for a couple of weeks. In Margaret Atwood‘s Oryx and Crake (2003), old nerd-mate at school Crake is explaining to narrator Jimmy how wasteful and destructive courtship behaviour and notions of romantic love are both to society and the individuals involved. Jimmy says – to paraphrase – but what about art and poetry? John Donne, Byron and all that – isn’t that worth something? And Crake tells him about mating rituals in the frog community, where size of male croak equates with his desirability among the lady frogs and the canny male hangs out where his croak croaks loudest: “So that’s what art is, for the artist,” said Crake. “An empty drainpipe. An amplifier. A stab at getting laid.”
Along with Atwood‘s customary intelligence, sly wit and feel for people, the specific strength of Oryx and Crake is the slow reveal of the nature of a catastrophe unfolding 25 years previously, leaving Jimmy, aka Snowman, quite possibly the last homo sapiens left alive. All this set in the adventure narrative of his own struggle for survival and his reluctant stewardship of the Crakers (I’m getting to them). It’s a variation on the mad scientist theme, nuanced by the (also) slow reveal of the changing nature of the friendship of three young people who as adults have significant roles in what plays out. Basically, the reductionist scientist Crake has given up on homo sapiens’ chances of surviving, let alone solving, the planet’s big problems. His solution is to create, via a cynically engineered plague (a sub-plot of its own) and genetic manipulation, the kind of society logically envisaged in the John Lennon song, Imagine – a song that has always troubled me if I try to think about it for more than about 30 seconds. In his Paradice Project, what Crake had really been up to, hidden safely in the deepest core of the drug company RejoovenEsense’s Compound (the compounds – closed elite company communities – are another story) was something way beyond a Wells-ian two-nations super-capitalism:
What had been altered was nothing less than the ancient primate brain. Gone were its destructive features, the features responsible for the world’s current illnesses. For instance racism – or as they referred to it in Paradice, pseudospeciation – had been eliminated in the model group, merely by switching the bonding mechanism: the Paradice people simply did not register skin colour. Hierarchy could not exist among them, because they lacked the neural complexes that would have created it. Since they were neither hunters nor agriculturalists hungry for land, there was no territoriality; the king-of-the-castle hard-wiring that had plagued humanity had, in them, been unwired. […] Their sexuality was not a constant torment to them, not a cloud of turbulent hormones; they came into heat at regular intervals, as did most mammals other than man.
In fact, as there would never be anything for these people to inherit, there would be no family trees, no marriages, and no divorces. They were perfectly adjusted to their habitat, so they would never have to create houses or tools or weapons, or, for that matter, clothing. They would have no need to invent any harmful symbolisms, such as kingdoms, icons, gods, or money. Best of all, they recycled their own excrement. By means of a brilliant slice, incorporating genetic material from …
“Excuse me,” said Jimmy. “But a lot of this stuff isn’t what the average parent is looking for in a baby. Didn’t you get a bit carried away?”
But, but, but. “The whole world is now one vast uncontrolled experiment – the way it always was, Crake would have said – and the doctrine of unintended consequences is in full spate.” However,
Crake hadn’t been able to eliminate dreams. We’re hard-wired for dreams, he’d said. He couldn’t get rid of the singing either. We’re hard-wired for singing. Singing and dreams were entwined.
And Jimmy/Snowman may be about to witness the birth of religion. The Crakers are desperate to know what has happened to Oryx, their teacher (another story, again) and he knows all too well but can’t tell them. Their speculation “… was like some demented theology debate in the windier corners of chat-room limbo.” And while he has been away on the journey that the story is constructed around, they have built a facsimile of him from a tin lid and a mop:
Watch out for art, Crake used to say. As soon as they start doing art, we’re in trouble. Symbolic thinking of any kind would signal downfall, in Crake’s view. Next they’d be inventing idols, and funerals, and grave goods, and the afterlife, and sin, and Linear B, and kings, and then slavery and war.
Oryx and Crake is not only a fine novel, it’s an intellectual tour de force that is both compassionate and thrilling. And Margaret Atwood must have had a lot of fun on the way in its writing. I look forward to finding the time to fit in the succeeding volumes of the MaddAddam trilogy.
The other book that deserved more attention was William Fiennes‘ memoir of his youth and his damaged elder brother, The music room (2009), which managed with ease to disarm my inner class warrior. His experiences of his family and growing up in a castle, prep school, public school, Oxbridge are related in vivid, quietly evocative and yet unassuming, spare prose. This was how it was:
I didn’t question the world as I found it; our wide moat and gatehouse tower, the medieval chapel above the kitchen, the huge uninhabited rooms to the west and the parade of strangers that passed through them each year; the way our house was divided into two parts, one private, the other open to public view. I didn’t question my brother’s seizures or the frightening and unpredictable swings of his mood from gentleness and warmth to opposition and violence – these too were just facts I grew up among, how things were.
Add into this there being film and tv costume drama crews in regular attendance as his parents strove to do what they saw as their duty of stewardship towards their abode, along with various other enterprising ventures. The surrounding countryside, beyond the moat, is his playground and the dedicated domestic staff are effectively part of a supportive family. So there’s an innocent wondrousness to Fiennes’ experience that his modest sensitivity and observation allows the reader to share; he never lauds it. His recollection of his astonishment at the warmth and convenience of normal houses when he visits school friends is delightfully done.
Richard, his elder brother by 11 years, was an epileptic, whose condition had resulted in brain damage: while his IQ was close to normal “… free will wasn’t granted to him as it was to others.” He doesn’t know his own strength, one of the less serious consequences of which is that he invariably tightens jar lids beyond the ability of anyone else to easily unscrew them. On the surface an eccentric, with his suit, waistcoat, bow-tie and pipe smoking he adapts words, so ‘downput‘ is what he calls his “special melancholy.” His mood swings in the football season rely heavily on how Leeds United have fared. What makes this particularly poignant – not mentioned in the book – is that we are talking here of the thuggish bunch of cheats of the Don Revie era Leeds.
Throughout all this we are also granted short interludes detailing significant episodes the historical development of scientific knowledge of the brain from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, the moving away from notions of seizures as sinister possession to recognition of the part electricity plays in the way the brain works and later discoveries mapping its functions. Some of the reading group disliked this structure, found it intrusive but for me it added another dimension of poignancy to what is a moving and extraordinary piece of writing. A lovely book, indeed.
Further musical and other non-book based adventures
This was something special. All three acts used backing tapes, loops and active sampling. Dear John was duly love-lorn in finest doo-wop fashion, his backing group consisting of three pretty sharp suits, actually, lain over chairs, the picture completed with pork-pie and similar hats and some cool shades; it’s a good joke, though it was a bit loud. Mrs Pilgrimm sat down unassumingly at her amplified cello and proceeded to spin dramatic swirling magic with said instrument while working effects from various foot pedals and singing simply and unaffectedly songs from the folk tradition; I recall Reynardine in particular. She finished with a cheerful rhythmic pizzicato piece. Looked about 20 but I’m told she’s probably double that. Quite a prelude to the main man. Elsewhere one has seen David Thomas Broughton described as the missing link between Nick Drake and Tommy Cooper. I’d also throw some Les Dawson at the guitar too, but mainly a major digital upgrade of John Martyn‘s work with loop tapes and then some. Oh, and some Ivor Cutler. Broughton has a beautiful voice (probably more than one, actually) and is an accomplished acoustic guitarist. What he does when you throw all the above elements together in a pretty much uninterrupted performance of songs, music, poker-faced jokery and noise – oscillating signals and feedback are part of the canvas too – is remarkable. Crescendos of multiple layers of guitar and voice and noise are suddenly stilled (at the push of a foot pedal) and we’re straight into another exquisite piece of guitar picking and a new song. It is an extraordinary experience. Never mind all the comedy business with the mic stand, did I say it was incredibly moving? Yup, that too. (Thanks MF, for the recommendation).
July’s Scribal was another goodie. Vanessa’s 50th birthday poetry dare was highly enjoyable, especially the one about her handbag. Palmerston, the featured band, were highly accomplished and great fun. Infectious in a good way. Who needs drummers? Some of the songs are so good you wonder who did the originals, except they are originals. Country rock, with all five of them potential vocalists and enjoying one another’s company, I was taken back to the days of some of my favourite pub rock gigs – Brinsley Schwarz no less. Last number, I swear they were channeling The Mavericks. Steve Hobbs did what started as a jokey advice piece on doing spoken word at open mic gigs that morphed into something else when it slowly became apparent he was using his speech at his father’s funeral as his example. Thoughtful, moving, unsettling and effective.
What else? Cadences, the new show at MK Gallery, features 40 pieces, most of them – hurrah! – paintings, engravings, or drawings mounted on the walls. On loan from a Dutch art gallery, the works range from a few Old Masters to a big Bridget Riley (Breathe – not one of her more interesting, I’d venture) and M.C.Escher’s birds, and a few, like the neat Kandinsky, sharing themes of (it says here) “flight, falling, destruction and gravity“; so not a few Icaruses. ‘Cadence’ also references the fall in the human voice at the end of a non-questioning sentence (or at up until the heinous influence of Australian teen soaps changed that given a bit) or the ending of a piece of music.
As an exhibition it felt good standing in the centre of the long and middle galleries though individually the pieces did a little less for me. Despite what I’ve previously said about the walls I think two of my favourite pieces were the ceramics in the display cases in the photo on the left – Chris van der Hoef’s geometrical tea set (from 1926! – illustrated left) and Dick Lion’s more recent Metropolis. That big lettering thing – this is not a put-down, I quite like it – resembling the final round of BBC4’s fiendish Only connect quiz but with the vowels left in, is from Christopher Wool (1990).
Again I have to display my ignorance (sarcasm?) and question the point of much video art, and the space it takes up. The whole of the Cube gallery is given over to showing Catherine Yass‘s Flight (2002). Shot from a remote-controlled helicopter flying over and around and up and down urban buildings it apparently gives a “sense of dizzying disorientation“; but then so did playing around with the horizontal and vertical holds on old televisions. Having said that, I shall probably return for the showing of her new commissioned work, Piano falling (from July 19):
Piano Falling is a new film commissioned by MK Gallery. It shows a grand piano being launched off the top of a 27 story building in East London as it falls and crashes dramatically on the ground. Called Balfron Tower, this classic Modernist tower block was designed by the celebrated architect Erno Goldfinger in 1963. The destruction of musical instruments, and pianos in particular, has a long tradition in art history, as an iconoclastic, ‘anti-bourgeois’ gesture. In this instance, the crash and scatter of the piano as it falls will create an unpredictable composition of sound and image. The idea of recording sound during the fall was inspired by Aeolian harps named after Aeolus, the Greek god of wind – whose strings are played by the wind. As it flies through the air, this dark, three-legged object assumes an enigmatic, metaphorical character, echoed in the dragons and angels that fall out of the sky elsewhere in the exhibition.
Looks fun. Meanwhile in a black video box with headphones attached we have Bruce Nauman‘s Violin film #1 (Playing the violin as fast as I can) (1967/8) in which, “the production of sound is subjected to certain actions that contradict its status as music and performance“; or … roll of drums … the sound and vision are well out of sync.
Nothing out of sync about Naomi “19” Rose‘s usual quality performance at the bijou music venue that is Newport Pagnell’s Rose & Crown pub on Friday. “Sad songs sung with a smile”, I said, and MG suggested that would make a good album title. Naomi was actually the support for the multinational Nothing Concrete, who played a wide-ranging mostly good-time set. Not often you see a line up of cello (second cellist of the week!), mandolin, full size double bass, that box-thing percussion and a self-professed ex-professional busker on lead vocals.