Thursday 30 October 2008

Politely, Frank Muir says Francis Urquhart

Or possibly Felix Unger. Frank Muir was a writer, presenter and producer of comedy, satire and light entertainment programmes. In the early 1960s he was working for the BBC.
After a holiday abroad I returned to find a general election about to happen and the television schedules polluted with party political broadcasts. Incensed by these (and I take a bit of incensing) I wrote a letter to The Times, which they printed. I wrote:

Sir, when I was at school and we were coming up to the end-of-term exams I wrote a letter to my headmaster (in brown ink for some reason, which angered him) and gave it as my view that if the purpose of an exam was to test how much information and wisdom had penetrated our natural defences, then swotting to pass the exam was a form of cheating. The Head did not feel able to fall in with this theory, but I believe there is truth in it. By the same reasoning I believe that we should vote for a political party on its proven record not on wild promises for the future made in party political broadcasts which the party has a snowflake's chance in hell of fulfilling. Thus party political broadcasts are quite clearly only another form of cheating.

What I did not know, as I had just returned from abroad, was that a few days earlier the DG [Director General] had written a keynote letter to the papers saying how important party political broadcasts were to the political health of our democracy. What I also did not know, or had forgotten, was that BBC employees were strictly forbidden to write letters to newspapers expressing their personal views on television and political matters.

A memo emerged from the DG's office in Broadcasting House. The memo was kindly, mainly curious how I could ignore such an important rule as the one preventing staff from blabbing to the press. But the memo then descended from one management office to another, the file growing more threatening and larger as it went like a snowball rolling downhill. Eventually it landed with a thud on Huw Wheldon's desk. Huw passed the huge file on to me with a scribbled note attached saying:

You have an unusual contract but it states quite clearly that you will obey staff rules and regulations as laid down in the Staff Handbook, a copy of which you were given on joining. Full explanation, please. Immediately. (Or when you are not too busy.)

I replied:

Dear Huw,
I am so sorry to have wasted so many important people's time and I would certainly not have written to The Times had I known that it was forbidden so to do. The trouble is I did not read the Staff Handbook thoroughly and commit it to memeory as I should have done. In fact, I thought the rather slim booklet was my electric blanket guarantee and I filed it away at hiome under Domestic Items.
But I do think that you should get Mrs Mary Whitehouse to ban party political broadcasts. To this end could you not persuade the political parties to record their promises in the nude?

And that was the last I heard of the matter.
From A Kentish Lad, pp262-3.

Wednesday 29 October 2008

Celebrity Deathmatch: White vs. King

Might as well get straight into it...

Kenneth White (1936- ) is an expatriate Scottish writer, now very much at home in France. Much-lauded there too, but practically unknown in his native country.
I read the novel [Robinson Crusoe] as a youngster, but I've long since preferred the brute document. Here, summarised, is the account of Wood Roggers, the man who picked up Selkirk from the island:

[A brief account of how Selkirk was abandoned on his island and how he survived follows.]

It's all there in that blueprint - the rest is padding, and an encumbering of the mind.

As is probably obvious enough by this time, I prefer, by far, real islands to imaginary islands, just as I prefer prime documents to novelistic remakes. That's because the real is richer than the imagination. The real demands investigation and is an invitation to sensitive knowledge, whereas the imaginary is more often than not just a collection of stereotypes, a soup of cliches offering an infantile sort of satisfaction. Then, a relationship to the real and its resistance requires changes in thought, in ways of being, in ways of saying, it leads to a transformation of the self. Whereas imagination is nothing but compensation. There's even something horribly autistic about sitting in one spot and spinning out invention by the yard. How much more interesting an open and poetic process involving contemplation, study, movement, meditation and composition!
I don't see an absence but a heightening of reality in the fictional prose which I can point to and call art with confidence: Tarka, Dubliners, Davy, The Leopard, Red Shift, The Stone Book Quartet. White makes the pretty elementary mistake of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, something with which fantasy and SF fans are wearily familiar. Moreover, while I doubt that most fiction can claim to provide transformations of the self, any of it which is any good will provide transportations, which is no bad thing and no mean feat. None of the books I've listed deal in stereotypes - they deal in people, Tarka excepted. I have a theory that, once we're out of childhood, it's difficult for us to grasp or perceive anything new without having imagined it first. In that regard, fiction can be tremendously useful in breaking down stereotypes and other forms of preconception. I doubt that any of the terms in the final sentence could not be applied to Alan Garner's writing process - or even Barbara Cartland's.

Of course, it all depends how you read - whether you read to challenge your own opinion or confirm it. If, for example, you are locked into the French intellectual tradition which has given us the new novel and Derrida, you may well regard White as a savant of the first water; or you may see him as a self-regarding and rather self-satisfied pedlar of highbrow nonsense. In fairness, I think one of us has caught the other on a bad day.

The extract comes from 'Across Corsica', one of the chapters of Across the Territories, a collection of travel essays. He duly notes Napoleon, Paoli, Merimee and Boswell, all of whom belong to or are associated with the island, but he doesn't mention Dorothy Carrington, who wrote the definitive book on it, once.

In defence of imagination, Stephen King, who unlike White actually has some experience of being a novelist, has this to say:
I think that only people who have worked in the field for some time truly understand how fragile this stuff really is, and what an amazing commitment it imposes on the reader or viewer of intellect and maturity. When Coleridge spoke of 'the suspension of disbelief' in his essay on imaginative poetry, I believe he knew that disbelief is not like a balloon, which may be suspended in air with a minimum of effort; it is like a lead weight, which has to be hoisted with a clean jerk and held up by main force. [...] And whenever I run into someone who expresses a feeling along the lines of, ' I don't read fantasy or go to any of those movies; none of it's real,' I feel a kind of sympathy. They simply can't lift the weight of fantasy. The muscles of the imagination have grown too weak.
From Danse Macabre, pp120-121.