Friday, 23 March 2012

Random Thoughts

Beware: Niall Ferguson is Invading the Small Screen (again)

Niall Ferguson is a Glasgow born British historian who is professor of History at Harvard University as well as Harvard Business School.

In recent years Ferguson has popped up on British television to present series which are notable for his (by now customary) shtick of adopting a predetermined position on an issue (which usually flies in the face of what almost everyone else thinks) and doggedly going about looking for any scrap of evidence that might support it.

Last year Ferguson presented a four-part series entitled the decline of the Western Civilization (Civilization: is West A History?) and how the Eastern Civilizations, in particular Chinese, were going to take over the world. He spent all the four episodes hectoring (in a voice that is perpetually addressed to the back of the auditorium) about the superiority of the Western Civilization and how in the last 400 years the West, by dint of (what he described as) ‘killer aps’ overtook the Chinese and the Ottomans. So if you watched the series, fooled by its title, wanting to know whether the days of Western Civilization were indeed numbered, you would have been (depending on your disposition) disappointed (I thought Western Civilization was f**ked, but this guy is saying we still have all these ‘killer aps’) or relieved (I thought Western Civilization was f**ked, but this guy is saying we still have all these ‘killer aps’).

A word about Ferguson’s style of presentation. Irritating doesn’t even come close to describe it. He seems perpetually in the midst of desperately (but ineffectually) trying to control his excitement. Anything and everything he says is said in a manner of adolescent who is describing to his mates how he nailed the girl with the biggest t*ts in the class. Here is a man who fell head over heels in love with the sound of his own voice years ago, and the love affair shows no signs of fading. (Like most right wing historians the man is thick of skin, merciless of purpose, does not suffer from namby-pamby liberal sentiments, and certainly does not shy away from self-aggrandizing.)

Last week Channel 4 aired the first of yet another series on China by Ferguson, entitled China: Triumph and Turmoil. Ferguson spent the whole of the one hour of the episode wailing about how Mao Tse Tung is still revered in China even though the man was a monster and responsible for the deaths of more than 35 million people. (At least he killed his own people and didn’t go around invading other countries and killing civilians of those countries.) Mao, Ferguson informed, his lips quivering with excitement, killed far more people than Hitler and—a couple of seconds pause, here, with Ferguson’s eyes the size of a Frisbee—even Stalin. (My God! The man must be a real monster! One can just about stomach that he killed more people than Hitler, who was all said and done, responsible for the deaths of a mere 5-6 millions: Jews, travellers, mentally ill and mentally handicapped. But killing more people than Stalin? No!) However hard he tried Ferguson simply could not come to terms with this apparent paradox in  the Chinese society, which remains a Communist dictatorship yet has embraced free-market economy with the zeal of Lib Dems joining hands with the Tories to destroy what is left of the NHS.  He could not understand why, above all, the cult of Mao-worship continues in China when Mao heaped unspeakable misery on his people in the 1950s with his ‘Great Leap Forward’, which essentially resulted in a man-made famine; and the ‘Cultural Revolution’ (in the 1960s). Ferguson went round the country speaking to Chinese people—a bunch of old ladies gathering in a public garden and banging benches as they sang songs praising Mao; an entrepreneur (who seemed to have taken the tubercular look to its natural conclusion) who spent 9 months in jail during the ‘Cultural Revolution’ for his treasonous capitalist views (he got away lightly, if you ask me); a farmer—smiling broadly, his teeth arranged neatly like stacks of shelf inside his mouth—who, along with some other farmers, came out openly against the collective ownership of the farms (after Mao’s death, it should be noted)—asking them this question again and again.  And the Chinese, with beatific smiles, answered at length which threw absolutely no light on the matter. No wonder Ferguson looked madder than a hatter at the end of it all. I don’t think people like Ferguson will ever understand the Chinese mindset. This, after all, is a nation whose leader (Deng Xiaoping—yes the same one who dumped all of Mao’s Communist policies after his death and led his country towards a market economy, and who, in 1989, sent the army to the Tiananmen Square), when asked to comment on the French Revolution said that it was too early to tell.  

After a while it just got boring and repetitive; and even the inadvertent comic relief Ferguson provided, by attempting Chinese greetings when he met his interviewees, making a noise that sounded like the braying of a fatally injured donkey, was not enough to relieve the monotony.

The programme had no depth; nothing interesting or insightful was provided by way of information about the most populous nation on earth. Admittedly it is not easy to impart great wisdom and knowledge in the form of bite-size information for the consumption of the attentionally challenged; but Ferguson did not even try. Disappointing? Not really, you don’t really expect anything else from him.

Will China Save the World’s Economic Woes?

I don’t know about you, but from my cubby hole I am closely following the global markets and how they are ‘behaving’.

There are many experts (none of whom saw the 2008 crash coming) who seem to have pinned their hopes on China. They have convinced themselves with the fervour of a zealot that Chinese economy is going to grow and grow.

These experts go on and on about the miracle of Chinese economy in the last 30 years. That is as may be, but the fact remains that the Chinese institutions haven’t kept pace with the economic reforms and haven’t positioned themselves accordingly. It might not have made much difference in the 1980s when China was recovering from Mao’s disastrous policies and taking tiny steps towards market economy, but as China is getting richer (but still not as rich as America, based on which indices you follow) these things will bite. Let’s not also forget that this is still a country with one party Communist dictatorship. The state holds almost all of China’s industry.

An inevitable consequence of totalitarian dictatorship is that the regime cooks up figures to avoid any unrest within its population, and one way to keep everyone in line is to tell them again and again that things are rosy when they aren’t.

Therefore, when the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao cut the growth forecast to 7.5%, one wondered how low it actually was. It is also clear that Chinese exports will suffer as the demand for low-cost Chinese trinkets in Europe and America will reduce.

The reduction in China’s growth will have a direct impact on the commodity market. In the last few years China alone was responsible for 40% of the consumption of raw metals like copper and aluminium. The demand for the raw metals (and other metals such as iron ore) will go down. (The mining giant BHP Bilton has announced a fall in its profits due to the anticipated reduction in the demand for copper from China). Which means (and I admit to a feeling of schadenfreude as I type this) that the Australians, who have so far avoided the economic downturn by piggy-backing China, will face the heat. (Their problems will most probably be compounded  by the housing bubble the country still seems to be in the midst of, and which is sure to burst in the next 2-3 years.)

The more worrying is that China’s politics has not really moved at all, which means that with the economic slowdown there is a risk that China’s politics will become repressive at home and aggressive away from it. Already China has massively upscaled its defence budget and I can’t imagine China’s giant neighbour India being too chuffed about it. China continues to invest in Iran, which is calculated to make the Western sanctions ineffectual. There is a risk that Israel (with her semi-deranged prime-minister) will increasingly turn to military means with (outwardly) reluctant backing of America. China’s disruptive meddling in the Middle East is (at least partially) to be blamed for the high oil prices.

What China (and the world) really needs is political reform that would enable changes in its banking system, removal of unproductive state investments, and, eventually, a smooth transition to consumer-influenced economy.

But that is not going to happen any time soon. China, as the cliché goes, is heading for a hard landing.

India’s Sachin Tendulkar Creates History

An American friend of mine does not get cricket. He thinks it is too long and too complicated. No game, he says to me, should be this complicated and long.

A few years ago, I gave my friend a novel entitled Netherlands by the American author Joseph O’Neill, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (and was described as a masterpiece in some American reviews). The novel tells the story of a Caribbean man of Asian descent wanting to revive cricket in America. The novel informed that baseball really took off in America in the first two decades of the 20th century. Before that, apparently, cricket was played widely. (I don’t know whether this is true; I am not a baseball fan.) My American friend read the book and his comment was he was glad that he did not live in the 19th century being forced to watch cricket. His theory is Americans being the clever entrepreneurs removed all the boring aspects of cricket and invented a game that was more entertaining and finished quickly (but not so quickly that they didn’t have time to eat popcorns from packets the size of single storey houses and drink coke in quantities that would flood Wales) . ‘Who has the time,’ he asks me, ‘to watch a game that goes on for days?’ Obviously not the Americans.

In one of his travel books (I forget which) American writer Bill Bryson (who is very popular in the UK) remarked that if he were to develop serious physical illness and the doctors advised rest and strictly no excitement, he would immediately take up cricket. 

I used to be interested in cricket many moons ago; then, as I grew older, I lost my interest in the game (and decided to focus my dwindling powers of concentration on women's tennis). Last year, thanks to an Indian friend, I started watching cricket again. I watched the Cricket World Cup, which, much to the delight of my friend, India won. Since then my liking for the game is rekindled, and I have been following the game with a modicum of interest.

This brings me to Sachin Tendulkar. Tendulkar is a diminutive Indian batsman with a baby face and a mop of curly hair who has broken every possible batting record in cricket’s history. This guy is quite a phenomenon. He was picked up to play for his country when he was still in his nappies and has been playing international cricket for more than two decades. I think that is really remarkable: it is not easy to keep your fitness and motivation, and above all, perform consistently for such a long period of time.

And now Tendulkar has broken yet another record. Rather he has created it, as no one before him has managed to reach this milestone. He has scored a century of international hundreds. In cricketing terms that is absolutely stupendous. It is the tennis equivalent of a player winning grandslams 20 times. (The player who has scored the highest number of international hundreds for England is Graham Gooch—an ugly player to watch; he had no grace— and he has scored 28 international hundreds. This gives some idea of the sheer scale of Sachin Tendulkar’s achievement.

Tendulkar may even be the most popular sportsman in the history of sports. Apparently he is number one sportsman in India for several years (that is almost a billion people). Add to this his fans in other cricket playing countries (save England, of course; if the articles in the British broadsheets, full of vinegary prose, poisonous asides and mischievous innuendoes about Tendulkar’s feat, are anything to go by, he does not have many fans in England other than those amongst the Indian Diaspora, although I don't see Tendulkar losing much sleep over it; also we are a football-mad nation, not that we have done anything of note for decades), and he can easily boast of a fan-following of more than a billion. I can’t imagine any other sportsman having this huge a fan-following.

Tendulkar’s feat of hundred international hundred is an astounding feat, and don’t think it will ever be matched. He seems to be one of those players who come along once in several generations. Three cheers for Sachin Tendulkar.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Masterchef 2012

I have written earlier on this blog about Masterchef. It is a British cookery programme which has (I think) three versions: amateurs, professionals and celebrities.

The amateur Masterchef, as the title suggests, has people who have not had professional training compete with each other to win the title of Masterchef Amateur Champion. They are usually those who want a different direction in life, and, having (probably) always fancied themselves as good cooks, believe that a win on Masterchef—and the attendant publicity—will open doors for them to a successful culinary career.

The professional Masterchef involves professional chefs who want to make the quantum-leap from whichever greasy-spoon they might be toiling in to the world of fine-dining (where they will end up toiling to prepare dishes which no one in his right mind would make, but enough people out of their minds would part with their money to eat them in pretentious restaurants boasting Michelin stars).

Finally there is celebrity Masterchef. This involves P-listed celebrities (reality TV participants, women who once dated someone who was a friend of someone who was a cousin of an Everton footballer, someone who used to read News on the BBC in 1989 etcetera) who have come to the conclusion that not being good at anything else they must be good at cooking.

In the last couple of years I had gone off this programme. There was too much of it. With each series going on for between 6 to 8 weeks, the programme was on air pretty much all the time, and I was beginning to find it repetitive and a bit boring. I am sure it requires great skills to ‘prepare a carrot’ to go into your salad that includes other exquisitely pruned raw vegetables and arrange the whole lot in a manner that must be aesthetically pleasing, but to watch it week after week is about as entertaining as reading a telephone directory.

I watched, after a hiatus of more than a year, most of the episodes of the most recent Amateur Masterchef series, which concluded yesterday. And perhaps for that reason found it mildly entertaining.

I have to say that the programme attracts participants from different walks of life. If I remember correctly one of the participants this year was a doctor (things must be pretty grim in the National Health Service for a doctor to be wishing to be a chef, although, now that I think about it, the doctor refrained from saying, unlike many other contestants, that she lived for cooking, that her ambition was to open a restaurant and serve delicious dishes to customers till they died of overindulgence etcetera.); another was a quantum physicist (a dainty Japanese woman who in her quieter moments resembled a rabbit in the midst of an amphetamine psychosis). Then there was a man, the size of a double garage (but not flabby), with obligatory tattoos covering both his arms, who said that he enjoyed nothing more than cooking a perfect fish. The man was a former bouncer and now ran a security firm. Since he did not make it to the final, I guess he has gone back to running his firm. (He will no doubt also perfect his fish-cooking technique, but in his home-kitchen and not in a professional kitchen.)

The two judges of the Masterchef are JohnTorode and Greg Wallace. Torode, an Australian, looks like a cabbie with an alcohol problem, but in fact is a professional chef and owns a chain of burger restaurants around London. He seems to have a liking for spicy food, and when he encounters such food expresses his satisfaction eloquently by saying ‘Boom!’ (If the food is really spicy, he says, ‘Boom! Boom!’) The other chap, Greg Wallace, is British. I am not sure what makes him more qualified than, say, me to be a judge on a cookery programme. He is not a qualified chef. I don’t think he is a professional restaurant critic either. Because he is a judge on a cookery programme we are expected to believe that he has a discerning palate, which is a bit like saying Prince Charles oozes sex appeal because he married Diana. Wallace has a sweet tooth; he may also have an alcohol problem.

The three finalists this year included a woman: Shelina, who, depending on your perception of female physiognomy, you could describe as voluptuous or fat (and you wouldn’t be wrong either way; it’s a matter of perception). Shelina was introduced as a former diversity manager (so not a real job). She was (I am sure still is) of Mauritian descent (which might explain why she liberally used mangoes in many of her dishes). Her dishes were usually spicy. The other two were men: a lugubrious plasterer fromYorkshire named Tom, and a research analyst named Andrew. Tom looked as if he had recently received the news of a death in the family, attempted dishes such as rhubarb spaghetti, and almost always struggled to get his dishes ready in time. Andrew was industrious and a bit hyper (but nowhere as hyper as the super-hyper Japanese quantum physicist). He too attempted dishes which the judges described as very ambitious (which I suspected was a kind way of saying: ‘You’re out of your depth, mate’; or ‘We think you are deranged’.) The (former) bouncer (who made it to the last four) was solid, if a tad unimaginative—his dishes, when they didn’t include fish, almost always had fillets of beef that were so rare they were practically breathing. He lacked finesse, I think.

The format of the competition was the same as it had been in all the earlier series. In the initial stages the contestants were wheeled out to, say, the kitchen of a factory where they would be required to prepare dishes for lunch, in bulk, for the staff (who would then comment on the quality of the food—‘It’s alright’; ‘It’s nice’; ‘I didn’t like it very much’; and, occasionally, ‘I simply loved the texture and the flavours in this dish; I think the flavours offered a wonderful contrast’—while eating watery chicken curry); or they would be taken (again to prepare food in bulk) at some festival. There was a literary element to this year’s Masterchef. In one of the episodes the contestants prepared food for the participants in a Jane Austen festival. (Roughly hundred men and women wearing garish make-up (women), gowns that looked as though they were made from curtains (women), and silly hats (men and women), and talking rubbish—a side-effect, I suspect, of reading Jane Austen novels. I can’t now remember which contestant’s dish won the day; however, if the tastes of the Jane Austen fans in food were anything like their tastes in clothes (or literature), the bar was not set very high.) As the competition progressed and contestants were eliminated, the venues became more posh. For example, the contestants cooked food for barristers and judges in a building in London of appropriate solemnity, gloominess, and hideousness. (The barristers also talked rubbish, but in posh accents, using phrases like ‘jolly fine’ and ‘topping’, never tiring of displaying their familiarity with the adverb ‘rather’.) The contestants also ‘prepared tea’ for a bunch of geriatrics who acted in (mostly awful) British comedy sitcoms in the 1970s (and have since been relegated to well-earned obscurity). (The comedians talked rubbish, it goes without saying, but I guess that’s what they do. You can’t criticise a comedian for talking crap; it’s their job to talk crap and try to convince the audience that it is funny. Would you criticise a dog for pissing on a pole?)

The three finalists were given a crash course in Michelin star cooking. This meant they had to travel to restaurants with three Michelin stars, where they were personally trained by the chefs (in these cases also owners) of the restaurants. Shelina got to go to Bruges where she learnt from Geert Van Hecke who became the first Flamish chef fifteen years ago to earn three Michelin stars for his restaurant De Karmeliet. (I went on a day trip to Bruges a couple of years ago, but I don’t remember eating in De Karmeliet, which is a pity because had I known about this famous Bruges restaurant I might have taken the opportunity to spend half my year’s income on perhaps the same dish that Chef Van Hecke taught Shelina: how to make a salad of raw mackerel in which the leaves had to be of a particular size and had to rest on the plate at a certain angle on the broccolis, which, in turn, had to be placed on a bed of spinach boiled for a pre-defined period at a pre-determined temperature so that it would attain the desired degree of blandness. (Shelina giggled hysterically at everything the chef said; looking at her face you’d have thought that chef Van Hecke was teaching her not to fillet a perfect fish but to give a perfect blowjob.) Andrew was sent to a three-Michelin-stars restaurant in Holland where, if my memory is not fooling me, he was taught to make a dish that resembled a beach—none of the ingredients was cooked; it was all in the arrangement of the ingredients on the plate which had to look exactly like a beach. (Quite why anyone would want to eat a plate that looked like a beach, including sea-moss, is beyond me; the food looked about as appetising as a burnt hedgehog.) Tom went to a London restaurant where what the French chef said was unintelligible to me (and didn’t make much sense even with the subtitles BBC provided). (As an aside, if total amateurs can walk into a three-Michelin-stars restaurants and within two hours of training can prepare signature dishes—which these hot-shot chefs have supposedly been perfecting for years—without a fault, it suggests three possibilities: (1) These dishes are not very difficult to make, which suggests that cooking is not that difficult to master and we are fools to pay astronomical sums of money to the Michelin-star restaurants. (2) The chefs are being kind to the amateurs, and are describing the dishes as superb even when they aren’t; in which case the viewers are being taken for a ride. (3) The finalists in the Masterchef competitions are, without exception, year after year, geniuses. Britain is a land of culinary Einsteins.)

In the penultimate episode the contestants ‘brought back’ with them what they had learned from the Michelin-starred chefs and prepared dishes for ‘top chefs’ in Britain, who, amongst them—shouted Greg Wallace—boasted 14 Michelin stars. The event was organised in Gordon Ramsay’s (three-Michelin starred) restaurant. All the ‘celebrity’ chefs arrived, one of them wearing a skirt (I think he was Scottish and not a transvestite), looking stern; and told the camera that there was no margin for error; that they were expecting perfection; that they had very high hopes from the contestants. Inside the kitchen Gordon Ramsey’s head-chef (who looked like a Shetland pony) said that her reputation was on line; that she would not let a dish go out if she was not satisfied that it was absolutely perfect. She had also lined up her regular kitchen staff (one of whom looked as though he had seen action on the streets of Soho on Friday evenings) in case the amateurs were not up to scratch. Needless to say, it all went swimmingly, and all the chefs declared their satisfaction: none of them would have had any hesitation, they said, to serve these dishes in their hoity-toity restaurants (and charge 40 quid a plate). (Well, all except one. The one who wouldn't have served the dishes in her restaurant, wouldn’t have served them because she did not own a restaurant to serve the dishes. This woman, the viewers were informed, was awarded an MBE—Member of the most excellent order of the British Empire (!)—one of those silly honours no one outside of Britain gives two shits about (the title might have made sense in 1912; in 2012 it is just idiotic)—for her services to the food industry. This woman told the camera that she was passionate about food and took food very seriously. I am passionate about food, although I could take it a bit more seriously. Can I have an MBE too?)

The two judges on the programme—John Torode and Greg Wallace—talked as if they had taken (and could give) a masterclass in talking in clichés. Greg Wallace, in addition, had one of the most unpleasant ways of eating a pudding. He dipped the spoon into whatever sweet, treacly goo that was on the plate; opened his mouth so wide that you could count the pustules on his tonsils; then half of the spoon disappeared inside his mouth; then the mouth closed on the spoon like a pincer; finally he pulled the spoon out of his mouth as though it was some sort of tug of war between his mouth and hand. The camera focussed all the while on his bald head really close. (Disgusting doesn’t even come close to describe it.) If he liked the pudding Walalce made grunting noises and rolled his eyes in his socket. Torode (being a chef and an Australian probably knew how to burn a burger in the garden in summer) tried to look thoughtful after he had eaten the food before delivering his verdict. What either of them had to say, most of the time, was banal (though that is not necessarily their limitations, although, without doubt, both Torode and Wallace are linguistically challenged): in how many different ways can you describe a pan-fried halibut or a seared rack of lamb? I think the judges should dispense altogether with talking and, instead, convey their reaction by facial expressions, grunting, barking, howling etcetera.

All the contestants (I think there were 12 to begin with) were ‘desperate’ to reach the final; they were all determined to reach the final. Andrew, the research analyst (who actually reached the final), was the only one who cleverly predicted at an early stage that insofar as he could see only three would reach the final, which—the research analyst further hypothesized—meant that the others wouldn’t reach the final. (There was a joiner in the competition, who, I think was the fifth person to be eliminated. This man showed that he was of the same logical mind as the research analyst, Andrew. After his elimination the joiner said, ‘There are only four people left now, and one of them is going to win the Masterchef. And it ain’t going to be me.’ You couldn’t fault the logic.) Everybody said that they were going to be devastated (except the former bouncer, who seemed to take a slightly chilled out approach) if eliminated; that their self-esteem was totally dependent on whether or not they reached the next stage of this cookery competition; that they didn’t know how they were going to cope or show their faces to the world if eliminated; yet, when they were actually eliminated they were all very proud of what they had achieved; some of them even threatened to continue pursuing their dreams.

A word about the background voice that gave a running commentary on what was happening on the screen. The female voice (attributed to one India Fisher) was perpetually breathless. It didn’t matter what the people on the screen were doing. They might be washing carrots or boiling a curry, all was recounted in a manner that strove to give the impression that the viewers were witnessing history in the making. The voice became very reverent when introducing, say, a chef who earned her first Michelin star when she was 10, or a food critic who wrote for the Guardian and appeared in one of the episodes as a judge. (One critic was described as having a fearsome reputation, obviously the sort of chap who could make or break a restaurant’s reputation. Perhaps he could replace Greg Wallace in the next series.)  

                             Guess which of these three has a fearsome reputation?   

Of the three finalists I thought fat Shelina (there! I have given my perspective on her physiognomy) would win. She got praise from the judges pretty much all the time. Her starters were ‘sensational’; her main courses were ‘mind-blowing’; and her puddings often sent Greg Wallace’s eyes oscillating in his sockets faster than a yo-yo. Torode came as close to dribbling as was possible without actually dribbling, after sampling Shelina’s mangoes. (If you think this is a cheap double entendre, please be advised that I am writing about a cookery programme in which Greg Wallace told a contestant that her squirrel was moist and deep.) That’s what happened. Shelina’s mutton curry and mango dessert won the day. Andrew’s strange decision to serve strawberries with roast pork for his starters didn’t go down well with the judges. Tom pulled the old trick of rhubarb spaghetti, but it didn’t work because Greg Wallace felt the spaghetti was not cooked enough. Shelina declared that this was the first trophy she had ever won (that said all), and then—teary-eyed—blubbered that her father, who died 16 years ago, would have been so proud of her. However, since we also learned at the start of the programme that the dead father wanted her to do an academic course and was against her doing a catering course when she was a teen-ager, I am not so sure that he would have been proud (although I am prepared to concede that Shelina is in a better position to know about her father than me). Andrew said he was going to take away sweet memories of the competition (so, nothing). Tom said he was chuffed for Shelina and looked anything but chuffed. (If you are a gracious loser, you don't deserve to win.)

Now that I have finished watching Masterchef I think I can take a break for the next two years. That’s the way I am going to treat this programme: a treat that will be savoured once in a while. 

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Rachel Cusk: Divorce and Aftermath

Rachel Cusk is a British writer, who, in case you want to know, is recently divorced. Why would you want to know—provided you know who Rachel Cusk is in the first place (although, if you are reading this post, you will have, because I revealed her profession in the opening sentence)—whether she is married or divorced?

It is a legitimate question. I did not know about Rachel Cusk’s marital status until last month when I stumbled across anexcerpt from Cusk’s most recent non-fiction work in the culture section of TheDaily Telegraph. (Yes, the Telegraph does have a culture section; and yes, I read it from time to time).

Cusk’s most recent work of non-fiction is a memoir, and its title is: Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation.

So you see, one of the reasons why you might want to know about Rachel Cusk’s marital status is: she wants you to know; she wants the world to know that she is divorced. That’s why she has written a book about her divorce (published by Faber and Faber, £12.99 only).

I don’t know about you, but for me £12.99 for a book is not cheap. If I am at all to be persuaded to spend this amount on a book then it has to fulfil at least one of the three conditions: (1) It must be written by a writer I greatly admire. (2) The book’s subject holds more fascination for me than a pubescent boy for a Catholic priest. (3) The book has attracted rave reviews and is considered a classic or a cult book.

Mind you, I am not saying that I will buy the book if one or more of the above conditions are fulfilled. I shall most probably still not buy a hardback edition and wait instead patiently for the paperback edition to come out.

Back to Rachel Cusk. She does not fulfil the first condition. I do not admire Rachel Cusk (as a writer). If you are thinking of forming a Rachel Cusk fan club, don’t bother to send me the invitation, because I shall politely decline.

I know, I know: in 2003 Rachel Cusk was nominated by Granta magazine as one of ‘thetwenty best of young British novelists’, which, apparently is a big thing (although to describe Rachel Cusk, who would have been 36 when the list was published, as ‘young’ is a bit like declaring that you had a filling sushi meal). Since 1983 Granta (a magazine that no one reads but miraculously still gets published) has been publishing a list of best of young British novelists every ten years. While writing this post I looked up the lists out of curiosity. The lists do contain many writers I admire or have heard of or read (not knowing they were on the Granta list), but they also have names I don’t recognise at all. (What does this mean? Is my having heard of a writer’s name the ultimate test of the writer’s popularity? I’d certainly wish so. But I’d also wish to spend a night of hot passion with Scarlet Johansson and that weird girl in the film Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (at the same time). Doesn't mean it is going to happen.) The point is: getting your name on some obnoxiously hoity-toity list is not necessarily a guarantee that you will be a successful writer.

Is Rachel Cusk a successful writer? Does she sell? Who knows? She certainly has no difficulty in getting the memoir of her divorce published by Faber and Faber. So she must be a writer of some standing. Faber and Faber wouldn’t publish just anybody.

Have I actually read any of Rachel Cusk’s novels? As it happens, I have. Not one, but two. A few years ago I read a novel of hers entitled In the Fold. Last year I read her most recent novel, entitled The Bradshaw Variations.

What did I make of these two novels? I shall briefly write about The Bradshaw Variations, which I read only last year. Then I will write (even more briefly) about In the Fold

I do not remember a thing about The Bradshaw Variations. I finished reading it, so it couldn’t have been total dross. But I remember it being tedious, not least because of Cusk’s ponderous prose which didn’t clearly convey what she was trying to say. Reading The Bradshaw Variations was a bit like looking at one of those impressionistic paintings of Monet. You have no clue whether Monet was trying to depict Paris in rainy season or just had a fit of sneezes while the wet paint-brush was in his hands.

As for In the Fold, it too was a masterclass in opaque verbosity.

Rachel Cusk seems to me to be one of those writers who desperately want to show the world how very clever and how very profound they are; but end up, instead, writing a lot of what seems like twaddle about nothing in particular.

I have even heard Rachel Cusk in a literary programme. She read out from Arlington Park, which was published in 2006. Again I remember nothing of the programme other than a pasty white woman reading monotonously a monotonous passage from what was probably a monotonous book. (I have Arlington Park in my collection. I have no recollection of buying it. I thought I must have bought it for a quid from a second-hand bookshop; but when I opened it, it had Rachel Cusk’s signature with the message that she hoped that I would enjoy the book. So I must have bought it after the literary programme. I couldn’t tell you whether I liked it or not, because I haven’t read it, and I am not going to any time soon.)

I think I have made it fairly clear that I am not a Rachel Cusk fan; and the Granta nomination in 2003 notwithstanding, I will be very surprised if anything she has written will be read in fifty years—since I will most certainly not be alive in fifty years I won’t actually know whether Cusk’s novels would be in circulation in fifty years; and, having led an unpious existence in this life, I am destined to be reincarnated as a cockroach or a rat in the next one—except perhaps on the book-blogs  devoted to ‘supremely talented but cruelly neglected and excessively underrated British women writers of late twentieth and early twenty-first century’.

What about the subject matter? Cusk’s memoir is about her divorce. I am pretty sure that the divorce was protracted and full of rancour. If it was an amicable, mutually acceptable separation, with both parents deciding act maturely in the best interest of children, it wouldn’t have been worth writing a book about, would it? (What would you write? “My husband and I have been aware for some time that we were drifting apart. I first realised that things were not quite how they should be in our favourite Italian restaurant—which, by the way, does the most scrumptious spinach-ricotta cannelloni, and you must have it with a chilled bottle of Gavi—when I noticed him desperately trying to suppress a yawn when I was in the middle of explaining to him the importance of art in human lives. On my part I realised that we were really not suited for each other. He is earnest, my husband, but he lacks style and his hair look as if he cuts them with garden shears. These things hurt my delicate and fragile sensibilities, the downside of being a sensitive (and talented) artist. When it comes to fine things in life my husband is adequate in the same way a chiropractor is competent to manage your curved spine but is no orthopaedic surgeon. So we had a long, heart to heart chat about our future over breakfast (a strong cup of coffee and toasts). I had to tell my husband that if I had to survive as an artist we must separate. He was most gracious about it. He said he fully understood. He would never be able to forgive himself, he said, if he stifled my creativity even inadvertently. We then had a frank discussion about financial arrangements. My husband was most understanding. You see, he gave up his job to look after the house and children, while I became the breadwinner with my book-writing; but he said that he did not want me to be lumbered with the worry of providing for him; I must focus, unhindered, on my writing. He would manage, he said. He would go in the night to the backs of shops and eat out of bins, but I wasn’t to worry about providing for him.” Wouldn’t quite be the material of a bestselling book, would it? What you want, what the readers want, is the mother of all battles, with your about-to-be-ex husband more bitter than the lemon you squeezed in your gin and tonic last night.

So, I started reading the excerpt in the Telegraph, if not exactly trembling with eager anticipation, then in a spirit of mildly prurient curiosity.

I should like to say that I managed to reach the end of the excerpt, but I regret to announce that I didn’t; rather I couldn’t.  Somewhere into the fourth or fifth paragraph, as Cusk preached in her mannered prose about what it meant to be a feminist in modern world, I lost consciousness.  I guess the pleasures of reading self-absorbed, self-pitying, whinge palled rather quickly for me.

I can’t help feeling that when marriages break up, the partners who are established writers have an unfair advantage. They can get it out of the system by writing books about them—writing being therapeutic and all that. If the books sell, it is even better. What about the poor partners? How do they put the whole thing behind them? They might want to put forth their sides of the story; except they can’t, because when they try to string sentences together their eyeballs collide. (Not really fair, is it? But then life is not fair. If life were fair the British Empire would still be existing, and we would be telling the natives to hurry up and bring us cool glasses of sherbet.)  Last year I read American writer Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Prey and Love. That book (unlike Cusk’s) is not about Gilbert’s divorce, but there is rather a lot of it in the first few pages in which, you’d be surprised to learn, Gilbert’s ex-husband comes across as about as reasonable as a low IQ Tottenham Football Club striker who has been shown a red card. Now Cusk has turned the break-up of her marriage into a book, £12.99 per copy. How mercenary do you have to be to write a book full of me-me cod psychology out of the dissolution of your marriage? (On the other hand, you might say that since the marriage is kaput anyway, you might as well turn it into some sort of money-making scheme; and if you end up looking like a narcissist wearing your sense of hurt sensibilities like a bank robber wearing a hood, it is a small price to pay.)

A few years ago Julie Myerson, another British novelist, published a novel entitled The Lost Child. On the eve of the publication of the novel Myerson publically announced that in the novel there was an entire section that incorporatedan episode involving her real life son Jack, who, according to her, had become a cannabis addict and whom she was forced to chuck out a few years earlier. Myerson said that she had decided to go public in order to raise awareness of the risks of cannabis smoking. This generated a lot of publicity for Myerson (and her novel, which couldn’t have hurt), not all of which was positive. Myerson was flabbergasted and aghast and shocked and devastated, so she claimed, when some questioned her motives behind waiting for almost three years before deciding to raise public awareness about the hazards of cannabis smoking, the timing coinciding rather neatly with the publication of her novel, which just happened to have had a whole section on it. 

Cusk is more direct about her intentions. She has published a memoir about the break-up of her marriage. You might question the propriety of her actions, but you can’t question her motives. (Unlike Myerson’s) there is nothing sly about Cusk’s motives. There is a straightforward assumption that people would want to read about the sordid dramas of her life, and if they do, she will make money. (My guess is that the book won’t be a blockbuster because, let’s face it, writers are never going to be in the same league as footballers and screen personalities when it comes to popularity; and Cusk, despite the 2003 Granta seal of approval, is not in the premier league of writers.)

I might read Cusk’s memoir (third, according to Wikipedia; she has already banged out a memoir about being a mother (A Life’s Work: On Becoming A Mother) and a family holiday with her now-ex-husband in Italy (The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy) if I spot it in the local library; but I don’t think I will bother buying the book. That is primarily because I don’t rate Cusk highly as a writer, but also because I find the exercise of commercially exploiting a family tragedy slightly distasteful.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Book of the Month: Summertime (J.M. Coetzee)

In 1997 J.M. Coetzee published Boyhood, a fictionalized memoir of his childhood in South Africa, to great acclaim. In 2005 he published Youth, which traced the years he spent in England, in the 1960s. Both Boyhood and Youth were intense, brooding, at times dark, works of autobiographical fiction. If Boyhood had a kind of mystic quality to it, perhaps because of the strong emotions which, you suspected, were agitating to break through the patina of cool, elegant prose, Youth was a detached contemplation on the fluffing of one’s hopes and ambitions of youth.  

In 2009 Coetzee published Summertime, the next instalment of his fictionalized memoirs.

The premise of Summertime is as follows: an English biographer is working on the biography of a writer called John (J M) Coetzee who has passed on a few years ago. The fictional Coetzee, prior to his death, was a renowned novelist of international reputation and was also awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. The biographer is, however, interested in the early years when Coetzee was finding his feet as a writer. He is planning to focus on the years between 1972 and 1977. During this period, the fictional Coetzee was living with his widowed father in a run down cottage in the suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, and was working as a supply teacher of English (although I am not sure whether this term existed in the South Africa of the 1970s). This was also the period when ‘fictional’ Coetzee published his first novel entitled ‘Duskland’ (also the title of the real life Coetzee’s debut novel). The biographer has never met Coetzee, who, by all accounts, was a recluse when he was alive. The biographer has at his disposal a few dated as well as undated entries Coetzee made during this period. Most of the entries relate to public events, but there are a few personal entries. The biographer interviews a total of five individuals who were close or important to ‘dead’ Coetzee at some time or the other during this period. These include: a married woman (Julia) with whom Coetzee had had an affair, a cousin (Margot) to whom he was close, a Brazilian dancer (Adriana) to whose adolescent daughter Coetzee taught English, and two colleagues at the University where Coetzee had taught—a male (Martin) and a female (Sophie). Coetzee most probably had an affair with Sophie.

The picture of fictional Coetzee that emerges out of these interviews is not very flattering. Julia, who lived in the same area as Coetzee in the 1970s, admits to having an affair with him not so much because she was swept off her feet by the future Nobel laureate as because of her desire to teach her philandering husband (who had been having it off with his colleague) a lesson and salvage her own amor propre. The sex, she feels obliged to inform, was not earth shaking, except perhaps on one occasion. She remembers Coetzee as socially inept, a loner, and repressed in the ‘wider sense of the word’. She remembers their first meeting: it was in a supermarket when he retrieved a Christmas roll she had dropped and, while returning it, either inadvertently or deliberately—she is still not sure after so many years—prodded her breasts with it. Julia did not find Coetzee particularly attractive: he was scrawny, he had a straggly beard, he wore horn-rimmed spectacles, and had an air of seediness and failure about him. He was the outsider. She does not think he loved his father, either, with whom, she suspects, he was obliged to live because of his financial problems. She tells the biographer that she did not know at the time that he was a budding writer, and was surprised when he turned up at her doorstep one day with a copy of his novel, ‘Dusklands’.  She confesses that she does not like ‘Dusklands’ as she prefers her books to have proper heroes and heroines.  She reads the book as an expose of the cruelty involved in various conquests, the locus of which, she feels, lies within the writer. She is surprised when the biographer informs her that Coetzee probably considered her an important figure in his life. She is under the impression that she was important to him in an unimportant way, and never entered his books, never quite flowered within him. She remembers him as a man who was afraid to expose his desire, who found it hard to court women and open himself to rebuff.

Margot is the late J M Coetzee’s cousin and was close to him as a child. She tells the biographer about a family reunion one Christmas in the early 1970s, which Coetzee attended with his father. Coetzee had returned from America under a cloud and the wider family suspected that he might even have spent some time in jail in America. Coetzee was not exactly the flavour of the month with the family, Margot excepted. Her sister, Carol, for example, felt that John Coetzee was stuck up, thought too much of himself, and couldn't bear to lower himself to talk to ordinary people.  One afternoon Coetzee and Margot went out for a drive and drove all the way to the dying town of Merweville of which their grandfather was a mayor years ago. Coetzee informed Mergot that he was thinking of buying a house in Merweville where he was hoping his father would live and he would drive from Cape Town (a seven hour drive) every weekend to give him company. Margot was scandalized: she could not see old Coetzee coping on his own in a town in the middle of nowhere; Carol, her sister, accused John (on his back) of simply wanting to be rid of the old man whom he had never loved. Margot remembers John Coetzee as a mess, with his unkempt hair and beard sticking out at all angles. He also seemed to have very naïve and romantic ideas about the Black emancipation. After the family reunion, Margot wrote Coetzee a long, heartfelt letter, urging him not send his father to Merweville. Coetzee replied, informing her that he had taken on board her suggestions, and had abandoned the plan to buy a house in that town. Margot was hurt by the cold, formal tone of Coetzee’s letter.

The next person the biographer interviews is a Brazilian dancer called Adriana, who lived in Cape Town for three years with her two daughters, and was forced to earn her living—after her husband, who worked as a security guard, was attacked and killed by robbers—as a dancer as well as dance teacher. Adriana had high hopes for her younger daughter, Maria Regina, who at that time was in her late adolescence. Adriana was paying the school extra fees for English tuition, and was concerned when she learnt that the teacher was an Afrikaner called Coetzee. Adriana had never liked Afrikaners, many of whom she had come across in Angola where she lived with her husband prior to coming to South Africa, and saw how they treated Black people. Coetzee was summoned to Adriana’s house for tea during the course of which she was further concerned to learn that Coetzee was just a supply teacher and did not have proper teaching qualifications. Coetzee on his part tried in his gauche way to ingratiate himself with Adriana and her family (inviting them for a picnic, with his father, in the middle of winter), which only confirmed Adriana’s suspicions that he was letching after her vivacious daughter. It was, however, not the daughter, but the mother, who was the object of the late Coetzee’s sexual desire. He started writing letters to Adriana that made little sense to her as he expatiated on Schubert’s music through which, he claimed, one could sublime music. To her disgust, Coetzee enrolled himself in her dancing classes. This, she decided, amounted to stalking, and complained  to the school principal. Finally, she removed her daughter from Coetzee’s class. Adriana does not remember John Coetzee fondly; she remembers him as an awkward man who made a nuisance of himself for a short period when she lived in South Africa in the 1970s.  She describes Coetzee as celibataire—not a homosexual, not sexless, but solitary—not made for conjugal life, not made for the company of women.

The final two interviews are with Coetzee’s colleagues in the university where he taught for many years. The male colleague, Martin, had generally got on well with Coetzee and the two had jointly run a poetry course for many years. He remembers Coetzee as someone who knew a fair amount about a range of things but not a great deal about anything in particular. Coetzee, Martin opines, was a perfectly adequate academic, but not a notable teacher. He was a dry, reserved man, whose passion of literature—for example nineteenth century Russian novelists—never quite translated itself in his teaching; something always seemed to hold him back. A strain of secretiveness was ingrained in him. The female colleague, a Frenchwoman called Sophie, who admits to having had liaison with Coetzee (but refuses to give details), comments on Coetzee’s political leanings.  Coetzee’s politics, she informs the biographer, tended to be left-wing, but he was not a Marxist. He was not a militant. Indeed he looked down on politics, and his political ideas were too idealistic, too Utopian for him to end up in a prison cell. He was not hostile for the South African liberation struggle, but as long as liberation meant national liberation, he had no interest in it. He accepted the struggle as just, but the new South Africa towards which it strove was not Utopian enough for him. She remembers an informal interview she had arranged for him with a French journalist and Coetzee became prickly when he felt that the Frenchman was insulting Afrikaans—and, by extension, his identity as an Afrikaner—by dismissing it as just a dialect, even though he never wrote in Afrikaans, and had written in English all his life. The late John Coetzee, Sophie remembers, was a passive man who was convinced that supreme felicity would be his if only he could acquire a French mistress who would recite Ronsard to him while simultaneously inducting him into the mysteries of love, French style. 

The final section of the novel consists of Coetzee’s undated diary entries which record his father’s cancer and the novel ends on the note of Coetzee facing with extreme dread and reluctance the prospect of nursing his aged and debilitated father.

It is difficult to make out what it is that J.M. Coetzee is trying to do in Summertime. The publishers described it as a ‘fictionalized memoir’. Quite why Coetzee felt the need to fictionalize his memoirs is not clear to me; however, one supposes that it is entirely in keeping with his reputation as an elusive and reclusive writer. This is after all a man who did not bother to turn up to collect his two Booker wins (although he had presumably no objections to his publishers entering his novels in the draw). He did arrive to accept the Nobel Prize in literature which he was awarded in 2003; however, instead of giving a lecture or a talk as might have been expected, he read out a story.

All of Coetzee’s published work save one, since the Nobel award, has been autobiographical. Or is it? Perhaps what Coetzee is trying to tell the world of literature is that it is impossible to know the real J.M. Coetzee—even he is not sure that he can record his life faithfully as it really happened— and the best he can do is create a simulacrum in the form of a fictionalized memoir. If that is the case, it is one hell of a convoluted way to make the point, although it has to be said that in Summertime (as in Youth, the second instalment in the fictionalized memoir) Coetzee excels in this literary ambiguity. Because the memoir is fictionalized, it is impossible—and probably not even necessary—to tease out what in Summertime is a fact and what is fiction. 

Based on the evidence furnished (Coetzee portrayed through the eyes of his one-time colleagues, lovers, relatives, and acquaintances), J.M. Coetzee was a creep and a snob, his head full of airy-fairy ideas about politics, and urgently requiring bottles of HP sauce to go with the chips on each of his shoulders. Coetzee seems at pains to portray himself in the fictionalized memoirs as a social misfit, but there is the underlying assumption that people would want to know about his life. This need not be as conceited as it may sound at first. Coetzee is a superb writer, and a Nobel laureate; people far less gifted than he have been driven by the desire to tell the world about their lives.

Summertime, despite its mournful tone, is a riveting read, not least for Coetzee’s prose—ice-cool and razor-sharp. Recommended.