On Rereading

When I was eighteen I went to an Oxford University open day. I remember an English Literature admissions tutor giving a speech about life as a student at the University. The thing he said that has stuck with me (although I can barely remember what he looked like now, never mind his name) was that no-one really reads anything properly, or at least that no-one reads anything well the first time they read it; it is only on rereading that we pick up structural ironies and see the author’s design. It’s a line I have repeated over the years, when trying to encourage students struggling for the first time through a difficult text. It certainly seems true to me: it’s hard to imagine anyone getting much from The Waste Land the first time around, or Gravity’s Rainbow, to name just a couple of texts that don’t reward rereading as much as demand it.

This afternoon I reread Orwell’s short essay Shooting an Elephant and have come away with a sharp sense of how rereading a text can throw your own life into relief. I first read this essay as an undergraduate and saw it (conventionally, not incorrectly) as a terse indictment of British imperialism in India, with Orwell casting himself as a microcosmic personification of that brutal and foolhardy project. Not once did I think of the person in the story, but rather of the story’s significance within the history of questionable British ventures overseas.

Earlier today, I might not have said that my outlook on life has changed that dramatically since being a twenty-year-old student. But clearly a decade or so of nine-to-fives has taken its toll on my sensibilities. Rereading the essay, with the evils of imperialism more of a given, my overwhelming sentiment was more individualistic: what an awful dilemma Orwell describes in the moments before the titular shooting, and what a horrible position for a person to be placed in by the institution by which he happens to be employed. What a shit thing to have to do as part of something so mundane as a job.

Secondary to this is a feeling of gratitude to be living now and not then – a not uncommon feeling in my experience of reading Orwell. It’s currently a popular (and compelling) belief that the world of work fails the young. While this may be so, and while the modern workplace may dump us into some sticky quandaries, surely none is ever as utterly devoid of a hopeful outcome as the twenty-something Eric Blair’s was in that water-logged rice paddy. And, one hopes, the institutions of today’s world, while they may be robotic, structurally moronic, callously pecuniary and ultimately doomed to fail the individual – young or old – in almost every meaningful way, are never so venal as the British Raj depicted in Orwell’s essay.

My status as a working stiff was not even on the horizon when I first read Shooting an Elephant. My high-minded twenty-year-old self would probably be horrified by how things have turned out in the intervening years, but he might at least be grateful not to be in Orwell’s shoes.



Illustrative ad verbatim #11

J: [Running into the room holding a Lego Batman] I’m gon rescue you.

D: Good, I could do with being rescued. Are you going to rescue me via the power of a big cuddle?

J: No. Not gon rescue you. Gon put you in danger.

D: Oh dear. How are you going to put me in danger.

J: Whack you.

D: I thought you might say that.

J: Gon not shut the door and just leave it open.

D: Oh dear. That does sound pretty dangerous.

J: And your car will break.

D: Well, how will I get to work if my car is broken?

J: [Thinks about this for a moment, then wanders off] Gon rescue someone else now.

D: Well hang on a minute. Who’s going to rescue me? And who’s going to fix my car?

J: You can call a builder-man. He can do it.

D: Aren’t you a builder-man?

J: No, I’m not builder-man. I’m Batman.


Illustrative ad verbatim #10

L: Do you think some people would die from a crushed bone?

A: No. You probably wouldn’t die from that.

L: What about a falling off ear?

A: No, probably not that either. Anyway, people’s ears don’t tend to just fall off.

L: Well, my teacher’s dog Sally only had half a tail.

A: Really?

L: Yes.

A: What happened to the other half?

L: Don’t know. Just sort of fell off, I suppose.

Illustrative ad verbatim #9

[Sitting in the bottom bunk of the boys’ bunk beds, with a blanket thrown over the top bunk to create a den.]

J: We need that lion.

D: OK. Isn’t he a bit fierce to come in our den.

J: No! He very friendly.

D: OK. I’ll get him.

J: No! I’ll get him. You stay here. I must go.

D: OK. Go on then.

J: [Clambering out of the den, grunting] Look out from lions.

D: OK, I will.

J: And bears.

D: And bears, OK.

J: And ladders. You might fall down them. [Drags toy lion into den, grunting] What vat noise?

D: It’s just the radio.

J: It’s a monster.

D: Oh dear. We’d better tell it not to come in our den.

J: Whack it with a hammer.

D: Yes, we could whack it with a hammer, I suppose.

J: Dandad got a hammer.

D: Yes, Grandad has got a hammer.

J: For whacking monsters.

D: Well, among other things, yes, if you like.

J: Dandad not whack bunny, or vat dog.

D: No, he wouldn’t do that.

J: Or bunny, no.

D: No, he wouldn’t whack your bunny.

J: Just monsters.

D: Yes, just monsters.


A first foray into flash fiction

Well, probably ‘post-it fiction’ or ‘twitter-fiction’ really if we’re being pedantic, but I couldn’t resist the alliteration. And besides, I closed my Twitter account.

I’m running a flash-fiction competition at work in honour of last week’s National Storytelling Week. Some of my efforts are below.

Domestic Bliss

When the fire started I went straight for the photos of the wife and kids. Far easier to live with than the real thing.

Ballardian Dystopia

It was the food shortage that brought the hungry dog to my house in the first place. Funny how things turn out.

Love Story

The lipstick she found on the glass was the wrong shade of red. Later, she mopped blood off the floor, wondering if hers was the same shade of red.

Horror Story

‘There’s no-one under the bed,’ she said and bent down to look. She never got a chance to tell him she was wrong.

Post Mortem

Digging the hole, I realised: my feelings had always been inconvenient to him. Now his remains were inconvenient to me.



On two films about writers

Last week I watched two films about writers: The End of the Tour and Listen Up, Philip. The first film is based on the real-life occurrence of a Rolling Stone journalist interviewing David Foster Wallace towards the end of his book tour for Infinite Jest. During the film I slipped into my usual gripe: ‘I can’t be a real writer because I have neither the time nor the solitude presented in this film’; ‘I have not made the right life choices to write properly’; ‘this life has crept up on me while I was distracted elsewhere’. A, of course, with customary wifely ESP, clocked this reaction instantly. She tried, later, to call me out on it, but I resisted stubbornly. With the distance of a few days I am thinking about it all more positively.

The primary subtext of The End of the Tour is that writing is not all the stuff that surrounds writing – the industry of publicity and such. The depiction of DFW is presumably at least partly accurate, if clearly inspired in part by the plot and characters of Infinite Jest. There is much discussion on the dangers of engaging images, moving and otherwise, and at one point we see the writer spitting into a coffee mug, a la Hal Incandenza. Jason Segel’s DFW is a man who purports to be bewildered by his success, but who craves it like sugar regardless. He is a writer desperate for attention and yet suspicious of anyone who will give it to him too freely; a quaintly apposite Kurt-Cobain-and-fame paradigm that was still feasible in the naive 1990s, when the film is set.

Within this presentation is a comment on writing that, I felt, chimed with my own conclusions. Travelling the world is not writing; doing radio interviews is not writing; talking about writing is not writing. The DFW of the film sums it up adroitly: “That’s not real.” And Jesse Eisenberg’s character, the reporter David Lipsky, speaks a line to the effect that a writer has lost sight of what’s important when he derives more satisfaction from talking about writing than he does from the task itself.

One of the most compelling moments in the film’s denouement is that in which Lipsky snoops around in the great author’s house while he is outside scraping ice off his car. The other, lesser, David frantically reels off the things he sees into his Dictaphone as a record of the way this private genius lives, a final scrutiny that Wallace has resisted for the whole film. Lipsky ends up in the darkened room in which Wallace writes, which he respectfully leaves in darkness, a concession to DFW’s famous inscrutability but also an acknowledgement of what writing really is at heart: sitting alone in a room.

In Listen Up, Philip, we see the writer as hateful misanthrope, selfish and jealous guardian of his own solitude. Jason Schwartzman is unusually dislikeable as the titular fictional Philip, a cipher for a young Philip Roth. Philip systematically destroys his relationships under the tutelage of an older cipher for an older Roth, called (of course) Ike Zimmerman, whose name is only a few phonemes away from real-world Roth’s narrative alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman. And is Ike’s buddy Norm, who the protagonist encounters at a party and thinks he recognises, supposed to be a version of Thomas Pynchon?

This film is full of writer cliches: the writer as bastard; the writer as grasping and self-involved; the writer as philanderer and drinker; and ultimately the writer as lonely depressive. In the end, the film left me with the sense that, while all this solitude looks enticing in onscreen shots of Schwartzman riding his bike around Manhattan in a tailored jacket, the truth is that no-one can really live like that.

Illustrative ad verbatim #8

[Parking car before swimming lesson]

L: We can’t actually park here.

A: I know, but it’ll be OK today. And anyway, there’s nowhere else to park.

L: Mm, but this is actually the company car park.

A: Yes, but it’s Sunday today, so they won’t be using it.

L: Well, OK. But if the company sees, just remember it was you who parked the car here, not me.