This won't be for everyone, it is long and it rambles but it is true, a story about stories, their commonality and their worth. Why have we always sung them, listened to them, read them when, often as not, we are experiencing the same thing, over and over and over again, talk of Alexander and Hercules, of Gawain and Lancelot, Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, of James Bond and SMERSH, of a world neatly sub-divided into heroes and villains, a world which does not exist?
In his Berkshire manor house, bristling with state-of security and anti-surv measures, he had just completed his briefing of the PM and his Joint Chiefs of Staff; a body of men known, by those cruising along Horseguards Parade, as the JERCOFS,
His manservant, a former US Navy Seal captain, his housekeeper, a former lieutenant-colonel in Mossad, the elite, shadowy Israeli counter-terror regiment and his driver, a former sergeant-major in the SAS, had withdrawn for the night and he was alone, sipping frugally on his rare, sixty-year old single malt, the last existing case of which had been a gift from a senior royal, grateful for his assistance in thwarting a potential scandal which might have rocked the nation of Greater Ruritania, brought it to its knees.
It had been a long day, he had briefed MI6, the CIA, the French Surete, the White House, Downing Street, Bonn, Paris, Tel Aviv, Karachi and the Daily Express; the free world was safe for an hour or two. In his time he had saved the life of the French president, destroyed a post-war Nazi network, defeated the KGB and killed several highly-skilled international conspirators against the West. Time now, he reflected, for prayer. Kneeling on his prayer mat - a finely woven facsimile of Sir Charles Moore's Daily Filthograph obituary of her - he gazed at her serene, resolute, blue-suited image and began his five-times-daily prayers to Margaret Thatcher.
Now in his nineties, the greatest espionage commander in history showed no signs of slowing down, she wouldn't have,
why should he?
Let them come, wielding rusty Czech Kalashikovs;
let them come, with their kitchen table chemistry-set bombs,
let them come, holding hands, like the degenerates they were, wailing that their God was good.
Even in his nineties,
Frederick Forsyth was ready for them.
And his God was better
Five hours away, in Maryland, in his wooded estate, ringed with state-of security, a solid, rangy Irish-American sat at his Colonial oaken desk briefing President Obama, wondering what the Last Great American President, LA Ronnie, would have thought of it all, a neegra boy, - alright, he may be a decent, white supremacist at heart but a neegra boy's always a neegra boy - sitting in the Oval Office, playing President.
He had turned, made defector, a wife-beating Russian-Scottish submarine commander,
who sailed his top-secret, state-of vessel right into Boston Naval Dockyard; when 9/11 made Irish terrorism - the best kind - uncool, he had single-handedly defeated the IRA militarily, paving tne way for his fellow-Republican, Tony Blair's, famous Peace and Get Out Of Jail Process and after that he had masterminded the foiling of large numbers of nigger-muslim-bastard terror plots, any of which could have
DestroyedCivilisationAsWhiteFolksKnowItShouldBe. Without him, successive Nine-Elevens would have swept the nation like a Kansas tornado.
Senators and Congressmen, Kings and Sheiks, Princes and Prime Ministers, Security Chiefs, Field Marshals and Generals, all of them were on speed-dial in his solid platinum LimitedEdition WogSmash iPhone.
A grateful Defence department had ringed the space above his sprawling estate with the latest MusWaster satellite-directed drones. Any Muslim, be he snooper or assasin, even a kebab delivery boy, seen approaching his boundaries would be instantly taken-out, turned to ashes, not even his prayer beads would survive.
In recognition of his service in saving the world several times over, making it safe for his company to develop the Chinese child slavery arm of his enterprise, Apple's chief executive, the almost mythical inventor and ontraprenewer, Steve Skinflint, had designed a one-off, world-saving-novel word-processing programme. And his was the only copy. The ruddy Irish-American, sitting pensive, in his baseball cap, had only to click on the icons for ex-Navy Seals, Mossad, ex-SAS, KGB, Karachi, Tel Aviv, Moscow, London, Washington, Sniper's Rifle and Stealth Bomber, in any order or combination and a three-hundred page novel would be wireless-printed in the office of his publisher, and then in the office of the agent of Hollywood megastar, Harrison Wood,
who acted in the films of the books. The programme, known as BigBogPulp has already, several times over, flooded the world's airport bookstores with millions of copies of BigBogPulp stories, sometimes at three for the price of two, most of which had been turned into BigBogBlockbuster films. Alright, he'd had to deal with Jews, in Hollywood, and fags, too, but better them than the Ayatollah-lovin' sonsabitches in the TeeVee networks.
Further up the coast, in Massachusetts, the old-fashioned Limey writer, Bernie Cornwell, had no such novel-writing program, had to employ hundreds of researchers and assistants, kinda like one of the Old Masters, who blocked-out lots of chapters for him, dug around in museums and figgered-out what was the Anglo-Saxon word for Milton Keynes, what was the muzzle velocity of a 19th. century musket. Bernie the Limey filled his books with pointless shit like that, like he was a fucking professor, not a hack.
Sipping a Jack Daniels, happy that he could, at the click of a mouse, defeat the enemies of Amerka,
Tom Clancy was ready, as ever, to save the world from niggers and Paddies and ragheads.
Two hundred years ago, in Greenwhich, London, Admiral the Lord Jack Aubrey, was meeting his old friend, Dr Stephen Maturin; not only his oldest friend, Maturin was also the admiral's cousin-in-law, having married Jack's most handsome if slightly wayward although implacaby faithful cousin, the Lady Barbara Cleavage-Herstmonceau, at the end of their most recent voyage together; not only were they, at one remove, joined together thus in holy deadlock but Maturin had sailed as Cap'n Jack's surgeon on many's the voyage, aboard cutter, sloop, frigate and 74-gunner; not only was he a dashed capable and considerate physician, always unwilling to sever a limb which might, within the compass of his diligent care, prove once more stout and purposeful, the ship's surgeon was also one of the age's foremost natural philosophers, the inspiration to the upstart, Darwin; not only was Dr Stephen Maturin of ancient Spanish-Irish lineage, a redoubtable botanist and illustrator, a fellow of all the European scientific acadamies, a dextrous and painstaking surgeon, no mean mariner himself, a man of considerable fortune, possessed of a beautiful wife, secure in the esteem of his naval and scientific peers, and a gifted musician, Dr Stephen Maturin was also - and most importantly - the most elusive and accomplished of His Majesty's spies.
My dear cousin, Stephen, enthused the admiral, I trust and indeed wouldst wager that in temper, in wind, limb, eye and viscera I find ye both blithe and hearty, ship-shape and in Bristol fashion, keenly rigged as 'twere, and fine-hauled for any passing fortuitous breeze, and well-conditioned, as a cask of yon fine, aged, Frenchy cognac, requisitioned by our gallant company, sure and steadfast, every man jack o' them, last ere we did board and take as prize one of Boney's men of war, scuttling, afeard of our blockade, inshore towards Brest?
(modern tranlation; Y'alright?)
But good Lord, my dear, comrade cousin, in my timbers, I feel a westerly, blowing up fierce from the Lizard and would judge that before eight bells do sound, we shall feel its cruel, drenching spite lashing our forequarter, it's entire purpose bent to soak and shower us with rains once hot and boisterous but now chilled icy, borne here, a tumult of cascading vexation, from the Caribbean, verily to unmast us and batter us towards a rocky shore, as though 'twere a wrecking crew deployed by villainous Neptune himself, and we needs must, therefore, seek shelter, my dear Stephen, cousin and comrade most affectionately regarded and admired, and my exceeding proficient and inspired fellow musician, God's blood, how estimably did we conjoin our fiddle and violoncello assaying the latest invention of that Mozart,
the Austrian chappie, as we battered around the Cape, but I shear off, transported by remembrances of Delight, from my point, to whit that shelter from Perfidious Meteorology's wanton obstinacy we must secure, among scribes and bean-counters, must find ourselves berthed incongruous, amidst fragranced and bewigged office boys of flag rank, thrice-accursed shoremen, fit to capsize themselves stern over bow, a-tripping o'er themselves, befouled by their laced and ribboned and braided embellishments, rear admiral of the salted beef this, fleet admiral of the hempen cables that, here, in His Majesty's Admiralty. If not we shall surely be wash-ed overboard.
( modern trans: 'Sgonna piss down.)
And couldst not find ourselves in trickier shoals than here are to be sounded, it is damned ill-chance, dear, dear relative in spirit as well, nay, moreso than in mere law, the most wretchedly and curmudgeonly turn of events, a misfortune dastardly enough in import as to make one fall down in a swound, requiring for restoration the smelling salts and the ministrations of a reputable and duly accomplished physician such as I am fortunate enough to call cousin; it is truly, by God's holy innards, most desperately unfortunate.
Scraping linguistically anachronistic subordinate clauses manically on finest vellum with his goose quill, the late Patrick O'Brien,
though deceased and down in Davy Joneses locker, could continue in this vein for hundreds upon hundreds of pages, and did. Christ, I though I wrote long sentences, Patrick O' Brian's require you to take notes as you go along.
His hero, Captain Lucky Jack Aubrey, a naval officer whose career exploits curiously parallel - though differentiated by obsessive and infnitesimally small technical detail regarding sheets and t'sails and t'gallants and mizzens - those of Lord Horatio Hornblower, was a singularly able officer, brave and dashing, adored by his crews, skilled in sailing, navigation and gunnery, strategy and tactics, his skills found compliment in those of his friend, comrade and fellow-character, Dr Steven Aloysius Jose Manuel Seamus Maturin and together they had repeatedly thwarted the machinations of rebellious colonists in New England, of uppity natives in the Indian sub-continent and notably the armies, navies, spies and saboteurs of the despised Emperor, Napoleon.
But now their summons to the Admiralty required their diligent application to a most urgent matter, one which may imperil the entire Christian world - the ragheaded scoundrel Mohamedans were up in arms, and unlike the Frog, the Yank or the Punjabi, they didn't mind dying, rather, they embraced it. Soon, if Jack and Steven did not make swift and true sail for Arabia, scimitars might flash in Whitehall, beheading the Great and the Good with equal contempt.
Two centuries in the future, in his bivouac in the Brecon Beacons, former SAS sergeant, Andy McNab, made himself a brew and lit a Bensons. After his fifth divorce, this time from Tracey, or was it Karen, the tough veteran had had enough of living in houses in Civvy Street and decided to do what he did best, fuck it, what he was trained for, living off the land, making a brew, smoking Bensons, cleaning his equipment, listening on his Walkman to Phil Collins and creeping up behind people in the dark and killing them.
He felt for and checked his "short", short was SAS-speak for any pistol, his was a US Government Issue Colt .45, first issued in 1911, it had never been bettered for fast, accurate and reliable close-quarters shooting. He often screwed to it a silencer, although in the SAS and Mossad and the US Navy Seals, they called them suppressors. Everyone in the elite, shadowy, special forces fiction industry knew that you can't actually silence a gun. And if they didn't they were muppets.
His "long" was a .50 calibre Barrats sniper rifle, cumbersome, heavy and unwieldy, it was, nevertheless, powerful and accurate enough, properly sighted-in, to explode an elephant at ten thousand yards and Andy had fired it from the hip in countless novels, if you could call lists of military equipment and vehicles novels.
Most of the novels he was in, it is true, saw him stabbing, shooting, drowning and garotting people who for one plotting reason or another had had to be despatched, taken-out; saw him flying to global hot-spots in Hercules aircraft and various helicopters, fatally disrupting Paddies or Ragheads and occasionally other forms of wogs, but mostly they were lists of army stuff - radios, knives, explosives, rations, bits of uniform, parachutes, boots, water purification tablets, facial camouflage and rucksacks, Bergens, they were called. Andy McNab often felt that he had been created from the stock of a bankrupt Army'n'Navy Surplus store.
In his civvies, Andy is equally choosy about his gear, he doesn't wear boots and jackets, but Timberlands and Gore-Tex or Driazabone, in fact, those brand names, along with Audi and Porsche and BMW are the only ones used for boots and coats and cars, nothing is just a boot or a jacket - it is a device developed by Ian Fleming, with 007's Omega watch, Sea Island Cotton shirt, Dunhill cigarette lighter and his Morland cigarettes; McNab apes Fleming's vulgar consumer snootiness, as well as his wretched misogyny, as though they were virtue and probably doesn't know that the literary obsession with ballistics, with muzzle velocities and impacts, with forensic stuff, generally, horse-power, tyre-adhesion, braking distances, pharmaceutical properties of truth drugs and so on was pioneered not by Fleming, nor by Freddie Forsyth in the Jackal but by Adam Hall, in the very superior Quiller series. But Andy doesn't have much time for reading, a bit of a pansy thing, in his view, never got the hang of it. .
His life could be summarised as being married to the Regiment, being divorced by women who couldn't hack it; loving, only not that way, his mates, all of whom would die for him and do in many stories; having a good celebratory chicken tikka masala and a few cans, fighting in Black Ops alongside members of Mossad, most of whom, also, died happily, apart from their commander who appeared in future stories; with the US Navy Seals, occasionally the KGB, the British Special Branch and sometimes meeting a very grateful British prime minister. Aside from getting to kill countless foreign, bad people and making a brew every five minutes, Andy McNab was as miserable as fucking sin.
What he needed was a mission. A briefing from the Ruperts in the HeadShed, an issue of lethat weapons, some good mates, a plane ride, a jump behind enemy lines, an infiltration, a swift killing and out again, to a right good piss-up, in the Regiment's Hereford barracks, with the lads. Anyone'd do, he'd waste anyone, the way he was feeeling, but a raghead terrorist-believer would be best of all.
Last Summer, for a medical treatment, I went, four days a week, to Aberdeen, determined to do some proper reading, worthy books, some on my shelves for years, others recommended to me, here. John Julius Norwich's Venice, for instance, some Lapham's Quarterlys, Paradise Lost, The Man In The High Castle but being away from home, in a hotel-cump-hostel among strangers, savage wee groups of terrifed and bitter Shetlanders, skulking together against the Big City, I couldn't find the right frame of mind.
I wound-up reading shite. Thrillers. Hotel and hospital shelves are filled with them. I never knew there were so many, nor that everything ever written by these innumerable assemblers of cliches proved, without even having been read, an outstanding, blockbusting, international, number one bestseller, half a billion copies sold in hardback, translated into four thousand languages - often, even before they were published - never knew that as far as Tom Clancy was concerned, Clive Cussler was the master, the man he read; that as far as Clive Cussler was concerned Tom Clancy was the master, the man he read and so on, in a disturbing daisy chain of fulsome praise, one hack for another; yes, like Martin Amis-Teeth and Salman Rushdie-Fuck used to do. About their prize-winning tripe.
I had last read these things a lifetime ago, the spy and military thrillers, when Quiller's and Bond's and Harry Palmer's enemies had been the Reds, the Soviet Union, when the action went down in Berlin and Washington, not Kabul and Baghdad - WASPs, grammar school boys and above, fighting Slavs, the Christian Capitalist fighting the Heathen Communist from inside a Ford Zephyr or a Zil or a smokey Trabant, with a laconic, self-deprecatory flippancy. How the thriller fiction world has changed.
In Aberdeen, I got right into them, frenziedly reading three and four at a time, into the wee, small hours. I durst not leave my room, you see, so anxious and paranoid were my fellow guests about my presence among them, it reminded me of a Sunday School holiday on Anglesey, when my visit to the local shop brought utter, chilly silence to gossipy wives, mothers, presumably, shocked and irritated by the appearance of an alien ten-year old. It was just the same atmosphere in this Aberdeen situation, but this time I was a big grown-up, with a glance that could strip paint. They were a parody, this gang, like something from Whisky Galore. Archie, from Lerwick, and his wee wife, Morag, accompanying him, week after week to make sure that her man, who, at sixty, couldnae cook, got his six beefy sausage sandwich snack and his Jaffa Cakes, him down from the North for bowel cancer treatment, she force-feeding him red meat and sugar, watching protectively, leaving only to make him mugs of sweet tea, those two and endless other of their fellow islanders, scowling and fucking muttering, as though they had washed up in Hell, among foreign devils, like me.
There was a residents' lounge, which they colonised in bitter silence, wherein they took it in turns, standing around a central table, to do a jigsaw, grunting happily as another piece was fitted into something like Noddy's Christmas Party or A Big Boat On The Sea - baby stuff, but they took it in paired turns, Norman and Ettie, Susan and Lawrence, Mhari and Donald, guarding it from non-Shetlanders, like treasure.
I was tempted to tell them that this facility in which they slept and gorged on animal fat, that this, their accommodation, their transport over hundreds of miles, their health care, all fabulously expensive, were paid for by the mainland savages whom they despised, that their islandness was only possible through the as yet unchallenged sentiment of the wider nation which supported them but there is no point in casting pearls brfore swine, for they believe that tomorrow they could return to living off seabird eggs, their lives lit and warmed by lantern, selling jumpers for a living, even though, fat, lazy, stupid and drunken babies, they would starve in a month.
I was at a concert here, some years ago, in Orkney, where I'd paid good money to see a player from Sooth, a man, once a Pop somebody, now singing clever, satirical blues numbers, accompanying himself adroitly on a child's-sized guitar. Size isn't everything, he said, this is powered by a mighty V-12 pickup - and it surely sounded as though it was. He elaborated that he had owned all sorts of Martins and Gibsons, the caviar of the acoustic guitar menu but that they had been smashed by arsehole airport baggage handlers and since he couldn't afford a separate seat for his instrument he had decided to use a forty-quid kids' guitar, whose careless destruction by some useless, thieving Cockney git would not bankrupt him. I feel like that about my Swatch watches, they keep Wimbedon time, they're waterproof, lightweight, highly readable and cost about thirty quid.
It was a really pleasant night-out. I was enjoying myself until some fucking beardy Shetlander, offered a spot, in the intermission, proceeded to dominate the proceedings for far too long. Forty-five seconds would've been enough but this bastard couldn't get enough of himself, his fiddling and his precious worldview This next tune, he said, before sawing smugly, almost beatifically, at his horrid, skriking fiddle, as though he was six, and we were his parents, encouraging their spoiled-rotten, tone-deaf little bastard, this next tune is about a Big ship, on a Big Ocean, and how it makes me Feel; the next tune was about Some Clouds, in the Sky and what they Meant. I wanted to grab his rotten fiddle and beat him around his beardy face with it, useless, impertinent fucking bastard. In England he'd a been booed-off. North of Inverness, however, the fiddle and its scrapers, however, are treated like saints from the sixth century. No wonder thay got fucked-over at Culloden.
I am not a lover of the traditional, folk fiddle, I thought Dave Swarbrick was the worst thing that ever happened to Fairport Convention, and in those sorts of ensembles I would always rather hear a guitar, banjo, pipe, harp, drum, squeeze-box, mandolin - something sweet. I think the solo fiddle, front and centre, is better in the hands of Beethoven or Vivaldi, than in those of some smirking, kilted isolationist cross-dressing tartan supremacist, delightng in himself, merely for the geographical accident of his birth; the tribesmen are all over, in smaller and smaller groupings, the farther North one travels, the Shetlanders being the most irritating. Never met any Faroese but I imagine their heads are firmly up their arses, their eyes twinkling with larceny, their minds bent to robbing the Outlander.
If you would know this maddening and worthless type, look no further than Tavish McHooter, of fond memory,
one-time Shetland leader of the Holyrood ShitEaters' and DogShooters' Party.
Traditional music, anyway, on the whole, is something the English do so much better than most. From the contradictory, roistering fragility of the Copper Family, to the purposeful menace of people like John Tams, below, whose fiddled one-two-three-four, one-two-three-fours, quick-marching to establish and sustain the bitter resignation of Tommy's predecessors - Cornwell's Richard Sharpe and the other eighteenth and nineteenth century Andy McNabs. In this theme another, a second fiddle, does take effective flight a couple of times but only in voicing the original Piper's Son air and only for a respectably restrained few bars, not screeching, like a lost banshee, all over the North Atlantic Ocean.
I found them difficult and graceless people, anyway, the Shetlanders, best left where they are, imagining themselves bold Viking. A Viking, myself, I consider them welcome to it, their rocky redoubt. They did drive me, however, to a fiendish amount of reading, cloistered-away from their repulsive, pampered infantilism. And I did discover a whole world with which I was only vaguelyy acquainted, and for that I am grateful.
I am not a sholarly reader, like many here, just an Autolycan, picking-up things which take my fancy; unworthy of me, therefore, to be hissy about popular thrillers, be they espionage, military history or, well, espionage, imaginings in a world of clandestine brutality, anyway - Cornwell's seventh-century assassin as shadowy and unsporting as Andy McNab's 2010 Manchester raghead; their heroes all chippy renegades, like Sharp and McNab, Chosen Men - rough diamonds, dull blades, gradeable and honeable by their betters, that they might more efficiently cut the throats of King's enemies. I lost track of the nuimber of times I found such stories prefaced with a version of: Gentel me only sleep soundly in their beds because rough men are prepared to kill for them.
No matter, there are limited narrative arcs and Nth degree repetition is inevitable in a world ever-hungry for story.
Although forever the Green Knight, the imagined Arthurian and Crusader chivalry and the Agincourt savagery have been threads in the national tapestry, the current ravenous appetite for the serial historical novel, is, I believe, a facet of my recent lifetime; like drugs and other banned substances, they have never been so cheap, there have never been so very many of them.
Some have been an unqualified good.
I remember reading Ellis Peters' Cadfael series of novels, about an avuncular, warrior-monk-herbalist-detective-ethicist, set in and around Shrewsbuury, its Abbey and the Welsh Marches at the time of the Anarchy, the 12th. century civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud and being dazzled. I had never heard of the Anarchy, the King or the Empress.
I though her then a brilliantly polished writer. Like Patrick O'Brian, parodied above, Peters, real name Edith Pargetter, was a linguist/scholar/translator and by God's holy and immaculate scrotum, it showed. I could read whole chunks of her books, heedless of the narrative, just reading the words for their elegant symmetry, precision and lucidity. How did anyone know so many words, in which to gift-wrap so much forsaken history ?
Cornwell, around the same time (the first Sharpe story was published five years later, 1982, than was the first Cadfael) as a result of a wager, on which of a bunch of drunken journalists could most quickly produce a Hornblower-style novel, created the chippy vulgarian warrior, Sharpe,
and set him marching through the battlefields of India, Portugal, Spain, France and Snobbish, Rotten Borough England, and through the ranks to a colonelcy under a grateful Wellington.
A fortuitous casting of the otherwise embarrassingly inept proto-luvvie, Sean Bean, saw the characters on TeeVee's tightly-cropped screen, filmed on a shoestring in poverty-stricken Crimea - although with talented character actors, like Peter Postlethwaite, David Troughton, Hugh Fraser and Brian Cox - achieve huge, lasting audiences and critical acclaim.
Greenjackets, rifles versus muskets, purchased commissions, incompetence, massacres, looting, corruption, rape, plunder and mayhem, forming his scruffy, unschooled, press-ganged snipers into a deadly skirmish line, Sharpe was a refreshingly long way from The Longest Day.
We will never know what the first-choice Sharpe, Paul McCann, would have made of the role, although his portayal of Monocled Mutineer, Percy Topliss, suggested that his Sharpe may have had a more cynical approach even than Bean's, to matters martial.
It doesn't matter, for Cornwell, single-handedly, enticed TeeVee's greedy lens to battles long forgotten, making redundant, in the process, our national obsession with the war of Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr Hitler and reviving the national whistling of the British Grenadiers - some talk of Alexander and some of Hercules; the Peninsular Wars enfilading The Great Escape, The Guns of Navarone and The Battle of Britain and shifting the national military fantasy a century or two back.
Sharpe, anyway, and Cadfael, the shows, increased sales of their inspirational books and serial and formulaeic or not, these novels must therefore have prompted an interest in historical periods often overlooked; indeed it can be argued or I would argue, anyway, that any book about lawnforcement in mediaeval Shrewsbury is by definition a good book. It can also be argued that either or both have inspired the welter of historical novel and television serial which we now see, as well as the coat-tailing, carpet-bagging of the likes of the wretched Starkey, the pouting Hughes, the patient Beard, the luvvie Schama, Dr Lucy Lisp and Dr Tubby Ramirez,
all hissing, simpering, scowling, flashing their tits and waving their bondage footwear at us, in the interest of history-as-showbiz. A mixed blessing, but a blessing nevertheless.
One knows how these stories, be they whodunnits or shoot-em-ups, are going to end but that doesn't matter for we know how we are all going to end, it's what we pick-up on the way that matters, and whether via the authors' own knowledge or, as in Cornwell's case, by the efforts of his army of uber-researchers, our paths are strewn with referential gemstones, which, like Autolycus, we can pick up for profitable consideration later.
Read your book and lose yourself
In another's thoughts
He might tell you 'bout what is
Or even 'bout what is not
And if he's kind and gentle too
And he loves the world a lot
His twilight words may melt the slush
Of what you have been taught.
Mike Heron, 1966.
Wither, then, the popular, mainstream thriller, the pulp fiction?
Most would agree that CJ Sansom's Tudor barrister, Serjeant Shardlake, across several doorstep novels, floodlights the vicious intrigue and brutality of our ancient masters, exploding, for instance, the myth of a jolly, fat Cruel King Henry who just happened to execute his wives and row with the Pope and erecting, in its place, a fictionalised realising of the Perilous Days of Foxe's Martyrs - burnings, beheadings, flayings and rackings merely the highpoint in a fiercely-enforced class system structured to suit even the depravity our own contemporary, hissing reptiles - people like Oily Oliver Letwin, Master of the Queen's Austerity, people who cling, still, to the idea of the Torturable Classes. These books are works of fancy, in which the hero, for continued commercial purposes, always triumphs but given their erudition it follows, therefore, that such novels can be but are not always mere diversion, they can catalyse a further reaction - people inspired by the Sharpe stories go a-walking the European battlefields; others, Cadfaelians, wander Shrewsbury Abbey, yet others will relive Shardlake's humiliation by Cruel Henry in mediaeval York. That Sansom, like O'Brian in his way, conjures a language in keeping with that of his characters' periods is an added reward, God give you morrow, brother leaping superstitiously from the page with a stench of capture, torture and a foully protracted death, God spare you another day. From such morsels can spring an appetite for a lifetime's study of the previously unregarded; all, aback of pulp fiction, may become more cultured than wot we sort-of set out to be. A word here, a phrase there, is all it takes, an eccentric context for hero and villain.
And so it goes, one synapse sparking another.
With mr tdg in mind, I read a longish, scholarly article about Bob Dylan's plundering of classical writings which revealed that some of his most acclaimed songs are - or contain - only very slightly altered versions of texts from, inter alia, Ovid, Petrarch, Virgil and Homer.
tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
(hae tibi erunt artes) pacique imponere morem
parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.
But yours will be the rulership of nations, remember Roman, these will be your arts:
to teach the ways of peace to those you conquer,
defeated peoples, tame the proud
(Virgil, Aeneid 6.851-53, [trans.
I’m gonna spare the defeated,
I’m gonna speak to the crowd,
I’m gonna spare the defeated, boys,
I’m going to speak to the crowd,
I am goin’ to teach peace to the conquered,
I’m gonna tame the proud
(Bob Dylan, Lonesome Day Blues)
Who says I can’t get heavenly aid, when a god’s angry with me?
(Ovid, Tristia 1.2.12-13)
Who says I can’t get heavenly aid, when god’s angry with me?
(Bob Dylan, “Ain’t Talkin’')
There are hundreds upon hundreds of such fraudulent, counterfeit lines in the works of our greatest living songwriter, unacknowledged, yet with all of Plagiarism's rights protected; as I said a while back, Genius knows not Gratitude. And whilst it may be said that Ovid is in the public domain and fair game, Dylan's lawyers will chase and whip any who place his copyrighted larceny, feeless, in the public domain, even for discussion purposes.
Is everything fictional and out-of-copyright, therefore, legitimately recycleable in other clothes, with a beard and glasses; is Richard Sharpe not only a ruffian Hornblower but also bold Ulysses; are Cadfael's confessions's really Saint Augustine's; are Andy McNab and his misogynistic psycho-buddies really just Jason and the Argonauts in an Apache attack helicopter?
Is it really the case that the Song Remains The Same, Has No Ending and that it can be adapted and transposed and copyrighted anew by anyone shrewd enough to demand money with cadences? I suppose that it is, must be, it may be in a different key or tempo, but the song-story, from Pharoaic times until the invention of moveable type, was our information superhighway, our skymadeupnewsandfilth, bards, poets and priests telling us what kind of shit was going down, over the hills and far away.
Now that most can, after a fashion, read, the popular song is no longer news-sheet but soundtrack to the extended rutting rituals of not only teenagers but those old enough to know better, their parents, indeed, their grandparents, while the book of which we speak, the pulp fiction, walks for us the line between Good and Bad, Virtue andVice, Faith and Unbelief, they are lay psalms to Ourness, however we and our masters frame it. I argued here, recently, that fuck Archbishop Beard, we are inescapably Christian, right down to our crumbling, interred bones, we are Christian coffin dust, Christian crematory cinders, there is no escape. Our enemies, therefore, once Papist Dagos and Frogs, Godless fascists and bolsheviks are now Mohammedans, 'twas ever thus, since before the Greeks and Persians; it is not just a coincidence that our enemies worship different Gods, that's the whole point of it, that is why they are our enemies, and we theirs.
Be it the James Bond precursive sex'n'shopping stories, be it Andy McNab's or Chris Ryan's moronic SAS headbangers - oafish thugs deploying, in real life, the laddish cruelty, the gutter comedy of Jerry Clarkson and his Chortling Dingleberries - or be it the effete and aesthetic Lawyer Shardlake, made coward by his conscience, our heroes are all Cowboy Angels, riding on the side of the Lord, chastising, making war on the GodlessHeathenBastard.
(Reading, by way of digression, in itself, has become, a rite, a comfort. I knew a man, once, he made me roar and weep with laughter, in the telling of his reading addiction. As with many, his defecation could not proceed unless he was reading something on the loo. Adamantine in his conviction, he said that on the rare occasion that he found himself enthroned without book or newspaper, in order to facilitate his motions he would ransack his pockets for something to read, on one occasion studying the tenant's terms and conditions in his rentbook, and on another, lacking even his rentbook, reading the small print on his West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive 'bus ticket, as though it were the Epic of Gilgamesh.)
Our reading of such stories as those above, over and over and over again, is, I suggest, a form of prayer, a trance, a meditation. Escapism doesn't do it, one can escape by mowing the lawn or painting the door. Reading is different for be it in a mass transit vehicle, a hospital or a hotel, be it in our family, be it in any place we don't want to be in, the Book of Common Pulp delivers us from its evil.
We abandon, transcendent, our world of frustration, of tedious repetition, unknowable complexity and dangerous contradiction, immersing, baptising ourselves in Fiction's invented waters and we are delivered to the land of Beowulf, Hannibal, Ajax and Achilles, to a place where our hero, whoever he is, is unrestrained, licensed to kill, he says the words, does the deeds and delivers the justice which we, on our side of the page, cannot. We must pay rents and mortgages, taxes and protection monies, can never say the words which are his credo: Eat shit and die, motherfucker.
Arguing for decriminalisation of what we call drugs, I have often cited the fact that through Everywhere and Everywhen, two or three being gathered together, they will find something to chew, smoke, ferment, distil, inject to their veins or even stick up their arses - that they will, weary of their head, get out of it; that given consciousness, not to alter it would be a blasphemous waste.
The story is another such vacation and we err, I think, in too eagerly stratifying it or seeking to restrict it with fences of snooty literary criticism - I despise Andy McNab and his fetishised, fairy fighting, his easy racism and the mind-numbing bankruptcy of his imagination. If SAS McNab really was the cream of the crop it is little wonder that our parts in Iraq and Afghanistan were so badly played. I don't actually buy the SAS/2Para myth, shooting a few Paddies on the streets of Gibraltar seems like child's play to me, so does storming the Iranian Embassy, soldiers are supposed to be able to do that stuff, aren't they, otherwise what's the point of them, not exactly the Battle of Thermopylae, is it, abseiling through a window and killing some hysterical ragheads? But that's just me. Millions love McNab's books, on the plane, the beach, the 'bus or the toilet, he takes them away from their Shetlanders, and to a world where their Ourness wins-out, in the end, over Theirs; in his clunking way, he retells the story of our collective, hundred-thousand years: the story of Us and Them.
And nobody really gets hurt.
There is, actually, only one Book of Common Pulp.
It comes as the illuminated Lindisfarne Gospel and the Book of Kells; as the Compleat Works of Shakespeare and the gilded, leather-bound King James Bible; the dog-eared Penguin Lady Chatterly's Lover and the intangible, Kindleised Fifty Shades of Grey, and it comes, lonely, lewd and lustful, written on the cyber toilet-wall.
We tell each other the same story, over and over and over again, of war and peace, of life and death, love and hate, feast and famine, vice and virtue, the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to and the lifting-up of our eyes unto the hills.
There is a however, however.
A little while ago, mr tdg said to me that reading is all very well, but only when you have nothing to write.
Mr Mike Heron, for my money our most perfect poet-songwriter-musician, sang: Music is so much less, than what you are.....and it is here, in these thoughts, that I would part from the trades'n'skills demarcations of the oral and written traditions, of the writer and the reader - the bard/poet/novelist doing it for us, to us.
Never mind the plagiaristic rehashings of whore-writers, we need not republish Ovid, as though we had made him up; let us leave the Book of Common Pulp on the shelf and let us build a new library. We have the compositor's tools at our fingertips, we have split-second access to the Universities of Forever and we have stronger, sweeter, more harmonious voices in our heads than does Andy McNab in his; we can proof, edit, illustrate, soundtrack and publish; writing is not a proper trade, it is a monkish keeping, a sequestration of something all can do, a confinement for profit by publisher and author of our collective imagination.. Much as there is in the Book of Common Pulp there needs must be more;
if we would trip Ruin in his stride we must write our own stories.
Thank you for reading mine.