Notes

The revolution that takes place in your head, nobody will ever see that.

Tag Archives: Literature

The Seagull

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The SeagullFriends come and go, but great art stays with you forever. That was the lesson I took from my first ever Chekhov play at the Southwark Playhouse in late 2012. A new version of The Seagull by Anya Reiss. Essentially there is no real narrative: a quixotic young writer loves an actress, who ends up falling for a careerist novelist and the writer is prematurely destroyed by his talent.

A seagull is shot down for no reason and adrift in a chaos of dreams, the symbolism of the dead bird has never left me. I found it incredibly moving how our desire for love, art and fame can be eliminated for no reason. There doesn’t have to be a reason for anything. The poignancy of the show was further heightened when I discovered Anya Reiss was only twenty one.

the seagull southwark playhouse

A sweet envy immediately overwhelmed me. That someone so young could write something so perceptive and insightful about life. How was this possible? On capturing the starry realities of self-sabotage, Reiss’s version was fresh, sexy and remarkably wise at the same time.

Sad, gorgeous and retaining the worldly elegance of Chekhov’s prose, I have an enormous affinity for Reiss’s adaptation and I still think about it to this day. As you don’t know what is going to happen to you or what will shoot you down. And the following year I fell out with the two friends who accompanied me and I have never spoken to them since.

A big argument took place one afternoon in Brick Lane about ethics and human behaviour. Beforehand I thought we were just going for dinner. Discussing work, dating and the weather. Nothing could have predicted how such a pathetic argument would turn toxic within seconds. But I don’t regret falling out with either of them.

Private grievances usually exist between friends, but you rarely express them in person. Our fracture points usually remain concealed behind social pleasantries and diplomatic wisdom. But pushing an emotional fracking over a point of principle is ill advised at a restaurant table in my experience.

THREE SISTERS, Southwark Playhouse, London, UK.

However, if it weren’t for my ex-friends I would never have seen The Seagull and for that alone I am grateful. It stayed with me forever and eighteen months later I watched Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Southwark Playhouse. My ex-friends have long since disappeared and I briefly thought of them when I took my seat. How things can change so quickly, when watching another Chekhov play about inexplicable forces by a playwright over a decade younger than me.

Three Sisters Anya Reiss

Three Sisters is running at the Southwark Playhouse until May 3rd 2014.

Forlorn rags of growing old

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Sitting in a transparent glass case, about 120-foot-long, lies Jack Kerouac’s antidote to the forlorn rags of growing old at the British Library. Magnificent with all its creases, sellotaped edges and typos, Kerouac’s soul aspiring work of art commands a gasped silence. A stunning cathartic monument trapped inside an air-conditioned case that I once read On the Road (albeit the edited one – nobody told me at the time) in solemn isolation over a decade ago.

On reading the beat novel as a seventeen-year-old, I recall the fantasy, hedonistic sex and panoramic visions of America. Not something I could truly comprehend as a skeleton youth in northern Scotland, but I fondly recall writing down passages about purple grapes, whore houses, the fire cracking candles  and “looking at the ceiling and wondering what God had wrought when He made life so sad”.

This beautiful elegiac sigh once greeted me in a teenage love letter and formed the basis of a melodramatic Facebook status update many years later. Then as you get older and meet greater minds with even greater books, the Beat Generation feels rather clichéd and predictable. It isn’t either of those things but who doesn’t now yawn when they read about Route 66?

On pouring over the holy beat scroll at the British Library, I reminded myself that writing should be the rhythmic articulation of feeling. A sacred totem against mediocrity, sub-editing and the SEO inspired destruction of the English language, Kerouac’s words remain a soaring inspiration. Written in three weeks, single-spaced without paragraphs and corrected in pencil, his words are soaring, brave and utterly mesmerising. 

In a way you have to start writing before you turn thirty because in your late teens and early twenties you have absolutely no self-awareness. The sediments of your personality are tantalisingly incomplete and unbridled magic can still be spun. Age is a social construct – a conception of behaviour, attitudes and deeds but you do get tired eventually and experience is not always a good thing. It can act in barrier in a way and I suppose it’s an oxymoron to suggest you can rediscover your own naivety?

On this note, I will leave this post to some random American teenager, who unwittingly captured the spirit of On the Road on Facebook and funnily enough no one over the age of 30 could possibly get away this. More’s the pity because on walking around that transparent glass cage, I too want to turn this into something different, get out more often and be in more photographs.

On the Road: Jack Kerouac’s Manuscript Scroll will be on display at the British Library until Thursday 27th December 2012.

New Kids on the Block

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Rarely is anyone judged for who they really are. As anyone who has ever attended a party or social gathering will already know, new friends and acquaintances will invariably want to know ‘what you do’ for a living. It’s unsurprising really. Perhaps it is just human nature for us to compartmentalise our personalities and responsibilities in this way.

Graduates lose their progressive status within a year of leaving university. Thereafter some of the greatest young minds on this planet will be defined by their occupation – waitress, drug dealer and freelance blogger; or as they are more commonly known in the Eurozone – unemployed.

Our preoccupation with status has been further amplified by the sheer number of people who have a handle or profile promoting their job and lifestyle. Such a culture inevitably leads to people branding their identities and heightening status anxiety to extraordinary levels.

Alas in the words of the late Virginia Woolf ‘the eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages’. The lowly shelf-stacker at Tesco, who has read the works of Joyce, Mishima and Ezra Pound, is certainly not going to feel any better by spending too much time on LinkedIn.

Although there is a light blogging alternative to the online brand phenomenon, where nobody knows your name or what you do. Tumblr is an offbeat social media service with a pop-culture twist. Irreverent by nature and heavily meme based, the Tumblr generation post endless streams of fashion, photography and literacy quotes in splendid anonymity.

With no comments or trolls, there is something highly refreshing about Tumblr’s eccentricity and complete disregard for how we all have to make a living. Nobody cares what you do, it’s all about what you feel and know to be true.

Predominately US-based and with over 120 million users every month, Tumblr has given rise to some of the most entertaining and offbeat blogs around today. From the sexual intellectualism of Book Porn, soppy boredom of Dogs on Trains and the late great Kim Jong-Il looking at things, Tumblr is a wonderful place to waste time. A digital scrapbook for the creative moths of this world, there is something refreshing how people can express themselves so vividly online in such a weird and odd fashion.

However, success comes at a price and while the light blogging service remains the domain of hyper-intelligent college kids. Old media organisations such as The Guardian and New Yorker now want a piece of the digital action. With traditional newspapers spreading their ‘content’ online, there is a danger Tumblr will succumb to the wishes of large media groups wanting to promote their corporate image. Indeed it has probably happened already such is the power of big business.

But while people remain weird and strange there will always be a place for the marginalised and ignored on Tumblr. It remains somewhere pure and anonymous and relatively untainted by the status obsession culture found on other networks.

And while the pressure to be someone will never cease and every fresh handshake and sideways air kiss will inevitably be followed by an enquiry into your occupation. There is now a small place where outside thoughts no longer have to be our cages, and where labyrinth minds can express themselves freely on laptops in unkempt bedrooms and solitary library chambers.

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

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Adam Curtis’s three-part BBC documentary series ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace‘ explores the notion that humans have been colonised by computers. He argues that humans have lost faith in their ability to change the world for the better. Politics is dead. As the global economic crisis of 2008 has already shown, ordinary people are nothing more than helpless components in a computerised market system, which we are seemingly powerless to challenge or change.

Hope is a false prophet and secular idealism is no more of a superstition than religion itself. Cyberspace is a black hole, where our thoughts, feelings and emotions are distributed on Facebook and Twitter, and sold on and repackaged to make money.

Carmen Hermosillo, an early adopter of online chatrooms, argued in 1994 that our emotions will become commoditised.

It is fashionable to suggest that cyber-space is some island of the blessed where people are free to indulge and express their individuality, this is not true. I have seen many people spill out their emotions – their guts – online and I did so myself until I began to see that I had commodified myself.

Commodification means that you turn something into a product which has a money value. In the 19th Century, commodities were made in factories, by workers who were mostly exploited. But I created my interior thoughts as commodities for the corporations that owned the board I was posting to – like Compuserve or AOL – and that commodity was sold onto other consumer entities as entertainment.

Although what is most disturbing is not the commodification of our inner thoughts but the suggestion that humans are merely biological machines programmed by genetic instructions. One of Britain’s most famous and controversial scientists Bill Hamilton argued that human behaviour is controlled by our genetic codes.

Famously popularised as the ‘Selfish Gene’ by Richard Dawkins, the Oxford biologist explained that ‘DNA is a coded description of the worlds in which our ancestors survived. We are walking archives of the African Pliocene, even of Devonian seas, walking repositories of wisdom out of the old days’.

According to gene theorists, human altruism is a paradox that can be explained as a survival strategy by our genes. Murder, violence, genocide and suicide can also be logically explained as pre-coded behaviour to allow the stronger gene to replicate in an unforgiving survival of the fittest.

Although while Dawkins has never been an advocate of social Darwinism, his late counterpart Bill Hamilton believed nothing should be allowed to interfere with the destiny of the gene. He believed modern medicine affected the stronger gene’s survival and that to keep unfit genes (sickly people) alive would lead to the degeneration of the human race.

In this respect gene theories bear a striking resemblance to the radical Presbyterian belief of pre-destination. Calvinist extremists believe that God knows everything from the beginning of time to the end of time. So it doesn’t matter what you do in your current life as your destiny has already been pre-written by God himself.

Pre-destination was popularised in the James Hogg’s 1824 masterpiece ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’, where a Scottish religious fanatic becomes convinced by the Devil that he is grace incapable of sin, even the sin of murder, and therefore is immune from physical and spiritual punishment.

The religious protagonist in Hogg’s 19th century novel subsequently takes the pre-destination theory to its extreme conclusion. God has since died but Dawkins selfish gene offers a near identical masterplan. He believes we are all controlled by DNA codes, which are buried deep within us and humans are simply machines playing tiny roles in a vast strategic game of survival.

It doesn’t matter what we do with our current lives because our genetic destinies have already been pre-written. Our genes may live forever but according to computationalism there is no spiritual or ethical dimension to our human existence. God, love and family are merely an HTML code.

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