Un Paon Papyrocentrique

Le Paon dans les Pyrénées — a review at Papyrocentric Performativity of Julian Barnes’ The Man in the Red Coat (2019), which contains a lot about Robert de Montesquiou


Elsewhere other-accessible

Portrait of a Peacock — Cornelia Otis Skinner’s biographical sketch of Montesquiou

Young Out to Dry

“I am sick to death of people saying that we’ve made 11 albums that sound exactly the same. In fact we’ve made 12 albums that sound exactly the same.” — Angus Young of AC/DC


Elsewhere other-accessible

Bon and Off — a rogue review at Papyrocentric Performativity of Two Sides to Every Glory: AC/DC: The Complete Biography

Performativizing Papyrocentricity #68

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Powerful in PatchesThe Kraken Wakes (1953) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), John Wyndham

Twists in the TaleNo Comebacks: Collected Short Stories, Frederick Forsyth (1972)

A Hundred HeresiarchsBowie’s Books: The Hundred Literary Heroes Who Changed His Life, John O’Connell (Bloomsbury 2020)


Posted at Overlord of the Über-Feral

ChlorokillThe Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham (1951)

Chlorokill

The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham (1951)

If you want to know the difference between talent and genius, compare The Day of the Triffids (1951) with the book that obviously inspired it: The War of the Worlds (1897). John Wyndham (1903-69) had talent; H.G. Wells (1866-1946) had genius. But Wyndham had a lot of talent, all the same. And it’s powerfully displayed in The Day of the Triffids. However, although it’s his most famous book, it isn’t his best. I’m not sure what it is. Wyndham was an uneven writer, not very good at dialogue or characterization, and although he was born decades after Wells, in some ways his books have dated more.

And maybe he was better at short stories than novels. Either way, his big ideas were almost always good and so were the titles of his novels. There’s the humanity-hating submarine race in The Kraken Awakes (1953); the mysterious telepathic alien in Chocky (1968); the persecuted telepathic mutants in The Chrysalids (1955); and the world-threatening super-children in The Midwich Cuckoos (1955). In The Day of the Triffids there are really two big ideas: walking plants and worldwide blindness. In the chronology of the book, but not the narration, the walking plants comes first: they’re the triffids, three-legged, seven-feet tall and equipped with a deadly whip-sting. Once you’ve mentally pictured them, the triffids will never leave your head. I think they’re a clever, chlorophyllic adaptation of the giant three-legged Martian war-machines in War of the Worlds.

But how can the triffids get loose and wreak havoc on the human race as the Martian war-machines did? Triffids are blind and sense rather than see their targets, so they are no match for sighted humans. Obviously, then, Wyndham had to take sight away from humans to get triffids and humans battling for possession of the earth. He did it in rather contrived but still memorable fashion, recorded like this by the first-person narrator as he lies in a hospital bed with bandaged eyes after a triffid attack:

“The sky’s simply full of shooting stars,” [a nurse] said. “All bright green. They make people’s faces look frightfully ghastly. Everybody’s out there watching them, and sometimes it’s almost as light as day – only all the wrong colour. Every now and then there’s a big one so bright that it hurts to look at it. It’s a marvellous sight. They say there’s never been anything like it before. It’s a pity you can’t see it, isn’t it? (ch. 1, “The End Begins”)

In fact, it isn’t a pity: it saves his life. It’s soon apparent that the green light from the “shooting stars” has destroyed the sight of everyone who watched them. The narrator describes how he takes the bandages off his eyes and discovers that he’s one of the very few sighted people left in a blinded world: London becomes “The Groping City”, as the title of chapter 3 puts it. The blindness would have been bad enough, but the triffids now begin breaking loose from the farms on which they’re being kept. The green light of the meteor-storm, probably an optical weapon accidentally released by a military satellite, has created a world where chlorophyll is king. Triffids don’t need sight to slash and slay, so blinded humans now have a simple choice: stay in hiding or try to find food and risk being stung to death by one of the triffids invading London in search of prey.

In the second chapter, the narrator looks back to describe the origin and spread of the triffids, and how he came to receive that a sight-preserving dose of triffid-poison in his eyes. Those opening few chapters have scenes and images that have always stayed with me since I first read the book as a kid. There’s the wonder and beauty of the meteor-storm; the horror of sudden, near-universal blindness and the first spate of suicides; the strangeness and deadliness of the triffids; and so on. Here’s one of the memorable images Wyndham conjures with words:

Perhaps Umberto’s plane exploded, perhaps it just fell to pieces. Whatever it was, I am sure that when the fragments began their long, long fall towards the sea they left behind them something which looked at first like a white vapour.

It was not vapour. It was a cloud of seeds, floating, so infinitely light they were, even in the rarefied air. Millions of gossamer-slung triffid seeds, free now to drift wherever the winds of the world should take them… (ch. 2, “The Coming of the Triffids”)

The triffids have been created artificially and mysteriously behind the Iron Curtain and yield a highly valuable vegetable oil. But that raises questions that aren’t answered. Why did they need to walk? Why are they equipped with long and deadly stings? Why are they uncannily intelligent? And how do they nourish themselves once they mature and begin walking? Their tripodic roots can’t dig very deep when they’re at rest and although Wyndham describes how they pull pieces of flesh off the decaying bodies of people they’ve killed, he doesn’t describe their digestive systems.

These unanswered questions mean that The Day of the Triffids is sometimes more like magic realism than hard science fiction. Particularly when the triffids show signs of intelligence, coordination and even cunning. But none of that is apparent when the triffids begin to sprout all over the world after the seeds in that “white vapour” reach the ground. The growing triffids attract curiosity but not wonder or fear. And even when they begin walking and stinging, they seem easy to manage. Thanks to that valuable vegetable oil, they’re soon being farmed in huge numbers. Their whip-stings are deadly, of course, and if the stings are docked, they yield less oil. But sighted humans can kept triffids under control easily enough, despite an occasional unlucky accident and the triffids’ unsettling ability to communicate between themselves. They have a kind of intelligence even though they don’t have brains. The narrator is a botanist conducting research on triffids and suffers one of the unlucky accidents, when a triffid lashes at the wire-mesh mask covering his face and a few drops from the poison-sacs reach his eyes.

So he’s in hospital when the meteor-storm lights up skies all around the world for a couple of days. He and a few other fortunates can’t watch the storm for one reason or another, so they keep their sight and have to fight the triffids to have a future. Wyndham describes how bands of survivors come together in various ways and decide on different ways of fighting the triffids. And that’s when the quality of the writing and the power of the imagery take a turn for the worse. The opening few chapters of The Day of the Triffids have always stayed with me since that first reading. I’ve re-read the book several times since then, but on this latest re-reading I found I’d almost completely forgotten what happened in the second half of the book.

But I can recommend it highly all the same. It might not be Wyndham’s best, but the triffids and their menacing ways will be with you for life once Wyndham’s words have become pictures in your head. And more than pictures:

The evening was peaceful, almost the only sounds that broke it were the occasional rattlings of the triffids’ little sticks against their stems. Walter [a triffid-researcher] regarded them with his head slightly on one side. He removed his pipe.

“They’re talkative tonight,” he said. (ch. 2)


Elsewhere other-accessible

Reds in the Head — review of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1897)

Performativizing Papyrocentricity #67

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Killer Chiller ThrillerNight Without End, Alistair MacLean (1959)

Above and BelowThe Archaeology of Underground Mines and Quarries in England, John Barnatt (Historic England 2019)

Wannabe Wonder-WeaverThe Best of Robert Westall Volume One, Robert Westall (1993)

All Glitter, No GlowA.C. Swinburne: A Poet’s Life, Rikky Rooksby (Scolar Press 1997)

Recycle, RepeatRevival, Stephen King (2014)

Gained in TranslationCuentos de Averoigne: Todos los Cuentos de Averoigne de Clark Ashton Smith, traducción de Enric Navarro (Pickman’s Press 2019)

Sean of the HeadAm I Evil? The Autobiography, Brian Tatler with John Tucker (2009; second edition 2017)

Posted at Overlord of the Über-Feral:

Maximal MozMorrissey in Conversation: The Essential Interviews, ed. Paul A. Woods (Plexus 2016)

Absence and EssenceAbandoned: The Most Beautiful Forgotten Places from Around the World, Mathew Growcoot (Ebury Press 2017)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Maximal Moz

Morrissey in Conversation: The Essential Interviews, ed. Paul A. Woods (Plexus 2016)

It’s very Mozzean that one of the most Mozzean things in this book is marginal. That is, it’s not in the interviews or anything Moz himself says: it’s in the mini-bios of the “Contributors” section at the end of the book. For example, Dave McCullough interviewed Moz for the long-defunct Sounds in 1983. And I thought it was a joke when McCullough’s mini-bio ended with “His current whereabouts are unknown.”

But it happened again for Shaun Philips, who interviewed Moz, again for Sounds, in 1988: “His
current whereabouts are unknown.” And again for Elissa Van Poznak, who interviewed Moz for The Face in 1984: “Her current whereabouts are unknown.” And that sentence is the last in the book, apart from the acknowledgements. What happened to these three journalists? They had lives and careers, friends and family. Their writing was once regularly read by many thousands or even millions of people. And then read again in this book. But “Their current whereabouts are unknown.” They’ve dropped out of sight, even maybe out of life, and the editor of the book, Paul A. Woods, hasn’t been able to find out what happened to them. Not even in this ultra-connected internet age.

That’s very Mozzean. You could even wonder whether they’ve succumbed to a belated form of the Curse of Moz, or the career-failure that strikes bands after Morrissey praises them or takes them on tour as support. Or you could wonder whether, like Morrissey himself for so long, they were struggling with depression and an urge-to-self-annihilation even as they achieved professional success. You’d certainly expect the first publication of this book in 2007 to have flushed them out. But it didn’t. Nor did the second publication in 2011. But perhaps the third publication did in 2016.

I don’t know and I’d rather not know. I like the Mozzeanism of three missing journalists. And I liked this book too. A lot. Obviously a lot of other people did too, or it wouldn’t have been printed three times. But I suspect it won’t be re-printed again. Why not? Coz of Moz on Muz. Guardian-readers were not pleased by Morrissey’s comments on Muslims and Muslim immigration after the Manchester bombing in 2017 or by his support for Brexit and the “far-right” For Britain party. You can get T-shirts now that say “Shut Up, Morrissey!” and there have been a string of anathemas and excommunications issued at Moz from woke bastions like the Quietus (where bad English goes to die). Guardian-readers feel deeply betrayed by Morrissey, who once said all the right things about economics, animal rights, vegetarianism, and the evilness of the Conservative and Republican parties – as you can read here.

But you’ll also read here about disturbing early signs – or sounds – that Moz wasn’t prepared to buzz with the hive-mind on everything. After he began his solo career in 1988 he released songs with titles like “The National Front Disco” and “Bengali in Platforms”, the latter of which opined “Life is hard enough when you belong here.” But there was enough ambiguity and authorial distance in the songs for him to deny plausibly that he was being racist or sympathizing with racism. And he still had a whole heap of good-will from the Smiths, so he survived the first campaign to cancel him and came back as strong as ever.

Well, the good-will has disappeared now. Moz has burned all his bridges to the Guardian and I don’t think there’s any chance of this book being re-re-re-printed. Indeed, I bet a lot of former fans have thrown out their copies or even ritually burned them. It’s their loss, because Morrissey is one of the wittiest, most interesting, and most intelligent interviewees who ever lived. As the back cover says of an earlier edition of Morrissey: In Conversation:

It’s proof, lest we forget, that in terms of great copy, Morrissey has rarely been anything other than interview gold. – Q magazine

But that quote itself needs trimming of its Guardianist fat: “It’s proof, lest we forget, that Morrissey has rarely been anything other than interview gold.” Moz himself is rarely guilty of saying more than he needs to. He’s both articulate and acute. It’s hard to believe that he came from a big working-class Irish family in Manchester and spent years on the dole after being shunted into a bad school by failing his eleven-plus. If he’d passed that selective exam he would have gone to a better school and most probably on to university. But I think university would have been bad for him. He probably wouldn’t have had a career in music and he certainly wouldn’t have become the Morrissey that millions of people either love or loathe.

But he would have become someone who habitually said “in terms of” and “prior to”. Alas, he does sometimes say “in terms of” in later interviews here, but it’s a minor blemish and I read everything in the book. Except – speak of “in terms of” and the windbag appears – Will Self’s “The King of Bedsit Angst Grows Up” from 1995. As usual with Self, I began losing the will to live half-a-paragraph in and gave up. If it had been a proper interview rather than Self blotivating on themes Mozzean, I might have persevered. But it wasn’t, so I didn’t.

Most of the other pieces were proper interviews, but either way I always persevered. You can read how Moz’s ideas and allegiances changed. And you can also see how Moz himself changed, because there are some good photos too. I bet some of the interviewers now regret their association with Morrissey and their appearance in this book, but that adds to its appeal for me. Moz has bitten the hands that typed about him and they’ll never forgive him for it. But they were warned:

Are you a bad man?

Only inwardly. (“The Importance of Being Morrissey”, Jennifer Nine for Melody Maker, August 1997)

And here’s more from the man himself:

What else could you do [besides perform]?

Nothing. I’m entirely talentless… it was all a great big accident – I just came out of the wrong lift. (“Mr Smith: All Mouth and Trousers”, Dylan Jones for i-D magazine, October 1987)


What does your music do to your fans?

Well, they wear heavy overcoats and stare at broken lightbulbs. That’s the way it’s always been for me! (“Wilde Child”, Paul Morley for Blitz, April 1988)

“I often pass a mirror,” he confides, loving the attention he’s getting, “and I glance into it slightly, and I don’t really recognize myself at all. You can look into a mirror and wonder – where have I seen that person before? And then you remember. It was at a neighbour’s funeral, and it was the corpse.” (“Wilde Child”)


What was it like playing live again when you appeared in Wolverhampton in December [1988]?

It was nice. I did enjoy it. It was nice to be fondled.

Was it good to be back on stage again?

No, it was just nice to be fondled. (“Playboy of the Western World”, Eleanor Levy, Q magazine, January 1989)


My perfect audience are skinheads in nail varnish. And I’m not trying to be funny, that really is the perfect audience for me. But I am incapable of racism, and the people who say I am racist are basically just the people who can’t stand the sight of my physical frame. I don’t think we should flatter them with our attention. (“Morrissey Comes Out (For a Drink)”, Stuart Maconie for New Musical Express, May 1991)


I would rather eat my own testicles than reform the Smiths – and that’s saying something for a vegetarian. (“The Last Temptation of Morrissey”, Paul Morley for Uncut, May 2006)


My best friend is myself. I look after myself very, very well. I can rely on myself never to let myself down. I’m the last person I want to see at night and the first in the morning. I am endlessly fascinating – at eight o’clock at night, at midnight, I’m fascinated. It’s a lifelong relationship and divorce will never come into it. That’s why, as I say, I feel privileged. And that is an honest reply. (“The man with the thorn in his side”, Lynn Barber for The Observer, September 2002)


Favourite shop?

Rymans, the stationers. To me it’s like a sweetshop. I go in there for hours, smelling the envelopes. As I grew up I used to love stationery and pens and booklets and binders. I can get incredibly erotic about blotting paper. So for me, going into Rymans is the most extreme sexual experience one could ever have. (“Morrissey Answers Twenty Questions”, Smash Hits Collection, 1985)

Absence and Essence

Abandoned: The Most Beautiful Forgotten Places from Around the World, Mathew Growcoot (Ebury Press 2017)

He isn’t mentioned in this book, but he haunts it like a semiotic spectre at a phantasmic feast. Yes, this is a very Ballardian book and I’m sure J.G. Ballard would have liked it. And perhaps been inspired by it to write one of his haunting stories about abandoned buildings or aircraft, about human artefacts slowly succumbing to nature and the elements and the ineluctable forces of entropy.

But Ballard’s omission isn’t surprising. There’s little room to mention anyone or anything here: apart from a brief foreword by the compiler Mathew (sic) Growcoot, there’s nothing but section headings, photographs and brief captions. I like the absence of words and the abundance of images. Abandoned buildings and artefacts are fertile not only for Ballardianism but also for bullshit. You can imagine what po-mo-ticians would make of the anomic alienation and transliminal alterities on display here.

As it is, the photographs are allowed to speak for themselves: silently, subtly, seductively. There’s everything from fairgrounds and theatres to jails and asylums, from rusting aircraft to sunken ships. The photographs are all variants on the single theme of abandonment, of what happens when bustle and busy-ness turn into quietness and contemplation. And the buildings and other artefacts do seem to be contemplating themselves or their own decay, like a Buddhist monk sinking slowly into deeper and deeper into meditation until he begins to merge into what surrounds him, becoming one with the world. But the power in the photos comes partly from what isn’t there: the human beings who created what nature is now reclaiming. That’s why the graffiti you can see in a few photos spoils the beauty of the abandonment. It’s ugly and intrusive, laying claim to structures that should now belong only to themselves and entropy.

They’re abandoned: human beings should be absent. The ab- of “abandoned” and the ab- of “absence” aren’t actually the same, but it’s appropriate that they seem to be. The ab- of “absence” is from the Latin preposition ab, meaning “from, away”. When a building or machine is abandoned, people have gone away. Something is subtracted and something else takes its place: an eeriness, a melancholy, a murmur of memento mori – “remember that you die”, that all things must pass. That eeriness comes in different flavours with different kinds of abandonment. The section headings run like this: “Abandoned Homes, Abandoned Recreation, Abandoned Rooms, Abandoned Journeys, Abandoned Society, Abandoned Industry”.

The photos of abandoned fairgrounds, theatres and stadiums – “Abandoned Recreation” – are in some ways the most powerful, because the absence is most present there. Crowds of people once filled these places with noise and activity – they laughed, cheered, applauded, had fun. Now paint is peeling off the colourful walls of a “Gym in a derelict school, Arctic circle.” Frost-whitened trees surround a stationary “Ferris Wheel, Chernobyl, Ukraine”. Shadows and slanting sunbeams fill an “Abandoned theatre near Berlin, Germany”.

No-one’s there: the crowds have gone. These places are abandoned to absence. But if the photos in “Abandoned Recreation” are in some ways the most powerful, they’re also in some ways the least powerful. Fairgrounds, gyms and theatres were regularly abandoned even when they were in use: the crowds would come and go, like tides filling a bay. It’s just that one day the crowds went and never came back. The private homes of other sections never had the same noise and activity, but they didn’t fill and empty like fairgrounds and theatres. People were always or almost always there, so their absence now is a stranger and sharper thing. Men, women and children did intimate, ordinary things there, year after year, decade after decade, even century after century. And now the thread is broken: the people are gone. No-one will ever sit in the sagging armchair or play the collapsed piano of a “Living area in industrial site, Austria”. No child will push the wheeled little horse in the “Nursery, Château de Moulbaix, Belgium” or look at the pictures on the walls.

But the sadness isn’t very strong in the nursery, because a nursery isn’t a permanent place. It’s akin to a theatre: abandonment is always natural there, because children grow up and leave. No, the sadness is strongest in places that were built to be in permanent use, like houses. Except that nothing is permanent. A nursery is used for a few years; a house might be used for decades or centuries. But in the end it will pass away, perhaps quickly, if it’s demolished, or slowly, if it’s abandoned. Demolition has its delights too, but abandonment is subtler and slyer. Its power follows a curve, first rising, then falling. The most powerful photos here have the least change in them, because they have been taken when the abandonment is most recent. Dust and shadows have taken over, but everything is still more-or-less intact.

When the abandonment is older and ceilings and floors have collapsed, as in the “Collapsed villa, Italy” and the “Collapsed palace, Italy”, there’s less power in the photographs. Or a different kind of power. Humans have been gone much longer and their absence is less poignant, less powerful. Their ghosts are fainter. And sometimes there are no ghosts, because something else has taken the place of humans. In the “Old overgrown glasshouse, Belgium” and the “Shopping mall, Bangkok, Thailand”, it’s vegetation, green and growing. In the the “House full of sand, Kolmanskop, Namibia”, it’s sand, slanted and scalloped. Or perhaps you could say that here the ghosts themselves have become ghosts.

“Ghostly” is certainly the word for the photographs in this book. The ghostliness comes in different forms and flavours, as the photographs capture both what’s there and what isn’t. Or rather: they capture what’s there and your mind conjures what isn’t. Absence is essence. Abandoned is a Ballardian book of phantasmic photography and I think Ballard would have enjoyed it a lot.