Recently I’ve taken to grinding coffee beans again,
And today, opening a new pack of Italian medium-roasted,
Filling up the coffee jar,
I shook and upended the vacuum-packing folds,
Making sure that every bean was out.
A sign of harder times to come.
I’m reading a collection of short stories by William Styron, and I am much enjoying the confident American style that doesn’t fear long sentences and the creative variety of precise punctuation that impresses as it soothes; reading such narratives requires a concentration, but it is a concentration given willingly and – the author must have worked so hard on this – with joy and gratitude to a master just entering his prime.
The stories arise from Styron’s time in the US Marine Corps, both in the later period of war against Japan and on his recall during the Korean War. They are, I suppose, male in orientation, and as the Publisher’s Note says – not many books would have such a postscript in these days when the publisher is more disregarded than held in high regard – ‘they present a complex picture of military life – its hardships, deprivations, and stupidities; its esprit, camaraderie, and seductive allure’. I am glad to have read this work.
I notice that the story after which the collection is named, The Suicide Run, was first published in American Poetry Review in May/June1974. It must have been about this time that I visited Styron’s house in Roxbury and I have kept a few vivid memories of that time – one of those moist warm evenings which can come to New England in the days after Memorial Day – just a few months after I moved to live in New York City.
I was staying with friends in Connecticut, in Bethel, and had come to Roxbury and this house to visit another friend who was housesitting. We stayed for a few hours, enjoyed some of the Styron’s drink, lounged around, talked and laughed, and looked at books in the bookshelves. Being young and hungry we were soon in the kitchen and no doubt food was found and consumed, but that is only a vague memory. What stays in my mind from that visit was the wall-mounted telephone near the door and the list of telephone numbers, hand-written on a sheet of cardboard that was taped roughly to the scullery wall. The names and numbers were in different ballpoint ink, pencil and pen; there were crossings-out and addings-to – the way we all kept track of numbers before computers, smartphones, and even before the Filofax.
On this list there were about fifty names and many of them were recognisable – there were several Kennedys, Mailer, Capote, Bacall, and, the one that still thrills me, Sinatra. This very brief and distant exposure to the interconnected American clique of politics, literature and show business was never to be repeated. I never met Bill Styron and, until this week, never read any of his writing; but that doesn’t mean the writer – and what we might today call his contact list – haven’t been in my mind for all the intervening years. Bill Styron, Betty Bacall, Frank Sinatra. Who could forget that?
Today, at a wonderful second-hand bookshop in Beccles, I bought a book created by Holbrook Jackson in 1945 called Bookman’s Holiday: a recreation for booklovers. It contained part of a letter Edward Fitzgerald wrote to John Allen from nearby Gelderstone Hall in 1839. This has had a strangely settling effect on me, so I share it here.
Here I live with tolerable content: perhaps with as much as most people arrive at, and what if one were properly grateful one would perhaps call perfect happiness. Here is a glorious sunshiny day; all the morning I read about Nero in Tacitus lying at full length on a bench in the garden: a nightingale singing and some red anemones eyeing the sun manfully not far off. A funny mixture all this: Nero, and the delicacy of the Spring: all very human however. Then at half-past one lunch on Cambridge cream cheese: then a ride over hill and dale: then spudding up some weeds from the grass: and then coming in, I sit down and write to you, my sister winding red worsted from the back of a chair, and the most delightful little girl chattering incessantly. So runs the world away. You think I live in Epicurean ease: but this happens to be a jolly day: one isn’t always well, or tolerably good, the weather is not always clear, nor nightingales singing, nor Tacitus full of pleasant atrocity. But such as life is, I believe I have got hold of the good end of it.
Stories often hinge on devices of communication: proclamations and posted signs; the arrival of a messenger, a letter; a phone ringing, a stop at a pub or roadside diner to use a payphone; the headline in the newspaper, classified ads that signify betrayal or command; codes hidden in crossword clues, secret ink, numbers and names written in matchbooks. Messages of all sorts drive our narratives and tie together our plots.
Now, as we read and write about humans negotiating the world through digital devices, this may be changing. Communication leads to limited, selected or non-existent communication. Dialogue in novels can rely on neologisms and invented languages, while descriptions of contemporary technology lose currency as media change too fast to provide any long-lasting credibility to contemporary narratives. While people now expect instantaneous and constant communication in their daily lives, fictional narratives are stripped of the tension that comes from not knowing and the surprise that comes from unexpected revelations.
Frankurter Allgemeine Zeitung has just published an article by Sandra Kegel about three recent Swiss novels (Schweizer Männer auf der Flucht, 29.03.2017). Each of these books concerns a middle-aged man who makes an escape from his normal life, who just walks away. In each of the stories the mobile telephone has a specific problematic role. Thomas, in Peter Stamm’s Weit über das Land leaves his behind, while the protagonists of Hagard by Lukas Bärfuss and Kraft by Jonas Lüschers struggle with their Handys, their last remaining contact with the former life.
Reaching the other side of communication looks like being a major motif in the narratives of our communication-centred world. New stories may help us to face the reality of the always-on nightmare by showing us that we can pretend that another world is possible, if only we are brave enough to run and to do it now.
I remember when it was normal to cut through Downing Street on the way to catch a bus in Whitehall. It took one flight of stone steps, a short walk past a single policeman, perhaps a few tourist cameras, and there you were.
Then it started to change. In the early 1970s, my first publishing job was in Buckingham Gate and the office overlooked the parade ground of Wellington Barracks. It was a time of IRA activity and we were used to the disruption and road closures caused by bomb threats at the Passport Office on near-by Petty France.
We took our morning tea, provided by a tea trolley, timed to coincide with the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. The Guards Regiments were usually serving in Northern Ireland, so we regularly enjoyed the sight of Ghurkhas fast marching to Sousa’s Liberty Bell March, the theme music to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. We sang along.
One day there was a big bang. I knew the noise was a bomb because my mother, a veteran of the Liverpool blitz, had often made just this noise – WHOOOOF – with a little jump in the air and wide open eyes, the sound of a landmine explosion in the next street that never left her memory of young married life. In 1970s London, I used to think how strange it was that someone had been trying to kill her when she was the age I was then.
On that day the big bang drew us to the windows. The line of sight placed the plume of smoke directly behind Downing Street, and it was some time before we learnt that the target on that day was not the Prime Minister’s residence but New Scotland Yard, then still in its original location on Whitehall Place.
There was obviously a contingency plan. Friends reported armed troops in Trafalgar Square in the hours that followed, and the next day the parade ground at Wellington Barracks was full of armoured vehicles.
In spite of this and other explosions, life continued as normal, but something tells me that this moment, this explosion that hit at the heart of state security, was a marker in the subsequent closing down of London’s urban landscape. A motivation for military and civilian powers to intensify plans that anticipated threats of violence to political targets, that bomb in 1973 seems to me to have been a signal for the start of the changes that have created the Britain we inhabit nearly fifty years later.
Soth espa cesb etwe eenw ords arei mpor tant
B ut the ymus tnotb eregul aroracc ordingto anysortof organisati onstructure
No r sh ouldt he yb een tire lyran dom
Searching today for the avant-garde in England I found:
avant-garde public relations
avant-garde alloy wheels
avant-garde hair and beauty
avant-garde audio-visual solutions
avant-garde creative studios
avant-garde garden structures
avant-garde personal loans
avant-garde model kits
avant-garde home improvements
avant-garde promotional merchandise
avant-garde natural stone steps and paving
avant-garde wedding photography
avant-garde business consultancy
avant-garde music venues
avant-garde dining room furniture
avant-garde housing developments
avant-garde corporate role-play
avant-garde bathroom furniture
avant-garde men’s fragrances
avant-garde financial advice
avant-garde holiday homes
avant-garde dental services
avant-garde murder mystery events
avant-garde chocolate glazed donuts
avant-garde damp solutions
avant-garde model planes
avant-garde funeral stationery
avant-garde chauffeur drive cars
avant-garde wig conditioner
It looks as if the Brexit-Trump era is already having an effect on the international nature of higher education. In the anglophone world, academics are either feeling unwelcome or are being discouraged from taking up positions because of anticipated changes to immigration law and zealous security vetting. Internationally minded students are looking to live and study in countries where society is more welcoming, where universities are still supported by internationally minded governments, and are, quite often, far less expensive to attend. Add to this the movement of private research and development to more amenable locations, and the higher education sector has a lot of contingency planning to do.
As well as these being interesting times for scholarship and research, they might also affect the varieties of publications that promulgate, disseminate and critically evaluate the results of these activities. One unintended consequence of the current turn towards isolationism and xenophobia in the North Atlantic anglosphere may be a significant shift in the language of global and local publishing. There may be a smaller market for English language books and journals, and a renewed realisation that using one’s own language can give scholars and scientists more political and personal freedom, and more opportunity for innovation.
English became the language of science publishing when it became the language of scientific experimentation and exploration, but now, as science looks set to migrate from the British and American powerhouse universities, it may face greater challenges from other languages, as both the language of science and as the language of the business of science. German and Russian may rediscover a scientific clout not known for several decades; others, Mandarin, Hindi or Turkish perhaps, will become important servants of scientific innovations that serve the needs of large local and regional economic interests. National and regional languages may be used, not to spread the word about local knowledge to rapacious international exploitative industries, but to foster local innovation for local good.
In the social sciences, there must always be a nagging suspicion that analysis and policy have been inappropriately developed in a world language whose vocabulary and inflection were developed to analyse and direct the institutions of very different, often predatory societies. The tone set by the use of English in social research may have obscured understanding and made the development of successful local policies more difficult.
In the humanities, where knowledge of and sensitivity to meaning used to come from using and understanding a variety of languages, any current experience and knowledge is increasingly gained through translation, the development of new Englishes – both Globish and social patois, and the development of Artificial Intelligence and language learning by algorithm. At the same time, English as a language of creativity and as the language predominantly used to discuss such creativity has become overloaded with jargon and in-group locutions. Using more languages as an antidote to Brexit-Trumpism may be a shot in the arm for culture in all our countries.
Many now feel that the world is entering a new political era, and this may well entail a move away from English as the pre-eminent language of science and the humanities. This will change publishing, both in traditional formats and in whatever new publishing develops in the digital space. Publishers must not be slow to recognise that the dominance of English has been only a phase in the history of publishing and information dissemination, and they will need to plan for survival in the more linguistically nuanced publishing landscape created as the European and North American anglosphere retreats and retracts.
While English will not disappear as a language of knowledge and creativity, it may be on an irrevocable path to becoming, like Kiswahili, mostly a convenient language of business along the physical and digital shipping lanes of the world, with a fine tradition of religious and literary writing and publication, but mostly overtaken by the languages of those countries that are actually out there in the world doing the creating, experimenting, trading and colonising.