Bovril

With a new year it is inevitable that the passing of time sees us taking account of what has passed and what we plan to do in the future. Somehow this natural pause seems more focused with this new year.

The passing of many well-known musicians, actors, writers, and others besides, last year promotes looking back and reflection on what their work has meant. Time filters and changes our perceptions; of how we value the songs, the books and films we have known over the years.

With that in mind, bear a thought for someone who, in his day, was a consummate writer, of novels, poetry, and plays; who was wildly successful and popular; left a few phrases that have become part of speech; had a political career, and judging from his pictures, he was quite dashing too. Surely this person would be a vital part of literary life, even now.

It is not so: this fabulous writer is celebrated chiefly now, in the humorous Bulwer-Lytton contest which is founded on his infamous opening sentence: It was dark and stormy night – the rain fell in torrents….

Bulwer-Lytton has suffered this indignity for more than 30 years.

Just a little context: Wagner adapted his novel, Rienzi, into an opera and Wagner had quite good artistic judgement. Bulwer-Lytton left us the expressions: almighty dollar and the great unwashed. His other phrases and witticisms have been digitized on YouTube and like Oscar Wilde they hinge on inversion and paradox to achieve effect.

In 1871 he published an intriguing book called, The Coming Race, about superior beings, who call themselves the Vril-ya, and lived underground. They have a fluid called Vril, which is a source of energy and these beings use it at will.

The book impressed a manufacturer who realized the value of Bulwer-Lytton’s status to market a new product. He called the product Bovril. This is a sticky black meat extract which can be used for flavorings in cooking, or commonly in winter in England, as a drink diluted with hot water.

Now Bulwer-Lytton’s literary career is not a joke: it’s a syllable that nourishes people when they are cold and need a comfort drink.

It was dark and stormy night – the rain fell in torrents, there was thunder and lightning all around, but as Jessica sat down to her favorite Netflix series, she cradled a mug of Bovril in both hands, and sipping it, she felt warmed through.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Starvation

In a world where cornucopia is the norm – in the west in any case – hunger does not touch most people. There are even reliable stories, and research, which suggests that children today never experience hunger; not the twinge of emptiness, but real hunger, because they are fed frequently. There are some people who suffer from hunger, or a type of nutritional deprivation, for one reason or another, but it’s still relatively rare.

This predicament is exceptional in history. That is an achievement. For the last thousand or so years humans have struggled to beat, not just hunger, but starvation. For most of history hunger was normal, frequent and ever-present. Even in good times, when ordinary people had regular work they didn’t eat much; not by today’s standards, anyway.

With hunger conquered there are new important things to do. Winning the consequences of the victory over hunger – obesity, diabetes – might be considered. That has been tossed around for a while now and it still hasn’t got much traction.

The other thing might be a sovereign currency. Money-food: it’s an obvious connection though it’s not especially interesting. But that’s not what I am talking about, although there will be a few people who see the connection, or for ideological reasons, make the connection. About three hundred million Europeans do and in Italy voters have decided they’d like to eat.

Italians voted on a constitutional referendum which has implication for Europe, the European currency and whether it might disappear. I won’t chorus in with opinions of what it means, there are plenty of others doing that now. While the ramifications are going to be clearer in the months ahead; the motive, the link to food, and national currency goes back 24 years.

A month after Europe decided to merge, a lone English voice wrote a prescient and very pithy analysis of why it was inevitably going to end badly. It’s a technical commentary which may seem obscure. Towards the end he states explicitly what happens when a country, like Italy, in its current position, has fewer options and no lira to use for its advantage: it declines and its people must emigrate, an Italian solution from a century ago, in order to survive starvation.

The Italian referendum, like Brexit, doesn’t end their problems; it signals that other ideas are needed which will, in all likelihood, come from the belly.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Spleen

Looking at the regional distribution of voting patterns in the British referendum there seems to me enduring patterns, not just responses to the last five, let alone thirty-five years of politics.

The areas which most vociferously opted to abandon the European project, and by implication reject the political status quo in London, have, at times, chosen their own course, regardless of the consequences. It was these regions which rose to fight the king in the Civil War; it was from the same areas that the pursuit of individual faith led people to emigrate to America.

It is dangerous to draw such long conclusions between current circumstances and the historical record. However, English atavism is stubborn and proud; it is repeated frequently, not just on football terraces to abuse German supporters: Two world wars and one world cup, doo-dah, doo-dah, but through more respectable media and a plurality of voices

Deep-rooted beliefs and myths bind a polity. Their expression in literature provides coherence. English writing often forms and exhibits a clear identity of England, a country and people, which is singular and separate from any other.

John of Gaunt’s sceptred isle soliloquy is the touchstone of English patriotism in words, while Henry V’s happy few underscores the impossible odds of a small band defeating a much larger army in France.

The laureate of the English provinces is Philip Larkin: insular and anti-many, many things, most of all, anything cosmopolitan. His work is abrasive with anger, with resentment: he comprehends the essential inequality between himself and some other.

There is in Larkin a very strong sense of quiet desperation, the English way as Roger Waters phrased it. On the day of the referendum it was thought the bad weather might induce people to stay at home and watch the rain but, nonetheless, the turn-out was very high. Desperation turned to rebellion.

The best English novel to describe this regional landscape and its attitudes is Middlemarch. Eliot’s book is about various characters, both high and low, who in their own ways hope for something different and purposeful, but in the course of the novel they discover their own illusions.

It is certain the same thing will occur across middle England before too long.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2016. All Rights Reserved.

 

Resolution

The reader awakens to the turmoil of the main characters at the same time as “the soldier” rouses to another sultry day on an unnamed battlefield. The soldier wakes to his day, but also attempts to awaken himself as to who he is. The reader is taken on his campaign for discovery alongside the soldier as he tries on different identities such as “the farmer, the son, the brother…” In a similar way, the reader makes the acquaintance of Nastasiya and Piers, who are yet only acquaintances to themselves at the beginning of Cranswick’s book. Nastasiya embarks on a journey that mirrors her own journey of self discovery and Piers behaves in ways that are unfamiliar to him, deepening his idea of who he truly is….(more)

Extract 8: The Hidden Bend. Nastasiya has dinner with Vera’s family

The drive to Vera’s house had been long, the traffic was heavy and Nastasiya became drowsy as she felt the effect of jet lag coupled by the long day, and the exhaustion finally hit her.

She sat in Vera’s car staring out of the window at the long never ending lines of houses, all set on their block, thin houses with driveways and cars, and tangles of overhead lines criss-crossing the streets. It seemed curious to her that everyone had their own house, upright, with a patch of land in the front and back, but in other houses just concreted over for a parking slot, their little piece of land, their territory, and yet they were crowded in tightly, neighbors could see directly into each others houses through the windows of the exactly similar houses in the almost exactly similar streets, thousands of them in the suburbs stretching out and covering the country.

Vera complained about the traffic but when she had arrived at her house she relaxed, the lights were on inside and she led Nastasiya up to the door with a brief history of her family, and that her husband, Dennis, who worked for the public works department as an engineer. Nastasiya liked the title. He was a man of some importance. Vera took Nastasiya through the short hall and past the lounge and small dining area to the kitchen where Dennis was standing by the refrigerator; she kissed him as a greeting on the cheek and introduced Nastasiya. He said hello and offered her a drink: at first a glass of wine, but she wanted tea and he switched the kettle on, as the doorbell chimed and a blur of voices called out. Vera said softly to Dennis, “Is Irina home?” He replied: “She said she’d be back about eight, she’s getting something to eat out.”

Into the kitchen came Bradley, Dennis’s brother, and his wife, Nancy, and their children. Nancy carried a platter, a cake of some type, which she offered up to the room and said, “Tiramisu.” And Bradley said, “Please, excuse my wife, she’s Italian and she’s been making that bad joke since she made the thing.” There followed embraces and kisses and the brothers patted each other on the shoulder. Vera introduced Nastasiya: Bradley shook her hand cautiously, as if he knew something about her; Nancy plunged forward right after her awkward husband and wrapped her arms around Nastasiya’s shoulders and said, “Welcome, welcome. I am so sorry for you.” Their children: Catherine, Peter and Henry were presented with their mother pushing their elbows up to shake the foreign woman’s hand. The children were aged twelve to seven. Nastasiya was overwhelmed with the greetings, the noise, the faces and the names that assailed her and she would never remember and for once she was glad she was not expected to talk very much.

After the greetings, Dennis handed a glass of wine to Nancy and cups of tea to Vera and Nastasiya; Bradley had helped himself by taking a beer from the refrigerator. The men broke off to talk with each other in the adjoining room; the children had run off to play and tease each other; while the women sat at the kitchen table and talked about the day and Nastasiya’s journey, her impressions of New York with Vera as interpreter for the most part. Nastasiya tried talking, to make the effort as she would for a hostess who had invited her home, but she retreated often to smiles and glances at Vera to make sense of it all. Without language, contact was reduced to basic signs, reading a person’s gestures, the meaning their eyes and the tone of the voice even without any comprehension of what they said.

Meanwhile Dennis and Bradley had laid the table and were busy serving the dinner; chicken and vegetables with baked potatoes. They called the women to the table and Bradley barked at his children to behave and be at the table in the adjoining dining area they all sat, with the children. Dennis took the seat as head of the table and Vera sat at the opposite end with Nastasiya at her right side. Nancy arranged the children between her and Bradley opposite. Dennis looked at the table, Vera caught his eyes and they seemed to tacitly know what was coming as he lowered his head as Vera clasped the hands on either side and Nastasiya noted they all joined hands as Dennis said, “Thank you Lord for this meal, which we share tonight and for the people who have come to join it with us; and especially for our new friend, Nastasiya, who has come here from so far away.” He stopped, looked up at the table, and picked up his knife. The table followed him by picking up their knives and forks, and started to cut and eat and talk. Nancy remonstrated with Peter to eat his carrots.

There was not much talking while people ate, though Vera gave Nastasiya a little commentary of what was going on with each person, especially the children. Bradley and Dennis talked about money as Bradley was looking to buy into a franchise. Dennis advised him against doing it and Bradley said it did not matter too much because he could not raise the money and Nancy would not allow him to risk what they had either. “So, we’re talking about a pipe dream!” exclaimed Dennis.

The boys were eating, or pushing their food around their plates, while their parents glanced at their manners and tried to rectify them. At twelve Catherine wanted to be involved in adult conversation but could not understand what Vera and Nastasiya were saying, and when a pause came in the women’s conversation, she asked Nastasiya what she was doing in the US. Surprised, a little shocked at the directness of the girl’s question, Vera leant forward to speak in Catherine’s ear and explained euphemistically why Nastasiya was in New York. Catherine looked at Nastasiya and said, “OK”, as if she had been delayed on a flight to Miami. Nastasiya added, “Vera Sergeyevna is nice lady.” Nastasiya said Vera in her accent, with the V soft and the name floated in the space above them like ‘vyair-ah’. Nancy laughed lightly, repeating the name facetiously, “Oh, so very correct and polite, Vera Sergeyevna.” Vera pointed to Nancy and said in mock seriousness, “You hear that? That’s how you say my name from now on.” Nancy said Vera and Vera replied Vyair-ah and then they were exchanging Vera and Vyair-ah in a phony battle of wills to Nastasiya’s puzzlement.

Vera grinned sarcastically at her sister-in-law as she heard the front door open, and the moment she had been apprehensive over had come: she could hear it was Irina, her daughter.

“Hey, everyone!” said a tall young woman entering the dining area. The table greeted her almost as one, “Hey Irina!” and then she stood by her mother. “How are you? Did you eat?” asked Vera. Irina nodded, “Yes I had something over at Carey’s.” She looked down at Nastasiya who followed the conversation and her eyes were fixed on Irina, which, she did not realize which was either the result of her tiredness or the drowsy effect of the food. She seemed elsewhere, deeply within herself, in her thoughts and drowning. Vera introduced her to Nastasiya and Irina impressed her by speaking Russian and asking how she was. Nastasiya’s reply exhausted Irina’s limited knowledge and she giggled with embarrassment, turned to Vera and said, ”That’s all I know!” sitting down between her mother and Nastasiya. They chatted quickly, catching up, on what Irina had done that evening and her studies; and on the day just passed, the events of the week. Nastasiya warmed to the girl and glowed in the company of Vera and her daughter. The conversation ran smoothly and time past so much so that she did not notice her plate being taken, the children running off to play on the computer; and Nancy bringing the tiramisu out to the table and then apportioning it on cake plates with a fork handed to each of the adults. Catherine came back to the table and asked for a larger helping which Nancy denied her. Nastasiya said the tiramisu was excellent, it was all excellent and with her cup of tea she lifted it up and smiled graciously to Vera and Dennis.

Not long after, when the children became cranky, and as it was ‘a school night’, said Nancy, they would be leaving; Bradley gathered the children with Nancy’s help; the evening was closing with goodbyes and embraces and they left.

Vera checked the time on her wristwatch and said she would take Nastasiya back to the hotel. Dennis was less abashed and embraced Nastasiya and said, “You need anything, you ask Vera and we’ll do what we can.” And after it was translated the pleasure in her smile told him she was grateful for his consideration.

Vera took the expressway to Manhattan. It was getting late and they talked in snatches, in little phrases as they were both tired. Nastasiya was calm. The car was comfortable and it rolled with an even pitch on the surface of the road, the suspension rolled with the pulse of the tires over the road coming up through the car seat like the feeling a baby must have in a bassinette. Vera asked if she could play her driving music, nothing loud, just quiet and reposed, classical pieces played by solo piano and on the fast moving parkway, with trucks and SUVs and lights racing by, and the restrained balanced and structured piano music, created the atmosphere of a private salon in their vehicle; at once pensive and introspective, in a sense peaceful, despite the flashing lights outside, and the structured harmonies of the music played contrapuntally to the ear while the eye was teased by advertising and the speed of the highway. Inside the car’s cabin they were slightly removed from the outside world although it was so clearly pushing and rushing past their windows.

Vera stared ahead concentrating on the road; Nastasiya looked to the side at the rush of billboards, and houses and let her mind go blank with the impressions of the evening and Vera’s family. Nastasiya thanked Vera again; she said she enjoyed the evening; her family were all very friendly and Vera said a few words which meant little but closed the subject. They drove on in silence and after emerging from the tunnel Vera said she would meet Nastasiya at mid-morning; she would have the chance to sleep late, and perhaps deal with some other matters, to clear and tidy all of Yeva’s property, her schooling, the administration and other details, and of Yeva herself. The real subject was left to hang. Nastasiya looked straight at Vera on that because the implication and intention was clear enough. She would not discuss it now, she really was exhausted.

The Hidden Bend is available on December 4th, 2015

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Distraction

There’s an uh…just a moment….yes Like… as I was saying there’s a thing that is causing some debate over the future…of the future of that-which-that-concentration. Not concentration so much as the removal of all the other things that can be distracting. Distraction. It’s bad. It’s everywhere and it’s digital.

The human attention span is threatened: civilisation may depend on it, yet like a rock star on coke, or a surly teenager, we blow it on all kinds of distractions.

While all the focus is on… Microsoft published a report which stated that the widespread usage of smartphones has led to an 8 second attention span compared to 12 seconds in 2000. Facebook updates and YouTube videos are more …That’s a 33% loss. Microsoft didn’t state what the attention loss was over but their end user license agreements are well-known to glaze the eyes and halt mental function

Statistics: Great, aren’t they? There’s one used by the media. The average viewer has a low and rapidly falling attention. In political campaigns that can have a… politicians have to speak in slogans. There’s no empirical evidence for crashing attention spans as fact. It allows media to dictate the form and flow of information. As opinion and current practice it’s a certainty.

For several hundred years people have complained that it’s not what it used to be, or it’s all getting worse. It’s a predictable and relative perception. It exaggerates and privileges an unreliable point of view.

While all the attention is on reading and the loss there, think a bit about writers. It affects them too and it takes forever to write a paragraph as all the distractions are killing the flow of concentration that Dickens took for granted.

In the grab of anecdotal opinion the analysis and data by Daniel Levitin and Susan Greenfield is excluded. Quantifiable and measurable evaluation should improve understanding. Their work is not the same as the spurious uncorroborated semi-plausible statements that are pushed through comment pages.

Not that it matters. Not that any of you have read this far.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.