will be blood
Zia Mohyeddin column
Nick Hornby's latest offering about Rock and Roll is a bit of a clunker
By Sarah Sikandar
By Nick Hornby
Price: Rs 1698
It laid there, Juliet Naked, for two weeks staring back with a book cover that is not very appealing to look at. Nick Hornby will always be read as either an extremely witty writer who mixes pop music and satire in equal measures and produces work like About A Boy and High Fidelity or as a typical "post-pop writer" who writes only about " obsession, pop, music, articulate wasters and so on."
As you read the book, two of the above misconceptions are proved true in the first chapter, to be exact. A middle-aged British guy named Duncan has flown in to Minneapolis with his girlfriend of fifteen years, Annie, to see the toilet where his idol Tucker Crowe, went. "Nobody knows what happened in there, but, when he came out, he went straight back to his hotel and phoned his manager to cancel the rest of the tour. The next morning he began what we must now think of as his retirement. That was in 1986." Crowe Tucker is a musician whose music people "are unaware of, let alone some of the darker moments of his career." Annie, aware of her boyfriend's obsession with this man, is unable to decipher the uselessness of their visit. The trip has an altogether different meaning for Duncan.
Hornby's 'hero' is a loser who admires a loser, "a shallow, self-indulgent…wanker." And Duncan is a self-proclaimed crowologist. Tucker Crowe is nothing like an idol. He is a singer who never even made it to the top ten of the charts and disappeared after recording a "legendary break-up album" Juliet. But he shares no affinity with Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan or John Lennon as far as music or recognition is concerned, the people Duncan likes to compare his music with. By idolising Crowe, Duncan gives himself a sense of importance; of being a part of a 'gang' that admires Crowe's music. He believes no one knows Crowe more than himself, perhaps not even Crowe. In this illusion, and in Crowe's music, lies the gap where Duncan would like to fit in. Annie, who is more objective in her appreciation, comes out as reasonable and 'normal' but, unfortunately, less interesting. She lacks Duncan's eccentricity, his obsession. But there is nothing more to him either.
The plot is simple, very simple actually. Tucker sends his latest, unannounced album Juliet Naked (yes! No one named Juliet actually gets naked in the book) to Duncan but Annie hears it before him and thinks it is "all right. Mildly interesting." Duncan is shocked: "It is a masterpiece." Annie writes a review of the album on Duncan's website dedicated to his idol. Tucker replies, actually likes hers a lot better than Duncan's. Emails are exchanged and the two get to know each other. The rest of the book uncovers a breaking down of Duncan and Annie's relationship, an uneventful 'resurrection' of Tucker Crowe and his place in their now-separate lives.
For those less interested in art, the most interesting part would be relationship -- Duncan and Annie's primarily. You never get to know why they are together. You question why the break-up now. Annie realises she has wasted the last fifteen years of her life with Duncan. Duncan thinks it is okay "that he and Annie had never been in love. Theirs had been an arranged marriage, and it had functioned perfectly well." It is strange, in a way that a man who cries listening to songs is detached and even cold when it comes to his own love life. Duncan is someone who values nothing in his life, let alone the woman he shared fifteen years of his life with. He is not loveable, and he is not interested in your love. What he does win is the sympathy, for his failure to love life.
Hornby plays with his characters in a manner that is both commendable and irritable -- a sole prerogative of fiction. He gives them space to vent themselves when you might perhaps not want to listen and takes away their chance of redemption when you would like to know their version. Annie gives it to him for their fifteen years together: "you are the only artist alive who's made any sense to him, just about," she tells Crowe. Tucker who is in the background for most part of the book eventually surfaces and you dislike him for not living up to the man he was built to be.
The play on the 'autobiography industry' is both amusing and ludicrous. It has the resonance of A S Byatt's Possession when Duncan steals into Julie's house for his slice of history, and to pee, and tells Crowe he knows more about him than Crowe himself. It also plays, in a subtle way, on the whole celebrity culture and the mendacity that lies beneath. The addition and deletion of facts is accepted and people like Tucker are owned by those like Duncan.
No one is allowed to rise though. All Duncan gets is a new exercise regime, Annie gets another session with her shrink and a one night stand with Crowe who gets a new perspective on his work:" it had never occurred to him that his work was redeemable…but as he listened that afternoon to an articulate, nerdy man tell him over and over again why he was a genius, he could feel himself hoping that it might actually be true."
Juliet Naked is available at The Last Word, Hot Spot Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore
Michael Burleigh decides to strip away the modern conventions of reporting on terrorism and show us what never gets to our screens or our front pages
By Chris Cork
Blood and Rage:
A cultural history of
By Michael Burleigh
Price: Rs 595
Anybody who thought that terrorism was primarily a modern phenomena needs to consult the tattered and bloody map drawn by Michael Burleigh in his latest book Blood and Rage: A cultural history of terrorism. Anybody who thought that there was some kind of romantic or altruistic set of ideals underpinning terrorist acts also needs to think again, as for the most part the terrorists that drag their unreadable manifestos, dreary lives and tawdry excuses for whatever it was that they did through these pages, are unworthy of our respect.
Burleigh, unusually for a historian of his gravitas, has worn his angry heart on his sleeve with Blood and Rage. It can feel populist, opinionated even flippant on occasion, but it is never anything less than angry and there are moments when he slips into something not far off a rightwing rant. The book is not comprehensive, and ignores the Tupamaros and the Shining Path movements in South America and the LTTE of Sri Lanka for instance, but still touches enough bases to hold our thoughtful attention long after we close it.
Beginning at the beginning we are led through the history of the Irish Fenians of the 19th century (and their connection to revolutionary America) before going east around the globe. We see mad Russians (quite a number of mad Russians) and assorted European drunks and psychopaths before diving into the guts of post-colonial terrorism in Algeria and Palestine. The PLO and the Baader-Meinhof gang are examined with the latter at one point characterised as "guilty white kids." The section titled "Small Nation Terror" tells of the British struggle with the IRA and the activities of the Basque terror group ETA before we conclude in the present day with an at times penetrating and at other times slightly cynical overview of Islamist terrorism passed through the filter of Mr. Burleigh's perception.
What we have throughout, in unremitting and graphic detail, is blood. It is as if Burleigh had decided to strip away the modern conventions of the broadcast media and the public prints and show us what never gets to our screens or our front pages. His terrorism is the real McCoy and we are spared nothing. The worst excesses are therefore for you to find, Dear Reader, but consider here what has been done by those who kill us innocents in the name of whatever cause drives them. In Algeria the FLN would slice the noses from smokers -- and cut their throats if they lit up again. Those who drank alcohol and were caught had their lips cut off. Red Army Faction hijackers (those "guilty white kids") threw the brains of an airline pilot out of the window. Atrocities against Muslims in the Balkan wars -- verified accounts of their genitals being tied to cars and then ripped off -- are balanced by equally verified accounts of Muslims crucifying Christian priests. Assorted beheadings, in latter days filmed, videoed and captured on mobile phone cameras then disseminated via the internet for the gratification of some and the terror of others. It's all there and perhaps it is good that we have the sanitising filters removed from our eyes now and then, if only to remind ourselves of what the human consequences of terror invariably are.
Terrorist ideology gets short shrift.
Burleigh argues that the milieu the terrorist operates in is "invariably morally squalid, when it is not merely criminal." He comments on the way men and women are drawn magnetically to terrorism by "the thrill of clandestine activity in a secret organisation that bestowed status on its members" and we can perhaps through this analysis gain a glimmer of insight into those who flock to the ranks of the Taliban. Men and women mired in poverty and with a powerful sense of moral outrage, who are pulled into a fight they barely understand and whose ability to think for themselves died in the madrassah. Burleigh suggests there is little or no real idealism within terrorist movements because what it often comes down to in the end is "the murderous vanity of sad little men labouring over their bombs in dingy rooms."
Burleigh gives us little by way of solutions, though he does offer a very knowing redefinition of some common terminology. He discusses the origins of al-Qaeda and points to the oft-repeated definition of this amorphous entity as being "Islamofascist" and suggests the much more complex "jihadi-salafist" -- in which he is correct. Correct he may be but his re-defining takes him into the realms of the Muslim scholar rather than the common reader at which this text is clearly aimed. He also comments on the (relatively) successful "re-programming" of militants and jihadi-salafists in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, much in the way that people are de-programmed after they leave (or have been forced to leave) some religious sects.
This murderous catalogue is as compulsively attractive as the train crash we pass by and cannot resist looking at -- but our fleeting glimpse tells us nothing of why it was that the train crashed in the first place or what we can do to stop future trains crashing. There is a tendency to "shorten the tale" -- ETA and the IRA both need treating as separate books -- and in doing so reduce it to nothing more than a series of grisly anecdotes linked by epithetical rightwing humour that speaks more of tabloid journalism that it does of the Halls of Academe. Despite its obvious and, one might feel, gratuitous and unnecessary lapses into gutter journalism, there is a solid core of information and historical contextualising that makes this a worthwhile read, indeed an essential primer for anybody interested in terrorism in its widest sense, more of a -- somewhat weighty -- pocket guide than a tour-de-force.
Poetry -- and places -- and smells
The 18th century literati, who are better known today for their prose: Swift, Congreve, Addison, Johnson (Doctor, that is), Chatterton, Sheridan and Goldsmith, all wrote poetry. Goldsmith, whose play, She Stoops to Conquer is revived almost every two decades, died young. I cannot say that I am an admirer of his poetic output, but he made an incredibly prophetic remark which was as apt in 1762, as it is, in 2009. "Could a man live by it, it were not unpleasant employment to be a poet."
Stealing the metaphor from a famous advertising slogan, I would say that poetry reaches crevices of the soul that other beverages don't. Here is a piece from Shakarparian, a long poem written by Raja Changez Sultan:
The images of a pastrol land
With proud turbaned natives
Tradition houses, lively courtyards
Tall ceilings high ventilators
And the summer
Evening replete with cattle returning from
The common pastures
And water holes
Hold centre stage
The villagers slept
Out in the open breathing
The clear air of a non
An innocent poem, but true-to-life, evocative and unambiguous. A word of caution: when you read the passage you do not have to stop at the end of each line. If you were to do so you would deprive the poem (or this part of the poem) of its energy. But then why does the poet, you might well ask, write the lines So/the/Stars could/Hold centre stage/While/…as single lines? Is it because there is a certain rhyming pattern? No. Does it affect the over-all rhyming scheme? No.
You have to read it as: So the stars could hold centre stage/While the villagers slept out in the open/breathing the clear air of a non-mechanical age. I can assure you that any other manner of reading (halting in-between, thumping out single words) would smack of affectation. Poets who have been impressed by the likes of e.e. Cummings often tend to make an arbitrary decision about the way their poems should appear in print.
Another piece which I find evocative is a verse collage which has an unusually long title: It Generally leads a Solitary life Or Lives in Paris: "The nest is made in a hole, in rocks or in a tree, often near water/What the meaning of the word "is" is/I thought I fell in love with this person that I really felt was such a good person/I am sorry to bother you with this/Everyday can't be sunshine"
It is not easy to explain why this passage brings a smile to my face. Is it some nostalgic whiff? Or it is it that whatever one thinks of love is deeply related to "is"? As Zora Neale Hurston, a black American poet, says, "You cant know there till you go there."
Poetry, aside from being a delightful beverage, jogs long-forgotten memories. Here is a half stanza from Taufiq Rafat:
"i cower behind
the musty flowers of a quilt
on the wall hung up to dry and weep
till an aunt whisks me off
cuddled against warm flesh
It is so comforting. I myself have a distinct memory of waking up to the faint smell of vetiver coming from the lap of a loving aunt, who used to sit down beside me on the cool porch of my ancestral home in Kasur, to sing a munajat to me. I would cuddle up to her and be asleep in no time.
My loving aunt whose name was Sakina was known, universally, as Phuppi Bakhan. Unlike my other elderly aunts she was always dressed in freshly ironed clothes. She carried with her an aroma of Sunlight soap and vetiver. She spoke high-falutin Punjabi interspersed with Persian metaphors which my sisters never stopped ridiculing when she was not around. I learned years later that she was an exceedingly unhappy woman.
" places that were torn from us
Like perforated slips
Years and years ago why do they stay with us so
And mean more than here today.
Oh but they do…."
Another smell that I recall vividly whenever I read Kublai Khan is that of a delicate Chinese wood. I was once presented a Chinese back-scratcher. God knows what wood it was made of, but it was beautiful to touch. It was light as a feather and it could reach any part of my back. Shaped like a long shoe-horn, it curved at the bottom end with broad teeth as on a miniature gardening implement. When I felt an itch in the back I would, let the teeth rub it off and when I felt a twitch I would let the velvet-smooth end stroke it away.
It travelled with me everywhere, a prized possession. It had a delightful smell of pine-needle mixed with jasmine. Peter Ustinov borrowed it once and offered to swap it for a very expensive cigarette case and lighter but I declined. I should have accepted his offer because a couple of years later somebody took a fancy to it and it disappeared from my hotel room in Manchester.
I miss this back-scratcher. Nowadays when a mosquito bites me on my back I use the nearest pen or spoon, but it doesn't have the same feel. The skin feels abraded rather than soothed. I have to use my hands to rub over the serrated edges, but then there are areas where the hand does not reach. It is futile to ask someone who happens to be near to scratch that remote, unapproachable area because he (or she) can never pin-point the spot and by the time he has groped his way to the exact spot, the itch turns to a dull memory.
I also possessed, once, a Chinese wooden box no bigger than a box of matches pipe smokers use. It was made of zitan, a highly-prized Chinese wood. I was told that it was meant to store wings of dried butterflies, but I used to keep collar bones (or collar stays as they say in America), in it. Chinese wood has an unexpected ripple as pleasing to the hand as to the eye. The box smelled of refined smoothness. I have no recollection of where and when I lost it.
Not so long ago I visited an exhibition of Chinese artifacts in England. There were cricket cages and opium pipes that had been made in the more indulgent times in imperial China. There was "antique" Chinese furniture, rugs, paintings and all sort of other quaint objects made in more recent times. A pavilion cage which had ivory and porcelain feeding cups was marked at £5000; other bamboo birdcages were smaller, some were occupied by Chinese song birds.
I looked for back-scratchers. There weren't many. The ones I picked up didn't smell of anything other than lacquer.