Given the Boot

As people wave a fond farewell to 2019, I for one will be celebrating its departure with great gusto. I thought 2018 was a trying year; my father-in-law lost his valiant battle with cancer and supposed close and trusted friends needed to be disposed of. It transpired that 2019 had much of the same in store. My beloved cat Gerrard and a close friend both passed from Leukaemia; there was another “friend” who I had to let go of and with the demands of watching someone close battle with dementia, my resilience waned and I reached the stage towards the end of August where the time and demands of writing the blog became untenable.

I became fed up of all the toxicity surrounding me, I knew from previous blog posts throughout last year and this one it was starting to eat away at me and the best way to deal with such things is to go to the source of the problem…cut whatever is making you unhappy and angry off, and concentrate on moving forwards with things that bring joy to the soul. Instead of reading the nonsense on Twitter and Facebook that aggravates me, I turned to spending what precious time I had, rummaging through my bookcase and settling down with a good book and a pot of tea!

“Maybe this is why we read, and why in moments of darkness we return to books: to find words for what we already know.” – Alberto Manguel

Books are food for the soul, an opportunity to furnish the mind with new knowledge, where strangers are willing to take you on a journey to “show” the experiences of others; to find empathetic teachers and counsellors and to find new friends who are willing to take you on a journey of adventure and discovery. For the last few months, any spare time has been devoted to sticking my head in a book…and what interesting thoughts have been piqued whilst doing so.

Books are also the strangest of journeys for me, I board one and mid-journey I reach a junction where further reads are suggested. I carry on to my destination, but then I feel compelled to go back to the junction and take the next journey to see where that will take me. After a while all the journeys start to intersect. Sometimes it’s a little mind boggling!

A few years ago I read a book by a chap called Thomas Ligotti…it was an incredibly powerful piece of non-fiction about the author’s antinatalist views and rather pessimistic take on society. Whilst it was hard going, it was a really interesting piece of prose, but I wanted to take things a bit further. Ligotti is widely known for writing horror fiction as opposed to the non-fiction of “Conspiracy” so it was interesting to find him crediting a trilogy of books by Eugene Thacker entitled the “Horror of Philosophy.” They sat in my bookcase until early Summer, and it took me a while to plough through them (I had to dip in and out and read other things in between!)

The trilogy essentially considers the relationship between philosophy and the horror genre, but Thacker reads the horror stories as though they were works of philosophy – questioning the human-centric view of the world, opening the readers minds to all sorts of philosophical theory. It may seem a strange thing to do, but there are things that both philosophy and horror stories share. Each can explore the boundaries of human thought and imagination. In his studies, Thacker obviously had to study the works of various horror writers, many works of which were already sat in my bookcase either unread or half-read. I chose gothic horror as one of the modules for my degree, but I spent far too much time on the back of a horse or down the pub to do more than give each volume a cursory glance. I appeared to have missed reading some stimulating work by the likes of Lovecraft, Poe, Camus, Baudelaire, Kierkegaard and Ligotti, which are all discussed in the trilogy.

The three volumes that make up the trilogy are as follows:

Vol One: In the Dust of This Planet.
Vol Two: Starry Speculative Corpse.
Vol Three: Tentacles Longer Than Night.

For a detailed write up of these volumes please click on the link.

Now, one may think that reading pessimistic viewpoints would be draining, but actually, the thought process is rather uplifting and rejuvenating; if you are the sort of person to keep an open mind whilst reading that is. And so, once my journey via Eugene Thacker ended, the junction took me to two volumes by Albert Camus.

(Now for those of you who check in with The Book List that I try to keep up to date, you’ll know that isn’t strictly true…I actually read A House of Ghosts by W. C Ryan, Shelter by Sarah Franklin and an audible version of some of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon…I did say I had to dip in and out of the trilogy!)
I grew up listening to The Cure. They are still my favourite band and Bob (Robert Smith) is God in my eyes. Whenever I’m feeling really down, I always grab a record by The Cure and soon nothing seems as bad as it does in Bob’s world. I always knew the song “Killing An Arab” wasn’t racist, but instead motivated by a book he had read…I just wasn’t well versed in the actual book. Now I am!

Standing on the beach with a gun in my hand
Staring at the sea, staring at the sand
Staring down the barrel at the Arab on the ground
I can see his open mouth, but I hear no sound
I'm alive, I'm dead
I'm the stranger, killing an Arab       
                                                                                                              The Cure – Killing An Arab

Albert Camus wrote “L’Etranger” (The Outsider) circa 1942. Camus was an Algerian born in 1913 who studied philosophy and became a journalist in Paris. During the occupation of France in 1940, Camus became one of the leaders of the Resistance, writing and editing the underground newspaper “Combat.” After the War he wrote a number of novels including his last complete piece of fiction before his death “La Chute” (The Fall.)
“The Outsider” tells the tale of Meursault, a French Algerian tarred with the description of being a man of the Mediterranean, but who does not partake in traditional Mediterranean culture. He is a man who does not conform with society. Even after hearing the news that his mother has died he does not show his emotions, not even at her funeral. He does not conform to what society expects, and therefore he is condemned by those around before any acts of violence have been committed.
A few days after his mother’s funeral, Meursault is walking on a beach when he comes across an Arab man who has had a disagreement with a friend of his. In a random act of violence, Meursault shoots the Arab, but again shows no signs of emotion or remorse.
Written in the first-person narrative, the book is split into two parts, the first regarding his mother’s death and the shooting at the beach, the second is after Meursault has been tried and sentenced to death. At no point is Meursault able to show any signs of remorse for what he has done, nor offer any explanation for his actions. He shows an almost dreamlike indifference to the world in which he lives. His actions convey the absurdity of human existence.
In January 1955, Camus wrote:
I summarized The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: "In our society any man who does not weep at his mother's funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death." I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.
“The Fall” is another first-person narrative. "Judge-penitent" Jean-Baptiste Clamence, relates several stories to a stranger in a bar in Amsterdam over the course of a few evenings. As he reflects and recalls upon his past, we see how precarious life is.  It is a brilliant portrayal of a successful man who now reflects on his drunken, debauched past and sees his life for what it is…empty and meaningless. Those who appear to have it all are often left wanting…but it takes a strong – or drunk person - to admit it. It is a beautifully written novella, and it was just short enough for me to finish as I touched down at Belfast airport!

Nb The Guardian has an interesting article about Albert Camus following what would have been his 60th birthday.

My name? Where am I coming from? Where am I going? A fusillade of question marks.   –Ciaran Carson, Belfast Confetti (1989)

The Crown Saloon - National Trust Pub - Belfast
In October me and OH managed a long weekend away in Belfast for a wedding. As we hadn’t managed to go on holiday this year, he surprised me by booking a nice hotel. How lovely! “Welcome to the most bombed hotel in Europe!” Yes, he had booked us in at the Europa, apparently a favourite place for the IRA to blow up during the troubles. We even went across the road to The Crown Saloon for a pint and to see where shrapnel marks had been left in the ornate wooden snugs. 

Whoever said romance is dead eh?!

During the taxi journey from the airport into town the following conversation took place...

R = “Oh we can go back up there tomorrow.”
Me = “What do you mean back? I’ve never been.”
R = “Sure you have, we went there last time we were here.”
Me = “That wasn’t me.”
R = “You sure?”
Me = “Certain.”

Cue, disagreement about all the places we had visited and for a short period I gave into tiredness and genuinely thought I’d lost my marbles. (We arrived at Belfast about 7:30 am) So in a somewhat confused state I proclaimed that I had been to one cousins wedding, missed a different cousins wedding and was back here for another cousins wedding….and no, it was not me in the nice house further north as I haven’t attended any funeral in Ireland. Transpired he’d been round Belfast with his sister and I expected to be taken to some interesting places.

Oh well, the hotel pointed us in the direction of a wonderful place for breakfast (Harlem) and good food usually shuts me up quite quickly. (Although R did point out that looking at the quirky d├ęcor, the guy at the hotel had me sussed out pretty quickly…)

Breakfast at Harlem Cafe

Having had breakfast we took a look around the city and ended up in a comic book store as it was a very wet and miserable day. I'm not really a fan of comics, but my eye was taken by an array of books in the corner. There was a beautifully illustrated copy of my favourite poem, The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe. It is such a favourite, it featured on the first pair of leggings I designed! As the rain still hammered down and it had gone 12:00...time to head to the pub for a pint and a read!

As if I'd forget visiting the Victoria shopping centre; and a new copy of The Raven for my collection.

As an art lover who also enjoys a pint of Guinness, I was told I must not miss The Cathedral Quarter. It is a vibrant part of the city, packed with excellent pubs and restaurants and street art everywhere you look. We dropped into The Duke of York for a quick pint and discovered a little lane - Umbrella Passage. We opened the gate and took a look inside to see umbrellas hanging from the ceiling and dynamic murals covering the walls. After this we headed over to Berts for a cocktail (or two) and listened to a live jazz performance.

Umbrella Passage - go through the gates and be amazed by the artwork

Time for some fresh air and a walk to the Botanic Gardens in The Queen's Quarter. Established in 1828 as the private Royal Belfast Botanical Gardens, the area is now owned by Belfast City Council and it offers a peaceful retreat for tourists, students and workers. The gardens house both the Palm House conservatory which is an early example of a curved iron glasshouse, allowing horticulturists to grow exotic plant species during the Victorian era and the Tropical Ravine House which includes a misty sunken glen containing tree ferns, banana plants, orchids, bromeliads and flowering vines.

Palm House and Tropical Ravine House

Also located in the Botanic Gardens is the Ulster Museum where you can grab a cup of tea after taking in the various historic collections and artwork. Whilst I was there, there was a temporary display of paper costumes from Game of Thrones.

Fibber Magee
Just across the road from the Europa Hotel is a pub called Robinsons Bar...if you walk straight past the bar and out the other side, you enter a smaller pub called Fibber Magee's where you can listen to live music. The Guinness is good, the music and atmosphere even better, and its only a quick roll across the road back to the hotel!      

Afternoon Tea!
I love food, I love cake, I love tea…and the afternoon tea at The Europa looked rather stunning so we booked ourselves in for a tasty treat. As we neared the end of our sugar marathon, the waiter asked if he needed to box anything up for us as. Did he think we looked like amateurs? No box required…just another pot of tea. Gorged and feeling like a snooze was in order I headed back to the hotel room and started on my next read…

Hunger, by Knut Hamsun. (The irony is not lost on me dear reader.)

Hunger is another book written in the first-person narrative examining the psychological extremes of euphoria to despair. It is essentially a novel where not a lot happens and instead the book concentrates solely on the narrator recording the vagaries of his mind via one thought process to another. It’s a frightening place to be, watching someone torture themselves, make bad decisions, and ultimately waste any tiny opportunity that comes their way. At times you wanted to pick the man up and give him a good shake…at others you felt his despair as he spent another day starving and desperately trying to write an article to earn him a few coins so he could buy a loaf of bread.

At no time however, could you feel pity for the main character…a man of no name, but a man who suffered because he had chosen to do so. He had an arrogant demeanour, which in some respects you could understand. He doesn’t want pity, he wants to make out that he is surviving well, he doesn’t want charity…but then when he does earn some money he wastes it on unnecessary actions and ultimately ends up humiliating himself anyway.

A couple of weeks ago I did a bit of Googling about the book and the author and I saw that the book had been turned into a play and was showing at The Arcola in London. Sadly, it was too late for me to sort something out to go and see it, which was a great shame as the write up I saw was very complimentary. It’s a play that I think would be interesting to see and to see how such a complex character is dealt with. Hopefully at some point someone else will decide to do a production of it. Eyes peeled!!!

“Amanda Lomas’s excellent adaptation is finely crafted yet never imposes itself; there’s still a lot of space for the creative team to find their own (mesmerising) rhythm and theatrical language. We watch a nameless lad from the country, played with heartbreaking optimism by Kwami Odoom, desperately try to stay afloat. At first he merely struggles to pay for a round at the pub but then the landlady comes knocking and it isn’t long before our writer is out on the street and pawning his blanket for cash.” (The Guardian 26/11/2019)


Back home and it was time to ditch the books for a short while and head back to the theatre. I always enjoy heading out to Theatr Clwyd, it is after all only about 6 miles from my house; as each year goes by, the choice of productions offered gets better and better.

Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced.

I read copious amounts of Agatha Christie novels whilst growing up. I feel blessed to have grown up in the eras of watching the best Poirot (David Suchet) and the quintessential Miss Marple (Joan Hickson) so I’m sometimes over critical when I watch “new” productions.

A notice had been placed in the Chipping Cleghorn newspaper that a murder would take place at the home of the wealthy Letitia Blacklock. Naturally the residents of Chipping Cleghorn, rather than fleeing the area or hiding under a bed until after the appointed hour, think it’s a great idea to convene at Letitia’s house to see what will happen.

The play was filled with witty and humorous dialogue to propel the story forward, so the timing between characters has to be on point for the audience to pick up clues and because the play is rather sedentary, to keep the audience enthralled. For the majority of the performance the actors achieved this and at the interval I could hear people chatting about their theories as to “who did it,” but I couldn’t stop focusing on one of the principal characters who kept stumbling over her dialogue. It didn’t detract from an enjoyable evening though, especially as most belly laughs came from the character Mitzi, the eastern European maid who was given all the best lines which were delivered with great aplomb!

Posh by Laura Wade. (Writer of last year’s smash hit with Theatr Clwyd – Home I’m Darling)

Starring Outnumbered’s Tyger Drew-Honey, this production was so enjoyable I went home and watched The Riot Club (the film the play is based on)! Centring on a group of overprivileged undergraduates who only care about themselves, they indulge in the privileged night out they deserve, filled with decadence and harmless “fun”; but fun can have serious repercussions as we would later find out.

Posh/The Riot Club is a thinly veiled reproduction of Oxfords notorious Bullingdon Club which saw the attendance of our UK Prime Ministers David Cameron and Boris Johnson. The overriding message is rather blunt…if you have money it can buy you out of any situation. These are the people who expect to rule, who take people for granted, who are far superior to anyone else. These are unlikable characters, and their actions are even more unpalatable. Whilst the play is highly entertaining and the actors play their parts superbly, as an audience member you leave feeling very uncomfortable with both what you have witnessed, and for the future that our current political system brings.

Now as Ben Elton would say…time for “a little bit (more) of politics!”

My final play for 2019 was Yes Prime Minister by Anthony Jay & Jonathan Lynn, and what a way to end my theatrical year!

Bernard: It beats me why anyone would want to be Prime Minister.

Humphrey: It’s the only job that requires no previous experience, no training, no qualifications and limited intelligence.

I think that brutal honesty sets the scene quite nicely. The play is based on the old TV series and I’ll be honest, I doubted that it would live up to my expectations, but the writers of the TV show have made an equally satirical show for the stage. The UK is in crisis (what’s new?) As unemployment figures raise, debt spirals out of control and the cabinet reaches breaking point, they think they can negotiate a “dodgy” deal with the Foreign Secretary of Kumranistan in order to obtain a multi-trillion loan via an unorthodox oil pipe-line deal.

The play is set in one room at the PM’s country residence, Chequers, and shows how most of the Prime Ministers decisions are made by the rest of his cabinet…mainly Sir Humphrey Appleby – the Permanent Secretary. Peter Forbes played the role magnificently and received a few ripples of applause throughout the show for some of his longwinded soliloquys. Fans of the cult TV series will remember his propensity to make something very simple sound earth shatteringly complicated!

Humphrey: All right, Prime Minister, you’ve asked a straight question and I’ll give you a straight answer, which, however, clearly has to be considered in its proper context: in the course of all financial negotiations, certain provisos have to be preconditioned, various caveats have to be postulated, designated, investigated and specified and a number of considerations have to be determined, acknowledged and indeed sometimes conceded so that we are able to facilitate the finalisation of preliminary plans to create an epistemological basis for all parties to proceed towards a mutually beneficial consummation which will acknowledge and safeguard the vital interests of all the participants without jeopardising in any material way the underlying collective benefit ultimately accruing to the signatories or leaving unresolved such anomalies and irregularities that might precipitate operational uncertainties down the line, so that there will be a presumed modicum of ironclad reciprocity which in the great scheme of things will be to everybody’s advantage.

Jim: Did that mean yes or no?

Humphrey: Don’t you think yes and no are rather broad and unspecific in their application?

(Hmmmm…anyone remember the “shall we stay in Europe” question? Please vote yes or no…no additional information required!!!!)

Ah but if only things were so simple and there were no limits to corruptibility. Prime Minister Jim Hacker has to contend with the Kumranistan Foreign Secretary’s request for a sexual partner for the evening. Fearing diplomatic repercussions if the request is not met, together with various moral considerations and worries about the economic stability of the country, the cabinet set about with good old media manipulation (yes…really!) divine intervention and good old political conspiracies to get what they want. Whilst hilarious to watch, it does make you wonder about the dubious decisions taken by those we place our trust in when we put our cross on the ballot box paper. Watching this play, which was written in 2010, we could have easily been watching our current Government’s desperate actions to retain power!

Jim: We should have teachers at the Department of Education, doctors and nurses at the Department of Health, accountants and actuaries at the Treasury. Experts. People who actually know what needs to be done.

Humphrey: I think that would be very dangerous, Prime Minister.
Jim: I want advice from real people, who live in the real world doing the real jobs –

Humphrey: Prime Minister, you’re striking at the very heart of our whole system of government. Our success is founded upon staying free from the taint of professionalism. And the corruption of specialist knowledge. You’re not seriously – you can’t be serious – it’s out of the question…You wouldn’t really do this? Would he, Bernard?

So no more plays for 2019….it’s back to reading and I stumbled across a book about narcissism. Now, I’d always thought narcissism was related to the Greek Myth about the hunter Narcissus who was renowned for his beauty and everything beautiful. Oh it goes a lot deeper than that…way further. So much so, after I finished the book I was reading, I immediately bought the second one! I’ll share my thoughts about them in 2020!

Hope you’ve enjoyed catching up with me and my condensed review of the last few months. Hopefully 2020 will allow me to get some structure in place to do some writing in between the current horror of working full-time!