Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Being out of touch with pop culture

I woke up this morning and discovered what South Africans have been tweeting about overnight:

 

As Tom Lehrer says, this, I know from nothing.

I don’t recognise any of them. I ask my wife, who’s the football fan in the family, if any of them are well-known soccer players, but she hasn’t heard of most of them either,. Perhaps they are soap opera characters, and we don’t watch the soaps on TV. We occasionally watch quiz shows, and most of what we know about soaps comes from questions asked on quiz shows.

Still, it’s interesting to see what South Africans are obsessing about less than a month before a general election. Is this the freedom we fought for?

I’m still trying to work out who to vote for, but some of the parties seem very shy and to have a minimal social media presence. Does anyone know anything really bad about the African People’s Convention (APC) and their list of candidates? Their only MP, Themba Godi, seems to have done a reasonably good job of chairing parliamentary committees, and that’s about all we know.

But none of the parties or candidates seem to be trending on Twitter this morning.

 

 

Election 2019: who can one vote for? Part 2

In an earlier post I listed some of the main political parties in South Africa, and my reservations about voting for them.

One of the things that stands out for me in this year’s general election is that so many people I know, even those with fairly strong political convictions, don’t know which party to vote for.

Now I’m trying to make a list of the parties I’m thinking I might vote for. I’ll be watching to see what they do, and hope that if anyone knows of any dodgy dealings by people on their lists they’ll let me know.

African People’s Convention (APC)

The African People’s Convention is a breakaway from the PAC, it has had one member of parliament in 2009 and 2014, Themba Godi. He is the only opposition MP to have chaired a parliamentary committee, and to all accounts has done it quite well.

PRO: It is a parliamentary party and therefore not likely to be a wasted vote for a pip-squeak party. I know nothing bad about its only MP. It seems to have broad political principles rather than a narrowly-defined ideology like the SRWP below.

CON: Don’t know enough about them and their policies, though if there are policies I strongly disagree with, they are unlikely to be in a position to implement them after this election.

The Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party

It has only just been formed, but it has been one of the few groups to explicitly counter the Thatcherism of the ANC, whose policies of privatisation and semi-privatisation have led to the plundering of public resources by monopoly capitalism (white AND Indian, if you want to get all racist about it). In representing the urban workers it is similar to the MDC in Zimbabwe.

PRO: It might oppose the Zuptas’ “Radical Economic Transformation” of South Africa into a kleptocracy.

CON: It seems, to all accounts, to be wedded to a rigid Marxist ideological framework, which can lead to internal squabbles about political correctness. Also, it seems to be linked primarily to one trade union, so its claim to be able to unite the working class seems a little hollow.

Liberal Party of South Africa (New)

Not to be confused with the old Liberal Party, which disbanded in 1968. This one was formed in 2017, and like the SRWP was a reaction to the corruption of the Zupta-dominated ANC.

PRO: They affirm liberal values, and are very aware of corruption and the danger it poses to the country.

CON: I was at the official party launch in 2017, and was not sure whether the main thrust of the party would be nonracial liberalism or coloured nationalism. Both seemed to be almost equally prominent. Also, I’m not sure if it’s even registered for the 2019 elections.

Anybody else?

Any other parties worth considering?

I’m not interested in hearing about the main parties listed in my earlier post here — please comment there if you have a good counter for my reservations about them.

At the moment I’m most inclined to vote for the APC, but that could change at any time between now and 8 May.

 

Urban fantasy, mediocrity, and the male torso

I’ve become interested in literary genres recently, mainly because I’ve been reading several books that are difficult to classify. I’ve been looking for books that are similar to those of Charles Williams, and someone said that they belonged in the urban fantasy genre.

I would definitely include two of Charles Williams’s novels in the urban fantasy genre — All Hallows Eve and Descent into Hell. They are not my favourite Williams novels, but they are certainly urban fantasy, so I added them to the urban fantasy list on GoodReads, where Descent into Hell is rated 2657th along with Sign of Chaos by Roger Zelazny, and The Rakam by Karpov Kinrade.

It seems that I was the only person who voted for it, so if you think it deserves better company, please go there and vote for it too.

I’m not sure, though, that moving it further up the list would put it into better company,. because at the top of the list, with 2631 votes, is City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, the reviews of which do not inspire much confidence.

And it’s not just the reviews. It’s the cover, which features a faceless male torso.

The faceless male torso seems to be a meme, or trope, or whatever you call it, that is featured on about one in ten books nowadays. I recently entered my latest book, The Year of the Dragon, in a book cover competition, and in those competitions there is almost always at least one cover with a faceless male torso.

It seems a rather odd thing to have on a book cover, and it makes me think of the the title, though not of the content, of a book by C.S. Lewis, Till we have Faces.

I checked to see what lists Till we have Faces was on, and it was only on one — Novels for grown-ups by authors better known for their children’s books. I added it to The Best of Mythic Fiction list, and one other. Again, go there and vote for it if you think it deserves to be found by more people.

Dropping back down from the face to the torso again for a moment, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams did once publish a book about the Arthurian torso. It might have been better known if it had been published with an illustration, like one of these.

That should keep us going till we have faces.

Now, back to literary genres, and especially urban fantasy.

Another book that I thought belonged in the urban fantasy genre, and I think it is the best urban fantasy novel I have ever read, is Elidor by Alan Garner. Yet it is 1727th in the urban fantasy list, and it seems that I was the only person who voted for it. If you’ve read it and think it deserves better, please go and vote for it here. If you haven’t read it and like urban fantasy, or think you do, please add it to your to-read list right now.

 

Literary Coffee Klatsch: Books Mentioned

Here are some of the books mentioned at our literary coffee klatsch in April 2019:

David Levey said he enjoyed poems by Theodore Roethke, who writes poetry about ordinary things, but very good poems.

At a book club he belonged to they had been reading Educated, by Tara Westover, a memoir about growing up up a survivalist family with parents who did not believe in education, especially for daughters. This was also linked to works by Octavia Butler.

I have been reading books by John Connolly, and a memoir of Zakes Mda, in a strange order, described here. The John Connolly books I have finished reading and reviewed are The Wrath of Angels and Dark Hollow. These both feature private detective Charlie “Bird” Parker, but if you are going to read any of that series I strongly recommend beginning with the first one, Every Dead Thing, which I am reading now. There is so much in the later books in the series that refers back to events in this one that it really is important to begin at the beginning.

Also, to get a different idea of John Connolly I read The Book of Lost Things, which is a stand alone fantasy book that does not feature detective Charlie Parker. This one belongs to a sub-genre, which one could call “the boy with sick mother who finds himself in another world” genre. Other books in this genre are The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub, and The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis.In my view The Book of Lost Things is better than the former but not as good as the latter.

I mentioned in one of my earlier reviews that I thought that John Connolly had seemed to be developing in the opposite direction to Phil Rickman, whose books started off spooky, like The Wine of Angels and Candlenight and gradually seem to be becoming mundane whodunits in the vein of Miss Marple. Connolly seemed to be going the other way, from mundane whodunits to spooky, but in reading Every Dead Thing I see that the spooky stuff was there from the start.

Another thing about Phil Rickman’s books is that they say quite a lot about the current ethos of the Church of England and the Church of Wales, and we mentioned other authors who had written in a similar vein — the Barchester novels of Anthony Trollope, some novels by Ernest Raymond in the early to mid-20th century such as The Chalice and the Sword, novels of Susan Howatch such as Glittering Images, and, for a South African flavour, Expiring Frog by Elizabeth Webster.

For the most horrific and horrible horror novel we voted for The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams. And for books that would have been better off without sequels, Duncton Wood by William Horwood (in the same genre as Watership Bown by Richard Adams), To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee, and A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller.

That’s about it for April 2019.

 

 

The Book of Lost Things

The Book of Lost ThingsThe Book of Lost Things by John Connolly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading a couple of whodunits by John Connolly I thought I would see what he wrote in another genre, and this one is fantasy of the “child entering another world” kind, like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

Unlike those other books, however, I think this one, though it has a child protagonist, is not really for child readers. I find it rather difficult to put my finger on why I think that. On the surface, at least, it looks as though it should be good for children to read. Twelve-year-old David, mourning his dead mother, resentful of his father for remarrying, and jealous of his younger half-brother, by the end of the story has learned to cope with those things in his life. It should surely be instructive for children who face similar conditions in their lives, which many do. But somehow this one isn’t that kind of book.

The Book of Lost Things seems more violent and cruel than the other books mentioned. In the other books there is violence or bloodshed, or the threat of it (“off with his head!”), and there is cruelty (“intercision” in His Dark Materials) but here it somehow seems to be told with more relish, and seems harsher and more cruel.

In this respect it is more like The Talisman by Peter Straub and Stephen King. That book also has a twelve-year-old protagonist with a sick mother, but this one, I think, is better told, and has a much more convincing fantasy world (see my review of The Talisman here). So why did I give them both four stars? On a ten-star scale I would have given The Talisman seven stars, and this one eight.

So if you liked The Talisman I think you might like this one more, but just because it is a book about a child, don’t think it is a book for children. I suppose I might have enjoyed reading it as a child from about the age of 11 onwards, but it’s still not as children’s book.

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Dark Hollow

Dark Hollow (Charlie Parker, #2)Dark Hollow by John Connolly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I recently read The Wrath of Angels by John Connolly, and realised that I had forgotten much of the plot of this one,which was on our shelves, and which I had read 18 years earlier. So I reread it to get an idea of where it had started. Both books feature Connolly’s private detective character, Charlie “Bird” Parker but the books are very different.

What struck me on re-reading this one is that Connolly seems to be going in the opposite direction to Phil Rickman. Rickman started writing spooky supernatural stories, but his exorcist character, Merrily Watkins, is gradually reinventing herself as an amateur detective. Connolly’s Charlie Parker seems to be going the other way, from private detective to exorcist, but the weapons of his warfare are very carnal indeed, doing his exorcisms with a Smith & Wesson rather than with holy water. I’m not sure that it works too well.

But there is little of that in Dark Hollow, which is a straightforward whodunit in which the police and a crime syndicate are looking for the same man, Billy Purdue, Purdue is a suspect in the murder of his wife and son, and the mob believe he stole their money, so both the police and the crime bosses are after him..Only Charlie Parker thinks that there could be someone else, but more and more people who are connected with Billy Purdue are getting killed.

There is barely a hint of the spooky stuff that features so prominently in The Wrath of Angels however, so I’m left wondering where it started to come in to the Charlie Parker series. In the library I found a book midway between the two I have now read, The Black Angel. Perhaps that will give me a clue to the change.

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Everyone’s talking about Jordan Peterson

It seems that everyone’s talking about Jordan Peterson, including Jordan Peterson.

Jordan Peterson was apparently invited (or, according to some accounts, invited himself) for a visiting fellowship with the Cambridge University Faculty of Divinity, and the invitation was subsequently withdrawn by the university, leading Peterson to get into a snit and invoke a biblical curse on the Cambridge Divinity Faculty, wishing it the obscurity it so richly deserved. In that article he comes across as petulant child having a temper tantrum.

Jordan Peterson

I first heard of Jordan Peterson at our monthly literary coffee klatsch a year ago, and have been debating with myself whether it would be worth the effort to find and read any of his books, and have discovered huge debates about him. It seems that he is a secular guru who is widely (and controversially) discussed in Christian circles, Some seem to regard him as a kind of prophet for our age, while others seem to regard him as a false prophet to be denounced. It seems, from what I’ve heard, that the Cambridge Divinity Faculty are about equally divided on this point.

So I am like Topol in the film Fiddler on the Roof, saying “on the one hand” and “on the other hand”, and being unable to decide.

One thing that prejudices me against Jordan Peterson is that he and another secular guru, Jonathan Haidt, appear to have overlapping fan groups, Saying that they have overlapping fan groups does not necessarily mean that they know each other, or agree with each other, or that they are in cahoots with each other, though since both are engaged in the same discipline (psychology) it is quite possible that they have met. I’m not even sure about their overlapping fan groups — that could be a misperception on my part. What I do know, however, is that Jonathan Haidt promotes a set of values that are very different from Christian values. And I do wonder about the wisdom of Christians running after fashionable Western secular gurus, particularly psychologists.

So I’m still thinking “on the one hand” and “on the other hand”.

On the one hand, why would a Faculty of Divinity invite someone from a different discipline, psychology, as a visiting fellow? Of course one can have interdisciplinary studies, but interdisciplinary studies should surely be founded on something more than celebrity. I am reminded of what another blogger once wrote:

Rational debate about the existence/ non-existence of God, and the ethical implications thereof, is good. It belongs to human dignity to seek to discern what is true.

There is an academic discipline which studies questions such as what constitutes a warranted belief, what religious language ‘means’, whether it has a possible reference and what it means for our conceptions of the good life. That discipline is philosophy. There is also an academic discipline whose remit of study includes the atrocities committed in the name of religion. That discipline is history.

So why, when Channel Four want to air a programme about these issues do they give air-time to a biologist with no training whatsoever in either discipline? Moreover one whose previous pronouncements in this area have only been published because he has piggy-backed on his (justified) scientific reputation and which, considered in their own right, are unworthy of a moderately bright A-level student..

Yet another example of the ignoring of the humanities in mainstream culture and, in spite of the irrationalism of our age, the persistence of the Victorian cult of the polymath scientist. Boo, hiss.

In both cases it seems to have been the celebrity of Peterson and Dawkins that led to the invitation.

On the other hand there is a sense in which theology is too important to be left to the professional academic theologians. Of all academic disciplines, theology should be most open to hearing from those from outside, because theology claims to be the Queen of the Sciences, the one that makes sense of all the others, That gives people like Dawkins and Peterson as much right to make pronouncements on theology as anybody else.

There is another aspect of this particular incident, however, which also seems to be ambivalent, and that is the reasons given for withdrawing the Fellowship at Cambridge — that Peterson’s views were not representative of the student body. That seems to go against the liberal ideal of a university as a place where different views can be vigorously debated, and seems to reflect a growing authoritarian tendency in many universities.

When I was a student at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg (now UKZN) in the 1960s it was regarded as a liberal institution in a very conservative society. It was, many would say, only comparatively liberal. But even that minimal liberalism seems more liberal than Cambridge University today. Students were open to hearing different views, at least to the extent that the government allowed them to. Every year the local committee of the National Union of South African Students (Nusas) arranged a Reality Week, at which representatives of different political parties were invited to debate on campus. The National Party debated with the Liberal Party. The United Party was too afraid to appear on the same platform as the Progressive Party, so they spoke at separate meetings. The Communist Party, the ANC and the PAC were banned by the government, and so could not appear, but if they had been able to the students would have given them a hearing, as they gave to the others. Even though there was vigorous disagreement, the differing views were heard. At the root of that lay the liberal concept of academic freedom.

Of course there are limits to academic freedom, limits which quacks and loonies sometimes try to push by promoting bogus academic disciplines (one that did a lot of damage in South Africa, whose effects are still felt today, was Fundamental Pedagogics). But Jordan Peterson is not one of those. He’s a professor in a recognised department of a recognised Canadian university. So why is a British university apparently purging people whose views seem to differ from the official party line? Ought a university to have an official party line?

But though I think it bad that people should try to suppress the views of people like Jordan Peterson, I’m still not convinced that I should lash out money on any of his books, Not a good excuse, I suppose, because I did read Dan Brown’s The da Vinci code even though I knew beforehand that it was probably rubbish, and reading it only confirmed that. But mass-market paperbacks are cheaper than academic books. And lest anyone say that a lot of Peterson’s stuff is on YouTube, let me say that I don’t do YouTube because (a) it’s also expensive, like books, (b) it usually tells me my browser doesn’t recognise any of the formats available, and (c) even if it does recognise the format, it’s usually so broken up that I can’t hear it,

Update

Since writing all that stuff above I’ve come across a review that reminds me of the reservations I had about Jordan Peterson when I first heard of him. I had forgotten the lobster factor, which Duncan Reyburn had mentioned at our literary coffee klatch. But this review reminded me of it again: Review: 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson | Kate Manne:

Rule One is “Stand up straight with your shoulders back”, to avoid seeming like a “loser lobster”, who shrinks from conflict and grows sad, sickly and loveless – and is prone to keep on losing, which is portrayed as a disaster.

And I recall that that was what made Jordan Peterson’s stuff incompatible with, and indeed contrary to Christian values — it espouses worldly values, like being a winner. It is diametrically opposed to the Beatitudes, which tell us “Blessed are the meek”, but if we follow Peterson’s advice, that is all wrong, because in this world, Blessed are the pushy, for they shall get what they want.

The Wrath of Angels (book review)

The Wrath of Angels (Charlie Parker, #11)The Wrath of Angels by John Connolly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not quite sure what to make of this book. I read a previous book, Dark Hollow by the same author, featuring the same protagonist, private detective Charlie “Bird” Parker, but that was 19 years ago, and 9 books in the series ago. There seems to be a lot to catch up, and a lot that is unexplained, though I’m not sure I want to read all the intervening nine novels in order to catch up.

In this one it seems that everyone is wanting to get hold of a list of names from a crashed plane, but who compiled the list, and what the significance of the names is, is not disclosed. There are also other lists of names circulating and it seems that people are prepared to kill to get hold of these lists or to stop others from getting hold of them. It seems that there are several rival parties in competition for the lists, some of them demonised and others who are not, but who suspect each other of being demonised. So the good guys go around with armed bodyguards, which seems a bit too physical for facing spiritual threats.

For a while I thought it might develop into the “supernatural thriller” genre represented by the works of Charles Williams, but it tended to be a bit too physical for that. There were some nice touches of a mysterious historical legend, but nothing much seemed to come of it. Perhaps it will be developed in the next in the series, perhaps not. But too much in this one seemed to depend on knowledge of the backstory.

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Judging a book by its cover

For the week 10-17 March 2019 my book The Year of the Dragon is participating in a competition to see which of 10 books has the best cover. I’m inviting you to go to this site — Cover Wars — and vote for it every day during this week.

Of course, if you think that one of the other covers is better, you can vote for that, but I think the cover of The Year of the Dragon is the best, so I hope you will vote for it seven times over the next week.

Because the image of the cover on the Cover Wars site is rather small, I’m posting a bigger version here to make it easier to judge it. And remember, you are being asked to judge the cover, not the whole book, so even if you think it’s a crummy book, you can still vote for the cover.

The cover was designed my son Simon Hayes, who is a freelance computer illustrator and animator. You can see more of his work and his current projects here.

Some people have asked about where they can get a copy of the book itself.  It is an ebook, and you can click on the icon of the book on the Cover Wars site, or click here to get to the Smashwords site where you can order it. It is also available from other ebook retailers. If you’d like to know more about the book and how it came to be written, see here: The Year of the Dragon.

As the graphic on the right says, one of the ways in which you can support artists is to share it with friends, and one of the ways you can do that is to share this post on social media. You can do that quite easily by clicking on one or more of the sharing buttons at the bottom of this post. If you see this on Facebook, you can both “share” and “like” it. If you got an email message about this, please forward it to friends or family members.

And we also have another artist in our family; our daughter Julia Bridget Hayes is an ikonographer living in Athens, Greece, and you can see her work here.

 

Invisible Forms: Curiosities of Literature

Invisible Forms and Other Literary CuriositiesInvisible Forms and Other Literary Curiosities by Kevin Jackson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fascinating excursion into all the bits of books other than the actual text itself. It includes a bibliography (in the chapter on Bibliographies) that shows that each of these “forms” has one or more books dedicated to itself alone. There are books on bibliographies, books on indexes and indexing, books on footnotes and footnoting, and more. Jackson refers to these parts of books, other than the main text, as “paratext”.

Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac D’Israeli, pub 1794

It was inspired by Curiosities of Literature first published in 1791 by Isaac D’Israeli (father of Benjamin Disraeli, sometime Prime Minister of the UK). I have a copy of that too, in three volumes, and one of the oldest books in our house. We have the fourth edition, published in 1794, and it’s on my list to read now. I’ve only dipped into it before, reading an essay here and there (it’s that kind of book), but Kevin Jackson has piqued my curiosity.

My mother once worked at Arthur Meikle’s, estate agents and auctioneers in Johannesburg, and bought this copy at a sale, presumably from a deceased estate, probably of Hedley Williams, who seems to have acquired it in May 1937. There is also an inscription of a previous owner, with the note “Bgt at sale”, so perhaps the physical books themselves have an interesting history.

In addition to the interesting histories and facts about these literary forms, Invisible Forms would be useful to any aspiring writer, as it could give most people a better knowledge of most of these forms, and in one volume, rather than having to get a separate book for each. Are you struggling to find a suitable title for your next novel? Read the chapter on Titles here.

It is also full of droll and erudite humour. Anyone who has worked in academia in the last 30 years and has gradually seen the proportion of administrative to academic staff rise enormously will be amused, or perhaps dismayed, by a footnote on footnotes, discussing the profusion of footnotes and other references in academic books:

There used to be a method, no doubt encouraged by bean counters, whereby the ‘objective’ worth of an article or book was supposed to be gauged by the number of citations received in other books or articles. The effect was predictable by anyone who isn’t a bean counter: academics would set up little back-scratching groups or cartels of citation.

Indexes have taken many forms, and some have taken a narrative form, telling a story in themselves. Jackson notes that some publishers, no doubt inspired by their bean counters, had left indexes out of some of their academic books, not so much because of the extra expense of including them, but to foil academics who, in search of a couple of citations, would simply browse the index in a bookshop instead of buying the book. Jackson gives, as an example of an index telling a story, R.C. Latham’s index to Pepys’s diary:

‘BAGWELL,–; wife of William; her good looks–; P plans to seduce–; visits–; finds her virtuous–; and modest–; asks P for place for husband–; P kisses–; she grows affectionate–; he caresses–; she visits him–; her resistance collapses in alehouse–; amorous encounters with at her house.’ Unsurprisingly, Mr Latham won the Society of Indexers’ Wheatley Medal for 1983 with this fine work.

There are several chapters devoted to pseudonyms, heteronyms and fictional books and authors.

One example of a fictitious book that he gives is The Necronomicon, frequently mentioned, with an elaborate pedigree, in the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft, and Jackson tells of people who have gone into bookshops to order copies, only to be told that it doesn’t exist.

Since this book was published 20 years ago, a more recent example has occurred. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown mentioned similar fictitious books. The protagonist, Professor Robert Langdon is introduced as the author of The Symbology of Secret Sects, The Art of the Illuminati and a few others. When my son worked in a bookshop a few years ago a customer came in and asked if they had one of these books. My son said they did not. The customer then asked him to order it, and my son said he could not, as the book did not exist. The customer angrily waved a copy of The Da Vinci Code, pointing to where the book was mentioned, and my son explained that it was a work of fiction, and the protagonist was a fictitious character, and that the books that the story mentioned were fictitious works. The customer got even more angry, and threatened to report him to the management for refusing to order the book.

Another interesting chapter was on Marginalia. Jackson records some instances where marginalia have been collected and published separately. Something not mentioned in the book, but which came up while I was reading it, was this article: Why Were Medieval Knights Often Pictured Fighting Giant Snails?, which deals with marginalia in medieval manuscripts.

Jackson gives more examples of fictitious authors, some of whom published real works. There were three Portuguese poets who did not exist. Another imaginary character turned up in several books, as various authors joined in the fun.

A quick read was informative and illuminating, but one could have weeks or even months of fun following up some of the more obscure allusions.

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