This collage depicts various dictators overthrown in the last 100 years when their countrymen and women finally woke up to their true nature and found the courage to bring their brutal reign to an end.
Vladimir Putin, the current Russian dictator, has been spreading a malicious and fictitious narrative which supports, and is intended to justify, the actions he has instigated against Ukraine. At the moment, the world is on tenterhooks, wondering how this atrocity will end. Here is what I would like to see:
The Russian soldiers currently in Ukraine, realising the truth, the injustice and the horror of what they are inflicting on innocent Ukrainian civilians, lay down their arms and refuse to fight.
These same soldiers bring this truth back to Russia, providing eyewitness accounts to their fellow Russians by Russians who were there and in a position to bear witness to what actually transpired, thereby contradicting the narrative concocted by Putin’s government to justify his unlawful and immoral actions in Ukraine.
This is the important one. The Russian people themselves rise up and overthrow the Putin regime, and bring Putin and his accomplices before the appropriate, independent and impartial world court to be tried in a way that is transparent and appropriate to the seriousness of the charges brought against them. And,
If convicted, Putin and his cohorts should be punished appropriately, humanely, but in a manner befitting the crimes of which they have been convicted. They should be punished, not only for their own misdeeds, but as an example to future world leaders with dictatorial ambitions that they may not treat with disdain and contempt the people they purport to serve because the rest of the world will not allow it.
What is important is that the Russian people themselves learn the truth about what is currently occurring in Ukraine, take appropriate action and bring about a fair and equitable end to what their government has initiated. Russia belongs to Russians, just as Ukraine belongs to Ukrainians. The Russian people are ultimately responsible for what is done in and by their country. But if they have been deluded by a corrupt and self-serving government, then the Russian people, themselves, should be given the opportunity to right the wrongs done in their name and thereby restore their country’s credibility as an honourable member of the global fraternity.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev, swapped roles in 2008, then swapped back again in 2012, so that Putin could circumvent the then limitations on the length of time an individual could serve as President of Russia, the ominous signs were there.
And when Putin subsequently changed those rules so that he could reign as President, virtually in perpetuity, the signs were there.
These, however, were internal matters for Russia and its people, so the world looked on, perhaps slightly bemused, and returned to its knitting. But the signs, nevertheless, were there.
When a political leader takes direct control of the armed services, the civilian police and the secret police, with no checks and balances to impede or constrain his use of those levers as he sees fit, the signs are there.
When a political leader takes control of the state media, supresses the free press, exiles or imprisons political opponents on what might be regarded as “convenient” charges, or even assassinates them, the signs are there.
And when a political leader sculpts the truth to suit a fiction he is bent on creating to further his personal ambition, the signs are there.
The signs that Vladimir Putin was cementing himself as an unassailable totalitarian autocrat and evolving as a self-serving megalomaniac were all there, and the rest of the world ignored them because the impact of these developments was considered to be domestic Russian business, and western governments are reluctant to look beyond their own next elections. Putin on the other hand, has skilfully managed to avoid that constraint, and now, he’s virtually untouchable in Russia.
But when Russia invaded the self-proclaimed Georgian republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008 and effectively went to war with the sovereign state of Georgia, the signs were there. A playbook for the future Russian expansion was being established and trialled then, not by Putin himself but under the auspices of Dimitry Medvedev, and the signs of the broader Russian ambition were on display for all but those who chose to ignore them.
If the Russo-Georgian conflict of 2008 failed to achieve the outcome then President Medvedev wanted, at least it was a test run for what was next on the Russian agenda, the invasion of Ukraine. By the playbook tried and tested in 2008, a new scenario emerged. Two states within Ukraine’s borders with significant ethnic Russian populations, Donetsk and Luhansk, were already sympathetic to Russia’s aims. So Russia supplied them with weapons and ammunition, some of which were used to shoot down a commercial airliner, Malaysian Airlines MH17 resulting in the deaths of 298 passengers and crew. Not Russians, not Georgians, but Dutch, Malaysians and Australians among others. Its flight plan had been registered with the proper authorities and it was not operating in restricted airspace, although with the benefit of hindsight it might have been wiser to avoid flying over a war zone. The shooting down might have been an error, but the total denial of responsibility by both the Russian government, whose military ordinance was used in the attack, and the Russian-backed rebels in the Donbas, who fired the rocket, was surely a sign of a situation that was getting out of hand. The rest of the world gasped in horror and a few token sanctions were applied, an investigation was carried out, a trial took place (albeit without any defendants present), and the whole thing was conveniently consigned to the “too hard” basket. But the signs were there.
In this same land grab, Russia invaded Crimea, a legitimate part of Ukrainian territory, and joined it to Russia by means of the Crimean Bridge whose construction began in 2016, effectively blocking Ukraine’s access to its ports on the Sea of Azov. Once again, the world watched these developments with outrage, rattled its sabres and voiced its indignation but did nothing effectively to stop it. The signs were there, looming larger and larger. But the signs were ignored.
And now, after denial after denial after denial from Putin, and threat after threat from NATO, we have the invasion of Ukraine, a sovereign country, an invasion not just of the disputed Donbas region but of parts of the country that were considered safe by those too naïve to recognise the Russian aggression. This was not just a “spur of the moment” action by Russia to support its ethnic brothers and sisters, this was a carefully planned attack by a country that had trialled its methods in Georgia 14 years earlier and learned its lessons well. The signs had been there all along, but the rest of the world either didn’t recognise them, or worse, chose to ignore them.
I watch these developments with sadness because I have been to Russia and I have been to Ukraine, I can place myself there, reliving those memories – happy memories. I remember the people I met there, in Russia and the Ukraine. I remember them fondly, when there was no talk of war, no hostility or suspicion, just sharing and mutual curiosity.
I watch, with both sadness and frustration, coverage of the UN Security Council deliberations on this matter. I watch the Secretary-General pleading with member states to bring an end to this atrocity which he avows goes against not only the spirit of the UN but many of its binding agreements. I listen to the outrage voiced by the Western Allies, and I listen to the indignation of the Russian delegate whose justification for his country’s actions is nothing if not inventive. But what purpose does the UN Security Council serve if it cannot bring an end to this blatant invasion of another country’s sovereignty and restore peace to Ukraine, which has sought only to protect its rights according to the UN Charter? No matter what action the Security Council proposes, Russia has the right to veto it and the matter will end there. So not only does Vladimir Putin enjoy absolute authority over Russia, but it appears that he is able to act with impunity throughout the world. And it is clear that this invasion is not a spontaneous reaction by Russia to a perceived affront. This has been in the planning for years and Russia has already prepared itself to withstand the world’s condemnation, its sanctions (which will probably hurt the ordinary working people with narrow financial buffers more than the targeted oligarchs who have been saving for this for years), its puny punitive measures, the civilised pleadings of Macron and Schultz and the Churchillian rhetoric of Boris Johnson, while innocent Ukrainians, civilians among them, children among them, elderly among them, frail among them, are attacked, bombed, shot and who knows what else because the world saw the signs and ignored them. In recent decades, Russia has slipped to number three on the league table of powerful nations, behind the US and China; so Vladimir Putin is a man on a mission, not from God, but for posterity. He is addicted to power, to control, to his own supremacy and untouchability. But at some stage, the world will have to engage with him, ideally through diplomacy but if not, by whatever means are necessary, for Putin’s ego comes at a price, not for himself, not so much for other world leaders who might look weak alongside him but will almost certainly parlay that away to their own benefit (because that’s what they do), but for the thousands of innocent people – Russians, Ukrainians, other Europeans, migrant workers, visitors – men, women and children who will suffer inevitable hardship, who will be uprooted from their homes, who will be divested of their property, all they have worked for, who might be killed or crippled or injured in some other way, who will suffer trauma perhaps for the rest of their lives, whose plans may be disrupted, whose dreams might be dashed – all because one Vladimir Putin needs to polish his ego and establish himself as the alpha male in the geo-political herd of narcissistic self-aggrandisers. The signs were all there. They were there for a long time. They’re lit up in neon now. But can we afford to keep on ignoring them? Do we have that right?
Why do we like to hear stories? Because they’re simple and straightforward and they make sense in retrospect; and what I mean by that is that when you arrive at the moment of climax and look back at what has transpired to bring you to that point, you invariably say to yourself: “I didn’t see that coming. But with the benefit of hindsight, it was bound to happen. ” And it was bound to happen because the author contrived that it should. But each story only represents part of the history we all share and creating it is akin to removing a single thread from a bolt of woven fabric with a complex and sometimes incomprehensible pattern. In its isolation, you can appreciate the elegant simplicity of the thread’s inherent structure, the pureness of its colour, the integrity of its purpose, its strength and its fragility. But life isn’t like that. Life is random. Life is chaotic. And despite our efforts and intentions, life is still pretty much a cocktail of chance and circumstance. But above all, life is unfair. Life is not a story, nor a series of stories, nor is it a complex interweaving of story lines that intersect and separate and perhaps even intersect again. Life is. Life happens. Shit happens; and it stinks, and you have to clean it off your shoe and for days afterwards you keep finding more bits of it that you swear weren’t there yesterday, but you have no choice but to hold your nose and grit your teeth and wipe it off because, when shit happens, it happens to you. So the purpose of the story is to facilitate our escape from that. No matter how violent, no matter how sordid, no matter how discomfiting it is for the protagonists travailing in its midst, you, the reader, can enjoy it because it is simple, it happens at its own pace following its own inherent logic, and best of all, it isn’t happening to you. You are merely an observer; an innocent by-stander. And then along came the post-modernists; and now there is shit everywhere. They bring us stories in their uber-reality with inconsequential details littering the pages: distractions, diversions – reality in all its mundane absurdity. Those pouting intellectuals with their smug self-awareness and lexical pyrotechnics, their intertextuality and unreliable narrators, their historiographic metafictions and poioumena and fabulation, have muddied the waters by taking an art form and turning it into a mirror. In their stories, we are not looking at some ideal we aspire to become, nor some archetype of evil from whom we want to and can easily distinguish ourselves, but the flawed, uncertain, anxious individuals we recognise as ourselves, the ones who are confounded by a life which appears to serve no other purpose than to perpetuate the species, give more power to the already powerful and add wealth to the already rich. For this reason, we need stories more than ever. Stories are windows to the future we all dream will become a reality; whereas mirrors only pander to vanity or despair.
As I see it, creative writing comprises two major components: art and craft.
Craft, I believe, can be taught. It is the equivalent to mastering the materials and tools of a trade which, in the case of writing, comprise primarily words on a page. But dig deeper and you find that, in addition to vocabulary and semantics, the tools of the writer include grammar and punctuation, sentence and paragraph construction, the rhythm and sonority of coexisting words, and perhaps the most elusive and nebulous of all, the connotations released by those words in specific contexts. All of those instruments can be taught. But they cannot all be learned to the same degree of proficiency. Any able-bodied person can be taught the rudimentary techniques of playing the violin, but not everyone will learn to play it with the skill and passion of a Paganini.
And sometimes, for some students, the application of craft can get in the way of their creativity. Teaching the craft of writing is often more about don’ts than dos; and the novice writer can find himself caught in the trap of avoiding pitfalls rather than allowing his inner voice free rein to express itself with fire and passion. There are clichés to be avoided and speech tags to be eschewed. Never write in the passive voice and be careful of over-using the same words or expressions. Be precise! Never use an exclamation mark outside inverted commas. Don’t use those vague words like they and it. (Where was Dickens’ craft teacher when he started writing A Tale of Two Cities, I wonder.) Abandon all ye who enter here all adverbs and adjectives. And for goodness sake: SHOW, DON’T TELL. I once had the temerity to enter the first page of Joyce’s Ulysses into one of those style checking programs, and it failed dramatically.
The art of writing, on the other hand, is something that I believe can be learned but not taught. It is learned by living a life and observing and reflecting on the actions of the life lived and their consequences. And one’s learning can be further supplemented by reading and absorbing the manner in which other writers have conveyed their experience using only those abstract symbols a writer has at his disposal. I believe a writer who makes you feel something when you read his or her work is a writer from whom you can learn a great deal.
From an early age, certainly pre-teen, I was drawn to writing. But over the years, I have slowly come to accept the probability that I will never achieve the greatness to which that early version of me aspired. At first, I resisted the notion of failure and strove to overcome it. Being a writer was synonymous to me then with being an author. But gradually I learned to temper my ambition. Now I write because I enjoy writing. I have no ulterior motive. I endeavour to improve, to make each new piece I write better than its predecessors, treating each one as an essential step on a long ladder to self-fulfilment. Am I deluding myself, telling myself that being an author doesn’t matter? Perhaps. But if it is merely a subterfuge, it is one that hurts no one, not even me.
Sometimes, I read articles by or about authors whose work I admire – I like to know their experience in the process of writing – and to my frequent surprise and great satisfaction, I find that often they describe experiences which I, myself, have known and enjoyed, more modestly perhaps but enjoyed nevertheless. So when I compare myself to them, I can see only two points of difference, neither of which deters me from the path I am on. Firstly, their writing is more accomplished than mine. And secondly, they are paid for what they write. But when I write, I do not feel obliged to follow any literary conventions, or bow to the demands of publishers who seek to steer the tone or content of my manuscript towards a more lucrative outcome; and I don’t feel a need to pander to a public demanding that I fulfil their expectations. I have no public. I am a writer, not an author. But I am happy. And I am free.
Let me say from the outset that I believe in democracy; and I agree with Abraham Lincoln when he exhorted the audience at Gettysburg to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” What I’m saying here is that, in my opinion, a democratic system of government is the closest we’ve come thus far to creating a process that can deliver the principles Lincoln then advocated. But while democracy might be the best system we’ve got, it is nevertheless imperfect; and as such, we have to be very careful with how we handle it.
For a start, democracy is predicated on the dubious premise that the majority of voters know what is best for their country. That is simply not true. If you think about it seriously, the majority of voters in any country actually know little about what it takes to run a major western-style democracy. What percentage of them has actually done it? Running the local bowling club, or a pub raffle or a betting syndicate is not the same. Running a small business or a branch of a bank or a medical practice is not the same. In fact, running a publicly listed company with branches right across the country or even a multi-national corporation earning billions before tax is not the same. Maybe the argument would be valid if the political system we were comparing these enterprises to were a dictatorship where the CEO makes decisions, and issues commands, and his or her subordinates execute those commands without question; but we are talking about democracy here; and running a democracy as our forebears intended is unlike any challenge that the business or public sector can throw up. It takes a special kind of person, with a broad range of very specific skills to effectively run a democracy. But many, if not most, voters wouldn’t actually know what those skills are, much less how to decide if any given candidate possesses them.
Voters often make up their minds who to vote for based on a few simple criteria: (a) personality, (b) personal affinity and/or (c) persuasive rhetoric. Some people are more likely to vote for a candidate with charisma than one who is dull and boring. This decision might be based on the candidate’s innate personal charisma, or charisma derived from the fact that the he or she had been a movie star or a sporting hero in a previous role. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a person having charisma; and having previously been a movie star or a sporting hero should not disqualify anyone from offering themselves as a candidate for public office. Indeed, having a certain amount of charisma is essential for a diplomat whose responsibilities include persuading others to adopt their point of view. The first requirement of a leader, after all, is to persuade people to follow him or her. But if charisma is all the candidate has to offer, it is not enough to handle the complex and often competing demands of a socially developed and multilaterally diverse constituency. A candidate with bags of charisma but with no other skills or talents to back it up is like one of those Hollywood movie sets, all front but no substance; and when the campaigning is over and the time comes to get down to the business of running the country, charisma alone won’t create jobs, redress social imbalances, ensure that people can go about their lawful business in safety and security, ensure that the young are taught, that the sick are healed, that the old are cared for, that the homeless are given shelter, that the poor are provided for and the capable are given the opportunities they need to develop their capabilities. Bright eyes and a big smile alone don’t get that done.
Affinity comes in two varieties: (i) ideological, and (ii) behavioural. Ideological affinity is a good thing. It means that you have found a candidate who is prepared to fight for what you believe in. But during election campaigns, candidates sometimes get carried away with the euphoria of the contest and start telling people what they think they want to hear instead of what they are actually prepared to fight for once the election is over and they hold office. Nor can you assume that a candidate who claims to have ideological affinity with you has articulated their policies clearly and unambiguously and with absolute integrity; so it is vitally important for voters to scrutinise the speeches, to challenge and question and dig into the prior record of each candidate to reassure themselves that he or she means what he or she says and is the kind of person who will carry through those promises faithfully if elected to office. I hired many people during my professional career and never, ever, would I accept a résumé or a spoken or written claim at face value. I’d always check it out. But how many voters, when asked to hire people to run their country, go to that trouble? The two-minute sound bite on the TV news is not enough to understand the real essence of a candidate; is not enough information on which to base such an important decision as the one the voter has to make.
Behavioural affinity is what you have with a candidate who comes across as having been cut from the same cloth as you – a surrogate who will run the country in your stead, doing all the things that you would have done had you stood for office and been elected. This effectively means that you believe you would be capable of running the country yourself if you had the time or inclination to accept the office. Think about it. You are the fan on the terrace at a ballgame who thinks he can do a better job than the professional player out on the field: with no training, no practice and no experience. But deep down, if you are being brutally honest with yourself, you know that you would be ill-prepared and ill-equipped to do the job. So, if you know that you yourself are not fit to run the country, why would you vote for someone who is just like you and therefore just as unfit as you are? Behavioural affinity alone, without proven executive capability, is a good reason NOT to vote for someone. What you’re country requires you to do is elect someone who is better than you; who is capable of doing a job that, right now, you can’t even begin to comprehend.
Rhetoric. We hear so much rhetoric during election campaigns that many of us tire of listening while others wearily acquiesce, accepting what they hear as truth. Politicians know this. They know that if you make an assertion often enough, with passion and conviction, people will start to believe and accept it. In election campaigns, rhetoric is the tool of the vacuous: those with nothing more substantial to say. Voters who decide their allegiance based on rhetoric alone are abrogating their solemn responsibility to elect a candidate capable of putting words into action and effecting necessary change that will make the country a better place for all its citizens and a more responsible member of the global community; because the rhetorician’s arguments are invariably based on words rather than deeds. The responsibility of voters to elect the best possible government for their country is a serious one. Rather than simply accept the candidates’ rhetoric at face value, the democratic process places an onus on the voting public to question everything that is said and written by the candidates in pursuit of office, dig deeply into it, challenge it if it doesn’t ring true and never allow the candidates to believe that the voters can be so easily fooled as to blindly accept their rhetoric because once that channel is opened up, there will be no end to the BS that gets flushed down it. An election is like a job interview and as the interviewers, voters should demand that each candidate substantiate his or her claims and allegations with independently verifiable facts rather than accept the same hollow rhetoric repeated ad nauseam by candidates who have no substantive ideas in their arsenal to expound. And voters who are not prepared to take this responsibility seriously and put in the effort commensurate with the importance of the task they are being asked to perform should, In my opinion, abstain for voting (if their particular variant of the voting system allows it) rather than cast an ill-considered and potentially damaging vote.
The second major fallacy in democracy is that it allows eligible constituents to determine who will lead their country and act on their behalf in the legislative arena. In principle, this is true; but one can only vote for candidates who put themselves forward for election; and while, in some democracies, it is possible for an ordinary citizen from a modest background to rise to political office, in others, that path is only open to those with (a) enough personal wealth to independently fund their campaign or (b) access to someone else’s war chest. For those who are not independently wealthy – and that means becoming increasingly wealthy as the candidate climbs towards pinnacle of the governing hierarchy – the candidate’s choice is (a) to align him or herself with a political party – i.e. a puppet-master who will effectively control the successful candidate while he or she is in office – or (b) seek funding from wealthy supporters who, in return for electoral support, will inevitably expect favourable treatment from the candidate once elected. In my professional life, if I really believed that no suitable candidate had presented for a role advertised, I had the option of re-advertising the position, broadening the scope of the search, doing whatever was in my power to ensure that I filled the position with someone with the right skills, experience and mindset to fulfill the responsibilities of the role and realise whatever opportunities the role might present. In government, this is not possible. When an election is held, one of the standing candidates will be elected, even if none of them can convince a majority of voters that they are capable of doing the job adequately. This is how democracy works.
It is my earnest conviction that those of us fortunate enough to live in a parliamentary democracy are uniquely privileged to do so; but with privilege comes responsibility. Our forebears called upon their knowledge and experience, their ideas of justice, equality and human dignity, to forge a system in which ordinary people could determine their own destiny through the offices of their chosen representatives. Millions have fought and many of those have died over the subsequent years to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” But it is precisely because democracy is flawed that we must all be vigilant, we must all play our part to ensure that the system is not subverted, or corrupted, or diverted from its true purpose as enshrined in Lincoln’s words. Democracy is not our right, granted gratis. Each generation must re-earn that right by using the privilege of suffrage as our forebears intended it to be used. And those who fail to take their responsibility seriously, who trivialise it by voting for the candidate with the winningest smile or the deepest pockets, make mockery of the efforts and intentions of those who bequeathed this privilege to us, and those who subsequently fought and died to preserve it.
Democracy might be the best political system we have, but its frailties and shortcomings render it fragile and vulnerable to subversion. It is an electoral system in which no one gets exactly what they want, but the majority of people get what they deserve. So if you have to vote any time soon, and are of a mind to do so, think seriously about what you are doing: delve deep into the minds of the candidates, apply logic and reason to your deliberations, don’t allow fear to cloud your judgement, don’t let emotion sway your decision; and make the effort to ensure that whoever you vote for will deliver what you feel you deserve, what you believe your country deserves; because if you don’t, you might wind up electing a candidate who will deliver what they who didn’t take their responsibility seriously deserve.
In the clearing stands a boxer and a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of every glove that laid him down or cut him
‘Til he cried out in his anger and his shame
I am leaving, I am leaving
But the fighter still remains
Earlier this year I had a moment of enlightenment. I regret to admit that it was a long time coming, but I finally realised – without the self-delusion that had dogged earlier, false awakenings – that I didn’t care about being published, I didn’t care about making pots of money from writing, I didn’t care about becoming a famous or celebrated author, and I didn’t care about being accepted into the pantheon of those writers who have achieved immortality. I just wanted to write. I didn’t even care that I’m not a good writer. In fact, I consider that to be an advantage; because it gives me so much scope for improvement. I cannot think of anything worse – and I stress that I am talking only about my own situation – than having reached my literary peak and having nowhere left to go; being sentenced to churn out more of the same until the day I die. I do want to be a better write. I do want to be the best I could have been when circumstances dictate that I can no longer write – may I never live to see that day. But it is the writing itself – the actual selection and composition of words on a page that thrills and excites me – to borrow a lyric from Ned Washington.
When I was about 10 years old, I discovered golf and I fell so much in love with the game that I would spend every one of my spare moments on the golf course – sometimes as often as three times each day. I’d play four holes in my lunch break, 9 holes after school, and in the long summer evenings of Northern Scotland, I’d play another 18 holes after dinner, often finishing the 18th in the encroaching darkness. Yet despite all this practice, I was a pretty hopeless golfer. But – and here’s the moral of the story – almost every time I played, I would somehow be able to pull off one, almost perfect shot that thrilled and excited me, deepening my addiction to the game and igniting my impatience to get out on the course and do it again. My writing is like that for me now. In all the paragraphs and pages of banal mediocrity I compose, there is maybe one sentence, perhaps just one tiny phrase that sparkles with bright exuberance in the dark and makes me feel that, if I can do it once, I can do it again.
Do I aspire to being published? Only in the sense that I like the feel of a traditional book in my hand to remind me that I have done something constructive with my time; but I have no interest in the commerciality of writing. I know that some people – and with compelling justification – regard writing as a form of communication; and therefore, the point of the exercise is to communicate to others – to publish and distribute. But for me – and perhaps for me alone – my writing is a dialogue with myself; a dialogue between the me that has been conditioned by my life experiences and coerced by my social context into living and thinking and talking and otherwise behaving in a way that sits comfortably within the accepted cultural norms of where I am, and the me who is at the core of my being – the existential me, suppressed but unsullied and unadorned. I realise that I might be straying into arcane territory here but my writing has become an expedition to discover my real self; and the way I write – finding an arbitrary starting point and allowing my subconscious to decide what path to take from there – leads me often into unexpected and sometimes profoundly enlightening territory.
Do I want to subject others to my writing? Well, the jury is still out on that one. I value constructive criticism, of course, because I do sincerely want to improve as a writer, just as when I played golf all those years ago, I would have preferred an albatross to a birdie. But I also realise that not everyone is going to like what I write, either because it is not well written or because it is just too narrow and personal for them to understand; and that insinuates me into the commercial aspects of writing that I so want to avoid. Although no money changes hands when I publish on my blog, those who read it still commit their time to what I have written; and if what they read does not feel like time well spent, I would rather that I had not published it in the first place.
The other reason that I haven’t been blogging lately is because I have been working on longer pieces which do not lend themselves easily to the blog format. The Frailest Leaves is a novel I started to write in Paris in 1976 and one that I doubt I will ever finish although inevitably, I will have to stop writing it one day. I am currently on the 22nd draft on my computer – already with annotations for version 23 – and these were preceded by an unknown number of iterations starting with the pencil jottings done in an exercise book in a cheap hotel in Saint-Germain-des-Prés through I don’t recall how many versions bashed out on a variety of typewriters until I eventually acquired a word-processor. In a sense, this book is my testament; and since I am still evolving, the book must also continue to evolve.
Missing, presumed dead is a sort of crime/mystery story that I first drafted about three years ago then put aside while I was busy with other things, including the collection of short stories called: The young woman who fell from the sky. I am currently in the third phase of writing MPD, having settled on the framework (phase II), now putting the flesh on the bones. Once that’s done, I expect there will be a period of polishing, after which I will be able to move on to another project – perhaps the partially completed first draft of another crime novel that has also been festering away on my computer for several years.
So, as you can see, I haven’t been idle, although I have been quiet. And perhaps, once this period of activity has run its course, blogging will come back into focus for me. But until then, if then ever comes, I must away to those other worlds, and those characters who are waiting for me to round out their lives.
Back in August, while travelling in North America, I hoped to meet an Internet friend and namesake, Heather Munro, during a changeover at Minneapolis Airport – but she couldn’t make it. So, I went to a bookshop in the airport and bought a book of short stories by another namesake, Alice Munro, instead. I had flown to Minneapolis en route from Vancouver, Canada to Kansas City, Missouri and while in Vancouver, I’d spent a couple of days across the bay in Victoria. Had I known then what I know now I would have bought the same book in Munro’s Bookshop in Victoria which was established by Jim Munro and his first wife Alice – yes, the same Alice – in 1963. But coming out of Bastion Square onto Government Street, I turned left towards the intriguingly named Trounce Alley and inadvertently away from the bookshop which was only a few doors down on the right.
At the time, I was going through a period of serious self-doubt. Not so much about my writing itself – because I’m well aware of my limitations – but about the wisdom of spending so much time writing stuff that hardly anyone will read and even fewer will enjoy. The whole endeavour appeared increasingly pointless; and yet I could conceive of no other way I’d rather spend my time. So I bought a volume of Alice Munro’s short stories in the hope that they would inspire me and teach me and enable me to derive more satisfaction from what I was doing.
Part of the problem, too, was that I had been reading books about writing in the hope that if I could master the craft of writing I would derive more satisfaction from what I produced. But the more I read the more complex and unfathomable the process of creating fiction seemed to become. Before long, and without realising it, I had amassed a litany of reasons for NOT writing; these taking the form of all the faux pas that incompetent writers commit in their stumbling attempts at writing fiction. And before long I had reached a point where, when I sat down to write I felt inhibited by all the rules I had read about and the many more rules I felt were out there, waiting to entrap me. The freedom to write I had once enjoyed had dissipated and the joy of creating had been replaced by a fear of creating something that was an abomination.
I had bought the book of short stories by Alice Munro, hoping that I could learn, by osmosis, the rhythms and cadences of short story writing from one who is regarded as a modern master of the medium. Inside the cover, however, I found a citation from the Washington Post, from which I now quote: “The stories of Dear Life violate a host of creative writing rules (my italics), but they establish yet again Munro’s psychological acuity, clear-eyed acceptance of frailties and the mastery of the short story form.” In other words, the rules I had been struggling to master, the Master breaks with abandon and impunity.
I did not finish the book; and that is all I am prepared to say about it, being far from qualified to pass judgement. But having reached that point, the future was looking even bleaker. Then I saw the documentary film: Salinger.
The Catcher in the Rye was one of three books that convinced me I wanted to be a writer. The other two were: Kerouac’s On the Road, and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. I had read them all when I was still young – they are books that ought to be read when one is young – and they combined to set the tone for much of the rest of my life. But until I saw the biopic, it was a mystery to me why Salinger had apparently abandoned writing after publishing his masterpiece.
Salinger wanted, above all else, to be a writer; and his measure of success was to be published in the New Yorker. Time after time his work was rejected; yet he persevered. In 1941, the New Yorker rejected seven of his stories and even when Slight Rebellion off Madison was accepted in December of that year, the attack on Pearl Harbour rendered it “unpublishable”. The Fates seemed to be conspiring against him. But he was determined to succeed; and eventually, the New Yorker accepted and published his short story, A Perfect Day for Bananafish in 1948.
Throughout the Forties, Salinger had been developing an idea based on the lead character in his short story, Slight Rebellion off Madison – Holden Caulfield. Now that he had finally been published in the New Yorker, an avenue for his novel opened up and The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, spending 30 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Salinger had made it. But success, apparently, was not all that it was cracked up to be; and two years later he moved out of the spotlight of New York City to the seclusion of Cornish, New Hampshire.
Salinger had been notoriously protective of the integrity of his prose, even of his punctuation; and in his seclusion, he became even more determined to write what he wanted to write, rather than fashion stories that would appeal to editors and publishers. Some might argue that this self-indulgence would lead to a deterioration of his prose. But it suggests to me that Salinger had learned one of the most important lessons in life: one should not stake one’s happiness on something that is outside one’s control.
To most people, being a writer means being published, writing books that sell; it means being acclaimed; and ultimately, it means becoming a celebrity. Initially, Salinger seemed to strive for precisely this; but ultimately, he recognised the emptiness of such ambition. He realised that he didn’t want to be a writer after all. What he really wanted to do was to write.
Alice Munro has spent a lifetime writing the stories she wanted to write and today, she was rewarded with the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Do you believe in coincidences? Okay, then let me ask you this: what does Nicholas Winding Refn’s controversial new film – Only God Forgives – have in common with Puccini’s opera, Tosca? The fact that I saw them both on the same day? That’s only of significance to me. That they are both examples of creative expression combining music, story and images? They’re by no means unique in that. The fact that they have a musical connection? Well, I didn’t see that coming. When I sat down in the cinema yesterday afternoon to watch Only God Forgives, knowing that my wife and I had tickets to see Tosca in the Opera House that evening, the last thing I expected was to hear Tosca’s famous aria, Vissi d’Arte, playing over the opening credits. Yet it was somehow appropriate.
In the aria, Tosca sings that she has lived for art and goes on to ask God: “why, why, Lord, why do you reward me thus?” When Nicholas Winding Refn showed his latest film at the Cannes Film Festival it was booed by many of the audience of journalists and critics. He too lives for art, and he must have been wondering why the critics treated him so harshly. Having now seen the film, I don’t understand their reaction either. This film might not be everyone’s cup of Chai, but setting the question of film artistry aside for a moment, what is there about the film that would cause it to be booed?
The most strident criticism of the film I’ve heard is centred on its depiction of violence. People are shot, limbs are hacked off, torsos are ripped open and one man has his eyes gouged out. But in Tosca, the eponymous heroine of the story stabs her nemesis – repeatedly – at the end of the second act; her lover is shot by a firing squad; and Tosca herself dies in a hail of bullets just before the final curtain. In fact, by the end of the opera, all the principle characters have died violently. Okay, Only God Forgives is more gruesome; but you have to remember that this film was made over 100 years after Tosca was first performed (in 1900) and what shocked audiences back then seems pretty tame now, after we’ve been exposed to the films of Sam Peckinpah, films like Soldier Blue, almost the entire oeuvre of Quentin Tarrantino and that contretemps that actually took place between 1939 and 1945. Remember Saving Private Ryan? And if the eye-gouging scene offends you, have you seen Louis Bunuel’s 1929 classic, Un Chien Andalou? I rest my case.
If the violence in Only God Forgives was purely gratuitous, I’d sympathise with the film’s detractors; but the violence is essential to the plot, in my opinion. And if we’re so concerned about gratuitous violence in films anyway, how come Tarrantino’s Django Unchained was nominated for 5 Oscars? Was all that mayhem at the end really necessary?
The other criticism I’ve heard is that the actors in Only God Forgives move around the scenes like non-people. Once again, I see this is deliberate and entirely consistent with what I believe the film to be about. Like Tosca, Only God Forgives is an exploration of the struggle between good and evil; only, in Tosca, the struggle happens out in the open, whereas in Only God Forgives, the film deals with the internal struggle Julian (Ryan Gosling) is facing in trying to reconcile these conflicting influences on his personality formation. Why do I think this is what the film is about? My first clue lies in the way Refn shoots the film. Much of the action takes place in dark spaces, in long dark corridors, in isolated pools of light surrounded by shadows, against backgrounds of latticed or intersecting lines. These images suggest to me the interior of Julian’s brain. And if Julian appears lifeless on the screen, it is because we have entered his brain. Instead of seeing him, we are seeing what he feels on the inside and his image is only there to remind us that it is Julian’s brain we are navigating. But having said that, what a stroke of genius to cast Ryan Gosling in the role because I cannot think of another actor working today who can bring such intensity to a fixed expression.
And on the subject of casting, I think Kristin Scott Thomas is outstanding in the role of Julian’s mother. We are familiar with her past portrayals of the prickly, acerbic businesswoman; but in this film she is almost unrecognisable as evil personified; the mother of all wicked witches. If you can’t think of another reason to see the film, her performance is reason enough.
And if you don’t want to see it for KST’s extraordinary performance, do yourself a favour and watch it for the enigmatic Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). He too wanders in and out of scenes like a zombie but that’s not bad acting, or bad direction. Just think about what he represents and you’ll understand clearly why he plays it the way he does. I read one review that described him as the “bad guy” but for me, he was the epitome of “good” in the film. Sure, he performed a lot of impromptu butchery along the way; but only to those who deserved it. For me, the character of Chang represented a kind of universal conscience, thus explaining the last scene of the film and going a long way to deciphering the title. And the scenes where Chang sings karaoke love songs to a group of passive policemen are priceless, immediately bringing to my mind the glorious eccentricities of David Lynch.
It is not for me to tell anyone to like this film. We all have to make up our own minds about it. But I will counsel readers not to be put off by the negative reviews. Do yourself a favour and open your mind to it, to the content and to how it is expressed. In the history of cinema there are many films that opened to negative criticism but subsequently went on to become classics; and I have the feeling that his might be one of them. In any case, I think we should give the benefit of the doubt to those film makers who are prepared to push the boundaries of their art, to take us to places we’ve never been before, because that’s what the pioneers of cinema did.
And as a footnote, Only God Forgives won the Grand Prize at the recent Sydney Film Festival; so hats off to you Sydney.
Disclaimer: The interpretation of the film on which I based my critique is mine alone and it is not my intention or desire to “sell” this interpretation. I firmly believe that an artist interprets the world around him according to his own knowledge and experience and ability to express, and those of us who view the art interpret that each according to our own knowledge and experience and ability to comprehend. I do not know what Nicholas Winding Refn set out to say in this film. I can only state with certainty what the film he created said to me; and judge it on that basis.