Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Mini | Fiction | Marple With A Minigun

Marple don't text. She don't photoshop so well either.

"Number One was a Chinaman - the greatest criminal brain of all time; Number Two was a multi-millionaire; Number Three was a beautiful Frenchwoman; and Number Four was 'the destroyer,' the ruthless murderer, with a genius for disguise, whose business it was to remove those who interfered with his masters' plans. These Four, working together, aimed at establishing a world dominion, and against them were ranged Hercule Poirot, the little Belgian detective with the egg-shaped head, the green eyes and 'the little gray cells,' and his friend Hastings. It was Hercule Poirot's brain, the 'little gray cells,' which brought about the downfall of the Big Four, and led to their destruction in the cave in the Dolomites."

The Big Four

It seems a bit cheap to discuss the rumour (early April Fool's Prank?) that statuesque 38-year-old actress - one of FHM's World Sexiest Women several years running (probably) and kick-ass action heroine from that TV show that used to be on TV - Jennifer Garner is being considered by Disney to play Agatha Christie's second-most famous creation, little old innocuous sleuth Jane Marple, in a contemporary reboot. Cheap because I imagine the entire Internet is having a wonderfully masturbatory snark-fest over the news, and we here at Silkworms are supposed to be a little less obvious. Cheap because, honestly, it still feels like a joke about crass, disrespectful American remakes to me - it's almost perfect ironic anti-casting. Just look how elderly, diminuitive and inconspicuous Jennifer Garner is.

She actually knits with those sai.

It simply can't be for real. I don't care if it's supposed to be Marple: Origins, or Mask of Marple, in which the elderly Jane Marple hands on her magical ring to her estranged American granddaughter (played by Garner) and tells her that she's been Chosen to take up the superhero Marple identity (for there must always be a Marple). I just don't believe it; however you try to market it, Jennifer Garner as Jane Marple is a funnier critique of nonsensical focus-group reboots than the entirety of Episodes.* It's even more appropriate than Christie's own weary satires on the adaptation process, in which surrogate author Ariadne Oliver is forced to wrestle with directors and producers over the interpretation of her eccentric Finnish detective creation, 'Sven Hjerson'.

But in another sense, it's perfectly logical, because Christie already turned one of her heroes into the star of an absurd actioner, when she wrote Hercule Poirot into The Big Four in 1927, a novel which is generally prefaced with sympathetic words along the lines of 'Christie's mother had recently died, and she was under a great deal of financial pressure...'

The Big Four, a winningly terrible book, sees Poirot and Captain Hastings tossed into a deadly (and, once, literal) chess-game against four international criminal overlords (yeah, that's The Big Four). One of these masterminds is American, which means he's an evil capitalist. Another is French, which means she's an evil sexpot. The leader is Chinese, which means he's Fu Manchu the villainous and moustacheous Li Chang Yen. And there's an assassin, who is so mysterious that nobody knows anything about him, apart from the fact that when he eats bread, he has a nervous habit of picking up the crumbs on the tips of his fingers. No, I'm not joking.

Poirot faces off against them in a series of small, interconnected vignettes which usually conclude with a secondary character being murdered in an extreme and, frankly, unlikely manner, after which Poirot turns to Hastings and says, "Mon ami - regard. Four used tampons have been deliberately left unflushed in la toilette. The Big Four have struck again." Eventually, the Dynamic Duo come face to face with Li Chang Yen and the other three Big Four ("Regard, mon ami! He picks up the bread with his fingertips! C'est Number Four!") and end up having to battle them in an underground lair, which eventually collapses in on itself, killing the Four while our two heroes hurry to safety. All of this really happens. Poirot's twin brother, Achille Poirot, also turns up at one point.**

It's a bizarre attempt to turn Poirot away from English country-house mysteries and towards globe-spanning, racist and absurd action adventure quarter of a century before the James Bond books; and it's all the stranger because it was only Christie's seventh novel, coming right after the runaway success of The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd and long before Christie's growing resentment towards the little Belgian fellow injected an air of staleness into his adventures. The hokey supernatural elements that entered roughly half of her mysteries post-war are a minor issue by comparison, as is the 'serial killer who leaves clues at the scene of every crime for the dubious 'reason' of taunting his detectives' nonsense of The ABC Murders. (The conclusion is actually a cunning twist on the sensationalist appeal of the thematic serial killer, though, which makes me wonder - where did this silly literary trope come from? Jack the Ripper taunted the detectives hunting him, but he didn't write, 'From hell, u may find me at the sing of the Grey Lamb. The next deth will be a Libra').

So, no - I don't mind that Jennifer Garner could become Miss Marple, because it's appropriate to Christie's own weary efforts to break away from the basic, well-worn formula of her most popular work by trying something different, no matter how absurd. Hopefully the Marple will fight international baddies and vengeful ghosts. While quipping.

Jon Ware
Fiction Editor

* I've also read some excellent suggestions for further adaptations with lead actors who are exactly the opposite of what's required, my favourite being 'Ashton Kutcher as Bartleby the Scrivener'.

** It's not actually as bad as it sounds - you see, Achille is really Hercule in disguise. He...disguises himself as his twin brother. Utterly ingenious. Alias should have taken notes.


The question of whether or not Christie was any more racist than the rest of her contemporaries pales, for me, in insignificance next to the undeniable douchiness of those people living today, here in the present, who insist on calling And Then There Were None by its original name. Cos, like, it used to have a racist epithet in it, before the politically correct brigade swooped in AND CHANGED THE NAME! Because it's not as if And Then There Were None is actually a more menacing, evocative title or anything. It reminds me of Bill and Star Etheridge, the politicians fucking morons who tried to make a big deal out of the shocking absence of golliwogs in today's society in order to encourage 'healthy debate'. There's no debate. Neither golliwogs nor 'Ten Little Indians' add anything of worth to our world. Sure, they're part of British history, so they should be recorded. But there's a petty maliciousness to the way these people insist that we should keep them in the public consciousness in defiance of these illusory liberals who want to erase all memory of our nation's past...while at the same time obsessing guiltily over it.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Mini | Linguistics | Help!

"Show me a man who cannot bother to do little things and I'll show you a man who cannot be trusted to do big things."
- Lawrence Bell

As we are dealing with the idea of 'mini' this week, I thought it an appropriate time to share two small pieces of technical nomenclature for language's tiniest losses. By sheer happenstance, both happen to begin with the prefix 'hap'.


One of those idiomatic linguistic rules which only applies to a tiny portion of written sentences. Haplography occurs when we remove the repetition of a morpheme or punctuation which, logically speaking, should appear twice in a word or sentence. The most common example of these is where a declarative sentence ends in a word that is abbreviated with a period (but note that this rule does not carry over to questions or exclamations).

A: Hello, I am here with the I.R.S.
B: Damn, you're seriously here with the I.R.S.?

Honestly, I don't know what would happen if one were dealing with a brand name that incorporated an exclamation point or a question mark into its identity. I suppose apostrophes would have to come into play...

A: What's your favourite Beatles album?
B: Probably 'Help!'.


This is a similar area of linguistics, referring to the omission of a syllable from a word in such a way that phonetically streamlines the pronunciation. It is largely an aural phenomenon but, if institutionalised, it can leak into the written language.

Ordinary become or-din-ry
Probably becomes prob-ly
Particularly becomes par-tic-u-ly

I don't think the common mistake of pronouncing 'specific' as 'pacific' is an example of this or if it is just a throwback to what is referred to as 'consonant cluster omission' when discussing the speech acquisition of babies. If this aspect of linguistics interests you, I suggest you have a look into 'the fis phenomenon' and see where your research takes you.

I hope that the existence of these wonderful words is a discov'ry to some of you, and that you'll all now go off and start using them in your poems.

Phil Brown
Poetry Editor

Monday, 28 March 2011

Mini | Introduction | The Small, the Tiny and the MINUSCULE

A small leak can sink a great ship.
Benjamin Franklin

In matters of truth and justice, there is no difference between large and small problems, for issues concerning the treatment of people are all the same.
Albert Einstein

This week we are taking arms with microscopes and taking a close look at the small, the tiny and the minuscule. Does size matter? Do great things come in small packages? Have we missed something? Perhaps we shall find out.

China | Chapbook | Vol XLVIII, For Anacreon by Terence Kuch

Vol XLVIII, For Anacreon

Terence Kuch(28.3.11)


Terence Kuch is a consultant, avid hiker, and world traveler. His poetry credits include Commonweal, New York magazine, Poetry Motel, Slant, Thema, Timber Creek Review, and Yellow Mama. He has read at the Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art, the International Monetary Fund Visitors’ Center, the MAC (McKinney Avenue Contemporary) Theatre in Dallas, and elsewhere.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

China | Poetry | Motion Sickness

"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe."
- Abraham Lincoln

It is half past three on a Friday afternoon. An Autumnal grimace sweeps through the corridors of Jamie Oliver’s Dream School. Everything feels desaturated and artificially alive. The only sound to be heard is the far-off clatter of Simon Callow stacking plastic chairs in the main hall, occasionally stopping to pick up discarded crisp packets and half-empty cans from the floor.

Andrew Motion is sat peering from his classroom window, the faint suggestion of imminent tears begin to collect at his eyes’ corners. He has been here since the end of his English lesson, three hours ago. As it is a heavily overcast day, Motion can make out the translucent reflection of his surroundings in the window. Exercise books sit, untouched on their desks; some pencils were taken away by the pupils after the lesson, others were left, one has been snapped in half and left on the floor.

It is then that Motion catches a glimpse of Oliver’s celebrity ‘school inspector’, Emporor Wen of Sui. The ex-laureate is apprehensive about receiving lesson-feedback from the 6th Century’s founder of the Sui dynasty, but knows that it will be beneficial to his pedagogy.

Motion: Emperor. Please do come in.

Wen: I am not disturbing you?

Motion: Only from myself, Emperor. Only from myself.

Wen: Well, how do you think your lesson went?

Motion: It had its good moments, Emperor. Did you see when Harlem read out that poem about the woman in the painting?

Wen: The poem that you wrote almost entirely yourself off-camera?

Motion: She read it well though, didn’t she?

Wen: On the fifth read-through, sure. But what was your learning objective for that lesson?

Motion: What do you mean?

Wen: You know, your uh, thing you wanted to teach the kids how to do at the end of your two-hour session?

Motion: Well, I wanted to show them that poetry is for all of us, not just the dusty academics in their ivory towers, but for everyone.

Wen: That’s not really a measurable skill that one can chart the development of during a two hour session though, is it? I mean, it’s a bit abstract, almost as if you watched one of the montages from Dead Poets Society and went for that kind of feel?

Motion: Oh don’t give me all that measurable learning objectives nonsense, there’s more to it than that.

Wen: Can you think of a better way of measuring the quality of a lesson?

Motion: Well, yes, you need to just get a sense of the atmosphere in the room. Are the youngsters enlivened and inspired and motivated by a teacher who dares them to indulge their dreams.

Wen: Did you inspire the pupils by daring them to dream?

Motion: I would have done if they weren’t so fucking naughty! Did you see them in there?

Wen: Why do you think they were being so unruly for you?

Motion: Well, they probably haven’t had any good teachers before and their parents probably never read poetry to them and took them to the V&A when they were younger.

Wen: But you are aware that other teachers have been doing well with the kids? Rankin got them all doing homework a couple of weeks ago. Jazzy B has pretty much become a God to these people. Jazzy B, Andrew. Do you have any idea how long it’s been since that guy was in the news? And he’s wiping the floor with the rest of you.

Motion: Well if the kids had given me a chance, they’d have got to the bit where I gave them all a signed copy of The Cinder Path.

Wen: Why would any of them want that? They don’t know who you are.

Motion: Well, because I’m famous.

Wen: OK, Andrew, let’s play it your way for a second. Let’s pretend that ‘learn to love poetry’ is an acceptable premise for a lesson. How did you achieve that?

Motion: Well we started off with a quick chat about who I am and why poetry is important and then we went on to…

Wen: OK, so there is your first mistake. You can only harness the attention of naughty kids by bombarding them with accessible activities at the outset, and leave the group discussions for later on once you’ve established stability.

Motion: Does listening to the most famous poet in the country not count as an activity?

Wen: No, I’m thinking of maybe something like a wordsearch of powerful verbs that you can come back to and get them using in their creative writing later. Obviously you would need differentiated ones so that kids with specific speech and language difficulties can access the task too.

Motion: A wordsearch? You want an ex-Poet Laureate to make his first impression by handing out wordsearches?

Wen: Of course. Then, you’ll have tricked them into establishing that silence you so desperately crave in your lessons and it gives you the opportunity to go and have individual conversations with the pupils right at the start. The ones that finish first can be given dictionaries to discover what the words mean, and think about how they might be able to use those words in sentences and poems. Little baby-steps towards the finished product Andrew.

Not the sage on the stage, but the guide on the side, Andrew, that is the mantra of the modern teacher. You aren’t there to prescribe knowledge, but to facilitate the act of learning.

Motion: I really do think I’m going to hit you, Emperor Wen. What the fuck does a 6th Century Chinese Emperor know about modern education?

Wen: More than you’d think, Andrew.

Motion: Enlighten me. What do you have to offer that gives you the right to be school inspector?

Wen: Well, ask yourself, what is it that we want our pupils to leave school with?

Motion: A love of poetry?

Wen: Don’t be naïve Andrew. What do people actually need when they leave school?

Motion: Um, qualifications?

Wen: Right, and how do you get qualifications?

Motion: Well, exams of course.

Wen: Exactly, and do you know who invented those?

Motion: It was Eton, wasn’t it?

Wen: Not even close. It was me and my dynasty. I had a dream of democratising the process by which people were able to enter the bureaucracy of the empire. No longer was it to be the preserve of peerage, but anyone who had the intellectual capacity for the work involved was allowed to take the test and prove their value to me. The Imperial Examination and its descendents have shaped your education system and, as a result, your entire society.

But, like anything with good intentions, you all abused it and found its loopholes. Exams are supposed to measure how skilled somebody is at a particular point in time. They are meant to be a snapshot, Andrew, a meter reading of how well somebody can work under pressure when given a series of unseen problems to solve. What is the point of an examination that you have been given two years to prepare for? Where is the democracy in that? Surely it is the people who are blessed with the more shrewdly delivered preparation that do best in the exams?

Motion: Exams or no exams, some people luck into better life chances than others, Wen.

Wen: But Andrew, examinations were designed to put everyone on a level playing field, and now they are just a hoop to be jumped through by schools. Don’t you see, that’s why there is so much laziness to be found in your pupils they see school as a place to sit in and pass the time whilst their teachers think of some way of waving their bureaucratic, manipulative wands to magic them through the next set of qualifications.

It’s not learning Andrew, it’s data manipulation. When we invented examinations we didn’t envision myriad options where some people could sit easier ones, some people could do ones that were based more around coursework and you could re-take as often as you liked.

Motion: Didn’t you just say that differentiation was important though?

Wen: It is, but if you, as a society, are going to turn the qualification process into such a strategic data-game, then why hang onto examinations at all? The idea of anybody having to tackle an important intellectual task without the benefit of Wikipedia is horrifically outmoded as it is. Why not admit that exam skills are an antiquated misrepresentation of the skills necessary to thrive in the modern Western world and be done with it?

Motion: You can’t just get rid of an important educational institution without suggesting something to put in their place? Without exams, how would we know that the teachers were even doing their job properly?

Wen: Through more regular and collaborative school inspections. Not just the Darth Vader-esque Ofsted inspections that plague a school every couple of years, forcing them to misrepresent themselves to a panel of strangers. I mean proper collaborative school improvement teams that are a friendly face and a source of guidance, rather than a feared antagonist.

Motion: This all sounds a bit wishy washy to me, Wen. And you scoffed when I suggested that I wanted my pupils to love poetry.

Wen: I wasn’t scoffing at poetry Andrew, I was scoffing at the suggestion of ‘loving poetry’ being the objective purpose of a two hour lesson. An emotional reaction should only ever be the result of a lesson’s quality, rather than its intrinsic aim. No, on the contrary, grasping poetry is probably the most relevant and useful skill that a modern pupil can learn.

Motion: You’re mocking me now.

Wen: Andrew, please. I’m not here to hurt your feelings, I want to help you. Pupils in modern schools need to learn about poetry. It’s the only way of them thriving in the era of the internet.

Motion: Go on…

Wen: Well, think about it Andrew. Our natural memories are becoming closer to obsolescence with every day that passes. Knowledge of information is a redundant skill in a world where everyone has a portal to the world wide web in their pocket. The answer to every question is just there with a few movements of your thumb.

Motion: You aren’t about to try and sell me your iPhone are you?

Wen: But what do we do with that information, Andrew? It’s useless, unless we train the mind to make links between pieces of data. Unless you can see how the theory of red shift is analogous to the Stanford Prison Experiment, what is the point of you reading about either thing? Discovering and manipulating the patterns in life is the only way to truly be a success – and what better training for that than through poetry.

By analogising the road to a ribbon of moonlight, or love to an onion, are we not learning the basics needed to take the limitless information now available to us all and use it to achieve something? Vehicle and tenor are just a training bra for effective Googling.

Motion: Would you like a copy of my book? It’s signed.

Phil Brown
Poetry Editor

Saturday, 26 March 2011

China | Film+Television | Forget it, Jake.

"You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't."
Noah Cross, Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974, Paramount)

There is a famous shot in Chinatown that moves along Jack Nicholson's naked arm, stopping when it reaches his face resting on a pillow. At left of frame, Faye Dunaway watches his post-coital satisfaction. The scene is lit so that their skin seems golden, so that we bask in the beauty of their present moment. But, characteristically for the film, this moment is in thrall to an opaque past.

Dunaway asks Nicholson about his past as a beat cop, when he patrolled the streets of L.A.'s Chinatown. It is a painful memory: Nicholson's character, J.J. Gittes, tried to save a woman from getting hurt. By involving himself, he ensured that she was.

In Polanski's paean to the film noir, the space of Chinatown stands as a metaphor for the unknowable, the uncontrollable. But it also has a contemporary relevance which may not be immediately obvious.

Writing in Movie, Ed Gallafent observed that, "Chinatown is a locale rather than a human population, a context in which Americans find themselves in circumstances not of their own choosing and in which their actions and dreams are frustrated, but for reasons that cannot be made accessible, because the underlying order cannot be understood or represented. In this respect, we may take Chinatown exactly to anticipate the cycle of late 'seventies films overtly set in the Vietnam of the war, with their inability to articulate Vietnamese culture other than as an obscure background to American lives and actions."

It is only in the concluding scenes of the film that we reach Chinatown, and it is in this space that the tragic events of the finale play out. These fatal moments repay a promise that the film has made us - that Chinatown is inescapable, that while Gittes may think he has left his grubby past behind him, forgetting is futile and indeed impossible.

The Oriental space as maze features in a number of Hollywood films of the 80s that do not explicitly reference Vietnam - I am thinking specifically of Hammett (Wim Wenders, 1982, Zoetrope) and Big Trouble in Little China (John Carpenter, 1986, Twentieth Century Fox). These movies, far pulpier than Chinatown, evoke the Victorian anxieties of Sax Rohmer. Orientalist representation ensnares their all-American heroes in variant San Franciscos, depicting cities within cities where the rule of law is imposed by sons of Fu Manchu.

I was surprised to see a similar process at work in Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss' Sherlock. In the second episode The Blind Banker (written by Stephen Thompson), the Baker Street duo found themselves in London's Chinatown. One of the precepts of the 2010 series was its assumption that viewers were 'in on the game'. We were supposed to congratulate ourselves for recognizing the references to Rohmer and to the 1977 Doctor Who serial The Talons of Weng-Chiang.

But Sherlock collapsed through its failure to justify a coherent world. If we are to understand that the appeal of the show lies in Sherlock's interaction with the modern world, why are these hoary old Si-Fan cliches cluttering up the place? The internal logic, and metaphorical weight, of Chinatown was missing. Only the stereotype remained, a small echo of a once-rich imagery.

Forget it, Jake...

China | Music | Musientalism

This article takes this week’s theme, China, as a jumping-off point into the concept of Orientalism, namely the clumping together of a collective ‘east’ as an exotic, dangerous, and different single entity. Whether such a leap is itself problematic, despite this article’s attempt to highlight other Orientalist problematics, is for the reader to judge. I can only apologise if it is interpreted as such, it wasn’t my intention. Obvs.

As with so many facets of the racism inherent within so much of the contemporary geopolitical scene, Team America nailed a phenomenon that I have decided to call MUSICAL ORIENTALISM within, like, a single minute of it starting. I refer, of course, to what happens 1:50 into the following YouTube clip:

I mean, of course, the appearance of an A-Rab being accompanied by the quavering, unstable, wailingly other sound of the generically ‘eastern’ vocal that has made it into pretty much every cinematic and televisual depiction of the Middle East (not to mention India, Pakistan, Tibet and beyond) of the last ten years. And to the implication that I believe this trope exists to facilitate, namely the following associative chain:


I believe that it functions as a kind of musical shorthand designed specifically to suggest unfamiliar religious malice, in the same way that minor chords suggest threat and a rolling sax equals sass. And I believe that using it as a way of introducing an individual or, even worse, a location constitutes a statement that INDIVIDUALITY BE DAMNED, because everybody here/who looks like this is the same, a terrorist or an ally of terrorism. And if they’re not the same, they’re deviating from the norm, which is terrorism. And that we can only trust that they have indeed deviated from the norm if, when they appear onscreen again, their appearance is accompanied by nice instruments like luscious violins and cellos and trumpets and clarinets. Or even better, Top Gun guitars.

Consider the following two trailers, which took me a total of twenty three seconds to find. And, specifically, the way the (ironically, considering the whole point is that it is supposed to represent unfamiliarity) familiar wail interweaves itself between terrible explosions, images of shifty-eyed dusky folk and memorable statements such as ‘these humanitarian runs – I don’t like them – we’re always putting ourselves in danger’...

I consider this ubiquitous trope to be a blatant form of the kind of cultural Orientalism that we like to think we’ve moved on from, because contemporary travel literature doesn’t read quite as embarrassingly as Flaubert’s adventures, or T. E. Lawrence’s tales of desert buggery. Consider the following fragment of Edward Said’s definition of Orientalism:

In a sense the limitations of Orientalism are, as I said earlier, the limitations that follow upon disregarding, essentializing, denuding the humanity of another culture, people, or geographical region. But Orientalism has taken a further step that that: it views the Orient as something whose existence is not only displayed but has remained fixed in time and place for the West. So impressive have the descriptive and textual successes of Orientalism been that entire periods of the Orient’s cultural, political and social history are considered mere responses to the West. The West is an actor, the Orient a passive reactor. The West is the spectator, the judge and jury, of every facet of Oriental behaviour.

What is the definition, via music, of Arab culture as universally suspiciously Islamist if it is not considering the Orient’s ‘cultural, political and social history’ as ‘mere responses to the west’? And what is the assumption that ‘Arab’ music hasn’t changed in a few thousand years – is still best represented by something based largely upon a style of music as ancient as Islam itself – if it is not the Orient ‘fixed in time and place for the West’?


Of course, this phenomenon has crept a problematic path into contemporary western music also. Two examples immediately spring to mind – Taken By Trees' 2009 record, East of Eden, and the opening track on Laurie Anderson’s latest, entitled Transitory Life...

Actually, both of these are pretty thoughtful meditations upon East/West cultural collision, and I feel bad criticising Laurie Anderson because, firstly, she’s fucking awesome and secondly, I think the role of the opening voice in Transitory Life is as much about counterpointing Anderson’s violin as it is its own connotations. However, I think the important point of comparison is this: whilst Victoria Bergsman’s East of Eden project came burdened with some alarming trappings, such as what Pitchfork called ‘an accompanying National Geographic mini-documentary’s whiff of cultural condescension’ and an album cover that couldn’t be more Gap Yah if it tried, it represents Pakistani instrumentation, Qawwali and so on informing an elegant take on folk-pop that remains distinctly Swedish, in terms of everything from its lyrics to its pervading ambience. It is about Pakistani culture educating a Western music, without that Western music attempting to use that culture’s otherness for lazy ‘exotic’ and ‘mysterious’ gain.

Whereas whilst I have no doubt that Anderson is more respectfully receptive to other cultural traditions than the vast majority of musicians working today, I can’t listen to the opening of Transitory Life without thinking that it’s doing just that, appropriating, using a voice dripping with otherness in order to set an ambiguously strange scene. Anderson’s whole life has been spent synthesising ambiguous strangeness, building her own instruments, manipulating electronics a generation before her peers. She doesn’t need this kinda world music lite bullshit. And frankly, neither do the myriad utterly different cultures that are bracketed together by the conception of a collective Orient that its existence continues to perpetuate.

Sam Kinchin-Smith
Music Editor

Thursday, 24 March 2011

China | Fiction | The West's Journey To The East For Journey To The West

"My only hope was to be able to return to the Real and attain the right fruit, to cleanse myself of sins and destroy the deviates. How could I know that any elder could be so ungrateful! He cannot recognise any virtuous cause, nor can he distinguish between black and white."

"Tell me," said the Bodhisattva, "a little about the black and white."

I do love Journey to the West. And, as a lover of the bizarre, I do appreciate how out of the four canon classics of Chinese literature, it's grown into the hip Western consciousness more thoroughly than, say, Story of the Stone. Honestly, which is the better hook: the subtle coming-of-age story of Jia Bao-Yu, featuring poetry, the decay of wealth, and a feminised, isolated artificial environment, or a mad romp featuring a monk, a monkey-god, a pig-man and a sand-monster going on an adventure to India to meet Buddha? It fits in so well with our own great comic odysseys (particularly Tom Jones and, to some extent, Don Quixote, with the bickering dependency of Sun Wukong and Zu Bajie mirroring the master-servant pair) and - I'd argue - even surpasses them in terms of invention, ambition and sheer bloody cheek.

But with appropriation, as they say (disclaimer: as I say. I have literally never heard anyone else in the history of the world say, 'But with appropriation comes dilution') comes dilution. I speak not - necessarily - of the Japanese, dubbed-into-English Monkey TV series, nor of Chinese television's two-part adaptation, which I haven't seen but which is apparently very good. Nay, I speak of such gems as The Forbidden Kingdom, the hilariously-quickly forgotten American-produced movie which stole away Su Wukong from the entire story of Journey to the West, and put him into a kung fu battle with some generic baddies instead. Oh, and it also features a young American lad who's magically transported back in time in order to save the day. Oh, and Su Wukong himself is played by Jet Li, perhaps the actor least in the world suited to playing a trickster hero and spirit of undisciplined mischief who finds a new lease of life through religious fulfillment. C'mon - really? Jet Li? Jackie Chan (who even appears in the movie) would have been a far more sensible choice if you desperately needed the actor to be a martial-arts superstar.

Oddly enough, the versions of our heroes who appeared in the BBC Sport adverts for the Bejiing Olympics had more of the requisite vivaciousness to them, as did Damon Albarn's cartoon-and-reality, undeniably-Gorillaz-esque opera interpretation. But the former style in particular - all manga-style leaping and hitting things and kicking and generally representing the free spirit of mayhem rather than, say, a sporting ritual carried out under the watchful eye of a corrupt and repressive power - missed out on the other half of the equation; Su Wukong's attempts towards self-control, which begins as forced control under the yoke of his restraining collar, and which he eventually transcends ('Piggie', of course, Zu Bajie, never succeeds in learning control, remaining a force of lust and indiscipline, and only gains access to a lower level of the heavens in the end).

And then we have Enslaved: Odyssey to the West; for a very short time, a game that was hyped as finally lending credibility to the stealing a classical literary storyline and hiring the 'cool', acclaimed books 'n' movies writer Alex Garland to write it up. (Need I argue that this is not the way to lend credibility to the medium? Particularly when you add in giant machine monsters.) The Wikipedia page says it all - not that Journey to the West doesn't have a lot of fighting in it, but that it's presented in such a dully mathematical, game-y fashion. Piggie doesn't even get his rake.

In combat, Monkey utilizes a staff that doubles as both a close-combat and long range projectile weapon. The staff has two forms of long-range ammunition in the form of power cylinders: orange cylinders used for blast damage and blue cylinders used for stunning foes. Monkey can also stay stationary and charge his staff to use the same stun attack in close-combat. Enemies come in different varieties of combat mech, some of which may have shields and can only be damaged after being stunned while others can't be stunned at all, requiring different approaches to combat.*

But this isn't even the least of Enslaved's problems, which is nevertheless to be credited for trying to do something different without pissing all over Journey to the West. Garland, siding with Monkey-as-free-man rather than Monkey-as-pilgrim, in a Paradise Lost sort of way, shifts the tone, turning the story into an anti-religious tale which ends with Tripitaka (who's called 'Trip', which is actually rather cute) destroying Heaven - which is itself an illusion created by a man called Pyramid who forces his slaves to experience 'happy memories' of a time before the war through psychic headbands, one of which Monkey is himself wearing.

It's all a bit cack-handed and Matrix-like, and it never explores the nature of gaming or of self-discipline as much as it originally intends; Monkey's collar-substitute headband is forced on him by Trip, giving him a geas-like enforced-motivation to tackle the storyline, but it all gets tangled up in the idea of the headband as a brainwashing device rather than a controlling one. Meanwhile, Piggie self-sacrifices in a highly un-Piggie way, and Sha Wujing, the sand-monster, doesn't even get a look-in. Why does Sha Wujing always get ignored? He's the dark horse of the gang.

We do love Journey to the West - but we need to come to terms with the religious elements at its core. Much like Milton's epic, there's a lot of ambiguity - I think I've written before about the fascinating depiction of the afterlife as a highly-structured, stuffy bureaucracy that has no practical defence against chaos (as when a character is resurrected simply by descending into the Underworld and changing the 'death date' in the enormous book that keeps track of such things, or Monkey's many triumphs against the forces of heaven). But the temptation is to see Su Wukong as a free Promethean hero who is unfairly bound by religion as a whole, whereas the book itself draws a fairly firm line between the Jade Emperor's court, which fails to control Monkey, and between Buddha, who teaches him through external discipline to discipline himself.

Jon Ware
Fiction Editor

*Honestly, mainstream gaming needs to get over the idea that combat is a necessity. Action of some kind is a necessity, sure, but combat isn't. It's become an obsession in some quarters.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Wider Reading | Ministry of Silly Names

Major Major’s father had a Calvinist’s faith in predestination and could perceive distinctly how everyone’s misfortunes but his own were expressions of God’s will. He smoked cigarettes and drank whiskey, and he thrived on good wit and stimulating intellectual conversation, particularly his own when he was lying about his age or telling that good one about God and his wife’s difficulties in delivering Major Major. The good one about God and his wife’s difficulties had to do with the fact that it had taken God only six days to produce the whole world, whereas his wife had spent a full day and a half in labour just to produce Major Major. A lesser man might have wavered that day in the hospital corridor, a weaker man might have compromised on such excellent substitutes as Drum Major, Minor Major, Sergeant Major or C Sharp Major, but Major Major’s father had waited fourteen years for just such an opportunity, and he was not a person to waste it. Major Major’s father had a good joke about opportunity. “Opportunity only knocks once in this world,” he would say.  Major Major’s father repeated this good joke at every opportunity.

Being born with a sickly resemblance to Henry Fonda was the first of a long series of practical jokes of which destiny was to make Major Major the unhappy victim throughout his joyless life. Being born Major Major Major was the second. The fact that he had been born Major Major Major was a secret known only to his father. Not until Major Major was enrolling in kindergarten was the discovery of his real name made, and then the effects were disastrous. The news killed his mother, who had lost her will to live and wasted away and died, which was just fine with his father, who had decided to marry the bad-tempered girl at the A & P if he had to and who had not been optimistic about his chances of getting his wife off the land without paying her some money or flogging her.
Catch 22, by Joseph Heller

Much has been writ about how Joseph Heller could only make sense of the realities of war through farce. Less has been writ about how the same can be said of the realities of names. The real-life example Major Major’s name immediately calls to mind is, of course, Neville Neville, Phil and Gary Neville’s father, forever immortalised by a song sung to the tune of Bowie’s Rebel Rebel:

Neville Neville, they’re in defence
Neville Neville, their future’s immense
Neville Neville, they ain’t half bad
Neville Neville, the name of their dad

But more relevant to the here and now – for there is nothing in football now more irrelevant than Gary Neville – is the way recent high-profile military names have once again proved Heller’s novel right. Or, more specifically, to be no more ridiculous than the actual Western military is capable of being. Has there ever been a more hilariously appropriately-named general to lead an American intervention in the Middle East than CARTER HAM, currently taking on Gaddafi? I mean, the whole Islam/pork thing aside, apparently HAM is also a US military slangly acronym for the grammatically problematic idiom, ‘Hard At Motherfuckers’. As in, marines, we're going HAM on this one! AND as everybody knows, US marines look a bit like hams. Big, sweaty, meaty ham hocks in desert fatigues. In the same way that Dave Cameron looks like a robot made of ham. Processed supermarket ham. Which tastes horrid.

Carter Ham                               Ham Hock

Ham                                     Cam

Meanwhile, have there ever been two names more representative of the atmosphere of public school masculinity (‘Play up! Play up! And play the game!’ etc.) that still, according to acquaintances of mine currently tearing up Sandhurst, dominates the upper echelons of the British Army, than AIR CHIEF MARSHAL JOCK STIRRUP and GENERAL FRANCIS RICHARD DANNATT? Is it possible to forge for oneself an eminent career in the British Army without having a surname that represents the onomatopoeic equivalent of a punch in the mouth?

We are living through a Golden Age of silly high-ranking military names. All we need now is somebody who comes close to matching Cromwell’s best-named officer, Praisegod Barebone, and we can consider ourselves truly blessed.


Monday, 21 March 2011

China | Introduction | 蠶油墨

It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.

This week will be discussing China, and as one of the world's oldest civilizations with over 4000 years of continuous cultural history to draw upon, we shouldn't be stuck for ideas.


Wider Reading | Why The West Is Not, Contrary To Popular Belief, A Character From The Film 'Taken'

"Don't worry, Jack. He's just mad because you destroyed more of the city than usual."
Danny from Last Action Hero*

I may have written here before that I don't care for the Luc Besson movie Taken. An exploitative, scaremongering take on the horrors of sex slavery (the majority of victims of said industry are apparently not impoverished girls from impoverished backgrounds in impoverished countries, duped into a terrible lifestyle of dependency, abuse and violence, but rather wealthy all-American blonde girls who get snatched up by an international, omnipotent syndicate at great expense, just so the fat and lustful Turk can get his sweaty hands on some white women. We never actually see him twirl his greasy foreign moustache while crooning about the 'innocent pale-faced infidel beauty' or some such, but it probably ended up in the deleted scenes), it's also completely humourless. Let's face it, if I wanted to watch a racially-tinged, ultra-violent Papa Bear story, I'd pick one with some sense of irony and self-awareness, like Commando, or Titus Andronicus.

What Taken does - and its immediate predecessor, Man On Fire - by refusing to even smile at the absurdity of the whole thing, is to indicate that an emotively-resonant purpose excuses illegal, berserk and unilateral behaviour on the part of the Papa Bear hero. He blows up some poor henchman, having (somewhat unnecessarily) shoved explosives up his rectum? THEY TOOK HIS DAUGHTER! He endangers the French police force, which somehow cannot be relied upon to help him find an American citizen? THEY TOOK HIS DAUGHTER! See, it answers everything. And I don't think it can be denied that this image of the 'maverick' (read, 'unilateral renegade') who ignores the laws (I ain't no fancy-schmancy lawyer, so I don't know about 'legal'. But I can tell you what's 'right'), usually killing evil foreigners and causing havoc along the way, in order to get his single emotive aim achieved, has permeated the American action-movie consciousness as a true-blue hero...and that this archetype has some twisted relevance to aspects of US foreign policy in the past.

The thought arises simply because the stereotype of the USA as the self-righteous grizzly that romps into harm's way, ignoring the pleas of the sensible and rational-minded and causing mass slaughter wherever it goes in single-minded pursuit of one goal...well, it's a stereotype which has been raised in quite a few places in the past few days concerning Libya. And, in spite of Barack Obama pretty much turning to the camera and saying, 'We are not invading. We are not being gung-ho. It's not us. It's actually, er, Europe. And the Arab League. We're not even involved. Please don't see this as an act of Western imperialism', I have read commentators arguing any and all of the following;

1) The West is only attacking its sometime ally who up until now was providing them with oil so that it can get its hands on all the oil!!

2) If the West is bombing Gaddafi, why isn't it bombing Bahrain and Zimbabwe and China and Russia and every other country that oppresses, murders, and tortures, INCLUDING EVERY COUNTRY IN THE WEST? It clearly isn't the case that global politics, being deeply factional, generally results in the status quo being observed unless a ruler's actions and words put him so clearly beyond the pale that some kind of consensus can be reached. It's - (deep breath, shrilly) - HYPOCRISY!!!**

3) In 1986 Norman Tebbit said we shouldn't feel any sympathy for Libyan civilians. WHY HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR TUNE NOW, TORIES????

4) (with scathing sarcasm) Thank God, we're going to stop the Brutal Dictator(TM) and save the Brave Democracy-Loving People (TM) because Right Is On Our Side (TM).***

And, most acrobatically of all,

5) The West knows the bombing will not be enough to stop Gaddafi. Don't you fools realise? It's all part of their counter-revolutionary plan to bring down the revolution by pretending to support it!

Which is more than a little irritating. Firstly, because I don't like to subscribe to the view that quite so many articulate people can be utterly demented. And secondly because real concerns about the problems of international intervention (when are the intervening forces deemed to have done 'enough'? If intervention becomes the rule, where will the line be drawn in future? Can our governments be trusted not to take advantage of the political vacuum after a tyrant's removal, and to accept the possible rise of a democratically-elected administration which doesn't necessarily like them all that much? Can our nations afford, financially speaking, to bear the responsibility of foreign intervention? Is it even legal to interfere in another nation's internal affairs if they don't threaten our own...if not, isn't that deeply selfish and apathetic? If so, isn't that blatantly open to abuse?) are being stifled by some quarters who want to play the 'this is Iraq all over again' card even when the comparison is patently idiotic and the US policy is being dictated partly by their massive wobbly that this might be perceived by other governments as being 'another Iraq'.

We see, for example, Vladimir Putin putting all of our Evil Cynical Oil-Loving Money-Obsessed Gun-Trading Overlords(TM) to shame by first refusing to veto the coalition's actions, then by condemning them publicly today, bringing up the emotively charged C-word in a sentence where it really had no place. Care to explain precisely how that resolution passed in order to save Arabs' lives from systematic genocide equates to the actions of the Crusades, Mr Putin(TM)? Oh, right, you'd rather have me dragged away by your bare-chested, polonium-snorting thugs, wouldn't you?

For all the evils that our governments do, for everything they fuck up, it's saddening to see their motives reduced to those of the villains in Taken - materialist baddies who want to snatch up the blushing, virginal young girl for their own nefarious purposes. The UK is not a cunning, manipulative and ill-intentioned supervillain in the mould of those sex slavers. If anything, we're more like Commando's Bennett - an over-energetic bloke in a bizarre, clearly outdated chainmail suit and a moustache, who talks a lot of smack talk but actually lacks the ability to get a great deal done, and who really, really needs to let off some steam.

* A film that fails to deconstruct Arnie's actual action persona nearly so much as Commando, in spite of an excellent Hamlet skit and the great Charles Dance being in it. Look at the above picture of Charles Dance. Isn't it soothing? Don't you wish he was typecast less?

** Good logic there, Michael Moore.

*** 'Trademarks' are the new 'Sceptical Bunny Finger Inverted Commas', it 'appears'.

(Flippant use of action movie plots as polemic material regarding real-life crises and tragedies is appalling, I know. But I do think it's relevant. Partly. Sort of.)

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Radio | Chapbook | Vol XLVII, Frequently Asked Questions by Howie Good

Vol XLVII, Frequently Asked Questions

Howie Good (20.3.11)


Howie Good, a journalism professor at SUNY New Paltz, is the author of the full-length poetry collections Lovesick (Press Americana, 2009), Heart With a Dirty Windshield (BeWrite Books, 2010), and Everything Reminds Me of Me (Desperanto, 2011), as well as 26 previous print and digital poetry chapbooks.

Radio | Poetry | Open Cast Surgery

“Radio is cleaning up the nation.”
-Elvis Costello

My teaching timetable this year has taken me out of the comfortable fireside of literature into the cold operating theatre of linguistics. I was initially troubled by this shift away from the subjective sensitivity that I spent three undergraduate years honing as I recently began to acquire the clinical skills of language-studies.

My fears were soon put aside for the re-ignition of my childhood fascination with the idea of a ‘fair test’. You spend years in secondary school playing with this idea. ‘Why wasn’t this a fair test? What could you have done to lessen the variables? Why are your results fundamentally moot?’

The linguist’s lab is rife with unclampable variables. The sands of semantics are constantly shifting, with many dictionary definitions reaching obsolescence before even going to print. The English language’s internationally plunderous nature makes it idiomatic and, with the internet’s erosion of the barriers between modal conventions, measuring its dimensions is like trying to use a 30cm ruler to scale a melting ice cap.

Then there’s ethics – how far can we go to determine the science behind these chunks of breath we use to share our brains’ contrivances? I’m thinking here of what linguists refer to as The Forbidden Experiment. The only way to prove Chomsky’s idea that language is innate would be to shove a baby in a silent, unlit chamber and see if it started talking. It could theoretically bury the tabula rasa for good, but it would mean that you, the license payer, allowed scientists to abuse an innocent child. How could you?

And so these endless thoughts of fair tests have followed me back to the bookshop. It is impossible to give a fair reading of a poem, in the scientific sense. The actual words used are just one layer to the poem’s reception; there are just too many variables in place. This is not an exhaustive list, but here are some of the key distractions/detractors that come between you and the words of a poem:

On the page…

  1. What publishing house is this collection released from?
  2. What font are the poems written in?
  3. How has the blurb/bio been written?
  4. What poets have donated quotations of recommendation for the cover?
  5. What illustrations have been used on the cover?
  6. Where did you find this book and did you have to pay for it?
  7. Is there much background noise in the place where you are trying to read this poem?
  8. Seriously, how loud does that kid on the bus need to have his headphones? The whole top deck can hear Kings of Leon emanating from his dirty white ear plugs.
  9. What sort of press-shot has the poet gone for? Are you kidding me? A glass of wine? And a raised eyebrow? Christ.
  10. How thick is the collection?
  11. Nice paper?
  12. How old is the poem? Is the poet alive?
  13. Any ye olde language to be dealing with?
  14. What was your English teacher in High School like?

On the stage…

  1. What sort of event are you seeing this poet at? Open mic? Guest spot? Book launch?
  2. Are they doing the poetry voice? Oh god, they aren’t doing the poetry slam voice are they? With the hand gestures too?
  3. Do you find this person physically attractive?
  4. How confident are they?
  5. How much time does the poet spend introducing each poem? Have they just spent 20 minutes telling you about an obscure tribal tradition they found out about on their gap year?
  6. What sort of company are you with?
  7. Is the rest of the room enjoying the poet? Have they earned that rare thing of applause for an actual poem rather than a polite clap at the end of a set?
  8. Is there free wine at this thing?
  9. Are you distracted by the sound of bar staff muttering to each other?
  10. Is the poet younger than you?

The lists of distractions could go on for hundreds of nuanced pages, perhaps separated into ‘social’, ‘linguistic’, ‘ambient’ and ‘subliminal’ factors to name a few. But we aren’t ever going to get rid of the countless barriers between you and an enjoyable poem, so why think about them?

Well, the radio (and its descendents) represents the closest thing to a fair test we are likely to get in poetry. When poetry is allowed to vibrate the air around a wireless we have a far more democratic process that that of a crowded reading, or a poorly produced book, or a badly lit YouTube video.

Granted, poets on the radio are still only as palatable as their voices allow, and the quality of microphone and the reputation of the station is a factor - but so fewer variables exist when considering the medium of radio broadcast; a medium which allowed Dylan Thomas to reach a far greater audience than he might have by virtue of his written words alone. But then he had the sort of voice needed to sell such aurally complex pieces, so perhaps my argument does not stand.

What the radio has done however, is lay the ground for my generation’s most underappreciated, free-at-point-of-service commodity; the Podcast. And if poetry does not embrace and thrive as part of ‘podmanity’ then it is a shameful missed opportunity.

The precedent is set with one of the finest regular podcasts available – Classic Poetry Aloud.  Those who are unaware of the existence of this vast and beautiful resource need to spend the next three hours getting lost in its archives. The reader, who chooses to remain anonymous, reads a different poem every week with his impeccably clear and tentative delivery.

For me, this is poetry at its most democratic – read by a consistent, nameless voice, with the sole motive of delivering beautiful words to anyone willing to listen. Many of my undergraduate nights were spent wandering the streets of Leamington or the endless footpaths of Warwick campus, listening to the impassioned delivery of poems from Blake to Verlaine.

Chomsky loves it

But for financial reasons, this podcast is only able to supply work that is now out of copyright. This is helpful in so much as you are guaranteed works which have stood the test of time, but the modern mainstream needs to awaken to the power of the podcast and its untapped potential for making people truly love poems rather than buying poets.

Reading this, who would not make a point of downloading a weekly CarcanetCast, or FaberCast where a member of the editorial team picks a poem from their stable to share with the world? I know that I would subscribe to hearing Roddy Lumsden record a rendition of his favourites from the Salt line-up once a week. Or to hear Neil Astley work his way through Bloodaxe’s back catalogue.

Not only would this help spread awareness of some of the sparkling talents that flit from renown due to poor marketing budgets or lack of bookshop stocking, but it would help kindle that most precious thing in poetry-world; an audience. And let us not forget here – for producer and consumer alike – podcasts are free.

Now perhaps I only argue this case in the hope of sparking off a product that I want to exist, but I know that what I’m suggesting makes sense. With the smallest of financial investments, the finest poets and publishers of poetry can easily drip their beautiful words into the ears of commuters, teenagers, teachers and scientists, and anybody else who thinks that they are too busy to sit down and read the stuff.

Phil Brown
Poetry Editor