Feud for Thought

With the passing of the Augustan figure and intellectual bruiser Gore Vidal, I’ve had cause to think about literary rivalry.

It’s well known to each and every keyboard hitter about the hostility between Vidal and Norman Mailer(youtube.com/watch?v=C8m9vDRe8fw).  The Titans of Swing really had it in for each other in both the intellectual and literary ring. In some sense, their acerbic brawls overshadowed their literary outpouring — well almost. For me, they both seem marked, I think, by the immortality of posture that Milan Kundera wrote about.

As a young writer even I had my own bouts with writers. And it began with Hemingway. I never got what all the fuss over him was about. Yes, I got his use of economical language (but is writing solely about balancing the books?) and his great macho persona where each of his heavy testicles were raised high on the bookshelf of every poor male writer who seemed to have catkins between his legs in comparison. I never could bring myself to drink at Papa’s Hem’s animalistic trough of masculine greatness. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of a writer like Mervyn Peake, strolling around the Island of Sark in his cape and poet’s hat like he’d just stepped out from a Harry Clarke painting and was infused with the light of a pansexual being.

Oh, the spats I had with dead writers! You should have seen me, hidden away in my room, stomping the floorboards, shaking whatever writer’s book was du jour that day in my hand and railing against his or her departed spirit who I imagined took a break from the great library in the sky and popped down to have an argy-bargy with me. And I always lost the argument, callow writer that I was. Or maybe I made myself lose, cause who really could best the likes of Camus, Henry Miller, DH Lawrence, Tolkien, Peake, Ursula Le Guin, Simone de Beauvoir, Anais Nin, Satre, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Lloyd Alexander, Knut Hamsun, Hesse, Dylan Thomas, Angela Carter, Jeanette Winterson, Tove Jansson, Kundera, Joyce, Blake, Byron, Shelley, Arthur Machen, Tennessee Williams, Ted Hughes, Black Adder, Del Boy, Basil Fawlty, Judge Dredd, Fungus the Bogeyman, Morrissey, Ian McCulloch, Mick Jones, Paul Weller… and the list runs ever on, and on, and on.

Writers are always going on about the importance of reading, and, yes, it is important if you want to write. But I would add it’s also important to get into intellectual scraps with the writers you love, even if you never ever meet them. And it’s especially important to rattle the bones of dead ones — if for no other reason than it keeps their work alive.

In fact, I have a secret rivalry of my very own, too. A bit of an Edwardian, gentleman’s feud with a writer that’s all imaginary cricket bats and cravats and smoking rooms and letter openers and spats and tops hats and stuffy libraries and port. But neither of us have ever admitted to the other that there’s anything between us but a book — if even that. It’s more a rivalry that’s all in my head with us two pygmies of the intellectual void wrestling and wrangling in muck like pagan fools both destined for a ritual killing. Writing about it now, the whole thing sounds petty, stupid, and enormously entertaining. Every writer needs distraction and the impulse to create. And god knows what we’d even spat about if we ever squared off with our six-shooter mouths and our saddlebags of favourite writers strapped to our hips. It would probably be over what flavour ice cream we prefer and insults that would probably go something like this:

Me: “Your book’s crap.

Him: “You haven’t even finished yours.”

Me: “I hate your hair. It’s like liver and onions.”

Him: “Shorn boy and sheep shagger!” (*)

Me: “And what’s with those testosterone tanks strapped between your legs? Do they give you a squirt?”

Him: “It’s better than your bottle of dandelion wine.”

Me: “Yeah, well, for all your hot oven of masculinity, why is it you turn out cupcakes.”

Him: “Pigeon breath.”

Me: “Hog anus.”

Him: “You write like a lobotomized squid.”

Me: “Is that the amount of your intellectual fireworks, a pathetic squid? You know what, I don’t even know why I have a rivalry with you. You’re a lousy writer who can only string together sentences that have been around the block so many times they’ve actually built a necropolis. Plus as a person, you register on the humanity scale as a single-celled organism. Go try another phylum or else pack up your DNA and take a holiday by the genetic deficiency gene pool. And one last thing: I just realized you’re not even worth the effort.”

Shit, I maybe on to something here.

*Author’s Note: For the record, I have never shagged a sheep. But I have eaten Sunday mutton.

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A Damn Fine Flick

I will admit to not having a fever pitch for football (the English kind, not the American kind). Although I did grow up supporting Swansea City and Liverpool in an odd courtship of love and loyalty — the love was for Liverpool and Kevin Keegan; the loyalty for supporting a local team that happened to be Swansea City.

But I just watched The Damn United and wished I still had my old Liverpool scarf to knot one more time around my neck.

Michael Sheen gives one stellar performance worthy of an Oscar — or at least free season tickets to every premier English league game. He became Brian Clough, the focus of the film, so much that I had to Google Mr. Clough just to remind myself what he looked like.

The story revolves around the friendship, tough at times, between Clough and Peter Taylor (Clough’s assistant at Derby and later Nottingham Forest), and Clough’s bitter rivalry with Leeds United manager Don Revie (played by the fantastic Colm Meaney).

On one level the film’s about football in 70s England, the muddy pitches and the dirty games (epitomized by Leeds United, Football’s Enemies Division One, according to Clough in the film). It also touches on the approachability of those 70s players, so many from working-class backgrounds who would meet fans at local pubs and had salaries that weren’t that much different from the people they lived among. Not like today when footballers are paid salaries the size of the GNP of small countries and you’d be lucky if they gave you the evil eye.

On another level it’s about Clough and the forked-tailed ambition that drove him to succeed but also to be his own worst enemy; the Achilles heel of his own suffering. But what makes Clough so much more than just an ego-driven madman, with the world as a cup at his own lips, is his love for the game, for his friend Taylor, and his wit and honesty in the face of ridicule and dismissal from others.

In a strange way, Brain Clough was football’s Socrates. Like the Athenian philosopher, Clough was charged with introducing strange new gods to football and corrupting the young.

Currently listening to:

Return to Cookie Mountain by TV on the Radio. This New York band is the best thing since the Thin White Duke.

Get Behind Me Satan by The White Stripes. Oh, Jack, you know how to ring my musical doorbell.

Merriweather Post Pavilion by Animal Collective. I didn’t like this album at first but its freak folk and experimental sound has grown on me like psychedelic moss.

Currently reading:

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. Hornby writes like the chosen son of Laurence Sterne, Chekhov, and Del Boy and Rodney Trotter. His narrative is so witty and sad and uplifting and sneaky that I feel like I’ve been rolled up in a sweet jam roly-poly. And he has his finger pressed so firmly to the drama between men and women, fingering that wishbone of laughter and forgetting, loving and hating, that I have to keep shaking my head and saying to myself, no, Hornby didn’t  create Adam and Eve, he’s just a writer doing what the best are supposed to do: tell us stories.