Friday, 30 July 2010

There is something to be said for not being in the know

With the prospect of a job interview looming uncertainly on the horizon I was recently prompted to delve into the newspapers, resolving that it was time to abandon my current self-imposed oblivion in order to appear well-informed.

It was only a brief foray. There wasn’t much in the paper that didn’t make me sink into a moody glumness and, before long, I was desperately searching for a valid distraction to justify chucking it into the recycling. The front page read: “Fit to work test blocks 76% of benefit claims” and “Energy revolution could put bills up by a third”. S n o o o o o o z z z z z e e e…

Sadly, the pace didn’t pick up as I leafed through the subsequent pages: depressing trends from yesteryear to further compound the recession-blues, demoralising predictions about everything from the moral worth of our children to the property market, spine-chilling horror stories about grizzly assaults, ‘pioneering’ medical research that either confirms the bloody obvious or conflicts with every grain of common sense (the latest being a report that alcohol can reduce arthritis, which was ironically juxtaposed next to an article about closing pubs earlier).

Amidst this humdrum jumble of dreary news I did stumble across a couple of livelier stories. My favourite part of the paper was undoubtedly the small corner of space headlined, “Mother finds five-foot snake in the laundry”. In fact, it wasn’t just a good corner but a good page, the rest being taken up by a large, colour photograph of two swallows having a spat. Another page that stood out from the dull offerings featured an article about a woman who ended up swimming 64 miles when crossing the 21mile Channel. Now that is the sort of thing I want to read over breakfast to ease me into the day - not that authorities are planning on closing pubs early!

In addition to rooting out the upbeat reports sandwiched between the monotony, I also discovered that once you have trudged through the national news, World News is a breeze in comparison. What’s going on in China is generally much more interesting than happenings in the UK. In optimistic anticipation of this potential interview, my new tactic is to fast track my way through the papers straight to World News. At least that way I will look up-to-date globally.

I recognise that it pays to be well-informed, and that papers can't just print light-hearted, annecodotal stories to make the public smile. I can understand that unfortunately, more often than not, important issues make for boring reading. However, does the British press need to be quite so cynical and negative about the future? Do they really need to devote so much space to stats about last year? Does the public really need yet more conflicting medical advice?

However, perhaps my frustration with national news is misplaced. Maybe I am just reading the wrong paper!

Friday, 16 July 2010

The gothic fantasies of Gormenghast

Keeping faithfully to my pledge to avoid the doomladen headlines about graduate employment emblazoned across the papers this summer, I have been slowly wading through a stack of dust-coated books languishing on shelves in the attic. Despite stellar recommendations from my Dad, when I approached Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, it was with a certain amount of trepidation. With over 1200 pages of small print and narrow margins it looked to be a weighty undertaking. Initially, my hesitation seemed to have been justified: curling up in bed to the opening chapter I found my mind frequently sliding off on a tangent and I ended up having to read the first page several times.

Once critic described the trilogy as ‘a gargantuan feast’, which is an apt metaphor. Though initially daunted by the scale and detail of the books, it wasn’t long before I was swept up and adrift in the mysterious fantasies of Gormenghast, devouring chapter after chapter. Like nothing I have ever read before, the Gormenghast books conjured images beyond my imagination - a creaking kingdom hiding a wealth of secrets and housing complex, idiosyncratic characters, a vast world with an overwhelming aura of mystery, an atmosphere heavy with suspense and anticipation.

I couldn’t help but be amazed at the breadth of Peake's imagination and marvel at how he managed to translate his visions into such stark visual images. He seems to have used words as a painter would experiment with different colours and textures, and I was frequently groping for a dictionary. Curious about the man behind Gormenghast, I recently read ‘A World Away’, a biography of Mervyn Peake written by his wife, Mauve Gilmore. My admiration for Peake grew as I was temporarily immersed in the exciting, artistic bohemia of 1930s Britain, discovering him to be not only a novelist, but also a poet, painter and playwright. However, his wife regretfully describes him as "A shadow. A man with a shadow”. Tragically, he was diagnosed with premature senility at only 46.

Pondering Peake’s sad fate, I began to question whether great artists are prone to suffer or have suffered from some sort of mental turmoil and ostracism from society. Certainly lots of the big names seem to be marked out from the crowd, whether it is by some tragedy in their past, a distinguishing characteristic or an illness. To mention some of those I have studied: the novelist Hermann Hesse was deeply immersed in mental physchoanalysis, journalist Joseph Roth was a Jew living in Germany and author Christopher Isherwood was a homosexual foreigner in 1920s Berlin. Does their artistic insight and sensitivity result in their being slightly removed from the mainstream? Or does their being removed from the mainstream stimulate their art?

I mulled this over for a good few days before realising that I was in fact debating the topic that I wrote my dissertation on. 15,000 words analysing whether the artist is an outsider. Should I be disheartened that I so easily forgot the result of 9 months hard toil? Or should I be reassured that my fascination with the artist still holds strong despite those 9 months?

Either way, I clearly need to reread the conclusion!