Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Week Twenty-Five - Jeanette

The Weird World Of Eerie Publications by Mike Howlett (2010)
Recommended by Mike

It was my birthday. Kathryn directed me to an unlabelled VHS tape.

‘It’s from me and someone else,’ she said. ‘Play it! Play it!’

I screamed in delight and threw my arms around her.

‘Turn it off now,’ Kathryn said, as the title sequence finished. ‘I’m not watching it.’

Cannibal Holocaust, for the uninitiated, is a notorious video nasty. You can get a flavour of it from this trailer (NSFW):

Even when considered in the later context of torture porn films like Hostel, Cannibal Holocaust is repulsive and intense in its imagery. But, (very unlike Hostel) it has a great deal to say about serious subjects – such as authenticity, Western anthropological assumptions, media exploitation of culture, and the abuse of animals. I’d wanted to see this film, (then) banned and very difficult to get hold of, for years.

So how did Kathryn, who avoids horror movies at all costs, track down Cannibal Holocaust?

The answer is Mike.

Kathryn and Mike ‘met’ on an indie-pop message board. I find it utterly brilliant that my first introduction to Mike was through Cannibal Holocaust, while Kathryn’s was through songs like this:

Mike is American, and he and I began writing letters to one another. Through our correspondence, I found out that he loved horror movies of all eras and styles. My own palate was then fixated on stylized 1970s Euro-horror and nihilistic American efforts like Last House On The Left, and I credit Mike with considerably broadening my tastes.

So when I asked Mike for a book recommendation, he came up with a lavishly illustrated and unapologetically nerdy history of a gruesome comic book company. What kind of person would write a book like this?

Mike would. And he did!

If anyone’s thinking Mike recommended this book to me in order to promote it, I can guarantee that’s the furthest thing from his mind. I know exactly why this most generous and enthusiastic of souls sent me this: so I could understand and love the very weird world of Eerie Publications for myself. If he’d not written this book, he probably would have shipped me over two dozen original comics instead.

Weird and its clammy ‘the world’s gone to shit’ brand of horror was one of the few pop harbingers of what was just around the corner.

Weird, along with Terror Tales, Horror Tales, Tales Of Voodoo, Witches’ Tales, Tales From The Tomb and many other shorter-lived titles, represented the empire of Myron Fass. Fass, a mixture of opportunistic capitalist and deranged gun-toter, cut his teeth in the early 1950s horror comics boom. Blood and oddness had run riot during this period, but it didn’t last. In 1954, the quasi-academic tract Seduction Of The Innocent tenuously claimed horror comics had a deleterious effect on children, and it ushered in an era of censorship (‘the code’): the comics’ bloodletting was stemmed, and unsurprisingly no-one wanted the new neutered stories. Horror comics were over.

Fast-forward a decade. In January 1966, this hit American newsstands.

The first Weird reprinted seven pre-code horror stories […] In some panels, a few extra drops of blood were added to the original art to make it a bit more gruesome.

Myron Fass had hundreds of these 1950s horror stories to mine. Once he’d printed ‘em up on cheap paper (with even cheaper ink that turned a reader’s fingers to charcoal) all Fass had to do was commission new covers.

And what covers they were: a sick, wonderful art form in themselves. In this book, Howlett generously reprints every single one (and the best get their own full-page glory). Check out the human corn-on-the-cob!

And the meat grinder!

The titles were successful, and because Fass now had so very many horror comics on the go, those 1950s stories were running dry. Did he commission new stories? Did he buggery! The man was allergic to paying for stuff. He went for the cheapest option: to give the impression of freshness, he got artists to redraw those same 1950s stories, retaining the original dialogue balloons and text, but with instructions to gore them up. A new title, and voila: a ‘new’ story.

However, it was this very workhouse that gave some talented artists freedom. They creatively interpreted the 1950s material, playing with panels, perspective and character. As long as they also shoved in an eye trauma or a disembowelment, Fass couldn’t care less if they indulged their artier side. Finally, even the redraw tactic ran dry and new stories were grudgingly included, but reprints of the same ancient shit continued right up to the magazines’ dying days in the mid-1970s.

I think my favourite part of the Eerie Publications story was the ultra-bizarre short-lived projects. Look at the mixture of Lady Gaga and Fantastic Planet that was Gasm, from November 1977…

…and the obligatory Star Wars cash-in with amusing copyright-dodging name!

There was even a magazine on the Swine Flu epidemic of 1976! Was there nothing this man couldn't exploit?

I’m so made-up for Mike. This book is a brilliant achievement. With specialist geeky subjects like this, the writing is often stale, but that’s not the case at all with The Weird World Of Eerie Publications. Mike is as funny and lovely in print as he is in real life, and I’m really proud that he’s my friend.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Week Twenty-Four - Jeanette

Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy Of A Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel by Lucinda Hawksley (2004)
Recommended by Suzanne

What’s a model to do when she (overwhelmingly she) is fast becoming the David Seaman of the catwalk?

First go-to is often acting. While you could argue that Elle McPherson in Batman And Robin constituted ‘turning up on a film set’ rather than acting, we do have Cybill Shepherd in Taxi Driver. There’s also singing: Carla Bruni made a decent fist of smouldering bluestocking on her 2006 album No Promises. Tyra Banks is an endearing and skilled TV host, and seems genuinely happy to help out her protégées on America’s Next Top Model. For the less talented, there is always the general look-at-me puff of perfumes and keep-fit videos. And, if you’re really top of the self-delusion class, there’s writing a novel.

I’d argue that it’s not only at the end of a career that modelling is one sorrowful job. Without even going into the sexism, body dysmorphia, rejection and boredom endemic to the profession, it must be hard, really fucking existentially hard, to have your worth measured in the finite resource of your looks. Shepherd, Bruni and Banks strike me as intelligent women who realised this early on and tackled it, developing other aspects of themselves while still modelling. Campbell, on the other hand, didn’t. Her projects failed because they were poorly thought-out rubbish grafted on in her twilight modelling years. She seems to me like she’s raging against time itself: unable to hit back at it, she tyrannically flails at a series of assistants and journalists instead.

While there’s a sniff of marketing in the subtitle of this excellent biography, Lizzie Siddal’s rise, career and decline does indeed foreshadow the forlorn path of many modern models. Born into a poor, if not destitute, London family, Lizzie Siddal was almost freakish to look at in the everyday world: tall, skinny, with acres of burning red hair. Yet Walter Deverell, the first artist to request a sitting from her, saw these qualities as very special indeed.

It was a shock to this previously unfêted young woman to be singled out and offered quite bluntly such an unusual proposition. Although deeply flattered, Lizzie was wary of the offer and uncertain of exactly what it entailed – in the 1840s modelling for an artist was perceived as being synonymous with prostitution.

Siddal was soon in enormous demand from the ‘Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’ – a group of artists, centered on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, which saw itself as saving art or something.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a society set up by seven very idealistic young men who were passionate about art, depressed by the current, very conventional state of the art world, and idealistically desirous of bringing about dramatic changes.

Yes. They weren’t a kind set of very idealistic young men, though. While Rossetti was über-sensitive about Siddal in art – producing gorgeous works like Elizabeth Siddal in 1855…

…he acted pretty disgracefully toward her in real life. The pair were in a relationship, and Rossetti trumpeted this when it suited him, but denied it when it didn’t. Like many people who go on and on about how unconventional they are, Rossetti had a deeply conservative side, and didn’t admit his relationship with the socially and economically ‘inferior’ Siddal to his family for years. This hurt Siddal as much as, if not more than, his refusal to marry her, his emotional cruelty, and his parade of other lovers.

Yes, Hawksley generally writes on Siddal’s ‘side’, but I don’t think she’s unfair to Rossetti. Two of Hawksley’s tiny asides tell you what a callous twat he was:

Rossetti had a passion for animals, although his love for them was not matched by an understanding of how best to look after them. […] He had a lifelong passion for wombats, of which he bought a couple; he also possessed an armadillo, a couple of kangaroos, a raccoon, a dormouse and a peacock. These unfortunate animals – and others – appeared randomly, and often expired with equal rapidity.

He made the two girls laugh by pretending to be an invalid, lolling his head mockingly from side to side as they wheeled him around in a Bath chair.

Hawksley is also not too soft on the manipulative Siddal. Someone at the wrong emotional end of a Rossetti-type may well experience a personality change, becoming ill-natured and calculating, and this certainly happened to Siddal. She embraced laudanum and frequently refused food for days on end. Yes, much of this was desperate despondency, but it had the desired effect of gaining Rossetti’s attention whenever she felt neglected, and eventually of emotionally blackmailing him into marriage.

Also covered in Lizzie Siddal are the model’s forays into art and poetry. Hawksley does a half-hearted job of defending it, but to my tastes its pretty useless stuff. Her poetry is stuck at I-hate-myself-and-want-to-die teenage level. Her painting is rudimentary at best (to be fair, though, it’s never going to look good sat alongside works like Rossetti’s breathtaking Helen Of Troy). However, some of Siddal’s drawings are interesting: this is her 1853 The Lady Of Shalott.

Suzanne, who has the distinction of being my oldest friend involved in Two Readers, is an artist herself. I have a few of her works, from a re-interpretation of Rodin’s The Eternal Idol to a flattering caricature of yours truly, drawn to mark my voyage from Norwich to London. Although Suzanne recommended a few books to me (including a Zola I’m dying to read), I picked this one. Re-evaluating a creative and tragic woman with a maligned reputation seems so very Suzanne: high passion, artistic temperament, and deep inner strength.

We met at secondary school (our first discussion was about Madonna) and, if a friendship endures like that, you understand and forgive the good and bad in one other. Look at us, age sixteen! We never had any money and we’d buy our clothes from jumble sales (I think we’re both ‘sporting’ our finds, here).

That photo was taken in a sixth form classroom. I remember Suzanne coming round my house later that year. It was the afternoon my mother died. We sat in my bedroom. I don’t recall what we talked about (or even looking at her). But I will always know that she was there.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Week Twenty-Three - Jeanette

The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek (1921)
Recommended by Barry

It was my first week at university. I was overcome with finally getting out of Norwich and getting in ached-for London. (I say ‘finally’ – I was only eighteen – but, through that teenage telescope, it had felt like I’d been waiting for a century). Yet I was also terrifically scared of what I was doing. I had hoped everyone would magically crowd around, desperate to befriend me due to my knowledge of Elastica’s Peel Sessions or something. They didn’t.

Well, one did. And I was desperate to befriend him as well.


We started going out, and remained a couple throughout university. The transition to the real world didn’t work out for us – we fell apart after graduation – but, and I think this is a credit to us both, we rebuilt our relationship into something else. Our very strong friendship has now lasted four times as long as our stint as partners.

He told his story with all possible detail, not even forgetting to mention that forget-me-nots were blooming on the dam of the lake where his misfortune had happened.

Is Hašek talking about the good soldier Švejk? Or am I still describing Barry? For Barry has a way with discussion – I think it was Jude who coined the phrase ‘Barry time’ – that explores, and unpicks, and muses. I don’t know anyone else who I could converse with on one narrow topic for well over two hours and never be bored (on the contrary, I become ever more engaged with every philosophical capillary we investigate).

Švejk, on the other hand, often exasperates the people he regales with his wandering anecdotes. His myopic military superiors consider him a gibbering dunderhead.

But, of course, even though he often pretends to be, he’s nothing of the sort.

The Good Soldier Švejk is a comment on the colossal preposterousness of the Great War. I’ve studied this period in some detail, and as well as all the usual Schlieffen Plan and Battle of Verdun material, I learned about cultural reactions to the conflict. There were many, of course (including sorrow, pride, humour) but a less immediately obvious one was calling it out on its phenomenal absurdity.

Jaroslav Hašek was a Czech author and, at the time of the Great War, Czech lands were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which was Germany’s main ally). Yet while Germany had relatively recently become a nation-state – and was confident, sleek, cohesive and industrially buoyant – the Austro-Hungarian Empire was its complete opposite. Rent with nationalist squabble (it also contained some of the modern Balkan nation-states), ethnicities fought over their own issues in their own languages, hardly presenting a clear fighting front. This crumbling empire was a feeble anachronism in 1914.

In comparison to the more famous literature on the Great War, such as Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front (German), Barbusse’s Under Fire (French) or the poetry of Wilfred Owen (British), The Good Solider Švejk already starts within a stranger locale. And it sets out its savage comedy stall right from the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

‘Which Ferdinand, Mrs Müller?’ he asked, going on with the massaging. ‘I know two Ferdinands. One is a messenger at Průša’s, the chemist, and once by mistake he drank a bottle of hair oil. And the other is Ferdinand Kokoška who collects dog manure. Neither of them is any loss.’

From here on in, Švejk navigates, as best he can, the ramble of petty bureaucracy, nonsense orders and pointless actions all generated by the war. Significantly, the enemy is barely mentioned. Švejk’s war is in and of itself: an exasperating maze within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Good Soldier Švejk doesn’t have much of an over-arching narrative (the introduction asserts that the alcoholic Hašek was often blotto when he wrote it and, as the book was originally a magazine serial, he span it out to maximise his income). Instead, it’s a vignette-heavy read. Some of the most charming of these are between Švejk and Lieutenant Lukáš. Lukáš is the one senior officer characterized as something more than a sadist or an idiot, and Švejk is loyal to this irascible, yet somehow entirely adorable, man. Often, Lukáš will think he’s rid of Švejk, who seems to cause him naught but headaches. He should be so lucky.

Švejk and the Lieutenant were silent. Both observed each other closely for a long time. Lukáš stared at Švejk as though he was preparing to hypnotise him like a cock standing in front of a chicken and waiting to spring on it. Švejk as usual looked at Lieutenant Lukáš with moist tender eyes as though wanting to say: ‘United again, heart of mine!’

The illustrations, plenty of them, are by Josef Lada. Although Hašek never got to approve them as they were commissioned after the author’s death, Lada’s work can’t be faulted. He plucks out the tiniest moments from the text, and conveys character perfectly through guileless half-smiles, backwards head tilts and the angle of eyebrows.

There’s also room in The Good Soldier Švejk for some traumatic moments, made even more so because they are in the same satirical style. The references to wartime disease and injury, including the lack of respect for how people may be mentally affected by their experience, are particularly cutting. And then there’s the droll way that Švejk talks of dying in battle.

‘I think that it’s splendid to get oneself run through with a bayonet,’ said Švejk, ‘and also that it’s not bad to get a bullet in the stomach. It’s even grander when you’re torn to pieces by a shell and you see that your legs and belly are somehow remote from you. It’s very funny and you die before anyone can explain it to you.’

Although I don’t think it’s as well-written, this is a book in the same vein as Gogol’s Dead Souls. It is often bawdy and foul-mouthed, which must have caused quite a stir at the time. (I learned a cracking Serbian insult from it – jebem ti dušu – fuck your soul!)

What The Good Soldier Švejk gets across is that, yes, the Great War was a tragedy on a grand scale. But it was stupid on a grand scale, too. It allowed stupid people stupid amounts of power, and it encouraged them to exercise it stupidly. Moreover, if you weren’t stupid, you damn well better pretend to be stupid: else (rather stupidly) you’ll be the first to end up dead.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Week Twenty-Two - Jeanette

Westwood by Stella Gibbons (1946)
Recommended by Kathryn

‘I swear I put that fifty pence in,’ wrote Kathryn in her second ever letter to me. ‘If it’s not in this letter, you know to blame the thieving GPO!’

Kathryn had contacted me the previous week (sans fifty pence), wanting a copy of this:

Kirby was my fanzine, on its second issue. In an uncharacteristic fit of self-promotion, I’d sent it to Ceefax, which reviewed zines on a weekly basis. They liked it, called it ‘post-riot grrrl’, I got a rash (twenty or so) of orders, and one was from an Oxford girl called Kathryn. Once we’d settled the contentious fifty pence issue (yes, it was there in her second letter!) we started writing to each other very regularly.

Kathryn’s letters were amazing. Literally, some of the funniest, sweetest, most insightful words I’d ever read. We’d write about current music a lot, the lo-fi girl groups like Golden Starlet and The Rondelles that we both liked, plus we’d laugh and laugh about pop and indie culture. We’d make each other mix tapes. Soon we started writing about our lives, our dilemmas, our happiness and our hurts.

Eventually, we met. We arranged that she would come into my branch of Oddbins. Late that afternoon, while I was up a stepladder arsing about with champagne for a dithering customer, I could see this girl with a silver backpack out of the corner of my eye and I knew it must be her. The time it took for that customer to wrap up the champagne transaction felt like an absolute lifetime, so anxious was I to actually talk to this girl who had come to mean so much to me.

She was even more incredible in person than in her letters!

Eighteen months or so after that, we became Hackney flatmates. We had four glorious years there. So many details of that home remain with me: the pigeon infestation on the balcony (and Kathryn throwing out their egg because I was too squeamish to); the armchair where we’d dump our coats; the nonsensical sticker on the bathroom mirror that said ‘You’ve gotta sleep sometime’; the Polaroid of the two of us blu-tacked to the lounge door… but mainly it was the feeling of belonging. The knowledge that she and I had a very rare friendship.

While we lived together, I got to know her literary tastes. She enjoyed a wide range of writers, was vocal about the ones she didn’t (I remember her calling Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius ‘a tedious work of staggering shite’) and she leaned towards British literary female authors of the early-to-mid twentieth century. In the last few years she’s read significant numbers of works of this style from the era, and has become very knowledgeable about it.

‘Margaret! Put that book away and come down here at once! Reg’ll be here any minute and I want the cloth set and some potatoes done, and he’s sure to want a bath, the boiler’ll want making up. Come along, get a move on, now!’
Margaret reluctantly returned to the present, put the book back among the many others that crowded her room, and went slowly downstairs.

Margaret Steggles, the central character of Westwood, is in her early 20s, rather plain to look at, and serious about Art and Literature. When she performs a chance good deed (the return of a ration book), she meets the artist, Alexander Niland, and his wife, Hebe. The grave and wide-eyed Margaret can’t quite believe she’s breathing the same rarefied air as these glamorous people, yet at the same time she is deeply disenchanted by the experience.

She began to listen to what Alexander Niland and Lev were talking about, but was disappointed to find that it concerned the difficulty of obtaining matches.

Margaret soon learns that Hebe’s father is an idol of hers, the playwright Gerard Challis. Gerard, unlike Alexander, doesn’t chatter idly about matches.

‘There is a helpless quality, don’t you agree, about a room that is prepared for a party,’ he observed. ‘The silence and flowers are like victims, awaiting the noise of conversation and the cigarette-smoke and dissonant jar of conflicting personalities that shall presently destroy them.’

Margaret had been thinking that the hall looked perfectly lovely and wishing with all her heart that she were going to the party too, but she hastily readjusted her point of view, and answered solemnly, ‘Yes, I know just what you mean.’

Enamored with Gerard and his purple prose, Margaret begins to neglect her old friend, Hilda. Hilda is really awesome; she’s a jolly sensible girl, whose pretty face and sprightly manner attracts many a man – including Gerard. Gerard’s attempts to woo Hilda are absolutely priceless. He describes the main character of his latest play, Kattë, to her.

‘She makes men suffer,’ said Mr Challis somberly, gazing at her, ‘even as you do.’
‘I don’t do anything of the sort!’ she exclaimed indignantly, turning round. ‘My boys are always ever so cheery.’
            ‘Perhaps they suffer without your knowledge,’
            ‘Well, I can’t help that, can I?’

A quote on the back cover compares Stella Gibbons to Jane Austen – and that seems very astute to me. Gibbons explores the sexual and class mores of wartime British culture as deftly as Austen dissected those of the early nineteenth century. And, just as with Austen, Gibbons is exceptionally gifted at exposing flaws and strengths through humour. Westwood has a wide cast of supporting characters, from American GIs to a little girl with Down’s Syndrome, and all are memorably drawn; the children especially are believable mixtures of gits and angels. Westwood is charming and wistful and delightful, but it is never shallow. Furthermore, as it’s a wartime story, you do get an honest sense of how it must have been for civilians: a bore and an inconvenience as much as a horrific and life-changing experience. Westwood is a superb book. I can’t think of anything to criticise in it.

It doesn’t surprise me that Kathryn picked up on Stella Gibbons – an author who is really only known for one book, Cold Comfort Farm, but who wrote plenty of others that are mostly out of print. I remember her scouring charity shops for Rosamund Lehmann books when those, too, were very hard to find. And, generally, Kathryn is gifted at teasing out life’s detail; she enjoys observing and disentangling the ebb and flow of situations and feelings, so it is logical that Westwood appeals to her.

I called Kathryn my soul sister in the Seasons They Change acknowledgements, and I can still think of no better way to express my feelings towards her. She’s still just incredible. Westwood is, too: yet it could never, ever be as incredible as she.