Angry Writers and Demographic Panic

WARNING : quotes some bad language.

Lots of great writers are angry about stuff. Mostly it’s political. They’re socialists or liberals or conservatives and they hate anyone or anything that gets in the way of their beliefs. Mostly it’s well thought out, it centres on the values, and it isn’t that kind of chronic bigotry aimed at identifiable groups of human beings that can disfigure a novel or film or play into unreadability or unwatchability.

Sometimes it is.

Sometimes it almost is.

Sometimes it is if you’re in the group the hate is aimed at.

Sometimes the hate makes it better.

It all depends on how much the hate is internalized and made universal and how much vulnerability and fear the writer shows.

The trouble with writers is that there’s too much time to brood and far too many rejections to goad even the most stable person into developing elaborate theories as to why they’re being excluded and who by. The European favourite in the past was always the Jews. Liberal or socialist, conservative or fascist, until after the second world war, the looming image of the greedy, rootless, loyalty-free Jew was the go-to for hating on. It’s obvious why. Numbers and real power. If Jews boycotted your novel, you’d still be a bestseller, most publishers were not Jewish, and since people hate to hear bad things about themselves and the world is full of bad things and powerful people can exact vicious revenges – picking a small, visible group and having a reasonable cover-story (they killed Christ, they hate the name of Christ, they desecrate the host, they poison wells, they murder Christian children, they secretly run the world)  is an easy way of unleashing all your bitchy fury and self-loathing on to the world without reprisals or self-accusations.

Shylock and Fagin are nice depictions compared to most others, probably because Shakespeare could see Catholics, Anglicans and Presbyterians killing each other as if they were non-Christians, and Dickens reserved his greatest hatreds for anyone who created the conditions that made his working in a boot factory as a child a necessity. The Jewish writer Mendele Mocher Sefarim was so grief-striken at the hate Jews faced that all he could write were caricatures, self-hating laments on this one theme. His inner world was dominated by how others felt about him. The Irish Protestant academic Vivian Mercier wrote a fantastic book called ‘The Irish Comic Tradition’, clearly he loved and wanted to be part of Irish Literature,  but he couldn’t help taking a couple of snobby swipes at Irish Catholics (he probably didn’t even realise he was doing it) and then lists insults aimed at Protestants by Catholic poets as if picking a wound is the best way of healing it. The Victorian novelist Marie Corelli had a real talent for writing oddball new-age religious romances, but page after page of her work has prissy insults aimed at all the male critics who thought she was a crap writer, who would have left her to starve if an insightful publisher hadn’t the intelligence to rescue her. Partly it’s flattering to her audience, they’re insiders in her elevated circle, but mostly it ruins the story and limits her imagination. But at least they took the path of lashing out, in a very personal way, at their declared haters or themselves.

Other writers simply spew out the hate.

In ‘Zuleika Dobson’ a comedy about a beautiful woman who causes lethal chaos at Oxford, Max Beerhohm stops the plot dead in Chapter 13 to lauch an unprovoked attack on a minor character. ‘Noaks’ is some disgusting working-class person with no looks and no manners who has been allowed, by some kind of government grant, to disgrace the gloriously doomed boys (who come from decent schools like Eton and Harrow) with his weedy, ignoble, vulgar presence. As Max was Jewish and gay it’s probably his own projected feelings about himself,  but you’d have to surmise that from his biography, it’s not in the book. In hundreds of British colonial novels our insecurity (will we be defeated? Will we be subjugated? Will we die abroad? Will we be stuck in a poor country? Will our descendants be poor?) and our guilt (our Empire was too late – liberal democracy and nationalism had replaced feudal landlords and conquering Kings and we knew it) played out in a million Chinese villains (opium dens! White slavery! Gangs!), sexy but barbaric and disgusting Arabs (a street arab was a thief, a dirty arab was applied to anyone we didn’t like), and black tribesmen banging drums and raising Zombies with voodoo. Rudyard Kipling’s reputation only survived ‘the white man’s burden’ rubbish because he was fond of India and mostly hated the British Raj for being incompetent (and causing tension) and for being weak (and wanting to give up).

The crime writer Josephine Tey had class and race issues. In ‘The Franchise Affair’ two nice middle-class women are holed up with depleting resources in a crumbling country manor assailed by the forces of the welfare state. Some young tart accuses them of kidnap. A mob of yokels try to burn their house down. The book constantly pits their decency with this new world of the feckless poor made entitled and lazy by the post Second-world war Labour government. There’s an ‘us’ unjustly on our way down, and a ‘them’ unfairly on their way up. This is a writer in agony and under threat, making no effort to ask herself if she’s being proportionate. In ‘The Singing Sands’ her hero, Inspector Grant, goes on holiday to Scotland and ends up involved in a murder case that seems to hinge on a creepy poem ‘The beasts that talk, the streams that stand, the stones that walk, the singing sand…’. If she’d burrowed into the animistic horror of that poem she might have created a powerful story – instead she takes nasty swipes at Scottish Nationalism, the Gaels and Glasgow. She was a Scottish writer attached to the Union, but also, attached to uniformity and the mainstream. To find herself in contested space was painful. But again, she didn’t question herself, she simply accused Scottish Nationalists of being destructive and sentimental (and of being Irish – outsiders posing as us to do us harm), the Gaels of being some kind of fairy race who should stick to tourism, and Glasgow of being so horrible no one should ever set foot in it.

Scotland’s position is an odd one; dominated but not oppressed, enlightened but dogmatic. Intellectually it’s difficult not to get hysterical and freaked out by it. So many influences, so many damn contradictions, so many double binds and dead ends! But at her best she was capable of turning that confusion in to an eerie atmosphere of doomed affection, or threatened serenity. I’m in danger of seeing lesbians around every corner – but I can’t help but feel the real source of her lashing out was her sexuality. Her best novel is ‘To Love And Be Wise’, a murder mystery shot through with the longing of one woman for another, not only unspoken but unspeakable. For most writers, who need a career, the thing that truly bugs them is too terrifying to be tackled head on. The thing that truly terrifies them is the thing that would stop them having a career.

Annoying as feeling censored is – it can be for the best.

Hate can date.

H. P Lovecraft was a racist. He thought non-whites were inferior to whites, and that whites could degenerate into non-whites through bad blood. This was a science based theory in his day, a bastardisation and amplification of evolution. Hitler used it to explain why his nice drawings were shunned and degenerate artists got their foul daubings critically acclaimed. If you didn’t want to believe that modern life was rubbish because capitalism had made us competitive and hedonistic and the proles were destined to murder us all in our beds before creating a shared Utopia, then fascism was your fall-back. Fascism was about blood and land. You, with your fine blood, belong in this fine land. If your fine blood is doing badly in this fine land then some INVADER! has either infected you or is blocking you. Both H. P.’s parents had gone mad, and he was so shy his social opportunities were limited. Fearing madness, and knowing he wasn’t doing as well as he should, despite being highly intelligent, he scapegoated blacks and Asians. Looked at with hostility we’re all (any human on Earth) ugly morons who should be shot or kept in cages, and H.P. was looking with bewildered, paranoid, hostility. It gave him nightmares. Wisely he wrote the nightmares down instead of his rationalizations. His horrors are full of ancient primal gods, slimy forgotten fish peoples, aliens lurking in the darkest regions of infinity waiting to come into our present. Some nice black woman going shopping could probably inspire him into a baroque description of murderous torsos, human sacrifices and cackling cave-systems. He created the Necromonicon, a sparingly quoted from bible of hybrid evils, an icon, an endless source of  free-floating anxiety and delirious non-specific dread.

Bruce Robinson isn’t entirely a hater, but ‘Withnail and I’ , a brilliant film about struggling actors, one working-class and one posh, has issues. Uncle Monty gets a couple of socialist lines, Withnail makes the point that some things are ‘free to those that can afford it, very expensive to those that can’t’, the drug dealer Danny tells us that ‘we’re about to witness the world’s biggest hangover and there’s fuck all Harold Wilson can do about it’ but really the whole film is a gibbering homophobic, misogynist masculine meltdown. If Bruce had gone the way of John Osborne whose later plays contained constant, dramatically worthless, digs at woman and gays (bunch of bitches the lot of them – is the general jist), the film would very uncomfortable – as it is – it focused on the FEAR.

Marwood (the I) stares in horror at a fat old lady eating a dripping sandwich while a newspaper headline declares a man happy to be getting a sex change into a woman. Withnail talks about a shot putter who took anabolic steroids, he urges an unwilling Marwood to look at the picture of how enormous the man is and gasps ‘imagine getting into a fight with the fucker’. Marwood is made to feel lesser when Withnail lets his Uncle Monty think Marwood went to Harrow (class being just another factor that makes a man feel under threat), and panics about Monty seeming to be a ‘lunatic’ and a ‘raving homosexual’.

In a pub Marwood gets insulted by a giant drunk Northern Irishman and before being betrayed by a cowardly Withnail and them both having to flee, he goes to the bathroom and panics in a Voice Over that goes like this ‘I could hardly piss straight with fear. Here was a man with three-quarters of an inch of brain who had taken a dislike to me. What had I done to offend him? I don’t consciously offend big men like this. This one has a definite imbalance of hormone in him. Get any more masculine than him and you’d have to live up a tree… (sees graffiti) ‘I fuck arses’? Who fucks arses? Maybe he fucks arses. Maybe he’s written this in a moment of drunken sincerity? I’m in considerable danger in here. I must get out of here at once…‘ Marwood has gone into the pub. smelling of petunia to mask the smell of vomit, and the man calls him a ‘ponce’ so it’s obvious the man thinks he’s a long-haired dandy. But Marwood doesn’t mention it. Marwood thinks the attack comes from nowhere before worrying that it may turn into a rape. Later on in the film a pub. landlord (who Withnail smarms up to by claiming he and Marwood were in the Army) remarks ‘taking a crack and the Mick’, and the film allows it to pass. Only Marwood’s masculinity matters, every other man just has to take it.

Marwood is ridiculously menaced by Uncle Monty, after he and Withnail go on holiday to Uncle Monty’s cottage. Monty turns up late at night, terrifying Withnail and Marwood, who are in bed together fearing that a rural poacher wants to attack them. Later on it turns out that Monty only gave them the cottage because Withnail led him to believe Marwood could be seduced. While there Monty strides across the moors telling them aggrandising tales of his youth. He stands too close to Marwood. He plays mind-games. He gives Marwood motivations and a character he doesn’t have; trying to force him into seeing himself as a naughty tease who fancies Monty. He calls Marwood conservative, tells him he’s cutting himself off from experiences he would enjoy, that he’s lying to himself, that he’s wasting his youth. Finally he tries to sexually assault him and Marwood escapes by telling him that he’s too in love with Withnail to ever cheat on him. Then he storms off to Withnail and yells at him while holding a gun.

Monty has no real power over Marwood. It’s Withnail that has the power. It’s Withnail who causes Marwood to initially put up with Monty’s harassment and once Marwood stands up to Withnail, they wistfully part company. Marwood goes on to an acting  job, Withnail quotes Hamlet to the wolves in Regents Park, alone and abandoned. Withnail’s class and self-assurance have been oppressing Marwood, but Marwood doesn’t know it because he admires him so much. That’s why Marwood has to project his worries on to other men and old, ugly, repellant battle-axes (the only young women in the film are school girls. Withnail shouts ‘scubbers’ at them and says ‘they love it’). Those feelings have to go somewhere, but no object is good enough. Irishmen, poachers, gay men… they trigger his fears, but there’s no way of over-coming them.

Danny and his friend Presuming Ed (of whom Marwood says ‘who’s the huge spade in the bath?’ as if being called a ponce hasn’t nearly caused him a nervous breakdown) provide the drugs that keep Marwood stuck in his flat and, after the disastrous holiday it’s their warped political ideals that give Marwood the practical reason to escape (kept back rent cheques, drugged rodents)…  But still Marwood focuses on anyone but Withnail… His parting look is one of sympathy and affection.

Maybe it’s a metaphor for the love of the acting profession that forced many working-class actors into adopting R.P. accents and confronting the politics of the casting couch?

What if something you love hates you? Or you hate the way it loves you?

All of our fear and hate couldn’t exist without love and longing.

Deeply felt fears can be transformed into biting lines and memorable situations.

Demographic Panic – the fear that who and what we think we are, or are thought to be by others (who are or will be stronger),  is not good enough –  is a natural thing.

When the panic is rationalised into hate, it makes writing repulsive.

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