Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Mary Shelley

January, 2013: Andy brought home Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) because he knows I am a big fan of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of Vindication on the Rights of Woman (1792).  Poor Mary senior died a few days after giving birth to Mary junior.  A Cowra heatwave seemed an appropriate time to read a dark, snow-bound tale like Frankenstein.  

Shelley was only twenty-one when she wrote this; I have to remind myself to cut her some slack.  I was disappointed by the story-telling, which was very basic: first, there's the narrative told in letters from young Walton to his sister, then he begins to makes notes of a narrative as told him by a man his boat picked up in peculiar circumstances, and then this narrator (Frankenstein, who is not the monster but the scientist), passes the narrative baton over to the very well-spoken monster for a while, then the baton goes back to Frankenstein, and finally ends up where it began, with Walton.  Narrators are surprisingly difficult to manage; when they're retailing a story someone has told them, the question is: how much of the narrator's own story does the reader need to know, i.e. how interesting does the narrator need to be?  Too interesting, and the reader wants to know about the narrator's story, not the one he or she is narrating; not interesting enough, and we lose faith in the narrator's worthiness to guide us through the story.  Joseph Conrad is the master of narrators.  He makes his narrators mysterious, enigmatic, and occasionally opens them out as real, active characters at the end.

My main problem with Shelley's tale is that our main character, Frankenstein, remained pig-headed and unchanged from beginning to end.  What I wanted was - to use the modern parlance - for him to take responsibility for what he did.  This is what his monster wants as well.  But Frankenstein's emotional development goes from thirsting for knowledge, in the first few chapters, to regretting, for the rest of the book, this thirst for knowledge.  He takes the lid off the can of worms, then tries (in vain) to stuff the worms back in the tin.  It's not very interesting.  Much more interesting, and helpful, is seeing characters deal with unwanted knowledge, because that's what we all have to do.  Every time the monster pleads with Frankenstein to help him - seeing as he created him - Frankenstein ends with, "Begone, you daemon!"  I kept waiting for some sign that the author knew how annoyed I was getting with stupid old Frankenstein, but it never came.  I suppose we simply have to view Frankenstein's sorry end as the author's disapproval of what he did.  But some change of heart towards the end would have been a great climax.

I wanted Frankenstein to be kind to his monster, and introduce him to his family, and help him make friends and find a place in society.  That would have been interesting.  But Shelley set out to write a horror story, not a human-interest story.

Richard Neville

January, 2013: I was sitting at the dining table, scanning my sister's bookshelf, and my eyes kept coming back to Richard Neville's Hippie Hippie Shake (1995).  It seemed fitting, in fact, overdue, to read Richard's book, seeing as he, Julie and their daughters, Lucy and Angelica, lived in our house before we moved in.  It took Richard a while to shift all his Martin Sharp paintings; for a few colourful months, we lived among psychedelic swirls, faces of Luna Park and Tiny Tim, and a big pink penis entitled 'Don't Leave Me Standing Here All Alone'.  In the kitchen we had three more penises, these by David Hockney and belonging to Richard and the two other editors of Oz magazine.

I opened up Hippie Hippie Shake.  There's a reason why I hadn't read the book sooner: prejudice.  Even though it's unfair of me, I'm sick of Bob Dylan, and people who came of age in the Sixties.  I'm sick of hearing how they invented sex and music, and how Germaine Greer invented feminism.  I started to read The Female Eunuch several years ago, and by the first page, Greer was already pissing me off:

In the old days ladies were...anxious to allay the fears of conservatives, and in doing so the suffragettes betrayed their own cause and prepared the way for the failure of emancipation. Five years ago it seemed clear that emancipation had failed: the number of women in Parliament had settled at a low level; the number of professional women had stabilized as a tiny minority; the pattern of female employment had emerged as underpaid, menial and supportive. The cage door had been opened but the canary had refused to fly out. 

Greer thereby manages to dismiss 150 years of activism as a "failure", and snatch the laurels for herself and her generation.  Due to circumstances, not their extraordinary, natural-born attributes, Greer and her contemporaries were a big, powerful, confident generation that could afford to create their own history, and live in their own bubble without ever needing to leave it.  That generation is a nation, a superpower, still giving Bob Dylan's latest tuneless rambles five-star reviews.

So my position has been declared - I'm a member of a resentful, powerless minority-nation.  I expected Hippie Hippie Shake to be another a paeon to the glory days; the subtitle suggested as much, 'The dreams, the trips, the trials, the love-ins, the screw-ups...THE SIXTIES', as did the dedication, 'to everyone who was there'.  But as I began to read, my prejudices were overridden: it was simply interesting.  Neville looks back on his younger self without a desire to mythologise, or mock: he is trying to describe himself truthfully.  As I read further, I realised it was more than an effort to describe truthfully - he is looking for truths.  

I often think of authors as 'guides' through the book's material.  Neville, both older and younger, is a great guide.  As a young man at the heart of the London 'Underground', he provides us with the richest material you could ask for from that period - we go to Nepal with the first wave of backpackers, ride in Yoko and John's limo, go to the Wet Dreams Film Festival where Heathcote Williams heroically rescues a goose from having its head chopped off, a condom put on its neck and being shoved up a woman's vagina.  Young Neville is thoroughly immersed in his times, but unlike a lot of his contemporaries, stops short of getting lost.  He was a late-comer to acid and pot, which might have given him an edge; according to Louise Ferrier, he got a lot of air-time because he was one of the only spokesmen of the underground press who could finish a sentence.  Ambivalence must have always been a strong characteristic of Neville's; a certain duality must have enabled him to be a convert with long hair and embroidered velvet, a fervent believer - almost a martyr - but also a satirist.  The magazine Neville co-edited, Oz, seemed to be a magazine of ambivalence, with no fixed views except freedom-of-view, continually reinventing itself, dethroning its own pin-up boys, and even giving its Neville's own book, Playpower, a lukewarm review.

Balance in a memoir is usually achieved by the younger being immersed in the events of life, and the older looking back and doing the analysis, but Neville is self-critical even when young.  Moreover, Neville's friends and colleagues were critical of him, too.  Towards the end of Hippie Hippie Shake, the reader gets a long excerpt from what must have been a hurtful, humiliating letter from his best friend, Martin Sharp.  Another memoirist would have buried or burnt it:

Tomorrow you'll be claiming flower power as your own.  Don't get trapped in your fantasies.
If revolution is your calling rather than your posture - and as yet it has only been a pose - then you better pay more attention to how you got there, and why - your motives are questionable - the stirring up of predictable controversy in search of applause.
Don't squander your energy.  The coming court case offers you the most important chance to demonstrate your integrity in a public forum...Truth is the most revolutionary force of all.
...You are surrounded by flatterers.  I love you dearly so I write strong words.

My question turns out to be Neville's too - did that generation, with all their self-glorifying talk of revolution, actually change anything?  

It's almost laughable to read of their espoused anti-materialism, considering that as soon as they grew up and got their hands on some money, they became such a wealth-amassing, consumeristic generation - for example, Felix Dennis, former co-editor of Oz and now wealthier than Queen Elizabeth.  Or Robert Hughes, who, on accepting the job of art critic of Time magazine, told all his friends to go to his rented mansion in Hanover Square (London) and help themselves to whatever he couldn't take with him as he fled across the Atlantic.  "His Aussie mates turned into looters overnight - marble tiles, a water heater, velvet curtains, architraves, carpets, a chandelier...Hoppy, from IT, staggered out with the kitchen stove.  I was offered a brass showerhead.  As a farewell gesture, the mansion's walls were daubed with graffiti - RIPPED OFF BY THE PARK ROAD PIG FUCKERS."  This isn't revolutionary anti-materialism - this is selfish greed, and a very strong sense of entitlement.  

There's 'the rock revolution' - I read the introduction to Arnold Shaw's book of that name a couple of days ago.  Like Female Eunuch, Shaw seemed keen to write off any innovation from previous decades, in order to claim the 'revolution' for anyone who was under the age of thirty in 1969.  Looking back now, the development of music in over the twentieth-century reads like a fairly logical, explicable unfurling, with every 'innovation' - even the mighty Bob - having its roots deeply planted in the soil of what came before it.  New technology effected more 'revolutions' than did brilliant artists or great artistic ideas.  Electrical-engineer boffins, not lead-singers, are at the heart of rock revolutions.  In Hippie, Mick Farren issues a bulletin following a rather disillusioning Isle of Wight festival: "...the hungry freak realise[s] rock is becoming an opiate designed to turn him into a docile consumer."  Neville adds, "For once, as it turned out, Mick wasn't just Right On, he was right."

There's Women's Liberation - but women in Hippie Hippie Shake are typically short-skirted secretaries, or stuck at home with the kids, or on their hands and knees getting fucked with dildos (or headless geese) by performance artists.  No revolution of sexual equality in evidence.  It seems the only time women managed to get their voices heard above the rabble of men was when they were talking about women, or perhaps, sex.  At first Neville's gushings about the beauty of his quiet girlfriend Louise Ferrier got on my nerves, but after a while, this became relevant.  His portrayal of her seems a truthful reflection of the place women had in that world; valued for their beauty (a boost for their man's status), sexual accessibility, practicality (making coffee, cooking, doing housework etc.), and loyalty, rather than what they might have to say.  Except by Betty Neville, the author's mother: "Any women who entered my mother's house and failed to tongue-trip like Dorothy Parker on her fourth martini was suspected of suffering from brain damage."  The rise and fall of Oz magazine is the obvious narrative of Hippie, but it gradually became clear that the book is also a remorse-tinged examination of the rise and fall, strangely in sync with Oz, of his relationship with Ferrier.  At the end of Hippie, Ferrrier and Neville have drifted apart, with Ferrier becoming involved with some serious feminists, planning a 'gynarchic' magazine called Spare Rib.  Neville says, "Despite her steadfastness [during the Oz obscenity trial], I had not evolved into a deep, caring companion for Louise, or even much of a friend.  Oz, obscenity and me, me, me, took centre stage, crushing all else."

Finally there's all the talk about the sex revolution.  What exactly did all the rampant fucking achieve?  The 'sex revolution' annoys me because to me, it seems (I put in all those italics because, how can I know? I wasn't there!) to have been male-driven, and at the expense of the females whose bodies they required to execute their revolution.  Maybe I'm wrong - maybe women weren't as powerless as they, in retrospect, seem.  But with this, as with all of my questions, Neville is there, asking them, too.  Recounting how he and Ferrier were filmed having sex for a documentary, Neville says:

We were the cutting edge of the sex revolution, slashing away at the media, academia, everyday life.  This action proved something of vital importance, but for the life of me, I can't recall what it was.

But I can't dismiss the 'sex revolution'.  I've often thought that we live in 'the era of transparency'.  Not only are our offices open-plan, but our personal relationships are expected to be completely open and honest, too.  Lies between lovers are no longer considered 'being discreet'.  If you're gay, you're expected to come out.  We're all expected to come out, unashamedly, and be honest about our needs and desires (not just sexual), no matter how odd they are.  I think this is a great way for a society to be.  And all the fighting against hypocrisy and censorship that Neville's generation did certainly played a major part in how we are now.  In the Oz obscenity trial, George Melly, a social commentator and film critic takes the stand, questioned by prosecutor Argyle:

"Do you have any standards at all?"
"I think - publish everything, free people.  Surely the result is a freer and more beautiful person than someone who has to pass it around under a desk."
"If you really believe more openness is better, what do you think is wrong with an advertisement that describes oral sex attractively?"
"Nothing.  I don't think cunnilingus could do actual harm..."

At the end of the book, Neville's conclusion is modest and apt:

I think we helped free things up, even if some of us got tangled in our own delusions. Orgies in Amsterdam were never the key to the New Jerusalem, but it was an age of hedonism and, steeped in the sexism of the time, I took to it like a duck to water.

He also has a sweet concluding paragraph on marijuana, "Looking back, I am glad marijuana entered my life.  Overnight, I became stupider, but nicer."  He goes on to say, "Save the hooch for moments of celebration, I will tell my grandchildren, in the unlikely event they will be interested in my opinion.  Treat it as a homeopathic elixir and not as a crutch.  Opening the doors of perception is a prelude to one day closing the doors on drugs."  Neville has made me feel much more kindly disposed, even grateful, towards his generation.  Not for what they did for music, art, women's lib or politics, but for the openness.