Friday, 23 September 2011

Semiotics has no 'off' switch:

I don't know how many of you are familiar with the original 'Thomas the Tank Engine' books, but I will assume that the number is fairly low. Below, I shall detail one of the dangers attendant upon being an ex-Lit student.

A couple of nights ago, I was reading my daughter 'Troublesome Engines', which, as stated above, is a Thomas book. I had got to the third story in the book when I suddenly found myself unable to continue reading with a clean conscience, and the rest of that bedtime story was attended by a certain degree of gloss. This is because, from jaded, adult eyes, eyes well schooled literary criticism, 'Troublesome Engines', goes a little like this:

Having redeployed his key worker, Thomas, to the running of the Branch Line, the Fat Controller attempts to economise and distributes Thomas' workload among his existing work force. Other engines are asked to perform non-contractual tasks which are below their skill-level in addition to their usual workload. In the course of these extra duties, Henry is sent to investigate a blockage which turns out to be an elephant, subjecting him to no little personal danger and humiliation. Furthermore, the Fat Controller refuses to modernise his equipment so that the turntable fails to turn one Tender engine (Gordon) meaning he is forced to run along the Main Line backwards - causing danger to himself and to the Fat Controller's customers.

Angry at these repeated breaches of contract (tender engines do not shunt) and the dangerous experiences in the execution thereof, Henry, James and Gordon go on strike. The Fat Controller takes a confrontational attitude towards his workers, refusing to recognise the validity of the complaint (engines on My Railway do as they are told) and instead goes to the only tender engine not on strike, Edward - hereafter called the Scab. The Scab, it appears, is quite happy to take on extra work in order to gratify his boss, but is quickly disheartened when the other engines remind him his work is non-contractual and, presumably, call him a Scab for good measure.

At this, the Fat Controller begins to see that his position is untenable, and hires from among the readily available workforce a naive, arselick of an engine, an enthusiastic young engine named Percy. Then, he calls Thomas back from his new job, and imprisons the three striking engines. The tank engines (and the Scab) are only too happy to break picket lines in order to undertake skilled labour, presumably at no extra wage, in order to show the tender engines that 'Common Tank Engines' can do the task as well the tender engines can.

After a few days of this, the Fat Controller releases Henry, James and Gordon on the proviso that they return to their old jobs and take no more industrial action. They do so and Thomas, Percy and the Scab are sent to 'play' on the Branch line for a few days. Now, Thomas immediately goes for a ride with his girlfriends, but Percy and the Scab 'play' with some trucks. This following section is a minor incident and is not really essential to the plot. However, if one bears in mind that all these trucks – also often called troublesome – are all female, it is not without relevance.

'“Stop! Stop! Stop!” screamed the trucks as they were pushed into their proper sidings, but the two engines laughed and went on shunting till the trucks were tidily arranged.'

 Letting off steam, indeed.

Everything, you see, has returned to normal. Those willing to undertake unskilled labour (Thomas, Percy, the Scab) have been put to work on the Branch line; less skilled labour, perhaps, but with ample opportunity of harassing, even assaulting, the female workforce. It is, after all, a position of power. Meanwhile, a 'compromise' has been struck with the tender engines; their place at the top of the engine hierarchy has been assured – they are asked only to work upon the Main Line – but they are still required to shunt, even though such work is not in their job description and below their skill set.

The moral of the story, therefore, can be read in one of two ways. It is either divide and conquer, or else it is unionise effectively. Either way, the reading stands; had the tender engines forgotten their snobbery and brought the lower status tank engines into their demand for better working conditions, had the tank engines relinquished their power over the trucks and all three grades shown solidarity, the Fat Controller would have been well and truly shafted.

Which, if I'm honest, is no more than he deserves.

Monday, 19 September 2011

'Little, Big' - John Crowley: Dangers of forgetting, pleasures of remembrance:

Sometimes, we forget things. Most of the time, the things that we forget are small enough; I forget to put my mobile in my pocket, or to attend a meeting, or to bring along that vital piece of paper... The world makes its predictable, irritating fuss and then we forget all about it because these things do not truly matter. Other things that we forget have more impact, and the worst of this is that we seldom notice that the memory is gone – one forgets the tiny, silver finger ring given by an elderly relative, the words to a once beloved song, or an afternoon spent picking blackberries as a child. Little by little, as we lose these things, it is as though our very selves are melting into forgetfulness.

But the truth of the matter is, these things are not gone – one will find the finger ring, buried in the jewellery box, catch the strands of a familiar melody or see that break of brambles in the autumn light with the breeze coming from the west and we will recall. Not simply the event that had slipped away, but a whole host of circumstances, emotions, people who we believed had vanished from the world, or, at the very least, our minds.

Even though working with texts is my main occupation, sometimes – as a writer and a reader – I forget things too. It is easy, too easy, to forget how rare good writing is; I don't mean reasonable writing, the 'enjoyable with a few moments of sparkling prose' kind of good, I mean the good that stops you and makes you think and makes you live again. I'm talking about the kind of good that gives the reader that strange, soaring, swooping sensation; the kind of good where one word, one phrase, one expression can be so totally and irrefutably beautiful, that we just have to stop and read it again, aloud, for the benefit of the entire room.

John Crowley writes like that.

Right now, I am re-reading Little, Big. I re-read a lot and I am familiar with all the different ways of doing it. There are the re-reads where you seek new understanding, re-reads where you pick over familiar ground to support arguments and find answers. There are re-reads where one does it merely for pleasure, the joy of seeing again familiar words, of sinking into the prose like hot bathwater, or warmed chocolate. Then there are the re-reads that matter, the ones that are our touchstones for remembering the things we readers and writers forget. A list like that is a personal thing – books that are read many times and lent often, books that are never thrown away: Holdstock, Gaiman, Crowley...

Reading Little, Big again for the sixth (or is it seventh?) time is like drinking Chartreuse for the first time after months where only an empty bottle reminded me of pleasures past. It's too good, too fine an experience to rush; I'll drink it neat, of course I'll drink it neat, but I'll let it singe my tongue a little, I try to work it out sip by tiny sip. Fennel of course, or maybe aniseed. Mint, yes, always mint – is that angelica? Did I notice that last time? And, ah, that fierce, familiar burn and it's time for another sip... Would you like a glass? Come, you must try some. Too good, after all, to be enjoyed alone.

My Gods, John Crowley can write. And there was me, almost forgetting how it was done.