Irish Rebels

Jim and Jonathan are two young Irish Travellers who are currently serving time in Wormwood Scrubs. I asked them to share a little bit about their culture. What follows is my retelling of what they told me.

CARAVANS

As the name suggests, Irish Travellers are nomadic people – we move from place to place. These days, this is mostly done by caravan. We learn to drive and maintain caravans from an early age. The best brands are Hobby and Tabbert. We never use the caravan toilet. If somebody dies inside a caravan, it is customary to burn it out of respect for the deceased. 

LANGUAGE

We have our own language – we call it Cant and it’s based on Irish English, with influences from Irish. 

BARE-KNUCKLE FIGHTING

That’s how we settle our disputes – no weapons, no police. The expression “Take off your coat” is an invitation to a fight. Respect, honour and loyalty are very important to us. 

MUSIC

Irish Travellers listen to a lot of Irish rebel songs (songs about Irish history and heroes), as well as golden oldies from the 50s and 60s – Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison. 

HORSES

The horse is a very important element of our culture. Many of us buy, sell and breed horses. We learn to ride them from a very early age. 

RELIGION

Irish Travellers are mostly Catholic. When somebody dies, we give them a Catholic funeral. A horse-drawn carriage takes them to their final resting place, a Catholic graveyard. No cremations. 

HOBBIES & SPORTS

Hare coursing (the pursuit of hares and rabbits with hounds) is a very popular activity in our community. The resulting rabbit stew is a favourite dish. Boxing is the most popular sport. World heavyweight champion Tyson Fury and his cousin Hughie Fury come from a family of Irish Traveller heritage.

MARRIAGE & FAMILY

It’s very uncommon for an Irish Traveller to remain unmarried. We get married and start families early. The woman normally takes care of the children, while the man works and handles finances. 

What on earth is going on that people want this?

The final (and by far the juiciest) installment of my long conversation with the brilliant Theodore Dalrymple. Architecture, music, humour, the Eagles of Death Metal, Schubert.

AV: You’ve written about architecture on many occasions and I know how you feel about Le Corbusier and Brutalism and the like. From a more positive point of view, do you have a favourite architect or at least a style?

TD: No, not really. You see, I’m not an architect. I’m not sure I could build anything very well. All I can say is, for example, in the city of Birmingham there is a little area that modern architects have built that is modern – it’s clearly not of any other date or era but our own – and yet it’s highly civilised. And it’s a very small area and it’s pleasant to be in it. And I can think of very, very few equivalent places. It’s fairly humane architecture on quite a large scale, it’s not just sweet, tiny little cottages, it’s office buildings. But it’s extremely pleasant. Unfortunately, though there is this example before them, the architects in that city and many other cities continue to build completely inhuman… and it’s almost as if they want to be inhuman. And incidentally, as it happens, today I’ve been writing an article about music. Well, not about music but about a man who survived the Bataclan massacre in Paris. A history teacher and obviously an intelligent man. I don’t agree with all of his political views but he is obviously intelligent and thoughtful. Now, the kind of music that he likes – and he is 40, he is not a child anymore, he is not an adolescent, he is 40 – he thinks that the group called the Eagles of Death Metal is wonderful and he describes how at a second concert that he goes to one of the chaps in this band is drunk and drugged, he breaks the strings of his guitar, he sings badly – he is out of tune, insofar as there is a tune – and he is completely in accord with the audience. Well, this seems to me like a Walpurgisnacht. This is a kind of Black Mass of music. It was quite interesting. I didn’t know anything about the Eagles of Death Metal – I think the name alone tells you quite a lot. For some reason, when I looked it up on YouTube – you know when you look up things on YouTube other things come up as well, suggestions – and for some reason it was Horowitz playing a Schubert Impromptu.

AV: What prompted the YouTube algorithm to suggest Schubert?

TD: Well, maybe I had looked at Schubert before. I could stand about a minute, not even a minute, really, of the Eagles of Death Metal and I looked at Schubert. Listening to Schubert had the same effect on my mind as a shower has on my body after I’ve been involved in something dirty. The point about this is that the man that I am writing about is not an unfortunate who comes out of the slums of Paris, where people don’t have any hope, the education is terrible and there are no jobs and so on. On the contrary, he is well educated, he is intelligent, in a certain way cultivated, and yet he likes this almost satanic music – if that’s what you call it. And I thought, ‘This is a culture that is really in danger.’ I’m talking about the upper 5% of the population as far as knowledge and education are concerned.

AV: Yes, if history teachers listen to the Eagles of Death Metal…I agree that it’s a ridiculous band name and thought of an even more hilarious one. I don’t know anything about their music but from the name of the band I already know what to expect and I’ve protected myself from it. The name of the band is I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness.

TD: Well, in a way that’s what they’ve done, they’ve chosen darkness! ‘Evil be thou my Good.’ ‘Ugliness, be thou my beauty.’ And architects have done the same.

AV: Do you know why? After writing so much on the problem, have you come closer to the answer why it happened?

TD: I suspect part of the problem is this kind of romantic cult of originality.

AV: Originality at all costs?

TD: At all costs, yes. Originality as a virtue in itself. Like many virtues, it’s not a virtue in itself. There’s nothing easier than to be original. As Dr Johnson said of a book, he spoke to the author and he said, ‘Your book is both good and original but the parts which are original are not good and the parts which are good are not original.’

AV: What do you call this kind of compliment that’s not really a compliment?

TD: A backhanded compliment. In fact, it’s not a compliment at all, of course.

AV: On the surface it sounds a little bit like a compliment but it’s actually a terrible blow.

TD: Utter condemnation! It’s like Disraeli – he was at a large public dinner, at the end of the meal they served some champagne and he said, ‘Thank God for something warm at last!’

AV: British humour at its best! But you’ve also written about the decline on British humour.

TD: Yes, I think partly because of political correctness. Politicians now are afraid to make a joke because someone will take it seriously or claim to be offended. People like to be offended, actually. They like to feel offended. Or they like to feel that they feel offended. It’s all very dishonest. But of course if they are outraged, I suppose they feel they must be good people, because only good people feel outraged. When I was growing up almost every class of person spoke in a slightly ironical fashion. I remember – this was a very fine example of it, I think. I was speaking to a patient – he was a taxi driver – and I asked him to describe his childhood and I said, ‘Where did you live?’ and he gave the address. And then he said, ‘We lived there until Adolf Hitler moved us on.’ What he was describing was his house being bombed!

AV: But with a stiff-upper-lip attitude.

TD: And a detachment! Which of course makes it much easier to accept it – not in the sense that it is a good thing – but to bear it and to overcome it. I don’t think there’s anything like that now. It still exists a bit. I think that humour is in decline.

AV: I want to ask you about your musical tastes. You mentioned Schubert. Is he your favourite composer?

TD: Well, one of them. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn. I’m afraid it’s a fairly conservative kind of taste. I haven’t been for a long time, but I used to go to the opera fairly often. I used to know lots of classical musicians when I was younger. People would say, ‘Your dislike of the Eagles of Death Metal is just prejudice against what seems to be demotic.’ But that’s not so. One of the things about a lot of Western popular music is that it seems so completely savage to me by comparison with the popular music of almost any other area of the world. The man writing the book I told you about says that he went to this concert, where they were singing of fun and sex. And then he says, ‘In other words, Life.’ Well, this seems to me a very crude view of what life is. And certainly of music. What about love rather than just sex? Or happiness rather than fun? And it seems to me that the connection between love and sorrow of course and so on is much stronger, shall we say, in African popular music now than in our music. So it is actually we who have become uncivilised in this respect. The same is true of Arabic music or Indian music or Latin American music. It may not be my favourite music but it doesn’t have this hatred of life that this horrible Eagles of Death Metal, et al. – I mean they’re not the only ones, they’re not even the worst ones. They are far from the worst. I mean, I was once sent by a newspaper to one of the worst. This particular group specialised in urinating over the audience while calling the audience ‘You motherfuckers.’ There were thousands of people who wanted to go to this. I mean, they were not musically accomplished. What on earth is going on that people want this? Another one I went to – this was in Glasgow. They sent me to go. This time I identified myself as someone who is going to write about the so-called concert for a newspaper. So the first thing the press secretary did was to give me some earplugs. I said, ‘Does this not strike you as a little odd that you give someone earplugs who is supposed to listen to the music and report on it?’ And he said, ‘This is normal, it’s to prevent the tinnitus after.’ Well, what kind of world is that? And that’s the world I think that probably your prisoners are largely living in. Musically, anyway. It’s not that I’m completely close minded. It’s just that I think that some things are horrible.

AV: They are horrible and honesty is the best policy. But too few people think that way.

TD: The other thing that’s very interesting is that when I wrote about this – I used to write a column in a Belgian newspaper – and I said something about this, I can’t remember exactly what I said but it was probably very similar to what I’ve said to you – and they produced howls of outrage! There is no subject on which people feel so deeply, actually.

AV: Than the vulgarity of their music?

TD: Yes, they don’t like being told that their music is vulgar. It’s worse than telling someone that he smells. Except that I was telling hundreds of thousands of people that they smell.

AV: You’ve mentioned that you found your popularity in Brazil very surprising. And people from Brazil have told you that they recognize everything that they’ve read in your books from their own lives in poor parts of Brazilian metropolises. When I read your writings on architecture, I immediately recognized my own surroundings from my childhood in Sofia. I was surrounded by Soviet-style Brutalist tower blocks. And it made me appreciate more the humanity of traditional Bulgarian architecture, for example from the mid to the late 19th century. We call it the Bulgarian Revival. When I read your thoughts on Brutalism, it opened my eyes to the warmth of this much more humane style of building. And it struck me immediately that these beautiful houses from the mid 19th century in rural Bulgaria were built by unschooled people, by peasants. A merchant would pay the most skilled artisan to design and build a house. And then a hundred years later, professional architects and construction engineers educated in Sofia and maybe even Moscow would come up with these monstrosities. And they are still there.

TD: And the worst of it is that people will not admit what has been done. I’m in Paris at the moment. It’s very difficult to think of a single building after the Second World War which does not detract from the beauty of the city. It’s difficult to think of any. There are hundreds which are monstrous. They are not even monstrous just because they are huge. Some of them are only the same size as 19th century buildings. But they are hideous. And they’ve done this with the example before them. Before their very eyes they can see what has been done before. Of course, people say, ‘We can’t build in the same way.’ – for various reasons, materials, the cost of labour, or whatever it is – but that’s a different argument from saying that it’s good architecture.

AV: I don’t understand this. Of course, I’m not an architect. But if it’s possible to build a brand new place like Dubai from scratch, how is this less difficult than building a new Bath or a new Florence?

TD: I don’t know. You’ll be interested to know that in the 1950s the council of Bath wanted to pull it all down. They wanted to build a sort of Novosibirsk-on-Avon. And they would have succeeded if the population had not sufficiently protested. As it is, they’ve managed to destroy Brighton. And this has happened all over. In Britain, after the Second World War, there was of course a lot of bomb damage, but much of it could have been repaired. But they didn’t want to repair it. If you take Coventry, for example. Coventry was one of the finest medieval cities in Europe. True, it was bombed. And what they’ve built now is a kind of World Heritage site of modernist monstrosity. Unbelievably awful. It’s so awful, it’s almost comical. It’s almost funny. Except, of course, that people have to live in it. What is to me extraordinary is that the architectural profession refuses to see what has been done. Or to admit it.

AV: Within the realm of music, there are fashions. Short-lived fashions. And they are forgotten very quickly. I think that’s our only consolation. But in architecture, it stays.

TD: Yes. If I were to write a very bad poem, no one would have to read it. But if I build a very bad large building, people can’t avoid it.

AV: You don’t have to listen to my music, but if I build something across the street from you, it’s now part of your life forever.

TD: Well, until it’s pulled down and it will be replaced by something even worse.

Try to imagine that the world is larger than the world that you have grown up in

Part III of my conversation with Theodore Dalrymple: the art of fiction, Shakespeare, Anthony Burgess.

AV: Maybe 90% of everything you’ve written is non-fiction, but you’ve also tried your hand at fiction, you’ve published several short story collections. Non-fiction comes more easily to me but I would also like to try my hand at every form. What are your thoughts on this? I am very interested in what is prompting you to attempt fiction as well.

TD: Well, because I think you can say things in fiction which you can’t say any other way. Fiction shouldn’t just be a kind of putting forward an idea by other means. I’m not sure whether I’m any good at it. As far as you’re concerned, you see, you should have or may have lots to write about, even in your prison work. I was very fortunate. I began at a time when it was still possible to send an article to a magazine and they would look at it even though they didn’t know who you were. That is no longer the case.

AV: Anthony Burgess was talking about this idea that sometimes when a work of literature is too didactic, it will fail artistically. He actually said this of A Clockwork Orange: ‘It’s too didactic to be artistic.’ He also said that we normally don’t regard our greatest artists – Shakespeare, Beethoven, Wagner – as teachers. We don’t go to Shakespeare for our ethics.

TD: I’m not actually 100% convinced that that’s true. If you just take Shakespeare – it’s true that you can’t just say ‘Shakespeare thought this’ or ‘Shakespeare thought that.’ He was so protean in his understanding. I’ve been thinking about this. If you take the idea of equality: Shakespeare does make very clear – through the mouths of his characters, e.g. Shylock or Richard II – that there is a kind of existential equality of people. He makes that point so powerfully that anybody who reads it or listens to it, I don’t think can forget it.

AV: Yes. “When you tickle us, do we not laugh?”

TD: Yes, that kind of thing. And also with Richard II: “I live with bread like you, feel want, taste grief, need friends.” And these are very powerful speeches. They are unforgettable in their effect. You could say, ‘Well, Shakespeare is just putting powerful words into the mouths of people for artistic purposes,’ but I don’t find that absolutely convincing, because Shakespeare himself is so protean that he must have an idea that we can understand everybody and so on. If you take Measure for Measure, it’s quite clearly a play that is against moral enthusiasm, to my mind. I don’t see how you could read it any other way other than as an attack on a kind of puritanism. Because he’s saying ‘This is horrible and it’s impossible.’ So I think you can say he would not have been a Puritan. And the idea that the human world is so complex, that it’s not amenable to simple lessons, is itself a very important lesson. And there are characters like Falstaff. He is in many ways a terrible person and yet one is glad that he exists. He’s a thief, he’s a liar, he’s cowardly, drunken, a parasite. And yet you love him.

AV: What was Burgess thinking when he said that if something is too didactic it won’t be artistic?

TD: Well, what he means is that you’ve got a lesson you want to teach, like Chernyshevsky in his terrible novel What Is to Be Done? That is a didactic novel. What else would be didactic…You couldn’t say that 1984 or Animal Farm is not didactic in a sense, or Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. They are didactic – well, not in the sense that they’re teaching you a lesson on the blackboard: here, this is what you must learn today – but it’s not possible to say that they’re not trying to communicate some lesson or other.

AV: There’s a boundary, I think, between too much didacticism and pure artistic creation. Cross it and it will be a disappointment.

TD: The reason why Shakespeare – apart from the wonderful language – speaks to us, is because the problems that he writes about go across time. They’re not just of his day. Suppose someone were to try and write a novel about Brexit. Well, that’s bound to be of limited interest in a short time.

AV: It will be obsolete soon.

TD: Obsolete and boring. I suppose it depends on what kind of things the lessons are about, as well. I know what Burgess means, of course. If you take a novel like Fathers and Sons by Turgenev…

AV: I haven’t read it. I listened to your lecture on it on YouTube and I know that I must read it because it’s a must-read.

TD: It’s a wonderful political novel in the sense that you don’t feel as if some lesson is being pushed into you and at some point you’re going to have to regurgitate it as in an exam. And at the end of it, you just feel life is extremely complex and there’s not going to be an easy solution to things. But that is a lesson. It’s something that you learn. And it’s very difficult to believe that Turgenev didn’t mean you to learn it. I’m just trying to think of a really didactic piece of work. Much of the theatre today is, I think, didactic. It hits you over the head with a message.

AV: I am mindful that this interview will be read by people in prison, unless they just decide to toss the magazine. How can we squeeze in something didactic or at least inspirational for them to read in this interview? Let’s say, what is your advice for someone very young who is now in prison?

TD: Well, that’s very difficult. I haven’t really thought about it. What I would say is this: Try to imagine that the world is larger than the world that you have grown up in.

Doctor, do I burgle houses because of my childhood?

Part II of my conversation with the brilliant Theodore Dalrymple, aka Anthony Daniels.

AV: At InHouse Records, we write and single-handedly distribute a music magazine and, unfortunately, because we cater to the prisoners, most of the time we need to cover genres and styles and artists that are currently popular with the prisoners. And the music, in my humble opinion, is often terrible. And as a contributor to the magazine, I need to contribute something that they will find readable. And I find it very difficult. I also have an interest in literature and languages, and I try to talk about these things as well. For example, there is a section in the magazine where we publish either a modest literary effort from a prisoner, or when those are lacking, I would use a quote by a famous author as a filler. Of course, I used the space to disseminate a little bit of D.H. Lawrence, Anthony Burgess, Nikos Kazantzakis, etc., in the hope that they would find the quotation interesting. One can hope. But musically, how would you slip in something slightly higher than what they’re used to

TD: Well, what are they used to? What is it now? Is it rap?

AV: Terrible UK rap music that glorifies violence and misogyny. You know, “I grew up in the ghetto and the ghetto is who I am” and that kind of thing. It’s the same. It all sounds the same to me.

TD: You mean it’s monotonous.

AV: Monotonous and uniform. Of course, somebody else would say, “Well, Baroque music sounds all the same to me,” but this hip-hop in particular, to my ears, is just more and more of the same. 

TD: Well, there are lots of people who like the same, whatever the same is. Is it possible to analyse the words, the lyrics?

AV: I was in charge of the Writing section of the magazine. In every piece I would analyse either a specific song by a UK artist or I would scan through an artist’s songs and look for specific literary techniques like metaphor, metonymy, rhyme, alliteration and so on. And sure enough, sometimes there is a bit of linguistic inventiveness, but the music is just terrible and the linguistic inventiveness is usually in the service of a terrible message. 

TD: Do you actually analyse the message itself?

AV: That’s a great question. In a way, I was probably self-censoring myself. On one occasion, I did write that I am yet to discover a rap song that glorifies the pleasures of reading. Most rap songs glorify other pleasures, but not the pleasure of sitting down and reading a book. There wasn’t any backlash, which probably suggests that nobody read my article. 

TD: Songs that say “I’m from the ghetto, that’s what I am” – is it possible to analyse that, even slightly philosophically? Say, ‘Well, actually, is it true that one is just where one comes from?’ If you could do it in such a way that you’re not antagonising them, but gently to suggest that it’s simply not true that you’re bound to be where you’re born or to do what everyone else does. It’s just not true. You see, one of the things I found – it’s true that I spoke to individuals, I didn’t write for prisoners as such –  but when I spoke to them I didn’t say anything to them that I wouldn’t say to you. I mean, there were a few that I wouldn’t say it to because they were of the real psychopath type. But they weren’t that many. Most of the prisoners are not that bad, at least in my prison they weren’t. And they never got angry and many of them said, ‘Well, yes, that’s right, really.’ And they would laugh, actually, at the stories they had been telling themselves. I had one chap, he said ‘Doctor, do you think I burgle houses because of my childhood? Do you think it’s got something to do with my childhood?’ And I said, ‘Nothing whatever.’ He said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Nothing whatever.’ He said, ‘Why do I burgle houses then?’ I said, ‘I think you are lazy and stupid and you want things which you are not prepared to work for.’ And he started laughing. Of course, once you got rid of all that rubbish, it was perfectly true that he had had a terrible childhood, that was true. And that often is the case. Not often, it’s usually true. Because many of them have grown up in a completely loveless world where everything is a matter of who does what to whom and what you can get away with. And you can even see the way that children are being brought up leads to that attitude to life. But it was perfectly possible to talk to them on an abstract level. Though they were not well educated, in fact they were very badly educated, they were capable of understanding. I can give you another example. Once a man came to me demanding drugs to calm him down. He said if I didn’t give him drugs to calm him down he would have to kill a sex offender. So I said, ‘Hang on a minute. Why would you have to kill a sex offender?’ He said, ‘Well, they interfere with little children.’ I said, ‘Well, they don’t all interfere with little children, but anyway, let’s talk about this. Do you have any children?’ I knew what the answer was likely to be. He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘How many?’ ‘Three.’ ‘All from the same mother?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you see these three children?’ ‘No.’ ‘Does the mother of your children have a boyfriend?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘One or several?’ ‘She probably has more than one.’ And I said, ‘And how is one or more of these boyfriends going to treat your child?’ And he got the point immediately. So I said, ‘You’re not a sex offender yourself, but you have created the conditions in which your own children are likely to be abused. Therefore, you are not in a very strong moral position to chastise sex abusers.’ And that was the last time I heard of any tablets to calm him down. He never asked for any again. But he got the point. Actually, he got the point very early. And it’s not a completely straightforward point. So these people are capable of understanding things. It’s not that they don’t understand. And that’s why, in a way, the very idea of rehabilitation – as if they’re suffering from an illness – is wrong. What they need, I thought, was more of a Socratic dialogue, if you want to call it that. I don’t know what you think.

AV: Of course, I agree with this general strain that runs through your writing – that ultimately it’s their decision to commit a crime that causes crime. And these endless excuses about the ghetto and my parents and my childhood…

TD: Well, one has to acknowledge that some people’s path through life is a lot easier than other people’s path through life. Some people are born in fortunate circumstances and other people are born in very unfortunate circumstances. But people born in unfortunate circumstances can overcome them and do overcome them. Not only has this happened, but it’s happened on a mass scale. So, it’s important to get that across. There’s a kind of dishonest fatalism about it all. On the one hand, they claim, ‘I can’t do otherwise.’ And on the other hand, they know perfectly well that it’s not true. But there are advantages to them in claiming…I mean it’s a dialectic between the person who says, ‘You were born in the ghetto and therefore you can’t help it,’ etc, etc, and they want an excuse for themselves. But both are actually not telling each other the truth. And I personally found that telling the truth in a straightforward way came as a relief to them. Just as I saw lots of women in the hospital next door who had been terribly badly abused, horrible violence and so on, and of course I was appalled by the violence of the people who had committed it, but I said to them, ‘Let’s look at how you are complicit in it, what you’ve done to bring this situation about. Because if we don’t look at that, you’ll never be able to do better.’ So, many of the women, for example, had associated themselves with people who they knew in advance to be bad.

AV: Of course. I still see it sometimes outside the Visitors Centre. 

TD: Yes, of course. It’s difficult, because people are saying, ‘Oh, then you’re blaming the victim.’ I’m not blaming the victim, I’m saying that the victim is a victim, but is not just a victim, is not only a victim. Now, of course, there are cases where people are just victims. If I go out into the street and someone shoots me dead, I’m just a victim. There’s nothing more to be said. But if I persist in associating with drug dealers and I’m shot outside the door, then, even though I shouldn’t be shot, I can’t say that it’s wholly out of the blue. We find it very difficult to be honest, I think, these days. And I think the study of criminology and sociology and psychology has actually put a kind of barrier between ourselves and our experience. 

AV: Resulting in less honesty?

TD: Yes.

A Conversation with Theodore Dalrymple Part I

Theodore Dalrymple is a retired prison doctor and psychiatrist who is now a full-time writer. He happens to be one of my favourite living writers and it was an immense privilege to speak with him. I am not a professional journalist and it shows! TD is Theodore Dalrymple, AV is your humble servant.

AV: I just got back from the prison, by the way, where I had yet another heartbreaking clash with the bureaucracy of Her Majesty’s Prison Service.

TD: Ah, yes!

AV: The language they use! English is my third language…

TD: Are you Bulgarian originally?

AV: I am half-Russian through my mother, but I was born and raised in Bulgaria, so I’m Bulgarian with a little bit of Russian, although my English, curiously, is better than my Russian because I’ve dedicated a huge part of my life (to) learning English and reading the literature. And let me just tell you right now that you, Sir, are one of my intellectual and literary heroes.

TD: I hope I don’t have feet of clay.

AV: Even though we completely disagree on D.H. Lawrence, in everything else I completely agree with you.

TD: It’s better to disagree about something than to agree about everything. Anyway, what did they do to you at the prison? All bureaucracies use this language, actually, now – the terrible language which…

AV: Abbreviations. Sometimes I think they don’t even know what they mean. And they just throw them out there in the ether and they expect me to know what is meant by this. 

TD: The point is to distinguish the sheep from the goats, the sheep being the ones who know what it means and the goats being those who don’t and, therefore, you are a pleb.

AV: This reminds me of what you wrote about A Clockwork Orange in your book Not With a Bang But a Whimper. The special slang that Burgess invents, just like any other slang, exists for purposes of exclusion. Well, they do manage to exclude me successfully. 

TD: I’d be very surprised if they didn’t.

AV: So, basically, I’m a musician but I took this job about 18 months ago. It’s an organization called InHouse Records, a Brighton-based organization which sends people like me – musicians with an interest in education – to work with prisoners. The hope is that music can help with prisoner rehabilitation. The theory and the basic principle that we follow and that inspires our work is that these men are in prison because they lack certain crucial skills and maybe through music those skills can be boosted. We refer to the three main skills – communication, adaptability and accountability. A lot of these men, as you know and don’t need me to tell you, lack a sense of personal accountability. They are not good communicators and when things change around them they don’t adapt. The theory is that music can help in all of these directions. The other guiding principle that we follow goes like this: “Focus on what is strong, not on what is wrong.” It’s supposed to mean that these men…they did commit terrible things, that’s not the question, the question is that they do have a certain skill set which potentially could be applied for better goals. It’s a slightly vulgar example, but it cannot be said that drug dealers are not entrepreneurial people. They are entrepreneurs. They are capable of hard work. They are capable of rising early in the morning…

TD: And their arithmetic is probably adequate.

AV: Exactly. The hope is that these skills can be used not for drug dealing but for other things. To be honest, I am not entirely convinced. I wanted to speak to somebody like you – with massive experience – and ask you for your thoughts on rehabilitation in general. Is it possible? If yes, how? If we succeed in doing it, how do we quantify it? When they ask me if what I do creates any meaningful change, I am not sure what to say. How do I quantify it? How do I measure it?

TD: Yes. Well, the first thing that I would say is that the idea of rehabilitation is in some way a bad one in that it implies, for example, being rehabilitated after an operation when your muscle has wasted and you have to do exercises in order to get it working again. Well, there isn’t anything wrong with people in the first place, in that sense, that needs rehabilitation. However, I don’t really want to get stuck over the words. With regard to your problem of trying to prove that it actually works – I don’t think you can prove that it works. Let me give you an example. In the prison in which I worked we had a writer who used to come in. He was a very nice man. He used to offer courses in writing to prisoners who were interested. And there were about half a dozen who joined the group or something like that. And what he said was extremely interesting to me. The reason he spoke to me was because the prison wanted to get rid of him. They were paying for him and they were trying to cut costs. And so he asked me to write a letter in support of him, which I did because I thought what he was doing was very good and of course that was the kiss of death as far as he was concerned – me supporting him! But anyway, what he said about the people he was teaching, tutoring, mentoring, whatever you want to call it, he found that what happened was when they started writing they wrote autobiographically, as most writers do, and they came to a point at which they stopped, they couldn’t go on. And that point was always the point at which they realized that the stories they’d been telling themselves – about their lives and about why they were doing the things they were doing – were false. And this was very hard for them. Eventually, they got over it. And now let us suppose that as a result of this experience they did start to behave better, or were rehabilitated. There are lots of problems with trying to prove it. They are a selected group of people who are already above average in some way to begin with. They are expressing an interest in something. There’s the question of age. If you look at the age at which prisoners are brought into prison for a new offence – by the age of 39 it almost disappears. So if you want to call it rehabilitation – they rehabilitate spontaneously! You don’t have to do anything, you just have to wait for the testosterone level to go down or whatever it is. They used to say, ‘I just can’t do my bird anymore’. They just didn’t want to continue doing it. Of course, there were exceptions. So you have to take that into account as well, if you’re trying to establish whether it works or not. And then you’d have to follow them up. And you’d have to have a control group whose main difference would be that they didn’t join the group. But if they didn’t join the group, they were probably prima facie different to begin with. It’s extremely difficult. Now, my argument in favour of this man was that he didn’t cost very much, it was not a major expenditure. And if what he did actually stopped one person from committing further offences, he had paid for whatever his cost was over and above his salary, which wouldn’t have been very great anyway. It seemed to me that this was worth taking a risk. But actually I don’t think a purely utilitarian attitude to it is right. I think it was right in itself to offer these prisoners something that enables them to expand their minds. As you know, I’m quite hard on prisoners. I’m not a sentimentalist. One of the things that I was struck by was that they were not deficient in intelligence. I know that there are people who do IQ tests and show that prisoners have got a lower-than-average IQ. All I can say is that I never had to adapt the way I spoke to them. I don’t know whether you found that, but I just spoke to them in the same way as I speak to you. I didn’t adapt my language for them specially because they were stupid. In my opinion, they were not stupid. I thought that actually one of their troubles was the terrible culture in which they lived and from which they came. Therefore, any attempt to widen, broaden their cultural outlook would be a good thing in itself. You could wait for it to have its effect and it would have its effect even after they stopped offending. I believe there was a BBC radio programme, it was unusually interesting and moving, actually. Some teachers went in to teach the prisoners a Bach cantata. And when they started off they thought that this was more or less the equivalent of homosexuality. But by the end they thought it was the most marvellous thing they had ever done. It wasn’t actually that they were incapable of appreciating something else, it was that it had never been offered to them. 

I had a similar idea in my prison in Birmingham. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which is a very good orchestra, were willing to come in for nothing to play string quartets to the prisoners. But of course the bureaucracy got in the way of that. The last thing a group of professionals want is somebody who is willing to come in and do something for nothing.

AV: When they fired Sir Roger Scruton you said the same thing.

TD: Yes. They hate that. It undermines professionalism – professionalism not in the sense of being good at a profession; professionalism in the sense of being able to extract money for their services. So it was very difficult. And if you were to say, ‘Well, how do you know if it did any good in the sense of rehabilitation, if you like, of course I had no idea whether it did them any good or not. But I think it would be a good thing to do it. And incidentally, and this might interest you as a musician, we had a man of Jamaican origin who was a prison officer. A very nice man, actually. Everyone liked him very much. He discovered himself that if he played Baroque music in the wing of which he was in charge, the prisoners began to behave very much better than if they were allowed to play their terrible rap music and so on. And here was a Jamaican, who after all was not culturally expected to like Baroque music, who realised the effect of music on people’s behaviour. This probably doesn’t help you very much. If I were in charge, say, and somebody says, “This man is coming in and teaching them music and how do you know that it does them any good in the sense that it prevents them from coming back into the prison,” I’d say I don’t really care all that much whether it does, because it’s impossible to know. Just because you can’t prove it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any effect. And the chances are it has a good effect. It’s more likely to have a good effect than a bad effect.

Comrades in Hollywood

Trumbo, dir. Jay Roach
Reviewed by Aleksandar Vasilkov

I had a vague idea of who Dalton Trumbo was before I saw this film. As a penniless student in Copenhagen, I was expected to be working on my thesis on Aldous Huxley, but instead spent my days busking and my evenings bartending. Still, from time to time I managed to read a book by or on Huxley, and I learned about his brief spell as an outrageously overpaid screenwriter in Hollywood. Fascinated as I was, and still am, by Hollywood, I read more about its origins, structure, and internal mechanics. I discovered that screenwriters are unionized in a guild. I discovered that some of them were even members of the Communist Party USA. 

Dalton Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten – writers and directors accused of Communist sympathies or downright membership of the Communist Party USA. These men were blacklisted, barred from work, subpoenaed, fined, jailed. Their careers were destroyed, and some even died in the midst of the ordeal. After many years of writing anonymously or under other authors’ names, Trumbo was finally recognized as the author of his own work.

We are at the outset of the Cold War and another Red Scare is brewing in America. Dalton Trumbo, a successful and wealthy Hollywood screenwriter, turns out to be a devoted Communist willing to offer a serious fight in defence of his beliefs (He may be delusional about Communism, but it is his right to be delusional). The Hollywood establishment quickly organizes to crush him. Snide remarks, flippant Dosvidanyas in front of his children. Anonymous threats from neighbours. Subpoenas from Congress, jail. Cranston is extremely convincing as a loving, if distant, father and husband who risks it all in the pursuit of what he believes is right (major Breaking Bad flashbacks). Dame Helen Mirren is marvelous as the main antagonist. John Goodman is as funny as ever in a small role. 

This film is a reflection on the potent power of paranoia, the tendency to see enemies everywhere, to stir up scares, to bully and silence. It is a must-see for anyone serious about freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

NFTs

I think NFTs are an incredible opportunity for musical artists to put out new, interesting music and reach interesting audiences. I think of NFTs as a vehicle for creating meaningful artistic value. Exciting stuff.

Whales Weep Not by D.H. Lawrence (read by Dylan Thomas)

I hope you enjoy this powerful poem by a very, very strong poet.

They say the sea is cold, but the sea contains
the hottest blood of all, and the wildest, the most urgent.

All the whales in the wider deeps, hot are they, as they urge
on and on, and dive beneath the icebergs.
The right whales, the sperm-whales, the hammer-heads, the killers
there they blow, there they blow, hot wild white breath out of the sea!

And they rock, and they rock, through the sensual ageless ages
on the depths of the seven seas,
and through the salt they reel with drunk delight
and in the tropics tremble they with love
and roll with massive, strong desire, like gods.
Then the great bull lies up against his bride
in the blue deep of the sea

as mountain pressing on mountain, in the zest of life:
and out of the inward roaring of the inner red ocean of whale blood
the long tip reaches strong, intense, like the maelstrom-tip, and comes to rest
in the clasp and the soft, wild clutch of a she-whale’s fathomless body.

And over the bridge of the whale’s strong phallus, linking the wonder of whales
the burning archangels under the sea keep passing, back and forth,
keep passing archangels of bliss
from him to her, from her to him, great Cherubim
that wait on whales in mid-ocean, suspended in the waves of the sea
great heaven of whales in the waters, old hierarchies.
And enormous mother whales lie dreaming suckling their whale-tender young
and dreaming with strange whale eyes wide open in the waters of the beginning and the end.

And bull-whales gather their women and whale-calves in a ring
when danger threatens, on the surface of the ceaseless flood
and range themselves like great fierce Seraphim facing the threat
encircling their huddled monsters of love.
and all this happiness in the sea, in the salt
where God is also love, but without words:
and Aphrodite is the wife of whales
most happy, happy she!

and Venus among the fishes skips and is a she-dolphin
she is the gay, delighted porpoise sporting with love and the sea
she is the female tunny-fish, round and happy among the males
and dense with happy blood, dark rainbow bliss in the sea.

Ne pas céder sur son désir

Mr Lubomir Terziev from the American University in Bulgaria has written an enlightening and revealing review of my album Cassis. We artists need this kind of guidance and I am forever grateful. Here it is:

Cassis: Ne pas céder sur son désir

Centuries before Horace came up with his famous ut pictura poesis (as in painting, so in poetry), Simonides of Ceos formulated the same similarity between poetry and painting in much more specific terms: “Poema pictura loquens, pictura poema silens” (poetry is a speaking picture, painting silent poetry.”

I am not much of a believer in the continuity between the semiotic systems of the different arts, and yet if I were to extend Simonides’ analogy, I would say that music could sometimes work as a “painting of sound.” This phrase represents accurately my response, on the level of affect (blended, inevitably, with cultural memory), to Alexander Kyd’s album Cassis.

The fluttering guitar chords in the eponymous opening piece – Cassis – transport me to a grassland area in the summer. The tall green blades lean to one side pressed gently by the breeze. I wish this picture were a product of my own imagination, but I should admit it is evoked by the memorable grassland scene in Tarkovsky’s Mirror.

With a Wordsworthean “gentle shock of mild surprise,” Pegasi I pushes me uphill towards a peak that I may never reach. It’s as if a force, physical rather than mystical, carries me on, and I cannot resist it. Not that I want to. In Pegasi II, the climb is over, and the trumpet makes me see myself in an armchair amidst a well cultivated yet natural garden. I am filled with sweet nostalgia over the peak I never reached.

Faithful to its title, Sever wrests my mind out of the embrace of memory and brings me back to a present bond with the world out there. This time I see myself on the shores of a lake. The waters are alluringly still. I am blissfully alone, and yet I expect, with a hardly perceptible anxiety, the remote voices at the beginning of the piece to re-appear. They never do.

The voices do re-appear towards the end of These Waters Remember I. That’s all the comfort I need. I don’t need physical human presence, just a trace of it. I am transfixed. Now I don’t want to move away from the lake (no peaks, no seas can tempt me). I remember Horace’s dictum “Caelum, non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt” (They change the sky, not their soul, those who travel across the sea). I am self-sufficient and content to contemplate the unruffled surface of the lake. Don’t give me any fake depth, please. Thank God, the other three parts of These Waters Remember, despite the occasional screeching pizzicatos in Part IV, satisfy my yearning for the calming depth of the surface. The voices at the end of the “water” sequence come as a rewarding repetition of the human trace.

Fountains Fraught with Tears gently ruptures my peace on the shores of the lake. What bugs me is the surplus of harmony. Questions creep up in my mind. Why am I here? May I be missing out on something in the world beyond the lake? Do I need “real” human presence?

Obsidian, the last piece in the album, comes to prove that the best cure for surplus is surplus. With its uncompromisingly repetitive leitmotif and, towards the end, with the echo which sounds like ghostly human voices, Obsidian seems to be telling me: “Stay put near the lake! Don’t you dare blame yourself for your jouissance!”

Lubomir Terziev

03 August 2020

Do these rays heal?

Mr Lubomir Terziev, who teaches literature and creative writing at the American University in Bulgaria, has written a review of Rays that Heal which I find interesting and illuminating. Here it is:

Do these rays heal?

As a form of artistic expression, minimalism relies on one of the following effects:

a) the “less is more” technique leaves the reader/viewer/listener with enough space for interpretation. Think of Lydia Davis’ flash fiction hiatuses or Giya Kancheli’s unexpected silences. As one of my favourite lit teachers used to say, such works of art “begin when they end.”

b) repetition invites the reader’s/viewer’s/listener’s mind to actively pursue the signs of difference in the sameness established by, say, that several-minute-long shot with the rain refracting the neon light in the background in Bela Tar’s Damnation. Ditto the solid, mural-like soundscape of Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna. Such works of art are designed, I think, to never begin and never end.

Alexander Kyd’s minimalistic composition “Rays that Heal” seeks to constitute itself in the space of repetition. It is always an elusive space, but what makes it particularly precarious in this case is that it hangs between two identifications. On the one hand, the gentle and unruffled riffs of Kyd’s guitar, which recall the serenity of Baroque composers like Corelli, could lull the listener into perceiving this piece as yet another composition that adds to the overwhelmingly vast and underwhelmingly predictable “music for meditation and relaxation” category on YouTube. There is no daring experimentation with harmony here, and the listener’s spirit is left, as it were, to frolic in subtly melancholic delight. Hence, the healing.

A second, more careful listening yields a different vista. There is a tension between repetition and variation in Rays which stimulates the mind to discover the less than comforting dimension of this music. The dialogue between the guitar in the foreground and the orchestral echo in the background reminded me of Deleuze’s astute observation that “variation is not added to repetition in order to hide it, but is rather its condition or constitutive element, the interiority of repetition.” It is this inherently dynamic dimension of repetition that I’d rather take away from Rays. I can use some healing, but I’d rather be healed by failing to identify with an origin and a closure.

Give me repetition anytime.