Gormenghast of the Mind

After the BBC’s disastrous television production of Gormenghast, the trilogy of novels by Mervyn Peake, they are now making amends with a splendid radio adaptation. It’s impossible to translate that Gothic creation of arcane, stultifying rituals and trapped flights of fancy, all captured within a seemingly endless maze of stone corridors, towers and parapets, in a flat visual plane. All the television production did is recreate a gallery of grotesques, rendered ridiculous by too literal images. Gormenghast needs the infinitely liberating power of the imagination, something radio does perfectly.

I remember falling into the novels and knowing nothing of ordinary reality until I emerged, dazed at the end.  A superb fantasy, so grounded in detail that its world seemed as solid as real life.  If anything, real life seemed a bit gray and tenuous for a while afterwards. I fell in love with Fuschia Groan, hating the upstart Steerpike for his cynical pursuit of her, while being forced to admire his ambition and determination to overthrow the Groan dynasty.

So here it is, starting with the first of six episodes, and available for about four weeks.


Best of all, though, is to read the novels. Here’s the opening paragraph of Titus Groan, first novel in the trilogy.

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one halfway over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.

Night Terrors

Last night I had a proper existential nightmare. I went for a walk but the landscape started to change, and I felt confused and frightened. So I decided to ask the name of this strange place, thinking to get a bus back. Nobody would tell me and I’d forgotten where I came from. Worse still, I didn’t know who I was.

At some point I realised it was a dream and woke up with a horrible feeling of being hollowed out. But at least I got this poem.

There’s a black hole in my heart
I’m a golem with the scroll
missing, bare oblate spheroid
mourning for its atmosphere.

Waking up, my name feels strange
who I am a fantasy
my brain whistling in the dark.

Book Review: Delete This at your Peril!

Delete-this-at-your-PerilEveryone with email has received them – messages in fractured English from corrupt officials in oil-rich nations, job offers that involve merely processing payments, love letters from stunningly beautiful Russian women who will happily overlook the fact that you are fat, balding and middle-aged. The common factor is a request for your bank details. Amused or irritated, you can’t really avoid them.

Allow me to introduce an unlikely White Knight who tilts at these internet trolls on your behalf. His name is Bob Servant, a native of Broughty Ferry, which is a suburb of Dundee – the spiritual home of Beautiful Railway Bridge. Ah, that shining city on the silvery Tay! Bob is a veteran and chief beneficiary of the Burger Van Wars (1988-9), once owner of the biggest window cleaning round in Western Europe, and consummate piss-artist.

Bob likes to unwind of an evening, after the pubs are closed, by leading scammers down the long and convoluted garden path of their own greed. He’s a sort of Scottish Siren, luring them onto the unforgiving rocks of Broughty Ferry. If they weren’t such amoral scumbags, you could almost feel sorry for the victims. His method is to distract attention from the point – their need for his bank details – with a bewildering array of side issues. He also puts forward counter-proposals that proliferate into surreal and bizarre scenarios in Bob’s mind, aided and abetted in these imaginations by his drinking pals, Frank the Plank, Tommy Peanuts and Chappy Williams. Invariably the scammers go along with these suggestions. At one point Bob is so disgusted at the lengths they’ll go to that he voluntarily ends the game.

Sadly, Bob Servant is the fictional creation of Scottish author, Neil Forsyth, based on his own experience with internet scammers. This does have its benefits. Bob is allowed the most outrageous libels against the worthy institutions of Broughty Ferry – the Post Office and Bowling Club get a lot of stick – and Forsyth can then ride to the rescue with a footnote saying this couldn’t possibly be true. Appropriately enough, each section is a sequence of emails, with all the necessary footnotes to defuse Bob’s cheerful defamations.

Delete This at your Peril! became a BBC Radio 4 series, and Bob Servant also reached television in BBC 4’s Bob Servant Independent, where he runs for election. I watched the first episode – you can see episode 2 in the video below – but it was so bloodless compared to the inspired profanity and deranged imagination of Delete This at your Peril! that I didn’t watch any more. The best thing about it is the Broughty Ferry location, the views of Dundee and the glorious Tay Bridge.

I urge you get the book and enjoy a vicarious revenge against internet scammers.

Happy Bloomsday

Today in 1904 Dublin, James Joyce and Nora Barnacle went on their first date. Joyce celebrated the occasion with an iconic novel that everyone has heard of, and most people haven’t read. Which is a shame because James Joyce’s Ulysses is only occasionally difficult – the rest is a cracking read. Even the challenging bits can be negotiated by simply going with the flow of the language. Our minds supply multiple meanings if we let language have its wicked way.

My good deed on this happy day is to post RTE’s ‘unabridged audiobook’, weighing in at at 9 hours and 33 minutes. I just started re-reading the novel, so I’m wary of the audiobook in case it preempts the picture I get from reading the text. I’ll read first and listen later.

I hope you enjoy the audiobook, realising there’s nothing to fear except fear itself. And heaping handfuls of glorious language to enjoy.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

ZealotZealot is a straightforward yet scholarly account of the life of Jesus, unencumbered by metaphysical speculation about what Christians regard as religious mysteries. For atheists or agnostics with an interest in mythology and religion as a social phenomena, Reza Aslan has done exactly what it says on the cover. It’s about “the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.”

Other readers may feel short-changed by the focus on the material facts of the life of Jesus in the context of first century Palestine. Yet others, apparently without reading the book, have been upset by the fact that it’s written by a Muslim, as if his religion disqualified Aslan from writing on the subject. See this toe-curlingly embarrassing clip from Fox News for a particularly egregious example.

As well as being a scholar of religions, Aslan is also an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, and he takes a novelistic approach that emphasizes story, setting, and characterization. He begins in the present tense, taking us on a journey through the Temple in Jerusalem to witness the assassination of the High Priest in 56 CE by Jewish zealots. Along the way, he introduces us to the architecture, personnel, and functions of the Temple, even the smells of the place during Passover. It’s a brilliant, almost cinematic, introduction to the key facts.

Aslan accepts that a real, historical Jesus, a disciple of John the Baptist, was the basis for Christianity. As a careful scholar, however, he always distinguishes between the Jewish Jesus and accretions of the Christ mythos. While there are no footnotes to clutter up the text, he writes exhaustive chapter notes at the end of the book.

His historical background covers the period of Roman rule, up to and beyond the Jewish-Roman War of 66-70 CE, encompassing the many Jewish Messiahs, of which Jesus is the most well-known. The title of the book, Zealot, points to their common characteristic, outrage at both Roman occupation and the collaboration of the Temple authorities.

In conjunction with his focus on the historical Jesus, Aslan is painstakingly agnostic about the miracles recorded in the Gospels, those which allegedly occurred during his ministry and the resurrection itself. He merely notes that most people accepted them as true. As an atheist, I wanted more scientific rigour, but you can’t have everything.

Aslan spends some time analyzing what the word “Messiah” meant to Jews at the time, since the definition is central to the story of Jesus. To that end, he deconstructs the Gospel accounts to reveal Jesus as a zealot, leader of a movement aiming to wrest control of Israel from Roman rule. In terms of verifiable events in the life of Jesus, however, Aslan devotes the bulk of the book to the events of the Passover Festival in Jerusalem. In part this is because there are so few verifiable events.

The idea of Jesus as Jewish zealot is not a new interpretation – I remember reading a book written in the Seventies with this premise – but Aslan’s combined scholarship and novelistic skills make a compelling argument. In the event, it was an easy sale, since I’ve long subscribed to the idea.

He is particularly interesting on the religious rivalry between the Jewish mother church in Jerusalem and Saul of Tarsus’ conception of Jesus as Christ. The former, led by James, brother of Jesus, saw him as a Jewish Messiah, and their church bound by the laws of the Torah. Saul, who became Paul after his attack of hysterical blindness on the road to Damascus, preached a vision of an eternal Christ to the gentiles. If Aslan’s novelistic approach lets down the scholarly side, it’s here. You can see in his characterization that he clearly dislikes Paul. As do I, so we’re on the same page. If I had a time machine, Paul would not be history. Literally.

This is not a book everyone will warm to, but I’ve not read a better account of the life of Jesus in his historical context. Highly recommended.

Best Search Engine Term of the Day

Goes to…don’t ask me, love, for that first love.

A beautiful and tender line that sounded vaguely familiar. I had posted the whole poem by Iranian writer, Mimi Khalvati, in the Poetry Parnassus series. There are more to come – I have been lackadaisical in posting new poems.

Here it is: Poetry Parnassus: Don’t Ask Me, Love, for that First Love (Iran).