“A non-chain chain”

My latest fit of apoplectic rage has been gifted to me by the arrival of the bread shop Gail’s in Crouch End. The statement on their website is quite breathtakingly irritating:

Like our bread, we handcraft each GAIL’s shop to be unique and have its own personality. GAIL’s fits into its local environment, adapting to give the customers in each area what they really want or need: a bread shop in an area that is missing out on great bread, a calm place to chill out with young children, a place to come and use Wi-Fi and so on.

We like to think of ourselves as the non-chain chain. Although we do have a number of shops, we are against the “chain” mentality where each store looks exactly the same and the people are robots. We want our customers to take pleasure in visiting our shops, get to know our staff by name and feel a sense of community.

This is a fantastic example of cynical corporate Newspeak. To translate: a non-chain chain is Newspeak for what you and I would call a chain. The phrase feel a sense of community equates to give us repeat custom. They are doing exactly what politicians do, which is to say something terribly earnestly, as if simply the act of earnest utterance makes it true. The arrogance of their statement, with its missionary zeal to bring these things to the poor benighted people of Crouchie, should fool no one.

The underlying contradictions of their message rise up to the surface with the slightest disturbance of the text.  They ‘handcraft each Gail’s shop’ but they all end up looking the same, as any real adaptations would dilute their brand identity. They imply that they care so much about our ‘community’ that they’ve discovered what Crouch End lacks, and are selflessly offering to provide it. The only trouble is that anyone who has ever actually been to Crouch End will know that we are far from lacking in “great bread, a calm place to chill out with young children, a place to come and use Wi-Fi”; it’s fantastically arrogant of them to assume otherwise. We have loads of brilliant bakeries that really are independent shops, rather than chains who would like have us think of them as independents. Our best bakery, Dunn’s, has been in Crouch End since 1820 and sells pumpkin bread so tasty I have literally had dreams about it. That is the normal, non-Newspeak definition of a local community shop that sells great bread. Gail’s don’t even make very good pastries, apparently.


If they’d really been wringing out their souls over what Crouch End ‘really wants or needs’ they would have organised for us to have a proper independent bookshop, since we need one after the demise of lovely lovely Prospero’s (WEEP). But this is not their mission: they are here to make a profit, and they might at least be honest about that. Their presence in Crouch End will actually harm the community by competing with our real independent shops, who are already struggling with massive rents, higher food prices and the general impact of the economic crisis, and who don’t have the luxury of corporate funding behind them. The fact that they don’t give the least bit of a toss about the ‘local community’ is made evident by the lack of research they have done into the place.

I could go on quite a lot more about this. Don’t even get me started on ‘Jim, the Crouch End resident’, who appears later on. I call it twee-washing: the cynical, faux-caring bullshit that companies come up with to try to bamboozle us into buying their product. It’s the equivalent of banks using earnest homespun folk music on their adverts while their executives trouser millions in bonuses, and it utterly infuriates me. They are wolves in wonky, hand-knitted, organic wool jumpers: I shall be sticking to Dunn’s.


Howl: the film

I saw the Howl film last Wednesday (written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, with James Franco as Ginsberg). It wasn’t what I was expecting, but in quite a good way. I thought it would be a straightforward biopic of young Ginsberg and his fellow Beats against the background of the Howl obscenity trial. Instead it was a film about the poem itself: everything else was secondary to it, even Ginsberg.

I even knew that there would be a complete recital of the poem in the film, but assumed that it would be just Ginsberg standing in front of a crowd. Instead, as well as some scenes of Ginsberg’s first reading at the Six Gallery in 1955, there was an animated Howl going on in spurts, interspersed with scenes from the trial (based on transcriptions), scenes from Ginsberg’s life, and Ginsberg being interviewed about the poem – also based on real-life material. I think the very close focus on the poem might be a bit off-putting for some who would rather have a wide-angle view on the Beats, but once I got used to it I liked it. I’ve never seen a film that’s just about a poem before. One reviewer thought that the atmosphere of the film wasn’t crazy, wild, Beat-ish enough: that it tamed the reality for the filmgoing audience. I think it’s more that the film is not actually trying to capture the crazy revolutionary spirit of the Beats: it’s trying to examine, in quite a sober, thorough way, the importance of one particular poem that came about within this movement.

Franco does well. He really captures Ginsberg’s intelligence, and his kindness, his need for love. In the Guardian review of Howl you are reminded that Ginsberg introduced himself to Carl Solomon as Prince Myshkin (from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot) and it’s particularly apt: both are people whose kind and loving natures make them seem more naive than they actually are.

The actual reading of Howl is all right, although Franco’s vowel sounds go a bit weird at times: he sounds almost Dutch in places, and not really angry enough. Is he always being Ginsberg-reading-Howl rather than Franco-reading-Howl? It seems like he’s attempting the former, and overcomplicating matters for himself as a result. The animation that accompanies the reading verges on the crudely-CGI in places, but the “Moloch” parts are fantastic, and some of “Rockland” is very moving.

Last summer there was an exhibition of Harold Chapman photos in Chelsea, which was very interesting; I wanted to buy quite a lot of the prints. Many of the iconic images are revisited in the film, as here, with Ginsberg and Orlovsky: it’s fun trying to spot them.

In other words, Howl repays viewing by Beat nerds, especially as a lot of biographical stuff is left unsaid: if you don’t know about it already, you won’t learn that much about the other Beats from this film. But it’s well worth seeing anyway, if only for the novelty of watching a film about a poem: it’s not often that you get something so closely focused. They manage to capture the extraordinary power and excitement of Howl, and the humble, intelligent kindness of the man behind it.

By the way, if you want to, you can read Howl online. But you should really buy the lovely facsimile edition from City Lights.

On Spoilers and Novelty

I have a book called Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy which does what it says on the tin. It has ‘The Cossacks’ in it, which is my favourite shorter bits of his writing. This book was the first Tolstoy I’d ever read, and I loved it. The only trouble was the introduction by John Bayley: it utterly spoils a certain death in War and Peace. If you’ve read W&P you know the one I’m talking about, the big death. If not, I’m not going to repeat Bayley’s bastardry in needlessly saying who cops it.

I think I mentioned before that due to our superhuman reading load, in my M.A. Nineteenth Century Russian Novel class several people only learned of this and other deaths during seminars because they hadn’t managed to finish the books before then. Often a wail would go up when a death was casually mentioned: “What? Not so-and-so!” Most introductions to W&P also discuss the plot in detail, but they now tend to come with a spoiler warning at the beginning. And it is reasonable to assume that an introduction to War and Peace might contain such details. I’m reading Moby-Dick at the moment, and had to stop reading the Penguin Deluxe Edition’s foreword because of very detailed spoiling going on there – but I plan to go back and read the rest at the end.

The trouble comes when you’re reading something completely different, or only slightly related, in the case of the Bayley introduction. I think Bayley was probably justified in assuming that readers would probably start with War and Peace and then go on to Tolstoy’s shorter works, but this was still annoying in my case, as I hadn’t. Often, though, you come across utterly wanton spoilers in completely unrelated articles, when you have no possible warning that such a thing might occur. People blow plots willy-nilly. Sebastian Faulks was merrily spoiling a whole shelf of books on his tv programme last week: I had to stop watching it.

It’s difficult to say where to draw the line when it comes to the classics. Writers have to assume knowledge on the part of their readers otherwise the slightest inroads into culture would necessitate endless explanations of plots and characters from various sources, or alternately, endless warnings over possible spoilers to well-known plots in classics. Part of the cultural importance of the classics, and the idea of a literary canon, is that they create a common set of references that enrich both written and oral dialogue. Pop culture is largely taking over from other forms of culture in this respect: when I say “like that bit in The Simpsons …” I have more confidence that the another person will know what I’m talking about than when I say “like that bit in War and Peace…” although obviously it depends on who you talk to.

Actually – to digress – this is the main trouble with modern literary culture: it has become fragmented. Rick Gekoski made this point  a while ago. You have to tailor your references to your partner in conversation. If I’m talking to a fellow survivor from Russian and East European Studies, I’ll say “like that bit in Oblomov…” whereas if it’s someone from English Lit it’s more likely to be “like that bit in Moll Flanders…” or, more realistically, “like that bit in Moll-sodding-Flanders…” There is no universal pool of literary references any more, it’s more like a literary puddle of famous bits of Shakespeare and things you did at school. The more universally-known stuff is on the telly (like that bit in Friends when Rachel spoils Little Women for Joey).

To veer back in the direction of the point: there is a balance to be had between assuming knowledge of widely-read books, discussing them, and spoiling the plots of the same. When a newly-written book is published, everyone goes out and reads it at more or less the same time. For a while people are mindful of the fact that not everyone might have read it, and withhold plot details just in case. But, apart from the odd flurry of reading when a new translation comes out, you don’t get the same sort of universal reading with the classics. The same books are largely still being read, but in an ever-diluted order, so you rarely find yourself on the same page as your friends. If I was American I might have read Moby-Dick when I was at school, and could therefore assume others knew it as well: but I’m not, so my experience of reading it is isolated. I can’t talk about plot details without sounding out who among my friends has also read the book first, otherwise references will be missed, the way the second harpoon hurled will often miss the whale and dangle on the line as an additional danger rather than a means of connection.

It’s easy to forget that no matter how long ago a book was written, it is still brand new to the person reading it for the first time. Needlessly spoiling this reading is a shame. While the fragmentation of literary culture means that the classics are no longer a part of common knowledge the way they used to be, what we’ve lost in common references we’ve gained in terms of the freshness with which we can approach these famous works.

Obviously some of the shock value of past things is irrevocably lost. No matter how much you pored over the exhibits at the V&A’s Ballet Russes exhibition, or no matter how well the Royal Opera House might perform it, you cannot recapture the feeling of shock at seeing the Firebird or the Rite of Spring when it was new. But a lot of classic literature doesn’t involve the same sort of diminished returns. The effect of that death in War and Peace is still as profound now as it was when Tolstoy’s first readers came upon it. I think refraining from spoiling the plot of these works is another way of keeping them current: it assumes they are still being read, rather than assuming they have been read. We need to find a way of integrating classic literature into the conversation without lessening the experience of actually reading the books, and thereby diminishing their freshness.