From Here To Eternity

In America they have this thing. They’ll have a film or a TV show about a policeman or soldier. He or she will be good at their job but suspicious of authority. Showing up bureaucrats and making them look stupid or corrupt is a favourite pastime. They will break the rules and do their own thing to get better results. Think various sheriffs operating off the grid in the Wild West, John McLane of Die Hard, Jack Cates of 48 Hours, Rambo, Starsky and Hutch, Dirty Harry, Maverick of Top Gun, Stella Gibson of The Fall, Martin Riggs of Lethal Weapon, Axel Foley of Beverly Hills Cop, Frank Drebbin of Naked Gun. There are so many of them.

From Here To Eternity is reminiscent of those stories, like the features of an adult are reminiscent of the child they used to be. This is a book about the United States Army stationed in Hawaii in 1941. It follows the lives of a diverse range of characters in the months before and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. There are characters reminiscent of John McLane, highly competent but bucking authority. And quite often, authority figures are portrayed as self-serving or incompetent. But the difference with From Here To Eternity is that nobody is the star of this show, whether it’s a careerist major, a major’s frustrated wife, or a talented but awkward-squad private who does what he thinks is right, even if it’s not politically wise. They are all part of the Army, which is the real star.

It’s a remarkable achievement of observation and empathy, to see inside the lives of so many individuals making up this bigger character of the Army. We see the struggles of stubborn individualists who refuse to accept the stupid rules of the game. We see the struggles of those implementing the rules, and those in the middle trying, with greater or lesser success, to take rules laid down by those above in the hierarchy, and implement them in a way that accommodates the individualists – who ironically in a series of powerful scenes in military prison, often turn out to be socialists.

This wide ranging portrayal of a military society, also moves into spiritual areas. In the military prison chapters, for example, some soldiers use meditation to get through periods in solitary confinement. They seem to leave their individual identities behind for a while, which is very fitting for a book where individual identities blend in with the idea of the Army as a whole.

From Here To Eternity is a fascinating and insightful book, which it seems would have required an army of writers to create. There’s not just its massive size, but also the scope of the characters and their viewpoints. It’s in keeping with the spirit of the book that an army of writers could be accommodated in just one James Jones. A great achievement.

2020’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

We are living through a period of intense isolation. Personally I am looking at the prospect of not being able to leave my house for three months. The coronavirus has caused a very sudden and unprecedented scattering of people. But this is happening in the context of a period of centuries during which humanity has slowly become more physically alone. Even by reading this article, you are engaging in an activity which is almost always solitary. In fifteenth century England, only about 5% of people could read. To gain information or entertainment, 95% of the population needed to talk or interact with others. Today virtually everyone in the UK is able to partake in a defining cultural activity, which requires you to be alone.

A similar change happened in music. Right up until the beginning of the twentieth century, the only way to experience music was as a group of people, who had to actually sit in front of musicians. But Edison had patented his phonograph in 1877, and by the beginning of the twentieth century, record buying was beginning to catch on. After that, music became a largely solitary activity. The thousands who attended live music were as nothing compared to the millions listening to records on their own.

Change in use of the word loneliness since 1800

And so we come to 1967 and the Beatles’ album, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It is fitting that in an age of increasing isolation, this is probably the most famous album ever made. It consists of a philosophical journey into the nature of human togetherness.

Now, do you want to go on a philosophical journey into the nature of human togetherness? In normal circumstances, I’m sure most would generally pass. No doubt there would be better things to do. But these are not normal times. Years ago I wrote an entire book about the poetry of the Sergeant Pepper album, but I won’t push my luck. I’ll confine myself to the first line of the opening song:

“It was twenty years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play…”

These words introduce what sounds like a live concert. This Sergeant Pepper concert is happening at a particular time – twenty years to the day after a mysterious mentor first taught the band to play. The sound of an audience which we hear clapping and cheering over that opening line, gives the suggestion of a particular place, a concert hall somewhere. In complete contrast is the album itself, which you can play anytime and anywhere. For someone playing Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the special anniversary day can be any day. Similarly, the concert hall can be any bedroom, living room, or tube train shut out by headphones. People are stuck in certain times and places, but there’s the suggestion that this concert is free of such restrictions. Go back again to that opening line: “It was twenty years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play”. This seems very precise, but in reality no band learns to play over the course of one day. It takes time to learn a new skill. Mastery comes gradually rather than arriving on a particular Tuesday. That day twenty years ago is impossible to pin down. We have no date for it. All the specifics here are artfully vague. Perhaps we can think of the vagueness of the Sergeant Pepper concert as an access all areas ticket.

During the coronavirus pandemic, people have played music at windows, and staged concerts for on-line audiences. Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a performance in that same tradition.

Writing and Conspiracies

Conspiracies often proliferate in troubled times. What are they and what can writers learn from them?

Let’s start by thinking about what a conspiracy actually is. These odd narratives take bits and pieces of observation and make them into a pattern. In this sense they are not so different to theories in science, or to stories which a reader enjoys by working out the bigger picture from clues and hints – as in a detective story, for example. But typically, while conspiracies make sense of what we see, they do so in a very self-centred way, reflecting and bolstering the views which are important to the people who create and believe in them. Conspiracies also tend to describe the secrets of shadowy and powerful authority, which are hidden from most people. This allows believers to enjoy a feeling of superiority that comes with special knowledge denied to others; and crucially, you get this supposed insight without working too hard. Why go to university to study a subject for years to win esoteric knowledge, when it is so much easier to get the same thing from a conspiracy? In keeping with a populist age which denies expertise, everyone can feel they are in possession of truths hidden from ordinary folks, just by going to certain areas of YouTube and watching videos about faked moon landings and the like. And the more out-there the conspiracy, the more special it makes an adherent feel. So, conspiracies provide a double whammy of self regard, making their adherents feel important by bolstering preconceptions and preferences, and by giving the illusion of rare insight into powerful authority.

So, what is a writer going to learn from this? Some, realising the influence of a conspiratorial narrative might try to simply reproduce it in book form. After all, a conspiracy is in effect the equivalent of a successful but trashy novel. Such novels might flatter the prejudices of their readers and, following a few puzzles, give them a sense of possessing special and powerful knowledge without working too hard for it. There are novels like that out there. I might, for example, mention the Da Vinci Code, with its dodgy history, fancy sounding but frequently inaccurate references to historical artefacts and architecture, and puzzles which reveal the workings of supposed hidden power. However, a good book won’t just flatter you with the illusion of special knowledge. You’re probably going to see things from different angles. Characters are likely to give varying perspectives on events. A good novel will be an exercise in empathy and openness. After all, reading a novel is to experience the world through someone else’s eyes. A conspiracy, by contrast, is only interested in seeing things one way. Everything will bend to that cause. If you see things as the conspiracy demands then you will fit right in. If not, you are out of the select group of believers.

In the weeks and months ahead we should read good books and ignore conspiracies.

Writing In The Time Of Coronavirus

Florence, northern Italy, where Boccaccio’s storytellers self-isolated in the fourteenth century.

Writing and pandemics have gone together for centuries. Boccaccio’s Decameron has twelve people escaping from the Black Death in fourteenth century Florence. They tell each other stories while isolating themselves in a secluded villa just outside the city. In a similar way Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales describes a group of pilgrims travelling in a time of plague, once again entertaining each other with storytelling.

More recently a whole genre of speculative and science fiction has grown up around diseases which wipe out significant portions of humanity. Starting with zombie tales, traced back to Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley, we move through John Windham’s The Day of the Triffids in the 1950s, Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain in the 1960s, to a whole host of modern films and stories about disease apocalypse.

So what’s this all about?

Part of it I think is simply technical. To tell a story you need a manageable scenario. Disease has the natural effect of shrinking the scene, of focusing things on a small group of people. The world is all big, bustling and unmanageable one minute: the next you have a handful of people hunkered down in a villa outside Florence.

More significantly, disease also has the effect of stripping back complex situations into simple ones. Pandemic fiction asks basic questions – are people more human when they focus on themselves as individuals, or when they reach out as widely as possible to work with others? How do you balance living for yourself against living for others? Is it better to compete or cooperate?

Look at Bill Masen in John Wyndham’s 1951 book The Day of the Triffids. After getting over the shock of civilisation falling apart following the onset of widespread blindness, Bill begins to feel oddly empowered. He thinks of himself as “emerging as my own master,” no longer a cog in a huge society where an individual can feel lost. But the whole book is also a graphic depiction of the misery that comes when people lose a society where they are linked up, each playing a small, specialised role in something bigger. Without this kind of society, an individual is reduced to scraping a living on a lonely farm somewhere.

This classic pandemic fiction theme is reflected in our present, situation, dealing with coronavirus. Many people react by wanting to compete for what they see as scarce resources, grabbing excessive toilet rolls, bottles of hand sanitiser or bags of spaghetti. In fictional terms this compares to Bill Masen facing a lot of cut throat competition for resources in The Day of the Triffids. While Bill enjoys feeling all individual and empowered, the downside is endless and dangerous disputes with other survivors. It is no surprise that eventually Bill decides on a more cooperative approach.

People tend to divide at a time like this, and of course some distancing is very wise. But equally people also have an instinct to work together. National governments shut borders, but unusually we also see the work of a truly global authority in the World Health Organisation. Disease knows no borders, and in the end the literature of disease tends to show that success is best achieved by working together as widely as possible.

The Disappointment Bus

Disappointment is the lot of the writer. Following a recent and particularly bruising rejection, I used my time wisely to look up the derivation of the word disappointment. It comes from a French word, “disappointer” meaning to undo an arrangement or remove from office. There’s a suggestion not just of your plans falling through, but also of losing your job.

Having a book rejected is like losing your job. You put in many hours of writing, editing and redrafting, all of which organise your time, for months or even years. Like any job, this effort gives your life shape, provides a sense of identity and self worth and gives hope for a better and more prosperous future. Then with a rejection, or a series of rejections, all of this can disappear.

That’s how it feels. So how to deal with it? There are two approaches. First, there is denial. You ignore the rejection and push on. With this approach, you simply refuse to be disappointed. While there is much to be said for this stubborn philosophy, it can become a refusal to think you’re ever doing anything wrong. Denial in this sense is not so much the signature of writers as that of dictators, fundamentalist preachers, cult leaders, and, unfortunately, presidents of the United States.

Alternatively, you can accept that things have not worked out as planned. This puts you in the sad, passive, reflective state which we call disappointment, where it’s hard to do much of anything, let alone be resilient. But at least you are in a frame of mind which encourages quiet reflection. It might even be nature’s way of making you rest and reassess. Maybe it is no accident that writers are a famously disappointed lot, because as long as it does not suck the motivation right out of you, the pain of a setback can be creative. It shakes you out of routine, allowing in new ideas, and thoughts. If you never allow yourself to feel this way, then you are just blasting along like that bus in the film Speed, running over everything in your path, never stopping because stopping, or even slowing down, will result in an explosion.

So, if you have suffered a disappointment, you’ll feel bad now, but after this reflective time is over, another bus will be along. And this bus will be the normal, pleasant sort of public service vehicle which allows people on and off at stops. The driver will have time to wish you a cheery “good morning”, what with not having to drive at seventy miles an hour all the time. Rather than careering nonstop through Los Angeles with a bomb strapped to its undercarriage, this will be the sort of easygoing London Routemaster that takes you to places you want to go. This service is on its way and will be stopping to pick you up very soon.