Posts Tagged The System
Le Ventre de Paris by Emile Zola (1873)
Our hero, Florent, arrives in town on the back of a horse and cart which is bringing a stall’s-worth of turnips to the market. After years’ imprisonment on an island off French Guyana, mistaken for a political dissident, he finds his step-brother, Quenu, now something of a master butcher, and sister-in-law, Lisa, of Zola’s notorious Macquart clan. They take him in under the cover of being a distant cousin. Although hugely intimidated by the coarse, brash women of Les Halles (not to mention his own anti-authoritarian instincts), Florent takes a job as an inspector in the market. In his spare time he begins to develop an ineffectual, amateurish socialist plot against the Second Empire – Lisa’s bourgeois self-interest takes hold, and she denounces him to the police, whereupon he is arrested and deported. Again.
This is generally considered to be one of Zola’s second division novels, but features several striking elements which raise it deservedly amongst the classic French works of its kind.
Firstly, as with Germinal’s mine (Le Voreux) and La Bête Humaine’s train (La Lison), Les Halles transcend their man-made limitations to become a living, breathing character in the novel. Emblematic of Paris’ imminent ruin, the belly of the capital is more important than its heart or its brain (of which there are no signs); all working-class life is seen to revolve around Les Halles: disputes are settled with fist-fights, clumsy teenage romances are consummated on makeshift beds of duck feathers, and life itself comes to an end courtesy of a lump of stone to the back of the head.
Meanwhile, the novel contains Zola’s perhaps most famous single passage of prose, a description of entering a cheese shop and being overwhelmed by a multitude of pungent odours, also referred to as The Cheese Symphony (no, really).
And finally, we have the ever-present symbolism of a bitter struggle throughout the book. The most common English translation of the title is ‘The Fat and The Thin’, reflecting the ongoing battle between ‘les gras et les maigres’ – there is little or no subtlety about this from Zola: Florent (the exiled, starved, socialist) is painfully thin and barely eats, while Lisa and Quenu are portrayed as human mountains of flesh, compared favourably with the glistening charcuterie they sell. Quenu’s love for his brother is ultimately undermined by his wife’s petty aspirations – indeed, ‘le tout Paris’ has no time for the poor or the miserable: les maigres.
Released at a time when The Kinks appeared to be on the wane, 1970’s unconventionally-named Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One brought them back into the public’s conscience largely off the back of perhaps the most celebrated ode to transvestism in pop history.
The album itself failed to chart in the UK, which seems somehow fitting, given that large parts of it are a feast of Ray Davies’ cynicism and bitterness about the music industry and its principal actors – agents, managers, the press.
Top Of The Pops takes us on an entertaining jaunt through the lifecycle of a hit single climbing up the charts, leading to recognition in the streets from screaming fans and interest from the Melody Maker (ask your Dad, kids). This culminates in a momentous phone call from the singer’s agent with the news that the song has gone to number one, resulting in the opportunity to “earn some real money!”. Similarly, Moneygoround laments the complex web of music industry types who each dip their hands into the money earned from a song’s success, leaving Ray initiating litigation with survival his only goal, while Powerman is both defiant and resigned.
Other themes on the album include alienation, paranoia, and despair at modernity. Perhaps the most touching song on the album is Get Back In The Line, based on the Davies’ father’s experience of unionism and the effects it had on him, not to mention those it had on the young Ray seeing his father return home, jobless still. Also memorable are two Dave Davies-penned songs: Strangers, and Rats. The former is somehow both existential and full of human warmth; the latter drips with fear and paranoia, features a class-A addictive intro, and is oddly representative of my own feelings on my infrequent trips to that London. We also have the call of nature which is Apeman.
For me, despite (or indeed because of) its imperfections this album is essential listening for anyone with even a passing interest in The Kinks: it is executed with characteristic humour, and in a way that belies its underlying negativity, showing some of the Davies brothers’ finest moments.
Country Of The Blind by Christopher Brookmyre (1997)
This is Christopher Brookmyre’s second novel, the follow-up to Quite Ugly One Morning. While his first novel began with a detective uttering “Jesus fuck” at the discovery of a stool upon a grotesquely murdered man’s mantlepiece (we’re not talking furniture re-arrangements, either – quite an opening gambit from any debut author), Country Of The Blind begins in a much more genteel fashion: with a cup tea. Admittedly, this cup of tea was prepared by a man who has just been arrested for breaking and entering, robbery, and, of course, quadruple murder. His new-to-Glasgow lawyer initially finds her only potential line of defence to be that he had previously made her, yes, a nice cup of tea. That, plus a mysterious envelope he had handed her, on condition that it should only be opened were he to fall foul of the law.
And so we get a quick overview of some of Brookmyre’s favourite topics: murder and stitch-up, the law and its long arm, Scotland and some of its seedier inhabitants. Allied to these throughout his novels are fond(-ish) reminisence of school days, computer games, music, not to mention his evident disgust at the British Conservative party, Christianity in all its organised forms, the Old Firm of Rangers and Celtic, the right-wing media, casual racism, and corruption of The Man’s and/or The System. Fortunately these topics are addressed with a monumental dose of humour and copious amounts of sweary words, often in his native dialect – so much so that one of his later novels includes a glossary (sample entry: moolsy - Selfish, ungenerous, disinclined to share one’s sweeties with half a dozen cadgers who wouldn’t give you the steam off their shite if it was the other way round).
His chief protagonist is Jack Parlabane, a freelance journalist with a fierce sense of moral outrage (coincidentally, against many of the more egregious subjects listed above) and a handy lock-picking toolkit. Parlabane is an immensely likeable character, despite (or because of) his ability to start (and win) an argument in an empty house.
The plot details of Brookmyre’s novels don’t really lend themselves to too much description. It’s a little like trying to steal just a small piece of a large un-cut cake: nibbling at one slice of the plot tends to necessitate revealing at least part of the rest, and so on and so on until you realise you’ve eaten the whole cake and spolit the fun for everyone. So for now, beg, borrow, or steal a copy of any of his novels.
Incidentally, I chose this particular novel of his simply because I had the immense good fortune to find a very good condition, first edition hardback cover of it in a second-hand bookshop in Whitby, for just £5. It’s not often the cosmos deals me such cards, let me tell you. It was all I could to remember to pay for it before I ran out of the shop with it tucked under my arm, cackling.
The Young Knives are, in a literal, geographic sense, Middle England: they were formed in Ashby de la Zouch, the kind of place where successful Bullseye contestants would return home, towing a speedboat and thinking “how the hell do I sell this on??”. This apart, they wouldn’t really be called ‘normal’ – how many other bands feature two brothers?
Ok, how many other bands features brothers who look like David Mitchell and Ronnie Barker? And in how many other bands featuring brothers who look like David Mitchell and Ronnie Barker does the latter go by the name The House Of Lords (because he exercises a power of veto over the others)?
The Young Knives are regularly marvellously scornful. Quite often at people just like me. Such as in Half Timer: A salary / It gets you through to half time / A salary / Why don’t you, erm, smash the system from within / A salary / Get yourself a promotion / And then take your children to the zoo for the weekend / A salary / With the extra cash you’ve got there.
What I also find interesting about The Young Knives is the moment at which they first (to my – probably limited – knowledge) introduce strings to their sound. This might be one of my typically uninformed feelings, but I swear doing so is invariably the moment when an indie band jumps the shark and loses almost all connection to what made them them (yes, I mean you, Manic Street Preachers – this reference goes back to about 1997. I am nothing if not current).
However, 1 minute into the 6th song on The Young Knives’ second album, in come the strings. And what would you know, it only bloody works a treat. After listening to the song multiple times I can usually convince myself that, at 3 minutes and 12 seconds, as I’m urged to jump from the prow and swim to the shore away from this ghost-ship, the world is actually ending.
Anywho, I’m off to smash the system. Night all.