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“Grant and I” – Some Notes on Reading

Biography for biography enthusiasts

Reading Robert Forster’s memoir “Grant and I” was an insightful experience for myself. Oddly I found a circle around ‘biography’ in reading a biographical work from a man who has a fascination with biographical works. Robert likes reading biographies about great people sometimes more than he likes their great works in their own right. He likes them for what they show him about the inspirations and patterns of the great literary (and other) pioneers, what he may draw from them and what parallels he may find. Reading this, I drew inspiration and found a parallel as I found a kindred spirit in this respect. I too am an avid reader of biographies. Reading Robert’s explanation of this I find I read them for essentially the same reason. So reading Roberts’ (auto) biographical work has given me a parallel and inspiration for reading biography itself. A nice double reinforcer.

Joyce across the frontiers

Now I cannot say that I gained more from Robert’s memoir than from his great work, his work is not something difficult to enjoy after all. Robert’s favourite biographical subject is shared with me – James Joyce. That was another interesting parallel in reading the book. My own reading about Joyce working toward the completion of Finnegans Wake fascinated me more than my reading of that great work. It is a great work. It is just not an easy work. I will not come to the same conclusion with Ulysses or the earlier works of Joyce. These are easier but still great. I enjoyed the literary links to another fascinating writer in the history of the Go Betweens too. The Godots became the Go Dots and then The Go Betweens. Robert notes thinking the Godots would be a great name for a band that everyone is always waiting for. He does not fully note how prophetic this turned out to be.

It is immensely interesting to see how Joyce inspired Robert in his career. Joyce is often noted as a highly influential writer of literature but the case of Robert Forster, as shown in his memoir, shows how the very way Joyce lived his life and approached his work inspires beyond literature and into a wider range of arts. The songs Go-Betweens may not put you in mind of Finnegans Wake at face value (Mark E. Smith on the other hand, does) but the inspiration of Joyce on the career of Robert Forster is incontestable on reading “Grant and I”. My recollection on reading the story of Finnegans Wake in the Joyce biography was that Finnegans Wake is the ultimate artistic statement – a huge intellectual (and physical in the end) effort to produce a work that’s benefit can simply not be pinned down on a direct pragmatic or beauty basis.


Switching tact but staying on path with the book, I found the early musical inspiration of Robert presented another fascinating parallel and inspiration. Coming of age a generation after Robert Forster but still before the age on the internet, I was completely taken by the work of Edwyn Collins but knew no one who knew much about him and could find little information on him at the time. Of course much more information has become available in the internet age. However, there is still a lack of work that truly does justice to Edwyn. Robert’s book, to my surprise, did provide a special appreciation of Edwyn and his significance. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised and should have known the close connections between Robert, the Go-Betweens and Edwyn Collins and Orange Juice. Yet even if I had I would not have read Robert’s first hand capturing of Edwyn’s genius. I cannot help thinking how special it would be if Robert the biography enthusiast turned his literary hand to the subject of Edwyn Collins. A final note on Edwyn and Robert is that it is always amazing to find the connections between things that you feel you came to independently.  I will mark a ditto there in relation to my long love of Jonathon Richman and Tom Verlaine. Both are prominent in Roberts’s book. Even Bowie. But it is hard to believe that one could feel alone as a Bowie supporter in the past. But it did feel that way to me in 1990 in Perth. Robert talking about Grant and his Bowie poster hit a chord. It really shouldn’t have since Grant had the poster up in the early seventies. Yet it hit a chord.


The above leads to a final parallel to draw from the biography. This is antipodean provincial isolation. Brisbane in the sixties and seventies, Perth in the 1980s. Robert’s coverage of waiting for three month old NME papers and imported records is something special for the Australian experience. The entire cultural phenomenon is worthy of further study. Perhaps it has been done. In literature J.M. Coetzee focuses on the provincial. In his memoir Robert Forster provides further insights into the theme. The need to be current in pop music though adds a dimension to the Provincial that is more easily dealt with in the world of literature. Yet somehow the delays, isolation and consequent half filtered cultural flow have created some true originals in Australia. The Go-Betweens, Nick Cave and the Saints come to mind. In the even more isolated city that I live in we have the Scientists and more recently Tame Impala and Pond.

There is a lot in Robert Forster’s book. I am not even touching on its key features here. I have left those for others. I am just adding my notes on some less obvious themes. Here’s to Robert Forster the biographer!

(c) Nuallain O Searcaigh 2017

Dr Syntax, Edwyn Collins, Mark E. Smith and the Picturesque

Edwyn Collins is an exceptional person. Having faced the most extraordinary challenges to his mortality and significant physical damage in 2005 and beyond, he has resurged, put out several new works and even toured. I was completely thrilled to see him live in distant Sydney a couple of years ago.

His new work has been very positively received as it should be. However, the change in style and tone of his contemporary work from the work that preceded his dark year is acute. His post 2005 work is notably more inclined towards established musical elements that may regarded as accepted musical beauty. In a way these works are a natural follow up to his earliest solo albums ‘Hope and Despair’ and ‘Hellbent on Compromise’ and even Orange Juice. His new work is also more positive.

Things were not always this way. The mid to late nineties saw ‘Gorgeous George’ and ‘I’m Not Following You’ and then in 2002 we had ‘Dr Syntax’. ‘Gorgeous George’ was a big hit on the back of ‘A Girl like You’ but listen to the album, it is one dark, cynical, sarcastic beast of an album. “This music won’t take you higher unless you’re a moron” Edwyn sung along with many other drop dead put downs. Then came ‘I’m not Following You’ with its attack on Adidas Boys and Girls and ultimately its shooting of the sheep in the title track. Acerbic Edwyn. The album featured a collaboration with Mark E Smith and ‘acerbic’ made them bed fellows.

Then came Dr Syntax. 2002 and a masterpiece. You may not garner that from reviews and such. But it is. This is the sensational pinnacle of Edwyn’s caustic soul of the time. And it is called Dr Syntax and has an interesting picture on the front cover. So I ask, what is Dr Syntax and what is the picture?

In 1768, William Gilpin published an essay where he sought to describe and define ‘the picturesque’. Quote: “that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture”. Gilpin is getting at the idea of a well-defined, pleasing art, a picturesque art.

William Combe (1742 – 1823) didn’t think much of Gilpin’s ideas and decided to take them down. Thus he published ‘The Three Tours of Doctor Syntax’. In Dr Syntax, Combe ruthlessly satirises Gilpin’s ideas. Combe clearly didn’t want much to do with established and formalised standards of beauty in art. He no doubt saw the essence of great art outside the limited boundaries of the picturesque.

So why did Edwyn Collins call his album ‘Dr Syntax’? Because he was at the height of his sarcastic power and he created his own Dr Syntax. The album satirises conventional beauty in music both lyrically and musically. The Edwyn Collins of 2002 goes to war with ‘the picturesque’ in music.

At this point we can return to Mark E Smith. The two artists saw eye to eye on the picturesque and it is little wonder they found time for one another around the time. I have long tried to pin down an element of Mark E Smith’s artistic vision that intrigues me. At times it appears that he is hell bent on removing any element of conventional beauty in music from his work. Is great art in music about beautiful singing? – no; is it about good production? – no; is it about lovely melodies? – no! no, no no! On the Post Nearly Man, the music largely disappeared. And just in case you start to institutionalise and beautify Mark’s own unique voice – that too can be removed. The mike can be handed over and it has been.

Mark’s work goes beyond Dr Syntax. He doesn’t satirise the picturesque in music, he attacks it openly. If any one finds a picturesque element in the Fall, he kills it. You like the singing in Bill is Dead? Gone! You like the melodies on the Unuterrable – gone. You like the music – gone! You start to love Mark’s voice? – gone. No picturesque here, the essence of the Fall, the essence of great art is not in the picturesque.

Back to Edwyn Collins, the interesting thing is that in his post 2005 works seems to have reembraced certain picturesque elements – traditional beauty in music ideas. He has pointed out that he wanted to get rid of negative ideas. And the cover of Dr Syntax? Lermontov a romantic poet – work it out 😉 Edwyn like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky may be rediscovering the value of tradition and positivity. But Dr Syntax I still my favourite.

Killed by Society/ Unsaved by the State – A different view on ‘The Trial’ by Kafka

When Kafka wrote ‘The Trial’ he was not making a political comment on the state. Not the formal state. The view that he was is fairly common. It sees ‘The Trial’ as a representation of the powerlessness of the individual in the face of the authoritarian state. An irrational, secretive and non-transparent state at that. The appeal of this interpretation is clear.  Kafka lived and wrote at a time when autoritarian states were emerging in a major way. Whether fascist or communist. In this interpretation, Kafka can be seen to be anticipating the major dangers inherent in them. This puts the trial in the position of anticipating Orwell.

However, there are problems with this interpretation. The most clear is that in ‘The Trial’ Josef K. is faced with what appears to be a false court. A cheap low budget court that he cannot take seriously. The ‘real’ court and the ‘real’ state, the serious institutions for Josef K. also exist in the story. They are a touchstone in his failure to take the court he is confronted with seriously. Josef K. actually sees himself as part of this rational, serious state with his role in the bank and status. He does not doubt its superiority over the odd, undeveloped and poor court that he is faced with.

Another issue that is difficult with ‘The Trial’ is the failure to ever find out what Josef K.’s crime/ accusation is. This is interpreted in the ‘authoritarian state’ interpretation as part of the danger of these states. They can try you and punish you without your even knowing what it is you are accused of. This clearly ties in well with concerns about individual liberty and fairness in authoritarian states and indeed in the contemporary ‘global terrorism’ environment with its security measures calling for imprisonment without trial.

Yet none of this deals with some very clear aspects of Kafka’s book. Critically, there are continued hints that if he approached his trial the right way, he would be fine. If he leaves things in the lawyer’s hands, relies on his uncle’s connections. If he allows a range of ‘irrational’ and unexplained institutions to play their part as suggested by those around him.  The business man client at the bank suggests that he go and see the painter for example as this seems effective. The various female characters that jump to help him, also push him to engage with these practices. Nobody can explain why they work, but all suggest that they do work.

Josef K. is unable to seriously engage in these various practices and institutions. His ‘rationalism’ and affiliation with the formal rational state and its institutions as well as his belief in their obvious superiority is a key factor that prevents his engagement. He cannot really get passed this obstacle even when he begins to realise that he may actually be in serious danger.

Josef K.’s disdain for social obligations and niceties goes beyond the trial process. He indicates strong preference for his rational work at the bank over social niceties. He does not really want to see his uncle. He would rather work. His uncle chastises him for not seeing his cousin more, perhaps hoping for a deeper relationship or coupling. He has no serious friends and is noted for not starting a family or marrying, something he is criticised for.  His various interactions with women are revealing in this respect as well.  While happily engaging in intimate interactions with them, he does not even consider the linking of these to any form of wider social obligation. His feeling of rational, work related superiority subsume all these social issues which he has little time for. He does not engage in society. He sees it as beneath his rational world view.

Now, it is in this that I suggest that Josef K.’s crime is clear in ‘The Trial.’ It is not clear to him and may not be clear to a rational individualist reader. Yet, his crime is his disdain for social obligations and social institutions. He is called to account for these and could save himself through reliance on social institutions but he refuses to take them seriously.  Those who should be in his social network continuously try and pull him in and save him. They are far from passive but he will not yield. The result is he is killed ‘like a dog’ by society.

The Trial is an acute observation of the role and strength of social institutions even in the face of the rational state. Kafka had clear issues with society, not with government. He felt himself rational and superior but knew the strength of that which he could not abide. In this sense, The Trial is directly connected to Metamorphosis where his alienation from society and the family is so extreme.

“The Trial’ therefore does not anticipate a strong controlling, authoritarian state at all. Rather it anticipates a failure of the rational state, or indeed rationalism, to subvert social forces and institutions that are pervasive. ‘The Trial’ better anticipates contemporary China than it does an Orwellian state. Now if you believe that China is an Orwellian state, you might not see what the point of my entire argument is but you would agree that Kafka anticipated it in accordance with the ‘authoritarian state’ interpretation. However, you would be left with the parts of the story that don’t fit the argument. Kafka foresaw the impossibility of the authoritarian state in the face of strong society.

(c) 2014 Nualláin Ó Searcaigh