Welcome to the last episode of series 1 of May’s Miniatures. If you’ve enjoyed this series at all, please get in touch and suggest other stories or writers you’d like featured in a possible, if not probable, future series! Feel free to add comments on the posts that are on the May’s Britain blog.
Now, this final selection is a short story from one of my favourite writers. You don’t have to be Will to self-diagnose as a Ballardian. I love his work as it is sardonic, strange and taps into undercurrents of our human consciousness that most writers shy away from. Ballard’s work is like a literary equivalent to Max Ernst’s surrealist paintings but with an utterly matter of fact tone to its weirdness. You can’t help but hear his words resounding inside your head as if delivered by a BBC announcer from the Sixties, but who has unknowingly ingested some weird substance – and we’re not talking bleach!
He is not alarmed or moralistic about modernism, about the modern life of cars, motorways and consumerism, but nor is he Panglossian about it. He perceives troubling currents and subtly under plays them. This story is from later era Ballard. He was in his fourth decade as a writer, and wrote this soon after Margaret Thatcher’s pivotal Bruges Speech of 19 September 1988 which was critical in how the UK Conservative Party changed from being a pragmatically pro-European capitalist party to one torn between this and proto-Brexiting euroscepticism. This was published on 7 July 1989 in the Guardian newspaper, accompanied by a Steve Bell cartoon. This was four months before the restrictions between East Germany and West Germany were lifted, and the Berlin Wall took on new historical meaning. This story is incredibly prescient not just of events since 2016, but seems to parallel… In some ways… the, yes, cliché-alert…! strange times we are living in RIGHT NOW…!
Broadcast here on YouTube on Tuesday 11 August 2020:
This story brilliantly depicts cross-European middle class rebellion of leisure with a distinctive English iteration with seemingly divergent tendencies – green, feminist, sporty, Thatcherite. It observes the undercurrent beneath our cultural observance of the Protestant Work Ethic, which could apply on a much wider cross-class basis, given how beloved our holidays in Spain, Italy and Greece are to us.
This story was written in 1941 by a great and not well known enough German artist, Kurt Schwitters. Schwitters was born in 1887 in Hanover, West Saxony, in North Germany. I first learned of him via an exhibition of his work at Tate Britain, London, in April 2013. I borrowed a friend’s membership card so got in free! Schwitters’s art is a wonderfully everyday surreal art, collaging advertising slogans and material objects from the consumer capitalist society he far preferred to totalitarianism. Lots of sources call him non-political, like Piet Mondrian, but really this his work does embody a worldly liberalism historically embodied from the 12th to 19th centuries by the Hanseatic League. Hanover was a part of the Hansa, a trade confederation of merchant guilds in cities and market towns clustered around the Baltic.
Schwitters’s art work had been publicly ridiculed in the now Nazi Germany of 1935. His close friends the Spengemanns had been arrested by the Gestapo in 1936 and Schwitters fled Germany in January 1937, joining his son Ernst in Norway. Schwitters died in Kendal in 1948, after his experiences in 1940-41 as an ‘enemy alien’ internee in the Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man during the Second World War. His most famous work the Merz Barn was airlifted in the 1960s from the stone cottage in the Lake District it was made in to Newcastle upon Tyne where it now resides. I’ve seen it – it’s in the Hatton Gallery. It’s a towering, odd assemblage that has been well restored in recent years. Visit it yourself if you happen to be in Newcastle under non-lockdown conditions…
This is a powerful, very simple, folk tale-like short story from Schwitters which I’m sure you’ll enjoy:
On their island, the fisherman and his wife – ‘a god-fearing couple’ – live well enough, depending on nature: ‘excellent fish and lobster’. The nearby townspeople – the fish merchants – are also ‘as innocent as a well-trained house cat, at least to outward appearances’.
The fisherman’s unnamed wife comes up with a scheme to make money – understandable as ‘everything is so expensive’. This involves employing an idiot to assist them with catching and selling the fish; who will also benefit them in that ‘The government will give us money to feed him’.
The idiot, however, shows more cunning than his nomenclature would suggest, selling the same lobster on from one merchant to another; he put the lobster into each pot, but then removed it, finally selling it at a lower price to the communal kitchen. The second merchant wanted the lobster to sell to the ‘big hotel’ that ‘needed’ it for the tourists.
In the saloon bar, the idiot ‘drank so much that he thought it was the best day of his life’. He enjoys the company of Rosa here, but she takes the remainder of his money when he was drunk. The idiot gets thrown out. Then come ‘regret’ and thoughts of the ‘future of his soul’ as a lady from the Salvation Army appears. He does regret, and thus gets coffee and cake and engages in religious singing. He takes the Panglossian view, as satirised by Voltaire in Candide (1759) that everything is as it should be on earth and that things will get better.
When the idiot then returns to the story’s original island, ‘feeling quite depressed’ and expecting to be ‘severely punished’ for his enterprising he also gets coffee and cake from the fisherman, for he was a very good man, or at least he appeared to be.’ (my emphasis) The fisherman heartily and gladly welcomes the idiot for his enterprising plan, as it accorded with his own dislike of the fish merchants.
Clearly, the fact that the idiot finally sells the lobster to a communal kitchen at a low price suggests a more socialist reading of the story. However, the idiot’s is clearly an individual agency; his act of generosity is the result of having money in the first place to paraphrase our not-so-glorious Prime Minister of 1979-1990. Schwitters shows generous largesse as bound up with personal gain.
The idiot does not invest his money, but he has a good time in the saloon: implying the carpe diem attitude within European working-class culture. However, he does ultimately benefit as he has inadvertently picked a side in the turf wars between the apparently ‘good’ lone fisherman and the fish merchants who are also associated with the ‘big hotel’. Surviving within the economic system requires aligning in power formations to rival what already exists – these have historically included guilds, trade alliances like the Hanseatic League, or, indeed, trade unions. It is implied that the idiot’s clever trickery might lead to a profitable arrangement with the fisherman and his wife in future, or, even… a beautiful friendship?
Anna Kavan is a writer I came across when searching for some weird short fiction. Born Helen Woods to wealthy British parents in Cannes, France in 1901 her work forms a temporal bridge between the Blitz in the Second World War and the psychedelic 1960s. Her work is often compared to the surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington and was praised by J. G. Ballard – who will later feature in this May’s Miniatures parish, or rather, lecture hall… Or is it boozer…?
‘The Old Address’ (1970) is a portrait of individual paranoia and addiction. The incarceration the narrator experiences is more than just that of the medical institution they are about to leave… This story, ‘A Bright Green Field’, from twelve years earlier, conveys one character’s inner world and perceptions of nature upon a train trip to an unnamed archetypal small town…
Broadcast on YouTube, Tuesday 16 June 2020:
NOT perfectly level, no. Not much is.
Size and colour are relative… And, as this story conveys, they are subject to an utterly subjective human perspective.
Kavan jabs subtly, ideologically: in how the passerby elides the workers toiling on the green with pulleys and the like. Conditions have apparently improved for these who are “not criminals but labourers”! The narrator questions their “health and efficiency” and this elicits an admission from the passerby that they are in danger. He uses the word “expendable” and also discursively places that as at the bottom of the social hierarchy. He makes light of their arduous labour and suffering by claiming they are just engaged in “mimicry” of an earlier generation of workers, and in fact have it far better now with “the introduction of the present system”.
Beyond simply this warped sense of historicism, it is notable that the passerby, in ‘brisk’ and ‘matter-of-fact’ tone, gives such a lengthy justification of the labour practices – workers who die there are “buried in situ”! His attempt at reassurance implies both local ‘pride’ but also a defensiveness which tells us that he is putting a gloss on what is ethically indefensible. Perhaps this polite man’s spiel emanates from propaganda that has been spread by the authorities in this settlement.
We never really get any sense of WHY the narrator is there, and that adds mystery and ambiguity. As far as I am aware there are no markings at all of their gender or appearance, which is perhaps more modern in some sense than in identity-centric 2020.
“The invisible armies of night” will battle the field’s colour. It seems to be a portrait of the narrator’s hyper-sensitivity to nature with its “ardent green” of the field. “Its horrid life”. There are adverbs like “fiercely” and countless aggressive verbs like “packed”, “resist”, “vibrating”, “pulsating”, “threatened”, “saw”, “check”, “burst”, “rear up”, “sweeping”, “spreading”, “destroying”, “covering”, “fought”, “cut down”, “was”, “threaten”, “crushed”, “grow”, “seen”, “fed”. Self-doubt is shown in the narrator’s modal auxiliary verb “might” towards the end.
The narrator’s own obscured torment seems to be reflected in their paranoid, obsessive and melancholy view of this landscape they habitually return to. There is a Borges or Ballard-like mock-grand perspective in the reference to “ancient archives kept hidden from us”. Some obscure “variation” that differed from the norm. As with J.G. Ballard’s great climate change dystopian novel The Drowned World (1962), there is a sense of the primal and what might easily underlie the bare sheen of ‘civilisation’. “Variation” suggests the language of Darwinian evolution.
Kavan’s story is an ambiguous, compelling enigma, utterly controlled in its language to convey the lack of individual control and the irrational ways in which we invariably see the world. The crucial middle section suggests the poisons of class hierarchy are intertwined with the absurd, quixotic attempts to control and tame nature.