Wednesday, 30 March 2022

That Which Nourishes the Soul

During the ongoing trials of the prolonged Coronavirus crisis, it’s been well recorded that many people, imprisoned indoors, have turned to food for comfort. The Japanese use the word “coronabutori” for the phenomenon of piling on the pounds due to Corona restrictions.

I was suddenly reminded of a little piece called “That Which Nurtures the Soul” which I translated for Yoshimoto Banana (the popular Japanese novelist) to be presented at the Milan Expo at 2015. The Expo had the theme of “Feeding the World” and invited 104 women authors from countries around the world to write on the subject of “nourishment” by means of stories, memories, essays or recipes.

I seldom do translations and I can’t actually remember why I agreed to do this one. I was surprised to hear this piece was singled out by the organizers to be read by Yoshimoto Banana at the opening ceremony.

I never attended the Expo and later discovered that the conference was embroiled in considerable controversy. The organizers did a variety of odd things, including asking women to write exclusively about food as a bizarre form of “female empowerment”.

To be honest, Yoshimoto Banana’s piece had little impact on me at the time. But rereading it, with its meditation on the connections between being personally sick with flu, having family members die around you and finding a reconnection with life at a time of sickness through a rediscovery of the zest and flavours of food, I think it’s a piece that resonates in the age of Covid-19.

That Which Nourishes the Soul

I succumbed to the flu for the second time in a short period just as my father fell into a near-unconscious state. My temperature rose to as high as 42 degrees, and I couldn’t walk or even stand up.

Faced with the realisation of my dad’s imminent passing my appetite disappeared, and even when I did eat, I couldn’t taste anything.

It sounds unbelievable, but even when I tried to cook something the pan seemed too heavy, and I just couldn’t move it. Wow, such things do happen, I realised.

My elder sister usually comes and looks after me when I’m like this, but she also fell ill. Shivering in the wintry cold I lay in bed with an empty stomach and didn’t think about anything. I just don’t care, I thought. My husband fretted and bought various treats he thought I’d like on his way home from work, but I was unable to eat any of them.

A friend’s mother worried about me and sent over some miso soup she had made full of vegetables and pork. Finally I could taste something. My stomach suddenly warmed up. The soup was delicious. I sensed keenly that this was the flavour that had nurtured my friend since childhood, and I was grateful that the soup’s power was being extended to me.

I was gifted the strength lent by someone else’s mother.

In their house this soup had an everyday, familiar flavour, nothing unusual about it; it was exactly as it was meant to be. But this elemental flavour had been infused into the very flesh of these family members, making them have the same feeling about home: their souls were constantly reset by that food giving them a sense of belonging to one place.

I wasn’t brought up in their home, so I felt no nostalgia for it. But when I think of that soup’s flavour, even now I almost want to cry. The way the vegetables were sliced, the amount of miso, the quality of broth – there was something special about their mother’s unique, endlessly repeated way of making it that will disappear with her when she quits this life. There was lots of that unique, intangible ingredient contained within the soup.

Once I’d eaten the soup I gradually regained my health and was able to go and visit my father.

However, I was only able to eat a little every day, so I was somewhat unsteady on my feet.

Near to the local hospital where my father was a patient, there was a famous soba-noodle restaurant.

The soba shop had been there in front of the hospital for years, and I remembered it fondly because we always went there as a family when I had medical tests or if we had to visit someone in the hospital.

At least I should be able to eat some soba, I thought, and one of the staff kindly drove me over. The completely plain kake soba had a flavour unchanged since my childhood: those slender noodles in that intense broth. Laughing and talking as normal with the person who had driven me there, we ate the noodles together. I felt a keen sense of gratitude for this person caring about me and helping at such a difficult time.

Then I thought.

I never would have believed when I was little that I would be coming to this restaurant in such a distressed state.

Whenever I went to that restaurant, Mum or Dad was always there with me. Usually it would be the whole family of four, me with my elder sister. We would eat a variety of noodles and laugh and chat and banter. We’d worry about the person we had been to visit and talk about the situation together. Compared with those days, I thought, how wretched I feel now.

But a new strength I had never known before began to well up inside me. Whatever happened I would take proper care of Dad until his death. In my wretchedness there was a taste of truly becoming an adult. So let’s eat, I thought, then I’ll go and visit Dad. He was still alive; I had to give him encouragement.

In this way good food gave me strength and provided sustenance for my soul. I think that’s the way it should be.

During this period I found I particularly appreciated the taste of food. It’s probably because I wasn’t eating with dulled senses, as I would usually, so when I did occasionally put something into my mouth I clearly noticed the flavour and attempted to extract its strength. I noticed the stew my husband made; the delicate flavour of the Pad Thai specially made for me by a friend who works at a Thai restaurant and, because I was weak, deliberately made using a smaller amount of oil than usual; the powerful soup made by the kind man who runs a small ramen shop nearby, using lots of seaweed and fish in an uncompromisingly strong broth; and the sweet tomato sauce of the Italian restaurant opened by a former secretary who went out of her way to deliver it to our door.

Flavouring all of them was a warm, smiling humanity and concern for me.

Dad passed away, Mum passed away, but I am still alive. Now when I eat my older sister’s cooking I eat it with memories of my family. I eat happily, feeling as if we were all eating together even though it’s just me and my sister. And when I do, I feel strangely energised.

Perhaps it’s because of this that, since that time, no matter what I am doing, I would never think of eating food without seeing the face of the person who made it. Such food has a taste without a soul.

The soul, too, requires food.

And I wish to give food to my soul.

(Copyright Banana Yoshimoto, translated by Damian Flanagan)

Tuesday, 29 March 2022

The Literary Ghost of “The Orient’s No.1 Elevator”

I love it when people stumble on some piece of writing from years ago and make a sudden new connection with it. Last night I happened by chance to be glancing through my junk email and came across an interesting message that had somehow ended up there.

A photographer, Stan Gielewski, had come across an article I had written for the Japan Times in 2016 about a mysterious object called “The Orient’s No. 1 Elevator” which used to briefly exist - over a hundred years ago - in a town called Wakanoura in central Japan and sent me a letter about it. He wrote:

“Searching for the exact time when it was built, I just came across your writing about the elevator in Wakanoura…I used to know Wakanoura like the back of my hand. I was lucky to find and preserve a few large format photos from that period, and a few are directly related to this elevator. I took a quick snapshot of one with my phone a while back, and I thought I'd share it with you.

It's a view of Wakanoura taken from the top of the elevator, so this has to be Wakanoura around 1912. I decided to share it with you as even very few Japanese know about that elevator. I spent a lot of time talking about the old Wakayama with like-minded locals and antique shop owners, and they have never seen photos like this before.”

Here then is the historical photograph, from around 1912, he sent me. The elevator pictured was a bizarre, short-lived historical curiosity, but also occupies a significant place in Japanese literary history. To explain that story, let me quote a section of my 2016 article:

“Over a century ago, Wakanoura, a small coastal town near the city of Wakayama, was at the top of the list when it came to places of outstanding natural beauty and amongst the top tourist destinations in central Japan.

So renowned was Wakanoura that “The Orient’s No. 1 Elevator,” one of the first steel elevators in Japan, had been constructed there to allow visitors to ascend a hilltop and take in the impressive vistas. Yet today Wakanoura is largely forgotten, and the fabled elevator long gone.

This lost history is brought to life in the first half of Natsume Soseki’s novel “Kojin” (“The Wayfarer”), serialized from 1912 to 1913, in which a well-to-do Tokyo family makes a visit to the Kansai region and decides to escape the summer heat in Osaka by visiting Wakanoura; “The Orient’s No. 1 Elevator” occupies a memorable place in the plot.

Soseki, whose novels were serialized in both the Kanto and Kansai editions of the Asahi Shimbun, had made a lecture tour of the Kansai region in 1911. After his return to Tokyo, he incorporated a Kansai setting into his novel “The Wayfarer” — perhaps a nod of recognition to his fervent Kansai readership: he had not forgotten them.

Soseki himself visited Wakanoura in August 1911, before giving a lecture, “The Enlightenment of Modern Japan,” in Wakayama City.

“Last night I stayed in Wakanoura,” he said during the lecture. “When you go to Wakanoura there are a variety of things to see like Sagarimatsu, Gongen-sama and the Kimii-dera Temple. But I also saw the elevator described as “The Orient’s First to 200 Feet Above Sea Level” constantly taking sightseers up and down from the back of my lodgings to the top of the stone hill. Actually I too, like a bear in a zoo, was put inside the metal bars of a cage and lifted to the top of the mountain.”

Soseki was the latest in a stream of famous visitors to Wakanoura that stretched back more than 1,000 years.

One of the earliest documented visits was taken by Emperor Shomu in 724. He visited Wakanoura and admired the string of islands collectively known as Tamatsushima, which are celebrated in the “Manyoshu,” the eighth-century collection of Japanese court poetry. Since then, the sea has retreated and only one of those islands, Imose Yama, still remains.

The Sandankyo bridge leading to Imose Yama — commissioned in 1621 by Tokugawa Yorinobu, the 10th son of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu— was depicted by the famous ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige.

But I was curious to learn more about the curiosity known as “The Orient’s No. 1 Elevator.”

I turned back to Soseki’s “The Wayfarer.” In his novel, Wakanoura — and the elevator — is not only a scenic backdrop but it is used by Soseki to explore his wider ideas about human will.

From the beginning of his writing career, in 1905, Soseki had been engaged with German philosophical thought, considering how our will, intellect and emotion interact. He often used the image of a cliff as a symbol of “willfulness.” In “Gubijinso” (“The Poppy”), a wilful character is metaphorically described as throwing the weak-willed down a cliff, and at the beginning of Soseki’s 1910 novel “Mon” (“The Gate”), the timorous protagonist is described as living at the bottom of a cliff.

In “The Wayfarer,” a haughty intellectual called Ichiro has doubts concerning his estranged wife, Nao, and is determined to find out whether she is secretly in love with his brother Jiro. His over-reaching willfulness and confidence in his intellect means he simply must know what desires his wife is hiding. When the whole family spends a few days in Wakanoura, Ichiro attempts to use his brother as a detective and persuades him to make a day trip to nearby Wakayama with her and report back with observations of his sister-in-law.

In order to have a private conversation with Jiro about his scheme, Ichiro travels with him in “The Orient’s No. 1 Elevator,” remarking Hamlet-like that, in a similar way to the elevator cage, the whole world is a prison. The next day, carrying on the conversation at Kimii-dera Temple, Ichiro asks his brother to investigate Nao.

When Jiro travels with her to Wakayama for the day, the greater will of Mother Nature overwhelms Ichiro’s schemes: a storm prevents them returning and they must spend the night together in Wakayama. Far from accessing the hidden secrets of Nao’s affections, Ichiro is now led to complete distraction wondering what has transpired between his brother and his wife.

In Soseki’s imaginative universe, “The Orient’s No. 1 Elevator” becomes a symbol of the limits of human will when pitted against the grand will of the universe, represented by the landscape and climate of Wakanoura itself.

If you take the 90-minute train ride from Osaka to Wakanoura, you are heading to one of the former great scenic spots of Japan, but also a site where a philosophical battle once played out in one of Japan’s literary classics.

The elevator is long gone — and is hardly remembered. After making repeated enquiries, I eventually discovered a photo of it on display in the Tamatsushima Shrine.

When I asked what had become of the contraption, I was told that it had been torn down for its metal in 1916, during World War I. It seems the elevator was built in 1910 and only existed for a mere six years. Soseki would have appreciated the irony that an object that he had deployed as a metaphor of overbearing wilfulness had enjoyed such a brief existence.

Consider what has happened to all those beautiful natural vistas that Wakanoura was once famous for. Today, those views are interrupted by urban sprawl — a chief reason why the area is not today as famous as it once was.

Industry, a particularly human brand of wilfulness, has affected the traditional natural beauty of Wakanoura and imposed itself on the landscape.

Many people think that to have a profound travel experience, you should traipse to some scene of unchanging natural beauty, such as Amanohashidate in Kyoto Prefecture, a sliver of land ranked as one of one of Japan’s three scenic views, or Matsushima in Miyagi Prefecture, another of the country’s three most scenic views. For centuries, poets have written about them and artists have painted them.

But Wakanoura offers a more intriguing study: It has become a sharp juxtaposition of changing and unchanging elements — of temples and shrines arguing for a renouncement of the world, and industries in the process of shaping the world.

If you wish to get to the bottom of the eternal, epic battle between human wilfulness and the will of nature, then pack a copy of Soseki’s “The Wayfarer” and head to Wakanoura, still haunted by the ghost of “The Orient’s No. 1 Elevator.””

Saturday, 26 March 2022

In Search of a Ukraine of the Mind

And so, we are all Ukrainians now. We fly Ukrainian flags, making all the best shows of support as we can, and sending messages to the warzone from afar.

I’ve never been to Ukraine - though for reasons that will become apparent below I’ve long wanted to go - and I have no particular Ukrainian friends. And yet, this is not the first time I have found myself observing a shocking world crisis in a Ukrainian frame of mind.

I’d like to take you to a time 20 years ago and to a place 8000 miles away from Ukraine and offer you a slightly different take on the national destiny of Ukraine. Sometimes if you want to understand the particular historical characteristics of a culture, you have to step out of the country and observe how its people fare when placed in completely alien cultures.

If you want to understand Ireland and the Irish psyche of the 19th century - the obsession with land and festering sense of grievance - then observe what happened to the Irish in North America. No more insightful work on Ireland has ever been written than Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind”. You can also understand a lot about Ukraine by looking at the fate of Ukrainians in the Americas.

In the late summer of 2001, I was in Winnipeg, Canada for a couple of weeks and became quite fascinated by the large Ukrainian communities who had settled in Manitoba from the 1890s onwards. Over 180,000 people in Manitoba are of Ukrainian descent - they are one of the biggest ethnic groups of that vast, beautiful, under-visited province of Canada - and their influence is everywhere felt.

There are Manitoban country towns with onion domed churches and perogies - Ukrainian potato dumplings - are a preeminent part of Manitoban cuisine. In downtown Winnipeg, you can even find a Ukrainian Cultural Centre, which despite its relatively modest size, is the largest in Canada.

If you ask what so many Ukrainians were doing in the wilds of mid Canada, then the answer is that they were specifically targeted as an ethnic group, inured to the harshness of Ukrainian winters, and therefore considered best suited to be the hardy pioneers who would cultivate the remote wastes of Canada. Some of the Ukrainian villages in Canada attest to the fact that the settlers in the late 19th century were dropped down in the freezing middle of nowhere, provided with little in the way of tools or supplies, and asked to fill the prairies with wheat.

The casualty rate was predictably high. I seem to recall staring at a photo in one of those Manitoban villages that showed a picture of Ukrainian settlers who had no contact at all with the outside world for the first three years of their settlement.

All of these things greatly excited my interest. Manitoba is such a fascinating smorgasbord of diverse, isolated communities - of Mennonites, Icelanders, Metis and Native American tribes - that I felt that, in another life, like another Grey Owl (pictured right, aka Archibald Belaney from Sussex who disguised himself as a Native American) I could spend many years wandering amongst its moose, forests and spectacular prairie sunsets.

Once I visited a summerhouse on the shores of Lake Winnipeg and discovered a residence filled with research books on Native American customs and artifacts, and recognized within myself a pull to retire into such a place of worldly retreat.

But I soon discovered that my fascination with the Ukrainian settlers was not generally shared by the Manitobans, not even by those many people who were themselves of Ukrainian descent. Many of the Ukrainian villages of the prairies spoke only Ukrainian, but the common pattern seemed to be that the children raised in such places shed both Ukrainian language and identity as soon as they found their way to the big city.

That made a certain sense of course. The Ukrainian villages of Canada were associated with a primitiveness and backwardness, and harking back beyond them - to the Ukraine of the nineteenth century and twentieth century - was a land associated with pogroms, famines, warfare and genoicide. Why wouldn’t you wish to discreetly shed that identity and embrace instead the life of a cultivated, urbane Canadian?

And yet I felt acutely the contrast with my own ancestors, the Irish - a worldwide diaspora who had themselves escaped a land of grim poverty, famine and civil strife - but who tenaciously held on with the utmost pride to an Irish identity for many, many generations after their last ancestor had pushed off in rags from an Irish quayside. In the immortal words of Shane MacGowan,

Where e’er we go, we celebrate

The land that made us refugees

While not quite sharing my enthusiasm, my Manitoban friends indulged my fascination with everything Ukrainian and took me to both the settler villages and the Ukrainian Cultural Centre in Winnipeg (pictured left), where I purchased an 800 page “History of Ukraine” and some items of Ukrainian folk dress.

(Until at least my mid thirties, my daily, hippyish apparel was enlivened by traditional clothing from around the world - the colourful garments of the hill tribes of Vietnam was a particular favourite. And so it seemed not in slightest bit strange for me to start walking round Winnipeg in a Ukrainian folk shirt, causing my more fashion-conscious friends to wince and cover their eyes. This was an era before the sin of “cultural appropriation” became a prime social media offence.)

Then, whilst I was soaking myself in everything Ukrainian in Manitoba - an idyll far away from my usual existence - I awoke one morning to the news that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York. The outer world had noisily broken into the quietude of my Canadian summer and suddenly the world began to change. I had been due to fly to Chicago and spend a few days there on the way home, but now all flights were grounded and so instead I moved into a room at the Fort Garry Hotel (pictured right), the city’s most famous historic hotel, and waited to see how things played out.

I was sitting up in a room looking out over the infinite expanse of the prairies, with my Ukrainian folk shirt and my thick volume of “The History of Ukraine” on the bed. On the rolling news of television, world events were all concerned with a shaken, newly paranoid and apoplectic United States and its relationship with Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel. There was talk of a new Pearl Harbour: this was the axis on which the world turned.

Long-forgotten Ukrainian settlers in Manitoba were my backwater of a backwater, as far away from the then fastly unfolding news feed of world history as you could possibly imagine. My Ukrainian themed bedroom of the Fort Garry hotel was I suppose my equivalent of the lakeside summerhouse devoted to Native American culture, a kind of mental retreat from the world. It never occurred to me then that the axis of world history would turn once more and the time would yet come when the position of Ukraine would focus the world’s interest.

I passed some very happy days at the Fort Garry Hotel and my Manitoban friends continued to keep me entertained and one night took me to the cinema. I can’t recall now what movie we saw, but what stays vividly in my mind is that an advert ran in French and the girl next to me suddenly began reciting something in beautiful French. It is of course part of Canada’s cultural settlement and constitutional arrangement that the nation is bilingual and to succeed in many civil service careers in Canada, being bilingual in French and English is considered essential.

Yet what struck me was that here we were in the prairies of central Canada, a long, long way from Quebec, in a place where Francophone speakers were very small in number (about 3% of the population of Manitoba speak French) and yet the French language was being enthusiastically promoted and embraced, even as the Ukrainian language was left to quietly wither and die.

This thought returned to me last week when I saw images of President Putin at the head of his long table with the French President Macron at the other end, discussing the future of Ukraine. The French and the Russians were it seemed the “alpha” cultures that were going to decide the fate of a “beta” culture like Ukraine. Macron meant well of course, but there seems something deeply wrong about a world that treats a nation like Ukraine as second rate in this way.

Yet it also occurred to me, when I spent time in Canada 20 years ago, that there was something peculiar about a nation that promoted one minority language over another in this way. Walking around Winnipeg, I found myself at one point in the French Quarter where an elderly lady immediately greeted me with a “Bonjour” on the street.

The Quebecois pride in their Francophone culture is famous the world over - despite the fact that they have been divorced from France for over 250 years. The French themselves meanwhile are well known for their insistence that the French language and culture must be preserved to the nth degree, setting up academies to police foreign intrusions into the French language, demanding that all EU papers be published in French, and delighting in the fact that population growth in Africa may yet make French the most spoken second language in the world.

I couldn’t help contrasting during my sojourn in Winnipeg how the Francophones sit proud and noisy at the head table of world culture, while the Ukrainians have quietly made themselves invisible and kept their heads down.

I guess the Ukrainians have been the way they are because of the centuries of cultural suppression they received from the Russians, both under the Czars and the Communists. When flights eventually resumed in 2001 and I, with regret, quit the Fort Garry and returned to the UK, I wondered if I would ever get round to reading my doorstop “History of the Ukraine”. But as chance would have it, I fell badly ill and was bedridden for a few weeks and ended up reading every last page of it.

I wish I could tell you now I can recall much of what I read, but nearly all of it has long since drifted out of my head. The chief thing I recall are the debates that raged in the 19th century about whether Ukrainian was actually a separate language to Russian, or merely a form of Russian. In turn, this debate over language had great significance when it came to determining whether the Ukrainians were actually a separate nation or not to the Russians - a subject now of monumental importance to world security.

There has been a long history of the Russians attempting to suppress by whatever means at their disposal - from intellectual sophistry to campaigns of terror by famine and sword - Ukrainian national ambitions. But that suppression of cultural and linguistic pride seems to me to also be in evidence if you examine the psyche of the Ukrainian descendants of Canada.

I’ve read over the last few weeks many analyses of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that regret that NATO was so provocative towards Russia as it expanded its borders, instigating a siege mentality and sense of existential angst in the Russians. “Don’t we remember the Cuban missile crisis? Would America like to see Russian or Chinese missiles arraigned against it on its very border?”

I take on board those arguments, but I don’t agree with them. People who talk about having Ukraine as a useful “buffer state” with Russia seem to me to fall into a 19th century mentality of believing there are God-given “great powers” and then a variety of minor states that don’t count for much. Russia might have the forest of nuclear missiles and an unhinged belligerence - granted a very significant consideration - but I don’t see why Russia should be treated as a nation of far greater importance than Ukraine, just as I don’t see why the Ukrainian language is in some way intrinsically less important than French.

The world has been awash for years now with black-and-white ideas about “privilege” and “race” as if the world can be reduced to facile simplicities, ignoring the complexities of geography, culture, history, language and individual personality.

But in reality, relatively forgotten peoples like the Ukrainians of Manitoba, while not banging the drum of victimhood, demonstrate the nuances and considerable psychological complexities of a particular cultural inheritance.

I’m often a sceptic of so-called “multi-culturalism”, especially when it seeks to undermine existing cultures and historical traditions. But in certain contexts, it is welcome. Although I’ve not been back to Canada in the last 20 years - and some of the nation’s lurches under Trudeau into woke celebrations of “peoplekind” are excruciating - the shift from a bicultural and bilingual sensibility into a more multifaceted “multi-culturalism” seem overdue.

One way of perceiving the current Ukrainian War is of Russia facing up to its own long overdue reckoning with a modern world that is not going to put up with monocultural bullying any more.

The resolution of the current crisis in Ukraine can not just be a return to the Old Order where Russian security concerns are considered paramount and the Ukrainians must quietly acquiesce. It’s high time that the Russians yielded some of their seats at the high table of world culture and found a space for the Ukrainians as well.

I want to see the Ukrainians sitting at the end of a long table making decisions on their own cultural destiny…I for one am quite prepared to seat myself at the end of that long table and have that discusssion with them. And I still have the Ukrainian folk shirt to wear for the occasion.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Stan Laurel's Last Laugh on Charlie Chaplin

As their boat, the Cairnrona, steamed towards America in 1910 and land mistily appeared, a 21-year-old English music hall star ran towards the railings, took off his hat and exuberantly shouted,

“America, I am coming to conquer you! Every man, woman and child shall have my name on their lips—Charles Spencer Chaplin!”

Closely watching him on deck, and gently mocking him, was his friend and fellow member of the Fred Karno Company - about to excitedly embark on a tour of American theatres - Stan Laurel. For a couple of years afterwards, Laurel - just a year younger than Chaplin - acted as Chaplin’s understudy and shared rooms and ideas with him. (Pictured together at centre of picture above).

By 1913, Chaplin had been recruited by Mack Sennett to start working in the dream factories of Los Angeles, and by 1916 was the most famous man in the world, earning an astonishing salary of $10,000 (equivalent to at least $250,000 today) a week. He had realized his self-prophecy in an incredibly short period of time. Laurel only made a first tentative transition into Hollywood in 1917. Once there, he made repeated attempts to contact his old friend “Chas” Chaplin, who had sent him a signed photo but failed to answer any of his phone calls.

By the 1920s, Chaplin thought himself beyond Vaudeville skits, aspiring to create not simple “comedies”, but major works of art that would blend social commentary, psychological insight, balletic movement, pathos, tragedy and humour. He would write the scripts, perform, direct, produce, write the music and choreograph. There was just one problem. His amusingly quixotic tramp character was superlative at wandering solo into situations of rigidly defined social conventions and creating comic chaos. But to truly transition the character into the realms of great art, he needed to engage a broader range of emotions and give the tramp a central relationship.

His 1921 feature film, “The Kid”, for example, was a sensation, pairing the solitary tramp with 4-year-old waif, Jackie Coogan. His greatest masterpiece, “City Lights” (1931) paired the tramp with a beautiful blind flower seller (picture right). In “Modern Times” (1936), Charlie and his wife are the representatives of the victims of the Great Depression. Yet for all the efforts made to reach out and connect with our deepest human emotions, it never quite worked. For all his undoubted genius, there was a sense of solitary coldness both about Chaplin and his tramp alter-ego, as if the emotions of the films were contrived, inviting accusations of sentimental mawkishness and artificiality that has always dogged Chaplin’s reputation.

The emotional honesty and charm Chaplin never quite managed would actually be something eventually brought to the screen in the classic Laurel and Hardy films of the 1930s. The new film, “Stan and Ollie”, with a deft script and lauded performances by Steve Coogan and John C Reilly, tells the story of Laurel and Hardy touring Britain in the twilight of their careers in the 1950s.

The film mentions on several occasions Chaplin, and starts the action in 1937 with Laurel’s quest for artistic freedom and some of the financial rewards enjoyed by Chaplin, leading to a rancorous falling out with his producer Hal Roach. Yet it doesn’t quite have space to explore the significance of what Roach referred to Laurel’s “Chaplin Complex”.

It’s impossible to over-estimate the awe with which Laurel watched Chaplin’s star soar and his genius unfold in one masterpiece after another throughout the 1920s and 1930s, or how acutely he felt the sting of the snub offered him by Chaplin - that he, Stan Laurel, was not even worthy enough of a call back. Laurel desperately wanted to effect the kind of artistic achievement, and garner the recognition, that belonged to Chaplin, and it was this impulse which set him obsessively directing, working on ideas, writing and editing through the 1920s and 1930s, while Hardy went off and enjoyed the gold club.

Only in 1936, when Laurel and Hardy were worldwide stars, and Laurel bumped into Chaplin while on their respective boats (Chaplin’s yacht was far grander than Laurel’s modest fishing boat) did Chaplin finally welcome Laurel for a chat, as if the two men could now be back on terms.

Laurel was not however mentioned once in Chaplin’s autobiography - but then Chaplin also failed to mention his second wife, Lita Grey, with whom he had two sons. In all respects, it must have seemed in the final reckoning as if Laurel had lost out to Chaplin. He had far less money and grandeur, had a less diverse body of work, had less artistic control over his work. Yet Laurel and Hardy achieved something which all his life Chaplin had quested for and yet never found - a warm-hearted on-screen relationship that made a true and lasting, empathetic connection with the audience.

If you want to get to the heart of the enduring genius of Laurel and Hardy, it is less to do with their “comedy” (much of their work teeters on the brink of “tragedy”) but rather on the fascinating appeal of their relationship. They are both intriguing, amusing characters in their own right, but brought together they achieve a synergy that is beguiling. It’s how they work off each other, animate, frustrate and endear themselves to each other that is a fascinating dynamic to witness.

Perhaps where Chaplin went wrong was in the relentless, ruthless logic of his thought. Chaplin paired the tramp with people there was some logic to his being, motivated by a sense of assumed parenthood in “The Kid” or sexual attraction to young women in “City Lights” and “Modern Times”. But there was no logic or necessity to the pairing of Laurel and Hardy. If anything it was flagrantly illogical, given their constant mishaps and bickering.

Yet no matter how spectacular the spats or fiascos, there was an underlying, irreducible mutual warmth, a
fundamental camraderie that kept them together. The comforting notion that, no matter what happens, the two will never part is what drew audiences towards them and gave their films an emotional, artistic heart that has never dimmed. It’s perhaps for this reason that, as noted at the end of the new film, Laurel refused to appear alongside any other performer after Hardy’s death in 1957, despite continuing to write new material for Laurel and Hardy.

For the brilliant, coldly logical Chaplin, it made eminent sense not to return the calls, or offer any extensions of assistance, to his discarded friend, the still-struggling Stan Laurel in the 1920s. But for the generous, open-hearted Laurel, it made equal, gloriously illogical sense to have his phone number freely available to one and all in the West Los Angeles phone book in the 1960s, personally responding to the letters of everyone who wrote to him and inviting round for a chat and the sharing of comic ideas aspiring talents like Dick Van Dyke and Jerry Lewis who rang him out-of-the-blue for advice.

Both Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin wanted to make people laugh, and both of them wanted to touch people emotionally. But Chaplin, the comic “conqueror of the world”, was somehow a bright, remote star, while Laurel and Hardy exuded an immediate, spirit-lifting warmth.

Friday, 23 November 2018

Comic Book Shakespeare Might Be All the Shakespeare You Need

We hear a lot about the decline of traditional education, but my 10-year-old son knows all about MacBeth and The Merchant of Venice and has talked so much recently about Hamlet that his 8-year-old sister started getting into it too.

Precocious brats? Not at all. They have not of course read Shakespeare’s plays, they’ve just read children’s adaptations of them, which tell the stories in easy reading children’s vocabulary (retold by Andrew Matthews, illustrated by Tony Ross). Some might see that as dumbing down, but I see it as a brilliant leap forward. In fact it may well be the most important education about Shakespeare they ever receive.

I was about 12 when I first slow-read in class at school a Shakespeare play - MacBeth. In fact I can’t quite remember now whether we read all of it or just bits of it.

I do know that when I was 15, I read at school the whole of Henry V and loved it. To this day, I can recite with gusto the entire Chorus soliloquy that opens Act 1. Our class at school were even lucky enough to be taken to Stratford to watch a youthful Kenneth Branagh (pictured right) performing the lead role.

I should say that this imbued in me with a lifelong love of Shakespeare, the majesty of his poetry pulsing through me, but actually things played out differently. I opted for all science A Levels, wallowed in equations and formulae, and came into contact with no other Shakespeare.

I might have read for pleasure Don Quixote, Thackeray and Hemingway, but whenever some Shakespearian reference cropped up, I can still recall my sense of ignorance.

Once, a maths teacher made some reference to Desdemona and asked us what play he was referring to? I ventured, “King Lear?” Or, another time, in my first year at university I can remember some arts student made a joke that referred to Hamlet in some way and my laughing along, without a clue as to what he was talking about.

But who cares if you don’t know about these things? In the film of Willy Russell’s play Educating Rita, he has some ghastly pretentious arts pseud say to the gullible Rita, “Wouldn’t you just DIE without Mahler?” Isn’t the same true of Shakespeare? Would we die without Shakespeare? Most of the world gets on without him just fine.

Yet what redolently stays in my memory as a youth is not only my embarrassment about not understanding all these Shakespeare references, but how it affected my confidence as a whole. I felt in some way not properly educated and slightly intimidated by artsy others.

An important point to consider is not so much whether reading Shakespeare is going to propel you forward, but whether general ignorance about him and all the myriad cultural references to him holds you back. Rather than going on about Shakespeare enriching your life, maybe we should think more about the way he excludes and dare I say oppresses people?

As it happens, at the belated age of 21, I switched my university speciality to English and finally caught up on all the reading I’d missed. During the next two years, I systematically read, watched or listened to every single one of Shakespeare’s plays. Finally I could banish my Shakespeare hang up.

I love Shakespeare and I never tire of revisiting his works and feel fantastically inspired and stimulated by them. I enthusiastically recommend them to one and all. But they are not for everyone or even perhaps a majority of people.

I would hate those people to go through life feeling somehow excluded and inferior because of it. When they recently showed Ken Dodd as Malvolio (pictured left) in his garters, or you see Al Pacino as Shylock or kabuki versions of Hamlet, there must be a lot of people who just zone out and shy away.

But actually to stop feeling excluded, they don’t have to read the plays, they simply need to be briefly acquainted with the plots.

It might be that my kids will later go on to get the Shakespeare bug and be thrilled to read and watch all the plays. But it might equally be that iambic pentameter is not their thing. But whichever way, they are certainly not going to be nonplussed about these things in the way that I was.

At age 10, Hamlet and MacBeth is already old hat for my son. Bring on King Lear and Othello and As You Like It. They’ll be competing against Asterix and the Normans, Tom Gates, Captain Underpants and Harry Potter. It’s not exactly canonical reading: it has to entertain with a cracking yarn or will be on the childhood reject pile. It’s the best possible grounding in Shakespeare you could hope for.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Yukio Mishima's Epic Battle Against Time

(Ahead of the anniversary of the “Mishima Incident” on November 25, here is a reproduction of an article I wrote three years ago, which is no longer available online).

What do you think of when you hear the name "Yukio Mishima"?

A dazzlingly prolific writer with more than 30 novels, 70 plays and umpteen volumes of short stories, essays and memoirs to his credit? A movie actor, martial arts enthusiast, body builder, political campaigner and world traveler? Or perhaps the man described by Yasunari Kawabata, winner of Japan’s first Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, as the kind of genius who comes along once every 300 years?

Chances are, though, your associations will be somewhat different. Probably you will recall a man who died on Nov. 25, 1970, by an act of "seppuku" (excruciating ritual suicide) after the failure of a bizarre coup attempt known as the "Mishima Incident."

How to make sense of a man of so many different aspects, a literary man of such finesse and sensibility capable of actions of such extreme violence?

In the many thousands of pages of analysis that have been afforded to Mishima's death, inevitably the one object that commands the most attention is his 17th-century sword. Yet when I set about writing my biography of Mishima, I wished to demonstrate that the most telling object in his life is actually one that has passed unnoticed: Mishima’s watch.

Mishima’s interest in watches and clocks, and timekeeping in general, was a lifelong obsession. In the late 1960s, Mishima spoke of how he would loiter in front of shops on the Ginza displaying expensive watches and salivate at the thought of them.


Crucially, in 1944, when Mishima, as a youth of 19 had been nominated top of his class at the elite Peers School in Tokyo, he had been taken to the Imperial Palace and in a formal ceremony awarded a silver watch by the emperor himself. From that day on, almost as if he had received an imperial decree, Mishima always adhered to the most precise keeping track of time and was utterly unforgiving in any lapses in observance of time by others.

Despite being an enormously prolific writer, Mishima was famous for never having missed a deadline. No party was so entertaining that Mishima would not leave it in order to be back at his desk at midnight so that, as was his regular routine, he could continue writing until dawn. If you had a dinner date with Mishima and you were more than 15 minutes late, Yukio would be gone, having ordered dinner for you and left a sarcastic note in his wake.

Why was Mishima so obsessed with being on time? Partly it was the keenest manifestation of his general fastidiousness, but it also stemmed from the difficulties of his adolescence when, faced with a hostile father who violently opposed his knack for writing, Mishima had to secretly compose his manuscripts throughout the night while his father slept. Precise time management was the only means by which Mishima could keep his dream of becoming a writer alive.

The symbol of this obsessive devotion to strict time management was the watch. In his memoir about his sexual relationship with Mishima, the gay writer and teacher Jiro Fukushima describes the first time they went to a hotel room together in 1951. The next morning Mishima could not find his watch and - in the manner of Bruce Willis’ character in "Pulp Fiction" - turned over the entire room in search of it.

Mishima's scrupulousness regarding the observance of time was the foundation for all his musings about the nature of time itself. Having been born in 1925 and spending the first 20 years of his life in an oppressively nationalist and militaristic country, Mishima suddenly found himself spending the next 20 years in a largely Westernized state, committed to peace and relentless economic growth.

The politics of Mishima’s final five years, from the age of 40 onwards, were a conscious attempt to try to find resolution between this temporal disjunction, which ran like a seam through the center of his life.

Mishima’s wrestling with the concept of time was at the heart of many of his literary works. In his major novel, "Kyoko’s House" (1959), for example, Mishima pronounced that his ambition was nothing less than to "define an age" and in subsequent novels such as "The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with The Sea," the sea appears as a symbol of transcendence beyond historical time.

In his final novelistic tetralogy, "The Sea of Fertility," his self-proclaimed "life work," Mishima consciously thought about what device he could use to produce a great novel unlike anything that had been written before. Mishima desired to supersede historical time and found the answer in the Buddhist notion of reincarnation.


And so we come to the day of the "Incident" itself. That morning, Mishima had arranged for the last part of "The Sea of Fertility" to be handed to his editor. Mishima had been planning the precise unfolding of the day for months, had rehearsed minute by minute how everything would occur. But it didn’t all go to plan.

When Mishima appeared on the balcony to make his speech, he could be seen repeatedly checking his watch. In the words he spoke, he referred to how much he had "waited" - and waited and waited. Now he could wait no longer: Mishima was a man who did not like waiting.

Mishima’s final act before plunging the blade into his abdomen was to take off his watch and give it to one of his acolytes. This act, more than any other, was the sign that Mishima was shuffling off his mortal coil.

A career that had begun with the gift of a silver watch from the emperor ended with the divestiture of a watch in the name of an idealized emperor.

In the end, Mishima strangely succeeded in the impossible - in stopping time. When news of the Mishima Incident spread across the nation, everyone stopped, open-mouthed and stared at TV screens. The media frenzy that followed the Incident was unprecedented.

Mishima had managed to transcend earthly time to reach a form of immortality. Looking back now to make sense of that extraordinary life, it is Mishima's intense battle with time, and its dramatic conclusion, which should most command our interest: for Mishima, the true emperor was time itself.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

My German Adventures with the Japanese Philosophers of Nothingness

If you ever fancy having a truly disorientating experience that will challenge you and provide a mental adventure like no other, rather than travelling to some remote corner of the globe, you might try doing what I did last September and attend a 4-day philosophy conference. On Japanese philosophy. In Germany.

Surrounded by the golden autumnal fields of a pretty, historic and rustic campus on the edge of the small town of Hildesheim, near Hanover, I felt like I had arrived in some strange parallel universe where I did not speak the language but could discern that everyone greeted each other with the word “Hei..degger” ever five minutes.

Was I a Neo-Kantian or a Heideggerian? I dunno, truth to tell I don’t really understand the question. Many years ago, I dimly recall listening to a Japanese audio book called “Dare de mo wakaru Haidegaa” (“The Heidegger Anyone Can Understand”) but contrary to the title, I didn’t understand it or simply forgot what it had to say.

My knowledge of Western philosophy is patchy. I’m all over Plato, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Marx, Sartre, Bentham, and good old J. S. Mill. But I’m pretty clueless about Spinoza, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Bergson and many others.

Further, this conference (run by ENOJP, the European Network of Japanese Philosophy, a friendly group of international scholars), was going to be all about the connections between Japanese philosophy and European philosophy. And about Japanese philosophy I am almost completely ignorant. If Heidegger was terribly important to all the aspiring philosophers from around the world gathered in Hildesheim, then I soon discovered that his super-revered Japanese philosopher counterpart was Kitaro Nishida (1870-1945, pictured top), founder of the Kyoto School (referred to in a 2007 book by James Heisig as the “Philosophers of Nothingness”).

Slightly below Nishida in the Japanese philosophy pantheon, are his follower Keiji Nishitani (1900-1990) and other philosophers such as Hajime Tanabe (1885-1962), Teturo Watsuji (1889-1960) and Kiyoshi Miki (1897-1945). I found I was initially at sea with Nothingness and could not easily get a grip on the paddles.

As someone noted to me though, conferences like this - many of which are open to people with only a tangential interest in the subject - are a great way to travel and make interesting new friends. Previous ENOJP conferences have taken place in Barcelona, Brussels and Paris, with Nagoya planned for next year, and talk of Brazil after that. Not only was it taking me to areas of the brain I had never visited before, it was also taking me to strangely beguiling places: Hildesheim is an alluring picturesque town I would have never come to on my own. Staying at the well-appointed Bergholzchen Hotel on a hill overlooking the town, I breathed in the fine vistas of wooded parks and splendidly historic church spires and asked myself again: what exactly was I doing here?

The conference started with some earnest but largely impenetrable papers by PhD students and recent postdocs. There were keynote talks on connections between Japanese philosophy and feminism, gender, identity politics, Islam, linguistics, even sports studies and my brain soon entered into the philosophy zeitgeist and started racing with thoughts on the connections between philosophy and lots of other subjects. How for example was philosophy connected to literature (a subject I tend to be on far safer ground with than philosophy)? I always think of philosophy as coming up with some interesting theories, which literature then attempts to put into practical experiment.

On Day Two at the conference I attended a session on the philosopher Tetsuro Watsuji and learnt that one of his key concepts was “Between-ness” (“aidagara”). If I’ve understood it correctly, the idea is that none of us are just individuals but exist in a state of inter-dependence and “becoming” with other things that give us a sense of self, and that this is particular characteristic of Japan. Watsuji apparently gave some examples from the “Hagakure”, a classic work celebrating what would become known as “the way of the warrior”, as well as the acting theory of the Noh dramatist Zeami (c.1363 - c.1443) and the theology of the great Buddhist preacher Shinran (1173 - 1263).

A professor of philosophy however raised his hand and objected to a continued discussion on the “history of ideas”, rather than the concept of “between-ness” itself. A few times during the conference I discovered that a pet peeve of certain philosophers is “history of ideas”. Philosophical concepts are supposed to be “eternal truths”, analogous to scientific truths or mathematical equations, so in that sense the background from which they sprang is irrelevant. The only thing that really matters, they think, is whether the ideas work as a coherent system.

If philosophers have issues with “history of ideas”, I soon discovered that an even greater bugbear of many philosophers is psychology, which is in many ways its arch-rival. When I hear that Watsuji concocted his theory of “between-ness”, rather than see it as “eternal truth”, I’m inclined to consider what was going on in Watsuji’s inner mind and private experience to make him think in such a way. But to some philosophers, such psychoanalysis is a loathsome, existential threat to their whole endeavour, frequently denounced as being reductive and irrelevant.

While mulling these deep concepts, I was most pleased to observe that the philosophers conformed to their Monty Python stereotype of drinking like fish and laughing uproariously at the social events laid on each evening. Between the tea and lunch breaks, and the night-time carousing, I managed to meet and chat with just about everyone of the dozens of people attending.

The philosophers gathered one evening for a panel discussing the potential for engagement between Western philosophy and Zen. One philosophy professor argued that while philosophy was the “logical reflection on existence”, it could yet communicate with Zen and either exert logic on it or receive from it a kind of critique of itself.

It seemed to me that his definition of philosophy was not quite correct, that philosophy was surely not just “logical reflections on existence” and that thinkers like Nietzsche had kicked down the door to the irrational but academic philosophy had not really followed him there and it was art, not academic philosophy, that had truly explored the potential of this. Indeed, many artists had immediately grasped the connection between Nietzsche’s philosophy of the irrational and Zen.

At the final plenary session of the conference, a philosopher - who was like many others impressively fluent in English, German and Japanese - gave a talk on the Japanese star figure, Kitaro Nishida. There was a lot of talk of “first first person” and “eternal present”. I drowsed through most of it. An American turned to me afterwards and pronounced it brilliant. “I’m glad you got something out of it”, I said groggily.

After four days of listening to many hours of talks, I must confess that not a single philosophical concept made a strong impression on me. Yet I had learnt a lot of things. For one, I’d gained a roadmap of where Western and Japanese philosophy is up to at the moment and who I need to go off and read (Heidegger! Nishida!).

I’d also closely observed the world of academic philosophy. On the evening of the final day, I sat at a cafe in the main town square next to the professor at Hildesheim who had given the best talk, an inspiring, inter-disciplinary vision for the future of philosophy (10/10 on my mental scoresheet).

“Have you ever written any articles for newspapers?” I enquired.

This question was so left-field for the philosopher that I had to repeat it two more times before he understood it. I explained that many of the concepts and ideas of Japanese philosophy might be of interest to a wider audience if communicated effectively.

“I never read newspapers”, he responded. “I have not time.” It seemed as though he thought reading newspapers a very peculiar and frivolous thing to do. As as for writing newspaper articles how would that advance his academic career?

I can’t say I returned from my four day adventure with the philosophers enlightened, but I did have my sense of values thoroughly challenged and shook up. I bought a book on Kitaro Nishida by his famous disciple Keiji Nishitani and started reading it. Will I too become a neo-Nishida-ian? Only time and some moment in the eternal present will tell.