Wonders of Weatherfield

It’s hard for me to concentrate today, because I’m worried about the fire. Karl tried to burn down the pub on Monday night, and Stella and Sunita were trapped inside. Sunita is probably going to die, and I really don’t care about that (she has become rather horrible of late, and people who become horrible generally die), but I love Stella, dear Stella, with her sad seen-it-all eyes and her incredible blonde hair—what a project, that hair!—and nothing must happen to Stella.

HildaI am talking, of course, about Coronation Street, the world’s greatest television program, and a show as mysterious to most Americans as cricket and Vegemite. I’ve been trying to introduce my boyfriend to the many joys of the Street, which mostly involves him asking me a series of urgent questions: “But why did that man blow up that van? Why are they pretending the tortoise is alive? Why is that blonde woman hiding all those onions? Is that her sister or her mother? What does ee-oop mean? What does any of it mean?!”

So here’s a primer: Coronation Street is a British soap opera set in the fictional Manchester town of Weatherfield. It was first broadcast in December 1960 and is still going strong, making it the world’s longest-running TV soap opera. One character, Ken Barlow, played by William Roache, has been on the show since the very first episode. This is him as a young ’un, wearing a tie to breakfast and looking all embarrassed about being working class:

corrie ken1

And this is him now, at 80 (he’s had a busy life):

corrie ken2

Can you imagine it, your entire life played out on a TV show? And he’s not the only long-standing cast member: there are countless others—Vera, Audrey, Rita—who have knocked about on the Street for decades. Every so often, one of these older actors drops dead off camera, and their character abruptly disappears. “Where’s Maude?” someone asks. “Maude has gone to live in Spain,” someone else explains, and no one is the least bit surprised. Everyone goes to live in Spain eventually.

The action centers around the local pub (the Rovers Return; the absence of an apostrophe is upsetting, yes), the knicker factory (called, awesomely, Underworld), and the newsagents, The Kabin. There’s also a corner shop, a hairdressers, a greasy spoon, and a fancy new joint, Nick’s Bistro (at the pub, you ask for a pint; at the bistro, you ask for a bottle of the red. No further beverage clarification is required.)

Coronation Street screens on Monday, Thursday, and Friday in England, and the time period of each episode mirrors the real world: when it’s Monday in Upper Shittlesthorpe, it’s Monday on the Street. And when it’s Christmas Day in Fudgepack upon Humber, it’s Christmas Day in Weatherfield, which means you and Ken Barlow can open your boxes of Quality Street together and then you and Ken Barlow’s long-suffering wife Deidre can go outside and stand side by side under the same relentless gray sky, smoking a festive cigarette.

There are many, many reasons why you should watch Coronation Street. Here are a few of them:

  • It’s a respite from rampant ambitiousness. Unlike most American soap operas, in which an oil tycoon and a pediatrician drive a Ferrari to a country club to murder a plastic surgeon, Coronation Street is staunchly working class. The characters aspire to a packet of biscuits from M&S, a holiday in the Canaries, maybe putting down a deposit on a nice flat. You are judged only on the things that really matter: are you kind to the post-op transsexual who runs the diner? Did you put in a pound for the midday pastry run? Did you visit Rita in the hospital after she almost died when the restaurant exploded, destroying the viaduct, sending that passing tram crashing into her shop?
  • corrie hilda6The best characters on the show are stong-willed women. Ask a long-time fan to list the most iconic residents of Weatherfield, and you’re going to hear about a bunch of stroppy women with gloriously British names: Ena Sharples, Elsie Tanner, Hilda Ogden (pictured at right and above in her rollers), Bet Lynch, Blanche Hunt.
  • It keeps up with the times. There are internet chat room abductions, cervical cancer scares, bigamy (so much bigamy!), serial killers, bisexual love triangles, addictions to pain killers. Jean Alexander, who played the aforementioned Hilda Ogden, is now eight-five years old and rather miffed by the modern Corrie: “Everyone seems to be having an affair…in the relentless battle for ratings it has sold its soul to sex, scandal and downright nastiness.” All the more fun for us.
  • It’s well-written. There are archetypes—the tart with a heart, the busybody, the insufferable snob—but they’re never stereotypes; the roles are fully developed. There are characters who happen to be gay, rather than Gay Characters. Story lines last for years and months, not weeks. And it’s very funny. Here’s a scene in which the unfortunate Barlow family attends an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. We will call this scene “I am so sorry about my mother”:

  • Also, this happened: “Tony strangled Jed in a fit of rage, just before the Christmas party. Believing Jed to be dead, Tony hid his body in the Christmas hamper during the party. When he returned to the factory on Christmas Day he discovered Jed had just been unconscious, and offered him a free flat in Wigan to buy his silence, which Jed accepted.”
  • GailYou can enjoy hating Gail (née Potter; currently McIntyre; and previously Tilsley, Platt, and Hillman). Everyone hates Gail. Poor Gail. Husband #3 tried to kill her and her children by driving them into a canal; husband #4 drowned while attempting to fake his own death by drowning, the great twit. (Gail was charged with his murder, naturally.)

And, if you’re an ex-Colonial living in a foreign land, Coronation Street is an instant cure for homesickness. I grew up watching Corrie; it’s one of the most popular programs in New Zealand. Every so often the state broadcaster becomes embarrassed by her citizens’ enduring affection for the show—we really should be watching modern things, like MasterChef on Death Row: Final Meal Challenge and OMG, I Can’t Stop Eating Cats!—and they try to bury it in some ungodly time-slot, which provokes outcry, and the gnashing of teeth, and possibly the delivery of petitions to parliament. My mother and I never missed an episode. We would sit down with our packet of Griffin’s Gingernuts and our cups of tea and shake our fists at the screen. Put down that knife! Watch out for that lorry! Now I watch it online, the day after each episode screens in England, but New Zealand, alas, is still twenty months behind schedule (in all things, always), meaning that my mother’s standard telephone greeting is, “Don’t tell me what’s happening on Coronation Street!” When she called last night, I wanted to let her know about the fire—cross your fingers for poor Stella!—but I kept quiet. “You’ve got lots of good stuff to look forward to, Mum.”

A Little Wrong

From Under The Glacier by Halldór Laxness:

laxness2It’s strange that all birds don’t fly in the same way. After all, the air’s just the same at the same place and the same time. I’ve heard that the wings of aeroplanes all conform to the same formula, whereas birds each conform to a formula of their own. It has undeniably required more than a little ingenuity to equip so many birds each with their own formula, and no expense spared, either. Nevertheless, there has perhaps never been a bird that flies as correctly as an aeroplane; yet all birds fly better than aeroplanes if they can fly at all. All birds are perhaps a little wrong, because an absolute once-and-for-all formula for a bird has never been found, just as all novels are bad because the correct formula for a novel has never been found.

Crying in Art Galleries

Once upon a time, in an art gallery full of foolish installations, I mistook a box on the wall containing a fire hose for some kind of interactive artsy doodad. I opened the box, an alarm went off, and a security guard appeared before me. He looked nervous. He told me that a disgruntled patron had recently hosed down one of the installations—modern art has that effect on some people—and now the fire hose box was alarmed and I was being alarming. “But I thought it was art!” I cried. “It’s a hose,” he said, and he escorted me from the room. I sat on a bench in the lobby and laughed and laughed until tears ran down my face and an old man sat down beside me and asked if I was okay. “Why are you crying?” he said. BECAUSE IT’S A HOSE.

Charles BurchfieldThe second time I cried in an art gallery, it was at the Whitney in 2010, and I was with my roommates. We’d gone to see something else—three young men dressed like vagrants, playing harps and shouting, maybe?—and after we’d had enough of that, we wandered through the rooms until we came across Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield.

Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) was a quiet family man who spent much of his life in upstate New York. He painted watercolor landscapes, and he wrote in his journal, compulsively cataloging slants of light and mounds of snow, family card games and encounters with crows. In the gallery, the paintings and journal excerpts were displayed side by side, setting out for us an entire life.

The Insect Chorus

In youth, there is bravado, the promise of a great weirdness to come. And there is the beginning of Burchfield’s lifelong fascination with synesthesia, an obsession with painting sound as image—giving color and form to the chirps of crickets, the clanging of a train passing in the night, the howl of a dog in a distant yard.

The East Wind

On way to work. A great swooping wind out of the southwest. The tree tops roar against the cold gray sky; the clouds spit down a few wild flakes of snow now and then. Trees look blackly at the ground and the peaks and corners of the bleak houses are razor-sharp. I walk along exultantly with my chest out. All things are possible now. I felt like throwing a gauntlet into the face of the whole world; let me, like a winter wind, sweep all of the debris of the centuries away, I—alone—unaided!

In the middle years, there is comfort, complacency. Burchfield supported his family during the Depression by designing wallpaper and churning out conventionally pretty paintings of small town America—what one critic called “Edward Hopper on a dull November day.” He made his watercolors look like oil paintings; Life magazine named him one of America’s ten greatest painters.

Ice Glare

I think that I am standing on the brink of an abyss of stagnant mire—or are my feet already sunken? The old serious attitude toward life seems gone—Life is easy—I am fat & healthy—my job flatters & pleases me—it presents no hardships—

And then—the final years. Dissatisfaction; allusions to a psychological crisis. The years before are seen as a diversion, a squandering of obsession. In his later works, Burchfield returns to his early canvases and repurposes them, turning them into huge, hallucinatory paintings full of swirling strokes, exaggerated shapes, and an expressionistic light, a holy migraine shimmer. They perform a kind of trick, these paintings, translating an intensely private, mystical vision into shared experience: Edward Hopper painting scenes from Collective Unconscious Town. It’s a frightening place.

Sultry Moon

Song of the Telepgraph Pole

Spring in February: patches of melted snow on sidewalks reflecting the heavenly blue of the sky-cavern above, the snow on both sides of the walk honey-combed slantingly by the brilliant sun. The cawing of crows has taken on a new significance.

Growing stale is not so much in forgetting ideas but in losing the youthful vigour to consider them worth dying for—

A life set out on a few white walls: it made me cry. Endless snowfall, a thousand swirling birds. A cozy Christmas scene with the family. The sun painted as some blank horror that can never be looked at directly. You lose yourself in the middle of life—a dark wood, the path obscured, etc.—and when you find your way again, your youthful passions are like strangers to you. What was it you once cared about so much? The sound of a train passing in the night? A landscape that buzzes with the black hum of wires on a pole? The project is never completed.

Sizzurp and the Seven Deadly Sins

FaustusIf Lil Wayne had carked it on cough syrup this weekend, I would have spent today’s post trying to defend my fervently held but ridiculous belief that Lollipop is the best pop song ever. (It just is. Listen to it! If you told me it was created by robot lizards from outer space, I’d believe you. Of course, it’s also true that all of the song’s words are stupid and gross.) But it seems Weezy will live to take another sip of Texas Tea, thank goodness, and we can get back to reading Christopher Marlowe’s smashing Doctor Faustus, which needs no defense at all. It was written over four hundred years ago, but it feels like last week’s episode of a cheeky and surreal soap opera. Here (slightly abridged) is how three of the seven deadly sins introduce themselves to Faustus:

WRATH: I am Wrath. I had neither father nor mother. I leaped out of a lion’s mouth when I was scarce half an hour old, and ever since I have run up and down the world with this case of rapiers, wounding myself when I had nobody to fight withal.

ENVY: I am Envy, begotten of a chimney-sweeper and an oyster-wife. I cannot read, and therefore wish all books were burnt. I am lean with seeing others eat. O, that there would come a famine through all the world, that all might die, and I live alone! Then thou shouldst see how fat I would be.

SLOTH: Heigh-ho. I am Sloth. I was begotten on a sunny bank, where I have lain ever since, and you have done me great injury to bring me from thence.

Should I Get an MFA?

James Joyce turns up at the writing workshop with the last sentence of “The Dead”:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

mfa1Nathan reckons the alliteration is way over the top, and tells James to tone it down a little. No, make that a lot. Everyone agrees, except for Mark, who likes alliteration, but no one ever listens to Mark because mostly he just talks about Kerouac. Beverly (hip, ironic Beverly; not your Aunt of the same name) asks if it isn’t a little popular fiction to talk of souls swooning? Claire S. agrees, and wants to know, what does it even mean, his soul swooned? Paul Merritt Jnr. says James is a slave to the rhythm—“You’re writing prose, man, not poetry”—and Meek Ruth (that’s what they all call her, behind her back) wonders, quietly, if she’s the only one who doesn’t really get the bit about the descent of their last end? Rebecca says she doesn’t really get it either, and that the word slowly is, like, totally redundant, because swooning already implies slowness. (Mark isn’t sure about that.) Paul Merritt Jnr. agrees with Rebecca, and adds that the repetition of falling and faintly is pretty uncalled for. “Why not just, snow fell in the churchyard?” he asks, and Meek Ruth bites her lip.

Ah yes, it’s workshop time! To Master the Fine Arts or not to Master the Fine Arts? Let’s pretend some lovely readers have asked Malvern Books questions about MFA programs, and we’ll all sit around with our cups of tea and our choccie biscuits and try to come up with some thoughts.

My name is Karl. I am a stockbroker. I would like to write a thriller in which a submarine is stolen by a despot! I get excited just thinking about it! But I need help with the words and would like to do an MFA. Is it true that MFA programs do not like books about submarines?

It’s not quite true that MFA programs utterly shun books about submarines. In every MFA program, there will be two or three students chosen to represent genre fiction. (And genre fiction will be said in rather the same way you say fecal smear.) There will also be one Republican, and one or two people who can barely form sentences but have had interesting life experiences (someone who was once a cheesemonger in a tiny French village; someone who was falsely imprisoned for cock fighting, etc.). All of these students will be treated politely in class, and people will workshop their stories with the usual rigor (i.e. rigor will vary). But Karl, please know that you will be ridiculed in the bars late at night. If you can handle this, by all means apply.

I asked my husband to lock me in the spare room so I’d be forced to write, but I just climbed out the window. And we live on the third floor! Will the demands of an MFA program make me more disciplined? Help me!

You poor thing. I sympathize. No, really: I’ve been there. Am there. Always. And does an MFA program help? Well, there are deadlines, it’s true. Every so often you’re supposed to hand something in to be workshopped. But if you don’t hand something in, nothing much happens. A man in a cardigan will frown at you and maybe one cantankerous fellow student will say I feel like you’re not, like, engaging with us in this process, and that’s about it. Nobody else will give a shit and nobody will stamp a red F on your front door. If you’re accepted into an MFA program, you will almost certainly leave with an MFA, even if you only write seventeen words (and assuming you set no fires). In other words, there are deadlines, yes, but the consequences for messing up are not very scary. It’s still going to be up to you to make yourself sit down and write, and if that is a problem for you, an MFA program is not necessarily a solution. However, you’ll be in a new place, surrounded by people you want to impress, and you’ll have a lot of time on your hands—and this might just be enough to force you to write. (Probably not, though, if I’m being honest. Probably not.)

I write really weird, experimental stuff. Like Ben Marcus on acid mixed with Ayn Rand mixed with the messiest jazz you ever heard in your life. Will an MFA program destroy my unique voice?

Golly, you sound awful. Anyway, yes, the horror of homogenization! There’s an assumption that MFA programs are snapping up experimental geniuses and forcing them to write careful little novels about ancestry and relationships and secrets from the past and whatnot. Take, for example, the particularly miffed Ruth Fowler, who insists that “the Creative Writing MFA is the singularly most devastating occurrence to hit literature in the 20th century, churning out writers of utterly indistinguishable competence.” Oh boy! If only a few creative writing classes had that much influence! Alas, Ms. Fowler credits the workshop process with far too much power to change a writer’s style: if an MFA program churns out dull-but-competent writers, it’s because most writers are dull to begin with. It’s not like you enter a workshop clutching a ream of experimental prose poetry about existential robot sex and leave with a tedious crapfest in which an aimless young woman cleans out her father’s attic after his suicide and discovers his journals and visits her unknown Latvian grandma for the first time and blah blah blah. There are thousands of people writing that same novel, god help us, and some of them attend writers’ workshops, where they continue to write that novel. The workshop removes the adverbs, changes Claire was angry to Claire crumpled the soiled antimacassar into a ball, and axes the first chapter. The writer then delivers the novel to an agent, who says, “Can we make the grandmother French? Latvia is so 2009…” and voilà, a new literary voice emerges! But the essential dullness of the novel has everything to do with the writer and very little to do with the MFA program.

And if you’re dull, I’m afraid no amount of have you thought about maybe deleting the third paragraph? is going to make you any less dull. You might produce several suitably odd and interesting sentences when forced to do one of those arbitrary creative writing exercises (“your story must feature a lemon, a cat, a passing sense of ennui, and a troop of dancing turds”), but the minute you finish stage-managing the dancing turds and return to your own manuscript, you will write When the car hit the telephone pole, time seemed to stand still. Of course, by the end of the workshop, the car’s chassis will crumple like a discarded candy wrapper and time will seem to uncoil like a shimmering band of ribbon— but it’s still the same old story. Sorry.

So… what are you saying? I’m confused!

If you’re a brilliant writer, a workshop won’t ruin you (James Joyce knows perfectly well to ignore the fools). If you’re a bad writer, it won’t do you much good. And if, like most of us, you’re a shows-promise-needs-work kind of writer, well, time spent writing, that’s the ticket! MFA programs can provide you with that time; so can a cabin in the woods, or a holiday from work, or the insane ability to get up at 5am and sit down at the dining room table with a pen and a piece of paper. Whatever works for you, my dear. Let’s not get ourselves so worked up about it.

Full disclosure: I have 1.5 MFAs—because I like to do things by one-and-a-halves, yo!—and I can’t say I regret the years spent muddling my way through them. I didn’t write all that much at the time (see: new town; new country; cheap beer; writing is scary; am colossal coward, etc.), but here’s the thing: if you do an MFA, you will meet your people. There will only be three or four of them. And you might have met them anyway, at a bookstore, or maybe waiting in line for antidepressants at the Rite Aid, but probably not. Certainly not all three or four of them. And your people, those lovely, clever people, will cheer you up when you’re moping and chastise you when you’re lazy and, when you finally get around to showing them a few pages, they will give you red pen marks you can trust and tell you things that are true. For those three or four people, certainly, it’s worth it.

Malvern Skye

Malvern Books likes music. Malvern Books likes metal. Today we have a post from our musical maven, Adam Bratcher, a student and musician from New York…

MastodonMastodon is one of the most, if not the most, prominent bands in the heavy metal/rock music scene. They formed in Atlanta, Georgia in 1999. The amazingly talented quartet consists of Troy Sanders as bassist/vocalist, Brent Hinds as guitarist/vocalist, Bill Kellihier on guitar, and Bran Dailor as drummer/vocalist. Mastodon is one of the more notable bands deriving from the New Wave of American Heavy Metal. Other bands from this category include Pantera, Clutch, and Biohazard. Formed out of a mutual admiration for stoner rock bands such as the Melvins and Neurosis, Mastodon also derives influence from classic rock bands such as Led Zeppelin, Rush, and Thin Lizzy. Added to this mixture is a hint of grind-core influence from bands such as Pig Destroyer, Stormtroopers of Death (SOD), and Carcass. Mastodon uses all these elements to create an extremely unique and original sound.

Mastodon has been referred to by many as an example of Progressive Rock. Progressive rock is a music genre in which each album narrates a story created by the band. Each of Mastodon’s albums narrates a story with deep, spiritual meanings behind them. Their most recent album, The Hunter, tells a story of a man who is trapped in the woods and receives a power from an unknown supernatural force to communicate with the animals in order to help him survive. While The Hunter is a great album, Mastodon’s most appreciated album is the one they recorded before that, which goes by the name Crack the Skye. The album is an homage to drummer Bran Dailor’s sister, Skye Dailor, who was a paraplegic who committed suicide at the age of 14. It is also considered to be a metaphor for the grueling struggles Mastodon have endured since their formation, which consisted of drug overdoses; violent bar fights resulting in hospitalizations; divorces; and financial issues.

The story behind Crack the Skye is a very complex, spiritual one. It begins with a paraplegic boy who goes out of his body, through the method of astral traveling, into outer space. He goes too close to the sun, burning off the golden umbilical cord that is attached to his solar plexus. So, he is in outer space and he is lost. He gets sucked into a wormhole, where he ends up in the spirit realm and talks to spirits, telling them that he is not really dead. They send him to a Russian cult that uses him in a divination and find out his problem. The cult decides they will help him by putting his soul inside Rasputin’s body. Rasputin goes to usurp the Russian Czar and he is murdered. The two souls fly out of Rasputin’s body through the crack in the sky(e). Rasputin is the wise man who is trying to lead the child back home to his body because by now his parents have found him and think that he is dead. Rasputin needs to get the boy back into his body before it’s too late. But they end up running into the Devil along the way and the Devil tries to steal their souls and bring them down. The story ends as somewhat of a cliffhanger with the thirteen minute epic song entitled “The Last Baron.”

Mastodon has five albums to its highly respectable name and they are all excellent. If I had to choose a favorite, however, it would have to be Crack the Skye. The music in it is unique, consisting of classic rock elements as well as doom metal and stoner rock jams. Mastodon is an extraordinarily gifted band and hopefully they will have many more musical masterpieces to offer in the future throughout their career.