24 November 2010

Too Many Cameras

I never carry a camera. I used to boast that I didn’t need to, because whenever I was somewhere a picture needed to be taken, there was always a competent photographer at my side to take it. I was married to a first-class amateur for seven years, and a lot of my sightseeing in the world’s picturesque and interesting places has been in professional association with the incomparable Dominic Sansoni. On wilderness outings in Sri Lanka, too, I have always been able to leave the photo-catching in the practised, unobtrusive hands of others. This has left me free to do what is incumbent on me as a writer: experience the moment with all five of my senses, not just one, recording it holistically and subjectively rather than objectively and in detail – later to write about it and perhaps, if the Muse wills, bring to it some perspective or insight that could never be caught on camera.

Real photographers can't spell
In those days, I was always happy to have a photographer by my side. To state the obvious, photographs are useful – for recording events of significance, briefly returning to life the revenants of fond or fervent emotion, acting as a spur or corrective to memory, or conclusively settling an argument. Such things are, or can be, important. But this, of course, was in the days before PhotoShop. Nowadays, photographs, and by extension photographers, cannot be trusted. It may be argued that this unreliability, never perfect in the days of film no matter how the retouchers laboured, may at last have brought the photographer’s art to maturity, for the mission of all artists is to tell the truth by lying. However, it isn’t the new untrustworthiness of photographs that has brought me to resent photography and abhor photographers in general (though there are a few, including the aforementioned, whom I still respect and admire). No, it was the thing which made the trompe l’oeil of PhotoShop possible in the first place, and turned the act of taking a photograph, formerly a considered action requiring time and thought, into a perverse reflex, a nervous tic, a pathological symptom. It was the replacement of film by digital image capture as a recording medium.

Yes, I know you can do wonderful things with digital cameras. The pictures they take are now almost as good as the ones taken by film cameras – better, for all I know, since technology marches on and I have had better things to do than pay attention. Moreover, these pictures, being recorded merely as bits of information, can be stored, transferred, processed, manipulated and reproduced in their millions with the greatest of ease. The revolution has been total. Hardly anyone, barring a few specialists, purists and fanatics, uses film nowadays. An entire industry – photo processing and printing – has crumbled to dust, and the shops (‘studios’ in Ceylon patois) that used to engage in it have vanished from the high streets of the world. Not that I miss them, particularly; I don’t suppose anyone does, apart from the poor saps who made a living out of them. It isn’t nostalgia that makes me mourn the disappearance of film, it’s the offensive ubiquity of photography and photographers that digital technology has made possible. When Sting made that comment about ‘too many cameras and not enough food’ thirty years ago in Driven to Tears, he was really complaining about something else; digital photography was in its infancy back then. But the remark acquired greater pungency after its advent: there are many, many more cameras today than there were in 1980, and as for the food – we’re it, and they’re fighting over us.

Kalpitiya sunset by reformed former
shutterbug. Yes, it's a great shot.
I remember vividly the day I came to hate digital cameras. It was in Kalpitiya, where I had just arrived at the end of a long and fatiguing day’s journey with a group of friends. We were in two cars; I was driving one, and was first to arrive at our destination, a big bungalow overlooking the lagoon. It was a few minutes before sunset, and as I stepped out of the car, the sight took my breath away. Long shadows advanced towards me across a sloping garden overgrown with thigh-high, shimmering illuk grass; at the foot of the garden, beyond a tangled hedge of bat-emitting mangroves, Kalpitiya lagoon reflected the fiery orange-gold effulgence of the sky. The sun was a few degrees above the horizon. My travelling companion had disappeared into the house to make certain arrangements, so I was left to myself to enjoy this feast of a sunset. But then, as the sun dipped lower and blushed redder, I heard the sound of our second vehicle approaching. And in a minute, there they were, my well-loved friends, falling out of the vehicle in their eagerness to ‘catch’ – appropriate word! – the sunset: to capture it with their lenses and imprison it in the lightless virtual dungeons of their memory chips, to kidnap it from me and all the rest of the living world that stood or crouched or lay or flew about us in that golden moment, to ruin it for all time with their clacking shutters, their noisy blundering back and forth across my field of view to find the best ‘angle’, their stagy exclamations and pose-striking. All I can say is, I hope they got good pictures, because all that was left of that particular sunset, at that particular place and time, was their bloody pictures. As if a mere picture could ever compare with a real sunset.

In the days of film, the chances of this kind of thing happening to you would have been low, unless you happened to be sharing some well-trodden beauty spot with a pack of Japanese tourists. Film cost money, you see, and you didn’t want to waste it. You took thought before you took a photograph. With the advent of digital image capture, this economic disincentive has vanished. It now costs as much to take a thousand photos as it does to take one, so people do. Everybody is doing it. And – let’s be fair – everybody is probably a slightly better photographer as a result, because practice always makes for improvement, even if it does not always make perfect. But this is of no consequence, because the high tide that lifts all boats also lifts the bar, so to speak, and no relative eminence is gained by anybody. Instead, what has occurred is a kind of creative inflation, in which the currency of the image has become devalued.

A better photographer than he looks,
not that he looks bad
In the years since that distressing event at Kalpitiya, everyone, it seems to me, has become a photographer. Nearly every young person with creative pretensions carries a camera these days, and many of them plan, sooner or later, to make a living out of the pictures it takes. The poor fools have forgotten the basic economic law of supply and demand. When taking pictures is as easy as raising a camera to your snout and pushing a button, pictures become as common as dirt, and about as valuable. This is something I can vouch for at first hand, because I work in a media-related business that uses both stock and commissioned photography. We simply aren’t willing to pay as much as we used to for good images, and sometimes we aren’t willing to pay at all, because there’s so much usable stuff available out there for nothing. The glut of photographs, of available photography, is putting the professional photographer out of business. Why bother with them and their inconvenient, expensive demands, when photography has become commoditized?

As for me, I remain a lover of good photographs, which I believe have nothing to do with the subject of the picture and everything to do with the person taking them. There will always be those who bring something unique and worth having to the art of photography. The present ubiquity of shutterbuggers will not significantly increase their number, however. Nature, or providence, or chance or what have you, doles out talent with a parsimonious hand. I know a handful of young photographers with genuine talent; one of them was among the posse who so annoyed me at Kalpitiya (and has since returned to that location with exquisite results), another is this guy. Both of them are currently engaged in discovering how hard it is to make any kind of living at photography nowadays, even when you have genuine ability – and neither of them seems to have yet mastered the essential trick of getting out of the way of their own pictures. Still, they’re well ahead of the pack. My advice to them is: go out and murder as many shutterbuggers as possible. In doing so you will revive the market for quality professional photography, and you will also make one cantankerous old scribbler very, very happy.

18 November 2010

The South America Programme

We’ll get to the Great Novels another day. What I have to offer you today is a voyage to South America in the form of three favourite works of non-fiction. If you will read them in succession, and in chronological order, I think I can promise you a fascinating and remarkably affecting experience.

Galapagos finches' heads
 drawn by Charles Darwin
The first of these is The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin. It is a scientific traveller’s diary, but there is nothing dry and academic about it; it is so rich and bursting with life one almost disbelieves that it flowed from the same hand which wrote On the Origin of Species and a voluminous treatise on earthworms. Also unexpected is Darwin’s youthful boldness and courage, setting out through unknown and dangerous country with only a few matelots for company, often trusting his life to people he had met only a few days earlier. Highlights of the book include Darwin’s passionately-expressed antipathy to slavery, of which he adverts at length after witnessing the institution at first hand in the Canary Islands and Brazil; an account of the Beagle crew’s encounters with the natives of Tierra del Fuego, human beings so primitive they could barely be said to have entered the Stone Age, and the mutual culture shock resulting from them; and an eyewitness account of the earthquake that destroyed the city of Conçepcion and altered the landscape of Chile. There are also his Galapagos explorations and discoveries, some interesting social commentary about Australians, and much more besides, but it is the South American sections of the book that make the best reading. 

There is a further treat in store for those who know a little about geology: Darwin’s Lyellian speculations are hilarious.

The second book is a curiosity: Far Away and Long Ago by W.H. Hudson tells the story of the author’s life from infancy to manhood among the pampas of Argentina, and later (and tragically) in its cities. Hudson was a kind of nature-mystic, though he didn’t write of his experiences in specifically spiritual terms—he just thought that was the way everyone perceived the world, that it was normal. And reading him, you can almost believe that once upon a time, out on the plains of Africa before sowing and reaping were invented, it was normal. People talk about ‘luminous prose’, but Hudson’s writing seems to describe a landscape that is itself luminous, that does not merely reflect light from the sun and moon but glows with its own. But in truth this light is also a reflection; it’s soul-light, and Hudson himself is the source. Far Away and Long Ago is no namby-pamby pastoral, though; some of the scenes are bloody, violent and terrifying, and towards the end of the book the author’s struggles to make sense of human society (of which his childhood on the pampas has taught him nothing) are heart-rending. This is a very strange book, written by a very odd man, that made its place in English literature purely on its merits and despite being unlike anything else that had ever been written. John Galsworthy described it as ‘a vision of natural beauty and of human life as it might be, quickened and sweetened by the sun and the wind and the rain, and by fellowship with all other forms of life.’ He called its author ‘a very great writer... the most valuable our age has possessed.’

Bruce Chatwin, taking
a hike as usual
My final recommendation is Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. Chatwin, a maverick writer of novels and travel books, was one of the coming men in English literature during the 1980s; sadly, he died of AIDS in 1989. His literary speciality was faraway places and states of mind, which he could bring to life as few other authors could. He was a great walker, and many of his books, most notably Songlines, came out of that. In Patagonia, an earlier work, did too. The thing about Chatwin’s journeys is that they are internal as well as external (actually, all journeys are), and he writes lucidly and convincingly about both. In Patagonia offers some incredible landscapes, people and stories both contemporary and historical, and by the end of it, you feel as if you truly have been Bruce Chatwin’s walking companion through these wild, windswept, extremaduran places, and have come, on the journey, to know him almost as well as you know yourself.

Of course, it is all illusion; Chatwin was a complex and very urbane man who lived his life in compartments and enjoyed generating an air of mystery. And in fact, he seems to have had much to hide. Even his long hikes have a certain improbability about them, as he mysteriously appears on the road to so some Patagonian village or Aboriginal settlement in Australia as though beamed down from a Culture starship, walks up to the first front door he sees and knocks on it. As Paul Theroux, another great traveller, complained, ‘life was never so neat as Bruce made out.’ But that goes back to my earlier remarks about the habitual untruthfulness of fictioneers. You should never really trust us, however convincing our stories may be. In fact, the more convincing the story, the less you ought to believe it.

Taken together, these three books make up my basic literary geography of South America. It is a mystic land, but in a Spinozan kind of way its numinosity inheres in the material reality of it, its rocks and hills, its plains and forests, its plants and animals and the seasons that govern their lives. It possesses the inhabitants of the land and makes them one with it. And it is a country of the mind, not of the earth. Whether or not the real South America resembles it I have not the slightest idea, and perhaps I will never find out. But this does not really matter. Imaginary countries are the most hospitable of all.

Don't Believe a Word

Karen von Blixen-Finecke
in Kenya, 1918
The author Karen Roberts is a friend of mine, and whenever I want to get her goat I tell her she’ll never be a patch on the other Karen, the lady we remember as Isak Dinesen. This is so obvious it doesn’t need saying—Dinesen was nominated twice for a Nobel prize—which, of course, is exactly why my lovely authoress friend hates so much to hear me say it.

Pardon the doting digression; among the old, hoary passions often make unexpected, spectral reappearances, a bit like the beans we ate for lunch, and cause us to rumble—sorry, ramble. I do not plan to bore you here with accounts of my unsuccessful mid-life amours, but rather to suggest an experiment you may find amusing, and perhaps even instructive.

Novelists are often accused of writing about their own lives and acquaintances and calling it fiction, and there have been numerous lawsuits—some successful, others less so—based on this assumption. It’s true, as I said in my review of Shehan Karunatileka’s novel Chinaman, that personal experience and insight is the raw material we shape our work out of, but the relationship is not as direct as it often seems to the reader. Such verisimilitude is a result of the author’s craft and hard work. It’s what we do, we fathers and mothers of lies; we try to fool you it’s all real. Sometimes it works too well, and then you sue us. Or worse: vide the fates of Christopher Marlowe, Nabokov père and John Lennon.

The other Karen
Enough preamble. The experiment is simply this: read the following three books in the following order. First, Out of Africa. Bear in mind that, although it is written by a novelist, it purports to be autobiography. Second, the section on the society of Kenya’s Happy Valley in Félipe Armesto-Fernandez’s amazing one-volume history of the past thousand years, Millennium. That will set you up nicely for the third book, White Mischief by Edward Fox, the fascinating tale of a murder, long unsolved, among the Happy Valley set.

By the time you’ve finished that book, you’ll have learnt that life in Happy Valley was nothing at all like it is portrayed in Out of Africa, and you will have formed your own judgements of Karen Blixen and the people she writes about. If you are a person of tender sensibilities, or a trusting disposition, you may be slightly shocked. You may never again believe a single word a novelist commits to print, and you will certainly be cured for ever of the foolish belief that what you read in novels is somehow true, no matter how many correspondences exist between the details of a story and its author’s life.

A typical evening in Happy Valley would have looked something like this.
Photo by Peter Beard, long-time resident and discoverer of Mrs. David Bowie

15 November 2010

The Ground Beneath Her Feet

The Ground Beneath Her Feet

As someone whose background has a few things in common with Salman Rushdie's--South Asian, heavily Westernized, bluntly secular, roughly similar in age and both writers by profession--I'm ambivalent about the man. Some of what seem like virtues to his Western critics look like faults or cheap tricks to me, and vice versa.

I am also a lifelong lover of rock music, so I was suspicious of this book in particular. The Ground Beneath Her Feet is the story of the rise and fall of the two greatest rock stars who never lived, and of their fated, fatal love for each other. High-culture attempts to get under the skin of rock are rarely, if ever, successful, being usually either blandly patronizing or quivering with embarrassing wannabe enthusiasm. Though he avoids both these awful extremes, it turns out that Rushdie is no better at writing about rock than any other grown-up author or critic. His vision of the Rock Life is pretty tabloid, and the song lyrics he comes up with for his fictional band, VTO, are beyond dire. If you're a rock fan who doesn't read much high-class fiction, and you're attracted to this book because of its rock subject matter, my advice is: forget it.

Worse, the damn' thing is science fiction, and a stock example of a stock sub-genre at that: the alternative history novel. I guess Rushdie figured that two Bombay Indians could never become the world's biggest rock stars in this universe, so he created a whole new one for them.

Third, the book starts really, really badly. Rushdie's prose in these opening pages is overburdened and clumsy, and the metaphoric imagery that is so vital to the magical-realist project is in some cases more worthy of Rushdie's imitators than of the man himself. There were times when I was reminded of...Ashok Ferry. No, really. But thank goodness, the style settles down after the first forty pages or so, and after that the book becomes a real pleasure to read. The pleasure is alloyed, however, by further, though occasional lapses into, well, if not quite Ferryism, at least Arundhati Royism. Salman, that's so not a good look...

In the end, however, I found The Ground Beneath Her Feet to be a damn good read, and it made me think. It is one of the most philosophical of Rushdie's novels, and its discursive first-person narrator often digresses to share with the reader his opinions on this and that; and I found these philosophical interludes and observations on life amusing, enjoyable and very much to the point; there were several times when I caught myself reading with a nodding head and a rueful grin on my face. This is not how Salman Rushdie usually takes me.

The book sort of falls apart at the end. Its narrative arc is that of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and as the narrator informs us fairly early on in the proceedings, that myth makes for lousy showbusiness because it has an unhappy ending--Orpheus's attempted rescue of his lover from Hades fails; he lives out the remainder of his days disconsolate and is ultimately torn to pieces by a group of maenads, crazed female devotees of the god Dionysius. This dog of an ending clearly had Rushdie seriously worried while he was writing the TGBHF--so worried he actually shares the problem with the reader a couple of times, maybe so as to prepare him for disappointment. In the end he contrives a happy ending of sorts without straying too far from the narrative arc of the original Orpheus legend, but only at the cost of having to introduce a new major character to us in the dying chapters of the book. And that is all that I'm going to say about that little trick.

Despite its faults, I really enjoyed reading this book. Very few people in the world can write so well--on his day--as Salman Rushdie, and well-made prose is always, I find, and regardless of content, a joy to read.