'So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.' ― George Orwell

Month: May, 2015

Czesław Miłosz


‘Death is endowed with the supreme authority of Law and universal necessity, while man is reduced to nothing, to a bundle of perceptions or even less, to an interchangeable statistical unit. But poetry by its very essence has always been on the side of LIFE.’


Vladimir Nabokov, in a letter to his wife Vera


‘You came into my life, not as one who comes to visit, but as one comes into a kingdom where all the rivers have been waiting for your reflection, all the roads for your steps.’

Joseph Conrad on writing


Circles, circles, innumerable circles, concentric, eccentric… a mad art attempting the inconceivable.

Boxing’s conflicted beauty (An elegy for Jerry Quarry)

Sugar Ray Leonard facing Roberto Duran; two of the greatest boxers to pull on a pair of gloves

The beauty in man is that under the press of circumstances he develops what he must possess – Norman Mailer

in the run-up to the Floyd Mayweather Jr v Manny Pacquiao fight, and for a short while afterwards, a few people asked me what it is that I find so fascinating about the sport of boxing.

Some of these questions came with a $500million frame; the estimated pot for a night’s work in Las Vegas for the two men. The money tarnished the views of many who watched the fight, but then what contest was ever going to live up to such an eye-popping figure? The ‘Thrilla in Manila’, maybe…

For the record, I enjoyed the fight, and with happy satisfaction scored it correctly among some friends before either fighter had thrown a fist in anger. Viewers disappointed by the spectacle (or lack thereof) have obviously not watched Mayweather Jr fight in the last five years – or perhaps never at all.

The thing that no one can get around, or come close to undoing, is that Mayweather dominates every fight he walks into. Why? Because he’s so good. He’s got the technique, the tactics, the speed, the brains, and the toughness to take anything that’s thrown at him. In a way, Mayweather is almost anti-boxing. It’s as if he’s found a major flaw in the sport that no one else has been able to tap into.

Putting that thread aside, my intention here is not to spill any more ink on Mayweather Jr, I wish to write a little about my love of something known as ‘The Hurt Business’.

Down the years many more talented and knowledgeable scribes of The Sweet Science – Egan, Liebling, WC Heinz, Hazlitt (even if the latter wrote about a single fight) – have described with mastery and flair the various reasons why boxing has such a knuckled grip on our imagination.

I have thought deeply about this too. Of course, there is no absolute moral justification for boxing. It just happens to be one of life’s beautiful contradictions; both cruel and yet noble, it comprises brutality and grace in equal measure.

Being for or against boxing is an argument that will never be settled, and I’m not going to try. But for better elucidation on the sport’s inherent conflict and melodramatic magnetism, we should turn to a fighter such as Jerry Quarry.

Quarry fought in the golden era of heavyweights in the 1960s and ‘70s, which meant he faced a who’s who of fighters: Ali, Foreman, Frazier, Patterson, Shavers, Norton et al. Jerry’s career ultimately reflected the shattered beauty of what I call boxing’s looking glass. We see a broken man at the end, from the ferocity of pugilism, and yet in some way this image touches us deeply; it reaches in to our deepest psychic well, pulleying all our humanity back to the surface.

He was tagged as the great white hope, went under the banner of ‘Irish Jerry Quarry’, and fought honestly, wholeheartedly and inflicted his own share of pain on others with a sweet left hook. But for every shot Jerry landed, he probably took three in return. And sadly for his sake he was the kind of fighter that didn’t know when to go down, when others with a little more nous would have realised that the game was up.

It’s a well worn truism that there are too many sad stories in the world of boxing, but after reading up on Quarry I still wasn’t sure what way the coin had landed for him. Then I watched a clip on YouTube, which I’ve inserted below (it happily includes music from one of my favourite bands, Explosions In The Sky).

Jerry Quarry

Watching it makes me choke with emotion – I’m sure you will too, even if you despise boxing and all its ways. I will say this in its mitigation: if not for boxing, would I, or anyone, be writing about or remembering the Jerry Quarrys of this world? Would this clip have been created, or watched more than sixty thousand times, if it were just about a regular, tough guy from Bakersfield, California? I’ll let you decide.

But because of boxing, this tough, big-hearted, but limited slugger Jerry Quarry will be remembered down the ages. Because of boxing, Jerry Quarry was loved by anyone who watched a prize-fight (you can see that from the fight fans in this clip). Because of boxing, Jerry Quarry got to live his dreams and live out many of the dreams we hold dear inside; Jerry Quarry had the chance to stand alongside greatness, stepping into a ring with Muhammad Ali, not once, but twice.

His time on this planet was a relatively fleeting fifty-three years, but he experienced most of these years at the height of human emotion, at the very edge of existence; his ardor for boxing also encapsulated his ardor for living. The likes of Jerry Quarry gave their life over to boxing (in his case both physically and mentally). But without boxing, what would life have meant to the likes of Jerry Quarry?

Babe Ruth

‘I hit big or I miss big. I like to live life as best as I can.’

 ‘Putting a factory on stage will tell you nothing about capitalism.’

Soldiers’ Pay by William Faulkner

Faulkner’s Underwood Universal Portable typewriter in his office at Rowan Oak, which is now maintained by the University of Mississippi


Last week I went back to the beginning with one of my favourite writers, William Faulkner, by reading ‘Soldiers’ Pay’, his first novel. It’s very enjoyable, even if one clearly sees some of the natural flaws that can appear in a first book (too much reference to the weather, for instance; an unwieldy narrative at times). But any criticism is to be readily expected of an early work by a great writer, and especially from a reader who has gone through Faulkner’s major works beforehand.

Published in 1926, ‘Soldiers’ Pay’ is the story of a wounded veteran’s homecoming following the First World War; it traces the lives of three soldiers and the impact of their return upon their families. In the book we can see Faulkner slowly, but steadily, finding his inimitable storytelling voice that he perfected in the ‘The Sound and the Fury’, ‘Light in August’, and ‘Absalom, Absalom’.


The major theme I enjoyed most in the book was the characters’ struggles to find meaning in their lives, trying to give their lives a meaning, in the wake of the Great War. The First World War’s shadow looms large over the men, women and children, and they try to find light in a world that seems to be slowly dying.


The novel is noteworthy too in that the central character, Mahon, is a shell of his former self, has the least to say, and yet is the figurehead that the other characters cling on to in order to find some form of redemption. Faulkner’s biographer, Frederick R. Karl, makes the point that Faulkner uses Mahon as an exalted Christ-like figure, sacrificed to the gods of war. Despite being a hapless body smashed by the First World War, Mahon’s being determines the world that now surrounds them. The themes of silence, emotion and sacredness are all here and of course would become recurring motifs through many of Faulkner’s later works.


William Faulkner

Faulkner’s representation of women in ‘Soldiers’ Pay’ is conflicted and probably drew upon personal experience. There is the strong, worldly, maternal figure of Margaret Power and then there is Cecily Saunders, a spoiled, shallow, sexual tease who seems to have no ideas or purpose in life. One of my favourite moments in the novel is from Margaret Power. After having her way with one of the soldiers, Joe Gilligan, she spurns his declarations of feelings, leaving him with a bruised ego. Margaret asks him why he’s so upset; is it because I’ve done to you Joe, what a man would do to a woman?


It seems that when Faulkner sat down to write ‘Soldiers’ Pay’, there was little sense that he would become America’s leading novelist of the 20th century. Hemingway often complained that Tolstoy had a unique advantage in his writing to everyone else, because he had been a soldier and had experienced life and death at their most heightened senses. One wonders if the modern novelist now feels the same about Hemingway and Faulkner, who both had the momentous events of the World Wars to hang any story upon. (It is pointed that both men started out with the intention of becoming poets, as well as soldiers; that most romantic and tragic of all figures in the world of letters.)

Faulkner wanted to be a writer because he wanted the leisurely lifestyle it afforded his friend Sherwood Anderson, but also because he realised it was ‘fun’ when he got down to it. Writing probably was fun for dear old Bill, but then genius can make creation come easily. The rest of us must struggle and plough a lonely furrow. All the same, it’s worth listing some of the advice Faulkner gave on writing, and I’ve also included an interesting video of the writer’s time at the University of Virginia.


I think the writer, as I’ve said before, is completely amoral. He takes whatever he needs, wherever he needs, and he does that openly and honestly because he himself hopes that what he does will be good enough so that after him people will take from him, and they are welcome to take from him, as he feels that he would be welcome by the best of his predecessors to take what they had done.

I think the story compels its own style to a great extent, that the writer don’t need to bother too much about style. If he’s bothering about style, then he’s going to write precious emptiness–not necessarily nonsense…it’ll be quite beautiful and quite pleasing to the ear, but there won’t be much content in it.

The only rule I have is to quit while it’s still hot. Never write yourself out. Always quit when it’s going good. Then it’s easier to take it up again. If you exhaust yourself, then you’ll get into a dead spell and you’ll have trouble with it.



Brand political visions


Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown meeting with former Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi at the G8 summit in 2009. [Oli Scarff/Getty Images Europe]


When Gordon Brown announced that he is stepping down as an MP, after more than thirty years of service, at the General Election in May, he fired a parting shot at modern politics by railing against the idea of political parties being considered as brands.

“Sometimes politics is seen at best as a branch of the entertainment industry,” said Mr Brown. “There are times when political parties seem not to be agents of change but brands to be marketed to people who are seen as consumers, when they are really citizens with responsibilities.”

Mr Brown was big on his “belief in the moral purpose of public service”, but his premiership ultimately floundered on his mangling of the New Labour brand and his innate capacity for public relation disasters; think of Gillian Duffy; recall his “saved the world” slip at Prime Minister’s Questions; even when trying to soften his image by smiling, Mr Brown encountered ridicule.

The former Chancellor’s infamous big clunking fist style of politics proved too heavy-handed for the British electorate, and as a consequence the party brand became toxic because of his role as leader; Mr Brown spoiled the New Labour brand.

The idea of UK political parties as ideological movements alone is fanciful and needs to be consigned to another political era. Voters think less about policies nowadays, and instead consider what they are buying in to when voting for a party. In a consumer-driven society, political parties and their respective leaders are judged in the same way as major companies and their CEOs are: in terms of performance, trust and brand loyalty. In the run-up to the General Election on May 7th, David Cameron’s Conservatives and Ed Miliband’s Labour party can expect to be critiqued by the electorate just as Tim Cook (Apple) or Rupert Stadler (Audi) are by their shareholders. How well have Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband delivered their parties’ brand? An easy answer can be found by the fact no one mentions ‘Big Society’ or ‘One Nation’ these days.



Poor brand management of the respective political parties perhaps underlies the reasons why many polls suggest that no party will have an overall majority come election day. Since the formation of the coalition government, each of the main parties have watched their brand equity steadily diminish; a combination of contempt for the party leaders, banking, expenses and tax scandals, broken promises from the last General Election, and fuzzy and disjointed campaign messages have led to further political disillusionment and apathy.

 Going against this trend, however, is a brand that has become very successful, very quickly: the UK Independence party. Its image of outsider rebelliousness, bound up with a corporate, Oxbridge similarity to all the other main parties, encapsulated in the strangely bucolic figure of leader Nigel Farage, has struck a chord with many people.

The advertising agency Isobel carried out a survey on the most hated brands in Britain, and political parties made up four of the ten findings: Liberal Democrats were sixth, Labour came fifth, while the Tories finished second. Populist upstart UKIP finished top of the class. Considering the Marmite appeal of his party, Mr Farage will drink happily from such a poisoned well. For one thing that comes close to the value of brand appeal, is brand awareness, and for a party that gained its first MP only last year, UKIP has quickly become a trademark on everyone’s lips. Which of the parties we will be talking about as power brokers when the results come trickling in on May 8th, still remains to be seen, however.

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