You only know what you’ve got when it’s gone

There is a moment when it happens. It’s often tiny, it’s almost always unexpected: at least, in its particular position. It happens. The moment so small you can step on it and it isn’t harmed. You pass it by, and while you may not spot what it is, you know that everything has changed. You know that it’s over. Continue reading

Blackbeard’s Last Voyage


This here book I wrote a while back. This illustrated chapter is courtesy of the excellent Kaira Mezulis. Read the first few chapters of BlackBeard’s Last Voyage.


BlackBeard’s Last Voyage

For those of you wondering why I’ve been so quiet of late, here’s why. I’ve been working on this project for no little time, and have finally produced a suitable sample of what it’s going to look like.

It’s call BlackBeard’s Last Voyage and is a pirate book … with a difference (but we can worry about the difference later). It’s been illustrated by the quite splendid Kaira Mezulis, and I bear responsibility for the verbage.

If you like what you see, I’d really appreciate it if you said so … by ‘liking’ the facebook page, in the first instance, and by passing the link on to any publishers or agents who you think might appreciate it in the second! Yes, we’re at that stage. Also, feel free to say how wonderful you think it is in the comments section below … time to make twitter and wordpress work for their living!


Sample chapters are also available on real, old-fashioned paper … and kindle formatted, probably!

Yo ho ho, etc!


Freud, Klein and Dr Seuss

I recently dredged this out and it’s quite funny – one of my undergrad pieces (from 2001, I think), but on The Cat in the Hat. You just have to love it.

I notice that this is getting a lot of views … which is great. I would, however, appreciate it if those of you who read it say hi. It’s here, open for all to read, and to use (so long as you cite me properly 😉 …), and it would be great to know that you’ve at least enjoyed it!

What are the connections between Freud’s idea of sublimation and Klein’s theory of reparation as theories about where creativity has its sources? How does The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss treat the same subject?

The link between imagination and reality plays an important part in creativity, as John Lechte suggests: ‘the literary text […] is simultaneously symbolic and real, a product of imagination and a disguised reality.’ 1 For both Freud and Klein, the roots of artistic creativity were laid down in childhood and derived, primarily, from unsatisfied sexual instincts. Freud considered that these instincts were sublimated, a process which ‘enables excessively strong excitations arising from particular sources of sexuality to find an outlet and a use in other fields.’ 2 Klein, however, considered that the conflict caused by the sexual instinct led to aggressive phantasies – directed initially against the mother – which, in turn, led to guilt and fear. This guilt resulted in the child attempting to repair the damage perceived to be done in these phantasies to re-gain the original mother: reparation. Both theories, however, consider phantasy to be the basis of creative thought. Written for, and apparently by, children, Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat also deals with destruction, guilt and the possible reasons for imaginative creation. For Freud, Klein and Seuss, it seems that creative art serves a purpose.

For both Freud and Klein, the phantasy-life of the child lay at the roots of artistic creativity. In ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’, Freud suggests that ‘the creative writer does the same as the child at play.’ 3 While the child invests great emotional energy into play, ‘the opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real.’ 4 The difference between the creative writer’s daydreams and childhood play is that the child links his imagined objects and the tangible objects of the real world. For, Freud the desire for play never leaves us: ‘whoever understands the human mind knows that hardly anything is harder for a man than to give up a pleasure which he has once experienced. Actually, we can never give anything up; we can only exchange one thing for another. What appears to be a renunciation is really the formation of a substitute or surrogate.’ 5 We can see, therefore, that ‘the growing child, when he stops playing, gives up nothing but the link with real objects; instead of playing, he now phantasies.’ 6 Unable to give up the pleasure of play, the adult replaces it with phantasy, the root of creative writing which can return him to the child-like state: ‘by equating this ostensibly serious occupations of to-day with his childhood games, he can throw off the heavy burden imposed on him by life.’ 7

Klein broadly agrees, stating ‘The baby who feels a craving for his mother’s breast when it is not there may imagine it to be there, i.e., he may imagine the satisfaction which he derives from it. Such primitive phantasying is the earliest form of the capacity which later develops into the more elaborate workings of the imagination.’ 8 She does not, however, consider that the child’s phantasies come later in life: where Freud talks of a child’s play, Klein talks of its phantasy. Here Klein moves away from Freud, suggesting that the child cannot differentiate between its phantasies and reality: ‘A most important feature of these destructive phantasies […] is that the baby feels that what he desires in his phantasies has really taken place, that is to say he feels that he has really destroyed the object of his destructive impulses.’ 9 For Klein, it is also the baby’s natural frustration, initially at the removal of the breast, and later during the Oedipal conflict, which gives rise to these destructive phantasies, which the baby then believes it has carried out in reality. Where Freud does not, initially, consider the genesis of the child’s play, Klein considers the child’s phantasies to come directly from its sexual frustration.

Klein places the child’s sexual instinct earlier than Freud, at the mother’s breast, leading to conflict with siblings, mother and father due to jealousy, resentfulness and desire. Initial love of the mother as satisfier of desires soon turns into hatred, leading to destructive urges and phantasies of destruction: ‘this first love is already disturbed by destructive impulses […] destructive phantasies also go along with frustration and the feelings of hatred which this arouses.’ 10 Conflict and hatred lead to guilt and fear: ‘the child himself desires to destroy the libidinal object by biting, devouring and cutting it, which leads to anxiety, since awakening of the Oedipus tendencies is followed by introjection of the object, which then becomes one from which punishment is to be expected. The child then dreads a punishment corresponding to the offence.’ 11 The child, now fearing punishment, ‘finds support against these fears in omnipotent phantasies of a restoring kind’ 12, thus, ‘if the baby has, in his aggressive phantasies, injured his mother by biting and tearing her up, he may soon build up phantasies that he is putting the bits together and repairing her.’ 13 This is the basis of Klein’s theory of reparation – the child, having destroyed the mother in his aggressive phantasies, feels guilt and fear as a result of his (imagined) actions and sets about assuaging this guilt by indulging in new, restorative phantasies. This urge for reparation forms the basis for the creative arts: ‘feelings of guilt […] are a fundamental incentive towards creativeness and work in general’ 14.

Freud defined sublimation as ‘the power [of an instinct] to replace its immediate aim by other aims which may be valued more highly’ 15, yet Leslie Hill suggests it is a far from complete theory: ‘Sublimation, then, names a process of displacement that shows little respect for continuity or identity. It functions as an index for the enigmatic [my italics] production of the non-sexual from the sexual, or the cultural from the erotic; but as such […] what it offers is less a theory of cultural productions than a myth of origins. Sublimation, it appears, is more like a fable than a concept.’ 16 Freud explains the need for this ‘fable’ in On Sexuality’: ‘The very incapacity of the sexual instinct to yield complete satisfaction as soon as it submits to the first demands of civilisation becomes the source, however, of the noblest cultural achievements which are brought into being by ever more extensive sublimation of its instinctual components. For what motive could men have for putting sexual instinctual forces to other uses if, by any distribution of these forces, they could obtain fully satisfying pleasure? They would never abandon that pleasure and they would never make any further progress,’ 17 or, as we saw above: ‘What appears to be a renunciation is really the formation of a substitute or surrogate.’ 18 Sublimation is the diversion of sexual instincts which cannot be satisfied to other ends, most notably cultural or the urge for knowledge. As Freud noted in the life of Leonardo da Vinci, such aims become a substitute for sexual activity: ‘the libido evades the fate of repression by being sublimated from the very beginning into curiosity and by becoming attached to the powerful instinct for research as a reinforcement. Here, too, the research becomes to some extent compulsive and a substitute for sexual activity.’ 19

Freud does not suggest that sublimation of the sexual instinct must be towards artistic production: it may also be towards ‘a general urge to know.’ 20 Pointing the reader squarely towards his theories of childhood sexuality, ‘the almighty and just God, and kindly Nature, appear to us grand sublimations of father and mother, or rather as revivals and restorations of the young child’s ideas of them,’ 21 Freud also brings to mind Klein’s reparation. Sublimation seems likely to occur around the time of the Oedipus Complex: ‘at about the same time as the sexual life of children reaches its first peak, between the ages of three and five, they also begin to show the first signs of the activity which may be ascribed to the instinct for knowledge or research […] its activity belongs on the one hand to a sublimated manner of obtaining mastery.’ 22 Sublimation of sexual desires does not necessarily lead to creativity; ‘the amounts of excitation coming in from these parts of the body [erotogenic zones], do not all undergo the same vicissitudes, nor is the fate of all of them the same at every period of life.’ 23 Though Freud does not provide a smoothly delineated path between childhood sexuality and artistic creativity through sublimation, he does suggest a credible link, and again both he and Klein trace creativity to the same source: lack of satisfaction of childhood sexual instincts.

Freud suggests of a piece of creative writing that ‘the stress it lays on childhood memories in the writer’s life – a stress which may perhaps seem puzzling – is ultimately derived from the assumption that a piece of creative writing, like a day-dream, is a continuation of, and a substitute for, what was once the play of childhood’ 24, further elucidating the link between childhood play, experience and creativity. The link between past and present is vital: ‘A strong experience in the present awakens in the creative writer a memory of an earlier experience (usually belonging to his childhood) from which there now proceeds a wish which finds its fulfilment in the creative work. The work itself exhibits elements of the recent provoking occasion as well as of the old memory’ 25.

Freud noted the connection between past, present and wish fulfilment and his work on neurosis and dreams: ‘there is a class of human beings upon whom, not a god, indeed, but a stern goddess – Necessity – has allotted the task of telling what they suffer and what things give them happiness. These are the victims of nervous illness.’ 26 Here Freud alludes to literature, specifically Goethe, the connection between literature and psychoanalysis often made explicit: ‘Neurosis, we recall Freud saying, is a “failed work of art.”‘ 27

Both in her language and views, Klein followed yet diverged from the Freudian model: the title ‘The Early Stages of the Oedipus Conflict’ highlights this reliance. Klein connects creativity with the desire for possession of the contents of the womb and Oedipal guilt: ‘the epistemophilic instinct and the desire to take possession come quite early to be most intimately connected with one another and at the same time with the sense of guilt aroused by the incipient Oedipus conflict.’ 28 Suggesting that ‘the drive to explore need not be expressed in an actual physical exploration of the world, but may extend to other fields, for instance, any kind of scientific discovery […] the desire to re-discover the mother of the early days whom one has lost actually or in one’s feelings, is also of the greatest importance in creative art and in the ways people enjoy and appreciate it, 29 Klein not only creates a direct link between childhood, the urge to make reparation and creativity, but also to Freud himself, describing his work as ‘the exploration of the unconscious mind (by the way, an unknown continent discovered by Freud)’ 30.

Interpreting Keats’ On First Looking at Chapman’s Homer, Klein repeats Freud’s proscriptively vulgar reading of a creative work – where Freud found Hoffman’s The Sandman riddled with the Oedipus Complex, Klein finds Keats a perfect exposition of the theory of reparation, mapping mother upon continent. Where Freud blurred the boundaries between literature and psychoanalysis through citation, Klein suggests that ‘the sculptor who puts life into his object of art, whether or not it represents a person, is unconsciously restoring and re-creating the early loved people, whom he has in phantasy destroyed.’ 31 Klein’s use of phrases such as ‘puts life into’ not only suggests a connection between creativity and the desire for children expounded in other works, reminds us of Freud’s search for ‘the essential ars poetica.’ 32

Klein’s identification with Freud continued: ‘I wish above all to point out that they [her conclusions] do not, in my opinion, contradict the statements of Professor Freud’ 33. This defence of both her own and Freud’s work, along with he use of the title, definitions and techniques resembling Freud’s, brings to mind his analogy: ‘A. borrowed a copper kettle from B. and after he had returned it was sued by B. because the kettle now had a big hole in it which made it unusable. His defence was “First, I never borrowed a kettle from B. at all; secondly, the kettle had a hole in it already when I got it from him; and thirdly, I gave the him back the kettle undamaged.”‘ 34 Just as these defences seem mutually exclusive, so Klein’s statement both suggests there is no contradiction while alerting the reader to their existence. We can also observe the working of guilt, phantasy, wish-fulfilment and mutually exclusive excuses in the realm of creative writing in The Cat in the Hat

It would not be hard to impose a Freudian reading of The Cat in the Hat, dealing as it does with the themes of phantasy, creativity, guilt, fear of punishment and the transgression. Freud might read the cat himself as ‘His Majesty the Ego, the hero alike of every day-dream and every story’ 35, while Things One and Two are envoys of the Id. The fish, with its continual references to the fact that the cat should not be here, slips easily into the role of the super-ego. This is, however, not all, for the Things also reflect the automata discussed by Freud in his reading of The Sandman: this story could be a Freudian case-study. The Cat in the Hat also fits Klein’s theory of reparation snugly. The children, resentful at their mother’s absence, destroy the order of the home – itself identified by Klein as a ‘manifestation of [motherly] love for other people’ 36 – through the creation of phantasy figures. The guilt they feel at this destruction, triggered by the mother’s return, causes them to repair the damage in phantasy, leaving them simply to ponder the question of whether they should tell their mother what has happened.

The story deals with creation and creativity more directly, however, opening with a vital detail: ‘The sun did not shine / It was too wet to play / So we sat in the house / All that cold, cold, wet day’ (p1). Not only does the narrator foreground the impossibility of play due to inclement weather, but that he is one of the children. Has he invented this story merely to amuse himself and his sister: ”I sat with Sally / And we sat there, we two. / And I said, “How I wish we had something to do!”‘ 37

The Cat in the Hat, narrated by the child from within the story, is a work of literature which foregrounds its own status as phantasy. Thus the reader, as interpreter, in answering the question ‘does the narrator consider the cat real or imagined’ ends up asking the same question of himself. This is Shoshona Felman’s ‘reading effect’: ‘The scene of the critical debate is thus a repetition of the scene dramatised in the text. The critical interpretation, in other words, not only elucidates the text but also reproduces it dramatically, unwittingly participates in it. Through its very reading, the text, so to speak, acts itself out.’ 38 While the interpreter may ask whether the cat is real, the children in the story do not seem to mind that from its entrance, it is the cat who speaks: ‘Then Sally and I /Did not know what to say.’ 39 It is also this interpretation which Klein reflects when she insists that her theories do not clash with Freud’s.

Freud suggested ‘the child distinguishes it [play] quite well from reality; and he likes to link his imagined objects and situations to the tangible and visible things of the real world. This linking is all that differentiates the child’s “play” from “phantasying.”‘ 40 Is Cat in the Hat an imagined object that the child do not believe is real? It seems unlikely that this is a real Cat, with a real Hat, who can say to these children ‘”Why do you sit there like that?'” 41 While neither the children in the story nor those to whom the story is being read may believe the cat is real, this does not prevent them from taking him seriously, as a phantasy to relieve the boredom of this ‘cold, cold, wet day.’ 42

The cat’s games are destructive and transgressionary. The fish, commenting on the game ‘Up-up-up with a fish’ 43 states ‘”I do NOT wish to fall!”‘ 44 The inevitable, disastrous fall, which places the fish conveniently in a pot, leads the fish to re-iterate his view that ‘You SHOULD NOT be here / When our mother is not.’ 45 In The Uncanny, Freud stated that ‘in their early games children do not distinguish at all sharply between living and inanimate objects, and that they are especially fond of treating dolls like live people.’ 46 Here the fish is differentiated from the Cat and the two Things – whose status as dolls, automata or actual people is opaque – by being included in the family structure.

The cat and the things are phantastical creations, however. It is they, not the children, who are to blame for the mess and the chaos created in the house. On the mother’s return, the fish’s rhetoric changes, as he is scared of maternal retribution: ‘Oh what will she do to us? / What will she say? / Oh, she will not like it / to find us this way!’ 47 The boy’s apparent impotence is now shown as fraud: ‘Then I said to the cat, / “Now you do as I say.”‘ 48 The boy has control over his creations, so his final imaginative act is to clear up the mess, which is, according to the fish, ‘so big / And so deep and so tall, / We can not pick it up. / There is no way at all.’ 49 The cat returns, atop a vivid Heath Robinson-esque cross-fertilisation between a hoover and a tricycle, stating ‘I always pick up my playthings’ 50: the boy avoids the maternal retribution predicted by the fish.

The reader is invited to believe that the whole story has been a phantasy, even though it is presented as real. When the mother finally returns, she asks ‘Did you have any fun? / Tell me. What did you do?’ (p60). The boy asks the reader plainly, ‘Should we tell her about it? / Now, what SHOULD we do? / Well… / What would YOU do / If your mother asked YOU?’ 51 The children are in a position not dissimilar to Freud’s kettle-borrowing man: if they say what happened, they will get into trouble for their transgression, yet surely the mother will not believe them because there is no evidence, and thus the children must be lying, another transgression. The story’s final lines invite the reader to question the nature of truth, phantasy, and culpability.

Centering on art’s reparative function and drawing her theories from the nature of childhood phantasy, Klein suggests that the creative urge stems from childhood conflict and works to allow the adult to re-capture the joy of childhood. Freud suggests a similar link: the sublimation of childhood sexual instincts provides the energy for creativity, while the relationship of adult experiences to childhood ones provides the creative spark. Freud, too, connects childhood play and phantasy with the later creative urge in adulthood. While for Klein art can heal childhood aggression and guilt, for Freud it is a civilising force, allowing the relatively safe dispersal of transgressional sexual urges not allowed in civilised society. Freud connects art and neurosis as a form of troubled expression with their sources in childhood conflict without fully exploring the ramifications, especially regarding the theory of sublimation: it seems enough to suggest that it explains the genius of Leonardo da Vinci. Freud, unlike Klein, never fully explores the ramifications of his theory. In The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss allows the reader a glimpse into the creatively imaginative world of the child, drawing lines of distinction and similarity between play and reality, as well as suggesting motives for creativity similar to those put forward by Klein and Freud: transgression, guilt and the desire for self-expression.


Lechte, John, ed, ‘Writing and Psychoanalysis: A Reader‘ (London, New York, Sydney, Auckland: Arnold, 1996)

Freud, Sigmund, ‘The Interpretation of Dreams‘, trans Joyce Crick (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)

Freud, Sigmund, and Breuer, Joseph, ‘The Penguin Freud Library Volume 3: Studies on Hysteria‘ trans James and Alix Strachey (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991)

Freud, Sigmund, ‘The Penguin Freud Library Volume 14: Art and Literature‘ (London and New York: Penguin 1990)

Freud, Sigmund, ‘The Penguin Freud Library Volume 7: On Sexuality‘ (London and New York: Penguin 1991)

Freud, Sigmund, ‘The Penguin Freud Library Volume 6: Jokes and the Relation to the Unconscious’ trans James Strachey (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991)

Klein, Melanie ‘Love, Guilt and Reparation‘ (London: Virago, 1988)

Mitchell, Juliet, ed ‘Selected Melanie Klein’ (Harmondsworth, London: Penguin 1986)

Seuss, Dr., ‘The Cat in the Hat‘ (London: HarperCollins Children’s Books, 1992)

Shoshona Felman, ‘Henry James: Madness and the Risks of Practice (Turning the Screw of Interpretation)’ from ‘Madness and Psychoanalysis

Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael, eds ‘Literary Theory: An Anthology‘ (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998)

1 ‘Writing and Psychoanalysis: A Reader’ ed John Lechte (London, New York, Sydney, Auckland: Arnold, 1996) p21

2 Sigmund Freud, ‘The Penguin Freud Library Volume 7: On Sexuality‘ (London and New York: Penguin 1991) p163

3 Sigmund Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ in ‘The Penguin Freud Library Volume 14: Art and Literature‘ (London and New York: Penguin 1990) p132

4 Sigmund Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ p133

5 Sigmund Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ p132

6 Sigmund Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ p133

7 Sigmund Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ p133

8 Melanie Klein, ‘Love, Guilt and Reparation‘ (London: Virago, 1988) p308

9 Melanie Klein, ‘Love, Guilt and Reparation’ p308

10 Melanie Klein, ‘Love, Guilt and Reparation’ pp307-8

11 Melanie Klein, ‘Early Stages of the Oedipus Conflict’, in ‘Selected Melanie Klein’ ed Juliet Mitchell (Harmondsworth, London: Penguin 1986) p71

12 Melanie Klein, ‘Love, Guilt and Reparation‘ pp308

13 Melanie Klein, ‘Love, Guilt and Reparation‘ pp308

14 Melanie Klein, ‘Love, Guilt and Reparation‘ pp335-6

15 Sigmund Freud, ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ in ‘The Penguin Freud Library Volume 14: Art and Literature‘ (London and New York: Penguin 1990) p167

16 Leslie Hill, ‘Lacan with Duras’ in ‘Writing and Psychoanalysis: A Reader’ ed John Lechte (London, New York, Sydney, Auckland: Arnold, 1996) p151-2

17 Sigmund Freud, ‘On Sexuality‘ pp259-60

18 Sigmund Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ p132

19 Sigmund Freud, ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ p170

20 Sigmund Freud, ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ p225

21 Sigmund Freud, ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ p216

22 Sigmund Freud, ‘On Sexuality‘ p112

23 Sigmund Freud, ‘On Sexuality‘ p211

24 Sigmund Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ p139

25 Sigmund Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ p139

26 Sigmund Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ p134

27 ‘Writing and Psychoanalysis: A Reader’ ed John Lechte p117

28 Melanie Klein, ‘Early Stages of the Oedipus Conflict’ p72

29 Melanie Klein, ‘Love, Guilt and Reparation‘ pp334

30 Melanie Klein, ‘Love, Guilt and Reparation‘ pp335

31 Melanie Klein, ‘Love, Guilt and Reparation‘ pp335

32 Sigmund Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ p140

33 Melanie Klein, ‘Early Stages of the Oedipus Conflict’ p82

34 Sigmund Freud, ‘The Penguin Freud Library Volume 6: Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious‘ trans James Strachey (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991) p100

35 Sigmund Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ p138

36 Melanie Klein, ‘Love, Guilt and Reparation‘ FN p312

37 Dr. Seuss, ‘The Cat in the Hat‘ (London: HarperCollins Children’s Books, 1992) pp2-3

38 Shoshona Felman, ‘Henry James: Madness and the Risks of Practice (Turning the Screw of Interpretation)’ from ‘Madness and Psychoanalysis’ p148

39 Dr. Seuss, ‘The Cat in the Hat‘ p8

40 Sigmund Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ p132

41 Dr. Seuss, ‘The Cat in the Hat‘ p6

42 Dr. Seuss, ‘The Cat in the Hat‘ p1

43 Dr. Seuss, ‘The Cat in the Hat‘ p12

44 Dr. Seuss, ‘The Cat in the Hat‘ p13

45 Dr. Seuss, ‘The Cat in the Hat‘ p25

46 ‘The Uncanny’ in Sigmund Freud, ‘The Penguin Freud Library Volume 14: Art and Literature‘ (London and New York: Penguin 1990) p354-5

47 Dr. Seuss, ‘The Cat in the Hat‘ p47

48 Dr. Seuss, ‘The Cat in the Hat‘ p52

49 Dr. Seuss, ‘The Cat in the Hat‘ p55

50 Dr. Seuss, ‘The Cat in the Hat‘ p57

51 Dr. Seuss, ‘The Cat in the Hat‘ p61

Hot lemon and hopelessness

Just write something, she says. Five hundred words. Interesting, I think to myself, there are prescriptions already. Don’t edit yourself.

An interesting lunch was presaged by a rather strange walk through town (and now, conscious that I’m under instructions not to edit, the stream of consciousness is subject to a series of locks, though which my prose is gently carried uphill, against all logic). It wasn’t the astonishing lack of patience I currently show towards mankind in general – after all, I have a cold, and snat and sneezed my way through the crowds – but the habits we form that become obsolete and are yet hung onto.

She wants me to write about my experience, about my disease. Because it weighs more heavily upon me than I admit, she says. I know people in much worse positions, I point out, but she’s insistent. And though I hate to admit it, she’s right, up to a point. Damocles’ sword may well have been an absolute pisser, but he knew what he was dealing with. Me? Potential. Possibility. What can I lay at the door of the disease? What at the drug? What at middle age?

A friend recently said he thought I was being more protective of my left arm. Sharp man. I certainly notice more bad days than I used to, days when my left hand is beyond recalcitrant. But with the drug I take suggesting that immediate cessation of treatment may lead to coma, it’s difficult to say where it’s at. Last time but one my specialist (who was looking peeky) suggested I take the ‘levadopa challenge’. Sounds like climbing an ancient hill fortress. He described it as a ‘battery of tests’ on gait and fine motor control. Oh, but the drugs tend to make people vomit, so best you take an anti-emetic – and stop the dopamine agonists the day before. (Remember? Coma?) Naturally, the anti-emetic is a dopamine agonist. I’m confused now.

So. They’re testing my brain. The waiting room is, get this, in one of the neurology wards. Yup, that’s right, you’re there waiting for tests to see how bad your brain is getting, and someone wonders in (and yes, I mean wonders) and starts talking to me as if I’m an old friend. Naturally, I converse politely and pointlessly with this woman who seems to have a five minute reset button. Every five minutes or so, she starts again. I continue being polite while my brain (the broken bit) screams ‘fuck off you mad bitch’ over and over. But she’s not mad. Merely broken. Like me. Which is why I’d really like her to fuck off.

Eventually, she does. Are you mr langman (dr fucking langman, it screams)? Yes. Will you follow me?

Ah, battery of tests. Intellectual curiosity. Should be interesting. She stops me in the corridor, puts a piece of red tape on the wall. Can you see this? (hello?) Wait here. When I call you, walk towards me. (woof?) This I do – though she has to tell off a disgruntled porter. Then she writes on her clipboard, points at the tape on the wall, walks back to where we started … and that’s that. It’s not that severe, she says, almost disappointed. Then she leads me back to the waiting room. Pardon?

I sit. She takes a piece of A4 paper from her bag. It has two biro dots about half a centimetre in diameter on it. I am to touch each one in turn. For a minute with one index finger, then the other. Take this, she says. (is that fucking it?). Three quarters of an hour later we do the whole pitiful charade again. I comment on how difficult it is to remain natural when you know what the test is noting. Are you trying to do it quicker? (God, you’re dumb). No, it’s just that … oh, never mind.

I walk out furious. What an utter waste of time. I get to the parking machine, stick my ticket in, grab some change and feed it. Jump in the car. Storm off.

Hang on. That was my left hand. I can’t usually get coins out of my left-hand pocket, let alone sift them with the left-hand only. Christ, this leva dopa shit damn well works.

So, I’m walking to lunch. I hold my phone in my pocket so that I can feel it ring or if a message comes through. I pull it out to look at the time. One missed call and one message. I switched off the rings etc so I can use it to time lectures. Because I left my clock at a friend’s. I’ve rather enjoyed not knowing when a message has been coming through. The phone is now a potential message every time I look at it. Just like I’m a potential new symptom every time I look at myself.

And I look a lot.

© Pete Langman 2009

Please stop teaching them Shakespeare

Shakespeare. Let’s say it again. Shakespeare. A word which strikes fear into the average schoolchild, and eye-rolling boredom in the average adult. But why? Received wisdom says that Shakespeare is the great genius of literature, so far ahead of the pack that many refuse to believe he even existed, putting his plays down to a ‘tortured genius’ like Marlowe, a simple genius like Bacon, a toff like the Earl of Oxford, or some sort of literary conspiracy.

All nonsense, of course, but it reflects the fact that Shakespeare is more than simply the playwright. He’s an industry, an icon of Englishness, the cultural glue that binds. His legacy amounts to something more than the sum of the parts, the plays, the hundreds of phrases he introduced, or the slightly misleading truism that the OED lists more words as having their first outing in Shakespeare than in any other writer’s work. For some, Shakespeare practically created the English language, and if you believe Harold Bloom, he invented the human being. This, I presume, is why the government recently decided that children as young as five ought to be studying Shakespeare. As schools minister Jim Knight put it in these pages a mere brace of weeks past, “Shakespeare is the most famous playwright of all time. One of our great Britons, his work is studied all over the world. It is fitting then that his work is a protected part of the curriculum in the country he came from.” It’s certainly true that, as one of my MA students recently observed, Shakespeare “straddles high and low culture”, as he’s simultaneously the autocthenous bard of bawdy ribaldy and testy insults, whose characters swear, drink and fornicate, and the absolute of high culture. Name a character ruder than Falstaff, a work of art held in higher esteem than Hamlet. I dare you.

Ay, there’s the point. So why is it that when undergraduates are presented with the choice of a course on Shakespeare, they tend to skip it? Why do so few of them go to see his plays? The answer, I’m afraid, is simple. They don’t get Shakespeare. They don’t appreciate it. They don’t like Shakespeare. This is something of a problem, as the government, the school system, the Shakespeare industry and the media are constantly banging the “Shakespeare is the great cultural pillar on which our country’s character is based” drum. If we ignore the slight whiff of propaganda and brain-washing this pushing of Shakespeare onto our youth resembles, then there’s a real problem. We’re making our youth dislike the very thing we tell them is both the great unifying experience of Englishness, and the acme of high culture. Personally, I’m not convinced that this is a good thing.

Mr Knight was quoted in The Times as saying that “even very young children can become gripped by Shakespeare’s stories and characters,” and unsurprisingly, they’re going to be indulging in pastimes such as “using puppets and masks to retell their own versions of Shakespearean stories.” I suppose they can be gripped by these stories, and perhaps one or two of the characters, but there’s a problem here. As we all know, if you boil Shakespeare down to the plots he’s neither particularly good nor remotely original. In a very real sense, there are no Shakespearean stories. They’re all nicked. Every last jack one of ‘em. His manipulation of these second-hand plots is interesting, and worthy of study, but what school is going to make their children read The Iliad and Chaucer and Lydgate’s medieval treatments of the Troilus story before getting onto Troilus and Cressida? None. So instead we feed our children Bowdlerised versions of the least interesting parts of Shakespeare, while society tells them that when it comes to writing, he’s the one. And “one of the greatest Britons ever”, to boot. No wonder they’re disillusioned. Macbeth reduced to three scabby witches brewing newt soup is high culture? This was produced by a great Briton? Yes, they might love Romeo and Juliet, but that’s because of Leonardo di Caprio, not Shakespeare.

The genius of Shakespeare lies in the language, not the stories. Of course, the plots help frame and direct the language, but what Shakespeare did better than anyone else is writing. Why, then, must we insist on force-feeding our schoolchildren these great plays of western civilisation, and yet ignore the very essence of their greatness?.

But here’s the rub. Shakespeare’s language is difficult. Far too difficult for the majority of schoolchildren. And eventually they’ll have to put down their puppets and confront it. But it seems that making them struggle through it just because Shakespeare is this great, shining cultural edifice simply alienates them, makes them hate the man, hate the plays, while giving them the sneaking suspicion that high culture, and for that matter Englishness, excludes them. The government is perhaps right to note that Shakespeare isn’t embedded in the hearts and minds of our youth, but rather than trying to make it accessible by reducing it to a bundle of specious ‘universal themes’, we might do better to accept and embrace the fact that Shakespeare is tough. Accept the fact that it’s too difficult for most, if not all, schoolchildren (and I use the term so we don’t get confused with university students). So let’s not teach it to them until they get to university.

Yes, you read right. Of course, some will say that this simply puts Shakespeare back in the hands of the university elite, but it never really left, did it? It’s true that teaching Shakespeare at school just might turn on a couple of kids onto Shakespeare who’ll never go into higher education, but it’s already turning off far more than that amongst those who are going into University. Don’t ban them from reading Shakespeare, just don’t force them to.

In my experience, and I’m not alone, undergraduates arrive at University neither equipped to deal with Shakespeare, nor much liking it. The nature of A level study encourages them to spit out impressive-sounding but empty phrases and concepts they’ve learnt practically by rote rather than indulge in considered analysis. This is both because of the need to get A grades, and because Shakespeare is too difficult for them. The result is that we get some students who can barely string a coherent sentence together, let alone construct an argument of any kind. Re-training them is difficult when they’re already sick of the texts we admire so much.

But they aren’t ill-equipped because they are stupid, or because their teachers are rubbish: it’s simply that they’re ill-served by this Shakespeare obsession. The time they spend ‘reading’ something they really can’t get is wasted time, the net result of which is that when they read Shakespeare, they see ink, not poetry. First-year undergraduate essays on Shakespeare are too often Cocteau meets Larkin: they have a beginning, a muddle, and an end, just not necessarily in that order.

We can’t teach English without literature, of course, but let’s give them works they can access, appreciate, even if they have to be ‘classics’: literature which they can read without having to translate it first. The literary minded A level student is more likely to see themselves as a type of Byron or Bronte, a Coleridge or a Camus than a playwright like Shakespeare – unless you consider Joe Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love. But Joe played Shakespeare as a Byronic or Keatsian hero. It’s the romantics and the existentialists who provide perfect reading for the angst-ridden years. So, let’s take the Lyrical Ballads as a starting-point, throw in Wuthering Heights, perhaps some Wilkie Collins. Give them Keats, Hemingway, Hunter S Thompson. Stuff that inspires, not confuses. Give them writers they’ll want to quote, writers they’ll want to steal lines from. Compare Churchill with George Bush, not with Henry V. When they get to University they can study the difficult stuff like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Spenser.

Dropping Shakespeare from the school curriculum is not sacrilege, it’s wisdom. Sacrilege is making them hate Shakespeare by forcing them to read it at school as a result of misguided cultural arrogance. A student will only read the difficult, truly rewarding stuff if they want to. If they’ve read Pullman, for example, by the time they’re given Paradise Lost they might actually want to read it, and not give up after ploughing through the argument. Read enough, and you soon notice that Shakespeare turns up everywhere. It isn’t long before you want to go direct to source.

Let’s do a thought experiment. You’re a thoughtful, skillful and accomplished reader, because you’ve been shown how to read properly at school. And you still read books. You keep bumping into Shakespeare in other works, so you decide to read some, because he must have something going on, right? Everyone talks about him, after all. You pick up Richard III. Imagine reading his opening soliloquy for the first time. Imagine reaching the passage where Richard meets Anne with the corpse of her almost father-in-law (killed by Richard) and practically seduces her, before making off with the body. Now that’s the power of words. It would blow your mind. Show it to a kid and they’ll go ‘whatever’. And rightly so.

So. To sum up. Leave Shakespeare until university. At school, teach children to read confidently and write clearly. Equip them with the tools they need to read the difficult stuff themselves, later on, should they choose to. Then when they get to University, or pick it up through choice, they’ll meet this great literature and it will be fresh and new and it will amaze and entrance them, not bore them. And we’ll produce graduates who really can read, who really can write, and not just churn out stock phrases and arguments without understanding them. And, more to the point, I won’t have to mark any more essays which use words like ‘widespreadily’, suggest that things were done ‘in a plotish way’, tell me that Spenser finishes his stanzas with an ‘alexandrian’, or write sentences such as ‘it is consciously self-aware of itself as a new self-reflexive style’. Oh, hang on, that last one was Derrida, wasn’t it?

© Pete Langman 2008

To see what chapped my hide so much, just go here:

Delayed reactions

Stag weekends are traditionally repositories of events of the ‘what goes on the road, stays on the road’ category. They occur, embarrass, and then are slowly manipulated as the group folklore goes into overdrive, turning what was a relatively trite incident into the great escape. In fact, the point of a stag do is to generate stories which can be returned to at the wedding in conspiratorial fashion by those who attended, if only to lend the party an air of greater manliness. After all, a bunch of thirty and forty-somethings going for a curry and a few clubs after a day’s ‘activity’ is really quite daring. But, part of the joy of the stag do is the hangover – the delayed reaction which tells you you must have had a good time. And if you’re lucky, some sort of altercation with the police.

The ‘do’ itself was quite standard. A bunch of not really lads any more have dinner, spend a day quad-biking and clay pigeon shooting and getting unfeasibly muddy, then have dinner again and hit the clubs in Newcastle where they behave as if they were far younger and better looking, before eventually fragmenting and pouring themselves back into their guest house.

Now, police stories tend to start with the sudden realisation of a misdemeanour following the initial protestations of innocence, just as a hangover always seems to wait until you’re convinced you’ve escaped before creeping over the horizon with its dull ache … here, the hangover was the brush with the authorities, and boy, was it delayed. So delayed, in fact, that it hit me several months after the actual wedding!

It was December of last year, while I was travelling to San Francisco. I was neatly bearded, hair down, wearing a white, hippyish shirt – the check-in guy at Gatwick simply said ‘it’s Frank Zappa!’ I was in Charlotte, South Carolina. I had cleared customs, re-packed and was in the long security line for the internal flight. I had joked with the security guards, talked shop with a fellow queue-ee, and all was well. Then, however, things became strange. After my hand luggage has gone through the machine, I’m about to pick it up when I’m directed into the holding pen. For those of you who have yet to have this delightful experience, it’s a perspex corridor slap-bang in the middle of everything. They stick you in, and you feel like a sheep being dipped. I just thought to myself, well, I guess I do look a little like a muslim …

Then, nothing. No instructions, zip. Nada. I’m about to walk out (thinking I may have been meant to do this all along, when a security man opens the door, and gestures that I should bear right. At this point, I hear those delightful words, ‘it’s the full monty for this one’ (was I meant to start dancing to Diana Ross?), and I’m pointed at a desk to the left with two rather more serious-looking guards.

Naturally, much goes through one’s head at this point, and quite plainly, the tight-sphinctered fear of, well, not having quite so tight a sphincter quite soon.

They ask me whether I’d like the interview to be carried out in private. They wouldn’t, surely? Not in public? Public, public, public … there will be no rubber gloves.

So, smiler no. 1 asks me a bunch of questions while smiler no. 2 takes my stuff and swabs it and rootles about. Now, I’m actually unconcerned, so when they’re about to search my bag and ask if I have any drugs in there, I say yes. Sudden, serious, stoney face. Prescription! I blurt. Do I have the prescription, they as? Of course not, but I explain what they’re for, and that they can google it if they fancy checking (they look suspicious when I mention it), before pointing out the problem with not taking them (see ‘side effects’, forthcoming). They acquiesce.

What’s your connecting flight? They enquire. I state. Well, you’ll be missing that, sir.

This as the machine goes ‘beep’. Not loudly, but almost malevolently. Smiler no. 2 has swabbed my boots. He doesn’t look happy. In fact, they both look as if they’re preparing to restrain me. This doesn’t look good.

I rather nervously say ‘oh, I know what you’ve found … gunpowder on my boots’. They ask more questions, I explain about the stag do, the quad bikes, my boots, the clay shooting (or skeets, as it is there). Smiler no. 1 seems happier with this manly talk of shooting things, before his demeanour drops again. No, sir. Not gunpowder.

Well, I say, what was it. If I know what it is we may be able to work out where it’s from.

‘It’s not the kind of thing a professor of english literature would understand’, say smiler 1, plainly thinking my story is rather dodgy, and …

Smiler no. 2 says something like ‘we’ve found pete on the boots’, and, trying not to giggle at the idea of their finding traces on me on my boots, I recognise the term, and am about to say ‘how on earth did …’ when he says, simply, ‘plastic explosives. Can you explain why there are traces of plastic explosive on your boots, sir?’ Hmm. This in not good. Visions of guantanamo waft over me, alongside the certainty of my being arrested, and if I’m lucky, merely never being allowed in the states again.

They interrogate me further, finally decide I’m straight up, and I’m soon running for my flight. It seems funny now, but at the time I was, well, perturbed would be a reasonable word which fails to come anywhere close!

As with life, there simply are things beyond our control. They simply appear, grinning, quite often hefting a piece of 4×2 … and do what they will. There’s no point in complaining, whining, or moping. Roll with it. You have no choice.

Jane Austen does MMA

Sitting on a plane with a laptop and Jane Austen is bound to lead to trouble. Reading the arch-observer of human nature while shooting forwards through the thin upper atmosphere in a metal tube gives one plenty of time to think, to watch, to listen. And to worry.

My nature is relatively simple. I look at what I’ve done, think to myself that it ought to have been better, and contemplate ways in which I can. ‘What do I need to do’ is almost a mantra. Recently, several things have changed. I have a job, doing what I actually think I do best – teaching. For all my intimidating presence and propensity to hector my students, they tend, in the end, to listen. Sometimes they even grow to like me. A recent facebook thread I entered into is a case in point. It was an odd argument, with my antagonists singularly failing to get what I was on about, and getting very right-on holier than thou with their argument – it was a girl singer who plays some metal guitar on her single. They were in rhapsodies. I said they wouldn’t be if she were a guy. They said it doesn’t matter what ‘between your legs’ (interesting they didn’t go chromozonal) even though earlier one had suggested he could watch it all day ‘with the sound off’ – when the original poster, an ex-student, stepped in. ‘I understand where mr langman is coming from (they don’t know who you are)’. I was taken aback by the sudden respect, almost reverence.

So, I’m thinking about my advancement. Whether I’ve wasted a year training in shotokan when I not only seem to have gone backwards, but am increasingly treated like a novice. Interesting. But it’s time to move on. To something more direct. So next year will be the year of tae-jitsu. Interesting, and more chance to hit people (and get hit). I love the form and discipline of karate, but its sharp, controlled techniques are becoming increasingly hard to control. As is my own nature.

My nature, as I suggested, is simple. I just want to be good. Damn good. And yet the timescale within which I have to work is increasingly small. I seem to be having more left-hand trouble. More evenings when it is recalcitrant, when forks are a bitch, and when it hangs stiffly by my trouser pocket, as if held by a long, invisible sling. My concentration is shot. Five years ago I would have read Mansfield Park by now – now I’m just over one quarter of the way in. but I seem to be developing new strategies.

At nets on sunday, when I finally got to bat, I noticed that not only was I coping much, much better than usual, but was complimented on my straight bat, and how I looked like a natural front foot player. So the work is paying off, it seems. Will it translate into runs? I think so. In fact, I know so. I have grand ambitions for next season, and they include at least one century. So I seem to be slowly adjusting to my new deficiencies – on this flight I have had probably ten discrete sections of activity. Editing, reading, writing, reading, editing, reading, writing, reading, contemplating, writing … and when approached in these quanta, so to speak, I seem to be achieving.

Though it’s my natural inclination to fight, to argue, to rage, it is increasingly obvious that this is possible in a new way. How better to defeat an opponent than to refuse to engage on their terms. Make them come to you. Marc Antony forgot that at Actium. Look what happened to him. But it feels so like admitting defeat. But I must ignore that feeling, and concentrate on my own advancement. And that means focusing on myself, and fighting when, where, and with whom I choose.

Performance anxiety I

[November 2009]

This evening, yesterday evening, all most strange. I’m getting nervous when I’m onstage. Why? That is an interesting question. Let’s look back just a little.

So – and yes I know that I start too many sentences this way – I’m in some godforsaken place which looks and feels like it’s a film set. Only the film is an urban Deliverance. And not even that urban. Small town deliverance. Midsomer mutants. Hell, it was strange. This is how strange …

Imagine yourself in the seventh of what seems like an inexhaustible supply of charity shops. You are looking through the tat and shite of a crappy, odd little town full of very, very strange people … there is something strange, however; something you can’t quite put your finger on. And let’s face it, you really don’t want to put your finger on it, either. Then your eyes stray upwards, and you get a fuzzy, out-of-focus picture of what might well be a colony of multi-coloured fruit bats. Then, slowly, your eyes focus … it’s a little like when you look at the ceiling of the car, and the plastic shit with the little holes in totally fucks up your vision. Your brain can’t work out whether they’re super-close up or miles away. So it refuses to process distance, and you see indecision. Your eyes focus, and you truly wish they hadn’t. Those bars you see in american films where they cut your tie off and pin it to the ceiling. That’s what’s going on (wouldn’t you punch the bastard?). Except it’s not a plague of roosting ties, but a plethora of pants. Yes pants. Conjure up that image and be really, really afraid. You must be going. But you haven’t yet looked above your head … oh, so you’re standing directly beneath the ‘special’ pants section. Here the bats are leather, pvc, red, black, lacy, crotchless – there’s even a whip.

No. not far enough. I’m drinking, playing old tunes to a friend. Wow! She says. That’s beautiful. I’m flattered. Then she says I want to sing it. Good luck getting someone to play it, say I. I want to play it with you. Dream on, say I. But she wheedles and flatters and finally grinds me down. The plan is to play two songs at an open mic evening … one populated by friends. We rehearse. Damn, I’m good. The song is good. Let me explain. It is played in an open-tuning, and the right-hand fingers play constant sixteenth notes. For four and a half minutes. Fast. It’s really, really tough. We take to the stage, and I start the rolling … and after 90 seconds or so … I get cramp. My right hand stops. Just s-t-o-p-s. I grimace and let the tune roll with some judicious strummage … then it stops again. And again. It is all I can do to stop myself from destroying my guitar. The second tune I sing – it’s all about anger, but I’m too angry; too stressed; too freaked. As we leave the stage I am incandescent with rage. Everyone says how wonderful, but they lie; they fucking lie … and then a kid says are you pete langman? I say yes he says when are we going to hear you play the electric guitar I say never I don’t anymore and he starts arguing, hassling, and I just want to hide …

Cut to a family do. In mutant town. I’ve been practising one flamenco piece on the guitar for a few weeks, and my grand-parents in law want to hear … so I sit on the stairs into the dining room and start. Me, her and two old people who speak no english. I’m a little shaky, but am coping. This is, say, six years after the open mic fiasco. Then my in-laws walk in. I shake. I stop. I actually tell them to fuck off. I point out that they weren’t invited. And I begin to realise that my real problem is one of stage fright. Performance anxiety. Good god. I can’t cope with being on the stage.

So there I am, sitting through a long memorial at which several grandees are speaking. And I am to provide the final word, so to speak. No pressure, then. I [and please note, I am now continuing this several weeks later, blind, so to speak. As an experiment] eventually take to the podium and crack some gentle academic jokes, with suitable pauses, and all laugh, as directed. Any nerves visible put down to emotion.

So, what do I do when asked whether I want my contribution published? You are kidding me? My instinct is to say no, because I’m mildly rude about my father, which will, I suspect, upset my mother. But then to refuse might be considered churlish.

This isn’t stage fright anymore, but publication anxiety. I still haven’t received a copy of my first essay to be published. The submission I sent in last week languishes uncriticised, and my own collection, well, the report basically said the essays are fine and dandy, but the intro blows. More christmas work.

© Pete Langman 2009