Category Archives: Creative Writing

Get Out vs Green Book

Representations of the Black Experience from the Inside-out and the Outside-in

get-out-2017-4.jpggreen_book_poster

Two films that, on the surface, may share some ostensible similarities – a bi-racial road-trip to the Deep South leading to encounters with the post-bellum Jim Crow mentality entrenched there (even to this day) – reveal, on deeper analysis, discourses emerging from dialectically-opposed paradigms. Green Book (Farrelly, 2018), is a meat-and-two-veg road movie about an ‘odd couple’ starring a beefed up Viggo Mortensen as Italian-American bouncer Tony Lip, and an awards-friendly performance from Mahershala Ali as Dr Shirley, a genius pianist of aristocratic bent. Lip, an artless ‘rough diamond’ from the Bronx, is hired to drive the talented, fussy Doc to a series of elite music venues in the Deep South, acting as driver, fixer and bodyguard. On one level it is class comedy, as each scenario offers amusing contrasts between the two very different sensibilities. Yet, the further south they go, the greater the racism (it is undoubtedly there in the north but often depicted, in the film at least, as unconscious bias rather than out-and-out hostility and American Apartheid ). The titular ‘Green Book’ is used to orientate to ‘colored’ accommodation. The contrast with the elegant concert halls is sobering, a shocking demi-monde haunted by the ‘Negro’ underclass, but more so the increasingly antagonistic treatment by the locals. This should all feel awful, but sadly seems wearily predictable – both the racism and the plot. Without risk of ‘spoilers’ you just know that Lip and Shirley will bond in the end and overcome adversity together. So far, so safe. Although ostensibly ‘tackling’ racism, Green Book shows itself repeatedly to be cloth-eared to it. It has the authentic sincerity of an 80s protest song – shallow and virtue-signalling. Farrelly’s film is a feel-good movie for white liberals: white man saves the day and we can all go home feeling we’ve done something worthy. But this movie does not destabilise the status quo but reinforces it. However great the performances of both Mortensen and Ali, this cannot redeem the normalisation of racism that occurs frequently in the first act: we are still expected to identify with Lip even though he wishes to throw away glasses used by black workmen, and shows unapologetic schadenfreude in forcing the elderly Asian butler to pack the suitcases. Worse, Lip is shown ‘educating’ Shirley about ‘black culture’, stereotyped as fried chicken and pop music, claiming outrageously to be ‘more black than he was’.  The lonely, but dignified Doctor is reduced to being ‘grateful’ for the pale saviour: crumbs from the table of white privilege. It is meant to be the emotional pay-off, a schmaltzy ‘heart-warming message’ that misfires in a disturbing way. Green Book offers a smooth ride – the period detail, the depiction of Italian-American life, the impressive musical set-pieces – but ultimately we are taken to a dead-end.

In Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) we are in a very different universe: here, the full horror of racism is unmasked. It is a movie that is hyper-alert to everyday racism; to unconscious and conscious bias; to the power discourses of white America. It tracks a couple – a black photographer, Chris Washington, played with visceral conviction by British-actor Daniel Kaluuya, and his pretty white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (a deceptive performance by Allison Williams) – who return to the Armitage home in the Deep South for the much-dreaded ‘meet the parents’ encounter. This is problematised by the discovery that they do not know their beloved daughter has a black boyfriend. Rose reassures Chris that they are Obama-voting liberals, yet, without giving it away, nothing is what it seems. Things go rapidly ‘south’ in many ways. The use of the Horror genre effectively shocks the audience into the true horror of racism, and its ugly bedfellows – white supremacy and eugenics. It could be a companion piece to Spike Lee’s award-winning BlacKkKlansman (2018). Both depict the reality of race in America from a black perspective (Peele; Lee) – vastly different in tone to the tone-deaf quality of Green Book. Farrelly’s movie offers a threadbare comfort blanket in a world where the Alt-Right is not only on the rise, but already in government, or hugely influential on those which are.  Whileas, in the deeply unsettling world of Get Out the audience is strapped into the chair and forced to watch the nightmare unfold. Green Book hypnotizes us with its lush visuals and cool soundtrack – and before we know it, where are in the Dismal Sink of acceptance. We become, like Washington’s character, voyeurs in the void, watching the horror of the white world diminish away to a mere rectangle in the dark.

Farrelly’s film attempts to, ludicrously, ‘solve’ racism with a road-trip, whileas Peele’s film instaurates racism’s full horror – a horror we are all complicit in. The ending of both is telling of this diametrically-opposed vision of reality: while the former ends with a friendly cop helping to fix a tyre in the snow, the latter ends with the TSA friend extracting Washington from the blood-bath (a Grand Guignol scene which, if an actual cop had arrived, would have ended very differently). In Green Book, the status quo is restored (the institutional racism of the police force is white-washed out), whileas in Get Out the ‘old/new normal’ is: survival in a hostile world.

In theory, in a highly toxic cultural and political landscape where the Far Right regain the prominence and influence of the 1930s, and xenophobic and divisive voices are regularly given platforms in the media, one should applaud any film that tries to send out a message of multi-cultural ‘tolerance’, yet such insipid good intentions pave the way to Nazi Hell. We need the provocative (and successful) films of Jordan Peele, Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins, and others, to shock the audience awake.

A footnote to this: Jordan Peele is directing a serialisation of Matt Ruff’s provocative novel, Lovecraft Country’ (2016) for Netflix (with JJ Abrams producing) and in that a road-trip to the Maine Coast associated with Lovecraft’s Cthulu Mythos is navigated by use of ‘The Safe Negro Travel Guide’, a fictionalised version of the ‘Green Book’. On the surface, a mash-up of the two main films discussed above, but with Peele at the wheel, Lovecraft Country promises to be a very different beast to Farrelly’s glib excursion. Watch this space.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2019

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Pen Mine

FRONT COVER NEW 3 DEC 18

In the long hot summer of 2018 I decided to walk along the Pennine Way, a 253 mile (or more depending on optional routes and distances to and from accommodation) national trail that follows the spine of England from its Black Country sacrum and coccyx in the Derbyshire Peak District to the axis and atlas of Northumberland and the Scottish Borders. It had become a custom of mine to undertake a long walk at the end of the academic year as a way to unwind. This year it was needed more than ever after a particular intensive trimester involving the completion and submission of my PhD thesis. I also wished to undergo a kind of cultural ‘detox’ – from social media, from the news, from mad dog presidents, the World Cup, and the omnishambles of Brexit. The world was too noisy. I wanted to turn down the volume.  Walking for days on end, mainly solo (albeit for a couple of pleasant days when a dear friend joined me), I find de-stressing and immensely rewarding. After a few days I can hear myself think again. Ideas start to bubble up, unbidden. Although I did not set off (this time) hoping for inspiration, inspiration came nevertheless. Days of profound silence (or at least peacefulness) allows one to hear the quieter voices that are often drowned out by the white noise of modern existence.

It was while hiking from Haworth to Ickornshaw on the fifth day of my holiday that such an idea came to me: ‘to write [initially] 9 pieces exploring my core beliefs, using the visceral experience of walking the spine of England to tap into the bedrock of my belief’, as I put it in my little notebook. These ‘pieces’ were to be ‘…philosophical enquiries, each framed by my day’s walk’, but critically, ‘drawing upon my own ideas, not the digested opinions of other authors, other books’. I did so much of that, I opined, in my academic life (the almost neurotic referencing and justifying, the pedantic splitting of hairs and compulsive couching of terms – dutifully citing everyone else’s opinion except your own) it would be liberating to tune into what I think, what I believe.

 I am a great fan of the literary essay and deeply admire the mastery of Montaigne, Sebald and Solnit (to name three favourites), but I did not want this to be a performance of erudition, a showcase of my reading, of my learning to date (however useful such a process can be). I wanted to adopt a more embodied, intuitive approach, drawing upon what insights I could glean during my day’s hike, from what I felt as much as what I thought. The nearest practice that I have personal knowledge of is that of the ‘Earth Walk’, when one asks a question, then meditates upon that while walking in silence, senses open, hyper-alert to what answers nature may provide.  My approach would be simply to hold the chosen theme of the day lightly in my head and heart as I wandered along, while not allowing it to block out anything else. It would be a porous field of awareness, allowing the texture of the day to flow through it – and ‘snagging’ anything that seemed relevant, that could add to my deeper understanding of the chosen theme. It is so easy to drop down into an almost animal state when walking – it is trance-inducing, and one becomes hypnotized by the movement, by making progress, by achieving the next goal. One’s level of awareness narrows to the quotidian and visceral:  immediate dis/comfort; heat or cold; wet or dryness; hunger and thirst; fatigue and rest; motion and stillness. I wanted, in this practice, to focalise my experience – not let the days slip by, trudging along like some mindless walking machine. And so, excited by the idea, I quickly thought of nine potential themes, which I added to when I let go of my desire to punish the toponym (‘pen … nine’) so literally. I wrote up my insights at the end of the day, and I have tried to resist anything but essential editing, transcribing them here from my notebook. They capture the way the thoughts tumbled out on the day, ‘line-fresh’. They became my daily haul and however modest they may be – some may feel my micro-essais merely state the obvious; others may find them niggling or even intensely disagreeable – they nonetheless represent a fair cross-section of my core values as felt and believed in that summer of burning moors and blue skies – a vertebrae of beliefs upon which I fall or stand, an itinerant soul making his way across this wild, roaming, irreplaceable Earth.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2018

Order a print copy from Lulu for only £5 today:

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Coming Down the Mountain

Mount Kinabalu, Borneo

Comin’ down the mountain
One of many children
Everybody has
Their own opinion

‘Mountain Song’, Jane’s Addiction

I stood on the precipitous summit, a heart-stopping pinnacle, 13,435 ft up, looking down over the rainforest fastness of Borneo, exuding its mist like a tropical collective unconscious – the intoxicating, dangerously wild dreams of the jungle. It was 1996 and I was 25 and I had just climbed the highest mountain in Malaysia and the 20th most prominent in the world, topographically. It was an exhilarating experience, but even then I knew my achievement was relative. For me it was a ‘peak experience’, a personal high, whileas in mountaineering terms, it’s a cake-walk. Thousands of people climb Kinabalu every year. That doesn’t make it easy – it is an interminable slog, one that requires overnighting halfway up to make it possible to reach the summit for dawn. Even if packs are carried by porters or left at base-camp, the steep trek through the sticky heat leaves one dripping sweat until you get higher up – and then the air starts to get thin. But this isn’t Everest base-camp (which at 17, 598 ft is 4000+ ft more). Still, it felt like an effort – and the final ascent, across the plateau to the ironically-named Low’s Peak, is out of this world.

I was reminded of this incredible experience by my recent Viva (Monday, 29th October) and its immediate aftermath. It is a truism, but a wise one, that the most dangerous part of climbing a mountain is the descent – for that is when over-confidence, and fatigue, can kick in. There have been waves of euphoria over the last few days – each time the reality hits me – but also, at times, an emptiness and malaise. This is not surprising – I’ve been pushing myself, hard, for days, weeks, months, years. I’ve handed in my thesis and passed my viva. Apart from some minor revisions, the show is over. And so no wonder it feels like the post-gig blues, the ‘adrenal-out’ as my partner calls it. The endorphins have been discharged and you are left with a serotonin low. It is hard to find the motivation to do anything. Yet life continues – marking, teaching, preparation for dayschools, filling in application forms, etc. I should allow myself a few days to recover. It has been an intense time, and I do feel completely wiped out. It hit me last night at a Halloween gathering – when I found myself struggling to stay awake. Maybe by next week I’ll start to feel myself again. For the PhD isn’t over yet. It is akin to the last day of my Pennine Way hike. 13 miles in I had reached the highest point of Windy Gyle, but there was still 12.5 miles (and several summits) to go. This was the hardest part of the hike as culminative fatigue set in (from 17 days of 15 mile hikes in a heatwave). I had to really draw upon inner reserves – but I had been building towards this for over two weeks, and I was ready. Also, I knew I didn’t have to hold anything back, for the next day I would be jumping on a train and heading south. A few blisters and aching limbs wasn’t going to kill me – but it was still painful, as my feet really reached ‘peak blister’. I had to ration my water carefully in the heat, but after training up for half-marathons I knew I could go for 6 miles without a sip. Just as well. My dwindling supply of jelly beans saved the day. The combination of exhaustion, heat, pain, adrenalin and mild euphoria at the prospect of reaching the end made me slightly bosky, and at one point I ran down the steep paths of the Cheviots, with my full pack on, singing my heart out to a song that I had kept in reserve for a final boost. I would have looked quite a sight, running down the mountain. It was a crazy, reckless thing to do, which could have easily led to an accident – but … I lived to tell the tale. As I reached Kirk Yetholm my fellow hikers (all of whom had split the 25 miler by either getting picked up and dropped off by the guest house in Byrness, or bothying it, unlike Muggsy here) burst into cheers and applause, as I came hobbling into sight. Wainwright advised not to expect anyone to care when you walked into the bar at the Borders Hotel, but here I was, getting the hard-won respect of a dozen or so Pennine Wayfarers. And similarly, these last three days I have had the pleasure of receiving heartfelt congratulations from many dear friends – which has meant a great deal. One undertakes these things alone, and to achieve them is a long, lonely effort – with the odd, deeply appreciated bit of supervision or support along the way – so this sense of acknowledgment feels like an important stage of re-assimilation into the community. One has had the vision upon the mountain. Now it is time to reincorporate it (and oneself) into the tribe. Time to chop wood, fetch water. Each day, a slow descent back to the Plain of Being where the existential challenge of life continues.

 

 

 

 

The Old Ones Speak

Aberfoyle graveyard by Kevan Manwaring.jpg

Aberfoyle churchyard. Photograph by Kevan Manwaring (2014)

Tonight is Halloween, or Samhain in Gaelic (‘Summer’s End’) – traditionally a time to honour the ancestors. For me, coming a couple of days after my PhD viva, it is overwhelmed by the emotional aftermath of that intense experience and the euphoria of passing (with minor revisions). I am still getting my head around the prospect of becoming a Doctor, which becomes official once I graduate but since fellow academics (my examiners, my referees, including Professor Ronald Hutton) are already calling me ‘Dr Manwaring’ it is feels like the change of status has already occurred and the minor revisions, a formality. The project that enabled me to achieve this long-term (6 year) goal is, when you drill down into it, all about the ancestors. My protagonist, Janey McEttrick, is a musician based near Asheville, North Carolina. She plays in a jobbing rock band and works part-time in a vintage record store (a hauntological nod there). She is spinning wheels, or perhaps worse – on the slippery slope of alcohol and drug-addiction. For she is in denial of her gifts, her heritage: for she is descended from a long-line of singer-seers, gifted, troubled women: the McEttrick Women. Through extensive research I sought to bring alive the voices of nine generations of these women, stretching back three hundred years to the time of the Rev. Robert Kirk, Episcopalian minister and author of the sui generis monograph, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (1691/1815). Only by coming to terms with who she is can Janey finally find peace – in doing so she will discover her own authentic voice, as she aligns with her remarkable lineage and heritage. To do this she has to travel to the old country, Scotland, and release the trapped spirit of the Reverend, who according to popular belief in the Aberfoyle area, was ‘taken’ by the Good People, and remains trapped there as punishment for revealing their secrets – a folkloric Edward Snowden, permanently held in limbo beyond the pale of loved ones and the soil of his soul. This is a process sometimes called ‘ancestral clearing’ – a form of karmic irrigation which will free up the blocked energies of her blood-line (‘blockage’ or ‘usurpation’ being key criteria of the Sublime). This convoluted tale colonised my imagination for around 6 years. I didn’t choose it; it chose me. One day, Janey walked into my head, picked up her guitar and started playing – and she refused to leave until I told her story, and the story of her kin. The ‘old ones’ wanted to speak, to be heard. In their the story of the McEttrick Women I’ve told the story of many families, who experienced the dislocation of the Clearances (Highland; Lowland) and the Famine, forced into permanent exile, their soul-songs becoming cianalas, songs of longing piquant with sehnsucht.  It has taken me a substantial part of my life and considerable time, energy and effort – in short, sacrifice – to ‘sing’ this song of longing on behalf of these marginalised voices. Now, I feel I am finally being released – free to sing other songs. My own wish now is for these subaltern voices to be heard by as many people as possible, and so I seek the best possible home for my novel, The Knowing – a Fantasy, so that the work of Kirk and the lives of the McEttrick Women lives on.

Much of the transmedia elements of the novel and my research are accessible to all via my website: www.thesecretcommonwealth.com

The Dog Has Its Day

The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers

A Review by Kevan Manwaring

The Gallows Pole

This extraordinary novel exudes sense of place like a slab of gritstone and peat, oozing copper-coloured water. Myers, through his painstaking evocation of idiom and ecolect, brings alive his neck of the woods (Mytholmroyd) and its social history is loving detail. It is the kind of deep mapping that can only be achieved through a slow-burn relationship with a place and its people.

It is a feisty dramatisation of the Cragg Vale Coiners (AKA Turvin Clippers) – a band of desperate, disenfranchised and marginalised Yorkshiremen, who during the time of King George III, ‘clipped’ coins in the Calder Valley area, led by the charismatic and dangerous local tough, the self-styled ‘King David Hartley’, and his brothers. As a historical novel, this obscure fragment of British working class counter-history, might have had limited appeal (although the story of financial shenanigans has a topical resonance – the micro-scale of the Coiners’ fraud has ironic distance when compared to the global, institutionalised, and legitimized banking crisis that came to light in 2008 – when the crooks not only got away with it, but our governments forced us to pay for their Casino-like behaviour with the economy by propping up the morally- and financially bankrupt banking system and issuing in an Age of Austerity),  but the whole episode is not only grippingly-told, but rendered in exquisitely tough, localised prose.

The structure alternates between a vividly retold account of the rise and fall of the Coiners’ fortunes (the memento mori of the title means there are no spoilers here) and Hartley’s prison-based ‘memoir’, written in thick, phonetic dialect evoking his ‘ill-education’ but also the indeterminate nature of English, which had not yet been standardised through widely available dictionaries. Even language had been politicized and monetized, for only the ‘educated classes’ (from wealthy, privileged families) had control over it – through their legalese and use of the available media: the printed word on posters, newspapers, books and bibles. The oral tradition belonged to the poor, where a rich, alternative literacy flowed through the land.

Hartley is depicted in a visceral, unvarnished way – there is nothing civilised about him. He is no Romantic anti-hero (ironically it is one of the chief protagonists, the solicitor Robert Parker, who apparently was a possible inspiration for Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff). Hartley is a brutish Alpha Male who bullies his way into power and through his pack-like influence on his followers, controls his empire through thuggish proto-gangster violence, while at the same time bringing a reversal of fortune to the lives of the Valley folk. As the Coiners prosper they ‘look after their own’, and Hartley is, to local eyes at least, a Robin Hood figure, one who sticks it to the man (‘Clip a Coin and Fuck the Crown’). One can imagine the actor Tom Hardy doing a turn, playing him (as he once did play Heathcliff in full mumblecore mode), but before the film rights are sold (the book has been critically-acclaimed, winning prizes, and providing a breakout hit for the small press, Blue Moose) savour the prose of Myers dark tour-de-force. This is strong beer that is challenging to read at times – for it does not pull back from the ugly struggle of life – while simultaneously being a remarkable paean to the local universe of the Yorkshire moors, which are lifted to almost mythic heights, having a presence and power which bestows upon them a tangible (non-human) character and agency.

In a Nutshell

Diary of a Viva Ninja: Day 10

Walnut

Today I have been looking at introducing and summarising one’s thesis. One of the first questions the candidate is likely to be asked in a Viva is – ‘So what is it about?’ or words to that effect. Sometimes this is used as a good ‘warm-up’ question, to ease the student into the Viva, but also, critically, to assess whether the thesis is indeed their own unique work. Many students focus so much on the micro-detail that they sometimes come unstuck in this bigger, more obvious question. It is useful to have an ‘elevator pitch’ type response anyway, for those occasions when you may be asked about your research at a conference, or in less formal circumstances – the ‘BBQ speech’ as the Thesis Whisperer so wittily puts it. Much emphasis these days is on ‘widening access’ and academic brownie points are gained by being able to share one’s research with non-specialist audiences. This came up as a key theme on Monday when I co-hosted an Arts/Science showcase on Artificial Intelligence with a mathematics professor in the ‘Everybody’s Reading Festival 2018’, at a cool arts venue in Leicester (LCB Depot). We had a real cross-section in the audience – from the ‘lay’ to academics leading research into consciousness at De Montfort University. It was important to connect, to communicate, with them all. If one is only able to communicate with other specialist audiences within one’s own narrow field, then the research doesn’t really go very far – it becomes almost entropic (according to the 2nd law of thermodynamics). We have to be prepared (and able) to reach out beyond our particular bubble.

I’ve attempted an embryonic summary here – a first attempt. Not to be eligible for the 3MT competition (it is about 5 minutes, so I’ve failed the criteria already), but just to practise talking about my research. It felt like a useful exercise. See what you think. Does it communicate my research? Does it make you want to know more?

Discover the origins of the 3-Minute Thesis (3MT) at the University of Queensland here:

https://threeminutethesis.uq.edu.au/about

View winning examples here:

https://threeminutethesis.uq.edu.au/watch-3mt

Check out advice on preparing a 3-minute thesis here: https://thesiswhisperer.com/2010/07/01/how-to-sell-your-thesis-in-3-minutes-or-less/

VivaNinjadoodlebyKevan Manwaring.jpeg

Diary of a Viva Ninja: Day 5-8

Real Life: challenges or opportunities?

AI showcase - Prof Jeremy Levesley LCB Depot 1 October 2018 by Kevan Manwaeing

Every situation is a potential training or practice opportunity.

I’ve been unable to blog the last few days due to being intensely busy: five days of work which took me from Gloucestershire to Somerset, Bath to Heathrow, Wroughton to Northampton, to Oxford, Leicester and Stratford-upon-Avon,  before finally back to Stroud: leading a batch of bardic tours (my main source of additional income, which have enabled me to pay my PhD fees these last four years); running a writing workshop; and co-hosting an Arts/Science showcase in the Everybody’s Reading Festival. It’s been an exhausting time, especially with the travelling – but that’s all part of the reality and challenge of completing a PhD for most of us. Real life doesn’t stop happening. As John Lennon said: ‘Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans’, or to paraphrase, it’s what happens while you’re carefully planning and preparing for your Viva!

I have been making good progress, but all of that went out of the window since Friday. But now I can come up for air and continue – and things aren’t so bad. I am more or less on schedule, and most importantly feel like I’ve ‘got my head’ around the whole Viva process and refamiliarised myself with my thesis (critical commentary and novel). I’ve made copious notes, and read all the relevant material. I’ve drafted a list of questions – which I extended today with ‘Easy’, ‘Nightmare’ and ‘General’ questions. Now the priority really is to just keep practising. It is very easy to find Displacement Activities rather than face the cold, sobering reality of the forthcoming Viva (now imminent for me – at the end of this month). But as Polonius from Hamlet said: ‘Procrastination is the thief of time!’ It is easier to just get stuck in. Being rested, fed, refreshed, etc, really helps with this. Eating well, exercising, and getting a good night’s sleep is just as important (if not more so) than speed-reading a stack of books. However, I am finding identifying and reading relevant literature really helpful – especially critical works that will help maintain an ‘academic  consciousness’ (and provide useful theoretical underpinning too boot).  At the same time having something else to read when you’re relaxing is important too. You can’t stay switched on all the time.  Reading an excellent novel is just as vital in my subject-area and discipline as non-fiction critical works. And over the last five days I have used other essential Viva skills: presenting in front of diverse audiences; sustaining a high-level discussion and defending my ideas in the AI showcase; managing complexity, and unpredictable, stressful circumstances. Life, even in its distractions, can provide ‘training experiences’.

VivaNinjadoodlebyKevan Manwaring.jpeg