A large bit of Fry

And while I’m on the subject of tall, brilliant, funny and problematic Englishmen… Stephen Fry. Over at Quote Unquote, Stephen Stratford has a note about Fry, his genius and his insufferable side, having had to struggle recently through Fry’s autobiographies.

I’m more of a Fry fan, perhaps – Ok, I *love* QI. But I was disappointed in the autobiographies. I expected to enjoy them, but didn’t. The whole, repeated, ‘Oh you’ll think I’m awfully self-absorbed and wrapped in my own cleverness’ theme, put up as a defence shield which doesn’t work because, yes he is awfully self absorbed and wrapped in his own cleverness.  Constantly.

So he’s not so good on his own, but with a good ensemble around him – or just Hugh Laurie, who is a one-man-ensemble – I find him immensely enjoyable.

Of his films, I enjoyed Peter’s Friends. Loved it, in fact.

Yes, I know its a minority view.

 

 

And he is, as Emma Thompson teases him here, the ultimate annoying luvvie.

Some of the best moments on QI, though, are when he is being wound up by Phil Jupitus. Some great moments here – I particularly like the beer goggles one. Oh, and New Zealand gets a mensh.

‘Hameron’ and ‘Piggate’

I am a bit worried  about this Winston Churchill quote now. quote-Winston-Churchill-i-am-fond-of-pigs-dogs-look-662

Revelations  – and I use the term ‘revelations’ a little loosely as things have yet to be proved – do rather cause one to look at it in a new light.

As noted here only a month or so back, when it comes to sex scandals, the Brits take a lot of beating. 

Err.

Well, you know what I mean.

The drug revelations about David Cameron as a youngster are harmless. It is not a surprise, for someone of that generation – and besides, contemporary and now journalist James Delingpole have dropped some pretty heavy hints along these lines in the past.

And of course he isn’t the first British PM to indulge in marijuana – Disraeli did. So, as an  aside, did Queen Victoria. She took it for her period pains.

I’ve occasionally wondered  if they ever shared a joint.

“And then, ma’am…we get de Lesseps to dig a canal at Suez! We declare you Empress of India and send a detachment into Afghanistan! What could possibly go wrong?”

[Victoria collapses in a fit of the giggles: then calls for early dinner because “One has the munchies”].

And it wasn’t just Brit PMs on dak.

Eden was bombed on meth at the time of the 1956 Suez Crisis. And Churchill, of course, relied on a variety of artificial stimulants (mostly rather well, it has to be said) to keep going, not only during World War II but in his peacetime premiership.

I can’t think of any British PM, though, who has been said to have engaged, as a youthful or other discretion, in oral sex with a dead pig.

Mind you, I wouldn’t put it past Rosebury.

But anyway, David Cameron will go down in history for this.

If nothing else, he has given the phrase ‘living high on the hog’ a whole new meaning.

‘Mundane and heroic’– Tracey Thorn

Naked at the Albert Hall by Tracey Thorn, Virago 2015

Bedsit Disco Queen by Tracey Thorn, Virago 2013

I’ll probably always associate Tracey Thorn’s voice with slightly hungover Sunday mornings. Back in the mid-80s Auckland BFM used to frequently play Everything But the Girl’s ‘Each and Everyone One’  at that time of the week: I loved it so much I went and bought the album.

‘Eden’ – which could out last year in a remastered digital version – became regular Sunday  morning music, with or without hangover.

While one of these books is a memoir and the other is a book about singing – mostly other people’s singing – they are both really books of a Music Fan (and I capitalise that title deliberately). A Music Fan who just happened to be a singer herself, equipped the with the experience, as well as the wry observational skill and writing ability, to get what she wants to say across.

Or not, sometimes.

Here is Thorn, about a programme in which Elvis Costello enthused about her favourite singer, Dusty Springfield

‘…and for the first time I truly heard that voice – that smoky, husky breathy, vulnerable, bruised resigned, deliberate, sensual voice.

At which point Thorn breaks off, exasperated.
‘Ugh. All the same old words, and they won’t do, will they?’ 
And she goes on to quote Barthes – a theorist chappie who hurt my brain so much at uni I stopped reading such stuff – on the adjective being  ‘the poorest linguistic category’.
All of which might make Naked at the Albert Hall sound inaccessibly pretentious and high brow.
It ain’t. Thorn switches between the deep thinky stuff and the engagingly human, readily and easily.
There is a lovely vignette of being recognised in a night club toilet as she washed her hands: instead of being asked for an autograph or a photo she was asked by some girls to sing a few bars of ‘Missing’ to prove she was that Tracey Thorn.

She did so – ‘because I’d presumably had a few drinks or I would have run a mile in the opposite direction’ and the girls grabbed each other and squealed “YOU SOUND JUST LIKE YOU!”

Which, naturally, becomes a chapter heading. It is perfect for this book.

She starts with the basics of singing, pointing out the primary purpose of the vocal tract is not even to make a noise: it is there to stop us from choking.

Singing, therefore,

‘…is like using a cheese grater or a vacuum clearer to make music, and doesn’t this make singing seem both mundane and heroic?’

Her own career emerged in the aftermath of punk and although the band she formed with partner Ben Watt sounded very unlike punk they considered themselves heirs of the tradition and for that reason refused to go on Top of the Pops to promote their records.

Thorn, in her memoir Bedsit Disco Queen, remembers all this, and that many, in Britain’s fractious national cultural obsession with in-groups and out-groups,  couldn’t handle thus rather difficult-to-categorise band. After ‘Eden’ – came out nearly a year after they had recorded it, and after their music had changed,

‘Those who didn’t like what we were doing had marshalled themselves by now and launched an attack and it was mostly based on the recurring accusation  that we were soppy wimps, wallowing in easy-listening blandness,. Making soft tinged soft rock background music for bed wetters. I think that sums it up – have I forgotten anything?

‘Our career might have been heading at full speed towards the mainstream pop world, but I had in no way made my peace with what that meant, so while we were making quite commercial sounding music, we were at the same time trying to uphold the stand taken by the Clash.’

Later, at the time of Britpop wars between Oasis and Bur she preferred Oasis because of Liam Gallagher’s singing:

 ‘a sneering engine of a voice levelled straight at your forehead, the first vocalist since John Lydon to capture that underdog spirit of defiance in all its glory…At the super-slick, stage-managed MTV Awards I attended in New York he rolled onto the stage, spat on the floor, sang at us with lazy, contemptuous fury, and made me proud to be British.

‘But his voice really was the most impressive thing about them…’

The trouble was, Thorn can sing, and sing very well.   Damn.

While ‘unconventional’ singers – Bob Dylan being the proto-example – had always abounded in rock music, punk made a point of, to use a phrase Thorn makes her chapter title on the subject, ‘No Singing’. 

This, though, was itself a contrivance.

‘Listening to Johnny Rotten, you couldn’t possibly believe in his delivery as a “natural” way of singing. It’s completely improbable to picture an early rehearsal, at which the band started up the opening riff, of, say, Pretty Vacant and Johnny just opened up his mouth and that was the sound that came out. No, you could be sure that a lot of thought had gone into that sound; that it was a style of singing that embodied a whole attitude towards singing and music.’

Thorn herself tried emulating  Siouxsie Sioux but ‘realising I could actually sing, it seemed liked an act of the greatest inauthenticity to cover it up’

The idea that a ‘difficult’ voice is more authentic and it is there for a reason, she suggests: it makes people listen more closely, make more effort.

‘And so the non-singing style of punk and its aftermath meant that you could impress upon an audience, and perhaps more to the point, upon music critics, the thing that you were serious, worthy of close scrutiny; that your work was demanding, and by implication, clever.’

It was also  – as Thorn implies rather than makes explicit – something of a charter for posers and frauds.

But more personally, ‘it seemed to be taken for granted by many journalists that there was something suspect about what might be termed “proper” singing.’

The singer, she says, is almost always the way in to the band…something I’m not sure I agree with. Personally I often find the guitars or drums are the way I get into a band, and can almost be indifferent to the singer. The Who is probably the best example I can think of.  

It’s possible, in fact, to find the singer a bit off putting – again the Smiths, a band I’ll return to in a few weeks – being a personal example.

Bedsit Disco Queen – the earlier book, and the more direct memoir – is unlike almost any muso memoir I’ve read. It lacks the usual narrative arc (boy meets guitar; boy gets famous; boy meets drugs; boy has identity/life crisis;  boy cleans up/becomes older/wiser/more pompous and boring).

Thorn lacks the grandiosity for that: there are laughs a-plenty but they are about human foibles (her own and others) rather than of the tv in the hotel swimming pool/amazingly dumb things done while smashed out of brain/oh how we laughed variety.

There are some lovely observations of the ‘strangely infantilising’ and ‘subtly disempowering’ experience of being a musician on tour – ‘yes it is infantilising, but also addictive…on the surface luxurious and lazy, but in the middle of it all you can feel powerless, useless and without choice.’

One example of a growing suspicion the ‘grown ups’ weren’t necessarily all that clued up: the video for the ‘When All’s Well’ in 1985, the clip was made to mate the lyrics ‘when all’s well, my life is like cathedral bells’ with a shot of Thorn standing inside an enormous cross section of on overturned bell, while partner Ben would be stuck down a well..
‘Yes, I know. But the idea went down a storm in the recording company offices……If in the finished version we look a little uncertain as to  what on earth we are doing, I ask you to search your conscience and tell me if you could have done any better.’
The dreary right on 1980s politics gets a chapter to itself, including the much-mocked ‘Red Wedge’ campaign by the British arts community which did so much to prevent Margaret Thatcher being an effective prime minister.
There was an abortive “Song for Labour” project – a sort of “socialist Eurovision Song Contest” she says – and tells of left wing Labour MP Eric Heffer, brought in to adjudicate on the offerings, dismissing what Thorn calls an ‘apocalyptic’ reggae number with the comment that ‘we don’t want that kind of country and western thing.’
The meeting descends into further farce…but, look, I won’t spoil the book. Read the rest. It’s worth it.
Both books are. Thorn is a great, thoughtful, humorous and occasionally spiky read.

 

 

British Sex Scandals and Lord Sewel’s example

Not for the first time I find myself gazing, enraptured and filled with somewhat surprised admiration, at the Old Country. 
Her industry maybe crumbling, she may have lost an Empire: she may be chronically unable to make up her mind whether or not she is in Europe.

But my God, she still manufactures a decent sex scandal better than anywhere else.

For those who haven’t caught up, Lord Sewel – a chap whose role involves enforcement of standards of conduct amongst his fellow members of the House of Lords – is on the front of the Sun.

He has been filmed wearing a red bra, a leather jacket, and sniffing cocaine off the breasts of prostitutes, all the while complaining about how little he is paid, and about what an idiot the prime minister is.

This strikes me as being  about as British as you can get. 
True, these sex scandals are not what they once were. Lord Sewel – ‘Lord Coke’ as the Sun has gleefully dubbed him, and it is gratifying to know there is someone on that publication with an appreciation of the 17th Century jurist – is hardly one of the the blueblooded second sons of an inbred peerage who traditionally get themselves into these situations.
He is a Labour life peer, born in Bradford.  

Now, I am not a close student of Burkes Peerage, but I have an idea the Brit caste system means you can’t really be called an aristocrat if you were born in Bradford. 

One might express a quiet, private reservation to oneself about the wisdom of Lord Sewel’s use of his leisure time.
What, one might ask, is wrong with a good book, or a bracing walk in the fresh air?
But these are matters of personal choice. It may be,  too, that it was the path of duty which led Lord Sewel to don colourful ladies’ undergarments and imbibe white powder off the erogenous zones of other, colourful ladies.

We should not rush to judge here. 

I fear some who are charging the Noble Lord with hypocrisy, given his role and his recent public comments about the need to maintain high standards in Britain’s upper House of Parliament, could be missing the bigger picture.
Lord Sewel is setting an example, a challenge to his fellow peers.

This, he is saying, is how to maintain standards of conduct.

Beat that, in other words, is his message to his fellow Lords.

Not the worst advertisements

Discovered, online, a deeply fascinating piece of correspondence between two great writers of the homicidal, genocidal Midnight of the 20th Century – Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell. Waugh wrote to praise ‘1984’ but also to raise a few objections:

Winston’s rebellion was false. His ‘Brotherhood’ (whether real or imaginary) was simply another gang like the Party. And it was false, to me, that the form of his revolt should simply be fucking in the style of Lady Chatterley – finding reality through a sort of mystical union with the Proles in the sexual act….The Brotherhood which can confound the Party is one of love – not adultery in Berkshire, still less throwing vitriol in children’s faces.

And men who love a crucified God need never think of torture as all-powerful.

 The two writers had much which divided them, but more in common than was perhaps obvious. Both magnificent stylists with the English language, both more than a little at odds with the age in which they found themselves living.

Both, in their different ways, affronted idealists.

And both with a definite, conscious, contrivance about their public personae: Malcolm Muggeridge (another magnificent stylist with more than a touch of sham about him) once wrote of Waugh visiting Orwell as Orwell was dying and commented about “the bogus country gentleman gossiping with the equally bogus proletarian”.

Waugh – the social climbing middle class boy who half aped, half sent-up  (hmm…..perhaps three quarters aped, a quarter sent up) the upper English classes, was heading in a different direction to Orwell, who under his real name of Eric Blair attended Eton and was more of a social submariner.

It seems odd to find the two corresponded at all. But, apart from being superb writers, they were both men who recoiled from the ghastliness of their age

They recoiled, though, in different directions.

Waugh took refuge in a kind of obscurantist, throwback Toryism (he didn’t vote because he said he would not presume to advise his sovereign on her choice of advisers) and became a Catholic, it seems, mostly as a bid to seek a world not just outside the 20th Century but before the Reformation. 

We’ve all heard of the phrase ‘more Catholic than the Pope’  – Waugh was more Catholic than the previous 20 popes.

Orwell, whose  discovery of a cynically murderous power urge behind the idealistic platitudes of his ideological comrades when fighting in the Spanish Civil War, led to his rejection of his earlier communism. He was not, though,  going to head off into the kind of imaginary world Waugh inhabited. He was too much of a realist for that, and in any case, unlike Waugh, he was a journalist rather than a novelist. 

But he ended up in a kind of no-man’s-land, of the kind which, usually, can only see a rescue from either religion, drink, or the madhouse. It is intriguing to ponder where Orwell would have ended up if tuberculosis had not taken him aged only 46.

"I have learned from my mistakes and I am sure I could repeat them exactly"

Peter Cook died 20 years ago. A brilliant mess.

What this excerpt hints at, fleetingly, is how eerily his E L Wisty character foretold John Major.

Apart from all the usual highlights, he also enlivened some absolute rubbish – and in the last 20 years of his life  he appeared in a lot of rubbish.

My favourite is the fairly messy ‘Whoops Apocalypse’ where he appears as a bonkers, belligerent British Prime Minister, inspiring his countrymen with the words ‘We didn’t win at Dunkirk by running away.’

‘Long ago, life was clean, sex was bad and obscene….’

Today’ is Queen Victoria’s birthday. “Victorian” has become an epithet, mostly because of that Bloomsbury poseur Lytton Strachey, but it was a much more complex era than it is given credit for.

The modern writer with the best take on the era is A N Wilson: not only with his popular history ‘The Victorians’ but more importantly, I think, his brilliant and thought provoking ‘God’s Funeral‘ which tracks the gradual loss of conventional faith over that era – and the grief which accompanied it.

I don’t have anything particularly thought provoking or insightful to say, at least not this morning, except that if you have an interest in religion, feel you cannot accept many of the more literal and simplistic canons of Christianity, but feel a need to believe and a hunger for some sort of intelligent, sceptical but not scornful conversation about Christianity (oh, and you value good writing) ‘God’s Funeral’ is a must.

Even if he is, I feel, rather hard on Matthew Arnold.

Anyway, that’s my burst of in depth stuff for now. Here’s the Kinks.

Books: Political history; the rich, slow joy of reading

 
An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo by Richard Davenport-Hines, (HarperCollins, 2013)
 
The Fun Stuff by James Wood (Jonathan Cape, 2013)
Writers, poets and philosophers, who have had a fair old lash at defining happiness down the millennia, have never quite come up with a term which captures the gleeful up-kick of emotion one experiences when one unexpectedly discovers a mislaid book voucher.
I found myself musing this, a month or so back, in the midst of a tidying-up frenzy, I stumbled across a book voucher from a birthday (or perhaps even last Christmas).

The old ticker did a metaphorical mini air punch, leaped around prancing “IN YOUR FACE, FISCAL RESTRAINT!” and generally carried on like an All Black who’s just scored a match winning try at the ANZ Stadium in Sydney.

These two books have nothing else in common other than their common voucher-driven purchase,  unless you count the fact I read them, and they’re both, in their very different ways, excellent reads.



Dead Sea Fruit
First up is Rupert Davenport-Hines’ effort, which marks the 50th anniversary of the Profumo Affair.
Briefly, for those who need a potted summary: John Profumo was British Minister for War (that is, the Army) in the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan. Profumo was a compulsive playboy, with a string of affairs, abortions, and similar behind him when he had a brief fling with Christine Keeler, a young model, after a function at Lord Astor’s Cliveden House.
Unfortunately another guest at Cliveden around the time, also pursuing Keeler, was a Soviet Embassy “attaché” (read: “spy”), Eugene Ivanov. The whole thing got rather messy in fairly short order and the government found itself tottering. Although it is not true to say (as many still do) that the affair led to the end of Macmillan’s government, the handling of the whole mucky business did rather hasten Macmillan’s departure.
Davenport-Hines’s authorial history has been building up to this book:  it is perhaps not such a big move from works entitled Markets and Bagmen, Speculators and Patriots: Essays in Business Biography, or Business in the Age of Depression and War  to  Sex, Death and Punishment: Attitudes To Sex & Sexuality In Britain Since The Renaissance  or The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History Of Narcotics.
He has also written a lengthy history of the Macmillan family, but although the clan produced one of the world’s more prominent publishing firms, that book work necessarily was dominated by the family member who became prime minister of what was then still called Great Britain.
Like a blimpish Prospero with a hint of melancholy, Macmillan still ranks as one of the more fascinating and complex characters to occupy 10 Downing Street.
 
“Power? It’s like a Dead Sea fruit. When you get it, there’s nothing there,” was one of Macmillan’s darker asides. “Events, dear boy, events,” is the aphorism most quoted these days – a response to an over-earnest question about what had most determined his decisions as prime minister (his interlocutor had hoped for some elucidation of principle or philosophy).

You have to cherish a politician who, in the course of a live political broadcast, could elegantly draw attention to the ghastly falsity of the whole charade:  The camera’s hot, probing eye, these monstrous machines and their attendants – a kind of twentieth century torture chamber, that’s what it is. But I must try to forget about that, and imagine that you are sitting here in the room with me,” Macmillan told viewers during one such broadcast, a year or so prior to Profumo. 
In this age of the sound bite, of chicken McNugget politics, can you imagine any political leader today making such a comment? 

He told one staff member on one occasion that it was important not to have too sharp a distinction between what is serious and what is frivolous. This ability to see the humorous side, and draw attention to it, when other more limited personalities would not have dared, assuming they even had the ability to perceive such subtleties – he beautifully punctured Khrushchev’s famous shoe-pounding rant at the United Nations, at the height of Cold War tensions, with a drawling “I wonder if we may have a translation?”- was just one part of this intriguing, multilayered personality. 
 

One journalist from the time suggested Macmillan was haunted by ghosts: from the 1930s, when as a backbench MP for the desperately depressed northern town of Stockton on Tees, he had been in permanent rebellion against his party. Macmillans published John Maynard Keynes and Macmillan was one of the first politicians to take up Keynsian economics. 

 
Unfortunately, as prime minister he pioneered the kind of short term ‘bastardised Keynsianism’ which, when followed and bulked up by Labour successor Harold Wilson, led Britain to the verge of economic collapse. 
 
There were also ghosts from two world wars: Macmillan, along with many contemporaries from Oxford, volunteered when World War One broke out and trooped off before finishing his degree (he was “sent down by the Kaiser”, he claimed years later, when asked about his academic career). Macmillan was badly wounded several times, and few of his contemporaries survived. 
By the time the Profumo scandal rolled around he had presided over seven years of unparalleled prosperity and, in an unguarded moment, gave that era its slogan when he warned – and it was a warning – that most Britons had “never had it so good”.
The comment – in its context, a statement that the good times might turn out to be built on a build up of inflation and debt rather than solid economic performance – was hung around his neck for the rest of his life. When the Profumo business erupted, accompanied by a swag of rumours of other salacious goings on in high places it quickly became “you’ve never had it so often.”
He had, of course, plenty of enemies by then. Macmillan was made Conservative leader following the Suez Crisis to some degree because he looked the part, almost to the point of caricature – a moustached former Guards officer who had fought in the First World War and been seriously wounded: the drawling accent, the deliberately-cultivated old fashioned air; the general appearance of a crumbling façade of an old Edwardian building.
This came to hurt him, in the end, particularly when the satire boom took off at the same time as the Profumo Affair. In the kind of savage, multi-layered joke Macmillan himself would probably have enjoyed under different circumstances, what the satirists missed was that part of Macmillan’s persona was always an element of caricature.
There is a theory the reason Macmillan handled the Profumo business so badly was because adultery was a touchy subject with him. His own wife, Dorothy, had been involved in a 35-odd year affair with a Parliamentary colleague, Bob Boothby, and the only reason the marriage endured was Macmillan refused to grant her a divorce. The affair was widely known amongst the political classes and British upper crust generally and had, according to one source, even led Macmillan to a suicide attempt in the early 1930s.
Yet Davenport-Hines suggests there is little evidence Macmillan shied away from the issue of adultery – in fact, by the time he became prime minister he liked to affect a worldly wise attitude to the subject, at least as long as it involved other people. It is perhaps more likely those around him thought he would be highly sensitive to the issue and therefore were nervous about telling him of the rumours swirling around not only Profumo but other ministers as well. One of the perils of power is people anticipate what will, or will not, please the boss, and can often make some dangerous assumptions.
A more likely factor was simply fatigue: Macmillan had been prime minister for seven years, a senior minister for seven years on the trot before that. Besides, he was, after all, approaching 70.
His Conservative rival, Rab Butler, in a comment not quoted by Davenport-Hines but in several histories of that government, best summed it up: as tumult of scandal grew and Macmillan looked more and more out of touch and incompetent, Butler observed to a journalist that “Harold could have handled all this with his little finger five years ago. But when you get to the end of a regime, nothing goes right.”
The true villains of the scandal, for Davenport-Hines, are not Profumo (although he engages in some neat puncturing of the “redemption through good works” pat story which accompanied the remainder of Profumo’s life); nor “the Establishment”, nor good time girls Christine Keeler or Mandy Rice-Davies: rather, the real villain is the British press, especially tabloids News of the World and the Daily Mirror.
Certainly they were out to get Macmillan and his government: the previous year two journalists had been imprisoned for not revealing their sources over a largely bogus spy scandal.
Davenport-Hines outlines the skulduggery and mendacity of a group of media owners – the Mirror Group being the main one – who not only were out for revenge but who were determined to damage Macmillan’s government because they wanted Labour’s Harold Wilson as prime minister. It is not an edifying tale, and he traces much of the malignity, hypocrisy and outright corruption of the British press   – about which we have learned much in recent years – to this period.
 
Savour Fare
Rather more elevated in tone is literary critic James Wood’s ‘The Fun Stuff’. It starts, not with books, but with an introduction about Who drummer Keith Moon, who died in 1978 after overdosing on drugs he was taking to combat alcoholism.
Why? Moon was his first artistic hero, it seems, and “Keith Moon-style drumming is a lucky combination of the artful and the artless…. There is no time out in his drumming, because there is no time in. it is all fun stuff… So alive and free is this drumming that one tends to emphasise its exuberance at the expense of its complexity.”

 And he notes that, on two of the Who’s most famous tracks, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ and “Behind Blue Eyes”

“You can hear him do something that was instinctive, probably, but which is hardly ever attempted in ordinary rock drumming: breaking for a fill, Moon fails to stop at the obvious end of the musical phrase and continues…over the line and into the start of the next phrase. 

“In poetry, this failure to stop at the end of the line, the challenge to metrical closure, this desire to get more in is called enjambment. Moon is the drummer of enjambment. 

“For me, this playing is like an ideal sentence of prose, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to: a long passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self interrupted, attired but dishevelled, careful and lawless, right and wrong.”
That description – especially that last sentence – sent me back to my copy of Who’s Next. It captures, perfectly in prose, Moon’s style.
Wood has the great critic’s knack of sending you back to the originals, even when – perhaps, especially when – you think he’s being a bit fatheaded. Despite writing an entire book about laughter and literature (The Irresponsible Self) he sometimes doesn’t seem to quite get humour. Or rather, some of the material he finds funny seems strange. In a comment on a Lydia Davis short story ‘Wife in One Country’ he quotes “wife one’ talking briefing with “wife two and then imagining a future “wife three’ who would have to protect her husband “not only from raging wife one but also from troublesome wife two” and Wood adds that as elsewhere in Davis’s work “comedy always lines the sadness, a necessarily durable cloth”. While I love that image and phrase, I’m not so sure I see the comedy in what he is quoting.
But that is the one of the other thing about Wood: as well as making you want to hunt down what he is writing about (and I had never heard of Lydia Davis before, but I shall be checking out her works the next time I’m in Unity Books) he has a marvellous feel for language. 
In an era when most of us skim read almost everything and in which it is all too easy to flitter over the words even when reading for pleasure, Wood has the knack of making you slow down, savour the language, and enjoy the moment.
One example: discussing Alan Hollinghurst’s work, he quotes a passage on someone watching a tennis match on television with the window open on a summer’s day and hearing on occasion “the sonic wallows of planes distancing in slow gusts above” –
Wood makes you stop and savour that passage:  “Again, the power comes from nouns and adjectives placed in unusual combinations – the paradox of ‘slow gusts’ …and the almost onomatopoeic ‘sonic wallow’ which slow the sentence down.”
And goes on to put Hollinghurst in the English writing tradition – Shakespeare, Keats, Hardy, Larkin, but notes that “when a writer has an ear as good as Hollinghurst, the danger is a lush antiquarianism…ripening the sentences to bursting.”
But then criticises Hollinghurst for becoming too fixated on the style of Henry James; giving examples of several phrases Wood thinks reveal insufficient anxiety of influence (a set of stairs give way to the “confidential creak of oak” on the landing: another character makes “a low disparaging murmur”; someone else says something “with an air of monetary concession” and sex is described as “the unimagined and vaguely dreaded thing”.)
Personally, I love all these, with the possible exception of the last one  – sex might or might not be many things, but “unimagined” seems unlikely to be one of them. 

But for there’s a nice little joke here for those who recall Henry James’ last words are reputed to have been, “here it is, then, the distinguished thing!”

Elsewhere, Wood gently skewers Ian McEwan and puts his finger on one thing which I’d never articulated but which irks me about the Booker winner: he withholds too much in order to keep the reader wondering just what is going on and what the surprise will be: this sustains the reader’s

“narrative hunger, but surely at a cost. His addition to secrecy has a way of cheaply playing us…. if narrative secrets of this kind – narrative improbabilities – always become in the end, narrative predictabilities, then such novels will find it much harder to dramatise meaningfully the impact of contingency on ordinary lives.”

That was, for me, one of those moments when the brain goes ‘Zzing!’ 
VS Naipaul “the public snob, the grand bastard” gets a look in: so does Orwell, (who I revere) – upbraided, rightly I think, for a certain warped snobbery: ex-Etonian Eric Blair is more interested in tearing down his former aristocratic and upper middle class contemporaries than in uplifting the poor.
On Orwell, though, he rightly identifies the real terror at the heart of 1984: it is not the torture room or the rats, but the “abolition of interiority”. A society in which we have no interior world in and of ourselves – no privacy, in other words – is the truest and most subtle of tyrannies. This is true totalitarianism. Never was a sex scene so important to a novel than in 1984 – no, not even in D H Laurence’s florid offerings.
The thought-provoking aspect of this insight for today’s reader, though is this: the social media whirl now means many of us are in the process of voluntarily abandoning the sacredness of this interiority, and what does this mean for our own psychological and spiritual wellbeing? Wood doesn’t explore this thought, but it is one which sent this reader, anyway, down a few mental byways I am yet to feel I can report back on. 
The Fun Stuff also looks at Tolstoy, Geoff Dyer, Paul Auster (about whom Wood verges on the brutal)…. 

It is a great collection to dip into, and to remind yourself, even when you are muttering “Oh, bollocks!” about some of Wood’s conclusions, about the rich, slow joy of reading.