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Hugh Barnes

Hugh Barnes, formerly on the LRB’s editorial staff, is the author of three books (Special Effects, Gannibal and Understanding Iran) and writes about the former Soviet Union for www.oblomovism.com

From The Blog
11 April 2014

Most informed sources in Ukraine and Russia believe that the annexation of Crimea was planned and carried out by the siloviki (former KGB and security service officials close to Putin), and not by the foreign policy elite (including the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and defence minister, Sergei Shoigu), whose influence has been waning since Putin veered to the right in the wake of the 2011-12 anti-government protests. A senior figure in the Yeltsin group told me that Putin is using the Ukraine crisis to cleanse the elite and to consolidate his support with the non-metropolitan public at large. It is no coincidence that the last few weeks have seen the Russian authorities cracking down on liberal and internet media. A former intelligence officer told me that influential members of the president’s inner circle, such as Sergei Ivanov, Nikolai Patrushev and Igor Sechin, view the confrontation with the United States and European Union as a good thing for Russia, an opportunity to make a long-advocated turn towards China.

Turns of the Screw

Hugh Barnes, 7 August 1986

The first novels of Lewis Nkosi and Catharine Arnold raise issues that have been in the news of late: racist oppression in South Africa and the ugly behaviour of the smart set at England’s oldest universities. Neither phenomenon is new, but that is not all they have in common: both can be regarded as symptoms of madness, which is always making news – this, at any rate, is the diagnosis favoured by Nkosi and Arnold. They discount the talk of journalists and are at pains to show how states of emergency or of madness come about, and how adversity in the world modifies concern for the self. Much emphasis is laid on the unconscious activity of the mind, which for Sibiya in Mating Birds as well as for Francesca in Lost Time means horrid imaginings, displacement and a fear of poltergeists. Capitulation is charted: Sibiya awaits execution in a Durban jail, although the Government is about to fall and from his cell he can hear street-singers announcing ‘the near-dawn of freedom’. Francesca, a famous concert cellist, suffers private madness – as opposed to the collective variety accountable for apartheid – in the form of a nervous breakdown. At the same time taboos are flouted by the characters and invoked by the authors as if they were the unconscious of society. Sibiya’s crime was to sleep with a white woman, while a revelation of incest, for which a neglectful father is held to be responsible, contributes to Lost Time. In each case the novelist has recourse to psychoanalytic theory, and a meaningful relationship would seem to be implied between free societies and the free association of ideas.’

Young Ones

Hugh Barnes, 5 June 1986

At the height of Punk I was still at school, which always seemed to me a rather melancholy fact – not least because one’s authority as a rebel was brought into question by having to attend lessons and the like. Out of hours, we worked hard to make good our sense of disadvantage, and a competition, which was incidental to following our favourite groups around London, started up among my circle of friends. At the end of each night out, we used to run amok, hoping to catch a glimpse of our idols. Fashions in idolatry change, whenever a purge takes place or the latest style is jettisoned, but even so I doubt whether the way we brushed with greatness will ever ‘come back’: we were surly and obnoxious, and we practised curling the lip. (The curled lip, rather like a masonic handshake, doubled as a greeting between initiates and a message in code.) We also vied with each other to incur our heroes’ displeasure, which was measured in rebukes. The practice of behaving discourteously towards people one actually looked up to derived, I suppose, from a misconceived notion of the egalitarian spirit of Punk, its élan vital. The best I ever managed was a warning not to be such a nuisance from someone who, for a brief period, played drums with The Clash: however hard I tried to be outlandish, I was generally ignored. But there was one lad who stood outside a recording studio for an afternoon in the rain because the Sex Pistols were known to be inside. At last Sid Vicious emerged, and our friend launched into his adoring volley of abuse. Sid took one look, snarled and told him to fuck off. Back at school the boy became an instant celebrity.’

Scenes from British Life

Hugh Barnes, 6 February 1986

The instruments agree that Britain is running down, getting seedy or seedier. The novels under review pay tribute to our decline. They also find evidence of it in unlikely places. The most likely place, of course, is Whitehall and William Camp discovers rot setting in there or already set in: the unions hold the country to ransom, a handful of businessmen make a profit out of hard times, and politicians fall over backwards, sometimes literally, to disgrace themselves. Hooliganism masquerades as authority. Such a discovery, however, doesn’t surprise us any more. It wasn’t even surprising thirty years ago when made by a novelist who had no sense of humour. C.P. Snow’s Corridors of Power is a chore to read now, at least as far as the young are concerned. They don’t care very much that it struck a chord among a mandarin élite which was rapidly becoming disillusioned. Nevertheless, in the course of that novel Snow has Lewis Eliot observe usefully: ‘Countries, when their power is slipping away, are always liable to do idiotic things. So are social classes.’

Blue Suede Studies

Hugh Barnes, 19 December 1985

It has become fashionable to think sagely about Elvis, and to deliver such thoughts in mawkish turns of phrase. His biographers, who set the trend, promote it in order to make sense of themselves. Team spirit is otherwise uncharacteristic of them, and they quarrel passionately about everything except the music, which, for the most part, they ignore. Disagreements are harmless, of course, tokens of scholarship, and it would be churlish to complain. But with each new venture into the field Elvis undergoes modification and change. While his supporters, smarting at unsavoury rumours, maintain he stayed smart to the end, the rest speculate about unsocial behaviour and a diet which consisted primarily of pretzels and pills. So business booms, and eight years after his death Presley has been launched on a fresh and exciting career as the avatar of the good and the not-so-good, still travelling in the wake of Little Richard.

Fraynwaves

Hugh Barnes, 2 May 1985

Briefly during the second act Michael Frayn’s stage-play, Make and Break, transcends its setting, a Frankfurt trade fair, touching on a general gloom. Mrs Rogers is treating Garrard, a goatish sales rep, to the fruits of Buddhism. It is late in the day. Elsewhere assignations are arranged, faces stuffed, drinks swilled. Mrs Rogers’s seducer is impatient of nirvana; besides his hand rests all ready on her knee. Although she cannot recall the ‘proper technical term’ for suffering, she’s certain it stems from desire. The exchange is heady and brief – more like a business opportunity than a seminar. Revels intrude. It’s a good example of the way Frayn makes us laugh, and of the absence of privacy that distinguishes farce and provides these two novels now reissued with a common theme.’

Return of the Native

Hugh Barnes, 7 March 1985

Homesickness is fabulous magic. Even as the world shrinks and the epic edge is blunted, the resettlement myth persists. Ulyssean travelogues are few and far between in Caryl Phillips’s The Final Passage and the novels of Paule Marshall, but families uproot themselves. Their stories correspond, but not in time or place. Phillips’s travellers leave their small Caribbean island for Britain in the 1950s, when prospects were cheery. The white folks of the West had never had it so good: too good, or so their masters told them, to settle at menial labours. Since the publication of her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, in 1959, Paule Marshall has been weaving a delicate history of the Barbadians who emigrated to America earlier in the century. Stepping off the boats, though not all were so fortunate, the wayfarers arrived in their new homes with nothing to declare but memories and aspirations.

Show People

Hugh Barnes, 21 February 1985

Show people pretend to be other people most of the time, they act out fictional lives. It’s nice work and reasonably well-paid. Also, if Beryl Reid and Candice Bergen are to be believed, they get to meet a regular mixture of super-rotters and superstars in far-flung corners of the world. But it must be devilishly frustrating. There are chat-shows, of course, and autobiographies (often complementary) to set the record straight, but these are poor substitutes. Is real life that important anyway? Both these books sport impressive supporting casts, which run into the glittering hundreds. Sir Richard Attenborough is the common factor. Bergen was his co-star in a film called The Sand Pebbles, shot on location in the Far East. Out of hours, while the other actors, Steve McQueen amongst them, were busy getting drunk and chasing women, Dickie (bless him) was ‘acquiring art and informing himself on the island’s politics, making underground contacts with the clandestine opposition on Taiwan’. Beryl Reid worked with him in less exotic surroundings, at the BBC. He probably spent his evenings at home with the telly. For the rest, their stories shed light on separate worlds. For instance, Charlton Heston dressed as Santa Claus was a feature of the Christmas parties Bergen went to as a child. Beryl’s heroes are a homely breed. She christened her cat Ronnie after Corbett.

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