Category Archives: Non-fiction

Essay: DFW, Irony and Image

Or Certain Stuff about Public and Private Personae in Pop Culture

I never knew David Foster Wallace personally. But I do know an old friend of his. Through him, I have heard countless stories, even had tears in my eyes at one of them. I have seen Wallace’s handwriting on old workshop manuscripts from his early twenties.[1] I have read some of his own manuscripts from his early twenties. But I only know him as a reader. And this turns out to be significant.

Wallace is the kind of author that readers either never get comfortable with or go absolutely apeshit for. Reading his work and engaging with his rhythms you will either hear nothing, or his music sounds so strong your most authentic and bare self shakes and cracks in resonance. His work is at times spectacular. In one camp, readers see his great novel Infinite Jest as both laugh-out-loud funny and, with a few long reflective pauses, chest-implosion-sad. In another, his book is too long, too weird, too complicated, too interested in the internal workings of the self and carries too high a postage fee for a rationally efficient loss-limiting resale online. But before you read his stuff, there is no way to know which camp you’ll unpack your rucksacks in.

The reason for these two polarized camps of readers is, in my opinion, that there is a great irony at the core of his work. And some people are not big on irony.[2]

Let’s unpack. Wallace saw literature as an “antidote to loneliness”, the idea being that reading is a way of connecting with another human being on a deep, thought-sharing level. So in his own work he wanted to get as close to the reader as possible, all the way inside his reader’s head. He writes in brain-voice — sprawling sentences with multiple asides, offshoots, segues, tangents, full of interesting little thoughtlets, the thrust or point spreading forward like a tree branch with joyous cherry blossoms everywhere until you aren’t sure exactly what the point is, but it sure is interesting. He would often run out of the grammatically permissible ways in which strings of clauses can be subordinated (his sentences were sometimes really, really long), and resort to writing in footnotes.[3] It is fireworks of synaptic connections. It is how thought works, if we have the patience to slow down the Michael-Bay-Action-Scene noodling of our noodler and look at each individual blossom patiently, not cutting our thinking short.

The irony is, of course, that this can be extremely alienating to the reader. The brain-voice writing can be really difficult to follow if you are used to reading more conventional stuff where not every side-cavern of every thought has to be burrowed in and explored with high-precision sonar imaging technology before moving on with the main point. In terms of plot, with Infinite Jest you are still figuring out what the hell is going on at page 200, where normally novels start to turn towards some kind of resolution. Even in bare terms of physical dimensions, Infinite Jest is so huge you are best suckered into buying it online where you can’t actually see the book. Starting Infinite Jest means you are committed to playing the long-game, and the payoff may never come.[4]

But park that idea for a moment. Let’s say you do like Wallace, and are not alienated by his style. You find his ideas compelling. His intellect is approachable, understandable, but also totally V-12 Turbo Supercharged. You feel like he speaks to you. You feel like you’re in his head and he’s in yours, like you know him, want to know him, want to get intimate with all that profundity. You watch YouTube interviews of him, feel like you get him as a person, and he gets you. You can’t wait to go to the reading of his next book, to have it signed, to ask him a question, to engage with him personally. You search online for his book tour.

Wallace hanged himself in 2008. Jonathan Franzen, friend of Wallace and another seriously famous book dude, wrote in a 2011 New Yorker piece: “his suicide took the person away from us and made him into a very public legend.” And this turns out to be significant.

So – person vs public legend. In 1996, David Lipsky spent five days with Wallace, interviewing him on his Infinite Jest book tour. They never communicated since, apart from a note accompanying one of Lipsky’s loafers that Wallace sent to Lipsky’s house after the interview. In 2010, Lipsky had the interview tapes written up, made them into a book, and in 2015 that book is coming out as a film.

The movie, The End of the Tour, caused a few uneasy ripples in the internet Wallacesphere. I have never been very good at judging crowd moods, but at least in my case the uneasiness came from the fact that David Foster Wallace was now a character on screen, played by Jason Segel, in a film that is actually really about the hype that was about Infinite Jest. The idea that he is now a character is kind of both fitting and hilarious.

The film, like Wallace’s own work, also has a great irony at its heart: David Foster Wallace wrote a 1000-page book about how seductive image, particularly televisual image, is to lonely consumers, and how deadly it can be to take image life-devotion-seriously. When promoting that book in ‘96 some reporter recorded some tapes that are have now been made into a movie.[5] Now, he is an image.

An image is crafted by somebody with an interest, designed in a way as to produce maximum appeal to the greatest number of people, so as to produce the largest possible cough-up quotient of consumers carrying their cash to the image’s producer. This should not strike anyone as sinister or even novel, by now. Most blockbuster mainstream cinema has been more about this than anything else for a long time now. The main characters in big Hollywood movies are testosteronic hunks of male muscle or gym-tight female hotbods. They are not supposed to be people, they are supposed to be images that are supposed to be appealing, and that appeal is supposed to sell tickets. Very often they are superheroes.

The DFW movie image is no superhero. The End of the Tour, in true DFW fashion, is cleverer and more ironic than that. It is a movie about a story about someone wanting to do a story about David Foster Wallace’s book being a newsworthy story. So in a way, the film is about itself. The subject matter of the movie is the hype surrounding David Foster Wallace, which hype then reduces Dave Wallace (as he was known to his friends), the person, into DFW the image. But the film is a part of this process, transforming DFW, the image, into DFW, the character – one more step removed from us readers,[6] who are already one more step removed from those who actually knew him.

But an extra layer of irony becomes apparent. It’s not just that David Foster Wallace wrote books about image, and that he is now made into an image, and that the image is now made into a movie, but that the movie is actually supposed to be a Behind the Public Persona look at David Foster Wallace, a glance into the real Dave, behind the three letters, based on a five-day interview/hangout, with extensive lines lifted straight from the interview tapes verbatim.[7] The idea is that we get to know Wallace, find out what he was really like, get the story behind his genius.

But this is a movie. There is literally a screen between you and the person, and the person is not Wallace but someone playing Wallace. Wallace is an image, a distant brilliant artist, all the while saying on screen how he is just a regular guy just like he really said in exactly the same words in 1996. The number of layers of irony is making my head spin.

And then, still, on the other hand, the movie is really, really sincere.[8] That friend of Wallace’s I know characterised it in a subsequent email as “splentabulous, gracious and grand.” At an early screening of the movie my job was to sit next to him so he could keep it together knowing he was among people who cared about him, while watching a representation of an old friend he has lost, on screen. Every five minutes in the movie he pointed out how spot on the portrayal was, and he was visibly touched.

And I have no reason to doubt this conclusion. Jason Segel, and the entire production team, had clearly done their homework, which in Jason Segel’s case actually involved getting through Infinite Jest with a reading group. In a radio interview in the movie Jason Segel sounds so much like Wallace that I had to listen to the scene again just to check it wasn’t actually Wallace.[9] The note that comes with David Lipsky’s loafer in the movie must either have been the real-life note that came with Lipsky’s real-life loafer, or it must have been crafted by a handwriting expert. In a way, the whole project seems like the biggest effort in history that a really serious and well-funded fan club has ever done to make their idol come alive for their pleasure.[10] And DFW sure has some serious fans.

Based on testimonials, the movie is stunningly accurate and does not make a court jester out of Wallace, and the wonderful thing about movies is that they feed interest in their subjects. Everyone knew John Nash, who we should bear in mind was a socially challenged economist, after A Beautiful Mind. A lot of my friends bought Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time after Theory of Everything came out. And Hawking is a theoretical physicist who is in a wheelchair and literally cannot produce human speech except through a computer. Chances are that when The End of the Tour comes out, lots of people will buy and read and enjoy Infinite Jest, which its style notwithstanding is still a lot more approachable than theoretical physics. And eventually some of them, these new readers, will maybe feel a little less alone. The weird thing about Wallace is that if you want to know him, to hear his thoughts, to connect, you should read his stuff. If you want to distance yourself from him as a person, watch his public persona. There is plenty to discover in both.

And this, then, is the significance of knowing him as a reader as opposed to in real life, and knowing him as public legend. There is no way to meet the real David Wallace now; we can only interact with his writing or his image. If this was an intentional move by Wallace, as Franzen seems to suggest in his anger and frustration, then it is the final, great irony at the core of his core. Turns out Wallace was big on irony. And it is very sad, though possibly genius – just like Infinite Jest itself.

[1] So can you, by the way. Just about everything he has ever written is being published, including his undergraduate thesis and soon his personal letters. If there’s a sheet of paper somewhere that he put pen to, it’s now worth something. Most of the actual physical originals are kept at the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin. Go nuts. And yeah, we’re doing footnotes.

[2] Wallace’s grand piece on TV irony, E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, is well worth reading if you are big on it.

[3] Sometimes the footnotes have footnotes and run for pages.

[4] This investment/payoff thinking that Infinite Jest forces on the reader is all actually a part of the book, but that is a topic for another essay.

[5] In which Jason Segel, playing DFW, in an odd twist actually explains this point about the book. More on layers of irony in the main text.

[6] An odd detail: In the movie Jason Segel, playing David Foster Wallace, almost exclusively wears clothes that the real DFW demonstrably wore in public interviews or photos. At the bookstore scene Jason Segel wears the gray polo/white t-shirt combo that DFW wore in an early Charlie Rose interview, together with Jonathan Franzen and Mark Leyner. (Plus a white bandana, bandanas of all colors being the trademark headgear of Wallace, though not worn in that Charlie Rose TV interview. In the movie Jason Segel only takes off the bandana once, but does recite the what-if-people-think-this-bandana-is-just-an-image-thing line from the real interview. Layers.) The next morning he is wearing an outfit from his Newsweek photo, which we incidentally see in the movie reproduced to an impressive level of detail with Jason Segel’s face where DFW’s face is expected to be, so carefully reproduced that it ironically actually looks almost like a bad photoshop job. From this photo we can also see the easy chair next to some cinderblock bookcases that we then see in David’s house in the movie. A shadeless lamp is next to the chair, as it is in a 1997 Getty images photo that I couldn’t find the original publication of but which features in plenty of newspapers. Part of this is, of course, just really thorough research. But research that’s this thorough and loyal to the original source material, which material is literally a set of public images, seems to suggest it’s an image that we’re preserving here. Note also how none of his nerdier, mousy looking bandana-and-shorts-with-sandals-and-socks-looks made it into the film. Or maybe this is just because the film is set in winter.

[7] David Lipsky made the entire collection of interview tapes available to the film production team, and of course Lipsky’s book is a direct transcript.

[8] Sincere being as close to a semantic opposite of ‘ironic’ as one can get, without wrapping oneself in too many definitional layers that then, ironically, become ironic.

[9] Another ironic detail: in the movie Jason Segel loses the accent and tone when his character gets angry at a probing question on heroin use. There, he just sounds like an angry Jason Segel, but the anger feels very real – it’s as though when displaying real emotion, synthesized-on-cue as it may be, he actually sheds the image he plays and becomes a real person, which of course is ironic as he is supposed to be playing a real, behind-the-scenes person. This may be genius or a colossal accident, but either way it’s very fitting.

[10] But then, does that make this idol worship? Does DFW now belong to his fans? Is DFW ours to make images of? Can we just take a public persona and reconfigure it at our pleasure? See, this image-irony business gets very tricky very quickly.

Essay: Out at Sea

Out at Sea*

As I write this I still feel as though the ground under my chair is rocking up and down slowly. The floor and every peg upon which to hang anything in my room are covered in wet and salty clothes. A sleeping bag hangs upside down and gutted from the door of a cupboard like a giant fish. It smells a bit like one too. My hair stands up on its own, and is sticky and windblown into a weird rubbery texture it has never been previously. The water in my shower is about to be turned briefly into seawater. The skin on my face is grainy and crusted, and if I rub it with my rope-tendered fingers salt comes off it. Actual salt. I have enormous bags under my eyes and my face feels swollen, but that might just be the rum, the rum that my sea-savvy undergraduate companions verbally danced around almost exclusively in Captain Jack Sparrow quotes (he of the Pirates of the Caribbean fame, played memorably and commercially extremely viably by Johnny Depp, who if you don’t remember will no doubt revise his role when he next either runs out of money or feels like parodying himself[1]) and that is now by all indicators gone, or at least nobody has had a confirmed sighting of it since Saturday night.

I now know what it is like to sail, or at least be physically positioned on a boat, in gale force winds.[2] Many expressions and turns of phrase which I’ve been aware of previously but whose origin I never quite understood totally make sense to me now, phrases such as ‘prove your salt’ and ‘show the ropes’, having over the weekend been shown the actual ropes (of which there are many and multicoloured variations, and many and multicoloured more), and been covered in aforementioned salt and thus know and appreciate exactly the sort of process that is involved in having any salt to prove. I know to my cost that a folded sail spews out water when it is pulled up and unfolded (maybe ‘hoisted’ is the correct term here, though I never did quite get the hang of all that terminology, and ‘hoist’ is suspiciously every-day to deserve any place on a boat. But a ‘halyard’ is involved in the process – see below). I also know the putrid seawater it spews smells mistakably like cat wee, though I am hoping it isn’t actually cat wee, or wee of any other description. I know how to fold a sail. I have ‘sweated’ a mainsail up (meaning, to the best of my knowledge, that I have pulled one up with my hands as opposed to using a winch). I now have a cute little RYA (Royal Yachting Association) logbook costing £4.99 where I have proudly written my name in the white box on the cover and logged my limited weekend mileage. I have a sailing name (it is ‘Galaxy’ – long story). I know how to judge if you are going to pass in front of a perpendicularly moving boat (if it eats up the landscape behind it you will pass in front, though I am not sure how this translates to passing behind or crashing into). I know how to scout out for strong gusts by looking at the sea (the shiny bits of sea are even winds, the not-shiny bits are gusts. This is the best way I can describe it). I know what it is like to have the contours of my face reduced to salt water receptacles (imagine your tightly closed eye situated in the bottom of a full cup of seawater, the water kept there not by gravity but by the sheer force of the wind plus generous and frequent refilling). I have clambered up from one side of the boat to another (from starboard to port, I believe, but really have no flipping idea), and then dipped in the sea up to my waist as the boat turned again to another side. (It was fun. Like being on a rollercoaster.) A song by Fujiya & Miyagi, as I later found, simply called ‘Uh’ (listen to it and you’ll know why) reportedly on the Breaking Bad soundtrack is now etched forever in my mind as being connected to sailing and the open seas, as that song has – and I use this word only in rare and meritorious occasions – a wicked bass track, especially when appreciated through the medium of a 38-foot yacht’s rhythmically resonating glass fibre hull-cum-ungodly-sized sounding board whose boomwall massiveness really cannot be accurately described here except that it feels a bit like your inner ear has been punched with a Marshall full stack or something suitably shapely and large, like a barn door or the façade of a Guggenheim architectural design competition finalist. Ironically the other theme song of our weekend was ‘All About That Bass’ by somebody or other, which played on the radio every fifteen minutes[3] and whose bass track is wholly unwicked.

All this is because I went out with the OUYC, the Oxford University Yachting Club, on one of their ‘cruising trips’ to the English Channel on a weekend of bipolar-schizophrenic weather, Saturday being a prolonged near-death experience (though I was cheerily unaware of it at the time, and rather felt like pumping a fist diagonally at the dark sky and shouting ‘YEAH!’ or assorted blasphemous insults to Thor or Poseidon for failing to sink us every time the Talisman, our yacht and home for the weekend, crashed through the wall of a giant wave) and Sunday being take-off-your-shirt-and-have-a-beer-why-don’t-you-lovely, with the only exception of the vicious rain that caught us as we were finally about to bring the mainsail (the big back one) down and moor (park) the boat for the very last time. I couldn’t help thinking the rain was my fault for all those blasphemous insults at various sea- and weather-based gods.

I learned of the trip on Thursday, and promptly signed on because it sounded like fun. I then realised it is quite cold outside (it is November), and then that I had essentially nothing to wear that would shield me from this cold or its wind-enhanced, business-meaning, rugby-playing-or-otherwise-substantially-larger-and-meaner cousin who lives on the channel islands and comes out to flex its muscles at inexperienced and hapless writers out at sea. Nor did I have anything that was really waterproof. In my panic of realising I don’t even know about waterproof wearables enough to make any real purchase decisions, I decided to buy wellies. This turned out to be one of the wiser purchases I made that day, and served to confirm the consumer fantasy – that our purchases really show us how wise/enlightened/sophisticated/virtuous we are.[4] Having dry feet is underappreciated in normal, land-based life of short supply lines, and wellies help a great deal in furthering this objective. Though be warned; they will fill up with water if you are dipped in the ocean up to your waist, and their waterproofing feature will then turn against you with a malicious vengeance fitting Greek tragedy or the next series of Game of Thrones.

On Friday evening I duly made it to the rendezvous point, the coach stop in front of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, where an odd-looking young man waited perched atop his ‘kitbag’. What made him look so odd was the explode-on-impact visual double-whammy of his offensively extensive neck beard with not a whisk on his actual face, like he was the leader of an anti-movember movement and took his position undergrad-grade-seriously, coupled with his upwards-protruding hair that rose in concaves like the foot of a mushroom cloud or the cooling tower of a nuclear power plant. It transpired later that he was an engineer, though that may or may not have been relevant, and that he is one of the more experienced members of the OUYC racing team, and further that his looks were the result of a game among the club called ‘odds’, of which further below. He said his name was Bryn, and qualified it immediately by saying ‘it is a ridiculous name’. I told him it was alright, and that he should see mine, though we actually only discussed through a possibly-American postgraduate called Elliott or Elias or Eli or something similar, who seemed very concerned that we might be waiting in the wrong place and whose stress-induced blood cortisol levels we were taking turns in trying to keep in check.[5] At five minutes to six he went to check around the corner, and came back crestfallen. We had failed. For the next five minutes his cortisol levels must have been through the roof. His life expectancy might be permanently shortened.

Other people soon arrived, as did the coach. I take it Mr E was happy or at least less concerned, though I had now lost sight of him among the Tesco bags of ridiculous food only undergraduate students with little cooking experience would buy – an enormous amount of bread and boxes of cereal, bacon and at least ten bottles of rum and multiple giant bags of smaller bags of crisps of odd flavours, and not much else – in particular the hopelessly inadequate number of water bottles would prove to have been spent by Sunday morning with a full day of sailing left and a pretty decent hangover all around.[6] The kitbags and comestibles were awkwardly[7] packed on the coach and we took off towards some unknown location, which later turned out to be Portsmouth, home of the infamous and elaborate Tiger Tiger nightclub, presumably named so as a single mention of the ferocious feline simply would not convey firecracker image[8] that this club apparently lived up to.[9]

Nothing much of note happened on the coach trip, as most people did not know each other yet and I sat at the front fearing carsickness, which I am no stranger to and which I would have taken as a really bad omen for a weekend on a boat where seasickness is a real and present danger, and quite desperately needing a wee until I finally discovered the coach toilet hidden by the middle stairs, which toilet I promptly put to good use. I had severe doubts as to whether the radio really needed to be on so loud (my ears rang for hours afterwards), and whether every song on the radio really was as ‘HOT’ as the pre-recorded automatic DJ without a single lapse always exclaimed before playing (just that, ‘HOT’, and nothing else, no explanatory note or anything) – though I will admit some of the songs genuinely had such thermodynamic properties. We arrived at the marina (the boat equivalent of a parking lot), unloaded the coach thrice more awkwardly[10] than we had packed it and on the planks of the marina, amidst what must have been hundreds of oddly-named shining-white boats, divided into our respective yachts with each group taking an experienced student sailor and an unlikely selection of the food on offer with them – our selection included most of the crisps, most of the bread and little else. The marina smelled faintly of fish and salt. The planks made planky sounds as we walked over them.

We all sat down on the seats inside the cabin, moved our kitbags to the hole in the wall where I was to sleep (though if I had known it at the time I might have kicked up a fuss that everybody’s kitbags were kept there, for obvious logistical and spatial reasons), and stared at the floors, walls and ceiling whilst huddled together in close quarters in what must have been one of the most awkward silences I have braved through. The skipper/probable owner[11] of the boat, a thirty-something called Simon, handed us all beers and Tom, the student sailor who was to lose most of his eyebrows within the next hour and a half, attempted unsuccessfully to engage us in conversation. Still, we all loved him for trying.

Small bags of oddly-flavoured crisps were passed around. A two-foot inflatable penis was discovered in one of the cabins, but your present author was unable to elicit any further information as to its origin or purpose from any of the most likely sources: Simon, Tom, Bryn or any of the other experienced student sailors.[12]

An awkward 15-minutes feels like an awkward hour. Because of this socio-psychologically skewed time perception I have no idea how long we spent there in the slowly warming cabin of our yacht trying to learn each others’ names and finding out what we all did, and when those subjects ran their short course we probably just sat in silence – until some time later, not a long time but not short either, a group from the other non-postgrad boat all piled into the cabin of Talisman, bringing food and rum and merry company. When we went around the boat giving our names is when I received my sailing name, one which I did not foresee would stick but which two nights later would still be shouted back and forth between boats mid-sailing in a way that felt really very welcoming, on Sunday when the wind had died down so completely that whole conversations could be had between crews that were boat-lengths away from each other on the open seas.

Among the visitors was a small girl with an unprecedented volume of thick and really blonde hair, blonde that must have been natural but that looked as if it had just been re-bleached five minutes ago and then ten minutes ago, wearing running tights (I remember silently questioning to myself whether they really were the most convenient thing to be wearing on a sailing trip but which highlighted her shapely legs, of which I also said nothing) and a slack hoodie with her last name at the back. She had large front teeth that were left uncovered by duty-abandoning lip most of the time as if she was showcasing them to an approaching predator, sometimes in smile but also in a blank expression and actually just about every other expression. She had a skin problem that she had covered in copious amounts of makeup but which didn’t make her look unattractive, she was funny and quick and I had a semi-serious mini-crush on her for the entire trip (I am almost certain she must have a serious boyfriend as only a second year undergraduate can have,[13] because she kept checking her phone every thirty seconds for the entire weekend), though of course I did not mention this mini-crush to her either. I had to ask her name separately as I had missed it on the first round, I told her she was the funniest person in the boat (which I said sincerely and not because of the mini-crush which was only developing at that stage, more an effect of my finding her so funny than its cause). I have since come around and do not wish to give the name here, as I now see her every Monday for sailing theory which I attend to try to understand what the hell just happened in order to write this piece, and genuinely think she is funny and pleasant and I wish her well, even if my mini-crush may have only lasted the weekend. However, I will say this, that her combination of the sack-like pyjama-esque slackness of her hoodie and the sleek, aerodynamic streamlined skin-tight running bottoms made her look simultaneously really fast, and really, really slow in terms of a capacity to cover a real physical distance between A and B.

My declaring the Blonde Girl the funniest person in the boat caused our second-in-command, Tom, to speak out something to the effect of ‘what about me’. This exclamation was backed by some considerable merit, as he had already swum in the filthy marina (it is also November, I reiterate) and lost one of his eyebrows.

The game of ‘Odds’ is played in the following manner. One sailor challenges another, by saying ‘odds’ after the other has made an audacious claim, such as ‘I can sweat a mainsail in 30 seconds’. The challenged sailor, the one who made the claim, will then choose any number, but all serious players of ‘Odds’ always choose two. Both will then, on count of three, say out a number between one and the number chosen (so usually 1 or 2). Where both the challenger and the challenged say the same number, the challenged wins and the challenger will lose an eyebrow (or possibly have to do the thing originally claimed, depending on whether both have agreed on it). Where the participants say a different number, the challenger wins and the challenged will have to do the thing claimed, or lose an eyebrow.[14]

I do not remember what Tom had claimed, but it evidently had something to do with swimming in the marina. He lost, on odds, stripped down to his boxers (while the girls were watching intently, including or especially the Blonde Girl which stuck a small needle in that competitive man-part of me that seeks self-emphasis and tries to be really funny and make a lot of noise whenever an attractive girl and other young men are around in a group-situation) and jumped in the cold water. He swam two or three strokes, a fact that was later disputed (unsuccessfully) in an effort to make him do it again, got up the ladder and went to have a warm shower.

I forget now exactly what he lost his first eyebrow for, as he certainly did swim in the marina, though in my defence the rules were really rather complex for the uninitiated. I have a vague recollection that he accidentally claimed something so outlandish that nobody could possibly do it, in the way that people who are unaccustomed to the game of Odds do on a daily basis, like “I’ll be two minutes” when nipping to the shops or similar. The game of Odds is, it turns out, very literal and not open to lawyerly interpretation and argument – it is unforgiving as the sea.

A quick tally of which of the young ladies had brought a razor was taken – it turned out most of them had, while none of the gents had bothered. This struck me at the time as exemplifying some fundamental difference between the two genders, the not-being-arsed practicality of men versus the be-prepared-for-all-eventualities long term planning capacity of women. Still, given that it was freezing outside and everybody wore their ‘fowlies’[15] almost the entire time, leaving only a small part of the face visible and presumably the face is not what the ladies had in mind when they bought their razors. I still wonder what they thought was going to happen on the ‘extravaganza cruise’ of the Oxford University Yachting Club, but asking them this turned out to be some kind of inquisitorial faux pas, like asking someone to name their least favourite person on the boat with everyone present, and the question was met with only vague and slightly derisive answers. Anyway, a razor was located suspiciously soon and Tom lost his first eyebrow.

I do remember how he lost his second, taking place not 20 minutes after the first one and progressing from challenge to hair-removal very rapidly indeed. It was simply a case of double or nothing, the challenger being a Northern English lad by the name of Mike (whose full name I assume to be Michael but who you would never consider calling Michael as opposed to Mike), a charming young man with a constant smile on his face and also my cabin mate.[16] Odds were called, Tom replied with ‘two’ (as expected), and then lost his second eyebrow. The rules of the game were becoming more and more shrouded in mystery to me at this stage (why couldn’t he just swim again? What did double or nothing even mean in this context, it’s not as if he can get his first eyebrow back?), but I didn’t want to fuss. At this stage he started to look uncannily like Matt Smith of the Doctor Who fame. For the rest of the weekend people would burst out laughing when he suddenly turned to face them, which might have simply given him the subconscious impression that everyone was always really happy to see him. Anyway, I referred to him as ‘the Doctor’ for the rest of the weekend. I am not sure he appreciated it, and he very politely referred to me by my real name and not ‘Galaxy’, though I tried to indicate in small ways that ‘Galaxy’ was entirely fine with me.

The evening went on with much rum, music (this is when I first heard ‘Uh’) and merriment for hours and hours, it was crowded and tiring and fun. Had this been an American scouts camp or a similar setting I am sure someone would have whipped out a guitar from somewhere and led everyone in a singalong of Kumbaya or something.[17]

I have perhaps dwelt enough on the wind speed and general weather that we went ‘cruising’ in on Saturday. I wish, however, to make clear that it was this day that I learned all the things which I described above as knowing, especially the thing about your eye socket becoming a salt water receptacle. The yacht travelled at such an angle that one of its sides always had water up to the deck itself, and describing a yacht’s motion in strong winds as crashing through waves turns out to be no exaggeration at all. As the wave hits you the boat shakes and it even makes a crashing sound, with water being thrown high up in bathtubfuls only then of course to rain down on you with the same blitzsplash ferocity as PETA-fanatics throw paint on people with fur coats in a multidirectional ambush. It is here that my face was encrusted with salt, my waterproof gloves dishonoured their sale-inducing promise and my legs were dangled down from the surface of the ocean like giant bait for giant fish before I could clamber up. Sitting on the deck was like sitting in a puddle continuously, though the fowlies very respectably did not allow for seepage. Simon never let go of the helm for one second, and I found a new respect for Tom ‘the Doctor’, who was very much in control, knew what he was doing and ceaselessly worked at pulling one rope or another, loosening something here, tightening something there. He explained to me, upon journalistic displays of curiosity which I tried to make as unencroaching upon his important looking job as to keep us afloat, that what he was doing was ‘depowering the sail’ in the incredibly strong gusts, so they wouldn’t knock us over. Sensing an ‘in’, I launched a series of questions about how sailing works and what all the ropes were for, during which I asked what that rope was used for and why was it over there, and Tom answered ‘that’s just the halyard’ with a tone that had implications regarding the questioner’s intelligence. I replied ‘Oh I see’, as if that had somehow explained things, which it hadn’t. I have never even had a flagpole (which not many people in England have), and I had no idea what the word even meant – I didn’t see.[18]

This is also where he taught me how to look out for gusts and asked me to call them out as I saw them so he could take action without having to scan the seas constantly. I believe I might have done a poor job at this, being a little overly excited by the new information which I had never thought of before, that you could ‘see’ gusts like that out at sea, and merely pointing them out like ‘look there’s one’ without doing the proper sailor thing of counting down to when it was going to hit the sail. We travelled really really fast, and occasionally the yacht turned into a 38-foot surfboard as we caught and rode giant waves. It was really really fun, though this is also where my hair got the strange rubbery texture to it and was described by a fellow crewmember as ‘Jedwardesque’, a word which in itself seems to exemplify the combined sophistication/trashy pop culture knowledge of these Oxford undergraduates. If you do not know it, look up ‘Jedward’, and maybe ‘hair’. You will see things.

Someone went below deck, and emerged with a bag of apples which we all passed around kindly but like our lives depended on them, losing one or two in the waves. Then we all sat on the edge of the improbably tilted boat, bit into our apples and let the wind ring in our ears. The air was fresh; the wind felt good as it brushed dry our faces. Within minutes is when the boat would turn abruptly and we would all dip in the sea, but we didn’t know that then, and though the wind was still fierce and the waves still beat against us on occasion, none of us said a word. It was the sweetest mildly salted apple I have ever had, and that was all I thought. The mind did not wander or analyse, it only concentrated on being in time and space. Sailing has its moments.

By the time we got back to the marina, at 3pm I might say, we were so beat it felt like bedtime. It turns out that even though you are just sitting for most of the time whilst sailing, your body is constantly adjusting to the swing of the boat (hence why I still feel the ground is rocking), like balancing on an exercise ball for hours, tensing muscles and so on. Sailing in high winds is, surprisingly to your present author, physically exhausting. I changed into dry clothes, and the contrast gave rise to a comfort so intense I have rarely felt its equal.[19] The entire interior of the yacht was covered in drying clothes and shedded fowlies. My hurry to shed mine could have proved very costly, since I was the first one in our boat to get out of them and consequently mine were left at the bottom of one of the several piles of heavy-duty waterproof clothing whose interior was nevertheless soaked, and they were no dryer on Sunday as they had been on Saturday afternoon, only colder and more redolend. But thankfully I did not have to even think about wearing them on Sunday.

Because there is very little to say about our sailing on Sunday whose journalistic gist has not been accurately conveyed already, it is perhaps more appropriate to discuss what it is about sailing, or yachting, that conjures up the images of sharp white clothes and rich people, that either made you pick up this piece and spend time reading it, or decide not even to pick up this piece in which case all best wishes to you, you who will never receive these wishes. Because in actual fact, in its core, sailing to me is nothing more than caravanning, but instead of the open roads you have the open seas.

There are people for which sailing is an actually useful and necessary skill. Tom, of the lost eyebrows fame, is one of them. He grew up in the channel islands[20] and had to sail to Portsmouth on a pretty regular basis, I imagine. For the vast majority of people who do sailing, however, it seems to be some kind of entertainment.

The bizarre thing here is of course that sailing is not easy, and its skilled execution resembles something closer to a military drill than a movie or bungee jumping or any other conventional form of what we now consider entertainment. Also, it is still in a pretty fundamental way a method of getting from one place to another – it’s as if simply driving around would be entertainment, as most often you’re not even actually going anywhere when sailing with any schedule or any particular person to visit, but literally sailing around. This is what the allure of the ‘open seas’ is meant to be, that you are free to go anywhere in the world with only you, your trusted and oddly-named yacht and your perseverance against natural forces in the man vs nature bout mentioned in FN15. But most yachters do not actually travel on their yachts, or if they do it is usually on a holiday and the holiday consists mostly of being on the yacht.

Imagine a week-long holiday where you hardly ever left the car. No, more: imagine a holiday where you hardly ever left the car, and it was still romantically considered to be somehow evincing a profound connection with human nature that you went around in the car in the first place; your driving is an impressive fact about you that you like to share stories of with your friends at the Car Club, wearing a special £1,000 double breasted Car Club blazer and cream trousers, and displayed your new £400 driving shoes. You say things like you feel truly at peace when driving, and that your mind rests when you drive, and you can’t wait to go driving again in the fantastic open roads of Greece or the US west coast or Cuba or something. No way.

What is even more odd is that yachting isn’t actually substantially more comfortable than travelling in a caravan. And not in one of those high-end American caravans that are really more like houses on wheels, but in one of those shit European ones that are made of an alloy of plastic foam with an aluminium cover. In fact, if you were beamed across space into a yacht, you might not know the difference: the surfaces are that same imitation wood, the doors have that same lack of heft or substance to them as if they were made of cardboard and then, of course, there is the toilet.

I am a grown up, and have long since let go of the thought that I’d need any help conducting myself in the appropriate manner in a lavatorial situation. Not since I was five have I needed any help in deciding what to do in a loo. Until now. First off, I should note that the bowl was full of water when I got there. This confused me, as it was clear that this was not someone being forgetful in re flushing but rather it was actual, clear (sea?)water. Having conducted my business, trying to make as little noise as possible on the water-filled bowl but likely still being hifi-studio-grade audible on the other side of the 5mm plastic cupboard door where no fewer than 20-25 Oxford students were packed in a tight space, I was stuck looking at the bowl when suddenly memories of feeling helpless and embarrassed in a nursery toilet rushed back into memory. How the fuck do you work this thing?[21]

So really, cruising on a yacht is not luxurious. It is like being on a caravan with 10 people, except you cannot get out of the caravan other than on the roof of the caravan itself, at which there is really nothing to see except a great big plain of wavy mass. So like trecking across great wheat fields or something. And it is not easy – imagine the caravan is not controlled by pedals and a steering wheel but by one of Wallace and Gromit’s Cracking Contraptions, where one of you has to peddle an exercise bike that lights a bulb that another one has to hold up to the right height so that its light hits the magnifying glass that another one of you is using to burn a piece of string that another one of you has to keep replacing, so when the string breaks a bunch of bricks that another one of you has to keep reloading and reattaching to the replaced trigger string falls down on the side of a plank sending another one of you up in the air and it’s actually the angle in which that person falls that determines the direction the caravan is going. Sailing takes concentrated effort of several people working in joint concert, at least if you want to do it properly and not just keep putputting about on the diesel engine (which most yachters we saw out there on the English channel were actually doing). With all this complexity and limited speed and comfort it is hard to resist the conclusion that sailing is clearly just an antiquated, difficult and uncomfortable form of travelling, like horse carriages or something, its need almost entirely replaced by cars and air travel.

Is sailing then just a social class thing? That is, given that it is clearly not necessary for most people and seems unduly difficult to be nakedly pleasurable, do people just do it to show they belong in a certain societal club and want something suitably expensive to exclude all but the richest from entering? Is all of this hopelessly obvious? If so, why? What is obvious about it? Or is the connection between rich exclusivity and sailing just a matter of our wildly inaccurate preconceptions as non-sailors, just as misleading as the preconceptions of white middle-class protestants as non-blacks or non-muslims (or the other way around)? One more question: did you have a certain socioeconomic picture of the other students on board? Were you struck by the fact the Mike was Northern?[22] Am I the only one who had preconceptions about sailing?[23]

Premise: there is something about sailing that seems to scream social inequality. Plus, so many things in England seem to be informed by social class anyway, like fox hunting (stereotypically a posh pastime, banned by the last Labour government by introducing the Fox Hunting Act 2004 – I shit you not). Some basic unarticulated sense of journalistic honesty therefore seems to require, in order fully to discuss what it was like to spend the weekend out at sea with the OUYC, to discuss sailing as a social issue, if only because your present author was forced to confront his own preconceptions about class on average every fifteen minutes during the weekend.

It is true that most of the experienced student sailors, like Bryn, had that weird paralysed lower jaw accent that is generally associated with really posh people.[24] The Blonde Girl with Constantly Bared Teeth told me she was Irish, but her accent had been erased of any trace of Ireland generations ago (if it was ever there, which actually doesn’t seem very likely come to think of it). It is also true that Lizzie sounded like Victoria Coren-Mitchell when she gets a little angry at something and goes on a rant, and had (Lizzie did) that posh huskiness that sounds like it is the result of too many nights out in nightclubs where communications have to be shouted and yelped.[25] She had also brought a friend along, whose name was ‘Treens’,[26] who had done art history[27] in Oxford but now was just ‘sort of not doing anything’.[28] Of course I have no idea of the actual socioeconomic backgrounds of these students, and for all I know they could have gone to state schools in the outskirts of East London. But to save a lot of background characterisation (like sly little verbal nods towards certain high-end living areas in London, country houses and possibly horses), this wasn’t my impression.[29]

However, it also turns out to be true that this small community of what seems to be pretty posh people on boats is not psychologically walled as you might expect. In fact, they were welcoming and warm and, given that we were all covered in salt and bacon fat by Sunday, oddly open and unreserved and naked (personality-wise).

And all the dissociative elements were there, making me a prime target for at least un-inclusion – I do not have their accent or their schooling background, I don’t know the places in London they were talking about, I am older than they are (though apparently I don’t look it, at least when my hair is blown upwards and rubbery and Jedwardesque) and I was an outsider in terms of time spent together with these people. I even have a tattoo, which fact on Sunday’s sunshine was really rather difficult to hide. Dissociative Them and Us bollocks notwithstanding, they openly told me about their lives and yachting club finances, filled me in on the group dynamics and hierarchies, and shared personal anecdotes, hopes and fears.[30] After all the layers of complex prejudices were peeled off, what remains is the fact that these were just a group of quite nice young people.

Of course, none of this diminishes the fact that this trip was with members of the Oxford University Yachting Club, whose very existence suggests a thing or two,[31] and connotations of established entitlement build exponentially with each word one reads of the club’s name itself. One wonders exactly how welcome an outside friend like Treens would have been if she was from a council house in Doncaster, and/or hadn’t gone to Oxford. But never mind – it is actually beside the point.

As with so many things, there is an odd dichotomy here between individual warmth, innocence and impartiality on the one hand, and aggregate culpability on the other. The fact that English society, or just about any other society, is divided into social classes is not a secret to anyone.[32] There are deep-rooted and arbitrary inequalities all around us, and it is our duty as rational human beings to erase such inequalities. The aggregate phenomenon of unequal opportunities vs birthrights has a culpable flavour, a wrong-ness about it. But a phenomenon cannot be guilty of anything – we need to find a person or group of persons before we can assign blame in a meaningful sense. And the fact remains that none of these students had done anything culpable, no matter how different the façades of their homes look to my house.[33]

And this is what a generalisation or stereotype forgets, that even though there might be different groups in any given society, and that these groups are usually separated by money, power and status and that groups with money, power and status might be prone to abuse them (if for no other reason than because they actually have them) these groups still consist of people. People are sometimes nice to each other, and sometimes not, but to assign them blame based on their social class is to dehumanise them. It is to make them into a symbol of certain attributes, be it snobbery, or thievery, or propensity to violence – it is to forget they are actual real people, who are just trying to get through their days as best they can with the knowledge they have and (as is the case with most people though admittedly not all) with the least harm they can cause along the way.[34]

Because striking as it was, I was welcomed into the yachting club by real people, who were warm and kind. Some of them might have been annoying or some funny or some boisterous, but they were all human, and not some abstractions of attributes. They were people who like to be on boats, and to make it into a class issue is to miss something crucial about humanity: that we are all the same, and all human.

So the real, simple point here with many complex branches is this; that we were just a number of different people on the same boat, sometimes clinging on for dear life with wellies full of seawater, in seriously fowl weather when all of a sudden the boat turns without notice – and but sometimes just enjoying ourselves and each other’s company in the sunshine, out at sea. To see this answer to the old problem of Us and Them is to rise with the occasion, to meet the challenge of our lifetime when our interconnectedness lets us see more Thems than ever.

* For DFW.

[1] Fact-checking at editing in mid February 2015 in fact confirms this: Johnny Depp is to star in Pirates of the Caribbean 5 in 2017. Johnny Depp is, at the time of writing, 51, it seems pertinent to add.

[2] 39 knots I am told, though I am not quite sure what a knot is, or how a wind may have one let alone 39.

[3] Seemingly alternating only with Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off and that song about ‘marrying her anyway’, that I am currently too annoyed at to fact-check for name and performing artist out of fear that I might have to listen to it in the process, and that by doing so will have contributed to its by all indicators already overwhelming airtime. I ask also that you resist the prompt to listen to it provided by this piece, if only to save some listeners the deep psychological dissonance I am currently experiencing of having its sound bites float around in my head, occasionally making themselves known through the Cerebral Cortex Media Player. This annoyance was in no small part due to its lyrics alternating between “why you gotta be so cruel/rude”, a lyrical quip that not only shows that its author infantile-sociopathically (or in any case in a way that betrays a grossly underdeveloped moral compass especially as regards wrongs committed to the you or protagonist or speaker or self) confuse two distant and very distinct levels of being unpleasant towards another human being, an example of rudeness being not talking to someone at a dinner party and cruelty being a very very different class of actions indeed that I can only think of examples that though admittedly gruesome are of the nicer end of the cruelty spectrum, but also the lyrical quip exemplifies in crystallised form the hideous uninventiveness of the song’s other lyrics. But nothing against Taylor Swift. You go girl.

By the way I defy anyone to come up with an example that fits the description of both cruel and rude. I consider this to be semantically impossible.

[4] This fantasy took a real dent however with the expensive ‘100 percent waterproof’ gloves I bought, which really only seem to keep water in, and frequently have to be turned inside out to dry properly. As an ill-informed consumer I am once again humbled in a deep and hurting way that seems to somehow summarise the whole capitalist-existentialist catch – that in trying to exercise our capacity to choose virtuously we just get fucked by some faceless, rationally efficient marketing machine and pumped for profit. Or something.

[5] The reason I never caught Mr E’s name properly was nothing personal but only that he was in the ‘Postgrad Boat’, the one ‘cruising’ 43-footer rather than the two ‘racing’ 38-footers like the majority of cruisers (including through some administrative error this article’s author who is decidedly not an undergraduate), a boat with just that crucial extra six to twelve inches of head room which meant you never had to crouch down when standing up, 5 feet of extra lengthwise space meaning the cabins were actual cabins and not just horizontal holes in the walls for sleeping, a shiny imitation-wood dinner table and chart table and panelling and, well, a lot of shiny imitation-wood to go around in general, and a sleek-sounding name – Vantage rather than plain old Talisman, and definitely more sleek than Mighty Max 2 (in Arabic rather than Roman numerals, Roman appearing to be the accepted trend for names of rich and sleek cruising boats), the last being a name which like many boat names must have been a good idea at the time.

As an observational side note, boat names are actually quite similar to tattoos in many weird ways: both are more or less permanent, meant to be seen (at least by somebody), and though there are good ones and bad ones 99% of the ones you see are bad and ill-considered, especially given their (usually) high-level visibility and the fact that 99.99 percent of people who see the tattoo/boat name are not ‘in’ on the story behind the tattoo/boat name, and thus are just left wondering who in blue hell would be stupid enough to get a tattoo/name a boat like that (looping in the high visibility etc that comes with each name/tattoo that actually then becomes factor in the tattoo’s/boat name’s stupidity). The fact that the Venn diagram of people who get to name boats/people who get tattoos would look like two circles, one tiny and one huge, only scratching each other off one periphery or maybe not touching at all is an interesting thought to add to the picture here; are boat names the same badly turned out cry for individuality that tattoos are for most people who get them? If so, isn’t it bizarre that we routinely make assumptions like ‘all rich people are like x’ and ‘all poor people are like y’ (and all black people/white people/people in New York/students in Oxford etc ad infinitum are x/y/z etc.), and thus most of us (your present author probably included, as these assumptions are like all assumptions – mostly subconscious) seem to think of different socioeconomic classes as really being distinct types of human beings? And isn’t drawing this distinction somehow the entire point of sailing? More on this to follow in the main text.

Anyway, The Postgrad Boat was so much more luxurious that the rest of us in our jealousy and tireless search for dry warm comfort not available on our boats – this may come as a surprise, as it did for your present author, but yachts are mostly not very comfortable – commandeered its soft seats on several occasions and maintained possession until wee hours of the night, which must have annoyed its skipper, a charming and majestically silver-haired Italian called Paolo who had, according to apocryphal tales, sailed some leg or other of some famous race or other, or maybe the entire thing. I say ‘must have’ because he never showed his annoyance and would only be very charming about our ‘visit’ and occasionally partake of the rum being passed around, only he drank his rum straight, as can only be expected of a man who looks like and has the general masculine aura of Paolo. But even so I don’t think I ever saw Mr E again. Maybe the stress was too much.

[6] Thank God nobody drank the seawater. Having tasted a research-sufficient sample of it on Saturday I can tell drinking it would be counter-productive in the extreme.

[7] What the packing resembled was 30 people all simultaneously wanting badly to walk through the same door, but all of them also wanting to be the last person to walk through it for some reason. Like if there was a law that the last person to walk through a door gets a prize or something.

[8] Fast and fierce but ultimately uncontrollable until its momentum dies, amusing to observe at a safe distance but dangerous to be involved in too closely.

[9] I was fast asleep at the time, exhausted by a day of sailing and an hour-long wait just to pay for my dinner at Pizza Express where our collective presence must have been the highlight of the week but which in true English fashion didn’t translate to swiftness or quality of service in any way, plus by a tour of Portsmouth during which a Canadian one-year masters’ student said she was sad to see the place so commercialised, which your present author couldn’t help but respond with the fact that this was Portsmouth she was talking about, literally an old and major English port, which though closely connected to the British Navy was still a place where goods and services and money from all over the world had been exchanged in incredible quantities for centuries. The tour also included Portsmouth’s collection of old military ships, during which I may have seen Mr. E taking notes and which really is worth going to see on its own.

Reports of the events at Tiger Tiger were certainly firecrackery, and had there not been such an impressive amount of documented pictorial evidence I would have been inclined towards disbelief. But since I wasn’t actually there and real pictures can be used to back up complete falsehoods, anything from the ‘hard work’ that went into the school art project of which your present author has personal and embarrassingly disingenuous experience, or claims regarding the possession of weapons of mass destruction which should by now be part of the collective experience of us all, I shall not relay here what was passed on to me regarding Saturday evening’s merriments.

[10] So now it’s like 90 people etc. There was definitely some (conscious or subconscious) game theoretical thinking going on in my companions’ heads during the coach loading/unloading procedure that I was blissfully unaware of.

[11] When interviewed Simon declared his legal interest in the boat as ‘well, possession is nine tenths of the law right?’ I didn’t know what to make of this, so I present it here as it is in my notes.

[12] Incidentally, the reason I have no definitive memories or notes of the names of any particular boats, apart from the fact that naming them here would potentially be a violation of someone’s privacy as the name of the boat’s owner could then be checked through some boat register that I hear stories about, is that as I was trying to sneak around the marina looking at names of boats I was shanghaied along to a swiftly-moving undergraduate prank party whereby the two-foot inflatable penis was meant to be fixed on the bow of the other undergraduate boat, this being a plausible story of how the inflatable penis came to be aboard the Talisman in the first place, and therefore could not stop to observe and memorise any of the thoroughly ridiculous boat names I saw. Be advised, however, that more expensive-looking boats do indeed have Roman numerals in their names, and that there is a double-hull boat out there somewhere whose name is ‘Minesadouble’. Because fuck it, whoever owns and has named this boat deserves all consequences of having his identity indirectly shared in this essay.

[13] Too old to be in a naïve sixteen-year-old relationship – that will end in six months but which both parties think will last for all eternity as nobody has ever felt this way before, ever – but too young to need, and to let the other party have, their ‘space’.

[14] Or I might be confusing two distinct games which may have been played simultaneously, as I recall there being the occasional energetic shout of ‘EYEBROWS!’, after an audacious statement. The racing team have spent an awful lot of time together in confined spaces, it quickly became apparent.

[15] Short for ‘fowl weather gear’ or ‘-clothing’, a sharp and triumphant kick in the balls in the perennial man vs nature bout, this one being clearly in favour of the former – the clothing was almost perfectly waterproof, leaving aside the possibility of being actually dipped in the ocean in strong currents, warm and even relatively easy to move around in, the downside being that it was heavy and made everyone look like an exaggerated Japanese cartoon version of someone wrapped up very warmly.

[16] Two points to note here. First, given the size of the so-called cabin, we were really more like bedfellows, sleeping for all intents and purposes in a spooning position with no more than an inch or two of damp air between the S’s of our man-filled sleeping bags. Second, so constant was his smile that I didn’t actually recognise him when I woke up the next morning next to him, Mike still asleep and thus not smiling. The thought later occurred to me that he must have been having nightmares or at least very unpleasant dreams, as if it was the case that every moment of mundane reality was enough to make him grin from ear to ear like the Cheshire Cat (actually, Cheshire may well have been where he was from, or somewhere close – I just thought of this), his happy/sad spectrum of facial expressions must have been adjusted dramatically upscale in comparison to everybody else, and thus his not smiling must have been the equivalent of a grimace of pain or disgust for the rest of us. Mike enjoyed bacon, a fact which he seemed to explain by telling me he was ‘Northern’ (the explanatory value of this is a little questionable and part of me thinks he just happened to mention it amidst unrelated odes and later elegies of bacon as in fact most of what he said was so mentioned) and was thrilled about the large quantity the club regulars had bought and brought along, and probably secretly wanted to switch to the other undergraduate boat when it transpired that they had even more bacon than we did, and that the interior of their yacht was essentially covered in fragrant bacon fat by Sunday morning. So actually more than two points to note here, I mean.

[17] British people do not sing along. Remember this, always.

[18] Now, having read two books on the subject, one a skinny introduction and one a ‘Sailing Bible’, I roughly know what he was talking about most of the time. Kind of.

[19] Except during my service in the military, when such contrasts were a so common to be called everyday and which is a whole other can of fish, story-wise.

[20] He is an ‘islander’, a fact he is constantly reminded of at first by the rest of the racing team but pretty soon by everyone in the two non-postgrad boats. The joke here is that people from the channel islands are supposedly inbred, bug-eyed, stupid or whatever – Them instead of Us. As far as I can tell the abuse Tom endures is lighthearted and he takes it in good spirits, but who is to really tell if he cries himself to sleep at night; the insults were of that caliper. A telling bit of dialogue is the following exchange, maybe 20 minutes after Tom had lost his second eyebrow:

“Didn’t you two used to… you know,” Bryn-the-Cooling-Tower-Hair says, insinuating Tom and an experienced female student sailor called Lizzie, who is a rambunctious presence and whom I liked and with whom I shared a tub of ice cream in Cowes on Sunday, have some kind of romantic or at least physically manifested history together.

“What?” Lizzie says. “Me and Tom?”

“What? No no no!” says Tom, shifting his attentions like a metamphetaminic squirrel (Tom does this – he is involved in six different conversations at one time and juggles more or less successfully between them – and I cannot help thinking that this divided surface-attention thing is an enormous part of his sailing prowess).

“He can’t,” says another student, “she’s not related.”

[Uproarious laughter.]

[21] In case you were wondering, the way this tricky situation was finally resolved, after what seemed like at least 10 minutes of being for all practical purposes stuck in a very small and slightly smelly closet and already contemplating a just-leave-it-for-the-next-guy-and-act-like-nothing-happened strategy, was by Mike shouting (or more like gently speaking) through the door that I needed to use ‘the pump and switch’, which was enough search keywords for me to locate something that looked suitably like a pump and a switch, which I then quickly learned to use. Or at least I’m 80 percent sure I learned to use. I’m not sure how the water is supposed to get in there for the next guy though, but it sure as hell was always there when I went.

[22] So far this is the only descriptive detail of anyone’s social class that I’ve given in this essay, I kindly note. (For American readers: the Northern English Accent, which Mike decidedly had, has about the same connotations in England as a Midwest accent has in New York, except with an added flavour of stabbings and housing projects – not to say these connotations are accurate, they usually aren’t; which is sort of the point here.)

[23] Or maybe about Oxford students in general?

[24] These people used to be classified as Rahs, made famous by the internet sensation sketch ‘Gap Yah’ by the comedy group The Unexpected Items. David Cameron, the current UK prime minister, is often considered a former Rah who has since come out of his money-chrysalis to enter the playing field of British politics. Something similar by way of jaw paralysis is fabled to be found in the legacy Americans of Harvard and Yale.

[25] In fact, her accent even caused some ambiguities – at least five minutes of a perfectly good Friday evening were spent verifying whether she had done something unseemly ‘in Nepal’, or ‘in a pool’. This struck me as a clever way to avoid answering the real question, which of course was whether she had done this unseemly thing at all, a question which she managed to dodge brilliantly.

[26] Probably short for Katrina, though I expect this to have an odd spelling like Catroeina or Kotraine. Even a cursory look, say through the popular TV show Made in Chelsea that is like England’s The Hills but with substantially older money, into the lives of English posh people will reveal the strikingly ridiculous names or nicknames that the English Poshery seem to have, particularly the girls. Your guess is as good as mine here, as to its reason. Probably something similar to the tattoo/boat name individuality thing above.

[27] Like Prince William, for example.

[28] Though Treens struck me as a lovely person, and politely sat through my post-cruise ramblings on what I thought art was when I found myself sitting next to her at the Gunwharf Quay bar waiting for the bus home, and thought I should try to say something that she would feel she could chip in with, her having told me she had done art history and all.

It turns out art historians are not always all that interested in definitional questions like ‘what is art’, at least after three days of sailing and being cold and wet.

[29] Rising to the bait and actually asking for details about their schooling would probably had blown my cover, big time – not to mention I would have come across as a dick, to people I was going to spend a weekend on a boat with; sometimes there are social limits to journalistic probes.

[30] Let’s concede here that the openness cuts both ways – it is another stereotype that posh people deliberately act in ways that stun conventional working class moralists (e.g. do drugs, have group sex etc.) and brag about it afterwards. Though neither was this my impression of the group and their behaviour as a whole, the fact that they were so candid about themselves did also mean they shared or at least made references to some pretty outlandish-sounding stuff – perhaps most strikingly, the Legend of Chris.

I am not sure who Chris is (though there is a chance I’ve even met him), and how long ago he was the Racing Team Captain, but the stories I heard of this young man would make the hair stand up on one’s forearms. I have even decided to change the name of Chris, as I worry that mentioning his real name here would somehow get me in legal trouble and even rather feel like insulating myself with as many narrative prose layers between him and me as is stylistically, linguistically and grammatically possible. The truth is the legends and apocryphal tales surrounding this mythical former team captain were so literally incredible, as well as totally unverifiable by any fact-checking or research method or even methodology, that it is probably best not to reproduce them here. In fact, all my invitations for further details or repeats of what was said were politely declined by the entire racing team. I will – as I am haunted by this young man’s fabled Jungian shadow – say this: the images of certain kinds of, shall we say, spillage have proven to be such personally onerous hang-up loops of the Cerebral Cortex Media Player as to be unsettling.

[31] The Club also hosts annual black tie dinners with current and former members in seriously impressive London hotels, where there is very little doubt of the socioeconomic background of a vast majority of the attendees.

[32] ‘Divided’ is a little misleading here, as it suggests some definitive agent who has done the dividing. But you get the point.

[33] I should point out here that I am aware of both (a) that this sounds an awful lot like Bob Nozick’s old riff in Anarchy, State and Utopia about how if the initial acquisition of property is just, and its subsequent assignments (e.g. by sale, inheritance etc.) are just, there should be nothing unjust in the end result even if it means that all property is now held by some ruling elite (this is a simplification I’ll admit – read the book if you’re interested, like tons of tax-dodgers haven’t, not really) and (b) that it’s not as if that book is some unerring fountain of ultimate philosophical truth (though the aforementioned persons interested in limiting state interference particularly in the form of taxes mostly appear to treat it as such) – there are plausible and even devastating counter-arguments to the view it presents. The point here is subtly different though, which I’ll save for the next footnote and accompanying main text…

[34] …So the point here is not that there are no class issues that attach to pastimes like sailing (of fox hunting, for that matter), or that we shouldn’t ever raise these issues, but that to involve these students as individuals in these issues and assigning them personal blame for the background that they were born into is to dehumanise them in the same way that the working class, or women, or black people, or muslim people, or people on benefits are dehumanised by the preconception-based discrimination that liberal values abhor.

Essay: On Fiction, Art and ABBA


On Fiction, Art and ABBA

Finland is not by its nature a dangerous country. It has very little poverty, free health care and education, it is transparent and its income equality is exceptionally level for our age – its head of state shovels his own snow off his own driveway, to give an illustrative example. Finland is stable. It has 0 slums, 0 failed schools or neighbourhoods, 0 truly extreme political parties and 1 annual demonstration where a 1-4 windows are broken. Finland is neither east nor completely west, and tries its utmost to stay neutral in all conflicts. It is full of blonde, pretty people in adorable winter jackets and mittens. In a word, it is very Sweden.

I am in Finland for some book research, looking for grand stories from the Finns’ ancient folklore epic, the Kalevala. It is the hipster epic, far less well-known than the Iliad or the Odyssey of the Greeks or even the Shahnameh of the Persians, it is the Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones put together of national epics, complex and vivacious, but also deep and difficult in its poetic form and linguistic trickery. And, through its gatekeeper language and cultural backdrop which takes a very long time to get attuned to, it is tightly safeguarded from the aesthetic breaches and compromises of truly popular appeal. It is as far away from pop culture as one could think, and in coming to delve into it I keep running into the most shallow of basic human problems, the ones where girl meets boy in a sleazy night club and it’s all very dramatic that is the stuff of pop music, and entertainment arts. Ever since ABBA.

I am driving back to the house where I am staying. It is dark, it is -25 celsius outside, the car is handling funny. The break pedal, I have noticed, does not go down properly (or actually, doesn’t go down at all) and the car hardly slows down when I press it. The car also won’t accelerate even when the accelerator is totally floored, and it feels as if the tires aren’t gripping the road very well. This is unsurprising, as the road itself is a horizontally frozen cascade, a natural art work of ice sculpture laid atop the asphalt, with two narrowly-spaced ruts in it that show a bit of wet-looking-but-really-decidedly-permafrost-ground underneath. My tires do not fit these two ruts very comfortably, and the car keeps jumping out of one and into the other. I have 100km to drive. It is a bright full moon, thank God. In this justifiably dire situation, seeking some kind of light relief, I turn on the radio but discover the car’s antenna is broken. I find a CD in a strange-looking case, and put it on.

It turns out it is ABBA GOLD, the legendary greatest hits CD of the legendary Swedish pop band of the 1970s, which if you haven’t heard yet will probably never mean very much to you, but if you have you will know exactly what I am talking about. It is the CD of our mums, the 1990s smash hit compilation that came all from nowhere on the final furlong of ABBA’s fame and topped the selling charts of 1992 in multiple countries; it has sold a total-grand-slam 29 million copies and it is one of the best-selling albums of all time, up there with the White Album and what have you.[1] It has been re-edited, re-released and re-mastered more times than any artist or producer involved would care to admit (at least six different main releases exist, plus two Australian releases, some Spanish releases, a video release and a special edition non-UK version with an additional disk of 11 lesser-known ABBA numbers). It is Capital-P-Pop, and its stylistic influences can still be heard in today’s chart-toppers.

In this life-threatening[2] situation I very much appreciated the distracting pop-appeal of the songs, each of which is its own gay anthem. But I heard more than that. I heard beauty; I heard art, real musicianship and not just machine-automated corporate pop, a conversation between the artist and the observer. I believe the work has not been done as regards ABBA and their juggernaut compilation album, no one has truly done the digging and got into the heart of it, what makes it at once so ravishingly touching and so calculatedly commercially appealing; what is its art, what techne did Björn and Benny weave into the texture of their music, what is their pact with the Gods? Is ABBA capital-A-Art, or even art at all? If not, how can it be so appealing? Why is it beautiful, is it beautiful, what even is beauty? In trying to get to the core of ABBA GOLD one very quickly comes face-to-face with some heavy-duty no-nonsense fire-all-cylinders philosophical questions about aesthetics and art theory, because there is clearly something there, something that speaks and something in us, millions of us, that listens.

Approach by analogy: I submit that what makes great fiction can be reasonably well-illustrated. Take The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s great classic. When I was a young man and spent a lot of time travelling (well, I am still a reasonably young man and spend a lot of time travelling, but anyway), I used to read The Great Gatsby at least four times a year, sometimes six or more. I thought the Great Gatsby was what novel writing was, all there was to it, and I did not think highly of my own abilities as a writer.

One day I noticed something about the book. Every time I’d read it there’d be pauses where the scenery and imagery, the one that floats before one’s eyes as one reads and makes the actual text and book and the physical world fade out in favour of a strong fictitious one, disappeared abruptly as if someone had pulled the plug from your television and I was reminded of the fact that I was holding just a book, and its words were just words. Some lazy end of a sentence, or over-written piece of poetic detail meant to sound pretty as a bunch of words but which didn’t actually mean anything and didn’t convey any message other than maybe ‘look at me, I’m a writer’. It was an interruption, and it alienated me from the writing much more than the fact that the people in the stories were nothing like me, they were rich and beautiful and they had had full and complete lives and childhoods with steady places to live and much money to go to famous schools with frivolously. Some of them had been in the Great War.

This is when the literary critic in me awoke for the first time, and I started coming up with some criteria for what it is for fiction to be good, and what does it mean for something to be called art. The reason, I have since gathered, I enjoy the novel as an art form so much is that it involves, for a reader, surrendering your imagination and letting the writer guide you, to show you something that lies behind the obvious story of a book – the story behind the story. This may be done through symbolism, or allegory, or fucking-animal-characters, stream of consciousness to be followed, or more recently, challenge & enlistment (of which more in a second). The author grabs the reader’s attention and points it in some order at certain things, asks you to connect the dots and share in the little inside story or message of the book. The author gets into your head, and puts you in a position where he can whisper through the words what it is that he wants to say, the thing he considers the complex and delicate capital-T-Truth he is trying to show through weaving the lies necessary for its lived experience.

In order to do this the author must be completely honest and true and accurate in his descriptions, he must write nothing that isn’t absolutely essential, nothing for him, everything for the reader. When I noticed Fitzgerald did not always follow this rule, I did the next logical thing – started reading Hemingway. Once I had this rule in mind, that great fiction is a conversation albeit an oddly one-sided conversation until you start writing your own stuff, the actual story of fiction became less important. You start to hunt for the stuff where the writer enters your head that keeps the book honest, keeps the message intact – the author’s whispered voice from between the lines. I could suddenly appreciate works that had left me cold before – like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, where the author talks through challenging the reader to put together the story for himself, and all that fracturing is part of the message itself of the book. It was masterly, once appreciated through my working definition of what art was.

So I posit this: it has to do with the immediacy with which the artist speaks to the observer. Good classical fiction is good because the text is so technically brilliant that you don’t even know you’re reading something as you’re guided towards the author’s message. Avant garde –type fiction like David Foster Wallace gets even closer to the observer’s innermost workings, as it enlists the reader in figuring out the story, doing the work, having to expend mental energy in service of the author’s ends of enlightening his reader. It is very intimate, but it is also very problematic. And this is the stuff that eventually gets us to ABBA.

The problem with getting closer to the reader by making him work for his entertainment or enlightenment or whatever you believe the end message of good fiction ought to be, is that it alienates some readers. There is no more vivid an illustration of this than the on-the-record-statements of a very close acquaintance of mine (whose side I am probably about to misrepresent horribly as I do not understand his/her side, and whom I shall therefore keep nameless as a prophylactic self-defence) about the Thomas Pynchon modern classic, Gravity’s Rainbow.[3]

I am currently reading Pynchon, and I think Gravity’s Rainbow is a tremendously good book. Aforementioned very close acquaintance, let’s call him/her C for convenience, saw my copy resting on a table and proceeded to joke about its heft. I engaged in the jokey banter, until C claimed that C could tell the book sucked because of the way the physical book – including its cover, a non-original vintage reprint – looked. I verified whether C’s argument really was that C could, in C’s own opinion, literally judge a book by its cover without reading a single line, to which C replied that that was absolutely the argument: “Only pretentious tossers read books that are that long and look like that with a name like that. The marketing machine fires books like that directly at the most pretentious readers, and it shows in the look of the physical book.”[4]

My response was that the discussion would not be fruitful and fun, as we came from such different premises that we’d only end up insulting one another if we engaged in this debate fully, C and I. But it did get me thinking: there is definitely something very alienating about demanding the reader to do so much work to figure out what is happening and what the message is and what the writer is directing you towards, that even if it actually brings the author closer to the reader because it enlists the reader in one of the central functions of the author, that of storytelling and weaving together the causal connections between events that we collectively refer to as ‘plot’, what if you don’t feel like working too hard just now? What if your attention is divided between the book, your three kids who all want to show you what they’ve drawn and your wife who is emotionally blackmailing you for organic soy milk from the organic farmers’ market 20 miles away? What about the reader who cannot spend so much time and attention piecing together Infinite Jest, or for whom it is rationally inefficient to do so? What about rational apathy, the idea that the payoff of the book is likely to be so small that it is not worth the reader’s undivided attention, as judged by the reader himself? In that sense, a reader might well just look at the physical size of the book plus its name and decide that it’s probably not worth his time, in a risk/reward kind of way. Isn’t this a very dangerous way for a novel to fail, by alienating its reader in attempting to nestle closer to him, and tragically failing to establish the link between artist and observer that is the essence of art itself?

Enter: ABBA GOLD, which can be considered the opposite of this tragedy of alienation. ABBA’s art is in getting closer to the listener (receiver of art, observer) by getting closer to the listener. ABBA’s songs are, essentially, about the lives of the band’s fans. It is reaching out and directing the listener through identification – it is as if The Great Gatsby could somehow be about you, about your generation and your pastimes, about your problems in a direct and immediate way.

ABBA tells stories. So much so that one wonders if an entire fiction piece could be written using nothing but ABBA songs, but then oh yeah – Mamma Mia!, the musical/movie on stage/screen everywhere, a sloppy creampie of recapitalised capitalisation where the characters appeal to stereotypical viewers/listeners of ABBA and wear white linen clothes in a milieu of sunshine, sandy beaches and turquoise sea water. The plot probably has some element of romance in it, maybe with a dramatic and song-accompanied break-up as its twist, and probably has little else. Maybe an intergenerational thing, with maybe a romance thing but one which doesn’t get all pervy and disgusting. But the ABBA stories are oddly compelling.

The point is, in ABBA it is the story itself that speaks to us. It is not the story behind the story, except in the way that follows: the only story behind the story is that we are supposed to identify with the main story, and because we’re supposed to identify, the whole ABBA project suggests – behind the obvious story – that our normal, every day lives centered around procreation and its epiphenomena are really some kinds of heroic tales worthy of retelling in song form. ABBA elevates what we do, and that is why we love it. That is why it is art – it speaks to us, like some of the novels mentioned above speak to us, and but what is more, it speaks to us. Think about it.

This heavy storyline identification, the root I submit of ABBA’s incredible success, shows up in many of the elements of ABBA songs found on the GOLD record. First, the protagonists are absolutely the worst of us, apart from maybe the protagonist of Fernando. Chiquitita is clearly about an aging prostitute failing at what is possibly her last chance of duping a man into a buy-out, and who has to go back to her pimp, from the narrative viewpoint of the pimp. Take a Chance on Me is the desperate mating call of someone with very little self-appreciation and no sense of dignity. Gimme Gimme Gimme is the voice of a sex addict who wants to drown out her[5] sense of a drab and trivial life of crushing loneliness in naturally-occurring, action-induced opioids. These stories, when really really listened to, are that unique composition of absolutely heartrending and gut-wrenching that lies perhaps at the very root of what makes stories like Les Miserables and Oliver Twist such classics that they can successfully (commercially successfully) be made into musicals. ABBA’s stories are about the lowest of the low. Next to these protagonists, our stupid mistakes of whoring ourselves out,[6] of offering ourselves to someone without regard to how that someone behaves towards us, of just wanting a sexual partner to chase the shadows away, seem not only comparatively less severe barneys, pickles, jimmy-jacks and hairy spots[7]; they seem shimmeringly alive, hauntingly beautiful, full of little sacrifices and devotions to one-another and thus, in a way, to the common human project. They are the glue that keeps the human race stuck together seeking mutually beneficial cooperation, though admittedly with a few kinks along the way every so often. And nobody will ever hear about these sacrifices because they are so ordinary, except in that their generalised versions provide the filling of a juicy daytime TV-shows’ proto-Machiavellian plots of failed self-interested power-trip deceptions. ABBA is the uniquely perfect elaboration of this; ABBA went where no artist had gone before, and reaped enormous rewards of fame and fortune.[8]

And bear in mind, this was a little Swedish group of two musical couples singing showtunes in funny outfits, a group that didn’t even have a name when they first started performing together (hence my spelling of ABBA in all capitals – the name is simply an acronym of the first names of the group’s members: Agneta, Björn, Benny, and Anni-Frid). Now they are part of our collective consciousness. Some rise.

But there is more to the ABBA recipe than grim subject matter, properly considered. The melodies are beautiful, catchy and a great many are very very sad: pay close attention to the wailing, work-a-lousy-job-and-give-your-all-on-Friday-night intro of Dancing Queen, which your present author[9] had to spend a moment or two even figuring out what the dominant melodic instrument was (my best guess is actually a combination: a soprano saxophone or oboe, together with a shameless-grade-reverb volume-down choir backing – the voice is oddly human but also oddly tinny and thin). This, coupled with the narrative lyrics with a diamond-drill focus on the tests and trials of the insignificant little, gives an ABBA classic their true essence – the intolerability that is perhaps an essential feature of beauty itself.

Thoughts: true beauty is always painful to observe because finding something beautiful entails its desire. We desire beauty’s innermost essence, to have or possess or come close to, but can never truly have it because beauty is something external to the self. In other words, to find something beautiful is to recognise that that something is not me, the observer (though it can be an image of the self – but all images are external, possibly), and to truly have it would be to become merged with it. It is like a kitten we want to squeeze to death because of its cuteness – really having it, forever and ever, would destroy its externality and thus its very essence. Beauty is the great tragedy of art – it is the ultimate problem of coming closer but never reaching. Beauty is so desirable as to be uncomfortable. And so is ABBA GOLD.

Because it is painful to hear about the every-day heroism of a character who appears at first glance to be so post-modernly amoral as to be almost a caricature of our self-focusing culture, a character whom if we saw on the street or in a nightclub we would find despicable for taking what we do too far – making a life of Porn when the rest of us are aiming for Music Video.[10] But to see such heroism, all the more heroic because no songs are made about it and no related fame or even approval accompanies, is also reassuring, and human, and delicate on the finer senses: compassion, understanding, benevolence, childlike connection with another human being. What gives these stories their delicate beauty that so bolsters their identifiability-feature is the melody. Prime examples of this tool in use are Dancing Queen and Winner Takes It All, where the melodies are sadistically touching, Money Money Money where it is devious and Gimme Gimme Gimme whose 1979 desperate and dangerous intro so captivated a generation that it, or a half-arsed version of it, resurfaced 26 years later as the leading creative feature of a Madonna single. These are a few examples of the melodic virtuosity of the album, but of course it is a pretty dominant aspect in the entire record.

But despite all of the above, ABBA is not complex. In fact, it is simple, and that is one of its strengths. Namely ABBA has that ability of making snappy, poppy uncomplicated basics work to their advantage, the ability we look for in a great pop song even today (well, apart from that the singer is pretty and desire-arousing). Consider Mamma Mia, perhaps their most poppy song after the 1974 Eurovision smash hit Waterloo (of which more below). All Mamma Mia has, besides its melodic tricks all of which are simple almost to the point of the well-known Eurovision Modulation, where the song steps up a key towards the end for an uplifting effect,[11] is a one-two rhythm which is drummed into the ears of the listener from the first beat onwards. One-two is not exactly imaginative, but in Mamma Mia it is absolutely, well, drum-tight and very disciplined. Listen particularly for the break in the drum track when the chorus begins (“mamma mia… here I go again…”), and its playful variations and little licks that are not quite drum fills but not far off when it comes back on, including even a neat little accent change and catch-up at the end of the chorus (“why why did I ever let you go?”). It is extremely neat, and the drummer, who is not mentioned in the inside cover, deserves an anonymous award or honourable mention for his part in the meteoric rise of ABBA. Maybe it’s Ringo.

The underlying argument above has so far been essentially that ABBA appeals to us because we identify with the songs – they are about us, our way of life and our choices in an abstract way – and that it also validates parts of our lives as the characters and stories are actually worse than what we do to ourselves. We like ABBA because it understands us, and it is kind to us. What, then, of the more ambitious material, such as Waterloo, ostensibly about the famous battle of the Napoleonic wars, or Fernando, in which the narrator discusses the bittersweet to the point of crushing nostalgia-of-the-defeated?[12] Mind you, these are not insignificant productions in the ABBA canon – it was Waterloo which detonated ABBA’s explosion of musical success in the Eurovision Song Contest of 1974, and Fernando was their first non-album single in 1976. It is also their best-selling single of all time, selling over 6 million copies worldwide in 1976 alone, and it has rightly earned its place on the fabled compilation record. What are these, then, if not a break from the individualistic endeavour that forms the core of ABBA’s art, the close discussion between the artists and their fans?

Of these two, Waterloo offers very little resistance to the main thesis of this review. Although the lyrics are about the battle, it is constantly related to the personal experience of the self as a metaphor, from the first couplet onwards (“My my, at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender / Oh yeah, and I have met my destiny in quite a similar way.”) The song is still about break-ups[13] and love-following-biological-urges, and the references made to the actual battle or its participants are only there to reinforce the artistic idea behind the entire record, that such humbly trivial and personally applicable problems are actually somehow profound, worthy of the history books and akin to the great decisions of old European warlords whose actions decided the fates of entire nations. Waterloo is in fact not an exception to the ABBA-line at all, but its prime example, the key piece which first translated the ABBA-project to the great masses – that ordinary lives are worth something, something big, and that they are what makes up humanity. The prevailing discourse of calling something as pivotally important as being concerned with the entire fate of humanity is, laconically, to call such things ‘historical’. Thus there is nothing strange in the fact that the first great ABBA hit says ‘look at this great battle of history – my own woes of attempting to resist my biological urge to copulate with this subject are akin to that great battle, and have the same outcome as Waterloo did for Napoleon’. In a way it is strangely eloquent.

Fernando is more difficult; it even has some thematic instruments, a wailsome pipe and military drum for crying out loud, and the song is openly about fear of death in the roar of cannons. And actual physical death as well, not a break-up or the loss of a friend, the actual physical death of the self, in service of liberty or some other abstract and distant ideal that is separated from personal experience by at least one logical space.[14] Fernando is a total outlier. It is the Anti-ABBA.

A clue may lie in what Fernando was – it seems that the group itself saw Fernando as somehow different in a fundamental way to all their other songs, as they finally made the decision to release it but only as a non-album single, not a part of any coherent whole in the ABBA corpus. As mentioned, it caught fire, which I admit is bizarre in light of the uniformity of the artistic message of all the other songs on the ABBA GOLD album, and how diametrically opposed to that message Fernando is.

But I submit that the appeal of Fernando is precisely its difference. It is the rare gem, the collector’s edition, the banned book or upside down stamp, the departure from the norm. It is what shows us that ABBA are not only artists with a coherent message, but people who sometimes follow their instincts that fragment the uniform image of their perceived intentions. As such, it is actually Fernando that brings ABBA closest to its listener. Bear in mind that by the time Fernando was published it was to a clamouring populus, an audience which had totally taken ABBA for its own and now demanded more and more, and which elevated ABBA’s members to superhuman status. Part of Fernando’s success as a single is probably due to this alone, but part of it, the story behind the story, is that Fernando’s whisper is simply this: We are people. We are like you. We romanticise heroes and events just as you do us. You are not alone. Releasing Fernando was a fucking great move, and it would not have delivered had it not been a lone single that was not a part of any album (until later, of course).

In Finland, like in any other ultra-stable country, danger mostly comes by surprise. It comes in rapidly dropped temperature, in aging brake discs, in making a small wrong choice a week upstream and having it build up slowly into a catastrophe that strikes when you least expect it. Had there been another element combined into the car situation your present author found himself in, say an elk or heavy holiday traffic, it is likely I would not be here to write this. But danger having struck and I being aware of it, my senses to ABBA’s art could not have been more heightened at the moment of the record’s rediscovery in my car. Imagine this: I am in genuine fear for my life, it is dark and I am alone, I even contemplate calling someone to tell them these might be my last moments if the car in front of me abruptly stops, but chose not to as that would have tied up one of my hands and thus probably caused the accident I was fearing. The house I was going to was in the perfect place to bring the car to a controlled halt, the entire drive was essentially along a straight line through impermeable woodlands and had I stopped in the middle of it I might have suffered severe frostbite before anyone could get to me. The situation was nerve-wracking.

But at the moment I put on the CD and Dancing Queen came on, I could not think about my predicament any further. And this is probably the real no-bullshit reason I am able to write this piece now, that I was able to quiet all doubt and second-guessing, and simply perform, drive, to the best of my ability and without thinking about it or visualising the accident I was going to have. When the CD was sucked in by the automated CD player and the first piano pianoed, my mind was filled with the bright-eyed Finn, who actually had dark hair but who was certainly tall and thin and pretty and who habitually wears mittens, whom I had driven 100km to see and who had a few hours earlier told me she wasn’t particularly interested in seeing me anymore. This trivial problem, and the little sacrifices and divisive exercises of true adult-grade autonomy plus the appreciation of the social rules dictating that such autonomy be absolutely respected – the what-would-people-think -aspect of any truly difficult personal-relations problem, the aspect that children and immature adults have such kick-to-the-balls trouble with – were alive and real to me, and I thought of nothing else. I was totally distracted from the actual higher-grade problem whose bad handling could have cost me life or frostbitten limb. And this, I say, is ABBA’s core-of-core appeal; that it gives our littlest the significance that we always felt it had and thought that nobody else could see. It is art, not for grand ideals, but for the little, and common, and beautiful.

[1] The method of its discovery in my car is probably also telling; that it just was in the centre console of some car somewhere without any comprehensible clue or trace as to how it might have got there.

[2] I shit you not.

[3] In an interestingly personalised or in-the-trenches way this little proto-debate between two private people in a private living room weirdly resembles the great structural literary debate of postmodernism, with points put forth by deconstructionalists like John Barth, whose 1967 Atlantic Monthly essay argues essentially that the techniques of what we regular Joes might call ‘normal books’, like linear narratives and such, can take us no further in developing the novel as an art form, and anti-deconstructionalist (re-constructionalist? pre-postmodernist? Arrière-garde?) critics like B. R. Myers, who still appears to churn out savage book reviews for The Atlantic, essentially arguing that if you like stuff like Pynchon you’re basically a mindless acolyte of critics and academics with no personal integrity or taste but plenty of pretension and snobbery – you get the picture. That both these sides of the same debate can be found in the same publication, albeit decades apart, and thus through the laws of commercial art critique/book reviewing appeal to the same readership is a noteworthy addition to the story. This debate is full of all kinds of complex ironies, some of which may in fact infect this essay.

[4] For my part I may say this sounds if anything like an overly generous interpretation of what was actually said, afforded in my efforts to make sense of what C actually said

[5] I keep thinking of ABBA narrators as female. This, as far as I can tell, is just because the singing voice is the amalgamation of two female voices, apart from a few rare exceptions like Does Your Mother Know, a song that people tend to skip and regard as mostly filling on the GOLD record.

[6] And whoring oneself out, which quite neatly can be considered to be a constant thematic or maybe even analytic or conceptual presence in commercial pop music, one certainly finds in ABBA. See, for example, the smash hit Money Money Money, a song which is essentially about how dreary it is to have to work for one’s upkeep (which most of us find a reasonably agreeable tradeoff) and how much nicer things would be if only the narrator had a rich man who could take care of her “in a rich man’s world” in exchange for her female delights. Further, the song does not appear to be in any way critical of this kind of thinking, which this quick storyline summary might suggest – any such rashly verbalised summary of such intuitive-but-taboo thinking will inevitably end up looking like a parody of something, probably the thinking itself. This, incidentally, is why sometimes a 1000-page book is needed to make a simple point. Stated as an English sentence, the so-called point of a book becomes banal, uninteresting or just not credible or meaningful.

[7] No pun intended. Or, maybe, yeah.

[8] In a peculiar twist, one of the original members of the quartet – Björn Ulvaeus, exactly half of ABBA’s load-bearing songwriting duo and thus one of the few people directly responsible for Money Money Money – is nowadays advocating money-less society. It is perhaps lazy thinking to imagine he does this because of a luxury-skewed viewpoint, or that he is paid so to advocate by a credit card company. Mr Ulvaeus could not be reached for comments, obviously.

[9] Whose background in musical theory is decently solid, I humbly add.

[10] Interestingly, just as an observational side note if nothing else: ABBA is one of the early or at least semi-early pioneers of the music video.

[11] Eurovision, of course, is the spiritual root of ABBA’s fame, so this simple trickery is nothing surprising. Nor is it anything to sneer at – many of the greatest bands rely on very simple tools, and the whole thing as a certain musical Occam’s razor appeal to it: if simple works and works well, why complicate it?

[12] Your present author would place the lost battle in the Texas war of independence of 1835-36, as the narrator recalls retreating over the Rio Grande, but I might be wrong.

[13] Which of course is the express subject of songs like Knowing Me, Knowing You, and absolute dynamite for individual identification/validation purposes – most of us have done it, and most of us have thought it was The Most Important Thing in the World at the time.

[14] Compare ‘freedom’ with ‘liberty’, freedom being the personal feeling of being free to do and go as one pleases and liberty being some summation or aggregate of the phenomenon of freedom, infinitely multiplied. Or possibly two: Free – Freedom – Liberty.