Saturday 30 July 2016

The Truth About Sappho: A Manifesto

After delivering his son to nursery, Simon, carrying my notebook in the same bag as his lunch, finds himself approached not by Phil, who is his Line Manager, but by Morris, the Assistant Managing Director, who walks into his office when Phil is out and says to him,

I understand you have some some experience in print design.

Simon experiences the tiniest tingle of dread. He does not consider this to be a statement conducive to security. He is of course forced to tell the truth: yes, he does have some skills in print design. In fact, he has a good ten years' experience.

[About ten years ago, Simon used to work for a one-horse computer software firm, making their brochures, building the website and writing documentation. It paid all right.

One day the owner called Simon into his office and told him that he wanted Simon to make a brochure for the new rollout. Simon said, OK, fine, and the boss explained on bits of paper how he wanted the brochure to read; the slogans, the headings, the rough content. Then he said he wanted Simon to put a flowchart on the cover of the brochure. Simon almost balked at this, but kept his silence, until the owner explained, further, that he desired the flowchart to look like a cross section of a woman's breast, with a voluptuous curve here, a fulsome curve here and a pointy thing here, all arrows, all labelled with aspects of the product. Simon's incredulous query as to why was met with the simple statement:

Sex sells. 

Simon still remembers spending a week or more drawing that thing, over and over, trying every way to follow the boss's remit without losing his integrity as an artist and a human being, each time having to do it again – too saggy, too slack, too narrow – until the day that the boss looked over his shoulder at about the ninth design and said,

Look. Can't you just make it a bit more pert?

At which point Simon was done. He spent a few years being freelance, and eventually ended up in an office, supposedly managing internal publications, but actually pushing papers. He considers himself to have been hired under false pretences.]

Morris explains that the department – indeed, nearly the whole company – is about to experience a reorganisation. A reorganisation requires new organisational charts.

Of course, says Simon. Obviously.

Morris stops and looks at him. Simon wonders if he noticed the sarcasm. This would be a first. Simon has secretly wondered if Morris has Asperger's Syndrome or something like that, so profound is his inability to detect nuances of tone, a flaw that Simon and his colleagues have often used to his expense.

Simon is ambivalent about this. On the one hand, drawing and designing things, he can do, and he can do beautifully, and he enjoys doing. On the other, Phil had already set him to compile documents for an internal quality review, an indescribably dull task that Phil inexplicably – inexplicably for Simon, anyway – considers to be vitally important and desperately urgent. This will create friction between Phil and Morris, but since Phil cannot be seen to argue with Morris, he will take out his frustration on Simon, who did not ask Morris to sweep in beneath Phil and take him off the internal quality review to do something that, if not more worthwhile, is at least more enjoyable in the crafting it requires and allows for some tiny remnant of Simon's creativity to shine through.

The resulting controversy concludes with Simon of course having to do both jobs, at the same time. He ends up missing the lunch break in which he intended to read some more of my rulebook, and by the time he gets home to have a terse dinner with his wife and to bathe and read a bedtime story for his son, he is desperately tired, too tired to do anything much other than to watch Relocation, Relocation and sort out the bag of supplies for Mikey's trip to nursery and go to bed.

Simon finds himself disturbed by his extreme ambivalence towards Kirsty Allsop. He does not think his wife will understand.

Things Simon reads to Mikey:
  • Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak
  • Oh! The Thinks You'll Think, Dr. Seuss
  • Guess How Much I Love You, Sam McBratney and Anita Jeram
  • The Gruffalo, Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
  • Collected Poems, 1945-1990, R.S.Thomas (parts)

Simon goes to bed, the same way he does every night. He puts on an old band T-shirt, like he always does, and turns off the main light after turning on his bedside lamp, and sits in bed next to his now-sleeping wife and reads, the same way that he always does.

He is reading my manifesto now.

I am a little proud of my manifesto. It came to me, as if in a dream.

Assumption 1: Fiction is dead. The most popular genres of fiction are formulaic, undemocratic, commercially motivated. Here in the West, we live in a culture where storytelling has reduced so far beyond the lowest common denominator as to be pointless.

Simon yawns as he reads the first part, knits his brows. He is not convinced.

Assumption 2. We have reached a point where our personal stories are unimportant in the context of the lame, genre-bound, cliché-laden narratives of films, TV soap operas, and badly-written blockbuster fiction. In fact, these are our stories, sanitised yet toxic waste food, the only nourishment we have. These stories, our stories, stifle our imaginations. These are the things we talk about during our breaks, over lunch, next to the coffee machine in the office. They have taken away our own stories. They have removed our right to originality.

Simon thinks about quality reviews and the brief albeit mixed pleasure the thought of drawing org charts gave him this morning.

Assumption 2a. Reality TV and tabloid gossip columns may give the illusion of democracy, but, in fact, they are still a means of stifling our individual and communal imagination, only more so, since now, not only have they stolen our stories, they’ve stolen the everyday bits and pieces of our lives. Or to put it a bit more plainly, we’re sharing other people’s gossip as if it were relevant to us.

Kirsty Allsop – really? Who lusts after Kirsty Allsop? Simon feels guilty, all of a sudden.

Assumption 3. Valid attempts to create films, books, and television that are personal, thought-provoking and artistically sound still occur from time to time. Mostly, they’re so elitist, so inaccessible to the general public that they fail in their intent from the word go; meanwhile, a lot of media that appears to have depth doesn’t, and falls into the same category as the rest of the popular media world: we deny the so-called middlebrow. An awful lot of the media which in the modern era is considered “art” is frankly incomprehensible to the vast run of people in the English-speaking world, and it’s not because they’re stupid, but because it’s deliberately composed using elitist language, elitist visuals, elitist assumptions. The age of true art being accountable and accessible to the people is gone. 

Simon laughs at this. He can hear my voice, considering rightly that this is a bit rich coming from the sort of person who uses words like “immanent” in everyday conversation.
From the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, fifth edition, Oxford 1964:
imm'an|ent, a. Indwelling, inherent, (in); (of God) permanently pervading the universe. Hence ~ENCE, ~ENCY, nn. [f. LL IM¹(manēre remain), see -ENT]

Assumption 4. It’s not a crime to enjoy any media, whether books, film, magazines, comics, music, art, anything, no matter how populist it might be. These things are here to entertain us, and sometimes to challenge us. But when they suborn our conversation, our imagination, the way we talk and relate emotionally, our personal stories, we need to take a step back and recognise that we need more nourishment for our imagination. True, art may be good for us, but what good is it if we need a degree in semiotics before we can understand it? 

Simon is not sure if this isn't just a repetition of the first three (four?) assumptions.

Assumption 5. No man is an island, and this goes double when we’re talking about originality. It’s impossible for anyone who has grown up surrounded by the media to be truly original on their own. True originality – or the nearest anyone’s going to get to it – comes from communication and community, is spontaneous and transient.

From this comes the desire to create a spontaneous, temporary fiction, and what better way than to do this through a game?

Simon lays the book down on his lap.

Oh, for fuck's sake, he says.

He's about to lay the book down, but continues to read a little longer, although very little of it sinks in.

In a little while, when Simon feels sleepy enough, he will put the book on the small chest of drawers that serves as a bedside table, and will push the lamp to the usual position on the bedside table. Then, he will take off his glasses and put them in the same precise spot he always does, and having turned off the lamp and laid down on his right-hand side, which he always does, he will close his eyes and, unbidden, see himself doing these things in forty years' time, and him being an old man and not being able to live without these habits which are old man's habits and he becomes very, very afraid that he might one day die, because he has been reminded of me, and how I am not here.