Not my most elegant title, I think you’ll agree. But today I don’t feel elegant. I feel angry. Very, very angry. So much so that a couple of hours ago I found myself starting an argument with a complete stranger whilst doing the Good Friday shop in my local town of Shipston-on-Stour. I had been stopped by a lovely elderly lady with a placard around her neck who informed me that on the site of the old Norgren plant at the top of the hill a mile or so out of town, the council were planning to let a supermarket chain build a store. She was asking people to write to the council to lodge objections, and yet she could not tell me which supermarket chain it would be. In fact, when I later asked some of the local shopkeepers, none of them seemed to know either. Not only were these fundamental details unclear, but the council’s deadline for objections was 8th April, six days from today. And there was one, just one elderly lady standing outside the shops in the drizzle. Even the local Christians had a better turnout for their jolly crucifixion singalong in the main square. A local priest hugged a giant wooden cross, a group of thirty or so people warbled a hymn, and one woman was trying to muster enough support to prevent the town of Shipston from being eviscerated.

So when I saw her on my way back to the car and she was talking to a female punter she had stopped, I found myself wanting to offer some more support. I joined in. But the punter, it quickly became clear, was ignoring every single very good piece of evidence put to her about what will happen to Shipston if the development goes ahead. I gave the punter the statistics: that it only takes a shop to lose 15% of its business for that shop to go bust; that this is precisely the amount of profit a new supermarket will generally take from a small shop; that this has happened in town after town across the UK, and that I have seen it happen to my home town of Horwich.

When I was a kid, Horwich had a thriving high street with six butchers’ shops, three or more greengrocers’, a record shop run by a woman called Doreen who could order you just about anything, a quality wine merchant, a fine hardware shop, a card shop called ‘Fancy That,’ ‘The China Shop,’ ‘Casey’s Original Pie Shop’ and a good many more that I have now forgotten. Now, in 2010, there are just two butchers and one greengrocer left. All the others have gone or change hands every year or so. There are many ‘For Sale’ signs, empty shops, charity shops that used to sell food. No sign of the redoubtable Doreen: her wonderful emporium vanished long since. But within a mile or two there is a Lidl, and a little further away a gigantic Tesco’s. And Horwich itself looks tatty, bedraggled, defeated.

This is what will happen to Shipston. Give it five years and I predict we will lose at least one of the two butchers (both of which are excellent) and quite possibly the greengrocer’s, the deli. There are already four or five charity shops (some damage has been done by the small supermarkets already in Shipston itself). I await the arrival of a good few more.

I’m also waiting for someone to convince me that I live in a democracy, that there hasn’t already been what George Monbiot calls a ‘corporate takeover of Britain.’ OK, so we can change our government at the upcoming election, but we seemingly can’t use our local government to fight corporate power on our behalf. Local government is increasingly the agent of the supermarkets: they can’t afford to take on the might of these retail giants. A lengthy legal battle with Tesco’s could bankrupt any local authority that objected to a proposed store, as Monbiot outlines in his article on Tesco and Machynlleth (http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2009/08/10/tesco-opted/).

So I will write my objections to the proposed store in time for the deadline of April 8th. I will argue with anyone and everyone on the streets of Shipston who says something stupid like ‘let’s give the supermarket a go.’ I will write angry and inelegant blogs on the subject for anyone who cares enough about Shipston, their own town or the state of our democracy. But I am left feeling as Monbiot does about Machynlleth: ‘ it’s only now, when I’m caught in the middle of it, that the full force of this injustice hits me. Like everyone else here I feel powerless, unstrung as I watch disaster unfold in slow motion.’ And make no mistake, this is a disaster, one that is no less important for being local and apparently small-scale.

Michel Roux is a master craftsman. He is also a poet among patissiers. During the most recent series of Professional Masterchef  he was tasting an incredibly baroque rose and raspberry macaroon. Having taken a measured bite, he smiled serenely and said to his fellow-judges: ‘There weren’t enough roses in his garden today, don’t you think?’ Not only was this the gentlest of criticism, it also spoke of a zen-like mastery and an aesthetic all in one. A fine palate was talking, one capable of assessing with the utmost accuracy the optimum flavour of a rose macaroon.

Pitch-perfect palate is counterbalanced in Michel Roux by delicacy of touch. Watch Roux make pastry on his eighties cookery show and you’ll see his fingers mix flour, butter and egg with the same lightness a pianist would require to play one of the dreamier preludes by Chopin. Watching this clip on youtube after seeing the Masterchef episode mentioned above was all the encouragement I needed to buy Roux’s Pastry without delay. Using the recipes in his book won’t necessarily make you into a master patissier, but they will certainly extend your patisserie skills. And learning, of course tasting, your way through the different types of pastry– sablée, foncée, brisée, sucrée and so on–is a delight that needs no justification.

Risky strategy is something that Ed Burns and David Simon, the creators of The Wire, know all about. They are the kind of dramatists who let a story build, rather than straining for the cheap thrills of televisual shock and awe. But in the space of the seven episodes making up Generation Kill, the risk doesn’t quite pay off. This is a slow, laboured war story about blunders and military stupidity rather than heroism. The problem is that it only manages to take off in the last two installments, and whilst you can afford to do this with a project like The Wire which consisted of five series of thirteen episodes each, a seven-parter like this needs to get going much earlier than episode six.

There is fine acting here; it’s wonderful to see the very talented James Ransone at work again (he plays Ray in Generation Kill; he was the contemptibly rat-like but compelling Ziggy Sobotka in series 2 of The Wire). However, unlike the brilliantly complex ghetto characters in The Wire, the Iraqis in Generation Kill are not given a voice or an identity, and the marines themselves, based on real-life characters, never really come to life. This is probably a result of the fact that the series is an adaptation of Evan Wright ‘s book-length account of his encounters with 1st Recon. In other words, Burns and Simon are hampered by taking on someone else’s research, and they don’t have the freedom to be truly creative in devising their drama. They would have been better off writing their own composite characters: in The Wire,  Bunk, Omar, Ziggy and the rest are all powerful because they are composite creations based on local Baltimore inhabitants, not dutifully represented cut-outs from ‘real life.’  With such stylized creations, perhaps, the series might have been a truly great and angry indictment against an illegal war. As it is, all Burns and Simon manage is to make a handful of points about Operation Iraqi Freedom that have been made just as well by a good number of other journalists. After the adrenaline rush of The Wire’s intricate and passionate social commentary, this war yarn looks like merely competent drama. Generation Kill sinks a few punches but never manages to land a knockout blow.

Some issues call for plain talking, a democratic and inclusive rhetoric. Not going round the houses. Breastfeeding is one of those, and yet talking about feeding babies naturally, from the breast, is one of Western culture’s strangest and most irrational taboos. Recently, on the Facebook fansite ‘The Politics of Breastfeeding,’ one mum wrote that when she asked an official at an unamed London tourist destination if there was anywhere she could go to feed her baby the official replied ‘Would that be bottle or non-bottle feeding?’ He or she felt there was some sort of indelicacy or a taboo in using the word ‘breast.’ Was it disgust at breastfeeding that prompted this linguistic choice? Or was it a sense that mentioning this woman’s breast was somehow sexually inappropriate? Or a combination of both?

Either way, it is clear that breastfeeding is something that makes many people uncomfortable even to talk about, let alone witness. And yet it is breastfeeding that has kept us alive as a species. Breastfeeding is older than all aspects of our culture: older than science, medicine, agriculture, war, artistic endeavour, or using fire to cook food.  Humans are mammals. Mammal: from the word mammary, or breast. Humans are animals that feed their young with their milk. Breastfeeding is what defines us as human.(1)

How has it come to this? That we can’t even talk openly and without embarrassment about breastfeeding; that women get thrown out of some public places for breastfeeding; that many women in the west find breastfeeding so difficult they give up before their babies are six weeks old (50% of mothers abandon breastfeeding in the UK at or before six weeks); that many teenagers, and especially teenage girls I have spoken to, seem to find the very idea of breastfeeding disgusting (although many of the girls might be quite happy to countenance the idea of major surgery in order to ‘enhance’ the appearance of their breasts).

One reason breastfeeding has become difficult is the increasingly porn-saturated world we live in. In women’s magazines, men’s magazines, on TV, in films, on the internet, breasts are fetishized as sexual objects and women have internalized it all, worrying constantly that their boobs are the wrong size or shape, that their breasts are not sexy enough. These days, the ‘perfect’ breast is not a real breast but an artificially pneumatic and pert surgically altered one. Are you starving yourself slowly in the name of fashion like Victoria Beckham? Well pump up those shrunken malnourished mammaries with a couple of globes of silicone. Childrearing given you a pair of spaniel’s ears? Get them lifted and re-shaped like Ulrika Jonsson.  This kind of self-loathing is tolerated and normal these days. But breastfeeding is not.

But the institutional misogyny that we live with day-to-day is not the only reason breastfeeding is so beleagured. Much of the blame has to be laid at the feet of the formula industry, whose aggressive marketing tactics were angrily and systematically detailed by Gabrielle Palmer in The Politics of Breastfeeding twenty or so years ago. As the new edition of the book makes clear, those strategies have only become more sophisticated despite WHO recommendations that children be breastfed for at least a year and increasing medical recognition of how vital breastfeeding is to the long-term health of both infants and their mothers. These days, Nestlé and others can use the internet, and especially spam bloggers on sites such as Facebook, to market their products, and can rely on the supermarkets to reinforce the message that bottle-feeding is the norm (the sign for baby changing rooms in some supermarkets is a baby bottle, for instance, and the packaging on Tesco’s own-brand newborn nappies recently featured an image of a woman bottle-feeding a baby). Of course the supermarkets love formula: there is no money to be made when women breastfeed. There is no profit-margin on breastmilk.

Profit is to be made in abundance by the food giants whose position as market leaders is often largely determined by the amount of formula they sell.(2) And so the formula companies continue to aggressively promote their products in the developing world to women who can barely afford to feed themselves (Nestlé, for instance, recently ‘donated’ substantial quantities of ‘food products’ to the people of Haiti: philanthropy or an attempt to secure ‘brand loyalty’ in an emerging and potentially lucrative market?) .(3)

As we can see, breastfeeding is a feminist issue: breastmilk is a superior product and breastfeeding is a political act: it says that a mother does not subscribe to the idea that breasts are for male sexual pleasure and that she is resisting the body-fascism which is endemic in our society. It’s a health issue, as we all know: breastmilk is a live substance which changes in its composition to combat the pathogens in a mother’s immediate enviroment, and which gives the correct proportion of proteins, fats and vitamins for the stage of development a baby is at. It protects against allergies, obesity, cancer–the list goes on. It is also an ecological issue: breastfeeding does not involve packaging and the use of carbon involved in making formula. It doesn’t require you to use electricity to heat a feed to the correct temperature. Nor do you need to use plastic bottles and disposable teats to feed your babies. There is no waste: babies take what they need and no more–not so with formula, where it is a matter of safety to discard unused formula from any one feed after an hour or two. Breastfeeding is also a fiscal issue: many of the chronic healthcare problems which financially bog down the NHS (e.g. obesity) could perhaps be alleviated if more babies were breastfed (formula feeding is controlled by the person giving the bottle and does not allow the baby to regulate how much they take in; breastfeeding allows the baby to regulate their own food-consumption).

But who cares about breastfeeding? As a breastfeeding mother of twins, I do–very much. But apart from a small number of breastfeeding women, some medical professionals and charities such as Save The Children, who else does?  When I got Gabrielle Palmer’s book out of the library a few months ago, I spoke to the librarian about the book. It turns out she had breastfed her daughter for two years out in Kenya thirty or so years previously. But when she first saw the book’s title she commented ‘Politics of Breastfeeding?’ I didn’t think there was any politics inloved in breastfeeding’. It seems that most people, even many women who have breastfed, have internalized the idea that this fundamental issue isn’t an issue at all–because it isn’t glamorous or profitable or sexy and because it concerns women, who don’t even regard themselves at important. Politics? That’s what men do, isn’t it?

1) Gabrielle Palmer eloquently makes this point in The Politics of Breastfeeding.

2) Save the Children, which today (15 May 07)  publishes a report on the baby-milk industry, reckons that the total value of baby-milk and baby-food imports is worth almost £16m a year in Bangladesh alone. Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2007/may/15/medicineandhealth.lifeandhealth] This article is an excellent summary of the marketing tactics used by Nestlé and others to promote formula.

http://pinterandmartin.com/epages/eshop274295.sf/en_GB/?ObjectPath=/Shops/eshop274295/Products/978-1-905177-16-5

Terry Hall, best known as the frontman of 80s groups like The Specials and The Fun Boy Three,  has recently turned up in my mind in the way that buried and unsettling memories, unexpectedly set loose from their time and place, often can. A few days ago I was reading W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and Sebald’s description of Manchester in the 60s was making me think of my earliest memories of visiting the city when– there he was: Terry Hall, with his exquisite sad face, driving through deserted city streets at night with his fellow Specials singing ‘This town is ‘comin’ like  a ghost town.’ Watching the video now I see the humour and the political anger in the song: this was 1981 and Hall’s lyrics are a direct reaction to the high unemployment and hopelessness experienced by a generation in Thatcher’s Britain. But at the time I first watched it, I was 8 years old and along with two other pop videos (Julian Cope and The Teardrop Explodes’ ‘Reward’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’) this was the most frightening thing I had seen on TV. Of course, at 8, you don’t understand the politics of these songs, but you are able to understand desolation, and this was my experience. It was the music and images in these pop videos, especially ‘Ghost Town,’ that gave me my first taste of insomnia and the strange way the mind works when you don’t sleep. In the insomniac state, ordinary things– blackened brickwork, a man lifting a trumpet to his lips, a car swerving as it rattles over broken tarmac and cobbles–are tainted and become more tainted as the images and sounds that frightened you repeat and strengthen themselves. The dark becomes dirtier.

And somehow, Terry Hall’s physical beauty makes all that decay seem worse.  Hall, in 1981, looks like a male Garbo: huge eyes, an almost deathly pallor, a smile that passes, occasionally, like a cloud over his face. The face is sensitive and alert but also somehow mask-like; a living being in a dead world. Watching him, Julian Cope and the Floyd in the early 80s dropped me into another world. The comforting, sugary froth served up by bands like ABC and Duran Duran melted away when you watched and listened to music like this. Life wasn’t men in linen suits cavorting with models on yachts. It was something rainier and sharper and it could be lived more truthfully. Terry Hall both attracted and frightened me: he was political in ways I didn’t understand and was sad and honest in ways that I somehow did. His was the first voice I can remember that sang about life in a minor key. He said a lot in a few words, and quietly.

versus

To the Memory of Keith Floyd, d. 14th September 2009

‘All they can do is assemble gastronomic lego.’ Keith Floyd talking to Keith Allen about the culinary abilities of the British public.

Ever since his death, just over a month ago, my thoughts have often turned to Keith Floyd. I watched Keith Allen’s documentary about him a day or so after Floyd died, and on the programme heard Marco Pierre White recommend Floyd’s early books ( Floyd on France especially) and decided to invest in a few. I bought a cheap secondhand copies of Floyd on France, Floyd on Britain and Ireland, Floyd on Italy and Far Flung Floyd. I watched clips of his cooking sketches on youtube and began to cook his recipes, the first of which was the outstanding ‘beef in red wine’ (I include a link below).

Why the obsession? By the early nineties, when Floyd’s TV career was on the wane, he had become a joke in the public imagination: a stunt-chef, a drunken dandy who cooked puffin on North Sea trawlers. Rory Bremner had satirised his drinking in a sketch where his ‘Floyd’ downed hideous cocktails including lighter fuel and didn’t cook food at all. But, as the Allen documentary began to demonstrate, Keith Floyd’s cooking was no joke. Far from being a bow-tied buffoon, he was a serious chef, a gastronome of the highest order. The man had taste. Not only that, he loved food.

On Professional Masterchef recently, much was made by the contestants of their ‘passion’ for cooking. Yet somehow, when they used this word, or said how they ‘loved’ working with food, these emotive words  fell curiously flat. But when Floyd enthused about a dish he was making, you believed him. He didn’t have to tell you he loved food and cooking and drinking. His joy was obvious. For all the sophistication of his culinary skill, his pleasure in food was wonderfully childlike. There is a moment during the documentary that makes clear how much food and drink meant to him. Floyd was a serious epicurean, and someone whose psyche is marked by a very profoud loneliness, as his comments on the importance of ‘the table’ make clear:

‘I think, outside of the marital bed, the dining table, the kitchen table, is where everything takes place…If I can produce a glass of wine for you or some food for you, we are able to communicate. From my understanding, nowadays a lot of homes don’t have tables. Kids who haven’t been to school all day come back from not having been to school all day and open up a fridge of inedible stuff…’

At the root of his desire to eat and drink is the desire to communicate, be intimate and express love. He might have a difficult personality (he calls other TV chefs ‘cunts’ for example) but like a sea urchin, his sometimes spiny manner conceals a fine inner delicacy. And this is why he is an important figure: he is someone who, sometimes grouchily but always passionately, reminds us that hospitality is a mark of humanity and that joie de vivre is a serious business– a human duty, even. Although rather right wing, he is instinctively the enemy of supermarket Britain with its TV food porn. He doesn’t analyse why supermarkets exert an increasingly pernicious influence on the way we shop, eat and, ultimately, socialise, but as the youtube clip I link to shows us, he is deeply offended by the way in which supermarkets are destroying what remains of British food culture.

That supermarkets are doing this is in evidence in almost every current TV cookery show. Economy Gastronomy and Jamie’s Ministry of Food are two good recent examples.  Jamie Oliver’s programme was designed to get people who can’t cook to learn at least one recipe and then pass that recipe on to a handful of friends: a noble aspiration reflecting a miserable reality. How awful that there are millions of folk out there who can’t or won’t cook even one simple dish for themselves or people they care about. The premise behind Economy Gastronomy was equally depressing. It was another learn-to-cook show designed especially for cash-strapped families hit by the recession. But what emerged very quickly from the show was that every family involved wasted hideous amounts of money and time at the supermarket buying so-called convenience food which they often didn’t eat and threw away. One man featured was even ‘in love’ with his waste disposal unit down which he stuffed all the food his family didn’t eat. Eventually, his darling gadget broke down under the pressure of being force-fed misery chicken and assorted out-of-date vegetables, but not before he had made himself into a metaphor for everything that is wrong with the key social aspects of modern British life.

Members of the public who are invited to appear on such cookery shows are supposedly representative of a large proportion of the UK population, and judging from the the Economy Gastronomy series, that population is, without the help of experts, incapable of planning ahead, unimaginative, wasteful, politically ignorant, deskilled, unsociable and lonely. Nice enough, but useless. Yet no TV show I have yet come across dares to place the blame where it truly lies: at the feet of the supermarkets.

Politicians in interviews are frequently subjected to tough and even hostile questioning, and it is right that they should be. Without such rigorous journalism we wouldn’t be able to claim that we live in any sort of democracy at all. But is it right that the bosses of multinational corporations, including millionaire bankers and the bosses of polluting budget airlines should be given different treatment when they are interviewed? Why should CEOs, and especially supermarket CEOs be able to make radio, TV and newspaper interviews into corporate promos? Yet they do, even in the midst of the current recession. Terry Leahy of Tesco is allowed to make comments about the supposed inadequacy of British schools and teachers on the BBC website, but isn’t cross-questioned about the pay, conditions and unskilled or deskilled nature of the jobs that his company offers(1). I also remember an interview with Stuart Rose of Marks and Spencer some time ago, conducted by the venerable Jim Naughtie, in which Rose was able to promote M&S’s supposed eco-credentials for a good ten minutes to a key M&S client base (your middle-class, Radio 4 Today listener) without so much as a hint of a sceptical rejoinder from Naughtie.

Whilst we are meant to look on in horror at the ineptitude of the punters who appear on Economy Gastronomy and to applaud them when they quickly become competent cooks, one thing this show in particular fails to do is to even hint at the causes of this widespread British culinary incompetence. Like Naughtie on the Today programme, they don’t dare to criticise  supermarkets and their fundamental role in the decay of family life.  It seems to be fine to blame career women, single mothers, immigrants, or even dead gay popstars, but no-one seems prepared to admit the role of supermarkets in all this.

Supermarkets aren’t working alone here, admittedly. There are three or four factors acting together in unholy combination: Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Lidl etc, are extraordinarily powerful but so too are the media (TV and the internet especially) and the motor car; also important is the weakness of our CBI-dictated employment law which means that we have some of the longest working hours in Europe.

So how do these factors combine? It isn’t difficult to imagine. After our long, and often boring, frustrating days at work, we are exhausted. When human beings become exhausted, our powers of reasoning tend to shut down, especially after that monotonous drive back from work. In this state, we then find ourselves hungry. Unable to face trying to park our cars in town-centre carparks, we sleep-drive to the supermarket, with its acre or three of free parking spaces. Barely awake, we then stumble into the supermarket itself, propping ourselves up on that zimmer frame for the able-bodied, the shopping trolley. We might not need a trolley full of stuff, but we take a trolley because we know that a basket, when full of bottles of milk or wine or cola, gets too heavy and our arms go numb. Having opted for the vast maw of the trolley, we then proceed to fill it with crap that we don’t really need. Shopping expands to fill the trolley-space available.

Most likely, we haven’t brought a list, we haven’t got a budget, and we’ve even forgotten to bring in plastic bags, despite having a mountain of them at home that we keep meaning to re-use. Seduced by the £2 chickens and the BOGOF deals on strawberries and bags of salad, we also pile up the little plastic trays of ready-made lasagne, packets of choc-chip biscuits and giant-sized bags of crisps, ready for a night slouched in front of the telly.

Leaving the supermarket, we may hardly have registered the amount we have spent, and we may only have a vague idea what we have spent the money on. In other words, we have become the supermarkets’ dream customers. The BOGOFs and special offers have soothed us into thinking that the large bill is in fact ‘value for money’ –there is a recession on, you know–and in searching for Crunch-busting deals we haven’t paid too much attention to where that £2 chicken came from; or thought about the working conditions of those who put our ‘healthy’ salad into nitrogen-filled plastic packaging; much less considered how farmers in Spain fertilise and irrigate the soil where all those ‘luxury’ vine-ripened tomatoes grow. We don’t care. We think we can’t afford to.

Keith Floyd did care about what he ate and where it came from, and it’s in his memory that I urge anyone reading this to buy his books (especially the early ones) and use them to learn to cook. Not all of his recipes are ‘cheffy’ or extravagant. Many are simple. All of them are a delight to cook– far more entertaining than an hour spent in front of the telly watching food porn–and they’re a delight to eat. Try some fabulous, cheap and easy British nosh, such as ‘pork chops in beer sauce’ or ‘Ipswich almond pudding’ (Floyd on Britain and Ireland) or taste the astonishing difference some orange peel and a pig’s trotter makes to a beef stew in ‘beef in red wine’ (heaven…). Then get more adventurous with something like a trout soufflé (Floyd on France). Get round a table to eat and drink and talk and think. And read, because if mainstream TV doesn’t criticise the supermarkets effectively, there are journalists out there in print and on the internet who do.

But why should you? Because if you don’t, the remaining (and utterly wonderful) small shops in towns like George Monbiot’s Machynlleth and my beloved Shipston-on-Stour will die, and we will no longer have any alternative to the Tescos and Asdas of this world. You don’t just owe it to your digestive system to take an interest in what you eat, how you prepare it and where it came from. The environment, local communities and families all benefit from a commitment to Floydian eating. The revolution may well begin with your tastebuds, and activism, like charity, needs to begin at home in a sociable, thrifty and inventive kitchen.

Notes:

Read Floyd if you haven’t already for both entertainment and edification (although note that the early classics I have mentioned are currently out of print) and then have a go at some food politics. Joanna Blythman’s book Shopped: The Shocking Power of the Supermarkets is essential reading, as is George Monbiot’s Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain and anything by Felicity Lawrence. If you want to get cracking immediately, follow the links below and read George Monbiot’s recent article on Tesco and Blythman’s introduction to her work in her interview with The Idler (2). And have a go at cooking that ‘beef in red wine,’ not forgetting to include the trig’s potter and orange peel. Cheers, fellow gastronauts!

 1) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8306013.stm

2) http://idler.co.uk/conversations/conversations-joanna-blythman/

http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2009/08/10/tesco-opted/

 

FLannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor

Peacocks, crutches, a Byzantine Christ: when we think of Flannery O’Connor, whose dark, Bible Belt American brilliance surpasses William Faulkner’s, we need things on which to peg our thinking. Flannery herself hardly seems to exist at all. Her life, as any reader of Brad Gooch’s recent, measured biography will tell you, is short on dramatic incident:  no sojourns on other continents; no sex to speak of; no alcoholism or addiction; no mental breakdowns. In short, all the standard fare you might expect in a mid-century writer’s life-history (think Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, John Berryman etc) is conspicuous by its absence. In its stead is a relatively brief narrative comprising three main strands: aesthetic endeavour (or should I say struggle); the fight against Lupus, the auto-immune illness that killed her, aged 39; and her methodical and theologically driven Catholicism, always symbolized for me by the tattoo of a Byzantine Christ her character Parker decides to have etched on his back, like a giant stigmata-cum-icon, in her late, masterly story ‘Parker’s Back.’ Peacocks, crutches, and Christ; the emblems of a life.

Not much to go on, perhaps. But from those meagre materials came the peacock beauty of her first novel, Wise Blood. A weird perfection radiates from every page. Nothing about the protagonist, Hazel Motes, usually referred to as Haze, fits together. Nothing is likeable. He is emotionally skewered and skewed; a loveless old man in a twentysomething body. Yet I dare anyone to look away from the sour spectacle he presents. We stare at him, like gawping children, from the first page to the last. This is how O’Connor introduces Motes in the opening paragraph of her novel.

Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down the aisle at the other end of the car. The train was racing through tree tops that fell away at intervals and showed the sun standing, very red, on the farthest edge of the woods. Nearer, the plowed fields curved and faded and the few hogs nosing in the furrows looked like large spotted stones. Mrs Wally Bee Hitchcock, who was facing Motes in the section, said that she thought the early evening like this was the prettiest time of day and she asked him if he didn’t think so too. She was a fat woman with pink collars and cuffs and pear-shaped legs that slanted off the train seat and didn’t reach the floor.

Humour, beauty, sexual disgust and suicidal despair are all in the lovely, fluid onrush of prose. Above all, there is movement. Read O’Connor and you wade into a river, where the writing feels as if it has the molecular structure of water. And like water, her prose has the ability to absorb all the taints and tints of the glorious, brutal world she describes. It happens through her knack of seeing every element as if contained within every other element. The trees seem to move away and not the train. The hogs are stones, the fat woman’s legs are pears, and later in the chapter Haze is described as having a nose ‘like a shrike’s bill.’ Haze is a bird-man, but with eyes ‘the color of pecan shells,’ he is food and hardness and emptiness too. His suit is alive and electric with anger, a ‘glaring blue’, but with the price tag ‘still stapled on the sleeve of it’ he seems like a beast going off to market or a slave or a mannequin. He is botched, odious and oddly beautiful.

O’Connor is like this. What Keats would have called her ‘poetical character’ is so complete that not only does her personality seem to have vanished into her work, the Thomist theology which fuelled her prose is also consumed within it, leaving no trace. Like Elizabeth Bishop’s iceberg, ‘it saves itself perpetually,’ cutting its facets from within. Parker cannot see his tattoo of Christ without the use of two mirrors, and the tattooist forces him to look at the bloody, newly-etched image. In this moment, art and deity are indistinguishable and become a burden and an affliction. For Flannery O’Connor, the skin and the flesh see and bear as much as the eye.

 

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