Reviews - 2 May 1985
Art, Rock, Cinema, Theatre, Television and Books of the fortnight reviewed.
In 1983 Henry J. Sharpe selected and catalogued "Making Sense", a major exhibition of work by ten Irish artists who, to his mind, displayed a certain commonaality of attitude and purpose. He has also written a history of art for schools, and Bluett & Co have published his monograph on Michael Kane, painter, printmaker and writer. Sharpe's exhibition of his own paintings and prints at the Temple Bar Gallery, Dreams and Lies, demonnstrates the extent to which his own work relates to and has perhaps been shaped by these interests and influences.
He is a figurative artist, and his work concerns itself with the business of human relationships. Sigmund Freud pops up in the paintings to indicate the sense in which the show's title is intended: fanciful aspirations and bitter prevarications, the gap beetween aims and achievement, the compromises of everyday life. The world depicted should be familiar to obserrvers of recent Irish art: a place of heightened dramatic intensity, of physical distorrtion and eclectic terms of reference.
The pictures' rectangular space is, variously, a stage, dancefloor, arena, circus ring.
There are obvious parallels here with the work of Mick Cullen, Mick Mulcahy, Paul Funge, Paddy Graham, Michael Kane - all of whom were included in "Making Sense". In this company, Sharpe is a comparatively tight inhibited painter. His forms are stylised and locked rigidly into their chosen connfigurations.
These forms, which often resolve themselves into rhythhmic circular patterns of interrsecting arcs, interrupted by less regularly geometric shapes, describe a set reperrtoire of characters. They are a picaresque, bohemian crew: clowns, acrobats, dancers, dissplaced mythological personaliities (brought on like guest stars in a television spectacuular, in the Picasso manner), harlequins, shady men with opaque spectacles, divers nudes, Salome and other bibblical characters, and of course Freud himself. There are three close-up portraits of the same woman, Dympna, In "A Lady at the Circus" she turns up again, as the lady, her head perched on a stylised body that is a striped, phallic pillar.
Most of these protagonists pursue active roles, stretching and extending themselves accross the picture plane, often engaged in games of a sexual nature. Sharpe is a cruel interpreter of the human form. Art, he feels, should disturb. Bodies are bent and distorted into impossible shapes. Faces are masks. Inncongruous props emphasise physical awkwardness. They are not likeable paintings.
Sharpe obviously has a great deal in common with Michael Kane's approach to his work, including an obbsessive interest in personal life in a public context, the kind of' social reality that private life entails. Kane's debt to Max Beckmann is unmistakable, and he has underlined it by making several paintings in triptych form. But Beckmann's theatre of cruelty, his personal vision of the nightmare of history, has a unique bite and scope. In his pictures, an edgy, stuttering black line knits toogether bizarre tableaux. He is able to distort people and objects without drifting over into caricature. Neither Kane nor Sharpe can manage this, though they both seem to asspire to a comparable narrative ease.
Sharpe's compositions are tightly organised, schematic affairs. It is surprising to find that the two drawings incluuded in the show are so loose. The paintings are closer to the prints, where spontaneity is tempered with the necesssary deliberation of the techhnical process. Brushstrokes are laid on with the spare sureeness of cuts in the lino blocks. Stretched over the greater exxpanse of the paintings, howwever, the compositions look a little vacant, echoing the holllowed look of the prints. Sometimes, Sharpe's answer. is to multiply his forms, adding yet more twists and strains to bodies already twisted and distorted. There is a paradoxical elegance to many of the resultant images, wherein graceful arrangements of intersecting arcs resolve themselves into grotesque reppresentations of human bodies, even if they are a long way away from flesh and blood.
It is an art of self-imposed limitations: limitations of a personal syrn bolism, and of technique, which allow him the freedom to explore his concerns in predefined terms. The pictures have a pleasing compactness, a self-contained air that has a lot to do with his graphic neatness, his liking for cleanly stated forms, best exemplified in the blackkwhite balance of the linoocuts. But this neatness and elegance of description can work against the paintings, slowing potential movement into an uneasy stasis. The prints, where the rigours of the craft impose their own rules, are probably more successful.
The three portraits have a refreshingly inconclusive air about them, but they are also uncertain, as if they are the beginning of something rather than the resolution. One other painting, "The Tumblers" is similarly if more slickly amorrphous. Keyed to brighter colours, the forms are loosely, am biguously described. They blur and merge, and move. These four paintings, where Sharpe strays furthest from the graphic fixity of the prints, are probably the most interesting ones in the show.
Rock - Only kidding
What is the significance of the title track on "25 O'Clock" (Virgin), the debut album by the Dukes of Stratosphear? According to the notes on the record's garishly psychedelic sleeve, the Dukes declare that it's the time to visit the planet smile, time the love bomb was dropped, time to eat music and kiss the sun, time to drown yourself in Soundgasm (whatever that is) and to dance through the mirror.
This is a 1985 release, despite the hippy sentiments expressed on the sleeve and in the lyrics of its six evocaative songs. In fact, it was released as recently as the first of April, which is also significant.
And who are the Dukes, these four moptopped men dressed in kaftans, military jackets and love beads on the back of the album cover? Almost hidden in the swirling colours and pop-art designs is the information that they lire Sir John Johns (on singing, guitar and brain buds), The Red Curtain (electric bass, song stuff), Lord Cornelius Plum (mellotron - remember the mellotron? - piano, organ and fuzz-tone guitar) and the reportedly reclusive E.I.E.I. Owens (drum set).
True, it seemed only a matter. of time before some band would try to get us back to the garden, so to speak" to those heady, dopey days of '68, and this versatile quartet manage it apparently effortlessly, sounding like the Beatles (mysticism period) one minute, the Moody Blues the next, or Traffic, and even capturing the essence of American, er, cosmic rock.
To explain, the Dukes of Stratosphear is a pseudonym for Andy Partridge and his chums in XTC, the Drums and Wires band who were Making Plans for Nigel four years ago. Heavily and convincingly disguised, they make a welcome return with "25 O'Clock", an' elaborate, deaddly accurate and very funny spoof on the acid rock of the late Six ties.
"Vibrations coming my way when you're floating on by in your gold dress," Partridge sings with deadpan sincerity while the fussy, gimmicky production swells under him. The last and sharpest track on the album,
"The Mole from the Ministry" is a gloriously witty and perrfect pastiche of John Lennon's surreal "I Am the Walrus". If the record sells, and it deserves to, Yoko will probbably sue for plagiarism.
There's no question about the sales potential of the new Prince album, "Around the World in a Day" (Paisley Park). It sold a thousand copies on its first day in the shops in Dublin' last week, and it should soon be nudging "USA For Africa" off the top of the American charts. The purple-clad poser will be pleased, not only because its sales will add another few million to his already bulging bank account, but also beecause of the bad press Bob Geldof gave him when he revealed to the world at large that Prince had slipped off to a bar and "forgot" to join the other megastars at the "USA For Africa" recording session.
What those people who admire Prince and contribute to his fortune will think is another question. Not a lot, I should think. This album is a bland, banal and lazy effort in which the former Bad Boy of Pop lectures us on God, dope and sex now that he is born again. The dirty songs have been dumped in the bin along with the leather jockstrap and boots he used to wear when he went on stage to sing them.
The reformed Prince Nellson Rogers is more at home with the anti-Commie chant "America" and its chorus which goes "America, Ameriica. God shed his grace on thee. America, America. Keep the children free." Or moraliising on "Pop Life": "What are you putting in your nose? Is that where all your money goes?"
Worse follows. In the pommpous half-sung, half-spoken pseudo-gospel ballad, "The Ladder" (co-written with his jazz band leader father), he states that everyone's looking for the ladder, for which read salvation of the sc ul, and that then the size of the whole wide world will decrease, and the love of God's creation will undress u (his spelling).
Not to mention his risible conversation with God at the end of the last track, "Tempptation". "Everybody on this earth has got a vice. And mine, little darlin', mine is the opposite of ice," he begins, building to a wailing admission that love is more important than sex and proomising that he'll be a good boy from now on,
Prince is as welcome to state his views as anybody else is, but, as must be clear from the lyrics quoted here, he expresses these views in the most trite and twee mannner. You would find more style and depth in the Euroovision Song Contest. And most of the songs are drowned in their own over-production. At least this album is not accompanied by a movie, as was its predecessor, Purple Rain.
To be fair, maybe he's having all of us on. Maybe he's doing a Dukes 'of Stratossphear. Their record sleeves are not dissimilar - the gailyycoloured gatefold sleeve on the Prince album opening out on to a rainbow circling a brightly painted forest. And he had to be kidding, didn't he, when in London last month he needed two burly bodyguards to guide him to the awards podium at the Grosvenor House Hotel, a swish establishment not known for its in-house mugggers. He had to be kidding. Didn't he?
Cinema - Pernicious Crap
Thief Of Hearts is, not to put too fine a point on it, pernicious crap. Your commmon or garden, harmless crap ~ the kind Hollywood reels out by the yard - we can safely let go by. Pernicious crap, on the other hand, unfortunately merits commment.
Does anyone remember a movie from a few years back called American Gigolo? If it's forgotten then perhaps it's just as well. Designed to promote Richard Gere as the "new-style" Hollywood sex symbol, it bored everyone to tears and bombed at the box Xoffice. Thief Of Hearts is designed for exactly the same purpose, the candidate this time being one Steven Bauer. One can only hope it meets the same fate. Richard Gere , of course, survived American Gigolo to triumph in An Officer And A Gentleman. Maybe Steven Bauer will surrvive too. This question need not detain us.
The connection between Gere and Bauer is not coinciidental. The director/scripttwriter of Thief Of Hearts, Douglas Day Stewart, wrote the script of An Officer And A Gentleman. Mr Stewart is obviously a man who thinks he knows a "new-style" Hollyywood sex symbol when he sees one.
What does the "new-style" consist of? Well, more actual (simulated) sex for a start including - gulp - male flesh. Fair enough. Equal ogling for all interested is long overdue. But is this new flesh used in new ways? Not on your life. Men ,- clothed or unclothed - still "do it" to women. The "new-style" Hollywood sex symbol is the stud. The young stud "satissfying" the older woman seems to be the preferred variant. Richard Gere did it professsionally in A merican Gigolo, Steven Bauer does it on an amateur basis in Thief Of Hearts. His profession is burrglar. (Thief of Hearts you see - clever, huh?)
This soft-porn sex is bad enough but the really perniicious aspect is that we are asked to see it as the outcome of the love of women. Our "new-style" hero is engrossed by women, he lives to give them the pleasure they crave, they crave that he "do it" to them, our hero obliges.
Thus is a potentiallying notion - that men can grow through a love of, interest in, knowledge of, women - perverted by Hollyywood. The "old-style" Hollyywood hero held with none of this: he was a man's man, women came to him. Now our hero goes to women. The result is the same.
It may be 0 bjected that Thief Of Hearts is simply a love story (tragic of course). Some love story. Bauer, going a bout his business, burgles the home of a wealthy innterior designer and her hussband in San Francisco. In his haul he discovers the secret diaries of the woman. They reveal her sexual frustration and fantasies. Being a lover of women, he anonymously returns them. End of movie. Come on now. He falls in love with her, right? Right, he reads her sexual fantasies and falls in love with her. He would like to help her. He hits on a whizzo idea: why doesn't he fulfill these fanntasies for her? They are, after all, from what we can gather, pretty much his line of country: ru bbing oil on his lovely body; semi-rape; that kind of thing.
Young Bauer becomes obbsessed with his mission. We realise this when he can't get it off with one of his hookers. The silly girl blames herself, little realising that this always happens once with a "new-style" sex symmbol. Still, he does give her oodles of money to make up. No matter, his mission goes surprisingly well. Posing as a suave businessman, he engiineers a meet with his beloved and persuades her to re-design his whole warehouse. That's right, warehouse! The guy lives in this crazy warehouse and ... Anyways, you guessed it. Soon the interior decorator falls madly in love with our hero and gets ... uh ... fullfilled. During a pistol-shooting <. lesson, actually. Pistoling.
So the interior designer leaves her wimp of a hussband - he writes children's books for chrissakes - and she lives happily ever after with her new young Stud friend. End of movie. Come on now. This is still Hollyywood, right? They don't get away with this carry-on? No, just kidding you. But would you believe it's the wimp who saves the day? He gets susspicious, exposes yer man as the burglar and, well, connfronts him ... in front of the wife! The burglar chappie is sent off with his tail, and whatever else, well and truly between his legs. Touch of the over-fulfillment of fanntasies it would seem. So the nuclear family lives happily ever after, right? Well, it is still Hollywood. There is a silly twist at the end. Kinda puts the burglar stud back 'in a good light, leaves yer -woman fantasising maybe a little bit. Makes it hard to tell who the real goodie is really, none of them was wearing no white hat.
Thief Of Hearts is Hollyywood Hokum to be sure. But hokum can be perniicious and this is. Who, after all, does Douglas Day Stewart want his youth audience to believe wears the white hat? The wimp of a husband? The wife waiting to be fullfilled or over-fulfilled? (It's a non-part and played, on this evidence, by a non-actress in Barbara Williams.) No, the white hat sits squarely on the gorgeous, empty head of "new-style" Hollywood sex symbol Steven Bauer. Bring back Randolph Scott is what I say.
Theatre - Crisp Trivia
Oscar Wilde once wrote that "In matters of grave imporrtance style, not sincerity, is the vital thing." Wilde was satirising this view, but in Quentin Crisp's one man show which is currently runnning at the Gate this maxim acquires a new reality. Crisp's world is one where it doesn't matter what you say but how you say it. The evening is an exercise in trivia, tarted up to look like a coherent elucidaation of a philosophy of life.
The first half of the show is an extended monologue delivered in a voice that sounds like it has pronounced exactly the same words on hundreds of occasions and is beginning to get bored. In what Mr Crisp calls "a straight talk from a bent speaker" we are treated to his breathtakkingly predictable views on "images", "styles", "finding one's self" and "discovering what one really is" - the language of the piece evokes images of outdated late '60s Californian pop psychology, a junk philosophy emanating from a junk culture.
We are told all about Mr Crisp's exodus from England to live in the United States Ø"where happiness rains down from the sky." Throughout the whole first half he fails to say anything very interestting or enlightening about the reasons for this. Granted, he is working in a comic medium but good comedy is always devastatingly perceptive and has its roots in the truths and problems of the human ccndiition. When Beckett wrote that "There is nothing as funny as human suffering," it was no flippant remark. Mr Crisp's show consists of little else.
The second half of the piece is a question and answer session with the audience. On the night that this reviewer attended the show some of the questions were much more interesting than Mr Crisp's answers. B.P. Fallon asked him what would he say when he met God. Not realising that he had just met Him, Crisp said that he would not try to talk his way into heaven. If he ever changes his mind about that he had better improve his act first.
The rest of his answers ranged from the trite to the offensive. His answer to one question about Oscar Wilde was particularly insulting. Mr Crisp, who many would say has based his career on a tawdry impersonation of Wilde, launched himself into a scathing attack on that writer with an unusual degree of enthusiasm.
Wilde, we were told, lived a sordid life spending most of his time with male prostitutes. He was a man who had ridiiculed his persecutors in the court room and he did not know the meaning of the word "love"; he finally realised this, according to the omniscient Mr Crisp, when he had gone to prison and written "that awful poetry".
Apart from the fact that almost all of this is inaccurate it also is deeply offensive. Wilde was one of the greatest artists this country has prooduced. Sparkling wit, brilliant playwright, profound poet, lover, stylist, socialist - he was all of these. It was a mark of his greatness that he could pour scorn on his persecutors just as it is a mark of Mr Crisp's banality that he can abuse him for his "sordid life". Did all homosexual artists lead sordid lives? Did Jean Genet or Joe Orton? Did Marlowe or Auden? Did Quentin Crisp? Even if they did would this diminish their meaning as artists? Wilde's life was made "sordid" by the "morality" of an utterly hypocritical society. If Mr Crisp is an example, things haven't changed very much.
This show is cheap, trivial, and ultimately quite meaninggless. It is all the more difficult to take coming from a man like Quentin Crisp, a man who has been made suffer, a homosexual; therefore jettiisoned by society, "living only where (he) would not be evicted, only having friends who could tolerate the shame" as he said during one of his very few lapses into meaning during the whole piece.
His efforts to endear himmself to the Irish audience were pathetic as they were patronising. Ireland, he said, was morally neither progresssive nor retarded. It was just moral. We should not think in these terms because, for Mr Crisp, "there is no such thing as equality."
But after two hours his glib platitudes and outdated epigrams were not even shocking. Occasionally this show is offensive, but most of the time Quentin Crisp displays what Wilde called "the supreme vice - a lack of imagination."
Joseph 0 'Connor
Television - Today Tonight
The weather has been changeeable lately, but when Emily O'Reilly stood in front of the Today Tonight camera in Shercock there was snow on the ground behind her. The programme was one of those untopical pieces that can be slipped in this month or next, put together over a period. It was a bit odd having the Shercock case trotted out so late in the day, but it was welcome nonetheless. It's no harm being reminded that a man can be killed in a garda station and all the Commisssioner's horses and all the Minister's men can't put a case together against anyone, even though the place was crawling with garda witnesses.
There was little new in the story. Peter Matthews gets pulled in on suspicion of a £30 theft, there's a lot of shouting in the interrogation room and within three hours Matthews is dead. Three of the five. gard ai present that evening misled their superiors about what happened. Then the cover-up breaks down and the gardai begin accusing one another of beating up the suspect. Two trials follow, in each of which the jury quite properly refuses to connvict anyone on the conflicting evidence.
Because of the nature of the case 0 'Reilly and prooducer Michael Heney were able to interview only one witness, the wife of the dead man, Anne Matthews, who added nothing significant to her courtroom evidence. The rest was done with Barbie and Ken dolls and a model of the garda station. The dolls were all we had to help us visualise Detective Tom Jordan, who went to great lengths to avoid having his photo taken during his trial - and Seamus Mullens, the ex-garda who went into a mental hospital the day he was due to give evidence.
If it is true that the greatest deterrent against crime is the knowledge that there is a high risk of detection and conviction, the failure to show justice being done in this case makes garda stations even more dangerous places than they have proved in the past and makes more urgent the bringing in of safeguards for suspects. In the meantime, the retelling of the story of the death of Peter Matthews emphasises that there are still stones left to be fumed. From the evidence of one of the honest gardai, Joseph Feely, there appears to be grounds for at least one other charge which might be laid, and which might throw some further light on the case. One further aspect of the case worth looking at -- and not brought out in the proogramme - was the evidence of Dr John Harbison and the garda photographer concernning the presence of oil on the cell floor and on the leg of the dead man. Garda Review please copy.
Today Tonight is getting rather frisky these days, what with the Shercock case and the Annie Maguire two-part documentary. Usually the programme has been rather timid in this area, perhaps because it wants to be, perrhaps out of fear of being thought subversive. The Maguire case is safe enough, being ten years old and locaated across the water. Still, the programme didn't pull. many punches. Pat Cox exaamined the judge's summing up and without mincing words accused His Lordship of missdirecting the jury. From the necessarily few excerpts from the summing up which we heard it was difficult for a viewer 'to come to an indeependent conclusion, but Cox is a reliable reporter and such charges are not lightly made.
Also damning was the fact that the reliability of the forensic test was questioned during the trial by its invenntor; and the fact that the test which would send people away for fourteen-year senntences was carried out by a seventeen year-old with nine weeks' experience.
The programme took a chance by devoting the first part to a look at the family and the effect which the case had on them. It was emotional and one-sided. To justify this format meant ensuring that the second part -- the examiination of the evidence - had to be solid. It was.
Apart from such producction numbers -- and the enntirely laudable enterprise of getting up Barry Desmond's nose - the programme plods on. Its report on the delays in bringing accused persons to trial was sloppy and suffered from Brendan O'Brien's urge to dramatise. We were told that people say the delays occur in the office of the Chief State Solicitor. Then we were shown a solicitor saying that the CSS was marrginally responsible for the delays, and the CSS himself very reasonably explaining about understaffing and overrwork. And it was left at that, we never did find out where the delays occur. Instead, o 'Brien dug up a retired judge who simpered more than was necessary as he attacked Cearbhall 0 Dalaighs reasoned judgement on the right to bail.
Which was what 0 'Brien was really on about. Accused persons are left out on bail for two or three years because of legal delays. The inesscapable inference we were supposed to take from the programme was that accused persons should be locked up for two or three years while awaiting trial. The implicaations of this are staggering, yet there was no one there to explain or defend the basic concepts of law which the programme traduced.
That same programme carrried a report on the Workers' Party Ard Fheis, There was an unmistakeable whump! sound as the jaws of trade unionists around the country dropped when Des Geraghty launched a noisy attack on the trade union leadership. For a decade now the WP has been cultivating pet union leaders and slandering miliitants who challenged those leaders. Now here was Geraghty calling for a tum to the rank and file. We were left wondering if this was Geraghty's personal view (possible, as he was never the worst offender in this regard) or a change of party line, which would be very significant.
No one from the WP was asked. Dick Walsh of the Irish Times was brought in as a talking head at the end and he thought the WP might be miffed at the union leaders for lackadaisical opposition to the abortion amendment. Ah, Dick.
Books - Train Travel
Paul Theroux likes travelling by train. "Ever since childdhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it." With that evocaative and nostalgic sentence he begins and ends The Great Railway Bazaar (Penguin, UK£2.50) a classic of modern travel writing. His engaging account of a four-month, thirty-train journey along the railway tracks of Europe and Asia, a journey that begins and ends in London's Vicctoria Station, is no convenntional travel book. It is not overly concerned with history, landscape, architecture or local colour. What attracts Theroux, what animates his attention, is the cast of characters he meets en route, a cast both nomadic and native which" enlivens what would .otherwise be an overrextended journey. "I sought trains. I found passengers."
His success as a travel writer lies in his ability to apply his considerable skills as a novelist to the d escripption of his train journeys. He knows how strangers speak to each other and what they say; he knows how to transform their ephemeral interactions into features of a lively plot; and, most important of all, he knows how to conduct himself, both in fact and in fiction; in their presence. When activity is low, when boredom threatens, he can stoke the fires of his paraabolic plot by insulting a passsenger or exacerbating one of the numerous officials who keeps the wheels of the train, and the book, clicking over.
His journeys often seem purposeless, the ingenious and time-consuming elaboration of a whim. "I studied my maps and there appeared to be a continuous track from my house in Medford to the Great Plateau of Patagonia in southern Argentina." So one morning he joined the Boston commuters at his local train station and went to Argenntina. He describes his subbsequent adventures in The Old Patagonian Express (Pennguin, UK£2.9S). As before, it is the journey and not the destination, the going not the arriving, that entices him through so many distant raillway stations. Appropriately enough there is nothing at the end of the line, a sandy town in Argentina where one ran out of railways: "the nothinggness itself was an ending for me." Yet, although it retains the same format as its preedecessor and has the same aimless vivacity, it is quite different. It is grimmer, more meandering and less comic. The reason is not only the prosaic penury of life in Central and South America - "Since leaving the United States, I had not seen a dog that wasn't lame or a woman who wasn't carrying some- thing" - but also the lack of a sufficiently interesting cast. It is as if he has been let down by many of the characcters he has encountered on the journey and been thrown back, unwillingly, on his own resources as a travel writer.
The same problem is eviident in his most recent travel book The Kingdom by the Sea (Penguin, UK£2.S0). The kingdom of the title is Britain and the book is an account of Theroux's attempts to get to know it better - "After eleven years in London I still had not been much in Britain" by travelling clockwise around its coastline, taking trains whenever possible, walking as long as he could find a coast road or a convenient beach, hitch-hiking when he felt convivial and, as a rule, only resorting to buses when there were no trains as during the rail strike which coincided with the last days of his epic journey. That journey, which began on May Day 1982 in London when he boarded a train to Margate and found himself in the company of skinheads travelling to a bankkholiday seaside brawl, contiinued along the coastline of the English Channel and up around Wales, included a trip on the boat-train to Northern Ireland and back, involved many walks around the Scotttish coast and took him finally, through the depressed north of England to the seaaside resort of Southend , across the Thames estuary from where he had set out almost three months previously.
As in the other train books, he avoids the conventional approach to travel writing:
"No sight seeing; no catheedrals, no castles, no churches, no museums. I wanted to examine the particularities of the present." And so he sought his cast": "I cultivated complainers." In this search for characters to populate the book his approach was, as his outlook is, persistently alien. He emphasises his American status and tries to view the British as he had the Asians and South Americans: "it was a mystery to me why no one had ever come to Britain and written about its disscomforts and natives and entertainments and unintelligible dialects." So he writes about the discomforts of travel in Britain - overpriced and runndown hotels, poor public transport; he dissects the habits of the "natives" whom he finds constantly sitting in deck chairs and in parked cars and staring morosely out to sea; he analyses their enterrtainments - there is an amuusing and acerbic account of a day in Butlin's - and he shows considerable skill in transcribing their almost unnintelligible dialects.
Yet the old problem enndures. The book is only as interesting as the characters he meets. Although there are some sharp vignettes, some choice encounters - in partiicular one in a Welsh hotel where he is almost robbed and raped by a fat, drunken, naked woman from Swansea who wanders into his room one night and, just as casually, wanders out again when asked - too many of the characters are merely dull. As if to rescue the situation, he visits other writers and provides amusing pen pictures of Jonathan Raban on his boat in Brighhton, of Jan Morris in her graveyard in Wales and of the Irish playwright Martin Lynch at "the world premiere" of one of his plays in Belfast. But these are incidental pleaasures. Most of the members of his cast are as unremarkkable as the fictional names he concocts for them.
When characters fail him, he often turns to characterisstics. Here Theroux is at his weakest. The chapters on Northern Ireland are a case in point. Although he writes well on the insidious norrmality of the security checks and the city-centre Control Zones, he shows little appreeciation of what lies behind the politics and the passion. His attitude to the H-block hunger strikes is simplistic ("This was how small chilldren behaved when they felt angry and abandoned, when they wanted to be pitied") and his understanding of reliigion is ,studded with cliches ("Irish (Catholicism was one long litany of mother-imagery and mother-worship"). Such comments reveal a weakness endemic in all his travel books - the lack of a genuine underrstanding of history.
He is at his best when desscribing the particularities of the present as revealed in his conversations with those he met on his travels. In trains by day, in hotel bars at night, in guest houses at breakfast, Theroux was constantly talkking and carefully listening. It was the summer of the Falkklands war and the book is full of the patriotic platitudes overheard in passing. While the popular newspapers, read in abundance on the beaches, were full of jingoistic headdlines, the British he met seemed more nostalgic than nationalistic. The war reminnded them of the blitz, of rationing, of living a normal life in the midst of adversity. His own attitude remained, typically, neutral and alien. He avoids confronting the moral and political dilemmas posed by the war and takes refuge in a quotation from the Argentinian writer Borges: "It was just like two bald men fighting over a comb."
In the end the book is a celebration of his continuing fascination with trains. He chose a coastal route around Britain because the best trains - "the slow, sweet branch lines" - plied the coast. Yet many of these branch lines are doomed. Theroux is passsionate in their defence and pessimistic a bout their future, He is a genuine rail enthusiast, one who disdains the sentiimental nostalgia of the steam buffs and abhors the domesstication of sold-off train staations. To him, "the train seemed like the highest stage of civilisation. Nothing was disturbed by it or spoiled; it did not alter the landscape; it was the machine in the garden, but it was a gentle machine. It was fast and economical and as safe as a vehicle could possibly be." And yet it was doomed. As he travelled around the coast, pockmarked with ugly and dangerous nuclear power staations, he observed wryly, "the only new railway track I saw being laid in Britain was for radioactive material, not passengers."