Book Reviews: Philip Challinor - Against Britishness (2016) and Moron Mine (2014)
I have many times recommended to my long-suffering reader the blog posts of Philip Challinor (my other long-suffering reader), who appears online as The Curmudgeon. In them, he takes a scalpel to the self-inflated and hypocritical excrescences of the political and mercantile pirates of our times here, places a well-deserved stiletto atwixt the corporate-speak ribs of our alleged superiors there, and composes verses and poems which vary from the cutting to the deeply affecting (this latter attribute is to be seen in excelsis in his poems about war and the remembrance of it).
But Mr. Challinor writes longer works as well: not merely introductory essays for collections of stories by writers such as Robert Aickman, but also works of outright fiction and satirical sallies at many of the same targets as his shorter posts online. It is two of these last-named examples which I wish to recommend to you today: a pleasant task which I should really have carried out long ago.
In Against Britishness (published in February 2016, before what he is describing became almost literally indescribable), we see Challinor the political commentator, picking up on a number of aspects of that nebulous and amorphous concept of 'Britishness' (an idea of which we are all supposed to partake without it ever being adequately described to us) and treating them to substantially less than the degree of obsequiousness and idolatry which is daily enjoined upon the subject-consumers of this happy realm.
Just a précis of the opening chapter's first paragraph should give you a flavour of the author's perspective:
"'Britishness' [...] is a zombie concept...conjured up by a race of defeated and embittered slave-holders [...] amid the smirking of a sociopathic élite". (p.3)
And away he rides!
The subsequent chapter rounds upon one aspect of this undead cultural artifact, showing in turns how many faces of what is termed 'Britishness' by those who abide by its tenets are either rather less than prideworthy - Shakespeare's eternal crawling up the backside of the Stuart monarchy and Holbein's portrait of Henry VIII (you know, that fat bastard who founded his own church because he couldn't keep it in his doublet?), for example - or aren't even 'British' at all (like Punch And Judy).
The author then lays plain another simple fact which has long been overlaid by the sort of national self-mythologising which is almost American in its scale and its imperviousness to reason: namely, that the 'Great' in 'Great Britain' has nothing to do with any innate qualities of its inhabitants or its international standing, but simply a description of the size of the main island of this archipelago of archaisms and acrimony in which we exist. It should not have needed elucidating, but it clearly does: it is merely a geographical expression.
In following chapters, Challinor casts a sardonic eye over the clichés of the soi-disant 'United Kingdom' and its empire (sample quote: "...an obsessive focus on the negative aspects of empire is unwarrantably pessimistic and unfair: what are a few million deaths compared with the wonders of land reform, pith helmets and tea?"); and the glorious dead of oh-so-many wars, describing that tacky spectacle of the ceramic poppies at the Tower Of London - and later on tour throughout the Empire - thus:
"...ceramic poppies to the precise number of significant deaths; namely those of British and colonial troops. The basic requirements of Britishness indicate that it must have been all about us".
It is in the next section, Mother, Dear where the author really hits his stride. He gets to the nub of the fatuous self-aggrandisement associated with that Ruritanian-fantasy-within-a-neo-Gothic-theme-park called 'Westminster', describing the inhabitants of the totally non-elected part of Parliament as,
"...superannuated stooges, babbling clergymen [and] clapped-out political catamites"
and the denizens of The Lower Place as,
"...bribe-takers [...], gibbering cretins [...] and over-promoted office juniors".
He then goes on to supply a simile for the Commons at its most packed with members (and remember that that word has more than one meaning) which I won't spoil for you by quoting here, but will say that it is at one and the same time funny and utterly, utterly apt.
Our wonderful media then fall under Challinor's ascerbic gaze, the author pointing out that,
"Almost all British news media are free to print and say anything [...] that does not go against the financial interests of an Australian economic migrant with American citizenship".
This is followed by an excursion into the nature of British Patriotism ("Rah-Rah!") and the convenient mutability of British History as taught to generations of future Daily Mail and Sun readers.
The book concludes with whatever the opposite of an encomium may be (an excomium, mayhap?) to 'Britishness' and all that it represents:
"...the nostalgically resentful nonsense of a former world-class criminal who now has to borrow his weapons from his American friend and play second fiddle in all the biggest robberies".
This slim (39 pages) book is less a satire (for all that it guys the conventional view) as it doesn't distort what it is attacking, instead merely showing things ruthlessly as they are to any objective observer; but, rather, it is a polemic: there is an anger to it, certainly; but, unlike most of its kind, it is never rantingly so (I don't recall in either of my two readings so far coming across a single exclamation mark in the text). It varies in style between the ascerbic, the absurd and the darkly comic; but it is never 'in-yer-face' - the author's eminently-readable style is too considered and controlled for that. What comes through is a sense of disappointed love hiding in the background; the sense that Philip Challinor believes that his country (and 'Britishness' - as he points out - is really just,"Englishness with added haggis, rugby choirs and Belfast") could and should be better than it has allowed itself to become. It is a work which - in the light of developments since its publication - is more timely than ever.
If Against Britishness shows Philip Challinor tackling matters on a national (or supra-national) scale, then Moron Mine (2014) partakes more of the particular.
The conceit behind the work is an elegant one to start with: Moron Mine is a study of a fictional (*) heavy-industrial facility where that most quintessential of resources - 'moron' - is dragged to the surface in huge amounts every working day.
This premise having been established, the author leads us through sixty-odd pages which read - at various times and occasionally simultaneously - like a serious academic study, a promotional handbook for one of those 'heritage experiences' to which our country's quondam industrial might has been reduced, and an illustrative example/warning of modern management attitudes and techniques (epitomised by Fred the mine manager, whom we will encounter more fully a little later).
We get a taste of the author's style from the very first paragraph:
"This is an English moron mine. It has the usual two shafts, one for safety and one not, and the quality of its product consistently exceeds the required international moron standards for obduracy, blatancy, flakiness and dudgeon."
The company co-operates intimately with the Ministry of Moron (obviously that rare section of modern government where the ministerial positions are never short of highly-qualified candidates), and Challinor provides us with a transcript of the automated voice message which anyone calling their No-Help-At-All Line would encounter. This includes Option 9, which might have come straight from the mind of a latter-day Beachcomber:
"Your call may be recorded for training purposes. If you do not wish your call to be recorded, please press 0 and state the grounds for your objection. Your objection to being recorded may be recorded."
We are then guided through a potted history of moron, how natural and un-natural philosophers alike have sought to explain its origins and ubiquity (and how, therefore, the world's supply of this crucial product is, in fact, inexhaustible), before the author gives us a brief outline of the history of the moron-mining industry, and the uses to which the product has been put through history, e.g.
"No fashionable lady of the Elizabethan era was complete without some moron hanging on her bosom, and no Cavalier or Roundhead of the following century would have wished to be seen in public without a flourish of moron at his shoulders and heels."
Detecting the most promising seams of moron is the province of a team of highly-experienced surveyors, who not only assay the prospective deposits but also guard against the expensive and embarrassing error of mis-identifying a supply of the deceptive mineral mimetic cretinate.
After a minatory chapter on the crucial topic of Health And Safety, we are then introduced to the aforementioned Fred - manager of the moron mine under Mr. Challinor's spotlight - who has been with the company for eight years (as he has been telling everyone for the last thirteen years). Fred lives in a "more or less constant state of anxiety", about which he has a "more of less constant state of anxiety".
The moron mine doesn't just consist of its manager and clerical staff, of course. The almost-as-essential work at the moron face or in other aspects of the extraction process needs its artisans, such as gappers, nubbiners, raglaggers and sponge-claps; and the reader is given a précis of how such worthy wights are recruited and trained - some of them up to management attainment - before we are given an insightful quote from the induction speech which Fred gives to all new recruits.
The author then takes us into a brief description of the moron mine's workforce, their rituals at the start and end of every shift and how they go about their daily (but economically essential) slog; how the mine engages with the concerns of the local population (via another multi-choice telephone menu); and with the use (or not) of animals down the mine. All of this is interspersed with helpful and inspirational memos to the staff from Fred, of course.
This is followed by a brief excursion into the more bizarre aspects of moron mining, with particular reference to the magical properties supposed to pertain to moron by the mediæval population of England, and to the outlandish moron-eaters of the Victorian Era. Indeed, so the author avers, the centrality of moron mining to England's history is such that it has penetrated deep into the folklore, folk-rhymes and folk remedies of this land and, indeed, many another (he adduces examples from Central Africa and even Japan in support of his theory).
The necessary grading and processing of the raw product is then touched upon, where the previous workforce of women has been replaced by computers which are, as Mr. Challinor correctly points out,
"...often more moron-compatible than even the most highly trained human being."
The author then ends with an encomium to this endlessly-useful product of Nature's Bounty™, concluding:
"It is conceivable that even when all else has perished from the earth; when human beings have died out and their only extant remnants are the plastic bags trapped within the planet's crust; when the sun has blown and shrunk and the moon fled or fallen; when the seas are dry and the rocks worn away; when the very cries of war and entertainment have ceased their eternal clamour - it is conceivable that even then, at so late a stage in the macroeconomic cycle, the moron will remain."
As anyone who has been reading The Curmudgeon for some years can readily testify, Philip Challinor's skill lies in both his dryness of style (that's 'dry' as in 'satirically sardonic', and most emphatically not as in 'dull') and his ability to write, as it were, 'in character'; in this last wise, his descriptions and characterisations - be they that of the academic delineating the history and culture of moron mining, or of the utterings and memo-ings of Fred The Manager - are in and of themselves thoroughly convincing. Challinor's grasp of the intricate and leaden-eared Bollocksese of modern management speak is - here as in his blog posts - obviously born of a great deal of pained (and painful) personal research, and always hits the correct tone as a result. Even the running joke throughout the text regarding the non-appearance of the pictures promised in the book's full title - Moron Mine - An Illustrated Study - is kept fresh by a variety of turns both naturalistic and surreal.
In Moron Mine, Philip Challinor shows himself to be an accomplished humorous stylist in the lineage of Morton, Jennings and Coren, be it in his talent for parodying the self-important vacuity of contemporary communication or his ability to turn a felicitous or arresting phrase; an author about whose work more should be known by more people, not least as an antidote to the unengaging vapidity and jagged-edged theatre-of-cruelty style which seems to dominate the field of English humour today.
Each of these books (like his other works) is available from Philip Challinor's store at Lulu. Against Britishness in ePub format (and I recommend the free Calibre software if you want to read it on your PC) costs a mere £1.00 to download, and Moron Mine is an inflation-taunting £2.00 to download in PDF (for which I recommend the free Foxit Reader software).
(* - although one must bear in mind the words of Harri Webb at the end of his splendid poem, Synopsis Of The Great Welsh Novel, "One is not quite sure whether it is fiction or not")