Review: “Letters of Note”

This is my review of “Letters of Note“, a collection of letters that “deserve a wider audience”. It gets 3/5 from me. There are a lot of interesting letters quoted in this book; to me, the best ones are those that are not intended for a wide audience. All letters carry an introduction by the editor, e.g. this one:

Letter No. 006


June 8th, 1993 As an outspoken stand-up comedian with strong, unbending views on the most divisive of subjects, the late Bill Hicks was no stranger to controversy during his all-too-brief career. In May 1993, less than a year before he succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 32, a live recording of Hicks’s Revelations show was broadcast on television in the UK. Shortly afterwards, deeply offended by its “blasphemous” content, a priest wrote to the broadcaster, Channel 4, and complained about the recent screening. After reading the complaint, Hicks, never one to avoid a discussion, replied to the priest directly by letter.

8 June 1993
Dear Sir, After reading your letter expressing your concerns regarding my special ‘Revelations’, I felt duty-bound to respond to you myself in hopes of clarifying my position on the points you brought up, and perhaps enlighten you as to who I really am. Where I come from — America — there exists this wacky concept called ‘freedom of speech’, which many people feel is one of the paramount achievements in mankind’s mental development. I myself am a strong supporter of the ‘Right of freedom of speech’, as I’m sure most people would be if they truly understood the concept. ‘Freedom of speech’ means you support the right of people to say exactly those ideas which you do not agree with. (Otherwise, you don’t believe in ‘freedom of speech’, but rather only those ideas which you believe to be acceptably stated.)

Seeing as how there are so many different beliefs in the world, and as it would be virtually impossible for all of us to agree on any one belief, you may begin to realize just how important an idea like ‘freedom of speech’ really is. The idea basically states ‘while I don’t agree or care for what you are saying, I do support your right to say it, for herein lies true freedom’. You say you found my material ‘offensive’ and ‘blasphemous’. I find it interesting that you feel your beliefs are denigrated or threatened when I’d be willing to bet you’ve never received a single letter complaining about your beliefs, or asking why they are allowed to be. (If you have received such a letter, it definitely did not come from me.)

Furthermore, I imagine a quick perusal of an average week of television programming would reveal many more shows of a religious nature, than one of my shows — which are called ‘specials’ by virtue of the fact that they are very rarely on. All I’m doing in ‘Revelations’ is giving my point of view in my language based on my experiences — much the same way religious broadcasters might organize their programs. While I’ve found many of the religious shows I’ve viewed over the years not to be to my liking, or in line with my own beliefs, I’ve never considered it my place to exert any greater type of censorship than changing the channel, or better yet — turning off the TV completely.

Now, for the part of your letter I found most disturbing. In support of your position of outrage, you posit the hypothetical scenario regarding the possibly ‘angry’ reaction of Muslims to material they might find similarly offensive. Here is my question to you: Are you tacitly condoning the violent terrorism of a handful of thugs to whom the idea of ‘freedom of speech’ and tolerance is perhaps as foreign as Christ’s message itself? If you are somehow implying that their intolerance to contrary beliefs is justifiable, admirable, or perhaps even preferable to one of acceptance and forgiveness, then I wonder what your true beliefs really are. If you had watched my entire show, you would have noticed in my summation of my beliefs the fervent plea to the governments of the world to spend less money on the machinery of war, and more on feeding, clothing, and educating the poor and needy of the world … A not-so-unchristian sentiment at that!

Ultimately, the message in my material is a call for understanding rather than ignorance, peace rather than war, forgiveness rather than condemnation, and love rather than fear. While this message may have understandably been lost on your ears (due to my presentation), I assure you the thousands of people I played to in my tours of the United Kingdom got it. I hope I helped answer some of your questions. Also, I hope you consider this an invitation to keep open the lines of communication. Please feel free to contact me personally with comments, thoughts, or questions, if you so choose. If not, I invite you to enjoy my two upcoming specials entitled ‘Mohammed the TWIT’ and ‘Buddha, you fat PIG’. (JOKE)
Bill Hicks

And Virginia Woolf’s heartbreaking final letter:

Letter No. 010


March, 1941 By the age of just 22, influential novelist Virginia Woolf had already suffered two nervous breakdowns – brought on, it’s believed, by the deaths of her mother and half-sister in quick succession, and then her father some years later. Unfortunately, the struggle didn’t end there for Virginia and she fought off numerous bouts of depression throughout her lifetime, until the very end. One evening in March 1941, Virginia attempted to end her life by jumping into a river; however, she failed and simply returned home, sodden. Sadly, she persisted, and a few days later, on March 28th 1941, she tried again and this time succeeded in escaping a lifetime of mental illness. On the day of her death, unaware of her whereabouts, Virginia’s husband, Leonard, discovered this heartbreaking letter on their mantelpiece. Her body was found weeks later in the River Ouse, the pockets of her coat filled with heavy rocks.

Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.

There are some letters which are a bit drab, very American in nature—i.e. that display how the editor is an American, by which I mean that he’s inward-looking, more than taking in many letters from many cultures—but overall, an interesting book.

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Movies I've watched recently:

  • Death Note (2017) - IMDb 2/10

    2017-08-28 08:20
    * *

    This remake of a near-perfect manga series, which has in turn spawned films, is now here and presented by Netflix. It starts out like a teen-angst emo trip, paired with death. Ryuk, a much-beloved character in the manga, is a Death God, who drops a notebook onto Earth. The book allows its owner to write the name of somebody and the person subsequently dies. However, there are loads of rules and caveats surrounding its use. This version is quite like "Hunger Games" was a version of "Battle Royale"; I can recall somebody saying that "Hunger Games" was "Battle Royale with cheese", which is an apt description for this version of "Death Note" as well. While the manga and prior films both contained elements that made the Sherlock Holmes short stories and novels successful through thinking and wondrous twists and turns, this film does not contain anything in the least good, apart from how the film makers opted to not display the character Ryuk much, other than in shadows. Lakeith Stanfield's acting is the only saving grace in this film, albeit short and boxed within its severe constraints (as it should be, I think). All in all: expect a high-school special without intelligence, and you will be alright.

  • Manchester by the Sea (2016) - IMDb 3/10

    2017-04-16 15:28
    * * *

    Just because the film naturally carries a containment of sorrow and gloom, it does not explain its complete dreariness. It's got bits of chronological experimentation and nice views of the sea, but otherwise, this is forgettable. See Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm" instead.

  • Fifty Shades Darker (2017) - IMDb 1/10

    2017-04-15 18:28

    I actually thought this film would not be as bad as the first one, but obviously, I was wrong. This is overwrought in no sense of the word, and if it were human, it would be incarcerated indefinitely. This film actually violates basic human rights in ways the first one didn't, so I guess that's what this new version brings to viewers. In no way is this erotic, interesting, or entertaining. The people involved in this should look themselves in the mirror and not make a third film, which _will_ be made.

  • T2 Trainspotting (2017) - IMDb 6/10

    2017-02-22 22:58
    * * * * * *

    This is more a film, I think, which is about aging and repeating your past than anything else. Sure, the characters are older, but I cringe a lot as Boyle has chosen to have them repeat some of their "fave lines" from the first film, 21 years later, for no apparent reason. The slow parts move best, for example, where Renton visits his father, despite that one being sappy. The "new girl", basically a Renton, doesn't bring much to the table. However, Robbie Carlyle steals the show; where Ewen Bremner's "Spud" previously did, by being a comedic maestro with his movements and druggy cadence, he is now converted into a caricature of himself - and yes, I am aware that druggies who have been on dope for more than two decades tend to turn into caricatures in more ways than one - while Begbie offers more. A lot more. Carlyle's acting is so strong that even Begbie's most obvious characteristics - e.g. as displayed where his son stands up against him by wanting to go to college to learn hotel management instead of joining his dad in a life of crime - turn interesting. He's a tour de force. Still, while this film is interesting and entertaining, it is too much of a parody of itself to become a truly interesting introspective. And the plot turn at the end was really a bit too tell-tale and boring to me.

  • Medicinen (2014) - IMDb 1/10

    2016-12-12 19:00

    A car crash where your newborn child dies would be a less hurtful experience than watching this film. I'm kidding, but there is some truth lodged in that statement. This film is very "inspired" by "The Devil Wears Prada". By this I mean Nutley and his writer cohorts have concocted a story about an abhorrent person - played by Bergström, despite many doubts on my site as to what "playing" could be, according to herself - who starts ingesting a medicine that seems to change her life. Naturally, this medicine is a sugar pill. The medicine is also the only thing which is sweet about this film. The script is so poorly written that any, and I repeat, _any_ breathing thing - or dead - could easily excrete something which would improve and best this depressing piece of scatological experience, which all should avoid at all costs. Actually, I could go on forever about how bad everything from the direction to casting, acting, the soundtrack and segues are, but I will not. I refuse to. This is on par with Nutley-Bergström's "Angel", which also marked a new milestone in the string of eulogies to Swedish cinema that seems to be their goal. I'm angry to know the couple seem to use films as an excuse to a) go abroad and senselessly film scenes that have none or very little function for a film and b) have Bergström cry and copulate. Don't see this, even for "fun", which was why I saw it. I will never, ever see this film again, and I hope Bergström-Nutley never, ever make another film, write one nor act in one for the sake of humanity.


Seven Stories Press: meeting them in New York City

As I’m now reading Chavisa Woods’s “Things To Do When You’re Goth In The Country & Other Stories” I come across a page on how a character wants to visit New York City.

About a month ago, I went to New York City and suddenly, while in the hotel room, thought of Seven Stories Press, a publisher I really like. Weren’t they in New York City? Yes, they were. Mia and I had decided to go south of the Meatpacking district, and SSP were just en route to where we were going.

So we found their address, and I went in. Said hi and spoke with a nice guy who was an intern. Roughly twenty silent persons glanced up at me as I said I was a fan from Sweden who just happened to swing by and wanted to tell them about the great work I thought they were doing. The intern listened kindly and allowed me to say my shit. I kind of hoped they’d sell books but didn’t, but I was allowed to take any book from their shelves. So kind. So I took this Woods book.

Go peruse their shit. They’ve got books for kids, too.

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Review: Rebecca Stott – “In the Days of Rain: A Daughter, a Father, a Cult”

‘I was raised in a cult,’ I’d say, and then I’d recoil, embarrassed by the melodrama of the words I’d used. Were the Brethren a cult? I didn’t know. What was the difference between a sect and a cult? Was there a point on a spectrum where a sect became a cult? ‘We wore headscarves,’ I’d say. ‘We weren’t allowed to cut our hair. We weren’t allowed television, newspapers, radios, cinemas, holidays, pets, wristwatches.’ The list of prohibitions always seemed endless. I’d watch people’s eyes open wider. They’d look at me askance, then compete to ask questions, and I’d think, Oh no, not this again. ‘We weren’t allowed to talk to the other children at school,’ I’d say. ‘They told us that everyone outside the Brethren was part of Satan’s army and they were all out to get us. They called them “worldly”, or “worldlies”. If you didn’t do exactly what they said, they’d expel you. Then your family wouldn’t be allowed to speak to you ever again. People committed suicide. People went mad. Yes, this was Brighton. Yes, this was Brighton in the sixties. Yes, during flower power. In the suburbs. During the sexual revolution. Yes. It’s hard to explain.’ ‘You were raised Plymouth Brethren?’ people would say. They would have heard about the Plymouth Brethren. Some might even have read Father and Son, Edmund Gosse’s beautiful memoir about growing up in a nineteenth-century Plymouth Brethren assembly. And I’d hear myself reply with a hint of superiority, ‘We weren’t Plymouth Brethren. We were Exclusive Brethren.’

This is, mainly but not wholly, due to the author’s style, a very special book on life inside of and having left a cult. Rebecca Stott’s father was high up in the hierarchy of this cult, and tells of it, her parents, their parents, her father’s life with her, and of his dying, while packaging it all in a very exquisite and personal fashion.

If she would have written this in a less interesting style, I would not have thought much of it, but thanks to it, this book borders on getting a 4/5 grade.

She is not a martyr, nor a person who tries to state that the life she has lived is extremely noteworthy. To me, that’s a relief. She can even laugh at herself, and ridicule the life she has led, but simultaneously put weight behind value and words, and thus, this tome is laudable.

At times, this book is nearly poetic in style.

My family hadn’t belonged to the Brethren, we’d been caught up in them. Caught up like a coat catching on thorns. Caught up in a scandal. Caught up in the arms of the Lord. Whichever way you phrased it, it meant you didn’t get to choose, and that there was no getting away.

There was one particular line I’d listen out for in my father’s preaching, a line that had especially beautiful rhythms. An important Brethren sister from the early Ireland days had once said, ‘Let us put away our playthings for the world is in flames’ – and that line, dark and poetic, had been passed down among Brethren over the years. My father loved it. He wouldn’t just use it once; he’d repeat it for effect. When I was six years old I watched him repeat it five times. I whispered each of the words along with him under my breath, anticipating where he was going to put the next stress, or the next long pause, keeping a close eye on my grandfather down in the front row opposite me to see, from his expression, if my father would get away with it.

It’s often quite startling to read of how watched and brainwashed the cult members, called “Brethren”, were.

Brethren were expected to live in detached houses as near to the local Meeting Room as possible, because detached houses minimised contact with worldly people, and proximity kept the local fellowship close and in sight.

Many ex-Brethren I’ve talked to describe the fifties as a golden age in Brethren life. It was only when Jim Taylor Junior took over as Man of God in 1959 that things went wrong. He ruined it all, they imply. He was an aberration, a monster. He made good people do unspeakable things. But even in the fifties, I can see, there were already serious prohibitions in place: No cinemas, theatres, circuses, music halls. No sports halls. No radios or television sets. Friendships with non-Brethren – tolerated but not encouraged. No trade unions. No sex before marriage. No trousers for women or short skirts. No fashionable clothes. No tabloid newspapers. No thrillers or modern novels. No short hair. Within five years the prohibition list would have grown to four or five times this length. Within ten years it would be at least twenty times as long.

The details do greatly paint the picture:

‘If you talked to a Christian from outside they’d use words that would jar with you,’ he said. ‘Brethren have a vocabulary and a way of talking about things that becomes the truth to you. It’s been worked out over many years. So if somebody else comes in and starts talking about Jesus in a way that’s off-key, it makes you feel ill at ease and out of place, so you’re actually quite grateful to get away from that worldly wedding and back amongst people who speak the same language as you.’ ‘What kind of off-key?’ I asked, though I knew exactly what he meant. People still seem off-key to me out here in the world, even though I’ve lived among non-Brethren more than five times longer than I lived among Brethren. It often feels as if the words I’ve learned to speak since then don’t stretch far enough, don’t describe the things I feel or imagine well enough. The things that crowd the dark, for instance, or flicker at the edges of my vision, have no name. ‘It wasn’t just phrases or ways of speaking,’ my father said. ‘It was ways of dressing and behaving as well. If an interloper got in, say a journalist passing himself off as a Brethren visitor, he’d break subtle rules and codes of conduct so that people would know he wasn’t a proper member of the Brethren immediately. There was a real tribal sensitivity. My father used to say that when he was driving to a Meeting in a strange town, he could spot the Brethren sisters walking along the road. He’d say it was the Spirit telling him, but I always used to think it was their hats.’

Also, it’s interesting to read of Stott’s hearing of voices from the time when she was a small child, which does not actually indicate mental issues, but is something that comes naturally with brainwashing and mantras:

I heard voices too as a child, sometimes when my head tipped to a particular angle, or when I was falling asleep or had just woken: loud, soft, haranguing, enticing, sometimes in English, sometimes in a language I did not recognise. They were very similar to the voices my father described, though he seems to have heard primarily Brethren mantras and scriptures. Eventually, of course, my father would recite those same words himself when he preached. Repetition of simplified mantras and maxims, social psychologists have proved, is one of the key methods of indoctrination; it affects the physiology of neurological pathways, particularly in teenagers, whose brains are still growing.13 It’s a powerful form of brainwashing. And of course my father’s exceptional IQ and photographic memory made it very hard to silence those voices once they got in his head. In the sixth form my father’s Brethren voices were telling him that Yeats and Shakespeare were a frivolous waste of time, that all the apparent vistas that were opening to him were carnal and corrupt, ‘the pleasures of sin for a season’. He veered from one way of seeing to the other. ‘One was graven on stone,’ he wrote, ‘the other rippled like water. One asserted, the other side sang and whispered, beguiled, suggested, asked questions, claimed nothing, resonated.’

Stott doesn’t paint leaving the cult as something black-and-white; being taught to fear the Devil and to love God at *all* times is not something one can easily just shake off:

A decade later, a long-running story on The Archers finally prompted that conversation. Heavily pregnant Helen Archer had stabbed her controlling husband with a kitchen knife after years of isolation and mental abuse. She was arrested. The audience for the show grew by millions. There were chatrooms devoted to the storyline, and money was raised for support groups for victims of abuse. The whole country, including my daughters, then in their early twenties, seemed to be tuning in. But my daughters didn’t need me to do any explaining when the subject came up. ‘It’s called coercive control, Mum,’ Kez said. ‘They’ve passed a law about it.’ ‘Took them decades to listen to the campaigners, though,’ Hannah said, her eyes bright with anger. ‘Did you know that the law didn’t even recognise rape inside marriage until the nineteen-seventies? Un-bel-iev-ab-le.’ ‘I know,’ I said, trying to be positive. ‘But things are better for women now.’ ‘Mum, you’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale,’ Kez said. ‘You know we can’t ever take feminist progress for granted. They’ll take our freedom away again unless we protect it.’ ‘Look at what’s happening in Poland over abortion,’ said Hannah. ‘Thousands of women had to take to the streets to make the politicians scrap that Bill.’ I knew. I’d been teaching feminist theory and writing for years. I’d given my daughters copies of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as birthday presents during their teens. We’d groaned together about sexist adverts on the television, talked about equal pay and equal rights, and agreed about how important it was to stand up and make a noise when you thought something was unfair. Now they were bringing me articles to read and telling me about documentaries to watch by women of their generation. I was learning from them.

Stott goes into detail on how the leader of the cult, “JT Junior”, abused his power by sexually abusing Brethren wives, but…

In a few weeks Brethren spin doctors had turned JT Junior from a lecherous alcoholic bully to a martyr, prepared to jeopardise his personal honour for the Lord’s Truth and to ensure a final necessary purge before the Rapture began. But then, just three months after Aberdeen, JT Junior died of an alcohol-related disease.

This is a wondrous description of leaving a cult:

Many people assume that leaving a cult like the Brethren must be exhilarating. ‘You had no TV or pop music or cinema,’ they say, ‘and then you did? It must have been amazing!’ But when you see interviews with people who have recently left cults, they describe feeling bewildered and frightened; their eyes dart around, searching for points of reference, metaphors that would get somewhere close to describing the feeling of being lost, not-at-home, without walls. No one, of course, shrugs off years of indoctrination in one go. Many escapees went back to the Brethren after a few weeks, not only because they missed their families – which would be reason enough – or because they didn’t have the skills to get work, but because the world frightened them. You can’t just refuse to believe that the world belongs to Satan if you’ve heard it repeated over and over since you were born. It’s under your skin. People also describe the difficulty of making choices – moral, financial, domestic, professional and emotional – because inside the Brethren there are virtually no choices to make.

Perhaps to conclude, this paragraph is great:

He took me to see a performance of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck at the National Theatre in London. I was sixteen. In the car, he explained Ibsen’s idea of the Life Lie with great care and attention. Life lies, he said, were the lies people told themselves to make life bearable. The Ekdal family in The Wild Duck, he explained – father, mother, teenage daughter, grandfather – were poor but happy. They keep going, he said, because they have delusions. The grandfather thinks he’s a great hunter. The father is convinced he’s on the verge of creating an invention that will make him famous and pay off all the family debts. The daughter thinks her father is a great man. These were their Life Lies. ‘So Ibsen,’ said my father, ‘sends in a visitor, Gregers, an old friend of the father’s. Gregers exposes all their Life Lies, and tells them a few more things they would rather not have known. Then Ibsen makes us watch what happens next. It’s not good, of course. But that’s the point: Ibsen isn’t sure we should make people see how deluded they are.’

Overall, this is akin to the recent “Jonestown” biography, but is far more poetic and existentialistic in nature. A good complement of sorts, even though this is mainly a personal book, and not a how-to-cult manual.

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