Sunday, 29 November 2009

Closet Reading - Closet Portrait.

I received a copy of Closet Reading: 500 Years of Humour on the Loo by Phil Norman from Scott Pack of The Friday Project.

"Quite interesting for anyone who's interested in this sort of thing," is flagged on the front cover, a comment made by John Lloyd, creator of QI.

Quite interesting is a fair summary; though, were the title a headline for an advertisement, it could justifiably be taken to the Advertising Standards Authority for not living up to the standards of being legal, decent, honest and truthful. Or, if it does, it does so only by the squeak of its varnished dust jacket.

The book is heavily weighted towards the wit and wisdom of the post-war period. The early centuries, from a mention of Boccaccio's Decameron (1353) to the emergence of Grubb Street at the start of the seventeenth century are run through in 25 pages; the following 38 pages bring us to the start of the nineteenth century; and, of the remainder, 139 pages are devoted to the post-war period.

It is quite interesting. It could have been a lot more interesting.

Norman struggles to find a suitable tone of voice with which to deliver his material. He cannot resist drawing comparisons of ancient wits with their equivalents of today; except they are not of today but of yesterday, for instance, Will Kemp who toured Europe in the 1600s is 'an Elizabethan Norman Wisdom'; Richard Tarlton, 'England's first true star comedian' is 'a versatile amalgam of John Sessions and Freddie Starr'; while the ballad is equated with 'Richard Stilgoe's sideways look at the week's events'; all of which gives the book an oddly dated feel.

Sorry to report Closet Reading is quite interesting. No more.

Of more interest is this photograph of the The Artist as a Young Discus Thrower.

Yes, dear reader, this is moi, aged what - 14 months? - in Libya, hurling an ashtray that I still remember, a promotional item of a glass tray surrounded by a rubber Dunlop tyre. (Only a mother, etc…) That said, one can identify stylistic trends that were to turn me into a fashion victim. Note the buttoned, woolly trews and elegant Clarks' sandals tightly buckled over fat feet, sheathed in voguish white ankle socks.

Monday, 23 November 2009

In Reply to Lethe

 I could not post this reply to a post by Lethe because of its length. Please read her post first and then my response. I love you all. You are my family. I am not argumentative.

You asked me to comment on your post and I have chosen to in serious vein given the thought you have applied.

Allow me, rudely, to pick at the seams first to test the strength of your material.

In your eighth paragraph you refer to the 'effervescence of language', and in the following of 'language in its purest, most accessible, most fluid form […] It's on a wavelength most of us can hear.'

Pedantically, effervescence means to bubble, to froth up: language does, indeed, bubble. It is not concrete; it does not point irrevocably to things but seethes around them, crashing over them to reveal their shapes as outlines much as a pier is made visible by stormy water. This, needless to say, is a Saussurean image; however, the fact is, as the late Jacques Derrida endless explored, language, or text, which is far more encompassing, is notoriously unreliable; treacherous even in the way that it undermines itself. So my ears twitch when I read of language, any language, being 'on a wavelength most of us can hear'.

My concern grows when I read a few paragraphs later of 'this ability to zero in on transcendence'. Here is an assumption of belief in a transcendence, or one that can be written on a menu for human consumption, human dialogue. Given the fish slipperiness of language, of the human mind, it is doubtful. You explicitly acknowledge this when you write, 'After all, the concept "art" is in our minds.' Art is artifice, as is language.

Given the direction of your thinking, it is of small surprise to find you drifting towards a Jungian construct of human consciousness - 'what if we attributed an author's sparkling sentences to a state of mind rather than an individual person?'. It is wishful, wistful.

Derrida has presented us with a problem that the Anglo-American tradition of thought is trying to solve through pure logic, forgetting pure logic, itself, is a piece of human engineering (my cards are turned face-up). Even it were proved beyond all doubt in all possible universes that mathematics was a transcendental language, it has already gone beyond the boundaries of what was once the definition of a science, i.e. a demonstrable proof of an experiment conducted in similar conditions producing equivalent results,  as string theory, for example, is beyond demonstration and remains only a mathematical conjecture. Reductively, mathematics is only another language.

Derrida never denied the absolute, the transcendental, only the ability of man to bring it into a textual context, as the moment man attempts to do so, he corrupts it by the very process of the transmutation. (Derrida would never write as bluntly as I; indeed, I would be sent to the bottom of the class for being so direct.)

I have picked at the seams and, perhaps, found a few loose threads worthy of further thought. Now permit me to address the meat, or soya, if vegetarian, of your thesis: the concept of genius and criticism.

I love the sentiment, 'Art criticism flattens the journey, however, by making it into a vacation… etc.' It is accurate but begs the question as to what art criticism should achieve. Whose fault this desire for potted heros, self-affirming images of ourselves?

Let's discuss genius. Caravaggio has only been 'discovered' as a genius in recent decades. Why? I would assert for political reasons, not political as in government, but political as in polis, the people. In his paintings, he was the great democrat; recognisable individuals populate his paintings, his lighting technique mirrors contemporary portraiture, he was a rogue: in summary, he is a successful rebel and how we wish we had the balls to be him. In the arts, one can argue that the concept of genius is relative only because the impact of an individual on human consciousness, in terms of the written word or painted canvas, is harder to assess than that of a scientist such as Darwin or Einstein.

I believe your desire to link an individual's unique ability to a wider influence correct. I, too, counter the capitalist desire to divide and sell to us as dumb individuals, but I do not bow to their simplistic argument that you are either for us, i.e. progress in their terms, or the ability to sell more of the same crap from an ever limited number of corporations in the desire to make more profits for the few, or against us, i.e. a Sarah Palin socialist. (Why do so many Americans react so strongly against the idea of people socialising, being concerned about people in worse positions than themselves? It does my head in.)


In conclusion, thank you so much for your post. It has got the blood pumping.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Tired Ideas: Fresh Manuscripts

I read recently too many manuscripts submitted by novice writers begin with the protagonist waking up in the morning. (I found the comment on one of the many blogs I follow, most likely an observation made by an agent or publisher; I forget who, so whoever you are please accept my apologies for not referencing you.)

My immediate thought was 'Oh-oh'.

The first time my leading character is introduced, he is waking up. However, I think - I hope - I have avoided being too clumsy as the passages that precede his appearance establish why it is necessary that we find him in bed.

Besides, the story follows events over a period of just eight days during which his life becomes increasingly bizarre. Hence, the working title, Thursday To Thursday. And if I explained here the real reason why I have to have him wake on the first morning, I would spoil the whole raison d'être of the story.

(Am I becoming too defensive - probably. Would it prove disastrous if I was asked to revise the beginning - probably not.)

So let's get to the point: what other clichés in writing are there that the  novice is guilty of? I am not talking about bad writing per se, but hackneyed plot development, characters, structure, et cetera. In other words, what are the common themes seen time and time again in the slush pile?

I am being more than a little cheeky because I am hoping others, especially publishing professionals, will develop this post into something interesting with their replies.

PS I have just spent an hour with a work colleague, who is reading for an MA in Creative Writing at Sussex, critiquing his first attempt at a short story. I am old enough to be his father. (On the other hand, he is precociously young - how many five-year olds are studying for a postgraduate degree these days?) 

It is a frightening responsibility. Much was good, much was bad. I did my best to indicate what I thought worked and how the curate's parts could be improved. He appeared to take it well. I hope he took it well. I am sure he did. Yes, he did take it well. I wasn't too... no.

Hot News Straight Off the Door Mat.

My copy of Closet Reading: 500 Years of Humour on the Loo, by Phil Norman, has just arrived courtesy of Scott Pack of The Friday Project. I shall be reviewing it early next week. So for the next few days I shall be found behaunched.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Bonfire Night, Lewes

Well after the event, your weary correspondent wipes his brow. It is such a responsibility reporting on an essentially English fête to a wide, international audience.

Guy Fawkes Night, celebrated on the 5th November every year, commemorates the antics of one Guy Fawkes' attempt to blow up the the Houses of Parliament on the same date in 1605.

I, as a good Catholic of Irish descent, was informed by my grandmother, half-Burmese so she would know, when young that one of my ancestors was involved in the plot - a piece of personal history handed down to every individual who is a good Catholic of Irish descent and resident for most of their lives in the UK by every grandmother whether or not of Burmese ancestry.

Guy Fawkes Night is a celebration of the burning of Guy Fawkes, an Irish Catholic, at the stake; an occasion for much mirth and loud noises, and one, until recently, for strong anti-Papist strutting. Lewes, home town of Thomas Paine, author of Rights of Man, therefore, known for his extreme views regarding humanity, and someone to whom both the France and the USA are indebted for their present constitutions, reacted strongly to such a heritage by maintaining violent anti-Papist views long after the rest of the nation had grown-up.

(I can't download my pics of the event from my camera, so have posted this from the Daily Telegraph.)

Lewes is a venerable town, the capital town of East Sussex, and its inhabitants are very conscious of their antiquity. Most, too, are of a venerable age, and many have undergone several bypasses to allow them to maintain their hearts of oak attitudes. November the fifth is a day for them to let their hair down, or those who still have hair to let down.

Guy Fawkes Night in Lewes is a famed event. Your weary correspondent attended last Thursday, the first time he had done so since he moved to the coast ten years - I lie - eleven years ago. I am forced to wipe my brow again.

If I have this right, there are seven bonfire societies who maintain the traditions of the occasion. Keep that in mind as my report collapses into bewilderment.

The torch-lit occasion flickered between being that of a pagan festival, a memorial to the fallen of the wars, carnival, and a fancy dress party for the elite of the town.

The array of costumes was baffling: Greek hoplites rubbed shoulders with eighteen century courtesans, pirates exchanged pleasantries with matelots.

The sight of gangs of people marching through the streets bearing flaming torches is frightening. The only association one has with such images are of people bent on violence - perhaps I've watched too many Hammer Horror films.

It was very tightly organisated. Blazing fires in iron trundles were wheeled around the town and dropped at strategic points. Into these were dropped the torches collected from the gutters where they were deposited once expended. Sue, feeling the need to join in, reached for an abandoned torch and was immediately told off by a passing marcher. He, the fascist, was allowed to bear a torch because he, the fascist, was wearing the correct uniform.

Despite the organisation, there was, seemingly, a fear of riot. The last impression arose out of the number of riot police who stood around in aggressive poses with expressions that invited you to have a go if you think you're hard enough.

Lewes is determinedly middle-class. It is the county capital. So it is strange to see the strange contortions they, the inhabitants, go through to conform, on the one hand, and rebel, on the other. Invariably, their mutations require a target, as indicated, it was once the papists, nowadays, they create a caricature of some public personality to burn, usually political and more often than not an individual on the left of the spectrum, on whom they can vent their confusion.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Cally Taylor - the embarrassing secrets!

Today, it is my honour to host a blog interview with fellow Brightonian, Cally Taylor, author of Heaven Can Wait. I have, unfortunately, never met Cally and can only put this down to her canny ability to hide in shop doorways every time she spots a small, bald geezer in a hat. (I wear the hat to hide my halo.)

As I am near the end of the line of her interviewers – my fault as I was late in responding – I decided all the relevant questions would have been answered and what was needed were truly incisive, Paxman type questions that would get to the heart of Cally the woman. So, employing the old ruse of an imaginary dinner party, I planted my barbs:

Your publishers hold a dinner party and invite Eddie Izzard, Zadie Smith, Ewan McGregor, Joanne Murray, Pierce Brosnan and Ian McEwan. Being in charge of the seating arrangements, who do you seat where? Of real interest, of course, is the question of who you seat on either side of you. (Remember, Eddie is wearing much sexier shoes than you.)

Oooh, brilliant question. I’ll add here that I’m glad you told me that Joanne Murray is actually JK Rowling because I was looking at that name thinking, huh who’s that? Okay, so back to the question – as there’s seven of us I think I’d sit at the head of the table so I could look at everyone. I’d have JK Rowling on my right so I could chew her ear off over dinner (not literally obviously) and I’d have Ewan McGregor to my left so I could gaze at him. Next to Ewan I’d put Pierce so they could talk acting and Eddie Izzard would sit next to Pierce. Next to JK I’d put Ian McEwan and Zadie Smith. Basically I’d have actors and comedians on my left and writers on my right. How’s that for organised!

You may replace one person; who goes and who is the lucky person to be invited?

I’d replace Zadie Smith as I haven’t actually managed to finish any of her books yet so that could make for an embarrassing conversation. I’d replace her with Margaret Atwood, who I LOVE, instead!

You have to select the menu; what do you choose for each course?

Oooh gosh – this is where I show my ignorance about fine dining so my answers are going to be a bit vague I’m afraid. I’ve got a bit addicted to Masterchef Professional recently and frequently see dishes that make me think ‘yum’ but can never remember the name of them!
For starter we’d have something involving prawns and crab and maybe a bit of chilli. For main course we’d have something yummy with lamb and there would be a chocolaty dessert to finish up (I’m easily pleased).

You must begin the evening by asking each of your guests one question; what is it?

JK Rowling – When your Harry Potter books became international bestsellers it felt like the whole world was speculating about what would happen in the final book. With such a weight of expectation on your shoulders how did you manage to write it without having a nervous breakdown?

Pierce Brosnan – Do you regret singing in Mamma Mia?

Ewan McGregor – If your wife learnt how to ride a motorbike and wanted to join you on your round the world adventures with Charlie Boorman would you be pleased or would you secretly be gutted?

Ian McEwan - I really enjoyed your novel ‘Enduring Love’. What did you think of the film adaptation?

Eddie Izzard - What joke do you wish you’d written?

Margaret Atwood – If someone told you that all copies of your novels had to be destroyed and erased from public consciousness except one, which one would you save? Why?

At some point, someone starts on a serious topic - apart from books and writing, what would hold your attention: their eyes, the cut of their trousers, high heels, or the topic? If the latter, what?

If someone started talking (or ranting) on a topic it would be their passion that transfixed me as I’m interested in what makes people tick. How long I’d listen would depend on the topic and whether I felt I could join in the discussion. I got into quite a deep conversation about religion at a party last night so maybe that as a topic.

Your favourite person present suddenly turns and asks, "Is it true you used to have dreadlocks and nose ring and double jointed toes, and actually SOLD your Blue Peter badge?" Do you confess or deny?

I confess, of course! And then I’d think, wow, Margaret Atwood has visited the ’25 things about me’ section of my website!

Later in the evening, you actually wrestle Eddie for his shoes. What sort of shoes would reduce you to such an embarrassing state?

I’m not much of a shoe fan as a) I’m a size eight shoe and b) I’m tall enough already without wearing high heels, but whenever I see a celeb wearing these Christian Louboutin shoes I do make a little “Oooh” noise.

Eventually, after a glass too many, you ask a really naff question of one of the company - the kind that wakes you up in a cold sweat asking yourself, 'Did I really say that?'. What is that question and to whom is it addressed?

If I was drunk I’d probably ask Pierce Brosnan to say “I’m Bond, James Bond” and then instantly regret it!

Monday, 2 November 2009

You Got a Dog?

I've been traveling recently. A couple of weeks ago, Sue and myself went to stay at her sister's house in a new-build village just outside Dorchester for a few days.

I am no expert on newly built villages. This one was well laid out in that it was not regimentally arranged in rows, but wiggled around the contours of the hillside it was situated on. And though the houses were all based on one of two designs, their sameness was disguised by variations in ornamentation; a circular window here, a balcony there; smooth rendering on this one, exposed brickwork on that.

The village is too new to have found its soul. And despite the good intentions of its architects, it stands awkwardly on the hillside, uncomfortable as a teenage boy in a new suit.

The inhabitants, too, are self-conscious of their new status, uncertain of the behaviour expected of one living in a place that has been imposed on the countryside and not grown organically over time. Because they are aware they are out of place, townies living in a hedgerow, they overcompensate.  They will not set foot out of doors without first pulling on their wellies. They dress down, adapting a style suitable, in their view, to one who now resides among cow pats. They have adopted a strange, truncated form of speech, a mode they imagine one must speak with a straw permanently located in the side of the mouth.

And everyone has a dog.

Sue and myself received strange looks because we did not have a dog. We heard mutterings from the locals.

"You got a dog?"

"I got a dog. But them, they got no dog."

"No dog? They must be up to no good if they've got no dog."

We stayed in most of the time.

Last weekend I went up to London to see the girls. Rebecca booked tickets to see UP at the iMax 3D cinema near Waterloo station.

It was my first experience of a 3D film since the days you were handed a pair of cardboard spectacles with one red lens and one green one. The spectacles we were handed were clear with each lens being polarised on a different plane.

The effect was stunning. The featured film was preceded by a short animation by Pixar that took full advantage of what could be achieved. At times the image appeared to be sitting on your chest.

As for UP, everything you have read about it is true. It is a wonderfully scripted film, which takes you through the whole gamut of emotions without once being mawkishly sentimental. Male friends of Rebecca, young men in their early thirties, confessed to having moistened eyes for periods of the film.

Yesterday, Sue, Richard and myself went to a house putatively owned by William Morris - the putative bit was on Sue's say-so.

William Morris did not so much as have a cuppa in the house. Admittedly, he had been hired to paste up the wallpaper, but the house, Standen in East Sussex, was commissioned by a wealthy London solicitor, James Beale, for his large family. The architect, Philip Webb, was a founding partner of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., so Sue's confusion is easy to understand.

I am not very good going around the houses of the worthy, particularly on a Sunday. It smacks too much of duty, a religious duty, and, indeed, overhead was one lady who said, "Usually, I go to church on a Sunday, but…"

It makes me want to make inappropriate comments at inappropriate times. Unfortunately each room is overseen by a voluntary supplicant, more often than not a woman of certain years, keenly made-up and dressed in Daily Telegraph best, and keenly keen to impart their limited appreciation of the objects d'art in the room. I do them an injustice. They give their time freely and the National Trust would sink without them.

I just hate the middle-class genuflection made at the altar of anything deemed to be educational and of worth. You are kindly invited to leave your critical faculties and intellect at the door.