Friday, June 30, 2006

I don't absolutely talk about boils

Have just finished Right ho, Jeeves, in which Bertram Wooster finds himself in tricky circs. as he struggles to help out his chums.

Newting teetotaller Gussie Fink-Nottle is too timid to chat up his beloved Madeline Basset; Tuppy Glossop has fallen out with his finance Angela after pooh-poohing her shark; Bertie’s Aunt Agatha has yet to come clean about all the cash she gambled away in Cannes; and Anatole, Aunt Agatha’s highly strung chef, is threatening to resign.

Worst of all, Jeeves seems to have lost his usually brilliant psychological insight. At least, that’s what Bertie’s insisting…

It’s probably little surprise that I pictured this all the way through starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, with ad breaks between every chapter. I’d watched their telly version avidly, but this is the first time I’ve tried one of the novels.

Had tried Wodehouse before but was irritated by the posh fripperies of life at Blandings and put off his golfing short stories by their being about golf. This, though, proved something else – funny, fizzy and delicious, and a right old pleasure to read. I’m told it’s one of the better ones, and it felt like sipping Champagne.

There’s some wonderful wordplay and turns of phrase, giddily narrated by Bertie, who only just follows what’s going on himself.

That said, the book was written in 1934 and I couldn’t help think of Roosevelt’s New Deal and what Mr Hitler was up to by that point, and of the ominous Things To Come.

(Oddly, no one seems to be selling the Region 2 DVD version of that which I've got.)

There’s just one aside about the real world:
“I was reading in the paper the other day bout those birds who are trying to split the atom, the nub being that they haven’t the foggiest as to what will happen if they do. It may be all right. On the other hand, it may not be all right. And pretty silly a chap would feel, no doubt, if having split the atom, he suddenly found the house going up in smoke and himself torn limb from limb.”

PG Wodehouse, Right ho, Jeeves, pp. 170-171.

This reminds me of Chaplin’s Great Dictator, in which there’s some silly mucking about in a concentration camp, an astonishingly misjudged laugh. Chaplin later said that he regretted these scenes, and would never have dreamt of doing them had he known what the camps really involved. Though there’s arguments about what people would and should have known at the time, it now plays as woefully crass.

Wodehouse is even more overshadowed by our knowledge of later events because of accusations that he collaborated with the Nazis. I’m aware it’s complicated, and McCrum’s Wodehouse biography awaits me next (the far side of some urgent writing of my own). Am very interested to see what he makes of that. Have an idea for a story…

Last year, before researching Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland, I listed what I thought I already knew. What follows is more of the same – me throwing down my current position to see how far it’s wrong.

Right ho, Jeeves gives an insight into a long-lost and idealised world of servants’ balls and school prize-givings, where English society revolved entirely round the authority of landed gentry. We watch the bored, silly lives of the rich with their expensive hobbies, vanity publishing and horrendous taste in fashion.

There are a few other historical observations, such as Agatha muttering about the poor quality of whisky since the (first world) war. We’re also treated to the kinds of car and hat and holiday destination thought topping at the time.

It’s an "idyllic world" says to Evelyn Waugh on the back cover, one that "will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own."

It’s written as if thus will it ever be, the young things trapped in one eternal summer. Bertie’s chums are always getting engaged and never married, and he himself ever evades ladies’ snares. It cannot last, surely – unless Bertie ends up as a lonely old bachelor shuffling alone round the Drones – but it’s a happy make-believe.

I can see that later books, written after the Second World War pulled the Empire apart, can be seen to hark back to a golden age of economic inequality. But you could argue, just, in this one that it subverts the class hierarchy of its time. Jeeves playing the toffs off against one another, and sending his master on an 18-mile goose chase, is of the same class of subversion as the Marriage of Figaro. That’s what makes it funny.

Does comedy have a duty to deal with contemporary issues? The appeal of Wooster is his refusal to take responsibility. His only desires are to eat, drink and be merry – and wear his ridiculous clothes. He’s not a mean person, though, forever causing trouble because he wants to help.

The problem is that ignoring the nasty realities seems less acceptable when the author then writes similarly witty accounts of having tea and cakes with Nazis.

I’m reminded of the end to Goggle-eyes by Anne Fine. One of the characters explains that life is difficult and stories can help. Some give you tips on how to cope with the difficulties, and others just give you a break from them. The best do both at the same time.

So a clever, witty and enjoyable book, but I’d have liked a bit more depth and texture Champagne, Bertie, is all very well but is better with Rich Tea biscuits.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Back and forwards

Spent some of today ringing round people trying to make something happen. Fingers crossed it will all go swimmingly, but there's something unnerving about calling people you've never spoken to before and asking them when they are free.

It must in turn be a challenge to sound both keen and wary...

Also been trawling through old emails for the purposes of research. Odd to find email from a me aged 24.5, discussing books I don't remember having read. And the young scamp's so enthusiastic.

He also seems desperate to be writing things and bored by his current job. Poor lamb's still got 18 months to go before he makes the leap that'll transform his life...

His girlfriend sounds quite nice though. And patient.

Had a nice long chat with the sister this morning, who becomes an Australian on Tuesday. She doesn't think that she'll have to do national service. Note to self: go out to see her.

And an email from the youngest brother, at the other end of Oz, to see if I've done the homework he'd set me. Ha! I've 300,000 words of things to get through first. But these things creep ever onward.

Hello to the elder me looking back on this post, recalling all this bustle with affection. Up yours, granddad.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Library of St John the Birthdayed

Birthday booksSome of my more bookish correspondents complain that I did not include full details of the volumes received on Saturday. Having counted again, I also realise there are 20 of the blighters - and that's not including the collected "Gifted" which my boss Joe sent just because he's so nice.

So, in alphabetical order:
  1. Baker, Tom, "The Boy Who Kicked Pigs", Faber & Faber, London, 1999.
    A grotesque and grisly story about a very naughty boy, and very funny it is too.
  2. Banksy, "Wall and Piece", Century, London, 2005.
    Had bought this for M. and was terribly envious. Used to love seeing Banksy's stuff as I passed through Southwark, though I gather art galleries and museums are a bit fed up with his rubbish, teenage imitators.
  3. Beresford, Kevin, "Roundabouts from the Air (ish)", New Holland Publishers (UK) Ltd, London, 2005.
    A collection of snaps of favourite 'bouts, include two shots of Pierre Vivant's glorious traffic-light tree sculpture I pinched for the front of a book.
  4. Carey, David, "How it works - Television", Ladybird Books Ltd., Loughborough, 1968.
    Includes beautiful illustrations by BH Robinson, including Daleks on page 21, and a diagram showing how the Black and White Minstrels get into your house.
  5. Fromkin, David, "A Peace to End All Peace - the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the Modern Middle East", Phoenix Press, London, 1989.
    Or, "How the Middle East ended up in such a godawful mess," as Liadnan wrote in it. "Perhaps somewhat harsh to the Palestinians, but nevertheless I find it a fascinating read. Hope you do too."
  6. Gathorne-Hardy, Edward, "An Adult's Garden of Bloomers - Uprotted from the works of several eminent authors", The Bodley Head, London, 1966.
    21 pages of brief snippets from famous books which sound a bit rude. Such as this from Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, cited on page 13: "Mrs Glegg had doubtless the glossiest and crispest brown curls in her drawers, as well as curls in various degrees of fizzy laxness."
  7. Gatiss, Mark, "The Vesuvius Club", Simon & Schuster UK Ltd., 2004.
    Some wild and wildean Victoriana from the author of "Nightshade" and "The Idiot's Lantern", starring a gent called Lucifer Box.
  8. Grayling, AC, "Among the Dead Cities - was the Allied bombing of civilians in WWII a necessity or a crime?", Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, London, 2006.
    Was meant to go see Grayling speak earlier this year, and am looking forward to this a great deal.
  9. Cole, Stephen, "Dr Who - The Feast of the Drowned", BBC Books, London, 2006.
    I've met Steve once, in 1997, when I interrupted an interview with him to ask my own questions. Got credited as "others". Ho hum.
  10. Iggulden, Conn, and Iggulden, Hal, "The Dangerous Book for Boys", HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2006.
    Just full of spendid stuff I wish I'd been told betwen 10 and 13. Trip wires, grammar, the different kinds of tree - even how to talk to the female.
  11. Low, George (ed.), "The Dirty Dozen - the best 12 Commando comic books ever", Carlton Books Ltd., London, 2005.
    A fat brick of a compendium in which war is hard but the British are plucky, and the Nazis are always evil and ghastly. Have read the first one already. Wished it included credits for the writers and artists.
  12. McCrum, Robert, "Wodehouse - A Life", Viking, London, 2004.
    Wanted this especially as research for something I'm writing later this year, but N. tells me it's a great read once you get past Wodehouse's childhood. Am currently reading "Right ho, Jeeves" and will report on that soon.
  13. Morrison, Grant and McKean, Dave, "Arkham Asylum - 15th anniversary edition", DC Comics, New York, 2004.
    Luscious, extravagent, slef-indulgent adventure for Batman which I'd loved when it first came out. I interviewed McKean earlier this year, too, which was nice.
  14. Nobbs, David, "The Reginald Perrin Omnibus", Arrow Books, London, 1999.
    B. (who bought me this and really adores Nobbs) had been enthusing about Perrin only last week. Apparently the second book got written because Leonard Rossiter would only do a second series on the telly if it were based on a book.
  15. Paterson, Don, "The Book of Shadows", Picador, 2005.
    A collection of brief observations and thoughts, sometimes terribly pretentious and uber-poet, and sometimes beautifully profound. And there are quite a few rude ones, too. This is from page 73: "I read a definition of the word 'solid': something which retains its shape; and find myself immediately terrified by the wilfullness of objects."
  16. Rayner, Jacqueline, "Dr Who - The Stone Rose", BBC Books, London, 2006. Includes carefully researched British Museum action. On the way back from Jac's house I was amused by the Third, Second and First Avenues nearby, leafy no-through-roads a universe away from the gird-system, New Town and American model I assume they were based on.
  17. Richards, Justin, "Dr Who - The Resurrection Casket", BBC Books, London, 2006.
    Justin told me I couldn't kill Ian Chesteron, and though we've stood in the same room a couple of times before, I actually meet him for real on Friday.
  18. Roberts, Gareth, "Dr Who - I Am a Dalek", BBC Books, London, 2006.
    A glimpse of a paperback for the Quick Reads scheme, which opens with a lovely scene of the Doctor and Rose practicing being weightless inside the TARDIS.
  19. Robinson, Tony, and Aston, Mick, "Archaeology is Rubbish - a beginner's guide", Channel 4 Books, London, 2002.
    A couple of the Amazon reviewers seem very cross about this book, but I've found the first half very entertaining, and full of little things that I really didn't know.
  20. Shapiro, James, "1599 - A year in the life of William Shakespeare", Faber & Faber, London, 2005.
    Had read good things about this in the Dr's erduite press, and it will count as homework for next year's Dr Who.
Birthday present for the catSo all in all I shall be busy for the next few weeks. Have yet to attempt the making of bread or afixing my shiny new monitor. Been a bit caught up with other pressing bits of work.

Oh, and Millennium asks (on his Day MM), after pictures of me looking... sleepy, that I look after Minimum.

Too late! The little fellow has been claimed for the Beast. Posted by Picasa

Monday, June 26, 2006

Argentees and sparklers

A bread-maker, a zippy remote-control K9, lots of fine booze (including – hurrah! – some Bolly), a chair-to-come, a Dalek cake with genuine pyrotechnics, some Flaming Lips, a robot, a screen, a Minimum Elephant, 19 lovely, lovely books and a right old sod of a hangover…

Yeah, a rather splendid haul this year and the Dr surpassed herself with the party. As did my second wife, who should drink pink fizz more often.

Had a splendid time with lots of splendid friends, though the last hour or so is a tad blurry. Probably for the best, as some former colleagues of the Dr were discovering that it is unwise to call the bluff of a drunk.

M. says it’s a different experience watching Droo while standing up, and I loved Rose having to watch out for the Doctor’s eating jam and being weird at people. Is she also responsible for his knowing Eastenders and Kylie and the shenanigans at Club Med?

Others seemed less impressed, finding it all too girlie about the love and/or too boysie being nice about sport. I can all too believe that the tribal excitement of a big sporting event could generate sufficient power. Have fond memories of Burnley vs. Sheffield United in November 2000, and the contagious thrill surging round the stadium as the home team realised they’d won…

Hadn’t seen some people in ages and folk had come from far and wide; Bristol, Macclesfield, Brighton, Margate… Liadnan looked bronzed and handsome like he’d just wandered in from the Aegean. He’d bought me the Fromkin book he spoke about here which the Dr was a bit miffed about: she’s the one who reads the serious, clever stuff. I might let her have a lend, and will report back here on all the other reading. But I am a bit slow, so be patient.

Bernice Summerfield herself bought me “Archaeology is Rubbish” which I’m already 70 pages through. Know my spoil heaps from my robber trenches, and all sorts of other top facts which will generally improve my dating. The book is fun and engaging, using the second-person to draw the reader in, but it does rather assume you have a garden.

Apparently got to bed about three-ish. Remember it getting to one. Remember making R. laugh without meaning to, and being cunningly stood by the lashings of wine…

H. and J. couldn’t make it ‘cos they were watching posh singing but turned up yesterday for a picnic. Had not been very brilliant up to that point, but a walk, some champagne and some ice cream brought me round. We admired the monsters and then ambled home.

Caught the end of the football – and felt better for seeing Beckham spitting out a tiger. The play wasn’t brilliant and I’m more annoyed by the wobbles there than in the previous night’s Droo. Feel someone needs to take them aside and politely chide, “Now do come along, Ingerlund.”

Listened to Cantus, finally, and watched telly about museums, then French spirals, then spitting image. And at last sleep…

Fab weekend then, but I wouldn’t wanted to be 30 all the time.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Hello, old boy

Had lunch with the parents yesterday, at which my Mum told me a top fact: between three and three-thirty in the afternoon thirty years ago, I slippped out into the world. At quarter to four I had my first ever bath.

This was of especial interest to the Dr, who in our bathless abode misses a good long soak. No, I don't just mean me.

She was careful to look for differences between me last night in the winter of my 20s, and me this morning as a crusty old man. And claimed she could see no great different, though she may have been sparing the truth.

Have done rather well on the presents front already: a bread-maker and some suitable reading from the wife; a bag full of Dr Who Adventureses (including free gifts) from one of her henchwomen; and a spiff-tastic book from Nimbos explaining how to make trip-wires and treehouses. Hoorah!

The Dr has also turfed me out of the house for the afternoon while she prepares for this evening's festivities. Am a bit scared about what surprises she has in store. Have spent a nice time drinking tea and watching telly with Nimbos, not playing in the sunshine.

And must shortly head back home to the nice mrs, to drink and eat. And fear her.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Smiley happy people holding hands

“Some people act a memory, the Superintendent thought, noticing his concentration, others have one. In the Superintendent’s book, memory was the better half of intelligence, he prized it highest of all mental accomplishments; and Smiley, he knew, possessed it.”

John le Carre, Smiley’s People, p. 43.

And so my hunt for Karla comes to an end (having previously read Tinker, Tailor and the Honourable Schoolboy).

This would constitute quite a hefty spoiler were Karla’s presence not signposted in the blurb - and in the only clip of the telly version they ever seem to show. Which is a shame, as it would have been a corking great surprise to realise only late into the book why Smiley’s so excited.

It’s been a while since Smiley’s last work for the Circus (the officious and inelegant British secret service). But his paymasters want him to tidy up after the brutal murder of one of his old agents. Could he be a good fellow and ensure there’s no fuss?

But as old George walks his old haunts and catches up with his old (and peculiar) chums, he gets the sniff of a much greater intrigue. Retired, jaded, and estranged from his wife, old George may just have the nounce left to win one last, glorious battle…

It’s a gripping read, and like Tinker, Tailor navigates a treacherous path through unreliable memories and differing perspectives. You spend most of it lagging some steps behind Smiley, not quite making the connections that he can and hoping he’ll stop to explain.

It really gets across the slow-trudging monotony of cold war spy-work, tawdry and unglamorous, and very not James Bond. (The telly version boasts a brilliant cast including three Bond villains – two of them consecutive – as well as Maureen Lipman, Alan Rickman, Ingrid Pitt, Gatherer Hade and Lou Beale.)

I’m still a bit confused about some elements. Codename “Karla” (we’re never told his name) can’t have been Ostrakov because Mrs O. saw her husband die of cancer. So is Karla really Glickman, the lover she’s long-assumed dead? Does that play, or am I missing something obvious with my paltry dimness of brain?

The book makes a few things more explicit than the TV version – stating as fact (eventually) what Alexandria’s relationship is to Karla, and why that’d matter.

The TV version likewise provides stuff we don’t get in the book, such as the contents of Smiley’s letter to his caught-out Moriarty (reminding me of S Moffat on why he felt we should know what Reinette wrote). There’s also more to Smiley’s meeting with his estranged wife, Ann. Karla had previously used the Smileys’ problematic marriage to his own advantage, and in the telly version Smiley tries to protect her from any further danger.

In the book, though, he’s colder and more aloof – ending things between them without saying why. The implication (that I saw, anyway) is that he’s cutting himself off from weakness, rather than worrying for her safety. So Karla and he swap places – Karla showing human frailties and concern for family, Smiley coldly using this against him. As Smiley himself says:
“I have destroyed him with the weapons I abhorred, and they are his.”

Ibid, p. 391.

We’re kept guessing right up to the end about whether it’s going to all work out or implode into some grisly snafu. That uncertainty is helped by knowing that le Carre stories so often end with someone’s sudden and miserable death.

But whatever the outcome, it can’t be a full victory. Smiley’s people are used, abused and left strewn behind him.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Clever by mistake

'Scuse the inordinant boasting, but somewhat to my amazement people like me. Last year they really didn't, which just adds to the surprise. Cor and golly.

Today's Dr Who Magazine includes the "Off the Shelf Awards" results, as voted for by its many discerning readers. "The Time Travellers" has won the "Other Doctor Who fiction" category (i.e. them books that don't have Eccles on the cover), with a rather smashing average of 8.06 out of 10. Which makes me feel better about snittier reviews like this one.

"History of Christmas" came fourth with an average 7.61, just below "Fear Itself" and "Gallifrey Chronicles" - the two books I expected to be trounced by. And "Lost Museum" came third in the "Other Big Finish audios" category, the one I'd come almost bottom in last time. I were beaten by the Cybermen, which was always an ambition.

Hearty congratulation to fellow winners Gareth, Joe, Nick, Johnny, Mike Collins (who I've only met once, when he advised me to add guns and robots) and "The War Games".

There's also a generally positive review of something else of mine which concludes, "Whether or not this is intentional, the Settling is a refreshingly intelligent, layered play."

Yes, I know that's taking the Mr Michael out of context, but it still made me laugh.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Know your limits

Went to the opera yesterday, darlings, to see Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. “That was simply lovely,” said the bloke next to me as it finished, which made me wonder if we’d seen the same show. He’d also been humming along and air-conducting, bless him.

Yes, it was jolly, lively and expertly staged and performed. The lead blokes looked strapping in breeches (I’m told), and the ladies were rather yummy too. It zipped along, directed with pace and excitement. But there’s something troubling about the story itself, something subversive – even sinister, as the Dr said.

Two Italian chums are dating pretty sisters and everything in their lives is just peachy. But the chums’ mate knows that women are fickle, unfaithful and devilbitchwhores, and bets the chums he can prove it.

Under the terms of the wager, the chums tell their girlfriends they have to go off to war, then return later in the day in different clothes and fiendishly good moustaches and pretend to be lusty Albanians. With poetry and flowers and the feigned taking of poison, they try to make their own birds unfaithful.

The women resist piously into the second act, but pushed by their slutty maid they ultimately give in to some naughties. And the wearing of another man’s pendant. To make things all the more galling for the chums, they’re bedding each other’s missuses.

For such a wild comedy, it ends on quite a lot of questions: will the couples stay together? What have they learnt? Can they be happy? And, depending how it’s staged, who ended up with who anyway?

The men, of course, are just as badly depraved as the ladies – testing them so duplicitously in the first place, and for a wager, and then doing the dirty with their best friend's lady, just to make some kind of point. This irony is not exactly acknowledged in the words of the singing.

Also, that they protest so strongly about female inferiority and sinfulness immediately makes you suspicious about who really ruled the roost when Mr Mozart was writing. You wouldn’t have to insist that women know their place if they were already meekly obedient.

(Sometimes I gaze wistfully at the Dr and pray the words “meekly obedient”…)

By protesting too much, the opera implies the weakness of patriarchy. It confounds the usual guff about universal and transcendant love, and the “happy” ending denies real closure. It may seem silly and giddy, but there’s something vicious and political in its underbelly.

Mozart got in trouble for writing stuff that upset the dignified courts of his day. In another one of his, a working class hero runs rings around his master, just prior to real working class heroes lopping their masters’ heads off. Not exactly the most tactful thing to set before the Austrian king.

Now I know there are lots of people who don’t “get” opera, let alone like it. But I think that’s a question of not knowing where to start with it – a bit like girls and science-fiction. (Yes, there are wondrous and pretty girls who know their Alan Moore and Akira. But these are – in my paltry experience, anyway – a terribly rare, terribly precious sub-species, who must be treasured, protected, cultivated and encouraged to breed.)

This may well be to do with reading strategies – of the kind I’ve gone on about before. Opera is usually a century or two old, with in-jokes about people who’ve been dead nearly as long. It helps to have an idea how to engage with the stuff.

This is not as difficult as it sounds, and can consist of three easy steps:
  1. What’s Opera, Doc?
    Yes, the Bugs Bunny cartoon. If you are unmoved by this, give up now. Not just opera, give up the whole breathing thing, too.
  2. Frasier: Out With Dad
    It starts with Frasier’s dad muttering that opera is all so improbable and silly, and develops into glorious farce as Martin tries to help out with his son’s love-life.
  3. The Marriage of Figaro
    Don’t bother with what it’s about, just get the CD and have it on in the background. Don’t pay attention too closely, but play it through a few times. Do the washing up, or some typing.
No, that’s all you have to do.

Nice, isn’t it?

Balls to the dressing up posh to go hear it live – though that can be fun too. (Yesterday was chilly, especially after I’d given up my dinner jacket to the frail princess.) It’s just tunes and a bit of a silly story that’s good to listen to, and which can have something a bit more to it if you’re looking.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

"There’s only so much you can do with a teenage girl"

Busy, busy, busy. Written up half an interview from last night, done even more research, started a story (which also involved some investigation), and now got to put my posh togs on and go to the opera.


Saturday, June 17, 2006

Cider inside her insides

A hot, sticky day and I've spent all of it cooped up in doors, going through cardboard boxes of old Droo's magazine. Am amassing a huge amount on the history of one Bernice S. Summerfield, who was born in 2540 and also 2472, who starting her diary when she was very young and also when she was 22.

The first time we see her (in a preview) she's singing soulfully to mushrooms, and the first person we see her kiss is Paul Magrs. And this is merely the tip of the Benny-shaped iceberg.

We have a wordcount for the thing, and I'm not yet halfway. But the interviews start in earnest on Monday, and there's a wealth of things to cover.

Tired now. Need love. And monsters.

Friday, June 16, 2006


M’learned colleague Ebb of Weevil has posted a fine list of terms deemed unsavoury by the Speaker of the House of Commons. For example, it is considered unparliamentary and unbefitting of good gentlefolk to speak of “clowns” and “piddling”.

Once, long ago, I took pieces of silver full-time from Sutekh known as Seth. My job – as well as making chains for when I hung alongside the late Jacob Marley – was to load crap on a website each week and then report on how it sold. (Answer most often: “badly”.)

Every now and then the system cocked up, spitting out something we’d loaded. No error message, no morsel of clue, it just didn’t put the thing out there on the interweb.

As this only ever happened when we described computer stuff, I was (like a second-rate Miss Marple) able to discern a pattern. There were some words you couldn’t use in the descriptions field.

(By “field” I mean a box for writing inside, usually a white box on a grey computer screen. And not a large, agrarian space in which foodstuffs grow organically, a home to owls and butterflies. The Register has written more on the balls of hexadecimal coinage.)

Through a process of elimination we worked out what some of the naughty words were: HTML; OEM; .com; that kind of lickspittle technicalia. Nothing to bring the whole house down.

The helpful IT team explained how you could get round this by substituting individual letters for code – an ampersand, the right number, and then a semi-colon. Sometimes the system was foxed by this intellectual chicanery, and sometimes it still sprang an error.

Since this was getting us more nowhere than we usually managed on our own, I batted an email to the company what made our loading system. I listed the disreputable words we’d worked out for ourselves, and asked what there was we could do.

Also, lambishly innocent, I enquired what other terms we ought to steer clear of…

They sent me a list. 1,000s of terms and phrases on it, and none of them to do with computers.

Permutations of f-words and c-words you’d not even dreamt of. Euphemisms far more piquant and vivid than merely “blinking like a gormless alien”. Terms drawn from medical dictionaries centuries out of print. And delights like “winkie-wee-wee” and “poo-hole”.

Dutifully and respectfully, I sent this round the office so everyone would know what we must never do. The IT team soon digested the banned vocab.

And some slippery customers swiftly offered some 100 terms the no-no file had missed.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


24 hours after landing at Gatwick and it's like we were never away. A long day's editorial at the office - reviewing the efforts of other freelance sense-makers and ploughing on with my own - followed by editing things sent in for something as yet unannounced and chasing what remains undelivered.

Thought the trip home from work would be quiet if I left the office just as the football began. Couldn't see any difference, though, so perhaps everyone else was heading home to catch the end (wisely, as it turned out), or thought a battle 'gainst Trinidad and Tobago would be a foregone conclusion.

Or maybe - whisper it - they just didn't care.

Am not sure quiet what to hope for this year. Have got Mexico in a work sweepstake, but win cash even if we're the first to lose on penalties. The Dr drew Togo, poor lamb.

She has exciting publications news, and we have marvelled at some shiny PDF proofs. This afternoon she was being interviewed by Radio 4 (for something to be recorded later). Think I'm going to be the poorer, more plebian mercenary hack in our household. Though that's hardly a surprise.

Young Benny goes to the seaside, in Ben's new bookA great raft of things I'm producing has been announced: Season 7 of Bernice Summerfield.

I love the new logo by the talented Simon Holub, and Stuart Manning has again dazzled with our groovy, new design. Clever fellows. Now go buy this nice stuff!

There are some broadly top reviews of both The Settling and Time Travellers on the lovely OG. Nice to know people like me. Although Finn Clark's review of the latter does seem very cross that I've been consistent with the rest of the range. Oh well.

Been sent all sorts of general comment on the week's events - governments on both sides of the pond trying to find excuses for terrible things they've done. I said terrible. Do you see?

Enjoyed Fafblog's insightful insight, of course, and impressed by Ben Metcalf's piece on simple human decency in Harper's. Bit surprised to find nothing softie-leftie from my softie-leftie friends, but they may still be wringing their hands and so are unable to type.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Fechez le vache

It seems a lifetime ago now, but after scary-cool Droo on Saturday we jumped into the car with my parents and drove down to Portsmouth, in such good time we had to wait an hour to be allowed on the ferry.

There were lots of some flavour of classic car about, with smartish people driving. By the time we got aboard and up into the bar, these smart types had morphed into fat, smoking people in England tops. Such is the reliance these days on CGI.

D84 and his friend LeelaArrived at something ungodly in Caen next morning, woken to classical music which got ever more insistent. With time just to wolf a coffee, we found the car again and rode out on the D84 (also, I explained to my delighted fellow passengers, the name of a nifty robot in Old School Dr Who).

Took all day driving, with lots of chatter in the car, some expert navigating and spying along the roadside the yellow broom flowers that gave the Kings Plantagenet their name. Via the ring-roads of Nantes, Rennes, Noites and Bordeaux we made our way to the small town of Allemans-du-Dropt, where my great-auntie lives.

I’ve not been back since my early teens, so it was odd how much the town was in two-thirds scale of my memory. It was at once familiar and entirely foreign. Took the Dr into the church to see the frescoes, which include devils eating what look like children because they’d got funny ideas about perspective. After lashings of red wine we were dead asleep by ten.

Our first port of call early next morning was to a local winery where the Dr was brave before a wolf-like dog, and I got teased for having shivers whenever local cocks crew. Think I have an excuse what with being attacked by the ghastly things at the age of three.

Made up for this horror with a sampling of the booze – red going down a little heavy in that heat and so early. Offered to help carry the booze-cruise purchases back to the car, which really just gave me the excuse to see the cellars, the bottles of lovely stuff disappearing off into the dark, and to stroke fondly at the great oak barrels of the next batch.

Having dropped off this first instalment, we pootled up to the pretty 12th century church at Monteton, built incorporating the few bits of stone they found around the place that suggest much earlier Christians. The place seems mostly run (and kept going) by the local English community.

Then it was into Eymet for lunch, and a look round the rather lovely bastide (a fortified town in the middle ages, which served the French well during the 100 Years War). I suddenly had a flash of memory, being made to have icecream there in the street, so a picture could be taken. There were picturesque turrets and a cloistered market with places to eat in the shade. The Dr had nettle pasta.

Our next stop was the chateau at Duras (fab pictures at the site) which I remembered so fondly. It’s been much done up since my last visit, but the smoke-stack tower was just as commanding as ever. I don’t remember the staircase up to the 360° view being so steep, so narrow, or going on so long. But I remember scraping my knees to sit up on the ledge in the guard room, half of the way up. Which made me realise what a different size I must be these days.

We took photos of the long-pegged-together timber roof to impress a friend into that sort of thing, and marvelled at the sign which told of a 14th century owner who’d married the Marchioness of Goth. We spoke filth to each other in the whispering gallery, amid hordes of screaming schoolkids who’d rather missed the point.

The Dr was again appalled at the state of original objects on display, suffering in the sunlight, warped under the drawing pins that held them up. We moved swiftly on, and in the bar across the square had beer and gossip and Japan 1-nil up.

We were back in time for dinner with some of the great-aunt’s friends, and retired late. Pottered round to one of the friends next morning to use their pool while they did the gardening. Normally, we’d have gone swimming in the Castelgaillard lake near Duras, but run-off from the local farms has stopped the swimming on pain on nasty skin problems. Am rather bothered about that: having happy memories of failing to windsurf, and of meeting a bloke I’d later see in the background of Silver Nemesis, and of being told off for not looking after the baby brother.

Then to the Chateau at Biron, which was on an even grander, madder scale than Duras, and we struggled to imagine its grand, terraced garden which would have been raised at least 100 feet from the ground and stretched for miles, had the revolution not got in the way. The family’s coat of arms and the faces on the tombs had been chiselled off, suggesting what the locals thought. The gory torture chamber is not original, but leftover from the filming of Les Visiteurs. Or possibly, since I thought I would have remembered such grisly fun from last time, the more recent English-language remake.

The Dr liked the cheery skulls on one tomb in the chapel, which also boasted a very fine carving of Lazarus being raised from the dead. She also found a black and white cat to play with – although it promptly had a poo at us, and was then careering about the roof chasing lizards.

Then to Montpazier for ice creams, and to explore another bastide with shops under the market’s cloisters. I bought a hat which the Dr said was very hippy. Think this is a good thing.

Arrived back at Allemans to change, and to take the auntie out for authentic French nosh in Miramont. There was a lot of it; I couldn’t finish the fourth course. Learnt to eat soup the French way: grating a clump of garlic into roasted bread – which has a surface like sandpaper if cooked the right way. Then, drop the bread into the soup and cover in grated cheese. And eat.

Also had brie, and then a pruney coq au vin – to serve the scrawny, vicious buggers right. Had to go for a walk later to see off some of the corpulence.

This morning we bought more wine – and watched the local postman helping himself to a good glass in exchange for a letter. The first white we tried at the Domaine de Laulan was sharp and uninspiring – not a patch on the previous year’s vintage which my parents have been drinking since their last trip. The bloke selling it explained the bottle had come straight from the fridge and was too cold. And sure enough, a minute’s breathing later it tasted like nectar. Again I played mule and helped load up the car.

And that was it. A bit of lunch and long, hot journey into Bordeaux for our flight back (the Dr and my seats in the car will be taken up by the booze). A couple of tips for Bordeaux airport: there’s only one shop on the far side of the handbag scanners, and the coffee bar doesn’t sell wine.

Quick flight, quick train journey and home to the cat, and post, and work, and all the new stuff about Benny.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Thou speakest bollocks

The title of this post comes from Withnail & I’s deleted Scene 60, in which there’s a swordfight (no, really). It’s one of many marvels to be found in the screenplay, which also includes some notes about the real bloke that Withnail’s based on.
“[Viv’s] nicknames were ‘the spine’ and ‘crime’. I don’t know where the first came from, but the latter predicated on his ability to spend all day in the pub, and always with discretion navigate his turn to buy a drink. ‘Crime doesn’t pay.’ But none of us cared because his company was worth the price. Viv was into literature, Keats and Beaudelaire, and turned me on to both these great poets. Plus the funniest book I’ve ever read, the great A Rebours, is one of the two novels Marwood shoves into his suitcase at the end of the film.”

Bruce Robinson, Introduction to Withnail and I – the screenplay, p. viii.

A Rebours (or, “Against Nature” as it’s published in English) is a hugely self-indulgent French decadent novel first published in 1884. It influenced the fin de siecle of Oscar Wilde, and is referred to in A Picture of Dorian Gray as “the strangest book he had ever read”. It remained something of a cult hit ever after, and was especially cool in the 1960s. The introduction to the Penguin Classics edition cites Marianne Faithfull’s autobiography where she’d ask her dates if they’d read A Rebours.
“And if he said yes you’d fuck.”

Marianne Faithfull, Faithfull, p.100, cited in ‘Introduction’ by Patrick McGuinness, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against nature (a rebours), p. xv.

After a life of sex, drugs and rock and roll that eats up too much of his inheritance, the aristocratic Des Esseintes retires to a small house and solitary life of thought and indulgence. We glimpse his put-upon servants, cabbie and doctor, and there are fleeting accounts of his exes and parents, but mostly it’s Des Esseintes’s views on life, subject by subject.

A chapter will list, for example, his heroes and villains of prose, while another might address poetry, the classics, music, perfume, painting, religion… The general opinion is that anything other people like is rubbish. His former favourites can be ruined just by their becoming popular.

I knew a bloke once who railed against the sheep at university who all had the same Oasis album on their shelves, next to their identical Tarantino posters. But there’s a balance to be struck between a sneery snobbishness against anything just because it’s popular and a desire to find new stuff, new perspectives, which challenge the conventional.

Des Esseintes’s wants to flout fashion and taste, and spends his time being willfully difficult. McGuinness points out that a more literal English translation of the title is “stubbornly against the tide” – in exactly the way that King Canute wasn’t.

Des Esseintes is not a character you’d want to emulate – weedy, sickly, cynical and silly – though that’s exactly what Withnail is doing. That said, the book’s often very funny. The absurd jewel-encrusting of a turtle, or an excitable trip out of town that doesn’t quite work out, are both reminiscent of the dour tomfoolery of the film.

It’s a bitter attack on the plebeian hideousness of life. It’s wild, free-wheeling, rude and very strange. Funny, yes, but funny peculiar.

Off to see my auntie now, in a quiet backwater of France (though – hooray for the Internet! - there’s a detailed site about the river valley in question). Back Wednesday.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Impliedly and hoverports

Are two words I learnt yesterday. Something at work was said to be “impliedly defined” and I hazarded that this might be bollocks. Word certainly didn’t like the term, and scribbled under the first bit in angry red zigzag.

Google threw back “about 986,000” finds for it (in an impressive 0.17 seconds), but a cursory glance suggests these are mostly people wanting to know if this bastard is really a word?

Yes, reply those shackled to the right of legalese to obfuscate (or, those who think it’s okay for lawyers to make things complicated). For example:
“I have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Lady's comments on seemingly cumbersome words such as “impliedly''. However, lawyers tell me that, over the years, those words acquire a meaning that all lawyers understand in the context of Acts of Parliament and Bills before Parliament. Although she is worried about the cumbersome and alienating nature of the prose, “impliedly'' achieves something in the text. If we did not keep it, we would have to list every possible purpose in the agreements reached with other countries, which would almost certainly result in their being revisited often. Fraud, international or otherwise, evolves and changes over time. As one loophole closes, others may open and other ways of defrauding the system are created. The language we use in our Acts of Parliament seeks to put a stop to such practices and to keep up with that evolution.”

Angela Eagle on the Social Security Fraud Bill [Lords], Official ReportCommons Standing Committee A, 9/4/01.

So, er, international fraud would get away with new tricks if a law said “definition is implied” or that something “implies definition”?

The “lawyers tell me” suggests the hon. Angela Eagle doesn’t agree herself, and its being a word “that all lawyers understand” just means it’s jargon. A colleague unkindly suggests that it is in lawyer’s interests to make things unwieldy for the layperson. I have every respect for the nuance of meaning, and it’s on the basis I question the term. It’s longer, it’s more complicated, and really quite bright people don’t know what it means.

Not being a lawyer (or that bright) I’d still hazard it’s bollocks. And googling also turned up the equally silly “implicative”.

Meanwhile, a “hoverport” is a port for a hovercraft, rather than a port that hovers. Bit disappointed about that one.

Mod cons

“Many different styles can be characterised as Modernist, but they shared certain underlying principles: a rejection of history and applied ornament; a preference for abstraction; and a belief that design and technology could transform society.”

Information board at the V&A's Modernism exhibition, June 2006.

The huge exhibition (until 23 July) makes clear that Modernism emerged as a rejection of terrible things past, advocating a new, post-world-war order. Much of it derives from friendly, leftie ideas about social equality: better housing for the poor, workplaces that ease the burden on the worker. But there’s a great difference between equality and the sort of uniformity these grand designs impose.

Some things are great fun – I liked the kooky teapots and saucers – and the foldaway furniture makes the most of confined accommodation. But the great blocks of housing in concrete and glass are just ugly and oppressive, fitting people into neatly wrought boxes.

Despite the elegant socialite in the foreground of JJP Oud’s “Municpal Housing” (1931-2), it reminded me of Victorian models of the panoptic prison system – where individual identity is subsumed by the institution.

There’s also little softness or comfort in the models. With my lower back beginning to protest at all the time spent hunched at computers, I didn’t think the various takes on chair looked that supportive.

Having lived in a concrete block, I know how impractical an austere little living chamber is to keep warm and damp-free, and how quickly the weather and vegetation can make the crisp lines and bright facades look old and dour and forsaken.

Actually, the insistence on abstract lines and blocks rather than the “natural” (for all there’s a section on Modernism’s observation of the natural world) could suggest a rejection of the squidgy, mucky sort of existence we actually live.

It’s a world of firmness and phallic projection into space, which I can see might be liberating after decimation by world war and flu. Though not denying the genuine social ills the Modernists tried to put right, there’s something disturbing about artists and engineers organising people’s lives on such a scale.

The Dr made the point (after a few beers) that you could show the same Modernist-built housing estates now as their builders did the Victorian slums, and make the same points about deprivation and despair. The buildings are not solutions to the problem: the communities in question are still places money is not directed.

There was something a bit sinister about the projected health and dynamism of this new generation of people. A fun bit of film about nudey ladies doing exercise swiftly moved on to mass-participation stretches and Triumph of the Will.

The totalitarian edge to Modernism is its rejection of the past: the arrogance of defining the bright future, once and for all.

Those laughing, nudey girls are part of a rejection of the “wrong kinds of body” – which led to the singling out of “corrupting” racial, political and sexual elements. The dehumanising power of abstraction made the 20th century’s mass killing machine all the easier.

Though this may just be our being wise after the event, Modernism is sinister because we know where the ideology led. It’s an interesting, comprehensive display and analysis of a major social and political movement. Intellectually vibrant, ambitious and bold, but really not very comforting.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Happy-slapping hoodies with ASBOs and ringtones

Have proofed "Incongruous details", which will now be published in July. Also looked over something else related, but you'll have to wait and see.

Have talked before about the importance of details, especially in this freelancing lark. On Monday, learned colleagues were wondering why ASBOs are always "slapped" on offending chavs, and which red-eyed, red-topped newspaper had first called it that.

"It's slapped because it's a knee-jerk reaction," said one colleague. But I don't think you can slap with your knees.

Details are important in stories, and my late grandfather once suggested a very clever thing which I then wangled into an essay. He was asking about my filthy love of sci-fi, a millieu he'd never got.

("Most of it seems pretty appalling rubbish," he said. Which is pretty much my view, too.)

He did admit, however, to a filthy love of a good detective story - and recommended me Dashiell Hammett, for which I shall always be grateful. And he knew that some people just don't get detective stuff.

I said it was odd that a) science-fiction and detective stories both began around the same time (some people even argue they were invented by the same odd bloke), and b) that if you don't get into them at about the age of 11, then you never really do.

"Hmm," my grandfather said, or words to that effect. "Perhaps that's because they're both about spotting details in the stories to build up a picture of the world. In a detective story, you're looking for clues about who committed the crime and how. In science fiction, clues tell you how the world itself works. If you never learnt to decode these kinds of story, you'll always be locked out."

Which I think is very true. In sci-fi, the laying down of clues is called world-building. Some writers like to spell it all out, so Orwell's 1984 (yes, of course it's sci-fi) has a whole great chapter on exactly how his dystopia came about and on the etymology of Newspeak. It's a not very subtle infodump - though its political acumen lifts it above the usual sci-fi bollocks where someone explains how "My culture is unlike yours, Earthman. We believe in Honour, and do not use contractions."

The subtler stuff is more tricky to pull off. A classic example (I think it's cited in Bob Shaw's book on writing sci-fi) is a fleeting reference to the doors of a house "dialescing" rather than just opening. That doors open in a strange, sci-fi way tells us we're on a strange, sci-fi world where we shouldn't trust any of the normal, everyday things we take for granted. It doesn't need to be a plot point, it's just part of the furniture.

My favourite for this kind of thing is Cold Comfort Farm.

Put your teeth back in; yes, it's sci-fi. It's written in the 1930s and set in the 50s, after some horrific world war. The well-to-do fly bi-planes everywhere as they might do their motorcars, and public telephone boxes are fitted with TV screens. The number of people I've pointed this out to... Even those who've read the thing several times, and never once noticed the details.

(Why it's sci-fi - what its sf-ness achieves - is one for another post, and I should probably reread the thing anyway.)

I laughed at the Doctor knowing in School Reunion all about happy-slapping hoodies. In a couple of years when the terms have all dated, the line will mean something slightly different. The Doctor's not up with ver kids, he just knows his history.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Late-developing and fairies

"At age fourteen, by a process of osmosis, of dirty jokes, whispered secrets and filthy ballads, Tristan learned of sex. When he was fifteen he hurt his arm falling from the apple tree outside Mr Thomas Forester's house: more specifically from the apple tree outside Miss Victoria Forester's bedroom window. To Tristan's regret, he had caught no more than a pink and tantalising glimpse of Victoria, who was his sister's age and, without any doubt, the most beautiful girl for a hundred miles around."

Neil Gaiman, Stardust, p. 29.

Knocked through this very quickly and pleasurably, patting myself on the back for noting various references to what Grimm fairy-tales I've read (the Dr got both books for Christmas). Gaiman's got the feel, the strangeness and the Freudian undertones (glimpses of vivid sex and brutality) spot on, though his morality is more fathomable and consistent.

It's also much more plotty, and longer as one sustained story than the Grimm stuff. It could have been far longer in fact, but Gaiman glosses over digressionary adventures in a sentence, teasing us with details from his fairy-tale world without having to get all indulgently epic about it.

Tristan wants to impress Victoria, and to get rid of him she says she'll do anything if he'll fetch her the star they've just watched falling. Tristan sets off, but the star fell on the far side of the Wall that keeps out the lands of Faerie. He's not the only one who wants the fallen star. And she's not best pleased either.

Tristan's a bit late in discovering girls at 14, isn't he? Though I guess they didn't have James Bond films in the 1830s. And in the prologue for (the never written) "Wall", there's a girl who comes on for the first time at 13. Which - and I admit not to being an authority on the subject - seems a bit late. Perhaps both characters hold onto their innocence later than most because of their connection to Faerie.

The fairy world is a real and fascinating place, which also reminded me of Little, Big and Strange and Norrell, and bits of CS Lewis. The ending made me think of Arwen from Lord of the Rings. And I'm aware that all of these are helping themselves from older mythologies which I should really get round to reading one day.

As with Clarke's book, it's set in the 19th century and mixes the period costume we know with fanciful fairy-tale world - grounding the made-up with familiar history. Since we feel we know something of the parochial life of Victorian small towns, it makes everything more credible and real.

It's a little predictable, and sometimes the revelations are a bit too spelt out. We don't need Victoria, for example, to explain how there's two Monday's this week. And though it's simply told, wryly funny and charming, it's also odd and spooky and really not one for children.

Not that they wouldn't enjoy it, I just think they'd miss what it's really about. It's not about a childish world of make believe, but that we (ourselves as adults and as modern society) have left that childish world behind.

Related stuff, if you're bovvered:

Monday, June 05, 2006


This crime-fighting story amused me.

It's kind enough to explain what "daggy" means, but not "hoons". I
assume it's short for hooligans. And it's my new favourite word.

Bare naked ladies

The lion fron Knidos - ask the DrWent to the exhibition of Michelangelo’s sketches at the British Museum (until 25 June) which was really rather busy. In between getting shoved and stepped on by the myriad other punters, saw some really fascinating stuff.

Even the most dashed-off outline shows a world of technical skill. The bloke was just 21 when he carved the Pieta I’d been so impressed with in Rome. Git.

Interesting to see different constructions and arrangements for familiar pieces. The sketches are useful because they give an insight into technique – and there’s a pretty fab computer wossname showing how the sketches make up the Sistine Ceiling.

His work is based on very close observation of models, though he’s happy to take liberties for artistic effect. The exhibition points out that Adam in the Sistine Ceiling (and the South Bank Show title sequence) couldn’t really lounge like that without breaking his pelvis. And the iconic David’s hands are too big.

I think it was my A-level art teacher who said this was ‘cos Mike was showing off he could do hands. Some chums who can’t catch say it could mean something else.

The Dr and her chums got giggly about the apple-like lumps that did not look like real boobies. This was not an artist taken to scrutinising nude ladies – a sharp contrast from the feminine curves in the Picasso Museum just over a week ago. No, the women look like men with bits stuck onto them. (But see also my expert analysis of the contemporary Tintoretto).

The implicit sexuality is referred to in the exhibition, but I felt they’d played down the salacious detail so as not to damage the master’s reputation. There’s a short notice which effectively says, “It wasn’t really gayness. It was sort of expected at the time to shaft young boys.”

Across the entrance hall, the Warren Cup offers an insight into “Sex and society in Ancient Greece and Rome”, and the Dr was busy taking notes. I know exhibitions are meant to be neutral, dispassionate and objective, but I felt something was lost in this abstraction. The exhibits are cold and long-dead, though they’re insights into people’s busy, passionate and mucky lives.

(Note the picture of the cup on the website is tastefully positioned so you can’t see any boys shagging.)

Went to a rather good party on Saturday night and was sat at the front for Dr Who. Bloody hell, that was a bit exciting. Other’s have already spoken of the Firefly influence (which even the Dr spotted, bless her), and my first question to those in the know was, “Go on then, is it Sutekh?”

They told me, God damn them. But you’ll have to wait and see. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Playground economics

I am formulating a theory that the economy works a bit like kids in the schoolyard.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, the kids compare notes on what presents they're expecting, and to start off these predictions are pretty reasonable. A remote control K9, maybe. A book of short trips. The obligatory satsuma.

The predictions are based on tangible evidence - what they got last year, how much their parents are likely to spend, what they've actually asked for.

Slowly, though, the competition grows. A new Playstation wossname, or a bike, or something else a bit more costly. The kid who starts it merely wants to claim, "My parents really love me" - it's less about greed as about confidence.

But that makes everyone else feel a bit rubbish, so they're saying that they'll be getting something similar. An X-box or a go-kart... It's important at school that you don't lose face.

No one wants to go too far too quickly for fear of being caught bullshitting. But the bluff continues with its own inertia; real, achievable gains slowly warping into dreams. Anyone a bit flash, a bit bolshy, is likely to increase everyone's stakes.

But it can't go on forever. If no one says "Balls!" at any point, if they don't escape the cycle, then it's all brought crashing down anyway by the reality of Christmas Day. Targets are only partially met. They might not even have got all of their original, paltry wants.

And who is to blame for this calamitous shortfall? The kids comparing notes that first day back at school know exactly where the error lies.

Their parents simply failed to deliver. If only they could sack them.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Blair, the party and reasons for going to war

“The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detail.”

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, p. 137.

No, this is E. Blair, not T. Had read this while doing my A-levels and took it to Spain to reread. How’s that for diligent?

It’s a vivid, action-packed adventure yarn, as Orwell joins up with the POUM to fight the fascists. The language is straight-forward and simple (not stupid).

Julian Symons makes the point in his introduction that the kind of warfare Orwell describes had changed little since World War One. It’s a sharply observed and detailed account – from memory too, as his notes had been continually nicked or burnt. It’s concise, action-packed and male.

He’s casually brusque about the hardships and I’m not sure whether that’s English reserve or an inability to deal with the emotional. His 1984 is similarly grubby and brutal, and just as sparse on love.
“The human louse somewhat resembles a tiny lobster, and he lives chiefly in your trousers. Short of burning all your clothes there is no known way of getting rid of him. Down the seams of your trousers he lays his glittering white eggs, like tiny grains of rice, which hatch out and breed families of their own at horrible speed. I think the pacifists might find it helpful to illustrate their pamphlets with enlarged photographs of lice. Glory of war, indeed! In war all soldiers are lousy, at least when it is warm enough. The men who fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae – every one of them had lice crawling over his testicles.”

Ibid., p. 51.

We only rarely get any hint of how the events affect Orwell himself (or his wife – I’d be fascinated to know what she thought about it all). He’s a bit surly and he could do with more cigarettes, that’s about it.

The factions involved in the Spanish civil war are notoriously complicated, and Orwell keeps the topic for an appendix chapter he says we needn’t even read. I tried to, got about midway and realised I’d not retained any of it. You really just need know that there were all sorts of different anti-fascist groups all getting at one another, a bit like in Life of Brian.

It’s odd to read all this and Orwell’s 1937 predictions about what would happen next when we know about the world war to come. You keep wanting to shout, “Look out behind you!”

It’s interesting to hear of the Russians “sabotaging” the communist revolution in Spain so as not to bother their new-forged diplomatic and trade links with other European counties. And the European neighbours are also keen not to intervene for fear of antagonising Hitler.

Not included, though referred to in the introduction, is Orwell’s 1942 essay looking back on the war. Nor is there anything to let us know what happened to all the people mentioned. Peter Davison (no, not that one) provides a note on the text which mentions how Jorge Kopp might have introduced the second edition. We’d last heard of Kopp languishing in a Spanish jail while the Orwells fled the country – and all the indications are that he won’t be seen again.

Symons’s introduction suggests how near / far Orwell was in his predictions. He also refers to both Raymond Carr and Hugh Thomas sniping at Orwell’s partisan views, though he (Symons) says that neither give specifics on where they think he’s wrong. I’d have liked some kind of afterword to tie all that stuff up.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Confused feelings created by relative's sudden and unexpected beauty

“When Helen saw a movie in which the happy ending was that the super-intelligent working-class girl received the letter telling her she’d been accepted for the swanky academy, she always wondered whether that really was a happy ending. The likely outcome of the girl getting her education would be that in the future even if she loved her parents dearly she wouldn’t be able to stop herself being bored and petulant with them and though she struggled against it she wouldn’t be able to resist finding her home town tedious, tiny and peculiar.”

Alexei Sayle, The Weeping Women Hotel, pp. 147-8.

Finished this while on the plane out to Malaga, and as those who replied to my thoughts on Sayle’s Overtaken advised, it’s really rather special.

A strange and vivid opening chapter in the first person sees a battered, shell-shocked woman escaping something terrible. We then backtrack to follow the story of fat, ugly Harriet as she tries to change her life while her pretty, mean sister Helen finds her own unravelling. Right up until the end, we’re not sure which sister it is who’s headed for the opening chapter.

It’s funny and sharp and moving throughout, with brilliant observations and turns of phrase. Sayle throws in so many details and oddments that though the final section is him merely knocking down the pins he’s already set up, you still can’t guess which way things will turn.

He’s savage about Martin Amis’s dancing, and what Neo from the Matrix must be like as a neighbour. There’s a nice line on psychiatrists all being screwy themselves, but not sectioning each other out of professional courtesy. I kept interrupting the Dr’s own much more pious reading to point out particularly choice bits.

We care about Harriet in a way I didn’t feel for Overtaken’s Kelvin. As a result it’s a much more absorbing and satisfying novel. Am sitting on my hands to not spoil it any further. But look you, read the bloody thing.

In other news: the Dr came to a momentous decision yesterday which I’ll speak more of in about a month. I’ve spent the day busy editing things which are yet to be announced, and reintroducing myself to the gym.

Read something I wrote about The Great Escape, and this deluded fellow thinks I’m a hero for services rendered half a lifetime ago. And not, as it happens, by me.