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April 2003




30th April


The Independent reports that up to 13 Iraqis died when US soldiers fired on a group of people in Fallujah protesting about the the Americans' occupation of a school, which they wanted reopened. The soldiers said some people had guns and they felt threatened. Well, to stop feeling threatened they could perhaps try leaving the country. Obviously some policing needs to be done by someone, but preferably by people who know what they're doing. If the US is at all serious in its claim that the war is "over" and the people of Iraq have been "liberated", it must put a stop to these Wild West-style shoot-outs. Amnesty International says: "the USA and the UK [must] deploy forces in sufficient numbers and with the right training and equipment to restore law and order, until Iraqi police forces can operate effectively." Apart from the killing of those 13 people, the saddest part of this story is that the formerly mild-mannered headmaster of the school in question now says he is willing to become a martyr to avenge the Americans - what a waste.


Elsewhere in the Independent, it is reported that David Blunkett says Labour could benefit from a supposed "Baghdad bounce" boost in support among its working-class voters at the local elections this week. The home secretary says criticism of the war is "a class issue", implying that only the middle classes opposed it. When I went on the march through London on 15th February with two million other people, I didn't notice much of a class divide, David, although I guess you probably weren't there to see for yourself (no sick pun intended, but I don't know how else to put it). Anyway, as ever it's reassuring to see a Labour politician - the home secretary at that - exploiting the class divide to win cheap political points.


* * *


Meanwhile, spamming (sending junk email that is, not slapping people on the forehead) has officially become a criminal offence in the US state of Virginia, according to this report from Internet Magazine. A BBC 10 O'Clock News item on this subject also found that up to half of the millions of emails people now receive worldwide every day are unsolicited adverts for various rubbish, and even more incredibly, something like 90% of all spam ultimately derives from just 180 people around the world. All of which reminds me, I must update spamcat...




28th April



Internet Magazine reports that a group of archaeologists and art historians have established a website in an attempt to publicise Iraqi treasures looted in recent weeks so that they become too high-profile to sell.


This comes on the same day as paintings by Van Gogh, Gauguin and Picasso were "liberated" from a Manchester art gallery.


The paintings in question have been immediately valued at £1m... not so the Iraqi treasures.

Have you seen this?  Okay then, how about this?

Spot the difference... "Poverty" by Picasso (left) and a looted Iraqi treasure.


* * *


Even when you're working from home and doing what you want to do you still have to put up with Mondays. A typical Monday today, grey and depressing, and not much done. At one point I was so bored I even Googled for myself. As usual I didn't appear within about the first 342 pages of search results but I was intrigued to read the comments of one Richard Cooper who did, in this story about a wax museum in Las Vegas which has added a Saddam Hussein figure to its range of exhibits. This has, naturally, proved so controversial that visitors are flocking from all over to see it, denounce it and pose for photos with their hands around its throat. The Richard Cooper in question (a Vietnam vet and retired firefighter from Virginia) says about Saddam, "I believe in the Old Testament: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." Hmm... one to add to Thoughtcat's "Richard Coopers I'm Not" page (under construction). Also quoted is a relative of one of the people killed in the World Trade Centre attacks, who tragically proves what propaganda can do by saying she believes 9/11 was the work of Saddam. She comments that she's "totally offended" by the statue, adding: "Killing him wouldn't be enough." Eh?



27th April


Ex-Python Terry Jones continues his excellent column in the Observer with a piece headlined Mr Blair's dark days, in which he echoes my own sentiments from 18th April about Tony's "worst fear" about the war, i.e. that it'd cause him to lose his bloody job.


* * *


On a lighter note, elsewhere in the paper there's a lovely profile of performance poet John Hegley, who says that poetry "is the opposite of speaking words which are mundane. It's words that are charged, it's vibrancy, mystery, aliveness, intensity - and bollocks."



25th April


Our Man in Wimbledon tells me of a great story he heard apparently about a novel-writing speed record attempt in Germany this week. Surely this, with its shades of the great Python sketch featuring Michael Palin giving a running commentary as F. Scott Fitzgerald (it was him, wasn't it?) makes inroads into his new novel, was too good to be true? Sadly, it seems that way - after some time spent Googling for the story, according to the BBC it turns out it was part of Germany's World Book Day activities, and wasn't technically a competition but an effort by a group of 40-odd (maybe that should be 40 odd?) German authors to write and publish a book in one day, with the authors writing two pages each. I have to say I was disappointed, although according to another report, the print run of 1,000 copies sold out in five minutes, which is pretty impressive.


I wonder though who the fastest novelist actually is? I know that Anthony Burgess once wrote six novels in six months or something, and of course Barbara Cartland used to knock out her bodice-rippers on an almost weekly basis. But although Burgess was generally fast, he was under a death sentence when he wrote all those books - diagnosed (wrongly) with a brain tumour, he'd been told he had only a year to live, and wanted to provide for his potential widow - and Cartland used to dictate her novels from a sofa, which doesn't really count as writing in my book. Plus they're both dead. However, I do know from his excellent book On Writing that Stephen King writes 2,000 words a day every day for three months to produce the first draft of one of his blockbusters, so maybe he'd be in with a shot?



24th April


Sue Townsend, the author most famous for her Adrian Mole books, is questioned by Independent readers. She was kind of a heroine of mine when I was 12 and the first of the Mole books came out. I was talking about this the other day with someone and we were comparing Mole, something of a crucial eighties figure, with the fictional boy of the moment, Harry Potter. Mole was a total anti-hero, and rarely succeeded in anything - indeed, most of his triumphs were internal and psychological - but you loved him anyway. I liked the first of JK Rowling's books and I'm eternally grateful to her publisher Bloomsbury for subsidising my favourite living author Russell Hoban, but I feel I could relate to Mole much better. Potter is meant to be real, but you know he isn't, while Moles exist everywhere you go: you know Potter is going to win through, destroy the evildoers and (eventually, one presumes) get the girl, but there was never any such certainty with Adrian. Among some of the lovely things Townsend says in the interview is that her blindness - a late-onset condition brought about by diabetes - if nothing else "does get you out of the ironing, and reading other people's manuscripts". She also makes a fascinating comparison of the sexual (self-) identity of Tony Blair and Saddam Hussein: the latter "drips" with testosterone, while the "androgynous" Blair is much less self-assured about himself in this department. Obviously, dripping with testosterone is hardly any better, but Blair androgynous! Brilliant.



20th April


The Observer reports that a wave of books critical of the US stance on the war have become bestsellers in that country, with Greg Palast's The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, Michael Moore's Stupid White Men and Noam Chomsky's 9/11 forming the "axis of anti".


The same issue of the paper also prints a version of an excellent speech by actor and director Tim Robbins in which he says "Basic inalienable rights, due process, the sanctity of the home [in the US] have been compromised in a climate of fear." He goes on to relate a great story of how his 11-year-old nephew stood up to his schoolteacher who was ranting about Robbins' wife Susan Sarandon's anti-war stance.


The Independent today features a savage article from John Pilger about the aftermath of the war, warning against the "unthinkable" of what was done and both that and our reactions to it becoming "normalised". (The Independent however has since started to charge for archived articles at the rate of £1 a time; I have my doubts about how long that's going to last.)


While we're on the subject of the war, I must put in a belated plug for playwright David Hare's beautifully written piece from the Guardian on 12th April, "Don't look for a reason", sub-headlined "All the explanations for this war are bogus - Bush only invaded Iraq to prove that he could." Hare also points out what I mentioned a while back about the lack of a leader in the anti-war movement. I have to wonder if Tim Robbins, who played a nastily ambitious US politician in his brilliant political satire Bob Roberts a few years ago, would consider running for office...?


* * *


Meanwhile, poet Christopher Logue writes a nice piece about his friendship with the late Leonard Cohen-inspirer, Sir Paul Getty. He writes that when they first met, Getty was surrounded by books, many of which were poetry, among them "a selected edition of Robert Herrick, the loveliest book I had ever seen, and an example of wonderful English bookbinding. From, I think, the Doves Press, it had a soft green leather cover studded with a hundred primroses tooled in gold. 'You see,' he [Getty] said, 'when you open it,' opening it, laying it on the side table, 'it stays open. And when you close it,' closing it, 'there is an almost silent gasp.'" Which will probably end up in next week's Pseud's Corner, but you have to admit that books just don't do that anymore, do they?



18th April


Several papers report today on an interview Tony Blair granted the UK's war-friendliest rag, The Sun, in which Tone confides with characteristic disingenuousness that he considered resigning over his stance on Iraq and that he was "upset" when the UN didn't pass the second resolution. It's hard to imagine a more minty piece of humbug than this: if millions marching through central London (and just about everywhere else in the world) to protest against the war, and the vote of some 150 of his own MPs in opposition to the government's action didn't convince him to either quit his post or oppose military intervention himself, what, exactly, would have done?


The Guardian (which headlines its report, "Blair feared for premiership over war" - what, in the past tense?) also quotes Blair: "The most terrible thing for someone in my position is to end up losing your job for something you don't really believe in." Final proof, then, that the killing, "orphaning", maiming and general destruction has always come second to our illustrious leader's preservation of his own career.


* * *


So, farewell, then, Sir Paul Getty. When I read the news, I couldn't help but think of the great line from Leonard Cohen's song Jazz Police: "Jazz Police are paid by J. Paul Getty / Jazzers paid by J. Paul Getty II..."



17th April


Catching up on my emails after a short break in the Lake District, I find Thoughtcat's West Drayton representative has sent a link to a story from ZNet's fine round-up of Iraq commentaries about US marine Stephen Eagle Funk. He faces a court martial and probable prison sentence after refusing to fight on the basis that the war is "immoral because of the deception involved by our leaders". Fantastic name, and, like e.e. cummings' "conscientious object-or" Olaf, Funk is "more brave than me:more blond than you".


I must admit I took advantage of the peace and quiet in the Lakes to avoid the news as best I could for a few days. Even so, I couldn't avoid the war completely, either in the form of some terrifyingly loud training flypasts of fighter jets, or in more peaceful ways, as we found when we came upon this Quaker meeting hall while strolling through the pretty village of Ambleside...


Quaker meeting house, Ambleside




13th April


To (as Samuel Pepys would have it) our local Thai Buddhist temple, the Buddhapadipa in leafy Wimbledon, for Songkhran, the Thai new year festival. Buddhapadipa is a stunning and authentically-designed-and-built temple and monastery set in peaceful grounds, complete with a small lake which is put to use each year for the Loy Kratong celebrations. Helped by the unseasonably brilliant weather (so brilliant in fact that I got sunstroke - but then again, I am English), it was absolutely packed with both Thai and "farang" visitors alike, making it difficult to get served at the food stalls selling the traditional soup, noodles, banana fritters and chicken satay dishes - but, as ever, it was worth persevering. There was even a queue to pay your respects in the wat itself.


Buddhapadipa Thai Temple, Wimbledon, London

Stall at Songkhran festival

Banana fritters



10th April


A recent article by Ian Jack in the Guardian stated the case for Iraq being the "cradle of civilisation", with the British Museum's Mesopotamian section - ironically, rarely more popular than now - providing a home to tens of thousands of clay tablets telling the world's first written epic, Gilgamesh, in cuneiform script, as well as the beautiful stone reliefs from Nineveh, all of it dating back to the Iraq of up to 3,000 years before Christ. I posted a link to this article to The Kraken, the newsgroup for the work of my favourite living novelist Russell Hoban (and, while we're at it, my erstwhile virtual home-away-from-home), on the basis that the Nineveh bas-reliefs play an essential part in Hoban's great 1970s novel The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz - not to mention the disturbing resonances the article has of his post-apocalyptic masterpiece Riddley Walker. Fellow Krakenite and artist Eli Bishop responded with a shrewd cartoon and commentary by New York political cartoonist Tim Krieder, who, while with a group of artists sketching Mesopotamian artefacts at the Metropolitan Museum, realised that "[what] we were all dutifully sketching in order to honor and celebrate the ancient and glorious heritage of the people our government was about to bomb ... were bas-relief steles immortalizing the rulers of the first military empires in human history -- bearded, barrel-chested deity-kings with eagles' wings and cannonball calf muscles straight out of 'How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way!', accompanied by lengthy fine-print cuneiform inscriptions that I happen to know, from art history classes, consist entirely of grandiloquent and dubious boasting about their bloody conquests ..." Sound familiar, George?



9th April


A good interview in the Guardian today with Dan Rhodes, the author of Anthropology, Don't Tell Me the Truth About Love and now Timoleon Vieta Come Home. He famously claimed he would give up writing following the publication of his third book because the whole process made him so miserable. Here he says: "When [writing] is going well, it's the best thing in the world", but adds, "That probably happens about 5% of the time." Glad to hear I'm not alone.



7th April


So the defendants of the Who Wants A Million Coughs trial have finally been found guilty. When it first opened, the case seemed to me a spurious PR stunt, especially when it was reported that a total of 192 coughs were heard throughout the show in question, of which only a dozen or so were supposed to have guided said military personnel to the correct answers. But as we know, mistakes are always made in wars, and now the case is closed, transcriptions of crucial bits of the show are emerging which help explain the jury's decision, with the improbably-named "quiz anorak" Tecwen Whittock spluttering once for "yes" and twice for "no" at judicious junctures like some bizarre game-show sťance. Sounds like they all deserve each other.



6th April


Went to see The Pianist at the Richmond Filmhouse. An astonishing, distressing, moving, noble and humane film, despite its story of inhumanity. It was the harder to watch in the knowledge that a real war, albeit not a comparable one either in scale or humanity, was being fought by your own country as it was being screened. The transformation that Adrien Brody undergoes throughout is remarkable - he starts out in his mid-20s and by the end when he's hobbling around the bombed-out houses and hospital he looks about 100. By the end, you really got the feeling you'd lived through the war with him. Some truly dreadful things are depicted in the first 45 minutes in occupied Warsaw and I didn't think I could continue watching because I knew things could only get immeasurably worse when the family were taken to the concentration camp, but the whole film took a totally unexpected turn when Szpilman managed to avoid the cattle-truck. When that train pulled away I got the feeling that Roman Polanski was saying, "Beyond this point, I cannot go, and nor, truly, can anyone else. Let the ghosts of those tormented souls - both the Jews and the Nazis - rest now." The film was, in fact, the least Polanskiesque of all his films; it made me think that - with the exception of the masterpiece Chinatown - he's just been dicking about for the rest of his career.


What interested me about my own reaction to the film was that the brutality depicted just made me feel sick and numb, whereas it was only the performance of the Chopin piece in the bombed-out house that made me cry. That piece, both as a composition and a performance, contained everything - love, hate, pride, humanity, sorrow, faith, hope, despair, life, death, war, peace... It struck me that in this sense, the story could only have been about a musician: at the crucial juncture, when his life is finally on the line once and for all, if he'd been some other kind of artist instead, say a painter, writer or actor, I think the outcome would have been different, because those media wouldn't have been immediate enough for him to express himself. Douglas Adams once said, "Music is the most abstract of all the arts - it can only be itself"; but in the way it was used in this film, music seemed vindicated as the least abstract, the most direct channel of communication between - in that famous phrase, so popular at the moment - hearts and minds.



5th April


The Guardian reports that lone British oarsman Andrew Halsey was taken aboard a fishing boat near the Galapagos islands yesterday after a 4,117-mile journey, setting a world record for the smallest distance travelled in the most time at sea in a rowing boat. But the Ocean Rowing Society appears to have disowned Halsey - because he's epileptic. Halsey's odyssey was surely the more heroic for this fact, but Kenneth Crutchlow of the ORS is quoted: "It's a heck of a long distance for an epileptic to row. The question now is why." Well, presumably for the same reasons anybody would have considered undertaking the challenge. Would the ORS have asked this "question" if Halsey hadn't had this disability? And was the oarsman really a danger to anybody but himself, at worst?


Meanwhile, in a review of Walking the Shadows by Donald James in the Guardian Review, Mark Lawson writes: "James's central device... was memorably used in Reginald Hill's masterful novel On Beulah Height (1998). It's unlikely that James knew this but, for the reader who does, his story starts at a disadvantage... Already, in the opening chapter, there are three technical problems... The book's main action happens in 1985 for no compelling fictional reason... With crime fiction increasingly the province of high stylists, James relies too often on basic emotions recounted in simple prose... Much of the dialogue sounds as if has been badly translated from French..." Before I read this review I had never heard of Donald James, although Lawson explains that he is known for at least three books and is a prominent historian of Russia. Now, although I have always had my doubts about criticism of all kinds, and have not been able to make up my own mind about the qualities or otherwise of this novel, this review did make me wonder how the book had been published at all given its apparently comprehensive roster of weaknesses. Reading it both uplifted and depressed me in about equal proportions: if books with such faults are getting published, even if more so on the basis of a back catalogue than on their own merits, it makes the challenge of actually getting published seem a lot less interesting; but by the same token, it makes me less anxious about the drawbacks of my own efforts... all of which is counterproductive. 



3rd April


In the past few days The Guardian has published some excellent poems about the war by Tony Harrison and the UK Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion.



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