last updated Sunday June 21, 2009
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Spotted while out walking in Richmond today. Click here for more info about the Association of British Jazz's campaign against Tony Blair's licensing bill.
It was an appropriate spotting on the day that Mark Lawson wrote an excellent review in the Guardian of The Last Party, a new book by John Harris about the uneasy and short-lived cosying-up between "Britpop" and New Labour when the latter (and the former, come to that) was still trendy. The print version of the review features a cringing photo of Noel Gallagher having a laugh and a glass of champas with Blair back in 1997 - a time when we were all that much more innocent and Tone's hair was still brown. (NB: Amazon is offering the £15 book at £10.50.)
Talking of Noel, I wonder what Tone's four-noun autobiography title would be? Suggestions please to firstname.lastname@example.org
* * *
And talking of Tony, Matthew Parris writes in today's Times about "the evidence that millions of ordinary people are not amnesiacs, do remember why Mr Blair said Britain must attack [Iraq] and do still care whether that was true." Along the way, old Tory Parris unnecessarily compares Margaret Thatcher favourably to Blair to back up his argument, but it's otherwise an excellent piece.
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Also superb in today's Guardian Review is this essay by E.L. Doctorow about how he started writing, concluding with this interesting thought: "I believe nothing of any beauty or truth comes of a piece of writing without the author's thinking he has sinned against something - propriety, custom, faith, privacy, tradition, political orthodoxy, historical fact, literary convention, or indeed, all the prevailing community standards together. And that the work will not be realised without the liberation that comes to the writer from his feeling of having transgressed, broken the rules, played a forbidden game without his understanding or even fearing his work as a possibly unforgivable transgression."
Week 94: the housemates are on day 62 of their pedalo task. They've only three hours to go and then they'll be given their next task - painting the house. That's right - tune into Big Brother tomorrow night and watch paint dry...
Big Brother. The very words strike fear into the soul: someone watching you 24 hours a day, telling you what to do, what to think, what to believe. If it's not George W. Bush and Tony Blair, it's Enema Productions or whatever they're called. Oh, that's a nice kitchen. Mm, she's pretty. God, he's boring. In fact, it's all boring. Why am I watching this crap? Why don't these people just GET A LIFE???
Thoughtcat's eviction tip: Big Brother!
(or failing that, Jon)
* * *
Jilly Cooper (no relation) and Joanna Trollope have descended on the Guardian Hay Festival to defend the honour of their "bonkbusters" and "Aga sagas". Cooper claims: "There are two categories of writers. Jeffrey Archer and me who long and long for a kind word in the Guardian and the others who get all the kind words and long to be able to do what Jeffrey and I do." One for Private Eye's Modesty Corner, I should think. What can she possibly care what the Guardian says about her books when Telegraph and Mail readers lap them up wholesale? She then goes on to say, "My new book has got paedophilia, September 11 and lots of black people in it. I'm moving on, we've got to progress." If that isn't the most desperate, sad cry for literary credibility I don't know what is.
Trollope meanwhile pours scorn on the "grim lit" popular with critics "that makes you want to slash your wrists". Sounds a bit like the old argument about Leonard Cohen's records being "music to slash your wrists to" - always levelled by people who'd never listened to them, of course. And as LC himself once said, "My feeling about music I don't like is that I keep my mouth shut about it." A lesson for us all, maybe, Joanna?
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Thoughtcat's spy in West Drayton highlights a very good article on ZNet today by Ian Hislop's favourite "left-wing comedian" and scourge of the Iraq war, Mark Steele, entitled Truth, Lies and Weapons of Mass Destruction.
* * *
And finally today, in an exclusive to all newspapers, Prince William, a.k.a. Ordinary Geezer Bill Windser, talks about life as a student at the University of St Andrews, where he's reading history of art. Commenting on the subject, he describes his father's watercolours as "brilliant" and Picasso as "revolutionary". "His blue period," he ruminates: "I do like that."
Call me naieve if you will (I suppose it's at least better than being cynical), but I was astonished to read in the Guardian about the looting of radioactive material from nuclear facilities in Iraq as US troops stood aside. Given that it's not quite as easy to do this as to nick a bag of rice from a food shop, isn't this tantamount to just handing the stuff to the same terrorists the US is allegedly "at war" with? I suppose next we'll be hearing that the Ministry of Oil was the only government department left intact after the bombing of Baghdad, or that Jack Straw and Donald Rumsfeld will say it doesn't really matter if no weapons of mass destruction are discovered after all...
* * *
To the Odeon for the second time this week, this time to see Secretary. Both my wife and I used to be secretaries in previous lives but neither of us remembered it being quite like this. Maggie Gyllenhaal was magnificent - a really gripping, intense performance; she sort of became the part, without taking herself seriously for a moment. Apart from that I can't say I enjoyed the film exactly, but after the dazzling spectacle of Matrix Reloaded the other day, it was refreshing to see that small, intimate films about offbeat people and curious relationships can still do well at the box office. Plus, it was great to hear Leonard Cohen sneaking onto the soundtrack with the exquisite I'm Your Man ("If you want a lover, I'll do anything you ask me to / And if you want another kind of love, I'll wear a mask for you...") It was also good to see James Spader again, who doesn't seem to have aged a day since he made White Palace, one of my all-time favourite films, in 1990.
* * *
Meanwhile, the Guardian reports on a new biography of Sylvia Plath by Anne Middleton, which will controversially claim that the poet was not "the downtrodden victim of feminist legend" after all. I'm glad to hear it; despite Ted Hughes's reported philandering, which obviously didn't help, it always seemed obvious to me from her writing that she was a very strong personality and character who was simply besieged by mental illness. There's no rationalising with that, whether you're a feminist or not.
Thinking about Plath put me in mind of this exchange in Annie Hall:
ALVY (picking up copy of "Ariel" in Annie's flat): Ah, Sylvia Plath - the poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college-girl mentality.
ANNIE: Oh, I don't know - I just think some of her poems are neat.
ALVY: Neat? I think "neat" went out sometime around the turn of the century...
Thoughtcat's man in New Zealand highlights an interesting article from The Times, in which founder of Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art, says that modern art's duty "to shine an aesthetic light on the soul" has been eclipsed by commercialism.
The Guardian reports on some newly-discovered jazz blues lyrics written by Philip Larkin in the early forties. Among these was "Fuel Form Blues", which the Bard of the Spectacles casually tossed off while "bored in his first job as a clerk collating wartime fuel rationing forms at a coal depot in Warwick":
rather be a commando, or drive a railway train,
I'd rather be a commando, Lord! drive a railway train,
Than sort them Fuel Form Blues into streets again...
Fuel Forms, gonna carry me to my grave, carry me to my grave.
It's easy to see that the great poet was already laying the foundations for his later classics such as "Toads", q.v.:
Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?
...not to mention "This Be The Verse".
* * *
To the Odeon to see the distinctly unLarkinesque Matrix Reloaded. I attempted to brush up on the Matrix phenomenon last night by watching an old video of the first film... and was lost within the first twenty minutes. Nevertheless, it was a nice lostness, and I approached the sequel with interest. Like the original, I found it a bit cold and soulless (although that's the whole point, I guess), and there were some dreadfully slow bits in the first hour, but the special effects didn't disappoint and the whole thing was good fun. The car chase was my favourite scene, and the point where Trinity was riding against the flow of traffic startlingly realistic. According to the iMDB, the epic chase was shot on a highway specially built for the movie. Weirdly enough, shortly after we got home from seeing the film, Fifth Gear was on and had a feature about the scene. Keanu Reeves praised Carrie-Anne Moss for doing it sans stunt double or crash helmet, but I had to take this with a slight pinch of salt when it was revealed that the traffic she was pictured weaving around was all digitally superimposed afterwards. Boo!
The only thing I can never work out about The Matrix, incidentally, is, if the "real" world as perceived by humans is actually a digital creation of the machines, why didn't the machines make the "real" world a bit more exciting? If it's all virtual anyway, why not make the world absolutely wonderful for people instead of humdrum and everyday? That way, surely everybody would be happy and there'd be no need to have Agents to track down all the Neos and Morpheuses (Morphei?) because they'd be so serene they wouldn't want to escape...
Carrie-Anne Moss in a shiny... thoughtcatsuit??
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I have to say that last Saturday was not spoilt for me at all by the UK receiving an unprecedented nul points in the Eurovision Song Contest. This piece in the Guardian today does a fair job of explaining why it happened.
The Guardian reports that the masked palm civet may be responsible for the Sars virus. When I first read this I wasn't sure whether a masked palm civet was a tree, a kind of party or a herb used in south-east asian cooking. This of course does nothing for my feline credentials whatsoever, but now we know that it is, in fact, a cat, or a "small cat-like mammal" as the article puts it. It seems to me civets have had a bad press - it wasn't they who were responsible for spreading the virus after all, but people who killed them and ate them - often illegally.
Anyway, I had a surprisingly difficult time finding much information about civets on the internet. The picture I found was deceptive, making me think someone had mistaken the poor creature for a badger. (But then, perhaps badgers are small cat-like mammals too?) The only decent snippet of information I found came from Tiscali's reference site sourced from the Hutchinson Encyclopaedia. Even the estimable World Wildlife Fund had nothing on the story. However, I emailed them about the issue and received this response:
Thank you for taking the time to contact us for our view on recent claims that eating the masked palm civet could have caused the outbreak of SARS in China.
We do not believe enough scientific research has been carried out to support this claim and therefore we cannot comment on this issue.
You may be interested to know that although national laws may vary, international trade in the masked palm civet is strictly regulated.
International trade may be authorized by the granting an export permit or re-export certificate; no import permit is necessary. Permits or certificates should only be granted if the relevant authorities are satisfied that certain conditions are met, above all that trade will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild.
Painful as it is to see anyone in agony, as he fractures his scaphoid it's good to see "ace haircut with quite a good footballer attached" David Beckham once again doing service to linguistics by bringing another unusual word into popular usage, as he did last time with the Great Metatarsal Affair. Anthony Burgess, eat your heart out!
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Thoughtcat's (wo)Man in West Drayton strikes again with an interesting report from the BBC that scientists in the US have found "proof" that Buddhist meditation helps you feel more serene. It's a nice story, but surely Buddhists have known that for some time. Who says science is slow on the uptake?
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I have finally finished the first entry for thoughtcat's nine lives page, an occasional series of random memoirs from a less-than-auspicious CV, starting with a job I had in a burger bar with an interestingly-decorated table. Hope you enjoy it...
The Guardian's Saturday magazine has a column called "Things you only know if you're not at work". Being a home"worker" myself, so far one thing I haven't seen mentioned in that column is the fact that during the daytime, Channel 5 turns into a kind of shopping channel. I turned on the TV to watch a video of last night's ER while I ate my lunch but didn't even get to put the video on because I was so fixated by a five-minute advert by TimeLife for a new series of dramatisations of Bible stories, collectively called - wait for it - The Bible. "These films are not available in the shops," announced the gravelly-voiced narrator, which is always a bad sign. The first film available is called Jesus. "Buy Jesus for £9.99 and get Joseph free!" went the offer. A lot of very good British character actors, including Gary Oldman (Pontius Pilate), Ben Kingsley (Moses), Dame Diana Rigg (Delilah) and Michael Gambon (er, Samson?) were shown looking serious in robes against dusty backgrounds while we were told over and over about how the offer of the films was exclusive, exclusive and exclusively exclusive. A phone number for emergency ordering of the films was given, but even more bizarrely an alternative phone number with an Italian flag next to it was also displayed in smaller print at the bottom of the screen...
Even worse, when the advert for The Bible was over, Starsky and Hutch came on. I used to love that when I was a kid - I had a toy car with the white flash down the side and everything - but, not having seen it for 20 years, I couldn't believe the utter cheesiness of it. That's the thing about Seventies retro - the revivalists retain the haircuts and the flares and the cool music, but they conveniently edit out the fact that about 75% of that era was given over to naff jokes about Starsky ripping his jacket or spilling his chilli dog on his trousers, while Hutch spent less time fighting crime than fighting off women. Give me The Professionals any day. Or check out They Fight Crime!, a brilliant site which generates random crime-fighting duos, such as: "He's a bookish gay boxer on his last day in the job. She's a transdimensional nymphomaniac politician looking for love in all the wrong places. They fight crime!"
Looks like we're going to be in for a Dylan moviefest in the coming months. First it was Todd Haynes's Bob Dylan biopic (see TC 21st February), and now Martin Scorsese announces he's working on a film about Dylan. Haynes famously said he's casting seven different actors to play Dylan over the various periods of his career, including a woman. Maybe Scorsese could get Leonardo DiCaprio to play the young Bob, Daniel Day-Lewis for the middle years, Robert "Bob" De Niro for the present "grizzly" version and Cameron Diaz for everything else.
* * *
As poor old Jean-Pierre Garnier sobs to the Telegraph that he's "not Mother Teresa", Richard Adams outlines in the Guardian's City Diary the definitive reasons why the Glaxo Fat Cat is not the Angel of Calcutta.
RIGHT: Rosie the Tabby
WRONG: Garnier the Greedy Bastard
George Monbiot writes an excellent piece today about an attempt by a Belgian lawyer to try General Tommy Franks for war crimes in Iraq. Belgium is the only country in the world which has, or had until now anyway, a law allowing people to be tried for such crimes even if they were committed outside Belgium or didn't involve the country. It's a great story, especially since it "outraged" the US, but sadly the Belgian authorities rushed to amend the law to avoid international embarrassment.
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The Times reports on the incredible feat of endurance that "old Harrovian" Pen Hadow, or Rupert Nigel Pendrill Hadow to give him his full name, has performed by walking solo to the North Pole. The print version of the story also lists some other (ant)arctic explorers including Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes and Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton. It's a fantastic result for the guy, no question, and I wouldn't've been able to do it myself, but surely a true world record for a British explorer would be to get to the North Pole with only a name like Dave Grubb or something?
Have I Got News For You has always been one of my favourite TV shows, and Paul Merton has consistently been one of the best people on TV. But watching HIGNFY last night all but convinced me the show has finally flown up its own arse. Merton has sat there for the past few shows of the current series looking as if he doesn't really want to be there, barely speaking for the first ten minutes and only then to parody his trademark surreal free-association to such an extent that last night he suddenly broke off mid-stream and asked rhetorically, "What on earth am I talking about?" which got a bigger laugh than anything he'd been saying. Ian Hislop launched into a savage five-minute rant against Valery Giscard-d'Estaing, EU bureaucracy and Italian corruption, unprecedented even by his standards, ending by saying (I'm paraphrasing) "I know I'm sounding more and more like the Daily Mail, but it does actually make some good points now and then." I mean, come on, Ian, especially after your own magazine Private Eye has spent so long pointing up the hypocrisy of that reviled paper (the Mail, not the Eye). When this rant itself was then parodied by his team-mate, comedian Mark Steel ("Those bleeding French and their fucking baguettes!") Hislop's face went even more po as he accused "the left-wing comedian" of resorting to a cheap laugh by saying "fuck" a lot (which the BBC bleeped out anyway) and for putting words in his mouth (because Hislop didn't say anything about baguettes). Merton may have run out of steam, but only because the show no longer inspires him, and I really hope he'll quit while he's ahead and concentrate on something new. Merton will always be a genius, and is therefore infinitely adaptable, but Hislop isn't, and although I agree that we need people like him to expose corruption and hypocrisy at the highest levels, if he just ends up losing his sense of humour completely (he made a good start on Angus Deayton's final show) and turns into the sort of self-righteous vicar he lampoons Blair for being in Private Eye then it'll be a terrible shame. On top of all that, the show was hosted this week by some totally anonymous character who only proved the sad fact that as long as there's a script, even the most chinless wonder can read an autocue and get a laugh. TV doctor Phil Hammond all but saved the day. Let's hope it's better next week...
A lovely film on BBC2 last night called Second Best. Made in 1994, it starred William Hurt in the improbable role of a lonely, red-haired sub-postmaster of a tiny Welsh village who wants to adopt a troubled ten-year-old, played perfectly by Nathan Yapp (who, according to the imdb, has done nothing since). Keith Allen also did a good turn as the boy's vagrant father. Hurt's accent oscillated wildly between Ireland and Somerset without touching Wales for more than a few syllables at a time, but otherwise he was utterly believable. Even though it was made nearly 10 years ago and shown on the channel's graveyard shift, its simplicity, tenderness and quietness, as well as the excellence of the writing (by David Cook) and acting, reassured me a little that TV stations aren't just obsessed with ratings and "dumbing down". Things still ain't what they used to be however - I remember in the eighties Channel 4 showing a great art-house movie every Thursday night. (Thanks must go to Metro Life's film critic Neil Norman for writing an enthusiastic review of Second Best, without which I might not have bothered staying up for it.)
The Times reported yesterday that a hand-print made by Nelson Mandela shows a curious Africa-type shape made by the depression in his palm. The story does have a certain Turin Shroud quality about it, but it's a nice idea and a lovely image all the same. However, I couldn't help but try it out for myself. I used the same gouache I used to paint my guitar case the other week and, apart from making a right mess of table, keyboard, mouse and wash basin, I came up with an amazing result...
SPOT THE DIFFERENCE!
Well, there's a bit missing off the west coast, but to all intents and purposes, it's Africa, innit?
Actually, to be fair, this was only one of three attempts. Here are the other two:
The mysterious case of the sixth finger... (don't read anything into this, Anne Boleyn fans!)
The Man with the Thoughtcat
in the Palm of his hand??
* * *
Meanwhile, John Reid, leader of the House of Commons, is reported today to be under fire for saying of Iraq: "I believe there are weapons of mass destruction there. I know we haven't found them yet, but because we haven't found them yet no more means that there was not a threat than not finding the money stolen from the Great Train Robbery means that Ronnie Biggs was innocent." This Prescottesque tongue-and-truth-twister is even worse than Jack "Short" Straw's "rewriting of history" yesterday when he said "it's not crucial" now to find the weapons. All this comes despite Tony Blair going on and on like a bloody scratched record for weeks before the war about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction (the expression was of course used so much that he had to truncate it to "WMD") being the pretext for military action, which we all knew was bullshit anyway. My respect for our politicans just gets lower - at the same rate, in fact, as their respect for the intelligence of the people they claim to represent disintegrates. How can people like Straw live with themselves? Why not just go and get an honest job like being a milkman or something? It might not pay as much but at least it'd be human.
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If you missed the BBC2 programme "The Nation's Favourite Food" last night, think yourself lucky. My wife and I were watching it while we were eating... never again. This alleged top ten of the UK's favourite "seduction" foods included strawberries in chocolate, and, of all things, prawns. They also interviewed an inarticulate 12-year-old DJ about champagne, filmed a bunch of sloane-rangerettes blowing up a kitchen in an attempt to make chocolate vodka cocktails, showed Melinda Messenger spitting out an oyster and, perhaps worst of all, filmed Peter Stringfellow. In his kitchen. Cooking a chicken casserole for his girlfriend. I mean, Jesus. It made us yearn for a Get it on bar (see 13th May below).
For anyone who doesn't watch TV or doesn't live in the UK, this was just the latest TV show in recent weeks claiming to represent the UK's favourite this-or-that as voted for by viewers. In the past few weeks alone we've had the UK's top 100 film stars, the UK's top 100 romantic films, the 100 worst people in the UK (all on Channel 4, it should be said), not to mention the soon-to-be-announced BBC Big Read, a poll of the UK's favourite 100 books. I'm all for anything that encourages people to read, but even that's a bit of a naff idea (especially as the number one will probably be something I haven't read). Something else I haven't read is Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man but this total lack of imagination on the part of TV programme-makers is the Last Straw and would seem to bear out the feeling that The End of Television is nigh. How many more cruddy TV shows can they make on the basis of things voted for by viewers? More importantly, when are TV companies going to realise that the results of these programmes don't represent the views of the UK but instead just the views of the six people who voted? Plus, the only people who do vote in these things are people who don't do anything except watch cruddy TV programmes all day. It's like that exchange in Woody Allen's Manhattan:
IKE: You're going by the audience reaction to this? I mean, this is an audience that's raised on television. Their standards have been systematically lowered over the years... these guys sit in front of their sets and the gamma rays eat the white cells of their brains out... I quit.
DICK: All right. Just relax. Take a lude.
IKE: All you guys do is drop ludes and take Percodans and angel dust! Naturally, the show seems funny.
Thoughtcat's agent in West Drayton points me to an interesting piece on the BBC website's "Real Time" column today headlined "Why I would not kill in war". Four men - an American GI who served in WW2, a German who refused to join the Nazi Youth, an Israeli refusenik and US marine Stephen Funk - all talk about their anti-war stance.
Thoughtcat's Vermont representative points me to the excellent Oracle of Bacon. Enter the name of any actor or actress and the program consults the IMDB and tells you how many degrees they are separated, filmically speaking, from the actor Kevin Bacon, who appears to have been in every film ever made. Most attempts return a factor of 1 (i.e. Bacon was in the same film as the actor in question) or 2 (Bacon wasn't in the same film as said actor but they've both been in another film which featured a common third actor, thus linking the two). Apparently there are only 11 actors in the entire universe who have a maximum Bacon number of 8. But what's even more fun is Star Links, another program on the same University of Virginia Computer Science site, which allows you to link any two actors to each other. This reports, for example, that Arnold Schwarzenegger has a Harold Pinter number of 2, since Schwarzenegger was in End of Days with Mark Margolis, while Margolis was in The Tailor of Panama with Harold Pinter.
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A short interview with Don Delillo in The Times today, in which the author of the epic Underworld says that the Great American Novel is just so yesterday, and what we're waiting for now is for someone to write the Great Global Novel. Well, it won't be me - the novel I'm writing is set on the Isle of Skye... who says I set my sights too low?
* * *
Sad to read today of the demise of Noel Redding, the great bass player with the Jimi Hendrix Experience. This obituary quotes an interview he gave years ago (for, I believe, the excellent South Bank Show TV documentary on Hendrix) in which he recalled hearing about the great man's death: "All these women came to my room and wanted to commit suicide, to throw themselves out of the window. I'm not religious but I went with all these women to church. Then we went to a cocktail bar and we got rotten." Ah, the seventies, eh!
So Clare Short's finally resigned, huh? If there's ever a modern-day equivalent of the fable of the boy [sic] who cried wolf, this has to be it. But what's even more irritating than the fact that Short didn't follow through her threats to resign before or during the war, when it would have had a tad more credibility, is that she does make some good points in this interview, such as describing Tony Blair as less Washington's poodle than its "fig leaf", adding, "Fig leaf number two is 'blame the French'."
* * *
Shopping in Tesco's today, I came across a shocking product, "Get it on", which described itself as a "sex fruit and seed bar". Sex, in Tesco's?? Disgusted by the mere thought of it, I examined the label closely: The Food Doctor, which makes the bars and others in the range, claims that its combination of rye, pumpkin, hemp (hemp??! in Tesco's??), banana, figs, mango and gingko biloba "support the flow of blood to the extremities... The rest is up to you." Of course I popped two in my basket immediately (one for me, the other for my wife), covered them with a copy of the Guardian and proceeded warily to the till. I got home, we tore off our wrappers (of the bars, that is), and... well, sadly I have to report that it was less than erotic. In fact, half a mouthful and we were put off just about any kind of romantic activity for the rest of the evening...
Get it on: Gagging for a shagging - or just gagging?
The Guardian reports that Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen has topped a poll by Orange, the sponsors of the female-only Orange Prize for Fiction, as women's best-loved women's book. The news put me in mind of Bob Dylan's song 1997 song Highlands, which contains the following exchange between the narrator and a waitress:
Then she says,"you don't read women authors, do you?"
Least that's what I think I hear her say,
"Well", I say, "how would you know and what would it matter anyway?"
"Well", she says, "you just don't seem like you do!"
I said, "you're way wrong."
She says, "which ones have you read then?"
I say, "I read Erica Jong!"
Speaking for myself, one of the few "women authors" I have read is Jane Rogers, whose 1987 novel The Ice is Singing I found inspirational and very moving.
* * *
There's a lovely story in the Guardian too today about an amateur movie of John Lennon dicking about in New York in 1974 being put up for auction. The private footage, shot by a student who simply went up to Lennon and asked him if she could follow him around the city filming him all day, apparently includes shots of him taking over a New York ice-cream van and imitating baboons for startled children. Sounds like early Trigger-Happy TV.
Culture secretary Tessa Jowell says reality TV is being "flogged to death" at the expense of quality drama, comedy and current affairs. That makes two criticisms of crappy television in the Independent this week, the other by Dylan Moran (see below).
* * *
The Guardian reports on an artistic experiment-cum-"performance" by Plymouth University's MediaLab in which they put six monkeys in a cage with a computer to see what would happen. Not a lot, was the unsurprising result after four weeks. Supposedly a variation on the philosophical question of whether an infinite number of monkeys given an infinite amount of time and typewriters would eventually rewrite Shakespeare, in practice it appears that macaques simply type the letter "S" repeatedly, and, as test designer Geoff Cox says, "get bored and shit on the keyboard" - I know the feeling. The whole thing reminds me of Douglas Adams' theory that the white mice humans have been experimenting on for years have in fact been experimenting on us all this time. The macaques were obviously onto Cox and his team and simply refused to play the game. Now that's evolution.
* * *
John Humphreys has been presented with the Gold Award in the 2003 Sony Radio Academy Awards, for his "outstanding contribution to British radio", according to the Independent, who also featured an entertaining profile of the broadcaster, journalist and general damn fine political interviewer earlier this week.
"New writing is blossoming on the internet", writes Ben Hammersley in the Guardian, listing a dozen sites that promote fiction by obscure and/or unpublished writers. Anything that encourages writing has to be a good thing, but I have my doubts about whether, as he optimistically maintains, the next Dickens will be discovered online. It's not that the quality of some web writing isn't good - although a lot of it is, frankly, crap - but more that anything that is good enough to be published in conventional paper form surely will be. Also, the author of a real book actually gets paid for his or her work, and rightly so, whereas there don't seem to be many instances of new writers making money publishing exclusively on the web - even Stephen King couldn't do it with his online-exclusive serial The Plant. I do have a general fear that people are becoming too conditioned to the accessibility of the web, both in the sense of anyone being able to write almost anything on it and, by and large, not having to pay for any of it. Is it just a conspiracy theory that the world is being groomed by big business to become used to not having to pay for web content, only for us all to be royally shafted one day when the same businessmen demand payment for something we now can't do without? Er, okay, it probably is actually.
* * *
A lovely interview with comedian, writer and actor Dylan Moran in the Independent today. I especially liked his rant against the current swathe of reality-meets-personal-improvement TV shows: "There is a constant Gatling gun of nitwits being fired at you, programmes where they come and tell you you're fat and your house is shit. Where else can it go? Celebrity critics turning up at Margaret Atwood's house and telling her to write better novels?" Moran himself adds that he has been working on some prose. "It could turn out to be a novel... or a long and difficult-to-follow laundry list." Sounds a bit like the thing I'm writing at the moment. Incidentally, there is a rather eccentric Atwood site at http://www.owtoad.com/ which features, among other items, an interesting piece aimed at potential authors called "The Road to Publication".
* * *
The Guardian reports that Stephen Glass, a 25-year-old journalist who was sacked from New Republic magazine for making up websites, conventions and companies to back up his stories, is to publish a novel about a young journalist called Stephen who works for a New Republic-type magazine and, er, makes stuff up. The Fabulist is published next week by Simon & Schuster.
I loved this story about some proof copies of the new Harry Potter book turning up in a field and a "shady character" offering them exclusively to The Sun for £25 grand. The tabloid turned the cash down to "keep alive the excitement of legions of youngsters across the globe". The book is due to be published next month, er, in case you've been living on Mars recently.
The Independent today carries an obituary of Rose Augustine, "champion of the classical guitar", who was a big fan of Cuban music and was still going to work at the offices of Guitar Review magazine when she was 85.
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I was interested to see a report in the Guardian a few days ago that a 15-year-old Essex schoolgirl who was banned from school after organising an anti-war protest and "not wearing school uniform" has been allowed by the High Court to return to her classes. The judge described her as "very silly", which sounds a bit Pythonesque to me. Mr Justice Collins also said that Liberty's view on the matter, that her original exclusion was in breach of her rights to free speech and freedom of assembly, was "totally the wrong way to look at it".
I have now managed to complete the page of Peter Gibbons' photos from his African journey. This is a detail from one of my favourites, a temple in Mombasa. Click here to see all the pictures.
An interesting story in the Grauniad about a new bookshop opened near the British Museum by Alan Bennett and the board of the London Review of Books. Called the London Review Bookshop, it claims to cater for the discerning book-buyer, who is apparently neglected by the vulgar "pile 'em high" shops like Books etc, Borders and Waterstones. Bennett says, "Just as the supermarket takes the pleasure out of shopping, so it does out of buying books." I really like Alan Bennett, and I'm sure the bookshop is a good one - I mean, any bookshop has got to be a good one at the end of the day - but I have to disagree with this comment about supermarkets. Most supermarkets, I agree, are nasty places, especially the cheap and nasty ones, but I have to confess to a longstanding love affair with my local branch of Waitrose. The lighting is subtle, the products are well-chosen, the prices aren't the cheapest but the quality is really high, the staff are excellent, and I know where everything is. In any case, the pleasure or otherwise of shopping always depends for me on who I'm shopping with. In other words, unless I'm on my own, it's a pain in the arse.
So, farewell then, guitar-case lettering (13/07/93 - 01/05/03)...
Above: "Rik" Cooper, de "londre".
Years ago - ten, to be exact - I went to Paris for the first time. I was 22, single, ripe for adventure, and planned to travel for a long time in France, a country for which I've always had a deep love. My idea was to live off my savings and, if at all possible, busking. I'd never busked before, but I'd played guitar since I was 14 and had been in a couple of bands, and had this brilliantly romantic notion that I could avoid the world of work by strumming So Long, Marianne and Layla in the Paris metro. However, when I arrived in the city, all I wanted to do was walk around and explore, and lugging a guitar case everywhere proved to be something of an impediment, so for the first week or so the instrument stayed stashed under my hotel bed. When I finally took it out I found I was much more nervous about losing my busking virginity than I'd anticipated; I wandered around Paris for several hours not busking, not even opening the case, and returned to my hotel room feeling something of a failure. I then hit on an idea to do something which might help me feel more confident: I should paint on the case my name and my style of music, so that even if I didn't have the guts to open it and play the instrument, people would at least know I was a guitarist and available for bars, weddings, bar mitzvahs and all the rest of it. It was a kind of advert, but I think it also had deeper psychological roots in terms of my self-image and identity; then again it could also have stemmed from the same kind of rationale that inspires you to build a website before you're actually famous enough to justify having one. Anyway, I went into an art shop, explained in broken French what I wanted to do, was sold some white oil paint and a brush, and retired to my hotel room where I whiled away a few very relaxing hours painting the lettering you see in the picture above. I thought I'd then go out for a spot of lunch while the paint dried, come back, take the case outside, wander around and maybe even do some busking. However, when I got back to my room - which was on the top floor of an old hotel in the Latin Quarter, accessed by about 100 stairs - the paint was still wet. Three more hours later it was no better. By now I was quite keen to take it out and advertise myself, so I hit on the idea of borrowing a hair-dryer from a neighbouring Australian girl and drying the paint with that. I must have sat there for an hour training that hair-dryer on my case, and not only did it make absolutely no difference to the paint but the appliance overheated and cut out, and I couldn't get it going again. The next thing I knew I could hear an Australian accent on the landing; the girl was knocking on another door nearby and asking if anybody in there had borrowed her hair-dryer. "No," came another Australian accent, "but we've heard it, though." I sat tight, buttocks clenched with embarrassment as she knocked on my door. I didn't make a sound; eventually she went away, and to my relief the hair-dryer cooled down sufficiently to work again. By now it was dinnertime. I gave the girl back her hair-dryer - although what she thought I might have been doing with it for so long I don't know, as my hair was only about an inch longer than it is now - and went out for something to eat. Later, before I went to bed, I thought maybe a night spent in the open air would dry the paint, so I got some string, tied one end around the handle of the guitar case and the other around the leg of the desk in my room, and suspended the case out of my window to give it a proper airing. I barely slept that night worrying that the string would snap, sending the case clattering seven floors to the ground, waking up the entire hotel and getting me booted out in the middle of the night. But, as with so many things in life, it didn't happen, and I was almost disappointed to wake up and find the case still dangling out the window. I hauled it in like a kite, touched the paint... and found it was still as wet as it had been the day before. I was at my wits' end; by now all I wanted to do was busk. (I suppose if nothing else, being forced to wait had at least made me more keen.) I couldn't risk wandering about the city with the paint still wet; I pictured myself on a packed metro, the case pressed up against some innocent Parisian whose suit would end up printed with a backwards version of my name and repertoire. I reasoned that maybe what I needed was some kind of fixative; I was about to go back to the art shop when I remembered I had some spray-on Brut aftershave in my suitcase, and wondered if that might do the job. To my relief, it worked, and although the case now stank to high heaven I was then able to brave the world of buskology complete with a free advert of my services. I was still nervous, but once I'd started to play a bit it became easier. One hour and about 16 centimes later, I was an old hand. The next day I made ten francs in half an hour, and went off to buy my lunch with it, flush with the feeling that I'd hit the big time. However, that represented the height of my earnings, and within a couple of weeks I'd sent the instrument and the case back home so I could continue my journey around France unimpeded. When I eventually came back to the UK, I faced the problem of having to walk around with this "decorated" guitar case, and realised it wasn't really me at all: it seemed OK in Paris when you were 22 but back home when you were a bit older it was just naff. Plus, people would inevitably ask why the lettering was in French or why I'd painted the case at all, and after you've told a story like this once or twice it becomes a bit tiresome ("Hear hear!" - the web-surfing public). It was ironic that the very thing that had helped me get through the nervousness of busking was now an impediment in itself. But I also thought that getting rid of the lettering would be bad luck somehow: painting the case was something I'd done to feel better about myself, to boost my confidence, to make myself seem more - real, somehow. So for the next ten years I'd hardly ever take the guitar outside again, too superstitious to paint over my naff lettering, too embarrassed to flaunt the case and too much of a tightwad to reach a compromise and just buy a new one. Anyway, when the other day a musician friend suggested I come over at the weekend for a jam, the whole story came back to me with all its related dilemmas and worries and superstitions. In the end though, I decided enough was enough; I'm 32 now, I'm an artist, I'm a married man and I will not walk around with my name on my guitar case. I went to my local art shop, explained the situation in broken English, was recommended to try enamel or gouache, bought both, came back and spent a very relaxing half hour painting out all those old indecisions, insecurities and psychological cul-de-sacs once and for all. And I felt much better about it; finally I'd closed a door that had been jammed open, or opened one that had been jammed shut, or whatever, for a whole decade. And to boot, I also found out not only that gouache dries a hell of a lot quicker than oil paint, but, according to the little tin of enamel paint (which I didn't use), the French for "enamel" is email...
Above: one guitar case, post-gouache embarrassmentodectomy.
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