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May 2004



31st May


John Updike is interviewed briefly by the Guardian prior to his appearance at the paper's annual Hay-on-Wye Festival of Literature. Speaking about writing, he says, "It's up to us to find ways of making ordinary people and the mundane interesting. One of the pleasures of fiction is the discovery that you can invent a character and look out through their eyes as someone else. We write to escape ourselves. This is the curious freedom of the world of paper. You write and hypothesise, and it becomes real." It's good to read also that, further to the news that the UK Man Booker Prize might open to US writers for the first time, he doesn't see any reason why "some paunchy American" should be able to enter - not that he thinks UK novelists can't punch their weight anyway, regardless of waistline - and that he thinks George Bush must consider "going back to Texas and letting someone else see if they can do better".



Julie Christensen


Top cat Julie Christensen and her latest album Soul Driver


Julie's album Soul Driver


The top photo is taken from a review of the Brooklyn, NY Leonard Cohen tribute concert in June 2003 on the definitive Cohen website, The Leonard Cohen Files


30th May


I had a great surprise when checking my email today - a message from Julie Christensen, former backing singer with Leonard Cohen and performer at last week's Cohen tribute concert in Brighton, which I wrote up for Thoughtcat (TC 23rd May, below). "Glad you liked the show," she writes. "Hope you don't mind, but I'm going to send an excerpt of your page around to my lists." Would I mind?! What's there to mind?? It'd be an honour, even if it was only on a musical basis. Even better however, Julie goes on to bring my attention to an assortment of brilliant anti-George W. Bush press cuttings and web links. These include a report from the Village Voice on a leaked Washington email showing how "White House staffers took two-hour meetings with Christian fundamentalists, where they passed off bogus social science on gay marriage as if it were holy writ and issued fiery warnings"; a satirical schedule of the Republican National Committee Convention ("6:35 PM: Burning of Bill of Rights (excluding 2nd amendment) ... 6:46 PM: Seminar #1 Getting your kid a military deferment ... 7:35 PM: Serve Freedom Fries ... 8:00 PM: Vote on which country to invade next"); a link to, a compendium of hilarious photos of Dubya in messiah-like poses; another link to a petition calling on John Kerry to be more proactive; and best of all, the full text of a recent speech by Al Gore, reproduced on, in which he says "George W. Bush promised us a foreign policy with humility. Instead, he has brought us humiliation in the eyes of the world."


All fantastic stuff. I mean, what are the chances of not only getting an email from a superb singer and former cohort of one of your favourite-ever musicians, but of her being on the same page as you politically to boot?? Ah, I think it's going to be a good day today - and a bank holiday weekend into the bargain...





While I'm at it I'd like to add a couple of Dubya-unfriendly links to Julie's list: an article from last week's Guardian which I forgot to link at the time headlined Bush can't win this election now. Kerry can only lose it, which speaks for itself, and a series of short pieces on McSweeney's called The Daily Reason to Dispatch Bush. The Dave Eggers-founded ezine is now up to day 44, and doesn't seem set to run short of reasons just yet...




29th May


My subscription to the Times' regular books bulletin email alerts me to a great article on writing by Philip Pullman. It originally came out on 15th May but I didn't notice it at the time, and I'm glad it hasn't altogether escaped my attention, not least because of the sub-headline about "the importance of getting in touch with your inner cat". For several seconds there I thought Pullman was referring to Thoughtcat, or had even plagiarised my original feline analogy, but of course this turned out to be a reference to Schrodinger's cat and therefore nothing but mere vanity on my part. (Then again, cats aren't exactly known for being modest, are they, let's face it.) Anyway, seriously, in the article Pullman describes how he started his literary career writing literary fiction, only to realise with some frustration that he was no good at it. He persevered at writing however until he eventually developed the fantasy style and subject of His Dark Materials that he was obviously born to do. As he says: "Do you need a theory of human nature in order to write stories? I think you need a theory of your own nature... Whatever your talent is, you have to discover its nature and go with the grain of it. Otherwise, not only will you be perpetually frustrated and dissatisfied, because making the will do the work of the imagination is a melancholy business, but the work you produce will not express the nature of what its made of." Beautifully put - and very true. Now, as someone who's recently written a novel that doesn't seem to be making much of an impression on publishers and agents, all I have to do, I guess, is practice what I quote...




28th May


This may be in bad taste but I couldn't help but titter at a story in the Times today about a 20-stone man who has been put on probation for going into a newsagents in Lanarkshire stark naked. It's not so much the fact that he was unclothed that was funny (or not, depending on your view of public nudity and the additional allegation that he "performed an indecent act before running off", which rather puts a dampener on the potential humour), but that upon leaving the shop he "tried to hide behind a lamppost as shoppers stared in astonishment"...




27th May


The shape of toilets to come What the window-cleaner saw


Mrs Thoughtcat forwards me these photos sent by a friend of a new space-age public convenience that appeared (or possibly landed) in London recently. It looks fabulous from the outside, but I can't imagine it being very popular from the inside - you'd have to take the "one-way mirror" effect very much on trust to use it comfortably, wouldn't you? Top marks to the designer, but it could be enough to bring about all manner of complexes. Incidentally, producers of the new Dr Who series who may be after a new Tardis design, take note.




26th May


"Three hours, 23 musicians, 31 songs and, extraordinarily, not a bum note all night," reports the Independent on the Brighton Leonard Cohen tribute. Hmm, not so sure it was quite that perfect an offering (not that it matters - the cracks in the thing are how the light gets in, after all), but it was a damn fine show, and it's great to see anything so enthusiastic about Thoughtcat's favourite Canadian in the national press.




25th May


"Doctors' neckties may be ailing many patients" is one of the better headlines I've seen recently. When I first saw this (in the Chicago Sun Times, c/o Google News) I imagined it referred to hospital patients becoming nauseated or otherwise medically troubled by the visually disturbing neckwear designs of their consultants - I mean, it's one thing being ill in hospital in the first place, but having some oily practitioner waxing bedside sympathy with you whilst wearing something like the specimen on the right is entirely another. However, as ever, the truth is more disgusting than fiction: "Researchers at the New York Hospital Medical Center of Queens scrutinized the neckties of 42 doctors, physician assistants and other clinicians who come in close contact with patients and found that nearly half the cravats harbored disease-causing bacteria that could potentially infect patients."





















Nurse, the screams! [sic]




Further to my failure to hear anything about Saturday's Leonard Cohen tribute concert until three hours before it was due to start, I've just come across an Independent preview of the gig from 20th May, complete with comments on Cohen from a few of the performers. Writes Fiona Sturges, "There are those who regard [Cohen's] songs as painful dirges, to be listened to with whisky and bottle of aspirin close to hand. Even Cohen once said that his record company should give razor blades away with his records. 'Well that's fine with me,' [Rennie] Sparks remarks. 'There are many happy songs that I find alien and cold. Cohen writes songs that understand how hard it is to be alive. If he was happy-go-lucky Leonard skipping down the sidewalk, it wouldn't offer the same kind of comfort.'" Couldn't've put it better myself.


Today's Guardian meanwhile has a good review of the concert - not quite as thorough and obsessive as mine, of course, but then that's the difference between blogging and real journalism, I guess...




23rd May


Mrs Thoughtcat and I made the spontaneous decision yesterday afternoon to go to Brighton at absolutely no notice whatsoever for a Leonard Cohen tribute concert called Hal Willner's Came So Far For Beauty, featuring such luminaries as Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker and Beth Orton. It was about 4pm when I noticed the gig - due to start at 7.30 - advertised in the Guardian Guide, and despite the fact that the website said RETURNS ONLY we decided to head down there and take a chance. We were lucky with the trains, getting onto a fast at Clapham, and arriving 45 minutes (and one sausage sandwich) later in the seaside resort so legendary amongst sarf Londoners like myself. Sadly we didn't have time to go crunching on the famous stony beach but we did get to the Brighton Dome Concert Hall well before the start time. Across the road there was a show (part of the same current Brighton Festival as the Len tribute) by The Ladyboys of Bangkok, which we agreed would probably be a suitable alternative if we couldn't get in to LenFest, but we needn't have worried because within about 3 minutes of queuing for "returns" we were in centre stalls seats and having a fabulous evening. Being a LenNerd, I did of course scribble down the set list on my programme as the show progressed, so "here", as Len himself once sang, "it is"...




After an intro of the "Promenade" theme from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (for some reason), in a slightly unnerving reversal of the curtain call tradition the show opens with all the performers taking the stage at once for an en-masse version of There Is A War. Nick Cave (black three-piece suit and shirt) and Jarvis Cocker (jeans, striped shirt, lank hair and big glasses) fight it out for the title of this evening's Tallest Celebrity Leonard Cohen Fan. Rufus Wainwright (dark suit, open-necked white shirt, chest hair, sideburns) camps it up slightly to stage left while sister Martha Wainwright (short blue skirt, hands in the pockets of her too-small white jacket) bends almost double to her stylishly-too-low mike. Original Cohen band backing singers Perla Batalla (long curly brown hair and flowery yellow & orange frock) and Julie Christensen (runner-up in the Tallest Celebrity Cohen Fan contest, bleach-blonde in a long black dress) contribute, well, backing vocals, really. Musical director Steve Bernstein (short, bald, dark suit) plays a stunning trumpet solo, otherwise the performance is a little bit chaotic (but we'll forgive them because it's only the opening number).


Everyone then goes off leaving Nick Cave to sing I'm Your Man with Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen. The backing band (drums, trumpet, baritone sax, double bass, guitar and three violins) replace Cohen's original humble Casio recording with a sleazy, deliberately-slightly-out-of-tune bar-room arrangement which fits the spirit of the song but is a bit hard on the ears. At the end Cave repeats the desperate refrain "I'm your man" waving his wiry arms in the air like a character in a rancid musical appealing hopelessly to the woman he loves. Perla and Julie can't quite hide their amusement.


Kate and Anna McGarrigle and Linda Thompson then come on and do a lovely acoustic version of Seems So Long Ago, Nancy. The McGarrigles (small, jeans, spectacles, acoustic guitars carefully fingerpicked) explain that they're there to represent Leonard Cohen's coffeehouse roots, adding that they get stools to sit on "because we're old". Linda Thompson (even smaller, in a spangly silver jacket) points out her lack of a stool and observes "I guess I'm just not old enough yet." The song finished, Linda T introduces The Handsome Family, who then don't appear because she's forgotten that according to the agenda she's now singing Story of Isaac, for which she grabs one of the McGarrigles' stools. A very nice version, again true to the starkness of the original, with a couple of nice bluesy twists.


The Handsome Family then do take the stage for a decidedly non-electronic version of A Thousand Kisses Deep. Brett Sparks (quiff, sideburns, goatee, Jarvis Cocker's glasses, general cowboy appearance) is the only singer here tonight who has a voice anywhere near as deep as Leonard Cohen's, while wife Rennie (long black and red dress, bright lipstick) harmonises over his baritone. Rob Burger's piano is very nice but guitarist Smokey Hormel takes a solo which feels a tad too loud and squealy for this otherwise "smoky" song.


Laurie Anderson (big trousers) then comes on with Perla & Julie to sing The Guests and play her funny violin-which-doesn't-look-or-sound-like-a-violin. Call me uncultured if you will but I honestly never knew she could actually sing - I always thought she was "just" an off-the-wall New York performance artist who made installations of herself lying on floors doing spoken-word things inspired by Moby Dick. So it's great to finally be corrected, as she sings this beautifully.


Martha Wainwright returns with an acoustic guitar to sing Tower of Song. I remember her doing a somewhat buskier version of it at the Leonard Cohen Experience on Hydra two years ago and singing "27 virgins from the great beyond" instead of "27 angels". This time it's a bit tighter, and virgins and angels are not confused. A really nice rearrangement, and Mrs Thoughtcat's favourite so far.


The backing band then perform Cohen's only instrumental, Tacoma Trailer, a beautiful Synclavier piece described as "somewhere between Chopin and Vangelis". Young US pianist and arranger Rob Burger (straggly beard, Huck Finn cap) plays it on his ordinary piano which gives it a slight Liberace feel. The piece starts off really well, sounding like the best song Leonard Cohen never put words to, but the band builds it up a little too ambitiously and Hormel's guitar again seems a bit overmuch.


Rufus Wainwright then returns with Julie & Perla and sister Martha to do Hallelujah. Musically it's nothing like Jeff Buckley's hauntingly beautiful cover, with which all subsequent versions are doomed to be compared - in fact, owing to Rufus's basic piano style, it's a bit metronomic - but his singing is great (even if he does have a habit of pronouncing the word "you" at the end of the lines literally rather than to rhyme with the last syllable of "hallelujah"), and moreover he takes a leaf out of Buckley's version by singing both the original four verses and the four "alternative" ones.


The Handsome Family then return to sing Ballad of the Absent Mare, to which trumpeter Steve Bernstein adds some fabulous mariachiesque licks. For the penultimate verse ("Now the clasp of this union / Who fastens it tight?"), the band lowers the volume and Brett Sparks speaks rather than sings the lines, rounding off the song like a voice-over epilogue to a beautiful movie.


The McGarrigles, Martha Wainwright and assorted others come back to do an upbeat, honky-tonk version of Came So Far For Beauty. This arrangement of a song which I've always considered a lament doesn't really work for me, but it's fun to see a schoolteacherly McGarrigle sister grooving away at the ivories as if she's been given a rare break from playing hymns and now has free rein to boogie.


Nick Cave then comes back and tears into Diamonds in the Mine. On the Spinal Tap scale of 1 to 11, the volume has so far this evening never risen above about 4, but he cranks it up to, well, not quite 11 but certainly 9. This must be my least favourite Leonard Cohen song ever but Cave pulls it off so well, grimacing fiercely and kicking and punching the air at every opportunity, that it's impossible not to love it. Cohen's original ska-inflected version is ditched in favour of a no-messing-about, in-yer-face 4/4 rocker. Somewhere around verse two, a stage-hand, who looks all of 14 years old, runs on in front of Cave to reconnect a cable and then runs back off again, adding to the surrealness of the performance, and then something even weirder happens. So far this evening most performers have been referring to lyric sheets placed on music stands; this has incidentally been a bit offputting, because while it means they get the words right, it has detracted from the spontaneity of some of the performances. When Cave comes on for this number he whips the lyric sheet off the stand and clutches it in one hand and the mike in the other, using the sheet as a prop rather than a guide. In doing so however he somehow manages to tangle his microphone lead around the stand, and at one point he yanks the mike so hard that the back of the stand falls off, exposing the lamps that light up the lyric sheets, so they're now glaring out beside him as if in sympathy with his furious delivery. Cave, now sneering to stage right, doesn't notice this, nor does he realise that the lead is stretched almost taut, so for the last verse the audience is on the edge of its seat, preparing itself to be mortified in case he tragically emasculates himself (er, vocally) in mid-rage. Thankfully this doesn't happen, the song finishes without further incident, and - partly from relief, I think - the audience gives him the biggest round of applause so far.


Julie Christensen then brings us all back to earth with an excellent rendition of A Singer Must Die, backed up very sympathetically by the house band. There are drums on this version, unlike the original, lending a kind of military flavour to the "courtroom of honour" imagery, and with Christensen's short, shiny blonde hair done up in a slightly old-fashioned style and her plain long black dress there is a definite Marlene Dietrich/Blue Angel/Night Porter feel to the whole thing. And is it me or does she invest a fair amount of sarcasm in the line "Sir I didn't see nothing, I was just getting home late", pointing up the lameness of this excuse with all its present political ramifications? Donald Rumsfeld in his Senate hearing springs to mind, but, trying as I am to have a nice evening, I dismiss him from my brain immediately.


Beth Orton (long hair over half her face; simple, silky, almost transparent white frock) comes on next to resounding applause and sings Stories of the Street. So far this evening the lighting has been subtle and neutral, but for this song Orton is backdropped in lime green, echoing the suitably uneasy (and excellent) arrangement of shuddery violins and spooky backing vocalisations by Julie & Perla.


Next up is Teddy Thompson, son of Linda and Richard Thompson ("the Clapton it's OK to like" according to the oh-so-hip Guardian Guide), all blond hair and off-white suit. Strumming his acoustic guitar so he looks and sounds uncannily like a young Bob Dylan, he eases into a lovely version of Tonight Will Be Fine, slowed from the original 4/4 to a tender 6/8 with a few chords and beats changed interestingly here and there. For me, this is what events such as this, and cover versions in general, are all about - not xeroxing the original but rendering your own interpretation. Thompson does this so well he makes it all his own, in particular lending the freshness of youth to these lines: "Sometimes I see her undressing for me / She's the soft naked lady love meant her to be / She's moving her body so brave and so free / If I've got to remember, that's a fine memory."


Jarvis Cocker then comes on for the first time since the mob-handed opening number. He takes the mike and says, "If any of you are sitting there with your legs crossed or dying for a drink, I've got good news and bad news. The good news is that this is the last song before the interval. The bad news is it's nine minutes long." There's much laughter, and then he urges us to "Stick with it!" Nobody's about to run out though if they can help it, as the rarely-seen Pulp star, accompanied by Beth Orton, begins a typically laconic version of the even-more-rarely-heard Death of a Ladies' Man. It's a great choice for the unlikely sex symbol, and his dry delivery and Sheffield accent turn the song instantly into a Pulp number, the more so for the funny little moves he does to "act out" certain lines - holding up a thread of cotton and dropping it as he sings "The man she wanted all her life was hanging by a thread", laying his finger under his nose for "his working-class moustache" and, best of all, giving his lanky hips a copyright Cocker sway to approximate "his cocky dance". I'm not sure if the song does last nine minutes but with its several false endings it probably feels like it for anyone who is actually crossing their legs. Brilliant stuff, and a superb ending to a fantastic first set.




After the interval - in which there is a queue for the gents as well as the ladies (I choose the gents) - and people begin milling back to their seats, the house band apparently starts tuning up, but after a few minutes it becomes clear that they're actually improvising on Improvisation. This is followed by the McGarrigle Sisters who come on and sing You Know Who I Am, again approximating the original, sparse Cohen arrangement.


Martha Wainwright follows and sings The Traitor. The backing band start with a slightly warped version of the original instrumental introduction to the song; so far, so good, but after that there's a dicey moment as Martha rushes the last line of the first verse, leaving the band a few beats behind. It's not clear whether the band are playing the original arrangement and Martha is singing a different one, or whether she made a genuine mistake to begin with, but either way from the second verse onward they all come together to perform the whole song the same way, and it works and it's delightful.


Beth Orton then returns with Perla and Julie to do Sisters of Mercy. Despite what I said above about the importance of original interpretations when doing cover versions, this near-photocopy of the original is fabulous - perhaps it's just more of a "classic" than some of the others, or is at least a bit more fragile than some Cohen songs, and so benefits from less messing-about-with. Whether the consumption of a bit more alcohol in the interval had anything to do with it I don't know but this is the first song of the evening to attract applause and whoops as it starts.


The Handsome Family come on again, Rennie Sparks now armed with a banjo. "We're bringing the white trash to the party now," she says, laughing, and they and the band launch into a full-on country-stomp version of Heart With No Companion, complete with bluegrass fiddle solo and some fine twangy guitar.


Perla Batalla then comes to the front of the stage, now barefoot and with her bubbly long hair spilling all over the shop. "I let my hair down because my daughter said to me 'You look like a dork'," she explains to much laughter. Then she says that the song she's about to sing is "my favourite of all Leonard Cohen's songs, I mean, if I had to choose a favourite, you know, if someone was holding a gun to my head and asked me what it was, I'd say this one." She then does a passionate version of Bird on the Wire, not only without recourse to those damn lyric sheets but with her eyes clamped shut for the entire song. She's a tiny woman, and a couple of times she cuts a Piaf-like figure, especially with the bare feet. She gets very nearly a standing ovation, or certainly the longest and loudest round of applause of the whole evening.


Rufus Wainwright returns and sings an equally passionate Chelsea Hotel No. 2. I have to say how much difference it makes to the interpretation of these songs when men, especially, sing them without accompanying themselves on guitar, piano or any other instrument: it's hard to explain the difference exactly, but the songs just seem less "folky" and more interesting. Certainly, Wainwright's magnetic performance of this is the more so for the fact that he's just singing: taking centre stage, the mike on a stand, his eyes closed, his hands held out and gesturing, his legs apart, his rings glinting in the lights, the first few buttons of his shirt open (I mean, I'm straight, right, but even I can see how gorgeous he is), and completely into the lyric, he turns this into more or less a torch song, exploiting the sexual ambiguity of the words (no gender is ever mentioned, after all) to heartbreaking effect. Even the simple lyrical change of "We were running for the money and the flesh" into "We were living for the money and the flesh" seems to have deeper, more desolate resonances. Another outstanding reinterpretation.


Laurie Anderson now comes back with Perla and Julie and her funny violin for a sumptuous and reverently quiet rendition of the prayer-like If It Be Your Will.


Julie and Perla stay where they are and The Handsome Family return. "Oh! It's the Handsomes!" says Julie Christensen, feigning surprise at another song by the country duo. It's not really clear whether she's being sarcastic or not. "We're gonna do a song about a raincoat now," growls Brett Sparks, and accordingly the band go into a very nice version of Famous Blue Raincoat, complete with a backdrop of rainstorm-blue lighting. Guitarist Smokey Hormel slaps on loads of echo and reverb to crank up the atmospherics.


Linda and Teddy Thompson come back on. Linda is now wearing a white jumper in place of the spangly, shimmery jacket she started with. I'm just about to whisper to Mrs Thoughtcat "Where's her jacket gone?" when she (Linda T, not Mrs Thoughtcat) says, "In case any of you are wondering what happened to my sparkly jacket, Rufus Wainwright came up to me backstage and said..." And here I'm thinking she'll say that he asked if he could wear it, but the truth is much funnier. I can't remember exactly what she said he said, but it was something to the effect of "I really like your jacket" - "But what I heard him say was 'That jacket makes you look like Fat Elvis!'" There's much laughter and groaning, following which Linda T adds urgently, "That's not what he said, it's just what I heard!" Rufus can then be heard to shout camply from the wings, "I never said that!", forcing Linda to say a second time that "he didn't say it at all, but..." and digging herself into a deeper and deeper hole. Anyway, the mother-and-son team then perform a very nice version of Alexandra Leaving, surprisingly only the second song from Cohen's latest album so far. After finishing the song Teddy hugs his mother from behind and kisses her and for a moment it's all a bit sentimental-cum-Oedipal.


Nick Cave returns with Perla and Julie for a nervy reinvention of Suzanne, several times the speed of the original (which in other words brings it up to about normal speed). It doesn't quite come off, but it's an interesting idea, and Cave even singing the song at all (especially given his other more obvious choices) certainly throws new light on it.


It's now 10.30 and annoyingly Mrs Thoughtcat and I have to catch the last train back to London in a short while, so are only able to stay for one more song, even though there's probably at least another half an hour of the show left. Thankfully the last song we hear is one of the best all night. Teddy Thompson comes back on and says to the audience, "How's it going?" We shout back that it's going very well, thank you. "It's funny that, innit?" he says. "Nobody's said anything for the whole gig." Someone in the audience, thinking this is an invitation to a conversation, starts trying to talk to him, to which he responds by turning to the band and saying, "Well, I'm ready!" and adding his Dylanesque strums to a storming version of The Future. A few rows ahead of us are three post-punk-type Brighton girls, all bone-thin with luminous twisted hair, black lace bras and tattoos. When Teddy sings "Give me crack and anal sex" they all fall about. During the ensuing applause we become the sort of people we hate by forcing half the row to get up to allow us out, and as we leave the auditorium Rufus Wainwright is saying "I dedicate this next song to Doris Day." We don't have time to hear what song it is, so the mind boggles...


It's annoying that we had to leave the gig there, but having seen some superb performances of nearly 30 Cohen songs we can't say we didn't get value for money. Of course getting home on the last (slow) train from Brighton, trying to fill our rumbling stomachs with cocktail sausages and crisps from Marks & Spencers, listening to the inane ramblings of drunk geezers on the other side of the carriage, and then catching another train to Kingston and then a bus back to Twickenham to finally arrive home at 2am wasn't much fun... but even that didn't take the edge off it for me. Roll on the Leonard Cohen Experience in New York next month!



22nd May


Having recently realised the ambition to write a novel, during which arduous process I wasn't able to read any fiction for fear of stylistic infection (a nasty and embarrassing condition that authors catch very easily), I've finally been able to catch up on some of the books I missed out on first time around. I recently finished Mark Haddon's wonderful The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, about which so much has been written that to heap any more praise on it would seem redundant, but I will point out the obvious and say that (a) the narrator, Christopher, was so beautifully and convincingly drawn that he was still there every time I closed the book, and (b) the feat Haddon pulls off in not only creating such an unusual, distanced, marginalised, original, "dehumanised" and generally odd character in the first place but to make him so sympathetic and identifiable-with to boot is simply incredible.


It's hard to choose a favourite passage from the book but I was especially affected by this, from page 43 of the Vintage 'adult' edition:


When people die they are sometimes put into coffins which means that they don't mix with the earth for a very long time until the wood of the coffin rots.

    But Mother was cremated. This means that she was put into a coffin and burnt and ground up and turned into ash and smoke. I do not know what happens to the ash and I couldn't ask at the crematorium because I didn't go to the funeral. But the smoke goes out of the chimney and into the air and sometimes I look up into the sky and I think that there are molecules of Mother up there, or in clouds over Africa or the Antarctic, or coming down in rain in the rainforests of Brazil, or in snow somewhere.


Poetry - especially so because that's the end of a chapter.


Also, as a whatever-you'd-call-the-complete-opposite-of-a-maths-genius myself, I expected to be put off by all the references to algebra, factors, prime numbers, time-space continuums (continuua?) and the like, but Christopher (not Haddon - see, I told you he was real!) explains these complex issues with such devastating simplicity that I even found myself demonstrating the "two cars and a goat" puzzle (aka The Monty Hall Problem) to my wife at the dinner table. You too can do this at home! Here's how:


1. Obtain three identical cups.

2. Put them upside-down on a table and secrete a coin (or other suitable object) under one of them, and Nothing under the other two. (Supplies of Nothing can be obtained free from inside George W. Bush's head.)

3. Switch the cups around, being sure to remember which one has the coin underneath.

4. Invite wife/husband/son/daughter/boyfriend/girlfriend/cleaning lady/anyone you can get to name which of the cups he/she/it thinks is hiding the coin.

5. Keeping the chosen cup where it is, turn over one of the remaining two cups that you know has Nothing underneath it.

6. Invite cleaning lady etc to either stick with the cup he/she has chosen or change to the other one.

7. Depending on their choice, turn over the finally selected cup. If they stuck with their choice, mathematically they will almost certainly have turned up Nothing. But if they changed their choice of cup, they will most likely win the coin.

8. To demonstrate this most effectively, play the game several more times.


Meanwhile, I've just started A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, a book I ignored for years because both the title and the fact that everyone else in the universe was reading it and saying how apposite the title was altogether put me off, and I have to report that, er, it's quite good, actually. The first section with all the prefaces and acknowledgments and general metafictional doodlings I could have done without (irrespective of Eggers's own description of them as "optional", which I thought was disingenuous - I mean, you're not really going to skip all that, are you?), especially as when he finally does get down to the actual story he proves immediately through both his style and technique that the self-consciousness and self-justification is all completely unnecessary. Eggers's high-octane style is hugely infectious: it does for the "writer" part of me what a great piece of music does to the "guitar-player" part of me - it makes me want to run to the word processor, plug in and start playing along. And apart from anything else, as a sometime office temp myself, on page 85 (Picador edition), Eggers articulates many of my own thoughts about this occupation, so I feel obliged to note them down for posterity:


The temp doesn't have to pretend that he cares about their company, and they don't have to pretend thay owe him anything. And finally, just when the job, like almost any job would, becomes too boring to continue, when the temp has learned anything he could have learned, and has milked it for the $18/hr and whatever kitsch value it may have had, when to continue anymore would be a sort of death and would show a terrible lack of respect for his valuable time - usually after three or four days - then, neatly enough, his assignment is over. Perfect.


Amazon links to both books and interviews and other sites relating to their authors are given, as ever, in Thoughtcat's books by the bed section.




18th May


It has to be said that with the odd small exception, I haven't updated the poetry & fiction and images pages of Thoughtcat for, well, since they were created a year ago, really. So it is with much pleasure that I report that original Thoughtcat contributor Cat Milne has sent me a delightful new short story which appears here in a web exclusive. Click here to read Touching the Elefunt.




17th May


Beryl Bainbridge is interviewed in today's Independent. In a shocking revelation, the legendary 70-year-old smoker and sometime novelist confesses she's finally given up the dreaded weed - and has in consequence now suffered a writer's block so severe that she's unable to continue with her latest novel. "It's something like - I'm 17, and having supper at the Ritz (which I never did)," she says, sketching the novel's plot, "and then I go back with a group of people in 1997 and dine at the Ritz the night it all happened [ie the car crash that killed Princess Diana]. And it's either my fault or that of the chap who's driving me. I don't know, I've only done 40 pages." It sounds fascinating, I tell her [writes the journalist]. "Well, it could be," she replies evenly. "Maybe I'll have to take up smoking to write it."




14th May


More dispatches are coming in from Thoughtcat's regulars (which is just as well, actually, as I've been pretty busy and/or lazy myself lately on the old blogging front. Actually, let's be honest, Thoughtcat isn't really a blog, as anyone who has visited - lately, or at any other time really - will surely know. I don't use proper blogging software or formatting, and moreover I don't post comments with precise dates, times and credits. I mean, it says "14th May" here but I'm not writing this on 14th May, I'm writing it several days later. Thoughtcat is more like a kind of not-very-personal diary which I update when I want, usually in large chunks, retrospectively, on a weekly basis, and which therefore obviously makes me out to be a total fraud.)


Anyway, as I was saying. Thoughtcat's Agent in Vermont was researching divorce law in her home state the other day and came across the following on The Vermont Statutes Online (not to be confused with the Vermont Statues Online, which is something else altogether). Neither of us could quite believe the archaic language used in these pieces of state legislation, and I couldn't resist reproducing them here...



15 V.S.A. 512. Voidable marriages-Grounds for annulment generally

512. Voidable marriages-Grounds for annulment generally

The marriage contract may be annulled when, at the time of marriage, either party had not attained the age of sixteen years or was an idiot or lunatic or physically incapable of entering into the marriage state or when the consent of either party was obtained by force or fraud.

Title 15: Domestic Relations



15 V.S.A. 514. -Party an idiot or lunatic

514. -Party an idiot or lunatic

(a) When a marriage is sought to be annulled on the ground of the idiocy of one of the parties, it may be declared void on the complaint of a relative of such idiot at any time during the life of either of the parties.

(b) When a marriage is sought to be annulled on the ground of the lunacy of one of the parties, on the complaint of a relative of the lunatic, such marriage may be declared void during the continuance of such lunacy, or after the death of the lunatic in that condition and during the lifetime of the other party to the marriage.

(c) The marriage of a lunatic may be declared void upon the complaint of a lunatic after restoration to reason, but a decree of nullity shall not be pronounced if the parties freely cohabited as husband and wife after the lunatic was restored to sound mind.

(d) If an action is not prosecuted by a relative, the marriage of an idiot or a lunatic may be annulled during the lifetime of both the parties to the marriage, on the complaint of a person admitted by the court to prosecute as the next friend of such idiot or lunatic.

(e) The word "lunatic" as used in sections 511-514 of this title shall extend to persons of unsound mind other than idiots.

Can you believe this stuff?? Reading this, anyone would think that US lawmakers are stuck in the middle ages.




11th May


Fionacat sends me a link to a horrifying article in the LA Times today by a British woman who made the mistake of trying to go to the US on a freelance press assignment. Elena Lappin not only didn't get to do the assignment or spend a week holidaying in California with friends, but she was handcuffed, frogmarched out of immigration, put in a jail cell overnight with a TV that couldn't be turned off, verbally abused by her guards and deported the next day. And why? Was she a terrorist? No - she didn't have a press visa to enter the country. As a rule, British passport holders such as Lappin can travel visa-free to the States under the visa-waiver programme, but carry a pen and a notepad these days and you're clearly a threat to national security. As she shrewdly points out, the only other countries in the world that demand that foreign journalists apply for special visas are Cuba, Syria, Iran and North Korea.




Meanwhile the Guardian prints the following excellent letter from reader Peter Betts: "Have I got this right? Torture is terrible but killing is OK. How else are we to interpret the profuse apologies for the abuse of prisoners but not a murmur about the tens of thousands killed in this illegal war?"




8th May


Orwellian Doublespeak of the Day: Donald Rumsfeld saying at his Senate grilling over the revelations of "abuse" at Abu Ghraib prison, "If I felt I could not be effective I'd resign in a minute. I would not resign just because people were trying to make a political issue of it." A political issue?! Beggar the thought, Don!


Elsewhere in today's Guardian there is a beautifully written essay by Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman on the subject of torture - sadly, something he knows a fair bit about. It's an astonishing piece of writing, and highly challenging.


There's also a review of legendary US political journalist Bob Woodward's new book, Plan of Attack. Apart from his discovery that the Iraq war was on Dick Cheney's agenda from day one of Bush's "election", and that "the head of the CIA regarded the notorious 45-minute claim [central to Tony Blair's case for joining the war] as 'shit' and had warned the British to that effect", Woodward throws disturbing light on the "dysfunctionality" of the White House under Dubya's (mal)administration: "Bush goes to bed at 8.45pm; General Franks is at work by 3am; everyone phones everyone else at 6am and Colin Powell takes a call from the French foreign minister to discuss the wording of a UN resolution 20 minutes before he is due to walk his daughter down the aisle."




On a more lighthearted note (and Gawd knows you've got have a few, eh!), comedian and short-story writer Alexei Sayle describes his creative writing methods in the Guardian's weekly Paperback Writer column, lamenting some fiction authors' over-indulgence in research. "Unfortunately, coupled with scrupulous fact-finding there is often a total neglect of the basic business of storytelling. Some writers forget that they are engaged in the business of creating fiction, inventing ideas, characters and places - they should be making exciting stuff up, when all they are doing is copying boring stuff down."


I blow hot and cold with Sayle's writing, incidentally. I enjoyed a good chunk of his first short-story collection, Barcelona Plates, while wincing at certain stylistic traits and clumsy phrasing which suggested that he would do well to get himself a decent editor. And, having now investigated the BBC's End of Story competition a bit more closely (qv TC 22nd April), I have to say that Sayle's contribution is not just crap but embarrassingly crap. Thankfully there are several other stories to choose from, Sue Townsend's being especially interesting.




4th May


The BBC reports that Warren Zevon's song Werewolves of London has topped a Radio 2 listeners' poll for the best opening lyric of a song. I mean, fair enough - "I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand, walking through the streets of Soho in the rain" is pretty good, but is there no end to these ludicrous "best this, that and the other" polls the Beeb can come up with? Surreally meanwhile, an early version of the story on the BBC's site gave Zevon's name as "Zuton" several times. How do these people get their jobs? That's what I want to know...



3rd May


Got back yesterday from a very nice weekend with Thoughtcat's Man in Cheltenham. We drank too much, partied til 3am, played with chameleons and went out for a full English breakfast. "Played with chameleons??" I hear you ask. Yes: TC's MIC's flatmate keeps two of the reptilian personages as pets. I'd never been right up close to a chameleon before, and have to report that they're very friendly, ponderous and thoughtful creatures. And they change colour so often that you could never get bored with them! Here is Thoughtcat himself with one of the chromatically gifted characters:




And here I am again a few moments later...


Feeling off-colour?


Apart from all that, I have to report some surprising information about the trains we took on our journey from London and back. All six trains ran precisely on time, with the exception of one which was held up (by four minutes) because of a sick passenger on the train in front. Not only that, but the four toilets I used both on the trains and stations were clean, had hot running water, soap and functional hand-dryers. Is this a record?




Meanwhile, today's Guardian reports that the electric guitar is "going digital". Legendary guitar-maker Gibson claims its digital guitar will "enable the gods of rock to reach a new level of licks... 'It opens a whole new palette of possibilities,' said Henry Juszkiewicz, the chief executive of Gibson." Or possibly just opportunities to make money by revamping something that's much better left alone. As a bloke from some company called Gruhn Guitars is quoted, "I can't see it taking over the world. People want an electric guitar for soul." Anyway, I hate to be pedantic but contrary to the Guardian's report this isn't the world's first digital guitar. Anyone remember the Synthaxe? Only 10,000 a pop, weighed a ton and a, er, design classic...


The Synthaxe - niiiiiiiiice!!



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