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November 2004

7th November


Lots of stuff has happened since I last updated the blog, which was a few weeks ago now as I've been pretty busy, and I'm just grabbing a few moments now before I disappear again, so this will have to be a kind of digest...




Everything was looking so promising... all my hopes were up that things would change... a new start and all that... but despite a no-expenses-spared publicity campaign, All My Own Work failed to gather enough votes to win the / PABD "Search for the Great Reads" Competition. As my old mate Tom said when he heard the news, "Gaaaaahhhh!!!" Oh well, never mind - just to be shortlisted was an achievement, and my hearty congratulations go out to the winner, Chris Bell, whom I've known (albeit on a purely "internet basis") for a few years as a fine writer and fellow Russell Hoban fan, and also as a contributor to Thoughtcat in its early days as a "literary webzine" (so for once you really did read it here first!) Chris's novel Liquidambar certainly deserved the win, being a beautifully written surrealist thriller and imaginative tour-de-force set amongst the paintings of Edward Hopper, which thanks to the competition will soon be available from Amazon and other good book retailers.


And as for the disappointment of the US elections last week, don't even get me started. As my old mate Tom said when he heard the news, "Double gaaaaaahhhhhh!!!!" Suffice to say that this article in the Guardian reporting on the collective depression that befell millions of us on Wednesday probably put it best, although these letters managed to say it more succinctly (the last one best of all).


Without wanting to be cynical, I guess I shouldn't be so surprised Bush won, partly because he's been so successful in selling The War Against Terror (acronym: TWAT) to US voters - in other words, terrifying the living daylights out of ordinary people - but also, it must be said, because John Kerry lacked dynamism and wasn't enough of an alternative. The news in the weeks before the election that it was too close to call should have told us not to get our hopes up - it's easy to say speak in retrospect, but a close call wasn't going to be nearly enough to get Bush out. To be assured of victory the Democrats needed another Clinton, and Kerry wasn't him.





I'm happy to say though that the week improved dramatically, climaxing with a trip to the Royal Festival Hall yesterday for The Second Mrs Kong Study Day, an afternoon of talks and presentations about Harrison Birtwistle's opera The Second Mrs Kong, for which Thoughtcat's favourite novelist Russell Hoban wrote the libretto. The opera was originally performed at Glyndebourne in 1992 and is receiving a part-staged performance at the RFH next Tuesday, and the Study Day anticipated that, with talks from a couple of academicy characters and both Birtwistle and Hoban doing a Q&A session. The libretto is hilarious, packed with familar Hoban obsessions and ideas, and its central philosophy that it is "the longing for what cannot be" which makes the world go round (rather than love) is to me highly profound. To be honest the music isn't my cup of tea and even as a sometime guitarist I found the presentation of some of the score bewildering, packed with weird time signatures and torrents of self-avowedly random notes. At one point in the Q&A Birtwistle was talking about a section of the opera in which he was presented with the challenge of presenting a "late night in New York/Chicago/big city" scene within a few bars of music, and found the best way to do this was simply to write the instruction "a bit bluesy" on the score, which made me wonder what the point of all the bizarre stuff was. Still, I'm not much of a modernist when it comes to music, so what would I know! Russell Hoban though was on great form, talking about how an early draft of the opera had a submarine and Joseph Goebbels in it, and testifying to Kong's potency "even though he doesn't have a willy". There were some interesting discussions about the connection of beauty and terror, although I was too shy to pipe up and ask the panel whether they thought Kong was more terrified of Pearl (the "second Mrs Kong" of the title, Vermeer's famous Girl with a Pearl Earring) than she was of him. The afternoon was even better for meeting several other Hoban fans from the 60-strong audience and managing to sit down with them and Russ himself for a cup of tea afterwards.




Perhaps the best thing that's happened on the Hoban front this week though is that a few friends and I from the international Hoban community The Kraken, launched The Russell Hoban Some-Poasyum, a fan convention for our favourite writer to take place in London on 11-13 February 2005. This has actually been cooking for several months and the committee has secured some exciting activities for the weekend, including an appearance by Russell Hoban himself at Nomad Books in Fulham, a Punch & Judy show and a day trip to Canterbury Cathedral in honour of his classic novel Riddley Walker, a guided tour of Hoban's London by yours truly and two group dinners, one at Russ's longtime favourite restaurant Il Fornello in Bloomsbury and another at the legendary Troubadour club in Earl's Court (or Kensington as the owner prefers it!) I and the other committee members - calling ourselves The Tentacle, being as we are a small bit of The Kraken - are very excited about this and hope lots of Hoban fans from the web and elsewhere can come along next February and help celebrate the work and 80th birthday of what The Times once called "the most original novelist we have". Full details can be seen on the convention website,





I received a lovely email the other day from one Tony Penultimate, a member of the brilliant band The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, saying he's just released an album of his own songs and would I like to hear it? I would indeed, I replied, and have to say it's a fine album of superbly written and very funny songs which brings to mind the Bonzos, the Rutles, Frank Zappa, Noel Coward and a host of other, well, groovy characters who write (or wrote) funny songs. Soppy and the Sentimentals is available from Amazon.


Less interesting, I'm sorry to say, among recent CD releases is Leonard Cohen's latest album Dear Heather. I'd say it has maybe three or four absolutely gorgeous songs on it - my favourites being There For You, Undertow, The Letters and The Faith - but there are also two or three pretty dire things on there as well. The title track especially is without question the worst thing he's ever put out. I'm not such a Cohen obsessive that I think he's without fault, and would agree completely that he's released a few dodgy songs in his time, but normally even if the arrangement, composition or production (or all three) are dodgy there's always a fantastic lyric to redeem everything, but this track doesn't even redeem itself on a lyrical level, which is unheard-of in relation to a man who famously spends years refining his lyrics. He's also famously refuted on several occasions the accusation that he set poetry to music - "I'm not that bad!" the bona-fide poet has said, "I know the difference between a poem and a song!" But the only way Dear Heather (the track) can be understood is as a second-rate weird Cohen poem recited to a clunky synthesiser backing. There's at least one other track on the album similarly dubiously conceived but it's so bad I can't even remember the title. Having said all that, however, I would still say that the half of the album that isn't bad is bloody good, with beautiful vocal turns from Sharon Robinson and Anjani Thomas and long-overdue reappearances of longtime Cohen bandmembers Raffi Hakoupian and John Bilezijkian on sublime violin and oud respectively.





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