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Thoughtcat

last updated Sunday June 21, 2009

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November 2003

 

 

30th November

 

MY TEASPOON, MY WIFE AND ME

 

I am nothing if not a creature of habit.  In just about every area of life, I find a routine quickly and I stick to it.  Take the way I make a cup of tea: firstly I need the right teabags (Yorkshire Tea is my longtime favourite, although anything strong and flavourful will do), as well as semi-skimmed milk and white granulated sugar.  Secondly I need a good mug: it has to be a decent size, sufficient both to brew the tea (too small and itís too strong; too large, too weak) and make the drink last a good thirty to forty minutes; it should be unfussily decorated, either with one or two strong colours or a simple pattern; and it needs to have a rim that feels comfortable on my lips, neither too thick nor too thin, and definitely not chipped, encrusted or cracked.  Thirdly, the water needs to be just boiled, the electric kettle clicking off exactly as I pour the water into the mug and onto the bag.  Finally, the spoon needs to be right. 

 

At the risk of ending up in Private Eyeís ĎMe and my Spooní feature, Iíve always had a thing about A Good Teaspoon.  Obviously it has to be metal: I canít stand those plastic spoons you find in budget cafťs, and especially not those ridiculous Ďstirrersí that donít even look like spoons as favoured by McDonalds.  Iím not hot on metal spoons with plastic handles, either: I need to feel that steel.  The spoon also has to have a large bowl Ė not so big that it becomes a tablespoon exactly, but, after years of using reasonably-bowled spoons, small spoons confuse my sugar measurements, and worst of all used teabags have a tendency to fall off small spoons in the process of being transferred from the mug to the bin, the bag either ending up on the floor or, worse, dropping back into the mug from a height of several inches, causing the tea to slop out over the sides of the mug and, by adding more tea to the water, altering the strength of the brew Iíd just a few seconds before judged to be precisely right. 

 

My only other teaspoon requirement is that the older it is, the better.  Using a brand new teaspoon, even a gleaming silver one, does nothing for me: I need a stainless steel spoon that is actually stained.  I should emphasise the difference between Ďstainedí and Ďdirtyí Ė I always rinse a spoon before using it, but I like a teaspoon stained golden-brown from years of stirring, tattooed by decades of tannin.  Iím not sure why this is: perhaps it makes me think of past generations using the same spoon in old kitchens to make tea thirty, fifty, eighty years ago perhaps, when all the teaspoons of my imagination were made of stained stainless steel, when things were authentic and had a bit of style, before everything was cheapened by plastic and denim, when men wore hats and suits and ties no matter what job they did (or even if was their day off, come to that), when there were Lyonsí Corner Houses instead of McDonalds, when tea really was tea... I mean, I could get carried away.  But this is beside the point. 

 

The point is that there is a particular spoon I always use for making tea which matches exactly the above criteria.  In fairness to myself, Iím not really a spoon-nerd; itís the comfortableness of the spoon Iíve ended up using that has set the standard, not the other way round.  I always use the same one despite having a selection in my kitchen of at least a dozen.  Mum and Dad gave them all to me, together with a bunch of other kitchen utensils, in a job lot when I left home some ten years ago now.  They didnít need to give me so many teaspoons, but being the way they are, it wouldnít have happened any other way: theyíre the sort of people who have at least three of every household object you can imagine, and in most cases about three hundred Ė pillows, blankets, towels or teaspoons, you name it, theyíve got half a drawerful going spare. 

 

The spoon in question is just over five inches in length.  The bowl is one and three-quarter inches long, exactly an inch at its widest point and just over a quarter of an inch deep; heaped with sugar it makes for one sweet drink, even in a big mug.  With the exception of a sliver of shine across the bottom of the bowl where the spoon sits on its base, the metal is worn and scuffed as well as stained, such that hardly anything is reflected in it beyond a blur.  My face appears in that fragment of shine, my nose even longer than it already is, my lips protruding, my head curved and exaggerated fisheye-style.  There are no patterns on the spoon except a simple design of two adjacent semi-circles at the tip of the handleís underside.  One way up it looks like a wide, curvy W; turned upside-down it becomes the top of an owlís face; on its side itís a crescent moon with a pointed nose in the middle, like an illustration you might find in a childrenís storybook.  A little way in from the pattern are five tiny stamps in the metal: the first four read, respectively, E, P, N, S, the last A1, as if denoting excellence, perfection; research reveals the spoon is actually not stainless steel but silver-plated.  Itís a good spoon, and I love using it, to the point where if I lose it I get depressed, and a cup of tea or coffee made with another spoon just doesnít taste the same. 

 

True, itís very rare for me not to be able to find my spoon, as Iím very protective of it.  But sometimes my wife hides it.

 

Okay, in honesty I donít think she deliberately hides the spoon; its disappearance generally coincides with her doing the washing-up, and where I dry the spoon and return it immediately to its home (a cup on the worksurface) after washing it, she just buries it in the cutlery drainer with all the other utensils.  I get it back in the end but only after a prolonged and precarious game of Kitchen Utensil Ker-Plunk, where if Iím not careful the removal of the wrong fork at the wrong moment can bring a large Sabatier down on my foot.  No, thereís no malicious intent on behalf of my wifeís kitchen behaviour: I think she simply doesnít relate to my position on this whole teaspoon issue.  And rightly so; I think it would be a bad day for our relationship if I were to ever say to her, ďLook, please donít hide this teaspoon.  I need to know where it is at all times.  I canít make a cup of tea with any other spoon.  If you use it, please put it back here where I can find it.Ē  I mean, shades of Sleeping With the Enemy or what?

 

Sometimes Iíll go into the kitchen after my wife has made a cup of tea, and see the spoon she used lying rinsed on the draining board: it might be a gimmicky cartoon one that came as a free gift with a box of Tetley about 20 years ago, or one with a blue plastic handle that came in a cutlery set (a Christmas present from my Nan), or even a plain, ordinary, unpatterned, tinny, almost flat one which I donít know the origin of at all but never use if I can help it.  Try as I might, I can find neither rhyme nor reason to my wifeís teaspoon choice; she just seems to take one at random from Mum and Dad's original selection.  This is possibly the main difference between us: Iím a creature of habit; sheís flexible.  I tend to want to keep things the way they are; she likes to change them periodically.  But I can live with all this.  This sort of thing is what marriage is all about.

 

 

The teaspoon in question

 

*

 

Meanwhile, back on planet earth, the Sindy's Talk of the Town magazine runs a lovely piece by a blogger called qB, about how discovering the Samuel Pepys Diaries online and consequently starting up her own blog earlier this year helped her recover from a nervous breakdown. Very inspirational, interesting and gentle writing. I went straight online after reading it and discovered an excellent blog too (www.frizzylogic.org). The internet often gets a negative press but this was an uplifting story about how the web can help people reach out and connect.

 

Following frizzylogic's links took me to another very well-written blog called londonmark, the latest post for which features a superb piece called Y is for You.

 

Talk of the Town meanwhile also carries an article by Tania Glyde headlined "Why do so many people have children when they are unable to bring them up?" While she does have a good point about the rudeness of some kids and the apparent impossibility of doing anything about it, even when they put their hand up your skirt as one 8-year-old did to her in Ladbroke Grove recently, the headlinular question is a bit naieve. "Why does society smile with such faceless, sentimental blandness when anyone announces that they are pregnant, as if that were a sacred state beyond question?" she asks. Er, what are you supposed to say, exactly? "Get rid of it immediately, it'll only grow up to be a nasty little devil"?

 

 

*

 

Went to bed very late last night after watching Channel 4's Sexiest 100 Moments, or Top 100 Sexy Moments or whatever it was called, in its entirety. Whilst generally disapproving of this cheap and unimaginative TV "list" format (100 Scariest Moments, 100 Funniest Moments, The Big Read etc), this compilation was annoyingly compelling and enjoyable. I'd completely forgotten about the hilarious Jeff Goldblum/Emma Thompson scene in The Tall Guy, and the dodgy bit between Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve in the even dodgier The Hunger, so it was good to be reminded of those and others from a hazy past. Personally I think the omission of a favourite scene from Desert Hearts was an oversight but my second favourite, Betty Blue, was represented with no less than two excellent clips. Tragically though the four hours of sexy excerpts left me more exhausted than stimulated...

 

 

 

29th November

 

The Independent reports that left-wing US billionaire (and let's face it, you don't see those words together very often) George Soros has donated a large chunk of his fortune to various anti-Dubya causes, in the belief that the defeat of George W. Bush in next year's presidential election is "a matter of life and death". "So far, he has spent more than $15m," reports the paper, "two-thirds of it going to a liberal-leaning group called America Coming Together, which intends to mobilise voters in battleground states next November; $3m of it going to a new Washington think-tank run by Bill Clinton's former chief of staff, John Podesta; and $2.5m to the passionately anti-Bush internet lobbying group MoveOn.org, to help pay for television advertisements attacking the President." Soros writes: "The supremacist ideology of the Bush Administration stands in opposition to the principles of an open society, which recognise that people have different views and that nobody is in possession of the ultimate truth... When President Bush says, as he does frequently, that freedom will prevail, he means that America will prevail. In a free and open society, people are supposed to decide for themselves what they mean by freedom and democracy, and not simply follow America's lead ... A chasm has opened between America and the rest of the world." I think he means "a political chasm", since America and the rest of the world is bridged quite comprehensively by Gap, Starbucks, Levis and one or two other US brands.

 

 

*

 

The Independent also has a profile of Benjamin Zephaniah, further to his rejection of an OBE earlier this week, while the Guardian prints several letters on the topic, from readers mostly in support of his decision. One reader writes, "Why don't we just rename it the Order of British Excellence so we can all go home?" I think toning down the "empire" bit is a very worthy point, but even if this were to happen, the gongs would still be presented by the Queen, so it wouldn't make much difference to anti-establishment Brits like Zephaniah.

 

 

 

28th November

 

The Independent (and just about every other paper in the known universe) reports on George Bush's surprise thanksgiving visit to US troops in Baghdad. I'm amazed all these organs have been taken in by this, not just because it's a huge publicity stunt but because it's quite clearly not Dubya but one of his infamous doubles, or maybe Dubyables as George would probably have it. Furthermore, just to make sure we know where Bush and the US administration are at, the paper reports that "no American president has visited a war zone since Richard Nixon flew to Vietnam in 1969."

 

 

*

 

Elsewhere in the Independent today Liverpool poet Roger McGough is interviewed, while the Guardian carries a piece by ace US novelist Don DeLillo on "cinema and memory".

 

 

27th November

 

Benjamin Zephaniah has rejected the offer of an OBE in protest at the UK's past involvement in slavery, British colonialism, the institution of the monarchy, the UK's involvement in Iraq, Tony Blair's phoney "cool Britannia" project, and the suspicious recent death of his cousin in a police station. The Guardian today carries a piece by the poet on his bold move.

 

 

*

 

Nude scenes featuring Ewan McGregor in his latest film Young Adam have been censored for delicate US audiences, reports the Guardian. "If you want to see my penis, you'll have to fly to Britain," McGregor tells Americans. I don't exactly envisage a mass exodus from the States for that express purpose but McGregor does have a point in pointing up the absurdity of such a stance by a country which hasn't been reported to have censored any excision of limbs in, say, Kill Bill, or even in Baghdad, come to that.

 

 

 

25th November

 

I'm not really a rugby sort of cat - I've never been into any sports, in all honesty - but it would be churlish not to register my concatulations to England for their weekend victory over, er, the other team in the World Cup. The Independent reports today on the national feelgood effects of the win, which are sure to be substantial, although I have to admit I'm with poet Michael Rosen when he says, "When kids want to play football all they need is a couple of jumpers for goalposts. It [rugby] will never break out of its middle-class ghetto. Where in the inner cities do they get the H-posts for rugby or the space to play it? And you can't explain the rules to anyone under 10." Or over 10 in Thoughtcat's case. The Times meanwhile reports that poet laureate Andrew Motion is having problems composing an ode to the victory because he can't find a rhyme for Wilkinson, and requests suggestions by email. Although I think British poetry must be in a pretty dire state if the poet laureate can't find a rhyme, I couldn't resist the challenge. How about:

 

England's days of shame are gone -
We're one nation under Wilkinson.

 

Or, as an ode to those middle-class roots:

 

Pull your finest moleskins on,
Get out and worship Wilkinson.

 

(Thanks to the Penguin Rhyming Dictionary for help with the second one.)

 

 

24th November

 

I belatedly came across this excellent piece by Alan Warner in Saturday's Guardian Weekend about his most embarrassing moment (part of the magazine's series and book called "Mortification: Writers' Stories Of Their Public Shame"). About half way through this account of how his elderly neighbours mistook him for another Alan Warner, asking him to sign the other writer's books, I did start to wonder whether the whole thing was actually true, but it doesn't matter - it's hilarious.

 

*

 

Meanwhile, Fionacat sends me a link to a first-hand account on ZNet of the scenes in Miami this weekend which saw dozens of people shot with rubber bullets and blasted with pepper spray after peacefully protesting against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas.

 

 

22nd November

 

Russell Hoban writes a charming short piece in today's Guardian headlined "Jazz riffs in stone", about the relationship between God, 12th century sculptor Gislebertus and 20th century piano genius Thelonious Monk, as explored in his superb 2002 novel The Bat Tattoo, recently issued in paperback. "I've seen Michelangelo's Pietŗs and his Moses, the Medici tomb and his David," writes Hoban. "He could do a lot of things, but [unlike Gislebertus] he couldn't do funky; he couldn't cut the blues in stone, couldn't chisel jazz riffs in a minor key. Take him up one side and down the other, he's not crazy enough for me..."

 

*

 

"Bad causes need martyrs," writes Matthew Parris in today's Times. "The War on Terror, as conceived by the US President and the British Prime Minister, is a bad cause, and this week in Istanbul it has claimed new martyrs. Both sides in this war - the US-led coalition and the al-Qaeda terrorist network - will be quietly reinforced by what has happened: reinforced in their prejudices; reinforced in their own self-belief, and reinforced in the new support this will bring them. Both gain. The world loses." Elsewhere, the Independent reports that Clare Short has "blamed the bombings in Istanbul on mistakes made by George Bush and Tony Blair and attacked the Prime Minister as 'messianic,' right-wing and shallow." Jack Straw of course has described this as "utter and palpable nonsense", but I'm not sure what else to expect from governments in such denial of reality and so mired in their own agendas that even George Bush, when asked at the London press conference this week following the Istanbul blasts why he thought so many people hated him, replied: "I'm not sure they do."

 

 

21st November

 

According to the Guardian, Laura Bush said she "didn't think it was as large as predicted" - but enough about George's pinto already. Yesterday's "Stop Bush" march in London, at between 100,000 and 200,000 people, may have been smaller than the one million and counting from 15th February, but for a weekday it was the capital's largest ever demonstration.

 

As at previous marches, there was a healthy sense of humour present. Amidst the general sea of placards simply saying BU$H (the disappearance of the STOP from these was a bit mystifying) was one in the form of a giant pretzel, while another said EMBARRASSED TEXAN and pointed back down at its holder, a bloke with a paper bag over his head. More standard-issue placards said STOP THE MONKEY AND HIS ORGAN-GRINDER, illustrated with photos of Blair and Bush respectively. In Whitehall a couple of blokes with trumpets were playing a mangled Jimi Hendrix-style Star Spangled Banner with many bum notes, and I spotted one woman leaning on the barricades cupping a candle in her hands which had BUSH OFF written on it.

 

The Independent reports today: "The endless rolling roadblocks, the so-called sterile areas and swarms of police were replaced by a colourful mass of peaceful protest... As the President's motorcade melted into the early evening gloom through the gates of Buckingham Palace, there was an overwhelming sense of Britons reclaiming their capital city."

 

The Times, like most papers today, reports on the toppling of an effigy of Dubya in Trafalgar Square, and has a slideshow of this and other images from the march.

 

Dubya toppling

Over he goes (we wish)... an effigy of George W. Bush is pulled over in Trafalgar Square at the climax of the Stop Bush march on Thursday.

 

Even the Telegraph's online report on the march posts a link to the Stop the War Coalition's website, which must count as a first, although it then lets itself down with a typical Torygraph angle, interviewing one of the few suit-clad millionaires who joined the throng. "John Hayes has made a good-sized fortune out of the family business he founded in Chesterfield," runs the report, "and confessed that he felt a little out of place alongside 'all these anarchists' who had probably come because they had nothing else to do." Says Hayes, 63: "They'll all be on benefit, I should think." In this he was apparently intent on proving that Blur singer and activist Damon Albarn was half wrong in describing the protest as "a smart march for smart people". Then again, I must confess to hearing the following exchange take place in front of us as the crowd drew to a halt at Downing Street:

 

16-year-old #1: Why've we stopped?

16-year-old #2: It's Downing Street, innit.

16-year-old #1: What's that, then?

16-year-old #2: It's Tony Blair, innit?

16-year-old #1: Wot?

16-year-old #2: It's where the prime minister lives.

16-year-old #1: Oh, right! [yells] ALLO, TONY!!!

 

It is a bit sad that a 16-year-old didn't know what Downing Street was ("blame the parents" seems a fair response), but at least he knows now...

 

Finally, the BBC reports: "One protester delivered a parting shot at the president by throwing an egg at the presidential cavalcade at about 2320, police said. The egg missed, but the man was arrested on suspicion of public order offences." I'm sorry to say this wasn't me, but it's the thoughtcat that counts.

 

*

 

Elsewhere today John O'Farrell explodes the recent Mirror "revelations" about Buckingham Palace and the Royals as nothing more than tittle-tattle. I for one certainly have no interest at all in reading in every newspaper that Prince Andrew tells his servants to fuck off, that the Queen has little tupperware boxes of cereal on her breakfast table and that royal apartments are stuffed with cuddly toys. I mean honestly, to waste precious newsprint and webspace on such tosh is really beyond the pale.

 

 

19th November

 

Johann Hari writes in today's Independent about the great Dennis Potter, whose masterpiece The Singing Detective has recently been made into a Hollywood film starring Robert Downey Jr. I'll approach the film version gingerly, as the original six-part drama starring Michael Gambon was as perfect a work of art as you'll see anywhere, but as Hari says, the remake can only be a good thing given the absurd unavailability of most things Potter less than 10 years after the genius's death. "He was an evangelist for a television that would 'challenge its audiences and provoke them to think, think' - a world away from wall-to-wall Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and Trinny and Susannah," writes Hari. "Potter delighted in startling his audiences by breaking with the tedious naturalism that dominated TV then, and still does now... He did for television what Samuel Beckett did for theatre: he smashed its conventions and reimagined the way the medium worked. He believed that 'the way people experience life, inside their own heads, is nothing like naturalism. You are constantly thinking about the past, about songs you have heard or dreams you have dreamed'." Hari waxes theological in his theory of why Potter's work is hardly shown in the UK these days, averring that the religious convictions in Potter's work make no sense to a "post-religion" audience, but I don't think it's anything to do with that. Firstly it's not as if religion died the day Dennis Potter did, secondly there were plenty of (religious) people in the UK (like Mary Whitehouse) to whom his work didn't make sense even when he was alive, and thirdly it's not viewers who are the problem but the TV companies. If viewers were given the chance to see work like The Singing Detective, they'd love it now as much as they did when it was first aired. The situation is more to do with what Potter himself so feared would happen - that British television has surrendered so much to market forces that it dares not challenge viewers with anything even slightly out of the ordinary any more.

 

Clenched Fists - Dennis Potter Homepage

Dennis Potter and the Singing Detective; an analysis

Buy The Singing Detective Volume 1 & Volume 2 on VHS from Amazon

 

*

 

Meanwhile, government papers seen by the Guardian today reveal that defence secretary Geoff Hoon had anticipated October being a month of frenzied media support of the Iraq conquest. However, now such a reaction has proved to be somewhat far of the mark, the Ministry of Defence is blaming "negative attitudes by news editors" for the failure of pro-government headlines to materialise.

 

 

18th November

 

The Guardian has devoted the whole of its G2 supplement today to celebrity letters to George W. Bush. There are a couple of quite insane ones (it's just as well Julie Burchill's leaving the paper at long last, and God knows what planet - or side - Bel Littlejohn is on) but there are several extremely eloquent messages too, including Sebastian Faulks, Clare Short and Hari Kunzru. My personal favourite though is this one, from Irish writer Ronan Bennett:

 

Dear George,

 

There is no way to write this but in anger. For the dead and mutilated you have left in the wake of your shocking tread, from Afghanistan to Iraq. For the prisoners you have caged, manacled and tortured, from Bagram to Guantanamo. For your worship of the warrior. For the smart bombs you dropped from 30,000ft and the missiles you fired from 1,000 miles. For the flesh this hateful technology has charred and for the limbs it has severed. For your threats to the sovereign nations and international bodies who oppose your ambitions. For the crass lies you told the world. For your cynical corruption of law. For your naked plundering of a conquered people's wealth. For your blank cheque to Ariel Sharon. For every signature with which you consigned a human being to the death chamber in Texas. For the super-rich friends you have so handsomely rewarded and for the poor, unemployed and marginal in your own country whose lives you continue to blight. For making the world an infinitely more dangerous place.

 

For all these reasons, do not be fooled by the flags you will see fluttering on the Mall. Do not be fooled by the red carpets the toadies will guide you to step upon.

 

Look about you, if your hosts will let you look, if your flunkeys dare let you peek from beneath the official shield. Look about you when you land. You will see people in their tens of thousands protesting against your visit. Do not say we are "lucky" to live in a country that permits free speech and free assembly. Do not insult us like that. Those rights were hard won.

 

I doubt that what you see will chasten you, still less change your mind - you are a man of conviction, of ideological certainty, you have truly global ambitions and power to match - but at least it should be clear to you, Mr Bush, that you are not welcome here.

 

 

17th November

 

Went to see The Mother last night, a superb little drama, beautifully observed and written by Hanif Kureishi with his usual edgy aplomb. There are some fine performances from Anne Reid, playing the titular matriarch, a newly-widowed woman pushing 70 who has an affair with her daughter's sexy-but-flakey on-off boyfriend, Daniel Craig (35). Cathryn Bradshaw is also buttock-clenchingly brilliant as the cuckolded daughter, an insecure, unstable and bitter woman who blames her mother for her messed-up life and her inability to succeed as a writer. At first I thought Bradshaw was overacting somewhat but in the end both her performance, her character and the character's story seemed like a free gift with an already excellent film. The quiet, antiseptic interiors of monied middle-class London houses and the cool, glassy solo jazz piano soundtrack illustrated perfectly the fragility of these people's lives. I say fragility, but in the end it's the mother who proves to be the strongest and most liberated. My only gripe was that the device with which the mother's son and daughter discover her affair was a tad unrealistic, but ironically this scene turned out to be the funniest in an otherwise melancholy, intense film.

 

Hanif Kureishi meanwhile is interviewed in today's Guardian. "I think when you're writing, you look for the bits that are difficult," he says. "They're the exciting bits. You look for conflict. When you're writing you're aware that when you stop, at that moment it's an act of censorship. If you think, 'I shouldn't say that,' it's always the things you should say." It's interesting (and reassuring) to hear that even someone like Kureishi, who has never flinched from exploring and depicting the most controversial and painful aspects of human relationships, still gets to points in his own work where he stops and thinks "I shouldn't say that." Also revealing is his response to the journalist's question of whether he worries about the ideas drying up. "No," he says, "I don't see why they should." Because, suggests the journalist, the more time you spend at your desk, the less of life you see to write about. "Fucking hell," Kureishi fires back, "what do you think it's like in my kitchen? It's a crucible in there, it's an emotional crucible... People think, this guy hasn't left the house for five years, but in the house it's hot. That's what you look for."

 

*

 

Michael Moore, interviewed in today's Independent, urges people to take to the streets this Thursday for the march against visiting President Dubya. Tarnishing Bush's London photo-opportunities "can happen only in one way," he says, "and that's a very large physical presence in the streets of London, letting the American people know the people of Great Britain do not support this war and do not support George Bush... It has to be done in a graphic way, in a physical way; it can't just be said. It has to be done with the images that will be sent back to America because the American media will be there with Bush." Sad but true, I suspect.

 

*

 

The Guardian reports that Sharwoods, famous for its tasty Indian food products, has managed to launch a curry sauce with a name translating as "arse" in Punjabi. The report also lists some other famous product-name-in-translation cockups such as Ford Pinto, a car which flopped in Brazil because "pinto" turned out to be local slang for "small genitals". This in turn reminds me of the time when a trailer for the US film Free Willy was shown in a London cinema and a camp English voice called out, "That's not a movie, that's a special offer!"

 

 

16th November

 

The Observer Music Monthly magazine features a long article on the blues by Charles Shaar Murray, opening with the factoid that the US Congress has officially designated 2003 as The Year Of The Blues, marking 100 years since the inception of this great and seminal musical form. Could this rank as the most sensible decision the US Congress has made in some time? Shaar Murray meanwhile trawls the histories of the original greats including WC Handy, Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton, although manages to make some rather bitchy comments along the way, describing the 80-year-old BB King as "the last of the old titans left standing (or, to be more precise in BB's case, sitting down)" and groaning out the same old blues about "a fiftysomething Armani-clad multi-millionaire from Surrey singing 'Oh Lawdy Lawd' from the stage of the Albert Hall". Apart from the fact that Eric Clapton hasn't done this for years anyway (either wear Armani or play the blues at the Albert), it ignores the basic truth, which you might expect someone like Shaar Murray to know, that the blues is a state of mind and an expression of the heart, which remain completely unfazed by the label inside your jacket. Much more revealing meanwhile is a companion article by Richard Grant about Fat Possum Records, a Mississippi label seeking new audiences for old Delta bluesmen such as RL Burnside and the Douglas Adamsesquely-named T-Model Ford. Grant spends a few days with these guys, who live in some of the poorest parts of the United States. Ford himself sure ain't no prefect: "At the age of eight, his father beat him so badly between the legs with a piece of firewood that he lost a testicle. His ankles are scarred from the chain gang. His neck is scarred where one of his wives slashed his throat. He has been shot, stabbed, pinned under a fallen tree with a broken ribcage, beaten unconscious with a metal chair. He watched his first wife go off with his own father, watched another die after she drank poison to try and induce a miscarriage. The only woman he ever really loved poisoned him at the breakfast table; he woke up in hospital that afternoon and never saw her again." Grant's incredible account is moving, tragic and yet still somehow uplifting, and does rather put the blues of Gap-clad middle-class white boys from Surrey into perspective... Chiz! Curses! Wot am I saying??

 

*

 

The Observer also has a report on the increase of scam-baiting, "the internet's first blood-sport", played by recipients of the notorious Nigerian fraud email pretending to play along with the scam to expose the fraudsters and waste as much of their time as possible. "Mike, a 41-year-old computer engineer from Manchester, runs www.419eater.com, which started two months ago," runs the report, describing how he and others reply to the scammers with false names such as Iama Dildo. "It's now almost a full-time hobby for me," says Mike. Meanwhile, an older scam-baiting site, www.scamorama.com, features a wealth of amusing and useful information about such frauds, including a link to "the George W. Bush version", which claims to be from the prez himself and asks for your money to help him pay for his dad's lost Iraqi oil revenues.

 

*

 

No TC readers seemed to know the author of last week's Thoughtcat Thought, so I'm leaving it where it is until I find out. If I still have no answer next week I will claim it as my own. Seriously, I did try sneaking a look in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations in Waterstone's, but it wasn't in there, which only makes the matter that much more mysterious. However, while looking up the quote in the index under the keyword "love", I did find another interesting truth about love, which in its truncated indexular form ran, "Love is the fart." I'd never heard this before and presumed its author to be some familiar old wag like Frank Carson, or even Frank Zappa, but was astonished to find it was actually from a 17th-century poem by one John Suckling: "Love is the fart / of every heart. / It pains a man when Ďtis kept close / and others doth offend when Ďtis let loose." Well, you learn something new about emotional flatulence every day, eh?
 

 

15th November

 

The Guardian prints a letter today from a disillusioned American couple: "We were going to spend next summer in London," write Mr & Mrs Roger Crane, "but in view of your national hatred for our commander-in-chief, I [sic] think we will spend our hard-earned dollars in the US." Mr & Mrs Crane's letter is truly sad, not just because it sums up the insularity and paranoia currently threatening to ruin the US, but because if more American citizens like them spent less time at home and more in Europe, they might talk to a few people and discover (a) why there is such antipathy here toward their president, (b) what the alternatives are to their lifestyle, media and politics (or, indeed, that there are alternatives) and (c) that it is Bush and his regime that people here have a problem with, not Americans in general. Whilst vehemently opposing Bush's war on Iraq, I have American friends both here and in the US (although admittedly most of them also oppose the war), I continue to love American music, art, films and literature, and next summer I plan to make my first visit to New York. Probably the biggest irony of Mr & Mrs Crane's decision however is that, in visiting London as ordinary tourists, they would get a far broader picture of British people, culture and opinions than their own leader will, who on his visit this week is likely to talk only to sycophants, if indeed he gets out of his helicopter long enough to talk to anyone at all.

 

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Meanwhile, the Guardian Weekend magazine publishes a very Thoughtcat-friendly article about the Iberian lynx, a species so endangered that only 200 are left in its native Spain and Portugal. Natasha Walters relates Luis Palma's first sighting of the animal one night in the mountains of north Portugal: "He searched around and finally saw the eyes again, only this time he also picked out the profile that he had been longing to see - that of a large cat with ears that tapered to knife-like points, sitting quietly, looking at him. 'As soon as he moved a bit, I would lose him right away, unless he looked back in my direction. I never saw it move. I saw it appear and disappear. There was something magical about this.'"

 

 

12th November

 

At the risk of turning Thoughtcat into a potted-film-review site, I feel compelled to say a few words about Dirty Pretty Things, which I missed at the cinema but finally caught up with tonight on video. Stephen Frears' film, set amid London's immigrants (legal or illegal, their lives are pretty dirty) is truly excellent, brilliantly written (by the mysterious Steven Knight) and beautifully acted, every character credible, interesting, unusual and authentic. The plot is ingenious, and - although it probably reflects poorly on Thoughtcat's street credibility - much more interesting for the total lack of foreknowledge I had of the film (apart from the fact that Audrey Tautou was in it, that is). For this reason, I won't say any more about it except if you haven't seen it, see it, and if you have, see it again (not that you're likely to need to be told). The film's website, go-underground.com, is also excellent, imaginatively providing police "dossiers" on the background to the story and each of the main characters.

 

 

9th November

 

Went to see In The Cut last night. Admittedly the prospect of Meg Ryan tackling a grittier role than normal with the aid of a sex scene or three and the removal of her underwear was among the items that appealed, but coming from writer/director Jane "Piano" Campion from a cult novel by Susanna Moore, it had to be a pretty good movie to boot, didn't it? Er, no, frankly. Ryan is supposedly a creative writing teacher and writer-on-the-side - at one point she describes writing not as a job or hobby but a "passion" - yet sleepwalks through the movie with about as much passion for anything as someone on heavy-duty tranquillisers, making bizarre decisions about who to sleep with and when without any explanation. Police detective Mark Ruffalo is the alleged love interest despite a dodgy Burt Reynolds moustache and a vocabulary consisting entirely of swearwords. And whole scenes, even with the usually excellent Jennifer Jason Leigh, crawl by with an irritating fey pointlessness that makes you wonder if you haven't got something better to do with your evening. The potted summary of the movie in the Independent on Sunday's Talk of the Town magazine says "you will most likely guess the identity of the killer before Ryan does, yet it's unlikely you'll care." This was half-right in my case, as I have to admit I didn't guess the killer's identity, but in my defence this was largely because I was struggling to stay awake for most of the last hour. There were only two things I liked about the film - the set designs, all warm autumnal reds and oranges (although it's probably still no compliment to a film when you find yourself thinking "Hmm, what a lovely lampshade!" during a sex scene), and one excellent exchange between Ryan and Leigh. "Would you trust a guy who gets blowjobs in bars?" says Ryan. "Yes," replies Leigh instantly.

 

 

8th November

 

 

 

NEW HOBAN!!

Finally, Russell Hoban's new novel Her Name Was Lola has made an appearance in my local bookshop, and a lovely looking tome it is too. I won't be posting a detailed review quite yet as I'm saving it for Christmas, by which time I hope to have finished my own novel and can sit and devote myself to it. However, today's Times receives it warmly and there are already a couple of enthusiastic notices on Amazon. In the meantime I couldn't help but flick through a copy in the shop and note that it contains more gnomically-titled chapters (e.g. "Not a dog, not a cat") than any other Hoban (except maybe Kleinzeit), as well as several references to previous work (most notably his masterpiece The Medusa Frequency), and once again the list of people and places under 'acknowledgements' is amazing in its scope. Uncle Russ certainly likes to do his homework - unlike me, although I get round this by describing myself as 'more of an impressionistic writer' ;-)

 

Lola review update: Times Literary Supplement 7/11 (long, unimaginative) - Observer 9/11 (warm, sympathetic) - Guardian 15/11 (short, frustrated)

Her Name Was Lola by Russell Hoban

His name is Hoban...

Click on the image to buy a copy from Amazon.co.uk

 

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This week's 'menu thought' has been rattling around in my head for some time. Frustratingly though I can't find out who wrote it. Was it Brian Patten, bard of Liverpudlia? Was it Pablo Neruda, poet of onions? Was it Fleur Adcock, Wendy Cope, e.e. cummings? I spent an enjoyable hour leafing with increasing panic through all my volumes of poetry but didn't find it anywhere. I'm sure it is a poem, or a line from a poem, although it could be from a novel. I entered it into Google but that turned up nothing either. I even began to wonder if I wrote it, but I think I'd remember if I had. If anyone knows who did write it, please contact me on info@thoughtcat.com and put me out of my misery...

 

 

7th November

 

Helen Fielding is interviewed in the Guardian today about her move from Bridget Jones to her new novel, a spy pastiche called Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination. It turns out she was writing something else to begin with, but shelved it, for reasons which made me feel decidedly uncomfortable: 'I was looking back through [the manuscript] and there were all these notes. First of all there were these notes saying, "Oh my God, this is so boring, I'm so fed up with this," and then there were things like, "He was a tall, lugubrious man" crossed out, and then "He was a short, ginger-haired, stocky man" crossed out, and then "He was a... oh, who gives a fuck what sort of man he was?" And I realised that if I couldn't even read it back, then I couldn't really expect anyone else to read it...'

 

 

6th November

 

Philip Pullman is bombarded in an Independent "You ask the questions" feature today, in which the bestselling author of The Amber Spyglass adventures emerges as, well, pretty unadventurous, actually. "I'm not a splashing-out kind of person," says the millionaire, "I'm cautious. It could all end tomorrow, you see, so I've mainly splashed out on my pension. But I suppose I do buy more power tools than I used to."

 

 

2nd November

 

A novelist called Henry Sutton, writing in the Independent on Sunday, has lamented the decline of "gritty" social realist novels. "At a reading I gave in Durham recently," he wrote, "a woman in the audience said she didn't think she'd be able to recommend my new novel to her book group because the characters were so unpleasant, and the ending too bleak. She said she didn't sympathise with them, and that what she wanted from a novel was to fall in love with the characters." Providing an eclectic (or maybe eccentric) overview of such books, from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning to Money, I feel he omitted to mention The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend. Although ostensibly a children's book (or at least an adolescent's), I remember it appealing hugely to readers of all ages when it was published in the early 1980s (I was a bit younger than Adrian when it came out, and I count it as the first "proper" book I read), and it surely deserves credit for highlighting - especially to young people - the bleak effects of unemployment and single parenthood on a family disenfranchised by the values of the Thatcher era. Coming from a Tory background as I did, Townsend's book did much to change the way I looked at politics and society, and best of all perhaps it showed that addressing such issues could be done effectively with tenderness and humour, and indeed through characters that it was possible to fall in love with. Meanwhile, Kid's Stuff, Sutton's own "gritty" novel (so much so it comes with a free bag of sand), is available at Amazon.

 

 

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