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The youth of today simply has no respect for tradition. Coming home on a bus late last night, a bunch of fifteen-year-olds threw an egg at me. I was momentarily livid, and then, remembering it was Halloween, decided not to bang all eight of their heads together - after all, this was real life, not Kill Bill. Sitting there with egg on my face however, the thought did occur to me to say to them: "You're supposed to say 'Trick or treat?' first, then I tell you to fuck off, and then you throw the egg," but I decided this humorous riposte might feasibly be misunderstood.
Went to see Kill Bill last night. To be honest I was disappointed. Although it's clearly a beautifully made, extremely complex film and as stylish as you would only expect from Quentin Tarantino, I feel he's gone too far in the direction of pastiche and self-parody with this. I loved his previous three films to pieces - Jackie Brown especially was a precociously mature, highly sophisticated and very "human" film - but this I just couldn't believe in at all. The story was at best a fantasy and at worst made no sense (the "to be continued" aspect notwithstanding) and the style immature and cartoonish (even if this was deliberate, to my mind it just made it seem silly). The worst thing though was that the brilliant humour which, for me, really set Tarantino's first three films apart and provided the essential yang to the yin of all the violence was almost entirely absent. Something else I found irritating was the scene where The Bride goes to see the Samurai sword-maker in Okinawa, which not only went on forever but featured some of the worst dialogue Tarantino's ever written. Apart from anything else, how did The Bride manage to stay in Buck's car, having (presumably) killed him, for thirteen hours while willing her legs and feet to work again without anybody finding her? Or was that one of Quentin's new breed of jokes which went straight over my head like Uma's sword?
Returning from a fortnight’s holiday in France I find David Blaine is out of his box, Iain Duncan Smith is on his last legs, and the UN have had their arms twisted by George Bush over the rebuilding of Iraq. And there I was hoping to come back and find things had changed... The only news I was surprised to hear was that Tony Blair had a heart murmur. Surely the headlines should have been “Tony Blair ‘has a heart’ shock”?
It’s not as if France is a media oasis exactly, but I chose not to bother watching the news or reading the papers while I was on holiday. I mean, you may as well stay at home if you’re going to do that. On one of the few occasions we turned on the TV we found it received BBC World, which in the early evening ran a news report on Kofi Annan’s appeal to the UN for Iraq donations and then a film review show. The next morning we put the TV on again and it sprang to life with the same report followed by the same film review show, so it didn’t seem we were missing much anyway.
Regarding France, Thoughtcat and his wife had an excellent holiday, Inter-Railing between Paris, Bordeaux, Arcachon, the Dune de Pyla, La Rochelle, Carcassonne, Collioure, Arles, Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, Avignon and Lyon. Trouble was, the only thing we saw the whole time were cats. Chats partout! I know the French like these animals but this was ridiculous.
Thoughtcat’s holiday photos – France, October 2003
Some more photos (not all of them, honestly, are of cats) from our tour, together with an account of our journey, can be seen at http://www.thoughtcat.com/france
I returned to a fortnight’s worth of emails, no less than 604 of which were spam. I mean, how much viagra can a man feasibly use? It took the best part of a morning to filter the wheat from the chaff, but amongst the former was a classic Thoughtcattian oddity from SMH.com, spotted by Chicagonian renaissance man Dave Awl. According to the report, farmers in Chiang Mai, protesting against an impending free-trade agreement between Thailand and the US, have put a curse on George Bush by sealing a photo of the comprehensively-eared US leader into a clay pot and hurling it into the River Ping. Weerasak Wan-ubol, an executive of the Northern Farmers Alliance, explained: "This is a traditional northern Thai ceremony aimed at keeping [Bush’s] spirit down on the riverbed so he could not come and exploit our natural resources or suppress our (farming) brothers with his superior influence.” Way to go, Weerasak!
Meanwhile, TC’s Man in Nam emailed to say he went to see Dave Gorman’s Googlewhack Adventure, currently touring the UK, and posts this enigmatic review: “I thought about writing a review for Thoughtcat on your suggestion, but Dave Gorman asked the audience not to tell anybody about it, just whether you enjoyed it or not, as it might spoil the surprise for later audiences, and I can see his point... thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless, I would absolutely recommend it.”
I also received
emails from two companies offering me search engine/website listing services.
First up was a company called KwMap.com who wrote: 'I checked
your website and I would like to link to it. My website is KwMap.com and it
represents a network of keywords and concepts as they logically relate to each
other, on various topics. Under each keyword I list relevant websites and
resources. I am considering listing your website under keywords such as
"chris bell","richard cooper" and "russell
hoban".' I'm not sure however if
I’m likely to take up Mr KwMap on his kind offer. His “logical” keyword links
to Russell Hoban (http://kwmap.com/russell-hoban.html)
include Dudley Moore and "Manhattan Cable Channels 67 and 107 - The
Florence Morrison Show", while I'm somehow in the company of The Victorian
Taxidermy Company and Shrewsbury (the whole town, apparently -
and of course we all wish TC contributor, writer and magazine editor
Chris Bell luck with his
new venture Chris Bell Removals (http://kwmap.com/chris-bell.html).
The second firm was YELLOW EUROPE. This sounded promising considering my dedication to Hobanesque yellow paper (see SA4QE for details), but sadly the firm proved to be a triumph of style over content, and it didn’t even have much style. “Get visitors through our comprehensive advertising campains [sic] in the Media”, it claimed, while searching for any subject whatsoever turned up only the following result: “Microsoft OLE DB Provider for ODBC Drivers error '80040e07. [Microsoft][ODBC Microsoft Access Driver] Datentypen in Kriterienausdruck unverträglich.” The site also had a link called "impressum" but quite who YELLOW EUROPE are hoping to impress I have no idea.
Talking of Russell Hoban, Thoughtcat’s favourite living writer is experiencing something of a renaissance at the moment. He has a new novel, Her Name Was Lola, out next week, has had two older novels, Fremder and Mr Rinyo-Clacton’s Offer, recently brought back from out-of-print-Valhalla by the brilliant Bloomsbury, and word has it that he’s just completed a further book which should emerge in 2004. Is there no stopping this incredible 78-year-old Fulhamite? Thoughtcat says Godspeed to you, Uncle Russ! The first two chapters of the new novel have been posted at Bloomsbury’s Russell Hoban author page, and Thoughtcat was also delighted to see the same chapters extracted in last Sunday’s Talk of the Town, the excellent magazine issued free with the Independent on Sunday. (I actually think it should be that the I.o.S. is issued free with T.O.T.T. rather than the other way round.)
Catching up on more news that this year’s Man Booker Prize went to DBC Pierre for Vernon God Little, I couldn’t help but wonder if the revelations that he’d robbed an old guy out of his home and lived a life of general debauchery on his road to literary stardom had a hand in the jury’s decision. Not so much that they felt sorry for him (or rather for his creditors) but because with a “life story” like that it was surely impossible to give the award to anyone “ordinary”. Personally I hope Pierre made up the entire yarn (his life story that is, not just the novel, which incidentally I haven’t read – his life story’s quite enough to be going along with).
Something else I couldn’t help but notice as I read the Guardian Review on the Eurostar on Saturday 11th was that the (excellent and very welcome) profile of US playwright and sometime Dylan collaborator Sam Shepard listed his “relationships” as opposed to “marriages”. Could this have had anything to do with my letter published in the Review the other week pointing out the connubial anomaly in the Thom Gunn profile (TC 4th October)? My ego can’t help but wonder if Thoughtcat is now influencing Guardian editorial policy...
And to close this update, a few words about my holiday reading, Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I’d had a copy for ages but never got round to reading it due to my commitment to my novel, so I took the opportunity of taking it to France, and, albeit belatedly, must add my praise to that already heaped on the 2002-Booker winner. I would recommend this highly original, beautifully-written imaginative feat about God, animals, oceans, humanity, endurance, adventure, compassion, inspiration and the natural world to everyone and anyone, and I guess you can’t praise a book higher than that. I admit to not knowing much about the book before I read it (despite the media attention and indeed the cover illustration) but I found this only increased my enjoyment of the novel, as its surprises were that much more revelatory. Apart from anything else, Chapter 78 stands up alone as one of the best short pieces of writing I’ve ever read. As for whether the story made me believe in God, I wasn’t a total unbeliever beforehand anyway – nominally a Buddhist, I’m more spiritual than religious as such, agreeing completely with the narrator’s cry “Down with fundamentalists!” – but if I had been an agnostic or an atheist, I would certainly have had a hard time justifying remaining so after putting the book down (or even picking it up in the first place, come to that). Indeed, one of the things I found refreshing about the story was its unselfconscious preoccupation with such an unfashionable subject as God and religion (or rather religions), teeming with biblical allegories including the Ark, Christ in the wilderness and the Garden of Eden. At worst the book only reinforced my belief that religions themselves are wonderful – it’s just people who mess them up by recasting them in their own image and for their own ends.
Since I was in Paris while reading the book, it seemed appropriate to visit the Piscine Molitor, from which the eponymous hero gets his name, but I found that this fabulous art-deco building was closed in 1989. I could still have visited the site of the pool in the 16th arrondissement but there’s already the above excellent website dedicated to it, complete with photos of the Molitor both now and in its heyday, which does the job much better than I could. Interestingly the site doesn’t mention Life of Pi; I would have thought that the success of the book might have raised the pool’s profile, especially since it turns out that quite a lot of Parisians are angry about the pool’s closure and are campaigning for it to be reopened for historical, architectural and swimological reasons.
My online research also turned up an interesting article by Yann Martel in Powells.com about the genesis of the book, in which the author acknowledges the influence of Moacyr Scliar’s earlier novel Max and the Cats. Generally though, if you haven’t read Life of Pi, I’d advise not reading anything about it at all beforehand (or at least no more than you’ve read here), in order to fully appreciate its wealth of surprises. And don’t get curly toes at the idea that it’ll make you believe in God: this is a Good Thing, believe me.
11th Bert Coo
That’s right, with the help of Brendan, Thoughtcat’s gone anagram crazy! Editor-in-chief Cheap Corridor writes below on recent matters of irreverence, while readers are encouraged to drop by the websites of Baldy Nob, Rosa Bushnell, Holden Cornea, Laconic Pert, Lava Dew, Degas Verge, Gel Goo, Carla Assonant, Ariadne Thug, Edith Pen Needn’t, or Pete Ivy-Era. Web Egg Horus meanwhile comments: “I am in denialation that weapons of massive destructionage were a cover for regime change in Iraq. Our new weapon against terror is to firmly anagrammatulate the names of our enemies, starting with Osama Bin Laden, to whom the United States says: You’re nothing but A Salami Nob End!” Rainy Blot says: “I don’t get it.”
Thoughtcat is glad to see that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize went to neither Blot nor Horus but Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian Muslim defender of women’s rights, who seems an excellent candidate for the award both for the work she does and for what she represents. The Vatican are upset, however, as the Pope was the “bookies’ favourite”, having made repeated calls for peace yet remaining intransigent over homosexuality, contraception, abortion and women priests and now “spreading the word” that condoms don’t prevent Aids. According to the Independent, a Vatican official commented, “I thought this was a peace prize and not a prize in sexual ethics.” Miaow! Doesn’t say much for turning the other cheek, eh? The report adds that the prize also represents “an implicit rejection of the Bush administration's simplistic view of Iran as part of an ‘axis of evil’” and sends an “unmistakeable signal of support for defenders of democracy and the fight for equal rights in the Islamic world.”
Thoughtcat’s Man in ‘Nham brings to my attention the Degree Confluence Project. At first glance I thought this might be something to do with graduates getting together and pooling their university qualifications (ho ho!) but a “degree confluence” actually turns out to be a location where latitude and longitude integer degrees intersect, and the non-profit project’s goal is to amass pictures of every one of these spots around the world. The irony is that most of these locations aren’t particularly interesting in themselves, and the resulting photos of bits of sky, desert and bush lined up on the site do tend to look slightly surreal, like a kind of outdoor version of Boring Postcards, but this is, of course, all part of the fun. I’ve caught the bug and am now off to “conflue”. Ciao!
Chairman of the Man Booker Prize judges Peter Carey is interviewed in the Independent. I’ve always thought the prize is fundamentally dodgy for the simple reason that, as Carey says, “You spend four months reading a new novel every day”, but I expect to be as glued to the result as ever, keeping my fingers crossed that underdog Clare Morrall wins it. Asked what characterises modern fiction, Carey comments: "My impression this year was that the judges had a distinct preference for books with a strong storyline, a strong plot, a compulsion to go on turning the pages. I like that. It's what I too want in book... Easily the most popular theme was broken marriage. Probably more than half the novels were about different aspects of broken marriages, how the children suffer, or don't suffer." Whether this means you’re more likely to win the Booker if your story is about a broken marriage or less likely is not immediately clear, however.
In other prize news today, the Vatican says the Pope will go to Oslo to collect the Nobel Peace Prize if he wins it, despite his poor health. The Times’ report asserts however that if he is this year’s winner, this will be “controversial“ given the pontiff’s opposition to the war in Iraq. Er, some mistake surely? Then again, the paper also reports that George Bush and Tony Blair are among other nominees for the award. This seems insane, but then again again, as nerds like me always point out, Nobel himself was the man who invented dynamite, so what should we expect really?
“How did I manage to miss this??” department: Last week, I learn belatedly, George Bush entered the world of poetry with a dainty ode to his dear wife on the occasion of her jetting off to France without him and being entertained by Jacques Chirac. If you’re sitting down with a valium to hand, read on:
Roses are red
Violets are blue
Oh my, lump in the bed
How I've missed you.
Roses are redder
Bluer am I
Seeing you kissed by that charming French guy.
The dogs and the cat, they missed you too
Barney's still mad you dropped him, he ate your shoe
The distance, my dear, has been such a barrier
Next time you want an adventure, just land on a carrier.
(c) George W. Wordsworth 2003
Thoughtcat’s Verdict: Personally I think it’s a weak poem. I feel he had help with the final couplet (quite possibly from Donald Rumsfeld) and the opening could have been more original. The description of his wife as his “lump in the bed” could have been more romantic, and I doubt whether the White House dog really did manage to consume an entire item of footwear. In short, George, don’t give up the day job. Well, do, actually, just don’t become a poet.
And, oh my God, I’ve only just noticed the date – it’s National Poetry Day! Oh dear... is this synchronicity or just plain right-wing conspiracy?
The Independent profiles Mary Clegg, a 50-year-old mother of two and former cheesemaker now taking the adult toy market by storm with her “discreet” website http://www.beecourse.com/. "I didn't know anything about sex when I was younger,” she says, “and there was nowhere to find out about these things. Nowadays, teenage girls have all these magazines and things are talked about a lot more openly. But a lot of people my age know nothing about vibrators.” A quick visit to the site (purely for research purposes, you understand) turns up some curious items, including "bedside bullets": not Derren Brown’s latest trick apparently, but something else entirely. "With 10 different vibrate settings, ranging from very mild through pulsing to very intense, the orgasms that this can provide are mind blowing,” claims the site, adding: “Available in four colours." I made my excuses and left.
More prosaically, the chairman of the Forestry and Timber Association writes to the Times to point out that the recent story (linked recently on Thoughtcat) about authors such as JK Rowling agreeing to have their bestselling books published on recycled paper is based on a misapprehension about woodland sustainability. “To suggest that paper consumption equates to the loss of woodland is as simplistic and inaccurate as suggesting that increasing bread consumption will reduce the area of wheat fields,” he writes.
So the Guardian’s Alexis Petridis didn’t like the McSweeney’s vs. They Might Be Giants gig on Saturday night (reviewed, below, exclusively by Thoughtcat before any other paper), giving it two stars from a possible five. True, it was a weird show, but it wasn’t that bad. At least he agrees that Dave Eggers’ excellent reading “would have been funny without the music”, but to then wonder “precisely what the point of this evening was” is a bit of a mind-boggling comment coming from an arts reviewer. Er, is “entertainment” the word you’re looking for, perhaps Alexis? I don’t mean to sound po-faced – reviewers, like all other human beings, are perfectly entitled not to like a show – but remarks like that are just sloppy and arrogant.
Regarding other forms of entertainment, I found myself unexpectedly glued to Derren Brown Plays Russian Roulette Live on Channel 4 last night, but in retrospect I think it was a bit of a rip-off. The Guardian reports today: "Brown survived the stunt but not before firing a blank away from himself when he was not confident about which chamber of a gun the bullet was in." First of all it wasn't a "blank", but an empty chamber, and secondly Channel 4's assertion in the article that Brown made a "mistake" was all part of the suspense of an obvious illusion. We know it was an illusion for two important reasons: (a) Brown didn't want to die, and (b) no TV network, for financial and litigious (if not purely ethical) reasons, would ever agree to broadcast a live game of Russian roulette unless the outcome was guaranteed to be that the player didn't blow his brains out.
HOW IT WAS DONE (ALLEGEDLY) – A THOUGHTCAT EXCLUSIVE!!
1. Brown chose the most vulnerable and impressionable volunteer from the five finalists by supposedly guessing a word he was thinking of (appropriately, "nervous"). There was then an advert between choosing the volunteer and the stunt.
2. As the ad aired, the volunteer was taken to one side by Brown and a bunch of lawyers who got him to sign a piece of paper saying he had to put the live round in chamber #1. If he didn't do this, it would be considered he had deliberately sought to kill Brown, and he'd be held responsible for his death. Under such conditions anybody would put the bullet in whatever chamber they were told.
3. During the stunt, the volunteer put the bullet in chamber #1 as secretly agreed.
4. Brown started with chamber #3, which he knew was empty; #4 also was empty so he built the suspense with an "audacious" rapid choice to fire that chamber too.
5. The supposed "uncertain" chamber #5 he also knew perfectly well was empty but he fired it away from himself, as the idea that he wasn't sure about the chamber added to the suspense even more: "HE COULD GET IT WRONG!!" we trembled.
6. An incredibly long pause ensued while brown stared blinklessly into space in total silence while he pretended to "work out" what to do next, having got the last chamber "wrong". Again, all he was doing was milking the suspense. (I can't say it wasn't effective, but, I mean, let's be realistic.) Suddenly he picked up the gun, fired the empty chamber #6 at his head and then immediately pointed the gun away and fired the live round. Game over, everybody happy – viewers on the edge of our seats for a few moments, lots of people tuned in, and nobody saw any splattered brains. Cue adverts!
The reality of the show was that it was really just an excuse for an hour of Derren Brown trademark "psychology" tricks masquerading as a programme showing how he whittled down 12,000 applicants to 1 person by getting them to choose where to sit in a room and draw silly faces, which reminded me a bit of the Big Brother auditions or one of those trendy group interview things that naff companies like to pull on you when you go for a job.
Having said all that, I didn't dislike the show. The silliest thing in the Guardian report is this: "A spokesman for the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy said: 'The subliminal message is that guns are glamorous, risk-taking is masculine, depression is cool and suicide is sexy.'" What a load of crap. If this programme did anything, it brought ordinary viewers as close as most people would ever come to seeing real Russian roulette played live, and it was about as glamorous as brushing your teeth. Guns are only glamourised when they're shown at a distance, in a fiction, handled by cool characters who shoot at each other, not at themselves. (The Deer Hunter, which a very silly “Maltesers” advert parodied during the Brown show, is another example of this; by comparison, something like Pulp Fiction, in which people only kill each other, makes guns look far more exciting.) This show completely deglamourised the whole process, showing a fat, middle-aged armourer firing at sandbags and plastic bottles, and ordinary blokes bloodlessly placing bullets into a revolver with about as much "glamour" as someone drilling a hole in the wall. There was never any element of Brown being depressed or suicidal, and in any case, how many suicidal people end it all by shooting themselves? The reality of any suicide is surely that it's completely squalid. In any case, this wasn't a show in which a depressed or suicidal person talked about killing themselves; it was "simply" a very risky game, wherein, as Graham Greene – who did actually play Russian roulette as a disturbed teenager – once said, "there was a one in six chance of losing" – and if my above theory is correct, it wasn’t even risky. The charge of “masculine risk-taking” is the only one to stick – indeed, Brown’s case wasn't helped by the fact that he (suspiciously) only chose men as volunteers to help him not kill himself. Perhaps next time he’d like to entrust the gun to a woman? Given his obvious insecurity about them, that would really be something to watch.
Thoughtcat went to the Barbican last night for the strange experience that was McSweeney’s vs. They Might Be Giants. The US literary-cum-humour website-cum-“quarterly magazine published three times a year” McSweeney’s fielded Dave Eggers, Nick Hornby, Zadie Smith, Arthur Bradford and John K Hodgman Jr (or John L Hodgman Jr depending on whether you believed the postcard advertising the show or the programme on your seat) against the dadaesque New York geek-pop-art nutters TMBG. It’s not as if I was a huge fan of any of these people but the event was simply too bizarre for me not to go. TMBG opened with a couple of typically short blasts of edgy weirdness, including a piece I believe specially written for the event, with a jolly tune that sounded slightly like a variation on Orpheus in the Underworld (or Can-Can to you and me) and the following lyric:
He gets a pen and paper AND HE WRITES THINGS DOWN.
He gets a pen and paper AND HE GETS THINGS DONE.
There was then an introduction by compere John Hodgman, a “former” New York literary agent (a bit worrying, this, as he only looked about 28) and sometime McSweeney’s literary agony uncle, welcoming us to “this confusing venue” and asking us not to get “angry” about the juxtaposition of spoken word with rock’n’roll. He also had one of the best lines of the evening: “I’ve written for the internet, and I’d like to do more of that because, let’s face it, writing for the internet is not something just anybody can do.”
First up after him was Arthur Bradford, a very tall American grunge-type writer with some fierce sideburns and a permanent grin, who gave a rambling introduction to a story from his debut collection Dogwalker about a man who “makes love to a dog and then finds the dog is pregnant”. As he read a section of the story he strummed a few dark, rhythmic chords on a red acoustic guitar, which he then proceeded to smash violently to pieces after reaching a point in the story where said dog kills a musk-rat in the narrator’s garden. I didn’t feel much like joining in the applause for this (been done before, anyone can do it, I quite like guitars etc), but in the end I clapped a bit anyway because it was the most exciting bit of Bradford’s act. The fact that I’d never seen a guitar being smashed live (I’ve had a sheltered upbringing) and didn’t want to appear too po-faced to my fellow audients of course had nothing to do with this decision. Bradford got better though, singing a silly song about visiting England and the relationship between the UK and US, which got a lot of laughs and a round of applause for a line about “the phoney weapons of mass destruction”.
Zadie Smith came on next. I’d never seen her in person or heard her voice but I have to report she was surprisingly ordinary in a beautiful, willowy kind of way. She’d been asked by the organisers to write a short story about “a girl with bangs”, she explained, and after spending two months writing about a girl who liked to play with fireworks she realised “bangs” had been meant in the sense of “fringe”. The resulting story about a young woman who falls in love with a girl with bangs was good, although very subtle, as was her slightly off-mike delivery, so in a way it didn’t work as well as the rest of the evening’s more thrusting, testosterone-driven stuff. It’s a story I’d like to read again in a quieter context, I feel.
TMBG then performed a song about a girl with bangs, and Dave Eggers came on to recite a terrific short story about a 13-year-old boy’s pubescent infatuation with a teacher called Mrs Gunderson which was by far the best thing all evening. The story was hilarious and Eggers’ delivery superb. The narrator’s view of older adults (approximately: “How old is she? Fifty? Sixty? How old is fifty? Fifty’s, like, older than your parents but not as old as your grandparents; fifty’s, like, a hundred!!”) was hysterical, as was his irritation with prog-rock bands. Eggers being in his late 30s I guessed this was an autobiographical reference: “The Alan Parsons Project!” he sneered. “Like, it’s not a band, it’s a project! Like, ‘Hi, I’m Alan Parsons. Come join my project!!’” A version of this story was published as Something Might Plummet, Something Might Soar in the Guardian Weekend magazine in the summer, and I have to admit I didn’t fancy it at the time because on paper it looked a bit, well, sexed-up and over-Eggered, with some strange capitalised onomatopoeia and a generally crazed feel about it. In this sense, this story was the only one of the evening which came off better for being read aloud, especially by Eggers, who has a great voice and a real feel for that lectern. To paraphrase John Hodgman, this really isn’t something just anybody can do. At several points I caught myself wishing I’d brought a tape recorder so I could re-experience this in years to come, but although there probably were hardened bootleggers in attendance, I ended up glad that I didn’t have a tape because this bit of the evening would now be something unique and unrepeatable – a real “you had to be there” moment.
Hodgman himself provided a bridge to the last act, delivering a brilliant surreal pastiche of US radio “attack ads” (“It’s time to build, not masturbate out of the window!”). Nick Hornby closed this part of the show and personally I found him the most disappointing, although in fairness it would’ve been hard for anybody to have followed Eggers. I guess the only reason they kept Hornby until last was that he was comparatively the most famous and had sold the most books, but – and here’s the rub with an event like this – his story wasn’t the best, and with his sandpapery 40-a-day delivery he wasn’t the best performer. However, he did joke that the US editions of his books had also been relocated from North London to Chicago (like the film of High Fidelity), and the story, about a 15-year-old American boy who buys a spooky second-hand video recorder which can fast-forward network TV and thus allow him to see into the future, had some good lines. Spending hours in his room, the boy narrator says his “mom” was worried he might have “discovered” jerking off (“Like, mom, hello! I’m fifteen!!”), and despite being able to fast-forward the news into the end of the world, in a typical Hornby device, this helps him lose his virginity (“One thing about knowing the world’s going to end, it sure makes you less anxious about the whole dating thing”).
All of that lasted some two hours and each reading was punctuated by atmospheric noodlings from TMBG. I would’ve thought that’d be it, and I certainly felt I had my money’s worth (a front balcony seat for £15 including the booking fee), but then there was an interval (otherwise known as The Great “See If You Can Get Served At The Bar Before The Second Half” Challenge), following which They Might Be Giants took over the show and performed a wholly musical 45-minute set. I wasn’t much of a TMBG fan when I went in and I’m afraid I was no more of one when I came out, and found some of the music really quite horrible, but that’s just a personal thing, and it was at least original, creative and energetic. It turned out that quite a few members of the audience were hardened fans, and I found myself sitting next to a girl who was waving and yelling and clapping and singing along like many others in true rock-concert style, leaving me feeling dull, tight-lipped and literary. That said, a few seats had equally now been vacated by audients less TMBG-tolerant than myself. “I’d just like to thank the people who stayed to see our part of the show,” said one of TMBG’s Johns, while the other John added, “Actually, I’d like to thank the people who left, as they were really bugging the shit out of me.” And even I agreed the last two songs were excellent – the penultimate number Fingertips was “18 songs in one”, exhibiting some cracking musical skill and imagination, and the show-closing New York City was as classic a New York City pop song as, well, any other great energetic pop song written about, or in, or by people who are from Ze Big Apple. Afterwards there was a book- and CD-signing thing by all the performers, but the queue for this was humungous and anyway I didn’t wish to personally encourage the authors to start thinking of themselves as rock’n’roll stars. Nor did I wish this on They Might Be Giants, come to that (ha ha ha, just my leetle showbiz joke, mes amis!) Altogether it was certainly a much better evening than David McAllister’s pisspoor “preview” in yesterday’s Guardian Guide indicated.
In seriousness, the main reason I didn’t hang around for Zadie Smith’s autograph was that it was now gone 11pm and I fancied the idea of getting home sometime before next week. The journey to the Kafkaesque central London venue from my leafy suburb was a farce: I left home allowing nearly two hours to make the one hour journey, angling for a bite beforehand at one of the Barbican’s eateries. Even so, anticipating obstacles to my plans, just to be safe I bought a ham and cheese sandwich from Waitrose before I boarded the tube. Looking forward to jettisoning said sarnie and having a proper meal, ten minutes before I was due to arrive (still in good time) the tube driver announced that the train would be terminating at Baker Street rather than heading on to Barbican, so the cheese’n’pickle situation came irritatingly back on the agenda. Travellers poured off the tube and hung around on a cold, damp street before stomping onto tired old “rail replacement” buses. At Kings Cross an old boy clambered onto the already packed vehicle with a bike. “Er, why not ride it to where you’re going?” a young American guy asked him, not unreasonably. “Can’t,” shrugged the cyclist, “got no lights.” As for my sandwich, I normally find people who eat food on public transport rather unpleasant but the only seat available was next to a bloke who was eating a pasta salad from a plastic container, so I thought what the hell and joined him. We must have looked a right pair, masticating in harmony on our cheap food, but I was so hungry by this time that I was quite happy to become someone I hated. I eventually fetched up at the Barbican (or somewhere near it, anyway) just ten minutes before the start of the show. It took me about nine minutes of that to find the toilets, of which I was now desperately in need. Still, I made it in the end, I guess, and after all, it’s experiences like these that make you a true Londoner.
Michael Moore is interviewed in today’s Guardian Weekend magazine. Apart from relating the surreal factoid that only JK Rowling sells more books in the US than he does (with his chart-topping Stupid White Men), Moore comments: “I hold Blair more responsible than Bush for this war. Because Bush doesn't know better, Blair does. Bush couldn't have gotten away with this without Blair. It is my challenge to the British public to get up off the couch and find another way." The paper also reproduces some extracts from Moore’s new book, Dude, Where’s My Country? Among some borderline bonkers rants Moore does have an interesting proposal: Oprah Winfrey for President. “Oprah can't be bought,” he explains. “She's already a billionaire! Imagine a president who owes no favours to lobbyists or oil companies or Ken Lay. With a salary of only $400,000, being president would be a step down for Oprah, but it be would OK with me if she kept her show on the air. Except, unlike her current show, Oprah at the White House could actually fix people's problems. Can't pay the bills? President Oprah orders the arrest of credit-card executives who charge outrageous interest rates. Your husband no longer paying attention to you? Maybe he will after his mug ends up on the post office wall on a 'Men Who Don't Shut Up And Listen' poster.”
Buy Dude, Where’s My Country in hardback for £8.99 from Amazon.co.uk
Thoughtcat’s letter to the Guardian Review about the omission of Thom Gunn’s partner in last Saturday’s profile biography has been published. My question isn’t answered, but at least it’s asked, I guess. Meanwhile, this week’s profilee is Alice Munro, whose two marriages and several children are mentioned amid a very flattering, in fact slightly obsequious, article. Credit where it’s due and everything, but I’m always suspicious of anybody being described as “the best living writer of short stories in English”. Journalist Aida Edemariam adds, “the words ‘short story’ [sic] are frequently dropped”. What, so Munro is often described as “the best living writer of in English”?
An interview with Quentin Tarantino in today’s Guardian contains what must be Non-Sequitur of the Week: "’I'm an American but I really feel like a citizen of the world,’ says Tarantino, who is wearing a black jumpsuit with a white racing stripe.” Tarantino is here, of course, to promote his new martial arts gorefest Kill Bill.
JK “Rock’n’” Rowling is among a group of bestselling authors who have signed a pledge for their forthcoming opuses to be printed on recycled paper in order that a few forests may be left standing when everyone’s finished buying their books, according to today’s Times.
“There are no shining weapons”, reports the Guardian, quoting the man in charge of a hunt for Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction who admitted that no weapon stocks had been found. A strange choice, this word “shining”: it has something of a poetic quality to it. It put me in mind of a line from Leonard Cohen’s song First We Take Manhattan: “I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons...”
I’m staggered to read today that Duran Duran have been given Q Magazine’s lifetime achievement award at its annual industry bash. This is not just a matter of personal taste in music: former winners of the award, when the magazine was run by people who knew anything about music, include Led Zeppelin (who actually reformed for the ceremony), 70something bluesmaster BB King, and Donald Fagen, surely all of them true musical geniuses by any stretch of the imagination. What, pray tell, have Duran Duran done in the past hundred years to justify being up there with that lot? Be really revolutionary, like, with the Wild Boys video, or wear lots of make-up? I mean COME ON.
“Need To Get Out More” Spot: Google has developed a new search counter called Spectrum to help users discover how many Google searches they've done, according to Internet Magazine. I can’t possibly see the point of this, but frustratingly the link given in the article goes to a “Google page not found” page, and even a Google search for “Google Spectrum” turns up some equally useless links, so maybe the whole thing’s a practical joke...
I was recently asked by my associate from the San Diego State University’s Children’s Literature Department if I’d read any children’s books lately and if so whether I’d like to post a review of any on her website. Funny you should ask, I said. I've been writing a novel since April and have avoided reading any long fiction as it can be too influential and distracting (not to mention depressing to read other people's excellent, finished books). I've found this in turn frustrating however, and now long to get the damn book done just so I can splurge on all the books I've missed out on over the past several months. Apart from a very funny short story in the Independent on Sunday's excellent "Talk of the Town" magazine (sadly unavailable online) by M. John Harrison (who incidentally gave Russell Hoban’s last novel The Bat Tattoo an excellent review in the TLS), the only other thing I've (re-)read recently is, indeed, a children's book, Gowie Corby Plays Chicken by Gene Kemp, which I mention in my novel. I first read it when I was about eleven, the same age as the character of the title. The story, style and characters are all tough, vivid and unsentimental. The main character is disruptive, bullying loner from a broken home who's let down by everyone except his pet rat and a new girl at school called Rosie, a deeply compassionate African-American who befriends and helps him. There's a particular bit in the book where Gowie is being caned on the hands by the headmaster for the latest in a long line of misdemeanours, and although the headmaster stops after one lash and dismisses him, sensing that the punishment will make no difference anyway, Gowie asks, "Aren't you going to cane me any more?" The headmaster says, "You want to be caned?" to which he replies, "No, but I don't want not to be." The headmaster continues to thrash him, and when he goes out, he says he was "crying for a lot of things that have nothing to do with having hands that hurt." It was written in 1979 but it's timeless stuff, like all great writing. I’d recommend this book to adults of all ages. Buy Gowie Corby Plays Chicken from Amazon.co.uk for £6.50
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams answers readers’ questions in the Independent today. “I don't think there's any similarity at all between al-Qa'ida and the IRA,” he says at one point. “In the first instance, I wouldn't describe the IRA as terrorists. The September 11 attacks were probably closer to Dresden or Hiroshima in that a lot of planning and resources were put into deliberately killing civilians in large numbers. The IRA's killing of civilians is equally wrong, but the IRA would argue that it did so by accident. That is no succour to the victims' families, but the IRA was one of the few guerrilla organisations that gave warnings.” The words “hmm, interesting distinction” come to mind, as in that scene in the Woody Allen film Love and Death where Diane Keaton says, “I’m not scared of death, but I am frightened of it.” Then again, Adams goes on to say: “As for the war on terror, I'm against the war in Iraq. I do believe that when a country, such as the United States, is under attack, it does have the right to defend itself. But I think it has to do that within international law, otherwise how do you tell the difference between each side?”
Simon Hoggart writes an excellent sketch of Tony Blair’s speech to the Labour Party Conference yesterday. ”It will be remembered as the speech when Tony Blair almost cried,” he writes. “It was a classic New Labour moment: the leader moved to tears by his own rhetoric. We've had the self-basting turkey and the self-cleaning oven. Yesterday we got the self-watering speech.”
Meanwhile, Thoughtcat’s San Diego correspondent forwards me some superb “alternative Bush/Cheney ‘04 bumper sticker” electoral slogans:
Bush/Cheney '04: Four More Wars!
Bush/Cheney '04: Assimilate. Resistance is Futile.
Bush/Cheney '04: Apocalypse Now!
Bush/Cheney '04: Because the truth just isn't good enough.
Bush/Cheney '04: Compassionate Colonialism
Bush/Cheney '04: Deja-voodoo all over again!
Bush/Cheney '04: Don't Change Whores in Midstream
Bush/Cheney '04: Get used to it!
Bush/Cheney '04: In your heart, you know they're technically correct
Bush/Cheney '04: No billionaire left behind
Bush/Cheney '04: Less CIA -- More CYA
Bush/Cheney '04: Lies and videotape but no sex!
Bush/Cheney '04: Making the world a better place, one country at a time.
Bush/Cheney '04: Or else.
Bush/Cheney '04: Over a billion Whoppers served.
Bush/Cheney '04: Putting the "con" in conservatism
Bush/Cheney '04: Thanks for not paying attention.
Bush/Cheney '04: The economy's stupid!
Bush/Cheney '04: The last vote you'll ever have to cast.
Bush/Cheney '04: This time, elect us!
Bush/Cheney '04: We're Gooder!
Bush/Cheney '04: Asses of Evil
Don't think. Vote Bush!
George W. Bush: A brainwave away from the presidency
George W. Bush: It takes a village idiot
George W. Bush: Leadership without a doubt
George W. Bush: The buck stops Over There
God Save the King!
Let them eat yellowcake! Vote Bush!
Peace & Prosperity Suck -- Big-Time
Vote Bush in '04: "I Has Incumbentory Advantitude"
Vote Bush in '04: "Because every vote counts -- for me!"
Vote Bush in '04: "Because I'm the President, that's why!"
Vote Bush in '04: Because dictatorship is easier
Vote Bush in '04: It's a no-brainer!
Vote for Bush & You Get Dick!
Who would Jesus Bomb?
With a Bush, a Dick, and a Colin everyone gets screwed
Further to my email to them on Monday about what is rapidly becoming known as The “Times” Donna Tartt CD Affair, the paper replies: “Thank you for your email. We do state on the cd that it is a sampler so we can only apologise that you feel mislead [sic]. We can only apologise for any disappointment caused.” Very nice, very apologetic, but, er, this was exactly my point, wasn’t it? I’m sending them another email in response saying, “I appreciate that you state on the CD that it is a sampler, and indeed I acknowledged this in my original email. My point was (and remains) that the CD was advertised on the front page of the newspaper as ‘Donna Tartt reads her novel’, implying the whole work rather than part of it. Can I now please have the full 5-CD set of Ms Tartt reading the entire novel as advertised?”
The Independent launched yesterday as a tabloid edition, albeit only in certain parts of London and only Monday to Friday. I really like it – it’s a great size, very neat and handy, well designed (except for the confusing leaders page) and reminds me of that great French left-wing/liberal/arty tabloid Libération. I hope the paper decides to completely convert to this format, because it’s in dire need of an identity to distinguish it from the Times and Guardian broadsheets, and something simple mais éffectif like this could do just the trick. But now there’s a tabloid paper, can we have a tabloid website to go with it? Like, in a smaller window or something?
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