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September 2003


30th September


Philip Pullman writes in protest against the government’s programme of reading tests for kids. “The rubric for a ‘Sat’ writing test told the children to spend exactly 15 minutes on planning their story, and 45 minutes on writing it,” he says; “proper writing just doesn't happen like that.” I’d agree with that. “Nor does it always go through the process of planning, drafting, re-drafting, polishing and editing, which teachers are also required to put their unfortunate pupils through.” Not so sure about that, though; I’m all for spontaneity, but how many worthwhile pieces of writing come out perfectly formed in one go? “Nor does every piece of work have to be completed,” he goes on. That’s for sure: “Some stories you aren't ready to write yet, so you put them away for six months or two years and come back to them when you're ready.” Or about 94 years in my case, or never. “There are no rules,” rules Pullman. “Anything that's any good has to be discovered in the process of writing it.” I’d completely agree with that. “Furthermore,” he concludes, “there must be a willing suspension of certainty - Keats' negative capability, ‘the capability of remaining in doubts, hesitations and mysteries’.” That’s another one of those quotes that makes me feel better about the creative process.



29th September


The Italian power cut really did plunge the country into chaos. Forget trains grinding to a halt, lifts not working and millions left in the dark – that’s all small fry. The Guardian reports: “In the Strega al Corso café in central Rome, Angelo Chiu said: ‘Everybody went without breakfast this morning.’” Ouch!




The late Dr David Kelly has been turned down for a posthumous tribute because of Whitehall politics. The paper reproduces the tribute, which among other things testifies to Dr Kelly’s “humour in the face of risk”. This seems apposite, as I can’t imagine Tony Blair, Geoff Hoon, Jack Straw or anybody involved in the government machine having any sense of humour at all. Indeed, if they did, I dare say they wouldn’t be where they are now.




John Cleese is interviewed in today’s Independent. After some embarrassing (and apparently irony-free) gushing about his daughter and her love of ponies, he says the ex-Pythons still keep in touch with each other on a regular basis via email. What I wouldn’t give to read a few of those...




Last night’s Santana concert at Wembley Arena meanwhile was superb. The legendary guitar genius was accompanied by a drummer and two percussionists, a horn section, stalwart keyboardist Chester Thompson and two excellent singers. The band opened with a thunderous Jingo, replete with a video of African tribal images running behind the band. They went on to perform several numbers from the last record, Shaman (an eclectic 14-track sheer masterpiece that I cannot recommend highly enough to anyone who loves music of whatever kind), as well as some from the one before that, Supernatural, and a clutch of older songs including Black Magic Woman and, of course, Samba Pa Ti. Best of all, he introduced (You've got to change your) Evil Ways by dedicating it to George Bush and Tony Blair. Good on you, Carlos!


Meanwhile, for those of you who weren’t fortunate enough to be at Wembley, here are the lyrics to Jingo (taken from the Lyrics Depot website):






Jingo Ba

Ba, Ba, Lo

Ba, Ba, Lo

Ba, Ba, Lo

Ba, Lo

Ba, Ba, Lo

Ba, Ba, Lo

Ba, Ba, Lo





I know this isn’t much by way of compensation, but, you know, you had to be there...



28th September


The Independent on Sunday examines whether David Blaine is cheating by taking salt and/or glucose in his water or in some other way (through his blanket? by telepathy perhaps?). He’s exonerated by the Sindy scientist, but I think I'll feel cheated if Blaine turns out not to have cheated. If the best thing that can happen at the end of his rapidly-approaching 44 days’ starvation is that he staggers out of the box emaciated and wobbly, that's not much to look forward to, is it? Blaine being Blaine, I thoroughly expect him to do something amazing, like emerge even fatter than he was when he went in (although that'll take some doing).




There’s also an excellent column by Dom Joly in today’s Sindependent’s Review supplement, headlined this week “Puss comes to shove”. It’s not available online but I quote here from the first paragraph: “Buried my cat yesterday. I found him dead on the lawn having finally given up the struggle... His brother doesn’t seem to have noticed, even though they haven’t been apart for a single day since there were born. That’s cats for you. Dogs are loyal, loving creatures that follow you round everywhere telling you that you’re brilliant. Cats only follow you round to tell you what a twat you are.” Perhaps I should have called this week’s site “Thoughttwat”.



27th September


Alan Bennett writes an interesting piece in the Guardian Review about the making of his first TV drama script, A Day Out, in the 70s. There’s also some very touching writing about the people who worked on the production, especially the women who characterised the BBC back in the days when the BBC really was “Auntie”, rather than a faceless corporate entity. He also writes reassuringly: “I can never watch a tape of Me, I'm Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1978) without cringing at its final minute. It's not at all plain where the action is going (and wasn't plain to me when I was writing it) but five minutes from the end it turns into a love story.” There’s hope for my own novel yet, then.




The Review also has a really good profile of poet Thom Gunn, who looks pretty amazing for his 73 years. He wrote one of my favourite-ever short poems, called “Jamesian”: “Their relationship consisted / Of debating whether it existed.” Brilliant. Oddly though I noticed a strange omission: despite the fact that Gunn says he still lives with his partner Mike Kitay, whom he met at Cambridge in his early 20s, Kitay is not mentioned in Gunn's "Life at a glance" overview. I couldn’t help wonder why this was when the Review always includes the marriages of heterosexual profilees in their potted CVs. I’ve written to them to ask why.




In addition to the Guardian today I bought a copy of The Times, which I don’t normally do but a large advert on the top of the paper caught my eye. "FREE CD - Donna Tartt reads her novel", it read. I was very disappointed therefore to find when I opened the paper at home that the free CD in question was actually a sampler, with the wording on the back "Listen to the first part of Donna Tartt's superb bestseller" (my italics) and on the disc itself "Volume 1 of a 5-CD set". I believe that under the Trade Descriptions Act the front-page advert as worded is therefore misleading, as it implies the CD is a reading by the author of her entire novel, which turned out not to be the case. Given this, I strongly feel it to be incumbent on The Times to provide the complete set of CDs or equivalent compensation to redress this issue. I’ve written to the newspaper’s customer services section putting this to them...



26th September


Tony Blair’s empire really is crumbling. First Campbell goes, then Hutton explodes, now Granita closes! Blair’s favourite Islington restaurant, “where the future prime minister thrashed out the notorious ‘deal’ with Gordon Brown in 1994, has closed for good,” reports the Guardian. “Thin brown paper, neatly taped to the window, signalled the demise of the restaurant which might have expected a rush of business this weekend when it features in a television drama of the Blair/Brown partnership,” reads the article. (See TC 24th September below.) All of this is to say nothing of the anti-war march in London tomorrow. “The Stop the War Coalition, which has organised Saturday's protest with the Muslim Association of Britain and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, estimated that at least 100,000 people inspired by the Hutton inquiry and the government's "lies" would join the London march from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square,” further reports the Guardian.




I read today in the Times that George Bush is visiting the UK in November, in the biggest security operation the UK has ever seen. Dubya will be appearing with an entourage of 900 minders apparently, a nuclear-bomb-proof car and probably wearing Arnold Schwarzenegger on his head. He'll be staying at Buckingham Palace no less. One can only imagine the conversation between himself and Her Maj. He's probably reading this (web stats for Thoughtcat reveal a regular, albeit slim, US government readership; hi guys!) so I won't go into great detail about my assassination plot*, but I will say I do plan to attend whatever anti-war or anti-Bush demonstrations that may coincide with his visit armed with a box of rotten eggs and a weapon of mass destruction (if I can find one, that is). The problem is that knowing Bush’s "pre-emptive self-defence" approach he'll probably bomb Britain before he turns up just to be sure he's safe. There'll only be him, Tony Blair and Her Maj left.


* Pre-emptive self-defence disclaimer: Listen, you paranoid, murderous Pentagon dicks: if you take this seriously for a second you’re even thicker than I thought.




Seriously now, the Big Issue has launched a new online venture called Big Issue Lists. It’s a slight misnomer really as the “lists” are really guides in downloadable PDF format to dealing with a variety of social issues, providing tips on how to apply for a job, deal with a suicidal person or come out of the closet. Several lists are free but others can be “bought” for a few pounds. Half the money goes to the Big Issue Foundation which helps homeless people in the UK.



25th September


The Guardian today reports: “A group of Israeli airforce pilots declared yesterday that they would refuse to fly missions which could endanger civilians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” I was quite amazed and very impressed by this, although saddened to see it was immediately put down by one Brigadier General Ido Nehushtn of the Israeli airforce, who said the pilots were a “marginal, small group” of retired and reserve pilots, and Israel's chief of army staff, Moshe Ya'alon, who said the pilots could be punished for their "illegitimate" and "forbidden" statement.




I received some spam today from a company I shall not plug saying I’d won a Microsoft X-box. “This is not spam” said the subject line, which made me immediately suspicious, as did the firm’s opening gambit, “Your email address was entered into our promotional competition by yourself or a friend, family member, or associate. Think yourself lucky!” it went on. I logged onto the site to find no good reasons why anyone should send me a free X-box or have my personal information, together with a page of “previous winners” with dodgy passport photos and an advert with an animated stars and stripes motif offering “Free T-shirts and car window flags for proud Americans”. I emailed the firm’s “unsubscribe” address saying, “Thanks, but I’m not particularly interested in an X-box or your politics.”




The Times reports on a TV confrontation between Californian governor hopefuls Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ariana Huffington, which rose into farce (I mean, it couldn’t exactly descend, could it?) when Huffington defended an attack from the Terminator by saying, “You know what? I'm not easily intimidated. Let's see who can talk the loudest in a foreign accent."




Comedy actor and writer Ardal O’Hanlon does a “You ask the questions” in today’s Independent. Among several lovely lines, when asked about his religious roots, he says, “I'm 90 per cent water, 10 per cent Catholic guilt,” and when questioned about his politics he says “I wouldn't say I had any party politics, although I do have strong philosophical beliefs - principles - and a barely articulate rage.” I know how he feels. You don’t fancy running for office do you Ardal?




Neither the Guardian nor Telegraph has printed my letter from yesterday about their strangely different reporting of the Bush-Chirac relationship at the UN. Not exactly surprising, perhaps.



24th September


The Independent reports on the fascinating but sad story of a homeless Paris artist known only as Joseph, hailed as a genius, whose canvases sell for hundreds of euros but who blows all the cash on three bottles of whisky a day and expensive cowboy boots. Even more tragically he’s been diagnosed with terminal bone cancer. Of scant relief is the news that an exhibition is being made of his work and the Pompidou Centre wants to buy one of his canvases.




Elsewhere in the Indy today the actor Michael Sheen (no relation to Martin or Charlie, and indeed not knowingly a resident of East Sheen either) is interviewed about playing Tony Blair in a TV drama this weekend called The Deal, a Stephen Frears film concerning the now notorious meeting between Blair and chancellor Gordon Brown in poncey Islington restaurant Granita in 1994 to agree which of them should be Prime Minister. A preview screening of the drama made journos wince, apparently, but they laughed out loud to see Sheen’s Blair preening himself in a dressing room mirror prior to a TV appearance and saying, “I’ve always wanted to be an actor.”




The Guardian today runs a story on its front page headlined Bush isolated as speech to UN falls flat, reporting as follows: "Jacques Chirac ... blamed the US-led war for sparking one of the most severe crises in the history of the UN and argued that Mr Bush's unilateral actions could lead to anarchy... Chirac called for a transition [of power of Iraq into Iraqi hands] within months, insisting that this was crucial to securing peace". Strangely, though, the Daily Telegraph reports on the same UN conference with a front-page story of its own headlined France and US unite to fight WMD, reporting: "America and France agreed to set aside their dispute over the war in Iraq in order to take joint action against the spread of weapons of mass destruction... Chirac declared his strong support for the moves against proliferation, which he described as 'the major danger in the world today and tomorrow'... Later, Chirac said he 'greatly enjoyed' his separate meeting with Mr Bush on the margins of the Security Council and they had found many 'points of convergence'." Two different media agendas, two different Chiracs, or both? And what should the public believe about any of it? I’ve emailed both papers asking what they think.



23rd September


Still no reply from BBC3 about the “interview” for a feature they’re doing on career changes, so, unable to stand it any longer, I email them again reminding them that I’m still available 24 hours a day to be grilled on camera anywhere in Britain and for a special once-only fee of £0. I get a delightful response within hours saying, “I'm so sorry I didn't reply to you, it was all so incredibly last minute that we had to go with the first interview that sounded good, so it was already too late by the time I got your email... However I'm keeping potential interviewee details on file should another story come up. In the meantime we're always on the lookout for stories so do let me know if there's anything you think we could cover.” I think of emailing them back with the exclusive story LONDON WRITER SUICIDAL OVER BBC3 REJECTION but am so charmed by the response that I don’t.


The email from BBC3 News also includes a link to the finished “career changes” story, which is quite interesting (they picked a woman who’d left a job in financial services to study medicine), as well as an advert for the BBC’s recent Get Writing initiative-cum-competition. There you can swap ideas and bits of writing with other members of the forum, although it seems it’s really aimed at young, beginning and amateur writers rather than anyone terribly serious. The competition seems good though – write a modern version of a Canterbury Tale of your choice and have it read out on BBC radio.




In an effort to get over my disappointment about not being featured on BBC3 I go up to the South Bank for a walk along the river and to see my mate Loyd Pfink who’s updating me on the Loyd’s Names site. On the way I see this bloke living in a box doing nothing and saying he hasn’t had anything to eat for several days. I give him 50p and he goes off and buys a can of Tennents Super. I walk along the river a bit and see this other bloke living in a box and doing nothing and saying he hasn’t eaten for even longer. Apparently he’s getting five million quid for it. Should be enough to buy a few cans of Tennents, eh!


MSN’s Blaineblog



22nd September


Thoughtcat’s Auntie in Putney (Vermont) emails me a link to an organisation celebrating Elephant Appreciation Day. I did try to tell her that I appreciate all varieties of pachyderm every day but she was having none of it, and indeed persuaded me that this of all weeks should be called ThoughtElephant. So if you’ve even got this far down the page, congratulations, and now you know why this is. The site is pretty good actually, giving instructions on how to make an Elephruit Salad (from a melon, a pear and four carrots) and Elephoot Cookies (“Press on toes, three to four toes per elephoot – we suggest you use either M&M's Brand candies or Reese's Pieces Brand”). Best of all is The Elephant Poem by one Wayne Hepburn. “They [elephants] don't beat up on smaller folks, / Don't care if they're the butt of jokes” runs one of the lines. “Additional couplets welcomed,” says the small print. I’ll have to think about that...




Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy is interviewed in the Independent today further to the party’s triumph at last week’s Brent by-election. "I found in Brent that nobody talks to you in terms of left or right,” he says. “We do all the time at Westminster but out there people just don't. They talk about the problems and want to know have you got a solution." I would have thought this was pretty obvious actually but it’s refreshing to hear a politician saying it. Better late than never I guess. And yes, I do believe the Lib Dems are the only credible alternative to Labour now. Kennedy may be bland but at least he’s honest bland. Iain Duncan Smith I wouldn’t trust with a bargepole. (Is that a mixed metaphor or a Freudian slip?)




No reply from BBC3.



21st September


No reply from BBC bastard bloody damn 3.



20th September


No reply from BBC3.



19th September


To my amazement, further to my experience on 10th September, I received today a very nice letter from Sue Newey at Cadbury Ltd saying, “I am sorry that you have encountered a problem with a Brunch bar from one of our vending machines. We are currently in the process of rectifying the problems that caused this to happen and would thank you for bringing it to our attention. I have enclosed a refund to the value of £2.00 which I trust is in order and hope that we can look forward to your future custom.” Attached to the bottom of the letter was a tear-off voucher for £2 redeemable against any Cadbury confectionery product. I was so impressed I immediately went back to the faulty machine and tried to buy four new Brunch bars, but was very disappointed to find the machine didn’t accept the voucher. I am now in the process of writing an email to Cadbury complaining about this. I wonder if their compensation is worked out on an exponential basis, i.e. if I lose 50p in the machine (or pay 50p for a faulty product) and they reimburse me with £2, does that mean if I lose £2 they’ll send me a voucher for £8 and so on? I could get rich at this rate, opposed as I am of course to “compensation culture”.




No reply from BBC3.



18th September


No reply from BBC3, but West Drayton’s very own FionaCat does send me a link to another bizarre squid story on the BBC’s main website. Basically it seems some squidsperts are trying to recreate squid sex for the camera. “The Auckland University of Technology researcher said ‘The freezer bag at home - to my wife's disgust - is actually full of giant squid gonad samples. We're going to grind all of this up, and we're going to have this puree coming out from the camera, squirting into the water. Hopefully the male giant squid, absolutely driven into a frenzy, is going to come up and try to mate with the camera. This is the dream - we're going to get this sensational footage of the giant squid trying to do obscene things with the camera." Whatever turns you on, I guess.



17th September


Thoughtcat offers concatulations to Clare Morrall, whose novel Astonishing Splashes of Colour has just been named as a shortlistee for the Booker Prize. The book is the first of hers to be published, although the fifth she's actually written. Interviewed here for the Guardian, the 51-year-old says her technique was to "send one manuscript out while getting on with the next one, so that I was enjoying writing that when the other was rejected." Another amazing aspect of this unusual story is that the book was published by a tiny Birmingham press without the help of a literary agent, and it's only now Morrall seems to be hitting the big time that she's been offered representation. Goes to show what you can do when you're writing's good enough. "Think outside the box," as the Americans say, I believe.


Other books on the shortlist include Brick Lane by Monica Ali, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut, Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller and Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre.


Official Booker Prize website

Astonishing Splashes of Colour

Thoughtcat's Booker favourite




No reply from BBC but also in the Guardian today is a very touching and inspirational - if a little sentimental - account by Louisa Young of her meeting with the late Johnny Cash, and how it inspired her to quit her job and become a novelist. (Is it my imagination or is everybody at it?)



16th September



The Guardian's website has a fantastic Jane Bown gallery in Flash format, featuring some of the great portrait photographer's best work from an astonishing 53-year career, including this classic one of Samuel Beckett. Signed prints are also available to buy via the site.

Samuel Beckett by Jane Bown

15th September


I receive an email from recruitment firm Workthing referring to a survey I completed for them a few weeks back about career changes. The survey asked whether I’d made a major change or was planning one, to give details and to say if I would be interested in being interviewed for some mysterious “feature” about it. I said yes, I’d left a good job to become a writer and was now earning nothing but had the greatest job satisfaction I’d ever had, and yes I would, naturally, be interested in being interviewed. Today’s mail tells me to get in touch with no less a body than the BBC3 news site as soon as possible to “arrange my interview”. Having fired off the email as requested I’ve spent the time since tidying up my flat in preparation for the BBC camera crew, thinking: Will they interview me in the lounge or at my desk? What books shall I put behind me? What shirt should I wear? What kind of coffee should I serve? Which bit of my novel should I read out if they ask me to? Needless to say I have been unable to concentrate on my novel at all since sending the email... watch this space!



14th September


Thoughtcat’s Man in Chicago Dave Awl sends me a fabulous link to an animation of Adam Ant dressed in a gorilla costume dancing to a version of his classic number one Stand and Deliver, called – wait for it – Save The Gorilla. When I read Dave’s email I thought it was a joke, or at least a real spoof, but it turns out Adam is taking part in a 7km “fun run” through the City of London on Sunday 21st September in aid of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. All the entrants do their run dressed, naturally, as a zebra. No, only joking, dressed as a gorilla. The animation links to a site called Justgiving which enables you to donate to the cause online. It’s great to see Adam, after all his recent trials and tribulations, doing something which manages to be fun, charitable, ironic and creative all at the same time. Personally I think he’s worth a few quid just for having the sense of humour to do it at all. Adam is trying to raise £5,000 for the cause, so please give generously.




Thoughtcat is now listed under the “British Web Zines” category of, a US-based site with a huge directory of websites and resources for and by writers and performers of all sorts of humorous items from around the globe. It’s possibly the kiss of death for anybody vaguely comical to describe themselves as humorous or to include themselves in such a directory, but I’m stupid enough to take that chance. You can vote for and rate Thoughtcat here. Take a moment to have a look round while you’re there – there’s oodles of good stuff on it.




Talking of humour, I am reliably informed by today’s Daily Llama that Eric Idle’s “Greedy Bastard” tour is due to commence next month...



13th September


The Guardian has a great report today headlined “How Del Boy’s old motor could save the world” which reveals that scientifically speaking, an immense asteroid on course to destroy the planet in some 800 years time could be put off course with a mere Robin Reliant (for non-British readers, this is a notoriously naff old three-wheeled car). It’s all to do with thrust, apparently. How they plan to get a Robin Reliant up there though is another matter, especially as the cars themselves could hardly get to the end of the road without falling over.


This story appears on page 12 of the paper. The front page has what looks like a Steve Bell cartoon of George Bush but is apparently a real photo of the man, under the headline “Iran’s nuclear deadline”. The US is convinced Iran is building a bomb, and during another rally of paranoia yesterday Bush reiterated his “new strategy” of pre-emptive self-defence. “We are not waiting for further attacks on our citizens,” he says. “We are striking our enemies before they can strike us again." Given this, the thought of being obliterated by an asteroid in 877 years' time seems something of a luxury. Then again, if something as simple as a Robin Reliant could save the world from obliteration by an asteroid within about 10 generations, surely somebody can come up with something equally ingenious to stop George leading us to destruction within about the next 10 minutes? I've got an old Beetle if that'll help, and I challenge Thoughtcat’s Man in Nham to donate his Audi to this excellent cause.



12th September


The Guardian doesn’t print my letter about Catherine Bennett on David Blaine but it does print two other letters which are much better, quite correctly pointing out that it’s not very polite to throw eggs at people, and also that Blaine has brought quite a sense of community to the area. I especially like the phrase used by one of the correspondents, who says Blaine is “consuming himself”. Eat (as it were) your heart out, Damien Hirst and your ilk: this is much more interesting and disturbing art than anything you could imagine, or certainly have the, er, guts to carry out.




Doing my weekly (OK, daily) Google search on “Thoughtcat”, I come across a link to TC from nothing less than a UK directory for male models. My mind boggles: I mean, it’s flattering and everything, but frankly unrealistic. What is TC doing on such a site, featuring such dubious links as “catheter care” and “male model requires female model partner”? Turns out the link relates to an entry on TC from 15th January when I defended a raunchy Gucci advert which the Guardian said showed a woman "being pushed against a wall by a male model”. Which, incidentally, can now be seen online...


THAT Gucci ad



11th September


The Guardian reports today: “Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday that most of the 660 suspected terrorists at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba could expect to be held for the duration of the global war on terrorism. ‘Our interest is in not trying them and letting them out," he said. ‘Our interest is in ... keeping them off the streets, and so that's what's taking place.’” Detention without trial, eh, Don? Yeah, like, real democracy in action there – and today of all days for such a comment, too.




Jack Straw grins sickeningly once again at the news that (surprise, surprise) the Intelligence & Security Committee report into the Iraq dossier has exonerated him and just about everyone else of any wrongdoing. “The dossier [on Iraq's weapons programmes] was not ‘sexed up’ by Alastair Campbell or anyone else,” says the foreign sexedupretary. What, despite his admission only yesterday that he wanted a “killer paragraph” inserted into the very same dossier to help “strengthen” its case? Meanwhile, defenceless sexedupretary Geoff Hoon says he “regrets any misunderstanding” over his nebulous part in the whole affair. Thoughtcat says: Do these people think we’re all fucking stupid or what?




Catherine Bennett writes in today’s Guardian that David Blaine’s perspex incarceration/starvation stunt over the Thames is so risible that he deserves the eggs and other missiles that have been thrown at him. I write to the paper: “Like Catherine Bennett I find David Blaine's stunt ridiculous and in poor taste, but I disagree with her on two points: firstly, he's not ‘faux-starving’, more designer-starving, and secondly, he is, after all, only a few days into his fast so far. Although I would respect this millionaire more for quitting immediately and going for a bacon butty, I suspect he'll complete his task, either in one piece or several, and make all his detractors eat their words.


MSN’s Blainewatch site




The other week I ordered a copy of The Medusa Frequency, one of my all-time favourite novels (and in my opinion Russell Hoban’s best book), from for Thoughtcat’s Man in (Chelte)Nham, who recently celebrated his 25th birthday for the umpteenth year running. When said correspondent didn’t mention it after several days, I was worried: did he receive it and simply hate it so much that he would rather have pretended it hadn’t happened at all (unlikely), or was there a simpler explanation, such as he hadn’t received it, and I was being paranoid to a dubyanic degree? It turned out that the latter was the case – after some (soul) searching, said classic modern opus had indeed been delivered several days ago in Man in Nham’s absence and intercepted by his flatmate, who then sat on it, fell asleep and forgot about it. However, by the time M.i.N. had tortured his flatmate and prised it from his grasp, I’d already emailed Amazon to complain about the book’s lack of appearance anywhere in Gloucestershire. Prepared, as I always am, for a fight (q.v. email to Cadbury Schweppes below), I was amazed to receive an email just a few hours later from the firm apologising for the apparent mistake and, once I’d clarified the delivery address, offering to send a replacement immediately at no extra cost. Now that’s what I call service...



10th September


Following George Bush’s proposal to up the US's Iraq budget by a humungously paranoid $87bn, the Guardian asks several prominent people how else that astronomical figure could be spent.


The Times meanwhile has a column by Simon Jenkins which lists ten reasons we should now get out of Iraq. Do we really need that many?


UK foreign secretary Jack Straw is revealed to have wanted a “killer paragraph” in the infamous September dossier to really, like, sell the idea of war to the populace. Forget sensitivity – surely anybody without enough of a sense of irony to make such a “killer” request should be nowhere near the foreign office of any country in the world.




While visiting a mate in Elephant & Castle for a guitar jam today, I had a nasty experience, as the following email to Cadbury Schweppes makes clear:


Dear Sirs


This afternoon at about 2.15pm I bought a Cadbury's Brunch bar for 50p from your vending machine number 0243 on the southbound Bakerloo line platform at Waterloo Station. The bar came out covered in a film of black soot which covered my hands and would not rub off. I had to find a toilet and wash it off with hot soap and water. Needless to say this was very inconvenient and unpleasant and I wasn't much inclined to open the wrapper and eat the chocolate bar either. I would be grateful if you would inspect this machine and please refund my 50p and/or supply me with a (clean) Brunch bar. I still have the bar, unopened and still with some soot on, if you wish me to send it to you.


Yours faithfully


Watch this space for news of a response, if I get one...



9th September


Salam Pax, the “Baghdad blogger” who blogged all the way through the “allied” bombardment, tells his story of how he and his blog became as feted as it did in today’s Guardian. Among other things, he reveals he’s obsessed with blogs of all kinds and actually reads them... he’s an even braver man than I thought.



8th September


The Independent reports that increasing numbers of children are suffering from school phobia. I was sad to read this, remembering only too well my own crippling experience of anxiety at the age of 14 or so which prevented me from going to school for several months. I immediately dashed off a 1400-word article about my experiences and emailed it to the paper for consideration as an exclusive feature, but they didn’t get back to me even to say “no thanks” [and still haven’t as I update this a week later - TC], so I reproduce it below as a Thoughtcat exclusive instead...


My experience of school phobia began on an ordinary day during a German lesson.  It was the mid-1980s, and I was 14 years old.


I was late for the lesson, and although I badly needed a toilet, the German teacher didn’t take kindly to latecomers, so against my better judgment I bypassed the bogs and went straight into the class.  For years afterwards I wondered how my life might have been different if I’d simply gone when I needed to.


German was never my best subject and the teacher could be intimidating.  You only ever put up your hand in that class because you were a thousand per cent sure you knew the answer to a question; nobody asked to go to the toilet – it just wasn’t done.  Logically I knew I wasn’t going to be denied permission to go, but sitting there, my bladder bursting to the extent that I could think of nothing else, my biggest fear was wetting myself for, paradoxically, not wishing to draw attention to myself.  I knew I wouldn’t last the full 35 minutes of the lesson, so I stood up, put one hand to my mouth and the other to my stomach in the classic pose of the projectile-vomiter, and was given immediate leave.


After that, everything seemed to be fine.  For the next German lesson I was extra sure to go to the toilet beforehand.  But to my horror, the moment I sat down I had the feeling my bladder would give out at any second.  My pulse rose, I began to sweat and feel sick, the minutes crept by like hours.  I knew I didn’t need to wee, but I couldn’t rationalise with the rising panic that, once again, I would wet myself and become an outcast from school and, by extension, society in general.  As I made my excuses a second time, the teacher said, “I hope this isn’t going to become a regular event.”  I hoped so too, and not just because of her, but because the eyes of twenty-five or thirty other boys were on me as I made my way out – and back in again.


Within weeks the panic I’d experienced had infected every other lesson in the curriculum – starting with my worst subjects, then my indifferent ones, and finally consuming even those I was best at and enjoyed the most, namely English, Art and Music.


I lived five miles away from school and travelled there via two buses.  One morning I suffered a panic attack as I boarded the bus, and to the consternation of my friends I had to get off after a couple of stops and walk the remaining miles.  Once I was outside on the pavement, I was fine – just as my panic in school would ease as soon as I was out of the gaze of the classroom.


After a few more weeks I was walking the five miles to school every day.  If nothing else it was good exercise, and I enjoyed the time on my own, but I wished I was doing it purely for those reasons rather than to avoid the sheer terror of crowded environments.


It wasn’t as if the school was at fault; the teachers were fantastic (I certainly don’t blame the German tutor for my problems), I had some great friends, and although there were two or three boys who picked on me, both at school and on the bus (at one point I was driven to tears by one of them in full view of my form class – pretty shameful stuff when you’re 14), I wasn’t the only one who was bullied, and those lads were the exception to the rule of what was essentially an excellent comprehensive.


The school in fact allowed me to sit near the door in all my classes and slip out to the toilet whenever I felt like it rather than have to draw attention to myself.  However, as well-intentioned as that was, it only made me look as if I was getting special treatment for something that couldn’t easily be explained to my classmates.  It wasn’t, after all, as if I had an illness with a name.


The condition worsened over the following weeks to the point where I could hardly get out of the house, and I stopped going to school altogether.  My parents did their best to support me but the problem was beyond everyone’s comprehension. 


The family GP found nothing physically wrong with me, so I was referred to an out-patient clinic nearby which treated children and teenagers for psychological problems.  I attended twice a week (in theory anyway, when I actually managed to get myself on the train for the terrifying six-minute journey) for both group therapy and one-to-one sessions with a psychiatrist.


The group therapy could be depressing at times, and we often spent long minutes staring at our feet as others described similar school experiences to mine, as well as those of drunken, abusive or absent parents and other problems in the home.  My sessions with the psychiatrist though were very enjoyable: he loosely diagnosed agoraphobia and prescribed a beta-blocker for my anxiety attacks, but discouraged any stronger medicines or hypnosis.  Sharing my interest in poetry, books and music, he took a sympathetic, creative approach to my treatment, and our sessions would often go on for long afternoons and feel more like conversations with an old friend than actual psychoanalysis.  It was all on the NHS – what I would have done if my parents had had to pay I have no idea, as they simply couldn’t have afforded it, and at the time it was essential to my recovery.


The period of two months I was absent from school at the age of 15 was a kind of education in itself.  Apart from doing schoolwork delivered to me by my friends, I wrote poetry, taught myself to play the guitar, went for long walks in the park, read some classic books, and even started to write a novel.  I knew I had to go back eventually, and with the help of my psychiatrist and the school, which gave me the safety net of doing my work alone in the library if I wished, I gradually started attending lessons again.  They even let me take my O-level exams on my own, invigilated by a single member of staff who probably had much more important things to do.  In the end I passed five – English Language and Literature with A grades – and found a place at an excellent college to study A-levels.  The college’s laid-back attitude, together with the cosmopolitan student body, some superb lecturers and an eclectic mix of literary, musical and intellectual influences all helped me overcome the panic and anxiety I’d felt at school. 


I left college with indifferent grades and no real academic ambitions, something I had mixed feelings about at the time – I panicked again in the exams and although I’d received some good marks for my coursework, none of those counted towards my final grade.  But my disappointment at failing to get into university was offset by winning first prize in a local poetry competition and another in a short story contest.  With school and college behind me, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.


I continued to see my psychiatrist until I was 19; we supposedly arrived at some kind of conclusion about the causes of my anxiety, but that mattered less to me than our friendship and the things I learnt from him and other people at that time about the good things in life – namely, books, music and human relationships, still the most important elements for me today both personally and in the wider context of writing.


On balance, I was lucky: the system – the rigid school curriculum, the pressure of ‘options’ and examinations, the bullying – all contributed to my school phobia in the first place, but in the end the system and some great people came through for me, and I’ve always felt myself to be stronger for the experience.  Not, of course, that I’d wish a single panic attack, and especially not in a school classroom, on my worst enemy.




On a more lighthearted note today, the Guardian has a hilarious story about how a raggedy old folk singer called Jungle Barry has been wrongly accused of being Lord Lucan, the notorious British aristocrat who disappeared the day after his nanny was found murdered in their London home in the early 70s. Lucan was never found, and this article proves he hasn’t been found again. And even if he had, Jungle Barry is dead anyway.



7th September


That’s right, the thought and cat are last week’s again – and why not, indeed, but I have to admit the reason for it is the same technical hassle I suffered during the last repeat a while back. Like last time, this page is being written on a coal-fired laptop running a bribery-and-corrupted version of Word 2000, rather than on Frontpage on a modern PC, since the latter, which used to be able to do everything except make the tea, has once again decided, post-MS Blast, not to let me boot it up. Having also had my FrontPage CD rom nicked by bastards unknown hasn’t helped either, but I don’t mean to complain, especially since in any damn case I’ve had another very productive and creative week in which I passed the half-way mark with my novel, meaning I haven’t had time to write a lot for the blog, hence the few shorthandishly pithy comments below. However, I am planning to put a few extracts from the first draft of the novel on the site in the coming weeks, so watch this space – if, indeed, this space even gets as far as the internet...




Back to the real world... the Independent on Sunday today has a profile of the now-encapsulated David Blaine as he commences his Tower Bridge stunt, reporting that the only thing he has with him in his perspex box apart from a tube to drink water is a picture of his mother.



6th September


I’ve added Penguin Books’ website to the list of recommended diversions (see right). It’s a great site packed not only with news about the publisher’s latest books and authors but also some fascinating interviews with people like Pat Barker, Caro Fraser, Jim Crace, Susan Williams and Orlando Figes. Meanwhile Mark Lawson writes an interesting review of Robert Harris’s new novel Pompeii in the Guardian Review, explaining how Harris manages to maintain the tension in the thriller despite the fact that everybody knows the explosive ending. Click here to buy Pompeii from Amazon at half price (£8.99 for the hardcover).



5th September


The Guardian contemplates the gross effrontery that is George Bush’s attempt to get the UN to tidy up the mess he started in Iraq: “If the Bush administration is expecting grateful thanks for its proposal to give the UN a bigger role in Iraq, it is going to be sorely disappointed... It is plain that the US push for a new security council resolution does not derive from newly rediscovered respect for the UN. President George Bush and his senior officials were happy to bully and bypass the UN in the lead-up to the Iraq war. It is a grim irony that they are now trudging back, cap in hand, to seek the help of the same organisation they resoundingly rubbished.”




The Guardian also reports on a movie world first, in which a new film written by Simon “Full Monty” Beaufoy called This Is Not A Love Song is to have a simultaneous web-broadcast alongside the cinema release... the Poetry Library on London’s South Bank has launched the first of its Poetry Magazines Online Archive, documenting hundreds of excellent small magazines for posterity (which in web terms could mean 5 minutes, but there you go)... Computer antivirus strategies are in crisis, reports the New Scientist... works of Aboriginal art have been stolen, reports the Independent; Thoughtcat wonders where Prince Harry is at the moment... and Thoughtcat’s Man in Nam (nr. Stroud) reports with a link to a “brilliant Flash animation thing” called Dueling Banjos, a surrealist Deep South satire featuring the eponymous music from Deliverance (played by a squirrel and a penguin), pigs running wild, a cameo by the Dukes of Hazzard (remember them?) and an exquisite poultry denouement. Enjoy.



4th September


Paulo Coelho certainly is doing the rounds to promote his new book Eleven Minutes, here providing the answers to a ‘You ask the questions’ in the Independent. One reader asks: “A reviewer on described The Alchemist as ‘an almost childish, over-extended pop psychology session’. How do you react to that?” To which Coelho replies succinctly, “I write books. Reviewers write reviews.”



3rd September


Tim Robbins talks about the problems inherent in being an anti-war liberal film star in America, while Shias mourning their recently-murdered cleric demand an end to the US occupation of Iraq.



2nd September


A very funny article in the Guardian reports on the “wars ‘r’ us” shopping culture in the US, cashing in on recent events with merchandise including talking George Bush dolls – some of them more patriotic than others. Coming soon, a Tony Blair doll, complete with a “Hutton Button” – press it and watch him squirm!



1st September


There was a very silly programme on Channel 4 (or was it Channel 5? I get the two mixed up so often these days) tonight called something like “Stars in the Buff”, in which nude scenes, both famous and obscure, featuring various actors were catalogued. It mostly consisted of some very inane stuff for the truly desperate, such as Julia Roberts’ nipple being visible for a fifth of a second in Pretty Woman, but it was of course compulsive viewing, and in any case it did provide Brian Sewell with the opportunity to say something typically exquisite. Defending one of the more explicit scenes from the infamous Mark Rylance/Kerry Fox film Intimacy, he said that while it may have offended some people, “the script called for an oral moment.” I seem to remember he also said about this that “you knew it was coming” but I can’t be sure as I was too busy laughing.



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