Friday, 31 December 2010

Facebook 'note' Hogmanay, 2010

In a few hours it will be 2011. I want to wish all of you a very happy new year, one that is overflowing with all the stuff good years should be about: Happy get togethers. Great evenings. Crisp mornings. Wonderful holidays. Terrific dinners. Satisfying work place scenarios. Family gatherings where no one dies. A new puppy. An iPad. Losing a few pounds, but not too much. A hearty breakfast. A sharp reduction in car servicing bills. A sharp increase in the average temperature. Less rain. More barbecues. Some nuts. Glorious sunsets. Fabulous orgasms. A new painting. A good clean shirt. A wonderful book. The discovery of an author you'd never heard of but who turns out to be brilliant. A great new hobby. Running, because it feels good. The touch of a person who you care about. The absence of people who don't care about you. A challenge. A treat. Chocolate. Finding yourself, feeling happy, feeling great. Have a great 2011. Better than that, have a fabulous 2011. Treat it like it will be the best year you've ever lived, and you know what, it might just turn out that way....

A Christmas Dr Who

Dr Who was terrific, wasn't it? Stephen Moffat's tenure as the new chief writer hasn't been the smoothest of transitions. I thought some of his epipodes lacked a little something - some heart perhaps. But his Christmas special was a triumph, a glorious literary trick that left us drooling.
The strange thing is that A Christmas Carol hadn't been done with a time traveller before. It seems so obvious: Ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. Who else but a time traveller could supply those perspectives?
And A Christmas Carol has been done just soooo many times: this year alone my V+ box has Scrooged, A Muppet Christmas Carol and a dodgy looking musical featuring Kelsey Grammer...and that was without really looking for variations on the Dickens theme.
Moffat's triumph, I think, was that he took the Carol as a theme, but didn't stick slavishly to the format (like Blackadder did a few years ago). He played around with it and with our expectations.
I noticed a little chat about it on the web afterwards. Well, the guardian's comments ran into the several dozen, with several fanboys pointing out that it broke the first, or was it the fifth?, law of time, which states that you can't muck around with a person's own timeline. So Moffat broke the rules: good. That's what good drama is all about. Good literature too.
Padgett Powell, when I spoke to him recently, spoke about the rules in literature as well, and went on to admit that his own recent book, The Interrogative Mood, didn't comply by any of them. That it was, by rights, not actually a novel at all.
The great thing about literature is that it doesn't comply with the rules.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Jonathan Franzen's Freedom

Freedom. The title puzzled me at first, I thought it sounded a bit too general, but what I'd not taken into account was the significance of "freedom" to Americans over the past decade. Once I'd reminded myself of the Fight For Freedom, the renaming of French Fries as Freedom Fries (in response to French opposition to an invasion of Iraq), and all those Freedom first soundbites that sail out of the media and hit us square between the eyes a gazillion times a day: well then I realised why Franzen wanted it as his title and as his central theme. Freedom: because why would you write about anything else?

Especially as one person's freedom may not be another's. When you get down to it, isn't freedom just another word for conflict? Go ask the fellas in the Green Zone if you're not sure.
Iraq, 9/11, the Clinton-Gore-Bush years, act as a backdrop to this most American of family sagas. It's a book I think you need to swallow whole. If you drag out the experience you'll lose the subtleties that Franzen throws up in the way he manipulates chronology. The book is told from various POV: first we have, in the first/third person an autobiography by Patty, Mistakes Were Made, an awkward bit of prose that reads as it should, a little amateurishly. And yet it has a great deal of power. We learn that Patty feels let down by her parents: East Coast Liberals who can't come to terms with their eldest daughter's supposed ordinariness. Actually she is a fantastic athlete and basketball player, but this doesn't register for them. When she is raped, they place political and social concerns over her wellbeing and advise her to forget about it and move on. She does move on: and moves away from her family, cutting them out of her life, eventually, for decades.
Patty's husband, Walter, her son, Joey, and her sometime lover (and Walter's best friend) Richard Katz, take up the other POVs.
Joey kicks off as a pretty disgusting character: an entirely self involved teen, prematurely sexually active and obsessed with money and 'getting on'.
He is the opposite of Walter, a selfless environmentalist (lawyer by training) who has supported Patty's desire to be a fulltime mum and homemaker but who is repaid with her negiligence and coldness towards him.
Katz is a rock musician who becomes a major star; he lives entirely in the present and seems to be entirely governed by his desire for women and his desire to contradict anyone who appears to be in authority.
The book charts the breakdown of Walter and Patty's marriage, the coming of age of Joey and, to some extent, the coming of age of Richard. It is a book of huge transformation (don't let anyone tell you that, because it is largely a domestic drama, that 'nothing much happens'). I found it in places extremely moving and while there were passages that left me a little frustrated (Walter's bird thing: pretty boring if you ask me) I grew to think that Franzen was correct to include them. I felt almost as if the fact he was boring us, just a little bit, was forcing us to consider just how worthy and serious Walter was. Walter really got the detail: to understand that we had to be told the detail too.
Freedom has been hailed as a masterpiece: and you know, perhaps it is. Time will tell whether or not this book will pass into the canon. But if I was a betting man I might put a flutter on it.
Franzen is - and this surprised me, Freedom being the first of his books I've read - a great story teller. He really knows how to weave his characters around events. Not only is he the master of the time line, I even managed to read his sex scenes without cringing. A Literary Novelist who can write Good Sex? Forget the Pulitzer, that's a title that's really worth having.
I was intrigued by the age politics in the book. This is very much a 40-something's novel. Teens and early twenties are described almost as if they are another species. While Patty is reading War and Peace her son is texting and having sex with the neighbour's kid. Youngsters get a really bad rap - at the start of the novel. By the time the story has run its course you feel that Patty, Walter and perhaps even the author have come to terms with youth: has seen them for what they are: younger more energetic versions of ourselves, who don't know quite as much.
Freedom got a lot of hype, but what drew me to read it was an Time interview with Franzen. He came across as incredibly serious and devoted to his craft and I thought, if he has spent time writing this book, it's bound to be worth reading.

No And Me and Not Vampires

Somebody was lamenting the other day about how YA fiction for girls (in particular) was so utterly dominated these days by snogging Vampires. I suggested a title I'd read for review and it turned out they'd never heard of it.
No and Me, by Delphine De Vigan, actually enjoyed quite a bit of media coverage when it came out. But books are not films: if you blink you miss it. I know one really quite voracious reader who said recently that he'd not even heard of Jonathan Franzen, despite all the hoopla over Freedom. (I'm going to blog about that book very soon).
I actually got the chance to speak to De Vigan about her book, which I thought was charming and well done: a nicely balanced story that kept me wondering, and left me with a sense of genuine satisfaction. Definitely worth taking a break from the Vampires for.

It was while she was commuting in and out of Paris to a job in the suburbs that Delphine De Vigan realised the subject of her next book, No and Me, was staring at her in the face.

“I was like a lot of people, sometimes I saw them, sometimes I didn’t,” she recalls. “That’s what struck me: how we get used to it, that it becomes normal. We have to fight against that.”

What 44-year-old De Vigan had seen was the French capital’s growing army of new homeless.

“I was impressed by the fact so many young people were now homeless - and so many young women,” she says.

“I did some research on the Internet and that confirmed my feeling: there are more and more young people in France who are homeless and more and more young women. In the 16-18 age group up to 70% are now women.”

De Vigan, who herself befriended two, older, homeless women while researching the novel, adds: “Ten years ago perhaps, people who lived in the street might have chosen that way of life, it was a choice associated with a mental disorder. Now, a lot of people living in the street don’t have a choice: there is no other solution for them.

“In France we know that forty percent of people who live in the street work, they have jobs – most of them are women. They live at a friend’s place or in their car, sometimes in a social institution. But they don’t have a home anymore. I knew this was something I wanted to write about.”

De Vigan had risen to prominence in France with an autobiographical account of her own struggle with anorexia. Something of a departure for her, this new novel would be a socially aware story, and it would present the homelessness issue through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl, Lou Bertignan.

“She is a bit like me,” Delphine admits during out conversation on the phone from her Paris home. “The book did take on a life of its own. I always intended No, the homeless girl, to be the main character. But by the end I think Lou is the main one.”

For a school project, Lou – a precocious, highly intelligent student – decides to interview a homeless person. She picks No, an 18 year old who has been on the street for only a couple of years. As the two girls become unlikely friends, No’s back story is revealed: her abusive parents, her drinking, and her fantasies.

But Lou has problems of her own: her mother is suffering depression following the death of her baby sister; her father is struggling to cope. When Lou suggests No live with them, her parents surprisingly agree and the presence of a stranger in their midst becomes a catalyst for a healing process. However, No’s issues are more problematic than at first they seem.

“I think Lou is not very far from the little girl I used to be,” says De Vigan. “I didn’t intend that. I didn’t even realise I was doing it at first. My own mother used to be depressed, she was bipolar. At one period of my life she ‘came back’ – as I describe it in the book – but not for the same reasons of course.

“When I was 13, my mother became ill and went to the hospital for the first time. My sister and I had to quit our life. We used to live in Paris but we then had to move to the countryside with my father: one day in Paris, the following day in the countryside. We left with jeans and a T-shirt and my father said: now you live here. We didn’t see my mother any more for several months. I think that is why I could remember very well this age, how I felt, how shy I was. Always the feeling I was not in the right place.”

No and Me, a relatively brief 240 pages, won the Booksellers’ Prize in France and proved popular with both adults and a teen audience. Bloomsbury, who is publishing it here, is pitching it to both the young adult and adult markets. But De Vigan says: “For me it is not especially a book for teenagers, even though the main characters are teenage. I thought a teenage narrator would be a good way to question adult people about their dreams: as a teenager you want to dream you want the world to change. As adults, we must ask ourselves if we have done that.”

No and Me is published by Bloomsbury, £9.99. This interview appeared in Big Issue Scotland Magazine

Monday, 13 December 2010

Padgett Powell

I was asked by Big Issue Scotland to interview an American writer I'd not come across before: Padgett Powell. It was a real treat and very thought provoking. There are themes linking this with my other post of the day. I'll try and tease them out in a future post.

“Could you live on a boat?” “How do you stand in relation to the potato?” “Do you give greeting cards?” A novel made up entirely of random questions? Are you serious?

It does sound mad, like a novelty Christmas gift to be stored ever after in the smallest room in the house, and yet The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? is also a serious work by an undoubtedly gifted writer. Even if, as Padgett Powell is quick to admit, its 164 mesmerising pages stemmed from something as “trivial” as the desire of a middle aged man to get his own back on an ‘irritant’.

Powell, who has been teaching creative writing in Florida, for over twenty years, explains that it was an email from a colleague that made him snap and turned him into a Grand Literary Inquisitor.

“They would go this way,” he drawls in his rich South Carolina accent. “‘Is it time for our esteemed director to have a chat with the Provost about the autonomy of the programme?’ I was the director. ‘Are we remembering what was promised o us last spring by the Dean?’ ‘Are we going to be content to let history repeat itself again?’

“And a typical letter would go on about eight or nine of these questions: directing me, telling me what to do. I started getting mad enough to want to send an answer. I started writing and pretty soon I had 600 of these things, then 6,000. I’d spend an hour or two writing these questions down, and then I’d feel better.”

The result has been extraordinary: a novel that has raised eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic (though arguably more so over here) and wacky enough to be featured in both The Independent and The Sun. But who is Padgett Powell? It’s a name you think you’ve heard of – but you almost certainly haven’t.

Powell came to prominence in 1984 with his first novel Edisto. Narrated by a precocious 12-year-old it was hailed by one well known critic as “like Catcher in the Rye, only better”. It generated a cult following, was named among the five best novels of the year by Time – and sold a piddling 23,000 copies. About as many copies as Dan Brown sells in one afternoon. Praised he might have been, but he was still flat broke.

Powell’s novels since Edisto became increasingly experimental – at a time when American literature was embracing the idea of “the big story” as practised by the bestselling likes of Chabon, Franzen and Tartt.

Flash forward to 2009 and we find this lauded talent hasn’t had a book out in nearly a decade. Now he is best known for teaching creative writing – he’s also been married and divorced – while his real career, as a writer, is going nowhere. Indeed, the two novels he had finished had not found publishers and he started telling people he’d retired.

Then he got that email and something burst; soon he was venting his spleen, beautifully and emphatically, with question after question of sheer unadulterated grumpiness. He sent it off to The Paris Review, which bought an extract, and found a publisher straight away.

Seemingly random, the effect of the book is to offer a surprisingly consistent character study of the questioner. We learn a surprising amount about his background, his obsessions and desires.

“Yeah, it’s me. Let me use all my French: c’est moi!” Powell says. “There’s no concealment whatsoever. There’s quite a bit of autobiography bobbing along in there. It’s my little life. There are 17 questions on bluejays probably because I’m fond of them. But I said to the editor, if there are 17 make it 13, so I don’t look like a complete idiot.”

When I point out to him that he often comes across as deeply unhappy he concedes that he’s probably just a grumpy old man “about nine tenths of the time.”

So is it a cry for help? You include that phrase in one of the questions.

“Is that there?” he asks, genuinely surprised. “Well it might be. The book [before this one] that was rejected was called Cries For Help, 45 Failed Novels.”

So is it about a frustration, about not being published?

“No,” he chuckles. “It was smart-arsedness: to send a very funny letter back to an irritant. There was nothing high minded about it. Once I got in to writing the questions I suppose something higher minded began to pertain. I got very interested in the idea of the non-sequitur. The overt non-sequitur is what started to be interesting. There are ways there are little connections.”

Bizarrely, Powell insists he’s never read the entire book back, either in the process of writing it or afterwards. He’s “poked about in it” to extract bits for readings, but that’s pretty much it.

And for a man who describes himself as writing ‘high literary elitism so good no one buys it’ he’s surprisingly relaxed about the novelty value of the book.

He laughs: “For all the poo-pooing I’ve done about being an elitist, if you told me that I could have a book on the back of everyone’s toilet, well I’d take that!”

This article appears in Big Issue Scotland Magazine

Teaching what you can not teach

Neil Gaiman's journal

I'm a little bit of a fan of Neil Gaiman. Not a huge fan - his graphic novels have so far passed me by and indeed, I've only read three of his books, but found them exhilerating and entertaining. I've recently, by way of Facebook, been introduced to his blog... which is a fascinating read.
This item caught my eye. In it he hears from one young man who feels his writing career is stalling -- at the age of 20 -- and then he reproduces the words of a correspondent who has a few axes to grind about a creative writing course she is involved with. Anyone thinking of writing as a career should read this and consider it carefully.
Writing courses weren't really about when I was 16-17, the age when I was trying to decide what to do with my life. I ended up getting fixed on English Lit - and studying a joint honours degree Eng Lit and Politics. I thought it was relevant to a future in journalism, and of this I was both right and wrong.
I regret not doing history. Or, in fact, law. But that's a whole different blog.
Anyway: on Gaiman's blog we have an account of a US writing course geared only for literary novels. Someone wants to write Sci-fi, but they are basically shunned by the professor. There is talk of the students signing a contract: no genre fiction...
One of my pet hates is the whole genre/literary debate. Its an artificial distinction. What these terms are really are labels -- labels that help publishers and booksellers do what they need to do: sell books. It's handy for Waterstones, but it doesn't define the content very well. I particularly hate the idea that literary fiction is somehow more worthy than, say, thrillers, because it is literary. There are a lot of bad literary books out there -- new and old.
I love 'genre fiction'. I also love a good 'literary novel' but I refuse to read either for the sake of it. I'm racing through Franzen's Freedom right now and loving it -- while secretly looking forward to a bit of time over christmas when I can read the second Stieg Larsson thriller. It's been on my shelf for nearly a year, and I can't believe its been that long already.
I agree with the correspondent on Gaiman's blog: writers should write what they have to write.
I'll also repeat an observation that Carmen made when I mentioned this issue to her: why do publishers and readers have such an issue with genre? And yet, when you go see a film, we happily talk about rom-coms or thrillers or action adventures.
(But then there is art house. I guess even in cinema there is a literary pretension.)
Her point is a good one though: the US screenwriting INDUSTRY loves genre. Serious book people, people who want to shift hundreds of thousands of copies of a book instead of just a few hundred to family and friends, also LOVE genre. Because they know thrillers, historical fiction, rom-coms (labelled for some reasons chicklit in books) is what really sells. It is a book business after all.
Literary novels? They are a genre too, of course. They conform to certain types, there are certain expectations. Rules. And some of them sell big - most often when a certain idea or a certain novelist really catches the imagination.
Franzen right now, perhaps.
Other lit writers struggle to cover their costs. That's why, as Gaiman's correspondent says, they end up teaching other aspiring writers how to write creatively.
The problem is: we end up with an entire industry, the creative writing education industry, that is disclocated from publishing and, indeed the real world. An industry that is entirely self referential and self propogating. Indeed, considering most of the professors of creative writing are relatively unsuccessful novelists, you might argue that they are openly antithetical to publishers and publishing. this might not be news to anyone who has seen the film or read Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon. But you can now see this trend happening here too, in the UK.
And this isn't good. as developments go, it's pretty damned lousy. A cultural cul de sac. Novels, books, should connect with readers: not academics with tenure.

Having finished this mini-rant I came across a blog/article on the Guardian's website that was talking about similar themes: literary merit versus genre popularity. It sparked off a hot, sometimes foul mouthed debate regarding the various merits/demerits of lit fic, genre writing and Ed Docx, the author who wrote the article (to promote his own new, literary novel). Phew. What a lot of nonsense was ranted. One thing occurred to me: there was a lot of talk about literary merit, and barely a mention of story.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

J.J. Abrams' mystery box | Video on

If you want an inspirational talk on connecting the dots between writing and shooting a high tech bullet up Tom Cruise's nose, then look no further than J.J. Abrams' mystery box | Video on

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Colder and colder

December, Scotland, 2010 is shaping up pretty much as January did. The Kelvin River, only a few hundred yards away from where we live, has iced over. There's even ice floating down the Clyde. Yesterday we had gridlock caused by a blizzard at rush hour. Ten and even 24 hours later there were still cars stuck in motorways - main roads that had been turned into slushy bottlenecks. Lorries were jack knifed. Cars were skidding. One friend of mine had been on the way to Loch Lomond when the snow began. He turned back, but spent a total of ten hours in his car trying to get home to Mearnskirk in the south side of Glasgow. He had a cup of coffee with him: he drank it and then had to 'avail himself' in the same cup. It will be a while before he lives that one down.
All this weather has made things very difficult. Britain is very used to just getting on with things: we have a damp, generally benign climate that allows us to do just that. I know people who don't even have a proper winter coat. There have been years in the recent past when I have gone January to December without ever changing my wardrobe that much. Jeans, T-shirt, shirt, add a jumper maybe, medium coat. Suddenly we are living in extremistan and thinking: do we like this?
At least my North Face Parka is proving to be good value.
As a country, we're certainly not prepared. Kids are missing a lot of school, people aren't getting to work and the shops are empty. We have a road based economy and its freezing up. Now it turns out that only a few councils even have a bespoke weather report from the Meteorological Office. And the SNP Scottish Government didn't know there was snow coming...

Friday, 3 December 2010


There's a lot of it about. It's a bit of cliche when it comes to writing novels - or films for that matter - for the weather to reflect the inner turmoil of the characters' lives. Stormy weather means a row or a fight is coming. A prolonged winter landscape means someone is feeling, well, cold towards his fellow man. Hot weather and beaches means... fun, frolics, love.
These last few days though prove that there is a real basis to these literary devices. Britain is really feeling the chill. One newspaper, The Times, speaks of us being 'Frozen Out', not just in terms of the frost but in terms of the Football World's decision to take the World Cup to a country other than England. We speak of the Winter of Discontent, and unhappy period in 1978 when industrial relations broke down and the economy ground to a halt. There are no mass strikes right now, but you do get the very real sense of a country battling the elements. And in Britain we are not used to that, and so it is making us feel very unhappy.
The snow novelty - the snowvelty, if you like - has undoubtedly worn off. Now all we care about is staying warm (and with headlines like 'two pensioners freeze to death' who can blame us?) and getting to our destination, safely and without too much of a delay.
The winterscape has revived my interest in Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy. He captures the snowy wastes of the Swedish countryside very well. In Girl with the Dragon Tatoo, the main character is in an exile, of sorts, stuck in a tiny snowcovered village, huddled round his wood burning stove. Its extremely evocative.
Another Swedish writer, Tove Jansson, captures the chilliest season perfectly in A Winter Book, a collection of stories about nesting, living with nature, and survival.
Other snowy reads include the Harry Potters - Hogwarts is always laden with snow at some point or other - and of course Narnia. But of the children's reads, if you can call them that, Northern Lights has to be the best at conveying the sheer physical gasping risky reality of snow and subzero temperatures. Read the passage with Lyra on the back of the Polar Bear: you can imagine holding on to his fur yourself.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Deathly Hallows

Loved it. That was the general view. Harry Potter 7 part 1 is a big hit, at least with the Quinns, who have read, listened to and seen all the other flicks countless times. (My son, Sam, has been doing HP trivia quizzes daily for the past month as this film approached).
Yes there are disappointments. The subtleties of the book - yes really - are lost. Some of the twists and turns in the logic. Some of the careful set ups. But as a film it works very well.
When it was first mooted that it was going to be two films we discussed where they might split the story. I argued for Dobby's death all along, even though it is a downer. The film makes it clear just how appropriate that moment is. Deathly Hallows 1 starts and ends with Malfoy Manor. It concludes with the end of the wandering in the forest sequence - which I have to say came across better on screen than it did in the book. Time Mag complained it was too much forest angst. I disagree, I think they got it right.
Some things were left a bit too vague for me. Bathilda turning into a snake? And there was no sense of Voldemort breathing down their necks as JK managed to do in the book. But these are quibbles.
The actors did extremely well. The direction was slick. The editing couldn't be argued with. It was a pacy, entertaining 2 hours 40 minutes that felt like a lot less.
Of course the book is better. Books are always better. But this film: perhaps the most satisfying adaptation yet.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Big Willie and Babykins

Obviously it's exciting. For them. But should the rest of the country be excited too?
I'm talking Royal nuptials, of course. Those of Big Willie and Babykins. (And there was I thinking that Catherine Middleton had a right to be ticked off by the fact that journos always referred to her, familiarly, as 'Kate'.)
I noticed today that Gerry Hassan and John MacLeod, two of Scotland's politically opposed opinion formers aka bloggers aka newspaper pundits, have been discussing the cool Scottish response to the news that the Queen's grandson, second in line to the throne, is to tie the knot with his commoner girlfriend.
Hassan thinks it has an 80s sheen to it all. People have commented on this already: Tory government, rising unemployment, recession, cuts... and a Royal Wedding. It's 1981 redux. I saw similar chat on Facebook at the time of the announcement.
Superficially, I think that's a funny observation. But this is no repeat of history, things are quite, quite different. And I don't just mean: she's six months older than him, he's not a berk like his father was etc.
MacLeod, meanwhile, is a great defender of the monarchy. He says that anything other than monarchy would be a lot worse. Which as standpoints go strikes me as being simultaneously pathetic and utterly sensible.
The most interesting commentators I've yet heard on the wedding have been Starkey and Schama who did a sort of wonderful, highbrow double act on Newsnight early this week. I increasingly think it is a bit sad when commentators react to every event with a prescription for how the world should change for This Sort Of Thing To Be Done Away With.
When Schama and Starkey spoke about William and Kate you got a sense of what was really happening: this isn't just a day off work and a street party. This is a dynasty renewing itself. So sit back and try to understand it, rather than wade in with some half baked opinion.
The choice of Kate isn't trivial, though you might think it with a glance at the tabs, it is in fact crucial: she has to be everything Diana was, and everything Diana was not.
Honestly, do you think that engagement ring was about William being sentimental? "Hey dad, I really like this girl, where's that £100,000 plus priceless ring you gave mum?" Not a bit of it: it was hugely symbolic, chosen to highlight the fact that as far as the Royals are concerned, they know they did bad, but this is a new beginning with different people, and you're bound to like these ones even more...
Even her surname: Middleton. She's Middle Class. She represents Middle Britain. Middle of the Road. Don't scare the horses. We're taking a Middle Line. Historians of the future will wonder whether even it was a coincidence, or whether it was somehow planned too.
Of course the vast majority of Mirror, Sun, Heat and Hello readers will look at the wedding as just that: a wedding. They'll discuss the dress, they'll read articles about her choice of hairdresser, and they'll debate whether the honeymoon should be in St Barts or Australia.
That is the Royal Family doing one of the things they do, in order to stay in power: they give people a sense of ... well, family.
If the more serious among us, The Guardianistas, left wing bloggers, artists and writers, shrug and say 'that doesn't matter' or 'who cares' or 'hang 'em', then that's understandable. Similarly, if the Scots Nats, Republicans, socialists or the whoever choose not to join in with the general sense of well being, well, as far as the Royals are concerned, that's a shame - but in the scheme of things, it's no great loss.
The marriage of Big Willie and Babykins isn't just about two horsey yahs getting hitched - as some seem inclined to dismiss them. It's about the continuation of the Royal story. And it highlights the fact that Britain remains in its thrall.
We might see ourselves as a radical, progressive country. We Tweet, we Facebook, we Blog. We have iPhones and SUVs, mortgages and ISAs. We watch HDTV and eat microwaved organic ready meals from Waitrose. But we are still steeped in the past, our feet weighed down by the clay not just of the last couple of decades: but of hundreds of years of precedent and privilege. That is what this wedding should remind us of.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The Fort

Historical fiction. Bernard Cornwell has written more of it than most. I read and spoke to the author about his new book The Fort, for Big Issue Scotland recently:

Bernard Cornwell loves a battle. If he’s not knee deep in Saxon blood retelling the history of King Alfred the Great he’s swashbuckling his way through the Napoleonic wars with Rifleman Richard Sharpe, pursuing the Holy Grail, or reliving the bloody massacre of Agincourt.

Cornwell, who at 66 is arguably one of the most successful historical authors in the world, injects his stories with thrilleresque pace, turning subject that most of us vaguely recall from dull history lessons at school into page-turning beach reads.

In The Fort, Cornwell makes a rare foray to the American War of Independence. He’s written about the conflict just once before, in an early book, Redcoat and as an Englishman who has lived much of his adult life in the US, where he is now a citizen, you’d think it might be a pet subject. But he admits: “It’s not a particularly popular war either side of the Atlantic. I was drawn to this battle just because it was just so extraordinary.”

You can see his point. The Fort retells the story of the so-called Penebscot Expedition, a land and sea battle which resulted in a modest force of British redcoats, supported by three small warships, seeing off the largest raiding party the Americans had by that time ever put together – including 18 warships and about five thousand men. It was David and Goliath with muskets.

And yet the British won. “The Americans were making entirely the wrong decisions almost every time,” Cornwell explains. “It was their bad luck they were up against two consummate professionals in the British leaders, who made all the right decisions and who worked very well together.”

The Fort is littered with intriguing, real life historical figures. The American commander, General Lovell, who “like a rabbit caught in the headlights” freezes at all the important moments and manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. His reliable number two, Peleg Wadsworth (“He’s the real hero of the book for me,” says Cornwell), knows things are going wrong but lacks the authority to do anything about it. And then there’s Paul Revere, yes that one: the heroic Patriot who warned that the “British were coming” in Henry Longfellow’s poem Paul Revere’s Ride.

Intriguingly, Peleg Wadsworth was Longfellow’s maternal grandfather, but Cornwell doubts the men would agree on their assessment of Revere.

“I’m offended by Revere’s reputation and I think Peleg must be turning in his grave at what his grandson did,” Cornwell says, who adds that he hopes his book goes some way to debunking those myths. “Part of the reason for it was that after the war, the Americans had won and there was a lot swept under the carpet.”

However, because the expedition was funded by the Boston state government rather than George Washington’s continental army, defeat cost the city almost $2 million – the equivalent today of about $300 million – and left them bankrupt. In a fascinating post script to the book, Cornwell argues that a conspiracy was hatched to blame the defeat on a Federal naval commander for his refusal to engage the enemy – allowing the state government to later successfully sue for compensation.

In fact it was Lovell’s indecision that was most culpable – and as for Revere, Cornwell depicts him as both incompetent and cowardly.

“Revere was a local folk hero in Boston just after the war, but he is one of many,” Cornwell says. “There were others who did the famous ride – and finished it, which he didn’t – and others who are genuine heroes. But Revere becomes an industrialist the biggest employer in Boston and one of its wealthiest men. So people think of him as a patriot – with an iffy bit at Penebscot they’d rather not mention.”

On the British side it is a bluff Scotsman, Brigadier General Francis McLean, who wins the day, outwitting the Americans long enough for reinforcements to arrive. There’s also the intriguing presence of a young 18-year-old lieutenant.

“I first came across the Penebscot when I was researching the life of Lt General Sir John Moore – I had a thought that Sharpe might meet him in a novel. He never did but I got distracted by Moore’s history and the fact that he first saw action in this battle at the age of 18.”

Glasgow born Moore was a hero of the Napoleonic wars and his death at the Battle of Corunna is commemorated in a famous poem by Charles Wolfe.

“It was really Moore’s army Wellington inherited,” Cornwell observes. “What we can’t know is whether Moore would have been as great a general as Wellington. There is no doubt that Moore brought great sympathy and intelligence to his job. The men really liked him: he had the common touch which Wellington never had. And when he dies he is an instant hero – long before Wellington was ever heard of."

The Fort by Bernard Cornwell is out now (HarperCollins £18.99)

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

More Harry please

My fingers are trembling slightly as I type this, such is the expectation. On Saturday we will be going, en famille as per normal, to the cinema to see the new Harry Potter film. None of us can wait.
Not that we won't be disappointed. The first viewing of any HP film always comes with regret: oh they didn't do that bit? Where was so and so? What about Bill?
HP 6 got several things wrong wrong wrong, as far as we were concerned. It was too teenaged, there was too much dating, we missed the quidditch subplot - which was a lot of fun in the book -and as for the ending, well that was a real let down. Harry wouldn't have just let Snape tell him to stay put! Where was the big fight? What about the aforementioned Bill? He gets bitten by a werewolf at the end of Half Blood Prince, its a BIG scene, but it didn't make the cut.
Of course, films are different to books. Stephen Fry's audio versions of the HP books run to 20 plus hours, the films are limited to two and a half. It's a crunch game so you've got to cut those highly paid producers and screenwriters some slack. But over all we love the HP films in our house. They are part of the family ritual and we always enjoy them more the second or even the third time of watching. This was certainly the case with HP 6 which seemed much more fun when I watched it on dvd at home. Though I still say the ending isn't right.
We're dreading the new one, in part because the reviews are mixed, but mainly because it looks so unremittingly grim. The forest! Another forest! More forest! Dobby! Hedwig! It's the death of the owl that will be the worst, of course. My daughter (aged 8) still blubs each time she reads of Hedwig's last moments, trapped in a cage unable to fly to safety on his own. Actually, so do I.
What I don't understand is why some people just refuse to go there. The people who dismiss the books as kids stuff, who have never seen the films, or if they have thought the 'first one was boring'.
They are kids books, yes. They aren't as challenging as a McCarthy or a Roth, a Tartt or a Waters, but they are cracking good fun. And the mythical depth of them is really great, there's so much going on. The world is as nicely imagined - and as preposterous, when all is said and done - as Tolkein's.
Plus: millions are reading them, sharing the excitement. Why do you not want to be part of that? Aren't you curious about why they are so unbelievably successful?
Once the films are finally finished and done with, I'm sure Warner Bros will start turning the books into a long running animated TV series. That's what I'd do with them anyway. I'd include every single scene from the books and it would run to about a million instalments. The kids would love it. And so would I.
Should Rowling herself write more books though? If she does it will be for the right reasons (she doesn't need the money). And if the books to date are anything to go by whatever she does write will be worth the read.
On that same subject, I really hope she writes SOMETHING soon.

Rick Riordan interview as promised

Percy Jackson has left the building. But that doesn’t mean Rick Riordan and his army of readers can’t still have fun with the Gods of Mount Olympus.

The school teacher turned blockbuster author appeared to have consigned Percy the demigod to history with 2009’s The Last Olympian. But authors hate to completely leave a world they’ve created so carefully and despite launching a new trilogy, The Kane Chronicles, inspired by Egyptian mythology, Rick has been lured back to Camp Half-Blood.

“I felt very strongly that if I carried on indefinitely that eventually I’d get tired of the Percy Jackson books and that the readers would too,” Rick says.

“That’s why I gave him his good strong ending at the end of book five. But I was also aware that the readers wanted to find out what happened next and that many of them weren’t ready to say goodbye to that world.

“So I began scheming and planning ways in which I could return to that world – but through a new lens, a fresh perspective. The Heroes of Olympus features three new characters – Jason, Piper and Leo – who alternate in telling different aspects of the story. They gave me the chance to reinvent the world, and to give it some twists that kept me interested and hopefully that keeps the readers interested as well.”

Not that Percy, the son of Poseidon and a New York housewife, is at all forgotten. “This isn’t a years after, epilogue type of story,” Rick concedes. “We pick up the action almost immediately after the previous books.” As this book gets off to an explosive start, Percy has mysteriously disappeared just three days earlier. The new characters find themselves thrust into his vacuum, and have to get to know his old buddies, including Annabeth (daughter of Athena) and Chiron (the ancient, scholarly Centaur).

Riordan’s twist this time out is that he is taking these books in a Roman direction. The Greek gods were adopted by Rome and renamed – Zeus became Jupiter, Hera became Juno and so on – but they were also given distinct characters. It is these quite different personalities that come to the fore in this planned trilogy.

“We tend to study the Greeks and Romans clumped together – but the Greco-Roman world is a misnomer, they were very different. The Greeks were Roman for much longer than they were Greek, almost,” he observes.

“As Roman Gods they reflected a different set of priorities and values. The Greeks gave us great architecture and wonderful art and drama - and all these wonderful artistic endeavours. The Romans gave us the idea of government, bureaucracy and military discipline, they were a very practical people.

“They admired the Greeks but they also looked down on them because the Greeks didn’t have their ambition.... the Greeks couldn’t help being impressed by the Romans but thought of them as crass barbarians.”

A bit like Britain and America then? He laughs: “A little bit. And it’s a pattern I’m sure we’ll see repeated again and again.”

Heroes of Olympus: The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan is out now Puffin £12.99. This interview appears in Big Issue Scotland magazine

Monday, 15 November 2010

For the love of Candace

So what's a middle aged man like me doing reading a book by Candace Bushnell? I suggested we put One Fifth Avenue on the reading list of our book group a year ago. It got vetoed by the - then - only female member of the group who said she despised Bushnell so much she wouldn't consider ever reading another of her books again. I think she'd read 4 Blondes and found it utterly revolting. Well, whatever. Carmen is such a fan of Bushnell's, and this book in particular, that despite the BG veto I've been meaning to read it ever since. Last week I finally managed it.
And it is fabulous. I wish I'd read it when it first came out and campaigned for it then. I could have stood in bookshops telling people it was nothing like the TV shows and insisting that if they love Trollope or perhaps even Tolstoy, then they had to read Candace.
Bushnell has since written The Carrie Diaries, a teen targetted blockbuster based on her Sex and the City character which has sold mega units thanks to its TV tie in. Carmen read it this summer and found it a slight, throwaway disappointment compared to One Fifth, which he kept telling me to read. When I finally did, I found it a wonderfully ambitious, clever and extremely satisfying novel.
One Fifth Avenue revolves around people living in the same building... It's a real address - we stayed quite near it when we were in NY in 2009 - which looks as amazing as it is described. The building is an art deco microcosm of all the aspirational angst, the class structure, the fuckyounofuckyou bullshit that makes New York such a stunning example of modern day capitalism. The self same materialist bullshit that dominates London, Paris, Berlin, Shanghai, Tokyo and you-name-it. It's New York at its most raw, most human, most universal.
I've been told that when she is on form Bushnell excels at social commentary. Especially high society social commentary, but not exclusively so. Like Trollope in a cocktail dress, she flits from penthouse to basement with ease, scrutinising the collapse of the American dream in an Atlanta suburb as easily as she does the red carpet goings on of the glitterati. Her women are almost always vicious - the TV shows are a Disneyfication of her original ideas - though this book is salvaged by having one genuinely nice person in Schiffer Diamond (Bushnell plays against type and has an actress who is both generous and centred, well ... who'd have guessed?) and a nearly nice person in the figure of the 80-something gossip writer Enid Merle, a JJ Honeysucker in a hairnet if ever there was one.
Bushnell's fans love the glam aspect of her books. The designer clothes, the swish restaurants and the like. But while these are celebrated in the TV spin offs - SATC, Lipstick Jungle - her books have always treated them in a far colder, harsher manner That's what I've gathered from Carmen, anyway. This one is certainly that. It's not fluffy. It's well dressed, perhaps, but certainly not a bimbo.
Bushnell writes a brilliant portrait of grasping ambitious desperate young 20-somethings, frozen out of the good jobs by the 'boomers'. She is fantastic when it comes to writing about sex - both as joyous romance and as cynical trade. She is adept at capturing men's inadequacies - vain 40-something writers in particular. And she packs a lot into a page, regularly shifting POV in a fluid, clearly written style. One that a lot of young literary bucks could learn from. But then they won't because they'd never consider reading a Bushnell novel.
Which is a shame. Because they should

Friday, 5 November 2010

Percy Jackson

I've just been speaking to Rick Riordan, the author of the Percy Jackson series. He's got a new one out featuring most of the same characters, but without Percy, which introduces three new heroes.
I've spoken to Rick once before, less than a year ago, and although there is something of the earnest schoolteacher meets CEO of a mid sized company about him, I like him a lot.
He's passionate about getting kids to read. His inspiration for the Jackson stories was his own son's problems with reading. He needed to tell a story in an efficient, page turning, unputdownable way.
Mixing up High School with the Greek Myths did the trick and if you've got a child in the 9+ range I suggest you get them a couple. They are great fun and actually easier to read than say Harry Potter or Philip Pullman.
I think this is a greatly over looked aspect of being a writer. Too many critics rush to dismiss novels that they consider 'easy' or 'throwaway' or 'pure entertainment' and that goes for kids books as well as adult fiction.
It's harder and harder these days to find the time to read a book. We're bombarded with alternatives. TV, internet, going out, all night swinger parties (if you happen to be an MSP that is).
But - and Rick makes this point - reading a novel: being able to read a novel. Or a non fiction book. It's a real skill. It's a different, more engaging, deeper experience than skimming through a website, reading a newspaper or updating your Facebook page with photos of your new kitchen.
I met a pal for a drink last night and he couldn't think of the last time he'd read a book. Six or seven months ago, he thought it was. "And it was rubbish," he said. Which struck me as a bloody shame. There's so much good stuff out there. But I also think it's up to the writers to engage with their readers, keep them gripped from page one, and to serve up an experience that will make them think how worthwhile reading can be.

I'll post the interview with Rick in due course.

Kindle burning 2

After writing yesterday's rant I noticed a reference today to a story about the Kindle being used, like a hardback, as a sort of promo for the paperback. It made me think that my comments about half priced hardbacks were possibly a little one dimensional - though I don't think they were entirely wrong.
I can understand selling hardbacks at a discount to get a big sale, which leads to big word of mouth, which leads to an even bigger paperback sale.
What I don't get is discounting that seems to devalue the very act of writing. If books are disposable throwaway items at £4 or under, or if hardbacks for less than a tenner, then we won't value them. Or read them. Or take them seriously.
I'm a writer rather than a publisher. That probably shows. But I still think most of the discounting that goes in is crazy.
That said, a lot of books that come out are entirely disposable and probably should never have been published.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Kindle burning

Oh don't make me laugh. There's a report today that angry Kindle readers are giving authors one star reviews in retaliation for their publishers hiking the cost of their e-books. Imagine: publishers wanting premium prices for brand new products! Where could they get such an idea?
Publishing is a nuts economy. Well, we know this already. But readers have to get wise to what is going on here, otherwise we won't have a books industry soon. Well, not one that is worth a damn.
There's a war going on. Its a war of production and supply.
Once upon a time newspapers were wealthy behemoths able to send teams of reporters into foreign lands to rescue, er, donkeys from Spanish beaches. But they covered wars and disasters properly too and thank goodness they did because you certainly didn't get the full facts from government PR departments. Not then, not now.
But newspapers have shrunk - because people don't buy them in the same numbers. We are more literate than ever, of course, but we get our news from the TV and from the Internet. Suddenly the power players in news are the BBC, Fox, Sky, Google.
Publishing is seeing a similar trend. The publishers were in a unique position. They controlled the means of production and supply: it took certain skills and distribution networks to produce and market and sell a book.
Now e-books shift the distribution power towards the big e-tailers. Amazon doesn't need publishers, does it? It just needs writers, and maybe an editor or two. But not a publisher, not really. The Guardian's story on this today points out that the James Bond novels are going to be available on e-book but not through Penguin, 'directly' from the Fleming estate.
Which is great for them but bad news for Penguin.
The problem for writers is that this all drives down prices. Which drives down income. Now you might not feel too sorry for Dan Brown, he might only lose a million or so out of his usual Gazillion a year income. But it is serious for the vast majority of writers who get by on small numbers of sales. If those sales are now for half the price the real book is, if the publishers keep the squeeze on writers to protect their position while giving the e-tailer giants - Amazon, Apple - all the discounts they want, then you know what happens? Writing dies off. Nobody bothers anymore. We go where the money is: and that's elsewhere.
I'm not ashamed to say this. I write for money. Actually, call that an aspiration at the moment. I want to write for money. I need to earn a living from writing if I am to be a good writer and write full time.
So for these reasons I don't want to see Amazon or anyone else discounting and discounting and giving away ebooks for less than the physical books. I want new writers to demand a premium. I don't understand why the new Franzen, for instance, was half price? I'd have paid full price for it. Or waited for a paperback. Why cut the cost of the hardback? Don't get it.
One question for you: do Apple, when they bring out a new iPad or Macbook, do they knock 50 per cent off the retail price to get lots of people to buy it?
Do they hell.
Writers shouldn't be sold short. And readers - e-readers, kindle owners, or those of us who still prefer paperbacks and hardbacks - should recognise that writing oughtn't to be free.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

And the next US president is likely to be....

Woah. Obama really did get a kick in there. The Holy Republicans have stormed the citadel, their quasi religious/economic jihad has won them - what? - 57 new seats in the house of Congress. But its not all good news for the team in Red. With Democrats clinging on to a slim majority in the Senate the next two years look like being interesting.
Or just jammed stuck.
Let's not beat about the bush, Nobel Peace Prize or not, Obama is a failure. There's no doubt about it. America fell in love, particularly the American left, with the idea of this smart, black, political messiah. But the guy doesn't have the streetsmarts. Don't take my word for it, take Gore Vidal's.
The fact is: right from the beginning he was weak. Guantanamo? Health Care? The guy didn't even seem to be in charge when it came to picking the family dog. He clearly doesn't have a White House regime that is smart enough, or sharp enough to deal with American politics, global politics. The Israelis know that. The Chinese know that.
Which is why not enough of those Democrats who elected him two years ago stepped out to boost their party this time. The Tea Party might be extremist, but they are active. Boy are they active. And they smell blood. Will Obama win a second term? It depends on what he does over the next nine months really. One more set back and he's a dead un.
The only thing that could save him is that the Republicans fail to come up with a candidate that half the country won't laugh at. It's a strange thing to say, but Sarah Palin might just rescue Obama after all and win him a second term.

Or maybe not. If there is any one result that shows just how hard it is to predict what the US electorate will do and just how powerful Palin and her Tea Party are, then its what happened in the senate race in her very own Alaskan backyard. You gotta love this story: the Alaskan Republican, who was defeated at the party primary and was therefore not on the official ticket, won anyway as a write in candidate. Who knew so many people in Alaska could write? America is clearly a far more complex place than we've given it credit for. Palin had supported the "official" candidate. So ya boo to her. Perhaps the GOP will find another presidential candidate after all. Maybe it will be that senator from Alaska...

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

God Bless America

I so love the mid terms. I love American politics. Obviously this is as a spectator sport, and at a distance, but the way America chooses and runs its government is utterly fascinating. No, make that terrifying.
British elections are just so, well, British, by comparison. In Britain we get into a flap if a polling centre is run badly. That's right: we get into a bit of a flap. In America all hell would break loose. Someone would get a gun. Even our scandals are kind of ordinary. Middle aged couples fiddling their mortgage payments. In America, the pork barrel is so much deeper. The stakes, so much higher.
I'm not qualified to cast judgement on the Tea Party, or on the Democrats' torpor. Though you have to wonder about the latter: did Obama catch Gordon Brownitis? (That said, I thought the John Stewart appearance was pretty good. Positive. Even with the "Yes We Can.... But" clanger. Well doh, Barack. American voters don't do sophisticated arguments...)
Certainly not going by the campaign ads they've been running. Half truths, spin doctoring, muck raking. There's a great run down of some of the best examples here.
My suspicion is that the result tomorrow will not be as bad for the Democrats as was once feared. I think there is a bit of negative spin going on: the demos know that if they make it sound really really bad and then all they get is really bad, well then they've rallied. They can focus on the positive message.
And there is a good indication that some of the real fruitcakes of the election - the Witch Lady, Dan Quayle's Son - will be gone in a puff of, er, tea.
And then the real game starts. America needs to rebuild its economy. The cover article in Time magazine last week really nailed it. It needs to address some real fundamentals. It needs to tighten its belt and get working. (As does the UK, by the way). But perhaps there are too many problems for "the ordinary voter" to get their head round right now. Right now that is. The time might yet come.
For the moment the question is: "What will the new Republican led congress let the President do for the next two years?" If the result goes the way of the polls, Obama is in for the scrap of his life. Here's hoping he's up for it. Here's hope that Audacity he went on about comes back. And not just for America's sake but for the whole world economy.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

book group panic part 2

OK, still not finished Austerlitz. About 50 pages to go. But I want to write down my impressions of last night's discussion because I'm a little puzzled by them.
One person said it was the best book they'd ever read. It really knocked them sideways. Two others loved it, one conceding that the first 100 pages or so were slow and but for the fact she was stuck on a train she might not have finished it. Another person was generally positive. Two of us really didn't get it at all.
Austerlitz is a book about memory. It's central character is relating how he has discovered his past, a past he had no memory of. It is about a man who fills his mind up with facts and details, architectural history in this case, but who lived most of his life ignorant of his personal history. The narrative is... well, the narrator is a man we never learn anything about recounting what Austerlitz has told him - during a series of meetings spaced out in time and place. Within Austerlitz's narrative, however, are other narratives: notably Vera's, the "nanny" he discovers in Prague.
And that's OK. I don't even mind the fact the book comes with no chapter breaks and only three - or was it four? - paragraph breaks. What I found startling was that the book constantly lost my attention. for short periods I could marvel at the prose, and the rambling nature of it, the way it skips time and place. It is, of course, a fair representation of how our minds work. We don't remember things in a linear or chronological fashion. However, we do tend to tell stories in a structured way and I struggled throughout the book to determine whether I was being told a story or not.
Not, I think. Messing with story structure can be brilliant. Abandoning it is seriously risky. It limits you, cuts your audience down. I doubt our book group was representative. I'd actually be surprised if more than one in 10 readers would even get past page 100. One in 20. But I might be wrong.
Perhaps more than anything it appeals to people with a strong visual sense. The novel is really a description of a series of places, and throughout its pages are grainy black and white photographs showing architectural features, shop fronts, empty streets. It's terribly bleak, but the former photography art student of the group last night was one of the book's most ardent fans. My brother and sister in law have both read and loved Austerlitz too.
Personally what surprised me was how banal the story was. The premise sounds tantalising, but the book as a whole far from lives up to the promise. A man who has forgotten his past who retraces his family history, how he was separated from his family by the Nazis and the holocaust. Brilliant. And yet, it struck me as less remarkable, less moving than many Who Do You Think You Are television programmes I've seen.
Enough already.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

book group panic

I haven't yet finished the book group pick this month. To be honest, I've got nearly 200 pages to go -- and its tomorrow night. And we've got people staying tonight. And I'm doing the school pick ups. And i don't know how I'm going to find the time....
It's not my fault. Blame WG Sebald. Yeah, him. I'm sorry, but its not working for me. Austerlitz was pick of the year for umpteen of the great and the good. I've met loads of people who love it. Loved it. Treasured it. Thought it was marvellous. Weeeeelllll.
Maybe I'm missing something. the group will tell me, no doubt. They'll explain why it's so brilliant. Huh? The first half passed me by. Oh guess what, its another vague man with a lack of empathy, a lack of a life, who finds he's in a crisis in his 50s, who goes on an odyssey to discover who he really is... er except he doesnt. Its not much of an odyssey at all in fact. He goes to Prague. Gets given an address. Meets his old babysitter. Its not exactly challenging stuff. The challenge seems to be sticking with it until the last.. perhaps if I do something exciting will happen. Or will it just be more moths and cathedrals?

Wednesday, 20 October 2010


Distracted by David Cameron's speech in Westminster yesterday, the one announcing 8 per cent cuts in defence spending including the scrapping of the Nimrod and the Harrier, I posted on Facebook that I was having my own spending review.
And that biscuits were going to be cut.
Over the next few hours debate raged. Some of it was tongue in cheek. At least, I'm guessing it was. Surely Tunnocks aren't taken that seriously. And yet it was a timely reminder of a basic truth of human nature: that the everyday, homely trivialness of a biscuit is far more appealing than any abstract accounting going on at government level.
These cuts are huge. I wouldn't be surprised if we have some serious strikes and unrest this winter. Gary Shteyngart's satirical book comes to mind: its the end of an era (see blog entry below).
And yet... we've been here so many times before. Britain has always lurched from spend to cut. From William Pitt the Younger to David Cameron, its been slash, burn, splurge in one almighty cycle. But everytime it's a surprise.
We just don't get money, or how it works.
Today I wondered, on Facebook, why we complain so much about bankers getting £300K a year, and yet think it perfectly reasonable for a footballer to earn £4 million a year. And for that footballer to want to double that salary by playing for a different club.
Of course, if we all earned Wayne Rooney's money the cuts wouldn't matter. But economies don't work like that. If we all earned Wayne's money then a cup of coffee in your local Costa would have to cost about £500.
One of my favourite reads of the year was The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson. It's a great introduction to the globalised world of high finance. If you are infuriated about the cuts I suggest you read it. Not that it will make you happy about what the Tories are doing, in fact it might make you angrier.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010


Classic or Touch? You're probably an iPhone: everything in one slim unit. Very nice. Very now. But, oooops, it's over. Looks like we're moving on.

Technology as fashion? Who came up with that? Actually, its always been the case. Remember those TVs made to look like spaceman helmets? Remember the sandwich toaster? OK you can still get them, but there was a time when they were a covetable fad. It didn't last long, just a year or so, then they turned into greasy dusty objet de rubbish in the corner of the cupboard. As so many things do. But the idea of technology as fashion goes waaaay back.

In the 1840-50s, the well to do had cash like they'd never had cash before. At the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, there was a sort of ultimate expression of this. The Great Exhibition was intended as a scientific showcase, and in many respects it was. But really it was a great big shopping mall. A tribute to Britain's ability to sell stuff to people with money.

My favourite consumable from the GE has to be the folding piano. Piano makers had been going at each other for a while, upgrading the keys, coming up with increasingly elaborate engraving, pedals, sound. But then someone thought, let's make a piano you can fold up. There was this idea that you'd buy it for your yacht. It seems to have worked like a sort of concertina.... you pushed it against a wall and it collapsed/squeezed down. It was very expensive but it meant you could invite someone into your home and then, at some point in the evening, say, hey let's play the piano and they'd look round and say, but you don't have a piano and you'd go, yes I do, and you'd open a door or remove a curtain or whatever and you'd heave out....

To the Victorians the folding piano was just as exciting as having an app on your phone that allows you to read a barcode or map the night sky. Things that one day will sound equally ridiculous.

Monday, 18 October 2010

X Factor

No, never seen it. Not all the way through, anyway. A bit here and there. A clip on YouTube. Sometimes I might stumble on it, watch for a few minutes... but usually my brain begins to seize up and I am gripped with nausea.

Admittedly I'm not really that into music. I like certain things. Increasingly I've been enjoying having classical or choral music on, loud, while I've been working. iTunes and Spotify are great little tools if you are working at a laptop. But pop music? Rock? Indie?

The last few months I've been working part time with the Big Issue in Scotland. This has involved regular days in their office... there's a couple there who used to work for NME. Another girl who probably should work for NME. Nothing wrong with that, but they really know the music scene. Really care about it. they don't just talk about bands I've never heard of, they talk about whole musical movements that haven't otherwise blipped on my horizon.

As a teenager and as a twentysomething I paid lipservice to poprockindie. But at uni I probably listened to as much John Coltrane as I did The Smiths. And actually I preferred Jimi Hendrix and the Doors, already 20 years old at the time. Britpop was fun. It felt like something important – funny how I prefer Blur now to Oasis, I remember reading a critic at the time who argued that everyone would. Who was that?

I digress. The point is, X Factor... It has been given three more years. A £100 million deal. Meaning more X Factor, and the other thing, Britain's Not Got Talent. I want to be nasty about both of them. I want to tear them to shreds, laugh at all the sad, overweight, hopeless screw ups that go on desperate to be singers, stars, somethings. But you know, I just can't be bothered. It's too dull, too corny, too uninteresting even to take a pop at. X Factor is final proof that pop culture is over, that it's had its moment. Diversity is all now. Elitism. Selectism. Personalism. Individualism. Cowell can celebrate, he's ridden that wave. But he may well have killed it for good. No seriously, his high point is a new beginning. People want more than the X Factor. They actually want stuff that's good, interesting and sophisticated. They don't want to be talked down to anymore.

As you get older you tend to need more. Harder books, more challenging drama, new experiences. Its all part of realising that you have a limited time on this Earth and you'd better make the most of it. and that making the most of it does not include frittering Saturday evenings away on X Factor karaoke.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Piles and piles of books

When I went to university I remember counting the books on my shelves. I had a tiny single room at a hall of residence and the library space amounted to, I think, three small shelves on the wall. I was studying English Lit, Politics and History and I made sure I bought all my listed texts new. Their spines sparkled with promise. Yes, really, that's what I thought. Even "Scottish Politics" by the department head, printed on what looked like bog paper, appeared to me at that time to be a shiny beacon of the future.

Over that year or so I added many paperbacks. Books I read because I wanted to. Books I bought because I thought I should. I have always bought more books than I read, however, which is partly why now - two decades later - I have a dining room table groaning under the weight of columns and columns of books.

We're doing out the front room (again... I won't bore you with the details) which means a temporary migration for the books to the back sitting room. I mention this because it is only when you move books around that you realise just how many you have and what a cumbersome load of stuff they amount to.

I'm not a fan of ebooks. I hate the idea of them, in fact. I fear that if we take away the physical side of writing then novels will become as much of the web has, this blog included, entirely disposable, throwaway and worthless. Writers are already paid a pittance, and now the publishers want to screw them even more by demanding larger than fair slices of royalties from ebook publications.

And yet, books... Lining the walls in neatly organised shelves they look fabulous. (Obviously I'm a fan, just look at the home page). But as people move into smaller and smaller apartments, as we move around more and more trying to keep down jobs and to maximise our worth in this most fragile of economies, you can see why an iPhone or an iPad or even a Kindle is so attractive. An entire library weighing no more than a bag of sugar? Cool.

I've already got over my CD collection. It's gone, in boxes, unloved and gathering dust. Will the books go the same way? I hope not. I really love reading books, turning pages and seeing them on the shelves. I was never good at sport, I was good at reading: these guys are my trophies. But I doubt my grandchildren will feel the same way about them. Indeed, they'll wonder how we survived under the weight of all this paper.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Once Upon a Time, at Harvard Culture:

Once Upon a Time, at Harvard Culture:

Saw The Social Network last night with Carmen. Both of us were really looking forward to it: the film has a good pedigree, a decent buzz and it's about a very major phenom in Facebook. We both left disappointed, though I have to say I still found the two hour flick interesting, fascinating.
Let's not talk about the performances. No one sucked. Most were good. But the performances aren't the point. What's at stake is how true it all is.
I've seen some strange quotes from the screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, suggesting that truth and accuracy need not be one in the same thing. Well, no, not in this case.
Film makers have to wake up to something I think. If they are dealing with historical events: Tudor England, the Victorians, Ancient Greece, then playing fast and loose with the facts is fine. Everyone's dead. No one's reputation is at stake. And nobody sat and watched Gladiator thinking: which emperor is this supposed to be?
But The Social Network charts events from 2003. Disputed events. Events that are surrounded by a he said, she said culture. Events that were the subject of legal actions that sound less like disputes between business people and more like an ugly spat in the dorm room. Which is what they were. You have to get it right.
So who is the real Mark Zuckerberg? Is he the prick that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin portrays him as? The narrow minded, self obsessed, ex-girlfriend obsessed cyber nut who stole the initial idea off three fine young blue bloods and turned himself into a billionaire (screwing over his best pal en route)?
Or is he the good listener, philanthropist, genial ceo that the profiles in various newspapers have him to be?
He's still only 26 of course. He may well have been all of those things in the past few years. I know I matured a lot between the ages of 18 and 30, MZ will do the same I'm sure. Only he'll do it with a billion or two in the bank.
There were elements of the story I thought could have been brought out more. Nuances that muddy the waters. Like the fact that Facemash and then Facebook was partly inspired by college/high school culture: those year books they all have had been digitised. The idea was circulating around. What Zuckerberg did was make it work, he employed the latest technology, took advantage of broadband and digital photography, and he got it out there first.
Meanwhile, the blue bloods rested on their laurels. Or rather they got on with rowing and studying while Zuckerberg got on with coding. In that sense, you've got to admire MZ. He may well have been a bit scurrilous, but history has a tendency to only remember the winners.
As a film, The Social Newtork felt a bit lumpen. I expected more from the director David Fincher who seemed to struggle with the complexities of the legal action. As for the risible Henley regatta scenes (Prince Albert????) and boat race: yeah, Dave, we got it already. Most of the characters were introduced in fairly cliched ways... a series of CVs read out by one or other of the cast. Sort of. And it offered no sense of who Zuckerberg was: his background before Harvard. Did he have sisters? Family? Was he privileged or not? (He went to a private school, his parents were Jewish professionals...) All he told us was that he was a bit of a geek, a bit of a loner.
Oh, and then there was the sexism. Carmen thought it was the most sexist film she'd seen in ages. The women - girls - were almost exclusively in either their underwear or miniskirts, drinking cocktails, having sex or just looking good. The obvious exception was Erica, the girl who dumps Zuckerberg at the beginning of the film.
There's some effort by Fincher to address this balance. There is a thoughtful, insightful lawyer, a woman, who gives MZ some advice. But overall you are left with the sense that although it might be 2003 on the calendar - and this film is made in 2010 - Harvard still beats to the same drum that was sounding in the early 1980s. They even dress much the same way too. Beery parties, girls are for decoration, boys are in charge. Perhaps this is an accurate portrayal of American university life and indeed American corporate culture. Is it? If so... well they've got a way to go.
A miss. But intriguing just the same...