Monday, 31 January 2011

The King's Peach

Honestly, you'd think some people had died and gone to heaven.
One of my Facebook pals said "The King's Speech: excellent. Went with low expectations, but it is a superb and moving film." Others have been similarly hugely impressed. They've spoken about it's charm. Its cleverness. the fact that it brings joy when so many wham bang movies fail to bring anything but ringing ear drums.
Well, OK. But enough already.
But that isn't all. In America The King's Speech is winning awards by the bucket. Vanity Fair are predicting that the Oscars are pretty well already over. Firth will be crowned, ahem, king of Hollywood, with The KS named best film, beating even The Social Network, which has been doing laps of honour since it was released a few months ago. One commentator said Americans had "fallen in love with" the film.
And yes, it is charming. And yet, it isn't really a movie. OK, we've all seen it in a cinema, but to me, and to one screenwriter friend I spoke to, it is definitely still TV. The ideas and the action of the film just aren't really big enough for the big screen. Not because it's wordy, just because it is too slight. In fact, it really would work best as a play, and a radio play at that. Oscar buzz or not, I'm not sure I understand what all the fuss is about.
The Royals, of course. We are a Royalist nation, through and through. Even socialist leaning Scottish Nats, people you wouldn't think of as being at all interested or sympathetic to the Windsors, are agog at the film. More so than with The Queen, a few years ago, this movie reminds all us Brits just how Wonderful the Royals are.
Oh, puh-lease. the film is at times an interesting take on familiar events, but it shies away from the really interesting aspect of the story. The Prince of Wales: romantic lover of an American divorcee, or dumped by the British establishment in favour of his duller, more reliable brother, because he was a drunk and a Nazi sympathiser? The Royal family rule (this point is made in the film) but only with permission. It's not a life, it's a job. Far from being subjects we are in a symbiotic relationship with the Windsors, a banal pact of non-democracy.
Do I think Britain would flourish as a republic? Yes, it would. Will it ever happen? It might, if the Windsor line screws things up. But as long as there are films like The King's Speech, that seems unlikely. The British are in love with them you see, we just don't want to give them up...

There's a great piece by Christopher Hitchens on this very subject: HERE

Saturday, 29 January 2011

The Money Game

The Money Game

I read an extract of this book somewhere or other and thought it was hilarious. Then I lost the reference to it and found I couldn't remember the title or the author - it had got so mixed up in my mind with similar books that weren't as good. Recently a friend mentioned that he was reading this brilliant book about finance from the 1960s and the penny dropped.
The Money Game by Adam Smith, but not The Adam Smith, is a fantastic introduction to the world of high finance. It is getting on for 50 years old so obviously parts of the book read more like history than commentary. The chapters on the introduction of computerised trading, for instance, are very much from another time and another place.
However, the book stands up, not just as a curiosity but as a study of the drivers at play within the market.
"Adam Smith" is a nom de plume, the writer is a longstanding Wall St insider called George J.W. Goodman, but the name is the only thing that comes across as fake. His writing style is punchy and direct: it's like reading about finance in the pages of a Dashiell Hammett thriller. The chapter headlines are catchy and fun - like Identity And Anxiety, Is The Market Really A Crowd? and What Are They In It For?
In the first half of the book he sets out his arguments over how the market works: how people follow one another into things and how this inevitably leads to bulls and bears. There's a hilarious series of anecdotes which he claims are compiled after a psychiatrist friend of his set him up with interviews with his clients ("All my patients are in the markets"). These are terrific, timeless portraits of the kinds of people who play with shares and why, though written in that politically incorrect style we now associate with Mad Men etc.
My favourite anecdote though remains the one I first read as an extract somewhere else: Timing And Diversion, The Cocoa Game. Here, Smith and his investment buddies, lead by The Great Winfield, put their money into cocoa, without having the first clue about where the cocoa comes from and what will really effect the price.
In the end they send someone to Ghana dressed in a white safari suit, who gets lost in the wilderness and ends up thinking he's going to get eaten by cannibals. Not the sort of tale you could tell now, in 2011, but given the context and Smith's dry as a bone narrative style, it left me laughing on the floor.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011


Melv six months ago

And in the current Sky Arts ad for the South Bank Show Awards

Forgive me. I know that to write the words "Melvyn Bragg" and "hair" in the same sentence is to revive a national obsession that has become a cliche, but the current ad campaign for the South Bank Show Awards is... well... shocking.
Melv is older. There's no doubt about that. But his hair is younger.
I listen to Bragg's radio show In Our Time every week and have a vast archive of them on my iPod. They are my go-to if I'm stuck in traffic or on a long dogwalk by myself. Recently, I've even become addicted to his In Our Time newsletters, a delicious ramble through this man's vast brain as he winds his way - most usually - from the BBC studios to the House Of Lords where he gets stuck into Matters of the Day. He's like a character from a Trollope novel.
In other words, I'm a huge fan.
Which is why this Sky pic, his hair unnaturally dark, upsets me. Is it Melv's fault, or the photographer's? Is Bragg trying to recapture his youth? Has he become a victim of the diktat that only spritely, nubile young things can appear on our screens. The same illogic that has gifted us Julia Bradbury and the Sky Sports News team.
I hope not.
I asked a friend recently what I should do about my own thinning top. He shrugged and said: Go with it. Do NOTHING. I've decided that's good advice. My wife seems all right with it too (she's stopped crying herself to sleep) though she insists on me taking a daily dose of Kelp.
Speaking of my wife, she is convinced David Cameron is now dyeing his greying sideburns back to brown (I'd need to see the pics to be sure). And I'm only just over the shock of seeing Elton John back on the cover of OK. So has Melv succumbed to a Male Zeitgeist of Hair Despair? Has the recession caused a follicle frenzy?
My advice: stick to the radio Melv. Then no one need even know. 

Monday, 24 January 2011

Middle class? TV? You've got to be joking.

Danny Cohen, the new controller of BBC1, has ruffled the feathers of a few in the media by apparently issuing a Soviet style diktat that the comic content on the main channel has become too middle class. See the story here.
 That made me laugh, which is more than Danny Cohen's output on BBC3 (his previous job) was able to do.
  Apparently the shows he has highlighted have been the award winning Outnumbered and the hugely popular My Family.

  The first is about a history school teacher (not a lawyer, doctor, judge or banker) and his wife raising their three children in a leafy part of London (but not Hampstead or Mayfair). They are educated, respectably well off (certainly not starving) but not rich (the children go to state schools).
  My Family, the long running sitcom series devised by American talent for the BBC, stars Robert Lindsey as a dentist (admittedly one of the better off professions) who, along with his wife, is raising their now grown up children in a leafy part of what I think is probably greater London.
  Considering these shows alone you might conclude that Cohen is right. But the problem with stories like these is that you can summon examples of shows past and present that prove or disprove the controller's point.
  True, neither of these shows feature main characters who work from white vans, go to the caff for a fry up or spend the night in front of the box drinking lager and or cups of steaming brown tea. But what about The Royle Family, a hugely popular recent sitcom for, er, BBC2 and BBC1? Did the recent revival of Rab C Nesbitt benefit from its roots in Scottish working class culture, or was it cliched nonsense about drunk Jocks?
  Critics are often baffled by the success of My Family, but it works because it is a classic sitcom in the American style. Plenty going on, recognisable characters that are both flawed and lovable, and no politics.
  Outnumbered differs from My Family in that it is clever, well observed and done in a minimalist style that plays up the relationship between the baffled parents and their bizarre offspring. But let's be honest people, well written though it is, it ain't Shakespeare. It ain't Brecht. It ain't all that smart. Hell, it ain't even Curb Your Enthusiasm.

  Armando Iannucci has said that British TV was (I'm paraphrasing a bit) "a room full of university educated people wondering what people who didn't go to university would want to watch".
  He has a point. There's a rift between the kind of people who run TV and the masses who watch it. As a result you get this strange double think and musings by the likes of the privately educated, university degree carrying Danny Cohen, along the lines of: if only we had more Porridge.
  (Porridge, incidentally, that wasn't inspired so much by prison experience as by the writers' attending an English public boarding school.)
  There's an unfortunate consequence to all this and it's reflected in the fact that Cohen has apparently focussed on issues of CLASS when he should have been talking about the QUALITY OF THE WRITING.
  The best shows, drama and comedy, come out of America where they seriously invest in writing. Where writers work in teams. Where they earn proper salaries. Where there is an expectation that a half hour comedy should have three plots ticking along at once, multifaceted characters and a credible sense of reality.

  Think about it: 30 Rock is a show about TV people, many of which are millionaires. Seinfeld was about wealthy Manhattanites and their concerns. Even Everyone Loves Raymond is about a sports journalist and his family in a smart neighbourhood outside New York. Hardly On the Buses. If Mad Men had been pitched to a British TV company, would they have insisted on setting it in Yorkshire at the time of the 1980s mining dispute?
  These shows work because they are well written and performed: they are funny, perfectly plotted and manage to produce 20-30 shows a year, thanks to a team writing system that brings in many different talents.
  British sitcoms, which ten to be written by individuals or by teams of just two or three, are woefully inadequate when it comes to plotting and gags per minute. And its plot and gags, not the character's career, that really matters.
  Imagine pitching Curb Your Enthusiasm to a British TV exec:
  OK, its about Larry. He's a grumpy billionaire....
  Billionaire? No, you've got to be kidding... who can relate to a billionaire? Next!

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Writing. It's bloody hard

"Write every day, line by line, page by page, hour by hour. Do this despite fear. For above all else, beyond imagination and skill, what the world asks of you is courage, courage to risk rejection, ridicule and failure."
Robert McKee

"All good books have one thing in common - they are truer than if they had really happened"
- Ernest Hemingway

"I don't know why I started writing. I don't know why anybody does it. Maybe they're bored, or failures at something else." 
— Cormac McCarthy

"There is no way of writing well and also writing easily."
- Anthony Trollope

"You must stay drunk on writing so reality can not destroy you."
- Ray Bradbury

Monday, 17 January 2011

Second hand books, the slow death

We had a clear out of our bookshelves the other week. We do this every so often and find it incredibly cleansing. We both buy and are sent a lot of books and once in a while you lose sight of the trees for all the wood. Or is it the wood for the trees. Either way, there's a lot of stuff, the shelves bulge, and you can never find what you want.
So we thin them out.
This time we were left with quite a large amount of unneeded and unnecessary. These we split into two parts: the good and the not so good.
Our idea was that the not so good - mass market paperbacks and dodgy old copies of classics (falling a bit a little) were put on the OUT/charity pile. The other went in the SELL/second hand book market pile.
Over the years we've sold a lot of books. There was one occasion when a box of unwanted gleaned a staggering £85 (we had a great dinner out on that). But those days are over.
My SELL pile this time raised just £20, and that was after two bookshops told me they didn't want to buy anything. They wouldn't even look to see what I had. They were simply OVERSTOCKED. A glance around one store confirmed this: piles of books teetered on shelves. The owner needed to do some thinning himself. But where would he go with his unwanted stock?
In the end, most of my unwanted books were split between two charity shops. Oxfam runs a vast bookshop near us packed with everything from grubby paperbacks to immaculate first editions. They also charge 'full price' for these - half the list price, and exactly what the second hand bookshops charge - but as they get their stock for nothing, and are staffed by volunteers, this is supposedly pure profit. (Regardless of the value of the books you donate, they wouldn't even think of offering you something in return, not even a £10 credit note.)
For a charity this should be a great business model, and yet I keep hearing that these outlets don't make any, or very much money for the causes they are set up to feed.
All that is really happening as a result is that the traditional second hand bookshops are getting squeezed and a way of life for many bibliophiles like me is coming to an end.
One of my favourite bookshops, Caledonia Books on Great Western Road, Glasgow, has recently halved in size - with a coffee shop moving into the unit next door which until recently housed the sections on film studies, biography and history.
I hope it survives, but at the same time I can't help but wonder at a business that has remained essentially the same for over twenty years. Perhaps if they innovated in other ways - reduced prices, campaigned, author events? - they might have generated a wider, more profitable following.
The second hand trade simply reflects what is happening in publishing generally. We are awash with books - many, many of them unread. Far from being inspired by the range of choice and inexpensiveness of the products, the general public is I feel put off reading and searching instead for the TV remote control.

JK Rowling: The fringe benefits of failure | Video on

JK Rowling: The fringe benefits of failure | Video on

This isn't new, by any means. You probably caught a glimpse of a soundbite of it when she gave the speech in June 2008.
This video was posted on a year ago, but I thought it was appropriate to post it now. It's January, after all. The skies are slate grey, Christmas is a distant memory, the summer is miles away, and we all need some inspiration.
Rowling's sense of humour comes across here - but so too does her confidence and her sense of humanity.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Hitch 22, part one

Christopher Hitchens: is it terrible to say he never really interested me that much? I was aware of him, sure. I'd read his articles in Vanity Fair and thought he was an entertaining writer and character. But he was a journalist who seemed to live for the argument and I was never sure whether he was arguing from the standpoint of really believing in something, or just for the sound and the fury of it.
Politically I was aware that he was 'left wing'. But he wrote for Vanity Fair, which is Conde Nast, and hardly the forefront of any revolution. Plus, his little brother wrote right wing Tory propaganda, first for Express newspapers (where I once bumped into him in the cuttings library, back when they had such a thing) and more recently the Daily Mail.
Then as often is the case it was a casual reference to Hitchens (a Facebook friend carried a link to his recent interview with Jeremy Paxman and praised the memoir) that made me think more seriously about him again, and in particular about the way he connected in. I'm increasingly fascinated by the connections people make and I kick myself everytime I hear of something I'd not been aware of before but probably ought to have been.
For instance, I was only vaguely aware that he was pals with Martin Amis: I had no idea how deep this connection was. Amis, I guess, is another of those GREAT FIGURES who has been peripheral to my reading life. I read London Fields and The Information round about the time they came out but his later stuff left me cold. Nor had I ever delved backwards. Which is strange because, looking back, I can't see why I wouldn't have done: The Rachel Papers and Money were very much talked about and should have been the kind of books I'd have loved. Perhaps I stayed away from them semi-deliberately, to make a point that I was 'above fashion'. God knows.
Reading Hitch-22 I now realise just how connected Amis & Hitchens are. They are the McCartney-Lennon of literary journalism and they came out of Oxford rather than the Cavern Club.
Oxford also connects Hitch to Bill Clinton (he hung around at the same parties) and introduced him to the likes of Isiah Berlin, got him his first scholarship to America and turned him into a political activist.
Reading Hitch-22 you get the sense of a man at the centre of a movement. Britain was changing and there were these new young talents pushing through. When Hitchens, Amis, Julian Barnes and others went to university an opportunity was opening up the like of which wouldn't repeat for perhaps another 25 years. Assumptions about class and history had shifted. Assumptions about the economy had moved. Hitchens stood at the heart of it and he was brilliantly qualified to take advantage.
More to follow I think...

Monday, 3 January 2011


spoiler alert: mild spoilers

Aaaaaah.....just finished Tim Winton's 2008 novel Breath. His two Booker nominations not withstanding, he wasn't an author I was aware of. I was pleasantly surprised.
More than that: Breath is a wonderful read. Mind you, it is also a frustrating book in some ways.
The surfing really works. I was skeptical at first, and actually there are moments when it isn't so good, but over all, I got it.
Winton is clearly a prose stylist, though his language is rooted in Australian slang; a working class language that is as colourful as the desert around Alice Springs.

So while it might be a relatively short book it comes across quite rich. Like a densely chocolate pudding or a fine wine. There's a lot going on there.
He seems to use a different word for the same thing every time. Waves are described with a linguistic energy that is almost as dashing as the spray itself.
On the flip side the plot is pretty much one storyline. There are three main characters, but you don't get much sense of subplot. Subtext, maybe, but not subplot. In this sense it's more novella than full blown novel.
Actually, I've done a bit of surfing. No let me correct that. In the terms of this book, I am not a surfer. I have not even surfed. But I have been in the water with surfers, beginners like me, and I have attempted to stand on a board. Once I think I even managed it, for a second or so, before falling off. I reckon the wave was three or four feet max.
Breath's characters are surfing artistes who dream of 20 ft breakers a mile out to sea. They dare to surf in bays occupied by sharks. They risk life and limb by taking their boards out to reefs. Each moment of danger they suck up: it brings life to the rest of their existence.
The narrator, Pikelet, is only 13 at the start of the novel. Or rather, at the start of the reminiscence. Pikelet the narrator is now a near fifty-year old paramedic with a dark past. His formative years, it turns out, really screwed him up. Those years, you'll be relieved to hear, are what Breath is all about.
There's a wonderful depiction here of smalltown friendships, of guys hanging out despite themselves, of diverging ambitions and world views. Pikelet and Loonie become followers, of a sort, to a surf guru, Sando. Sando teaches them how to surf, how to live: but in doing so he messes them both up.
Pikelet becomes aware of death in a way the others don't. He begins to fear it, and you get the sense that it haunts him. When he has an affair with Sando's wife this fear, plus his sense of alienation, comes to the fore. Sexually he's a mess: the relationship leaves him scarred.
It is all very moving and credible. Well, perhaps up to a point. I found myself wondering a little about the rest of Pikelet's life. Are his problems really to do with this series of relationships with the surfers? Is that the conclusion we are to make? Does this affair with a much older woman, when he was still under age, really explain his strangeness in later life? In the end I really didn't think it did.
I'm not even sure if the 'older Pikelet' was necessary to the story. I could have done without it and Winton would have been better leaving it to my own imagination what happened to the young man who loved surfing but knew he didn't want to drown on some lonely atoll.
Breath, more than anything I guess, is about young men and their sense of immortality. Their desire to make a mark on the world, and the weird way they create passions that lets them do it. From that point of view it is an exhilarating read.
It is also about the transience of youth, and of life in general. Surfing, as an activity, so neatly sums that up. To surf is to live: fleeting moments of glory sandwiched by long periods of angst and preparation and hard work.
One regret. Somehow, although I loved the prose and found the surfing scenes fascinating, I felt the first half of the book in particular a little thin. Pikelet is all there, but the other characters felt like cyphers. Two dimensional. Sando was perhaps the most disappointing. I say perhaps, because there were moments when he surprised me, when I found him intriguing. Other times, when he came across as a guru cliche, extrapolated from the pages of The Beach or Gary Trudeau's Doonesbury cartoon strip. This didn't ruin the experience of reading Breath, but it did knock a few points off.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Books and boys

  • Boys take longer to learn to read.
  • Boys read less than girls.
  • Boys consider themselves less good at reading than girls.
  • Boys value reading as an activity less than girls do.
  • Boys have less interest in leisure reading.
  • More boys than girls declare themselves “nonreaders.”
  • Boys spend less time reading and express less enthusiasm for reading than girls do.
  • Boys increasingly consider themselves to be “nonreaders’ as they get older; very few designate themselves as such early in their schooling, but nearly 50 percent make that designation by high school.
  • Boys and girls read different things.
  • Boys don't like to talk about what they are reading as much as girls do
This is based on a piece of research I stumbled across thanks to Google. I guess this is how the internet works, it throws up random pieces of intelligence. Want to know how to boil an egg? There's a guy in Mississipi who has made a video. Need to replace the battery in your Blackberry? Check out these haikus written in Guatemala by a goat herder.
This was from an American website from North Carolina. What I like about this list is that it neatly sums up the situation, not just in that state but everywhere. Men and boys just don't read as much as women and girls do, or as much as they should.
Men and boys don't take the time.
They don't think reading is interesting enough to divert them from their other, preferred pursuits.
Men are conditioned from a young age to consider a football match worth talking about, but a Thomas Hardy novel 'boring'.
That's a football match that ends nil-nil and a novel in which the lead character sells his wife for beer, becomes Mayor and whatever else. You get the picture.
If they do read a book they'll most likely be on the beach, and the book will be a punchy, gripping rollercoaster ride to a bloody ending. If they get to the end, that is.
Not all men are like this of course. I'm using the broadest of sweeps, but the stats do back up the idea that the male of the species simply doesn't buy or read as many books as the female.
So I've decided that the thrust of this blog from now on - I'm writing this on the 2nd of January 2011 - will be to address this situation. In some small way I'd like to encourage men and boys to seek out books, new authors, new reading experiences, and to put the cliche of male disinterest in the written word to bed.
It's ironic that literature holds up male writers - and male publishers - as the most significant. From Dickens, through Lawrence to Amis, Barnes and Mitchell, men are over represented in the canon.
Women writers, on the other hand, are often overlooked or written off as genre hacks or chicklit writers. The very fact that they constitute the mass market is held against them. And that annoys me too. It's something I'll definitely return to.
I'm not making a gender point here, as such. I'm not saying we should read male authors and not female, quite the opposite in fact. I think we should be open to both, and I think we should constantly revise the idea of the canon, kick the literary snobbery into touch and delve into genre. I want us all to start loving storytelling for its own sake, and to enjoy stories told in their best, most complex, most satisfying form: as novels.