Monday, 30 April 2007

Haddock speaks!

Austin Haddock writes in The Oldie [ ] on ageing MPs (he's 72). "My standard response when asked how to spell my name - 'Austin like the car' - now produces blank looks."

sf: Sandkings, George RR Martin
crime: The Burglar in the Closet, Lawrence Block
if you don't know it: Monopolies of Loss, Adam Mars-Jones

Saturday, 28 April 2007

The World and the Word

I said I'd write about Monte Cristo, because of Perez-Reverte's Dumas Club - which is brilliant; a clever thriller, the cleverness of which, like The Name of the Rose or The Secret History (in my view rather over-rated), relies upon the reader thinking himself clever when he spots the references. The beauty of this approach is that it doesn't matter how many references you miss, because you don't know you're missing them. Any arts graduate - on the whole, about as ignorant a cross-section of society as one could hope to assemble - finishes Foucault's Pendulum or Dr Criminale convinced, entirely wrongly, that he's been reading something considerably more edifying than Ed McBain or PG Wodehouse. Confirmed in his ignorance, he can continue to think himself very clever. That's not to say that this cheap trick doesn't work on me. It does, and how. And The Dumas Club does it very well indeed.

So I shan't. I shall write about Borges instead, but only briefly. No other writer is as blatant in his appropriation of other writers, references to other writers, invented references in real writers, misattributed references in imaginary books, purloining of other literary forms - the philosophical essay, the cod history, the analysis of the imaginary secret society - as old Jorge. Gnosticism, mirrors and encyclopaedias and, above all, the labyrinth provide metaphors for the real maze at the heart of his work: the alphabet and the things which can be done with it. He is like a man unsure which side he comes down on in the debate about the Logos, or even the Aleph. Is the written word a betrayal of epic poetry, a way of guaranteeing the loss of memorised words which, being internalised, are closer to the incantatory, the sacramental? Is history a betrayal of the greater truths of myth, by being confined to the objective truth about particular events, rather than the instructive and universal illustration of examples which fiction (in the form of myth, parable, scripture and fable) offers? All books, all writers, all readers, are wound by him into one huge tangled tale, in which everything becomes a character; Alpha and Omega, it hardly matters which character.
He's pulling the same trick as Eco, or rather Eco and these other populist middlebrow thriller writers are pulling the same trick as him; shove in the odd reference to Paracelsus or Doctor Dee or Eliphas Levi, sure. Everyone's heard of them and no one's going to bother reading them. But the corpus of who to nick from and write about is Conan Doyle, Dumas, Chesterton, Stevenson, Scott, De Quincey, Shakespeare, Fantomas, Raffles, Baroness Orczy...
Because that's what we all really love. M John Harrison has started a thing on his blog [ ] asking you to list books you need. We're all putting down big names, because they're true, but also because they sound good. But there's a lot of comfort reading there as well. Every so often you need to reread Jane Austen. But every so often you need to reread The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. And I omitted some of what Orwell called good bad books from my list (cowardice, intellectual vanity, I admit it), but also some books which may just be bad bad books. Remind me to write about Dune soon.
But Monte Cristo is a good, good book, even if it is also a transparent piece of wish fulfillment and a textbook melodrama. So I will write about it soon.

I had a pizza for my lunch, which wasn't very good. I stir-fried some chicken and noodles and stuff for dinner. That was, though I thought the chickens were eyeing me rather suspiciously as I made it.

We're thinking of moving house. The very thought of it is shredding my nerves, and will carry on shredding them no matter what happens.

sf: Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein. It's the only language they understand.
crime: I Was Dora Suarez, Derek Raymond. You need a strong stomach, though.
unfairly neglected great book: California Time, Frederic Raphael
I'm reading: The Avignon Quincunx, Lawrence Durrell (well, I've got as far as the beginning of Constance). Then if not distracted, I'm going back to The Black Book again.
listening to: Mahalia Jackson (I believe!)

Tomorrow's Sunday (no, today's Sunday). Why not go to church? You've earned it. Because you're worth it.
εν αρχη ην ο Λογοσ και ο Λογοσ ην προσ τον Θεον και Θεοσ ην ο Λογοσ... I can't work out how to do breathings or a final s, but you get the point. (The Name of the Rose nicked that one, too)

Thursday, 26 April 2007

The Present Chiefly

It's pointless to write about A Note In Music, now that I come to think of it, because it changes for me on every reading. A few brief thoughts about it, though. There is the obvious conflict between north and south, provincial and metropolitan, past and future, but it is difficult to determine who comes out of it better. No one, really. Grace - who is anything but graceful - does nothing, having once loved, yet there is the ghost of promise, of knowledge, of perseverence about her, as if she is on the brink of guessing at a secret which, Miss Lehmann obliquely suggests, may not in any case be there. I wonder whether Grace is named for a grace note, one which slides quickly on to the main pitch and is brought into being only to be an echo.
The note of the title is Landor: "But the present, like a note in music, is nothing but as it appertains to what is past and what is to come."
At one point Clare concludes: "One must never let one's past actions bind one with remorse or regret, she said; but pass on at once and shape the future." Pass on she does, but into shapelessness; she goes to see Hugh off (in a hat like Mercury's hat), but it is she who vanishes. "Well - there was always a time of loneliness, depression, after the first excitement of the start, the bustle of departure." Quite. "He hoped to goodness nothing boring would happen to her" is quickly followed by the question: "Why live?" That is getting to the point perhaps rather too emphatically.
"The secret was to look to the present chiefly, to the future a little, to the past scarcely at all... " But I wonder whether the effect of the book, on me at least, is not to make one feel that that is their problem. The rootlessness, the drifting, the ennui, the nothingness is a product of not being secured in the past. It's a question Rosamond Lehmann asks. I'm not sure she answers it. But perhaps, if Uncle Zip is right, she kens the noo.

That last phrase, for those who didn't grow up as Scots Presbyterians, is a reference to the minister who tells his congregation that they will all be cast into Hell, and there they will wail to the Lord, Oh Lord, we didnae ken, and the lord will look down and He will say: Weel, ye ken the noo.

Perhaps it was the same minister who was explaining that in Hell there would be wailing and gnashing of teeth when a voice from the back pews asked: What if ye havenae goat ony teeth? Pause for thought before the response: Teeth will be provided.

sf: Other Days, Other Eyes (the Slow Glass fixup) Bob Shaw
crime: Love in Amsterdam, Nicholas Freeling
if you don't know it: The Healing Art, AN Wilson

reading: The Dumas Club, Arturo Perez-Reverte. I am going to write about Monte Cristo soon. It is the best thriller ever written. But I may also consider Raphael Sabatini.
lunch: too many chilli chicken legs and spring rolls, then lots of other chinese buffet stuff. dinner: leftovers.
music: Radio 3

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Spooky or what? Just what, that's what

In Uncle Zip's excellent recommendations [ ] he says that he can easily imagine Rosamond Lehmann communicating from beyond the grave. Astoundingly, I was thinking about Rosamond Lehmann only yesterday and thinking about blogging about her. Isn't that amazing?
Well, no, of course, because it's not that much of a coincidence, and one that you'd only notice when it happened, as you would not notice the thousands of times someone didn't write about something you'd just been thinking about. Also, Uncle Zip has very good taste, so it's not surprising that he'd mention people I'm interested in. John Crowley's just come back from the Ukraine, where he's been talking about Bulgakov. I think about Bulgakov almost every day. So does Jon Courtney Grimwood, I'd guess. So not at all spooky.

From A Note in Music:

"At the Rescue and Preventive Bazaar last year Norah had laughingly urged her to consult the fortune-teller, saying: 'She's too uncanny, my dear. She's told me the most astounding things. All my past.' She had refused with a scoff and escaped from Norah, and gone back quickly to her cake stall: for the truth was that she was afraid of the fortune-teller. She had had a vision of the woman, scrutinizing her palm and saying finally:
'This is a most curious case. There is nothing here: nothing in your past, nothing in your future. As for character - lazy - greedy - secretive - without will or purpose.'
That was a year ago. And to-day she would be even more afraid... "

I will return to Miss Lehmann and that remarkable book of hers about nothing, in which nothing happens, later.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

23rd April

Should have posted yesterday on the occasion of the anniversary of the death of literary giants, but was kept busy by the death of one of drinking’s giants. So farewell Boris, one of the hairy Russian leaders. (They alternate, hairy and baldy. See other blog on the right for full details.)
Back to the writers. We all now know, of course, that Pierre Menard was the author of the Quixote, but Cervantes died on the same day as Shakespeare. I’d like to make the case, controversial I know, that Shakespeare’s plays were written by someone called William Shakespeare.
The trouble is that there’s nothing to say about him except everything. He beat everybody else to everything; which may be why people are so suspicious of his identity. But I don’t see how making him Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford or Marlowe or Jonson solves the problem. He was still supernaturally better than all of them rolled together anyway.
As Harold Bloom points out, he encapsulates and anticipates just about every possible human position on just about every human problem. Yesterday I read Chesterton’s essay on reading, in which he shows that Shakespeare had summed up Nietzsche’s philosophy. He gave it to Richard III; a deformed, half-crazed murderer on the eve of his destruction. He thought of the doctrine of the Superman; he just didn’t think much of it. He saw the view that ordinary morality was now more than a bourgeois construction; but he saw through it, too.

sf: Worlds, Joe Haldeman
crime: Swag, Elmore Leonard
unfairly neglected work of total genius: Major Major: Memories of an Older Brother, Terry Major-Ball

about to eat: lasagne.

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Mrs Jones knows that help is on the way

But what about the rest of us?

Tomato ketchup accounts for ten per cent of all vinegar made in North America.

The address of the Supreme Council of 33 degree Freemasonry in England is 10 Duke Street, St James's, London SW1. But it's a secret.

The giant bamboo, not a tree but a species of grass, grows to a height of 30 feet.

The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped produces a Braille edition of Playboy.

St John's Wood is the only station on the London Underground network which contains none of the letters which occur in the work mackerel.

The tragedy of help is that it never arrives.

All across London, telephones are ringing in empty rooms.

sf: Vurt, Jeff Noon
crime: The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Dorothy L Sayers
if you don't know it: Young Man With A Horn, Dorothy Baker
listening to: Vaughan Williams Symphony no 8, Barbirolli, Halle Orchestra
lunch: grilled pork dumplings, spare ribs soup noodles. dinner: mozerella tortelloni in a tomato sauce with roasted sweet red peppers, red onions, black olives and basil

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Chip Shops: An Ideological Divide

Fish and chips. Chicken and chips. Fraught religious and political questions abound on these important topics. Everyone knows that Roman Catholics used to (and some still do) eat fish on Fridays as a form of denial. It wasn’t meat, you see. In Northern Ireland and the West of Scotland, and probably in Liverpool, where the division between Catholics and Protestants is particularly pronounced, this led to an interesting dietary sectarian divide. Some Protestants, who regarded themselves as taking their opposition to the Vicar of Rome seriously, wouldn’t go near the fishmongers or the chip shop on Fridays lest they be mistaken for left-footers. This was the amateur position.
Hardline Protestants knew that no one would mistake them for Roman Catholics. And indeed, most people from Belfast, Glasgow or Liverpool would be able to tell you whether someone else from that city was Catholic or Protestant the second he opened his mouth. In many cases, even earlier. Sample 1980s joke: Q: How do you know ET’s a Catholic? A: He looks like one.
So they would mob the chippy on Friday, buying haddock and chips (the insistence on cod is a southern English phenomenon) as if there were no tomorrow. That way there would be none left for the Papists.
Strangely, though, Bobby Sands, the IRA member who became Sinn Fein MP for West Belfast whilst on hunger strike in the Maze, was not thought to be a great hand for fish and chips. The supporters of Glasgow Rangers had at that time a chant (to the tune of She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain When She Comes) which began: “Could you go a chicken supper, Bobby Sands?”
The chicken, however, is not an animal aligned with the Republican movement in Ireland, but with the political party of that name in North America, which once promised voters a “chicken in every pot”. The fortune of Sir Antony Fisher, founder of the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Atlas Foundation, which tirelessly spread the Good News about the free market, was based upon frozen chickens. And the keeping of chickens is an intrinsically conservative act, in much the same way as gardening is; the cultivation of homegrown produce and the husbandry of livestock requires property rights, foresight when providing for the future, frugality and diligence, as well as many other reactionary (or, I would say, enlightened) traits. Meanwhile, the Labour MP Austin Mitchell, so soundly Eurosceptic on many issues, but fundamentally protectionist in his attitude to the fishermen of his constituency (Grimsby), changed his name to Austin Haddock not long ago. Unfortunately, he has now changed it back, but he will always be Austin Haddock to me.
Both Protestants and Catholics would do well to remember that Our Lord chose Gallus Gallus as the animal which reproached St Peter for his denial of Him. Christ’s symbol, often seen on the back of motor cars, is the fish. I can’t be bothered switching into the Greek typeface again.
Fish supper, chicken supper. A theological and geopolitical minefield. This calls for a book, really.

I had to fish a wasp out of the chicks' box tonight. They were very upset.

sf: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K Dick.
crime: The Papers of Tony Veitch, William McIlvanney
if you don't know it: Towards the End of the morning, Michael Frayn
music: the songs of robert burns, jean redpath

Monday, 16 April 2007

Shh! Moscow Rules

Just recommendations tonight, because I want to watch Smiley's People, which starts in a minute. I will write about le Carre soon, or perhaps James Kennaway, whose The Cost of Living Like This is today's book to discover if you don't know it.

sf: Dune, Frank Herbert (well, some of them have got to be obvious)
crime: The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle (ditto)
work of great genius: The Compleet Molesworth, Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle

lunch was beef hofun at Jenny Lo's Tea House
dinner was chilli and rice
music: Chopin watzes and etudes, Tamas Vasary

Sunday, 15 April 2007

PKD, Ubikuitous

Και δη και το παλαι τε και νυν και αει ζητουμενον και απορουμενον, τι το ον... perhaps Horselover Fat and Kilgore Trout don’t have it in the same way as Philip K Dick and Kurt Vonnegut (or Philip Jose Farmer, or Theodore Sturgeon, if it comes to that). But then PKD hasn’t had it these 25 years, and the world is becoming more and more like what he said it would. I said yesterday that I had more books about and by him than you could shake a stick at, and this morning I get sent six very nice paperbacks. It is a cosmic reproach from Phil. He is attempting to hold the pile of kipple at bay by filling the universe with his books, in nice editions, like some well-intentioned but accident-prone Glimmung. Now we know how the world will end, not with a bang, but with a wub-skinned edition of the Exegesis.
Good choices Gollancz have made though, on the whole. Human is? is a reasonable collection of short stories for those who haven’t read him (can there be anyone left?) to begin with. Some of the essentials; Beyond Lies the Wub, The Mold of Yancy, The Father-Thing, If There Were No Benny Cemoli, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. And five of the best novels: The Three Stgmata of Palmer Eldritch, Matian Time-Slip, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Dr Bloodmoney and Flow, My Tears, The Policeman Said. No Man in the High Castle, but I think Penguin may still have the rights to it. I would like to make a case for The Game Players of Titan, which everyone seems to think slight and formulaic, but is actually a searing examination of anything you like. Hyperreality needs a game, and Bluff is that game. I’m going off now to work out the rules with my Ryan Gander cards and the three Chinese coins I use to tell the I Ching.
If none of the above made any sense, you should read Philip K Dick. He wrote good books and died 25 years ago last month. He is slowly engulfing us all.

Today I bought a box and a lamp for the chickens, until they’re big enough to go out to the coop. I’m reading Heidegger on Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics (no, I am, really, I’m not just saying it to show off, though obviously since I’m going to the trouble of reading it, I’m not wasting the showing-off potential it affords).
But today I’ve read only pages 65-80. Then I read the 300-odd page novelisation of the pilot episode of Battlestar Galactica. That took about half as long. Obviously it’s easier to get your head round intergalactic civilizations clashing, committing genocide and piloting ships the size of cities which violate our current laws of spacetime than it is to work out how we look at something.

I had roast duck and hoisin pancakes, thai green chicken curry and beef with basil and chilli for dinner.

sf: Appleseed, by John Clute
crime: Pop. 1280, Jim Thompson
if you don’t know it: Dance of the Happy Shades, Alice Munro
listening to Six Pianos, Steve Reich (it goes on a bit, doesn’t it?)

Why not go to church this morning? PKD was an Episcopalian, but he was very laid back about denominations. When his followers rule the world and you realize we’re actually in the First Century AD, you’ll be glad you did.

Friday, 13 April 2007

Omaha Hi/Lo Back/Front

I have acquired a thing which delights me greatly, even though it has been produced by a modern artist. Parallel Cards, by Ryan Gander (an obvious pseudonym for Madame Sosostris), is a pack of playing cards, the backs of which are the faces of different playing cards. In other words, the untouched pack procedes normally Ace through King of Spades, then ditto Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds. The back of the Ace of Spades is (in my pack - I don't know whether he's produced variants) the Qh, of the 2s the Js, the 3s the Qd, the 4s the 3c... you get the idea. The possibilities are fantastic. Poker with the back of your hand providing the pool cards for your opponents, for example. Bridge with the option to bid for a hand to be turned over. Gin with the option to flip over melds and extend longer runs. I've already worked out a good variant on find the lady with the (true) Jh, which is backed by the 7s, the (true) 7s, backed by the 9s, and the (true) 9s, backed, very satisfyingly, with the Jh. The punter can see (on one side) that it is a perfectly ordinary deck, and the card on top has a normal red back. That can be turned over to an identical design in black.

I like it as much as The Great Bear. Maybe even more.

I was in Cambridge today talking in a studio about Vonnegut and very nearly had a drink after I came out. I went into a bookshop until the urge passed. Consequently I now have two books on Philip K Dick (like I need more books on him; I've got nearly as many about him as I have by him, and I've got, I'm pretty sure, all of them now, even the straight novels which I don't like as much) and half a dozen novels I should have read already but haven't. Not classics - there are loads of them I haven't read, of course - but things like Gibson's Pattern Recognition and The Book of Dave by Will Self which I just never got round to getting. I get these in the door and am now torn between reading instead books I have got and have read, and could have reread at any time without being prompted by getting new ones. Specifically, I want to read Idoru, Sutin's biography of PKD and Riddley Walker. I can't find my copy of Riddley Walker. Now I don't want to read anything else.

not reading: Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban
sf: Jem, Frederik Pohl
crime: Polar Star, Martin Cruz Smith (we haven't had that before, have we?)
if it's new to you: The Erasers, Alain Robbe-Grillet
dinner was fish and chips. I will write about the religious implications of this at some point.

Thanatophile News

I began a blog on the Telegraph site today; its basis for existence is that it will deal with obituaries, though I suspect it will become a more general thing, with the paper's obits, or issues arising from them, being used as a springboard for the usual aimless chatter. I will point from here to there when it seems appropriate (less often, I'd guess, in the other direction). Anyone especially interested in obits can find it in the list on the right. It is chiefly for those who read the paper or the online version, so its comments will probably be compaints about obits which haven't run, or perceived injustices or errors in those which have. Of course, there's nothing to speak of on it yet. But if you like obits, you might want to look at it in a couple of weeks. The Telegraph's main site is Enough.


Flann O'Brien's suggestion for the bit you add above the letter. Example along the lines of

AS: What about that fiver you owe me?

Dear Jim,
So nice to see you for lunch the other day. We must meet up again soon,
yours etc,


This post is of course a PS, but it will appear above the post where I forgot today's recommendations. And I know that's what my legions of fans really want.

sf: Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell. And Frankenstein, Mary Shelley. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, etc. Oh come on you snobs, I know they're classsed as literature, but they transcend that narrow genre, and really have a lot to offer as serious sf.
crime: something by Robert B Parker. doesn't much matter which.
if you don't know it: The Spire, William Golding
lunch: burger and chips. dinner: chicken and chips. I was busy, ok? I know it's no excuse.

Thursday, 12 April 2007

When in doubt, Castle

The advice of Kurt Vonnegut, Senior. He was an architect. They were third generation German-American, but Kurt and his older brother (who was a weather physicist called Bernard) and sister (who was called Alice, and whose three children he took on when she died) were brought up speaking only English, because of anti-German sentiment following the Great War. "They volunteered to make me ignorant and rootless as proof of their patriotism," he said (perhaps just a little ungratefully). He was always good and good fun, but I really don't think much after Slaughterhouse-Five was essential in the same way that the earlier books still are. The Sirens of Titan, Cat's Cradle and God Bless You, Mr Rosewater. I love the way that he's routinely described by newspaper cuts as having "moved away from the confines of science fiction". Clearly the hero spending only half the book on the planet Tralfamadore puts S-5 in the same bracket as the output of Barbara Pym. (I am not dissing Barbara Pym. She rocks. Ditto Ivy Compton-Burnett.)
My obit of him is on
I'm trying not to write about obits on this blog, because I'm starting an obits blog on the Telegraph site sometime in the next few days. I will post on that when it's underway and then try to keep the two fairly separate.
It is compulsory to finish this post, as many thousands of others will, with "so it goes".
Or, damn. Pity.

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Portraits of the Artists

I was very surprised that no British newspaper except The Daily Telegraph ran an obituary of Sol LeWitt this morning. He was not a demonstrative person, of course; the work was more interesting than the life (and much harder to describe). It got me thinking about the depiction of artists; many more people now read biographies of writers than, I'd guess, go through the work itself (Holroyd's Shaw being the most doorstopping case in point).
Painters and poets have alway seemed colourful and interesting to people who may not be interested in what they do; a point which some artists attempt to reinforce (I'm thinking of Klein because I've just seen his show, and because he took it to quite remarkable degrees). LeWitt's work was undertaken by assistants, as Damien Hirst's often is, but if architects are artists, if feature films can be art, why should that matter? The idea of the artist still lay behind it. Think too of the individualistic myth of, say, Pollock or Rothko or Bacon.
I rather prefer the approach of Magritte or TS Eliot: live like a bourgeois and let the work do the revolution. As Chesterton put it: "Artistic temperament is for amateurs". But it may simply be a kind of reverse vanity, showing off by retreating. Is that what Pynchon and Salinger are up to?
But artists, poets and composers don't often convince me in fiction. There are a few obvious exceptions: Gully Jimson and Enderby seem real to me, and I can quite easily believe in the kind of painter Charles Ryder was, or in X Trapnel. Novelists on the whole are more convincing. Some artists are annoyingly good writers: I remember liking Michael Ayrton's The Maze Maker a lot, but it's years since I read it.
Films can sometimes be quite good at it (convincing artists). John Maybury's Love is the Devil and the recent biopic of Pollock. Not Lust for Life, but that may be my dislike of van Gogh. I like Vincente Minnelli. I may be the only person who really liked Life Lessons, the Scorcese section of New York Stories. I'd like to see him tackle a biopic of Rothko.

I have a terrible cold and wish I could drink whisky.

today's picks:
sf: The Ophiuchi Hotline, John Varley
crime: The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey (though of course, he did do it really, and she's quite wrong, as are all that pro-Richard lot. They're like the Earl of Oxford or Francis Bacon theorists)
unfairly unknown: The Death of Men, Allan Massie (inspired by the Aldo Moro kidnapping and, it suddenly occurs to me, quite likely to fall foul of the glorifying terror legislation. Also has a truly wonderful first sentence: "I am a dandy who can no longer be troubled to dress.")
lunch: sushi, with lots of wasabi and ginger to fend off cold; dinner: beef curry with lots of chilli and ginger to fend off cold.
current condition: very sore throat, nose running like a tap

Sunday, 8 April 2007


Of course, I didn’t make the Easter vigil, but I did go to the morning service before going to work. Because it is Easter Sunday, when Railtrack, or Jarvis, or Network Rail, or somebody, or all of them celebrate Our Lord’s victory over death by moving sleepers around, I had to drive.

I prefer the train to driving because you can read, do the crossword, stare out of the window at more interesting things than the man in the next car picking his nose while stuck on Kilburn High Street and, above all, have no responsibility for anything other than buying your ticket, getting on and getting off. Alas, you can no longer smoke, but you can still drink. You can still drink, I can’t. I wish we had more trains like this nice one I was in the other day which had those compartments of six seats and a sliding door. But it goes between Vienna and Bratislava, which is of limited use if you want to go between Huntingdon and London.

I prefer driving (on my own) to the train because you have the car to yourself and you make the decisions about where it goes. You can listen to music quite loudly (I don’t have an iPod, because I can’t really listen and read at the same time). You can smoke all the time. But mostly, the only thing to like about driving – motorway driving, I mean - is that you can go very nearly too fast. Not too fast, of course, that would be silly. But as fast as you can while still retaining full control of the vehicle. That is if, like me, you are an excellent driver and drive very fast indeed, changing gears the while and never straying from your lane as you move round corners as if you were in one of those tilting trains, except without the coming off the rails bit, and always indicating and being in the correct lane, unlike those slower gits in front of you who are clearly in the wrong lane, but never being caught by speed cameras. For legal reasons I should point out that that is not because the very nearly superhuman reflexes and superior awareness of your surroundings characteristic of the excellent driver (such as I myself am) enable you to see them and respond appropriately, double-declutching your way out of trouble in the nick of time (brakes are for the inept), only to move back up to warp speed seconds later, but because you haven’t broken the speed limit. Obviously. And especially not by factors of 50 per cent and up.

I don’t know my own mind. Train, I think. Or car.

sf: A Better Mantrap, Bob Shaw
crime: The Judas Window, Carter Dickson (who is John Dickson Carr, of course, so you may get it under either name). A Locked Room tour de force.
If you don’t know it: Five Letters From an Eastern Empire, Alasdair Gray (in Unlikely Stories, Mostly)
Today’s music: Well-Tempered Clavier, Bach; Two Against Nature, Steely Dan; The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Joni Mitchell; Early Concepts, Stan Kenton. In a car, you see.
Chicken Yakisoba for lunch; Roast Lamb for dinner.

Off to bed now, with a head full of quandary and (many points to anyone who can complete the line correctly)

Saturday, 7 April 2007


Last night, I ate goulash while a trio of old men (violin, cello, piano) played Misty in a cellar restaurant in the old town in Bratislava. It is very disorientating to be somewhere where you recognize nothing at all of the language; with the exception of "suveniry" and a very few other words, I couldn't even begin to guess what anything was. But the apartment I was staying in was beneath an sf bookshop, with Jon Courtney Grimwood's neoAddix in the middle of the window,
the churches were wonderful (and it was Good Friday), cigarettes cost less than a pound, they have lovely trams, the people are friendly and the historic centre is beautiful. Unfortunately, it looks out on to more Communist-era tower blocks than you can possibly imagine, and there is now a gigantic Tesco.
But I loved it there. And I believe they have flat rate income tax at 19 per cent, so I expect they will prosper, especially if they don't join the euro (as they plan to in a year or two).

I read Stephen King's Night Shift, which I didn't know (he is, unsurprisingly enough, a very good short story writer), Richard Morgan's Black Man (I shall probably review it) and have just started Timothy Mo's Sour Sweet, which I like a lot so far. I watched The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, which I thought pretty disappointing.
today's neglected book is Mr Friend Mr Leakey by JBS Haldane.
got back home, ate prawns with noodles and chinese greens.

I am going to bed now in the hope that I can get up in time for the 5.30am service tomorrow. Happy Easter.

Thursday, 5 April 2007


A city much more agreeable than the Ultravox dirge of the same name. But beset, for me, with similar technological difficulties. Just as the well-known number two (kept off the top slot by Joe Dolce's Shadduppa Your Face, as every self-respecting trivia fan knows) speeded up because the band had bought a duff drum machine, so my mchine failed to interact with any of the city's wireless connections. And the PC I had access to had a firewall which stopped you from getting online to anything.
More on Vienna soon, but some brief cultural notes from my first visit, which may well not prove useful should you find yourself here, as everyone will at some stage.
Food: surprisingly all right, with good raw materials available in the shops if you have access to a kitchen. But it is difficult to buy decent olives and chillies. When eating out, you have the choice of meat, meat or meat. Fast food is roast potatoes in rosemary and salt, followed by kaiserschmarrn - a cross between pancake and sponge, shredded, and with plum sauce. Despite the cafe culture, coffee is acceptable rather than excellent. Espresso is too often just strong black coffee.
Drink: I should think it's fantastic. But then I imagine all drink is fantastic.
Music: The radio plays forgotten - and rightly so, if you want my opinion, and if you don't, what are you doing here? find some other blog to lurk on, why don't you? - 1980s pop music. Jim Diamond, I ask you. There's a man there was never any excuse for. Cliff Richard's We Don't Talk Any More is particularly popular. I avoided Strauss (I like the other one, of course) and heard some Schubert. Mozart must look up from where he is now (there will only be Bach in heaven) and spit tacks at the amount of stuff you can buy with his name on it. You can get Mozart anything. Oven gloves, barbeque tools, watering cans, pedal bins, motorcycle trousers, flea spray, hairnets, mousetraps, nam pla, hard drives... if you can stick a bar or two of the MS of Eine Keine Nachtmusik on it, they sell it. All the teenagers are wearing Cradle of Filth T-shirts.
Real Art: The Kunsthistorische is outstanding. You could come for hours every day for months. Too many highlights. I really only managed to look at the non-Italian side, and didn't even attempt anything but the pictures.
Modern Art: MuMoK is like a send-up of modern art galleries, because you can see they really believe in it (I never feel Tate Modern does). Still, the Klein exhibition is very groovy, and IKB is a lovely colour. Every single person, including the gallery staff, looks like a modern architect, or Michael Nyman, and wears black Japanese suits and spectacles which show how serious they are. I know I did. I almost believed I was trendy for about half an hour, until I remembered that I don't believe in any of that stuff, and think the people who do are preposterous. They are preposterous, of course.
There are all these films of modern artists telling you how they are challenging the boundaries, and there is more conformity to a set idea of design, style and received nostrums than any other area of human thought one can conceive of. And it can be well done and seductive, until you remember that any sane person would swap the whole lot of it for anything doodled on the back of a cigarette packet (or contemporary equivalent) by, say, Hans Memling.
Books: In homage to Graham Greene, I went to look at the Ferris Wheel built by an Englishman where Orson Welles improvised the bit about cuckoo clocks, which don't come from Switzerland, or Austria. It looks like some very unsafe wooden Portakabins (Portakabin is a registered trade mark, you know, and these resembled temporary buildings which are probably not by Portakabin, so I expect a letter from their very diligent solicitors soon) stuck to a giant wheel. My daughter said: "Look, they've got an Eye." So at least London's branding of its wheel has registered with the young.
Architecture: lovely, except Karl Marx-hof; as ugly as he deserves. The Freud museum is empty, because it's all in Hampstead. But he has a playpark, where the sandpit ruins your shoes.
Next, Pressburg, or Bratislava, or Pozony, depending on where you're from.