Thursday, 31 May 2007

Zen and the Art History of Motorcycles

An Inquiry into Aesthetics

This should in no way be associated with that great body of work relating to hippy nonsense and first year philosophy. It's not very factual on motorcycles or art history, either.

It's muggy even this early in the morning as we turn on to the gravel, and I check the engine temperature with my hand. It's reassuringly cool.

It reminds me of the coolness of the caves at Altimera, which interested him so much back then. He worried too much about that, it later turned out. Whether the beauty the cavemen had been chasing – and which I guess the Sutherlands were chasing too – counted as art, or what passed for art.

The road has twisted now as it moves up through the pines and the engine threatens to cut out from the lack of oxygen. I turn back and swat Chris's knee.
"What?" he hollers.
"Just checking," I say.

Native American art bears a good many resemblances to the Aborigine work in Australia, in that it was done by people that we're used to thinking of as primitive. That's why they call it primitive art. But I wonder about that, as he wondered about that. Too much, as it transpired later. But I wonder if those so-called primitives weren't on to something. Phaedrus thought they were on to something, certainly. And in thinking that, he thought that he was on to something, too. I don't know now whether he was right.

I'm on something now, though. It's a Chautauqua Flying Bullet 450cc, though I've shimmed the plugs and it sounds now like John's much more expensive BMW 750.

Geertgens tot Sint Jants's pictures look kind of primitive to us now. But that's just our perspective. Or at least, that was Phaedrus's perspective on our perspective. But Geertgens's perspective was actually kind of sophisticated for his day and all, when you come to think about it.

John's horrified to discover I've been using these shims I cut from a beer can on his expensive motorcycle.
"You used what?" he hollered.
His shims are straight from the BMW factory shop and cost like $60 each.

That's the problem with factories, as so many of the Old Masters discovered. You look at a picture by Hams Memling, say, and there it is. A Hans Memling. But what if it's just from Hans Memling's factory, or studio, to use the technical term Phaedrus had discovered in his intensive studies. I can remember nothing about those studies, but he knew all about them. Too much, it was to turn out. Then it's not a Hans Memling. It's just school of Hans Memling. But it's the same picture. That's the trouble with schools.

Chris is having trouble at school. I can identify with that. So could he, of course, back then. I can't identify with him, though. Not any more.
"Look," I holler at Chris. You do a lot of hollering on a motorcycle, especially when the tappets are shot. "A magpie!"
"You're tragic, pop." he yells.
I guess birds aren't that big a deal to Chris.

Birds were a big deal for Hokusai. But the art of the East gave Phaedrus a whole new perspective on painting. Were they on to something?

Chris watches as I fill the tank. The smell of petrol drifts into the odour of the pine trees and sap, mingling like the paint on Leonardo's canvases. Relationships are kind of difficult, I guess. But families are important.

The Bellinis were a family. A family of painters, Phaedrus would have called them. They came from Venice. There were three of them. All painters. Charles Ryder didn't know that in Brideshead Revisited. But Lord Marchmain did. That's what living in a place will teach you.

"Are we going to live here, pop?" Chris asks.
"No, son," I reassure him. "We're just filling up. It's a gas station. They sell gas here."
"I meant get a move on," says Chris. "Honestly, you are so tragic. Have you no sense of irony, pop?"

The opposite of irony is common sense, wrote Richard Rorty. Phaedrus would have known about him. He taught at a university. But what is a university, really, when it comes down to it? Why can't it just be a motorcycle?
I think the opposite of irony is anaemic. But who's to say who's right?

The engine mumbles a little as we climb into Montana. I hear Chris's voice behind me mumbling with it.
"You are so, so tragic, pop."

Andy Warhol was a Pop artist. He had a factory. Phaedrus only had a faculty. And when he started banging on about Mark Rothko, they kicked him off even that. But I was a different guy then, though the headaches aren't so bad now.

This is getting us nowhere. But we're eating up the miles.

I think I'll get a boat next.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Donald Barthelme's Fine Homemade Soups

This is all very well, you are thinking, but we've heard far too much about books on this blog recently, and not enough about food. Well, I have come back from Paris now, and I can report that the aligot, the tapenade, the goat's cheese, the boudins and sausages, the puy lentils, the brioche, the chocolate mousse, the celeriac remoulade, the terrines, the cuisse de lapin, &c, etc (or ktl, for the Greek fans) continue to give uniform satisfaction. Ditto the Chinese food. Duck and noodles.

But we can have literature AND lunch. We are in the business of feeding both the mind and the body. I have a longstanding interest and expertise in soup. Here is one of the blog's great heroes on the subject:

My fine homemade soups are interesting, economical and tasty. To make them, one proceeds in the following way:


Take one package Knorr Leek Soupmix. Prepare as directed. Take two live leeks. Chop leeks into quarter-inch rounds. Throw into Soupmix. Throw in 1/2 cup Tribuno Dry Vermouth. Throw in chopped parsley. Throw in some amount of salt and a heavy bit of freshly ground pepper. Eat with good-quality French bread, dipped repeatedly in soup.


Take one package knorr Mushroom Soupmix. Prepare as directed. Take four large mushrooms. Slice. Throw into Soupmix. Throw in 1/2 cup Tribuno Dry Vermouth, parsley, salt, pepper. Stick bread as above into soup at intervals. Buttering bread enhances taste of the whole.


Take Knorr Chicken Soupmix, prepare as directed, throw in leftover chicken, duck or goose as available. Add enhancements as above.

You can read the other recipe (Oxtail Soup, singled out by Thomas Pynchon, who concedes that Barthelme's burgoo is "a notable moment in chef psychopathology") and the Don's instructions for breakfast, lunch and "Superb dinner for 60" (with input from the Arkansas Department of Corrections, Food Services Division) in The Teachings of Don B, edited by Kim Herzinger (Turtle Bay Books, 1992).

If you clear your plates, I will let you have Anthony Powell's recipe for curry.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Mike Harrison tries to steal my girl

Like all right-thinking people, I am in awe of the great writer and rock climber M John Harrison. And until now, I had always thought he was a very nice man. But now I am going to have to fight him, because I discover he has been eyeing up my bird.
I have always been in love with Justine. I have studied Arnauti's Moeurs for hoeurs. And she nowhere expresses an admiration for rock-climbing award-winning novelists. True, she is first drawn to Jacob by his messy room, full of books and newspapers. But anyone can cut things out of the newspapers.
When I was 16, I wrote to Mr Durrell about Justine. He wrote me a nice note back saying a lot of people seemed to like her, but that in insight and generosity, I topped the lot. I think that is clear enough. So shove off, Harrison. She's mine.

He also sent me a copy of (what was then) his new book, but she wasn't in it, so I didn't like it as much.

I have very few signed books, actually, but I've always regretted not buying what I saw in the Charing Cross Road in the early 90s. It was three sets of the Faber paperbacks of the quartet (uniform with Justine and Clea below; Balthazar was yellow and Mountolive green, though as you see, my copies are the hardbacks). On the flyleaf of each in pencil, in Durrell's hand, were the notes "Eve's copy", "Sappho's copy" (I've forgotten who the other one was). They were a fiver each, which I couldn't afford.

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Paris in the the Spring

Used to be a test for copyeditors, and popular in popular books about logic and language and psychology. Straight and Crooked Thinking, that sort of thing. Here's what's happening under Paris:

and this:

They're all over the place, in every arrondisement. At first I wondered if Banksy has moved here. But they mainly come out at night:

in order to do strange things to the rest of the city. Such as this:

I began to wonder if I've come to China Mieville's Parisn't by mistake.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Borges on the Thriller

In that dim callejon sin salida near the Prado which houses the bookshop of the blind Abu al-Uqbari, I came across a book which bore the stamp of the library of the Athenaeum Club in London, of which Dickens, Darwin, Kipling, Thackeray and Scott were members. No one of them ever dared write of the reason why the clock on its stairwell should bear, twice, the numeral seven, while the number eight is absent from the dial, though the book of another member, Sheikh Abdullah’s Harun Al-Rashid (London, 1933), presents a possibility suggestive at least to the sect of the Acolytes of Perdix (alectoris philbyi was named for him, rather than his more notorious son).
The pale tan binding in octavo minor and its slender spine, faintly edged with gold which had rubbed away over the years, gave little hint that there was anything remarkable about this volume, and I had picked it up out of curiosity. It featured, as an emblem or siglio, the head of a tiger; not the jaguar, that spotted tiger which walks in the labyrinths of the jungles near Cartegena, nor yet that striped Asian beast which prowled the pages of the encyclopaedias and natural history books of my childhood – now long out of print, and in any case burned in the fire, started by a mirror gilded in Venice by Cellini, which engulfed the library in Buenos Aires -– but the authentic tiger of which Iskandar dhu-al-Qarnayan (or Alexander the Great of Macedonia) wrote in his account of Atlantean wild cats. It is known to us only through the translation made by Lucian of Samosata, which was long thought lost, but which came to me through the rare book dealer Joseph Cartaphilus, of Smyrna.
That offered one hint; another was furnished by the fact that, rather than endpapers marbled after the fashion of Carlos Argentino Daneri’s slim volumes of verse in that high mockery of the lower reaches of the Beaux-Arts style for which Oscar Wilde had -– as he explained to Huysmans – not time to spare, being busy completing the translation of St Paul which he had abandoned during his final Schools at Oxford, the book was circumscribed by mirrors. These were of beaten bronze, in the fashion which had been condemned as decadent when it was first identified by De Quincey as being not – as Paracelsus had thought, and as Francis Bacon had written in the Organum Novum – in imitation of the decorative key of the labyrinth at Knossos, but rather a copy of the inordinately more ancient cypher which the Alephites of the Zahir of the Phoenix of the Ziggurats of Thebes had guarded so carefully, until it was disclosed by Stephenson in a letter to Chesterton, almost as if to confine the arrangement of the characters within, to turn them in on themselves so that their hidden meaning might be protected from the profane gaze of the more decadent cults which sprang from the meditation developed in Petra by the followers of Ba’al, and which was later to be exported from Heliopolis to the Freemasons of the New World in the tin mines of Northern California.
It was with no small trepidation that I gazed upon those words, hauled through a maze of mysteries, from the Sumerian cuneform inscriptions to the hieroglyphs inscribed on papyrus at Memphis, carried across the Mediterranean in great secrecy, and bound in caskets of ivory sealed with the tail-feathers of the Roc and the solidified blood of the griffin, to be pored over in the dim caverns beneath the Acropolis (for though the Parthenon is known to have been a treasure house, no one has yet spoken of the nature of that treasure) by the disciples of Pythagoras, whose knowledge passed to the Knights Templar and thereby to the scriptorium of Bede and the monks of Lindisfarne, and made out, through the stylised script, the words which adorned the title page: “Tough Shit, by Lee Child”, and the incandescent quality of the opening sentence: “A shot rang out”. But such things are not lightly to be spoken of, and I passed beyond that burning phrase, which may, perhaps, once again be spoken of in dreams, many years from now, when the language of its mysteries has been uncovered by eyes which are not mine, but more attuned to the Rites of the Sword of Theseus…

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

The Total Library

First post for a while. Have had a very busy spell spying on a private library in my PKD disguise, resulting in the following recommendations for reading:

Heavy Game in the Western Himalaya, Sebastian Moran
The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, Hawthorn Abendsen
The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, Emmanuel Goldstein
The Era of Hopeful Monsters, Kilgore Trout
History of England, Herodotus (ed Fr. Rolfe)
Celtic Saints of Britain and Europe, Dunstable Ramsay
Den hemlige Fralsaren, Nils Runeberg
My Friends the Newts, Loretta Peabody
A General History of Labyrinths, Silas Haslam
Lesbare und lesenwerthe Bemerkungen uber das Land Ukkbar in Klein-Asien, Johanes Valentinus Andrea
Necronomicon, Abdul Alhazred
Codex, de Selby
Clothes: Their Origin and Influence, Diogenes Teufelsdrockh
The Dynamics of an Asteroid, James Moriarty
Camel Ride to the Tomb, X Trapnel
On the Use of Mirrors in the Game of Chess, Milos Temesvar
A Clockwork Orange, F Alexander
Fast Cars, Paul Sheldon
Don Quixote, Pierre Menard
The Fountain Pen Mystery, Harriet Vane
On the Care of the Pig, Augustus Whiffle
Notes on the Collection of Incunabula, PDB Wimsey
Poems, FX Enderby

Monday, 14 May 2007

PKD lives!

I'm grateful to the excellent PKD blogsite Total Dick-Head [ ] for publishing this article which demonstrates that Philip K Dick faked his own death. I see it was a Sunday newspaper though, so there is the outside chance it may not be true. But look around you. How can we doubt its truth? I am going to add a list of Dickian sites on the right.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Something to annoy everyone

Nougat for the old bitch... and a hand grenade for the young one. Nothing annoys like a list. Here is the American canon, but only the very highest heights of it. Objections and additions will receive my full attention and probably withering scorn.

Emerson: Journals
Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter
Melville: Moby-Dick, Billy Budd
Poe: Poetry and Tales
Longfellow: Poems
Emily Dickinson: Poems
Henry James: Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors
Thoreau: Walden
Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence
Frost: Poems
Wallace Stevens: Poems
Pound: The Cantos, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Translations
William Carlos Williams: Poems, Paterson
ee cummings: Poems
O Henry: short stories
Miller: Tropic of Cancer
Ashberry: Poems
Dos Passos: USA
Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby
Faulkner: As I Lay Dying, Absalom! Absalom!
Runyon: short stories
Hemingway: short stories, A Farewell to Arms
Lowell: Poems
Bellow: Herzog
Roth: Patrimony
Donald Barthelme: short stories
Pynchon: V, Gravity's Rainbow
Mamet: Glengarry Glen Ross

The greatest American book ever is Leaves of Grass.

Reviewing: the coalface

Today I am at home and am going to try to write a roundup. That will be three or four books at a grand total of about 650 words. If we're really lucky, the paper will run one of those every two months or so. The stuff on the floor is the sf pending file. The stuff on the wall is the sf background reading. This is the garden office. You should see the house.

Writers, publishers, publicity departments, this is what you are up against.

Monday, 7 May 2007

Lee Child: New Readers Start Here

A shot rang out. He’d heard shots before.

But that had been a long time ago.

He’d heard them before, all right. In every other thriller. This sounded like a Baretta .177 with 14 rounds in the clip and an extra shot in the barrel, and an NRA sticker on the soft tan leather and canvas webbing shoulder holster from Could have been. Their shots rang just that way.

To the untrained ear, shots went bang. But he’d been trained. He’d been trained to within an inch of his life.

But that had been a long time ago.

His reflexes had been honed over relentless hours of drill. But that had been an even longer time ago, before he’d been tragically widowed in the backstory which was slowly revealed over a number of books.

Before he’d been in jail. And in Nam. And ended up walking across America with only the clothes he stood up in.
And no baggage.

No baggage that wasn’t psychological baggage. That he had in spades. He’d killed a man with a spade once. It hadn’t been pretty, what a solid steel spade with a 32” T-bar shaft, securely fastened with three galvanised rivets and available from any branch of Homebase for £14.95 could do. In the right hands.

He looked at his right hand. It was firmly attached to the arm fixed to his 6’ 4” frame. For now. Still in pretty good shape for a man his age.

Who had been through what he’d been through.

A lot of people had looked at that hand before. For some of them, it had been the last thing they had seen. And not only when he was pulling a lightswitch in a cheap rented motel room. In Dunbarton Oaks, Illinois.

He had once seen a man strangled with the cord for a lightswitch. But that had been a long time ago. Before Korea.

Before that shot rang out. He knew what that kind of shot meant. It meant that he’d been wandering. His mind had wasted valuable minutes rehashing James Hadley Chase and James Grady and James Patterson. But not Henry James, or William James, or James Joyce. Or St James the Less.

He should have reacted at once. Like Jesse James. He was out of training.

But as he thought it, he realised that his body had already begun to do the work for him. Falling easily into the old routine. Soon he would move his legs, inside the cheap denims he had bought at the general store in Crawfordsville, Indiana; move his arms, inside the checked flannel shirt he had picked up at a K-Mart in Stephenville, in the Texas panhandle.

But that had been a long time ago. Soon it would be time to find out what the hell was going on here. But something sure as hell smelt wrong. Smelt like danger, like the whiff of a minor literary flourish inserted here as what passes for an arresting image.

He had smelt that smell a long time ago, even over the clothes that he wore before they fell off his back and he bought more at the nearest dime store. Not wanting to be tied down. One is always nearer by not keeping still, he thought.

No, on reflection, he didn’t. Thom Gunn was one of the few guns he wasn’t familiar with.

The hell with it. He had nearly used up 850 words already without saying a damn thing. He had always been the strong, silent type, of course.

But that had been a long time ago.

The man with the scar and the soft grey eyes brought the gun up against his head.

“Hold it right there, tough guy,” he said.

It wasn’t going to be his day. He’d had days like this before.

But that had been a long time ago.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

Fiction news

An exciting new talent hits the web at
An excessive use of the comma in my view, but an effectively plagent ending, striking just the right ambiguously dark note.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

M John Harrison

Simon Kavanagh texts me to say Mike Harrison has won the Arthur C Clarke award for Nova Swing. Huzzah!

I reviewed it here: