Friday, 29 June 2007

Poetry/Gloating Corner

I have won a prize! The Great John Crowley Giveaway Haiku Competition offered the chance to win a galley of The Solitudes, Book One of Crowley's Ægypt sequence in exchange for a haiku. I was winner three, and you can see one of the Overlook Press's staff read out my verse on the site above. For those who would like it in print, here it is:

A and E conjoined,
as in "cæsura", recall

The ash in Ægypt.

Notes in the manner of TS Eliot: A and E in Britain is accident and emergency; also arts and entertainment; no doubt many other things too; the cæsura, or shift provided by a metrical break, is an essential component in a haiku, and should occur where it does in this verse; it should precede an oblique seasonal reference in the last line. Ash could be that, either as the remnants of burning or the tree; "ash" is, of course, the name for the letter "æ".

Crowley (link to his blog on the right) writes wonderful books. Little, Big, published 25 years ago, is a vital novel. The Great Work of Time is one of the best sf long short stories ever.

Haddock rebels!

Less than 45 minutes into Gordon Brown's government, and the first rebellion from his own benches. And who is it? The blog's old friend Austin Haddock, of course! (New readers start here.)

Thursday, 28 June 2007

Big Lights, Bright City

You're very late. But you're writing in the present tense and the second person, so there's this sense of urgency. The elevator is being none too urgent, though, and the facts on the twenty-ninth floor aren't getting checked.
Not that they're going to get checked. Not through this headache, sour stomach, coke smell in the nose. The sunglasses are too heavy on your nose.
You should have called in sick. Do you think she'll come back? You don't think she'll come back.
Those first months the elevator seemed so full of promise. Now it's buried beneath all that flotsam; the old files, the wastepaper baskets full of first drafts, the bottles of Dylan Thomas memorial whisky. It's going too slowly, or too fast. You've forgotten.
The doors are opening now and you forgot Meg's damn bagel again. You think about turning back down for it, but it's five forty-seven pm and you should really get to your desk before anyone notices you're late getting in. Too late.
"Come over here a minute."
Hup, two, hup, two. You wander over.
"Hi, Toots."
"Never mind Toots, young man. Are you sure that Munich is the capital of France?"
Why does she have to break your balls like this? Tough it out.
You could do with a Valium. "Bien sur," you say.
She can see through this bullshit. She never believed in that summer job you said you had as Professor of Contemporary Thought at the Sorbonne, you can see it in her eyes. But no one ever got sacked here yet.
You think about breaking in tonight to hide an alligator in the bottom drawer of the film critic's filing cabinet. See if he thinks that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is implausible tomorrow. Yeah, right.
Your hangover from the Waldorf, and then that bar on West 43rd, and then that club on East 59th, and then that tranny joint in Chinatown and then that illegal drinking den in the submarine at the bottom of the Hudson and then those places you can't remember. And how did you come to be wearing this Ralph Lauren jacket that's two sizes too big, with the pocket ripped and coke spilled all down the front?
"Are you sure your wife left you and you had that heart to heart with your mother before she died?"
You're a bit too blasted to work out who's asking by this stage. You crouch past the bar, mumbling and spilling, and hide in the restrooms. You look at yourself in the mirror for a long time.
You hear your voice saying: "I checked, I checked it yesterday. A tomato is definitely a fruit."
How did it get to this point? And in so few pages?
You sense that this is going badly. You wonder if this is how Scott Fitzgerald started out, but you kind of know it wasn't. You've missed several calls, and been sacked at last, but it's nothing a little more blow won't sort.
Or can you get freshly baked rolls down at the docks at this time in the morning? Perhaps you should call that girl about it.
The rolls aren't very good.
You think maybe everything's going to be all right after all. You think maybe this is all you need in the 1980s. You may get to kiss famous people like Julia Roberts someday.
But do you think it will stand up in a few years' time?

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Nil desperandum, physics fans!

After the Higgs boson disappointment, there comes good news from outer space. And there's so much more dark matter than there are Higgs bosons. Or have I got that wrong?

Pictures, Media

I don't often point to the other blog, but I do think this is an extraordinary discovery. From Napalm to Paris.

Bernd Becher

Died on Friday. Obituary here.

Monday, 25 June 2007

Matthew Barney

People think that I have odd jobs. But at least they don't involve dressing as General Douglas MacArthur, walking across a platform, and falling into a vat of petroleum jelly. One recognises the influence of Joseph Beuys, of course.


The assurance that only Halal Chicken is used is probably of little interest if you're about to tuck into roast pork.

Bad news for Higgs boson fans

You just can't count on magnets.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Sir Salman Rushdie

Did they think about the trouble it would cause? Well, if they didn't, what kind of people are in the FCO and on the Honours Committee these days? They must have thought about it and, thank God, made the correct choice. You might, like my friend Boris Johnson on Question Time last night, have preferred it if someone like George MacDonald Fraser or john le Carre had been knighted.
But having even thought of giving Rushdie a K, you were in the position that you should have been when all the tabloids and, disgracefully, the Prime Minister, from the comfort of Richard and Judy's sofa, were calling for that football man to go because he shared the views of almost every Hindu and Buddhist on the planet. Up to that point, you wanted him sacked. It had become essential, however, that he stayed.
The moment the possibility of knighting Rushdie popped up, it had to be done. Because of the trouble it would cause, partly. To show which side you're on.
Does he deserve it? On the showing resilience against the enemy front, certainly. And he has always been a supporter of persecuted writers elsewhere - of, as Midnight's Children showed, the persecuted, the despised, those fit only for sterilisation - even before his own ordeal. So on political grounds, sure. Though I'd be surprised if I saw eye to eye with Rushdie on much in the way of politics beyond that kind of issue.
On literary grounds? On the whole, I think so, though I don't like very much of his work. But Midnight's Children is an extraordinary book. For all it's show-offiness, it is just blisteringly good. And a delight to read.
It annoys me that I haven't liked much else, partly because I can see that he is very talented. I felt that way about Richard Burton's acting. You could see, underneath the hamminess, the falsity of the Hollywoodisation of himself, the intoxication with his own rolling, versatile voice, how good he might have been. It is much more difficult to forgive that than it is to be angry about the success of someone like Sean Connery. There was never any suggestion that he could act. His job was being a film star.
I don't like Rushdie's starriness. I didn't warm to him awfully on the couple of times I've bumped into him (though only for moments, and not on occasions when one could make a fair judgment), though he was perfectly civil.
I don't like The Satanic Verses or Shame or The Ground Beneath Her Feet. But Midnight's Children is a masterpiece, and The Moor's Last Sigh is very strong. (Both are also very funny in bits.)
I'm proud that we spent however many millions it was defending him. I wouldn't have thought of knighting him. But now that someone has, I find myself strangely glad that they did.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Kim Herzinger

comments on Donald Barthelme's soups, then asks me to get in touch through his website. Which isn't working. The wonderful news he brings is that more Barthelme is coming. Flying to America: 45 More Stories is to be published by Shoemaker & Hoard soon. And Kim, if your news includes the fact that you're in Greenwich Village now, as Google suggests you may be, I shall be furious. I was there last week, and could have popped in to see you.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Walter Tevis

A nice thing amongst this morning's consignment of books; Walter Tevis's Mockingbird has come out in Gollancz's sf Masterworks series (number 70). I've long thought that Tevis is underrated, as both a mainstream and an sf writer. Of course, he did very well out of The Hustler and The Colour of Money (which was I think published just after his death, but he'd had the film money before he died). I think the latter not all that terrific, but The Hustler, like Cool Hand Luke and The Cincinnati Kid, is one of those books which rattles round in your head. I don't know how much of that is due to the films, but I'd like to think not all of it. I've written about this before.
The Man Who Fell To Earth is a great film (Nicolas Roeg), and a wonderful book. You probably know them, but if not, seek both out. Mockingbird is the other end of the story, in a way. It's about the remnants of humanity, sopored and hashed up to the eyeballs, overseen by a robot with a vague memory of humanity (his brain was mapped on a person's) and a yearning for suicide which he cannot fulfill.
Thomas Newton is equally alienated. He's an alien, failing to manage on Earth, and unable to go back home. TMWFTE is the becoming a drunk book; Mockingbird is the stopping being a drunk book. The human couple stop taking their drugs, learn to read, and don't really find happiness. Spofforth's epiphany is of an ecstatic realisation, coupling the spiritual uplift with literal descent - like Jocelin at the end of The Spire. Except with robots, obviously.
Tevis didn't publish anything much between finishing The Man Who Fell To Earth in 1961 or so and Mockingbird in 1980. He was drinking in Ohio. He stopped in 1975. From 1980 he wrote a book a year, including another sf novel, The Steps of the Sun, which I've never read, and one other, fairly, straight novel, The Queen's Gambit, about chess. It's not The Defence (by Nabokov). Having finished The Colour of Money in 1984, he was planning to go back to sf. He died of lung cancer later that year.

I started

doing this test, but it was so boring I'm putting it off till tomorrow.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Breakfast in America

The only tolerable meal possible there. Except for the coffee, which isn't. Well of course that is overstatement, but though a good hamburger and chips is a fine thing, you don't want to eat it very often. But there is nothing else that isn't ruined in some way. Jumbo shrimp. Yes please. With a blue cheese and honey mustard remoulade dipping sauce? No thank you. You want cheese with that? Certainly not. You don't seriously call that cheese, do you?
But I love America and Americans. They are very polite and kind and open people, as I agreed this evening with my friend Harry Mount, the well-known Latin lover.
I have had passed on to me by Richard Hyfler, an American friend, some of the reading list which Donald Barthelme gave him when he was a student of his. The students all read it expecting to be asked about it at some point. They never were. Here they are.

Little Disturbances of Man, Grace Paley
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Marquez
Watt, Beckett
The Marquise of O, von Kleist
The Vintage Rabelais
At Swim Two Birds, Flann O'Brien

Not a surprising list, really. That'll make up for the recommendations having been few and far between recently. I'll try to be more diligent.

Science fiction news: Telegraph roundup coming. I will post a link when it comes out. Saw Jon Courtney Grimwood this evening. He has been to Mexico, because he is writing about the poem that Paradise Lost was going to be. Am about to start The Dreaming Void, by Peter F Hamilton, because it's out in August, and it will probably take that long, because I can't read more than about 950 pages a day. He can write that in an hour.

This is pointless except in my continuing bid to look more like Philip K Dick and show off the silly things you can do with my new computer. It will have to do until I can get Richard Linklater to Rotoscope me.

Lunch was Chinese noodles and tea.
Dinner was a beef and watercress sandwich.

I'm listening to: thunder.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

Ballads of Gaol Reading

In a naked bid for a higher Technorati rating, recommendations for reading for Paris Hilton:

Papillon, Henri Charriere, translated by Patrick O'Brian (I prefer the earlier one, with more of the French slang left as it is)
Marching Powder, by Rusty Young
Cool Hand Luke, Donn Pearce
The Miracle of the Rose, Jean Genet

I suppose she can read?

Where's my front door gone?

It happens sometimes when the Matrix changes things. Now there's just a brick wall there.

New to me

Apparently, it's all the fault of the hippocampus.

New to me

It's all the fault of the hippocampus, apparently.

Friday, 8 June 2007

Dead Hamburger and the Bird and Tree Problem

Michael Hamburger is dead. His obituary is here. He sent some of his early poems to Eliot for his opinion. In one of them, where Hamburger had written "bird" Eliot wrote in the margin: "What sort of bird?" I call that constructive criticism.
Writing often reminds you how much you fail to look, or it does me. I'm always asking things like that, even for newspaper pieces. If a dog's mentioned, you ask, "What was the dog called?" If a tree falls on someone and kills them, you want to know what sort it was.
Much of the humour of pieces can derive from that sort of thing. Brand names are funnier than generic descriptions. "He was hit in the face by a cake" is clearly not as good as "He was hit in the face with a Sara Lee Double Belgian Chocolate Cake, which had been bought at Bejams for £4.99".
But I don't know the names of trees or birds or anything like that, really. Or rather, I know the names, but their effect on me is entirely divorced from their real presence. "Cedar" and "Maple" and so on have an effect, but it's entirely onomatopoeic; "Snow Falling on Cedars" strikes me as a good title (not enough for me to have bothered reading it yet, mind you). But I don't know what a cedar looks like. In Steppenwolf, Haller likes hanging around in a porch with an araucaria. But isn't an araucaria a monkey puzzle tree? They're bloody huge things, so what's it doing on the highly-polished encaustic tiles in some hausfrau's porch?
I was once given a book called Trees of Great Britain and Ireland. I really must dig it out. I approve of trees. So did quite a lot of surprising people. Dr Johnson was always going on about them.
Back to Hamburger. His grandfather's budgerigar was confiscated by Customs at Harwich. I know what a budgie looks like.

Sunday, 3 June 2007

sf writers advise the usa. In God We Trust.

This story is all over the shop: usa today's version is at I must learn how to do that thing where you write here and it shows up in blue and you just click on it. Anyone know how?

I'm now going to try it to this. Ha! It works. Thank you Farah. Now I know html and shall conquer the world. Mwahahahaha! Thank you to sour grapes (first comment below) who I think is really called alan, but i don't have any globe things with goggles on them on my machine or display. Do you perhaps use some evil Microsoft-style system? Anyway, back to the post, but you can expect future posts to show off with thises and heres all over the place. Ha!

USA Today is news for beginners, of course, though it once described me as one of the best and most famous obituarists in the world. A crowded field, eh? I've written a bit about these advisors at the other blog (click on the right), but they haven't put it up yet. That is the trouble with mediated blogs.
Well. A few additional thoughts, and remember that I'm a conservative; that I take the view that 9/11 did make a difference, and I know whose side I'm on in the war against terror (though it's a bloody stupid way of describing it); that there was a case (though not the case which was presented) for invading Iraq; that the removal of Saddam Hussein was an unequivocally good thing; that George Bush is not a blithering idiot; and that I like Larry Niven and Greg Bear's books well enough, and don't feel the need to throw Jerry Pournelle's stuff across the room all that often.
Remember too that I am a liberal in the British conservative tradition, and think that the defence of individual liberty is more important than catch-all legislation which may or may not (it will not, actually) do anything to reduce terrorist threats; that the right to freedom of speech is well-nigh indivisible (even on race-, sex-, religion- and sexuality-based issues) or else worthless, that I am fervently opposed to ID cards, DNA profiling, and imprisonment without trial; and that I wrote the introduction to a book called Glorifying Terrorism which contains many good stories by top Leftie sf writers and was edited by the nice and clever Farah Mendlesohn who wouldn't agree with me on 99.999 per cent of anything if you paid her.
The first is the point I make over at the Telegraph, but slightly differently. Why restrict it to the physics graduates with the postgraduate degrees? They're the ones to ask about tachyons and building a space station. Or even, at a pinch, what sort of mobile phone masts will do the job well.
But what governments want to know is how people will actually behave. I suspect they wouldn't like the answers that they'd get from Bruce Sterling and Ken MacLeod and Neal Stephenson and William Gibson and Charles Stross and so on, but aren't these the guys that are quoted by newspapers and advising coolhunters and corporations and all that? (Ken MacLeod is now going to email me saying "As if. I could do with the money.")
Well, if Pepsi and Hyundai aren't seeking his advice, or some continental university appointing him professor of the public understanding of the networked future, that's their loss. Don't blame me. Except, of course, that you'd be nuts to take his advice. But you should listen very carefully to his arguments.
The more serious objection to Sigma is that they're volunteers. You should never take advice from a gang of people who've signed up to tell you that you're fundamentally on the right track. You need a group made up of some people who think you've not gone nearly far enough, some who think you're mad, and some who think you may have got it right, but only by accident and for all the wrong reasons, and that disaster looms unless you listen to them.
But only I, in all of this debate, can be counted upon to speak any sense at all. Twas ever thus.

Friday, 1 June 2007

What is literature? Part I: Enid Blyton/Dan Brown

Peep dis bitchin info, J-P Sartre, an get clued well up, innit.

Or not, actually.

I was thinking about what to witter on about today and found, as I so often do, that I was stuck. So I thought instead, good, or rather, rubbish philosophy graduate that I am (MA, scraped), that I would state the problem(s):

(i) There are too many books to write about
(ii) There are too many books that I haven't read.
(iii) There are too many books that I have read that I don't understand, or have not troubled myself to attempt to understand.
(iv) I often dislike critical analysis, in the same way as the audience doesn't want a magic trick explained.


(i) Consider the kind of books I like. Have they anything in common?


(i) I'm not sure that I, or anyone else who reads, likes a KIND of book. What has Daisy Ashford in common with Homer, or PG Wodehouse with John le Carre, or Lawrence Durrell with Evelyn Waugh?

Let's tackle them writer by writer, starting at the beginning. But we will leave out Ladybird, The Radiant Way and the like, and assume you can read words.

All right. Blyton.

I do not now, on the whole, enjoy books which do not, to some degree, demonstrate an affinity for language. It is actually all but impossible to read The Da Vinci Code, because it is illiterate. It is so badly written that the words distract you from the narrative, which might provide some pleasure were it not for the fact that it is predictable, inept, nonsensical, heretical, moronic, laughable, ocean-going, 24-carat, shite. It is only just possible to read Jeffrey Archer, and only by pausing to throw the book across the room every three paragraphs shouting "That's just not English!"

So a book ought to be written in a way which does not constantly affront you with grammatical or aesthetic solecisms. This is not to say it need be very well written. Many thrillers can be good if the language is serviceable, and the plot fast-paced and interesting. Predictability is all right, but not to the point of crassness. So even cliche mongers like Agatha Christie and James Hadley Chase can be enjoyable, though you cannot claim that they are good writers (at the level of the sentence, as Sam Leith nicely put it when dissing Jacqueline Wilson) without being accused of having a tin ear.

That is a start. Adopting this standard, Enid Blyton is not a writer. So why is she vital if you are a child? Because, I think, she is a mechanism for instilling in the imagination certain kinds of structures and narrative conventions, for constructing certain sorts of immersive created scenes, characters and acts of wish-fulfillment, and for inculcating in the child the physical habit of picking up a book, moving his or her eyes across the page and demanding another book as soon as each is completed. She is what ought to have been in the syringes in Snow Crash. She is the reading meme. The mind-curdlingly repetitive nature of her prose - if you can dignify it with that label - is simply the next step up from rote learning the alphabet.

Other children's writers can be good, okay, or not much cop, but few match Blyton for sheer stultifying unreadability. Even Roger Hargreaves's repetitions, rhetorical questions and annoying banalities have a kind of rhythmic insistence.

Her only competitor among adult books is Dan Brown, who is an affront to the idea of the word. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent. One cannot begin to speak of his badness. He is badness incarnate. He is badness visible. His badness is transcendent. Even Ken Follett kneels before his badness, silenced by the majesty of its appalling Blytonian awfulness.

Who shall I kick next?