Culture secretary Tessa Jowell says reality TV is being “flogged to death” at the expense of quality drama, comedy and current affairs. That makes two criticisms of crappy television in the Independent this week, the other by Dylan Moran (see previous post).
* * *
The Guardian reports on an artistic experiment-cum-“performance” by Plymouth University’s MediaLab in which they put six monkeys in a cage with a computer to see what would happen. Not a lot, was the unsurprising result after four weeks. Supposedly a variation on the philosophical question of whether an infinite number of monkeys given an infinite amount of time and typewriters would eventually rewrite Shakespeare, in practice it appears that macaques simply type the letter “S” repeatedly, and, as test designer Geoff Cox says, “get bored and shit on the keyboard” – I know the feeling. The whole thing reminds me of Douglas Adams’ theory that the white mice humans have been experimenting on for years have in fact been experimenting on us all this time. The macaques were obviously onto Cox and his team and simply refused to play the game. Now that’s evolution.
* * *
John Humphreys has been presented with the Gold Award in the 2003 Sony Radio Academy Awards, for his “outstanding contribution to British radio”, according to the Independent, who also featured an entertaining profile of the broadcaster, journalist and general damn fine political interviewer earlier this week.
A good interview in the Guardian today with Dan Rhodes, the author of Anthropology, Don’t Tell Me the Truth About Love and now Timoleon Vieta Come Home. He famously claimed he would give up writing following the publication of his third book because the whole process made him so miserable. Here he says: “When [writing] is going well, it’s the best thing in the world”, but adds, “That probably happens about 5% of the time.” Glad to hear I’m not alone.
The Guardian reports that lone British oarsman Andrew Halsey was taken aboard a fishing boat near the Galapagos islands yesterday after a 4,117-mile journey, setting a world record for the smallest distance travelled in the most time at sea in a rowing boat. But the Ocean Rowing Society appears to have disowned Halsey – because he’s epileptic. Halsey’s odyssey was surely the more heroic for this fact, but Kenneth Crutchlow of the ORS is quoted: “It’s a heck of a long distance for an epileptic to row. The question now is why.” Well, presumably for the same reasons anybody would have considered undertaking the challenge. Would the ORS have asked this “question” if Halsey hadn’t had this disability? And was the oarsman really a danger to anybody but himself, at worst?
Meanwhile, in a review of Walking the Shadows by Donald James in the Guardian Review, Mark Lawson writes: “James’s central device… was memorably used in Reginald Hill’s masterful novel On Beulah Height (1998). It’s unlikely that James knew this but, for the reader who does, his story starts at a disadvantage… Already, in the opening chapter, there are three technical problems… The book’s main action happens in 1985 for no compelling fictional reason… With crime fiction increasingly the province of high stylists, James relies too often on basic emotions recounted in simple prose… Much of the dialogue sounds as if has been badly translated from French…” Before I read this review I had never heard of Donald James, although Lawson explains that he is known for at least three books and is a prominent historian of Russia. Now, although I have always had my doubts about criticism of all kinds, and have not been able to make up my own mind about the qualities or otherwise of this novel, this review did make me wonder how the book had been published at all given its apparently comprehensive roster of weaknesses. Reading it both uplifted and depressed me in about equal proportions: if books with such faults are getting published, even if more so on the basis of a back catalogue than on their own merits, it makes the challenge of actually getting published seem a lot less interesting; but by the same token, it makes me less anxious about the drawbacks of my own efforts… all of which is counterproductive.
I’m currently trying to read Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, which is beautifully written but maddeningly detailed (although that’s a bit like saying Woody Allen is neurotic). A recent Powell’s review of Baker’s new novel A Box of Matches highlighted the question of what makes things beautiful. This was strange because by coincidence “Alfie”, the classic 1966 Michael Caine film about the Cockney Lothario, was on TV the other night, I hadn’t seen it for years, and there’s a fantastic line about beauty near the end of that: “It ain’t through the eyes that you feel beauty; it’s how the heart hungers for something that makes it beautiful.” I think that stands up by itself, but what makes it even better is how it comes out of the mouth of a man you’d never expect to make that sort of observation.
Anyway, regarding Nicholson again, it was interesting to read that the main character is an early riser and likes to sit by an open fire and stoke it with apple cores and other items, because according to a recent Baker profile/interview in The Guardian, that is exactly how he goes about his writing (not chucking it on the fire, but getting up early, etc). This in turn reminded me of Russell Hoban, who often gives his main characters the same chaotic workroom full of books, videos, posters, stones, CDs and sheets of yellow paper that he himself lives and works in. Some people might say that starting with yourself, your own immediate person and environment, is a rather boring and unimaginative approach to writing, but anyone who’s tried to write will know it’s such a difficult, intense and lonely endeavour that you very often find yourself coming back to you – your abilities (or lack of them), your motivations, the fine details of your life – which, on the basis of truth being stranger than fiction, are not necessarily any less interesting than the sort of details you come up with off your own bat. Perhaps the test of this approach though is whether you can take off from the base of yourself into something completely separate from yourself, like a jazz musician launching from a set theme into an improvisation. This analogy was spontaneous but not arbitrary – I speak as a guitarist of nearly 20 years’ standing. The trouble is I often find myself writing like a guitarist, i.e. putting on a record, playing along for a bit, making a cup of tea, playing some more, putting on another record, making another cup of tea, and then finding that several hours have passed and I haven’t got any writing done… what’s it all about, eh, Alfie?
This afternoon we saw The Hours. A beautiful film with staggering performances, but almost unbearable to watch. Half-way through I was seriously thinking of leaving because I didn’t think I could take any more, that I’d be an emotional wreck for the rest of the week if I carried on. But I know from experience that that’s never the way to deal with things that crack you up: if you see it through to the end, you will recover, but if you run away before it’s finished the wound will stay open. True enough, walking out of the cinema, after a few tense minutes we felt fine again. It was nice to see some shots of Richmond in the Virginia Woolf sections of the film, even if she did say that great line, “From a choice between Richmond and death, I would choose death” – which incidentally was the only bit of the whole movie which got a laugh. K and I went and sat by the river with a cup of tea and considered Richmond and that line, and it conflated in my head with some of the ideas I’d had from Adaptation into the latest in a long line of semi-autobiographical stories about a frustrated young writer living in Richmond who chooses life, people. Although of course now he’d be less young than in previous, similar synopses…