Tag Archives: writing

Badge of the day: I’m a Brighter Writer (with a Sheaffer, anyway)

I'm a Brighter Writer - Sheaffer No Nonsense badgeToday’s badge took a few moments to register. I permitted myself a knowing laugh when I saw it, as at one point in my life I tried pretty hard to be a writer. I had a few poems published here and there in my early twenties, and also wrote a couple of novels, one of which I self-published and is still available. I like to say I didn’t give up writing, but rather it gave me up; I didn’t make a conscious decision to stop, I just found I was doing more and more web development, which gives me a similar sense of satisfaction. So to think that at one time as a child I might’ve worn this badge or been given it because I showed writerly promise gives me mixed feelings.

Having said all that, on second glance this badge isn’t actually about creative writing, but writing nicely. I had fantastic handwriting as a kid, if I say so myself. As the badge suggests, I used a Sheaffer fountain pen, with lovely blue ink cartridges and an italic nib. It’s interesting looking at the Sheaffer website now and finding it’s an American company, as for some reason I’d assumed it was European. I didn’t study calligraphy properly, I just developed my own style. The badge advertises the No Nonsense range, which rings a vague bell… ah! The very cockles of my heart are warmed to find a website with the wonderful name of PenHero.com which has some information about Sheaffer’s No Nonsense pens, complete with photos. Mine was black with gold edging. I actually just rummaged for the original, as my recent house move has left me still half-surrounded by boxes of stuff from my past – no luck so far, but what I have found is an example of my handwriting from when I was about 12:


Not bad huh? This is what it’s like now (this is from some notes written quickly in a journal, but even so):


Handwriting is thus merely one of a number of things I did better as a kid than I do as a grown-up. Of course, it’s a skill you don’t need so much these days, but even so, maybe I should wear the badge and re-learn how to write more brightly, and with less nonsense. I might even start a handwritten blog… once I find my fountain pen, that is.

My memories of reading and books as a child

I recently befriended a lovely woman who tweets under the name of @AliB68, following an event we both attended in London a few months ago involving Russell Hoban, of whom we’ve both long been big fans. Ali runs a blog about children’s books called Fantastic Reads on which she’d written about Hoban’s classic The Mouse and his Child, while I’ve been webmaster-in-chief of the SA4QE website for many years. It was great meeting her, as it always is other Hoban fans (I’m something of a veteran in these quarters), and Ali went on to help “Russ” celebrate his 86th birthday this year by delivering his annual “birthday bottle” gift donated by his fan club The Kraken.

Anyway, a few months passed and, inspired by Ali’s excellent blog, I had the idea of writing about the books I myself had read as a child. I remembered quite a lot of the titles and luckily still have many of the original books (I read some now to my own children). I asked Ali if she’d be interested in a guest post for her site, and very generously she said yes, so I set to work. When my first draft turned out to be over 5,000 words long, I fully anticipated her changing her mind, but she adapted effortlessly and broke my epic down into a series of posts. So here, for the hopeful entertainment of Thoughtcat readers, are the links to said posts:

Part 1 – on James by Kathryn, The Great Pie Robbery by Richard Scarry, and Little Richard by Patricia M. Scarry

James was the first book I remember reading and still one of the most original books I’ve ever seen. The Scarrys’ books had pies and biscuits in them – nuff said.

Part 2 – on Mr Tickle by Roger Hargreaves, Aesop’s Fables, and a Ladybird I won for singing

Mr Tickle’s own deft way with a biscuit made him my favourite Mr Man. Plus: the mystery of Aesop’s missing limbs.

Part 3 – on The Adventures of Uncle Lubin by W. Heath Robinson, Paddington by Michael Bond and Rabbiting On by Kit Wright

Uncle Lubin was a brilliant book, even if it will psychologically damage you for life. And Paddington had marmalade sandwiches (you may detect a certain sweet-tooth theme by now).

Part 4 – on Grimble by Clement Freud, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend, The Compleet Molesworth by Geoffrey Willans & Ronald Searle, and meeting Bobby Brewster author H.E. Todd

My schoolboy role models! (Together with the Uncle Lubin influence it’s a wonder I managed to become a fully-functioning adult at all.)

Part 5 – on Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, A New House for Mouse by Petr Horáček, Mr Big by Ed Vere, This Is London by Miroslav Sasek, Yellow Submarine “by” The Beatles, Miss Renee’s Mice by Elizabeth Stokes Hoffman and The Animal Train by Christopher Wormell

A round-up of modern books (and recent discoveries of classics) that I read to my own children.

Having written all of this (especially at such length), I then realised I’d still left out a few titles. One was Elmer by David McKee, the classic story of the patchwork elephant who just wants to be like all the other elephants: the jungle illustrations are fabulous and I especially love the message that ultimately you can never hide your true colours. Another was Lauren Child’s Charlie and Lola phenomenon – to be fair, I came to that through the TV series, not the books, but both are wonderful, hugely imaginative and beautifully observed stories about a young brother and sister. Lola’s unique way of expressing herself has meant that phrases such as “I haven’t got time to do stopping” (instead of “I haven’t got time to stop”) have entered my own vocabulary, while strawberry milkshake is no longer strawberry milkshake in our family but will forever be “pink milk”.

Andrew Motion: life’s hard on the front line of middle class England

I’ve always found Andrew Motion one of our more boring poets, to be honest, but his comments in Saturday’s Guardian about his experiences as poet laureate are particularly dull. I don’t think less of him for not going to Iraq and Afghanistan, but I do find it disingenuous for him to say the reason he didn’t write about the wars was because nobody ‘encouraged’ him by flying him there. Bush and Blair never had much encouragement from their domestic audiences but that didn’t stop them from airing their opinions whenever possible. And if Motion had felt the poet laureateship cramped his style he could always have quit while he was, er, ahead. Just lie down and have another Lemsip, Andy.

EDIT: Actually this is a bit unfair. Motion did write two poems in protest against the Iraq war, which can be found linked from the abobe Wikipedia page. I just thought his remarks were a bit daft – if he’d really wanted to go out there surely it could’ve been arranged…

Posted via email from Thoughtcat’s Posterous

Writers ‘hate writing’ (non-) shocker

There’s an enjoyable piece in today’s Guardian in which nine authors comment briefly on whether they actually like writing or not. It makes reassuring reading for anyone who’s ever tried to write anything longer than a postcard. Hari Kunzru, not in my experience known for modesty, admits here: ‘there are the pitfalls of self-disgust, boredom, disorientation and a lingering sense of inadequacy, occasionally alternating with episodes of hysterical self-congratulation as you fleetingly believe you’ve nailed that particular sentence and are surely destined to join the ranks of the immortals, only to be confronted the next morning with an appalling farrago of clichés that no sane human could read without vomiting.’ Which is, in a word, succinct.

Will Self, by contrast, loves every bit of the writing process: ‘most seductive of all [is] the buying of stationery’. I used to enjoy that part of writing as well, at least until computers came along and killed the need for pens and Tippex. Then again, I still get a rush of excitement looking at a nice blank notebook whenever I’m in Smiths or Rymans. For anyone who shares this particular fetish, here are some pictures of blank notebooks.

Posted via email from Thoughtcat’s Posterous

Thoughtcat price crash! Riddley Walker DVDs and Stephen Miles novel reduced!

As the credit crunch bites and Christmas approaches (rather inconveniently at the same time), prices are falling all over the place – and that includes Thoughtcat. Sam Jacob’s excellent film of last year’s Riddley Walker show has come down from 25 euros to just 15 euros – the perfect gift for the Russell Hoban fan in your life – and Stephen Miles’s unreliable memoir of writing and Thai romance All My Own Work is practically being given away at £7.50 apiece or ‘pay what you can’. Order now while banks last!

An open letter to Woody Allen

Dear Woody,

As regular readers of Thoughtcat (which I imagine you probably aren’t) will know, I rarely manage to discover something for myself less than about two years after everyone else has written the bible on it. In keeping with this, despite being intrigued by your movie Match Point from the time it came out two years ago (mostly because it was the first film you’d shot in London, my home city), I’ve only just managed to rent the DVD.

I’m very sorry to tell you that, far from being worth the wait, Match Point is pretty much the worst film I’ve ever seen. And that’s saying something, since I’ve seen Meet Joe Black. Match Point was the only Woody Allen film, and one of the very few films full stop, that I’ve felt had robbed me of two hours of my life. Here is a selection of my disappointments.

Firstly, London. You may as well have shot the film on the moon for all the use you made of this great and varied city. The Houses of Parliament and the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace are very nice, but you could hardly have picked more unimaginative, picture-postcard views of the place. The Saatchi Gallery was about as edgy as you got – and that’s just a bunch of pretentious, overrated arse of the sort that you used to debunk so hilariously in films like Manhattan. Even if you’d walked a few hundred yards to the South Bank Centre you would’ve found something more interesting, genuine and vital than any of that.

Secondly, the characters – the supposed tennis pro, directionless after retiring at the age of about 12; his boring pupil, dabbling in a sport about which he clearly gives not a shit in between earning a stupendous amount of money in some high-flying job about which we know nothing and knobbing a beautiful but hopeless actress; his sister, the pretty-but-dull filly, perfect wife material and a bit of posh totty to boot; the rich father-in-law with the Country House (someone actually says ‘come and stay in my Country House’ at one point, but we’ll get on to the excruciating dialogue in a moment) and the basement full of hunting rifles… these were either cyphers, insufferable idiots or English stereotypes unrecognisable from (modern) life. Some were all three. Woody, you’re a massively creative person – a writer, director, actor, musician, a career artist. What could possibly attract you to these antiseptic ‘people’ with not an original thought between them? And how many ‘Brits’ have you ever actually met? No wonder Kate Winslet pulled out of the film at the last minute. Johansson’s character only had any depth because she was American. Moral – one of the first things they tell you about writing: stick with what you know.

Thirdly, the acting. This was mostly terrible, due in large part to the characterisation. Talents like Johansson (the only really watchable figure in the movie, and then mostly for the wrong reasons) and Brian Cox were left flailing around, desperate to find something realistic to say or do, or at least say and do what the script demanded without looking utterly crap about it. I suppose Jonathan Rhys Meyers did have a fleeting moment of thespian credibility near the end, falling apart in the back of a cab, but that was only after he’d gone completely out of character and shot a couple of people, which might conceivably have that kind of effect. Apart from that he was practically unwatchable, and certainly unlistenable. I don’t know if that was his normal accent or if he put it on for the film, but two hours of it made my ears bleed.

Fourthly, the dialogue. One of the reasons Rhys Meyers finally managed to look halfway decent in the scene I just mentioned is that he didn’t have any lines in it. I mean, Jesus, don’t get me started on the script. I could have done better with one wordprocessor tied behind my back. Much of it sounded like a bad parody of a Noel Coward play (‘Darling, have you seen my Strindberg?’); a scene involving two policemen discussing the murders was the most unlikely ever written (‘I’m torn,’ says James Nesbitt, without feeling, to his sidekick Ewen Bremner, another couple of excellent actors woefully underused here); and people simply don’t say things to each other like ‘You do realise we haven’t made love for a week?’ and ‘I have to meet my wife at the Tate Modern in ten minutes.’ You’re telling me you’re a 70-year-old auteur, with such classics as Annie Hall, Broadway Danny Rose and Hannah and Her Sisters behind you, and those lines were the best you could muster? It all just sounded at best like a first draft you’d scribbled down over the course of a few evenings with one eye on the telly, and at worst like you simply don’t have a clue how to convey story without getting the characters to say things they’d never say in real life.

Fifthly, said ‘story’. I sat there for almost the whole film waiting for something to happen and when it finally did, it was so far-fetched I couldn’t believe it. We are supposed to believe that Rhys Meyers’s dull, anonymous tennis pro-turned-I’m-not-quite-sure-what-he-does-in-his-father-in-law’s-firm is so pissed off that his beautiful mistress has got herself knocked up that he borrows said father-in-law’s rifle and shoots her? (This is a man with access to pots of money – couldn’t he have just paid her to go away quietly somewhere?) And then, to insult us further, he gets away with it? And then, to completely take the piss, he claims some kind of philosophical disaffection with life because he’s got away with it, citing Sophocles and Dostoevsky? Those guys must be turning in their graves. It might not have been so bad if you’d made Rhys Meyers’s character even slightly sympathetic, or at least interesting, but he was neither. You can quote the greats all night, but it makes no difference if I couldn’t give a damn what happens to the protagonist.

Finally, the ‘message’. This was a film about a man literally getting away with murder. Astonished at how poor this film was coming from a film-maker as great as yourself, I could only charitably assume that you deliberately set out to make a terrible movie to demonstrate exactly that – that Woody Allen got away with murder on a whole other level, by taking someone’s millions and going through the whole palaver of writing, casting, directing, editing, distributing and, finally, charging people to watch a piece of utter tosh.

In writing this for public consumption I did try not to give away too much of the plot in case any readers still hadn’t seen the film; as a personal standard, I always recommend people make up their own minds about something rather than take someone else’s word for it. But such is the crassness of Match Point, I feel it would be a dereliction of whatever duty a blogger has not to discourage anyone who may be reading this from wasting two hours of their life watching this film. Really, I beg you, dear reader – find some long-overlooked corner of the house and clean it with a toothbrush instead, as that would be both a more enjoyable and more constructive way of spending an evening.

Unbelievably, Woody, this was your first movie since Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) to make a profit in your home country. If this is what you have to do to make money then I beg you, go back to making a loss – that’s what you’re good at. I won’t make any cheap jibes about how that statistic illustrates the cultural and geographical bankruptcy of American audiences, but I will close by saying this: although it’
s long been the case that your films fare better in Europe than the US, if the UK-set Match Point was the best thing you could come up with to honour the loyalty and enthusiasm of audiences on this side of the pond, then can I please request that you stay at home next time?

Lots of love,


On nearly meeting Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen, Cuckoo Club, 26/3/07. Photo (c) Ron Blur 2007.I realised the best part of a 20-year dream the other day: I saw Leonard Cohen up close and personal. And I arrived at one distinct conclusion: he’s very small. Almost as small as me, in fact.

This is how it happened. A few weeks ago I got an email from Marie Mazur, who runs several Cohen-related websites, including one of the original and best, Speaking Cohen. Thanks to the internet, Marie is one of those people who I can say is a true friend despite never having met her: she keeps me (and thousands of other die-hard fans) up to date with LC’s movements and projects and in turn I’ve contributed a piece or two to her site. She also did a fantastic thing for me last year in obtaining a signed copy of LC’s recent Book of Longing fresh from the man himself at a Toronto promotional event. One day I hope to return the favour.

The email Marie sent was a heads-up to a small gig LC’s partner-in-music-and-life Anjani was performing in London on 26th March to promote her excellent Blue Alert album, which was co-written and produced by LC. The showcase, at a place called the Cuckoo Club in the West End, wasn’t open to the general public, but a couple of pairs of tickets were kindly being put up for grabs by Anjani’s people. Needless to say, I put my name in the hat, wondering only secondarily how I would manage to juggle attending the gig with both a new job I was due to start that very day and the care of two small children. Thankfully, at least, the job was located only a few minutes’ walk from the venue, and my wife said that if I won she was happy to stay home with the kids while I went along by myself – as long as I didn’t make a habit of it! In any case, a fortnight or so later it was clear I needn’t have worried, as the draw took place, and I didn’t win. Disappointment gave way to relief when I weighed up everything else that was happening on the job and home fronts, and I forgot all about it.

Songs of Love and Hat

Then, on the evening of Sunday 25th, I came home from an afternoon out to find another email from Marie saying that one of the original winners of the tickets had pulled out due to unforseen circumstances, so they were up for grabs again. Completely forgetting my “relief” at not being able to go, I put my name in this second hat… and lost again. I have to say at this point that it was to Marie’s eternal credit that she didn’t pull any strings on my behalf, and kept the draw fair and square. However, determined not to be too disappointed, I decided I would go along to the venue anyway after work on the offchance of spotting the Cohens on their way in. It was a long shot, but as the venue was just a short walk away, I had nothing to lose.

My first day in my new job went very well and it was a pleasure afterwards to stroll through the West End in the unseasonably warm afternoon. I’d never heard of the Cuckoo Club, nor recalled ever walking down Swallow Street (some bird confusion here surely?), but now here it was, a quiet little alleyway off the bustle of Regent Street just past the wonderfully-named Man in the Moon Passage. Apart from two dapper doormen hovering outside an anonymous building beneath some impressive stone architecture, there was nobody around and no indication that anything Cohenesque was going on. Their nifty royal purple-colour rope barriers looked optimistic: maybe I’m naive but I had expected at least a small crowd of faithful fans – or maybe the true faithful had already been and gone?

Undeterred, I hung about and after a few minutes people started to show up. Some identified themselves to the doormen and following a check on the guest list were directed straight in, while others formed a loose queue. Among the non-queuers were a couple of rock journo characters in black leather jackets and a tall blonde ex-groupie-type in a near-psychedelic pink outfit who embarked on a flurry of air-kissing, disappeared inside and re-emerged a few moments later armed with a glass of white wine, a cigarette and her mobile phone. There was no sign, however, of either Anjani or LC, and as it was now getting on for 6pm and the show was due to start at 6.30 it seemed unlikely they weren’t already inside.

Bird on the wine

By now the queue was snaking along Swallow Street’s narrow pavement and the doormen started to let us in. I was about halfway down the queue and feeling distinctly uneasy, as not only have I never blagged my way in to a club of any sort, still less an event like this, I had no intention of doing so. Nonetheless, I was here, and so were Leonard and Anjani, and although it wasn’t part of my plan it seemed fairly pathetic just to go home without at least giving it a go. In addition to the doormen there were now a couple of PR-type women checking names, so I did my best to convince myself it was worth trying on a bit of the old Thoughtcat charm. I wasn’t particularly confident however, so it was with some relief that I turned round and spotted someone in the queue I recognised from… a Russell Hoban event. As you do. I mean, how likely is that? There have only ever been about three Russell Hoban ‘events’ in the past 20 years, and I organised the one we were both at myself, so it was a lovely coincidence, but a coincidence all the same.

It was great to chat again with Deena, who is possibly the only other person I know in the world who’s quite as nuts about both Len and Russ as I am. Even more oddly, she told me she was the person who’d originally won the tickets in Marie’s draw, but then had to bow out, causing the second draw – and although she was now re-available to attend, the tickets had of course been won by someone else, so she was practically no more confident than I was of getting in. That the situation seemed only to be getting more and more unlikely was confirmed when we got to the door and, albeit after a few moments of uncertainty, she was actually allowed in, yet despite her efforts to persuade the staff to let me in with her, I was asked to ‘try coming back at 6.30’. Fairly sure this was a brush-off (albeit a polite one), I bade Deena and her partner a great evening and they went inside.

Waiting for the miracle

One by one the guests went in, then, and I was left lurking ever more uneasily in Swallow Street. I decided not to risk going for a stroll in case (a) it was a ruse (they closed the doors as soon as I’d gone, (b) it was a test (how long would I actually wait?) or (c) I got sidetracked or held up, and rushed back to find everything had started and I’d blown my already slim chance of entry. While I stood there I thought about my wife at home feeding, bathing and putting to bed both our 2-year-old and 2-month-old by herself, which was difficult enough for the two of us. Shouldn’t I perhaps be realistic and do the honorable thing, and go home where I belonged? Then again, given that home was still the best part of an hour away a
nd I would thus already be nearly too late to be of much help with the kids, would it not actually be more honest, now I’d got this far, to stick it out to the bitter end? I mean, surely if a guy’s going to bunk off his domestic duties to any extent, it should be for a good cause…

Such thoughts circling in my head I almost missed the re-emergence of the lady with the frizzy hair who had earlier let Deena in. ‘Can you come in now, please?’ she said. I looked around: was she talking to me? It seemed she was. There was almost a sense of urgency about it, as if I were, actually, quite an important guest. Of course, any urgency was really due to the fact that it was now 6.30 and they had to get the show on the road. ‘Sorry you had to wait around,’ she said as we went inside, ‘but it’s such a small venue that we had to make sure there was enough room to spare.’ I couldn’t believe it: firstly I was being ushered in, secondly they were apologising for keeping me waiting, and thirdly I was in anyway…

Finally I broke into the prison

The club was small, darkish, a bit smoky and packed. There was a small stage set up for three or four musicians, but no drum kit. In the ceiling hung a mesh of lilac-coloured lightbulbs. A bar which my memory is telling me was hung with silver and gold drapes took up one wall. The lady with the frizzy hair disappeared and I wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad thing; now I was on my own and everyone around me seemed achingly trendy, or at very least Of Some Import in the World of Rock. Among those I recognised was Mark Ellen, ex- of The Old Grey Whistle Test and founding editor of Q, Mojo and now The Word rock magazines. (Oddly enough, I’d also ‘bumped into’ him at the 2002 Concert for George, which I now realised with some embarrassment was the last gig I’d been to before this one.) Even Deena, who I couldn’t spot anyway, looked infinitely more the part than I did. By contrast, who was I? I was nobody, in most guests’ terms; wouldn’t they all give me funny looks? Who’s this guy, I imagined them thinking. He doesn’t look famous, or trendy, or Of Import in the World of Rock, or even particularly tall.

Almost disappointingly, my paranoia turned out to be unfounded as I squeezed past some of the approximately 100 guests. I tried calling my wife to confirm I’d got in and would be late after all, but couldn’t get a signal; I just hoped she’d get the message by my non-appearance. I made for the bar. Glasses of still water, lager and wine were lined up three deep; such was my innocence of these matters that I had to ask one of several barmen whether the drinks were free; of course they were, as were the assorted delicious bites circulating around the room on trays held aloft by small but perfectly-formed and permanently smiling young women. This was the life, I thought as I reached for some cheesy chicken-on-a-stick and surveyed the stage just a few feet away, where it still seemed impossible that Anjani and, possibly, Leonard too were about to perform.

Crumpled in love

But perform they did. The lights went down, three smartly-dressed musicians came on and took up their keyboard, double bass and guitar respectively, a door opened beside the stage and from it emerged the small but distinguished frame of the Grocer of Despair. The reception was warm, as only it should be: apart from being a living legend, this was the first time LC had taken any sort of UK stage since 1993. ‘Welcome, friends,’ he said. Now 72, comfortable in a grey suit and blue shirt, top button fastened, cropped grey hair on its way to white, he looked thinner than I remembered and smaller than I ever thought he was, and his voice, while still deep and resonant, was unexpectedly soft. He looked slightly crumpled, in fact. But, he had presence in spades in his own low-key way and anyway, it was Leonard Cohen, for fuck’s sake! My hands were trembling; I was sure someone was about to come over and ask me to leave, having sussed out that I shouldn’t be there after all; I barely wanted to blink in case I missed anything; I remembered my phone had a camera feature, I reached for it, I didn’t know whether to grab a photo of the moment or enjoy the moment, I took it out and got a blurry lo-res shot which in no way resembled what I was actually seeing…

‘I’m new to this “showcase” business,’ LC began. ‘I asked backstage, “What’s the audience like?” And they told me: “Industry people”.’ [cue audience laughter.] ‘This brought to mind a crowd of extras from Night of the Living Dead…’ [cue more laughter.] It went on in this vein for a few moments; I was so busy trying to concentrate on not missing a word he was saying that half of it went in one ear and out the other. In any case, ever the gentleman, he cut himself short and introduced ‘Anjani.’ (Well, that cleared one thing up, at least – up til then I’d been calling her ‘Anjani’.)

She’s in her early forties and wearing something tight

Now this was a pleasure. It’s not as if I hadn’t been really looking forward to seeing this lady perform – what I’d heard of Blue Alert, criminally still unreleased properly in the UK, testified to a fantastic singer and fine musician – but it has to be said that LC’s presence was hardly an insignificant attraction. Nonetheless, both her voice and the woman herself were even more beautiful in real life than on the CD in question, and a quick look and listen by anybody with an ounce of taste would know that’s saying something. When someone sings (and, moreover, plays – her jazz-influenced keyboard licks were a sheer delight) songs as good as these as well as this, and yet is still having to drum up interest and curry favour by doing free shows, you have to wonder what on earth people have to do to get on in music these days. Still, after the first number alone – Blue Alert‘s delicious, smoky title track – I doubt there could have been anyone in the room who didn’t think she should at very least be selling out Ronnie Scott’s for a few nights in the coming months.

In between sips of tea, and with LC sitting coolly at a stageside table sipping bottled beer, Anjani and her excellent trio went on to perform faultless versions of half the Blue Alert record, namely Half the Perfect World, Never Got to Love You, No-One After You, and Thanks for the Dance, two of which were duets with LC, and a further duet, an unreleased song which may have been called Whither Thou Goest. It was the definition of smooth and tasteful. Throughout the performance my eye was caught by a strange lighting effect in the adjacent stairwell, like smoke or dry ice swirling around a gently swinging lightshade; I still don’t know exactly what it was, but it complemented the music perfectly. Although Leonard’s voice didn’t sound as robust as in previous years, this surely wasn’t surprising, and it was anyway more than made up for by (a) his register coming nearer the level it was when he started out than the deep baritone he’s latterly become famous for, and (b) the simple fact that he was singing anything at all when he could easily be forgiven for taking it easy – assisting Anjani’s career notwithstanding. That’s not the point, I know, and in the unlikely event that he reads this I hope he doesn’t think even for a second that that’s a reason for him not to embark on the world tour he has been much rumoured to be planning for later this year and early next. But the truth is that at 72 years old, half that time spent playing concerts and making classic albums, I don’t feel he owes anybody anything, least of all returning to the road. I’d like to think he was doing t
his purely for pleasure, and, if the look in his face was anything to go by as he duetted with Anjani, lurve.

Came so far for Leonard

Before I knew it, it was all over. To much applause, Leonard and Anjani disappeared, the house lights went up and everyone went back to doing what they were doing before L&A; turned their heads. Mark Ellen said to someone ‘Wasn’t that fantastic?’ and I re-found Deena and caught up with her for a few moments. We were both quite staggered by the event and were so busy talking about it that we didn’t notice that a queue was slowly forming at the stage for Leonard’s autograph. Deena seemed quite happy to return to her table for another beer and bask in the aftermath of a lovely evening, but for me it was too good a chance to miss. It wasn’t terribly clear where the queue began and ended and after some confusion I staked a claim to a place somewhere in it. The speed at which it moved was the definition of agony, LC just feet and finally only inches away, yet unless you were right in front of him you almost may as well have been a thousand miles away. At last the three people who had monopolised him for a quarter of an hour let him go, and now there was only one person between me and the man himself… but at that precise moment, another of Cohen’s annoyingly pleasant entourage appeared and spirited him away.

If I was momentarily crushed I realised with a laugh that it really would have been too good to be true if I had actually managed to speak to him – and anyway what would I have said? I’d had at least 20 minutes – if not 20 years, if you count the time I’ve loved his work – to think of something to say, but I’m sure I would have only ended up babbling. Equally, as I hadn’t expected to get in, I didn’t have anything on me for him to sign – I had wondered for a moment about proferring him the novel I was currently reading, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, whose title might have summed up my evening if the music hadn’t in fact been at a perfectly reasonable volume. And although my phone had the aforementioned camera feature, it would’ve felt a bit daft asking a stranger to take a photo of the two of us, plus the result would’ve probably been another blur, and what would I have done with it anyway? Apart from, that is, splash it all over the website and print off several dozen copies of it and hang them up all round the house and have a CafePress t-shirt, mug and possibly a thong printed with it and bore the pants off myriad innocent friends, family, children and grandchildren for the rest of my life with it… my point entirely.

Don’t go home with your hard-on

Thus, with Anjani now circulating amongst sundry muso bigwigs, Len putting his feet up backstage and time getting on, I said my goodbyes to Deena and the lovely lady with the frizzy hair who let me in, and headed home, wondering whether my wife had managed OK. Once in Piccadilly the phone signal returned so I called her up. ‘I got in!’ I said, fairly redundantly, and explained that, er, ‘I nearly met Leonard Cohen.’ I had to admit it didn’t sound particularly impressive. ‘Oh, really?’ she said, sounding tired, ‘what happened?’ ‘I’ll tell you about it when I get home,’ I said.

Such is my lack of spare time these days that it’s taken me this long to put this post together and attempt to do the experience some justice (thank heaven for Easter, eh). So what do I think of it all, having now had some time to reflect? It might sound like sour grapes but in a way there is a benefit to not having met Leonard Cohen. I would surely have embarrassed myself, had nothing much to say or had too much to say in the few seconds I had to say it. I would likely have been disappointed, not by the man himself but because the brevity and impersonality of the situation would have made it so. I would have gone away thinking either I’d achieved one of my great dreams or that I’d blown my only chance to say something useful to him or ask him a Big Question, and I’m not sure which of those would be worse. It’s best to go away from an experience like that wanting more, and although I’d had a great evening of fine music and wonderful company, that was certainly true, both on the relatively mundane level (I wanted to see more of Anjani live) and the deeper one I’m talking about. Perhaps it’s as well I didn’t speak to him because then the dream or the search would’ve been over, the dream would’ve become reality, and what do you do when that happens?

If I’m honest it was fantastic to stand a few inches away from Leonard Cohen but I hardly feel as if my life has changed as a result, and I doubt I’d feel much different if I’d actually spoken to him. That’s impossible to say for sure, of course, as he might have said something utterly profound, but at the end of the day I would still have had to go home, have a late dinner, get up the next morning, change a nappy and go to work… but still. I could go on and on reflecting and wondering but I won’t. It was a fantastic evening, one I’ll always remember, and I’m truly grateful to Marie and the lady with the frizzy hair for letting me in.

I still can’t get over how small he was, though.

Go 4th and 4qate

Today is SA4QE day, or the day on which fans of Russell Hoban select favourite quotes from his books and leave them in public places to ‘spread the word’. I’ve been a participant since the activity started five years ago but I don’t believe I’ve blogged my 4qations before. Here’s what I’ve posted to the Hoban forum The Kraken and what will also be appearing on my page on sa4qe.com at some point in the next few days. Happy birthday Russ!

With a two-week-old baby in the house (just what is it with me and this time of year, eh?), I haven’t had as much time to prepare a 4qation as on previous years, and this has only made my ‘normal work panic’ about choosing a quote from the many thousands of words in Russell Hoban’s many books even worse. However, the problem has happily suggested its own solution. The new arrival, Charlie, has, in the tradition of his Thai side, already been awarded a nickname. His elder brother Joe (born March 2005) being dubbed Squid (Thai: ‘Mg’), we felt something similarly oceanic and possibly Hobanesque was called for, and so Charlie has become Turtle (‘Thou’). Thus I narrowed my search for quotes this year to Hoban’s superb early novel Turtle Diary (tragically out of print at the moment, but some copies are still available from Amazon, and Bloomsbury are promising a reprint at some point). After some searching – punctuated by assorted changes, baths, feeds, plays, tellings-off, naps, and even a bit of attention to my children – I settled on the following three quotes. They’re from chapter 3, narrated by William G., and from adjacent pages, so not strictly separate quotes, but can be read that way.

“There are green turtles whose feeding grounds are along the coast of Brazil, and they swim 1,400 miles to breed and lay their eggs on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, half way to Africa. Ascension Island is only five miles long. Nobody knows how they find it. Two of the turtles at the aquarium are green turtles, a large one and a small one. The sign said: ‘The Green Turtle, Chelonia mydas, is the source of turtle soup…’ I am the source of William G. soup if it comes to that. Everyone is the source of his or her kind of soup. In a town as big as London that’s a lot of soup walking about.”

I liked this passage firstly because it sets out the turtles’ incredible quest and achievement, which in itself seems to me a metaphor for the human condition – we spend so long working towards something, not always knowing why or how but only knowing we have to do it, and without any guarantee that we’ll succeed or that the turtle-eggs we lay even if we do get there will survive. Secondly I like the way Hoban takes something negative about the turtle experience – the sacrilege of being turned into soup – and makes something both positive and amusing out of it. As a father now for the second time I’ve naturally spent many hours lately contemplating the kind of future I’ll be able to give Charlie, and the kind he’ll have anyway regardless of my influence, so this passage also suggests to me some good advice to him: We’re all our own kinds of soup; be proud of your Charlie soup, and for that matter your London roots, and don’t be put off by the fact that millions of gallons of other-people soup is sloshing around the world at the same time: your variety is unique.

The second passage follows directly on from the last:

“How do the turtles find Ascension Island? There are sharks in the water too. Some of the turtles get eaten by sharks. Do the turtles know about sharks? How do they not think about the sharks when they’re swimming that 1,400 miles? Green turtles must have the kind of mind that doesn’t think about sharks unless a shark is there… I can’t believe they’d swim 1,400 miles thinking about sharks.
“…I think of them swimming through all that golden-green water over the dark, over the chill of the deeps and the jaws of the dark. And I think of the sun over the water, the sun through the water, the eye holding the sun, being held by it with no thought and only the rhythm of the going, the steady wing-strokes of flippers in the water. Then it doesn’t seem hard to believe. It seems the only way to do it, the only way in fact to be: swimming, swimming, the eye held by the sun, no sharks in the mind, nothing in the mind.”

Turtle Diary centres on two people at a crucial point in their lives and confronting their own situations, which, despite being pretty mundane, are nonetheless troubling to them. I can relate to the story and characters partly through being a bit of a worrier myself (and even if I wasn’t, I daresay most parents would admit that having children makes you worry anyway) and this beautifully cadenced passage with its Zen-like idea of ‘swimming, swimming [with] nothing in the mind’ provides me with some reassurance that there is, in fact, a way through, a way forward.

My last selection also follows on directly from the last paragraph, in fact is the final sentence of that paragraph, but I feel deserves separate consideration:

“And when they can’t see the sun, what then? Their vision isn’t good enough for star sights. Do they go by smell, taste, faith?”

I’m not a religious person and I despise the way that some people use religions and ‘faiths’ to mess up the world. Nonetheless I do retain a great deal of respect for people who manage to have faith (in spite, indeed, of the way faith is regularly abused and misused) and put it to good use, and one of those good uses is simply, as Bob Dylan put it, keeping on keeping on. I believe – or I’d like to believe – in a turtle-god, in turtle-faith, something that keeps you going despite the darkness, the sharks, the chances of getting lost.

Take your own advice…

Gah, I’ve said it! Having lambasted those in a previous post who talk of literary ‘guilty pleasures’, I was in my local bookshop the other day buying a copy of Hannibal Rising by Thomas Harris, and used those dread words myself. Mind you, the till assistant did start it by looking at the book and saying witheringly ‘A literary masterpiece, I’m sure,’ and there was another person in the queue behind me, and I suddenly felt a bit self-conscious… ‘Yes, a guilty pleasure,’ I found myself saying. Argh! What am I turning into?

Anyway I’m now half way through the book and can report that it’s good, although not, perhaps, in the league of its masterly predecessor Hannibal. Nonetheless I’m enjoying it a great deal and not feeling in the least bit guilty about it. As usual I’ve provided a link to the book on Amazon from the main Thoughtcat page, together with an interesting article about Harris and the new book which I found in the Guardian. I can relate especially well to two things from that piece – firstly the difficulty of writing: “[Harris] writes slowly, partly because his books are so fastidiously researched and so dense in arcane reference, but also because, as his fellow bestselling novelist Stephen King has remarked, the very act of writing for him is a kind of torment – King speaks of Harris writhing on the floor in agonies of frustration.” Personally I never get as far as the floor – my own writhing all takes place in other areas of life, I’m afraid – but it’s reassuring to know that someone as good (and, it must be said, as successful) as Harris is as prone to such torments as the rest of us.

Secondly, I liked this quote from some past interview with the creator of Hannibal Lecter: “‘You must understand that when you are writing a novel, you are not making anything up. It’s all there and you just have to find it.”