Tag Archives: writing

A triumph of faith over reason

The Guardian is running a competition to win the six shortlised titles for the BBC4 Samuel Johnson Prize. The single question is easy and it closes next Wednesday.


University Challenge tonight was one of a series of shows given over to teams of “professionals”, i.e. not students as such but graduates who have moved on from the festering fridges of their halcyon days and onto better things. A team of lawyers was utterly thrashed by their opponents, four members of Anglican clergy, and Jeremy Paxman was barely able to contain his glee at the result. One of the few questions the lawyers got right was a “starter for ten” in which a snippet of a famous rock song was played and the identity of the band requested. As it was played I had that great feeling I only get occasionally when watching the quiz – I knew the answer! However, one of the lawyers took the words “Derek and the Dominoes” right out of my mouth, leaving me shamefaced. The next three questions were all about bands Eric Clapton has been in, so at least I had a chance to make up for lost ground. Thankfully I managed to get each answer correct – which was more, sadly, than the lawyers were able to do. But, I mean, Eric Clapton in a University Challenge question! As someone who is university challenged, maybe there’s hope for me yet. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to more “professionals” games, especially House of Commons v. Journalists (9th June) and Poets v. Nurses (14th July).

All that jazz

A plank (and a guitar)Spotted while out walking in Richmond today. Click here for more info about the Association of British Jazz’s campaign against Tony Blair’s licensing bill.

It was an appropriate spotting on the day that Mark Lawson wrote an excellent review in the Guardian of The Last Party, a new book by John Harris about the uneasy and short-lived cosying-up between “Britpop” and New Labour when the latter (and the former, come to that) was still trendy. The print version of the review features a cringing photo of Noel Gallagher having a laugh and a glass of champas with Blair back in 1997 – a time when we were all that much more innocent and Tone’s hair was still brown. (NB: Amazon is offering the £15 book at £10.50.)

Talking of Noel, I wonder what Tone’s four-noun autobiography title would be? Suggestions please.

* * *

And talking of Tony, Matthew Parris writes in today’s Times about “the evidence that millions of ordinary people are not amnesiacs, do remember why Mr Blair said Britain must attack [Iraq] and do still care whether that was true.” Along the way, old Tory Parris unnecessarily compares Margaret Thatcher favourably to Blair to back up his argument, but it’s otherwise an excellent piece.

* * *

Also superb in today’s Guardian Review is this essay by E.L. Doctorow about how he started writing, concluding with this interesting thought: “I believe nothing of any beauty or truth comes of a piece of writing without the author’s thinking he has sinned against something – propriety, custom, faith, privacy, tradition, political orthodoxy, historical fact, literary convention, or indeed, all the prevailing community standards together. And that the work will not be realised without the liberation that comes to the writer from his feeling of having transgressed, broken the rules, played a forbidden game without his understanding or even fearing his work as a possibly unforgivable transgression.”

From nuclear looting to Annie Hall via Maggie Gyllenhaal’s bum

Call me naive if you will (I suppose it’s at least better than being cynical), but I was astonished to read in the Guardian about the looting of radioactive material from nuclear facilities in Iraq as US troops stood aside. Given that it’s not quite as easy to do this as to nick a bag of rice from a food shop, isn’t this tantamount to just handing the stuff to the same terrorists the US is allegedly “at war” with? I suppose next we’ll be hearing that the Ministry of Oil was the only government department left intact after the bombing of Baghdad, or that Jack Straw and Donald Rumsfeld will say it doesn’t really matter if no weapons of mass destruction are discovered after all…

* * *

To the Odeon for the second time this week, this time to see Secretary. Both my wife and I used to be secretaries in previous lives but neither of us remembered it being quite like this. Maggie Gyllenhaal was magnificent – a really gripping, intense performance; she sort of became the part, without taking herself seriously for a moment. Apart from that I can’t say I enjoyed the film exactly, but after the dazzling spectacle of Matrix Reloaded the other day, it was refreshing to see that small, intimate films about offbeat people and curious relationships can still do well at the box office. Plus, it was great to hear Leonard Cohen sneaking onto the soundtrack with the exquisite I’m Your Man (“If you want a lover, I’ll do anything you ask me to / And if you want another kind of love, I’ll wear a mask for you…”) It was also good to see James Spader again, who doesn’t seem to have aged a day since he made White Palace, one of my all-time favourite films, in 1990.

* * *

Meanwhile, the Guardian reports on a new biography of Sylvia Plath by Anne Middleton, which will controversially claim that the poet was not “the downtrodden victim of feminist legend” after all. I’m glad to hear it; despite Ted Hughes’s reported philandering, which obviously didn’t help, it always seemed obvious to me from her writing that she was a very strong personality and character who was simply besieged by mental illness. There’s no rationalising with that, whether you’re a feminist or not.

Thinking about Plath put me in mind of this exchange in Annie Hall:

ALVY (picking up copy of “Ariel” in Annie’s flat): Ah, Sylvia Plath – the poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college-girl mentality.

ANNIE: Oh, I don’t know – I just think some of her poems are neat.

ALVY: Neat? I think “neat” went out sometime around the turn of the century…

From Larkin to Eurovision via The Matrix

The Guardian reports on some newly-discovered jazz blues lyrics written by Philip Larkin in the early forties. Among these was “Fuel Form Blues”, which the Bard of the Spectacles casually tossed off while “bored in his first job as a clerk collating wartime fuel rationing forms at a coal depot in Warwick”:

I’d rather be a commando, or drive a railway train,
I’d rather be a commando, Lord! drive a railway train,
Than sort them Fuel Form Blues into streets again…

Fuckin’ Fuel Forms, gonna carry me to my grave, carry me to my grave.

It’s easy to see that the great poet was already laying the foundations for his later classics such as “Toads”, q.v.:

Why should I let the toad work

Squat on my life?

Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork

And drive the brute off?

…not to mention “This Be The Verse”.

* * *

To the Odeon to see the distinctly unLarkinesque Matrix Reloaded. I attempted to brush up on the Matrix phenomenon last night by watching an old video of the first film… and was lost within the first twenty minutes. Nevertheless, it was a nice lostness, and I approached the sequel with interest. Like the original, I found it a bit cold and soulless (although that’s the whole point, I guess), and there were some dreadfully slow bits in the first hour, but the special effects didn’t disappoint and the whole thing was good fun. The car chase was my favourite scene, and the point where Trinity was riding against the flow of traffic startlingly realistic. According to the iMDB, the epic chase was shot on a highway specially built for the movie. Weirdly enough, shortly after we got home from seeing the film, Fifth Gear was on and had a feature about the scene. Keanu Reeves praised Carrie-Anne Moss for doing it sans stunt double or crash helmet, but I had to take this with a slight pinch of salt when it was revealed that the traffic she was pictured weaving around was all digitally superimposed afterwards. Boo!

The only thing I can never work out about The Matrix, incidentally, is, if the “real” world as perceived by humans is actually a digital creation of the machines, why didn’t the machines make the “real” world a bit more exciting? If it’s all virtual anyway, why not make the world absolutely wonderful for people instead of humdrum and everyday? That way, surely everybody would be happy and there’d be no need to have Agents to track down all the Neos and Morpheuses (Morphei?) because they’d be so serene they wouldn’t want to escape…

* * *

I have to say that last Saturday was not spoilt for me at all by the UK receiving an unprecedented nul points in the Eurovision Song Contest. This piece in the Guardian today does a fair job of explaining why it happened.

Degrees of Bacon

Thoughtcat’s Vermont representative points me to the excellent Oracle of Bacon. Enter the name of any actor or actress and the program consults the IMDB and tells you how many degrees they are separated, filmically speaking, from the actor Kevin Bacon, who appears to have been in every film ever made. Most attempts return a factor of 1 (i.e. Bacon was in the same film as the actor in question) or 2 (Bacon wasn’t in the same film as said actor but they’ve both been in another film which featured a common third actor, thus linking the two). Apparently there are only 11 actors in the entire universe who have a maximum Bacon number of 8. But what’s even more fun is Star Links, another program on the same University of Virginia Computer Science site, which allows you to link any two actors to each other. This reports, for example, that Arnold Schwarzenegger has a Harold Pinter number of 2, since Schwarzenegger was in End of Days with Mark Margolis, while Margolis was in The Tailor of Panama with Harold Pinter.

* * *

A short interview with Don Delillo in The Times today, in which the author of the epic Underworld says that the Great American Novel is just so yesterday, and what we’re waiting for now is for someone to write the Great Global Novel. Well, it won’t be me – the novel I’m writing is set on the Isle of Skye… who says I set my sights too low?

* * *

Sad to read today of the demise of Noel Redding, the great bass player with the Jimi Hendrix Experience. This obituary quotes an interview he gave years ago (for, I believe, the excellent South Bank Show TV documentary on Hendrix) in which he recalled hearing about the great man’s death: “All these women came to my room and wanted to commit suicide, to throw themselves out of the window. I’m not religious but I went with all these women to church. Then we went to a cocktail bar and we got rotten.” Ah, the seventies, eh!

Too much monkey business

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.

Writing for the web

“New writing is blossoming on the internet”, writes Ben Hammersley in the Guardian, listing a dozen sites that promote fiction by obscure and/or unpublished writers. Anything that encourages writing has to be a good thing, but I have my doubts about whether, as he optimistically maintains, the next Dickens will be discovered online. It’s not that the quality of some web writing isn’t good – although a lot of it is, frankly, crap – but more that anything that is good enough to be published in conventional paper form surely will be. Also, the author of a real book actually gets paid for his or her work, and rightly so, whereas there don’t seem to be many instances of new writers making money publishing exclusively on the web – even Stephen King couldn’t do it with his online-exclusive serial The Plant. I do have a general fear that people are becoming too conditioned to the accessibility of the web, both in the sense of anyone being able to write almost anything on it and, by and large, not having to pay for any of it. Is it just a conspiracy theory that the world is being groomed by big business to become used to not having to pay for web content, only for us all to be royally shafted one day when the same businessmen demand payment for something we now can’t do without? Er, okay, it probably is actually.

* * *

A lovely interview with comedian, writer and actor Dylan Moran in the Independent today. I especially liked his rant against the current swathe of reality-meets-personal-improvement TV shows: “There is a constant Gatling gun of nitwits being fired at you, programmes where they come and tell you you’re fat and your house is shit. Where else can it go? Celebrity critics turning up at Margaret Atwood’s house and telling her to write better novels?” Moran himself adds that he has been working on some prose. “It could turn out to be a novel… or a long and difficult-to-follow laundry list.” Sounds a bit like the thing I’m writing at the moment. Incidentally, there is a rather eccentric Atwood site at http://www.owtoad.com/ which features, among other items, an interesting piece aimed at potential authors called “The Road to Publication”.

* * *

The Guardian reports that Stephen Glass, a 25-year-old journalist who was sacked from New Republic magazine for making up websites, conventions and companies to back up his stories, is to publish a novel about a young journalist called Stephen who works for a New Republic-type magazine and, er, makes stuff up. The Fabulist is published next week by Simon & Schuster.

The poetry and the bollocks

Ex-Python Terry Jones continues his excellent column in the Observer with a piece headlined Mr Blair’s dark days, in which he echoes my own sentiments from 18th April about Tony’s “worst fear” about the war, i.e. that it’d cause him to lose his bloody job.

On a lighter note, elsewhere in the paper there’s a lovely profile of performance poet John Hegley, who says that poetry “is the opposite of speaking words which are mundane. It’s words that are charged, it’s vibrancy, mystery, aliveness, intensity – and bollocks.”

The riting wracers

Our Man in Wimbledon tells me of a great story he heard apparently about a novel-writing speed record attempt in Germany this week. Surely this, with its shades of the great Python sketch featuring Michael Palin giving a running commentary as F. Scott Fitzgerald (it was him, wasn’t it?) makes inroads into his new novel, was too good to be true? Sadly, it seems that way – after some time spent Googling for the story, according to the BBC it turns out it was part of Germany’s World Book Day activities, and wasn’t technically a competition but an effort by a group of 40-odd (maybe that should be 40 odd?) German authors to write and publish a book in one day, with the authors writing two pages each. I have to say I was disappointed, although according to another report, the print run of 1,000 copies sold out in five minutes, which is pretty impressive.

I wonder though who the fastest novelist actually is? I know that Anthony Burgess once wrote six novels in six months or something, and of course Barbara Cartland used to knock out her bodice-rippers on an almost weekly basis. But although Burgess was generally fast, he was under a death sentence when he wrote all those books – diagnosed (wrongly) with a brain tumour, he’d been told he had only a year to live, and wanted to provide for his potential widow – and Cartland used to dictate her novels from a sofa, which doesn’t really count as writing in my book. Plus they’re both dead. However, I do know from his excellent book On Writing that Stephen King writes 2,000 words a day every day for three months to produce the first draft of one of his blockbusters, so maybe he’d be in with a shot?

Adrian vs Harry

Sue Townsend, the author most famous for her Adrian Mole books, is questioned by Independent readers. She was kind of a heroine of mine when I was 12 and the first of the Mole books came out. I was talking about this the other day with someone and we were comparing Mole, something of a crucial eighties figure, with the fictional boy of the moment, Harry Potter. Mole was a total anti-hero, and rarely succeeded in anything – indeed, most of his triumphs were internal and psychological – but you loved him anyway. I liked the first of JK Rowling’s books and I’m eternally grateful to her publisher Bloomsbury for subsidising my favourite living author Russell Hoban, but I feel I could relate to Mole much better. Potter is meant to be real, but you know he isn’t, while Moles exist everywhere you go: you know Potter is going to win through, destroy the evildoers and (eventually, one presumes) get the girl, but there was never any such certainty with Adrian. Among some of the lovely things Townsend says in the interview is that her blindness – a late-onset condition brought about by diabetes – if nothing else “does get you out of the ironing, and reading other people’s manuscripts”. She also makes a fascinating comparison of the sexual (self-) identity of Tony Blair and Saddam Hussein: the latter “drips” with testosterone, while the “androgynous” Blair is much less self-assured about himself in this department. Obviously, dripping with testosterone is hardly any better, but Blair androgynous! Brilliant.