Tag Archives: thoughtcat

Happy birthday, Russell Hoban!

As The Times admirably notes, today is author Russell Hoban’s 84th birthday. (The interview the Times piece quotes from is here.) As Thoughtcat readers will already know, 4th February is SA4QE day, when fans of Russ leave their favourite quotes from his books in public places – usually, but not always, on sheets of A4 paper. SA4QE stands for the Slickman A4 Quotation Event, named after Neo-Futurist Chicago actor Diana Slickman, who started the whole thing off back in 2002.

I should be leaving my own yellow paper quote somewhere today, if I can (a) make up my mind which of the many great quotes to use from Russ’s 50+ books, and (b) dig myself out of the snow.

Posted via email from thoughtcat’s posterous

On love, TV, Ugly Betty and The Apprentice

Today’s Grauniad Weekend magazine publishes a letter – well, some of it – I wrote them about this article from last Saturday, in which their resident marriage counsellor Luisa Dillner advises a reader concerned about the lack of time she’s spending with her boyfriend. Time couples spend watching TV together, asserted Dillner, ‘is passive [i.e. doesn’t count] unless you fight over the remote’. As my letter explains, this runs contrary to my own experience. TV is actually pretty interactive as shared activities go. Whilst this is especially so when you’ve got children and thus no time or energy to do anything more strenuous with your evening than flop on the sofa in front of the box, I found it to be the case even before I started breeding. Then again, when you’re of a writerly persuasion, anything seems pretty interactive after several hours spent staring at a wordprocessor – except for the web, of course. When I say the magazine published ‘some of’ my letter, I mean they cropped the last sentence: ‘The real threat to couple time and interaction these days is the internet – unless you communicate by instant messenger, of course.’ And I speak as a two-PC family.

Anyway, back to TV. Although I haven’t blogged about it (much as I’d’ve like to), in recent months both Mrs Thoughtcat and I have spent many happy hours glued to Ugly Betty and The Apprentice, respectively laughing and raging at the screen together in about equal measure. It is a shared experience and the better for that; your partner sees things you didn’t see, you talk about them, you learn from it; you find common ground; it gives you something to talk about. And given that we spend every evening in front of the TV anyway with our dinner on our laps (actually a far healthier setup than sitting opposite each other at table moaning about our days, or saying nothing at all), you notice when what’s on is actually any good, which in 2007 is rare.

The excellence of these particular two shows have almost restored my faith in terrestrial TV of late. The former is brilliantly written (especially those episodes by the acid-tongued Henry Alonso Myers) and superbly acted, and even if it’s completely frivolous is still weirdly compelling. The Apprentice meanwhile is just plain riveting: despite being fundamentally flawed – every week Sir Alan Sugar opens the show saying ‘This is not a game’, but of course it is, it’s a bloody TV show – the format and structure are plain genius. A 60-minute Shakespearean drama plays out weekly, complete with dramatic arcs everywhere they should be. The prelude: here is your mission, should you choose to accept it! Act 1: the teams set about preparing, with rumblings of controversy! Act 2: the task is carried out – usually badly by at least one if not both teams! Act 3: the teams convene at Sugar HQ, and the winners and losers are announced! Act 4: while the winning team get on with being pampered or going out partying, the losers sit whey-faced for a gripping dressing-down by Sir Al! Act 5: the team leader brings in his chosen scapegoats, the three wrangle to convince us that black is white and, our bums on the edges of our seats, Sugar fires the team leader! Then, finally, the chorus plays us out as this week’s loser is driven away into the horizon and professional oblivion.

Seriously, I’m not saying I revel in watching people get fired, far from it, but when that person is so utterly deserving of it, it really is undeniably satisfying. I would almost have applied for the next series myself if I didn’t think I’d be eaten alive in the board room – not by Sir Alan, he doesn’t scare me at all, but by the other contestants. Those people really would sell their own grandmothers to succeed. (Except for Lohit, who was just too nice to win.) Personally I found the final disappointing – Sugar, confirming everyone’s prejudices about UK business, plumps for Simon, a 12-year-old white male Cambridge graduate with a rich dad and yellow socks, when he could have had tough, independent single mum Kristina. But at least the brilliant Tre nearly made it and that other cow was nowhere to be seen.

*sigh*. The missus and I have no idea what we’re going to do with ourselves on Wednesday and Friday nights from now on. Maybe surf the web and IM each other?

Thoughtcat in Private Eye (again)

Oh, now this is getting embarrassing. After years of having everything I sent them sent back (albeit with their wonderful ‘Sorry, no thanks’ compliments slips), I score two Private Eye submissions in a row with a contribution to their Order of the Brown Nose column of a recent item in the Guardian. There seems to be no online version of it, but every Saturday at the back of the main paper the Grauniad has a ‘Pleased to meet you’ column in which a reader talks about their love for the paper. This is fair enough in itself – newspapers, TV programmes, radio shows, even websites (occasionally) do give people something to hold on to in their lives, and can thus generate Real Love. But this one was nauseating – two flatmates claimed that their own passion for the Grauniad was such that, if there was no food in the house on a Saturday morning but they had £1.40, they would forego breakfast and spend the cash on the paper. I could almost have stomached it if the pair in question had been destitute – I’m a longtime fan of the oriental proverb about buying a lily and a loaf of bread with your last penny – but come on, these are employed, fortunate, middle-class people, for God’s sake! Anyway thanks to this latest display of media desperation (on behalf of both the paper and the readers in this case) I received another cheque for £10 from messrs Pressdram Ltd this week. If I keep on at this rate I’ll be a millionaire in 961 years.

A Leonard Cohen page and other Thoughtcat updates

Writing up my experience of getting in to the Anjani exclusive last month made me realise the Thoughtcat site was long overdue for a single Leonard Cohen page, gathering together the various LC-related things I’ve done over the years. The page features links to, amongst other items, my review of the 2004 all-star Brighton tribute show Came So Far For Beauty featuring Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker, Rufus Wainwright and other luminaries, a video of me providing guitar backup for an excellent singer at the 2002 Hydra convention open mic, transcripts of TV interviews I’ve done for Speaking Cohen, and a letter I had published in the Guardian in 2000 putting them right on a Len-related feature. There’s even a Leonard Cohen Name Generator, which I constructed several years ago with the help of a couple of friends but never linked to on the site. (Contrary to appearances this doesn’t just generate the name ‘Leonard Cohen’ each time you press the button, but rather a funny adjective-noun combination based on Cohen lyrics.)

My new LC page in turn prompted me to look at the main Thoughtcat site and how it all hangs together via various threads of knicker elastic. I’ve finally gotten to grips with these wonderful things called dynamic page templates so each page now has a common banner and links without messing about with frames; I’ve tightened up the formatting of certain pages and sections, such as Retro Dustcovers; and I’ve deleted a few links to some of the older stuff which hasn’t been updated in years and provided some new editorial about these bits on the Archives page.

Maybe it’s just a spring-cleaning thing but these updates come hot on the heels of new web stuff by Thoughtcat’s friends Dave Awl and Chris Bell. Dave – whose Head of Orpheus was the first significant Russell Hoban site on the web – has, after spending ‘several years trying to avoid blogging’, finally given up the struggle and emerged with Ocelopotamus, a beautifully designed blog bursting with pertinent and witty comment. Liquidambar author Chris meanwhile has revamped his own site to include a stack of short stories from his collection The Bumper Book of Lies – which is also available in traditional book form! – and some newly-discovered writing. Enjoy.

Hurrah! I am now officially hilarious.

Finally my name appears in Private Eye… although sadly not in Pseuds’ Corner (or, alas, Me and My Spoon). I’ve been sending hysterical stuff to the magazine for years without ever seeing it appear (they must simply run out of space really quickly!) but the current issue’s Luvvies column has this great quote I saw on (grr, Murdoch-owned) MSN.com from American Idol personage Paula Abdul: “I have never missed a live show,” Abdul notes. “Even when I had surgery on my hand (for an infection caused by a botched manicure in 2004), I left my hospital bed to go to the show.” What a trooper! And I’m £10 richer to boot – cheers Paula!

This reminds me of an incident a few years ago (before I started blogging, in fact). I was on the tube one time and saw a rude, but very funny, poem about Richard Branson that someone had graffiti’d on a Virgin advert. Thinking that this would appeal to the Branson-baiting Eye, I scribbled it down and sent it in, intending it for their letters page. To my surprise and delight it turned up in the next issue – but on the news pages, and without my name anywhere on it. Feeling this a tad unfair, I wrote in to request that they either (a) print a note to the effect that the story came from me personally, (b) pay me the going rate as a freelance journalist, or (c) give me a job. I even included my CV. A little while later I received a cheque in the post for about £40 – evidently union rates for such a contribution. I was of course disappointed that they hadn’t gone for the “gissajob” option, although the Eye being something of an old boys’ club, in seriousness there was no chance of this. My name still didn’t appear anywhere in the mag but I was quite happy with my money, thankyouverymuch. (Since then, when something I’ve sent in doesn’t appear, it often makes me wonder whether it’s because they remember this incident and are trying to claw back their £40 through not printing my hilarious stuff… I can’t decide whether this is vanity or simple paranoia.)

The other funny thing about getting the Luvvies item in print is that the £10 cheque came with a compliments’ slip saying “Please bank this cheque within 1 month” – curmudgeonly or what?! Actually I know they are a grumpy bunch, because on one occasion years ago when I submitted something hysterical by post I received it back a week later with an almost identical comps slip, this one saying simply: “Sorry, no thanks.” Fantastic 🙂

Thoughtcat exclusive – An interview with Charles Webb

Charles Webb (courtesy BBC)Following is a feature I wrote recently. I have spent the past few weeks submitting a shorter version to a number of newspapers and magazines but none have expressed an interest, so I thought I’d just blog it instead. I hope you enjoy this Thoughtcat exclusive.

* * *

In April the Guardian reported that a panel of experts had drawn up a list of the “50 best film adaptations of all time”. Inevitably, any such list will have glaring omissions – no Lord of the Rings, no Gone With the Wind – but it’s doubtful that many except the most die-hard of film fans would have wondered why The Graduate didn’t make it. Not because it’s not a great story, but because Charles Webb’s original novel isn’t, for whatever reason, as famous in its own right as other book/film classics of the era such as A Clockwork Orange and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Instead, in another list published the same month, the screenplay for Mike Nichols’s film by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham ranked 13th in the “top 101 of all time” as voted by the Writers’ Guild of America.

Think of The Graduate and you’ll probably think of Anne Bancroft as Mrs Robinson attempting to seduce Dustin Hoffman’s hapless Benjamin Braddock. (In the popular imagination, the two stars are permanently linked with the roles – the film launched Hoffman’s career, and when Bancroft died last year just about every obituary headline referred to “the Graduate star”, despite her dozens of other films and her Oscar for The Miracle Worker.) The jaunty Simon & Garfunkel hit Mrs Robinson will probably also come to mind, as might the recent Broadway and West End stage version with its celebrated “nude” appearances by latterday Mrs Robinsons Kathleen Turner and Jerry Hall.

Whatever you connect with The Graduate, chances are it won’t be Webb’s name, although his authorship of the original 1963 novel should by rights have earned him a place in modern culture as permanent as that of Mrs Robinson herself. When as part of my research for this article I asked two modern film specialists from the universities of Sheffield and Hull why they thought Webb’s novel hadn’t achieved the same classic status as the movie, both, while talking at some length about the latter’s cultural impact, candidly admitted they had never read the book. Film critic Andrew Sarris observed as far back as 1970 that Webb “seems to be the forgotten man in all the publicity, even though 80 percent or more of the dialogue comes right out of the book. I recently listened to some knowledgeable people parcelling out writing credit to Nichols, Henry, and Willingham as if Webb had never existed, as if the quality of the film were predetermined by the quality of its script, and as if the mystique of the director counted for nought. These knowledgeable people should read the Webb novel, which reads more like a screenplay than any novel since John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.”

Then again, maybe you do think of Webb’s name these days when you hear yet another mention of the movie – but very likely for the wrong reasons. Webb hit the headlines in April when it was reported that he and his wife Fred were overdue with their rent, defaulting on their bank loans of £30,000 and about to be evicted from their home in East Sussex. Moreover, Webb had written a sequel to The Graduate called Home School but couldn’t publish it because due to a legal loophole a French media company owned the film rights to the characters, and could knock out an almost certainly inferior sequel without his permission. On top of all this, Fred suffered a nervous breakdown a few years ago and has been clinically depressed and dependent on Webb’s care ever since.

Thanks to the press attention, Webb and his wife have of course since been offered temporary accommodation by a well-wisher in Suffolk, and the author has just signed a contract with Random House to publish Home School in 2007. Mrs Robinson makes a repeat appearance in the story, putting the skills for which she is best known to good use to persuade a senior school official to allow her grandchildren to continue their home education of the title.

However, the weeks before the good news was announced were tense for Charles Webb.

I was minding my own business surfing the web when I first heard about all this, and my heart went out to the guy. To be honest, at that point I’d never heard of him myself, even though The Graduate is one of my all-time favourite films – probably, again, for the wrong reasons. The symbolism, stylishness and social iconoclasm all escaped me when I first saw it at the tender age of thirteen: all that hit me about it then was Anne Bancroft. (I even felt let down when Hoffman fell in love with Mrs Robinson’s daughter Elaine: it seemed a cop-out. Mrs Robinson was the story, as far as I was concerned anyway.)

But I digress. Determined to help him out in some way, I tracked down Webb’s literary agents online and sent him an email. I had no idea what I could actually do to help – I was certainly not the well-wisher that the North Korea Times (of all papers) reported he was hoping would come to his aid with the offer of free accommodation. Nonetheless, I found myself offering to help set him up one of those websites you hear of every so often where people tell their miserable life stories and request donations via PayPal, only to find a few weeks later that they’re practically millionaires. Failing that, I offered to send him some hard cash myself – not that I have any, but all the same. I should point out that, to his credit, after what has now been an email correspondence of several weeks, I still have no idea where I could send him a cheque even if he wanted my money. Which, despite everything, he doesn’t.

* * *

Charles Webb was born in 1939 in San Francisco. By all accounts he had a good upbringing: his father was a wealthy doctor, and The Graduate reflected the monied environment of his youth. He attended Midland School in Los Olivos, California, and Williams College in Massachusetts, from which he graduated in 1961, having majored in American history and literature. The proverbial brilliant career beckoned, and certainly he got off to a good start, publishing The Graduate, his first novel, when he was just 24. So how could his current predicament have come about, when the film of The Graduate made over $100m and Webb has published a number of other novels – two of which have also been filmed – in the years since?

Well, for a start, Webb received a one-off payment of just $20,000 for the film rights to The Graduate. Of course, that was worth a fair bit more in the late Sixties than it is now, and must have seemed a good deal for a writer not yet 30. Even so, it wasn’t the most prescient of business decisions. Webb’s story recently prompted the Mirror to make a list of WORLD’S BIGGEST MUGS – AND BLUNDERS THAT COST THEM A FORTUNE, in which he found himself named alongside Decca supremo Dick Rowe – The Man Who Turned Down The Beatles – and someone called Kane Kramer, who invented the precursor to the iPod in 1979 and then let the patent lapse.

To be fair, Webb didn’t deserve a place in that list, crass as it in any case was: the key to his situation seems to lay in a low opinion of wealth for its own sake nurtured since his youth. The Graduate itself drew heavily on his own experience of growing up with – and ultimately rejecting – materialism, Webb turning down a valuable inheritance from his father. He gave away his Graduate royalties to the Anti-Defamation League, an organisation which has been “combatting anti-Semitism and bigotry of all kinds” since 1913, and he has also given away other earnings to charity.

Some of the causes he has supported seem less worthy than others, however. When he sold the film rights to his 2001 novel New Cardiff (later released as Hope Springs starring Colin Firth and Minnie Driver) for £60,000, Webb – who by then had moved from the States to Hove, near Brighton – gave away £10,000 of it to fund a local artist called Daniel Shelton, who achieved brief notoriety in 2003 by mailing himself to the Tate Britain in a crate. “The idea came from the technique used by inventors,” reported The Times, “who sealed their plans in a postmarked envelope to prove when they came up with their concept. He had turned himself into living art to explore the way that artists are seen as objects, he added.” The article was headlined “The artist who sent himself up”. Some readers might have wondered whether Shelton was actually sending his benefactor up.

* * *
I received the first email from Charles Webb within hours of sending my initial one. “Dear Mr. Cat,” he wrote, “Your email was forwarded to me and I was deeply touched by your concern. I haven’t read the press coverage, so I don’t know how clear it’s been made that the development of a new method of mental health treatment has been what’s kept me from ‘the world of commerce’.”
I replied that I’d heard about his wife’s breakdown and subsequent clinical depression from one or two of the news reports, but hadn’t seen anything about this intriguing “new treatment”. I also wrote with more details, as he requested, about my website idea, and at that point also offered to write a feature on him and his situation which might highlight not just his financial predicament but also his wife’s illness.
This thought-balloon popped when Webb replied to my email saying he’d recently given an interview to a freelancer in which he spoke at some length about the topic that most interested him, “the artist class as an unrecognised minority”. He was disappointed that the piece had never materialised, and seemed unaware of its somewhat limited appeal. Slightly more promisingly, he spoke enthusiastically about his discovery of Skype, the internet telephony service which allows users to make free “phone calls” over the internet. Conducting meetings and interviews using Skype’s videoconferencing facility seemed a cheap and useful way for him to keep up with the “world of commerce” from home, thus enabling him to maintain his responsibilities to Fred. “It could spell the beginning of the end of my financial isolation,” he wrote.
* * *

Researching Charles Webb wasn’t particularly easy. He didn’t have a website or an entry in Encyclopaedia Britannica, Who’s Who, the Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia, the Cambridge Guide to Literature in English or the Oxford Companion to English Literature. There was an entry on Wikipedia which gave a little information, such as that his wife changed her name from Eve to Fred “as a gesture of solidarity with men named Fred who have low self-esteem” (although in true Wikipedia fashion this turned out to be half-true; the group itself was called Fred, while its members didn’t have to be called the same) and claimed the couple divorced “not out of personal differences, but in protest at the institution of marriage”. Some of Webb’s other novels were mentioned, including The Abolitionist of Clark Gable Place, Love, Roger and The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker, which was made into a film in 1971 and had a cameo from ex-Batman star Adam West. The rest of the article was given over to The Graduate, lamenting the lack of credit given to Webb by the hit film.

I logged on to Amazon.co.uk and tried to buy a copy of Webb’s original 1963 novel. Entering “The Graduate” into its search engine turned up 4,329 results, of which the first several pages consisted of titles like The Top 100 Graduate Employers, Academic Writing for Graduate Students and The Graduate Psychometric Test Workbook. The Graduate was nowhere to be found. Next I tried searching under “Charles Webb”. This was almost as confusing, as Webb has a namesake, Charles Harper Webb, a prolific American poet, many of whose titles preceded Webb’s in the search results. Finally I found a paperback of The Graduate, but was astonished to find the only copies available seemed to be second-hand; I couldn’t find a new one anywhere. The book couldn’t be out of print, surely? There were any number of editions, starting at the princely sum of 1p. Instinctively I didn’t trust such a price – surely the binding must be falling to pieces? – but one of the 1p copies was described as in excellent condition, so with only a penny to lose – plus £2.75 for postage and packing – I decided to try it out and see what turned up.

What turned up a few days later was a very recent Penguin paperback edition with a retro cover design in such good condition that I would have paid the full marked price of £5.99 for it without a second thought. As web etiquette demanded, I left positive feedback for the seller on the Amazon site. But something about the whole transaction disturbed me: was Webb’s classic really so tough to shift that sellers were reduced to flogging copies for a penny? I emailed the seller. “The reason most of the books I and other VERY small booksellers price the majority of their stock at 1p is simply we make our profit on the postage!!” she replied. “There is no point in pricing higher as Amazon customers seem to go for 2 things… the price and the sellers’ feedback… therefore I rely on customers like you who take the time to rate my business highly.”

Fair enough, but it still seemed ridiculous that the novel, especially a recent imprint, was now out of print. I tried searching for the title on Waterstone’s own website, but as this uses the same search engine as Amazon’s, I got exactly the same results. I emailed Waterstone’s in London’s Piccadilly and asked why all this should be the case, only to be told that, paradoxically, The Graduate is in fact still going strong. “Penguin publish and distribute this title in paperback and Constable & Robinson also publish it in hardback,” came the reply, “and there are US editions on the market as well.” I wrote back, pointing out that anyone using the internet to try to buy the book would likely come to a different conclusion. “Yes that is odd,” replied the assistant. “I’m sorry I can’t offer you an explanation for this error, I will endeavour to inform our Head Office.”

As helpful as the Waterstone’s assistant was, I’m not sure whether the message actually got through, as three weeks later the second-hand 1p versions still came to the top of the search results and the in-print versions were buried somewhere underneath. It seemed that Webb – to rub salt into the wound – has become a victim of the vicissitudes of internet technology, so that not only can all but the most intrepid of online book-buyers read his most famous book for next to nothing, but in doing so they also rob him of any royalties he might have earnt if they’d bought the new copy instead. Then again, maybe I’m just naieve – of course the cheaper edition is going to be the most popular. Why bother paying the full price for a new copy when you can buy a nearly-new one for a penny?

It might not be such a bad thing though that Webb’s latest novel New Cardiff, which is definitely not out of print, is the top “Charles Webb” search result in Amazon’s books section. Ironically, type his name into the main search engine and the first thing that comes up is a Graduate DVD; the book (in penny paperback) comes in fifth. Meanwhile, searching on Penguin’s own website initially turned up no results when keying in either Webb’s name or the book title; somehow, the ISBN given by Waterstone’s worked, but the result was for a 1973 edition and the catalogue listing didn’t even say who wrote it. That was a few weeks ago; now, searching under the title or author works fine, but the ISBN doesn’t…

* * *

I received another email from Charles Webb. “We have two plots in the ‘natural’ cemetery in Brighton,” he wrote, “and I’m thinking of putting them up for auction on eBay for some quick cash. Any tips?”

I’d both bought and sold items on eBay but my first thoughts were of the technicalities: could you sell a graveyard plot in the UK without getting into miles of red tape? It certainly had the makings of a newsworthy story, although there was something sad about it as well – doubly sad in fact, as not only did the thought of a couple in their sixties selling their own graves tug at the heartstrings, but I secretly doubted they’d get very much for them – certainly not enough to make a meaningful dent in their debts, anyway.
Their domestic situation seemed to be looking up, however. “Because of our decrepitude, the Hove Council is legally obliged to put us up in a B&B; if we’re evicted rather than let us live on the street,” he wrote. “If it turns out that happens before a book deal can be put together, it might be a good handle for your article.” He added that someone who had read about his predicament in the papers had come forward to offer them accommodation in Woodbridge, and did I know the area at all? I didn’t, and wasn’t actually sure where it was. I went back to Wikipedia and found several Woodbridges around the world, one of which was in Tasmania. Was he seriously considering another international upheaval? “Tasmania would have been nice,” he replied, “but alas, we are only talking Suffolk.”
* * *

Finally, Webb and I agree a time to talk. We have arranged to speak using Skype Video on the morning of the recent spring bank holiday. Webb calls me, rather than the other way round, as I’m the one who tends to be online more often. At precisely 11 o’clock my Skype “phone” rings and when I answer it Webb pops up in the centre of my laptop screen, looking healthy and relaxed in a dark shirt, a large pair of wire-framed glasses and an earphone-and-mic headset that gives a slight impression of an air traffic controller. I’m not wearing a headset myself, using speakers and the laptop’s built-in microphone instead, a setup he refers to admiringly as “hands-free”. “This is interesting to me,” he says. “I’ve tried so many people to get to talk on this video conferencing, just to get a feeling of it, just to get a practice of it, and nobody – well, I guess some people will, but you’re the first one who’s thought nothing about it…”

We start off talking about his idea to sell the graveyard plots. “It actually has a serious purpose,” he says, “and your points were well taken about legal issues but I’m going to disregard them. If it doesn’t work out it’s really not all that crucial. When these graves were purchased, which was, I don’t know, a couple of years ago, it really did look like the end of the line for Fred, and at that time I was listening to all the advice from the doctors and experts and shrinks and the rest of it, and it had reached the point of total hopelessness, and I finally decided to do this which I’ve had at the back of my mind all along.”
How is Fred’s depression now? “She’s now coming out of it,” he says. “But the graves were bought at sort of the low point of everything, so I was hoping through the attention of the graves sale to sort of call attention to that. It would be really nice to get some money out of it too, but who knows if that’s going to work out. I’ll throw it up on eBay and see what happens… We sold a grave site before in Hastings, New York – we had a family plot worked out but then we decided we weren’t going to do that.”

What made him move to England in the first place? “I wanted to see if I could write a British character. I couldn’t seem to get it right in the States so I thought if I came over here it would infuse, which it did. I couldn’t get the feel of it over there.”

What does he make of his recent appearance in the media? “I guess the interesting thing to me is that every so often the public seems to want some kind of ‘Graduate author hits skids’ story… now, the press thing, as far as what the press says, I don’t know if I can assist you there with something, but Marshall McLuhan, his whole thing was ‘the medium is the message’, and I never read anything of his but just that concept appealed to me. So when you’re reading the paper I think it’s not necessarily as important as just the experience of the person reading it that day – they might have read about a bomb in Iraq and might also be reading about the author of The Graduate being evicted. In each case you might be drawn to one and someone else might have been drawn to the other, but in each case – that person has a feeling of being lucky if they’re not that that way, so I just think the newspapers and the TV, for the most part, serve a purpose for the reader that helps them get along through their day.” He smiles, appearing happy to perform this “service” to readers.

Further to his thoughts about moving to Suffolk, I wonder if his life has been itinerant. “Yes it has,” he says, a little sadly. Home School picks up the story of Ben Braddock and Elaine Robinson a decade after they ran away together, now living in New York and – as the Webbs themselves did in the seventies – teaching their children at home. This was illegal in those days and they had to move around a lot to evade the authorities, who wanted to put their children back into formal education. Was that a stressful time? “Well that was itinerant, we went to camp grounds, things like that. Yes, it was very stressed.” Was it worth it? “I think so, our sons turned out well. They went to university, so it wasn’t like they never saw the inside of a school.” One of their sons works for a research company that advises companies on petroleum; he’s just gone to Moscow for a few months. Their other lives and works in Los Angeles.
The original Times report on their current circumstances gave the impression that Webb and his family hid in nudist camps to escape the educational establishment, but it wasn’t quite that way – it was just one camp rather than several. “This place in New Jersey needed a manager, and we took the job.” Was it good fun? “It was an interesting experience.” You wouldn’t do it again? “No, I don’t think so.”

Inevitably the conversation moves to The Graduate. Was his $20,000 flat fee a better deal in some ways than it might seem now? “I have no idea,” he says. “I don’t know about the comparative movie sale deals [at the time].” But could you, for instance, buy a house with that sort of figure in those days? “I don’t remember if we bought a house at that point… we got a house or two along the way, but I don’t know if it was with that money, or… I don’t remember exactly where every penny of it went.”

Did The Graduate launch him? “Everybody talks about these subjects in these sort of frames of reference, but it’s very difficult for me to relate to. I think that ‘launching’ is something that PR people think about – I don’t know what you mean.” Well, did it help at all, did he feel as if he’d been ‘launched’ and now there was an expectation for him to perform? “No… someone else maybe would’ve felt ‘launched’, I don’t know. But it was very useful, people’s reaction to the success of the film was a very useful thing for me… over the years people would react to me in a certain way. So that was interesting.”

The old Mrs Robinson fan in me is intrigued to know whether the story was based heavily on his own experience. “The Graduate was about going to college,” he says, “and then, well actually it was a lot of things – I got interested in the wife of a good friend of my parents and realising it might be better to write about it than to do it.” He breaks off. “It’s interesting – it seems like you’re operating from this sort of big databank of stereotypes with these questions, which is interesting in itself. Which is fine, I mean I don’t know what else you’d have in your mind but those. You have those, and you base what you think on that, and what else would anyone expect?”

I could say I haven’t exactly found it easy to turn up much information about him other than what I’ve read in the papers in recent weeks, but instead I take this as a prompt to move on to subjects other than The Graduate – after all, even though his novel is the thing that got us talking in the first place, I can understand how boring it must be when the only thing people want to talk about is something you did over 40 years ago. Going back (or coming forward) to New Cardiff, his 2001 novel, I ask how £10,000 of his advance for the book ended up funding Daniel Shelton to post himself to the Tate. “Fred gave that,” he says. “We thought it would help the fella, this fella that was here in Brighton.” Is sponsoring other artists something he’s interested in? “I’m interested in other artists, not in sponsoring them so much. I thought it would suit the fella. It was an interesting thing to do but I wouldn’t want to do it more than once.”

The Shelton connection did indeed come through Fred, an artist in her own right, her work including some superb pencil illustrations for New Cardiff. Has she exhibited anywhere or have work for sale? “She has a lot of back drawings,” says Webb. Brighton surely has a lively art market – wouldn’t it make sense to try and raise some money by selling her work locally, or even online? Webb seems hesitant, but reveals there are other artistic plans in the works. “There’s a gallery in California to open up, called The Talking Parrot. That would represent the ‘cure’ for Fred if we had our own gallery, and we have a woman out there, Pamela, who never seems to get mentioned in these articles, but when we open the gallery I think Fred’s drawings will be the basis of a lot of her show. Maybe you could come out for the opening? It won’t be right away, but…” I’d be delighted, I say, but why is this happening in the States when they’re now living in the UK? “Well, because of Pamela,” says Webb. “She’s there, she can advise on the purchase – she has a lot of practical ability and can organise the place and a lot of business stuff. I don’t know. We’re not very good at that, so she’ll be in charge of that.”

Was Fred’s condition related to their debt? “No,” he says. “It was related to her pressures over a lifetime, that I think had everything to do with her artistic temperament.” Has he ever experienced depression himself due to the ‘artistic temperament’? He seems astonishingly laid-back given what he’s gone through in recent years. “Some artists don’t figure it out as well as others,” he says. “I had it figured out a little better than, say, Fred, so…”

I ask him to tell me about this curious “new mental health treatment” he mentioned in his first email to me. “It’s called Sleep,” he says. Sleep? “Sleep.” What, sleep? “That’s right. That’s it.” Just sleep? “Sleep, yeah,” says Webb. “Fred slept for two years, and now she’s getting well. For two years [previously] they tried other things, and then I took over, and let her sleep for two years, and now she’s getting well.” I’d been under the impression he was talking about a major new treatment being developed with doctors in the States which involved an expensive “method” of some sort. But no. “The method is called ‘letting a person sleep’,” he says, “and this person [in the States] gave me a lot of support. All the doctors said I was crazy and it was wrong and the worst thing I could be doing, but this person gave me the support just to let Fred sleep. So she slept for two years even though everyone said that was wrong, and now she’s getting well.”

So the technique is – what? Whenever she wants to sleep, he just lets her sleep? “She did sleep for two years.” What, solid? “She got up to go to the bathroom every day and I would bring her food which she usually ate in bed, and after two years she started sleeping a little less, then a little less, and then she’d be up for a day and sleep for a day, and now she’s getting to the point where she’s up more than down, and she’s getting well.

“I think the main thing is, for those people in the medical profession that understand, you know, sleep isn’t bad. It was like I was being totally irresponsible – you know,” he says, imitating what some experts told hi
m, “‘This is bad! She’s chronically depressed, you don’t want to let her sleep! She just needs a different type of antidepressant, a different type of antipsychotic – here, we have a new kind of therapy, let’s try this! She needs to be kept up – prevent her from going to bed, prevent her from being in her bedroom every day…’ You know, this went on for two years and I didn’t know what else to do, so I let the experts take over and just went on trying [what they said] for two years and she got just slowly worse. And I finally said, ‘Well, look, if she’s going to die then, you know, let her die in peace. She wants to sleep, so let her sleep.’”

If it worked for Fred, why were all the experts saying it was a bad thing to do? “Because they don’t understand the healing powers of the body and the power of the mind itself. What happens to you and I overnight happened to her over two years. I often feel like I’m Christopher Columbus telling everybody the earth is round – everybody thinks I’m crazy. They don’t understand, they think you have to put chemicals in [the mind] and manipulate it, and all this stuff. They don’t understand that the mind can heal itself if it’s allowed to, at least in her case – in some cases it can’t, but certainly in hers. They can’t grapple with that concept of the mind healing itself.”

Webb is clearly passionate about the subject and is keen for other sufferers of chronic depression to know that there might be a non-medicinal alternative to their treatment. He’d like to set up a website giving more information, and to try to get some kind of endorsement from the mental health charity SANE which he has found supportive and helpful; however, he’s aware that “there may be some mildly controversial elements in what I have in mind and in the end these might be a factor in SANE’s decision to show the link on their site or not.”

Is ‘sleep’ a treatment he advocates for other sufferers? I know that’s not what he’s here to do, I say, but… “It is what I’m here to do,” he counters. “I noticed it; why shouldn’t other people benefit? Why should the doctors keep killing off the mental health patients?” Then again, he cautions, “I don’t know how you would do this without someone else [there], because you really have to have a sort of a supervising atmosphere, you can’t just leave the person on their own. You know, I would go off and shop every day and do the different things, but I couldn’t – I sort of always had to have my eye on the situation, so I don’t know – obviously a lot of people wouldn’t be in the situation to do it all, so I don’t know how it’s going to work out that other people could benefit.”

* * *

As the conversation draws to a close, ultimately we return to the subject of money – and, once more, The Graduate. Does he ever feel bitter about selling the film rights for a few thousand dollars, only to see the movie gross a hundred million? “Well, if I’d had a hundred million dollars it wouldn’t have taken me that much longer [to spend] than twenty thousand, and that would have been a whole lifetime’s work getting rid of that much. I think I would’ve been bitter to get that much money – I think,” he smiles, “I’d be a bitter old man at this point. I’m sure I’d still be shovelling it out the door.

“I know that without having money it becomes a preoccupation, obviously, and people think of it that way. I don’t know why people have to keep thinking about money. I know you don’t have enough,” he says diplomatically, “but people who, once they have enough and they keep thinking about it, what’s that all about? It’s a boring subject.”

Having lots of money is such a boring subject to Webb, it seems, that actually being in debt is something he describes as “fascinating”. “I’m in a fascinating relationship with the credit card company, and the way those people operate, which I would of course never be in a position to discern if I wasn’t, shall we say, prodded by them into paying them back – I would never have had any insight into the mechanics or mentality of a company like that.”

Webb reveals he’s currently working on a play about a character who’s in debt “and I’m sure it’ll wind up there. I don’t think it’ll be a writing project based on a person’s relationship with a credit card company, but the important thing – it’s just fascinating the way they operate. How could I learn that if I wasn’t in this position? I couldn’t. I would have died an uneducated person,” says the author of The Graduate and Home School, “if I hadn’t seen what happens if you don’t pay your credit card bill.” What are they doing, then? “Well they have very interesting techniques,” he says, cryptically. “It’s obvious that they read their training manuals. It’s just very, very bizarre they way they deal with one person and then deal with another and you find that the technique is the same… well, you can read all about it.”

I look forward to it. I’m pleasantly surprised, if not amazed, that he’s so philosophical about the subject, and that he’s found a positive way of using such a negative experience. “Well, that’s why you’re a writer,” he says. “Whatever happens to you, that’s what you write about. Doesn’t matter what it is. What else do you write about except your experience?”

© Thoughtcat 2006

Fame at last – Thoughtcat in the London Informer

A few weeks ago I had an email from a journalist on a weekly free local newspaper called the Informer, asking permission to include Thoughtcat in “London Blog”, a regular feature profiling bloggers from the area and printing typical extracts from their blogs. I’d never seen the article before (I think the paper gets delivered to my address, but so do a couple of others, and in honesty they generally all end up being recycled before I even register what they’re called) and I was initially suspicious, doubting that a local free paper would really be interested in blogs and thinking one of my mates was winding me up. However, the journalist’s email address was kosher and he said he’d found the blog from a credible source (London Bloggers, a stylish directory I’d joined some time ago), so without further delay I wrote back to say I’d be delighted. He asked for a bit of background, including my age and location, and a photo. I provided him with some info on Thoughtcat and, not knowing the layout, asked if he just wanted a small close-up of my whiskers or a full length shot of me (which, thinking about it, wouldn’t actually be much different in size, but there you go). I also offered him a few suggestions for “typical extracts” from Thoughtcat, since I modestly assumed finding such a thing amid three years’ and 50,000 words of blog posts might be difficult. However, said journo then vanished for several days, leaving me unsure whether he’d actually written the article or had gone off the idea, or still needed the photo, so – now paranoid once again that this was in fact an elaborate practical joke – I gave him a nudge. A few days later he reappeared and said the feature was out, illustrated with a photo he’d found on the site, and if I gave him my address he’d send me a copy. I did, and waited.

I was still nervous about the result: would it be a hatchet job? A tabloid stitch-up? A honey-trap preying on my vanity? I imagined myself imagining a glorious write-up, newspapers banging on the Thoughtcat-flap begging me to write for them for real money, little suspecting the reality – a huge photo of me looking ridiculous, a picture I’d put on the site years before and forgotten about, with a quote twisting my carefully-chosen words to paint me as a bizarre nimbyist eccentric, a closet nazi living with 17 cats, spending his days self-publishing insane pamphlets calling on McVities to bring back Dad’s Cookies and the local council to bomb McDonald’s – or worse, claiming I was a Tory voter.

Thankfully, having now received the paper containing the feature (it’s the 31st March issue, local folks!) none of that is the case, and although the majority of the article is composed of my own words I hope I’m allowed to say I think the results are excellent. It is still a little eccentric, but that’s probably appropriate, and in any case it’s fascinating to see how you come across to people: From his small flat, cat-obsessed [am I??] Richard Cooper (pee-Cooper to his friends) [what this must sound like with no Thai context God only knows] muses on everything from sausages [where?!] to political scandals. The novelist-cum-biscuit taster [apart from sounding faintly disgusting this omits to mention I have never been either, at least on a professional basis] flirted with fame after becoming embroiled in a row over authorship of a book called All My Own Work [this will come back to haunt me!], after he based his title on a poem by Ted Hughes [surreally, this makes Hughes sound as if he was the aggrieved party in the AMOW debacle]. Click and you arrive at: Lord Profumo, Albrecht Durer, Mince Pies, Mobile Phones, Blues, Leonard Cohen [yay!], Basil Fawlty [true, but only I think in the context of ‘Don’t mention the war’ from last summer’s election], InterRail [hmm, I’m impressed – the journo’s had a look around the main site and found my account of our French InterRailing trip!], Buena Vista Social Club [it gets better], Randy Newman [again a one-off, but can’t be bad] and Russell Hoban [double yay! – whether Russ will appreciate it in this dubious context I don’t know, but I’m honoured to be responsible for even the smallest press mention of his hallowed name].

So far, so weird – but it gets weirder. The blog feature itself is right at the back of the paper, sandwiched between adverts for a plumbing and heating company and the Modhubon Tandoori (“Eat as much as you like for £4.95!”), and just overleaf from a double-page of classified ads divided equally between man & vans and escort agencies (“Za Za… Irish fire cracker… Japanese goddess”). The rarefied company I find myself in is infinitely enhanced by a huge picture of Bob Dylan c.1966, as I realise with delight (and some relief, when I think of some of the possible alternatives) that the blog post the journalist has chosen to represent Thoughtcat is the recent one about Dylan snubbing the UK Music Hall of Fame awards. DYLAN DISHES IT, runs the headline. Richard says Bob Dylan has the right idea about music award shows, says a caption beside my photo, which turns out to be the one of me from my about page wearing a THAILAND t-shirt and eating a bowl of my wife’s best green curry. “What’s the point in giving an award to an artist who’s been around for decades?” bewails a quote splashed in white letters across Dylan’s black jacket, while the main image is captioned BOB’S YOUR UNCLE: Dylan the legend (obviously just in case anyone’s unsure of who it is, or that it may be me).

The rest of the page is composed of the blog entry, reproduced fairly faithfully, albeit with the original Blair-unfriendly ending excised in favour of a cynical comment on the Eurythmics’ Christmas greatest hits cash-in. In fact it’s interesting that, although Blair does get a mention elsewhere, it’s not a critical one, and you wouldn’t guess from reading the feature that I can’t stand the man; did the Informer get cold political feet, despite it being quite clear that the article represents the personal opinion of one slightly bonkers local blogger? Whatever the truth, just to put the record straight, I CAN’T STAND TONY BLAIR. (In seriousness I must curtail this habit of beating Blair with any stick I can find. I mean, for God’s sake – when you’re writing about Bob Dylan and the ludicrosity of music award shows, to still manage to squeeze in a Tone-moan just looks facile and opportunistic – not unlike Blair, in fact, the bastard!!!)

Blair or no Blair, if I say so myself, the profile of Thoughtcat appears to represent a cultural high for at least this edition of the paper. Headlines on other pages include:

LICENCE TO KILL: Is our under-fire prison system putting killers on YOUR street?
Leak hotel fined
Anger over repair demands
IT HAPPENED TO ME: I built a Viking ship in my garden shed
Hotel in riverside clean-up

and, best of all:

NOT EVEN A ‘DENT’: Gordon’s car tax rise is a joke say Chelsea tractor haters.

I should mention at this juncture that this edition of the paper is technically the London Informer, covering the areas
of Hammersmith, Kensington and Westminster; there seem to be scores of local variations on the Informer title, and I know of at least one edition, the Richmond & Twickenham Informer, which also carried the Thoughtcat piece, albeit in a black & white and slightly reduced-size version which ends in mid-sentence, not even getting in the bitter remark about the Eurythmics, let alone Tone.

Perhaps the strangest thing about this whole episode is that it has taken some extracts from Thoughtcat to be reproduced in a “real” printed medium to make me see what the blog is really like – and, by extension, what I’m really like. The blog has been around, as I say, for over three years now, but this is the first time it’s seemed “real” to me – and I’m not sure I like all I see. Perhaps I saw myself as a bit more serious than my casual remarks might suggest. Then again, you can’t take blogging too seriously, can you?

There is, fairly obviously, no online version of the article, but clicking on the image above will open a JPEG which is more or less readable, while clicking here instead opens a better-quality PDF version. And if you can get your hands on a copy of the actual paper, hold on to this unique Thoughtcat collector’s item! It surely can’t be long before they start appearing on eBay.

The entertainment value of mobile phones

When I first established the main Thoughtcat website, I included a page called Overheard in which I jotted down odd things I’d overheard people say in public places. I haven’t updated it in some time; laziness and lack of time have been contributing factors, but at some point it struck me that people weren’t saying many funny things anymore – or maybe I’d just stopped hearing them, I don’t know. On the way to work the other morning though there was one I couldn’t exactly miss. A woman boarded my train and sat down near me; I didn’t notice her particularly, being at that moment absorbed in my book (a re-reading of Stephen King’s On Writing), but she was 30ish, dressed in black and just after she sat down she started knitting. A few minutes later her phone rang and her side of the conversation went something like this: “Hi… oh, right, yeah – you have to sort of lift it as you turn it. Yeah, it’s just a knack. No? It’s not opening? Oh, hang on – wait. You know what I’ve done? I’ve locked it. I’ve locked you in! Damn. Okay, listen. Is the taxi driver waiting outside? Okay – call to him out the window and ask him to go downstairs and knock on the left-hand door. I think it’s number 151, I’m not sure, but it’s the one on the left anyway. Ask him to ask for Deirdre or Ivy, and ask if he can have the spare key to the flat upstairs because Amanda has locked you in. Yeah, that’s right. Okay? Okay, I’m sorry! Call me back when you’ve done it.”

She rang off then, and a few minutes later her phone rang again. “Is everything OK?” she said. Pause. “No, it’s downstairs. The door on the left. Forget Deirdre, get him to ask for Ivy. Is he there now? Call out to him – do it now while I’m on the phone.” Pause. “Okay? Is it sorted? Great, okay, I’ll call you again in a couple of minutes.”

The woman ended the call, did some more knitting and then rang the number again. “Is it OK? Are you out now?” Pause. “Oh, great. That’s good news. I’m so sorry about all this! I’m blonde and I’m pregnant – don’t hold it against me!”

Let them eat sausages

…or not. The Guardian reported on Saturday that a huge consignment of sausages and other “food aid” sent by the UK to the US for Katrina refugees has been rejected by the US authorities over fears about mad cow disease. The aid cost nearly £3m of UK taxpayers’ money. As I wrote in a letter which the paper published yesterday, I don’t know what annoys me more, the rejection or the fact that we sent food to the US in the first place. That the refugees needed food is not in dispute. That the richest, most powerful and most obese nation on earth needs our food is.

Richard of Bordeaux

An inveterate self-Googler, I often find Thoughtcat coming up as a search result in some fairly unlikely contexts. But the most recent, “Richard and Koy’s French Inter-Rail Adventure” (aka Thoughtcat’s Tour de France), a trip I took with my wife around the country in 2003, turning up on a site called Factbites (subheadlined “Where results make sense”) under the topic “Richard of Bordeaux“, is, let’s face it, just silly.