Sunday, August 31, 2008

No comment

I'm looking at an advertisement in the Financial Times; specifically, an advertisement on the back page of the House and Home section, in last weekend's edition (August 23-24).

The FT is not a newspaper that's intended for the likes of me, and the advertisement follows that trend. It offers investment opportunities in The Trump Ocean Club, a luxury development in "Punta Pacifica, the most exclusive location in Panama City". However, nearly half of the spread is given over to singing the praises of Panama itself. An info box itemises the plus points of the place where the hats come from (although they don't, apparently), including:

Political and economic stability, over 13% GDP growth in 2007;
20 years property tax exemption;
Expansion of International Airport and improved roads;
Panama hosts a large, powerful jewish community

Er... pardon? Leaving aside that peculiar lower-case 'j' (Mixed-marriage? Non-observant? Short, which surely contradicts large and powerful?), a large, powerful Jewish community would not appear to be an unqualified selling point. Of course, it would attract some people: Jews; people who like Jews, in particular large, powerful Jews; people who like chicken soup with matzo kleis. But it would also scare off a sizeable segment of potential investors: chiefly, anti-Semites (for whom the alignment of "powerful" with "Jewish" must trigger all sorts of Pavlovian paranoia) and people who get a toothache when they hear klezmer music. The majority of people, meanwhile, wouldn't really give a damn one way or the other. Donald Trump (for it is he, of course) might as well shout about the fact that Panama has 15 indigenous species of tulip, or that the policemen wear rather fetching maroon trousers.

Sorry, I don't have a conclusion to this one, facetious or otherwise. It's just a very peculiar thing to put in a property advertisement. If anyone can concoct a sensible explanation, the floor's yours.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Ain't it grand to be bloomin' well dead?

The death of Dave Freeman, co-creator of the 100 Things To Do Before You Die sub-genre of macho, narcissistic, consumerist one-upmanship has provoked a degree of chin-stroking in the media, partly because he was good enough to croak in August, but also thanks to the fact that Freeman only managed to tick about half of his self-selected boxes before he embarked on his final awfully big adventure

I've never really had such a list, but I've been lucky enough to translate a few childhood that-looks-funs (ridden an elephant, been on Mastermind, visited Niagara Falls and the Pyramids) to reality. Meanwhile others will forever remain unfulfilled: unless bubonic plague tears a swathe through the ranks of British Equity, I don't reckon I'm ever going to be the next Dr Who.

But if we're really in pub boast mode (and that's what Freeman's big idea was, at heart), I suppose I ought to be bragging about the things I've done that no-one will ever do again: I saw Bill Hicks and Bo Diddley and Ian Dury in the flesh; I've been told off by a Yugoslavian policeman; and I was also privileged to attend one of the last West End performances of Which Witch, the Norwegian opera-musical that had the rare distinction of extending its run to accommodate the johnny-come-latelies who wanted to see if it was as eye-poppingly dire as everyone was saying. (It was, and then some).

So, over to you. Dreams fulfilled, frustrated, put on hold until retirement; and the things you know you'll never do. Line on the left, one cross each...

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Expletives deleted

It's all getting pretty potty-mouthed over at Cif, I'm afraid:

It's a pretty basic tenet of fiction writing: where possible, don't tell us, show us. Rather than state baldly that a character is bad, allow him or her to demonstrate that badness through word and deed. One of Shakespeare's darkest creations is at first described by his unwitting boss as "Honest Iago"; only in his first soliloquy does he make his own "double knavery" evident.

Of course, just because Shakespeare put those words in Iago's mouth, it doesn't mean he agreed with them. Sorry if that seems bloody obvious, but it's a point that appears to have eluded two recent contributors to Cif...

For more blimmin' flip and crikey, click here.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Two wheels good

Journalist: In the last 24 hours everyone has been offering an opinion on Chris Hoy. But what does Chris Hoy think of Chris Hoy?

Chris Hoy: Chris Hoy thinks that the day Chris Hoy refers to Chris Hoy in the third person is the day that Chris Hoy disappears up his own arse.

(From The Observer.)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Filling the bucket

A thought: do public exams undergo such an intense media dissection simply because the results come out in August, when there's so little else on?

Amid the inevitable kneejerk denunciations of "dumbing-down" and "grade inflation" that surrounded this year's GCSE results, the most cogent response came, of course, from the Guardian. Not, sadly, the editorial, which makes some sound points on the attainment gap between the richest and poorest students, but still obsesses over the minutiae of A*-C pass numbers without contemplating what the letters actually mean. No, the most insightful analysis comes in an article that doesn't even mention GCSEs at all...

More, including obligatory Yeats quote, to be found here.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

What I blog about when I blog about blogging

In case you've missed (or avoided) my previous ramblings on the subject, the name of this blog is a quotation from the Japanese author Haruki Murakami, whose latest book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running has recently made its way to the tottering pile at my pillowside. As the title suggests, it's the author's thoughts on distance running, a pastime that he took up in 1982; not coincidentally, also the year that he became a full-time writer.

At first the link between job and hobby was a purely pragmatic one, to the point of banality: he gave up his job as owner/manager of a jazz bar to write, and running was the simplest way to keep his weight down in his newly sedentary occupation. But at some point, the connection became deeper:

In the novelist's profession, as far as I'm concerned, there's no such thing as winning or losing. Maybe numbers of copies sold, awards won, and critics' praise serve as outward standards for accomplishment in literature, but none of them really matter. What's crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you've set for yourself. Failure to reach that bar is not something you can easily explain away. When it comes to other people, you can always come up with a reasonable explanation, but you can't fool yourself. In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn't seek validation in the outwardly visible.

Now, this strikes me as a little disingenuous. After all, Murakami is in a small minority of published authors, in that he can make a comfortable living from book sales alone; no more wiping tables and rolling drunks to the sound of 'Autumn Leaves'. And, speaking as a published author who certainly can't retire on his royalties, critics' praise is always an issue, if only to offer a distraction from the lack of cash. Maybe it shouldn't be, but it is.

Which is as good a moment as any to offer up the results of a recent, despondent self-Google. First, a mention in The Independent of a biography of the doomed R&B princess Aaliyah. Laurence Phelan describes it as:

...sugary and a bit tacky.

Which is probably fair enough. Over at Amazon, one David Navarrete describes my tome about one-joke gitpunks Blink 182 thus:

This was a present for my sister, in Chile, she said that is a berry god book, I dont know realy because i'm living in spain right now.

The only response to which is a recent, anonymous addition to my Wikipedia page:

From 1999 to 2001 he was the editor of Guinness World Records during which time its emphasis became markedly more light-hearted.

I'm not sure about you, but I need a break after that lot. Here's Creedence Clearwater Revival, for no reason other than Murakami's fondness for them as running music. (He uses a MiniDisc, which is endearingly perverse.)

Of course, not all of my writing is done for money, or even for critical praise. There's blogging, for a start. Now, I certainly don't "seek validation in the outwardly visible" when I slam down my thoughts here. (While we're in this quadrant, do check out Merlin Mann at 43 Folders on why just slamming down thoughts is a no-no: "Blog posts are written, not defecated," he says, which made me smile. Thanks to Dr Ian for the tip.)

But not even blogging exists in a vacuum. I've never understood bloggers who disable the comments facility. Patroclus got it right when she called blogging a conversation: if you want to get more poncy and theoretical than that, you can always pull Roland Barthes out from under the laundry van and get him to explain his "multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash". The point is that writing may well be a solitary activity, but it usually needs to brush up against other people for it to have value; a fresh pair of reading eyes can be transformative.

Incidentally, the same applies to running, although some of you may remember some of the humiliations I've endured while bashing the tarmac, so I'm not going to pontificate too much on that subject. Even if Murakami is only aiming for a self-imposed target as he notches up yet another 26.2 miles, the simple presence of other participants can only affect his thinking, and thus his performance. At one point in the book he describes a run from Athens to Marathon, accompanied only by a support van, which makes for an utterly different experience from the bustle of a big race. After all, his final dedication is "to all the runners I've encountered on the road - those I've passed, and those who've passed me."

Go on. Treat yourselves to a lap of honour.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Sinophobe slam-dunk

Is there a medal on offer for cultural faux pas?

The Spanish basketball players who made "slitty-eyed" faces for the photographers have reacted with a combination of contrition and hurt feelings; it was simply a gesture of "affection, friendliness and recognition".

And now the torch of affection has been passed to the Argentine women's football team, who would appear to have been reading from the same joke book.

The International Olympic Committee has expressed its displeasure, which has been echoed in much of Europe and North America. But in Asia, home to most of the people who might be seen as targets for this casual racism, the response has been rather more laid back...

Further fortune cookies herein.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Weekend 60s revisionism: France Gall

Time is called on the contrarian investigation of the post-Britpop era: Mogwai and Earl Brutus weren't quite obscure enough, I feel; and neither Telstar Ponies nor Freeboy have graced YouTube with their presence. So let's skip back a few decades, and consider a 1960s that fabness and groovydom forgot. I'm particularly intrigued by the moment (about 1:44) at which the choreographer suffers some sort of cerebral catastrophe. Thanks to my sister-in-law, Siri in Sorrento, for alerting me to this one.

PS: Alistair@ Unpopular has brought out a fanzine. Yeah, a proper one, on paper. With a free badge! I feel 17 again.

Friday, August 15, 2008


(In which your author once again gets round to watching a film that everyone else saw about six months ago.)

In Bruges (Dir: Martin McDonagh, 2008) is the story of two Irish hitmen (Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell) who are ordered by their boss (Ralph Fiennes) to lie low in the medieval Belgian city after a job goes hideously wrong.

Well, that's the plot. In fact, In Bruges is what would happen if Quentin Tarantino directed a spin-off of Father Ted, written by Harold Pinter. To take it further, we could turn the whole thing into a pie chart: two-fifths Pulp Fiction, a quarter The Dumb Waiter, and whatever's left given over to a bizarre parallel universe where Father Dougal gets off with that French totty from Harry Potter. No, we'll need to redo those proportions; leave a few slivers of the pie for Don't Look Now, the obnoxious dwarf from Living in Oblivion, and the certain knowledge that, if snow starts to fall on cobbles, there'll be blood soaking into it by the time the end credits roll. And a liberal dose of homophobic joshing which was, um, actually quite amusing. Sorry about that.

Bugger. Forgot Waiting for Godot. That too.

And Lost in Translation and Sexy Beast. Maybe. A bit.

And then, sometimes I wonder if spotting the references, overt and subconscious, just gets in the way. I mean, strip out Pinter and Beckett and all, and you've got a rather good little film, and it's not about what Martin McDonagh read when he was a teenager, it's about men and violence and guilt and redemption.

But isn't everything?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Always believe in your soul

So I write something for CiF about the Olympics and their tenuous relationship with reality, and in an act of supreme self-sacrifice I leave out all the obvious Baudrillard references, 'cos the punters don't seem to like them and then, bloody hell, that bloody Julian Baggini goes and writes the piece I wanted to write all along. So regard this (which appears the day after JB's) as the Reader's Digest version of his article; or the version that's been edited for airline use, with all the nipples and swearing and postmodernism cut out:

The big story of the Olympics is, we are told, the battle between China and the United States for control of the medal table; a microcosm for the struggle for political, economic and cultural hegemony in the new millennium, as the balance of power shifts from occident to orient.

At the same time, there's another intriguing scrap going on in Beijing: the tussle between surface and reality; what we see and what actually is. Cynics might argue that the Chinese authorities have long had an interesting take on the truth, from the announcement of bumper harvests while millions starved during the great leap forwards, to today's paranoid policing of the internet. But the Olympics have seen a new kind of reality avoidance...

More Monkey magic here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Nothing lost in translation

Critical etiquette may demand a gentle Spoiler Alert here, but I'm going to give you the last couple of sentences from Fiona Campbell's Death of a Salaryman:

When Kenji turned round to walk away in the opposite direction, he spotted a cherry blossom petal float by on the breeze. It landed on the ground by his feet.

Death of a Salaryman takes place, it may not surprise you to learn from the above, in Japan: the various blurbs explain that the author spent several months working in Tokyo, and her experiences (filtered through a Creative Writing MA at Manchester Met) provided the inspiration for her debut novel.

Clearly, Campbell has only half-listened to the warning trotted out to all first-time authors: write about what you know. OK, she's been to Tokyo: but she's not Japanese and (unlike her protagonist, Kenji), she's not a 40-year-old salaryman who's just been fired from his job with a TV company.

To an extent, this doesn't matter: the story is fairly universal. The meek wageslave who won't admit the change in circumstances to his family has become an archetype of modern fiction, from John Lanchester's Mr Phillips, to Tom Wilkinson's character in The Full Monty; and the whole idea of a critique of capitalism through the prism of the disappointed bourgeois takes us back to the the play referenced by Campbell's title. Sure, there are quintessentially Japanese bits of set decoration: Kenji attempts to find redemption in pachinko; a minor character is crushed by a Godzilla statue. But these superficialities could easily be replaced with fruit machines and Bart Simpson. The weirdly voyeuristic reality show that Kenji concocts might have been believable only in Japan a decade ago, but now it wouldn't look out of place on BBC3.

At every step, I was comparing Campbell's story to Fear and Trembling, by Amélie Nothomb, and the former was found wanting. Nothomb's is the story of an outsider trying to come to terms with the oddness Japanese society, and we learn as her heroine does. Campbell offers us salaryman as everyman, a global citizen. Which is heartwarming, but does raise a fundamental question: why did she bother to set her book in Japan at all?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Weekend 90s revisionism, part 5: Helen Love

Helen Love had one song (essentially 'Sheena is a Punk Rocker' played on a knackered CasioTone) but it was a good one, and they occasionally gave it some new words, some of which were pretty funny. This is 'Long Live the UK Music Scene', which identifies Shed Seven as a cause for celebration. A different world...

Friday, August 08, 2008

Millennium Bridge sunset

Three scenarios as London recedes into the distance:

1. Meeting Lindah outside the Old Vic, and realising that we're so old, we can remember a time when Tim Pigott-Smith could reasonably have been expected to play Freddy, rather than Higgins; and Una Stubbs, at a pinch, might have been Eliza.

2. In Benugo, the rather-too-pleased-with-itself bar in what I still insist on calling the NFT:

ME: Have you got any stout?

BARMAN: No. But we've got Guinness.

[Meaningful pause.]

BARMAN: God, that's really embarrassing. And I'm Irish as well.

ME: It's OK. I won't put it in my blog.

3. And I have finished The Unconsoled!

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Thoughts after viewing the exhibition of American prints at the British Museum

For years, commentators have been pontificating about the so-called Culture Wars in the United States and by extension in the whole world. The problem is that the issue is usually presented as one of extremes. Yes, sure, a 19-year-old woman of Korean/Gambian heritage who works in a vegan co-op in Seattle, and plays drums in a neo-queercore band called Raping Cheney is liable to have a different view on life from a 73-year-old pastor in Kansas who believes that Janet Jackson's nipple was personally responsibly for the subprime crisis. But life usually comes in shades of taupe, and the conevntional dichotomies (conservative/liberal; Republican/Democrat; pro-life/pro-choice) usually reveal a whole load of contradictions.

But I think I've found a question that can place any American on one side of the cultural barrier or another. And it's this: who would you rather have adorning your living room?

Edward Hopper;

or Norman Rockwell?

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

You are what you read

One of the dangers of modern media is that it encourages us to hold value judgements about people - the sort of thing we'd ordinarily develop from actual, meatspace interaction - on very limited and possibly spurious information. A single, unsourced one-liner on Holy Moly is enough to classify someone as hero or villain, genius or dolt, Madonna or Katona. We feel we know these people; we feel entitled to hold opinions, not about what they do or say, but what they're like.

A couple of years ago, I made some catty remarks about sometime Waterstone's buyer Scott Pack; subsequently I revised those because: a) his blog is quite good; and b) he's a serious Murakami fan.

Is the revision any less shallow than my initial prejudices, based as they were on a purist, kneejerk revulsion regarding the power of vast bookshop chains? (Which I can't really maintain without hypocrisy if they're kind enough to sell books that I write. That said, though, I'll just note that Waterstone's is currently doing a promotion on "Books you know you should read"; when they offer a similar selection of "Books you know you shouldn't read", I'll pay more serious attention to their recommendations, thanks.)

And how far can I take the if-he-likes-Murakami-he-must-be-a-good-chap meme? Especially when I discover that Alastair bloody Campbell is a Haruki junkie as well.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The bodyguard's last sigh

Thought it had got a bit quiet on the embattled author front...

I do wonder whether Salman Rushdie sometimes wishes that books had never been invented. They have provided his fame and fortune; but they've also given him more than his share of grief.

The latest tome to unsettle the literary knight is On Her Majesty's Service, the work of Roy Evans, one of the special branch officers who protected the author after Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa in response to The Satanic Verses. According to Evans, Rushdie (or "Scruffy" as they dubbed him) so exasperated his guards that they shut him in a cupboard while they went to the pub...

More smoked Salman here

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Weekend 90s revisionism, part 4: Urusei Yatsura

Ah, Urusei Yatsura. Dismissed by too many as Sonic Youth wannabes, they had so much more to offer: specifically, their obsessions with manga (hence their name) and the tacky detritus of sci-fi (hence the title of this early single, 'Phasers on Stun'). So, like Sonic Youth, but even less socially adept. What's not to love? Beam 'em up: