Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Mission accomplished

You may already know this, but George Saunders has solved the problems of Iraq again. And I think I like this one better than the previous version.

Tongue, meet cheek

"Suddenly two hefty men armed to the teeth spring out of a white van and make their way down the steps to the platform. Their target is the humble leaf, more specifically those crushed on to the tracks. Their arsenal is a solution of orange extract, a steel brush and a tub of sand. Each has recently consumed a kebab and they mean business." -- Julia Stewart of The Independent heads out on the case of leaves on the line. The later revelation that Network Rail spends £10m a year on "vegetation management" makes it slightly less funny.

[Service message: There will now be a few weeks' moratorium on rail-related links. Wouldn't want you to get the wrong idea.]

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Parallel world dept.

Every once in a while, something gets pushed at me that I cannot imagine having imagined. The usual portal is BBC Radio Four. On this occasion, that means its In Touch programme, and the issue is the eternal war between guide dogs and escalators.

Guide dogs, you see, are meant to be able to take you everywhere, and escalators are not meant to be walked with paws. In America and, by the looks of it, Australia, they train you to walk the dog up, in the belief that you'll do it anyway. In Britain they tell you to carry the dog, and concentrate on teaching you how to balance while holding something heavy and alive.

It's a Tube thing, apparently. New escalators will be dog-friendly, but given that old ones could hang around for decades -- see this wonderful piece for more on the subject -- that may not be much of a comfort.

Monday, November 22, 2004

The international style

"Cornflower blue are women's eyes by the mighty wine. Boy are they ever. Recently he beat her black and blue, see? And then her brother said, Now that guy is in for a big blue surprise, and gave him a good beating. Once again he got off lightly, with a black-and-blue eye. That's fine. But now let's hope Annemarie will stop pulling blue wool over her eyes about him. Even she can't be that blue-eyed." -- Christa Wolf, Associations in Blue, trans Jan van Heurck.

That reads as if it was impossible to translate (ever had a black-and-blue eye?). Fair enough, it also reads as if it was very good in German. But Christa Wolf has donated it to Telling Tales, a charity story anthology with acknowledgments to publishers not only in Britain, the US and Germany, but in Italy, France, China, Russia, Taiwan, Brazil, Greece and Hungary -- and also a shout-out to "all other publishing houses who are in the process of following suit." Perhaps she's trying to teach mere English readers (or mere Magyar readers) a lesson.

[Telling Tales, edited by Nadine Gordimer (Bloomsbury, 2004). Collection of stories raising money for AIDS treatment in southern Africa. Could be considered a sort of literary Live Aid -- there's a sentence in the introduction beginning "Musisicians have given their talents..." -- if only the performances weren't old and good and the setlist wasn't so unbelievably impressive. Don't let sour me put you off.]

Unintended consequences

"Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald's as we know it, is not mentioned in Not on the Label or Shopped, in spite of his interest in the mass production of standardised french fries. But without the car there would be no McDonald's - and there would be no supermarkets. It isn't a coincidence that the publication of the Beeching Report on The Reshaping of British Railways in 1963 came between the opening of Tesco's first big store, in Leicester in 1961 (16,500 square feet), and Asda's first, in Nottingham in 1965 (70,000 square feet). Beeching accepted that cars and lorries had finished off the stopping train and the slow goods train (except for those carrying coal) as economic entities." -- Hugh Pennington, half-defending supermarkets, London Review of Books November 18. If you've done the sensible thing and subscribed, the actual piece is here.

This is an strong enough passage in itself. But my attention stopped dead three-quarters of the way through and started shouting: "You live in the birthplace of the British supermarket!" It took me a while to get back on track after that.

Oh, and there is one other interesting thing about supermarkets, in the context of this issue of the LRB. Unlike US policy in Guatemala, Stanley Milgram's obedience experiments, the shortening of URLs or the lives of Anne Boleyn and Lord Cromer, they don't appear to have anything to do with the Iraq war. (Last two links subscriber again. Sorry.)

Saturday, November 20, 2004

If this magazine is true...

Possibly first in a series. Possibly just a cheap gag.

Magazine: New York, November 15.

Proposition: According to page 78, there is at least one woman living somewhere near New York capable of starting a sentence: "Some of my A-list friends say..." If her tone is correctly represented, she is not being sarcastic.

Consequence: Standards of plausibility in fictional dialogue will have to be reassessed. Crap potboilers will prove to be documents of scary accuracy, in the manner of supermarket tabloids in the Men in Black movies.

Likelihood of truth: Depressingly high.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

All work, no play

"That is the real curse of Adam; not the work in itself but the worry and doubt of ever getting it done; perhaps the doubt, also, whether, after all, it ought to be done, or done at the price. All your working year you chase some phantom moment at which you might fairly say 'Now I am there.' Then Easter comes; you sail your own boat through a night of dirty weather from the Mersey to the Isle of Man; and, as you lower sail in Douglas harbour, you are there; no phantom this time; the curse of Adam is taken clean off you, at any rate for that morning. Or those seeds that you sowed in the back garden on that thrilling Saturday evening amaze and exalt you by coming up, and you learn in your proper person what the joys of discovery and creaion are; you have, so far, succeeded in life and done what it piqued you to do in this world. All play, of course, and the victory tiny. Still, on its own scale and for its miniature lifetime, the little model is perfect; the humble muddler has come nearer than anything else is likely to bring him to feeling what the big triumphs of human power must taste like." -- The Right Place, by CE Montague

It's possible that, stripped of its stylistic brass band, this might be quite a commonplace commonplace. But isn't the brass band lovely?

[The Right Place, by CE Montague (Chatto and Windus, 1924). I have gone on about this gentleman before. Not much to add, except this is his book on what would now be called tourism (although he thinks you can do it at home, too) and seems prettier in patches but weaker overall than Disenchantment. Astonishing passage about the historical beauties of First World War battlefields, and the joy of being sent to them: the biographical details that make it piquant are still here.]

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Best Library of Congress boilerplate ever

"1. Soccer fans -- Great Britain. 2. Hoodlums -- Great Britain. 3. Soccer -- Social Aspects -- Great Britain. I. Title." -- Bill Buford, Among the Thugs.

In aggravation (if that's the legal opposite of mitigation -- is it? Is there one?), my US copy also includes both a glossary explaining the terms "ground" and "Underground" and repeated uses of "stadium" and "subway".

[Among the Thugs, by Bill Buford (W.W. Norton, 1991). A distguished literary editor (here, here) descends into football hooliganism with the gusto of a writer who believes he is describing a new emotion. That feeling is the ecstasy of crowd violence, and descent and description are both frightening.]

Judge character the Jackie Chan way

"[Maggie] Cheung has been a fixture of Asian superstardom for 21 years and has won more acting awards in China than any other woman. She started out as Jackie Chan's long-suffering, slapsticky girlfriend, May, in the goofy action-oriented Police Story movies. (Chan said that when he first saw Cheung on Hong Kong TV, she struck him as someone who 'wouldn't mind me kicking her down a flight of stairs'.)" -- New York Times Magazine, November 14. Style slightly anglicised. Link, which in any case requires registration, will start to cost money soonish.

[The lack of posts for the last ten days or so is because I was on holiday. It is not to be confused with the long gaps in posting before then, which were because I am lazy.]

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Sors Virgiliana, Nov 3

"Sometimes you meet, coming down the leafy path along which you are walking, a man dressed as Napoleon; as he talks to you you look at him with distrust, pity and amusement -- carefully do not look, rather. But as the two of you walk along, and people come up with wallpaper designs full of Imperial bees, rashly offer their condolences on the death of the duc d'Enghien, ask for a son's appointment as Assistant Quartermaster-General of the army being sent to the Peninsula, you realize that it is not he but his whole society that has 'lost touch with reality'" -- Randall Jarrell, Pictures from an Institution

[Pictures from an Institution, by Randall Jarrell (Faber, 1954). Exhaustingly witty academic and literary satire. You are never more than four sentences away from an epigram. Lots of interesting stuff on the difficulty of seeing other people as fully human; which points up, possibly deliberately, the not-quite-humanness of everybody here described.]

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Any context would do

I suspect Zoe Williams has been waiting a while to use "like playing Monopoly with someone who eats the money". And if she hasn't, she could have.

New and old

James Marcus's Amazonia is meant, among other things, to evoke the extent of late-90s internet euphoria; but it also shows the euphoria's limits, which are less talked about.

This bit is about an appearance on CNN, just before the curve turns. Jeff = Amazon's Jeff Bezos, for whom Marcus was a justly glorified blurb-writer.

"My cue was approaching. I had rehearsed my lines and knew exactly what I was going to say to the boy-and-girl anchor team in Atlanta. Moments before I went live, however, I heard some excited crosstalk in my earpiece: Jeff had been anointed [Time magazine] Person of the Year! They would be making the announcement in just a few minutes! At once it dawned on me that this little segment, which would allow me to preach the gospel of books to my biggest audience ever, was simply an appetizer for the main event: a lengthy celebration of my employer. Well, he had earned it."

In a book on the high-season web, that is, a magazine and an appearance on cable TV generate some of the greatest excitement, and offer the biggest audience. I don't think he's trying to do hindsight, either.

[Amazonia, by James Marcus (New Press, 2004). Humanist version of the rich-and-then-not story. Style nods occasionally -- the subtitle is "Five years at the epicenter of the juggernaut", which was almost enough to make me put it down straight away -- but in general it's rather good.]

Monday, October 04, 2004

Phrase of the week

"Honey laundering."

This is the business of attempting to smuggle possibly antibiotic-tainted Chinese honey into the EU via third countries, and was described on BBC Radio 4's Food Programme. In the event that you're here in time to listen again to the programme, do: it also has a wonderfully enthusiastic interview with a pollen expert, of a kind I find hard to imagine occurring anywhere else.

Compulsory irony

"'The Chauci --' How old was he then? Twenty-four? It was his first campaign. He began again. 'The Chauci, I remember, dwelt on high wooden platforms to escape the treacherous tides of that region. They gathered mud with their bare hands, which they dried in the freezing north wind, and burnt for fuel. To drink they consumed only rainwater, which they collected in tanks at the front of their houses -- a sure sign of their lack of civilisation. Miserable bloody bastards, the Chauci.' He paused. 'Leave that last bit out.'" -- Pliny the Elder dictates, in Robert Harris's Pompeii.

It's not quite fair to call this bit the compulsory irony: that comes a couple of hundred pages earlier, when the villain tells the hero there is no investment sounder than property in Pompeii. But it does send two messages vital for the modern historical novelist:

i) I have done my research. Lots of it.

ii) Don't worry. I'm not going to take it seriously.

Harris is far more competent at this game than most people who attempt it, but it still feels faintly cynical.

[Pompeii, by Robert Harris (Hutchinson, 2003). Romance and thrills among the falling pumice, naturally, but also a surprising amount of engineering. If that is the sort of thing you like, this will be the sort of thing you love.]

The Brits have a word for it

If you live in the UK and feel superior to US political culture, it may interest you to know that in Washington, chugging appears to be a nameless novelty.

[This is the start of a plan to post occasional stray thoughts here, and journalistic quotations, as well as bits of books. I am still likely to read more than I think, however.]

Monday, September 27, 2004

A teenage girl's view of Rome

"To me, the thought of Rome -- a city adorned with genitalia rather than vinyl siding and stucco -- seemed improbable. I had to see this place. In the weeks leading up to the trip's charter airline departure, I kept waiting for a TV studio buzzer to sound, for an audience to shriek at me, telling me that it was all a big prank." -- Douglas Coupland, Eleanor Rigby.

A work colleague of mine has just set off for a holiday in Rome. It took me a worrying amount of effort not to quote that at her.

[Eleanor Rigby, by Douglas Coupland (Fourth Estate, 2004). May be considered a more satisfactory answer to a friend of mine's question about Douglas Coupland characters and ageing; more satisfactory altogether, in fact, than many of his recent novels, despite the standard slide into fantasy.]

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Form burial

"Beginning on the second day, whenever a patient appeared to be moribund, a piece of paper with his name on it was fastened to his clothing. The corpse detail carried the bodies outside, placed them on pyres of wood from ruined houses, burned them, put some of the ashes in envelopes intended for exposed X-ray plates, marked the envelopes with the names of the deceased, and piled them, neatly and respectfully, in stacks in the main office. In a few days, the envelopes filled one whole side of the impromptu shrine" -- John Hersey, Hiroshima.

The second day is the second day after the bomb. If you look at the lines immediately above, this passage is about a reassertion of respectability: "Disposal of the dead," the line goes, "by decent ceremony and enshrinement, is a greater moral responsibility to the Japanese than adequate care of the living." It seems chilling in a way that set-up doesn't point to, however.

[Hiroshima, by John Hersey (Penguin, 1946). I read the Mary McCarthy attack on this thing (quoted somewhere downpage here; it's in this book) long before I read the thing itself. The journalistic stiff-neckedness she twits him for is real, but proves in some way a strength: if you aren't Dante, better not to try to interview the dead.]

Sunday, September 12, 2004


"The city itself was a revelation and a hope for this skinny little light-brown kid crossing the river on the train, passing through the slums of Herne Hill and Brixton from the suburbs. It was intimidating, a grand imperial metropolis full of massive statues: blank-faced men covered in bird-shit and medals, who had commanded armies and ruled nations. That was the Empire for me: decline, and these relics." -- Hanif Kureishi, My Ear at His Heart.

Zeugma, for the non-littish, is the governing of incompatible nouns by a single verb. In English, with so many verbs to choose from, it tends to be contrived and therefore comic -- "She left in tears and a sedan chair"; Flanders and Swann; The Rape of the Lock. Here, however, it isn't, and serves to do interesting damage to the meaning of "medals".

[My Ear at his Heart, by Hanif Kureishi (Faber and Faber, 2004). H.K. reads the manuscripts of his father's novels, using them to place dad's "semi-broken existence" in relation to his own, more successful life. A middle-aged book: there's lots about turning 50, and revelations include that there used to be more second-hand bookshops, that London's avant-gardes were less cliquey in the 70s, and that there were once lots of good songs on the radio.]

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Class action

"Since Titus had come to Great Mop Laura had seen little of Mrs. Leak. Mrs. Leak knew what good manners were; she had not been a housemaid at Lazzard Court for nothing. Taken separately, either Titus or his aunt might be human beings, but in conjunction they became gentry. Mrs. Leak remembered her position and withdrew to it, firmly." --Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes.

Of course, when you become a witch -- as Laura has just done -- being gentry ceases to matter as much. Mrs. Leak will be inviting her to covens in no time.

[Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner (Chatto & Windus, 1926). Middle-aged woman sells soul to devil rather than spend the rest of her life as a favourite aunt. Tonally a bit uneven -- the devil's jokes, when he appears, seem to belong in a broader comedy -- it nonetheless casts a spell.]

Friday, September 03, 2004

The (fantasy) lives of animals

"Some thought seemed to be striking Moretobello every now and again; it had had a dream, that night, which was why it had left the stall and felt lost to the world that morning: a dream of forgotten things which seemed to come from another life; of wide grassy plains filled with cows, endless cows, coming lowing towards it. And it had seen itself, there in the middle of them, running about in the herd of cows as if looking for something." -- Italo Calvino, in the story 'Father to Son', in Adam, One Afternoon. Moretobello is an ox, in a valley where mules do most of the lifting.

"The old mule went on putting down its hoofs uncertainly on the surface pitted with flints and new holes; its skin was stretched tight with the impression on it; it had suffered so much in its life that nothing could make any impression on it any more. It was walking along with its muzzle bent down, and its eyes, limited by the black blinkers, were noticing all sorts of things; snails, broken by the shelling, spilling an iridescent slime on the stones: ant-hills ripped open and the black and white ants hurrying hither and thither with eggs; torn-up grasses showing strange hairy roots like trees." -- The same, in the same book, in the story 'Hunger at Bevera'.

These passages were written before (I think) Calvino became declaredly a fantasist; you are in the middle of some politically loaded slice of peasant life, and suddenly the animals are seeing more vividly, and feeling more deeply, than the rural proletarians who own them. It's an odd effect. I'm glad I don't have to guess what it signifies.

[Adam, One Afternoon, and other stories, by Italo Calvino, translated by Archibald Colquhoun and Peggy Wright (Collins, 1957; but before that Einaudi, 1949). Short short stories of the working-class during and after WW2. It's not just self-willed beasties that upset things -- the amoral little boys may be even spookier.]

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Obvious reasons

"Philip met her eyes, and smiled quickly. After which he looked away, and said something she could not possibly have been anticipating. '"What is the name of your goldfish?"'

"Lois frowned. 'I beg your pardon?'

"'"What is the name of your goldfish?" That was the first thing I ever said to you. Do you remember?'

"'No -- when was this?'

"'Twenty-nine years ago. I was round at your parents' house. They threw a dinner party, for my Mum and Dad. You were wearing an incredibly low-cut dress. I couldn't take my eyes off your cleavage.'

"'I don't remember that at all,' Lois said. 'Anyway, I never even had a goldfish.'

"'I know. You were talking to my dad about Colditz, the television programme...'" -- Jonathan Coe, The Closed Circle.

The problem with linking two novels -- this one and The Rotters' Club, in which you can read 'live' the conversation discussed above -- over a gap of 30-something years is that your characters have to keep telling one another their back stories. The advantage is that 'Do you remember?' conversations really happen, and feel less awkward when represented in a double-book.

[The Closed Circle, by Jonathan Coe (Viking, 2004). Second part of The Rotters' Club -- preplanned, so it's unfair to call it a sequel -- set 1999-2003. The less attractive end of the pantomime horse; strong on middle-aged defeat, but weak on Blairism, of which it's in part a satire. The first book's little Thatcherite is now a new Labour MP. Thing is, when he's meant to have been reading Milton Friedman in bed, most future newLabourites were far-left chisellers at the NUS.]

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

[Note: The quotation immediately below marks the beginning of an attempt to work systematically through all the unread books in my room, starting at the top left hand corner of one wall and working shelf by shelf to the bottom right of the next. There will be another of these stand-alone notes when the project is completed -- or abandoned.]


"Although the great Gothic cathedrals had been erected, the Roman arch remained the norm for stone bridges. Although Stonehenge and the pyramids had been standing for millennia as monuments to mechanical advantage, Galileo was just asking anew questions that the Peripatetic philosophers had raised but not fully answered. By the end of the seventeenth century, not only would Newton and Galileo have laid the foundations for modern science and engineering, but the lead pencil would achieve its present form." -- The Pencil, Henry Petroski.

Can you, too, detect traces of a 'more importantly' after that 'but'?

[The Pencil, by Henry Petroski (Knopf, 1989). Makes a case for the importance of its subject by parallelism -- the history of pencil development is a model for the history of engineering -- rather than by claiming that pencils changed the world or by attempting a big narrative arc. Which is admirable. But it reads at some points like a graduate thesis and at others like a poor translation of Lucretius.]

Saturday, August 28, 2004

The good and bad of Jonathan Coe

I can give you it in one quote, a single sentence, from the section in The Rotters' Club dealing with the affair between Bill Anderton, a British Leyland shop steward, and Miriam Newman, a typist there: "They checked into The Talbot Hotel as Mr and Mrs Stokes (a little tribute Bill had decided to pay to the current chairman of British Leyland)."

The good: That detail fits Bill Anderton's character perfectly, adds to it, and helps make a militant union official conducting an affair with someone he has power over sympathetic.

The bad: Coe has to tell you the significance of the name, and throw in "current", which makes the tone suddenly journalistic. He does this kind of thing a lot.

[The Rotters' Club, by Jonathan Coe (Viking, 2001). Historical novel of the 1970s, looser structurally than his earlier work; this gives the characters more space but makes the occasional implausibilities harder to accept. Rereading, for obvious reasons. It stands up.]

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The strange life of English literature

"Important writing, strange to say, rarely gives the exact flavour of its period; if it is successful it presents you with the soul of man, undated. Very minor literature, on the other hand, is the Baedeker of the soul, and will guide you through the curious relics, the tumbledown buildings, the flimsy palaces, the false pagodas, the distorted and fantastical and faery vistas which have cluttered the imagination of mankind at this or that brief period of its history" -- George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England.

Perhaps. It's hard, though, to find books that are both guileless enough to be informative and sufficiently well-written to be read without the aid of either a publisher's advance or a grant from the AHRB. Many of them spell "faery" like that, and without Dangerfield's excuse of mocking a poem he's just quoted.

[The Strange Death of Liberal England, by George Dangerfield (Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, 1935). Political history from the school of Lytton Strachey - somewhere that might do with reopening. You could certainly still steal this one's structural tricks with profit. A sense of inevitability (un-Stracheyish, and in the suburbs of Marxist) also gives it a tremendous shove.]

Monday, August 09, 2004

What not to wear

"Outside in the blinding sunlight, antiquated trams spew out agile targets for the Mercedes taxis. Dark-skinned young men with long black hair parade along the water's edge in bikinis almost big enough to conceal a comb." -- Harry Lime hits Beirut, early in Len Deighton's The Ipcress File.

I've asked the OED, and 'bikini' meant the same in 1962 as it does now -- and as it had done then for more than a decade. So that's either how you get homosexuality into a pre-legalisation thriller, assuming you're a mite homophobic, or a Deighton blind spot. Or both.

[The Ipcress File, by Len Deighton, Hodder & Stoughton, 1962. Has dated interestingly, if not exactly well. Much more expository dialogue than I'd like to think he could now get away with.]

Monday, July 26, 2004


"The sort of dream out of which stuff is made." -- Paul Durcan, 'Mr and Mrs Andrews', from Give Me Your Hand.

[Give Me Your Hand, by Paul Durcan, Macmillan, 1994. Poems facing pictures from the National Gallery. Both visually acute -- yes, Mr and Mrs A are "in the Suffolk desert" -- and pleasingly tangential.]

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Illness as metaphor

"Our men could only draw on such funds of nerve and physique, knowledge and skill, as we had put into them... Like the syphilitic children of some jolly Victorian rake, they could only bring to this harsh examination such health and sanity as all the pleasant vices of Victorian and Edwardian England had left them." -- C.E. Montague, Disenchantment.

He's talking about the English soldiers of World War I. Presumably someone has already written the thesis on venereal disease in post-war writing.

[Disenchantment, by C.E. Montague, Chatto and Windus, 1922. Bellelettristic analysis of the psychological impact of the then Great War, by a leading light of the then Manchester Guardian. Overturns several ideas I hadn't even realised were received by then, in a style heavy on everything -- untranslated chunks of Latin, wide literary reference, long flights of rhetoric -- that journalists are no longer allowed to do.  Given that he appears to have spent 1916-1918 as a censor, the propaganda chapter is perhaps particularly interesting.]

Wednesday, July 14, 2004


"The toddler looks up hungrily at his mother; he has finished his stick of sugar-cane, the mangled remains of which lie scattered about our feet. She takes out a banana from her basket, peels it, drops the skin on the floor and presents it to him. A congenial little slum is being created around us. She smiles happily at me." -- Shiva Naipaul, North of South.

The woman has two other children; they are all sitting next to the author on a bus from Malindi to Lamu, in Kenya. 'Congenial' generates as much of the sting as 'slum', you'll notice.

[North of South, by Shiva Naipaul, Andre Deutsch, 1978. Brother of the more famous V.S., and with a similarly forgiving eye. This is a travelogue taking in Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia. The emphasis is on the risks of being Indian in post-independence Africa. Very fine, very strong; but you would definitely be afraid to eat in front of him.]

First, define your terms

"Nationalism, that specious patriotism of the morally stunted..." -- Louis de Bernieres, Birds Without Wings, chapter 31.

"Guerillas, bandits, brigands or liberating heroes, motivated by hatred and the desire for loot (otherwise known as patriotism)..." -- ibid, chapter 50.

That would be a morally mature hatred and desire for loot, then.

[Birds Without Wings, by Louis de Bernieres, Secker and Warburg, 2004. Attempted Turkish cover-version of War and Peace, not quite as flawed as it is ambitious; the good bits are very good. Caveat: Both quotes are asides. I capped up the beginnings for aesthetic reasons.]

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Before parody

“Know, prince, that when Alphonso set sail for the Holy Land--Is this a season for explanations? cried Theodore. Father, come and unite me to the princess: she shall be mine--in every other thing I will dutifully obey you. My life! my adored Matilda! continued Theodore, rushing back into the inner chamber, will you not be mine? will you not bless your--Isabella made signs to be silent, apprehending the princess was near her end. What, is she dead? cried Theodore: is it possible? The violence of his exclamations brought Matilda to herself. Lifting up her eyes she looked round for her mother--Life of my soul! I am here, cried Hippolita: think not I will quit thee!--Oh! You are too good, said Matilda--but weep not for me, my mother!” – Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto

Much as English has changed since the 18th century, I’m sure “you are too good” has always sounded like a response to being offered a slice of cake.

[The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole, Thomas Lowndes, 1765. Startlingly influential gothic story – and about the worst-written “classic” novel I’ve read, not excluding Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii. It is short, however, and some of the jokes may be intentional.]

Monday, June 28, 2004


"Julia Reed saw it as one of her functions to provide me with authentic American experiences. On one memorable evening in New York she arrived at my apartment in a chauffeur-driven limousine with a bottle of whiskey, three tumblers, and her voluptuous schoolfriend from South Carolina, Courtney Cowart, a fun-loving Anglican theologian. The limousine delivered us to the Radio City Music Hall for a concert by Ray Charles." - Alexander Chancellor, Some Times in America

Ah, those fun-loving Anglican theologians. So quintessentially American.

[Some Times in America, by Alexander Chancellor, Bloomsbury, 1999. Distinguished former Spectator editor spends enjoyable time out of his depth on the New Yorker. A thicket of dropped names.]

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Henry James of the PCC. "Isabel looked at her companion in much wonderment; it struck her as strange that a nature in which she found so much to esteem should break down so in spots. 'My poor Henrietta,' she said, 'you've no sense of privacy.'
"Henrietta coloured deeply, and for a moment her brilliant eyes were suffused, while Isabel found her more than ever inconsequent. 'You do me great injustice,' said Miss Stackpole with dignity. 'I've never written a word about myself!'" - Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady
Non-British or non-journalistic readers can find out what "PCC" means here. They are likely to be disappointed.
[The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James. Adequate praise would require more space and more time than is available on a blog. Wendy Lesser could start you off, though.]

Play nicely, children. This, from Jeremy Paxman's The Political Animal, is about the election defeat of the former Tory whip Derek Conway: "By teatime on polling day, Conway knew his time was up. Astonishingly, Shrewsbury, a town which had remained the plaything of the landed gentry long after universal suffrage, was to be represented in the next parliament by a Labour MP. Conway claims that he took the blow philosophically. But pick at the scab and the poison is still bitter. The 1,800 votes taken by the two anti-European parties could have given him victory. 'Had it not been for James Goldsmith's intervention I'd have won. He died of pancreatic cancer,' he says, and then adds in the most chilling tone, 'I hear it's the most painful of deaths. I'm so pleased.'"
Goldsmith's own reputation for niceness was not of the highest, of course. But still.
[The Political Animal: An Anatomy, by Jeremy Paxman, Michael Joseph, 2002. The political animals anatomised are British MPs, and the main question considered is why we - and Paxman in particular - so despise them. Fluent, readable, funny, well-researched (although he says the Rector of Stiffkey was eaten by a lion, which is wrong) and almost unbearably smug.]

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Self defined. "In later years Murray liked to tell of a dream he had that illustrated Samuel Johnson's likely reaction to his appointment. Boswell seemingly asked the Great Cham, 'What would you say, Sir, if you were told that in a hundred years' time a bigger and better dictionary than yours would be compiled by a Whig?' Johnson merely grunted. 'A dissenter?' Johnson shifted, a little uneasily, in his chair. 'A Scotsman?' Johnson started, and began to speak: 'Sir...' But Boswell persisted. 'And that the University of Oxford would publish it.' 'Sir,' roared Johnson, unable to contain himself. 'In order to be facetious, it is not necessary to be indecent.'" - Simon Winchester, The Meaning of Everything
Murray, you will have guessed, is James Murray, of Oxford English Dictionary fame. Cf, if you get the chance, Max Beerbohm's for-and-against versions of how Johnson would react to the restoration of his house in Gough Square. You'll have to go to the house to do so, because they are written in pencil on a caricature hanging in the hall. But it's probably worth it.
[The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester, Oxford, 2003. Vast store of juicy anecdotage roughly connected to the construction of the OED. The devil's side of the bargain is a somewhat slack-minded approach to history and lexicographical crit, and an authorial presence so insistent you could slap it.]

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Green Cross Code Man, pray for me. This is a long one, and before we start, you need to know that 'Park' is Chicago school sociologist Richard E. Park. Ready now?
"To get from my flat to the nearest tube station, I have to walk round two sides of a grassy square full of pigeons, then cross a tumultuous main road on which heavy trucks persistently thunder. Park seems to suggest that because these trucks fulfil someone else's 'recognised needs' I ought to say to myself: 'I don't mind being kept hopping in fear of my life for ten minutes at the side of the road, because quite clearly Mr X needs to transport his tractor parts to the Continent in container lorries and I recognise his right as a fellow citizen to temporarily inconvenience me.' In fact I feel about the road much as a primitive tribesman might feel about a dangerous river given to unpredictable floods. I personify and apostrophise it, I attribute mysterious and malign volitions to its traffic, and it frequently disturbs my dreams. The example is perhaps frivolous: the general point is not. When the needs and reason for things of 'culture' become sufficiently divorced form our own personal needs and wishes, they turn as intractably alien as anything in nature. A road full of container trucks blocking my path seems to me, at the time of barely-avoided impact, almost uniquely irrational; a park full of grass, trees and pigeons strikes me as a thoroughly sensible arrangement." - Jonathan Raban, Soft City.
[Soft City, by Jonathan Raban, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1974. Although rather dated in the intensity of its despair about civic planning, this captures a lot of the sensations of being new and lost in a big city. And if only they'd bring it back into print, I could stop buying secondhand copies and giving them to people.]

Dropped intro. Frederic Reynolds, 12 years old, thought he was going to die. He was walking down the narrow passage between Vinegar Yard and Bridges Street at nine o'clock on a May evening in 1777, when he heard a terrible noise above his head. The sudden, tremendous rumble made him sure that Drury Lane theatre, which formed one side of the passage, was collapsing, and that he was going to be killed. He covered his head with his hands and ran for his life, but 'found the next morning that the noise did not arise from the falling of the house, but from the falling of the screen in the fourth act; so violent and so tumultuous was the applause and laughter.' He had passed by the opening night of Sheridan's new play, The School for Scandal." - Fintan O'Toole, A Traitor's Kiss
[A Traitor's Kiss: The Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, by Fintan O'Toole, Granta, London, 1997. I never realised that Sheridan had so much politics in him; nor that they were of such a good democratic sort. And you can judge the journalistic pizzazz from the above.]

The years of cholera. This is from a passage in Jonathan Glancey's London - Bread and Circuses praising the construction of the city's sewage system: "Mind you, the job was only done because of the Great Stink of 1858, which meant that the windows of the Palace of Westminster had to be draped with curtains soaked in chloride of lime to mitigate the disgusting smell. The stink came from the Thames, an open sewer for all the city's effluence after a law was passed in 1847 banning domestic cesspits. No longer did salmon leap along the Thames as they had done at the beginning of the century (they returned in 1974). The river was effectively dead. And dangerous. Cholera epidemics broke out soon afterwards."
This means that in the Macaulay passage below, the progress of the centuries is being measured against a social evil that was fresh the previous year. That makes him tougher and even more heedless than I thought.
[London - Bread and Circuses, by Jonathan Glancey, Verso, London, 2001. Beautifully illustrated polemic on London's need for municipal socialism. Buy; lend; draft author for mayor.]

Difficulties of being God. "Two years after Nicole was born, Dennis and Angela's next youngest child, Anne, was knocked down by a van outside their house and died in hospital a few hours later. I have avoided direct presentation of this incident because frankly I find it too painful to contemplate. Of course, Dennis and Angela and Anne are fictional characters, they cannot bleed or weep, but they stand here for all the real people to whom such disasters happen with no apparent reason or justice. One does not kill off characters lightly, I assure you, even ones like Anne, evoked solely for that purpose." - David Lodge, How Far Can You Go?
This chatter is programmatic: demystification of narrative in a novel about the demystification of the Catholic church. It being a demystified novel, you are later told so. But it's uncomfortable in ways that I'm not sure were planned. The sense that talking like that is somehow cheating is probably meant to be there; but the sense of disclaiming responsibility for a world one designed is probably not.
[How Far Can You Go?, by David Lodge, Secker and Warburg, London, 1980. Smarter and more serious, I think, than the campus novels. Same coy experimentalism, though.]

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Progress. "The year 1685 was not accounted sickly; yet in the year 1685 more than one in twenty-three of the inhabitants of the capital died. At present only one inhabitant of the capital in forty dies annually. The difference in salubrity between the London of the nineteenth century and the London of the seventeenth century is very far greater than the difference between London in an ordinary year and London in a year of cholera." - Thomas Babington Macaulay (writing in the 1840s), in the first volume of his History of England.
The gap between us and Macaulay helps make the gap between now and 1685 seem bigger, no? It's the cheery "year of cholera" coda does it.
Having said that, London's now at about one death per hundred, which isn't as much better as I might have hoped.
[The History of England from the Accession of James II, by Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1849-1861. I'm only three-quarters of the way through Vol. I (there are five), so comment is reserved. It's very quotable, though; expect more.]

Thursday, March 18, 2004

City life. "Tokyo turns you into a bank account with a carcass in tow. The size of this single number dictates where the carcass may live, what it drives, how it dresses, who it sucks up to, who it may date and marry, whether it cleans itself in a gutter or a jacuzzi." - David Mitchell, number9dream.
Only Toyko?
[number9dream, by David Mitchell, Sceptre, 2001. The dreams and observations of a twenty-year-old boy coming to the city to find his father. Except the real life tips back and forth into action-movie dreamland, which doesn't always work. The prose, on the other hand, stays consistently fresh-eyed, precise, and lucid.]

Analysis. "The journalist was frankly dumbfounded when he realized that there was no aspect of this particular problem which he could blame directly on the Government. He merely snapped, 'Why do you tolerate such things? As a nation, we are what we are today because of our lack of positive grip over our affairs. We don't know where we are going or why. It is part of the policy of drift, which is our curse.'" - R.K. Narayan, The Man-eater of Malgudi.
[The Man-eater of Malgudi, by R.K. Narayan, Heinemann, 1961. The man-eater is a rogue taxidermist and former professional strongman, who makes hot the life of a mild small-time printer. Makes me want to read more Narayan soon.]

The limits of gourmandism. "'But I swear to you that nothing I have eaten before or since that day has ever tasted so good as those little morsels of arak-flamed Arab boy, stewed to tender perfection, 10,000 feet above sea level in a rocky cleft beneath a volcanic peak in the mountainous region of Sudan known as Jebel Mara.'
"He paused and grinned wickedly. Then he looked into his empty bowl and said, 'At least not until today.'" - James Delingpole, Fish Show.
[Fish Show, by James Delingpole, Penguin, 1997. A restaurant reviewer on a magazine somewhat like the Spectator discovers and abuses magical powers. It's as whimsical as it sounds. Very witty; but without enough style to cover the lack of anything much else.]

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

The auld enemy. "But what had distinguished Stephen Lime, what had afforded him the opportunities to soar above heights his father had never imagined, was that he had been the one with the vision to realise that there was an exception to the rule - that there was something you could invest in that guaranteed vast returns for negligable risk.
"It was called the Conservative and Unionist Party of Great Britain." - Christopher Brookmyre, Quite Ugly One Morning.
He goes on, of course, to be murderously corrupt. This quotation is given to register my unexpected feeling of nostalgia at remembering what it was like to have a government you despised and an opposition you were sure would fix things. Not that I want to feel that rage again live.
[Quite Ugly One Morning, by Christopher Brookmyre, Little, Brown and Company, 1996. Crime-and-satire thing, hilarious but with curlicues all over the place.]

Getting done. "'I said, "I want to advise you of your rights."
"'He said, "I know my rights, don't bother."
"'I said, "I want to advise you. Everybody has to be advised of their rights."
"'He said, "What can I tell ya? If you got witnesses, I'm fucked."
"'I said, "We got witnesses."
"'He said, "Well, then I'm fucked."'" - the taking of Frank Koehler, in A Cold Case, by Philip Gourevitch.
[A Cold Case, by Philip Gourevitch, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001. A spare, humane police procedural, written without the curlicues you'd feel obliged to invent if you were making it up, or the ones a less good journalist would have tacked on.]

A testimonial. "BURNS, ROBERT. Robert Burns' humane and lyrical rationalism had no impact upon the formation of this book, a fact more sinister than any exposed by mere attribution of sources. See also Emerson." - from the Index of Plagiarisms in Lanark by Alasdair Gray.
[Lanark, by Alasdair Gray, Canongate, 1981. A centaur, half bildungsroman and half dystopia, and with an air of having grown slowly in the back of someone's mind for a very, very long time.]

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Squelch. "How pleasing that such profound prattle should inevitably find its way into print! 'Not precisely a symphony in white... for there is a yellowish dress.. brown hair, etc... another with reddish hair... and of course there is the flesh colour of the complexions.'
"Bon Dieu! did this wise person expect white hair and chalked faces? And does he then, in his astounding consequence, believe that a symphony in F contains no other note, but shall be a continued repetition of F, F, F? ...Fool!" - James McNeill Whistler, in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, responding to a review of his painting "Symphony in White No. III" in the Saturday Review.
[The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, by James McNeill Whistler, Heinemann, 1890. Consists mostly of cuttings from Whistler's critics, followed by the slashings he sent in response. Lots of pettiness, lots of random French phrases, lots of English that doesn't make actual sense (or at least not now), but enough venom and penetration to remain addictive.]

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Obvious but useful. "Like many at the time, he chose to overlook what is clear to anyone who has spent time with the mentally ill - the extraordinary pain involved. To find authenticity in the signs of madness is like finding a desirable simplicity in poverty; only those not obliged to experience either can afford such intellectual slackness." - Jenny Diski, in Don't, on R.D. Laing.
[Don't, by Jenny Diski, Granta, 1998. Sauntering, polished essays which turn out to improve on collection. The subtexts line up; the jokes, mostly, don't repeat. I wonder how much editing that took her.]

Gut politics. "Mr. Polly's system, like a confused and ill-governed democracy, had been brought to a state of perpetual clamour and disorder, demanding now evil and unsuitable internal satisfactions such as pickles and vinegar and the crackling on pork, and now vindictive external expression, such as war and bloodshed throughout the world." - H.G. Wells, The History of Mr. Polly.
This restates an earlier, purpler passage in which Mr. Polly's stomach is "like a badly managed industrial city during a period of depression; agitators, acts of violence, strikes, the forces of law and order doing their best, rushings to and fro, upheavals, the Marseillaise, tumbrils, the rumble and thunder of the tumbrils"; but the substitution of 'democracy' for 'city', and the closeness of bad food to world war, probably brings you nearer what Wells wanted you to think.
[The History of Mr. Polly, by H. G. Wells, 1910. Will never be fashionable again. Read it anyway.]

Monday, February 02, 2004

Max Beerbohm considered as a yoof columnist. "Shortly after Max's success with his Works, Harmsworth put at his disposal a column in the Daily Mail. Max came on board in December 1896 and had carte blanche to write about anything he wished - fire brigades, sign-boards, knighthoods. The pieces all had the kind of smart-alecky hook Harmsworth liked. 'What I want ever morning in the paper,' Harmsworth said, 'is something new and strange.'" - N. John Hall, Max Beerbohm: A kind of a life.
To translate: Beerbohm was hired by the first modern British newspaper baron as a means of exploiting the decadence craze. He was chosen to write look-at-me comment on subjects which he was unqualified to discuss, except as a representative of a certain kind of young person. This should be sounding familiar. It may be of comfort to Bidisha, Johann Hari et al that he went on to be one of the most admired personal essayists in English.
[Max Beerbohm: A kind of a life, by N. John Hall, Yale 2002. Written in a glaringly first-person style as a tribute to its subject, and an excellent demonstation of how hard that style is to master.]

Sunday, January 11, 2004

The hidden wit of reference books. This is the example errata slip in the Oxford Guide to Style, the book formerly known as Hart's Rules. The trick is to imagine what kind of book could contain all three errors, and how many legal actions might result:

p. 197, line 9: for 2.5 mg digoxin PO read 0.25 mg digoxin PO
p. 204, line 15: for live wire read earth wire
p. 399, line 2: for guilty. read 'not proven'.

[The Oxford Guide to Style, by R. M. Ritter, Oxford University Press 2000. If you need it, you need it; which doesn't explain why I'm reading it for fun.]

Jane Austen's broken homes. "Elizabeth, however, had never been blind to the impropriety of her father's behaviour as a husband. She had always seen it with pain; but respecting his abilities and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook, and to banish from her thoughts that continual breach of obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible. But she had never felt so strongly as now, the disadvantages which must attend the children of so unsuitable a marriage, nor ever been so fully aware of the evils arising from so ill-judged a direction of talents..." -- Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.
There is a book in the manner of Jane Austen and the French Revolution to be written on Jane Austen and Divorce. Oh, I know: it's probably been done several times, and refuted as often. And in the field this passage is no doubt embarrassingly famous. Opening of Chapter 42: striking flash of otherwise concealed misery. This is the second para; it's even clearer if you add the first.
[Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, 1813. Further comment probably impertinent.]