Wednesday, November 09, 2005


First, from the Telegraph's "nursery national curriculum" piece, the children's minister, Beverley Hughes, with the disturbing non-denial denial of the day. My bold:

"We are not talking about sitting very young children in chairs and making them learn numbers and letters where that is inappropriate."

Second, a running story I must somehow have missed: "Venice's increasingly bitter clam wars." Setting aside the implication that this started as a bitterness-free war -- just good-natured and friendly violence -- there is plenty of relishable gothic detail here. I am particularly pleased with the warning that, if a clam is cheap and temptingly big, it's probably poisonous. A lesson for life.

Third, the Pride and Prejudice movie appears to have reached New York, and in one of Anthony Lane's weeks, rather than David Denby's. Good news for admirers of withering sarcasm. [Via.]

Fourth, I notice I have now exceeded 100 posts. In two years. That's really not very impressive, is it?

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Fun with foreshadowing

This is how, in chapter two of Walter Mosley's The Man in My Basement, the narrator explains his habit of taunting a childhood friend:

I did some things better than Clarance. I was good at sports. But he wouldn't compete with me there. He said I was better than him but I couldn't get a scholarship or anything. And he was right. Like my uncle Brent was always happy to say, 'He could win the race, be he cain't beat the clock.'

So I tortured Clarance now and then, angry at him for my inadequacies.

And here, at the end of the same chapter, are his feelings about how he used to swear at the irritating uncle Brent and run away:

That night in my house, wandering completely naked through the half-dark rooms, I thought about how much fun it was to torture my mean old uncle.

In seventy pages' time, a visitor will ask this narrator to lock him in a steel cage. How do you think their relationship will develop?

[The Man in My Basement, by Walter Mosley, Serpent's Tail, 2004. In fact, the whole power of the novel is in Mosley's refusal to go off the implied deep end. He builds slowly to quieter power games. Still a diagram, as they say, rather than a painting, but the drawing is cool and deliberate.]

Berliner to Berliner

Le Monde has had a redesign; by two blokes from The Scotsman, it says here. The result is that it now looks less like a late 1950s edition of the New Statesman and more like a newspaper: specifically, the new-style Guardian. The great Plantu is kicked downpage to make way for keylineless photographs and oddly light headlines in a subtly wedged serif -- although the absence of a quater-page features blurb at the top does make them look stronger. Judging by the fronts in PDF and the inside pages in their advertising blurb, they're also aiming for a five-column grid: Chris Brooke may be disappointed. I must buy a physical copy and find out what it really looks like.

The art of precis

"Lowell, it turns out, was the guy you can see just behind Zelig's shoulder: He corresponded with Eliot, hung out with Jackie and Bobby K., and traveled around with Eugene McCarthy in '68. He also beat up his own father, had endless strange, possibly sexless extramarital affairs with innumerable young women, and endured terrible periods of psychosis, frequently accompanied by alarming rants about Hitler. In other words, it's one of those books you thrust on your partner with an incredulous cry of 'This is me!'" -- Nick Hornby condenses Ian Hamilton's biography of Robert Lowell in The Polysyllabic Spree. This is from the first essay, and representative.

[The Polysyllabic Spree, by Nick Hornby, Believer Books, 2004. Puts its author next to Clive James on the list of people who ought to give up their lucrative careers pleasing millions and become full-time comic literary critics for an audience of a few thousand including, importantly, me. We're selfish, but we want you more.]

Not even the small print

American Airlines has had a campaign running in the newspapers for several weeks designed to suggest easy opulence through its choice of in-flight meals. It was only today, while resting a bowl of soup on it, that I noticed how bizarre the text is:

Obviously we don't think you should choose an airline based solely on the quality of its ice cream. But come on, Ben and Jerry's? A bowl of Vermont's finest for every Business Class passenger? And in First class we'll top it off with hot fudge sauce and sprinkle it with chopped nuts.

So, to recap: in order to get a bowl of ice cream, you have to pay several hundreds of pounds extra to fly business. If you want hot sauce and nuts on top, you have to pay many hundreds more to fly first. No first, no sauce. And this is American Airlines being nice. Must be some fudge.

Monday, November 07, 2005

New from the Tories: Bigger wristbands

"In a speech partly drafted by David Willetts, Mr Davis will champion social justice and will urge the Tories to embrace the so-called 'wristband generation' of young people who wear their social concerns literally on their sleeves." - Daily Telegraph, this morning. My bold.

And before you say, I know. But I'll bet you, oh, pennies, that they thought they were using the pedantic sense.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Man with MS dies of complications at 66? It's a curse, I tell you!

If anyone out there is collecting evidence for the thesis that The Independent wants to be a sort of right-on Daily Mail, they should check out Exhibit A before it disappears behind the paywall.

Our exhibit describes a curse on those who tangle with Oetzi, that Stone Age corpse from the Italian Alps. Prolonged contact, we're told, leads to "strange, often accidental deaths". The toll is long-ish, but not dominated by strangness: it runs to two mountaineering accidents, a car crash in heavy traffic, one heart attack relatively young, a brain tumour and two deaths after long illnesses.

The long-term medical conditions have to be included, by the way. Dr Tom Loy, who had an hereditary blood-clotting problem, is the latest to die and the hook for the story. And Konrad Splindler, an Austrian archeologist who died at 66 from MS complications, provides the liveliest quote: "I think it's a load of rubbish. It is all a media hype. The next thing you will be saying I will be next."

Kathy Marks, who wrote this tosh, clearly wishes to be thought of as tongue-in-cheek. The nearest she comes to a named source arguing for the curse is "for others, the link between Mr Loy's death and that of other men associated with Oetzi is irresistible". And I will agree that a bit of amusing nonsense is a necessary part of the newspaper reader's diet. But when that amusement amounts to Fun With Cadavers, it becomes questionable. To quote Ms Marks's piece:

Academics, of course, pour scorn on such notions. Tom Loy's colleagues at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience refused to comment yesterday. But one university source said staff were deeply upset, not only by his death, but by all the speculation about a curse.

"They feel that it trivialises his death, and does not do justice to his life and work," said the source. "He was a brilliant academic, and that is how his colleagues want to remember him."


Now available here: almost a year of new cuttings. I will try not to leave it so long next time.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

You've got strife

Here's a nice streak of piss and vinegar from Peter Jenkins's The Battle of Downing Street, a venerable quickie book on the "In Place of Strife" controversy. We are operating from the point of view of the Prime Minster, Harold Wilson. It is June 1969, and we are attempting to get the TUC, newly led by Vic Feather, to create rules against unofficial strikes strong enough to save us from a doomed attempt to legislate against them. Lucky us:

One of the most effective weapons in the TUC's armoury is boredom. It has the capacity to deliver boredom by the megaton, the desolation it can inflict on the other side of a negotiation table can be terrible to behold. Many a rapacious capitalist had laid down his arms and put up his money at the rumbling of trade union leaders going nuclear. What a prospect for Prime Minister to awake to on a summer's morning with the birds singing in St. James's Park -- four hours with the General Council! The sight of them shuffling in, settling round the table in strict order of senility -- so many of them! Harold Wilson would struggle with matches and pipe trying to remember some of the dreary fellows' names -- who was that one, Alf, Bert or yet another Bill? Listening to them -- "speaking from long experience" (tendentious reminiscence); "plain words" (cliche); "making it quite clear" (unnecessary reptition); "brief intervention" (long-winded monologue); "point of information" (fatuous question); "expediting the proceedings" (wasting more time); "useful suggestion" (red herring); "summing up" (going over it all gain); "valuable progress" (hours wasted); "another meeting?" (Oh God!). "The TUC doesn't like rush", Feather had said. It was a war of attrition; the TUC's tactics: grind the enemy down, wear him to a standstill, bore him into submission.

The violence of the tone here is uncharacteristic: for the most part an ironic equanimity is maintained. And the portrait of Vic Feather is mostly admiring.

[The Battle of Donwning Street, by Peter Jenkins (Charles Knight & Co, 1970). Not exactly an enduring classic -- it's repititious in places, and prone to misprints even when not retouchtyped quickly by a blogger. On the other hand, refreshingly free of Thatcherite or Labour-movement's-big-missed-chance hindsight, which makes it easier to see how limited the measures in "In Place of Strife" were, and how farcical and contingent on tactics was their collapse. Probably my last trade union book for a while.]

Advice from the Windsors

"Never arrange to mate things within your own family." -- Prince Charles, in that Today programme interview. It was ages ago, but I had to wait until Pick of the Week before I was sure I'd heard right.

To be fair, he's talking about rare pigs; and his concern is prompted by his sister's boar ripping his sows' ears, rather than genetic disorders or hereditary porphyria or anything. Still, how unlike the home life of our own dear etc, etc.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Unread Book Route

So, about that "One third of people buy books to show off" thing. Yes, I know I'm days late; the dog ate my excuse. And yes, I know it's a "funny poll" story, the lowest form of press-release journalism. But there are some interesting distinctions not being made.

In the first category, there are the books bought to show off with no intention of reading. This is what the poll-answerers appear to be confessing to; few if any of the crowd of commenters on the blog entry are joining them, perhaps because that would be genuinely shameful.

Then there are the heavy or trendy books bought with the intention of reading, on which we give up; most commenters are confessing to this, but it seems hardly a sin at all. If, as Q.D. Leavis approximately said, good reading means living beyond your intellectual means, then it's not surprising if good readers shoot the moon once in a while. Shows ambition.

And then there is a category one of the commenters did mention: the show-off books read without understanding. Five years ago, I "read" Anna Livia Plurabelle, the supposedly most crowd-pleasing section of Finnegans Wake; I followed the advice of someone cleverer and took it in one gulp, as a sort of abstract word-painting, rather than attempting to decode it line by line. I believed myself to be enjoying it. I even had a hazy, distant sense of comprehension. This is now entirely vanished, along with every single word. Someone has failed a test there, and I think it's me.

Deeper still, and stickier, is the distinction between reading to look good and reading to be good, in the sense Q.D. would want you to. In front of a sceptical pollster, attempting to confess to the second could be even more embarrassing.

Disappointingly non-scary

My god, there's an official Daily Mail Editor's Blog. This creates expectations. Just how cute are Paul Dacre's kittens? And can he prevent them spreading subversion?

We may never know, I'm afraid. The editor in question here is called "Stacey" and posts mainly about how wonderful her website's new features are.

You may also notice that the website in question is starting to plug RSS systematically. It has been, as Stacey would say, an overwhelming success, with the Bloglines subscriber base of the main news feed soaring from 18 to 20.

By way of reference, the somewhat anomalous Guardian front-page feed is on 9,277; the Telegraph front-page feed manages 190; and even the Independent one has 54 subscribers, despite a pig-ugly interface, a tendency to throw in financial stories at random, and a main heading that reads "Articles from the Indepentent".

Monday, October 24, 2005

How terribly British

"The Northern Light was one of the most militant strike bulletins, and its distributors were often arrested. A touch of generosity, which would have been unthinkable in most countries, entered into relations between police and strikers here in Durham. When Stephenson [the editor] was fined £2 with the option of fourteen days' imprisonment, he chose to go to prison, but asked the police not to call at his home on the day he was due to go inside. They agreed, and he met them at the railway station. When Stephenson asked how they knew that he would keep his word, the constable was surprised. 'Funny thing, nobody ever thought of that'." -- The General Strike, Julian Symons.

Even more British was the end of the strike: the anway reluctant TUC leaders appear to have taken vague reassurances of goodwill from Baldwin as a promise of no reprisals. They awoke to employers imposing wage cuts and legislation that would broadly have satisfied Thatcher. If Baldwin had implied -- stopping scrupulously short of saying -- that he would meet you at the railway station, you would have needed police around his house at once.

[The General Strike, by Julian Symons (Cresset Press, 1957). Doubtless completely superseded account of great trade-union disaster; lots of great narrative colour, but the overall effect is more GCSE history than Strange Death of Liberal England.]

Sunday, October 23, 2005

For a list of literary lists

"Maps of towns and plains he sold, and other maps made to order. He would sell a young man a map that showed where a particular girl might be found at different hours of the day. He sold husband maps and wife maps. He sold maps to poets that showed where thoughts of power and clarity had come to other poets. He sold well-digging maps. He sold vision-and-miracle maps to holy men, sickness-and-accident maps to physicians, money-and-jewel maps to thieves, and thief maps to the police" -- Russell Hoban, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz.

From the same book, but off-topic, here is an angry, misogynistic young man's view of cruise ship passengers:

The parents sat with the faces and necks of every day coming out of their holiday clothes, spongy backs and flabby arms of women in sun-back dresses, festive trousers on men with office feet. Girls displayed in the shops of their summer dresses the stock that had not moved all year, their mouths open with surrender, their eyes blurred with hope or sharp with arithmetic.

And here is the atmosphere in a mental hospital:

In the corridors a smell of cooking wandered like a minstrel of defeat.

[The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz, by Russell Hoban (Cape, 1974). A middle aged cartographer runs away from his shop. His son sets an imaginary lion on him -- the real ones being extinct -- then follows in pursuit himself. They often near the border between the mythic and the stupid, but humour and bright, accurate description keep them mostly honest.]

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Through the funny mirror

"The Tories' biggest problem is that, like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have a fully developed philosophy and program behind their Third Way." -- New Democrat wonk Bruce Reed, in Slate.

Many Tories, I imagine, would fancy living in a world where their biggest problem was Tony Blair's ruthless philosophical coherence.

In the next seat

"On the third day, he had two pieces of luck. First, he met an entirely drunken man who told him about a church in Hammersmith that would give him food, and so he ate. Second, he trekked to the house of a friend in Neasden, north London, who lent him £100, which allowed him, among other things, to buy a one-week bus pass so that he could sleep on the night buses." -- No direction home, Nick Davies, Society Guardian, Wednesday, October 19.

I should have pointed to this days ago. I meant to. On the other hand, the Guardian should have had it on the front page of the main section (what else is that "Column Five" for?) rather than the front page of its local authority jobs section.

Signs I hadn't seen before

In Castle Street, Nottingham, between a pub that's turned into a bar and a bar that's turned into a ghost, there is a door with this on it:


No other information. I suppose that if a ban on human cloning cannot be effectively enforced, the devil's technology must be turned to the Lord's purposes.

Why not write to your MP?

I walked around Oxford with a friend the other day; we ended up in a charity shop, looking through an old copy of The Universal Letter-Writer. There was nothing in it as good as this...


Dear Mr. Pobsby-Burford,

Though I am myself an ardent Tory, I cannot but rejoice in the crushing defeat you have just suffered in West Odgetown. There are moments when political conviction is overborne by personal sentiment; and this is one of them. Your loss of the seat that you held is the more striking by reason of the splendid manner in which the northern and eastern divisions of Odgetown have been wrested from the Liberal Party. The great bulk of the newspaper-reading public will be puzzled by your extinction in the midst of our party's triumph. But then, the great mass of the newspaper-reading public has not met you. I have. You will probably not remember me. You are the sort of man who would not remember anybody who might not be of some definite use to him. Such, at least, was one of the impressions you made on me when I met you last summer at a dinner given by our friends the Pelhams. Among the other things in you that struck me were the blatant pomposity of your manner, your appalling flow of cheap platitudes, and your hoggish lack of ideas. It is such men as you that lower the tone of public life. And I am sure that in writing to you thus I am but expressing what is felt, without distinction of party, by all who sat with you in the late Parliament.

The one person in whose behalf I regret your withdrawal into private life is your wife, whom I had the pleasure of taking in to the aforesaid dinner. It was evident to me that she was a woman whose spirit was well-nigh broken by her conjunction with you. Such remnants of cheerfuless as were in her I attributed to the Parliamentary duties which kept you out of her sight for so very many hours daily. I do not like to think of the fate to which the free and independent electors of West Odgetown have just condemned her. Only, remember this: chattel of yours though she is, and timid and humble, she despises you in her heart.

I am, dear Mr. Pobsby-Burford,

Yours very truly,


--from "How Shall I Word It?", Max Beerbohm's attempt to add some less elevated letters to collections of the kind mention above, which is in And Even Now (Heinemann, 1920). Further praise ought by now to be superfluous. Surely someone could bring out a Selected Essays?

A sincerity test for classicists

Did you hate Gladiator? Will you say so?

Thursday, March 03, 2005

But where's the margin in that?

David Foster Wallace has an extraordinary-formatted-even-for-him new thing in the current Atlantic. (It annoyed The Elegant Variation, is how I know.) If you don't have the .pdf power to see, it uses pastel blocks over phrases in the main text to link to notes on pastel blocks in a generous, and sometimes expanding, scholar's margin.

One obvious accusation is hyperlink-envy; the look is vaguely reminiscent of a children's encyclopedia circa 1996. Mr Wallace being Mr Wallace, he also makes quite clever use of the ability to emphasise blocks with his notes, rather than mere points -- he has been upgraded to Spanish punctuation.

But this design also embodies a preference for sidenotes that seems to crop up every time people try to rethink texts -- so much more graphic than footnotes, so much less hierarchical. (See also Gray, Alasdair, Prefaces, Book of, The.)

And so much less readable! If the notes append anything more than chapter and verse, you get competing vertical movements on the page, which makes concentrating on one thing harder, and keeping your place when jumping about harder still. The effect is exaggerated on screen -- especially if you are also having to cope with anti-aliased Linotype Didot -- but it is real on paper. There are reasons why footnotes won this historical battle, and they go beyond the simple desire to use all available space.

You want an opinion on the words? Strong. It's a sketch of a talk-radio host, and it puts back in the shabbiness and the marginal (yes, visual pun time) hourly-rate workers left out of more conventional, hyped exposes. Result is maybe an overcorrection -- too much of the pity, not enough of the power -- but the correction was necessary, and it's adroitly done.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Know your stereotypes

Here is Augusten Burroughs, moderately amusing serial autobiographer, in Dry, his second volume. He is talking to an Englishman called Hayden over breakfast at a rehab centre:

"These are delicious," he says of the reconstituted scrambled eggs, the same eggs that sit on my own plate, untouched.

So far I have lost almost ten pounds. Why do stars suddenly appear... "You're from London, what would you know?"

He laughs, "That's very true, actually. This is far better than anything my mother ever made."

I make a face. "Did you have that nasty, yeasty stuff they spread on toast, what's it called?"

His eyes brighten. "Vegemite! Oh yes, I love Vegemite."

"You'll enjoy dinner then," I promise him.

Now, I accept a bit of national caricature here and there, and this is a fairly affectionate case. The character would in real life probably go for Brit-in-New-York self-parody, so fine. But how difficult is it to get the details right? Australians like Vegemite. English people (some of them) like Marmite. It's an entirely different semi-repulsive yeast spread.

[Dry, by Augusten Burroughs (Atlantic, 2004). Memoir of an alcoholic young adman -- rehab to beer campaign -- and sequel to a memoir of traumatic-but-somehow-heartwarming childhood called Running with Scissors. Despite loud eccentricity, this feels more machine-finished than I would like; you can tell he's written screenplays.]

Monday, February 28, 2005

Two more pieces of unconnected pedantry

First thing: I note that the US edition of Ian Rankin's Fleshmarket Close has suffered a title change. Can you hear the splutters from Edinburgh's famous Royal Boulevard?

Second thing: A gentleman in the comments at Shot by Both Sides raised something I'd been wondering about myself -- how do Lea and Perrins, makers of the One True Worcestershire Sauce, feel about seeing a knock-off Worcester sauce involved in a ginormous food scare? I was wondering more specifically, however, about how their lawyers will feel about the use of "Worcestershire" here.

Descant on second thing: Perhaps being slightly finicky about names ("It's Worcestershire, always...") can be more dangerous than not fussing at all. My favourite example is in this review. Of course Alan Hollinghurst's characters must Hoover up, rather than hoover up, their cocaine; one hates to think of generic vacuum cleaners being implicated.

Discussion of and even quotation from books should resume shortly.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Spelling bee: creativity section

The challenge: How many ways can you spell 'Strindberg' in one paragraph? The number to beat: Three.

"Strinberg & Helium is a witty web cartoon that features August Stringberg and 'a joyous, floating friend created to brighten his day'. It is so popular that it tops anything by the Swedish writer on the all-important Google rankings." -- Web Watch, Sean Dodson, Guardian, February 24.

Disclaimer: I understand that newspapers are written and edited under pressure, and that things like this will sometimes slip through. Unlike this site, however, newspapers are meant to be edited; there no prizes for catching my mistakes, as yet.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Flog it!

To appreciate the following, which is from S.N. Behrman's Duveen and quoted at slightly greater than normal length, you need to know that Duveen is Joseph Duveen, the greatest salesman in art history; Thompson is Joseph R. Thompson, the owner of a chain of restaurants; and "the Chicago dealer" is a lesser salesman who has run out of paintings expensive enough to sell Thompson and decided to throw him to the lion. The place is Duveen's New York gallery, the time somewhat before the great depression. Ready?

"Duveen led Thompson, as well as the Chicago dealer, into the lift, which bore them to sacrosanct upper regions. Duveen strode swiftly though a thickly carpeted, dimly lit room that contained six Old Masters reclining on easels. Thompson, in his way, was almost out of the room when, like Mrs. Lot, he looked back. He lingered; from the blur of the six pictures he got a quick impression of infinite desirability. He called the hurrying Duveen back. 'Here are some pictures,' he said. 'What about these?'

"Duveen took his arm. 'My dear Mr. Thompson,' he said gently, 'there is nothing in this room that would interest you in the least.'

"'Why not?' argued the new pupil. 'Of course they interest me. What would I be doing here if they didn't interest me?'

"'These pictures, my dear fellow, I am reserving, as a matter of fact, for a favourite client,' Duveen said. 'They will interest him far more than they could possibly interest you.'

"Thompson protested; he would yield to no one in acuteness of interest. 'Why do you think they wouldn't interest me?' he asked. 'I want you to know, Sir Joseph, that I own some pretty good pictures.'

"'I am sure you do,' Duveen said soothingly. 'And if you will just follow me, I am sure that I can add to your collection and, if I may say so, improve it. But not these. You are a busy man, and I don't want to waste your time. Not with these.'

"'Why not?' repeated Mr Thompson.

"Pushed to the wall, Duveen dropped all pretence of tact. He made it plain that he thought the pictures were over Thompson's head, both aesthetically and economically.

"'How much for the six?' Thompson demanded.

"'A million dollars, I am afraid,' said Duveen, as if pained at having to demonstrate the truth of an unflattering statement.

"Thompson was ready with an answer. 'I'll take them,' he said vindictively."

A virtuoso piece of dialogue construction, that, as well as salesmanship, with adverbs that do something. The aggravating "soothingly" is my favourite.

[Duveen, by S.N. Behrman, 1953. Jars and jars and jars of polish rubbed into a collection of stories pretty enough to stand it. Loose-ish overall structure because once a multi-part magazine profile, but elegantly tight within each chapter.]

His media

Andrew Collins has just made a fresh appearance in MediaGuardian's "My Media", possibly to celebrate the second anniversary of his previous one. Although to be fair to him, he has had two different books to plug. And to be fair to them, last time he was recruited for some internal Guardian Media Group squabbling; an additional chance to suck up probably made things feel better all round. Consider:

February 24, 2003 "The only newspaper I've ever read is the Guardian. In these times of trouble, we need it more than ever. But I have stopped taking the Observer since it came out as pro-war. I dislike the papers that eat up the government propaganda about terrorist attacks. I like reasoned coverage." [Read the rest, if you're registered.]

February 21, 2005 "The Guardian is the only newspaper I've ever had every day. MediaGuardian is my favourite bit, and I love Review. I'm an avid reader of the Bad Science column in Life because it annoys me so much. I'm not a great fan of the Evening Standard - I wish there was a better London paper that didn't so hate our mayor." [Ditto.]

Thursday, February 17, 2005


"Many people would think safeguarding the future of Manchester United is frivolous compared with trying to save lives in Colombia in the longest-running civil war in the world... Being held up at roadblocks may seem exciting and people might think that what I do at Shareholders United is a step backwards from that but the thing that really gets my adrenalin going..." -- Oliver Houston, who by day works for the TUC on worthy stuff, and by other day runs the fans' group trying to stop a takeover of Manchester United by Malcolm Glazer, in conversation with The Times. "Many people" seems a pleasant understatement.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

CV of the week

"Sir Henry Woods, KCVO, Lt RN; late Admiral and Pasha in the Imperial Ottoman Naval Service; Grand Cordon of the Medijeh and Osmanieh; Knight Commander of the Saxe-Coburg Order; Aide-de-Camp for some years to the late Sultan, Abdul Hamid" -- self-description of an 1870s Turkish correspondent of the Manchester Guardian, from the title page of his autobiography, Spunyarn; quoted in Guardian: Biography of a Newspaper, by David Ayerst.

To judge by what Ayerst says, much of the rest of Spunyarn consists of boasting about the lies Woods told various newspapers. Still, having government officials deceive your readers directly was probably cheaper than embedding.

[Guardian: Biography of a Newspaper, by David Ayerst (Collins, 1971). Read as part of this blog's continued stalking of C.E. Montague (last episode here), this turns out nonetheless to be more interesting than your average institutional biography -- and a hell of a lot more so than Changing Faces, the post-1956 follow-up volume. Is aided by fifty years of C.P. Scott, and an astonishing photograph of the crowds at his funeral procession in Manchester.]

Friday, February 11, 2005

Holmes and the hive

Michael Chabon, in one of the more ornate chapter openings of his Sherlock Holmes Versus The Nazis whatsit The Final Solution, explains elegantly why an elderly detective should keep bees. It's a lovely passage, but I suspect it's based on an anachronism. See if you can spot:

"The bees did speak to him, after a fashion. The featureless drone, the sonic blank that others heard was to him a shifting narrative, rich, inflected, variable and distinct as the separate stones of a featureless grey shingle, and he moved along the sound, tending to his hives like a beachcomber, stooped and marvelling. It meant nothing, of course - he wasn't as batty as all that - but this did not imply, not at all, that the song had no meaning. It was the song of a city, a city as far from London as London was from heaven or Rangoon, a city in which all did precisely what they were supposed to do, in the way that had been prescribed by their most remote and venerable ancestors. A city in which gems, gold ingots, letters of credit, or secret naval plans were never stolen, in which long-lost second sons and ne'er-do-well first husbands did not turn up from the Wawoora Valley or the Rand with some clever backwoods trick for scaring an old moneybags out of his wits. No stabbings, garrotings, beating, shootings; almost no violence at all, apart from the occasional regicide. All of the death in the city of the bees had been scheduled, provided for, tens of millions of years ago; each death as it occurred was translated, efficiently and immediately, into more life for the hive.

"It was the sort of city in which a man who had earned his keep among murderers and ruffians might choose to pass the remainder of his days, listening to its song, as a young man fresh to Paris or New York or Rome (or even, as he still dimly recalled, London) stood on a balcony, at the window of a bed-sit, on the roof of a tenement house, listening to the rumble of traffic and the fanfare of horns, and feeling that he was hearing the music of his own mysterious destiny."

Now, the similitude tying those two paragraphs together is between the hum of bees and what less careful writers would call the 'roar' of traffic. Motor traffic roars, anyway. Do horses and carriages rumble? Probably. It's an intelligent way to evoke the noise of non-pneumatic wheels on cobbles rather than of engines. But was that the predominant noise? Is that what you would have heard, leaning out of a tenement window? I'd like someone to tell me 'yes', convincingly.

[The Final Solutiion, by Michael Chabon (Fourth Estate, 2005). Picked this up thinking it might be a disaster; it sounded like the winner of a New Statesman competition for most tastelessly titled detective story. It's much better than it needs to be, as the author might say -- the prose is antiqued, but still witty and vivid, and the collision between Holmes and the Holocaust is more sensitively managed than I thought it could be. Still slightly uneasy about it, though, and not in a good way.]

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

What the stars are reading

"By this time my left hand is almost numb despite its shooting mitten and, holding the heavy Tolley round the small of the stock with my now functional right hand, I attempt to revive the left by blowing on it, the resulting condensation, if anything, making it feel colder. For a moment or two, I forget about the geese in my efforts to restore feeling to my hands. 'Wink-wink, wink-wink' -- I look up to see two almost overhead. There is no time to stop the gun as the long brown barrels swing beyond the leader's head. A gout of orange flame, a cloud of grey smoke and burning fragments of the Daily Mail among the whins silence the remaining legions out in the estuary." -- Richard Shelton, The Longshoreman.

By this time, I already knew Shelton was a crusty old thing, naturally given to conservatism. So it shocked me somewhat to realise I'd like him better if he loaded his home-made cartridges with The Times, or even the Daily Telegraph. I am, it turns out, a snob.

[The Longshoreman: A Life at the Water's Edge, by Richard Shelton (Atlantic Books, 2004). Memoir of wildfowling -- that is, shooting wildfowl -- and top-level fisheries science, with a little light trainspotting near the start. The effect is the opposite of that you're led to expect in autobiographies. On people, human stories, the places he's been, Shelton could be any moderately entertaining buffer; but ask him to delineate the life cycle of the brown shrimp and he becomes precise and fascinating. Text is kerned too enthusiastically on punctuation -- a full stop followed by a capital T pretty much overlaps -- which seems to be the trend.]

Monday, February 07, 2005

Bagehot as Nostradamus

If Walt had been able to make these two passages from The English Constitution a little less clear, people might be making that comparison seriously:

The wartime career of Winston Churchill: "Under a cabinet constitution in a special emergency this people can choose a ruler for the occasion. it is quite possible and even likely that he would not be ruler before the occasion. The great qualities, the imperious will, the rapid energy, the eager nature fit for a great crisis are not required -- are impediments -- in common times. A Lord Liverpool is better in everyday politics than a Chatham -- a Louis Philippe far better than a Napoleon. By the structure of the world, we often want, at the sudden occurence of a grave tempest, to change the helmsman -- to replace the pilot of the calm by the pilot of the storm. In England we have had so few catastrophes since our constitution attained maturity, that we hardly appreciate this latent excellence." (This could also be a prediction of those endless Punch "Dropping The Pilot" cartoons.)

The end of the Bagehot's preferred order of things: "A deferential community in which the bulk of the people is ignorant, is therefore in a state of what is called in mechanics unstable equilibrium. If the equilibrium is once disturbed there is no tendency to return to it, but rather to depart from it. A cone balanced on its point is in unstable equilibrium, for if you push it ever so little it will depart farther and farther from its position and fall to the earth. So in communities where the masses are ignorant but respectful, if you once permit the ignorant class to begin to rule you may bid farewell to deference for ever. Their demagogues will inculcate, their newspapers will recount, that the rule of the existing dynasty (the people) is better than the rule of the fallen dynasty (the aristocracy). A people very rarely hears two sides of a subject in which it is interested; the popular organs take up the side which is acceptable, and none but the popular organs in fact reach the people. A people never hears censure of itself. No one wil tell it that the educated minority whom it dethroned governed better or more wisely than it governs. A democracy will never, save after an awful catastrophe, return what has once been conceded to it, for to do so would be to admit an inferiority in itself, of which, except by some unbearable misfortune, it could never be convinced."

To get a sense of how unmodern the surrounding text is, bear in mind that "democracy" is meant as a mortal insult.

[The English Constitution, by Walter Bagehot, 1867. Incredibly clear and pleasurable to read; full of stuff that turns out to be still relevant; and, these days, coolly outrageous. None of the people who quote the idea of 'dignified' and 'effective' arms of government make it clear what a ruthless hypocrisy he has in mind: the one branch holds the people in awe while the other gets on with business. I suppose that's obvious, but I'd failed to realise it.]

Cover artists who read the book

"I have always had the wrong shape of head. It sticks out in awkward places, bulges whenever I think, is only sparsely covered with tufts of colourless hair, and collapses somewhere around the chin, scurrying for cover towards the collar. The ears reach out like large red satellite dishes, the cheeks are covered with lines and rashes caused by decades of overwork and overindulgence and if I dare to smile widely, it looks less like a friendly act than a record of bomb damage in the Blitz. Timothy Winters, teeth like splinters? The lad has nothing on me." -- Andrew Marr, My Trade.

You may wonder how, after a description like that, Mr Marr ended up here. But look closer: the angle, the crop and the careful focus address everything he dislikes about his face. Well, everything except the resemblence to Vladimir Putin he disavows later in the chapter. But the photographer may not have read that far.

[My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism, by Andrew Marr (Macmillan, 2004). Combines the more gossipy and less self-revelatory aspects of a memoir with the less strenuous aspects of popular scholarship. Taken as what it is, rather than what it says it is, great fun. But if you want the pop history of UK hackdom, it's still Matthew Engel's Tickle the Public that you need.]