Friday, July 27, 2007

Even more random than usual

These books look very cute, if you have children of drawing-and-colouring-in age: a good gimmick ("Just add heads and arms!") executed with wit in an appropriate hippie-Victorian-ish style. While we're plugging, I should say that I ran across them in this exquisite design-geek boutique; which, among other virtues, is the kind of environment where a lone fat bearded man can leaf through a colouring book without anyone getting the wrong idea.

In lieu of a postcard

"And the city is situated on hills; you are hurrying along somewhere and all at once beneath your feet you have a deep green chasm with a fine river below; you are taking a walk and all of a sudden there is another street located on a bridge above your head, as at Genoa; you are taking a walk, and you reach a perfectly circular open space, as at Paris. The whole time there is something for you to be surprised at." - Karel Capek on the wonders of wandering around Edinburgh, in Letters from England.

[Letters from England, by Karel Capek, translated by Paul Selver, London, 1925. The Czech satirist holidays, sending home faux-naive doodles and matching comic prose. The first few chapters, in which he is beaten about the head by London, are much the best; they show a near-Swiftian skill with lists.]

Additional note, in the event of this blog having a Scottish reader: Yes, he is aware that your country is not part of England; no, I don't know why he chooses not to reflect this in his overall title. The translator sounds potentially English; why don't you blame him?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The war on cliche-cliche

Here is the opening of Christopher Ricks's essay on "Cliche" in State of the Language (1980), a fat volume with many surprising authors (Enoch Powell! Angela Carter! Randolph Quirk! Something for everyone!) that I bought purely for the pleasure of this quote:

The only way to speak of a cliche is with a cliche. So even the best writers against cliches are awkwardly placed. When Eric Partridge amassed his Dictionary of Cliches in 1940 (1978 saw its fifth edition), his introduction had no choice but to use the usual cliches for cliches. Yet what, as a metaphor, could be more hackneyed than hackneyed, more outworn than outworn, more tattered than tattered? Is there any point left to - or in or on - saying of a cliche that its "original point has been blunted"? Hasn't this too become blunted? A cliche is "a phrase 'on tap' as it were" - but, as it is, is Partridge's "as it were" anything more than a cool pretence that when, for his purposes, he uses the cliche on tap it's oh so different from the usual bad habit of having those two words on tap? His indictment of "fly-blown phrases" has no buzz of insect wings, no weight of carrion.

Even George Orwell (whom William Empson, with an audacious compacting of cliches, called the eagle eye with the flat feet) - even Orwell had to use the cliche-cliches (hackneyed, outworn), and could say, "There is a long list of fly-blown metaphors which could be similarly got rid of if people would interest themselves in the job," without apparently being interested himself in whether fly-blown wasn't itself one of those metaphors which could be got rid of.

Ricks goes on to argue that writers can make intelligent, meaning-reviving use of cliche, quoting examples from Geoffrey Hill and, inevitably, Bob Dylan. "Cliches invite you not to think - but you may always decline the invitation, and what could better invite a thinking man to think?" I can't think of a better invitation, if you regularly wax sarcastic about writing, to think harder about the terms you use to do it.

[State of the Language, edited by Leonard Michaels and Christopher Ricks, California, 1980. You want this one, not the disappointing Faber-published sequel dated 1990. I bought my copy from the revived Skoob, now buried under the Brunswick Centre. Presumably a more prominent space would detract from the parade of expensive chain stores that make good, in a bad way, on the centre's claim to be "a high street for Bloomsbury". No matter: the basement shop has a decent amount of space, the lighting's good enough that you don't much miss the windows, the range of books is as wonderful as ever and there's now an official Skoob Glob. And they have a second copy of State of the Language (1980), if you're interested...]

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Another ruddy booklist

Obviously the problem with that list of books designed to entice reluctant boys into reading is that it doesn't contain enough things that Daily Mail readers were forced to work through when they were little. That is the problem with all lists of books for children. Lists of books for adults are prone to more or less the opposite problem; they are snobbish, hidebound, difficult, highbrow - though to say "elitist" might not, in this context, be politically correct.

Mask off, I think giving school libraries the money and the permission to buy boy-enticing pulp is rather a fine move, although making it a high-profile initiative may serve to reinforce the idea that boys don't read. On the contents of the list I'm not much qualified to comment. I'm happy to see the inclusion of adventuresome books with female lead characters (Northern Lights, A Hat Full of Sky), but then I was a boy who read all my sister's Mallory Towers books, my pre-pubescent misogyny temporarily crushed by Enid Blyton's narrative drive.

Around town

The British Library has just opened Sacred, a large and reverent exhibition of holy manuscripts designed to show the common roots of the Abrahamic faiths. It has also just positioned security men to check your bag as you go into the building. I would so love to live in a world where those two facts seemed unlikely to be connected.

(Disclaimer: I haven't actually been in to Sacred yet, by the way, so I can't guarantee that its reverence is total; was at the BL for other reasons that may result in a further post here.)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Experiments in everyday life

Having bought a shelving unit the other day (this one - notice Muji's sensible, if selfish, policy of only delivering items it would be simple to carry home in the first place), I can confirm two things:

i) If you walk down Oxford Street attempting to stabilise a heavy, tilting 8ft-long package with one hand and gripping a shopping bag and an umbrella with the other, you will still be offered free papers.

ii) Faced with an obviously out-of-depth person attempting to transport a heavy 8ft-long package, the bus passengers of south-east London are incredibly kind, helpful and tolerant, and manage hardly to snigger at all.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Interview envy

You're talking to the intelligent and - by the sound of his songs - potentially prickly lead singer of an indie band. Your first question is "Ever been in a fight?" And your first answer goes like this. Lucky, lucky, clever old you.

(Via, eventually, the Maud Newton link to the article in the same issue of The Believer on the Codex Seraphinius, which I clicked on because a friend had previously directed me to a MetaFilter discussion on the subject. He reads MeFi and likes it; I like it but don't tend to read it, except when he points me to it, when there is every chance that I'll end up stealing a link. That makes this site a sort of MetaMetaMetaFilterFilterFilter, but not in a good way.)

Nazi swing on Radio 3

I should stop posting BBC links that expire after a week, but yesterday's Sunday Feature was deeply, deeply, deeply strange: an analysis of the propaganda swing tunes broadcast on Nazi radio to Britain, which involves (i) playing skin-crawlingly anti-semitic rewrites of "Makin' Whoopie" and the like, delivered in an accented song-speak remarkably like the MC's in Cabaret; and (ii) delineating the bonkers musical politics prosecuted by Goebbels. The trumpeters in this repulsive little band were, apparently, the only ones in the Reich permitted to use mutes. You have until Saturday.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Annals of accurate praise

"Nuttall as a writer appears as a gentle, donnish figure, prepared to quote a good student essay in support of a case; constantly, in a Platonic way, citing past and present agreements with friends and colleagues. He reacts also, in a way that is sometimes baffling or opaque, to his own earlier writings and earlier opinions. He inhabits a world of sweet reason, and is good company. He can hear, and make you hear, the mystery of Bertram, in All's Well, fearing 'the dark house, and the detested wife'." - A.S. Byatt, towards the end of a rather prickly review of Shakespeare the Thinker,
captures something of the pleasure of reading Tony Nuttall, and of being taught by him. (For an excellent appreciation on the second point, visit a friend of mine here.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A message from Lance "Brownshirt" Smithers

This is what happens when George Saunders attempts to give his support to that "save the book review" campaign without breaking irony...

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Cycling with an iPod

"The heart of the matter, surely, is this: just how dangerous is it to listen to music while you ride? The idea is very appealing. But I don't do it because, instinctively, I feel I need all my senses to be safe. You're always listening for the car behind, even if you're barely conscious of doing so. And often it's precisely because you're listening out that you look behind, and then reassure yourself that the driver has seen you." - Matt Seaton, "Listen to traffic, not your iPod", Guardian, Feb 15 2006.

"My journey to work begins on a long, straight, broad road, and I'm always in a rush, so I hop on to my bike and then - when I'm already under way - need to fiddle around finding my dark glasses or putting on gloves or getting my iPod sorted (and that's a whole other sin, but let's not get started on that one). So I ride the first quarter-mile hands-free. It's probably not very sensible. Conceivably, even, I could get pulled over for riding without due care and attention. But I do it all the same. Because I can, and because I get a kick out of it." - Matt Seaton, "Two Wheels" column on "cycling's illicit pleasures", Guardian, April 12 2007.

At this point, I'm going to stop feeling guilty about cycling with headphones on. At least I do it with both hands on the handlebar.

London letters 4: Hat factory, Hollen Street

This is the Henry Heath Hat Factory, a fragment of the old artisan Soho jammed right up against Oxford Street:

What's shown is the back; the front was presumably a shop even in Victorian times. The building, according to listing records, dates from the late 1880s, but the address dates back further than that. There's a pamphlet in the British Library's Evanion Collection of printed ephemera that was handed out at the 1884 International Health Exhibition in South Kensington - they had a demonstration there - and gives the firm's address as "Ye Hatterie", Oxford Street, "as in the reign of King George the Fourth".

The pamphlet is marvellous. It boasts of Henry Heath's contribution to "rational dress" (a "soft-fitting" riding hat for ladies, as recommended by the coursing correspondent of The Field) and his warrant as "Hat Manufacturer to King Alphonso and the Royal Court of Spain".

But the reason I wanted to write about this is because of the letters themselves, plain cast-iron-looking Victorian sans forms that are constantly struggling to turn back into something more complicated. Look at the crossbars of the "H" and "A" in "HAT":

You get the same effect on "Oxford Street". It's trying to be simple, but serifs keep breaking out - on the "r"s, on the "S", on the "t"...

As you'd expect, the building is now full of "creative" "industry" offices. I hope some of the occupants are sufficiently geeky about lettering to enjoy it.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Modernists upmashed

Language Hat has come up with a splendid trick. All together now: "For a long time stately, plump Buck Mulligan used to go to bed early..."

The cycle of life

"In the beginning was the review copy, and a man received it from the publisher. Then he wrote a review. Then he wrote a book which the publisher accepted and sent on to someone else as a review copy. The man who received it did likewise. This is how modern literature came into being." - Karl Kraus, as translated by Harry Zohn in Half-Truths and One-and-a-Half-Truths.

One of the revolutionary things about the internet, of course, is that it allows you to write the review without first receiving the review copy. We must wait to see the consequences for the rest of the cycle.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


A nicely pitched moment of joy among the horrors of Nicola Monaghan's tale of drugs and suffocated lives on a Nottingham estate, The Killing Jar, made better by a bathetic conclusion:

The sun rose, casting more blood and pus into the mucky air up around the clouds. I grinned my head off. It were beautiful, I knew that. I was at least using the word proper then. Jon was gorgeous, lit by the yellows and reds and what was left of the moon. We laid there, and birds started to sing, and we could see the grass was green again, and that our jeans were blue, not black. I hadn't noticed before that instant that everything was black and grey and mud brown at night, even once your eyes got used to the dark and you could see.

'Happiness is cheap in the East Midlands, Kez, me duck,' said Jon. I looked up and saw the sun, a broken yolk in the egg-white sky. He was right. Two quid wholesale, them pills'd cost us, and here we were laying on the grass and in love with the light.

I was eighteen years old and I was invincible. That morning everything was amazing. The light, my brother, everything. Ecstasy does exactly what it says on the packet.

[The Killing Jar, by Nicola Monaghan, 2006. The education of a heroin addict's daughter, with enough shocks to fill two misery memoirs and make a talkshow from the leftovers; drug-dealing in the playground aged ten is towards the nicer end of the spectrum. It is lifted from mundane sensationalism by the precision with which it recreates its setting (Broxtowe estate, 1980s and early 90s, with outings to Skegness and the clubs of Hockley) and the voice of its narrator. Kerrie-Ann Hill speaks in a Nottingham dialect that has the music right as well as the words, presents her experiences coolly, as nothing that out of the ordinary, and goes nowhere near self-pity; characters who look on her as a victim, manipulated or available for manipulation, have a low survival rate. Clever observational writing shores up the impression of her as someone sharp enough to survive in dangerous circumstances, and buys credibility for more flowery passages like the one quoted.]

A small mystery

This afternoon, I was overtaken by a car bearing a sticker that said

Beckenham Rugby Club

Where rugby comes first

which was slightly puzzling. What's the alternative, when you're running a rugby club? What is the other option that they're silently excluding?

Is it a dig at some rival organisation?

Beckenham Rugby Club

Catford Rugby Club mostly play tiddlywinks these days. The big girls

Or is it a quiet protest against political correctness gone mad?

Beckenham Rugby Club

Forget all that "Try not to break his neck" nonsense

Or, most worrying of all, is it a coded warning to the (stereo)typical amateur rugby enthusiast?

Beckenham Rugby Club

We don't have a bar

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Comedy of despair

You drag yourself out of the desert desperate for water, and the barman is busy. But this is not a romantic world. There's not enough Santa Claus to go round. Everyone treats each other with disdain. No one is indispensable. There are mothers of twins who have trouble getting the buggy in and out of shops. Who cares for these? There are people, our contemporaries, lost in libraries through the malice of evil librarians. Who loves these? We are all labouring under a lack of love, a bad situation for human beings. This situation is even bad for CATS.

The biggest threats to life now are leaky radiators, superglue and pre-cooked chicken. When people were dying all over the place (Schubert died just three months after declaring himself healthy), they lived with gusto. They did not waste a brushstroke because they feared death. But now people only die from their own or their doctor's negligence. Convinced of immortality, we're troubled by boredom, an inordinate sense of history and our own fecundity.

Animals have a much harder time of it. The world doesn't owe them a living. But at least they haven't forgotten what it's all about: you, the earth, the sky. Even trees know this.

- Lucy Ellmann, Varying Degrees of Hopelessness

[Varying Degrees of Hopelessness, by Lucy Ellmann, 1991. Love (and the lack of) and sex (and the lack of) at a funhouse-mirror version of the Courtauld Institute in the late 1980s. Talked of as a precursor to the chick-lit boom. Which, in the comic examination of single twenty-and-thirtysomething female lives, it probably is. But it's a hell of a lot odder than that: the anti-naturalism and the brevity, the madly individualistic style, the intensity that is sometimes a deadpan joke and sometimes not, the worrying at the facts of sickness and death - these could be descended from early Beckett. Which is not to accuse Lucy Ellmann of ever writing like anyone else.]

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Rules? What rules?

If you have a goodish memory and you are planning to read China Mieville's Un Lun Dun, you may wish to skip this post. The bit I want to quote is from near the end and the book is extremely plotty. I have redacted some especially spoilerish sentences in the middle of the quote, even at the cost of rather spoiling its effect, but you should consider yourself warned.

The reason I so want to quote it is that it takes aim at a piety of children's fantasy that used to annoy the hell out of me back when I was in the target age-group: the touching final scene where the hero or heroine is informed that, because they have successfully completed their heavily symbolic rite of passage, they must leave the world of the imagination behind, with the compensatory promise of returning to it after death (if this is a Christian-apologetic fantasy) or having lots of sex (if it's a hippy-liberal one).

Mieville's heroine, perhaps because she is small and dark and round-faced and would have been a comic sidekick if destiny had had its way, has an answer:

'The stuff that happened here,' Deeba said, 'I'll never forget. What we did. I'll never forget you. Any of you.' She paused, looked at each of them in turn.

'And part of the reason I won't forget you,' she said, 'is cos I'll be back all the time.'


Mortar and the Propheseers - the Suggesters - looked up, startled.

'Come on,' she said, smiling. 'What are you even talking about, Mortar? It's easy to get from London to here [...] People are always going between, and you don't see either universe collapsing, do you?

'You just think it's hard to go between the two cos you've always thought it must be. You're just saying that cos you sort of think you should.'

Deeba's friends stared at her and at each other. 'She has a point,' Mortar said eventually.

[Un Lun Dun, by China Mieville, 2007. Systematic dismantling of the cliches of the children's quest novel, funny but with serious intent, characterisation and narrative drive, set in an alternate London that entails particular thanks to Neil Gaiman in the acknowledgments. It compelled me to read it in a sitting, which is not considerate behaviour in a 500-page book, even one with relatively large print, but is impressive. Author's own illustrations.]

Thursday, April 12, 2007

For those who don't automatically tune in to the Today programme...

...this link should give Alasdair Gray paying tribute to Kurt Vonnegut, who died yesterday. Gray doesn't sound ever so well himself - he may not be a morning person - but he's definitely worth listening to.

London letters 3: Library, Forest Hill

I am away for the next couple of days, so this week's "regular" feature will have to be early instead of late: here is the exuberant eruption of swashes that announces Forest Hill Library (map), and also the confidence once felt by the borough of Lewisham: you are looking at 1900 (August, according to the opening-ceremony plaque), the London County Council newly created but its subdivisions still holding most of the real power.

Underneath, cropped out, is an eighties-looking blue plastic sign that repeats the information in white-and-yellow Futura, either because the council's corporate image must be enforced or because messages become invisible over a certain level of age and ornateness.

Next week I promise to get further from home, and maybe even do some damn research.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Trivial inquiry

I just saw someone order "two Americanos" from a place that also, for 70p a cup less, sells filter coffee. Why?

Caffe Americano is an international insult disguised as a beverage. It means "just keep adding hot water to the espresso until it tastes like that filth the Americans drink"; compare (someone else's example) assiette anglaise, which means "well, cold meat is all the English eat, isn't it?"

So, is there a reason to have someone make you a slow, expensive espresso and then try to turn it into a filter coffee, when they could just pour you a filter coffee? My palate for coffee is lousy, so this is a genuine question; for all I know the Americano tastes much better. But it seems more likely that the order would be made on the assumption that nowhere one would want to order serves filter coffee anymore; or that if somewhere does, ordering it would put one outside the circle of civilised people.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Lanchester on copyright

John Lanchester's long article on copyright for this Saturday's Guardian Review was based on a commendably clear and simple principle: that the purpose of the copyright system is to ensure John Lanchester a living. To that end, besides a slinky version of the usual attack on Disney and some personal remarks about the difficulties created by the need for clearance on obscure works, he has two suggestions:

One is that the period of copyright control does not need to be the same as the period during which an artist can earn royalties. I worked for a short while at Penguin in the early 1990s, during which Joyce and Woolf both briefly came out of copyright (on January 1 1992) and sales in their work zoomed upwards, as publishers came out with competing editions - in the case of the one book for which Penguin already had a licence, Ulysses, sales went up (and there were five other editions on the market). As a result of having seen that at first hand, I think that, 50 years after an author's death, anyone should be able to publish a book or record a piece of music or put on a play, as long as they pay a royalty. This would increase general levels of cultural creativity and still allow revenue, but not control, to artists' descendants. We could even have some fun with Mickey Mouse...

The other suggestion is that artists should be guaranteed, by law, a percentage of the revenue from the sale of their work. At the moment, the big retailers squeeze the publishers, who in turn squeeze the talent, so that it is common for as little as 5% of the purchase price of a book, say - though it's not just books - to reach the writer. That's 95% of the money going to someone other than the creator: does that seem right? My experience of asking people about this suggests, very unscientifically, that most people aren't aware that three-for-twos and dramatically reduced prices mean that the writer is earning a smaller royalty per copy.

The suggestions cut against the prevailing legal tendency to make intellectual property behave more like other sorts of property - cutting against that is fine by me - but they also cut against each other. What percentage of the royalties from Family Romance would go, by law, to the author of the anonymous poem that can be quoted only in its English edition?

The risk of reproducing potentially copyright material, as I (poorly) understand it, isn't just that the author's grandchild can decide to have your book pulped; it's that they can present you with a bill of unpredictable and possibly profit-destroying size. To make the first suggestion work in a way that made use of orphan works easier, you'd have to set some kind of standard rate, and then set up an agency to distribute the cash, adjudicate on claims, and - if you believe that the owners of un-orphaned works should be able to demand more than agency rate - decide who's an orphan and who isn't.

Then once someone's successfully claimed the cash for an orphan work, it has presumably ceased to be an orphan. Can they negotiate a higher fee for the next edition? Or stop it coming out at all?

I'd like these kinds of tweaks to work - at the least the first one, if it worked, might have a relatively high chance of happening. But copyright is almost certainly more broken than that.

Friday, April 06, 2007

A world without Borders

Borders has never meant all that much to me as a bookshop. In the early stages, at least, of the chain's UK operation, if your town was big enough to have a Borders it was big enough to have somewhere three times better. But if it does disappear - there's talk of a management buy-out - I'll miss it hugely.

This isn't because of the pious, we-need-retail-variety argument, although that's true. There are two main reasons.

The first is that Borders open late, which is unorthodox for British bookshops, and very useful. If you want a "third place" (ick) at 8pm that isn't a pub or a restaurant, it's going to be Borders. Get stood up at a pub - doesn't have to be a date; it can be a friend struggling with work or public transport - and you* get through several drinks, while feeling increasingly freakish. Your prize is a tincture of tipsy self-hatred and a complete set of smokelogged clothes. Get stood up at Borders and you browse the books, read all the sane bits of this month's Atlantic, maybe buy a coffee in remorse. Your prize is a head full of the not-quite-higher journalism and possibly a latte moustache. You will still smell however you normally smell. I will miss being stood up in Borders.

The second thing, already hinted at, is that Borders is the best chain newsagent in Britain by the length of Charing Cross Road. This week's Press Gazette has a double-spread of independent magazines in panic at the thought that the main outlet that cares about them might disappear. Borders stocks British magazines that our own lovely newsagents couldn't give a bugger about. There are a lot of those. I remember when I was first trying to make myself a proper smartarse, about 1996, the epic struggle it was to buy even mainstream political and literary periodicals (the New Statesman, the LRB) in Nottingham. WH Smith was no help. There was one shop with a serious range - Briddocks, which was a tiny place full of spinners bearing the names of long-defunct hi-fi magazines, and turned out not to be long for this world itself. It might have them if you arrived early enough in the week. Heaven help you if you ended up in a town you didn't know, and had to find the one newsagent behind the many identical frontages that considered it worthwhile to stock the TLS.

Borders has all that stuff as a matter of course, plus all the British stuff I didn't then know about, plus a huge range of systematic US imports - which might disappear even if the UK management can get their buy-out together. They have provoked a lot of other bookshops to take magazines a bit more seriously - I think Waterstone's had some before the Borders threat appeared, but it made them bring in more; Blackwell's and Foyles have both sprouted groaning magazine shelves - but no one else does it as well. I will miss all that. Badly.

*Yes, all right, me.

London letters 2: Dead shops, Elephant

For the second in my new self-indulgent visual series - yes, you're right, I should be on to the third, but I forgot - we go from Edwardian to a 60s/70s "eclectic" style that includes fake Edwardian; an altogether sadder class of period detail.

This aggressively cheery lettering appears on the corner of a first-floor parade of shops in the Heygate Estate, off Brandon Street, Elephant and Castle. The Heygate was completed in 1974 and, if all goes to plan, will be demolished by 2009. The Evening Standard listed it last year as one of London's ten worst architectural horrors, describing it as the "prime example of a failed Seventies estate".

I imagine there's still a terrifying launderette in there somewhere, but I don't know if there was ever a butcher - the signage looks as if it could have come straight from a 1960s artist's impression. It certainly no longer reflects what's on the parade: a school of martial arts, a couple of council or council-and-police-and-probation-service offices, and one of those idealistic probably-doomed community cafes that parades like this tend to attract.

Could be worse, then. Probably has been. But still, depending on your temperament, either heart-breaking or blood-boiling.

Update: I cycled past here again the other day, and I had remembered the shops a bit wrong. It goes: martial arts school, storefront church, "Elephant Enterprises" (not sure what that is, but it doesn't appear to be the kind of shop that opens on Saturdays), Youth Inclusion Project, Heygate Cafe. There is more non-council life there than I allowed. But there are still none of the neighbourhood shops that the architects appear to have envisaged for their street in the sky.

Skyline questions

Those who complain that the scale of the Westminster skyline has been outraged by the high-rise interlopers ignore the fact that cold measurements or even hotly angry ones are not everything - not necessarily anything much. What could dwarf that marvellous monster the Victoria tower, but something of its own kind?

When Barry reared his Neo-Gothic palace against the Abbey, the traditional ruler of the Westminster skies for so many centuries, that was true audacity. Both survive as mighty presences, the real abbey and that newer Nightmare Abbey of genius, ruling the scene unmoved by the lofty impotent giants surrounding it. Nothing much counts for much, or intrudes much. The Festival Hall complex, so alluring by night, fades by day into a range of concrete barns: almost a modern agricultural aspect, a Harvest Festival Hall. Next to it the vast inert face of the Shell building expresses total absence. But Wren's surviving churches, however small, refuse to be extinguished. They ignore monsters; they spike the scene like exlamation marks, commanding attention. And wherever you happen to be sailing or driving or walking, whether you are as near as Southwark or as far as Greenwich, St Paul's pops up all over the skyline like a floating bubble nobody can burst. If it had been anchored in a vista, as its creator intended, that dome would never have had the same capricious and buoyant appeal.

- Norman Shrapnel, A View of the Thames

This is 1977, and Norman Shrapnel assumes his readers will be "on the side of sensible planning", "the most careful and tenacious of co-ordinated schemes". The world that he is gently writing against was already disappearing, but he isn't to know that.

In 2007, those bubblings-up of St Paul's are "protected vistas" - we need planning to protect the appearance of serendipity. I'm not sure what the moral is, except that conventional wisdom is more fluid than it can sometimes seem. We go on making mistakes, but not always the same ones.

[A view of the Thames, by Norman Shrapnel, London, 1977. Late-career ruminations by a former parliamentary sketchwriter of the Guardian, in a lovely version of the paper's old C.E Montague-derived heightened colloquial style. Less deep-thinking than the creaminess of the prose would suggest, but it gives a nice picture of the docklands between death and redevelopment, and an engaging selection of the river's urban myths. The picture, incidentally, is the City seen from the ramp down to the debating chamber in City Hall; the pre-20th-century element seems pretty effectively expunged from that particular vista.]

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Reading, cooking, thinking, cooking

What remains, for a couple of days, the current New Yorker contains a characteristically elegant thing by Adam Gopnik on recipes in novels. It has some lovely solipsistic digressions:

A devotion to shell beans, I have noticed, divides even amateur cooks from non-cooks more absolutely than any other food, and they are, into the bargain, a perfect model of writing. Like sentences, shell beans are a great deal more trouble to produce than anyone who isn’t producing them knows.

But its central argument seems to me flawed. Gopnik's case is that many modern novels have their characters cook at length "to represent the background of thought", in the way that (his examples) walking is used in many Victorian novels, or driving in John Updike. He thinks this is a swizz, because...

...the act of cooking is an escape from consciousness - the nearest thing that the non-spiritual modern man and woman have to Zen meditation; its effect is to reduce us to a state of absolute awareness, where we are here now of necessity. You can’t cook with the news on and still listen to it, any more than you can write with the news on and still listen to it. You can cook with music, or talk radio, on, and drift in and out. What you can’t do is think and cook, because cooking takes the place of thought.

He demonstrates by cooking recipes from several contemporary novels, reserving his politest and deadliest scorn for Henry Perowne "idly" cooking a fish stew in Ian McEwan's Saturday: "You can’t idly make a bouillabaisse while you brood on modern life any more than you can idly make a cassoulet; these are nerve-wracking concoctions."

Probably true. But it's not true, in this bad cook's view, that all cookery demands a disengagement from thought; and even if it was, cooking from fictional recipes would be a particularly faulty way to show it. Ruminating characters tend to be making something they cook routinely, for themselves or a forgiving family audience; Adam Gopnik is trying out new recipes for the benefit, going by one aside, of a "gang".

I can't cook something that I have to think about and think about something else - an audience and a recipe are the two things most likely to push a dish into this category - but if I'm cooking one of the half-dozen things I can do by heart, for myself or for friends with time on their hands, and I'm not at one of a few critical moments, then the process can open up some marvellous space for thought. The best description of the condition is by Primo Levi, in The Periodic Table, when he explains why he finds the process of distillation beautiful:

First of all, because it is a slow, philosophic, and silent occupation, which keeps you busy but gives you time to think of other things, somewhat like riding a bike.

He is engaged, you'll notice, in what amounts to a particularly precise and formalised version of cooking. And he's right about cycling, too.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Oxford links

I'm going to have to buy Isolarion, by the looks of it. I want to read more contemporary fiction, really I do, but I keep being tempted away. Incidentally, any Americans tempted up the Cowley Road by that Bookforum review should bear in mind that "From a penny to a thousand pounds" is a traditional slogan, not anything like an accurate description of the pricing at the Hi-Lo Jamaican Eating House: all the (very good) main dishes cost about the same (£8 or so, last time I was there, six years ago). Try to avoid being seated by the speakers and you'll be fine.

Also, while in town: this and this are cryingly envy-making.

Friday, March 23, 2007

London letters 1: Doorstep, Forest Hill

This is the first in what improvident ambition says will be a regular Friday photo series: the aim is to seek out interesting bits of lettering on London streets, with a particular relish for stuff that might otherwise be overlooked, and attempt to provide a little historical background.

Our first exhibit is the doorstep of what's now a Red Cross charity shop at 6 London Road in Forest Hill. I've chosen it because it's a splendid bit of Edwardian flim-flam, and because it has a lesson for the many people currently writing about the Death of the English High Street. The tendency when looking at an old photograph, or leafing through an old street directory, is to assume that businesses you haven't heard of are plucky little independents. Not much danger of that with Sainsbury's, which is still the third-largest supermarket group in Britain. According to the firm's fearsomely detailed if excessively twee virtual museum, this branch would have been part of a large-ish London "high-class provisions" chain when it opened; it's not on their list of branches open by 1900, and there were "more than 100" by 1903. Chains and supermarkets may indeed be throttling our high streets; it really would be nice to have a planning system that did more to encourage varied and independent shops; but multiples have existed for a long time, and writing as if they haven't will make you sound like Peter Ackroyd in London: The Biography surveying the modern Fetter Lane:

In the stretch of Fetter Lane which leads directly out of Fleet Street, with, on the respective corners, a bookshop and a computer supplier, is Clifford's Inn, the oldest Inn of Chancery and once the most important edifice in the street. Rebuilt now, and partitioned into offices and apartments, it is situated beside a modern restaurant, the Cafe Rouge, and opposite a new drinking establishment called the Hogshead.

It's a distinctive style, but unless you can match Ackroyd's torrential erudition - he goes on to link this stretch of road to John Wesley, Tom Paine, Keir Hardie, Dryden, Charles Lamb, Samuel Butler, Lemuel Gulliver, Virginia Woolf and "the only cross-eyed statue in London" - probably not one to copy.

(The statue is of John Wilkes, and went up in 1988: here's the PMSA record and photograph.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Baghdad dawn chorus

There's probably only a couple of days left to download the first episode of the World Service's Eyewitness Iraq (BBC things have a tendency to disappear after seven days, and it's taken me several days to find this one on the website). The programme is a boiling-down of Hugh Sykes's reports from the early days of the conflict, part of the four-year-anniversary ruminations occurring everywhere. What makes it particularly worth listening to, however, is a ten-second edit of 40 minutes of early morning in Baghdad, not long after the Saddam statue came down, with the birdsong and the bangs both intensified to dreamlike levels. It gives an extraordinarily powerful sense of how it might feel to have violence become a constant part of your life's background; one of the most effective pieces of wordless radio I've heard.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The old rules

The following is from "Taboo: what newspapermen can never, never say", by Nicholas Tomalin, published in Punch in 1973 and republished in the posthumous Nicholas Tomalin Reporting two years later. It was probably ceasing to be true by the time it was written, but it may be suggestive about how hard it would be to restore a culture of "positive" commentary:

The final taboo that really irks me is the still lamentably general rule that all newspaper writers must be optimistic. 'Upbeat' is the word used. In a strict sense, an upbeat is of course the unimportant hiccup before the musical bar line; it is the down-beat that makes the important statemen. The word has become peculiarly corrupted to mean some tone of voice that makes readers cheerful, and more liable to buy advertisers' products. It means always looking on the bright side. I consider the effect of this taboo is quite disastrous on the national life. Because every second-rate hack knows he must be 'upbeat', and every advertising slogan is upbeating perpetually, anyone with a spark of intelligence comes to feel happiness is a totally unacceptable, vulgar, lying emotion (...) I am quite incapable of saying how utterly wonderful it is to be going onward and upward with ths great country of ours (even when I feel it), because so many idiots are saying so, so very often and so very insistently.

Probably not intended to damn by faint praise

"The audience had been standing in line for an hour. Only a few of them were dressed as Greek hoplites. They were much better balanced between men and women than I’d expected..." -- Neal Stephenson attends a showing of 300 for the New York Times op-ed page. Via Jenny Davidson, who was convinced.

Film haiku

Now that I finally have a home broadband connection, and I no longer have to keep quiet about them, you can have these: 27 haiku that appeared as the "What's on" film listing in the Nottingham Evening Post, one week in October. I put them through without linebreaks, and no one (readers, unwarned editors) appeared to notice anything odd.

Reject fakes uni,
and then real students turn up.
No reason you should.

Hi, Mr Himmler
- no, of course we're not Jewish.
Well, not in public...

Think Animal Farm
remade as cheery kids' toon.
Our verdict next week.

Conjoined twin punk stars
rock convincing mock doc, but
where's their character?

Pixar motors through
yet another hit cartoon
(yes, that's Paul Newman).

Clive Owen seeks hope
in a grim, childless London.
Stylish Cuaron job.

CLICK (15)
Remote control rules
Adam Sandler's so-called life.
Please, just turn it off.

Cop double-cross finds
Scorsese and Nicholson
true to their talents.

Vile ed Meryl Streep
tempts that nice Anne Hathaway.
Sharp as Savile Row.

Coming-of-age job
in Spanish-language US:
trailers, but no trash.

Sting's lot get own film.
And it's shot by their drummer.
So "inside" is right.

Not the newspaper:
this is coastguard derring-do.
Our verdict next week.

Red Riding Hoodlum
tangles with storybook police force.
But it ain't Shrek.

Mermaid seeks writer,
while M Night Shyamalan
seeks a plot, in vain.

Marlon Wayans poses
as toddler to steal giant gem.
Childish? You don't say...

Strong cast do wonders
in ensemble road movie.
A beauty, for sure.

Jamaican take
on Romeo and Juliet:
reggae v gospel.

Yay Helen Mirren:
she's truly regal in this
Diana death tale.

Junior Bond flops
- but he may grow up better,
if we still let him.

Prequel to remake.
As Hollywood eats itself,
it wants cannibals.

TIDELAND (15) A lost child's strange world
- count on Terry Gilliam
to make it stranger.

Shiny young Tom Cruise
flies off to superstardom.
You had to be there.

Top-class Will Ferrell
stars in racetrack comedy.
Ali G steals it.

J-Lo as lone mum.
Well, at least the story's drab.
Sadly unconvincing.

England's composer
in two rare archival gems
- both old TV shows.

9/11 courage
- and no shortage of bombast -
from Oliver Stone.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The thing about Penge

If you go around telling people you live in Sydenham, as I have had to do these past few weeks, you often enough end up talking about Penge, down the road. Sydenham isn't much of a topic, whereas Penge has a sort of inverse glamour. It may be something to do with Robert Rankin (I'm told) or Rumpole's "Penge bungalow murders", or the name being carried through town on the front of the 176 bus; more likely it's just the comedy of the sound, and the tinge of dull suburbia it now carries. Looking in Russ Willey's Chambers London Gazetteer (which also reminded me about Rumpole) it appears that Penge is "one of the few Celtic place names in London, and suggests the survival of a British contingent after Anglo-Saxon colonisation". The sense of grimly hanging on has hung on: it's now, going by its Chambers entry, the roughest end of a relatively posh borough (Bromley) having had the rough end of the Crystal Palace building boom. This is the magnificently sneery write-up it gets in James Thorne's Handbook to the Environs of London (1876):

Fifty years ago Penge was only spoken of as a common, and the maps show hardly a house upon it (...) Then "the plague of building lighted upon it;" spread more rapidly when Penge Place was taken for the Crystal Palace, Penge Woods was partly absorbed in the palace grounds, and the rest, doubly attractive from its proximity to that popular resort, given over to the builder; and culminated when a Freehold Building Society bought what had been spared of the Common for distribution among its members. Now, Penge is a town in size and population, in appearance a waste of modern tenements, mean, monotonous and wearisome. It has 3 churches, many chapels, schools, hotels, "offices" of all sorts, shops, 4 or 5 rly. stations, and whatever may be looked for in a new suburban rly. town.

I suspect that last sentence is less than half praise.


Slate has decided to provide a high-profile home for Clive James's webcam interviews, which is excellent news, and to launch them with an extravagant editor's appreciation:

Whether we know it or not, one of the chief inspirations for our ongoing efforts to provoke thought and mirth at the same time is none other than this polymathic Australian extrovert. The kind of television coverage Troy Patterson writes in Slate grows almost directly out of the column James wrote for the London Observer beginning in the 1970s. The quick-witted cultural writing to which we aspire owes its tone to James' essays, first collected in The Metropolitan Critic.

That seems a bit much. Clive James was better than anyone before or since at turning the TV review into a blast of highbrow comedy, but he wasn't first with the idea. Bernard Levin, of all people, used to do it in the Manchester Guardian of the 1950s, where the ground was prepared for him by a once-famous tradition of needlessly witty and erudite music-hall reviewing. And although I admire James's reviewing, I can't shake the accusation in Jonathan Raban's For Love and Money that he writes a dialect "as recognisable as Mummerset; at once donnish high-falutin' and come-off-it low slang, it is the received standard accent of the smart English book review".

But Jacob Weisberg is right to wonder why the man is not more prominent in America; he is as widely cultured a good talker as Christopher Hitchens, treading much of the same literary territory, and better at reading closely (as if that matters). I suppose it's to do with the primacy of politics over culture, Hitchens being a political writer deriving status from his cultural hinterland and James a cultural critic aiming for a political edge. And then Hitchens's old socialist-among-liberals schtick would be more of more use to American talk-show bookers than the liberal-among-socialists one that drives most of James's more political stuff. That James's jokes are for laughing at, rather than admiring as sallies of wit, and that he puts so much work into looking laid back, probably do their share of damage too.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Revised and updated

"In all of the more than 700 places reviewed within this guide you should be able to get two courses (starter + main or main + dessert), plus half a bottle of house wine (or a couple of beers) plus service (we've assumed ten per cent when it is not automatically added) for no more than £20 per person." -- Time Out Cheap Eats In London, edition three.

"In all of the more than 500 places reviewed within this guide you should be able to get two courses (starter + main or main + dessert), plus half a bottle of house wine (or a couple of beers) plus service (we've assumed ten per cent when it is not automatically added) for no more than £20 per person." -- Time Out Cheap Eats In London, edition four.

Emphases, conveniently enough, in originals.

[Time Out Cheap Eats In London, edition four, 2007. This is the only guidebook I buy every time it comes out, but it has fallen upon evil days. Not only is the new one 50 pages and 200 entries shorter, it has developed a tendency to seek out posh sandwich shops. These will generally let you pick up a sandwich, a banana ("main + dessert") and a can of organic fake Coke ("a couple of soft drinks") for less than £20, but even in London they wouldn't fit most people's definition of "cheap". On the other hand, it's more sensibly organised -- it has all the maps gathered at the back, rather than sprinkled unpredictably through -- and it seems to have somewhat better coverage of outer London, even if it does file its one Forest Hill recommendation under Deptford.]

Your New Yorker links may no longer work...

...but at least the "Not found" message is beautiful. (This joke stolen from a commenter at, via a link emailed from a friend.)

The site has had a mostly handsome redesign; it also inserts cartoons into the text, reproducing the authentic New Yorker experience of pausing in the middle of 10,000 words on female circumcision to smile at a cat saying something Upper East Side. (That joke stolen from another friend the other weekend. It's originality day here.)

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Presbyterian bean salad

"Since supper was three kinds of casserole with two kinds of fruit salad, with cake and pie for dessert, I gathered that my flock, who lambaste life's problems with food items of just this kind, had heard an alarm. There was even a bean salad, which to me looked distinctly Presbyterian, so anxiety had overspilled its denominational vessel. You'd have thought I'd died. We saved it for lunch." - the Rev John Ames, 76, recovers from a health wobble in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead.

[Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, 2005. Astonishingly graceful novel in the form of an old pastor's letter to his young son, with a plot that develops so gently that I was a third of the way through before I realised there was going to be one. It ends up gripping. Its pulpit topics - death, love, redemption, forgiveness - are the obvious basis for praise, and you could extract 80 pages of good epigrams from its 280 pages. But it's the convincingness of John Ames's voice, and the solidity of his 1950s Iowa setting, which make the goodness palatable.]

The years of cholera

Sometimes, a book can transform your view of some other book without so much as a direct reference. One of the first things this blog did, back when it still seemed possible that I might finish Macaulay's History of England, was to mock this statement of optimism:

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.

Thanks to Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map, I now know that I greatly underestimated the chutzpah involved. A "year of cholera" was not some immemorial curse. When Macaulay was born, in 1800, cholera was a disease that England heard of only when it devastated a British garrison in India. While he was studying at Trinity College, it was building a bridge of corpses across Europe. And while he was a new MP fighting for Reform...

In 1831, an outbreak tore through a handful of ships harboured in the river Medway, about thirty miles from London. Cases inland didn't appear until October of that year, in the northeast town of Sunderland, beginning with a William Sproat, the first Englishman to perish of cholera on his home soil. On February 8 of the following year, a Londoner named John James became the first to die in the city. By the outbreak's end, in 1833, the dead in England and Wales would number above 20,000. After that first explosion, the disease flared up every few years, dispathcing a few hundred souls to an early grave, and then go underground again. But the long-term trend was not an encouraging one. The epidemic of 1848-1849 would consume 50,000 lives in England and Wales.

As it happens, 1848-1849 is the period during which the first volumes of the History of England were published. That puts Macaulay's cheerfulness on a whole different level, no?

[The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson, 2006. An old-fashioned story of scientific endeavour - empirical good sense and local knowledge, in the form of John Snow studying a Soho cholera outbreak, defeat fifth-hand argument from authority - made into something rather different by the author's determination to tell his tale at every scale from the microbial to the world-historical. His call for a "history of mistakes" (in this case, the mistake is the miasma theory of disease transmission that made cholera so difficult to understand) is somewhat undermined by his breezy and doubt-free way of throwing around currently fashionable ideas; this is not a book for anybody allergic to pat evolutionary psychology. But his confidence in digressing gives The Ghost Map most of its charm.]

Update: Tweaking the labels on this site I realise, somewhat embarrassedly, that I've come across part of this point before, barely a month after reading the Macaulay; I even gave it the same title. Oops. This latest version of the revelation is probably more startling, however; I don't think I previously realised that cholera was arriving for the first time, or how closely its rise could be seen to follow Macaulay's.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The road and the pavement

The first time I moved to London I read Jonathan Raban's Soft City, a brilliant hymn to urban disorientation and weirdness. It fitted. In fact it fitted so well that it was uncomfortable to read it on buses: I felt that I was looking into my fellow passengers' minds, which was creepy, and that I was offering them the means to look into mine, which was terrifying.

A month ago I moved to London for a third time - difficulties in getting a phone line sorted account for this blog's deadness since - and have ended up reading Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Among other virtues, it turns out to the Raban's anti-book: a hymn to the self-sustaining, self-ordering power of busy areas. He looks at the nearest main road and sees a malevolent river-god (see the link above for quote); she looks at the bustle on the pavement and sees a ballet. What makes it attractive, beyond the sunniness of her outlook, is the quality of her observation. Consider this, on how a good street can police itself:

The incident that attracted my attention was a suppressed struggle going on between a man and a little girl of eight or nine years old. The man seemed to be trying to get the girl to go with him. By turns he was directing a cajoling attention to her, and then assuming an air of nonchalance. The girl was making herself rigid, as children do when they resist, against the wall of one of the tenements across the street.

As I watched from our second-floor window, making up my mind how to intervene if it seemed advisable, I saw it was not going to be necessary. From the butcher shop beneath the tenement had emerged the woman who, with her husband, runs the shop; she was standing within earshot of the man, her arms folded and a look of determination on her face. Joe Cornacchia, who with his sons-in-law keeps the delicatessen, emerged about the same moment and stood solidly to the other side. Several heads poked out of the tenement windows above, one was withdrawn quickly and its owner reappeared a moment later in a doorway behind the man. Two men from the bar next to the butcher shop came to the doorway and waited. On my side of the street, I saw that the locksmith, the fruit man and the laundry proprietor had all come out of their shops and that the scene was also being surveyed from a number of windows besides ours. Nobody was going to allow a little girl to be dragged off, even if nobody knew who she was.

I am sorry - sorry purely for dramatic purposes - to have to report that the little girl turned out to be the man's daughter.

I'm sure other people could give you subtler or more rigorous versions, or refutations, of the "eyes on the street" theory that anecdote supports. Some of them would tell a similar story. But if there's any of them who would notice and describe the girl "making herself rigid", please tell me, because I want to read them.

Given the news around here at the moment, it feels good to be reading a case that cities are not necessarily places of terror; that they can be uniquely civilised, and civilising. My bit of south London (more or less as predicted) has managed occasionally to remind me of one of Jacobs's good scenes, rather than her bad ones. I just wish I could be more optimistic about conditions a borough boundary north.