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.