Thursday, 29 December 2011

Kindle Christmas

So I unwrapped a Kindle on Christmas morning and here are some initial observations.

Reading on a Kindle is fine, no problems. It's great to be able to instantly download books although super-frustrating when you arrive at your mother-in-law's to find she has no idea what her wifi password might be. The screen is fine, turning pages is fine - blah di blah - if you have a problem reading on a Kindle then you should seek psychological assistance - it's no BIG deal.

What I have found to be frustrating has more to do with the UK government and publishers than devices I think. Let me outline some of the main issues as I see them.

1: If there has ever been a Dickensian Christmas then this was it. 200 year anniversary on the horizon, Ray Winston and Agent Scully in Great Expectations and a Claire Tomalin biography to drool over. All good until you come to thinking about reading the Tomalin biography. As a book it is priced on the cover at £30. That is the kind of thing that makes Indy booksellers weep. That cover price is one hardly anyone will pay. It is the price only the most devoted and deep pocketed could contemplate paying when it costs so much just to stay warm at present. On Amazon the book is priced at £14.85 - less than half. But the e-book is £17.99.

I have seen the book. It is beautiful. Lovely end-papers, clever design. Lovely. So why pay more for a grey bland Kindle version? PUBLISHERS IT MAKES NO SENSE TO ORDINARY PEOPLE! That £17.99 is of course inflated by the %20 VAT slapped on top. E-books are electronic services? Only to robots! GOVERNMENT IT MAKES NO SENSE! If books are zero rated then e-books should be too. End of. Ignore the EU diktat - you do it when it suits the bankers.

2: The previews of books are often so stupid I can't help thinking publishers are deliberately being obstructive. Using the Tomalin as an example again you scroll through page after page of contents, lists of illustrations and maps before arriving at a massive cast list. The Prologue kicks in half way through the preview. Two thirds of the way through the preview we arrive at what we wanted - a bit of the book that allows the reader to get a flavour of the work. Why not produce a more intelligent preview? Is it just to spite Amazon? If so it really fails as all it does is frustrate a potential reader and give them the idea that the e-book has been produced by numskulls. I had a similar experience with Grossman's Life and Fate last night. Half of the preview taken up with title pages and other bits of books that I am not remotely interested in.

3: If you buy a print book you should get a licence to read the e-book as well. Once again this is a fact that will upset publishers as it makes little economic sense to them but nonetheless it is an issue that will encourage piracy if ignored. I want to read the Tomalin. I want the physical book. I will pay £14.85 for it but wouldn't it be great if I could read it on my Kindle/phone etc? Then I wouldn't have to lug the physical book around. I could keep that on the shelf and caress it with my eyes and hands in moments of bookish abandon (of which, dear reader, there are many). But when I am travelling around I would have the book electronically in my pocket. Beautiful. But no. I am therefore left tempted to download a pirate copy of the e-book as well as buying the physical copy. Is this really what publishers want? Cos it will happen! There must be a way to grant a license to the purchaser of the physical book that allows them to download the e-book for free. A way must be found and fast. Otherwise publishers will have real problems with piracy.

So there are some initial thoughts.

PS I just read and article about short stories in the Guardian here. Then I went to Amazon and downloaded a preview of the Don Delillo book The Angel Esmerelda and other stories. The e-book is priced at £8.35 compared to the eye-watering £16.99 of the print edition, though to buy the hardback from Amazon costs £9.17 making the e-book look expensive all of a sudden. I read the preview and it stopped at a point where I was unclear if that was just the end of the story or if the preview had just ended. The effect was to leave me confused and frustrated. Either it was a story that just ended - I hate stories that just end and leave you running like Wiley Coyote. Or the publisher was being mean and would only let a strict percentage of the book be previewed. Either way I was pissed off enough not to buy the book! (Though I did appreciate Delillo's description of someone deep into reading a book as "unreachable, as though massively stunned".

There are a lot of things to sort out. So far this new era of publishing feels like a total mess! But kind of fun too...

Saturday, 10 December 2011

What's Revolutionary About e-books?

There are great changes afoot in the publishing industry. Sales of e-books are hitting those of traditional hardbacks hard and now Amazon has launched a Kindle store in that bastion of the printed book - Germany.

But what is it about e-books that has given them this power? In many ways e-books are reactionary and conservative. Michael S Hart created the first e-book in 1971 when he typed the United States Declaration of Independence into a computer. Soon after he started Project Gutenberg to create more electronic books.

It has taken developers 40 years to come up with a way of reading electronically that people enjoy. In the end they had to make the experience as close to that of reading a printed book as possible. People have an emotional relationship to the way they read. Those summers by the pool, the years at school/university all helped to cement an idea of what reading is that has proved hard to dislodge. People love reading. Mess with the things people love and they get upset.

Amazon's Kindle is by far the most popular e-reading device but if you look at the Nook, the Kobe or any of the other competitors you see pretty much the same thing. The device is the rough size and shape of a printed paperback. It is not back-lit and therefore less straining on the eyes. The batteries last for ages. One by one the differences between print and electronic have been eased away. When they make a waterproof e-reader you can drop in the bath the last of the "I'll never read on one of those thingy" people will be won over. It's rather like the PDF for printed documents. Whether you look at a PDF on screen or print it out it looks and operates just the same. It is sheets of A4 paper represented electronically. Office workers and students loved the PDF. In fact Microsoft and the entire "desktop" format proved how well people accept changes that are made to feel familiar.

Modern e-readers do the job of making e-books mimic printed books to a degree that most people now accept as sufficient for them to use and enjoy.

So e-books themselves, books in electronic form, are far from revolutionary. Similarly there is nothing about e-readers and the way most e-books are now encountered that is new.

What is revolutionary and drives change in publishing is the distribution of e-books.

First came Amazon. They changed the game by shifting the locus of power away from the retailer and towards the consumer. (This seismic shift is beginning to involve publishers too, whose traditional role as arbiters of taste is under threat from an empowered public.) At a stroke it didn't matter if a book was in stock. Amazon could order it for you and get it to you next day. They did this through putting the emphasis on distribution. Now their web spreads so widely that through opening their shop front to others they are able to offer a vast array of goods to the Internet shopper. The consumer just sees the interface - the familiar Amazon site. Behind it lies a vast distribution network that because of its collaborative nature is more effective than anything seen previously. The High St quakes.

Why is the Kindle the #1 Best-selling, Most Wished-For, Most-Gifted Product Amazon sell? It's the next logical step. Electronic distribution is the fastest, cheapest and crucially most convenient method of distribution ever. No lorries. No waiting. No "come back to collect tomorrow" or "pick up from your nearest store" or even worries about missing the postman. Having cracked the reading device and found something that even the most conservative of readers accept as a good electronic reading experience the party can get started.

But although Amazon and the wirelessly delivered e-book has arrived and seems revolutionary it is still based heavily on old ideas about reading. In my next post I will discuss the possibilities for reading in the future that involve changing the way we read altogether. It might not appeal to the millions who have grown up reading from paper. It involves interaction and distraction. It will appeal to a new generation of readers who are already consuming content in different ways. It promises to be a true revolution in reading...

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Thursday, 24 November 2011

What did the Internet ever do for us?

1: Not Having To Go To Tesco Ever Again

Yeah, I can hear you screaming. With your baggy trousers, ethnic hair twists and stringy dogs. I've been kettled in Oxford Circus. I was on the criminal justice bill march in '94. I reclaimed the streets with the best of them. But the forces of evil are not just dark they are devious. When they double up your club card points on toys just before Christmas and give you ninety quids worth of toys for nineteen quid and you are an impoverished ex-bookshop owner with the re-employment prospects of a melted mars bar well what do you do? That's right, you sell right out and shop at Tesco with everyone else. Until they invented the Internet. No more battling down the aisles, swerving amongst the day-breed, dodging the pointy elbows of old ladies with their magnifying glasses out searching for the cheapest chickens for me. Oh no. Now I order online and they deliver to the door. So they substitute stuff now and then. You get to know that cheese slices with chilli in are kind of weird but also strangely nice. I can live with that shit. Like I said at the top. What did the Internet ever do for us?

Friday, 11 November 2011


Another chunk of cliff had fallen away. The newly exposed surface was studded with fragments of shell, obscenely white, like splinters of bone protruding from a compound fracture. John ran his hand over the crumbling soil and felt a jagged sharpness. 55 million years of stillness then a crack of revelation as an edge of land disintegrated into sea. He found a complete shell and pulled gently until a piece of the cliff it was embedded in broke away. He placed the lump and the precious fossil into a compartment in a plastic toolbox then moved on, scanning the ground intently. He found a beautiful specimen: a single valve of a bivalve Artica. In contrast to the crumbly light-brown Upnor formation soil from the cliff this was in gray clay from the Thanet formation. He broke away as much of the surrounding matter as he dared before adding the shell to the toolbox.

A lyrical rushing, splashing sound raised his head. The tide was turning. The area he was walking on would soon be back underwater and the North Sea would gnaw away at the cliff once more, exposing further fossils. He looked out across the brown waters into a whiteness of low cloud. Seabirds called; gulls and now the mournful cry of a Curlew. The previous day a strong northerly breeze had snatched moisture from the clouds and hurled it as freezing drizzle into their faces. Today the wind had dropped but the main contrast was family. He was alone now and able to think.

He considered the shells and what 55 million years underground might mean to them. A gradual increase in pressure over the millennia as layers of sediment built up and sea became land, then sea once more. An era of dinosaurs came and went. There were ages of ice. The first people arrived, mastered fire, then advanced with technological violence toward the Romans where their well-built fort at Reculver guarded the Wantsum Channel, itself nothing but a silted memory by the time Barnes Wallace used the shallow waters to test bouncing bombs. The touch of his fingers on an ancient shell; a communion of something once living with something alive after a length of time that was, quite frankly, incomprehensible.

When he first met Sally he described himself as an artist. Nowadays, if anyone thought to ask, he was a teacher. What he used to consider his real work hardly existed any more. The geological pressures of monthly mortgage repayments and childcare had buried the art.

He smiled as he thought of his children dashing around on the beach.

“Dad! Dad! Look at this!”

Sally smiling, wrapped in layers of clothing, happy to be doing something as a family. He had acted out of love but the gesture had been misunderstood. His son was into dinosaurs. His daughter loved the sea. He remembered beach combing with his wife in France or on remote Scottish islands, searching for the most perfectly rounded pebbles or anything else washed up that took their fancy.

Is everything a lesson these days?”

That's what Sally had said when they got back to the car. The children were crying. One was cold whilst the other had dropped the last of their sweets into a muddy puddle. John was silent but furious. They had found nothing. It was impossible to look with the required intensity when the children were around. He had wanted to find a fossil, to feel they were learning something about the world from him, but his plan had dissolved beneath the onslaught of their small demands.

As he cycled home he thought about the shells and wondered how long a sea-creature like that lived for. A year? Ten years? An instant alive and then gone. Only the shell remained and now, after 55 million years, it was in the world again; touched by his fingers, inspiring these thoughts.

At home he showed the fossilized shells to the children. He told them they were 55 million years old and very delicate.

Did they have dinosaurs then?” his son asked.

Yes” John said.

He was unsure whether this was strictly true but hoped that somehow he could find a way to impress this five-year-old boy with these muddy treasures.

Wow! Can I watch some telly?”

John grabbed his son and hugged him close. His daughter let out a competitive roar and he circled her with the other arm, pulling her in against his chest. They giggled as he nuzzled them, smelling their hair. Instinctively they knew what mattered to everything was the here and now. 55 million years ago was interesting but not vital. No matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t fit all that time into your head. The children though were growing, living things. They were happening and they were now. His fossilized art would still be there when the children were demanding to be left alone. Perhaps everything is a lesson he thought.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

"Well-Written" and the Algorithms of Choice

So how do you choose what book to read next? Amazon and lots of other websites use the "if you liked this you might enjoy that" model, a truly revolutionary step that has led many an unsuspecting punter down the Long Tail from Coldplay to Royal Trux. I prefer the more complex algorithms of my life so, for example, the book I am reading now came to me via the following process.

1: Roy Hodgson, then Fulham manager, mentioned JP Donleavy in an interview. It was 2008 and we had just beaten Portsmouth on the last day of the season to stay in the Premier League. At the end of the game Roy strolled over to the adoring fans and mouthed "have a good summer holiday" at us. Summer holiday? Roy, we just pulled off the greatest escape EVER. We are not jumping around like a bunch of loons because we're looking forward to our holidays... A few weeks later my FFC and book buddy Richard Allen lent me a copy of The Ginger Man that I read and loved.

2: I was in a second hand bookshop in Faversham accompanied by my sleeping daughter in her buggy. My wife and son were watching the new Tintin film. The shop was well stocked but very small and soon I found myself physically trapped in a corner next to the "D" part of the fiction section. Whilst attempting to extricate myself I saw a copy of The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman and decided to buy it.

So there you go, the Bookselector is the same as Amazon but different, when it comes to choosing books.

It is now that we come to the first part of the title of this post. (If you think that was confusing then you should give up now, despite the fact that the best parts are yet to come!) What do people mean when they say a book is "well-written". I have worked in some of the poshest bookshops in the country. I am familiar with the types who stride about, not always in pink shirts, and hold books aloft bellowing about how bloody well-written they are. I know what they mean too. They mean - "I like this and I am super fucking intelligent or just super rich and I like it so it must be written well" - but I fear that takes us no closer to the Truth. Then I was reading an article in which Geoff Dyer praised Denis Johnson (see previous post) whilst also saying that Johnson clearly had no idea what a sentence was and probably couldn't even write.

And this, dear reader (I am assuming you exist though the fact you never bloody comment makes you a lurker even if you are there), is where the two parts of the title collide, explode and become:

"The first minor casualties were the Slasher sisters. Two raving redheads, who both fell off in a deep flowing brook. Smiling, they remounted, water spilling from their boots and wet hair flying. And lips loosing rather not nice words. They charged up the hill. Fighting Murphy the Farmer was next. His horse going down at the gallop in a rabbit hole. And poor rider, he was flung like an arrow head first into the ground. Where he lay, believed to be soundly dead. Till someone hoping to borrow a nip from his small brandy bottle awakened him."

...and so on, all the way through the book. I mean, is that "well-written"? Whatever, it's JP Donleavy.

I think it's beautifully written. And I think Denis Johnson writes great sentences. So. There...

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

I kept hearing about this book on Twitter. Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. A new book I din't know about by one of my favourite authors? I tried to find a UK publisher but there didn't seem to be one. John, The Bookseller Crowtweeted me to say he had a US copy in his shop. A few moments later I was on the phone handing over my post code and card digits. The next day the book arrived. The day after, I read it.

Train Dreams was first published in the Paris Review. It is short, a novella really, but crams a lot in. The cover shows a painting by Thomas Hart Benton. A horse dashes through the landscape. A train rushes along behind and would catch up if the scene were not frozen in art. Steam and smoke flow backward from the engine, like tha mane of a galloping horse. The message in the picture, of industrialisation rapidly overtaking the modes of life that first expanded the Western frontier, is mirrored in the plot. Robert Grainier's life (he is the main character) sees him help to build the railways that will transform the US landscape. During his lifetime he also encounters the Model T Ford and an aeroplane.

Reading the book is like riding a train. There is such a powerful forward motion the reader is swept along through scenes and situations that are hard to grasp and become fragmented parts of a greater narrative whole. The effect is absolutely not sketchy. This is no quick grab of a scene from a fixed viewpoint, lines drawn as fast as the brain can see. Rather the viwer is constantly moving, only able to take snapshots of what they see before it rushes away forever. In this manner this brilliant novella gains the narrative sweep of an epic but also retains a close focus in which every moment revealed vibrates with the intensity of dream or hallucination.

There is one moment in particular that lingers, days later, in my mind. In fact it's probably worth quoting in full:

Gladys was up with Kate, sitting on the bench by the stove, scraping cold boiled oats off the sides of the pot and letting the baby suckle this porridge from the end of her finger.

"How much does she know, do you suppose, Gladys? As much as a dog pup, do you suppose?"

"A dog-pup can live by its own after the bitch weans it away," Gladys said. 

He waited for her to explain what she said. She often thought ahead of him. 

"A man-child couldn't do that way," she said "just go off and live after it was weaned. A dog knows more than a babe until the babe knows its words. But not just a few words. A dog raised around the house knows some words, too - as many as a baby."

"How many words, Gladys?" 

"You know," she said, "the words for its tricks and the things you tell it to do." 

"Just say some of the words, Glad." It was dark and he wanted to keep hearing her voice. 

"Well, fetch, and come, and sit, and lay, and roll over. Whatever it knows to do, it knows the words."

In the dark he felt his daughter's eyes turned on him like a cornered brute's. It was only his thoughts tricking him, but it poured something cold down his spine. He shuddered and pulled the quilt up to his neck. All of his life Robert Grainier was able to recall this very moment on this very night. 

This scene, and the words of Gladys in particular, resonate through the entire story. A mother, father and child - an island of love in the midst of a harsh wilderness. How do people remain human when they are surrounded by animal violence and the raw terror of the elements?

Johnson's mini-novel becomes a literary howl beneath a savage moon; man and animal blend in the face of the fragility of all those moments of beauty that contain in their very blossoming the beginning of an ending.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Old Bailey Online

A fully searchable collection of  The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913. 

Monday, 24 October 2011

Lotte Lehmann

I bought a vinyl record of Lieder sung by Lotte Lehmann in Canterbury Oxfam shop on Saturday. The record is in perfect condition. Lotte famously Never Sang For Hitler but I find something about these old recordings makes me think of all those poor souls caught up in, killed and generally fucked about by World War II.

I imagine a ruined house in the middle of Germany somewhere. Artillery can be heard in the distance but there are also birds singing in an old apple tree that huddles close to the battered building. A soldier enters the house. His boots crunch on broken glass as he walks through the remains of someone's life; family photos, an open suitcase, shattered plates.

In what is left of the living room stands a gramophone. He walks over to it, cranks a handle and places the needle on the record. Lotte's voice fills the air. The soldier is transfixed. He stands, hardly able to breathe, until the song is ended. Then he lights a cigarette and leaves...

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Deeper Into The Machine...Getting Lost In Digital In The Company of Katherine Hayles

I'm sitting at the kitchen table with a large mug of black coffee. In the background the kids are watching Saturday morning TV on our I-Mac. Through the back door the garden is bathed with bright October sunshine. I am connected via my Samsung laptop's VPN link to King's College London and reading a paper on Google Scholar titled Deeper Into The Machine. The dishwasher is going, gently cleaning the dishes for us. My Blackberry is close by and so is an I-Pod connected to a Logitech dock. Neither device is in use though both could be in a moment if needed. Also on the table in front of me is a sewing machine loaded with light blue thread. My wife is making a pair of pyjamas for my son. Machinery is everywhere in our domestic scene. Not only that but the dishwasher contains a computer, we watch TV on our computer, my phone contains a computer, my music is stored in a computer device - only the sewing machine remains simply mechanical, everything else has been absorbed into the digital...

The first point Hayles makes is that people need to learn to "write digital" by which she seems to mean employ the full range of digital media available to write texts. Moments later she speaks of:

"the realization that natural and machine languages mingle in the production of electronic literature. While the user parses words, the machine reads code. These works are not content to let code remain below the surface but rather show it erupting through the surface of the screen to challenge the hegemony of alphabetic language."

I followed the links in the article to a work entitled Translucidity (Talan Memmott) and was presented with something that reminded me of a crappy Powerpoint presentation. Whatever text there was seemed pretty nonsensical. The graphics were crude and involved a lot of arrows. I suppose I could see the point that code was erupting into the text but I couldn't really see any merit to it other than articulating this, rather simple, intellectual concept. Furthermore what immediately struck me was that if writers are going to learn to "write digital" and use lots of multimedia tricks then their work is going to date very very fast. Text is extremely resilient. Something written hundreds of years ago can feel incredibly relevant and "up to date". But visual styles change constantly. Images date far faster than text. Powerpoint looked "cool" and "futuristic" once. Is text a kind of XML I found myself wondering - the structure that endures whilst everything else changes?

The next link I was invited to click on seemed to be a dead link highlighting another problem for online texts, one that has already cropped up on our MADAM course. If you are going to have an effective semantic web then links have to be maintained and former architectures preserved somehow. As Hayles goes on to call for new modes of criticism that engage with and recognise the full range of media available to be employed in digital writing I found it hard not to not think about the dead link I had just encountered.

Hayles then goes on to describe a work entitled database by Souza and Winkler. This is clearly a work of conceptual art rather than writing as such but it does make you think about things which is good. Various processes are inverted so that:

"The printer obliterates rather than inscribes words; the database is stored as marks on paper rather than binary code inside the computer; clicking blacks out visible words rather than stabilizing them; the camera “reads” but does not record; and the projection displays words oppositional to the ones the user has chosen."

Hayles goes on to talk about Lev Manovich who sounds interesting. Hayles summarizes his investigations of the narrative versus the database thus:

"While narrative is the dominant form of print literature, Manovich argued, database is the native idiom of the computer. He noted that database inverts the relation between the syntagmatic and paradigmatic that obtains with print text. For print the syntagmatic, inhering in the order of the sentence, is visibly present on the page, whereas the paradigmatic, inhering in alternatives that could be substituted for a given word, is virtual, imaginable as a conceptual possibility but not physically realized. With a database, however, the possible choices are physically present as encoded data, whereas the syntagmatic order created by their assembly is virtual, a possibility that can be realized only when the appropriate commands are executed."

At this point I found I was starting to engage a great deal more with things. However I was also distracted by the efforts of my wife as she attempted to cut my son's toenails. My daughter began firing a pirate canon and my mental state degenerated to a point where further thought was impossible! Still, I thought it would be fun to blog as I read - maybe this is the kind of new media criticism Hayles had in mind? Maybe...

Monday, 10 October 2011

A Summer of Drowning

I was telling a story about the Cyclops to my five-year-old son. I was driving but I caught his eye in the rear-view mirror.

"Is that true?" he said and I paused before answering.

"Some things are true even if the things that the story says happened didn't actually happen." I said. My son looked confused.

"Like Religion," I said "When people talk about God."

His face lit up right away.

"Oh, OK" he said.

We've had quite a few conversations about baby Jesus and God. I always tell him I don't believe in God, that's it's just another story. Now here I was sticking up for the veracity of myths! Anyway...John Burnside's novel The Summer of Drowning is like that. It's about stories VS rationality - about the relationship between Truth and fiction. It's about the difficulty of believing in other people as real. It's about what you feel like when it's light day and night for months on end, as happens on the edge of the Arctic Circle where this astonishing novel is set. It's about the terror that lurks in the dark, in the corners of eyes and at the edges of understanding. It's about the fragile line between sanity and complete madness.

Why did I choose the song above, that hopefully you have just played, or maybe are playing now? It's a beautiful song. There is a line in the original by Leonard Cohen that goes:

"you saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you"

...that seems to resonate perfectly with the book and the central motif of the huldra, an unbearably beautiful woman who lures susceptible men to a watery grave. Another reason is that the band are Norwegian and the book is set in Norway. Then there's also a quality, an emptiness, in the music that fits the book. There is a certain amount of space where nothing happens in the music. Much of the book is about the spaces between people. Things left unsaid, the absence of the narrator, Liv's, father and the way her artist mother locks herself away in the studio, painting for days on end. A sense that emotion is dangerous, that connection must be approached with care to avoid damage to a self who may have been painstakingly created.

The Summer of Drowning is a novel of great power and insight that creeps beneath your skin to haunt you. It also makes you think deeply about life and art. The narrator, Liv, is as unreliable as perception itself and as sinister as they come.

I loved it!

Friday, 30 September 2011

A Word From My Doctor...

You want something for the weekend? Try this...

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Through A Glass Darkly...

I can't believe I'm quoting the Bible again but hey, you know I'll be out doing the Satanic shit later and as a title it seems apt for what I want to say.

I'm struggling to get to grips with XML or Extensible Markup Language, a set of rules for encoding documents in machine-readable form. I have grappled with HTML before and back in the day even fiddled around with Basic. At a certain point yesterday I was struck by a thought - what is the Internet? I tend to think of it as a kind of mesh linking computers but I suddenly realised that this wasn't good enough. What is an IP address? Why does it matter?

From there it was a downward spiral really. Last night I went for a cycle after the kids were in bed. It felt Summery but by the time I was out there it was pretty much dark already. I looked at the blinking stars. Aaaargh! The Universe is vast and I know next to nothing about it!

Then there's the world of finance. I don't understand that either. What seems straightforward to me (tax the Rich - spend money on Teachers and Nurses) is nonsense according to economists.

How do the tides work? It's not the water moving you know, it's the Earth spinning inside a watery layer that is constantly bulging around the middle. And they say the world isn't flat - bloody looks like it though eh?

Now they are saying the theory of Relativity may be wrong. Neutrinos! You were my friends.

I suppose we don't need to know a lot of this stuff. Just take the Apple Mac or the Windows operating system. You can use a computer without knowing much about it. But then what are we missing? Maybe if we did know a bit more about these things and didn't have to rely on other people to interpret the world for us so that we can understand it we could dispense with economists and other high priests altogether.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Apples and Butterflies; Life and Fate

I've had my eye on this wild apple tree for a while.

So I dragged our wobbly stepladder and the mop-bucket along the lane...

...climbed into the tree and scrumped a load.

On my way back a Red Admiral stumbled through the skies and settled nearby.

Apple crumble coming up then...

In other news I have been working my way through the Life and Fate podcasts. It's a cliche but in this case I really would have paid the entire license fee just to have had this experience. Sofya's narration of her journey to Poland with the inevitable ending - "following the lights" - into a gas chamber was devastating. I also found the idea of a baby being born into the midst of the Battle for Stalingrad very moving. Lastly, though I have read books such as Arthur Koestler's Darkness At Noon, I had never fully appreciated the cruel absurdity of the Soviet system until I listened to Krymov (aka David Tennant) being interrogated in the Lubyanka building.

There was an awful intimacy in listening to Life and Fate through headphones. At times I found myself turning at the sound of boots on gravel or flinching at a knock on the door. I lowered the volume down when Krymov was being beaten in case the people sitting opposite me on the train thought I was some kind of sicko. The dramatisation was quite superb and a large book was edited into bite sized pieces with great skill. Well done BBC.

I am soooo glad not to have had to live under a totalitarian regime. I would have lasted about two seconds what with the fatal combination of LarryDavidItis I suffer from AND my complete failure to ever play the political games of life with any degree of success.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

A Break In The Clouds?

I haven't written much on here recently. In fact I haven't written much of anything. A mixture of childcare, the end of summer, eight days in the bookshop on the trot and some sort of general apathy has stunted my output. Then a woman came into the bookshop yesterday with an acid-green, badly printed leaftlet about her "happiness" courses. A few hours with her, at a cost to you of £25, and she would help you to become more happy. Well fuck that lady! After reading her leaflet I felt better already.

I'm sitting here at the kitchen table listening to the extraordianry beauty of Richard Strauss's four Last Songs. What are they about? Death. And yet they are profoundly moving and, especially at this time of year, fill me with complete joy. I'm reading The Girl From The Fiction Department, a biography of Sonia Orwell, that is full of tragedy and death. An incredible cast of intellectuals, writers and artists crop up in her life and here are some of their musings on happiness and perfection.

When Mahatma Gandhi claims that , as a good Hindu, he would see his wife and child starve sooner than give them chicken broth Orwell had the following to say:

This attitude is perhaps a noble one, is inhuman. The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco and so forth are things that a saint must avoid, but...Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.

Leiris, writing on the death of Alfred Metraux:

he and his old friend Bataille were among the few who taught me that nothing matters as much as that combination which only a handful of individuals manage to bring off: a fierce love of life joined to a pitiless consciousness of just how derisory that is...He was a wanderer, a man who understood most things but took no pride in it, someone who retained in the depths of his being a grief needing consolation...

Joe Ackerley writing to Sonia passing on a tip from E M Forster:

Many years ago Morgan Forster, trying to guide me through some miserable love affair, wrote to me "But happiness may not be your deepest need." ...He himself is a happy man, he has cultivated his garden. For many of us, at any rate for me, that has not been possible, but why? It is an unanswerable question...I have never been happy, I believe, nor ever can be, I was not equpped for that, though what my "deepest need" was and is I do not know. These are things I never say, but I can say them to you, who understand so well...were it not for one's friends, life would be past bearing indeed.

And finally Francis Bacon:

"All I do is cast my rod into the sewers of despair and see what I come up with this time."

So stick that in your happy pipe and smoke it lady...

Take Roberto Bolano. He roams the world as a poet, drinking and smoking and thinking. Then, seriously ill and close to death from liver disease, he begins to write at a furious rate. Most of his ouvre was produced in the last years of his life when he knew he was dying. I feel he came close to capturing something essential within the net of words he cast into the world in those years, though trying to express exactly what that might be is like searching for the right words to describe anything profoundly beautiful - impossible.

Let's leave these Sunday morning autumnal musings when the sky is blue and the garden out the back window is drenched with slanting light with a little more from Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Writing about Sonia, thinking about himself and the fame that was to come, these words echo back and forth through Time into the life of Roberto Bolano and William Blake and countless other brilliant artists:

the girl from the fiction department...was looking at him...She was very young, he thought, she still expected something from life...She would not accept it as a law of nature that the individual is always defeated...All you needed was luck and cunning and boldness. She did not understand that there was no such thing as happiness, that the only victory lay in the far future, long after you were dead.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011


I'm reading a Picador proof of Roberto Bolano's The Third Reich. The literary world seems to be divided between those who think Bolano is one of the most exciting writers ever and those who think he is the most over-rated of recent times.

I love Bolano. He's not hyped. If you think so then I'm sorry but you cannot claim to be literate. Yes, I really did say that. You don't rate Bolano? You suck.

The book is presented as the holiday journal of a German war games enthusiast. Udo is on holiday in Spain with his girlfriend Ingeborg. While she bakes on the beach he works on strategic variants. There are echoes of Michel Houllebecq in a tourism as nightmare/living hell setting but it's really pure Bolanognese - a tasty mix of sex, death, boredom, burns, black dogs and windsurfing accidents. There is also something spooky about the fact that the dates in the diary start on August 20th and finish on October 20th. At present I am reading the entry for September 2nd but I'll soon have caught up with the year. Bolano gives me these reality jolts all the time. Like when you think 2666 is pure fiction then read about this and see the horror is REAL.

Like all the best dead stars Bolano's powers just seem to increase. His death has resulted in the unleashing of an awesome literary force that drags you into a darkness from which nothing, not even light, can escape...

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

342 vs "Good Bookselling"

342 was a feature of Waterstone's bookselling when I worked there so it has obviously been around for a very long time, almost certainly too long. I was at Waterstone's when I saw my first billboard advert for Amazon. 24hours delivery to your home? Surely not? But it turned out to be true. Right from the start when Waterstone's handed out a Yahoo branded CDrom that basically turned your computer into a Yahoo advert they have failed to deal with the Internet. They have consistently failed, through a host of differing management structures and strategies, to cope with change. When I first read The Wind-Up-Bird chronicle I was so impressed I filled half the windows of the Chiswick branch with the book. We sold loads until someone from head office spotted the window and made us pull it out. One book? All that space? Are you mad? Yes, mad for good books. I feel vindicated now seeing as how massive Murakami has become. But the result of this attitude from head office was that I buggered off to the Pan Bookshop, then Daunt then started my own bookshop.

I'm not going to claim to be some perfect bookseller but I do think what Waterstone's needs to do is to get back to good bookselling as the basis of everything it does. Good bookselling? What is that? I can understand the frustration when such seemingly vague phrases are bandied about. The fact is like good wine, good sex, good football and good writing it's hard to explain to others. (Blackberry undertones, crisp passing, creativity and better penetration - choose your own order!) The point is you know it when it's right and it's pretty exciting. That's what makes you go back for more...

Thursday, 25 August 2011

I'm Not Racin' Ya!

Had an eventful ride down the coast to Reculver earlier. First off a dog, soggy and excited from swimming in the sea, dashed in front of the bike. We collided but it was only a glancing blow and no damage was done to me, the bike or Fido either. On the way back I experienced my first real "car door" moment on Herne Bay seafront. There was no other traffic around so I was able to swerve to avoid the door. If there was other traffic on the road what would be best? To brake and crash into the door as slowly as possible or swerve and hope the other traffic was able to avoid you? A nasty situation so easily avoided by car drivers glancing in their side mirrors before exiting their vehicles...

The best bit came later though. I was almost back, just alongside the skate park in Swalecliffe, when a dude came alongside. Recently I have challenged myself to not let anyone overtake me on a ride. Yes, I am fully aware of how sad this is, please read on. Usually my victories consist of passing children on hills or tandems or old men but this guy was my age. He had a large pair of white headphones on and a swish bike with a super-thin frame and funky wheels.

I immediately accelerated and changed gear in a rather obvious NONE SHALL PASS manner. Moments later he cruised alongside, lifted the headphones from his ears and announced "I'm not racin' ya!" before cruising past. Now if you are a cyclist you probably know how it is. It's always a race. Not a proper race with a start and finish line and agreed rules etc but a race nonetheless. I was about to say something like this when I realised I couldn't since he was already too far away. Come back! It is a race! It's always better to get into these kind of duels at the start of a ride or, as previously mentioned, with people you are very very likely to beat. But I was in it now. Did I mention the headwind? There was the mother of all headwinds. That affected the dude too but I am bad with headwinds. They get to me. I felt it affected me more. I was also jealous of his bike that looked a lot lighter and faster than mine. (That's just an excuse I hear you cry.) He also had some pumpin' choons to boost him. (That's an excuse I hear you cry.) Well battle commenced. I worked hard. I sweated. I gradually began to catch up. As I got closer I could see he was wearing flip-flops. Usually people who beat me in races wear helmets and lycra - all the gear. But this dude was in flip-flops like me. He wore no helmet like me. He turned around, smiled, and accelerated away again. Right. Dig deep. COME ON! 

I almost caught him in the end but by that time we had run out of seafront. I made sure he knew I was just on his back wheel as I turned off for home. Damn. 

Back at the hoose I needed a shower I was sweating so much. In the mirror I caught sight of my paunch. Why does my six-pack disappear every time I take my clothes off? The whole episode reminded me of playing table football with one of my dad's friends when I was about 10 and he was probably 40 ish. I kept on beating him. He kept on insisting on one more game. I would beat him again. Pretty soon I realised he was properly cross. Now I understand. They call it middle age I think...

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Gooseberries, Blackberries and Other Plotless Stories...

It's the summer holidays so routines have been splattered all over the place and my writing has suffered. I've started several stories but finished none of them. Part of the problem is that I've been trying to write the kind of stories people advise you to write. The kind with punchy openings that grip the reader and force them to press on. The kind of stories that sketch a character in a few lines who is so real you feel they could be a centre point for an entire novel. Trouble is that as the years go by I am less and less interested in plot. To make matters worse I've never been that interested in characters that seem real either. 

Then I read a couple of connected Chekhov stories - Gooseberries and About Love. This passage in Gooseberries stopped me dead. I read it twice. 

It's the correct thing to say that a man needs no more than six feet of earth. But six feet is what a corpse needs, not a man. And they say, too, now, that if our intellectual classes are attracted to the land and yearn for a farm, it's a good thing. But these farms are just the same as six feet of earth. To retreat from town, from the struggle, from the bustle of life, to retreat and bury oneself in one's farm - it's not life, it's egoism, laziness, it's monasticism of a sort, but monasticism without good works. A man does not need six feet of earth or a farm, but the whole globe, all nature, where he can have room to display all the qualities and peculiarities of his free spirit.

It was Tolstoy who suggested a man needed only six feet of land. 

Have not I retreated from the city? Have not I escaped the riots and looting of my beloved birthplace to make blackberry jam beside the sea? I finished the story and in a sign of it's quality continued thinking about it all day. The man who utters the passage above is the same man who takes great sensual delight in swimming in a mill pond earlier in the tale. He also greatly enjoys the hospitality of his country host. With great subtlety Chekhov is showing how it is possible to say one thing and do another without even realising you are contradicting yourself. He achieves this effect by paining vivid word-pictures for the reader then allowing  his characters to speak. The contrast between their words and actions leads the reader towards a fuzzy truth that is never clearly expressed. Having recently moved out of the city that passage resonated and seemed like an attack on the bourgeois complacency of my new life. And yet the story the man tells about his brother (who describes his home grown gooseberries as "delicious" where he finds them "sour and unripe") is unsatisfying to those listening. Why? Probably because on some level they appreciate the hypocrisy of his words though he is unaware of this himself. 

My point? Ah yes. I don't care if my stories have no easily graspable plot or message. I'm going to carry on writing the fuzzy stuff. Goodbye plot! Hello word-painting, poetry and confusion...

Friday, 12 August 2011


scum n. 1 a layer of dirt or froth on the surface of a liquid.
              2 informal a worthless or contemptible person or group of people.

Emotive language keeps being bandied around following the riots. The main purpose of this is to create a sense of "us" and "them". I have heard children described as "rats" on television and during conversation. In the Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew (quoting from Wikipedia - try substituting Hoodie for Jew)

One of the shots early in the film shows a pack of rats emerging from a sewer, juxtaposed with a crowd of Jews in a bustling street of a Polish city. Close-ups of individuals show sickly, malformed facial features. The narration says that, as rats are the vermin of the animal kingdom, Jews are the vermin of the human race and similarly spread disease and corruption.

If we resort to labeling groups of people as subhuman we are treading into highly dangerous territory. Those using such language should control themselves a little better. 

Among those using emotive language is our own Prime Minister David Cameron. He labelled sections of our society "sick". It should be remembered that Mr Cameron was a member of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford University. Members are not adverse to a spot of vandalism and criminal damage. That they "leave a cheque" to cover the cost is supposed to make everything better but is more like adding insult to injury if you ask me.
Name calling and emotive labeling might make you feel good for a second or two but it serves no useful purpose. There has been a lot of talk about responsibility as well. Rather than "them" taking responsibility for "their" actions I think we need to find a way of bringing even the most unsavory groups (Hoodie nihilists, EDL nuts, Islamic and Christian fundamentalists) and making them feel a part of "us". It's easy to fight about black and white, less so to thrash about in shades of grey. As David Cameron said in his infamous "hug a hoodie" speech:

"But hoodies are more defensive than offensive. They're a way to stay invisible in the street. In a dangerous environment the best thing to do is keep your head down, blend in. For some the hoodie represents all that's wrong about youth culture in Britain today. For me, adult society's response to the hoodie shows how far we are from finding the long-term answers to put things right." 

Thursday, 11 August 2011

But excuse me that is MY book

I was reading Lauren Child's classic But excuse ME THAT is my book to my kids last night when I noticed certain books in the library that I recognised.

I own these three and managed to find them in my library today. Art in Theory is clearly visible when Charlie and Lola are outside the library looking through the window. 

In my crap photo it is the big blurry white book towards the right of the middle shelf. This volume of Art in Theory covers the period 1900- 2000 showing Lauren's tastes are modern. Towards the end of But excuse ME THAT is my book you can clearly see the Faber Plath's collected poems right next to a copy of The Bell Jar (pink spine, yellow writing).

Also visible in the book is Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware - another book I claim as MINE actually in FACT excuse ME. (Just to the left of Charlie's head there.) 
Also visible in the pic above are Martin Amis's The Information and the Black Sparrow edition of Charles Bukowski's Ham on Rye. 

Other books I can make out are Will Self's The Quantity Theory of Insanity; Seeing Things by Oliver Postgate; Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius; The Faber Book of Contemporary Stories About Childhood; Malignant Sadness by Louis Wolpert; Ardal O'Hanlon's The Talk of the Town and Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary. 

I'm getting bored now but there are plenty of others. Why not find yourself a copy and carry on the game? 

Which of those books do you have at home? 

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London's Burning

So here I sit in Whitstable, sunshine and blue skies, whilst my old stomping grounds burn and get looted. I feel guilty. A pathetic sort of survivor's guilt or something.

Walworth Road looted - I used to go to college along there on the bus then it was my route from Camberwell to Crockatt & Powell in Waterloo.

Mayhem in Peckham. I used to walk down to Peckham on a Sunday with Finn when he was a baby. We'd go to the soft play or to the library at Peckham Pulse. Lordship Lane looted. My wife was at dinner last night while one her colleagues was on the phone to his girlfriend. They live on Lordship Lane and she was terrified watching a chemist opposite get broken into and looted.

Hackney in flames. Half my London friends live in Hackney. I was at a wedding in Stoke Newington just last weekend. We stayed with my brother-in-law in Walthamstow, another affected area. Put Walthamstow into Google and the first entries that come up are Walthamstow riots and Walthamstow looting.

The list goes on...

I feel angry. Not just with those chucking bricks and burning stuff but with the collective failure that has led to a generation of young people feeling completely alienated from our society. "Mindless vandals" don't just appear, they are created from dire social conditions. Ok so we may not have people starving to death like Somalia but there are massive divisions in our society that breed ill will and destruction.

Living in Camberwell we were often too close for comfort to crime. Stabbing next door, fatal shooting at the end of our road, constant sirens and helicopters overhead. But we lived there during the good times, when the economy was booming. I feel guilty saying it but it is true. I'm glad to be out of it, down by the sea. But my heart breaks when I see the city I love torn up by rage.

It's too easy to blame it on mindless thugs and call for them all to be locked up or cleansed from the street with water canon. We are all culpable and need to think long and hard about how to make our society work for everyone. I don't claim to have the answers - I'm just a writer, book-lover and dad. But in my heart I feel a rich elite have ridden roughshod over people's lives. Maybe it's time for them to give something back? We need a rethink of our social contract, to find a way to give people hope and faith in their futures. Otherwise this may only be the beginning...

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Publishers be Damned!

We went to a beautiful wedding in Ely on Friday. The next morning we visited Topping & Company, one of two superb bookshops set up by my friend and former colleague Robert Topping. We were enthusiastically welcomed on the way in to the shop (James Daunt take note!) and I asked about a book I was interested in buying. My son found a book he was keen on within moments of entering the extensive children's section. I was directed upstairs where another charming employee offered me a cup of coffee. Well, it wasn't just a cup. I was served coffee on a wooden tray with a china milk jug and sugar pot. They found a window seat for us with a view of the cathedral.
This is the poetry section - not some miserable corner but books floor to ceiling.
Here's a snapshot of the politics section. I ended up spending thirty eight quid - money I really don't have. The point was we were surrounded by wonderful books. They were often wrapped in plastic sheets making them feel like objects of great value. Everywhere you looked there was something to desire and with coffee, the LRB to leaf through, great staff (chatty and friendly but also highly informed) and a list of mouth-watering events coming up it was utterly impossible to resist.

Later we visited the Cathedral. I was struck by the similarity between the reverent atmosphere inside and a certain something about Topping & Company. A cathedral is a kind of advert for religion. Look at this wonderful building. Think of the years of worship. The whole place leads you further, draws you into a realm beyond the everyday, beyond mortality. Topping & Company does a similar job for books. These are not mere words, marks on paper or on a screen. This is distilled human thought and emotion we are dealing with. There is beauty here, something that will last and be a joy forever. Books are taken beyond themselves and into a reverential realm where they matter A LOT.

It wasn't until later that I became enraged. Shops such as Topping & Company, The Bookseller Crow on the Hill, Daunt, even Waterstone's deserve a much better deal from publishers than they receive at present.

It is A FUC*ING INSULT and A MASSIVE INJUSTICE that they should pay roughly the same for a book they want to buy into their shop as an Amazon customer. 

I just can't get that sentence into big enough capitals or red enough writing to express the rage I feel about this issue. If I were a publisher I would be unable to look Robert Topping or John Main in they eye. I would skulk and hide my well-fed face. High Street bookshops are doing publishers a huge service. The likes of Topping & Co do an incredible job for publishers. They make the books produced feel special and of value.

All the Internet does is shift units. It places books on the same level as beans. It makes all books seem cheap. Stop passing the buck by trotting out the same old lame bottom line crap. Ok, so people will buy books where it is most economical to do so. Ok publishers, make it more economical for people to buy from High Street shops. Go on, do it! Level the playing field and recognise that High St shops are subsidising the Internet stores.

There must be more that publishers can do for High Street bookshops. They should all take a look at themselves and put their hands in their pockets.


Something can, and must, be done.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Waiting For The Evening News by Tim Gautreaux

It's not often I find myself quoting from scripture. Ok, you got me, I've never done it before. But for this post the following scrap says it all:

Ecclesiastes 1:9-14 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 

I was watching the news. I forget what terrible thing was occurring, but it was something really bad. "What if that was all my fault somehow?" I thought and felt a story coming on. In the bookshop yesterday I was reading from a book of short stories by Tim Gautreaux. The collection was titled Waiting For The Evening News and the second story I read was called Waiting For The Evening News. A train engineer, drunk on cheap whisky, is flying through the night along a route he has travelled thousands of times before. He is contemplating the sameness of the journey and how it hardly matters if he is there or not when something catastrophic happens. The train derails and the chemical containers it is carrying smash to bits and start to burn. The engineer runs off into the woods because he is drunk and thinks he will be sacked. He hitches a lift with a priest (this is the Deep South - every other person is a Preacher!) and finds a motel for the night thinking he will call in when he is sober. We never really find out why the train derailed but the engineer, though drunk, is convinced it would have happened anyway and that it was not his fault. 

When he turns on the TV the next morning he is shocked to discover the train crash is all over the local news. It seems the chemical spill is pretty bad and the fire is out of control. Not only that the derailed cars destroyed a Seven Eleven and mashed half a small town. The engineer heads for New Orleans thinking he can hide there. Every newspaper he sees covers the story. Every bar has the wreck on TV. Some of the chemical cars have mixed their cargoes and created deadly mustard gas. People have died. His face is plastered all over the place. He is public enemy number one. It just keeps getting worse. His wife appears on the news, pleading for him to come back so he can paint their living room. The engineer rages at the TV claiming he didn't do anything. Eventually the priest appears again. They talk. He asks the engineer if he thinks running away, not being noticed, is the same thing as Innocence. Eventually, in a brilliant finale, the engineer turns himself in. He is arrested with TV cameras rolling whilst the action is played out behind him on the TV in his motel room. 

It's a great story and well worth reading despite the fact I've just told you what happens! 

What I found interesting was that it engaged with exactly the same theme I was hoping to use in my story. I'm still going to write mine. Rather than the Deep South it will be more South London. In fact I'm going to cease blogging right now to go and make a start...

Friday, 29 July 2011


I have a new story available to download FREE. It's a strange one. Very short though. I'd love to know what you think of it...

The title is Moon-Girl and you can download it here for FREE. There are Mobi files for your Kindle or Mobi reader. E-pub files if you prefer. Or you can read it in Word. As well as writing the story I have formatted it all myself. They don't call it self-publishing for nothing...

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Back On My Bike

Glorious cycle down the coast from Whitstable to Reculver this morning to re-gain mental balance. After work last night I was down the garden grappling with a backed up drain 'till bad light stopped play. I had another go this morning before seeking professional help.

"Let's just say you loosened it for us shall we?" said the smiling drain man.

More money I don't have down the toilet. (Sorry!)

Yeah, so it was great to escape on my bike for a while. I was feeling a bit rusty when I heard the click-click of someone changing gear to overtake. Immediately I used more muscle power and hovered around 20ft behind. I knew there was a big hill coming. Let's see how hard you really are I thought, hoping I could stand the climb myself after a month or so off. To my great satisfaction I motored past as the hill got steeper. A bloke and his girlfriend stalled half way up went silent as I passed, standing but making good speed.

Part-timers! The elation was ridiculous...

I may be crap at DIY and drains but I'm one bad mutha on a bike.
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