Thursday, 31 January 2008


For Italian speakers, here's the wonderful Paola Cortellesi casting a wry glance (as they used to say) at the Italian situation, character, political opportunism, and so on. She's interrupted by the appalling Serena Dandini, but I can't do anything about this other than express my irritation here.

Thank you, Francesco, for directing me to this.

Sign language

Come on. Stop faffing around. Read this article. Then sign the petition.


An amusing, if slightly chilling, story from today's Guardian. The headline? Pilot restrained after 'talking to God' on flight to Heathrow. At first I thought the pilot was under the impression that God was actually on the plane with him, presumably in business. Still, it could have been worse. The final paragraph reads:
In 1999 a New York-bound EgyptAir flight crashed into the Atlantic shortly after the co-pilot, who was controlling the plane, was heard to say "I put my faith in God" as the autopilot was switched off. The plane then plunged into a steep dive and crashed into the sea, killing 217 people.
If talking to God is so dangerous when pilots do it, shouldn't we be a little more worried when political leaders do the same? Why should it be a sign of mental breakdown in mid-air and moral integrity at mid-term? I rather like the idea of a handcuffed Blair being escorted through the Arrivals lounge of Brussels airport.

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

James on pontiff

In his LRB review of the first two volumes of Henry James's collected letters (The Complete Letters of Henry James, 1855-72: Volumes I and II edited by Pierre Walker and Greg Zacharias,) Colm Toibin quotes from a letter James sent to his sister, Alice, on Pope Pius IX:

‘When you have seen that flaccid old woman waving his ridiculous fingers over the prostrate multitude & have duly felt the picturesqueness of the scene – & then turn away sickened by its absolute obscenity – you may climb the steps of the Capitol & contemplate the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius.’

Plus ca change... Unless of course Marcus Aurelius is intended to represent the glories of an independent and secular state, in which priests were allowed to advise but not to rule.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008


An awful lot of men -old men, obese men, childless men, opinionated men - are talking about abortion in Italy right now. I don't think it's any of their business, and I don't think it's any of mine.

Monday, 28 January 2008


I was writing about Berlusconi in a private email (yes, I'm obsessed) and my Google spell-check didn't recognise him. I clicked to see what alternatives I was offered and found, at the top of the list, wanderlust. So maybe it did recognise him after all. Maybe it's offering sympathy and advice rather than alternatives.

And talking of spelling, does any other language mark the connection between language and magic as closely as English? Spell. The shared root of grammar and glamour. Witch and which (OK, I'm being silly now.)

Sunday, 27 January 2008


In an interesting article in today's New York Times about whether the Amazon Kindle is likely or not to be a success (he thinks it is), Randall Stross says:

Stephen P. Jobs, the chief executive of Apple, has nothing to fear from the Kindle. No one would regard it as competition for the iPod. It displays text in four exciting shades of gray, and does that one thing very well. It can do a few other things: for instance, it has a headphone jack and can play MP3 files, but it is not well suited for navigating a large collection of music tracks.

Yet, when Mr. Jobs was asked two weeks ago at the Macworld Expo what he thought of the Kindle, he heaped scorn on the book industry. “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is; the fact is that people don’t read any more,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year.”

I've often wondered if the air of superiority that characterises most Mac users is purely coincidental - the way some evolutionary traits just happen to appear side-by-side - or whether, like all the bits needed to expand Apple computers, it's product-specific, up its own arse and basically anti-literate.

It looks like the latter.

Saturday, 26 January 2008


This was attached to a packet of cocktail umbrellas. Ouch! Ouch!

Knut goes nuts

There's an arrestingly titled article in today's Independent about Knut, the hand-reared polar bear cub in Berlin Zoo. It goes: Knut is a psychopath and will never mate, say experts. The article describes Knut's antics:
On a wet day last week Knut stood alone in his enclosure playing to his gallery of adoring visitors like an accomplished Rada graduate. Somebody had thrown him a six-inch-long plastic toy. Knut rolled it around in his mouth, threw it into a pool and dived after it, snatched it up with his paw and then rose up on to his hind legs before quickly flipping the object back into his mouth again. He did this for half an hour and his audience roared with approval. It was more circus than zoo.
When Knut was taken away from his mother, to save him from being eaten by her, his rescuers claimed that they were doing it for Knut. Now, with furry toys on sale depicting Knut in the days when he actually looked like a furry toy, rather than the hulking brown monster he's become (see photo), it's increasingly evident that Knut wasn't hand-reared for his own good, but for ours. From the moment of birth, the cub's socio-ecological niche depended on us.

Animal activists complained about this, but their gripe is not with whether Knut should have been deprived of his mother and a 'natural' death, but with the zoo itself. And, in one sense, they're absolutely right. Tony Paterson, the author of the article, makes a distinction between circus and zoo that seems altogether too fine for what actually happens. We all know that, in theory, zoos are the loci of scientific research and conservation. What we also know is that both circuses - those that remain - and zoos exist primarily to satisfy our natural curiosity about what animals are like - a curiosity that isn't sated by National Geographic and Discovery Channel. We want to get up close and see them unedited; we want to smell the dung and see them see us: we want to relate.

It's a shameful and tyrannical need in some ways, but it serves a human purpose. The truth is that all our animals, whether at home or in zoos, in farms or wildlife parks, even, arguably in reserves the size of the Serengeti, are there to meet our needs. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't love them, care for them, consider their needs; on the contrary, the more they're involved with us on a daily basis, the greater our responsibility becomes. But it's sentimentalism to say that we shouldn't interfere.

Of course we're responsible for Knut, but so would we have been responsible for his death. We can choose what to do with our power, and our responsibility, but we can't pretend we don't possess it. We can't return to some prelapsarian world in which we're all equal and what we think doesn't matter, because we have already made the choice, or had the choice made for us. Loving animals can be the most rewarding, and the hardest, thing we do. Let's not trivialise it by inventing some notion of nature, from which they can be 'divorced'.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Sei una merda

It doesn't take that much Italian to understand what this nameless Italian senator (National Alliance, i.e. post-fascist) is shouting at another senator, a certain Dottor Cusumano who has just voted for the coalition to which his party belonged until, let's see, 63 hours before. And was subsequently expelled from that same party. By its capo supremo, Clemente Mastella (see below).

But, just in case your Italian doesn't run to insults, let me help. Sei = You are. Una merda = A shit. You are a shit. Thank god we have the Senate to show us how to behave. Cusumano was also spat at by one of his ex-colleagues and called a queer (frocio) and dirty faggot (checca squallida). How patrician.

And that's the end of Prodi, for now at least. (Though, in Italy, one never knows.) There may be sadder ways for a relatively decent government to come to a close, though it's hard to think of one that doesn't involve bloodshed.

Little Monsters

The first review of Little Monsters. And it's a good one! You can read it here.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Heath Ledger

I don't know how many hours I've spent talking about Brokeback Mountain. The film took us all back to the story, or to the story for the first time; Annie Proulx's wonderful story. But there was also the partisan aspect of identification. Who were you? Who would you have loved? What would you have done? On the one hand, Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal); on the other Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger). There's something not only ironic, but cruel about the names Proulx gave them. Jack Twist, who never wavered, whose love for Ennis was constant and insistent; Ennis Del Mar, who refused to adapt, sea-like, who refused to go with the flow. Giuseppe and I and our friends divided into factions, in the mildest sense. I was with Jack because I've never had any doubt that what counts is love, and let the rest go hang. But what Heath Ledger did was make the doubts of Ennis so real, and so valuable, that even the most partisan understood what it must be like to not be partisan; understood what it must be like to contain the other within oneself, as Ennis did. Jack was simple; Ennis was what resisted simplicity, for the worst and the best of motives. In the hands of a lesser actor, Ennis would have been the villain, the spoiler. In the hands of Heath Ledger, he broke my heart.

A Chavez story that doesn't mention Naomi Campbell

There's a rather odd piece in today's New York Times about middle and upper class Venezuelans fleeing the country in fear of Chavez, to settle in South Florida. They're compared in the article to Cuban exiles, on the run from Castro. What's odd about it is that none of the people interviewed actually seems to have been personally affected in any way by Chavez. The first 'exile' apparently decided to stay in the US to avoid the repercussions of a labour strike organised by Chavez's opponents. Yes, not by Chavez - by his opponents. The rest of them seem to have been merrily exporting their wealth in suitcases over the past few years, not because of anything that has been done to them but because they're afraid their lifestyle might suffer. Well, yes. It's hard to have to do without domestic staff and chauffeurs. But, with the indomitable spirit of the formerly parasitic, they struggle on. After all, they don't want to be forced to live in a country in which a democratically elected leader does what he says he'd do - sorry, imposes his socialist vision. As opposed to having a capitalist vision imposed on the country by those notoriously undemocratic insitutions, the WTO and the World Bank.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008


As predicted in my last post, Clemente Mastella has withdrawn his three (yes, that's right, three) senators from the Italian senate, depriving the Prodi government of its majority of two (yes, that's right, two). The government's been looking like a house of cards in a gentle but insistent breeze for some time and this will probably be the final puff, though there is a slight chance of a 'technical' (as in, non-elected) government being cobbled together to vote through some sort of electoral reform. The only good that might come from such a solution would be an electoral law that prevented self-serving ingrates like Mastella from holding the whip hand with their fistfuls of bought or bartered votes.

It was clear from the beginning of this legislature that the greatest threat to its survival came not from the left, responsible for bringing down Prodi's first government, but from the centre, a haemorrhoid-like cluster of mini-parties, most of whose leaders are, or have been, investigated for corruption, favouritism or collusion (Mastella, Dini, Di Pietro). The left has had to grit its teeth and vote for any number of unpalatable provisions simply to keep Prodi in power. It's seen parts of the electoral manifesto - such as support for civil unions - scrapped. It's even toed the line over foreign policy decisions that would have brought Prodi 1 down in two shakes of a snake's tail, alienating substantial chunks of its own electorate in the process. To its credit, it's understood that real politik is based on compromise, rather than unbending principle.

Not that the centre's obstructionism and wheeler-dealing has had anything to do with principle. The way Mastella and his merry gang have behaved over the last two years, as though the Italian parliament were part of their personal fiefdom, is simply cringe-making to watch. There is nothing such men wouldn't do to be able to continue to dispense largesse and rake in the profits from it, which, as often as not, have as much to do with the exhilarating buzz of power as they do with cash. (Not that they're short of that.) There are rumours already that Mastella and Berlusconi are brokering some squalid little deal which will ensure the former's political survival. To counter this, and to show the extent to whoch Italian politics is contingent on private interests, there is talk that some of the teeny-weenier parties of the right might, just might, be tempted to cross over to the centre-left and keep it alive for another month or so. Naturally, they'd be rewarded.

The cherry on the cake is that the head of the Italian Episcopal Council, Bagnasco, has informed the electorate (Italy's electorate, naturally - the Vatican's subjects don't get to vote) that the church will not tolerate civil unions, etc. etc. Nobody asked him, he just thought he'd remind us. Oh yes, the church will also oppose any attempt to introduce the notion of gender into Italian law; apparently it remains entirely Christian to insult and disscriminate against gay men and women with impunity. How far the Vatican is from Fred Phelps and his God Hates Fags gang is a moot point. Richard Dawkins would say they're the same thing and, until I hear an awful lot of dissent from grassroots catholics - something that's signally absent at the moment - I'd tend to agree with him.

Today is the first birthday of my blog. I was going to celebrate but I'm sick to the stomach about all this. I've never been less in love with Italy than I am today. I don't even want to begin to talk about the toxic rubbish in Naples. I'd be unable to resist a metaphor that's better left implicit. I'll just post a picture and you can do the creative business yourselves.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

No corruption? No party!

Italian politicians certainly know how to celebrate. Totò Cuffaro, centre right, president of the region of Sicily (see left: modelling a coppola, traditional Sicilian headgear, in a probably mistaken photo-op), was convicted a couple of days ago of having favoured individual Mafia bosses and sentenced to five years in jail. What did he do? Apologise? Resign? Take off his coppola and hang his head in shame? Did he buggery. He waved his fat grasping hands in the air with joy, said he had no intention of leaving his position, then treated his chums and colleagues - and no, you can't see the join - to champagne and cannoli siciliani (see right: the missing cannolo? Don't ask). He had every right to be happy, as far as he was concerned. He'd been acquitted, for insufficient evidence, of the far more serious charge of association with the Mafia. Let's face it. What's a little favouritism?

If you want to know the answer to that question, ask Clemente Mastella, centre-left Minister of Justice until three days ago. Having been told that both he and his wife were under investigation for big-time favouritism, he actually did the decent thing and resigned. The gloss of this good action is slightly tarnished by three considerations.

First, he's been itching to do it for months and can now position himself for the next government, increasingly likely as a result of his resignation. Second, he said that neither he nor his wife (president of Campania regional council) had done anything wrong, as in: hey, everyone does it. He can't see why it's wrong to use his power to fill important positions with his friends and hangers-on. He just doesn't get it. Third, he made a speech in parliament in which he declared his own innocence, obviously, and accused the investigating magistrate of, to say the least, malicious incompetence. This, from the (ex-)Minister of Justice.

In any normal parliament, his speech would have been met with embarrassment, scattered boos, a general drift towards the bar. Here, it was greeted with wild cross-party applause. The man's a hero.

God help us. Pass the party hats.


Two UK book clubs, Books Direct and Book Giant, have decided to put Little Monsters among their choices. This is wonderful news, and I'm duly thrilled. But what I'm most fascinated by is the way the book is slowly getting sexed-up as it creeps towards publication date (sooo, sooo slowly). The second half of the plot summary on both sites is taken directly from the jacket, but the first half starts: My Father, the Killer, and continues:

Written in tight, sparkling prose, Little Monsters is an extraordinary tale of murder and its aftermath. Haunting, powerful and brilliantly evocative of teenage life, this is a must read for fans of Alice Sebold.

I haven't read any Alice Sebold. Maybe I should. But whether I do or not, the idea that I should be a 'must read' for fans of any author who's sold as many copies as Sebold has is, to say the least, exciting.


I've no doubt Ratzinger had a word to say about family values to the masses gathered today beneath his balcony. He works so much better with a friendly audience, even when they do know most of the jokes. There's a cosy feeling about watching an aged transvestite going through his paces, like warming the hands over a fresh cow pat.

But I'm getting distracted from the purpose of this post, which is to draw your attention to a post on the fabulous Jesus' General blog. It's entitled 'Family Values: Proud that Working People Can't Make Ends Meet'. Anyone who's read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich (and if you haven't I recommend it) will know what it's like to survive as a low wage earner in the States, but even Ehrenreich doesn't mention that, for some politicians and, er, Christians, people who need to do more than one or two jobs to survive are a sign of just how great the country is. I've stolen the picture from it. Here's a quote to whet your appetite:

President George W. Bush himself told a divorced mother of three on Feb. 4, 2005: "You work three jobs? … Uniquely American, isn’t it? I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that."

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Precious things

Patrizia Casamirra isn't just a great photographer (she's even managed to make me look like a real author on the jacket of Little Monsters, though you'll have to buy it to see). She also makes fantastic silver jewellery: necklaces, rings and bracelets. The materials she uses include amber, acacia wood, lapis lazuli and antique glass. They're wonderful things to hold and to wear and you can find out more about them here.

Friday, 18 January 2008


This could mean so many things. I don't know. All buns bleed. Amanda's bulging biceps. Avast brown bear. Able bodies burgeon. Alice B. Boklas. OK, OK. What it actually means is Anything But Blair. Valery Giscard D'Estaing and Edouard Balladur, two French politicians who've covered the waterfront, in Tennessee Williams' memorable phrase, have been talking about the EU presidency and they point out that the ideal man, or woman, for the job should come from a country that's firmly committed to the EU, has adopted the Euro as its currency, does not behave like an over-eager poodle whenever the US says yo and, er, doesn't support the war in Iraq. I wonder who they could possibly not be referring to?

You can find more details in today's Independent here.

Party animal

This is for those of you who feel that all is not well with your teenage children. You know who you are. Watch this and know. It could be so much worse.

Via Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Dear Editor

I thought I'd write to La Repubblica to point out that the rest of the world (pace the horrified wailing of the Italian media) is actually not that interested in Ratzinger's failure to show at la Sapienza. On the assumption that it won't be appearing in tomorrow's edition, this is what I wrote:

Contrariamente a quanto detto da quasi tutti i giornali e telegiornali italiani, la rinuncia del papa di presentarsi all'inaugurazione del anno accademico della Sapienza ha avuto pochissimo risalto nei media internazionali, almeno quelli di lingua inglese. L'assenza del papa, per motivi squisitamente politici, e lo scompiglio creato all’interno del mondo politico sono affari che riguardano il Vaticano e il governo italiano e poco altro. Meglio così? O l'amore proprio nazionale vuole che anche i piccoli disaccordi di famiglia attirino gli occhi del mondo intero?
(Contrary to what has been said by practically every Italian newspaper and programme, very little attention has been given by the foreign press to the pope's decision not to appear at the inauguration of the academic year of the Sapienza. The pope's absence, for purely political reasons, and the upset this has caused in political circles interest the Vatican and the Italian government and practically no one else. This is no bad thing. Unless, of course, Italian amour propre would prefer every family tiff to draw the attention of the entire world?)

If it isn't published, I will, of course, claim to have been censored. Even better, I might just withdraw the letter first and then claim to have been censored!

Renaissance man

According to the lunchtime edition of the state-run news programme TG2, penicillin was discovered by Ian Fleming. Presumably between writing Dr No and From Russia With Love.

Inanity of the body snatchers

Feel like being amused in a scary, flesh-creeping way? That's right, I'm talking about the Tom Cruise Scientology video. It's been pulled off Youtube and quite a few sites, but you can still catch it here. (It doesn't seem to be embeddable or I'd be hosting it myself.)

You need to read the comments to find out what an SP is, but you've probably been one all your life and don't even know it.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Papal bull part two

Well, would you believe it? Ratzinger's decided that his presence at La Sapienza would be 'inopportune'. It's hardly the first time his cowardice desire to avoid conflict has overruled his spiritual, and political, responsibilities. Less than a month ago, he chose not to receive the Dalai Lama for reasons that had very little to do with religious divergence and everything to do with Realpolitik. Who can blame him? It's what you'd expect from the leader of a tinpot state the size of a football field. Still, since when has 'inopportune' been part of the papal lexicon? If Jesus had been more 'opportune', just think, he might have avoided the cross and ended up dressed in gem-encrusted frocks and leopard-skin pillbox hats - or something very similar - like his most recent representative. He might have been able to issue diktats on just about everything from stem cell research to civic administration. He might have, but he wasn't. Never mind. The new man doesn't do self-sacrifice, or risk, or exposure to conflict, or open discussion. He's an expert, after all. He's the pope of fucking everything.

Oh yes. Italian state television devoted over half (16 minutes!) of its news programme
(TG1) to this story. As if that weren't enough, it twisted the facts to suggest that the pope had in some way been prevented from appearing at the event. He chose not to come. Repeat. He chose not to come. How many times does this need saying? He chose not to come.

More papal bull

It's Ratzinger's week. Not content with assuming the position (see below), he's stirred up a hornet's nest at La Sapienza, Rome and Italy's largest university. Invited to the inauguration of the academic year (which, typically, takes place months after it's actually begun) by Rector Guarini, himself currently under investigation for corruption and no doubt eager for a little pontifical indulgence, B16 is going to have to deal with demonstrations and all kinds. Why? Initially, because a group of physics professors pointed out in a letter to la Repubblica that, according to Ratzinger, the church did the right thing with Galileo, which would tend to exclude him from the cradle of rationality and scientific progress that a secular seat of learning such as a state university represents, in theory at least. Since the letter was published, a lot of other people in the university have expressed similar doubts about the need to invite the obscurantist leader of a non-democratic foreign state to its opening day. More power to their elbow, say I.

Naturally, there are those who defend his presence, insisting that not to invite him would be tantamout to censorship. How many times must it be said that censorship means preventing someone from communicating his or her ideas in an absolute sense? It isn't censorhip if the Daily Mail chooses not to host the writing of Noam Chomsky. It isn't censorship if the Vatican chooses not to invite Vladimir Luzuria to its Christmas shindig. It's common sense, editorial policy, institutional policy, whatever. It's perfectly licit to prefer not to invite a man whose opnions run counter to everything a university should stand for. In any case, the word of Ratzinger hardly goes unheard. The man's a total media tart, rarely off the TV screen or out of the press, his every querulous fart apparently worthy of national attention.

The amusing thing is that his defenders refer to him as an academic. Of what? Theology? Next year I imagine they'll be inviting an astrologer or someone who can read the entrails of slaughtered goats on the grounds that these are also rigorous academic disciplines. And talking of cultural pluralism and open-mindedness, which is what Ratzinger's critics are accused of lacking (hah!), it's interesting to see that one of Rome's most historic art cimemas, il Labirinto, is being forced to close because the proprietors of the building want to replace it with something more profitable. And who are the proprietors? That's right. The Vatican.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Assuming the position

Eggs Benedict celebrated mass yesterday with his back turned to the congregation, something that hasn't been done since the Second Vatican Council. It might not be that user-friendly in the traditional catholic sense, but hey! it can't be the first time he's been bent over a table with his public behind him.

What I'm worth

$3750.00The Cadaver Calculator - Find out how much your body is worth.

Sunday, 13 January 2008


My thanks to the Humor Archives for this (and the photo of Tony Blair on holiday in the post below).

Blair babble

Confirmation that Tony Blair has decided to run Europe while waiting for Eggs Benedict to meet his maker (and I'd love to be there when that happens, assuming it ever does) and free up the Vatican CEO slot came yesterday, with a typically vacuous speech made in Paris to Sarkozy's UMP party. Its primary aim may have been to arselick, and upstage, Sarkozy (and I wouldn't be surprised if a bob or two didn't change hands either - Tony doesn't come cheap, even to friends), but it also indicated just how wide his political stance is. Basically he's prepared to boldly go pretty much anywhere that isn't tainted with socialism, as befits his new part-time job as £500,000-a-year adviser to JP Morgan. Not that Tony likes the words left and right; they're old hat, uncool, pas chic, or whatever term he now prefers. What Tony likes are words that don't mean very much at all - touchie-feelie words, buzz words. Words like future and past, as in: "'Europe is not a question of left or right, but a question of the future or the past, of strength or weakness," or today and yesterday, as in: "'It's about today versus yesterday. Less about politics and more about a state of mind; open as opposed to closed." I'm not sure to whom this kind of fatuous waffle is supposed to appeal, but it's a frightening thought that a meretricious warmonger like Blair might actually be allowed to govern the European Union, particularly now that he's sworn allegiance to a small but irritating non-member state that contributes nothing to the continent but seems to feel it has a right to dictate EU policy.

Family life

The Destruction of the Father is the name of a piece by Louise Bourgeois. She describes it in this way:
This piece is basically a table, the awful, terrifying family dinner table headed by the father who sits and gloats. And the others, the wife, the children, what can they do'? They sit there, in silence. The mother, of course, tries to satisfy the tyrant, her husband... So, in exasperation, we grabbed the man, threw him on the table, dismembered him and proceeded to devour him.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Under the Day

This poem comes from a collection, entitled Creative Accounting, written when the term still had the capacity to amuse or shock. After Enron etc., that's clearly no longer the case, but it still goes some way towards indicating what the poems are up to.


In the early light of the morning,

for instance, it remained as a wish to be

companionable and was straightaway

erased and there was the pentimento

which was only a come stain on the sheet

fondly ‘remade’ as a model for future

delight-filled emotional hours in the

company, in the company of admiring

stares where you are smaller than,

hiding behind, what is looked at, more

concealed than what is concealed in your

arms, which is merely restless and

anxious to be gone into the dark,

that silvery mind that reflects your

slightest wish and pushes the tentative

on. Into action and the great claims

made for it and pearly days lit from

an almost notional above and, hanging

over that, the pestering and abuse

and the layers of differently coloured

sand in the bottom become oddly

confused as the lowest levels percolate

up, like wanting it hard and often.

And the vigilantes also prefer this hour.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Boxes, texts

I wonder how many writers would rather have been visual artists. We know that Frank O'Hara would (see "Why I would rather be a painter than a poet"), but I'm sure he's not alone. The idea of working a field (pace Olson) rather than a line, space rather than time, is something that must draw most writers, particularly of fiction, every now and again. The idea of being able to see it whole, simply by standing back. Some writers succumb to the temptation, with greater or lesser success: Sylvia Plath, David Jones, DH Lawrence. Me. I sometimes think Joseph Cornell is the mirror image of us all. The artist who would rather have written. The sense of narration in his boxed works is so strong that surely he must have been aware of it, and sometimes wondered why he didn't simply write the stuff down. Each box looks like the ideal cover for a novel that waits to be written.


Glancing through the New York Times Books Update a few moments ago, I found a review of a novel. I quote: Marie Phillips’s first novel, “Gods Behaving Badly,” in which the 12 major deities of ancient Greece uneasily cohabit in a dilapidated town house in 21st-century London, dwelling just above the city’s “greasy tide” of human flesh.

This sounded as though it might be fun, but it also reminded me of something. It took me a moment (and Google) to remember exactly what. I had an image of Orson Welles, and a sailor in a back street of a European port, frantically knocking a closed door. It didn't take long to track the memory down. A Dutch film, made in 1972, called Malpertuis, based on a curious Belgian book of the same name by Jean Ray (aka John Flanders). I saw it in the Electric in Portobello Road, with another film by the same director, Harry Kumel, in a double bill with Daughters of Darkness, of which I recall nothing. Malpertuis, on the other hand, I remember in the way one remembers certain dreams: an atmosphere, a bedroom, the details of the house, an argument about money, an overall disquiet. Colours and moods, and Orson Welles a brooding and presiding spirit.

What brought the film (and book) to mind, though, was an odd coincidence. Like Marie Phillips' novel, Malpertuis describes the travails of the Greek gods imprisoned, far from their time and world, in a dilapidated northern European house. I wonder if Phillips has seen the film, or read the book. Clearly, none of her reviewers has. Maybe it's the kind of good idea that more than one person can come up with. But it would be nice if people were led back by the novel to Jean Ray's weird and forgotten work, and to Harry Kumel's film.


Ratzinger's campaign against Italy's newly-formed Partito Democratico (PD) continues apace. Not content with planting his emotionally warped moles (read, self-mortifying Paola Binetti and the other so-called Teodems - though what they understand of theology or democracy is anybody's guess) into the heart of a party that continues to represent, numerically at least, the last gasp of the long and often great tradition of Italian communism, he used an address to the Roman administration yesterday to deliver a direct attack on its leader, Walter Veltroni.

God knows, I'm no fan of Veltroni, nor of the PD, but it's pretty rich when Ratzinger accuses the city's administration of allowing Rome to fall into a state of gravissimo degrado. He was probably too busy fiddling
with Georg studying theology to notice what Rome was like twenty-odd years ago, under the rule of the inept and effortlessly corrupt Christian Democrats backed by the Vatican, but I remember it well: dirty, degraded, inefficient, unkempt, stationary. It's true that a lot of Veltroni's reforms have been cosmetic, but hey! a little lip gloss and mascara is no bad thing. More to the point, Rome actually feels like the capital of Italy in a way it never did, especially as its only rival, Milan, slides into squalor and neglect, personified by the sadly abandoned state of its central station.

Ratzinger says the city doesn't guarantee the safety of its citizens. According to a recent survey, Rome is the safest major city in Europe. But what are facts to the merchants of revealed truth? He says that Rome has problems of homelessness, low wages, social inequality. He says this from his usual pulpit, dressed in his usual finery, exempt from VAT, the recipient of a slice of Italian tax money that would make a whore blush. He doesn't say it because he cares (he cares? come on!), but because it's what his real supporters - Italy's centre-right - want to hear. He's set his sights so low he's now an unofficial part of the opposition. He's there with Sandro Bondi (ex-communist) and Michela Vittoria Brambilla, Berlusconi totty, rooting around in the political muck for the odd truffle.

And what's the solution? (Apart from blocking
in its tracks a party that might - just might - manage to reform Italy.) That's right. The family. And what kind of family? Right again. The kind based on marriage between a man and a woman. So let's run through this again. Homelessness, poverty, inequality? All it takes to solve them is to stop gay couples having any kind of rights at all. It's all so simple, you wonder why Jesus didn't think of it.


This is the second poem I'm planning to commit to memory as a whole, instead of in half-recalled scraps. It also, maybe incidentally, acts as a corrective to the over-devout tones of the final verse of my first choice, by John Clare. In fact, reading it again, it acts as a corrective to the entire poem. As Joni Mitchell once, memorably, said: A little yin yang there for you, folks.' It's by Frank O'Hara.

After the first glass of vodka
you can accept just about anything
of life even your own mysteriousness
you think it is nice that a box
of matches is purple and brown and is called
La Petite and comes from Sweden
for they are words that you know and that
is all you know words not their feelings
or what they mean and you write because
you know them not because you understand them
because you don't you are stupid and lazy
and will never be great but you do
what you know because what else is there?

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Edward St Aubyn: On the Edge

Much as I admire the Some Hope trilogy and its sequel Mother's Milk, this novel, written between the two, is an odd - and to my mind unsuccessful - book. It's concerned with the adventures of a group of people who would probably term themselves spiritual seekers as they drift from one feelgood farm to another, from Findhorn to Esalen, from tantric sex to psychedelic release. The book is full of detail; praised by one reviewer for the depth and breadth of its research, it seems to me though to be over-researched. Page after page is devoted to the kind of irony-free information about basically cranky new age theory that wouldn't be out of place in a self-help bestseller, but sits oddly in a book that also appears to have a satirical purpose. In fact, one of the problems I have with the book is to understand exactly where it stands. At times, it reads more like Waugh's The Loved One, than anything else, and many scenes draw on the same kind of viperish superiority that's implicit in that novel. St Aubyn's justifiably lauded style is undoubtedly at its best when it's taking the piss out of the over-rich airheads and yearning geriatrics who fall prey to the sort of nonsense offered by these alternative modern-day spas. Debarbed, it works less well and there's a soft, slightly sticky core of sentimentality that St Aubyn would never have contemplated in the trilogy or Mother's Milk. My reading may be influenced by my own attitude towards what I see as the irretrievably phony world of the privileged soul-searchers described. St Aubyn, though, seems to want to have his soulcake and to eat it too.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008


I was reading a review in a recent London Review of Books (Vol 29, No 23) of a book called No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture and Liberal Democracy, by Robert Hariman and John Louis Lacaites. The book, as you've probably guessed from the title, talks of the process by which photographs come to represent not only the specific moment at which they are taken but something much larger; become icons, in other words. The review, by David Simpson, cites the famous photograph of the Vietnamese chief of police shooting a Vietcong suspect in the head, and the way it subsequently came to stand for everything that was wrong with that war. Later in the article, it mentions the photograph of the napalmed girl, which no one who has seen is likely to forget.

But it also makes an interesting comment about the way the image that is selected to act as this kind of resonant shorthand reflects not only the actual event - a dying man, a burning girl - but also the way we choose to see it. The example the book (and review) providesis that of the single student facing down the tanks in Tienenman Square. As an event, Tienenman Square was a triumph (and remains so, despite its suppression) not of individualism but of collectivism. It was a triumph of numbers. Yet we've allowed, or preferred, the single image that represents the event to celebrate an act of single heroism. This is perfectly in line with western 'liberal' notions of resistance, but it's an incongruous and even offensive way of commemorating what went on. It's foisting our sense of what matters onto people for whom that sense might be inimical.

Most potent images are of individuals. Dorothea Lange's migrant mother, the Iwo Jima flag, most recently the falling man. Perhaps the only event which seems to have resisted our need to focus on, and celebrate, the particular is the Holocaust. The photographs of the Holocaust that haunt us don't show individuals, but heaps of bodies that are barely recognisable as human, let alone people with quirks and desires and claims being made and histories. They starved to death, but that isn't what reduced them to this. It isn't that starvation can't be done at an individual level; I'll never forget the face, or body, of a man photographed in Srebenica.

It must be that we don't want - or are unequipped - to see the event in those terms, in terms of the single emblematic life. We see them en masse. And I don't know if this is a good thing - because the Holocaust can never finally be understood and to see it in terms of individuals would be, in some terrible sense, a sort of trivialisation - or a bad thing - because we think in numbers and the weight of numbers, and numbers are an avoidance strategy.

Monday, 7 January 2008


I see that Sharp is about to market an LCD television with a 108 inch screen. This reminds me of a conversation I overheard last Christmas during an idle half hour in a Costa queue (see post below).

Middle-aged man 1: I'm thinking of getting one of these new big tellies.

Middle-aged man 2: I wouldn't bother.

Middle-aged man 1: No? Why not?

Middle-aged man 2: I got one last month. You don't notice they're any bigger after a couple of days. They're a waste of money.

Middle-aged man 1: Oh.

One frappuccino, to go

Those of us who've read Naomi Klein's compelling account in No Logo of how Starbucks mark out, invade and conquer new territory will not be sad to hear that the caffeine empire may have outstretched its effective reach. Read more about this here, from today's Guardian.

What always strikes me when the need for coffee hits me in England (apart from the price: an espresso in Rome costs, typically, around 50p; in the UK, three times as much) is just how totally incapable the workers in these places tend to be. It's not just Starbucks, it's everywhere. Caffe Nero, Costa, they're all the same. The longer the queue, the worse the service, as though some perverse mechanism were in place to punish the customers for being legion. Half a dozen teenagers in branded tee-shirts faff around from till to coffee-machine to counter with as much sequential logic as decapitated fowl. They squabble over (dirty) trays, put coffee into the filter thingumybob then stand and think about the nature of cups, or life, or something. They wait for the coffee to fill the cup before heating the milk for cappuccino. They put plates of doughnuts on top of other plates of doughnuts. They do everything, all of them, and all of it badly, as though Adam Smith had never lived nor wrote. And the
managers are no better than the trainees.

I'm now going to be an Italy bore for a sentence or two, but as I spend so much time criticising the country, it's only fair that you bear with me for a moment. In any ordinary bar in Italy, you'll find a person at the till who takes your money and gives you your receipt (in a bar that doesn't know you, obviously; otherwise, you pay as you leave). You take your receipt to the bar where a barman (rarely a woman) glances at the receipt and puts the appropriate saucer and spoon on the counter. This tells him at a glance how many espressos and cappuccinos he needs to make. He puts the coffee into the filter, slams it home, takes advantage of the time it takes for the coffee to descend to straighten the spoons in the sugar bowl or load the dishwasher or chat about football. When the cup's full (as in half-full; no espresso fills the cup), he puts it instantly on its saucer. You drink it, smile, say Grazie, buon giorno, and off you go. It's taken five minutes at the most. Of course, if you want to, you can dawdle, read the newspaper that's lying around on one of the tables. But what you came in for is a coffee, piping hot, fragrant, and fast. From a clean cup. It isn't difficult. If a country that's famous for not being able to organise can do it, it can't be that hard.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

As though I didn't have better things to do with my time...

Your Brain is 47% Female, 53% Male

Your brain is a healthy mix of male and female

You are both sensitive and savvy

Rational and reasonable, you tend to keep level headed

But you also tend to wear your heart on your sleeve

Saturday, 5 January 2008


Coming back to London after Christmas, Jane and I were forced by engineering works on the lines to change at Birmingham. Not just trains, but stations. We had to cross the centre of Birmingham on foot, from New Street to Moor Street. And what an odd place the centre of Birmingham has become, part Blade Runner, part amusement park, part architectural folly, not at all unpleasant, but utterly deracinated, as seems to be the fashion in post-Gehry city centres. Moor Street station, on the other hand, was a rooted joy, and it didn't even feel that refurbished. It felt as though people had simply kept it clean and in working order for all these years. Even the train to London, which took only fifteen minutes longer than the usual Virgin connection, came from an epoch when trains were designed to provide their passengers with decent window space and relatively roomy seats. Unlike the various Pendolinos employed by Virgin, which look more like bloodied suppositories than anything else and provide half the space of their Italian counterparts.


There's an interesting piece in today's Guardian CiF by Mark Lawson. Entitled How fiction lost the plot, it looks at the presumed sorry state of modern fiction publishing and runs through the usual suspects: cliquishness, discrimination, book prize juries descending to compromise. In the end, though, he pinpoints the failure of the public library system to support literary fiction, devoting its shelves to DVDs and Citizens Advice Bureau pamphlets rather than novels. Books that were once guaranteed a thousand hardback sales now languish in warehouses and, finally, remainder book stores, assuming they're published at all.

I've always been too much of a hoarder to feel happy about borrowing books, though I valued the opportunity the British Council library in Rome once gave me to sample writers I couldn't afford to buy in the pre-Amazon days when imported books cost the earth. The only person I know who consistently used a library is Jane, who went to the public library in Mare Street, Hackney, at least once a week. She now buys her books almost exclusively from the new
and extremely well-stocked Oxfam book shop on Dalston Road. This is great for her and, of course, for Oxfam, particularly as she regularly re-donates the books to the shop. It's less great for the author and publisher, of course, as the copy has already been sold further up the line, although I've often found that a book bought in a charity shop leads on to other works by the same author being bought from retail booksellers, much as downloaded music, in my case at least, leads on to the purchase of a legitimate CD.

Lawson concludes by saying that the success or failure of a book now depends on the vagaries of judging panels. My editor confided in me that prizes can actually make very little difference to sales, and can even have a deleterious effect on them if the effect of the prize is to provoke spitefulness among the winner's rivals and peers. It's also true, though, that a book with a very low profile indeed can't help but benefit from a little attention. I'm obviously thinking about Little Monsters, for which no longlist is too long, no recognition too abject. I remember, some years ago, Hari Kunzru turning down a prize from the Daily Mail and wondering at the time if I'd have his moral integrity. Well, I don't wonder any longer. I haven't.

A couple of last thoughts. One comment was left by someone who published a first novel but had the second one turned down as being 'not good enough'. Gulp. Another contains a link to someone who failed to find a publisher at all and took to droplifting his novel. Droplifting involves leaving copies of the book in booksellers. The piece is entertaining, thought-provoking and worth a read.

PS Pansies, as you know, was the title of DH Lawrence's best known collection of poems. It doesn't refer to flowers, and it certainly doesn't refer to the morally disordered (pace JP2), but is derived from the French pensées - thoughts which, according to Lawrence, come "as much from the heart and the genitals as from the head." In other words, I'm rambling.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Family values

Edi Vesco, the author, among many other things, of a guide to the Harry Potter novels for Italian fans, was murdered by her 18-year-old son last Tuesday. According to the son's own account, he first tried to rape his mother, then knocked her out with a spumante bottle and cut her throat. You can find more details here.

Minister for the Family, Rosy Bindi, said the murder was a sign that 'the family has become fragile'. This is the standard response to cases of domestic violence of this type, which are disturbingly frequent in Italy, despite the reiterated insistence on family values by the civil and ecclesiastical authorities (i.e. the people we elect to govern us and those we don't). An insistence that naturally refuses to admit any recognised legal alternative to the traditional family; indeed, that sees attempts to recognise alternative structures as the main threat to it. Ratzinger's annual address harped on in a multitude of languages (and one grating German accent) about the centrality of the one-man-one-woman-one-marriage-licence-n-number-of-children family model to a healthy society and, get this, international peace, as though war were the prerogative of unmarried, and possibly morally disordered, men (and not the god-fearing married variety).

Given that these brutal murders happen so frequently within the family itself, might it not also be the case that the family per se shares some of the responsibility for them? Not the ideal family (whatever that might be), but the family as it's constituted here and now, in modern Italy. In the current Italian context of no affordable housing for young people (or anyone else), no unemployment benefit or social support for young people (or anyone else), no job security for (young) people entering the work market, university degrees that aren't worth the paper they're written on, minimum investment in post-school training and a culture so devoted to acquisition it demands young people change their mobiles once a month or die.

Great shoes

This comes from This Just In, via Monkey Magazine

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Blair-faced devotion

Well, Tony won't be answering his elders and betters back any longer, I imagine, now that he's finally thrown his mendacious lot in with Vatican Inc. It's only a stone's throw, by helicopter, to Tuscany, after all, and presumably he'll be making himself useful about the place until God makes direct contact. Let's face it, how long can the current CEO hold down the job? By the time Tone's sorted out the Middle East and ditched the bitch (the Sacra Rota, natch), he'll be more than ready to slip on those Prada pumps and get his ring well buffed. And no more foolish promises over dinner, right, Tone? This time it's to the death.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008


Let's start the year with a fanfare for rationalism. World-class scientists were asked what, if anything, had changed their minds by John Brockman, a New York literary agent and the man behind the site, Edge. All of them confessed, for want of a better word, that new information, new evidence, had led to new formulations. Well, of course. This is how science works. Now let's ask a similarly eminent group of religious leaders the same question and listen to them ramble on about revealed truths.

As Brockman says: "When thinking changes your mind, that's philosophy. When God changes your mind, that's faith. When facts change your mind, that's science."


I don't do New Year's resolutions as a rule. Why set yourself up to be disappointed? Isn't that the world's job? But, watching The History Boys a few days ago (see earlier post) made me realise how few poems I knew all the way through. It also reminded me of how very impressed I was when Renata recited an entire canto of Dante from memory recently. (Canto 15.) So what I'd like to do this year, and this isn't so much a resolution as a fond hope, is memorise the rest of the many poems I can start but not end. The first one is going to be John Clare's I Am, because, like everyone else, I know and love the first three lines and then have very little memory of what happens next. To help me, I'll post it here:

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death's oblivion lost;
And yet I am, and live - like vapors tossed

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
Even the dearest, that I loved the best,
Are strange - nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smiled or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling, and untroubled where I lie,
The grass below - above the vaulted sky.