Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Indecent? No, too much salt...

This is the Heinz ad you won't be seeing on television, because 200 people complained, so you may as well see it here. (This is four times the number of people who complained about Joan Rivers calling Russell Crowe a 'fucking shit' on Loose Women. Make of this what you will, but Loose Women is daytime TV and Heinz ads are on every fucking hour of the day.)

Hmm. I'm not totally happy about 'Mum'.

The line of beauty

I have The Age of Uncertainty to thank for pointing me to this fabulous clip. I wonder how many artists (in Dalì's case, I use the word advisedly) would be recognised on the equivalent of What's My Line? today. Damien Hirst?

Summer reading

If you'd like to know my views on holiday reading - and let's face it, who wouldn't? - you can find them on the Picador blog by clicking here.

(I thought it might be nice to illustrate this post with a summery image, so I entered 'summer' into Google images. But I must have mistaken the language because what I got was a page of scantily-dressed lovelies, as the redtops used to have it.)

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Something apt from Dover Beach

Ian McEwan has just come out against Islamism*, as he calls it. I’m not sure what distinguishes Islamism from Islam, other than the generally derogatory aura created by the suffix ‘ism’, but that’s by-the-by. He’s quoted as saying: “I myself despise Islamism, because it wants to create a society that I detest, based on religious belief, on a text, on lack of freedom for women, intolerance towards homosexuality and so on – we know it well.” Absolutely, Ian, and I couldn’t agree more.

I read about these comments in today’s Independent on Sunday, which also contains a list of the 101 most influential gay people in Britain. Thirty years ago, it would have been hard to find ten, and they’d have been artists or in show business (I’m thinking Danny La Rue). The list certainly wouldn’t have included business executives, rabbis, EU commissioners, rugby union referees or senior policemen. Coincidentally, the IoS reports that, in Saudi Arabia, 21 young men have just been arrested for the sin of homosexuality. They were rounded up in Qatif last Friday by the religious police, not a force that would have welcomed Brian Paddick with open arms, one imagines, who operate under the aegis of something called the Commission for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, a typically grandiose name for the usual befrocked gang of bigoted thugs that tend to run these things. The young men arrested can expect to be flogged or worse. Maybe they should seek asylum in an allied state.

What I can’t understand is why the IoS should consider McEwan’s views to be an ‘astonishingly strong attack’. In a country which still pays lip service to ideas of sexual equality, freedom of speech, recognition of gay rights, rational argument rather than revealed truth, etc. they seem to me to be astonishingly mild. If this is ‘hate speech’, it would be interesting to know in what way the crime distinguishes itself from the surely licit act of uttering a list of simple truths expressed in objective terms. Would any Muslim argue that Islam isn’t based on religious belief, on a text, on lack of freedom for women, intolerance towards homosexuality, but on the opposite of these things – moral relativism, empirical observation, equality for all regardless of sex and sexual orientation? Wouldn’t that be seen as apostasy?

Maybe it’s just because McEwan prefaced the list with the verb ‘detest’. So ‘hate crime’ is nothing more than a statement of fact preceded by the word ‘I’ and a synonym of ‘hate’? In that case, we’re all in the shit. What about if I announce that I’m not that keen on people from the land of Nokia. Would the Finnish ambassador have a case against me?

Ian McEwan may be a public figure, but he hasn’t been elected, doesn’t depend on public money and represents no one but himself. He certainly wouldn’t defend himself by claiming to represent the word of God – unlike, say, homophobic MP Iris Robinson, who seems to have forgotten that ten percent of her constituents may not appreciate being called loathsome. Oh sorry, Iris. Love the sinner, hate the sin. Tell that to Robinson’s cronies in Saudi.

*The quotes come from an interview given to the Italian Corriere della Sera, so this may be a trans-language hiccup.

Little Monsters review

Well, who'd have thought it? Just when I thought time was out on Little Monsters' chances of being reviewed again, Time Out does a piece on the novel. You can read it here.

(Enjoy the play on words? I thought you might.)

What's Giacomo for?

Three recent moments.

One. I was reading an article a week or so ago about Cy Twombly’s working methods during the 1960s in Rome. Apparently he’d pin rolls of canvas to the walls of his studio and work on them without any very clear idea of what he was doing: daub, scribble, sign, quotation: the elegant graffiti – signifying and non-signifying – for which he’s known. When the canvas was covered, he’d look at what had been done, then select the pieces that had potential and cut them out, discarding the rest. The cut-out pieces would be pinned back on the walls, without stretchers, and the work would continue.

Two. In a different context, I was thinking last weekend about possible covers for the Salt collection and wondering if we might be able to use one of Giuseppe’s paintings. It struck me that, although a whole painting might not be what we needed, a detail might. What happened as I selected sections from paintings I loved, and thought I knew, was that the sections began to seem enough, began to seem greater than the whole.

Three. I checked up to see if anyone had left comments on Asylum, where John Self interviewed me about Little Monsters, and I found two posts, from Colette Jones and Tricia Dower, wondering aloud about what might have been lost, both in terms of material and in a larger sense, in the fairly radical editing I talk about having put the novel through.

In the first instance, Twombly must have consciously adopted redundancy as part of the process. In the second, I experienced the pleasurable surprise of seeing familiar landscapes from a different angle, which valued their incompleteness. In the third, the whole business of what we do when we edit was brought into question. Do we do what Twombly did – extract what there is of worth from the inchoate writing on the wall? Which is good. Or do we fail to see the whole because we’re attracted by the simpler forms and contrasts of a fragment, and actually prefer the incomplete, and privilege it? Which may not be.

This is a preamble to something that happened last Friday. I was working on the revision of a novel I’d drafted, redrafted, finished and set aside two years ago, only picking it up again recently, after Sam Humphreys, my editor at Picador, had read the book and made, as usual, dozens of pertinent and immensely helpful suggestions. We’d talked about these over tea, in a mood of collaboration and, in a sense, negotiation, although clearly with the same end in view. After which, I set to work happily, cutting here, expanding there, clarifying, cutting to the chase. But throughout this, something, almost suppressed, continued to niggle – a comment Sam had made about one of the four or five main characters, a man called Giacomo. The comment? “What’s Giacomo for?”

I’d answered this at the time, I’d thought to my own satisfaction, but as I moved ahead, from the first chapter to the second, from the second to the third, I found myself thinking more and more, well, yes, what is Giacomo for? And now I know the answer. I don’t know. I mean, I can see what he does, and who he knows, and I can see that certain aspects of the plot are made simpler by his presence. But I don’t know what he’s for. Because, deep down, he isn’t for anything – he was just fun to write. So it’s bye-bye Giacomo.

This is a Twombly moment.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Coming soon to a screen near you

Salt has already put up a website for The Scent of Cinnamon and Other Stories, which contains not only a lot of valuable information about the book and an excerpt from the title story, as well as some reviews, but also a large version of the small photograph of me that you're used to seeing on this very blog, in which I look, well, larger. I know, I can't believe it either. And here's a preview of the cover. Pretty damn fine, right. Now all you have to do is pre-order and wait for October...

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

No country for young men

If you read Italian and want to know more about the place, or just have an eye for a lively site with some great graphics, try this blog. It's called Bamboccioni alla riscossa, roughly translatable as Mummies' boys fight back (but if you think you can improve on this, let me know. I'm tired, it's been a long day). You'll learn a lot about Italy and it might even reassure you that, despite appearances, the country isn't quite dying on its feet. Not yet. It might even reassure me...

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Raw vegans get rickets. Dog bites man.

As I continue to enjoy - and lose weight on - my protein-based diet, may I gloat, just a little, at this news?

Thank you.

From A to B, via C, is just so gay

According to some new research, although I feel I've read it all before, gay men and straight women can't navigate, while lesbian and straight men can. This is due to the relative proportions of the left and right hemispheres of their brains. I don't have time to get mine scanned, however tempting the prospect is, so I can't check, but I do know that I have an almost unerring sense of direction, which would make me a lesbian or a straight man, and no inclination at all to have sex with women, which wouldn't. My partner, on the other hand, bless his cotton socks, would get lost in a glass of water, as we say in Italy, which tends to confirm the research.

Is there something wrong with me? Will I wake up one morning and not know my left from my right, and need a map to find the local supermarket, and walk out of shops and turn back in the direction I came from and end up standing on a vaguely familiar corner wondering where the hell I am? Or will I just buy the latest Mara Carfagna calender and drool over those ministerial curves? Maybe some minor brain surgery can be performed, to slightly deflate my right hemisphere. Or maybe, just maybe, the research isn't quite as watertight as it would like to be. I wonder if Ben Goldacre's Bad Science will have anything to say about this... I wonder which way is up...

Friday, 13 June 2008


OK, if you visit Joe.My.God, you'll know I found this there. And even if you don't, you know it now. How self-defeating can language be? Don't worry. Enjoy. It was made by Kirby Ferguson.


It looks as though Little Monsters will be appearing as an an e-book in September. I wouldn't have been as pleased about this if I hadn't just read this article, found through Maud Newton's excellent blog, which suggests that sales of Kindle and the Sony Reader could hit one million this year. Wow. And while we're on the subject of Maud, you really should read her prize-winning story at Story Quarterly. It's a cracker.

Me, me, me, a whole book of me

Some very good news. The enterprising, innovative and discerning Salt Publishing will be bringing out a collection of my short fiction later this year. The collection will contain a few stories you may have read, plus lots you haven't (unless you know me very well indeed). It's provisionally entitled The Scent of Cinnamon, after my O. Henry Prize Story (yes, I know you know...). I'm delighted to be in the company of such friends and fellow writers as Isobel Dixon, Katy Evans-Bush (Me and the Dead out next month!), John Wilkinson, Vanessa Gebbie, Anne Berkeley, Simon Barraclough, David Gaffney and a glittering host of others. What did they say about MGM having more stars than heaven? Well, move over, MGM.

In the second sentence of this post I originally wrote brining instead of bringing. How subliminally salty is that?

Thursday, 12 June 2008

An abomination unto the Lord

The Vatican, alas, has no monopoly in fomenting hatred against homosexuality. Iris Robinson, member of parliament for the DUP and wife of Northern Ireland's first minister Peter Robinson, also has strong views. According to

Northern Ireland's first lady is being investigated by police following allegations she committed a hate crime by launching a withering attack on homosexuality.

In an outburst on a live phonein on BBC Radio Ulster on Friday, Iris Robinson, the 57-year-old wife of First Minister Peter Robinson, referred to gays as 'disgusting, loathsome, shamefully wicked and vile.'

She called homosexuality 'an abomination' but said she knew of a cure.

'I have a lovely psychiatrist who works with me and his Christian background is that he tries to help homosexuals - trying to turn them away from what they are engaged in,' she said.

Her website tells us that she 'has a keen interest and a flair for Interior Design'. Maybe she should consider a career in that. Ideally with her lovely psychiatrist. If you think it's time for a career move for Mrs Robinson, click here for a petition that will encourage her to move into soft furnishings on a permanent basis.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008


Today's online Guardian has a thing about films of superheroes. It's not particularly illuminating but it does have this wonderful picture, which I really need to share with you.It comes from the original version of The Fantastic Four, made in 1994. According to the Guardian, the film "apparently only exists because Constantin Film was set to lose its rights to the comic book franchise if it failed to produce a movie by 1995." To someone's credit, it was never released. Luckily though, we have this photograph. Any ideas who the actors are? The Thing looks eerily like McCain... And what on earth are they looking at?

Monday, 9 June 2008


New Wearable Feedbags Let Americans Eat More, Move Less
I love this. From the Onion.

Postscript to postscript

Sorry about this - and believe me, I really am trying to move on - but I was so appalled by this example of partisan journalism, in a country that knows little else, that I felt I had to share it. For those among you who don't speak Italian, the irate young man in a suit at the beginning of the piece isn't one of the spotty fascists (from Casa Pound, god help us) who tried to disrupt the march last Saturday, but a frustrated groom. He was supposed to be getting married in Via dei Fori Imperiali, but couldn't get the car to the church. Authorisation had been granted months before, he said. Sound familiar? Right! If the council had respected the authorisation it gave to Gay Pride months before, he wouldn't have found his wedding delayed. Odd that no one in the studio thought of pointing this out.

The skinny bint playing nervously with her pen in the rest of the piece is Carfagna. You may not have recognised her with her clothes on. She's talking about sobriety and stuff like that, but I won't bother you any more with her silliness. We've all heard enough from Carfagna for one government.

Ave Hitler

Now that the catholic church has got a government prepared to present its belly to the clerical boot without any questions being asked, this photograph is a useful reminder of another epoch in which the interests of church and state also appeared to coincide.

(I wouldn't have felt the need to post this rather snippy comment if I hadn't just heard Minister for Equal Opportunities Mara Carfagna (see topless photo here) explain why Rome, as the heart of Christianity, isn't an appropriate venue for Gay Pride. Maybe someone should tell her that it was also home to Julius Caesar, Petronius, Hadrian, etc. But why bother? Why tell the monkey what the organ grinder already knows?)

Thanks to Marisacat for the photo.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Pride postscript

I forgot to mention that Rome council's decision to forbid Gay Pride to wind up in Piazza San Giovanni looked more and more like an own goal yesterday afternoon. San Giovanni's bigger than Piazza Navona, but it's also well off the tourist/shopping route. Sending us through Piazza Venezia and the heart of the old city increased the visibility of the march tenfold. Even the fact that the entrance into Piazza Navona was narrow enough to create a bottleneck played into our hands. The only inconvenient aspect of the re-routing was that all those choristers who had an appointment in the Lateran Palace, the one that would have clashed with Pride (except that it wouldn't), had to lift up their skirts and run all the way from Piazza Navona, along Via dei Fori Imperiali and Via Labicana and up the last bit of Via Merulana to make sure they didn't miss their concert at half past eight. Sweet dreams are made of this.

Moments of pride

Dancing on the spot

This was taken in Piazza Navona, towards the end of yesterday's Gay Pride in Rome. I had, as I always have, a very good time indeed. I danced, I sang, I stared, I photographed. My impression was that there were an awful lot of people - at one point, halfway down Via Cavour, the whole street seemed to be packed with people from top to bottom. This was confirmed by the organisers, who estimated half a million (the police say 10-20,000. They would, wouldn't they?) The rain held off, and so did party-poopers, with the exception of a rather unpleasant man with dirty grey hair who was clearly upset by the whole business and a small group of youths in suits and ties bearing flags with Celtic crosses on them (like the one, coincidentally, worn by Alemanno) who popped up, appropriately on Via dei Fori Imperiali, and threatened to stab us all. Help! The Italian papers, dramatically, report that the nasty little fascists erupted, presumably in the same way a spot erupts on an otherwise unblemished face. The papers today have given an inordinate amount of space to this trivial hormonal problem, accompanying their articles with the usual display of transsexuals in full ceremonial uniform. Yes, I love them too, and I love the muscle boys and the disco bunnies and the bears, and the world would be a sadder place without them. BUT. I - who have never knowingly worn drag, and no longer have pecs to die for and dance in the privacy of parties and am, just, too slim to be a fully-furred bear, was also there, and so were many thousands of others who were practically indistinguishable from everyone else who wasn't on the march. You know the kind of people I mean: old and young, fat and thin, plain and hot, bright and dim, tall and short, make and female, dog-lovers and dog-haters, right and left. I know this kind of truth goes against the journalistic grain, but it would be refreshing to see newspapers show the sheer variety of the event. It looks as though, once again, it's up to me. So if you'd like to see all the photos I took yesterday, of the ordinary and extraordinary people who took part in Pride, click here. (Flickr has decided to rearrange the order, so you'll be starting at the end and working back...)

PS The title of this post actually refers to a video I've been unable to upload, but I've left it anyway. If nothing else, it reflects the fact that we are still dancing, without any specific advance or sign of it.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Ten percent of population, one day of year. Hmm

Gay Pride comes round once again. Last year, the national event was held in Rome and emotions were running high. Family Day, the church-inspired hate-fest had been and gone shortly before and the mood was one of rebellion and righteous anger. This year, Rome Gay Pride is precisely that, for Romans and anyone prepared to make the trip, and there doesn't seem to be much of a mood at all. Not that small gauntlets haven't been thrown down. The march now ends in Piazza Navona, instead of the previously authorised Piazza San Giovanni, where a bunch of choristers now need heterosexual silence to warble in (this may be a novelty for them). Politically, this is bad news, but hey! Piazza Navona's so much more convenient for the shops no one's complaining. The council, with its new mayor, Gianni "Bovver Boy" Alemanno in charge, has refused its patronage, but that's not new. It was also refused under centre-left administrations. Gauntlets, shmauntlets, in other words.

A worrying note, though, was struck, last night by a lesbian friend of ours. We called to fix up a place to meet. What for? she said. For Gay Pride, we told her. Gay Pride? she said. No one's going on it this year. We are, we said. So if you read this, and are in Rome, you might want to prove her wrong. The march starts in Piazza della Repubblica at 3, heads off down Via Cavour at 4, passes across Piazza Venezia and then, by which route I'm not sure, ends up in Piazza Navona. It's all pretty scenic, so you won't regret it. I'll be the one in 80 centimetre gold lamé platforms and a frock even Ru Paul wouldn't risk wearing. Don't worry, I'm joking.

There will be photos.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Cover story

If you'd like to know my views on buying books in Italy, as well as on the cultural relativism of book covers, all you have to do is click here. You will also find a shameless plug for Little Monsters, which is what it's all about. My thanks to the Guardian blog (and to Sandra, who placed the piece). Finally, you'll get the chance to see a very lovely photo of the skyline of San Gimignano. Good god, what more do you want?

Mother goddess

I don't know what the rest of this year's Royal Academy Summer Show, curated by Tracey Emin, is like, but the vase in this photograph from today's Independent looks wonderful. And so does the possibly involuntary halo around Tracey Emin's head.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Sezze Romano

The post below was triggered by this photograph, taken a few days ago at the station of Sezze Romano, a few stops up the Rome line from Fondi. The idea was that I'd build your expectations and then deflate them with this piece of non-lyrical graffiti, found in the waiting room. So much for the birdsong option, I thought. But where's the fun in that? I have a heart too.


Edward Thomas was right. There are few places more evocative than a small country station in the summer, and those countries that still have them (stations and summers) should count their blessings. Not all stations possess the magic, of course. They need a few details to make them perfect. There should be a bar with a blind made of faded plastic strips at the door to keep out flies. The blind, though, should be knotted a little back on itself, so that one or two flies do penetrate the semi-darkness to buzz around the scuffed plastic dome protecting the last third of a crumbling sponge cake. There should be no other food of any consequence - it's too hot to eat. The light outside the bar will be intense.

Animals should be present. Ideally, a dog of indeterminate breed will be lying somewhere inconvenient, across the doormat or halfway beneath one of the three zinc-topped tables squeezed under the shelter of the station eaves, each with its plastic ashtray advertising Crodino or Dubonnet. If the dog's small enough, it will be curled up, nose to arsehole, on one of the chairs, ear cocked, pelt marked by the odd feeding tick. It will have a collar, but no name tag, and behave as though it belongs to no one. Failing that, a cat.

There will be no announcements, but the barman, a middle-aged man in pressed black trousers and a vest, will have all the information you need. The coffee will not be very good, but may come ready sugared. You will drink it slowly, staring out to where you have left your cases, drunkenly heaped against the base of a cast-iron lamppost. There will be two platforms, the one you use when you leave and the one you will be brought to when you return. The only way to get from one platform to the other is to cross the track or to take the train and let it bring you back. Sometimes, if you're very lucky indeed, you will need to shoo chickens away as you do so. The train will always be late, sometimes by hours, and you will be angry, but deep-down you won't care because you have already arrived, without knowing it, and no other place on your holiday will stay with you for as long as this station does.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Nutrition expert visits Rome

Master of irony, Robert Mugabe, has decided to grace the Food and Agriculture Organisation summit with his presence. FAO should be honoured. If anyone can talk with authority about the horrors of food shortages created through incompetence or malice, it's the tinpot tyrant democratically elected leader of Zimbabwe. The photograph above shows him leaving his five-star hotel in Rome to welcome his many Italian admirers with open arms, as popular leaders are wont to do. Don't worry, he's only pretending to look shit-scared. The fact that his expression recalls that of Ceausescu the last time he appeared on his balcony is pure coincidence.

Oh yes, if you'd like to see what his well-built chums did to the person who took this photograph (or, more probably, one of his colleagues), you should click here. No, unlike Peter Tatchell, he wasn't trying to make a citizen's arrest; he was just doing his job. Still, it might have been worse. He might have been trying to take a picture of 'Amazing' Grace Mugabe, the great man's wife, and been handbagged. Those Gucci buckles can do a lot of damage.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

The son-in-law also rises

Well, I don't know. I've just been to the Guardian site to look at the latest book reviews and what do I find? The first item is Ian McEwan on millennial doomsters. So far, so predictable. I haven't had time to read the piece so I can't comment, though I'm sure McEwan isn't as closely related to the Rapture as I am (read here). The second article is on a début novelist called Nick Harkaway and the third is on another début novelist called Isabel Fonseca. It's wonderful to see space devoted to début novelists, and I'm sure they're both very good. But it would be even more wonderful if Nick Harkaway weren't John Le Carré's son and Isabel Fonseca weren't Martin Amis's wife. I don't doubt that both books have been published on their merits (well, perhaps I do, a little, but I recognise this as sour grapes). But I can think of an awful lot of other début novelists (yes, including me) who would have been more than grateful for this kind of exposure. Billie Holiday had something to say about the mechanism that rewards those who don't really need it, so I'll stop here. But not before I thank Kay Sexton, and John Self, and Dovegreyreader, who did find the time to review me, despite the dismal failure of my immediate family to be famous.