Thursday, 31 July 2008

"a sense today"

An illuminating post from Lally's Alley, with extracts from work by Nathan Kernan and Bill Corbett that do exactly what extracts should do: make you want to read the rest. The title to this post comes from one of them.


The best way to confirm that translation isn't just shifting sense from one word to another but wrestling with, and reflecting, cultures is to take a look at packaging. We've just picked up two fabulous new Bialetti pans from our local supermarket - yes, we collect the points - and I was reading the instructions. They're what you'd expect. Prepare the cookware, cook over moderate heat, etc. There are seven of them and they're presented in seven languages: Italian, English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese. Looking at them it's clear that what we do with our cookware in all these countries is pretty much the same. With two exceptions, both of which appear in the English version.

The first, small but significant, is the instruction: DO NOT USE UNDER BROILER. This one isn't that hard to explain, although there may be British cookware users who don't know that grill and a broiler are the same thing. But it's interesting that this should be the only instruction in CAPITAL LETTERS, as though English-speaking readers needed that kind of emphasis to grasp an essential point.

But the really interesting difference comes at the end of the English text. It starts CAUTION (also in CAPS) and continues: For safety, please keep pet birds out of the kitchen. Birds' respiratory systems are sensitive to many kinds of household fumes, including the fumes from extremely overheated non-stick pans. This appears only in English.
What can it mean? That allowing pet birds into a kitchen filled with excessively overheated non-stick pans is a practice so quintessentially English that the information needn't be given in any other language? Who else but a Brit would have parakeets among the pots and pans? Or is it that the budgie lobby in Britain and the States is so powerful that Bialetti is obliged to add this warning?

PS The sad-looking bird in the picture won the Wet Budgie Contest. I know no more.

PPS I can't not italicise cookware. I'm sorry.

Wakey wakey

My thanks to Katia and Susanna for this. I don't know who did it. If you do, let me know.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Orwell blogs

George Orwell's diaries are about to be posted, exactly seventy years after they were written, in blog form, starting in August. My thanks to Maud Newton for pointing me to the site.

Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain: Wuthering Heights

If you've never heard these people , as I hadn't before today, go straight to Youtube - and I mean this very minute - and see what else they've done. They're fantastic. And if you have heard them, why didn't you tell me? What kind of friend are you?
And here's a picture of them. And if you want to know more, go here. This is what friends are for.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Rule of thump

A misprint I came across in a report I'm editing today, about banana cultivation in atoll islands. It's talking about how often banana plants should be fed with organic matter and suggests once a month as a rule of thump. Maybe I'm tired and bored (OK, I am tired and bored), but this has tickled me no end. It's like a homelier more approximate version of the law of the jungle. The rule of thump. Let's see if we can introduce into everyday speech. We could start with political discourse. As in: Gordon Brown KO'd by rule of thump.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

"Alight with interest"

A lovely - and loving - essay by Julian Barnes on Penelope Fitzgerald in today's Guardian. It's fascinating to see how casually she was treated by the literary world, as though she were the writing equivalent of Grandma Moses rather than the most astute, technically audacious and wide-ranging English novelist of the past fifty years. I think Barnes is mistaken to dismiss The Bookshop as one of the minor novels before the big four, but the essay is a pleasure to read and a useful amuse-bouche as we wait for the letters.

The photograph is by Jane Bown.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Italian finger politics

Never one to miss a trick, Ryanair has recycled a photo of Northern League leader and Senator Umberto Bossi taken last weekend. His elegantly raised finger was directed then at the national anthem and the notion of Italian unity, something from which he and his green-shirted cronies have done extremely well in the past few years, preaching armed rebellion while enjoying the comforts, and salaries, of parliamentary life in the capital. In a political climate where epithets like piece of shit and shirt-lifter are all too frequent, the gesture barely raised an eyebrow at the time.

Now that naughty Mr O'Leary has turned it back on its perpetrator, though, the mood has changed. Massimo Poledri, a Northern League MP, has accused the Ryanair ad of being "offensive and in bad taste", as though the original gesture were a model of seemliness and grace. Roberto Castelli, minister of justice with the previous Berlusconi circus, has announced an investigation to see whether this kind of advertising is 'compatible' with the use of Italian airports and says he'll never use Ryanair flights again. Well, he didn't actually say 'again'. Given that Italian senators fly business class, he's probably never set foot on one of O'Leary's cheap and often cheerless vehicles. He's more likely to avail himself of one of the hundreds of Alitalia flights which exist purely and simply for the convenience of members of parliament, regardless of profit or the lack of it.

Maurizio Borghezio, Euro MP (god help us), once convicted of trying to burn down some shacks with Romanian immigrants still inside them (two-month sentence, never served), says he's ready to launch a boycott against the company. At least that means he won't be disinfecting the seats used by duskier passengers, something he's known for on Italian trains. As usual, it's a win-win situation for Ryanair, a bit of nose-tweaking on a par with decorating the sides of its fleet with cheeky slogans directed against BA, Lufthansa, Alitalia, etc. You'd never guess it was the biggest airline in Europe...

PS. The Italian on the ad means: "Minister Bossi to Italian passengers: The Government... supports high Alitalia fares, supports the frequent Alitalia strikes and doesn't give a damn about Italian passengers." This is so obviously the truth that it would probably have been wiser to let the ad pass without comment.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

His Life as the Beast

This is probably the only form in which my collected poems will ever see publication, so enjoy them while you can.

Word cloud

Call me a copycat, but after seeing one of these on Baroque in Hackney and The Truth About Lies, I couldn't resist. This is the word cloud, made by Wordle, for The Scent of Cinnamon:

And this is the word cloud for Little Monsters:


I just found this photo on the Facebook page for Brokeback Mountain. It shows the motel where Jack and Ennis made love, or 'jounced' in 1969. Yes, I know. But why shouldn't art bleed into life a little?

Wednesday, 23 July 2008


Regular readers may have guessed from my silence that I've been staying with my mother for a few days. While I was there she asked me to buy her a strawberry gateau for the freezer. After decades of disdaining 'bought cake' she's succumbed to this particular brand. I haven't tried it myself, so I don't know what it tastes like, but the name augurs ill. Yes, that's right. Arses of Gold. Or Goldenbums. What do you expect for £1.89?

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Milk-snatcher death shock - preview

News has leaked that the British government is planning a state funeral for Margaret Thatcher. I thought you might like to know that I too am planning a post in my good riddance series for the wicked old shite-bag. But you'll to wait for the big day to see what it says.

The fruit - and peel - of love

From today's Guardian:

Young Catholics attending World Youth Day celebrations in Sydney may find themselves swamped with offers of free condoms after a court overturned legislation giving police the power to arrest anyone who "annoys" pilgrims.

Annoyed? I'm sure the many thousands of young people who used condoms - and left them to be found - during JP2's speech at World Youth Day in Rome would have been only too grateful to have had them provided free of charge.


Remember Giuliano 'Tubs' Ferrara? Obese man wobbling naked along a beach to rescue foetuses? Ex-communist, turned foot-servant/mouthpiece/toe-rag to Craxi (corrupt ex-PM, dead in luxurious Tunisian exile on the run from justice), then Berlusconi (currently rewriting the Italian judiciary system to avoid a similar fate), and now Ratzinger (I say no more). A man whose deepest instinct is to run to the support of the strong. His latest attention-seeking exploit is to ask people to leave bottles of water outside the hospital where a woman called Eluana Englaro has been lying in a vegetative state for the past 17 years. Her father has finally obtained permission to remove the tubes that have been providing the body of Eluana with food and water since a car accident in 1991. You'd have thought a little respect was due to a man prepared to fight for his daughter's right to die (something she did - to all intents and purposes - almost two decades ago). But you've have reckoned without Ferrara. A man for whom one family's tragedy is another's photo-op.

Still, it looks as though Tubs - after his mind-boggling failure to win a seat in parliament - has just scored another resounding own goal. At the last count, and despite TV news coverage to the contrary, no more than a dozen bottles of water had been left at the hospital. And most of those were half-litres.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Two days in London

...actually, one and a half days in London, but they followed the same rough pattern as the two days I spent there last autumn and I'm just so self-referential I couldn't pass this one up. You can find out what I did last year by clicking here.

This time I went back to London for the launch of the very wonderful Katy Evans-Bush's collection of poetry, Me and the Dead. It was a spur of the moment decision, egged on by Ryanair's extremely cavalier attitude to global warming and my own desire to be surrounded by poets for an hour or so. Believe me, dear reader, I didn't regret it. (Well, perhaps momentarily, when Ryanair provided synthetic UHT cream for my cardboard bucket of already undrinkable tea and an eye-rolling Polish steward had no idea what sandwiches were available and seemed to regard this as my problem. But hey! 80 Euros...)

Before the launch and after a late lunch with my sister in the Mess - an excellent café in Amhurst Road; I recommend it - I met up with Isobel Dixon (friend, agent, poet) in a smart and colourful place at the back of the BFI called Benugo's, where we were joined by Henrietta Rose-Innes, who'd won the £10,000 Caine prize for the best short story in English by an African writer the evening before. (You can read the prize-winning story here.) We celebrated with reviving glasses of champagne before heading off to the Royal Festival Hall for a look-in at the London Literary Festival barbecue, where I almost met Rachel Holmes, head of literature at the South Bank Centre, and had some extremely drinkable white wine. This had the advantage over Pimm's of being immediately available rather than a reward for reaching the head of a shortish queue. After which, we moved on, without Henrietta but with Julia Bird, to Katy's launch in Covent Garden.

I had a great time. Katy read two poems, with great elegance and authority, from a chair in the corner of the over-crowded downstairs room of Treadwell's, leaving us wanting more - the only way to be left, in poetry as in much else. I finally met a whole bunch of people I'd previously known only as fellow-bloggers or web acquaintances of one kind or another - Elizabeth Baines, Simon Barraclough, Anne Berkeley, and wasn't disappointed. I also had the very great pleasure of seeing John Wilkinson again after more than twenty years. And the wine didn't run out. I'd planned to start reading the book on the 38 as it wound its towards Hackney, but found myself listening to a conversation between a disorderly drunk and a young artist from Liverpool, possibly about god, in which each vied with the other to see how many times they could address the other as man and still maintain something recognisable as argument. Sadly, the number was lower than either of them fully realised.

Wednesday, as those of you who were in London will know, was cold and wet. I had medical reasons, despite this, for wearing shorts (you don't want to know), although desert boots were, on the whole, an unwise choice, as was my using an umbrella that protected more or less the same amount of me as a wide-brimmed hat. Still, a grand day out it was, as my sister and I moved off once more to the South Bank to see the Cy Twombly show at Tate Modern.

I wouldn't have missed it for anything, though Twombly's final 'status' remains for me as much a mystery as ever. By which I mean that I've never been more impressed by an artist with fewer painterly virtues, and then less impressed by an artist whose painterly ambitions are clearly enormous. The first Dubuffet-influenced stuff struck me as great, perhaps because I worship the ground Dubuffet walked on, while the earlier graffiti works seemed aimless and the sequence produced at Sperlonga - ten miles from where I live - looked vacuous and muddy: I didn't get the 'symbolic whiteness' business mentioned in the pamphlet at all. The darker crusty stuff in the next two rooms was arresting, with its throbbing dicks and scatological references - I found myself wondering if he'd known Pasolini -, but the Bolsena series, ostensibly influenced by Apollo 11, didn't work at all. I felt that Twombly liked the idea of science, but not the effort involved in doing it. There was the sense of a pastiche of genuine cultural activity, when what he was doing was, basically, winging it by faffing around with formulae that were merely artistic. This carried on into, and informed, the Muybridge stuuff in the next room. My sense is that other artists have done fake science much better than Twombly, although my sister liked these two sequential works very much. She didn't much like the tributes to Nini Pirandello, on the other hand, which I thought wonderful: restrained, elegiac, hard-won. We agreed though on most of the final work. I remember one critic talking about the falling-off in Twombly's ouput, but what impressed us most was the sheer energy of the later work. There was a footling quality about the Roman stuff done in the 60s, despite the down-and-dirty aspirations it clearly had. But Hero and Leandro and The Wilder Shores of Love, particularly the former, were grandly ambitious and achieved works by someone who has suddenly become a great colourist, something that's evident in the Venice series and even more so in the two Four Seasons sequences. The large, brash Bacchus paintings in the final room, where the difference between blood and wine, revelry and madness, is obliterated by the swooping, harrowing scrawl of red, are a great way to end the show.

On the way back, a Ryanair cabin crew member was heard to scream at a passenger. "Stop shouting at me, all right? Stop shouting at me." It's the little things that count.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Dear Penis

More on Helms

Jonathan William wrote a poem for Jesse Helms. Here it is:


glory be to god
for jesse helms jesse
hates fags jesse hates
niggers jesse hates modern
art now that one
thinks about it jesse's
just like most people
in north carolina and
everywhere else what jesse
likes is beauty and
beauty's what bites you
on the butt and
don't leave a hickey
on monday morning we
must be kind to
jesse helms you must
brake for senior republican
senators from north carolina
he has the law
on his sidewinder snake
in the grass that
he is whether he
will brake for us
poets and artsnakes is
another matter thank you
jesus thanks a bunch

and remember to die

Saturday, 5 July 2008

This almond love

My thanks for this to Lally's Alley (who got it from Terry Winch).

Poet on fire escape

The best thing - indeed the only redeeming feature - of a snippy and essentially homophobic review in the New York Times of the new Selected Poems of Frank O'Hara (edited by Mark Ford) is this photograph, taken in 1958 by Harry Redl. If you really want to read what someone called William Logan thinks of O'Hara - when you could be reading the man himself - you can go and look up the review itself. In the meantime, the piece below is the third section of his Ann Arbor Variations, and contains a fleeting reference to a fire escape.

The alternatives of summer do not remove
us from this place. The fainting into skies
from a diving board, the express train to
Detroit's damp bars, the excess of affection
on the couch near an open window or a Bauhaus
fire escape, the lazy regions of stars, all
are strangers. Like Mayakovsky read on steps
of cool marble, or Yeats danced in a theatre
of polite music. The classroon day of dozing
and grammar, the partial eclipse of the head
in the row in front of the head of poplars,
sweet Syrinx! last out the summer in a stay
of iron. Workmen loiter before urinals, stare
out windows at girders tightly strapped to clouds.
And in the morning we whimper as we cook
an egg, so far from fluttering sands and azure!

(Anti-) conspiracy theorists swarm at harmless blog

The numbers of visitors to this blog increased exponentially yesterday. A wave of sudden interest in my new collection of stories, to be published by Salt in October? (Pre-ordering facilities available here.) Well, no. Nothing so flattering, or wise.

The posts that get most attention generally have something more prurient to recommend them (although my story Nipples might be just what some of them are looking for. It's in my new collection of stories, to be published...). On David Isaak's advice I entitled one post Hot Sex in San Francisco, and a lot of people looking for naughtiness must have been disappointed by the image of a rather elegant Art Deco façade. I'm also used to the post showing Berlusconi as nature intended (apart from the hair transplant, face lift and liposuction) getting an inordinate amount of attention, and yesterday was no exception.

But what really pulled the punters in is a post I wrote ages ago about the third tower at the WTC site and the mystery surrounding its collapse. It was my only foray into conspiracy theory territory and I was soundly told off by someone who led me into a world in which Robert Fisk is regarded as a dangerous god-hating commie sodomitic lunatic, so clearly a man to be trusted (how transparent does irony need to be? I love Robert Fisk!).

What I'd like to know - because I'm really not that obsessed by 9/11 - is what happened yesterday to make so many people google third tower and end up on my blog. Any ideas?

Update: OK, now I know why. BBC2 is showing a documentary about the third tower tomorrow night, and my post comes up on the first page of Google searches. Living abroad, I can't download BBC stuff (and if anyone knows how this might be circumvented I'd be very interested to hear), so I won't be watching it.

A piece of shit

A salutary piece by Anne Enright on how we love - and hate - what we write can be read here. Struggling with what is unlikely to be the final draft of my new novel, I feel what she says with a certain keenness. Or should that be keening?

The title to the post is a quote from Enright's article, by the way, not a comment on it. Au contraire.

Good riddance to ...

... Jesse Helms. Is he wearing lipstick in this photograph? Or did his mouth always look like a badly sliced tomato?

"Just think about it - homosexuals, lesbians - disgusting people - marching in our streets, demanding all sorts of things including the right to marry each other and the right to adopt children. How do you like (that)?" he said.

That's from The Independent. And look at this from The Guardian:
For all his political posturing, however, Helms repeatedly showed himself inept at the tedious business of shepherding legislation through Congress.

The Senate's tradition of choosing committee chairmen by seniority eventually brought him to head the agriculture committee (1981-87). It should have been an enviable chance to promote North Carolina's farming and tobacco interests, which employ half its people. Yet the state, ranked eleventh by population, had one of the nation's highest poverty rates and lowest levels of federal funding.

Helms contributed his share to this misery with his ownership of rented houses in poor black districts of Raleigh. Some tenants reported that his properties had been without adequate heating for 30 years. The city's building inspectors repeatedly issued summonses against Helms to remedy a wide range of dilapidations, from rotting floors to leaking pipes.

Laurent Bonomo and Gabriel Ferez

Police last night said the men might have died for the sake of two handheld games consoles.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

FAO interview

The following interview appeared in FAO In Touch, the in-house newsletter of the Food and Agriculture Organisation where I (and, coincidentally, Carol, the narrator of Little Monsters) work.

FAO editor publishes critically acclaimed novel

'I was in Turin and saw students being kneecapped, friends arrested'

      Story to tell: Charles Lambert combines writing with editing and teaching

Some people have a knack for using their spare time productively. Take Charles Lambert, for example.

A freelance editor in FAO's Field Operations division, Lambert lives in Fondi, a town about halfway between Naples and Rome. He takes a train three times a week to Rome where he also teaches English at Roma 3 University. A busy enough schedule, one would think, but over the past ten years Lambert has also found time to write seven full-length novels.

Little Monsters is the latest, published earlier this year by Picador. It is a surprisingly insightful portrayal of an abused and neglected child who grows into a psychologically complex woman. The twists of fate that buffet and damage her make for compelling reading. Other characters are equally well drawn, if not always endearing. Painstaking attention to the values, mores and physical details of period and place make the story feel sharply real.

Beryl Bainbridge, one of modern England's literary lions, was unambiguous in her comment on
Little Monsters: "Charles Lambert is a seriously good writer." His story The Scent of Cinnamon was selected as one of the O. Henry prize stories for 2007.

FAO InTouch met with Lambert and asked him a few questions about his FAO connection.

How did you get started editing FAO project documents?
It was at least ten years ago. I was very lucky in a way. A friend of a friend of mine was given a rush job, but he was going to be away on holiday and gave them my number. I remember it was a TCP project document – I think it was for Somalia – and it had to be done quickly. That started it and I've been doing it ever since. TCPs, GCPs, big contracts, small contracts.

What are the main challenges in your work?
Well, often project documents and reports are written by people who are not active speakers (of English). Documents can be very repetitive, with a lot of "padding out". Or, they may be too technical. The people who are going to read a document don't need to know the quantity of fertilizer used at every project site, for example. Sometimes a document is undiplomatic, critical of the member government. Over the years I've learned how to correct a lot of these problems in a text. I work for Savita Kulkarni in TCOM. Savita is an exceptional editor with very high standards. I've learnt a great deal from her.

How have things changed since you started in 1998?
The responsibility of editors is now greater than in the past, because layers of "pre-editing" have been removed due to budget cuts. There was the change in the word processing programme: it used to be WordPerfect 5.1 and it was horrible. I'd work at home and bring it in and have to reformat everything. Now everything is by email. There used to be more interaction with people – it's almost entirely electronic now. And the level of security at FAO has made a difference. While I understand the need for security, I resent having to wait for someone to collect me at reception.

What things have stayed the same?
Well, there's the fact that there hasn't been an increase in editing fees since I started . . .


Writer, university instructor, editor. What qualifies you for these three jobs?
I grew up in the Midlands of the UK basically, and then did English at Cambridge University. I spent a year not doing much, then heard of an opportunity teaching in Milan with a friend. Then Turin, then England again, then Portugal, then 15 months in publishing in the UK, working as an editorial assistant. I tried Modena in Italy and those were two of the best years of my life, teaching English at a language school there. Then I decided I wanted to teach in a university and applied to several. I was hired at La Sapienza here in Rome, moved to Rome in 1982 and I've been here ever since.
Picture (Metafile)

What's Fondi like?
There's a description in Dickens, in Pictures from Italy, and it's not complimentary. But now it's packed with bed-and-breakfasts and is a very attractive town.

What should we expect from you next?
At the moment I haven't got much time to write. It's all promotion, networking. But I have six other novels in a drawer. The one before
Little Monsters is set in Rome. It's a bit of a novel about what one does with a terrorist past. In the 1970s I was living in Turin, and I saw students being kneecapped, friends being arrested. It's set during the five days of (U.S. President George) Bush's visit in 2004. Picador is set to make an offer for that one. I have a very good editor at Picador. We'll see.

Little Monsters can be ordered through
Picador and is available at the Food for Thought bookstore at FAO Headquarters. For more about Charles Lambert, check out his blog.