Friday, 29 August 2008


I've just discovered that Philip K. Dick once shared a house with Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan. The same source, an LRB article by Stephen Burt about Dick (3 July 2008), tells me that the SF author believed that radios talked to him. This is remarkably similar to claims made by Spicer that his role as poet was less creator than 'conveyor of messages' from outside; that his work was dictated to him from elsewhere. It seems he meant that quite specifically, not the outside as Zeitgeist but as something that could actually be tuned into and received, like a radio. I haven't looked at Spicer for some time, though I used to love his work, and I've read very little Dick, despite enjoying most of the films his work has inspired. But it's interesting, and slightly spooky, to think of the two men tuning in together when they were both so young. I wonder if what Spicer saw as poetic practice and Dick, in his later years at least, and on the basis of a cursory reading of Burt's review, seemed to see as LSD-induced paranoia both had their origin in late night conversations about the nature of inspiration in the Bay Area, fuelled by whatever both men were using at the time.

Up Malcolm

Peter Bradshaw's blog from Venice today, in which he talks of the Tinto Brass-Guccione version of Caligula - a truly awful film - prompted me to go and find some stills from it. I'm not sure if this is actually from the film or was simply taken on set, but it's too good not to share, especially for those of us who remember Up Pompeii.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

One large bus for Boris

Routemaster - Threadless, Best T-shirts Ever
Another great design from Threadless T-Shirts. Click on the image for more information.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Sexual union with Tiger

The Indian artist Maqbool Fida Husain has not been invited to India's first art fair on the grounds that his work depicts a series of Hindu deities without their clothes on. The lady in the work above is the goddess Durga in sexual union with Tiger, according to a site dedicated to dissing the 93-year-old artist. What makes him even more offensive is that he tends to paint Muslims with all their gear modestly on - next to this shocking portrayal of Durga (who appears to be mounting Tiger) on the site is a painting of the prophet's daughter Fatima fully clothed (which you can see by visiting the site). Helpfully, the site offers a fairly substantial collection of the offending works, unlike the artist's official site, which offers reproductions the size of postage stamps. Not content with posting the paintings themselves, the campaign organisers have been busy in a dozen other ways, as you can see from this extract from a letter written to the Kerala government, guilty of having honoured Husain with a prize:
Since the inception of this protest campaign in November 2005, India and various parts of the world are witnessing intense agitations against M. F. Husain. Agitations that include over 1250 formal police complaints, 7 court cases, burning of Husain effigies, citywide strikes, rasta bunds (road blocking), as well as several protest demonstrations in the US and UK. At times, the inaction and passivity of the Indian media and government forced the agitators to lose patience and take a violent turn, as in the case of an attack on the Husain-Doshi art gallery, mob destruction of public property in some cities in India, and public announcements of rewards for maiming or killing M. F. Husain, as well as the closing of the Husain paintings exhibition in Asia House gallery in Oxford Street London after protest demonstrations and a vandal attack.
Nice work, lads. No one can say that maiming and killing aren't ecumenical.


I've just heard from a friend who's been made temporarily homeless for absurd legal reasons in England. Which makes Jesus' General's typically acerbic take on the McCain housing problem all the more pertinent, albeit obliquely. You can read it here.

Dog days

My sister went to Whitstable yesterday and found this wonderful creature considering the view. She shared him with me and I'm sharing him with you. What a wonderful world.

PS I realise how inappropriate the title to this blog is, given the weather England has been having this summer, but I drank too much sangria last night and this really is all I can come up with. I welcome all suggestions.

PPS I typed England wrong and the spell check gave me Gangland.


A few months ago, in an effort to make better use of all the labels that accumulate on this blog, I began to combine some of the ones that had only been mentioned once in - I hoped - mnemonic couplings. Foreskin - Paris Hilton, I seem to remember, was a particular success. Now I've received a comment on a group that paired Scientology with semi-colon. The comment was made by an entity called colon cleanse natural and, after a summary reference to Scientology being a Cult of Lies, so no problems there, it turns into a plug for a book on English usage written by "two experienced college English teachers". I wonder if they're aware that their no doubt valuable work is being promoted by a site (see advisory board members above) that also reviews such products as Intestinal Drawing Formula, Ultra Colon Cleanse Kit and (shudder) Bowtrol. More to the point, I wonder why.

Friday, 22 August 2008

The whole business

It takes a brave man, or woman, to imagine a world that is, and isn’t, the world we live in, that will tell us convincing tales about what we should and shouldn’t do, about how we should and shouldn’t live, without descending into lecture, or ascending towards parable. And it’s interesting that the tales which do this most successfully should so often be considered exercises in genre, as though that meant they had less authority than other sorts of narrative.

Nick Harkaway, in his first novel, The Gone-Away World, provides us with a handle on the world that actually works, that actually opens a sort of window we otherwise wouldn’t have. It does this in a number of ways. In part, by describing a world that we recognize as essentially the world we know, a world in which Tupperware and Star Wars and, er, cake-making remain points of reference; in part by drawing on other richly imagined worlds, or arcane worlds – I’m thinking martial arts, here - as imaginative ballast. He mentions his debt to the great story tellers of the past, from Wodehouse to Dumas in the acknowledgements (and this tells us everything about the range of his style), but much of the strength of the tale comes from its equally firm footing in the dozens of less formal narratives that compose us: education, cooking, friendship, love, not to speak of the popular imagined pre-/post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max and Dr Strangelove. In part because the exuberance and invention and sheer delight of the language is unfailing, with a goon-show-like energy that only occasionally veers into flippancy. In part because Harkaway knows how bruschetta should be pronounced. (Yes, it matters.)

But all this would count for nothing if the novel weren’t also preoccupied with what Harkaway describes as ‘the whole business of how to be a person’. The novel is haunted by alienation, from the early reworking of it in its pure Marxist state (cf. Fingermuffin, capitalist) to the central trope of the novel, which I won’t reveal. It’s concerned with who we are, as individuals and in our relations with others. The core of the novel is a moving recognition of community and how it might survive, against all odds. This seriousness is never far beneath the fun to be had, although there are moments I feel the latter may be overdone. The riff on fashion towards the end of the novel, for example, struck me as heavy-handed, though enjoyable (and then, with an odd swoop, utterly creepy). And there are passages in the second half of the novel, after it’s caught up with itself (you’ll know what I mean when you read it), when the thrust of the story is slowed down by a tendency not to miss a trick in terms of language, when a surface glamour distracts both the teller and the tale. But mostly it’s spot on. A grand job.

And a hard act to follow. I'm looking forward to the next one.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Red alert

The custody of a sixteen year old boy in Catania, Sicily, has been transferred - against the boy's will - from his mother to his father. This is unusual in Italy, where mothers tend to be favoured over fathers, and even more so in Sicily, where traditional roles die hard. The mother's furious, the boy's furious, the only person who seems to be happy is the father. Why? Because his son, with the help of a local magistrate, has been rescued from the pernicious maws of an extremist group. Which one? The local Tienanmen chapter of Italy's Giovani comunisti (young communists). It's not exactly Al Qaida. Incensed, the secretary of Rifondazione Comunista has asked the President of Italy for an explanation.

Except that, as with most st
ories in Italy, this one doesn't quite add up. The mother's lawyer says one thing, the local magistrate another. In the meantime, the boy, whose father has accused him of hanging out with drug-riddled subversives, is studying for make-up exams and going to the beach. What makes this a story is the odd - and justifiable - anxiety in Berlusconi's Italy that basic political rights are being eroded.

If you want to read what La Repubblica has to say about the story, click here.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Thin end of wedge

According to 73 year-old Fr. Jeremy Davies, a priest, qualified physician and official exorcist in Westminster, it wasn't that naughty old scout master at all, but the devil himself, that turned you gay. He says: "Among the causes of homosexuality is a contagious demonic factor."

You can find out more here. He's particularly good on the relative dangers of thin and thick ends of wedges. But he would be, wouldn't he?


You may remember that recent remarks of Irish MP Iris Robinson, in which she claimed that homosexuality was slightly worse than child sex abuse and murder, prompted a petition to the British government, asking that it reprimand the woman. If you signed it, you'll already have received an email from the government, explaining why it has no intention of reprimanding her, or indeed taking any action at all. If you didn't, and haven't, this is what it says:

There is no constitutional role for the Prime Minister to reprimand individual Members of Parliament who are accountable to their electorate for their own comments.

The Government is committed to strong equality legislation in Northern Ireland and citizens in Northern Ireland are protected against discrimination on grounds of race, religious belief or political opinion, gender, sexual orientation, age or because of a disability. If anyone in Northern Ireland believes that they have been discriminated against on any of these grounds they may be able to bring a complaint to a tribunal or to a county court. Further details are available from the Equality Commission whose website is at

In respect of sexual orientation specifically, the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2003 make it unlawful for employers and others to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation in the areas of employment, vocational training and further and higher education. The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (NI) 2006 extend the protection against discrimination to the provision of goods, facilities and services, the management and disposal of land or premises and the provision of education in schools.

In addition, section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 requires designated public authorities to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity between 9 different groups: religious belief; political opinion; race or ethnic group; age; marital status; sexual orientation; gender; disability; and persons with dependants.

The Government’s vision is an equal, inclusive society in Northern Ireland, where everyone is treated with respect and where opportunity for all remains a priority.

Wanwood leafmeal

Bushbury Crematorium and Cemetery are situated on a hill not far from the end of the 511 bus route, which is how we get there. We used to be able to see the hill from the top floor of our house, some miles away, a long whale's back of green rising from acres of low-cost suburban housing, with what looked like a single line of trees along the spine. My sister remembers three, I'm not so sure. The place was pointed out to us by our parents, perhaps by our aunt, who lived in that room in a bedsit designed for her by my father - her final refuge, as things turned out. Now that we're here again, and walking round, it's clear that what seemed a single file of pines, top-tufted like the maritime pines along the consular roads out of Rome, is a number of carefully spaced out woods, the trees planted in lines in a grid-like arrangement, leaving space for the odd memorial bench or upstanding plaque.

The cemetery has grown with time, the oldest deaths at the centre, more recent ones spiralling out like an image of a newly-born galaxy, a swirl of marble slabs placed one against the other, shoulder to shoulder, each with its name and date and motto, each with its container for flowers. Some of these have a sort of metal top, like a waffle, with holes for the stalks. Other slabs, either older or more modest, have improvised vases, the most common being Steradent tubes, the perfect size for a single rose. Generally, the outer slabs are in better shape than the ones at the heart, the deaths still recent enough to warrant weekly visits, fresh bouquets. A spray of yellow roses has been pushed into the earth at a short distance from the path, it's not clear for whom. The roses are artificial. My sister wipes my father's stone clean. We haven't brought flowers because we don't want to think of them dying; we talked with our mother about the virtues of artificial flowers, but decided, in the end, to do without. The stone wiped clean, my sister darts off towards one of the trees, returning with a sprig of oak leaves.

Coming down one side of the hill is a swathe of stones laid so tightly against one another that the impression they give is of a wide grey road, an uninterrupted sweep of paving slabs. It's hard to see how people can visit their dead without treading on others'. Yet somehow they manage, performing a jittery respectful dance between one stone and the next, leaving their elderly relatives at the kerb or alone, in parked cars, as close as they can drive. On the other side of the cemetery, as we leave for home, are the graves of children. These are decorated as if for a party, with massive paper flowers and grinning dolls that come up to my waist and rain-sodden teddy bears. The impression they make is undeniably poignant, but also creepy, as though the bereaved one's attempt to recall the innocence, the playfulness, of the child had been subverted into schlock.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Monday, 11 August 2008

But before I go.. Barbara

A few days off

I'll be leaving the insufferable heat of central Italy tomorrow for a week in the more temperate climes of the English Midlands. I can't wait. The blissful vacancy of travel. M&S duck à l'orange and Jeremy Kyle (my guilty secret, alas no longer), Thornton's chocolate gingers, traditional pork pie from Kirk's, my mother's (and her mother's) favourite butcher's, the Guardian and the Independent actually printed on paper, my favourite Chinese all-you-can-eat-for-£4.99 buffet on School Street. Yes. Yes.

And you know what? I'm worth it.

Friday, 8 August 2008

RIP Simon Gray

I was sad to see that Simon Gray had died. I started reading him when an extract from the first of his diaries to be published - The Smoking Diaries - appeared in Granta some years ago, and I've been buying each new instalment as it came out, in hardback, unusually for me, because I couldn't wait. I remember reading the first volume at more or less the same time as an edition of the journals Christopher Isherwood kept when he was living in Los Angeles in the late 50s-early 60s and coming to the conclusion, with a heavy heart, that I preferred the stubborn, tetchy, doubt-ridden, heterosexual, pet-loving, regretful, easily irritated playwright to the vacuous bed-hopping star-fucking campy pseudo-Quaker that Isherwood had become. Both men wrote their journals to be read, Isherwood presumably - and wisely - after his death, Gray as soon as possible, and there's a wonderful feeling in the latter's diaries of a very public confession going on, of an opening out. I'm not a theatre-goer, and I've never seen any of his plays, I'm not even sure that I want to, but his diaries were a source of great and constant pleasure to me. He wrote about animals as well as he did about himself and other people; at one point he wonderfully describes the 'dainty waddle' of a cat. There is, apparently, a final volume waiting to be published, and that's it.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Little Monsters review

Scott Pack has written an excellent review of Little Monsters. I'm particularly fond of this bit (you can probably guess why):
The way Lambert handles relationships, and how small betrayals and minor secrets can divert their course, reminded me of Milan Kundera...
You can find the rest of it here.


Once again, you have Maud Newton to thank for pointing me to this.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008


Following the recent mountaineering deaths on K2 I've been thinking about the way we react, or we're supposed to react, to this kind of disaster. A bunch of people push their bodies to the limit to achieve a sort of temporary exaltation, of no real value other than as an entirely personal experience, of no earthly use to anyone else. They spend substantial amounts of money, their own or that of others (sponsors), ignoring any claims their families and loved ones may have on them in pursuit of this elusive satisfaction. When anything goes wrong, as it often does, dozens of other people are obliged to risk their lives to rescue them. Yet everyone seems to agree that the death of a mountaineer is a tragedy, on a par with that of a fire-fighter, soldier, etc. Pages of newspapers, hours of television are devoted to glorifying the noble aspects of their lives and deaths. They're seen as heroes dying heroes' deaths.

Well, I don't get it. I don't say people shouldn't climb mountains, any more than that they shouldn't dive from high places or wrestle big cats in Las Vegas. I'm sure these are all pretty exciting ways to pass the time. But I don't see the intrinsic difference between using a lump of snow-covered rock to get high and using a rock of crack or a line of snow to achieve the same effect. Let's face it. They're dragging their expensively kitted bodies up the side of Everest, or wherever,
for the kick. They're not doing it for anyone else's good. In human terms, Reinhold Messner and Amy Winehouse are each worth as much as the other, except that Amy Winehouse is also a genius, and Messner just climbs things.

It's as though physical exercise were, in itself, ennobling. It's rather like the shocked reaction to these new drugs that may induce fitness in - horror of horrors- people who don't deserve it. Why not? Because they just sit around thinking, or reading, or watching TV, instead of running in endless circles or lifting weights. Well, good for them. Pass me the pills while I read
Omega Minor.

Interestingly, the only time I remember seeing a climber criticised for failing to consider the social fallout their addictive and selfish activities might have on someone else was when the climber in question was - wait for it - a
mother. A woman's place is clearly not up the Eiger. Leave that to the (sponsored) boys.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Head and neck should be opened

This image comes from a site called Face Analyst: A New Approach to the Old Puzzle. It's written in what reads like an unholy marriage between machine translation and psychobabble. The text beside it goes like this:
The classical type of the “castrating woman" leaving man with an inferiority complex, represents a combination of high parameters of authoritativeness, rivalries and criticalities of thinking.
If you'd like to know more, or think you recognise this woman (try imagining hair) and are feeling low-level anxiety, go straight to the site in question, where you will find this kind of crystalline explanation:
The principle of reverse afferentation (the mechanism of reverse connection) gives an opportunity to influence on the specified basic psychological feature by conscious activation (or relaxation) of correlating mimic elements. Training techniques created on the basis of Autogenic Training by J.Shultz and regulating mental processes, connected with emotional conditions, by a muscular relaxation, optimize the general emotional state of the person. The proposed technique (STEMA) allows selectively influence on concrete psychological features directly in a phase of the daily activity of the person, depending on requirements of an environment, or the certain professional specificity.

Should you feel the need for a bit of extra STEMA, you can ask the site directly for counselling. All you have to do is send a photograph. Here are the instructions:
The person on video / photo image should behave naturally (not to sit with the frozen face, as on documents), head and neck should be opened.

Bare naked homophobia

Jesus' General is one of my favourite blogs pretty much all the time, but his latest post is particularly wonderful. Read it here. The illustration comes from it.

I love you I hate you

I was talking to a friend last night about what it might mean to have an inferiority complex. In one sense the term's an oxymoron. The moment you understand your inferiority is a complex rather than a simple fact about you, you're no longer inferior. You're actually sharper than those glittering automata who think they're so special, and aren't, and don't even know it. Damn them.

Given this irony - which is reassuring but, well, insufficient - we started to wonder about whether the mixture of envy and admiration that accounts for a good part of one's feeling inferior is a quality that might be useful, even indispensable, in a writer. Feeling inferior sharpens the eye wonderfully. You watch the others, the superior ones, with the attention of a fearing and doting child, but also with that of a servant, whose service is bought at the cost of his contempt; and finally with that of a dog, alert to whatever might fall from the table.
Aren't these Proustian characteristics? Isn't this what Thackeray did? And Waugh? And Genet? How often the narrator's eye seems both pitiless and enamoured.

And then there are the others. Dickens, Penelope Fitzgerald, Rohinton Mistry...