Sunday, 30 November 2008

Lessons in democracy

The Honourable Maurizio Ronconi, deputy for the UDC, just can't stomach the victory of Vladimir Luxuria on Isola dei Famosi (more information about this can be found here). He says it's 'simply scandalous' that state television should transform a transsexual into a national heroine. Rather worryingly for a man who's been elected to parliament in a country that still claims to be a democracy, he doesn't seem to have grasped the basic democratic notion that the person who gets the most votes gets the bacon. Even if he or she is an unsuitable model for young people, as Ronconi claims. So listen up, Maurizio. It wasn't the naughty old disrespectful diseducational RAI that chose Vladimir, it was 56% of the voters who chose to invest a euro in choosing who'd win, whether or not they also pay their TV licence. This is how democracy works in the real world, Ronky, whatever might happen in the corridors of the UDC, so get used to it. One day you might also be exposed to a genuine popular vote. I can't wait.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

The merest whiff

A very small taste of my presentation a week ago at Rome's John Cabot University. It comes from the opening of The Scent of Cinnamon. I'm not being a tease (although I can be): this really is all that was filmed.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

What I'd like to do to Berlusconi (while we still can)

You may already know this, but I've just discovered a whole sub-genre on YouTube of actions being filmed in slow motion. I had no idea. Some of them are intensely lyrical. Others aren't. This one, for example, isn't.

The dark side

I'm not sure how much of this, from today's NYT, I understand, but it certainly feels exciting. Here's an extract:

A concatenation of puzzling results from an alphabet soup of satellites and experiments has led a growing number of astronomers and physicists to suspect that they are getting signals from a shadow universe of dark matter that makes up a quarter of creation but has eluded direct detection until now.


Richer and stranger...

Don't miss the third leg of my Something Rich and Strange virtual book tour, at Scott Pack's essential blog, Me and My Big Mouth. I'm answering questions on order, sequence and, well, order again, which makes it sound a lot drier than it is. It's actually quite lively. Go and have a look and you'll see what I mean. And if you have any questions, please leave a comment and I'll get right back to you...

Stop press: Luxuria wins IdF

Well, it's not Obama, but I'm happy to report that Italy's most famous transgender politician-cum-actor-cum-a-host-of-other-things, Vladimir Luxuria, has just won the Italian version of I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, known here as Isola dei Famosi (Island of the Famous). It's less creepy-crawly than the UK version, but lasts ten weeks instead of three, requiring massive patience from both its public and the participants. Vladimir's victory over a strikingly attractive 24-year-old Argentinian called Belen Rodriguez, who may be famous now but certainly wasn't when the programme started almost three months ago, is a sign that in Italy, unlike many other countries, the people are way ahead of the politicians that represent them. Voting for Martina Navratilova or even Brian Paddick is one thing. Voting for a pre-op transsexual who's admitted to a period on the game, transformed a coconut shell into a makeshift handbag and represented Communist Refoundation in parliament is, I think you'll agree, another. 

Over to you, Ratzinger.

Monday, 24 November 2008

A maid looking through the keyhole

There's a lovely piece by Peter Popham in today's Independent about the background to Fellini's La Dolce Vita. Here's an extract from it, with an interesting observation on how artists - some artists - gather their material: 

The film caused a huge scandal when it came out, and narrowly avoided being banned. At the premiere, one outraged signora spat in the director's face. "We were furious with him," says Olghina, "because it wasn't a decadent city. Fellini, who comes from Rimini, based the film on gossip. He wasn't yet part of the city's life – he was like a maid looking through the keyhole." Yet no one denies that Fellini crystallised an amazing vision of Rome.

So long as men can breathe

I’ve just finished Warwick Collins’ new novel, The Sonnets, which draws its inspiration from Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence and the circumstances in which it was written. It’s a brave man who decides to narrate an episode from Shakespeare’s life in the first person - who opts, in other words, to impersonate the man himself - and an even braver one who pens a couple of extra sonnets at crucial moments in the narrative, but Collins pulls off the first with considerable elegance and skill, and the second by the skin of his teeth, which is, as Collins himself acknowledges, only natural. Shakespeare wouldn't be Shakespeare if he didn't, finally, resist imitation.

The book weaves a context for some of the most famous sonnets, providing an entirely plausible sequence of events to explain the various mysteries surrounding their writing, although I admit to having a vested interest in Shakespeare’s presumed bisexuality, which gets short shrift here. What impressed me most about the book, though, wasn’t the way in which the sonnets are contextualized, psychologically adroit though this was, but the dramatic handling of Shakespeare’s relations with a bunch of finely-drawn characters, each with his or her role to play in the hothouse atmosphere of the poems' creation. Not only Southampton, whose initial foolhardiness and growing maturity are convincingly portrayed, but a host of other, minor and major, players.     

The parts of the book I enjoyed most, in fact, were the central chapters, a series of encounters in which Shakespeare is obliged, pretty much against his will, to take part in the world of political and dynastic intrigue surrounding his patron, a world of ever-increasing menace. If the sonnets are the framework around which the novel is constructed, its heart seems to me to be in these meetings, where Collins shows his extraordinary capacity to create both character and narrative tension through dialogue, something he demonstrated to great effect in his earlier novel, Gents. I particularly liked the scene with Southampton’s mother, but conversations with Lord Hunsdon and his mistress, and Master Florio and his wife, are just as effective, and chilling.   

If I have one tiny qualm about the novel, it’s the wink towards the modern reader’s greater knowledge, as Shakespeare stumbles towards the familiar line, ‘If music be the food of love, play on…’ - if only on the grounds that the final version is the only one that scans properly. But that’s a very small quibble indeed with such a gripping and intelligent book. 

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Hormonal communism

An interview with one of my favourite writers, José Saramago, in today's Guardian online - presumably the Observer? Well worth reading. Here's an extract:
Still a Communist party member, Saramago describes himself as a "hormonal communist - just as there's a hormone that makes my beard grow every day. I don't make excuses for what communist regimes have done - the church has done a lot of wrong things, burning people at the stake. But I have the right to keep my ideas. I've found nothing better." Yet he did write in 2003 that, after years of personal friendship with Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader "has lost my confidence, damaged my hopes, cheated my dreams". In Reis's view, "Saramago lives his communism mostly as a spiritual condition - philosophical and moral. He doesn't preach communism in his novels." His fable of consumerism and control in a globalised culture, The Cave (2001), shows the focus of life shifting from cathedral to shopping mall. But for Jull Costa, its strength is in his "writing so humanely about ordinary people and their predicaments".

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Scent of Cinnamon launch

Well, after a heated Facebook debate on what to wear, I decided to do sober but casual, as befits the Aula Magna Regina of John Cabot University. Carlos Dews, writer, friend and professor of English Language and Literature at JCU, presented me with his customary charm and generosity, and then it was over to me. I read The Scent of Cinnamon and The Growing, then answered questions about influences, surprise endings and, er, dogs. Books were sold, and signed, and I had the pleasure of seeing old friends and making new ones. I can't wait for the next one. This is a large, shamelessly unveiled hint to anyone who might have a venue and some spare bottles of wine. I'm your man. I also do weddings... (Though not, alas, in California.)

Thursday, 20 November 2008

People who look like you

Erin O'Brien's written a great post about bigotry and interference. You can read it here.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Incoherence and the market

According to tonight's news, pirated copies of Gomorrah, the prize-winning film based on Saviano's exposure of the Camorra, the organised crime network in the area around Naples and beyond, are being sold, in cellophane wraps and with falsified government seals, by the Camorra in the area around Naples. Saviano, in the meantime, is in the deeply ironic position of hovering on the brink of an Oscar nomination while risking his life on a daily basis, threatened with death for having brought shame on - and attracted media attention to - the Camorra. In the area around Naples. And beyond.

Bra business

This apparently serious ad for male pectoral support reminded me of a great sketch from an old Victoria Wood programme about 'real bras... for men'. I wonder if it's on YouTube. I think I'll go and see.

Scent of Cinnamon: Review

Sorry if I'm being a little bit of a Johnny One-Note at the moment, but I just wanted to point you in the direction of a review of The Scent of Cinamon by Scott Pack. You can find it here. It's a good one, even better than his review of Little Monsters a few months ago, and I'm delighted.

Scott will be hosting me for the next stage of my Cyclone book tour next Tuesday, so I hope you'll be there for it.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

...and up....

The second stage of SOMETHING RICH AND STRANGE, my virtual tour to celebrate the publication by Salt of my short story collection The Scent of Cinnamon, has just been hosted by the writer and blogger extraordinaire Kay Sexton. You can find it here. Kay asked me some pretty challenging questions about... well, you'll just have to go and see...

Next week, I'll be answering questions from Scott Pack. Don't miss it.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

And we're off...!

I'd like to draw your attention to Elizabeth Baines' blog today. For two reasons. Well three, actually. The first is that - unsurprisingly - it's one of the most stimulating blogs around, with a care and attention to what reading and writing are really concerned with that's unrivalled. But you already know that. The second is that she has officially kicked off the Something Rich and Strange virtual book tour, in which ten illustrious bloggers interview me about different aspects of my new collection of stories The Scent of Cinnamon and Other Stories. Salt Publishing is not only an extraordinary, and extraordinarily ongoing, act of courage and faith in both writers and readers, it's also a hotbed of brilliant ideas for making sure that books get into the right hands. The latest, Cyclone, the "home of virtual book tours", recognises the immense power of the web and of literary blogging and has harnessed that power to promote its publications. Tania Hershman's wonderful collection, Walking the White Road, is currently on tour, and I'm travelling, humbly, in her wake. Elizabeth's interview with me will be followed in a week's time by Kay Sexton's, at Writing Neuroses, in which I'll be talking about, among other things, ghosts, Look out for it.

The third reason is that Elizabeth has also written a typically generous and astute review of Little Monsters. What more could anyone ask?

Monday, 10 November 2008

Mammon, Mormon

The Mormons are crying foul as they get picked on for bankrolling the Yes to Prop 8 campaign. It really isn't fair. After all, they only raised something like half of the more than 30 million dollars used to deny Californians their basic rights last week. It wasn't all their fault. Just leave them alone. Spoilsports. Bullies.

If you want to know where the rest of money came from, click here. My thanks to Jockohomo.


This great photograph accompanies an article in today's Guardian about the ex-missionary and linguist, Daniel Everett, and his experiences with an Amazonian tribe, as a result of which he's had probelms not only with God, and his family, but also with Chomsky. It's a fascinating article, whether you're interested in God or Chomsky - united, if nowhere else, by their notions of universality - and Everett's book looks well worth reading too.

You need to read the article to get the title.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

PS to previous post

St John's appointed HSD College Rat Catcher in 1967. 

In the stump of the old tree

I've just come across a Guardian blogpost by Billy Mills about the pleasure of discovering little-known writers, in which he mentions Hugh Sykes Davies, pictured above in the grounds of St John's, Cambridge, where he taught. Like Billy, I first came across Sykes Davies in the Penguin anthology of Forties poetry, where, as a teenager, I fell in love with his wonderful, creepy poem, beginning In the stump of the old tree...

I haven't thought about him for ages, but the post reminded me that an old GLF acquaintance of mine from my Cambridge days, Derek, Bowie look-alike and famous for having fucked every member of the St John's boat crew (he said), had Sykes Davies as his long essay supervisor. Derek told me all kind of fascinating, often scurrilous details about the man, which to my shame I've forgotten, but I do remember him talking about the  massive amount of unpublished material there was and about Sykes Davies' plans to organise it. Or maybe my memory is wrong. Maybe he was planning to destroy it. Having just read this fascinating piece on Sykes Davies, by George Watson, from Jacket Magazine, I suspect the latter to be more likely. But if I'm wrong and there is this work somewhere, it would be very good to have it. In the meantime, here's a taste of the man from Watson's article:
His role model was a cab driver he had once fished with whose previous job had been in a circus, riding a motorbike on the Wall of Death, until he started to have blackouts and had to give it up. ‘You can’t have blackouts on the Wall of Death: besides, I had a lioness in the sidecar.’ 

Marriage, shmarriage

The joy of Obama's victory has been slightly soured by the votes in California and elsewhere against gay marriages, confirmation - if that were needed - of Obama's extraordinary ability to draw on a wide variety of constituencies, including many that are hostile to gay issues. It's evident that part of Obama's appeal derives from the way in which he and his team have used his family in an iconic way, normative as Palin's horde could never be. If she was a hockey mom, Barack Obama was also a basketball pop.

But the prop 8 vote has set me thinking about where to go next, not only in the USA but in other places, such as Italy, where there is continued resistance to the recognition of gay unions. Both here and in the States, ickiness at the idea of gay sex among heterosexual men and some women is being manoeuvred into something more substantial and discriminatory by religious bodies, from the Phelps family to the Vatican to the Mormons, who see marriage as what they term a sacred bond. For the sake of argument, let's suppose they really believe this and aren't merely frothing at the mouth about perverts and fags and the second coming and all the rest of the odd mindset of evangelofascism, a word that's almost as ugly as the phenomenon it describes. Let's suppose they genuinely do want to protect what they see as a sacrament from 'the gays'. 

Well, I come from a generation when nobody I knew, gay or straight, wanted to get married. Marriage was seen as a cage rather than a bond, along with mortgages - and look what happened to them. Times changed, people came to realise that marriage provides legal and financial security, and a host of other benefits that have nothing to do with sacrality. The state recognises this by allowing people's marriages to be recognised by both secular and religious structures. And that's the problem. Those people who've chosen town halls or registry offices to get married in have signed a civil contract. God hasn't blessed their union. And that's their choice. And that choice should be made available to those people regarded as anathema by churches. Because, in most cases, it's mutual. The churches can keep their approval for those who want it. 

What I'd like to see is all those straight couples who married without God's blessing coming out to defend the opportunity of others to benefit from the bundle of basic civil rights provided by state-recognised marriage, or civil union, or registered partnership, or whatever we want to call it. Right now, the churches are claiming to protect an institution on behalf of people who don't care a dried fig about church recognition. Isn't it time these people opened their mouths? 

Thursday, 6 November 2008


A talking head on Fox News informs us that Sarah Palin "lacked a degree of knowledgeability".

New day

"I will listen to you, especially when we disagree."

Barack Obama


The final three sections of my poem sequence The Golden Fleece. The earlier parts can be found here: Jason 1, Medea, Chiron. I suggest you start with those (in that order).




Apples. Bread. Wine. And the camps

are the least accidental features

of a foreign landscape. No sweat

or, at least, the temple is what’s

sliding like greased lightning on

the waves, who are silent as if they

could not even be arsed. But I want

to know. The white flare of his

buttocks disappearing in the water.

He might as well come back gold

as be dead or living in No Place I

can muscle into, as fast as a rat

shoots off into its own space,

letting the bulky air thrust out,

taking its illness out to the stars.

O lyric density! O blindness!

Impossible fruit in the dank soil.

We just drop it in and pull it up,

surprised at the effervescence of

spring water, and the clean bright

buckets that surround us, pitched

in the well, pulled up and drained.



The density of a muscled travelogue

or a worksheet. I want to know

what gives when we are all

descended from gods. As for that,

the creation of a nervous system

should cast a new, more viable

taxonomy into their mountain

home. Crab apples upset the baskets

and the entire market’s in a holy

uproar as though it hadn’t bargained

with theft already, as though my

strength were not the dirtiest

sympathy it would ever know. I’m

no more clever than the man I

left with the whole fucking world

on his shoulders. Its bright

striped canopies where gods sleep,

a pouchful of their still profiles.



Raiding parties. The mystery is

that I happen so often among them

and do nothing but act the fool

as though I were being paid

by someone else, my ghostly

brother, the merchant. Raids on

the blanketing and divine air

that starts at the groin, flows

up, and out. I want to know if

your prick can lift a man as high

as that wave can deceive the

temple’s grip on our sopping wet

earth. By the breakers, an army

is wondering if to set up camp

is like cracking a fertilised

egg into a jug. I say it is,

and start as fine blades start

from my follicles and (the moon

is high) break wind into a fist

and breathe (the sea is high)

and take off. I’m talking about

the real world. Labour. Raiding

parties on the chick’s sticky yolk.



As love shoves its fingers up

the cute boy’s nostrils I work

the dank groundsheet from under

his sweating rump, the silky

bundles of sequestered jewels,

and a tube of surgical jelly

squelches between my fingers,

a cross between light itself

and its passionate entry. All

credit for that. Strictly,

nothing can be had for nothing

is how I’d explain it to Mr

Atlas and his million disciples.

But it’s ecstasy, and how it

bubbles into muscle becoming

spirit! The effort of spirit

to work it loose enough to

enter’s a neat question about

theft, darkness, the market,

the loved one dragged under

by compliant hands, the rush

of blood, the chartered world

on those aching shoulders. I

bite, weave, break on the ride.



Legless, the bloodied, rescinded

quest held up against a small

and glittering unit that reels

around the campsite, talking of

the work it has to do. It traces

its life from the hand and into

the vein as a picaresque reverse.

By the splash and drip of blood

I shall be known. The red curl

of the foetus, comma, a grammar

easing its shoulders between the

hard polished surfaces where a

god resides, smiling at nothing

as, easily, I drag the temple

into the shell, stunned by that

slipstream of gold that shimmies

out. Buckets. A count of 100 and

I surface, gritty eyes and empty

arms, unweighted and blind.




A creamy mallow light and me, crouching, calves and thighs together like the two halves of a clam. How things occupy themselves! in spite of our wearily fixated loves.



The first half of coincidence is a turned-up ace. Three more aces in the pack and everything down to luck.

The elegiac number, one.


Down here, at Mission Control, I’m expecting a call from my wife.


Embarrassed by loneliness I ransack a city for images of the single life. The wailing of all those cows with distended udders in the meadows of the known world. I shall circle the city with their stripped hide? That one’s been used.



Inside the clam is edible. I begin to yield. Somewhere another hungry clam will eat me, then I’ll eat him. I’m not as popular in my peer group as I used to be. I’ll have to find another gang of do-nothing creeps. The single life

Brr-brr Biberkopf.



One way of not doing things. The light so opaque you can’t see out. Inside a small room a smaller room. Hello. At last - I seem to have found someone to listen to me.




The foreground’s filth is bleeding.

I think my mother is a loaf of bread.

The magic is in the dispersal.


It destroys the distance between places.

All of the pieces were buried together.

I think hysteria makes bones and meat.


I think my mother is a loaf of bread.

The leaves are beckoning the wind.

The magic is in the dispersal.


The foreground’s filth is bleeding.

I think my mother is a loaf of bread.

I think hysteria makes bones and meat.



They put down the box in the meadow

and taproots around it cried

Mirror, tell me your name.

From the dark heart of the cream

the handmaiden beats a necklace

and I am priceless.


Each object must tell its own

story and be damned

Mirror, tell me your name.


Break out in the chatter of glades

and heave me across your back

and I am priceless.



I think hysteria makes bones and meat

imitate a god.




With my address tattooed on my collarbone I’m a stranger to my body. Indian ink is blue. It settles in waves through which my own blood weaves. Its own red fades and when I want to go home I shall be blocked. Not by a dam, but by a channel through which the flow is graduated and the wheels made to turn. I could watch them all day.



When I came back with trophies I let them speak for themselves, recording devices built into their filaments. The king’s initial awe was rapidly tempered by scientific curiosity. The domes of the city were razed before they could fall.



Each sensation is exploratory now that confidence in touch is divorced from the fingers. The cry as the golden fleece is born away, involuntary and inarticulate, makes sense in spite of itself and its wary hoofed grandfather. It turns into a syllable and then a word. A new tongue is born out of petulance tented on pain, drawn fabric through which the whine of gnats can be heard.



And if I am thirsty shall I not steal from the steps of the Town Hall, the Observatory (my starry-eyed darling), the Ordnance Survey buildings? Now I’m reduced to knowledge those iguanas recognise my tread. Acres of flesh respond to its office as though our concern had been simple annotation. An object already there whose origin was mysterious. Il Mappamondo, large as the world.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Stick two

My last post spoke about self-referentiality. Just to show that I'm not entirely foreign to the phenomenon myself, here's a link to a post about The Scent of Cinnamon and Other Stories on One Story, which first published the title story. It's not quite a closed loop, but we're getting there.

Thanks, Hannah!


There's an interesting piece on the Guardian books blog today about self-referential humour, triggered by a joke that turns out to be less lavatorial than one might expect. But it's actually the comments that made me copy the link and post this. One of the commenters - freepoland - asks what the name is for a map that's as big as the area it represents. 

This, spookily, quotes from a poem I wrote many years ago, which I'll post here if anyone shows a jot of interest. (As if.) But the best thing is the answer, supplied by regular commenter BillyMills: Language.

Derek Brewer

I see from today's Independent that Derek Brewer died a couple of weeks ago, coincidentally on my birthday. He's praised there for being a Chaucerian, as, of course, he was, pre-eminently, but my memories of him come from the summer term of my first year at Emmanuel, when he was my supervisor for Shakespeare. He had a room in East Court, and once a week I would walk across the gardens with Dick Landy for our supervision, always with the faint trepidation of the essentially unprepared and the hope, soon to be dashed, that the heat of Brewer's attention would be directed not at me, but at Dick. That term is pretty much a blur for various reasons, but I have a distinct memory of our supervision on Macbeth. Brewer was in an uncharacteristically gloomy mood that day and, to our relief, seemed less interested in our views of the play than in the suicide of the author and TV presenter Kenneth Allsop. He spoke about the hopelessness and vacuity of middle age, suggesting that both Macbeth and Allsop had fallen prey to it in a way which made it fairly clear to us, callow 19-year-olds though we were, that he saw himself, on that day at least, as similarly afflicted. It was an odd, sobering experience to see him open up - not to us who might as well not have been there - to some darkness, some bitter understanding, in himself. He was 49. I was impressed and disturbed at the time. Now, at 55, I know exactly what he meant and I wonder if it might not have been particularly hard for him, as a Christian, to accept that understanding, which is one that faith can't usefully bolster, and move on.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Chemical Acorn

I really like this. It comes from a blog called Upset Fruit Bowl, made by David Dingman, "a 19 year old kid living within the soggy depths of Michigan, in the United States." 

Nid wyf yn.....

Curious? Click here for a great post about translation.

Ditching the bitch

This time PD senator Paola "Mrs Doubtfire" Binetti (see two posts down) really does seem to have gone too far. Following her comment that homosexuals couldn't control their paedophilic instincts and were therefore disqualified from becoming priests, members of her centre-left party have called for her to be expelled. (Better late than never. If they'd done it two years ago we might, just might, have civil union legislation in place in Italy.) She's going to be hauled up before an internal commission tomorrow and asked to explain herself. 

Binetti's used to waffling on uninterrupted, under the assumption that religious bigotry has a sort of authority denied other forms of bullying, and can't quite see what she's done wrong. She's apologised, after all, even though she has used the apology to repeat the slur. She even seems to think there's some sort of scientific validity in what she says, although it wouldn't matter if there weren't because, well, she just know she's right. She must be. She's only repeating what the pope says, after all. And he's always right. Why? Because he says he is. That's what infallibility's all about.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Hands-on politics

An expert speaks

I've had occasion in the past to talk about Paola Binetti, Democratic Party (PD) senator here in Italy, and the prime mover in blocking civil union legislation during Prodi's ill-fated government. Well, after a period of relative silence, during which she was presumably adjusting her self-mortification equipment in the privacy of her own monastic (nunnistic?) cell, she's back and talking more rot than ever. Commenting on the recent announcement that the Vatican would screen potential priests to exclude those with "deeply rooted homosexual tendencies" (as opposed to the shallow, frivolous, Kylie-loving, Prada-wearing kind), she told yesterday's Corriere della Sera that "deeply rooted homosexual tendencies presuppose the presence of an instinct that may become uncontrollable. This is where the risk of paedophilia springs from." She also thinks that heterosexual paedophilia is far less common than the deeply rooted homosexual kind. How much longer is this woman going to be allowed to spew forth such pernicious hate-filled nonsense without being expelled from the PD? Yes, I realise how sadly rhetorical this question is, but if you'd like to make things at least a little hot for her, one thing you can do is join the Facebook group asking for her removal.