Friday, August 11, 2006

Like a fiery animal of some description

‘Value This Man: the work of B.S. Johnson’ is scheduled for the evening of Thursday August 17 and will feature Jonathan Coe, Paul Tickell and David Quantick in conversation, as well as other special guests and possibly even some screenings. It all takes place from 7.30pm, upstairs at The Crown Tavern, 43 Clerkenwell Green, London EC1. The entry fee is £2.00.

Find out more over at Through A Glass Darkly.


In other news: together with Ben (from Splinters), Steve (from This Space), Mark (from RSB) and the eponymous Spurious, STML’s James gets annoyingly flip interviewed over at Bloggasm.

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Tuesday, August 8, 2006

The Last Of England


This weekend, STML and l’amant headed down to the South Coast to enjoy the balmy English summer (ha!). One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to Dungeness, the strange, other-worldy headland that juts out into the English channel from Romney marsh. Dungeness is Britain’s only desert, a shingle wasteland punctuated by strange plants and even stranger human interventions.

The twin Dungeness nuclear power stations are the most obvious of these: giant, humming boxes that divide the land and slice the sky into pyloned sections. But even they cannot subdue the landscape, and more impact is made by the two lighthouses erected to warn seafarers away from the treacherous, marshy point: rising out of the flat land, they signal at least some intention to transcend rather than subdue the flattened earth.

Scattered around these trig points are the homes of the small but diverse Dungeness community: a mix of fishermen and hermits, madmen and artists seeking the last areas of seclusion on the English coast. One of these is better known than many others: Prospect Cottage, the former home of artist, writer and filmmaker Derek Jarman.

Derek Jarman's cottage and garden

Prospect Cottage is famous not only for its artistic associations and awe-inspiring setting, but for the garden that Jarman laid out in his later years, a exercise in natural sculpture that harmonises the bleak surroundings with the tenderness of home. In his journals, collected in Modern Nature, Jarman wrote:

Prospect Cottage, its timbers black with pitch, stands on the shingle at Dungeness. Built eighty years ago at the sea’s edge – one stormy night many years ago waves roared up to the front door, threatening to swallow it… Now the sea has retreated, leaving bands of shingle. You can see these clearly from the air: they fan out from the lighthouse at the tip of the Ness like contours on a map.

Prospect faces the rising sun across a road sparkling silver with sea mist. One small clump of dark green broom breaks throught the flat ochre shingle. Beyond, at the sea’s edge, are silhouetted a jumble of huts and fishing boats, and a brick kutch, long abandoned, which has sunk like a pillbox at a crazy angle; in it, many years ago, the fishermen’s nets were boiled in amber preservative.

There are no walls or fences. My garden’s boundaries are the horizon. In this desolate landscape the silence is broken only by the wind, and the gulls squabbling around the fishermen bringing in the afternoon catch.

There is more sunlight here than anywhere in Britain: this and the constant wind turn the shingle into a stony desert where only the toughest grasses take hold – paving the way for sage-green sea kale, blue bugloss, red poppy, yellow sedum.

The shingle is home to larks. In the spring I’ve counted as many as a dozen singing high above, lost in a blue sky. Flocks of greenfinches wheel past in spirals, caught in a scurrying breeze. At low tide the sea rolls back to reveal a wide sandbank, on which seabirds vanish like quicksilver as they fly close to the ground. Gulls feed alongside fishermen digging lug. When a winter storm blows up, cormorants skim the waves that roar along the Ness – throwing stones pell-mell along the steep bank.

The view from my kitchen at the back of the house is bounded to the left by the old Dungeness lighthouse, and the iron grey bulk of the nuclear reactor – in front of which dark green and gorse, bright with yellow flowers, have formed little islands in the shingle, ending in a scrubby copse of sallow and ash dwarfed and blasted by the gales.

In the middle of the copse is a barren pear tree that has struggled for a century to reach ten feet; underneath this is a carpet of violets. Gnarled dog roses guard this secret spot – where on a calm summer day meadow browns and blues congregate in their hundreds, floating past the spires of nettles thick with black tortoiseshell caterpillars.

High above a lone hawk hovers, while far away on the blue horizon the tall medieval tower of Lydd church, the cathedral of the marshes, comes and goes in the heat haze.

Dungeness Power Staion from Jarman's Garden

At the end of his last book before his death from AIDS, the polemical At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament, Jarman (who has just been canonised on the beach by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence) writes:

I’m alone again. I sit watching the sun go down, peach as my grandmother’s table-cloth behind the nuclear power station. A great orange moon hangs over the sea and the winds die bringing in the night.


I am tired tonight. My eyes are out of focus, my body droops under the weight of the day, but as I leave you Queer lads let me leave you singing. I had to write of a sad time as a witness – not to cloud your smiles – please read the cares of the world that I have locked in these pages; and after, put this book aside and love. May you share of a better future, love without a care and remember we loved too. as the shadows closed in, the stars came out.

I am in love.

Dungeness Lighthouse


Apologies for the poor photographic skills, but you can see the full set of these photos of Dungeness at Flickr.

Wikipedia has lots more information on Derek Jarman and Dungeness.

For those interested in visiting Dungeness and Prospect Cottage, it should be noted that the house still belongs to Jarman’s long-term partner and discretion should be observed at all times. There was no one at home the day we visited.

tags: Artists + Personal History + Travel | permalink | 9 Comments

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Real News from Beirut

Last week, I wrote to Mazen Kerbaj, an artist and musician living in Beirut, asking if I could reprint the drawings he has been posting to his blog since the start of the current Israel/Lebanon conflict. I wanted to produce a book to raise awareness of the realities of the war for ordinary people, with all profits going to charities that provide humanitarian aid: food, medicine, stuff that people actually need.

He replied that he does not want any charge to be made for his work at this time, or for the foreseeable period of the conflict, after which (and we all hope that’s not long), he will reassess his options. However, he did give permission for his drawings and music to be used for flyers, posters and any other material, providing no alterations are made and the address of his blog is given. So:

Please, go and visit his site, read his stories, and post links and his images if you can.

Mazen Kerbaj

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Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Mad lit

“I hear 4-7 voices, all the time… They talk to each other, talk to me… ‘Janey’s doing this, Janey’s doing that… should she be doing that? … why don’t you do this?’ It’s very distressing, it’s very obscene… I hate it.”

Janey Antoniou is a mental health service user and freelance trainer and writer on mental health issues, and she was on Radio 4 this morning. Today’s Between Ourselves discussed schizophrenia and you can hear the highly recommended programme again (for a limited time) on the show’s site. Janey’s responses to the interviewer’s questions were, unsurprisingly, pretty heartfelt:

“Are you hearing them now?”
“Yes. I don’t want to talk about it otherwise I’ll have to start concentrating on it.”

But there is another side to the voices, one that we talk about more often in literary terms, but which becomes sidelined when we discuss mental health issues. Janey’s fellow guest, Dolly Sen, explained that “I also hear voices and I also hear them all the time. When I’m feeling depressed then the voices will be negative, but likewise when I’m feeling a bit high or a bit elated it can be actually quite beautiful to listen to my voices. I’m a writer and a poet and I do sometimes get my poetry from the voices I hear.”

Dolly’s poetic voice, as well as various other guises, can be heard on her website. She is one of a number of writers published by Chipmunka, the world’s first dedicated mental health publisher, who believe that mental health will become part of the social norm, and are doing all they can to ensure a smooth, informed transition. You can read more about Dolly, Chipmunka and the Mad Lit genre in an article by Ben Watson over at Mute magazine.

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Sunday, July 30, 2006

The inevitable consequences of moving into a house with no shelves with another person incapable of relinquishing books

Wall 1

Wall 2

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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The antithesis of Metaphysics

You have your Lebanon and its dilemma. I have my Lebanon and its beauty. Your Lebanon is an arena for men from the West and men from the East. My Lebanon is a flock of birds fluttering in the early morning as shepherds lead their sheep into the meadow and rising in the evening as farmers return from their fields and vineyards. You have your Lebanon and its people. I have my Lebanon and its people.
Khalil Gibran, from You have your Lebanon and I have my Lebanon

And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d,
While he from forth the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
With jellies smoother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d
From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon.
John Keats, from The Eve of St Agnes

There is none like her, none.
Nor will be when our summers have deceased.
O, art thou sighing for Lebanon
In the long breeze that streams to thy delicious East,
Sighing for Lebanon,
Dark cedar, tho’ thy limbs have here increased,
Upon a pastoral slope as fair,
And looking to the South, and fed
With honey’d rain and delicate air,
And haunted by the starry head
Of her whose gentle will has changed my fate,
And made my life a perfumed altar-flame;
And over whom thy darkness must have spread
With such delight as theirs of old, thy great
Forefathers of the thornless garden, there
Shadowing the snow-limb’d Eve from whom she came.
Alfred Tennyson, from Maud

He was following orders.
And the children already lying in puddles of filth,
their mouths gaping,
at peace.
No one will harm them.
You can’t kill a baby twice.

And the moon grew fuller and fuller
till it became a round loaf of gold.

Our sweet soldiers
wanted nothing for themselves.
All they ever asked
was to come home
Dalia Ravikovitch, from You can’t kill a baby twice

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Sunday, July 23, 2006

From the inbox

Dear Customer,
As someone who has purchased books by Marquis de Sade, you might like to know that Justine or Good Conduct Well Chastised: The Original Sadist Novel Retold for Today’s Reader is now available. You can order your copy for just GBP 5.95 by following the link below.

Justine or Good Conduct Well Chastised: The Original Sadist Novel Retold for Today’s Reader
by Marquis de Sade, Rex Saviour
Our Price: £5.95

Release Date: June 13, 2006

If de Sade had submitted the original version of Justine to us (from prison) in 1791 we would have rejected it, because it is pure sadism, as is to be expected from the original ‘sadist’, even though it is wrapped up in philosophy. However, it is now freely available in English as a classic, and has been so for quite a while. This version is simplified rather than toned down, but the actual ages of juveniles have been omitted. de Sade uses his narrative as a vehicle for expressing his opinions at very great length. This and the obscurity of some passages, and the constant repetitions, makes it difficult for the average reader. Here is an effort to rectify this, an honest attempt to make the essence of a masterpiece more easily available by… Read more

Best wishes,Editorial team

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Friday, July 21, 2006

OMFG! Pynchon!!!

Sorry. But little enough of stunning excitement happens around here. Other than, you know, surgery, sexual perversion and concerted attempts to completely annihilate beautiful, millenia-old cultures. So the announcement of a new TP novel in December is reason to celebrate.

True to form, nothing is being given away. Will Pig Bodine ride again? Will there be chapter-long discursions on lightbulbs and mechanical ducks? Will there be ninjas? All signs point to yes. The man himself has released a few hints, which (and this might just be me, but…) could apply to pretty much every one of his books. But hey. We don’t really want novelty. We want ninjas. And weed. Lots of weed.

Spanning the period between the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and the years just after World War I, this novel moves from the labor troubles in Colorado to turn-of-the-century New York, to London and Gottingen, Venice and Vienna, the Balkans, Central Asia, Siberia at the time of the mysterious Tunguska Event, Mexico during the Revolution, postwar Paris, silent-era Hollywood, and one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all.

With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred.

The sizable cast of characters includes anarchists, balloonists, gamblers, corporate tycoons, drug enthusiasts, innocents and decadents, mathematicians, mad scientists, shamans, psychics, and stage magicians, spies, detectives, adventuresses, and hired guns. There are cameo appearances by Nikola Tesla, Bela Lugosi, and Groucho Marx.

As an era of certainty comes crashing down around their ears and an unpredictable future commences, these folks are mostly just trying to pursue their lives. Sometimes they manage to catch up; sometimes it’s their lives that pursue them.

Meanwhile, the author is up to his usual business. Characters stop what they’re doing to sing what are for the most part stupid songs. Strange sexual practices take place. Obscure languages are spoken, not always idiomatically. Contrary-to-the-fact occurrences occur. If it is not the world, it is what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two. According to some, this is one of the main purposes of fiction.

Let the reader decide, let the reader beware. Good luck.

–Thomas Pynchon


And in other news, STML favourite Tom McCarthy finally makes Pseud’s Corner

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Friday, July 7, 2006

Ever increasing difference

Extraterrestrial Sex FetishIf sexual fetishism is fuelled by forbidden and unattainable desires, then the ultimate sexual thrill must be love for the extraterrestrial, literally that which is not of the earth. Mercury de Sade, “male, Caucasian, thirty years old, unmarried, computer programmer”, suffers from such a condition, pathologised as Exophilia. From the fact that this condition exists, and that the tabloid papers regularly contain stories of Earthlings being molested or worse by little green men, but there is no record of the reverse, the author concludes that one of three things must be true:

  1. Extraterrestrials do not exist.
  2. Extraterrestrials exist, but they do not visit Earth.
  3. Extraterrestrials exist, and they do visit Earth, but they avoid exophiles.

Such is the kind of thinking that characterises the extraordinary, brilliant Extraterrestrial Sex Fetish from the creator(s) of Supervert, which marries centuries of thinking about the possibilities of extraterrestrial life with Sadean wit and imagination.

Extraterrestrial Sex Fetish is not a novel, but a collection of interleaved case histories, categorised according to the methods of set theory, and consisting of Alien Sex Stories (ASS), Methods of Deterrestrialization (MOD), Lessons in Exophilosophy (LIE) and Digressions and Tangents (DAT). It can be read linearly, or reordered according to the will of the reader, in the manner of BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates.

ASS is a stream of sexual vignettes: Mercury de Sade’s encounters with imaginary, potential lifeforms, such as the cunnilinguistic beings of Pi in ASS 16, whose females are both sexual and semantic objects. Each female stands for something, and communication is achieved by fucking the desired symbol. “In this way, a simple statement such as ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’ required at least a threesome, and heated arguments would culminate in orgies that bordered on senseless babbling.” But their vocabularies are necessarily limited by the availability of sexual partners, and exophiles such as Mercury de Sade would be rewarded for introducing new lexical objects by being allowed to frolic in the pastures of speculative discourse, a joy for the exophile “insofar as metaphysical propositions were formulated through acts of creative sodomy and abstruse areas of aesthetics were illuminated by variations in the sadistic treatment of nubile alien girls.” Mercury de Sade plunders the constellation camps of a horoscopically divided Earth to bring fresh Virgo girls to Pi, arranging them in increasingly distorted positions to educate the Pis in the concepts of art and literature.

In the MOD set, Mercury de Sade befriends a young woman, Charlotte, and we follow his frustrated attempts to turn her into Ninfa XIX, the 19th in a series of alien substitutes which he uses to satisfy his cravings for extraterrestrial sex. Such endeavors are ultimately unsuccessful, because Charlotte is incontrovertibly human, and the logical conundrums that result serve only to deaden Mercury de Sade’s passions. “Does Mercury de Sade not intend to make an alien out of her somehow? Well, but how? Where do you begin? You can’t saw off her hands and replace them with tentacles – or rather, you can, but how do you know aliens have tentacles? If you attach tentacles to her arms, might you not just succeed in making her into an octopus? Isn’t there a tremendous failure of imagination here?” Still, Mercury de Sade can perhaps gain some benefit from the fact that Charlotte’s abusive, hated father is the billionaire owner of a flotilla of satellites, their positions and access codes stored in the computer in an office to which she has access…

LIE contains the author’s meditations on the history of exophilosophy, beginning with the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras’ theory of the plurality of worlds. Anaxagoras believed that the moon was inhabited and that the first life fell to earth from space, riding in on comets and asteroids, a concept that later scientists would christen panspermia. The notion of the plurality of worlds originates in the concept of mind or nous existing independently of matter, and since mind gives order to the universe, it must be coextensive with it. Exophilosophy moves on, through, inter alia, the theories of John Locke, who introduced the question of whether aliens and man could communicate as one of the tests of his assertion that all ideas derive from experience, and Arthur Schopenhauer, whose characteristic pessimism admitted the possibility of extraterrestrial life, but concluded that if it exists, it must be “as despicable, boring and inane as life on Earth.” Ultimately, the author sees exophilosophy, like its less exotic brother, falling out of favour to be superceded by the exosciences, in a line that stretches from Galileo and Kepler to Carl Sagan and beyond, and by the relatively modern psychological doctrines of Carl Jung and Wilhelm Reich, who devoted whole books to the consideration of flying saucers. Ze notes, however, that, much as theology does not require a deity in order to thrive, so exophilosophy may continue regardless of contact. (One of the benefits of reviewing a book of interrelated, endlessly rearrangeable texts is that the reviewer cannot commit the sin of the ‘spoiler’: all endings, all climaxes, are but starting points for new and different readings.)

DAT, finally, sprawls out along non-aligned pathways of exotheory; here contemplating the novelty of extraterrestrial intelligence and the potential for the introduction of entirely new political systems and philosophical enquiries that are not merely extraterrestrial but altogether extra-planetary, there examining the cognitive theories of brain vs. computer, and the argument that the brain of the programmer, the future brain, slowly becomes a computer as it strives to eliminate all error, even that of thought and action.

Extraterrestrial Sex Fetish, as literature, is an attempt to attain escape velocity, to blast off from the dead lands of Western writings to explore new realms of intellectual and sensual endeavour. A treatise on UFOlogy, a novel of ideas, a radical reconceptualising of science fiction (which the author terms truth falsified), an overview of all Western thought, an extremely dirty and occasionally violent book, and much more besides, it is one result of Supervert’s stated aim to evoke a “unique combination of intellect and deviance. Perversity for your brain. Vanguard aesthetics, novel pathologies.” We look forward to reading the next instantiation, Necrophilia Variations, whose interests are perhaps encoded in the closing passages of ESF: “The vast distances of interstellar space can only be crossed by a being with incredible endurance and longevity… does this not also mean that, if exophilosophy ever does achieve contact, extraterrestrial life will not be living?”

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Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Paper Cut

We wouldn’t usually, but, etc… STML and our good friends at Jack Blood Productions have come up with an ad for Snowbooks that we think you, as the book-hungry yet careless masses should examine, and take to heart. Enjoy…

tags: Film | permalink | 1 Comment

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Man in hiding Booker Prize

Without a sword, I govern the people with good words.
– from the Ruhnama of Turkmenbashi

What is it in the dictatorial make-up that makes you go: “Monday, work on bunker; Tuesday, invade neighbour; Wednesday, make ill-advised statements about nuclear ambition; Thursday, write novel”? Some recent examples have been Saddam Husseins’s last publication, Be Gone Demons!, sales of which suffered due to bomb damage, despite the author’s previous million-selling form; and Radovan Karadžić’s The Miraculous Chronicle of the Night, written while on the run from the UN’s War Crimes trials yet still nominated for Serbia’s highest literary prize, the Golden Sunflower. Neither, unfortunately, are available from Amazon.

Saddam’s last effort continued much in the vein of his previous books: a refiguring of the history of Iraq as a struggle between the noble Iraqi tribes and their arch-nemesis, the odious yet immortal Jew Ezekiel. Ezekiel delights in meddling with the affairs of Arab states and inciting war between them – although not without the connivance of the lazy and avaricious Arabic élite. When Ezekiel seizes power in Iraq following the disastrous Iran-Iraq war, it falls to Selim, “a pure, virtuous Arab… tall and handsome with a straight nose,” to take up arms in the name of the resistance. Selim routs Ezekiel with the words “Be gone, Demons!”, but his enemy soon returns with US backing in the form of the vogueishly-portrayed Roman Empire. Once again, the enemies of Iraq are put to the sword and Ezekiel and the Roman king retreat, to find that the Arabs have set the twin towers of the Roman capital on fire.

While Saddam clearly saw himself as the war-like yet righteous ruler of his tribe, Karadžić is more of a quiet man. Reports of The Miraculous Chronicle of the Night are mixed: one source claims it details a love affair set in a thinly-disguised Sarajevo, while another has it set in a prison in the run-up to the Bosnian war. The novel apparently reached the publisher through ‘secret channels’ (those incensed by the fact that an accused war criminal is free to write at all should check the Finding Karadžić blog), and all 1,000 copies sold out at the Belgrade book fair in 2004.

Karadžić has previous published a number of books of poetry, which have garnered much politically-motivated praise, and have latterly been cited as evidence by the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal of his genocidal intentions. In his fascinating paper, Is Poetry a War Crime?, Jay Surdokowski draws an equivalence between Karadžić’s poetry and his ultra-national radio broadcasts, public addresses and manifestos to suggest that poetry is a legally valid means of adjudicating a man’s mind. Included among the evidence acquired by the ICT is a video of a unique poetry reading: Karadžić and Eduard Limonov, Russian nationalist and eXile columnist, exhanging stanzas atop Mount Trebevic while loosing shells from a field gun into the besieged city of Sarajevo below. It’s not exactly Bookslam.

Karadžić’s poetry is described as inhabiting “a psychic landscape of eerie and illogical violence” and embodying a “paramilitary surrealism.” In particular, a fatal lack of irony is discerned in the poet’s longings for the military life – notably in the poem Goodbye, Assassins: “The gentlefolks’ aortas will gush without me./The last chance to get stained with blood/I let go by.” – enough, at least, to make the ‘warrior-poet’s work admissable in the International Court.

And now it’s the turn of another famous fugitive to make his mark on the written word – although, this time, it is unlikely that the pursuing authorities will need to subpoena the muse in order to make a case. Martyrdom Press (Islamabad, Kabul, London) has issued The Islamic Millennium (ISBN: 0954006356), claiming to be one of the early literary efforts of Osama bin Laden. Unlike the violent struggles of his fellow-travellers in the Axis of Evil book club, bin Laden’s bucolic future fable is more akin to JG Ballard’s Hello America, in which a band of sailors visit an abandoned, desertified USA. A thousand years into the future, the good ship Zluthulb hoves to off the coast of an unknown island. In a wide bay, a gigantic statue stands many times higher than the ship’s masts, and behind it rises a forest of ruins, great iron structures and temples with pointed roofs. Only the wise narrator can explain to his companions that they have chanced upon the once-great city of Nhu-Yok, capital of the ancient Mehrikans, who left so little to posterity that their very existence has almost been forgotten:

“There was nothing to leave. The Mehrikans possessed neither literature, art, nor music of their own. Everything was borrowed. The very clothes they wore were copied with ludicrous precision from the models of other nations. They were a sharp, restless, quick-witted, greedy race, given body and soul to the gathering of riches. Their chiefest passion was to buy and sell. Even women, both of high and low degree, spent much of their time at bargains, crowding and jostling each other in vast marts of trade, for their attire was complicated, and demanded most of their time.”

The narrator admits that much, if not all, of the scientific and technological knowledge which made the Mehrikans great – “The very elements seems to have been their slaves” – was lost along with them, but maintains that their successors have been spared the indignities which were their price: restless activity, ceaseless noise and industry, social conformism, ill-fitting clothes, and educated and unblushing women.

After a number of semi-comedic adventures clearly intended as satire on the strange and hilarious customs of the West, wherein the crew of the Zluthulb are seduced into drinking alcohol by a ghostly party and have an unpleasant encounter with an animal resembling a skunk, the brave sailors defeat the last survivor of the Mehrikan race in close combat, and set sail for home, intending to present the latter’s skull to the museum at Teheran. What the narrative does suggest is a far more optimistic and inevitable approach to the future than either Saddam or Karadžić: the enemies of bin Laden’s people will not run rampant through his lands but will instead be consigned to history by their own arrogance and greed. Of course, such a work may be dismissed as juvenilia, but given others’ literary form while under duress, we may expect more despatches from the Tora-Bora press yet.

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Monday, June 19, 2006

Blood and Guts, again

As we lay upon the slab last week, biting down on the leather strap and waiting for the sawbones to whip out the furious appendix, we thought two things:

  1. Why ‘The Whittington’? God forbid, will the future force poor invalids to be carved up in a hospice called ‘The Livingstone’?
  2. And yes, yes, I shall turn again.

Turn again to London, to South London (gesundheit), to the old ancestral pile, to recuperate in the June sunshine, with the parakeets chirruping in the pear tree and Test Match Special drifting gently from the potting shed. And what better companion in our malingering than le Carré, so timely plucked from the oak-panelled library, with its oft-beaten generations of STMLs gazing sternly down from dust-shadow’d walls? Etc.

Having originally thought The Constant Gardener to be some kind of pre-posthumous paean to the country garden, we were pleasantly surprised by the Ralph Fiennes/Rachel Weisz version, which placed the operations of big pharma within the context of global geopolitics, and even more impressed by the Bond-gone-bad movie adaptation of The Tailor of Panama, which chronicles the possible fallout of intelligence sources gone bad. The idea of one dodgy source misdirecting the offensive capacities of the entire Western world rings true from Osama bin Laden to Hussein Chalabi to Mohammed Abdul Kahar, proving that le Carré has lost none of his bite and is due for re-reading.

A Perfect Spy is an obvious candidate for such an approach: praised by Philip Roth in The Observer as ‘The best English novel since the war’ (1986, btw), acclaimed by the New York Times as the work of ‘the perfect spy novelist’, it chronicles, in Dickensian detail, the life of Magnus Pym, potential defector, and his father Rickie: conman, raconteur, bon vivant. Scenes reminiscent of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow hinterland – châteaus under occupation; black stocks of fruit and booze; trade in women and scraps of intelligence – alternate with mittel-Europe at the height of the Cold War: drab colours, colourful sex lives, bursts of encrypted traffic satellite-bursted from the roofs of snowclad embassies. We devoured it in a weekend – although we had the benefits of the bathchair and the parasol.

Are these books read now? What is the purpose of le Carré’s pre-Glasnost thrillers – except to show up the hideous idiocies of genre classification? A Perfect Spy, A Small Town in Germany, the Smiley books, all read now as deep, incisive critiques of men and women at the edge of their beliefs and their identities; the backgrounds against which they operate fade into obscurity just as the lakeland or maritime backdrops of nineteenth century novels seem irrelevant to us compared to their interior dramas. We don’t read them, as they were originally read, for insights into the realities of our time; nor do we read them now, like Fleming or Forsyth, for nostalgic thrills; we, and they, have transcended such political concerns.

That said, of course, le Carré’s own motives may not be so sure: his own MI6 career was destroyed by Kim Philby’s defection, which provided the central narrative for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. A Perfect Spy is, apparently, his most autobiographical work: the character of Rick Pym refracted through that of Richard Cornwell, le Carré’s father, “an epic con man of little education, immense charm, extravagant tastes, but no social values” (Lynn Dianne Been, John le Carré).

Excuse us. Morphine has clouded our judgement. We do not need to cheerlead such a talent. Read le Carré: for fun, read spies, for truth, read Gardener. John: don’t die; not yet.

tags: Authors + Personal History | permalink | 2 Comments

Friday, June 9, 2006

Le soleil brillait et les oiseaux chantaient dans les arbres

Whoops, ten days. What happened? Oh yes, there was some drinking involved. More hangovers. A trip to Berlin. A lot of lying around. It happens. Summer arrives, and all that stuff that seemed so important when you were cooped up all winter just kind of fades out into blue, blue sky. Get a bicycle. Go to the park. Take a book. And some beer. And some reefer. This is the season for sitting down and finishing a book in one go. Life’s Greatest Pleasure™.

Just Like TomorrowAfter too many books that should have been for teenagers and somehow sneaked into the Adult Fiction section, we’ve been reading books about teenagers (in fact, one of them’s written by one) that actually make us happy. We mentioned Faïza Guène’s Just Like Tomorrow back in January, in the same breath as the book which will no longer be named and the despicable Tourism. Who knew then that it would turn out to be the most enjoyable of the three?

We were interested not just because of the author’s age and background (she wrote the book when she was 16ish and lives in the Parisian banlieus – still, despite selling 200,000 copies in France), but because the original contained heaps of Verlan, the arabicised backslang of the streets, and the translation promised to be interesting. The translator, Sarah Adams, has learnt herself a fair amount of British street slang – ‘bare’ for ‘very’, the posh-sounding ‘oh my days’ for, well, ‘fucking hell’, even ‘the ends’ for her part of town – but it’s not very intelligently used: it just crops up every now and again, sounding a little strange in Doria, the narrator’s, bubbly monologue.

Still, who cares. It’s summer. Doria’s pretty engaging, and her meandering tales of life in the suburban highrises are compelling. It’s not often we’re confronted with the realities of Western European poverty in mainstream lit, but matter-of-fact descriptions of looking through Red Cross donations to find something that won’t get you laughed out of school, and knowing there’s no other choice, have a way of pulling the reader up short, as do tales of domestic abuse hidden by families and neighbours from patronising social workers; the bullying, exploitative nature of immigrant employment; and the all-too-common blight of illiteracy. But somehow, sunlight creeps in through the cracks, and makes this a really enjoyable read, undersold and misrepresented by the cover quotes from Elle and Vogue. Guène’s next book is out in France in August, and should prove a pretty interesting follow-up, one way or another.

We won a signed copy of John Bennet’s excellently-titled Sea Otters gambolling in the wild, wild surf over at Londonist. To be honest, we had pretty low expectations, but, as we may have noted before, sun, beer, and spliff do wonders for the humours, and we spent a few hours on our roof terrace chortling happily to ourselves.

A quick note. When we say “roof terrace” we mean the bit of downstairs’ ceiling that sticks out further than ours’, and can be accessed if you remove all the screws from the flatmate’s PVC window, take out and set aside the entire pane, and, using two precariously-balanced chairs as makeshift ladders, clamber through. This should only be attempted once all necessary supplies – rug, cushions, book, several cans of Red Stripe, dub albums, stereo speakers – have been gently lobbed through, and the reverse, when you muct climb back in without breaking anything and reattach the windowpane, now in semi-darkness and slightly the worse for wear, shouldn’t really be attempted at all. But hey, it’s summer.

Sea Otters… concerns the travels and travails of Felix, who despite being the same age, give or take a couple of years, as Doria, couldn’t be more different. Something of a prodigy, he’s taken his A-Levels early and is waiting out the summer before University when he finds a stunningly obscene statuette (it involves an otter…) in the local Pound Shop. His haphazard determination to find the origin of this MacGuffin takes him to China (as in ‘Made in…’), where he’s threatened by gun-wielding plastics factory owners, and then on to Japan and the US. It’s all kind of ridiculous but you can’t help but feel for Felix as his bored, English, middle-class eyes are opened to all sorts of places and people, and, in between the homesickness and the repeated interjections of ‘Whatever’, a little of the wonder of travel is delightfully outlined. Whatever. It’s summer.


P.S. On another funny tip: check out new boys Old Street Publishing, specialising, for the moment, in out-of-print humour releases. We’re particularly intrigued by Boner Friday’s Wanking Trilogy (Wanking for Beginners, Intermediate Masturbation and The Advanced Onanist). This seminal (geddit?!?!) work is forthcoming in 2007, and we hope to bring you more soon.

tags: Reviews | permalink | 1 Comment

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

One day you’re going to wake up and your liver will be sat by the bed with a very, very concerned expression

Prometheus, right. Nice guy, bad press. You know the old legend: he populated the planet and pissed Zeus off by making Man in the image of the Gods. The final straw, the story goes, was when he stole fire from Zeus’ hearth and gave it to the shivering peoples, carrying it down Olympus in a cone of slow-burning Fennel.

The legend is wrong. What Prometheus stole was was not fire, but firewater. Prometheus gave to men the secret of making alcohol, the one thing that could truly make them feel as Gods. The Tree of Knowledge was a vine: man learnt to ferment, brew, and distill its fruit. Fennel is native to Southern Europe and the countries of the Mediterranean. In Greece, home of the legend, fennel is used to flavour ouzo and its precursors, raki and arak. It is one of the ‘holy trinity’ of herbs used to make absinthe, along with wormwood and anise.

The proof is in the punishment: for his crime, Prometheus was sentenced by Zeus to be chained to Mount Caucasus, where every day the great eagle Ethon would arrive to gnaw on – get this – his liver. Fixed in the burning Central Asian sunlight, sweating, thirsting, aching, regenerating each night his battered organ, Prometheus is taking on the greatest of all hangovers, suffering for our sins, a scapegoat for all our Friday nights. His one attempt to pacify the furious Zeus was to teach the humans to make sacrifices to the Gods; violent, bloody festivals that became orgies of drinking and debauchery.

All this is a round-about way of saying that the 3:AM party was fun, and more than a few people are feeling a little delicate today.

tags: Events + Personal History | permalink | 2 Comments

Monday, May 29, 2006

See you tonight, hopefully

Edgier Waters Launch Party
May 29, from 8pm
Upstairs @ The Old Blue Last
39 Great Eastern Road
London EC2A 3ES

Old Street or Liverpool Street tubes

3:AM’s Edgier Waters anthology, featuring the magazine’s best fiction, essays and prose from the past five years, will be published by Snowbooks in June. To mark the occasion, the launch party for the book will be hosted on May 29 at the Old Blue Last in Shoreditch.

Special guests include:

Tom Gidley in conjunction with Bruce Gilbert of Wire
Tony White
Jeremy Reed
Daren King
Paul Ewen

More details here.

tags: Events | permalink | 2 Comments

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