July 08, 2007
Liars' League is 'le cool'. Apparently.
Never got round to posting this little project I helped to start but we're getting some pretty favourable buzz. Don't take my word for it. Le Cool (a weekly newsletter with what's hot) says:
These are great times for London's grass-roots literature; the London Lit Plus festival is going great guns, there's Litro getting literature onto the tube, and now this rather neat idea. It's simple. Writers submit short stories on whatever the month's theme is - this week it's Sex and Death, which should be meat and drink for most writers I know. Then, above a pub, naturally, a gang of actors read the best ones aloud, in suitably gripping/seductive voices to the adoring throng (i.e. you lot). You lot cheer wildly; the actors bow; beer is drunk and everyone goes home happy as you like. Like all the best ideas - simple.
What more can I say? This Tuesday at the Lamb in Conduit Street, London, 7pm. www.liarsleague.org
September 14, 2004
[Second in a brief series on TV criticism, curiously]
Thinking about Clive James led me naturally to Nancy Banks-Smith (as mentioned below). I wondered whether there is an archive or fan site for the most accomplished critic currently writing (and funniest too). And there is, of sorts. It will surprise few of your that Mr Phil Gyford has the answer:
Yonks ago (less than five, but certainly more than a couple) I wanted to add Nancy Banks-Smith, the Guardian’s masterful TV reviewer and national treasure, to Byliner but I couldn’t find a suitable page to index. Then — duh — I realised I could monitor the paper’s search results for ‘Nancy Banks-Smith’. So here she is, all Bylinered up. While her writing doesn’t make me wish I’d caught, say, last night’s EastEnders, the turns of phrase at least have me relishing her reviews of it, a talent no other writer can match.
'Masterful...national treasure.' Quite what NB-S would make of that I'm not sure, but I can quote you a choice nugget from the treasury:
Have you ever met an evil cow? This is how Janine (Charlie Brooks) is always described. I think it extremely hard on cows, easy-going creatures whose strength is as the strength of 10 because their hearts are pure.8 May, 2004
Finally, this a welcome reminder of the inspired Byliner – a web tool that keeps you up-to-date with your favourite columnists.
September 13, 2004
Glued to the box
Think of Clive James for a moment. For most people now he was that slightly rotund and balding Aussie who appeared on our screens every New Year's Eve to laugh at Japanese people doing painful things to one another on Japanese TV. After a while the format seemed to tire and James seemed bored. In recent years he has been absent from our screens.
Of late, though, I've been reading Glued to the box, the third volume of James' television criticism in The Observer from the late 70s and early 80s - the writing that made him famous. And well worth it it is too.
You might think television criticism the most ephemeral of literary collections and for the most part you would be right. In James' hands, however, it matters less what he was reviewing (The White Bird Passes anyone?) and more the how and the why. Like all really good writing, it tells you something, but not necessarily about the subject. Only AA Gill and the woefully unsung Nancy Banks-Smith have the bravura to bring off such enjoyable scribblings on the gogglebox.
My favourite passage, so far, has to be quoted at length and covers the Embassy World Snooker Championship in 1980. Welshman, Terry Griffiths has gone out of the competition:
The result was a disaster for him and for the cigarette firm sponsoring the tournament, since the Welsh maestro is a formidable consumer of their product. While his opponents were plying the cue, Griffiths was always to be seen sucking an Embassy. He puffed and dragged. He ashed and stubbed.
...Hurricane Higgins is another great consumer of free fags. He smokes the way he plays – as though there is not only no tomorrow, but hardly anything left of today either. With adrenelin instead of blood and dynamite instead of adrenelin, he sprints around the table... he stood revealed as a truly great smoker, capable of reducing an Embassy to ashes in a few seconds.
Meanwhile, back in London, a bunch of Iranians were threatening to do the same.
May 27, 2004
All Greek to George
With Brad Pitt's skirt making waves in cinema's around the world and news that my old classics teacher, Andrew Wilson has translated Harry Potter into Ancient Greek (or Ἅρειος Ποτήρ), it seems that the Hellenes are firmly back in the public consciousness. Maybe the Olympics in Athens has something to do with it.
Perhaps a deeper explanation may be a need for the grand narrative to explain uncertain times. It has been said before, but the Cold War gave a paradoxical comfort: we knew where we all stood - we were good and free, they were bad and unfree, and we both had the threat of mutually assured distruction to keep us from breaking that tension.
When making the case for war both Bush and Blair talked in moral and narrative terms about good and evil. There was an implicit end to the story as they told it. The story's end is currently being rewritten by others, though, and so we seek the solace of other narratives that might inform us of what may happen and assure us that we will be safe.
Thus I find the Bushiad and the Idoyssey interesting additions to the current crop of Attic-inspired culture. At first view they are glib, even cheap satires on Iraq, but as David Weinberger notes, the author, Victor Littlebear, ' is more interested in recounting the story than scoring cheap shots.
Very true. What Homer does in the Illiad is to concentrate politics, place and personality in such a way as to explain different facets of humanity - he is, as Wilson taught me, teaching his readers how to behave through showing you how not to behave. He was the textbook for Athenian young men on 'how to be men' (Wilson's phrase, if I recall correctly). To some degree, I suspect Littlebear's satire has similar intent: showing us how not to behave.
That's not to say it isn't very funny. Like David I am yet to read it all, but I have to share three excellent stanzas from 'Chapter 2 - The Rattling of Sabres' (the scene is the UN):
Each delegate gives his speech,
Arguments on one side or the other.
Promised U.S. foreign aid or
Loan guarantees on purchases of
Hardware and weapons of destruction
Secure some allegiance to the holy war.
Villepin from France draws firm applause.
He draws upon the loyalty of others who enjoy
The economic benefits of working with both sides.
Colonialism having given way to neo-liberal capital,
The French pursue a policy of “no size fits all”
And apply post-modernist financial theory.
“Iraq is not a foie-gras goose,” says he,
"To be slaughtered for its fatted liver.”
“This Iraqi pot-au-feu is not yet done,
Politics gets richer while it thickens.” They
Lick their lips, salivating at the savory philosophy
And think about reservations for lunch at 21.
May 02, 2004
I don't think we're related; or not, at least, very closely. However, the most famous literary namesake of mine is Thomas Bailey Aldrich, one of whose poems is At the funeral of a minor poet (1890) and it includes these lines:
We paint life as it is,
The hideous side of it, with careful pains,
Making a god of the dull Commonplace.
May 01, 2004
When - freshly arrived in the metropolis - I began working in London in a temporary capacity for a management consultancy, there would be days when my time would lie fallow and I would browse the net. This was a time before you could assume anyone else had an email address and when the sheer newness of the internet felt to many like a guilty secret.
As later on in a different job I read Doonesbury to keep the mind ticking over, in this one I feasted for several otherwise tedious days on Geoff Ryman's 253.
253 takes the form of a novel (and is still available on Amazon) in which one page is given over to each of 252 passengers and the driver of a Bakerloo line train as it hurtles towards disaster. Each character is linked in one way to another on the train and a complex network of pain, happiness, frustration and passion is played out in which ever order you wish.
The site is almost old-fashioned in its pure html with few graphics, harking back to a previous age online. At the time (six years ago) some people took 253 and other online fictional experiments to herald the end of the paperback book, which clearly seems premature today. Still, recently there have been lively discussions about fictional blogs spiced-up by with the 'is it/isn't it' debate about Belle de Jour.
The web hasn't killed the book, but I'm certain there is plenty more scope for books to embrace the web than we've seen hitherto. If you feel like being inspired, you could much worse than heading to 253.
April 21, 2004
What happens when someone you've known for years is almost killed in Iraq
I've known BD for over thirty years. He's a US Army reservist who has recently been on a tour of duty in Iraq where this week he was one of the hundreds of US soldiers who have been seriously injured by Iraqi insurgents. Such was the severity of the attack, BD, a College sports coach, had to have his left leg amputated in the field. When I saw the image in the paper of BD upon a stretcher I had to sit down to take it in.
That I'm less than thirty myself may give a clue as to BD's identity: he's a regular in the Doonesbury cartoon strip syndated around the world. That he is fictional makes little difference to the shock I felt: when you see these characters day in day out (I have Doonesbury in my favourites bar in my browser) they are almost indistinguishable from your 'real' acquaintances. It is not a little unlike a soap opera, yet to manage such depth of character from four frames per day is little short of genius; it is no wonder that Garry Trudeau has won the Pulitzer more than once.
For years I never read the strip: it didn't seem funny without knowing the characters. It was only as I was getting bored rigid at work several years back in a former job that I stumbled upon the Doonesbury website and with it, then almost 30 years of strips. Each morning, as lunchtime seemed further and further off I would sneak into the Doonesbury Townhall and work methodically through the years - from Trudeau's 'Bull Tales' whilst he was a student at Yale (and a contemporary of a certain George W Bush), through Watergate, Vietnam, Carter, Reagan and into the nineties. It was what got me through the day: my new found friends at Walden College.
Not long ago an intern from the US started a placement in my office. When I discovered, whilst chatting on the lawn of the local park one lunchtime, that Trudeau was a close family friend I almost fell over. So I am a fan.
Still, to return to today's installment: what made the papers was not the daring of almost killing a character, a staunch Republican at that, in so political a fashion, but whether the papers syndicating the strip would run the Friday issue with the words 'Son of a bitch!' in it. Call me European Guardian-reading liberal, but surely some values have been seriously warped when such comparatively mild language is employed sparingly to so suitable a storyline?
I am certainly not the only reader/fan knocked sidewise by the current story: if you visit the site and head for the 'Blowback' section you see plenty of people with a similar reaction to mine. I'll finish with a quote from two:
T.K.Enright, SLC, UT I don't think Trudeau's ever done anything this seriously. The death of Andy and Dick were both done with a bit of humor (Dick's lingering obsession with ornithology; Andy's exaggerated eulogy). And Ray's Gulf War injury was, too ("Hey, this cheeseburger's a celebrity.") Despite the inexplicable hostility some comics fans feel towards GBT, he handles drama better than any of the soap opera strips.
To me, the helmet coming off today was a bigger deal than the leg. BD never takes his helmet off--not for sex or anything. I vaguely remeber BD once saying removing the helmet was a delicate medical procedure. That Trudeau is so willing to defy his own conventions says a lot about how important the storyline is in the strip's history.
Payton Smith, Washington DC
Wow... The current storyline with BD wounded in Iraq is the most compelling I have seen in more than 30 years of Doonesbury strips. It's a stroke of genius to put the reader inside BD's head while who-knows-what is happening around him -- it captures the confusion, frenzy, and fear of the battlefield in an amazing way for such a simple artistic medium. Very moving.
April 20, 2004
Oh, hobbledehoy... of course
I slept badly last night: shortly after I turned out the light and shortly before I fell asleep, a strange memory floated to the surface briefly, then disappeared. It is a puzzling memory from a decade ago, in which I was not absolutely certain what was going on: unable to read other people's – and particularly one other person's – intentions.
I didn't dream about it, but instead worried about how I was to post an entry to the Commonplace this morning. Half-formed dreams repeatedly harried me with unreturned comments on some nameless but very popular website. Nothing I saw or read really grabbed me yesterday (except the seed of an idea to write on the new Trollope TV adaptation on BBC1 on Sunday evening) and the blogging addiction has been curiously rapid in its annexation of my spare time.
The 19th-century novelist Anthony Trollope almost certainly did not sleep with his friend Kate Field. She liked him. They corresponded frequently. They saw each other as often as they could, which, given that Trollope lived in Britain and Field in America, was not often. Trollope was enough of a public figure to generate some tabloid press over the non-affair. He was happily married, and faithful. For all that, I have no doubt there were times when Anthony and Kate sat across from each other and he wished she would jump out of her chair and into his arms. Kate was stunning, funny, an early feminist, and altogether formidable. He wrote of feeling his heart flutter in her presence. Everything remained platonic – the novelist had often written about hobbledehoys, and at the core of hobbledehoydom there is a commitment to reasonableness, a tempering of one’s acts if not one’s thoughts, all born out of terror in the presence of beautiful women. So he sat. Had he moved at all, Kate might have responded favorably. Who knows? He did not dare. He was a putz, a coward, a Charlie Brown, a hobbledehoy.
On reading this article everything fell neatly into place. Though different in circumstances, this was the word to describe my situation all those years back, and Martinez writes beautifully in exploring what it means to him and to Trollope. For perhaps now I look back, it was in seeing He Knew He Was Right the other day that dislodged the fragment. The hero, Louis Trevelyan, does what he thinks is correct even though he is uncertain how to read his fellow characters or still more importantly express himself effectively.
Trevelyan is a hobbledehoy, though not in quite the same way as Martinez argues Trollope himself was, but he is a 'putz, a coward, a Charlie Brown' all the same, just as I was in that fragment, which now rests back where it belongs.
April 17, 2004
Double Saddam's Doubles
So yesterday I wrote that I was writing a play on a nameless dictator and his doubles. Then I open my copy of the The Guardian newspaper to find a short story by Martin Amis about a dictator and his (many, many more) doubles.
I knew that it was not exactly an original idea so I am not miffed (after all, I don't kid myself that I am challenging Amis fils for a place in the literary pantheon); moreover, I've written in a different medium. I suspect others will be miffed, though. I dimly recall a friend telling me of an novellist chum who had also written a short story with this theme.
In fact, this does give me an idea: I could approach the finely dentured scribbler and suggest that I write on his behalf – a literary doppleganger as it were – taking the critical flak. Then again, recalling the reaction to Yellow Dog, perhaps he has already got one.
April 14, 2004
A much more useful word
Discommend: Dis`com*mend"\, v. t. 1. To mention with disapprobation; to blame; to disapprove. [R.] --Spenser. from Webster's via Dictionary.com
How on earth have I got through my life without this word? Odd really, when you think about it: there always seems much more to discommend than recommend. Look at any list of cinematic 'recommendations' in the newspapers and three weeks in four most films reviewed muster more than a couple of stars (though I'd better not start on the paucity of the star-rating system). Look at any round up of recent fiction: how many receive more than mild approbation for having the jumped-up temerity to put finger to keyboard, let alone posting the resultant ordure to an agent?
No, in sum, discommend is a word we should be using much more often.
(Thanks to Joseph O'Connor and his surprising good Star of the Sea (which I do recommend for use of the word)