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Chris Abani Peter Ackroyd Douglas Adams Scott Adams Keith Altham Paul Au Tom Baker J.G.

Ballard Iain Banks John Battelle John Baxter Samuel Beckett Bellow Thomas Bernhard Maurice Blanchot Jorge Luis Borges Angela Bourke Michael Bracewell Charlie Brooker Charles Bukowski Julie Burchill Jason Bur Bryan Burrough Albert Camus Paul Celan Bruce Chatwin Annabel Chong E.M Cioran Diablo Cody Douglas Coupland Quentin Crisp Mark Danielewski Don D Lillo John C Diamond Stephen Dorril Patricia Duncker Nic Dunlop The Fall Ste fan Fatsis Tibor Fischer Mark Fisher Michael Foot Franz Ferdinand Athol Fuga Anna Funder Alex Garland Harry Gibson William Gibson Allen Ginsberg Grah Greene Peter Guralnick Half Man Half Biscuit Keith Haring Bill Hicks Tom Hod kinson Gert Hofmann Nick Hornby Michel Houellebecq Gary Indiana Derek Ja man Linton Kwesi Johnson Ed Jones Gabriel Josipovici Kevin Kelly Naomi Kl Rem Koolhaas Kruder And Dorfmeister Andrey Kurkov Emma Larkin Abby Le Wyndham Lewis Jack London Leo Marks David Markson Gabriel Garcia Marq Bertie Marshall Cedric Mims Alan Moore Morrissey Patricia Morrisroe Cookie Mueller Ben Myers Jeff Noon Cees Nooteboom Angus Oblong Will Oldham P.J ORourke Lawrence OToole Chuck Palahniuk Tim Parks Arvo Prt Ulf Poscha Richard Powers Thomas Pynchon Matthew Robertson Bruce Robinson Jacqu Roubaud Robert Sabbag Peter Saville Alberto Sciamma WG Sebald Will Self Tupac Shakur Mark Simpson Iain Sinclair Michael Marshall Smith Sonic Youth Ralph Steadman Suicide Damo Suzuki Swans David Sylvian David Thomas (P Ubu)Hunter S. Thompson Colm Tibn Amos Tutuola Stuart Walton Alan Warn Evelyn Waugh Belinda Webb Irvine Welsh The White Stripes Tony Wilson Chr

15 Years of

Books, Music, Art, Ideas

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Introduction

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What Is Spike Magazine


Chris Mitchell

And What Is In This PDF?


Spike Magazine is a collection of interviews, features and book reviews with and about various authors, artists and musicians from 1995 to 2010. I originally set up the site to publish my own reviews and interviews, and it snowballed from there. Spike has had a small army of contributors over the years, all of whom are listed on the Spike Roll Of Honour. Thank you to each and every one of you. I had no set criteria about what should be in Spike Magazine, except whether I found it personally interesting. As such, its a glorious mess of the high brow and low brow. Certain themes kept coming up again and again sex, drugs, post-war French philosophy and certain writers kept reappearing too, notably J.G. Ballard, Will Self, Douglas Coupland, Irvine Welsh, Jeff Noon and Hunter S. Thompson. Given Spike has been around for 15 years, and given an actual real book anthology would be financially cataclysmic, this snazzy PDF built by my good friend and Spike contributor Jason Weaver was the best way to showcase 150 of Spikes articles. Theres over 400 more interviews, reviews and features on the website, so consider this a sampler of Spike Magazine and a gateway into exploring the rest of the website.
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How This PDF Works


With 150 articles, it was decided that simply arranging everything alphabetically by the authors surname was the easiest way to go. The tab down the right hand edge lets you jump to any letter, and theres an overview of the articles in each letters section waiting for you. Each of the articles are hyperlinked from there. Work your way through the PDF methodically, or make with the clicky and see what happens.

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Introduction

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How Spike Magazine Got Started


Chris Mitchell

I first had the idea for Spike while I was doing my MA at the University Of Sussex in 1995. My co-conspirator in helping me initially figure out what Spike should be was Adam Baron, who has subsequently gone on to write four bestselling novels but perhaps still remains most lauded as the author of The Man Whose Penis Made Him Locally Famous. Im not sure why I called it Spike - the retrospective explanation I came up with was because I was fed up of getting my work spiked by magazines, so I put it online. And it sounded sharp, as in razor sharp criticism. But I think it had as much to do with being a huge fan of Spike Milligan too. Publishing online seemed a way to finally get my writing actually out there, even though in 1995, there werent that many people on the internet. I had just discovered the web thanks to my friend and mentor Dave Pearce, who had quickly latched on to how revolutionary the web was going to be-

come and had invested in at-the-time outrageously expensive ISDN lines so he could get something approaching a speedy browsing connection. He had created the still-burgeoning HedWeb.com which proposed then-radical ideas about paradise engineering. Heroically Dave allowed me to come round his house and spend hours gazing at his computer monitor in fascination at all these webpages that were being created by people everywhere. (Ok, mainly in the US. But it felt like everywhere). He also taught me HTML (or at least passed me a doorstop sized HTML manual with a smile) and has hosted Spike on his own webserver since its inception. Without Dave, Spike wouldnt have happened, and, given every job Ive had since 1997 revolves around the internet, I think I owe my career to him too. Thanks Dave. I remember thinking there was very little about books or literature on the web it seemed like a chance to get in at the beginning of something. I

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was already a frustrated books and music journalist, collecting my first rejection slips from UK magazines. My break into writing for real came in the form of the formidable Polly Marshall, who ran the spectacular spoken word club Do Tongues, which got in everyone from Ken Campbell to Helen Zahavi to Will Self to Tony Benn. She also was the Literary Editor for Brightons version of Time Out, Punter magazine (now The Latest). I started writing book reviews for Polly, and was given the phone numbers of numerous book publicists at the major publishing houses who I then plagued for review copies and author interviews for the next couple of years. Back then, explaining the idea of a literary website was hard work, and I thank every long-suffering publicist who took me on faith and sent me books. Special thanks goes to Karen Duffy, then at the now defunct Harper Collins imprint Flamingo, who provided a lot of encouragement and good humour. Spike quickly gained momentum thanks to the contributions, both written and pub-inspired, of other friends in Brighton, especially Chris Hall, Nick Clapson, Jason Weaver, and Stephen Mitchelmore. Steve posted a lot to Spikes blog Splinters and became a bit of a mentor as well as he introduced me

to some of Europes most fascinating writers, particularly Maurice Blanchot and Thomas Bernhard. Perhaps most importantly he introduced me to The Day Today. Steve continues to blog today at This Space. As Spike grew, contributions came in from scores of writers from all over the globe. Many of them I have sadly still yet to meet in person, but fond memories of seeing REM at Stirling Castle with Spike contributor Gary Marshall and several huge nights out in Melbourne with Antipodeanexiled correspondent Jayne Margetts makes me wish it happened more often. In December 2002, I decided to leave the UK and go travelling in Australia for six months. Eight years later, Im still travelling around Asia, and Im now based in Bangkok, Thailand. I write mainly for scuba diving magazines, and run the travel websites Travelhappy.info and Divehappy. com. Theres a coffee table book on the way that Ive written with my friend and ace photographer Jez Tryner called Thailands Underwater World. If any Spike contributor makes it out here to Bangkok, dinner and drinks are on me. As Ive become more involved with scuba diving and traveling, whilst being virtually cut off from the UK literary scene, Ive spent less time

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on Spike in recent years. However, the enthusiasm of longtime contributors like Ben Granger, Greg Lowe and Dan Coxon have kept my interest going, and introduced me to writers I would otherwise never heard of. Meanwhile, numerous superb British literary sites have joined Spike on the Web in recent years, as showcased at BritLitBlogs.com. Steve Kelly at the now archived Richmond Review, the UKs first online literary magazine, provided a lot of good advice to me and led the way to the rest of us becoming, if not respectable, then at least tolerated. In the 15 years since SpikeMagazine.com first appeared, the internet has fundamentally changed the way that people access, understand and enjoy

great books. At its best, it has provided a significant boost to authors whose work might otherwise get lost, and a way for them to find their own audience. Spike has been a small and erratic part of that, propelled by the enthusiasm and passion of its contributors, and much of whats been written on the site still stands up well years after it was first published. If youve read Spike before, I hope you enjoy revisiting through this anthology and if youre new to Spike, I hope youll stay in touch and see what comes next. Chris Mitchell Bangkok, October 2010 chris@spikemagazine.com

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Chris Abani: Becoming Abigail Peter Ackroyd: London: The Biography Douglas Adams: The Salmon Of Doubt

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Scott Adams: Dilbert: Seven Years of Highly Defective People Keith Altham: No More Mr Nice Guy! Paul Auster: Oracle Night

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Review [published March 2008] Jason Weaver

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Chris Abani: Becoming Abigail


In the UK right now, there is a real taste for true-life biographies about child abuse. Every bookshop has a section dedicated to small volumes with titles like Please Daddy No and A Child Called It. The covers usually feature black-and-white photos of sad-faced kids and the titles are in a hand-scrawled font. I suspect that the decline of the horror genre is connected to an appetite for these altogether more real stories. Its redolent of Alan Partridge: Id like to understand mans inhumanity to man and then make a programme about it. On the face of it, Chris Abanis novella Becoming Abigail should fit right in there. It is ostensibly about the traumas and abuses suffered by a young Nigerian girl caught up in the skin trade. Except that it isnt just about sex trafficking. Nor should it be. Abani is a thoughtful author who, through the style of his writing, is at pains to avoid further exploitation of the topic through prurient entertainment. During interviews, Abani is both urgent and polemical about the issue, stating that sex trafficking, after guns and drugs, is the third largest growth industry in the world. The author is well-researched and the facts of his story are plausible. Yet he pointedly avoids the documentary approach the subject might automatically warrant. Instead he offers a poem. In 34 short cantos, Becoming Abigail seems, at first, to be bluntly indicative, short lines expressing fact: And Peter came every day. Twice a day. At dawn. At dusk. To feed and water her. With rotting food. Rancid water. Sometimes his piss. By the tenth day she no longer cared. Couldnt tell the difference. The truest thing about Becoming Abigail is a lack of sentimentality. Though poetic, the narrative style is measured, its emotional veracity spot on. Although Abigail is a character with a palpable soul, the more traumatic events are often rendered almost blandly, as if cauterized by shock. As a small child, she is untouched by grief over her mothers death. It begins to emerge later, through her games and behaviour. Abani seems to be saying that we cannot process such drastic experiences until we have developed the resources to deal with them. So, trauma resides in us until we have figured out the puzzle it has set us. This explains the

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numbness towards our own suffering and the time lag until we truly begin to feel it. It grants us resilience, protecting us. It might also suggest that sex trafficking is a societal trauma which needs to develop a process to deal with it. Books such as this might offer a way. A relationship of time actually structures the novella, which flips between chapters headed Now and Then. Things begin with a charged description of her mothers funeral. Yet, Abigail notes, her mother died in child birth, so she couldnt have witnessed it herself. But if the memory is factually false, it still has emotional impact and influences the girls identity. In this way, Becoming Abigail explores how memory and the way we account for our experiences define who we are. This sounds complex, yet Abanis technique is works on us without abstraction. Abigail speaks to us directly. The intransitive word becoming is the key here. The book is about the liminal state between things the gap between girl and woman, male and female, past and present, Nigeria and England, the space where things are undefined, as with a trauma which is yet to be recognized. The book begins with the word And, a broken conjunctive alerting us to the incomplete nature of things here. In critic Melissa Reburianos words, identity is not product but process. In this sense, we are always in flux, always in a state of becoming. The novel dramatizes the heroines attempts to navigate these relationships in her struggle to become Abigail.

Simply put, this is a radical reworking of the comingof-age novel. The becoming of the title is encoded with ambiguity. The girl is the spitting image of her dead mother, also called Abigail, a ghost who haunts the book. The childs attempts to define herself against her parents is complicated by the guilt she feels over her mothers death, creating a myth almost impossible to overcome. The title dramatizes the push and pull of becoming either the mother-Abigail others would like her to be or an Abigail of her own choosing. The title also functions as an adjective, raising the question of what is becoming or fitting for a girl like Abigail. Her father sends her to London because he thinks it will be good for her. The book is filled with others expectations of how she should dress, behave and so on. These struggles are further impacted by the expectations of men who here define themselves against women. Her father suffers great depression at his wifes death. She is portrayed as a kind of crutch which propped him up, a role which passes to his daughter. Through his daughters independence, the father loses his wife again. This will have disastrous consequences. In writing the book, Abani tried to evacuate his masculinity, attempting to write from a womans point of view rather than becoming yet another male expectation of Abigails behaviour. In this sense, the novel contextualizes sex trafficking within

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the confines placed on womens existence by men. Abigail is no fool. She knows at an early age what men can be like. It is important to show that she is faced with circumstances over which she can exercise little personal defence and from which others have failed to protect her. The boundaries of her life offer Abigail little room to manoeuvre. Aspects of Becoming Abigail remind me of Mrs Dalloway. An interior consciousness creates a resonant cluster of poetic images which acts as critique of patriarchal control. Maps, poems, the body, needles, all are densely interconnected and new relationships are discovered on re-reading. The second time around, for example, totally transforms the hiss of a cigarette as it hits the Thames, imbued now with knowledge of the decision that Abigail is trying to make. One of her own favourite images is from a Chinese tea ceremony, where a lotus flowers. It might stand for how the unexpected developments in the story unfold layer after layer. As with Woolfs novel, an authoritarian doctor fails to avert tragedy by rubbishing a characters mental distress. There is also the London location and the way icons of government and empire are personalized and subverted. On the Embankment, the phallic Cleopatras Needle is gently ridiculed. The lions have been placed the wrong way round and Queen Victoria wont foot the bill to have them put right. Abani does London very well. At one point, Abigail stands on the International

Date Line at Greenwich, itself a symbol of colonial over-mapping of the world, and marvels that such a thin line can separate time. This is a literal symbol of how time and place are fictionally mapped. The line is a lie, Abigail often riffs. It is intriguing to see London portrayed through the eyes of the other. Greenwich Market is described in the exotic terms of a souk. Abigail rides the tube when she first arrives in London, noting with surprise the variety of white faces. At the station, she hears the mantra Mind the Gap, almost a slogan for the interstitial theme of the novel: Bad people didnt bother her. Like good people they were a known quantity. It wasnt even the loose possibility of these that bothered her. It was the struggle against either side. That was where the danger lay. What was it Abigail used to tell her? A house divided, thats the dangerous place. She smiled suddenly. Abigail couldnt have told her anything. The Thames location also recalls Heart of Darkness, although here the tide flows the opposite way and the slave trade is given an ironic twist. The book is full of subtle but awful ironies. The image of a dog peeing on a statue, the building of a doghouse later proves to be more brutal than it appeared and a joke about how the French see Africans as animals to be tamed whereas the English dont see them at all resonates through the latter part of the book. The worst irony of all is that British social services thinks it knows whats becoming for

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Abigail and defines her as a victim. Her relationship with her care worker, the only man with whom she truly glimpses her own identity, is vilified and taken away from her. The removal of this love is, it seems, crueller to Abigail than the brutalities she has endured. It is vital that the novel itself does equally reduce Abigail to victim, the passive casualty of events. Instead, Abani juxtaposes the blunt, indicative style of writing with Abigails own subjunctive voice, aching with imagination and wishes. Her passions are aroused mainly by the experiences she longs for, those she desires and craves to make her who she aspires to be. She is never simply hostage to her experiences. Like all of us, her behaviour is self-consciously modified. Abigail is a character who muses on her own character, without the Postmodern sleight of hand that might imply. Telling stories is what we do, Abani seems to argue, who we are. It is inevitable, inexorable, that Abigail works herself out in this way. Even in the most meagre circumstances, we cannot help but be human. Because of this, there is always some anchor to the flux, some kind of residual persona: These things just happen. Ije uwa, as the Igbos would say. Ones walk in this life. Interesting that the Igbo dont believe the path to be fixed, or even problematic. It is the particular idiosyncrasies of the player, not the deck or the dealer, that hold the key. Personality always sways the outcome of the game.

I find it hard to be critical of a book like this. Its poetic density roots in the imagination and flowers, giving it a perennial afterlife. You live with it and Abigails memories mingle with your own. Which is, I think, the very interplay between identity and the fictional process that Abani is trying to achieve. Abigails character has an emotional veracity for us in the same way that she must deal with the processes of her own memory. Like the ghost of her mother, Abigail begins to haunt our imagination, which is a more effective way of dramatizing the horror of sex trafficking than browbeating us with atrocity and data. Our sense of loss is personal, our empathy more deeply entwined and Abigail is retrieved from a dehumanized roll call of names and numbers. We might think here of efforts to replace statistics with photographs and biographies of those who died in the Holocaust. Hope lies in trying to unthink the unthinkable rather than complying with a mathematics which makes it possible. This poetic meditation on identity is crucial to a deeper understanding of the full cost of human trafficking, which has implications for our tolerance for brutality disguised behind statistics. Becoming Abigail is a tough book that wishes to avoid false comfort to the reader. Yet in exploring the dynamics of its characters psyche, it insists on hope. Towards the end of the book, Abigail reflects on her experiences in light of her cultural background: Second chances are a fact of life for the Igbo. A

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person who lived poor and was buried poor can, when a relative makes enough money, receive a second burial. Full of the pomp and grandeur reserved for the rich. So even in death, in Hades, the dead one can get a chance to taste the wealth that eluded him in his previous incarnation, perhaps sweetening the deal for his next one. For Abigail, true wealth lies in a relationship of

equals, in being noticed as a person and not as a thing, in wanting to give rather than being forced to take, in becoming a human being against dehumanizing forces. We are like the rich relatives who can, by paying attention to the trafficking industry, eventually sweeten the deal for the women to come. By writing this novel, Chris Abani suggests how the Abigails of this world can be given a second chance.

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Review [published February 2001] Chris Hall

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Peter Ackroyd: London: The Biography


Those who have read Peter Ackroyds Dan Leno and The Limehouse Golem will recall that the word golem comes from the medieval Jewish for an artificial human being brought to life by supernatural means, a thing without form. Ackroyds latest book, London: The Biography, has itself managed to breathe life into a seemingly formless city a tangible sense of London as a living organism permeates this remarkable work. Indeed, even the endpapers show seven phases in the evolution of Old London Bridge, 1209-1831, perhaps a subtle reinforcement of his idea that London is a living organism, that it has a human shape, echoing the seven stages of man. He has a strong faith in London as a palimpsest: London has always been an ugly city It has always been rebuilt, and demolished, and vandalised one of the characteristics of London planners and builders, over the centuries, has been the recklessness with which they have destroyed the citys past. There is a fascination with London as a built environment (after all, he does say that London is made half of stone half of flesh), of what London does to its citizens. There is the novelists sensibility here, looking for form: The emphasis upon finance is sustained by the enquiry of the late 20th-century prostitute, Do you want any business? London: The Biography rings with the citys peculiar echoic quality which Ackroyd is always attuned to. He writes that the London Eye has its precursor in the 17th century at Bartholomews Fair, and that following the GLCs abolition in 1986 in effect London resumed its ancient life, with the separate boroughs affirming distinct and different identities. For Ackroyd, it is this historical imperative that shapes London. Whenever the opportunity and location are offered, it replicates its identity. It is a blind force in that sense, not susceptible to the blandishments of planners or politicians Temporal simultaneity to Ackroyd is as real as the Thames, flowing through time as well as space. He is quick to point out that contemporary theorists have suggested that linear time is itself a figment of the human imagination. Indeed, his book itself moves quixotically through time forming a labyrinth, and

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can be explored from a multitude of entry points. The book is arranged into themes such as London as theatre, crime and punishment, London as crowd, Londons radicals, and for every main thoroughfare of London: The Biography there are scores of delightful or macabre side streets to wander down. Take the following list of synonyms for prostitutes, which reads like a bizarre incantation: smuts, cracks, mawkes, trulls, trugmoldies, bunters, does, punchable nuns, molls, Mother Midnights, blowzes, buttered buns, squirrels Within each theme we have Ackroyds compendious learning tripping the switches between past and present. He is no Eric Hobsbawm or Asa Briggs, he is neither ideologue nor pedagogue, instead it is through anecdote and vivid description that we are led through labyrinthine London. Of course, any thesis that London, as it were, imprints itself on its citizens is going to occasionally sound

overblown: London drives some of its citizens mad. A psychiatric survey in the 70s revealed that cases of depressive illness were three times higher in the East End than in the rest of the country. But these criticisms, like pointing out lacunae, miss the point, for in a very real sense, as he himself says at one point, there are 7 million versions of London being written everyday. This is very much the book that Ackroyd has been building up to, or even the one that he was born to write, prefiguring it in his biographies (Blake, Dickens) and fiction (The Great Fire of London, Hawksmoor). London: The Biography doesnt just have sources, it has an essay on sources, and at over 800 pages you might be forgiven for buying the audio version read by Simon Callow (who is also, incidentally, appearing as Dickens in Ackroyds The Mystery of Charles Dickens). Ackroyd has put in a heroic amount of research, and it would be churlish indeed to disabuse his book of its definite article.

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Review [published October 2003] Ian Hocking

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Douglas Adams: The Salmon Of Doubt


When I was 12, I bought a text-adventure game called The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy for my Amiga 500 computer. The box had Dont Panic! written in large, friendly letters on the front and showed a green alien sticking its tongue out. Inside was a floppy disk, planning permission for a hyperspace bypass that would require the demolition of the Earth, some pocket fluff, and Joo-Janta 500 Super-Chromatic Peril-Sensitive Sunglasses (which become opaque when the wearer gets scared). The game was written by Douglas Adams. I decided to buy the BBC Radio series on which the game was based. By the time I was 14, I could recite no joke the entire six hours of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Both radio series, including the opening and closing credits. My sound effects were particularly good. The author of Hitchhiker is, of course, Douglas Adams. Adams died suddenly on May 11th, 2001. Within days his agent got hold of his hard drive, had someone scan it for text documents, burn them to a CD, and set this posthumous publication in motion: The Salmon Of Doubt. This book has the potential to be excruciating. It seems unfair on Adams because many of the fiction vignettes, non-fiction pieces, emails, and transcribed speeches were never intended for publication. But this misses the point. We know Adams would not have published them; we dont expect another Hitchhikers Guide (though a marketing wag has written Hitchhiking The Galaxy One Last Time on the cover where Douglas is dead: Dont Panic would be more appropriate). The result is a collection of insights into a remarkable writer, one who suffered from writers block, did not suffer from deadlines (The thing I most love about deadlines is the whooshing sound they make as they go past), and had a passionate interest in saving endangered species. The books title is taken from Adamss unfinished Dirk Gently detective novel. Dirk Gently appears in the post-Hitchhiker works Dirk Gentlys Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Teatime Of The Soul. Gently is a typical Adams character: based on someone Adams knew, but when Gently talks, Adams speaks. The unfinished Gently novel is good, though it does contain

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a number of placeholders to which Adams was no doubt intending to return. Its characters are literally undernourished but Gently is on form. However, reading this unfinished novel is either an exercise is breaking your heart (if you are a fan) or an unwanted look into the writers world where the effortlessness of the final manuscript is a lie based upon plot dead-ends, jokes that dont work, and a rhinoceros called Desmond. Inside this book you will also find a letter from a 12-year-old Adams to the editors of The Eagle magazine, an article about testing an artificial manta-ray off

Australia, an email to the American producer of the thus-far unproduced Hitchhiker film, an obituary by Adamss friend, Richard Dawkins, several interviews, no planning permission for the destruction of the Earth, and no peril-sensitive sunglasses of any description. Reading this book is misery. With each eloquentlyphrased and humorous comment, one begins to panic; who is there to take the piss out of life now that Douglas is dead? It is possible that other writers will continue to write in the same manner, but, for me, there remains a doubt; just a salmon of it.

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Review [published June 1998] Chris Mitchell

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Scott Adams: Dilbert: Seven Years Of Highly Defective People


Dilbert is rapidly becoming enough of a cartoon icon to rival the fame of Disneys most enduring creations. Chronicling the trials of a hapless IT engineer battling against the absurdities of corporate life, the Dilbert comic strip appears in over 1500 newspapers worldwide. Seven Years Of Highly Defective People is creator Scott Adams guided tour of the evolution of Dilbert from geek mascot to unlikely international idol. The book assembles strips from all stages of Dilberts genesis with comments scrawled in the margin by Adams as to what was going through his mind at the time. Each of the major characters, such as Dilberts megalomaniacal canine companion Dogbert and the witless Pointy-Haired Boss, get their own chapters with a brief essay about how and why they appeared in the strip. Thanks to this candid overview, its easy to see why Dilbert wasnt an overnight success when the strip first appeared in 1989. Adams drew heavily on his eight years at Pacific Bell as an applications engineer for inspiration, with many of the jokes revolving around Dilberts inherent nerdhood. It was a cult form of humour for IT professionals which didnt sit easily alongside the likes of Peanuts. However, with the widespread infiltration of personal computers into the workplace during the 90s, more and more people began to find Dilberts daily dilemmas strangely familiar, especially those which concerned working for a manager who understood nothing about technology. The most popular Dilbert strip ever features his boss being given an Etch-A-Sketch in place of a laptop and not noticing anything amiss. Adams cannily gauges his audiences reaction to new threads in the Dilbert saga by including his email address in the margin of each cartoon. As such, an avalanche of Dilbertesque anecdotes arrives in his inbox each morning from disgruntled employees all over the globe. Adams freely admits in Seven Years to using many of these stories as the basis for his strips, producing the peculiar circularity of Dilbert imitating life imitating Dilbert. Adams has even gone as far as to have the readers vote by e-mail as to whether Ratbert should get pulverised with a hammer. (They thankfully voted no). The amount of feedback Adams receives from his

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readers seems due to Dilberts essentially subversive nature. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than on the burgeoning Dilbert web site, where there is an ever-growing list of draconian companies who have banned Dilbert cartoons from being displayed on

cubicle walls because theyre considered bad for morale. Seven Years Of Highly Defective People is a concentrated dose of forbidden fun which deserves to be kept in the bottom drawer of any self-respecting office workers desk.

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Review [published December 2001] Robin Askew

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Keith Altham: No More Mr Nice Guy!


At home with Sting. The in-no-way-narcissistic rainforest dwellers friend and tantric sex enthusiast is looking for a space in his sitting room to hang a giant self-portrait. Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear that this will not match the decor. Eventually, Mrs Sting, Trudie Styler, suggests that it should go in the bathroom in place of a print of the Salvador Dal painting titled The Great Masturbator. After all, she reasons, it will just be replacing one wanker with another. For 25 years, Keith Altham was a friend of the stars, as they say, first as a journalist on the NME and then as PR man for many of the biggest names in rock, from Rod Stewart to Van Morrison and Paul Weller to Ray Davies. He regressed from representing to Rolling Stones in the 60s to Orville the bloody duck in the 90s, at which point he wisely decided to jack it all in. Rather than writing an autobiography, hes chosen to spill the beans on his pop star chums in the rather cheesy format of individual letters addressed to each of his former clients. (To Van Morrison: What can I say? What a talent. What a singer. What a songwriter. What a pain in the arse!) In many ways, this is a bloody awful book: poorly written, littered with typos and spelling errors and reeking of self-aggrandisement. But Altham really was at the centre of it all during the 60s and 70s. It was he who suggested to Jimi Hendrix the idea of setting a guitar on fire. And in one of the great forgotten footnotes of rock history, he once took Jim Morrison to see Status Quo (Tell them to turn down, give up and go home, sneered the Lizard King). If youre prepared to endure the leaden prose, theres a huge reservoir of great stories here. Altham particularly admires Sting, despite Mr Sumners propensity to be such a humourless prat, and seems to have preferred the company of down-to-earth heavy metallers like Saxon and Uriah Heep, although he loathed their music. Fortunately, he doesnt allow these personal friendships to prevent him telling yarns that show them in a considerably less than flattering light. Many of these sail very close to the wind indeed. Mlearned friends may wish to examine his introduction for what would appear to be a libellous statement about that

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nice, well-adjusted Michael Jackson. Connoisseurs will already be familiar with the one about a typically dishevelled Van Morrison turning up late for a party (Did anyone order a minicab? shouted the unfortunate who answered the door), and the message Rod Stewart carved into a tabletop when he learned that Sting was to be the next user of the Lear jet he was travelling in (Sting, how come you aint go no sense of humour, you cunt?). But whod have guessed that underneath his carefully cultivated likeable exterior, Phil Collins seethes with rage at being perceived as the nice man of pop? Eventually, he snapped when an unchallenging interviewer asked whether he was really as nice as he seems: Why dont you ask my ex-wife? For celebrity bitchiness, look no further than Elton Johns wedding present to Rod Stewart of a 10 gift voucher with instructions to buy something nice for the home. And for a real surprise, turn to the chapter on the Moody Blues behaving badly, which features a naked, comatose young woman wedged securely into a washbasin by her arse while Graeme Edge fires arrows at policemen whove been called out to investigate the mild-mannered prog-rockers raucous partying.

Best stories? Well, theres a great one about Marc Bolan being evicted from the backstage area of a Rolling Stones gig for sexually molesting Mick Jagger. Get him out of here, bellowed the indignant leathery Stone. He just grabbed my balls. I didnt realise they were sacrosanct, responded the Electric Elf as he was marched away by burly security guards. But by a whisker, the accolade has to go to Terence Trent DArby, the silly twisted boy whose fall from public favour was even more meteoric than his rise. DArby seems to have crammed plenty of overindulgence into his brief brush with fame, but one episode proved too much for his female manager. She resigned when he rang her late at night in her hotel room demanding that she procure condoms for his latest female acquaintance. It seems this sexually provocative performer was too embarrassed to make the purchase himself. But before leaving, the manager phoned down to reception in their five-star hotel, whose staff were made of sterner stuff. Without batting an eyelid, the servile concierge entered the celebs bedchamber bearing a silver platter on which a selection of small foil packets were arranged tastefully and asked if madam would care to make her selection.

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Review [published March 2005] Stephen Mitchelmore

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Paul Auster: Oracle Night


Oracle Night is the first Paul Auster novel Ive read since Leviathan in 1992. Until then, I had read every book. This was not a difficult feat. Auster is supremely readable. In fact, I am afflicted by an unusual inability to stop reading him once a book is begun. However, in the end, with Leviathan, I felt this was too much. I read it abnormally quickly, devouring each page with less and less concern for what was written on it than for getting beyond that page and to the next page, and the next, to see what was there. After the last page I was mentally exhausted, nursing a headache. It seems significant that I have no memory of the narrative except for the mental image of a forest to which a character perhaps the main character removes himself. The proliferation of anecdotes or stories within stories means one cant see the wood for the trees. The experience of reading Oracle Night is very similar. Its almost impossible to put the book down as there are so many compelling stories, one after the other, even though this is a relatively compact novel (240 pages). Im sure Ill forget most of the stories, but that isnt important. Nor is Austers distinctly unpretentious prose style important. If you wince at clichs like back in the swing of things and to all intents and purposes that appear on the first half page alone, think of them as stabilisers for the roller coaster ride ahead. (Elsewhere, I read that Auster breaks through his writers block by typing regardless of the banality of the prose.) There are two central narratives in Oracle Night both told by Sidney Orr, a New York writer recovering from an unnamed illness that was expected to kill him. He hadnt written anything in a year until discovering a blue notebook in a small stationery shop (that isnt stationary at all in fact. It disappears overnight.) Anyway, the new notebook somehow enables Orr to write a story. Much of Oracle Night is that story. I dont want to summarise the plot here as it is characteristically involved and would also detract from the essential element of Austers novels. The essential thing is something impossible to convey outside of the narrative itself: the evocation of possibility. At each step in the story when Orr enters the stationery store to discover the blue notebook, when he returns to his

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writing den, when he begins to write the story in the blue notebook as if compelled by an occult power, and when, in the story within the story, the character makes a life-changing decision there is a thrilling, uncanny sense of freedom. I mean, for the reader. A freedom in infinite possibility; innumerable futures present themselves. I have not experienced this so acutely with any other writer. Its there too in the opening lines of The Music Of Chance: Jim Nashe driving away from his past after a windfall of cash. After that, the story takes shape and the sense diminishes. Until then, however, no particular story is attached to the sense of freedom. Anything can happen. We are free. The beginning of the story is our windfall. So why is do we feel an urge to continue reading rather than to throw the book aside and live that freedom? Probably because we prefer the illusion of freedom, the possibility of freedom rather than the real thing. We read to enjoy the specific story that replaces the vertigo of infinite freedom. As with a horror movie, we arent really horrified. Horror is only the playful withdrawal of a guaranteed safety. And narrative is the guarantee. With a novel, we know we have a circumscribed adventure before us. Yet that narrative also makes our freedom come true for a moment, even if it is only an illusion. The open future may contain infinite possibilities but it never

seems to happen for real. Consumed by habit, we lose contact with our freedom. Reading, or watching a film, reminds us of possibility even as it is removed. And in that reminder, it comes true. The obscure attraction of a book or a film might be, then, the pleasure of contact with possibility and relief in its withdrawal. But such pleasure has a double edge of course. Indulgence in stories removes us from life; takes us to the end of possibility. Austers narrative is, as Ive said, compelling. It is compelling but in the end doesnt satisfy the indulgent reader. Oracle Night could go on for another thousand pages. Perhaps it does as Austers complete oeuvre. Yet it does stop. Although, actually, it doesnt quite. The story within the story is not concluded. It is shocking and frustrating for the reader. One wants to know how the author Sidney Orr and the author Paul Auster resolve a chilling situation. At the end though Orr explains why it is left hanging and we realise that it stops precisely for the reason we dont want it to stop. It is difficult to accept, yet not because it is wrong. This has angered and confused naive readers; those untroubled by stories. For instance, Aaron Hughes asks the right questions but asks them only of Oracle Night rather than literature in general. What does it mean, for example, to say that Oracle Night is not a success when the nature of success in literary terms is fundamental to the narrative itself? The answers present

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themselves in the novel under review. When you pick up a novel you become a reader, not a consumer. Orr describes burning the blue notebook in order to escape its mysterious power; in order to flee the nightmare of possibilities it summoned. Indeed, the end of the novel seems overladen with terrible events. Orr writes: The true story started only then, after I destroyed the blue notebook. We might compare this with something Auster or should we say Orrster? wrote in The Invention Of Solitude at the very beginning of his career following after death of his father: For the past two weeks, these lines from Maurice Blanchot echoing in my head: One thing must be understood: I have said nothing extraordinary or even surprising. What is extraordinary begins at the moment

I stop. But I am no longer able to speak of it. [from Death Sentence] To begin with death. To work my way back into life, and then, finally, to return to death. In Oracle Night, we joined Sidney Orr working his way back into life from the brink of death working, that is, by writing. Yet the main symptom of his unnamed illness was dizziness, where the world became blurred and incoherent: a world without form. Almost as if language and meaning had been removed from his life. It took the discovery of the blue notebook and the writing of the new story to return him to both. But that only returns threatens another death, the death of possibility. It is Austers rare achievement to keep possibility alive and kicking even as it suffers a death by a thousand plots.

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Tom Baker: Who On Earth Is Tom Baker? J.G. Ballard J.G. Ballard: Entertaining Violence J.G. Ballard: Prophet With Honour J.G. Ballard: Future Shock J.G. Ballard: Not A Literary Man J.G. Ballard: Flight And Imagination J.G. Ballard: Cocaine Nights J.G. Ballard: Extreme Metaphor

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Thomas Bernhard: Failing To Go Under Thomas Bernhard: Playing Dead Maurice Blanchot: Nowhere Without No Maurice Blanchot: The Absent Voice Body Modification: Remake, Remodel Jorge Luis Borges: The Book Of Imaginary Beings Angela Bourke: The Burning Of Bridget Cleary Michael Bracewell: England Is Mine Charlie Brooker: Screen Burn Charles Bukowski: Born Into This

Iain M. Banks: Getting Used To Being God 054 Adam Baron: The Man Whose Penis Made Him Locally Famous John Battelle: The Search John Baxter: George Lucas: A Biography Samuel Beckett: Beyond Biography Saul Bellow: Ravelstein 059 062 065 067 071

Julie Burchill: Sugar Rush Julie Burchill: Hurricane Julie Jason Burke: Al Qaeda Bryan Burrough: Dragonfly

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Review [published March 2000] Robin Askew

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Tom Baker: Who On Earth Is Tom Baker?


At the risk of turning into one of those dreadful 30-something nostalgia bores, the Tom Baker incarnation of Dr Who has a special place in the hearts of those of my generation. Forever fixed in my mind is the time I queued for hours with hundreds of other grubby pre-teens in a smalltown bookshop awaiting the arrival of the great man to sign books he hadnt written. The cops sealed off the high street, which was lined with kiddies wondering where the Tardis would materialise to disgorge the tousle-haired timelord. Suddenly he appeared, striding down the middle of the road in full Who garb, dishing out jelly babies to the gobsmacked hordes. My illusions took a slight dent a few years back when I saw one of those unbroadcastable out-take reels BBC technicians compile to amuse one another at Christmas, in which Baker was shown getting saucy with an assistant and taking the piss out of K9. But thats as nothing compared to the revelations in this indiscreet autobiography. It seems Bakers worst enemy during his years of national fame wasnt the Daleks, the Cybermen, or any of the other low-budget latex terrors, but the Shagmonster. And like all the best monsters, this one turned out to be gasp! himself. While we were on our tours about the country to promote the programme, I was often pulled by women who were keen fantasists, he confesses, introducing tales of hotel room bondage sessions (A good few of these women wanted to whip or cane me) and general pervery (a university don insisted on wearing his costume, and as she threw herself wantonly on to the wide Holiday Inn bed she growled, Come on, Doctor, lets travel through space). Alas, the man with the sonic screwdriver had no advanced defence against venereal disease, and soon contracted a dose of the clap. Dr Who enthusiasts may initially be disappointed to find that the programme doesnt get its first mention until page 189, but to skip the first 15 chapters would be to miss a real treat since Baker seems determined to show himself in the least flattering light imaginable, as if to demonstrate the veracity of a remark he once overheard: Hes quite nice. But theres something odd about him, something slightly disgusting. The book opens in wartime Liverpool, where poverty-stricken

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young master Baker prayed for a bomb to drop on his mother so hed be orphaned and eligible for treats from the Americans. By the age of nine hed become a thurible swinger and learned to fake tears at funerals to get bigger tips. A year later, he discovered the joys of solvent abuse (I couldnt walk past a tin of floor polish without having a furtive snort), which helped set him on the path to a lifetime of misery and self-loathing, abetted by National Service, the National Theatre and a failed attempt to please his family by becoming a monk. A recurring theme is that common actors lament, the lack of any sense of identity, which isnt helped by the fact that hes so frequently mistaken for Jon Pertwee, Jonathan Miller and bizarrely Shirley Williams. But although hes understandably irked to be accosted by strangers about the havoc he wreaked on the grammar schools, Baker seems curiously flattered when people remark, as they often do, that he reminds them of a favourite aunt. Not that they want to be around him for long. Im afraid I have no gift for friendship, he writes at one point. I quickly get tired of people and off they go. Only the other day I tried to think of a single friend I had made in my life and drew a blank. But while Baker wallows in his own perversely appealing creepiness, he doesnt get anywhere near an answer to the question posed by the books title. His long-suffering wives, who might have been invited to

shed some light on this mystery, get the briefest of walk-on parts barely a paragraph in the case of Lalla Ward, who buggered off to shack up with proselytising Darwinist Richard Dawkins when Baker wishes to illustrate his talent for appalling misjudgement or self-pity. He once even failed to recognise an ex-wife at a party. Nor does the story end, as one might expect, with timelord totty excess, as Baker went on to enjoy several Soho Boozing Years with the late Jeffrey Bernard, Francis Bacon and chums, which provide a further rich seam of anecdotes. These days he happily potters about in his local graveyard polishing his own tombstone, enjoying strange encounters with scary fans paying their respects, and occasionally treats himself to lengthy visits to the household goods department of John Lewis. I particularly enjoy the ironing-board section. I find I can pass an hour or more admiring the various ironing boards. The Brabantia is my favourite. I have a very good model with a flowered cover, pretty though fading slightly. It folds so smoothly that all fear flees. Its the folding action of good modern boards that has removed the terror that so many men used to feel at the prospect of opening or closing the old, temperamental type of ironing board when naked. Call me a sick fuck if you must, but I closed the book liking him even more.

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J.G. Ballard
Biography
Most famous as the author of Empire Of The Sun and Crash, J.G. Ballard was one of the most important post war writers in the UK until his death in 2008. His influence on the next generation of novelists including Will Self and Jeff Noon, also featured heavily in Spike cannot be overstated. While much of the acclaim that surrounds Ballard stems from his early disaster novels, some of his final books in particular, Super-Cannes show him at the height of his powers. Chris Hall managed to interview Ballard several times while freelancing for various publications, and saved the fascinating, unabridged conversations for Spike, and Marcos Moure kindly contributed a previously published Ballard interview in which Ballard gives a great, self-defining quote: Im interested in science and medicine, the media landscape, and so on. My reflexes are not the reflexes of a literary man. Im more of a magpie pecking at any bright pieces of foil. Im interested in the world, not the world of literature. I also set up JGBallard.com in 1998, which was a link page to other Ballard related material on the web. This was made largely obsolete by the arrival of Simon Sellars fantastic Ballardian.com which is a superb and ongoing exploration of Ballards work.
Chris Mitchell

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Articles
Entertaining Violence Interview by Chris Hall Prophet With Honour Feature by David B. Livingstone Future Shock Interview by Chris Hall Not A Literary Man Interview by Marcos Moure Flight And Imagination Interview by Chris Hall Cocaine Nights Review by David Livingstone Extreme Metaphor Feature by Chris Hall 027 029 032 035 039 048 050

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Interview [published January 2004]

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Chris Hall talks to J.G. Ballard about Millennium People, the middle classes and mail order Kalashnikovs Its been 70 years since H.G. Wells published The Shape because there was a Japanese restaurant called the HiOf Things To Come but there has been a far more astute roku for many years. It would be impossible to identify chronicler of our contemporary reality living among us your location, he says approvingly, looking around in the suburbs for more than half a century. J.G. Balthe virtually deserted lounge were sat in with its palm lards gimlet eye for the psychopathology of everyday trees and low-level skylight. life has never deserted him. Instead of characters with Despite reports, Ballard does not permanently reside emotions, a history and a moral compass, Ballards in the suburbs he spends two or three days a week in fictional landscape is peopled with affectless casualties London visiting his girlfriend, Claire. But living out in of the nihilistic, over-mediated consumer landscape, Shepperton gives me a close-up view of the real Engsearching for meaning in a meaningless universe. This land the M25, the world of business parks, industrial is fiction as biopsy, and its results are devastating. estates and executive housing, sports clubs and mariMillennium People is the last in a trilogy of detecnas, cineplexes, CCTV, car-rental forecourts Thats tive thrillers along with Cocaine Nights and Superwhere boredom comes in a paralysing conformity Cannes to examine what might happen when all and boredom that can only be relieved by some sort of we have left as an ideology is consumerism. People violent act; by taking your mail-order Kalashnikov into resent the fact that the most moral decision in their the nearest supermarket and letting rip. lives is choosing what colour the next car will be, he Millennium People begins with a bomb attack at Heasays witheringly. All weve got left is our own psythrow airport, which kills three people. The proposition chopathology. Its the only freedom we have thats a of the novel is that the middle-classes are the new prodangerous state of affairs. letariat, with the residents of Chelsea Marina, another I meet Jim Ballard at the Hilton International hotel gated community of his, so sick of school fees, private on Holland Park Avenue. I used to come here a lot healthcare costs, stealth taxes and parking meters that

J.G. Ballard: Entertaining Violence

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they begin to dismantle the self-imposed burdens of civic responsibility and consumer culture. They are led, as is the psychologist narrator David Markham, by a charismatic paediatrician, Richard Gould, into attacking the shibboleths of the middle-class metropolis the National Film Theatre, the BBC, Tate Modern and then out into the suburbs. But how seriously do these middle-class rebels take their claims of oppression? At one point in the book, there is the suggestion that the residents of Chelsea Marina might change the street names to those of Japanese film directors, but this is quickly scotched as it might damage property prices It is full too of perverse inversions and unsettling paradoxes Nothing brings out violence like a peaceful demonstration or If your target is the global money system, you dont attack a bank. You attack the Oxfam shop next door. Millennium People describes in part a murder with strong affinities to the Jill Dando case. What all these murders Hungerford, Dunblane, Jill Dando have in common, says Ballard, is that they appear to be meaningless. There are no motives. Dando wasnt even a celebrity. It may be that this is their great appeal. There are shifts in the unseen tectonic plates that make up our national consciousness. Ive tried to nail down a certain kind of nihilism that people may embrace, and which politicians may embrace, which

is much more terrifying; all tapping into this vast, untouched resource as big as the Arabian oilfields called psychopathology. Ballard continues to be endlessly engaged in whats happening now. And as he says himself, hes bucked the trend by becoming more left-wing as hes got older. He is particularly disturbed by the apparently motiveless actions of our Prime Minister and has been following the great smokescreen that is the Hutton Inquiry. Blair has this evangelical commitment to what he believes is right, and he invents the truth when he cant find it out in front of him, he says incredulously. I think were living in dangerous times and most people arent really aware of it. Theyre worrying about asylum seekers or abortion or paedophilia Does it get harder the older he gets (hes 73), to anticipate, as hes put it before, the next five minutes? I have no shortage of ideas and a peculiar kind of compulsion to get them down. Not that it makes a damn bit of difference In what way? When youre a young writer you want to change the world in some small way, but when you get to my age you realise that it doesnt make any difference whatsoever, but you still go on. Its a strange way to view the world. If I had my time again, Id be a journalist. Writing is too solitary. I think journalists have more fun!

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Feature [published August 1999]

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J.G. Ballard: Prophet With Honour

David B. Livingstone on why J.G. Ballard is one of the most vital writers of the 20th century This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish! London Times, and The Independent. Moreover, BalIt was with these ironic words that an editor at J.G. lard has come to be seen as one of science fictions Ballards publisher futilely urged the suppression of principal intellectual luminaries, and his work as perCrash over a quarter-century ago, a book which many haps the best argument for the genres consideration have since come to see as a visionary masterpiece. as serious literature. The prophetic Crash, with its Though perhaps the first, this unnamed editor was by prescient foreshadowing of western cultures latterno means the last person to be discomfited by Balday fixation upon violence as entertainment, attests to lards nightmarish, frequently grotesque tale of a small the authors acuity as a social critic. cadre of car-crash fetishists prone to getting their sexual While early works such as The Drowned World brought kicks by staging smashups which resulted in very-real Ballard fame, it was Crash that gained him infamy. The injuries and deaths. And given the impending release novels relentless probing of the intertwined psycholoof horror director David Cronenbergs film adaptation, gies of sex and violence, presented as a grandiose and it seems a certainty that the moral outrage is due for hyperbolic panorama of crushed metal and battered bodan exponential increase; media mogul Ted Turner ies, immediately struck a chord of primal fear. There are and British cabinet minister Virginia Bottomley have many things that people dont like to be reminded of, already registered their howls of righteous indignation. Ballard muses. People are always surprised to discover Considering his being beyond psychiatric help, in themselves that they covet their neighbours wife, or the amiable, articulate, and consummately-logical that they harbour small racist feelings; they automatiJames Graham Ballard has managed pretty well: His cally think, oh my God, Im not worthy of myself. And output to date consists of 15 novels, 17 collections of they immediately turn away from it. But if you look at stories and essays, and substantial critical work for the entertainment culture that people amuse themselves esteemed British newspapers such as The Guardian, with, its obvious that the car crash has a very powerful

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role to play in peoples imaginations something is happening in the imagination that tends to entangle the elements of violence and sexuality, and its fed by this relentless flow of appealingly-violent imagery that we get in our movies. Crash is an attempt to follow these trends off the edge of the graph paper to the point where they meet. Basically the message is So you think violence is sexy? OK, this is where youre going. I see the ultimate effect of Crash as cautionary, as a warning against the role of violence and sex in our entertainment culture and the way the two can become intertwined. The concept for Crash germinated in the social confusion of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period coloured by the Kennedy assassination, Manson, and Vietnam. Violence took the place of sex, I think, as the most exciting subject available to writers and filmmakers, and became sort of the key engine of the entertainment culture. The car crash came into its own. I remember writing in The Atrocity Exhibition about the psychology involved, and people dismissed it out of hand. They just refused to see. As a means of testing his hypotheses, Ballard presented an art exhibition at a London gallery in April, 1970 where the works on display were three wrecked cars. The behaviour of people who visited the gallery absolutely convinced me that I was onto something. At the opening, people got so drunk, and over the course of the month they were on display the cars

were attacked, one of them was overturned. Nobody would have noticed these cars in the street outside, but because they were isolated beneath the white gallery lighting they triggered enormous, confused emotions. So I thought, this is the green light. And so I sat down and began to write Crash. Provoking enormous, confused emotions has always been a goal of Ballards work. The reasons for doing so go well beyond simple sensationalism, however; Ballards stated aim is honesty via the roundabout vehicle of fiction, an honesty intended to provoke movement towards the humane. I see myself as a neutral observer; Im not trying to impose some kind of private or personal vision on the world. All Im doing is looking out and seeing whats going on in the street. And all my fiction is a fiction of analysis, where Ive tried to identify certain ongoing trends that seem to be apparent, Ballard asserts. I dont think it took a great deal of prophetic skill to guess what was going to happen as the 60s and 70s unfolded; I could see all these social trends, with an entertainment culture that thrived on violence and sensation and a rootless urban and suburban population with nothing to do other than play with their own psychopathic fantasies. Modern technology, whether in the form of a motor car or a motorway or a high rise building, was empowering peoples worst impulses the technology involved pandered to and facilitated the eruption of peoples worst natures.

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Ballards heightened sensitivity to violence, as well as the corollary themes of isolation and social chaos which permeate much of his work, may well have its roots in his childhood in wartime China. Born in Shanghai in 1930 to English parents, Ballards earliest years were spent in an expatriates suburban idyll, a comfortable enclave of large houses, swimming pools, and servants. With the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937 and its subsequent metamorphosis into World War II, the Ballard family were removed to internment camps, and their colonial paradise was transformed into a killing field; from these experiences, Ballard wrote the semi-autobiographical Empire Of The Sun, which was subsequently adapted to film by Steven Spielberg. Ballard views his years in the camps as a painful education in the barbarous capabilities of humankind. I dont think you can go through the experience of war without ones perceptions of the world being forever changed. The reassuring stage set that everyday reality in the suburban west presents to us is torn down; you see the ragged scaffolding, and then you see the truth beyond that, and it can be a frightening experience. The war came, I spent three years in the camp, and I saw adults under stress, some of them giving way to stress, some recovering and showing steadfast courage. It was a great education; when you see the truth about human beings its beneficial, but very challenging, and those

lessons have stayed with me all my life. Now in his 60s, Ballard may be finally tempering his apocalyptic vision. Recent works such as 1994s Rushing To Paradise, while retaining their authors signature dry wit and moral imperative, stop short of blooming into nightmare worlds such as those of Crash, High Rise and The Drowned World; since Empire Of The Sun, his books have taken gradual steps in the direction of humour, and even hope. Furthermore, having explored the distant future and his own difficult past, Ballards writing seems to be moving in ever-tighter concentric circles around the present-day reality that most would recognize, and his characters taking upon sympathetic foibles belying an underlying humanity as well as their external neurotic drive. Appearances would indicate that Ballard is cautiously closing in on a central, pivotal point, perhaps the wellspring of his fertile imagination. Asked if he knows what that point is likely to be when he finally homes in on it, he demurs: I wonder if I ever will. Maybe that will be a mistake sort of like going into analysis and getting yourself cured; one needs the sort of support system provided by the element of mystery about oneself. Cured or not, the sense of wonder and mystery remains in his writing indicating that, editors opinions aside, the Ballard method of shock therapy is working just fine.

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Interview [published November 1997]

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Chris Hall finds out why J.G. Ballard thinks Crash is the first film of the 21st century One week before David Cronenbergs Crash opened in the UK at the beginning of June, the normally reclusive author J.G. Ballard appeared at a regional press conference and pre-screening of the film in Wardour Street, London. Cronenbergs film is based on Ballards 1973 novel of the same title, and the controversy surrounding Crash has brought Ballard back into the public eye to defend a film which he sees as a hauntingly accurate depiction of the book he wrote nearly a quarter-century ago. It is a measure of the confusion surrounding the film that it was felt necessary to show Crash to regional newspaper editors and reviewers, as well as having both Ballard and Crashs co-executive producer Chris Auty present, to try and dispel the sensationalist media myths that had grown up around Crash since its premiere at the Cannes film festival Thanks to the London Standards headline that Crash was beyond the bounds of depravity, four local English councils banned Crash from being shown within their regional jurisdiction on the grounds that it is nihilistic, sado-masochistic and graphic in its sexual and violent content.

J.G. Ballard: Future Shock

Such hysteria has not been confined to this side of the Atlantic Crash has only just been released on video in the US this month, having been delayed for over a year due to the personal intervention of media mogul Ted Turner. As the owner of Crashs distributor Fine Line Features, Turner attempted to block Crash being released in the States at all, and only backed down when the press caught wind of his behind-thescenes manoeuvres. Ballard for his part is bemused and outraged by the double standards in operation against Crash and cannot understand why the film has been singled out for such outrage. What about films such as Martin Scorseses Goodfellas and Casino, he asks. Both are bloodthirsty and horrific and practically a handbook to any yobbo wanting to beat someone up. Ballard is particularly appalled at the film coming up against little England at its worst and characterises the British as a strange, nervous nation unable to defend anything on the grounds of freedom of speech. Indeed, it was Cronenberg who noticed that nobody had defended the film on these grounds. The absurdly

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aptly-named British councillor John Bull said that in the light of the Dunblane massacre, youve got to look a lot more closely at the effect on the audience of films like Crash. Ballards heart sank when he read those comments: For Gods sake, what can we do when people jump to make connections like that? So why is it that people have got Crash all wrong? Why do we find the idea that there might be a sexual component to driving and crashing so abhorrent? You could say that by this very response Ballard and Cronenberg have tapped into something. There appears to be a lot of denial going on. Ballard notes that people seem to be excited by car crashes or film-makers wouldnt film them. David [Cronenberg] said to me, Jim the problem with car crashes is that theyre damn difficult to film! Film-makers wouldnt make all this effort if they didnt think people were getting a thrill from them This is borne out by the experiences of Crashs stunt co-ordinator Ted Hanlon. Usually with car crashes, you just line up two cars and let them hit. The more damage and the bigger the explosion, the better. In this film, its the opposite. Cronenberg wanted the crashes to be brutal, nasty, intense and quick, as crashes are in real life, and without the attendant explosions or clichd slow motion tracking shots, in order to convey the immediacy such events. That people should think, upon hearing what Crash is

about, that these usual Hollywood conventions would apply to the film is hardly surprising and, further, that they should find a realistic representation of crashes so alien is testament to the domination of the Hollywood blockbuster genre. A sarcastic Ballard complains that Bruce Willis can behave just as sadistically as the bad guys, but because hes working for the NYPD its OK Add a layer of sexual excitement and youve got the film culture that dominates the planet. We all know as drivers that there are young men who cannot bear being overtaken by a woman driver. Young men feel powerful sexual emotions half of America used to be conceived in cars. There is nothing revolutionary in the idea that there is a sexual component to our idea of, our excitement by, car crashes. How does he think that Crash differs from this? Crash is honest it says we wont put a reassuring moral frame around it. We wont pretend this is a story with a happy ending, and all its ambiguities are up on the screen. I think thats what so original about it. The real problem, as Ballard sees it, is will Crash encourage people to imitate the behaviour. People arent going to take this film literally, he reasons, it doesnt invite being taken literally. Its a very cool, almost glassy, rather eloquent, mysterious film its obviously something more than what you see on the screen at any moment. There are no Buicks slomoing through the air, crashing into buses; obviously

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something very strange is going on in the minds of the characters. Vaughan is clearly mad. Chris Auty thinks that the British find the problem problematic because the Protestant world has no surrealist tradition within which to place or make sense of it. Poland, Argentina these are deeply religious catholic countries. They have no problem at all with Crash. They think of it alongside Belle de Jour, something like a Bunuel movie, which is how we think of it. Personally, I see it as a ghost story it is as though the films protagonist James has died and become a ghost and then tries to become human

again. Maybe I sound mad but I found the ending immensely touching and romantic and full of hope in a dehumanised world. Ballard is keen to make a comparison of Crash with Alfred Hitchcocks groundbreaking Psycho: I think of Crash as the first film of the next century, if you like. I think that the very influential role of Psycho since 1962 will apply to Crash Paul Schrader [scriptwriter of Taxi Driver] said Wonderful film if only Id been so honest, and I think it will impel a new frankness and honesty that will reveal itself over the next few years.

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Interview [published September 2001]

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Marcos Moures 1995 interview with J.G. Ballard about his novel Rushing To Paradise Ballard is one of the best writers of speculative fiction alive today. Whether exploring the innate sexuality of automobile accidents, the power of dreams as reality, or navigating through the rubble of modern civilization, his often savage, apocalyptic work has influenced artists and filmmakers alike. Ballard himself counts among his influences the surrealist painters Dal, Magritte, and Ernst, as well as William Burroughs, whom he considers to be one of the most important authors of the 20th century. Ballard first entered the literary world as a science fiction writer, a genre he soon exhausted and has not explored in years. His transition to the mainstream was not entirely smooth, however. His 1970 anthology, The Atrocity Exhibition, was deleted from the Farrar, Straus and Giroux catalogue soon after its US publication because of short stories like Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan and Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy. After reading his classic 1972 novel, Crash, an editor wryly commented, The author is beyond psychiatric help. I found Mr Ballard to be quite sane piercingly so,

J.G. Ballard: Not A Literary Man


in fact as he talked to me recently from his home in Shepperton, a suburb of London. Ballard is the author of 16 novels, including Hello America, The Crystal World, Empire of the Sun, The Terminal Beach, The Unlimited Dream Company and The Disaster Area. His newest novel, Rushing to Paradise, was just published by Picador USA. Ballard as seen by Ballard MM: How do you see yourself as a writer and what do you think is your niche in the literary world? JGB: I cant speak for the United States, but I suppose some still refer to me as a science fiction writer. But since Empire of the Sun came out ten years ago, I think people have welcomed me to the mainstream. Although Im not so sure I want to be embraced by the mainstream. I think Im still what I always was, a kind of fringe writer. I think Im an imaginative writer who began his career by writing science fiction, but I havent written any, really, for a very long time. I dont even consider Crash to be a science fiction novel. I dont know whether youve read it or not.

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MM: Definitely. It seems to me that fantastically imaginative fiction tends to be lumped in with the whole science fiction genre. JGB: Exactly. If you look at 20th-century novels, you can see that theres a sort of mainstream, or what I would call realistic or naturalistic fiction. And then there are the imaginative writers who often tend to be mavericks. You know Genet, Cline, Burroughs, and so on. And I like to think of myself as a maverick. Im certainly not a literary man, and this is an important point. Ive met a great number of writers, novelists rather, English ones in particular, whose stock of references their sort of instant associations that come to mind when they create and all that all tend to come from the world of literature. Mine do not. Im interested in science and medicine, the media landscape, and so on. My reflexes are not the reflexes of a literary man. Im more of a magpie pecking at any bright pieces of foil. Im interested in the world, not the world of literature. Science Fiction MM: So you wouldnt file your work of the past 15 or 20 years under science fiction? JGB: No, not anymore. Some of my work was, theres certainly no question about that. And Im very proud that I was a science fiction writer. As Ive often said, its the most authentic literature of the 20th century.

Sadly enough, most science fiction is being written by the wrong people nowadays. The constraints of a certain kind of commercial fiction have tended to formularize the field over the last 50 years. MM: Speaking from my own experience, I think many people, especially as young readers, are drawn to the newness, inventiveness, even classic adventure elements of science fiction, but eventually outgrow it. As you said, you find the repetition and formula simply bore you. Especially when you realise theres so much more out there. Why limit yourself? Why be just a science fiction writer or reader? JGB: I agree with you. Thats true. And thats why I myself stopped writing. People within the science fiction world never regarded me as one of them in the first place. They saw me as the enemy. I was the one who wanted to subvert everything they believed. I wanted to kill outer space stone dead. I wanted to kill the far future and focus on inner space and the next five minutes. And sci-fiers to this day dont regard me as one of them. Im some sort of virus who got aboard and penetrated the virtue of science fiction and began to pervert its DNA. Rushing to Paradise MM: Your new novel deals with obsessive themes like fanaticism, radicalism and militant feminism, all within the frame of the extremist wing of the environmental movement. Its not only eerily timely, it also strikes a

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raw nerve, especially in view of the healthy wave of anti-political correctness sweeping over the United States at the moment. JGB: Well, thats a good thing, isnt it? The great talent of the United States is to take things too far, so that you have these huge pendulum swings of sorts. Always correct and then reverse. And then correct and reverse again. Here in England, I would say the extremist fringe of the feminist movement is largely positive. Ive got two daughters as well as a son, and theyve benefited enormously from the feminist movement of the past 20 years. England is a very class-bound society, and women, until recently, were practically an inferior class. Most professions were closed to women 30 years ago, except teaching and publishing. Nowadays theyre all mostly open. So we do have a few extremists, but nothing compared to the US, where you really do have some very strange people. Sex, Violence, Censorship, Reality MM: You said in a recent interview that Everything should be done to encourage more sex and violence on television. JGB: Yes, I did say that. And I think its true. I mean, I live in the most censored nation in the Western world. Theres no question about that. Many people have said so. Film, TV, videos, and art are more heavily censored here than anywhere in Western Europe or the US.

Censorship in England has a clear political role. It represents the fear of the established order that given any sort of imaginative freedom, or too much of it, the power structure will collapse. If people see sex and violence treated frankly, they may turn the same frank eye upon their own political situation. And start climbing up the base of the pyramid towards the apex. The people in real control sanitise the view of the world for us. Absolutely. Best Work MM: In his book, The 99 Best Novels Since 1939, Anthony Burgess considers your novel The Unlimited Dream Company to be your most important work to date. Which do you consider your best? JGB: My most original and probably best novel is Crash. This is probably where I pushed my imagination as far as it has gone. Ive also got a soft spot for other books of mine, most notably The Atrocity Exhibition. The Atrocity Exhibition is practically incomprehensible to most readers, whereas Crash is directly intelligible. Theres no doubt at all about what the authors getting on about. The Unavoidable Question MM: Can we talk about Empire of the Sun? That is, if it isnt already an exhausted topic. What is your opinion of Steven Spielbergs film version of your novel?

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JGB: I was very impressed by it. I thought it was a fine film. In fact, trying to remain as neutral as possible, I think its a much better film than Schindlers List because its more imagined than Schindlers List. I think the film is a remarkable effort in many ways. He extracted a wonderful performance from the boy. He was very faithful to the spirit of the book. There are always problems when Hollywood tackles a war film because the conventions of the entertainment cinema cant really cope with the horrors of war. Still, I think it was a remarkable film, and more and more people are beginning to realize it. Current Readings MM: Have you read anything recently that impressed you favourably? JGB: Well, I dont read much fiction nowadays, to be honest. Writing the stuff all day means when I read I tend to read nonfiction. It feeds my imagination. I read a great deal, but I cant really pick a landmark book off-

hand. Lets see, well, I just finished The Moral Animal by Richard Wright, a study of neo-Darwinism. That was quite impressive. Actually the best novel Ive read in a while is by that Danish writer Peter Hoeg, Smillas Sense of Snow. I thought it was a wonderful book. Far more than a mere thriller. In fact, its a pity that it had any thriller element to it at all. It was much more than that. It was quite remarkable on all sorts of levels. I hope it did well in the states. My girlfriend is reading his new one (Borderliners) now Current projects MM: What are you working on now? JGB: Im halfway through another novel untitled as of yet another sort of cautionary tale. Id rather not discuss it in detail though. MM: Any plans to come over to the States and promote Rushing to Paradise? JGB: Oh, probably not, Im too engrossed in the new book.

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Interview [published November 2000]

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J.G. Ballard: Flight And Imagination

Chris Hall talks about the dark side of capitalism and the deceptions of reality with J.G. Ballard Walking along Oxford Street the day after I finished latent psychopathy is the last nature reserve, a place of reading J.G. Ballards new novel, Super-Cannes, it refuge for the endangered mind. Of course, Im talkstruck me, literally, the total acceptance of the subing about a carefully metered violence, microdoses of strate of violence in consumer societies when it manimadness like the minute traces of strychnine in a nerve fests itself. A silent, monolithic crowd hurtled down tonic. And thats just what that experience felt like: either side of the road as I walked from Centrepoint small, discrete moments of psychopathy. to Oxford Circus. I counted the number of times that It was with this in mind that I spoke to J.G. Ballard, I was physically forced to move out of the way or get whod granted me the last interview on the round hit head on (five). I counted the number of times I was of publicity hed been doing for Super-Cannes with pranged, bumped or rear-shunted (four). Its said that the nationals. Unlike most people who interview London traffic moves at an average speed of 11mph, Ballard, I wasnt worried about whether he would but pedestrian traffic cant be far behind. Indeed, its be cold and distant or abstract, but simply that there not too fanciful to see in these crowds how the car wouldnt be enough time with the Seer of Shephas influenced our spatio-temporal perception. You perton. I was right not to worry about any of those see overtaking manoeuvres, you see people checking things. His voice has a rhythmic, musical quality, their rear views, as it were, with a glance behind beand his laughter is warm and inclusive. He gives the fore moving out. There is the same frustration at slow impression of an eccentric school master with, yes, moving traffic: the same parameters of territoriality a slightly abstracted air; a patrician whose sentences are in operation. end with a heavy emphasis. Ballard is clearly used to My shopping trip reminded me of a passage from the developing an idea without interruption. book in which Wilder Penrose, the resident psycholoThe main theme of Super-Cannes, he says, is gist of the business park Eden-Olympia, says Our that in order to keep us happy and spending more

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as consumers then capitalism is going to have to tap rather more darker strains in our characters, which is of course whats been happening for a while. If you look at the way in which the more violent contact sports are marketed American Football, wrestling, boxing and of course the most violent entertainment culture of all, the Hollywood film, all these have tapped into the darker side of human nature in order to keep the juices of appetites flowing. That is the risk. Or as Wilder Penrose says in Super-Cannes: A perverse sexual act can liberate the visionary self in even the dullest soul. The consumer society hungers for the deviant and unexpected. What else can drive the bizarre shifts in the entertainment landscape that will keep us buying? Psychopathy is the only engine powerful enough to light our imaginations, to drive the arts, sciences and industries of the world. Ballard makes the simile with politics Hitler tapped into all kinds of psychopathic traits in the German people, the race hatred in particular: Jews, Gypsies, non-Germans, all biological inferiors. These were very potent ideas that are probably carried in all of us from our distant past when it made sense to fear strangers because they were probably trying to steal your cattle, kill you or rape your wife. Hitler tapped those buried layers of psychopathy. Its an example of what could happen. With Super-Cannes we once again have all the cool

clarity of a writer who has never flinched from his subject matter for the last 40 years. As our narrator, Paul Sinclair, drives south to the French coast with his doctor wife Jane, towards Eden-Olympia, their new home, hundreds of blue ovals trembled like damaged retinas in the Provenal sun. Ballard writes of the flare of swimming pools on the hillside: Ten thousand years in the future, long after the Cte dAzur had been abandoned, the first explorers would puzzle over these empty pits, with their eroded frescoes of tritons and stylised fish, inexplicably hauled up the mountainsides like aquatic sundials or the altars of a bizarre religion devised by a race of visionary geometers. Thus we are in familiar unfamiliar territory, in a world we think we know but which is perhaps meaningful only retroactively. Once again there is the Ballardian theme of morality reduced to aesthetics, or as Paul Sinclair has it Civility and polity were designed into Eden-Olympia. By the end of the afternoon all this tolerance and good behaviour left me feeling deeply bored. Sinclair is in a world in which A moral calculus that took thousands of years to develop starts to wither from neglect, an adolescent world where you define yourself by the kind of trainers you wear. Super-Cannes takes off as a why-dunnit when Paul Sinclair learns that he and his wife have been housed in a villa whose previous occupant, David Greenwood,

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had apparently gone insane and killed seven very senior executives. Sinclair says: It occurred to me that three of us would sleep together in this large and comfortable bed, until I could persuade David to step out of my mind and disappear for ever down the white staircase of this dreaming villa. As so often with Ballards fiction, a fusion of inner and outer landscapes has already begun. Sinclair is amazed to find that, as a psychologist, Wilder Penrose is prescribing madness as a form of therapy at Eden-Olympia, which Wilder clarifies for him: I mean a controlled and supervised madness. Psychopathy is its own most potent cure, and has been throughout history. At times it grips entire nations in a vast therapeutic spasm. No drug has ever been more potent. Even though to some extent Super-Cannes, like Cocaine Nights, uses the conventions of a detective novel it nonetheless contains few of the dead sentences a genre novel would have. There are no characters crossing the room to pour themselves a drink instead they wonder how the Reverend Dodgsons Alice would have coped with Eden-Olympia. She would have grown up quickly and married an elderly German banker, then become a recluse in a mansion high above Super-Cannes, with a fading facelift and a phobia about reflective surfaces. And yet there are passages that are almost parodic of Ballards concrete and glass period: Her hip pressed against the BMW, and the curvature of its door de-

flected the lines of her thigh, as if the car was a huge orthopaedic device that expressed a voluptuous mix of geometry and desire. Ballard has said elsewhere that whereas the 20th century was mediated through the car, the 21st century will be mediated through the home, and as far as Super-Cannes goes home means work. The dream of a leisure society was the great 20th-century delusion, says Wilder Penrose. Work is the new leisure. Talented and ambitious people work harder than they have ever done, and for longer hours. They find their only fulfilment through work. The last thing they want is recreation. There are references to the flats and houses of Eden-Olympia as service stations where people sleep and ablute. The real home is now the office. Its not quite correct to say, as some have, that SuperCannes is a companion piece to Cocaine Nights though both take place within gated communities of one kind or another and both involve on a superficial level a naive narrator trying to solve a mystery. Its more that some of the ideas in Super-Cannes are taken further than they are in Cocaine Nights. Ballard is unapologetic about this new employment of detective genre conventions saying that if its good enough for Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov its good enough for him. With his last two books one feels that he is reaching a new, younger audience one perhaps attracted by the drug reference in the previous novel and he obviously

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enjoys this as a professional writer, but as a knowing extract from The Kindness Of Women shows, he has an instinctive feel for his core readership. This is Ballard describing the audience of an aversion therapy film at the Rio film festival: they gazed at the screen with the same steady eyes and unflinching expressions of the men in the Soho porn theatres, or the fans of certain kinds of apocalyptic science fiction. It seems that the invisible literature that he has written about, and which acts as compost for the mind, increasingly comes from the internet. Ballard doesnt have a PC himself but his girlfriend, he says, supplies him with sites that might interest him: She is a keen net surfer, shes constantly giving me fascinating stuff that shes printed off. Extraordinary articles. Some really poetic, touching stuff. Theres one site that we first visited a year ago. Its by these people at a bird sanctuary in Norfolk who have been tagging ospreys with radio transmitters. Theyve been tracking their flights to and from their winter ground, an island off Ghana or somewhere, and they show maps of the routes taken by each bird flying across Europe and the Mediterranean, some of them detour for years before returning to this bird sanctuary. Watching all this is deeply moving. It lets another dimension into your life. Flight as a metaphor for transcendence occurs in Ballard's work passim, and he has described in The Kindness Of Women how his own obsession with flying,

which had started in Shanghai, had lead him to become an RAF trainee fighter pilot in Canada. Flying is a very strange experience, its very close to dreaming, he says. The normal yardsticks, the parameters of our movements through space, are suspended. Youre travelling at 150mph, but if youre 1,000ft up youre not moving at all. Likewise, you can be travelling quite slowly coming in to land, yet you seem to be hurtling along like a Grand Prix car. The problem with light flying is that its very unstable and dangerous and also very noisy, theres hardly any time to think. So, its a transcendental experience for him? Yes, theres no doubt about that. When I drive up to London, I go by London Airport and I always get a strange kick out of watching those big planes taking off and coming in to land. An empty runway moves me enormously, which obviously says something about my need to escape I guess. If Ballards interest in this bird sanctuary website seems apposite, then consider another of his favourites: Theres this group that got into a disused American nuclear silo. Its wonderful! Youre taken on a tour and you can choose alternatives. Would you like to look at the missile control room?, Would you like to see the sleeping quarters?. Its straight out of the stuff that I was writing about all that time ago. Sites such as these feed the poetic and imaginative strains in all of us who have been numbed by all the

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Bruce Willis films, he says. Im waiting for the first new religion on the internet. One that is unique to the net and to the modern age. Itll come. Although he reads across the board of popular science, he says that he steers clear of cosmology books because they are a happy hunting ground for, frankly, cranks. Multi-dimensional universes or strings and black holes all this stuff is totally hypothetical. His friend Martin Bax wrote that Ballard has this amazing ability to know whats going on in Cape Canaveral or anywhere without ever seeming to leave Shepperton, his home for the last 40 years. Sure enough, hes got the goods on Channel 4s Big Brother, although he claims not to have seen that much of it: My girlfriend has been absolutely glued to it, she voted something like 30 times one evening! I think we can therefore discount the huge voting figures, he says, with a warm, expansive laugh. Ive got a feeling people are just pressing the redial button. He doesnt believe the official 7.5 million viewing figures (thats more than the number of votes that the Tory party got at the last election) but he likens the interest in the programme to a Zen-like absorption: If you focus on anything, however blank, in the right way then you become obsessed by it. Its like those Andy Warhol films of eight hours of the Empire State Building or of somebody sleeping. Ordinary life viewed obsessively enough becomes interesting in its own right

by some sort of neurological process that I dont hope to understand. Is there not an echo of Big Brother in Super-Cannes when Paul Sinclair is at the Croisette in Cannes? Without realising it, the crowds under the palm trees were extras recruited to play their traditional roles, when they stepped from their limos, like celebrity criminals ferried to a mass trial by jury at the Palais, a full-scale cultural Nuremberg furnished with film clips of the atrocities they had helped to commit. Ballard disliked the self-consciousness of Big Brother and would of liked to have seen more of a Truman Show element where the participants dont know that they are being filmed. It could be done. Candid Camera approached that slightly. You could just take people in a small holiday hotel on the Costa Brava and film it. I suggest that this, as with certain psychology experiments proper, probably wouldnt get past the relevant ethics boards. Yes, that is the problem, he says, as if its a minor but frustrating obstacle. But then, afterwards you could say yes, we did it without your permission but heres a very large sum of money, sign this release form and youre all going to be stars! In fact, the very next issue of New Scientist magazine that I picked up after speaking to Ballard had an article about a psychology professor at Stanford University who, frustrated at just those obstacles put in the way of research by ethics boards, is now running his own

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reality experiments in a TV series called Human Zoo. Most television is low-grade pap, its so homogenised its like mental toothpaste. But Big Brother as a slice of reality or what passes for reality. It was like Tracey Emins Bed, he says approvingly. Ballard is worried that with all the interest in the internet we are forgetting whats really around the corner: The rapid development of the internet over recent years has rather shut out all discussion on the news about progress made on virtual reality. I assume that the worlds big electronic corporations are developing VR systems, which after all are going to take television and movies into completely new dimensions that I think potentially do represent a threat. When you enter into a simulated environment that is more convincing visually than the real world, the so-called real world, which of course is itself generated by the central nervous system, he says, as if this is given a priori, the temptation may be to stay there. It may lead to my phrase about playing with our own psychopathology as a game coming true with a bang. I see huge dangers there, but also huge possibilities. We might all learn how to play God! There might be a program along the lines of Be a messiah. See what its like to be Jesus Christ or Buddha! So God isnt dead, hes a latent component in a VR program? Yes! Nietzsche was wrong! he says triumphantly. This might engender strong social changes,

because most people have far more imagination than they realise, as their dreams make clear. Most peoples imaginations are damped down by the needs of getting on and making a living, generally coping with life and the imagination tends to be rather repressed in order to allow this flow. Surprisingly, for all his interest in film and an acknowledgement that its far more powerful than when its on TV, Ballard doesnt go out to his local cineplex but watches rented movies at home. He gives a surprisingly prosaic reason for this: Theres less rustling of chocolate papers. Given that hes a fan of David Cronenberg, and has generously praised his adaptation of Crash, it is also surprising that he hasnt seen eXistenZ yet. I hate all those VR pictures, especially the ones where peoples faces start to drip on to their chest and you realise, he says with mock surprise, My God, were in a dream sequence and the VR system has broken down! I hate that. For those of us desperate for more Ballard short stories, the news isnt good: I cant see myself writing any for a while, partly because theres nowhere to publish them. When I began writing short stories for sci-fi mags in the 1950s most of them were between 5,000 and 10,000 words. Now, magazines want 2,000 words or a 1,000 words you cant develop an idea. Its not just a matter of knocking off a short story, its getting your mind into a writing phase where your

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imagination begins to think in terms of short stories rather than novels. For a writer who responds very much to social change, what does he feel will be the qualitative break between the 20th and 21st centuries? If the 21st century represents a radical break with the 20th century then I dont think that wed be able to spot it. It might be something totally unexpected. It might be that our children and grandchildren vigorously reject the 20th century and everything it stood for. They may look back on it aghast and say Who were these people? They spent all their time killing each other! Why? If consumer capitalism gets a little out of hand, and there are signs of resistance to the Americanisation of Europe, you might get absolute idealism in the young. The big change I assume is that there will be no more world wars, partly because no one will be able to borrow enough money from the World Bank to finance it. Now this changes the game enormously, its rather like playing chess and the rules being changed by the International Chess Federation You dont have to mate the king anymore. God, what do we do now!? I think the knock-on effect will be vast. There is a certain glee with which Ballard accepts these changes, a state of grace that his protagonists strive towards. The decline of political ideology also changes things. Theres no real ideological clash between Dubyah and Gore for example. The decline of religion

is also a factor. You do your triangulations and all we have left is consumerism, what I call the suburbanisation of the soul. Thats frightening. It may trigger all sorts of unconscious reactions. As someone in SuperCannes says, in a totally sane society madness is the only freedom. This line has come up before in Running Wild for example? Yes, I am tending to repeat myself in order to get the damn message home! he says with slow emphasis before that gasping, generous laugh reverberates down the line. Consider the word triangulation that Ballard uses. Its a trope that almost uniquely marks out a Ballardian sentence with its three seemingly unrelated objects or events; as if hes forcing the unconscious mind to construct a narrative to explain them. Take an example from Super-Cannes: Were assassins aware of the contingent world? I tried to imagine Lee Harvey Oswald on his way to the book depository in Dealey Plaza on the morning he shot Kennedy. Did he notice a line of overnight washing in his neighbours yard, a fresh dent in the nextdoor Buick, a newspaper boy with a bandaged knee? [my italics] The contingent world must have pressed against his temples, clamouring to be let in. But Oswald had kept the shutters bolted against the storm, opening them for a few seconds as the Presidents Lincoln moved across the lens of the Zapruder camera and on into history.

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He says that hes always been interested in content over style, even though hes arguably our best stylist. I dont know if I am actually, he says uncertainly, before warming to his theme. I just want to push the message across. I dont sloganise a political message but the sort of images that have appealed to me over the years all the drained swimming pools, abandoned hotels, the strange business parks, gated communities and retirement complexes these are what I want to convey, the peculiar latent psychology waiting to emerge into the daylight. Thats what Im trying to do. Look at the world and see its latent content. I treat the external world as if it was a solidified dream. Ballard means this to apply to his life as well as his fiction: With all the blandishments of advertisers and politicians, everyone is trying to sell you something. What are they really selling? What is the fashion industry really selling? Not just a new frock or a new pair of trainers, its selling something more than that. Super-Cannes involves a world where work is play and recreation doesnt exist. Is writing, for Ballard, more work than play? Its part and parcel of the way I live. I mean, its not an extraneous activity. Theres no sort of office where, as it were, I say right! Ill have a cup of coffee and go through the days post It isnt like that anymore. Ballard continues to be seen as a writers writer, his fiction a succs destime (Empire of the Sun notwith-

standing), so its odd that at 70 Ballard still hasnt had much of anything in the way of gongs. Germaine Greer has said that he is a great writer who hasnt written a great novel. There might be something to this, that its his entire body of work that we should be assessing, not the individual novels. One can imagine that for Ballard its going to be like a great director or actor never receiving an Oscar for an individual film, but getting given one for lifetime achievement. How apposite that it seems we will be only retroactively able to acclaim his work in this way. Of course, Ballard has always disdained or been uninterested in ingratiating himself with any kind of literary social scene. So maybe his lack of a public profile is partly a function of this. Plus the fact that he chooses to live in Shepperton (that locus of the twin Ballardian obsessions of flight and imagination, with its proximity to Heathrow and the film studios), out at the very edge of west London. Hes unlikely, for example, to be offered a South Bank Show after his comments last year about Melvyn Braggs dumbing down of the arts. And although hes transcended the sci-fi genre in which he started (and transformed it) its hard to imagine him being particularly bothered about it. In this particular phase of Western literature, one of autobiography, perhaps a novelist of ideas, and rather outr ones at that, is simply unpalatable. Its often said that Empire Of The Sun is his most

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nakedly autobiographical novel (along with its successor The Kindness Of Women) and of course thats true. But all of his fiction is no less autobiographical, even Crash, because of its exploration of inner space. One senses that hes tired of this literalism, which has dogged him since he first started writing, and which reached its apotheosis with Crash. For example, a lot of people, he says, still think that he loves cars or that hes a car buff (he drives a Ford Granada for Gods sake!) because of books such as Crash and Concrete Island, in his guise as poet of the motorways. Im not interested in cars at all. But I am interested in the psychology of the car user, the car as a facilitator of latent psychopathy or of the latent imagination for good. I think that a lot of people do express their imaginations through the cars they own. Imaginations they wouldnt be able to express in other ways. Cars are a hugely liberating force in all kinds of ways. So he doesnt agree with groups such as Reclaim the Streets or the wider eco movement? I dont agree with the Reclaim the Streets people at all. I think that the recent petrol tanker blockades across the country illustrates how silly it is to talk about the end of the car age. It hasnt ended: more of us have cars and drive further in them than ever before. Or as Paul Sinclair puts it in Super-Cannes: Fanatical Greens always veer off course, and end up trying to save the smallpox virus.

When the fuel crisis was at its worst there was the very real possibility that there would be thousands and thousands of abandoned cars on motorway flyovers and cloverleaf intersections. And this recent prediction that a giant tsunami is going to swallow the east coast of America. All very Ballardian. I know; I feel Ive been here before, he says, as if his fiction was a parent and reality was a child lagging behind. As usual hes done his triangulations. Angela Carter once said that there is an element of Glen Baxters humour about Ballards fiction, and in a way thats right, there is this possibility that it might descend into the ludicrous at any moment. But the point, surely, is that it never does. What humour there is is really so black that it could never escape the event horizon of laughter. No, a much better analogue is to be found with Martin Parrs collections of Boring Postcards, especially his latest, Boring Postcards USA. Here we find interchange complexes, vast turnpike systems, interstates, thruways, empty hotel lobbies, freeways, bus depots, office buildings, shopping malls, trailer villages, in short all those images of our waking, solidified dreams that most of us look at and find ugly or brutal but which when viewed through Ballards visionary protagonists in their dry, affectless realms, are transformed into something meaningful and life affirming.

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Review [published August 1999] David B. Livingstone

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J.G. Ballard: Cocaine Nights


Theres something wrong with Estrella Del Mar, the lazy, sun-drenched retirement haven on Spains Costa Del Sol. Lately this sleepy hamlet, home to hordes of well-heeled, well-fattened British and French expatriates, has come alive with activity and culture; the previously passive, isolated residents have begun staging boat races, tennis competitions, revivals of Harold Pinter plays, and lavish parties. At night the once vacant streets are now teeming with activity, bars and cafes packed with revellers, the sidewalks crowded with people en route from one event to the next. Outward appearances suggest the wholesale adoption of a new ethos of high-spirited, well-controlled collective exuberance. But theres the matter of the fire: The house and household of an aged, wealthy industrialist has gone up in flames, claiming five lives, while virtually the entire town stood and watched. Theres the matter of the petty crime, the burglaries, muggings, and auto thefts which have begun to nibble away at the edges of Estrella Del Mars security despite the guardhouses and surveillance cameras. Theres the matter of the new, flourishing trade in drugs and pornography. And theres the matter of Frank Prentice, who sits in Marbella jail awaiting trial for arson and five counts of murder, and who, despite being clearly innocent, has happily confessed. It is up to Charles Prentice, Franks brother, to peel away the onionlike layers of denial and deceit which hide the rather ugly truth about this seaside idyll, its residents, and the horrific crime which brought him here. But as is usually the case in a J.G. Ballard book, the truth comes with a price tag attached, and likely without any easing of discomfort for his principal characters. Cocaine Nights marks a partial return on Ballards part to the provocative, highly-successful mid-career methodology employed in novels such as Crash and High Rise: after establishing himself as a science fiction guru in the 1960s, Ballard stylistically shifted gears towards an unnerving, futuristic variant on social realism in the 1970s. Both Crash and High Rise were what-if novels, posing questions as to what the likely results would be if our collective fascination with such things as speed, violence, status, power, and sex were carried just a little bit further: How insane, how brutal

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could our world become if we really cut loose? Cocaine Nights asks a question better suited to the 90s, the age of gated communities and infrared home security systems: Does absolute security guarantee isolation and cultural death? Conversely, is a measure of crime an essential ingredient in a vibrant, living, properly functioning social system? Is it true, as a character asserts, that Crime and creativity go together, always have done, and that total security is a disease of deprivation? Suffice it to say that the answers presented in Nights will be anathema to moral absolutists; the world of Ballards fiction, like life in the hyperkinetic, relativistic 1990s, abounds with uncomfortable grey areas. On the surface, Cocaine Nights is a whodunit and a race against time, but as it proceeds and as preconceived conceptions of good and evil begin to dissolve it evolves into a thoughtful, faintly frightening look

at under-examined aspects of 1990s western society. As is his wont, Ballard confronts his readers with some faintly outlandish hypotheses unlikely to be embraced by many, but which nonetheless serve to provoke both thought and a bit of paranoia; its a method that Ballard has developed and refined on his own, and as usual, it propels his novel along marvellously. Cocaine Nights doesnt have either the broad sweep or brute impact of the landmark Crash, but it retains enough social relevance and low-key creepiness to more than satisfy Ballardphiles. As is often the case in Ballards alternate reality, its a given that his most appealing, human characters turn out to be the most twisted, and that even the most normal of events turn out to be governed by a perverse, malformed logic; that this logic turns out to be grounded in sound sociological and psychological principles is its most horrific feature.

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Feature [published June 1997]

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J.G. Ballard: Extreme Metaphor


Existing somewhere between the manifest edifices of Crash and Empire Of The Sun, the rest of J.G. Ballards fiction glides and grinds like vast tectonic plates. Those already acquainted with Crash, the polar extreme of Ballards oeuvre, and his most successful book, the semi-autobiographical work Empire Of The Sun, will find the rest of his work as resonant and thoughtprovoking as these two novels. With the controversy and critical acclaim that has surrounded David Cronenbergs film adaptation of Crash, it is about time that the rest of Ballards work received a closer look. I can clearly remember reading my very first Ballard short story, Track 12, among a collection of science fiction short stories from the likes of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke et al, all of whom were then part of the English secondary school curriculum. What set Ballards story immediately apart, besides its extreme brevity (3 pages an inspiration to all of us who lazily took up the creed of quality over quantity), was the fusion and overlay of inner and outer landscapes, the public and private colliding and commingling. Here I first glimpsed the compressed economy of Ballards writing, as if he were living in a

Chris Hall gives a crash course in the fiction of J.G. Ballard world that would suddenly disappear or be destroyed. Asimov once defined a short story as one in which if you removed just one sentence then the entire story made no sense. Track 12 is about as close as anyone will get to adhering to Asimovs dictum. Ballards narratives would seem to represent a warped inversion of reductio ad absurdum, in which truth, not falsity, is shown through absurd logical consequence. Its always too late for going back in his fiction; there is a kind of inexorable rush hat draws us towards destruction or transcendence and often, both. (For these reasons, Ballard avoids elliptical plots). The moral ambivalence inherent to a lot of his work is best illustrated in Crash, where Ballards own introduction to the novel seems to be a disguised disclaimer. While Ballard himself, off the page, stresses the cautionary nature of his stories, his more apocalyptic novels (High Rise, Concrete Island, The Atrocity Exhibition) have been continually read as showing nihilistic or pessimistic obsession with decay, destruction and disaster. Far from it. Ballards work shows a deep concern with transcendence and the recognition of unconscious

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forces. As the critic Gregory Stephenson points out, Ballard is subversive in the true sense of the word (to turn from beneath) in that he deals with the unconscious mind and its drive to manifest itself through our waking ego-consciousness, in a sense to banish time and space itself. This resolutely amoral tone has certain biographical and psychoanalytic roots in Ballards own history. Ballard originally intended to be a psychiatrist before abandoning his studies in medicine (it is no coincidence that he shares the background with William Burroughs). Moreover, by the time he was 13, he had witnessed every kind of conceivable human horror from a childhood spent interned in Lunghua, Japan. It is as if Ballard has had this imprinted upon his mind, hardwired as the template with which he views the world, filtered through and fused with it. Perhaps for this reason his stories, especially Crash, come across as someone trying to shock themselves with their own fiction. Martin Amis wrote that Empire Of The Sun gives shape to what shaped him. Ballard bears this out: People brought up in the social democracies of Western Europe have no idea of this kind of savagery. By the time he was repatriated to England from Japan, Ballard was 15 and the culture shock is still with him. He is always going to have an outsiders perspective; one that, for example, finds the London suburb of Shepperton where he lives lunar and abstract in the summer.

Perhaps making his fiction abstract and detached is one way of dealing with such terror. As a writer Ballard has always been more interested in idea, vision, dream and nightmare than in character (or at least character in the usual sense.) The viewpoint of his fiction is a clinically neutral affair even in first person narration, where it is usually a doctor or a psychologist. Indeed, in this sense, Ballards fiction comes closer to being psychoanalytic rather than science fiction. Some of the techniques used in psychoanalysis were partly designed to encourage the patients defence mechanisms to emerge. Freud argued that therapists should impose as little of their own personalities as possible by remaining neutral and detached. Crash is like Dr Ballard passively relaying our psychosexual nightmares, listening to our defence mechanisms and checking for common symptomology. Indeed, Crash seems more like an extended short story, where the obsession is allowed to play out in time; a temporally exploded ide fixe. This obsessional quality is evident in a lot of Ballards other work. The Drowned World ends with the hero heading South, towards the heat and insanity of the rainforests. The American publishers wanted the hero to head North, because otherwise it was too negative. Ballard points out: But its a happy ending. South is where he wants to go. Further. Deeper. South! Ballards surrealism has a great deal more affinity with pictorial, rather than literary, surrealism. Paul Delvauxs

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The Echo features in The Day Of Forever, for example, and Salvador Dal is something of a hero to Ballard, featuring prominently in his books as well as on them. (Dals Nuclear Cross adorns my copy of Ballards The Terminal Beach, his best collection of short stories.) Max Ernsts silent forests and swamplands, weathered scenery and gnarled post-apocalyptic detritus are redolent of much of Ballards early disaster fiction (The Drowned World, The Drought, The Crystal World). Strikingly, there is also the similarity with Yve Tanguys strange beaches. The point is that along with these surrealists Ballard interested in psychological landscapes, i.e. mindscapes. They are all concerned with the externalisation of the minds iconography. Even with Empire Of The Sun, or, more recently, Cocaine Nights, his most realistic or naturalistic novels are full of these signature images and recurrent themes. Ballards work is also notable for its internal consistency; the deep themes are recurrent but the details, settings, plots ideas, the surfaces as it were are varied. I find it curious that so much modern fiction has aped, say, the style of Martin Amis, but not that of Ballard, who, along with Amis, is the great stylist of postwar English fiction. It would be almost too easy to make a Ballard pastiche with its lexicon of drained pools, disused aerodromes, terminal beaches and aeropsychic time. I suspect the reason is because it works only within an imaginative framework, rather than a parochially realistic one merely concerned with relationships. Truly

can we use the adjective Ballardian. Ballard is none too interested in authorial intrusion either as he says, The writers task is to invent the reality (or as Nietzsche put it: No artist tolerates reality ) and not the fiction which is all around us mass merchandising, advertising, politics as advertisement. David Cronenberg, the Canadian director of Crash, bears this out from his reading of the novel: it provided you with fantasies you didnt know you had before. Once they were there, they were real. They made sense. Only Ballard can come up with a sentence such as What links the first flight of the Wright Brothers to the invention of the Pill is the social and sexual philosophy of the ejector seat. The key to understanding Ballards work is in the fusion or overlapping of internal and external worlds. In 1962 he wrote an article for New Worlds magazine entitled Which Way To Inner Space? (collected in A Users Guide To The Millennium) in which, essentially, he sets out his own manifesto. He despairs of the standard SF rocket and planet story and devices such as time travel and telepathy which actually prevent the writer from using his imagination at all. He criticises SF writers for treating time like a glorified scenic railwayand would like to see it treated as one of the perspectives of the personality. Ballard wants SF to become abstract, and specifically, hed like to see more psycholiterary ideas of science. All in all then, a stylistic and thematic

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overhaul of SF. Most tellingly of all, he writes that I believe that if it were possible to scrap the whole of existing literature (to) be forced to begin again all writers would find themselves inevitably producing something very close to SF. Further, that no other form of fiction has the vocabulary of ideas and images to deal with the present, let alone the future. Take the short story Manhole 69 for example, where an experiment to eliminate sleep goes horribly wrong and ends with the subjects suffering from catatonic seizures. The central hypothesis of this short story is that the mind cannot endure continual consciousness, particularly self-consciousness, and reacts by shutting down. They could no longer contain the idea of their own identity. As in so much of Ballards work, we see this inexorable battle between the unconscious and the conscious, with the former characterised as the more primeval and real part of ourselves. Where Crash literalised the term auto-erotic, Cocaine Nights does the same for guilt complex (note that these are both psychoanalytic terms). Cocaine Nights, Ballards most recent novel, is something of a departure; the first half of the book reads like a fairly straightforward detective piece, with none of Ballards trademark tampering with space-time or individual psyches. Cocaine Nights plot centres on the Spanish resort of Estrella de Mar, where a housefire kills five people, and the subsequent involvement of Charles

Prentice, an outsider whose brother Frank has been arrested for murder. Like Conrads Heart Of Darkness and indeed Crash, the book is under the spell of an alluring and quite possibly insane visionary figure. In its description if a society hellbent on leisure, Cocaine Nights follows the line of the argument set out in Carol Reeds The Third Man, where Harry Lime compares the cuckoo clock art that came from the gentile Swiss culture with the decadent and depraved reign of the Borgias that produced da Vinci. Perhaps the best place to begin with Ballard is his essays the recent collection A Users Guide To The Millennium amounts to a varied and imaginative reading of 20th-century iconography: Mein Kampf, CocaCola, Dal, Burroughs, Elvis, TV, nuclear weapons. A collection of Ballards journalism from the last 25 years, including book reviews, it points to the sheer breadth of his interests and showcases many of the ideas which drive his fiction. Ballard admits to being an assimilator of the invisible literature of technical manuals, company reports, journals, etc. Indeed, one of his recommended books of the last five years is the transcripts of black box flight recordings. For Ballard, its a telling choice: over the last 40 years, his writing has attempted to do the same to record the moments at which our lives are most at risk both from the world outside and from within ourselves. May his own literature become a little less invisible in the future.

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054

Interview [published September 1996]

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Iain M. Banks: Getting Used To Being God


Chris Mitchell meets the relentlessly imaginative Iain M. Banks Twelve years and 14 books since the publication of his debut novel The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks has become one of Britains most prominent and prolific writers. Whether writing mainstream novels as plain Iain Banks or science fiction under his ubiquitous Iain M. Banks nom-de-plume, Banks has mastered the tricky art of attracting both bestseller status and critical acclaim. Now 42, Banks most recent books, the sci-fi epic Excession and the religious cult thriller Whit, indicate that his ceaselessly inventive imagination is in no danger of slowing down. Banks is first and foremost a brilliant storyteller. He takes evident joy in being able to push his plotlines as far as they can go, sending the reader at breakneck speed through unexpected plot twists, cliffhanger endings and, in his sci-fi, mindbending technological possibilities. As he says, Youre very spoilt as a novelist. You get used to being God, basically. No-one tells you what to do. Yet amongst the sex, death, drink and illegal substances that peppers Banks writing, there lurks a distinct moral probity. Whit tells the story of the fictional Luddite Luskentyrian religious cult, as seen through the eyes of the cults 18-year-old Elect Of God Isis Whit. Sent to London in pursuit of her errant cousin Morag, Isis slowly comes to realise that all is not what it seems either within the cults enclave or amongst the Unsaved of the outside world. Banks describes Whit as a book about religion and culture written by a dedicated evangelical atheist I thought I was very kind to them Essentially, Isis makes the recognition that the value of the Luskentyrian cult is in their community values rather than their religious ones. She recognises that efficiency isnt everything, that people not profit are what matters. So, are you on a mission? People usually just ask me What are you on? You cant be too prescriptive about what a writer does, but its important to me to get these ideas into the books, just for my own peace of mind, so that I feel Im not just doing this to make money, Im not just writing pageturners for people to skim through, put aside and forget. Like anybody else, I want to make the world a little more like the world Id like to live in, sad though that is. So I put forward these ideas however subtly or cack-handedly to the

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extent that I can get away with it. The good thing about writing is that you can do this in a non-invasive, nonpenetrative way, youre not telling people this is what they should do, youre just presenting ideas. Whit also differs from Banks previous novels because its written through the eyes of its female protagonist. Its a common complaint about many male novelists (Martin Amis springs to mind) that their female characters always remain lifeless stereotypes. Banks however ignores gender preconceptions as some sort of prohibition to his imagination: I just think of the person in that situation, I dont try and think as a female character per se In a sense its easy to be blind to the sexism thats still around and somehow manage to ignore the other elements of society that still are unequitable in terms of gender or whatever, Banks pauses and then laughs, but its only stupid or ignorant people who do that. If youre a writer youre supposed to have some ability to spot whats going on and to empathise it should be relatively easy to write a female character because you spend your time in the same society I think Id find it hard to write from the point of view from someone who was particularly gay theres a small element of it in Complicity, but its very marginal, a childhood dalliance sort of thing and I think thats because the gay community is quite separate in many ways. To the same extent writing about a black person or someone

in the Indian community would be difficult so writing about an 18-year-old female virgin is quite easy! Whit was a conscious attempt by Banks to write something quieter and more reflective after the polemical rage of his previous mainstream novel, Complicity. Even though Banks has had a reputation for the macabre ever since the gothic horror of The Wasp Factory, Complicitys graphic descriptions of corrupt politicians being killed off in particularly inventive and horrible ways reached new stomach-churning extremes. Banks has no qualms about the violence in his writing: In principle, anythings OK, as long as Ive got an excuse to put it in which is a more honest way of saying, Is it artistically justified? You shouldnt selfcensor yourself just because you have a gut reaction that an idea is too horrible. If theres a reason for it, it has to be done. Theres a moral point to that ghastliness, pain and anguish. Which is why I would absolutely defend Complicitys extreme violence, because it was supposed to be a metaphor for what the Tories have done to this country. Banks rejects the idea that his science fiction writing is a way for him to cut loose in contrast to the tight stricture of his contemporary novels: The scifi isnt really a way of letting off steam. In a sense, Complicity was letting off steam, a way of getting out all the anger and bitterness I felt about the 80s and the Thatcher years. It kind of varies, theres no set pat-

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tern its not like the sci-fi is always playful and the fiction is always disciplined -its just that I have more fun in sci-fi more or less regardless because I enjoy playing by my own rules. This is certainly apparent in Excession, Banks latest Culture novel which charts the arrival of a mysterious entity from another universe into that of the Cultures. Banks revels in the possibilities of technology. Oh yeah, I love the stuff, the more buttons its got the better, when we get voice control its going to be so boring because there wont be any buttons. Theres another moral point here as well. You cant escape the fact that humanity is a technological species, homo technophile or whatever the Latin is. Technology is neither good or bad, its up to the user. We cant escape what we are, which is a technological species. Theres no way back. In your recent interview with the English edition of Wired (June 1996) you intimated that the only reason the Culture works is that machines become so intelligent they save us from ourselves do you think thats the case? Not entirely, no. I think the first point to make about the Culture is, Banks pauses again, sounding like hes about to deliver a profound insight, Im just making it up as I go along. It doesnt exist and I dont delude myself that it does. Its just my take on it. Im not convinced that humanity is capable of becoming the Culture because I think people in the Culture are just too nice altering their genetic inheritance to

make themselves relatively sane and rational and not the genocidal, murdering bastards that we seem to be half the time. But I dont think you have to have a society like the Culture in order for people to live. The Culture is a self-consciously stable and long-lived society that wants to go on living for thousands of years. Lots of other civilisations within the same universe hit the Cultures technological level and even the actuality of the Cultures utopia, but it doesnt last very long thats the difference. The point is, humanity can find its own salvation. It doesnt necessarily have to rely on machines. Itll be a bit sad if we did, if its our only real form of progress. Nevertheless, unless theres some form of catastrophe, we are going to use machines whether we like it or not. This sort of stuff has been going on for decades and mainstream society is beginning to catch up to the implications of artificial intelligence. Despite Banks almost evangelical zeal concerning technology, hes avoided William Gibson and Bruce Stirlings embracing of the net. I dont have access to the internet or email either. Ive got two answering machines which I never switch on. Communications wise, Ive got a fax and a letterbox and thats about it. Banks still considers himself primarily a science fiction author, due to his now long gone pre-publication rites of passage: I wrote five novels before The Wasp

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Factory, and the last three were science fiction, which have all now been published in a much altered form. The one just before The Wasp Factory, Walking On Glass, almost got published before The Wasp Factory in 1979. The Wasp Factory was written in 1981 and published in 1984, by which time Id already written Consider Phlebas. So I thought of myself very much as a science fiction writer as the three books I wrote before The Wasp Factory were all sci-fi. The other two never rose to the light of day because they werent very good, frankly. I go to a lot of SF conventions and the authors I spend time with regularly are SF writers. Im Scottish and a writer so Im a Scottish writer, but I dont mix with Scottish writers very much. So he hasnt been keeping a fatherly eye on Irvine Welshs meteoric success then? I read and was incredibly impressed by Trainspotting and The Acid House. Im as interested as anybody else in new writers but I dont keep either a jealous eye or a particularly helpful eye, for that matter, on them. Im not sending round people to visit them in the early hours of the morning (slips into impeccable Don Corleone voice), Mr Banks. He dont feel you respect him. Were gonna break off your fingers this time. One organisation that might be receiving a midnight visit from Mr Banks is the film company who own the rights to The Wasp Factory, which is currently

embroiled in litigation and which hes unable to discuss outside of the courtroom. More happily, the BBC have just finished shooting a television adaptation of Banks novel The Crow Road, although quite how they intend to portray the exploding grandmother remains to be seen. Its four one-hour episodes starting in November, although BBC programming controllers being a law unto themselves will probably change that. Gavin Miller was the director, and theres quite a few recognisable Scottish actors involved in it: Bill Patterson and Joseph McFadden, who was in the film Small Faces McFadden is playing the central character Prentice McHoan. Allegedly the BBC are pretty happy with it, but thats all I know. I didnt have any involvement with it and I didnt want any involvement with it. I think its very rare that writers can interfere in that sort of thing and not just be a pain in the arse. Banks diffidence concerning moving into new areas extends to the PC games industry Once you start co-operating with someone else you have to make compromises and take other peoples ideas on board. Im not a team player: thats one of my limitations and even writing in other genres: Theres been flippant remarks about doing pornography as Iain S. Banks and Westerns as Iain Z. Banks Its not impossible that I might wake up one morning and decide to do a historical novel, but it would mean doing research the R word so I cant see it myself I think its very un-

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likely, I think Ive found my two niches. And anyway, Ive just signed another 4 book deal which specifically states two mainstream and two science fiction novels, so I dont have to think about it its going be What year is it? Oh it must be science fiction time As regards what those books will concern, Banks remains quiet. Fin-de-sicle hysteria of the close of the millennium, perhaps? Ive done it twice already Canal Dreams is set around the turn of the century,

when the canals are handed back from the US to the Panamanians by the year 2000. I tried to achieve the same sort of feel at the end of the deca-millennium in Against A Dark Background. Its science fiction so you can make it bigger and better with the year 10,000 approaching rather than the year 2000. So while everyone elses attention is diverted by the millennium, Ill do something else. Iain (M.) Banks hes out there somewhere.

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New Fiction [published July 1996]

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Adam Baron: The Man Whose Penis Made Him Locally Famous
Adam Barons infamous, Penthouse-published tale of sex, feminism and chocolate-flavoured genitals My penis made me locally famous. I didnt find out about it until I got to university. Before then my experience of women was nonexistent. Id been at a boys school and anyway I was pretty spotty. I couldnt believe when, all of a sudden, at the Freshers Ball, I was snogging. I was even more amazed when we were in her room. We were both wasted. I didnt have a clue how to behave, I was terrified, but she knew what to do and in no time we were naked, in bed. She was kissing my mouth. My neck. My chest, my stomach, my! She stopped. My God! she said, incredulous. Your cock tastes just like CHOCOLATE! Melanie (her name) wasnt a shy girl. She must have told her friend Suzy. I realised this the next day when a very attractive girl, with hip clothes and trainers, approached me in the union bar and just started chatting. This had NEVER happened to me before. She asked me if I wanted to hear a new CD shed bought and then we were in her room. Halfway through the second track we were naked. Shed hardly even kissed me before her face disappeared under the duvet. It does! she exclaimed suddenly. It bloody well does!! Two weeks into university I was still a virgin. I had, however, received 23 blowjobs from 12 different girls and heard words such as incredible, amazing, Bournville, Swiss and Belgian exclaimed by mops of hair beneath my bedclothes. I had also been requested to immerse myself in a glass of milk and move vigorously to see if any of the flavour rubbed off. It didnt. I went to the doctor. She didnt believe me. Nor did she try it out, which I thought shockingly unscientific. But she did see the state I was in and give me a salve. Okay, so Ill admit it. For the first year it was great. I could have loads of women, any time I wanted. I got cunning and made them sleep with me first. I got fussy. All the guys on campus were jealous. People who didnt know me looked wide eyed to see one or more stunning girls on the arm of a spotty, pale youth, with lank dark hair and glasses. Whats he got?, they seemed to ask themselves. But when the second year came I got really tired of it. There was a whole new year of girls who wanted to try

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me out. I felt like an object. A specimen. And there was something missing from my life, a yearning. I tried to have conversations with girls, in the coffee bar say, but all the time their eyes would be flicking to my crotch. Their tongues would run over their lips, their eyes would glaze over. I would make a hasty excuse and leave. It was about this time I began to get really upset about it. Everyone had started calling me Hob Nob. I say everyone, its not quite true. Some people called me Willy Wonka. Hey, it is NOT funny! I was a person! I was more than a sexual organ that just happened to be flavoured like confectionery. Everyone stared at me. All the girls laughed when they saw me. I overheard them talking about me. About it! I think I had a bit of a breakdown, I couldnt take it. All through my third year I stayed in. I saw no one. The only person I even said Hi to was Sally Hughes, a pretty girl with breasts so huge she seemed to look faintly embarrassed all the time. I had overheard a guy bragging to his friend one day, in the sports hall, about what hed done to them the night before. Did you shag her? the friend asked. No, the guy said, but I didnt care. They were the best breasts I ever came across. Sally Hughes used to smile at me softly whenever we passed each other in the square. I had given up on my little university world. Everyone knew everything. Because I didnt have anything to

do I studied all the time. I got a First and went to New York, Columbia, for a Masters. I took a deep breath of fresh air. Fantastic! It was great! Nobody knew me! If I hadnt been for the lousy beer it would have been perfect. I met Laurie a few months later and we started to go out. Id seen her around in the cafeteria on campus, but it was only when I heard her give a paper on radical feminism that I really noticed her. She wrote about the politics of oral sex. She stood at the lectern in black jeans, white tee shirt, her hair tied back severely, her little fists clenching to emphasise a point. Oral sex, she concluded, is degrading. The worshipping of the phallus only serves to enforce the enslavement of women. No woman should ever do it, and I certainly wont do it ever again. Ever. Thankyou. She stepped down from the platform to rapturous applause from a room mainly filled by women. I was enraptured, entranced. I had to get to know her. Well, eventually we got it together. Having no chocolate penis to rely on, I had to be myself and for a long time she wasnt interested. But then it all happened. Nights discussing politics, poetry, walks in the park, old Cocteau movies. Love, smooth and slow, calm as an angel. About a year after we met, she was lying in my bed, naked, her black hair blooming like an impossible rose against my sheets, her flawless skin almost as white as they were. I was so happy. I started to kiss her, to cover her with kisses. I wanted to adore her, to

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make her feel better than anything; sighs escaped her like wind from a wood across a wheat field No! she said. She took me by the scruff of the neck. Not there! I stopped. Why not? I asked. I knew it, she said firmly. I wont do it to you. I wont. Not I know, I assured her. I want to do it to you. I dont want you to do it to me ever. You will , she said, you will! I knew this would happen

I didnt listen to her. I knew. There was no way Id let her even if she wanted to. Never. I covered the insides of her thighs with my face and rested my hands on the tops of her legs. I pushed them apart slightly. She resisted a little but then she opened her legs wider and I I stopped. I lifted my head up. Guinness, I said, Guinness!! Authors Note: The author would like to point out that any similarity between the character created in this story, and himself, is purely factual. His email address is listed.

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Review [published September 2005] Chris Mitchell

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John Battelle: The Search


John Battelles The Search is more than just a potted history of Google, although that company looms large throughout his book; rather, its a book which takes stock of Googles giddy rise, the search engine wars between Google, Yahoo! and MSN, and the arrival of online contextual advertising which has irrevocably changed the nature of advertising itself. Battelle recognises that the real story about the search engines is actually outside the admittedly fascinating geek arms race between the big players: whats important is what the very act of searching for information on the internet means for business and consumer alike. The simple act of keying in a phrase to a search engine is carried out billions of times a day and in totality provides an unprecedented map of human desires. The commercial ramifications are obvious, but our culture and our access to information are also being transformed by the nature of search. Put it this way once the net becomes a daily part of your life, its hard to imagine doing without it. Its difficult not to sink into hyperbole when discussing search engines, given the frankly insane stats generated by Googles meteoric rise (from zero to $1.3 billion annual revenue in five years, biggest IPO in Silicon Valley, shares at $300 a pop, trimester profits of $300+ million, and so on). But Battelle points out in his introduction that he didnt want to write a straightforward business biography of Google for the good reason that business biographies dont get read. There is a lot of coverage in here about the rise and fall of different search engines, to be sure, and Battelle has conducted hundreds of interviews with every key player in the industry to piece together an excellent overview of the industrys audacious growth. But Battelle is primarily interested in the implications of what the massive leaps in search engine indexing and intelligence mean for the future. The Search, then, isnt simply a business book or a geek book, although it will be marketed as such: its actually tackling one of the most profound but almost invisible cultural influences on our daily lives: how search engines organise and present information in response to our queries. As more and more of our lives moves to being managed through the net, the companies who can correctly analyse what we are looking for and give it to us in the most hassle free way are the

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ones who will prosper. And, as a by-product of that, the more users they have, the more they can analyse whats been asked for before to anticipate what will be asked for in the future. Battelle calls it the Database of Intentions, and mastering the analysis of all those billions of queries is where the money lies. The most obvious example of the commercial gold in search queries is contextual advertising, those text ads that turn up next to your search results that are related to your query. Still in its infancy, contextual advertising has revolutionised online advertising and had a huge knock-on effect on old media. The targeted nature of contextual ads they only get served to someone whos interested in that subject; the ad buyer only pays when someone clicks the link has meant thousands of businesses that couldnt afford to advertise can now do so and, crucially, get results of real money-in-the-bank business driven by those ads. Shoestring businesses have enjoyed massive sales boosts as a result of this approach, without having to spend vast sums on marketing. The joy here is that everyone wins the customer finds what they want, the business gets business, and the search engine makes money for connecting the two together. Advertising becomes shock, horror useful and even valued, rather than an irritant. Thats the ideal scenario, anyway, and Battelle provides case studies showing both the up and potentially disastrous downside of relying

on search engines to drive business your way. Contextual ads have not only helped advertisers but also website owners too. The nets free culture has always meant that paying for content has been a thorny issue surfers loathe registering for access to newspaper archives online, much less paying for it. Googles Adsense program provided a way for sites to have relevant ads to their content appear on the page and in doing so, allowed site owners to earn some handy pocket change too. (Of course, Im biased here: in the two years Ive been running Google Adsense on Spike, its monthly revenue has steadily increased as Google tweak the system to display more relevant ads). As Battelle has pointed out on his Searchblog, now is a great time to be a publisher on the net, because there are more and more easy ways of earning cash from content. Blog networks like Weblogs, Inc which earn over $2,000 a day from Adsense, or probloggers like Darren Rowse who recently earned $15,000 in one month from Adsense, show that theres real money to be made from providing top quality, regular content. Indeed, Battelle has recently launched Federated Media Publishing, which will be teaming up with selected sites to manage matching ads to their content. Battelle, a former editor of Wired and founder of the Industry Standard, is already brand manager for leading blog BoingBoing, and has considerably increased that sites revenues since coming aboard.

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As founder of the Industry Standard magazine and a co-founder of Wired, Battelle has been round the block in both old and new media, and much of The Searchs vitality stems from his own hands-on involvement in the industry. Theres little of the usual business pomposity about Battelles prose. Instead, Battelle writes in a lucid and informal style, clearly in command of his material but confident enough to not deluge the reader with extraneous info to demonstrate his research. The Search is, in short, refreshingly bullshit free. The same cant be said for the future of search engines. With the realisation that the potential of search has only just begun, there are real dangers ahead too. Ownership of personal information is the major concern, with some beginning to see the likes of Google not as a benign info provider but a Big Brother like monitor of all online movements. Criticism of Googles Dont Be Evil moral code has also begun, with the companys current leadership of the search field making it walk point for the whole industry. Gaming contextual advertising is also an increasing problem, with clickfraud and spam blogs on the rise, clogging search results with poor quality websites. Each of the engines is working flat out to find ways to counter these emergent problems, and no doubt as they deliver solutions a whole new set

of crises will arise; given the industrys flux and mutability, its hard to imagine a point at which there will be no clouds on the horizon. For now, though, search remains a huge success story Google may well be about to have its own stock bubble popped, but the company is profitable and unlikely to be knocked off its leadership perch by Wall Street alone. Yahoo and MSN are moving into the contextual ad field, each looking to get the competitive edge to make advertisers and publishers alike use their particular system. Most importantly, all three are continually trying to find better ways to slice and dice the Database of Intentions to give you what you want quicker, simpler and faster. Google, to my mind, still remains out in front for innovation, constantly testing business boundaries and received wisdom, putting the user experience first and working backwards. In the last five years, it has continually gone its own way and managed to take the industry with it. But Yahoo and MSN and, indeed, people and companies weve never even heard of yet, are not to be underestimated. John Battelles The Search provides a brilliant illustration that within five years everything in the search world can change absolutely. It has done so already once it probably will do again.

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Review [published January 2000] Chris Mitchell

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John Baxter: George Lucas: A Biography


Throughout his film-making career, George Lucas has continually pushed back the boundaries of technology in order to realise his ideas on the silver screen. John Baxters biography of the man is not only an account of Lucas personal history but also the transformative effect Lucas fascination with technology has had on the entire movie industry since the advent of Star Wars. While Baxters biography (published under the title Mythmaker in the States) is not authorised and he lacked any direct contact with the publicity-shy Lucas, his exhaustive research provides a balanced overview of Lucas career. Although Baxter doesnt shy away from discussing the detrimental effect of Lucas driving ambition on both his marriage and many of his friendships, he prefers to concentrate on Lucas movie innovation and the building of the LucasFilm empire. What becomes most apparent in Baxters portrayal of Lucas is his fascination with technologys ability to create filmic illusion on a grand scale, rather than a fascination with movies themselves. From his first experimental picture THX1138 through to Star Wars, Indiana Jones and The Phantom Menace, Lucas continually sought ever-grander ways to put the audience on the edge of their seats, rather than conveying a message or making social comment. In doing so, he inaugurated the age of the blockbuster, where spectacle took precedence over everything else. Lucas summed it up himself by saying Im a filmmaker, not a director. I like the physical part of making movies. I might be a toymaker if I wasnt a film maker. The strain on Lucas health making Star Wars meant that he avoided sitting in the directors chair for another 20 years until The Phantom Menace. Much of that strain was caused by the creation of Industrial Light And Magic to produce Star Wars special effects, most of which had to be created completely from scratch. Along the way, ILM created Photoshop, which is now the industry-standard computer graphics application, and later Pixar, who became a separate company and pioneered the digital animation of Toy Story and A Bugs Life. Its apparent that Lucas returned to directing with The Phantom Menace precisely because the technology

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had finally caught up with his vision. Digital editing allowed him absolute control over the movies execution, rather than the fraught creation of Star Wars. Ultimately Baxters biography portrays Lucas as a maverick who refused to kowtow either to Hollywood or to accepted notions of what makes a movie picture.

Its an immensely readable account that will appeal to Star Wars aficionados and film fans alike. It also acts as a fascinating overview of the way the movie industry has changed over the last 25 years and how much Lucas independence and interest in exploiting technology helped shape that change.

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Feature [published December 1996]

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Despite two recent authoritative biographies, Stephen Mitchelmore argues that Beckett remains an enigma It has not been easy assimilating Beckett into our writer. Reading the novels and plays one imagines a culture. While his mentor James Joyce made with ease secular monk, yet the dominant impression from both the familiar journey from public outrage and bewilderof these biographies is of a drunken, womanizing, ment to universal love and admiration, Beckett, seven pretentious and self-pitying young man who was good years after his death, remains as distant as ever. He at sport and languages. I say young man because the wouldnt have had it any other way. His fame is due older, wiser Beckett is left relatively untouched. We to a play which he said was misunderstood. For a never get very close to him. This is a pity if not also great Modern writer to become well known it seems inevitable. The pre-war work is discussed at length as it he or she requires a degree of similarity to popular tends to follow the details in the turmoil of his growth: fiction to tempt people into reading them. Kafka has a manic-depressive mother, psychosomatic illnesses, horror, Proust nostalgia, Lawrence pornography, Woolf premature death of a genial father, archetypal Oedipal niceness. Beckett seems to lack this. Only Waiting For love/sex dichotomy, unchannelled talent, etc. Godot approaches such familiarity: Morecambe & The later works, however, do not lend themselves so Wise in a mortuary perhaps. The rest of the work lurks readily to such links. And these, despite the protestabehind it like a black hole ready to swallow up any tions of the nosy, will be the ones he will be remembered cheerful soul wanting something less than an enigma. for. They are passed over almost in silence. This is not This suggests we need a biography to help us through because Knowlson and Cronin are hacks interested the artifice. And these two new biographies certainly only in gossip and obvious life-work correlations, or do something like that. because the later work is lifelessly abstract, but because After reading both Anthony Cronins The Last Modthey are both aware of the crassness of such an enterernist and James Knowlsons Damned To Fame, one prise. The later work is the poetry of confinement, of has a more rounded impression of the man, if not the disintegration and ending (that is, what comes before

Samuel Beckett: Beyond Biography

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death, which never comes). How can the biographer write about that if the man himself was so active? Beckett wrote about these things not so much because he experienced them, although he did, eventually, but because he observed and felt them impending all the time. A biographer can only try to understand why he felt this. In revising an apocryphal story, Knowlson gives us a hint. Krapps story of a Joycean epiphany on a storm-tossed shore in Krapps Last Tape was thought to be Becketts own experience. It turns out that an equivalent epiphany did occur but in his mothers bedroom as he watched her suffer from Parkinsons Disease. Krapps epiphany is traditionally romantic; the exaltations of nature provoking a grand idea in the individual. Becketts real one was less effusive. He saw how nature has a calm, secret hostility inflicting intense pain and suffering on loved ones with pause only for what we call life. It is nothing to be celebrated. The wordy flights of Becketts youthful writings (that is, before he reached 30) side-step this awareness in favour of familiar channels of talent: show-off shock tactics and autobiographical plundering. So, it is no surprise that Dream Of Fair To Middling Women, the novel Knowlson and Cronin mine most heavily for information, is only available because of the authors death. He did not want it published during his lifetime because it was too clever and derivative. Cleverness tends to be derivative. As

one critic said, Beckett had a lot to unlearn. However, such bad art enables Knowlson and Cronin to present convincing portraits of Beckett in young adulthood. This is where he had most in common with his contemporaries; he was a young man with nothing to say and an itch to make, as he said of himself. Cronin is particularly dismissive of a lot of Becketts early itching. He often ends quotations with Whatever that might mean. This is refreshing after the uncritical, if not also hagiographical tone taken by Knowlson, Becketts long time friend. One thing Cronin didnt have that Knowlson did was access to Becketts diaries from his wander around Nazi Germany in the 30s. These provide an important revision of Deirdre Bairs suggestion in her pioneering 1978 biography that Beckett was ignorant of, or chose to ignore the effect of Nazi rule. The diaries reveal his awareness and disgust at their attitudes. Indeed, the people he meets are distinguished by their sympathies. And the war itself seems to have been the watershed in Becketts life. If he had gone home to Ireland instead of staying to help his French friends, he may have continued along familiar lines following the trends of the times and fading as fast. However, the stoicism and near-starvation of the war years seems to have had a lasting effect. His only concern from then on was to write, be published, and write some more. Popularity was not a confirmation of importance, but pure chance.

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He seems to have realized that what was important was the night sky of nothingness behind the pyrotechnics of culture (a phrase of his friend E.M. Cioran). Beckett started to write in French to rid himself of as much English cultural baggage as possible. His style became radically spare. He refused the big picture. Indeed, the claustrophobia of later plays and prose is not far removed from the details of war, or at least impending war: terror, boredom, despair, confusion, gallows humour, and imprisonment. Being alone in a room with only thoughts and memories is not lifelessly abstract. It is the experience of millions of people. To label it solipsistic or elitist, as many people have, is narrowminded in the extreme. To write from the perspective of outside, which many much-touted writers still do (Pat Barker, Irving Welsh et al), is far more abstract and non-empathetic. Even if these claim to be the voice of the lost, silenced or the underclass, their conservative attitude to language annexes the ground where these voices might speak. Their sympathy is the cruelty of the sentimental that Wilde spoke of. They silence everybody in their powerful cries from the trenches of literary tradition. Beckett is the writer par excellence of what it is to be totally alone, separate even from the self you thought you were. Inevitably, this leads to a different kind of language; neither formal nor colloquial. For Beckett, language is not so much the meadow where the self

can frolic in freedom as a No Mans Land where it is never safe. Beckett was not one of herd playing at freedom-loving in the tenches, but wandered the No Mans Land like Dante in Hell. It was not a deliberate exercise. He was often surprised at what he wrote. It is not purely intellectual. It was not self-expression, more unself-expression. If it was merely the surface self, fiction would be only disguised autobiography and these biographies would be even more superfluous than they already are. Both Knowlson and Cronin are aware of this and do not try to pin Becketts devastating later work to what was happening in his life or his world. At least, not directly. They are aware of the acultural provenance of his inspiration. The biographies are works borne of our literary cultures desire for short cuts, yet carry that restriction with honour. Beckett was aware of a saying in post-war literary French circles that if an Englishman were to write a book on a camel he would call it The Camel, while a Frenchman would call it The Camel And Love. A German, on the other hand, would call it The Absolute Camel. All the books, of course, would probably be the same. Both authors reviewed here are Irish, and perhaps it is inevitable they would think of something odd for the titles of their books. And they have. Damned To Fame, despite being a phrase from one of Becketts letters, is a peculiarly limited title, and Cronins The Last Modernist is absurd. This tempts the assumption

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that Modernism is an historical event rather than a virus at the heart of culture. But this is unimportant; titles of books like these are for publicity purposes only. Beyond that, the books themselves help us filter our interests. If you want rollocking sub-Joycean romps, that is, Beckett and Love, read the early work. And in terms of these biographies, if you want encyclopaedic detail, read Knowlsons, while if you want a less reverential and more speculative read, Cronins is for you. If you want the Absolute Beckett, read the novels; youll never get any closer.

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Review [published June 2000] Stephen Mitchelmore

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Saul Bellow: Ravelstein


I stood back from myself and looked into Amys face. No one else on all this earth had such features. This was the most amazing thing in the life of the world. These sentences come from the final page of Saul Bellows previous novel The Actual, which, I seem to remember, he said would be his last. Perhaps, instead, it should be classed as a novella; it ends after only 104 pages. His latest novel Ravelstein, at 233 pages, safely reaches novel-length. Perhaps this is the last. But maybe not, because it doesnt feel like a novel. There is a famous reason for this, and the reason is fame. Abe Ravelstein, the eponymous character, is the late Allan Bloom, political philosopher at the University of Chicago and close friend of the novelist. In 1987, Bloom published a book called The Closing Of The American Mind, a singular polemic against what he saw as the betrayal of American values in the realm of Higher Education. The book became a surprise bestseller and made Bloom millions of dollars. Saul Bellow contributed a foreword to the book, and, it turns out, was the one who suggested he write it in the first place. Bloom died young in 1992, but before he died asked Bellow to write about him warts and all. This novel is the result. So why doesnt he call Ravelstein by his famous name? After all, Martin Amis, Bellows wrong-headed protg, hasnt changed the names in his recent autobiography Experience. In his book, Bellow cant be hoping to deny the link. And he isnt: he has been quite open about who Abe really is. Thats not the reason. The reason goes to the heart of the novel, and the novel in general. The short explanation is Amys face, which Harry, the narrator of The Actual, sees, as if for the first time as the coffin containing her husband is lowered into its plot. Harry realises that Amy has always been the one (that is, The Actual), and asks her to marry him. The novel ends before she answers, restraining the sentimentality inherent in such a scenario. Before she can say anything, the plot is lowered, as it were, into its coffin. But read his sentence again: he sees Amys actual face only in standing back from himself. We, the readers, dont actually see her face but we sense the unique, mysterious, revelatory moment. Her distance

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is necessary for it to happen. A straight memoir is more likely to evade this solitary instant with anecdote, psychologising or uncomprehending sentiment. Here, the distance of fiction opens to the uncanny singularity of experience rather than stuffing it into the requirements of genre. In Ravelstein, loving friendship has taken the place of romance. The six-times married Bellow is confident enough in his sexuality (and at 85, a father again) to make it clear he loved Bloom. By fictionalising his friend we get more than the schmaltz of a tribute. Its a familiar Bellow theme. His best novel Herzog is also about an academic seen in unfamiliar light. Bellows son Adam has since written of how it mirrored his fathers life at the time, and how Adam himself appears as Herzogs young daughter. He says he cant read the novel without unease as it portrays Herzogs wife, by extension Adams mother, in a very poor light. Yet the novel also shows how terrible it must have been to be married to Herzog. He is manic, paranoid, distracted and dishevelled. He scrawls mad, half-finished letters to the famous dead instead of writing his supposedly great academic treatise. Herzog blames his wifes affair with his best friend for his condition, but he protests too much; and he knows it. Abe Ravelstein is a Herzog with more self-confidence, but we still take what he says with a pinch of salt. His best-seller advocates the clarity of ancient

Greek rationality and condemns the Dionysian, valueless chaos of popular culture. Yet while he blames blaring Rock music for the degeneration of America, he plays kitschy Italian operas at the highest possible volume, annoying his neighbours. And while he knows Plato like a man holed up in an ivory tower, he is also a world-class consumer; he spends like theres no tomorrow. In fact, he wrote the outline of his book only to get the small advance in order to placate his debtees. In the end, he wrote the whole thing and was able to indulge his Liberace-like taste in clothes, furniture and hotels. The novel is rich in the textures of $4,000 jackets and silk dressing gowns. Ravelstein is like Liberace in another sense too: he is gay; and recklessly so. He dies of an AIDS-related illness. Yet he pours scorn on what he calls faggot behaviour. Love and its relations has been a Bellow theme from the start, and his interest coincides with his friends. Ravelstein constantly refers to the human striving to find his or her other half, as discussed in Platos Symposium. Yet while Ravelstein shares his life with a young man called Nikki, he also trawls the Parisian nights for rough trade. While the narrator of the book, his friend Chick, recognises a contradiction, he doesnt set it up as emblematic; he leaves it as a foible that all great men have. Chicks professed innocence maybe a ruse of fiction, enabling avoidance. There are strong clues that Chick sees through him. Ravelstein encourages Chick to de-

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velop his monograph on the economist Maynard Keynes by studying the minutiae of his letters home from a post-First World War reparations conference. Such minutiae, he suggests, reveal the larger truth. Chick seems to be trying to do the same with Ravelstein: we see the way he holds his mobile phone between his bare knees, and as his expensive Japanese kimono falls away it reveals legs paler than milk the shinbone long and the calf muscle abrupt, without roundness. Once Ravelstein is dead, the novel becomes more complex as Chick describes how he stalled for a few years before writing the book. Clearly, the facts werent enough. Before Ravelstein dies, Chick divorces his self-regarding physicist wife and, soon after, marries one of Ravelsteins pupils, the meeker, much younger Rosamund. On a tropical holiday, Chick eats a poisoned fish and becomes ill. Rosamund gets him home despite his unwillingness. It saves his life. Only after this neardeath experience is Chick able to write the memoir of his dead friend. This happened in reality too. Bellow says he was nine-tenths gone. Perhaps being on the edge of oblivion gave him the necessary insight, just as it gave an insight into Rosamunds love. While Ravelsteins hypocrisy is suggested, the bigger issue of America is barely mentioned. This is odd because it possessed Ravelstein and fuelled his best-seller. Perhaps Bellow could not step back from himself in this case. Bloom saw the

60s as the beginning of the Fall of America. What led him to think this? The invasion of Cuba and South Vietnam? The subsequent three million native deaths and long-term chemical damage? No, it is the academic opposition. He says their questioning of long-accepted values, and subsequent pandering to the tastes of the permissive society equates with what the philosopher Heidegger did by supporting the Nazis from his University chair. One might argue the opposite, and say that US academics were in fact the true descendants of Americas founding fathers rebelling against unjust Imperial might. It is not even hinted at here despite Ravelsteins fascination. He has many ex-pupils in high places in the US Administration. They are more like disciples. Ravelstein, we are told, sought out the best pupils and taught them to forget their parents. Ravelstein wanted each to be a tabula rasa, a blank slate onto which he could transfer his learning. Once in power, these disciples would call him up and tell him the latest inside news such as Bushs final decision to end the Gulf War. Chick is impressed. Ravelstein laps it up. There seems to be no irony intended as Bloom talks to one of his high-powered disciples, puffs away on a Cuban cigar made illegal to punish a defiant nation and dismisses the foolish anti-Americanism of French intellectuals. This knee-jerk conflation of opposites is meant to be an example of Ravelsteins common sense. One has

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to remember that as Bloom/Ravelstein published his book, thousands of men, women and children were being killed and maimed by US-funded terrorists as they undermined or overturned elected governments uncongenial to US business interests. And the extreme Right-wing charitable foundations who paid Bloom/ Ravelstein extravagant salaries were among the most active supporters of these mercenaries and their Washington paymasters. There is no mention of such minutiae in the novel, except for talk of Americas higher need in the world. Such are the real echoes from Heideggers time. My impatience with this omission could be dismissed as unfairly motivated. But I think it reveals the failure of the book to stand back enough. Essentially, Ravelsteins philosophy emerges out of a need to deny ones parents that is, to repress whatever stands behind the faade of desire, intellect, money and status. The man exhibits such lust for life because he was always on the edge of an abyss created by an inherent contradiction in his life and politics. Chick often wonders about Abes working class past but, like his sexuality, it is taboo and is dropped each time. He is perhaps too in thrall to the rumbling tank of denial to see the victims buried in the tracks. As a result, Abe remains a two-dimensional figure and the novel doesnt have any tension until he is dead. What redeems the book, for me, is the brief re-

emergence of Bellows lyrical intellectualism. There is a remarkable passage in the novel in which Chick talks of finding the way to communicate certain incommunicables your private metaphysics; something Ravelstein refused to do. Chick explains: To grasp this mystery, the world, was the occult challenge. You came into a fully developed and articulated reality from nowhere, from nonbeing or primal oblivion. You had never seen life before. In the interval of light between the darkness in which you awaited first birth and the darkness of death that would receive you, you must make what you could of reality, which was in a state of highly advanced development. I had waited millennia to see this. He believes it can be done by returning to ones earliest memories, untainted by ideology or habit. He recalls when, soon after he learned to walk, he went down onto the street and saw huge utility-pole timbers that lined the street. They were beaver-coloured, soft and rotted. Maybe it is because this appears in relative isolation, like the limp silk fresh lilac drowning water on page 73 of Humboldts Gift, that these poles develop a presence like Amys face. The mystery is grasped, not dispersed. Early in the novel Chick mentions reading of the poor convulsive Samuel Johnson touching each lamppost on a street, and is fascinated, perhaps because it reminds him of his own experience. Ravelstein perhaps wanted Chick to be his Boswell, but it is Chick, Saul Bellow,

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who will be remembered, though not for this novel in particular. Generally, it has the tone of valediction-butnot-quite. This could be because Rosamund is the real inspiration of this book, with Ravelstein as the unlikely bonding agent. Though she appears, like Amys face in The Actual, at the end of the book, she is about the present and future; death is gratefully postponed. In the process, it resurrects Ravelstein. In fact, the question of how the apparently dead past binds to the present weighs on the novel throughout.

Ravelstein and Chick are both unpious Jews, but they know the facts of history. One of Chicks friends is a Romanian implicated in the Fascist Iron Guard of World War II. Ravelstein is appalled and tells Chick that if he is to meet the Romanian again to think of the Jews they hung on meat hooks: we must not turn our backs on the millions who died he says. Chick finds it difficult; he doesnt want to think about it. Anyway, he is amused by the Romanian. By the end, we are familiar with this characteristic.

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Feature [published February 1999]

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Thomas Bernhard: Failing To Go Under

Stephen Mitchelmore reflects on Thomas Bernhards work on the tenth anniversary of the writers death Literature can be defined by the sense of the imminence Like Kafkas, Bernhards writing is easily caricaof a revelation which does not in fact occur. (Borges) tured. This is one of the main problems in the reception Like Kafka, Thomas Bernhard, the novelist, playof the best literature in this country. I have seen an wright and poet, died young. At this end of the century, advert for Czech beer labelling Kafka the monarch 58 is young. He had been tubercular since his teens, so of mirthlessness, which told me that the copywriter it was no great surprise. Indeed, we are to be grateful knows nothing of Kafka, and probably not of beer for his tendency to illness. It was TB, he tells us in his also. Anyone who has read his work can testify there remarkable autobiography, that took him to writing. is something oddly funny about it; A Country Doctor In a sanatorium lungs drowning in sputum, aged 19 will have you in stitches. Yet Kafka remains a byword and expected to die he began to write. He believed for depressive reading. The French philosopher Gilles it might have cured him too. I remember seeing an Deleuze, however, called him a man of joy. The obituary following his death on 12th February, 1989. At thing is, you have to be patient; hes not Bill Bryson. that time I had not read any of his works. Just another Though Bernhard has written comedically, notably in novelist I assumed, and did not read the obituary. In the helpfully sub-titled Old Masters: a comedy, he too the summer of the following year I found a copy of the is presented as one of those miserable Germans who novel Concrete in the magnificent Quartet Encounters cant accept that life is actually wonderful. This is so imprint. I shall always associate that book with a park wrong: he was Austrian. in an otherwise squalid English city. It is a short enough Generally, we British assume you have be one thing to be read in one place. And I have read it in many more or the other. Youre either funny and disposable or places since. Certainly it has death written through serious and difficult. I guess its partly to do with the it, but it cures too, almost. The rest of this will try to satanic rule of marketing strategies protecting niche explain why. identity and such like, but certainly the culture cannot

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accept the way literature acts in us, rather than just upon us. We assume it to be a pleasant distraction against a pre-defined reality. In a way, this is inevitable. What goes on in our heads daily, hourly, minutely, gets into writing only through distancing. Writing something down provides a displacement from the anxiety, the boredom or the confusion of the moment. We want our minds like the thing written down. It is easy to have this done for you. Responding to a growing appetite for distraction, shorthand journalistic clich has infested our inner lives. Generally, it means we are unable to have respect for uniqueness of experience because it is summed up, packaged, placed in a captionable context. Soon this context demands total obedience; nothing else is relevant. The private self is subsumed, and we assume we have to give unquestioning respect to the two-dimensional conceits of ambitious fiction covering the ground of journalists and historians (Don Delillo and Tom Wolfe being the current examples). The alternative, where it is assumed the self gets full exposure without the interference of common language, tends to mean the stream-of-consciousness mode of writing. Take Harold Brodkeys long-delayed, much-hyped novel The Runaway Soul; an 800 page Bildungsroman made up of dribbling poetic language, supposedly reminiscent of Molly Blooms soliloquy and Prousts great work

of intellect and intimacy. Being neither, it still came to the fore because it was the opposite of the other kind of Great American Novel. It suited the demand that youre one thing or the other: inner or outer. Yet the technique of simulating intimacy reeked of that alone: technique. Luckily, this novel has now been sidelined as an embarrassment. Meanwhile, Realism, whether in historical sweep or intimate acquaintance with an individual, prefers that such excessive literary adventures are limited to unserious Postmodernists. No one should claim they challenge its intimacy with life. Raymond Carver exemplifies its naive arrogance in his essay on writing fiction, collected in Fires. One of his maxims, he announced, was No tricks. He had this printed on a piece of cardboard stuck above his writing desk. Yet Carvers highly-influential dirty realism is one big trick. This is elided by calling it a craft, but craftsmanship is also trickery institutionalised. His innocence of this is typical of working-class sentimentality. Perhaps he never completed a novel because such trickery revealed itself over greater length. His friend Richard Ford seems almost to be satirising Carvers self-abnegatory posing in his touchinglyoverlong novel Independence Day; a terribly funny recital of how failure infects and becomes the wellspring of writing. Anyway, having a note above ones writing desk reminding oneself of what to do is enough to indi-

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cate a need to efface the workings of the imagination. This despite Carvers fiction being renowned for its imaginative empathy. Rudolf, the narrator in Bernhards Concrete sees through the motives for appreciation of Carvers work: People are always talking about it being their duty to find their way to their fellow men to their neighbour, as they are forever saying with all the baseness of false sentiment when in fact it is purely and simply a question of finding their way to themselves. Carvers achievement was special, but flawed. It is a literary equivalent of the self replicating its DNA with serial partners; never mind the consequences. When Larkin mordantly quipped Dont have any kids yourself, it was as much to do with poems as with children. The problem is, what goes on in our heads is also literature, in the sense that consciousness is already distance. Any privileging of inside or outside means a fundamental distortion. It means there is no simple access through writing to what we want to write about. When know-nothings like the BBCs arts guru Mark Lawson complains of writers writing about writers, he misses this fundamental issue. The so-called selfreflexive novel is more likely to get closer to the truth than those effacing the conceit. This is why dominant forms of fiction, and the journalistic definition of literatures relation to the world, needs to be set aside in favour of a mediation between the world and the writer;

an infinite mediation. Like Bernhards. Ironically (as journalists are so keen to say in order to assert their distant control) Bernhard began his career as a journalist. After giving up his music studies because of illness, he wrote short, precise summaries of pending court cases for a local Socialist newspaper. He developed a talent, and an offshoot can be seen in the extremely odd book The Voice Imitator: 104 stories in 104 pages. The musical background continued in his early preference for poetry, but this soon merged with the prose to produce novels. The mixing of opposites might be seen as peculiar to Bernhards biographical details: harsh reality with musical polyphony. There are other details about his childhood even before the illness that are just to depressing to repeat. For these, see his autobiography collected as Gathering Evidence. Harsh reality with polyphony appear in abundance in the 1970 novel The Lime Works. It is about the death by gunshot of a crippled woman. Her husband, Konrad, is under arrest. The novel tells the story of the years leading up to the death in a collage of reported statements from local people. This is how it begins: when Konrad bought the lime works, about five and a half years ago, the first thing he moved in was a piano he set up in his room on the first floor, according to the gossip at the Laska tavern, not because of any artistic leanings, says Wieser, the manager of the

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Mussner estate, but for relaxation, to ease the nervous strain caused by decades of unremitting brain work, says Fro, the man in charge of the Trattner estate, agreeing that Konrads piano playing had nothing to do with art, which Konrad hates, but was just improvisation, as Wieser says, for an hour first thing early in the morning and another late at night, every day, spent at the keyboard, with the metronome ticking away, the window open (trans. Sophie Wilkins) It goes on like this for 241 pages. You see how multiple perspectives are given, without any privileging of any one in particular. The manic behaviour of Konrad, as reported, is equalled by the persistence of the investigation. As it details Konrads perceived descent into madness and murder, it threatens the same for the investigator. Thus the distant narration is implicated in what it perceives. Objectivity, of course, is never immune. It can never reach its object directly. This is made clearer in Bernhards later novels because they tend to play with very few voices. Yet despite being powerfully subjective, they transcend mere egotism transferred to the page (go to the Realists for that). Realisms need for the suspension of disbelief is not an issue here: we are swept along by the narcotic prose. Yet we are also displaced by what it tells us or what it doesnt tell us. Escapism isnt possible in the usual sense. It means there is always an uneasy edge to the

pleasure of reading. Bernhards definitive character is a Thinker overwhelmed by something infringing on his intellectual project; usually imminent death. There are scientists in Yes and The Cheap-Eaters, philosophers in Correction and The Loser. Rudolf, in Concrete, is a musicologist trying to write a monograph on the composer Mendelsson. However, he cannot get past the research stage. He blames his worldly sister: Shes always destroyed whatever shes touched, and all her life shes tried to destroy me. At first unconsciously, then consciously, shes set out to annihilate me. Right up to this day Ive had to protect myself against my elder sisters savage desire to annihilate, and I really dont know how so far Ive managed to escape her. (trans. David McLintock) Rudolfs monomania emerges in the very design of text we are reading: Bernhards famous book-length paragraphs. There are no natural spaces to stop and reflect. Again, this just begs the question about what is being avoided, left out, denied. The repetition of annihilate in this fairly typical passage shows how Bernhards language is literary, yet not to show how sensitive the writer is, but to bring forth the way experience is bound to literature, and vice versa. After all, the only access literature has to annihilation is the word itself, and perhaps is all we have also. In his last novel Extinction, this is made wonderfully clear in a favourite passage of mine, where the narrator,

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an ex-patriot professor based in Rome, talks about the search for his childhood in an Austrian country estate, Wolfsegg: In Rome I sometimes think of Wolfsegg and tell myself that I have only to go back there in order to rediscover my childhood. This has always proved to be a gross error, I thought. Youre going to see your parents, I have often told myself, the parents of your childhood, but all Ive ever found is a gaping void. You cant revisit your childhood, because it no longer exists, I told myself. The Childrens Villa affords the most brutal evidence that childhood is no longer possible. You have to accept this. All you see when you look back is this gaping void. Not only your childhood, but the whole of your past, is a gaping void. This is why its best not to look back. You have to understand that you mustnt look back, if only for reasons of selfprotection, I thought. Whenever you look back into the past, youre looking into a gaping void. Even yesterday is a gaping void, even the moment thats just passed. (trans. David McLintock) What Creative Writing manual would pass this excessive, uncompromising, monological prose? And there are another 334 and a half pages like this! One may ask whats in it for the reader I mean, youre not going to learn anything about the world by reading this,

are you? Well, you might learn how much you need to fill your own gaping void by reading. Yet for all the impression of suffocation this gives, there is a clear musical rhythm to the prose. It does intoxicate; a popular form of escape, yes, but not abused by Bernhard. His form of prose weakens the need to choose between utilitarian language or lyric indulgence. Bernhard said that his prose rhythm owed a lot to music. Indeed, he uses the life of a musician for the overall theme of one of his best novels Der Untergeher. (Literally this translates as The Undergoer, but this is ridiculous and has been translated as The Loser. Unfortunately this loses the allusion to Nietzsche Have you suffered for knowledges sake? that is, gone under). The book reads like a prose version of Bachs Goldberg Variations. And Bernhard uses the real figure of Bachs greatest interpreter Glenn Gould the most important piano virtuoso of the century and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (although neither is by any means identical to the real person) to illuminate the life of the writer; the Bernhardian kind of writer. In the story, the Canadian Gould is a friend of Wertheimer, the Wittgenstein figure, and the unnamed narrator. The latter two, we are told, were themselves exceptional pianists but after hearing Goulds unearthly genius at work, they give up hope. They could never attain his inhuman state. In response, Wertheimer auctioned off his piano, took up the human sciences and then

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gave up entirely. He committed suicide, leaving philosophical notes rather than a complete work. Gould is also dead, but naturally; of a lung disease (in reality, he died of a stroke). This leaves the narrator alone. He tries to write a monograph About Glenn Gould but instead writes what were reading. It is pointed out in the Afterword to the English edition that the three main characters can be summarised as a triple-separation of Bernhard himself: he is at once Gould the virtuoso artiste, Wertheimer the suicide, a self-styled failure gone under; and the unnamed narrator. In real life, Bernhard was a virtuoso, of course, and perhaps also a suicide. The last state, being unnamed is therefore appropriate. His living self mediates between the extremes of Gould and Wertheimer inhumanity and death both perhaps preferable. The unnamed one is unable to go under in art or suicide, forced to remain, like everyone else, in the usual human situation. Unless, that is, you count his default project, The Loser, as a virtuoso work of art which I do. In which case, the unnamed one goes on, elsewhere, not in this book, unto death. But perhaps not quite alone. Before death, Bernhard

achieved full expression because he wrote out of failure to go under. He understood the dangers of art for humanity, and showed respect for the limits of the imagination. Ironically (again), in accepting the limits, he transcended them: partly through the invention of a literary conceit, partly out of lyrical power, partly out of biographical necessity. Such a form of transcendence is why fiction can be more than just information or distraction. It can be where the true self emerges; ones self with others. Saul Bellow, the American novelist, who shares Bernhards waterfall eloquence and complexity, has spoken of the experience of getting it right, and with Bernhardian relish: [transcendence is] just a handle. Its not the real thing. The real thing is an unquenchable need that never stops gnawing at you. And you feel that youre being transcendent in that lousy sense when you are fully expressive. Thats when it happens to you. Then youre satisfied that youve done the right thing. Otherwise no. Otherwise you fall back on explanations and definitions and boring discourse. You might as well be a social scientist and write that sort of stuff.

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Review [published April 2002]

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Stephen Mitchelmore finds Thomas Bernhard to be elusive within two studies of the Austrian writer What if everything we can be depends on playing a it is clear that her subject is the paradigms essential role? Where would that leave us? Well, first of all, it figure. There seems to be no private Thomas Bernhard. would mean that the public self, the one presented to As such, Honegger says he is a particularly Austrian the world, is not a mask but the original; the thing phenomenon. The nation, she says, transplanted the itself. Behind the scenes, alone, we live the mystery baroque theatrics of the old Hapsburg Empire into its of self-consciousness. We wonder who it is that wakes cultural life, notably the Salzburg Festival, the state at four to soundless dark. Alone, we dream of another run Burgtheatre, and one man: Thomas Bernhard. Each life; the one in the biography. Perhaps the oppressive provided an arena for Austria to conjure its self image. climate of our culture as seen in the triumphant exIn Bernhards case, it was invariably a negative imposs of the press and the prurience of Reality TV is age, as if Austria needed an impression of embattlement due to our frantic need to remove in others what we see against a hostile world. For example, when Bernhard as a faade in ourselves. And as art is seen as an adjunct received a state prize and made critical remarks about of this removal (expressing the inner self), so the the state in his acceptance speech, a Government mininevitable disappointment in its resistant playfulness ister stormed out and slammed a glass door so violently leads to a shift in preference to revelatory biography that it smashed. And just before his death in 1989, he and memoir. Could this be stage fright on our part? was verbally attacked by the President (an ex-Nazi), Early on in Thomas Bernhard: The Making Of An and physically attacked on a bus by an old lady wieldAustrian, the first English biography of the Austrian ing an umbrella. Since his death, however, Bernhard novelist, playwright and poet, Gitta Honegger says has become a national treasure. His vitriol has been rethe apparatus of the theatre is an annoyingly overbranded, Guy Fawkes-like, into a fireworks display. As used existential paradigm, and shes right. Ive only a result, his description of Austria as a place with more used it once and its annoying me already. However, Nazis in 1988 than in 1938 (the cause of the Presidents

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and the old ladys wrath) is safely consigned to history. Like the Anschluss and the Presidents SS uniform, it is part of Austrias rich cultural heritage. Perhaps this is why, in his will, Bernhard refused to allow the publication or performance of his work within the Austrian state for the duration of the copyright; he foresaw his place in the state circus. (The lawyers have since got around this.) However, the important thing to remember is that it wasnt Bernhard who said Austria was still full of Nazis, it was a character in his play Heldenplatz. And while everyone assumes Bernhard meant every word as his own, those words are part of a whole that, as J.J. Long explains in his book The Novels Of Thomas Bernhard: Form And Its Function, demands to be experienced not in isolation as preferred by the culture-vultures, but in real time. If this is done, irony leaks into the hyperbole and all attitudes become unstable, even irony. In effect, even after death, Bernhard still performs, refusing to become a museum piece. The man himself remains a mystery. So what, in fact, did Thomas Bernhard think? Who was he when alone, no longer dancing before the appalled Viennese bourgeoisie? These are questions for a biography. But dont get your hopes up. As Honeggers subtitle indicates, there is a plea of mitigation. She says her book is a cultural biography; as much about Austria as about Bernhard. While this is disappoint-

ing, it is also understandable. Most correspondence is unavailable, and friends do not say anything particularly intimate. In fact, the one clear sexual revelation doesnt alter the image of a performer: Bernhard liked to masturbate in front of a mirror! Were told this on page 10, so its all over pretty quickly. Instead of a chronological narrative, were given themes in which Honegger makes frequent (and wearying) digressions into cultural history and their relevance to Bernhard, such as the notion of Heimat, and the significance of the theatre in Austria. In connection with the latter, Honegger rightly makes much of Bernhards staging of his experience. In his compelling memoirs (written in five short volumes but collected in English as Gathering Evidence), Bernhard recalls events through the eyes of his younger self while he (the younger self) is also observing or reflecting. He observes his younger self observing from a vantage point separate from the action. One observation point leads to another and then another. We might see this as a prime example of Chinese-box Postmodernism where all facts are as hollow as the next, but in Bernhards memoir the gnawing question of origin is always there. The facts are plain: Bernhards father abandoned his mother before Thomas was born, and died during the war years in mysterious circumstances; he either killed himself or was murdered. He never met his son. Bernhard was later punished by his bitter mother who saw

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her humiliation in the inherited features of her boy. No amount of virtuoso storytelling and opinionating could prevent the author from being thrown toward the bitter facts of his birth, and its consequences, much as we wonder, whilst vomiting, what we had eaten to cause it. Bernhards early life was also blighted by the Nazi era. He saw at first hand the terror of Allied bombing raids on Salzburg. Barely a teenager, death closed in from all sides. And after the war, when he tried to make his way in the world as a trained singer, he was struck down with tuberculosis after working in freezing conditions in a grocery store. In hospital, with his lungs full of breathtaking sputum, he was given the Last Rites. Miraculously, he survived when all around were dying. Honegger says he wrote the memoir as a record of his victory over that death and the attempts at metaphorical suffocation by his upbringing in particular, and Austrian society in general. Victory was the result of a decision to become himself, to live despite all that suffocated him, even though it was futile. I say futile because all that suffocated him also provided the oxygen. It is no coincidence that, despite the oppressive details, there is a sense of freedom pulsing out of the pages of Gathering Evidence. Later, the existential energy of Bernhards neurasthenic narrators will also emerge from this outrageous, paradoxical act of will. Perhaps it because Bernhard provides the most useful guide to his life that Honegger does not attempt to

take us through the minutiae of his daily existence. Yet while the analysis is very interesting, one longs for that minutiae. Recently, a BBC Radio 3 documentary on Bernhard revealed that his record collection consisted almost entirely of the 19th-century Romantic repertoire. One might have assumed this great Modernist would have preferred Schnberg and Webern, Bach and Haydn over Schubert and Brahms. Apparently not. (Curiously, this is similar to Beckett). I dont recall Honegger mentioning anything like this. Nor does she mention the novel Bernhard had sketched out before his death. She prefers to skim over the surface, taking what is necessary for her themed coverage. When it comes to Bernhards sexuality, for example, there is an exhausting bout of Freudian analysis arising from his fathers absence and his mothers maltreatment. It is unconvincing only because it is so persuasive. Actually the same is true of the opinions expressed by Bernhards narrators. Perhaps Honegger is having a laugh as our brows sweat over the complexities of Oedipal anxiety? I would like to think so. In the rest of the book, Freud gets barely a mention. It is very odd. It is also vague. We dont get a definitive answer as to whether Bernhard was hetero-, bi- or homosexual. Honegger says he came between couples, which suggests one conclusion, but what she means is that both sexes were drawn into an ambiguous relationship with the writer. Its a living example of Bernhards

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elusiveness, and proof of nothing else. Another is the one major relationship outside his family. It was with a woman 39 years older than himself. She was a widow who befriended Bernhard when he was a young writer. She provided a home and material support when he was struggling. He called her his Lebensmench (Lifeperson); a word he invented. Understandably, Honegger doesnt have much to give us on the details of this partnership. All windows are opaque. The same is true, more or less, for other areas of his life. Indeed, Bernhard is a phantom in his own biography. J.J. Long takes a firmer route by concentrating on the novels. Bernhard, he says, was a writer of considerable diversity, profoundly concerned with the problems and potential of storytelling. Originally a doctoral thesis, The Novels of Thomas Bernhard: Form And Its Function uses the technical language of Narrative Theory to understand the unique qualities of Bernhards writing. Reading it requires a high level of patience and concentration. Moreover, it leaves the lengthy quotations in German untranslated. This is regrettable as those most likely to be drawn to the book Germanless Bernhard fans will be hampered. Presumably the costs involved are prohibitive. Still, even monolinguists can gain a good deal from whats left. Whereas Honegger bizarrely accuses Bernhard of being a solipsist someone for whom the world is merely a projection of their own mind Long stresses

the narrative strategies and hermeneutic sequences employed to undermine such narrow interpretations of Bernhards monological prose. For example, he writes that the reflective form of the great, valedictory novel Extinction allows an excavation of the past even as it moves forward into the future. The novels narrator fires at familiar targets particularly the repression of the Nazi past even as he himself succumbs to the same temptation to repress the facts of his own life in order to resist the impending extinction of the title. Indeed, the targets are not only familiar but familial. Long shows how most of Bernhards novels like his memoir are concerned with transgenerational transmission (that is, inheritance). The narrators family consists of ex-Nazi parents, both sad and monstrous people, whom he loves and hates in equal measure, as well as grotesque siblings who have not resisted the legacy of repression. As the eldest, the narrator inherits the familys country estate in darkest Austria when the parents are killed in a car crash. As he also feels that he has not got long to live, he decides he must return from his sunny life in Rome to redeem the legacy. We dont get to find out how he does this until the final page. As he goes forward to do this, he reflects on why it is required. Yet the reason why the narrators predicament compels our attention, and gives us pleasure, is his spirited unwillingness to complete the task. He is forever delay-

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ing the end in both the action as described (stalling outside the gates of the estate) and in the act of storytelling itself (spinning variations of anecdotes and opinions). Long says these delaying tactics are achieved through embedded narratives and retarding elements. As a successful doctoral candidate, pleasure is not an issue for him, but for those of us who turn to Bernhard for this reason, it is interesting to note how these techniques create an experience similar to the reading of a thriller or detective novel. In those genres, pleasure comes from the growth of mystery and suspense before the inevitable denouement. Extinction is similar in that one reads to find out what happens next. However, the distinction is that the thriller cannot reproduce the same pleasure on re-reading. A new story is required every time. Extinction on the other hand positively demands to be re-read in order to enjoy that delay again and again. In fact it becomes more enjoyable as we join with the narrator repeating stories and opinions in order to delay our return to the mundane world. Unfortunately for him, the delay has more serious import for the narrator. For a time, we feel more alive even if our noses are buried in a book. This is the great problem and potential of storytelling. Longs analysis, which is richer and more complex than I have space (or patience) to detail, manages to elucidate Bernhards method and highlight his remarkable technical achievement. One cannot go away from this

book and still believe, as so many do, that Bernhard is merely a ranting egoist. Those who already know better will perhaps understand more clearly how Bernhard maintained his high-wire act, though we would still like to know more in physical detail. In one brief insight to his working process, Honegger quotes Bernhard as saying he wrote with full commitment; his entire body took part in the creative process. Perhaps this is why he preferred to call his novels prose texts as this suggests a script for performance. Indeed, Bernhards many plays are not greatly different from the novels. It seems Bernhard himself felt most alive when writing, like an actor on stage even at his writing desk. Honegger observes that each work was a reassertion of that early decision to live. Appropriately, some way into Extinction, the narrator reflects on the frustrated lives of those stuck in small-town provincial misery from which he, the narrator, had escaped. He says they fail to better themselves, to get away from their real selves because they lack the intellectual energy, because they have not discovered the intellect the intellect around them or the intellect within them and have therefore not taken the first step, which is the precondition for taking the second. So, we might assume that in writing, Bernhard got away from his real self. But full commitment means he did it with his mortal body as well as his intellect. Despite his early escape from death, Bernhard was al-

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ways seriously ill. He expected to die before reaching 50. His half-brother, a doctor, claims to have kept him alive for an extra ten years after that. Mortality was an over-riding theme and writing was at once the escape from deaths imminence and its enactment. Barthes Death Of The Author was more than a concept to Bernhard. In fact, in a blessed piece of minutiae, Honegger tells us one of his favourite games was playing dead. Its a nice idea to think of the novels as the place were Bernhard plays dead for us. Nowhere else is he more alive.

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Review [published June 2004] Stephen Mitchelmore

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Maurice Blanchot: Nowhere Without No


Not half way through the year but already a book has come along that, at the end, I will say: this is it the book of the year. I am aware that there is something desperate about such a pronouncement. It reveals a need to fulfil empty time with an evasive monument. That is the nature of monuments after all. The bigger the monument the more it evades hence the respect given to a new 800 page novel spanning generations, the collected works of a writer or a definitive biography of a tyrant. Yet the book Im holding is a fragile 53 pages and is published by a small press in Sydney, Australia. Nowhere Without No is, ironically, a collection of 13 memorials by translators, academics and poets (sometimes a combination of all three) in honour of Maurice Blanchot, the French novelist and philosopher, who died in February 2003, aged 95. The introduction by editor Kevin Hart explains the title. It comes from Rilkes eighth Duino Elegy in which the poet writes of a space that has been freed from ordinary time as experienced by children, animals and the dead: It is always world and never nowhere without no: that pureness, that unwatched, which one breathes and endlessly knows and never wants. But a child might lose himself inside the quiet and become shaken. Or someone dies and is. For near to death one sees that death no more and stares ahead, perhaps with a beasts huge glance. Blanchots gift is to reveal to us how literature is also nowhere without no. His work pursues writing to where it disappears into this space, as it separates itself from the reader and writer. Hart reminds us that Blanchot wrote (in the third person) of his own experience of this separation as he faced a firing squad in 1944. Waiting to die, there was: a feeling of extraordinary lightness, a sort of beatitude (nothing happy, however) sovereign elation? [] In this place, I will not try to analyse. He

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was perhaps suddenly in invincible. Dead immortal. Perhaps ecstasy. Rather the feeling of compassion for suffering humanity, the happiness of not being immortal or eternal. Henceforth, he was bound to death by a surreptitious friendship. (from The Instant Of My Death, translated by Elizabeth Rottenberg) The shots didnt come; he was told to run and thereby regained a life where, from then on, he writes, the instant of my death [was] henceforth always in abeyance. Later, he discovered that a manuscript had been taken from his room by enemy officers believing it to contain military secrets. Instead of the death of the author, there was the death of the text. One might say: but this is written in the third person; it is either fiction or Blanchot is writing about another person perhaps literature itself. That lost manuscript certainly has the convenience of fiction, standing for the agency and meaning as it withdraws. However, such a distinction is impossible. By writing in the third person, Blanchot emphasises the distance inherent to such reminiscence itself already literature, already intimate with death. Ten years later, Blanchots The Space Of Literature is saturated with this experience: - to write is to break the bond that unites the word with myself.

- to write is to withdraw language from the world. - to write is to surrender to the fascination of times absence. - the writer never reads his work. It is, for him, a secret. - in the solitude of the work we discover a more essential solitude. - art is the power by which night opens (trans. Ann Smock) Throughout this extraordinary book, Blanchot traces the impact of the night on the work of various authors Rilke, Mallarm and Kafka in particular. If, for Kafka, there exists only the outside, the glistening flow of the eternal outside what does that mean for his world of expression, of escape, of liberty that is writing? The question is part of the work itself. In this way, reading Blanchot is frustrating: there is at once the assertiveness of the phrases quoted above and a resistance to actually saying anything in the usual manner. His assertions serve to obscure what was previously clear. Rather than offering an alternative to, say, a Freudian or Marxist reading of Metamorphosis, Blanchot reveals how each reading has to make a leap over the abyss. For the reader, it is intoxicating, yet almost impossible to then put to use. Lydia Davis pioneering translator of the rcit Death Sentence says she can follow the argu-

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ment line by line yet summary is resisted. Somehow the experience of reading had to take place moment by moment. This resistance, she finds, is experienced by most other readers. It is not a criticism. Charlotte Mandell translator of The Work Of Fire and The Book To Come recalls how she felt a need to write to Blanchot to thank him for the silence in his words for the revelation of the space. Her gratitude then is not for the man himself but for his absence, such is the perversity of his gift. Mandell doesnt say whether he replied though others report replies of exceptional courtesy and concern. Only Jacques Derrida in the address given at the cremation tells of the man himself: brief meetings in a university office throughout which Blanchot wore a gentle smile, and then breathless on the phone toward the end. He seems ghostly even in life. One wonders how much this effacement contributes to the unique aura of his works? Not much, if the attempts to imitate him are any guide. The poet Jacques Dupin writes that in Blanchots fragmentary writing: his speech yielded a conductive wire of an extreme delicacy in search of the ultimate meaning, that which was well beyond ones grasp and which indicated from very high up how to pass over the precipices, how to master the turbulence and the proliferation, of the forces of dislocation that exhaust the text, that

strangle the voice. While Blanchots prose can be said to be poetic and Dupin is surely right to detect a demanding poet behind the prose it is not flighty and impressionistic. The silence of the words is achieved by the extreme patience and attention to the weight of words a patience frequently expressed in doubt. Blanchots disciples have a remarkable confidence to use key word and oxymorons that appear throughout Blanchots work passivity, sovereign relation, forgetfulness without memory, the impossible real, motionless retreat, purposiveness without purpose in the assumption that they automatically plumb the depths as they do in Blanchot. Curiously, they dont. As Blanchot himself wrote: Desire of writing, writing of desire. Desire of knowledge, knowledge of desire. Let us not believe that we have said anything at all with these reversals. The merit of Nowhere Without No is that, unlike so much Blanchot-related material, it doesnt strain to say too much. Such is the silence brought by death perhaps. The latter also means the distance between the author and his work is foregrounded, if only in the readers mind. Michael Holland emphasises the distance in a remarkable, two-page analysis of science fiction. The genre, he says, necessarily hangs back from thinking the totality of what it projects which is to say

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total transcendence in the here and now. He means it denies mortality. And that means such transcendence is pure violence: Sci-fi is thus essentially nihilistic because it cannot accommodate bodily death on the level of its narrative. He urges us to read and re-read Blanchot in order to hold off such nihilism. This is how we can learn from Blanchot. There is no need to adopt his style. Blanchot himself did exactly that in his own learning. Mark C. Taylor remarks on Blanchots neglected kinship with an earlier enigmatic philosopher-writer: It was Kierkegaard he writes who first realised that philosophy can be itself only by becoming literature; and it was Kierkegaard who insisted that the only way to be truly in the world is to withdraw from it. Taylor asked for a meeting to discuss it but got a note saying: Though I might wish it otherwise, the conditions of

my work make it impossible for us to meet. Still, he confirmed to Taylor that Kierkegaard was indeed a secret sharer. He helped Blanchot find his own way. This collection, modest in size and character as it is, offers Blanchot as a guide to us, placing the emphasis firmly on the writing: I have long thought that some things are so intimate that they can never be said but must be written. Writing does not merely create distance but also allows one to draw closer than any spoken word. This closeness must not be confused with presence. Writing brings the remote near by allowing presence to withdraw. The lasting lesson of Blanchot is that withdrawal opens up the space-time of desire whose absence is death. Though he has been taken from us, he will continue to give what is never ours to possess.

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Feature [published June 2002]

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Maurice Blanchot: The Absent Voice


Stephen Mitchelmore on the writing of Maurice Blanchot There are many remarkable facts about the long life of the French novelist and philosopher Maurice Blanchot. The strident perhaps Fascist nationalism of his preWar journalism; his near-death at the hands of the Nazis during the war; his reclusive devotion to writing that is similar to, but more significant than, Pynchons and Salingers; his deep influence on more famous French thinkers (Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze). And, finally, in this list, his return to public life to oppose French colonialism in Algeria and then to support the May 1968 student uprising, during which he drafted pamphlets released by those opposing General de Gaulles autocracy. But to concentrate on these facts, relevant as they are, would be to ignore what Blanchot offers, which is a return to the fundamental mystery of literature. That is, why do written words have so much power over us, yet also seem completely estranged from the world they supposedly refers to? When we say that literature takes us to another world, we say more than we might imagine. It is an asymmetry that Blanchot presents to us relentlessly. There is an a-cultural aspect to art and literature which it is hard to accept wholeheartedly he says. In this age of shortcuts, in which the value of literature is judged by how well literature effaces itself, so that the asymmetry is denied, avoided, denounced even, Blanchots resistance makes him, in my opinion, one of the most important writers. In my opinion. What is that worth? The question of authority mine, Blanchots or anybody elses is the invisible centre of our cultural ideology. We all know that Liberal Democracy is based on choice; each individual is free to choose and each individuals choice is as good as any others. So, when I write in my opinion, I remove all weight from the judgement. The complete opposite is equally valid. Despite this, we still make definite choices in what to read, watch or listen to, as if hoping, despite everything, for something more than nothing. The act of choice itself speaks of a need: for nourishment, entertainment or distraction, or all three combined. But we have little guidance on what and why to choose. Perhaps the recent proliferation of award ceremonies and prize competitions for each art form is no coincidence: the award-winning novel,

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the platinum-selling album, the blockbuster movie. We want a guarantee of value. Each offers a mitigation of ones apparently random choice. At the same time, however, we know, like a General Election, it is meaningless. Nothing changes. Such is the totality of Liberal Democracy. Worse still, the condition has a retrospective affect. Nothing escapes its scything action. History is flattened too, shorn of meaning. Even critiques of the condition become just an opinion under the smiling curve of the scythe. Blanchot does not propose an answer. Rather, he looks at how this condition might have arisen, offering in the process a startling revision of our understanding of what literature is. Might the asymmetry of art and world be what makes it vital and important? In a short essay from 1953, published in a new translation by the Oxford Literary Review, Blanchot goes back to the beginnings of modern thought to investigate this possibility, specifically to ancient Athens, and Socrates preference for speech over writing. In the Phaedrus, Socrates says that speech has the guarantee of the living presence of the speaker. One can ask questions and receive answers; there is always the movement of dialogue with those involved always mindful of truth. In dialogue, progress is possible. On the other hand, written words can only maintain a solemn silence: if you ask them what they mean by anything, he says, they simply return the same an-

swer over and over again. The philosopher links this to religious superstition, when Greeks listened to the sacred voice emerging from a stone or the stump of a tree. Blanchot compares this to the silent confrontation with written words: Like sacred language, what is written comes from no recognisable source, is without author or origin, and thereby always refers back to something more original than itself. Behind the words of the written work, nobody is present; but language gives voice to this absence, just as in the oracle, when divinity speaks, the god himself is never present in his words, and it is the absence of god which then speaks. (trans. Leslie Hill) If, as Blanchot says, the voice of the divine and the voice of literature are comparable, they are effectively indistinguishable, thereby doubling the threat to the human project represented by Socrates. What can be done if the oracular voice develops an alternative outlet in literature, luring truth into the abyss where there is neither truth nor meaning nor even error? Blanchot reminds us what was done: both Plato and Socrates are quick to declare writing, like art, a simple pastime which does not jeopardise seriousness and is reserved for moments of leisure. Of course, Socrates went on to pay with his life for his commitment to the more serious matter of debate. And while his sacrifice remains

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emblematic of our notion of the freedom of speech, his dismissal of writing and art sounds very familiar, very now, particularly to anyone searching for truth in art. We can see the correlation between Postmodernism (no truth, no meaning), popular culture (no error), and the ancient philosophers dismissal of art. It is attractive as there is another correlation, perhaps the most important: both are also liberations. In each case, freedom is granted to those previously enslaved to truth. Writers can let their imagination run wild; there is no comeback. Instead of celebrating or lamenting this development, Blanchot considers the silence of the gods revealed in the written word. He wonders what it is that disarms Plato and Socrates so much that they deny it is even relevant, and compels us, their descendants, to fill the empty space with reductive theories: social, psychological, post-colonial. For a possible answer, he turns to Heraclitus, the first poet-philosopher, pre-dating Socrates, the first rationalist. In one of his enigmatic fragments, Heraclitus says the oracle neither speaks out nor conceals, but points. From this Blanchot deduces that the language in which the origin speaks is essentially prophetic. However, he clarifies the final word: This does not mean that it dictates future events, it means that it does not base itself on something which already is It points toward the future, because it does

not yet speak, and is language of the future to the extent that it is like a future language which is always ahead of itself, having its meaning and legitimacy only before it, which is to say that it is fundamentally without justification. (trans. Leslie Hill) It does not base itself on something which already is. This could be the cry of the opponents of the kind of literature that does not engage with current events or familiar social relations, and where the style, language and subject matter or lack of it resists the utility of common understanding. Is modern literature, then, prophetic? The nature of the question means the answer cannot be stated as such, only experienced. The moment it is answered, the language of the future is negated and drawn into Socrates dialogue of utility. However, this is not to distinguish experience and literature. Contrary to popular opinion, literature is intimate with daily experience. Blanchot puts it this way: Upon the background noise constituted by our knowledge of the worlds daily course, which precedes, accompanies, and follows in us all knowledge, we cast forth, walking or sleeping, phrases that are punctuated by questions. Murmuring questions. What are they worth? What do they say? These are still more questions. (trans. Susan Hanson)

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We dont experience the world without this murmuring, a kind of voice-under codifying and animating an otherwise uniform world. Yet we spend most of our lives avoiding or sedating it with entertainmentdistraction, drugged socialising, or plausible theories of hominid brain development. It is Blanchots unique attunement to these murmuring questions to what resists the Socratic demand which distinguishes his work. When he reviews a book, rather than judging it within set external criteria, such as the persuasiveness of character or plot, or its relevance to the breaking news of the moment, he asks certain questions that emerge from the experience of reading the book itself. This is clear in an exemplary essay on Samuel Becketts trilogy of novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable. Here is a book that has no justification. It has no sensitive social analysis. It is scornful of polite taste and ridicules all notions of the redeeming power of art. It makes much fun of its struggle to efface the author with the usual means of the suspension of disbelief, before spiralling into a calamitous verbal free fall. Blanchot asks, Who speaks in Samuel Becketts books? Who is the tireless I who seems always to say the same thing? At first, the answer is clear: it is Samuel Beckett. But it by asking this deceptively simple question he opens us to the novels terrible dynamic. Molloy is narrated by a man telling of a past full of

cities, forests and seascapes, while stuck in his absent mothers room. This is the usual displacement of the authors own voice. Molloy could be Beckett writing in his own room. Eventually, Molloy invents another narrator, Moran, a police detective, who narrates his own story, in this case the pursuit of Molloy. Blanchot says this a slightly disappointing allegory of the authors search for something more original than itself. Beckett is having fun with the conventions of the novel which is why so many readers see only absurdity in his work. Yet at the same time Molloy and Moran offer a reassuring presence like normal characters in a novel speaking through their all-powerful master, and so protecting us from what Blanchot calls a greater threat. That threat begins to appear in Malone Dies. Malones death would provoke the ultimate disaster which is to have lost the right to say I. Malone is bedridden, having only a pencil for company. Nonetheless, it enables him to turn his room into the infinite space of words and stories. He tells stories a simple pastime to fill the imminent vacuum of death. It is a recipe for farce, grotesque tragicomedy and outrageous lyricism; everything that makes Beckett great entertainment: All I want to do now is to make a last effort to understand, to begin to understand, how such creatures are possible. No, it is not a question of understanding. Of what then? I dont know. Here I go none the less,

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mistakenly. Night, storm and sorrow, and the catalepsies of the soul, this time I shall see that they are good. The last word is not yet said between me and yes, the last word is said. Perhaps I simply want to hear it said again. Just once again. No, I want nothing. And so on, until Malone dies. Well, almost dies, were never quite sure, for how can death occur in a first-person narrative? The Unnameable begins without his support for the stories. So really, it cannot continue. It continues anyway. And according to current understanding, this is where the real author should reveal himself, the one behind the scenes. Again, it is no coincidence that when producers of Reality TV proclaim that nothing is hidden, they nonetheless rely on spin-off books and DVDs promising details of what really went on endless promises of a definitive intimacy. The Trilogy, on the other hand, doesnt. In The Unnameable phantoms and visions encircle a consciousness stuck in an ornamental jar at the entrance to a restaurant. Words circle on the page too, stumbling on without even the relief of punctuation. For Blanchot, this is the malaise of one who has dropped out of reality and drifts forever in the gap between existence and nothingness, incapable of dying and incapable of being born. As readers we undergo:

[an] experience experienced under the threat of impersonality, undifferentiated speech speaking in a vacuum, passing through he who hears it, unfamiliar, excluding the familiar, and which cannot be silenced because it is what is unceasing and interminable. (trans. Sacha Rabinovitch) This is the language of the future. It is a direct confrontation with the process from which all books derive: language itself. By asking the simple question of who is speaking in the Trilogy, Blanchot reveals how Beckett reveals language as a form of death, a place where we meet the limits of subjectivity. In reading the Trilogy, we confront the anonymity at the heart of communication, and thereby the limits of our power in the world. Liberal culture sees this as good up to the point where we are taken to another world (transported as so many naive readers put it, neglecting the recent history of the word). Becketts Trilogy exceeds this point. It exposes us to the infinite within the confines of novel. The authors great achievement is to take us to the brink of complete breakdown and yet to stay this side. To declare his work absurdist or that it mirrors the breakdown of religious belief, as might be heard wherever Becketts books are discussed, is unwittingly re-inhabiting what is the novel is always in the process of vacating. This suggests why the Trilogy has never been accepted into our culture in the

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same way as, say, Joyces Ulysses. [Note: Blanchots essay on Beckett, Where now? Who now? can be found in The Sirens Song: Selected Essays of Maurice Blanchot, edited by Gabriel Josipovici, translated by Sacha Rabinovitch, and in Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage in a translation by Richard Howard. However, both are long out of print.] Blanchots own novels, such as Thomas The Obscure, have a kinship with Becketts work; there is constant dissimulation and wandering. In many ways though, they are closer to Kafkas; there are many mysterious landscapes, doors and rooms. Only they lack both these authors humour. His narratives are often insipid. However, in the late 1950s, the critical writing and the fiction began to merge, creating perhaps an entirely new genre. As the fiction clarified into analysis, the analysis developed the opacity of the fiction. In the massive essay collection The Infinite Conversation there are occasional dialogues between two friends (assumed to be Blanchot and Georges Bataille). Then in 1962, a novel appeared called Lattente loubli (Translated as Awaiting Oblivion). It is an almost eventless narrative of an unnamed man and a woman sharing a hotel room. Each fragment of text is denoted and separated from the rest by a printed diamond or star. The spaces disrupt straightforward narrative progress.

She was present, already her own image, and her image, not the remembrance, the forgetting of herself. When seeing her, he saw her as she would be, forgotten. Sometimes he forgot her, sometimes he remembered, sometimes remembering the forgetting and forgetting everything in this remembrance. (Trans. John Gregg) In a recent interview, the novelist Ian McEwan says that novels show the possibility of what it is like to be someone else. Awaiting Oblivion faces a complication to this: narrative progress tends to look straight through that someone else. As we begin to understand the person in front of us, the understanding takes his or her place; it becomes only a means of furthering narrative. No wonder we love to be alone with a page-turner! Perhaps significantly, McEwans latest novel Atonement is about the guilt felt by a writer. The other person, like language, resists simple closure to one clear meaning. In the case of Awaiting Oblivion, however, it also resists compulsive interest. Why did Blanchot go down this route rather than continuing to write novels and critical works? Perhaps he found that once defined, a genre of literature closes in on itself. When infected with another however, not only is the comfort of reader disturbed, but literature itself becomes a question. As Derrida later detailed in The Law Of Genre a close reading of Blanchots very

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short novel The Madness Of The Day this infection is necessary and happens to all genres; in fact, a genre is basically the effacement of that infection. As the dynamic of absence and presence that frequently drives Blanchots writing, the direction was necessary. In a remarkably condensed early essay, How Is Literature Possible? this movement is prefigured. In it, Blanchot reviews a critical work by Jean Paulhan about the opposition of what we might call traditional and rebellious literature. The idea of overthrowing clich and the tired generic forms (that is, Tradition) has dominated our conception of literature for 150 years. Blanchot mentions Victor Hugos rejection of rhetoric, Verlaines denunciation of eloquence and Rimbauds abandonment of old-hat poetry. Sixty years on, it hasnt changed that much. Think of Martin Amis famous war against clich, J.G. Ballards expressed distaste for literature and Steven Wells of ATTACK! Books thumping the table of the high-chair with his spoon. Indeed, Becketts Trilogy could itself be called a work of terrorism against the citadel of tradition. Yet the rebels themselves are divided into two camps. Those, like Wells, who are keen to dispense with literature altogether in an amphetamine-fuelled auto-da-f and so destroy the complacent world of bourgeois stolidity, and those, like Amis, who want to prune language of its deadwood so that a consciousness can be experienced in all its grotesque, singular

richness. What Blanchot (and indeed Paulhan) does is to point out that in order to do either requires a scrupulous attention to language. Whoever wants to be absent from words at every instant or to be present only to those that he reinvents is endlessly occupied with them so that, of all authors, those who most eagerly seek to avoid the reproach of verbalism [i.e. using clich] are also exactly the ones that are most exposed to this reproach. Does this, then, destroy all hope of what literature might offer us? Yes, according to those who do not consider themselves writers, because writing is a work of distance from the ecstasies of the human condition. Not so fast, says Blanchot: It is the same for those who through the marvels of asceticism have had the illusion of distancing themselves from all literature. For having wanted to rid themselves of conventions and of forms, in order to touch directly the secret world and the profound metaphysics that they meant to reveal, they finally contented themselves with using this world, this secret, this metaphysics as they would conventions and forms that they complacently exhibited and that constituted at once the visible framework and the foundation of their works. [] In other words, for this kind of writer metaphysics, religion, and emotions take the place of technique and language. They are a system of expression, a literary genre in a word, literature. (trans. Charlotte Mandell)

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The experience of these systems of expression, however, allow a chink in the armour of literature. For readers, the opposition of clich and a virgin phrase is perhaps more troublesome; all phrases become monsters of ambiguity when we read. How are we, as readers, meant to know what an author intended? It is precisely this ambiguity, the unremitting silence of the oracle, Blanchot argues, that gives literature the tense dynamic demanded by the rebels. In effect, literature is a vampire rising in the dark to suck the blood of life to continue while the victims are all dependent on the vampire myth for their living. And the other way around. Blanchot takes us a long way in this short essay, yet leaves us more or less stranded as before: authenticity and originality are present, it seems, only in the inscrutability of their presence. If literature relies on comforting demarcations of genre to proceed, yet demands a naked openness to the world for the sake of authenticity, then the appearance of the printed star in Blanchots work is perhaps not just a typographical convenience. It is used again in Blanchots famous late work, The Writing Of The Disaster, a book made up of fiction and philosophical fragments designated by the same symbol. An appropriately obsolete definition of the word disaster is an unfavourable aspect of a star. The star helps us to grasp the possibility of meaning, which we return to at the end of each section, while at the same time threatening break down.

The book is in part about how one deals with disaster, the trauma of past disasters and the knowledge of the disaster to come, specifically our own death, where the very concept of ownership is meaningless. It is also about the disaster of language itself: The disaster, unexperienced. It is what escapes the very possibility of experience it is the limit of writing. This must be repeated: the disaster de-scribes. Which does not mean that the disaster, as the force of writing, is excluded from it, is beyond the pale of writing or extratextual. (trans. Ann Smock) That is, the disaster itself writes. To write is to partake of the disaster, no matter how much one asserts oneself through opinion or style. Blanchots impersonal voice, so cold and yet so seductive, abides in the disaster. To write (of) oneself is to cease to be, in order to confide in a guest the other, the reader entrusting yourself to him who will henceforth have as an obligation, and indeed as a life, nothing but your inexistence. We are absent from one another as the disaster writes through communication. We are absent even from ourselves as the I belongs not to itself but the disaster. We saw this emerge in Becketts Trilogy. Yet it is precisely this absence that Blanchot says can bring us together. The paradox is essential: language gives voice to this absence. And art, where the play of the paradox is

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central, remains the only medium for the possibility of a community, even if it is a community of those who have no community. The growth in sales of intimate self-portraits and revelatory biographies of public figures, and the pathological obsession with personalities and gossip, masquerading as debate, betrays how liberal democracy functions by removing an effective public life. As in Orwells Nineteen Eighty Four, Big Brother, or at least ones biographer, is always watching. It is a political environment that has redefined politics into a means of how best to smooth the way for corporate oligarchies to manage capital. We need art to raise the absent voice of a community denied by a misreading of absence. It requires the reader to trust, despite the apparent emptiness of art: Reading is anguish, and this is because any text, however important, or amusing, or interesting it maybe is empty at bottom it doesnt exist; you have to cross an abyss, and if you do not jump, you do not comprehend. (trans. Ann Smock) The artist faces a similar challenge. Blanchot says at the end of his essay on Beckett: Art requires that he who practices it should be immolated to art, should become other, not another, not transformed from the human being he was into an artist

with artistic duties, satisfactions and interests, but into nobody, the empty, animated space where arts summons is heard. (trans. Sacha Rabinovitch) But how is this done? The fragmentary work, perhaps the apogee of 20th-century Modernist literature and philosophy, is Blanchots approach. Its refusal to insist on narrative or theoretical completion, as well as, in the process, weakening the voice of authority, means both reader and writer are constantly moving toward understanding, toward what is absent, yet never assuming the nihilism of no truth, no meaning even as it encroaches on each clearing. Blanchot calls it, speaking of Kafka but also of himself, a combat of passivity combat that reduces itself to naught. Some might see this as needlessly equivocal or pretentious, preferring, instead, the apparent clarity of rational progress, even if this, in the end, leads to the bland relativism of modern culture. Yet in his essay from 1953 with which we began, Blanchot says that arts summons might not have been lost on Socrates the great emblematic thinker of positivistic Western culture. He might also have sensed the empty, animated space pulling like a black hole at the Light of Reason. While he accepted the only guarantee for speech was the living presence of a human being, he also went as far as to die in order to keep his word.

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Feature [published March 1997]

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Body Modification: Remake, Remodel


Nick Clapson enters the strange world of body modification Tattoos. Piercing. Dreadlocks. Body Art. What is the world coming to? It would seem if we follow the lead of much of the popular press a minority of degenerates are corrupting our sensibilities, and so we are doomed. However, if you take the time to stop and look a little longer, it seems more likely that we actually want to be corrupted. And this desire is not new. There is currently an interest in utilising the body as a site on which we can extend our creative and psychic desires, and as such has found itself reflected in a growing literature of its own. One such book is Housk Randall and Ted Polhemus The Customised Body. As Polhemus and Randall make clear from the start, the impetus for this fashion in changing the body is the influence of traditional peoples. Other cultures, which have been traditionally termed primitive, have a history of altering their physical appearance for either religious and social purposes. And it is this that the later-day primitives of our culture are trying to tap into. Thus the piercing or the tattoos of these modern primitives are legitimated through the idea that they are some how more pure, honest and true, because they reflect the more positive aspects of these so-called simpler societies. Attempts are also made to suggest a lineage for the use of such body art by the examination of early pre-Christian practices in the west. However, though this may provide a precedent for body art, it is more pertinent to question why such practices fell from fashion for several thousand years, and in turn, why they would have any pertinence now. Much is made in the literature that surrounds this particular subculture about the need for self-expression, and the desire to feel part of a community. The subtext of such an argument is that a certain sector of our society feel that they can not adequately express themselves through the more conventional means of visual expression, be it clothes or art. The notion that other cultures will provide us with a visual language that will release us from this impasse is, however, not new. In art alone it can be traced back through the major canon of western artist, through Jackson Pollock, Picasso, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and back into the depths of the 18th century at least. What is new is the transition from the canvas and

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the gallery, to the body and the street. This phenomena, I feel, must be a result of the late 20th century, or dare I say it, Postmodern, belief in the breakdown of artist as unassailable god. Instead, the artist can be any man, and as a result of the comments of Duchamp and the whole Dada movement, art can be anything. Also written into the unspoken creed of this grouping is heart-felt belief that there is a direct correlation between the increase in the isolation in our post-industrial society and the desire for primitivism. It is almost as if that as God was once usurped by science and money, it too shall necessarily collapse, but his time under the force of this new godless mass who have found belief in some crypto-primitivism and a new hybrid culture. As such fashion, in all its manifestations, is the tool by which these new pioneers of culture seek to bind themselves: through self-expression one finds those who hold similar beliefs, those who have similar aims. However, there is also an ideological factor to be considered when we consider modes of dress or rituals of display. It can clearly be seen that the members of this fashion, or as Polhemus describes them, members of a style tribe, are generally of an underclass which

wishes to identify itself. If, then, the disenfranchised and the disheartened give up on conventional codes or symbols they are signalling to the dominant culture, and to those who have not yet made that step to identify themselves, that they are out there on the edge. And more importantly, if they are not happy to be there, as some surely are, they are issuing a rallying call to join them, as there is surely safety in numbers. The way the people who operate in this cultural space are in actuality, however, very different from the theory. The more you look at this phenomena the more you realise that there is no one answer, but instead we are able to perceive a set of answers that make up a larger question. That question I believe, is along the lines of this: we have a culture, one which is straining at its edges. The more diverse the world becomes, or we perceive it to become, the more it pulls at its seams. The more we question it and pry at its secrets the more the stitches loosen. What we really want to know is, where do we go from here? The answer I think is found in this new interest in primitivism, and especially in the ways in which we can combine it with ideas of the future.

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Review [published June 2009] Ben Granger

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Jorge Luis Borges: The Book Of Imaginary Beings


Borges is that rare writer, one who can truly change your outlook forever. To read Labyrinths or Ficciones is to experience the universe anew, to find a poetry in mathematics, a mysticism in reason. In tales like Funes the Memorious, The Library of Babel and The Garden of Forking Paths, Borges explores the concept of infinitude. A child with endless knowledge, a library that goes on forever, the constantly diverging paths of reality which make possibility itself endless. In doing so he finds a beauty in the concept perhaps unique in literature the master poet-in-prose of the infinite. The prose he captures these dizzying absolutes within is understated, mellifluous and simple, dreamlike and factual, making the fantastical real, and the prosaic extraordinary. In Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, he describes a man re-writing Cervantes work, word for word, without reading the original, and makes the idea seem not just possible but inevitable, and beautiful. In Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius another world one whose inhabitants inhabit a realm of pure thought floods from the pages of an encyclopaedia to overwhelm our own. Borges not only makes us accept this could happen, he makes us welcome it. The highest philosophical concepts of time, space, reality and perception are rendered malleable and human, the arcane loses its abstraction while retaining awe. In 1957, after he had written most of the stories which make up Labyrinths, Borges undertook the task of penning a compendium of descriptions of fantastical beings dragons, unicorns, phoenix and the like. Such an obscure, niche-laden, listing exercise would probably be seen as treading water at best in most other authors, and in the case of most other authors the accusation would probably be accurate. You cant readily imagine James Joyce publishing a list of his favourite fairy tales for example, nor a joke book by Samuel Beckett. What could be a mere whimsical addendum to a body of work from another writer instead becomes a wonderful vista on the gifts of Borges. This is not a case of he could write about anything and make it wonderful the old Id listen to him sing the phone book clich for Borges, style and content are inseparable. Rather, the format of a scholarly researched compendium allows him to brandish with a flourish the outstanding knowl-

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edge and learning which pepper his writing, while the subject of the fantastic complements completely the strange insights which inform his vision. The expected exotic are all here, the dragons, the unicorns, the nymphs, the phoenix and the salamander. What Borges brings to his description of these creatures, which many readers may think themselves already familiar with, is the learning which marks much of his best work (research is somehow an inadequate word) immense, profound, yet somehow worn lightly. European medieval manuscripts, the scrolls of ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Persians, the musings of esoteric Victorians, and the lore of all world religions casually surface and recede as the moment demands. Thus we learn that eastern dragons are associated with both emperors and Confucius and have saliva of medicinal qualities: Buddhists affirm that Dragons are no fewer in number than the fishes of their many concentric seas; somewhere in the universe a sacred cipher exists to express their exact number. The Phoenix, we see was conjured of by the Ancient Egyptians in their dreams of eternal life, and alluded to by Tacitus and Pliny hundreds of years later as they fixed the intervals of the fiery birds visits as once every 1,461 years. We learn that in England once Christianity vanquished the older Norse gods that they didnt just lie down and die, but instead corrupted and withered into Trolls, while the beautiful Valkyries became witches.

These witches were also known as Norns or Fates, grim augurs of the future the memory of which survives in the weird sisters of Macbeth. References to Tacitus, Pliny, Terulius, Propertius, and St Ambrose remind us that the most learned men of the day considered all these imaginary beings as real, believed in every bit as much we today accept the existence of exotic fauna we have only seen on television screens. These beings informed the landscape of the mind, which in turn became the landscape of history, and therefore the world. The Nordic Elves who shoot the invisible arrows which cause common itches, their Scottish counterparts the Brownies, who rather more winsomely turn up and tidy around the house, the Harpies, who we learn wielded weapons of gold lightning and milked the clouds , all these dwelt in the minds of our ancestors in a more profound sense than the mundane insects, cats and cattle which walked among them. While descriptions of these more familiar fiends and fairies are captured marvellously (in both senses) and show us far more of the subjects than we could have imagined, Borges comes still more into his own with narrations of the more outlandish creatures. Here is Kujata, a huge bull from Islamic folklore, with 4,000 eyes, ears, nostrils, mouths and feet. Kujata stands on the back of the great fish Bahamut, All the seas in the world placed in one of the fishs nostrils would be like

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a mustard seed placed in the desert. Under Bahamut is water, and under the water darkness, and beyond this mens knowledge does not reach. The uncanniness of cosmology is brought to us with a quiet aplomb, as it is with the Fauna of Mirrors where we learn that the people of Canton believed another hostile world was behind every reflective surface, the people of whom are enslaved into copying our actions for now, but whose turn to rise will come, and whose uprising will be heralded by a rogue yellow fish you may see in the mirror that shouldnt be there. That such a potentially risible, laughable notion instead haunts the memory is further testimony to Borges mastery. Occasionally the book has guest spots from other authors mainly Kafka and C.S. Lewis which, good as they are, simply serve as contrast to the particular visions of the grand editor. Elsewhere in the bestiary we meet Haniel, Kafziel, Azriel and Aniel, a four headed creature surrounded by rings full of eyes, as envisioned by the prophet Ezekiel. One of its heads is that of an ox, one of man, one of lion, and one of eagle, each one went in the direction of its face, so imaginable as to be uncanny. Borges is adept at describing things, which, in terms of physical human description, cannot be described. When H.P. Lovecraft does this, he horrifies. When Borges does it, he simply entrances. With all this talk of mystique and wonder, you could be forgiven for thinking this book a po-faced

thing. Not at all. Borges is always aware the things he describes are as ridiculous as they are sublime, and a wryness sometimes peers through. Of the strange visionary Swedenbourg, who wrote with incredible vividness of the celestial beings he claimed to know as the English are not very talkative, he fell into the habit of conversing with angels and Devils. When the allegorical nature of some of the creatures is a little too heavy handed for his tastes, he is not above mocking it. (The hippogriff is the combination of a griffin and a horse which denotes the impossible Luis notes the Greek scholar Servius somewhat milked this by inventing the fact that griffins must hate horses). Sillier creatures like the Squonk, (of Aboriginal folklore, which cries to itself until its body disintegrates) appear with a mordant dryness. The entire Fauna of the United States are of a somewhat facetious nature, such as the axehandle hound shaped like an axe, and which eats only axes. But what Borges never does is pour contempt on the fantastical he knows its importance too well. Borges knew that while the religions may be wrong in their claim to give us morality, they and their myths have more far more valid claim in giving us a sense of wonder, helping the impossible peer in, making life, rather than existence, possible. It is in no way a betrayal of rationalism to find a sense of transcendent mystery and awe in the Moslem Jinn (people

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of fire, as angels are of light and men of earth), the Jewish Golem, (a kind of ancient clay android), or the angelic hordes of in the Christian-informed visions of Swedenbourg. They dont exist, never have, and countless crimes have been committed in the names of the theologies which conjured them up. But these are beings without which the world of the mind, the world

we inhabit, would not exist. Part of Borges very real genius is to illuminate these corners of what makes us human, with a wisdom so acute it meets itself round full circle so as to appear childlike, an endless loop of wild possibility. Not bad for a book about dragons, witches and gnomes eh? No, hes not bad this Borges.

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Review [published December 2001] Robin Askew

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Angela Bourke: The Burning Of Bridget Cleary


Enjoyed The Blair Witch Project? Then immerse yourself in this engrossing and exhaustively researched true story from late 19th-century Ireland. The facts of the case are relatively straightforward: in 1895, 26-year-old Bridget Cleary disappeared from her house in rural Tipperary. Local rumour claimed that she had been taken by fairies to their fort of Kylenagranagh, from where she would eventually emerge riding a white horse. But when her badly burned body was recovered from a shallow grave a week later, her husband Michael, father, aunt and four cousins were arrested. The subsequent trial made headlines even in the London press. According to contemporary newspaper reports, it emerged in court at nearby Clonmel that Michael Cleary had believed his ailing wife was a witch. He gave her herbs from a local herb doctor and then, with the aid of other male members of the household, held her over the kitchen fire and called upon her to say, in the name of God, that she was not his wife. Finally, she was stripped of her clothing, knocked to the floor, covered in paraffin oil and allowed to burn to death while being watched by eight relatives six men and two women. Some of them remonstrated with the husband, who insisted that it was not his wife who was burning but a witch, whom he confidently expected to disappear up the chimney. When this didnt happen, he wrapped a sheet around the charred body and buried it in a dyke near the family home. There is, of course, a great deal more to this tragic tale than these stark details convey. Dublin-based academic Angela Bourke brilliantly sets the case in its social and political context, revealing its significance at the cusp of change between an older world of folklore and fairy-belief and the new age of literacy and industry. While Bridget and her husband were childless and newly prosperous, their jealous peers were not, and the instigator of her unpleasant demise was a toothless, limping, increasingly isolated patriarch whose waning power over the fearful countryfolk derived from his ample knowledge of fairy-forts, ghosts, and other supernatural malarkey. Equally significant in the reporting of the Cleary case was the ongoing Home Rule movement. The Unionist press seized on this outbreak of barbarism

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as evidence of the locals lawlessness and consequent unsuitability for independence; elsewhere, it simply fanned the flames of crude anti-Irish racism. Bourkes exemplary scholarship teases out many such strands from this horrific case, evincing a powerful empathy for all involved. Occasionally,

you may need to remind yourself that these people burned a woman alive, or stood around and watched while it happened, but by the time you put the book down, you at least have a greater understanding of how this gruesome event came to pass and why it still reverberates to this day.

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Review [published April 1997] Jason Weaver

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Michael Bracewell: England Is Mine


Before his passport read novelist, Michael Bracewell learnt his trade on the first rush of British style magazines. Much of Bracewells work from the mid-80s could be found in Arena, sibling to The Face but with a considerably higher brow. Sadly, the magazine got crushed in the publishing stampede that has instead brought respectability to top shelf reading. After the breakdown-and-prozac cocktail of his last novel Saint Rachel a moving meditation on mental distress Bracewell has resumed his former cultural commentary. This time the canvas is broader. England Is Mine purports to have a thesis but is more a collection of essays masquerading as a whole, short stories rather than a novel. His subject is pop. Does this mean pop as in popular, Pop as in Art, or pop as in Top Of The? Well, Bracewell would argue all three. Im not sure hes right. He claims that domestic art of the 20th century is always fighting for its own piece of England: The rebels in Englands Arcady are defending the Arcadian values that they love, passionately, from what they recognise as abuse at the hands of self-serving tyrants and their occupying armies. According to Bracewell, this Arcady satisfies the need within the psyche of Englishness to look back to an idealized past Nostalgia is apparently intrinsic to our national culture. The title of the book comes, presumably, from a line in The Smiths Still Ill. Bracewells cause finds a strong ally in Morrissey, who sang A rush and a push and the land that we stand on is ours. Morrissey is the conscience of lost Arcady: beleaguered, revolutionary, pastoral and drenched in the perfume of the past. England Is Mine, however, wants to plot the entire century through these tinted spectacles. The opening chapter deals with the Culture And Anarchy paranoia of the new century and, in doing so, attempts to lay foundations. We drop in on Wilde and Waugh and Forster to see if they think Old England is dying. We take in a movie, a War and hear a few poems and songs. It isnt always clear where we are going. I mean, who invited Enid Blyton to this party? Bracewell might be excellent on the fine details but his sense of overall design is rickety. Whenever his theme comes up, it seems frankly incidental.

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Surprisingly, this hardly matters. The book becomes fascinating, at least to this reader, once it puts the Penguin Modern Classics back on the shelf and turns on the stereo. In fact, Bracewell writes in such a way to make Art seem a mere rehearsal for pops Great Performance. Bracewell gives both time and energy to what he clearly loves the best his record collection. What is most engaging about England Is Mine is Bracewells insistence on treating pop music as an explosive and pensive form, often most thoughtful precisely at its most physical. By the time the Mods arrive, Bracewell is really guzzling the gas. He casts them as smart Modernists rather than the retro-obsessed, tentwearing, hairdrier-riders of public imagination. The Mods are asking what others are afraid to: The question, in fact, was a massive: Who am I? The male sensibility in English pop, as it built its muscles through Mod, was both a reaction against adolescent (even teenage) conformity, and a belief that pop could be a spiritual quest through the boredom and hostility of modern English life in search of self-knowledge. Bracewell is right in there with his subject. The gulf between academia and getting down with The Kids is a whole language apart, which is why quality journalism often lacks credibility. It requires deftness to pull the trick without the cards all falling from your sleeve. Bracewell manages it better than most. He rarely attempts to score points with the cred police,

nor does he bring his laptop to the disco. Reynolds, Hebdige and Marcus, on the other hand, those other professors of pop, make their appeal to the eggheads. It doesnt often translate. When Bracewells taste and wit compound, the results can be dee-liteful. Of The Cure he says, The soul is not so much bared as reduced to wandering around in its dressing gown. By dealing with relatively unacknowledged areas of prole art, the book proposes a convincing alternative to the received canon, pop or otherwise. Mark E Smiths output is seen as an oeuvre and reverence is paid to largely forgotten individuals like John Cooper Clarke. As such, the approach fresh and fruitful. The entirety doesnt quite convince the jury, but the mixture of art forms does have the advantage of comparing pop with literature favourably, a rare admission. There are a few factual errors, the most ironic of which is accidentally renaming Oasis Dont Look Back In Anger as Sally Can Wait. Noel Gallaghers tempering of the Angry Young Man could have become the lynch pin in a discussion of Britpops conservatism and the oversight is uncharacteristic of Bracewells normal attentiveness. Unfortunately, England Is Mine closes as weakly as it began. The 90s are telescoped into a single chapter. The passion that illuminates the finest parts of the book has withered. The verdict is that the needle has stuck, repeating the same phrase with

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decreasing clarity. We exist in a kind of shopping Arcady in which Bracewell consigns the 90s as an age of cultural sampling, the victory of the past over the future: there is a sense in our archival condition, as nostalgic consumers scavenging for bargain rarities of the past, that a car boot sale can double as a faculty of Cultural Studies. This is a mistake; the future is created from the ruins of the past and every music that Bracewell celebrates has hastened that destruction. It is not nostalgia but the reverse, a hatred of the past that attempts to confine us. We want to break it into little pieces and build anew. This is as true for our decade as any other.

From The Whos reworking of the Union Jack to The Chemical Brothers smash-and-grab approach to sonic material this has been pops prime attraction. At its best, pop (and Pop) has no reverence for the past and is hell-bent on the future. In this sense, pop will always be intrinsically Modernist. Michael Bracewells book reminds us that England really is ours for the taking and, for that, it is a stimulating read which does ample justice to its subject. It is possible for a book to fail utterly in its designs yet still be a thorough success. I found England Is Mine an inspiration. To demand anything more would just be greed.

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Review [published March 2005] Ben Granger

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Charlie Brooker: Screen Burn


I judge newspaper TV reviewers by a very high standard indeed. Why the hell shouldnt I? Lets face it, this is the dream job any human being can have. Sitting, scratching your mardy arse whilst staring out the flickers that would bombard your face anyway and getting paid for it. Jesus! They have to be very entertaining indeed to offset the sickening pang of envy I get while reading one. They rarely live up. For a few years Jim Shelley aka Tapehead in The Guardian Guide managed to fit the bill. He was witty, acerbic, mostly accurate, and excreted his metaphysical bile duct in a pleasingly over-the-top manner. When he left in 2000 I was deeply worried (what a dangerous existence I lead!) Which safe trendoid would cast their yawnsome wry eye over events now? But thankfully they didnt choose the safe option, they chose Charlie Brooker. And he made Shelley look like an amalgam of Dennis Norden and Jenny Bond. Put aside any justifiable lit-snobbery you may have in thinking that a collection of TV reviews cannot make a great book. In 99% of cases youd be right, but not here. Brookers is a glorious, venomous vision which blasts acidly over modern society with TV as its launch-pad. Brookers writing persona is self-deprecating, neurotic, unpretentious, and above all seriously pissed off at the televisual shite shovelled his way. He has a real genius for brief, cutting description which highlights its victim as expertly as it destroys them. In the main, his scatological, violent epigrams simply speak for themselves. Rarely as gut-churningly offensive as his XXX rated old web site TV Go Home they are probably more effective and hilarious for their relative subtlety (were talking very relative here.) Try these for size: On The Generation Game: Jim scampers onstage, winking and twitching like a man with a fish-hook stuck in his glans, and immediately launches into a comic pantomime of such awkward, ill-conceived clunkiness, you cant help but wonder if its been scripted by a human with a laptop or a dog with a Fisher Price Activity Centre. On Davina McCall: Its like her brains been spooned out and replaced by a rotating glitter-ball. On a Steps TV special: Ho ho ho, we all love Steps

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really dont we? No. Theyre not harmless fun; theyre slapdash trash. H is not a lovable scamp: hes a blank eyed glove puppet with half the charisma of a discarded ping-pong bat rotating slowly in a pig trough full of rainwater. This represents untertainment at its finest and will be warmly welcome by anyone who regularly sits in front of the box with a loaded shotgun in their mouth, trying to pluck up the courage. And, more obscurely, on finding a DVD boxed set of Planet Of The Apes with Charlton Heston disconsolate before the Statue of Liberty on the cover: What next? A special edition of Seven in a commemorative case mocked up to resemble Gwynneth Paltrows severed head? Childish? Yes. Hilarious? Well I think so. If it was all fantasy disembowelling of nob-ends in colourful language Brooker could be dismissed as a one-trick pony, even if that trick is astonishingly amusing. But theres a real vision at work here; stinging, jaded eyes surveying a Boschean hellscape of demonic coke-crazed execs ladling poisonous gruel down the mouths of uncomplaining dribble-mouthed buffoons. And yet for all the apparent misanthropy theres a cornered and bruised altruism at work here too. Brooker recently wrote Nathan Barley with the immortal Chris Morris (the best thing on telly despite what the nay-sayers nay-say) but while the latter is the greater comedic and satirical talent (not just of Brooker, but

of everyone) Brooker actually has a humanity about him seemingly absent in our latter-day Swift. For all his violent imagery, a longstanding vein in his work is a contempt for the kind of sniggering nihilists who watch genuine suffering for kicks. This can perhaps be seen best in his dissection of some feeble comedy awards programme door-stepping Les Dennis about his breakup with his wife: Perhaps Im a wuss but I think harassing the heartbroken for funnies is disgraceful. Clearly the producer, Dan Clapton, believes that human suffering equals big guffaws, so if anyone has any first-hand accounts of him having his heart broken, send me the juicy details and Ill reprint them here so we can have a good hearty ho-ho together. After all, its just a bit of fun, right Dan? Right? Of course it helps that I agree with most of what he says but even when describing his affection for David Dickinson (ugh!), Monarch Of The Glen (gah!) and, worst of all Friends (arrrggghhhhhhhhh!) hes still funny. I dare say hed have a few words to say about my soft spot for Judge John Deed too. Were all entitled to like some shite in our lives. Indeed, its Brookers recognition of this, the simultaneous fascination and revulsion he has for the likes of Pop Idol and Big Brother that makes it very far from some highbrow denunciation of TV as a whole. This is a guy who loves the possibilities of what television has

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to offer, and an enjoyment for even the more throwaway aspects of the medium. The Hulkish anger at so much of what he sees is akin to that of a neglected lover. How dare his great love try to fob him of with such crap, not well made crap but the likes of The Generation Game which drops off the low end of the stupidity spectrum, to a point where the human brain is incapable of interpreting its signal? I have only two criticisms of this excellent book. One: unlike the columns from which they are taken they are each headed by one of the most memorable

phrases from the piece; A fascist chorus line, An aging thundercat, A pastel sketch of a lonely duckling Do spiders live alone? This has the effect of spoiling the surprise within and is uncalled for, like trailers that spell out the plot of a film. Two: Ive read all of them before and remember them all anyway. But unless youre a sad bastard Guardian reader who has stored all your old Guides together in a handy binder; you should still get this to have the brilliance of the writing to hand. And if youve not read him before; just buy it; youre missing out.

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Review [published December 2006] Pedro Blas Gonzalez

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Charles Bukowski: Born Into This


Charles Bukowski was a solitary man and a courageous writer. Without daddys money to deliver him into high places or the protective cloak of a godfather, Hank forged his way through the world with the sweat of his brow and the calluses on his hands. Perhaps the greatest compliment that his readers can afford him is that of being a self-made man. Publishing houses, literary magazines or otherwise and academic circles are all rife with opportunists, an unlimited supply of self-promoters, bigots and moral Lilliputians. These are all fine examples of the relative and selective relativism that defines the radicalism of late-modernity. Bukowski felt the wrath of all of these entities throughout his life. But he had talent, and the rest, as they say is history. Bukowskis story is one of genuine sentiment, determination and a stubborn will that refused to become objectified by the resistance that the world offers all true visionaries. He went at it alone. An underground, cult writer who did not readily attain popular acclaim until the last decade of his life, Bukoswkis body of work is a testament to the working man not the straw one that is prostituted as a theoretical entity but rather one that like Eric Hoffer, actually worked for a living. He was born in Andernach, Germany in 1920. When asked when he realized he was a writer, he answered: Nobody ever realizes theyre a writer. They only think theyre a writer. He began writing when he was 13 years of age. He continues, I just found a pencil and I started writing. And I filled this notebook full of words. This was the first time the mechanism exposed itself. Bukowski: Born Into This is a documentary that follows the trajectory of the writers life until his death in 1994. Directed by John Dullaghan, what we encounter in this film is an unadulterated and edgy look at the writer of Post Office, Women, Factotum, and Hot Water Music. The film follows Bukowski through the 1940s as he travelled the country gathering life experiences, through his initial attempt at journalism in LA City College, his poetry readings at San Franciscos City Lights Poets Theater, the women in his life and culminating with the final months of his life. We witness Bukowski reading

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a poem that touches any sentient persons nerves: Its not the large things that send a man to a madhouse. Death, he is ready for, or, murder, incest, robbery, fire, flood. No. Its the continuing series of small tragedies that send a man to a madhouse Whatever we come to think of the man, he readily acknowledges that the best compliment he can receive is that he was a good duker. Taking the exigencies of life in the chin, he never backed down from adversity. In the end, we are reminded that, What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire. This is the true-to-life wisdom of a man who lived out a very difficult dream, and one who never came close to benefiting from a silver spoon. The film takes the major events of Bukowskis life and makes them bare. The viewer is treated to the story of his first published works in Harlequin Magazine, its editor, Barbara Fry later becoming his wife. We also witness the hard times, how he lived on one candy bar per day. We come upon Bukowskis resolve never to quit even though he encountered rejection after rejection. Consider his wisdom as displayed in his poem Oh, Yes: There are worse things than being alone but it often takes decades to realize this and theres nothing worse than too late. We also laugh along with Bukowskis stubborn refusal to be anything but his own man. His struggles with the now well-known US Post Office job that he

took in 1952, his having to work evenings, and his will to write during the morning. Admirable too, is his relentless will sending out poems daily and getting rejected while he earned his living as a truck driver. Bukowski was rich in worldly knowledge. Consider his well-adjusted, dont-tell-me-bedtime-stories understanding evident in the following lines: There is enough treachery, hatred, violence, absurdity in the average human being to supply any given army on any given day. And the best at murder are those who preach against it. And the best at hate are those who preach love. And the best at war finally are those who preach peace Bukowski had very little patience for laziness and people who do not meet the difficulties and demands of life head on. He disliked hippies because of their bourgeois, pampered refusal to get their hands soiled by work. His upbringing during the depression had given him a sound appreciation of the toil that people who do not cut corners undergo throughout their lives. Bukowski suffered a great deal from the resistance offered him by naysayers. His Notes Of A Dirty Old Man columns first appeared in a little magazine called Open City. When this folded in 1969, he continued his column in the LA Free Press. Finally achieving critical and financial success in the last decade of his life his major break coming at the hands of John Martin, publisher of Black

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Sparrow Press we are privy to the life changes that the older writer underwent. No longer as tense and defensive as he once was, Bukowski now seems more introverted, the wisdom that he earned now being something that he kept to himself. At the end of the documentary we do not see the effects of his

alcohol-induced profanity any longer, as that persona is slowly put to rest. In the end we watch him dealing with leukaemia, which eventually took his life an episode that his readers will easily recognize in the interplay that takes place between lady death and the protagonist in his last novel, Pulp.

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Review [published December 2004] Ben Granger

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Julie Burchill: Sugar Rush


Julie Burchill: donchajusluver??!! Well, yes, actually. There once was a time when I agreed with all my Graun reading friends that bigoted bitch should be humanely shot, but it seems a very long while ago now. My obsession with her venomous vitriol went from fascinated horror to perverse admiration in the time it took to squeak public hanging in a Bristol accent. Every Saturday when I dutifully bought my Graun it was, without fail, to her page I turned first. Whilst my comrades sang ding-dong the witch is dead when she left last year, I felt Id lost a limb, an itchy, scabby limb perhaps but a part of me nonetheless. I wasnt going to follow her to The Times though. Lets not go nuts here. Now Im not one to admire the candour of politically incorrect columnists as a rule. Watching Richard Littlejohn, Melanie Phillips, Peter Hitchens and Taki being sodomised by chimpanzees whilst devouring the bloated corpses of Paul Johnson and Simon Heffer at gunpoint would be my dream reality TV viewing. Im an overpaid bigot, get me out of here! So why my weak-kneed ardour for a woman unafraid to sing the praises of historys greatest monsters (Thatcher and Stalin) whilst occasionally drawing the ire of the Commission for Racial Equality? The short answer is the sheer energy, insight and wit amongst all the shit. Reading one of Julies better columns is to ride the rapids. A violent tug of agreement here, a buffet sideways into the realms of entertaining irrelevance there, recoiling at the scathing extremism whilst simultaneously entranced at its vicious and shameless perversity. And along the way, just occasionally finding something you may agree with that you never thought of before. And yes, I do love a good wind-up merchant. Noone can match her for sheer vicious spite. When shes massacring the vacuous world of celebrity it reminds me of the old Day Today headline Crazed Wolves In Store A Bad Mistake Admits Mothercare. And for all the knee-jerk reaction, I was amazed to find how frequently her targets deserved everything (or at least nearly everything) they got. The bourgeoisie, still dehumanising the workingclass, but cloaking their exploitation under a silky

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Benneton-shroud of faux-progress. The ludicrous irritancy of pontificating film stars. The moral, hypocritical black hole of most journalism. The spineless and simpering betrayal of New Labour and the post feminists (offering to remove their clitoris and voting rights if they found the new era of relative equality so awful.) Shed left most of her pro-Thatcher phase behind by the time shed gone to the Graun; this was a brutal patriot-Commie bruiser. I found myself punching the air in agreement (metaphorically of course, I am a Graun reader after all), overjoyed that shed hit the nail on the head with far greater accuracy than her more measured colleagues. Of course I still strongly disagreed with vast amounts of what she said; the death penalty, Israel, Ireland, invading Iraq, paedophiles and the talent of Gareth Gates springing most immediately to mind. But even then my perceptions were challenged and above all I was entertained. She could even ignorantly defame my idols George Orwell and Mike Leigh and Id still lap it up. When she went into perversity overdrive, calling for public hanging, and claiming suicides should buck their bloody ideas up I just found the middle-class outrage of those taking the bait on the letters pages hilarious (bringing to mind one of her classic put-downs now, before you get out your pink Forever Friends notepaper.). Basically, violently agreeing with about 40% of what

she said and reeling at the rest was a damn sight more edifying than vaguely nodding at 60% of what Polly Toynbee puts out. I dont read her Times columns, and by all accounts shes gone into manic pro-war, extreme Zionist overdrive now, which even I might find too much. But when I hear about her typically savage dissection of the loathsome neo-snobbery of those sniffing at chavs I still think thats my Julie! with a warm glow. When it comes to her books though, even a fan such as myself remains a sceptic. There was no way I was going to read her hagiographies of Princess Di and Beckham, no matter what clever class-conscious leaps she was doing to laud her unworthy heroes. And the fiction? I once read a chapter of Ambition and found it pretty awful, an unconvincing English take on Dallas and Dynasty, neither of which I liked in the first place. I actually picked up Sugar Rush, Julies lesbian-driven first novel aimed at a teenage audience as a kind of aversion therapy. This is a woman who now claims to support George Bush for Gods sake. I needed to quell my ongoing crush for her perversity. Surely this rubbish would put me off for good? Sugar Rush tells the tale of 15-year-old Kim, a middle-class girl at a private school, who is forced into the nearby rough-as-shite comprehensive due to the financial hardship of her stuffy dad whos been left holding the kids by her feckless mother, herself still

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trying to live her teens in her 40s. Left behind by her hard-nosed friend Saint, Kim falls under the thrall of the head hard-bitch at the new comp, Maria Sweet, aka Sugar. Sugar is rough as hell and live as wires, and drags the prissy yet uncomplaining Kim into her world of ecstasy, vodka, dance music and sarky-faced rebellion, offering her a tang of freedom shes never tasted before. Doubt-ridden, fucked up Kim falls for her sexually as well as spiritually. Their relationship crashes up and down, side-to-side on the winds of teenage abandon. But can such a bliss-ridden union of opposites last? What strikes you while reading this is that Julie can only write one way, and that every word in Sugar Rush, no matter whos speaking it, is very much her own. Indeed the three main characters are a split triumvirate of Jules herself, every bit as cute as the ones in the Catholicism and Freudianism she so loathes (actually I dont know she hates Freud, Im just guessing). Kim is the shy, intelligent, doubting, deep, wry side; Sugar the spirit of wild working class abandon that Julie so admires; while mum Stella is the shallow, formerly working-class but lavish spending strumpet who thinks of no-one but herself and has abandoned her kids, the very demonic caricature of Julie herself the Daily Mail laid on her. Believe me, Im not playing slap-dash Raj Persaud here (that being a tautology anyway); its pretty damn plain.

All the familiar themes from her columns crop up, sometimes down to the same wording. The sanctimonious futility of well-meaning liberalism (the private school and the comp come together in farcical exchange sessions, a pseudy drama troupe resonant of the one from The League Of Gentleman displaying to braying teens the evils of homophobia); the sad atavism of the family dinner-table and its depressing middle-class accoutrements (the means by which her sad dad tries to hold the family together); the hypocrisy of anti-racists who hate the poor (ex-best friend Saint is a bourgeois black who despises white-trash Sugar with a passion); the joys and contradictions of lesbianism, higher education being for losers, the fetish for Soviet-Army uniforms (an art project of Kims gone wrong) Christ, she even manages to shoe-horn in her newfound passion for Lutheranism (dont ask) The result, is, Im afraid to say, a lot of fun. Yes its tacky and obvious at times, and yes both the dialogue and thoughts in the book really do stretch credulity occasionally too, ringing pretty false as realism. This is Julie talking, and no-one talks like that, not even Julie in real life. The over-excitable metaphors are endearing and evocative at times, but sometimes they really make you cringe. But you know, much to my regret, Im not a teenage girl; and thats the audience for this book. And I really do think theyll love it, like the young mum I saw

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avidly reading it on the bus the other day (Id better stop there, lest Julie lead a misguided anti-paedo lynch mob against me.) The thing about Julies voice is that it is indeed perennially adolescent, and this suits the book perfectly. She still seems to be a lost teen aching to shock the grown-ups. Much has been made of the explicit content of this book (not least by the cover), but in reality theres very little muck to be had here (there is one scene of group sex, but nothing is described). But she brings the bitchiness, the longing, the loneliness, the SHOUTING to make your point that are all part of the teenage condition to life very well.

I wont spoil the ending, but I must say I find it a pretty terrible cop-out by Julies standards. A triumph of middle-class safety against the working-class other. You traitor Julie! What would Uncle Joe say?! But it is Im afraid to say sweet, indeed Kims whole tale resonates a certain empathy which brings a warm glow to even to this jaded heart. So, once again, Ive been won over. What can this evil woman, this sociopath and moral cretin (her words) do to finally put me off her? Defend the images of torture in Abu Ghraib? Oh dear, Ive just heard shes already done that. Time for more soul-searching you bad, bad boy.

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Interview [published June 2005]

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Julie Burchill: Hurricane Julie

Ben Granger collides with Julie Burchill over several bottles of wine to seek out the dreadful truth on chavs, Stalin, Ariel Sharon and Morrissey Never meet your heroes; they always disappoint Theres no time for a biog here, but suffice to say runs the old saying. Invited from my humble Lancasmy longstanding admiration for the deliriously violent trian abode down to the Brighton realm of the greatest punch of her writing, often despite myself, was why I shit-stirring iconic hack of our times, I wasnt so much found myself here on the day. No I dont agree with a afraid of Julie Burchill not living up to her reputation as tonnes of what she says, but for me she has obtained living up to it too much. Would she be gentle with me? Benefit of Clergy, a phrase Orwell used about Dal If Julie needs an introduction, its tough knowing (even though Julie hates Orwell too: worst offence in the where to start. Running away from her working-class world in my book). This basically means offensiveness Bristol childhood at the age of 17 to scribble speedis to some extent excused by how well its delivered, driven venom for the NME at the height of punk, and whats behind it. But mainly how its delivered. Its marrying and deserting Tony Parsons prior to queening what separates Jerry Sadowitz from Jim Davidson, and it over the Groucho journo set, skipping gaily from South Park from the Sunday Sport. highly paid column to spiky column in a variety of Julies profile is higher now than for many a year after newspapers across the land. Enraging the Left with her finally breaking into the previously shunned medium of hard-line anti-liberalism and some-time Thatcher worTV. A Channel 4 adaptation of her lesbian teen-scream ship, the Right with her brazen pro-Soviet Communism novel Sugar Rush will be screened later this year, whilst and hatred of the bourgeoisie, and everyone with her her typically pro-prole, contrary and acidly delivered particular and peculiar blend of narcissism, iconoclasm defence of the much maligned phenomenon of Chavs and rudeness. Leaving second husband Cosmo Landeson the eponymous Sky One documentary last February man for an affair with Charlotte Raven, subsequently slung a Molotov cocktail amongst the dinner party set shacking up with Charlottes younger brother to whom once again. she is now married. Etcetera etcetera. The journey down South is made all the more

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surreal for me by being stuck on the last leg in the train from Euston to Brighton in the next carriage to our glorious leader Anthony Blair, a month before his phyrric election victory, who graciously smirks over when I take a snap of him. I cant stand the guy but little plebby me feels like Alice In Famousland. Weird, weird. I get to wander for too short a time round the rather beautiful town of Brighton (never before visited) with its poignantly derelict pier, until finally getting the cab round to her spacious detached home on the Hove border. Quick fag, deep breath, down the huge garden into the valley of whatsits. Julie answers the door with an imperious handshake as she invites me to the lair. Youre Ben? You must come in, intones the famous high-pitched quickfire yet lilting Bristol burr. Shes half the size she was two years back and looks lovely in her black and white ensemble. Id heard she was a nervy character around strangers, but whilst her initial demeanour is slightly distant, she is clearly at pains to put me at ease, even introducing me to her fellow guests with the unnervingly gallant This is Ben Granger, the great writer from Spike Magazine. (Fuckin ell!) The guests are Gary Mulholland, music journalist and author of This Is Uncool, Zoe Williams from The Guardian (both in capacity of friends rather than interviewers), her teenage son Jack, and her cleaner (and bestest friend the world) Nadia. The Burchill abode

has a brash dcor of pink walls and tiger skin couches which mirrors its owner exquisitely, as does the louche sprinkling of bottles, ash-trays and smoke. Oh yes, and the small Israeli flag atop the mantelpiece, given her oft-avowed Zionism. Whilst I get my MP3 recorder complete with my sons kiddies mike together, I mention my fellow train traveller which gets the surprising response: God, hes sexy, innee? Youre a man, you wouldnt understand. I also mention how attractive I found Brightons bohemian Trafalgar Street. God I never go there. Full of dossers. I mention a couple of pubs Ive stopped in (not mentioning I was there to steady my awe-struck nerves) I dont really go to pubs much to be honest with you. I dont want to be the mad woman sitting in the corner! Generous host to a fault, Julie even sends Zoe and Nadia to the offie when I mention Id like red wine which isnt on offer. When I finally fidgetilly set up she directs myself and Gary to the house gym- now disused and decorated by a large Cuban flag representing the other great love of her ideological life, Communism to conduct the interview. Sitting cross legged on the floor we embark. So , how was writing for teenagers different from writing her novels for adults? Well, Ill be honest with you, the first novel I wrote for adults was very successful but the other two went right down the toilet. So it wasnt like a choice to write

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for young people, I just thought no-ones sitting around waiting to hear from me in the adult world so lets inflict it on some other poor Yes, but were you consciously writing in a different way? Oh yeah, yeah! You dont have to try so hard do you? Theres a certain reason why people who 20 years ago would have been writing literary novels, like Gary, like myself, arent doing it now. I think Id fall at the first hurdle. But my immediacy, my lack of education which stop me from doing what Ian McEwan or [mutters scornfully] Martin Amis do is part of what we love about ourselves, and what suited a book like this it was very pleasurable and it felt very normal to do. Given your typically hard-line on paedophilia, did you ever feel there was a tension in writing a lesbian novel about 15-year-old girls? Id heard there was more sex scenes in it initially before they were cut out? Naaah there was never any real sex in it because I thought that would be unbearably pervy and a total contradiction of everything I stood for. Dont go there. Though for the TV show apparently shes older, like 21 so they can make it a bit more hardcore. Is that a horrible thing to say? No if it was kids it would be horrible wouldnt it? Ive had no input whatsoever in the programme so far but next week Im going on-set. And Im looking forward to it. The drama is still to come but the documentary has already been screened. Chavs was a classic Burchill

column brought to life; one-sided, contrary, mixing pop culture and high sociological comment with humour and venom. Its subject was the eponymous; the baseball capped, Burberry clad, gold jewellery bedecked folk devils that walk down every high street in Britain. The butt of every middle-class sneery joke. As per often Julie has bloody mindedly found a devilish cause to defend; a hate-figure for snooty Telegraph toffs, Mail paranoiac patio-sniffers and Guardian liberal snoots alike. Asked about why this issue was so close to her heart, the full ferocity of her anger really takes off. The turbo Bristol voice takes off, hard in vowels, soft in tone, ruthless in content. Now, Im a very idle person and Im very relaxed, and my ideal dream is just to lie on the sofa all day eating chocolates. But when I do get agitated and when I do get a bee in my bonnet I DO go all the fucking way. When I was told about things like Chavscum [the website dedicated to promoting hatred of all things chav] which I hadnt known about, and the abuse they were putting out, Im afraid I saw red. It seemed to me that the kind of people who are doing things like Chavscum ten years ago would have been racists, and would have been that loathsome and that disgusting. Now they cant be racists because of the CRE and certain laws that have been passed quite rightly. But the white working class are now the only people you can

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fucking hate with impunity, and I felt I just had to raise my fucking voice. It should be stressed there is no editorial trickery involved in Julies broadsides here. This is simply how she talks. Very, very fast too. The only other person I can think whose words race along as fast as they think is Patrick Moore. Its so tempting to be lured in by the defence of humour and irony. One of the worst things you can say to somebody is theyve got no sense of humour. If you look at the personal columns, youll often see people admitting that theyre ugly or not bright or fat no-one will ever admit to having no sense of humour. Its the final insult, the final thing no-one will admit to. But I didnt want to get the fucking joke. If there was a joke I didnt want to get it, just like I didnt want to get it when my parents were watching Love Thy Neighbour and thought it was funny to call someone nig-nog. Instinctively, I just thought it was disgusting. To me laughter and great humour comes from taking on people above you on the social scale. The documentary featured an extremely ill-tempered spat with TV personality Vanessa Feltz, who opined that her very worthwhile existence should not be sullied by having to pay her taxes in supporting welfare payments to such dread creatures. Really though Julie, you were great friends after the cameras stopped werent you?

I just wanted to punch her fucking face in! Listen, Ive got a friend who thinks al Quaeda have got a point, I can sit with him and listen to that shit, I can listen to taxi drivers being racist. But when I sit with a middle-class person going on, I dont care if it is a kind of prejudice, I just wanna kill the fuckers and I think youve got no right to say a fucking word, you just dont know fucking anything about anything. To me, its not about race, theres the middle class and the working class; us against them. Well, theres three groups really but thats the upper class who dont count cos theyre fucking retarded but put a middle-class person in front of me, I dont care if theyre left-wing or right-wing, talk to them for five minutes, and the filthy fucking snob in them will come out. Even when angry she is increasingly at ease, and warm in her demeanour. She doesnt laugh much but does grin mischievously from time to time. Possibly libellous comments about La Feltz follow. But what would you say to people who claim that chavs are only a part of the working-class, and that criticising the former is not criticising the latter? People say that to me trying to be nice, I always say Dont do me any fucking favours! When someone tries to differentiate between the deserving and the undeserving working-class the black heart of me cleaves towards the undeserving ones. My father was a member of the deserving working-class, he ended

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up coughing his fucking lungs out for three years and dying of tumours because of it. The working-class in the old days kept their heads down, were so fucking decent and wonderful, and it got them jack shit. Chavs are there for a reason, because the decent way, the good way, didnt fucking work. The idea that after the break up of the manufacturing industries and the disrespect poured on the heads of the trade unions and everything the working-class stood for that their would still, masochistically, be this class of noble men and women trudging on and on and on waving banners and singing wonderful songs WHY?! Wed fucking had enough. We are what they made us! And they dont like us being like that because they know were tougher than they are and they know well win. Julie has gone into an impressively ferocious, literally breast-beating oratory by this point, suddenly breaking off to grinningly state What am I shouting at you two for, you didnt fucking do it! She digresses once more, expressing here near eugenic belief in prole supremacy. Did you know theres this thing called the indestructible nine percent in society? Theyve all got green or hazel eyes, they can drink the most amazing amount, and theyve got this weird blood group called rhesus negative. Ive got all these three things and they are ALL found amongst the labouring classes listen would I make this shit up?! How fucking mad do I want to look?

But in defending chavs culturally, is this not a tacit acknowledgment that the political fight for the proletariat is lost? Naaaah, the fight cannot be lost, the fight changes. So to quote dear Lenin: What is to be done politically? Im hoping to find out. What Marx analysed was basically right, but its so rich and strange the way things mutate. Who ten years ago would have predicted the decline of McDonalds? Who 20 years ago would have seen the downfall of all I believe in, with the Soviet Union? But because of the strength and the numbers of the working-class, both in this country and globally, we will decide what happens in the end and it really wont be that bad. One of the main criticisms levelled at Julie is because her extremes of position are so contrary to accepted mainstream norms (pro-union yet pro-hanging, massively xenophobic about the Germans and French whilst showing a fierce anti-racism where black people are concerned, pro-Soviet yet pro-Israeli) that she is insincere and feigning them to shock. But while she unquestionably fires forth her beliefs in as provocative a manner as possible, hearing her talk about them there is no doubt whatsoever in her sincerity. She quite clearly really believes them. No doubt that makes it a lot worse for many! Her passion when talking about the workers and socialism in particular is unquestionable. I suggest that the success of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela

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is a real international working-class triumph that is being unsung. Julie initially suggests he is corrupt from what shes heard. I strongly disagree. I dont know enough about Venezuela; I dare say youre right. But remember when whatsisname, Ortega? The Sandinista leader was accused of molesting his daughter, well ten years ago wed have all cleaved together and said she was lying, but, thank God for feminism, how do we know that. I was brought up in a Communist household, when I moved to London I met Paul Foot and was briefly in the SWP, and the one thing my dad the working-class Stalinist and Paul Foot the middle-class Trotskyist had in common is they couldnt fucking look at themselves, see the bad in their side. Thats what attracted me to people on the right for a while, like Alan Clark. What a fucking cool man! She proceeds to launch into an entertaining and fairly accurate impression of Clark fantasising about Russian women in his infamously lecherous manner. Julie has latched onto the theme of the Left denying its own crimes now and, as ever, theres no getting her off it. My dad taught me that you hide your own sin and you dont take yourselves apart; Ive realised recently that weve got to criticise ourselves before we can start on anyone else. In that way lies strength. I love Mr Castro and the Cuban revolution, and its achieved so much; they can cure blindness there whereas they cant in America, but you go there and see 12-year-old

prostitutes; it obviously wasnt meant to be like this. And the things he did to gay people, though I dare say he had a good reason But to turn away helps no-one. I really think the Left has to take itself apart before anyone else, because we can, because were stronger and more intelligent than the Right. There we are then, to reverse Grouchos old maxim, whether many on the Left want her or not pro Bush and Blair on the war as she is thats the club she places herself in at heart. I cant help but have a tentative go here; what about her wonderful 2002 Guardian columns where she ripped Princess Toni to pieces on a weekly basis due to his betrayal of the Labour movement? Thats simple, Blair is a great war-leader, like Churchill; useless in times of peace. Who would vote for the poor sod after that? So youre not taking away your criticisms of his domestic policies, privatisation, sucking up to the bosses? Ive never voted for Mr Blair and I dont imagine I will. [This interview was conducted shortly before the 2005 General Election] The last time I voted was for the Socialist Alliance locally, and UKIP nationally, or was it the other way round? I dont even remember. Ive got nothing to hide. She repeats the highly entertaining story of how, on her fathers death bed she vowed to defend the name of his old hero Joe Stalin, only to be told by Bill You

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aint been saying mad stuff about him have you girl? He was a terrible man! So who are her all time heroes really? It sounds really mealy-mouthed, but the people who no-one knows the name of; theyre the heroes. So your other heroes have disappointed you? I dont feel disappointed because Ive grown up, very late in life, and I realise people fall short of things for a reason as were all human. Like all the bad things Mr Castro has done to gay people. The heroes are the people we never ever hear of and that is the essence of their heroicness. Theres a certain reason why people of real quality dont rise to positions of power. People like my dad; who have nothing to prove. Ive no element of self-loathing but I do realise that part of my success is just me showing off, and wanting to queen it over other people, to be frank with you. When you get people like Emma Thompson, Dawn French, Lenny Henry, the Red Nose lot unless you tied the fuckers down and wired them up to a lie detector and then youd get it youd never get them to admit that there was any element in their desire to be famous other than them wanting to help people in Niger. To me its the glory of being a human being that we are a mixture of complete corruption and the most shimmering, mercury-like goodness. Of course there are some just purely evil people like Dido and just purely good people like Jordan. But then theres the glory and the black hearted corruption.

It just knocks you out sometimes if you think about it too much. Thats why I prefer not to think about it too much and watch Tricia instead. A great deal of my life is spent running away from my brain. In my review of Sugar Rush I presumptuously wrote of the characters: No-one talks like that, not even Julie in real life. I was in fact completely wrong. Friendlier (to me at least), and with lots more swearing, but she talks pretty much as she writes. I wont let the Iraq war go though, Im catching the argument bug off her. Ben! Ben! What would you rather live under?! Listen I was brought up as a Soviet Empirist. My dad taught me to believe literally that American brains were one third less the size of ours. Its been a very hard journey to lead me to support Mr Bush on this. But I do feel that a struggle of the dimensions my father saw, light against darkness, has emerged in the Middle East. The Arab people deserve everything we have. If that makes me a fucking racist then yeah. I wont make any exceptions for these filthy rich people, the Saudi dynasty, or the Syrian Baathists who call themselves socialists. But surely the idea that Bush is exporting democracy to the Middle East is rather undermined when he lets the CIA organise a coup against democratic Venezuela? One thing at a time Ben! When a Hugo Chavez can emerge in the Arab world I know about Allende. Im not idealistic about America. Its a dirty

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massive beast. Of course theyll attack democracy in their own back yard. But heavy the head that wears the crown when they stay out of wars we call them filthy cowards as my grandma used to say if they get involved, theyre imperialists. Its nice arguing with Julie but I know Ill never win, and she graciously changes the subject herself to the fact that her dad wanted to emigrate to Russia and her mum to South Africa, the former for idealism, the latter because They got bungalows! At heart Julie is a patriot, and emigration is not the done thing. That phrase whinging poms it comes from when English people were encouraged to emigrate to Australia for 20 pounds, and they came back, and they literally cried for three weeks in relief, because they missed the rain, and the dreariness. Thats the fucking greatness, and the perversity of the English people for me. Every perverse, dreary weird thing about our people. Changing the subject myself, I remark that Julie often writes about Hollywood, and spends as much time praising the greats of the past as she does slagging off the stars of today. Whats the difference? In 30 years time, will a drag queen dress up as Sandra Bullock? Dont think so! Sorry; thats facile my mother had no politics but what made her in a way a feminist was watching Bette Davis films; seeing her in Jezebel saying Ah wiiill wear mah red dress: the idea of women behaving as they pleased, stroppily and

strongly. It was the only thing to watch back then and weirdly watching them on a rainy day is a real part of my Englishness. God I sound gay, I sound like Morrissey! But anyway you dont get strong women on screen any more, a tough character in films today is either tough cos shes hiding her neediness, or shes a psychopath I dont think Im a strong woman, I hate that patronising phrase, I think Im a tough broad, thats what I used to see on screen which I never do anymore. Theyre either needy weedy vulnerable wickle things waiting to be hugged or total fucking looners. As was often the case of her columns I find myself agreeing with something I hadnt particularly dwelled on. Its true that Hollywood seems to stand still while society moves on in a lot of respects. Theres a great book by Molly Haskell called From Reverence To Rape and she shows how, just as women were starting to assert themselves in the real world in the 60s, that was exactly the time Hollywood started to make films like Easy Rider, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, where women are literally either bitches, whores or rapees. Joan Collins played a missionary nun twice in the 50s! Not any more. Do you think Im like Nurse Ratchett? I get short shrift however when I suggest that Basic Instinct is the height of misogyny. Oh no, that film just makes you want to go gay! Every girl likes that film for a reason, its the first time they showed a lesbian

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as really attractive. But also an ice-pick wielding psychopath? Yeah well, take the rough with the smooth. As I said earlier no-ones perfect My suggestion that Fatal Attraction is a misogynistic farrago is dismissed too No, I dont think Fatal Attraction means anything. The message is dont fuck a woman who sits in a loft playing Madam Butterfly, and dont fuck Michael Douglas! Well, you cant argue with that. Were all very drunk now (well I am anyway), so I just bat random subjects up and let Julie take them. First up is Ariel Sharon (readers of a sensitive disposition may wish to skip the next paragraph). To me hes the God that failed. He could have been such a great man and hes just a fucking pacifist now. No dont leave it! Israel is the only country I would fucking die for. Hes the enemy of the Jews. Chucking his own people off the Gaza; to me thats disgusting. Ive given you want you want; is that the money shot? Hes a good man but hes got to learn to stand by his own people. Cos no-one else will; Christ knows. Julie certainly gets into her stride when I bring up the sordid subject of the Spectator sexual shenanigans which have so dominated the headlines of tabloids and broadsheets alike in recent months. (For the uninitiated, the proprietor, editor and half the staff of the fusty old Tory journal have been caught going at it hammer and tongues lately; the former with our former Home Secretary). Well it all made me glad I live the life of a provin-

cial lady. Rod [Liddle]s a great young man, he once told me he applied for my old job at the NME, but he was always known as a lothario. I know one woman, a great friend of mine who thought he was so sexy she waited for three hours in a Bournemouth Travelodge on just like a promise but she didnt get none. Thank God Im not a woman so I dont fall for him. Simon Hoggart? What a dirty old man! Its always the quiet ones isnt it? When it comes to Kimberley Quinn Ill say this and it doesnt show me in a very good light I never thought Id use the word slag about anyone. Me and my friends, we know prostitutes, we dont slag them off, but when it comes to her we use it and God it feels good! Poor Mr Blunkett; fancy doing that to a blind man? Where was the dog? Must have been tied to summat. Thats what I cant stand; its the animals that suffer in the end. But no, my friends have put it around, fucking like sailors and shit, but theyd never used that word before. But with Kimberley Its the creepy fertility relay race thing that did it I think. She just wanted to get knocked up. Desperate woman. She just wanted some sperm race. Like an egg and spoon race. Or a sack race. Or an egg and sack race HA HA HA!! Put that in Ben right?? Didnt you once write for The Spectator though? I did some book reviews when my friend Dominic Lawson was editing. But then Ill do anything for a Jew. Julies whirl of conversation swings one way to the

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next. Very friendly and complimentary, highly libellous asides splatter the whole interview. Julie is no stranger to the libel courts, but some of her comments will not appear on Spike as none of us of course would like to see this fine site shut down. One borderline accusation about a satirist I adore leads to her virulent hatred of Catholics. When I mention that Im a Catholic her generous gallantry storms through once more No, youre not! Fuck off! Do you practice birth control?! No of course Im a very very lapsed one Julie. See I knew you were, listen, lapsed Catholics are the aristocracy of the earth. I never met a lapsed I didnt like. But them that cleave to their faith. Ill shoot the fuckers. I ask about the time when one of my idols Morrissey walked through her door unannounced back in 1994 to a frosty reception God Id forgotten about that! That was like a very, very bad marriage in three quarters of an hour: imagine the play Whos Afraid Of Virginia Woolf in the space of three quarters of an hour. Its not your dream; youre in love with someone for five years and they turn up and we start arguing about whether you should put milk in Earl Grey tea or not. I knew I had to get him out before he visited the bathroom; Why do you squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom? Fuck off! Julie wrote an acerbic piece about their encounter at the time. For acerbic read hatchet job. Incredibly, given Morrisseys famed propensity for dropping peo-

ple whove offended him at the drop of a daff, theyve restarted a friendly e-mail correspondence over the past few years. Clearly he couldnt resist someone whos even better at bitching about people than he is. I adore the man. He seems to be very civilised now; he seems more happy. Isnt it funny it took America to make him more relaxed? I said to him, Youve grown into your looks, you look like someones sexy uncle that youd get off with at a wedding. And he said in his brilliantly witty way Why do you think I go to so many weddings known to me are not? What a wonderfully Morrissey thing to say. Would you sleep with Morrissey if he asked and you were gay? If he was straight and I was single I still think I wouldnt do it. Id just be thinking Oh fuck its Morrissey! the whole time. Well, I must confess since early teenhood Id always thought hes the one man who just might turn my head as it were You would?! But youd have to slap him round a bit afterwards!! Thats what Madonna said about Billy Ray Cyrus. She said Id do him, but Id have to slap him round a bit and make him cry afterwards because of Achey Breaky Heart and Id have to do that to Morrissey because whats the crap thing hes done? Bengali In Platforms? Course hes a genius, but you wouldnt wanna live with him would you? While her talk is littered with her trademark bile Julie assures me that she is far less keen to cause fuss in

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everyday life than she once was. Im much better than I was. Even by the time I was 17 at the NME I was well castrated by then. You should have seen me at 13, at the height of my venom! I stopped kissing my mother when I went to bed and when my dad asked why I said What, is she a lesbian? Thats what I was like! And in fact she does seem more at ease with herself than Ive heard she was, and very content with her life. Brighton, for all its airs and graces, is a very provincial town, and I like it that way. I dont want to be like a young bunny putting it around, Im 45 years old, it was never my way anyway, I got married when I was 18 and 24, even though I always admired girls that did. It was never the life for me, to be honest with you. She seems content too with her role in the grand scheme of things. You know that thing you wrote about me [the Sugar Rush review] was so unique, it treated me like a human being which was such a change. I love being round young writers, I like to think of writers as a community, as a race. Im 45 years old , Im not going to write the great novel a dead mother thats what Im going to be now, and thats alright with me. Already seriously sozzled before the interview ended (me,anyway) we break off to join her fellow guests and proceed to drink a lot more. The mists of Bacchus descend on my memory somewhat here though I do dimly remember us drivelling on about

many other subjects. Indulging in huge, shared, over-emphatic praise of Nye Bevan figured highly. (Idiots always get him mixed up with Ernest Bevin, the anti-Semitic git.) At one point Julie has a huge slanging match with Zoe and Gary about the merits of white immigration (Julie is against, she thinks the UK owes black and Asian people a huge debt which doesnt apply to east Europeans). I recall also being a coward and slinking away during this, talking to Nadia instead. Nadia has clearly seen it a thousand times before, and its clear why Julie loves her so much. Shes fantastic, and clearly the calming, sensible one of the pair. Dont worry, shell calm down in a few minutes, I think she said. And she did. At one point I harangue Julie for wasting her life attacking idiotic celebrities when she could be highlighting great social injustices as she did for a very brief period in her Guardian columns of 2002, campaigning on issues like the still-toothless corporate manslaughter law which allows negligent employers to get away with murder (literally, if not legally.) She explained she found writing such things too much of an emotional strain, and that it was too late to change now anyway. She was a nasty, witty old hack, pure and simple. And she liked it that way. And of course, thats what makes her what she is. The world already has John Pilger. Its precisely the fact she has run away from her brain as she herself

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puts it which makes her so entertaining. A sledgehammer cracking a nut; the spectres of Dorothy Parker and Marx ganging up on straw-celebs like Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas is sometimes just what you need. Can we really imagine a nice campaigning little Julie Burchill? Brrrr. I must have been even more pissed than I imagined. The day after our meet, amidst the industrial hangover, I reflect on the massive hatred Julie inspires. Two years back she managed to take the number 85 spot in the Channel 4s most hated Britons poll. Not high enough in her view Im sure. But why was she there? Because of her narcissism, arrogance and self-obsession? Id hazard a guess shes not the only columnist to suffer such flaws. She is however one of the very few to openly acknowledge it, sign-post it, flaunt it, and make a very good joke out of it. Because of extreme opinions, repeating her obsessions? Lets think of these wonderful creatures we call columnists. Richard Littlejohn, Gary Bushell

straight-off bigots peddling the same old poison week after week, and always kicking the weak, never the strong, with far higher readerships too not on the list. The late-now-but-not-then Lynda Lee-Potter, bitching hideously about celebs throughout her whole career, bigger readership again. Her names not down, shes not coming in. A hundred odd male journalists with just as messy private lives as Julie; they dont get the spawn of Beelzebub treatment either. Could the fact that she can write each one of them into the dirt at least partially explain this bonfire of loathing? I rather think it could. Julie says people who write hatefully about chavs reveal more about themselves than they do of their targets. Perhaps theres an element of selfidentification with that. And perhaps shes right. Of course Im hopelessly, and rather pathetically compromised (there, Ive said it first) by spending sloshed out time in her charming and generous presence. But I wasnt disappointed. And long may she rain bile over us.

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Review [published February 2005] Ben Granger

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Jason Burke: Al Qaeda


The most striking fact Jason Burke hammers through time and again in this meticulous and comprehensive study is that Al Qaeda does not exist. Or at least, Al Qaeda the organised terrorist group, cohesive and complete we hear of in the media doesnt. I like Spooks as much as anyone, but I fear we have been misinformed. What does exist is a series of interconnected yet disparate and competing forms of militant Islamism. Bin Ladens faction, amorphous in itself and rarely termed Al Qaeda by its followers is only one part of this, yet it has become lazy shorthand for a massive phenomenon. Burke does not claim Islamist fundamentalism isnt a large, violent and dangerous force, but does show that this one key misunderstanding is disastrous if you want to deal with it. For one example, the twin towers atrocity could be said to be the work of Al Qaeda; the ones in Madrid and Bali cannot. And as another, al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian thug currently given to beheading aid-workers in Iraq has been described as an Al Queda operative and bin Ladens Lieutenant in highly reputable papers despite the two having never met, and their groups being bitter rivals of one another. Burke, who has spent the last ten years as The Observers Middle East correspondent, tells two separate yet interlinked stories; that of the formation of militant political Islamism, and that of the more specific violent groupings of which bin Laden became a leading figure. He traces the roots of modern political Sunni Islamism (as opposed to the Shia extremism of Khomeini) as comparatively recent, stemming from Wahaabism, a variant of Islam espoused in the 18th century by the ultra-orthodox renegade Abdul al Wahaab. This was developed into an all-encompassing political doctrine by an Egyptian, the Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Banna in the 1920s and 30s. Explicitly rejecting all Western influence as degenerate, Al-Banna and his successor Syed Qutb, (another Egyptian campaigning in the 50s and 60s) sought to recreate the world according to the laws of Islam in the early post-Mohammed years as they interpreted it, an interpretation very obscure and unpopular at the time in the wider Islamic world (though, crucially, not in Saudi Arabia, where it gained credence amongst the ruling royal family who used it to re-inforce their legitimacy).

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The more specific story of the violent armed groups which emerged espousing this ideology is detailed too. Bin Laden, who cut his teeth as so many others did in the Soviet/Afghan conflict of the 80s, is shown as starting out as very much the junior partner of Islamic Jihad leader Aymar al-Zawahri. It is interesting to learn he had no direct contact (as is often reported) with America, though the close co-operation with the Pakistani secret services and the CIA who funded and supported his and other gangs makes this distinction rather academic. Bin Laden became seen as a Godfather figure due to his genius for media manipulation, culminating of course with the calculated violent symbolism of September 11th, also recounted in detail here. But Burke also shows the many other groups in action both before, during and after the New York attack, often with either limited or no contact with bin Laden. The GIA in Algeria are shown to far surpass bin Laden and followers in terms of violence against their own general population, who had stubbornly failed to give them mass support. The leadership of bin Ladens faction has indeed been decapitated following the US invasion of Afghanistan, but the anger caused in the wider Muslim world and the subsequent assault on Iraq has let to a rapid increase in the sympathy for and potential recruits to such groups. The Madrid bombing is shown as the work of a cadre not only wholly disconnected from bin Laden, but not even working in his style any more; no symbolic target,

no suicides, and being the work of genuinely impoverished immigrants rather than the disaffected middleclass types chiefly at work in such atrocities previously. More than ever now, it is bin Laden and Al Qaeda as an idea and ideal that is the danger. One amazing fact, particularly farcical given the neo-con justification of the Iraqi invasion, is that in the first Gulf War bin Laden actually offered up his band of fighters to the House of Saud to fight against Saddam Hussein defending the home of Wahaabism against the secularist Iraqi infidel. It was only after this offer was turned down that bin Laden truly took against the Saudi royals, seeing them as weaklings who had to rely on kufr American protection. The notion of bin Laden siding with Saddam as a fellow Muslim could scarcely be further rooted in the realms of fantasy, and shows the true depths of the (deliberate?) neo-con misunderstanding of how their ideology works. The media-spawned over-simplification of the Islamist phenomenon is highlighted by the distinction Burke demonstrates between the Taliban government of Afghanistan and the gang of bin Ladens that they housed. We all know Al Qaeda and the Taliban became firmly interwoven with each other some time after bin Laden and his followers first sought refuge in Afghanistan; what is less well known is the intense dislike the latter showed to the former, and how near they came to being thrown out, until it became a matter of local

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pan-Muslim pride to the Taliban that they could not be seen expel bin Laden due to US pressure. In yet another of the myriad intricacies detailed in the book, we see how different the Taliban were to Al Qaeda. The Taliban were extremist Wahabbi offshoots themselves, dedicated to fulfilling a similarly atavistic, repressive, misogynistic and unworkable arcadia, yet at the same time they were essentially parochial, rural tribalists totally uninterested in waging a jihad against the Western world. It was only bin Ladens machinations and the US response they received which saw them entrenched into the fight against the West urged by the more sophisticated and cosmopolitan Al Qaeda. Burke shows with one illuminating example how the growth in popularity of this Wahaab cult is far from organic or inevitable. He spent time with members of the separatist Pershmaga fighters of the Kurdish Democratic Party in northern Iraq following the first gulf war. [They] were aggressively secular. They had drunk, sworn, smoked and I had never seen them pray. Their slogans were all about liberation and self-determination, about rights and democracy The idea of them mentioning a jihad was almost risible. Though angry and resentful at what they felt, with some justification, were the West`s repeated betrayals, they were still vociferously pro-Western. By 2001, many of these young men were turning from their seemingly failing secular resistance move-

ment towards militant Islamism. The same goes for the growth of Hammas and Islamic Jihad in Israel at the expense of the PLO. And also in many other areas, not least moderate and/or secular Turkey, Indonesia, and Checnya, not to mention the diaspora in Europe. This growth was neither natural nor inevitable, and was undoubtedly exacerbated not only by the dictatorship, stagnation and corruption of the governments of Muslim states, but also by the polarisation caused in part by the invasions of the West (and Russia). None of which is to say that the growth of Islamist movements are a progressive and legitimate movement of liberation as some on the left have come near to disastrously maintaining. On the contrary, though Burke never makes such an assertion himself, I find the description of its leading figures corresponds with an almost classically fascist movement. They are rooted firmly in a disenchanted middleclass, whether doctors like al-Zawarhi or rich businessmen like bin Laden himself. They are disenchanted chiefly due to a hurt sense of national (or pan-national/ religious) decline. They are utterly hostile to religious tolerance, the Enlightenment, Jews, women or minority rights, and also to socialism and the labour movement at large. Indeed, al-Banna himself was an explicit admirer of Nazi Germany. As Burke shows, the hardcore of the real terrorist cells taking action against the West are profoundly educated and middle-class

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themselves. That an increasing minority come from genuinely impoverished backgrounds in the last two years (as he also demonstrates) only goes to show the counter-productive effect Western activities have had. There is still a key difference however, on the whole, to the masses tacitly sympathising with atrocities through desperation and those carrying them out themselves. They attract a vast and increasing number of the desperate poor in their countries, often due to the crass stupidity and brutality of infidel governments of all colours. But this no more legitimises radical Islamists than the unemployment caused by the neoliberal capitalist policies pursued by New Labour makes the BNP genuine champions of the working poor of England. No-one on the left should see them as anything other than what they are; evil bastards given false validation by the machinations of the more powerful. Cream off the followers, but don`t even think about trying to engage with the leaders. Burkes study is exemplary in its research, and explains its extremely complex tale with some clarity (the extensive indexes and glossaries help too). It is however an undeniably dry read, a mixture of

the academic and reportage journalese. I must say, at only 355 pages it still took me a very long time to get through it. Thats probably my problem though and damned if you do and damned if you dont giving a more vibrant style to a subject like this leaves the author open to charges of sensationalism. Its fair to say though that this book is probably not best for the completely uninitiated, or for someone not prepared to give the subject their full undivided attention. Part of this staid style comes from Burkes admirable neutrality of tone, which has won plaudits from Chomsky to those much further to the right. He is not out to make a point, but simply to document an area he has reported on and studied for many years. Its only in the final chapter that Burkes views still fairly cautious are made clear. Namely, that only the continuing resistance of the wider world Muslim population to the minority teachings of zealots like bin Laden, Zarqawi and their forbears al-Banna and Qutb can possibly see them off. And that, whatever the intentions, arresting the rapid growth this fanaticism is seeing has been made much harder by the recent actions of the West.

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Review [published February 1999] Chris Mitchell

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Bryan Burrough: Dragonfly: NASA And The Crisis Aboard Mir


Throughout 1997, the Russian space station Mir made international headlines as it lurched from one near disaster to another. Populated by Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts, Mir became a symbol of the two countries collaboration in the post-Soviet age. But even with the financing and expertise of NASA injected into the ailing Russian space program, Mir continued to remain dangerously unstable. Bryan Burroughs book is a behind-the-scenes account of what was happening both in space and on the ground. Since 1992, NASA has sent its astronauts to train in Russias Star City in preparation for going aboard Mir. Burrough details the inevitable clash of cultures while the Americans were used to rehearsing for every contingency on the Shuttle, the Russians adopted a improvisational approach, fuelled by the lack of funds for their space program. The cosmonauts were paid bonuses for the efficient running of the station, which led to American accusations of safety procedures being ignored in order to keep Mir operational. Burrough focuses on two NASA astronauts sent to Mir, Jerry Linenger and the British-born Mike Foale, highlighting their very different attitudes towards the Russians. Linenger witnessed the outbreak of a fire and returned to Earth vocally condemning the space station as a deathtrap. Foale was on board when Mirs hull was ruptured by a collision with the Progress supply vessel, giving the crew members less than seven minutes to seal off the module before losing all their oxygen. Instead of insisting on evacuation as safety procedure demanded, Foale helped cosmonauts Tsibliyev and Lazutkin block the breach. In both cases, Burrough reveals that the response of mission control was hampered by NASAs pitiful lack of knowledge about Mir and the unwillingness of some Russian technicians to share their expertise. Veteran astronaut John Blaha returned from Mir suffering from exhaustion and depression, blaming both on NASAs lack of ground support. Given the daily struggle of the undeniably brave crew members and the chaos in mission control, its difficult to read Dragonfly and remember that the story it tells is factually true rather than a science fiction thriller. However, Burrough doesnt trivialise

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his subject by narrating the events through a day by day approach, he reports the conversations of the astronauts and mission control verbatim, showing the depth of his research while keeping the unfolding tension of the story alive. Worryingly, Burrough indicates that these communi-

cation problems look set to continue on Mirs replacement, the International Space Station. But Mir itself will not be anyones home again the station will be programmed to enter the Earths atmosphere and burn up later this year, plummeting into the Pacific Ocean several hundred miles off New Zealand.

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Albert Camus: Solitaire et Solidaire Paul Celan: After The Disaster Bruce Chatwin: In Search Of The Miraculous Annabel Chong: Life Thru A Lens E.M. Cioran: To Infinity And Beyond Diablo Cody: Candy Girl

141 147 158 162 166 171

Douglas Coupland: From Fear To Eternity Douglas Coupland: Laras Book Douglas Coupland: The Gum Thief Quentin Crisp: An Englishman In New York

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Interview [published March 1997]

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Albert Camus: Solitaire et Solidaire


In January 1960, the French writer and philosopher Albert Camus was killed in a car crash along with his friend and publisher, Michel Gallimard. Recovered from the wreckage of the crash was the unfinished manuscript of Camus latest novel, The First Man. In 1957, Camus had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in recognition of his most famous novels, The Outsider and The Plague. Fifty years after its original publication The Outsider is still Frances best-selling novel this century. In October 1995, The First Man was finally published in English, 35 years after Camus death. His daughter, Catherine Camus, elected to publish the manuscript unedited. Its drafts have been organised into the completed text of the novel and authorial notes which supplement its progression and development. As such, The First Man shows the rarely glimpsed process of a work in progress. The novel itself is a deeply autobiographical meditation upon Camus poverty-stricken childhood and fatherless family within Algeria at the turn of the century. While it remains unfinished, much of the text possesses Camus characteristic lucidity and sensuality,

Russell Wilkinson talks to Catherine Camus about Albert Camus The First Man clearly demonstrating that his best writing was yet to come before his tragic and untimely death at the age of 47. Catherine Camus and her partner Robert Gallimard visited London in October 1995. At the Basil Hotel, they discussed the implications of The First Man for our evaluation of Albert Camus as a writer and a political philosopher at the close of this century. The interview was conducted in French. RW: In your editors note for The First Man you suggest that now is a more suitable time for the reception of Camus work. Do you think Camus has been neglected in recent years? CC: He was never abandoned by his readers. Camus is enormously read. Hes the highest selling author in the entire Gallimard collection, and has been for some years now. Sales havent ever stopped, so to talk about rediscovering him would suggest that he isnt read anymore and thats not true. Its just that, in publishing The First Man I said to myself, this is going to be awful, but awful from the point of view of the criticism. Im not afraid of Camus public. Im afraid of what will be

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written in the papers. However, there are indications that today the intellectuals are coming back to Camus. History has given them reason to, with the fall of communism. In fact it was always the Communist problem which was responsible for the opposition to Camus. It was always and overall a political thing, a kind of misunderstanding. Camus had denounced the gulag and Stalins trials. Today we can see that he was right. To say that there were concentration camps in the USSR at the time was blasphemous, something very serious indeed. Today we think about the USSR with the camps also in mind, but before it just wasnt allowed. Nobody was allowed to think that or say that if you were left-wing. Camus always insisted that historical criteria and historical reasoning were not the only things to take into account, and that they werent all powerful, that history could always be wrong about man. Today, this is how we are starting to think. RW: Do you think that Camus work is becoming vindicated then, after this time of intellectual isolation? RG: It all depends on the period. Just after the war, the liberation of 1945, Camus was well known, well loved by Sartre and all the intellectuals of that generation. There is an interview given by Sartre in the USA where he is asked what the future of French literature is, and he replies that the next great writer of the future is Camus. And so time passes, and a much more politi-

cal rather than literary reasoning intervenes, and from the day that Camus wrote The Rebel, in 1955, there comes the rupture, and all, nearly all of the left wing intellectuals become hostile to him. Since he was already unfavourably viewed by the right-wing, he found himself entirely alone. Then, during the 80s, those you would call the young philosophers of France, such as Bernard and Gluxman, pointed out that Camus had said things no one wanted to hear in the political arena. They said it was Camus who was right, not those who had slid under the influence of Sartre, that is to say an unconditional devotion to Communism as seen in the Soviet Union. And ever since then the evaluation of Camus has continued to modify up until today. Intellectuals of Camus age who had previously disliked him now appreciate him. And at that point we come back to literature, and its agreed that he was always a great writer. RW: Which brings us specifically to the publication of The First Man. How will this book alter our perception of Camus work? CC: We must remember that Camus wrote not even a third of what he had wished to. The First Man is his posthumous last work. But in fact, in a certain way, it is his first, because in it you find the signs of his commitments, and of the whole way of writing as well. This mixture of austerity and sensuality, the will to speak for those not able to speak for themselves.

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RW: There are times in his letters to Jean Grenier [Camus philosophy professor in Algeria, published in the Selected Notebooks] when he sounds unhappy with his work on The First Man. After receiving his Nobel Prize, did he feel pressurised to produce his definitive work? CC: He wasnt writing under the influence of the Nobel Prize. That was an external thing for the artist in him. The Nobel Prize comes from outside, its a social recognition [reconnaissance] in a way. And I think a true artist is driven by interior necessities. We cant talk about the book he wanted to write because we have barely its beginnings. He had written hardly any of it, but he needed to write it. It seems to me that if you look at the style of The First Man it conforms much more to who he was as a man, it resembles him very closely. RW: Will we get a clearer notion of his ideas through The First Man? CC: Perhaps not, because its in quite a crude state. But then, in this condition one sees more, without any of the artifices of art, without anything having been erased. It is, perhaps, at the same time, more truthful. I think he wanted to write something to explain who he was, and how he was different from the age that had been conferred upon him. He was viewed by many as an austere moralist, but it was on the football pitch and in the theatre that he learnt his morality. Its something sensed, it wont pass uniquely through

thought. It couldnt possibly. He started thinking through sensation. He could never think with artefacts or with cultural models because there were none. So its true to say that his morality was extremely lived, made from very concrete things. It never passed by means of abstractions . Its his own experience, his way of thinking. There are those who will find his notions about absurdity appealing, and others who will be drawn by the solar side of his work, about Algeria, the heat and so on. RW: Since The First Man deals with Camus birth and childhood in Algeria, it seems strange that Camus deep personal involvement with the Algerian nationalist crisis tends to get overlooked in the traditional portrayal of him as a French writer. Do you think The First Man will re-emphasise the importance of Algeria in our consideration of Camus? CC: I hope so. Camus was born in Algeria of French nationality, and was assimilated into the French colony, although the French colonists rejected him absolutely because of his poverty. Politically, he was in favour of a federation, and effectively he considered that like South Africa today (or as they are trying to do), there should be a mixed population with equal rights, the same rights for the Arab and the French populations, as well as all the other races living there. RW: Do you think he saw himself as the first member of a race of the uprooted, given the absence of his father

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and the cultural duality of his upbringing? CC: Not on a political level. He is The First Man because he is poor, which has never been much to human beings. He really did know Algeria. He was an exile from his country, but still living in its language. Solitaire et solidaire. Its not like those who are exiled to a country where the language is not theirs. He didnt have much hope that things would work out, but he wanted them to. Algeria had reached such a degree of violence that once such violence is created theres no more room for reflection. And theres no mediating position. If you look at Bosnia today, the Croats, Bosnians and Serbs, theyve all created so much horror that one starts to wonder how these peoples can live together, after having done what they have. Already the violence has reached such a degree that everybody is living in hate, theres no possibility of reflection, no mediating position. Theres no one who can say this person is wrong there and right here, and that one is right about that and wrong about this. This is what could allow populations, or even two human beings, to live together. We will only solve problems by the acceptance of, and enrichment by, our differences. Albert Camus PLC RW: So Camus tried to live the paradox of being both solitaire et solidaire? CC: I think Camus felt very solitary. You can see it

in all his books. The Outsider isnt Camus, but in The Outsider there are parts of Camus. Theres this impression of exile. But where he is in exile isnt especially in Paris or elsewhere, but from the intellectual world, because of his origins. And thats a complete exile. Just because of his way of sensing before thinking. Hes in a field that he often feels like escaping from. In any case, you have to learn what blood is. It all has to be rationalised. In that he feels exiled, solitary RG: And yet one thing that is evident is that Camus could never be a neutral man. This is because he was committed; look at his real physical involvement in the Resistance. He took part, there, in the combat against Nazism. And he always held a profound commitment [engagement], a real resistance to all totalitarianism. For example, its often forgotten that Camus was extremely hostile [farouche] towards the Franco regime, and right to the end. He refused to travel to Spain, he left UNESCO because UNESCO accepted Francos Spain and allowed it a discourse. Camus was completely intransigent, and thats not at all a neutrality. Its combat, its a man who involved himself, committed himself. Of course, he wasnt an existentialist, but he was a committed man. He was a man of combat. It wasnt for nothing that he directed the Resistance journal called Combat. RW: What makes his commitment different from that of the existentialists?

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CC & RG in unison: He was not an existentialist! RG: He always refused to be. RW: Another example of being solitaire et solidaire, of being great friends with Sartre but remaining apart from the existentialist credo? CC: Yes, today, were starting to see how it works. But usually its when you get smacked in the face with things that you start to understand them. Everyone has so much hope for a better humanity, and many, including Sartre, turned to the idea of communism in its beginnings. Generosity had a place in peoples hopes. But Camus points out that we have a lot of things to pass through. Everything has to be accepted before it can be improved. When Sartre was asked whether or not he would live under a communist regime he said, No, for others its fine, but for me, no. He said it! So its hard to say just how intellectual his stance is. How can you think that never in your life would you go to live in a communist regime and still say its fine for everybody? A very difficult thing, that, but Sartre managed it. Camus didnt; and today this is what we are confronted with, I mean what is pure ideology, which takes no account of the human context. In economics its the same. Economics wanted to take into account theory over and above human criteria, or the parameter man. And you end up beating your head against a wall again, it doesnt work. Not if you make an abstraction of man. Thats why Camus is more la

mode now, because he always says yes, but theres man. Thats the first thing, because myself, Im a man. And thats what solidarity is. RW: Is The First Man his bridge, then, between experience and philosophy? CC: What the articles which have been written about The First Man propose is humility. The acceptance of these contradictions. Seeking an explanation is death. The lie is death in Camus. Thats why in Camus play The Misunderstood the son dies, killed by his sister and his mother, because he lied. He never told them who he was. They killed him because they didnt recognise him. But Camus also says that nothing is true which forces exclusion. From that, youre obliged to accept contradictions if you dont want to reject certain obvious things about life, certain evidences. If you create a system, and you say here there is truth, in that kind of pathway [chemin], then youll evacuate all the other pathways and youll kill life. Its up to each individual. It wasnt exactly the establishment he attacked. He said, if its good, so much the better. His aim was to help people to live. Thats the most important thing. I think for an artist what is most important is to touch as many hearts as possible. RW: Being written for his mother, do you think The First Man gives a clearer picture of his ideas on femininity? CC: Its true that women appear very little in his other

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works. They have a very marginal place. But femininity, yes, effectively there is more in The First Man, not only in terms of women but stylistically, in its elements, the notes he wrote. You can see a real love story in it, a childhood love story, Camus first. Meursault [protagonist of The Outsider] and Marie were never up to much really. There is Dora in The Just and others in his plays, but they arent so well known. I think for Camus his mother was more than just that. Shes love, absolute love. Thats why its written for her, dedicated to you who will never be able to read this book. And love is very important in The First Man, in that Camus loves these things he never chose, he loves his childhood experience in a very real way. Their poverty meant that there was nothing else they could think about but what they would eat, how they would clothe themselves. Theres just no room for other things in his family. Its difficult for others to imagine the position in which he found himself. There is no imaginary existence in their lives. French intellectuals are mostly petit bourgeois, and its hard to say whether that makes Camus work more valuable. Id rather say that its different. Necessarily. His positions are sensed. So, naturally, those intellectuals who dont have that experience have difficulty in comprehending it. But I think it made Camus more tolerant because he had already seen both sides of things when the others had only ever seen one. They imagine

poverty, but they dont know what it is. In fact theyve got a sort of bad conscience about the working classes. Its the perspective they could never adopt, not in the way Sartre wants to, because they werent familiar with them. They could never address themselves to the working classes. They dont know what it means, and that gives them a bad conscience about it. Camus has a greater proximity to those in poverty. RW: And does this proximity result from his humility, which can been seen in the letters at the end of The First Man to Monsieur Germain, his old schoolteacher? CC: Its because his teacher in The First Man has a primary place. Camus shows us this teacher exactly how he was. The First Man is completely autobiographical. The mother he describes is the woman I knew, and she was exactly as he describes her. And this teacher really existed. But its also to show that people attach so much importance to celebrity, and Camus writes his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in thanks to his teacher. Recognition, gratefulness exist. Its to show that this is what has come from what his teacher did for him. And also throughout the world there are Monsieur Germains everywhere. Thats why I published the letters, so that he could have a place in the work. But I couldnt ever act or think on behalf of what my father would have said or done. Hes an artist, he considers himself an artist, and so he takes on the responsibility of speaking for those who are not given the means or the opportunity.

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Feature [published September 2000]

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Paul Celan: After The Disaster


With a variable key you unlock the house in which drifts the snow of that left unspoken. Always what key you choose depends on the blood that spurts from your eye or your mouth or your ear. You vary the key, you vary the word that is free to drift with the flakes. What snowball will form round the word depends on the wind that rebuffs you. This is a poem by Paul Celan translated from the German original by Michael Hamburger. The original was written in the early 1950s. Its title is the first line. We assume a translation is second-hand and only the original can provide definitive clarification. But clarification of what? Isnt our sense of the opacity of translation also the sense of the rebuffing wind in Celans poem? Searching for the key to this poem, and being resisted, we sense the climate the poem reports. As we watch the snow gathering, pursuing an answer

Stephen Mitchelmore explores the post-Holocaust poetry of Paul Celan to explain why Celan chose this particular key and there are grim details one can point to prompts only a return journey to the poem. It is an uncomfortable fact that the bar to a poems key this poems key is the key to the poem itself. Some might dismiss this as tiresomely reflexive; a poem about poetry. It is clear, I think, that this is an insensitive reading. The metaphors are too close to experience to dismiss it as abstract. Indeed, can they get any closer? Celans friend, the French poet Yves Bonnefoy, wrote: I believe that Paul Celan chose to die as he did so that once, at least, words and what is might join. He had drowned himself in the Seine in late April 1970, six months before his 50th birthday. What is Bonnefoy talking about? Surely death by drowning and words are as far apart as one can get? Bonnefoy is alluding to his friends peculiar linguistic heritage and how it affected his life and poetry. Celan was grew up in the city of Czernowitz, then part of Romania, now within Moldova. Its political geography meant many languages were spoken among its inhabitants. In the poets home, the

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language was High German, while the wider community generally used the more latinate Romanian. There were many others in circulation, including Yiddish. The last is significant as Celan was part of a large Jewish community. There was anti-Semitism, for sure, but German culture was the pinnacle of Western civilisation. It promised something better than feudal sniping. Inspired by his mothers deep love for its poetry, he wrote lyric poems in the tradition of Hlderlin and Rilke. It is said that as a youth he had a remarkable affinity for it too. His taste moved him toward the contemporary symbolist and surrealist movements, and despite his polylingual abilities, he always wrote his poetry in German; his mttersprache. Then war came. Celan was, by chance, separated from his parents on the day the Nazis arrived and deported the citys Jews. He never saw his parents again. They were taken to a Ukrainian labour camp. His father died of disease; his mother was shot. After this, as Hugo Gryn said, Celan was in the position of being a writer in the language of his mother and of his mothers murderers. He could not renounce the latters language without renouncing the formers. Celan was robbed of his parents death as well as their lives. Bonnefoy implies the same goes for his mttersprache. We can say of Celan as of no other poet: his words did not recover his experience. The loss was felt, he says, like a discharge without origin or end. And as

a result: nothing real could authentically respond to this flux or be its equal, in the absolute, as referent: only the river itself seems to fold in on itself (losing itself) like the only thing signified on the scale of so much absence. So for Bonnefoy, an avowed Christian, another death becomes another metaphor of hope. If his explanation is exemplary, we remain in what Maurice Blanchot calls the civilisation of the book, where literature takes possession of everything that is, submitting it to a pre-established unity symbolised by the enclosing covers of a book. Even Bonnefoys sensitive appraisal leaves too strong a trace of the dubious correlation of life and art. Its presence allow us to keep the discomposing reality at a distance, within the inexorable logic of a narrative with a beginning, middle and, most importantly, an end. This article on Celan will tend toward that logic too. Perhaps it must. But whereas the industry surrounding Sylvia Plath, for example, regards the poetry as an expert witness to judging the case of her tormented life and suicide, with Celan, this would be to miss everything. Seamus Heaney begins his essay on Sylvia Plath by stating the potential of poetry: the poets need [is] to get beyond ego in order to become the voice of more than autobiography. At the level of poetic speech, when this happens, sound

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and meaning rise like a tide out of language to carry individual utterance away upon a current stronger and deeper that the individual could have anticipated. (Note the pervasive river theme!) He then goes on to examine how Plath developed her poetry yet never moved beyond the dominant theme of self-discovery and self-definition. Nowadays, of course, that theme is enough to launch 10,000 poems beginning with I. But what does moving beyond this theme mean? Celan was ambivalent, to say the least, about that rising tide out of language. Indeed, it caused him to lose trust in his most famous poem, Deathfugue. This is how that poem ends; the subject, you will notice, is explicit: Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night we drink you at noon death is a master from Germany we drink you at sundown and in the morning we drink and we drink you death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete he sets his pack on us he grants us a grave in the air he plays with the serpents and daydreams death is a master from Germany

your golden hair Margarete your ashen hair Shulamith (trans. Michael Hamburger) If any help is needed, the line a grave in the air can be read as the smoke rising from the camp chimneys; plain fact as much as metaphor. Overall, the poem emerged from reports of small Jewish orchestras playing tangos within concentration camp fences, often accompanying gravedigging and executions. The poem mimics the pace and rhythm of the dance that had captivated carefree Europe between the wars. Its first title was indeed Death Tango. In placing such lightness within the realm of such darkness, an entire culture is incriminated. The change to Deathfugue recalls the divine lightness of Bach, while Margarete alludes to the tragic heroine in Goethes Faust, forgiven by God despite everything. (It is a bizarre but telling fact that Goethes famous oak tree outside Weimar was protected by the SS as the Buchenwald concentration camp went up around it.) Margarete is contrasted with Shulamith, the female symbol of Jewish hope in the Song Of Solomon, who is not forgiven. In post-war Germany the poem became part of the curriculum for schools and was acclaimed by numerous critics in the new Federal Republic. However, praise tended to be for what was called the poems mastery of what had passed the Holocaust; enabling a rec-

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onciliation of sorts. Germany wanted to move on. It welcomed the rising tide out of language as it bore guilt away. The worst was confirmed when schoolteachers discussed the use of the poem in class. They agreed it was excellent in teaching how poetry might follow a musical pattern like a fugue but, they felt, the teaching should not be side-tracked by talk of the Holocaust. Celans subsequent distress led him to refuse to perform readings of the poem again. Perhaps he also felt there was a tendency toward the dark romance of a terrible beauty in its aesthetic effects. Above all, it faced the progressive movement of the civilisation of the book, enveloping discordance like the resolving refrain of a Beethoven sonata. Where did go Celan after this? Does it matter? What does poetry matter in our time anyway? If it is merely a means of reminding us of what has happened and what it means, then one wonders why the facts have not been enough. Perhaps that is the point: the facts have never been enough. Aharon Appelfeld, another writersurvivor, reminds us that the numbers and the facts were the murderers own well-proven means. Man as a number is one of the horrors of dehumanisation. Celan does not offer the facts. Poetry is something else, something more than the facts. But, in general, that something else remains under suspicion even more than the dehumanising facts because something else seems to be only self-regarding gymnastics with a

dictionary. Indeed Spike quite rightly announces itself to be violently prejudiced against poetry. What is the alternative? Celans poetry is an answer. A word you know: a corpse. Let us wash it, let us comb it, let us turn its eye towards heaven. This, the end of a poem, advocates the inversion of literatures gaze. It moves in the opposite direction to most post-war poetry and prose, which sought practicality, matter-of-factness, accessibility. The quoted words come as a dark reflection at the end of the poem Nocturnally Pouting, itself a dark reflection on a bus journey over an alpine road in Austria. The presence of those departed is perceived in the landscape: in the greyed moss, in the crossed and folded shafts of the spruces and in the jackdaws roused to endless flight over the glacier. All are keys to those who stand apart in the world, each one surly, bareheaded, hoar-frosted, each one discharging the guilt that adhered to their origin . upon a word that wrongly subsists, like summer. The polemic is striking and memorable, but for that reason perhaps begs the question: how does one turn

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a word heavenward? Isnt this a rhetorical gesture? Celans title for the collection in which the two quoted poems appear is From Threshold To Threshold, and this just about sums up the failure of these two poems to cross the threshold to heaven. As readers we tend to grasp moments of manifesto-like clarity such as these; but assertion is not enough. Despite its practical matterof-factness, it betrays failure. This is not to criticise. Failure is central to the history of modern poetry, although such failure is now usually misunderstood. To simplify, the concern of the Romantic-Enlightenment poets of the 18th century the beginning of the modern age was humanitys relation to nature. We are familiar with this in Wordsworth and Coleridge. In the greater Europe, Hlderlins inspiration was also To be one with all that lives, and to return in blessed selfforgetfulness into the All of Nature. While he pursued it in poetry, others, such as his friend Hegel, turned to philosophy. But where philosophy feeds off distance, allowing the goal of the Absolute which would be the end of philosophy, the end of history etc to be preserved indefinitely as a self-aggrandising rhetorical device, poetry demands the end without delay: if poetry remains, distance remains. Where todays celebration of nature uses language in an unironic slideshow of clichs (see any New Age CD, website or poetry book made of recycled paper) the Romantics recognised only failure: words, corpses.

Worse, Enlightenment promises actually inaugurated the manifold growth of science and technology that sought (and still seeks) to conquer nature rather than to respect it. The consequence of Enlightenment was at once to liberate us of the fetters of medieval society and to destroy the traditions by which society kept its body and soul together. The contradiction remains with us, and the agitation of modern culture can be summed up as the tension between accepting the wilderness and our instinctive rejection of its freedom. A Celan poem reflects the struggle: Should should a man should a man come into the world, today, with the shining beard of the patriarchs: he could, if he spoke of this time, he could only babble and babble over, over againagain (Trans: Michael Hamburger) He speaks but only just. It is poetry with aphasia. How might a man speak of this time, this destitute time, as Hlderlin called it, without using destitute

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words? Celan renews the question. If for every Hlderlin there is a philosopher like Hegel, then for Celan there is Martin Heidegger. His analysis of the modern age had a profound influence on Celans work, offering a theoretical apparatus to his own poetic one. Simplistically, Heidegger sought a new mode of thought to counteract the mechanistic tendency of the modern world. He believed that humanity had become separate from its harmony with the rest of nature, as he believed was in place in Homers Greece. This separation was due, he thought, to the rise of dualistic ways of thinking set in motion by Plato. Concentrating on the concept of being, Heidegger argues that human being is not a thing like other things (objects in the world as we know it) but a clearing (a non-thing, a nothingness) in which those things are presented, where they actually become things. And rather than this being an argument for solipsism (the world as function of ones mind), it means our knowledge of the world is not a product of boxed-in consciousness. Instead of minds making thoughts possible, it is the being preceding mind that makes it possible for us to regard ourselves as minds having thoughts distant from the real world. This is a major challenge to the Cartesian tradition that has dominated Western thought for the last four centuries. But the clearing depends on a temporal and linguistic aspect. Things appear in the three dimen-

sions of time, enabling us to categorise it in language and so differentiate it from the rest of the world. Such categorisation, however, is restricted by our need for control, and so the thing disappears from view. We become blinded to the discourse of the world; to what is revealed. The world becomes an object. This is a necessary tendency but one that can and must be counteracted by the function of the clearing. Heidegger argues for the truth of the clearing by pointing toward the mood of anxiety that seems to characterise our everyday existence. We spend most of our time avoiding this mood, of course. He says we try to become totally absorbed in the real world, as defined by such dead language, in order to avoid facing up to our mortal nothingness as revealed in anxiety. So, rather than liberating us, the techologocally-advanced modern world opens a rift between the public self the one in which we have in order to live without becoming paralysed by anxiety and the anxious self in the so-called clearing. Heidegger says that opening ourselves to anxiety by giving up our need for egoistic certainty will reveal the world in its abundant nature. It will set one free. The French existentialists of the post-war era adopted this theme from Heidegger, although their absurd freedom was foreign to him. A French philosopher more in tune with Heidegger, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, sums up the condition for the present era:

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Today, everywhere remaining reality is disappearing in the mire of a globalised world. Nothing, not even the most obvious phenomena, not even the purest, most wrenching love, can escape this eras shadow: a cancer of the subject. This is not a conspiracy of others but a runaway part of our need to live in the world rather than be imprisoned by autism. Selflessness, of course, while admirable in most cases, can also descend into what we called inhumanity. One of the terrible ironies of this story is Heideggers own descent. In the early 1930s, he saw the Nazi party as a political movement capable of mediating the needs of the modernity with authentic existence, making Germany a modern-day equivalent of ancient Greece. In 1933, the Rector of Freiburg University, where Heidegger was a renowned young professor, resigned in protest at Hitlers anti-Semitic laws. Heidegger took his place after an election among the Aryan lecturers. He soon resigned in disaffection but never revoked his party membership and referred to his regret for the Holocaust only in what Maurice Blanchot called scandalously inadequate fashion. Such facts make Celans interest in his work more compelling. Heidegger represents the dangers inherent in the Romantic project. Another example would be the terror following the French Revolution. What does this mean for poetry? Well, in his isolated time after the war, during his denazification, Heidegger came to

believe poetry was the means to open up the world; it could rouse the revelation of things in the clearing. In fact, it was the revelation itself. His intense meditations on Hlderlins poetry is summarised by an essay title taken from a poem: poetically man dwells Elsewhere he wrote that Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells. Those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home. If that is the case, and poets tend to feel it is, then it means, following the catastrophe of the Holocaust, language would have to change in order to rebuild the tainted home. In the post-war era, this was an imperative for Celan as he was now living in Paris as a translator and tutor, physically and metaphorically exiled from his homes: Czernowitz, under Soviet rule, and German, under the weight of murderous speech as he called it. It was an imperative because, as his Paris contemporary Samuel Beckett put it: one writes not in order to be published, one writes in order to breathe. Celan could not breathe in the old language. The old language was saturated with the conditions by which an entire culture was able to produce the greatest art and thought in history and then produce death camps with the efficiency of a factory. No wonder Adorno said that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz was itself barbaric. What Adorno didnt say, and this has been ignored too often, is that poetry could still be written only not

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as we had known it. The new language, the new poetry, would be a way of turning us toward that which is absent in our everyday world, that which stands apart in the world. This formulation, like Heideggers clearing, betrays a religious sensibility. After Auschwitz, however, God was under radical question. The space left by Him, on the other hand, was not: Psalm No one moulds us again out of earth and clay, no one conjures our dust. No one. Praised be your name, no one. For your sake we shall flower. Towards you. A nothing we were, are, shall remain, flowering: the nothing-, the no ones rose. With our pistil soul-bright, with our stamen heaven-ravaged, our corolla red

with the crimson word which we sang over, O over the thorn. (Trans: Michael Hamburger) One can draw neither comfort nor despair from this poem, or rather, neither of them alone. It is a psalm and an antipsalm; sacred and bitter. What stands apart is palpable only in its absence; a void saturated by void, to use Blanchots phrase. Celans biographer John Felstiner has brought out the allusions within Psalm to Jewish and Christian mysticism, both of which has to be bypassed here. But, to repeat Eliot on Dante, I think it communicates before any of these allusion are understood. It may seem paradoxical that the writer of such a poem as Psalm has a biographer (Heidegger says the author of every masterful poem is unimportant) and Felstiners book does indeed concentrate on the poems. Despite this, he uncovers the probable origin of the title of his 1959 collection Sprachgitter Speech Grille. Celans mother-in-law retreated to a convent and when the family visited her, she would remain behind a grill. Such a barrier holds also for poetrys revelation. One must accept the limit for it to work; the limit is part of the experience. Or non-experience. LacoueLabarthes brief and powerful book on Celan is actually called Poetry as Experience. It characterises the poem as something always returning to its source,

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approaching the inaccessible, and, necessarily, inaccessibility. The poem returns to the experience itself the revelation in the clearing not the stuff of anecdotes but the etymological origin of experience: a crossing through danger. It is a crossing resisted only in what the poem lets us consume as readers: a poem has nothing to recount, nothing to say; what it recounts and says is that from which it wrenches away as a poem. So what, exactly, remains before and after this wrenching? Celan names it himself, in a speech upon receiving the prestigious Bchner Prize: the poem has always hoped to speak also on behalf of the strange no, I can no longer use this word here on behalf of the other, who knows, perhaps of an altogether other. (translated by Rosemary Waldrop) Perhaps the strange can be used no longer because it is already too familiar, too homely. He had to seek another word or phrase: the altogether other. His speech, as much as his poetry, has to be attuned to the demands of experience. Celan also refers to the attempt to give each poem its own date, its own unique time, so that it speaks with supreme accuracy. Deep in Times crevasse by the alveolate ice waits, a crystal of breath, your irreversible witness (trans. Michael Hamburger)

The difficulty is that language depends on generality; the more specific a word the harder it is to reach across time; we will not connect to the altogether other trapped in times crevasse. In fact, it could not be language anymore. Yet if it can connect despite risking such isolation, it would be all the more richer. In this respect, Celan requires a certain amount of patience on behalf of his readers. For example, a late untitled poem in full: Illegibility of this world. All things twice over. The strong clocks justify the splitting hour hoarsely. You, clamped into your deepest part, climb out of yourself for ever. (trans. Michael Hamburger) This is puzzling, but such puzzlement does not matter much once one sets the need for facts or conclusive harmony aside. Less sympathetic critics dismiss his work as hermetic, sealed from approach. They say only the writer could know what such a poem is about. Why is the world illegible? What is a strong clock? I have no answers. Perhaps the lack of a title necessitates a certain blankness in the initial response. The moment one titles an experience the dangers lessen. Would a biography help us understand this? Probably not. Celan was adamant that his poetry was accessible:

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As for my alleged encodings he said Id rather say: undissembled ambiguity. I see my alleged abstractness and actual ambiguity as moments of realism. It seems odd that a poet so keen perhaps even desperate to reach across time, to provide us with such realism, should do so by writing wilfully unreadable poems. Perhaps we shouldnt be so quick to assume it is the poetrys problem. Professor John Carey of Oxford would disagree. He is Britains foremost opponent of difficulty. In his best-selling book The Intellectuals And The Masses, he argues that Modernism the epitome of difficulty was invented by intellectuals in order to alienate the socalled masses, who, newly emancipated from illiteracy, were seen as muddying the pure waters of literature. Celan indicates other reasons. In fact, the enjoyment Carey demands is really a means of retaining a dualistic attitude to literature; of talking eyes into blindness, to use Celans phrase. Of course, many Modernists were proto-fascists, yet this doesnt mean difficulty equals Totalitarianism. It means, instead, a crossing through danger is not mere rhetoric. The dangers led Heidegger to his great error. It troubled Celan that the man he saw as one of the greatest of modern thinkers, so close to his own work, was a Nazi. One cannot even say had been a Nazi because he never said anything that amounted to a renunciation. Late in life, Heidegger became interested in

Celans work. He recognised him as the only living equal of Hlderlin. He attended public readings given by the poet, and in 1967 even invited him to his famous Black Forest retreat at Todtnauberg. Celan accepted. This was a significant move as Celan had developed an intense sensitivity (one might say anxiety) toward anti-Semitic tendencies in post-war Europe. When his dedicated publishers re-issued the work of a poet popular in the Nazi years, he left for another, and when German literary authorities exonerated him over plagiarism charges, he regarded it as a humiliation to be even under investigation. Yet here he was meeting a man in his most intimate home, a home in which, it is said, he had once run Nazi indoctrination sessions. Perhaps Celan never knew the full extent of Heideggers culpability. Generally, not much is known about Celans reasons for accepting the invitation, nor what happened during the visit, but very soon after Celan wrote a poem called Todtnauberg. The title reference is explicit; the place name is synonymous with the philosopher. This is the first half: Arnica, eyebright, the draft from the well with the star-crowned die above it, In the hut,

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the line - whose name did the book register before mine? -, the line inscribed in that book about a hope, today, of a thinking mans coming word in the heart, (trans. Michael Hamburger) As Pierre Joris points out in his exceptional analysis of the various translations of the poem, Todtnauberg is barely a poem than single sentence divided into eight stanzas. The first of the three above display Celans extraordinary eye for nature, as noted earlier in Nocturnally Pouting. Arnica and Eyebright are flowers noted for their healing qualities, so right from the start there is the sense of what the meeting is all about. In the third, the poet signs the visitors book and makes plain his awareness of who might have signed it before Germans being indoctrinated into Nazi ideology perhaps. He hopes for a word in the heart of the great man. Did the word reveal itself? The remaining five stanzas are: woodland sward, unlevelled, orchid and orchid, single, coarse stuff, later, clear

in passing, he who drives us, the man, who listens in, the half- trodden fascine walks over the high moors dampness, much. Almost certainly not. The two men walked across woodland each in his isolation: an orchid and an orchid. And the poem remained isolated as far as Heidegger was concerned. He displayed his special copy of the poem proudly to subsequent visitors to the cottage, seemingly unaware of its implications. Perhaps this is enough to indicate the blindness of a man, even one with genius, rooted in his familiar landscape brought out here in Hamburgers translation of log-paths as fascine, a word so close to fascist, the etymological origin coming, as Joris says, from the Latin fasces a bundle of wooden rods the symbol of fascism. Todtnauberg, therefore, cannot be regarded as a coded accusation, or as a shy expression of bitterness, or sentimental regret, or of pompous self-definition in contrast to a supposed intellectual superior, but rather the very openness Heidegger apparently lacked. As Celan once said: Poetry does not impose itself, it exposes. The lack of a second itself in this sentence exposes.

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Feature [published August 1996]

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Bruce Chatwin: In Search Of The Miraculous


Nick Clapson on the enduring enigma of Bruce Chatwins travel writing Bruce Chatwin was a truly singular voice in British travel writing, and whose silence is now all too apparent. Since his untimely death in 1989 of what was described at the time as a rare Chinese disease (but which was later admitted to be AIDS), several collections of his previously unpublished work have appeared. The latest of these is Anatomy of Restlessness: Uncollected Writings. This book, however, pays poor service to his name. Published under the auspices of a sourcebook of uncollected work it draws together various pieces from magazines and journals. The result is a misshapen assemblage that hides gems amongst the weak and the substandard. Chatwins writing at its best is both thrilling and absorbing, capable of carrying the reader to untravelled lands, and Chatwin was always the best of companions. However, if Chatwin the writer was intriguing, Chatwin the man was so much more. His rich life, pushed and pulled by his demanding interests, was always present in his work. That is not say that he was example of that breed of traveller who batters you into submission with endless anecdote heaped upon anecdote. Rather, he introduces you to the sights of exotic lands, vast parties of characters, all set free to live an existence untrammelled by the authors irrepressible ego. As the format of this new book suggests, Bruce Chatwins writing was divisible into distinct categories whether it be art, his exploration of what he termed the nomadic alternative, or fiction, written in a style which was an assiduous blend of the real with the imaginary. The autobiographical piece which opens Anatomy Of Restlessness hints at some of the myths that surround this man. By all accounts Chatwin left his steady job writing for The Sunday Times with a telegram enigmatically stating Have gone to Patagonia. This, however, was not the first time that he had made such a dramatic break from security. Previously, he threw in his job as a director at Sothebys in order to live with and study nomadic tribes in the Sudan, offering the excuse that his doctor said that he needed to view distant horizons in order to correct an eye defect (a self-confessed psychosomatic illness). The product of his sudden trip to Patagonia was the aptly titled In Patagonia (1977). This first book was most probably the driest of all

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Chatwins output, but which has already been raised to near classic status. Chatwin weaves together curious observations with nuggets of historical information which manages to make this more than an account of a physical journey, and that, to me, is the essence of good travel writing. I dont just want to know what a cracking guy the author is, and how he managed to get out of a scrape with an armadillo whilst travelling in the Amazon with just a piece of used dental floss and a very, very sharp stick. Nor do I want to be laden down with superfluous information on the economic argument for the downfall of the Ottoman Empire! What do I demand from a travel writer then? I want to be able to understand them as a person, and know why they have undertaken this particular journey. And that means being able to step inside their head and travel with them. Though this is nearly impossible, Bruce Chatwin was one of the few writers that I feel managed it. Chatwin was not, however, a straight forward kind of travel writer like Wilfred Thesiger or Norman Lewis. One of the most amazing qualities that sets Chatwin apart was his ability to mix fact and fiction in his stories. As he said himself, The word story is intend to alert the reader to the fact that, however closely the narrative may fit the facts, the fictional process has been at work. This is idea is best held in mind when considering his best-selling book, The Songlines (1987).

Though clearly a novel, it is also not a novel. Let me explain. The main character is a guy called Bruce whos travelling around the Australian outback researching the nomadic culture of the Aboriginal, and their singing the world into existence through their travelling of the Songlines. This coincidence is further compounded by the fact that Bruce records his notes in very same moleskin notebooks that Bruce Chatwin himself was famous for. This book, then, results in being so much more than just a travel book or a novel. It provides not only a combination of a portrait of an amazing culture and a damn fine read; it eventually draws the reader into questioning the very fabric of human culture and our Western preconceptions. Who could ask for more? An interesting aside: Salman Rushdie, who travelled with Chatwin in Australia whilst he was working on this book, provides an enlightening, though brief, glimpse of Chatwin at work in his book Imaginary Homelands (1991). An obvious thread that joins much of Chatwins work like The Songlines and Anatomy Of Restlessness is his passion for nomadic life. This interest is represented in both the opening section, Horreur du domicile, which draws together various short pieces on his own personal motivations to travel, and the chapter entitled The Nomadic Alternative. In this chapter the collection of pieces outline many of the arguments that comprised Chatwins own unpublished thesis on

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nomadism. These pieces, though frequently dense, are some of the most rewarding, with Chatwins erudition shining through. Chatwin links many divergent nomadic cultures from around the world, highlighting several similarities of development, and in time puts forward a credible case for nomadism as equal to the sedentary life that has become a universal norm. If Chatwin is to be believed, civilisation just took a wrong turn somewhere, and chose to plump for the inferior option. This, he feels, also goes some way to explain the Western disease: wanderlust. When viewed in comparison to his own collection of incidental work, What Am I Doing Here (1989), Anatomy Of Restlessness pales. Chatwin amassed innumerable fabulous pieces in what must be considered the definitive compilation, and which really renders this new book superfluous. The pieces range through the intensely personal in Your fathers eyes are blue again, the dramatic with A coup a story (though Chatwin himself was caught up in the coup in Benin), and the entrancing On the yetis tracks. These short works, however, are just the tip of the iceberg, with this book containing so much more. Another remarkable quality of Chatwins writing was his ability to capture a personality, and What Am I Doing Here is filled with accounts of some the unusual characters he met over the years. We meet Maria Reiche, a gangly German mathematician who spends

her days in the bleak environment of the Peruvian Pampas, standing on a step-ladder in order to chart the strange lines, often miles in length, carved into the floor of this desert. We travel with Chatwin to Ghana to see the film director Werner Herzog going mad (again) whilst filming Chatwins novel, The Viceroy Of Quidah (1980). We even get to trail around India with Bruce and the photographer Eve Arnold who followed Indira Gandhis election campaign shortly before her assassination in the late 70s. Another crucial aspect of Chatwins output addressed in Anatomy Of Restlessness is his unfailing interest in all forms of visual art. Chatwins aesthetic was that which championed the primitive and the simplistic, though, whilst at Sothebys he was employed as an expert on Impressionism. Whilst interested in the theory of art and collecting, he was also an artist of considerable aplomb himself with his work being published in the posthumous Photographs And Notebooks (1993), with a coinciding exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall, London. Here we are shown his remarkable eye for the abstract that exists in all things. Sparse and controlled, his photographs managed to trap the beauty that can be found in the common and everyday. He crops boats and walls in Mauritania, so releasing the power of their dazzling colours and geometric forms. The prayer flags of the Bodnath Stupa, Kathmandu, are framed so as to cut crazy patterns in the sky.

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Chatwins photographs also demonstrate keen awareness of the decay inherent in all life, littered with images of crumbling buildings, and tatty ramshackle shacks, all breathing what looks to be their last breath. Maybe he liked feel that all sedentary life was on its last legs, and soon nomadism, the rightful king would come and claim back its lands. Or maybe he just found them beautiful. This brief excursion through the work of Bruce Chatwin has, I hope, served to demonstrate not only his uniqueness, but also convey some sense of the power

of his writing. In doing so, it becomes glaringly apparent that Anatomy Of Restlessness is an unsatisfying epilogue to Chatwins oeuvre. Yes, it is put together in a good accessible form, and yes, it does aim to cover the main areas of his output. However, what is lacking is a sense of quality, and as a result much of this work falls short of being able to be considered important. However, if, like myself, you want one last chance to experience the joy of reading a new Chatwin book, then you wont be disappointed. Bruce Chatwin does still exists in these pages.

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Interview [published October 2000]

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Annabel Chong: Life Thru A Lens


Oh my god this couple just turned around and gave me a dirty look! Annabel Chong giggles like a schoolgirl. Its like, no sex please were British. Perhaps unwisely, shed stepped outside her film companys noisy office to do this interview in the street over her mobile phone, and had spent 20 minutes chatting chirpily about blow-jobs and erections. Strange that she should be so easily embarrassed, mind. Ms Chongs claim to fame is that back in 1995 she set a new world record by having sex with 251 men in ten hours, the whole event being recorded on film and subsequently edited down to a brisk four hours to become a bestselling hardcore porn vid. Also on hand was a documentary crew making Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, which was the hottest ticket at the last years Sundance festival of independent film. She has always insisted the big gang-bang was a feminist statement, turning the tables on men to reduce them to a succession of cocks of varying degrees of tumescence. Theres a debate to be had about whether pornography degrades women, and whether the appropriate response is to degrade men right back again. But its a monumentally boring one. Everyone knows

Robin Askew meets the star of Sex: The Annabel Chong Story where they stand and if you really want it rehashed once again, leave Spike right now and turn to The Guardian womens page, where theyre certain to oblige. Opportunities to interview porn icons, especially those as articulate and forthright as Annabel Chong, are few and far between, so I decided to seek answers to the questions people really want asked. After polling a handful of mates of both sexes, who may or may not be more sleazy than the average Spike reader (you decide), I found these boiled down to variations on four themes. Lets get them out of the way before we go any further. So Annabel, did you come? Sporadically, I did. But its very much like running a marathon. You go through stretches where its just incredibly boring, incredibly awful. And you get to certain stretches where youre just running on air. That was where I really got into it and enjoyed it. Ive always enjoyed extreme sexual situations, and this was certainly one of them. There are some people they may not be Tom Cruise, lets say but theyre very comfortable with their bodies and their own sexuality. I find that ultimately more attractive than a stud whos just neurotic about what he

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looks like, posing in front of the camera and losing his hard-on. Thats just not very appealing, is it? What proportion of the men failed to get it up, then? About 66% were not able to perform. And between you and me, I would have to say that if I were a bloke I would have tremendous difficulty performing. I think Id get this performance anxiety attack and just fail. And up to this day, I really wonder why a lot of the men decided to do it. Its bad enough to fail but its even worse to fail on video, where their grandchildren could check it out: Oh my god, grandpas such a loser. He couldnt even get it up. Terribly embarrassing I would think. Given that they were recruited through porn mags, werent you at all concerned that the men would turn out to be revolting, rancid weirdos? Oh, they were rather revolting, some of them. But the whole point of the entire exercise was not to pick out 251 studs. Its more like the idea of the UN. Im sorry? You know, the United Nations. You get a little bit of everything. A little sampling of every single shape, size and, you know colour, I guess. Werent you terribly sore afterwards? Well, in actual fact if you watch the four-hour gang bang tape itself, you will realise that a lot of the things were fudged in editing to make it look as though more sex took place. So it really wasnt that many men. Hang on. It says here that there were 251 of them.

Have we been diddled? But they just moved them along really quickly. There was some humping, but not quite that much. Its actually less sex than if a woman is having sex with a man for 10 hours straight. Now thats a lot of sex. Sex is a fascinating and occasionally unsettling film, whose subject comes across as a complicated young woman, alternately assertive and thoughtful, damaged and deluded. The gang-bang itself is one of the least erotic things youll ever see. Silvery pony-tailed Brit director John Bowen, whose nom de porn is John T. Bone, also acts as cock wrangler, leading the leering fornicators in groups of five up onto a plinth where Ms Chong waits to receive them. We also meet her creepy middle-aged fan club organiser, some sneery rival porn stars at a convention (I do film noirs (sic), sniffs the star of Bitches of Hollywood), and watch Annabel playing up to a Jerry Springer audience and charming undergraduates at a Cambridge Union debate. But the story behind the documentary turns out to be even more fascinating. Nowhere is the viewer informed that the director, Gough Lewis, was shagging his subject. Now hes apparently gone AWOL and shes agreed to publicise the film to put right what she claims are misrepresentations. Whats more, shes now making her own film about what its like to be the subject of a documentary. I get more self-reflective every day, she quips.

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Annabel Chong was born Grace Quek (pronounced quake) in Singapore, 1972. Her Christian parents (mums a piano teacher, dads a schoolteacher) sent her to convent school and encouraged her to study law but her dwindling religious faith and burgeoning sexuality were already causing problems. In a traumatic ritual, she was exorcised in a local church at the age of 17. In 1991, she moved to London to attend Kings College and thence to America and the University of Southern California, where she was so enraged by feminist theory that she took to porn as a kind of practical adjunct to her gender studies course. Although she still has a tendency to address each question as though it were one of her college essays, to be fielded with maximum cultural studies jargon, Annabel/Grace (Who am I? is a question I constantly ask myself) now seems a great deal more assured than she does in the film. Its rather mortifying to look back and think to myself, oh my god, was I that vulnerable? she admits. But maybe I was. One of the more disturbing scenes shows Annabel cutting herself, the clear implication being that the porn industry has driven her to self-harm. In fact, she says, the sequence was shot on the day that she and the director split up, and both of them were doing it. I dont know what came over me. Its not one of the prouder moments of my life, but when I saw the film I was really astonished to find that he didnt include the

entire context. Even more worrying, we learn that not only has Bowen yet to pay her the $10,000 she was promised to take part in the gang bang, but the assurances she was given about the men being tested for HIV were untrue. I was terribly disturbed by that. I felt extremely betrayed by the fact that they didnt take the health precautions I thought they did, she says angrily. Late in the film, its revealed that she was gang raped while in London in 1991. The viewer is invited to conclude that her penchant for group sex flicks (I Cant Believe I Did the Whole Team, All I Want For Christmas is a Gang Bang) is born of a desire to regain control over this part of her life. She thinks thats too simplistic an explanation. Nobody ever does anything for any single motivation. I felt that it was a cop out for Gough to say that A caused B, because theres actually more of a story behind the entire rape event. The immediate outcome of it was that I was sent through the legal system and National Health Service counselling system, which was incredibly dehumanising. I felt that I was nothing but a statistic. Then I looked back on my entire life in Singapore and realised that all my life I had been processed. I led the perfect life. I went to all the right schools, I attended the right social functions, hung out in the country club, went to church, got the humanities scholarship. I was the perfect child, but none of it was really my choice. First thing I did was to

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quit law school and go to art school. It was a big issue. My relatives, bless them, actually called my parents to offer their condolences. Shes going to starve. We feel so sorry for you. So it affected me in the sense that control became a huge issue in my life. I think what you see in the documentary is the process of regaining control, and it really is a work in progress. Even today, Im asking myself whether Im in control of situations. These days shes made up with her parents, who were unaware of their daughters novel career and a little baffled by her popularity when the documentary was being filmed. Partly as a result of her experiences of being exploited in front of the camera, shes now decided to go behind it, producing her own porn. And shes on a crusade. What Im trying to do is to target market my product towards a younger crowd, which no one is really addressing right now. Or at least to make it more contemporary. I mean whats up with the big hair? Its so over. So 80s. Do you really think porn consumers look at the hairstyles though, Annabel? Well, if I was a bloke, I wouldnt want all that frizzy hair crackling all over my blow-job. It just seems rather intimidating. Its like being blown by a hedgehog. I dont think its very aesthetic. Men have to have jerk off somehow. They need to have a wank over some images of people getting it on. Theyre just going to buy whatevers out there. And if theres product out there thats done rather

well like the films from the 70s, which I really admire the women actually do look like women, which is kind of nice. Because nowadays the women dont look like women they look like drag queens. And half the time Im just sitting there thinking, they dont look terribly female do they? As a female viewer that bothers me, because I want to be able to relate to the person onscreen when Im doing my own private thing. I may not know necessarily what good pornography is, she concedes. I know what I like, so Im just going to make what I like and hopefully it will sell. Of course, it wont sell over here because we have some of the most draconian censorship laws in the world. I thought about that when I was coming over here. I really believe that when you talk about banning porn because its exploitative of women or because its obscene, then its terribly fascist. A lot of people derive enjoyment from watching adult films. I certainly do. I have been a porn consumer for years, and proud to be one. I think a lot of things are more obscene than the average porn film. Like Patch Adams, the Robin Williams film. I think thats incredibly obscene its like total emotional pornography. What with the porn and the documentary and her journalism and art exhibitions, theres just one thing Annabel doesnt have time for anymore. Your average Brit probably has a better sex life than me, she moans. And on that cheering note, I bid her farewell.

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Feature [published November 1997]

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E.M. Cioran: To Infinity And Beyond

Stephen Mitchelmore explains why the writing of E.M. Cioran refuses explanation Nothing is more irritating than those works which between groups of sentences appear like sands of the co-ordinate the luxuriant products of a mind that has desert encroaching on an oasis. Or is it the other way focused on just about everything except a system. around? That the answer is so unclear is the worth of What is there to know about Emile Cioran? He was Ciorans sentences. born in Romania, in 1911, the son of a Greek Orthodox His aphorisms are unlike the smug, bourgeois expriest. In adolescence, he lost his childhood in the counponents of the 19th century. They open wounds. Still, try and was moved to the city. He also lost his religion. Cioran is not studied. This is the academic orthodoxy. For years he didnt sleep until he took up cycling. He And thats fine. Scholars read texts like drivers read passed sleepless nights wandering the dodgy streets of diversion signs. La Rochefoucauld 20 miles, Nian obscure Romanian city. In 1937 he moved to Paris etzsche 40, Existentialism, forever. Alternatively, just and wrote, producing what are generally classified as read the sentences. aphorisms, collected together under such titles as The lyricism represents a dispersal of subjectivity. Temptation To Exist, A Short History Of Decay and The The end of a sentence in this case; a place of especial Trouble With Being Born. He knew Samuel Beckett, elation and despair. (The want of elation and despair who eventually lost sympathy with his pessimism. Late generating their presence in the vertiginous lack which in life he gave up writing, not wanting to slander the is the peculiarity of consciousness. Reading is like conuniverse anymore, and died a few years later after an sciousness in that nothing happens. ) Cioran is lyrical. encounter with an over-excited dog. His style is a variant on song. At the same time he is a I hope none of this helps. writer of solitude and subjectivity. This last word has Ciorans sentences are of little or no help. That is gained a pejorative meaning lately, akin to solipsism, their worth. Just think of the aphorisms; each sentence selfishness, ignorance, certainly untruth. But let us has the company of only one or two others. The gaps wrest it back for as long as we can. Subjectivity is the

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state of struggle of one who is alive, within time: sleepless. Three in the morning. I realize this second, then this one, then the next: I draw up the balance sheet for each minute. And why all this? Because I was born. It is a special type of sleeplessness that produces the indictment of birth. A special type of sleeplessness being where one is oneself forever and knows it. It is also an indictment of lyricism. Lyricism is sleep; the suppression of subjectivity, the impossible denial of three in the morning. Adornos call for an end to lyric poetry after Auschwitz is a wish for the return of each subject destroyed by a revolution lyrical to its evil core. The Volk wanted to sleep. Then it was mass rallies at Nuremburg, now its anything you care to name: popular culture indeed. Ciorans physical insomnia disallowed the easy contempt for those who craved such sleep. He needed it too, to stay alive. A familiar irony: Ciorans tragedy was also his saving. Melancholy redeems this universe, and yet it is melancholy that separates us from it. When Cioran began to write in French he had, by then, conquered his insomnia. Exhausted by long bicycle rides, he slept. Still, the writing tries to abide in the old white nights of insomnia, only to collapse into the sleep toward which literature tends. Ciorans writing tends to disperse the three in the morning in lyric expression. So, a bit of a disappointment, to say the least.

As a general rule, men expect disappointment: they know they must not be impatient, that it will come soon or later, that it will hold off long enough for them to proceed with their undertakings of the moment. The disabused man is different: for him, disappointment occurs at the same time as the deed; he has no need to await it, it is present. To say again then, his disappointment with writing was inevitable. But this only drives one on, to divest words of their common usage and apply them to this moment. This one. In an interview, he tells of his disillusionment with writings other products, particularly those where disappointment is not an issue: ideas, grand narratives, systems. Philosophers are constructors, positive men, positive, mind you, in a bad sense. Elsewhere: Aristotle, Aquinas, Hegel three enslavers of the mind. The worst form of despotism is the system, in philosophy and in everything. Yet how can one write without constructing some system, even if it is negative? Optimists write badly (Valery). But pessimists do not write. [Maurice Blanchot] The violence of Ciorans work, its verbosity and arrogance, results from a struggle with inevitable positivism. The use of aphorism is also borne of this. It demands our opposition. The blank following the sentences rises up before us. Our exasperation leaves the same silent space hovering there. This is the place-

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less heaven or hell Cioran is always returning us to. It is pointless to oppose or argue or explain. One can scan the biographical parabola that gives shape to a life, thereby explaining it and the work, but something is left behind; this place he takes us to. The facts of a life help inasmuch as noise masks silence. But something is left behind. Generally, it seems students study, reviewers review, writers write and readers read in the hope of avoiding this. Its what the people want, after all. Cioran has also written essays. They demand the same kind of reading as the aphorisms. It just takes longer. In the landmark essays, the brilliance burns long and hard. Still, the tone remains more or less identical to the aphorisms. While the aphorisms give us the breathing space of a firebreak, the essays threaten suffocation. What is lost is the very sense of its inspiration, the surprise, the horror, the emptiness of the moment. Instead, Cioran has something to say. In Beyond the Novel, Cioran examines our self-conscious age with regard to what helped constitute it the novel. The essay develops out of the idea that the novel grew out of metaphysical poverty. It allowed us to understand our history and our psychology in a world where the old certainties were decaying. Yet now that the decay has reached a zero point, producing the kind of works bereft even of the certainty of the self as subject. If you dont know what novels these are, theyre the ones NOT written by journalists. Yet however

repulsively anachronistic the journalistic novel is (and virtually every novel published is a journalistic novel), Cioran wonders what is the point of writing more than one novel of absence: [the] implicit conception of this sort of art opposes to the erosion of being the inexhaustible reality of nothingness. Logically valueless, such a conception is nonetheless true affectively (to speak of nothingness in any other terms than affective one is a waste of time). It postulates a research without points of reference, an experiment pursued within an unfailing vacuity, a vacuity experienced through sensation, as well as a dialectic paradoxically frozen, motionless, a dynamism of monotony and emptiness. Is this not going around in circles? Ecstasy of non-meaning: the supreme impasse. This passage representative of the whole jerks the steering wheel as if to herald an eternal roundabout. But this will be Ciorans own journey. Instead of condemning the novelist, and thereby commending his own judgement, Cioran gives him the benefit of the doubt. Is [the novel] really dead, or only dying? My incompetence keeps me from making up my mind I leave it to others, more expert, to establish the precise degree of its agony. Instead of only railing against repetitious failure, Cioran gives us the guidelines to which potential writers must abide if they are to create an art for the wilderness. In Kafkas words, this is the help going

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away without helping. Beyond the Novel adds to the demands of genuine creation, and thus the unexpected joy of what has been and might be achieved. Instead of Postmodern cacophony its sloppy apologia borne on positive negativism we get to hear the silence behind the noise. One thinks of Beckett, of course, and the equally great Thomas Bernhard. To confirm this, Cioran pulls up in a lay-by and, in a passage one might describe as uncharacteristic, seems to hold back from hopelessness and bitter regret: Let us not be needlessly bitter: certain failures are sometimes fruitful Let us salute it, then, even celebrate it: our solitude will be reinforced, affirmed. Cut off from one more channel of escape, up against ourselves at last, we are in a better position to inquire as to our functions and our limits, the futility of having a life. Well, not uncharacteristic after all. This is as near to abstract celebration as Cioran gets. He leaves it to others with the courage of dilution to give us the succour using the banalities necessary for the novel. His admiration for other writers is due precisely to their ability use the banal surface to reach the subterranean. Ciorans rapid lyricism will not spread into a delta plain of banality to allow such an exploration. This is his limit. Despite this, he is able to prospect worth by refamiliarizing us with what is important. Perhaps his most worthwhile work apart from the aphorisms, we can

find in his short pieces on other writers collected in Anathemas And Admirations. In particular, the essay on Scott Fitzgerald. Here is a writer one might otherwise ignore: sentimental claptrap elevated to art by a lazy world. Cioran lays this aside. What he concentrates on the time when Fitzgerald awoke from the American Dream into the intensity of lucid consciousness, something that transcends contingencies and continents. By this time, Fitzgeralds famous books have been written, the American definition of success achieved: fame, money and even requited love. Literally and figuratively, [Fitzgerald] had lived asleep. But then sleep left him. Why? Returning to the his deepest theme, Cioran answers: Insomnia sheds a light on us which we do not desire but to which, unconsciously, we tend. We demand it in spite of ourselves, against ourselves. Fitzgeralds inner experience remained despite worldly success, indeed was heightened as a result. On the heights of his despair, Fitzgerald wrote The CrackUp. Ciorans commentary on this non-work it was a series of fragments is like most of Ciorans commentaries, a commentary on his own procedure, also a series of fragments. The Crack-Up represents for Cioran the direction Fitzgerald should have pursued rather than regarding it as an aberration. He tried to overcome it by going to Hollywood to write screenplays. Fitzgerald is rightly judged inferior to what he discovered, unlike a

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Kierkegaard, a Dostoevsky or a Nietzsche. Fitzgerald admirers deplore the fact that he brooded over his failure and, by dint of ruminating so deeply upon it, spoiled his literary career. We, on the contrary, deplore that he did not remain sufficiently loyal to that failure, that he did not sufficiently explore or exploit it. It is a second-order mind that cannot choose between literature and the real dark night of the soul. In the same piece, Cioran equates loyalty to failure with sickness. The healthy, he says, keep a certain distance from our contradictory and intense states, while to be sick is to coincide totally with oneself. The former allows us to act. But isnt it precisely ones distance from oneself a part of sickness; it is the part which can never act? When you imagine you have reached a certain degree of detachment, you regard as histrionic all zealots But doesnt detachment, too, have a histrionics of its own? If actions are mummery, the very refusal of action is one as well. Yet a noble mummery. The interaction of conditions is inevitable. Nobility is left to the silent and invisible. The Crack-Up is called the work of a sick man, yet its impressive lucidity is a histrionics of detachment, more or less identical to Ciorans own work, sick only inasmuch as it cannot achieve oneness with its subject. Oneness is barely human, hence our fascination with good and evil. Perhaps this sharp division between sickness and health is

where Cioran lapses into the sentimentality Fitzgerald was prone to. It is a form of self-pity, trying to justify the inherent hubris of writing and publishing. Aware of this, Cioran tells us not to worry about those who are excessively self-pitying because an excess of self-pity preserves reason. This is not a paradox for such brooding over our miseries proceeds from an alarm in our vitality, from our reaction of energy, at the same time that it expresses an elegiac disguise of our instinct of self-preservation. This helps answer a perennial question: why did Cioran live so long without killing himself? Sickness can increase self-pity, thereby reason, thereby selfpreservation. To cross the abyss that is life, if that is our purpose, we must use both sickness and health, selfpity and detachment, the desert and the oasis. To deny either is either fatal or contemptible. Cioran shows by example, how various the tension between opposites is manifested. His examples have one thing in common it seems: the admittance of lucidity, that which lies behind all stories, all systems, all action, all help. As academia eschews ambivalence and individualism, rewarding instead skills of memory and language, it might be worth stepping into the vanishing point Cioran occupied so tenaciously, if only to re-open the stagnant wounds of our lucidity. The ideally lucid, hence ideally normal, man should have no recourse beyond the nothing that is in him.

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Interview [published February 2006]

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Diablo Cody: Candy Girl

Emma Garman talks to the author of Candy Girl: A Year In The Life Of An Unlikely Stripper Even jaded readers will be fascinated by some of One night, 24-year-old recent Minnesota transplant the real-life characters in your book. Like the jizzDiablo Cody was walking home from her dull ad licking guy at the peep show. agency job when the words Amateur Night on a topHes the celebrity of the book! He would come less bars marquee beckoned irresistibly. Even though crawling in and lick up as much as he could. The thing Cody had only once been inside a strip club and, with that was really fascinating about him was that he was her idyllic middle-class upbringing, devoted boyfriend so clean cut. He was the last guy you would ever think and conspicuous lack of emotional scars, hardly fit the had a habit like that. I shudder to think about it. stereotype of a sex industry worker one try-out as What else did you come across that fazed you? an amateur led to a year of professional hard graft as You know, people who just had really strange feta stripper, lap dancer and peep-show performer. The ishes. Incest would come up a lot: People who would equally hilarious, titillating and gruesome account of want you to masturbate as their sister, or their mother. her exhausting adventure, Candy Girl: A Year In The That was something I was not comfortable with. I tried Life Of An Unlikely Stripper, is far more than just anto be pretty game, but that really freaked me out. And, other stripper memoir or dispatch from the dark side: you know, a lot of cross dressers. There seemed to be a Codys analysis of what she found within the walls of lot of men who wanted to come in and talk about gay upscale mens clubs and sleazy sex palaces, and within sex. To me that was really surprising, that they though herself, is shot through with a laser-like wit and punk of the booth as a safe haven for their fantasies, even rock sensibility likely to influence all political shades of though it was obviously straight-oriented entertainopinion on sex jobs and raunch culture. Cody whos ment. That was weird. now hung up her white platforms to work as a successSo you became a stripper as an experiment were ful screenwriter and arts editor talked to me on the you surprised to find you became addicted? And phone from Minneapolis.

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was it the money or the attention? Honestly, I never made that much money compared with the people I worked with. So for me I think it was about the attention, but also sort of an external thing. I found it to be cathartic, a very weird, twisted form of self-expression. I think I got addicted to just how subversive and how fun it was compared to my every day life. And you didnt derive any particular satisfaction from, say, when you got a promotion at the advertising agency where you worked. Right, I didnt at all, and it surprised me, because if I got 20 toy shows at Sex World [the porn emporium where Cody worked as one of the dolls who are displayed and selected for peep show performances] in a night I would feel proud. Is this something mainstream feminism has still failed to sufficiently acknowledge, how satisfying it can be to wield ones sexual power in this way? It can. I think its something that third-wave feminism has recognized. On the other hand the one thing people have failed to recognize is just how unsatisfying and unfulfilling the corporate world can still be for women. Because no matter how much weve progressed, the glass ceiling is still so much in place. And I honestly felt kind of degraded in my day-to-day life, at the whitecollar jobs, because I was always being undersold. Whereas in the sex industry it was so straightforward.

But which would you say is the more exploited group in a strip club: The girls who work, or the men who hand over the money? Some of the needier customers, the men who were looking for an emotionally connection, were really preyed upon. They were definitely manipulated and victims in that way. But most of the time, the women were disenfranchised. Its the societal model for a woman to be revered and worshipped as a thing of beauty, and in a strip club, its actually the complete opposite. You have a roomful of beautiful women, trying desperately to woo these men. Competing with each other. Exactly. And it really turns the men into little emperors and the women into these sad, grovelling creatures. So that was the one aspect that disturbed the heck out of me. You know, I always thought that strip clubs would be the kind of places that celebrated beauty and femininity and its really not the case. How much do the men kid themselves that its anything other than a financial transaction? Funnily enough, a lot of them sexualize the financial aspect of it and find it a turn-on to be paying for a lap dance or for female companionship. There were others who were obviously in massive denial and seriously wanted to believe, oh, this girl really cares about me, she told me her real name, not knowing that the same girl was mocking them in the dressing room and had

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given them a fake real name. Every dancer I knew had an onstage name and a fake real name for when she really wanted to sucker a guy. But he would actually believe that you shared that information with him because he was so chivalrous and truly respected women. You know, I can earn her trust. A lot of guys just want to be the white knight, thats the persona they assume when they walk into the club. Like theyre going to find some poor little lost girl and save her. What do you think about what Ariel Levy has called the rise of raunch culture, and the argument that the phenomenon of women visiting strip clubs is regressive rather than empowering? I guess Im emblematic of this raunch culture she talks about. Im the foul-mouthed, trash-talking, salty sex worker who has a lot of fun with that stuff. And I guess I dont read that deeply into it. I think that any time people get to reverse roles its empowering, and for women who get to objectify other women its a role reversal, its empowering and it feels good. Theres just no way around it. For me, from a purely hedonistic standpoint, I find women attractive, so its fun to go to strip clubs and its fun to watch porn. In the book you describe meeting a high school girl whos working in a strip club, and for her it was a regular part-time job, no big deal. What does that say about American culture? I mean, just equating material things with sexuality

has become a totally mainstream concept. You hear it in the music stripper culture is totally mainstream now, obviously. Now theres stripper aerobics, t-shirts for girls that say Porn Star, all that kind of thing. And its not the world I come from. I came of age in the 90s, when we had Riot Grrl music and it was just a more feminist time. I know Im being a hypocrite by saying that I dont think a high school girl should be involved in the sex industry, but at least by the age of 24 or 25 I had lived enough to be able to make that decision for myself. What would you say to a woman whos read your book, thinks it sounds like an interesting job and is going to try it? I would say try it, slowly. And make sure that you maintain control of yourself in the situation at all times. That includes maintaining some level of sobriety. Because honestly, the people who fall down the rabbit hole are the ones who get involved with drugs. And the ones who cross the line into prostitution? Exactly, yeah. You really have to know your boundaries. In a lot of cases I think that escort work and prostitution, to me thats just another more extreme form of sex work. I dont beat around the bush. I knew a lot of strippers who were really quick to point out the difference between them and prostitutes, but honestly I dont see that big of a difference. Its a controversial viewpoint, but I know that I was selling my body and

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selling my sexuality and Im not really sure how much bigger a step it would have been toward becoming an escort. Its all so closely related that it struck me as funny when girls would get extremely offended by that comparison. I would think, youre in a peep show with a dildo up your twat and youre asking me to show you more respect! So do you have any regrets? There are times when I wish I had attempted to take it even a little more seriously than I did. Because it would have been interesting to see what it was like to get really entrenched in the lifestyle and be one of the upper echelon performers. Obviously I have a physical limitation in that regard because I dont look like a ten.

And you dont want to get big fake boobs? Exactly, I didnt want to go that far. But at the same time part of me wondered what it would have been like if I had gotten big fake boobs and gone the whole nine yards, had that ambition that some of those girls have. Because then I really could have gained insight into what that life is like, from a purely anthropological standpoint. But you would never go back and do it now? Right I think it was pretty obvious when I was doing it that I was kind of a dilettante. I probably wouldnt go back and do it now, but I miss it. I still feel a little twinge when I pass a strip club, and sometimes consider going in.

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Interview [published December 1996]

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Chris Mitchell emails Douglas Coupland about fame, the future and the problem with American chocolate Douglas Coupland is not your average novelist. Since Polaroids is a set of personal essays about moments of the publication of Generation X in 1991, he has become life attending a Grateful Dead concert, an obituary one of this decades most important writers, thanks to for Kurt Cobain, a homage to James Rosenquists F1his unerring ability to capture the zeitgeist of young 11. The books closing essay, Brentwood Notebooks, middle class America in the post-industrial 1990s. takes a fascinating and chilling look at the nature of Where Generation X and Shampoo Planet dealt with fame in the wake of the OJ Simpson trial. the existential confusion of Americas over-educated With Polaroids From The Deads UK publication in children, Microserfs documented the movement of November, Spike caught up with Doug via email. The technology into mainstream culture. Each book seemed following is the transcript of our conversation. impossibly of the moment at their time of publication Hi Spike (or is it Chris?) many said Microserfs must have been speed-written in I received your three postings. I know its strange order to cash in on the advent of multimedia, yet in fact when you accidentally post the wrong draft. Its the it was the result of three years painstaking research. modern equivalent of leaving your letter of resignation While Coupland is usually portrayed as a spokesman under the Xerox machine lid. for a generation and a technological evangelist (one If your name is Spike, youll be the second one I of the short stories on Couplands website is entitled know which is statistically improbable. The other The Past Sucks), most accounts of his work fail to Spike is Spike Jonze, lately of MTV video fame, but recognise its inherent humour and humanity. before that of Dirt fame a short-lived US magazine Now nearly 35 and finally settled in his home town of for 18-25s. He and the staff came up to Vancouver for Vancouver, Couplands new book, Polaroids From The a day and a half to visit me as part of their Discover Dead, does something to redress the balance. Billed America a month on the road issue. It was great fun, as a collection of photos from the kitchen drawer,

Douglas Coupland: From Fear To Eternity

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and then a few weeks later I was doing a reading at the University of Iowa and they were driving through and heckled me from the back and it was great fun. Theyd just done this chocolate rating system on Canadian chocolate bars (essentially identical to Englands Kit Kat, Aero ) and they gave the bars really low ratings, which sucked because have you ever tried US chocolate? Hork! They had just come back from Devils Tower monument (Close Encounters Of The Third Kind) where, after they finished a chocolate bar, they tossed it out to the prairie dogs. If the dogs ate it, the bar got an extra point. If they wouldnt eat it, the bar lost a point. I decided that I had to defend my nations chocolates honour, so I bought about 12 US bars at the Circle-K Mart and then we went to my hotel room and had a Tasting Session. Id take a bite of a bar, make comments, spit it out into a waste paper basket and take a drink of water and move on to the next bar. I described the Three Musketeers bar as having a definite log-in-the-toilet aspect. They printed this in the chart in their magazine and the company that makes Three Musketeers bars went ballistic and pulled their ads and the magazine folded shortly thereafter. Whew! What a long story. So, hi. Americans are obsessed with putting peanut butter in virtually every chocolate bar why? It smells like dog doo.

You have to watch it because Americans go nuts if you slander their chocolate. They really do. I guess its because its such a gratifying signal that goes in early and deep into the childs mind. I wasnt quite sure about this email interview business. I had this vision of you sitting there with stock answers ready to paste in Not at all. That would be a fax interview (which this is not) or an interview with Duran Duran (or rather, their people). My large problem with interviews (and I do have many problems) is that my brain wont allow me to do serial interviews. Once a questions been asked, then my brain rebels against having to answer the same question again. This makes me appear grouchy. Im hoping the WWW will allay some of this repetition. Im always amazed at actors and how they can charmingly spew forth studio agendas. But then thats what they do for a living theyre actors. Did you travel a lot when younger? Probably too much. I lived in too many places in the 1980s (in no order: Vancouver, Toronto, Sapporo, Tokyo, Milan, Los Angeles, Montreal, Stuttgart).Then in my 30s I visited too many cities with work but was frustrated because Id be in a city just aching to tour around, but instead I was stuck in a hotel room. I dont know how sports teams dont go mad travelling around as much as they do. I suppose its okay because theyve plenty of company.

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Im 24 Oh, then youre due for your mid-20s crisis any day now. Beware nobody escapes. Your 20s are muck and shit and pain and loneliness and horror. I think I have a headline for this interview Indeed! I wish somebody had warned me. I might have changed a few things. (like what, Doug?) I wouldnt have worried so much. And I would have quit smoking at 20 instead of 26, for starters. Did you admire any writers at 24? I read many writers but I never really admired written craftsmanship until around 28 or 29. I admired visual artists (all of the Pop artists) and the usual assortment of 1980s New Order/OMD performers. And would you have wanted to have communicated with them? Actually, no. I learned rather quickly in art school that someones personality is often a million miles away from their work. Ive been lucky over the past few years and have met many people Ive wondered about and its been good fun. But its always been accidentalnever seeking out. For what its worth, I was driving up the coast yesterday listening to Phillip Glass Powaquaatsi, the sequel to Koyanisquaatsi are you familiar with them? Wonderful movies both. I met the director by chance in New Mexico and I told him how much I liked them and he snarled at me, so now I try and look at the films and not think of him.

Thanks to your art college training, you seem to enjoy messing around with the format of your books; the photos in Polaroids, the pages of repeated words in Microserfs, the comic strip panels in Generation X. Do you read any comic books? Not really. Some of the stuff out of Toronto is great: Palookaville and Yummy Fur spring to mind. And Tintin when I was younger. But I think I will be exploring more stuff in this direction. Did you do all of your websites graphics etc? The horizontal panels, yes. Theyre a homage to US Pop artist James Rosenquist. There are so many artists I admire. Warhol, Jenny Holzer (obviously), Damien Hirst (hes cool), Lichtenstein, Barbara Hepworth, Isamu Noguchi I could name dozens. Its my big influence. What do you think of the impact of visual art on culture? Art in the 20th-century Modernist context is consumed by both design and by industry almost as quickly as it is made. Theres no lagtime any longer. Dont you think the most exciting visual art isnt found in the gallery any longer anyway? True. Damien Hirst brings organic things into the sterility of the gallery, like the shark and the sheep Again, true, but I suspect theres a bit more to it than just that one dimension.

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while artists such as Keith Haring, Bill Barker (The Schwa Corporation) or William Latham (the chap who does the beautiful organic screensavers) bypass it entirely. Agreed. Schwa is majorly cool and weve all been mesmerised by Lathams screensavers. And Keiths well dead. Ive actually been a keen fosterer of the idea that galleries are no longer the casinos of the shocking and the new. Its finally sinking in. So many people have their whole lives invested in the perpetuation of that system, so expect much backlash accordingly. But it appears museums are getting the point, and if anything, a new Renaissance is looming. Do you think your books have an impact? This is something I really dont think about, Chris. I do them and people read them and hopefully they see the world differently at the end. In whatever way. Do you have a sense of distance from your own work? Good question, and nobodys ever asked that one, so you score ten points (ding ding ding ding.) The only way I obtain distance is to not read something and then slam into it with new eyes. With booksin-progress, its hard to give myself much distancing time. As for older books, I read bits every so often and wonder at the stuff that was going through my mind at that point. As for interviews or articles on myself, I cant read them. Im simply biologically unable to read

them. I go berzerk (ask my friends) I ask people to read articles and reviews and give a synopsis, but its like having my skin peeled off to read them, good or bad. Microserfs, far more than Generation X, connected with a lot of my friends here, in the sense that Microserfs wasnt American at all it was the Wests machine in full swing and we were living it, loving it and loathing it simultaneously. A sort of triple ironic self-bluff. Good description. Do you think were moving towards a major paradigm shift? No. Its business as usual. The way in which the subject of fame reoccurs through Polaroids, from Kurt to OJ, makes me ask an obvious question is your own fame influencing your life? Or do you consider yourself unfamous? Personally, I tend to gauge real hardcore fame by whether my parents have heard of someone or not. It influences life only to a small degree, both for good and bad. Your theory about somebody being famous only if ones parents have heard of them is an excellent description. And even then, there are 5.5 billion people out there and who knows who knows who? The eulogy to Kurt in Polaroids it felt like you were unsure as to what to say about him. Caught between needing to say something and unable to fully say it I was actually more affected by the overdose and the

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eerie silence the month before he killed himself. I just knew something was badly fucked-up somewhere, but had no idea how badly. I wasnt at all surprised when I heard the news. Id prepared myself. Its one of those deaths that you didnt think would affect you much but does. Jim Henson was one. Dr Seuss was another. All three of the above have to do with youth and happy memories of youth followed by loss. The question of the essential hollowness of fame, money and material possessions which emerges from Brentwood Notebook and the East Berlin postcards seems to lead to a certain melancholy. Yes. Theres a Godless but still wholly spiritual element which figures heavily in your work and tends to get ignored precisely because of all the PCs and Postmodernity which people interviewers especially prefer to favour. Whats even more interesting is that theres no condemnatory tone to the quest for these things, only a realisation as to their inherent uselessness. In your work, theres the day-to-day fun of life, the exhilaration and exasperation of information overload, but theres also this meditative element that asks the eternal questions. The next book deals with these in a big way (I hope). Ive come to believe that the only decisions that matter are those decisions made in the face of eternity. The future is not eternity. Its an important distinction. I

think PCs grouch at me because I dont fall into and victim categories, and Postmodernists kind of like me only as long as what I do is construed to be of the hyper-moment, more now than now. Both seem to be short-term (to say the least!) views. FUN FACT: The next novel is called Girlfriend in a Coma (after The Smiths song.) Aargh! Doug dont do it! Not The Smiths they almost ruined my adolescence! What IS your problem with The Smiths? Theyre great. Almost all UK bands from the 1980s are great. Even Bonnie Tyler in her own weird way. BTW: where is she now? Harpers magazine over here had a statistic once showing that people are most nostalgic in later years for the music that was current at the age of 23. Id agree. Has Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh come to your attention? Yes. Its extremely popular. I tried reading it, but it was so thick and Glaswegian. Im glad the movie got made. Drugs and rave culture. What do you think? Thats so American! In a funny way. Anyway, I dont know much about rave culture but I like the outfits. Ive really never spent more than ten hours cumulatively in a nightclub all told. Im more pubby. (a publican? is there some other word?) As for drugs I really have to watch it. Even vitamins spazz me out for up to 48 hours. I grew up on the West

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Coast in the 1970s, which is to say that life was steeped in bad pot and magic mushrooms for most of my high school years. I get paranoid on pot, so that was that. Mushrooms well, they grow on the front lawns here, but Im not sure. Im really not. Im somewhat suspicious of anything mind-altering. I avoid coke and acid and all sorts of stuff just because I dont think wed agree (or perhaps wed agree too much). I know many people whove had their lives saved thanks to some of the newer meds like Prozac and Zoloft. I overreact to most pharmaceuticals and can only really tolerate old standbys like erythromycin or ativan when required. Someone wrote once that I dont drink or anything, and this one article, wherever it appeared, has haunted me ever since. People always make goggle-eyes when I have a scotch. I see their reaction

and I think, Ahh, theyve read THE ARTICLE. Do you have any words of advice for young people? Yes. Its pissing rain out. Weve just had the rainiest October and November in recorded history. The X-Files studio is ten minutes away from where I live. People sometimes comment on the calculated use of rain on the set to create a supernatural effect. They wish! Its because it never stops raining here. Now you know. Care to add anything else, you lovable harbinger of doom? I am not a doom harbinger (oh, its all in the eye of the beholder) but Ill greedily accept the lovable bit. Bye, Chris. Its been much fun. Post me a copy of how it all gels in the end. Yours here in Vancouver, Doug

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Review [published November 1998] Chris Mitchell

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Douglas Coupland: Laras Book


Well, it had to happen. Lara Croft, star of the Tomb Raider videogames, gets the coffee table treatment in her own glossy picture book. In an attempt to give this tome some literary gravitas, Generation X author Douglas Coupland has been drafted in to provides thoughts about the Lara phenomenon and a story too. Laras Book feels like a mish-mash of various marketing ploys. Theres lots of new pictures of Lara herself to appeal to fevered adolescents, strategic walkthroughs of the various Tomb Raider games to help those whove got stuck somewhere along the line, interviews with the games developers about how Tomb Raider came into being, all topped off with Couplands prose to maintain Laras cool quotient with the lifestyle crowd. Its easy to see why Coupland agreed to be involved with what is essentially another form of the Tomb Raider franchise. Lara Croft is the perfect representation of his love for pop culture and technology, with her movie-star status as a cultural icon throwing up various questions about the blurring of realities, both virtual and normal. Couplands disappointingly brief prose moves in the same territory as his novels, taking something as inconsequential as a videogame and expanding it into nothing less than a metaphor for life. His skill as a writer has always been in making such assertions seem strangely appropriate rather than asinine, but here Couplands meditations only serve to make the vacuity at the heart of the Tomb Raider phenomenon even more apparent. Theres a distinct sense that theres actually precious little to say about Lara. This is indicated by the fact that far more space is given over to the game-solving tips than to Couplands writing, despite his name being flagged prominently on the front cover. Once you get past the idea shes a female character in a video game thats sold lots of copies, theres not much left. Even the game developers can offer up little else beyond the observations that they wanted people to identify with Lara and for her to be almost a fantasy object, which is hardly the stuff of profundity. Among the books hyperactive layout there is a spread of various fan letters that have been sent to Tomb Raiders creators Eidos. Its virtually impossible to read whats written in the letters, which is a pity, be-

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cause the opinions of Laras fans would probably have shed some real light on her popularity. Instead, Laras Book is simply another addition to the Tomb Raider hype. Those trying to find out why Tomb Raiders central character has caused such a fuss will be disappointed, because ultimately Lara Croft is a sphinx without a secret.

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Review [published December 2007] Dan Coxon

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Douglas Coupland: The Gum Thief


In recent years Douglas Coupland has achieved a remarkably consistent output. Its not that every novel hes written has been a masterpiece no writer manages that but rather that his great novels have been regularly interspersed with his less satisfying ones. Microserfs, Miss Wyoming, Hey Nostradamus! and JPod all felt like significant contributions to an impressive body of work; in between, however, we were handed Girlfriend In A Coma, All Families Are Psychotic and Eleanor Rigby, all worthy in their own right but none of them causing much of a stir on the literary scene (maybe Mr Coupland should stop naming books after pop songs). This pattern suggests that The Gum Thief should be a disappointment, and it certainly doesnt feel like one of his finest. Relating the relatively humdrum tale of two associates in a Staples stationary superstore, it often sounds like a soap opera rather than the latest offering from one of contemporary literatures most intriguing voices. To dismiss it out of hand would be a mistake, however, as its relatively mundane surface hides an intriguing study of the epistolary form and a commentary on the nature of the novel itself. The Gum Thief opens in typical epistolary-novel style, swapping back and forth between two characters: Bethany, a young, disillusioned Goth working in the Staples store; and Roger, a divorced, quiet loner who spends his days restocking the shelves and walking his dog. Beth discovers that Roger has been writing a diary from her point of view, and once the initial weirdness has passed she becomes intrigued by the fact that hes imagined her so accurately. So far, so simple. Coupland then throws another element into the mix: Roger is writing a novel himself, the curiously-titled Glove Pond, and the letters between Roger and Bethany are interspersed with excerpts from his own novel. Glove Pond is a woefully shallow and amateurish attempt at the form, but something in it touches Bethany, and, like her, we feel compelled to read on. As the friendship between the co-workers develops, so the twists of Glove Pond begin to reflect their lives, albeit with an often-hilarious distortion. Just as we begin to get used to this format Coupland hurls another characters voice into the fray, and he

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continues to do this until the novels final pages: the traditional back-and-forth of the epistolary form gradually fractures into a whole chorus of voices, many of them pulling in opposite directions. We hear from Bethanys mother DeeDee, who coincidentally went to school with Roger, and from Rogers bitter ex-wife Joan among others. Theres even a series of attempts to write a story from the point of view of a piece of toast, as Bethany flexes her own creative muscles. If this sounds rather messy and incoherent, then thats because it often is. With so many different voices pulling us back and forth it sometimes becomes difficult to discern between them, and Coupland doesnt always manage to conjure up a distinctive voice for every new character. Its the novel-within-a-novel that gives us the key to this intricate web, however, and makes the most memorable contribution to The Gum Thief. Glove

Pond shows us how the best fiction (and even some of the worst) draws upon the writers experiences in real life, twisting and morphing them to create something new. It shows us that any creative work, no matter how amateurish or muddled, has the potential to touch somebody, or even change a life. And most importantly, it never fails to entertain, as its characters stagger from one disaster to another, like the affairs of the American literati reinterpreted by the cast of Dynasty. Like Glove Pond, The Gum Thief is a flawed novel. It confuses as much as it illuminates, and Doug Couplands experiments with the epistolary form dont always come off. In Bethany and Roger, however, he has created another pair of Coupland greats, two people muddling through modern life in any way they can with the occasional epiphany thrown in along the way. The Gum Thief may not be perfect, but its still a damned good read.

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Interviews [published June 1996]

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Quentin Crisp: An Englishman In New York


Chris Mitchell goes for lunch with Quentin Crisp This month sees the publication of Resident Alien, the selected diaries of Quentin Crisp. It is difficult to surmise whether this man needs an introduction or not, such is his longevity as a cult figure of quintessential Englishness, a stately old homo of England, to quote one of his most famous phrases. Quentin Crisp is, after all, the man who first personified the concept of camp. If I have a talent for anything, he states, it is not for doing but for being. It was not until the 1960s, when he already over 50 years old, that Quentin first rose to fame with the TV adaptation of his autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant. In it, Quentin documented his early, life-changing decision that instead of hiding my sexuality, I would announce it. With his hennad hair, gravity-defying makeup and inch-long fingernails, the young Quentin Crisp cut a brave and audacious figure in 1930s London. Indeed, it is hard to imagine the outrage he must have provoked. As he notes in his book Manners From Heaven: During my Edwardian youth and Georgian middleage the world (I mean Britain) stayed exactly where it was, aggressively conformist and conservative; I stayed exactly where I was, a blithe spirit revelling in androgynous anarchy, and there was a battle. This battle frequently became physical as well as psychological; Quentins accounts of the numerous attacks he endured on the streets of London lend a disturbing pathos to The Naked Civil Servants blend of pithy insight, amused self mockery and biting sarcasm. Indeed, the luminescence of Quentins prose soon won accolades which proclaimed him as a modern day Oscar Wilde, a comparison he has always refused. When I was young, I thought Oscar Wilde was so noble. I thought he sacrificed everything for love. Then, when I became older, I realised this was complete nonsense. In the charnelhouses of London, Wilde only knew most of his lovers by Braille. It was utterly sordid. Tired of Englands pernicious and parochial character, Quentin moved to New York in the early 1980s. By this time he was over 70 years old. After running various skirmishes with the US immigration authorities, Quentin succeeded in keeping his British passport and becoming a resident alien. The English always say that the Americans are so false. But I dont spend

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my time wondering if the man in the deli really wishes me to have a nice day. If he didnt, then he wouldnt say it, surely. Quentin warms to his theme. In New York, everyone is your instant friend. If you were to stand up in this diner now and shout, Im putting on a cabaret, then everyone would gather round and ask, Where will it be?, What will it be about?, Who will you hire?. If you did that in England, there would be absolute silence, everyone would stare into their soup and think, How appallingly embarrassing. Quentin is now the most interesting octogenarian on earth, enjoying growing old disgracefully as he puts it, with his purple rinsed hair and layers of foundation still firmly in evidence. The problem with England is that everyone is convinced that you cant make a living doing nothing. However, in this I feel I have succeeded to some degree. Quentins New York existence is made up of socialising, film reviewing and various appearances in movies, TV and the theatre. I live quite comfortably on publicity champagne and peanuts. The last time I went to a launch I took a friend. He immediately dived for the champagne and I had to say, No, no! Act more like a star! Quentin also entertains an endless stream of wellwishers from all over the world by the simple expedient of having his number listed in the New York phone directory. This leads to all manner of curious individuals contacting him. A young lady once phoned me at

seven in the morning and asked how she could make sure that didnt smudge her lipstick. I said, Dont drink anything, dont eat anything and certainly dont kiss anything. Youd think she could have worked it out for herself. Despite his avid socialising, Quentin refuses to buy an answerphone. To me it would be pure science fiction. The only concession Quentin makes to his age is to spend two days a week doing absolutely nothing in his tiny bedsitting room on the Lower East Side. I have to recharge my batteries. When you live in New York, as soon as you leave the house, you are under starters orders. During these quiet moments, Quentin does crosswords they are the aerobics of the soul and, at the end of each month, writes his diary. Mentioning Resident Alien does not gain the normal authorial response concerning a new print baby: Ah yes, Quentin says, Ive just finished reading the proofs for that. His eyes twinkle mischievously. Its absolute rubbish! Theyve taken out all of the dates, all of the places and all of the names for fear of causing offence. He raises his eyes heavenward in mock resignation, knowing full well that it would be the most heinous breach of etiquette to say anything complimentary about his own new book. Sadly, even with the publication of Resident Alien, the chances of Quentin returning to these shores are slim. My agent asked me if I would be willing to go

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to England to promote the book. I have not refused, because I never say no, but I have said I will be extremely reluctant. I am too old for aeroplane travel. Whenever I arrive, they say, Oh, you must be so tired. But I sleep the whole way on the plane. They seem to expect the excitement of flying to last the entire journey. What am I supposed to do for five hours, sit there saying, Oh hooray! Im in the air! However, when I mention my home town of Brighton, Quentin fondly remarks of his time there at the Pavilion Theatre, shortly before moving to the States. Brighton is very nice, but Im not sure about the sea. I think the sea is a mistake. I mean, what does it want, banging and crashing away on the shore like that all day? The last time Quentin returned to the UK was a couple of years ago to play Queen Elizabeth the First in the film Orlando. Its the sort of film I wouldnt watch myself in a hundred years. Movies are much more to Quentins taste than books: Books are for writing, not reading. But I am most definitely a fan of Mr Tarantino. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are absolutely wonderful. The previous day he had seen Spike Lees new comedy flick, Girl 6. It was a miserable film because of its subject matter. Who could find phone sex remotely interesting? Quentins fascination with the silver screen recently led him to take part in a Calvin Klein advert. I knew it was important because this enormous limousine purred up outside the house

to collect me. It was so big inside that the first time it turned a corner I fell off the seat. We drove to a huge warehouse and I thought, How fabulous! Were going to remake The Charge Of The Light Brigade! But then we were told to stand on a piece of paper about twice the size of this table while a half-naked man writhed between our legs. I looked at Mr Klein and I said, But what does it all mean? And that was what they used in the advertisement Quentin has often asked himself the same question about gay militancy, a position which has caused him problems in the past. During a performance of his show An Evening With Quentin Crisp in California, Quentin relates how several young men were very angry with me. When I asked why, they said, You havent once directly asserted that youre gay this evening. Quentin arches a neatly pencilled eyebrow. Youd think to look at me would be enough. Obviously not. And that is why I do not march. I have realised I represent nothing grander than my own puny self. I am first and last an individual, not a spokesman for any group. I have lived my life with my sexuality clearly apparent. I cannot do any more. The provocation of Quentins attire should not be underestimated, even in these supposed liberal times. With a mixture of incredulity and relish, Quentin relates a story from the Edinburgh festival several years ago: A young man was performing a show where he impersonated me on stage, complete with clothes,

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make-up and accent. When he walked out into the street still dressed as myself, he was physically attacked! Thankfully Quentins days of being harassed on the street are long gone. He is a venerated celebrity on the Lower East Side. During our conversation, several people wave at him as they pass in the street, and a respectfully deferential young man who introduces himself as Winston comes in to ask Quentin for his autograph on a napkin. As I walk him back to his apartment, one of the bums hopefully shakes his cup and greets him with Yo! Mr Crispy! We pause at the street corner to say goodbye, and Quentin leaves me with one last anec-

dote. When I returned to the States after completing Orlando, I was stopped by the passport officer because of my status as a resident alien. He was an enormous man with a shaved head he looked like an absolute thug. I thought, Poor me, my time has come! And then the officer leaned over the barrier, pressed the passport back into my hand and whispered, It must feel good to be so utterly vindicated. Quentin looks directly at me. And it does. With that, he gracefully takes his leave, his small figure soon disappearing amongst the busy sidewalks of the Lower East Side. Quentin Crisp the definitive Englishman in New York.

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Mark Danielewski: House Of Leaves Don DeLillo: Underworld John Diamond: C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too Stephen Dorril: Sir Oswald Mosley: Blackshirt Patricia Duncker: Insanity Clause Nic Dunlop: The Lost Executioner

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The Fall: Fall Heads Roll Stefan Fatsis: Letter Better Tibor Fischer: The Fischer King Mark Fisher: Capitalist Realism Michael Foot: Uncollected Essays Franz Ferdinand: Franz Ferdinand Athol Fugard: Tsotsi Anna Funder: Stasiland

210 213 216 218 222 226 228 230

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Review [published June 2000] Gary Marshall

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Mark Danielewski: House Of Leaves


House Of Leaves is one of the strangest books weve seen for some time. With multiple narrators, a mass of footnotes and direct transcripts of video tapes, the novel has been described as a literary Blair Witch Project a description wed wholeheartedly agree with. The novel is narrated by Johnny Truant, a barhopping low-life who is losing his grip on reality. When an old man Zampano dies, Truant grabs a manuscript from his apartment and takes it home to read it. This manuscript is an analysis of The Navidson Record, a collection of videotapes that record some spooky goings on in a suburban house. As Truant reads the manuscript, he reproduces it in full, sharing his observations with us and describing his own increasingly fragile mental state. There are three main stories in House Of Leaves: Truants reactions to the manuscript, Zampanos analysis of The Navidson Record, and the contents of the videotapes themselves. As the novel continues, each story overlaps. Zampano adds extensive footnotes to his work and attempts to contact the famous people (Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Camille Paglia) mentioned in the tapes; Truant attempts to explain the more tortuous footnotes, adding explanations and analysis of his own, and unnamed editors in turn comment on both Zampanos and Truants comments. The Navidson Record would have made an excellent spinechiller in its own right, but the analysis and footnotes rack the creepiness up by a notch. In the early stages of the transcripts, we know that something scarys going to happen: the footnotes tell us so. As if the layers of comment werent complicated enough, after a few dozen pages things go completely mental. The word house is printed throughout in blue, without explanation; footnotes become longer than the sections theyre commenting on, print is desrever or , entire sections are crossed out; some pages contain a single word or letter, while others are filled with lists of buildings or household amenities. All of these things are reproduced faithfully, resulting in pages where the only text is XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX, other pages with letters and words missing due to fire damage (the gaps are replaced by spaces and square brackets), still others with text at crazy angles or tiny rotated

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font sizes. If you attempt to read this book in the bath, youll probably drown. The books ambition is also its downfall. The crazy typography and constant interjections from Truant (and others) make it difficult to follow parts of the story and, in the early sections especially, youll be sorely tempted to throw the book out of the window. Many of the tangents psychological theories, local history, analysis of photographs, lists of camera equipment overstay their welcome, and the ending is curiously flat, as if the writer suddenly ran out of ideas. Some scenes jar with the rest of the book; in particular, Truants description of his trip to a bar, where he talks to a band and

discovers theyve read the book hes still writing. This is either an unintentional error or even worse a hamfisted it was all a dream scenario lifted straight from an episode of Dallas. House Of Leaves is a brave attempt to do something different, updating Burroughs cut-up technique for a new generation of readers. At over 700 pages, however, the novel would have benefited from some judicious editing, and the overall impression is one of a writer too enamoured with typographical tricks. Nonetheless, House Of Leaves is an original and unique novel; for all its faults, its unlike anything else youll read this year.

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Review [published December 1998] Gary Marshall

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Don DeLillo: Underworld


Starting with a 1951 baseball game and ending with the internet, Underworld is not a book for the fainthearted. Elegiac in tone and described variously as DeLillos Magnum Opus and his attempt to write the Great American Novel, the book weighs in at a hefty 827 pages and zips back and forwards in time, moving in and out of the lives of a plethora of different characters. Following three main themes the fate of a baseball from the winning game of the 1951 world series, the threat of atomic warfare and the mountains of garbage created by modern society DeLillo moves forwards and backwards through the decades, introducing characters and situations and gradually showing the way their lives are interconnected. Reading the prose can be uncannily like using a web browser: the narrative focus moves from character to character almost as quickly as we are introduced to them, and the time frame regularly changes to show further connections between the key players. This device literature as hypertext is particularly effective in the early parts of the novel and the technique never intrudes on the story itself. The book focuses on Nick Shay, a former hoodlum who now works in the burgeoning waste management industry and owns the baseball from the 1951 game, the shot heard around the world. In addition to Nick we hear from Frank Sinatra, J. Edgar Hoover, Lenny Bruce and the various people who move in and out of Nicks life: lovers, family, friends and colleagues. Through these seemingly disconnected narratives DeLillo paints a picture of Cold War paranoia at its peak the baseball game happened the same day as the USSRs first nuclear test and the changes affecting his characters as a microcosm of American society as a whole. Very few writers, however, can justify over 800 densely-printed pages to tell a story and Underworld would have benefited greatly from judicious wielding of the blue pencil. Potentially intriguing plots which feature strongly in the earlier parts of the book an intriguing serial killer subplot, the stories of each person who possesses the winning baseball are abandoned halfway through the book in favour of overlong child-

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hood memories or the inane ponderings of a performance artist; other stories are neglected for over 400 pages before reappearing at the end of the novel, causing an unwelcome jolt as the reader tries to remember the pertinent details. In this respect Underworld is a victim of its own ambition: by trying to cover such a wide range of characters and situations, DeLillo loses track of some of them and, in the latter parts of the novel in particular, the writing feels as if it is on autopilot while the author works out what to do next. There is still much to recommend in Underworld,

however. Each vignette is lovingly crafted: DeLillo seems as comfortable writing from the perspective of a street missionary as he is inhabiting J. Edgar Hoovers paranoia. The book employs vivid imagery, from painted angels on ghetto walls to the cityscape created by mountains of domestic waste, and the dialogue is usually well-observed and thoroughly believable although it does flag when describing Nick Shays hoodlum past. Despite its faults DeLillo has created an ambitious and powerful novel which, due to its size, can also be used to swat annoying children on trains. Highly recommended.

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Review [published June 1999] Gary Marshall

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John Diamond: C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too


As far as John Diamond was concerned, cancer happens to other people. A columnist who is paid handsomely for spouting off each week about whatever is on his mind, he undergoes tests for the lump in his neck and, rather than panicking, sees it as a potentially interesting anecdote. I imagined myself in a week or twos time not as someone who had been diagnosed as having cancer but as someone who had had a close brush with cancer whod been through all the tests and then at the very last minute been given the all clear. If anything it sounded even more heroic than the real thing. By this point Diamond had had cancer for more than a year. C is, of course, about cancer what it is, what it feels like to receive the diagnosis one evening as youre watching Eastenders, how it feels to lose four stone and most of your tongue. Subtitled because cowards get cancer too, the book makes no attempt to portray Diamond as some brave, heroic figure and describes his twisted pleasure as he uses his illness as a weapon at dinner parties, his frequent outbursts of impotent rage and the often appalling way he treats his wife during his convalescence. This is no self-pitying, poor me tale. Diamond describes how cancer works, clear-up rates, the different sorts of treatment and their chances of success. A savagely perceptive writer, he pours vitriol on new-agers and pro-smoking campaigners in equal measure. By all means campaign for some phantom right to smoke, but dont believe that right derives from corrupting the statistics about what smoking does to you. Understand it for what it is: the right to play Russian roulette, as I did, with the immune system. Diamonds descriptions of his predicament are frequently hilarious his inventory of his well-stocked medicine cabinet reads like P.J. ORourke, albeit P.J. writing about morphine instead of cocaine. Diamond reserves his most vicious criticism for those who believe surviving cancer is a matter of the correct mental attitude, as if those who die simply didnt try hard enough. As he recounts his treatment through his weekly newspaper column he receives regular missives from the terminally stupid, the ones who told me that as a journalist with a public platform it was my bounden duty to stop operating as a propagandising dupe for the

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evil medical establishment, to tell doctors that I wasnt fooled by their fake radiotherapy statistics when everyone knows that radiation kills, and to put my faith in the Bessarabian radish, the desiccated root of which has been used for centuries by Tartar nomads to cure athletes foot, tennis elbow and cancer, as detailed in their book Why Your Doctor Hates You And Wants You To Die, review copy enclosed. Currently cancer-free, Diamond would shy away from any suggestion that his illness has been in any way a positive experience. There is, however, a positive message to his story which is best illustrated by one of the books most poignant and telling scenes: Diamond is in his car, not long after the treatments that removed most of his tongue and destroyed his taste buds. Listening to a familiar show he hears a voice he cant place, then realises that hes listening to his own voice on a

programme recorded a year previously. Diamond is struck by the difference between the man he is now and the man whose voice is broadcasting through the ether: he was the one who didnt realize what a boon an unimpaired voice was, who ate his food without stopping to think about its remarkable flavour, who was criminally profligate with words, who took his wife and children and friends for granted in short who didnt know he was living. Rather than denying mortality, C suggests that its only when you understand the fragility of life that you can fully appreciate just how magical and wonderful day-to-day existence can be. Coda: John Diamond died on 2nd March, 2001. The Guardian obituary has the full details of his remarkable life.

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Review [published December 2007] Ben Granger

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Stephen Dorril: Sir Oswald Mosley: Blackshirt


Stephen Dorrils Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley And British Fascism is an exhaustive re-examination of the man who, far from being a Hitler admiring crank, was inextricably bound up with British politics and upper class attitudes. Many may find the sheer weight of this tome wrongly flattering of its subject, regardless of content. Why should such a figure merit 700 pages? Surely this was, at best, a nearly-man in British politics? He may have risen to Cabinet level certainly, but then so did hundreds of others. The grimy pack of thugs he came to lead once his mainstream ambitions failed may have caused a splash as they bashed enemy heads in, but no-one voted for them. Surely, ultimately, they and he were an irrelevance? Dorrils expertly researched account gives the lie to such a view and leaves no doubt that the story of Mosley is inexorably entwined with the story of 20th-century politics as a whole, mirroring the highs and the lows, ricocheting from the machinations of high society to the violent desperation of the underclass, and taking in every major Parliamentary player in between. Sir Oswald Tom Mosley was a pure-grade scion from a northern branch of the old land-owning aristocracy (Mosley Street in Manchester takes its name from the clan), of the type still rolling in money but comparatively side-lined politically in the bourgeois 20th century. With a boorishly uncaring, neglectful father, and indulgent mother, his defining character traits were shown early on at boarding school and elsewhere. A narrow, directed charm, rampant ambition, intellectual laziness, sexual incontinence, untrustworthiness, and a tendency to brow-beat and bully. Above all, a narcissistic sense of self-adoration, belief in entitlement and complete lack of self-doubt, of the type so often found in his caste. But taken just that one degree further. After service in the air-force during the First World War, where he performed with distinction and enthusiasm, impetuous Tom managed to secure a position as a Conservative MP by the age of 22, the natural home for a man of his class and connections. He soon became renowned as a powerful orator in the Commons for his party. But this man in a hurry was impatient with the old guard still running both party and country, those who

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had allowed the calamity of war to decimate the young men of the nation fighting abroad, and who allowed an untrammelled laissez-faire capitalism to terrorise them with poverty once they had returned. Dorril goes into expansive and exacting detail about the clashing political and economic trends amongst the elite of the time. This in itself provides an unfaultable Parliamentary political history of the period, a vivid picture of the flux at work, which formed the background of the contradictions which made up Mosleys outlook. He at first identified wholesale with the social imperialists in the Tory Party as against its free trade faction. He supported those who, in wishing to save the existing social order, believed in economic protectionism to protect a relatively decent living standard for the British working-class, bolstered by the exploitation of Empire. Such a world-view was entrenched in a romantic conception of England, with the foreign (and, sometimes, Jewish) other as its symbolic foe. This paternalistic ethos was the basic core of Mosleys philosophy from thereon, but his contempt for the Empire Tories lack of innovation made him seek his cause, his following and followers, elsewhere. Mosley was as much a figure in high society as in politics, very Tatler fodder. Those he ran with were rich, young, louche, promiscuous, glamorous and shallow, of the type Evelyn Waugh at once admired and despised. As Mosley married his first wife Cimmie, this dash-

ing, charismatic figure dazzled many. While gentle, warm Cimmie was liked by most who met her, quite as many people were as put-off by Mosleys boundless self-importance as were taken in by his charm. While praise came from many, his Tory rival Stanley Baldwin spoke for many more by remarking He is a cad and a wrongun and they will find it out, before he left the party. Cimmies delicate nature was in turn tested to immense distraction by her husbands countless, remorseless affairs including with her sisters. Mosley would never be content as anything less than the biggest fish in the pond. The Tories disappointed him so he joined Labour, seeing that as the party more capable of delivering the change -still amorphously defined- that he craved. For a while his radicalism, advocating wholesale economic reorganisation to achieve full employment led a few on the Left, even the great Bevan for a short time, to see him as a potential leader. Indeed, it is distinctly unnerving to see both the respect Mosley was shown by sections of both the Labour Party Left and the Independent Labour Party, and the seeming ease with which his rhetoric of renewal could blend with theirs. As Mosley made his way into the Cabinet of Ramsay McDonalds doomed Labour government and expounded his economic programmes to tackle unemployment (Keynesianism with an authoritarian kick), their rejection by McDonald was due to the latters

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timidity rather than any genuine opposition to creeping dictatorship. Mosley was enraged as his proposals were ignored, and immediately split with the Labour leadership. As this schism occurred, it is a testimony to both the mans demagogic charisma and his ideological vacuity that many in both main parties now saw him as a possible leader. The ambiguity was such that for a very brief time Churchill and Bevan alike were keen for him to lead their respective parties. But impatient Tom had his own ideas. He had taken his ball home. He would have his own party. The New Party. The New Party was formed in early 1931, it soon became clear just what its founders forever trumpeted radicalism amounted to. Fierce rhetoric about change and national renewal (and the clamour of a throng of restless, violent young men to drive this home) masked a dangerous and ringing hollow at the partys ideological core. Its launch was a huge media event at the time, and figures of the stature of Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells were initially sympathetic (both being Fabian socialists but with a disturbing penchant for Mosleys coldly elitist, authoritarian and technocratic attitudes). The initial boost was short-lived however, and the New Partys lack of clarity, together with a poor showing at their first by-election in Ashton-under-Lyne, saw it heading nowhere in electoral terms. By 1932, the New Party had already changed its name to the British Union of Fascists.

The BUF was never less than an unabashed personality cult from the beginning, the logical conclusion of the overweening toxic brew of narcissism and megalomania that animated its founder. Massively over- represented by ex military men like Mosley himself, he found it easy to run the movement as army rather than a party, dominating every aspect of members lives. They even had their own uniform, they were the Blackshirts, aping Mussolinis crew before them. Ex-member Colin Cross recalled the faithful Even saluted him when he went into the sea to bathe at the Movements summer camps at Selsey, and they whispered his name in religious awe he was presented to the public as a superman. Criticism was taboo and humour nearly so. At last the man had found the captive audience he had always craved. Now all he had to do was enlarge the audience to encompass the whole nation. The BUF was always clear in its violence, but it was far from ideologically coherent, even less so than the man himself. He took a fair-sized gang of old Labour comrades with him, but to the great majority of Labour and trade-union men and women, the Fascist movement was not just a mistake, but a sickening anathema. This was a party based on a movement that massacred their brothers and sisters in Italy, directly supported by the capitalist class in that country. They knew the enemy where they saw it. The organised working-class were forever,

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fervently opposed. Many more members came from elsewhere, including preexisting smaller UK Fascist movements. Amongst them were the British Fascists, an old group of simplistic upper-middle-class reactionary blimps who had previously been active in trying to break the 1926 General Strike. Joining them were more recent and more vicious groups of Nazi cheerleaders, whose chief motivation was a pathological hatred of Jewry. Of equal importance and greater number were natural Tories driven to a new radical dynamism against the perceived socialist threat. This contingent was personified by Daily Mail owner Lord Rothermere, a friend of Mosleys who threw his paper behind the new movement wholesale. Meanwhile, the movement was secretly, and illegally, receiving a large chunk of its funding direct from Fascist Italy, and, increasingly, (as the anti-Semitism increased) from Nazi Germany too. The degree of the extent of Mosleys anti-Semitism is central to the conundrum of his character. It is interesting to contrast his personality with that of Hitler, the man he so desired to emulate, failing so spectacularly. There is no doubt that Mosley was not possessed of the overwhelming personal hatred of Jews that so engulfed Hitler. He had several Jewish friends prior to the BUF. His rival, the hysterically overwrought anti-Semite Arnold Leese, leader of the tiny, ultrafanatic Imperial Fascist League taunted Mosley as a

kosher Fascist for this very reason. Amusingly, one of Mosleys early New Party stalwarts was a Jewish East End boxer named Ted Kid Lewis, who exited the movement with a punch to Mosleys nose when the latter confirmed that yes, he did intend his movement to be anti-Semitic. Furthermore, Oswald explicitly did not sign up to the facetious and insane pseudo-science the Nazis used to justify their race hatred, casually denouncing it as gibberish. He mocked the notorious forgeries the Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion too. The very fact he could then lead a movement openly engaged in repeated violence against this scape-goated racial group shows the black-hearted, gangster opportunism at the core of his being. The hatred of the Jewish enemy was a galvanising myth to a movement which otherwise had little to tie it together, and he knew it. With characteristic dishonesty, Mosley dismally pleaded self defence in his campaign against the Jews, claiming they started it. Mosley came to advocate the expelling of all Jews from Britain who had shown disloyalty. Where they were to go was unclear, Madagascar, or possibly Uganda (very empty and a lovely climate helpfully offered Mosleys second wife Diana, formerly Guinness, formerly Mitford.) It is an interesting rumination of what constitutes a truer evil, the deep-felt fanaticism of a Hitler or the gutter-shallow opportunism of a Mosley. It is however, much easier to see which was more successful.

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Adolf met Oswald on several occasions but was never fully convinced of him, doubting his commitment, sensing his lack of whole-hearted zealotry. Goebbels was even less impressed, dismissing him as an outsider of small political significance. Hitler was however genuinely taken with Mosleys wife Diana. He was even more taken by her sister Unity, and the feeling was mutual. Mosley married Diana at a secret ceremony in Goebbels house, having already carried out a long affair with her. The contrast of kind-hearted if naive Cimmie with the coldly ruthless Diana was seen by some as emblematic of Mosleys journey to the dark side. While her portrayal as a Lady Macbeth figure even more malignant than her husband may have a toe in misogynist myth, he had certainly met his match with her in amoral callousness. The Mitfords were the epitome of high society elan, and Hitler himself, for all his railing against British decadence was far from immune to the charms of this glamorous set. Diana and Unity, regular and welcome visitors to Hitler, acted as a conduit between Mosley and his new benefactor, while the intelligence services were more concerned with the Mitford pair than Mosley himself as a threat to the state. The BUF was to change its name to the BU at the end of 1934. Short for the British Union, though its full new title was the rather less innocuous British Union of Fascists and National Socialists, reflecting the increasing influence of the Fuhrer. The thuggishness was thrown

into sharp relief at an infamous public gathering at Olympia in June 1934. The mass meeting was held in a theatrical, explicitly Nuremburg style, the movements new Lightning-in-a-Circle symbol (wittily dubbed the flash in the pan by opponents) dominating the hall just as the swastika did to the Nazi faithful in Germany. The Blackshirts deliberately attracted as many opponents as possible to this meeting, and then, with a variety of home-made weapons, pulped into bloody submission anyone who heckled The Leader. Many serious injuries resulted. Mosley was attempting to prove his control of the street once and for all, yet this one meeting probably did more than any other act to convince potential followers of his ruthless, sadistic nature. His unpredictable nature too probably a greater anathema to the British business class. The BU suffered a severe propaganda blow with the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, when a massive crowd of local working-class youths, Jews, Communist and Labour activists violently prevented Mosley (resplendent in a new uniform explicitly modelled on that of the Nazi SS), from provocatively marching down the street in the heart of the Jewish East End. As the Blackshirts were protected by police, (many sympathetic to Mosley, or at least distinctly hostile to his leftist opponents), the fight was between demonstrators and police rather than the barricaded Blackshirts themselves. But the victory was real, They Did Not Pass. As Dorril shows,

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in some areas of London, notably Hoxton and Stepney support from sections of the East End working-class was actually to rise afterward but the psychological defeat struck deeply amongst its followers, and seemed emblematic of the movements wider failure. The early membership height of 50,000 had fallen to under 10,000 by this point. The movement was losing money continually, despite being bankrolled by both the foreign Fascist powers and Mosleys own landed estates. Uniforms, banners, headquarters and truncheons do not pay for themselves. Intellectually he was without capital too. The writers of the day were overwhelmingly Left. The strangely acidic Wyndham Lewis was one of the few artists who were taken in for a time by the movement, but even this support did not last the distance. Dorril recounts Lewis and Mosley met on several occasions in the late 30s, but the former was increasingly alarmed by the latters talk of the sad practical necessities of machine gunning the movements foes in the street when push came to shove. When Lewis came to write the ironically titled The Jews Are They Human? in 1937 he was sardonically repudiating his past Fascism. The only noted author to back Mosley by then was Henry Tarka The Otter Williamson. With even his few intellectual allies now taking the piss, who would take Oswald seriously now? When Britain went to war with Mosleys ideological masters in Germany and Italy, it was the cataclysmic

close of any last lingering chance of a revival in his movement. Unity Mitford shot herself in the head, yet failed to succeed in suicide, dribbling on for years afterward. While Mosley and his wife claimed they were still loyal to Britain (whilst agitating for negotiated peace) the authorities had different views, and imprisoned the pair in Holloway Prison. Sympathy was not widespread. Nancy Mitford was one of those who denounced sister Diana and her infamous husband to the security services. Several BU members either fled to Germany or had moved shortly before war was declared, to fight for the Nazi cause. Some were propagandists like Haw Haw Joyce, others like John Amery joined Waffen SS divisions. In keeping with the stomach-wrenching nature of their treachery, none saw active combat against soldiers, yet several were active in murderous atrocities against unarmed Jewish civilians. By association, Mosley was seen, by the vast majority of British people, as the most venal kind of traitor. Churchill, one of many who once saw Mosley as a potential leader of his party and country, decided to release the man and wife in late 1943 in what he saw as a humane gesture in relation to the Blackshirts ill- health. The decision sparked mass popular protest and outrage. The working-classes in particular were prominent in street demonstrations demanding that the key should be thrown away, or the noose brought

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in. The would-be Leader of Britain was really truly loathed the length and breadth of the land. Oswald and Diana seemed to bear this hatred with an attitude beyond the straightforward arrogance which was their defining nature, and into a whole other worldly netherrealm of bitter fantasy. It was the Jews who hated them, the establishment, the government certainly not the good old British people. These demonstrations were the results of the Jewish cabal that had Britain in its grip surely? His solipsism increased by incarceration, Mosley took to writing at greater length, honing his philosophy in ever more verbose terminology. He claimed to have now moved beyond Fascism, and propounded that he had found a unique synthesis, beyond the both capitalist and socialist ethic, fusing Christianity and the ideals of Nietzsche, combining dictatorship and democracy. But the schism between his feigning of esoteric high mindedness and the squalor of his day-today political activities became starker than ever when he began his new party in 1947 the Union Movement. The same gang of dysfunctional Jew baiters were to continue their street fighting, to a mixture of disgust and indifference from the general populace (gaining for instance less than 2000 votes in the whole of London during local elections in 1949). The full extent of the Nazi horrors, the millions of innocent souls butchered in the camps, was now evident, discrediting Mosleys

mob as never before. Accordingly, the calibre of the UM member was even lower than that of the BU before them, a selection of gangsters, psychopaths and street thugs, with the odd loopy Lord thrown in. This sorry pack were eventually to find a new scapegoat, and a short-lived new lease of life with the coloured immigration of the 50s. As tensions grew in sections of the white population towards the novel new migrants from the Caribbean and Indian sub-continent, the UM had some success in actively encouraging race riots, in particular the Notting Hill riot of 1958. Their success in leading to smashed windows and broken bones did not translate into votes however, and the fetid nature of their street activity stood in starker contrast than ever from Mosleys increasingly abstruse theorising. His new vision was of a United Europe, national boundaries broken down among the great White brotherhood, who would in turn go to plunder what they needed from Africa, using their superior colonial know-how. Ironic that a movement now recruiting on an anti-immigrant platform should have as its ultimate goal the large scale immigration of a white master class to the African continent. This was grotesque racism sure enough, but it was neither populist nor popular. Even amongst rising anti-immigration feeling, the UM could not truly take off. Ultimately it was to be Mosleys intellectualism that was the final death knell of his movement. The issue of

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race did indeed strike at the core of British political life by the late 60s, and immigration became a key electoral theme. But the UMs abstract ideas of White European Unity did not accord with the xenophobic mood ignited by the Rivers of Blood speech of the Conservative Enoch Powell. The sentiment he unearthed and tried to harness was as strongly anti-European as it was antiblack. Those who didnt like the niggers and pakis didnt tend to be too keen on frogs and krauts either. The Mosleys were livid that Enoch had succeeded on territory where they had failed. In an amusing glimpse of the couples snobbery and delusion, Oswald dubbed Powell a middle-class Alf Garnett, while Diana denounced him as far-right as opposed to their hard centre! A truly Fascist party was to gain from the racist rhetoric of Powell. This was not the Union Movement however. It was the National Front. The NF was inspired by the same Nazi and Fascist ideas that Mosley first fermented in the country. Its first chairman was A.K. Chesterton, formerly a leading figure within the BU and a close confidante of Oswald. But its simplistic, xenophobic approach was far more adept than the UM at tapping into the visceral, base hatred that keeps such a movement going. It was blacks and Asians who were getting the beatings and firebombed houses now, with the added advantage they were much easier to spot than Jews. The bootboys of the NF were every inch the descendants of the

Blackshirts before them, but they had moved on and left their spiritual grandpa and grandma Oswald and Diana behind. Bitterly jealous of the NFs success, Mosley remarked to his private circle, in a statement beyond the parody of the most gifted satirist, that the Front was funded by Jews. The pair moved to France, and lingered on as bitter remnants, their reputation rotting in a pleasing reflection of their withered souls, cursing the cosmopolitan conspiracies that had kept them from greatness, never seeing the fault in themselves. No matter that most saw a malevolent opportunist, in his minds eye he would always be the great, lost, put-upon prophet. Mosley would periodically attempt to reappear with attempts at self-justification. Following one such appearance on The Frost Report in 1967 interviewer David Frost remarked, He saw everything through the distorting mirror of his own fantasises, and was irretrievably consumed by them. He would never see himself as others saw him. Oswald died in 1980, and the vaguely sympathetic obituaries he received in certain quarters such as The Times revealed for the last time that the solidarity of the ruling classes will out in the end. Dorril has produced the definitive Mosley biography, superseding the absurdly sympathetic softsoaping work of Robert Skidelsky, which centred on Mosleys Parliamentary career and treated the BUF as

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an epilogue (a bit like a biography of Fred West which focussed more on his earlier career as an ice cream salesman.) This is a fascinating story, both for anyone interested in British political history of the last century, and anyone intrigued by the tragic tale of a truly diabolical man. Dorril has done an unfaultable job on the research, and brings the narrative to life well with his grotesque menagerie of characters. There are flaws to the book. The author has a background as an analyst of the machinations of the intelligence services of Britain and abroad, and while this eye for detail has undoubtedly made this work the powerhouse of research it is, the endless recanting of certain details, the exact nature of how the BUF obtained its funding for example, can sometimes drag the storys flow. More directly, he concentrates a little too much on the nature of MI5s observation of the movement, when this is very much a side-show to the main narrative. This dry style can sometimes cloy over such a long length. Further, while Dorril is great on the detail, actual analysis is very thin on the ground. The one time Dorril does attempt an analytical overview, it is with some rather tenuous observations about Messianic leaders toward the end, claiming that one Tony Blair shares the traits of this style. Maybe so, but the point is made clumsily and without satisfactory justification. Ultimately however, Dorrils stance in going for the

research style, dispassionately observant, pays off into a great narrative by nature of the sheer dramatic scope of the story he so meticulously examines. Scene after scene and figure after grotesque figure linger on the psychic retina. The drawing room parties of the man playing host to every major political figure of the early part of the century, one by one falling away as he fell into disrepute. Mosleys seaside frolics with his patrician pals, offset against the pogrom style excesses of his nastiest East End thugs, breaking into Jewish houses and attacking children within. Mosleys relentless psychological torture of his first wife, the most poignant of his bullying victims. Diana fending off the accusations of sister Nancy that she had supported a movement that murdered six million Jews with the remark But darling, it was the kindest way. The London BUF headquarters that doubled up as a knocking-shop, underlying with grim humour the movements crossover with organised crime. The UM hijacking the teddy-boy youth cult just as the NF did with skinheads two decades later. The sheer gall and lack of self-awareness in Mosleys latelife attempts to rehabilitate himself, attempting a truce with Jewish leaders without any pretence of apology. This is a grim tale that needs only clear explanation and examination to be one of fascination. This is a task Dorril has performed with enormous success with this eye-opening and exhaustive work.

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Interview [published September 2003]

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Chris Mitchell gets philosophical with Patricia Duncker about her novel Hallucinating Foucault Madness, death, sexuality, crime; these are the submixture of intimacy, madness and self-discovery. jects that attract most of my attention. So said the late I wanted it to be a love story, Patricia Duncker French philosopher Michel Foucault, one of the cenreveals, to explain the love between readers and turys most audacious intellectuals, who died of AIDS writers. My life has been radically changed through in 1984. Only Foucaults books remain as a reminder the books Ive read and I wanted to describe that. of his existence but, as Patricia Dunckers stunning However, Duncker was fully aware of the need to debut novel Hallucinating Foucault shows, the impact avoid alienating her audience. I think your first duty of reading on peoples lives can be both terrifying and as a writer is to your reader and you must keep them self-transforming. turning the page. What is the point otherwise? As a Originally published by the independent Serpents result, Hallucinating Foucault has the feel of a cerebral Tail last year, Hallucinating Foucault proved such a thriller, combining the love story between Paul Michel success that Picador recently bought the rights to the and the narrator with the mystery of Paul Michel and novel and reissued it. Such success might seem strange, Foucaults relationship. given that few people outside of ivory towers have even In blending the fictional character of Paul Michel heard of Foucault, but Dunckers novel isnt some dry with the memory of the real-life Michel Foucault, academic text that needs to be painstakingly deciphered. Duncker has created a novel which refuses simply to Hallucinating Foucault tells the story of Paul Michel, remain a story. It crosses over into real life so much a celebrated French novelist who is so distraught at so that for some people, Paul Michel is now more Foucaults death that he becomes insane. The novels real than Foucault ever was: Most of the people who narrator is an English student studying Michels work have read Hallucinating Foucault have never heard who sets out to rescue the writer, so bringing the authors of Foucault. Some of them thought Paul Michel was words and the authors world together in a dangerous real one or two even tried to get hold of his novels.

Patricia Duncker: Insanity Clause

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One reviewer in Manchester said the book was all old hat to him because his mother had produced a thesis on Paul Michel! Some of the novels most memorable and disturbing scenes centre around the narrators entry in the asylum to find Paul Michel. I have a friend in France whos worked with schizophrenics for the last 30 years, Duncker says. Shes seen the different ways that schizophrenia has been perceived during that time because even now, no one really understands it, no one knows where it comes from. She holds an open clinic, so I visited her there with some trepidation and it was absolutely incredible. You always think that people who are off their heads are going to be just a little bit eccentric, but these people were absolutely mad raving! But there was such a sense of community there; it was harrowing but quite beautiful, in a way. Paul Michel knows hes mad and thats common mad people are completely aware that theyre raving, that they slide between sanity and insanity. I wanted

the madness in Hallucinating Foucault to do justice to what Id seen. Its incredibly difficult to represent people who are living in a different time zone from you with respect and generosity because you dont want to present them as curiosities or freaks, which is what Foucault also strove to challenge in his work. The love between reader and writer is evident from Dunckers enthusiasm when she talks about the French philosopher: Foucault once said, I wrote all my books to make boys fall in love with me. And I think theres an element to that in all writing books are messages in bottles. There was something about Foucault his vanity, his shaved head, his looming presence that indicated that he desperately wanted to be a writer rather than a philosopher. So the character of Paul Michel is the embodiment of some of Foucaults unfulfilled desires. Its my present to Foucault, in a way. I made the character of Paul Michel as handsome as James Dean and in love with him what more could he want?!

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Review [published December 2005] Chris Mitchell

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Nic Dunlop: The Lost Executioner


The Lost Executioner is my Book of the Year. Like my pick for last year, Emma Larkins Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell In A Burmese Teashop, The Lost Executioner is a personal travelogue into a country that tries to understand its recent, disastrous politics. Where Secret Histories documents Burmas slide into a real-life Orwellian nightmare, The Lost Executioner chronicles photographer Nic Dunlops obsessive hunt for Comrade Duch, the man who presided over the deaths of thousands as the commandant of Tuol Sleng, Cambodias notorious interrogation centre, during the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge. Between 1975 when the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia until 1979 when they were displaced by the invading Vietnamese, the ultra-leftist party instituted a Year Zero policy which was even more extreme than Chinas Cultural Revolution and resulted in the murder of an estimated two million people a quarter of the countrys population. Duch, like every other major figure in the Khmer Rouge regime, successfully disappeared into Cambodias jungles when the Vietnamese arrived and, like the rest of the regimes leaders, successfully avoided prosecution. To date, 25 years after Cambodias autogenocide, none of the key proponents have been brought to trial. Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouges leader, died of old age in 1998. For Dunlop, seeing a photo of Comrade Duch set something off inside him that made him want to find the former commandant. This search provides the engine for his book, fusing the detective work necessary to finding Duch with the travelogue of exploring modern day Cambodia. Dunlop interweaves details of Cambodias awful recent history within his journey, providing a powerful narrative that avoids the dryness of traditional historical analysis but does not hold back on dealing with the vast complexities of how the Khmer Rouge came to power and the fallout of their overthrow. Both John Pilger and David Chandler, Cambodias preeminent Western historian, are given major credit in the Acknowledgements for helping Dunlop refine the historical accuracy of his text and this, for me, is vital as a demonstration of Dunlops attempt to write more than a simple, observational travel book.

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Instead, Dunlop gives an account of his own, personal journey, not just through the cities and countryside of Cambodia but through the countrys history and how his own history has intertwined with it. The reader, then, accompanies Dunlop as he tries to come to grips with understanding Cambodia as a foreigner, as his learning and perceptions of the country he is fascinated by shift and change over time and as he questions his own opinions and perspectives about prosecuting the Khmer Rouge commanders, and the very nature of how justice can be achieved and carried out. Integral to this journey and a vital part of this book are the personal testimonies of those Dunlop meets who were both victim and perpetrators of the Khmer Rouges atrocities. It is these conversations that transform the historical narrative by placing those momentous events in the context of their impact on individuals, where they stop being lost in history, if only for a moment, and become real people again. For all the citing of numbers and statistics to measure and somehow quantify the vastness of Cambodias nightmare, reading these accounts are what provide the true expression of the murderous insanity that befell the country. The Lost Executioner, then, is a complex book, both in its attempt to avoid simplifying the recent history of Cambodia and in Dunlops own acknowledgement of the flux of his own thoughts about it. But, perhaps because Dunlops profession is as a photographer, there

is never a sense of getting lost within his narrative. His prose has a real composure to it its extremely simple without being simplistic, and there is not one verbose word or overwrought sentence here. The understated tone of Dunlops journalism allows the appalling facts of his narrative to speak for themselves far more clearly. Without wanting to sound flippant, the search for Comrade Duch does also have a bit of Boys Own adventure to it and, to be frank, a somewhat suicidal one too. Dunlop has worked in South East Asia for several years and is well versed in Asian protocol to be sure, but to decide to go looking for one of the Khmer Rouges key figures would seem to be asking for trouble. Cambodia is safe for tourists these days, but outside of the cities it is still easy for people to disappear. Ill refrain from writing anymore about the outcome of his search for fear of creating a spoiler; Ill only say that it is a truly remarkable story. A section in the middle of The Lost Executioner is the abiding and troubling memory I retain of reading it. Within the rarefied confines of New Yorks Museum Of Modern Art, an exhibition of photos taken at Tuol Sleng was commissioned, with an accompanying coffee table book. The photos have become iconic black and white, each individual in the black loose clothes of the Khmer Rouge against a white wall. They are the photos that were taken on admission at Tuol Sleng and the taking of those photos were effectively the signing of

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their death warrant. Only seven people survived their admission to Tuol Sleng. During its exhibition, MOMA provided no captions with the photographs, no names, no details of who each individual was, no mention of how or why theyd died. For MOMAs purposes, these photos had stopped being individual records of genocide but had become mere portraiture. They were nice photos, nothing more. There were no indications that each of these people had died at the hands of torturers. There were no calls for justice. Dunlop writes movingly of his own frustration

with the limits of photography that without words, images are lost without context, turned into disinterested aesthetic objects, mere decoration. The Lost Executioner is clearly the product of Dunlops frustration with his own profession, and photographys loss is writings gain. In telling his story of going in search of Comrade Duch, Dunlop also tells the story of Cambodia going in search of answers to its own auto-genocide and the still-ongoing quest for some sort of justice. For all the grimness of its subject matter, The Lost Executioner is a vital book and one that deserves to reach a huge audience.

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Review [published December 2005] Ben Granger

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The Fall: Fall Heads Roll


Its time again for the Seer of Salford to blast forth his enchanted bombast. With more albums now than anyone can count, and with its title surely a sly reference to the number of foot-soldiers fallen from his ranks in the grand Quixotic battle, a new Fall album stakes its claim. Those who care, care. Should you? The trouble with a talent this unique rattling out at the rate it does is that it gets taken for granted. Does this album stand out enough to win back those whove seen the bands twisted charm in the past but whove got tired over the years? The patience of the part-timer is tested straight away with first track Ride Away, a cranky simplistic diatribe against someone whos pissed the Great One off; literally one-note in all senses. And yet at this point the faithful (and yes, of course Im one) will hear that Mark E Smiths always ugly, tuneless voice has, in the end, taken on an incredible inner-poetry of its own. As I believe John Peel once said, it really would be beguiling reciting the Yellow Pages. And yet once Smith has frightened off the chaff with this lengthy dirge; The Fall are ready to thrill with some of their most defining moments yet. The sound of Fall Heads Roll is very much riffheavy guitar based , with a decidedly minimalist primitive moog-synth backing, eschewing most of the dance effects which have appeared on Fall records in the past two decades. Not that there havent been great pure-dance Fall moments (Free Range, et al) but this particular fan prefers the purer approach on balance. The brilliant minimalism of the early 80s period is evoked. And what riffs! Pacifying Joint is an incredible second track, with a machine-gun snare that will instantly snag anyone who hears it. If they choose to rip themselves off the snag thats up to them, but its as catchy as anything by Franz Ferdinand. And once again the bla blah blahs of Smiths voice attain a weird transcendent cohesion. By the next track more incredible hooks with age-old synths are underway. And by the time the pop kids are singing along to next track What About Us?, perhaps theyll scarcely notice theyre chanting from the point of view of an East German rabbit (or is it a Rabbi?) indignantly demanding that Dr H. Shipman

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gives them morphine Smith and his lyrics have generally grown more arcane and opaque with age. While this has entrenched the weird mystery, at times the scabrous social realism and satire of old has been somewhat lost in recent years. Here though, several themes of yore are re-examined to great effect, and while of course theres still great dollops of the incomprehensibility that makes them what they are, a little bit more sense seeps in. Smith may be a fervent loather of all things nostalgic, this record is by no means a rehash in any sense, and yet somehow some of the best spirit of the old in The Fall is at work here. One track, Assume, goes back to the old legacy of fucking seriously with the English language, and applying strange new laws onto the commonplace populace that sound like theyve been handed down from some Norse Deity gone schizoid. If you assume, you are a Hu(l)me. If you half assume, you are a Hu(l) me. If you dont assume, you are a cap-it-an!!. That this damned and despised new category of humanity could take its name from either the philosopher David or the run-down district of Central Manchester (more probably both, or neither) just adds to the disturbed allure. Of equal importance its aligned to a gigantic, siren guitar sound that flattens all in its wake. Even if Smith wasnt around the band at all (and it can happen if you go see them live; take it from me) instrumentally alone this bludgeons the living crap out of any musical

opposition standing today. Elsewhere, the song Blindness delves into the extended, grinding, inexorable Canny hypnotism they do so well. The repetition in the music is a brilliant backdrop to the meandering meditation on an unhealthy and paranoid hatred of the narrators surroundings The flat is evil / and full of cavalry and Calvary. At their best, and they are at their best here, no-one can produce a sound quite as menacing as The Fall. Unlike Slipknot or assorted goth-goons, Smith has always known that true horror ensues when emblazoned on and interwoven with a background of mundanity. In Blindness, as in When The Moon Falls, City Hobgoblins, Hotel Bloedel and Bremen Nacht before it, they sound like theyve cracked open a scene of everyday life, and found something unfathomably terrifying seeping out. Its unnerving and marvellous. The many supernatural themes from previous forays are also present in the deeply mysterious Midnight In Aspen, though this time the backing is The Fall in beautiful and subtle mode, and yes they can do that. A gentle plucked arrangement introduces a delirious description of what seems to be a man attempting to summon spirits in the Swiss Alps by firing a rifle at selected stars. For once, Smiths periodic preoccupation with the occult seems less to do with Lovecraft and creeping terror, and more the benevolent engagement of a great mind with what may be beyond. And for once

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thinking it may not be that bad. Thats not the only time on this record that the grouchiest sod recording today shows an uncharacteristically warm side. In Breaking The Rules, a wonderfully light uplifting backing carries a mockingly bemused tale of a man who tried to break his mind breaking the rules. Probably the closest Smith will ever come to a wry self-mocking acceptance of his popular image. A sign of the comfort-zone probably unthinkable just a few years ago, during the sorry days of on-stage punchups in New York. It seems his fourth (or is it fifth?) marriage, this time to keyboardist Eleni has brought forth something at least bordering on contentment. Ive found most Fall albums in the past decade, however many gems in the first half, tend to run out of steam a bit on side two. Fall Heads Roll bucks this trend more than any other. Even the sillier ones like Bo Demmick (a drum-based-track with a concentrated stream of abuse against one hapless individual main refrain Hey fat-eh! while conceding He was called

a lot of things) make you actually want to listen all the way through. The first track is the worst track, and there is not one silly piece of crap on the whole product. Lover that I am, that is rare. (Put it this way: would you like to listen to a compilation album consisting of WMC Blob 59, Bug Day, And This Day, Fireworks, Mollusc In Tyroll? Half of the Levitate album? Well, not me.) Theres a fantastic sound going on all the way though here. I thought Id forgotten it, but here it is again. That others may hear it for the first time is a minor miracle. If you wanted to turn a friend on to The Fall youd be just as well playing this to them as the early rockapunkabilly days or the mid-80s Brix poppier rockier period. That in itself is an incredible achievement. Its not just that you couldnt imagine another band being anything like The Fall ever again, you couldnt really imagine anything being like The Fall ever again. The blooded moon goes on shining, and is no less respected, and nor should they be.

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Interview [published April 2002]

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Stefan Fatsis: Letter Better

Jonathan Kiefer discusses the torrid world of competitive Scrabble playing with Word Freak author Stefan Fatsis Sure, Stefan Fatsis is nice, but hes also a freak. That And Obsession In The World Of Competitive Scrabble is, a passionate aficionado and an unusual specimen. Players. He is also, of course, the main character. Fatsis is a Scrabble expert. He has written a book about It is sort of like Plimpton, he offered, meaning the game, and can speak authoritatively on its mechanGeorge Plimpton, the journalist-cum-temporary, ics, history, and cultural significance. And he can play, tongue-in-cheek Detroit Lions quarterback. Except I better than most people in the world. But and this got good. is important although his Scrabble skill is orders of Do not think it was easy for Fatsis, normally a mildmagnitude greater than yours or mine may ever be, mannered Wall Street Journal sportswriter, to become Fatsis is not likely to use the phrase orders of maga Scrabble expert, especially in a mere couple of years, nitude, in conversation or in print, without quotation and especially while committed to writing a book about marks. Nor to use words like azido and oiticica and trying to become a Scrabble expert in a mere couple of certainly not vogie, because he understands that such years. He devotes many pages to self-flagellation for a words really arent usable, not even on standardized stubbornly intermediate ability. tests. In Scrabble, however, theyre gold. The hard part about it was wanting the narrative to You can argue that the process of getting good at turn out a certain way, he said. It did add to the presScrabble is the most inclusive use of language, the sure. I was fortunate that I was able to get good enough. clean-cut and bespectacled Fatsis said recently, enjoyMaybe it would have turned out differently otherwise. ing the down time between a Reno, Nevada Scrabble After a moment, he added, Or maybe I would have tournament and a Berkeley, California bookstore apkept playing until I made it. pearance. Youre using words that dont get used. I As you might deduce, Word Freak keeps its subtilove that! Thus is Fatsis precisely the appropriate tles promise, and the gravitational constant in Scrabnarrator for Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius bles universe is obsession. But, as Fatsis explains in

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the text, I dont consider Scrabble an obsession in a clinical sense: a disturbing preoccupation with an unreasonable idea.I think of it as an obsession in the colloquial sense, a compelling motivation. In any case, what writer doesnt hope for the paid encouragement of his obsessions? Now, in the interests of propriety, an undertaking of this sort must be considered a battle between the myopia of deep immersion and the insight of distanced perspective; Fatsis, admittedly unaccustomed to first person narration, deftly straddled that tension throughout his book. Im a pretty standard-issue, mainstream newspaper reporter, he said. The participatory thing always struck me as a little bit of a conceit. Fatsis described his first book, Wild and Outside: How A Renegade Minor League Revived The Spirit Of Baseball In Americas Heartland, as a more traditional example of fly-on-the-wall reporting. He considered it dishonest to try that in Word Freak. The deeper I got into this, he explained, the more it became about how I felt. Fatsis wouldnt like it if people consider Word Freak a memoir. Its not, but heres as close as he comes: When I was nine, in 1972, I calculated how old I would turn in 2000 but couldnt fathom that day arriving; it might not have seemed so terrifying had I known Id be playing a board game full-time. This disarming tone also happens to suit the

authors very thorough reporting, from the Horatio Alger story of Scrabbles inventor, Alfred Butts, to the fascinating variety of mnemonic systems by which the best players have used Butts creation as a laboratory for their mad science. So, were Fatsis to recuse himself, the book would lose a trustworthy guiding voice, not to mention a natural narrative throughline; its minutiae would become overwhelming, even boring; the subculture would seem not to contain universal elements but instead appear more rarified than before; and the whole enterprise might start to feel like a titanic William Safire essay, which, though enlightening, has begun to consume too much of an otherwise useful Sunday. Instead, Word Freak reads like an anticipated letter from a sharp and funny friend, one who takes the question Whats new? quite seriously, and always has a good and true answer. Really, what more should we expect from good nonfiction? Fatsis is as he seems in the book: disposed to enthusiasm (I played UNILOBED! he once interjected, recalling the Reno tournament), or, to put it another way, an especially sporting fellow. He even appreciates the aesthetics of Scrabble, wherein lies a kind of abstract expressionism the non sequiturs, the shapes of words themselves, the improbable consonance of consonants. Could the meanings of crwth or exergue possibly be any more useful or satisfying than their sheer, weird

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beauty? I dont think so. Look them up. Actually, Fatsis has staged a relative coup, winning the approval of his chosen subculture twicefirst as a participant, then as a journalist. He has befriended the characters, in both senses of the word, with whom he traded tolerance, curiosity, annoyance, affection, and absurdly high-scoring Scrabble games. Theyve read the book by now, and responded well, Fatsis said. One character was way weirder than I thought, one friend told him. You.

Its not leaving my system, he said. Im not planning to drop out. Fatsis was referring to the way Scrabble has changed his life. He seemed less concerned with the way his life, a small portion of which is copiously documented in Word Freak, may have changed Scrabble. I didnt write it so that people would play more Scrabble, he said. I thought I had a good story to tell. If people start playing more games of the mind. he shrugged, half-bashfully. Id be honoured with that sort of legacy.

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Interview [published March 1997]

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Tibor Fischer: The Fischer King


The scene: a typically wintry Wednesday afternoon. Upstairs at The Lift in Brightons Queen Road, some whey-faced literary types are gathered around a table for a seminar of sorts. Their rapt attention is focused upon The Writer in their midst, a slightly grizzled 36-year-old phenomenon dressed in a less-than-chic brown leather jacket, clown T-shirt and black jeans. His name is Tibor Fischer. How To Get Ahead In The Writing Game. Lesson One: Sleep with someone in publishing, advises Fischer, sipping his tea. Failing this, his next tip is to stick to Lesson Two: never take no for an answer. Im an expert on rejection letters, he imparts, referring to the 58 negative responses which almost buried alive his debut novel Under The Frog. Its a lottery, he shrugs. It seems scarcely believable now that the professional readers of all those imprints could have been so uniformly myopic when presented with a work as blindingly brilliant as Under The Frog, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1993 and propelled Fischer into the contentious ranks of The Best Of Young British Novelists.

Cliff Taylor gets a rare interview with the reclusive Tibor Fischer Which brings us to Lesson Three: Most agents and publishers are shits. The whey- faced literary types dutifully scribble shits on their notepads. But one cant help thinking such tribulations must be past history for Fischer. After all, he is now the lionized litterateur invited down from London by Brightons Do Tongues spoken word club to read from his new novel The Thought Gang, which is currently leapfrogging into reprints and soon to be made into a film. These days Fischer gets advances and can afford to indulge in a little positive vengefulness against those faceless arbiters who are the hate figures of would-be authors. But what is the secret? demand the gathered would-be authors. How can we too hitch a ride to planet Picador? Fischer shrugs again, looking so frustratingly ordinary. (He wears brand new Nike sneakers. He was born in Stockport! His mother was captain of the Hungarian womens basketball team, but theres no genetic evidence of that either.) He doesnt give interviews and hes too modest to say it, but the secret is unsharable anyway, locked securely inside that slightly balding, slightly greying skull.

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The eclecticism and depth of Fischers interests shows through in the subject matter of his books. Under The Frog is an achingly funny account of the horrors of Soviet-era Hungary. The Thought Gang gatecrashes the screaming spires and ivory towers of academia with an irreverent pisstake on the biz of philosophy. Meanwhile, his forthcoming novel attempts to navigate through the history of art. Fischer is one of those rare writers who can grapple with huge agenda without trivialising it. I like to give people a few mental lozenges to suck on, he says, half-jokingly. But Fischers comedy is often black and always honest. Under The Frog exposes Cold War insanity by drawing attention to its sheer absurdity. Absolute power turns some people into absolute pricks. Similarly, in The Thought Gang, he swipes at that other absurd god, Mammon. Unquestionably, bank robbery is an illusion, observes the bank robbing philosopher Eddie Coffin. You take it out but where does it end up? In a bank. Like water, money is trapped in a cycle, it moves from bank to bank. We take it out for some fresh air. So what is the genesis of this prodigious comic talent? That rich vein of traditional Hungarian stand-ups?

Fischer courts psychotic envy by claiming his humour comes quite naturally. He is effortlessly, flippantly hip. The trouble with Nietzsche reflects the dissolute Coffin, is that you can never be sure when hes doing some levity or not. Apres seminar The Lift fleshes out as the regular Do Tonguers arrive for the evening show. Fischer reads first from Under The Frog, a poignantly hilarious scene in which a dying Hungarian peasant is hauled out of bed and propped against a gate for the purposes of a Soviet propaganda film. Next, a bank robbery and one-sided Russian roulette incident from The Thought Gang. Its a passage pitched somewhere between Hunter S. Thompson and Quentin Tarantino, but couched in Fischers inimitable vernacular: the risk with going forward was the bloodshed and the feel of zephyrs in the gutshangar. It was getting close, armpit wettingly close to chamber-clearing time and letting the ballistics sort things out, when we heard sirens, the sonic harbinger of the filth. Afterwards there is just time for the author to traffic a few thoughts. When asked what hed be doing if that 59th letter hadnt been a yes, Fischer replies, Probably journalism. Or working in a leper colony.

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Review [published August 2010] Ben Granger

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Mark Fisher: Capitalist Realism


The only game in town, and a rigged one at that. In what is swiftly becoming living memory, capitalism is now the only economic, social and political system deemed possible, the logic of its late incarnation invading every aspect of life, culture, even inner thought. So absolute is its mental grip that when international finance capitalism recently imploded in its own greed, devastating the world, its victims reacted by obediently, meekly, and pathetically recreating the whole shoddy system, and handing their public services the bill. Stockholm syndrome on a global scale. Capitalist Realism looks at how the logic of this social and spiritual stranglehold manifests itself in a myriad of ways. From the meaningless marketbureaucracy which infests public services, to the nihilist-materialism of gangster films and gangsta rap, from the faux-humanitarianism of Bill Gates and his fellow generous oligarchs, to the omnipresent PR of all business and government functions, now not just a tool but an end itself. All neo-liberal life is here. Mark Fisher writes at the fascinatingly digressive cultural website k-Punk, and here as elsewhere uses contemporary cultural fiction as both reference and launchpad for his analysis. He begins with the suggestion that the film Children Of Men is the apocalyptic fantasy most appropriate to the capitalist age a sterile populace representing a sterile culture, not openly totalitarian yet nonetheless brutal, completely atomised, all public space abandoned, and connecting with the suspicion that the end has already come. Most importantly, that there really does seem to be no alternative. As Fisher notes, It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. The nature of this murky triumphalism is such that this post-Fordist capitalism is a far more amorphous creature than that which appeared in the old capitalist/ worker duality that characterised the conflicts of old. The new capitalism asserts were all in this together (to quote our present regime), the system is everyone and everyone is the system to question its logic is to question the logic of life itself, of your own sanity. As the class war is rejected the savage disparity inherent in the system has increasingly turned into internal conflicts, with mental illness spreading at an exponen-

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tial rate schizophrenia at societys margins, bi-polar disorder at is core. Capital is an eternally shape-shifting un-nameable thing, tainting everything with the logic of its own transactions. The brutal logic of the market creates its own kind of cultural realism, which Fisher shows as expressing itself in the fetishisation of the rugged individual in the vogue for gangsta rap and gangster films, reaching their asocial apotheosis in the Hobbesian fictional worlds of James Ellroy and Frank Miller, where no-one and nothing is to be trusted. Fisher uses gangster films to show the direction of travel capitalist organisation has taken. In The Godfather era of the 40s60s, the Corleones were bound together with a ruthless and absolute loyalty, mirroring the big, hierarchical, often family-based corporations of old (where you may be exploited but you still have a job for life, at least they looked after their own.). By the time of Heat, De Niros character Neil McAuley shows himself a very modern gangster by his lack of any ties or loyalties whatsoever: Dont let yourself get too attached to anything that you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner. This in turn mirrors the atomisation of the brave new world of de-centred capitalism, whose lack of straightforward hierarchy only makes its exploitation more nebulous, casual labour in all areas of the economy shed in an instant as billionaires lightly

toss their casual carefree faces to the world, shirtsleeves informality and quiet authoritarianism. In a system where everyone is co-opted, no-one can be to blame. Witness, as Fisher notes, that no-one was to blame at Hillsborough and the Menezes shooting (you could add the Union Carbide explosion in India and BP oil spill in the US to that) and literally speaking this is quite true. Capitalism claims its legitimacy in the name of the free, autonomous individual, yet this individual has long been lost in a Kafka-esque maze, his face used as a totem as his autonomy is secreted away, forgotten. Socialist Realism was the official name for the ersatz art churned out by Stalins Soviet Union. Hackneyed, servile and trite, the art of actually existing socialism had as much in common with the liberationist project of Marxism as the plastic Marys flogged near Lourdes have to do with the Sermon on the Mount. The reality of actually existing capitalism is similarly dislocated from its projected self-image as that of the heroic, ruggedly free isolated individual. Using his own background in the education system as just one of many examples, Fisher shows that while modern capitalism presents itself as the enemy of bureaucracy, in fact it has proliferated meaningless layers of white collar wastage more than any system in history. As the system only functions in so far as how its appearance can keep its hold over the populace, all

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that is solid melts into PR, and targets proliferate. A frantic scramble ensues for formless trinkets with no link to reality. Everyone knows this is meaningless, yet at an official level this cannot be admitted. When Gerald Ratner called his product crap he sinned against this unwritten rule we all know it but it must not be admitted. This is an omnipresent facade, from which everyone seeks escape by any means necessary. The daydreams appropriate to this Janus-faced world are the paranoid fantasies of Paralax View or the Bourne films, or at a higher level in the nightmare schizoid dreamscapes of Burroughs, Philip K. Dick and David Cronenberg, where agency is dissolved in a phantasmagoric haze of psychic and physical intoxicants. Writing with a mercurial set of cultural references, Fisher can shift gear from the ground level of reality TV shows like Supernanny to the heights of Baudrillard and Lacan without any sense of jarring incongruity. Unlike Slavoj Zizek, another social critic given to blending high and low cultural reference points, you never get the sense that they are being thrown in just to shock, or to highlight the authors brilliance. Fisher shows the modern society as a sinister hall of mirrors, and illuminates each pained pane perfectly. So many themes throb within this tiny book (just 81 pages!) as to take your breath away, and this review has only scraped the surface. Other panes that revolution itself has been absorbed and commodified within the

neoliberal paradigm with liberal communists such as the philanthropic elite of Gates and Soros giving out with one hand what they take away with another, that Kafka prefigured the current order better than Orwell or Huxley, (and uncannily predicted the call centre while he was at it), and that the ostensible choice of the market has worked its way in ever diminishing returns into a zero common dominator, 999 channels of nothing. Deft at sociology, political theory and cultural analysis alike, Fisher is probably at his weakest with his own empirical examples of students at the college where he has worked. He claims that the listless sense of time, and inability to absorb abstract concepts, that he observes in his students, mirrors the blip-vert consumer mentality of modern market reality. Maybe true, but this also sounds suspiciously like the moaning of the teachers at their inattentive pupils over the ages. The piercing vividity of his other insights however more than make up for this. While by no means a light read, and the odd excursion into Deleuze and other theorists did shoot slightly over my scalp, this is not a tome you need a degree in philosophy or cultural theory to comprehend its ingenuity is an open book. And while Fishers style is more often academic in style than not, the forensic imagination and magnificently multifarious breadth of scope on display means this is anything but a dry read. Indeed, he brings to vivid life a somewhat deadening

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and depressing vision. The most gothic description of capital is also the most accurate. Capital is an abstract parasite, and insatiable vampire and zombie-maker, but the living flesh it converts into dead labour is ours, and the zombies it makes are us. This is a horror show in which we are all trapped. In

Capitalist Realism Mark Fisher shows with terrifying insight just how completely it has enveloped us, but offers little glimpse of how we can break out. He does however disabuse us of any false hopes, and in demonstrating the enormity of the hold it has on us, shows the rank monster for what it is. Maybe thats a start.

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Review [published September 2009] Ben Granger

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Michael Foot: The Uncollected Essays


Mention the name Michael Foot and listen out for the automatic sneer. A rolling of eyes at a disastrous leader, accompanied no doubt with devilishly cutting asides about donkey jackets, walking sticks or Worzel Gummidge, delete as appropriate. Gerald Kaufmans deathless Wildeanism chiding Foots 1983 Labour Manifesto as the longest suicide note in history will be added by the more confident comedians, and much, much merriment will be had all round. Oh, the laughter! Lets leave aside the fact the economic shit-storm the world currently finds itself in stems entirely from the Mephistophelian neo-liberal pact which this suicide note rejected, a pact wholeheartedly signed up to by the current realist Labour administration, along with the rest of the world. Lets ignore the fact that the 1983 result was that of a party caught between the SDP schism, an economic upsurge and Falklands wargasm euphoria. Lets gloss over the fact that Soviet Communism and unregulated international capitalism have both been utterly, comprehensively discredited, while simple logic dictates the democratic socialist alternative Foot put forward has been vindicated. The fact the man was basically right all along we can delicately place that trifle to one-side for now. We can all still agree however that when it comes to the everyday devious machinations of leading a political party, and of creating an effective electoral machine and vibrant media image for the slick media age, Foot did not find his forte. What was? Writing. Journalism, ideas and writing. Foot began writing in the 30s for a variety of magazines and papers, broadly championing the underdog, and more specifically drumming up solidarity against the menace of Fascism. His 1940 book Who Are The Guilty Men?, denouncing as it did the Tory Chamberlain governments appeasement of Hitler, did much to consolidate progressive support for the war effort, with the promise of a better society at home beyond. In the 40s he joined the Tribune newspaper along with, amongst others, his friend George Orwell, helping establish it as a voice for the Labour Left which stood solid against the hegemony of both US and USSR. On into the 60s, concurrent with acting as the conscience of the same Labour Left from the backbenches, he found

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time to write the definitive biography of his mentor Nye Bevan, a similarly exhaustive tome on H.G. Wells was to follow later. It was the old rival Denis Healey who said that a politician needs a hinterland, outside cultural interests to keep them human. No-one could ever accuse Foot of not cultivating his own spiritual and mental landscape. The selection of essays here are a testament to the mans mercurial mind, the breadth of his intellectual scope. Taken from over a half-century, only a small number touch on purely political issues nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union, Irish nationalism. Foots preferred form was to discuss the life, work and ideas of an individual man or woman, and a small majority here are portraits of political figures, usually taken from reviews of biographies or collections from their own work. It takes in leading figures from Labour history and earlier British socialism, from Bevan and Bevin to Robert Owen and William Morris, the still earlier radicalisms of Tom Paine and Charles James Fox. Irish and Indian independence are well represented with Indira Ghandi and Daniel OConnell, as is feminism with Emilene Pankhurst and Brigid Brophy. Yet at the same time there are a great many portraits of writers and characters not best known for their politics Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Rebecca West, the Romantic poets and Heinrich Heine not to mention Peggy Aschroft. That the politicians segue so well into the writers is

a testament to the well- rounded totality of Foots mind and vision. The struggle for truth and freedom are as important in the literary sphere as in the party political, maybe more so. Aesthetics, beauty, form and style are at the very least equal to politics in his thoughts and enthusiasms. In discussing Edmund Wilsons biography of Rousseau, more reference is made to relevant quotations from Byron than to any theoretical road to Robespierre. Essays on the history of Hampstead common, and the infinite wonders of Venice, perhaps the least political here, are probably the most beautifully written, with an evocation of time, space and place which is truly involving, even moving. Foot writes in a style both cultured and clear, mildly mischievous, totally lacking pomposity, and wearing its very evident learning lightly. A passion, quiet yet pronounced, reserved but unmistakable, is evident at all times. Personal recollections lightly pepper the essays on those he knows and knew, while the same easy, almost conversational style flows similarly into those from centuries past, creating the pleasing impression that Foot was on nodding terms with Coleridge and Morris just as he was with Richard Crossman and John Smith (which, in his life of the mind, he perhaps always has been). A clue there perhaps that it takes a duller man than this to succeed in the grubby world of leading a political party. The decency consistently evident in his prose

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also lays bare the absolute absence of the killer instinct needed for leadership. The venom of the zealot isnt there either. Rare asides against Thatcher are dismissive rather than enraged, bereft of the rabidity she so easily inspired in so many. Figures such as Ernest Bevin and others on the Labour Right are appraised admiringly. Even a review of the autobiography of nemesis Healey is genuinely warm and salutary. Tom Driberg, the louche old eccentric (i.e. fantasist) and rogue (i.e. sociopath) is recalled with the affection of the friend that he was (though the bad points are laid bare too.) Anti-Thatcherite Tory and historian Ian Gilmour is praised, and there is even a short yet powerful defence of Churchill, paying robust tribute to the old reactionary against the modern fallacy held by revisionists on Left and Right alike that a deal could or should have been struck with Hitler. This lack of killer instinct means he lacks the final bite of the truly great writer too. Eloquent praise pours freely, but not once is there an effective literary slaying of a hated foe, not a shortfall that could be levelled at his friend Orwell. This politeness, this sheathed sword and profoundly English politeness can irritate. The kind words found for that other loveable rogue, the Tory Kray-groupie Bob Boothby seem to be stretching the limits of tolerance past snapping point. And seeking and finding the good points even in that other arch Conservative

icon Edmund Burke; for instance, is hard to take from the more partisan. Even here though, he does well to convince. How many of the golf club bores, bigots and blimps who denounced the man as a dangerous extremist when he led Labour could demonstrate the barest fraction of his broad minded respect for and interest in competing points of view? Foot is a socialist in the truest sense, yet forever free of the dogma that dogs too many of his tribe. And free of the great sins too. Absolutely no apologia for the crimes of Communism from him Stalin is condemned here in a brief article taken from the week of his death, written when the rest of the world were paying tribute. An unequivocal defence of Salman Rushdie taken from the time of the Satanic Verses furore, shows that he would have no part of the alliance with militant political Islamism which some on the Left have cynically seen fit to serve. His support for NATOs bombing of Serbia is more contentious, though, whatever one may think of it, still presents him as someone true to a liberationist vision on his own terms, unaffected by the fact that such a position would not be popular amongst his own beloved wing of his own beloved party. Foot sees socialism as the rightful heir of earlier struggles for liberty and autonomy that distinguished the great rebels of the past. This is the socialism of liberation, not restriction, the vision of liberty which inspired the creed in the first place, expanding the vision

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of the free-born Englishman to include those without property. This doyenne of dissenters is one himself, and when he writes of, say, of the great early Parliamentary radical Fox, or the still greater radical writer and pamphleteer William Hazlitt , it is with the knowledge and passion of someone who has devoted their whole life to it, in both the intellectual and the practical sense. Foot feels a truly organic lineage to this tribe, a lineage he is more than entitled to. An impassioned portrait of Heinrich Heine, one of the longest essays here, is perhaps the best example of the Foots infectious enthusiasm, his quiet passion, his blending of the poetic and political. The personal too, as he describes how Heine came to be his hero after discovering her with a beautiful Yugoslavian girl with whom he was once in love, before coming to know him through what he saw as his modern day avatar, the cartoonist Vicky, who had every Heinite feature, the same diminutive size, the same race, the same iconoclastic temperament with a comparable artistic gift. He too, like my Jewish girlfriend, knew Heine by heart, and would summon his hero to his side whenever the political battle was most ruthless or pitiless. These personal asides are springboards to a fine, enraptured paen. As someone who has never read Heine, I am inspired to do so, much sooner than later. He could never make up his mind whether he was a poet or a politician, says Foot of Heine, and the reason for his particular connec-

tion with this writer becomes that bit clearer. I have found myself slipping into the past tense in writing this review, and yet Michael Foot is happily still very much alive at the age of 96. When he does pass away however, an age of passion, principle and philosophy at the higher levels of politics will die with him. It is unthinkable, literally unthinkable that a book like this could appear today. The leaders of todays party political machines slick, shallow, technocratic, faux pragmatic and narrowly philistine could not begin to produce anything of the like. You may as well expect Fearne Cotton to write an essay on the transgressive ambiguities of the Velvet Underground. You can just about see they work in the same industry, but nonetheless, a category error has occurred. Does not compute. True, Gordon Brown wrote a biography of James Maxton back in the 80s, but it seems Brown was a different man then. On the Tory benches, Michael Gove makes an effort to engage with the cultural sphere, but this is a very limited exception to the greater picture. Ideas dont matter. But they should, something that Foot never forgot. This book is a window to an age of wider political possibility, and of greater political imagination. It is also simply an immensely strong body of writing on its own terms. And finally it is the truest tribute possible to the man himself, a giant among pygmies.

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Review [published June 2004] Ben Granger

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Franz Ferdinand: Franz Ferdinand


Just because every music critic in the land suddenly simultaneously drools like a sick puppy over some hot new things, it doesnt mean said things are actually that good. The slavish adulation these uber-foppish young Glaswegians are getting across the board is off-putting because it has so many bad precedents. Music mags, broadsheets, tabloids and no doubt promotional in-house newsletters for the grommet manufacturing industry have been unanimous in their knicker-wetting praise. When the with-it Guardian allowed the band to edit their own G2 supplement one was reminded of that dark era when university professors and vicars were (quite genuinely) invited on television to discuss the intricacies behind the lyrics to Oasis Be Here Now. Frankly, theres just not enough vomit in the world. I put this album on therefore expecting an instant eye and earful of Emperors New Clothing. What I got was the opening song, Jacqueline, the most genuinely thrilling beginning to an album for many, many years. All the factors that make this record transcend the hype kick in with an exhilarating and magnetic burst. The thousand megawatt surge of the soaring guitar, the elastic funk of the swaggering bass, the strange voice that swings from the mannered to the primal. This opener is fucking sensational, and for once the whole mass of tawdry, silly hyperbole seems, if anything, understated. It would be impossible for a whole album to carry on as well as that, but they have a damn good try. Their sound has been described as part of the early 80s punkfunk revival, but this is a lot more fully realised than The Rapture were ever likely to be. There certainly is something almost eerily 80s about singer Alex Kapranos affected tones. But perhaps a better comparison can be found with previous press darlings The Strokes. Both draw heavily from the art-punk of the late 70s, but whereas The Strokes are more Television and Iggy, Franz Ferdinand are more Blondie and Buzzcocks. And its the Scots songs that stay with you longer. Lyrically were in that hinterland between worldweary hedonism and humane misanthropy, where the smart are cool and the cool are smart. Theres some very nice touches. The comically self-obsessed student in Dark Of The Matinee daydreaming of impressing

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his as-yet unrequited love by Telling Terry Wogan how I made it / But what I made is unclear now / But his deference is / And his laughter is. Michael is an impressively leery foray into the world of seedy boyon-boy glamour, following boldly in the footsteps of the genres forbears Ziggy, Iggy, Marc, Moz and Lou. But really its not the lyrics that make this record so memorable; its the fact that these must be some of the most danceable indie tunes EVER, be it the primal surge of Jacqueline, the imperious bounce of Dark Of The Matinee, the schizoid pogo of Cheating On You or the wraith-like beauty of Auf Asche. The hit single Take Me Out must be the first hit single since Radioheads Paranoid Android to manage the tricky job of melding two completely different tunes together to make one classy song, even if the second part does bear a disturbing similarity to the old Genesis hit Thats All (can I really be alone in noticing this blatant rip-off

from Collins rightly maligned crew? I sense a cover up of Kennedyesque proportions) Theres only one dud on the whole album, the insipid This Fire. Ill temper my real enthusiasm here, and put my sourpuss head on the block by predicting that while this is a great record, Franz Ferdinand will not become one of the all time greats. Its not the music that will prevent immortality, but Alexs delivery being just that too mannered, the enigmatic lyrics not quite grabbing you enough. I really do hope to be proved wrong about that, and that this album will prove a springboard to even higher zeniths for the fey young lads. Is this the future of rock? Maybe, maybe not. But in the meantime you really must accept that some things are true even though the NME and The Telegraph say they are, and lap up the most exciting band in aeons, tailor made like all the best for the young but old at heart.

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Review [published March 2008] Greg Lowe

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Athol Fugard: Tsotsi


South African author and playwright Athol Fugards recently-published novel Tsotsi, is a compelling and brutal tale that follows the life of the storys eponymous protagonist. Set in Sophiatown a black township in Johannesburg that was razed in the 1950s to make way for homes for the whites Fugard uses the oppression of the apartheid regime that segregated the lives of the countrys black and white populations, as a backdrop for the novels main setting: deep-rooted racism, the abject poverty of the black community, brooding violence. The book was originally written in draft form in the early 60s, only to be resurrected and reedited some 20 years later. The bulk of the story focuses on three transformational days in the life of Tsotsi, a stonecold killer who leads a gang comprising of Die Aap, nicknamed because of his slow brain and immense strength; Butcher, an expert at murdering people by skewering their heart with a sharpened bicycle spoke; and Boston, who is brainy but a coward. The word tsotsi itself means gangster or thug, and harks back to a time when many South African township streets were plagued by such ruthless killers who would kill for pennies or pleasure. Some say the word is derived from Zoot suit, the chosen apparel of the Hollywood hardmen of the day. Tsotsi the character is a man without memory, name or age though one assumes he is in his early 20s. His name is simply a banner, an indicator of the guiding force behind his life and actions. Violence. Questions about his past are not tolerated, and often lead to more brutality being dispensed on the enquirer, as Boston finds out for himself. It is here that Fugard really works his magic. For Tsotsi does not have a hidden past that he is trying to cover up, or one that he is trying to remember: he literally has no recollection. He is an intensely primal character, for most parts practically devoid of selfreflection, but when he does look inwardly all he sees is darkness. The few flashbacks of memory he has act as lighting bolts that penetrate this darkness, a process that Tsotsi finds deeply disturbing. For him it is simpler to view life as ugliness and pain, and for those unlucky enough

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to come across the gang, increasingly short. Violence is a survival mechanism, not in terms purely of day to day physical survival, but rather as a means of stability and affirmation. Life is a straight line, for Tsotsi, with no memory or past, just the present, one continuous moment carrying him forward without questions or regrets However, this changes when he finds a baby boy in a shoebox, though Fugard avoids making this dynamic overly trite or sugar-coated. He is not miraculously transformed by the heart-tugging power of the baby and its burbling, in fact he is troubled by the fact he doesnt just kill the child. The turning point comes from the childs vulnerability, and its lack of history. This catalyses a shower of fragments of memory from the past which pierce the cold, hermetically sealed darkness in which he resides, sending him into a psychological turmoil. Even though this turns his world upside down as the past creeps into the present, and his backstory is filled in his sociopathic tendencies are partially eroded. The flood of emotions, of sympathy and the ability to connect with other people, start to diminish his fatalistic nihilism. A world of new alternatives is born in its place.

With Tsotsi Fugard has crafted an intelligent and insightful novel. One which humanizes brutality, exposes the corruptability of humans, and conversely presents the possibilities for redemption, not in a biblical sense but in the more down-to-earth manner in which individuals can take an opportunity to change their life for the better. While the book reflects a particularly bloody time in South Africas history, it is not a gratuitous offering. Acts of sex and violence are not described in explicit detail, instead the writer zones in on the characters and causal factors. Perhaps this comes in part from Fugards work as a playwright he has written some 30 odd plays and won numerous awards an industry where special effects are sparse and context is ever present. At times Fugard is repetitive with his use of descriptions and metaphors, and some of the characters are a little twodimensional, shoring up aspects of the storyline, rather than emanating their own complexities. Nevertheless, none of this detracts from novels narrative power or emotional impact. The film adaptation of Tsotsi won the Best Foreign Language Film at this 2006 Oscars.

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Review [published August 2004] Chris Mitchell

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Anna Funder: Stasiland


Recently I re-read George Orwells Nineteen Eighty Four, 15 years after first reading it. Orwells future vision is an inherent part of our culture now, commoditised and trivialised, denied shock value or reconsideration due to its very familiarity. Re-reading the book and returning to Winston Smiths world, however, is to feel a distinct unease. Nineteen Eighty Four is a book that has a potent physical effect on the reader (this reader anyway) the claustrophobia of Winston Smiths world, the subtle monstrous insanity of its rules and regulations and the ultimate futility of resistance produce a distinct sense of horror and helplessness within the reader, activating an involuntary empathy. Orwells prose is never better than here, and the shock of recognition at the similarities between elements of his fictional nightmare world and our own grow with each year. Nineteen Eighty Four is one of those truly great books that becomes greater with age. I write this by way of introduction to Anna Funders Stasiland because her book shares much of Orwells concerns and indeed, provides an excellent, if equally traumatic, real-life counterpoint to Nineteen Eighty Four. Where Orwell was writing in reaction to the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin, Stasiland provides a collection of personal stories from the police state that was seemingly modelled on Big Brother that of Cold War East Germany caught behind the Berlin Wall. East Germanys secret police were known as the Stasi, and the absurd yet terrifying lengths they went to in order to meticulously survey and document the lives of millions of their citizens defies belief. Kafkas worst nightmare does not even begin to match the reality of Stasiland. Some estimates reckon one in six people within East Germany was an informer. When the Berlin Wall finally fell, the Stasi headquarters were stormed by angry but peaceful mobs who found millions of pages shredded within each building, a last desperate attempt to destroy the evidence of the most perfect police state ever created. Funder describes how there is a team of people charged with the task of meticulously reassembling all these documents so that citizens can find out what was written about them in the Stasis files and what became of loved ones, friends and relatives. It is an absurd,

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Sisyphean task but one that desperately needs to be completed and of course, will never be completed. The truth for many people is hidden in those mountains of fragments of paper. In her approach to writing Stasiland, Funder also pieces together a portrait of life in the East German state from the personal stories of those who tried to escape it by crossing the Wall, those who fell victim to the secret police and those whose relatives never returned from the Stasis interrogation cells. These are not isolated anecdotes, Cold War stories, but recollections of how the Stasi years have impacted on individuals lives through to the present day. In each of those recollections, the fragility of humans is made bleakly apparent; the ease with which the Stasi could destroy lives not just through physical torture but by much more intangible mindgames. The state quite literally brutalised its citizens with its relentless untruths, its reshaping of reality through rhetoric and hermetically sealing East Germany off from the rest of the world; the psychological and psychiatric fallout of that brutalisation is still felt today, just as the eventual US exit from Iraq will be felt for years to come. The scope of the book widens with each passing

chapter, Funder feeling compelled to understand more about the mechanics of the Stasis repression and surveillance in order to do justice to the stories she has been entrusted with. This extends to interviewing ex-Stasi men about their previous jobs, which provides a critical counterpoint as Funder recounts East Germanys brief history. The sense of Funders own widening interest and accumulation of knowledge carries the narrative forward effortlessly, whilst her prose is almost stark in its simplicity, as if to ensure that she does not interfere with the recounting of the stories she has been told. There is no luridness, melodrama or sentimentality here, and the compound effect of reading Stasiland is the same as Nineteen Eighty Four one of rage and helplessness, that peoples lives should be so casually ruined for nothing. For all the bleakness of its subject matter, Stasiland is not a difficult or miserable read, thanks to the quiet bravery of the people whose stories this book documents. Powered by Funders precise prose, Stasiland is an essential insight into the totalitarian regime and, whether intended or not, is also a warning about the manipulation of truth, the erosion of civil liberties and the consequences of perpetual surveillance.

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Alex Garland: Backpacker Blues William Gibson: Waiting For The Man Allen Ginsberg: Cosmopolitan Greetings The Godfather: Sex And Spaghetti Graham Greene / Evelyn Waugh: Literary And Political Catholicism Peter Guralnick: Careless Love: The Unmaking Of Elvis Presley

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Half Man Half Biscuit: Achtung Bono Half Man Half Biscuit: Trouble Over Bridgewater Keith Haring: Artist Or Radiant Baby? Bill Hicks: Bad Mood Rising Tom Hodgkinson: How To Be Idle Gert Hofmann: Parable Of The Blind Nick Hornby: Gender Trouble Michel Houllebecq: Atomised

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Interview [published May 1999]

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Alex Garland: Backpacker Blues

Nancy Rawlinson finds out why The Beach author Alex Garland is still unsure of his writing success No matter where you go on this small planet of ours, you arrives on Thailands famous Khao San Road the first will encounter Garlands Law. That is, for every 10 stop on the well-trodden backpackers trail. On his first people under the age of 30 that you meet, approximately night, the man in the room next to him slits his wrists 3.33 per cent of them will have read or be reading Alex and leaves Richard with a map to a mysterious beach. Garlands first novel, The Beach. Actually, I just made Along with a French couple, Richard sets out to find that up, and it already seems too conservative. I have this supposed paradise, where a select community are recently been staying in two hostels in the States. In the trying to create their own version of utopia. When they first dorm room a Danish girl ripped through the book finally arrive, having survived a harrowing swim and in about three days; her friend had just finished it. In some AK-47 toting marijuana farmers, the new visitors the second, an Oxford University student was a quarter are welcomed rather uneasily. Tensions arise, not least way through, and her travelling companion planned to within Richards psyche. You can guess the rest the read it next. On buses in India, on the subway in New book has been described as What I Did On My Holidays York, in international departure lounges everywhere, meets Apocalypse Now meets Lord Of The Flies and the distinctive yellow spine of The Beach is truly ubiqthose references are more than just a pat summery. The uitous. In case this is still not sounding familiar, a film Beach is essentially a gripping tale of a journey into adaptation of the book is currently in postproduction the heart of darkness, but one that is nicely wrapped and due to hit our screens in spring 2000. It is directed up in knowing pop cultural references and located in by Danny Boyle of Trainspotting fame and it stars a somewhat trendy travel destination. It is not hard to Leonardo Di Caprio. Honestly, could it be any hotter? see why it was so swiftly optioned for a Hollywood In case you are one of the, oooh, seven people left blockbuster. in Britain who are not familiar with the plot, here is a So, you may be thinking, what of the author of this brief summary for you. Richard, a 20-something Brit, mega hit novel? And why, thus far into an interview

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write up, have I not mentioned his best selling follow up, The Tesseract? Why indeed. More of that later for now, meet Alex Garland. Some biographical details: He was born in 1970, son of the well-known and respected political cartoonist, Nick Garland. With a resolutely middle-class and intellectual background, he graduated from Manchester University with a degree in History of Art, and was planning on following in a his fathers footsteps before he realized: There arent many openings for a cartoonist. Instead, he turned his attention to fiction, and started writing The Beach when he was just 23, drawing on his many experiences of travelling (he first went to India when he was 17, on a school trip, and he now makes several visits to South East Asia per year). The Beach was brought out in 1996, with no big promotional push from the publishers, yet within a year, it was a best seller. Rave reviews everywhere from The Mail On Sunday to Maxim magazine certainly did no harm, but predominantly it was word of mouth that made The Beach a success. Only three years after he first put pen to paper, Garland was being heralded as the new voice of Generation X and making Vogues most eligible bachelors list. At such a young age, and on the back of a debut novel, this was a rather heavy weight to bear. Bearing this in mind, his media shy and somewhat guarded manner are understandable. Fortunately, in

keeping with the ultra-modernism of the book, Garland himself has a very low-key approach to his what he does. Writing certainly wasnt something I thought I wanted to do as a kid. It was something I chanced upon. And, in a way, I dont think you could say I chose it as my profession. I gave it a try and it worked out, and I enjoy it and thats it. He is similarly down to earth about his situation. Despite being one of the most indemand authors this side of Nick Hornby, he harbours no illusions. There is a business side to writing and if you dont sell books then publishers wont print them. Youre only as hot as your last novel. I think you can reach a point when youre not as good as your last novel, you may have written one or even two bad books in a row, and the publishers will hang onto you. But you need to have proved yourself in a long term way before that and I certainly havent done that yet. I still feel like Im doing an incredible bluffing trick and Im going to get caught out. There are those that would agree with this self-effacing appraisal. Reaction to Garlands second book The Tesseract has been mixed. There were some scathing reviews. A pointlessly elaborate portrait of disparate lives coming together was one description. Tedious, convoluted, pompous was another. Yet others have heaped praise on the book (Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times said it felt like a Quentin Tarantino or John Woo movie

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seasoned with some Graham Greene.) It is certainly a more mature and reflexive study than the fast and furious The Beach although personally I find myself in with one foot in both camps; I was not totally convinced by the characters in The Tesseract. The use of film references and American slang works perfectly in The Beach, when all the central characters are European, but somehow I cant quite imagine the rural and local characters in The Tesseract coming out with lines like: Youll be brained by a coconut. Set in the Philippines, the story interweaves three narratives. Sean, an Englishman, is on the run from two Filipino mafia henchmen. As they pursue him, he stumbles into the kitchen of Rosa, a Filipino village girl now living with her husband and children in Manila. Cente, a 13-year-old street child, witnesses the encounter. Basically what you have in the book is a group of people who cant make sense of everything thats around them. And I think I use that as an anti-religious argument, Garland explains. Its sort of theistic. Its not even fate. The point is, sometimes things just happen to people and its not for any cosmic or religious reasons. Sometimes things just happen that way. As the above quote indicates, Garland has a knack for seeing and expressing things in a very understandable was, and this is no doubt part of his appeal to a generation turned off by so called classic yet impenetrable authors. I know exactly what you mean,

Garland says. I think if you asked the average literary editor whether they thought my work was equitable with Salman Rushdies, they would say no. Well, thats not something that bothers me very much and I doubt very much that it bothers Salman Rushdie. Garlands approach to the actual nuts and bolts of writing is similarly nontraditional. For The Tesseract, I didnt do any research, he confesses. Ive spent more time in The Philippines than anywhere else so there was a certain kind of background detail that I didnt really have to research. But in terms of putting yourself into the heads of different characters, Im not really fazed by this culture thing. As long as people have enough money to live and they are not starving to death, then basically peoples preoccupations tend to be the same wherever you go. They are worried about their jobs; they are worried about whether their wife or husband is happy, or how their kids are doing. I think I approached The Tesseract thinking the culture is quite cosmetic. This may seem like a strange attitude for a man who has made so much out of basing his work in exotic locations, yet there is a sense that Garland uses South East Asia as only as a backdrop. What he is really interested in is the human story, the development and exploration of different mental states. The way in which human beings make sense of the world. Having said this, there is no doubt that at least part of

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the reason for his success lies his depiction of Europeans abroad, which coincided perfectly with the explosion in the backpacking market. Locations like Thailand and The Philippines are now accessible and extremely desirable places to visit. Garland sums up this shift in global tourism when he recollects his first travelling experience. My memory is basically that I had a good time, and the main thing that I learnt was how easy it is. If you get the money together and a ticket, you can pretty much go anywhere you want to go. I suppose I imagine that there was some sort of invisible barrier that stops you from going to these places, but the only

real thing that stops you is cash. Considering his position, lack of money should be no impediment to future trips. But for now, Alex Garland is keeping his feet firmly on the ground. My philosophy of life is just enjoying it, I think. Ive started work on another book but at the moment Im mostly working on a screenplay with a bunch of mates; were just trying to see if we can get it together. Its half set in Chile and half in Russia and based around a story which links the two countries. Now, who do you think will be playing the central role? You know it will happen. Its just a matter of time.

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Interview [published August 1999]

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William Gibson: Waiting For The Man

Antony Johnston has a meeting of minds with the elusive William Gibson about his novel All Tomorrows Parties William Gibson needs no introduction. But hes going But despite being trapped in a Leonard Nimoy-style to get one anyway. cage of Neuromancers success, Gibson continues to Gibson coined the term cyberspace, visualising a innovate himself both in style and concept. He does not worldwide communications net 11 years before the rest on his laurels, and looks set to burst forth into the World Wide Web was born. His debut novel Neuropopular mindset for a second time. mancer won all three major science fiction awards the His latest novel, All Tomorrows Parties, is released Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick upon its release. He next month. He is continuing his work in television afis the first name that comes to mind when the term Cyter the success of his X-Files episode Killswitch. And berpunk is mentioned, known and revered the world the highly-anticipated, oft-speculated film adaptation over by authors, artists, rock bands and more. of Neuromancer is finally entering production. He even Yet Gibson the man remains startlingly elusive. A finally has an email address! What brought that on? professional novelist for 15 years, he has published only Ive just been avoiding it, says Gibson. Having seven novels (one of which was co-written) and most kids did it for me, I suppose. I couldnt very well deny of his reputation remains, somewhat unfairly, rooted in it to them, so eventually we had three or four different Neuromancer. He lives a quiet life with his wife and addresses in the house. It was difficult to avoid it, then. children in Canada. In a staggering display of irony, So can we assume William Gibson is back for for many years Gibson refused to even have an internet good? Like its two predecessors (Virtual Light and connection, saying the last thing he wanted after a day Idoru) All Tomorrows Parties has taken nearly three staring at his word processor was to carry on using the years to appear. Gibson admits hes been somewhat computer. Even now, at the height of his success and in slow: In terms of the speed which Id always ashis mid-40s, he continues to quietly support innovative, sumed genre SF writers worked at, I felt I was hardly street-level art. producing at all. I took a break. Hiatus, as they say in

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TV. But now Im back. And with an increased workload, most significantly the Neuromancer film. After countless rumours, director Chris Cunningham has finally been announced to helm the feature. Cunningham is a 20-something prodigy, best known for his dark, off-beat music videos for Bjork, Aphex Twin and Madonna. Hes also a student of the late Stanley Kubrick but hes never directed a Hollywood feature. So how on earth did he get this job? He was brought to my attention by someone else. We were told, third-hand, that he was extremely chary of the Hollywood process, and wouldnt return calls. But someone else told us that Neuromancer had been his Wind In The Willows, that hed read it when he was 12. I went to London and we met. After the debacle that was Johnny Mnemonic, Gibson is understandably coy about the whole process. Johnny Mnemonic was also directed by a Hollywood novice, avant-garde artist Robert Longo. Gibson once told me that the film they made was More like Blue Velvet. Clearly not the same film that ended up on the silver screen, then. What makes him so sure this one will turn out right? Chris is my own 100 per cent personal choice, he says firmly. My only choice. The only person Ive met who I thought might have a hope in hell of doing it right. I went back to see him in London just after hed

finished the Bjork video, and I sat on a couch beside this dead sex little Bjork robot, except it was wearing Aphex Twins head. We talked. And were still talking. Unfortunately, thats all hell say: Ive learned that discussing these projects doesnt really help them to happen. So lets talk about technology. Despite the impact his work has had on real-world science, most of Gibsons fiction is clearly about people and humanity rather than technology itself. Why does he write science fiction at all? Because I believe that most social change is now technologically-driven, and that new technologies are very seldom almost never, really legislated into existence. Interesting, because Gibson has also admitted many times that he simply makes the technology up. That was certainly the case with Neuromancer, where the worldwide virtual network was actually inspired by watching children become absorbed in arcade games. Does he still do that? I do make it up, to a certain extent. But it isnt the toys themselves, the specific tech bits, that Im genuinely concerned with rather the way in which new technologies impact the social animal in ways that the developers of these technologies never thought of. Is the Gibson household swamped with subscriptions to New Scientist and Astrophysics Today, then?

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I dont do research, I just walk around. This stuffs in everyones face today. Its more a matter of not ignoring it. Paying attention. Laneys node-spotter function [from Idoru] is some sort of metaphor for whatever it is that I actually do. There are bits of the literal future right here, right now, if you know how to look for them. Although I cant tell you how; its a non-rational process. On a similar note, how does Gibson keep his famous edge? Hes no spring chicken. Yet his characters, especially the younger ones, are remarkably consistent with current trends. How does he keep in touch with the street? Its the same non-rational process, really, but applied to culture. I think Brian Enos right in defining culture as everything we do that we dont absolutely need to do. I just walk around. I look at what people are doing particularly if theyre doing it passionately that they dont really need to do. An image of Gibson wandering around South Central at two in the morning clutching a notebook springs to mind, but I decide not to voice it. Ive always been fascinated by expressions of individual style, particularly in the street sense. I suspect that thats one of the oddest things about me, at least in terms of someone being marketed as some sort of science fiction writer. But which sort, exactly? Gibson is known as the

Granddaddy of dystopian fiction. Yet nearly all of his work has an underlying optimism, even what might be called happy endings. I really dont think Im dystopian at all. No more than Im utopian. The dichotomy is hopelessly oldfashioned, really. What we have today is a combination of the two, with all the knobs turned up to max. So it doesnt bother him? No. What does he read himself? Does he follow the rise of upstarts such as Jeff Noon and Neal Stephenson? I read Iain Sinclair and Cormac McCarthy. But, he smiles, Im always on the lookout for a good upstart. Lets move onto All Tomorrows Parties. Did Gibson always visualise Virtual Light as the beginning of a series? No. I always back into the trilogy thing. Its embarrassing, really. I swear I thought VL was going to be a one-off. Its an organic process for me, rather than one of deliberation. The one text grows out of the other. Its as though the previous book becomes compost for the next one. Lovely image, cheers. I dont work to any rationale; its a seat-of-the-pants thing. And the extent to which I can feel that its not rational, is exactly the extent to which Im convinced that Im really doing my job. In ATP, the Idoru finally becomes a physical entity. Theres surely a lot more he could do with that will he?

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No. The world shell live in is on the other side of a technological singularity. Theres no way I can even imagine it. No seat-of-the-pants fourth book, then. ATP is still a satisfying conclusion, but it could have gone anywhere. Many people were expecting a work on the Walled City from Idoru, for example, yet Gibson bypassed it to get straight to ATP, and the end of the world centred around yet again San Francisco. The bridge was still more resonant, for me. More fun writing about a physical construct, somehow. And ATP seems to me to be about cyberspace everting itself into the physical; about the boundaries starting to blur from the other direction Some of the most important boundaries, to me, being about genre: is this SF, a thriller, none of the above? The San Francisco thing probably has something to do with it being on the West Coast but having the core paradigm of a European city. It makes sense in European terms; Los Angeles, for example, doesnt. SF is a city stressed by Postmodernity, rather than an expression of Postmodernity such as LA. Yet Postmodernism is essential to Gibsons work. Throughout this series, for example, the media has been portrayed as ever more sensationalist. How close does he think we are to shows such as Slitscan actually coming into being? In North America were well into tabloid TV, but

our national print tabs are already way beyond that. Difficult, if not impossible, to parody. But parodied they are, and ATPs conclusion concerning information flow is a dichotomy; on the one hand, increased informational awareness will change everything, and on the other it will change nothing (for the majority of ordinary people). Is this purposeful? The resolution of a dichotomy usually lies in apparent paradox. But youve got your thumb on the books heart, I think, and I cant really explicate that for you. Otherwise wed be talking about a didactic fiction, and I hope ATP isnt that. Okay, time to stir up the nest. ATP essentially carries the same message as Mona Lisa Overdrive that pure information (and artificial intelligence) will point the way to society and mankinds next evolutionary step. Discuss. We seem to be through genetics, now, mainly on the brink of taking control of our own evolution. Thats a matter of pure information, I suppose. Though I seem to recall characters in an earlier book who used the term pure information rather than lies. But really I dont see that as message so much as mimetic. A depiction of whats happening now. Perhaps inevitable, then, that the meme replicates from book to book. So lets get more specific. Harwood, corporate ruler of the world and primary antagonist of ATP, declares that he wants to somehow survive

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beyond the singularity of the books climax. Is he an analogy for mans fear of the future? Harwood is about human will, so, yes, I suppose hes about fear. Youre so spontaneous; dont ever change. All suffering is rooted in the desire for permanence. Gibson smiles. I heard someone say that in an Indian movie. So is there a moral behind Harwoods downfall being brought about by three principal characters who dont manipulate information the way he does? Well, theres a satisfaction to it, for me. Morals are for fables. Were running out of time, but I have to ask: just who the hell is ATPs Tao man? Hes an entirely new character, with no name, no background beyond a few vague flashbacks, and is completely amoral. Where the

hell did he come from? I thought of him as literally being someone who wandered in from another book. He turned up one day. Wouldnt go away. After the book was finished I wondered if he werent some sort of avatar connected to the late William Burroughs. An unconscious expression of Burroughsness. Hes a character Burroughs wouldve enjoyed, Im pretty certain of that. Sounds like something straight out of Mulders casebook. And speaking of which, Gibsons future plans are good news for couch potatoes Im working on a second X-Files episode with Tom Maddox; talking about doing some writing for Harsh Realm, the new Chris Carter series; and getting another book proposal ready. Plus theres Neuromancer. Welcome back, Your Highness.

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Interview [published January 1998]

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Allen Ginsberg: Cosmopolitan Greetings

Graham Duff meets Allen Ginsberg, the self styled old auntie of the Beat Generation Allen Ginsberg poet, Jew, Buddhist and self styled has Prospero say Thence to Genoa where every third old auntie of the Beat Generation is 68 years of thought shall be my grave. So every 244th thought: age. Forty years on from the publication of Ginsbergs Oh Im Allen Ginsberg and I have a history. The infamous Howl, his latest collection, Cosmopolitan rest of the time [its] theres the tea, I got to go to the Greetings: Writings from 1986-92, has just hit the bathroom, hows my diabetes? Whats this guy saying bookshelves. Sipping tea and talking about his greatest to me? So yes, there is the information of being around influences William Blake, Walt Whitman, William Carfor 40 years writing poetry and knowing a lot of people los Williams and Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg is friendly, but then every moment is completely blank and new. assured and (naturally enough) beatific. But perhaps Despite an enormous body of work which bristles surprisingly, hes almost as at ease talking about Sonic with positivity, passion and affirmation, Ginsberg Youth and Gavin Friday as he is fellow beats William admits, I got the reputation of being this negative Burroughs and Gary Snyder. nay-saying rebel. I dont know why. But maybe the With lyrical incantations, dream notations. calypso purpose is starting to come through now after all rhythms and haiku, Cosmopolitan Greetings shows a these years. People are beginning to read without the writer moving in ever increasing circles, the subject intervention of the media saying these angry, wrathmatter ranging from the intensely personal to the pasful, idiot people smoking dope in dirty flats covered sionately political. I ask if its difficult writing under in flies. That was the official party line of the media the weight of his past work. back in the early 60s. My mind is much too fragmented for the solidifiAt this point Ginsberg goes off to take a phone call cation of any single thought like that. Consciousness which turns out to be from Salman Rushdie. I saw him itself is discontinuous I think. As a Buddhist, thats when he came to New York. We did some meditation my take on it. Shakespeare at the end of The Tempest classes together cause hes got lots of time.

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In recent poems such as Sphincter and After Lalon, Ginsberg details the ageing process with undiluted candour whilst in his more directly political poems he is still on a mission to report the unreported. Ive always been preoccupied with the intersection of repressive dope laws, dope dealing by French intelligence and American CIA, the expansion of killer drugs like tobacco and alcohol and political manipulation by cigarette and alcohol interests, the corruption of governments, police departments and so on. We are ruled by fantastic hypocrisy. In America the theo-political right the FCC and Jesse Helms has seized control of the main market place of ideas: radio and television. So we dont have a free market in ideas now. So the censorship that normally applied to books and print and film is now being applied to the electronic media and may be applied to internet before its all over. My own poetry has literally been ripped off the air during the day. My poems are studied in high schools and colleges, but in October 1988, Senator Helms who is subsidised by huge tobacco interests rushed through a law signed by Reagan which effectively means that obscene

language can only be broadcast between the hours of midnight and six am. This being to protect school kids who are reading my poems in class anyway. A vivid conversationalist, the elder statesman of the counter culture is at his most animated when recalling the routines he used to improvise in his apartment with Burroughs and Kerouac in the 1950s. After dinner, drinking coffee, smoking grass, wed act this stuff out. We all had different characteristic roles: the well groomed Hungarian that was me. The naive American in Paris with a straw hat Kerouac. Bill dressed up as a shifty vicious governess. Bill would end up creased up laughing on the floor. I think the key to the Beat Generation was spiritual liberation. Then media liberation of the word; the battle with censorship, sexual liberation. It ricochets out, but it started with a spiritual liberation. I always thought that Howl was a very exuberant and positive and funny poem. But at the time it was taken to be the ravings of this angry, rebellious jerk. These days things are a little different. Ive got a really good job. Its called Distinguished Professor of English, which means I only have to go in one day a week.

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Feature [published September 1996]

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The Godfather: Sex And Spaghetti

Bethan Roberts watches the transformation of the American-Italian man, from The Godfather to Saturday Night Fever With The Godfather recently re-released in a new but the core characteristics remain the same. Italianprint, Don Corleone and his family are back on our Americans, according to screen law, are sexy, violent screens, shovelling spaghetti into their mouths, men struggling against the powers that be to protect screaming at their wives and shooting other Mafia their family honour. Their stories are full of the rituals families all with excessive amounts of blood, plum of heterosexuality performed with glamour and passion tomatoes, swagger, sharp suits and great style. I love (weddings, family feasts, straight sex). Their muscles them all I cry at Michaels wedding, smile wryly flex to grapple with, and glory in, organised crime, the at the Dons death, wince at Connies bleating and Catholic church and lordine della famiglia: a highly thrill at Sonnys explosions of sex and violence. But controlled and controlling hierarchical patriarchal famI also hate all that macho posturing, those strangling ily system. patriarchal systems, the supplication of wives, mothAfter Francis Ford Coppolas The Godfather was ers, daughters to mens business. released in 1972, the screen image of Italian-American I want to pay these godfathers due respect, but I masculinity which it established became so popular also want to look beyond their dapper costuming and that it entered the realms of social iconography, swiftly ask why these representations are so cherished in our reinforced by the likes of Martin Scorceses Taxi culture. In doing so, I want to suggest that the most Driver and John Badhams Saturday Night Fever. Don interesting thing about Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Corleones I make you an offer you cant refuse, Marlon Brando and their Latin brothers is the way Travis Bickles You talkin to me?, car bumper stickin which their Italian-ness is defined through their ers reading Mafia Staff Car; Keepa Ya Hands Off and sexuality. The phenomenon of Italian-American as endless parodies of John Travolta/Tony Manero doing a sensibility and a particular set of narrative conventhat dance in that white suit gestures which we think tions has shifted over the years since The Godfather, of as Italian-American have become part of our culture.

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Italian-American men have stepped out of the screen and into everyday life and language. What it means in screen terms to be an ItalianAmerican man can tell us much about what it means to be a white man. It is crucial that white male heterosexuality is made visible, is put under the critical microscope, in this way because it has always maintained its dominance by virtue of its invisibility. As Richard Dyer has argued in his essay White: whiteness, like heterosexuality, secures power by appearing not to be anything in particular. It is simply there, transparent, the given and natural way to be. Italian-American is one typification which whiteness has constructed of itself a group of stereotypes which provide us with a starting point for understanding how whiteness sets itself up in a dominant position. In the 1970s, white American culture seemed to be in crisis. The Watergate fiasco, the war in Vietnam, the rise of black, gay and womens liberation movements all meant that the hallowed American way lost its direction. Hollywoods reaction was to look to ethnicity as a means of reinstating the white heterosexual males central position of power, returning him to his role as the Real Thing. We can admire and trust Don Corleones power because it does not appear to be compatible with WASP power. Italians were a way of getting back to basics through the depiction of a truly American ethic of the struggle for survival in a land where nobodies can

become somebodies as in The Godfather, Rocky, and, rather differently, in Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon and Saturday Night Fever. In addition, Italian culture had the added attraction of lordine della famiglia to help (re)glorify patriarchy and put women back in their place: in the home, supporting their men from beneath. However, since the Italian American mans realness is so often represented as physicality we know hes authentic because we can see his sweating body the reality of his heterosexuality is considerably destabilised. The power and danger of the Italian body on screen are heavily eroticised qualities. Male WASP heroes of the 70s, like Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, are invisible bodies who display little emotion, epitomising rigid stoicism and phallic control. In Dirty Harry (1971), Eastwood is always poker faced, never ruffled or sweating very much, his power coolly contained within his .44 Magnum pistol. The Italian man is often opposed to such straightness, flexing his muscles, getting all hot blooded and passionate, demonstrating his body as the signifier of his masculinity and ethnicity. The display of the male body as erotic object is a troublesome area: how do we make these bodies, which are supposed to be active, hard, non-malleable, into passive objects of the cinema audiences gaze a role traditionally reserved for the female body? One way to do it is through sporting images the excuse for looking at a mans body being the admiration of

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his strength in a culturally accepted male activity. It is often more effectively done through homoerotic traditions of representation, since these are the most obvious ones available for such purposes. Unlike women, gay men have had the economic strength to market the male physique, from the Athletic Models Guild studio shots of the 1950s to the huge gay porn industry of today. In the screen representation of the Italian-American man there is a tension between the use of such homoeroticism (the spectator is invited to love these men) and the denial of homosexuality (the Italian is a virile, heterosexual family man). I make you an offer you cant refuse The Godfather provides the models for ItalianAmerican screen masculinity throughout the 70s. Within its family epic structure, The Godfathers main concern is with how to be a man, and Coppolas men rely heavily on nostalgia. The Don (Marlon Brando) is guardian and his business is family. The Donis/ Brandos image is constructed in opposition to Salazzo the Turks, his business rival, a man who looks like the devil incarnate with his oily, flappy face and his swanky fur-collared coat. The Don, however, is clean cut; he benignly rejects Salazzos offer of a place in the drugs racket as a dirty business, choosing instead to talk about his sentimental weakness for his children. Salazzo has no family, no honour to cleanse him. The Don is Italian through and through, but he is also

Americanised enough to remain a hero. Coppola has it both ways, then: whilst the Don is successful and all powerful, he is also aging and falling from his position, lending him a tragic poignancy and creating a nostalgia for the perfect Italian-American man he once was. He is even associated with an American innocence and abundance: he dies amongst the tomato plants, stumbling into the verdure whilst pretending to be a monster to amuse his grandson. It is as if the Don was only performing monstrousness all along so that he could keep order in his pastoral family garden, so that he could reap the harvest of America. The Godfather establishes a range of masculinities which line up to take their shot at filling the Dons shoes. Sonny Corleone, as played by James Caan, is the sweating, sexy beefcake Latin of the film, swaggering about and exploding in sporadic bursts of violence. Coppola gives us many glimpses of Sonnys/Caans body, usually clad in a tight white vest, showing off his muscled shoulders and his chest hair, which seems to be as uncontrollable as his libido. The white vest is an essential item of the screen Italian-American mans wardrobe. Borrowed from Brandos sexy ethnic proletarian in A Streetcar Named Desire, whose true feeling gushed forth from every orifice, it allows just enough of the upper body to be exhibited whilst still insisting upon a thoroughly masculine way of dressing for utility purposes only, suggestive as it is of the work-

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ing man. Sonny actually does no work in his vest, but anxieties about the presentation of his body as an object of desire (for both male and female, gay and straight audiences) are dealt with through the heterosexualising, masculine violence of Sonnys body. Sonny is the wild card philanderer, always mouthing off, complete with Italian theatrical gestures. He is placed in opposition to Michaels/Pacinos strong silence. Sonny contains too much libido and ethnic crudeness to take the Dons place; Michael broods smoulderingly, Sonny just explodes. However, whilst Coppola appears to reject Sonnys passionate ItalianAmerican machismo in narrative terms (he is killed off in the most explosive manner), he actually fills the screen with images of Sonnys exuberance and impressive physicality. In fact, the eroticism involved in the films presentation of Sonny is negotiated through his screen climax: his death on the highway. Always the swaggering sex object, Sonnys bodily excesses are ultimately displayed and punished by being blown to bits. This way, Coppola can save the virile ethnic masculinity he represents without actually endorsing it. Sonny is martyred by this gruesome death on a lonely highway; his masculinity has to be torn apart in order to be re-made in our imaginations, so that we can mourn the Dons/ Brandos/our loss. His violent death also saves Sonny-as-sex-object

from the too self-conscious passivity of another Italian godson swaggerer of the film, Johnny Fontaine. Like Sonny, Johnny is a ladies man, but his blatant narcissism places him perilously close to a clich of queerness. Fontaine is an oily wop crooner, complete with greased hair, white suit and frilled blouse; he is a sop who has to be ordered by the Don to act like a man. It is interesting that, by the time of Saturday Night Fever, these opposed representations of ItalianAmerican masculinity can become enmeshed (and can remain heroic) in the figure of Tony Manero/John Travolta, who can wear a frilly blouse and still act like a man. And so the burden of The Godfathers position falls on Michaels shoulders. Although Michaels macho Godfather act is revealed as a sham which eats away his insides, this is less a matter of Coppola subverting gender roles by illustrating that they are a matter of social construction, than it is of him lamenting the passing of a time when such macho masculinities really existed. We may dislike Michael as Godfather because he is not the benign and noble Brando, and because he is not what the film shows he could have been in an earlier time and place in Sicilian history, within an ethnic narrative. The Godfather locates its ideal masculinities in Sicily, in a fantasy narrative of nostalgia for the phallic wholeness of the homeland. Enter Pacino as Sicilian shepherd, walking back to his fathers home/

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name (Corleone), accompanied by a version of the sweeping theme tune arranged for mandolin. This is a rural idyll where boy and girl can meet and fall in love without complications all the conventional narratives of heterosexual romance are employed without a hint of irony. Coppolas nostalgic glance at Italian-American masculinities makes it difficult to read any critique of conventional masculinities in the film. The main reason we love godfathers Brando and Pacino is that they are such perfect examples of gentlemanly tyranny: they are so powerful and yet so self-contained. However, the image of the eroticised male object is a prevalent one in The Godfather and other Italian-American screen narratives, and this image is potentially a disturbing one to conventional gender relations. Throughout the 1970s, the Italian-American screen male was increasingly represented as body, as an object of desire for all audiences. The Godfather always encourages us to love its men but insists that they remain solid men of action, their screen existence lived out with plenty of grand gestures. The thing about The Godfather is that it takes itself very seriously indeed; the key to its seduction lies in its epic feel, its supreme orderliness, its world in which everyone has their place. Im seduced by this world, too, but Im glad that other Italian-American screen men strutted their stuff and shook up its order: Pacino as bisexual Sonny in Dog

Day Afternoon, in whom those exaggerated Italian gestures become slightly campy; Nicholas Cage in Moonstruck, giving a brilliantly over-the-top portrayal of a sweaty/swarthy/sensitive Italian beefcake; and, my personal favourite, John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, whose excessive emotions are triggered not in response to his family honour but by the state of his hair: as his family squabbles over spaghetti, Tony worries about his coiffure (will you just watch the hair? You know, I work on my hair a long time and you hit it. He hits my hair). Tony preens himself openly, posing in the mirror whilst wriggling to the Bee Gees. Like the men in The Godfather, he prepares his body for action, but he does so for dancing, not for fighting. His only possible phallic weapon is his professional-looking long-nozzled hairdrier, and his killing arena is the 2001 Odyssey discotheque, where he slays them with his grooving. In a sense, The Godfather paved the way through the crowded night club for Tony; after the heights of Italian-American macho it reached, the only way to go was down the disco, the only thing to do with the display of those hard bodies was to choreograph their movements to music. Saturday Night Fever brought the nostalgic Corleone masculinities into the future of the 2001 Odyssey where Italian-American-ness finally had a chance to strut without leaving a trail of bodies in its wake.

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Feature [published May 2008] Ben Granger

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Graham Greene/Evelyn Waugh: Literary & Political Catholicism


Whenever there was a chance to have a shot at Catholicism in his writing, George Orwell could always be relied on to take aim and discharge both barrels. With the grim vision of Vatican support for Franco fresh in his mind, he was hardly without justification. Polemical righteousness brimming over, he rashly wrote in the 30s that the English novel was practically a Protestant art form, and that Catholic practitioners were thin on the ground both numerically and qualitatively. Practically as he put pen to paper however, two of the greatest English authors of the mid-century Henry Graham Greene and Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh were surfacing to take the literary world by ferocious storm. And its fair to say the pair werent exactly short on Catholic sensitivities. A bad call from Mr Orwell on this one at least. In many respects the authors could scarcely be more different. Greenes milieu was the forgotten corners and back alleys of life. The jittery street gang, the persecuted runaway, the jaded official in a fading Imperial outpost. Boozy landladies, failed accountants. Greenes every fibre was tuned with sympathy for the underdog, siding with the rebellious and the forgotten, his narrative home the sleazy underbelly of life. Not so Waugh. His territory was the landed estates of the southern counties and their intersection with the cold elites of London high society. While his misanthropic satire found endless and endlessly amusing reasons for his narrative contempt towards the dramatis personae of lower gentry and upper bourgeois who populated his books, there was no denying that, at heart, he identified with them. Indeed, his lampooning of the upper and upper middle classes hinged largely round the fact that they failed to live up to his reactionary ideal. Moving outside this caste, his attitude shifts from mere contempt to outright hatred. While both transcended both, Greenes style skirted round the genre of the thriller, Waugh around that of the comedic farce. Greenes narratives are littered with gangland intrigue, colonial corruption, the grimy and sweaty fear of pursuit. Action, in the purest sense, is central, as is plot. The characters are conveyed via a direct mental inner voice toward the reader, their dialogue, and interaction with each other being secondary

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to this. Again, the contrast with Waugh could hardly be greater. His narratives are comedies of manners, black comedy but comedy nonetheless. His genius stems from the ironic nuance of the reciprocal voices on display, the interaction of their dialogue being vital. Unlike Greene, the plots of his novels are essentially secondary, framing devices against which the characters can flourish, were that not so inappropriate a word for the languishing on display. These are characters whose inner lives are implied rather than explored, conveyed in shadow. What they did have in common was an intense sense of inner desolation, an acidic looking within, and it was their Catholicism that both mirrored and embodied this. Read any novel by either author, and whichever of the myriad delights you my obtain from the experience, the lasting impression, the aftertaste, is a subtle yet distinct despair, an existential dislocation obtained via osmosis from the central characters. Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either egotism, selfishness, evil or else an absolute ignorance, declares Greene, with Waugh in full agreement. In the past a Catholic in Britain was, by definition, an outsider. Even today, Britain is officially a Protestant nation with a Protestant monarch, an identity forged in the fire of adversity to the Romanist other. These atavistic rivalries may have dwindled and mean little to the majority of people in the UK today, but in the

30s the rifts were still raw. It wasnt too long before then that suspicion toward Catholics was much like that shown towards Muslims today. Worse in fact, with official sanctions barring the other from office, and from voting. Most Catholics in the country are there by the apparent virtue of the Faith being handed down. In the main they come from immigrant backgrounds, chiefly from the Irish diaspora of the past two centuries. A disenfranchised, working class tribe, greatly over-represented in the industrial north of England, and in Scotland (this before we even begin to touch on Northern Ireland.) None of this, however, applied to either Greene and Waugh, bourgeois, upper middle purebred English southerners both. They were Catholics by choice, by their own conversion. Outsiders by choice too. Both seemed to want a Faith which underlined and justified the constant sense of separation they had always felt towards their peers. They also seemed to want to find as stark and unforgiving a theology to identify themselves with as possible. Greene converted to the Faith in 1926 at the age of 22, following a lonely and troubled youth savagely punctuated by suicide attempts. Suffering what is now termed bipolar disorder, Greene spent his whole life engaged in extremes of behaviour, not least in his prodigious sexual incontinence and proclivities. Greene stated he became a Catholic as something to measure his evil against. In later

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years he adulterously fucked behind Italian altars for the thrill. There must be a suspicion Greene was playing with the Faith for his own sense of internal drama, much like Dal, whose use of the religion was a prop to adorn his art with ever more outlandishly theological accoutrements. Catholicism is after all, a religion of the picturesquely ornate, of the dramatic. The stained glass and incense filled churches, the arcane blood and flesh fuelled doctrines of transubstantiation, the unflinchingly Manichean morality, the sheer ancient grim majesty of it all. This is truly the religion of the drama queen. You dont get that with Methodism. For all this though, Greene was not merely playing with some theological dressing up box. There can be no doubting the sincerity of his conversion. His private letters show his Faith was central to his life. In both life and literature however, Greene was a poor advertisement for the familiar argument of religion being a solace in life, the heart in a heartless world. Two of his most celebrated central characters, the colonial administrator Scobie in The Heart Of The Matter, and the nameless whiskey priest of The Power And The Glory, are hopeless, tired and desperate shadows of men, whose Faith only serves to make them spiritual as well as emotional wrecks. Both live daily with the knowledge their actions, be they treacherous or adulterous, are condemning them, with absolute certainty, to eternal damnation. These are not truly bad men, but

by the standards of their own Faith they are beyond redemption, sealing their own personal tragedies. Then on the other hand, we have Pinkie, the psychopathic young gangster of Brighton Rock. Here is a truly bad man, and one whose certainty of his own damnation only serves to spur him on to ever greater evil. He was damned already and there was nothing more to fear ever again. In each case, the religion makes for a wonderfully powerful and evocative component of the novels, a character in itself, more than that even. Wonderful for the reader. But wonderful for Greene himself? Noel Coward met Greene when they both prowled in the same Hollywood circles, touting their works for adaptation on the silver screen. He came to remark on Greenes strange, tortured mind. Whether his Faith served to salve or further inflame the wounds of this torture is open to conjecture. Waughs conversion was more clearly that of a man desperate to retreat into a mythical past. This was after all the man who proclaimed the trouble with the Conservative Party is it has not turned back the clock one second. There was a spate of conversions to the Faith in the 30s of men from the upper-middle-class, men trying to find a mooring, a sense of backward-looking solidity in a traumatic age. Once more however, there is something far deeper, and steeped in an ambivalence. Waugh came to prominence as a novelist in 1928 with Decline And Fall, two years before his conversion

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to Roman Catholicism. Famous and feted at the age of 25, Waugh continued with the drunken hedonism he had begun in his Oxford years. He was indeed one of the feckless bright young things he wrote about. His growing horror at the spiritual emptiness he saw in this gadddabout life was what spurred him into the arms of the Church, which he saw as the most Eternal of institutions, a haven amongst the creeping chaos. In the views of Waugh, we see in sharp relief the antagonism between the heart of Conservatism, and the capitalism that it defends. Margaret Thatcher herself for instance, would have been personally shocked and repulsed if she spent any great time in the company of her shock troops, the coked up young yuppies of the 80s, as they lined it up on the toilet tops. Waughs contempt for the fly by night shallowness of the young rich sat ill at ease with his support for of the Tory Party without which their lives of philistine luxury would be unsustainable. Hence his impotent railing against clocks going forward. The real establishment of England was once Catholic of course, back in the 15th century, an age so long ago as to have lost all contemporary meaning. His Catholicism therefore was a very real sense of clinging to a past so elusive as to be nonexistent, grasping at a phantasm. In his novels, the Faith emerges as the still at the centre, the calm amongst the inferno. This can be seen most clearly in Brideshead Revisited, Charles Ryders

agnosticism is set against the Faith of the Marchmain family, or in The Sword Of Honour trilogy, wherein the aristocratic Crouchbacks represent even more clearly the valiant rearguard action of the Church, and indeed old England itself, against all the forces of modernity. In other novels the Faiths talismanic status is subtler. Tony Last, the cuckolded husband in A Handful Of Dust, is presented as belonging to the past, underlined by his church attendance, however vague minded that may be. His humiliation by non churchgoing wife Brenda and the vulgar (key word) social climber John Beaver shows once more the clash between the (virtuous) old and the (degenerate) new. It is a mythological battle between Old England, the rural, certainty, tradition and social cohesion, against the New World, the urban, capitalism, dynamism, change, hedonism, class conflict and progress. In Sword of Honour, Waugh sees Guy Crouchback, when he still thinks he is fighting against Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany both, claims The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms. Its an internal battle the Right will never resolve. That Catholicism is no longer the religion of the establishment serves Waugh well. As he sees the massed ranks of modernity triumph, as he surely knows they will, he can psychologically cast himself in the role of the king over the water, exiled valiant victim and patrician overseer simultaneously. Such was the source

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of both his art, and the bilious, bitter anger that never left him. In Britain we have the paradox that Catholicism in the wider world so very often the creed of the oppressor over the centuries is the religion of the persecuted underdog. This has led to the most bizarre and schizophrenic political allegiances and alliances. In 30s Lancashire, unemployed Communist marchers would doff their caps when passing Catholic churches, at the same time as senior clerics were backing Franco. Orwell wrote of visiting workers houses with the crucifix on the wall, and the Daily Worker on the table. There has never been a shortage of left-wing British writers of Catholic background, but seems fair to say this has usually stemmed from their outsider nature, their working class and/or Irish background, rather than the religion itself. With Anthony Burgess in later life a bitter rival of Greenes we have a descendant of the Irish diaspora, his childhood in Manchesters Moss Side influenced the Left perspective of his early writing, his Catholicism informing his later conservative slant. The upper and middle-class converts to the Faith of the 30s however, were far more often doing so for reasons which became reactionary by default, even if that was not the initial intention. In this sense Waugh was the more typical figure. In 1937, when Nancy Cunard sent a survey to leading novelists of the UK asking which side they took in the Spanish Civil war,

Waugh was one of the tiny minority who declared their support for the Falange. A minority view among authors, but not among the kind of dyspeptic saloon bar Tory he came more and more to exemplify and signify as both his age and drinking increased. The Blimpish caricature he succumbed to by the end was probably an extreme rather than a typical example however, and by a sublime irony was mirrored in the similar decline into self-parody of Kingsley Amis a generation later, a writer Waugh lambasted as lower-middle-class scum at the beginning of the latters career. Amongst the 30s converts, the Left-radicalism of Greene therefore must be seen as a great exception. Once again though, the tale is more complicated. Greene started out on the Right. Along with many youths of his class, he acted as a strike-breaker during the 1926 General Strike. After his conversion, he wrote for the right-wing Spectator magazine and took the side of the put-upon Mexican clergy following the revolution in that country. His earlier novels contained numerous mildly anti-Semitic asides (excised on republishing at his behest). In many ways therefore, he seemed destined to trudge down a classic Conservative path. But Greene was one of those converts, a minority amongst the Blimps of his class, who heard the message of social justice ring louder than that of defence of hierarchical tradition in the call of the Faith. Greenes vision of Catholicism stirred him to side with the

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downtrodden in the world, and for him that meant the Left. He became an intractable and articulate foe of US imperialism, especially of its machinations in Southern and Central America. In 1955 he wrote The Quiet American, a novel which was to become a classic antiimperialist parable. In later years he was to meet and correspond with Fidel Castro, and while still critical of the curtailing of religious and intellectual freedom in the country, strongly supported Cubas struggle against US hegemony. In Latin America of course, the populace shared his Faith, yet he was conscious that the dominant reactionary elements within Catholicism had no interest at all in his anti-imperialist vision. When therefore, in the 80s a new strain of Faith within the region came to prominence which shared his vision, he could scarcely contain his intellectual glee. Liberation Theology combined the apparently antagonistic Catholicism and socialism which had both so inspired Greene, uniting against the US backed juntas of the subcontinent. Oscar Romero in Salvador and Evaristo Arns in Brazil were just two of many to speak out the US sponsored repression and poverty which racked their nations. Greene came to personally befriend another such Liberation priest, Leopoldo Duran. That such movements were to fail, crushed by the Washington backed strong-men, Oscar Romero assassinated Greene, eternal pessimist as he was, no doubt

anticipated. That they failed to receive the backing of the Vatican, that indeed that they were explicitly denounced by them, he may have found harder to reconcile. Perhaps this contributed to the weary irony of his statement to interviewer John Cornwell in 1989, that he was now a Catholic agnostic. Had he lived to see it however, he may well have been heartened to see the success of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Morales in Bolivia, a new generation of leaders combining socialism with their Catholicism. The latest success of the left-leaning bishop Fernando Lugo becoming president in Paraguay would no doubt of gladdened him most of all. Who could doubt he would have seen some vindication here, and an answer both to the Catholic hierarchy who saw in the Left its great nemesis, and those on the Left who argued that believers could only ever be reactionary. Waugh, meanwhile, would have spun once more in his grave, a tomb already doubtless given to much rapid rotation. Greene and Waugh may have had diametrically opposed positions in their politics from their own interpretations of the Faith. But, transcending politics, what both seemed to take from the Faith in their writing was a sense of the complete fragility and frailty of the human condition, the essential unworthiness of people gained from Original Sin. In Greene this seemed to inspire a sense of poetic heroism amidst inevitable failure and desperation, in Waugh a very real contempt

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not just for humanity as a whole in the abstract, but for all human beings individually. That sense of the tragic which under-writes and illuminates the drama in the one, the sharp satire in the other, a sense of the comedic and the sublime in both. It also served to solidify the bond which grew between the two. Melancholic heavy drinkers, red eyes unsatisfied, tilting at the cold Protestant world from different angles. For all their myriad differences, the two became firm friends, and remained so until Waughs death in 1966.

Larkin claimed Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth. With Greene and Waugh, the inspiration, the framework, the habitat, spark and realm of their work was neither harsh mental state nor delicate flower. Catholicism was the muse for them both. As a very lapsed member of the Faith myself, and distinctly sceptical as to any positive influence it may lend to the modern age, I can at least offer it gratitude for giving the work of both to the world.

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Review [published June 1999] Gary Marshall

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Peter Guralnick: Careless Love: The Unmaking Of Elvis Presley


I was five years old when Elvis died and, like most of my generation, my knowledge of Elvis is derived largely from muck-raking biographies, shockingly bad films, sightings documented in supermarket tabloids and documentaries about brain-damaged Elvis impersonators. With the exception of U2s embarrassing fandom no modern bands list Elvis as an influence and, for most people under 30, Elvis will forever be the pathetic figure stalking the stages of Vegas. Careless Love explains how Elvis got there. The follow-up to the extraordinary Last Train To Memphis, Peter Guralnicks latest book documents Elvis life from his Army days to his death in a Gracelands bathroom. If anything the book is even better researched and more detailed than the first instalment weighing in at over 600 pages, supplemented by detailed notes and explanations, Careless Love almost tells the story in real time. The unsavoury aspects of Elvis life have been detailed endlessly in biography after biography and, though Guralnick is no Albert Goldman, he doesnt shy away from showing the darker side to his subject. What makes Careless Love different is the writers agenda Guralnick is first and foremost a fan, and the book is his attempt to show how Elvis talent was compromised by his own self-destructive tendencies and the ever-growing number of people who felt nothing but contempt for the man whilst eagerly awaiting the next hand-out. In this context Elvis well-documented penchant for young girls, his serial infidelity and his obsessive pill-popping are shown dispassionately, allowing the reader to develop the picture of a child-like and desperately insecure man who was encouraged to do as he wished without complaint or constraint. The ultimate result of this unbridled and self-destructive behaviour was a legend who, towards the end of his career, alternated between impotence and incontinence and who was frequently so medicated that he could barely function. The main achievement of Careless Love is the way in which it strips away more than 20 years of accumulated legend to show the man behind the cartoon image, a story told largely by the people who worked with him and who inhabited the inner circle of confidantes. The

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deals struck by Colonel Tom Parker which resulted in increasingly shoddy product and a punishing live schedule of up to three concerts per day are shown, not as the result of naked greed, but as the decisions of a man who understands money rather than artistic factors. In the context of Parkers ever-growing gambling debts, some of the more bizarre management decisions are understandable if misguided. Reading Careless Love youre left with the believable portrait of a man whose extraordinary vocal talent brought him unimagined success success that prevented Elvis from maturing beyond adolescence. As recording sessions and live engagements become more and more farcical and Elvis drug use becomes increasingly problematic, Guralnick shows an artist out of control who drives away his closest friends, cheap-

ens his work and frequently rages at the very fans who love him unconditionally. Unlike other biographies, however, Guralnick presents a very real picture of a desperately unhappy man who falls into addiction and controlling behaviour to mask his own insecurities and inadequacies. Taken together, Last Train To Memphis and Careless Love make up the definitive biography of one of the 20th centurys key figures. In a sea of biographies that concentrate on the scandalous aspects of Elvis life in order to sell copies, Guralnicks books bring the man vividly to life, warts and all. The exhaustive research can make the book heavy going at times but, for anybody with even a passing interest in pop or rock music, Careless Love is illuminating and essential reading.

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Review [published November 2005] Ben Granger

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Half Man Half Biscuit: Achtung Bono


I may as well declare my stance at the outset: Half Man Half Biscuit are Britains most under-rated band, and their singer/writer Nigel Blackwell is not only one of the lands finest humourists and satirists, but also a chronicler of the tawdriness of modern British life whose vision is shot through with true genius. Now, those of you who only know the band through dim recollections of a Scouse voice jokily swearing about minor sportsmen and celebrities in the mid-80s may consider sending this first paragraph into Pseuds Corner. But youd be wrong to do so. People from Birkenhead arent Scousers for a start. More importantly, in the nine albums the band have made since their (very) brief period of (relative) fame in 1986 with Fucking ell, Its Fred Titmuss! and I Hate Nerys Hughes (From the Heart), their vision has grown more witty, incisive, bleak, devastatingly accurate and straightforwardly brilliant than ever, even though the wise downbeat amalgam of realism and surrealism was there from the start. The hardcore whimsy of The Trumpton Riots has progressed to a more allencompassing patina on the minutiae of modern English life; capturing the little things that generally fall of the scale of artistic perception. Nigel is one of those writers who show that the heavenly as well as the devil is in the detail. If anyone can show me a better melding of lovelorn loss allied to a sarcastic critique of the modern middle-class trendy twattery that threatens to consume us all than: She stayed with me until She moved to Notting Hill She said it was the place she needs to be Where the cocaine is Fair Trade And frequently displayed Is the Buena Vista Social Club CD (from The Light at the End Of Tunnel from last album Cammel Laird Social Club) then please do show me it. And for that matter show me a more kick-ass jangleindie rock tune than that which accompanies Performing Rights Society Quick the Drawbridge from 1997s Voyage To The Bottom Of the Road. Cant can you?

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Blackwell is a modest, unassuming Wirral man of upper-working-class origin, a Thomas Hardy fan with an outsized bullshit detector, and a turn of phrase few could dream of. In the new album, as per often, he blasts targets near and far, high and low, not just the obvious pop idle of celebrity culture, but also his more close-to-home contemporaries. Always in indie but not of it; in the past the alternative music scene has been the chief target of his ire, (see the immortal Look Dad No Tunes) but not so much on this album. As he gets older it seems to be the general populace around him, ossifying into idiocy and dullness in middle-age that horrifies him. He has a pathological hatred of those whove got the whole world in their house to see the new conservatory. This time he kicks against the pricks with your Del-boy impressions and your CORGI-registered friends. Its a mark of Blackwells deftness of touch, that he can describe a professional couple in the Cotswolds playing pooh-sticks, sharing a tub of gelatine ice-cream, before skipping gaily off to watch Marianne Faithful at the Warwick Arts Centre, and, without any abuse, you know exactly why he hates them so much. Its like Alan Bennett possessed by the spirit of Johnny Rotten. Other topics the album addresses include the sinister nature of signs advertising vegetable sales on remote rural roads in Asparagus Next Left (Oooh rhubarb lets go!! / Shes still not been accounted for) and

an attack on The Libertines for their sloppy quoting of Scripture in Shit Arm, Bad Tattoo: (If youre going to quote from the Book of Revelation /Dont go calling it the Book of Revelations / theres no s). Musically, the album goes for the mid-paced folkier edge in general rather than their more rock-out numbers. As ever, the music is secondary to the words, but also, as ever, it fits and complements the lyrics perfectly in that its ramshackle exterior nature belies an expertly designed structure underneath. More than in any previous album, the prevailing themes are cynical disdain for modern societal trends combined with an apparently genuine affection for the ambience of small-town England, as in We Built This Village On A Trad Arr. Tune and For What is Chatteris? (if youre not there): Car crimes low Gun crimes lower The town hall bands CD Its a grower You never hear of folk getting knocked on the bonce Although there was a drive-by shouting once Yet that song also approaches the albums other theme, often present but here more than ever; allusions to intense loss and depression. I do hope its not too autobiographical. The CDs best track to my mind is

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Depressed Beyond Tablets, (nice BrassEye reference), which contains the wonderful lines: Your optimism strikes me like junk-mail addressed to the dead Depressed beyond tablets Ive gone beyond pills The cloud-face is low on the Clwydian hills There is perhaps nothing on this album as instantly striking as some of their former tracks, no Fred Titmuss or Life At The End Of The Tunnel. And as ever theres the odd miss on the way. Joy Division Oven Gloves has an excellent title but meanders off into the pure silliness most people (whove heard of them) imagine theyre all about. Restless Legs is an inconsequential observation of, er, someone with restless legs to the tune of George Formbys When Im Cleaning Windows (also underrated in my view but well save that for another time) Upon Westminster Bridge contains the list of modern malaise track which features on every album; and this isnt one of the best of them, though it does have the highly saving grace of incorporating the 12 days of Christmas tune; and including (TVs DIY SOSs) Nick FUCKING Knowles instead of five GOLD rings. Yes, that makes up for it in fact. Yet despite weaker moments, what is present

throughout is the incredibly wide-ranging wit and allusions of the song-writing that has been written of as novelty for far too long. Lets get this straight. Half Man Half Biscuit are a comedy band (Black Lace, Barron Knights, Fat Les, Electric Six, The Darkness) only in so much as The Bible is a self-help book. And yet, in the end, yes, I suppose youd have to find some of their more obvious lines funny to appreciate their other qualities. Much is in the delivery and context, yet I suppose if you dont find Is your child hyperactive? / Or is he perhaps a twat? or Its a cricketing farce / With a thickening plot / Act One Scene One / Brenda Blethyn gets shot amusing even in the abstract then the band as a whole is not likely to appeal. Your loss. Heres perhaps my favourite off the album: Gouranga Gouranga? / Yes Ill be happy / When youve been arrested for defacing the bridge Part of the joy of the Biscuits is theres so many references in the songs you cant possibly know them all, but you can then seek them out (or look at this site to help you.) They should be on the national curriculum. For instance, the above lines makes perfect sense to me. If it doesnt to you, you could or should embark on a journey examining the vandalised state of north British motorway bridges, which would then lead you to the propaganda tactics of the modern Hare Krishna movement. It also

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shows how infectious Blackwells humour is. A good percentage of it is about sport for a start, and I cant stand sport. I still find it funny, and can now follow a conversation about football without eyes glazing over and mouth drooling. This is probably not one of Half Man Half Biscuits best albums. And yet its still fantastic. You could learn

more about life in modern Britain from this album than all those in the Gallup Top 50 combined. Easy. If Nigel ever reads this he will probably be most amused some pseud has chosen to over-analyse his lyrics. Well screw you Nige. Youre a poet even if you dont know it. Youll still be listened to in 200 years time. If I have my way. And by God sir, I will.

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Review [published June 2000] Gary Marshall

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Half Man Half Biscuit: Trouble Over Bridgewater


If there was any justice in the world, it would be illegal to own Simply Red albums and Half Man Half Biscuit would be worshipped as gods. Unfortunately, the vagaries of the music business mean that the band who brought us the immortal lyric God, I could murder a Cadburys Flake, but then you wouldnt let me into heaven / or maybe you would, cause their adverts promote oral sex (Dickie Davies Eyes) are unlikely to become as big as Boyzone. Its a shame because, as Trouble Over Bridgwater demonstrates, Half Man Half Biscuit are one of the funniest bands Britain has ever produced. Like every other HMHB record, the bands millionth album (ok, eighth) sounds like it was recorded in a shed and misses its targets as often as it hits them; nevertheless, there are enough gems on the CD to make it an essential purchase. The usual mix of punky guitars and deadpan vocals is present and, to our ears, the standout track is Irk The Purists (Irk the purists, irk the purists, irk the purists, its a right good laugh). The song uses the tune of Agadoo to devastating effect: Hsker D-DD, Captain Beefheart, ELO. Its a good indication of the rest of the album, too. If you think slagging off the whiny indier-than-thou brigade is a great way to spend an evening, Trouble Over Bridgwater will have you in tears. The bands strength has always been their willingness to wring every last drop of humour from a stupid idea, and The Ballad Of Climie Fisher is a classic example of this. Revealing the answer to the not very frequently-asked question, whatever happened to 80s popsters Climie Fisher?, the song recounts how the clean-cut stars went into the gravel business, with awful consequences. Similarly, Used To Be In Evil Gazebo takes gleeful aim at gloomy indie bands, with the genius chorus I used to be in a mental hospital but I dont like to talk about it. Other songs are worthwhile just for their song titles: who can resist Twenty Four Hour Garage People or Look Dad No Tunes? If your listening tastes are more Celine than Clinic, Madonna than Mogwai, youll find Trouble Over Bridgwater goes right over your head even we found some of the pop culture references entirely baffling. If, on the other hand, youve an encyclopaedic knowledge of indie music and regularly trounce all-comers at the local pop quiz, this album is as essential as breathing.

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Feature [published November 1996]

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Keith Haring: Artist Or Radiant Baby?

Nick Clapson looks at the man behind the spray can with the publication of Keith Harings journals At the close of the 20th century, trying to find a stable was fully developed. definition for the term art has become increasingly Harings recently published journals, first begun in difficult. The traditional notion of art as the privilege 1977, offer a great insight into his artistic development. of the educated and wealthy, preserved within galleries These fragments of Harings life provide not only a and private collections, has continually come under atglimpse of his private life, but also go some of the way tack by popular culture, from Dada and the Surrealists to outlining Harings artistic manifesto. The density all the way through to Warhol. and complexity of his thoughts and aims act as a shockOne of the few artists that actually acknowledged this ing foil to the apparent lightness of Harings iconic new, precarious, nature of the artist as it emerged was cartoony style. This was a man for whom art, though Keith Haring. Keith was born in Kutztown, Pennsylvadisposable by nature, was not to be underestimated in nia in 1958, and from an early age expressed an interest power. One of Harings major ambitions, which he in art. After a period studying commercial art in Pittsstated at an early stage, was to return art to the public. burgh, Haring realised this was not the right direction This at first appears to be a simple task: however, as for him. He left in 1976 and hitchhiked cross-country, Haring was to later prove, it was somewhat more darbefore returning to sit in on classes at the University of ing than first imagined. Haring did not want to produce Pittsburgh. It was here that central elements of his later art that was simply physically accessible, available style started to emerge. That style had a self-confessed from the street to the high street store, but art that was similarity to the work of the French Modernist Leger, also freed from the delimiting vision of the traditional and the later work of Jean Dubuffet. However, no artist institutions, be it gallery or critic. It would seem, if we is just the sum the of their stylistic influences. By the follow Harings lead, that an Art that is easy to read time of his first one-man show at the Shafraz Gallery, has far more power than an Art that is simply obtuse or New York in 1982, Harings individual approach to art high-brow.

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The measured simplicity of Keith Harings work was the result of much close and detailed study. By reducing the visual elements of his work to what can best be described as icons, Haring managed to produce what amounted to keys which unlocked ideas. However, the impact of these images rests not only on this process. What increases their pertinence is their universality. Haring employed an imagery that seems to connect with everyone; the more cynical would liken it to the power of advertising. However, Haring was not interested in the empty sites of materialism per se. In place of the usual trite commercial messages, Haring invested personal introspection and concern into the public space of advertising, using the directness of the advertising medium against itself. Another invigorating aspect to Harings work was his willingness to address and acknowledge the importance of not only popular culture, but also it more shady son, subculture. Harings work would have been impossible without the previous impact on the popular conception of art by both Walt Disney and Andy Warhol. With Disney opening up the viewer to the joy and pleasure to be gained from the cartoon figure, not only as an entertainment, but also as an art form, it was surely only a matter of time before an artist managed to tap into this idea. However, to make that step from popular entertainment to Art, or High Art, would have surely been impossible without the ground-breaking work of

likes of Andy Warhol. Warhol managed to re-create the artist, to slap the art-world in the face and say that commerce has a place in art. With Warhol having broken the mould of what was acceptably defined as art and what wasnt the next generation could now reach out an explore the culture that they found around them. So, by reflecting the subcultures that surrounded him, be it skate-boarding, hip-hop or homosexuality, Haring opened the door and allowed real, contemporary life into his art. With the street in his work, Haring instantly made connections with the common viewer as opposed to the educated viewer. Such accessibility was also furthered by his POP SHOP in SoHo, New York, and later in Japan, which sold pieces of his commercial art. Harings own sexuality also found a voice in his art, and hence many of his motifs have homoerotic connotations. However, to view his work as purely queer art is nothing but limiting. The humour and impassioned politicking evident in many of his more sexual works surely increase their palatability to the straighter audience. As a result, works such as those produced for the AIDS awareness group ACT UP have now reached the level where they can almost be considered as classic images of the 80s. Another interesting aspect of these journals is the way in which Haring himself dealt with his fame. For a man who quickly rose to fame, collected by both

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major galleries and celebrity collectors, such as Madonna, he remained surprisingly level-headed. Even though he was consistently displayed through Europe, he still had doubts to his own importance as an artist, and whether or not he was really cutting edge. Such modesty is truly a rare gift in the art-world, and especially significant, in the crazy New York culture of the celebrity artist. The publication of Harings journals offer the interested an opportunity to glimpse

some of the motivations of what clearly must be one of the key American artists of the late 20th century. However, they also offer us much more. They provide us with a chance to consider the concerns and fears of an ordinary man who suffered with the same problems as us all; self-doubt, love, and fears for our own mortality. If I were to attain half the compassion and understanding that this man achieved in his brief life I would I consider myself to be a happy man.

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Feature [published May 2001]

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Even though hes been dead for seven years, the savage political satire of Bill Hicks makes more sense than ever. Chris Hall spreads the word If you mention to any intelligent individual under the row of flim-flam Is It Me Or Is Airline Food Really age of 25 that you saw Nirvana and The Pixies live Bad? For my friends and me, just on the evidence of youll get a response along the lines of you lucky that evening, Hicks was the greatest comedian there bastard. However, if you say that you saw Bill Hicks ever had been, or ever would be. live, the reaction is qualitatively different. There is a For some, humourless PC types, his goat-boy crestfallen look. For those fans who have come to worpersona threw them off track. It was the side of Hicks ship him from his albums and videos, it only reinforces that mined personal, rather than political, obsessions the knowledge that they will never see this late and (of course, not necessarily his own obsessions). It was very great comedian for as long as they live. He died in difficult for some to square the Marxist, sub-Chomsky February 1994 from pancreatic cancer at the pitifully perspectives with a man who would talk about renting young age of 32. Clam Lappers and Anal Entry volume 500 from his I only saw Hicks play the once but the memory of local video store. Live, Hicks was more extreme in all that evening is as seared into the cerebral cortex as so directions. The time I saw him, people in the front row much steak on a griddle. I still have the fading ticket: must have been deafened by his screams of admonition Bill Hicks. Brighton Festival. Sun 10 May 1992. 8pm. to boy pop bands of the day to Play with your fucking Comp. Complimentary because this was also my first heart! (How perceptive I was in noting in my review, review for the university magazine I wrote for. The exwith what I obviously thought of as devastating unpectancy of that evening was immense. There had been derstatement, that Hicks was more Lenny Bruce than a Channel 4 programme on him and we had picked up Lenny Bennett). He also had a peculiar air of physical snippets from time to time from the NME and Montreal omniscience over the spatio-temporal coordinates of Comedy Festival clips. Here was someone taking an the room, where he cadged a Silk Cut from someone at interest in the outside world again, not ploughing a furthe front of the audience and dropped it only to catch it

Bill Hicks: Bad Mood Rising

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without looking at it and without his eyes straying from us to say nonchalantly I doubt it before lighting it in one graceful movement. Even though the act was honed and down pat so that he could riff around it (excuse me why I plaster on a fake smile and plough through this shit one more time) when I saw him at Brighton he was consummate in fielding questions from the audience (on subjects as diverse as the then recently launched Euro Disney in Paris to how Labour lost the 1992 general election). I thought of Hicks as soon as Dubyah won the US election. One could simply replay the Hicks material about George Bush from the time of the Gulf War and apply it to Bush II. History repeating itself first as farce and then as a Bill Hicks routine. Where was Hicks when we needed him during Clintons dreadful Presidency? The Lewinsky affair, the impeachment hearings, the Presidential pardons you feel that he would of made such an incredible impact had he lived. Who knows, perhaps he would of given direction to the growing Western response of anti-capitalism? He was that inspirational. Hicks used comedy in a way that Lenny Bruce had used it in the 60s, as a consciousness-expanding one. The appeal was one of a manichaean righteousness that could of course slide into savage arrogance. There is a joke he tells about a waffle waitress who, seeing him

reading a book, asks him Why yall reading for? to which he replies, and its hard not to blanch from the savagery of it: Well, I guess I read for a lot of reasons, the main one being so I dont end up being a fucking waffle waitress. So there we have it comedy that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, but which makes sure to afflict the afflicted as well. In the evolutionary sense, a subject he was particularly interested in, Hickss lines continue to be highly successful memes: Youre not human till youre in my phone book, Human beings are just a virus in shoes, etc. I cant of been the only one to notice in the dark poetry of Hickss faux heartfelt tribute to his dying Grandma who he wants to see used in stunts in a martial arts film, the intimation that here was potentially a great writer too: Do you want your grandmother dying like a little bird in some hospital room, her translucent skin so thin you can see her last heartbeat work its way down her blue veins? Or do you want her to meet Chuck Norris? Hicks arrived, in mass media terms, at the tail end of those seemingly monolithic Republican and Conservative governments of the 1980s and early 1990s and what a fillip it was to have such a hardcore exorcism of our anxieties and anger. We loved the fact that here was someone you genuinely knew would never sell out (hear Hickss response on Rant In E-Minor to a British company that wanted him to advertise their Orange

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Drink). For a while, my girlfriend and I kept our own Artistic Roll Call on the wall, where we would strike through the names of artists whod just appeared in an ad for family hatchbacks or a new online banking service (Do an ad, and youre off the artistic roll-call for ever.). It was a depressing and shaming list. Part of the sadness at Hickss death was the sense that a powerful, not just a very funny, political critic had been lost, and one who was irreplaceable. He has cast a very long shadow for comedians since his death. Someone that unique is always going to bring out the imitators, the paraders of his feathers (the lamentable British film Human Traffic has a Hicks segment on drugs, and even has the gall to end the film with one of his lines). One doesnt have to strain that hard to hear the tropes or cadences of Hicks in any number of present-day comedians. I saw Rich Hall, a Perrier Award winner no less, shamelessly adapt Hickss Jay Leno fantasy routine where Leno, the straw man who has the revelation Oh my God! What have I done with my life?, shoots himself and a spray of blood in the shape of the NBC peacock is produced (with the venomous pay-off: A corporate man to the bitter end). But righteous anger is not so easily commodified or corrupted, as Denis Leary must have realised by now. To my mind, Rob Newman is the only comedian to have come even close to Hickss level of insight and intensity.

Mark Thomas said witheringly in interview, If he couldnt be angry when he had a few months to live, then theres something wrong. (Thomas told me rather laughably that he felt that Hicks is the American Mark Thomas and that Hicks was doing very similar material to him when Thomas went to see Hicks at Edinburgh.) Whats even more galling is the conflation in the minds of some people of Hicks with Leary. Yes, they both smoked a lot, yes, they both wore black. End of similarity. Leary is (or should I say was?) a one-trick hack, the one trick being No Cure For Cancer, who ended up taking cameo roles in films like Judgement Night and Demolition Man while advertising pissweak beer (Another corporate shill at the capitalist gang-bang). The appetite among his fans for all things Hicks is partly a function of the lack of a biography the Nick Doody biography has been due to be published for years or much new material since the posthumously released Rant In E Minor and Arizona Bay. Given that Hicks was gigging from the age of 14 in Austin, Texas (incidentally where Jenna Bush, Dubyahs 19-yearold daughter, was recently arrested for under-age drinking) right through to his death aged 32 there must be a lot of material that hasnt been seen yet. Hickss friend Kevin Booth, who ran Sacred Cow Productions with him, runs an excellent website dedicated to Bill Hicks, which occasionally adds new audio and video

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clips of Hicks. In America, as far as I can gather, he was a genuinely marginalised figure, and continues to be. There was a sense, though, that, as in the case of that other great American maverick export Jimi Hendrix, it was maybe going to be a case of Hicks making it in Britain first. I met a journalist in San Francisco, Jack Boulware, who interviewed Hicks for Arena magazine in the States. He told me that the reason he thought Hicks was beyond the pale in America was simply that he seemed to be so anti-American. Its often said, quite rightly, that Hicks was in essence a preacher (indeed he admitted it himself) and Ive always thought of him as Robert Mitchum in Night Of The Hunter, choosing not self-aggrandisement but enlightenment, beating sense into comatose America with those fists marked love and hate. A fascinating Index on Censorship article from December 2000 details the machinations that prevented Hickss segment from being broadcast on an edition of the David Letterman show (hed appeared 11 times before on the same show). Hickss letter to the journalist John Lahr his Dear John letter to life in some ways is a cri de coeur: Jokes, John: this is what America now fears one man with a point of view, speaking out, unafraid of our vaunted institutions, or the loathsome superstitions the CBS hierarchy feels the masses (the herd) use as their religion. One of the hot points that

CBS highlights as unsuitable for our audience is the following pro-life skit: Bill Hicks: You know whos really bugging me these days. These pro-lifers (Smattering of applause.) Bill: You ever look at their faces? Im pro-life! (Makes a pinched face of hate and fear, his lips are pursed as though hes just sucked on a lemon.) Im pro-life! Boy, they look it dont they? They just exude joie de vivre. You just want to hang with them and play Trivial Pursuit all night long. (Audience chuckles.) Bill: You know what bugs me about them? If youre so pro-life, do me a favour dont lock arms and block medical clinics. If youre so pro-life, lock arms and block cemeteries. (Audience laughs.) Bill: Lets see how committed you are to this idea. (Bill mimes the pursed lipped pro-lifers locking arms.) Bill (as pro-lifer): She cant come in! (Audience laughs. Bill as confused member of funeral procession): She was 98. She was hit by a bus! (Audience laughs.) Bill (as pro-lifer): Theres options! (Audience laughs.) Bill (as confused member of funeral procession): What else can we do? Have her stuffed? (Audience laughs.) Bill: I want to see prolifers with crowbars at funerals opening caskets get out! Then Id be really impressed by their mission. (Audience laughs and applauds.) Hicks ends his letter to John Lahr with a passionate plea for sanity: This is what I think CBS, the producers of the Letterman show, the networks and governments

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fear the most that one man free, expressing his own thoughts and point of view, might somehow inspire others to think for themselves and listen to that voice of reason inside them, and then perhaps, one by one we will awaken from this dream of lies and illusions that the world, the governments and their propaganda arm, the mainstream media, feeds us continuously over 52 channels, 24 hours a day. What I realised was that they dont want the people to be awake. The elite ruling class wants us asleep so well remain a docile, apathetic herd of passive consumers and non-participants in the true agendas of our governments, which is to keep us separate and present an image of a world filled with unresolvable problems, that they, and only they, might somewhere, in the never-arriving future, may be able to solve. Just stay asleep, America. Keep watching television. Keep paying attention to the infinite witnesses of illusion we provide you over Lucifers Dream Box.

For anyone doubting the veracity of Hickss analysis, a good recent example of news being managed in such a way that it keeps us passive non-participants is the virtual US press black out over the recent Kyoto protocol all under the guise, no doubt, of it being of no interest to the American public that the US has an appalling environmental record. Hicks has his revelation while watching the Letterman show the week after being pulled. The scales fall away from his eyes, and hes looking at the real reason. Hes looking at a pro-life commercial. Gore Vidal once gave a definition of real politics as Who collects what money from whom to spend on whom for what with the corollary that no politician in the US dares address that subject for fear well discover who bought him and for how much. Follow the money, indeed. And what was one of the very first things that Dubyah did as President? It was to cancel the funding of abortion clinics abroad.

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Interview [published February 2008] Greg Lowe

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Tom Hodgkinson: How To Be Idle


Its Friday afternoon, and after a particularly busy week, with only a few things to wrap up, I try and scratch off the last important thing on my list of things to do interview author/journalist Tom Hodgkinson. First I try his London office a number of times, only to get the following answer-phone message: This is the office of the Idler [the magazine of which Hodgkinson is the founder/editor], theres no one in right now, were not in very often, so if you leave a message it might take a while for us to get back to you At 5:50pm Bangkok time (11:50am in England) I try my luck with his mobile number, which I was given in case something goes wrong. Hi, this is Tom, Ive left my mobile at home today, you can reach me at [the number for the Idler office]. It appears I am trapped in a Sisyphean cycle of messages left on answer-phones that lead to more messages on other answer-phones, all equally unlikely to be answered or to yield in the previously arranged interview. Normally this would be cause for concern, but today a smile born from a wonderful sense of irony spreads across my face. You see, apart from editing the magazine, Hodgkinson is also the author of a curious little book, How To Be Idle. Broken down into hourly chapters, starting at 8am and finishing at 7am, it wages a war on work while providing practical and philosophical loafing advice for every part of the day. Chapter three 10am Sleeping In, begins as follows: Its 10am The successful idler, having avoided the guilt produced by 8am, the culturally determined hour of rising, and the guilt produced by 9am, the hour of work, may now be awake, and thinking of perhaps getting up. Dont! The fact that he was either not up, nor in the office to answer the phone, came as no great surprise. I fired off a bunch of questions via email, and left the office heading for the pub. Hodgkinson practices what he preaches in How To Be Idle. He takes the subject of doing nothing very seriously, and aims to inspire more than a quiet chuckle from readers. Although the book is a good read, it is intended to be taken seriously. I really do believe that our system of things is anti-life, he says.

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That he takes idleness sincerely is demonstrated through his fastidious research, which draws on sources as varied as Robert Louis Stevenson, Lao Tzu, Dr Johnson, Albert Camus and Damien Hirst, who provide a 2,500-year-old legacy to loafing (theres nine pages of further reading on the subject). It has to be said that the end result really is good. Not only is the book thoroughly entertaining, it should resonate with anyone except the most puritanical workaholic bores who has ever questioned how our lives have become to be dominated by work, time, and the need to be constantly doing something, or by feeling guilty for being inactive. Hodgkinson says that this angst-driven nine-to-five drudgery is only a fairly recent development in terms of human history. That it is the result of when, some 250 years ago, we were ripped from our agrarian existence by the ravages of the Industrial Revolution. This transformed our previous existence of spontaneous, task-oriented work, to one where we were shackled to the ruthless tyranny of the clock and wage labour. It has alienated us from our authentic lackadaisical state of nature, Hodgkinson adds, saying that the only purpose chirpy axioms such as Benjamin Franklins 1757 utterance, Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man, healthy, wealthy and wise serve are to fill us with guilt whenever we return to an authentic state of doing as we please.

[If we were idle] we would become more alive. We would be less stressed out because we would be in control of our own lives. We would free ourselves from the master/slave dialectic and all the other imprisoning dualities that control us. Life and work would become the same thing. We would become whole people rather than fractured people. But left to loafers like Hodgkinson, wouldnt the world just go to the dogs? I think the claim is self-evidently false. Idle people are creative and hard workers are uncreative. Is it better to trick people into buying crisps or to grow your own vegetables? Clearly the latter. It is generally better to do nothing than to do something. It creates less harm in the world. When summing up whether How To Be Idle offers an intelligent critique of the alienating nature of the rate race, or just a self-indulgent lazy mans guide to life, its worth considering the words of the British journalist, and celebrated alcoholic, Jeffrey Bernard (quoted in the book) on the matter how those who preach the benefits of working harder, are normally the people having a nice time, relaxing and getting rich on the backs of others. As if there was something romantic and glamorous about hard work if there was something glamorous about it, the Duke of Westminster would be digging his own fucking garden, wouldnt he?

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Review [published September 2005] Edmund Hardy

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Gert Hofmann: Parable Of The Blind


The Knocker knocks on the barn door and six men stumble around, trying to get up. The novel opens: On the day when were to be painted yet another new day! a knocking on the barn door drags us out of our sleep. No, the knocking isnt inside us, its outside, where the other people are. The six men narrate as we, although one of them, Ripolus, is also guide, because he can reportedly see a little. Ripolus, what can you see? Simply describe for us what you can see? The answer is usually, Not much. The novel covers the day when these six men are to be painted by Pieter Breughel, the Painter, who wants them to follow each other and fall down into a ditch, the image familiar to us as The Parable of the Blind, a rural recreation of Matthew XV, 14: If the Blind lead the Blind, both shall fall into the ditch. In the painting, the blind men are about to fall. The painting is tense, as the eye follows the chain of men towards the ditch. What we see is about to collapse. Hofmanns novel is also tense; not because the six narrators may collapse but because the novel as viable form may do so. It doesnt. The novels frame is this: the six men speak a strangely unified monologue, wandering around the village, on the green, in the woods, eating lunch. Each man has a story about how he came to be blind. As readers, we are never given more information than the six possess nor any hints with which to see out of the monologue; there are times when the six may be the subject of practical jokes being told they are in a secluded toilet when they may be on the village green but we dont laugh, because we dont know if its funny. We dont see from the outside. We read thoughts and speech. We are blind because were stuck like narrative threads in the novels mass, just as the blind men seem trapped in the telling of their own story. This is why worries over the inaccurate presentation of blindness are beside the point. Do blind people feel themselves all over to work out who they are, first thing in the morning, as these do? No. But this is the Parable Of The Blind, and the parables are multiple. Imagine a page with six tiny figures stumbling around in it; they cant see the perimeter of the page, and they cant see out into the world. The page is a room, or a

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village, and we, the reader, are there too, wondering what room, what enclosed world we are in. The six men remember the past. They wonder where they are. They have banal conversations with strangers about food and the weather and which is the best way to go. They argue with each other and nearly fight. Hofmanns prose is so concentrated and unrelenting that claustrophobia turns to terrible awareness. There is no need to explicate. No need for laboured, authors message moments, because we begin to read everything into the parable; the leaner in description or the more a narrative moves in circles or repetition the greater the force accumulated. How does a book like this pierce through to us, when there was no vivid description of something we recognised, no witty or psychologically fascinating dialogue, no grand sweep of history, no denouement? One answer is that those very elements begin to seem ornamental to literatures work, part of which (lets be reductive!) is to wonder how communication in language might be possible and, if it isnt, to fail instructively. How can six blind men stumbling around, speak to us? Do they speak for anyone else as well? They are six men in a painting, here made to fall into the ditch over and over for the Painter to make his sketches. Sight is most often the sense connected to knowledge, as in, I see it, I cant see round it, in this light, and also the various distinctions between the visible and

invisible. Sight is also linked to reason; if we can see it properly, we can be rational about it. These traditions find their dissection in the contemporary philosophies of the gaze. In The Parable Of The Blind, it is hearing that relates the realistic details of interaction, that is, speech. Without sight, the most pushy of senses, one of the things the novel does is to bring sound and touch back to a narrative, to embody a world not predicated on the eyes, as Aristotle seemed to think was necessary when he wrote On Sense And Sensible Objects, of those who have been deprived of one sense or the other from birth, the blind are more intelligent than the deaf and the dumb. Hofmanns novel is a joke on metaphor which, classically, bridges the inward mental activity to the world of appearances, left in this novel as a swing bridge hanging over the water making the parable, in this light, a parable of the parables. Standing before a painting, we may well ask a work to speak to us, and a number of novelists have taken up the extra-critical task of elaborating this speech or else making up a story one thinks of a pearl earring following the irritating trope that we might walk inside a painting. Hofmann has taken this thought and actually pushed our faces so far into the oil and brush-strokes that we cannot see back out, and we cannot see within. The prose, inhabiting a world of sound and intuited objects, is spare and clear, like a radio transmission which has been tuned in after an interfering hiss.

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Christopher Middletons translation is excellent by no means a given in translations from the German, see Michael Henry Heims ruination of Gnter Grasss My Century in that he replicates this sparse quality in English without falling into a Beckett-ese, which it might have been easy to do. Middleton is a poet recommended is his new and selected poems, The Word Pavilion as well as the extraordinary prose pieces in such volumes as Crypto-Topographia and translator of Canetti (his letters), Robert Walser and Nietzsche. His is not a workman-like translation. Hofmanns forward-drive is here, the unaccountable tension, the use of sentence on sentence like brick and timber.

The narrator (unusual for being six people and one person simultaneously) often says probably, probably we are here, probably there is a man with a stick, probably we are being painted by the Painter. Surface is not given to us for our delight, as in a Quiet novel (Edgar Allen Poes term for the mainstream, official literary culture of his time, the work he hated and wanted to tear down), but is constantly in doubt what would otherwise be a world is here only conjecture: Whats going on? we call. And its hard to find the way back. Were in a dream. Lying in a fresh furrow, in a boundless field, half on the surface, half below ground, clouds probably overhead.

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Interview [published May 2001]

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Nick Hornby: Gender Trouble

Patrick McGuigan talks with Nick Hornby about the changing roles of men and women in his new novel How To Be Good Men stumble through life bewildered by relationships, Arsenal usually took precedence over his emotional terrified of responsibility and unable to articulate their life. His next two books, High Fidelity and About A feelings; or so you would think from the characters Boy, explored similar ideas of how men struggle to portrayed in Nick Hornbys novels. Women are only come to terms with modern expectations of sensitivity used to make the men look worse. His new book, How and maturity. They are funny, touching and his male To Be Good, deliberately sets out to challenge this characters ring true. stereotype. Hornbys arrival at such a position has been It is surprising for an author so concerned with masa direct result of the success of his first three books, culinity that he hasnt written much about fatherhood. Fever Pitch, High Fidelity and About A Boy. All his main characters are, as he puts it: childless, Hornby writes from a small flat two minutes from feckless males, who dont have strong paternal ties. his beloved Highbury. It is equipped with a kitchen, About A Boy addressed the issue of fatherhood in a bathroom and lounge, where framed posters of his metaphorical way but he has never dealt with it directly. books hang proudly on the walls. He obviously spends Part of the reason for this is that his son, Danny, is a lot of time here. Hornby is divorced and lives with his autistic. My experience of fatherhood is going to take seven-year-old son in a house near to his office flat. He a long while to filter through to what I write. Being is friendly, assured, and smokes continually. He looks the father of a disabled child you have a lot to say, but tired and his patchy baldness gives him a disconcerting, its so unique you want to do it in a way that people ravaged look. understand. Born in 1957, he graduated from Cambridge with a His own father left the family home for another woman 2.2 in English Literature. He then worked as a teacher when Hornby was a young boy. He then moved abroad and a journalist before publishing Fever Pitch in 1992. for ten years. Hornby says he has not really thought It was an honest account of how his obsession with about what effect his father has had on his writing, but

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adds: I had an absent father. Fathers havent played a big role in my books yet; maybe theres a void where a father should be. He laughs nervously, then moves the conversation on to how the media encroaches on topics formerly only tackled by writers. Hornby has said that he is tired of men being portrayed as morons by the media and wants to redress the balance. He argues: The first two books couldnt have been written 25 years ago. Men writing about how they feel would not have been tolerated. He goes on to say that with the advent of feminism and changes in the workplace men and women have become more equal. I dont know any man who cant change a nappy or cook. When asked about women earning 20 per cent less than men he quickly points out that his books only cover domestic life and there is a long way to go. Obviously society is still incredibly sexist. Its difficult when you write about gender to talk about men and yet be sympathetic to feminism. Hornbys books are unbalanced because they only concentrate on men. Life is confusing for everyone, women included. He agrees: The flaws in High Fidelity and Fever Pitch are that the women arent rounded characters. The whole process of writing books and reading womens letters about them has made me completely rethink. Ive now decided that the men/women stuff is a red herring. He elaborates on his new position on gender: There

are two extremes England hooligans with skinheads and women who are subservient to their husbands. Then theres the middle where most of us are now. People of a certain generation dont feel incredibly different to their partners. When asked if it is simplistic to say we are all the same, he concedes that differences do come from our experiences of being brought up a man or a woman. He also acknowledges that men can find it hard to express themselves. Id rather not communicate whereas the women I know would prefer to talk. This is an important change in direction for Nick Hornby, the beginnings of which can be seen in About A Boy. As well as touching on fatherhood it has a female character that tries to kill herself in a bout of depression. This is not a positive depiction of women but certainly more complex than in his proceeding books. His new novel, How To Be Good, is the first time Hornbys main character is female. He explains: Its about a woman whose husband has a spiritual conversion that drives her nuts. This could be a risky step for a writer so linked in the minds of the public with men and football. He claims he has not found it particularly difficult to write: I wasnt sitting there thinking Oh my God, what would a woman say in this situation! He has also given it to female friends and taken out parts they did not think were appropriate.

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Hornbys books work because his male characters are so familiar. They have an authenticity that readers immediately relate to. If he can do the same in his next novel with a female character, it will be a major achievement. As he says: If Im going to progress as a writer Ive got to stop worrying about gender and treat people as people, characters as characters.

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Review [published November 2002] Kevin Walsh

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Michel Houllebecq: Atomised


Michel Houellebecq is one of those authors who inspire hugely conflicting reactions. Some hail him as a literary giant in the European tradition, deftly weaving philosophy, history, and science into his bleak, challenging narratives, asking those questions that other more commercially-minded authors shy away from. Others think him hollow, pretentious, showily didactic and deeply disturbed not to mention highly overrated. And controversial. Very controversial. In 2001, he gave an interview to the French literary magazine, Lire, in which he said Islam is a dangerous religion, as has been since its beginnings [] I totally reject all monotheistic religions. In September 2002 he appeared before a tribunal in Paris on charges of inciting religious hatred, and was asked to explain himself. All I said is that their religion is stupid, he said in his defence. And thats what you call promoting a book? said the president of the tribunal. Yes, thats right, answered Houellebecq, with his customary insouciance. Atomised (published in the US as The Elementary Particles) is the story of two half-brothers, Michel and Bruno (Houellebecq denies that his namesake is based on himself, but the parallels are striking). Sharing the same mother, they have both been abandoned by different fathers and brought up by relatives. Michel is a scientific researcher at the CNRS in Paris, a cold, unsympathetic and unhappy character. Bruno is equally unappealing, a misfit former teacher and part-time writer, divorced and sex-obsessed. Houellebecq has a rather disquieting habit of including large chunks of economic and social history as we plough through the decades of their childhood: the vnements of 1968, the legalisation of abortion, the succs de scandale in the 70s of the film Emmanuelle and so on. But he doesnt stop there: we are also treated to long disquisitions on science and philosophy, not to mention particle physics and DNA. Many chapters begin with long and sometimes mystifyingly irrelevant quotes. Houellebecq is undoubtedly very widely read. The trouble is, he wants us to know that he is. In an effort to demonstrate just what a polymath he is, he crosses the line into what the French call talage literally, a spreading

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out of ones wares; figuratively, just plain showing off. And he sometimes resorts to some very clumsy mechanisms to show the extent of his knowledge: at one point, Michel and Bruno have an in-depth conversation about Aldous Huxley, displaying a highly unlikely command of historical and biographical details. Perhaps its a sign of insecurity. Maybe he has more in common with his namesake than he would admit. The result of the name- and fact-dropping is a patchy story, where the narrative flow is repeatedly interrupted. The early part of the book follows the boys through their deeply unhappy childhood. These are unexceptional, rather dull and very mundane lives, and the characters fail to engage any real emotion on the readers part. The book swings wildly from lofty philosophical thoughts to very basic instincts. Later, large tracts of the book are taken up with Brunos sexual adventures. At a holiday camp one of whose main activities seems to be cruising for casual sex he encounters Christiane, a libertine who introduces him to the joys of the orgy circuit. And this points up a key distinction between the uptight AngloSaxon and relaxed French views towards sex (at the last count, there were over 400 sex clubs in France, catering for both changistes wife swappers and the more adventurous mlangistes orgy-goers). Sex sells, of course, which is why the UK version of Atomised features a naked woman on the cover,

together with the promise from The Independent that it is very moving, gloriously, extravagantly filthy, and very funny. Tellingly, the French edition features a sepia photograph of a bored-looking Houellebecq smoking a rollup held between his third an fourth fingers (a trademark eccentricity) and a carrier bag draped over his left arm. In the end, though, the book fails to weave a compelling story. There are too many undigested chunks of science and politics, too many swerves from highbrow philosophy to lowbrow oral sex. And far too much talage. But perhaps one of the most unnerving things about Houellebecqs books is his propensity to kill off his female characters. And Atomised has a high body count: the brothers mother (of natural causes), and both their girlfriends (suicides). Which has, inevitably, led to accusations of misogyny to add to the anti-Muslim, anti-Semite and anti-black charges that Houellebecq has clocked up during his turbulent career. Perhaps its no surprise, then, that Houellebecq has chosen to retreat to an island off the coast of West Cork, from which he rarely emerges. He did venture forth to Dublin earlier this year, when Atomised won the Impac Literary Prize, the latest in a string of awards hes bagged. And to Paris, to run rings round the tribunal. But then hes very good a running rings round people. Perhaps too good.

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Gary Indiana: Resentment Derek Jarman: Preserving A Harlequin Linton Kwesi Johnson: Inglan Is A Bitch Ed Jones: This Is Pop Gabriel Josipovici: On Trust Kevin Kelly: New Rules For The New Economy Naomi Klein: Ad Nauseum

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Rem Koolhaas: Content Kruder And Dorfmeister: The K&D Sessions Andrey Kurkov: Death And The Penguin Emma Larkin: Secret Histories Abby Lee: Girl With A One Track Mind Wyndham Lewis: Blast Jack London: The Iron Heel

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Review [published September 1997] David B. Livingstone

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Gary Indiana: Resentment


Historically, the turn of centuries and millenniums have marked periods of heightened popular anxiety, social unrest, collective madness, and religious mania. From the vantage point of 1997, a little less than twoand-a-half years from two-thousand-zero-zero, our own age seems little different: Heavens Gaters are hopping aboard Hale-Bopp, militia types are scanning the skies for black helicopters, and millions of people inexplicably watch Jenny Jones daily. Its getting to be a pretty weird world. And its hard to imagine a more fertile breeding ground for modern insanity than the supercharged, chaotic maelstrom of greater Los Angeles, as intensified and re-imagined in Resentment. Equal parts courtroom drama, existential lament, and blacker-than-black comedy, author Gary Indianas latest offering might mark the first entry in a new genre: Post-Simpson Trial fiction, a realm where brutality transforms effortlessly into bland, mildly-diverting mass entertainment, and where honour, justice, and even reality are relative concepts easily inverted by a clever attorney. Resentments unifying thread is a trial: The teenaged Martinez brothers stand accused of murdering their wealthy parents in an ambush slaying, while around them swirl a discordant cast of characters possessed of varying degrees of spiritual and moral decay. Seth, the self-serving New York reporter in town to cover the trial; Jack, his taxi-driver ex-lover, slowly dying of AIDS; Frankie, the narcissistic, Cunanenesque hustler; Potter Phlegg, the manipulative, exploitative psychologist; Cassandra, the washed-up soap opera actress; JD, a vapid drive-time radio host all abrade against each other, collide with one another in an exquisitely choreographed ballet of mutually-assured destruction performed to an accompaniment of lies and vacant smiles. While Resentments characters gradually grind one another into dust, the Martinez show/trial spirals to dizzying heights of absurdity as careerist attorneys and psychotic judges jockey for power, a struggle chronicled in chillingly-real torrents of self-negating legalese nonsense. Simultaneously, the violence of the brothers crime compounds itself as Indianas circle of misfits begin, usually unconsciously, to act out the same be-

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trayals and maledictions against each other, in a more subtle but no less destructive fashion. In a succession of careful, precise strokes, Indiana meticulously renders a portrait of a morally-malformed society whose governing principles are irrationality and amnesia, where justice is a commodity and ethical considerations an irrelevancy a world whose denizens, poisoned by immersion in a toxic morass of glossy images, pseudoevents, and hyperkinetic impermanence, struggle to retain the vestiges of humanity. Its hell, repainted in garish Disney colours. Wisely avoiding the temptation to proselytize, Indiana leaves it to the reader to connect the dots between Resentments fiction and real-life events. While purposelyglaring parallels with the Menendez and Simpson cases abound, additional layers of possible similarity between art and life, such as the details of individual characters (psycho)pathologies and their role in governing human interaction, are left open to interpretation. Its a tactic that

virtually mandates reader participation in the form of thoughtful interpretation and re-interpretation throughout the book, leading in a roundabout way to Indianas maintaining our rapt attention. Resentment is a fable of fin-de-sicle madness in its most acute stage, a premonitory snapshot of a moment when order and chaos, reason and insanity are locked in fights-to-the-death, the outcomes too close to call. Indiana has cleverly, cruelly drawn the blueprints for apocalypse-in-microcosm the whimper, not the bang, which would signal that the end is near and left it to his readers to deduce the degree to which art mirrors reality. Resentment is subtitled a comedy, but any laughter is only a buffer against tears and terror. The engine driving Resentment is Resentment, a bitterness at having arrived at an inescapable cul-de-sac en route to the American Dream a frenetic, endless loop where were likely to claw each other to pieces, a Roach Motel for human souls.

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Feature [published August 1996]

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Derek Jarman: Preserving A Harlequin


By the time you read this, Derek Jarman: A Retrospective will have closed at the Barbican Centre. However, the Barbican Centres comprehensive catalogue of the exhibition, which has been published by Thames And Hudson, gives a chance to re-evaluate the impact and splendour of Derek Jarmans work. Though largely famous for his film-work, Jarman was also a prestigious artist and writer, with his artistic skills even pouring over into other diverse art-forms such as scenery design and gardening (yes, gardening). With a man whose output was so divergent, whose character so like quicksilver, it is hard to pin him down. And this is the beauty of Jarman. He was indefinable and unique, a British maverick comparable in importance to artists such as William Blake, and as such, should not allowed to drift to the side-lines of history, or to be pigeon-holed solely as a queer film-maker. I discovered Derek Jarman myself through his journals, published as Modern Nature (1991), and At Your Own Risk (1992). Written as direct result of his knowledge that he was HIV+ these books offer the reader a startling honesty. Nothing is hidden from us,

Nick Clapson reflects on the work of Englands quintessential Renaissance man and as such we enter into his world, and his everyday life, more as a friend than an observer no brave face is put on for us, no politeness offered. Instead, Derek gives us truth and compassion, and at times pure, honest, anger. He leaps between the meditative contemplation of his garden and haranguing the British film industry for its complacency, between describing the omnipresence of the nuclear reactor behind his home at Dungeness and the evils of what he called hetrosoc. The result is a potent, valuable set of books pulsing with pure emotion. This truth and honesty is also a quality found in Jarmans films; he eschewed the expense and contrivance of big-budget films for the simplicity of Super8 stock. Even Jarmans most expensive films were made at a fraction of the cost of the cheapest Hollywood film. His work was radically different, especially from the usual British attempts at generating some form of quirky pseudo-Hollywood style. However, this outsider position quite suited Jarman, and as he said, I am the most fortunate film director of my generation: Ive only ever done what I wanted. People

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have said that they find his work hard, or just unintelligible, but that is part of their charm and power. Jarman frequently used the camera like a paintbrush, with the visual quotient of a scene carrying the charge normally left to the narrative: as it were, painting with light. However, such concepts are hard to conceive by a generation who goes to the cinema not to be challenged, but rather, have their eyes stuffed with Hollywood bubble-gum. That is not to say that such films dont have their place; you just have to learn to look at films by the likes of Jarman with open eyes. His films were also frequently of a revisionist tone, with Jarman looking back at history and re-viewing it through his own 20th-century eyes, and turning it into something new, something pertinent. For example, in 1977 he released his film Jubilee, coinciding with the Queens Silver Jubilee, blending a time-travelling Elizabeth I and John Dee with oppressed and violent punks in sharp commentary on contemporary Britain. This concern for the state of the British nation is also reflected in his more complex, and yet more visually rewarding film The Last Of England. Moreover, Jarman was not afraid of re-evaluating the classics, and produced his own idiosyncratic revisions of Shakespeares The Tempest, and the more successful version of Marlowes Edward II. This film, like many of his later films, utilised the strength of simplicity with its sparse ahistorical sets, and mixture of period and

contemporary costume. Again, Jarman looked to the past, especially to the hidden ramifications of a possible gay history, in order to comment on the situation today. That is to say, by re-examining men such as Edward II, Ludwig Wittgenstein or Caravaggio Jarman could shift the emphasis of traditional (read straight) history, and trace the previously hidden importance of a succession of homosexual men in key roles in Western intellectual culture. However, even though his films were often serious in tone, Jarman always seemed to have his tongue firmly lodged in his cheek, and concepts that could quite easily dissolve into pretentious drivel, frequently sparkle with irreverent wit. The paintings displayed at the Barbican are, like most retrospectives, a mixed bag. We travel from the cold controlled nature of his early abstract landscapes of his youth to the fiery anger of his compelling last works, and so can easily trace Jarmans origins and subsequent progression. The curator has also had the chance to assemble some of the artists personal artefacts, and the fact that people stand in rapt attention looking at such things as Jarmans fountain pen or diaries is testament to the lasting power of the man himself. The last section of the exhibition is the most striking, with the gloomy intensity of the pitch paintings and the dazzling outbursts that constitute the paintings that were first shown in the Evil Queen exhibition. These polemical works are Jarman at his most impassioned

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and his anger and frustration seep through the canvas. Their uncompromising nature was matched by his last film Blue. This film, with the screen saturated with an unchanging blue, was his most lyrical. It would be foolhardy to try capture the power and poignancy of this film in words. With the eyes confounded with nothing but an infinite blue, you are left to the voice-over to lead you through Jarmans imagination and your own in a way that has never been attempted before. Jarmans home and garden at Prospect Cottage in Dungeness, Kent, figure frequently in his last works, be it writing or film, and some attempt to address this has been attempted at the Barbican. Outside the gallery local children have made their own gardens la Jarman to quite good effect. However, nothing can recreate the sense of isolation and strange other-worldliness present at Dungeness. It is as if here everything, including time itself will dissolve at moment into the vast swathes of shingle. His home and the others around it stand stranded in this stark landscape, now dominated and threatened by the vast nuclear reactor behind them. A posthumous book, Derek Jarmans Garden (1995), with splendid photographs by Howard Sooley, captures the beauty of the place that meant so much to Jarman. I personally had never considered that gardening could ever be considered an art form, but what Jarman created here is nothing but art, albeit more challenging to construct and maintain as it is an art that continually

changes and grows. Innumerable plants provide islands of colour that sit in the sea of shingle which flows through the garden. Driftwood and flotsam punctuate the garden in the form of sculpture and ultimately serve to unify it with the area surrounding it. The result is a bounty of visual delights, made more powerful by the improbability of their setting. It is characteristic that Jarmans writing, even when discussing the creation of his garden in this book, soon breaks down, and becomes a discussion of so much more. Surely there is no better example than Derek Jarman of an artist whose work is entwined with their life. How, then, are we to remember this man? Should he be placed in the shrivelled canon of British 20thcentury art, filed under minor artist, or should he be cast in the limiting role of queer director, or just dismissed as loud, over-opinionated, English eccentric? It is symptomatic of artists who work in several media to be dismissed as a jack of all trades but master of none. However, this would clearly not be a worthy epitaph for a man who obviously excelled in nearly every art form he chose to turn his hand to. Jarman was also much more, being not only a very political man, but whose work also had a great feeling for the decline of all the positive elements of British culture that have been stifled and repressed since the start of the Thatcher years. Whatever his agenda, Jarman always made himself heard and its a voice that painful not to hear now. I feel,

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then, that all us can claim a part of Derek Jarman he was an important film-maker, and an undervalued and little discussed artist, and wrote books that will surely stand the test of time. And yes, he was a consummate gardener. To lose an artist at the height of their powers is hard to live with, but to neglect what they left us is criminal. What is important now is that no matter how fragmented he may become in our minds, this man of

rare vision must be preserved in a unified form in drafty corridors of history. Jarman, with all his divergent skill and charm, was surely more than just the sum of his parts, and that is how he should be remembered. Go and see this retrospective, watch one of the films, or even read the books, but do try and take the time to enter into Jarmans world. I can assure you, its quite an amazing place to be.

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Interview [published December 1998]

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Linton Kwesi Johnson: Inglan Is A Bitch

Nancy Rawlinson finds legendary dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson has not mellowed with age Twenty years ago, a landmark album was released awareness, fighting racism, and music. Born in Chapin the UK. Dread Beat An Blood was Linton Kwesi letown, Jamaica, in 1952 he came to England at the Johnsons debut recording, the first time his political age of 11 to live with his mother in Brixton. It was an poetry had been accompanied by the powerful beats of traumatic experience, compounded by the hostility and reggae. This new form of music, revolutionary in terms racism of Britain in the early 60s. Before long he had of language, content and style, came to be known as joined The Black Panthers. Thats where I learnt my dub poetry and Johnson is still the foremost and most politics and about my history and culture, he has said. uncompromising practitioner of the art. Using the patThats where I discovered black literature, particularly ois of Jamaican speech, Johnson articulates the Black the work of W.E.B. DuBois, the Afro-American scholar British experience and uses the rhythms of reggae to who inspired me to write poetry. get his message across. Armed with this new political awareness, Johnson In the past, he has been called a prophet. Yeah, was laying the foundations of his future recording yeah, I dont take these things seriously. I just think its career while he was still at school, with the poetry and another media tag, he says dismissively. The music is drumming group, Rasta Love. After graduating from compatible with the poetry in so far as I am writing out Goldsmiths College, he began to write in earnest and of the reggae tradition and some of the poems are writhis first collection of poetry was published in 1974. ten are within the perimeters of the reggae structure. Since then he has released three more books and a total And its oral poetry and oral poetry lends itself to the of 11 albums but thats not all. His achievements rhythms of music. outside of the studio have also been considerable. He Considering his commitment and personal history, has edited the journal Race Today Review, made a radio perhaps Johnsons success is no great surprise. His series on Jamaican music for the BBC, reported for whole life has been based around increasing political Channel Fours race relation series The Bandung File

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and helped found Creation For Liberation, the seminal Black Arts organisation of the 1980s. He has been involved with innumerable campaigns, set up his own record label and received honorary degrees and awards. His work is now taught in universities up and down the country. I could go on, but you get the picture. There is no doubt that Linton Kwesi Johnson is totally committed to improving and drawing attention to the Black British experience. Considering this, it seems almost sacrilegious to ask: Is his work as relevant now as it was 20 years ago? On this point, Johnson has no doubts. In the two decades that Linton Kwesi Johnson has been making music, his political stance has not shifted an inch. I think Tony Blair is a natural born Tory. Hes a natural born Tory who would have been quite comfortable on the left of the Tory party with people like Kenneth Clark and Michael Heseltine. he tells me. And what does he think the most pressing political issue of the day is? Without drawing breath, he gives an emphatic, two word answer. The police. His 1980 collection of poetry was entitled Inglan Is A Bitch. Despite the many battles that have been won, he stands by that statement. When one looks at what happened to Stephen Lawrence, when one thinks of the fact that a black person is eight times more likely to be stopped and searched than a white person, that a black person is five times more likely to be given a

custodial sentence than a white person, that the ACPO the Association of Chief Police Officers has come out and admitted that racism is institutionalised within the police force, that the black nurses within the health service for years have gotton a raw deal. When one thinks of all these things, yeah, Inglan is a Bitch. I still believe as passionately in the same things I did 20 years ago, and although we have made some head way, the struggle for social justice is still on. As ever, that struggle is clearly articulated on his new album, More Time. Some are already saying that it is his best work yet, a work in which the political and musical sides of Linton Kwesi Johnson are more strongly interwoven than ever. Ultimately, the feel is a touch lighter than in the past; the mood seems that little bit more optimistic. Johnson seems to agree. Well, some of the poems are optimistic, forward looking. Im writing about the possibilities of life. I try to make the music suit the mood of each poem. Like on Reggae Fi Bernard, a poem about the death of my nephew, I tried to conjure up the music of the Jamaican marching bands, who would traditionally form part of the funeral procession. But to an extent, you know, its about the banishment of grief and the celebration of life, so in that sense the music might be brighter. Its a poem about how we can benefit from life. There are also hints that this album is perhaps the most personal Johnson has ever made. Two tracks,

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Hurricane Blues (previously released without music in 1996 on the LKJ Acapella Live album) and Seasons of the Heart, are poems in which I was trying to explore some inner landscapes. And then there is the title track, More Time. Whilst clearly a statement about the working conditions and hours forced upon the poor and disenfranchised, I am left with the impression that it applies to Johnson himself. There is no reason why we cant work less hours and enjoy our lives more, he tells me. But if we do get more time, we have to organise ourselves to get some benefit from it. What is life if we cannot get some pleasure from friends and family, from relaxation and contemplation? Most people do not have an idea of what their human potential is, we are so used to not having time. As you might expect, his own preferred forms of relaxation are far from extravagant. I enjoy being with people. Socialising. The simple things, the simple things in life are the ones that give me pleasure. Going to the pub and having a pint, playing a game of dominoes or a game of pool. Being with my grandchild. Little things like that. Reading a good book. Eating a good meal. Some may feel that although Johnson is progressive in his ideals, his music style bears no mark of the revolution in technology that has taken place since he started recording. Well, Im not a luddite in that respect, he says, although he seems ambivalent about other more

modern combinations of music and politics. If its done well, it can be very entertaining and very fine but it has to be done well. There is always a danger of the music dominating the words. You have to very careful about how you do that. But as for rap, when its done badly its just boring. The only rap record I used to have, or I still have, is Grandmaster Flash, The Message. I dont think Ive ever heard anything that tops it. I never heard a rap tune that can better that. What Johnson does is outside the vagaries of musical fashion and he is not a man to pander to trends. The message of the music is all important. I do worry in a sense that people might forget that Im a poet and just get off on the music but I always like to think of it in this way, that the music articulated in a good way, and also the views are plain and clear and articulated well. But I dont want people to forget that Im a poet. So how does a man whos political views have not changed for 20 years, and whos musical style resists influences manage to sound so contemporary? And how does he manage to cross so many borders and reach so many people? Maybe its because the issues he writes about are still as relevant today as they were in 1978 and until they go away, Linton Kwesi Johnson will always be there, dragging them quite literally onto the centre stage. In a sense, even though a lot of my poems are about the black experience, as well as other things,

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Im not a ghetto artist. My audience is not a black audience, my audience is a broad cross section of people, so I dont think Im preaching to the converted. He has played all over the world, from Japan to Turkey, Iceland to Brazil, and with his new album, he looks set to attract a whole new audience. I just make my records and write my poems and Im just grateful that somebody bothers to listen to it, he says. Somehow, I think it is the audiences and record buying public who should be grateful.

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Review [published January 2000] Gary Marshall

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Ed Jones: This Is Pop


It wasnt a rock gig, it was an event. Journalists from all the major music papers were there, and even the local newspaper had marked the event with a special supplement. Celebrities air-kissed backstage, and the band took the stage in front of thousands of people. For Wigan musician Ed Jones, the gig should have been a triumphant homecoming, a sign that the years of tours and recording had been worthwhile. Unfortunately, Jones was in the audience. The band was The Verve, and the gig was the nowlegendary show at Haigh Hall. Jones was the bassist in the Tansads and, a few years previously, had played to packed venues with The Verve as the bands support act. While Richard Ashcroft and co went stellar, The Tansads stumbled from one disaster to another. Hating his former friends, Jones quit the band in disgust. Is Ed Jones bitter? You bet. Ostensibly the story of a band whose success never matched their ambition, This Is Pop is an extended v-sign to Jones former band members, record company and peers. Over the course of the book he paints a less than flattering picture of several indie heroes, from Jarvis Cocker throwing his weight around in TV studios to thinly-disguised allegations about Cast. The only band spared Jones vitriol is Stiff Little Fingers, with singer Jake Burns portrayed as a decent bloke in an industry notorious for backstabbing and one-upmanship. Although Jones anger sometimes overpowers the story hes trying to tell, This Is Pop is a fascinating insight into the realities of the record business. As Jones describes in detail, very few bands are actually making any money even though they were appearing on Top Of The Pops, the seven members of the Tansads had a combined income of 25 per week. Touring is shown in its true colours, and the bickering over publishing royalties is depressingly familiar. Its obvious from the text that Jones still believes that the Tansads could and should have been pop stars, although few non-fans are likely to agree. For most people, the Tansads were an uncomfortable cross between The Levellers and Half Man Half Biscuit, a moderately talented novelty band forever destined to play the bottom of the bill at festivals. Jones clearly doesnt see it that way, although his occasional descriptions of the

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bands songs and lyrics do little to dispel the impression that the bands lack of success might not just be due to the machinations of an evil record industry. One of the problems with This Is Pop is that the events described in the book are relatively recent, and as a result Jones lacks the self-awareness found in similar books such as Giles Smiths Lost In Music. While no doubt important to Jones, the frequent tangents describing how he comes to terms with the death of his father sit uncomfortably with the rest of the story, and the constant bitterness frequently damages the credibility of his tale. In particular, the portrayal of Tansads singer John Kettle is so devoid of any redeeming qualities that you start to wonder how Jones could have worked with him

at all. Like most autobiographies, theres a strong element of self-justification running throughout the book, and the few attempts at self-criticism are unconvincing. Had Jones waited a few years before committing pen to paper, however, This Is Pop would have lacked the splenetic outbursts that make it so compelling. For all its faults, This Is Pop is very enjoyable and Jones is an entertaining writer. The vitriol is balanced by some very funny moments and, if you have even a passing interest in the music business, youll find plenty to get your teeth into. If youre an aspiring musician, This Is Pop is an essential read if you reach the end of the book and still want to be a pop star, youre probably insane enough to make it.

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Review [published October 2000] Stephen Mitchelmore

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Gabriel Josipovici: On Trust


Jimmy Tarbuck, the no-nonsense Scouse comedian, was on a chat show a few years ago and was asked what kind of reading he preferred. Without pausing to reflect he said, or rather bellowed, Pure escapism! He didnt elaborate. You wouldnt expect him to. Actually, he repeated the phrase, perhaps impressed by the sudden acquisition of critical acuity: Pure escapism! His answer troubled me. What was being escaped, I wondered. As it was a chat show, answers werent on the agenda and the host carried on about something else. Of course, if he had pursued the issue, the ratings would have declined as the audience pursued pure escapism on another channel. With no answer for me, however, the problem remained on my mind. After reading this book, I realised why I was troubled: Tarbuck wants literature to escape words as well as the world. This had not occurred to me. The words allow him to suspend his bellowed belief in their unworldliness, allowing an escape into another world. But the possibility that words might construe his belief in the primacy of the real world, in the same way as it facilitates escape into the other, is not admitted. Indeed, it cannot be admitted without suggesting the possible interdependency of real and written worlds. The implications of such a possibility, resisted by Tarbuck, has led to what we might call the literature of suspicion, where doubt hinders every move toward plain truth (think of the daunting classics of modern philosophy) as well as to the literature of pure escape. This opposition is usually referred to as Highbrow and Lowbrow. However, because neither wants to contemplate any alternative, both positions are essentially the same. Gabriel Josipovicis new critical work suggests as much. On Trust: Art And The Temptations Of Suspicion is an investigation into how admitting to the unworldliness of literature might yet still allow free range into truth. The problem, the author says, is how to keep suspicion from turning into cynicism and trust from turning into facileness. Initially, the suspicion of literature described in the book seems to be a problem of our centurys worst events rather than Tarbucks everyday psychology. After all, the mechanised slaughter of the First World War prompted the challenges of Modernism, and the atrocities of the Second prompted

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Adornos infamous phrase that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. But this book pursues suspicion of art deeper into the roots of our civilisation. Josipovici traces the turn away from trust as far back as Platos response to Homer and St Pauls to the Bible. Plato turned the gaze of reason on The Iliad and found it wanting, while St Paul took strict moral lessons from Old Testament stories where, as Josipovici show us, there is only ambiguity. Both responses indicate a radical shift in consciousness, one that we are still mired in. The essay on Homers epics and Greek tragedy reminds us of what came before. Josipovici calls it the double vision: a sense of life in all its goodness, happiness, abundance; and death as finality, which must be accepted as part of that abundance. Despite our promisingly Godless age, this sense of life and death remains alien, probably because there is a space left by Gods departure. We would rather have this space for our purpose than be void of purpose, to rephrase Nietzsche. Josipovici says this is the legacy of Platos and St Pauls removal of death as finality. Without the immortality of the soul, the real world of goodness, happiness and abundance comes under suspicion. Emphasis is then placed on the individual. He or she is subtly dislocated from the communal tradition. As a result a whole new world of inwardness is opened. Hence the rise in Confessional literature (St. Augustine, Rousseau), something still mistaken for the

deepest possible insight. Josipovici sums up this shift in a startlingly sweeping passage: [the] denial of the dual vision in the end entails a denial of the world we live in and, ultimately, of ourselves as embodied beings existing within that world. Yet such is the nature of suspicion that, once unleashed, it appears to produce a totally convincing and self-consistent world, not simply an alternative way of looking at things but the only way there can possibly be. This is remarkable because it questions the cultural traditions of two millennia. Yet it is precisely tradition that Josipovici sees as the way to resist suspicion. For despite the internalisation of the shift inward, the legacy of the ancients remained enough to appear in the work of the most profound artists; Dante and Shakespeare in particular. They show how we can always turn to the past for help. These writers appear as pivotal in the history of Western literature, and so too in the story this book tells. In spite of working within a craft tradition, both writers managed to include in their work the sense of its breakdown. Dantes troubled yet necessary move away from Latin into vernacular Italian was made with the help, literally and fictionally, of Virgil, and Shakespeare adapted stories of kings losing authority (Richard II and Lear being the examples here) to represent the essence of a vanishing world that is, the tradition of consensus turning into one of authority although of course au-

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thority necessarily destroys tradition; authority asserts. Without consensus, the old forms were compromised, and there wasnt any ready-made replacement. What fascinates Josipovici is the way Dante and Shakespeare renewed their respective arts without denying this change. They did not become sterile artists asserting dead formulas, nor did they lapse into silence. Their Romantic descendants, on the other hand, were plagued by both sterility and silence. Even those who did manage to create something found it was not what they expected. Wordsworths major work is only the prelude to a grander work that never got written, and Coleridges most powerful poems were about the loss of his poetic sensibility. The Great Work became increasingly difficult to conceive, not because everything had been done already, but because the limits provided by consensus had disappeared, and this is a double-edged freedom: having no limit is also a limit. It is a condition we are still with. Wordsworth and Coleridge managed to achieve something only in the questioning of their authority. Josipovici shows this was done as a response to the change, as Dante and Shakespeare had responded before them. Implicitly, it refutes Romantic notions of the centrality of individual psychology and biography. Still, however, our culture assumes personal authority to be the pinnacle of artistic achievement. So the popular awareness of the Romantics remains one of self-expression the assertion of the self in response

to some daffodils. That self-expression is a limited anarchy may explain why contemporary art has lost the respect it once had. As art strives for the greater truth, it has to admit to its limits words on a page and thereby undermine its authority. Many budding artists, discouraged by this paradox and keen to appeal to the newly suspicious public, accept that writing is only a plaything, a place of escape, mitigated perhaps by social or historical relevance. The best thinkers turn instead to disciplines (the very word reveals its attraction) such as science, politics and philosophy, where the truth does not have to rely on words (so they assume). Literature gets Irvine Welsh. So, when Josipovici reaches the 20th century, the pressure is at its peak. Literature has lost much of its pre-eminence; it has been superseded by other forms. Yet perhaps those who claim that film is the most important art of the 20th century are right only in the way they are right if they say that Totalitarianism is its most important political system. Film, like a tyrannical regime, depends on appearances. It bears no reflexive commentary. Literature is different. Josipovici shows how three otherwise very dissimilar 20th-century writers responded to their suspicion of art with reflexive commentary. Now this can often lead to a novel without narrative tension, its what gives experimental art a bad name, but what makes Proust, Kafka and Beckett special is the tension within

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their work. Josipovici argues that this is the tension between extreme suspicion and the miraculous trust of each writer in the act of writing. In the first essay, he makes this point in exhilarating fashion by showing how Paul de Man, a famed modern deconstructor of literary pretension, misread Proust to such an extent that Proust becomes the deconstructor of theoretical pretension to come. What De Man disapproves of is Prousts openness to change, traced over the 3,000 pages of In Search Of Lost Time, when he should be demanding single, certain truth. De Man is, Josipovici persuades us, an unwitting Romantic who has mistaken disillusionment for truth. Proust, it seems, is the true realist, helping us to see the overall shape of life, where change and death are central, obscured only by our everyday abstractions of reality. In our daily life, we are too busy, in too much of a hurry, to respond fully to people or places, Josipovici writes. It takes death to jolt us out of our abstractions, to make us realise what the person really was in the fullness of their being. Death or art. This reminds us of his reading of Homer. But whereas in ancient times such jolting gravity came lightly, as it was internalised, with Proust and the other

Modernists it had to be achieved, like a game already lost in advance; something we resist instinctively. The essays on Kafka and Beckett are equally illuminating. In each, Josipovici makes close readings to show how their work moves forward without lapsing into cynicism or facileness, or if it does, how each writer learns from it. It reiterates Joyces words about mistakes being the portals of discovery, at least to a genius. But perhaps they are geniuses because they learn. And perhaps true learning requires an element of trust, an element of self-sacrifice. This would complicate applications of, say, evolutionary psychology to the production of art. Still, one might see this term trust representing the authors hesitation before commitment in that it is a nebulous term, and also Romantic. Plato and St Paul would then have good reason to be suspicious. Perhaps. But at least it follows its own logic in not prescribing a certain kind of art and instead leaves future artists to find their own way. In the meantime, On Trust helps us toward to the space where this rare art might emerge, a place that turns out to be not one of mystical revelation, but as ordinary as life and death itself, and perhaps all the more revelatory for that.

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Review [published January 2000] Chris Mitchell

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Kevin Kelly: New Rules For The New Economy


Despite its dry title, Kevin Kellys book isnt just another self-styled business bible for the information age. Instead, its an overview of what he terms the network economy, which is not only superseding the old paradigms of the industrial economy but transforming how we live. The network economy has been brought about by the ever-increasing connectivity between machines, most obviously demonstrated by the internet. But Kelly argues that such connectivity goes much deeper. The continually decreasing cost of silicon chips means that there will soon be one embedded in every object that we make, from computers to clothes to chocolate bars. These dots of intelligence, as Kelly terms them, bring about the connection of everything to everything and with it, the flow of information required for commerce to make ever more informed decisions about satisfying the demands of the consumer, wherever they are in the world. Its those businesses which react fastest to the changing need of their customers who will prosper from the network economy. While one might expect visionary hyperbole from the executive editor of Wired magazine, Kelly skilfully avoids falling into the trap of proclaiming technological utopia. He acknowledges that the idea of a silicon chip in every item may seem sinister to some and emphasises that technology is not a global panacea. But his arguments about the rise of the network economy are made all the more convincing by his continual reference to real-world examples, such as corporate behemoths General Motors and IBM struggling to adapt to new demands precisely because of their size. What was once their big advantage has now become a disadvantage. Kelly is not so much interested in speculation about the future as to what is happening at the moment. For the consumer in the street, this flow of information should mean that they increasingly get exactly what they want, as companies stop producing for mass markets and start catering for sizeable minority markets. This extends from tangible products to information itself. The way in which the net is beginning to overshadow television as a news source is one such example. The only subject which Kelly doesnt address is the

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glib use of the phase global economy, which in reality misses out most of Africa and Asia, where many have never made a phone call, let alone encountered a silicon chip. For a book which discusses the new opportunities that technology is bringing both to consumers and

businesses, it seems strange that a huge section of the worlds inhabitants appear to have been ignored. New Rules For The New Economy does an excellent job of articulating the realities of the network economy, but it also begs the question about those outside it.

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Feature [published April 2000]

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Naomi Klein: Ad Nauseum

Gary Marshall gets angry about advertising with Naomi Kleins No Logo If anyone here is in advertising or marketing, kill yourself theres no fucking joke coming. You are Satans spawn, filling the world with bile and garbage, you are fucked and you are fucking us. Kill yourselves its the only way to save your fucking soul. Bill Hicks After reading No Logo, you may feel that Bill Hicks was understating things a little: by the end of the first chapter youll be en route to the nearest McDonalds with a crate of Molotov cocktails. No Logo is a book about brands, which means its a book about popular culture Golden Arches, the Nike swoosh, Tommy Hilfiger jackets and Starbucks coffee. Its about the television you watch and the newspapers you read, the theme parks you visit and the films you go to see. Its about magazines and rock music, universities and the internet. In short, its a book about everyday reality or, rather, what lies behind it. The connection between brands and corporate irresponsibility has been highlighted before Nikes links with third world exploitation are well documented but No Logo digs much deeper. In an attempt to describe the rise of anti-corporatism and culture jamming, Klein covers issues as diverse as labour rights, censorship and education, and how the rise of the brands has affected them. The resulting book is likely to disturb even the most hardened of cynics. When deep space exploitation ramps up, it will be corporations that name everything. The IBM Stellar Sphere. The Philip Morris Galaxy. Planet Starbucks. Fight Club In the early chapters of the book, Klein describes the rise of the brands. Originally an importer of cheap Japanese clothing, Nike successfully reinvented itself as a lifestyle company, selling an ideal rather than any particular physical product. As Klein reports, the most successful brands dont actually make anything from Tommy Hilfiger to Nike, they outsource their manufacturing, and the companies themselves concentrate on the all-important brand ubiquity. Through advertising, the companies encourage people to buy products that act as advertisements for the brand itself, turning a nation into what one executive gleefully describes as walking billboards. Levis repaints an entire street to promote its Silver Tab jeans,

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footwear companies become synonymous with sporting achievement, and beer companies co-opt music festivals to promote their products. Like the narrator in Fight Club, customers dont choose products on the basis of price or effectiveness; instead, they ask themselves what sort of dinner set defines me as a person? Where No Logo surprises is when it describes the less obvious, and arguably less ethical, forms of brand promotion. According to Klein, companies such as Tommy Hilfiger use black ghettos as seedbeds for their brands, recognising the white middle-class fetish for black urban culture and employing local youths to talk up products to their peers. A similar technique was used by the Daewoo car company, which paid students to drive its cars and enthuse about them at every opportunity in an all too real echo of The Truman Show. If you spend any time on the internet, youll see entertainment companies doing the same thing on message boards and newsgroups. Klein doesnt need to lecture you about the increasing ubiquity of sales messages she lets the facts speak for themselves as she describes universities where Coca-Cola is the official soft drink, schools where the mega-brands have their logos on textbooks and toilet cubicles, and university departments wholly reliant on corporate sponsorship. No Logo demeans the causes it purports to celebrate by offering a narrow, fashion victims perspective on

achievements that have undoubtedly helped to make the world a better place. Barry Delaney, creative partner at Delaney Fletcher Bozell, Management Today Where No Logo excels is in the chapters detailing the achievements that the above reviewer believes have undoubtedly helped to make the world a better place. Klein presents a powerful argument that global brands have resulted in the exploitation of third world workers, increased domestic unemployment, reduced domestic wages, and the continual erosion of workers rights. One executive responds to calls for a living wage by saying, apparently without irony, while the concept is romantically appealing, it ignores the practicalities and realities of our business environment. When two McDonalds employees successfully win the right to union recognition almost unheard of in the fast food industry the company simply shuts down the branch. Klein argues that McDonalds has deliberately presented itself as a company that employs teenagers while they look for their first real job. Despite a workforce that is considerably older and better educated than the pimply youths of repute, this successful image-making enables the company to keep hours and wages at levels which, in any other industry, would attract howls of protest. Klein also describes the conditions inside call centres, which have been described elsewhere as the dark, satanic mills of the technological revolution. In Britain, as in America, call centres are one of the

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few growth industries, traditionally located in areas of high male unemployment and employing a workforce largely comprised of part-time, female and low-paid workers. One of the most disturbing parts of the book is when it focuses on the issue of censorship. As the book explains, the strategies of retailers such as WalMart essentially, bulldozing the competition out of business means that, as one record company executive admits, Wal-Mart is the only game in town. Its something the chain hasnt been slow to realise, and the companys pro-family stance means that it regularly practices censorship. Magazine covers have to be pre-vetted by the company; if they arent and WalMart feels the cover is inappropriate, the publication will be de-listed in other words, the retailer will never stock that publication again. Record companies regularly tone down releases to make them appropriate for Wal-Marts censors, and magazines know better than to feature anything less than wholesome. Its a worrying trend as, through sheer economic muscle, Wal-Mart effectively controls what the public is allowed to read, watch or listen to. Media concentration is high, and increasing. Furthermore, those who occupy managerial positions in the media belong to the same privileged elites, and might be expected to share the perceptions, aspirations, and attitudes of their associates, reflecting their own

class interests as well. Journalists entering the system are unlikely to make their way unless they conform to these ideological pressures Noam Chomsky One key area highlighted by No Logo is the increasingly incestuous corporate world, where the same companies own television stations, record companies and newspapers. British readers will be familiar with the Sun newspapers regular plugs for Sky TV and Fox Movies, all of whom share the same parent company, but the book describes how the links between companies can alter the news itself. An expose of theme parks by ABC was spiked after the reporters uncovered shocking events at Disney, ABCs owners, and Klein describes a number of similar occurrences in other news media. This corporate synergy has an effect on politics, too. Klein recounts how journalists are expected to give certain politicians an easy ride if those politicians are responsible for handing out valuable broadcasting licences to a newspapers parent company a tradition thats also well-established in the UK. Klein argues that corporate interference can also cost lives. The majority of American universities work in partnership with brands, carrying out research or helping develop new designs for training shoes. Klein asks whether such links devalue the traditional independence of universities almost every sponsorship contract, explains Klein, includes a gagging clause

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that prevents any criticism of the corporate benefactor. The tale of the student expelled for wearing a Pepsi t-shirt to his colleges Coca-Cola day is amusing, but Klein quickly follows this by describing how corporatesponsored drug trials uncovered potentially fatal side effects in the sponsors products. When the researchers attempted to publish their findings in scientific journals, the universities were threatened with the termination of their lucrative sponsorship contracts, and the researchers were promptly sacked. On the face of it, sponsorship seems the ideal solution to the growing problem of funding for educational institutions, but many campaigners are worried about the growing presence of commercially funded learning materials in schools and colleges: as the Centre for Commercial-Free Schools notes, when [the] Consumers Union collected and evaluated examples of these materials, it found that 80 percent contained biased or incomplete information, and promoted a viewpoint that favoured consumption of the sponsors product or service or otherwise favoured the company and its economic agenda. In an article aimed at schoolchildren, activist magazine Adbusters argues that companies profit by changing the way you think. Representatives of the drug Prozac will come to your school to teach you about depression. Exxon has [an] ecology curriculum that shows how clean the environment of Alaska is.

Lets remember November 30 and the days that followed as the launch of the Seattle Rebellion, the anti-corporate resistance that will reshape society in the next 10 years. It wasnt a skirmish or an opening salvo, but a manifesto etched in the streets by tens of thousands of people. Adbusters The closing chapters of No Logo investigate the growing number of protests against globalisation, of which the Seattle Riots of late 1999 and the current anti-GM food campaigns have been the most visible. Although both events occurred after the books completion, they help to reinforce Kleins conclusion that the rise of global brands and increasing consumer awareness is leading to a growing backlash. One of the most visible forms of anti-corporatism is culture jamming, espoused by groups such as Adbusters and the band Negativland. Culture jamming attempts to subvert the ubiquitous advertising messages by spoofing them or altering their meaning in Situationist-style pranks, and the Adbusters site in particular offers a culture jammers toolkit together with a gallery of spoof adverts. Klein rightly questions the effectiveness of these tactics. While the proponents talk of their activities with missionary zeal, the corporations are hardly changing their policies as the result of a few spoof adverts. As Klein points out, culture jamming has been co-opted by the very advertisers it aims to subvert

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see the recent image is nothing. Thirst is everything campaign by Sprite, or MTVs continual adoption of underground imagery to reinforce its own brand identity. Even anti-corporatism has become a marketable commodity, as the success of major studio picture Fight Club demonstrates. Klein is more enamoured with activists such as the defendants in the McLibel trial, who successfully raised awareness of many of McDonalds activities, and the semi-political Reclaim the Streets movement. Rather than the outlandish hippies the media portrays them to be, Klein discovers that the people involved in the movement are attempting to make people think about the way in which every available part of civic space is saturated with advertising. Its in this section of the book that No Logo falters. While Klein clearly believes that Reclaim The Streets is one of a number of groups that will define the politics of the future, the fact that most of the population believe the groups members are all drug-crazed anti-car crusties shows the difficulties inherent in swimming against

the tide of globalisation and media concentration. The book rightly highlights the role of the internet in helping activists to organise and disseminate information, and the outcry over genetically modified foods demonstrates the effect that a well-organised, single-issue campaign can have. By comparison, the demonstrations against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle seemed to have no clear agenda and, by degenerating into riots, made it easy for the media to dismiss any legitimate protest as the work of subversives and terrorists. As Klein points out, Adbusters magazine is starting to resemble the very media companies it urges its readers to fight against, while she cheerfully admits the irony of massive global corporations publishing anti-corporate polemics such as No Logo, which are marketed just like any other product. No Logo is a powerful read Chomsky without the paranoia and, if you have even the slightest interest in popular culture, its an essential one. Unfortunately, while its easy to share Kleins concerns, its much harder to share her optimism about the future.

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Review [published November 2004] Edmund Hardy

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Rem Koolhaas: Content


Rem Koolhaas has been thinking about Big Brother and has come up with a new concept: Big Vermeer. I imagined contestants marooned in very detailed interiors. Actually, the connection is more an art-historical musing: we want to see people doing things indoors, and in 1667 it was A woman writing a letter whereas now its A contestant in the diary room. It is an alchemy of transparency and daylight which trades in intimacy. This is one of around 80 articles, features and graphic presentations rearranged into a book from their original place in Content, the magazine of Rem Koolhaas OMA-AMO firm. Theres something ineffably cool about Koolhaas, that wiry and opinionated architect who is utopian and Postmodern, who floats in the amniotic fluid of global fashion and who has designed many a dazzling project see his in-construction fortune-cookie shaped, criss-cross silver design for China Central Television in Beijing. In his practice the idealism and breadth of a Mies van der Rohe or a Walter Gropius is fused with a political and social engagement with the world. OMAs previous statement book was SMLXL, a big, heavy, brick-like publication. Content is paperback and flimsy, colourful and kaleidoscopic. Dense, cheap, disposable as the editor says on page 16. It is almost out of date already. Content is dominated by a single theme, Go East. It is an attempt to illustrate the architects ambiguous relations with the forces of globalization, an account of seven years spent scouring the earth not as business traveller or backpacker but as a vagabond roving, searching for an opportunity to realise the visions that make staying at home torturous. Content is, beyond all, a tribute to OMA-AMAs commitment to engaging the world by inviting itself to places where it has no authority, places where it doesnt belong. Koolhaas wants this book to be the equivalent of doing the splits in classical ballet: a moment, immobile, stretched between realization and speculation, as, I suspect, he believes architecture to be. This book is a compendium, a glossy cabinet of idea, observation, wit from Rem and his associates. It has politics but no single viewpoint. It arcs from the US west coast to Japan. It is various but always interesting like a

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particularly high quality global magazine. It begins by cataloguing urbicide violence in urban environments from the subversion by mass transit of Los Angeles to cyclical construction, restriction, and destruction in Jerusalem; West Bank and Gaza settlements. The articles here are urgent, sometimes playful, always serious. Koolhaas finds the greatest concentration of Utopias ever known in Moscow; the idea and practice of a museum is challenged in articles on LACMA (LAs big all-round gallery) and the Hermitage in relation to the market influence; Prada is seen askance in Prada Yada and other pieces. Theres a long and excited, er, presentation (full of maps and figures and ideas about the need to build a Eurasian arc) on the EU and its political possibilities. Koolhaas has designed a new flag which consists of all the EU national flags squashed into strips and presented from west to east: a kind of United Colors bar-code, a strong ID to stand next to the US Stars and Stripes and the blue and white of the UN. Britains tabloids got hold of that one and The Sun soon launched an attack: nutty, batty, they said while reporting how expert opinion had deemed the flag to be a deckchair. Elsewhere, we look forward to Expo 2010 in Shanghai Exponential and consider what makes a successful World Expo. Londons 1851 Great Exhibition showcased the advances of industrial revolution in all nations, and made a mark on popular

imagination as did New Yorks World Fair of 1939 and Osakas 1970 Expo: tying into Contents theme of going East, the forthcoming Expo 2010 is seen as an opportunity to reorient the worlds idea of itself and its designs for the future. I particularly enjoyed a piece on libraries and the search for civic space The library represents, maybe with the prison, the last of the uncontested moral universes. The moral goodness of the library is intimately connected to the conceptual value of the book and the Koolhaas solution, in Seattle, is a large honeycombed building of huge spaces and screens showing the arrival and exit of books complete with a new continuous ribbon numbering system from 000 to 999 to replace the much-compromised Dewey Decimal. Whether one likes the idea of a central Mixing Chamber and a Book Spiral or not, the energy and scope of his plans and ideas are exhilarating. Every regular user of public libraries can relate to the search for biblio perfection. My personal favourites are the beautifully lit Berlin City library and the pod-interior at Peckham. Turn the page and Content moves on to plywood minimalism, perfume flasks to mix your own male-female smells while on the go, and a short history of post-Berlin wall world politics (The Second Empire). Thats not to mention the 1km high Hyperbuilding or Red Radio, the story of how Communists in the

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60s battled for Africas radio-waves in their belief that global revolution would start on the heart-shaped continent. And then the man who once wrote Delirious New York, writes about that city in decline, and instead gets delirious over Hanoi, Shanghai and Seoul. Rem Koolhaas is ever the iconoclast against the grain, outspoken, inspired. In the tradition of architects

who write idiosyncratic and visionary books Le Corbusiers Towards A New Architecture, Robert Venturis Complexity And Contradiction In Architecture the contribution of Koolhaas latest is in its wide-ranging attack, its fearless engagement with the world fearless in that it accepts its own ephemeral place at one particular moment. This, then, is Content.

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Review [published November 1999] Chris Mitchell

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Kruder And Dorfmeister: The K&D Sessions


Despite the rise of dance music in the 90s to the point where its arguably overtaken rocknroll as the defining sound of popular music, remixing is still something of a dirty word. Its unsurprising given the way pedestrian remixes are continually used as filler on singles and even albums when an artist has run out of inspiration to produce anything new. Thats not to say that there arent remixes which beat the original track hands down Fatboy Slims charttopping reworking of Cornershops Brimful Of Asha being a classic example but they tend to be the sonic exception rather than the rule. Even when remixes are entrusted to other artists, theres no guarantee of quality, as exemplified by the uniformly awful mixes of Underworlds floorfilling anthem King Of Snake, murdered by the likes of Dave Clarke, Slam and, er, Fatboy Slim. The easy way out is to produce a track that sounds nothing like the original whatsoever. This may well produce something musically more rewarding, but its missing the real point of remixing and thats bringing something new to a track without destroying whats there in the first place. Cue Kruder and Dorfmeister, two DJs from Vienna whove quietly produced some of the most stunning and startling remixes in the last five years and made it their trademark to leave the spirit of a track intact while twisting it into something utterly different. In fact theyve been so quiet this album came out last year and I only heard it a month ago The K&D Sessions is a double CD compilation of the best of those mixes 140 minutes of music that takes in artists as far apart as Roni Size, Depeche Mode, Bomb The Bass and Bones Thugs N Harmony. Citing names is a bit pointless though, because it would be wrong to think of The K&D Sessions as just a bunch of individual remixes, only listening to the tracks where youre familiar with the original. Half the fun is that K&D take on tracks by folk youve never heard of Rainer Trby Trio, anyone? K&D revel in mixing all sorts of music, whether its rap, jazz, jungle or whatever other genre you care to name. As such, its an immaculately crafted, unclassifiable album to get lost in, where every track imperceptibly segues into the next so that youre never quite sure where you are, but wherever you are is

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worth hanging around. As youd expect from a record on a label called GStoned, the overall atmosphere of The K&D Sessions is laid back you wont hear any screeching 303s or encounter superfast bpms here. Instead, there are beautifully precise drums and sublimely warm deep bass lines which create their own distinct sound without becoming repetitious. Add their ear for dropping just enough melody over the top to create a simple but opulent sound, and you have music that makes 3 in the morning a wonderful place to be. If you really want a half-arsed sounds-a-bit-like reference, then it would have to be David Holmes, but the comparison doesnt do either parties justice. K&D are also refreshingly fond of keeping vocal tracks almost intact, rather than obliterating them completely. Nowhere does this stand out more than their

sublimely moody mix of Depeche Modes Useless, where Dave Gahans weary voice is given centre stage over nothing besides pared down bass and is all the more powerful for it. Not that K&D are techno-angst merchants, producing beautiful but chilly soundscapes in their bedrooms their sound is organic, elegant, eclectic and endlessly inventive. In short, then, The K&D Sessions is one of those albums that comes out of the blue, providing a whole bunch of surprises to make even the most jaded get excited about music again. Its a bit like when a friend gives you a tape of bands youve never heard of and you wind up leaping round the living room listening to it. These are remixes which transcend their original incarnations to become K&Ds own and a whole new universe to explore with it. What more do you want for 12.99?

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Review [published November 2002] Stephen Mitchelmore

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Andrey Kurkov: Death And The Penguin


This book is a page-turner. The simplicity and overt plainness of the prose combine with the perverse congeniality of the foreground subject matter to make one carry on, ignoring worldly concerns. And while the plot is complex it is also strangely unimportant, compared, that is, to the foreground. Viktor, a 39-year-old journalist, lives in a tenement block in Kiev, capital of the relatively new nation of Ukraine (not The Ukraine). Like many of us in the Deregulated World, he doesnt have a permanent job and relies instead on contacts to bag the odd journalistic assignment. There is a lot of time off. We join him as he tries to make use of his empty time by writing fiction, something hes always dreamed of doing on a permanent basis. He wants to escape the teasing ghostliness of the short story and write what the real world thinks is the real thing: a novel. Instead, he sits at his kitchen table and writes another short story, later hawking it around a few newspapers. This might be the beginning of many other worthy, socially accurate novels portraying post-Soviet economic reform. But Viktor has a saving grace for the reader: his pet Misha, the penguin of the title. Misha came from an impoverished local zoo when they offered its animals as pets to anyone who could provide food for them. Viktor took the penguin because, abandoned by his girlfriend the week before, he had been feeling lonely: But Misha brought his own kind of loneliness, were told, and the result was two complementary lonelinesses. Mishas presence in the novel is glorious. Whatever Viktor does, Misha is somewhere in the background asking for attention by not asking. We always want to know what hes doing, how he is, what hes feeling. Whenever we read of Viktors exploits, and they are copious, we think of Misha standing somewhere in the background, his emotions, if he has any, concealed by his expressionless exterior. The only hint of an answer comes when Viktor runs him a cold bath and he flops into it happily, or when he is taken to a frozen lake during the winter months and he disappears into a fishing hole for ages, bewildering alcoholic fisherman when he pops out again. In my fictional experience, only Karenin in Kunderas

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The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, and Balak in S.Y. Agnons Only Yesterday do pet animals (in this case both dogs) appear so accurately and memorably. However, Misha is a suffering penguin: he has depression. An elderly penguinologists, as he calls himself, tells Viktor that Misha is superheated under his two layers of fat, and nobody would be happy feeling like that, would they? Viktor feels sorry for his pet but doesnt seem to make much effort to cheer him up except to ply him with lots of seafood. Misha remains in the background as most of the novel is taken up with Viktors life. He gets a job writing obituaries for the main Kiev newspaper. He makes a name for himself with the philosophical flourishes and elegiac, allusive nature of his obelisks, as he calls them. His editor pays him well in US dollars. The plot revolves around the behind-the-scenes ramifications of these obituaries. This is also why we turn the pages, though more in agitation than pleasure. We want to find out what is going on and how it all works out. In the meantime, and the meantime seems to last most of the entire 227 pages, we live in Viktors world, full of events suggesting something dark going on elsewhere, waiting to spring into his life with violence, yet also quite flat. A man, touchingly known to us as Misha-nonpenguin, leaves his young daughter Sonya with Viktor and then disappears. A man turns up and says hes taking Sonya away with him, but he soon disappears too,

and then Viktor is hired by a mobster to attend funerals with Misha at $1,000 a time. But nothing is revealed; Viktor worries, relaxes, worries again. Time passes, thats all. A friendly militiaman offers Nina, his niece, as Sonyas nanny, and she promptly becomes Viktors lover without, it seems, any passion passing between them (that complementary loneliness again). Life carries on as dully as usual and Viktor continues with his obelisks at his kitchen table. So what makes this such an amusing, affecting, readable novel? Well, if Misha the penguin is so attractive to us in his silence, mystery and apparent sadness, then the death of the title is his abstract equal standing behind the action, waiting, inscrutable, not asking for anything, yet preying on ones mind (in fact, Im told that the Russian original means Death of a Stranger). The pleasure it affords us as we read is the same pleasure Viktor gets from his writing. It is an oddly comforting voyeurism on life in general, a life which is elsewhere, the subject of endless conjecture (the plot we are all in search of). We watch it all from the perspective of a place where nothing happens Viktors mind, the obituaries he writes, this novel in particular and literature in general. We watch it all with death and the penguin blinking impassively in the corner, and we are oddly moved. We dont want it to end, no matter how plainly written or routinely translated it is. It complements our loneliness.

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Review [published January 2005] Chris Mitchell

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Emma Larkin: Secret Histories


This could well be my book of the year. Ostensibly an attempt to retrace the physical origins of George Orwells novel Burmese Days, Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell In A Burmese Tea Shop is actually a superbly concise and deeply scary history lesson in the fate of pre- and post-colonial Myanmar. (Its been published in the USA under the less lyrical title Finding George Orwell In Burma) Governed by ones of the worlds longest serving military dictatorships, which has managed to wholly destroy the infrastructure and prosperity of arguably Asias most naturally wealthy country, Secret Histories provides a ground-level view of the perils of living in modern-day Myanmar. Emma Larkin, a British woman who speaks fluent Burmese (sadly her biographical sketch is, indeed, too sketchy to ascertain much else), follows the geographical path of Orwells five-year residency within Burma, revisiting the cities and outposts of one of the former British Empires most far-flung territories. Along the way she exposes quite how much Myanmar has become the living embodiment of Orwells Nineteen Eighty Four. All politics, teaching and literature are ruthlessly policed and scrutinised, with imprisonment for the smallest misdemeanours regularly meted out. Torture and disappearance are the norm. Corruption and unemployment are rife, and Myanmars one sole beacon of hope, the activist Aung San Suu Kyi, is still under house arrest. (Larkin explains the reverence surrounding Suu Kyi is due to her being the daughter of Aung San, who is widely considered the hero-father of the nation who led Burmas independence from the British; her continued refusal to be intimidated by the murderous tactics of the regime have led them to repeatedly smear her as a foreign devil thanks to her marriage to Englishman Michael Aris). Secret Histories, like Anna Funders Stasiland which describes life in the totalitarian communist state of East Germany, provides a personal perspective of a truly appalling regime that lets the reader begin to understand what it is like to live day to day under such an oppressive government. One thing that endeared me to the Burmans straight away was their love of reading, as described by Larkin: unsurprising due to the lack of

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real information which they receive, but also a national pastime and passion that has led numerous people to preserve secret libraries of books that have otherwise been banned by the authorities. Whilst everyday life is undeniable misery in Myanmar, the people who Larkin describes are still full of life, some how finding the will to live and live fully despite their most restrictive of circumstances and to try and make tiny but vital movements towards making their country become free again. This book is transformative before I began reading it I knew virtually nothing about Burma at the end of its 230 pages, I feel Ive gained at least a valuable gloss on its modern history and, wholly secondary to that,

an insight into what drove Orwell to write it was on his return from Burma to England that he horrified his family by announcing his intention to resign from the colonial service and become a writer. Secret Histories is truly a vital book, and, with Stasiland, seems to be opening up a new genre (Im hating myself for writing these words): female writers providing a personal perspective of political troubles; not personal as in their own perspectives, but in that they piece together the histories of the states theyre writing about through the stories of those who have lived within it. This strikes me as a vital counterbalance to our more traditional, and of course wholly necessary, overview histories.

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Interview [published September 2006] An interview by Chris Mitchell

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Abby Lee: Girl With A One Track Mind


[Ed note this interview was conducted before Abby Lees real identity was revealed by a quality Sunday newspaper days after the publication of GWAOTM. You can read about Abby being stalked by journalists and the subsequent fallout on her blog] Getting the book published must be a real buzz. Do you plan to keep going with the blog and write more books (i.e. go pro), or will working in film remain your priority? It has been a real buzz, yeah: Im very excited about it all. I really hope the book will reach more people that would otherwise not have read the blog, and that will get them reading about sex too. It would be wonderful if a debate about sex could ensue its about time we talked openly about it, I think. As for continuing the blog, well, Ive been writing it for over two and a half years and I have no plans to stop yet: I enjoy it too much. I think as long as it gives me pleasure and I have the time, I will keep going with it. I am currently working on another couple of book ideas which I hope to develop further; it would be wonderful if I got to pursue even more of my writing now. You get a lot of comments on your blog and you interact a lot with your readers. How much time does it take up? Do you generally like your readers do you think they get where youre coming from? I do try to reply to comments on the blog as best I can, because the interactivity between my readers and myself is an important part of the blogging experience. I dont get a lot of time to do this though, so my input can be a bit sporadic at times. That doesnt seem to matter though: often my readers will be having a debate with each other in the comments box and I really enjoy reading their opinions and views. Overall my readers are a pretty clued-up lot and I feel hugely complimented that they enjoy reading my words and come back for more. Occasionally I get the odd troll who really doesnt get what I am about, or who feels they need to make a moral statement about women/sex/sexuality but my regular readers will challenge their views and often, come to my defence too. When I started the blog, I never thought that complete strangers would be arguing my perspective on sex; I am honoured that they do.

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There also seems to be a burgeoning community of other sex bloggers (for want of a better phrase) has that let you meet new friends online or off? Ive met quite a few bloggers actually, both sex writers, and non-sex writers. Im not sure if were a community as such, but there does seem to be a kind of bloggers code which we all uphold: respecting privacy and anonymity, regardless of the subject matter we write about. It has been very refreshing to meet other sex bloggers to know that I am not alone in my thoughts and I count a few of them as good friends. Ironically, the bloggers Ive met are the only people that know me as well as know my blogging persona; none of my offline friends know I write the blog. Can you talk as frankly to your real life friends about your feelings as you can write them down for the blog? Sadly, no. I am reasonably open with my friends generally, but the explicitness of my thoughts both sexual and emotional are hidden from them. Id love to tell them all about the blog and book, but it would really be like them reading my personal diary, which is not something I want to happen! Whats your best / worst experiences to come out of writing the blog and being a minor net celeb (albeit anonymous)? The best thing to come out of writing the blog, is to know that I have, in some way, touched some people.

Receiving emails from both women and men telling me I have struck a chord with them, or that they empathise with me, or that they have learned from my experiences, makes what I do seem so worthwhile. I never thought that there would be so many people who connected to my writing; with the thousands of emails sent to me, saying exactly that, I guess I was wrong. The worst thing to come out of writing the blog, is, I suppose, the fact that I and my life still have to remain so hidden, and that I cant enjoy the success my writing has achieved. Im in no rush to lose my anonymity I really do need to uphold my, and others privacy but its frustrating that I cant proudly state out in the open, that the blog and book are my doing. So, sadly, therell be no book signings, or mee