Wednesday, 16 April 2014

chickens

Oops. Been a while. I'm sending a new book to my agent tomorrow. Apart from that, I have mainly been constructing impossible murders and wishing I had a different, slightly better knee.

This, which was sent to me by a hard core spy, tickled me.



A former baseball star was racially profiled in his own driveway. He didn't like it.

I love these or any pictures of cute girls hunting with eagles.

I'm reading The Sports Gene by David Epstein. There's a chapter about high jumpers, including midgety Swede Stefan Holm, who was my favourite of those even before I read this: Holm's son Melwin has begun to tag along. (Melwin is not a Swedish name. Holm and his wife liked 'Melvin' and Holm wanted 'win' somewhere in the boy's name.

Also, apparently, he's got some post-high-jump fame as a quizzer. I like that too.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Someone on Twitter (Sorry, I can't remember who) said that this was the best opening paragraph on Wikipedia:

Sir Adrian Paul Ghislain Carton de Wiart VC, KBE, CB, CMG, DSO (5 May 1880 – 5 June 1963) was a British Army officer of Belgian and Irish descent. He served in the Boer War, First World War and Second World War; was shot in the face, head, stomach, ankle, leg, hip, and ear; survived two plane crashes; tunnelled out of a POW camp; and bit off his own fingers when a doctor refused to amputate them. Describing his experiences in World War I, he wrote, "Frankly I had enjoyed the war."

It's certainly a good one but it's a long entry and the pace doesn't really let up. For instance, after tunnelling out of the camp, Carton de Wiart evaded capture for eight days disguised as an Italian peasant (which is surprising considering that he was in northern Italy, couldn't speak Italian, and was 61 years old, with an eye patch, one empty sleeve and multiple injuries and scars). Later, he agrees to carry a message to England so long as the Italians don't dress him up like a gigolo. In fact, there is so much in his life that it's sort of incredible that there are two long periods where he retires to the country (in Poland between the wars and in Ireland after them) to hunt and fish.

What fact have I learned recently that really shocked me? It is that while Henry VIII was paying Holbein £30 a year, his Abraham tapestries (which are amazing) cost £2,000 each.

This is good and angry about politics in the 'neutral' City of London.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

the world's best juggler


Only jugglers know who the best juggler is. Six balls looks not much harder than five but it's ten times harder. Grantland currently features one of my favourite things for ages, by Jason Fagone, about a juggler called Anthony Gatto, who is setting up a new business under his real name. As the piece puts it:

We are committed to offering a cost effective solution to tearing out and replacing old, damaged and deteriorating concrete,” reads the “About” page. “From stained micro-toppings to metallic floor finishes, counter tops and garage floor epoxy coatings, we have the solution for you.” A small head shot shows what looks like a smiling Gatto. Next to the head shot is a name. The name is not the one that has amazed audiences for the last 30 years. “Owned and operated,” the page says, “by Anthony Commarota.”

How did the greatest juggler in the world end up working in concrete?

This American Life is often great, but the episode Except For That One Thing was particularly strong. It has a short story about a date, a finale about a guy who went to prison for a crime he did commit and in the middle was Jon Mooallem talking about the Meat Problem of America's early twentieth century. The USA had run out of frontier, exterminated the passenger pigeon, killed most of the cod and almost all the bison, and it was frightened. What was the answer? Hippos. Breed hippos in Florida.

I was having a drink with two friends the other night. I am 40. They are 36 or so. Neither of them had seen The Commitments. This shocked me. I reckon almost no one who was a student when I was a student missed that film. These two, who were students just afterwards (not even after, because I was a graduate student when they were undergraduates), didn't see it and didn't see that as peculiar. The only way I could make them understand was by asking how surprised they would be if someone five years younger than them hadn't seen The Full Monty.


Friday, 14 March 2014

double penetrator!

Ok, I'm sorry. But I've held off for nearly 36 hours and I couldn't hold off any longer.

 I found it in a second hand bookshop. Two for the price of one. I looked up The Penetrator series, something which leads you to some pretty dark places pretty quickly if you're not careful, and I found a subculture of trash reviewers, like this guy, and this guy. Interestingly, in general, it seems that they are quite good at what they are, which is crazy. (As a result of the second guy's blog, I really want to read the lost sic fi classic, in his opinion, Spawn of the Death Machine.)

There were 53 Penetrators written by two guys (Mark K. Roberts did odd and Chet Cunningham did even, or vice versa) over the course of eleven busy years.

This guy's viewUnlike the Executioner and the Destroyer and the Death Merchant and the Butcher (whew!), I did not read the Penetrator when they first came out in the early 70's. It wasn't until I started this site that I took to reading them and was very pleasantly surprised. Hardin is a very likeable man* and his adventures are very likeable reads. As spy books they are lacking but as the adventures they are meant to be, they are good

Here's a spoof movie trailer done last year. It's funny. The main thing all this made me think of is The Reprisalizer.


* I might read this book just to find out whether I agree that Hardin is 'a very likeable man'.

Monday, 10 March 2014

i don't think i'm dead (i might be, though)

About five years ago, before the last training session of the hockey season, I wrote I might die tonight on a little scrap of paper. I've been adding to it ever since every time I've been afraid I'm going to my last training session or game, or get injured, or whatever. Maybe you think this is tastelessly melodramatic, but it was just for me, and encapsulates something real. I made the first note when I was due to have a big spinal operation a few weeks later, and I didn't know if I would play proper hockey again.*


By proper hockey I mean the kind where I absolutely commit my training nights and my Saturdays to hockey for the season to the end of playing for the best team I can play for. Weddings are an exception, and a couple of work things over the years, but, not counting injury, and I've been pretty lucky on that front, I hadn't missed ten training sessions in the decade before my operation.

Playing sport to the best of my ability is a massive part of who I am. Also, team sport is better than individual sport on a moral level, since it forces you to do something in a group and at inconvenient times that you can't change, which therefore teaches a small degree of humility and submission. When I stop, then something will have changed about something that has made me me since I was ten. That's fine. I know it will happen. The fire doesn't burn quite like it did ten years ago, but it definitely still burns.

This year, actually, I might have died quietly, with a trio of very annoying medium-term injuries that meant I missed preseason, then November to January, then February to now. I hope not but we'll see next year.

 I'm writing all this because I wanted to link to a couple of things. I love - I absolutely love - sportsmen who don't go quietly into the night. The differences between me and Steve Nash could hardly be more radical, but he doesn't care that fans think he should have gone out at the top. He wants to play till he can't contribute. He's not what he was. He knows that. He still thinks he can help. Go Steve Nash. Play till you're dropped, if that's what you want.**

Also, go Helen Richardson-Walsh, who is a GB hockey player who's just undergone her second big back op and is determined to get back into the team, and who is writing about the process here. It's quite new, but I am going to follow it like a hawk. I don't expect you to and think less of you for it.


* The back was fine when I was active; it couldn't be still so I couldn't sleep or work; now it's much crankier for sport but I can do the others; of course, given that I am not a professional hockey player, the others are more important; I miss the sport-adapted back massively, though.

** Do understand this is a problem with Sachin, etc., when it is basically impossible to drop a player for extra-sporting reasons. But this is rare and not the present subject.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

various

I hope you didn't miss Prince Hubertus von Hohenlohe, Mexican skier. In case you did, the Grantland piece on him is vg. Highlights include his matador/mariachi ski outfit, the fact that his mum was a bit underage when she got married but the Pope okayed it (she later acted in movies like The Vatican Affair, My Bed Is Not for Sleeping, and Homo Eroticus, and she now designs jewellery) and the fact that he's been competing in the Olympics longer than most of the contestants have been alive.

American football name watch: I should never link to these things, because names are just names. Here, however, is a single paragraph about College football:

The Aggies' last two recruiting classes have netted seven four- or five-star receivers, according to Rivals, including potential standouts Ricky Seals-Jones -- who missed most of last year with an injury -- Ja'Quay Williams and LaQuvionte Gonzalez from the class of 2013 and new signees Speedy Noil and Frank Iheanacho. The backfield remains deep with running back talent that took a backseat to Manziel last year, with Trey Williams, Oklahoma transfer Brandon Williams and Tra Carson all entering their junior seasons.

Boring housing link I couldn't not click on via twitter because I live in London and want to understand what the hell is going on. (And which I therefore don't find boring, obviously, but I wish property hadn't become so much of a thing again.)

(Are we giving corrupt Ukrainian politicians loads of money which they will immediately use to buy houses in Chelsea? I think that is what my friend Matthew is suggesting to me. I am certainly getting better informed about the Ukraine. The key thing seems to be that the Ukrainian coalition currently in power has some real nasty rightists who are virulently anti-Russian and its not totally crazy to be scared of them if you're Russian Crimean, whatever that means.)

Saturday, 22 February 2014

our ancestors were crazy

I was gazing over an old bookshelf the other day at the family estate in the wild westernmost corner of commuter-belt East Anglia and I noticed for the first time in many years my father's collection of books by John O'Hara.

Among the reviews on the covers: John O'Hara is the greatest living novelist, New York Times. Moreover, lots of his books have been released as modern classics by different imprints, although I bet that very few people I know have read any, and nor have I although I am going to start.

His first book was Appointment in Samarra, and that's one of the two I know something about, the other being BUtterfield 8 (sic. - the capital U is there for reasons to do with telephone exchanges but it looks so bad that publishers almost always capitalise the whole world). Anyway, what I'm saying is John O'Hara was posh, and his reviews were often very excellent, and they came from places like the New York Times.

I have partly blethering on at length so that you will be surprised by the staggeringly dreadful covers which are far enough down the page for you not to have seen them yet. And I have started with the one that isn't quite so bad so I can preserve that surprise.

My wife would let me sit next to her reading Dorothy Dunnett books (see previous post) every day if she could avoid sitting next to me reading the below edition of Hellbox (which is the book, staggeringly, with the NYT quote of the cover). Another edition of Hellbox on Amazon has the slightly less appealing line above the title: All of the passions, sacred and profane, etched in acid by one of the great virile authors of our time! I think Ourselves to Know is the worst of these, but it's a grim collection.

This is what posh books looked like in the seventies, people. It beggars belief. Ten North Frederick is a Penguin Classic.







Tuesday, 18 February 2014

cover up

My wife is (obviously) not a very judgmental person. However, there are some books which she really doesn't want me to read when I am sitting next to her on the tube.

Dorothy Dunnett is one of my favourite writers. It is hard to describe her books without them sounding much worse than they are. I spent two months in 2002 obsessed to the point of mania with her fourteen book epic historical romance cycle (not really my genre). And her Dolly books are the cleverest, subtlest and best-written detective thrillers I know. They are not well-served by their covers. Here is a fullish collection.

Above is the exception. The one truly good cover any of the books has. Most of the books were reissued with different titles when Dolly and the X Bird made them look as if they were something they weren't. The reissues are boring but, in the context of a tube, acceptable. So, Bird of Paradise is the same as Tropical Issue.
Now we come to the covers that my wife despises. I particularly love them, partly because they are so deceptive, which actually suits the books in various ways but I can't help feeling it's counterproductive. In each of the following cases, the second is paired with the first.
 

Ah, I don't have a copy of boring-covered Roman Nights / Starry Bird. Here's a picture of one from a different series of these books - the only series I don't own a cover of. They're not bad, actually. I would definitely be allowed to read them on the tube.
Dolly and the Starry Bird (aka Roman Nights) (aka Murder in Focus) (Johnson Johnson, Bk 4)
 
The next pair are a bit different. Instead of the boring cover, I have another Nanny Bird cover which is, I think, even more horrifying than the original. (It is also the prelude to another upcoming set of old book covers.)

Rather miserably, by the time DD wrote her final Dolly book, the titles had already been changed, so there is no Bird version. Therefore, I picture the American edition. They had ANOTHER set of different titles, and this one is fun, isn't it?


I've spent the last few years saving them up and reading them in the sun on a summer holiday. I only have Moroccan Traffic to go. I'm a bit sad about it, but I will get by.

Friday, 14 February 2014

faster pussycat, krill, krill, krill

Big fish are getting smaller. Here are some great pictures courtesy of Radiolab. The end of the article points out that we're also eating smaller and smaller species of fish, chasing the disappearing biomass. Apparently there's a Dallas aquarium which serves jellyfish peanut butter. Yum, krill.

In other links:

The Flappy Bird story is crazy and there must be more to it than meets the eye.

Friday Night Lights reunion! Crucifictorious!


The problem with bad writers is that they don't know they are bad. Yeah, ok, this is all true, it absolutely is, and of more things than writing. But it's only true up to a point, but the problem with publishers and producers is often that they aren't prepared to take a risk on things which are good but which don't conform to their pre-existing ideas of what will sell.

I love this rant about David Cameron saying, 'We're a wealthy country, money's no object,' when the Thames Valley gets flooded, but not under lots of other circumstances.

Monday, 10 February 2014

a finnish sort of dead earl, and michael sam

1. In the 1980s, Matt Nykenen won the ski-jumping. Here are some excerpts from his Wikipedia page, which are very funny, and quite sad.

Nykänen met millionaire sausage heiress Mervi Tapola in 1999, and they were married from 2001 to 2003. They were divorced in 2003, and remarried in 2004.

In the summer of 2009 Tapola (then Tapola-Nykänen) petitioned for divorce a 14th time, but cancelled it

On Christmas Day 2009 Nykänen allegedly injured his wife with a knife and tried to throttle her with a bathrobe belt. He was charged for attempted manslaughter

On 24 August 2004, Matti Nykänen was arrested on suspicion of attempted manslaughter of a family friend after losing a finger pulling competition

When Nykänen's ski jumping career was drawing to a close, a group of businessmen proposed to make him a singer. His first album Yllätysten yö was released in 1992 and sold over 25,000 copies … The next album Samurai (1993) was not as successful.

At the end of the 1990s, due to serious financial problems, Nykänen worked as a stripper in a Järvenpää restaurant

In November 2009 Nykänen began to present his own cooking web series Mattihan se sopan keitti

He's also says a lot of half-intentionally funny things: 'And if one thing is for sure, it is quite sure,' 'What is not done cannot be undone,' and, 'I am a marriage adviser these days. If things are going well, then call me. I can fuck it up In seven seconds.'

(Mostly I file colourful people under 'dead earls', in case you are new here. It's just so I can find them quickly.)

2. If you read The Kilburn Social Club, you can probably guess I was pretty excited by the news that Michael Sam, a top college American footballer who will be drafted into the NFL this Spring, has told the press he's gay. He'll be the first active gay athlete in one of the main American team sports.

My favourite bit of the story, and the most important, is that he came out to his teammates before last season and there were a few bumpy bits of ride but it was fine. General Managers are harrumphing, as are some players, but at some point they, like the gay marriage deniers, have to see that demography isn't going to help them on this one. A team of young black athletes was more accepting than a load of old white Christians. (I bet the young black athletes were also Christian, by the way.)


Friday, 7 February 2014

news

Oops. Missed the fact that The Dazzle came out in paperback yesterday. The Sunday Times liked it too, which is great.

I am bad at these updates, mainly because I find them excruciating. I don't really know why. I am perfectly happy to tell the world I am a brilliant auctioneer. In my first attempt at auctioneering last night I sold a £25 beauty salon voucher for £35. In your face, Bargain Hunt.

I think it's at least partly because by the time things come out, they are so much a part of your past that it's slightly hard to refocus. I finished The Dazzle three years ago. That doesn't mean I'm not proud of it, or that I don't want it to well. I am and do, very much, but I've written a couple of radio series, several spec scripts, a musical, fifteen short stories and another book since then.

I do hope that if you haven't read it, you will. I personally would have waited for the paperback since that is much my favourite reading format.

(If you are in Australia and you are having trouble getting hold of it, then the following libraries have copies: Armidale Dumaresq Council War Memorial Library, Brisbane City Council Library Service, City of Gold Coast Libraries, John Anderson Municipal Library, Gosford City Library, Marrickville Library, North Central Goldfields Regional Library Corporation, Stonnington Library and Information Service, Toorak / South Yarra Library, Dee Why Library, Western Riverina Libraries, Griffith City Library. I am pretty sure these are the main libraries in Australia.)

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

osprey fanboy

I love Osprey. I am sure that other companies make good kit, but I did an awful lot of research before I bought my Osprey Talon 22 rucksack four or five years ago and it has been brilliant - comfortable, bigger than advertised and incredibly well-thought out. It's got side pockets and loops which let me carry a hockey stick. It's got a stretchy panel which I thought was pointless but which is invaluable for stuffing a book into when commuting. It's got a whistle. Seriously, a whistle!

I got my wife and her friend to buy them in different sizes for an expedition. They love them too.

I'd never heard of Osprey before I researched and bought mine but you see them around London more and more. I think they might be on the verge of being mainstream, which might almost upset Ospreyists because they get really culty. I've also got the Sojourn luggage (again amazing, again I have persuaded about five other people who have borrowed it or seen me using it to buy their own). I've got the hydration pack which attaches to a little magnet on the strap of the rucksack with an immensely satisfying little click.

I've used the Talon 22 very heavily. This happened:
Well, fair enough, I thought. Osprey do offer a lifetime materials guarantee, though. This has to have some clause for reasonable wear, which this has definitely had. I sent an email saying that I loved my pack and I presumed that I was out of any possible warranty. Osprey replied within an hour saying that they didn't have a new suspension system (the straps, basically) in blue, but they could send one in black and was that ok? It arrived a day later.

This feels like a very boring story, but that's only because you aren't a Cultist. If you join the Cult then you will enjoy it and others like it. It's great being in a Cult.

(For info, you should also buy a Contigo Double-wall vacuum mug and an Arc'teryx Atom LT hoody.)

Monday, 3 February 2014

so long and thanks for all the warhorses

Hi. Marie and I were upset that Warhorses of Letters had to end, mainly because we loved doing it but also because I don't suppose we'll ever write anything so easily again. Once we'd had the idea, and worked out how to turn it into something that worked (which took several years of assuming the idea was funny but pointless and not thinking about it), each episode was a matter of us emailing each other once a day in character and it was all done in a week, pretty much in our spare time.

It was easy because, on a certain level, it was so fully and instantly what it was. Short bursts of two specific horses, who were real, and who we would use as vehicles to tell the story of a romantic relationship. By the time we were planning the third episode, we knew that we had covered the ground it was natural and sensible to cover, and that if we tried to eke the idea out we would be facing repetitions and diminishing returns and we wouldn't be being true to our characters. There would have been ways to do it but they would not be good ones artistically. If radio paid like television we might have been tempted to bite our artistic tongues and find a way but it doesn't so we didn't. It's similar, in some ways, to how John Finnemore has written about finishing off his brilliant sitcom Cabin Pressure.

And so we knew, from the start of this series, exactly where we were going, and we hope things made sense. I do miss it, though.* I'll especially miss doing it at Tall Tales.

* We would quite like to do a book of all three series. If no one bites our arm off publishing-wise, we might do it ourselves. You just see. I mean, how hard can it be?

Thursday, 23 January 2014

magic trick

Dr V was a statuesque blonde scientist who invented a revolutionary new putter. Golfers loved her anti-establishment-takes-on-big-business moxie and loved the putter. A young reporter pitched the story to Grantland. The resulting piece, after two years of following up, is here. It's gripping and very weird.

If I were you, I'd read it before continuing with this blog post. Here is a picture to make that easier.
The first commentary I read on the piece came about a day and a half later from Slate's excellent Josh Levin, and it said more or less exactly what I felt. Ever since, reporters have piled onto Grantland for running the piece. It's an easy bandwagon because Grantland clearly screwed up and so you get to definitely be in the right by criticising them. Fine, I suppose but Grantland's explanation of what happened is probably much better reading and also more important.