Wednesday, 31 December 2008

ego-surfing news: kilburn of the rising sun

Typed '"robert hudson" kilburn' into Google to see what other booksellers might have picked it up. Pleased to see that Amazon (, after being nowhere, is the top hit. Then come the blog and a feature I wrote for the Observer Sport Monthly. Then three losers of some kind, and then comes Amazon-in-Japan. I love that it's Japan and not France, America, Oz, Canada or wherever.


US dynasty politics is hilarious. That is all.

(Okay, not all. Is there a comparative study of dynasticism in democracies? I think one would be very interesting. I know some pretty good statisticians. I might see what would be needed in order to model this properly.)

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

steven gerrard vs phil collins

It is not funny that Steven Gerrard has been charged with affray after allegedly beating up a DJ in Southport for not playing Stevie's choice of music.

The funny thing, as every newspaper in the world will repeat, is that Steven Gerrard's all-time favourite artist is Phil Collins, and he also likes Coldplay. If you were writing a sketch, these are choices you would probably think we're a bit too on-the-nail to be funny. I certainly was boggled. I mean, Coldplay is a perfectly plausible answer, however much it has become an association you use to call something risibly bland (hard on Coldplay - who I've always thought were a bit boring, for the record, but fine - but they can count their stately homes, etc.), but Phil Collins? I mean, most footballers won't have heard of Phil Collins. He would have been the joke answer in 1990.

My first thought: has someone been teasing the Guardian writer responsible for the story I was reading? An older wag in the office might have told innocent young news reporter Helen Carter that this was a fact, and she might have just repeated it. I mean, it was late last night, and so on. Phil Collins is the sort of gag a hack my age might have come up with.

My second thought was this: I have a tiny Google-window. Every news outlet on earth, and every other commentator also, is going to have fun with Phil Collins. He is going to be what gets Steven Gerrard on Have I Got News For You. Thus, if I want to see if there is an ur-text, I need to find it before it is swamped. And lo, there it was, already being crowded to the bottom of the front page.

Coldplay is in his stereo, Phil Collins is his all-time favourite, and The Office is his favourite television show. The eagle-eyed amongst you will also have noted the age of this interview. It talks of him as Liverpool's 'new' captain. Thus, it is five years old.

What do we take from this? Well, if we are me, we think: The Office is a good choice. And five years ago, Coldplay were obvious enough, but not risible. Phil Collins was, though. It was a well-established joke tied to the philistinism of footballers. Stevie G is not an idiot. He and his Liverpudlian mates are very keen to describe themselves as jokers. I would not be at all surprised to find - in fact, I think this is the most likely scenario - that Stevie was having a little fun when he talked about Phil Collins. He probably has bigger problems to deal with than putting that right just now. And anyway, he might be a Phil Collins fan. And, who knows, making jokes about it might be something that lands you in hospital.

Sideline: I always found Phil Collins pretty boring too, but I bet this encomium ends up doing him good, what with all the eighties revivalism. And I hope it does Genesis some good, because I liked them.

(I support Liverpool. I have been trying not to get too excited about them being top of the league. This story has proved useful in that regard.)

Monday, 29 December 2008

golden age silver screen 1

A few years ago I reviewed a pair of books about Cary Grant and Tallulah Bankhead. The Tallulah one was full of amazing stories, but I can't find it for some reason. What I mainly remember the books for, though, is this description of Cary Grant's face (it is just possible the author was joking, but it is more likely, given the rest of the book's purple prose, that he was not):

...the camera quickly discovered and magnified the perfection of his features, the beautiful dark and sharp eyes that sat carved beneath his thick black brows, the handsome nose, the flawlessly smooth skin, the thick, slick hair always perfectly cut and parted, and that remarkable cleft in his chin, whose two smooth and curved bulges resembled nothing so much as a beautiful woman's naked behind while she was on her knees in sexual supplication before the godlike monument of his face.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

aslan livingstone-ra

I've got a cousin with this name, who lives in London, where I live, who I never see. If he ego-surfs, maybe we will meet up for a drink some time, and maybe we will not.

Experts: Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is a psychopath

says Pravda. I never tire of it. Among today's other highlights are, 'Weird hairy females seduce hot-blooded Caucasian men,' and 'Chinese homosexuals exist.'

Friday, 26 December 2008

what is the solution

to the issue of crime and punishment? I literally don't know, and apparently I am not the first person to think it needs attending to.

On the radio after Liverpool's pleasing Boxing Day victory (go Liverpool): an eighteen year old man (man!) hanged himself in prison yesterday or today - he was serving seven years for kidnapping and GBH. He might have been an unbelievable horror, this kid, and I'm sure society was safer for him being off the streets, but what I wanted to know when I heard the story was: how come he found himself locked up for these crimes at this age AND THEN how come he was so miserable that he hanged himself? What specifically happened to him, and will it help me understand how people get brutalised by prisons, or will it make me think it's good that people are stuck in them? Basically, I want to know his story.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

man bites dog

'Rom com starting with one night stand with a priest via stag do'

You will doubtless be delighted to learn that my printer seems to have got over its reluctance to use all the paper in its tray. One result is that a load of old scrap I was using to fill the bottom of the tray has reemerged on the back of the first draft of Damsel. Various notes to self, including the above. Other treats are:
- 'God is man's attempt to communicate with the weather' (I like this. I wonder where I heard it?) (Google suggests it's an old saw, and usually Religion is quoted, instead of God. I still like it.)
- 'Belladonna, an action witch'
- 'Rocky the Zebra Saves the World'

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

best reply ever

No good reason for few days lay-off. Combination of finishing off show, being tired and panickingly realising that there is no time for being tired because the Gershwin script has to be done for the start of 2009 and that if I don't start proofing KSC then that will turn into a late January monster.

I have quoted these two poems forty million times to everyone I know, but just in case there are any readers out there who happen not to know me, this is at least about the best response to anything I have ever heard:

Frances Cornford (nee Darwin), 1886-1960 wrote in 1910 "To a Fat Lady see from the Train"

O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the field in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering-sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much.

G. K. Chesterton, in 1933, wrote "The Fat White Woman Speaks"

Why do you rush through the fields in trains,
Guessing so much and so much.
Why do you flash through the flowery meads,
Fat-head poet that nobody reads;
And why do you know such a frightful lot
About people in gloves and such?

(I have got The Man Who Was Thursday to read over Christmas, if I get time. I hope I do. I love Father Brown, and the cover quote - 'the most thrilling book I have ever read', Kingsley Amis is v. encouraging.)

Friday, 19 December 2008

the killburn social club

Funny typesetter's error on page i of the proof copy of KSC, which arrived today. Print out looks very handsome.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

easy target no.1

Under my most recent 'Frequently Bought Together' headline from Amazon, I learnt that of those who buy McMafia by Misha Glenny (Paperback), 19% also buy McMafia, by Misha Glenny (Hardcover). Admittedly, they have different subtitles, and Amazon doesn't help by saying you can buy these frequently-bought-together items together at the click of a button, so I can imagine how a few people might blunder, but 19%? That's a lot of dozy people, people. I certainly think it is worth considering a different subtitle for my paperback. I mean a subtitle.

Oh. Wait. The book is at 359,000+ in the sales rank because it is still pre-release. Ok. I think I might have reacted too quickly, and only about four people have blundered.

If I can get this embroiled about the Amazon stats and recommendations for a book I know merely the title of, things don't bode well for next year.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

musicals i will write if science makes me immortal, no. 2

Supreme! - the story of a liberal who spends his entire working life living a lie so that he can be confirmed as a conservative Supreme Court judge.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

the midsomer conundrum

One thing that can be a problem with series crime fiction is the Midsomer Conundrum: a protagonist will get involved in a crazily colourful set of adventures over time. How a character fits into this bloody world is an issue different writers deal with differently, and differently well. There is one series I cannot go back to, even though I otherwise enjoyed the three I have read over the years, because in every case the crime was somehow linked to the hero, and not for reasons growing out of the specifics of the crime, but just for coincidental reasons - he was the only person who could solve the crime because his daughter happened to witness something, for instance.

I am reading my first Michael Connelly. (Annoyingly, even though I looked at the list of titles and picked the top one on the list in the jacket, so I would start at the beginning, I picked the most recent. I normally check date as well. Whatever.) I am coming to it late. Obviously, a lot of stuff has happened to Bosch and his partner Rider in previous novels. There is a genre-classic passage early on where these things are dealt with for newbies. Here is how it goes, in realtime:

'I think it's better that all the families know and we clear all the cases. It's like with my sister. We wanted to know.'
When Rider was a teenager her older sister was murdered in a drive-by shooting. The case was cleared and three bangers went away for it. It was the main reason she became a cop.
'It's probably like you with your mother, too,' she added.
Bosch looked up at her. His mother had been murdered when he was a boy. More than three decades later he solved the crime himself because he wanted to know.

Monday, 15 December 2008

wowzers, anne robinson

Just flicking past Weakest Link two minutes ago. I didn't hear the line before or after it, but Anne Robinson said, 'Why do you bother to repair council houses? They're only going to smash them up again, the people living in them.'

horrible buddhists

Was just re-flicking through James Palmer's excellent The Bloody White Baron this morning, and was reminded how much fun it was. It's all about a psychotic Baltic-Russian aristocrat taking over Mongolia and bathing it in blood. His name was Roman Ungern von Sternberg, and when he was a scary child he tried to strangle his neighbour's owl.

Ungern's story is great, but the eye-opening thing for me was the portrayal of Mongolian Buddhism in the first quarter of the twentieth century - its venal, voluptuous monks, whose monasteries were the focus of temporal as well as spiritual power, are not straight out of mediaeval Europe, but the analogies are there for all to see.

We get too used to a fluffy bunnies, spiritual-but-not-religious, modern Western idea of Buddhism. We don't know about Mongolia’s pantheon of vengeful deities, such as Palden Llamo. She had a cup made from the skull of a child born from incest and her horse's saddle was made from the flayed skin of her own child. She gets airbrushed in the West by people claiming that gods with bloody swords stamping on fields of corpses represent the mind’s triumph over materialism. (Funny Palden Llama fact: the Tibetans thought Queen Victoria was one of her incarnations.)

The most enjoyable monkish leader was the Bogd Khan, was a gross, drunken whoremonger who teased pilgrims with a rope wired to a car battery that he hung over the palace walls. He laughed when it shocked pilgrims who thought the shocks were blessings from on high. He was too fat to ride a horse without falling off, so he got soldiers to ride on either side of him to hold him up. Poor horse.

He also had a zoo, with 'giraffes, tigers and chimpanzees preserved in a miserable half-life of teasing and desperate cold.' He had an elephant looked after by a seven foot six inch tall giant. The giant's name was Gongor. He had a collection, which you can still see, of stuffed animals, including puffer-fish, penguins and elephant seals. There were mirrors with 'intricate drawings of a most grossly obscene character,' but these have been removed.

Ungern’s own religion - since you are so interested - was a personal stew, supposedly Lutheran but taking in soothsayers and fuzzy pan-spiritualism. He heeded the Buddhist myths of Shambala - a hidden kingdom from which a king would emerge in the darkest days to usher in a Golden Age, but his chaotic army was more shambles than Shambala. He executed thousands of ‘traitors’ and wanted to exterminate the Jews. He had one man whipped daily for months until his bones showed and he went mad; others were pulled apart by bent trees; some were made to spend naked nights on frozen rivers. One group of such men fought off wolves with their bare hands. Half of them did, anyway.

I've read a lot of books about nutjobs, and the good ones are good because you feel in safe hands with respect to psychological truth. This is one of those - Palmer's Ungern made total sense to me. He was a loner whose parents divorced. He rebelled against authority, and built escapist fantasies about glamorous soldier forebears with nicknames like The Axe and The Brother of Satan. He never learnt what made other people tick. He taught himself esoteric theology and Eastern mysticism. He believed his shallow reading had revealed deep truths, and his success in battle gave him the power to follow through on his whims. Palmer is also very strong on torture and murder - he knows they are common in war, and that ‘extreme violence has a shocking playfulness,’ but he knows that each case has its own precedents. Ungern’s brutality grew out of the corporal discipline of the Russian Army and the graphic hell scrolls of the Mongolian monasteries.

The Bloody White Baron is great. Buy it for your friends.

(In the spirit of Robert McCrumb: I do not know James Palmer.)

(Yes, yes, keen readers of my match reports will have some of this information already, but only some of it. Like I say, they are my best work. And I am very busy this week.)

Friday, 12 December 2008

musicals i will write if science makes me immortal, no. 1

'A Midsummer Night's Scream!' - Shaun of the Dead meets The Blair Witch Project in a zombie horror love story Shakespeare mash-up.

old material

Some of you may have forgotten about Geoff Pyke. Always worth being reminded about Geoff Pyke. He's mainly remembered for experiments with pykrete, a sort of wood-pulp infused super ice which doesn't melt easily and is incredibly strong, and out of which he wanted to make an aircraft carrier during the war, which would be a huge, cheap floating island and almost impervious to torpedoes.

As Cabinet Magazine explains:

In late 1942, Lord Louis Mountbatten — the British military's Chief of Combined Operations — paid a visit to Winston Churchill at his official country home, Chequers. Mountbatten had with him a small parcel of great importance. A member of Churchill's staff apologized that the Prime Minister was at that moment in his bath.

"Good," said Mountbatten as he bounded up the stairs. "That's exactly where I want him to be." Mountbatten entered the steaming bathroom to find Churchill in the tub. It was generally not a wise thing to interrupt Sir Winston in his bathtub.

"I have," Mountbatten explained, "a block of a new material that I would like to put in your bath."

Mountbatten opened his parcel and dropped its contents between the Prime Minister's bare legs in the water. It was a chunk of ice.

Rather than bellow at his Chief of Combined Operations, Churchill stared at the ice intently — and so, standing by the bathtub, did Mountbatten himself. Minutes passed, and still they looked into the steaming depths of bath water before them. The ice was not melting.

The resulting project produced HMS Habbakuk (mispelling by a clerk of the biblical Habakkuk*) which sort of worked, but never got followed through on because we started winning the war.

Some other good stuff about Pyke:

- At the start of WWI he blagged his way over to Germany as a war correspondent and was imprisoned as a spy. He did some statistics on failure rates of escapes and decided a daytime run-for-it was his best bet. He escaped and the story of same was a big scoop, and he lectured about his experience.
- He set up a school, funded it via investments, he lost his money (some of the more exciteable accounts out there say that as an early futures trader, he once controlled a quarter of the world's tin supply).
- He did some private opinion polling to try to understand what Germans really thought of the Nazis. His questioners posed as golfing tourists.
- After WWII, he had the idea of powering trains with muscle-power. Twenty-thirty people on bicycle-like contraptions powering a cycle-tractor (as Wikipedia calls it - I don't know what a cyclo-tractor is). Pyke understood that this was distasteful, but the energy in sugar was similar to that in coal, and Europe had people and sugar rather than coal, so, in calorific terms...

*Habakkuk is one of the more unknown prophets.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

for real

I know that this is nothing to do with space aliens or aparnoid anti-Americanism, but it is, as a friend of mine has just written to me, straight out of Agatha Christie.

('Arpanoid' is a new word I am working on. I have high hopes.)

er, slightly less funny

Top story in Pravda today:

Black House of the United Socialist States of America
The day when Barack Obama won the election has been ironically dubbed as ‘Black Tuesday.’ It brings up the idea that the White House in Washington might be renamed soon too. As a matter of fact, red is the best color that fits America today. If things continue to develop like that, the country’s new name will the USSA – the United Socialist States of America. Americans have reached the highest point of hypocrisy in their self-complacency and confidence. It may at times be very close to absurdity. Just imagine that Governor Schwarzenegger bans words ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ from California schools just because of the fact that the words supposedly discriminates gay families.

Those Russians.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

hellish hairy sea monster cast ashore

If, because like at least one of your fellow readers, you are so interested in medical matters that you follow up the story about sexy nurses or whatever that one was, you get a page which leads you to the following stories:

Russian scientist: 'USA is a pyramid that has to collapse'
People drop sink down to shut car alarm up
Woman plays Santa Claus for 45 years

(The sea monster, incidentally, was washed ashore in Guinea. It had long fur, four paws, and 'The scientists who examined the creature said that they had already seen such animals before, but they have no clue to their definition.')

dog gives birth to mutant creature that resembles human being

I hope you check out Pravda from time to time. It's the best newspaper site on the planet. Among the headlines on today's by no means atypical front page are:

Pregnant baby girl born in Saudi Arabia
Hungry beavers cause energy crisis in Russia
Russian women tries to smuggle 1,170 parrots*
Soviet cosmonauts conceal truth about UFOs
Nurses make medicine most sexual science of all
Amero to become USA’s new currency when dollar collapses

and my personal favourite, the enigmatic, almost wistful, 'And there will be no need in sperm'

Pravda means 'truth'.

* Alongside a picture of budgies

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

about a fish

This is a very faithful, not brilliantly recorded version of a song by the Growling Old Men.

Monday, 8 December 2008

I'm less tired today

It's the sheer number of pictures that gets to me. The All-Ireland Irish Dancing Championships, won by Jillian Oury from Trinity, Illinois, is obviously a much bigger thing than one might imagine.

The picture-in-two halves features Kaitlin Thomson Woodgate from Brampton in Canada and Bernadette Devereaux from Broesler, New Jersey. Oh no, wait a second. I think they're in another diptych, and these ones are Simona Mauriello Maguire-O'Shea from London and Claire Greaney Hession from Galway. The picture with what can't be one girl kicking another girl in the stomach features Nadine Martin and Margaret McAleer from Doncaster or Kate McMahon and Jackie O'Leary from Meath, or Nadine Martin Margaret McAleer from Doncaster and Kate McMahon Jackie O'Leary from Meath, or some other people, but the thing I can work out almost for certain is that they are doing a 'light jig'. If this is light, these are athletes.

Now, the excited cynics out there are thinking that this competition should be turned into a mockumentary, but vade retro, cynicism. Enthusiasm kicks mockery's ass, and I would love to see a proper documentary on this thing. Spellbound beats Best in Show.

(I really want to see the hairdressing scenes, and follow the girl who does the dance in a bob. If such a girl exists. It would be like Strictly Ballroom. Except not in a mocking way. Not that I didn't love Strictly Ballroom and A Mighty Wind, but Spellbound and Stuff the World are the model I am thinking of, if you are a top television executive.)

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Best in Show

Tell me this isn't funny. I'm too tired to really pay attention to the details, but it is either an Irish hairstyle competition, or some other competition in which a rulebook specifies the hairstyle.

Saturday, 6 December 2008


I couldn't love Grooks more. They are short poems by a Danish polymath called Piet Hein, who wrote them in English. My dad had a book of them, and periodically I realise that I know about forty by heart. Here are a couple:

Where the woods and ploughlands
of tradition and modernity
run into the never-ending
deserts of eternity,
there I have my daily task
while time smoothly passes,
spooning the eternal sands
into hour glasses.

My adversary's argument
is not alone malevolent
but ignorant to boot.
He hasn't even got the sense
to state his so-called evidence
in terms I can refute.

Friday, 5 December 2008

One Day as a Tiger

I bought this in my more splurgy book-by-cover days, and my copy features the prettiest picture of a sheep ever seen by human hand. You can't get the same design now, so far as I can tell. I don't remember much about the book, but when I look at the passages I marked, I find four which seem almost perfect. I obviously should find some more Anne Haverty:

'This kind of statement marks me out as an outsider, a dilettante. Personal likes and dislikes should not come into one’s reactions, as a farmer, to such an important matter as the weather. A farmer approves of the weather because it’s seasonal, not because it’s a thing or cheer or of solace.'

But all those moments end in the present moment and my present is not worthy of that past.'

'Etti is not, strictly speaking, what you could call a looker. But she was somehow simply my ideal, girl-wise. Or there was something in me that insisted she was.'

'Carried along on a wave of riposte...'

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Ongoing sex news

The GenderAnalyser, after earlier highly male readings, has settled into a confident mid-60s female judgement. I thought the chessboxing might have made me manlier, but no dice.

Right hook! Checkmate! Take that Mr Hitler!

Maybe you don't watch Trans World Sport. As well as skipping through normal sports stories, it gives weekly (or monthly, I don't know) insights into the world of lesser known games and pastimes. Yesterday, which was literally not April Fool's Day, I learnt about the new but noble art of Chess Boxing.

The concept was invented by Yugoslav-born (that's what it says in Wikipedia - I am not making any point about the Balkans) cartoonist Enki Bilal in his 1992 graphic novel Froid Equateur. A Dutch artist called Iepe Rubingh decided to stage some matches as performance art 2001. Iepe decided that chess followed by boxing was impractical, so he made up some rules based on alternating rounds. Find the details on Wikipedia. Competitors may win by knockout, checkmate, a judge's decision or if their opponent's twelve minutes of chess time elapses.

Things kicked off, not literally, and now there's an association and everything. The Trans World Sport commentary said that the big issue is that testosterone really affects your chess. Thus, after some boxing, people start being rash. Sounds logical.

The match that the telly focused on was the bad-blood-full grudge rematch between Exeter's Andrew 'the Rock' Costello and podgy German Wolfram von Stauffenberg, who defeated him in a controversial game in Cologne earlier this year (The Rock was ahead, but adjudged to have hit his opponent in the back of the head). Pictures here, and video here. The Rock checkmated von Stauffenberg, a descendent of the guy who tried to assassinated Hitler, in the third round.

The game is apparently a fine balance between the two disciplines. If you want to do some, the London Chessboxing Club is based in Bethnal Green, and there are classes on Saturdays and Tuesdays.

My favourite chess boxing nickname at the moment is Gianluca 'Il Dottore' Sirci.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Elementary, Watson, it's lupus.

I find House episodes very relaxing if I have an hour before bed, and I am in the middle of season three. A few episodes ago, House, who is addicted to Vicodin, pulled out some pills he had hidden in a hollowed-out lupus textbook. Foreman said, 'You stash your drugs in a lupus textbook?' and House replied, 'It's never lupus.' I presumed this was a joke because lupus - an autoimmune disease - is constantly being raised as a possible diagnosis, but it is never the culprit.

I wondered if this was a call-out to the House fan community, who I imagine have been making the lupus gag for years. I looked up, 'It's never lupus' on Google, and found this. There are plenty more where that came from. How could I not have noticed House/Holmes and Wilson/Watson? How could I not have noticed the similarities in formula? The drugs? Only interested in the extraordinary? Can see the extraordinary in what others regard as commonplace? Music is his private release? Arrogance, blah?

I am not angry with myself for not being Holmesianly observant enough to notice that House lives at 221B on whatever street. Or that the guy who shoots House, who I don't think is named in the episode, is credited as Moriarty.

(My other House question, for top telly executives only: is it deliberate that his three sidekicks have different numbers of syllables in their names? Does this kind of thing help easy differentiation on a subliminal level in the same way that their being white male, black male and white female works on an unsubliminal level? I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that this level of thinking takes place, or that it doesn't.)

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Uncle Dynamite

Another one of the Uncle Fred books. Haven't read it for ages. Going to. Noticed this passage was marked. Can see why:

A pang of pity shot through Pongo. Nothing that he had seen of Constable Potter had tended to build up in his mind the picture of a sort of demon lover for whom women might excusably go wailing through the woods for, but he knew that his little friend was deeply attached to this uniformed perisher and his heart bled for her. He was broad-minded enough to be able to appreciate that if you enamoured of a fat-headed copper and obstacles crop up in the way of your union, you mourn just as much as if he were Gregory Peck or Clark Gable.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Adrian Tomine

In fact, all of Adrian Tomine's New Yorker covers have been reading-focused. I remember and have enjoyed them all (which I enjoy, but which was from a New Yorker I never saw), except the Tourist one. I remember this one being particularly bitter-sweet for an author between book-sale and publication.


Bookshops are a sticky wicket. On the one hand, I love browsing in bookshops. I love finding new books and taking a chance. I'd like to buy everything from Queen's Park, West End Lane, Crockatt & Powell, Daunt and the others I get to from time to time, but if a book is three pounds cheaper on Amazon, then that's where I'll buy it.

I had exactly this conversation today with the guy at West End Lane. I said that when I went to his shop, I tried to find something I would never pick up anywhere else, either because of the breadth of the list, or because of a staff recommendation shelf, or for whatever other reason. Today, I picked up Halting State, by Charles Stross. I have no idea what it's about, but I like the cover, and I feel it's important to take a punt as an act of faith that people might take a punt on my book (this doesn't hold much logical water). When we spoke about this, and I said that one of my reasons for favouring West End Lane over the others in this list is that it has The Great American Novel always, which is my favourite Philip Roth book, he pointed me at another baseball novel - The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., by Robert Coover - which I couldn't resist.

There's a place for all the types of book shop, and I think it does West End a lot of credit that they didn't look at me like some kind of criminal when I told them I buy cheap books elsewhere, but they also know what their strengths are and they play to them.

(My favourite bookshop cartoon ever is this New Yorker cover by Adrian Tomine.)

I can barely type my own name

This is the only conclusion any sane person will draw from the fact that I had to be told by a friend of mine that The Kilburn Social Club is on Amazon etc., in that way book sites have of putting up books ten months pre-publication. The only other possibilities, revolving as they do around things like lack of vanity, are implausible.

The fun thing about the Amazon entry is this phrase: "All listed prices on applicable products sold by now include the new, reduced VAT rate of 15%. This has been applied automatically to the price of your item so you don’t need to do a thing." That is so kind of Amazon! It must have been such a hassle! The book costs £12.99 after the inclusion of this new, as they so nicely point out, reduced rate, so that means the original price would presumably have been (don't check my maths) £13.27.

(Obviously, in case it is unclear, I am excited about these continued signs of the book's progress through the process.)

Sunday, 30 November 2008

The Saints are Coming

I went to New Orleans earlier this year to write this, and it was great. Having researched Katrina and met the Saints organisation, who I found incredibly impressive, and being susceptible to sentimentality, I found this mocked up video very affecting.

American football, wait, I haven't got time for this. I will do a bit more on American football this week. But basically, American sports writing is fantastic, and so is a lot of American sports documentarising. They are better mythmakers, and sport is a lot about myth.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Tip of the Wolfberg

Obviously it is not true that every second book is about crows or a wolf, but sometimes it seems like it to me (I include in these links only books I have definitely seen in bookshops in the last few months, or read recent reviews of).

They are both good animals - not as good as tuna or squid, but pretty good - but that fact is not enough to account for their current metaphorical dominance. They are both liminal, maybe? A wolf is on the edge of domestication? The crow is not quite a bird of prey, but nearly? Both are seen as intelligent (crows are wise, wolves raise humans in stories, and have pack law, and turn into werewolves) which separates then from other animals? Crows are widely symbolic of death, and so they stand at a door between worlds?

But why now? I'm sure that fashion will have something to do with it. But could it also be that we in the West acclimatised ourselves to being atypically secure, but then terror and savagery forced their way back into our everyday consciousness, and wolf-at-the-door and death-amongst-us images started to seem more appropriate? I, as could not possibly be more obvious, do not know.

Earlier this year, I watched a terrific play (by a friend of mine, lest anyone think that my biases aren't in the open) based on Saki short stories. A lot of early Saki is about a fragile, effete time of fashion and frivolity, but the stories soon start to focus on how his society's cultured veneer is thin ice over the raging waters of history, man's animal nature and the fearsome power of mixed metaphor. All kind of animals appear as symbols of disorder, from stags to a sort of killer stoat, but the wolves that are most often at civilisation's gate are wolves.

There's one story in particular, about two people meeting in a forest over which their families have squabbled since time immemorial. They get pinned to the ground by a falling tree, and they denounce each other as they yell to their men to come and save them and to slay the other. Eventually, they see eyes in the distance. Spent, one says that even if these are his men, he will release his enemy. His enemy says the same, bygones will be just that, and beer and roses. But the eyes are not human...

He's really good, Saki.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Bad sex prize

I forgot to write about it when it was awarded. I'm pretty sure I will not be in the running for next year's prize, not because I am a brilliant writer about sex, but because I was by quite a long way too reticent to touch the subject with a bargepole. Whatever, re literary sex, there were for me, like for a lot of people, a couple of more or less florid novels that came at an impressionable time.

One was either Romancing the Stone or Jewel of the Nile (a vivid but unclear memory). I have no idea why I bought it. Unless, maybe, I flicked through it in WH Smiths and found some sex. That certainly rings possible. I mean, I was about fourteen.

But that pales into nothing beside Testkill, by former England cricketer Ted Dexter (who once reputedly drove a ball from the Jesus College cricket pitch over the chapel, which is a long way and let's leave it at that) and some other guy. I barely remember the story - it was about a murder during an Ashes match or some such - but it had some passages of sex, and somewhere, referring to the villain I hope, was the line, 'Byron was a cold, superb lover.' I didn't really understand what it meant then, and I'm not sure I do now, but the phrase has never left me.

(I have already had my best moment that I will ever have of writing about sex, by the way. It's the line, delivered as an intentional joke: 'In my experience, women don't really enjoy sex anyway.')

Poetry is 4 girls

This is literally not true, but that's what the GenderAnalyser obviously thinks. Before yesterday's post, I was a red-blooded 81% male. One poem and I leap the great divide - 61% female. Oh, wait a second, maybe the Mitchell-Hedges post had slipped off the bottom, with its 150% masculinity? Hm. Checking, it shouldn't have, since it is two posts below the bottom, but maybe that was it. It is certainly the most logical explanation.

I am getting really annoyed that the date is not coming up on the top of these posts. I have combed through the html in the manner of someone who doesn't understand html but is comparing it with a functioning template...

OH! Maybe I need to press the html button above this. Maybe I am a moron. Maybe you do not have to witness this internal dialogue. (This dialogue is not internal.)

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Stick that up your ar*e, puny humans

These are by Leigh Hunt. They are aces. Must run.

To a Fish

You strange, astonished-looking, angle-faced,
Dreary-mouthed, gaping wretches of the sea,
Gulping salt water everlastingly,
Cold-blooded, though with red your blood be graced,
And mute, though dwellers in the roaring waste;
And you, all shapes beside, that fishy be—
Some round, some flat, some long, all devilry,
Legless, unmoving, infamously chaste:

O scaly, slippery, wet, swift, staring wights,
What is't ye do? What life lead? eh, dull goggles?
How do ye vary your vile days and nights?
How pass your Sundays? Are ye still but joggles
In ceaseless wash? Still naught but gapes and bites,
And drinks and stares, diversified with boggles?

A Fish Answers

Amazing monster! that, for aught I know,
With the first sight of thee didst make our race
For ever stare! O flat and shocking face,
Grimly divided from the breast below!
Thou that on dry land horribly dost go
With a split body and most ridiculous pace,
Prong after prong, disgracer of all grace,
Long-useless-finned, haired, upright, unwet, slow!

O breather of unbreathable, sword-sharp air,
How canst exist? How bear thyself, thou dry
And dreary sloth? WHat particle canst share
Of the only blessed life, the watery?
I sometimes see of ye an actual pair
Go by! linked fin by fin! most odiously.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

whiskers on kittens

Good von Trapp facts at Wodehouse-planning lunch with Jeremy yesterday (he bookwrote and directed the current West End / worldwide Sound of Music): the von Trapp children's mother was an English woman called Agathe Whitehead. She was the money in the family, and the money came from her grandfather, Robert Whitehead.

Whitehead was a Bolton-born engineer who was trained in Manchester and then worked in Toulon and Milan. He was headhunted by some boilermakers in Rijeka, which is one of those central European cities that has had dozens of names and masters. At the time it was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, it's probably best-known to English-speakers who've done history at my school (I mean, 'to me') as Fiume, and it's now part of Croatia. Anyway, Whitehead managed a works making boilers for the Austro-Hungarian navy.

Without getting too heavily into the details, in the 1860s he and a local engineer called Givannie Luppis invented the torpedo. The company went bust in 1873, and in 1875, Whitehead set up a new one: Torpedo-Fabrik von Robert Whitehead (catchy). The good version of the story (but I have not read lots of books on torpedo-making, so don't quote me if you are writing one and using this blog as research) has it that he offered the torpedo to the UK before the Austrians ordered some. He kept hold of the patents and rights with some pretty good business practise and a healthy dose of paranoia. He was taken over by British arms giants Vickers Ltd. and Armstrong-Whitworth & Co. He got very rich.

Sub-fact: a Whitehead Mark VIII sunk the Belgrano.

Sub-fact 2: the Captain of the Belgrano was Hector Bonzo. I can find no confirmation, but am almost certain because I was so taken by it when I watched a documentary on the Falklands a couple of years ago, that the First Lieutenant was Leonidas Ponce.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

I am obsessed with sex

All this twittering about crocodile shoes and umbrellas has seen my maleness drop to 79%. Golf. Rugby. Internal combustion engine.

More of Mr Bown

Mr Bown says, 'A gentleman must have at least four umbrellas.' You, like me, instantly wonder whether this is some ancient dictum we have missed, some seminal moment of milk-in-first style advice that has passed us by, leaving us and our too few umbrellas looking like a pile of peas on the wrong side of life's fork. But no, because Mr Bown goes on: 'This rule of wardrobe I have determined myself, so let me explain.'

The explanation is crystally reasoned over quite a lot of space. In distillation it runs: I will not discuss foldaway umbrellas, they are beneath me and should be beneath you; steel is lighter but more fragile than wood; you need four because you need two different sizes depending on the likelihood of rain, and you need each of these sizes in two different colours because what kind of barbarian would wear brown shoes with a black umbrella, or vice versa?

After this, hats: 'What is the easiest way of changing one’s outdoor appearance? Buy a hat. I did it as an undergraduate in Cambridge (it was a homburg, and caused me to be described in the pages of the Spectator as “a pale imitation of Enoch Powell”) and I have just done it again. And where does one go to buy a hat? To Lock’s, of course.'


After my unwise template-fiddling, I am still not getting dates on the top of these posts. Sorry for that. I will try to sort it out.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Unworn baby shoes

Periodically someone re-raises the wheeze of telling a story in six words, and often the results are fun, and frequently they are more autobiographical than their author probably intended ('Philosopher, fire-eater, barrister, careering through life'; 'No A Levels but a millionaire').

But how about this one, rather longer than six words, which is from the Members' News section of my old college magazine:

'FACS BOWN (1968) has resigned the benefice of St Stephen Sculcoates, in the Diocese of York, and taken up a new career as a writer. He describes hotels and restaurants for Bown's Best and gentlemen's clothes for Bown's Bespoke ( and'

I have come up with three backstories for this guy already.

Also, I have visited Bown's Bespoke. The bit on crocodile shoes begins: 'Let me at once address the concerns of the conservationists. There are now, quite properly, the most stringent regulations in force about the use of crocodile and alligator skins. These creatures are protected species. Only those specimens specifically bred and farmed for the purpose can have their skins used, and so – with regard to any shoes made by the firm which features in this article – there can be no question of harm being done to any wild animal.' Further information includes: most skins used for shoes these days come from the underbellies of three-month-old Mississippi alligators; alligator scales tend to be rounder than crocodile ones; Bown's shoes are crocodile and he bought them to challenge 'the prevailing taste for the drab and the downright ugly', they are a 'blow against the scruffiness of the age'; he has 'gazed and gazed' at his completed shoes and he doesn't think he 'will ever tire of doing so'; they are 'a work of art'.

I bet St Stephen Sulcoates (C of E) was pretty high church while he was there. (Actually, this website refers to its style of worship as 'restrained Catholic'.)

Take two bottles into the shower?

A thing I have just noticed: I have been aware for some time of what happens to the ceiling of your kitchen if you don't clean it for about fifteen years - in fact, early in 2007 I had a crack at scrubbing off some of the pale-brown, er, let's call it an accumulation, and after an hour and a half had succeeded in making three square feet of it slightly paler, and then I fell off the chair and exacerbated my hilarious ongoing back issues - but there is a special bonus effect if you have a sort of perspexy lampshade in the shape of a downward-facing flower. The top side of the flower picks up the, er, accumulation, which in addition to all the rest is extremely tacky. The light attracts unwary flies. The smaller flies cannot escape the er, accumulation. There are scores of flies. I think that, while this is obviously a useful household gadget, I might replace the lampshade.

(If you think the roof is bad, you really don't want to look on top of the cupboards. If a mouse ever ventured into that ER, ACCUMULATION, I think he or she would be subsumed in manner of mastadon-fighting-sabre-toothed-tiger-in-prehistoric-tar-pit in the florid picture books of my youth.)

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Sex Update

Ever since this, I have been feverishly concerned with how macho I am, and to that end, it seems, I am heavily focused on quoting other men. After slipping into the seventies, I am back up to 82% male. That, I can tell, is a weight off your mind.

Mostly Nothing

I had probably my best period of book-buying in the late nineties. I was still a student, and I spent quite a lot time browsing for things I had never heard of, judged a lot of books by their covers, and got reasonably good at it. The most important triumph was either The Mortdecai Trilogy by Kyril Bonfiglioli, which I have given to most people I have ever spoken to, or A Ticket to the Boneyard by Lawrence Block, which introduced me to a writer who I always like a lot, often love, and who has written billions. I will have a look at the Bonfigliolis and Blocks for your amusement at some point, but not now. Now, is a snatch from East of Wimbledon, by Nigel Williams. I remember almost nothing about it except for a) I enjoyed it, and b) the Husayn twins were hilarious:

Every boy in the school was placed, and next to his marks was a small graph illustrating his performance throughout the year. The x-axis was attitude and the y-axis achievement. Most of the graphs were set on a steep, ascending curve, apart from the Husayn twins’; they started in the top left corner and were headed, inexorably, for the far right end of the bottom line. Next to each graph was a Polaroid photograph of the boy concerned and his own brief reaction to his assessment. Mafouz had written. ‘I have done brilliant. There is no stopping me in the Sports Department. We went on a skiing holiday.’

Saturday, 22 November 2008

More Uncle Fred

Irony fans will enjoy the fact that this drink suggestion comes from Uncle Fred in the Springtime, rather than Cocktail Time:

Its full name is, 'Tomorrow'll be of all the year the maddest, merriest day, for I'm to be the Queen of the May, mother, the Queen of the May.' A clumsy title, generally shortened for purposes of ordinary conversation. Its foundation is any good dry champagne, to which is added liqueur brandy, armagnac, kummel, yellow chartreuse, and old stout, to taste.

Friday, 21 November 2008

I don't know

what has happened to the titles of my posts. I ill-advisedly tried to import a different template, and have spent some time trying to get back to this one, which I like ok, though I would prefer a third column for one reason and another. I think I am most of the way back, but the titles are still crazy.

You see them on every side

After yesterday's long-winded chuntering, some nice, leavening Wodehouse. I don't have a favourite Wodehouse, but Cocktail Time is certainly in the crackerjack division. Here are some quotations from it. I started to contextualise them, and then I stopped:

'The trouble in this world,’ said Lord Ickenham … ‘is that so many fellows deteriorate as they grow older. Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all their finer qualities away, with the result that the frightfully good chap of twenty-five is changed little by little into the stinker of fifty.’

‘You could have got these views of yours on the younger generation off your chest in a novel. Something on the lines of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies – witty, bitter, satirical and calculated to make the younger generation see itself as in a mirror and wish that Brazil nuts had never been invented. But in your case, of course, that is out of the question. You couldn’t write a novel if you tried for a hundred years. Well, goodbye, my dear fellow,’ said Lord Ickenham.

‘I am convinced that, married to her, he would today be the lovable Beefy of thirty years ago, for she wouldn’t have stood that Captain Bligh stuff for a minute. Too bad the union blew a fuse, but how sadly often that happens. When you get to my age, young Pongo, you will realise that what’s wrong with the world is that there are far too many sundered hearts in it. I’ve noticed it again and again. It takes so little to set a couple of hearts asunder.’

‘Why the devil don’t you marry the girl, Johnny?’
‘I can’t.’
‘Of course you can. Better men than you have got married. Myself for one. Nor have I ever regretted it.’

‘You’re breaking that pen,’ said Lord Ickenham, ‘and what is far, far worse, you are breaking the heart of a sweet blue-eyed girl with hair the colour of ripe corn.’

‘Did you read that last book of mine, Inspector Jervis at Bay?’
‘Well, what with one thing and another, trying to catch up with my Proust and Kafka and all that-’
‘Don’t apologize. The British Isles are stiff with people who didn’t read it. You see them on every side.’

‘Now listen, Bert. This “M’lord” stuff. I’ve been meaning to speak to you about it. I’m a Lord, yes, no doubt about that, but you don’t have to keep on rubbing it in all the time. It’s no use kidding ourselves. We know what lords are. Anachronistic parasites on the body of the state, is the kindest thing one can say of them. Well, a sensitive man doesn’t like to be reminded every half second that he is one of the untouchables liable at any moment to be strung up on a lamp post or to have his blood flowing in streams down Park Lane. Couldn’t you substitute something matier and less wounding to my feelings?’

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Stupid democrats

If you want the best dancers, appoint expert judges. Ditto monetary policy and foreign affairs, and sentencing guidelines, and etc. Stable democracy is about putting experts between an inevitably ill-informed electorate and the exercise of power. The electorate then gets to scrutinise those experts and their decisions via the medium of a free press. If you don't care about expertise, then ask the public, but then you'll get a popularity contest and you can't blame people for choosing John Sergeant. I've got no problem with popularity contests, by the way. I thought that was what Strictly was.

Thus, on the big subject of the day, I oppose the resignation of John Sergeant, who signed up for a popularity contest, and who should stay in it until he is proven unpopular.

(Tangentially, I don't like sportsmen retiring from internationals before they are dropped. Going out at the top is vainglorious denial of what sport is about - measurable competition - and thus of the fact that, in the end, your powers wane and you get replaced. In the meantime, if any of the nonsense you have spouted about your pride in playing for your nation's shirt has any meaning, you wear it every second someone will let you, since by doing so you are not only doing something you claim to love, but you are also presumably helping your team win. You'll be dropped as soon as you aren't helping. (I am a Liverpool fan, and love Jamie Carragher, but I really don't respect his decision to sit out internationals because he wasn't being picked. I really do respect David Beckham's willingness to turn up and sit on the bench.))

But, post-Sergeant, I'm all about the democracy. One of my favourite books about it is Fareed Zakaria's The Future of Freedom. In it, basically, he argues that constitutional liberalism, in the sense of individual freedom and security, gave birth to Western democracy rather than the other way round, and that democracy without constitutional liberalism is no guarantor of individual freedom. He fears that the shibboleth that more democracy must be better leads to the creation of ‘illiberal democracies’ born of demagoguery, populism, lobbying and special interests.

The problem with democracies is short-termism. We Westerners made some of our long-term, difficult decisions before we were democracies, or when the franchise was very small. Zakaria argues that a lot of third-word democracies can’t inflict short-term pain in terms of property laws, etc., while some authoritarian regimes have done so (Taiwan, S. Korea, Singapore, Chile (a particularly queasy example), Indonesia, China). He says, ‘governments that were able to make shrewd choices for the long term were rewarded with strong economic growth and rising levels of literacy, life expectancy, and education. Those that have gone down the path of reform are quickly stymied by the need to maintain subsidies for politically powerful groups. India has been unable to engage in sustained reform precisely because its politicians will not inflict any pain – however temporary – on their constituents. As a result, for all its democratic glories, the country has slipped further and further behind on almost every measure of human development: life expectancy, infant mortality, health, literacy, education.’

Now, Zakaria is no authoritarian naif - he also says ‘In general dictators have not done better at these policies than democrats – far from it. Most dictators have ravaged their countries for personal gain.’ Also, he wrote the book in 2003, and I think India has had some decent years since then, though I am basing that on nothing except news stories about outsourcing, which is pretty sketchy methodology. But the point is not that he is right in every particular, but that he raises a set of sophisticated questions about the outcomes we might want from development, and the difficulties we face if we take a simplistic view of how we might get them. 'At the start,' he writes, 'the West must recognize that it does not seek democracy in the Middle East – at least not yet. We first seek constitutional liberalism, which is very different. Clarifying our immediate goals actually makes them much more easily attainable.'

It's easy to say that nothing is more important than our political freedom, but ask a mother of two babies whether she'd prefer the vote or a washing machine.

I propose never to write another post of this length.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

John Updike on putting

I have not read much John Updike. I don't know why. I have read a collection of his, however, called Golf Dreams. If you play golf, it will be full of things you recognise - about the way a perfect shot stays with you long after all the shanks, hooks and other foozles have been cast from the mirror-walled echo chamber of your mind's eye, for instance, or about the moral importance of holing out rather than taking gimmes, because if you keep taking gimmes, what happens when someone suddenly asks you to make a short putt? I mean, what happens? You probably get offended that someone is saying that you might miss it, but the real reason you don't want to putt from three feet is that you might miss it, and if you might miss it, then he or she is right to make you take the putt. Sport is not about pity, people. Especially golf. It's you versus the course, with an incredibly simple basic premise. If you know in your heart that there's any chance you might miss the putt, you should putt.

Anyway, I'm not going to go on about that too much, because I doubt I have a big golfing readership. We're with Updike today because of a passage in a short story in the collection which has stuck with me, almost word-for-word it transpires, since 1998. The narrator and his subject, Jamie Ray, are both priests at a retreat for errants. I think, but don't remember for certain, that the narrator has dipped into the collecting box. Jamie Ray is a pederast. The one golf fact that you could do with knowing is that in most half-decent golf, great putting is the key. You drive for show, but putt for dough, etc. Anyway, here's Johnny:

'He got Jamie Ray as partner today, which meant he was sure to collect on the team play. Jamie Ray swings miserably but putts like an angel; I sometimes wonder if buggery hasn’t made the hole look relatively huge to him. Whereas we poor cu*t men keep sliding off to the side, hunched over as fearful as fetuses who suddenly realize they can never push their craniums through a three-and-a-half-inch pelvic opening.'

[John Updike didn't write 'cu*t', of course. I am doing so because I do not know how virulent corporate firewalls are these days.]

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Incidentally, sex fans

Last night I ran this blog through the GenderAnalyser, which I found out about here. Given that, at the time, most of the blog was taken up with Mitchell-Hedges talking about killing sharks, I was surprised to find that it was only 91% male. After today's post, the statistic has been maintained. Can it really be true that I am as male as Mitchell-Hedges? Or that Mitchell-Hedges was only 91% male? My faith in science is battered.

Consternation! Brouhaha! Run, run and tell the King the sky is falling!

This is one of my favourite lines of anything ever (say it loud and it's almost like singing), and it is in The Cunning Man, by Robertson Davies. I say it really quite often, not always to myself. One of my other favourite lines of anything ever is also in The Cunning Man, and I had forgotten about it until today. I once used to quote it just as often but at some point it fell from one of the (is it seven? I don't remember) drawers of my memory. It comes late on in the book when, for the x-th time, the narrator receives a misdialed phone call from someone trying to buy tickets for the local cinema:

‘Isn’t that the Odeon?’
‘No, this is the Great Theatre of Life. Admission is free but the taxation is mortal. You come when you can, and leave when you must. The show is continuous. Good-night.’

Monday, 17 November 2008


A fact non-hockey players might not know: in most hockey clubs, all the players have a club squad number. This means that they can move from team to team and there is never a clash of shirt-numbers, and it is just the kind of sensible thing you would expect from a hockey club, because hockey is the best sport. One sideline effect of this is that when a new shirt design appears, which is usually every two or three years, there is an unholy scramble, usually between a big fat guy from the fourths called Spud who was at Lancaster (which is an excellent university, let me make it crystal clear) and another big fat guy from the fifths called Razor who was at De Montfort (about which I have more mixed feelings because I used to play against De Montfort and a big fat guy called Razor once belted me round the knees for no reason) over who will have the honour of wearing the club's number 69 shirt. This is not the fact about the number 69 that I want to write about.

There is a website called The Page 69 Test. It's about how Marshall McLuhan once said you can see whether a book is for you by picking it up, reading Page 69 and seeing whether you want to read more. (I have not found the McLuhan reference anywhere, and I am presuming it's not apocryphal, but it's the sort of thing that could be). The only reason I am writing about this is that I find it hard to imagine a better page 69 than this, from a book called Battling With Sea Monsters, by one of the all-time greats, FA Mitchell-Hedges:


...These grotesque creatures have the appearance of pre-historic armour plated lice, with antennae of astonishing length.

The shark's jaws, which we carefully preserved, were seven feet four inches in circumference, and two men standing back to back could pass completely through them.

There is no jungle in the world that holds the horrors to be found beneath tropical seas. The gates of death never swing outward, though ghastly are the ways in which many enter. I have seen blood-curdling tragedies; one moment a man, strong, in the full vigour of life; the next, a bloody, foam-churned sea, a woman left grieving and children fatherless. I have seen a boy with keen anticipation starting out for a day's fishing; tragedy was lurking and he never returned.

Even more terrible: Thirty or forty natives were bathing in the sea off their little village, among them a father with his grown-up sons. They were close to the shore having great fun; suddenly a gurgling cry broke from one of the boys, aged sixteen. His head bobbed below the surface, the water reddened with blood; the father and an elder brother dashed towards the spot and at that moment the boy reappeared, his arms held out, shrieking terribly. They grasped his hands; just as they did so there was a tremendous swirl of water, and the great shark rushed again at the boy. Frozen with horror, the father and brother saw the cavernous mouth open, heard the crunch of the jaws as they closed. They were still grasping the boy's hands - but only his head and shoulders remained. The body below was bitten completely off.

Panic-stricken the natives came to me, borrowed one of my shark lines, baited a hook and ran it off from the shore. The fish was still lurking there, and almost immediately it took the bait. The men struck, and all together hauled on the line and dragged the brute to the beach. Dancing with fury they split open the belly from vent to gills; the guts spewed out on the sand. And there was the body of the boy, swallowed practically whole.

The enraged natives lit a fire, cut the shark into small...

Friday, 14 November 2008

Agit Prop

A thing I am really enjoying: sticking my Oyster card into my passport and pretending that the passport operates Oyster barriers. I've surreptitiously noticed some people reacting with surprise, but the key to the whole gag is to underplay, to understand that you will never know who really falls for it, and to be satisfied with the lack of closure.