Wednesday, 30 November 2011

helen mccookerybook

It's more than likely you're not a fan of The Chefs, part of the Brighton scene in the last seventies and early eighties. I know them because of the brilliant song Thrush, which is rude and properly funny. The lyrics are here.

What have I learned today? That their lead singer, Helen McCookeryBook, is still gigging. I am going to go see her.

(Helen McCookeryBook. Beat that with a stick, Barkevious Mingo.)

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

letter of note

I know you are eager to learn what I think of Pippa Middleton's advance, and I do have something lined up on that, but I just wanted to do this first.

Scott Raab has just written a book called The Whore of Akron. Its ostensible subject is a guy called LeBron James, the best basketballer of his generation, who played for his hometown Cleveland Indians, a long-suffering team whose passionate fans he constantly claimed to understand. Then he went to Miami to join a team of superstars, and he did it in a vulgar, self-serving way. Raab knows he's being unfair and his book is about being a sports fan.*

He asked two people for cover blurb: Buzz Bissinger, because Bissinger wrote Friday Night Lights (amazing book, passable film, very good television series) and Philip Roth, because he had just interviewed Roth and Roth is his hero. This, from Slate's Hang Up & Listen sports podcast, is Roth's reply:

Dear Scott,

You’re asking the wrong man to say something about your book. I was curiously incompetent at basketball as a boy, I have never followed basketball as an adult, and I know nothing about the teams or their players. I remember that Bill Bradley played for Princeton while I was teaching there, but otherwise, as far as I know, LeBron James is a hat worn by men in the 1920s.

Sorry to let you down, but you’ll do alright without me.

* Descriptions of how Raab analyses sport's place in his life make it sound like a more memoir-y version of Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes, which is one of the best novels I have ever read. I have no idea how good Raab's book is, but people say it's very good.

Monday, 28 November 2011


You really need me to tell you about the economy? You really don't. But it drives me crazy when bankers tell me that current problems is caused by governments misallocating capital. Bankers have seriously told me this.

1. Still, this Bloomberg piece is a proper piece of proper reporting. In 2008, under Bush, the banks took tens of billions of secret loans, told the world they were healthy, lobbied hard for no change in regulation and paid themselves fortunes out of this borrowed money. The kicker is in the line that banks paid the money back - because people realised that banking was virtually riskless since governments would back them up however badly they screwed up:

While Fed officials say that almost all of the loans were repaid and there have been no losses, details suggest taxpayers paid a price beyond dollars as the secret funding helped preserve a broken status quo.

2. Reporting is a real issue. There are endless stories about government waste, but we can't find out about the similar waste in private companies. Do you think private companies don't waste a fortune implementing new IT systems?

3. Business and banks say they need their silly pay because that is the only way to attract talent. They're bright enough, but they aren't that special. People just as good as good as them would do the same jobs for less.

I am not pretending that it's easy to intervene in this flawed market. I suppose it might be the shareholders job. But shareholders are a smokescreen when they is quoted as any kind of actively assenting body - it is simply too much trouble for shareholders and the people voting for their own extraordinary, un-performance-related pay know it. I'm just saying that there should be no problem calling them a cabal of self-interested plutocrats lining their own pockets and not paying their dues.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

'ye gods, a sea cow!' i yelled to my native boatman. 'bring my rifle!'

I finished writing my tuna novel this morning. This afternoon, I flicked through a book written by one of my protagonists. I will do so again, and write down the first sentence I read each time:

'Griffiths, with great celerity, had pulled up the mooring stone.'

'Both in animal and bird life, as many people have, no doubt, remarked, a curious wagging motion of the tail synchronises with swallowing.'

'The four of us were now holding the line, but our efforts were quite ineffectual against the strength of this fish.'

'I now commenced to suffer the greatest pain, my leg swelling rapidly -- so much so that when I attempted to remove my shoes, the agony was so acute that the one on the foot of my bad leg had to be cut off.' [Things get much, much worse as the paragraph progresses, believe you me.]

'Here the genius in the man rose uppermost.'

'They waved to us -- our appearance was a break in the monotony of their lives.'

'I think Lady Brown's fame as a mascot was now firmly established for ever.'

'The little crocodile came to life while Lady Brown was holding it.'

And so on. The book is Battles With Giant Fish, by FA Mitchell-Hedges. If you want to spend a lot of money on a copy of your own, the best thing would be to buy this one. It's not a first edition, but it's signed by Neville Chamberlain, who bought it as a Christmas present for a friend called Percy Smith, and eventually Percy's son Rodney.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

here be dragonnes

I walked past this the other night. It seemed quite disaster movie, especially given the obviously-to-be-destroyed disaster movie set dressing. I kept going, though, like the unwise guy in that film.

Friday, 18 November 2011

tim tebow, narratological quagmire

Oh brother. Most of my followers aren't NFL fans, for whatever insane reason. So, in a nutshell:

Tim Tebow was incredibly successful at college but most judges doubted that his skill set would translate into the professional game, where everyone is bigger, faster and harder. He sat on the bench while the Denver Broncos lost four of their first five games this season. He was inserted into the starting line-up and Denver have just won four of their next five, usually, like last night, after Tebow has played dreadfully by all traditional measures and then engineered a thrilling last-minute comeback, as per a particularly implausible television series.

The commentariat is having conniptions. The storytellers waffle about the fact he's dunked in some kind of intangible winner-sauce; the statheads freak out and say his teammates are digging him out of holes.

In addition, he's a fundamentalist Christian of a fairly extreme kind, which gets some people's hackles up and makes others claim any criticism of him is anti-God.* But then, everyone who meets him says he's a great kid, a genuine, straightforward, real-deal kind of guy who his teammates will do anything for because he'll do it right back. And so it goes. If you are a sports fan and in America, the bile, hysteria and so on are basically unbearable by now.

Still, you don't often get long articles in English newspapers dissecting the way commentators narrate stories. Here's my favourite NFL site doing it re Tebow. My favorite line:

There is just something special about comebacks. We'll call it Captain Kirk Syndrome: We have a hero, we know he's great, but he's getting beaten up. We see he's losing, but in our heart of hearts we know he is the superior man and cannot conceive of a universe in which our hero fails. This dovetails nicely into the American aversion to dramatic tragedy, but that's a conversation for another time.

(In other news, Go Devine Warhorses!, the Official Texas High School Football Team of Warhorses of Letters. They're playing Liberty Hill Panthers in the play-offs tonight.

* The hair in the picture is nothing to do with his religion. It's what his teammates got him to do when he was a rookie and he had to take a few pranks. So, in that sense, it is to do with his religion.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

the jackal and dan mcgrew

Rutherford Film Club's second Marple was Murder Most Foul. It's really terrific, and I heartily recommend. Possibly the highlight is Rutherford auditioning for a dramatic company by reciting The Shooting of Dan McGrew. In the above video, which starts with a trial montage, you can find the recitation at about 2.30 minutes in.

What I thought: I bet The Shooting of Dan McGrew was one of Rutherford's party pieces, and so it was written into the script, in much the same way that CJ Cregg performing The Jackal grew out of a thing of Allison Janney's.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

good grief, bbc

As two of the people on my blogroll pointed out within half an hour of my taking this picture, The Difference would be a good name for a Doctor Who villain.

To clarify, I think the BBC is brilliant. But even brilliant things aren't perfect. There are idiots everywhere.

Monday, 14 November 2011

better detectives than me

There are many of them, even though you probably don't believe it. One was watching Murder at the Gallop with me the other day and where I stopped investigating shortly after learning all about Margaret Rutherford, he read the sentence about Rutherford informally adopting a guy who then had gender-reassignment surgery and he went the extra mile. That is why he is where he is and I am where I am. (Where is he? I don't know.)

Anyway, this informally adopted son became Dawn Langley Simmons. She was born Gordon Langley Hall at Sissinghurst Hall. Her father, Jack Copper, was Vita Sackville-West's chauffeur, and her mother was Margaret Hall Ticehurst, another servant.

Aged nine, Hall wrote a column for the Sussex Express and interviewed Mae West from the star's lap. I don't think it would be allowed now. He became a teacher on a native reservation in Canada, edited the Winnipeg Free Press and returned to England in 1957, aged twelve. Just kidding. He was twenty by then. The next year he biographed Princess Margaret, and followed up in the sixties with Jackie Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson and others.

He made friends with a rich old painter and she left him $2m and that was when $2m got you somewhere.

He got into Chippendale and had his gender reassigned in 1968, and became Dawn Pepita Langley Hall. Everyone was called Pepita in those days. It was nothing special.

On Jan 21st 1969 she married John-Paul Simmons, a young black mechanic and wannabe sculptor, in the first legal inter-racial marriage in South Carolina. They did it in the front room because the church was threatened with firebombing. Their wedding presents were burnt in the street. They were probably plates anyway.

She had a daughter in 1971 called Natasha Margienell Manigault Paul Simmons. It seems unlikely. An intruder broke her arm and raped her, and she moved to Catskill, NY. She said this happened and it might have done. Her husband did beat her though. I think it was probably him.

Friday, 11 November 2011


Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of racehorses. Specifically, the death of Ruffian, maybe the greatest filly ever to race. She was out of Shenanigans by Reviewer which sounds like a Warhorses of Letters joke about a horse who wants to be an actor, and she won the Triple Tiara (then the Filly Triple Crown) in 1975.

Basically, she won everything and she won it by miles. Her final race was in 1975, a one-on-one match race with Foolish Pleasure, winner of that year's Kentucky Derby. In a nutshell, she was going to win when two bones in her right foreleg snapped. She didn't stop, pulverising the bones and ripping the leg to shreds.

She was anaesthatised and surgerised, but when she came to she acted like she was still racing and spun herself round and round on her side. She damaged herself so badly that she had to be put down. As a result, horses like Ruffian are nowawadays put in recovery pools so that when they thrash about on emerging from anaesthesia, they don't reinjure themselves.

Of course, if you want to read something extraordinary about the death of a racehorse, this is famously what you read.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

the strange power of being in debt

One of the (many) great things about Lords of Finance was the insight into how much power was wielded in the thirties by countries who were in debt. It's not the easiest power to use, but it's real. Creditor nations would be really screwed by a default and general systemic breakdown, and so they end up having to bail out...

Anyway, do read an article on much the same thing in Prospect by Tom Streithorst, which concludes:

The Germans would like the southern nations to pay the entire cost of adjustment by cutting wages, slashing demand and accepting an increase in unemployment. But the Greeks can see the upside of leaving the euro, even if it will devastate their bank balances. It is starting to look as though leaving the euro really would be the better of several bad options for the debtor nations. The northern eurozone countries don’t recognize it yet, but today the debtors have more cards than the creditors. Watch out.

Another excellent section is about how Detroit could have been saved if it could have devalued its currency, but it was tied to the stupid, strong dollar. The comparison between rich bits of the Eurozone bailing out poor bits and rich US States bailing out poor ones is not made enough. The parallels, exact and inexact, tell very interesting stories about democracy, economic power, group responsibility and so on.

(The other revelatory thing rammed home by Lords of Finance, in case you're new here, is that we tend to see the Great Depression as 'a crash' when actually it was years of shocks and aftershocks, interspersed with periods of people thinking they were out of the woods.)

Friday, 4 November 2011

shoe event horizon

Uh oh. I was in Chichester yesterday watching the Festival Theatre's brilliant production of Sweeney ( I loved: the thirties setting, where the opening makes it clear that people are reveling in telling a gruesome oral folk tale; the realism of Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton; and almost everything else).

The streets of Chichester, it transpires, are paved with shoe shops. The Shoe Event Horizon, which did for the planet of Brontitall in the Radio Hitchhikers', comes about when a depressed society looks at its feet and decides to buy shoes to cheer itself up. The moment of no return is when it becomes economically unviable to open any kind of shop but a shoe shop and the entire financial system is based on the buying, selling and production of shoes. It's a funny idea, and it leads to the evolution of a race of intelligent birds, so what's not to like, but I'd never worried about it before I went to Chichester.

I took a picture of the above shop partly because it was one of three non-shoe shops in Chichester, and partly to entertain one of my more loyal readers. You know who you are.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

all alone

I came across this via @someoneontwitter (sorry, can't rediscover link). It's pretty astonishing.

It's about a murderer called Tommy Silverstein who is involved in a lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons, in which he contends that his decades of utter isolation in a small concrete cell violate the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, as well as its guarantee of due process. The description of him cowering under a sheet while a cell was built around him is pretty harrowing, and it's part of a lengthy statement written to describe my experience during this lengthy period of solitary confinement: the nature and impact of the harsh conditions I have endured in spite of a spotless conduct record for over 22 years, and my lack of knowledge about what, if anything, I can do to lessen my isolation.

(In other legal news, you will probably never be affected by the cuts to legal aid which mean that people facing life-wrecking charges will increasingly be unable to get halfway decent representation, because you are rich and/or well-educated. It's only happening because it will never affect rich, well-educated people, and it's really bad. Speak to a criminal barrister about it.)