Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings (Random House 2007)

I look around the airport. I keep thinking I’ll see Brian or at least someone I know. It’s hard to go anywhere here without running into someone you know; you can’t get lost on an island. I wonder if we should move, head for the hills of Arkansas or some ridiculous place.

Sure enough, I hear, “Yo, Matt King!” and cringe, recognizing the voice of one of my cousins. I don’t know which one. I don’t even know all of their names—they all look the same, like chestnut horses. I turn to see Ralph, aka Boom—God knows what that’s supposed to mean. All of the cousins have nicknames with mysterious origins that imply something rowdy or nautical. Ralph is wearing an outfit almost identical to mine: khakis and a Reyn’s Spooner, rubber slippers and a briefcase, the briefcase proving he has some responsibilities in the world. I don’t know what he does. I don’t know what any of them do. To their credit, the cousins are not greedy or gaudy or ostentatious. Their sole purpose in life is to have fun. They Jet Ski, motocross, surf, paddle, run triathlons, rent islands in Tahiti. Indeed, some of the most powerful people in Hawaii look like bums or stuntmen. I think of our bloodline’s progression. Our missionary ancestors came to the islands and told the Hawaiians to put on some clothes, work hard, and stop hula dancing. They make some business deals on the way, buying an island for ten grand, or marrying a princess and inheriting her land, and now their descendants don’t work. They have stripped down to running shorts or bikinis and play beach volleyball and take up hula dancing.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Colin Bell - Reluctant Hero: The Autobiography of a Manchester City and England Legend by Ian Cheeseman and Colin Bell (Mainstream Publishing 2006)

I would like to have played on the perfect playing surface and been involved in the modern game - I'm sure I would still have held my own - but I have many concerns about the way the game has developed.

During the era in which I played, most teams had the potential to win the League Championship and the major cup competitions. These days money has become the dominant factor, with the emergence of Chelsea providing the perfect example of the way things have moved on.

Every club had three or four great players in the '60s and '70s. These days, if a great player emerges, like Steve Gerrard at Liverpool or Shaun Wright-Phillips at City, it is seen as only a matter of time before they move to one of the biggest three or four clubs, the only ones who are seen to be capable of winning the major honours.

I think it is a sad state of affairs that those types of players don't think that they can fulfil their dreams at the clubs who encouraged them to meet their potential. It never occurred to me that I would have to move away from City. I was a City player for life and my ambitions were to win trophies with my club. I expected to work for success and not simply move on to a club that had already achieved it. It never crossed my mind that I would reach a certain stage and then feel that it was inevitable I move on.

I hope things will change soon and that Manchester City will be able to compete for the top honours again with a group of players who are loyal and care about the club they play for. I wonder if the days when football was more sport than industry will ever return. I've been blessed with such wonderful memories of my days playing for City and having been part of such a great family. We're very close and I spend a lot of time talking to Jon about my favourite subject, football, and in particular Manchester City.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Stalin Ate My Homework by Alexei Sayle (Sceptre 2010)

It was only slowly that I became aware of the power of swear words. It was a gradual thing, a creeping realisation that blossomed into full comprehension round about my second or third year at grammar school. I heard bigger boys or ones from rough homes using these special, explosive, forbidden expressions, and once the realisation of their power dawned I knew that swearing was a thing I wanted to be intimately involved in.

Once I had got the most powerful obscenities straight in my head I came home from school determined to try out their effect on my mother. Full of excitement, I sat at the dining table in the living room. Molly put my evening meal in front of me, but instead of eating it I said, ‘I … I … I don’t want that. It’s … it’s … it’s fucking shit!’ Then I sat back, waiting to hear what kind of explosion it would prompt. After all, I conjectured, if the bathroom sponge going missing for a few seconds could prompt a screaming fit from my mother, a paroxysm of grief that might involve weeping and howling and crying out to the gods of justice, then me saying ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ was bound to provoke a tremendous reaction that would be heard at the back of the Spion Kop.

For a short while nothing happened as Molly considered what I had said in a calm and reflective manner. Then finally she said, ‘I don’t care if you eat it or not … but it’s not fucking shit and if you don’t fucking eat it I’m not going to fucking make you anything fucking else so you can fucking go and get your own fucking food in some other shit-fucking place you fucking little bastard shit fuck.’
After that day Molly rarely spoke a sentence without an obscenity in it, and I was often too embarrassed to bring school friends home because I was worried about them being offended by my mother’s foul language. 
(page 110)

And once they had finished buying old overcoats and worn out socks the Lascars could come to our stall and purchase copies of Lenin’s What Is to Be Done?, Karl Marx’s Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy or Stalin’s History of the CPSU.

The stall itself had been made from an oak door that somebody had salvaged from a building site and was incredibly heavy — it took four of us to carry it the half-mile from the Simon Community hostel where it was stored. We didn’t know anybody who had a car. However, once we had put it up, Liverpool being the sort of place it was the stall did a reasonable amount of trade — better than some of the others that only seemed to sell twisted wire, broken fish tanks and rusted-up fuel pumps. There would always be some little old bloke in a flat cap coming up to us and saying, ‘Ere, son, do you have Friedrich Engels’ The Holy Family, the critique of the Young Hegelians he wrote with Marx in Paris in November 1844?’

‘No, but we do have Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844.’

‘Naww, I’ve already got that.’

‘Make a lovely Christmas present for a family member.’

‘Eh, I suppose you’re right there. Give us two copies then, son.’ 
(page 156)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie (Grove Press 1993)

I was terrified by all these big-time agents and editors, and especially of one particular agent, who enjoyed more fame and fortune than any of her clients did.

"Send me the manuscript today," the famous agent ordered.

Bullied, terrified, and naive, I sent her my manuscript of short stories, glacially printed out by a five-hundred-dollar Brother word processor.

"You're not ready," she said after she'd read them. "I'll take you on as a client, but we're going to have to work on these stories for a year or two before I send them out to publishers."

I was shocked. I had been dreaming about immediate fame and fortune.

"But wait," I said. "I thought I was one of the major lyric voices of our time."

"According to the manuscript I've got sitting in front of me, you're not even one of the major lyric voices on my desk."

Ouch. That one really hurt. And this woman wanted to be my agent? Was that how agents were supposed to talk to their clients? And who the hell was I, calling myself one of the major lyric voices of our time? I was wondering if I should get business cards that identified me as such, or perhaps leave it on my answering machine.

Hello, you've reached Sherman Alexie, one of the major lyric voices of our time. Please leave a message if you're not too intimidated and I'll get back to you, with my versatile and mellifluous voice, as soon as possible.

Of course, these days my wife, Diane, only refers to me as "one of the major lyric voices of our time" when I stutter or mispronounce a word or say something so inane and arrogant that it defies logic. A few years ago, as we argued about the potential danger in using a cracked coffeepot, I shouted, "You can't heat cracked glass! It will shatter! I majored in chemistry! I know glass! What do you know about glass?"

Yep, I have just offered you scientific proof of the majorness of my voice.

"But the thing is," I said to the famous agent. "I think my stories are pretty good. And I hate to be repetitive, but they said I'm one of the major lyric voices of our time."

"These stories are not major. But you've got potential. I'm a great editor. If we take it slow, we can make this book the best it can be."

"I don't know," I said. "I was hoping things would go much faster."

"Going fast would be a mistake for you."

"I don't want to go slow. I can't afford to go slow."

"Then we won't be working together. Call me if you change your mind."

She hung up without saying good-bye. I'd always heard of people who hung up without saying good-bye. I'd seen them on television and in movies, but I'd never talked to somebody who hung up without saying good-bye. She remains the only person I know who has ever hung up on me without saying good-bye.

I still owe her a phone call.

I would love to call her up and say, "Well, Miss Fifteen Per-cent, we published this book at the speed of the light, and it's now in its 1,220,342nd printing, and it was the basis for a really cool movie called Smoke Signals. Maybe you've heard of the movie? It was released by Miramax, yes, Miramax, that's spelled M-I-R-A-M-A-X, and the audience won the Audience Award and the Filmmakers' Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998. Yes, that's Robert Freaking Redford's Sundance Film Festival! And I've published one million books since that first one, and I've hugged Stephen King and been kissed on the cheek by Ally Sheedy and sat in a big couch in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's living room while my feet dangled off the floor, so perhaps you were wrong about EVERYTHING! And by the way, what do you know about glass?"

As they say, revenge is a dish best served with the introduction to the tenth-anniversary edition of a book of short stories.

Eventually, despite my narcissism and naïveté, and thanks to the recommendations of friends, I met the agent Nancy Stauffer Cahoon, who, after reading my manuscript, said something beautiful and surprising.

"That story, 'Flight,' the one about the kid and the jet," she said. "That reminds me of James Tate's poem 'The Lost Pilot.'"

"Wow," I said, falling in literary love. "That story was directly influenced by that poem. Nobody has ever noticed that."

"You had me at hello," Renée Zellweger said to Tom Cruise.

"You had me at James Tate," I said to Nancy.

Okay, I didn't really say that to her. But I was impressed that she talked to me first in artistic terms and only later in financial terms. I hired her immediately (or does the agent hire the writer?) worked with her to edit the manuscript, and immediately cut "Flight" and a dozen other stories . . . 
(From the Introduction to the tenth anniversary edition.)

Monday, May 21, 2012

'Britain observed. The voices of the kids of Toxteth' (New Society 26 November 1981)

Another article from the Ian Walker archive. Written in the aftermath of the Toxteth Riots, this 1981 article was originally published in the November 26th issue of New Society.
'Britain observed. The voices of the kids of Toxteth' by Ian Walker

Mothers picked up pieces of tinsel and inspected the toy machine guns on the makeshift stalls set up by some waste ground. The market was opened six weeks ago, by shopkeepers who got burned out in the riots Tony said, hurrying on by.

Polythene around the stalls flapped in the wind. It was coming on to rain. Tony pushed open the door of Mac's cafe.

A sign on the fake-wood wallpaper told customers to use the ashtrays and not the floor. Sitting on red plastic chairs, two old men were talking about the second world war. The other customers, all teenagers, white and black, were clustered round the three electronic game machines. It was dinner time.

Pale and thin and dark-haired, Tony looked younger than his 17 years as he stood before the Galactica machine, trying to beat his top score of 25,000. He is a Liverpool white Catholic. About £3 of his weekly £15 social security goes on the machines, he said. Out of work since he left school a year ago, Tony is hoping his father will be able to get him in at Ford's Halewood plant when he is 18.

Like his parents and grandparents before him, Tony was born and raised in Toxteth, and he said he hadn't been to many other places. Went to Southport once on his bike. Drove with his uncle to Manchester airport a couple of times to meet his parents coming back from holiday in Spain. Tony lives just over the road from the cafe, in a yellow-brick terrace on Whittier Street.

The best thing about the riots, he said, was all the publicity. When Heseltine and Foot did their walkabouts, Tony joined the entourage. "The cameras were more importnat to us, BBC like," he said. "Had to get on TV."

The schoolchildren who'd spent their dinner hour at Mac's had all left, and Tony said he was going too, home to play some singles on his parent's stereo.

Over the road in the Albany pub, at 2.30, one of the six white men at the bar pulled out a porno photomontage of Lady Di for the landlady to recoil in mock horror. A white woman called Anne sat alone in the corner reading the Liverpool Post. She was working as a hotel chambermaid, but it was only on a government job-experience scheme, she said. She works the same hours as other girls, but only gets £23.50 a week.

The story on page three of the Post was about the trial of Leroy Cooper, whose arrest on 3 July helped spark off the rioting which began two days later. Cooper, who pleaded guilty to assaulting three policemen, stood in the dock holding a copy of Lord of the Rings, wrote the Post's reporter. The judge trusted that Cooper, who had four o levels, would be able to continue his studies at borstal.

Anne walked up Smithdown Road, and disappeared into the Quik Save Discount Food Store. Behind the shop, across a triangle of waste ground, a tramp stood outside the public library. Next door is the bingo hall and beyond that, on Upper Parliament Street, a church which is now a second-hand furniture warehouse.

Half a mile away, on the other side of Parliament Street, four black girls stood around in a small shopping precinct on St Saviour's Square, part of a new red brick estate. WELCOME TO HELL, PIGS, it sais on the wall opposite the supermarket.

It was just round the corner from here, by some bollards, that a young white was killed in one of the riots. His name and date of death are written in big white capitals on the red brick: DAVID MOORE, 28.8.81.

The four girls said they often meet up outside the shops at around four, before going home for their tea. Fingering her hair, which takes two hours every night to plait and bead, Joanne said that she loves Toxteth, even though it does get a drag being on the dole.

Her friend, Lita, who is the same age, 16, but still at school, nodded agreement. "Lots of action. Good atmosphere," she said, pointing to some fading yellow graffitti next to the tobacconist's, ten yards away. RIOTS ARE GREAT, it said.

"People think it's a bad area, but it's not," Lita said. "More safe here than anywhere. You feel protected. It's worse in town." She turned to watch two policemen walking slowly towards her, and all conversation stopped as they passed. When they were out of earshot, Joanne, clucking her tongue in annoyance, said how terrible it was Leroy Cooper getting sent away to borstal. "He was only trying to stop his relation getting arrested."

Beverley, at 18 the eldest of the group, just shrugged, stuck out her lower lip. What do you expect? her eyes seemed to ask. "Babylons," muttered Joanne, staring down at her red shoes, and then saying it was about time she went home. She lives in Entwhistle Heights, the tower block which dominates the neighbourhood. She had a great view of the rioting from up there, she said. "Used to watch every night before going to bed."

Before dispersing, the girls arranged to meet later at "the Meth," the Methodist youth club they go to most nights, but always for the disco on Thursdays, and dread night on Fridays.

Billboards for Carlsberg, the Daily Telegraph, Vladivar vodka, the Triumph Acclaim and Guinness were all lit up in the dark, ranged in a great five-sided curve at the junction of Parliament Street and Lodge Lane. "Used to be a Quiki [Quik Save store] on the Lane and everything. Used to be packed, but it all got burned down," said Donna, one of six young white girls sitting in a small room in the Solway Street youth club, just off the Lane.

'It was a good laugh'
Donna, who is 14 and black-haired, introduced herself as the only Catholic in the group. She wants to be an actress some day, and has already had a bit part in an opera at the Neptune Theatre in town.

Her father, she said, was waiting for his union card so he could start work as a lagger. Her mother is a barmaid. They were both out of the house the night the riots started: so Donna went away to stay with some friends. "It was a good laugh."

One of the girls, Elaine, said that her family had had enough, and were moving out into the suburbs. "Oh, I love Toxteth," said Donna. "I'd hate to go," She started telling everyone about the conversation she had with Prince Charles when he came on a visit, but the anecdote was interrupted by a girl called Tracey who flung open the door and made a short announcement:

"I'm 16 today. I live on Ashbridge Street and I wasn't in the riots. I want to be a dentist. I got in the semi-finals at the disco dancing at Butlin's, Pwllheli. It was my 21st time at Butlin's," she said, taking her seat to polite applause.
The girls usually have disco dancing lessons on Tuesdays but tonight the instructor's on the sick. Bad back, apparently. A bottle smashed on the street outside. Elaine got up to look out of the window, but the others just carried on talking.

Over the road at the Unity boys' club, Sean, another Liverpool white Catholic, had just pocketed the black to win his game of pool. "About 25 per cent of the police are all right," he said, leaning on a cue. "The rest are just shit." He is due to appear in court as a witness on 2 December, to help a friend of his charged with stealing a car. Sean doubts he'll able to do much good, even though he says he was with the friend talking to some girls when the offence was supposed to have been committed. Magistrates always believed the police, he said.

Hearing Sean's story, three small white boys started chanting, "We rob cars. Beat up the bobbies. Kick up the pigs." Garfield and Tony, both older, and the only blacks in the room, told them to shut up. "These little kids," said Garfield. "They still have their little riots down by Falkner Square every week. Stupid."

Garfield and Tony sat down on a window ledge. Through the glass behind them, young men in the gym were running, bending, turning, sweating. The two young blacks, who both went to David Moore's funeral, said that the riots started because everyone had had enough of the police, moving them on, picking them up on sus, calling them niggers.

I asked them what had happened since the riots. "Nuttin' at all," said Tony. "Well," said Garfield. "They are trying to do some things for the young, but not for the adults. We're getting a sports centre. The other day we had to write down what we wanted, din't we? A pool table, and all that."
Unimpressed, Tony moved to his next theme, the bias of the media. "On the television it was the rioters throwing bricks and bottles and that. Didn't have the baton charges, or the police beating people up. And the papers never even put down why the riots eventually stopped, which was when the guy in charge of the police came out and had a discussion with some of the leaders. The riots stopped after that discussion. That was it."

Outside, at nine o'clock, two little boys were throwing bottles at a wall. A five-a-side football match was in progress on the Unity club's floodlight pitch. Flyposted all along Lodge Lane was a black-and-white sheet which said: "I'm angry! I am in a box and I cannot get out."

Next afternoon at Mac's cafe, an 18 year old white boy called Kenny sat looking out of the window. He'd just come back from an interview at the local post office. He's hoping to get some work there over Christmas. They said they'd give him a ring. His friend, Arna, also on the dole, also white, walked in and sat down beside him.

Arna said he never really went to any schools, just homes. The last one, Dyson Hall, he got sent to for glue-sniffing. The police caught him in the park. "Wasn't too bad there," he said. "All right. Something to do. Makes a change." The phrases are ejected like a fruit machine paying out.

The eldest one of the gang, Peo, aged 19, finished playing the Galactica, and strolled to the table with his mug of tea. Peo, who's white, has done time in borstal. He was put away for stabbing someone outside a disco. "Did twelve months and two weeks altogether. Missed Crimbo [scouse for Christmas] and the New Year. Bastards."

Heads turned to greet Yozzer, who said he'd just got the hat and rack, meaning sack, and now, like the rest of this cafe society, was signing on. His father was an Arab, although which kind, Yozzerisn't sure. "I'd like to go into office work, myself, Computers or something, but there's no chance," he said.

"Nuttin's been done here for years", sighed Arna. "Only the Barratt's estate [a private development]. They knocked all these streets down because they said they were going to build a ring road. Next thing, they're not going to build a road, and all the fucking houses are knocked down."

"Want to have a riot to get things done," said Yozzer. "Look at all these playgrounds being built." Arna and Peo said they'd believe it when they saw it.

"Since the riots I haven't been stopped by the busies as much. That's one good thing," said Yozzer, looking on the bright side. "Used to get stopped at least once a week."

The rest of the afternoon passed slowly away in conversation about the kind of drugs they'd managed to get hold of recently, about the gang of bicycle thieves that Peo used to run, about the latest misdeeds of "the busies," the police, and about who had got what chrome, brass and copper plating on their scooters. All against the distorted background of the Radio One playlist, and the manic music of the electronic machines.

A news item about Reagan prompts Arna to say he was into CND. "I'd like to join it. But I can't be bothered. Haven't got the money to go up and down the fucking country. But I know what I know, know what they're talking about."

"The government'll be safe. Those who push the button, they're okay,' said Yozzer.

It is just assumed round here that politicians are liars, policemen are bent, school is a con, and the same goes for government training schemes. Adverts are deceitful, newspapers are much the same.

It was getting dark, and the boys drifted home. Yozzer, Kenny and Arna to their families. Peo to his second floor flat above a tobacconist's over the road. On Wednesday night, Lady Diana flipped the switch on the London lights, England qualified for the World Cup, and David Steel in a Liberal party political broadcast said that class was outmoded. Men got drunk, and sang hymns to their team on the way home.

Early on Thursday evening I called round at Peo's flat. There's no doorbell. You have to cup the hands and bellow up from the street. The top-floor window opened and Peo's flatmate, Paul, poked his head out. The living room upstairs was bare except for a bed, a wardrobe and a small music centre, which played Police and thieves. the reggae single by Junior Marvin.

Paul, who works as a printer, pulled a pile of riot memorabilia from the wardrobe: some cuttings from the Liverpool Echo, and two posters, one calling for the resignation of Kenneth Oxford, chief of police in Merseyside, and another which said, "Black and white, unite and fight>" Paul is white.

"Great that. Sound," he said, sticking them on the wall with Sellotape. "People think the trouble in Toxteth was heaviness between whites and coloureds. It was nuttin' like that at all. I was standing on the street one of the nights, and there was all this tear gas everywhere. Someone grabbed me on the shoulder. I thought, 'Oh, fuck, I've been nicked.' But it was this black guy handing me a rag. All dead sound."

The reason for the rioting, Paul insisted, was the Liverpool busies, that's all. "There is no such thing as getting arrested round here without getting hit. No such thing," he emphasised, his finger beating out the time. "They're worse than us, you know."

He asked if I remembered that story about the masked raiders going round on bikes, organising the rioters. He said that those raiders were him and his friends, driving round seeing what was going on. "If anyone organised it, it was the black guys and we backed 'em up. I was nuttin' to do with looting. We said, 'Don't loot, don't loot. Just fight with the coppers, brick 'em and that'," he said, getting up to put on another single, Bank robber, by the Clash.

Peo came out of the bathroom, which he'd spent all day decorating. He combed his hair, while Paul said that when the Welsh police were drafted in during the rioting: everything was cool. "Straight up, they used to give us ciggies. Dead good."

Down at the Methodist youth club disco, Joanne and Lita stood up in the TV room, looking down through the glass into the dark of the disco floor, which was illuminated only by the neon around the record decks. Posters stuck near the bar, which sold soft drinks and sweets, carried tough messages. "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade," said one.

Garfield and Tony were downstairs, playing pool. One of the very few white boys in the club said his father was black, and that as far as he was concerned that made him black too.

And at the Brooke Farm pub, Paul addressed his fourth pint of brown and mild, Peo his fourth of snakebite, which is lager and cider. Pulling a fiver from his pocket, Paul said he'd be broke by the morning. They spent Peo's last giro in two days. It was supposed to last a fortnight.

The boys around the brown-baize pool table, Paul whispered, were all in a gang called the Lawrence Road Lunatics. "They don't give a fuck," he said. "They just rob and rob, get put away, rob again. It's like that. They've no chance ever of getting a job. I'd be like that too, if I lost my job. I wouldn't go on the dole."

Paul waved his hand at a bearded old man, called Frank, carrying an Athena poster of Marx, and drained his glass. "Don't you go away telling everyone how black life is round here," Paul said to me. "Tell them it's . . . bright yellow."

He held his hands up in the air.
26 November 1981

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Cowboys and Indians by Joseph O'Connor (Sinclair-Stevenson 1991)

Underneath him Eddie felt the churn of the sea, far below the car deck. He imagined the cast cold hulk of the mailboat ploughing through the water in the darkness, an explosion of white metal and froth. He could almost see it, rearing into the air, smashing down into the waves, hammering the water like a weapon. And for some reason that brought a hot tingle to Eddie's face.

It was a good-looking face, there was no doubt about that. Eddie's face looked like something out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting, or so Jennifer had once told him, the fucking pseud. First-year History of Art in UCD and Jennifer thought she was Melvyn sodding Bragg or something. Still, no matter what she said, Eddie knew he was a looker. He said looks weren't important. He said it every morning when he preened himself in the mirror and every night too, when he brushed his gleaming teeth. He said it at every available opportunity, to anybody who'd listen. But extremely good-looking people always says that, and they usually look particularly good when they're saying it. Eddie was a head turner. He always had been, he was now, and with just a fraction of the good fortune that always goes with good looks, he reckoned he would probably would be till he dropped. And even then, like his hero Sid Vicious, Eddie'd be a good-looking corpse.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

When the Nines Roll Over: And Other Stories by David Benioff (Plume Books 2004)

The midnight shift would have just started at the bottling plant back home where his older brother worked. If Leksi hadn't joined the army he would be there now, inside a warm building with dusty lead-glass windows, the overhead lights soft and yellow and steady. Maybe a conveyor belt had broken and Leski was asked to fix it; he saw himself replacing a cracked roller and then regrooving the rubber belt. A radio played softly and Leski chatted with the foreman about politics. Everyone knew everyone else; they had all grown up together. There were friends and there were enemies but everyone had their reasons. He would like Bobo, say, because Bobo was the goalie for their hockey club; he would hate Timur because Timur's wife was very beautiful and Timur wore tight Levi jeans that his brother sent him from America. That would be logical. That would be a life that made sense. And maybe at night he would dream of adventure, of sleeping in the snow with his rifle by his side, of storming hilltop houses and battling the Chechen terrorists, but it would just be a dream, and in the morning he would drink his coffee and read the newspaper and cluck sadly to learn that three more boys were killed in Chechnya.
(from 'The Devil Comes to Orekhovo')

Three to Kill by Jean-Patrick Manchette (City Lights Books 1976)

There is no way of saying how things will turn out for Georges Gerfaut. In a general way, you can see how things will work out for him, but not in detail. In a general way, the relations of production that contain the reason why Georges is racing along the ring road with diminished reflexes, playing the particular music he is playing, will be destroyed. Perhaps Georges will then show something other than the patience and servility that he has always shown up to now. It is not likely. Once, in a dubious context, he lived through an exciting and bloody adventure; after which, all he could think of to do was to return to the fold. And now, in the fold, he waits. If at this moment, without leaving the fold, Georges is racing around Paris at 145 kilometres per hour, this proves nothing beyond the fact that Georges is of his time. And of his space.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Mind and Body Shop by Frank Parkin (Atheneum 1986)

Hedda Hagstrom picked up a soggy black banana and flung it angrily across the room. It landed with a soft smack at the feet of Herbert Spencer who picked it up, sniffed it, and tossed it back.

'The whole experiment is completely ruined,' she shouted. 'Six weeks' work and thousands of pounds down the drain.' She paced about the room like a caged animal. Darwin and Huxley cowered together in the corner as far from her wrath as possible.

'It was just to break the monotony,' Baxi said defensively. 'Everyone was fed up with playing the same old game, especially with Herbert Spencer winning all the time.'

The unblemished skin on Hedda Hagstrom's face tightened visibly over the fine bone structure beneath. 'It was not merely an innocent variation on the rules of play,' she hissed. 'It was a deliberate subversion of their basic principles.' She pointed to the video camera above the door. 'I've been studying the tapes. They show that you openly encouraged Darwin to requisition all Herbert Spencer's hotels without compensation. You also made everyone pay Capital Gains Tax whenever they passed Go. And, what's more, you taught them all to respect squatters' rights.' SDhe flung her arms in the air in a gesture of incredulity. 'On top of everything, you even connived in Huxley's attempt to escape from Gaol.'

Baxi traced a circle in the damp straw with his redundant walking stick. Bits of straw were intertwined in his shoulder-length hair, the result of darwin's effort to make him look more presentable. Darwin now shuffled across and put a comforting arm around his waist.

'Worst of all, ' continued Hedda Hagstrom shrilly, 'you let them nationalize the railways and the bank. You've totally corrupted the. They're now sharing out their bananas on an egalitarian basis. Even Herbert Spencer's doing it.' Her pale blue eyes became two metallic points. You've failed Psychology 301. I'm giving you gamma triple minus, the lowest mark you can get. That means you can't retake the course unless you agree to become a Friend of the University.'

Baxi contemplated the holes in his shoes. Friends of the University had to endow a Chair or give their organs to the Medical School whenever they were needed. e took off his waterproof apron and handed it to Huxley who liked to use it as a hammock.

'You're a disgrace to Experimental Psychology, Mr Baxi. I never want to see you in or near my lab again. Is that understood?' She snatched the Maoist paper hat off Herbert Spencer's head, screwed it in a ball, and threw it at the Monopoly board. It struck one of the coloured matchboxes which had been painted to represent council flates placed on Mayfair and Park Lane. Matchstick pickets had been placed around the Gas Company and a sign on the Community Chest indicated that it had now been converted into a hardship fund for hotel kitchen staff. Hedda Hagstrom planted her feet on either side of the board as though about to trample it. 'What am I supposed to tell the Employers' Federation? she cried out in despair. 'That they've spent a small fortune to be told that even the apes are in favour of the peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism?'

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Notorious Byrd Brothers by Ric Menck (Continuum Books 2007)

I'm not sure of the exact reason Gary Usher chose "Artificial Energy" as the first track on The Notorious Byrd Brothers, but it sure sounds like that's exactly where it belongs. A few swift cracks of the snare drum and the arrangement instantly springs to life. It feels as if the band are so charged up they can hardly wait to count the song off and go. The instrumental approach is hard and aggressive, and stylistically it relates to the recently released "Lady Friend" in that a horn section is featured. But while "Lady Friend" comes off sounding all strident and regal, "Artificial Energy" has a darker edge. This is mostly due to the song's lyrical imagery, which deals with the horrors of amphetamine use. Strangely, whereas their 1966 single "Eight Miles High" was banned because it supposedly contained overt drug references, no one batted an eyelash when the Byrds actually did write an honest-to-God drug song.

In "Artificial Energy" the song's protagonist takes his "ticket to ride" (okay, there's a drug reference and a Beatles reference all rolled into one), and sits alone waiting for it to take effect. Slowly he feels an "artificial energy" welling up inside, but as the drug takes hold something horrible happens. Instead of achieving some kind of enlightenment, our hero ends up losing control and, in the song's stark final imagery, kills a homosexual and winds up being thrown in jail.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

It would also work as a great heckle

OK, I know it's a cheap shot but a funny bit of graffiti, nonetheless.

Snaffled off of Urban 75's 'I'm on ur boardz, wasting ur bandwidthz' thread.

If I was in London right now . . .

. . . I'd be thinking of popping along to this meeting:
‘What makes good radical writing?’
A panel discussion with Anne Beech, Ian Bone, and Suzanne Moore
Wednesday 9th May, 7pm
Entry £3, redeemable against any purchase

On Tuesday 1st May the first recipient of the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing shall be announced. The process of creating a radical book prize has brought up interesting questions as to how to evaluate radical writing. Is the primary goal to effectively communicate ideas? And if so, how do we measure its effectiveness? How do we measure it’s radicalism? Must it be accessible to all readers, or is there a place for pedantic or even obscure writing?

On his influential blog, ‘Anarchist in the UK’, Ian Bone posed a fundamental, and as-yet-unresolved, question about radical writing: is it a matter of “writing about what you want people to know, or what they want to know?”

Based on their experiences within the radical wing of contemporary journalism and book publishing, our speakers will navigate the tensions between vanguardism and populism that have guided radical writing and actions for the last century, and reflect on how these tensions are manifested today.
Please join us as we tackle these questions in what will be an illuminating discussion on the forms and contents of radical communication.

About the participants
Anne Beech is the Commissioning Editor and Managing Director of Pluto Press.

Ian Bone is founder of the anarchist paper Class War, author of the books ‘Decade of Disorder’, ‘Anarchist’, and ‘Bash the Rich,’ and a long-time political agitator. He blogs at

Suzanne Moore is an award-winning columnist for the Guardian. She also writes for the Mail on Sunday.

The session will be chaired by Tess Carota.
Ian Bone's an entertaining public speaker, and it's a topic close to my heart.

Monday, May 07, 2012

A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler (Fawcett Books 1998)

I am a man you can trust, is how my customers view me. Or at least, I'm guessing it is. Why else would they hand me their house keys before they leave for vacation? Why else would they depend on me to clear their attics for them, heave their air conditioners into their windows every spring, lug their excess furniture to their basements? "Mind your step, young fellows; that's Hepplewhite," Mrs. Rodney says, and then she goes into her kitchen to brew a pot of tea. I could unlock the outside door so as to slip back in overnight and rummage through all she owns - her Hepplewhite desk and her Japanese lacquer jewelry box and the six potbellied drawers of her dining-room buffet. Not that I would. But she doesn't know that. She just assumes it. She takes it for granted that I'm a good person.

Come to think of it, I am the one who doesn't take it for granted.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

'You're the ones we don't want'

Greasy. I feel nauseous.

Hat tip to SH over at Facebook.

ETA: Yes, in my head, it's 2010.

XXXing the UK

On this day of days a funny picture from a good soul over at Facebook:

And just because I'm a lazy blogger these days . . . months . . . years decades that's no excuse for not me pointing you towards the 'Voting for Socialism' post over at the SPGB's election blog. The SPGB is standing in the Lambeth & Southwark and the Merton & Wandsworth GLA constituencies. My old friend Danny, who is the SPGB candidate in Lambeth & Southwark, is featured in a ten minute video over at The Big Smoke website.

Check it out.


I've been reading . . . and getting heavily beat at Lexulous.

The Long Midnight Of Barney Thomson by Douglas Lindsay (Blasted Heath 1999)

There were some in the town who could not understand why James Henderson hadn't closed the shop, but only those with no conception of the Calvinist work ethic, which Henderson imagined himself to possess. If there were to be members of the public needing their hair cut, then the shop had to be open.

Had it been a women's hairdressers, the customers would have fled, and the shop would already have gone out of business. But men are lazy about hair, creatures of habit, and the previous two days had been business as usual. And besides, the word was getting out – there was a barber there at the top of his game. If Jim Baxter had cut hair at Wembley in '63, they were saying, this is how he would have done it.

The chair at the back of the shop was now empty. In the chair next to that James Henderson was working. He knew he shouldn't be. It was ridiculous, and his wife was furious, but he told himself that this was what Wullie would've wanted. What was more important to him was that it got him out of the house, took his mind off what had happened.

The next chair along was worked by James's friend, Arnie Braithwaite, who had agreed to start a couple of weeks early. His was a steady, if unspectacular style, a sort of Robert Vaughn of the barber business. He wouldn't give you an Oscar winning haircut, but then neither would he let you down.

And then finally, working the prized window chair, was Barney Thomson. He'd moved into it with almost indecent haste, the day before. Perhaps if he'd been thinking straight then James would've considered it odd, but everything was a blur to him at the moment.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The End of Days by Douglas Lindsay (Blasted Heath 2011)

0759hrs London, England

The PM petulantly pushed the newspapers off the desk. Here he was, suddenly at the peak of his career, and the media were barely taking any notice of him.

'What do I have to do?' he said, looking at Prime Ministerial aide Bleacher, Barney Thomson, diary secretary Lucy, and cabinet secretary Blaine. 'I'm busting my balls here. I've ordered more troops to Afghanistan, I'm crushing the other guy in my iron fist, I opened up a can of whoop-ass at PMQs, I told the Prime Minister of Pakistan how to run his country, and I've got the best hair of my life. What else can I do? Yet what do we get today? More Tiger flippin' Woods. Banks, banks, banks. The Mail says they cost forty thousand a family, the Telegraph, five and a half. Hah! Seems I'm not the only one can't do maths. And now these bloody murders and everyone's going to be peeing in their pants about that.'

They were all staring at him, waiting for the invitation to speak.

'Well?' said the PM. 'What about me?' Another pause. 'People say, where's our Obama? Well, don't they see? I'm their Obama. It's me. I could be PM for twenty years. I can cement our place as a world leader.'
There was another extended pause around the room. None of them gawped at the PM in quite the manner that his words demanded. They were all quite used to his self-obsession; even Barney Thomson, who had only been there three days.

'Prime Minister,' said Blaine dryly, 'we lead the world in pregnant teenagers, binge drinking teenagers, divorce, cocaine addiction and litter. If you'd like to be the Prime Minister who cements that, I salute you, but I just came in to remind you that there's an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the crisis at 0900hrs.'

He turned to leave.

'What crisis?' barked the PM, scowling.

'The murders,' said Blaine. 'At Westminster,' he added, in case the PM might have thought he meant Midsomer.

The Crime Interviews: Volume Two by Len Wanner (Blasted Heath 2012)

Good question. Why are you writing books?
I'm writing books to try and make a connection with a reader. It doesn't matter whether it's a reader who's on the Booker panel or a reader who's a waitress... Whenever I'm up for a prize I think: "Who the fuck are you to judge me?" And then I think: "Give me that fucking prize." Ha! You don't know these people exist until they write to you to say: "You're up for a prize. Do you want to come and have a bad hotel dinner, while feeling really nervous and wearing uncomfortable clothes, and then get up and make a cunt of yourself in front of a big audience?" What the fuck?
I mean, prizes are good marketing tools. They're shorthand for telling readers: "This is a good book." But a better way for people to come to your books is for their pals to say: "You'll like that book. It really meant something to me."

When did a book first really mean something to you?
When I was nineteen, reading Thérèse Raquin in a bedsit, being totally transported by the writing and the way two words can click together, and sitting back, thinking: "What an amazing thing to do with your life – to make that sort of connection with another person, to feel exactly what Zola was talking about, or looking at, or imagining... What an incredible connection!" And what I really love about Zola is that he was a political writer.

Do you see yourself as a political writer?
Yeah! Orwell was who I stole from the library... So it's that connection: reading A Tale of Two Cities and sweating with my heart racing at the end because it was so exciting. But I think you really have to keep your eyes on the prize, because otherwise you become bitter and disillusioned despite having everything. You're being published, you're making a living, you're spending your days in pyjamas wrestling with words, and people are writing to you saying: "I read your book and it mattered to me." How lucky is that?
(Len Wanner interviewing Denise Mina.)