Friday, November 30, 2012

Taft 2012 by Jason Heller (Quirk Books 2012)

Secret Service Incidence Report
Agent Ira Kowalczyk

At approximately 1042, an oversized mammalian figure covered in mud appeared behind the White House South Lawn Fountain, approaching the press conference in progress on the lawn. It was unclear to me for several seconds whether the intruder was a man or a large animal as it lurched toward the crowd while moaning loudly. As the closest perimeter guard, I drew my firearm and ordered the intruder to halt while the executive guard secured POTUS. The intruder bellowed louder and attempted to proceed past the South Lawn Fountain in the direction of POTUS and the press corps. I discharged my weapon once, striking the intruder in the leg, and he collapsed against the fountain. I approached and saw that the water from the fountain, along with the morning drizzle, was washing the mud from the intruder’s body. He was a very large man, over 6 feet tall, probably 300 pounds, wearing a formal tweed suit. He had white hair and a handlebar mustache. My first thought was that he looked like some sort of deranged presidential history buff dressed up as William Howard Taft.

From Taft: A Tremendous Man, by Susan Weschler:

I’ll never forget the moment I first saw him on the television screen. Not a picture—him. There was no mistaking him. I’d been studying the history of the man who owned that plump, jowled, puffy-eyed face my entire professional life:

William Howard Taft. Twenty-seventh president of the United States. Weighed in at 335 pounds. Worked with unceasing devotion to the job for four years—but was so honest a politician, he ended up infuriating every single interest group that had ever supported him. Lost his 1912 reelection bid in a miserable, crushing defeat. And then just disappeared the morning of March 5, 1913, the day his successor, Woodrow Wilson, was inaugurated. Taft was never seen or heard from again; his last known words, spoken right outside the White House just hours before Wilson took the oath of office, were: “I’ll be glad to be going. This is the loneliest place in the world.” After that sad utterance, Taft never showed up for the ceremony. Or anything else. Ever.

Which meant the chaotic footage they kept replaying on CNN couldn’t be real. Couldn’t be him. How could he be here now, a century later, stumbling mud-covered into the midst of an unsuspecting White House press conference?

And yet that was clearly no fake girth, no Halloween mask. It was either the oddest terrorist attack in history, the stupidest reality-show prank imaginable … or it was Taft.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Woman who Went to Bed for a Year by Sue Townsend (Penguin 2012)

Eva was surprised but pleased that Alexander was here. She said, ‘Cutest?’ That’s not a word you use.’

‘But they are cute, Mum. And they’re so clever! They know reams of poetry and all the capital cities of the world. Alex is so proud of them. And I love his name —Alexander. He really is Alexander the Great, isn’t he, Mum?’

Eva agreed. ‘Yes — but Alexander is forty-nine years of age, Brianne.’

‘Forty-nine? That’s the new thirty!’

‘You once ranted that nobody over twenty-five should be allowed to wear jeans, or dance in public.’

‘But Alex looks so good in jeans, and he did A level maths, Mum! He understands nonhomogeneous equations!’

‘I can tell you’re fond of him,’ said Eva.

‘Fond?’ said Brianne. ‘I’m fond of Grandma Ruby, I’m fond of whiskers on kittens and bright copper kettles, but I’m passionately in fucking love with Alex Tate!’

Eva said, ‘Please! Don’t swear.’

‘You’re such a fucking hypocrite!’ yelled Brianne. ‘You swear! And you’re trying to spoil my relationship with Alex!’

‘There’s nothing to spoil. You’re not Juliet. This is not a Montague and Capulet situation. Does Alex even know you love him?’

Brianne said, defiantly, ‘Yes, he does.’


Brianne lowered her eyes. ‘He doesn’t love me, of course. He hasn’t had time to get to know me. But when I saw him struggling with that bookcase in Leeds, I knew immediately that he was the person I’ve been waiting for since I was a kid. I always wondered who it would be. Then he knocked on my door.’

Eva tried to hold Brianne’s hand, but she pulled it away and put it behind her back.

Eva asked, ‘And he was kind to you?’

‘I rang him three times on his mobile when he was on the motorway. He told me to go out more and meet people of my own age.’

Eva said, gently, ‘He is right, Brianne. His hair is grey. He has more in common with me than with you. We’ve both got Morrissey’s second solo album.’

Brianne said, ‘I know that. I know everything there is to know about him. I know his wife died in a car crash and that he was driving. I know that Tate was his family’s slave name. I know how much he earned in the noughties. And I know how much tax he paid. And which school his children go to, and what their grades are. I know his previous romantic history. I know he’s overdrawn by £77.15 and that he doesn’t have an agreed overdraft facility.’

‘And he told you all this?’

‘No, I’ve hardly spoken to him. I doxed him.’

What’s “doxed”?’

‘It’s like talking to Neanderthal woman! I’ve read every document about him. If there’s info I want, I can find it on the net. I’ve mapped the story of his life, and one day I’ll be part of it.’

Thursday, November 15, 2012

'To Hell with Culture': Anarchism in Twentieth Century British Literature edited by H.Gustav Klaus and Stephen Knight (University of Wales Press 2005)

Anarchism, Litvinoff recalls, in his lovely East End picaresque autobiography Journey Through a Small Planet, was in his blood, was of the very atmosphere in the streets where he lived, in the whole quarter. He never forgot childhood stories of anarchist leaflet campaigns against the imperialist First World War, of followers of Tolstoy and Kropotkin chasing army recruiters away from Bloom’s corner at the end of Brick Lane – men who met to argue about the wisdom of political bombing at the Jubilee Street Arbeter Fraint house, the socialist/anarchist club for Jewish immigrants. In his autobiography he would go on to write marvellous, nostalgic stories about his childhood among Yiddish-speaking immigrant leftists in the broad church of radical East End politics (people like Mendel Shaffer’s atheist father, who joined the Anarchists and the Communists and the Buddhists and the Socialist Zionists); stories of his own youthful scuffles with Oswald Mosley’s fascists on their incursions into the East End in the early Thirties; and about his craving for the ‘female nood’ which took him to the art classes at the Bethnal Green Men’s Institute, in company with his vegetarian friend Morry Spitzer, who worked in his his father’s kosher butcher shop (an aesthetic pursuit, says Litvinoff, that was all part of being a ‘boisterous guerilla’), and about his profound distress over the unwanted pregnancy of Fanya Ziegelbaum, lovely seamstress, whom he kissed under the Whitechapel railway arches (dark place of dybbuk talk and rumours about Jack the Ripper): Fanny Ziegelbaum, deserted by Herschel Rosenheim of the New York Yiddish Theatre, who was playing Hamlet at the Whitechapel Pavilion – Rosenheim, red-haired, Chicago-gangster-voiced, his Yiddish Hamlet a far cry from that of Mr Parker, Litvinoff’s English teacher.

From Valentine Cunningham's 'Litvinoff’s Room: East End Anarchism'.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Standing in Another Man's Grave by Ian Rankin (Orion Books 2012)

“Bert Jansch was dead, too. Rebus had seen him play a few solo gigs in Edinburgh down the years. Jansch had been born in the city but made his name in London. After work that evening, alone in his flat, Rebus played a couple of Pentangle albums. He was no expert, but he could tell Jansch’s playing from the other guitarist in the band, John Renbourn. As far as he knew, Renbourn was still around – maybe living in the Borders. Or was that Robin Williamson? He had taken his colleague Siobhan Clarke to a Renbourn/Williamson concert once, driving her all the way to Biggar Folk Club without telling her why. When the two musicians stepped on to the stage – looking as though they’d just roused themselves from armchairs by a roaring fire – he’d leaned in towards her.

‘One of them played Woodstock, you know,’ he’d whispered.”

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Happiland by William Bedford (William Heinemann 1990)

When his work was finished, Harry went down to the promenade and sat at one of the window tables in Brown's cafe. From the window, he could see the pier and the deserted shores, and the slipway where the inshore fishing boats would come when the tide began to ebb. Great banks of cloud were gathering at the estuary, and as he ordered a mug of scalding hot tea and a bacon buttie with onions, the wind howled and gusted along the promenade, whistling underneath the cafe door. He fed some sixpences into the juke box, selecting Rosemary Clooney and Tennessee Ernie Ford, Frankie Laine and Teresa Brewer, and then sat down to wait for his food. He had spent all day baiting the fishing lines with frozen bait, and now he was waiting for George Bainbridge to get back from his trip to see what fresh lugworms were required tomorrow. During the winter months, when the fairgrounds were closed, Harry's only money came from the casual bait digging he did for the inshore fishermen. In the summer, he worked on the fairgrounds.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Jaggy Splinters by Christopher Brookmyre (Hachette Digial 2012)

The Ball

There is a variety of types of ball approved for Primary School Football. I shall describe three notable examples.

1) The plastic balloon. An extremely lightweight model, used primarily in the early part of the season and seldom after that due to having burst. Identifiable by blue pentagonal panelling and the names of that year’s Premier League sides printed all over it. Advantages: low sting factor, low burst-nose probability, cheap, discourages a long-ball game. Disadvantages: over-susceptible to influence of the wind, difficult to control, almost magnetically drawn to flat school roofs whence never to return.

2) The rough-finish Mitre. Half football, half Portuguese Man o’ War. On the verge of a ban in the European Court of Human Rights, this model is not for sale to children. Used exclusively by teachers during gym classes as a kind of aversion therapy. Made from highly durable fibre-glass, stuffed with neutron star and coated with dead jellyfish. Advantages: looks quite grown up, makes for high-scoring matches (keepers won’t even attempt to catch it). Disadvantages: scars or maims anything it touches.

3) The ‘Tube’. Genuine leather ball, identifiable by brown all-over colouring. Was once black and white, before ravages of games on concrete, but owners can never remember when. Adored by everybody, especially keepers. Advantages: feels good, easily controlled, makes a satisfying ‘whump’ noise when you kick it. Disadvantages: turns into medicine ball when wet, smells like a dead dog.
(from 'Playground Football')

Friday, November 02, 2012

Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division by Peter Hook (Simon & Schuster 2012)

I’ve always read the Manchester Evening News cover to cover, ever since I was a kid. Don’t ask me why. Same with watching Coronation Street; it’s just something I’ve always done. Home is Becky and the kids, Corrie and the MEN.

Reading the small ads in the MEN was how I found out that the Pistols were playing at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, 50p a ticket.

Now my mates – and I mean this in the nicest possible way – have always been dead normal, so they weren’t interested. But I’d been going to gigs with Terry and Bernard and (apart from the infamous toothache incident) having a laugh, so I phoned Bernard up.

‘The Sex Pistols are on – do you want to go and see them?’

He went, ‘Who?’

I said, ‘Oh, it’s this group. They have fights at every gig and it’s really funny. Come on, it’s only 50p.’

‘Yeah, all right, then.’

Terry was up for it too, so it ended up being me, him, Barney and Sue Barlow, who was Barney’s fiancé. I think they’d met at Gresty’s house when he was sixteen or so. They’d been going out for a few years and used to fight like cat and dog. With the possible exception of Debbie and Ian, they had the most tempestuous, argumentative relationship I’ve ever known in my life. And they ended up getting married . . .

So that was it anyway, the group of us who went and saw the Sex Pistols at Lesser Free Trade Hall. A night that turned out to be the most important of my life – or one of them at least – but that started out just like any other: me and Terry making the trip in Terry’s car; Barney and Sue arriving on his motorbike; the four of us meeting up then ambling along to the ticket office.

There to greet us was Malcolm McLaren, dressed head to toe in black leather – leather jacket, leather trousers and leather boots – with a shock of bright-orange hair, a manic grin and the air of a circus ringmaster, though there was hardly anyone else around. We were like, Wow. He looked so wild, from another planet even. The four of us were in our normal gear: flared jeans, penny collars and velvet jackets with big lapels, all of that. Look at the photographs of the gig and you can see that everybody in the audience was dressed the same way, like a Top of the Pops audience. There were no punks yet. So Malcolm – he looked like an alien to us. Thinking about it, he must have been the first punk I ever saw in the flesh.

Wide-eyed we paid him, went in and down the stairs into the Lesser Free Trade Hall (the same stairs I’d laid down on many years before). At the back of the hall was the stage and set out in front of it were chairs, on either side of a central walkway, just like it was in 24 Four Hour Party People – although I don’t remember many sitting down like they are in the film. I don’t think there was a bar that night, so we just stood around, waiting.

The support band were called Solstice, and their best number was a twenty-minute cover version of ‘Nantucket Sleighride’. The original, by Mountain, was one of my favourite records at the time so we knew it really well, and we were like, ‘This is great. Just like the record.’

Still, though, nothing out of the ordinary. Normal band, normal night, few people watching, clap-clap, very good, off they went.

The Sex Pistols’ gear was set up and then, without further ceremony, they came on: Johnny Rotten, Glen Matlock, Steve Jones and Paul Cook. Steve Jones was wearing a boiler suit and the rest of them looked like they’d just vandalized an Oxfam shop. Rotten had on this torn-open yellow sweater and he glared out into the audience like he wanted to kill each and every one of us, one at a time, before the band struck up into something that might have been ‘Did You No Wrong’ but you couldn’t tell because it was so loud and dirty and distorted.

I remember feeling as though I’d been sitting in a darkened room all of my life – comfortable and warm and safe and quiet – then all of a sudden someone had kicked the door in, and it had burst open to let in an intense bright light and this even more intense noise, showing me another world, another life, a way out. I was immediately no longer comfortable and safe, but that didn’t matter because it felt great. I felt alive. It was the weirdest sensation. It wasn’t just me feeling it, either – we were all like that. We just stood there, stock still, watching the Pistols. Absolutely, utterly, gobsmacked.

I was thinking two things. Two things that I suppose you’d have to say came together to create my future – my whole life from then on.

The first was: I could do that.

Because, fucking hell, what a racket. I mean, they were just dreadful; well, the sound was dreadful. Now the other band didn’t sound that bad. They sounded normal. But it was almost as though the Pistols’ sound guy had deliberately made them sound awful, or they had terrible equipment on purpose, because it was all feeding back, fuzzed-up, just a complete din. A wall of noise. I didn’t recognize a tune, not a note, and considering they were playing so many cover versions – the Monkees, the Who – I surely would have recognized something had it not sounded so shit.

So, in fact, sound-wise it was as much the sound guy who inspired us all as it was the Sex Pistols, who were, as much as I hate to say it, a pretty standard rock band musically. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing that they played straightforward down-the-line rock ‘n’ roll, but it didn’t make them special.

No. What made them special, without a shadow of a doubt, was Johnny Rotten. The tunes were only a part of the package – and probably the least important part of it, if I’m honest. Close your eyes and like I say you had a conventional pub-rock band with a soundman who either didn’t have a clue or was being very clever indeed. But who was going to close their eyes when he, Johnny Rotten, was standing there? Sneering and snarling at you, looking at you like he hated you, hated being there, hated everyone. What he embodied was the attitude of the Pistols, the attitude of punk. Through him they expressed what we wanted to express, which was complete nihilism. You know the way you feel when you’re a teenager, all that confusion about the future that turns to arrogance and then rebellion, like, ‘Fuck off, we don’t fucking care, we’re shit, we don’t care’? He had all of that and more.

And, God bless him, whatever he had, he gave a bit of it to us, because that was the second thing I felt, after I can do that. It was: I want to do that. No. I fucking need to do that.

Tony Wilson said he was there, of course, but I didn’t see him, which is weird because he was very famous in Manchester then; he was Tony Wilson off the telly. Mick Hucknall was there, and Mark E. Smith and everyone, but of course we didn’t know anybody – all that would come later. The only people we knew there were each other: me and Terry, Barney and Sue. I don’t know what Sue made of it all, mind you; I’d love to know now. But me, Barney and Terry were being converted.

The Pistols were on for only about half an hour and when they finished we filed out quietly with our minds blown, absolutely utterly speechless, and it just sort of dawned on me then – that was it. That was what I wanted to do: tell everyone to Fuck Off.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

How to be Good by Nick Hornby (Penguin Books 2001)

I am in a car park in Leeds when I tell my husband I don't want to be married to him any more. David isn't even in the car park with me. He's at home, looking after the kids, and I have only called him to remind him that he should write a note for Molly's class teacher. The other bit just sort of . . . slips out. This is a mistake, obviously. Even though I am, apparently, and to my immense surprise, the kind of person who tells her husband that she doesn't want to be married to him any more, I really didn't think that I was the kind of person to say so in a car park, on a mobile phone. That particular self-assessment will now have to be revised, clearly. I can describe myself as the kind of person who doesn't forget names, for example, because I have remembered names thousands of times and forgotten them only once or twice. But for the majority of people, marriage-ending conversations happen only once, if at all. If you choose to conduct yours on a mobile phone, in a Leeds car park, then you cannot really claim that it is unrepresentative, in the same way that Lee Harvey Oswald couldn't really claim that shooting presidents wasn't like him at all. Sometimes we have to be judged by our one-offs.