Climb Up the Years

May 24, 2015

This short story of mine has just been published in the ‘Hooligan’ issue of Jotters United.

Also, at 3:AM: my review of Åsne Seierstad’s chilling biography of Anders Breivik – and over at Shiny New Books, a piece on Martin Millar’s brilliant new classical comedy, and also a review of lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s memoir about the shocking state of criminal justice in America. (And if you think this an excuse to look down on the Americans, check out Nick Cohen’s article on UK prison policy which shows that Oz-style sentencing and super-jails are coming our way.)

Agatha and Ray

May 17, 2015

Sophie Hannah has written a defence of Agatha Christie for yesterday’s Guardian Review, who she says is ‘a writer too often dismissed as merely a brilliant plotter of mysteries.’ This is, Sophie says, ‘a charge that’s grossly unfair. Christie’s books are so much more than great puzzles. Each of her novels demonstrates a profound understanding of people – how they think, feel and behave – all delivered in her crisp, elegant, addictively readable style.’

Now, critics have two views of Christie:

1) Agatha Christie was amazing. She created memorable characters and superb plots and her insights into human nature still endure today. There’s a reason her books still sell and new generations of readers discover anew her delightful protagonists and marvellous storytelling.

2) Agatha Christie was a hack. Her characters are ridiculous cartoons, her plots that seem so intricate and dazzling were churned out with no more skill than you need to compile a crossword. Her simplistic and conservative view of the world is completely outmoded in the 21st century and she should be consigned to Mills and Boon status by any serious reader.

I burned through dozens of Agatha Christie books as a kid, mainly the Poirots, and also enjoyed Sophie Hannah’s own Poirot story, The Monogram Murders – surely the only recent revival novel that actually works. I can understand both sets of views: the plotting is fantastic but, as I believe Christopher Booker said, the conclusion does leave you feeling empty. A sense that things in life aren’t wrapped up so conclusively, and maybe shouldn’t be. Perhaps that’s the case with all endings in crime, though I don’t find that with Sophie’s own crime novels, some of which – The Point of Rescue, Lasting Damage – I go back to every year. Hannah’s books tell you something new. Christie’s insights for me were just glimpses into the awkward English disease that permeates most twentieth century literary fiction.

There has as Sophie said been a condescension towards Christie’s work, but also appreciation from more literary writers. The novelist Michel Houellebecq devotes several pages of Platform to a Christie analysis: ‘Fundamentally conservative, and hostile to any idea of the social redistribution of wealth, Agatha Christie adopted very clear-cut ideological positions throughout her career as a writer. In practise, this radical theoretical engagement nonetheless made it possible for her to be frequently cruel in her descriptions of the English aristocracy, whose privileges she so staunchly defended.’ He praises The Hollow: ‘a strange, poignant book’ with ‘powerful undercurrents’. Houellebecq returns to this in his next novel The Possibility of an Island, whose narrator weeps at Poirot’s suicide note: We shall not hunt together again, my friend.

No one before Agatha Christie had been able to portray in such a heart-rending way the sadness of physical decrepitude, of the gradual loss of all that gave life meaning and joy; and no one since has succeeded in equalling her.

Which is all to say: does the grand old lady really need defending? Her books are still read, the CWA voted her number one crime writer. The condescension of posterity was never less effective. Meanwhile generic mystery novels, some of which are not that good, continue to sell. What is Sophie kicking against here? She writes this, about Raymond Chandler:

Chandler sneered that a Poirot mystery was ‘guaranteed to knock the keenest mind for a loop. Only a half-wit could guess it.’ He dismissed the British golden age detective novel as ‘futzing around with timetables and bits of charred paper and who trampled the jolly old flowering arbutus under the library window’. Chandler described the crime cases in his own novels as ‘a perfunctory mystery element dropped in like the olive in a martini’. Surely anyone who doesn’t care about puzzles or mysteries should write in a different genre: letters of apology to greater writers than oneself that one has unfairly maligned, perhaps.

It is surprising that Chandler, so full of British influence – he was educated at P G Wodehouse’s old school, knew Natasha Spender and other English grandees, and his Marlowe is basically an English amateur sleuth – should say this: but he was entitled to his opinion, and it’s not necessary to ‘forgive’ him as Sophie says. Chandler wrote very different novels, very well. And Jess Meacham points out that the ‘olive in a martini’ line is a misquote – it’s from his essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ and Chandler was talking about Dashiel Hammett: ‘And there arc still quite a few people around who say that Hammett did not write detective stories at all, merely hardboiled chronicles of mean streets with a perfunctory mystery element dropped in like the olive in a martini.’ Chandler is also right about the use of detail in mystery: ‘the same utterly incomprehensible trick of how somebody stabbed Mrs. Pottington Postlethwaite III with the solid platinum poignard just as she flatted on the top note of the Bell Song from Lakmé in the presence of fifteen ill-assorted guests’. Detail is an art – contrivance is not. The spirit of fan-love is a fine thing in many ways, but it shouldn’t seduce the reader into losing yourself in a golden age.



Let the Good Times Roll

May 8, 2015

wildeThe trouble with democracy is that sometimes it throws up a result you don’t like. I watched the election until dawn, obviously I have my own thoughts and views on what happened, I don’t need to rehearse these here. I will say that it’s important that you actually do vote, whenever you can – democracy is a muscle, if you don’t use it it dies. We are all passionate and contra Yeats that’s sometimes a good thing.

That is not the view of Giles Fraser though, who in the Guardian declares that he feels ‘ashamed to be English. Ashamed to belong to a country that has clearly identified itself as insular, self-absorbed and apparently caring so little for the most vulnerable people among us.’

And he goes on to say this:

The utterly miserable thought strikes me that Russell Brand just might have been right. What difference did my vote make? Why indeed do people vote, and care so passionately about voting, particularly in constituencies in which voting one way or the other won’t make a blind bit of difference? And why do the poor vote when, by voting, they merely give legitimacy to a system that connives with their oppression and alienation?

Fraser’s theory is that people vote on their self interest, at the expense of the common welfare: we ‘want to present to the nice polling man as socially inclusive, but who, in the privacy of the booth, tick the box of our own self-interest.’ This hurts the vulnerable among us, because more people vote for selfish reasons than for altruistic reasons, and so the results lead to government for the selfish people at the expense of the vulnerable people. And so, Fraser asks: ‘Did we just vote for our own narrow concerns and sod the rest?’

The schema is full of holes. Many wealthy people have altruistic concerns about social welfare and vote accordingly. Many people with low incomes and miserable lives don’t vote for social welfare type candidates. And we can argue also with Fraser’s point that when the oppressed vote, ‘they merely give legitimacy to a system that connives with their oppression and alienation.’ For isn’t it in the best interest of the oppressed that they vote and campaign and get organised so that they can beat the system at its own game? Russell Brand was wrong because he told people not to vote and specifically he encouraged young people not to vote when it’s not just in their own interest that the 18-30 group vote but because they are our future. We need them to keep parliamentary democracy in business.

Any crime writer will tell you that human motivation is complex. How do the thoughts and intuitions inside us translate into a world that we create? We can all be selfish and acquisitive, we can also exercise compassion. As Oscar Wilde said, people ‘find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this.’ To explain the world in terms of motivation is… difficult. Marxists and hypercapitalists tried to predict the future in terms of pure self interest but the results weren’t great. Wilde believed that the big revolution would free the individual from ‘the sordid necessity of living for others’ and ‘would be of value simple because it will lead to Individualism.’

Reformers of Fraser’s worldview would recoil from this because they equate individualism with greed. The backlash against the Enlightenment came from this. Communal dissent is great: individual dissent, not so great. An organised demonstration against the government is fine but a man who writes a book dissenting against powerful belief systems can’t blame anyone else for the death threats in his morning mail. Positive change will come from benign communal authority.

But self interest is not always about greed. People have individual passions and creativities, which can’t be said to impact on anyone else in a negative way. The man enjoying a hike in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales can be said to be selfish, but it’s not a selfishness that hurts anyone. Why do the poor vote? Fraser asks. They vote because they want bread on the table but they also want to be able to live freely and express themselves. The free country is not a perfect world. But social welfare doesn’t thrive under despotisms. North Korea is not known for its credit union programmes and third sector networking. There’s no benign state out there that will save us and people know that. People don’t like being told what to say and do. People want bread but they also want freedom: what Wilde called ‘the true pleasure and joy of living.’

A politician might call this impractical. But as dear Oscar also said: ‘This is perfectly true. It is impractical, and it goes against human nature. That is why it is worth carrying out’.


The Shock of the Average: PEN and Charlie

April 28, 2015

Like most people I was horrified and saddened at the Charlie Hebdo massacres in Paris back in January. However, I felt that also some hope came out of the atrocity because so many people took to the streets to express solidarity with the dead. I remember the 2005 Jyllands-Posten affair when it seemed like freedom of expression was this niche thing, almost hipsterish in its obscurity. The reaction in 2015 was very different and more positive. As a friend said to me on Twitter: ‘I think a lot of people have realised recently what liberty really means.’

Now there has been controversy over a PEN award for Charlie Hebdo. Six PEN novelists have withdrawn from the award event, for various reasons. Rachel Kushner complained about what she saw as the magazine’s ‘forced secular view’, Peter Carey declared to the NYT: ‘A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?’ In the Guardian, Francine Prose expands on her reasons for withdrawal – she felt Charlie Hebdo was ‘an inappropriate recipient’ of a PEN award; the magazine’s content did not have ‘the importance – the necessity – that would deserve such an honor'; the magazine concentrated on ‘drawing crude caricatures and mocking religion.’

Is this really a story? After all, nobody is obliged to host a PEN gala, or even to attend one. It’s not a walkout, so much as a flounce. There was very little reference – I am struck how often this is the case with Charlie’s critics – to the content of the magazine. Francine Prose refers to ‘crude cartoons’ and indeed there’s a historic art snobbery against this medium. The cartoonist Chris Ware has discussed, in the Paris Review, his experiences studying at Chicago’s Art Institute, where the attitude was ‘that to make art actually ‘about’ something – whether it was other people or plants or anything – was considered illustration and thus irrevocably aesthetically corrupt.’

I don’t read French so a lot of Charlie content is going to be lost on me. But it surprised me, in the wake of the massacre, how often the journal was dismissed as a kind of Daily Mail offshoot, when the more I read about the magazine, the more it seemed like something writers should support: ironical, imaginative, creative, challenging and discursive. I can also understand why people would be offended by some of its art. I do think civility is important. Then again, the real test of a civil society is that you shouldn’t get murdered in broad daylight for going to work. Contra Francine Prose, the killings were not a ‘narrative': they really happened.

We discussed this at our local debating group a few weeks after the massacre. The others in the group weren’t so keen on Charlie Hebdo: they complained that they felt pressured into solidarity (‘it’s like everyone has to say ‘Je suis Charlie”) they said the magazine was ‘too provocative’, ‘punching down,’ ‘too clever,’ and its satire was ‘not necessary’. I argued – perhaps a little too forcefully? – that it doesn’t matter if you have the right respectable ideas or the right respectable politics. There are fundamentalists out there who will kill you for the crime of living in a free country and discussing issues freely. Authoritarians may first come for the degenerates, the artists, the hipsters, the rootless cosmopolitans – given chance and time, though, they will devour all of us.

I’m not sure I convinced anyone. But perhaps that’s the key to the distaste of Peter Carey, Francine Prose, Rachel Kusher, and the other distinguished novelists – it is the shock of the average, the shock of pseudo-radicals when they are faced with actual, creative transgressives. Art that isn’t generated by committee, does not hit approved political targets, and might be worth risking a bullet for.

As I say, perhaps this is a non story, and I’m sure the PEN event will be a success without the stewardship of these novelists. As the Hitch said, in a rather similar context: ‘no political coalition with them is now necessary. It no longer matters what they think.’

System Failure

March 30, 2015

toxicJamie Doward’s crime novel takes place in a dimly populated world. His London is full of billionaire sheikhs, powerdressed spies, overbearing Texan bankers but not many ordinary people. In this way it’s like another recent hit, murder mystery The Girl on the Train: reviewing Paula Hawkins’s book, Private Eye‘s anonymous critic noted a ‘curious situational vacuum’ where ‘the figures moving around… are just bundles of psychological urges on collision course’. Maybe the problem is that London’s so expensive these days that only superheroes and supervillains can afford to live there. In the contemporary British novel there is no one left to serve the drinks.

Toxic begins with the body of a banker washing up on a remote beach, head and hands missing. It transpires that the banker was actually drowned someplace else and that there’s more to his death than is immediately apparent. So far, so predictable: the headless and handless corpse recalls The Wire (‘Did he have hands? Did he have a face? Then it wasn’t us’) while the plot device of a victim drowned in a different body of water than where he’s found was done much better by Carl Hiaasen in Strip Tease. The leads are also cut from familiar cloth. DCI Sorrenson is a dyspeptic and stoical cop who’s seen it all: Kate Pendragon an MI5 agent who’s trying to forget her murdered husband by seducing random men in bars.

The real originality is in the plot. Jamie Doward understands finance and how the global wash of money funds terrorism and crime. Significantly, his protagonist Kate Pendragon is a financial analyst, seconded to intelligence to track Islamist petrodollars. The story is tied up with a ‘spook bank’ – an entire investment bank created and run by US intelligence to honeytrap Mexican cartels and Saudi terrorists. Doward has worked as a senior reporter on the Observer for many years, and no doubt has seen many things he couldn’t write about. Staggering revelations of the dirty tricks used by states and spies are tossed off like cocktail party witticisms. (At the same time, Doward’s law enforcement teams are overworked and hammered by post-recession cuts: key evidence is lost because of backlogs and sick leave.) Nor does his story lack for drama. It’s a pounding fairground ride of assassinations, explosions and haggard men staring into the barrels of guns.

And yet the story is somehow underwhelming because of this very lack of a human element at its core. Kate Pendragon reflects that ‘Ultimately, the intelligence community was just like the banking community… They saw only structures and processes. They thought in abstract terms. They didn’t see the human.’ Unfortunately the same could be said of Doward as debut novelist.

My Own Private Idaho

March 29, 2015

Casting my roving satirical eye over the week’s events I see there has been a controversy regarding a Kindle app called ‘Clean Reader’ that deletes profanity and sexual references in downloaded fiction titles, replacing them with harmless terms like ‘heck’, ‘darn’, and ‘bottom’. The app was launched by Jared and Kristin Maughan of Idaho and they say in their FAQs that the idea for Clean Reader came up when their daughter came home from school upset because she had been reading a book in the library that had swear words.

She really liked the book but not the swear words.  We told her that there was probably an app for this type of thing that would replace profanity with less offensive words and perhaps we should get her a tablet that she could use to read books with.  To our surprise there wasn’t an app like this.

The app had numerous problems. Romance author Jennifer Porter ran some titles through the app and found that the Maughans had likely just used ‘a find and replace schema to find certain identified profane words and white them out’. Three words for the female, ahem, organ, ‘cunt’, ‘pussy’, and ‘vagina’ itself, were just replaced with the word ‘bottom’ which, as the novelist Joanne Harris points out, is biologically plain wrong and could lead to some confusion, embarrassment and potential legal problems (certainly in Utah).

Speaking of legal problems, the Maughans assure us that ‘We’ve discussed this with several lawyers and they have all agreed that Clean Reader does not violate copyright law because it doesn’t make changes to the file containing the book.’ Retailers thought otherwise and pulled titles. It now appears that CleanReader is going the way of CleanFilm, a similar operation that bowdlerised movie DVDs and is now defunct following a court ruling in 2006.

From the Guardian report:

The Society of Authors said it was concerned ‘that the app contradicts two aspects of the author’s moral rights, namely the right of integrity and the right of false attribution’, with the former ‘the right of an author to object to ‘derogatory’ treatment of a work’, and the latter ‘the right not to have a work falsely attributed to you as author’.

I’m against Clean Reader along the lines of Harris’s argument but I kind of understand where the Maughans are coming from. I use swear words regularly both in person and text, and although I am naturally foul-mouthed I understand that some people find profanity vulgar and even painful to read. I also understand that parents will feel the need to protect their children from bad language, and portrayals of sex and violence (although what the Utah couple don’t seem to understand is that kids will clandestinely seek out the forbidden books precisely because we were told not to).

Arguably it’s good to have some words that are taboo because it adds spice to the language. Terry Pratchett’s hired gun Mr Tulip constantly peppers his sentences with ‘—-ing’ (‘So called because it was an instrument for —-ing young ladies!’) and the effect is funnier and more furious than if the words were completely displayed. George MacDonald Fraser uses dashes in his novel Flash for Freedom, explaining that the text has been censored by Flash’s sister-in-law, Grizel de Rothschild, who ‘paid close attention to oaths’ but ‘left untouched those passages in which Flashman retails his amorous adventures; possibly she did not understand what he was talking about.’

But is this really the end for clean reading? After all, we live in an age of trigger warnings and safe spaces and ‘appropriate language’ – a censorious and fucked up world (that should read ‘fiddlesticks’ if you’re using Clean Reader) where people are banned from public speaking or hounded on Twitter for trivial breaches of linguistic codes. And if you’re an artist who’s seen as ‘going too far’, ‘being too clever’ or, hell’s sake, being ‘needlessly provocative’ – then you will have a reasonable fear of being murdered in broad daylight. So, I repeat, why stop at profanity? There must be an IT guy at a tobacco control charity working on a Kindle app that removes all instances of fictional characters smoking. Another at the NUS, working on an app that deletes all heteronormative, cisgendered or privileged text. The CIA could make an app that removes anything subversive at all.

The digital world is a multiplex of opinion. The consumer has almost infinite choice here. But the consumerist paradox – identified by Jamie Bartlett, in his book The Dark Net, and by radical writer Nick Cohen in this stunning essay – is that it’s never been easier for individuals to lose themselves in a feedback loop where you read only writing that confirms and bolsters what you think you already know. Surely, with web analytics these days, we should be able to make software that reads your personal and political preferences and screens out anything that contradicts with those preferences. If books ever get totally digitised you need never come across anything that could unsettle, offend or disturb you. The customer is always right. My own private Idaho.

Or we could admit to ourselves that the world is not a safe space, and at some point we are going to encounter passages of darkness, that make our principles and beliefs seem like – in Mark Z Danielewski’s phrase – ‘a house of leaves/moments before the wind.’

In the meantime, I think we’ll see many more ways of clean reading.


(Image: Wikipedia)

Notes from the Red Mountain

March 15, 2015

michellegreenIn 2005, the writer and poet Michelle Green spent several months in Darfur as an aid worker. The Darfur war began in 2003 when rebel militias attacked government buildings in Jebel Marra district (Jebel Marra is also the title of Green’s collection). The Sudanese government responded with Janjaweed militias that rampaged through towns, killing and raping everything in their wake. By 2004-2005 their activities amounted to ethnic cleansing. In March 2005 the UN’s emergency relief co-ordinator Jan Egeland estimated the body count at 10,000 per month. An atrocity-producing situation generating kidnappings, displacement, murders and unimaginable amounts of avoidable suffering. Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir has promised he’ll stay on until at least 2020… despite being under indictment for war crimes since 2009.

Manchester’s Comma Press has published great short form fiction from and inspired by war zones (think Zoe Lambert’s The War Tour and Hassan Blasim’s magisterial The Iraqi Christ) and Michelle Green’s collection is another direct hit from the disaster area. Green cuts through familiar readings of the conflict, whether it’s Arab supremacists versus black revolutionaries, or the dismissive summation of ‘ancient hatreds’ (the reactionary rich world’s excuse for turning its back on refugees from Bosnia to Rwanda to Aleppo). Green writes: ‘Upon returning to the UK, I encountered in newspapers and television the familiar portraits of distant war: the refugee with the empty bowl, the anonymous soldier, the heroic aid worker and so on, usually with little context or complication. Inevitably, these incomplete images were soon gone from the front pages.’

The collection took five years to write, and it shows. The very first para of the first story, ‘The Debrief’, charts the psychological impact of bearing witness that lasts long after the home plane has landed: ‘Don’t go into supermarkets. No arcades, no chain stores, no automated tellers. Avoid shops. Anything with plate glass walls, reflective surfaces.’ The stories that follow are a clamour of competing testimonies – photojournalists, aid workers, civilians, rebels – that in concert form a splintered tesseract of powerful storytelling. ‘The red mountain attracts stories among those who live beside it,’ Green writes.

Green is particularly good on the ethics of getting involved in dangerous and difficult situations, or simply observing what’s happening. ‘Kevin Carter and a thousand African photographers roll their collective eyes,’ writes Green’s photojournalist in ‘The Nightingales,’ referencing the photojournalist who killed himself just months after winning the Pulitzer, for his shot of a vulture preying on a starving child. (Carter’s suicide note stated ‘I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners’.)

On her blog, Green writes that when she worked in West Darfur ‘I was informed in no uncertain terms that I could not use the word ‘rape’ in any public communications. If we used that word in public, in relation to what was happening in Darfur, our international staff would be kicked out and our programme shut down.’ The paradox was stark: part of the reason aid workers had a presence in Darfur was because of the mass rapes, but they couldn’t say so for fear of offending the genocidal Sudanese government that allowed them to operate. As Linda Polman said: ‘It’s 1943. You’re an international aid worker. The telephone rings. It’s the Nazis. You’ll be granted permission to deliver aid to the concentration camps, but the camp management will decide how much of it goes to its own staff and how much to the prisoners… What do you do?’

Jebel Marra is a red mountain of intrigue, humour, love, hate and suffering. But its underlying theme is of this complicity and silence. Involving and seeing has consequences, Green says. Even more does the act of not involving and not seeing.

Hail Discordia: Death of Terry Pratchett

March 12, 2015

deathisntcruelWhenever I go into someone else’s home, out of pure nosiness and idle curiosity, I always wander to the bookshelves. Whether these shelves have rows of esoteric or canonical literature, or just a few golf magazines and Viz albums, I always find something else: a couple of Discworld paperbacks, normally from the 1990s, with those rippling Josh Kirby covers, and never in good condition – these books are always squashed and scuffed a little, the look (as Stephen King said) of a book that has been much read and well loved. It is almost as if mid-period Pratchett novels were produced scruffy, like the cigarettes behind Corporal Nobbs’s ear.

My own Terry Pratchett books still look that adored, messy way. I had grown up with him. Many of us did, and every year when the new Discworld novel came out, even when we were well into our twenties, it still felt like Christmas morning. You would clear an evening and buy a bottle of wine and rediscover these lost and familiar pleasures.

Describe a Terry Pratchett plot and you will quickly find yourself sounding ridiculous – so I won’t try. Anyone who’s read him will know what I’m talking about, and the uninformed out there will have to discover this treasure-house of detail in their own time. Comic fantasy just about covers it – the first few books were basically silly adventures characterised by authorial stand-up, parodic subversions, and terrible wordplay (right to the end, if Pratchett saw an opportunity to make an awful joke, he’d jump through hoops to set it up).

Comic fantasy was a successful sub-genre in the 1980s and 1990s but the reason Pratchett lasted, and so many others didn’t, was because of the warmth and moral seriousness of the comedy. There was an abiding love of humanity that you don’t even get in Douglas Adams. Pratchett’s Discworld characters are vain, obstreperous and stupid, but he loves them. His villains, and there were many – the warped assassin Jonathan Teatime, the vampires of Carpe Jugulum, the terrifying Deacon Vorbis, Lord Hong and the Auditors – are villains because they treat ‘people as things’. This is the denouement of Feet of Clay, when the villain Pratchett’s top cop Sam Vimes has been chasing is finally exposed:

‘The candles killed two other people,’ said Carrot.

Carry started to panic again. ‘Who?’

‘An old lady and a baby in Cockbill Street.’

‘Were they important?’ said Carry.

Carrot nodded to himself. ‘I was almost feeling sorry for you,’ he said. ‘Right up to that point. You’re a lucky man, Mr Carry.’

‘You think so?’

‘Oh, yes. We got to you before Commander Vimes did.[‘]

Life is no joke, Pratchett is saying… or it’s because it’s a joke that it’s so serious. This is not a game. Here and now, you are alive. The vision penetrates through his best work. Small Gods is possibly the best work of fiction about religion ever written. Lords and Ladies takes Pratchett’s provincial witch trio and pits them against a race of beautiful and deadly elves who seduce but ultimately take everything. Read it in the twenty-first century and it’s like an allegory of human susceptibility to extremism and romantic absolutism. Perhaps his best book is Night Watch, where Commander Vimes is hurled back into old Ankh-Morpork… a place of riots, assassination and torture chambers. This last example also shows Pratchett’s love of detail, how things get done: he had a somewhat unliterary love of practical things, from falconry to clock-making – no job was too small to fascinate the author.

Every day, maybe a hundred cows died for Ankh-Morpork. So did a flock of sheep and a herd of pigs and the gods alone knew how many ducks, chickens and geese. Flour? He’d heard it was eighty tons, and about the same amount of potatoes and maybe twenty tons of herring. He didn’t particularly want to know this kind of thing, but once you started having to sort out the everlasting traffic problem these were facts that got handed to you. Every day, forty thousand eggs were laid for the city. Every day, hundreds, thousands of carts and boats and barges converged on the city with fish and honey and oysters and olives and eels and lobsters. And then think of the horses dragging this stuff, and the windmills… and the wool coming in, too, every day, the cloth, the tobacco, the spices, the ore, the timber, the cheese, the coal, the fat, the tallow, the hay EVERY DAMN DAY…

I read, somewhere I can’t remember, that Hollywood was never interested in a Discworld adaptation because execs found the books too ‘genteel and intellectual’. So they are, kind of… but there is some peculiar quality in Pratchett’s work that practically guaranteed him a success in his home country. There is something in Discworld that people respond to, some intuition: a love of plain speaking, a diligent sense of the ridiculous (‘Neither rain, nor snow, nor glom of nit’) a love of humour for its own sake, a certain stoicism, a keen scepticism for all manifestations of authority and power – a contempt for all the bad ideas and stupidity and greed that makes people’s lives miserable. His books have that rare, peculiar British sensibility, and they will be read and loved long after Pratchett himself has taken that long walk – accompanied by that tall, cowled, spooky, but somehow kindly figure – into the desert.

Statement from Random House here.

You can donate to the Research Institute for the Care of Older People in Sir Terry’s memory here.


March 8, 2015

This piece of flash fiction is now up at the astounding Spelk flash zine.

Also, some Americana you might have missed: at Shiny, a review of an illustrated Walt Whitman; and at 3:AM, my piece on Jeanne Theoharis’s outstanding new Rosa Parks biography.

Thoughts IRL

February 21, 2015

irlJust caught up with Chris Killen’s In Real Lifehis first novel in six years, which kind of makes him the Donna Tartt of Manchester. The book follows three characters, Ian, Paul and Lauren, across a space of ten years. The three were at university together and full of grand plans and big dreams. A decade on none of them have made it in any meaningful way – Ian has just sold his guitar and signed on for JSA, Lauren is running a charity shop and has little emotional or social life. Only Paul is anywhere near what you could call successful, having secured a creative writing lectureship off the back of his first novel, Human Animus. But he is a pathetic, grasping, insecure hack, his partner’s demanding a baby while he’s pursuing nineteen-year-old students through Facebook – Paul is weak and selfish in a peculiarly British way and has no more idea about what’s going on than anyone else.

The novel has the poignancy of old Facebook photographs. It’s sad to look at these people because you know what they’re going to become, what’s going to happen to them and the compromises they’ll make. Though Killen messes around with split narrative and typography, there’s no real artifice in his writing, no sense of tricksiness or superiority – he’s honest above all things, the laureate of a certain kind of awkwardness, and this makes In Real Life so compelling and so unbearably sad in places.

I knew Chris Killen a little when I lived in Manchester and the book serves also as a great portrait of that city. South Manchester in the  2010s was full of hip young writers like Chris Killen and Anneliese Mackintosh – and, er, not so hip young writers, like me. The choice Killen presents is stark: somehow carve a living out of the creative structures, or disappear into telesales hell. (At one low point Paul is writing tentacle erotic for $0.5 a word.) Manchester is a boom city now and when I hear council leaders from MCC comparing the place with London, ready to compete on the world stage, etcetera – I’m happy for them but I worry that Manchester will develop, as well as London’s economic success, a whole set of London-style problems: rocketing rents, rip-off employers, tracts of substandard, damp-infested housing, inequality, ghettoization and people on the make. As well as a beautifully written love story, In Real Life is the story of a generation emerging into a different and harder world.


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