Archive for December, 2007

‘Try to be better than yourself’

December 29, 2007

From The Paris Review Interviews (volume 2) this advice from William Faulkner; advice that should be drilled, with military precision, into the heads of every creative writing student in the UK – and most of its published writers as well.


How does a writer become a serious novelist?


Ninety-nine percent talent… ninety-nine percent disipline… ninety-nine percent work. He must never  be satisfied with what he does. It never is as good as it can be done. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself. An artist is a creature driven by demons. He doesn’t know why they choose him and he’s usually too busy to wonder why. He is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.  

At last

December 28, 2007

The uncomfortable truth about a defining moment in the history of democracy in Britain has finally been recorded – 188 years after the event – on a red plaque fixed to a wall in the centre of Manchester.

The 1819 Peterloo massacre, which followed a rally where thousands had gathered at St Peter’s Fields to demand that the new industrial cities should have the right to elect MPs, has for years been commemorated only by a blue plaque on the Free Trade Hall, now converted to a hotel.

But the plaque made no mention of those cut down and killed when the local volunteer yeomanry was ordered to charge and break up the meeting, whose principal speaker was the famed orator Henry Hunt.

The plaque records only the “subsequent dispersal” of the crowd by the military. Members of a group campaigning for a “prominent, explanatory and respectful” monument spoke of “a Stalinist airbrushing of history” and complained that it was offensive that the plaque carried no reference to the dead. On the anniversary of the massacre in August they fixed on top of the original their own temporary red paper plaque recording that 11 people were killed when the yeomanry charged with sabres drawn.

Now Manchester city council has fixed a permanent red plaque to the wall and updated the death toll in line with the latest research. It reads: “On August 16 1819 a peaceful rally of 60,000 pro-democracy reformers, men, women and children, was attacked by armed cavalry resulting in 15 deaths and over 600 injuries.” The new figure includes the 11 people killed on the day of the protest plus four others who died later. The event led directly to the founding of the Manchester Guardian in 1821 and inspired Fame Is The Spur, a novel by Howard Spring, a Manchester Guardian writer. “We are very happy with what the city has done about the plaque,” said Paul Fitzgerald, spokesman for the Peterloo massacre memorial campaign. “And it’s a great victory for our group.”

About time too.

It really was a disgrace that, in an apparently free society, the only Peterloo monument in the city was a plaque that didn’t even mention that anyone was killed.

It reminds me of the Simpsons episode where the family visit China. A sign at Tianemen Square says: ‘On this site in 1989, nothing happened.’

History is written by the winners. It’s about time the rest of us got a say.

Brigadier-General Dunbar, writing from the Lamb and Flag

December 27, 2007

The writer Paul Magrs once said to me: ‘Everyone says literally these days.’ It was a throwaway comment but one I’ve never forgotten.

In my professional life I hear it in every other sentence – often as something like, ‘I am literally writing the email to you now.’ When I first started in Manchester I was sent to another department to cover for a sick colleague. Someone asked who I was. The head of the other department said, ‘Max does not work for [department], he is literally an admin assistant from another department who is literally covering for [colleague].’

Then on Saturday I was eating an early Christmas dinner with the family. My aunt, who does some television work, was talking about a recent shoot. She described it as, ‘literally something out of Blade Runner.’

The dictionary defines the word ‘literally’ in this way:

1. adv. – According to the primary and natural import of words; not figuratively; as, a man and his wife can not be literally one flesh.

2. adv. – With close adherence to words; word by word.

It seems to me that the word is used not in this true sense but to back up a weak argument or as a shortcut to a clear visual image.

According to the BBC, the planet is getting literally greener, because there are more plants. The Huffington Post says that we can ‘support the troops – literally’ because you can give money to soldiers’ charities. A gadget website tells us that ‘football’s coming home – literally’ because women can now buy a vibrator designed with a World Cup theme. And there’s an IT company that apparently ‘pushes powerline Ethernet security – literally’.

If I hear the word used like this one more time, I’ll explode (in the sense that I will become angry).

This is all very pedantic but I’m not the only one who’s getting annoyed.

Check out Paul Parry’s website, Literally TV. He’s as sick of the word as I am and links to more examples:

The police were literally swimming in a sea of red herrings.

Sun reporter regarding the Jill Dando murder trial

Darren Gough really is bowling superbly, he’s literally on fire.

– Michael Slater, Channel 4

Dave on the phones’ head has quite literally exploded.

BBC Radio 1 Breakfast Show

Parry has a manifesto:

The concept of this project is simple. Instead of watching and listening to everyone carve up our language, I’m going to teach them a lesson, figuratively. I plan to take these phrases and literally do them.

No, not figuratively do them. Literally do them.

Some of Parry’s tasks include:

I have arranged lunch with a judge in which we shall stay sober. I am hunting for a Lord fond of alcohol (possibly like saying a penguin fond of fish admittedly) which whom I can drink in glorious excess.

I’m helping to organise the Cardiff Half Marathon next year. Roughly 8% of the runners in this year’s race were Joneses. With the help of a sponsor, I am challenging the people of Wales to literally keep up with the Joneses, giving each Jones running a special Jones shirt, and seeing how they get on!

Organising a piss-up in a modern brewery is a logistical nightmare. Short of drinking in the post-brewery-tour bar, it will be tricky. I have some plans though. Hopefully I can also incorporate literally drinking like a fish – I’ll just need to submerge myself fully in the drink of my choosing, and drink as I swim.

Good luck to Paul. And I promise to get out more.

Classic Books: A Christmas Carol

December 26, 2007


‘Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,’ said Scrooge. ‘But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!’

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

This book has been parodied and reimagined so many times – I even remember a Sid the Sexist version in Viz comic – that it’s good to reread the original now and then, to remind yourself of how fantastic the story is.

Firstly, for a book specially written for Christmas, Dickens’s novel is unashamedly secular. There are ghosts and a kind of hellish purgatory, but no God. People say that we in the decadent twenty-first century have neglected the religious aspect to Christmas; Dickens neglected it even back in 1843, and his book is no worse for it.

We associate Dickens’s true meaning of Christmas with social justice, and thinking of others beside yourself. Michel Faber discusses this in his excellent essay:

Dickens was aware that capitalism was fuelled by the labour of poor people, and he was passionate in his belief that society owed them a share in the plenty.

The heartless exploitation of the underprivileged enraged him. In all his work, he argues not only that we as individuals have a duty to care for our less fortunate neighbours, but also that governments and institutions must be exposed and shamed whenever they fail to show adequate compassion. In our own era, when the arrogant behaviour of global empire-builders and corporations is causing ever-mounting distress among the world’s poor, we need to pay attention when Scrooge compliments Marley on having been “a good man of business”. The ghost, shackled to the useless baggage of his own greed, bemoans his failure to understand that the whole of humanity should have been his concern. “The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

The point here is the connectivity of humanity. Like it or not, society is more than just individuals and families, and every person’s action affects at least someone else – sometimes tragically. Thus in a possible future, Scrooge’s decision to pay Cratchit at a miserly level leads directly to the death of the clerk’s son.

‘Spirit,’ said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, ‘tell me if Tiny Tim will live.’

‘I see a vacant seat,’ replied the Ghost, ‘in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.’

”No, no,’ said Scrooge. ‘Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.’

‘If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,’ returned the Ghost, ‘will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.’

Throwing Scrooge’s words back in his face has the desired effect: shatters the businessman’s abstract utopian capitalist theory, and replaces it with an awful knowledge of the consequences of his actions.

Yet as Faber points out, A Christmas Carol isn’t a straight socialist novel any more than it is a straight religious novel. It is a story of rebirth, one of the seven basic plots. As Faber puts it:

The real secret of A Christmas Carol’s essentialness lies not in solemn preaching but in the dark, joyous energy that drove Dickens to create. It lies in the weird magic of Scrooge’s adventures, the awesome visions of the Spirits, the gruesome hinge of Marley’s jaw. And, most of all, it lies in the real truth about Scrooge’s change of heart – a truth much deeper than the conventional explanation, that he learned he must be a nicer, “better” person. Yes, Scrooge does change in this way. But that doesn’t explain why he ends the novel cavorting in impish glee, giggling and playing pranks. He could, after all, have remained the same gloomy old man, except more generous with money. The real miracle of his transformation is that, at long last, he’s capable of having fun.

Dickens valued morality, but what he really worshipped was merriment – the buzz of making other people happy, of making a moment glow, of dancing a jig for no particular reason. The greatest tragedy he could imagine was an existence devoid of excitement or playfulness, a biding of time on the way to the grave. Fun, for him, was the only compensation for death, the dismal inevitability of which preyed constantly on his mind. Scrooge’s triumph is that he stares his own corpse in the face, and, instead of despairing, defiantly resolves to enjoy the gift of life to the full.

The point is not about politics or religion but how we live our lives. Scrooge is a bad bastard at the start of the book (although he does have a certain style) but as the long night wears on, our sympathies gradually swing towards him. Scrooge’s lengthy back story, with its solitary childhood and lost love, illuminates his real problem: he is a bastard because he has never truly lived.

Dickens’s message is that it is never too late to live life to the full. No matter how much of it has been wasted or how bad things are, it is never too late. There’s a line I always associate with the book but appears only in a film adaptation: ‘the knowledge that his whole life lay before him, and that it could be changed.’

For all of us, the magic of A Christmas Carol lies in that knowledge: that we may alter the shadows of our futures, and sponge the writing from our headstones.

(Image copyright Nancy Holliday)

Festive silliness

December 26, 2007

It’s not online but the Guardian Guide has done this set of Facebook status updates:

Kate Nash is in intensive care, after wrinkling her nose with so much force that it drove a shard of bone into her brain.

Gordon Brown is really, really wishing he’d never got this bloody job in the first place.

Cerys Matthews is unable to shake the feeling that people aren’t possibly going to take her quite as seriously as an artist now that she’s shacked up with Beppe’s fat brother.

Marc Bannerman is not even sure who Catatonia are.

Daniel Radcliffe is desperately scouring the nation for anybody who won’t insist on calling him ‘Harry’ during coitus.

Osama Bin Laden is looking forward to spending a relaxing Christmas chilling out in WHOOAAHH! WHOAAHH! I CAN’T BELIEVE I NEARLY DID THAT! Fuck, I need to be more careful.

There’s also Charlie Brooker, and the JLB Christmas party featuring characters from Peep Show.

Kralzondaneberg. This is a reputable premium export beer. That is the JLB line. I expect you to get behind it.

That’s the only printed material from Bain and Armstrong I’ve ever seen. Surely some sort of overpriced stocking-filler book must be on its way?

There are atheists in foxholes

December 24, 2007

From The Portable Atheist, edited by Christopher Hitchens:

I too entered the Lager as a nonbeliever, and as a nonbeliever I was liberated and have lived to this day. Actually, the experience of the Lager with its frightful iniquity confirmed me in my nonbelief. It has prevented me, and still prevents me, from conceiving of any form of providence or transcendant justice… I must nevertheless admit that I experienced (and again only once) the temptation to yield, to seek refuge in prayer. This happened in October 1944, in the one moment in which I lucidly perceived the imminence of death… naked and compressed among my naked companions with my personal index card in hand, I was waiting to file past the ‘commission’ that with one glance would decide whether I should go immediately into the gas chamber or was instead strong enough to go on working. For one instance I felt the need to ask for help and asylum; then, despite my anguish, equanimity prevailed: one does not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, nor when you are losing. A prayer under these conditions would have been not only absurd (what rights could I claim? and from whom?) but blasphemous, obscene, laden with the greatest impiety of which a nonbeliever is capable. I rejected the temptation: I knew that otherwise were I to survive, I would have to be ashamed of it.

– Quoted from Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, a memoir of his time in the Auschwitz concentration camp

This reminds me of a conversation I had the other night with a friend. My friend was arguing against atheism, not because she had a strong religious belief, but because atheism offered no comfort and no possibility of life after death.

It strikes me that the only reason religion is still going is because it offers a post-death experience. We hear a lot about famous nonbelievers who supposedly went through a last-minute conversion on their deathbeds; Richard Dawkins has said that he plans to tape record his final hours, so that no pundit can claim such a recantation.

The point is that when you’re old, or very ill, or dying of gunshot wounds, it seems like there is no choice but to delude yourself.

Levi was in a situation far, far worse than anything we have been through or can imagine – and yet still resisted that temptation. The word isn’t ‘atheist’; the word is heroism.

We love Simon Heffer

December 23, 2007

Here’s a challenge if you’re bored. Try and read the following paragraphs, out loud, to someone else, without dissolving into hysterical laughter.

It is even better if you read it in a Stephen Fry General Melchett-style accent.

Here is the late C B Fry, who as well as being one of the greatest cricketers of the Edwardian age was also a celebrated footballer.

One scans the records in vain for tales of him and Prince Ranjitsinhji “roasting” young unmarried women in hotel rooms by way of Christmas entertainment, or drinking themselves paraplegic, let alone being accused of rape: the worst thing that happened to Fry, other than marrying a sadistic, androgynous flagellomaniac, was to be offered the throne of Albania.

But the game he once adorned is now full of brainless, feral, overpaid louts whose very existence seems to be an incitement to commit some crime. What a pity that the only reason not to ban it is that we would have these scum back on the streets.

Thing is – Heffer has a point, doesn’t he?

Christmas conspiracy round-up

December 22, 2007

Can we get Polly Toynbee to do the alternative Queen’s Speech?

My thanks to the kind reader who sent me the programme from this year’s Christmas carol service at the Old Royal Naval College chapel in Greenwich. It was written by the Rev Jules Gomes, chaplain of the college, and of Trinity College of Music, and also of the University of Greenwich.

Here is the good chaplain’s Christmas message: “More Christians have been martyred for their faith in the last century than in any other period of church history. Yesterday’s Herod is today’s Richard Dawkins and Polly Toynbee, seeking the total extermination of all forms of Christianity. The great irony is that the greatest opposition to Christ comes from so-called broad-minded people who seek to ban Christmas so that people of other faiths are not offended.”

I had at least five calls from broadcasters this year inviting me to say it would be a jolly good thing if Christmas were rebranded Winterval. That myth began years ago when Birmingham city council tried to spread the festive season across the long winter – though it never replaced Christmas, which came with official celebrations in the middle of it. But the Winterval myth lives on.

British Christians yearn to be martyrs, but frankly atheists are a pretty toothless substitute for lions. In a daft parliamentary debate this month on something called Christianophobia, Mark Pritchard MP accused the politically correct of banning religion from Christmas cards and advent calendars: “Many shoppers find it increasingly difficult to purchase greetings cards that refer to Jesus.” Alas, market forces are probably rather stronger than humanist plots: with only 7% of people in church of a Sunday these days, Santa and the Snowman trump the nativity.

More silliness is reported in Private Eye (not online). Note how basic pragmatic measures become symbols of a monstrous conspiracy.

In early December, Healey Primary School in Rochdale sent a note home to parents of 4 to 7-year-old pupils: ‘Please could parents send just one Christmas card to the whole class rather than asking the school for a whole class name list. This is to avoid tears and tantrums which often occur when Christmas cards are distributed.’

When an outraged parent contacted the Rochdale Observer claiming that this was ‘political correctness gone mad,’ her comments were promptly reported beneath the headline: ‘School bans Christmas cards.’

A spokeswoman hastened to point out that cards were ‘in no way banned’ from the school, which was currently preparing for no fewer than three festive productions and a carol service. ‘The cost of so many cards is prohibitive for some families and we feel that children are often pressurised to act in the same way as their peers,’ she explained. ‘In addition, some children are missed out and feel very upset when this happens.’

How was this reported when it reached the national press the following week? ‘Furious parents and campaigners last night slammed the politically correct brigade for spoiling the true meaning of Christmas,’ roared the Express. ‘Festive cards are being banned in schools… the season of goodwill is being ruined by Scrooge-like officials fearful of offending other faiths or worried about health and safety rules.’ Its sister paper the Daily Star, meanwhile, kept up its own tradition of ignoring all the facts with the front-page headline: ‘Ban on Christmas cards in case they offend Muslims!’

Which brings us nicely onto Toynbee’s next point.

All this would just be seasonal silliness if it were not cover for a more sinister drumbeat. The right has taken to flying the “Christian” flag in ways that suggest none too subtly that foreigners – Muslims – are stealing our culture and traditions. “They” are stopping “us” celebrating Christmas and teaching Christian stories to our children. When Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, appeared on GMTV this week, although as usual he denied any atheist plot against Christmas, the theme in about 3,000 emails afterwards was: “We are not Muslims, our culture must not be silenced to avoid offending them.”

Exactly: if Sanderson didn’t mention Muslims, how did we get from Christmas to Muslims?

The BNP has been quick to cash in. In the Christianophobia debate in parliament, the reported case of a BNP Christmas card was raised, “which portrays the holy family on the cover and inside are the words ‘Heritage, Tradition and Culture'”. Pritchard warned television firms: “The fear of violence from a particular faith group should not be grounds for hand-selecting or targeting other faith groups who may choose to protest peacefully.” Fear of Muslim violence is killing off peaceful Christianity, he implies. But blaming mythical secular political correctness is usually a cover for more sinister suggestions that “our way of life” is under threat from foreigners.

Hastening to defend themselves against the charge, Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, assembled imams, rabbis, Sikh and Hindu leaders to protest that they had no objection to Christmas, asserting that they sent Christmas cards, they liked cribs, and “it’s a great holiday for everyone”. Leave Christmas alone was the message, addressed again to the hypothetical politically correct secularists.

But we are innocent. It is the Christians who are stirring this dangerous pot, inventing non-stories, yearning for martyrdom – and worse, fermenting an outraged sense among the mainly secular population that they had better call themselves Christian because, as the BNP says, British “Heritage, Tradition and Culture” (read Kultur) are under threat from Muslims. While pretending to attack us, covertly these Christians stir resentment against immigrants.

Time for the contemporary martyrs to shut up.

1) No atheist or secularist that I know of would even consider banning Christmas. Indeed, out of all my heathen friends I don’t know a single one that does not celebrate the festival.

2) As we’ve seen, Muslims and Hindus don’t really care either.

If you’re interested, you can read a Christmas message from secular fundamentalist Terry Sanderson.

This is what this hardcore atheist and modern-day Herod has to say.

But now, as the holiday approaches, and the time comes for reunions with family and friends, for the exchange of presents and for the sharing of good food and drink, we can live in peace with each other, at least for these few days. The churches are open for those who want them, and so are the boozers. Christmas carols will be sung and Monopoly played. Telly will be watched and snoozes taken. For those lucky enough to be in the warmth of good company, there will be a central feast and the sound of children enjoying what is, essentially, their special time.

Our friends from Muslim, Jewish, Sikh and Hindu backgrounds will be able to share in the excitement and enjoy the holiday, too. The mischievous forces that try to make life difficult for them should be challenged, but over the holiday time, we can try to put aside those human-made differences and just let it be. Let’s leave the point-scoring and the arguing until next year.

Despite the claims of some, this mid-winter holiday does not uniquely belong to one section of the community. Indeed, there is no reason why atheists can’t enjoy it with a clear conscience. I certainly will and I sincerely hope you will, too.

So, whatever your religion (or lack of it) and whatever your circumstances, I wish you a very happy Christmas – as well as a peaceful solstice time and a jolly holly-day.

RSB Books of the Year Symposium 2007

December 21, 2007

It’s Christmas, and that means loads of lists.

In that spirit, I have contributed to the annual Books of the Year roundup at Mark Thwaite’s superb site. Jonathan Derbyshire and Lee Rourke also make appearances.

Winter commute

December 20, 2007

7am, and frost twinkles on the crescent. We get there in darkness, and leave in darkness. Work makes vampires of us all.

It’s a big commute and there’s always a few little delays – not enough to seriously inconvenience or hassle you, but enough to make you think that this is a country in decay; a crumbling public infrastructure, apologies every ten minutes, everything is falling apart.

There’s romance, even here. An old drunk guy at Wigan North Western, swigging from a can, and shouting, ‘I’m a celebrity! Get me out of here!’

He seems crazy. But perhaps we are the crazy ones.