Archive for January, 2009

Ranting in public

January 31, 2009

I’ve discovered a great new blog – The Writing Runner – written by an American novelist. Obviously most of his stuff applies to the American market but he also makes points that writers over here would be wise to heed.

Today he’s talking about internet forums. His claim is that people do read what novelists write on blogs and comment threads and that this can seriously affect your career. He gives an example:

Today I asked an old friend of mine — who happens to be an editor at a publishing company — why his company no longer published a certain author they had worked with for a couple of years and who has not been seen in print since his last book.  I thought maybe a case of writer’s block or poor sales had felled another emerging career.

My friend’s reply was simple: ‘I got tired of seeing him bitch and moan about us on message boards, and his books were borderline sellers, so we turned down his last manuscript so we wouldn’t have to deal with him anymore.’

The author referenced above has still not sold his new novel in the four years since his original publisher turned it down.

It’s an incredible claim but one that tallies with experience. Internet writing carries a sense of shouting into a void but people really do read blogs and threads (so that’s why Random House aren’t knocking down my door). There was a discussion on Authonomy recently where some guy said that he’d just been to a conference of literary agents and apparently a lot of them are scanning the site for potential new clients.

It’s one of the curiousities of blog writing that you can attack someone in a post and moments later they leave a furious counter-critique in your comments box. This has happened to me a few times, most memorably when the novelist Julian Gough wrote an eloquent response to some sweeping generalisations I had made about literary awards. It appears to be a myth that people have better things to do with their time.

Bottom line, every blog post or comment you write is published, forever. You must exercise discipline while being aware that no one writes well when they’re looking over their shoulder.

And there’s a final point from the Writing Runner that I would like to highlight. It bears out Robert Crumb’s observation that the underground can be just as stupid and corrupt as the corporate mainstream – sometimes more so.

One other memory from my days of working in publishing while I’m belaboring whatever point I have:

The real jerks to deal with were not the bestselling authors whose names you, the reader of this post, would instantly recognize.  Those authors — the ones who had made lucrative careers in the business — were almost always polite, professional, and understanding.  And from what I understood from those who had been around longer than me, those authors had started out that way before they were successful.  Their professionalism was not based on income or success.

Instead, the worst authors to deal with — the ones with all of the demands, all of the whines, and all of the complaints — were the authors you, the reader of this post, have never read and probably never will.  They were the first novelists and small press authors who had a few fans on a message board and decided somewhere along the way that being a ‘real writer’ meant treating everyone else like they were crap and the author was the most important person in the world.

And here’s something to consider in these tough economic times: these oh so important authors were also the first ones we cut from the list when the budget had to be tightened.

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Get back to work, motherfucker

January 29, 2009

Everything seems pointless, I haven’t been sleeping well, the light and colour drain from the world. Electricity builds in the tips of my fingers. I’ve been feeling like a junkie with a writing monkey on my back. Time to do a second draft of the novel, print it out and read it through with a glass of red wine. Enough time has passed for me to be able to see it with fresh eyes and be ruthless with myself. So the frequency of postings here may slow down.

Delusions of relevance

January 29, 2009

Has the pro-faith left made inroads into central government? For today we have financial secretary Stephen Timms appealing to us lefties to stop being so fussy and precious about separation of church and state, minority rights, evidence-based policy and all that middle-class secularist nonsense. Because apparently:

Something important is happening on the left of politics. Faith, often in the past derided as conservative or irrelevant or heading for extinction, is now providing more and more of its energy and leadership.

The challenge to progressive politicians is to show they recognise faith-based perspectives and contributions as valid and mainstream, rather than irrelevant and marginal.

You’d think as a Treasury man Timms would have enough going on, yet he recently gave a speech to the government’s pet think tank on ‘building a politics based on hope.’ That think tank is of course the Institute of Public Policy Research: Timms also plugs their report (which I’ve discussed here.)  And where else is hope to come from but ‘the contribution of Britain’s faith communities’?

For:

I’ve been impressed by the rich stream of hope I find in the faith communities in my constituency and elsewhere. The hope they draw on helps them respond to circumstances now but also motivates their work for the future.

Because faith communities believe in a better, more just world, they work towards it. In doing so they offer a resource of hopefulness, which in progressive politics, we need to tap into.

Obviously to tap into this vast yearning reservoir of positive energy we need to relax the boundaries between church and state.

Many believe you shouldn’t mix faith and politics. I’ve taken the opposite view – believing instead that faith is a great starting point for politics.

I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that the last three leaders of the Labour party have had faith as the starting point for their politics. Or that Australia has a Labour prime minister who has argued that Christianity ‘must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed.’ Or that the United States has as its Democratic president a man who learned his politics as a community organiser with churches in Chicago.

Now, trying to claim Obama for the pro-faith left is tricky because in the United States you cannot get elected Dog Location Co-ordinator without professing some form of Christian faith. That’s a big contrast to the days of the founding fathers – the Virginia Statute sounds like The God Delusion when you read it today.

Yet these days no one could stand as an openly atheist presidential candidate. You might as well argue for a return to British colonial rule.

Things are not much different in this country – remember the stir Nick Clegg made when he publicly doubted the sky-god? Could Attlee have been an outspoken heathen? Could Churchill? As Sam Harris said: ‘[N]early every person who has ever trimmed a hammer or swung a nail has been a devout member of one or another religious culture. There has been simply no one else to do the job.’

Of course it’s not Christian politicians per se that are the problem, it’s politicians like Timms who don’t know where faith ends and politics begin. Happily, the new American President is a better and wiser man than Stephen Timms. This is Obama the secularist:

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

As Ophelia recently said: ‘Welcome back to the reality-based community.’

Also: where are these faith communities Timms talks about? Sure I’ve known countless voluntary projects where kids can play football on Friday nights instead of hanging around on the streets, but they tend to be run by hard working individuals who want to improve their estates and don’t need eternal reward to encourage them. There have been incidences of young women from faith communities being immolated because of their sexuality. Presumably this isn’t the better and more just world than Timms meant.

The point is that religious observance is plummeting. So how are we to harness the energies of a dwindling minority? Maybe Timms shares the churches’ barely concealed hope that recession will send the masses stampeding back into the pews.

Or perhaps by ‘progressive politicians tapping into a resource of hope’ Timms means: ‘Let’s give more and more public money, and hand over more and more public services, to dubious-sounding initiatives and companies, as long as they include the words ‘faith-based’ in their bid proposal.’

Fair enough – it’s not like our economy doesn’t have the cash to spare.

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Update: More on Timms from David T:

A low point for this Government was when Stephen Timms turned up at the Global Peace and Unity Event, organised by convicted terrorist, Mohammed Ali, and stood on a platform that had hosted Holocaust deniers, 9/11 Troofers, supporters of terrorism and the assassination of Salman Rushdie, and gave the following speech:

‘When parts of our society are so deeply secular, so hostile to the acknowledgment of God, I want today to express appreciation and thanks to Muslims in Britain for insisting on faith,’ said the Minister for Business and Labour MP for East Ham at the Global Peace and Unity Event organized by Islam Channel last week.

‘(I want to thank Muslims) for helping put faith back today at the centre of Britain’s national life and debate in a way that it wasn’t for a very long time. You are part of the reason for that change, and I warmly welcome it,’ he added.

‘We need more people taking up politics from the starting point of faith. Because faith is the source of decent values (like) honesty, commitment to family, generosity, support for peace,’ Timms said. ‘(We need such) decent values which the Muslim community shows in abundance.’

‘Those are the very values which we need in our politics, and which this event can help us to promote,’ he added.

What a betrayal of liberals and democrats that moment was. When Stephen Timms failed to confront the bigots and extremists I was ashamed to be a Labour Party member; particularly when the Tory’s Dominic Grieve actually did take them on.

Begin The Begin

January 28, 2009

repetitionThere’s a wonderful essay by Eve Garrard over at Norm’s place in defence of repetition. Her hook is Anne Ashworth’s statement that:

Life’s too short to read anything twice… As tempting as it is to pick up and re-read something you’ve enjoyed – loved even – I only have to walk into a bookshop and I’m so overwhelmed by the novels that deserve and demand to be read, I know I’ll never waste time going back over old ground.

I’ve heard that argument before and never been convinced by it. My English teacher used to tell us that we would never get to read everything. She was right. There isn’t enough time. Martin Amis says that the last man to have read everything was Coleridge, and that each new book holds less and less of the whole.

The mentality of wanting to read everything, to munch through the pages and then move on, shades into that of reading for status: reading to have read rather than for the pleasure of reading.

The strange and benevolent classics tutor from The Secret History tells his students that it is better to know one book intimately than a hundred superficially.

People listen to the same songs over and over, watch the same films over and over. Most drama productions are similar interpretations of the same plays that have been performed again and again and again, from Shakespeare’s time to that of Euripedes. There are political speeches, Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s and Kennedy’s, that have been quoted and plagiarised for generations. And of course the priests would like you to read certain, apparently magical books every day for the rest of your life.

The same goes for human experience in general: no one has sex and then says ‘Well, I’ve been there, done that, it’s the monastery for me.’

But reading a book more than once is considered obsessive. I wonder why?

Or maybe I am an obsessive. I have read entire copies of books to shreds. I have books that I discovered as a kid that I still read once or twice a year. Readers of this blog will have an idea of which novels these are because I can never resist quoting them.

Still, I find the reread has its rewards. Apart from the symbolic/allegorical shit that you never understood when ploughing through that secondhand copy in GCSE English, you will find depth and tone and nuance that you never discovered before. To quote Garrard:

There are two main arguments in favour of seeing or hearing or generally experiencing things again. Firstly, seeing again very often means seeing anew: it’s only on the second (or third, or tenth) reading that details of plot and character become clear; that patterns and their meaning emerge with their full force. I’ve been re-reading Jane Austen all my life, and each time I learn more about, say, the nature and goodness of Jane Bennett, or the perfection of malevolent self-deception that is Mrs Norris. The first time I read ‘In Memoriam’ I didn’t even grasp that it was an elegy for a pre-Darwinian view of the world and our place in it – I didn’t really see past the mourning for the dead friend. On my first reading of Tolkien I thought I was following a Quest story whose main features were the struggle between good and evil, and the strangeness and beauty of different kinds of creatures. Quest stories are fine, so I re-read – and eventually came to realize that one of the central characters (so to speak) is something much, much more remarkable: it’s the landscape, the handling of which gives the whole trilogy a great deal of its power.

Rereading is a great way to discover the beauty of language. And good language is like a song, one of those classic songs that sends a shudder of pleasure down the spine. To finish again with Garrard:

There’s another and more fundamental argument for this: some things are worth seeing or hearing or doing for their own sake, because of the richness and beauty of what they offer; and if they’re worth doing once, then they’re worth doing again. Perhaps this is clearest with music: is it a waste of time to listen again to a really beautiful melody? Even if we don’t learn more from the second hearing, the beauty repays hearing twice, or 20 times for that matter. Beauty is like that – it’s worth experiencing, and experiencing again, just for its own sake. Everyone in fact behaves as if they agree with this – we hum or whistle or listen again to our favourite tunes just for the pleasure of hearing them, because of their beauty or jauntiness or nostalgic melancholy, and those of us who like poetry do the same with it too, turning over in our minds the luscious rhythms and rhymes and metaphors (or the spare austerity and monosyllabic restraint) of our favourite verse.

Sorry is the easiest word

January 27, 2009

Interesting email from anti-fascist writer and campaigner Nick Lowles at Searchlight calling on British fascist Nick Griffin to say sorry for his lies about the Holocaust.

If you’re not aware of his views on the death camps, here is Griffin in his own words:

I am well aware that the orthodox opinion is that six million Jews were gassed and cremated and turned into lampshades. Orthodox opinion also once held that the Earth was flat … I have reached the conclusion that the ‘extermination’ tale is a mixture of Allied wartime propaganda, extremely profitable lie, and latter witch-hysteria.

He’s your basic scum denier, even attacking David Irving ‘for admitting that some Jews may have been killed during the ‘holohoax’, accusing him of ‘back tracking on the old gas chamber lie’.’

Lowles writes that an apology is necessary.

This year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is based on an important theme – to stand up against hatred. And I’m writing to ask you to join me in doing just that.

Over the past few years, Nick Griffin has made a series of disgusting and degrading statements about the Holocaust. To call him to account we’ve launched a petition to demand that he retracts these horrendous statements.

Only by confronting and defeating this hate can we build a country based on humanity and justice. We must fight his lies and he must be held to account. Please join our campaign to get Griffin to publicly retract these remarks and then invite your friends to do the same.

It sounds fair enough. But we know that the BNP is trying to mainstream itself, with some success. More people are voting BNP and are willing to vote BNP than at any time since its inception.

I’ve been told that Greek society frowns on apologies, because they make you appear servile. But the apology has taken on a massive symbolic value in UK discourse. Tony Blair apologises for slavery so we can forget about human trafficking. The Vatican say sorry for burning Galileo so we can ignore its stoking of the African HIV epidemic.

Say Lowles’s petition does really well, so well in fact that Griffin is forced to make a public apology and retraction of his remarks about the Holocaust. Do you think such an apology would be remotely sincere? Would he have to apologise in front of Holocaust survivors, at a Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony? Can you imagine anything more stilted and awkward?

Griffin’s apology, if it were ever made, would be worthless – both to the survivors and the dead. It would be an obscene lie: an apology for an apology. But imagine that he makes it. And then imagine, ten years down the line, good and brave anti-fascist campaigners taking to the streets against a resurgent BNP, knocking on doors and arguing with people who think that fascism is the answer to your leaky roof or an unfair housing allocation system.

These campaigners will try and remind people who the BNP really are. But then Griffin and his goons can turn around and say: ‘Look. Okay we had some crazy views in the past. The whole ‘holohoax’ stuff, that was a bit nasty, but Nick apologised. Searchlight have it on record. We have put fascism behind us and are now a mainstream democratic party.’

Do you think they will, for one second, mean it?

Forget the careers guidance

January 27, 2009

There’s this lottery-funded mental health campaign that is supposed to end mental health discrimination. Normally I don’t see the point of these things. The airwaves are flooded with government information campaigns, all of which seem designed to tackle perception rather than reality. Some people are alcoholics. So let’s spend loads of public money to persuade everyone that drinking is wrong, rather than, er, on services to treat the alcoholics. Similarly, why not just spend the mental health marketing budget on service users?

Then I considered. Perhaps the perception does need changing. Perhaps we need to hammer home the fact that most of us aren’t violent psychopaths, that we may even be capable of performing simple tasks in return for money, and that we constitute a quarter of the population – although that never stopped government discriminating against smokers.

So maybe the Time to Change campaign is appropriate. Or maybe not:

On Sunday and Monday, tram passengers in Sheffield will be ushered into a ‘padded cell‘ carriage, supposedly to remind them that the one in four people who experience mental health problems don’t need to be confined in such a space.

What the fuck?

The two-day event in Sheffield city centre will allow the public to ride in a padded-cell carriage emblazoned with slogans such as: ‘1 in 4 will have a mental health problem in their life; that’s 50 on this tram – but they don’t need to spend their days in a padded cell.’

Time to Change volunteers will be on hand to answer questions from the public about mental health issues.

Sue Baker, Time to Change’s director, says: ‘Mental illness is still taboo. People don’t realise that one in four suffer from some form of mental illness in their life, and we’re hoping that the campaign will dispel myths. The idea behind the stunt is to spark a debate.’

The first thing they tell you in CBT is that the brain can’t process negatives. (If you doubt me, try not to think about a flying pig.) Is it likely that commuters will remember the padded carriage, the volunteers with their smocks and flyers, and think: ‘That’s a great way of helping us to understand that most mentally ill people are no danger to the public’.

Or is it the case that, as Ed Halliwell says: ‘if any Sheffield commuters hadn’t made a connection between padded cells and mental illness, having the two vividly linked as they travel to work will surely do the trick’?

There is another worrying aspect to the campaign, as Halliwell points out.

 Last night saw the first airing of TV adverts in which a series of deeply unsympathetic friends, family and colleagues tell an (invisible) victim to stop ‘wallowing’, ‘take a long, hard look at yourself’ and ‘buck up’, followed by a voiceover explaining that for some people ‘this is too much to bear’.

Both the advert and the tram stunt perpetuate the negative stereotypes they are presumably designed to tackle.

I suffered from unremitting depression and anxiety for almost three years, and I wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone. But I believe it lasted so long partly because I started to identify as a vulnerable person with an illness, rather than as someone in a predicament who nevertheless could develop the power to recover from it. I labelled myself with a range of diagnoses, isolated myself from ‘normal’ people, took (useless) medication that was a daily confirmation of sickness and sought out various saviours and quack cures. I vented my wrath at anyone who suggested I was hurting myself and those around me, or was in any way responsible for taking charge of my situation. It was only when I stopped behaving like a victim, re-examined my attitudes and took the decision to start seeing myself as a strong, healthy person (even when I don’t feel like it) that I began to get well. Politically incorrect though it is to admit, I really did have to ‘pull myself together’ – albeit gently and with kindness, supported by the friends I finally allowed close enough to give me good advice, even if it was sometimes critical and hard to swallow.

For there is a dark liberation in victimhood – okay, your situation is much worse, but at least you are part of a group, a lobby, a community. At the time of breakdown numero uno I had to sit through countless group therapy sessions with people who self-identified, almost entirely, with their illness. Which for me was depressing, and slightly ridiculous, like defining yourself by a gall bladder problem or a broken leg. Give me the mental pain, spare me the physical…

For I can’t travel on a bus, a train, a tram, or a plane, or in a taxi or private car. Last summer, when the Condition was just kicking in, I rejoiced when a woman dumped me because then I wouldn’t have to take her to city centre cocktail bars. I’d prefer this state of affairs to change.

It’s not that mentally ill people shouldn’t have allowances made for them and be protected from discrimination. We should. I love political correctness and I think there are benefits to the lobbyisation of disadvantaged groups. But the more you define yourself by mental illness, the more meetings and groups you attend, the longer you’ll be sick. It’s a subordination of the personality: the I to the We.

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‘Forget the careers’ guidance. I need therapy.’

Straight Outta Salford

January 25, 2009

Was supposed to meet a friend for a pint a few weeks ago but couldn’t because he was wary of coming down to Salford, and thanks to the Condition I couldn’t get up to Chorlton. The guy objected to the broken glass near the King’s Arms, the siren song of the night and the proximity of rough estates.

And suddenly I saw the area with fresh eyes. I have been afraid of going out for a long while – but not because I was scared of gangsters. I was scared of tall buildings, busy roads, large congestions of people – I’ve written enough about how your fear priorities get completely skewed. The fact is that I wasn’t born here. I’m bourgois through and through. People look at me and think I’m a Chorltonite. My career prospects, my vocal intonation, my career background and prospects all bear the stamp of the progressive middle class.

And yet even in the worst months of the Condition I always felt much safer here than I did growing up on the suburbs of Cheshire. I only had trouble in Salford once, in October ’07, pre-Condition and trekking up to the Lowry for some Manchester LitFest event. A guy in a basketball shirt, clearly intoxicated, weaved across the road and tried – badly – to mug me; in the end I just walked straight past him, telling the guy that I couldn’t help him out: well, in so many words.

Since then – nothing, and I’ve been restricted to Salford rather than Manchester for some time, for obvious reasons. At the residents’ group meetings I hear horror stories about people getting held up by knifepoint and car parks teeming with hookers. Yet I just don’t see it. Have I been too long in the ghetto?

I don’t wish to conclude that fear of crime is illusory, or that I’m too scary and intimidating to be approached – I stand five foot eight for fuck’s sake. Maybe my Dickensian overcoat and battered shoes tell the local scrotes that I’ve nothing worth stealing. No, it’s more likely than I’m not paying enough attention to my surroundings, being a daydreamer – and I always have been.

Also, I’ve been doing twice weekly walks into town, up to Deansgate and the Cornerhouse. There are still peaks of anxiety, I’m still using the backstreets and most of the city is still closed off to me. The agoraphobic is like a beleaguered general losing more and more battleground to enemy forces. You have to keep up the momentum, and fight for every fucking inch. So for the moment Piccadilly, the Town Hall, the Northern Quarter, the student quarters of Fallowfield and Withington, the posh quarters of Chorlton and Whalley Range – for the moment, I’m still not going. I’m just not going. But it is getting easier and easier to walk into town and I’ve finally kicked bottled water. And at least I made it to the old local.

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Guess where I am?

‘A bad movie about a bad guy’

January 25, 2009

Seen Steven Soderbergh’s four-hour hagiopic of Che Guevara? No, me neither. But via David Thompson, here is a stunning critique by Joe Lima.

I have just one more thing I’d like to say about Mr. Soderbergh and Mr. Del Toro. I don’t mean this maliciously, as I think that the experience would be very good for the emotional, intellectual and artistic growth of these two men. I wish that Mr. Soderbergh and Mr. Del Toro could live in Cuba, not as the pampered VIPs that they are when they visit today, but as Cubans do, with no United States Constitutional rights, with ration cards entitling them to tiny portions of provisions that the stores don’t even stock anyway, with chivatos surveilling them constantly. How long would it be before Mr. Soderbergh started sizing up inner tubes, speculating on the durability and buoyancy of them, asking himself, could I make the crossing on that? How long before Mr. Del Toro started gazing soulfully at divorced or widowed tourist women, hoping to seduce and marry one of them and get out? Only then could they see why this insipid, frivolous and pretentious movie they have made is nothing less than an insult to millions of people, who really do live like that, and who’ve lived like that their entire lives.

Maybe then, they could put their considerable talents into making a Cuba movie worth watching. The world so needs to take off those dumb Che t-shirts, and grow up. We face serious problems, and totalitarianism isn’t a solution to any of them, even when it’s dressed up in a beret and given a wispy beard, flowing locks and a surly stare, and looks really, really cool.

Also, check out this blog by a true Cuban revolutionary.

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Tinfoil Vision

January 24, 2009

It appears that Sky has done a substantial public service by hosting a new channel called Edge Media TV. This is number 200 in the listings and promotes itself as ‘a platform for alternative and suppressed viewpoints’. Like so many outlets parading themselves as guardians of the hidden truth, Edge Media is run by pompous fantasists that the MI5 wouldn’t waste ten seconds on. Still at least it keeps these people off the streets.

Charlie Brooker has enjoyed an exclusive preview:

And herein lies the tragedy. The other day I tuned in to Eerie Investigations, in which the host, a strangely simpering woman with Eerie Investigations printed on her T-shirt, conducted vox-pop interviews with people at an anti-ID card rally. There are a thousand valid reasons for opposing ID cards and questioning everything the government does, but instead both the host and her interviewees spent most of their time talking about how we’re all going to have microchips planted in our heads as part of the New World Order (which, naturally, orchestrated the 9/11 attacks), intermittently breaking from this theme to dismiss the general public as idiotic, docile sheep with such towering self-assurance it made you actively wonder whether labouring under a fascist police state in which government computers monitored your dreams and doled out electric shocks each time you had a subversive thought would be preferable to living in freedom alongside these massive wankers.

In-between the programmes, there are adverts for Cillit Bang (whose exact role in the New World Order has yet to be established) and a seven-hour – yes, SEVEN HOUR – ‘DVD presentation’ from David Icke, in which he tells the viewer how the world really works. And presumably apologises for not employing an editor.

I eagerly await the response from ‘9/11 agnostic’ Dan Hind.

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The Magician’s Book

January 23, 2009

I’ve just reviewed this fantastic book by Laura Miller, at the peerless LitMob.