Archive for February, 2009

Direct Red: A Surgeon’s Story

February 28, 2009

My review of Gabriel Weston’s book is now available at 3am.

Islington Mill – Call for Poets

February 27, 2009

I am organising this with the artists from Salford’s Islington Mill.

We are looking for poets to perform at the Journeys Project at the Islington Mill on Thursday April 2. The poetry will start from 8 and we hope to have arranged slots plus an open mic section.

How the night will go

6:00pm Opening

7:30pm Screening – Broken Britain by Mark Ashmore (12mins, followed by Q + A/discussion)

8:00pm Poetry followed by drinks, feedback, cigarettes

Islington Mill
James Street
Salford M3 5HW

If you’re a poet interested in performing then contact Max at

Islington Mill - James St

The glorious Islington Mill

What the hell!

February 25, 2009

A L Kennedy sees a positive side to writing in a recession.

I set off on my wonky career path during the Thatcher years when unemployment was so massive that a non-proper job didn’t seem any more foolish than, say, working in a bank. Now that so many of us dream of bitch-slapping bankers up and down the high street and there are, once again, no safe havens, new writers may feel they have nothing to lose by taking the plunge into typing. I’m a creature of extremes, I’ll admit, but surely it is generally better to live a life that tries to find its own edges and push them a bit, rather than simply settling for habitual numbness.

Black serendipity

February 25, 2009

kindlyonesNorman Geras has been doing a couple of good posts about intellectual attempts to humanise terrible men. Here he is on the Cambodian mass murderer, Kaing Guek Eav:

There are not too many people who fail to grasp that Eichmann, Saddam, the death camp guard, the torturer, belong to the same species as the rest of us. They are not of a different race – monsters, aliens. And yes, they are human even in their crimes, succumbing to impulses which other human beings share with them but generally keep in check. Yes further, as humans they may be due forgiveness if they have earned it. But humanize in the sense of thinking of what they do as in some way ‘normal’ to us, more acceptable, less shocking? Never. Anger and the quest for justice are the proper moral responses: anger and justice together with any form of understanding you want, and whatever forgiveness may be thought due.

The issue comes up again in the recent publication of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, the memoirs of a fictional SS official. I always thought of such things in terms of moral luck – as the main character says, ‘I am a man like other men, I am a man like you’ – but as Norm points out, recent scholarship has shown that Nazis were not punished for refusing execution squad duties. So the ‘just following orders’ excuse didn’t cut it at Nuremberg, and won’t cut it today.

To quote Norm again:

If humanizing the perpetrator means showing that he (or sometimes she) is not secure against evil but subject to impulses, temptations, weaknesses, that could could carry his moral soul away, this is fine. But if humanizing him means prejudging his choice, supposing that he will not behave according to one or other of the moral laws that forbids him to murder the innocent, this is not at all fine. It is also a part of our humanity that we have a moral sense and that some of us will not commit these evils under any circumstances.

Yes. But I keep going back to the view that most men and women could and would have done these terrible things at that time. I think people have huge potential for decency and kindness but as history shows, and as Zimardo proved, it is very easy to change human nature for the worse.

Michiko Kakutani, however, claims that Littell’s protagonist, Max Aue, is ‘hardly a case study in the banality of evil.’

Whereas the heroes of the play ‘Good’ and the movie ‘Mephisto’ were ordinary enough men who out of ambition or opportunism or weakness turned to the dark side and embraced the Nazi cause, Aue is clearly a deranged creature, and his madness turns his story into a voyeuristic spectacle — like watching a slasher film with lots of close-ups of blood and guts.

To which Stephen Mitchelmore responds:

But, of course, Kakutani speaks from a position of moral and psychological authority. As someone employed by a newspaper that manufactured consent for invasions of sovereign nations with the consequent death of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, she has nothing in common with Max Aue. Clearly.

I note that Mitchelmore’s blog, ‘This Space’, now carries the banner headline: ‘a gap in the universe’. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Post about house prices

February 24, 2009

mailandexpresshouseprices1Polly Toynbee has a good piece up at CiF today, arguing that our economy’s been too long dependent on property values:

The nation is still deeply dependent on house prices rising for ever. We still live in a bubble economy, with no way to live except by reinflating it. The state itself has been mainlining on the house-price drug, as addicted as the happy home-owners.

As Kammo pointed out – although I can’t find the exact article – it is ridiculous to assume that falling house prices are in and of themselves a bad thing. In fact it can be good because falling prices allow young people to get on the ladder. During the boom years I was hard pressed to find acquaintances who could afford to rent, let alone buy. And the buy-to-let scum will be hammered and that is good.

Another pertinent question is: why is everyone in this country so obsessed with buying a home? Much of our news and cultural output is devoted to it in some way. I was talking to a student from Germany the other night, and she said that her country doesn’t share the British home-ownership neuroses. Apparently, people just rent most of their lives, and buy when they retire.

I think that’s a better way than our total identification with a single property – the idea of paying half my salary to a mortgage company for twenty years, and being tied to a specific place for decades, gives me the horrors. As Kerouac said, the one and only function is to move.

(Thanks to Hackademic for the image)

Khomeini’s Ghost: How Religion Poisoned Revolution

February 23, 2009

My review of Con Coughlin’s book is now up at 3am.

Classic Books: Persepolis

February 21, 2009

If you scroll down a bit you’ll see that I’ve got a hundred or so words in the paper today, making the case for Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which the Guardian had unaccountably left off its ‘1000 Novels Everyone Must Read’ list. As Brett Lock said, it’s our generation’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and if you haven’t read the books, or seen the film, then do both, as soon as.

Free decorator wanted

February 20, 2009

Writers aren’t the only ones expected to work for free. Sarah Waite has started a campaign to ensure that artists also get paid for their work. Most property developers, at least, will pay artists to provide artwork for their buildings. Except Daniel McWilliams, Assistant Facilities Manager of Manchester’s Beetham Tower, who recently sent this message to local artists:

[The company] need a work of art by a local artist to brighten up our plain old reception area above the Hotel. We have no budget for this so anything free would be great but am thinking more along the lines of it being a shop window for someone to get their work displayed in Manchester’s tallest building…..? No real spec so any ideas taken, thinking along the lines of contemporary, modern and most importantly local.

Manchester artist Liam Curtin responded to this chutzpah:

I’m an artist and need a building in which to display an artwork.  I have no budget for this but am thinking along the lines of it being an opportunity for a developer to get their property noticed by paying for a great artwork. There is no real spec but the building should be contemporary and by a local architect if possible.

And I like Confidential’s version:

I am a freelance writer and need a bar to stand in and drink for free. There is no real spec, any bar will do as long as it’s contemporary, modern and most importantly local.

Manchester artists 1, corporate pigdogs 0.

aerial photo of Manchester UK

Wanted: someone to decorate our tower for absolutely nothing

Hijab lit

February 20, 2009

hijablitChick lit can be really good. It can. I remember a novel called The Temp, by Serena Mackesy – god knows her name is forgotten now, but her book perfectly captured the restless insecurity of early-twenties working life. It’s a forgotten classic of commercial fiction.

Now the blogger Shelina Zahra Janmohamed has written a chick-lit novel from the perspective of a Muslim woman.

Janmohamed is better known as spirit21, a blogger who has provided a unique perspective on the life of a British Muslim woman over the last three years, addressing issues that range from the political role of Turkey to Jack Straw’s comments about women who wear the veil. She is also now author of Love in a Headscarf, a book that hovers somewhere between chick-lit and memoir, as it follows Janmohamed’s journey through the process of arranged marriage.

Janmohamed was always aware that her marriage would be arranged, and is frustrated by the common misconception that such unions bypass the desires of the bride and groom. ‘The Islamic view on marriage is that the man or woman should make an active choice as to who they want to marry,’ she says. ‘And there’s no long-term dating procedure, but it’s essential that the two people have met, that they’ve had as much discussion as they like and that they feel comfortable with each other.’

As an old-fashioned romantic I tend to feel it’s best to marry someone you fall in love with but if arranged marriage works for you then, hey, what the hell. But while Janmohamed’s book sounds original and interesting, the author herself comes off as shallow and stupid. Listen to this:

During the years of her search she was introduced to more suitors than she can even remember, and the book recounts those would-be husbands who most influenced her thinking. “One of the fascinating things is that because the timescale is so shortened, you have to reveal yourself immediately. So within two or three meetings you would be saying, ‘What do you want to do with the rest of your life? How many children do you want to have?’ And actually I think that’s very liberating; you know somebody very quickly.

‘So there were men I would meet who were running very late and not think anything of it, not even an apology; and so you would think, ‘That person clearly doesn’t have any respect for me.’ Or people who didn’t want to spend any money, and I thought, ‘Well, if you’re not even going to spend any money to impress me at this stage, you’re clearly not going to be very generous when we get married.’

Well, I can tell you that I pay for all the food and drink when I date. Still, the author has a new perspective on the whole arranged marriage experience that is undoubtedly worth looking into. But then Janmohamed seems to think that she speaks for all Muslim womanhood:

Janmohamed is keenly aware of how non-Muslims tend to view arranged marriage and Muslim women in general. She recalls visits to bookshops where she would find ‘shelves and shelves of misery memoir and all these women in black veils with camels walking in the background and titles like I Was Sold Into Marriage.’ She smiles flatly. ‘And the only other stories that we saw were of Muslim women who had somehow broken through this oppression, had decided that Islam was the source of it and had rejected it, and had gone off to be – and the only way to put this is in quotation marks – ‘liberated’.

So… erm… these women are lying? And do we really need those quotation marks? Look at Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Born into an impoverished Somalian tribal community where she was subjected to genital mutilation and forced marriage: now successful, independent and working in America. Does anyone doubt that this is a night and day difference?

In fact, if you read Infidel it’s clear that Hirsi Ali cared deeply for her family, especially her tragic sister, Haweya, who said that freedom ‘is like being in a room without walls.’ But in one way Janmohamed is right, people do tend to view Muslims as a monolithic bloc, faced with the same culture and situations in Tipton as in Tehran.

Yet the Muslim experience is different everywhere. Every life is unique. It is worth noticing, though, that there seems to be one trend: people from the developing world tend to be harder on religion.

The writer Paul Berman suggests that the difference between [Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji] may be due to the fact that Ms. Manji was raised in the warm, liberal, welcoming precincts of British Columbia, where religion could be a comfort rather than a burden, where pluralism was an assumption, a fact of life. (Ms. Manji was kicked out of her Islamic religious school for asking too many questions, but before that she had been cared for at a Baptist church, and at age 8 even won its Most Promising Christian of the Year award.) Ms. Hirsi Ali’s early years, by contrast, consisted of dictatorship, war, patriarchy, genital cutting, confinement and beatings so severe that she once ended up in a hospital with a fractured skull. Ms. Manji offers her own support for Mr. Berman’s conjecture: ‘Had I grown up in a Muslim country, I’d probably be an atheist in my heart.’

The inference is clear – faith is best appreciated at a distance.

So, before you call me a ‘liberal imperialist’, ask yourself: is a second-generation, Oxford-educated, middle class London Muslim any more representative of the ummah than a white, Oxford-educated, middle class London atheist?

To finish off, here’s Janmohamed on the history of Islam:

When Islam was first brought here in the seventh century it was extremely radical – which is a naughty word, you’re not allowed to say the word ‘radical’ if you’re a Muslim, because it means you’re going to blow something up – but Islam was radical because the Prophet Mohammed said women are equal to men, black people are equal to white people, rich people are equal to poor people[.]

To be fair, I consider ‘radical’ an honourable term – and I hate the fact that it’s been hijacked by vicious clerical imperialists and reactionaries. As for the Prophet’s mission of equality, clearly something has been lost – yet again – in the translation.

Death by POD

February 18, 2009

Disquieting rumours bouncing around the literary web. Apparently, Authonomy has announced it is going to start a self-publishing option. From top Authonomy author Alexander:

Yesterday, HC sent me a note offering me the chance to put my books up as POD (Print on Demand or Publish on Demand) books on authonomy. Soon, according to the email, all books on authonomy will be available as POD books but for now only ‘a few early adopters’ have been offered the opportunity – and a ‘gift’ of the first 10 books free.

Working with, authonomy will add a button to each book’s page, which currently allows you to read the book, watchlist the book or back the book. They’ll add ‘buy the book’.

Which potentially means that the whole exercise was purely about populating a new POD site with a community of unpublished authors who can now upload their books to sell them, at an unusually expensive cost to the author per book (limiting the profitability for the writer), to people who come clicking to the site.

Like I’ve said, I think Authonomy works. There are three people who’ve received book deals from it, agents do use it and, even if it is just a social networking site for writers, you can get some good critiques and read some very good fiction. And remember that HarperCollins doesn’t have, and shouldn’t have, an obligation to publish anyone on that site.

But Authonomy is like Wikipedia: you need to be aware of its limitations, nicely ennumerated at the ‘How Publishing Really Works’ blog. These are: the best don’t necessarily rise to the top because ranking depends on networking, not on talent; that this can make for an atmosphere of mutual backslapping that stifles criticism; and that time spent networking on Authonomy is time that you haven’t spent writing.

But like I say, if you’re aware of these issues Authonomy is a great site. But this new development alarms me. Alexander goes on to say this:

This was arguably never about publishing contracts or talent spotting. It was never about ‘Beating the Slushpile’, as authonomy claims in its graphics and claimed in its original ‘blurb’. It was about creating a POD site so that Harper Collins could hedge its bets against the ‘new revolution’ of Internet based publishing and digital publishing.

The fact is that POD and self publishing is nothing more than twenty-first century vanity publishing – a complete dead end. I suppose it has its uses – like if you want to produce an edition of Valentine’s poems for your girlfriend – but for distributing fiction it is not worth considering. As the HPRW blog author says:

Authonomy’s implication that self-publishing could be a stepping-stone to commercial success was seen by some as misleading because, while it’s true that some writers have done well by self-publishing, the majority of self-published authors flounder in relative obscurity and fail to make any significant sales.

Basically: I don’t like the way the wind’s blowing, I don’t like the apparent absence of any formal statement by HarperCollins about this move and I’m not going to associate with a site that even has self publishing as an option. So I’m going to take down my book from Authonomy and delete my profile. It was great while it lasted, but: caveat scriptor.