Archive for July, 2009

Recession Prolemockery

July 30, 2009

The Daily Mail goes to Poundland:

There is a floating frog pondlight that is as far from a Wow Deal! as imaginable and something that I thought were Star Wars light sabres, but are actually plastic solar lights. I’m not the only shopper to be confused by them.

‘Solar lights? Wot for? For night-time?’ one woman asks another.

‘No, they are for day.’ ‘Why do you need a light in your garden in the daytime?’

‘Well, you can only use them if you are in a sunny country, anyway.’

Speaking of the night, you know those gangs of girls who plague our city centres on hen outings? Now I know where they buy their stuff.

Poundland is the kind of shop that can supply all your hen night needs, from a white net veil with two pink shot glasses on the side and a sign saying ‘I’m Tying The Knot, Buy Me A Shot’ to a Husband Control whistle, a Fluffy L Plate, pink cowboy hats and pairs of pink fluffy gloves, complete with very precise instructions on how to put them on the hands.

I found that last detail rather poignant; as if the manufacturers were worried the girls might put them on their feet.

Read the whole thing, if you can stand it.

We know the Tory press has a contempt for the common man. But it’s rare to see this expressed so explicitly.


(Thanks: Anton Vowl and Edmund Standing. Image via Septicisle)

Beware the spinal trap

July 30, 2009

sciencelibelYou might have heard about this. You may not. A writer named Simon Singh is getting sued by the British Chiropractic Association, for criticising its practices in a Guardian article. A number of editors and bloggers have republished his article out of solidarity. I reproduce it below.

You can learn more at the Sense About Science website and sign the petition.

 Beware the spinal trap

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that ‘99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae’. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: ‘Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.’

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher. If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

In Search of Farah Damji

July 30, 2009

My review of Try Me is now available at 3:AM.

Saving crime fiction

July 29, 2009

thraxasStuart Evers asks: ‘why isn’t crime writing taken more seriously?’ and then answers his question with this para about literary novelist and pseudonym crime writer John Banville:

Writing under his own name, Banville manages around 100 sweated-over, teased, honed and polished words a day; but as Benjamin Black, he can manage a couple of thousand. The intimation was quite clear, ‘Black’s’ sentences simply weren’t as important. 

God knows there is a lot of genre snobbery in mainstream criticism, but the reason that crime writing isn’t taken seriously is not because it’s a bad genre, but because it’s filled with bad writers. Consider. Contemporary crime hasn’t really moved on from the procedural paradigm that Raymond Chandler set up in the 1930s. Detective chases killer through cities of darkness – that was the formula, and none did it better. But Chandler was a genius. Today’s crime writers have the procedure but none of the style. 

Crime itself has changed in ways that Chandler would barely recognise but contemporary fiction remains in Rosemary and Thyme’s country house. Most of it puts you in mind of Christopher Booker’s comment on Agatha Christie: it’s intricately done, like a crossword puzzle, but leaves the reader with the same sense of hollow fulfillment upon completion.   

This is a waste and a shame, because there’s nothing more expansive than crime: as Ian Rankin said: ‘I think the contemporary crime novel can now take on some of the larger themes we face. With issues like 9/11 or terrorism, or racism, I think you’re more likely to find some answers in good crime fiction than in any other form.’ Reviewing Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip, Mark Harris called him ‘a great American writer about the great American subjects of ambition, greed, vanity, and disappointment.’

The insight, creativity and outstanding prose of Hiaasen in America and Brookmyre in the UK is rarely imitated, let alone equalled. The only other contender I can see is Thraxas, Martin Millar’s fantasy detective: set in the mythical city state of Turai (beautifully crafted, and perhaps owing a lot to Millar’s interest in Ancient Greece) Millar’s books follow Thraxas’s tightly plotted investigations while taking on the great scope of love, death, war, class and friendship.

It’s easy to blame the critics but they can’t be held responsible for dull and pedestrian writing. Maybe it’s necessary to save crime fiction from its practitioners.

‘Charles Dickens in a call centre’

July 25, 2009

Johann Hari strikes a chord

Dickens was constantly charging out into the ‘Great Oven’ of the London night to witness its endless churn. Emile Zola went down the coalmines at Anzin so he could capture their dark dust-filled world in Germinal. John Steinbeck bought an old pie truck and drove down to live in the squatters’ camps filled with people fleeing the dustbowl, and it gave birth to The Grapes Of Wrath. Graham Greene trawled across the dictatorships of the Caribbean and Latin America before writing his novels about them. George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway went to the Spanish Civil War before they smelted their masterpieces about it. Reporting didn’t smother their imaginations, it fertilised them.

Yet there are so many talented young novelists I have read who seem to think the real, heaving world outside their study is a vulgar concern to be left to journalists and TV series like The Wire. They prefer to write books that ruminate on how epistemologically hard it is for ‘The Novel’ to describe the real world, or to retreat into the stories of the distant past, or to concentrate on endless tales of middle-class adultery in Hampstead.

Occasionally, they find great work there, but I long to drag them to a run-down estate in Bradford or one of the climate change protest camps in Kent or to the club scene in Shoreditch or anywhere real and alive, to give them the best fuel for their talents.

Norm thinks this approach is to narrow the range of fiction. I don’t. For one thing, it’s hard to imagine a smaller range of fictional concerns, outside a closed society. Norm creates a false apposition between ‘staying home’ and ‘charging out into the big, wide, thronging world’; but most of the great writers Hari mentions do concentrate on the personal, on ‘one family, one friendship, one betrayal’ against a wider backdrop. In much contemporary fiction today, we don’t get that backdrop, and the disinterest in the world beyond the local is worrying.

Not so much in the sense that we simply must have a State of England ’09 book, more a kind of baffled disappointment you feel when a friend turns down a special opportunity. There’s so much material, so much going on, more than in my adult lifetime – how could you not want to write about it? And yet people don’t want to write about it, or at least don’t want to publish about it.  

Talk like this, of course, and you’ll be accused of Victorianism, of Establishment Literary Fiction, as if plot and character and scope are patrician nineteenth-century concepts. You will be told that you are reducing fiction to investigative journalism – in fact, I’d lay money that dear old Stephen is writing more or less that same response, except at far greater length.

Except that journalism can’t go down deep, can’t nail the human condition, and can’t break your heart. When it does – when David Simon does it – it doesn’t just read like literature: it is literature.

Still, for all Hari’s good points, he misunderstands ‘the clichéd advice given to all young writers, which has long since hardened into a dogma: write about what you know.’ In its true spirit, this doesn’t mean write about what you know in your life, because most of us don’t lead interesting lives. As Stephen King said, it’s about writing what you know in your heart and soul. And you can do that anywhere.

Silence Is Easy

July 24, 2009

My review of Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God: What Religion Really Means is now available at 3:AM.

Context and solidarity

July 23, 2009

One more thing about the burqa and then I’ll let this go.

Ophelia has been chatting with George Eaton of the New Statesman:


What was your reaction to President Sarkozy’s support for legislation banning the burka? And how do you respond to Muslim women who argue they have reappropriated the garment as a feminist symbol?


Very, very ambivalent. All over the place. I hate the idea of making special new laws on dress, and all the more so when the laws can’t help targeting immigrants or any other vulnerable minority. I also realise that Sarkozy’s motives may be very suspect, or at least a mixture of suspect and defensible. And yet, I could not help (and that’s what it was like, I had a lot of inner resistance) being pleased that he said ‘The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience.’ I would much rather hear it from someone else, but I certainly do want to hear it, because it’s true. That doesn’t mean I flat-out approve of the idea of a ban – but I don’t flat-out oppose it either. I’m torn. I’m glad it’s not up to me to decide.

One reason I don’t flat-out oppose it is because community pressure can force other women and girls to wear the hijab or the burqa, and from that point of view a ban is like any other law that creates a level playing field. If no one can wear the burqa on the street, then no one will be forced to wear it on the street. This is hard on women and girls who want to wear it but good for women and girls who don’t want to. If I have to choose which should be helped, I choose the latter.

I respond with great weariness to Muslim women who claim they have reappropriated the garment. Given the reality of what happens to women who try not to wear it in Afghanistan, I think it’s simply grotesque to think it can be any kind of feminist symbol. I get the point about freedom from the male gaze, and believe me, I wish women around here would stop reappropriating stiletto heels and plunging necklines as ‘feminist symbols,’ but a stifling face-covering tent is not a feminist symbol.

I think this is a healthy reaction. There is a tendency to downplay, or deny completely, the issue of coercion in religious dress. Given the context of such coercion, arguing for the burqa as expression of sartorial liberty is, well, kind of tasteless, and only tells half the story.

David T quotes a recent judgment from the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal on the case of a Palestinian refugee:

She was writing about women’s issues and social topics before she left. A woman with her views would be seen as strongly anti-Hamas. She has studied for a long time in the West and has appreciated life there, especially as far as equality between men and women are concerned. Gazan women are told that they are to be killed if they refuse to follow the Islamic expectation that women cover up. Foreign journalists bow to this expectation for the limited period they are there. However, the Appellant would be there permanently and would not have a choice. Originally she intended to return to Gaza at the end of her studies and also intended not to wear a hijab. However, given the resurgence of Hamas in the region which take a hard and uncompromising line, she would be required to wear a hijab or face severe punishment resulting in serious harm to her.

Presently, she does not believe there will be peace while Hamas are in power. She cannot return and live a safe life. Whilst living there, her father was still alive and supported her. Such support is no longer available. Her refusal to requests to wear the hijab would ultimately result in punishment which would be wholly disproportionate to the ‘crime’ committed.

With regard to the recent conflict, she asserts that Hamas has managed to strengthen its grasp over Gaza. She recalled the early years of the establishment of Hamas and how acid was used to terrorise women and force them to wear the hijab. Many were beaten and abused because they refused to conform. She believes that the war could have been avoided had Hamas considered the lethal impact of conflict with Israel. However, Hamas was determined to defend its control, regardless of the price. Hamas is now viewed as a strong force against Israel. It is now characterised on a par with Hezbollah and Iran. She is not only against the political nature of Hamas but also the patriarchal component of its ideology. Even before it took power, Hamas used its presence in mosques to provoke people against changes in the criminal law in 2003. At that time, the Appellant wrote about this topic and sought to explain the moderate effect of the bill.

She stated in evidence that it was one thing to oppose their stance when they were in opposition. However, it would not be possible for her to express her views in such a manner today without drawing attention and a risk of serious harm to herself. She believes that Islam can be understood and interpreted in different ways. Muslim women have usually been the victims of patriarchal understanding and interpretation of Islam. To promote women’s rights against this understanding is dangerous.

She previously wrote about wearing the veil. This occurred when female supporters of Hamas and their members’ wives and relatives contributed to the phenomenon of wearing the veil. She criticised this phenomenon. She was even then blamed and taunted for doing so. She campaigned and wrote about a fairer, modern family law in Gaza. She took her campaign a step further in a case involving a woman demanding the right to divorce her husband. The conventional understanding in Islam was that divorce is the absolute right for men. Hamas still adopts the traditional interpretation of Islam.

The Appellant asserts that during the last few years, Hamas has been more rigid and fundamentalist than ever. Wearing the hijab is universally implemented in secondary schools. It is even widely spread in elementary schools. Girls as young as seven wear it. She believes that imposing a law compelling the wearing of a hijab degrades those women who do not want to conform to the code. She asserts that she stands for what she believes in and does not want to have to compromise her views. Her refusal to wear a hijab is a further ‘core issue’ on her return as she would be spotted as a non-conformist Palestinian woman. She will be confronted by men and asked to cover up. She will be bound to be questioned about her family. Her family would be disgraced and would face pressure. She faces the intolerable choice therefore of conforming, which is unacceptable to her, or an endless cycle of violence which has no limit or end.

I’m happy to add that this woman won her case and can stay.

(Also, see Rahila Gupta)

Succour Banal – One Month and Counting…

July 21, 2009

succour_issue9_cover_pantone_mediumDon’t forget there’s now only one calendar month to get your subs in for Succour 10: ‘The Banal’. From the ME:

For this issue, we’re interested in work that takes the everyday or the commonplace as its subject, considers the nature of boredom, or indeed that questions what we think of as banal. You may also like to consider The Banal as a counterpart to Fantasies (the S/S 2009 issue), in that the fantastical tends to emerge from, or be contained within, the banal.

But as ever, feel free to interpret the theme in any way you like.

The deadline for submissions to The Banal is Friday 21 August.

Please send your work in Word or Rich Text format documents, with a limit of 5000 words (fiction) or 250 lines (poetry). We do not accept submissions by post. We do not offer payment for contributions that come through open submissions, but all contributors will receive two complimentary copies of the journal in which their work is printed, and an invitation to read at one of the Succour Salons which accompany the launch of each issue.

The editors will do their best to acknowledge any submissions within two weeks, and to give a final decision within five weeks of the submission deadline.

Please do not submit work that has been published elsewhere (including online) or that is under consideration by other journals.

And finally… please put the word ‘submission’ and the title of the issue to which you are submitting (ie ‘The Banal’) somewhere in the subject field of your submission email.

The editors welcome comment and questions on any subject.

Send all work to:

… or to me at

And don’t forget the Manchester launch in ten days.

Archive Feud

July 21, 2009

My WordPress dashboard throws up some classic stuff sometimes. This is an account from the Manchizzle of a dispute between Manchester Confidential and the bloated corporate monolith known as the Manchester Evening News. It is from 2006, but I consider it too good not to share.

Apparently Confidential’s Gordo was disinvited from an MEN bash after the paper’s Paul Horrocks ‘read some recent comments about the Manchester Evening News with some disappointment… and am withdrawing the invitation sent to you to attend the Manchester Evening News diary party. I am sure this will come as a blow to you given the regard you obviously have of this newspaper’.

The fun continues on the Confidential thread where another MEN hack claims that: ‘Along with some other key players in the City we feel a great original concept with its own community is now potentially being ruined by your ‘boring rants’.’ 

What comments were these? Kate thinks she can identify them. They appear in a piece about a new regional venture, the Enquirer:

This publication has been a long time coming. It’s a quality read for the sophisticates of the North West and with the explosion of urbanites and professionals in Manchester, it was about time there was a newspaper to match the North West’s IQ.

It’s got the approach of a national with worthy global news, but bulging with local stories, events, arts, business and sport. Editorially led, you can actually flick through without Shane Ward or equally tiresome C-list celebrities’ mugshots dominating 90 percent of the pages. Radical, we know.

Where newspapers like the MEN, or the ‘evil empire’ as Gordo affectionately refers to it, dumb down their copy and insult the intelligence of their readers, The North West Enquirer injects the brain cells with rocket fuel and reassures the reader that journalism covers more then cats up trees and pie eating competitions. We may be northerners but we’re not stupid.

So as we see it, there are decisions to be made. Will you stand firm with us and join the North West’s finest in support of the biggest thing to hit Manchester since the IRA bombing, or sink into early retirement, play puzzles and nod off in front of the…MEN. It’s not difficult is it?

And no more difficult, three years on.


The Grey Lubyanka

The Little Stranger

July 20, 2009

Warning: contains spoilers – or at least what I think is the spoiler.

This book is a welcome return to form after the self-consciously literary mess of The Night Watch. With that book, you could almost hear Waters’s publishing people going: ‘Sarah, you need to have a shot at the Booker here, so bang in a dodgy time scheme and make sure nothing really happens.’ The Little Stranger is a powerful contrast. It hums with freedom and energy.

Provincial postwar GP Dr Faraday becomes involved with the remnants of a great aristocratic family at the crumbling Hundreds Hall. Minor supernatural incidents give way to terrible, inexplicable events, the otherworldly chaos offset by external social change. In an interview with DoveGreyReader, Waters talks about the historical background:

I was interested in what was happening to the British class system then, with the Labour government being voted in and so on. I was reading post-war novels by authors like Elizabeth Jenkins, Marghanita Laski, Angela Thirkell, Josephine Tey, and I could see that class was this really painful issue. Britain was changing, working-class people were losing respect for the old hierarchies, servants were disappearing, large houses were crumbling away; middle-class people seemed to be in absolute agony about it – and the more conservative they were, of course, the worse the agony was.

Indeed, for all their grand history the Ayreses are essentially losing and for all his struggles and disappointments Faraday is essentially winning. On his first meeting with the family, the doctor recalls his own working-class background (his mother was a servant at Hundreds in its finer days) and feels ‘the peasant blood… rising’:

But Hundreds Hall had been made and maintained, I thought, by the very people they were laughing at now. After two hundred years, those people had begun to withdraw their labour, their belief in the house; and the house was collapsing, like a pyramid of cards. Meanwhile, here the family sat, still playing gaily at gentry life, with the chipped stucco on the walls, and their Turkey carpets worn to the weave, and their riveted china…  

Despite his resentment (or maybe because of it) Faraday is drawn to the Ayres’s practical, sensual daughter, Caroline, and is more concerned with their relationship than the strange, serious happenings around them. Faraday gets a kick out of ‘driving up that same road in my own car with the squire’s daughter at my side’ but, as their courtship progresses, becomes divorced from her true feelings, and does no justice to her lost potential. As Faraday’s colleague Dr Seeley points out, Caroline is a prisoner of Hundreds:

Kept at home with a second-rate governess while the boy was packed off to public school. And then, just when she’d got out, to be dragged back again by her mother, so that she could wheel Roderick up and down the terrace in his Bath chair! Next I suppose she’ll be wheeling Mrs Ayres.      

Faraday fails to understand why Caroline breaks off the engagement: because it offers more of the same. Caroline wants to sell up and travel the world while Faraday harbours barely concealed fantasies of becoming lord of the manor with a dutiful wife by his side.

Dr Seeley gives the closest Waters offers to an explanation for the haunting of Hundreds. He theorises that what we perceive as ghosts are projections of force created by the living. 

The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all. Imagine something loosening itself from one of those corners. Let’s call it a – a germ. And let’s say conditions prove right for that germ to develop – to grow, like a child in the womb. What would this little stranger grow into? A sort of shadow-self, perhaps: a Caliban, a Mr Hyde. A creature motivated by all the nasty impulses and hungers the conscious mind had hoped to keep hidden away: things like envy, and malice, and frustration… the sexual impulse is the darkest of all, of course, and has to emerge somewhere. It’s like an electrical current; it has a tendency, you know, to find its own conductors. But if it goes untapped – well, then it’s a rather dangerous energy.  

Caroline, too, speculates that ghosts are ‘part of a person… Unconscious parts, so strong or so troubled they can take on a life of their own.’ Everyone assumes that the Hundreds ghost, if it exists, is that of Mrs Ayres’s prematurely dead child, but Caroline says that ‘the house knows all our weaknesses and is testing them, one by one’. The family’s one servant, who senses something wrong from the beginning, insists that insofar as the malevolent spirit has a gender, it is male. ‘The ghost ‘hadn’t wanted her in the house, but it hadn’t wanted her to go, either. It was ‘a spiteful ghost, and wanted the house all for its own.”

Faraday distrusts the servant: ‘You’ve only had trouble, haven’t you,’ he tells Caroline, ‘since she’s been in the house?’ Her response: ‘You might as well say we’ve only had trouble since you’ve been in it!’ That final you, on the landing: who else?

At the end of the book, Faraday is visiting the empty house whenever he can, performing repairs and trying to stay its inevitable decline. To the end, he is unaware: ‘If Hundreds Hall is haunted, however, its ghost doesn’t show itself to me.’ The line, and the novel, recall a similar paragraph of sublime horror:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.