Saturday, 30 August 2008

Love for football restored in one fell swoop

The main reason that I wish I was not sat in front of a computer right now trying to write chapter summaries for my introduction.

Still, if I'd gone they'd have lost one-nil.

By way of making up...

...for tipsy late-night rambling about Manchester United, here's a new Sons & Daughters clip (where they're being introduced by Steve Jones, who bears an uncanny facial/ vocal similarity to my old flatmate.)

Real Ale: stronger than you think!

Hence the 'staccato' sentences in the last post. I hadn't even been watching the game; I'd merely read that report as I was eating my late-night chicken in black bean sauce and it had wound me up...

To clarify, the 'I work bloody hard' referred to when I play football, obviously not to the PhD/ teaching/ editing (which generally gets deferred in favour of blogging and, well, playing football.)

Straw Dogs is still pretty much as delicious as a weisse beer can get though...

Football is now wrong, but structurally

And this paragraph says all you need to know:

The defeat, though, will not be too hard to take for United, who not only had Cristiano Ronaldo watching from the stands, but who will also be hoping to add a striker - most notably Dimitar Berbatov - to their ranks before the close of the transfer window on Monday.

It's the final of the European Super Cup. I'm not a professional footballer (obviously), and I still spilled my guts to handball a shot off the line in 6-a-side training last night. I play three times a week in top of everything else, and I work bloody hard when I do. Football's a laugh, but I still want to win every time I play. Unfortunately, I find it entirely plasuible that United just didn't care tonight. I remember being proud when Darlo won the Durham Senior Cup final in 1991, even though they only had to beat Bishop Auckland and Billingham Synthonia to do it (though we did get to beat Hartlepool 4-2 in the final). The idea that defeat in a competitive final would not be 'too hard to take' takes the piss out of anyone who bothered spending cash on going to that game.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Arach attack

I don't love spiders, not by any means, but why is this one of the first non-Norfolk stories the Norwich Evening News has covered this year?

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Les Blooze

So, the French are cultivating their own binge-drinking problem, are they? And Nicholas Sarkozy is their president now? Coincidence, non?

Come to think of it, the cosy myth held by the British middle classes that the inhabitants of southern European countries are much 'better' drinkers than us shivering Celts, Angles, Vikings and Teutons overlooks several factors:

1 - You're more likely to see a French family drinking sensibly with a meal if your primary point of encounter with French families is in family restaurants.

2 - The French, Italians and Spanish make vast quantities of 'transcendent' wine and, now I come to think of it, some pretty fine beer as well. One suspects that they don't merely do this to feed the appetites of the English and Germans.

3 - Walk down a street in any large French town after seven in the evening. You will see drunk people.

It seems to me to be true that the culture of drinking is different over there - no 'six shots for a pound' style offers, fewer huge gangs of lads spending all weekend between the bar and the toilet cubicles (though I have noticed this a few times in Spain) - but that doesn't mean that Europeans don't get drunk, or that they only let themselves go a bit in idyllic mealtime settings with with their entire family in an olive grove.

Oh, I've just remembered. What about all the binge-drinking scenes in Emile Zola's novels?

Culturally-diminished Proustianism

I'm sitting at home having a nice cold bottle of Grolsch and listening to The Late Junction on Radio 3. They've just played this piece and it has synaesthetically churned up the essential qualities of a three-day spell I spent playing Sid Meier's Civilization II when I was about fourteen. This has made up for the fact that they were playing some god-awful 'Americana' earlier.

Actually, that was a damn good few days. Civilization II is great.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Tunnel Vision Time #1

I really really really miss football at the moment. It's almost September and I'm still to hear the reassuring click of a turnstile or catch the Bovril on the wind.

The 'writing-up period', also known as 'the period of borderline insanity when you write for hours and hours every day and spend the rest of your time chewing your nails and not being able to get to sleep.' Every day I think about the things I used to do before this state of affairs descended:

1 - Wear clothes that made me look neat.
2 - Play in a band; a band that were actually not that bad.
3 - Go to nightclubs, occasionally, and have a dance.
4 - Go to football. Not just play it (though I'm glad I have that to fall back on.)

I came back to football hard at the beginning of my PhD. It wasn't that I hadn't watched it or played a bit in the years following my leaving home. I think I just felt at the time that it was a bit hokey to be spending half your life indulging your love for a middling-to-awful side from the north-east. The jump-start back into obsession began when I went to visit my brother, Thom, in Manchester just before I went back to university: I was working for a stationery suppliers, was on the verge of being (temporarily) 'removed' from the band for personal reasons, was in a state that can best be described as 'relationship chaos', was not really writing or even reading very much. I had just been awarded a prize for my Masters dissertation, which somehow managed to contribute to a sense of identity crisis.

Anyway, Thom was living in Manchester at the time, as I say, and Darlington - in their woeful, post-George Reynolds downturn - were away at Bury that weekend. So after a lovely, if famished, journey over, and a preposterously Britpop-heavy night in (we did this again in January after going to see Spurs: after a few cans T. 'djs' and thinks that listening to Ultrasound
would be a good idea), we got the Metrolink up to Bury to go to Gigg Lane. I had actually been to a home game a couple of weeks before, but this was something else: bloody freezing, booze-veined and participating in the cameraderie of the awayday charabanc. In a non-Danny Dyer way, I was buzzing. I think I decided then and there to embrace my provinciality once and for all.

Anyway, since then, it's been pretty good, in a 'isn't my harmless obsession amusing' kind of way. There was the spontaneous, three in the morning decision to go all the way to Macclesfield the next morning (Thom tried to make me go and see The Wedding Present in Sheffield that night. I was not having it. I believe that was also the week I taught a lesson on Bertolt Brecht, despite the fact that the most complicated thing I've ever seen in a theatre is The Hound of the Baskervilles starring the affable, anxious tax collector from The Darling Buds of May.) There was the visit to the Millerntor Stadion to see St. Pauli take on Wattenscheid, the fulcrum of a marvellous boozy weekend in Hamburg. There was, most notoriously, the day that I dragged Jenny to deepest Cambridgeshire to see Histon lose 1-0 to Carshalton Athletic in subzero temperatures on the grounds that it was the kind of thing Bill Brandt would have done.

The thing is that, although there are many serious academics who like nothing better than listening to the Fall on the train en route to see AFC Fylde or Whitby Town or Saltash United, they are still in the minority. Footie is a kind of conversational no-go most of the time. It is often automatically assumed that 'liking football' means going to a bar and talking ill-informed nonsense while watching the team you 'support' on Sky Sports. I often want to round on these people and say that no-one seriously 'likes football' unless they have done the following things:

1 - Been to watch an FA Cup game in one of the rounds prior to the Conference National teams entering.
2 - Have seen a Blyth Spartans fans threaten to murder the referee if he abandoned the game, despite the fact that half the floodlights had stopped working.
3 - Owned a copy of the Non-League yearbook and read it in the bath. Aged 12.
4 - Chatted to a player from a team you support and told them that they'd had a 'good game'. Through gritted teeth, naturally.
5 - Performed the 'naming all the grounds in the football league' party piece.

As you might expect, this can cause some friction. Anyway, the problem is that I feel like I don't get to games even a quarter as much as I should: I compulsively read the When Saturday Comes forums and it seems to be packed with people like me (ie PhD-writing, krautrock-loving types) who seem to be getting to games all the time. I partially blame Norwich, a city where the non-league options are relatively limited. Anyway, I've promised that Budapest shall feature plenty of football, though I'm still open to offers regarding which team I'm going to support.

Whinges about clothes and nightclubs still to come...

Ha ha ha ha. Funny because true.

The real reason to hate the poet Philip Larkin is not that he was a racist and a masturbator (I find it amazing that these two "sins" were somehow equated in the so-called liberal press), but that he sat as jazz reviewer for the Daily Telegraph and denounced every development since Benny Goodman as scandal and degeneracy. Philip Larkin - in his hidebound, parochial, British way - has nothing remotely useful to say about jazz. Adorno, using his highly developed vision of modernity, had an extraordinary sensitivity to the way that marketing and mass production effected art. His analysis of jazz and television is not a conservative critique, but a revolutionary one.

Ben Watson, 'Theodor Adorno and Mass Culture'


What would Lacan make of someone talking on their phone in the library while someone else was trying to think about Lacan?

I suspect that only Adam Phillips could answer this, although I feel titillatingly Phillipsian for having been able to formulate the question in the first place.

It's going to be shite

Voodoo Lounge: Update

Having gorged myself at tremendous 'northside'* South Indian eatery Spice Paradise this eveing, I've come home to discover that, if you type 'sharks will cry' into Google, this blog comes up third. That's a bronze in our current hyperolympian imaginary.

* AKA Norwich beyond the river, also - inspirationally - known as 'Norwich ultra aquam'. In practical terms, Magdalen Street, St. Augustines, Silver Road etc.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Yet another new occasional series with little potential for longevity

This one is called 'crap albums you listened to on your Walkman on holiday because you were too young to buy your own tapes and your parents couldn't be relied upon to always listen to good records even if they are (like mine) respectably pop-savvy'

Today's contender: Voodoo Lounge by the Rolling Stones (on the MV Bretagne in 1993). This record is so bad it can only be described by one of those words people use in PG-R family comedies like Beethoven or Honey I Shrunk the Kids. You know, words like 'crapola'. There is something curiously abject about this record which I am still haunted by to this day and, trust me, it's been fifteen years since I last heard it. Not a day goes past when I don't find myself humming a tune and thinking 'that sounds familiar' only to have my intimate mental space violated by an image of Mick Jagger singing the following delightful lines:
Sparks will fly
When I finally get myself
back on you, baby
Sparks will fly
When I finally get myself
back on you, baby
I'm gonna step on the gas
I want to get there really fast
I want to fuck your sweet ass
Sparks will fly
Sharks will cry
Sparks will fly
So many things are wrong with this verse, not least the fact that 'gas' and 'ass' is, to put it mildly, an unfortunate rhyme within the erotic context Jagger is trying to create here. I'd love to perform an incisive critique of the line 'sharks will cry' but every time I think about it I break down in hysterics. Does he have the Crap Sharks from Viz in mind here or is it just his (oh-so-coincidentaly rhyming) idea of an event that would be really exciting and sexual?
Him: Will the sharks be crying tonight, darling?
Her: Not tonight luv, I've got a headache.
In fact, I'm thinking of sending a letter to the advertising people who make commercials for Bacardi or Disarrono or another spirit which requires a sexually-charged brand image and suggest that the next time their sales pitch involves a nightclub full of scantily-dressed beautfiul people dancing to funky house they should add a couple of sharks weeping in the corner.
NEXT: Fleetwood Mac, Tango in the Night (Hold on, can't do that one, it's actually quite good.)

Complicated principles which seem important right now #131

This is his earliest memory, to which, on waking up, he always returns, not out of morbidity or, for any other pathological reason, but because this awareness of separation is nothing other than the self’s first awareness of itself. The kiss withheld is simply the earliest demonstration of the law that our only consciousness of unity, or of a fullness of being, comes when we no longer possess it; for, possessing it, we are not conscious of it: the only paradise is paradise lost.

Gabriel Josipovici, discussing Proust in The World and the Book

Complicated principles which seem important right now #130

Off-modern art and lifestyle explores the hybrids of past and present. Some of the meanings of the adverb off relevant to this discussion include: ‘aside’ and ‘offstage,’ ‘extending and branching out from,’ ‘somewhat crazy and eccentric’ (off-kilter), ‘absent or away from work or duty,’ ‘off-key,’ ‘offbeat,’ occasionally off colour but not offcast. In this version of modernity, affection and reflection are not mutually exclusive but reciprocally illuminating, even when the tension remains unresolved and longing incurable.
Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia

Complicated principles which seem important right now #129

But if one source of strangeness, in Freud's view, is the unacceptable- made strange, defamiliarised, as a defensive measure- the other source, less amenable to psychoanalytic (or any other) description, is what might be called the unintelligible: whatever in our experience does not seem subject to our sense-making; whatever baffles, or inspires because it baffles, our powers of representation. This other unconscious- that which is out of bounds, but not by law (repression), like the fact of one's infancy, or the fact of one's forthcoming death, or the future itself- is a way of describing both the limits of what we know and the areas of our lives in which knowing, and the idea of expertise, may be inappropriate.
Adam Phillips, Terrors and Experts

Complicated principles which seem important right now #128

A crypt is the figuration of a secret, especially in relation to refused or impossible mourning. One can, without necessarily ever knowing it, be inhabited by a crypt or crypt-effect. More disturbingly, however, one can be unknowingly inhabited by the crypt or crypt-effect of someone else- by the secret or refused mourning of another.

Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle, Elizabeth Bowen and the Dissolution of the Novel

The kind of thing that makes me a bit of a geek

I just stole this link from my friend Evan's Facebook page. The amount of time I've spent reading websites about secret military facilities and the spookier nooks of human geography suggests I should perhaps have written my thesis on that subject instead of on British late modernist novelists. Ah, well.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Complicated principles which seem important right now #127

Generally, Freud tends to speak of sexual excitement as if it were something like an itch, or an urge to sneeze. But in sex preceding discharge, the analogy with the itch no longer holds. We scratch, after all, to remove an itch, but – to hold on one more moment to the analogy – now we have an itch that seeks nothing better than its own prolongation, even its own intensification.

Leo Bersani, The Freudian Body - Psychoanalysis and Art

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Complicated principles which seem important right now #126

Like a moth attracted to flame, literature turns towards war not because it sees war as its source, the condition of its own possibility, but on the contrary because it sees war as what threatens or promises to take away its own conditions of possibility. War forces literature to take the risk - or gives it the hope - of being stricken at last with impossibility, of having nothing at all to fall back on.

Denis Hollier, Absent Without Leave - French Literature Under the Threat of War

Notes for a novel #1

Once I've handed in the thesis, one of the grands projets is to begin working on a novel.

That's a pretty big opening line, that is. What I mean is, I want to give it a serious go now, and see what happens. Obviously, I need to publish some papers and that, but, as nice old ladies put it when they're discussing a disappointed grand-nephew's Christmas gifts, I 'have my heart set' on a novel. And poems, but poems are different, and require a different kind of work, and they're in the pipeline already.

Beyond the obvious ramifications of such a remark, I think about novels a lot. I'm kind of obsessed. I'm obsessed in a way that makes me disappointed, sad, and angry with the majority of new fiction I read, and when I find something that I think is fresh or exciting I develop a neurotically-charged infatuation for it. I make little to no secret of the fact that I think most contemporary fiction is glib, jejune, cloying, caveating, pompous, defused, wrestling unsuccessfully with its agon, politically dubious, too detached from the world, not detached enough, forcedly melancholic, self-aggrandising, unpoetic, too earnestly 'poetic', scared, pampered, market anxious, dull, fake or a collection of any or all of the above. I find that too many people who write novels are cape-tossing self-dramatisers, Kafka wannabes who spend years cultivating an outsiderness that is immediately forgotten at the sniff of a literary prize, or people who have attained some basic skill at putting words and plots together effectively but have no understanding of the historical weight that comes with the job. I tend to reserve my respect for those writers who seem to have an infinitely renewable joy in the potential of literature, not least their own, but temper this borderline infantile romanticism with a real cynicism about 'literary' institutions. I also like it when writers read books, and lots of them. Having met floods of hopefuls from UEA's creative writing course (at all degree levels), I have been stunned by just how many simply don't read novels or poetry written by other people. The attitude, all too often, says something along the lines of 'My limited personal experience has been vindicated as worthy of poeticisation by my acceptance on this course. I shall write what I know; my acceptance has elevated me to a certain literary eminence already.' Knowing some (very good) people who have taught on those courses, I can promise anyone reading this from 'outside the loop' that this is 100% not bullshit or apocyphal.

Anyway, I've raised the stakes for myself considerably already, haven't I? I like to think of these rants as being a little like an Oulipo exercise: the more I criticise, the more I set parameters for myself which stimulate (rather than inhibit) my creativity. For a long time, I had a war with nominalism, or using real place names in fictional writing: I thought that I'd read too much which used place as a really feeble crutch, masking cliches as 'evocations' and declining to do the kind of archaeological work that Ballard or Iain Sinclair take on. It was a long time before the circumscription of the 'zone of the nameable' (see Roberto Calassi's book K) stopped being my favourite thing about Kafka. That obstruction of realist extension is also one of the first thing I admired about some of Henry Green's novels, and it's still one of the few things I've personally been able to come away from Maurice Blanchot's fiction with. Cf., I suppose, Robbe-Grillet, Beckett, Alan Burns and, in a stranger way, the post-Kafkan political allegoris of Rex Warner, Edward Upward, and Ruthven Todd.

Then, about a year ago, I was sitting having a couple of pints with my stepdad and he was telling me some story that could only ever have taken place in County Durham. You just couldn't reset it anywhere, not even in some suggestively unnamed place. The effect was bizarre - I literally had to step outside and have a breath of fresh air (on Scorton Green, which is a good place for that). I felt that restriction I'd been setting myself for so long come off - I still can't say why, precisely - and felt that I'd somehow graduated to a place where all my ambitions for writing might actually be pursued. Restarting this blog has been a kind of slipstream effect of that conversation. Since then, I've been really in thrall to all these tremendously vivid descriptions of place in anecdotes other people tell me: Dad talking about working for the Forestry Commission in a remote valley off Glencoe while he was a student, Mum talking about smoky offices in London at the beginning of the seventies or growing up in the Wear Valley. It's like I got place back.

The thing is, like many or even most people, I need a certain amount of detachment from a place before it becomes writable. I'm not sure I'd ever like to write about Norwich (beyond the Mortmere version of the Earlham Road Project), and what I'll pretentiously call my 'poetic affiliation' to a distended triangle whose points might be Berwick-upon-Tweed, Kendal and Whitby has only really coalesced as such in the last year. When I say 'poetic affiliation', I kind of mean it literally because poetry is all I've had time to write on top of the thesis, teaching and seminar-organising in the last twelve months.

But I'm obsessed, as I say. I'm going to sleep thinking about it and deliberately not having the change for the bus in the morning so I can walk to campus instead and daydream about it on the way. It sounds silly, but I've got a first scene, which is High Row in Darlington just before Christmas in 1990. Then two men have to go together and watch Darlington beat Torquay United 3-0, and stand in the East Stand paddock (where my stepdad, interestingly, repaired the terracing during the ground upgrades necessitated by the Bradford Fire.) There's other bits, none of which are really about football, and which don't resemble the prosaic realism that this description might imply: it sort of makes an arabesque from there, I think. Passages already exist in the form of snippets for other stories I've written over the last four years.

Which leads me to the gripe that prompted this entry in the first place. The greatest 'sports opening' I've ever read is the 'Pafko at the Wall' baseball sequence in Don Delillo's Underworld, which is a completely virtuoso demonstration of how to write the the big, allegorical, Baudrillardian pseudo-event. But hasn't Delillo, amongst others, been a hideously pernicious influence on so much young British writing in recent times? I mean this in the sense that Delillo, like many Americans, favours a kind of sleek-lined minimalism, by which I mean a particular form of ironically-poised narrative composure. I'm looking for a good quote, by the way, but I can't find one: whatever, my point is that Delillo can actually do this well and lots of others can't. So many people seem to have forfeited an inclination to be expressive on their own terms because they have fallen under a creative writing mantra that insists less is always more, and that Raymond Carver is the sine qua non of fictive communication. I am never less than astounded by the impact of Dave Eggers's publication Macsweeneys, which peddles a kind of quasi-literary, indie-pop-cultural whimsy as some kind of brave fictional future. You know what I mean: lots of young people who aspire to be Karl's brilliantly caricatured 'Conrad McKrustican' , writing in infuriating Hemingwayan conversational ellipses about dysfunctional relationships and imprecisely-defined miseries. Melancholia and taciturnity (read: aestheticised repression) is completely fetishised on the bookshelves of Waterstones or Borders. You sometimes feel that the majority of modern fiction is composed by people who want to cross-pollinate Proust and Chekhov but have never read Proust or Chekhov. Everything has to feature men who can't communicate properly and an individual trying to put together the jigsaw of some traumatic moment in the past...a glibbed-up psychoanalysis has become the consolation for all the disjunctions fiction has undergone since Flaubert and Dostoevsky. Now, we're expected to read countless tales of disintegrating families narrated by vaguely fashionable young people who listen to Smog and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - but it seems that the majority of people writing these fictions are too young to have the depth of emotional experience that is required to write believably about such matters.

Anyway, these are notes: things I wanted to get down before I forgot, and thought I'd do in public so you'd all know just how hard I wasn't working on my thesis today.

Speaking of which...

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Reading/ listening

Here's my update for the last week.


David Peace, 1983. Finally finished the Red Riding Quartet now: I anticipate the nightmares will stop in around 2013. It certainly alters your perceptions of the West Riding, that's for sure. Last month, I had to change trains at Wakefield Westgate on my way to Saddleworth and I couldn't wait to get out of the place.

I know I'm not the best at following complicated plots, but the RRQ has left me pretty muddled. My friend MW reckons you have to read it three or four times to 'get' it, but I'm usually of the opinion that as long as there are new books in the world to conquer one should avoid going back. I have made exceptions, of course. Anyway:

1 - Who killed everyone?
2 - What was all that about the priest who went round trepanning people?
3 - Did Hunter die at the end of 1980?
4 - How exactly did the conspiracy work?
5 - How the hell are they going to film that for TV without, er, watering it down?

George Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying

I read this because I stayed up late one night last week and realised (with a slight sense of shame) that it was a significant gap in my mid-century repertoire. No point in 'reviewing' Orwell as such, is there? His novels always succeed at what they set out to do, good characterisation etc etc. Orwell's never big on subtlety, but I find that strangely commendable.

M. John Harrison, Climbers

Absolutely amazing. Don't think I'll get over this one for a while, and it's contributed to my ideas for future research (as has the RRQ, but you'd probably guessed that already). I'll write more about this when I'm sitting at home with some red wine, I think. I read The Course of the Heart a year or so back and it didn't grab me but I can go back to it properly now. This is the sort of thing that reminds you that contemporary fiction need not be a disgusting, narcissistic love-in between Sebastian Faulks, Phillip Hensher and Zadie Smith. Furthermore, it reminds you just how bad it is when mainstream authors attempt to co-opt sci-fi or fantasy to their cause: when, say, Martin Amis 'borrows' these genres it's as if there's always a big neon sign up saying 'Hey, I'm Martin Amis, and I know I'm above all this really.' With Harrison, as with Peace, there's a complete absence of framing: there's no trendy self-consciousness, no caveating metafiction. This is strange and unsettling in the way that fiction should be.

Gilbert Adair, The Holy Innocents

The complete opposite to the above. Self-consciously 'transgressive' arse from a journalist. I bought this in Oxfam when I picked up Climbers because I like novels which feature A) the 1960s, B) 'French people kissing French people' and C) lots of sex (don't we all). I'm glad it was only 99p, it's absolute bollocks. The characters are too achingly beatnik - handsome, incestuous (!), teenage cinephiles (but of course) - in Paris '68. This is one of those books where all the dustjacket props clearly come from friends of the author: it's just awfully badly written. Moreover, all the 'erotic' bits are lifts from Bataille's The Story of the Eye. Down with this sort of thing, as they say on Father Ted.

(On that note, I've just found an online bookstore selling this novel. Unfortunately, they seem to have got the author mixed up with another 'famous' Adair...)

Derek Raymond, The Crust on its Uppers

This is how you're supposed to write about the sixties. A bit of a surprise after reading some of Raymond's Factory novels (How the Dead Live; I Was Dora Suarez), but good all the same.

There you go, then: my novels of the week. not much really. The second CD of Stereolabs BBC Sessions has been on a few times, and Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works. But I'm always listening to that, anyway.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008


A - I think I've cracked it. Were I a character in an Adam Sandler film, I might claim to have 'totally owned' Lacan and his 'qua binary signifier'. Um, well, thanks to Wikipedia, anyway.

B - Football time!

EDIT: But after this thesis is handed in, I shouldn't think I'll be getting mixed up with Lacan ever again. I can think of far more enjoyable things to do with my time, like this.

Qua binary signifier?

Him: The subject appears first in the Other, in so far as the first signifier, the unary signifier, emerges in the field of the Other and represents the subject for another signifier, which other signifier has as its effect the aphanisis of the subject. Hence the division of the subject- when the subject appears somewhere as meaning, he is manifested elsewhere as “fading”, as disappearance. There is, then, one might say, a matter of life and death between the unary signifier and the subject, qua binary signifier, cause of his disappearance.
Me: Have you seen the trailer for Quantum of Solace yet?


An impressionistic drawing of me reading, by Jenny:

Monday, 18 August 2008

A few railway journeys

Between Paris and Orleans, or perhaps Tours, past midnight in late summer. It's the overnight service for Tarbes and Irun out of Austerlitz. It seems too early for all the other passengers to sleep, but they do, and I nustle into the pale green fabric of my recliner seat and remove my plimsolls and socks. It isn't easy: I've walked fourteen miles at least, up and down hills in Montmartre, and in endless circles that always seem to lead back to Chatelet RER. My feet are actually black and blue. As I open a can of Heineken, the conductor opens the carriage door and turns out the overhead lamps. The train seems to slow down as we run along a ridge above a light industrial estate.


Cheshire, between Stockport and Macclesfield, at midday in early December. Clutching a warm can of Stella and still feeling pissed from Norwich the evening before, I chatter annoyingly at my younger brother. Our little DMU is running along the edge of an escarpment, the farmable western fringe of the Pennines. Mild sunshine hasn't lifted the white dusting off the fields yet. I shut up as the noise of our train distracts a fox, causing him to run away from the sheep he'd been chasing.


An hour and a half north of Coimbra, Portugal. I awake and rub my eyes, then see the three Parisian likely lads we'd been drinking with the night before asleep in a pile on top of one another. My bladder is bursting. It's six-thirty in the morning as we pass through a forest which has recently been burnt to the stumps. I drink a coffee and press my nose to the window as this scene scrolls by, interminably.


Summer, 2007. Having managed - for once - to find a seat on the northbound GNER, I'm teaching myself to use a new camera. In the weedy plain where ridings touch, the line threads between the power stations of Knottingley, Drax, and Ferrybridge; the train slows so I can capture a set of black smokestacks. Later, I learn that several of the cooling towers at Ferrybridge blew down in a gale during the late 1960s.


The air conditioning fails as we pass the airport at Monfalcone. A large Serbian family move into the next car.


Pulling into Melton Mowbray on a cross-country service as a man, just released from jail, threatens his girlfriend on the phone because she has bounced cheques in his absence. I'm returning from my first-ever academic conference.


Falling over reading Pierre Reverdy in the vestibule at Grantham.


On the way to play a gig, far too full of caffeine, talking to a man with a folding bicycle on a delayed First Great Western service in between Reading and Oxford.


Any time that you haven't been to Scotland for a while and the back of Arthur's Seat appears after Prestonpans.


An East Anglian winter's evening as scripted by M.R. James, returning from a symposium in rainy Cambridge. I'm on the phone to Dad. Suddenly, hilariously, I realise that I'm on the wrong train and that my trip home will consequently take an extra hour and a half. Because my situation is already thoroughly over-determined, I open the first page of The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald.

In praise of...Yesterday's 'You are the Ref'

If you didn't buy the Observer yesterday, you'll hopefully be able to expand this picture to appreciate not only the surreality of the 'off-putting dinosaur mascot' scenario in the second panel, but also the fact that the dinosaur appears to be wearing Adidas trainers if you don't look too intently.

Putting the knockers on

Hello, hello. Have you ever tried to rewrite something and realised you now have no idea what you were attempting to say in the first place? That is me, now.

Anyway, I was going through the Guardian's online archive trying to get the specific page references for an article Sarah Waters wrote about Blitz fiction a few years back when I noticed that the following article appeared in the Sport section on the same day. It made me realise why I never want to be a football journalist: had Kevin McCarra written 'England face an ultimately futile struggle to qualify for Euro 2008', he would probably have been lynched. Anyway:

England's qualifying group is almost too easy and the big problem will be that the lack of challenge means new players won't bed in properly...

Since the rain-lashed defeat to the Croats the pendulum has swung the other way and the press have gone with an exaggerated scepticism about England's chances of ever again qualifying for an international competition. Honestly, who'd be a footie writer?

Friday, 15 August 2008

Kafka: Towards a minor literary feud

How's this for an academic barney? Apparently, Kafka specialist (and author of Rancid Aluminium, surprisingly) James Hawes has claimed that the obtuse Czech got his rocks off by looking at pictures of fellating hedgehogs. This has got German Kafkans in an almighty tizz. I don't see why: it sounds suspiciously like part of the campaign to do whatever the secular equivalent of deification to Kafka is. Why is Kafka's reputation so sacrosanct? Why does he inspire in people who are otherwise capable of appreciating tragic irony a kind of creepy piety? Why must we 'get Kafka right' by making a Mother Teresa figure of him, when it's all well and good to revel in Joycean scatophilia?

Actually, Woolf provokes the same sort of attitude. I always think that Woolf would have benefited from a few years off reading Chekhov: she could have spent the resulting free time on a point-to-point motorbike tour of European rock festivals. Moments of Being would be far better if her 'moments' of existential apprehension involved less flowers and experiences of abject disgust at working-class children and more descriptions of seeing Metallica at Roskilde. Apparently, if you go to Woolf conferences - which I avoid, on the basis that I'd rather deal with a lone Woolfean at a historiography/ narratology gig than a Woolf pack - y0u often meet women who claim to have been visited nocturnally by 'Virginia'. I'm not sure if they mean she comes as a succubus or if she wants to spend the small hours lamenting the shortcomings of Arnold Bennett over hot chocolate, or as a combination of these possibilities. In either case, I'm not sure if I can think of a less appealing literary night visitor (Thomas Hardy would be pretty bad as well, come to think of it. I reckon Katherine Mansfield would be fun.)

On that note, a story, which deserves to be shared. When we still had research seminars in the School of L&CW, one of my co-researchers was presenting a chapter of her thesis on an East German novelist. As things so often do during discussions about para-surrealist Eastern European fictions that thematise totalitarianism and bureaucracy, talk turned to Kafka. There was another woman in the seminar, who is middle-aged and renowned for being both inordinately highly-strung and somewhat pompous. Cutting in halfway through a point my friend M was making (see how I'm maintaining a veil of anonymity now: L McG and JH know who I mean), this character stood up in her chair, cast an operatic pose and proclaimed:

'If you know Kafka well, as I do, then you'll know that one must never laugh at his novels.'

Striking me that it was rather presumptuous to declare your superior Kafkawareness in a room full of modernists and narratologists, I bravely (seriously - it usually paid not to get into an argument with her) stepped into the breach and pointed out that not laughing at Kafka is more or less impossible and also seems to be part of the point (I'm sure Deleuze and Guattari say something along those lines in the inspiring but baffling Towards a Minor Literature.) Anyway, I won that argument. One must triumph occasionally in these circumstances.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

David Cameron in 'Completely Transparent' Shocker

So, Cameron's denounced Policy Exchange's report on the irredeemable northern cities as 'insane'.

Now why would he do that, I wonder? It surely couldn't be an absolutely shameless attempt to butter up any marginal constituencies in those areas (of which, it must be said, there are not exactly a lot) and thereby try and alter the image of the Conservatives as having victimised the north over a sustained period of time. Could it? I'm looking at you, by the way, Boris. The last - utterly patronising -attempt to redress this attitude that I recall (without Googling) was William Hague* and his ostentatiously ludicrous drinking claims (the ones that would have made him a teenage alcoholic if they'd been true.)

Anyway, it's all a bit 'night of the long knives', isn't it. Cameron's big buddies at PE become personae non gratae on a count of of-its-moment expediency. As far as I can see it - and defending right-wing policy advisory groups is not exactly the name of my game - PE were only doing what they thought was their job, even if they do seem to have delegated the 'summary of findings' report to the work experience kid.** The report might have been both grossly insensitive, lazy and impractical, but PE probably thought they'd kicked ass and come up with a hard-hitting, radical solution:

(In a conference centre in Wellingborough or Daventry or somewhere like that. PE on stage in front of Tory delegations from Bradford, Liverpool, Sunderland and Hull, plus a coterie of celebrities from those cities - let's say Maureen Lipman, David Hockney, Steve Cram and Ringo Starr...)

PE: 'Well, thankyou for attending our northern regeneration conference, which we're holding in the south midlands, which makes it look as if we're meeting you halfway, but seeing as our transport links are about sixteen times better than yours, took us an hour while it took you six. Apart from you, Steve Cram, who came on foot from Sunderland and thus arrived more promptly than the Grand Central rail service.*** Now, you might not like what we have to tell you, but it's hard-hitting and radical. We had top brains working on this project (work experience boy smothered by the ex-Met officers TPE have hired as security.) Now, what we've come up with is this...'

(Projector creaks from ceiling)

Audience: (Silence. Unsettling stares.)

David Cameron (Arriving late, propping his bike against the wall): I'm sorry, did I miss anything...oh shit.

It sounds horribly like the episode of Peep Show where Mark has to give a paper to a board meeting in Kettering and tells them that their plans are hopelessly wrong and ineffective because he's lost the plot...

* A patron of several curry establishments in my place of origin, which (being agricultural and, particularly in the eastern half of the constituency where the Tees commuter belt lies, relatively well-heeled) is one of the few blue blips on a political map of the north. I'd say that the fact that all the Indian restaurants in the area have photos of him behind their tills was political opportunism on his part, but he's so frequently witnessed digging into a chicken jalfrezi that one has to admit that he just really, really loves curry...

** I can see him now, sitting in his Kevin and Perry-esque sticky sock strewn bedroom with a pencil in his mouth and two box files full of questionnaires and pie charts in front of him. 'Hmmm...this has to be in tomorrow. I know, I'll just tell the entire population of the Mersey and Wear conurbations to migrate to Cirencester. That'll work, just like when the Simpsons left Springfield so Homer could go and work for Hank Scorpio.'

*** Can you get canned laughter on a blog?

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

What qualifications does one need to join a 'think tank'?

Apparently, some northern cities are in a state of inexorable decline, and their residents should move to prosperous southern cities to avoide becoming trapped.

Whoever participated in this think tank must have been very brave. Not only have they suggested to the residents of Liverpool and Sunderland should up sticks for the bright lights and dreaming spires*, they've also implied that any potential economic renaissance in said locations would have to be ancillary to those already underway in nearby (hence despised) places such as Manchester and Newcastle. Well, it would be, but apparently the cities in the studies are such basket cases that they are now beyond any benevolence their neighbours might be capable of bestowing. I really wouldn't want to be the one to go into a pub in Sunderland and announce that everyone should move to Winchester because, if the Geordies couldn't save them, they certainly wouldn't be capable of doing it themselves.

This also invites the thought of en masse migrations, so the residents of Cambridge might want to sell up now, before the entire population of Bradford hove into view on the Fenland horizon...

* Did they come up with this plan after reading some old Smiths lyrics and watching a Shelagh Delaney play?

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Football, for a change

Having expressed my passive-aggressive leanings and been rightly ticked-off for it today, I thought I'd do the slightly less controversial football predictions now, as this blog is supposed to have an incongruous sporting content. As my (very late) dinner is cooking, there won't be much explication:

The 'Who Gives One' TV Premier League

Winners: Man Utd - Chelsea's midfield logjam will haunt them. Cole (though he may be off to Liverpool), Ballack, Lampard, Deco, Essien, Makalele, Mikel and Malouda won't go, even if they play 4-2-3-1 and cause striker selection controversy. Liverpool won't cut it, again.

Champions League qualifiers: Chelsea, Liverpool, Spurs (Ramos, I think, knows what he's doing).

5th and 6th: Arsenal (transitional season, but think this might be Walcott's last season before he goes supernova), Villa

Relegated: Stoke, WBA, Bolton. I think Hull might pull a Reading and surprise a few people.


Winners: Wolves. A bit of a leftfield choice, but McCarthy is employing the same strategy he used to take Sunderland up a few years ago. He should perhaps revise his battle-plan if he gets there, though...

Second: Reading. Have what it takes to become the new irritating yo-yo team.

Play-Offs: Ipswich, Sheffield United, Swansea, Birmingham. Brum should win, but I've got a feeling about Ipswich this season.

Expect underachievement from QPR and Derby, I think. Cardiff for 8th.

Relegated: Plymouth, Barnsley, Blackpool

League 1

Champions: Leeds, surely.

Runners-up: Oldham. Probably their turn.

Play-offs: Leicester, Stockport, Huddersfield, Peterborough - Peterborough to go up.

Relegated: Hereford, Cheltenham, Yeovil, Scunthorpe

League 2

Champions: Gillingham

Promoted: Darlington, Bradford

Play-offs: Wycombe, Shrewsbury, Grimsby, Lincoln. Grimsby promoted.

Relegated: Luton, Rotherham


Champions: Wrexham

Play-offs: Stevenage, Oxford, Torquay, Burton. Probably Oxford to escape, though they've had a bad start.

Relegated: Altrincham, finally, Woking, Lewes, Salisbury.

FA Cup: Spurs

League Cup: Villa

There you go. I'll be impressed if any of this comes good.

I wouldn't do it, but they make it so easy...

Yes, it's my ongoing war with the Guardian literary section and its hilarious inability to decide whether it should be laughably mediocre (the weirdly Fukuyama-like Zadie Smith telling us that there's no point in writing experimental novels because George Eliot achieved formal perfection) and the vapidly pretentious. Here, frequent blogger Lee Rourke opts for the latter alternative.

Dear Lee:

Question 1: You seem to be obsessed with flouting your (specifically modernist) experimental credentials. Ne'er a blog goes by where you don't pull out some oddly gnomic eulogisation of Blanchot, Bataille or Cendrars. Why, then, does the magazine you edit seem to be dominated largely by 'drugs and indie' hipster-lit?

Question 2: Your concept of 'Heideggerian' boredom, allegedly the kind that fascinates you the most, seems pretty woolly to me. In fact, it sounds suspiciously like the kind of existential caveat a 12 year old attempting to get out of going to a christening would employ. 'Like, Mum, nothing means anything anyway, you know.' If this was seriously the paraphrasable sum total of Heidegger's thought, do you really think we'd have spent the last half a century reading Being and Time for its contribution to (as opposed to negation of) metaphysics? Why do you sound so unconvincing when you say things like - and this is a paraphrase, but a fair one - 'boredom clouds even boredom itself'?

Question 3: Did your MA thesis contain more than ten iterations of the phrase 'that is not to say'?

Question 4: Do you stop reading Derrida on about the fourth page of 'Structure, Sign and Play'?

Question 5: Is there any chance that, like a number of humanities-educated people, you've used the critiques of subjectivity made by post-structuralism (and I'm guessing that Levinas, Blanchot and Deleuze are on your shelf) as the means with which to bolster a version of personal identity which those same critiques would undermine? Have you found your center in philosophical decenterings?

To be honest, though, I'm mostly pissed off because you didn't bother including Henry Green's Party Going on this list. It is a substantially better novel than Houllebecq's Whatever. I'll let you have Hunger, though, as it's pretty genre defining, though I was pretty shocked neither Thomas the Obscure or Death Sentence made it. Also: no Nausea? Or any novels by women (surely Charlotte Bronte's Villette and Elizabeth Bowen's The Hotel are almost perfect articulations of boredom and, yes, I'm willing to contend that this argument works on a formal-linguistic as well as thematic level)? The Magic Mountain?

Monday, 11 August 2008

Spot the agenda

In her longer essays, Rose's love of tangents constantly threatens to destabilise her arguments. Perhaps she would respond that she isn't aiming at coherence, that she believes that criticism, no less than literature, should be allowed to remain a little puzzling. But there is a difference between complexity and obscurity, and the best writers don't forget that. By far the best criticism I have read in recent years - The Broken Estate by James Wood, or Nobody's Perfect by Anthony Lane, or Geoff Dyer's book on DH Lawrence - has come not from academia, but from critics who work as journalists and who combine complexity of thought with a dazzlingly direct style.

Natasha Walter, Review of Jacqueline Rose's On Not Being Able to Sleep, Guardian, 22/ 02/ 2003

Friday, 1 August 2008

Ride, 'Leave Them All Behind'

Bit obsessed with Ride at moment...been listening to Nowhere repeatedly while tinkering. Unfortunately, the song I wanted to put up here - 'Here and Now' - was only available in the form of one of those pointless home-made 'videos' where it's just a static image. Instead, here's the opening song from Going Blank Again. Vintage Cherwellian effects pedal music...

Happy 21st Birthday, Katy

My little sister is 21 today, which makes me feel incredibly old. I'd just like to say a happy birthday to her...and remind her of her favourite trumpet-based intro of all time.

Have a good one...x