Sunday, March 30, 2008

Twenty-second Sunday Salon 21.27

Had a great time going round as many Sunday Salonists' blogs as I could find today, and one thing that kept coming up was a column in the New York Times on love and literary taste. I have just come across it again on Athena's blog Aquatique, but it was in other places too.

Odd then, that I should turn from the screen and read this in Justine Picardie's DAPHNE:

But what I do mind is that there's this niggling tension between us now, even when we're alone together, that wasn't there before; or at least, I don't think it was there until I finally admitted to him that I was just as interested in Daphne Du Maurier as the Brontës. 'Oh God not her again,' he said, when I told him this a few weeks ago...
Marital breakdown because of a book - a perfect example. I know it's fiction, but it rings very true to me.

Twenty-second Sunday Salon: ADMIT ONE and an interview with Emmett James

This week I much enjoyed reading ADMIT ONE by Emmett James, which is a memoir of how he came to be an actor in Hollywood (Emmett kindly sent me a copy after I had commented on Debra's review on her blog a month or so ago). He has also very kindly agreed to an interview. I have reviewed this highly entertaining book further down the page.

Emmett James spent his childhood in Croydon, South London and finished his schooling in Cambridge, England. Studying acting at Strasberg Actors Studio in London he began working in theatre, eventually moving to Los Angeles in the early nineties to pursue his acting career in film. For over a decade he has worked extensively as a professional actor, winning a prestigious ADA as well as appearing in Emmy, Golden Globe, SAG and Academy Award winning work. In addition to acting he has produced, taught and directed film, stage and television productions in Hollywood. From a family of authors including J.B. Priestley, he continues to live and work in Hollywood, to this day.


About the book
CD: Is it true?
EJ: Yes, absolutely. People’s reaction to my book always starts with “You’ve lead a strange life”, or “Is it really true?” It’s not been a strange life to me it’s just been life. I vividly remember sitting watching the opening scene of Oliver Stone’s The Doors in a cinema in London. As the lights dimmed a voice was heard from the darkness “Did you have a good life when you died? Enough to base a movie on?” That quote really resonated with me and became a mantra. I promised myself I couldn’t lead an ordinary life. I would do everything in my power to make it extraordinary.

CD: Have any of your relatives or early friends read the book? What did they think? Have any of them become involved in the movie industry?
E.J: I had to put aside the fears about my family reading it as that could have been creatively crippling. Of course no matter how strained relationships may be with family members it was never my intention to publicly humiliate anyone. There was a nagging fear that my brother might be destroyed by what I had to say but in actual fact he has probably bought more copies than anyone! He loves the notoriety it seems to have brought him.

CD: Were you at all worried about confessing to the revelations in this book?
E.J: I worried only for legal reasons and ramifications, but wanted to show myself in a true light so I absolutely had to do it —-shady warts and all. Having said that, if any lawyers are reading this…anything you are thinking of suing me over is OBVIOUSLY a complete fabrication!…allegedly.

CD: From your resume you have also been an actor on the stage in Hollywood, and your performances have received a lot of praise – is that what you mean by being an 'actor' at the end of your book? What do you prefer?
E.J: My dream was to be a successful working actor. The medium in which I achieved this was always secondary. As someone who felt he didn’t have much of a voice as a child and what little I had to say wasn’t important, there is no greater feeling in the world then to step on stage. The moment of hushed silence as people wait with anticipation for the first syllables to leave your mouth is a moment I relish every time. I know people that won’t even get out of bed for three quarters of a million. I will still get out of bed to act for a cup of tea. I’m happy living my life that way. It’s healthy. People seem to look down upon those struggling to get by trying to live as an actor which has always seemed strange to me. It’s actually very noble, being a storyteller is a worthy way of spending ones life. Art is fundamentally important in the world. In the Greek court the King would have a soldier, a philosopher, an astrologer, a doctor and an actor. As actors we are storytellers, and that’s worthy.

CD: I know this is a bit of a cliché - but I do really think this book would make an excellent film - that must have crossed your mind. Has there ever been any interest?
E.J: Funny you should say that because Working Title Pictures (Bridget Jones, High Fidelity, Four Weddings & A Funeral) has just enquired about the book but nothing is signed as of yet. I think they could make an excellent film out of the piece. I really would love to place it with an English film company if possible, but if the Americans would love to throw some money at me I have VERY big hands to catch with! I would love to think Jude Law would play me as a cheeky chappy in the film…but in reality it would probably be Ricky Gervais as the flabby chappy. I did actually for a moment consider calling the book ‘Carry On Croydon’ maybe Barbara Windsor would still consider playing my mother?

CD: At the end of the book you seem happy with the way things have turned out - but are there any things (that you could have controlled) that you would have done differently?
E.J: I have never regretted any choice I have made in my life, some may not have been thoroughly thought out but all have molded me into who I am today. At a certain point you have to except people’s perception of you––right or wrong. For a while after the release of The Wizard Of Oz, Margaret Hamilton tried to fight against people only seeing her as the Wicked Witch of the West. By the time she died she stopped signing her real name when autographing and was only signing WWW in green pen. That’s commitment. You have to commit to the choices you make in life. Having said that I’m still bugged by The Wizard of Oz. When they all went to this wonderful land of OZ the Tin Man got polished up…helpful, the scarecrow’s gut’s get re-stuffed…makes sense. Dorothy gets a massage to relieve the stress of travel. But the Lion goes there for a dose of manly courage and winds up getting his hair put in curlers with a ribbon? What’s that all about? How wise could that Wizard of Oz really have been?

CD: At the end of the book you are eloquent about the importance of the movie - in your life and in the life of people in general. Could you recommend movies, like RUNNING ON EMPTY (that you mention in your book, and I am now dying to see) that you think deserve more recognition?
E.J: Going to the cinema is one of my earliest memories and is still something I happily want to do as a middle aged man. Cinema transcends age. It truly is a rare medium. My film recommendations…That is a very loaded question…I recently discovered Judy Holiday in Born Yesterday an amazingly good film. Charlie Chaplin (a fellow South London native) in Modern Times and Leonardo DiCaprio who gives a performance which still gives me chills in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. He will always be associated with his performance in Titanic but this is the role that shows him as one of the finest actors of our generation.

General Questions
CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
E.J: I always associate snails with hard core drugs after years of watching Brian the snail from the Magic Roundabout growing up. Never trust snails or any spring-loaded creature that marks his arrival with a “boing”

CD: What is your proudest moment?
E.J: Stepping onto the set of Titanic and getting the chance to play around with an Academy Award winning actress.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
E.J: Seeing Star Wars with my dad in 1977

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
E.J: Steven Seagal

CD: What is happiness?
E.J: Being able to throw your rubbish on a cinema floor without guilt. In fact it’s expected!

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
E.J: Make a cup of tea for me and the missus.

ADMIT ONE is about the realisation of a dream. It reminded me in some regards of Martin Amis's MONEY; but whereas Amis's character John Self is a fiction, Emmett James's book is a memoir. James was, and is, an Englishman obsessed with the movies. Appropriately then, he uses the neat ploy of taking a series of twenty-two favourite films as the context for various episodes in his life - from his early introduction to the cinema when he was too young to stay awake (THE JUNGLE BOOK) to the fulfillment of his ambition to become an actor in Hollywood (IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE). According to James, film is capable of many things; it transforms his mother from her usual incarnation as witch (WIZARD OF OZ) to dancer in the aisle (GREASE), it encourages a foray into petty crime (THE KARATE KID) and of course it forms the backdrop of his first adolescent fumblings (GHOST BUSTERS). I particularly liked this description of his secret signal to his friend who lived a couple of doors away in Croydon (a town just south of London):
Our signal was an odd sort of high-pitched cockerel crowing noise that abruptly became obsolete when puberty came knocking. Then it evolved into more of a battered-fog-horn-on-its-last-legs kind of sound. But it was still our secret sign, something unique to us. The sweet sound of a desperate cockerel being strangled would come, seemingly from the heavens; an invite for me to come over and participate in some tom-foolery (as of course, I always did).

Intent on a career in the movies James allows nothing to stop him; he pursues famous producers and casting directors until he finds himself in Hollywood - and then his adventures begin in earnest. They are outrageous, funny and yet totally believable. Although the book contains a little too much swearing for my taste, his writing is fluent and witty, and his life has been both unusual and inspiring. At the end I felt I had come to 'know' Hollywood for what it really is for the majority of people. The book ends retrospectively with thoughtfulness and depth; and, as in Amis's MONEY, James acknowledges that the idea of success , at least in Hollywood, is not quite what the rest of us think it might be.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

A Shed of My Own

Today we tried to imagine summer and went over the border to look at sheds. Welsh sheds. Welsh rain and Welsh wind. Wind in the telephone cables and making them howl. Rain on the plastic roofs and rain on our heads. We ran from one small building to the next, aching with cold. Then paused inside each one - reluctant to move again.

We saw sheds like chalets with their own balconies and fancy-looking roofs

then sheds like stores; utilitarian little numbers eschewing windows except for light, sensibly-beamed, sombre, down-to-business

then sheds called cabins, smoothly finished, with perfect windows and perfect doors, tiled felt roofs, and enough room for a family of two or three to live for a week or two - or maybe a life-time - in adequate comfort

and then, at last, my shed. Eight feet by eight feet, three small windows on one side and two more and a door on the other. My place. We stood for sometime and listened to the rain beating on the roof; a comforting sound that somehow made me feel safe. No balcony, but leaded lights. Room for a desk, a chair and a lamp, and the resinous smell of wood and the hissing of a gas heater. No internet connection, no phone and no excuse.

It is something I used to talk about to my former agent, and now, at last, I am making it real - before the end of April.

Foyles Short Story Festival

Andrew Holmes has just sent me details of the Foyles Short Story Festival in London next Saturday (5th April). The programme looks truly excellent...(here is my abridged version)

10am - Introduction
10.05am - Reading on behalf of Prospect magazine (with free copies).
10.40am - Reading and introduction of 3:am magazine
11.15am - Ambit
11.50am - London Noir anthology (Serpents Tail)
12.25am - Showcase of Liars’ League event
12.55-1.30pm - Break for Lunch / Book buying/signing
1.30pm - Workshop on the short story with Shaun Levin (45mins in the meeting room on the 3rd floor)
2.20pm - Reading for Chroma: A Queer Literary Journal
2.55pm - Reading from Perverted By Language: Fiction Inspired by The Fall and The Empty Page: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth due to be published in May 2008
3.30pm - Introduction to Legend Press and readers from their ‘Short Story Reinvented’ series.
4-4.20pm - Tea/Book buying Break
4.20pm - Social Disease
4.55pm - Mick Scully and Little Moscow (Tindal Street Press)
5.30pm - Apis Books launch Six New Voices
6.05pm - Toby Litt reads from his latest short story collection
6.35pm - Panel Discussion (with Toby Litt, Martin Bax, Richard Marshall, Tom Chalmers, Andrew Lloyd-Jones, Cathi Unsworth, Peter Wild, Shaun Levin, William Skidelsky or Alexander Linklater (for Prospect Magazine), and Heidi James.
7.25-8pm - Wine Break / Book buying / informal author chat
8-8.40pm - Tales of the DeCongested Event

It is free but you have to book a place here. Ah, if only I had not just booked to go to a conference in deepest mid-Wales that day (which should be good as well), I would be there.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Genographic Project

Like most people I am interested in my ancestry. All I know so far is that virtually all my ancestors, except for some fairly distant ancestor of my mother's, come from Wales. The only exception is a Huguenot, who according to this excellent Wikipedia article, would have originally fled France in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Although this is not mentioned in the article, there was a settlement of Huguenots in Treorchy in South Wales, and this ancestor of mine was one of them. He was called 'de Wilde' and changed it later to less foreign-sounding 'Wilde' when he wanted to open a shop. The Huguenots were religious protesters - protestants, in fact - causing no end of trouble in France for a couple of centuries - which is probably where I get my cantankerous nature from.

The reason I am thinking about all this is that thanks to this BBC News page (which contains the rather unsurprising information that Christian Lebanese have greater tendency to have European genes than their Muslim neighbours tend to have genes from the Arabic peninsular) I came across the fascinating website of the Genographic Project and found that for $99 (plus p&p) they will analyse my DNA and find out where my ancestors came from. This sounds like an excellent idea to me and I am going to get Hodmandod Senior to do it too.

Apart from being a 'bit French' I have always suspected that I am a 'bit Chinese' too - on the rather flimsy evidence that my blood group is B positive, which is common in Mongolian populations, I believe.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Seven Deadly Words in Book Reviewing...

...are listed here in the New York Times blog. If you read the comments (196 so far) the list of other people's pet grieves the list seems to become endless - few words are left.

Just for the record the seven words are: poignant, compelling, intriguing, eschew, craft, muse and lyrical. Some of them, it turns out, are just code for something else - which confirms my suspicions. It's an interesting and entertaining piece (I think I am allowed to say that..!).

What I'm Doing 20:

What I'm listening to:

Never Be Lonely by the Feeling. This is a particularly weird video - not as disturbing as their one for SEWN - and I don't think it quite works, although I like the sentiment, and having seen it don't think I shall see the tube (especially in the rush-hour) in the same way again.

What I'm reading:

ADMIT ONE by Emmett James - an hilarious book which I am enjoying very much indeed. More on this later - including an interview, I hope.

What I watched last:


Neither of us could remember why we got this, though Hodmandod Senior thinks it might be because the film track was composed by Philip Glass. Anyway, a good film, quite unusual - about a mysterious man who turns up on stage somewhere in the Holy Roman Empire of the nineteenth century. I loved the close-to-mythological flash back at the start and the way it developed into something close to Sherlock Homes fare. To me it seemed to be 'about' the power of myth.

Unfortunately, it was a film rented from Amazon and because it was slightly damaged, and kept stopping, we missed small parts. We have not had much luck with Amazon DVDs recently. The last one was cracked and unplayable, and the one before that was not the film we ordered. Of course it's great when it works, and most times it does, but irritating when it doesn't.

What I'm Doing Next:

Not quite sure. Everything I've started recently has snagged to a halt due to one reason or another - but the magnolia buds are unfurling in the garden outside my window, and the sun is shining - and just because of this I am, this morning, feeling unreasonably optimistic.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Twenty-first Sunday Salon 23.13: Review of Meek's DESCENT

My review of NOW WE ARE BEGINNING OUR DESCENT by James Meek has now been posted on Revish here.

(Unfortunately the link doesn't seem to be permanent - this link takes you to the Revish site - when you get there type either 'James Meek' or 'Now We Are Beginning Our Descent' in the box in the RH corner).

Twenty-first Sunday Salon 11.19: How to make quicksand

One of Hodmandod Minor's friends gave him HOW TO FOSSILISE YOUR HAMSTER for his birthday and on page 161 is a recipe for making a dilatant material from cornflour and water AKA 'Magic Custard'. The recipe is 300g cornflour to 250ml of water, and you simply mix them together with a spoon in a bowl until it becomes too hard to move the spoon. Then you tip the bowl to one side and stir again.

The mix has the same properties as quicksand in that when you stir it...

it becomes solid, and when you stop it becomes liquid again.

Just like quicksand. If you put your foot in gently it will flow like a liquid around you, but try to pull yourself free and it will solidify. It is quite fascinating. For instance if you plunge in your hand quickly you can scoop up a ball and mould it like clay...

but if you leave it there it will soften

and then flow through your fingers.

A spoonful will flow and also drop from a spoon as if it is undecided - liquid or solid?

And if you plunge in your hand quickly and lift you hand into the air the bowl will rise too, just for a while until it remembers what it is: liquid.

The reason for this strange behaviour is that each of the particles in the cornflour is surrounded by a limited number of water molecules. Normally they are randomly arranged, and a gentle force allows them to slide over each other so the bulk properties are like liquid. However, if a force is applied, like a spoon, a hand, or a foot plunged in, the cornflour particles are momentarily forced to arrange themselves into an ordered rigid structure (because there are so few water molecules around to allow much movement), and so they behave like a solid - until they have time to become disordered again.

Governments are interested in developing such materials (shear-thickening fluids STFs) to make body armour - something that is normally soft and easy to wear, but that will stiffen and protect when a sudden force, like the impact of a bullet or a knife, starts to be applied. But since the same thing would presumably happen with other sudden movements, I forsee unfortunate consequences.

Interestingly, when cornflour is boiled with water the grains of starch burst open to release long molecules of starch to form custard which has opposite properties: when you stir custard it becomes more runny, but when you leave it alone it sets into a solid (thixotropic). This is because there are lots of weak bonds between the long molecules so they link together to form a kind of 3D mesh - but when this mesh is stirred the bonds are broken.

I have always loved stuff that can't make up its mind: graphite that is both metallic (conducts electricity) and non-metallic (dull and weak); wax that can flow or break; rocks that look like any other sort of rock in daylight but in the dark glow as if they have become scraps of fire; liquids that mixed together cause a solid to form or suddenly become icy cold; and once I cooled some ammonia until it was liquid, and added a little freshly cut sodium (another fascinating material - a metal you can cut with a knife) and the solution went blue with free electrons and for a while I just looked at it, fascinated at the thought that I could, in a way, 'see' electrons.

Anyway, I am off now to do another experiment in the book - on page 62 it tells you that if you mix cornflour with cooking oil you can make it creep towards a balloon...but first I am going to experiment with another material that can't make up its mind. On the table it is solid but inside my mouth it turns into the most darkly-delicious liquid that has ever been invented.

Happy Easter!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Face

I read today that Alexander McCall Smith did not have a clear idea of the appearance of his characters in his novel No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency - which left the field open for the late film-maker Anthony Minghella when he was casting for the film (which will be shown Sunday night on BBC 1 at 9pm). According to Baxter in the final chapter ( Loss of Face) in THE ART OF SUBTEXT this is a feature of modern novels. Readers have become impatient with a lengthy introductory description of facial or physical attributes. Descriptions such as those written by Charles Dickens or Thomas Hardy just don't seem plausible any more and have acquired a creepy voyeuristic overtone.

Nowadays only the grotesque faces are described, as if these are the most expressive. Beauty is associated with artifice; and the hideous with the good. These days only Saul Bellow allows his good and bad characters to reveal themselves through their faces.

According to Baxter the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas argues that the face has a 'unique physical presence that provokes the subject's obligations to the Other'. I think that means that physical presence of a person's face causes us to feel obliged to acknowledge their existence. It means we cannot easily ignore them (though of course some people determinedly manage this very well).

Baxter says that the way we get most sense of a person these days is through their accessories rather than their face, and the only time we notice even these is when tensions arise, when we fall in love or are threatened or coerced. We also tend to notice more when the dramatic space is limited, and we are forced together. In these situations the face is observed, and hence the fact it is being observed is part of the subtext.

Since it has now become old hat to describe how a person looks may be used as subtext in itself: by using this method we can convey the old-fashioned nature of the subject, perhaps.

Then, when the face is described in these circumstances, it is a strong source of more subtext - for example with a fixed smile, which may contrast effectively with the expression in the eyes.

Baxter concludes that the face is still 'where we are answerable to our emotions and to our obligations.' He says that if a story is about about persons with souls then it cannot do that without the face, which refers back to the statement he makes at the start of the chapter: 'the means by which the soul is usually given away in day-to-day life.' This is a final fascinating chapter of a fascinating book.

The Art of the Subtext: Part 2

In his chapter, Inflection and the Breath of Life, Baxter defines inflection as the tone with which the wording is conveyed and can 'elevate fiction into sudden shocking life'. Writers often suggest how events and statements are to be inflected. I tend to avoid this in my writing - perhaps too much. It seems to me too much like telling. For instance when anyone says anything I like what they say to be enough in itself - the rest, the way in which they are said is something for the reader to invent, and Baxtoer does warn against overinflection - prose that has gone purple from hyperinflection - but obviously it is possible to err the other way too, and perhaps I do.

He suggests that inflection is particularly important for teenagers, outsiders and aliens, the dispossessed, the baffled, broken, downcast, the obsessed, the fantasists and the inarticulate - and those feeling contradictory emotions at the same time: the official emotion is expressed in the statement; the unofficial (the subtext) in the inflection.

The 'wrong' tone can be particularly powerful e.g. sad news said laughingly. It can become hysterically sincere. Unusual combinations e.g. intimate and menacing, can be effective.

Body language, hand movement and facial expression are important in depicting these undertones too. Sometimes 'conversations' stop not when the people finish speaking but when their body language does.

In contrast uninflectiveness suits trauma, however,he feels that this ironic withdrawal has been overdone in literature since the 1980s in every form of postmodern art.

Creating a Scene starts with the difficulty of creating a 'scene' because he says, 'If you were raised in the genteel tradition, as I was, you avoid scenes, even when people say they love you. This is not the best preparation in the world for writing stories.'

He says that because writing stories is a purposeless activity, we sometimes moralise in an attempt to give it a point. We then try to avoid in our own writing (and reading) what we may find troubling in our own lives. This, I think, is true. It always feels a risky business to me to have a character, certainly the main protagonist who is too demonic and therefore unsympathetic. But I should. It is these characters, the 'sparkplug' characters, the radically unpleasant types, according to Baxter, which act as focusing agents.

Baxter says he was brought up to be not only undramatic but also not to tell tales. In other words any sort of narrative was frowned upon in that household. Everything he had been taught about self-control stood against every instinct that he acknowledged as a writer. He recommends Dostoyevsky's work as an exemplar of great scene making and 'sparkplug' characters. He says that stories thrive upon bad behaviour, bad manners, confrontations and unpalatable characters.

I am half way through the last chapter, on faces, is making me think so much that I think it deserves a posting on its own.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Art of the Subtext: Part 1

The Very Bad Cold has taken away my voice. It has been fading for days. I am supposed to be resting to make myself better. So apart from a quick trip out to the shops I have been doing nothing but reading THE ART OF SUBTEXT by Charles Baxter (although I did manage to post a review of the James Meek's book WE ARE NOW BEGINNING OUR DESCENT on the Revish website. I gave it five stars).

It is another small book, but manages to tell a lot in its 125 pages. The first chapter is called The Art Of Staging. 'Staging' according to Baxter is when objects and actions are used to create a pathway to the character's inner life. It is this aspect of a novel which distinguishes popular genre from the more literary. In popular romances (e.g. a novel by Danielle Steel) the location, material wealth, physical attributes and who is paired off with whom is important. In the popular thriller (e.g. by Tom Clancy) it is the military hardware, and the hierarchy of power that are important. In both the characters are secondary; but in more literary fiction they are central to the plot. In more literary novels the character is shown by what is unsaid - the showing rather than telling - and presumably the more that is shown and the less that is said, the more literary the novel (and subsequently, perhaps, the less it will be read).

Genre novels, he says, shut down imagination and therefore are ideal reading material for the anxious traveller because it reduces the ability to speculate. Literary novels on the other hand promote the imagination, and in order to do this a character who is hyper-vigilant ie fully attentive, has poor understanding and is emotionally bewildered is ideal as a protagonist. Through these eyes the situation becomes strange and dramatic and interesting. Possible observers could be the frightened child, the unguided foreigner, the half-dying lover, the broken couple - which is why, perhaps, the most successful characters in books, for me, anyway, are alienated and alone. Seeing something from the outside quite often makes it seem exotic and enticing.

In Digging the Subterranean Baxter refers to a board game. At the start of this a player had to decide whether they wanted to acquire wealth, fame or love, and having decided this play the game scoring points as the player lands on each, and at the end of the game if they acquire what they set out to acquire. This, says Baxter, is the plot of many novels - what the character wants and what he eventually achieves, and the journey along the way, complete with the resistances and the reactions is often the summary of a plot. Another plot may concern the desires that the character cannot own up to, a mania, and this creates subtext. For instance in Moby Dick Ahab wants to kill the whale but he can't say why - all he knows is that he has to enlist the entire crew to satisfy his mania. In The Great Gatsby Jay Gatsby obsessively wants his version of Daisy Buchanan - but in order to get her he has to become someone else. Both of these stories are told by someone who observes the obsessive, not the obsessive himself because the obsessive would be a too unreliable narrator; instead the story is told by an observer who is a bit like the frightened child in chapter 1 - intensely seeing but understanding little, from the outside so that the reader fills in the gaps.

Another possibility is the story where the person is 'wrecked by success'. This is where what is sought is won - and unhappiness results. Desires turn out to be more powerful than satisfaction.

Yet another is exemplified by Chekhov's The Lady With The Dog'. Here the protagonist has one desire fulfilled but finds himself with something else as well. In this case Gurov wants and has a quick affair but then finds himself in love with unhappy consequences.

In Unheard Melodies Baxter says that the most artful dialogue is marked by periods of inattentiveness. They are signs of egoism, narcissism and psychic vulnerability, and are essential markers of subtext. Some information goes unheard because it is psychically unbearable; some is simply filtered out by the unconscious because we have become too accustomed to hearing it and it has become background noise.

Another sort of not hearing is indifference - what is being said is simply not important to the listener to garner his or her attention. This is the inattention of the narcissist - the only information that gets through is that which is directly relevant to oneself. The narcissist is wounded and is waiting for either an apology or admiration.

Self-dramatisers are also not very good listeners. They know they are being watched but they have lost the gift of listening.

The unheard may be suddenly interrupted by the heard ie the irrelevant interrupted by the important. In other words a change in tone may herald something important but will only be noticed if there is a listener alert enough to pick it up.

Non-listening is often comic - but soon descends into hellish behaviour.

Non-sequiturs in dialogue often indicate gaps which in themselves tell more than what is said.

Mobile phone mania has ensured that talk is now cheap whereas listening is not. Close-listening now seems freakish and is the province of shrinks. It differentiates novels of Thomas Hardy with more contemporary novels such as those of Ivy Compton-Burnett and Henry Green, some of which are based on non-listening. Inattentiveness is essential in a modern novel.

I shall continue with the rest tomorrow, I hope.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Two Russian Princesses

Yesterday I tucked this little volume into my case: FIRST LOVE by Ivan Turgenev. It is one of a series of twenty novellas on love published by Penguin - a very attractively produced series in matt soft covers and at 102 small pages weighs very little, and so is easily slipped into a handbag. A novella is ideal for a long train journey and this one took exactly as long to read as my return journey, which was very satisfying. It was about the infatuation of a sixteen year old boy for a much older (by five years) woman who also happened to be a princess. This princess, however, has fallen on hard times and her family is in debt, and it is this detail that fascinated me the most in this exquisitely-told tale - the idea that a member of royalty could live next door in tatty surroundings.

By coincidence I came across an equally poignant love story about a Russian princess in this morning's newspaper: Princess Helena Davidovna escaped the mob to Crimea where she fell in love with a private in the British army. She came back to England with him, had one son then died of TB at an early age. Her descendants came across her unmarked grave recently and are keen to remember her.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What I'm Doing 18:

What I'm Listening to:
Strange from the album 12 STOPS AND HOME by THE FEELING. Many of the songs on this album are familiar to me from aerobics but I don't recall this one which I like very much.

What I'm Reading:
THE GIFT by Lewis Hyde which people like Zadie Smith and Margaret Atwood regard highly. It is a defence of the importance of creativity in our increasingly money-orientated society - which is something I desperately need right now.

What I watched last:
Artemisia. French biographical film about sex and art; mainly about sex. Beautifully made, but slightly tedious and predictable at first, only getting interesting towards the end where the subject was tortured for not admitting to something - can't quite remember what but it was something to do with sex.

What I'm Doing (tomorrow):
Going to a meeting in London at the Society of Authors.

The door to door salesman.

He comes to my door in the cold bright light. His fingers thick like small pale tubors, and his arm reaching over his head - rather like that gesture the mill-owners used to use to work out who was too young to work and who was not - reaching up for the strap of his bag and manouvering it over his head.

"I'm deaf," he tells me, "I can't find work. I do what I can."

I look, as I always look, trying to divine if this one is telling the truth and see that his face is young, and yet already aged in the way that the muscles are set, and his eyes tired and too pale, and when he asks me how my day has been, I don't tell him but say it has been fine.

Then he hands me a crumpled piece of card with the letters tumbling over it in infantile script and he stands while I look, trying to decide which item will not take up too much room in the cupboard already stuffed with brushes, rags and cleaning fluids.

A few seconds is too long. He shifts and grunts a noise that has the rising tones of a question, and I hurriedly select and pay for the demister. I don't need it, but as my husband would say, who has taught me to be generous, that's not the point.

"Are you cold?" I ask him as he zips his bag, but he doesn't read my lips. The deal is done now and his mind has drifted on to the next house. He shifts his right leg further away from his left and swings his bag back over his shoulder, then, regaining his balance, looks at me and thanks me so earnestly that I know the small object in my hand is not the thing that I've bought.

Finishing the Descent.

An irritating cough was keeping me awake so I finished reading James Meek's WE ARE NOW BEGINNING OUR DESCENT. I think it is magnificent. I think I needed to get used to his style in order to fully appreciate it. I am going to turn back to the beginning tomorrow to see how it was constructed and write a review.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Written Britain

I am looking forward to seeing this in April: Melvyn Bragg touring the written history of Britain - the North, the Midlands, Scotland and London. I hope already that there is a second series planned - otherwise I suspect there may be a Welsh, Irish, Cornish and 'Wessex' outcry. Anyway, it looks good; I shall have to get the instruction book to remind myself how to switch on the TV.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Twentieth Sunday Salon 18.30

In response to Petrona's Sunday Salon post I have just tried to find the first Booker Prize winner: SOMETHING TO ANSWER FOR by P. H. Newby but the only edition I can find on Amazon is available for about £80 second hand. Astonishing! I shall have to try and order it from the library.

Twentieth Sunday Salon. Noon.

I was wrong. WE ARE NOW BEGINNING OUR DESCENT is an engrossing book. I am in the middle of a scene at a party that is almost painful in its intensity. I sure I don't know anyone quite as nasty as some of the characters but I believe in them and feel that I do. I am pretty glad I don't live in James Meek's world - and I am not talking about his dangerous missions to Afganistan but the rather more damaging encounters at dinner parties...

Twentieth Sunday Salon 10.15

I am trying to finish James Meek's book WE ARE NOW BEGINNING OUR DESCENT but not getting on with it very well. Maybe it is because my head is still thick with cold but I am finding some of it fairly hard to understand; there seem to be a good many pretty-sounding paragraphs but without much meaning, or else sentences tagged on the end of paragraphs which add nothing to what has been said already... or so it seems to me. But then, when I read it out to Hodmandod Senior or my mother, each of them says, 'Oh, but that is beautiful writing!' and just by reading it out I hear that it is beautiful too, but when I read silently, alone, it does not go in.

However I shall persist because I am enjoying the story, and I am getting a very good idea of what it must be like to be a correspondent in a war zone. However, the main focus of the book so far seems to be the business of writing novels.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Local Produce.

We have been to a farmers' market in Kelsall this morning, and have managed to acquire nearly the whole week's shopping.

Eggs from two sorts of hen: 'Araucana' (the bluish -white) and 'Welsummer' (the dark-brown) - we are going to boil them and see if they taste any different later;

beer from Nantwich (which must be cooled before serving due to its 'friskiness');

some bread (from the back: garlic and herb, mixed seed, raisin and nut and white - for Hodmandod Minor for he will eat no other);

soup (parsnip, celeriac and roasted red pepper, and mixed bean and tomato), biscuits (Anzacs and shortbread), goat meat - which I shall casserole in some red wine tomorrow, goat burgers - for Hodmandod Minor, smoked mackerel and smoked salmon and mature cheddar (not shown);

three sorts of fudge - because we all liked different sorts when we tasted it, and a swede;

sprouts on the stalk, cabbage, leeks and sprouting broccoli and apples (not shown).

All of it locally produced - quite array of delicious things which I thought looked so beautiful on the table I would record them here for posterity. Somehow, buying them like this makes me appreciate them more.

Les Miserables

When I got to London on Thursday the cold that had been nagging at me for days suddenly became THE VERY BAD COLD, so I was forced to sniff my way through my book (on infectious diseases, rather ironically) until I decided to give up early and make my way to Piccadilly on foot, stopping at a cafe on Shaftesbury Avenue where I took this...
...which struck me as highly appropriate. Les Miserables is a well-known musical. The lights which rotated above the doors proclaimed that it was a record-breaking show that had been played thousands of times in various places (although I have never seen it). But here was the theatre in which it was playing, and what a dingy place it seemed on a cold March day: the paintwork on the building next door grey and peeling, and the decor of the theatre itself seemed tired and old. When I read about famous places like Shaftesbury Avenue I expect, when I see them, for them to appear more than they often turn out to be: brighter, shinier, newer and more perfect. But maybe it was just the day and my mood. Or perhaps this place is better seen in artificial light. The rain and clouds had caused a premature dusk. It was cold, wet, windy and everywhere I looked people seemed to be feeling as gloomy (miserable!) as me.

The meeting was good, though and I'm really glad I went. One of the speakers said that to write a successful book you have to communicate your passion, which I think is true and which caused me to ponder.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

25 years...

...since Hodmandod Senior and I tied the knot. We celebrated with 'hanks' of lamb and a good red wine that my friend Ravi gave me a few months ago as a present.

It came in its own wooden box, with carved collars to fit that came down like two blunt guillotines.

Tomorrow I am going down to a discussion in Burlington House in Piccadilly in London and before that the British Library. It is well over a month since I was there last and I have a small list of books that I want to see.

The Wind.

The wind blows: blossoms from trees, dust from the path, yesterday's news, the hat from your head, your umbrella inside out, a small dog to the end of his lead, the perfume from from your wrist, the blood from your face, all thoughts from your head, a single can of coke, around and around and around, your sense of freedom, the branches in a straight line, the flag from its pole, your voice from my ear, your smile from your lips, and that letter I wrote, before you could read it - and all that it said.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Design of Books (part 3)

Geoff Fisher of Antony Rowe finished his talk on self -publishing with a few general remarks

On marketing: he said it was important to find the book's unique selling proposition (USP), to research buyers, to make press releases, arrange book signings, invlove your local independent book shop, get reviewed in local papers and on radio and buy a good book on marketing.

On distribution he said it was possible to pay for distribution and recommended 'looking into ' LULU

He was impressed with Kindle and said he was glad that he would soon be retiring from the print business. They cost 300 dollars and 100 books can be downloaded.

He also liked Macmillan's e-book idea.

ISBNs, apparently, have to be bought in blocks of 10 and cost £100.

And on this miscellaneous note I shall end because after that my notes become illegible.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Design of Books (part 2)

More Tips from Geoff Fisher from Antony Rowe on Self-publishing.

Print on Demand.

For Print On Demand (POD) the book is first sold and then printed. This has several advantages:
(i) there is minimal stockholding;
(ii) the cost structure is simple and competitive (e. 10 copies cost £175.80 and for digital books the unit cost stays the same only for more than 300 copies does the cost of digital exceed litho);
(iii) minimal investment so there are no small order or slow-selling charges,
(iv) books never go out of print;
(v) and with 'print partners' on different continents there can be fast and efficient world-wide distribution.

Paper Considerations

Recycled paper may not be the most environmentally-friendly option since the chemicals involved can be destructive; instead it may be better to use acid-free, non-chlorine-bleached paper from managed forests;

The number and sort of illustrations in a book dictate the paper; for good illustrations it has to be smooth and expensive;

A thin book can be bulked out with thick paper;

Notes on Illustrations

It is essential that they go in the right and logical place;

The quality of illustrations should match the rest of the work;

Do not use home scanners for a picture - the scanner at the printers are much higher quality.

Binding Choices

Sewn binding will last forever;

'Perfect' binding is cheaper, not as long-lasting since it uses glue;

Notched binding is somewhere between and is the same price as sewn.

Another alternative is 'wir-o' which is expensive but useful since it allows the book to lie flat.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Nineteenth Sunday Salon 21.26

Finished THE FAMILY THAT COULDN'T SLEEP now. It's an inspiring read and a very satisfying one. It is also terrifying. The British government does not come out very well.

In the eighties and the early part of the nineties the Hodmandods were not particularly affluent. Some of the time we were students and the rest of the time young parents. We ate a lot of minced meat of one sort or another because it was cheap and easy to prepare and we all liked it. But now I know that this was the time when cattle were stumbling around their fields and then kicking the hands that milked them. Incredibly, the cows that were showing these symptoms of madness were dispatched quickly for slaughter and converted into meat. Altogether 640 billion doses of bovine spongiform encephalitis were consumed. No doubt the Hodmandods consumed some of them. It is a sobering thought.

According to this book if the prion had proved to have been as infectious as flu we would all be dead by now. But in fact there have been only 150 cases of vCJD. The agent which causes vCJD has not been very effective at crossing the species barrier. Furthermore it turns out that we have a genetic resistance to contracting the disease: individuals that are 'homozygotic' ie have the same two copies of a code to produce the amino acid methionine are more likely to get vCJD than those who have two different codes to make the protein.

This leads to a very interesting discussion on how our cannibalistic activities early in the history of mankind probably selected us to be resistant to prion disease.

There is no cure for prion disease yet but a way of preventing the build-up of amyloid plaques (dead misfolded proteins which occur in prion disease as well as in Parkinson's, multiple schlerosis, Alzheimers, Huntington's, Crohn's, rheumatoid arthritis and late onset diabetes) may be of benefit to many.

The book ends by explaining the author's interest: he too has a degenerate disease, although his has a slow chronic nature. He is somewhat dismissive of his condition, and I suppose in comparison to FFI it seems less dramatic, but I found his attitude both heroic and affecting.

Ninenteenth Sunday Salon 12.50

The last two chapters of THE FAMILY THAT COULDN'T SLEEP have been revelatory in many ways. Chapter 8 deals with the examination of the evidence for the prion (some scientists still do not accept that there is such a thing). The prion diseases are unique in that they can be passed on genetically, by infection between individuals and also sporadically (ie spontaneously), and the idea of a prion, ie a protein that is manufactured following instructions from a gene, satisfactorily explains these observations.

The rogue protein is thought to have two different shapes: a healthy shape which has an unknown function, and a malign shape which causes the disease. Simply by folding in a different way, the unhealthy form of the protein acts as a template for other healthy proteins and makes them fold in this dangerous way too. So ingesting one of these tiny molecules, or inheriting a faulty gene which causes the protein to be folded in the the wrong way or having just one molecule fold the wrong way by chance causes other healthy proteins to fold the wrong way too.

However not everyone believes this and the two main scientists involved - Stanley Prusiner and Carleton Gajdusek - are controversial figures. Both, the book says, are egoists. Gajdusek, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine for his work on Kuru in New Guinea, is a maverick character who spurns western philosophy and has been jailed for pedophilia (after importing and caring for 56 Melanesian and Micronesian preteens); while Prusiner seems to be intensely competitive and when 'asked by the New England Journal of Medicine to judge a paper submitted by Paul Brown. Prusiner recommended that the NEJM reject it and then submitted a similar one based on his lab's work...'. The book later points out that in today's age it is necessary for the researcher to be entrepreneurial and form alliances to keep his work going - which seems to go some way towards a justification for this behaviour.

In fact it is to the credit of the author of this book that he presents these unsavory characteristics of the scientists involved and yet never makes them out to be villains. His approach is balanced - because he shows that both of these men also have hugely admirable qualities - and these weaknesses of character make them somehow endearing and human, at least to me.

Chapter 9 goes back to the unfortunate Italian family and the members that died just fifteen years ago. At each stage the mystery unravels a little more according to the advances in medical knowledge and equipment available. The EEGs of the patients show that their quality of the 'sleep' that they have it strange; it goes from wakefulness to REM and during this REM sleep there is none of the usual paralysis - the patients remain mobile and restless. The EEGs also show a ressemblance to the EEGs of people with CJD and hence there is the first indication that this might be a prion disease too.

Nineteenth Sunday Salon 9.30

It is easy to imagine that you have Fatal Familial Insomnia (FFI). It starts with a strange turn: one patient described a sudden shock from head to toe and then vertigo. Then night-time fever follows, with the pupils of the eyes contracting to pin-pricks, and the neck becoming stiff; but the worst symptom of all is that the patient doesn't sleep. I guess everyone knows the some of the debilitating effects of insomnia - the tearfulness, the anxiety and agitation, the loss of memory and depression - and in FFI this goes on for months. In the end the patient is reduced to lying, exhausted and twitching and perfectly conscious, until some side-effect - like drowning in the patient's own saliva due to a non-working swallowing mechanism - is fatal. An autopsy reveals that the adrenal gland, which produces adrenaline and cortisol, is burnt out, as if the person lying on the bed 'has been running away from lions' for months on end. The only other clue is the thalamus which is full of holes. FFI, like scrapie in sheep, BSE in cattle and CJD and Kuru in man, is a disease caused by prions.

THE FAMILY THAT COULDN'T SLEEP by is the aptly but strangely titled history of prion discovery by D.T.Max. It is cleverly structured, rather like a literary novel: the family history of this disease from the earliest recorded case - a doctor living in Cassanova's eighteenth century Venice - to the modern day where his descendants wait for the ominous signs that they too are afflicted, is recorded in chapters which are interspersed with the general history of the discovery of prion disease. So far I have read about scrapie (coincidentally first recorded at about the time that the doctor lived), kuru and CJD. The way the mystery is unfolding is fascinating and wonderfully described. At the moment I am on chapter 8, in the 1970s and have to stop for breakfast...

Saturday, March 08, 2008

The Design and Lithography of Books (part 1)

When I buy a hardback (which is rare), I love to take off the paper cover and look at the cloth underneath. It seems like something hidden-away, a kind of secret discovery. I sometimes wonder about who chooses all that cloth and gilt. Who thinks about the colour of cloth, the design of the letters, the size and the binding?

Last Saturday I went to a very interesting talk on self-publishing at the Society of Authors in Manchester.

Geoff Fisher (who is a sales manager at Antony Rowe, a printing firm which specialises in books) is clearly a man who loves the printed page. He relishes the old names of the fonts (e.g. Helvetica, Times New Roman), and the sizes of books (e.g. large crown Octavo)

He gave us some interesting facts about the process of printing.

Litho or digital

For print runs of over 300 then the litho method is the best; but it costs just as much to reprint each time. The litho method is also good for grey-shading and there are greater binding options. It is best to use multiples of 32 pages.

Digital is the preferred option for print runs less than 300. It is not so good for shading but better for colour, and the range of paper used is more limited.

Estimating the correct print run is essential. He suggested doing a pilot run of the book in digital print to assess the market before committing to litho.

Enhancing the book

The book should be given to the printer as a pdf

Colour is good if used wisely, and these together with black and white images should be chosen with care.

Paper is 30-60% the cost of the book and it is essential to take advice on this and to see samples.

Laminating the cover enhances the look of the book as do coloured end papers, head and tail bands (which are inexpensive).


It is best to stick to serif typefaces (those with embellishments at the ends of lines) e.g. antiqua, or century.

Sans serif e.g. ariel, should be avoided.

Chapter headings should take up half a page and should preferably be on the right hand page.

Lines of type should not be too wide (7-10 words per line) and should not be too close together.

Margins and other white spaces are also important.

Geoff Fisher recommends that to get a good-looking product an author should work with a student of printing. It will give good practice to the student and a superior product to the author.

To be continued (including advice on P.O.D.)

Friday, March 07, 2008


Spring is here. This morning I heard the frogs diving in a panic as I walked past, and then, when I looked, there were two massive clumps of frogspawn. Maybe I shall bring them inside again as I did four years ago - I love seeing tadpoles turn into frogs.

Spring is in my kitchen too now. On Wednesday night I had fun giving my talk on 'Madness in the Nineteenth Century' to some local reading groups. They were a great audience and at the end they gave me these flowers. Every time I pass them I feel happy.

It was also Hodmandod Minor's birthday recently and he insisted that I make a cake. It took ages and I am not sure that the result was worth all the effort, but Hodmandod Minor liked eating it...