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Sunday, 29 April 2012

Verruca Music

Verruca Music

of course i could have used the traditional ovine sleep induction method but frankly the sheer effort required to imagine two thousand five hundred and eighty four sheep shambling over a rickety old gate was beyond the poor old bonce and enough to make the heart sink

and god knows the heart did sink

Stuart Estell, Verruca Music

There are a lot of new books appearing at the moment. A lot. I don’t think people are writing more. People have always written and will continue to write long after typing has completely replaced handwriting. It’s just there are more people and, with the advent of print on demand and current popularity of the ebook, publishing has become a whole lot easier. I spend a lot of time looking at what people are writing, especially those writers who—for a variety of reasons—have chosen to publish their work in electronic formats, and most of the time I’m disappointed by what I see being written as it’s populist, one step above fan fiction, tailored to specific demographics, e.g. pubescent girls who’ve read all the The Southern Vampire Mysteries, Twilight novels and Vampire Diaries. And that’s fine: pubescent girls have as much right to read as anyone else.

But what if you want to read something different? You scan the predictable list of genres—horror, check; sci-fi, check; romance, check; thriller, check—but there’s no entry for ‘different’ or ‘quirky’ or ‘wait till you read this folks’ and that’s a shame because I find that most people are generally attracted to things that are out of the ordinary, once their attention is drawn to them, if the person who’s trying to catch your eye can find some way to shout louder than all the other people out there who are clamouring for your attention.

The thing is people have been writing ‘different’ and ‘quirky’ books for decades but mostly no one hears about them, which is a shame because some of them are quite good. I imagine when James Joyce published Finnegans Wake there were quite a few people who said to their mates, “Wait till you read this,” in perhaps not an entirely complimentary tone but, love it or loathe it, one thing you can’t say about Finnegans Wake is that it followed in the footsteps of others. As more writers blaze trails it gets harder and harder to read anything that you couldn’t say is in some way derivative. This brings me to Stuart Estell’s novelette Verruca Music which is available now in both print and ebook format from eight cut gallery press. This is how they describe the book:

It is absurdist comedy of the very blackest kind, informed by a love of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Peter Cook and The Goon Show. Featuring the Fibonacci sequence, floors that open up without warning, a powerful laxative, and a duvet that periodically changes colour, Verruca Music charts the narrator’s emergence from a state of fearful near-immobility assisted only by entertainments of his own devising.

I’m sure that blurb would be enough to put most people off and that’s a terrible shame. In an interview Dan Holloway, a founding member of Year Zero Writers and curator of eight cuts gallery press, had this to say about why he decided to, as he puts it, throw his hat into the ring and set up the press:

The goal is simple – to get people excited about great writing. The philosophy is equally simple – there’s great writing out there you don’t know exists, and you should. Not by making it conform to the traditional preconceptions of what stories and books are, but by putting it out there in whatever shape it wants to take and selling the public a ringside seat.

So, okay, let’s say that you read that paragraph before you read the blurb; might you be persuaded to put aside any preconceptions you had and maybe have a look at the book? If you’re still reading, let’s pretend you have. Here’s the opening:

suppose one fallen morning i failed to arise from beneath the frayed blue duvet that was my shelter

arms charged and electric with the needly shakiness of it all

the mattress on the floor constituted resting place domicile and protector all in one to whit the floor felt as though it might open up but the mattress did not

well and how do you suppose that the mattress prevented the floor from opening up

the mattress prevented the floor from opening up by providing a squashy surface into which the heart might sink

and god knows the heart did sink

the heart sank the arms felt all needly and the restless feet went swish swish swish swish back and forth back and forth back and forth

the feet went swish and the heart sank

the heart sank and the feet went swish

back and forth

Okay so you’ll have noticed a couple of things. There is no punctuation and the grammar is a bit iffy too and not because it needs a decent editor to take charge of it. I can imagine that a great many people will read that first page—if, indeed, they manage to get through the first page—and read no further and there will be nothing I or anyone else will be able to say to persuade them to turn the page and that’s okay; it’s a shame but it is okay. There will be others—and I was one—who, after reading the first page found myself captivated by the voice and, line by line, found myself with a growing list of questions, basically your five Ws. There was something not unfamiliar about this though.

Now I’m not a great fan of Joyce but I am an aficionado of Beckett even if I’m not so fond of his earlier works which he wrote while he was enthralled with all things Joycean. This is how Wikipedia defines ‘Joycean’:

A text is deemed Joycean when it is reminiscent of the writings of James Joyce, particularly Ulysses or Finnegans Wake. Joycean fiction exhibits a high degree of verbal play, usually within the framework of stream of consciousness. Works that are "Joycean" may also be technically eclectic, employing multiple technical shifts as a form of thematic or subject development. In this latter respect, it is not merely an opaque or evident technique, such as is characteristic of avant garde prose, but technical shifts that are meant to be recognized by the reader and considered as part of the narrative itself. More than anything, however, Joycean has come to denote a form of extreme verbal inventiveness which tends to push the English language towards multi-lingual polysemy or impenetrability. Joycean word play frequently seeks to imply linguistic and literary history on a single plane of communication. It therefore denies readers the simple denotative message traditional in prose in favour of the ambiguity and equivocal signification of poetry.

How It IsAnd although I can see some of that coming through in Verruca Music it was not Joyce that I thought of when I read that opening page, but Beckett, and late-period Beckett at that, once he had become his own man. This is how his novel How It Is opens:

how it was I quote before Pim with Pim after Pim how it is three parts I say it as I hear it

voice once without quaqua on all sides then in me when the panting stops tell me again finish telling me invocation

past moments old dreams back again or fresh like those that pass or things always and memories I say them as I hear them murmur them in the mud

in me that were without when the panting stops scraps of an ancient voice in me not mine

my life last state last version ill-said ill-heard ill-recaptured ill-murmured in the mud brief movements of the lower face losses everywhere

The writing is dense, poetic and not an easy read even if, like me, you are well-versed in his œuvre. It features, though, some common threads that appear throughout many of Beckett’s works, especially his prose pieces, the main one being a character trying to come to terms with the nature of his existence. In this case we have someone crawling through mud dragging a sack with them and, whilst making painfully slow progress, they encounter an other (in this case Pim), another common feature. Sometimes the other is real but mostly imagined (or possibly ghostly) like the voice that harangues Joe in Eh Joe or the voice of the mother in Footfalls. This is what the old woman in Rockaby hopes to see as she stares out of her window:

another creature there
somewhere there
behind the pane
another living soul
one other living soul
till the end came
in the end came
close of a long day

In Molloy’s case it is a literal voice he hears in his head:

I have spoken of a voice giving me orders, or rather advice. It was on the way home I heard it for the first time. I paid no attention to it.

In Verruca Music the other is also a voice that engages in a dialogue with the body in the bed, correcting him (e.g. when he gets the colour of the duvet wrong) or challenging him in other ways. This is a very typical Beckettian trope. As is the body in the bed (or the mud) or contained in some other way. In the novella The End it’s a boat the narrator covers with boards to form a lid:

It completely covered the boat, I’m referring to the lid. I pushed it a little towards the stern, climbed into the boat by the bow, crawled to the stern, raised my feet and pushed the lid back towards the bow till it covered me completely. […] The lid fitted so well I had to pierce a hole. It’s no good closing your eyes, you must learn to leave them open in the dark, that is my opinion. I am not speaking of sleep, I am speaking of what I believe is called waking. In any case, I slept very little at this period, I wasn’t sleepy, or I was too sleepy, I don’t know, or I was afraid, I don’t know. […] I let farts to be sure, but hardly ever a real crack, they oozed out with a sucking noise, melted in the mighty never. I don’t know how long I stayed there. I was very snug in my box, I must say.

Converting a boat is, unusual it has to be said—Beckett’s protagonists being inclined to indolence—but it’s a good example of taking extreme measures to withdraw from society. Mostly his characters are content to stay, as does the narrator in Verruca Music, in bed and have someone fetch and carry for them. This is how Estell describes his benefactor:

are you listening young man


make sure you are listening young man for i will be testing you later

something about being in your mid-30s

that is exactly so and moreover thinning of hair portly of paunch steadfast of political opinions and floundering of career due to circumstances beyond the control of himself myself yourself or indeed anyself at all and henceforth domiciled atop a pleasantly squashy blanket that prevented the floor from opening up and swallowing the nutrition left by a generous hand

what was that come again i thought it was a mattress and that the heart was sinking into the floor or something similar

something similar yes for listen you must agree must you not that a squashy blanket is not a million miles away from a squashy mattress and the floor opening up and swallowing our beloved protagonist is scarcely a few hundred yards at a walking pace away from the floor opening up and swallowing the nutrition left by a generous hand which in any case it never did


open up and swallow the nutrition

CompanyThis section opens with the voice of the other who insinuates himself into the text from early on, a voice in the darkness under the duvet whose existence is never explained or questioned. The setting is very like the opening to Beckett’s Company:

A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.

To one on his back in the dark. This he can tell by the pressure on his hind parts and by how the dark changes when he shuts his eyes again and when he opens them again.

The “generous hand” is another feature that crops up in Beckett. In First Love the male narrator, having moved in with the prostitute Anna, settles down to a life of being taken care of:

She brought me my meals at the appointed hours, looked in now and then to see if all was well and make sure I needed nothing, emptied the stewpan once a day and did out the room once a month. She could not always resist the temptation to speak to me, but on the whole gave me no cause to complain.

We have, of course, similar scenes in Molloy and especially Malone Dies:

One day I found myself here, in the bed. Having probably lost consciousness somewhere, I benefit by a hiatus in my recollections, not to be resumed until I recovered my senses, in this bed. […] I am naked in this bed, in the blankets, whose numbers I increase and diminish as the seasons come and go. I am never hot, never cold. I don’t wash, but I don’t get dirty. If I get dirty somewhere I rub the part with my finger wet with spittle. What matters is to eat and excrete. Dish and pot, dish and pot, these are the poles. In the beginning the woman came right into the room, bustled about, enquired about my needs, my wants. I succeeded in the end in getting them into her head, my needs and my wants. It was not easy. She did not understand. […] She is an old woman. I don’t know why she is good to me. Yes, let us call it goodness, without quibbling.

Estell’s protagonist is slightly more creative, however, when it comes to sanitation:

calling the sounds of the feet to mind also had the great advantage that it was no longer necessary to attempt to maintain a level of hygiene by washing the fingers one by one in the large mug of tea which was a great relief as it had nearly gone over more than once

The main problem each faces, both Beckett’s characters and Estell’s, is how to wile away the hours. Thinking is the most obvious, and easiest, choice and much of this is done: wallowing in the past, contemplating the present and considering what the future might hold; I list them in order of ease.

One of the voices in Beckett’s That Time remembers the folly where he hid as a child of between ten and twelve looking at a “picture book” and talking to himself for company, making up “imaginary conversations” while his family were out in the dark looking for him. The protagonist in Company reminisces about being a small boy coming out of Connolly’s Stores and other of Beckett’s characters try to gain some comfort in looking back to, if not the good times exactly, then the not so bad times. The protagonist in Verruca Music recalls being fifteen:

o suppose for a moment i am fifteen years old and the composer of a fine musical work but spotty of face uncertain of mien septic of toenail and covered in eczema although nowhere obvious thank the lord or whoever it is best to thank these days and anyway i roll into school one morning to discover that i am unable to


to breathe

Malone prefers to makes up stories:

What tedium. And I call that playing.

Estell’s protagonist plays by devising entertainments, in much the same way as Molloy occupied himself with his sucking stones:

having established that entertainment was required it became obvious that entertainment could take the form of tasks set by way of a things to do list to keep focus diverted away from the floor opening up mattress frayed duvet et cetera and that structured entertainment might reduce the amount of


swish swish backwards and forwards and the sinking of the heart

One of the tasks involves the titular verruca:

suppose for a moment that the first entertainment was THE PICKING OF THE FEET

let us enumerate the potential paths avenues and vistas of satisfaction to be derived

the feet both with slightly knobbly big toes from an early onset of arthritis rheumatism deformity or general inherited knobbliness and crooked middle toes from goodness knows what seemed to provide several means of keeping occupied to whit a verruca on the underside of the right foot slightly sore to the touch could be investigated and poked and prodded to provide interesting sensations and in the hopes that it might go away

the depth of the verruca was revealed to be somewhat alarming

well and could you not have had the verruca treated

o do be quiet and listen

the width of the verruca was equally revealed to be somewhat alarming engendering the fear that the entire toe to which it belonged might be eaten through by the fibrous consuming warty mass

picking at the edges of the crater of the verruca with the right hand holding the foot steady and the left hand at the business end of things made a pleasant clicking sound due to the hardened skin from the days and years spent wandering around with nary a thread or clog between the soles of the feet and the hardness of the earth

different sounds proved possible depending upon the manner in which the picking was done to whit picking eastwards towards the arch gave the lowest pitch which one could almost persuade oneself was something approaching a dull thud

picking southwards towards the heel yielded not a click but a rasp of bitten fingernail upon hardened skin as the south edge of the verruca was not as well-defined while picking westwards was entirely the opposite with a satisfying crisp crack

north gave the highest-pitched sound

a sweet gentle sound

or as sweet and gentle a sound as one can make by picking at a verruca with the fingernails

Hence the title of the book. And the need to wash the fingers in the large mug of tea. The voice too is a form of entertainment, as Beckett puts it in Company:

Yet a certain activity of mind however slight is a necessary complement of company. That is why the voice does not say, You are on your back in the dark and have no mental activity of any kind. The voice alone is company but not enough.

In ‘Heard in the Dark 2’ Beckett’s protagonist does calculations to pass the time:

You close your eyes and try to calculate the volume. Simple sums you find a help in times of trouble. A haven.

Estell’s protagonist is somewhat more adventurous:

counting provided relief in the middle of the dark and tremulous night but not of the ordinary kind no no not that in fact the fibonacci sequence was used to great effect although it became difficult to keep track once past the first few handfuls of steps one one two three five eight is all easy enough but god knows the trouble i had with getting as far as two thousand five hundred and eighty four in fact i venture to suggest that i may never have got there although i would like to think


god knows the number of times that the jolly old fibonacci got restarted you would think that i would get the hang of it but it was like something new each time this due to the generous intervention of the non-anaesthetic chemical sedation several hours previously one one two three five eight et cetera

of course i could have used the traditional ovine sleep induction method but frankly the sheer effort required to imagine two thousand five hundred and eighty four sheep shambling over a rickety old gate was beyond the poor old bonce and enough to make the heart sink

and god knows the heart did sink

mercierandcamierBut where is all this headed? Beckett’s characters notoriously fail to reach an end, whether it be Mercier and Camier winding up exactly where they started off from or Vladimir and Estragon who never even leave their starting spot. The question here is: Will the guy in the bed ever get out of it? As the work progresses we start to figure out what he’s doing there and who “the kindly hands that brought nutrition” belong to and it’s really not that complex. But I won’t spoil it.

The influence of Beckett and Joyce is unmistakable. In a short interview the author says:

I’ve been enormously affected by Finnegans Wake and the questions it poses about literature in general. If we all form part of the same narrative, then any individual experience can be generalised and vice versa. I find Finnegans Wake an extraordinarily human book for that reason – to quote our Beloved Chancellor, “we’re all in this together.”

The most obvious models for the narrator of Verruca Music, in terms of narrators who don’t really do a great deal and are in some sort of state of dilapidation, are the three in Beckett’s Trilogy – Molloy, Malone [Dies] and The Unnamable. I’m sure the reason why some readers find Beckett thoroughly depressing is that he holds a totally unforgiving mirror up to the absurdity of life. As a hoary old existentialist I find the pointlessness of his characters’ situations both absolutely hilarious and deeply moving.

I can see why his publisher might have mentioned the Goons and Peter Cook but, for me, they’re a bit of a stretch; the book is neither silly enough to evoke the Goons not satirical enough to suggest Peter Cook at his best but if you appreciate both of these then you’ve clearly got the right mindset to give Verruca Music a go.

Gary Varga, one of the reviewers on Smashwords—who gave the book five stars incidentally—had this to say:

Part of the charm is this being kept in the dark with regards to superfluous information which would weigh down such a light hearted read. By light hearted I mean exactly that. This is easy to read but has a dark malevolence always in the shadows. For me the scenario eludes to a far darker situation than the one admitted to.

And I have to agree with him, especially with regards to the light heartedness of the book. Beckett can be funny, yes, but it’s a certain kind of humour and it often goes over the heads of people. Perhaps because his protagonists are often octogenarians (if they can even remember their ages) and seem to exist outwith a time and place that most of us can relate to. There’s not one of us who hasn’t been sick in bed and that’s a very familiar place to start off with. This book is not Beckett-lite or even Joyce-lite; it is its own thing even if it’s not ashamed of its influences.

The book is available as an ebook from Amazon or Smashwords for pennies or as a paperback from Lulu for £8.00. I was delighted when a friend on Facebook directed me to it which is how I ran across it. Makes one wonder how much other good stuff there is out there that none of us know anything about.


EstellHailing from Birmingham in the West Midlands, singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist Stuart Estell performs on more instruments than is healthy—mainly concertina and dulcimer, but nothing's off-limits really. Except woodwind. He doesn't get on with woodwind. He likes loose-leaf tea, Morton Feldman, cheese and Land Rovers apparently; he currently runs a 1993 Defender 110 County. He’s also so passionate about cacti he blogs about them at Blossfeldiana.

Verruca Music is his first long prose work as far as I can tell—he calls it a ‘novel’ although I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to word counts—but he really says very little about his writing on his website. He has, apparently, been writing a small amount of verse for the first time in years and several of his poems are up on the Year Zero Writers website: These Days, Sphaeroid, two poems and an untitled poem from the Higgs Boson Anthology. You can hear samples of his music on his myspace page too.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Aggie and Shuggie 33

Gold Star


[Knock Knock Knock] Ma! Da! Get up.


[Throwing the bedroom door open] Whit is it, hen? Is it yer gran? Huff we bin burgled? Hus the doag swallayed the remote agin?


Naw. Nuhin like tha. This! [Holds up her laptop] Huff ye seen this?


Whit hen?


Unca Jim’s hud a wan star refyoo.


A whit? Yoo are yankin ma chain. Do noat joke aboot stuff like tha.


Ah’m no jokin ma. Wan star! Wan!


Ssssssh. Keep yer voice doon. Yer’ll wake yer faither. If e gets t’hear news like tha afore is second cuppa coffee e’ll go ballistic.


Ah know but…


Jist hawd yer horses. [Quickly closes the door] Now, han it ower. Whit pillock in thur right mind wid gie oor Jim a wan star refyoo?


Brad Frederiksen.


Sounds Scandinavian.


E’s an Aussie.


Ah thought they wur aw cawd ‘Bruce’.


Apparently no.


Right. E must huff goan doolally frae aw tha sun an the coanstant diet o prawns an beer. Now see us that laptop ower ere.


[Hands it over] See, Ma!


Wheesht girl. Ah’m readin.




It’s sno tha bad. Did ye read it aw?


Naw. Ah jist saw the wan star bit an thought Ah’d need tae show wan o yoos two so we could buy a plane ticket an fly doon thur an stick the nut in im.


If ye click oan the link e says, “Ah’m gein Living wi the Truth a ratin o wan star. Fer that star Ah’ve chosen the brightest star in the Southern Croass t’night.


Oh. Ah get it. E’s bein clever. Very witty. Whit else did e say tha Ah missed?


Ah’m readin! Hang oan. Wait, in this comment ere e says, “Thur is a philosophical depth tae Living wi the Truth … Ah’ve personally found it tae be an engaging an stimulating read – wan that has stuck wi me since Ah first read it last year. Ah recommend it highly t’anywan who likes a guid dose o human insight, escapism, an humour wi their Philosophy o Truth.


Thank Christ fer that.


Aye, ye hud me worried thur. Ah wud no like tae be the person tae upset yer da wi crap like tha.


Me neither, ma.


Right. Stick the kettle oan, hen, an Ah’ll go an tell is lordship the guid news.

Thursday, 19 April 2012



[W]hat is an old man but a memory machine? – Anthony McCarten, Brilliance

Historical fiction is a problematic genre. On one level it’s great for the author because he or she has the plot already laid out for them and all they have to do is fill in the blanks (which is a gross oversimplification, I know); the reader on the other hand has the worry that as he or she knows in advance what’s going to happen they will find little to surprise them in the text. An excellent example of getting it right—okay, I know, it’s a film—is the script to Apollo 13 which had me sitting on the edge of my seat and I’d lived through it. Good historical fiction is not simple biography: Mr X went here on such and such a date and did y. It has to do more than inform; it has to engage and involve.

Anthony McCarten is not an historical novelist, at least I wouldn’t have pegged him as one. I’ve read and reviewed two of his previous novel: Spinners (which The Mirror described as `An impressive novel full of alien abductions and small town neuroses...Weird, witty and wonderful.') and Death of a Superhero, a novel about a teenage boy who, although he’s dying from leukaemia, is more interested in losing his virginity. Both are the kind of books I appreciate managing to balance dark humour with serious and meaningful content. So when I heard he had a new book coming out I was interested. It didn’t really matter to me what it was going to be about; I’d want to read it.

EdisonAs it happens it was about Thomas Alva Edison, a real person, the fourth most prolific inventor in history, holding 1,093 US patents in his name. His best known inventions include a stock ticker, the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and a long-lasting, practical electric light bulb, hence the title of McCarten’s novel, Brilliance. Thankfully I knew nothing about him. If you’d asked me a week before I got the book who invented the light bulb I would have stared blankly at you. I deliberately didn’t read anything about the man before I began. The only name that jumped out at me as I read was Nikola Tesla and I only knew his name because he appears as a part-human, part-vampire scientist in Sanctuary, as himself in The Inspector Murdoch Mysteries and is name-checked in Warehouse 13 as the supposed inventor of the electric handgun the agents use.

It took me a little while to get into the book, mainly because it’s not exactly written chronologically, but once the basic shape came clear I began to enjoy it better. It feels a bit like a novelisation of a screenplay which considering McCarten’s writing credits is not surprising. In some respects it reminds me of The Last Journey, a television play by James Forsyth in which we have a dying Tolstoy at Astapovo train station looking back on his life. In McCarten’s book we have a decrepit Edison (two years away from death) sitting on a bench at Walker’s Cross station in 1929 in the company of a local fifteen-year-old boy who dreams of moving to New York and becoming a millionaire. The boy realises that the crotchety old man is someone famous but he can’t place him.

When Edison began courting his second wife in 1886, at the age of thirty-nine, in answer to her query as to “what level of disrepair” he was in; he told her—honestly—thirty percent, but a lot happens to him between then and the time he skips off the train to avoid the celebration at Dearborn “where a crowd of four hundred [including] the giants of the business world” are assembling to honour him on this the “golden jubilee of his greatest invention.” He wants none of it. He had always been hard of hearing; his war cry throughout the book is “Eighty decibels!” but now that’s been hiked to one hundred. He sits there, chews tobacco, tolerates the boy’s presence but mostly spends the time he figures he’ll have until his absence is noticed and the train reverses back to collect him thinking about the ups and downs of his career and the careers of those that were intertwined with his: the aforementioned Nikola Tesla (once his assistant), George Westinghouse, one of Edison's main rivals in the early implementation of the American electricity system who favoured a arrangement which used alternating current (based on the extensive research by Tesla) over Edison's insistence on direct current and John Pierpont Morgan an American financier, banker and art collector who dominated corporate finance and industrial consolidation during his time to such an extent that he was known as the “Boss of the United States.” What Brilliance focuses on is what came to be known as the War of the Currents which might have done as a title but Brilliance is better.

During the initial years of electricity distribution, Edison's direct current was the standard for the United States, and Edison did not want to lose all his patent royalties. Direct current worked well with incandescent lamps, which were the principal load of the day, and with motors. Direct-current systems could be directly used with storage batteries, providing valuable load-levelling and backup power during interruptions of generator operation. Direct-current generators could be easily paralleled, allowing economical operation by using smaller machines during periods of light load and improving reliability. At the introduction of Edison's system, no practical AC motor was available. Edison had invented a meter to allow customers to be billed for energy proportional to consumption, but this meter worked only with direct current. As of 1882 these were all significant technical advantages of direct current. – Wikipedia

Four years earlier Edison might have been hard pushed to imagine such a bright future. We find him at the beginning of the novel in his laboratory:

On the workbench a crude light bulb burned. The weak glow produced by it was as yet not strong enough to illuminate the hilltop laboratory, but six gaslights made up for it, throwing light into the large workroom and onto the desk on which the inventor lay curled.

Alva. Thirty-two years old. A shabby Prince Albert coat. Deeply asleep after his three-day vigil watching over each new prototype of the electric lamp. And neither the phonographic recording, long since having finished playing an aria (cycling only static now), nor the several long hoots of the New York to Menlo Park could wake the exhausted genius.

He is roused by a young inventor, Whitcomb Judson, who is seeking his hero’s opinion on what he has been calling “an ‘Automatic Continuous Clothing-Closure Device’” although he admits the name is a bit long-winded. Whilst looking over the young man’s proposal they are interrupted by Sheriff Taylor from Menlo Park, there to serve Edison with papers due to unpaid loans; the premises in which he is currently working, his farmlands and every property in his name is to be auctioned off to pay his creditors. Despite being a genius, despite a number of successful inventions, despite his fame he is far from being a success. At least not financially.

Tesla3Edison can’t see the point in Judson’s device although he sees immediately what it is, “a plough in reverse, it draws the divided tracks together” but pooh-poohs it just as when, some months earlier, he had dismissed Tesla’s motor and generator which ran on AC as “dangerous” at which point the two parted company. (The fact that Edison refused to pay him the $15,000 Tesla maintained he owed him can’t have helped.) Time has shown that both alternating current and zip fasteners would find a firm place in all our lives but this wasn’t the first time Edison had failed to see the bigger picture; in 1895 he invented the Kinetophone—a Kinetoscope (peep-hole motion picture viewer) with a phonograph that played inside the cabinet. Sound could be heard through two ear tubes while the viewer watched the images. This creation never really took off, and by 1915 Edison abandoned the idea of sound motion pictures. Six years later D. W. Griffith's feature Dream Street was shown in New York with a single singing sequence and crowd noises and six years after that The Jazz Singer premiered with fully synchronised sound.

I mention this not to take away from his successes but to place them in perspective. Edison needed people to develop his ideas and support him and this is where J P Morgan enters the picture. At this time—1878—he is merely the “Napoleon of Wall Street” but he was never a man content with any of his achievements. On the 21st of December he decides to pay the inventor a visit, shortly after Edison has received his other two visitors but before the inventor found himself homeless. Morgan has a proposition but before he can present it he has to endure Edison’s scrutiny of his nose. Why his nose? Let me explain:

No prominent figure in history had been lumbered with such a nose, not even Giovanni de’ Medici whose prodigious papal profile necessitated the Vatican’s first rectangular coin. But J. Pierpont Morgan … was strangely pleased with his own disfigurement, and he would not swap it now for the prettiest nose in Christendom. It was as if to say, “I am extraordinary. And so I will look extraordinary.”

As severe a case of rhinophyma as any doctor had ever seen, it had, over the last two years, mutated to twice its original size, and was now ivied with fine blue veins, a postulated, bulbous magma of warty tissue with the texture of a cauliflower. Bizarre, revolting, upsetting to strangers, he carried it nonetheless with a kind of mad bravado. Cures were available and repeatedly offered, but he stubbornly refused to pursue them.

Edison is not upset by the ginormous schnook, not in the least; actually he presumes that Morgan has heard about his “work [i]n the field of electro-therapeutic forces. A whole new field [he was] opening up single-handed.” He suggests running a current through the man’s proboscis:

“A current? Through my nose?”

“Five ampere would do it. To excite the particles, reinvigorate the tissue, reawaken cellular intelligence.”

That is not, however, why he has come; no:


“I see. And can I ask – which one? I have so many.”

It is only the one, however, that Morgan sees as a real money maker and he is direct to the point of bluntness: he proposes to illuminate America, beginning with his own home, followed by the rest of New York and ultimately the whole of America, not that he is content to leave it there; Europe is also in his sights:

Morgan“From the Caspian to the English Channel. Light it with your electric lamp. Streets, houses, offices. I’ll arrange the finance. What do you say? Agreed?”

At this point in time of course Edison has not lit up a single house but Morgan is not put off: “I have a vision ... you see.”

The rest, as they say, is history but I wonder how many people are completely (or even slightly) au fait with that history? I certainly wasn’t. But as I got into the book a nugget of information concerning Edison dislodged itself; I had read about him only recently! When I reviewed Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain I remember learning that Edison electrocuted an elephant called Topsy in 1904:

Topsy was fed carrots laced with 460 grams of potassium cyanide before the deadly current from a 6,600-volt AC source was sent coursing through her body, partly as a demonstration of how "unsafe" his competitor's (Nikola Tesla) alternating current design was. She was dead within seconds. The event was witnessed by an estimated 1,500 people and Edison's film of the event was seen by audiences throughout the United States. – Wikipedia

Oddly enough this incident doesn’t make it into McCarten’s book—no doubt she’ll be found in the two hundred pages he cut from his first draft—but the whole farcical debacle concerning the electrocution of criminals does. It might seem an odd thing for Edison to get caught up in, especially bearing in mind that he was opposed to capital punishment, but he was quite sincere in his belief that AC was potentially lethal making execution the only sensible use for it. So he ended up working on an electric chair. He didn’t conceive of the idea though. That dubious honour goes to Alfred P. Southwick, a member of a committee established in New York to determine a more humane method of execution to replace hanging. He developed the idea of running electric current through a condemned man after hearing a case of how relatively painlessly and quickly a drunk man died due to touching exposed power lines but it was employees of Edison who were tasked with the chair’s construction, testing and (if you’ll pardon the pun) execution. To prove the danger of AC electricity and its suitability for what they were calling “electricide”, Brown and Edison publicly killed many animals with AC for the press in hopes of associating alternating current with electrical death and McCarten doesn’t shy from describing two and alluding to others, just not the elephant.

Tesla was not beyond pandering to the press although his party trick using AC was less grotesque. He would stand on stage and have himself wired up and allow electricity to pour through his body and not just ten or twenty volts:

The alternating current surged into him.

tesla2Then the 20,000 mark… and the 50,000… the 100,000, and then – fighting to remain calm, his limbs beginning to shudder, the sinews on his neck to stand out – the 150,000 mark! He was a madman. In his determination to legitimise his radical ideas, trying to show no ill effects, it was increasingly clear to the audience that with 10,000 times the voltage a person could be expected to withstand coursing through him, the scientist was approaching – no, exceeding – the limits of endurance. His body vibrated. His shoes shook. His hands were clenched into fists. His jaw chattered, and when he spoke next it was with gritted teeth. “Two… hundred… thousand.” Tesla exclaimed, his long face now crimson under the strain.

At 250,000 he stopped. The audience breathed a sigh of relief. He then did something which silenced the last cynic in the audience:

He picked up from a low table a simple light bulb and thrust it aloft, and in his naked grasp the bulb, dead one second before, came to life, bathing him in orange light. Moans of adoration dwelled about him.

There were, of course, consequences for both men:

Thomas Edison and Tesla were mentioned in a press dispatch as potential laureates to share the Nobel Prize of 1915, leading to one of several Nobel Prize controversies. Some sources have claimed that because of their animosity toward each other neither was given the award, despite their scientific contributions; that each sought to minimize the other's achievements and right to win the award; that both refused ever to accept the award if the other received it first; and that both rejected any possibility of sharing it. – Wikipedia

If you know a bit about electricity it’s easy to explain how Tesla’s party trick worked and why he didn’t fry himself. Edison explains it later in the book. It’s all to do with the difference between amps and volts. Or maybe ohms. I make no pretence to understand it.

I enjoyed this book. On the surface it’s nothing like his other books but that’s not a bad thing; different does not equal bad. It contains some gentle humour and is nowhere near a dry as it could have been. Much of the credit has to go the way the author has fleshed out his characters; they are real, vibrant (often eccentric) people but also real people. There’s a side to Edison—and Morgan even more so—that’s not very nice. Morgan starts off as a businessman and “It’s just business” could have been tattooed across his chest and yet we also get to see his human side too; at his heart he’s quite the tragic character. Edison, on the other hand, is forced into the position of becoming a businessman and it doesn’t suit him one bit. What humanises him are his relationships with his two hard put upon wives, Mary (who died in 1884 at the age of 29) and her replacement Mina (who he married in 1886 and who outlived him). He’s not the best husband in the world—what driven man could be?—but there is a genuine affection between them once they can get his attention. Most touching is the way they send each other messages in Morse code—both wives learned it. (Edison’s first two children to his first wife, Marion and Thomas, were nicknamed ‘Dot’ and ‘Dash’ by the way.)

If the book has any weaknesses it’s due to the fact that it’s not a full blown biography but if it were and had just stuck to the facts it would lose all its colour and charm. Hard to imagine a book like this as a page-turner but it turns into one. That, for me, is neither here nor there. What struck me from the very first chapter—entitled ‘A Vignette’—was the quality of the language. It’s December 31st 1899. Here’s how the book opens:

The inventor poured himself a glass of milk and listened for the twentieth century. A few seconds remained on the clock, but as part of a personal experiment he wanted to drain the milk before the first chimes of midnight.


The century which the New York Times had gone so far as to dedicate to him, naming him “its most significant contributor”, was suddenly a mere anecdote. And he was pleased it was over. Hopefully, he thought, the veneration of him as a God would be over soon as well; also the ludicrous quips that his name was so synonymous with anything new that the very idea of a new century must have come out of his laboratory. No, he wouldn’t regret the closing of “the Eighteens” – good riddance. Let this new century find its new messiah.

McCarten chooses his words carefully and uses language appropriate to the period. I have no doubt that purists will find something to criticise but I’m not one of those. McCarten admits to artistic license, but who is to say if his Thomas Edison is not an accurate portrayal or a complete and utter fabrication? At the end of the day it is a novel, it’s made up of lies that somehow transform into various truths when the covers are opened. I make no bones about it, this is not a book I would have picked up in a bookshop, but that’s why I do these reviews because you never know what is going to electrify you in the nicest way possible or be a shock to the system. This one was … I’m sorry, I’m going to be predictable again and say it … just brilliant.

His guest post over at Elizabeth Baines’ blog entitled ‘Fast and Loose’ is worth a read too if you tend to be the kind of reader who relishes finding inaccuracies in historical novels and his post over at what sarah reads is also of interest because there he reveals how Brilliant managed to find its way from a mountain of research into a play before it finally became a novel.


McCartenAnthony McCarten’s debut novel, Spinners, won international acclaim, and was followed by The English Harem and the award winning Death of a Superhero, all three books being translated into many languages. McCarten has also written twelve stage plays, including the worldwide success Ladies’ Night, which won France’s Molière Prize, the Meilleure Pièce Comique, in 2001. Also a film-maker, he has thrice adapted his own plays or novels into feature films which he directed himself. He has another book out this year too: In The Absence Of Heroes—a sequel to Death of a Superhero—has been published by Random House in his native New Zealand.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

The responsibilities and duties of being a reader in the 21st century


[U]sers are selfish, lazy, and ruthless – Jakob Neilsen, definition of the online reader in ‘Information Foraging: Why Google Makes People Leave Your Site Faster’

This is one of those areas where it’s going to take time to re-educate people. It’s like plastic bags. They’ve been telling us for years to stop using these and although I have a reusable and reasonably manly shopping bag, the number of times I walk into a shop without it is ridiculous. Okay, fair’s fair, we recycle our carrier bags, but the point I’m making is that habits are both hard to break and hard to cultivate in the first place. Some people make sweeping statements about habits:

[…] changing the habit will take 30 days, re-affirming it further for another 30 days will definitely fix it and you'll have no problem to continue from there on. [source: Secret]

but nothing is ever that simple. If you’ve been in the habit of starting the day with real coffee, with two sugars and milk then switching to decaffeinated coffee with one sweetener and no milk takes more than thirty days of forcing the stuff down your throat until you acquire a taste for it. I speak from experience but that’s how I take my coffee these days. It’s drinkable; I’ve got used to it, but I can’t say that I prefer it; I just acknowledge that it’s better for me, especially considering the number of mugs of coffees I can go through in a day.

People are lazy and thoughtless and nowhere do we see this more than online. The more things you expect a person to do the less chance they’ll do it. They expect a button or a hyperlink to be sitting on the screen exactly when they need it pointing to precisely where they want to go and if it’s not there then something shiny will catch their eye and you’ve lost your opportunity for a sale or whatever. Only it’s not really laziness and thoughtlessness is it? I wouldn’t like to be viewed as idle or inconsiderate and I don’t expect you would either but we all behave in ways that make us look that way. It’s a time thing. You have a half-hour lunch break and you decide to pop into a shop to buy a T-shirt. Do you look at the shoes and the jeans or all the other stuff? No, of course not. You stride into the shop with purpose; march straight over to the T-shirts; select one that’s to your tastes, in your size and within your price range; take it to the checkout; queue; check your watch several times; pay and leave. And how long might that take? Five minutes? Ten? Because you’ve still got to find the time to eat lunch and get back to your desk on time.

Time, that’s the problem. None of us has nearly enough. Actually that’s not true. All of us have exactly the same amount of time. The day doesn’t slip by any quicker closer to the poles than it does around the equator or anything like that. Time is not the problem. The problem is what we try to do with the time we have available to use. The average person is capable of reading and understanding between 200 and 250 words per minute. That means someone should be able to read any of my first three novels in under four hours and I suppose there will be people out there who can whoosh through a book like that but I can’t. I can’t concentrate at that level for any more than an hour, besides, I’m not a fast reader. I’ve just taken an online test and it said that my reading speed was between 150 and 200 words per minute. I sat that test about ten minutes ago and I can barely remember what it was about. I know it involved reading the inaugural address by John F Kennedy but I couldn’t have even told you the year he gave it, let alone the date. I’ve just reread it and I can tell you here and now, nothing stuck. Clearly there is reading and there is reading. I read three short essays by Gerald Murnane two night ago and I can still remember the gist of what he was talking about and that’s because I wasn’t under any pressure to read, or in any rush; I read until I felt I’d read enough and stopped; about twenty-five pages I think.

ipad_ibooks_bookshelf1Online reading is a whole different ball game. We skim, our eyes flick over the screen, we get the idea and move on tout de suite. We don’t spend any time looking in the columns to the left or the right of what we’re reading. Occasionally something with catch our eye, something nice and shiny, and it has maybe three or four seconds to hold our attention before we’re off. But what about ebook reading? Do we read ebooks as if they were web pages or pages in a real book? Skim, skim, whoosh, whoosh.

Note to the authors of ebooks: If you want your readers to do something after they’ve read your book then tell them as soon as they’ve finished the book. That’s the beauty of an ebook, you can have a link to Amazon or Smashwords or whatever sitting there and all they have to do is click on it:


Is that too much to ask?

Khaled Hosseini's novel The Kite Runner is said to have sold some ten million books and yet there are only 3475 customer reviews in Amazon (UK and US). Of course 3475 people taking the trouble to pass a comment on your book is not to be sniffed at but it’s still only 0.035% of readers. In June 1997, Bloomsbury published Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone with an initial print-run of 500 copies in hardback, 300 of which were distributed to libraries. The short initial print run was standard for first novels, and they hoped booksellers would read the book and recommend it to customers. It is nothing short of a miracle that Rowling has had the degree of success she has had. How many reviews was she ever going to get on Amazon? About a sixth of one.

If you read a good book do you owe the author anything?

When people talk about reader responsibility online they are usually acknowledging the reader’s role in the completion of a text, for example:

Have you ever reread a book and had a completely different reaction to it than you did the first time? Love turning to hate, confusion to understanding, or disappointment to heart-stopping glee? Not one word of that book changed. You did. In high school I read The Stranger and felt as if my world had been turned upside-down. In college I reread it and found the story flat and uninteresting, and walked away untouched and baffled by my younger reaction. My understanding of the world, my fears, my needs had changed, and so the story changed. The words Camus wrote remained the same; nevertheless, the story completely changed in my mind. Camus didn't do that—I did that.—Shannon Hale, ‘How to be a reader: Reader responsibility’, squeetusblog, 31 August 2008

I’m all in agreement here and I’ve experienced the same but I’m thinking more after the fact, after you’ve read the book. Is that you done your bit? Until recently I would have said it was; I’d paid my money and, to be totally honest, if I’d chosen to use the book as a doorstop no one could argue with me; in fact I have half a dozen poetry books underneath my second laptop as I write this keeping it level, some of which I have not read and likely never will. I wonder if any of the authors were I to list them (which I have no intention of doing) would be willing to send me their royalty payment so I could package the book up and post it back to them? Not me. If you want to buy my books to use as doorstops feel free.

tn_TruthMy first novel, Living with the Truth, has seven reviews on Amazon, two in and the rest on I only knew of one of the reviewers prior to this and he’s more a friend of my wife’s than mine. Most of the others were people on review sites who, in addition to writing a review on their website, also posted something on Amazon. And I am grateful. Considering the number of sales, seven reviews is much better than 0.035% so I guess I shouldn’t whinge. I was going to whinge, if only on general principles, but I’m going to bite my tongue for the moment because I’ve only posted one review on Amazon and only because I was asked. So, it seems a bit hypocritical of me to whinge at people who’ve been kind enough to take a risk on a new name simply because they didn’t do anything to plug my book for me, not that they’ve not been rewarded with a good read, because they have.

The real question is: Do Amazon reviews make any difference? Let’s face it, the vast majority of them are just written by regular readers and they’re just offering an opinion and it would have to be a pretty bad book not to appeal to at least a handful (okay, a couple) of people out there. So, just because a book has one or two glowing reviews does that mean that it might have something going for it?

On the whole I only use the reviews in Amazon as a guide, and a very rough one at that. I’m more inclined to cut and paste the name of the author and their book into Google and see if there are any … and I use this next word with a degree of caution … real reviews out there; by that I mean reviews longer than a paragraph. I am happy with the reviews in Amazon for Living with the Truth. Some are short, others not so much. But what about someone who just stumbles upon my book as you do? Can they trust the reviews?

Let’s see. Let’s take the reviewer known as ‘kehs’ from Hertfordshire, England. They gave Living with the Truth a 5-star review. On checking I find that they have, at the time of my writing this, posted 517 reviews and here are some of their ratings:

None of these books are known to me. Digging through I see a Dawn French novel with 5 stars, a Dick Francis with 4, a James Herbert with 2 which seems a little harsh but maybe it’s a bad book, M J Hyland rightly gets a 5 and yet 2666 by Roberto Bolaño received only 1 star with this comment:

2666I'm almost scared to post this review as so many people have enjoyed 2666 but as I received my copy free from Vine I feel duty bound to post my thoughts. To be completely honest I couldn't get to grips with the story. I found it too long-winded and difficult to get to into. The author's writing style didn't flow for me, either. I was so looking forward to getting stuck into this hefty book but sadly it wasn't to be. However, I seem to be in the minority as most reviews I've read for 2666 have been enthusiastic and full of praise. I think this is one book that I will come back to at a later date for another try.

Have we read enough? Can we trust when he or she (I have no idea of their gender) gave my book 5 stars? Well, I’m not going to argue but who has the time to investigate every reviewer like this? Amazon has created a badge system to help us identify the reviewers credentials and review-worthiness but let’s go back to our opening quote: [U]sers are selfish, lazy, and ruthless. I’m honing in on the ‘lazy’ here, of course. Or if not lazy per se, at least time-strapped. I don’t have the time to investigate the reviewers. Mostly I accept them based on how intelligent they sound, how much they write and how many typos, spelling mistakes and grammatical errors pepper that review. And I make that assessment in seconds.

I might not post reviews on Amazon but I do, eventually, on Goodreads; I usually do a mass-post every few months. Not sure how effective that is but I do it. And that really is the question here: How effective is anything we do online? I get sent books from publishers to review. One of those is Alma Books. A while ago I asked Elisabetta Minervini, the nice lady who sends me these books, how much effect online reviews had on their sales and also how critical it was that I post my reviews as close to the publication date it was and the answer to both questions was she didn’t know. I think a lot of publishers are the same; they think that they need online reviews but don’t know how to measure their success. They don’t hurt, but I’d like to know whether they make back the money even on the review copies they send out. I got two in the post this morning, both hardbacks in a big padded envelope that cost £5.66 to mail. And how many of these books don’t even get reviewed?

Should I be posting short reviews on Amazon in addition to the full reviews I’m writing on my blog? Would it make any difference? Very few people are going to stumble over Pietro Grossi’s novel The Break by clicking aimlessly around Amazon; they’re going to read a review like mine and then go to Amazon to buy, so what does it matter if I post there or not? I clicked on one of the links in the ‘Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought’ section, the one that led to The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. I then looked at what books were listed in that page’s ‘Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought’ section. Needless to say the Pietro Grossi novel was not there, in fact what was there were books that I had been looking at myself only a day or two earlier: Room by Emma Donoghue, The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman and Why Why-Be-Happy-When-You-Could-Be-Normal-by-Jeanette-WintersonBe Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson which I had already bought for my wife. Now all the rest I might be willing to accept, but not the Sarah Winman; that seems so out of place in this list and the only reason I can see why it would be there is that Amazon bunged it in knowing I’d expressed an interest and it was just chancing its arm.

So here’s the thing, if you’ve read one of my books and maybe haven’t reviewed it online or, even if you have, unless you’re one of the seven mentioned above who are exempt, maybe you might think about rattling down a few lines and adding an appropriate star rating which does not have to be a 5—honestly. (Much as I can’t stand them I know they’re a necessary evil.) Or perhaps you might want to do a Listmania® list and include one or two of my books. Or do a review on Goodreads if you happen to be a member, or anywhere else you can think to spread the word. I hate to ask—no, seriously, I really hate to ask—but this seems to be the way: don’t ask, don’t get.

Bottom line though: is there any point to any of this? I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone does know. But it can’t hurt. As for whether you owe me, no—no you don’t. But this is bigger than me. The fact is these days if you want to spread the joy you need to talk to the right people online. You might not know them personally but you might be friends with people who just happen to be friends of some other people who happen to be friends of friends of those people. That’s how it goes. When I’ve enjoyed a good book or a film or heard a song that’s made my hairs stand on end I want to tell people about it but here’s where the “selfish, lazy, and ruthless” quote comes in; unless it’s convenient for us, we don’t do it; we don’t go out of our way to do it; if we happen to think of it we might mention it but usually we forget. My daughter will ask, “Have you guys been watching anything good on TV?” and we’ll think and then say, “Oh, yes, have you seen (Wilfred was the last thing)?” And we’ll tell her about it, enthuse a bit and then the conversation will drift off onto some other subject; the bird will start chattering or something. The odds are she still won’t watch it. Not because she’s selfish, lazy, or ruthless but quite simply because there’s so much going on in her life that by the time she gets her coat on, gives me my hugs and kisses, gets in her car and drives homes she will have completely forgotten about it and be more concerned with what’s she’s going to fix her husband for his supper or making sure the cat receives all the attention he demands or checking to see if she has clean clothes for the morning and remembered to hand in her latest essay or, or, or…

Monday, 9 April 2012

Imagine: How Creativity Works

We know that screw-ups are an essential part of what we do here. That’s why our goal is simple: We just want to screw up as quickly as possible. We want to fail fast. And then we want to fix it. – Lee Unkrich

There are a lot of things in this life that I don't get. Like breathing. I know we have to do it. I know we don't have to think about doing it and our bodies will just get on with it but I really don't get it. And that goes for a lot of things in my life. I get ideas and I write about them. Mostly I write poems; occasionally novels. I can't say that I've not pondered where the ideas come from but never for very long. Sometimes the ideas come while I'm sitting on the loo (quite a common one for me) or two minutes after I've slipped in between the sheets at night and I have to get up to write them down, otherwise I won't be able to sleep. They come in the middle of TV programmes, whilst having sex (once anyway), first thing in the morning on the way to work, in cars, on buses, whilst shopping, in meetings. I've always thought there was no logic to any of it and simply accepted my role in the proceedings: when the ideas come do something with them.
I've stated on numerous occasions that I don't believe in inspiration. Inspiration is just a good idea. And I'm perfectly capable of having ideas on my own. Which I do. But the best ideas always seem to come out of the blue and have little or nothing to do with what's been on my mind. It does make one think that one isn't completely in control of the process. And the fact is that we—i.e. the conscious we—aren't at least not nearly as much as we’d like to think we are.
Jonah Lehrer is an American author and journalist who writes on the topics of psychology, neuroscience and the relationship between science and the humanities. He asks himself much the same questions as I do. Where he and I differ is that he sets out to find answers to questions like why memories endure, what true grit really is or why Las Vegas is fun. Most of the answers to these questions you'll be able to access via his website which links to the many articles he has written for magazines like Wired, The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal. Some subjects, however, are a little too big for single articles and to that end he's written a couple of books: Proust Was a Neuroscientist, How We Decide and his latest, Imagine: How Creativity Work, a copy of which fell through my letter-slot a few days ago; I wasn't expecting it but I'm delighted those nice people at Canongate decided to risk sending me a copy because it was fascinating.
The book is divided into two sections: ALONE and TOGETHER. There are eight chapters and, having only read the first chapter I said to my wife, “You know, there's enough stuff in this one chapter for me to talk about; I don't even have to read the rest of the book.” She pointed out that that is exactly what some reviewers do but reminded me that I wasn't one of those and neither I am so here's a few tasters that jumped out at me from the first few chapters.


1965-LikeARollingStoneThis is my second crack at writing this. The problem with my first crack is that it was 540 words long and basically only talked about how Bob Dylan came to write 'Like a Rolling Stone' which is intriguing but you really need the rest of the chapter to understand what was so important about the song and how he wrote it. Very briefly then: by May 1963 Dylan had had it with the whole music industry, his celebrity status and especially the press and their inane questions; he got on his bike (literally) sans guitar and drove off to a remote cabin in Woodstock with every intention of writing a novel. That never happened. After a few days acclimatising himself to the quiet he did get the urge to write but it wasn't a novel. Dylan says:
I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit, twenty pages long. … I'd never written anything like that before and it suddenly came to me that this is what I should do.
The rest, as they say, is history and a month later he was in a recording studio once again. All very interesting. But what really interests Lehrer is what happened to start Dylan writing this very different song to what he had been recording up until then. Looking back now it's hard to see how different 'Like a Rolling Stone' was but it was nothing less than revolutionary. “Even John Lennon was in awe of the achievement.”
All of us will have had moments of clarity like this; epiphanies, revelations, call them what you will. With me, after a three year period when I'd been unable to write a single poem, it was sitting down and writing two novels back to back in a matter of a few short months. As Lehrer puts it:
Every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer. We have worked hard, but we've hit the wall. We have no idea what to do next.
When we tell one another stories about creativity, we tend to leave out this phase of the creative process. We neglect to mention those days when we want to quit, when we believed that our problems were impossible to solve. Because such failures contradict the romantic version of events—there is nothing triumphant about a false start—we forget about them. … Instead we skip straight to the breakthrough.
It's true. When I talk about that first book I invariably mention that I'd written nothing for three years but that gets one sentence and all the rest of the time I devote to the book. The fact is, when I look back on other “insight experiences,” as Lehrer calls them, frequently he's right:
It's often only … after we've stopped searching for the answer, that the answer arrives. (The imagination has a wicked sense of irony.) And when a solution does appear, it doesn't come in dribs and drabs; the puzzle isn't solved one piece at a time. Rather, the solution is shocking in its completeness. All of a sudden, the answer to the problem that seemed so daunting becomes incredibly obvious. We curse ourselves for not seeing it sooner.
The reason is simple: we never stopped working on the problem. We only thought we did. It was a young scientist called Mark Beeman who, back in the 1990s was studying patients who had suffered damage to the right hemisphere of the brain, that realised, as he puts it:
The world is so complex that the brain has to process it in two different ways at the same time. … It needs to see the forest and the trees. The right hemisphere is what helps you see the forest.
Lehrer explains:
Beeman speculated that, while the left hemisphere handles denotation—it stores the literal meaning of words—the right hemisphere deals with connotation, or all the meanings that can't be looked up in the dictionary.
After hearing a talk on moments of insight Beeman decided to look for a way to test for them. He devised a number of brain teasers. Here's one:
A giant inverted steel pyramid is perfectly balanced on its point. Any movement of the pyramid will cause it to topple over. Underneath the pyramid is a $100 bill. How do you remove the bill without disturbing the pyramid?
Immediately after reading that aloud to my wife she gave me the correct answer. She can't have thought about it for more than a second. Less. I asked her another and she did the same. Now I'm not saying that my wife is extraordinarily clever because intelligence is not a factor. She is, however, right-brained. There are tests you can take online—here's a link to one—and every time I take these test I get the same answer: slap, bang in the middle. Which is why I didn't jump to the obvious—to her—conclusion that all you needed to do was set fire to the bank note. The verb is remove, not salvage.
Would I have got the answer eventually? Most likely—I'm not a daftie—but I would waste a lot of time processing with the left hemisphere of my brain and I would probably go through a period of feeling stumped before that aha moment. What Beeman discovered, through sticking his subjects in an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine was this:
Thirty seconds before the answers erupts into consciousness, there's a spike of gamma-wave rhythm, which is the highest electrical frequency generated by the brain.[...] Where does this burst of gamma waves come from? […] [T]he anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG).”
Beeman refers to this as the “neural correlate of insight.” It's actually a small fold of tissue located on the surface of the right hemisphere just above the ear. Here’s him talking about aha moments:
Now if that wasn't interesting enough here's the thing that really jumped out at me. I'm a poet. For twenty years I wrote nothing bar poetry and never wanted to write anything bar poetry but I never wrote sonnets or sestinas or even limericks. I found traditional forms restrictive; I thought they inhibited my creativity. Now here's what Lehrer has to say:
But that's exactly the point. Unless poets are stumped by the form, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they'll never invent an original line. They'll be stuck with clichés and conventions, with predictable adjectives and boring verbs. And this is why poetic forms are so important.
What did I tell you about this first chapter?
The problem, however, is that none of us have any control over these burst of alpha waves; they happen when they happen. Is there any way we can harness their power? What can we do to stimulate creativity?


The 3M Company (NYSE: MMM), formerly known as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, is an American multinational conglomerate corporation based in Maplewood, Minnesota, United States.
With over 80,000 employees, they produce more than 55,000 products, including: adhesives, abrasives, laminates, passive fire protection, dental products, electronic materials, medical products, car care products (such as sun films, polish, wax, car shampoo, treatment for the exterior, interior and the under chassis rust protection).— Wikipedia
In this chapter we learn about the first idea that set this particular stone rolling. Back in 1925 the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company produced sandpaper and Dick Drew was one of their salesmen. Not an inventor or a developer: a salesman. But after watching some car mechanics struggling to paint a car while he was on a break (very important point this) he came up with the idea that, after some fiddling, became masking tape and by 1928 the company was selling more masking tape than anything else. The CEO of the company didn't stop there. He completely reorganised the company, investing the tape windfall wisely; he hired dozens of researchers and gave them the freedom to pursue their own interests and take as many breaks as they liked. Seems like madness. Surely Dick Drew's idea was a fluke.
Nowadays researchers at 3M still take lots of breaks. They play pinball or lie on couches or take strolls across the campus and enjoy the grazing deer. Needless to say a scientist wanted to know why this worked, this time a psychologist, Joydeep Bhattacharya. He has a long-time interest in aha moments as you can see from this article in The Wall Street Journal entitled 'A Wandering Mind Heads Straight Towards Insight'. An excerpt:
By most measures, we spend about a third of our time daydreaming, yet our brain is unusually active during these seemingly idle moments. Left to its own devices, our brain activates several areas associated with complex problem solving, which researchers had previously assumed were dormant during daydreams. Moreover, it appears to be the only time these areas work in unison.
"People assumed that when your mind wandered it was empty," says cognitive neuroscientist Kalina Christoff, … however, "mind wandering is a much more active state than we ever imagined, much more active than during reasoning with a complex problem."
Another surprising discovery. I have always believed that I wrote my best work when drawing from negative experiences and emotions. Others have said much the same so I knew I wasn't alone and even Lehrer admits that a little sadness can be a good thing but this is where Beeman appears again:
Beeman has discovered that people who score high on a standard measure of happiness solve about 25 percent more insight problems than people who are feeling angry or upset. In fact even fleeting feelings of delight can lead to dramatic increases in creativity. After watching a short, humorous video—Robin Williams doing standup—subjects have significantly more epiphanies, at least when compared with those who were shown scary or boring videos.
I couldn't tell you the number of times I have got into bed, closed my eyes and had to get up to write down an idea that's just come to me. Why? Why then? I am not lighthouseweek3alone. A quote from Virginia Woolf, from To the Lighthouse:
Certainly she was losing consciousness of the outer things. And as she lost consciousness of outer things … her mind kept throwing things up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting...
This time we have a neurologist and radiologist, Marcus Raichle, to thank for this little insight. He started to analyse the fMRI data collected when subjects were just lying in the scanner waiting for the next task. What he saw was not that he expected.
Because they were bored silly in the claustrophobic scanner, they were forced to entertain themselves.
The brain is, apparently, a very efficient machine. It never does nothing. When it's not looking outward it turns its attention inward; closing one’s eyes helps.


The previous chapter might lead one to believe that creativity is a lot easier thing to stimulate than one might have imagined. So I was wondering where he was going when this chapter opens up with him talking about how effective W H Auden found taking drugs, specifically caffeine, nicotine and Benzedrine. Talking about speed he said:
The drug is a labour-saving device. … It turns me into a working machine.
When he was done working, Auden would wash away the Benzedrine with a martini and barbiturates.
Of course he wasn’t the only one who used Benzedrine “like a multivitamin for the mind” and Lehrer mentions several like Philip K Dick and Kerouac. But it wasn’t just writers who relied on drugs to improve their creativity. The mathematician Paul Erdős produced, on average, a paper every two weeks over the course of his career. “[A] skinny man with oversize glasses he seemed to subsist on little more than cookies and caffeine tablets” and famously said that “a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.”
I was getting worried at this point because it looked like the use of stimulants was being highly recommended. They’re not.
Stimulants can [just as easily] block moments of insight. Because the drugs sharpen the spotlight of attention, they make it much harder for anyone to hear those remote associations emanating from the right hemisphere. The distracting murmurs of the mind are silenced; the alpha waves disappear.
So why take them? Because “even though these stimulants inhibit our epiphanies (and sicken us with addiction), they seem to dramatically increase other kinds of creativity.” It all boils down to pleasure. Amphetamines act primarily on a network of neurons that uses dopamine. Dopamine plays a major role in the brain system that is responsible for reward-driven learning. A sense of pleasure is the brain’s way of telling you, “Hey, Stupid! Look over here.”
The difference is simple: Auden’s drug-induced poetry is clever; Dylan’s song was inspired.


Yo-Yo Ma is not someone I tend to think of as a creative person. He’s a performer, albeit a technically brilliant performer. But if you’ve heard as many recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as I have you’ll be well aware that a great performance involves a lot more than simply getting all the notes in the right order. Still what’s he doing in a book on creativity?
It’s all about letting go. Ma says:
If you are only worried about not making a mistake, then you will communicate nothing, … you have missed the point of making music, which is to make people feel something.
Lehrer then moves on, predictably, to jazz musicians, e.g. John Coltrane:
How did Coltrane do it? … How did he get up there onstage and improvise his music for an hour or sometimes more? Sure, a lot of musicians can throw out a creative little ditty here and there, but to continually produce masterpiece after masterpiece is nothing short of remarkable.
Now getting a musician into a fMRI machine and getting him to perform and keep still was never going to be an easy task but neuroscientist Charles Lamb decided to give it a go. The result was surprising because the part of the brain they were relying on when they improvised was the inferior frontal gyrus which “is most commonly associated with language and the production of speech.” They were telling stories; every note was a word.


That’s me about halfway through the book and there is so much that I’ve skimmed over but if you’re not hooked by now then this isn’t your kind of book. In the next chapter, The Outsider, we learn about Don Lee’s ability to mix drinks (he’s the Heston Blumenthal of cocktails), why poets peak early in their careers and where the idea for the Barbie doll came from (if you can’t wait look up Bild Lilli). Here he talks about outsiders and creativity:
In The Power of Q we see why certain teams work better than others, why West Side Story was such a great Broadway musical and why Steve Jobs moved the loos to the atrium when designing the new Pixar working space. Urban Friction explains why David Byrne is obsessed by bikes, why cities shouldn’t work but do and why there's a correlation between how fast citizens walk and the number of patents that get registered by that city. Finally, The Shakespeare Paradox explains why geniuses appear in clumps throughout history, why Shakespeare being a rip-off merchant was a good thing and, hence, why the Mickey Mouse Protection Act is a bad thing. The short Coda ends the book well by talking about how Penn and Teller created their cups and balls trick using clear glasses.
After explaining this Lehrer writes:
Creativity is like that magic trick. For the first time we can see the source of imagination, that massive network of electrical cells that lets us constantly form new connections between old ideas. However, this new knowledge only makes the act itself more astonishing.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It gives me a sense of reassurance. I may not be able to control all the factors that go into me being a creative person—when is the right time to go for a walk or should I be lying down or maybe talking to someone about my problem—but at least I am aware that beneath the art there is a lot of science going on. It’s like mechanics. Very few people who drive know how to calculate the coefficient of friction or even what it is but they do know that when it’s wet or icy it takes longer to bring the vehicle they’re driving to a dead stop. And that’s how I feel about my writing. I wish my output was greater but now I have proof (I always believed this to be true in any case) that I’m always writing even when I think I’m doing no such thing or think I’ve given up.
Jonah1Lehrer graduated from Columbia University in 2003 with a major in neuroscience; while an undergraduate, he examined the biological process of memory in Professor Eric Kandel's Lab. He was also editor of the Columbia Review for two years. He then studied 20th century literature and philosophy at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He is a contributing editor at Wired, Scientific American Mind, National Public Radio's Radiolab and has written for The New Yorker, Nature, Seed, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe. Jonah Lehrer is also featured in brief informational sessions on the television show "Brink", on the science channel. He currently writes the ‘Head Case’ column for The Wall Street Journal.

Postscript: In an article in GalleyCat James Boog reports that "Jonah Lehrer [has] resigned from The New Yorker. Lehrer admitted that he had fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. [...] The book has already sold 200,000 copies, but the publisher has stopped the presses. Links to Lehrer’s book have been removed at and Barnes & Noble."
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