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Thursday 28 May 2009

Why I hate book reviews


Asking a writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp post how it feels about dogs - Ann Landers

Over the past few months various publishers have made contact with me wondering if I might be willing to review one of their products. I say 'products' rather than simply 'books' to keep this in perspective a little. Although individuals within these publishing houses may be idealistic souls – I'm sure many are – the reason they have jobs is to sell their services and make a profit. And their existence depends on them turning out a product that a certain demographic of the population will want to buy. The problem is they're not selling something that's a constant. Rowntree's have been happily churning out Kit Kats since 1935 at least until they were taken over by Nestlé in 1988. Since then we've had a few variations but they have very wisely kept the original Kit Kat as it always has been; it's what the public are used to and what the public want. No two books are the same and so every one, if it's going to sell at all, needs to be marketed on its own merits even if its author is well known, although that helps considerably. And that's where people like me enter the picture.

Anyway, it started off as a bit of fun. I was flattered especially when I found out that one of my early reviews was been handed round the office as an example of what a good book review should be like. Once I stopped feeling smug about that it then hit me that every review I would write from then on would have to stand up to that one. (And, no, I'm not going to tell you which one it was.) I started to think: What the hell did I do right? I've had no formal training. I don't have letters after my name or anything. I'm just a guy who can read.

Now – especially now since I've been cutting back on my posts – I'm finding that if I'm not careful all I'm going to end up doing will be book reviews. At least until I clear my feet. And then you see there are the books I've bought myself that I want to tell you about. So I'm not sure what to do about all this because it's hard to say, "No," to a free book and besides I don't always have a choice, they just plop through my letterbox with that kind of satisfying thud books make always followed by a scurrying sound and I rush off down the hall to see what the postie's delivered. If I keep getting better so that I can write a post a week and a review then I might feel a bit happier about things. We'll just have to see how things go. But for the moment just expect a wee run of book reviews, okay?

This post though is entitled 'Why I hate book reviews' and so I should make it clear that I don't hate doing book reviews. I thoroughly enjoy doing them actually especially if it's a book I've appreciated and really want to recommend. Writing a bad review is not so easy I find. I take review writing very seriously. Because I'm a writer myself I know how much effort goes into writing a book and I don't think you'll ever read a review on this site where I completely pan something. If I hate it that much then I'll say nothing. If I have some reservations about a book then you'll hear them but you'll never hear me say: "This book is utter drivel. Do not buy it. Do not even accept it as a gift." The odds are, if the book was that bad, I'll never have finished it and not be in a good position to write a review of any kind.

I also read a lot of reviews. I never read other people's reviews of something I'm reading until after I've finished; I'm always scared I've missed something obvious. I rarely find these of any great help I'm afraid although I sometimes get ideas I can develop. The problem with the majority of them is that they are too short. Now I know I can be a bit long-winded – okay a lot long-winded – and I fully realise that some people will simply scan what I've written and then move on. And that's fine. But once they've scanned it the option is still there for them to go back and read the article in detail if it looks like a book they might be interested in.


I wouldn't like to have to write reviews for a paper where I have a column to fill and that is my lot. There you go, Jim, a whole 1500 words. That would be about the top end. I based that figure on a couple of interviews in The Guardian. That's the luxury end. Some of the reviews in The Metro Size Matters were more like 150 words. I can write sentences that long! What can you say in 150 words? There are blurbs on the backs on books longer than that.

I limit myself to 3500 words including quotes. I think quotes are important. They're the reviewer's equivalent of a film trailer. You're not going to be reading my words if and when you buy the book, you're going to be reading the author and so you want to see if he or she is an interesting read. How many books have you bought because they sounded interesting but you have simply never been able to get into because the writer's style simply doesn't gel with you? I have probably half a shelf's worth.


The next thing I hate is authority. Now, I have nothing against authority (I have wielded it myself in the past) but what I hate are people pretending they are an authority on something when they're not. Let me illustrate. When I was at school I was a member of the debating team. I'm sure that comes as no great surprise to anyone. I took the whole thing very seriously and would sit in the library surrounded by encyclopædias making sure my facts were spot on. When I met my first wife one of the things I discovered was that she also had been a member of her school's debating team. She, however, had not bothered her backside doing research; she simply made up her stats. "As long as you say it with authority," she told me, "people will believe you." I'd never heard anything like it in my puff. That simply wasn't cricket. Yes, of course I wanted to win my debates but I wanted to be fair and square.

So, when I write my reviews I spend a lot of time checking stuff online, hence all the links in my articles. Now, I don't know how many people click on them (I suspect not too many) but they are available and serve to demonstrate a certain level of commitment. Only rarely will I quote from a book or source that people can't check there and then. It also means I can make my words count. When I recently wrote my review of Kafka's letter to his father I found, as you might imagine considering the subject, a ton of information I would have loved to include in my article but one has to know where to draw the line. If people want to know more I provide the links and leave them to it.

I would like to get to the stage where people say: "Well, if Jim recommends it then it must be a damn fine book," but what I don't want is to develop an inflated sense of my own importance. I have an opinion and that is all it is. In my opinion Ambrosia Creamed Rice is the vilest food on the planet but I suspect all those who have been buying it since 1917 might disagree with me. By the way here's where I got that date from.


Can't be done. And even if it could, what would be the point? When I get the product in my hand I'm damn well not going to be objective so why would I want my reviewers to distance themselves from the subject. No, far from it. I want to see them knee-deep in it. I want to believe them. As I mention later on, they are my proxies. Yes, yes, by all means give me the pros and cons, the ups and downs but tell me how it affected you. How did you feel about it?

Let's cite an example. My good wife bought me a compact digital camera a while ago. She bought in online, did her research, found the camera with the highest technical specs for her budget, read user reviews and was so pleased with her purchase that she gave it to me a couple of months before Xmas. Now I was pleased, don't get me wrong, but she could see I wasn't excited. And finally she wormed out of me what she'd failed to factor into her calculations: it didn't look like a real camera. So, I'm sorry. I've had SLR's all my life and this thing didn't look like a real camera and all the bells and whistles in the world weren't going to change that. I hung onto it for a while but it was obvious I wasn't going to make use of it and so, what do you know, for my birthday – okay a few weeks before my birthday – she presented me Sony A200 with a real DSLR one you can buy lenses for and filters and with an actual viewfinder and everything. And I'm sure it has bells and whistles too.

Do you see where I'm coming from? A camera is not just an object. It's an extension of your arm. The glove has to do more than fit. It has to be the right feel and colour and style. I've just finished a review of a book and I specifically mentioned its feel. What on earth has that to do with anything? Aren't we told not to judge a book by its cover? Yes, true, but if it feels nice too, isn't that a plus, something worth mentioning?


Here's a quote to have a think about:

On April 23, 2009, a federal district court in the southern Russian province of Dagestan issued an unprecedented ruling, ordering a journalist of a local newspaper to pay compensation in an amount equal to US$1,000 to a writer who did not like a review of his book published in the newspaper. The plaintiff, an author whose work of fiction was reviewed in the publication’s book review section, sued the reviewer, claiming that the author and his family had experienced severe mental suffering and that his professional reputation was damaged as a result of the review. The writer stated that after reading the book review, he experienced chest pains, headache, and elevated blood pressure. He demanded to be compensated in the amount of US$150,000. Both parties were dissatisfied with the court ruling and expressed their intention to appeal. – Library of Congress Global Legal Monitor

You can read the original Russian article in MKRU here (don't worry Google will do the translating).

I've not had that but I have had a writer's daughter contact me because she felt my review didn't do her father's work justice. The irony was that particular review took me weeks (literally) to write because I was writing about an area I wasn't too familiar with and I insisted on reading up on stuff so I didn't come across as a complete doofus. For all I personally didn't care for the book much I still believe I did a fair job. Anyway, she didn't sue me. Maybe if she runs across this article she'll think about it. I do hope not.

In principle I'm in agreement with the judge. There are too many critics out there who are so full of a sense of their own importance that they don't take the time to think about what they're writing; they're too busy trying to think up new and interesting way to be witty and disparaging at the same time. I think it's sad that a phrase like "mauled by the critics" should exist and be used so frequently. You can do a search on Google yourselves but the one I found that struck me was a quote from The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams by Michael Kennedy:

Of Holst's last works R.V.W. was especially enthusiastic about the Choral Fantasia of 1930 which he declared as 'it all right' and after the first performance at Gloucester of 8 September 1931, at which the work was severely mauled by the critics, he wrote: 'It is most beautiful – I know you don't care, but I just want to tell the press (and especially ****) that they are misbegotten abortions.'

I can cite many other works that are now staples that were also mauled by the critics but I'm going to stick with classical music for now. The main two that jump to mind are Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony (Pathétique), which I know I've mentioned before, indeed it has been speculated that Tchaikovsky committed suicide after its first performance.

So affected by the critics' response to his Third Symphony Bruckner spent the rest of his life reworking it. No less than nine versions of it exist today. Just think what else he could have been working on. Elgar's magnificent Cello Concerto was ignored and dismissed in the '30s and '40s simply because its reputation never recovered from poor reviews of the debut concert. It wasn't till a 1965 recording by a 20-year-old Jacqueline du Pré that people sat up and took notice of it, thank God.

Rachmaninov had to undergo many a critical mauling during his career, but none worse than with his Fourth Piano Concerto, which had critics like Pitts Sanborn of the New York Evening Telegram falling over themselves to disgrace their profession with self-righteous vitriol:

It is long-winded, tiresome, unimportant, in places tawdry. The orchestral scoring has the richness of nougat and the piano part glitters with innumerable stock tricks and figurations. As music it is now weepily sentimental, now of an elfin prettiness, now swelling to bombast in a fluent rotundity”. – BBC

I could go on. I'd love to go on. I could easily move onto playwrights, poets, novelists and even bloggers next but I think I've made my point.

Who do you trust?

ghostbusters Ghostbusters. Right. I know. Can we move on?

When I want to buy something my first port of call these days is the Internet, and Amazon is usually my first and last call. And one thing I like about it are the reviews. I always make a point of reading them.

What I like about them is (most of the time at least) they're not trying to sell me something. And, of course, the more reviews the better. That way you get a balanced review from real people. That said I'm not going to buy Metallica's latest album just because a whatever-the-collective-noun-for-a-lot-of-metalheads-is give it all five stars. That would be silly.

I do read other reviews online on blogs and mainly by people like myself. By that I mean people who don't get paid a dime to write them. The most I get for writing a review is a free book worth between £7.99 - £11.99 which if I waited for a few weeks I could pick up used for pennies and, if you work out my hourly rate for doing a review, let's just say it falls well below minimum wage.

There is a lot of valid concern about the quality of online reviews, a) because anyone can do it and who's to say they're qualified or knowledgeable enough, and, b) there are a lot of bogus reviews out there. These concerns apply more to the hardware market than something like a book or a film I'm sure. But since I'm not limiting myself let me just say that I'm a lot less trustworthy when it comes to buying a camera, for example, and I would check multiple sites. Actually I never bother doing any of that. Carrie's far more thorough than me at stuff like that.

So what makes a great review?

This is a hard question to answer. Actually it's not so hard but by answering it I'm providing fuel for my own critics to say, "Ah ha! You said such-and-such and looky here, you never did that. You're going to go to the bad fire, you are."

Aw, what the hell. Here goes:

I think a review should be honest, passionate, accurate, balanced, intelligible, considered, the right length for the subject, not give away the ending and not take itself too seriously.


Quite simply, don't lie. And don't hedge your bets. If you like a thing then say you do and the same goes if you don’t like it. And be prepared to say why. It doesn't matter that you're speaking of your own personal tastes as long as you make that clear.


By this I mean you need to be passionate about what you're writing about be it books or films or cameras. It's not the same as knowledgeable although the more passionate you are the more knowledgeable you'll likely become.


If you're quoting from a text then get it right. If you're not sure about a fact, be it a spelling or a date then look it up.


Very few things are all bad or all good and your readers need to know this. I personally am more inclined to believe a reviewer who doesn't gush. Or at least one who, once he's got his gushing out of the way, then give you the pluses and minuses. Air your reservations. Just don't be nasty about it.


Know your audience. Don't talk down to them or talk over their heads. But more importantly, make sense and argue logically. Talk their language.


Read the damn book. Take pictures with the camera. Watch the film. Eat the pizza. Whatever it is, experience it for your reader. You are their proxy.

The right length for the subject

How long is a piece of string? There is only so much you can say about any topic but the aim in a review is to say enough, enough so that they can make an informed choice.

Not give away the ending

Yes, fine, good, experience the thing for your reader but don't spoil the experience for them. No one wants to go to the pictures when they know what's going to happen at the end of Planet of the Apes, or The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects.

Not take itself too seriously

This is a review, not an academic paper. Know just how deep you need to go. Discuss the product not the subject.

I could probably refine these over time but you get the idea. If you're interested in other people's opinions about how one should go about writing a review here are a couple of links worth having a wee look at:

University of Alberta Libraries

LEO: Literacy Education Online


I'm not going to stop doing reviews. I'm going to try and not let them take over my life but for the moment bear with me. Most importantly I'll try and keep in mind that list I've just put up. Reviews of it will be most welcome. Be kind.

The feel good bit at the end

News programmes have been trying this for years. The stories usually involve quirky things happening to people especially children or cute stories involving animals. I'd like to point you to this blog, The Worst Review Ever which is a site that does what it says on the tin. People talk about the worst reviews they've had and how they reacted to them. It's a new site so if any of you feel like sharing then I'm sure Alexa would be grateful.

Monday 25 May 2009

Stick Out Your Tongue


9780312426903 What do you think of when you think of China? Ming vases? Confucius? Samurai? No, wait a sec, aren’t samurai Japanese? Sushi, that’s Chinese isn’t it? And what about haiku, is that Chinese or Japanese? Ah, the Beijing Olympics! They definitely took place in China. Who could forget that opening ceremony?

And yet, within a day or two we learned that some of the fireworks we saw on our teles were actually computer generated cosmetic enhancements. This was not denied by the Chinese. They simply said that it was deemed that the real fireworks were too dangerous to film from a helicopter. Fair enough.

Then there was the controversy concerning 9-year-old Lin Miaoke, a pretty child who appeared and sang opening ceremony song ‘Ode to the Motherland’ only she wasn’t singing. 7-year-old Yang Peiyi was actually doing the singing. The member of the Politburo who oversaw the final preparations decided that Miss Yang was insufficiently photogenic and so it was decided that Lin Miaoke would lip-sync.


China's quest was for a "perfect" Summer Games and it soon became obvious that they had gone and were willing to go to extraordinary lengths to see that that was what the world remembered. And there is no doubt in my mind that I will remember them. I’ll also remember the fake fireworks, the ‘ugly’ little girl, that they had to ferry in spectators to fill up some of the venues and, oh, wasn’t there some kafuffle about Tibet?

That’s right. I seem to remember that. And there were some problems with the Olympic torch parade, too, weren’t there, something to do with a free Tibet or something? Yeah, never really did see what all the fuss was about there. I remember file.freetibet former Blue Peter presented Konnie Huq got hassled by a protester. I thought that was a shame; she’s only wee.

Okay then, what do you know about Tibet? Mount Everest! Sherpas! Temples! The Dalai Lama! Many westerners have romantic notions of old Tibet as a place where everyone is peaceful and happy. In all the pictures I’ve seen they certainly look happy. So what the heck has China got to do with Tibet?

Apparently Mao Zedong's troops invaded Tibet in 1950 and annexed it as part of China, and that the young Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 and has lived in exile since. Regular readers will not be surprised to discover my ignorance with regards to these matters; history has never been one of my fortes nor has geography come to think of it.

China claimed ownership of Tibet based on a history of sporadic Chinese possession of Tibet. However, Tibet was an independent nation in 1950, and Tibetans maintain a separate language, culture and ethnic identity from China.

According to, the People’s Republic of China had guaranteed no alteration of Tibetan political, cultural, and religious systems and institutions. China failed to live up to this agreement, however, and the Tibetans began to revolt against Chinese rule in 1956. From that time, through the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, an estimated 1,200,000 Tibetans were killed and more than 6,000 religious sites were destroyed by the Chinese.

Things did not end there. I’ll let continue:

The Chinese Government strictly controls access to and information about Tibet. Thus, it is difficult to determine accurately the scope of human rights abuses. However, according to credible reports, Chinese government authorities continued to commit serious human rights abuses in Tibet, including instances of torture, arbitrary arrest, detention without public trial, and lengthy detention of Tibetan nationalists for peacefully expressing their political or religious views. Tight controls on religion and on other fundamental freedoms continued and intensified during the year, especially during sensitive anniversaries and occasions.

One of the worst things I read is that the Chinese have systematically moved their own people into Tibet. Today Tibetans are an ethnic minority in their own country. Tibetans have been forced to assimilate Chinese culture. Tibetans say the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, which began operations in July 2007, is accelerating the cultural genocide of Tibet. An article in The Guardian puts it well:

Today Han Chinese visit Tibet as tourists, buying up Buddhist images that they hope will help them in their businesses; for them Tibet has been tamed as a spiritual Disneyland, not unlike the Tibet of many western imaginations.

None of this I knew about.

When Canongate made China the next destination in their literary world tour I went to my bookcases to see what I could talk about. And do you know what? I couldn’t find a single book by a Chinese national nor could I find a book about China. Japan, yes, there were a handful, but I had nothing on China. I feel rather embarrassed about that. Then I thought to myself: Okay, name a Chinese author. And I couldn’t. I could think of a Chinese composer, Bright Sheng (I have a CD of his work), but I couldn’t think of an artist either. I’m not sure if that says more about me or more about China. I asked my wife to look in her collection and she handed me two books, Waiting, by Ha Jin and A Gesture Life by Chang-Rae Lee; only the first one is by a Chinese national; Lee is Korean.

Waiting didn’t appeal and so I printed out a list of Chinese authors and headed off to Waterstones to find something that did. Of course me being me I left the list neatly folded on my desk so I had to wing it, but the book I ended up returning home with was Stick Out Your Tongue by Ma Jian which I bought for three reasons: 1) it was thin (I love short books), 2) it had been banned in China (just tell me I’m not allowed to read something and I want to), and 3) the reviews on the back cover really caught my interest (Good Book Guide called it “Horrific and beautiful” for example).

It’s actually a book of five short stories and an afterword by the author, a grand total of ninety pages.

The translator is Flora Drew. I mention this not simply to give her credit but to mention that she and Jian are a couple and have been for a good few years now so I might be tempted to trust her translation over that of a stranger. I realised when I recently reviewed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich that the book I had read might actually be a far cry from what Solzhenitsyn actually wrote. And yet I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between what happened during Stalin’s rule and Ma Jian’s time in China in the 1980s. The Guardian says it well:

In 1983, Ma Jian was living in Beijing as a photographer and painter in a circle of dissident friends - young men and women who snatched moments of sexual licence, exchanged precious copies of foreign books, and discussed each other's work in tiny gatherings that were reported by the neighbours and raided by the police. They were seen as socially deviant - and so dangerous - elements and therefore vulnerable to persecution in the now quaint-sounding Campaign against Spiritual Pollution. It sounds less quaint when the figures are tallied: more than a million arrests and 24,000 executed.

Like many, Ma Jian headed for Tibet. His time there resulted in this collection and the novel Red Dust.

The prose is matter of fact, the narration, deadpan – it feels like the same narrator in each tale, although not all are written in the first person – but basically what we’re presented with is a Chinese writer uncovering the real face of Tibet. I say ‘real’ and not ‘true’ because a part of me wants to believe that the idealised picture I have of Tibet, sketchy although it may well be, is still its ‘true’ face. There is a feeling of directionlessness in these stories, not that the stories wander, no they make their points well enough, but the people involved in them often seem as if they’re going through the motions.

The first story concerns a sky burial. When I first heard of this I imagined the body lifted up on a framework facing the sky and then set on fire or something of that ilk. No, it’s nothing like that. The body of the dearly-departed is cut up and fed to birds of prey. In Tibetan the practice is known as jhator which literally means, "giving alms to the birds."

The government of the People's Republic of China prohibited the practice (which it considered barbaric) in the 1960s but started to allow it again in the 1980s. Non-Tibetans are usually not permitted to observe it, and direct photography is considered unethical, offensive and is generally forbidden.

The practice combines practicality and religious devotion. Most of Tibet is above the tree line and the scarcity of timber makes cremation economically unfeasible, and it’s also impossible to dig down more than an inch or two before hitting solid rock or permafrost. From a religious point of view, generosity and compassion for all living creatures are important virtues in Buddhism. Also Tibetans believe that at this point life has completely left the body and the body contains nothing more than simple flesh so why not feed it to the birds?

So, in this first story, a wandering photographer manages to persuade two brothers who shared a seventeen-year-old wife to allow him not only to witness but also to photograph the proceedings:

The elder brother got up, threw some more dung onto the fires, then walked to the lama [basically a Tibetan guru] and poured him some wine. The lama pushed the bowl away and announced that Myima’s soul had risen to the sky. The younger brother stood up and took a sharp knife from his pocket. I followed the two brothers to the body. Immediately the sky darkened with vultures that screeched and swirled through the air. The brothers turned Myima’s body over, stuck the knife into her buttock and pulled it down, opening up her leg all the way to the sole of her foot. The younger brother hacked off a chunk of thigh and sliced it into pieces. Her right leg was soon reduced to bone. With her belly squashed to the ground, sticky fluid began to trickle from between her thighs. I picked up my camera, set the distance, and this time the shutter closed with a snap.


The morning sun flooded the burial site with light. The younger brother shooed away the approaching vultures with pieces of Myima’s body. I picked up the axes, grabbed a severed hand, ran the blade down the palm and threw a thumb to the vultures. The younger brother smiled, took the hand from me and placed it on a rock, then pounded the remaining four fingers and threw them to the birds.

There is nothing pretty about this. The service is carried out dispassionately and it is recorded in a similar style although as you’ve just read the photographer can’t keep his distance and gets caught up in the moment.

If the Chinese government would replace a not-so-photogenic little girl in their “perfect” Olympic ceremony, one can understand why they might not want people inside or outside of China reading about something as ugly as this.

When Jian arrived in Tibet in 1985, partly to escape political persecution and partly in an attempt to deepen his Buddhist faith, it was at a time of another Chinese celebration: the city of Lhasa was launching celebrations for the twentieth anniversary of the Tibet Autonomous Region. In the book’s afterword he explains:

Although the air was filled with the sound of jubilant music, the atmosphere was tense. One could sense the hostility the Tibetans felt towards their Chinese occupiers. No one was allowed on the streets apart from a select group of people who’d been chosen by the government either to take part in the parades or to stand on the pavement waving flags.

Some time later Jian leaves Lhasa and heads off into the countryside. What he finds there shocks him:

In the grasslands I slept under the stars or shared tents with nomads; in the villages I slept on dirt floors. The poverty I saw was worse than anything I’d witnessed in China. My idyll of a simple life lived close to nature was broken when I realised how dehumanising extreme hardship can be. […] For the first time in my life I felt that I was walking through a part of the world where I had no right to be.

It is important to state that Jian doesn’t present a negative view of Tibetan life. He simply tells it as it is, what it has become.

The second story is different, subtler. We lose the cameraman and the first person narrative and we take up with Sonam, a student who is trying to locate his nomadic family in the high pastures. Here we are not presented with an outsider’s view rather the view of someone homesick for the world we learned a bit about in the first story. This was a clever decision. In the following excerpt Sonam imagines seeing his sister again:

Yesterday, when he reached the hill, he turned round to the black horse and said, ‘Look, look! Here they are! That’s their yak hair carpet!’ He fell to his knees and smelt the earth, then he picked up a sheep’s hoof that he presumed his family had tossed from the cooking pot, and turned it in his hands. He looked up and said, ‘I’ve been searching for you for a month. Why are you still sitting down, Dawa? Get up, get up. Come to me! I’ve brought you shoes, made in Beijing. I’ll tell you where Beijing is. There are so many people there. More than all the yaks in Mayoumu. My school in Saga has lots of windows, and stairways that go round and round.’ Then he paused and looked around him. The breeze blowing from the grasslands smelt of yak shit and sheep bones. At his feet he saw maggots wriggling through a pat of yak dung. He watched the dung puff up, and then slowly sink again.

Okay, I can’t see myself pining for that kind of life but then I’m an outsider.

“There is a saying that the further you stand from the mountains, the more clearly you see them,” Jian says, “China is completely lacking in self-awareness and as someone who has stepped outside that society, I have a responsibility to write about it as I see it.”

Sex rears its ugly head in all the stories. It’s not presented graphically. It just happens. The opening story is narrated by a soldier who slept with the young Myima before she moves in with the two brothers. In ‘The Eight-Fanged Roach’ our cameraman returns and this time shares a tent with an old nomad who has committed double incest and is making a journey to the sacred mountains to wash away his sins. And, if you’ve not been shocked enough up till now, the final story, ‘The final initiation’, lets us into the mind of the Living Buddha, Sangsang Tashi, essentially a fifteen year-old nun who, although compliant, is struggling with her role in life.

Early the next morning, she awoke up and was overcome by the sensation that in every cell of her body she was a woman. Dawn had not yet broken and a gentle mist still hung in the sky. She felt her blood stream calmly through her veins and her breasts against her nightshirt. Her thighs, pelvis and stomach felt smooth and supple. As she sat up, she became even more conscious of her femininity. Then suddenly she remembered that in a few hours she would be lying naked in front of hundreds of people. She wrapped her arms around her shoulders. With her teeth clenched, she stared outside her window and watched the sky turn from purple to blue, then gradually become lighter and lighter.

In a few paragraphs we learn that being naked is the least part of her worries as she is ritually raped. Christ! I thought that kind of thing went out of fashion with the Babylonians.

You know, I can see why the Chinese might want to brush this book under the carpet. Why the hell they decided they needed to invade Tibet in the first place I have no idea.

I’ve not told you everything that goes on in these stories but I felt it only fair to highlight what rightly shocked the Chinese authorities. That a book is shocking is no justification for banning it, however.

As for the Tibetan cause, I can’t pretend that this book hasn’t left me with mixed feelings. Should a society like this be preserved? Just because things have been a certain way since time immemorial doesn’t mean they should continue that way. Civilisation has to win out in the end. I’m not sure that China’s approach is the right one though. Civilisation isn’t something that should be enforced – it’s simply not civilised.

The good thing about Jian’s presentation is that it focuses on the Tibetans. The stories say next-to-nothing about the country’s occupation in fact, apart from the narrator, I think the only other Chinese person to appear is the soldier in the opening story and he has no interest in politics, he’s just a lovesick puppy, frankly.

“Stick out your tongue” is what a doctor says to an ill patient when looking for a diagnosis. Ma Jian’s prognosis is not very hopeful. I found his often anthropological distance both a strength and a weakness. One thing I did come away with is the fact that Tibet is no mystical Shanrgi-La and probably never has been. It is populated with very human people dogged by the same weaknesses and frailties that follow men and women the world over. There is, however, some dignity to be found in these stories and a sense of both family and community. Does what he talks about happen? Of course, but I suspect he has still presented his own idealised Tibet. I’m sure, for example, that the underlying theme of incest is a metaphor for what China has done to the nation. Perhaps he has gone too far the other way. You certainly won’t like everything you read here but you won’t hate it all either. And you certainly won’t forget what you’ve read quickly.


ma_jian_26345t Ma Jian's grandfather, a landowner in China, was famous as a tea connoisseur. When he was arrested at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, it was considered apt to execute him by depriving him of drink. Ma, now 54, was 14 at the time and grew up with the legacy of persecution and fear this gave to his family.

He has been described by Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian as 'one of the most important and courageous voices in Chinese literature'. Jian now lives in London in self-imposed exile. He has since been able to return home, although his work is still under a blanket ban.

For those interested you can find out a bit about the history here: The Tibet-China Conflict: History and Polemics by Elliot Sperling.

This is an expanded version of the review that originally appeared on the Canongate site.

Thursday 21 May 2009

An interview with Jim Murdoch

face to face Me: What makes a great interview?

Me: That's a good question and I'm not sure that the interview you're going to get to read later is a good an example of a great interview but we'll worry about that in due course. The Guardian recently produced a list of the all-time great interviews. I'll give you their Top Ten:

  1. Richard Nixon interviewed by David Frost
  2. Diana, Princess of Wales interviewed by Martin Bashir
  3. John Lennon interviewed by Jann S Wenner
  4. Marlon Brando interviewed by Truman Capote
  5. Dennis Potter interviewed by Melvyn Bragg
  6. Francis Bacon interviewed by David Sylvester
  7. Marilyn Monroe interviewed by Richard Meryman
  8. Sex Pistols interviewed by Bill Grundy
  9. Malcolm X interviewed by Alex Haley
  10. Adolf Hitler interviewed by George Sylvester Viereck

The article is worth checking out because there are transcripts and video clips available plus their list doesn't stop at ten.

Me: Yes, some of the interviews I know well. The one I've been forced to endure most often is poor old Bill Grundy trying to fend off The Sex Pistols.

Me: Yes, but of course it makes the list because of its shock value. It's really a dire interview.

Me: Very true. Which one of those you listed would you say was your favourite?

Me: That's really a no-brainer. It has to be Melvyn Bragg talking to the terminally ill Dennis Potter. Rather than being morbid – for goodness sake the man's taking sips of liquid morphine throughout the interview – it's actually life affirming. The man has only a few weeks to live – I think he survived a couple of months – and yet what is he doing? Trying desperately to finish not one but his last two plays, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus. Have you seen them?

Me: I have, yes.

Me: Excellent stuff.

Me: And what about the Frost/Nixon interview, should it be there at the top?

Me: Absolutely. I mean how many others interviews get made into feature films for starters? That aside, it featured not only a great interviewer and a great interviewee but also a great topic. It could have failed. It could have fallen flat on its face. Nixon could have taken the money and, metaphorically at least, done a runner.

Me: Can you think of an example of a bad interview?

Me: Oh, without a doubt. Take the infamous interview between Michael Parkinson and Meg Ryan, for example. Parky is a seasoned and well-respected interviewer who has chatted to most of the greats of screen, stage, sports and politics and yet he's on record as saying that interview was the worst of his career. He still can't work out what went wrong. I remember reading an interview with him in the Daily Mail where he In The Cut explained that the reason she was there was that she was promoting a film called In the Cut.

Me: I haven't seen it I'm afraid.

Me: Me neither. Anyway he didn't like the film very much. It was an "erotic thriller" and probably a bit risqué for him. Still he thought it raised some interesting questions, such as what had attracted 'America's sweetheart' to such a film. But she wouldn't play ball. She 'glided from slight frostiness to naked hostility via snooty disdain'. There comes a point in an interview where it serves no purpose to continue. The only question left is: why did she bother turning up and then not trying?

Me: I have read that she wasn't entirely to blame.

Me: Yes, that's right. Parkinson, normally known for his saccharine sweet interviewing style, has been accused of being 'accusatory', 'unfriendly' and 'cold' towards her. I'm sure there was more going on than we've been led to believe.

Me: Maybe he made a play for her and she knocked him back.

Me: Unlikely.

Me: Anyway, for those who've never seen the interview they can catch it here and here and make their own judgement call.

Me: Of course Meg Ryan wasn't the only interview where Parky struggled. There have also been those where the interviewees have taken over the interview.

Me: Like Rod Hull and Emu or Tommy Cooper?

Me: Precisely. Let's go with Cooper. Care to tell us what you remember about that one?

Me: Not a great deal to be honest other than the fact that after the first question where Parky asks him, I think, where he was born Cooper proceeded to do his act for the rest of the allotted time, body swerving any further attempts to be questioned. He hated being interviewed. I don't know what possessed him to agree to do it. We really should mention some of the good interviews that he did.

Me: Like introducing the world to Billy Connolly?

Me: That's a good place to start. And Muhammad Ali. And what about Peter Ustinov and Kenneth Williams, both darlings of the interview circuit, they only needed to be introduced and given an excuse to talk and they were off.

Me: But sadly Parkinson the show is no more. A great loss.

Me: Absolutely. And some would say that no one who has come since has managed to fill his shoes. All people want to do these days is plug their latest book or film or record and get back to the green room for refreshments. At least the political interview is still alive and well.

Me: Of course, but that's a very different animal, a very squirmy one. I don't think I'd like to have to interview a politician.

Me: Me neither. Anyway, all joking aside you're actually here to do a bit of promoting yourself.

Me: Very true. It's actually an interview I did recently with Ryan Manning.

Me: So, who's Ryan Manning?

Me: He runs a website called thunk subtitled where interviews go to die.

Me: Seriously? It doesn't sound very encouraging.

Me: Don't prejudge.

Me: So, what's it about?

Me: Have you ever watched Inside the Actor's Studio?

Me: The interview show with James Lipton. Yes, yes I have.

Me: Well, you know the bit at the end where he asks the actors the same set of questions?

Me: The Pivot questionnaire.

Me: Exactly. Well this site skips the interview and just dives right into the same set of questions. There are dozens of 'interviews' and every single one is in the same format.

Me: So, how did you get to be interviewed?

Me: I was asked. I mentioned his interview with Ani Smith in my interview with Ani Smith and I guess since I wasn't crazy about her answers he'd let me see if I could do better?

Me: And did you?

Me: I did differently. I'm sure I'm more long-winded than most of his subjects.

Me: So, are we going to have a look at the interview now?

Me: That's fine by me.

Me: And the link?


Me: Thank you very much for you time.

Me: You're very welcome.

Monday 18 May 2009

Kingfishers Catch Fire


l_6526eeadaa82a18d273f41d152b67b24 So I was wrong. I admit it. Twitter may not actually be the work of the devil. I'm still not sure I want to sign up but I think I may not be so quick to open my mouth and let my belly rumble in the future. Let me elucidate. This story begins, at least one strand of it does, with a comment I made on website The Age of Uncertainty. Here's what I wrote:

I'm with you. My wife joined yesterday to see what the fuss is all about and she's been reading me twitterss (Is that the right word?) from Stephen Fry but they're really not up to his usual standard. He says he loves it but I really can't see how someone as loquacious as he is sticking with it. At the moment it's the in thing but I simply don't get it. I can suffer Facebook - just - but I cannot see why sensible people are wasting their time on this.

My wife did a search for me and did find one entry which said something like: "I read a poem by Jim Murdoch called Cinders today," and that was it, no link, no nothing. I mean, what's the point?

Okay, it's not the most derisory thing that I've ever written but I'm still not going to take it back because that's how I felt on the day.

Anyway, maybe we should pause for a moment (yes, I know I've barely started) and have a look at that poem:


When I visited William
he had a tray of buttons.

"I like these," he said.
"They open things -
and you don't need keys."

And he counted
the buttons on my dress
and asked me to tell him a secret.

23 March 1989

It's a charming little poem if I say so myself and although it has been published on its own it actually belongs to a set of poems that I began in 1981 and finished (time will tell) in 2002 all featuring a character called 'Sweet William'.

William first appeared in a poem called 'Common Denominator', a poem I was very pleased with at the time and still am, but I really assumed it was a one off. In my head William was a kind of savant, a childlike character, seemingly innocent, but with a poet's insight into things. He starts out hanging around the streets with the town's prostitutes all of whom he has his special names for, 'Stiletto', 'Hot Stuff', 'Looker' and 'Cinders'. In time he gets picked up and put in a mental health institution for his own good. There they try to cure him. While he is locked up some of the hookers visit him and it's one of these visits that is recounted in 'Cinders'. Finally he is released into a world where everyone has moved on, 'his' girls have all dispersed, hell, even the old wall he used to sit on has been pulled down and he desperately tries to find a place for himself in this new world. One of these days I will see the whole set in print – there are seventeen poems in total – but for now this brief summary will need to suffice.

That tells you a little about William.

A few weeks ago, just after I put my back out, I got an e-mail. The font was so damn small that I only glanced at it. It was from no one I knew and it would have to wait. And wait it did. Once I could stay on my side for more than a few seconds I actually managed to read my way through it. This is what it said:

Dear Jim,

This email is in response to your post on The Age of Uncertainty's blog:

With regard your finding yourself referenced on Twitter, I think it might be one of my posts to which you refer. I thought your poem, 'Cinders', incredibly charming. Not foremost because I myself am called William, nor even for the fact my partner's nickname is Cinders, but more for its beautiful use of language. Your blog directed me, through a number of links, on to several websites, which I spent a great deal of time studying, especially that of Friedrich Schiller's On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry. I learned a great deal and was greatly interested in the subject. For this I thank you and I'm very sorry I didn't link to your site. I thought by merely mentioning your name and poem, I would create a sense of mystery and intrigue that people might choose to investigate. I have since received proof that it worked! I will add a link in due course.

Kind regards,


Now such a polite e-mail I would never have expected to receive in response to such a basically flippant comment. I was frankly a bit embarrassed and so I wrote a similarly polite e-mail (don't worry I'm not going to make you read our entire correspondence), told him where William originated and asked him if he'd like to read the whole set to put the piece in context. He said that he would. He even offered to pay me for my trouble which I thought was sweet.

Anyway, long story short, a couple more e-mails passed between us. I discovered that he was a freelance writer, a recording artist based in London and also had finished the draft of his first novel. And there's more:

I have had a piece of music recorded for several months but have never found the right set of lyrics to accompany it. I wanted to write something on naive and sentimental poetry and found that the words of 'Cinders' fit snugly into the rhythm and, more importantly, the feel of the song and I couldn't help but apply them, so ingrained have they become in my conscious.

I wonder how you feel about my accompanying your words with music? I will, of course, give you a writing credit and, wherever printed, link to your site.

Well, hell, yes, I replied. Well, actually, no. This is what I wrote:

That sounds like something I would like to hear. Please proceed at you leisure and let me know how you get on.

And I didn't have long to wait before an MP3-heavy e-mail dropped into my inbox. And before you start looking for the link, I'm going to make you wait a bit, so hold your horses. I have to say I wondered how the hell he could do anything with a poem as short as mine but I was still curious. What William did was to wrap up my poem in lyrics of his own devising and I'd like you to have a look at these first:


“And I would never understand.
And I would never understand.
Nothing is nothing you can rely on.
Nature as idea in my asylum.
And I would never understand.
And I would never understand.
Nothing is nothing you can rely on.
Fated we stumble into emotion.”

When I visited William
He had a tray of buttons in his hand.

“Oh! I like these,” he said,
“Because they open things –
And you don't need keys.”
And he counted
Them on my dress
And asked me to tell him a secret.

“And I would never understand.
And I would never understand.
Why is there nothing you can rely on?
Nature as idea in my asylum.”

When I visited William
He had a tray of old buttons.

“Oh! I like these,” he said,
“Because they open things –
And you don't need keys.”
And he counted
Them on my dress
And asked me to tell him a secret.

In vernal mourning,
Another year has passed me by.
Shamed, ignored,
My necessity caricaturised.
My innocence, long gone.
My innocence, long gone.
My innocence, long gone.

I think you can all agree that he did a damn good job of complementing my poem. Needless to say he did have to tweak the words a little but I'm fine with that. And that's what I told him. "Damn good job," I said. No, that's what I really said this time.

Damn good job. Damn good. Reduced my wife to tears. In a good way.

And it did too but she's a big softie. Now I needed to find a bit more about this guy. But before all of that why don't you have a wee listen to his song? First of all a quote to prepare you:

Kingfishers Catch Fire's music makes me feel a Victorian picnic by a bubbling brook. A decadent garden party at a manor house. A place where Bright Young Things can congregate in the last hedonistic summer of their youth, where simply looking divine gives you immortality. Somewhere where people love and feel too deeply to survive very long. It's nice to know that when I'm at a loss for words, music can gently coax them back. – Condemned to Rock 'N Roll

Here's a link. Try and contain yourself and just listen to the one track. You can go back later. There are plenty of links at the end.

l_c50904c955388b599a2f08199cdb5a54 William is actually William Robertson. He's twenty-seven and grew up in a small East Anglian village but moved to London when he was nineteen to study Fine Art. It turns out that he's the singer/guitarist and songwriter for the London-based alt-folk band, Kingfishers Catch Fire. Lucinda Godwin is the other member. She also sings.

I've heard the term 'alt folk' before but never really had a clear idea what made it 'alt' so I asked:

Alt-folk (or 'alternative folk'), to me, loosely refers to music that is folk influenced - that is, influenced by the melodies, chord progressions, lyrical content of the more traditional folk genre, often using similar instruments - but has a contemporary feel, which might come in the form of vocal style, additional 'electric' sounds or more mainstream musical or cultural influences. For example, my music is heavily influenced by '90s indie and contemporary female singer-songwriters, and I aim, in some songs, for a big orchestral sound, which is not often associated with the more pared-down acoustic feel of traditional folk.

So, how did you decide on a name like Kingfishers Catch Fire?

Whilst ambling around a library one day, Lucinda catches sight of a novel by Rumer Godden entitled Kingfishers Catch Fire, about the effects on Kashmir of a young English woman's decision to set up home there. She scribbles Small book coverthe name in her notebook, without purpose, thinking it quite charming. Across London, almost simultaneously, I come across a poem of the same name (but with a preceding 'As') by English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Attracted by the strong imagery of the words, and the use of alliteration and sprung rhythm, I, too, make a note of the title.

Some days later, one of us mentions, merely in passing, our discovery. The serendipity was too great to ignore. Thus our band name was born.

Ironically they're not the only band with that name and should not be confused with the Manchester-based outfit. I guess whoever makes it big first gets to keep the name. Not sure how that goes. I was curious about when he began taking an interest in music and his approach to song writing. I've written a few songs myself over the years. Sometimes I've started with a melody, sometimes with a set of lyrics. They were fun at the time but I've never been terribly serious about songs. This is what William told me about how he got started:


The first time I pick up a guitar (I find it in my parents' loft, having been neglected since the '60s; it has five strings and is three semitones out of tune), I am twelve years old.  I mimic Kurt Cobain and thus hold it the wrong way around. I soon discover that I am, in fact, right handed. I teach myself his songs and start writing my own, most of which are quite poor. He kills himself a month later and I feel as though I found him just in time. I start a band with my friends, but I never think they are really into it. I want to rehearse every night. Even from a young age, I recognise the importance of a strong, stirring melody. It is the main element of music to which I attach myself, and has remained so. It is so often not what is sung, but the way it is sung that communicates with the listener more directly; more instinctively. A melodic flourish speaks a thousand words. And seldom less eloquently. I soon decide that music is the most powerful of the arts. I discover that I have the capability to make people cry with my own melodies and I realise that I should really practice singing a bit more.

Some years later, I split the group when I find the one other person at my school whose passion for music touches my own. We start an acoustic duo. He introduces Simon and Garfunkel and Nick Drake to me. We perform around the folk circuit of Colchester for a couple of years. I spend the summer recording an album of original songs on a second hand cassette four-track. These are my first 'proper' recordings.

I play guitar and write songs for a couple of bands after moving to London, but later decide that I want to try singing again. I start writing songs for Kingfishers in the spring of 2008. Our first performance is in July of the same year.

Song writing

A song is borne of a melody. Its starting point, for me, is almost always a vocal line. A songwriter's favourite of his or her compositions tends to be those which take mere minutes to write; those which 'write themselves'. I still consider my voice a great limitation on the communication, through the language of melody and music, of emotion. To make up for this, I therefore decide to put great effort into the lyric writing process. Sometimes a lyric will attach itself in an instant to a melody, but usually I will spend some time in search of the perfect line. I'm still not sure which is better. The former can neglect meaning, the latter, a naturalness of sound. I therefore try to incorporate the two, which often takes days. My vocal delivery means that on the recordings, the lyrics are often indecipherable. I therefore use melody as a kind of lure toward the words being sung. On rare occasions, I find that no word seems right, so I make one up. My lyrics have been described as poetry but I couldn't possibly judge.

I like my songs to be between 2:00 and 2:59 in length. I don't like the number 3. Its shape, the sound as it's spoken, its oddness; all these things repel me. A 2 looks like a swan and is far more elegant.

My lyrics have been described as 'story-telling' and 'pastoral', and I often like to tell tales of modern folklore, legends etc., which have some elements of truth in them. The lyric of my song 'Corridors', for example, is based on an old lady who once lived in my childhood village.


A legend of another order;
A tale borne of many codes;
A wizened heir, ne'er to surrender
Her familial home.

She won't surrender!
The corridors say,
She won't surrender.
But when it's gone, she's gone.

Her body lain; summer's tender.
Indwellers say she took herself.
Her manor, once tumbledowned, freed of
All terrible forms.

She won't surrender!
The corridors say,
She won't surrender.
But when it's gone, she's gone.

Rumours abound
As around the ruins
Runs Thumbelina.

For many years the ruins stood there,
Avoided, feared, until one day,
Conveys a boy of nervous demeanour,
"With hammer in hand..."

She won't surrender!
The corridors say,
She won't surrender.
But when it's gone, she's gone.

Since he said he occasionally made up words to fit I wondered if he had he ever thought of going down the Sigur Rós, Lisa Gerrard route and abandon conventional meaning altogether?

I am a great admirer of the work of Cocteau Twins, whose words (often made up) are for the most part completely indecipherable, concentrating, rather than on story-telling, on the idea of the voice as instrument. I refer indirectly to this idea in my description of melody writing. I have considered writing a song of sound poetry, but it is a bold step, and I usually get caught up in meaning. Some day though, yes. I do like Sigur Rós' sound and I'm a great fan of R.E.M., especially their work for the I.R.S. label in the '80s. Michael Stipe's lyrics throughout the first five albums are also mostly indecipherable; his voice sometimes becoming an animalistic howl or wail. Moreover, R.E.M.'s debut LP is titled Murmur after Stipe's vocal style.

R.E.M. is just one of the influences William cites. Others include Tori Amos, Kate Bush, Neko Case, Jeremy Enigk and Simon and Garfunkel.

Since he mentioned songwriters who had incorporated poems into their songs I asked had he ever done this before:

'Buttons' is the first time I have incorporated a poem in its entirety into my lyrics, and the first instance I have written the rest of the lyrics around the poem, but it is not the first time I have quoted another writer. I do regard the Romantics as an influence (having used a line from Keats' 'Sleep and Poetry' - interested, as I was, in the blurring of the boundaries between the two and in the idea that the images of the former can bear the latter - similarly, my song 'Between Light and Dark' touches on the idea of a world between two frames of a film; a land where dreams and reality merge); not only their poetry, but their painting also.

All I can say is that I'm over the moon that Twitter brought us together. I'd never have believed it but the World Wide Web is a weird and wonderful place so I don't know why anything would surprise me. I'm delighted with the outcome. More than delighted. I've now listened to all the tracks I could find online. 'Buttons' is my favourite (No kidding, Jim!) but the rest are growing on me. I sincerely hope they get a record deal soon although I expect that's every bit as hard as it is to get a book deal these days, maybe even harder.

As promised, some links. You can here the music of Kingfishers Catch Fire on a number of websites, the following being the most user friendly: MySpace, and Facebook.

At the time of writing, Kingfishers Catch Fire are the featured artist on the Metro's music website with their song, 'Buttons'.


Thursday 14 May 2009

This post is bluey-green and tastes minty fresh


red carI've just had a couple of poems accepted by Ink, Sweat and Tears. If you'd be so kind as to click on this link and have a wee read at them I would be most grateful. I'll wait.

Good. Now, let me tell you something about them:

Truth's Last Gasp

This poem was written following a meeting with a psychologist almost two years ago. Now, I think I might have mentioned this before but I'd just like to state again for the record that I like talking to psychologists. I've met with four different ones in my life (all women coincidentally, which helps) and each in their own way has been fascinating to talk to. As for how much help they've been I can't really say. Only the last one however actually inspired any poetry, two actually, 'Truth's Last Gasp' and 'Penis Envy' which was published in Gloom Cupboard back in May 2008. I'll tell you a bit about that one after I've finished with the first poem.

I can remember exactly where the first two lines of 'Truth's Last Gasp' came from. I made a statement to the effect that breathing meant nothing, i.e. it's an autonomous function that we have little real control over. She retorted that breathing meant everything because without it we would die. Touché, Dr Simpson! But that's it. And I'm only guessing now that what I meant was that breathing is an autonomous function because I can't actually remember what I was thinking at the time. I can only remember the two lines of the conversation but nothing to put them in context. What I can say was that it was one of those conversations where we batted ideas back and forth at each other to see who might trip the other one up first. A bit like the verbal 'tennis match' in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Fifteen-love to the good doctor.

I do know in one of our conversations she had been encouraging me to try breathing exercises. She was not the first. My best friend's girlfriend tried that on me when she stayed with us in 1979. Relax, Jim, God damn you! She was training to be an occupational therapist and I didn't mind her practicing on me although I could have been far more cooperative. Never did see any raffia all the time she was with us though. Maybe they don't do that any more.

This is a particularly interesting poem because it's the first time I've actually deliberately written a breath into a poem. To read

Breathe. (     ) Eventually
it will all become clear.

you really need to inhale in the space provided and I find I actually take quite a deep breath even when reading the thing in my head.

I have a problem with monotasking (yes, it’s a real word) or to be more accurate I have a problem not multitasking. Life is so short. For example, the last time I actually sat down and only listened to music was when I put my back out a couple of weeks back and that was because I was lying flat on my back and could do nothing else bar listen to the TV and that gets old quick. I've never attempted meditation either. What a waste of time! Just think about all the stuff I could be doing instead. I'd have the screaming ad-dabs trying to even relax enough to think about meditating.

However, IF I could manage to do the breathing exercises my doctor suggested maybe I might be able to gain some insight into this breaking malarkey. Till then it'll just have to be another task on the list and for the record, while writing this just now, I'm also listening to Brahms' Schicksalslied - Op.54, transferring files between computers and breathing.

Oh, and if you've not worked it out, the 'not breathing' bit either means you're dead or holding your breath. You can't do both at the same time although I suppose if you want to be awkward one could die whilst holding ones breath.

Penis Envy

This one only appeared in the print journal so I'll reproduce it here for you:


The girl who lives next door is sad.
She lives on her own
and is probably a lesbian.
We have only her sadness
as proof and the
fact she drives an
sporty car.

The car is fire engine red,
a two-seater and
purrs like a cat.

The girl next door is plain and short.
I don't know her name.
She looks like a fourteen year-old boy,
a sad fourteen year-old boy,
at least I was.
I would not have
been sad if I'd had that
red sports car.

I sometimes wonder what Freud
might have had to say
about all of this.

Monday, 24 December 2007

This wasn't as a direct result of any particular conversation about my manhood rather it was more a matter of circumstance. Talking to psychologists always stirs up a lot of stuff in my head. I don't have a great knowledge of the subject. I can chuck around a few names and make myself sound like I know what I'm talking about for ten minutes but that's about it. Despite that my writing has always leaned heavily on pop psychology.

The poem takes truth as a jumping-off point. Our next-door neighbour is gay at least when you add up all the facts about her she's got to be gay although the very first time Carrie saw her – and that would be for about twenty seconds the first day we came to view the flat – she said: "She's gay." I've never had a conversation with our next-door neighbour on the subject – I mean how does one broach the subject? – but it's certainly never bothered me.

Anyway our next-door neighbour lived alone and used to drive this pokey wee car, black and uninteresting, a Fiat Uno or something of that ilk – I really can't remember. It kind of went with her personality because she was very quiet and it was hard to get much more than the odd slightly self-conscious "hello" out of her. And she never smiled. Never. She looked in desperate need of a good hug and probably a good seeing-to, too but let's just focus, folks.

Then one day a red sports car appeared outside our flat and Carrie and I wondered who it belonged to. Within a couple of days we knew – our dour little neighbour. Okay, it wasn't a Lamborghini or anything but it was still a babe-magnet. And sure enough, within a matter of days (I jest not) the babes began to appear and okay they weren't all six-foot tall stunners (actually none of them were six-foot tall stunners) but there was now a steady stream – okay, a trickle – of women arriving and departing in the red sports car. And then do you know what? Our dour little neighbour learned how to smile. A delicate little smile it was – it looked almost embarrassed to be out in public – but it was a smile. In time, and not much time I have to say, one of these lassies became a regular feature and they've now been a couple for a good few months. And she is so much happier. I sometimes hear them going into their flat across the hall and they're laughing. It's quite lovely really.

So, the poem is based in truth. As a fourteen year-old boy I'm afraid I was far more interested in expanding my knowledge of classical composers than I was in cars. Sure, I collected them when I was a kid. In fact I actually stopped collecting the year before Hot Wheels came on the market which I regretted but there was no going back. Our next-door neighbour does not look fourteen though. She could pass for someone in her late teens from a distance – she is small and slight – but not up close I'm afraid.

What I did note when I saw that car and who owned it was a tinge of jealousy. And, for the life of me I couldn't actually tell you what I was jealous about. Really! I've never been into cars. I've bought what I could afford purely with the object of getting from A to B safely and that was it. I remember once I got a new car and someone at work asked me what kind it was. "A red one," was my response not because I was being facetious but simply because I couldn't remember the make. It was actually a Talbot Samba, definitely not a babe-magnet by any stretch of the imagination.


The second poem that IS&T picked was a quicky I wrote after watching a programme about the history of 20th century classical music narrated by Simon Rattle. According to Rattle, fellow conductor André Previn once asked the composer Olivier Messiaen about a rehearsal performance of his Turangalîla Symphony. Messiaen confusingly replied: "Just play it a little more orangey-green." Messiaen suffered from a condition known as sound → colour synesthesia and you can read an interesting article about how it affected him here. Synaesthesia is a neurologically based phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. In other words people with Messiaen's condition perceive music as colours. There are other kinds, e.g. lexical → gustatory synesthetes taste words. I wonder what flavour this essay might be?

My poem is quite simply a poetic extrapolation. I didn't start reading articles on the subject. It was not meant to be accurate, not in that sense. I had no idea if there was any form of synaesthesia where people experience emotions in terms of colour but it seemed a nice idea to play with at the time.

On doing some research for this post I did come across a condition known as emotion → colour synaesthesia which has been put forth as an explanation for some people's ability to see colourful ‘auras’ around their loved ones.

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