Wednesday 29 July 2009

Widdecombe in twisted fetish filth shock

Ann Widdecombe thinks 'Antichrist' is pornographic?

What the hell kind of porn has Ann Widdecombe seen, that she thinks Lars von Trier's latest film is the kind of thing you'd knock one off to?

Only two conclusions are possible:

1) Ann Widdecombe secretly maintains a collection of twisted filth the likes of which would make even Peter Sotos slink away in abject disgust, or,

2) She doesn't actually have the foggiest idea what she's talking about.

I could tell you what I think (hint: it involves Widdy gurning in ecstasy as she freeze-frames another instalment of the Death Camp Scat-Sluts franchise*), but I prefer to let you make up your own mind - which is a privilege Widdecombe would rather people weren't allowed, at least when it comes to Antichrist.

* Aaaaand now I've put that delightful little image in your head, I shall retire. Good night!

Monday 27 July 2009

This my conspiracy theory which is mine *

I'm basically house-sitting now. All my CDs are at my parents', ready for when I move out. So are almost all my dvds and a lot of my books. We thought this would be a good idea, because my soon-to-be-ex-wife is in Spain for two weeks, then comes back the day before I leave for Glasgow. So we figured the thing to do was move all my stuff over early, to avoid a hellacious day of shuttling on the one day we're back together.

This, of course, turns out to be a mistake.

Because I've no media, you see. There are DVDs, but they're all hers - action films, musicals, and an extensive range of frat-pack comedies. Nothing wrong with any of these genres, but they're not what I want to watch right now. I'm in more of a Love is the Devil mood at the moment, is what I'm saying.

However, one DVD of mine has survived the migration: my 'Best of Bowie' collection, one of only two good purchases I made on my ill-advised trip to Scarborough so long ago (the other was Love all the People, basically a collection of every goddam thing Bill Hicks ever wrote). I'm watching it now. I'm up to the video for the Pet Shop Boys' remix of Hallo Spaceboy . And, of course, because I practically live on the internet these days (like all the rest of you), I've been googling. And I've found some disturbing stuff:

Bowie had a heart attack on June 25th, 2004. This effectively ended his recording career.

Michael Jackson had a heart attack on June 25th, 2009, which very definitely ended his recording career.

June 25th is George Michael's birthday.

You can see, of course, what it is that I'm getting at here.

Every five years, on his birthday, George Michael treats himself by giving a pop star he envies a heart attack with voodoo.

In 2014, who will feel the wrath of George?

* If anyone can identify the source I'm quoting in this title here, btw, they win a very special prize **.

** Okay, the 'very special prize' is a snog. Look, I'm getting divorced, okay? I'm frakkin' desperate. Cut me some slack. Jeez.

Sunday 26 July 2009

Palin has a drug dealer on speed-dial, apparently.

The Anchorage Daily News reports that Sarah Palin received 'the rock star treatment' at her farewell party.

I know rock is a pretty debased currency these days, but do we have to imply that Sarah frakkin' Palin is on the same plane as Jim Morrison, David Bowie, Slash or whoever else you care to name in the rock canon (I'm going to put Julian Cope in as my wild card)? No, we do not.

'Celebrity treatment' would have been acceptable, especially given that she's more suited to the vacuous realm of celebritainment than she is to the grown-up world of politics. But 'rock star'? No. Not even after that terrible Nickelback song.

Though I'd be tickled pink if La Palin's people could tell me which of these lyrics best represents the wolf-hating Jesus-freak governor. Me, I'm torn between the ten-person hot-tub or the centrefold-dating, either of which would provide a pretty good explanation for her stunning reverse ferret out of office recently...

Thursday 23 July 2009

The Unbearable Whiteness of Covers

As I may have mentioned on here a couple of times, I work in a bookshop. In the course of my job, I see a lot of book covers. I notice a lot of things about these covers. I notice that a lot of ordinary romance novels feature male characters on covers, but the cover figures on paranormal romance books tend to be female. I can spot the difference between a US and an English edition spine-on at fifteen paces. I can often tell, from the font used on the cover, whether a given book belongs in psychology, self-help or mind, body and spirit.

A while ago I noted that there seemed to be a two-tier thing going on with the black writing section. On one level you have the likes of Ellison, Walker, Morrison and Baldwin - literary fiction written by people who happen to be black. On the other hand, you have a tier of books which tend to be either gangsta-fiction (a surprising number of which are allegedly written by 50 Cent) or chick-lit of the girl-meets-playa variety. Now, here's a fun quiz to try: which of these tiers of the 'black writing' section are more likely to have cover images that feature black people, and which are more likely to have more, shall we say, 'abstract' covers?

If you said the literary fiction would be more abstract, and that the lower-tier material would be more likely to have covers showing actual black people, give yourself a pat on the back. If you've worked out the reason for this, then pat yourself on the back and give yourself a handshake, because you're obviously smarter than I (who only twigged this about five minutes ago when I had to see it basically stated in a blog to which I link below).

The reason, of course, is that a lot of people in publishing are worried that white people may be put off reading a novel with a non-caucasian character on the cover. This is not only really patronising, but it can actually be harmful to books which do feature black characters, as outlined here by Justine Larbalestier. Larbalestier's book, Liar, is a novel about a woman who may or may not be a pathological liar, and her struggle to stop lying. Larbalestier worked hard to create a believable background for her character, Micah, who happens to be black and to have what Larbalestier describes as 'nappy' hair.

The publishers - acting on the assumption that to feature a black character on the cover might frighten the white folk - decided, not to even go with an abstract cover, but to illustrate the cover with an image of a very pale white woman with incredibly long, straight hair. Juxtaposed with the title of the book, of course, this suggests that Micah is actually lying about being black, too.

Say what you like about the death of the author, the fact remains that fiction relies on a careful dance between belief and incredulity. If you're writing a novel about someone who lies pathologically, it's even more important that there be some bedrock of truth for the lies to play off. Deciding to write a book with an unreliable narrator is one thing; having the narrator become unreliable because of the decisions of your cover designer is another thing entirely. And when that decision is based on the patronising and racist assumption that a pasty-assed mofo like myself will only read books which have picture of white people on the cover, it's downright bloody dangerous.

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Sometimes the simplest ideas are funniest...

George and Lynne is one of the most unfunny cartoon strips in the history of British newspapers, rivalled only for the crown of most unfunny by the woeful Fred Basset, a tremendously boring strip about a dog with some kind of canine learning difficulty.

However, while George and Lynne itself may be unfunny, analysing it with the utmost seriousness turns out to be comedy gold.

Tuesday 21 July 2009

Shot By Both Sides

I just had me what alcoholics call a moment of clarity.

I was watching a local comedian I used to vaguely know on a television comedy show. And I suddenly realised why Southerners think us Geordies are so naturally funny.

It's because we've got funny voices. That's it, isn't it? Funny voices. Anything we say, whether it's the complete text of Briggflats or 'brand new customers only', is just so funny, isn't it? Because of the voices. Because we sound so silly. So un-serious. So goddam fucking dumb.

Bastards. It doesn't matter what we do. We can invent the fucking lightbulb and they'll still treat us as comic relief.

You'll note I use the term 'we' in the above. Because, as I mentioned below, I have a non-Geordie voice. I could pass. I could pretend to be one of them. Some home counties c**t blabbing on about culcha. I won't though. Because even though I may not sound like it, I love this part of the country. I love Penshaw Monument, I love the Quayside, I love Tynemouth Metro and the market they have there, I love the view from Beacon Lough as you drive down towards Low Fell and the Team Valley, I love Marsden Rock, I love Durham, I love Darlington Railway Station, I love Pity Me and No Place, I love Mowbray Park and crossing the bridge in Sunderland, looking out over the harbour, I love fish 'n' chips at South Shields, I love every single goddam thing about Newcastle. I even love Middlesbrough, for Satan's sake. This place may not be in my voice, but it's in my fucking blood.

The saddest thing is that this doesn't matter to an awful lot of the chip-on-the-shoulder pricks who inhabit this region. As soon as I open my mouth they peg me as a Southern ponce who needs a slap. Great.

It is my doom to never be able to be one of them, the Southern pillocks who laugh at us because of our funny accents, and yet also to never be one of us, the hard-bitten Geordie resistance who feed on the enemy if we must, but serve them only so we can wait our turn upon them. I love this place, could never betray it, could never mock it for the easy giggles of a Southern crowd; but, because me accent duzzent deviate suffishently frum re-seeved pronuncyation, I know that I'll be forever accused of not loving it enough.

Well, whatever, like. I'll do what I want to do. And if you don't like it, do what you have to do. I'll be me and I'll love what I love and I won't shut up about it. If I don't fit your silly little template, tough shite, mara.

(Mackems, Tykes, Smoggies etc: take heart. You're included in this post too. I'm using the word 'Geordie' here in the same way the Southern media ponces use it, to describe everyone who lives between Yorkshire and Scotland. I know, they're stupid. Fatha, forgive 'em, like, they divvent knaa what tha' deein'.)


I have a weird voice. Always have done. Despite having been born in the North East of England and having lived here all my life, I speak in an odd mid-atlantic accent which leads people to think I'm actually either American, Australian, South African, Canadian, Dutch, Danish, or even a Kiwi.

Because it's an odd voice, it commands people's attention, and it can be quite nice to listen to, when I pay attention to my diction and avoid eliding words like some stoned Californian. So I often wind up doing the sales announcements in the shop where I work. Today, I made use of that rather ugly portmanteau word 'unputdownable' in the course of an announcement, leading a customer to query whether 'unputdownable' is 'actually a word.' It's certainly an ugly word, two verbs colliding like cars between prefix and suffix: but is it an actual word?

A quick googling showed that most online dictionaries think it is, and also showed up two interesting articles, to which I link below:

Here, Andrew Brown has a good hard bash at the sort of crap perpetrated on the reading public by his namesake Dan, and here, Elizabeth Bachner wonders about the good/bad-putdownable/unputdownable continuum, in the process concocting an extended gustatory metaphor and having a swipe at publishing tastes. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did.

Monday 20 July 2009

Don't fuck with the Ears With Feet

Professional wrestler and candidate for coolest man on Earth Mick Foley has an interesting pre-match preparation routine:

'Oddly though, the most intense images occur to me when I listen to the Tori Amos song ‘Winter’. It’s a truly beautiful track, but I listen to it before matches to help me visualise the violence I’m about to wreak.'

Mick Foley is responsible for the most extreme 'Hell in a Cell' match ever, and once lost two-thirds of an ear in the ring ropes during a match against Big Van Vader in Munich.

Suddenly, the juxtaposition of 'Hey, Jupiter' and 'threatening someone with violence' in this post doesn't seem quite so surprising.

Weird that it's 'Winter', though. Me, if I had to prepare for a steel cage death match, I'd listen to the live version of 'The Waitress' from To Venus and Back...

The Factotum Experience: Big Dead Place goes SNAFU (and Mistah Kurtz, he lives...)

Factotum is on TV this week. I've always liked Bukowski's definition of the word: 'a man of many jobs.' In this sense, the factotum experience is something with which a lot of writers are familiar. There are a variety of reasons for this. For one thing, writers seek novelty: doing different jobs gets you a wider variety of experiences about which you can write. The paradigmatic example of this is, for me, someone like Poppy Z Brite , whose author bio in my dog-eared copy of Drawing Blood lists, among her occupations, 'mouse caretaker', but maybe Warren Ellis's summary of his pre-writing life as 'doing pretty much all the shitty jobs you can imagine' gives a better sense of the desperation the writer encounters in trying to find a way to fit into the working world.

We're hobbled, we writers, by a debilitating condition: we have to tell the truth. Not capital-T Truth, but the truth as we see it, perhaps: but whatever the case, we can't not tell it. We can choose to avoid telling it, or to run from telling it, we can dress it up in layers and layers of fictionalising and feel smug and satisfied that no-one will ever figure us out - but the result of these strategies will only ever be one of two things: either the writing thus produced will be crap, or it'll work - and wind up, somehow, exposing the truth we tried so hard not to tell.

This is unfortunate for us, however, as much of the working world is based precisely on not telling the truth. On what psychologists call 'impression management': attempting to create an image of ourselves in the minds of those with whom we interact based not on what we truly are (or think we are), but on what we think they would like to think of us.

I once worked with a guy who impression-managed all the time. He read a lot of self-help books, and I suppose that at some point he must have read a book which told him to treat every conversation at work as if he was still interviewing for the job. Every time you talked to him about anything he would look on it as an opportunity to go on about how good he was at every job he'd ever done, how he always saw things the right way, and how much of an all-around success story he was. Like most people who talk only about themselves, he was a crashing bore, but there was something else, too: you could tell that he didn't really believe it. His spiel was for his own benefit as much as for anyone else. He talked incessantly about having a winning attitude, but deep down he was afraid that he had 'loser' tattooed on his heart.

In the end, he got a job elsewhere, and I hope - for the sake of his sanity - that he made a success of it. Experience, however, and scientific evidence, suggest that he probably didn't. Those who become 'successful' in business don't tend to worry, deep down, that they may be inadequate. Quite the opposite.

The problem is that most organisations - when not recruiting on the basis of nepotism, cronyism, or any of the other various forms of corruption to which they are prone - tend, in the final analysis at least, to recruit on the basis of interviews. Interviews favour those who can convey the impression that they are confident they can do the job for which they've applied. Research (by Hoffrage (2004), Lichtenstein (1982) and Baumeister (2005), if you must know) shows, however, that confidence is a poor predictor of performance. Indeed, it can actually have an inverse relationship to achievement.

High achievement, and high competency - the qualities which, theoretically, should be sought after in management level staff - are, by contrast, almost always associated with low self-esteem. It makes sense, when you think about it - the lower your self-esteem, the greater your urge to prove yourself, and the more time you'll spend worrying away at whatever you've chosen to prove yourself with, to make sure you get it right. Inexplicably well-regarded crazy-haired pop-science maven Malcolm Gladwell reckons that it takes thousands of hours of practice at something before you get good at it: it's a fair bet that no-one putting in thousands of hours practising something is already convinced they're the best.

This, of course, leads to the development of a certain kind of culture at the management level of most organisations. Because the management are at best a bunch of overconfident mediocrities, they rub along quite happily in their little shared bubble of mutually-reinforcing high self-esteem. Because the people who actually display high levels of competence are essentially hard-driven monomaniacs with low self-esteem (and the usual range of behaviours associated therewith), they tend to be regarded as a bit, well, weird by the mental midgets of management. Over time, the management level of an organisation will fill up with confident, affable, well-groomed but ultimately useless promotion-getting machines, while the few highly-competent personnel will leave, in varying degrees of disgust, either to strike out on their own, to find a job in one of the few truly meritocratic organisations out there, or to just drop out of the system altogether.

The Discordially-inclined reader will see at once that this is a form of the SNAFU Principle , and the end result is much the same as in Wilson's formulation: robbed of its talent base and top-heavy with a layer of managers increasingly not just divorced from reality, but seemingly under a court order not to go within fifty miles of it, the organisation goes belly-up.

Unless, of course, the organisation in question is a bloated corporate/government bureaucracy protected by a mythology so powerful that it'll be safe from even the most partisan free-market administration - which is exactly the situation in which Nicholas Johnson finds himself working in Big Dead Place , a book about life and work in Antarctica which eschews the cliches of scientific heroism and explorers in peril in favour of a grunt's-eye perspective, a view not from the husky sled, but from one of the garbage vehicles Johnson drove as a contract worker for Raytheon, operating under the auspices of America's National Science Foundation (NSF). Johnson finds that far from being the last unspoilt wilderness, Antarctica is a happy hunting ground for ineffectual corporate drones, and that life at the NSF's three Antarctic stations - Scott, Pole and McMurdo - is like a Douglas Coupland novel or an episode of The Office turned up to eleven.

To his credit, Johnson is too honest a writer to turn this into a simple story of saintly workers versus devilish employers. He details every pecadillo of his fellow staff - the way they hoot and holler in bars, brawl with each other, play cruel and unusual practical jokes on their workmates and fornicate in the Chapel of the Snows - but it's clear that for venality, hypocrisy and sheer mean-spiritedness the contract workers have nothing on the salaried professionals who supervise them, especially those based in NSF HQ in Denver. People are forced to move rooms in double-quick time, with bonuses forfeited if their old rooms are not presented as spotlessly clean for inspection. Dubious 'medical' reasons are found to remove people considered to be troublemakers. The discovery of asbestos in one of the buildings is hushed up and glossed over, while the 'rescue' of a station doctor not in any immediate danger of death is peddled to the media as an authentic tale of polar heroism. And worst of all, when people do demand some standard of moral probity from the crawling middlemen sent to watch over them, they are persecuted, hounded out of work, and sent home under police guard for 'abusive' behaviour.

Those who rise to positions of power may be uninspiring mediocrities, but there is no spectacle in nature more pathetically vicious than watching them deploy, like antibodies, to expel anyone of genuine character they find in their ranks. And Johnson shows, with a diverse range of examples from the history of Antarctic exploration, that it has indeed ever been thus on the world's coldest continent. Decent, intelligent and truly professional workers are forced to toil under prissy, self-mythologizing narcissists who radio civilisation with spurious press releases, force crew members to sign contracts surrendering any diaries they keep - even if those contracts have to be written in pencil and signed in the driving snow - and imprison workers for refusing to continue slogging away after their contracts expire. Like a version of Heart of Darkness in which the company leaves Kurtz to get on with it, Big Dead Place is a nightmare; but like Conrad's fiction, the truly nightmarish thing about Johnson's memoir is the way in which it reveals, in extreme circumstances, the dynamics which underlie our own best of all possible bureaucracies. The best do indeed lack all conviction; and in their absence the worst, passionately intense as always, have moved into the wild parts of the Earth and turned them into business parks. It's small comfort, in this context, that the centre cannot hold.

Sunday 19 July 2009

The Loneliness of the Low-Impact Writer

Middle of August, I'm going to Glasgow. Never been to Glasgow before, but that's not important. What's important is that I'm travelling alone.

Haven't gone on holiday alone since 2004. Scarborough. In the off-season. That was an exercise in boredom tolerance, but at least I got some poems out of it. And I got to come back to see M, my then-future, and soon-to-be ex, wife.

This time, I go alone, and I come back to my old room back in my parents' house. While I'm there I'll be spending time in the company of some good friends, and I'm sure there's a hell of a lot more to do in Glasgow, but...five years. Part of me is worried about how I'll handle it, and this is an easy trip. A couple of days staying on a friend's couch and exploring the city with them. What happens when I'm having to deal with being properly on my own, rushing through dinner in strange cities and coming back to an empty hotel room?

Get back to basics, I suppose. Hand luggage only. Don't draw attention. Short trips: do what you came for and get out. Keep yourself to yourself, don't strike up conversations with strangers and for god's sake don't introduce yourself to women. You're a 32-year-old lower-tier poet who works in a bookshop, not James Bond.

And take a notepad. Write. You never write anything of lasting worth while travelling, but the exercise, stretching your mind to describe something outside of the usual comfort zone, observing and reporting, keeps the muscles limber for when you do have to write something important.

Keep quiet. Keep yourself off the radar. No-one cares who you are. No-one cares where you came from. No-one cares why you're here. They have stuff to be doing. So do you.


That's how you deal with it.

Thursday 16 July 2009

It Rained Today

It rained today. The shop where I work is in what is essentially a big tin box on a retail park, so on the second floor you could hear the rain hammer down like some nightmare tropic downpour. M tells me roundabouts were blocked in all directions, and at one point in Sunderland she sat behind cars in one lane of traffic and watched a cup float by in the flooded waters of the inside lane. The weather continues hot, too, so when the rain does eventually evaporate, going outside is like walking into a sauna. The other day I foolishly went to the pub in the post-monsoon heat, and it was like some tropical way-station out of The Yage Letters. In between desperate gulps of stella I looked around in vain for Dr Benway.

My stepdaughter, meanwhile, has contracted swine flu. M will do a food run for her tomorrow, depositing bags of shopping from Morrison's outside her cross-emblazoned door.

There are further economic upheavals. The death toll in the war continues to rise. And I read recently that some scientists feel we're already beyond the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that can safely support an advanced civilisation.

For all I know, an eagle has been hawked at by a mousing owl and killed, too.

On the other hand, I am getting divorced, an experience which does tend to cloud the perceptions.

My question then: is this actually the apocalypse, or could it just be me?

Tuesday 14 July 2009

Ethical Dilemmas #414:

'Someone has accused my son of murdering their daughter. Am I within my rights to consider this rude, and what would constitute a suitable reply?'

It just goes to show you can't be too careful.

FreakAngels Window

Shatila Social Thoughts

'The problem,' Jonathan said to me as he dropped me off back at the house, 'is that you had them hanging on your every word and then you scuttled off. It was like you were disowning what you'd said.' And the thing is, people, he's right. About the latter part anyway. I would never be so ungallant as to presume that people had been hanging on my every word. Yes, there may have been silence, people may have been listening but, y'know, someone might have climbed up on stage behind me and started creating a balloon animal kama sutra. Correlation does not equal causation.

Jonathan was talking about my performance at the Shatila Social gig at the Cumberland Arms last night. I had pledged to write a poem especially for the event and to include anything people mentioned in the poem as long as they sponsored me to do so. In the end, only the redoubtable Kevin Cadwallender took me up on this offer, promising to contribute 'five shiny pounds' if I mentioned Torchwood in my poem.

Well, Kevin, you owe Peter Mortimer five pounds:


Paging through the fanfic,
pansexual Mary-Sueing, superfluous
slash: Gwen/Tosh, Rhys/Ianto:
feeling smug,envisioning

gimlet-eyed women with too many cats,
and boxes full of knitting magazines
conjuring a warmth within
that hairy-knuckled male hands
will not bring: imagining
Jack’s lips, in plasma-screen
Hi-Definition, skin glowing
in the spaceship light,
pressed against the Doctor’s,
faces meshing, black glasses askew...

Huh. Losers. Perverts. Weirdoes.

Am I different? Am I worse?
I’ve lived an imagined life of decadence
in private, casting it with
friends and workmates, colleagues, exes,
people on the street. I’ve pictured
your fist in a black leather glove,
wrapped up in, ripping at, my hair;
I’ve flinched, half-smiling, at the thought
of your teeth snapping shut
on the soft parts of my skin:

what difference is there here but dramatis
, the decision not to dream
of sex by proxy? More honest, maybe,
more direct...

but I pass you in the corridor. We talk
and I feel awkward. The fanficcers –
they have that?

Maybe at conventions.

Obviously it's not really about Torchwood, of course. It's about adult situations, or at least the imagining thereof. In this it actually formed part of a weird triptych of poems about sex in the final part of the evening. Kate Fox started it by talking about unmentionable parts of the anatomy, her partner Alfie Craigs did a long and very satisfying extended metaphor comparing poetry-writing to having sex for the first time, and I wound up forming the unappetising filling in this weird improptu sex-poetry sandwich. Obviously it's an uncomfortable situation for an uncommonly pious child of the Almighty such as myself to be in, talking about, y'know, the filthiness and that, but that wasn't why I scarpered off the stage as soon as I was finished. I was in fact afraid.

I was afraid that people might applaud.

All performing artists fear applause on some level or other. We fear it being withheld, but we also fear it being given too liberally. There's nothing like a massive round of applause to politely tell someone - especially some shitty poet - that they've had their moment in the spotlight, and would you kindly get off stage. But for me, there's another thing I fear about applause. I'm afraid, you see, that if people are applauding, then -

maybe that means they like me.

I've never really got used to being liked. Being loved. Being wanted. If you want to completely throw me, if you want me to feel scared and shitty and to question my self-worth, don't get in my face and insult me, because I'll just insult you back. Instead, offer me a compliment.

Compliments fuck me up. The thought that someone out there, some other human being not related to me by blood, wedlock or longstanding friendship, might consider something I do to have been of worth, might actually feel something about my continued existence other than a strong inclination to want it over with as soon as possible, frightens the shit out of me. Don't know why. Maybe I won't ever know. But it does. And for me, that moment when you've stopped performing, when there's a chance that people might have liked you and, worse, might be about to let you know, is absolutely bloody terrifying.

All of which is no excuse, of course. Leaving before the audience have had a chance to say a proper goodbye, whether with bouquets or bricks, is just bloody rude, and I apologise wholeheartedly to anyone offended by my scuttling behaviour. Rest assured, it will not happen next time.

Saturday 11 July 2009

This is what I do

Durham Miners' Gala today. My (soon-to-be-ex-) wife was up there all day with the NASUWT mob, then visiting a friend in the evening, so, after work, I had a good few hours free. Normally I would choose to pass those hours down the local, having a pint and a burger and laughing at the dessert menu on which summer fruit meringue is followed by eton mess. Tonight, I decided to do things differently. I cooked some pasta for tea, washed down with a wine glass full of diet coke, followed up by a strong coffee. I then sat down, stuck the music player on the new laptop to shuffle and commenced to write.

Writing poetry is an interesting thing. When you start, it's formless. When I write most of these blogs, I have a sort of vague idea of where I want to go, and sort of amble towards it over a few paragraphs. When I write a more organised article, I structure it in more detail. When I write a short story, I plot it out very carefully indeed, character; motivation; obstacle, outcome, obstacle, outcome, obstacle...(this is perhaps why I don't write many short stories: I always tend to follow the same structure. I ought to have the balls to try some Donald Barthelme -type experiments.) But writing poetry is different, for me. It doesn't start with a structure. Often it doesn't even begin with an idea. It starts by going within.

What happens, for me, is that I stop, I look at the page, I check up on whatever obsessions are running in the background of my emotional hard drive and then - gradually, and with a lot of deleting, retyping and deleting again - try and find a form to set them in, an action or a scene to illustrate them, and a structure in which these things can be revealed. Often one piece, when achieved, will spark off connections to another obsession, or another facet of the original, and so the process begins again.

Writers, they say, are people who find it harder to write than other people. And that's true: getting round to actually writing any poetry involves, for me, a near-endless round of displacement activity, blogging, brewing cups of coffee, washing dishes, reading, cleaning benches, going for walks or to the pub (or both), deciding that I will write something but only after watching Love is the Devil or Robinson in Space again, before eventually feeling sufficiently up to it to write something. But when it is working, when it's flowing, when you're dealing with the weird little things that live in the back of your brain and pinning them down on paper or screen, when the music is playing and your fingers are dancing over the keys - it isn't like the best feeling on earth, exactly. It isn't that it makes me feel good. It makes me feel right. Few things in this world do.

More nights like this are, I think, the way to get through this.

Friday 10 July 2009

Shatila Social and the Great Sponsored Poem Experiment

Shatila Social
The Cumberland Arms
Ouseburn, Byker
Newcastle upon Tyne
NE6 1LD,
Monday July 13th
Doors at 7.30 starts at 8.00
Admission £5.00
(All proceeds to the Shatila Project)

Special Guests: Ray Laidlaw and Billy Mitchell of Lindisfarne
Blues singer Annie Orwin
Comedian Steve Drayton
Plus, Plus, Plus, Scott Tyrrell, Kate Fox, Simma, Nikki Hawkins, Yvonne Young, Adam Fish, Catherine Graham, Kevin Cadwallender, Annie Moir, Richard Makepiece, Kyla Clay Fox are just a few of the other wonderful performers who have agreed to help us raise money.

The writer Peter Mortimer spent two months working in the Shatila Refugee Camp in Beirut. Peter spent time working with the children of the camp school to create, and for them then to perform on camp, a 30 minute play, which incorporated music, dance and physical theatre. Peter is bringing 10 young actors, (and four of their teachers) to perform the play in the autumn on Tyneside. However, in order to do this, funds are needed to help pay for the travel and accommodation for the performers, and to organise the performance itself.

If you can come and pay the £5.00 entrance fee (which is, I know, rather expensive to watch ex-Lindisfarne personnel but you do have to remember I’ll be there too, so on those grounds it’s a bargain), then great, if not, I’d love it if you’d contribute some money by contributing to


It’s an innovative, forward-facing, innovative, audience-focused, innovative, interactive and innovative method I’ve devised of getting people to sponsor me to perform at the Shatila Social gig. Obviously, with such a packed bill, I can only do one poem, and I can’t go on too long, so that rules out sponsorship ideas like, say, 50p per poem or a pound for every minute spent performing or whatever. So what I’ve came up with is this: I will write a new poem especially for the event, and if you contribute some sponsorship money I will mention one thing of your choosing. It might be a specific word you want me to use, it might be someone’s name, it might be a number, a concept, whatever. It could be your favourite football team, a line from a song, or a convoluted and embarrassing double entendre. Literally anything you want, if you sponsor me and pay me the money to mention it for the gig, I will mention it in the new poem.

By now, you’re probably saying ‘gee, Adam, this sounds swell, but how can I sign up to be a part of this incredible experiment?’, or you will be if you’re an American 1950s schoolboy anyway. Well, Timmy, it’s simple – simply comment below with details of what you'd like me to mention and how much you're willing to pay for it...

It's the Gnomes, I tell thee

The papers this morning are all over the news that a stressed-out teacher has snapped and put a kid in hospital . I'm not going to say too much about this case, because there isn't a lot I can say without swearing, ranting, and inciting acts of unspeakable violence against people who don't rein in their crotchfruit , but I will say that I'm surprised it's taken so long for this to happen.

I used to teach. It's a thankless bloody job. Not only do you have to deal with vast amounts of paperwork, bureaucracy and constant filing of reports - it's not unusual for teachers to work until midnight of an evening on assessment or lesson planning; not only do you have to put up with a regime of inspection and interference which would have done the Soviets proud; not only do you have to put up with the fact that most Head Teachers are either Blairite apparatchiks on the make, trying to smarm their way into a higher-up job in the LEA, or craven half-men who came of age when it was easier to get into the job, took one look at the kids, and realised they wanted to get as far away from them as possible; and not only do you have to deal with endemic workplace bullying, and the fact that most school governors are the kind of golf-playing, Mail-reading authoritarians who would back these useless heads up if they were found to be penetrating their staff with a broom handle as part of the induction process: you have to put up with all this while having to deal with a section of the population who are, on average, the vilest and most distasteful aggregation of humanity on the planet: kids.

Kids suck, on the whole. I'm not being prejudiced here: people suck, too, but kids suck worse. The general public are a bunch of rude, farting, ill-mannered, loud and aggressive morons with an overly-developed sense of entitlement, but they have at least developed some degree of restraint, even if only based on a desire to avoid a stay at Her Majesty's Pleasure. Most kids haven't developed this restraint yet, and I include myself in that number - however much of a bastard you think I am now, do bear in mind that I was worse as a child.

The purpose of education is, at least in part, to impart this sense of restraint to your spawn, and teachers could do so brilliantly if they weren't held back by too much legislation, snowed under with ludicrous degrees of bureaucracy, and being undermined on every side by an increasingly yobbish popular culture. Even in these difficult circumstances, most teachers manage to do a competent job of it. But that job, however well you do it, is stressful. The culture of targets and league tables, and the relentless regime of inspection combine to put immense pressure on teachers throughout the school. Teachers are routinely worked too hard by management, often to the point where - like Peter Harvey - they break down through stress.

Peter Harvey was, it seems, stressed to the point where he became mentally ill. He suffered a stroke and, when he returned to work after taking time off, he was greeted by classrooms full of little darlings calling him a 'psycho.' Now, after snapping under that pressure, he has to put up with disgraceful headlines like this, in the usually a-bit-better-than-other-redtops Daily Mirror . What we have here is a mentally ill man who wasn't given the right support, who was taunted for being mentally ill to the point where he snapped, and who is now still being taunted in the media by the kind of sackless, half-human scum who pass for reporters and sub-editors these days.

Like people in any profession trying to do a difficult job under stress, a lot of teachers nurture little fantasies that help them get through the day. Maybe they'll win the lottery. Maybe they'll be able to get some kind of LEA job. Tuberculosis is a popular fantasy - not for its romantic poet implications, but because if you get TB you get a year off on full sick pay. Imagine!

Another popular fantasy is the idea of going to teach in a Steiner school . Have to admit I nurtured this fantasy myself. No Literacy Strategy, no National Curriculum, selective admissions and a sort of wholegrain, holistic, hippy-ish educational philosophy? Yeah, I could probably really enjoy teaching in an environment like that, I told myself.

Not sure I'd enjoy the racism, endemic bullying, anti-scientific teaching and batshit obsession with gnomes, though.

Thursday 9 July 2009

Adam Fish battles the Christ-bots

So I'm busy today, copying files over to my new laptop from the one my wife and I used to share. I'm doing this because we're getting divorced. It's all very amicable but it's still kind of depressing. I'm copying over our photos: JPEG after JPEG charting the path by which it's came to this. Photos on our honeymoon, in which my wife is smiling, happy and full of love; photos from our last holiday together, when the love was still there, but visibly fighting on her face with a strong sense of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. The unhappiness of someone who knows what she'll have to say; but can't bring herself to say it just quite yet.

There's a knock at the door.

Probably the kids from down the street: they'll have lost their football in our garden again. This wouldn't happen if they played on the huge field behind the estate; but obviously this would entail them going beyond the tiny radius their parents have designated as a safe zone. I hope it's them anyway; rather have to kick a ball back over the wall, even with a knackered ankle, than explain to my neighbours that no, I'm not lending them any more money until they bloody pay me back...

But it's neither the kids nor the neighbours. It's a pair of women, smartly-dressed, carrying a leaflet. Religious nuts.

'Hello,' says one of them. 'Do you ever think about people who've lost loved ones?'

Does no-one ever ask if you want to talk about Jesus anymore? Obviously experience has led them to the conclusion that the trick is to approach the problem obliquely. Well, bollocks to that.

'I'm an atheist,' I tell them. I'm not actually, but I want to close down this discussion quick.

'That's alright, people have all kinds of beliefs,' the other woman says, in a patronising tone of voice, before the other one breaks in. 'But if you think about people who've lost loved ones...'

'What I think, ma'am, is that trying to foist your unsupportable beliefs on people by using their genuine grief over their lost loved ones is both intellectually dishonest and morally cowardly.'

Silence. These people hate it when you tell them off in an articulate manner, instead of just telling them to fuck off. But then...

'Alright, but when you think about people who've lost - '

What a feckin' cheek! I've just accused this woman of intellectual dishonesty and moral cowardice and she still keeps up her bloody spiel!

'Look,' I say, 'I'd like you to go away now, please.' And then, before they could respond, I, for the first time in my life, had to actually slam a door in someone's face.

Bloody religious nuts.

Monday 6 July 2009

Safe behind the curve: that Tori Amos review at last...

On some level, I've never forgiven Tori Amos for getting married. Not because she didn't marry me, you understand (well, okay, maybe slightly...), but because I was afraid that domestic bliss might interfere with her creativity - 'happiness writes white' and all that. I might have taken the album that came immediately after that marriage, From the Choirgirl Hotel, as proof that I was wrong, if I didn't know that many of the songs on that record were occassioned by the trauma of Tori's miscarriage. But the album that followed 'Choirgirl', To Venus and Back , was a much weaker proposition than any of her previous works. There were good tracks on there - '1,000 Oceans', 'Concertina', 'Glory of the 80s'; but there was an awful lot of filler, too. The experiments in using electronic production that added so much emotional content to Choirgirl degenerated, on Venus, into noodling gimmickry. Tellingly, the record company packaged it with a disc of Tori's fantastic live performances - the best reason to buy the package, and a tacit admission that without it the record would be of little interest even for completists.

There followed the time-honoured artistic holding action of releasing a covers album, though admittedly the album in question, Strange Little Girls , was brilliant. Tori's version of 'Raining Blood', for example, is much scarier than Slayer's original, the flashes of beautiful colour added by Tori's voice performing something of the same function as the touches of painterly brilliance in Francis Bacon's works - accentuating the horror by contrast. But a doubt remained in my mind: was this it? Was it covers from now on? Would the last original Tori Album be the mediocre disc they'd had to package with a concert?

And then September the 11th happened.

Actually, I'm messing with chronology here somewhat - I only heard Strange Little Girls after the attack, indeed it was one of the three albums I took with me on my trip to London the week after, a strange and memorable time to be in that city - flags at half-mast, an air of paranoia, every random event charged with significance like a novel by Burroughs or Iain Sinclair. On the last day of my stay they pulled a torso from the Thames just opposite Tate Modern - if I'd booked a later train I'd have been on the scene to see them do it. Nothing to do with me officer, we're Reform Houngans in my voudoun temple. But I digress...

Tori's response to what Stockhausen rather overexcitedly called 'the biggest work of art there's ever been' (over-excitedly, but not wrongly: the purpose of the attacks looks, at this distance, more like an overblown piece in the immature, shock-happy idiom of the Viennese Actionists than any meaningful act of warfare - and we should note that Stockhausen pointedly didn't say it was the best work of art, just 'the biggest') was to make the excellent Scarlet's Walk . I can't think of an unnecessary track on that album. It's the sound, musically and lyrically, of Tori grappling with a host of big issues: terrorism, religious fundamentalism, colonialism, her Native American heritage, racism, homophobia, sexuality, US history and politics - and, far from being overwhelmed, coming out decisively on top. The lyrics are masterpieces of compression, fitting multi-layered references and big concepts into tightly-packed lines, and musically it has the clear, plangent emotion of a work like Choirgirl or Little Earthquakes. Here was that rock journalist cliche, the 'return to form', for real.

And then she went and blew it again, with The Beekeeper . Described by Entertainment Weekly as 'the Tori Amos album for those normally freaked out by Tori Amos', which I suppose at least makes it useful for profiling purposes , The Beekeeper sounded, on paper, like an interesting proposition: a melding of the ideas in Buxton's The Shamanic Way of the Bee with an excavation of the suppressed feminine currents in Christianity, as represented by the figure of Mary Magdalene , it would be a kind of companion piece to Scarlet's Walk, exploring the Christian side of Tori's heritage. As so often, however, the engagement with the religion of the oppressor failed to result in good writing, not least because it coincided with the emergence of another, more populist take on the Magdalene myth: Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. A good rule for artists is to move on when the recondite becomes the mundane. When the masses take over what was terra incognita, the Invisible College decamps.

Sometimes into seemingly more quotidian areas. Tori's next record was American Doll Posse , a more conventionally politicised record which criticised the policies of the Bush administration while deep-mining Tori's history for a range of disparate sexual personae to adopt in writing. It was also more of a conventional rock album than her previous work - some tracks were even out-and-out pop - but look beneath the conventional structure and darker notions are to be found.

So, Tori's record so far, in this writer's opinion, is seven wins (every album up to and including Choirgirl, plus Girls, Scarlet and Posse), and one loss (Beekeeper) with Venus edging through as a draw on account of having a few good tracks and that live disc to salvage it. So, what to make of her new offering, Abnormally Attracted to Sin ?

Well, it isn't The Beekeeper, thankfully. I don't hate it. But then I don't have much of a strong positive reaction to it either. It's a competent album: sonically there are some interesting experiments in terms of production, and it has a sort of intriguing overall tone that reminds me, weirdly, of spy movies or Batman Returns , but the record as a whole seems to lack the sense of urgency of a Choirgirl or Boys for Pele, it's as if the need to make a record has dictated the project, not the need to say anything specific.

Don't get me wrong, there are quite a few good tracks:'Strong Black Vine', 'Police Me' and 'Starling' stand out, on this first couple of listens, as the kind of beautiful yet disturbing fare we've come to expect from Tori, 'That Guy' is a beautiful song in the political vein of Posse (or at least that's how this guy interprets its reference to a guy who 'swears he will walk' and 'carries a chip the size of New York'), and 'Not Dying Today' is a jaunty little number which rocks along at a fair-old clip and also presents the obligatory shout-out to Neil Gaiman . But overall it falls into the Venus category, and doesn't have a live disc to redeem it. That said, I can't quite bring myself to chalk it up as a loss, but I can't in all conscience put it in the company of records like Choirgirl or Scarlet's Walk. So: seven wins, one loss, two draws. Not a bad record, all things considered. But I still think it might have been better if she hadn't settled down...


So I saw the news about Sarah Palin resigning, and was dimly aware that one potential reason for this act of what we can only hope was political seppuku was a recently-published Vanity Fair profile of the winkin' wolf-killer. What I didn't know - because I didn't get 'round to reading that profile until today - was that the profile makes clear that when McCain/Palin didn't get elected, America didn't just dodge a bullet, it dodged an ICBM . A choice quote follows - click on it for more details of the Madness of Queen Sarah:

'More than once in my travels in Alaska, people brought up, without prompting, the question of Palin’s extravagant self-regard. Several told me, independently of one another, that they had consulted the definition of “narcissistic personality disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—“a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy”—and thought it fit her perfectly. When Trig was born, Palin wrote an e-mail letter to friends and relatives, describing the belated news of her pregnancy and detailing Trig’s condition; she wrote the e-mail not in her own name but in God’s, and signed it “Trig’s Creator, Your Heavenly Father.” '

Sunday 5 July 2009

Jauntiness goeth before a tumble

It wasn't a big step, all things considered. Maybe two inches high. And it wasn't on a really big slope, either. I figured I could tackle it without a problem. The sun was shining through a canopy of trees, the birds were singing, Christopher Hitchens was accusing all religions of being child abusers on my headphones...I'd covered a lot of ground in forty-five minutes and could easily get home in another hour to sit down to breakfast with my wife. I felt a wave of good cheer spreading through my very being, so I stepped onto the step with a jaunty little leap, like Gene Kelly skipping away at the end of the Singing in the Rain routine...

and I missed it. Tumbled over. Fell on my arse. My ankle throbbed with pain but I had no phone, and therefore no choice but to hobble home. I hoped that it would recover overnight, but this morning it was even worse.

There was no choice but to go to hospital, to be told that I've torn a ligament in my right ankle and need to rest it for a couple of days and, if I must get up to use the toilet to hobble about on crutches. So now I'm stuck in the house, the wife is down in Birmingham on union business, I'm bored to death and my ankle hurts like buggery.

It was only a small step, only a mild slope, only a slight fall: but it fucked me up but good.

Saturday 4 July 2009

Ecclestone, NOOOO! You MUPPET!

You know, I don't mean for these entries to descend into being ill-tempered hate rants. Truly, I don't. I have things I want to try and cover in this blog. I've got the new Tori Amos album to get around to reviewing, for one thing, and I'm also thrashing around an article dealing with my ambiguous feelings about Velvet Goldmine , which, ten years ago, was probably one of my favourite movies of all time but which, as I was forced to conclude after watching it again the other day, is in fact a deeply flawed piece of cinema: dreamlike and beautiful in parts but in other places indulgent and even, frankly, boring. It would have been a good article, that: I would have linked back to my review of Fire Walk With Me below and talked about how some films can still get us even after we've grown up while others remain the guilty pleasures of our wasted youth (though, like Jim Steinman , I will concede that a wasted youth is better, or at least more fun, than a wise and productive old age).

But then I noticed that motor-racing midget Bernie Ecclestone has took it on himself to defend that much-misunderstood figure, Adolf Hitler .


Thursday 2 July 2009

Everything needs everything else. Doesn't it?

Mekhtoub, they say. 'It is written.' Well. When I say 'they', I mean King Mob in the second volume of Grant Morrison's The Invisibles , when he kisses Ragged Robin .

It is written - isn't it weird how those words unspool so easily in the mind? How quickly the contingent, the chaotic, becomes the way it's always been? How quickly the facts on the ground are established?

Golo Mann criticised AJP Taylor's idea of the inevitability of the second world war for committing this fallacy. The Second World War needn't have happened. The Third Reich needn't have happened. Hitler needn't have happened. Things could have been totally different. This is what history is: the record of all the things that need never have happened.

But isn't it odd how things, in retrospect, take on the mask of inevitability? Take the Williams Sisters : playing each other in yet another Wimbledon final. Doesn't that, these days, seem somehow inevitable? Yet it needn't have been. You can trace the chain of causality all the way back from this particular tournament to their father's decision to train them as tennis pros. At any number of points on the way, things could have turned out differently.

There is a fossilised organism in the Burgess Shale called Pikaia . It may - there is some doubt - be the first chordate, or vertebrate, creature in the fossil record - our earliest ancestor. And it, too, need never have existed. Stephen Jay Gould believes that, if Pikaia had not survived, if it had not been an evolutionary relative success, then none of us would be here. Never mind Hitler, the Williams Sisters or whether you should have danced with that girl at the prom: if something had gone wrong during Pikaia's time, you wouldn't be around to regret these things.

Yet we act as if all this was inevitable. And the concomitant result of this is that we assume that the things we take for granted in our lives are inevitable, too. Our house, our job, our marriage, our physical health, our overdraft limit, our sanity. Sadly, it ain't necessarily so. Everything we have can change in an instant. In the moment when a decision is made, when a thing is said, we can find ourselves living in worlds of which we never even dreamed. Nothing is inevitable: everything is contingent.

It's a lesson we need to learn again and again and again, and I'm getting a painful refresher course now. Things which, for a long time, I took for granted are changing in ways I could never have anticipated. What was written is being erased: a new hand writes now, and while it may not exactly scrawl Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin it's a bit too close for comfort. The die is cast, but hasn't landed yet: and, if anyone feels like praying for me, now may well be the time.

Wednesday 1 July 2009

A high heel in the right place can change the world...

An interesting piece on the legacy of the Stonewall Riots by Johann Hari .

What annoys me is this line, about Jacob Zuma , the current South African president (incidentally, you'll note Zuma is bald - I've got Withnail and I on in the background here and, at the exact point when I set up the link to Zuma's picture, Danny the Dealer was holding forth on the uptightness of bald men): 'Jacob Zuma...brags about beating up gay men in his youth.'

I have to say here: I hate Jacob Zuma. He has been accused of corruption. He has been charged with rape. Now, out of his own liar's mouth, he boasts of the fact that, if a gay man stood in front of him, he would 'knock him out' ( I suppose we have to credit Zuma with this, that unlike many other homophobes, he doesn't suggest that this putative homosexual would be behind him...). The man is a thug. A smug, grinning political operator who knows he's positioned himself to be irremovable, no matter how vile his conduct or opinions. How does he get away with this?

Because South Africa is essentially a one-party state. The ANC went, in the blink of an eye, from being a Marxist revolutionary party to being handmaidens for capital in seconds flat, like New Labour on crystal meth. Like New Labour, they're obsessed only with power. As Zuma proves, the 'revolutionary' party he heads doesn't even dislike the Afrikaaners - the people who oppressed South Africa in the first place.

I don't propose to go into a detailed account of the ANC's failure in South Africa here. For that, I would point the reader in the direction of John Pilger's excellent book, Freedom Next Time , which contains a fine essay on the ease with which the ANC has adapted itself to the country's predominantly white cultural elite.

I celebrated when Mandela was released from prison. But his successors, first Thabo Mbeki and now the vile Zuma have been an insult to Mandela and the global struggle to release him: not least because their policies have been disproportionately harsh to the country's black population. Did Mbeki feel that rich whites, eminently able to afford the AIDS medication the country's government denied a wider public, would not take the medicine he decried as a poisonous western conspiracy from which he had to protect his fellow indigenous South Africans? Does Zuma believe that it is white homosexuals who will be most inconvenienced by his homophobic attitudes? I doubt it. And even if they did believe it, it would make no difference - it's the AIDS victims and gay people (and I do not mean to conflate those groups) in the townships who will suffer from this cynical populism.

The problem of South Africa is that it is not yet a true democracy. Because of the country's shameful prior government, there is as yet no credible opposition to the ANC. There is some hope, in groups like the Democratic Alliance and the Congress of the People , but at present the ANC are unstoppable, and the country's politics have inevitably been corrupted by this untrammelled power. Perhaps, in the end, someone like Zuma coming along is a good thing: with any luck his behaviour will revolt enough of the electorate that another party could take power, and South Africa could experience truly democratic politics, in all its compromise and inefficiency and shambling freedom, for the first time in its existence. It would, inevitably, be a disappointment, but it would at least be a start.