John le Carré Bucket List Part 1: Call for the Dead

I’m not very good at bucket lists. I imagine other people’s ones are stuffed full of parachutes, tightropes and racetracks. Mine has several mundane things among the ambitious goals. These include reading all the novels of Iain M Banks and John LeCarré. As Douglas Coupland once wrote, “There’s a lot to be said for having a small manageable dream.

Having a simple goal on my bucket list means I can easily work towards completing it, and this week I started on Le Carré’s complete works. I first got into his books while I was a teenager, mainly through the famous novels – the Spy Who Came in from the Cold and the Karla trilogy. I loved the weary cynicism of the books, and how they felt like they were plotted backwards; they started with a climactic event, then followed the after-effects.

After the cold war, people speculated that Le Carré’s work would suffer. Instead his books have focused on often-forgotten, ongoing aspects of espionage. For example, Our Kind of Traitor examined accusations that financial institutions laundered illegal money during the financial crisis when little money was available to loan. I’ve missed several of the later books, so reading the full set is a chance to fill in the gaps. It’s also an opportunity to approach some books I’ve loved as a different person.

Le Carré’s first book is set in a very different world. Call for the Dead, was published in 1961, just 16 years after World War 2 and the Holocaust. It’s set in a very different Britain. London is still a working city rather than the shiny thing it has become; the Beatles are in Hamburg, yet to sign to Decca, the Swinging Sixties some time off. It’s not a state of the nation book, but the country it describes does feel very different.

The book opens with a description of George Smiley: “When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary.” Smiley has an uncharismatic appearance, and is often compared to animals, “His appearance seemed to reflect this discomfort in a kind of physical recession which made him more hunched and frog-like than ever. He blinked more, and acquired the nickname of ‘Mole’.” He’s a friendly, competent and loyal chap, but strangers often dislike him, “a little fat man, rather gloomy” as one sees him.

Smiley was an academic, and approaches his intelligence work in that style. He was recruited from Oxford, and knew by sight half of his interview panel for the ‘Overseas Committee for Academic research’. He had a distinguished wartime career, running agents in Nazi Germany, although the book’s brief description on this time focuses on fear and not bravery: “He had never guessed it was possible to be frightened for so long“. The new threat of Russia has left him on the shelf, and the collegiate, academic version of his days in the service is gone: “the inspired amateurism of a handful of highly qualified, under-paid men had given way to the efficiency, bureaucracy and intrigue of a large Government department.

Call for the Dead is a murder mystery. Smiley undertakes the routine interrogation of Samuel Fennan, a Foreign Office worker. The interview is friendly and positive, but the next day Fennan kills himself, saying his career is ruined. Smiley is sent to speak to the widow Elsa, to see if he can work out what happened. While at the house the phone rings; thinking the call is for him, he takes it – a reminder from the local exchange, which had been placed by Fennan before he took his life. This leads Smiley to question the death, slowly unravelling something more complicated than a suicide.

The book describes the contradictions of Smiley’s role in a bureaucracy, “the unreality of containing a human tragedy in a three-page report“. At one point Elsa attacks him for the way the establishment drops bombs but “don’t come down here and look at the blood, or hear the scream“. She is unaware of the pitiful fear in which Smiley spent the war, and he won’t tell her any different. He struggles to maintain a core of humanity while, as Elsa puts it, “the files grow heads and arms and legs, and that’s a terrible moment“.

The book is interesting but didn’t quite feel like a Le Carré book. While Smiley spends a lot of time away from the action in a hospital bed, he does encounter a mysterious assailant. Despite some beautiful passages, the writing is clumsy in places – Smiley sinks into unconsciousness to end scenes, and the plot is dumped on the reader in an explanation near the end. But Call for the Dead did include one of my favourite tropes of spy novels – the interview with Fennan was conducted in a park while feeding the ducks.I had a sense of deja-vu as I read, the bleak London seeming familiar. It turns out that I read it back in 2011. I’m not sure it justifies reading twice and I might not have finished it, were it not the first book in the series.

Next up: A Murder of Quality, which I’m fairly sure I’ve not read before. It sounds like another mystery, but let’s see how it goes. I know there are some great books to come, so I can be patient.

A Month of Blogging

Writing I find easy. Putting it into the world is hard.

This month, I’ve been trying to publish a blog post every day. It’s not been easy to keep up the pace, particularly when I’ve been travelling. One post was finished on a train back from Gatwick; others have been written just before going to bed. But it was an useful experiment.

It’s not the first time I’ve attempted this. I tried it a couple of time this year, alongside two friends. These attempts didn’t go so well, with me flaking out very early in one of them, pissing one of the friends off. This time has definitely not been easy, and a few times I’ve relied on old posts I drafted without publishing (like I said, I find the writing bit easy). But I’ve finally succeeded.

I’ve felt some publication anxiety, but I’m still pretty happy with everything I’ve written. But posting a blog in 2017 feels a little archaic. There’s much less audience than there was, since most people are tied up on Facebook – and Facebook is not interested in pointing people towards personal sites.

Even with a small readership, this is also proving useful for writing on larger projects. Earlier this year, I tried to pull together a collection of pieces about commuting. It was a disaster, as I could not get it to cohere. Maybe the blogging will be a more successful way of doing this. I’ve got a lot of notes on Vindaloo, tourism and curry, which I’m slowly making into something larger. Writing short sections as blog posts forces me to finish passages, and gives me a better feel for the project than lots of notes.

Blogging is also a good way of processing the massive amount of information I take in. A few months back, I quoted Warren Ellis: “If we’re not doing something with the information we’re taking in, then we’re just pigs at the media trough.” These posts put this information into a larger structure. It also acts as a brake on the amount of information I take in, giving a way to see how relevant it is.

I’m going to continue this for another month and see how this goes. It will be challenging as I’ll be away from my laptop for a few days; and the supply of almost-written draft posts is dwindling. I’m also going to look at building a little more audience.Blogs used to get fairly high google rankings, which brought a lot of random traffic. These days, that traffic is caught by other sites, and there are very few people using RSS readers. So the question becomes, is it possible to blog and get enough readers to make it worth doing?

Anyway: I wrote 30 posts in August (the 31st being this one). The others are listed below.

Orbific

Vindaloo Stories

Technical

Walkerpunk

The Forgotten Sport of Piano Smashing

I’m fascinated by how untrustworthy memory can be. For example, Oliver Burkeman wrote recently about verbal overshadowing, where written descriptions affect visual memories. And then there is the research into induced false memories, where researchers persuaded people they had seen Bugs Bunny at Disney World.

(John Higgs spoke about his recently at the Latitude Festival. His recent book Watling Street describes vivid memories of having a CJ Stone book on his shelves while living in Manchester, even though the book came out after he moved away)

Even more interesting are memories of things that happened that now seem false. Maybe everyone has memories of childhood that seem incredible to look back on.

In the 1980s, entertainment was very different. I can remember how exciting it seemed when a fourth TV channel arrived (an event described in the diaries of Adrian Mole). It seems barbaric that TV stations used to turn off overnight: as an insomniac teenager, I made do with whatever late night TV was on, usually a single channel. Always-on internet is eradicating boredom, and it’s hard to believe things like climbing the Old Man of Hoy were prime-time shows.

The village fete was the site of various strange entertainments. You used to pay to throw wooden blocks at stands of crockery. And then there was the spectator sport of piano smashing. The idea was to take hammers to a piano and break it into small enough pieces to pass through a letterbox. There was even a Guinness World Record, the best time being 1 minute 34 seconds. You can check out a video of this on Youtube (commentator “It’s like they’re cutting down a tree – a piano tree!):

I guess the piano smashing came about because of a surplus of instruments as TV became more popular. The ‘bomb party’ blog has a history of piano smashing. As well as sporting examples, it has musical and artistic ones. It quotes Bill Drummond from the KLF describing another reason why pianos fell out of favour:

“Central heating. When it came in for the masses in the 1960s. central heating completely fucked these pianos. Buckled their frames, made them impossible to keep in tune.”

I guess as I grow older, and technology infiltrates more parts of daily life, the 1980s will begin to seem more and more like another world.

My Favourite Books of 2016 – and the best so far this year

This post is incredibly late. I found it lying lost in my drafts folder, and it seems a shame not to post it. So: last year I read 82 books, and mostly managed to avoid bad ones. Picking out a arbitrary best eight:

  1. Command and Control / Eric Schlosser
  2. Dietland / Sarai Walker
  3. Do it for your Mum / Roy Wilkinson
  4. Electric dreams / Tom Lean
  5. The Last Days Of Jack Sparks / Jason Arnopp
  6. Seveneves / Neal Stephenson
  7. A Trojan Feast / Joshua Cutchin
  8. The Way we die now / Seamus O’Mahony

As far as I remember, Seveneves gave me worse nightmares than any book I’ve read in life. Not bad for a book that’s horror rather than sci-fi. I read a lot of apocalyptic fiction, but the image of the moon exploding and destroying the earth with debris was incredibly potent.

When I first started blogging, about 15 years ago, I decided that I shouldn’t write negative things. This is a good rule and one I’ve rarely broken. But… I read two truly terrible books by once-great authors: Clive Barker’s Scarlet Gospels and Make Something Up by Chuck Palahniuk. It wasn’t that these were bad books – I’d have just ignored them otherwise. I was shocked by mediocre work from such great talents.

So far in 2017 I’ve read 45 books, although I expect to catch up on 2016 after my Autumn holiday (I have a load of Le Carre books waiting on my Kindle). Likely best-of-the-years include Chalk by Paul Cornell, John Higgs’s stunning Watling Street (a review is currently in my drafts folder), and I hate the internet. But I’m desperate for a few more mindblowing ones. Recommendations welcome!

The October Ritual

At the start of the year, one of my favourite bands in the world, The Indelicates, got in touch about collaborating on a launch event for their album Juniverbrecher. We decided the best way to do this was with a magic ritual to end Brexit.

There’s a clear precedent for this sort of thing. In 1967, the Yippies set up a ritual to levitate the Pentagon in protest at the Vietnam war. Even if you’ve not heard of this event, you’ll have seen some of the photos from it, when hippies placed flowers in the soldiers gun-barrels. There are some great stories about the day, with Arthur magazine’s novella sized account being a great place to start.

One of the best parts of running this event is helping to put the bill together. One of the support acts will be John Higgs, whose book Watling Street explores what it means to be British. I now know John in person, but I read his first book, a biography of Timothy Leary back in 2010, when Scott Pack gave me a review copy. Each book since has been increasingly strange and powerful. Watling Street draws together a lot of strange threads, and talks about national identity as something positive and inclusive. It’s a great book and each time I’ve seen John talk about it has been enthralling. We will be announcing additional support in the coming weeks.

Aleister Crowley defined magick as “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will” – although, in this case, we’re going against the supposed will of the people. We’re really excited to welcome ritual magician Cat Vincent to carry out the binding and exorcism that will defeat Brexit. I first met Cat at John Reppion’s Spirits of Place event, where he gave a talk about, among other things, his 2014 working which is still leading to strange and wonderful ripples – the next one being September’s Festival 23 event in Brighton, “Is a hotdog a sandwich?”

The album itself is fantastic. The previous Indelicates record, Elevator Music was more optimistic – this is a bit more like 2013’s Diseases of England. I might use the word ‘hauntology’ to describe this new record, if that word hadn’t be banned. Besides which, this album has some great tunes, which a lot of hauntological music doesn’t bother with. It focusses on the darker things that led up to Brexit, a Britain where the figures of Mr. Punch and Jimmy Saville lurk in the boiler room. My favourite track, Everything English, contains the lyric “We told you so”. Given the scathing predictions in earlier Indelicates records, it’s amazing they didn’t use that for the title of the record; and all of the lyrics.

There might have been ways to deliver a great Brexit but what we’ve been given is a fiasco. I’ve read Daniel Hannan, I’ve tried to understand what we are getting out of this, and I am baffled. A mixture of pride, spite and arrogance is about to send us rushing into a massive, complex restructuring of our society. It’s like a GCSE student turning up to perform heart surgery. It’s a mess, a fiasco, and we’re about to be isolated and  trapped and on an island full of ghosts.

Unless… something wonderful and magical happens to stop this. If you want to see our attempt, tickets are available now…

Horror and Harlow

I spent several years living in Harlow. It’s a place I loathe. I would gladly see it evacuated and used for military target practise. Or just left empty to collapse as a warning to future generations.

I can only think of two good things about Harlow. One was the Parndon Woods, which were large enough to that I could pretend that the town was far away. The other was the library. As a teenager, with little money and lots of curiosity, the library was vital to me. Nowadays, the Internet would do the same job and do it better but, back then, the library was the only access I had to interesting culture.

I could borrow tapes and listen to indie bands I’d read about but nobody at school was listening to. I borrowed the first Manics album and Dinosaur Jr’s Where You Been from there. I had to order Naked Lunch in from another library. I’m not sure I understood it then (I’m not sure I get it now) but I had a chance to grapple with it. But my favourite thing was the shelf of horror fiction. A run of anthologies, such as the Splatterpunks collection, and various Best New Horror anthologies.

When I was a child, I thought that the reason horror films were 18-rated was that they would send a young mind mad. This was an easy impression to get from the video nasty panic that ran throughout my childhood. Horror seemed dangerous and forbidden. I read the back-cover blurb of books in WHSmith with dread.

The first horror story I read was Ray Bradbury’s The Small Assassin at 11 or 12. I found it incredibly disturbing but, at the same time, I was amazed by the profound effect it had. All the best horror stories have that physical thrill of sensation. Clive Barker’s In the Hills, In the Cities is one of the great short stories, and gains power from the grim imagery.

The Best New Horror series introduced me to some great writing. In writing horror, many of the authors pushed the boundaries of language and imagery.  Secretly, of all my literary ambitions, the strongest is to become a horror writer. I loved those stories, some of them so very well crafted.

I’ve no love for Harlow. If someone told me they were going to use it for nuclear testing, I’d celebrate that. I can afford to buy my own paperbacks now – I just don’t have as much time to read. Those few shelves in the library weren’t part of the new town plan, but they are the only bit I thought worthwhile.

Bob Lives!

I was really happy to see this sticker a while back:

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Long ago, around the turn of the century, the Bob Dobbs symbol was everywhere in Brighton. Inspired by the American Church of the Subgenius, Jim Bob began to use the Dobbs head as a symbol for parties and general mayhem. He gave an excellent talk on this at the Wellebourne Society a few years back.

As with most interesting things going on in Brighton around then, I knew it was happening and never did much about it – although I did enjoy one of their pre-election fundraisers at the Concorde 2.

The story of the Brighton subgeniuses is a fun one, with an entire movement accidentally being created. My favourite part of the story was the visit by the Church of the Subgenius’s American founders to see what was going on (and to ask about the cut of the merchandising they were supposed to get).

At one point, in the ’90s, the Brighton [group] had a whole “Bob” storefront… they almost won a local election with “Bob” – Rev. Jim in a Giant-Dobbshead mask — running under the Dobbs Free Party banner; PISS, an air guitar band with Kiss-style Dobbsheaded members, had an actual recording contract… To many [Brighton people], the Dobbshead had always signified only a great party at Jim’s. They’d no idea that there were also dozens of books, CDs and films, assembled by hundreds of Subgenii from every other place in the world BESIDES Brighton. It was an almost Galapagos-like evolutionary situation, whereby a whole species had been cut off from its fellows and had advanced along completely different evolutionary lines.

It’s good to see the Dobbshead turn up about the place again. I may not have been anywhere near this when it happened at the time, but it’s still a sign of the Brighton I love, a place of odd stories and strange societies.

IMG_20160411_082149

Manhole

manhole

The last time I went to Liverpool was in the 90s, with my Dad and sister. I’d just discovered the Beatles and wanted to visit the city they came from. We found very little trace of the band, other than a few small memorials.

On my most recent visit to Liverpool, last year, the Beatles’ heritage was being properly exploited. On Mathew Street there were three Cavern Clubs and a statue of John Lennon. I walked past all of these because, on this trip to Liverpool, I was looking for the manhole outside what the old ‘Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun’. This is said to be a very special manhole. To quote Bill Drummond:

[The interstellar ley line] comes careering in from outer space, hits the world in Iceland, bounces back up, writhing about like a conger eel, then down Mathew Street in Liverpool where the Cavern Club – and latterly Eric’s – is. Back up, twisting, turning, wriggling across the face of the earth until it reaches the uncharted mountains of New Guinea, where it shoots back into space… this interstellar ley line is a mega-powered one. Too much power coming down it for it not to writhe about. The only three fixed points on earth it travels through are Iceland, Mathew Street in Liverpool and New Guinea. Wherever something creatively or spiritually mega happens anywhere else on earth, it is because this interstellar ley line is momentarily powering through the territory.

This manhole is holy ground, of a sort. It is the location that appeared in a dream of Carl Jung (who never actually visited Liverpool). Bill Drummond stood for 17 hours on that manhole cover the day before his 60th birthday. In 2008, Julian Cope busked on this spot for a day. As Cat Vincent writes, the manhole had become “a site for connecting to the watery powers of the Pool of Life”.

It was good to stand there for a minute.

Bill Drummond by Tracy Moberly
Bill Drummond by Tracy Moberly

Passionate Machine!

Given that this is my response to a show about time-travel, it’s ironic that it’s as late as it is. I also have a weird feeling, as if it might not be the only time that I’ve written this. There could be other timelines where I’m also writing descriptions of the events – or where I managed to post them sooner.

So, obviously Rosy Carrick’s show Passionate Machine, was amazing. I mean, I’d say that even if it wasn’t (if you want a more objective review, check out the one from the Brighton Argus). Hopefully, I can persuade you there were many other things that made it great, not just that I want to stay friends with her. The show describes a strange period in Rosy’s life where she received messages that could only come from the future, sent by a mysterious figure. These messages related to Rosy’s PhD research into the great Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Rosy’s show was spoken word rather than poetry, and incorporated video footage and images (as well as an audio recording of me). Watching it I was impressed at what Rosy had done with the one-man-show. It’s a lot more interesting than someone simply standing up and reciting things. She’d used the format to its limit, for example handing envelopes of evidence to the audience as they arrived. There are also some moving moments showing how  people had responded to the story online.

The performance we saw was a work-in-progress, but it was pretty much complete and incredibly moving. I liked that the show did not get bogged down in the mechanics of time travel, taking it for granted and working with that. The resulting story is more personal and emotional than a lot of similar portrayals. As the show explains, we are all time-travellers in a sense, relentlessly pushed forward, able only to send messages forwards. Rosy has had a very different experience.

For me it’s a very different show than for most of the audience, as I was around for a lot of it. Rosy talks about the university course where she first discovered Vladimir Mayakovsky. Rosy was, apparently exasperated by my foolish questions in that class, but warmed to me when we chatted. I ended up looking after her pet cat Squeaky one Easter while I wrote an term paper on Wuthering Heights and, later, a chunk of my dissertation. We’ve been friends since then, through all sorts of adventures. And a lot of Rocky films.

 

 

I Hate the Internet

I first heard about Jarett Kobeks’ novel “I hate the Internet” from John Higgs, who  told me about the book’s comparison between corporations making money from user-generated content and the publishers that stole from Jack Kirby. As the book puts it, “The business practices of the American comic-book industry have colonized Twenty-First Century life“. Kobek goes on to say that “The only difference being that Marvel, like, you know, actually paid Jack Kirby before he was screwed. Twitter didn’t pay its creators.” John described the book as being more of an argument than a novel, but it appealed to me. It’s also apparently the first self-funded book to be reviewed in the New York times.

The book explicitly claims that it is a bad book: “The writer of this novel gave up trying to write good novels when he realized that the good novel, as an idea, was created by the Central Intelligence Agency. This is not a joke. This is true.” As Kobel explains, “the CIA funded both The Paris Review and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the latter the prototype of a swarm of creative writing courses” Vice recently published an article, How the CIA infiltrated the world’s literature,  which gives some background on this.

I read the book in one go. It’s the sort of novel I love, falling into the category described by David Shield’s Reality Hunger, blurring non-fiction with fiction. It’s also very much a meta-fiction: one chapter is abandoned in favour of a summary of the arguments it was meant to make. It’s written in a similar mode to Kurt Vonnegut, albeit more cynical (there is even a science fiction writer among the characters, with the plots of his books described).

The novel is mostly a collection of rants about the modern world. It contains some vicious critiques of social media, all despairing: “How do you reason with people who make arguments about human dignity on machines built by slaves in China? How do you reason with people whose primary expression comes pre-branded by Twitter?

One of my favourite aspects of the book was its references to comic books. At one point, the Internet is described as “a wonderful resource for artist engagement, expanding a fan base, and reading about the feud between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison“. The last of these is a subject that has fascinated me – I was one of the supporters of the Last War in Albion Kickstarter, which produced the first volume of an epic history of this feud. The book’s description of Grant Morrison is harsh but amusing:

“Other than the oodles of quality which seeped from his work, Morrison’s principle distinguishing feature was that he had the bad luck of being a comic-book writer at the same time as Alan Moore. To paraphrase the preeminent comics critic Andrew Hickey… if Alan Moore had not existed, Grant Morrison would have been considered the single greatest writer in the history of the medium”

There is a definite danger in how social media overwhelms our communications and culture. In 2017, having a blog feels anachronistic. As Facebook, twitter and Medium expand, content gets boosted according to how well they achieve these company’s aims. A good example of this is the article The Three Reasons Youtubers Keep Imploding. I’m not sure what the answer is, although the Indie Web offers a glimmer of hope.

The Guardian interviewed Kobek in December. It was a fairly depressing read. Kobek said:

Interviewer: Reading your book made me think that we simply haven’t even had the language to criticise the internet until now. That there’s been no outside to the internet. No place to oppose it from…

Kobek: I think the outside is publishing, actually. I mean publishing in the most Platonic sense of the word, rather than the squalid industry that we have. I think that books actually can be anything. Publishing’s response to the internet has been completely pathetic, but God, if there’s going to be an opposition, a response, it’s not going to come in the form of tweets

Maybe the future is zines, maybe it’s something else. By the end of the book I felt quite despairing, and emailed John Higgs to tell him so. And, he reminded me there are good things about the Internet, and Kobel’s critique is not the only way of looking at things. “Pessimism is easier, of course, but pessimism is for lightweights”.

But Kobek is right, there is a problem to be faced here. As he said in his Guardian interview:

we live in a very dark moment where if you want to be part of any extended conversation beyond a handful of people, you do have to sign on to some things that, ultimately, are very unpalatable. Every era has its unanswerable questions, so maybe the thing to do, which is what I did in the book, is to just acknowledge the inherent hypocrisy of all of it. Though maybe that’s an easy dodge.