How Stewart Lee escaped his certain fate

I bought Stewart Lee's book, How I Escaped My Certain Fate, to help myself through a hangover last weekend. I wasn't sure how interesting it would be to read transcripts of three shows that I'd already seen, but the book includes some massive footnotes discussing the routines and Lee's life, all of which proved fascinating. 

Stewart Lee interests me since he is someone who obviously cares about his craft. He talks in detail about his work, and how it relates to the comedians he loves, many of whom I'd not heard of before I read references to them in Lee's interviews. Lee also has some fantastic set-pieces, my favourite being his attack on Richard Littlejohn for Littlejohn's disgraceful comments on the Ipswich murders 

Some of the most interesting parts of the book are when Lee talks about his career and its current status. Inspired by Daniel Kitson, Lee has deliberately aimed for a smaller audience of people who love his work. He's a good example of someone with 1000 true fans

A few favourite quotes from the book:

"…my teenage comedy hero John Hegley told me you only need a few thousand fans. And if they all give you ten pounds a year, you're away. And I thought about all the musicians I like – the folk singers and free jazzers and alternative country cowpokes and persistent punk veterans who all hang on in there, on small labels, selling self-released CDs for cash out of suitcases after gigs and operating within viable margins, tour, rest, tour, rest and sell some CDs. They survive" [p31]

"I am arrogant, I admit, but when I say things like this onstage I have chosen to be arrogant for comic effect and hope, in part, that the comments reflect badly on me, creating a distancing effect between me and the audience. I hope they admire the comedy, but I'd rather they didn't enjoy the show just because they liked me as a person. It seems cheap." [p68]

"For the middle part of my thirties I'd been barely earning a living. I was like a punch-drunk prizefighter with no other viable skills who thought there might still be a battle to be won. And I realised that stand-up was just one man on a stage in the room. And so stand-up was infinite. And I had been a fool to doubt it." [p39] 

I like that last quote because it reminds me of something Harvey Pekar said about comic books, which is often quoted by Warren Ellis: "Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures."

Recent reading

I've read a lot of books since my last reading post so this is a quick catch-up of the most interesting ones:

  • Die Hard Mod by Charlie McQuaker is a short book but it's great fun. The story is set in Brighton and mentions lots of well-known places. I loved the fast and effective style, which led to a great set-piece at the end. If you live in Brighton, you should definitely read this. There's a review by Paolo Hewitt here.
  • Jaws was a good quick read, described by Peter Benchley as "a first novel about a fish". I can't see myself reading much more Peter Brenchley, although if a copy of 1994's White Shark falls into my lap then I won't be able to resist "the story of a Nazi-created genetically engineered shark/human hybrid".
  • What was Lost was recommended by Scott Pack and was good enough that I read it by torchlight in my tent at a festival. It's about a shopping centre, and really captures the horror of lunch-breaks and days off. One thing that annoyed me was that the back of the book gave away the structure of the book – it would have been lovely to read this not knowing where it was going.  My favourite line, from a girl who wants to be a detective: "Although Sam Spade is not seen at any point in The Maltese Falcon shopping for stationery, Kate knew how important premium office supplies were to an effective investigator"
  • I read Einstein's Dreams because it was compared to Sum,
    which I read in April. The similarities are notable. However, I think
    Einstein's dreams is the better book, since it asks more relevant questions about our lives – which of the worlds it describes are we living in? My copy of the book was
    augmented by notes from a previous owner. She seemed to be studying the stories in college and had, I felt, had missed the point at times. I thought it better not to email her and point this out.
  • I was initially inspired to explore the Bizarro genre by a post from Damien G. Walter. My appetite was further whetted by Bluejoh, who'd read Baby Jesus Butt Plug and said "It's still with me, in a way that a lot of books aren't". I bought one of the Bizarro starter kits and was mostly unimpressed, but House of Houses is one of the most interesting fantasy novels I've read. It's not Tolkien by any means but it is a truly weird novel, which asks the deep philosophical question: what is a house? While the text sometimes seems immature, it's also one of the strangest and most
    inventive novels I've read. True fantasy.

The Secret State was a fascinating but bleak book by Peter Hennessey.
Now that the world has survived the Cold War, it seems less insane than
it did (In August 1991, the head of the JIC, Sir Percy Cradock,
produced champagne, "toasting the intelligence community as a whole
on the demise of the Cold War with the words "We didn't have a
war. We
did win").
Despite this, some of the memos from the time remain chilling.

Looking back, the Cold War seems like a very strange period of history. As historian Michael Howard pointed out, "War is now seen as being a matter for governments and not for
peoples; an affair of mutual destruction inflicted at remote distances
by technological specialists operating according to the arcane
calculations of strategic analysts. Popular participation is considered
neither necessary nor desirable
"
– and this despite, as Hennessey
points out, the certainty of massive civilian casualties.

The book was fascinating. One of the
strangest moments was the discussion of how a nuclear submarine checks
whether Britain has been destroyed – one test was whether the Today programme was still broadcasting.

The Bret Easton Ellis Live Experience

Bret-easton-ellis

One of the things I was most excited about at Latitude was seeing a talk with Bret Easton Ellis. While I was underwhelmed by his last book (Imperial Bedrooms), American Psycho, The Rules of Attraction and Lunar Park are among my very favourite novels.

It was certainly an interesting experience. The crowd was in a good mood, cheering the titles of their favourite novels as Miranda Sawyer introduced Ellis. He seemed surprised to see so many people present ("we thought we'd be hearing a song" someone shouted) and took photos of the crowd.

Ellis started by saying "I want to talk about hangovers… because that is more important to me than that book now." He was apparently suffering the second day of a hangover from partying earlier in the tour. Throughout, Ellis seemed to resent discussing Imperial Bedrooms, which he dismissed as an idea he had seven years ago, even though many of the audience had only recently bought and read it. 

In fact, Ellis seemed reluctant to talk about most things. Miranda Sawyer was very patient and did a great job of drawing him out a little before asking for audience questions. In part, Ellis seemed to be trying to demystify what he did, but it also felt as if he didn't really want to be there. 

One audience member asked about Clay, saying that he felt bad for not having as exciting a life. Ellis said he shouldn't worry: "he's a fictional character in a book". Ellis said that he works office hours so he can socialise with his friends in the
evening, and that his novels were reflections of his feelings at the
time he wrote them.

I enjoyed seeing Ellis – it was certainly an entertaining session – but looking back I feel a little uncomfortable with it too. His unwillingness to answer some of Miranda Sawyer's questions verged on rudeness. Obviously I have no expectations of a writer whose book I am reading. But if they're making a public appearance, then a certain amount of openness is expected.

Bret-easton-ellis2

I Have America Surrounded

I've been reading a lot of books about the 60's lately. On my to-read pile there are books by or about William Burroughs, Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, Joyce Johnson, Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton. Most recently I've read  I Have America Surrounded, by John Higgs, a biography of Timothy Leary. I'm not a huge fan of Leary's writings and theories, but he is an intruiging character.

The biography was a good read. First off, I love the title. It comes from an interview with Leary where he was asked to comment on Nixon's claim that he was the most dangerous man in America. Leary, who was dying at the time, replied, "Yes, it's true. I have America surrounded."

In The Polysyllabic Spree, Nick Hornby suggests should be a legal limit to the length of a biography. This book is perfect, coming in at just over three hundred pages. There was no messing around: by the end of the third chapter, Leary had been thrown out of the army and then out of Harvard. There were a few points where I'd perhaps have liked more detail, but the book concentrated on telling a great story. The contents page reflects this – there are some fantastic chapter titles.

For me, the best biographies are those that include a series of connected anecdotes and episodes, with hindsight putting them into perspective. This book includes some wonderful stories – like the time that the only LSD Leary had access to was dropped in a suitcase. The drug soaked into Richard Alpert's white linen suit meaning Leary and friends were "reduced to nibbling the suit when they wanted to trip". (Alpert's name was later borrowed for a character from Lost). Or the time when Leary was given a series of psychological papers to decide what category of prison he should be held in – papers he himself had devised.

There's also some interesting background information. I learned that the 007 codeword came from John Dee, magician and spymaster. The notes have a brief discussion of Dock Ellis, a
baseball player who pitched a
perfect no-hitter on LSD
and there's a mention of R. Gordon Wasson, an ex-vice-president of JP Morgan. Wasson's hobby was, apparently 'ethnomycology', "the study of mushrooms in human society". He went to Mexico to investigate mushroom cults for Life magazine, a trip apparently funded by the CIA. 

One thing I love about biographies is how they overlap. Leary gave psychedelic sessions for Burroughs and Ginsberg and was an associate and defence witness for Abbie Hoffman; there's also a weird moment, where Charles Manson criticises some
pro-violence statements that Leary made. But, for me, the most interesting episode was when Leary encountered Eldridge Cleaver. After escaping prison with the help of the weather underground, he fled America for Algeria. Apparently, after Algeria achieved independence, the country recognised 13 'liberation groups' rather than the countries they were resisting. This meant that the official representatives for the USA were the Black Panthers, under Eldridge Cleaver.

Like many 60's icons, Leary's post-60's legacy is more conflicted. He was finally captured by the American Government and was released after agreeing to assist the FBI with their investigation of the Weathermen. Although it was claimed Leary's co-operation was a pretence, and that nobody was arrested as a result, it was a dubious episode.

I Have America Surrounded was a good book – recommended. Next up: Steal this Dream, an oral biography of Annie Hoffman.

Where does the weirdness go?

The price of second-hand books seems to have fallen in Brighton. On my last trip I picked up some good books including The Secret State, The Manual of Detection and a volume of Eldridge Cleaver speeches, all for two pounds each.

I also picked up a copy of Toby Litt's i play the drums in a band called Okay. I'd read a couple of the chapters as short stories so thought I would give the book a try, although books about rock bands are generally disappointing. This turned out to be a lovely novel. It's written as a rockstar's autobiography and makes an episodic sweep across his life. The book's origin as disconnected short stories works well. In fact, it's arguable that the book is actually a short stort collection – but, if it is, then it's one of those rare collections where the selection and sequencing make the stories far stronger.

Another cheap book I picked up recently was Warren Ellis's Crooked Little Vein. I'd expected this to be entertaining but I've been surprised at how much it's made me think. The book explodes with ideas like godzilla bukkake / macroherpetophiles, Aaron Sorkin as a CIA plant, saline infusion, the ethics of human/canine relationships and the meaning of America. But the book also has some interesting things to say about what the Internet means for fringe culture:

"Consider this, though. If I've seen it on the Internet, is it still underground? 'Underground' always connoted something hidden, something difficult to see and find. Something underneath the surface of things, yes? But if it's on the Internet – and I do praise the Lord that I lived long enough to see such a thing – it cannot possibly be underground."

We live in a time when anything interesting is quickly propagated on twitter. Jokes can be stale within hours. Hype cycles can be so fast that they never recover from the 'trough of disillusionment'. There is less time for things to brew in secret before being brought to light – it's ridiculously to throw up a website for a minor project. And that may be a bad thing, it may not, but things have definitely changed. Crooked Little Vein might look like be an extended gross-out at points, but it's also a very clever little book and well worth reading.

The Lost Bookshops of Brighton

Last night I was thinking about my favourite bookshops in Brighton. When I was a teenager I loved sneaking away from school to go shopping there. I'd trawl the second hand shops, hunting for cheap science fiction and horror novels. I've never been interested in antiquarian books – all I wanted was to fuel my reading with as many novels as I could get for my money.

Brighton has changed a lot since the 1990's. There are many good things about the changes, but I miss the places I used to visit when I was younger. Inspired by my nostalgia, here is a list of some of the great lost bookshops of Brighton:

  1. I discovered Savery Books, at Fiveways, in my second year of university. The shop was a converted house, with shelves on every available section of wall space. Both floors were full of cheap books on every subject you needed. It's probably the best bookshop I've ever visited, and its closure was a tragedy. I think Savery Books are still in business, but the old shop is now a bar.
  2. The Queens Road bookshop always looked chaotic, with books piled everywhere. The huge windows at the front displayed what looked like a landslide of books, hopelessly disordered. Many visitors were overwhelmed by the task of finding what they wanted among the shelves and stacks. But the owner, who was usually smoking at the front door, would know if he had the book you wanted, and could lead you straight to it. The shop closed suddenly and the owner was said to have vanished.
  3. On the other side of Queen's Road was a smaller bookshop. I think it was connected to the other one and contained the science-fiction and horror section. I spent a lot of time in there chatting with the owner, a friendly American man. I've no idea what happened to him.
  4. The Komedia was built on the site of the old Jubilee Market. This was a wonderful place, like a nursery for shops – Reservoir Frogs was one of the stalls that graduated to its own premises. Downstairs was a warren-like space filled with more stalls, including Jabba's Hut. This sold old toys, games and comic books. To some people, Jabba's Hut might have seemed filled with tat, but the shop contained some fantastic treasures. It was the most comic-shop-like comic shop I've ever been in.
  5. Unicorn Books was open between 1967 and 1973, before I was born. Unicorn Books was famous for being involved in an obscenity trial in 1968 for publishing the JG Ballard booklet Why I want to fuck Ronald Reagan. The trial resulted in significant costs and fines for the bookshop's owner, Bill Butler, eventually resulting in the shop's closure. The linked article makes it sound like a bookshop I would have loved.

Sadly my Drif's Guides from the 90's are in storage, so I can't check to see if there are any obvious ones I've missed. Please leave a comment if you can think of some.

Nowadays I don't have enough time to read to justify the trawls I would make as a teenager. I remember feeling overworked during my A-levels, but somehow managed to read an amount that amazes me. Still, I really should take the opportunity to tour Brighton's current bookshops.

Buying books in India

Jodhpur-bookshop

Books are one of the most important aspects of travelling. The Lonely Planet's guide to India makes sure to list the main bookshops for each town. In fact, one advantage of carrying a book as large as the Lonely Planet India (1200 pages) is that one always has emergency reading material.

Having time to read was one of the best things about India. I read dozens of books during my travels (what else are you going to do on a 31 hour train journey?) I visited bookshops ranging from plush Borders-style places a to shelf in a cafe. My favourites were probably the Full Circle Bookshop in Delhi's Khan Market (the cafe, while overpriced, was a good place to relax) and the shelf in Sonam's kitchen in Darjeeling. The photograph above shows Jodhpur's Krishna Book Depot, which had the feel of an old-fashioned English secondhand bookshop.

The books I read were decided by the stock in the shops and those I found in guest-houses – basically books sold in airports and the sort of books that interest travellers. Certain writers turned up everywhere, such as Howard Marks, Paul Coehlo and Salman Rushdie. Haruki Murakami and Milan Kundera were also well-represented. Occasionally you'd see a book that looked marooned, out of place among the others. An example of this was Piers Morgan's celebrity diaries, which I found in Jaisalmer (a fun read, but not as good as the first volume).

Sometimes, when supplies of fresh literature run low, one faces difficult choices. At Ajmer I was down to my last book and, faced with a poor selection, considered buying a copy of the third volume of Lord Archer's prison diaries. I was saved by a visit to Pushkar, which had several good bookshops.

I re-read Lord of the Rings and discovered it was a far, far better book than I remembered. However, revisiting the book while travelling made some shortcomings obvious – Tolkien mentions neither hand sanitizer nor digestive issues. These are notable omissions for what is, effectively, a book about backpacking.

I also read my way through the whole of Stephen King's Dark Tower sequence. I'd read the first half of it in the 90s and when I came across the whole series in a bookshop decided to read the entire thing. The seven Dark Tower books run to about 3,900 pages. It wasn't terrible, but Tolkien managed a far deeper saga with much less fuss.

While in Bikaner I found a copy of Extremely Loud and Incredibly
Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. This was one of the best books I've read
in years. As delighted as I was by the novel, I was also vexed. How
come no-one raved at me about this book? If I'd not found it in a
guest-house, huddling next to a couple of Ludlum thrillers, I might never
have read it. I now worry that there other modern classics I've missed.

The Polysyllabic Spree

I read a lot of books on my holiday, but my favourite was probably Nick Hornby's The Polysyllabic Spree. I picked it up in my last few hours in Delhi. I had a pile of books I'd read that I didn't want to take home. I lugged them between the second-hand shops on Paharganj's Main Bazaar, trying to find something decent to swap for them (there's a whole post to come on reading and buying books in India).

There was nothing in the bookstalls that grabbed me, so I decided to take a chance on the Nick Hornby book. I'm glad I did. The book was good enough that I read for a couple of hours on the flight home, despite being exhausted. I struggled not to laugh out loud at times.

The Polysyllabic Spree is a reading diary that Hornby kept for the Believer Magazine. During the course of the book he compares LP Hartley's The Shrimp and the Anemone with Mötley Crüe biography The Dirt; discusses the problems with novel about writers; and proposes a legal limit to biography length based on the subject's importance.

I particularly loved the book's introduction where Hornby talks about reading for pleasure. After pointing out that 12 million adults in the UK have a reading age of less than 13, Hornby questions the idea that literary novels are superior to books like the Da Vinci Code: "If reading is to survive as a leisure activity… then we have to promote the joys of reading rather than the (dubious) benefits" A version of the introduction is available on the Telegraph website, and is well worth reading.

Hornby was restricted by the magazine's editorial policy in that he could only say positive things about the books he read. At first Hornby chafed against this prohibition, but finally resolved to abandon any book he didn't enjoy. The enthusiasm Hornby shows for the books he likes is invigorating.

The dark side of book dealing

The last day or so has been rather dull as I spent most of it in bed with a monstrous headache. I did manage to complete a 10-mile run before I was struck down, so it's not all bad.

Meanwhile: I found the text below in a Fortean Times interview with Iain Sinclair.  It's a brilliant thumbnail sketch of a strange and dangerous world:

"I
was dealing books from about 1976 to 1986, and for a while it was
potentially quite dangerous – books and drugs were counter-balanced.
Some dealers were literally getting enough profit in a week to set up
the next week's coke deals. There was a particular house in Cannon St
that's right by the crossroads where the head of the Ratcliffe Highway
murderer is buried, and in this house was a pile of really abstruse
books, lots of first editions, and also all this drug stuff. There'd be
people arriving in the middle of the night and you wouldn't know if it
was drugs or books they were after – both were done with enormous
secrecy. The place was watched room across the road by a disgruntled
book dealer who was acting as a police informer.

It was quite
dangerous back then. One man, Chris Rowden, who ran Bell, Book and
Rowden ended up shooting himself with a shotgun. He was very much part
of this nexus, involved in some very dodgy business. I don't think
things are as bad as that anymore.
"