Wednesday, 26 July 2006


No more posts for a week or so, as I am on holiday in France for a bit. I have bought The Murder of Roger Ackroyd so I can see if Christie got it wrong or not. I've also bought Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island, so I will need to remember the Rennies as well.

Interesting programme on Radio 4 this morning about memory. They have asked people to write to the bbc website with their memories. They also suggested that in people with depression, it becomes pyhsically (or should that be neurologically) harder to remember the good times, while the bad times are much easier to recall. Someone also pointed out that people with depression find it harder to remember specific instances of being happy. I find great swathes of my life hard to recall: I cannot remember my routines at school; what it was really like sitting in my room at college writing essays all day; actually being seven; but I do remember things as feelings (mainly fear), colours even, or through dreams. I can remember quite a few dreams from my childhood. I can't remember my grandfather's face very well, though he is often in my dreams, and I can't remember what Chartres really looks like (but I do remember how I felt when I first stepped inside). More and more I find I'm here but not quite sure how I got here.

Monday, 24 July 2006

Agatha Christie

I was interested to read, both in Houellebecq's Platform and in an interview on Normblog, that Agatha Christie enjoys a rather higher reputation among French academics than she does among Anglophone critics. I am not even sure if her work is regarded as "literature" by the people who write English courses at my old alma mater. As France is the home of deconstruction I can imagine some of the things they have done to her work but it was fascinating to consider that she may have been one of the cleverest and occasionally subtlest writers of the twentieth century. Houellebecq suggests her work has deep significance, capable of a real, literary understanding of human motivations and passions, while in the other article it said that a French academic (Pierre Bayard, professor of literature at the University of Paris) has written a book suggesting she may have got the murderer in one of her books wrong (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd I think)! While that strikes me as the sort of thing post-structuralist and semiotic professors ( I mean professors of semiotics) do all the time it does seem to be suggestive of something much more profound in her work than has previously been thought. The normblog article is well worth a read (
but I wonder whether the problem is not popular culture for Anglophone critics (heaven knows Doctor Who, the Beatles, punk music, Harry Potter, Joy Division and Coronation Street have had extremely serious things written about them by various academics and hacks), but detective fiction and its uncomfortable status as a genre. I was never encouraged to study Conan Doyle or Sayers or even GK Chesterton in my fairly liberal English degree; but then I sometimes think a lot of fiction that can be stuffed into a bin marked "genre" is. I think a number of SF writers also languish a little in the academic status stakes, not least because their work is ghettoised by bookshops and readers alike.

Perhaps the general bypassing of traditional humanist criticism, and the subsuming of so much of it into critical theory will actually do us a service by reclaiming some of these authors as serious writers. A study, for example, of the political assumptions behind John Wyndham's work, or his vision of the perfect society might be interesting, as might one that really tried to disentangle the scientific utopian and dystopian aspects in HG Wells, or one that linked his ideas to political and philosophical stuff he was inspired by; one that tried to unpick the social assumptions behind Asimov's Foundation trilogy would be good too. Perhaps these already exist, but my point is that we are not snobby about popular culture, just genre fiction. when I did my literature degree, not all that long ago, I really wasn't sure anyone cared about these authors at all.

Sunday, 23 July 2006


I had intended this to be a cultural blog, full of literature; however at the moment I am drinking rather more than I am reading. And I wanted to make a defence of beer, by which I mean ale, bitter; what is sometimes dismissed by people as "warm beer". This makes me laugh. You don't drink red wine at 2C, so why drink a flavoursome, malty, hoppy, tangy, fruity beer at such a low temperature that you can barely taste anything and your tongue is numbed as it goes down?

Don't get me wrong. As much as I support CAMRA I am not a member and I do enjoy lager. Nothing better than that first pint of Stella on a warm, mild, or indeed cold day. But ale and bitter come in so many varieties with such widely varying flavours that it seems a shame just to dismiss them as being for old farts. Pete Brown in his excellent Man Walks into a Pub explains the decline of the traditional beers thus: 1) appalling and expensive mergers and campaigns by the old big brewers (Watney's Red, anyone?); 2) terrible methods of keeping the beers by pubs; 3 (most persuasively for me) ale and bitter were the drinks of our fathers and grandfathers so it was entirely natural that as iconoclasts my generation and those to come after us, refuse to drink anything old codgers drink. I would add to this that as (stronger) lager has become fashionable, (weaker) bitter has permanently lost out as simply less satisfying to the average drinker who wants to get tipsier quicker. I can still read The Spectator after four pints of Stella, The Economist after three; but if I were drinking, say, Worthingtons, it would be seven and six respectively (that is a guess by the way) - bitters just do not have the effect on people they used to have. My late grandad (gawd bless 'is soul) could down 5 pints of bitter quicker than me when he was 83 and I 22; but he never, ever, drank Stella. I think he would have found it much harder to go back to work after a lunchtime's "reassuringly expensive" drinking.

We may demand more alcohol for our tipsiness; and that is a process that can only go one way. But we are missing out on some beautiful tastes. Bitter can be chilled (not made cold) so you don't have to drink warm beer (terrible phrase); and many bottled beers are now 4.5 - 5% so there is no need to drink what you think is as weak as Christiano Ronaldo. For my part I love a strong winter ale or IPA like Marston's Empire (get right up Johann Hari's nose by drinking this in his company) with golden, rich, fruity flavours and textures.

There is only winner though for me. Over the last ten years or so so many small brewers have sprung up in response to the deaths of the big brewers and have really devoted the time and energy to their beer that the Germans have been doing since 1500. We have had to go right back into our past to recover our genius for beer, but one brewery has quietly been making quality beer, sipped cold or warm, that has a lovely hoppy flavour but not overwhelming all this time. It also has the clean and refreshing texture of lager, where it is kept well, and as I have just discovered, as well as being great at the pump it is also brilliant in bottles (though with a less complex flavour, slightly less - woody? nutty? As you can see I am rubbish at describing flavours). The beer?

Hook Norton. Brewed quietly in a gorgeous corner of Oxfordshire since about 1850 it has been gaining currency as a pump beer in this part of the world for a few years now. There are several varieties of it too, all of which are wonderful (Old Hooky - very nutty; Hooky Gold; strong and delicious; 303AD - not Hooky itself but the same brewery - lovely).

There are many others, including IPAs, but I just wanted to place on record my love of Hooky, although I am drinking a bottle of Young's (excellent) bitter at this very moment.

I must repeat: do not take my word for the flavours; I can barely remember the texture of drink or food and need to continually sample it to recall it, but that is just a sad fact of life and not gluttony at all; go out and buy a pint of good ale or bitter today. Your mates might think you are a nobhead but your tastebuds will love you for ever.
So much for that. Dalyrymple is in the England squad and Plunkett drops out with a side injury.

So presumably Dalyrymple slots in at number 8; or maybe it will be Mahmood for Plunkett instead. Either way it doesn't look great; the batting is stronger with Bell, but there is too much for an inconsistent bunch of bowlers to do against the world No4 and No5 batsmen, Yousuf and Inzi. I can't see an England win, but then I am a pessimist and prefer life that way.

Still struggling with On the Beach, but making extremely slow progress. Thinking about going back to the Canterbury Tales but there is no way I could re-read them all, or maybe I could, but then who actually reads the Tale of Melibee? Maybe I'll just read Parliament of Fowls and leave it at that for the moment, thinking wryly about current affairs.

Listening to Gang of Four at the moment; I dislike their political polemics and half baked brand of far leftism, but I love their tunes and sometimes their lyrics are ok ("We live as we dream, alone", yes I know it is a line from Conrad). I've also gone back to early New Order, who I adore for their brilliant electronic misery and opaque lyrics. I also like the fact that Bernard Sumner circa Movement is not the most confident singer in the world; but who would be, replacing the Ian Curtis of Love will tear us apart? I love them for fusing bleak post-punk and disco, which they had started doing in Joy Division and I love them for picking up the pieces and carrying on.

Saturday, 22 July 2006


The Second Test starts on Thursday with Andrew Flintoff being an injury doubt again. We seem to have had a whole swathe of injuries that get treated and improve, only to reappear in even more dangerous form. I wonder what causes these relapses?

This also leaves us with a problem. Assuming for the moment that Fred does not play, what can we do? It isn't fair to drop either Cook, Collingwood or Bell, but we do need an extra bowler. We could drop Trescothick, who has not passed 50 since the first innings of the summer, but that is very unlikely. The bowlers we have simply lack guile, force, and accuracy unless the pitch helps them. Simply replacing Plunkett for Mahmood won't do, it just leaves us more or less where we are now. And Jones is becoming a serious issue in the lower middle order. Here was a keeper originally selected because of his batting (and, I think, because TeamEngland -yuk- don't like Chris Read much) who cannot now bat, it seems. The fielding is also in decline; Panesar, Cook and Plunkett are no use in the field even if it helps having Bell back.


For me, Panesar makes way as a useful bowler but not yet a matchwinner, and too much of a liability elsewhere. Pietersen has shown he can bowl spin so I'd treat him as the fifth bowler.
It's not perfect but it might be sharper than the previous team, if only very slightly.

Friday, 21 July 2006


Norman Geras has also linked to me. He is incredibly clever and thoughtful; and Adele Geras (a relation, I believe) is a superlative writer of children's books. I am told that Sophie Hannah (also a close relation) is a magnificent poet but alas I haven't read any of her stuff.
Iain Dale...

has included a link to me on his excellent blog. He is top, and his blog is well worth a read (and not because he is linking to me).

Let me just say, before I begin this post, two things:

1. I love XTC.

2. Partridge and Moulding are the equals of Lennon and McCartney, as chroniclers of provincial English life and morals in the latter half of the twentieth century (not in any other way).

But, I have barely listened to XTC in the last five years. This is not because "post 9/11 the world is too serious blah blah blah". It is because something struck me when I listened to Nonsuch in around 2001.

Rook is rubbish.

Then, later, it occurred to me that Dear God is a pile of old crap as well. I also think Chalkhills and Children, War Dance, Melt the Guns, Knuckle Down, Easter Theatre, Your Dictionary, This World Over and Respectable Street are also crap. This is not because they are unmelodious, utterly without interest, cliched, hackneyed, plaigarised, or anything else.

It is because Partridge and Moulding, for all their tuneful, harmonic, whimsical, penetrating genius, cannot do the big issues. When XTC tackle religion, history, hate, racism, war and death, they are way out of their epistemological depth. When they tackle the little, but essential, bothersome aspects of people's lives, they are wonderful. This is why I love Science Friction, Chain and Ball, Sgt Rock, English Roundabout, Snowman, Love at First Sight, Ten Feet Tall, Limelight, In Loving Memory (which is not about death but about memory) and Bungalow. When they tackle something on the fringes of utterance but inside people's feelings, they are fabulous. This is why I love Senses Working Overtime, Green Man, Scissor Man (whatever its inspirations), That is the Way and My Bird Performs. And they are quite good at the smaller, human -living side of love too.

Once, when Colin Moulding got to grips with the decay of 1970s Britain, they did tackle a big issue with brilliance and insight. But only once (Making Plans for Nigel). Which Andy loathed him for doing at the time. OK. Maybe Jason and the Argonauts. But that is debateable. Generals and Majors is only good because of its guitar riffs, not because of its approach to war. And if Living Through Another Cuba were to be the last testament of the twentieth century then my god, we deserved it. Alright, alright, Complicated Game is ok. But only for the way it utterly trivialises serious issues. "Little boy asked me should he put his vote upon the left, eft, eft, eft, little boy asked me should he put his vote upon the ri-i-i-i--ight..etc", not because any issue of politics is actually addressed. How do people move your stuff and why? You may reply, exasperated, well that isn't Andy or Colin's job, theirs is just to point all this out. Well, cobblers. You can't skim such an issue so easily. And that is it. They skim the serious stuff. When they don't, the effect is nauseating. Who really thinks Dear God is a good song ("no thorny crown..." Jeez, you're right Andy, everything it says in the Bible is crap. Every single word. Now you put it like that I'll join the Secular Society right away."), or Rook ("for ****'s sake, Andy, yes, people die and there is little left of them and their deeds are only recorded in memory. So what? Are you going to put it an existentially agonising way, a la Joy Division? No? Well I'm going back to Closer then.")

Let me just say, before I end, one thing:

I love XTC.

As chroniclers of English life they are unparalleled (alright, alright, unparalleled in the late 1970s and early 1980s). As wits, ironists, surrealists, they are great. As moralists or metaphysicists - forget it.

Maybe that is the point and I missed it all these years. I still will be grateful to Andy, Colin and Dave for seeing me through tough times in my life and telling me: "Hey - England is flawed, rubbish, wasted - but great and beautiful. And ridiculously creative. Join us." It is testament to my weakness that I never could and to their greatness that I still sing lines from Senses Working Overtime when walking down the street. Maybe that heaviness is not needed.

So a toast to XTC - but in ale, not neat double whiskies, Chateau Rothschild, or thick, black coffees.

Thursday, 20 July 2006

Cats and Cricket

Langer was out for 342 in what might be his only first class match of the season before returning to Perth; presumably he'll go home full of confidence and form! Anyone else from Australia want to come over and play for a county? Perhaps we might send a few of our players out there to get experience playing for state sides in the winter. hmmm.

Just finished The Outlaw Varjak Paw, a children's book, in fact a sequel, about a group of "outlaw" cats fighting to defeat the evil gang boss Sally Bones and restore freedom for the cats of the city. It reads a bit like a computer game, with Varjak needing to get past challenges and though fights until he meets the big bad boss at the end. It is a very easy read - I would say ideal for Y4 and Y5s, and the characters are clearly drawn (nothing too complex about them though); with some nice subtexts about the value of dreams, transformation, failure, faith, the importance of courage and some allegorical scenes set in Varjak's dreams. There are a few gruesome scenes though, which surprise you in their brutality. The question is whether brutality is justified in a work where ethics are set out like building blocks to defend against it. I would say so. It's not pointless violence and I think the characters are too thin for readers to be devastated by anything. The first book is pretty good too (I think that is just Varjak Paw). Some good use of illustrations and messing about with text.
I Don't Like Cricket...

Justin Langer is 316* batting for Somerset against Surrey at Guildford. Quite apart from the damage this is doing to my favourite team, why are we letting a key Australian batsman get himself up to top form before the Ashes?
I'm trying to read On the Beach by Nevil Shute again. As a paranoid nuclear nut it ought to appeal to me, but I find it dull and more reminiscent of a nineteenth century novel of manners or character than an account of the last days of life on earth. Where's the sense of everything completely collapsing? I suppose it happens slowly and quietly, even while people insist on old rules and ways of living. But this is the point made forcibly by Threads. No such period of traditional living could happen after a nuclear war or in the death days of the world. Like dogs, our veneer of civilisation is thin. I will continue with it, even though I know what happens in the end.
The start of a new era; like everyone else in the world I have a blog. Excellent. I can satisfy my narcisstic longings, imagining that people are hanging on my every word when in fact no-one is bothered.

The clouds are building up, looking heavy. I wonder if there will be rain or if the promised break in the weather is to be delayed even further. The dark low clouds are thin and hazy and look as if they have been stuck onto the sky with cheap 70s CSO. Something bigger is building, and I suppose it might rain before I get to the pub.

I've just re-read Atomised and Platform by Michel Houellebecq. I still feel faintly sick, but I don't see him as either a genius or an evil reactionary. I am not quite sure what he is saying (beyond the obvious bits of course); he seems troubled by space, in all its different forms, whether we have too much or too little or the right kind; he is obviously troubled by love, but I don't think his books show any good or ideal kind of love. his characters love and suffer or don't love and suffer or ambivalently relate in a sexual but sort of loving way - and suffer. Someone should do a study on which characters (mostly minor) don't suffer in his work. Some of the scenes in Platform, which is less appalling than Atomised, have too much of a fantasy feel to them and don't really say much about the relationships themselves. There are a lot of sudden connections which make a kind of logical sense but only within the novel. (I don't understand how hippies lead to torture and murder, unless this is an elaborate joke on his part). There are gems or nuggets of truth - death is better than broken bodies - but not as many as it seems.

Heck, it is raining.

The end of Atomised intrigues me though. *spoilers* Bruno lives out his broken mind in a psychiatric ward. His problems affect no one else and his wasted life draws peacefully to an end. Michel's broken emotions bring about the end of humanity and the start of a new world. I would still rather buy Bruno a drink. But not a cocktail. I can't help thinking Bruno's world falls apart when he and Christiane dilute their relationship for the sake of pleasing an image of pleasure in (mostly) Bruno's mind. Platform's extended fantasy is literally shattered - so what? What comment is that making? Is that to do with Michel's realisation that the world is unhappy because people have forgotten how to give pleasure? And who cares about Platform's Michel, really? Still, I'd rather have Houellebecq put himself in his narratives like this than read Martin Amis appearance in Money again.

Tsk. It's stopped raining. A lot of clouds have gone. My tomatoes need some rain.