Thursday, April 14, 2016

An editor writes

Here is something I prepared earlier for the Spinoff. Also contains, thrillingly, a drawing by Steve Braunias.

The intro reads:
One of New Zealand’s best and most illustrious book editors, Stephen Stratford (“I am a polite person, mostly”), vents about having to deal with writers and publishers.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Help I’m a Rock #2

The previous post about Tracey Emin marrying a rock asked, “I wonder how the rock feels about this. Will no one consider the rocks?”

Rocks have feelings too. Maybe not all of them, but some do. Basalt not so much, probably, or granite, but at Amazon a large, Italian, maritime rock named Jamie considers the book How to Avoid Huge Ships (Cornell Maritime Pr/Tidewater Pub., 1993) by John W. Trimmer and gives it 3 out of 5 stars:
Good Advice For Most Readers, But Doesn’t Cover All The Bases
There is one major oversight in this generally well-written book, and that is that it addresses animate readers exclusively. As a large rock in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the coast of Giglio Island, I have recently been confronted with instances in which avoiding huge ships was of fundamental interest to my personal well-being. However, the methods presented in Capt. Trimmer’s book were none too useful in my efforts to avoid huge ships, as I was recently struck by a very large ship indeed, a cruise vessel called the ‘Costa Concordia’. I think the ship came off slightly worse in the exchange, but the experience was disruptive to my afternoon and rather jarring. In a situation such as this, Capt. Trimmer’s advice would have been immensely beneficial to humans, fish, seabirds, and other animals, but I am none of those things. I’m a big rock. I can’t zig-zag or duck and cover. Rocks don’t do that. I’ve tried. I tried some time ago to scoot over to the left a bit to get some better sunlight, and it took me three thousand years! That’s not fast enough to avoid even the slowest huge ships. It is for precisely this reason that I would advise Capt. Trimmer to augment this edition with a section intended for readers like me—perhaps “How To Avoid Huge Ships If You Are A Rock, Iceberg, Or Coral Reef”. There is an audience out there for this, Capt. Trimmer, and I assure you it would be well worth your time and effort.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Help I’m a Rock

The Art Newspaper reports that “last summer, under an olive tree in her garden in France and wearing her father’s white funeral shroud”, Tracey Emin, professor of drawing at the Royal Academy 2011-13 (above: Trying to Find You 1, 2007), married a rock. Not a rock star, a rock. Quote unquote:
You formed a union with a stone outside your studio in the south of France last summer. What does this mean to you?
It just means that at the moment I am not alone; somewhere on a hill facing the sea, there is a very beautiful ancient stone, and it’s not going anywhere. It will be there, waiting for me.
I wonder how the rock feels about this. Slightly used? Will no one consider the rocks?

So here are Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention with “Help, I’m a Rock” from their 1966 – 50 years ago on 27 June – debut album Freak Out!, the first double album in rock but not the last, oh no:

Monday, March 21, 2016

What I’m reading #133

For the last two weeks I have mostly been reading three novels by JRR Tolkein. You might have heard of them. Kind of a trilogy. As in the recent post about a week spent reading three books by Stephen Fry, this was for work, not for pleasure. I also had to watch the DVDs of Peter Jackson’s movie version of the trilogy. The extended editions.

I expected the Jackson movies to be tedious, but I had completely forgotten how awful the Tolkein novels are. I loved them when I was a teenager , which just goes to show what terrible judgement teenagers have. 

Not quite an interview with, more an observation of, legendary journalist Clare Hollingworth. She did many great things but is best known for reporting live on Germany’s invasion of Poland. She is still with us, aged 104. I had a drink with her once, in the FCC, aka the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong. I say “with”. We were seated side by side, were not introduced so did not speak, but I knew exactly who she was. It was thrilling just to be in her presence. Quote unquote:
By then, Clare was back in her Polish hotel in Katowice and saw the first German tanks moving past her window. When she called the British embassy in Warsaw, a diplomat refused to believe her story – so she held the telephone out of her bedroom window so he could hear the sound of German tank tracks.
Brent Underwood shows how to become a #1 Best-Selling Author on Amazon in five minutes. His one secret trick you won’t believe? He took a photo of his foot and published it. Quote unquote:
I decided my foot was worthy of the “Transpersonal” category under psychology books and “Freemasonry & Secret Societies” category under social sciences books. I’ve always wanted to have an affiliation with the Freemasons.
The British composer Peter Maxwell Davies died last week, at 81. A good innings, though 81 does seem young these days. I saw him in the Auckland Town Hall some time in the very late 70s or early 80s conducting the Fires of London in Eight Songs for a Mad King, which featured a man screaming, and Le Jongleur de Notre Dame, which had a juggler. I have spent many evenings in the Auckland Town Hall, but that was the most memorable. Here is a decent obituary from the Guardian. Quote unquote:
In these later years there was no let-up in Maxwell Davies’s productivity. He was one of the most driven and hard-working composers of all time, with an output that easily exceeds the work-lists of Stravinsky and Schoenberg combined. His second opera, The Doctor of Myddfai (1995) was written in six weeks, during which Maxwell Davies worked 16 hours a day, pausing only to sleep or cook a quick bowl of pasta (the love of Italian food he had acquired in his Rome days was his one concession to human frailty). It was premiered by Welsh National Opera the following year.
This amazing productivity is actually an obstacle to the survival of his music. It is hard to know where to start, and plunging in at random may lead to one of the many grey patches in his music, particularly in the later works such as the Strathclyde concertos.
I’ve been playing that opera over the last few days – it’s great fun. And I don’t agree that the concertos are grey, not compared to the sludge of some of the symphonies. But his music is always interesting – as was the composer. Here from 2005 is the best story ever about him, when he was arrested for being in possession of a dead swan. Quote unquote:
He told the BBC: “I didn’t realise the police had also taken some wings from previous swans which were hanging in the shed. I was going to give them to the school because they use them as Gabriel’s wings in the nativity play.
“On Monday morning a police car came whizzing up the lane with a very charming young man and a very beautiful young lady. They didn’t accuse me of killing the swan, they accused me of being in possession illegally of a corpse of a protected species.
“I had to give a statement. I offered them coffee and asked them if they would like to try some swan terrine but I think they were rather horrified. That was a mistake, wasn’t it?”
 So here is Kelvin Thomas as King George III in Eight Songs of a Mad King, Salford, 2012. Talk about uneasy listening:

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Architectural historians

They can’t all be like this, surely. Here is Nigel Farndale in the Spectator in a piece celebrating the magazine Country Life:
The Queen Mother was once drawing up a list of guests when someone suggested Country Life’s architectural historian, John Cornforth. ‘Oh no,’ she said, ‘Corners is far too grand for us.’ I don’t know about that, but Cornforth, who died in 2004, was certainly a convivial and flamboyant character who, it was rumoured, had a penchant for experimentation regarding the attire he wore in private. Chatelaines were said to lock their wardrobes when he came to stay, not least because he was ample–figured, and silk gowns tear easily.
I know a few architectural historians and writers, because for a few unhappy years I was editor of Architecture New Zealand, journal of the NZ Institute of Architects. Unhappy because while I was very interested in architecture and counted many architects as friends – two of them asked me to apply for the job – that was a problem for the publisher, who basically hated architects. I was regarded with deep suspicion because I had been to dinner at Patrick Clifford’s, Malcolm Walker came to my wedding, I’d shared an office with Nigel Cook, I knew Marshall Cook, Jane Aimer and other big names in the NZIA, Peter Shaw was a former colleague and so on. And now there is Paul Litterick.

But I don’t know that if any of these people came to stay I would have to lock up my wife’s wardrobe.

So here are Genesis with Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett in the 1970s performing “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)”:

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Books do furnish a room

I have always admired my friend Murray Grimsdale’s decoration of the Leys Institute and Grey Lynn library. The 1722 Klementinum library in Prague lacks the South Pacific element Murray brings to much of his work, but even so it has a certain something:



Our libraries here in Cambridge and Te Awamutu are pretty good. But on balance I have to say that Prague is the winner on the day.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

What I’m reading #132

For the last week I have mostly been reading three books by Stephen Fry. This was for work, you understand, not for pleasure. I am not a fan.

What an interesting fellow he must be: not yet 60, he has published three volumes about himself. In 1997, Moab is My Washpot, billed on the cover of the paperback edition as “The Bestselling Autobiography”.  In 2010, The Fry Chronicles: an autobiography. In 2014, More Fool Me: a memoir.

Whether memoir or autobiography, they are all frightful. I am not sure if it is the faux self-deprecating preening self-regard and self-absorption or… No, it is the faux self-deprecating preening self-regard and self-absorption. But.

One has to admire the work ethic. More Fool Me especially details a work rate that is nothing less than Stakhanovite. A voice-over in the morning, writing session with Hugh Laurie in the afternoon, a speech delivered in the evening, possibly in Manchester – and then the Groucho Club back in London and a drug intake that is astonishing. He was the Keith Richards of comedy. And as with Keef the work was good in the decade or so this book covers: four series of Blackadder, several series of A Little Bit of Fry and Laurie, roles in movies I’ve never seen – Peter’s Friends, anyone? – and a couple of novels. Terrible novels, imho, but bestsellers. And two more novels to come. So, respect.

What comes out of this third volume especially is what a saint Hugh Laurie must be to have put up with all of Fry’s bad behaviour for all those years. What’s also striking – maybe this is because of all the drugs – is that the best jokes are by others. A friend calls Sir Ian McKellen “Serena McKellen”. Once heard, that cannot be unheard. And this from Barry Humphries as Dame Edna on Virginia Woolf: 
Darling Virginia, a woman with whom I have so much in common, except of course that I can swim.
 So here is a clip from A Little Bit of Fry and Laurie which Fry refers to approvingly as a parody of The Two Ronnies but – well, see if you think it’s funny:

Monday, February 22, 2016

Economist letter of the month

Possibly of the year, possibly of the decade.

My proudest publishing moment was getting a letter printed in the Economist. That beat getting a letter into the Spectator, even beat getting five pages in the Listener for my last book. Because OMG, the Economist. Best letters pages in the world, possibly. 
An Economist reader passes
I am writing to tell you of the death of Martin Bud, possibly The Economist’s longest-ever subscriber. He received his subscription on his 18th birthday in January 1938, and his last copy was delivered after more than 78 years of uninterrupted readership. His life was in many ways a mirror of the 20th century.
Born Jewish in Weimar Berlin to the family of a self-made economist and banker, his mother died of appendicitis when he was four, in the age before antibiotics. Returning from school one day he found himself between a great crowd and a motorcade, face to face with Hitler. His family escaped as refugees to England in 1935, where he qualified as an accountant with PriceWaterhouse. His father stopped him from joining the Republicans in the Spanish civil war and later the British army.
At the family firm, ENM, he developed sophisticated research tools for sales forecasting, which would later form the basis for some celebrated work by the music industry on modelling the long tail of digital consumption. In the 1960s he pioneered the use of microelectronics by British industry.
The years after ENM’s purchase were difficult, as this heir to the German industrial tradition chafed at what he felt was the plutocratic, lax and irrational management of the new owners. He later supplied equipment to many of the world’s state lotteries, and enjoyed working in an industry which thrived by applying rational reasoning to the irrational. His wife of 58 years, Hanna, was a research chemist with Margaret Thatcher at J. Lyons Research. In 2009 the producers of Harry Potter wanted to use his house as a location. He conducted negotiations for the complex contract entirely in verse.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Waikato Times letter of the week #64

From the edition of Saturday 13 February. As always, spelling, punctuation, grammar and logic are exactly as printed in the Waikato Times:
Mental fitness
Crossword puzzles are a way of life for many people and have been since 1913, when Arthur Wynne, a Liverpool man devised the very first time-consuming crossword puzzle. Nobody knows why crossword puzzles are so popular. But the best theory that I can come up with is, apart from puzzles being time-consuming and mind-struggling, puzzles are a mental exercise to keep the mind fitter and healthier. I suppose it’s like some people like going jogging or running to keep physically fit and healthy, while on the other hand it is the same way. Jogging and running keep the body fit and healthy while the crossword puzzles keep the mind fitter and healthier.
How many occupations combine both mental and physical exercise can you think of? I wonder if that is the reason why women live longer than men?
Ken Weldon

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

What I’m reading #131

In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani enthuses that:
Garth Risk Hallberg’s “City on Fire” is a big, stunning first novel and an amazing virtual reality machine, whisking us back to New York City in the 1970s […] Despite being overstuffed, it’s a novel of head-snapping ambition and heart-stopping power — a novel that attests to its young author’s boundless and unflagging talents.
At The Awl, Carmen Petaccio lists “The 50 Most Unacceptable Sentence in City on Fire, in order”, starting with:
50: “Just then, a horripilating Scaramouche appeared at her elbow.”
49. “Detonations crash in from nearby like the walls she’s a void at the center of.”
48. “Every time a truck passed the frayed ends of the wine’s wicker sleeve trembled like the needles of some exquisite seismometer.”
You see where we’re heading? Towards:
44. “She seemed to want to retract any extension of herself, to become a move-less white egg.”
Yes, that is only #44. The full list is here. The top 20 are quite something, but the top 10 are really special.

Have you ever heard Virginia Woolf? Now, thanks to the Paris Review,  you can. Here are seven minutes and 39 seconds of her talking about “Craftmanship”:

To my ears, she sounds like Brian Sewell. If I may quote Quote Unquote:
Brian Sewell is an English art critic of a certain age and a certain disposition. My painter friends will be horrified by my confession that I have always enjoyed his writing. I did know that he spoke in the most affected accent ever, one that makes the Queen sound common, but had no means of sharing this. Until now. Don’t miss the second page. Click fast enough on different links and you get a wonderful sequence that makes as much sense as most contemporary art criticism. Try his “Liverpool” and “Hungarian art”. Then “White eunuch” and “Sliced cucumber”, in that order. 
After reading the recent biography by Jonathan Bates, CK Stead considers Ted Hughes and, among other things, his infidelities:
And when Bate, seeming to follow hints from Hughes, suggests ‘his infidelity to others was a form of fidelity to [Plath]’, I felt there was something shabby either about the poet, or his biographer, or perhaps both. Not that sexual fidelity is a necessary moral principle; but to make it a principle observed by non observance seems devious in the extreme.
My father was an RAF navigator/bomb-aimer. After the war he achieved many things but, like his friend Les Munro of the Dambusters raid, for some reason he never got around to writing romance novels. Happily, that gap in the market for romance novels by former Lancaster bomber aircrew has been filled by Bill Spence, who has recently published his 25th novel as Jessica Blair. Quote unquote: 
“After the war there wasn’t much call for a bomb-aimer. I spent a while with the RAF after the war, and never really got into teaching. I was bitten by the writing bug.”
After publishing short stories and articles for newspapers and magazines, Bill released his first book in 1959. Dark Hell was a war novel which drew on his experiences. He chose one of his middle names for his byline of Duncan Spence, and began a writing career that has seen him adopt many different guises.
“After the first novel, I really wanted to get into Westerns,” he says. “I wrote under the names Jim Bowden, Floyd Rogers and Kirk Ford, and did 30-odd Westerns.”
So, after the war novel came 30 Westerns and then 25 romance novels. That’s 56 novels in 57 years. Makes the rest of us look pretty silly.

Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times explains how journalists should respond to advertisers, in this case Hewlett Packard, who are “disappointed” with a story and threaten to withdraw their advertising. This happened at Metro in the 1980s. Air New Zealand was annoyed by a big story and cancelled all advertising for – I can’t remember, maybe two years. This was a big deal because it was a small magazine dependent on advertising but we had Warwick Roger as an editor and the owners weren’t a multinational but were brave locals so the attitude was: “Get fucked.”

Kellaway’s first response was mild. She reconsidered, and sent a politely blistering (how English!) follow-up. Quote unquote:
You say the FT management should think about “unacceptable biases” and its relationship with its advertisers. My piece was not biased and I fear you misunderstand our business model. It is my editors’ steadfast refusal to consider the impact of stories on advertisers that makes us the decent newspaper we are.
Camille Paglia – she’s back! – on Hillary Clinton and Gloria Steinem after the New Hampshire vote:
Despite emergency efforts by Gloria Steinem, the crafty dowager empress of feminism, to push a faltering Hillary over the finish line, Sanders overwhelmingly won women’s votes in every category except senior citizens. Last week, when she told TV host Bill Maher that young women supporting the Sanders campaign are just in it to meet boys, Steinem managed not only to insult the intelligence and idealism of the young but to vaporize every lesbian Sanders fan into a spectral non-person.
Steinem’s polished humanitarian mask had slipped, revealing the mummified fascist within. I’m sure that my delight was shared by other dissident feminists everywhere. Never before has the general public, here or abroad, more clearly seen the arrogance and amoral manipulativeness of the power elite who hijacked and stunted second-wave feminism.
We may get to evaluate Ms Steinem for ourselves later this year if the rumours are true that she will visit New Zealand and speak.

So here is Gloria Gaynor with rollerskates: