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:

Monday, February 15, 2016

Book advertisement of the month

From the February 2016 issue of the Literary Review, a full-page ad, page 7, facing the Contributors* list on page 6, which is a hi-visibility spot:

I think if it was my ₤2940 I would have included a direct link to the Amazon page where one could buy the Kindle book, but what do I know?

That missing link is here: it tells us nothing about the author but does reveal what the book is about:
Is Chris the founder of a new religion, the reviver of an old religion or is he stark, staring bonkers. Find out as the sun worshipper stumbles his way through a maze of religious, classical and literary allusions that are finely woven into the tapestry of the book.
 Well, good luck with that. It worked for Dan Brown.

Elsewhere in this issue John Adamson of Cambridge University reviews The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe’s History by Peter H Wilson; historian Andrew Roberts reviews Churchill and Ireland by Paul Bew; medical and social history author Wendy Moore reviews When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi; and Keith Miller of the Daily Telegraph reviews The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes. That’s just what’s online. They aren’t mad – they don’t give it all away.

Possibly my favourite in this issue is the review by Michael Burleigh, “CEO of the City political risk consultants Sea Change Partners” of The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age by David S Abraham. Quote unquote:
Environmentalists often deplore the physical and human damage caused by promiscuous mining. Yet their desire for more green vehicles, solar panels and wind turbines is precisely what is driving increased mining of rare metals, which are used in permanent magnets that drive the motors and lithium batteries that store the energy.
*The Contributors list is not usually a hi-visibility page for a magazine, but with the Literary Review I always look at who the writers are because they are so good: many are academics of whom one has never heard, and/but write beautifully. As do the novelists, historians, biographers and the rest. Possibly the best-written magazine in the world.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Waikato Times letter of the week #63

From the edition of Wednesday 10 February. As always, spelling, punctuation, grammar and logic are exactly as printed in the Waikato Times.
Show some leadership
Prime Minister John Key needs to establish some form of management over his minders. His leadership has hit a snag centred on Waitangi. Waitangi is known for much civil disquiet with much exposure of matters of serious concern to Maori. This year is not very different from other years and there are many concerns Maori need addressing. Mr Key would have served New Zealand better if he had focused his address on matters that are progressing that will aid Maori and the nation. The signing of the TPP agreement would have been more appropriate had it been kept secret and signed in some more secret location. Perhaps in Hawaii were the Union Jack is safely part of the state flag.
Barry Ashby

Thursday, February 4, 2016

This little piggy went to market

Before social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and whatever the young people use, authors had to promote themselves in other ways. I have no data on the success of this one:

The caption reads:
The Author in Fancy Dress as a Side of Bacon, designed by himself, which took the First Prize of Forty Guineas at the Covent Garden Fancy Dress Ball, April 1894

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

If I were a carpenter

I suppose this is the future of publishing: crowdsourcing. How depressing. The NZ Book Council’s Booknotes Unbound reports:
This Mother’s Day New Zealanders are being invited to become a part of Penguin Classics history.
Penguin Random House has been supporting mums around the world for more than 80 years, from pregnancy advice and bedtime stories, to homework help and ‘mum time’ escapism.
This year, New Zealanders are invited to become a part of Penguin Classics history, by having their messages to their mums published and immortalised in a heartfelt collection, titled Thanks Mum: A Kiwi Celebration.
Written by the New Zealand public for New Zealand mums, this limited edition book will be the ultimate thank you to Kiwi mums nationwide.
For the chance to have your message published, visit to submit your entry online.
Successful entries will be hand-picked and those published will receive a copy of Thanks Mum, to gift in time for Mother’s Day, 8 May 2016.
Submissions close 29th February 2016.
I hope it does well for them, but if I were an editor I would insert a comma into that title. On the other hand, if I were a carpenter like my friend Dean I would have a steady, well-paying job and be booked up a year in advance.

So here is Robert Plant in 1993 with Tim Hardin’s song “If I Were a Carpenter”, a hit for Bobby Darin in 1966, the Four Tops in 1968 and, on the country charts, Johnny Cash and June Carter in 1970 (on YouTube, live in Sweden, here):

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Waikato Times letter of the week #62

From the edition of Monday 2 February. As always, spelling, punctuation, grammar and logic are exactly as printed in the Waikato Times.
Donald Trump
Has Donald trumped Donald Trump? His backing by Sarah Palin must put a huge amount of faith in the statement written on all their paper money notes.
Donald has not as yet claimed he can walk on water.
Except somewhere in Alaska when water is frozen. There will be no need or use for another Ark if he becomes president.
Barry Ashby