How to pick the winners – just don’t spend it all at once

Sunday 8 January 2006

Publishers and agents have rejected two Booker prize-winning novels submitted as works by aspiring authors.
One of the books considered unworthy by the publishing industry was by V S Naipaul, one of Britain’s greatest living writers, who won the Nobel prize for literature.
The exercise by The Sunday Times draws attention to concerns that the industry has become incapable of spotting genuine literary talent.

So they sent off unsolicited manuscripts to publishers. Literary agents and publishers are illiterate blah blah blah. The thing about hoaxes and pranks is whatever lesson they purport to teach us is, at best, unclear, but The Sunday Times misses the point of their own exercise entirely.
It’s not that they can’t recognise quality, but that don’t even look for it. The Times is either naive or dishonest to imply that someone at each of these publishers actually read (or pretended to read) the chapters before rejecting them. More importantly, they leave out the most important piece of information: did they include a cover letter? Imagine a thumbnail bio for the pseudo-Naipaul: “I am a Caribbean immigrant of Indian descent.” I bet the agents would pay closer attention to that sentence than any paragraph in the opening chapter of In a Free State.
(Come to think of it, has anyone at the Times read In a Free State? Even the chapter that was retyped for this prank? That must have been a task for the work-experience kid, surely.)
I’m not saying you have to have an intriguing ethnic background to get published; I’m saying that the majority of today’s book-buyers (a different class from book-readers) are interested not in the book, but in the author. As Iain Sinclair in Lights Out for the Territory described the secret of Jeffrey Archer’s literary [sic] success:
His books… understood what the true fucntion of a book was…. the power of the novels lay in the fact that they didn’t have to be read…. Ownership of one of the novels gave you a direct line to the author: he was incarnated in a way that his ephemeral productions never would be. Take any title from the shelf at WH Smith’s, Liverpool Street Station, and you are shaking hands with Lord Archer.

Success itself can be the reason behind an author’s charismatic allure. Race is merely one of a variety of pegs you can hang your nascent career upon: a bad childhood, a stretch in the pokey, the drugs, the terrible drugs. Agents and publishers might bother to read the books submitted to them if they knew that any of the punters who buy their wares actually read anything themselves.

If your personal life is terminally dull, you can always make something up; although these days it’s probably too risky to fake your ethnic history – that one’s pretty much played out thanks to the likes of Khuri, Menchu, Demidenko et al. Otherwise, you can be pretty free with your invention: people do check, but not very hard.
Regarding this last point: James Dolan at The Exile, author of the most hostile review ever, has turned into Captain Ahab pursuing the great white frat-boy author James Frey, author of A Million Pieces of Shit (after reading his review I can never think of it by its real title.) Dolan is now seeking readers’ help in gathering evidence that Frey lied about having been in prison to bolster his bad-boy credibility. He has become so obsessed with Frey’s lucrative dishonesty that he now suspects his confession of drug addiction to be almost entirely fabricated (“A rich boy like him using glue? That’s just a lie.”) and cribbed from the writings of Eddie Little.
If you completely lack the imagination to invent or plagiarise some skeletons for your closet, you can at least add retrospective lustre to your career by killing yourself. (How much lower would teenagershave to set their literary standards if Sylvia Plath and Hart Crane posessed more self-restraint?)
If, by some chance, you are actually any good at writing and score a publishing deal, you will still be reduced in the public discourse to the level of a performing seal, trotting out predigested sob-stories of how you once watched your best friend die (it made you, it must be said, a stronger person). You can remind yourself of the second act of Coriolanus and decide between integrity and the chance of a second book hitting the shelves. People do not want literature, they want biography, preferably of the most lurid kind; and the publishers give the people what they want.
But maybe we’ve got this tale of overlooked literary worth all wrong. The whole Times exercise begs the question as to whether anything that wins the Booker is in fact any good in the first place. Maybe the agents actually did read the proferred chapters and exercised perfect judgement in dismissing them. How often does compromise, consensus and groupthink debase the standards of each jury member? Not to mention anticipating the reaction of the press, the Booker’s sponsors (or the Pulitzer board, who can and have vetoed jury decisions), and their future employment. Have you looked through the lists of previous prizewinners: the Bookers, the Pulitzers, the Nobels? Think you could stand to read them all? How many of the most compelling and enduring books you can think of are on these lists – does it even crack 50/50?
Who wants to read Joseph Hergesheimer, the most lauded American author of the 1920s? Can you even find one of his books? Who wants to lay bets on anyone even glancing at DBC Pierre a quarter of a century from now? Anyone? Let’s see your money.

“It must be very difficult coming to London from Australia, having grown up so far away from the cultural centre of tradition,” continued

Sunday 8 January 2006

First, thanks to everyone who has written in with prayers and messages of support following my inexplicable vodka crisis. I have taken the scientific approach by attempting to replicate the phenomenon: the offending item has been thawed and drunk, replaced by two bottles of vodka. The frozen bottle was a gift from a friend, so I’ve bought one of my preferred brand, plus one of the same brand as a control.
I have been passing the new year in the genteel and civilised company of the English (see photo), and enjoying the cold weather (yes, it has snowed once on the bunker). Unfortunately, I got too smug about not having to see the annual front-page photo all the Australian papers run at this time of year showing people on the beach because, hey! Stop the Presses! a hot day in summer! Then I found out all the British papers run exactly the same photo at exactly the same time because their readers apparently can’t get their minds around the fact that it’s not winter on the other side of the world.
Right now, I’m off to share the magic of lager.

Good freezer or bad liquor? Inquiries pending

Wednesday 4 January 2006


Be careful what you wish for

Wednesday 4 January 2006

After 37 years of joyous mayhem, Welfare State International, the company I co-founded and of which I am artistic director, is creating its last gig….
All our intentions of 1968 – access, disability awareness, multigenerational and multicultural participation – are established; now, though, they come before the art…. Overintensive risk management, child protection, alarm systems, licensing, family-friendly badges and employment laws invade with a suffocating culture of smug inertia.
Of course, he’s a theatre person so we shouldn’t expect too much self-awareness, but can he really not see the resemblance of the utopian world he worked toward, to the stifling world he inhabits now?

Starting the year as we mean to go on

Monday 2 January 2006

Continuing on from last year, let’s get 2006 rolling with another photo of this website’s patron saint:

This is the Jeremy Bentham pub in Bloomsbury. Just behind him, further down the street, is the building that houses his notorious Auto-Icon. On the street corner is a large plaque set into the pub wall, telling passersby the Bentham story, much of which seems to have been cribbed from for the Wikipedia article about him, particularly the guff about his stuffed corpse being dragged out only for special university occasions. A stroll one block over will verify that the man is on permanent display.
Haven’t drunk in here yet, but the pub reviews I just looked up for the above link says they sometimes stock a cask of Orkney Dark Island, one of the world’s greatest beers. Must investigate.

Sunday 1 January 2006

The new address for this blog is finally operational. Hopefully you were redirected here from the old address without much fuss. You can set your bookmarks to – it will send you to the right place.
Told you there were a few technical upgrades going on. I think some pictures from older articles are still missing, but these will be fixed soon.

Big things in the wind

Saturday 31 December 2005

Happy new year etc – back online in a few days, with a few changes around the place… Hope yr all having a good one – more soon once I’ve sorted the technical details.

More importantly, you have to give a shit.

Thursday 22 December 2005

Some people seem to think that special intelligence is required to do cryptic crosswords. This is sad, because it creates a barrier between them and one of life’s few remaining harmless pleasures. To enjoy reading a chess column, you need to have a chess mind. With bridge, you have to be good enough at mental arithmetic to be able to count up to 13 four times simultaneously (once for each suit)… But with cryptic crosswords all you need is the sort of amateur detective’s mind that does not take things at face value.
Actually, all you need is a good memory for all the stupid, arbitrary rules that have no cultural significance for anyone under 120 years old and which make the puzzles so hateful:
Also, “actor” may equal “tree” (because of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who died in 1917)…

Amateur detective, my arse. I much prefer the motherfucking magic of cramagrams.

Solstice Special! The greatest song ever, never done better

Wednesday 21 December 2005

Having mentioned that I was listening to an oldies radio station, I now feel compelled to justify my actions: the radio station plays Buddy Greco.
Buddy is the swingingest lounge singer around, in the archetypal Vegas style (although his last gig appears to have been in Palm Springs, according to his website.) It’s impossible to imagine him singing anything without a swagger: I suspect even “Strange Fruit” would yield to his persuasive powers.
If there is an LP I truly covet, it is this record that a friend found for $1 in an op shop in Marysville, Victoria.
That’s not someone’s scribble over the title, it’s part of the design: the word ‘sun’ is crossed out and ‘love’ written above it – see what they did there? My friend’s copy is a reissue on the Australian cheapo Summit label, which may explain why the cover photo came out so dark – all you can make out of Buddy’s face are his teeth gleaming from the gloom of his comically holey umbrella.
As a Buddy Greco fan page succinctly describes it, “Buddy singing the songs of 1969 ultra hip, with very clever arrangements and a very good backing. The theme ‘Let the sunshine in’ repeats between each song through the whole album.” Indeed, he starts with a blazing version of the Hair hit, and the band quietly jams on the tune to segue from one track to the next, before closing the album with a mournful, haunting reprise. Genius.
If the front cover doesn’t convince you, then the back cover goes for the hard sell with an endorsement by none other than Buddy’s good pal, Mr Jimmy “Macarthur park” Webb:
Yes, Jimmy’s comfortable enough with his genius to assert his own greatness while he’s supposed to be praising someone else.
The absolute pinnacle of this album is when Buddy tackles the song that no other ageing crooner dared to touch when the older generation attempted to prove they were still ‘with it’ in the 1960s. Amongst the Jimmy Webb and Burt Bacharach he fearlessly launches head and heart-magic first into the Greatest Song of All Time, the Everest of the 60s counterculture that forever rendered his generation of singers irrelevant.
Even more remarkably, he doesn’t reduce it to more manageable proportions: it’s even longer than the already-epic original, adding some much-needed showbiz pizazz missing from it’s better-known incarnation. You will wonder how you could ever bear to hear this song without horn section, backing singers, and a sax solo.
It’s 6 Meg, six and a half minutes of unadulterated ecstacy. Download the apotheosis of Buddy Greco for a christmas you will never forget.
Now I just have to find the recording of Buddy doing “Macarthur Park”.

News Flash! I am old.

Monday 19 December 2005

I wasn’t going to post anything tonight, but while checking my mail I’ve been listening to an oldies radio station: Vic Damone, Ricky Nelson, Doris Day, Fred Astaire, Dinah Washington, FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD. I suddenly feel very grey and feeble.
Oh god now they’re playing Spandau Ballet – must go lie down. Time to die.

Addendum: I didn’t switch off quickly enough, and heard a pre-recorded xmas greeting. From Leo Sayer.

I’m sure he was questioned by the police but had a watertight alibi

Sunday 18 December 2005

I recently mentioned how I’ve stumbled across a few of the more idiosyncratic London landmarks by accident, in the six months that I’ve lived here (the most illustrious of these would be, of course, the enbalmed corpse of Jeremy Bentham). Here’s another one, a short walk from the bunker in Victoria Park: a pair of statues called the Dogs of Alcibiades.

The two statues were donated to the park in 1912, and flank the main pedestrian walkway across the park’s narrowest point. I had only heard of these because they get a mention early on Lights Out for the Territory. The author, no friend to dogs alive or artificial, is dismayed on a visit in the early 1990s to find them freshly restored:

If the live animals, the shit-machines, are bad, the divine archetypes we’re supposed to worship are worse: twin white horrors, the Dogs of Alcibiades, raised on brick plinths. When they were blessedly removed, for months, my spirits surged – but, inevitably, this was no more than a truce. The frosty albinos are back, resprayed, restored (scrawny, loose fleshed, wolf-headed, genitally deprived): the gift of Lady Regnart. Posed on their red-brick chimneys, they howl in perpetual torment: as if fires had been lit beneath them.

No doubt he was pleased that they were vandalised soon after being relocated. Appropriately, given Sinclair’s metaphysical conception of dogs, someone sprayed them black, with eyes and mouth bleeding red, ‘666’ emblazoned on their sides. Barry from Bethnal Green‘s history of the East End shows the vicissitudes of the dogs’ recent history but, unlike webmaster Barry, I prefer them in their diabolical guise. Barry also relates an urban myth about the dogs’ otherwise unexplained presence in the park, but he gets the name of the donor wrong.
A few years ago, both statues were more seriously vandalised and have not been repaired. They now sit on their strange brick plinths, discoloured and pocked with weathering and lichen, more closely resembling Sinclair’s vision of them from a decade ago, as though his criticism were a curse upon them. The nearby trees have grown out to almost engulf each dog’s head with branches, the park authorities presumably hoping to lose them forever in the foliage.
Some photos of the dogs in 2005, taken this summer, are now on Flickr, click a photo or here for the first of them.

Another bad movie heads-up

Friday 16 December 2005

More film crew vans spotted in the street, last night around where I work in Euston. This time for The Children of Men, which a quick check of the IMDb shows is indeed a film adaptation of P.D. James’ misbegotten attempt at sci-fi.
My first thought was that every other James novel must have now been filmed, having remembered that fans and critics alike responded to this book with a chorus of “don’t give up your day job.” Having just discussed Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory, I also recalled that book’s passing reference to “that turkey The Children of Men (stacks of which were appearing in remainder shops everywhere)”, but it appears that someone has decided to risk their money on it.
Serious money. My next thought was that this was going to be a TV mini-series, like almost all other film/video adaptations of her books, but no, this is a big-budget job directed by that Brazilian bloke who did the last Harry Potter movie.
The crew had closed off the entire park – god knows how they evicted the clumps of speed freaks who congregate around the basketball court drinking 2-litre PET bottles of white cider. If you go see this film and notice in some scenes skeevy people pacing to and fro in the background clutching green plastic bottles, remember they’re not actors.
I looked, but couldn’t spot Michael Caine or Julianne Moore anywhere. With or without plastic cider bottles. Sorry.
It’s been about 25 years since anyone attempted a movie-movie of a P.D. James novel, Chris Petit’s “dark, stylised” version of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. Sinclair, an associate of Petit’s, describes the unfortunate history of that film in Lights Out: “a vanity script that brought with it a couple of wealthy amateurs who wanted to buy into the business.” On the positive side, it is a rare James book that omits the “creepy and prophylactic” Inspector Dalgleish or one of his surrogates, who in The Children of Men will be played by Clive Owen.

The Third Pilgrimage: St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe

Thursday 15 December 2005

When I lived in Melbourne, I once photographed 20-odd places in the city centre, and re-photographed the same places two years later. Amongst the differences and similarities, one entire building had disappeared, another built in its place, while in a location two blocks away a ‘For Lease’ sign hadn’t budged in all that time. No one ever visits the same city twice: the waves of attention and scorn, construction and dilapidation, the money flows and fades from one street to the next like changes in the weather. It wasn’t so hard leaving Melbourne: by the time I left By the time I left Melbourne it barely resembled the city I had in my mind from when I first arrived. (If I’d lived all my life there it may have been a different story.)
I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been using Iain Sinclair’s and Patrick Keiller’s (another Lawrence Sterne fan) navigations of London as a means of getting my bearings in the city, but by revisiting some of their haunts I’m not attempting to vicariously connect with the psychogeographic significance bestowed upon them. Keiller’s London was filmed in 1992, Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory written mostly a decade ago: a long time for anything to survive unscathed in a city. Apparent permanence is irrelevant: I wouldn’t trust St Paul’s to be the same building as described in the literature. At most, I’m looking for landmarks not decided upon by consensus or public fiat, to better understand how an individual can form a relationship with the city.
(Sometimes these visits have happened by accident, as if the landmarks have come to visit me. The chapter in Lights Out that chronicles the troubled history of Rachel Whiteread’s House begins, typically enough, describing the shooting of “Big Jim” Moody in a Hackney pub. It was only when re-reading the chapter to write this that I realised the pub in question is my local, which, having moved to London from Brunswick, makes the place feel a little more like home. It also reminded me how much I still think of things I read about London as happening Somewhere Else. The site where House once stood is further down the road, an nondescript patch of fallow parkland. I cannot be bothered to see if the exact spot is marked.)
So I was anticipating neither surprise nor disappointment when I went walking down the narrow streets between St Paul’s and the Thames, looking for a particular alleyway. This was the scene I remembered most vividly from London, the most “other”: the narrow path between two buildings in shadow, somewhere behind St Paul’s, doorposts still displaying propaganda posters from World War II. This scene stuck with Sinclair too, and in Lights Out he goes looking for it, helpfully giving correct directions after prolonged searching without success. At first he mistakenly believes the church wall on one side is St Paul’s itself, but eventually finds the place, posters and all, beside another, much more modest Wren church, St Andrew by the Wardrobe, further down the hill.

… into the maze of alleys and half-forgotten streets with boarded windows… a limbo of medieval prompts hiding as much from the Great Fire or the Blitz as from crass development… the light stopped down to the limits of the visible, an illumination that depended more on fossils in the brickwork… as we emerged into St Andrew’s Hill, we discovered an abandoned bookshop – the individual letters of its title, as they peeled from the glass, reflected on a shelf that was thick with dust.

It seemed a slim chance that this microclimate could survive undisturbed another ten years in the centre of commerce. If I didn’t have inital doubts about the longevity of psyhcogeographic nuance, crossing the new Paternoster Square past St Paul’s showed that as feared, the cathedral itself would be unrecognisable from the place once known by Sinclair and Keiller. Paternoster Square, in redevelopment limbo for some twenty years, is now “completed” in the modern sense – a perpetual worksite nominally open to the public, but made largely inaccessible by temporary construction fencing encircling a large expanse of featureless pavement. The buildings are, naturally, occupied with stores and Starbucks, and are as distinctive as a shopping mall in Brisbane. The inert air of simulacrum is generated by an anonymous column standing in the square without explanation: it’s a fake, a replica of part of the Square’s portico destroyed in the Great Fire. It looks like a scale model of Wren’s Monument to the victims of the Great Fire, as if to gull tourists away from the real thing further downriver.

More confusingly, you cannot cross the square to the cathedral without passing through the Temple Bar, which was built at the west end of Fleet Street in 1671 but had been sent into exile in Hertforshire in 1880. A year ago it was returned to London, and reassembled at the wrong end of town, beside St Paul’s. Sinclair writes about London’s maniacal need to perpetually disorientate itself, misaligning its landmarks, forgetting and misremembering. In some way it is reassuring to witness the process for myself. The Temple Bar once regulated the flow of traffic in and out of the city; now it regulates the flow of tourists to and from the cathedral toilets.
So, my hopes were not too high when I negotiated the tangle of streets below St Paul’s. No tourists, but everything had been repainted, renovated, refitted. The oldest building would have been the one wrapped like a Christo, awaiting its refurbishment. Office workers on overtime loitered in doorways nursing cigarettes and takeaway coffees. Everything had been exposed to air and light and St Andrew, when I found it, had its own breathing space. No wartime ephemera could cling to these fresh surfaces, ten more years of trophy hunters.
True heathen, not knowing which alley was the true passage, I walked and photographed the perimeter of the church, ready to accept numinous energy from any point. The light was too bright and clear, the corner of Addle Hill and Wardrobe Terrace rebuilt and sandblasted, CCTV cameras fixed on the cornices. One side had buildings too close to the church, its secrecy scoured by a shaft of light from the gentrified St Andrew’s Hill. Through a window I saw into the back of a fashionably spartan office wine bar; on its front side it retained the name of the previous tennant, a bookshop.
The church is a brown, oblong monolith of a building, so plain it seems that its ornamentation has been worn away by the years. Its door sits flush and comouflaged with its outer walls, discouraging casual visitors from testing it. On the south wall I found some benches mounted like monuments (“stationary vehicles of mortality” as Tom Phillips describes them) on their own flagstone plinth, looking into, more than over, some effaced stone tablets in the bushes masking the traffic in Queen Victoria Street.
Pinned to the gatepost notice board were some inkjet photographs of a congregation apprently enjoying themselves very much on the streets outside the church. There was a weathered notice for the parish’s annual ceremony of Beating the Bounds at Rogationtide, Wed 4 May 6 pm. The notice ended with a quote from the Lord Bishop of London.

“What we celebrate is ancient and stands for deep continuities and rituals without which people become disorientated.”

Haunted by Leo Sayer, and other bad flashbacks

Thursday 15 December 2005

One year ago, I posted: “Leo Sayer is still threatening to move to Australia next year to relaunch his music career,” followed by his immortal quote:

In Australia they still want heroes. They are looking to me to teach their kids knowledge and wisdom.

Well, it turns out I owe Leo Sayer $100 too, as he up and done it. In April. We could have been in the Changi Airport terminal together.
This only popped into my head because this morning I read in the paper that he is allegedly (never, ever trust reports on popular culture in newspapers, no matter how much you wish them to be true) enjoying chart success in the UK again, thanks to some uninspired DJ rehashing one of Leo’s creaky old chestnuts. The only problem is, ha ha ha, they can’t find him:

… while Sayer seemed happy to give his blessing when first approached about the project, now that he is on the verge of his biggest hit in three decades, he is nowhere to be found. A new video was made without him after he proved hard to find in Australia, where he moved at the beginning of the year. And occasional e-mails suggest that he has little idea that he is storming up the dance charts…

Funny, he seemed accessible enough when he last updated his website a couple of months ago, talking about the remix. I know Australia’s a big place, but he’s hardly the first Brit to go there, and he doesn’t seem to be the type to go trekking alone over the Canning Stock Route on a journey of self-discovery. Unless he’s looking to muscle in on some Aboriginal tribal elders teaching their kids knowledge and wisdom.
If anyone back home in Australia happens to notice Leo Sayer wandering the streets lost and confused, mumbling “I think I used to be an entertainer! Bobby Goldsboro? Donny Osmond?”, please alert the authorities. In fact, if you see anyone dressed as a scary clown mime, best cosh them and drag them down to the nearest cop shop for their own good, just to be on the safe side.
Nothing on Leo’s website about whether he’s ever heard of Johnny Farnham. Excuse me while I go erase my browser cache.
Yes, I have been trawling through old blog posts. There are plans afoot.

Psychology: Never Again

Wednesday 14 December 2005

While procrastinating over finishing a longer article, I’ve been clearing through some unfinished posts from last year. First, this gem from 10 October 2004:

And anyone who drones on to me about how they’re going to leave the country better be prepared to meet my wager of $100 that they will still be here a year later.

I owe myself $100.
However, I’m not totally useless at prognostication. Also from October last year:
I forsee that this blog will perpetually be caught in a boom-bust cycle of updates.

Finally, here are a couple of pictures from an unfinished third instalment reviewing the contents of the Yooralla Box. First, a closeup of the front cover of the LP Judy Garland on the Radio, showing Judy’s scary Ellen-Foley-cocaine-black-hole nostrils to full effect.

Next, a prize photo of Barry Crocker’s crotch, from his fine LP No Regrets. Note the white jacket, belt buckle, and the two guys in the background doing the “Allen Ginsberg in Subterranean Homesick Blues” schtick. I particularly like the scuffing on the cover around Bazza’s trouser area – one passionate owner.

More intriguing: maybe it’s the magic of long-lost 1970s trouser technology, but Barry does not appear to be a man who has much use for the golden section:

No wonder he looks pensive, but, non, il ne regrette rien.