Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Shambles indeed

As you may have seen, last week's Big Issue had a free CD with it.
"Ooh, free CD," I said to the chap near Victoria Station who I usually buy one from. "Who is it?... Oh, it's Babyshambles."
"I know," he said.
"That's a shame."
"Yes," he nodded, "it's not what I want to be associated with, really."

Note to Pete Doherty*: If people who are unfortunate enough to have to live on the street are looking down on you, it may be time to re-examine your life.

*Believe it or not, he does read this blog occasionally, so the web-bods tell me. When he's between tracks, I guess (See what I did there? Comedy).

Shoppers' Paradise

I was so scared / intrigued by the items being bought by the man in front of me in the queue at Tesco East Ham on Friday night, I craftily took a picture of his items .

This was all he was buying - note the bottle of Teacher's to the right.

I dread to think what he had planned for the weekend...

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Stop wasting your money on overpriced coffees...

... instead, give it to a worthy cause.

Sarah, a very good friend of mine (and the mother of my lovely god-daughter) is taking part in an event called the Aviva weekend, from 15-17 September. Over the course of this weekend she'll walk 60 kilometres (over ten times the height of Mount Ararat, and you know how much effort I said that took), to raise money for the charity Breakthrough Breast Cancer.

Breast cancer is - as I hope anyone smart enough to read this knows - a very bad thing indeed, and it ruins the life of so many people - women and those that care for them alike. I'm totally in awe of what Sarah's doing, and I hope you'll be similarly impressed, and kind enough to take a moment to click on the following link and sponsor her:

No donation is too small, or too large, and I think she's also got her employer to agree to match donations made, so please give as much as you can. She's set herself an ambitious target, so please help her to reach it and help what is obviously a worthy cause.

And, of course, please feel free to pass this link on to your friends. Sponsors get to feel good, and the money goes to help breast cancer research and educational programmes, so other people will benefit from your generosity. It really IS a win-win situation, so why not do it now?

Oh, go on...

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Update Frenzy

Nine updates in one day (well, ten if you count this one)! That must be a record. For me, anyway.

So there's lots for you to read, and please feel free to comment/correct/dispute as you see fit.

Once the bloomin Broadband hassle is sorted out, I'll see if we can have less of this 'feast or famine' updating, and a more consistent (if not necessarily daily) flow...

Last week I went to Berlin

And to prove it, here’s a picture of the Brandenberger Tor – not the big one in the centre of Berlin, but a namesake in Potsdam, a town just south-west of the city.

It was good (will write more about it soon, promise), and I even took the opportunity to use my rusty German (I know, I should oil him, but I never get round to it). I even ate a chocolate bar called – wait for it – a ‘Wunderbar’.

Which, like the rest of my time there, it was.

LINKS: Shake your head / Let's go to bed

Join me, please, in finding the following to be ridiculous, and indeed laughable were it not for the alarming free speech implications:
http://www.ajc.com/news/content/metro/northfulton/stories/0802roswellstudent.html Should we expect Stephen King to be arrested for the content of his pseudonymous novel 'Rage' any time soon?

And on a thankfully more reassuring note...

I'll freely admit that I find someone more or less appealing depending on what they choose to read, and it seems I'm not alone:
The comments are worth looking at, arguably more than the article itself.

Spotted on a Central Line tube the other day

Very possibly the most immature bit of graffiti I’ve ever seen, but it made the schoolboy in me laugh.

Can’t help but wonder who’s tried to remove the sticker – a religious person offended by the addition? A gay person offended by the use of ‘gay’ in a pejorative sense? An atheist who cares not for JC’s sexual orientation but doesn’t like religious material being displayed in an ostensibly neutral environment? Or someone else?

I wondered about this most of the trip home. Well, kind of – most of it was spent stifling giggles at the pen addition.

REVIEW: Eating Myself by Candida Crewe

The personal, it’s said, is the political, so let me just get the personal stuff out of the way before I get into the review of this book: I probably know more than I’d like about eating disorders, and care a bit more than is probably healthy, and the notion that people are suffering from them upsets me greatly, all for reasons I can’t fully articulate, though experience (inevitably) is a part of this.

So I was genuinely interested to read this book, as the cover flap claims it’s a memoir “which speaks to all women”. Given that one of the things I find so upsetting about eating disorders is the (for me) sheer impenetrability of the thought processes underlying them, I was keen to see if this book shed any light on them. It did not, and quite frankly proved by turns alarming, depressing, and annoying. Let me explain why.

The book is a mix of chronological recollections about Crewe’s life, and details about her current preoccupations with food, weight and the like. As such, I was rather hoping that there might be some clues or even analysis as to the point in her life when she started to feel a certain way about food and her self-image, and to factors which had triggered it. But these don’t appear; instead the worries seem to come along almost fully-formed in her early teens, and much of the time there are generalisations to suggest that most, if not all, women feel as she does. I often find this kind of generalisation faintly irritating (I want to know why so many women feel this way, not just that they do), but even moreso when the generalisation is one which just doesn’t sit at all with personal experience – the best example of this is on page 51, when referring to school dinners, she says, “Like many resourceful children down the ages, confronted with similar fare, when the teacher wasn’t looking I shoved it up my skirt, down my knickers and afterwards into the jaws of an appreciative lavatory”. Now, perhaps I’ve led a sheltered life, but I attended school (several, in fact), and ate school lunches, and never not once ever did I see, or hear tell of, anyone who shoved food in their pants (and this doesn’t just seem to be me, as I’ve asked a few female friends about this in the past few days and they’ve all looked at me as if I’m insane. So I think Crewe is alone on this one, and that her generalisation is extremely spurious).

That sort of thing was alarming, but more depressing material came in the form of Crewe’s comments about how her preoccupations with food and body image affect her daily life; she tells us how she tries to avoid eating breakfast wherever possible (p15), how she can’t settle in a room until she’s assessed who’s the fattest person in there (p82) and how she loves walls because “they hid the whole of one side of me. I have made use of them ever since” (p85). As I say, I found this depressing because the thinking underlying it is something I find utterly alien, and simply cannot grasp, and I just want someone to explain it to me, so I can understand it, if not necessarily agree with it.

Jumping ahead to the present in her life, Crewe tries to analyse where this preoccupation came from, and thankfully doesn’t give much credence to the received wisdom that it’s all the fault of men, saying they find “this mild lunacy… tedious and unsexy” (p200), though I feel she skirts the issue of whether it’s because of the judgmental eyes of other women, trying to assess which women. I’d say it’s more likely to be strangers than the known-to-me individuals which Crewe examines (friends, family, etc), but I’m guessing here. At least this section of the book has the benefit of feeling as if it’s actually analysing things, as opposed to just stating that this is how things are and not explaining them.

Then, Crewe tells us, she showed her husband the first draft of the first half or so of the book, and that he was upset, because he hadn’t realised that she was so unhappy. To which she replies that she’s not unhappy, and so she re-reads what she’s written, and says: “Looking at the narrative again… I realised that I was not actually writing about the immediate here and now but my distant and recent past” and “…I think I exaggerated or, rather, played a little freely with my use of the present tense” (p221). And then “What I did was to make out that I am still living by [those various habits, practices and beliefs] every day… While I admit that they do not malignly exist today as they once did, they have not entirely disintegrated.” Just in case those extended quotes are a little hard to understand, don’t worry, I’ll translate them into a three-word summary for you, paraphrasing Austen: Reader, I lied.

And this was a profoundly annoying section of the book for me, both as a reader and as someone who takes the use of words fairly seriously (despite often using them for flippancy). As a reader, I felt cheated, because the stuff that I had found so alarming in the first section of the book – about how she thinks x and that all women think x – turned out not to be true, which of course brings pretty much the rest of the book into doubt. She lied about her current preoccupation with food, so how do I know she wasn’t lying about the bulimia in her 20s? How do I know the academics she quotes from exist, or that they said what she claims they said? After the beautifully-phrased admission quoted above that what she said wasn’t actually true, you can see why I’d doubt it.

That’s my reaction as a reader, but as user-of-words my annoyance is two-pronged: firstly, that a subject as serious and life-ruining as eating disorders is something that can be written about in a haphazard way, and secondly - tying in to that haphazardness – that the book wasn’t rewritten after that first draft elicited this reaction and Crewe realised that she hadn’t been telling the truth. If you’re a writer or editor with any integrity in that situation, you say ‘okay, well, now, that stuff wasn’t accurate, so I’ll take it out’ and then you do that. You don’t just stick in a bit at the end saying ‘the first draft contained lies which upset my test reader, but I’ve left them in and acknowledged them here, so that’s all right’, because it isn’t. It borders on contempt for your reader, their intelligence, and undermines the seriousness of any point you’re trying to make. In writing terms, it’s hackwork, an example of the ‘that’ll do, get it to print’ mentality, and it does nobody any favours.

As you can tell from this extended review, I feel strongly about this book (because I feel strongly about the subject). I have no objection whatsoever to books which mix personal feelings on a subject with cold hard facts and analysis, and on a subject as emotive as this I think it’s almost inevitable. But as a contribution to the examination of the rise of eating disorders and an analysis of the roots of it, this book is utterly worthless. As a personal memoir – and it’s more that than anything else – it’s very well-written, but since we later learn that the author hasn’t been telling the truth, it’s invalid on that count as well.

On the strength of my dislike for this book, you might feel a perverse inclination to check it out (it’s in hardback at the moment, so maybe your local library will have a copy). In no way do I suggest you do so, but if you do, consider yourself well and truly warned.

As far as I can see, there’s still an important book to be written on the issue of eating disorders, their social and cultural roots, their triggers and cures, and all the associated issues. It would need, to my mind, to be a mix of the anecdotal and the factual, possibly with autobiographical elements, possibly without. I haven’t come across such a book yet (though if you know of one, please let me know – usual e-mail address), and I sometimes wonder if I ought to write the damn thing myself. I’ll add it to the list of projects. With the working title of ‘WTF? I mean, W-T-F?’

Along with general nausea, Stray Thoughts may be a sign of Attitude Sickness

  1. Following on from the Fire Walk I did last year, I’ve recently received a letter from the same charity asking me to do a sponsored walk over broken glass. I haven’t yet decided if I will or not, but I must admit I love that my life is such that people write to me and suggest I do that sort of thing.
  2. On the subject of foolhardy behaviour, I have to say it’s been interesting to see the reactions of women I know to the picture of me at the summit of Ararat. Many of them seem oddly … let’s say moved by it. Perhaps it’s the latent (more like blatant) symbolism of the ice axe…
  3. Have you heard that Mousse T/Dandy Warhols remix, ‘Horny Like A Dandy’? It’s an obvious summer novelty track, mixing – yes – ‘Horny’ with ‘Bohemian Like You’. As a fan of one of those tracks but not the other, I can’t quite decide whether it makes the good one a bit shoddier, or lifts the rubbish one to the level of acceptability by association.
  4. Shopper’s Paradise: last time I looked, Virgin had all Bill Hicks’s CDs available for £6.99 each, and Woolworths were selling the ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ DVD for £5.99. All of these are worth your time and money.
  5. Oh, and speaking of films, re-watched ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ the other day, for the first time in something like a decade, and was reminded just how great it is. Strong performances all round, and once again I’m forced to wonder if David Mamet could write dull dialogue if he tried. Not that I’d want him to, but…
  6. Something which I remembered the other day: when a relationship was on the way out, but we were refusing to admit it, I spent a couple of awkward Sunday mornings with the then-girlfriend, when neither of us seemed to be in a hurry to get out of bed (and not for fun reasons). You know how it is. Anyway, some time later, after things had ended, she told me that she’d been pretending to be asleep so as not to have to talk to me. On balance, I can’t decide which is the worst aspect of this – that she did it, that she told me, or that she assumed I wasn’t clever enough to realise what was going on, and so felt that she had to point it out to me?
  7. Although I only got about 10 pages in Madame Bovary before giving up, I’m not discounting Flaubert as a writer, as I came across this quote from him (or, at least, attributed to him) which I think is rather insightful: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work”.

REVIEW: Belshazzar’s Daughter by Barbara Nadel

Another book I bought on the cheap because it featured Istanbul as its setting, this is a thriller, and essentially a murder mystery.

The basic premise is as follows: an elderly Jewish man is murdered in Istanbul’s Jewish quarter, and a swastika drawn above the corpse in blood. There are a handful of characters presented as likely suspects, each with moderately plausible motives, and it falls to the central character, Inspector Çetin İkmen, and his colleagues, to find the killer.

The characterisation’s key here, and Nadel succeeds in providing a cast of notably different characters, as well as a likeably quirky lead. I found the opening ten pages or so a bit of a struggle, as we keep switching locations and characters without it being quite clear what’s going on, but once the relationships between the characters become apparent it’s genuinely interesting, and there’s some good dialogue and interior monologue.

However, having set up an interesting situation, the book falters in that something needs to happen in order to upset the status quo and allow İkmen to figure out who did what and when. And this comes, but in a rather heavy-handed fashion, almost as if Nadel realised that the set-up was so tight, and the characters so tight-lipped, that the only way to resolve the story was to drop a bit of a Deus Ex Machina plot device into it, rattling things enough to enable characters to make mistakes and for the detective to figure it out. Given how tightly written the book is generally, this felt like a bit of a fudge, though it does at least move the story out of the corner it seems to have written itself into.

But the writing’s generally of a very high standard here, with the characters feeling real and (in places) genuinely creepy or evil, and Istanbul is (to my mind rightly) portrayed as a city burdened by its own history, struggling to make a smooth transition to the present.

A shame, as I say, that the story’s resolution feels it was wheeled into place by plot levers being so blatantly pushed, but I only paid 99p for this book, and it was more than enjoyable, so I’d cautiously recommend it. Nadel’s written further novels featuring the same character, I understand, so they may well be free of the plot problems I felt this one had.

No coincidence, only the illusion of coincidence

As I’ve been saying for weeks now, I have arranged Broadband for my phone (and, of course, computer). I was hoping that I was going to be the first person in my circle to have it installed without hassles, breakdowns, or the usual delays. Oh, my optimistic folly!

The Broadband was not working for the first week after the first installation, and of course the ‘call back within 48 hours to tell you what the problem is’ didn’t happen. A snotty e-mail from me elicited a response, apologetic and saying that it was fixed now. Indeed it was, for about two hours, and then the phone line went dead, and remained that way for five days.

Now, I’m not saying that the phone line died because of the broadband installation being screwed up, but it looks bad, doesn’t it? I’m aware of the dangers of ‘Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc’ thinking (except when it comes to the West Wing episode of that name, which is as good as you’d expect), but the conclusion’s pretty inescapable…

Anyway, the landline’s back on now, but the Broadband problem’s happening again. Hmph. If it’s not resolved soon, I’ll name and shame them - that’ll scare them into sorting it out, oh yes by jiminy.

(And the reason I’m able to post this is because I’m doing it in one of those interweb café places – I know, I know, spending money just to update the blog! How good am I to you folks, eh?)

REVIEW: The Double Eagle – James Twining

Background: I bought this book because it was 99p, and it featured Istanbul as one of the locations, and so I took it with me to Turkey on my recent holiday. The woman behind the counter – rightly – observed that the cover made it look like the Da Vinci Code, which we guessed wasn’t an accident, but now I realise that should probably have been a clue.

The book’s a thriller, but the ingredients aren’t really very thrilling, to be honest: an ex-thief being pressured to do ‘one last job’, an FBI agent trying to prove her worth, FBI bosses who won’t be convinced about the agent’s hunches or ability… you get the general idea.

Do I sound dismissive? Probably, and that’s because, even for 99p, this book isn’t really very good. The central premise is moderately interesting (though probably much more so if you’re a numismatist), but the writing’s really rather poor, so perhaps the resemblance to Dan Brown’s waste of trees isn’t a coincidence. The low quality of the writing really started to bite for me around page 84, where two characters are talking in a graveyard, though oddly enough we’re told that one of them “stared down at the floor as he spoke”. I think he means ground – in fact he definitely does, and he knows they’re outdoors, because on page 85, he tells us that one of the character’s “black brogues [sank] into the grass’s soft pile”. It’s a decent enough comparison, that grass is like carpet, but the use of the word ‘grass’s’ is horribly clumsy, and really should have been caught before the book went to print. And that’s on two pages of a book that runs to 549 pages, which is why, like the aforementioned other novel, I kept reading, and re-writing it in my head as I went to see how it could have been done. Which is not a good thing.

Also, the ‘twist’ at the end is easy to guess (I did so on page 238, so when it came on page 482, imagine my smug boredom), so the drama of the ‘reveal’ is almost non-existent, as is that of the epilogue.

According to the author biography, James Twining’s working on another novel featuring the same protagonist, and I wish him well with it, but I certainly won’t be buying it, because I really can’t recommend this book, even as a spot of light reading.

In Deep Water

A picture here from my recent holiday in Turkey, taken with a waterproof camera (I know – technology, eh?).

The fish who’d been so prevalent up until the time I took the camera underwater were conspicuous by their absence once I started snapping, but I think you’ll agree that the water’s not exactly unappealing, nor un-blue…