Sunday, March 26, 2006

Dan Brown Is Better Than Ian McEwan. Sort Of

Dan 'Da Vinci Code' Brown. OK the haircut sucks, and makes him look like a deflated squirrel. But the plots are GOOD.

Cracking the Dan Brown Code

Throughout the peculiar 'trial' of the world's best-selling novel, the Da Vinci Code, one thing has been clear. A lot of literary people really despise Dan Brown and his damn thriller. Stephen Fry went so far as to call it 'arse dribble'.

Why? Two reasons. One is sheer envy. Most literary novelists - like me - get by on about £30,000 a year, and are happy with sales of 10,000 copies. Dan Brown has sold 40 million copies, and made £200 million.

The other reason 'highbrow' people reject the Da Vinci Code is because they don't understand its appeal. They look at the prose and they see clumsy phrasing and clunky sentences. They look at the book's 'love interest' and they see risible dialogue and emotional flatness.

And they're right. The Da Vinci Code has all these flaws. But what saves the Da Vinci Code is Story. Dan Brown's thriller has a brilliantly conceived, fabulously well-placed plot (whether or not it was inspired by previous works). And readers adore a cracking plot: think of the most popular novels in literature, from Oliver Twist to Pride and Prejudice. Great stories all.

This, I think, is what annoys and confuses modern highbrow writers. A lot of them can't do plot. Because it takes sheer inspiration plus tons of hard work. You can learn to churn out fancy prose in creative writing schools - but 'plot' is much more difficult.

Moreover, smart writers who could write plot, often don't. Because they look down on it, as a marker of cheap fiction. This is a strange thing. Why sneer at narrative thrust, yet admire, say, poetic prose? Plot is the melody of fiction, the 'tune'. Too many contemporary novelists can't write a tune to save their lives. And they fear and resent Dan Brown, because he's written a song that has gone around the world.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Lecturer Sacked for Offensive Opinions

Leeds University, yesterday.

In a startling development, that has major ramifications for Britain's Further Education system, a lecturer in Hispanic Studies has been sacked by Leeds University, for apparently confiding to a friend that he thought it 'pretty obvious the earth was round'.

Professor Hank Trellis was overheard making the remark last Thursday by Bridget Widget, president of the Student Union Diversity Board. As she put it to the Student Newspaper: 'I couldn't believe my ears. This was a professor at my University, just coming out with this vile garbage. I mean, it's deeply insulting to anyone with an IQ less than 60 who doesn't understand astronomy. What if you are a moron, and simply can't grasp the concept of a round earth. It's not obvious by any means.'

Dave McGuardian is vice president of the University's Moron Society, which represents morons, dolts and cretins from throughout the student body. 'I'm actually and officially a retard,' McGuardian told the Toffeewomble, 'and because of that I don't quite get this earth-being-round thing. It's certainly not obvious to me, it looks flat! I can't believe this horrible man might be teaching me next year. How can he mark my work fairly if he thinks I'm stupid?'

Mary Piddell, the University Press Officer, stressed that the college felt 'complete abhorrence' for Trellis's views. She added: 'the professor's grotesque statement about the earth "obviously being round" bears no relation to our inclusive agenda here at Leeds. This is a college that leaves no student behind, not even nitwits, pinheads and the dead. We asked Dr Trellis to limit his private conversations to themes entirely connected with his Hispanic course, but when he seemed puzzled by this, we had no option but to have him sacked. And trepanned.'

Professor Galileo Galilei, the Dean of Leeds, was unavailable for comment last night.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Reptilian Revenge?


I was in Florida a few weeks ago. Saw a lot of wildlife. This was good, as I had to write this piece about the lizardly critters of a certain part of West Florida...

The Town The Gators Ate

It doesn’t look like a disaster zone. In fact it looks like a very nice place: a row of sun-baked barrier isles, shaded by palm trees, with lawns, flowerbeds, and shell-rich beaches, sloping down to the warm blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

But maybe it’s this very desirability that is the problem. A lot of people want to live in this favoured part of Florida’s west coast - on Sanibel and Captiva islands - and so do lots of animals, including alligators. And when so many creatures are trying to cram into such a small if adorable area, something’s got to give.

If there were ever a legal action over the ‘disaster’ of Sanibel, the alligators could rightly claim that they were here first. After all the American alligator (it’s also known as the Mississippi alligator) has been an inhabitant of Florida, and elsewhere in the southeastern USA, for at least a million years.

For most of that time the alligators lived undisturbed lives. Even when the white settlers arrived in the Sunshine State, replacing the scattered tribes of Seminole Indians, all seemed well twixt the humans and the lizards. This was partly because Florida is a big place, and for many decades alligators and humans were able to coexist by simple avoidance. Basically the humans stuck to Miami, the Keys, and the eastern coast, while the gators enjoyed life in the Everglades, the central forests, and along the Gulf Coast: from Naples to Sanibel.

But then the new settlements began to expand. Jeff Fuery is a gator expert from the Florida Wildlife Commission. He explains what happened next.

“There shouldn’t really have been any problem. Gators aren’t a natural enemy of man. Nor do they like us as food, normally. The smaller gators eat little invertebrates, like insects, fish and frogs, the older or bigger ones like turtles, big fish and birds. All gators like carrion.” He pauses, and adds. “That said, the habitat of the Florida gators has been shrinking, so the reptiles are encountering humans more often. And when alligators get sufficiently confused, or desensitized to human presence, they may also expand their choice of prey to… bigger mammals. A particular problem is when tourists, or people unused to gators, start to feed them; then the reptiles begin to see us food sources. As the Sanibel tragedies show.”

So what actually happened in Sanibel? To understand this we need to know the history of alligator management in Florida.

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, Florida’s alligators were regarded essentially as vermin. They were hunted for their pale belly-skins, which made beautiful handbags, shoes, and purses; they were destroyed by fishermen to protect precious fish stocks; they were shot by Yankee trophy-hunters for sport. As a result populations crashed, right up to the early 1960s, when a programme of conservation was introduced.

Ever since, the alligators of Florida have recovered. Indeed some would say the gators have been almost too successful: with numbers shooting up through the 1970s, 80s and 90s, it is now thought at least a million alligators cruise the rivers, swamps and canals of the Sunshine State. The breeding success is probably due to two things: female alligators lay a whopping 40 eggs at a time; and man has wiped out the gator’s only natural predator (aside from himself): the panther.

As the numbers have increased, so have the problems. The first recorded lethal American alligator attack happened in 1946, when a mullet fisherman was ripped from his boat by an aggressive alligator; only half his body was ever found. After ‘46 there were many more attacks, some of them fatal. According to Scott Buznan, of Tallahassee Greenpeace, one of the particular problems was Florida’s recreational lifestyle: i.e. all the swimming pools, ornamental lakes, and water features on golf courses. Apparently, these were confusing the lizards.

“You see,” Buznan says, “Places like swimming pools are deceptively attractive. They look wet and inviting to a gator, so he dives in and then he finds that they are actually very sterile - there’s no fish, no frogs, no insects, no nothing. And then he’s hungry. So he goes after what there is nearby. A poodle. Or maybe a jogger.”

It was a recipe for mayhem, and it led to attacks. To combat these dangers, at the beginning of the 1970s Florida introduced a “nuisance gator” policy, whereby any alligator over four foot long, or considered to be a threat, was removed by trained gator specialists to somewhere safe, and well away from humans: like the Everglades National Park. Yet one place in Florida stood out from this policy: and that place was Sanibel island.

Ever since it was discovered by the Gatsby generation in the 1920s - and was used by affluent luminaries like President Teddy Roosevelt for his huntin’ and fishin’ holidays - pricey and beautiful Sanibel has thought itself slightly superior to the rest of Florida. This sense of difference also applied to its alligator agenda. In the 1980s Sanibel Council decided to do away with nuisance gator removal, and try and live alongside the lizards. The city received a special permit from the state that allowed it to relocate many nuisance alligators to the adjoining J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

No other Florida community was granted such a permit. As a consequence, the Sanibel alligators, in particular, grew in size, and in numbers, and in boldness.

The result was little short of disaster. First the local dogs were attacked. Bob Lescott was out playing catch with his dog, Solomon, in 2000, when the dog ran into the woods after it heard a noise. Moments later, Lescott and his friends found themselves wrestling an angry 11-foot lizard, to try and free the dog. Lescott recalls how his pet appeared to be stuck in the muck. He says, "I realized something was stronger than muck holding him back and the gator just raised his head."

Remarkably, they managed to yank the howling dog from the gator’s bloody jaws, and the dog survived.

Then sixteen-year-old Gabrimar Rivero saw her Cocker Spaniel Puchi eaten by a hungry Sanibel gator. Gabrimar was on the other side of her family’s swimming pool when she witnessed an 8-foot-alligator sprint from the water, and grab Puchi. "I thought it was a bird that was being taken. I just couldn't accept the fact that it was my dog disappearing down this… open mouth.” This dog never barked again.

Bill Baird was another west Florida resident whose beloved family pooch disappeared down the jaws of a voracious gator. When Baird discovered Krissy, his Labrador, on a March 2000 evening, she was bobbing in the lake behind his Veterans Village home. Or at least, what was left of her was bobbing there: a 10-foot alligator had bitten away Krissy’s chest, neck and one leg, the lakewater was viscous with blood and bits of gore.

To make things worse, it turned out neighbors had already complained about the guilty alligator to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, just weeks before.

“I knew that alligator was going to eat that dog," says Bernie Capasso, who lived across the lake from Baird. Several times, Capasso says, the alligator crawled up behind his home. And twice it snatched up a duck. When the gator muscled onto land, the young dog would bark at the reptile. Capasso, worried about the alligator attacking a child or a pet, had filed a complaint with fish and wildlife officials. "I even had guns and stuff, but I was told I couldn't shoot it." The Sanibel alligator-tolerance policy forbade such drastic measures.

It was only a matter of time before the gators turned to human meat. Soon after these dog incidents, a pastor at the First United Methodist Church was attacked and pulled under the water by a 6-foot-long alligator. Rick Cabot was going for a morning swim in a lake as part of his triathalon training when he felt the gator seize him and drag him under. Amazingly, Cabot punched the alligator on the nose until he was released.

"I was underwater this whole time, but I don't remember ever feeling panicked or short of breath or anything. I do remember thinking, 'I cannot believe a gator has my leg,' and I think that's when I punched it in the nose.”

A few weeks later, Alec Pullman had a similar story to tell. “It came from nowhere. I was cycling by the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, on Sanibel island, and it hurtled out of the bushes and just started shaking me and I hollered," A friend who witnessed the attack said: "his body was being slung around, it was unbelievable." Alec’s friends pulled him to safety.

The carnage was getting worse. From June 2002 to May 2003, Sanibel police received 102 calls reporting nuisance alligators. For the same period in 2003-04, there were 163 calls. If there was any doubt as to what was happening, it was removed on July 21 2004, when landscaper Janie Melsek was attacked by a massive 12 foot alligator as she was trimming vegetation beside a pond. David Gimson was a neighbour, he describes what happened:

“This huge bull gator had her by the arm, and it was pulling her under the water. I guess it wanted to store her underwater until she rotted, that’s what they like to do, they like rotting meat. But Janie was fighting,” he says, with a shudder. Then he adds: “So me, and two other neighbours, we dived in to the pond with the gator and we kept Janie’s head above the water, just, and eventually the gator chewed Janie’s arm off at the shoulder. And that’s how we got Janie back on to dry land.”

Melsek had lost the main part of her right arm - but at first she appeared to be recovering. Two days later, she died from an infection caused by the alligator bites.

Pretty bad. But Janie Melsek wasn’t the only Sanibel alligator fatality: she wasn’t even the first. In September 2001, 81 year old Robert Steele was walking his dog besides a Sanibel canal, when a big alligator came out and grabbed him; Steele apparently fought for his life, but the gator chomped off his left leg, and slunk back into the waters. Steele died hours later of blood loss. When the local rangers went to tackle the killer gator, they found the lizard ‘acting skittish’ as it swam along the canal; it was still clutching Steele’s leg in its mouth - almost like a trophy. The gator was shot sixteen times before it died.

Finally, there was 71 year old Jane Keefer. Her attack happened around the same time as Melsek’s. She was tending her Sanibel garden when a 9 foot gator jumped her, and grabbed her around the torso; remarkably, her husband heard the commotion, ran over, and managed to pry the greasy jaws apart to save his wife. This was quite a feat, as alligator jaws have tremendous gripping power: you can hold them shut with finger and thumb, but it would normally take two grown men to winch open a gator’s clamped teeth. Somehow, Keefer’s elderly husband managed it by himself.

But enough was enough. Two fatalities, and one near fatality, had led to questions. Property prices were starting to fall; people were afraid to walk their dogs, to cycle, to explore the island’s beaches and wildlife reserves. "Something had to be done, and fast," says Florida State Fish and Wildlife spokesman Gary Morse, "The island was dying before our eyes."

Many others agreed. "Letting alligators live in Sanibel," Janie Melsek’s brother told the Fort Myers News-Press, "is like letting lions and tigers walk down Michigan Avenue in Chicago." The pressure was now immense. In 2005 Sanibel community finally bowed to the inevitable. Its unique policy of gator tolerance was rescinded; now, as elsewhere in Florida, all large or ‘nuisance’ alligators are instantly captured, shot, or relocated.

But still, one question, remains. Why did the Sanibel alligators turn so dangerous, so suddenly? Was it just because they were hungry, or desensitized, or being fed by tourists, which are the usual explanations for alligator attacks? Jeff Fuery is not sure: “It feels odd, like something out of Hitchcock. Why did they turn on us like that? None of the rational explanations quite fit the bill. I’d like to find out soon - because it may one day happen again. And next time it might be worse.”

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Haunted Island of Tuscany

The 'suicide tower' on Isola Capraia, Italy.

Last autumn I visited the Tuscan isles, an archipelago of strangely ignored outcrops, lost in the wild blue Tyrrhenian sea. The piece I wrote about Capraia, the onetime prison isle of the chain, Italy's Alcatraz, was spiked by the Guardian newspaper on account of its being 'too quirky', 'offputting' and (not least) 'crap'.

Well that's as maybe. You can't win a coconut every time. But the fact is, Capraia was slightly weird. I don't really believe in ghosts, but when I heard that Capraia was meant to be spooked - it didn't surprise me. There was just something about this place, about its tragic history - the slaving, the prisoners, the isolation, the sun-crushed bleakness - it somehow all made sense to me: to hear that it was, by reputation, 'haunted'.

Anyway, fuck it. Here's the piece I originally wrote, crap as it may be. I've since done a nice publishable one, banging on about the seafood on Elba.

Europe’s Desert Islands

At some time in their lives, just about everyone has fancied a stay on a deserted isle: with nothing but a brace of palms, a shack of fronds, and a sweet little rumshop just down the pristine beach. And no karaoke, anywhere.

To find such Robinson Crusoe-y nirvana, you might think you have to go to the south seas, or the far Caribbean. Yet amongst the tens of thousands of much nearer islands, around Europe’s shores, there are many hundreds that fit the bill: practically deserted, virtually abandoned hideaways, places with just enough infrastructure to keep you fed, sheltered, and entertained.

A good example is Capraia. West of Corsica, and east of Italy, Capraia is one of the islands that make up the Tuscan archipelago; seven rocky islands that litter the blue Tyrrhenian sea like trinkets from a schoolgirl’s broken charm-bracelet.

The island is named for the goats that are said to run wild here: specifically called moufflons, they are large, irritable creatures, with tightly-curved horns that look like Princess Leia’s hair-do in the first Star Wars film. My visit to Capraia coincides with the moufflon rutting season - and I am therefore hoping to see the billygoats slamming into each other amongst the strawberry trees. But all I can hear is the twitter of warblers and the kee-kaw of wheeling buzzards. The cliffs and pinegroves of Capraia are famous for their birdlife.

The reason for Capraia’s human desertion - its high-season population is about 200, but it can dip as low as twenty in winter - is party due to history, and partly due to Italian government policy. Being something of an outlier in the Tuscan island chain, the isle was long prey to dreadful pirate raids. Between 700 and 1600AD, this part of the Mediterranean was cruised by Saracen cut-throats, who prized the comely Italian womenfolk for the slave markets of the East.

The pirates were often successful. At least twice in that millennium of carnage, little Capraia was swept clean, its populace hauled off to Algiers or Constantinople in chains. Only when the pirates were definitively vanquished in the 17th century did peace - of a sort - return to these translucent waters.

By then much damage had been done to the island’s buildings. But there is one exquisitely ancient church, San Stefano, still standing in the voided heart of the island. To get there I have to take a rubbled mule track, past empty shepherd’s huts and the occasional desultory vineyard. On the way I see an Audouin's gull, amongst the world's rarest, soaring in the September sun.

San Stefano was built in the 2nd century, making it one of the earliest Christian sites anywhere. Then it was abandoned, along with the town it served, during the Saracenic incursions. Now its only congregation is bats, ravens and an irreligious gecko, sleeping in the nave. However, locals claim that a modern order of monks is hoping to refurbish the church, so impressed are they by San Stefano’s spiritual loneliness. Standing here, surrounded by the rapturous silence of the Capraian wilderness, I can see what the monks are getting at.

If the centre (and the west, north and south) of the volcanic island is deserted, there is busy life in one place. These days the entire population of Capraia has decamped to the eastern littoral, where there are two small villages linked by the island’s only proper road (all of one kilometre long). There is a regular bus service between the two settlements, so you can happily forego any worries about car or scooter hire.

Up this road, guarded by two historic Genoese towers, and graced by some agreeable churches, is Paese. This is the ‘capital’ of Capraia, though in truth it’s just a tiny - and adorable - Mediterranean hill village. Paese also has Capraia’s only top class hotel, with the best swimming pool on the island: something of a boon given the lack of local beaches.

Even if you don’t stay in Paese, an evening stroll here, beneath the ilex trees, is a delight. Grannies like to snooze in the dusty piazza; small boys play street soccer by the minimart. There are also some good pasta joints, and one musty tobacconist with inscrutable opening hours.

Best of all are the huddled, yellow-and-ochre houses. Some of these venerable dwellings bear the defensive scars of the Saracen days: tiny windows, thick walls, and a supposed network of escape tunnels, burrowed into the soft volcanic stone. It must have been a terrifying moment when the crescent-flagged corsairs were spotted on the blue horizon: the sea is visible from everywhere in the village.

Walk along the brow of the lofty hill on which Paese sits and you come to the second reason why Capraia is so empty. A huge and redundant prison. From the mid nineteenth century Capraia was home to some of Italy’s most notorious convicts, sent here to sun their lives away in Italy’s Alcatraz. For decades, therefore, the only visitors to the island were the convicts’ relatives; the only long-term human inhabitants the jailbirds, their guards, and the native fishermen. The prison finally closed in 1986, allowing normal life and trade to recommence.

During their tenure the prisoners helped to rebuild Capraia after its centuries of depradation. They established pretty stone terraces so they could cultivate the hillsides, they laid the great mule track that bisects the island, in time they even constructed their own cinema, churches and barber-shop.

But they were still prisoners. And their derelict slammer still has a sinister air. When I walk around the crumbling and twilit buildings I start to get edgy. The rusty bars on the windows are just a little too resonant, the curious al fresco chapel (with battered Madonna) somewhat gloomy in the fading light.

It’s just when I’m remembering the rumours of Capraia being seriously haunted, that I hear a rattle to my left, something slapping against a wall. For a moment, I freeze. Is it a long-dead Mafioso? The ghost of the Livorno Strangler? Actually it turns out to be pigeons, cooped in a disused cell by an enterprising local. But I’m still walking down the hill rather fast.

My last evening is spent in Capraia’s other village, the very unghostly entrepot of Porto. If tranquil Capraia has anything you could call a buzz, this is where you’ll find it, in the pubs, pensions and pizzerias of the harbourfront.

In typically Capraian style, the social mix here is truly surreal. Italian navy officers hobnob with Aussie diving instructors (with its crystalline waters, Capraia is a favourite dive destination); in other bars you’ll find ecotourists, passing yachties, village biddies with 'second sight', and some of the prisoners who settled here when the jail was closed. Its a curious sensation to sit in a trattoria, eating delicious spaghetti alla vongole, wondering if you are sharing a table with a rear admiral, a German birdwatcher, a clairvoyant, or a retired wife murderer.

Porto is also a good place to consider your next move. Capraia is harshly lovely, and intensely atmospheric, but you wouldn’t to say here more than a few days. Unless you really like that Alcatraz feeling. So why not wander down to the ferry office and contemplate a passage to one of the other Tuscan isles. The green and sybaritic beauty of Napoleon’s Elba is just an hour away, and makes a great base for further archipelagan excursions: to the craggy beauties of Pianosa, or the unsullied beaches of Montecristo, or even the forlorn and echoing castles of Giglio and Giannutri.

Avanti, Signor Crusoe.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Salaam, Fuckwit

The estimable figure that is Jack Straw, Her Majesty's Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. Shukran to Google Images.

Respecting Religions

How much 'respect' should we give religions? It's a question that is vexing the BBC, where arguments (on programmes like Radio 4's Feedback, last week) are raging as to whether Mohammad should always be called 'the Prophet'. The BBC itself appears confused on the issue, with its website sometimes adopting the prefix, and sometimes not.

By contrast, no such confusion seems to afflict the Foreign Secretary. The other day a friend of mine told me that he'd seen Jack Straw, on TV, not just using the phrase 'Prophet Muhammad', but actually following it with 'Peace Be Upon Him'.

Astonished by this, I telephoned the Foreign Secretary's press office and inquired. Had Jack Straw ever used the phrase 'Peace be Upon Him', after saying the words 'Prophet Muhammad'?

At first they tried to finesse the issue ('clearly use of such a phrase implies respect for all communities, but these things are a matter of individual choice'), but - after I rang back - they admitted the truth. Yes, the Foreign Secretary really did say, on British television: 'the Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him'.

It's difficult to know whether this is comic, or disturbing, or both. Why should the foreign minister of a secular, mildly Christian country use this peculiar phrase? What's next? Is he going to start crossing himself when discussing church matters? Will he commence any discussions on Israel with the word ‘Shalom‘? Maybe he will slaughter a chicken before conferring with the new prime minister of Haiti.

Of course, we know he isn't going to do any of these things, because he doesn't feel the need to grovel to the Christian community, or appease the Jewish lobby. Yet for some reason he does feel the need to make this asinine and embarassing gesture towards Britain's 1.6million Muslims. Bless him.