Sunday, November 26, 2006

Sorry, or What?

Sorry about that, guys. No, really.

Can I just say how pleased I am that Tony Blair has apologised, on behalf of us all, for the slave trade.

While he’s at it, I think he should also apologise to the people of Bermuda, for our colonising them so brutally in the 17th century. And I hope he apologises to the Spanish, for drowning so many of them in the Armada debacle.

Then, when he’s done that, he must of course apologise on behalf of the Celts to the English, for the bloody mistreatment of the Anglo-Saxons after the Battle of Mons Badonicus, in the 5th century. And I’d like to see a proper apology, at last, to the poor Beaker People, whose culture and language was so brutally repressed in the third Millennium BC. And finally I hope we can all say sorry, on behalf of the mammals, to the dinosaurs, for so insensitively supplanting them as the dominant life form of the planet.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

A Dying Masterpiece

That's me, there, standing on the basalt blocks of Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, a few months ago. Really. Here's a piece I wrote, the other day, about fulfilling my lifelong ambition to check out this weird "Land Art" masterpiece.
Incidentally, I'm thinking of putting this photo forward for best ever photo ever put on a blog, ever.

Death of An Art Work

It's a poignant moment. I'm standing on the edge of a lake, staring at a whorl of giant basalt blocks, curving out into the limpid water. This is Spiral Jetty, a masterpiece of Land Art stuck in a desolate corner of north-east Utah. It's an artwork I've long yearned to see; yet I may be one of the last people to do so.

Spiral Jetty was built by American artist Robert Smithson in 1970. As soon as it was completed, it became famous: devotees made the trek to Great Salt Lake to view the work, others were inspired to build their own US land art masterpieces (like Walter de Maria's Lightning Field).

Then the art-theorists got to work. What did Jetty mean? Why did Smithson choose this weird location? They got no answers, partly because Smithson died in 1973.

The artist's unavailability is particularly noticeable right now, as many people would like to ask him what to do with his greatest artwork. Because Spiral Jetty is disappearing under the rising lakewater.

This immersion has happened before - the Jetty was slowly submerged in the 1980s, only to reappear in 1999. The difference this time is that the disappearance is speedier: therefore it is feared the artwork may now vanish for centuries, or forever.

This leaves the Jetty's curators with a sharp dilemma. Is the changing water table just part of a natural cycle? Or is it caused by ireversible human damage to the environment? Either way, should someone rescue the piece but change it in the process? Maybe they should let it self-destruct?

My guess is that Smithson, for one, would have enjoyed the mere fact that Spiral Jetty is provoking such debate - and providing such an apt metaphor for our guilty relationship with mother nature. After all, seen from some angles, his masterpiece looks like a giant question mark, stark and black against the drowning waters.

Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, in a somewhat better mood.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Consider the Ant

A right wing Tory, yesterday.

I am often accused, by various people, of being aggressive and ethnocentric, a hard right nutter - someone obsessed with identity, race, nation, culture, immigration and all that.

Usually I reject these accusations, and dish out insults of my own to the lefties (who usually deserve them). However the other day when I was having a pint with some lefty friends, it occurred to me that these accusations are also partly true. Themes of race, nation, culture and identity are the ones that interest me the most.

Why is this? Is it because I am actually a Nazi?

No, I think it’s because I’m a soldier ant. One of the soldier ants in the ants’ nest that is Britain.

Here’s my theory (bear in mind this was born in a pub).

I reckon members of a tribe, a culture, a nation - like ours - can be broken up into types and roles, just as ants are divided by role in a nest. And basically there are two kinds of ant. The worker ants and the soldier ants.

The soldier ant’s job is to defend the nest (the tribe, the nation). So he is very attuned, genetically, to any threat that might be aimed at the nest (the country, the tribe). Sometimes he is over-sensitive, and thinks the nest is being attacked by pebbles, rain, or harmless earthworms. But other times he, the soldier ant, is right - that distant trembling really is a bunch of termites hell bent on conquest.

Well, I am a soldier ant in the ant’s nest of Britain. My genetic job is to defend the nation. I am therefore super sensitive when it comes to threats to the nation. Sometimes my antennae deceive me, and I go over the top, getting too worked up about EU directives on yoghurt pots, say. But other times I can accurately detect, as its my genetic job, serious threats to the nest from quite a distance - like communism or the IRA.

In contrast we have the worker ants. Their job is to tidy the nest and make everything orderly, and make sure there’s enough moss for the larvae. They do not have the genetic aptitude, nor the desire, to worry about threats to the nest. That’s not their task. They worry about the other ants in the nest, how everyone’s getting along, and what new laws we need to make sure the nest works well. These ants are obviously the lefties, and like lefties everywhere they are a bit precious about their worthwhile jobs.

They also look at the soldier ants with alarm as being militaristic and aggressive.

In the same way the soldier ants - the rightwing people - look at the lefty worker ants as boring drones, with small horizons, obsessed with rearranging twigs.

Anyway, the point is, a healthy ant’s nest - a healthy society - needs both types. Without the worker ants the whole place would fall apart. without the soldier ants the termites might just take over.

So that’s my theory. I’m a soldier ant. And you know what? Right now this soldier ant is saying - listen up guys, I can see a small boy headed our way with a jug of boiling water.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The broken, half-buried, weather-eroded monolith found near Gobekli.

Klaus Schmidt, and the rolling hills of the Fertile Crescent.

The T-shaped monoliths of Gobekli Tepe.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Success is Relative

An author, happily brandishing his royalty statement, yesterday.

I guess if you are Nick Hornby or J K Rowling you are used to selling books. And lots of them.

I'm not. I've published three novels and each of them has been what the US publishing industry used to call a 'slooooooooooow seller'. i.e. they sold like old pants.

As far as I can tell, my first novel sold about 200 copies. The next one was a big leap forward - to about 2000 copies. In the light of this I confidently expected my third novel, The Cheek Perforation Dance, to ship 20,000 copies or more.

It sold about 1500. This despite having rather pleasant reviews - even some deeply enthusiastic ones.

What this means financially is that I have never 'earned out'. That is to say: I have never earned back the advance on royalties given to me by the publishers, when they first bought the book. Put it still another way - my books have always made a loss.

This piercingly disappointing status was once brought home to me, in graphic fashion, when I actually received a royalty cheque for one of my novels. Opening the cheque feverishly, I discovered the cheque was written out for the princely sum of £0.00p. Yes, nought pounds, nought nought pence.

Presumably the computer at the publishing house had got too confused by an author who actually made zero money, so had decided to send me a cheque nonetheless.


But anyway, all this is now in the past. Because, the other day, I got another royalty cheque. And this time it wasn't for zip dollars or nul euros or a negative amount of yen, it was for a decent if not yacht-justifying four figure sum.

And this was because, in turn, my memoirs had sold about 18,000 copies in the UK and associated territories.

I have finally earned out! I've made it into profit! And what's more, I've made it into profit on just the 'hardback' edition - the mass market paperback edition is still to come, when, with a bit of luck, I should really mop up the monetary gravy, as every book I sell from now on is pure profit.


I just wanted to get this off my chest. Sorry. I guess that cheque for £0.00p got to me more than I admit. But now I can lay the ghost of abject failure.

At least for now.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Coleridge versus Tolstoy

Nicholas Coleridge: is he really the New James Joyce?

One of the hazards of modern authorship is the amazon review. When you publish a book you wait excitedly for your first reader critique on amazon. Then you get one - laudatory, enthusiastic, bowled-over - and you eagerly tell your friends. Then it turns out it was written by your publicist. So you wait for your second review, and you get just as excited by this new, even keener assessment - until you remember you wrote it yourself when you were drunk.

Then you start sourly checking out the amazon reviews of your peers - the books released by people you know, or people who just happened to publish in the same week as you.

As regular readers will know, I published a book some months ago. Happily I have accrued a few nice reader reviews, not all of which are fake (as far as I'm aware). But that hasn't stopped me bitterly auditing the reviews of books that came out the same week as mine.

I have been particularly exercised by the amazon reviews of Much Married Man, a froth-filled piece of socialite dreck, written by the notoriously snobbish, multi-millionaire manager of Conde Nast Magazines, Nicholas Coleridge. Why should I be so annoyed by the reviews of a foil-wrapped, chick-litty potboiler, which might be meaningless but is also quite harmless?

Because Coleridge has got, it seems, just about all his friends and workers to post reviews saying how magnificent his tome is, especially when compared to, say, Dostoevsky. Go on - check out if you don't believe me.

Up until now, though, I have felt myself alone in my exasperated and peculiar contempt for this "novel" - and its bizarrely mendacious reviews. However, imagine my delight when I logged on to amazon this morning and found a new reader review for Nicholas Coleridge's Much Married Man.

Here it is:

"Once every hundred years or so a book comes along which profoundly changes the way you approach the world. Yes, I have read Ulysses, I have read Sons and Lovers, I have read Hard Times, I have read A Passage To India, I have read Heart of Darkness, I have read Waiting for Godot, I have read Decline And Fall, but none can compare to the creative perfection of Much Married Man. Much Married Man is a stunning exercise in language - words are Coleridge's bauble, his toy - but it is much more than that. It is a harrowing journey into the centre of one man's alienated and displaced psyche. The journey that Much Married Man takes us on is bleak, dark, sometimes painful, but very necessary. As a study of modern man's isolation in the impossibly complex capitalist economy it is essential reading and it makes Coleridge's case all the more powerful that he is founding a Cotswolds commune to be run on the principles of cooperation rather than money-grubbing and competition. An important contribution to Western literature and a sure candidate for the next Nobel prize."

Couldn't have put it better meself.