Saturday, 27 June 2009

Diary of a genius

Geniuses aren’t just cleverer and more creative than the rest of us; they also seem to have more time. I’ve just spent the better part of the last few months writing an academic article which, even if it is accepted by the journal I send it to, will probably be read by about six people -and to say it was like getting blood out of a stone would be to underestimate the haematological content of stones. Then I came across this description in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography of how John Maynard Keynes completed his two-volume Treatise on Money in a couple of months while also turning his hand to a few other things:

Much of it was written in August and September at Charleston, Vanessa Bell's farmhouse on the Sussex downs, but he found time for a whirlwind ten days in London in July: Diaghilev's ballet, an end of ballet season dinner party of thirty-three which he hosted at 46 Gordon Square … business appointments, a speech, evidence to a government committee on Indian exchange and currency, a discussion at the Tuesday Club … lunching and dining out day after day. Although normally a late riser who got to the Treasury a little before noon, he spent his mornings at Charleston writing from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and averaged 1000 words a day fit for the printer.

The words ‘jammy’ and ‘sod’ spring inexorably to mind …

Two more reviews of my book:

Mundane quote for the day: ‘I put a picture up on a wall. Then I forgot there is a wall. I no longer know what there is behind this wall, I no longer know there is a wall, I no longer know this wall is a wall, I no longer know what a wall is. I no longer know that in my apartment there are walls, and that if there weren’t any walls, there would be no apartment. The wall is no longer what delimits and defines the place where I live, it is nothing more than a support for the picture. But I also forget the picture, I no longer look at it, I no longer know how to look at it. I have put the picture on the wall so as to forget there was a wall, but in forgetting the wall, I forget the picture, too.’ – Georges Perec

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

People unite

I was at the Oyé African music festival in Liverpool’s Sefton Park at the weekend. A little boy called Leo got separated from his parents and found his way to the side of the stage. A tense few minutes followed as the music stopped until the tearful boy’s parents came to claim him. Then the MC gave the good news to the assembled crowd: ‘Leo has been reunited with his people’. An elegant phrase and a lovely sentiment. Let’s all reunite with our people, people.

And since I guess I’m still on road duty I found this eloquent hymn to the asphalt by a late-learning driver, Andrew O’Hagan, in the London Review of Books:

The motorways don’t offer a solution: they offer a welcome straitjacket. Your car will get all the credit for bringing you home to yourself, for showing you the only person you can truly depend on is not merely yourself, but yourself-in-your-car, a somatic unity. Those who spend most of their lives being alert to the demands of others – and that’s most employees, most husbands, wives, parents, most believers – will know the rhythmic, sedative pull of the motorways as the road performs its magic, pulling you back by degrees to some forgotten individualism that the joys and vexations of community always threatened to turn into an upholstered void. Virginia Woolf was almost right: all one really needs is a car of one’s own, the funds to keep it on the road and the will to encounter oneself within.

A couple more reviews of my book:

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Cool stuff

I know this blog is supposed to be about ‘the everyday, the banal and other important matters,’ but to be honest I’m a bit everydayed out at the moment. Maybe it’s just doing a lot of radio interviews where I’m expected to do a PR job on the everyday, to rebrand it and show people why it’s worth bothering with, like a geek with academic credentials. Sometimes I feel a bit like that French chap from EuroDisney brought in to talk up the Millennium Dome. But I’m not a door-to-door salesman for the mundane; I’m not a cold caller for the quotidian. ‘Hello, my name is Joe and our salespeople are in your area and we’d like to interest you in a defamiliarisation of your daily life, with absolutely no obligation … ’

The thing is, it’s not a zero sum game. Just because you’re interested in the everyday (and even this blog sometimes finds it a bit boring) doesn’t mean you’re not interested in the extraordinary. Just because you’re into the endotic doesn’t mean you don’t like the exotic. Occasionally even this blog likes to hang on the coat-tails of cool. So, as a little palate-cleansing sorbet before we hopefully return to matters mundane, here are a few things that I think are cool/romantic/moving/funny and are definitely not things you meet every day:

Kate Rusby singing ‘The Wild Goose’, beautifully:

Very clever sketch with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore:

Sufjan Stevens singing ‘Romulus’:

A silly song by the Flight of the Conchords:

Sunday, 14 June 2009

A view from Delft

I finally got round to reading Anthony Bailey’s A View from Delft, about Jan Vermeer, and I’m glad I did. If you’re interested in the everyday you tend to be drawn to Dutch seventeenth-century painting, and Vermeer in particular. X-rays and infra-red equipment now show that Vermeer erased anything that might seem allegorical or symbolic from his paintings of mundane bourgeois life. Bailey writes about the beautiful light in Vermeer’s paintings, speculating that his relatively small body of work may be due to the fact that he waited until the summer to paint because of the light: ‘It is a light that never hardens but slowly moves, shadows moving with it, and indicates both time passing and warmth of life: the power of creation making itself felt in humdrum human circumstances.’

And I loved this description of the way that Vermeer repeatedly frustrates the viewer’s desire to turn a painting into narrative:

The painter thwarts our incessant demands for a story-line by freezing the action, by bringing time to a stop for an instant or two while contemplation exercises its power. The passivity or stillness he creates, reflecting his own nature, is in its way more dramatic, more active, than any action. So the young woman with a metal water jug pauses, one hand on the jug, one hand on the frame of the casement window which she seems about to open further, and the earth for a moment ceases to spin on its axis. So the woman in blue’s downcast gaze travels along the lines of the letter she has received, word by word by word, over and over. Vermeer seizes the moment and it repeats itself indefinitely. And in the same way his milkmaid, his figure of Fortitude, tips her jug and the milk falls from it in a silent stream for ever.

A couple more reviews of my book from the New Statesman and the Telegraph:

And here is the last word on MPs’ expenses from Garrison Keillor’s terrific weekly newspaper column in the US:

Mundane quote for the day:

The daily things we do
For money or for fun
Can disappear like dew
Or harden and live on.
Strange reciprocity:
The circumstance we cause
In time gives rise to us,
Becomes our memory.

- Philip Larkin

Thursday, 11 June 2009

My virtual book launch

Since you can’t bribe, bully or blackmail people into reading your books (unfortunately – I’ve tried all three and none of them work), God created book publicity. I’ve had a very scary, frazzly few days talking about my new book, On Roads. This doesn’t come naturally to me but I will put up with almost any agony if it means deferring membership of the Society for Unread Authors (see my post for 8 April). In fact, having negotiated the Simon Mayo show, BBC Breakfast TV and the Today programme and just about got away with them all, I think I deserve a double gold star, which I haven’t had since I wrote a long poem about a giant jam butty at primary school. And now I need to go and lie down in a darkened room for a bit, if you don’t mind.

But first, to reward myself I am holding a virtual book launch, on my blog – right here right now – to which everyone is cordially invited. Please help yourself to the virtual canapés and the virtual premier cru at the imaginary free bar. Thank you all for coming, too many people to thank etc. etc. Since I can’t do the reading that I believe is customary on these occasions, this is a little reworked extract from my book:

For some reason, the one thing almost all my interviewers asked about was the fact that the M6 toll road is made up of two and a half million copies of old Mills and Boon novels. I hope this isn’t a prophetic anticipation of my own book’s future as part of the M1 widening project. Being shredded up into bitumen modifier is the modern equivalent of writing your words on sand and having them washed away by the tide. But enough of the miserableness already. This is just a roundabout way of saying that, if by any chance you are not just here for the free virtual canapés and have actually read my book or are planning to, I really am more touched and grateful than words can say. And any feedback is gratefully received …

If you want to listen to my interview on the Simon Mayo show (I think it’s about an hour and 50 minutes in), it’s at:

And this is the link to my interview on Today (lots of cool points from my nephew for being on with James May from Top Gear). It should be about 2 hours and 25 minutes in:

BBC Breakfast TV isn’t available on iPlayer – which is probably just as well because, as someone kindly pointed out to me last week, I look better on the radio.

A nice review in the Sunday Times:

Mundane quote for the day:

Last night in London Airport
I saw a wooden bin
So I wrote a poem
and popped it in.

- Christopher Logue

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Roads: my part in their downfall

Since my book on roads is coming out this week, I thought I would tell everyone what I did in the tarmac wars. On Valentine’s Day in 1996, I accidentally joined a roads protest. I was walking up North Road, one of the main shopping streets in Brighton, when I saw something that made me wonder if I was dreaming: a well-built man dressed in a glittery silver ball gown and pink bubble wrap. He was standing by the clock tower roundabout and seemed to be trying (not very successfully, obviously) to look inconspicuous. A few seconds after I clocked the police van, several hundred people, all dressed in pink, dashed out from the narrow warren of streets known as the Lanes. All of a sudden they were dancing in North Road, banging drums and blowing whistles. A young woman dressed in a pink ra-ra skirt gave me some candy floss and a fluffy heart.

The police lined up two cordons to sandwich the protestors, about 30 feet apart, which included the bit of road I was standing in. Some brave souls scaled the shop buildings and hung home-made banners from the upper-floor balconies, proclaiming ‘Snog Not Smog’. As more protestors arrived, another party got going outside the police cordon. Eventually the police admitted defeat and moved the cordon back so that the whole of North Road was under occupation. The protestors now had enough space to blow up a bouncy castle, which they leaped around in with the gleeful abandon of children.

I left after about two hours as the party wound down, the bouncy castle deflated and the drummers made their way to the seafront like a marching military band. I had enjoyed my few hours reclaiming the road – although in my non-pink attire I must have looked like a police ringer. After negotiating my way through the cordon I walked away along Western Road towards Churchill Square and, glancing behind me I saw that North Road had disappeared, the whole of the asphalt hidden beneath a blanket of pink.

And that was the end of my brief life as Swampy’s mini-me.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘And sometimes the veil becomes lifted and I see it all as a circulatory system, a body. The Ocado depot or Milton Keynes or Spaghetti junction are like swirls in the flow, vortexes, tiny chakras in a vast sublime hole.’ – Michael Smith on Drivetime (BBC4)

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

On sport

I’ve been reading Barthes on Sport, a little book written years ago by Roland Barthes but only just published in English. It’s the usual Barthesian mix of brilliant perceptions and lapidary statements that brook no argument. This passage, on English football, is typical:

In sport, man does not confront man directly. There enters between them an intermediary, a stake, a machine, a puck, or a ball. And this thing is the very symbol of things: it is in order to possess it, to master it, that one is strong, adroit, courageous … Ultimately man knows certain forces, certain conflicts, joys and agonies; sport expresses them, liberates them, consumes them without ever letting anything be destroyed … In sport, man experiences life’s fatal combat, but this combat is distanced by the spectacle, reduced to its forms, cleared of its effects, of its dangers, and of its shames: it loses its noxiousness, not its brilliance or its meaning … What is sport? Sport answers this question by another question: who is best? But to this question of the ancient duels, sport gives a new meaning: for man’s excellence is sought here only in relation to things. Who is the best man to overcome the resistance of things, the immobility of nature? Who is the best to work the world, to give it to men … to all men? That is what sport says.

OK, I’ll bear this in mind the next time I see a premiership footballer throwing the ball away petulantly, or a manager going red on the touchline and pointing at his watch, or Chelsea players screaming at the referee and claiming that the whole of UEFA is corrupt because they have been denied a couple of penalty appeals. Or perhaps I will give the last word to George Orwell who said that ‘sport is war minus the shooting’.

PS Here are a couple of early reviews of my new book, On Roads, from the monthlies:

There was also a nice one by Giles Foden in Conde Nast Traveller but that doesn’t seem to be on the internet.