Thursday, 30 April 2009

Corvus quotidianus

One of my favourite books of 2007 was Mark Cocker’s Crow Country, and now I’ve been enjoying Esther Woolfson’s Corvus: A Life with Birds, which is mainly about a crow which she rescues and which becomes a favourite pet. If you’re interested in the mundane, you’ve got to like rooks, which have been overlooked and even reviled throughout history for their commonness and supposed ugliness. Their rich collective lives also mimic our own daily routines. Rooks are the most sociable of birds and like to build their nests near roads so we can look at their roosts (the roundabouts on the A1 being a great place to spot them, according to Cocker). The idea that preciousness is somehow linked to scarcity, and that only exotic animals are worthy of our attention or protection, finds echoes in our own attitudes to the everyday which, as Georges Bataille wrote, ‘receives our daily inattention’.

Like ants, that other intensely tribal animal, rooks will fearlessly protect their own. In King Solomon’s Ring, his classic book about animal behaviour, Konrad Lorenz describes being attacked by jackdaws while holding a black, fluttering object that they mistake for one of their siblings. Don’t carry a binbag with rooks around – they will have you.

Incidentally, I liked Woolfson’s description of the ‘breathtaking, iron-filing flight’ of flocking starlings: ‘Starlings organise themselves for the night in their social groupings, with adult males flying in to roost first, occupying the best places in the centre, whilst the young females, those last scatterings of flecks in the sky, sucked into the curve of the tunnels, have to make do with what’s left.’

It reminded me of Coleridge’s description of the starling host he encounters at dawn while riding in a coach to London: ‘Starlings in vast flight drove along like smoke, mist or anything misty without volition – now a circular area inclined into an arc – now a globe – now from complete orb into an ellipse and oblong – now a balloon with the car suspended, now a concave semicircle – and still it expands and condenses, some moments glimmering and shivering, dim and shadowy, now thickening, deepening, blackening.’

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The instincts of flight and aggression trail the knights of wage-labour, who must now rely on subways and suburban trains for their pitiful wanderings.’ - Raoul Vaneigem

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Caution: shameless namedrop ahead

I’ve been reading Shakespeare Wrote for Money, Nick Hornby’s collection of the reading diaries he writes for the Believer magazine in the US – having enjoyed the previous book in the series, The Great Polysyllabic Word Spree - and I came across this passage, just after an account of reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road:

‘It seems years ago now that I dipped into Joe Moran’s engaging Queuing for Beginners: The Story of Daily Life from Breakfast to Bedtime. Externally, I have only aged a month or so since I picked it up, but in the meantime I have endured an Altamont of the mind, and my soul feels five hundred years old. Post McCarthy, it’s hard to remember those carefree days when I could engross myself in anecdotes about the Belisha beacon, and short social histories of commuting and the cigarette break. (Eighty-nine percent of Englishmen smoked in 1949! And we were still a proper world power back then! My case rests.) And I suppose a sense of purpose and hope might return, slowly, if I read enough P.G. Wodehouse and sport biographies. I have nearly finished the Joe Moran, and I would very much like to read his final chapter about the duvet. But what’s the point, really? There won’t be duvets in the future, you know. And if there are, they will be needed to cover the putrefying bodies of our families. Is there anything funny on TV?’

Yes, I would imagine that my quotidian whimsy would offer a bit of chiaroscuro after McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic dystopia. Anyway, kind words* from the London literati’s favourite Arsenal fan, whose critical insights I have always regarded as peculiarly insightful, sensitive, judicious etc. etc.


Doing some research, I found myself on the number 10 website (, which among other things contains all of Gordon Brown’s speeches, policy statements etc. Just for a laugh, I keyed in the word ‘socialism’ on the search engine. The screen went blank except for the following message: ‘An error has occurred. Please contact the site webmaster.’ Funnily enough, the same thing happened when I keyed in ‘Tony Blair’. That’s politics for you.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘None will hear the postman’s knock / Without a quickening of the heart. / For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?’ W.H. Auden, ‘Night Mail’

* Only slightly offset by the fact that The Believer has a policy that you can’t write about books if you want to slag them off. And he says much kinder things about the other books for that month. Oh well, I guess I’m just a glass half empty sort of chap.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Aimless pleasures

I’m a bit pushed for blogging time tonight – and no, I’m not watching Hell’s Kitchen - so in an eco-friendly spirit of literary recycling this is a piece by me from this week’s New Statesman:

When I was a student, there was an organisation called the Straight Line Society, which I never quite got round to joining. Its members would draw a straight line on an A-Z and then follow that path as accurately as they could, even if it meant negotiating their way through private houses and gardens. Later I realised that this society, whether it knew it or not, was practising the art of psychogeography.

As first defined in 1955 by Guy Debord, co-founder of the French situationist movement, psychogeography reinvented aimless walking as a revolutionary act. The situationists would cut up maps of Paris, reassemble the fragments and then walk the amended routes, in search of a new awareness of the city not driven by the repetitive routines of work and the daily commute.

Psychogeography has now gone online, with groups of enthusiasts writing about their adventures. The Manchester Zedders stick a pin in an A-Z, head off to explore that map square, and then blog about it. The Loiterers’ Resistance Movement, a Mancunian artists’ collective, uses the blogosphere to rendezvous and share experiences, such as accounts of a “Subverting Surveillance Night” and an attempt to “dematerialise” the new Beetham Tower. Their commonest tactic is the situationist dérive, or purposeless drift through the city. Once a month they ramble around unregenerated parts of Manchester. On one occasion they ended up in an underground car park where they held an impromptu concert with kazoos and tambourines.

The same spirit is evident in Remapping High Wycombe, a project run by Cathy and John Rogers, a brother-and-sister team of “psycho-crypto-topographers”. They wanted to make an imaginative record of the old town centre before it was redeveloped, so they created an algorithmic dérive in which they repeatedly followed the same set of simple instructions – for instance, “Take a left and then a right”. My favourite online psychogeographer is John Davies, a vicar who spent two months walking the length of the M62 motorway and blogging about it from the wifi areas in Travelodges and service stations.

Literary psychogeographers such as Iain Sinclair and Will Self reveal the city as an intricate maze of hidden histories and surreal connections. But these bloggers tend to be collaborative and tentative, more willing to explore mundanity for its own sake. For them, the city does not yield up its psychogeographic secrets readily; sometimes a bus shelter is just a bus shelter, not a site of ancient or occult significance.

Most of them did not initially recognise themselves as psychogeographers. The Loiterers’ Resistance Movement says it still cannot agree on a definition for the term, but that its members do “like plants growing out of the side of buildings, urban exploration, drinking tea and getting lost. Gentrification, advertising and blandness make us sad. We believe there is magic in the Mancunian rain. Our city is wonderful and made for more than shopping.” You don’t have to be a situationist to say Amen to that.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Art is dead. Let us create our daily lives.’ – Slogan scrawled on walls in Paris, May 1968

Saturday, 18 April 2009

A reader writes

If you saw my earlier post on ‘Glittering Prizes,’ you’ll know that academic publishers don’t do freebies. If you want to access a scholarly article online, your institution either has to have a subscription to that journal or you have to pay some astronomical one-off fee that nevertheless seems bizarrely precise, like £17.92, as if to give the impression that it’s been scientifically arrived at. Anyway, one of my publishers, Sage, must have had a rush of blood to the head because this article I wrote seems to be available on the internet for free, at least for now:

It’s about the distinctive culture of the gentrifiers who settled in up-and-coming areas of London in the 1960s: things like knocking through the internal walls, Elizabeth David dinner parties and Habitat tables. One of the streets I mention is Gloucester Crescent in Camden where a lot of writers and artists lived: George Melly, Clare and Nicholas Tomalin, Alan Bennett, Marc Boxer (who wrote a book, The Trendy Ape, about it). Bennett’s The Lady in the Van is set on Gloucester Crescent.

Anyway, I got an email from someone who came across this article and who now lives in the States but who lived in Camden Town from 1962 to 1988 and whose parents were ‘gentrifiers’:

’My mother used to take me shopping in Soho on Saturday mornings: we would go to Parmigiani, an Italian delicatessen which had fresh ravioli and coppa, and the original Patak's on Drummond Street. She had Elizabeth David and Eliza Acton on her kitchen bookshelf. We bought furniture and toys from Habitat on Tottenham Court Road, and linens from the John Lewis Partnership on Oxford Street and Liberty's on Regent Street.My dad rode a silver-painted Molton cycle, which had been used for a number on the Black and White Minstrel Show. My parents’ first car was a bubble car, an Isetta, and later they drove a green mini with two rows of seats and gate doors in the back.’

He found my article because he’s been talking to some of the people he grew up with on the ‘Gloucester C Gang’ facebook group, ‘for all those who were kids in Gloucester Crescent in the 1960s & 70s and still wonder what their parents were doing and want to exchange photos and stories’.

Anyway, it was kind of him to write – a voice from the past and across continents. It’s always nice to hear from readers (other readers please note!)

Mundane quote for the day: ‘When for so many people nothing remains at the end of the day except for the bitter wear and tear of so many dull hours, the preparation of a meal furnishes that rare joy of producing something oneself, of fashioning a fragment of reality, of knowing the joys of demiurgic miniaturization, all the while securing the gratitude of those who will consume it by way of pleasant and innocent seductions.’ – Luce Giard

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

A breathless hush

It’s been deathly quiet at work this Easter week. There’s a breathless hush in the common room, and the sound of tumbleweed in the corridors. As Blackadder might have said, it’s as quiet as an isolation tank populated solely by Cistercian monks and librarians, all dressed in earmuffs and slippers with ‘Do not disturb’ signs around their necks.

Where is everyone? Maybe it’s because Easter is the start of the academic conference season. I am supposed to attend at least one conference a year, but as far as I am concerned this policy has turned into what New Labour and Ken Clarke would call ‘an aspiration’ – and even that is stretching it a bit.

I do not like conferences. The problem isn’t the people you meet, who are mostly friendly and scrupulously, even painfully, polite. It’s just that I am no good at talking about my work and the whole process makes me feel a FRAUD (which, in my better moments, I concede that I am not).

The idea behind conferences is that the paper you deliver is like an iceberg – the paper is the visible bit, and the research underlying it is this much vaster block of ice underneath the sea, which you call upon for an interesting and stimulating after-paper discussion. But I put so much work into the rhetoric of any paper I’m writing, that the writing is all I’ve got; there’s nothing else there. My paper isn’t an iceberg; it’s just a bit of floating ice. So when I get asked questions at the end what I really want to say is something like this: ‘I am afraid you have very quickly reached the edges of my little island of knowledge about ------ and are now proceeding to leap into the vast ocean of my ignorance.’ I don’t, of course. I flail around for an answer I don’t have, tripping over my words until my sentences peter out.

So while my colleagues become conferees, their lives measured out by 20-minute papers about their work-in-progress, and tea and biccies (that’s real tea and biccies I mean, not academic papers about tea and biccies – although obviously I would find those quite interesting) I am left here to stalk the building like a ghost, consoling myself with the words of the metaphysical poet:

Though you be absent here, I needs must say
The trees as beauteous are, and flowers as gay.


It has just occurred to me why this blog does not have any readers. I have not been sending any emails to all and sundry, trawling for scurrilous information about politicians. I didn’t realise this is what bloggers were supposed to do. I now concede that my behaviour has been juvenile and inappropriate. This is a matter for regret and, although it is not my fault, I can apologise and I have already apologised, and now I hope we can draw a line under this matter and move on going forward.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The commonplace needs no defence, / Dullness is in the critic’s eye, / Without a licence life evolves / From some dim phase its own surprise’ - William Plomer, ‘The Bungalows’

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Poems about nothing

I haven’t really got time to write about anything today - too busy with another deadline and enjoying the brilliant David Tennant and Catherine Tate, standing in for Jonathan Ross on Radio 2 - so here are a couple of poems I made earlier about nothing:


This poem is a five-finger exercise,
A sort of step-aerobics for the brain.
I’m writing it to keep my biro busy.
It’s just some random letters in a chain.

These lines are a contractual obligation;
They fulfil my poem quota for the year.
They’re just a bit of debris for the poem pile.
The lines are dead, the message isn’t here.

This poem was written with my left hand.
I drafted it while otherwise employed.
You can’t finesse these words into a meaning.
Please read and then consign them to the void.


Poets used to put their faith in rhetoric,
Knocking off lines for some rich toff.
Or, in pre-PC days, perhaps a quick
Plea to a girl to get her corset off.

Find a theme, then match it with a style:
Poetry was strictly pick’n’mix.
A few words from your “elegiac” file;
Some well-remembered, write-by-numbers tricks.

No waiting round for fickle muses -
Just dot your i’s and cross your t’s.
No need to pick at scabs and bruises;
Poetry for self-assembly, please.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Routines and regularities, habits and obligations. Or, simply, ways. “Doth he not see my ways?” asks Job. I can hardly avoid seeing my friends’ ways, or they mine. Most are so habitual that I can hear, imaginatively speaking, their kettle going on. Their holidays – and mine – exist to disturb these ways for a week or two. According to the brochure, the more disturbance the better. Disturbance is good for you and, anyway, you have paid a lot of money for it. Alas for such wild expense, for I know my friends’ ways well enough to tell when they will be putting the kettle on in Padstow or Pisa. It’s all against the brochure, of course, which has been so tightly packed with disarrangement as to leave no space for what we always do at home, or so its author hopes. “Arise at nine (nine?), and drink delicious chilled something or other,” it commands. Well, thank God for the World Service and tea-bags. Quite a few village friends are at this moment being led by the brochure to where it promises to upset their habits or unchain their libidos but how, poor colourful bit of paper, is it to compete with their ways?’ – Ronald Blythe, Out of the Valley: Another Year at Wormingford

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

The Society for Unread Authors

If you’re still reading this blog, all I can say is - thanks, as you seem to be part of a dwindling band. There was a flurry of interest at the start but those part-timers have long since departed, leaving the diehards behind, like some obscure religious sect who thought the world was going to end in 1975 but carry on believing out of loyalty and cussedness.

At the moment I’m feeling very … unread. It’s a bit like that episode of the Vicar of Dibley in which the confirmed bachelor and stalwart of the parish council comes out as gay on the local Dibley radio station, and is touched when his friends treat him exactly the same – except that, unbeknown to him, no one was listening. I could probably confess to murder on this blog and get away with it, because no one would be reading. Some people of my acquaintance have even complained that they were unable to access this blog because their computers froze or asked them for passwords. A likely story, told by the sort of people who used to accuse the dog of eating their homework.

In fact, I’m thinking of starting up a charity called the Society for Unread Authors. It would provide support and counselling to all those authors traumatised by not being able to acquire a readership. At this very moment there are thousands of authors wandering lost and confused around our cities, in search of readers. They are hunched in shop doorways, whispering forlornly at passers-by: ‘Spare the price … of a paperback?’

I gave most of the complimentary copies of my last book to friends and colleagues and I’m pretty sure most of them remained unread. It’s not great when you can’t even give your books away, is it? And don’t get me started on any of my other books. If you’ve read one of those, I probably know you. My dad once told me that writing a book is like dropping a stone down a very deep well. There might be a bit of rattling down the sides and a few years later you hear a tiny ‘plop’ as it hits the water – if you’re lucky.

Who is this mythical beast called a reader, where is s/he and how do you get hold of him or her? It’s lonely here with only the winking cursor for company. Maybe there aren’t any readers. Maybe everyone is writing blogs and just lies about things they have read, so we’re all just speaking into the air.

Please give generously to the Society for Unread Authors – by becoming a reader today.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Every time I wash up a batch of crockery I marvel at the unimaginativeness of human beings who can travel under the sea and fly through the clouds, and yet have not known how to eliminate this sordid time-wasting drudgery from their daily lives.’ – George Orwell

Saturday, 4 April 2009

M62: the biography

This week we took our students to see the RSC’s production of The Tempest in Leeds. We arrived at the Grand Theatre to find the whole of the stalls populated by screaming 14-year-olds. We were in the middle of row L, surrounded, circling the wagons. (To be fair, once the play started they were very well-behaved.)

Anyway, I’m not here to review Anthony Sher’s performance as Prospero – I’ll leave that to Michael Billington. I’m here to tell you about the opportunity it gave me to be chauffeur-driven along my favourite motorway, the M62. I was sat right at the front of the coach and had a cockpit view of the road that Bill Drummond (an alumnus of the university I work at, though I don’t know if he graduated) has called ‘the most alluring, powerful, even magical motorway on our lump of an island’. Oh yes, I lead a full life.

I spent the whole of the journey to Leeds and back regaling my friends and colleagues, Kate and Bob, with arcane information about the M62. For example: for a couple of miles over an enormous peat bog called Chat Moss, you drive over a really bumpy bit of motorway and, if you are not expecting it, you think you have a slow puncture. The problem is mining subsidence. Somewhere underneath here, the male members of my mum’s family, including my granddad, hacked away at the south Lancashire coal seam.

I also pointed out the ruler-straight bit of motorway near Burtonwood services that used to be one of the longest runways in Europe, at the Burtonwood American air base, which is where my granddad met my grandma during the war. When I’m driving on it at dusk, I have a vision of the B17 Flying Fortresses taking off in procession in front of me, just clearing my bonnet, lit up by bomber’s moons.

Another thing I like about the M62 driving east is the way you feel that you’re leaving the world behind. As you go past the massive Croft interchange with the M6, much of the traffic siphons off and the road is suddenly nearly empty, before the signs begin to count you down to the end of the motorway at Knotty Ash. Many non-Liverpudlians think this is a mythical land of jam-butty mines and Diddymen, invented by Ken Dodd, but it is a real place with a motorway and ring road running through it.

All this information inexplicably failed to find its way into my forthcoming book on roads. My travelling companions gave every impression of being absolutely rapt by this effortless dispensing of motorway knowledge. Mind you, they were strapped in.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The ages of chivalry and romanticism must be imagined from the floating, rocking height of a horse; our age was instead one of crouching behind a wheel, merging in a blur of mirrored others as the gaseous miles melted beneath the pressed accelerator.’ – John Updike

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The School of Life

Just a quick word about the School of Life, a brilliant-sounding shop-cum-cultural enterprise in Bloomsbury offering ‘ideas to live by’. After I mentioned them in a piece in the Guardian the director kindly invited me down to London to talk about the interests we have in common. So far the usual toxic combination of chronic shyness, extreme busyness and pathological hatred of Virgin Pendolino trains has conspired against it, but one of these days …

Among other things the School of Life organise everyday holidays like A Trip up the M1 and A Holiday at Heathrow. Holidays in 2009 include a Holiday inside your Head and Around the World inside the M25. The cash-strapped and time-poor can buy a Holiday at Home Kit, containing things like an eye mask, fake tan, postcards and a ‘Do Not Disturb’ Sign.

I like the idea of a shop where you can buy knowledge and experience instead of knick-knacks. The sign in the shop window says, ‘The Mundane is to be Cherished’. Agreed, but what’s with the passive voice? Cherish the Mundane!

You can never be too cool for the School of Life. To enrol for the new term check out

Mundane quote for the day: ‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.’ - Annie Dillard, The Writing Life