Friday, June 30, 2006

Books: literary ventriloquism (I wish I'd said it first)

Another reviewer somewhere on the internet described this book as a feat of literary ventriloquism. I couldn't have said it better myself. So I won't. *

Matthew Keane has written a superb book about, well, the closest approximation of what it is about is to say that a three mismatched Englismen travel to colonial Tasmania to find the Garden of Eden, on a Manx smuggling ship that was chartered to them because the captain needed to pay off his debts to British customs. That's the closest approximation of the truth about 80% of the story. There is a parallel story of the Aboriginal Tasmanians who were all but wiped out in a few decades by British settlement, or invasion, of their homeland.

A lot hasn't been said about this period over the years. It is a dark stain on history, from which nobody emerges looking good: particularly the settlers. All over Australia the power of British armoury and the idea among some people that it wasn't a sin to kill Aboriginals brought out the worst in people. Aboriginals were hunted for sport, slaughtered because they were in the way of agriculture, or because they stole the occasional sheep. They were wiped out by disease and turned to alcoholism for entetainment and profit. By the mid eighteenth century, mainland Australia had matured beyond the worst attrocities - with Sydney and melbourne being quite large towns by then - and Aboriginal numbers so reduced, that this behaviour was becoming a rarity. In Tasmania, however, the horror was in full, bloody, swing.

Matthew Keane has written his story in the form of diary entries written by the key characters - including Peevay, a Tasmanian Aboriginal. The diaries are intercut with eachother, and skillfully written in markedly different voices, and with utterly different personalities. They are superb and utterly believable.

The diary of one character, Peevay, the Aboriginal, can be a bit irritating to read because his voice is not like a modern Aboriginal's. Matthew mentions in the foreword, quite correctly, that there is no way to know how a Tasmanian Aboriginal might have spoken or written English. (Comparing an 1830s Tasmanian Aboriginal's diary to the speech of a modern Western Desert aboriginal is like saying a 19th century Bedouin doesn't sound like Tony Blair - it's about the same distance in time, space and culture.)

All this is by-the-by, however. The true genius of this book is that Matthew Keane has managed to get inside the heads of people on both sides of a cultural chasm - both of whom think that they are doing the right thing, and not understanding why the other is so unccoperative. You see, the true tragedy of genocide of the Tasmanian Aboriginals and the colonisation of Australia is that - while some abhorent people did some abhorent things - most of the damage was done by Europeans who thought they were doing the right thing.

It is a superb book. I wholeheartedly recommend it, especially if you are trying to understand why Australians don't laugh at jokes about colonialism.

(The BBC Radio 4 Book Club has invited 24 other Australians and me to ask some questions of Matthew Keane tonight. So listen on September 4, or September 7, at 4pm to put a voice to the typing. I'll be the one named Damian.)

* If I could rememeber who it was, I'd offer a credit, but I don't, so I can't. Sorry if it was you.

Books: ratcheting up the criminal sophistication

Crikey people, don't go to Brighton. Peter James has churned out another of his thrillers, making it the murder capital of Europe. I was barely finished reading the last one when we bumped into eachother in the foyer and he mentioned his book signing for this one. (And there is another one in the series due - probably next weekend at the rate he's writing.)

In much the same way as the writing must have done, this book starts about a week after the previous book finished. Superintendent Roy Grace is still fighting the flack from the last book's car chase when a body turns up, minus a head and plus a mysterious beetle.

The writing is a bit formulaic - as the genre tends to be - but Peter ratcheted up the sophistication of the villains in the twenty minutes betwen books. This story is a frightening adventure into international internet based reality porn rings, and their utterly ruthless perpetrators. The pace of the story rapidly accelerates until the final few chapters as Grace and his team race the clock to prevent the next murder victims facing their fate live on streaming video.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Living in the blogsphere: a secret meeting of minds

Last Friday night in Paris a petite woman left her work in the hands of her mother and boarded a train for England.

Around lunchtime on Saturday a man in Norfolk left his builders, his newly acquired students, LTLP and Baby Servalan and boarded a train for London as his thoughts turned to sushi and culture. Twenty minutes later in Brighton a woman moored her Little Red Boat, put out her binvelope and boarded a train heading North. At around the same time: I was chasing sheep; there was trouble on Coffee Corner as Skippy McWonderfuck failed, and Christine quietly knitted; a finely featured, pale skinned woman looked for reasons to be happy, while wondering if she would belong; a Beautiful Revolutionary pondered garbage night; and a diva tuned her pixels.

Around mid-afternoon on Saturday the petite woman, Anna of the boat, Johnny B, the coffee man, Christine, the Cheerful Woman, the Diva and the Beautiful Revolutionary converged on a small pub, well hidden in a row of terraced houses and named after a royal appendage. I was rushing through a chat with my neighbour at our local bookshop, horribly conscious of my lateness, before riding like an overheated madman towards Westminster bridge.

Twenty minutes later, secret identities were shedding in the back of the hidden pub, and I was riding the back streets looking for it. Twenty minutes after that, Coffee Man grabbed a chair for me as Anna of the boat, the queen bee of bloggers, did the introductions.

Yes, dear readers, 'twas an informal blogmeet, such as I have heard of in the past, but never before witnessed. And alas, my time there was short, limited as I was by other commitments. But here I will divulge what I learned:
  • Anna - I am starting to think that if you don't know Anna then you're not a blogger, but maybe that's because I have found most of the best blogs I read through her comments page; she is gracious and unreasonably modest and the least shy of the bloggers - as anyone who has seen her impersonating a meerkat would agree
  • Petite Anglaise - is either less petite than she makes out, or was sitting on a high stool, for she was taller than everyone else; and I forgot to ask her about the gourmet fish-and-chips
  • Johnny B - is not as feckless as he appears, fortunately; and I forgot to ask if he salvaged the dining table
  • The Beautiful Revolutionary - is a delightful gentleman of quick wit and generous phrase, who appears to be nowhere near as suicidal as his work implies, also fortunately
  • Coffee Corner - is not a corner where you drink coffee, but a hairy and well mannered American man with a thing for Christine
  • Pixel Diva - is an assertive Scottish woman named Ann, who knits, photographs and makes sites work for people who don't work as well as they might
  • The Cheerful Woman - doesn't seem to need to find a reason to be cheerful, for she is clever, witty and laughs easily - or perhaps blogging has done that to her
  • Universal Critic - well I'm not telling - I'm not that self-aware - you'll have to see if they say anything about me, though I'm sure they're much too polite
Unfortunately I could only stay for half-an-hour but in that time we discussed blog names - me asking everyone else theirs; the guilt you feel when you don't post often enough; and I dominated the conversation with my recent sheep experience, Johnny expressed surprise that we were in London discussing sheep when he expected conversation to be about Sushi recippes and the latest Loofa technology. Then I left, wanting more. Hopefully I will be invited to the next one with more than 24 hours notice.

Books: If God is in the details, then Hello God

The strength of a character comes from the details, so I suppose the strength of a writer comes from the details. In The Great Gatsby, we don't meet Gatsby until we're well into the book - but we already know that he throws parties that he doesn't bother to attend. And we start to understand the emptiness of a man going through the motions when we see his wardrobe of unworn shirts.

The central character to Watch Me Disappear is an English marine biologist who lives in the United States, specialises in sea horses and has a daughter. The details of her life are superby written - how most of her time is spent simply watching her sea horses, how that's her safe place. How at sea she flashes back to memories of her lost friend. How she loses time occasionally - but not occasionally enough that her daughter isn't familiar with these little fits. So when details of her childhood seem to be missing, they stand out - and that's where the story comes in.

I'm not going to spoil the plot, but when Tina Humber returns to the flat Fenland of her youth, she returns to a life that, she begins to realise, she ran away from when she let her career drag her across the world. And when her adult eyes start to look at the disappearance of her friend, Mandy Baker, she starts to realise why.

The story is beautifully told, and the few confusing twists needed to get us to the end do not take away from the overall effort. Tina Humber is a superbly written character. The descriptions of her work are beautiful and the tie-in between the hypocampus sea horse and the human hypocampus mentioned towards the end of the book shows that Jill Dawson's commitment to details goes beyond what the story requires. Thus author will not let go until she has got it right.

Books: The I-Ching for generation Z

I picked this book up on a whim. It caught my eye because the mirror writing on the cover says
Whatever you think think the opposite
and claims to be by
Paul Arden, author of the best selling book in the world
The cover was George Castanza enough to grab me, but contents is pure Kramer. Paul Arden has distilled pretty much all you really need to know about creative thinking and risk taking into 143 pages of bold print, wierd pictures, clever lines and a mirror. It's a kind of dip-in:dip-out self-help manual for the creatively disabled. You can read it cover to cover like a novel in an hour or so, if you're slow; or dip in page by page - I-Ching style - and meditate on one idea at a time.

I liked it because Paul Arden clearly thinks exactly the same way that I do. The difference is that he's had the courage to act on his ideas. That's why I had to buy his words in a shop, and you're reading mine for free.

If you think it sounds like crap, read the title again.

Monday, June 19, 2006

London life: London Architecture Bienalle

Universal Wifey likes sheep. She prefers Baa-lambs, but sheep will do, so I organised for us to ride our bikes down to Southwark Cathedral on Saturday so that we could follow Farmer Smith exercise his right as a Freeman of the City of London to drive his sheep across the Thames Bridges and into the city of London. The event was tied-in with the Architecture Bienalle as a way of linking the Borough Market and Smithfield Market - the two great larders of London. It was also a tie-in with some sort of knitting promotion, and the St Bart's fair - the ultimate destination of the flock.

So we arrived at Southwark Cathedral, where the sheep were to be blessed by the Bishop of Southwark before they started their journey, and stood at the back to keep our bikes out of the way of the crowd. We saw a small pen of sheep - somewhat less than the proposed 66. We craned our necks as some sort of street theatre event began to unfold, until we realised that it was a bunch of rabid anti-meat protestors shouting murderer and hypocrite. As members of the public, the protesters were with us, behind the crowd control tape, but they had arrived early and had the spot closest to the sheep. So every time the protesters shouted murderer, or hypocrite, the sheep would hear their loud, violent braying, and move as far away as possible - which was not very far to the other side of their pen. Some children were also frightened, but on the whole, they were harmless. Because nothing else was happening, they got a lot of media attention.

We also saw a clergyman in purple robes who we took to be the bishop, a short man wearing a suit and a large gold chain who we took to be the mayor, or someone with a very expensive bondage fettish, some people in extremely vintage floppy pom-pom hats and black coats who we took to be alderpeople, or fellow freemen of the city, a man wearing a flat cap and carrying a shepherd's crook, who we took to be farmer Smith, and some younger men and boys wearing flat caps and carrying shepherd's crooks who we took to be shepherds.

And so the blessing blessed. The pen was opened, the shepherds began shepherding, two sheep escaped, farmer Smith shouted shut the gates and the crowd scrambled to untie the crowd control tape from the gates so and shut the heavy medieval gates with a shriek. The remaining sheep were shepherded through the end-gate, into the market and we followed intending to cut around the back past the Golden Hind in order to get ahead of the flock. Suddently there was a excitement behind us as a girl in jeans and a t-shirt dragged a sheep out of the bushes and off towards the pen.

We took a short cut to and waited on the Millenium Bridge hoping to see the sheep pass us on the bridge. In the distance we saw the people in black caps, we saw the shepherds, and we saw a gap in the crowd where we assumed the sheep were, and a Policeman moved us on so that the bridge would be clear for the sheep.

We passed a woman wearing lots of velvet who was defending her vegetarian Doc Martens to camera.

We stopped on the other side of the bridge oppisite Salvation Army headquarters where the band was to play The Lord is My Shepherd. The band didn't show. We stood on a fire escape and waited. We saw the people in black caps, we saw the shepherds, we saw a gap, and in the gap, we saw wool. We heard the violent braying and yelling of the anti-meat protesters. They were immediatley behind the sheep. The sheep at the front of the flock were walking normally - just a sheep out for a walk in the city, what are you looking at.

Now if you have spent anything more than a moment with a flock of sheep you will have learned that sheep don't like being startled. The are calm and placid creatures who like to find a nice grassy field and eat it. They are not political. They are not particularly assertive (although there is always one...) and they do not speak enough of any human language to tell the difference between one loud, murderous shout and another.

The protesters were following the sheep closely - very closely. They were, in fact, directly behind the sheep. And they were screaming and yelling with a frightening violence and vitriol. The sheep at the back of the flock were tightly bunched together, pushing their faces between the shoulders of the sheep in front, climbing the flock from the back. The protesters may have had all meat-kind on their minds, but the happiness of these sheep was sacrificed for the cause. The sheep - what we could see of them - were terrified.

Disgusted at riding so far to see very little, we left the sheep to walk across the western steps of St Pauls Cathedral (not the northern, not the southern, not up or down, but across the western steps) and rode through the back-streets to Smithfield, where we found the market not quite ready, filled-out a London Energy questionnaire, collected a bunch of architecture brochures and a free high-efficiency light bulb and set off, slightly disapointed, to see the knitted house and the solar powered kinetic sculpture on Clerkenwell Green.

Suddenly a Policeman strode towards us, "Stand aside please!" and we barely had time to pull our bikes onto the footpath when some people in black caps, some shepherds and a whole happy flock of sheep brushed past our legs heading towards the sheep's pen for the afternoon. The protesters were gone. The sheep were gamboling happily along the road, and after a twelve mile round trip we finally met the sheep as soon as we gave up.

So the moral of is... I don't know, perhaps that animal-rights protesters are just as willing to sacrifice individual animals for the common cause, and that sometimes you have to give up looking to find the thing you are looking for.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The internet: A disturbing turn of events

There is a phenomenon described in the literature which details the disinhibiting nature of the internet. I experienced it yesterday, and thus it came about that I discussed underpants gussets with another man, in a public forum. The conversation continued by email where we discussed our own specific underpants gusset attributes, and in passing I discovered that he is a runner, and he discovered that I am a cyclist.

The entire event was perfectly innocent - hell, I'm a married man - but somehow I still feel slightly soiled.

Damn internet.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Politics: groupthink

Just how deep into groupthink do you have to be to interpret suicide as a publicity stunt?

Thursday, June 08, 2006

London life: the big wheel keeps on turning...

...but they don't tell its direction.

Not every evening, but often enough to make it seem regular, a man rides past my window on a unicycle. He's not a clown, or a juggler, or any kind of entertainer. His unicycle isn't a ridiculously tall one. It's not painted a primary colour. It has no stripes. It's just a unicycle. Judging by the 20" wheel it's not a stunt unicycle, and judging by his backpack and cycling clothes he's not a stunt unicycle rider. He looks just like every cyclist commuter, except he's riding a unicycle.

You have to respect a unicycle commuter.