Monthly Archives: January 2011

Tucson, Arizona

Here in the UK, the dreadful shooting in Tucson, though powerfully tragic, is a distant atrocity, far away in cultural as well as geographical terms. We look on horrified through that odd hue all American TV footage shares and in particular, however sad we feel, I think sometimes the distance wrongly allows us to accept our lack of understanding. Even the accents on local reporters accentuates that gap. It has similar resonance to the murder of Salmaan Taseer in Pakistan – although rendered bigger news by the dramatic dominance of the USA over our culture (and by how awfully commonplace ideological murder is in Pakistan).

Reeling today, like everyone, I’m convinced it is far too easy for us to sigh and dismiss Tucson, Arizona as some near-alien place of hate-fuelled violence, to fall once again into the heartbreaking pajorative British trap of believing this is ‘normalcy’, that “Americans are stupid and/or dangerous”. You can smell hints of it in even the most sympathetic or liberal of UK newscasting today. Especially when even America itself, hurt and trying to gather perspective, is describing Arizona in such generalised, very negative terms.

This is so damn wrong. Today I need to write this: I’m a middle-class lefty Brit and (at least until the Coalition this year was catalyst for a protest rennaissance) I have long found far more opportunity to talk politics, ideology and social issues in measured terms in the USA than here in the UK, especially with younger people. Whatever their background (though I accept I come into contact with more white, privileged people than other kinds), in my experience it is a complete fallacy to write off yanks – including those away from the two coasts – as dumb or disinterested or isolationist. It is a sceptical (and stupid) mis-reading of sincerity, ambition and indeed cultural language.

And I need to write this: Tucson, Arizona is one of the most beautiful, welcoming cities I’ve ever visited. I haven’t been a lot, just passed through all-too-briefly, in the usual way as touring musician type. Yet for me it is the city of the Airplane Graveyard; beautiful little underground collective-run party shows; of Calexico; being driven up into incredible local desert by publisher Dan; of servers in Mexican cafés who hug spirit into you like a big sister when you leave their diner (in an Amma sort of way, not a Milf sort of way). In San Francisco I gigged with lush, clever prog-folk band Seashell Radio from Tucson – who immediately, unhesitatingly offered strangers a place to stay the second they found out we were coming to town. Albeit in a remote Internet-nurtured way, these are people and places I love and miss.

But I won’t also forget one aftershow conversation in Tucson with three young punk guys, last year – especially vivid and uncomfortable reflected in the light of this tragedy. They were atheist, anti-war, anti-racist and at their core socially progressive. Not trots/commies as we’d understand it – not so tax friendly, much closer to a Libertarian viewpoint – but they had no time for (no interest in) the GOP, religious extremism, FoxNews, big business or any of the reactionary mush. Yet at the same time, a key issue of liberty for them was the Second Amendment: the entire crew each owned guns, could use them comfortably and passionately believed in their right to carry one for self defence. This wasn’t boasting to the Limey – just one part of a broader conversation – what did make them boast excitedly was the bands they’d seen and roadtrips they’d done. The gun stuff was matter-of-fact, an attempt to explain. It was the single clearest social difference I saw between these Tucson guys and, say, southern Californian stoner kids of similar attitude and taste, who’ve (dickheads aside) never seen a gun in real life except on the belt of a cop or school guard.

I don’t claim any generalised presumptions about this, it was just one conversation at one gathering. And I remember being shocked and even, to a certain extent at the time, persuaded – if not of the rightness of it then at least of their sincerity and belief in the ‘right’ without ill intent.

But, no.

Tucson is not ‘to blame’. Deep down I know Palin, Beck, Limbaugh and O’Reilly aren’t ‘to blame’ either, although the cumulative effect of FoxNews’ relentless rabble-rousing rhetoric and persistent repetition of violent metaphor while encouraging direct action needs urgently addressing. No, it is the availability of, love for and culturally endemic pervasiveness of guns that is ‘to blame’, in as much as it is the major fulcrum that turns anger and murderous intent in disturbed and alienated people into actual murder.

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World Book Night needs a fringe

The World Book Night project is getting some hefty plugging from the BBC and the broadsheets, after an initial push on the Culture Show at the end of last year. It was conceived in 2009 by James Byng of Canongate at a talking shop to find new ideas for publishers. It is supported by the BBC along with a range of leading lights in publishing and run (intriguingly) as a ‘charitable company’.

The project asks people to apply to become ‘book givers’, picking a book that they wish to give out to lots of people. Recruits will each get 48 free copies of their chosen book and on one night – Sat 5th March 2011 – amid a co-ordinated wave of excitement and media interest, distribute them to the masses. On the same night, the organisation itself will give away books to places where they’re hard to get (they mention prisons and hospitals). Sounds ace.

I went to apply. I knew immediately what book I’d like to give out: Geoff Dyer‘s Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It. Not because it’s brilliant (though it is) but because of its lost potential as a popular classic. I know Dyer does OK but this book should’ve been huge, should’ve lined the supermarkets. I cannot imagine anyone not loving its heady brew of travel, drug-taking and intellectual detachment. In a post-Seinfeld Bruce Chatwin kind of way, it does precisely what World Book Night says on the tin.

But here’s the rub: there is (of course, how could I not have guessed?) a shortlist of 25 books from which you make your pick. Each of the 20,000 ‘book givers’ is actually giving out copies of one of these books. Now this is all thoroughly above board – the list of 25 was chosen by an esteemed panel, led by Radio 4’s Jim Naughtie. However they are all – without exception – already successful books from the major publishing houses (and written by authors who are already a high priority for those publishing houses). They are a mix of modern classics, recent bestsellers and prizewinners. Not trash by any means; it is a list of real quality, yet they are the big names.

On a personal level, I simply can’t find one I yearn to share. No, not even the Carol Ann Duffy. I’d pick Pullman’s beautiful Northern Lights but it’s the first of a trilogy, which is an appalling thing to give out free, like a first hit of smack. Suddenly World Book Night bothers me. Yet again, someone has a idea about sharing, then proceeds to lock out anyone not within a specific clique or mindset. It looks reductive instead of open-armed. Sharing a book isn’t simply a one-way patronising thing about encouraging people to read more, it’s an inspiration spreading process. Why, damn it, can’t I get 48 free copies of Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It and throw them around instead of the Heaney poetry collection I studied at Sixth Form? All the prizes and marketing games work this way: the ‘threefer’ discount arrangements work this way. The post-Richard and Judy Book Club things work this way.

Nevertheless I propose not an alternative but a complement:

Let’s have a World Book Night Fringe. Let’s not start from a top-down ‘selection’ but start from a bottom-up process where ‘book giver’ applicants pick a book they’d truly love to share. Then the author/publisher is approached with the request; decides how many ‘book givers’ they can afford to supply. Doesn’t need to be 48 copies each time, why not just 10 copies for each ‘book giver’ of the World Book Night Fringe books? Your core 25 authors and their publishers still get the lion’s share of PR, still get lauded on telly for giving some free books out and “promoting literacy” but at least some of those around the edges get to join in and taste a piece of the action. More importantly, the whole shebang becomes a two-way game, genuinely edifying for authors, publishers, ‘book givers’ and recipients alike – instead of just the illusion of a blanket (‘charitable’) initiative disguising simple commercial intention.

Perhaps I’m naive about how many books can be spared for free distribution but I suspect not. And as usual, I propose something I don’t have the wherewithal to put into action. But it would be simple to arrange if someone did – and it would make my own experience of World Book Night vastly better.

Screw the admin, next week I’m writing to Geoff Dyer to ask if he’s got any free copies lying around of that wonderful old book he wrote.