Category Archives: Domestic

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.


New Year’s Resolutions

What are your New Year’s Resolutions? This year mine are:

1. stop swearing. *

2. show up. **

3. fewer tweets but more words. ***

4. fewer treats. ****

* songs don’t count but onstage banter does.
** too often in 2010 I missed out by staying home. no more!
*** twitter makes long-form writing harder. Rationing one will fix the other.
**** I finally nailed exercise in 2010, so in 2011 at last I’m breaking the pattern.

Why I wear a white poppy.

I wear a white poppy for Remembrance Week for this reason: I want to use this time to remember and think about all those whose lives have been blighted by war, just like others do. But I do not support the Royal British Legion. Instead I prefer a sister symbol that is equally as meaningful and as historically and ideologically valid, with the same underlying intention.

The white poppy has been around since 1933 and grew as a symbol of remembrance alongside – rather than later than – the red poppy. Crucially, the white poppy is an alternative to – not in opposition to – the red poppy. It is not a political symbol, certainly not a combative symbol of ‘the left’ but a quiet, traditional pacifist one. Pacifism is a non-threatening minority belief, often faith-led (such as with the Religious Society of Friends – the Quakers – from whom I learnt the history and significance of the white poppy).

That the red poppy has become so culturally ubiquitous makes no difference: I’m not being grandstanding or oppositional. I accept it is a non-conformist choice but I do not accept that anyone has an inalienable right to take offence at my different choice of symbol. And most importantly I do not want to just ignore this important week and wear nothing at all.

By the way, I don’t ‘oppose’ the RBL and I’m not making any criticism of that charitable organisation in this blog, however it is perfectly reasonable to choose not to support one particular charity. Most prefer the red poppy. That’s of course fine – and I agree that I too prefer to see people wearing a red poppy than nothing at all this week (although I’d never actually attack someone for not wearing a symbol, that would be ludicrous). But please do not be fooled by the current immense dominance of the RBL’s red poppy, into thinking that the other is somehow a lesser response, or that somehow one charity has ownership of the very concept of honouring those affected by war: it is simply not true. In truth, they grew together as they grow together in the ground and white and red poppies are different slants on the same desire to honour the fallen.

I honestly didn’t want to soapbox and I’m also aware that I’m the wrong person to write about it really, since I have such strident, politicised shouty opinions about other subjects; it ought to be someone else. I wish this was Judi Dench’s blog! Obviously, like most, I had family members who fought in the World Wars, though I shouldn’t have to mention this, to make it personal.

But this year I’ve read and experienced more aggressive opposition to the white poppy than in several years wearing one. And today I feel I must write something: the unpleasant straw that broke the camel’s back was this ignorant – non-explanatory yet idiotically, almost psychotically bullying – blog entry by The Telegraph‘s Damian Thompson, who asks that people actually make rude gestures towards those of us who’ve opted for the white poppy – or worse! I do think The Telegraph should be ashamed of such a malignant stance: to encourage assaulting someone for wearing a symbol of their belief is not only an act of cowardice but it’s an attack on exactly what previous generations fought to preserve. Mr Thompson, my experience of white poppy wearers is not of young, ranty or political hippie/lefty types at all: it is primarily of elderly (often with direct experience of war) Quakers. These are quietly some of the bravest, most stalwart and humble people we have in Britain. Furthermore their collective non-conformist, progressive thoughtfulness through our history has made great strides for our stumbling civilisation. If you doubt this, ask a descendent of slaves, or the grandchild of someone from the Friends Ambulance Unit, pacifist Quakers who went unarmed across the front lines of World War One to rescue the injured and reclaim the bodies.

If you truly can’t get over the appearance of the (occasional) white poppy in amongst the sea of red then, at least before sticking two fingers up at an ageing conscientious objector, or debasing your public forum with rude nonsense, please ask yourself this: what would you have us do? Would you prefer we wear no symbol of remembrance at all?

not so bad

Last night, half-listening to – without watching – one of those TV programmes where bratty errant Brit kids are sent off to unusual camps run by caring Christian Americans…

What would happen if you tried to make today’s young generations fight the First World War? The thought is hilarious, beyond impossible; you’d get laughed at and resisted and ignored completely, with no amount of state or legal persuasion having any effect. And that’s good. When people suggest national service or say “we need a good war” (or even offer less militarised ideas such as civic duty or national community service) as solutions to the ‘problem’ of youngsters today, it has the opposite to the desired effect with me: reminds me that I’d rather see generations of venal, selfish (or at least self-aware/self-absorbed), materialist hoodie kids loping around the place, than the sort of generation who picked up guns, abandoned their families en masse and got on boats and planes without question, to go kill foreigners ‘for their country’.

Yes they’re admired for heroism and our kids miss out on that. But overwhelmingly, the vast masses on all sides were valueless cattle fodder who put themselves through the worst hell imaginable for unexplained ideologies and feuds, to prop up monumental injustices and inequalities of old, massively exploitative systems that they didn’t understand. The little shit with an iPod up too loud on the train doesn’t seem so bad.

True, there are serious, real problems at the extremes that need sorting out and rolling back; drink and drugs and knives, willful ignorance and burgeoning nihilism.

But I don’t think we ought to wish away fiery independence, or strong sense of self-worth, or noisy exuberance, as buffers to our ridiculous modern world.

And true, it’s worth looking back to those times for lost skills and humility as life gets harder.

But I don’t think we ought to over-worship the humble, thrifty, quiet, devoted, loyal, faithful, monstrously stupid motherfuckers who, when the aristocracy demanded, blindly shouldered the burden of killing that was World War One.

My column got spiked

Over the weekend I wrote my Morning Star column, which this week is about LSD. Then yesterday, for the first time, the editor refused to publish it. 

The subs told me: “Not that we’re anti-drugs or anything, but he reckons you’ve crossed a line by actively, massively advocating the stuff.”  

So I’ve written them something new, which I’ll email in the morning, though it’s probably too late for this week’s copy of the paper.

Meanwhile here’s the column they didn’t want. If you regularly read this blog but not my MS columns, it’s worth remembering this was written for print, not a blog, with their house style in mind (ie. it’s a bit different from most of my blog entries and not so readable onscreen!) and also it might be old hat because I’ve boffed on about this subject here already. But anyway… 

Chris thinks we should all get high.

Of all the illegal drugs that I think should be legalised – which is all of them – top of my wish list for a Get Out Of Jail Free card would be LSD.

I know when you argue for legalising drugs, you’re supposed to place your argument within the context of accepting that they are fundamentally a Bad Thing. Drugs are bad, m’kay?

I know legalisation or decriminalisation are meant to be presented as a strategic change-of-approach for combating drug use. I also know lots of people have ruined their lives by getting hopelessly addicted to substances, legal or illegal.

But with all that in mind, the point I want to make is: acid is bloody fantastic and, if you haven’t had a go before, I think your life would almost certainly improve if you tried some tomorrow.

What else have you got on? Get home from work and spend dinner time discussing whether Kate should’ve won The Apprentice, or why the nazis got two seats in Europe? Doesn’t sound like much fun to me. Then you’ll probably watch telly.

No access to a dealer? Ask anyone you know in the arts, or your scruffiest friend, or best of all, your kids’ coolest mate, to hook you up.

In one go, you’ll not only score but also your son or daughter will suddenly have fat kudos to spare, once the school rumour mill finds out their parents know how to party.

What you need is a warm summer evening, some trustworthy old friends and a pleasant field. Maybe take a picnic. Don’t try LSD out clubbing though, because you’ll get your head done in.

“Mind expanding” is a clichéd and vilified phrase, yet it is drop-dead accurate, when referring to acid. Apart from what you may get up to while you’re not quite in control – which is itself largely myth – it’s about as dangerous as a cup of coffee.

On acid, I have thought, visualised, smelled, heard and imagined in ways different to those which my mind was/is capable of straight. It’s not in any way a replacement for ‘real’ experience, however it is a powerful, memorable additional experience.

Cocaine is a drug about me, me, me. Marijuana is a drug about doing nothing and eating crisps. Booze is a drug about fighting, crying and kebabs. MDMA (ecstacy) is about hugging people on the dancefloor while the beat goes on.

But I believe LSD is a drug about tapping directly into whatever it is that we channel as creative. So, almost God then. A direct line to the part of our brain we most need more of in our existence.

By the way, sorry if the acronym “LSD” sounds scarily out-of-date and a bit faux-hippie, especially when most kids talk like an episode of The Wire and blow their allowances on ounces of cocaine.

I only started calling it LSD recently because I realised that when you say “acid” in the United States, quite a few people don’t actually know what you’re talking about. I guess the nickname never filtered across the Atlantic properly.

At the end of last year, I got back into acid as a creative tool, after a long, long break and I’ve been working on some improvised (mainly piano and electronic) music under its gorgeous influence, ever since. I set up recording equipment in the living room, get high and play piano or mess around with beats until I get bored and do something else. No idea whether it’s any good – only time will tell – but it’s a lot of fun and I feel that the rest of my creative life has been enrichened by the experiment.

Quite apart from unbanning the stuff, it should probably be on the national curriculum or added to MMR.

Amid the MPs’ expenses scandal, we’re finally beginning to understand the extent to which we, the public, can not know stuff. Conspiracists and engaged sceptics have understood this all along; that assuming huge, grand sleight-of-hand tricks upon the wider public can’t take place because of checks and balances is just poppycock.

So here comes the next layer – that they’re all junkies as well. Those who seek to control our personal behaviour through the making of laws are either rattled out of their minds on expensive whisky, snorting cocaine, or, it turns out, stealing every duck pond they can get their grubby mits on.

Let’s do a substance analysis of all the pipework in the Houses Of Parliament. If they don’t find just the fattest, fuck-off-est proportion of cocaine, I’ll be very surprised.

More than that, it’s a grand addiction to stuff. Material possessions as the mark of status – the classic capitalist fail. You know, the current recession is one of the biggest arguments I can think of for living the life you really want to live. Fuck the law and the fear of poverty; if there’s a thing you want to try or a place you need to visit, you’ve got to just do it.

And if that includes taking a beautiful hallucinogen that will make even just one evening unforgettable, then stop being such a pussy and go for it.

The Moz-pot

I’ve had an unusually strong response this week – in both directions – to the Morning Star column about Morrissey and David Walliams. Funny, because I was expecting a much bigger response to the violently angry blog entry, which never came. I guess if you write about a galvanising figure (La Moz more than La Wally), your readership will be ambivalent. 

One of the column’s keenest critics is Jim Bob’s manager and acetastic Englishman-in-LA blogger Marc. But I find his emailed responses so fascinating, enjoyable and amusing that I must be careful not to deliberately write columns just to catch his attention – I’m ashamed to say I focused on Morrissey at least partly inspired by knowing Marc was listening to his new album (in at number 11 in the USA no less!) and would react strongly to my opinion. Anyway, we’ve spent a lot of time together and love arguing about things.

This morning, Rifa and me walked around Preston Park and it was lovely in the sunshine, hardly anyone there except a few pooch-draggers. Reminded me for the first time in ages why I love Brighton so much, contrasting with regular thoughts recently of moving on somewhere else. If only California weren’t bust. 

Hmm, I think I’ll write about Battlestar Galactica and the BBC’s coverage of the U2 album next.

new year’s day part 2: boiling over (part 1 later)

Happy new year.

Upstairs, the boiler suddenly starts making a horrendously loud, relentlessly intense clattering. Like it’ll explode in seconds. Christopher runs upstairs. Pushes some buttons, it gets louder. Switches it off. Despite having only bled the radiators in the last two days, young Chris is convinced the boiler fan has bust. Nothing else could make that noise.

Looks at instructions and warranty. Boiler is only 2 years old but just out of guarantee, apparently. Chris shitting it. Cold night, no shower, two hot water bottles.

In the morning, Chris phones the man who installed it. No longer there – doesn’t exist anymore.

Phones Glowzone, who give a rough quote over phone that comes to something over £400, if the fan is broken. Apparently parts for Worcester Bosch Greenstar are pricey because it’s “so new”. Chris shitting it some more. Glowzone advert says “no callout charge” but they have a hefty “diagnosis fee” (huh?) which is then refunded off the work.

Chris then phones Our Man In Brighton, Tim from Pioneer (fantastic, reliable, etc. etc. – they’ve done everything from our whole bathroom – pissing all over a B&Q botch job that we escaped just in time – to replacing our kitchen ceiling).

Tim sends round Russell just 20 minutes later (I kid you not). Russell points out that the pressure gauge is on zero. “Did you just bleed the radiators?” he asks.

Young Chris can barely type this bit. Adopts a slight working-class drawl to minimise cringing middle classness. Result: sounds like Jamie Oliver.

“Um. Yeah.”

“Well you have to bring the water pressure back up obviously, otherwise the boiler is a kettle with no water in.”

“Oh. God.”

“That’s why the gauge here, right on the front, was down at zero.”

“Oh yeah. God. Sorry.”

“‘S’alright, I earn £100 an hour.”

Well… some twats dialed 999 when they got the flu bug.