Monday, September 29, 2008

The Palin honeymoon is over...

When John McCain first announced that Sarah Palin would be his running mate, it looked like the act of a madman or a genius. It was a high-risk strategy that appeared to be paying off, if the opinion polls were anything to go by. My heart sank.

Sarah Palin seemed to represent everything that your average, Christian, racist, gun-toting, small-town American stood for. Even when it was revealed that her unmarried 17-year old daughter was up the duff (embarrassing, given Palin's opposition to sex education in schools) her approval rating was unharmed. She's just like us, people seemed to think.

Then she opened her mouth:

Hopefully the honeymoon is over and the Americans will now see sense, but don't bet on it. George W Bush was, after all, elected at least once.

Amusingly, the Saturday Night Live team decided to do a parody of this interview, but in the end felt that it would be far more amusing to repeat Palin's comments verbatim:

Saturday, September 27, 2008

David Karp - the mystery deepens...

A few days ago I finished David Karp's One - a novel about the role of an individual in a totalitarian society. It seemed to be heavily influenced by Nineteen Eighty-Four, but whether the author had read Orwell's book (which was published five years earlier) or not, I didn't feel that it diminished the integrity of Karp's vision. Why was this novel out of print?

I discovered that David Karp had written six novels, but in his mid-40s, switched to writing for television. Why did Karp abandon books? Also, why was it so hard to find any information about David Karp on the internet? The logical explanation was that One was an accomplished, but derivative first novel, which was never equalled by its successors. I decided to put my theory to the test and read another Karp novel. Once again, Camilla's Bookshop in Eastbourne came up trumps:

I am only a third of the way into Leave Me Alone, but so far it is excellent. Set in the world of publishing, this novel reminds me strongly of Richard Yates. Like Yates, David Karp has a gift for depicting the plight of the mildly talented, burdened with artistic sensibility and the painful, growing realisation of their own mediocrity.

I'm absolutely certain that if it was reissued, Leave Me Alone would appeal to a new generation of readers. The Richard Yates revival shows that there is an appetite for this sort of fiction and the popularity of Mad Men clearly demonstrates how fascinated people are by the New York of 50 years ago.

However, I'm not sure if any publishers read this blog. When I worked for Waterstone's I tried to keep a low profile in the book trade, as I knew that my employers were quite paranoid about blogs. Indeed, when one of my colleagues wrote a mildly critical comment on her blog about G.P.Taylor, she received a visit from the Waterstone's Human Resources department.

Now that I'm a free man, perhaps I should write some inflammatory posts about people in the book trade to attract attention and, hopefully, bring authors like David Karp and John Christopher to the attention of publishers. I could mention how grumpy Terry Pratchett is (or how offensive some people find G.P.Taylor) and point out that bestselling children's author Lucy Daniels is actually two gay men in Notting Hill. I wouldn't bother saying anything about how obnoxious Jeffrey Archer is, as that would be no surprise to anyone. However, fans of Emma Blair might be shocked to learn that the good lady is a burly, Glaswegian gentleman who used to serve in the British Army. I could also mention how one publisher tried to sell the latest John Francombe novel to me on the basis that they'd 'changed the ghostwriter'.

But would any of this make any difference?

Probably not.

In the meantime, I shall continue to read Leave Me Alone and I have also just received a copy of Sleepwalkers - a reasonable 4/- to all opponents of Base 10:

I apologise if I seem to have a monomania (I love that word) about David Karp. I just can't believe that such an accomplished author is so unjustly neglected. If anyone can provide me with an answer, I'd be interested to hear it. In the meantime, read One!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The David Karp revival starts here

Until I found this novel in the cavernous basement of Camilla's Bookshop in Eastbourne, I had never heard of David Karp. I can't remember why One caught my eye, but as soon as I read the blurb on the inside front cover, I was intrigued:

'The publishers have bracketed this novel with Darkness at Noon, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, which I at first thought presumptuous; but now, after reading it, I am inclined to agree.' - Cyril Connolly

The rather worn copy on the shelf was priced £1, so I decided to trust Cyril Connolly and take a chance. I had reservations. If David Karp was that good, then why had I never come across his name in nearly twenty years of bookselling? I added One to my pile of unread books, only half expecting to ever get round to reading it.

I have just finished reading One and although I wouldn't rate it as highly as Nineteen Eighty-Four, I was surprised at how good it was.

I think it would be safe to assume that Karp had read Orwell's novel and was heavily influenced by it, as certain scenes in the book are strongly reminiscent of Winston Smith's encounters with O'Brien. If that it is the case, it doesn't diminish Karp's narrative. However, if Karp hadn't read Nineteen Eighty-Four, then it makes One even more remarkable.

To give you an idea of the novel, here is a brief extract:

'Do you know how long you must stay here now?'

Yes, yes, forever, forever.

'Only until you rid yourself of your heresies'

Never. Never. I can never do it.

'You will do it'

I cannot.

'You will or you will die here.'

Then let me die soon.

'You will die when you must. But not for a long time.'

I will die sooner.

'You will not. You will live out your life.'

I can't do what you ask.

'You must. Who told you you were brighter than your friends?'

My father, my mother, my brother, my teachers, everyone.

'They were wrong.'

No they were right. I could see that.

'They used the wrong measure of intelligence.'

They didn't. They used the correct measure.

'An intelligent man is a happy man, is he not?'

No, he is not. My father was intelligent, but he was not happy.

'Your father was not intelligent. The aim of life is happiness. Without happiness a life is without meaning.'

The aim of life is reason. Without reason life is without meaning.

'Would you rather be happy than rational?'

A lunatic can be happy without being rational. You are all lunatics. The moon will change its phase and your madness will pass as happiness will pass. The dark side of the moon is coming and with it your unhappiness.

Jeffrey Archer it ain't. Why isn't this novel more widely known?

David Karp was born in New York City in 1922. In 1942 he joined the US Army and served in the Far East until 1946, when he left to continue his education. Karp wrote six novels in his 30s, but abandoned books for a screenwriting career, writiing scripts for series including The Untouchables. Karp's work in television was very successful and he won two Emmys.

Other than this brief outline, and a short obituary published in the NY Times after his death in 1999, there is very little information on the internet about David Karp. I find this baffling.

One is a very accomplished work of dystopian fiction and however derivative it may (or may not) be, it is far superior to many novels that are currently in print. Secondhand copies aren't difficult to get hold of, but I would love to see this reissued by Penguin, in their Modern Classics series.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Old people aren't what they used to be

Old people are very fond of moaning about declining standards, but it's time they took a good look at themselves. In my day, old people wore hats and dressed smartly, even when they were just popping out to post a letter. Take my grandfather, for example. He was a proper Cockney and spent his working life as an unskilled labourer, but he wouldn't have dreamed of going out without a hat and tie:

Compare him to today's old men and it is clear that sartorial standards have declined:

How can the young be expected to behave well when their elders are setting such a bad example? Something has to be done; but what?

I would like to see Britain's old men wearing tweeds, accompanied by appropriate hats and, perhaps, a meerschaum pipe. Obviously it would be wrong to force people to dress in this manner, but perhaps the Government could provide an incentive of some sort, like free Werther's Originals to anyone who conformed to the stipulated code.

I would also encourage facial hair, however it would have to be stressed that an unruly beard full of dried soup would be worse than no beard at all. Ideally, a neat, well-groomed moustache would complement the country casuals perfectly.

As for old ladies, I would like to see a return to sensible, muted tones and hats that looked slightly silly, in an endearing way. The garish coats with clashing colours, bought from mail order adverts in the Radio Times, would have to go. Facial hair, although common, would not be encouraged.

In return for adopting a more dignified countenance, I would ensure that our elders were given the respect that previous generations of retired people enjoyed. It's a win-win situation.

Apart from the death thing, I can't wait to be old. I would love to parade around town in a deerstalker and plus fours, spending my evenings reading by a log fire. 30 years seems an awfully long time to wait. Supposing I'm struck down by cancer before I even get a chance to pop down to the gentlemen's outfitters? I will feel cheated.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous...

Until this weekend, my knowledge of fungi was extremely limited. As far as I was concerned, there were five kinds:

  1. The white mushrooms that you can buy in Tesco's and other supermarkets
  2. The posh, unusual mushrooms that Waitrose sell
  3. The unpleasant moulds that appear in damp houses
  4. Athlete's Foot
  5. 'Recreational' mushrooms
However, I now know that the world of fungi is infinitely more varied than I dared to imagine, as I have spent most of this weekend in a wonderful place called Wilderness Woods (I would recommend it to anyone living within a 50-mile radius of Hadlow Down, East Sussex).

I visited Wilderness Woods in a mood of desperation, hoping that it would give my sons an opportunity to exhaust their seemingly endless reserves of energy. As far as I'm concerned, children are like dogs and need to be exercised at least once a day. The analogy ends there - dogs are much easier than children and show far more gratitude when you take them out (but just as you really start to care about them they die of old age - it's not a good arrangement).

Wilderness Woods was a success. My sons were able to run around, build dens and let their imaginations run riot without any constraints. In the meantime, I became obsessed with the incredible variety of fungi that were present. I have seen toadstools before, but this was something different. Perhaps the appalling English summer - the worst on record - had been responsible for this amazing proliferation of mushrooms and fungi:

Can you see a face in the mushroom above, or do I need to see my GP?

There is something both beautiful and repugnant about mushrooms and fungi. I think the golden rule is that they're great in a woodland setting, but not so good on the genitals or feet.

In the picture above, I can almost see the head of a mackerel. Can you see it, or have I been under the influence of the more magical members of the mushroom family?

And now for the ridiculous. On the way home, we drove over the River Uck. The bridge we went across has, for many years, sported a sign that has been subject to petty vandalism, with local humorists adding an 'F' to the Uck. Eventually, the Highways Agency commissioned a customised sign that would leave no room for any vulgar consonants and for several years it seemed to work. However, where there's a will there's a way...

Yes it's puerile, but it still makes me laugh and I find it touching that someone has gone to so much effort on this busy road. I'm still waiting for someone to convert Sussex Drive to Sex Drive.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Anthony Burgess

This morning I wrote some nonsense about Anthony Burgess. I didn't know what I was talking about. All I can say is that I've read Clockwork Orange (one customer asked me for a Chocolate Orange) and he popped in my shop. Once.

Here he is in 1968, sporting a superb haircut and speaking in tongues:

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Grey is the Colour of Hope?

I've been receiving some careers guidance recently and it has been very useful. Within four weeks I have gone from having no idea what to do with my life to being in a position where I am ready to start training for a new career. Best of all, this advice has been completely free.

During my first session I completed a detailed questionnaire on a computer, which then produced a report saying that I should do a job that involves writing. It also said that the job I was least suited to was working in a shop. Oh dear. Were all those years in bookselling a waste of time?

Today's session was meant to be in Lewes, but at the last minute it was changed to Newhaven. My heart sank.

Although it is only eight miles from Lewes, culturally, Newhaven is on another continent, with a landscape that is unremittingly bleak. Once a thriving port, it is now a depressed town full of charity shops, boarded-up buildings and retail parks.

The billboard says 'IS THIS IT?'. The answer, I'm afraid, is yes. The poster is crying out for some wag to add a SH to the last word.

I arrived at midday. After parking my car I opened a door to a stairwell and was met by a stench of rancid urine. I decided to walk down the ramps instead and as I left the car park, was greeted by a dozen chavs sitting on a bench. I would have loved to photograph them, but I chickened out as I already have enough dental problems. They looked a lot rougher than the young men above and were busy playing with their pit bull terriers and drinking lager. One of them had a toddler in a pushchair.

The people in Newhaven wore strange, shoddy clothes and were either obese or had that gaunt, drawn look that accompanies substance abuse. I contrasted them with the affluent, attractive, well dressed denizens of Lewes and thought of some of my friends who claim that class isn't an issue any more.

This is the River Ouse, which is actually very pleasant a few miles upstream. Here the scene is one of desolation and looks more like one of the more obscure former Soviet republics. The ferry service to France still operates and I can only wonder what the French must think as they catch their first glimpses of England, which include an abandoned warehouse with smashed windows.

A few miles to the east, the Cuckmere estuary is one of the most scenic places on the south coast. Sadly this part of the coast has been completely ruined. The muddy river banks are littered with traffic ones, shopping trolleys and scrap metal and the atmosphere is one of decay. There is talk of regenerating Newhaven and a block of swanky 'apartments' have been built by the seafront, but the town is also shortly going to be graced with an incinerator, pumping toxic fumes into air.

What could be done to improve Newhaven, short of using atomic weapons? I don't know. There are some nice Victorian houses tucked away and perhaps they would attract a better mix of people if the town was redeveloped, but it would cost a fortune to really improve Newhaven. Vast tracts of land would have to be flattened and replaced with a mixture of parks and leisure facilities. Also, to convert the seafront from a decayed port to a vibrant coastal town would take years.

But it would be worth it.

I wouldn't like to visit Newhaven on a Friday night. I didn't feel particularly comfortable being there on a Tuesday afternoon and saw several people glare at me (was it the pink cravat?). However, I did see one smiling face that cheered me up:

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Museum of Forgotten Lives

One of the best things about Lewes is its Flea Market - a vast emporium of antiques and collectables housed in a large, converted Methodist Chapel. At first glance it seems a fairly typical antiques centre. However, the usual displays of jewellery, china, furniture and art are augmented by some very bizarre items, and the end result looks like a cross between a Mike Nelson art installation and a museum curated by a madman.

The end result is both tragic and comic.

On the one hand, it is hard not to be amused by the picture below: a dreadful, Boris Vallejo-esque depiction of the slaying of the Minotaur. The juxtaposition of this painting with a 1981 Royal Wedding souvenir tin adds to the absurdity of the scene. But there is perhaps an unintentional poignancy too, given the Greek tragedy of Charles and Diana's marriage.

The scene below is also superficially comic, but I can't help wondering what the couple in the photo would have thought if they'd known that, 80 years later, their picture would no longer adorn the wall of a home, but sit behind a naked manikin waiting to be bought by someone who would probably just keep the frame.

This is a studio portrait and it looks as if the couple are wearing their 'Sunday best'. Are they man and wife or father and daughter? I would love to know their story and find out how the picture came to be abandoned, but there were no clues on the back of the frame.

There are several albums of photos from the 1920s and 30s, including one of a well-to-do couple on a cruise in the Mediterranean. Sitting in deckchairs, sipping cocktails, they look like characters from an Evelyn Waugh novel and it is sad that, within less than a century, they lie nameless and forgotten in an upmarket junk shop.

Perhaps the oddest thing of all is this filing cabinet, which has two drawers with labels on which the word Holocaust is crossed out and replaced with 'car docs' and 'note books'.

The Flea Market gives the visitor an archaeology of the human soul (pretentious, moi?), offering tantalising fragments of lost lives and bygone fashions. Many of its items are neither beautiful or useful and are probably doomed to remain unsold until they end up on a landfill site.

I wonder what will become of us all, with our thousands of photos and countless possessions? We have produced more written material since 1945 than the in whole of human history, and even the largest bookshops can only stock a fraction of what is in print. I would at least like to think that in 200 years time, my descendants would have some record of my existence. However, my visits to the local rubbish dump and Lewes Flea Market don't fill me with hope.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Nun on the Run

I am trying not to buy books at the moment, as my house is sinking into the ground. The ground floor is already like a basement flat and it is only a matter of time before I have to leave via the upstairs window. However, when you see books like this it's impossible to resist:

I saw this in a charity shop last week and would have bought it just for the gaudy, sensationalist 1950s cover. It's an added bonus that this is a well-written, fascinating memoir of an extraordinary woman.

Born in 1893, Monica Baldwin was the niece of the British Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. In 1914, at the age of 21, she entered a convent and for the next 27 years was completely cut off from the outside world, apart from the occasional visit from 'Uncle Stan' and other family members. Baldwin was barely aware of the First World War and monumental events like the General Strike and votes for women passed her by.

In 1941 she decided to leave her convent (sadly she doesn't say why) and this memoir is an account of her struggle to adapt to a society that had changed beyond all recognition. What makes it such a fascinating read is that Britain in the 1940s is almost as alien to her as is to us and she observes fascinating details that her contemporaries would probably regard as barely worth mentioning.

Here is her account of a train journey:

I studied my fellow travellers. There were some soldiers, rather red about the ears and smelling of beer and hot khaki, and two or three hatless young women with padded shoulders and purple nails. All had cigarettes between their lips. I had never seen a woman smoke in a railway carriage before. Their skirts were of a shortness which still shocked me a little; but then, my own were, after all, nothing to boast about, if it came to that.

Staying with her aunt in Sussex, Baldwin is determined to get to grips with the modern world and spends her days either listening to the wireless or reading. Evelyn Waugh's Put Out More Flags made her 'gasp and wonder what the world was coming to'.

But I Leap Over the Wall isn't just an outsider's account of Britain in the 1940s. It's also, in the author's words, an attempt to 'write accurately and fairly about life in an enclosed convent' and counter some of the 'fantastically wrong ideas about nuns and convents'.

Like too many good books, Baldwin's memoir is out of print (unless you include an expensive, hardback reprint). Fortunately, because this was a bestseller in its time, it's easy to obtain secondhand copies of I Leap Over the Wall from the usual sources. If you particularly want the wonderful Pan cover, look out for the 1957 paperback edition.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Ten reasons to be afraid...

The other day I caught the end of a headline: McCain picks Palin as running mate. It was a bold but masterly decision. Everyone loves Michael Palin and his affable, self-effacing temperament would be sure to win over any voters who were put off John McCain's belicose foreign policy. Also, with his extensive knowledge of different countries, Palin could help the Americans avoid the sort of gaffes that made George W Bush such a liability (remember his speech about the Pakis?).

Later I discovered that it is another Palin who has been selected. In an attempt to woo both the far right and more militant Hillary Clinton fans, John McCain has picked an obscure Alaskan politician called Sarah Palin.

She used to look like this:

These days she has a more business-like image:

Today, Sarah Palin is a respectable, 44-year-old 'hockey mom' of five, who also happens to be the State Govenor of Alaska. Like 99.99% of the world, I had never heard of her and wanted to learn more about this woman who could, potentially, become America's first female President.

Here are ten things I've found out about Sarah Palin:
  1. She is a member of the National Rifle Association
  2. She does not believe that global warming is caused by human activity
  3. Palin is pro-life, opposing abortion for victims of rape or incest
  4. She has five children called Track, Trig, Bristol, Willow and Piper (named, I supect, after North Sea oil rigs)
  5. Palin is very religious and supports teaching creationism alongside evolution
  6. She opposes sex education in schools, prefering abstinence-only classes
  7. Her unmarried 17-year-old daughter is pregnant
  8. Palin is opposed to same-sex marriages or civil partnerships
  9. She opposes making polar bears an endangered species and wants Alaska opened up for oil exploration
  10. She has been a state governor for two years
Oh dear.

In an ideal world, the American electorate would choose Barack Obama. President Obama would be a force for good both in the USA and the world at large, helping to reverse the damage done by eight years of George Bush. However, the cynical part of me expects Obama to compromise with the more conservative forces in Washington (or run the risk of being assasinated) as Bill Clinton had to, but this would still be hugely preferable to having McCain in the White House.

If elected, John McCain would be the oldest President of the United States and whilst he has displayed a tremendous amount of energy on the campaign trail, the fact remains that there is a very real possibility that he could pop his clogs whilst in office, leaving us with President Palin.

That's a scary thought.

I want to see a woman in the White House, but not this particular one.