My new book, The Detective and the Devil, is published on April 21st. In the run-up to that date, I’m putting some extracts from the book, and some snippets from my research notes, into Twitter and Facebook. They’re collected here, via Storify.
Cross-posted from Medium.
As a parent whose kids grew up alongside the developing ubiquity of mobile connected devices and social media, I have grown pretty used to adopting a curmudgeonly line on the subject of ‘being present’ at the kitchen table, in the car, on holiday. We all know the routine — where humans, and especially young humans, cluster together their eyes will inevitably flicker towards tiny screens behind which lurk all their social connections, hungry for chatter, vampiric in their need for attention.
‘Just turn the bloody thing off,’ I’d say, stabbing the air with my fork in the general direction of a connected device. ‘Be with the people you’re with.’ At which points eyes would roll and a tut would sound and we’d all feel comfortable with our assigned social roles: the Traditional Old Dad Who’s Playing Up His Inner Luddite will tonight by played by Lloyd, the surly offspring who thinks he Just Does Not Get It will be played by one of two adolescents.
In fact, my view has, if anything, become more prevalent. There’s a new working assumption that constant distraction is A Bad Thing, and that we are somehow becoming a species of needy morons twitching at the sound of every new mobile notification.
Thing is, though — I think I might have been very wrong about this. Because now my daughter’s at university, and my son’s often at work when I’m at home because he runs a bar and that means late nights. A couple of hours ago, I texted my daughter a picture of a Welsh castle we’d visited, and she replied an hour later to say she’d seen it. My son will often text me weird questions in the early hours of the morning, which I’ll find on my phone when I wake up.
Both of these things are ‘presence’, just of a different kind. What mobile connected devices have provided is something my parents never had — a continual and intensely satisfying reassurance that my children are potentially present at all times, that we remain connected at all times if only digitally so, such that my daughter’s university room is almost a shadow room in my own house, and the reality of my son sitting on a stranger’s sofa discussing obscure movie references is available to me as a confirmed memory the following morning, even though I never experienced it directly.
So, if you’ve got teenage offspring, and you’re cheerfully chastising them for Snapchatting with the friends they saw LIKE AN HOUR AGO, remember this. Their friends are present to them in ways you will only be able to dream of when your children are no longer alongside you, when a few words and a picture on a palm-sized screen provides reassurance, connection and remembrance. This is entirely normal to your children, but this does not make it any less wondrous.
I really didn’t like Spectre but couldn’t quite be bothered putting down into words why not. It’s only a Bond film, after all, and we’re all grown-ups, aren’t we? Luckily, someone could be bothered, and their review is bang on.
Spectre is like coitus interruptus over and over again, a series of scenes that encourage hopes of a big bang and then, rushed or abandoned, end with a whimper.
I wrote the stuff below yesterday, and then saved it in draft form, and then re-read it this morning and found it to be utterly disgusting. Dreary managerialist politics, combining a narrow view of possibility with an out-of-date ‘party before politics’ dogmatism and a lingering odour of Blairite electoral cynicism. It ignores the possibility of a new politics. It assumes the electorate cannot be convinced of the need for a new economic prescription. England, it seems to say, is really an emotionally Tory country, and always will be.
Disgusting, like I say. Unadventurous, careful, dispassionate, cold.
I still agree with it. Every line. I hate myself, obviously.
This was going to be an elegant essay on the various considerations involved in electing the new leader of the Labour party. But my ballot paper arrived today, and when I opened it I realised I didn’t have the capacity to make a reasoned argument for or against any of the candidates.
It comes down to this, really:
- There’s no point in being a member of a political party that can’t get into government, alone or in coalition. Which means reaching out to people who one doesn’t agree with. That seems self-evident to me, and anyone who doesn’t recognise it is being childish.
- Historically, Labour only wins a significant parliamentary majority when the Tory administration is worn out and the Labour leader has broad appeal. In other words, the electorate has to be disgusted and/or bored with the Tories before it turns to Labour, and even then will only do so when it believes in the Labour leader. At the moment, neither of these things looks like being the case by 2020.
- All the candidates are profoundly weak in their own unique ways. Not one of them, for instance, can make a decent speech, a tub-thumping speech. Two of them can’t even do that. This is another way of saying none of them can win a general election unless something very dramatic happens. (Tony Blair, incidentally, was a magnificent speaker, as was Kinnock, as was Smith. Labour’s lost its magnificent oratorical tradition, and needs to find it again)
- Corbyn and Kendall have the virtue of saying what they believe, whatever you think of their beliefs.
- Cooper has the virtue of having been in government and understanding the triangulation needed to run things.
- Labour needs to fundamentally reform itself as a representative organisation in the digital age. The colossal snafu over this leadership election just goes to confirm that.
- This election comes to be about this question: who would best begin the process of reforming the party for the digital age in such a way that a future leader with electoral appeal can have a go at leading a progressive majority in parliament.
- It also should be about having a woman in a position of political prominence in this country.
And, my word, that’s a depressing and boring set of bullet points, other than the last one. It’s also impressively grown-up, though I say so myself. I have a sneaking, unquenchable desire to see what Corbyn would do when given real political authority, because I’m a huge admirer of Ken Livingstone and what he did as London Mayor. I enjoy Kendall’s rebel heart, as I once admired Blair’s rebel heart, and she’s right about a good many things.
But Corbyn won’t win a general election, and he won’t do so in ways which will make the Tories stronger, which means even more terrifying right-wing nonsense will take place with a Corbyn-led Labour party. I really don’t understand why people don’t get that. Particularly the presumably well-informed people who run trade unions.
And I don’t think Kendall is strong enough as the voice of the ‘new right’ in the party. She may be one day. Chuka might have been, but now we’ll never know. And Kendall is so, so far behind that a vote for her now feels like a vote wasted in the face of the Corbyn onslaught.
So, a safe pair of hands combined with a party-rebuilding agenda. Yvette Cooper for leader, Tom Watson for deputy. If the Tories do implode in the next four years (they won’t, but let’s just imagine) Cooper could be a credible alternative. And Watson knows more about the way the Labour Party works than anyone, and he gets digital engagement in a way few other MPs do.
It’s not a fist-pump conclusion. I think Labour has been very, very badly damaged by the nonsense of the past five years. I think the party’s lost sight of itself, and its purpose, and there’s a very real danger that it collapses in on itself amidst a toxic stew of social media aggression and wider political pointlessness. And the candidates for leadership are all, as I’ve said, very weak in their own very unique ways.
But while we argue about this stuff, the public space is being dismantled by a doctrinaire administration that can’t believe how lucky it is. Time to get on with working on that.
PS: Andy Burnham left blank deliberately.
Two videos courtesy of kottke.org, both of them illustrating that great art, and particularly great comedy, grows from constraints and discipline. Firstly, a lovely piece by Tony Zhou on the art of Chuck Jones.
And then, as if to illustrate the point, Jason posted another video a few days later, this time showing every entrance by Kramer in Seinfeld.
Watching both these together is mesmerising, and points to something else – the more you strip it back, the better it gets (until it doesn’t, of course). I could watch Road Runner followed by Kramer’s entrances all day long.
I had a lovely afternoon yesterday attending the CLiPPA event, aka the Children’s Literacy in Primary Education Poetry Awards, which was held at the National Theatre. It’s the only national award for poetry aimed at children in the country, and I get to go along by virtue of having an in with the chief executive of CLPE, the outfit that organises it (reader, she married me).
This year, there were five shortlisted poetry books, and I’m going to list them here so you can buy them all:
• Mandy Coe (editor): Let in the Stars, illustrated by The Manchester School of Art, The Manchester Writing School, Manchester Metropolitan University.
• Joseph Coelho: Werewolf Club Rules, illustrated by John O’Leary, Frances Lincoln
• Georgie Horrell, Aisha Spencer and Morag Styles (editors): Give the Ball to the Poet. A New Anthology of Caribbean Poetry, illustrated by Jane Ray, Commonwealth Education Trust
• Hilda Offen: Blue Balloons and Rabbit Ears, Troika Books
• Rachel Rooney: My Life as a Goldfish and other poems, illustrated by Ellie Jenkins, Frances Lincoln
There were readings from all five books by the poets, but here’s the thing: there were also readings by primary school children of their favourite poems from the collections. CLPE did rather a marvellous thing. They encouraged primary schools to shadow the awards and get their kids to perform their favourite poems. These performances went up on Vimeo, and five were selected to perform live, onstage, at the National, alongside the poets.
You can see some of the school entries here. I urge you to watch them all, and I wish I could describe the delight on the kids’ faces when they got up on the stage and performed the poems from memory. Something struck me which hadn’t struck me at all before – primary school age kids get poetry more quickly than any other form of literature, because it is so close to the music which they’re all immersed in every day. Poetry can be learned, can be performed, can be lived in. Novels (sad to say) just can’t compete.
So why is there not a lot more poetry online? It lends itself so well to sharing online, at least as well as movie trailers or songs, because it’s immediate and it’s only hungry for our attention for a few minutes. Where is the equivalent of This Is My Jam for poetry? And if it exists, why don’t I already know about it? Why isn’t it absolutely massive? Why aren’t poets the most famous artists of the Web age?
Anyway. The winner of the prize was Joseph Coelho, who provided the loveliest moment of the day, indirectly. The kids who had performed sat on the stage while he came up to accept his award and to read another poem. He flicked through his collection, and chose one of the poems. ‘I’m going to read If All The World Were Paper’, he said – and five of the kids on stage fist-pumped the air and silently mouthed ‘YES!’ There’s your national literacy strategy, right there. Here’s Joseph reading that particular poem:
After the awards he was swished off to the BBC to speak to Front Row, where he read another poem from the collection, Mrs Flotsam. Listen here (it’s the last item on the show).
All the poets at the show gave great readings (and, again, I do urge you to go and listen to the kids here – I’d put the videos directly on here but I’m stupidly careful about posting videos of schools or kids, as should we all be). But my favourite of the entire day was from Valerie Bloom, whose poem Keeping Wicket is in Give the Ball to the Poet. Prepare to weep.
I first heard Manda Scott talk about her book Into the Fire at a dinner in Windsor some three years ago. The premise that she described that night was two parts thrilling to one part bonkers – it had to do with Joan of Arc – and I admit to wondering how anyone could spin a story out of the elements she was describing.
Three years down the line, and I have just finished the book Manda was describing. It’s still two parts thrilling to one part bonkers. But in a very, very good way. Into the Fire is also a blood-drenched, vivid, imaginative and exciting novel, the best word for which is probably ‘lusty’.
‘Lusty’ is a laughably word to describe to a dual-timeline narrative that tells the story of Joan of Arc through the eyes of an English spy, interweaved with a contemporary police procedural set in Orléans about a brilliant female detective investigating a series of fires. But ‘lusty’ is what it is, not least because this is a book just dripping in lust. I have an unprovable belief that women are better at writing than sexual desire than men are, because women are better at writing about the sensations of the body, and the scenes in which one character fancies another in this book are heart-pumpingly phwoaarr.
The other thing I loved about the book is how it framed the historical world inside the modern one. The dual-timeline narrative means we are constantly being tugged from the 15th to the 21st centuries. One key aspect of this is loyalty, the perception of loyalty, and the way those things have shifted. In the confused mess of loyalties that was France in the Hundred Years War, alliances could shift and change as frequently as the clouds above the Loire, but in the modern world our loyalties are more fixed. The evil of the modern world is the acquisition of power at any costs, against the constraints of loyalty; in the world of the 15th century, a character has to be tugged out of the everyday shifts in loyalties by a new kind of allegiance to something strong and powerful and almost otherworldly, in the form of the Maid of Orléans. The Maid is a symbol, of a new and powerful kind, and the other link between the worlds of the past and present is our continuing need for symbols, and the way this need opens us up to manipulation.
But I’m overthinking this. Into the Fire is above all else massively entertaining. Its intellectual framework is solid, but Manda Scott wears her research lightly. This isn’t a book that lectures or strokes its chin. It has a unique and daring conceit at its heart, one that Manda has talked about publicly on more than one occasion but not one that I will mention here. But she lands it – oh my word, she lands it.
It’s the release day of That Book. You know, the Unpublished Book by the Woman Who Wrote That Other Book That Everyone’s Read.
There’s a lot of chatter this morning on the subject of Go Set A Watchman. The reviews are a bit stinky, the numbers are off the scale, the queues are snaking around the bookshops. So, here’s my reasons for not buying or reading it.
I cannot be certain that the author intended this manuscript to ever be read by the public.
Does that matter, much? Most of the time, probably not. An author who’s written, say, a dozen books and meets a tragically early demise at the hands of a combine harvester or an alien death ray may have one unfinished work which, with a bit of spit-and-polish, might be an interesting read.
Not that it’s likely to be much good, mind. I’m a great believer in the final heave over the finishing line for a book, the author sweating away under the whipcrack of the editor’s pen. Books improve at an accelerating rate, is what I mean, until they don’t. I won’t read The Pale King, because I don’t think it will be as good a book as it would have been if DFW hadn’t decided the lights were too bright for him to leave on any longer.
But this author is different. This author wrote a book of such one-off transcendence that she seemingly decided that she’d never write anything of the same quality again. Nowhere to go but down. There’s something sad and magnificent about that position, as if she were admitting the mystery of her own genius and her own uncertainty at ever being able to tap into it again.
But now, this new book appears. This first draft of somewhat murky provenance. The critics are giving it the thumbs down, as did the editors who first saw it. The character of Atticus Finch, a fiction of such energy that we can all picture him sitting here reading a book while we work, has been oddly and unnecessarily smeared with uncertainty. And what’s more, the craft behind the original book has been revealed to all. Oz is no longer magnificent. He’s just an ordinary woman who, decades ago, had another stab at a book that didn’t work and somehow, perhaps to her own surprise as much as anyone’s, turned in something magnificent. And then, seemingly, said it was unlikely to happen again. She got old, as we all get old, her affairs were handled by professionals and middlewomen, and at some point one of them decided to dust off this old manuscript – which the author had not once unpacked in five decades – and decided to get it published.
So, no, I won’t be reading Go Set A Watchman. You go right ahead. I’d rather leave Atticus and Harper where they are, unique and unimpeachable and untouched by our sordid world.
As you may know, I’ve been enjoying myself in recent weeks with The Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club, a joint venture with my old friend Tim Wright. We’re taking one of our favourite books, Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, out for a walk through Schleswig-Holstein and the East Frisian Islands, revisiting the scenes from the book on the same day as they appear in the story – which is, to coin our oft-used phrase, curiously specific about dates and locations.
Sadly, though, there’s one bit of the trip we can’t replicate: the journey taken by Charles Carruthers from London to Flensburg via the Flushing steamer. You can read about that journey in detail here, and last week we hunted out the shadow of that old route to Europe on the north Kent coast.
We took the train from London Victoria to Sittingbourne (just like in the old days), changing onto the branch line to Sheerness and getting off at the little station at Queenborough, the old wool port on the Swale that these days is a sleepy high street with some lovely old buildings, and creek with dozens of little craft waiting for the tide to come in.
At the pub at the end of the High Street, a small crowd were all taking photos of something across the Swale and the Medway. ‘What’s going on?’ we asked. ‘They’re blowing up the power station,’ they said. There wasn’t much to see – just an odd plume of smoke over the old stack at Grain.
From there, we walked back around the town and out across the spit of land, along which a little branch line once ran from Queenborough. The only remnant of it is an overgrown gravel track, beautiful in its own way.
After a fair bit of scrambling past old signs warning of imminent imprisonment and death, we found the old pier: a crumbling wooden structure out where the Sheppey mud meets the Swale. Trains would run directly out onto this pier, and passengers would climb down off the train and directly onto the steamer.
It was an extraordinary sight – a hundred years ago, this was the busiest route from London to Germany, carrying mail and passengers twice a day. Now it’s forgotten, ignored and left to rut under the watching cranes of Thamesport. Capitalism, eh?
Road trip today with my esteemed Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club colleague Tim Wright (who is Not Carruthers). We’re going here, by train, just like Carruthers did. As a clue, it’s one of only two places in Kent that 14th century wool was allowed to leave the country (the other one was Sandwich). And Nelson shared a house here with Emma Hamilton.
More tomorrow, with pics. If you’d like to know more about Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club, click here.