Crime fiction has become the murderously ubiquitous genre of our modern culture. Death dominates the lending charts like the shadow of a serial killer on the library floor, and television schedulers desperate for a hook to snag a jaded audience will likely as not bury said hook in some poor unsuspecting soul's back.
So a fresh take on fictional dispatch is always welcome. The latest novel from Louise Welsh (below) is set in contemporary London but provides a grim new backdrop for a whodunnit: a pandemic of a flu-like virus, which comes to be called colloquially "the sweats" and which ups the body count so dramatically that death comes to mean just another anonymous pile of cotton in an overcrowded morgue. Imagine an Ebola epidemic in the villages of Midsomer Murders, and you'll get some idea of how incipient disaster and ubiquitous corpses add new dimensions to the investigation of just one of these deaths.Continue reading...
The followup to Stephen May's excellent Life! Death! Prizes! is a morality tale that explores the difference between material and real happiness. Maybe it's austerity propaganda, maybe it's a demonstration of the old adage that money is the root of all evil. Maybe it's just that foolish people doing foolish things to other foolish people can't ever end well.
English couple Nicky and Sarah Fisher, visiting Nicky's astronomically rich friend Russell Knox in California, find that he has dropped dead. Rather than call the authorities, Nicky wonders, can I have what Russell has? Can I take it and escape my mediocrity and wake up happy every day?Continue reading...
If you are following the career of Sarah Moss, this is an exciting moment. Her third novel confirms the richness of her concerns (remoteness, maternity, how we make life hard for each other) and it sharpens our sense of her steely, no-nonsense voice. It suggests that, though her books are closely linked, she has much more to write and will never produce the same thing twice.
First there was Cold Earth, set in Greenland and narrated by a group of archaeologists exhuming the Viking past and facing their own ends. Then there was Night Waking, set in the Outer Hebrides, where a sleep-deprived mother of two small boys tries to write her book in 15-minute snatches. In between, she recites The Gruffalo, wonders if she might kill someone and is interviewed on suspicion of having actually killed someone, while her vilely nonchalant husband carries on counting puffins. That was written while Moss herself was living in Iceland for a year with her young family, dealing with all the comically fascinating problems she recounts in her memoir, Names for the Sea, such as how to buy a cheap fridge in a country horrified by anything second-hand.Continue reading...
I was 14 when I first stumbled upon them pleasingly fat, bright yellow, cellophane-covered Gollancz hardbacks, which I carried home from Nottingham library. The pictureless covers with thick, red-and-black lettering were unapologetically, seductively adult. Rebecca. Frenchman's Creek. Mary Anne. The Parasites. Even the titles were sternly bereft of frills. These books meant business and oh, the joy of discovering that your new favourite author had written not just two or three novels, but many.
I read them all at 14 and then re-read most of them as an adult. Jamaica Inn was one of the few I'd not yet got around to, but the ghastliness of certain details had stuck. Who could forget that godforsaken tavern in the middle of the moors with its battered signboard swinging and groaning in the wind like a dead man on a gibbet? Or the ruthless wreckers, waiting on the shore to lure ships to their rocky doom?Continue reading...
Shh! We Have a Plan
by Chris Haughton 32pp, Walker, £11.99
Pleasingly spare and simple in design and storyline and ending with a good joke, this is a perfectly executed picture book. Creeping silently through the woods, four hunters set out to catch a bird. The oldest three have a plan a plan that depends on silence. But the littlest hunter just wants to make friends ... Chris Haughton pays tribute to Tomi Ungerer's classic The Three Robbers in using only muted blues and blacks while the hunt is on, before bursting into colour as the joke unfolds. (3+)
I was first taught to read a map when I was around 11 years old. My stepfather shook out the Ordnance Survey OL30 Explorer map (Yorkshire Dales Northern & Central Area) over the kitchen table in our holiday cottage: a paper tablecloth of sandy yellow and duck-egg blue, whorled with orange skeins. The map's text resembled a fantasy language: Oliver High Lathe, Gollinglith Fleet, Grouse Butts, Washfold Wham, Sprs, Resr (dis), Flaystones, Batty Nick, Acoras Scar, Shake Holes, Horse Helks, Three Holes Stoop (BS). Some of its symbols were relatively straightforward to decipher, such as a miniature telephone handset, teepee or blue fish. But others like the menu of subtly differentiated dotted lines, or randomly placed numbers in varying fonts, colours and angles made no sense to me.
Leaning over the map, my stepfather began sifting names I recognised. He ran his thumb along familiar paths and identified faraway landmarks my parents had pointed out during walks. He deciphered a line of green diamonds as a "National Trail/Long Distance Route" and distinguished it from a chain of black pinpricks (Boundary: Civil Parish (CP)) or tiny segregated dashes (Electricity Transmission Line). He encouraged me to imagine myself, a tiny speck, crawling over the paper landscape. He explained that the tighter the orange contour lines were bunched, the heavier I'd feel as I made my way across them; and that at points where the path disappeared, I could find my place on the map by attending to details I'd never before noticed: the coalescence of field boundaries, or a shift from "Bracken, heath or rough grassland" into "Scrub". He taught me how to line up the compass's red triangle at 0°, to lay it along the map's grid in the direction of north, to identify a landmark and navigate a path towards it. A small blue triangle on the map was a "trig point" and generally promised a good view, he assured me. A miniature pint glass meant a much-deserved rest.Continue reading...
Who said that trees grow easily
compared with us? What if the bright
bare load that pushes down on them
insisted that they spread and bowed
and pleated back on themselves and cracked
and hunched? Light dropping like a palm
levelling the ground, backwards and forwards?
Across the valley are the other witnesses
of two millennia, the broad stones
packed by the hand of God, bristling
with little messages to fill the cracks.
As the light falls and flattens what grows
on these hills, the fault lines dart and spread,
there is room to say something, quick and tight.
The unrelenting wave of mobile self-portraiture is here in the form of a website dedicated to the praxis of selfie-ism. Go there and you, too, can experience the humanity of selfies, streaming faster than lolcats on caturdays.
Created by artists Tyler Madsen, Erik Carter, and Jillian Mayer, the Selfeed, first premiered at the Utah Museum of Fine Art this past January. The museum has this to say about the universal, collaborative art project: continued…
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Walk around San Francisco or Paris on a sunny day, you’ll notice, quite soon, that’s there’s a lot of dog poop traps littering the sidewalk. These cities love their pets, especially the dog variety. Attached to each dog is the animal’s human, a smartphone carrying member of the technologically advanced specie. We’re now seeing that technology trickle down to animals as well.
Humans, for all of their ability to observe and handle their own toiletries have taken a liking to fitness tracking gadgets – they track, they measure, and they tell data to improve the well-being of their user. “Why not for our four legged pals too?” said the makers of Whistle. continued…
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Book reviews roundup: The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010, The Ballad of a Small Player and A God in Every Stone
Selina Todd's The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010 found an ardent admirer in the Times's Roger Lewis, who called it "great" and "rousing", and was roused himself to ask "why has revolution never broken out in Britain" and to complain that our reluctance to rebel has resulted in today's hideously unequal nation "with Old Etonians and plutocratic villains as ever in charge and the likes of myself dining on cold baked beans in the cafeteria of Morrisons". The praise of the Literary Review's Robert Colls, in contrast, was faint and faintly patronising ("There's nothing new here, but university students, having much to learn, will learn much"), and Alan Johnson was much less impressed in the Spectator, criticising Todd's "political prejudices" and her book's "Dave Spart contributors"; overall "I don't accept that the working classes have suffered a fall, but I do accept that they've been a huge disappointment to people like Selina Todd and her friends". Even more scornful was Dominic Sandbrook in the Sunday Times: "Whenever she talks about politics it is like being trapped in a lift with a member of the Socialist Workers party A bigger problem, though, is that the book is just so dreadfully dull This is working-class life as seen from the seminar room, not the street."
Comparing its author to Graham Greene, Adrian Turpin gave an enthusiastic account of Lawrence Osborne's The Ballad of a Small Player centred on an English solicitor posing as a lord in Macau in the Literary Review, seeing it as "a brisk, electrifying read, as elegant in negotiating the rackety world it depicts as its bow-tied narrator. It offers a love story of sorts, an account of addiction, a black comedy of (largely bad) manners and a fly-ontheroulette-wheel portrait of Macau's fantastically kitsch casinos A second reading reveals quite how cannily Osborne has set rational and supernatural interpretations against each other, as he turns the screw on his readers." In the New York Times, Tom Shone praised the author's "gift for gimlet-eyed metaphor" ("on every other page there's an image that catches the eye or sticks in the mind") and his book as "a vivid and feverish portrait of a soul in self-inflicted purgatorio". Robert Collins, in the Sunday Times, was struck by Osborne's emergence in his mid-50s, "fully armed with a formidable, masterly grip on the British novel": right up until the last page of his "slippery, deceptive novel, you are left deliciously uncertain as to exactly what kind of story you are reading".Continue reading...
Nicholas Elliott, the MI6 officer who flew to Beirut to extract a confession from Kim Philby or, as some suggest, deliberately let him go, spoke wistfully about the notorious Soviet Spy.
We met at the Travellers, the spies' club in Pall Mall, three decades after Philby, in 1963, boarded a Russian ship bound for the Ukrainian port of Odessa. With misty eyes, Elliott spoke fondly of his former close colleague in the Secret Intelligence Service.Continue reading...
What is the universe made of? How do we know anything? What is human nature? How can we be so nasty to one another? What, for goodness sake, is the meaning of life? For at least three millennia, humanity's most creative minds have been picking over questions such as these, returning in particular to the last one: the meaning of life. For the Epicureans it was about maximising pleasure and minimising pain, while for the Stoics it was about accepting your life as it was. For Buddhists it's about relinquishing attachment to worldly desire, while for Confucians it was about fulfilling your worldly duties. The earliest story that we know of, the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, can be read as a quest, or a question (the two words share the same origin), seeking the purpose of life itself. Questioning the fundamental nature of existence hasn't been left only to religious and philosophical thinkers: one of Monty Python's finest movies was dedicated to it, and for Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the answer is simply "42".
The meaning of life is so obviously contingent on your particular perspective that one way to approach these big questions might be to think about the elements that have gone into creating humanity, and then about what helps you, as an individual, to flourish. If you're an especially well-read person, you might be tempted to gather insights from the world's greatest writings and then jot them down together with observations from your own experience. The jotter you'd create would be a sort of commonplace book full of paradox and conflicting ideas, shocking facts and redemptive anecdotes, turbulent with two or three millennia of human thought. It would be by turns pessimistic and celebratory, mawkish and solemn. It might also look a lot like How to Make a Human Being by Christopher Potter.Continue reading...
Shall we say, put a filter on it? The latest update from Flickr lets users take videos with live filter previews. Flickr also gives users 1,000 gigabytes of free storage, so you’ll have an unlimited amount of space in the cloud to dream up all of your photos, and now, videos.
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Two years ago I rashly accepted a commission from Tring Chamber Music and Paul Barritt, leader of the Hallé orchestra, to write poems to read between movements of Haydn's quartet Opus 51, which meditates on Christ's "Seven Last Words". Haydn, commissioned in 1785 by Cádiz cathedral, wrote this music to go between words so it's hard to perform and listen to without some. The question is, what should they say?
The "Words" are sentences excerpted from the Gospels, three from Luke, three from John, one each from Mark and Matthew. 1: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. 2: Truly I say to you, this night you will be with me in Paradise. 3: Woman behold your son; son, behold your mother. 4: My God, why hast thou forsaken me? 5: I thirst. 6: It has been accomplished (or, fulfilled. Or maybe, It's over). 7: Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.Continue reading...
Sometime in the very early 1970s two Australian friends returned from Colombia and asked me to ghostwrite the story of their adventures, which included a conversation with an unknown writer named Gabriel García Márquez. In an effort to overcome my reluctance they lent me an English edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude. None of us understood that they had thereby changed my life.
I tried, and failed, to help them memorialise their adventure. Worse, I "forgot" to return the book. Worse still, I arrogantly decided that this novel by this unknown writer would be of far more use to me than it could ever be to them.Continue reading...
Shakespeare, Richard II About to hand over the crown to Bolingbroke and so inaugurate the 85year cycle of depositions and murders dramatised in the Wars of the Roses plays the king compares himself in 4.1 to Christ on Good Friday.
Donne, "Good Friday 1613, Riding Westward"Continue reading...