Friday, 30 August 2013

Weeks Sixteen to Thirty-Two - Jude

Troubles by J.G. Farrell (1970)
Recommended by Neil Stewart 

Hello. Remember me?

So, this tale of two readers has been a tale of one for four months now. That's a new year's resolution for you. That's also the difference between Jeanette, the brilliant queen of willpower, and me, queen of doing 327 other things that aren't engaging my brain properly and reading a book. (Jeanette - you've been doing an amazing job, by the way. I love reading your stuff. I also loved the brilliant week we had writing together in Suffolk. You rule, and all that.)

Earlier this year, I also had a tough time after miscarrying a pregnancy. It knocked me for six, really, and turned my mind to mush – I'd stare at a page of a book and my eyes would zone out. But now I'm fitter, happier, more productive, etc, and have spent time going away to great places, and doing work that I've really loved. And I'm bloody marvellous now, thanks. Jeanette told me I didn't have to come back here at all if it didn't feel right, too. But today, I decided it did. So here I am.

I don't know if this'll mean I'll be here every week, but I'd like to. I've already bought a few books for my holiday next week in Spain (a disclaimer already, I won't be posting next week as I'll be "en Espana sin wi-fi"). And who knows? I might even get the old book bug again. I hope that I will.

But before I go, a quick bit on the last book I read for this blog, way back in April, which I didn't write about then. It's called Troubles by J.G. Farrell. It was recommended to me by the lovely Neil Stewart, a friend that I've known since 2005. Neil is two days older than me, but funnier and more clever, although he basically loves most of the same things I do – especially weird films, and music from the early '80s which is in any way electronic. I covet all his Electro twelve-inches, and we had a brilliant time back in January at Koko watching Peter Hook have a go at playing New Order's first two albums. Neil and Peter met after too. Neil's beard was better.

Troubles is about an English soldier, Brendan Archer, who has just left the British Army, and arrives in Wexford in Ireland in 1919, at a strange, crumbling old hotel called The Majestic. He's there because Angela Spencer is there, with her family, and he thinks he proposed to Angela three years ago; they have written to each other for the past three years, anyway. His act of coming to Ireland is one of sweet-natured, bimbling propriety, an accident in a way, as if he didn't know what to do otherwise. The humour behind that act – melancholy, but also sharply black – runs right through this wayward, unusual book.

Reading this book is like being underwater, or in a dream. Farrell's prose is simple but languid, ordinary but wistful. (He's got quite a sad story on his own, has Farrell – overcoming polio as a child, he went on to write three novels, one of which, The Siege Of Krishnapur, won The Booker. He died after falling off rocks while fishing, then drowning, at the age of 44, in 1978). His protagonist, Archer, doesn't really know what's going on either, or what's really happening inside of outside the house. Newspaper reports alert us to the fact that not all is well in Ireland, that the War of Independence has begun, and that political tensions are increasing. The hotel is a fading, dark, dishevelled place in the middle of everything, slowly eroding. Yes, you're right, it's a metaphor, but a gentle, controlled one.

 J.G. Farrell in early 1978

The book is slow too – it has the pace of a tortoise inching along – and I found it tough at times, but Archer's character wins you over. When he obviously starts to fall in love with a girl called Sarah, you cross everything for him. But in Troubles' peculiar world, nothing could ever be straightforward.

This book was also 500 pages long – thanks for that, Mr Stewart, you rogue – and books like this demand sustained concentration, which is why it took me more time to get through. Not four months though, I assure you – the distance from book to screen was my problem. But here I am now, at the keys, quickly typing away, before pausing to hold a paperback in front of my face. It's good to be back. Let's cross everything for me.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Week Thirty-Two - Jeanette

Londonstani by Gautam Malkani (2006)
Recommended by Malcolm

When you’re in the back seat a some pimped-up Beemer it’s basically your job to be cool. To just chill, listen to the tunes an stare out the window like some big dumb dog with a big slobbery tongue. DMX pumpin so loud out the sound system you can hardly hear what the other guys’re sayin up front.

I don’t have a Beemer (much less one with a spoiler or whatever constitutes ‘pimped-up’ these days), and you can replace DMX with Shirley Collins, but this pretty much nails what I’ve been feeling this week. Indestructible. Obviously there’s a risk of outrageously poor decisions as a result (just ask King Canute), but when it gleams like this, who gives a shit?

The teenagers of Londonstani certainly don’t give a shit. Soaked in young urban Asian culture, Hardjit, Ravi, Amit, and our narrator, Jas (the Wil-Wheaton-in-Stand-By-Me of the group) cruise around Hounslow avoiding college, lusting on girls, picking on ‘coconuts’ (Asian outside, white inside – i.e. ‘listening to fuckin Radiohead’), making pin money by unblocking stolen mobile phones, and commenting on the key issues of the day.

Now that we cleaned these streets a saps, coconuts an Paki-bashing skinheads, we gotta do something bout all these buses. Even with a special slip road for them outside Hounslow West tube station, they always managed to cause chaos there. It was the same near Hounslow East tube, Hounslow Central tube, Hounslow railway station an Hounslow bus station (though I in’t sure it’s fair for us to have beef with buses hangin round that last one).

In an effort to replicate the lives of the group, the language of Londonstani is half A Clockwork Orange and half Trainspotting. This works well as dramatic irony – evoking how streetwise these teens think they are (compared with how na├»ve they actually are). But, at other points, Malkani over-eggs his prose and it’s like wading through a five-hour Prodigy video transcript.

Jas and the boys are happy just to piss about until they meet an older, successful businessman. Sanjay has women, wealth, a Porsche, and confidence popping out his collar. They’re impressed and he becomes their mentor (in a sense), providing direction to their small-time lives. The character of Sanjay is also a vehicle for Malkani (a journalist at the Financial Times, where he seems to explore some similar topics) to consider a theory of ‘bling-bling economics’.

Urban people have a very different shopping basket than the rest of the economy and therefore they operate at a much higher level of inflation […] This isn’t about society becoming more affluent, this is about a subculture that worships affluence becoming mainstream culture.

I found this all very interesting. I’ve still not shaken the effect that the 2011 UK Riots had on me.

Emotionally, the Riots directly affected me because it was heartbreaking to see a place I used to live two minutes from, Mare Street in Hackney, turn into that violent, unhappy broth for those few nights. But, intellectually too, the Riots held a ghoulish fascination for me. I struggled, and struggle, to understand them. While the media played up the acquisitive aspect of the Riots, it didn’t quite tally with some of the footage I saw: looters grabbing laptops then smashing them the moment they were out of the store. I sensed hot rage at consumerism itself by some Rioters, who felt conned into idolizing stuff by a system that despised them. Just because this protest wasn’t pithily expressed on a placard, doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.

Sanjay’s theory offered me a further insight into this. Societies are notoriously precarious at a time of hyper-inflation; if the urban cultures involved in the riots felt beset by a type of inflation largely hidden from mainstream narratives, then this will have helped fuel the Rioters’ hatred and blind vengeance (yet be incomprehensible to anyone not directly affected by it).

Overall, although it investigates some very interesting tensions, I’m not convinced that Londonstani is quite as deep as it thinks it is. A problem for me was the ‘complicated family-related shit’ that all the characters, especially Amit, go through. This spills over into pure melodrama on occasion, and Malkani seems far less surefooted in writing this than the street-level escapades. It felt tacked-on, as if the author felt he couldn’t write about Asian lives without a handwringing over marital traditions and their fallout. Much more successful (and a far subtler part of the book) is the status of homophobia as an accepted and even endemic part of the boys’ ‘culture’. Jas has philosophical problems with the prejudice but indulges in it anyway; Hardjit, the most virulent in his anti-gay remarks, is also the only one with posters of bodybuilders rather than Bollywood women on his bedroom wall. Finally, and the aspect I liked best of all, was the universal sense of growing into one’s body and emotions. I do, after all, have a very soft spot for books about teenagers.

            Daydreamin is good for you. Better than wankin even.

I wish I could say I first met Malcolm when we were teens, because that would have been a perfect segue; but it was when he and I were in our early twenties. Malcolm was the best friend of my boyfriend, and when I met him I was way impressed – sharp and funny, with a real hedonistic streak. Now Malcolm is a doctor, and he has become sharper and funnier as he’s matured. He even had a reality TV moment on Channel 4’s 24 Hours In A&E.

I love the gallows humour so often present in medical professionals. If you’re dealing with the thin line between heaven and here every day, a head can’t be crammed with ponderous memento mori. Literally, it’s do or die.

And that brings me back to indestructibility. For me, indestructibility comes not from hiding yourself behind ramparts. It stems from being entirely vulnerable. If someone takes your coat, well, let him have your cloak, too.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Week Thirty-One - Jeanette

Voices Of The Old Sea by Norman Lewis (1984)
Recommended by Mark & Roxy

Mark is this Mark.

I first spoke to Mark via telephone, interviewing him for Seasons They Change. Not only did we talk of 1971’s Dreaming With Alice sessions – constituting some of my favourite of all acid-folk – he told me of the new record he was making with The A. Lords, which turned out to be another masterpiece: 2011’s I Lived In Trees.

I met Mark in person when we both performed at Cecil Sharp House: he with The A. Lords, me in the inaugural reading from Seasons (before the thing was even published and I had to, very glamourously, read from a printed PDF). Mark is modest, charming, and intelligent, as well as an awesomely talented musician and painter. Through Mark, I met Roxy, too. Phenomenally kind, generous, mega-smart, with a whip-fast humour… oh, they’re just two of the best people going.

Mark and Roxy invited me to stay with them, and their pug Missy, in Normandy last year. I could have cried it was so good. Not only was it the beautiful surroundings, it was simply being around them in their home. As they bantered with each other, it was proof positive to me of enduring love.

Their joint recommendation, Voices Of The Old Sea, has been a welcome constant of the past fortnight. For these two weeks have otherwise been engorged with sensation. A writing retreat in Suffolk with Jude, a serious illness in my family (and another upsetting trip back to bloody Norwich), a visitor from Japan, and all capped off by the sheer exhilaration of the Woolf Music festival.

With the pace of a particularly timid glacier, Voices Of The Old Sea tells of the change in (and to) the secluded Spanish village of Farol. As he explains in his foreword, Norman Lewis tackled the subject for psychological (as opposed to anthropological) reasons.

After three war years in the Army overseas I looked for the familiar in England, but found change. Perhaps it was the search for vanished times that drew me back to Spain, which in some ways I knew better than my own country – a second homeland to be revisited when I could. Here the past, I suspected, would have been embalmed, and outside influence held at bay.

When Lewis first takes us to Farol, in the middle of the twentieth century, he is correct. This tiny community is wholly reliant on fishing and wits for its economic and social survival. The currency of the village is of and for itself, with barely a by-your-leave to anything other than its immediate neighbours.

What was I doing here? he asked, and I told him I was on holiday. In a place like this? He looked through the window at the vacant beach. The fishermen were sleeping off the exhaustion of the previous day and had pulled the boats out of the water and gone off without bothering to clean up the mess. A number of cats like mangy little grey tigers were doing what they could to remedy this.
               ‘Nobody comes to a place like this unless they have to.’

Lewis’s prose, as he writes of his first summer in Farol, reflects the village’s everyday rhythms. His words undulate like waves gently rocking the fishing boats. Farol, with its stalwart rituals, customs, melancholia, and flat sea mist, is the book’s main character; everyone else (Lewis included) forms the supporting cast.

Farol had been like this for decades, centuries; wider forces might have nudged it (the Spanish civil war and Franco were not renowned for leaving people to their own devices) but the people there remained largely untouched. They felt the outside world at best as an irrelevance and at worst as a malevolent spirit, yet they could brush off any attempted incursions by it as easily as hanging up on a salesman.

Until that incursion was a salesman, or a salesman of sorts. Farol may have resisted fascism but it could not last against tourism. At first, the presence of outsiders (and, lest we forget, Lewis himself is one such beast) is greeted with bemusement.

There was a great increase of amateurs from Sort trying their hand at fishing. In the autumn the men had come down and fished with rods using the wrong bait, at the wrong time of day, and usually there were no fish to be caught anyway.

An entrepreneur named Jaime Muga arrives. He turns the local fonda (a basic tavern) into the Hotel Brisas del Mar, increasing the price from 8 to 50 pesetas a day (‘causing the locals to burst into peals of disbelieving laughter’), and encourages the shop to stock cheap carvings of Don Quixote. The villagers roundly mock Muga’s paying guests, just as they mock the useless fishermen.

But such laughs are hollow. For Farol is part of what we now know as the Costa Brava.

When I cleared out my dad’s stuff after his death, I found that he had not cleared out my mum’s stuff after her death. Thus, I was treated to a whole wealth of crazy crap like quilted flamenco postcards hoarded from her cheap holiday to the Costa in the late 1960s. Although I don’t know for sure, I’m betting that my mother wasn’t concerned with appreciating local untouched culture. Her life was hard enough and she didn’t want to spend her week off on a scabby cat-strewn beach. Rather, she did what thousands of other young working class Brits of the time also did: she drank sangria, she made eyes at Sergio, and she came home with a tan.

As slowly as he writes of Farol’s traditional life in his first season in the village, Lewis now tells us of the rise of Costa Brava tourism. Yet, now, Lewis’s stately pace is not relaxing, but deeply sinister. Its languor is like that of the zombies in Night Of The Living Dead. The tourists will overwhelm with sheer mass even if, individually, they’re easy to deal with.

The butcher’s had undergone a spectacular facelift. Gone were the bloodstains, the flowers stuck into jam jars, the artistic display of giblets, the beribboned tripes, and the severed heads presented on paper ruffs. The shop was as impersonal as a tax office.

Voices Of The Old Sea is a beautiful and often upsetting elegy. I believe that we shouldn’t, by rote, weep for the past. That’s the thing with the old days: they’re the old days. One also shouldn't forget people like my mother, for whom affordable tourism represented a much-needed escape from factory or domestic drudgery. But we do need works like Voices Of The Old Sea. Such stories may speak to us softly, but they can still, sometimes, be heard over modernity’s din.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Week Thirty - Jeanette

Hackers: Heroes Of The Computer Revolution by Steven Levy (1984)
Recommended by Simon

Simon and I were together for over eleven years, and in 2012 we broke up.

Hackers is a seminal text. Even the title itself emits history. The word ‘hacker’ has migrated significantly since Levy originally wrote the book: then, ‘hacker’ was really only used within the computer community. However, since then, it has become common negative currency. The hacker is stereotyped as a socially challenged nerd who, at best, fiddles about with technology he’s not entitled to and, at worst, sabotages organisations and governments because he’s can’t get a girlfriend.

Therefore, that subtitle is very important. While acknowledging that hackers did plenty of unauthorized and illegal things (and that many of them were awkward bachelors with interesting personal hygiene), Levy argues – very, very convincingly – without them we wouldn’t have the technology that we have today.

Think back to (or imagine, if you’re more youthful than I) where computers were in 1984. On one hand there was this:

But on the other, more realistic hand, I was in Magdalen Gates First School in Norwich, and we had but one BBC Micro for the whole school. It was wheeled out on special occasions from its cupboard. Each class could only use it for half an hour to play a spelling game before it got taken away again. In private, some kids were starting to get ZX Spectrums or Commodore 64s. I got my first one circa 1986, despite luddite opposition from my mother (‘God gave you a computer – your brain’), and I played games like Pippo until the power pack overheated.

I knew vaguely, back then, that the computers I used evolved from metal-and-LED walls of mystery. However, I had very little idea of how these digital ancestors worked, or even what they had ultimately been for: that is, beyond space travel, global thermonuclear war, and mismatching lonely hearts in British sitcoms.

Hackers begins in the late 1950s, at the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology (MIT). Here, a group of boffins sought access to the EAM Room – ‘Electric Accounting Machinery’ – where gigantic contraptions blinked teasing lights and hummed a siren song. Getting into the EAM Room was harder than getting into the special computer cupboard at Magdalen Gates First School, i.e. very hard indeed.

Hackers believe that essential lessons can be learned about the systems – about the world – from taking things apart, seeing how they work, and using this knowledge to create new and even more interesting things. They resent any person, physical barrier, or law that tries to keep them from doing this.

Those early MIT hackers, when they did gain entry to the hallowed EAM Room, set about pushing boundaries. They adhered to The Hacker Ethic: all information should be free, art and beauty can be created on a computer, and, the most dearly held principle of all, that computers can change your life for the better.

Even just reading of an early hack, Spacewar, changed my life for the better. Developed in 1962 initially by Slug Russell, Spacewar may look like an experimental film by Tony Conrad, but it is actually one of the very first computer games:

It was a two-player affair, where you tried to destroy your foe's rocket while a sun pulled at your tailfins. However, Peter Samson, another MIT hacker, had a real problem with one aspect of Spacewar.

[He] could not abide the randomly generated dots that passed themselves off as the sky. ‘We’ll have the real thing,’ Samson vowed. He obtained a thick atlas of the universe, and set about entering data into a routine he wrote that would generate the actual constellations visible to someone standing on the equator on a clear night. All stars down to the fifth magnitude were represented; Samson duplicated their relative brightness by controlling how often the computer lit the dot on the screen.

Dedication, that’s what you need, if you want to be a hacker.

In their wake came others, and Levy tells these hacker tales of the sixties, seventies, and early eighties with clarity and wit. One part of the story I found especially moving was how, as computers become big business, the original hackers – and those youngsters who adhere to the Hacker Ethic – floated away from the new corporate empires.

The Hacker Ethic, of course, held that every program should be as good as you can make it (or better), infinitely flexible, admired for its brilliance of concept and execution, and designed to extend the user’s powers. Selling computers like toothpaste was heresy. But it was happening.

The era of exactly replicating the Ursa Major constellation was over. Even more contentious was the use of copyright and copy-protection technology.

This was not MIT where software was subsidized by some institution. […] They were products. And if a person coveted a product of any sort in the United States of America, he or she had to reach into a pocket for folding green bills.

It wasn’t that hackers were broke, because many were doing well by this point, given the exploding computer industry. It wasn’t that hackers were stingy – well, some clearly were, but that wasn’t their reason for antipathy to the marketization of computers. It was that they thought information should always be at liberty, and that software should be open to improvements as the only way to drive progress. Byte-eating data protection programs harmed these principles in an unforgivable way. I’m not defending the hackers who did become pirates (or, more seriously, cyber-terrorists); but I can understand the motivation behind it.

In a rather downbeat afterword, written for the book’s twenty-fifth anniversary, Levy catches up with many of the hackers he interviewed. In the case of Richard Greenblatt, he finds a disillusioned man.

‘There’s a dynamic now that says, “Let’s format our web page so people have to push the button a lot so that they’ll see lots of ads,”’ Greenblatt says. ‘Basically, the people who win are the people who manage to make things the most inconvenient for you.’

Although all of us can nod sadly at the truth in Greenblatt’s words, for the hacker himself this must amount to nothing less than a scorching betrayal of all he holds dearest.

You don’t have to be a hacker to enjoy this book. I learned a little of computer natter when I was with Simon – one can’t help picking up, almost by osmosis, certain concepts when one lives with a PhD in Computer Science – but I rarely needed to mine this insider knowledge. My only real gripe with Hackers is that a few pictures would have been nice. However, scratching the itch of what these people and their machines look like can be easily done with this great programme.

Simon too believes that computers improve life itself: ‘they’re friends’, he once wrote to me. He’s well-placed to practice this, for now he’s in hacker heartland, living in Oakland and working in Palo Alto.

I learned a lot from Simon of silicon warmth, of how – when the right humans are at the keyboard – computers can mimic positive states: selflessness, intelligence, even compassion. Steven Levy's hackers made the world better, just as Simon made my world better.