Tuesday, February 22, 2005


(Online Diaries)

JAMES says:

Curious by the ‘next blog’ button at the top of this very page, and slightly bored one afternoon, I decided to take a random trip through the many people who, like us, have decided to make www.blogspot.com/ the home for their random witterings. It is an enlightening experience, almost like a voyage into the collective unconciousness, and you can’t help but learn a few things about the human condition.

Firstly, the standard of written English has deteriorated considerably in the first few years. Secondly, if given a public forum, the vast majority of people will use it to talk exclusively about themselves. Maybe unsurprisingly given the nature of the medium.

Unfortunately there seem to be more people writing than people reading. The whole thing is one-way, it is a collection of ‘0 comments’. But it doesn’t really matter. That these things are written, have a reality, however ephemeral, means they have an existence even without anyone observing them.

At first there is very little of interest. People talking about their own lives are never that interesting, whether in the office or on the internet. However, the cumulative effect is fascinating, and it was quite hard to stop my travel in blogland. You are drawn in by all the raw emotion, the anger and joy, then pain and suffering. It is hard to look at all this and not feel a compassion for humanity, for all its sham and drudgery. Much like the character in Nathanael West’s ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’

So, what can we tell about humanity if we extrapolate these findings? Basically, people are self-obsessed, tragic but basically loveable tykes. But be thankful that you have found the exception to the rule, a blog with interest, humour and punctuation. And the occasional rant.


Black Mischief

by Evelyn Waugh

JAMES says:

The effect of reading Waugh to a hardened Wodehouse-phile such as I is very disconcerting. The style has many similarities, and the milieu of feckless upper class young folk between the wars adds to the sense of familiarity. This just means that certain things end up feeling plain wrong. For instance, people have sex in Waugh books, something not even really hinted at by Wodehouse. Though we all know what went on with Jeeves and Wooster behind closed doors.

Also, while Wodehouse took in the world with a good hearted gaze, there is a distinct misanthropy, and certainly racism, underlying Waugh. While I certainly wouldn’t condemn a book this old for it’s attitude, it can impact on enjoyment.

If I were able to take Black Mischief on it’s own, then I would probably think it a fine book. It is certainly funny, and an engaging read. It also has the added benefit of informing you about the mood of the times, and making the period come alive. However, the darkness, especially in the ending, just seems so wrong that this book actually disturbed me. It was like finding the mutilated corpse of Richard Briers.


Thursday, February 17, 2005

Jive Turkeys


JAMES says:

Simply the most tiresome people. Try to avoid being partnered with them for Bridge.


Monday, February 14, 2005

My Bus Ride Home on Monday Night

(Journey to the Heart of Darkness)

NEILL says:

A sense of uneasiness was first aroused when I noticed that I had been standing waiting for the bus for nearly an hour. So engrossed was I reading my work manual on common errors in user interface design that the time just magically flew by, as I’m sure you can imagine. Still, there comes a point where a fellow starts to wonder if it mightn’t be nice to hurry the show along, actually get home, have a spot of dinner, and so on. For me that point comes when it starts to rain. However, there were possible explanatory factors. It was, after all, the first day of the St. Giles’ fair, an annual event of extraordinary magnificence whereby a huge and stately stretch of historic central Oxford is given over for a couple of nights to flashing lights, dodgy food and rides of questionable safety run by gangs of thieving squinty-eyed pikeys. This obviously causes certain upheavals for traffic flow around the town, so I was in (relatively) forgiving and understanding mood when the number 6 finally lurched into sight around a corner of hot-dog-and-nougat vans. This, I thought, must be the reason it has taken an hour for the bus to travel the 500 metres from the station to here.

As it turns out, I was only half right. There was another factor, which quickly became apparent, which was that the bus driver was a semi-coherent newly-arrived Russian immigrant woman with no idea of the geography of Oxford, how to drive, or what buses are. There were many and varied high-points to this Ride of Terror. There were, for example, the comical looks on the faces of people waiting at bus stops along the roadside as we sailed by, oblivious to their outraged cries. There was the rather exciting moment when, swinging round a corner with delirious abandon, we ‘clonked’ a bollard. But the absolute high-point was when we drove up completely the wrong road, went round a roundabout the wrong way and ended up stuck in a three-way dead end at the bottom of Jericho with no way out but to reverse painfully slowly for about ten minutes back up the road while a long line of confused and outraged traffic behind us followed suit. Now the famous red flagships of the Oxford Bus Company are many things; spacious, accommodating… red. One thing they are not, and I can tell you this now, is manouverable.

The end of the journey afforded one final bit of fun. By this point I had realised that the captain our captain had little understanding of or patience for such trivial notions as ringing the bell, or what ‘bus stops’ mean. So there was a certain bizarre satisfaction in the moment when, as the bus careered past our stop, my fellow passengers and I rose to our feet and cried out, with one voice: “What the FUCK??!!!”

Please don’t think that I am in any way biased against women drivers, or for that matter Russians, immigrants or the mentally ill. Or even mentally ill Russian immigrant women bus drivers. No, my quarrel is with the employers. This may be pickiness on my part, but I would have thought that at some point in their training courses, the good chaps at the Oxford Bus Company might have seen fit to include such topics as ‘Driving’, or ‘Buses: What They Are And How They Work’ and so on and so forth. Still, what the hell do I know? Well, I know one thing: driving from one side of Oxford – Oxford! Not Mexico City or the Russian Steppe, Oxford!! – should not take two hours.


If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things

by Jon McGregor

NEILL says:

I don't think I have ever actually thrown a book across the room in exasperation. Who would bother? But I recall coming pretty close with this, the debut novel by Bermuda-born, Norfolk-raised (wow, unlucky break) novelist Jon McGregor. Put it down slightly more forcefully than usual, perhaps; maybe tutted a bit. Anyway, this should not be taken as evidence that this is in any way a bad book; on the contrary, it is a very good book. A very good book indeed. My reaction should merely be taken as further proof, as if it were needed, that I am basically a bit of a fucking mook.

What I had failed to appreciate, you see, was that for some books, just as for formal wear or self-abuse, there is a time and a place. (There is never a time OR a place for self-abuse IN formal wear, of course. That would just be tacky.) My exasperation was caused by trying to use 'If Nobody Speaks...' as my bus-to-work book*. It is not a bus-to-work book, and this elementary mistake caused all sorts of irritation and disappointment. I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated by the book's style; it is packed full of tiny details, all dripping with portentousness, but with nothing ever seeming to actually happen. Furthermore it has a cast of hundreds, almost none of whom seemed to have names, and who I found it impossible to remember, distinguish between or care about. I persevered for about three return trips to work, but eventually events came to a dramatic head with the dropping-forcefully-and-maybe-tutting-a-bit episode I alluded to earlier.
Several months passed before eventually I gave it another chance. This was due to a combination of factors: it's mocking presence on my bookshelf, my own natural stubbornness, and hearing glowing praise of it from someone whose opinion I actually, kind of, you know, respect. A bit. So I gave it another try, this time in the context of a medium-length flight from Estonia, and... well. It just goes to show. Sometimes, even Neill gets it wrong. Maybe. A bit.

So then, 'If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things', by Jon McGregor. I'm a bit worn out after all that preamble, so I'll keep this short. Suffice to say, it's an excellent book. Remarkable, in fact. It rewards your concentrated and sustained attention with an entrancing richness of detail and thematic complexity. It is structurally extremely brave and innovative, and has a humanistic touch and a love for its characters and setting that is really quite moving. It's desperately sad, rather beautiful, and, in the end, genuinely affecting. If it was a song, it'd be by the Delgadoes. And one of their good ones, too.


* The bus-to-work book, since you asked, is about halfway on the literary spectrum between the Toilet Book (short, sharp bursts of reading, light tone, no sustained narrative: classic examples being Richard Herring's 'Talking Cock', or 'TV Go Home' by Charlie Brooker) and the Day Off Work Book (just get your head down and plough through the bastard: classic examples being Albert Camus' 'The Plague', or 'Soul Mountain' by Gao Xingjian... actually that's more of a Month Off Work Book - give it a go next time you have a serious spinal injury or advanced-stage venereal disease). A good bus-to-work book would be 'Carter Beats the Devil' by Glenn David Gould, or anything by Kurt Vonnegut or PG Wodehouse.

Friday, February 04, 2005

The Dutch



I don't really know anything about the Dutch. Apart from the fact that the financial institutions they developed in the early modern period, which were brought over to Britain in the years following the Glorious Revolution, revolutionised public finance, granting the British crown unprecedented revenue-raising abilities which allowed for the massive naval development which was to prove decisive against France in the Seven Years War, thus indirectly but significantly leading to the establishment of the British Empire and hence the recognisable modern world in all its glory and horror.

That and the fact they all smoke weed and like pornography.


JAMES says:

And they wear those crazy wooden shoes! All I know about the Dutch, and indeed all foreigners, came from the spectacularly racist comic strip 'Worldwide School' from Whizzer and Chips. Ah, they were more innocent times!


Being the Best Man

(Singular Honour)

NEILL says:

Being the Best Man: is it really the great life-affirming experience that bridal magazine propaganda and american TV would have us believe? Or is it, in fact, just a thankless and exhausting collection of dogsbody running-around, foolish costumery and - worst of all - public speaking? The answer, as that opening should have made clear to anyone who has ever used this singularly cliched bit of rhetoric themselves, is of course that it's a bit of both. I had plenty of opportunity to discover the highs and lows during my stint as Best Man at the nuptials of my pie-faced younger brother and esteemed co-reviewer James. On the one hand, it is of course a singular honour, to stand at your compadre's side, shoulder-to-shoulder as he embarks upon this bold new leg of the great voyage of Life. On the other hand, it involves public speaking. The worst part is the reception; you'd think that once you'd managed not to lose the rings, got the groom to the church on time and stopped him running away / passing out / having panic attacks waiting for the bride to show up*, people would let you have a bit of peace. But no! Every man and his dog seems to see nothing wrong with snapping their fingers and shouting 'Best Man! Best Man!' and sending you on whatever trivial and half-baked errand enters their overheated free-booze-sozzled brains. And then there's the public speaking.

Ah, I'm just kidding. It was all quite a laugh really. Besides the whole 'singular honour’ thing and the 'lots of free booze' thing, I take from my Best Manly experience several gifts of memory and experience that I shall always treasure. These are:

  1. I learned that public speaking is not, in fact, the worst thing that can possibly happen. Actually it was sort of fun.

  2. As a thank-you for my half-assed efforts, James gave me a bona fide original Optimus Prime toy. For the first time in my adult life, I almost cried.

  3. I got to go to Estonia and watch [CENSORED][CENSORED] rubbing their [CENSORED] all over [CENSORED][CENSORED][CENSORED][CENSORED]. Which was pleasant.

  4. If I hadn't been a Best Man, I would never have had the occasion to read 'Stag and Groom' magazine, and the world-famous legendary Crime-Fighting Duo 'Stagg and Groome' would never have been born!



* I tried to keep him distracted with Fun Comics Trivia questions, but he was rubbish; unfocussed, distracted... almost as if his mind was on something else. The poor sap couldn't even remember the names of Supergirl's parents.**

**Zor-El and Alura. Obviously.