Monday, 22 December 2008

An odd and apparently separate part of the brain

Imagine you're a police officer, and you're attempting to establish whether there have been witnesses to a crime. We've all seen Identikit pictures of suspects on the news, and they look nothing like a real person. Often they look like a Muppet. And when the suspect is black or Asian, often the different parts of their Identikit face are slightly different colours, adding insult to injury. However - apparently there has been extensive research into how people recognise a face in a picture, and the quickest and easiest way to jog their memory is to show them a picture of somebody famous who resembles the suspect, and ask them if they saw a man who looked like, for instance, Tommy Lee Jones (a scary prospect in itself). Without going into too much scientific detail, it's mainly because our memory of a face is as a whole, and breaking it down feature by feature is far harder to do. Fascinating, no? And something I've been doing as far back as I can remember. Whenever someone tells me about a new boy/girlfriend my first question is always "Who would play them in a film?" - obviously you have to make allowances for the fact that leurve can vastly improve the looks of a potential suitor but if they say "Ooh maybe Hugh Jackman...?" I can assume it's some man who is tall, smiley, and quite good-looking (and possibly Australian). One of the best drunken dinner-party conversations I've ever had was when we were all deciding who would play us in the films that would inevitably be made of our lives - Philip Seymour Hoffman loomed large (not playing me, obviously, but as my friend Marky Mark), although my friend Steak and I nearly came to blows over who got Laura Linney. I fobbed her off with Mena Suvari (well, Steak does look about 15). Everyone tried to make Mr Fishwife feel better about his comprehensively (and prematurely) grey hair by saying "Well, obviously George Clooney". And all at once I was reminded, depressingly, of the colleague I once had (who, himself, looked like Hugh Grant in About A Boy) who considered the idea for a while and then finally decided I looked most like Axl Rose.

No, seriously, which one would you prefer if you were me????

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Ant and Flea

Ah, the joys of chip and pin. Or flea and code confidentiel, as the French like to call it. As if to add insult to injury at this stressful time of year, not only are the shops full to bursting (surely a good sign in a recession?), but heavy electronic traffic means that the card machines take longer to process a transaction, thus leading to so much tsk-ing from customers that it sounds like a small delegation of Kalahari tribesmen. I used to work for A Large French National Airline, some years ago, and one year the annual sales conference was entirely given over to the advent of "le ticketless" - or, as London residents know it, the Oyster Card. An enthusiastic and almost incomprehensible speech in rough franglais was given by a fervent IT nerd flown over from Charles de Gaulle airport, during the course of which it transpired that they hadn't bothered to look up what the English words for "chip and pin" and "electronic chip reader" were. Imagine a room full of French and English salespeople, half of whom can't understand what their compatriot is saying, because his English is appalling but, well, English, and half of whom can't understand what the French guy is saying because his vocabulary is deeply odd. After telling us how an ant would be installed at every checkin desk, he went on to explain that you would simply have a flea in your wallet. The flea would be updated by the sales staff, and then in order to board the plane you would pass another ant. You would show the ant your wallet (at which point all the English sales staff nudged each other and muttered "Let the ant see the wallet, mate"). Then in a frenzy of sweaty specialist excitement (his) and confused silence (ours) he sat down. We were left none the wiser except that you had something in your wallet that you showed to something else. At which point another Big Boy from Paris stood up and said, and here I transcribe as it was spoken, "Euh, many thank to my esteem collègue. His words 'ave given us many food for thought. Let us all give him the clap."

Monday, 1 December 2008

Feelgood horror fiction

Yes, there is such a thing. Although I'm using the word "horror" as a kind of general catch-all to include supernatural shenanigans of any kind. I've recently read a number of books whose authors breathlessly cite Stephen King as their muse, their inspiration, and their spiritual father. Sadly, not one of them had what it took. And that's not to say that they were badly written, just that they seemed to have totally missed the point about Stephen King, which is that he doesn't really write horror. I know, I know, he is the mainstay of every Horror section in every bookshop in the world, and arguably made the genre the mainstream moneyspinner it has become for so many publishers. However. Horror, to me, is what James Herbert writes - bleak, nasty, and full of rats, with everybody dead or mutilated at the end. While Stephen King has a limitlessly gruesome imagination, what he also has is a phenomenal sense of decency. You can tell that Stephen King was the fat speccy boy who was mercilessly bullied at school, and as a result has become the champion of the underdog. Almost every one of his heroes is a weak character - a battered wife, a small child, an old woman, a kid with a stammer/glasses/weight problem. And by the end of the book, natural justice has (usually) prevailed in their favour. It's the satisfying and very black-and-white morality of fairy tales. In the same bracket I'd put Muriel Grey (yes, the weeny Scottish Annie Lennox-clone from The Tube), John Connolly and the truly wonderful Phil Rickman. I was having huge difficulties getting off to sleep last night (Sunday night syndrome) and realised that it was because I had three chapters left of To Dream Of The Dead by Phil Rickman - and I had to put the light on and finish it, reassuring myself that embattled female vicar (and Deliverance minister) Merrily Watkins and her grumpy New Age daughter Jane would be OK. Of course they were, because Phil Rickman is (and I say this with the utmost respect for both of them) another Stephen King. Albeit an uncompromisingly British one.
The lovely Phil Rickman (on left). In his day job as BBC Radio Wales' "Phil The Shelf". Won't bother with a picture of Stephen King because you all know what he looks like.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Nightmares are subjective.

The chewed skeleton of the dog was later found behind the gazebo.

I have always believed that it's actually a physical impossibility to "wake up screaming" from a nightmare - apparently the salivary glands radically slow production while you're asleep, in order to stop you (sorry if you're eating) drowning in your own spit. This explains why you can tell if somebody is pretending to be asleep because you can hear them swallow, and why you often wake up with a dry mouth. I have had my share of nightmares, and more often than not wake up wheezing rather than screaming - more like the noise of a cat dealing with a furball than a full-throated Hollywood AAAAAIIIEEEEEEE. Imagine my surprise when the other night I was woken by an almost Niles Crane style of shriek ("No, Daphne, that wasn't your mother screaming...") from the slumbering Mr Fishwife. It later transpired he had had a nightmare in which Esther Rantzen was chasing him, with a spear, down a long corridor which also happened to be his grandmother's back garden. Just when he thought it was safe and was hiding behind a shed, she emerged again, this time with a pair of shears. Now what this experience has taught me is (a) the logic of nightmares is random to say the least, (b) maybe I'm wrong about the salivary thing, and (c) people who scream in your ear at 4 in the morning can really disturb your sleep.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Wot I done on my week off

1) had a fairly vile cold

2) went to Bletchley Park - humbling - next time I feel embarrassed by my nerd-dom I will think of the cryptographers, translators and early computer-developers of Bletchley Park (Alan Turing* to name but one) and hold my head high. Nerds arguably won the war. And certainly shortened it by at least 2 years! And without wishing to stand on a soapbox and rant, Bletchley Park receives NO GOVERNMENT FUNDING AT ALL. Not a penny**. Which I find frankly disgusting.

3) went to Westfield "shopping centre" (small town more like) - a gigantic, Swarovski-crystal-studded temple to consumerism, virtually on my doorstep. May be the death of Hammersmith as a shopping area, but Hammersmith is a fetid hole in the ground as far as shops go anyway. All I can tell you from my haze of capitalist wonder is: they have a Waitrose. And a Habitat. And a Paperchase. And a strangely tiny Gap. And a whole bunch of shrouded units saying "Gucci - opening soon" and "Prada - opening soon" - no skin off my nose as I'm no big fan of labels.

4) went on a whistlestop gastro-tour of London organised by John Murray publishers for "Eat My Globe" by Simon Majumdar (not out till April 2009 sadly)- Borough Market, jamon iberico, pork pies, Caerphilly, jellied eels, cockles, the perfect martini, the perfect tandoori lamb chop, and Marmite-filled chocolate truffles... what did I learn from this? That £20 per 100g is worth it for the best Spanish ham in London. That jellied eels are an acquired taste but nothing like as nasty as you think they're going to be. That if you're thinking of eating at the frankly stellar New Tayyab you'd better be prepared to queue for at least two hours - but the naan bread alone makes it worth it. That Marmite chocolate truffles are fantastic and barely taste of Marmite (Heston would be proud). Ditto port and stilton chocolate truffles. That the best martinis in London are to be drunk at Hawksmoor. And that snacking all afternoon can make you slightly tetchy but really make you appreciate a good curry.

5) still had a fairly vile cold at the end of it.

* An interesting if ultra-nerdy fact - Alan Turing committed suicide by painting an apple with cyanide and eating half of it. This is why Apple computers have a bitten apple as their logo.

** to sign an e-petition to encourage the government to give Bletchley Park the funding it deserves, go to

Thursday, 6 November 2008

This is getting silly

The tagging has become a daisy chain of silliness but since I've been tagged again by Brother Tobias here's the Reduced Shakespeare productions view of the same meme I had very recently.

1) Only once, at the age of 11, and it didn't really make any major impact on my general tastes.

2) Mornington Crescent.

3) Yes, but not in brine.

4) Queen Elizabeth I, Frank Spencer, and the lift operator's voice in Are You Being Served.

5) Nothing, although you can keep Kendal Mint Cake in it.

6) A Trafalgar blue Morris Minor.

I won't tag any of you...


A day late, I know. I was off on Wednesday. Oddly quite pleased about this even though it wasn't our election. I know I said I don't do politics, and I don't. So I won't. Still quite pleased though.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Songs on the brain

Songs this week that have ricocheted irritatingly around my head (due to their sharing a title with a book I can see from where I'm sitting) include the following:

"American Boy" - book by Andrew Taylor, song by Estelle
"Almost Blue" - book by Carlo Lucarelli, song by Elvis Costello
"Angel" - book by Elizabeth Taylor, song by Gavin Friday
"Thieves Like Us" - book by Steve Cole, song by New Order

Equally annoying and more contrived are the ones that suggest a song - I've been singing "Revelation" (by C J Sansom) to the tune of "Isolation" by Joy Division, "Holes" (by Louis Sachar) to "Gold" by Spandau Ballet, and most annoyingly of all, "Two Caravans" (by Marina Lewycka) to "Sweet Caroline" by Neil Diamond. Don't bother telling me you love Neil Diamond, I don't care. This is torture. I've resisted having an iPod for years, partly because the length of my commute hasn't warranted it since 2001, and partly because I quite like hearing the world as I go home (how else would I be finding the karaoke pub in Hammersmith such good auditory value?). But I think I may need one, as a kind of homeopathic remedy for the earworms. Because it's either that, or become one of those strange book-industry people who lurks in the stock room singing hymns really loudly to drown out The Voices, and I'm definitely not ready for that.

A couple more snippets because you all seemed to like them (honestly, I bet you're the sort of people who could live on unlimited snacks):

The TV advert for a thrush remedy (yes, the fungal infection, no not the bird) which said "It will leave you feeling yourself again" - possibly unwise on the basis of "If you pick at it it'll never get better"?

The rugby match I wish I'd watched = Nancy vs Nice. I bet that was amazingly civilised. And well-dressed.

Overheard on Saturday night from lovey-dovey couple holding hands over champagne glasses: "..and outside the laundrette I just puked pure water."

Friday, 31 October 2008


My route home involves a quick walk through Hammersmith tube station, which, like many tube stations, has a sad and nasty new-build pub in it. Every night as I go past I get a heady whiff of old chip-fat, spilt beer, and the quiet desperation of any pub that is nobody's local. Also... inappropriate karaoke. I can't begin to imagine what mildly deranged urge makes people want to do karaoke at 6 in the evening on a work night, at least initially sober, in a tube station pub, but evidently they do. If I had a pound for every time I've overheard some sad woman singing "Wind Beneath My Wings" (or insert name of unseemly power-ballad here) I'd be halfway to quite a nice secondhand car. Going through yesterday, and admittedly it was nearer 9pm than 6, I heard a man singing, and I swear with my hand on my heart this is true, "Can't Touch This" by M C Hammer. What kind of choice is that? It's the choice of a man who knows he can't sing, but foolishly believes he can rap. With the possible exception of "Walking In The Air" I can't actually think of anything less suited to being sung by an accountant in a suit, but I'm prepared to find I'm wrong, probably this evening as I walk past again...

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Zombie Davina, a quick tribute

Davina, in last night's Dead Set, shown shortly prior to tearing someone's throat out and feasting on their entrails, in a literal way rather than the usual figurative way of Big Brother...

Davina McCall wins this year's Lucy award for "Celeb who isn't afraid of laughing at themselves and their public image". Although it was a close shave for "Dr" Fox for his almost self parody on Peter Kay's Britain's Got The Pop Factor And Possibly A New Jesus Christ Soapstar Superstar Strictly On Ice - but Davina scoops it, partly because I just don't like "Dr" Fox.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Am I being unreasonable?

So I'm at work, and I'm on my own. An irony is that it's easier for me to have a swift cigarette (5mins) (and yes, sorry again) than go to the loo (25 seconds) - having a cigarette means waiting till the shop's empty, then standing outside. I can see people come in, I can hastily fling my smouldering dog-end down the drain in the gutter in front of me (don't worry, full of water), and rush in to be helpful or well-informed or whateverrrr. Going to the loo is another matter, as the loo is out at the back of the shop, which means I have to hope nobody comes in (while I am soundproofed behind two doors) and shoplifts/robs the till. AAAAAAAnyway. So, after 20 minutes of no customers (which is why I have time to write this!) I race out the back, and on my return find a woman standing accusingly at the till.

"There wasn't anybody to serve me!" she says crossly, having been waiting all of 10 seconds.

"I'm sorry," I say, "I'm on my own today. How can I help?"

"Can you tell me where Brookford Road is? "

"I'm afraid not, I don't live round here. Maybe if you ask in the café next door?"

"Don't you have an A to Z?"

"Yes, downstairs in the travel section."

"I don't do stairs." she says crossly, glares at me, heaves a heavy wounded sigh at my unhelpfulness, and leaves before I have a chance to say anything (or even offer to fetch her an A to Z she won't be buying, just cracking the spine and leaving).

Now IS IT JUST ME or is that fairly unreasonable behaviour? We're a bookshop, not a tourist bureau - and while I sort of understand what makes people think that libraries are a place where, to paraphrase Robert Frost, when you go there they have to take you in (untrue and unfair though that is to libraries), where's the logic with bookshops? Is it a backhanded compliment ("You're a temple of intellect and information, so your priorities can't be anything so vulgar as making money")? Or what?? And even if she hoped that I (the person, not the bookseller) might personally know where Brookford Road was, why get grumpy with me for not knowing?

Sorry, not enough coffee.

Monday, 20 October 2008


I've been tagged by the grotto of delight that is Perfume Shrine, and after trying to think of things about myself that I haven't already said (I'm hardly Mrs Enigmatic) here we go.

Six random things about me :

a)I am allergic to Metronidazole. Never heard of it? Neither had I, until I was prescribed it and nearly died. I persisted in taking it even while the migraine, double vision and swollen joints threatened to cripple me. I thought because it was an antibiotic it would make me feel better. Oddly the fact that I could no longer feel my extremities as I crawled to the loo didn't tip me off.

b) I make the finest, crunchiest, most golden roast potatoes in the world. I will take on all comers. The secret, sadly if you're a vegetarian, is goose fat.

c) Back in my Air France days Omar Sharif once sent me a postcard thanking me for getting him from Cairo to Nice during a baggage-handlers' strike. It wasn't easy, I can tell you. I had to reroute the poor man via Paris AND Amsterdam. At least he was in Club.

d) I was interviewed on Radio 4 a while back about the preponderence of parody books (Bored Of The Rings, The Va Dinci Cod, Barry Trotter et al) in the run-up to Christmas. While I had a fabulous speech all prepared about parody being one of the oldest forms of humour, it was reduced to about 45 seconds in total (including "candid" background noise of me at the till) on air. I got my name read out though! Have also accidentally been interviewed on TV twice but have already covered that...

e) When I was 7 I invented knitting. No lie. Casting on, and everything. My grandmother had to kindly explain to me that it had been around since the egyptians. I still invented it, though...

f) I have double-jointed fingers and can bend them back like a Thai dancer. While this was great when I was at school, making me top pick in certain rarefied gym activities (I can balance a netball on the back of my hand like nobody else), apparently it means I'll have terrible arthritis later in life. Never a silver lining without a cloud, eh? Also means I have to be careful when gesturing, as there's a fine line that separates graceful Pavlova hands from weird bendy E.T. hands... see bottom right.

I'm making myself popular by tagging Steve, JRSM, Reluctant Blogger, Can Bass 1, Scentself, and of course Laura because she just can't get enough memes (snicker). I would have tagged Mantua Maker and Titian-Red but neither of them has a blog (yet).

1. Link to the person who tagged you

2. Post the rules on your blog

3. Write six random things about yourself

4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them
5. Let each person know they've been tagged and leave a comment on their blog
6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Just a quick one.

I was serving a customer yesterday. As she was paying she was chatting cosily to her beloved on her mobile (I presume that's who she was talking to, as she had suddenly adopted a startlingly twee ickle-girly voice and kept calling him "Baby" - presumably not her bank manager then, although in this financially unstable day and age who knows? Whatever gets you that overdraft). Her attention was caught by a pile of Mr Men bookmarks on the till - she picked up the one saying "Mr Perfect" and said "What's this?" "It's a bookmark." I replied. She put it back. "Oh no, he doesn't read." she said, and left. To which all one can say is: Well, he isn't Mr Perfect then, is he?????

Or am I being overly subjective?

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Spread the payments or share the love?

You think it's bad seeing Christmas decorations everywhere, try being the poor benighted shop-monkey who has to price them all. I speak from my dungeon of pain (actually the sunny, warm, south-facing back office) with a price gun in my hand (also a large latte and a scotch egg). It is only October the 11th, and I am half-buried in boxes of charideeee cards and slippery bundles of giftwrap.
Yes, there is a credit crunch on, a term that always makes me think of Kit-Kats (mmmm... Kit-Kats...), and I appreciate that people find it easier to start shopping for the festive season in October, thus spreading the financial load over two or three months. However, shouldn't we be crediting the great buying public with some intelligence? The Mighty Bookstore Chain I used to work for had a phase-by-phase military-style operation that would roll out in September. Phase 1 was called "Early Gifting", a phrase that actually makes me physically ill. CDs of Christmas music were played from the start of November, and by the time the doors shut on Christmas Eve, you were ready to commit homicide if you heard "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" again. Seasoned booksellers could be reduced to a twitching wreck by the repeated whispering of "Pa-rum-pa-pum-pum....".
Christmas happens at the same time every year, and I defy you to prove otherwise (Leap Years don't count). People are unlikely to be taken aback on December the 23rd; although some of us are surprised by our own lack of preparation, it's not as if we didn't know it was going to happen. Everybody knows money is tight, and will be planning their spending accordingly. So why insult everybody by reminding them, in late September even, that they may need to start buying presents? Share the love! Stop the madness! I recommend a ban on all mention of Christmas until the second week in December. Starting, obviously, from 5 minutes after I publish this post.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Cherry tomatoes in Minas Tirith??

A quiet night in, and Mr Fishwife and I were mildly at a loss so, as you do, we went for The Previously Watched Old Faithful, Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King. The great thing about a film you have seen a million times (well, it's big! And the special effects are amazing! And Gollum's so real!) is that you can read a book at the same time, eat a plate of roast chicken off your lap, generally fail to pay attention at all, and still enjoy it, interrupted occasionally by Mr Fishwife's nerdy cries of "Frodo? At Osgiliath? Not in my copy of the book, oh no." and "Elves?? At Helm's Deep?? I think not!!". Unless, as I did, you look up at a dramatic moment and notice, for the first time, the fact that Denethor, Steward of Gondor, while curtly sending his less-favoured son to almost certain death, is eating a plate of cherry tomatoes.

So there we have it. Photographic evidence. Now it's not the fact of the cherry tomatoes themselves, although I personally think a mouthful of rare steak would have been more apposite, and blood oozing down his chin a better (if more obvious) cinematic counterpoint to the doomed battle in which Faramir finds himself, than a mouthful of tomato juice. My point, my big thing point, is that I am now unable to watch the film without wondering where in Gondor they have the poly-tunnels necessary for the successful cultivation of cherry tomatoes in such a mountainous and rocky habitat? And given the fairly merciless appearance of the terrain, couldn't better use be made of the land than frivolously market gardening? Wouldn't potatoes be a better bet? Nobody looks that rich in Minas Tirith - are the cherry tomatoes just a perk for the Stewards? In which case Aragorn returned to take up kingship not a moment too soon.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

The Magic Number - and other nostalgia trips

Foofing about on YouTube the other day, as one does, and I was amazed by how much stuff there is that isn't music videos (grammar). Thank god that out there somewhere are people as nerdy as me (but in a different way), joyfully uploading every crackly VHS tape of Blake's 7 or Button Moon (although try as I may, I can't find a clip of Avon snarling "Hit that button... NOW!!"), uploading their entire 1960s record collection, and having to illustrate it with a two and a half minute shot of the record sleeve or, odder still, the stereo equaliser, because items such as "You Don't Have To Be a Baby to Cry" by the Caravelles are too old to have a video. AAAAAAnyway - While searching for Kermit singing "It Isn't Easy Being Green", a truly sweet and poignant little hymn to self-acceptance that, even at the age of 5, made me want to hug him, I came across this...

...which took me right back to being a small child again. I grew up (till the age of 8, anyway) in Canada, and Sesame Street was the flat-out all-round best thing ever. This, people, is how I know my three times table, and even these days I still sing "3, 6, 9... 12, 15, 18..." when counting something in threes. I never had a problem with turning thirty because as far as I'm concerned, Thirty is the big strong scary one you wouldn't mess with.
I have no idea how they managed to be so educational without being obvious or preachy, because children know when they're getting a nasty spoonful of education in a sugar coating - somehow they just seemed to make it effortless and fun. I could still sing you the theme tune, although given that I've forgotten the second verse of "O Canada" that's probably just a sign of a selective memory rather than a highly-developed one.
Far more arcane, as childhood TV habits go, are the all-but-forgotten Kid Power, which I can still also sing the theme tune from, The Osmonds, which implanted forever in a geek pub-quiz way the names of all the Osmond brothers but for unknown reasons missed Marie out altogether, and The Jackson 5ive, similar, but in hindsight far creepier. What was with the cartoonising of pop bands in the 70s? Was it supposed to simultaneously render them more popular and less sexy? Thank god they never thought of doing that with Gary Glitter.
Thank you for reading! This episode of "Life Happens Between Books" was brought to you by the letter N and the number three. "Sunny day, chasin' the clouds away... on my way to where the air is sweet..."

Monday, 22 September 2008

"Interesting even if not true"

Once again, a post about my heroes - here are three more. They are Northrop Frye, Luca Turin and Harold McGee. They are united by the fact that they write about things I love (respectively: fiction, perfume and cooking) without themselves being involved in the end product. That is to say, Northrop Frye has written many wonderful and thoroughly accessible books about the structure and theory of literature without actually writing a novel, Luca Turin has done the same for perfume and also engineered several synthetic components for perfume without actually creating a finished product, and Harold McGee was pretty much single-handedly responsible for the phenomenon that is "molecular gastronomy"by writing so clearly and interestingly about the science of cookery that it's only a miracle we're not all whipping up meat mousse and sugar caviar. And all this without ever owning a restaurant. When I first read his seminal (and breeze-block sized) On Food and Cooking I had to be forcibly restrained from discussing with bored strangers the difference between real coffee (a suspension), instant coffee (a solution) and tea (an infusion). It's the sign of a really great theoretician that they can write about something you love in as interesting and inspiring a way as the actual practitioners can (and often more so!). To paraphrase something Luca Turin says in The Secret of Scent, there are three kinds of theoretical writing: that which is boring if true (ie written solely for people doing a PhD in the subject), that which is interesting if true, and that which is interesting even if not true. Which in a nutshell sums up Things I Like Reading. And is another factor that unites them - the ability to find things interesting and fun.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Time after time after time

(This one's not about perfume!)

I'm re-reading the strange and deeply wonderful "Time And Again" by Jack Finney, whose take on time travel is this: if you put somebody into the clothes of, for example, 1890, in a room authentically furnished and gas-lit as it would have been in 1890, with a view that is exactly what one would have seen in 1890, then a combination of self-hypnosis and "spirit of place" will send them back to 1890. When they get up from the chair they are sitting in and walk out of the front door, they will indeed be back in 1890. Or 1410, or 1972, or whatever date they're trying to get to.
I love this idea - after all, when are you ever going to be able to disprove it? You may be in a National Trust property where a Tudor bedroom has been lovingly recreated, but how likely is it that you'll be alone, wearing Tudor clothes and not seeing a National Trust van or gift shop outside the window?
I had lunch with my family last week, and was reminded once again that my grandmother and I share the same (somewhat naive) view, which is "Isn't it great that science hasn't yet disproved everything?" (ie ghosts, the afterlife, some form of deity, etc) - my stepdad, on the other hand, is a fervently rational atheist and was just starting to (mildly) use words like "twaddle" when I reminded him that of course he would say that, because he's an Aquarius.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Perfume again

Just received in the morning post a REVIEW COPY, I'll say that again because I'm so delighted with it, A REVIEW COPY, which means FREE, FREE, FREE, AND I DIDN'T PAY FOR IT, of a book I have been wanting to get my hands on since I saw it reviewed in the paper last weekend: "Perfumes - the guide" by the patron saint of scents and potions Luca Turin. I just realised that I'm so excited that that was all one sentence, so here is another full stop for you. Breathe deeply, my lovelies.
The book itself is a collection of reviews of over 1500 perfumes, from the sublime to the ridiculous, and while it's handy for a little pat on the back (Mitsouko, one of my lifelong favourites, gets five stars and "the best fragrance ever"), it is also completely unputdownable for the all-round brilliance of the bad reviews. A perfume I won't name (people have been sued for less) gets this : "A chemical white floral so disastrously vile words nearly desert me. If this were a shampoo offered with your first shower after sleeping rough for two months in Nouakchott, you'd opt to keep the lice." Another, more concise: "Teensy-weensy cutesy-pie floral of the worst vintage" and, finally, pithy and to the point: "Death by jasmine".
It also poses the big questions that keep us all awake at night, such as "What is chypre without oakmoss?" and "Since the restriction of benzyl salicylates, have floral perfumes been the same?". I honestly don't know how I've lived without this book for so long. I apologise to all non-scentophiles for the single note of this post and will post on a more general note next time. I leave you with the masterful review for Coty Miss Sixty : "Ideal if you intend to be a Miss at sixty".

Herewith Mitsouko. A treasure.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Gilding The Lily

If you love a book, NEVER NEVER go and see the film thereof (apart from "Hellboy", which was a class act). We've all been there - the extraordinary disappointment of seeing your favourite character played by Tom Cruise (or, worse, Val Kilmer, a man who looks like somebody drew a face on a balloon and then blew it up slightly too much), the dreadful soundtrack, the hamfisted casting, entire story arcs left out. I completely understand that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with altering a book to fit what some ponytailed suit thinks would be nice (and shoehorn some sex/car chases etc into a plot otherwise devoid of them), but in that case why say "Based on the novel by.." ?? Why not just totally rewrite it and call it something else - and in the process get the credit for a whole new and original plot? I only say this because I went to see "Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day" last night. Ho hum, I say to you, ho bleeding hum. And in fact quite the reverse argument applies to this one. Far from being a complex work gutted for the screen, the book was a frothy little nothing of a plot, a really good holiday read, and I have to say I could see it being a very sweet Sunday night feelgood kind of thing. So when I saw that it had Frances McDormand in it my heart sank slightly - not because I don't like her, because I really really do, but because she's decidedly not an insubstantial frothy kind of actress. And lo, lo and behold - suddenly the film was rife with foreboding, and I use the phrase advisedly (mostly because it sounds good); bomber planes flying overhead, air-raid drills, gasmasks in shop windows, characters saying sadly to each other "They don't remember the last war, do they..", all sorts of things that were never in the book - HELLOOO, I wanted to shout at the screen, the whole point of this book (written as it was in 1938) was to stop people thinking about the outbreak of war, and give them a frilly piece of frippery to take the nasty taste away. And as such, perfectly suited to our rather uncertain times, non?

I attach for your delectation a picture of Amy Adams, because she really was the only one who was perfectly cast and, bless her, she's another ginger. And Lee Pace, because when he appeared on screen we all cheered up immensely.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Enraged marine gastropods

One of the great joys of a bookshop, as opposed to buying books on t'internet, is that you can have a bit of a trial flick before you commit. Obviously I'm talking about brand-new, un-road-tested, speculative buying, rather than re-acquiring old loves that you lent foolishly to a friend, and which promptly went out of print shortly after the friend went off round the world with no mobile phone. I know, I know, a certain online book site allows you to "see inside!!" but when you buy a book there are many factors that affect your choice. Everybody in the book trade will tell you most people do judge a book by its cover - as anyone knows who has bought a copy of "Pride and Prejudice" with a nice 19th century watercolour on the jacket as opposed to a BBC publicity shot of Colin Firth in a wet shirt. I personally never buy the film tie-in edition of anything - do you really want people to think you're reading a novel by Hugh Grant? Some people like a nice high gloss finish on a paperback cover, some like that rather subtle buffed matt finish we're seeing more and more of these days (and is a right sod, because it's actually almost frictionless and if you pick up a pile of 5 or 6 of them, they fly in all directions like a school of bars of soap). Hardbacks are generally considered a treat, or for presents, or for the diehard nailbiting author-junkie who can't wait for the paperback - I personally hate them because they cost at least three times as much as a paperback for the same amount of print, and when you're reading in bed they leave a nasty red three-cornered dent in your knee.

HOWEVER to my main point. When you're considering buying a book, the "see inside!!" feature is near enough useless, as it doesn't tell you anything about size of print, or more importantly font - I went through a phase in my late teens of only reading Picador books because after reading two or three that I loved, I found I had a Pavlovian response to the font they habitually used and would have read the Yellow Pages if they'd been printed in it. And most important of all - the sample paragraph. I like a cursory flick through a book. Nothing so crass as reading the last page; after all a book is a journey to another world, and would you start a holiday by already anticipating your sweaty return trek through Heathrow baggage claim at 7am? A quick glance will tell you a lot about a book, however, in much the same way as a travel guide will whet your appetite for your eventual destination. A friend lent me a novel the other day that I had heard nothing but good reviews of, and I was quite looking forward to giving it a go. It was an American import, and I have to say the Americans are streets ahead of us in cover design, and the cover was that lovely soft matt finish I hate at work but love in my hands (although interestingly American paperback covers tend to curl really badly - excellent cover design but cheaper laminate?).

I opened it, I had a flick, and the phrase "angry red whelks ran across his back" sprang out at me. What can I say? There's no way I can read it now. What should have been a nailbitingly dramatic scene about priestly abuse became a positive fiesta of grumpy seafood.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Personal Gods - a rogues' gallery of deities I quite like.

Fortuna, goddess of, unsurprisingly, fortune. Known aliases include "Lady Luck"; aspersions are cast on her fickleness (qv O Fortuna by Carl Orff, staple soundtrack to horror films and aftershave ads). Famous for not often being a lady, and maybe not having been a lady to begin with (qv Guys and Dolls). You can do what you like to please her, but you'll never know if your luck was favourable because she liked the cut of your jib, or not. Unpredictable. The only thing you can guarantee is that there are no guarantees. To paraphrase what Pascal said of God, it's best to worship her, because if she exists you're covered, and if she doesn't, you've lost nothing. Aptly enough, even worshipping her is a gamble.

Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel. Bear with me a little on this one if I tell you his main alias is Lucifer. Worshipped pretty much exclusively by the Yezidi, a tiny ethnic Kurdish minority in Iraq. They believe that God made man and told the angels to bow down to him, which they duly did, but Melek Taus refused, saying that surely the angels were the finest of God's creations and shouldn't bow down to a creature made of mud. So far, so Biblical. The Yezidi reckon, however, that at this point rather than casting him out for insubordination, God said "Well done, that was exactly the answer I was looking for, and unlike all these yes-men you alone have the pride to recognise that you are my most beautiful creation..." and other encouraging noises. God then disappeared to create other universes, leaving Melek Taus, the Devil, in charge of this one. Given the extraordinary persecution the Yezidi have suffered over the years, that sounds about right.

Legba Atibon, voodoo god (or loa) of the crossroads. He represents humility, comprehension, and the ability to see and appreciate the potential in others, which in itself facilitates communication. Definitely the god of the internet and libraries - and of any conversation or exchange of information. How could you not worship him? The kindest and most affectionately-regarded of the loa, he has relatively simple tastes for a god, and rather than demanding expensive tribute and sacrifices is happy with a cup of coffee and some tobacco. So also the god of booksellers then...

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Why I Love The Internet

It's all been said before, and by people far more clued-up and techno-geeky than me, but I LOVE THE INTERNET. Damn, but it's a boon to mankind. I speak as one to whom the phrase "knowledge is power" is not just a phrase but a way of life, and I literally cannot imagine how I used to live before I had this wealth of facts at my fingertips. I will give you but two of the million examples of this :
1) Recently, in France, on a fairly remote country road, my friend's car had a minor wobble. She has a Honda, and a small but doom-laden amber warning light started flashing on the dashboard. It was in some peculiar shape we couldn't work out (I thought all cars were idiot-proof these days???). Mr Fishwife, who fancies himself as Jeremy Clarkson (thankfully without the paunch and the perm), made all sorts of manly noises, but admitted defeat when all four of us decided the only shape it remotely resembled was maybe a gastro-intestinal tract, or a kohlrabi, neither of which play a huge part in the functionings of a Honda. THANK GOD FOR THE INTERNET - which she could access via her iPhone - where we found not only the Honda homepage (it was a warning light for "the engine", helpfully unspecific there) but also the phone number for her Honda Garage, who made reassuring noises and booked her in for a check-up when she got back. All we needed to know was that it was safe to keep driving the car with the dash warning still flashing, and lo we were duly reassured. And stopped for more ice cream rather than racing home before the kohlrabi exploded.
2) I had lunch a few days ago with my 95-year-old grandmother (not the dead alcoholic one, the living Swiss one) - I won't use the phrase "marvellous for her age", although she is, because what does that mean? Why is it surprising to be marvellous over a certain age? She forgets things a lot - but then when I think about it, she always has. And when I think about it, so do I. However, get her onto something that doesn't involve what she's doing next Tuesday week, and you're away. We had a long chat about the etymological derivation of the words "discreet" and "discrete", and then she said to me "What's the rest of that poem, you must know, it, something about "pense à Andromaque", or is it Andromache?" ... How sweet of her to have thought I must know it, which I didn't. So I Googled it. It's from "La Cygne", by Baudelaire. Which I printed out and am posting to her. God bless the internet.

Everything is there in fabulous cyberspace, it's just knowing how to find it - I couldn't for the life of me remember where the lyric "trying hard to recreate what had yet to be created" came from, and Googling a line of text is so much easier if you slap quotation marks around it, and was it worth the effort to find out it came from "What A Fool Believes" by crooning falsetto Santa-clone Michael MacDonald? Yes it was. Watching a film and can't remember what you've seen the tall girl in? Internet. That hotel you stayed in 5 years ago and can't remember the name? Internet. It'll never replace the dictionary for settling a potentially fatal Scrabble row, or Brewer's Phrase And Fable for the collective noun for crows, but it's up there in my pantheon of gods. I'm often thankful I only use it for reference, email and blogging, and not something more time-consuming like those vast online role-playing universes, but there's always time...

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Room Lovely (with apologies to Stephen Fry)

Watching a very old repeat of "Room 101" last night - most of the time the things the guests choose strike a chord (thongs, lateness, lads' mags, Anne Robinson etc), but of course Stephen Fry went one better, picking "Room 101" itself as one of his choices. His argument (or one of them) was that there is something fundamentally depressing about sitting around discussing what you hate (I personally can't get enough of it, but I am a lesser mortal). Another point he made was that there is nothing more destructive to the human spirit than looking at the, in the main, grotesque mess we have made of the world and realising we are part of a species that makes things ugly wherever it goes - although I think he made that point in connection with the Limited Edition Collectable Plates to be found in Sunday colour supplements ("White Wolf's Spirit Brother", "Adela's First Ball", "Waiting For Santa" etc etc). Aaaaaaaaaanyway - he suggested a TV programme called "Room Lovely", although I would recommend fancying up the name a bit, in which guests talk about what they find wonderful and indispensible about the world. I attach above a little collage of things that make me happy. Sadly I won't be including a picture of Mr Fishwife as he is in fact either a hugely famous film star or a high-profile wanted criminal, take your pick - can't remember which excuse he'd prefer, although what it boils down to is that he's read too many articles about identity fraud and is convinced it will happen to him. Tchuh, Virgos.
Those of you who read this by subscription (you know who you are, Ma) will have to look at this actual page to see the pictures...!

Monday, 28 July 2008

Escapism from the midsummer heat.

There are times when you really want nothing more than to climb into a whole different world for a while and get away from your normal life. OBVIOUSLY books are the answer - every book on your bookshelf is a door which opens somewhere else. I always thought the perfect analogy was the Wood Between The Worlds in The Magician's Nephew; a forest full of pools which, jumped into, take you to another world a million miles and years away. It also has to be fiction - I love my comics, and there are superb series I read over and over again (Sandman and The Invisibles for starters) but written prose has the advantage that your mind provides the faces and places, which is all part of the self-hypnosis of escapism. Being greedy, and (as I may have mentioned) an addict, sometimes one book isn't enough and I need a trilogy (His Dark Materials re-reads very well, especially now there are Lyra's Oxford and Once Upon A Time In The North to flesh it out, and Lewis's The Cosmic Trilogy). Worse, sometimes I need more, a bigger series, although by the time a series gets that large the pickings are lean. I have to leave a sizeable gap between re-reads of The Chronicles Of Narnia and The Dark Tower as I know them too well. Occasionally I toy with the woefully underappreciated Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard, whose drossy TV adaptation ruined it. I did read the entire Niccolo series by Dorothy Dunnett - mock me as a tweedy old bat if you want (it'd be inaccurate, for a start, on at least two counts, and the "old" is debatable too) but it managed to be historically accurate, fascinatingly detailed, and gripping. Also the joy of it being a series meant that, like The Sopranos, a small and seemingly unimportant story line that seemed to peter out in book 2 became a major plot point in book 4. Not sure why the Renaissance appealed more than the Napoleonic wars... but there it is. Also it had far more in the way of female characters (the book series, not the Renaissance). I keep being recommended the Patrick O'Brian series, which would keep me going for a fair while, but I have to admit that two things put me off - one is the relentless blokedom they seem to encourage (war, ships, all-male camaraderie, rum, Napoleon, etc) and the other is Russell Crowe. I apologise to any fans thereof (therewhom?) but if I'm going to invest time and imaginative energy on a whole new world I don't want to be tripping through it hand-in-hand with a tiny-eyed soap-dodger with anger management issues. But let other pens dwell etc etc. So there we have it - I need some large-scale escapism. Please don't suggest Proust or Anthony Powell - otherwise I'm open to suggestions. Hurry before I melt...

Monday, 21 July 2008

An Ethical Diversion

I may have expressed my pathological love for the unparallelled genius of Nabokov before (hey, who hasn't?) so I can only describe what follows as deeply subjective...
I recently read that an unpublished novel (that he emphatically wanted destroyed) is to be published by his son. Hmmm, a tricky ethical question. I can't think of anything I want more, under normal circumstances, than a new novel by an author I love - especially if I was no longer expecting them to write one. When an author dies, Robertson Davies as a prime example, your first thought (because readers are addicts, and their first thought is always of their addiction) is "Oh no! No more new things to read!" and then, belatedly and guiltily, "How awful for their family, of course..." HOWEVER, and this is a big however, the finest authors are their own harshest critics, and Nabokov more than most; one can only assume if he wanted it destroyed he didn't feel it was of a quality worth publishing. On the other hand, a second-rate Nabokov would still be a million times better than a million other authors at their best. As always, the addiction wins out and, unable to boycott it on principle, I know I'll be the first in the queue to read it. The only consolation is that if it does turn out to be less good than the books published in his lifetime, I can tell myself he knew that would be the case...

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Short one - it is, after all, Saturday...

Recently, admittedly under the influence of Day Nurse (the pathetically puny little sister of La Fée Verte) misread the word "price" as "prince"... which resulted in the interesting phrase "What's that got to do with the prince of fish??" - Herewith I give you, ladies and gentlemen, the prince of fish. Not Mr Fishwife, although he quite fancies a trident for posing round the beach bars with on holiday.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

The Green Fairy

Of course I have developed a nasty cold immediately after returning from a week off. It's one of those ones that yo-yos from your nose to your throat, then back again, so one day you're sneezing wetly all over your distressed colleagues and the next you're hacking away like a faulty cement-mixer. I should point out here that despite my relatively sedentary lifestyle, hatred of exercise, ineptitude for sports and generally unhealthy demeanour (I cite once again the smoking, and the fact that it's only Thursday and I am mildly hungover), I am very rarely ill. It is one of the unexplained joys of my life that not only is this the case, but also that the resolutely fit, healthy, nonsmoking, gym-member Mr Fishwife is a martyr to every sneeze and stomach bug going. Life is a strange and wonderful thing, n'est-ce pas? AAAAAAnyway - so here I am, bunged and raspy, and while I could kid myself I sound throaty and alluring like Lauren Bacall, the truth is I sound more like someone failing to start a chainsaw in a steel wheelie-bin.

Hence the illustration - the wonder that is Night Nurse. Let those boozehound saddos of the Belle Epoque rave about absinthe, the one true path is L’Infirmière Verte. I took a hefty slug last night before going to bed and slept like a hibernating grizzly. Admittedly I still haven't fully woken up yet, and am expecting to do so just before bedtime tonight, thus starting the whole sorry saga off again, but who cares...

Monday, 14 July 2008

Normal Service, or nearest offer.

I'm probably the only person I know who comes back from any holiday actually paler than before I went. I could offer all sorts of explanations (mostly, and correctly, to do with my lavish use of factor 1000 sunscreen) but I prefer to think of it as an "anti-tan" - the hotter the place I go to, the more the sun bleaches me. Possibly, by my own argument, if I spent a week or two in the Arctic Circle over winter I might develop a tan. Stranger things have happened.
Not hugely pale this time, as most of my sun exposure took place in northern France (see sidebar ONE MORE TIME before I take it down with a sigh of regret) and was just a fleeting but celebratory weekend's worth before returning to rainy Blighty. After which I spent a blissful week doing precisely nil, apart from visiting family and reading books* and stuffing my face with the food we had brought back from Rouen**. Am now back at work - and will write something worth reading in a day or two.

* "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" by Stieg Larsson - a housebrick of a Swedish crime thriller but very, very worth reading. Dark, complex, and scary.
"When Will There Be Good News" by Kate Atkinson - one of the perks of working in a bookshop is the availability of proof copies. This is a sequel to her two previous Jackson Brodie novels and worth waiting for.
"Ten-Second Staircase" by Christopher Fowler - I got cross with him a few years ago for rewriting his mad lunatic-genius novel "Darkest Day" (now unavailable) into a rather more ho-hum format to fit the Waterstones-friendly crime series cliché- but this was original, and a goodie.

**walnut bread, garlic sausage, smoked sausage, goat's cheese, ham, duck confit, brief pause while I let belt out a notch or two, Roquefort, purée de marrons, unsalted butter, further brief pause while I lie down.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Copycat meme.. damn, I'm idle.

Just about to go on holiday (see sidebar and loathe me insanely). My mind is so occupied with this that I have been unable to come up with a post for today. Here is a meme I have nicked unashamedly off Reluctant Blogger and Rol. I apologise for the paucity of my ideas and will blog fulsomely when I get back...

1) What were you doing 10 years ago?
I was working for Air France. I had IBS and had failed to connect it to the fact that my job was simultaneously tedious and stressful. I loved my colleagues, I loved (LOVED) the cheap/free air travel, but I was definitely heading for the door.

2) Name 5 things on your to-do list today
Get some dinner stuff in on the way home. Pack. Remember to dig out the automatic cat feeder. Find/pack my passport. Don't forget sun-cream this time!

3) Name 5 things you would do if you became a billionaire
Pay off the mortgages of all my friends/family.
Buy all sites that Tesco's/Sainsbury's would consider developing and rent them cheaply to small local businesses.
Endow a school for affordable hit-men.
Replace everything in my wardrobe with the same thing in cashmere.
Buy Lindisfarne Castle and live in it.

4) Name 5 places you have lived
Montreal, Oxford, Durham, Avignon, London. All, coincidentally, cities on rivers. Couldn't live anywhere dry now.

5) Name 5 of your bad habits
Not knowing that that really WAS one glass too many.
Being a truly crap (lazy, sporadic, uncommunicative) correspondent.

6) name 5 jobs you've had
Hotel maid (Avignon)
Barmaid (everywhere)
Hearing-aid mender (London)
Concorde charter agent (London)
Bookseller (best move I ever made).

7) How did you come up with the title of your blog?
I fel it sums up, in one sentence, the general tone of la vie chez Fishwife.

Monday, 30 June 2008

Home chemistry

Went to a party at the weekend which was the best kind of birthday party - like being 6 again but with a free bar. Balloons, dancing, food, cake, and nobody cried, wet themselves or had to be taken home early, although Mr Fishwife woke up with a stiff shoulder after strutting his stuff rather too energetically with the birthday girl. Hurrah. Getting a taxi from central London after midnight is no easy feat at the best of times, and made harder if there are five of you and a large bunch of helium-filled balloons - the trick is to look as sensible and sober as possible. As we duly did. A brief digression on the subject of helium - it is non-toxic, odourless, flavourless, has no narcotic effects, and according to Wikipedia The voice of a person who has inhaled helium temporarily sounds high-pitched. This is because the speed of sound in helium is nearly three times the speed of sound in air. Apply this scientific principle to a 14-stone football-playing baritone singing "Lovin' You" by Minnie Riperton and you'll wonder why you ever gave up Chemistry O-Level. A fine, fine way to spend the small hours of a Saturday/Sunday. If we'd had some liquid nitrogen to freeze grapes with we'd have been in heaven.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Bad books. Bad, BAD books.

In one of the Sundays they had a feature (notice I'm not naming either the paper - Murdoch!!! - or the writer - career misogynist!!) about books that made you see red. I had this idea way back in my previous job, maybe a nicely arranged display of "Our Least Favourite Books", but was told by my manager that there was no way Head Office would allow it.. No surprise really. What was interesting about the whole exercise, though, was the fact that pretty much all the stuff the (literary) contributors hated was in the genre of .. any guesses? Oh yes, our old friend "literary fiction" (rabbit ears back atcha, Rol). While I can see that it's possible to get worked up over the fact that someone other than oneself/one's husband/one's best friend won the Booker, or that some Old Dead Guy is lauded as a great figure of the literary world and you secretly have a chip about him because he's posh/common/gay/rich/a man, I have to say that most of the worst books I've ever read have been bad because they were just badly-written. Or unimaginative. Or, in the case of childrens' books, a downright exercise in cynical money-grabbing, like the Rainbow Fairies series - there are 60-odd of them so far, with many many more in the offing, and they work on the publishing principle that little girls will buy ANYTHING, regardless of tissue-thin plot, as long as it's pink and/or sparkly, and the title contains the words "Fairy", "Ballet" or "Unicorn". In fact there's a new (non-Rainbow Fairy) series that has all three - a fairy ballet school with talking pets, including a unicorn (and the cover's glittery!!!!). Now that makes me see red. But after my last post about literary snobbery I should just point out that none of this means I think children should be shackled to Dickens from an early age - after all, if you don't read crap you'll never learn to enjoy the good stuff...!
Herewith, anyway, my very least favourite book. I wasted 3 hours of my life speed-reading it. It is (drumroll) "Magic" by Tami Hoag. I like a bit of supernatural crime - Phil Rickman, John Connolly, and the grandfather of them all Charles Williams* - so I picked this up, foolishly thinking it might be worth a try. FOOLISHLY I tells ya. It was the worst combination of the worst possible elements - a Scooby Doo level of crime, a romance where they hate each other but just, y'know, kinda can't stop thinking about each other, and a ghost story where the author, evidently someone who's never been nearer England than an atlas, inserts an "adorable" 1920s ghost called (if I remember correctly) Archibald Wimsey, who refers anachronistically to Oxfam, and was the least cute "cute" character I've ever read. The veritable JarJar Binks of fiction. This, to quote someone sensible, is not a book to be lightly laid aside. It is to be hurled with great force.
*Charles Williams - a member of the Inklings, the same literary set as Tolkien and C S Lewis, and the least read nowadays. He wrote strange, lovely, metaphysical novels, the best-known of which was "Many Dimensions", a nearly-crime novel about the 20th century discovery, subsequent theft, and recovery of the Stone of Solomon (or Philosopher's Stone). Truly great writing, deeply questioning, and if you find a copy of any of his novels on abebooks or amazon, snap 'em up.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Fear of the Nerd Ghetto

"I'm looking for a copy of The Hobbit, please." "It's in the Science Fiction section under T." "Science Fiction?? Why on earth would you put Tolkien under Science Fiction???" ... To which the obvious answer is, wearily, where else is there? One could argue that he (and HG Wells, and Jules Verne) invented the genre of science fiction/fantasy. It is possible for a book to be, technically, science fiction, and yet, simultaneously, a work of litrachoor. Great science fiction works masquerading as "acceptable" literature include 1984, The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis's Cosmic Trilogy, the Gormenghast trilogy, and many books by Margaret Atwood, J G Ballard, Nabokov, Vonnegut, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, yadda yadda yadda. I've had to argue the case for the prize-winners Persepolis and Maus being "worth reading", despite being graphic novels. "Literary Fiction" is my least favourite publisher-invented category, the implication being that any other kind of fiction is somehow less worth reading, or only as "a holiday read". People often ask for a recommendation for something to read, or for a book group, adding hastily "Literary fiction, you know, something good." I have always believed that you have to have everything in your literary diet; how can you judge what's trash unless you've read it? How can you appreciate the marvellousness of Jane Austen without having read Georgette Heyer (far lower brow but actually historically spot-on and immensely good fun)? How can you spot the unashamedly enormous chunks of dialogue and plot Jilly Cooper* has plagiarised wholesale without having read Alison Lurie's Love and Friendship, Josephine Tey's The Franchise Affair, Elaine Dundy's The Dud Avocado, or Cyra McFadden's fabulously funny The Serial? And some of the greatest and most enjoyable pieces of potboiler have survived multiple reprintings - Gone With The Wind, for instance. I can't think of anything more enjoyable for a book group than the 1956 bonkbuster Peyton Place - after all, it has a fabulously racy plot and, these days, it's a very interesting insight into the way small towns in the 50s reacted to issues of adultery, illegitimacy, abortion etc. Any takers? ...
* Just realised I got that analogy the wrong way round and inadvertently compared Jilly Cooper to Jane Austen. Probably a first in the world of fiction. What I meant was - while enjoying the very lightweight charms of Ms Cooper, spare a thought for the considerably greater talents of Lurie, Dundy, McFadden and particularly the excellent Tey...

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Sorry But I'm Very Excited

The great thing about BookShopWorld is that publishers are quite keen to promote their wares, and invite you to all manner of events. These range from the humble stand-up pint with a first-time author (Cheesey Wotsits and Twiglets provided) - which is always a huge laugh because they're just as much in it for the free beer as you are - to the swanky invitation-only do for the established literary lion, which means you don't steal the cutlery or drink too much and pass out in your soup. These latter ones are rare though - the last time I went to one was about 5 years ago. They were promoting not one but three authors, so they rotated them throughout the dinner. Cool for us, indigestion ahoy for the authors... I sat opposite Howard Jacobson (who was totally charming - we discussed Esther Williams and salt beef), Rose Tremain (we were both quite drunk so I don't remember what we talked about but she was really nice), and a very young author/academic whose name I won't mention because he was a total arrogant arse and I'm too poor to get sued; I was delighted when we had to return his novel because it hadn't sold. And had frankly appalling reviews. Here I will just bung in a load of foreign words like hubris, schadenfreude, and poseur.
AAAAAAAAAAnyway - got my five-yearly glam invite the other week and am very excited - JOHN LE CARRE, whom I love, at THE IVY, a place I am unlikely ever to visit or eat at in normal circumstances unless I start dating AA Gill, a thought that fills me with fear and loathing. I'm so excited I will probably do what I did when I met PJ O'Rourke, which is blush, clam up, and find myself unable to speak. Although I am practising pithy phrases like "The swallows fly north over Moscow" and "Pass the salt or I will report you to Head of Ops".

Friday, 13 June 2008

The Sickness that is "Having To Be Right"

I'd be the first to admit that I'm not perfect (blushes modestly as roars of 'Shame, shame' erupt from her adoring peons) - and one of my worst habits is having to be right. All the time, about everything, no matter how petty. Watching "Blade Runner" with Mr Fishwife the other week - Director's Cut, natch - and in some hangover-befuddled state I managed to convince myself that the glam stripper/assassin replicant Zhora ("talk about Beauty and the Beast - she's both!") was played by the similarly cold-eyed ice queen who now plays the mother/grandmother in "Two and a Half Men". Yes, I know, improbable to the point of stupidity, but in my defence I didn't have my glasses on (again). AND the film is more or less 20 years old. I thought I accepted my defeat gracefully but last night, while watching "Heroes" (oh it's all high culture chez Fishwife) I found myself pointing at the television screaming "HER HER THAT'S ZHORA I SWEAR" and was unable to let it drop until a, by now, quite grumpy Mr Fishwife had fired up the laptop and spent 10 minutes trawling Wikipedia for "List Of Heroes Characters". And proved me, exhausted but vindicated, right.

I attach below, as further proof that I can't let it lie, pictures of the two actresses to back me up.

I mean they might not be sisters, but they could at the very least be related.
Shut up any time now? You betcha.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

The Post That Vanished... spooky...!

Competitive parents beware
The concept of "reading age" is a funny thing. Those with children will be familiar with it, those who work in bookshops too - at some unspecified point in the school year it appears that somebody in authority Decrees what a child's reading age is (for the uninitiated - not remotely dependent on chronological age!) and suggests that they read accordingly. Which is fine - some kids read better and faster at earlier ages than others. In practice, however, it becomes another cause of panic for the parents - is he reading "the right age" of books? A nervous parent came in and asked for teenage books for her 9 year old, as he had recently been assessed as having a 14-yr-old reading age. It was totally in vain to tell her that most teenage books these days are entirely concerned with Issues that 9 year olds may be uncomfortable with, i.e. drugs, sex, people-trafficking, ASBOs, unwanted pregnancy, knives, mugging, and all the other joyful trappings of an ordinary teenager's life. "Oh, but he's terribly intelligent." she said, entirely missing the point, waving aside our protests and buying the poor child a copy of "American Psycho"... well, obviously not "American Psycho", but why even go on? Somewhere out there in Southwest London is a bewildered 9-year-old who will henceforth be terrified of girls, drugs, psychopaths, going outside at any time of day whatever, etc etc..
Political satire, ooh controversial
I was sitting in a friend's garden yesterday with various other people, some of whom genuinely had the day off, at least two of whom were "working from home" - ie feet up on a deckchair with laptop on. At one point my friend Eamo had to call his IT department to speak to someone called Osama about his inability to get email - whether he admitted he was trying to get emails while sitting in someone else's garden is a moot point. I only mention this because there is something profoundly ironic and unintentionally funny about someone on the phone saying "Can I speak to Osama please? .. Oh, he's not there... Do you know where he is?"

Monday, 9 June 2008

A quick thought on downright inept parenting

I have a friend who swears blind she was at school with a boy called Hugh Janus. I mean, really, at what stage did his parents not notice this was going to cause him problems in later life? Did his father not lean on the mantelpiece, his firstborn tucked burping over his shoulder, saying meditatively "Prime Minister Janus... H. A Janus QC... Dr Hugh Jan-.. oh bugger."
This is a very quick post (mmeh, Monday) - but I will just leave you with the thought that even the apparently beautiful and privileged can screw up on a spectacular scale where kids' names are concerned - did nobody think to point out to the glowingly attractive celeb couple that is Brangelina the appalling and unfortunate spoonerism in their daughter's name - Shiloh Pitt?

PS really ...Just also remembered the case in "Freakonomics" of the woman who called her daughter "Shithead", to be pronounced "ShuhTeed" - a minute's awed and almost admiring silence for sheer parental abuse there. And MantuaMaker's just reminded me of the boy called Nicholas Bott her brother was at school with..

Friday, 6 June 2008

Man-crushes - a disturbing new metrosexual trend? Or just that warm feeling you had about the captain of the first XI all over again?

Gay men may, with a snort of disgust, look away here - I am speaking of the interesting concept of the man-crush. It is a purely heterosexual phenomenon, in fact the more aggressively heterosexual the man the more likely he is to have one. I remember standing in a kitchen at a party once, ages ago, having a long conversation with three men (one of them Mr Fishwife) about "men's men" - ie Oliver Reed, Henry Cooper, Jack Nicholson etc. The only way any of them could explain it was "Oh, you know... a real bloke. The kind of man you'd buy WD40 for. Or cigars. " Interestingly enough, one of those men is today a woman (not Mr Fishwife) (or me!). But I digress. Over the intervening years I've noticed the way men get a little bit squirmy and coy when discussing men they have a secret man-crush on - try saying "Johnny Wilkinson" to any man you know and watch him blush and simper like a teenage girl. I attach below a list of men it appears to be OK to have a man-crush on - please feel free to suggest ones I may have forgotten...

Frank Sinatra , but not Dean Martin (too wefty)

Jeremy Clarkson and James May, but not Richard Hammond (boy band-tastic)

Almost any rugby player except Sebastien Chabal (just too big)

George Best, anyone from the 1966 World Cup squad and Gazza, but very few other football players (in fact, having a man-crush on Freddie Ljungberg is pretty much proof that you're on the other bus. It's not a man-crush, it's a crush-crush.)

Tony Soprano and all Corleones except Sonny (perms are bad, mmkay?)

Terry Wogan (he's earned it, the poor man, after all those years failing to get a decent drink at the Eurovision Song Contest)

Gordon Ramsay, Heston Blumenthal, and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall but not Gary Rhodes (that hair!) or Anthony Worrall Thompson (he leers like a drunk uncle).

Comedians are pretty much all OK except for Russell Brand (looks too much like that Goth girl you snogged once at a party)

Actors - now there's a wide open field. The very fact of being an actor is less manly than being, say, a brickie or a soldier, but here are a few that seem to have it all (and I'm only going for British/Irish and Alive or there are far too many!) : Peter O'Toole (last of the great drinkers), Sean Connery, Daniel Craig, Clive Owen, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Bill Nighy (king of the sneer)..

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Perfume - the story of a murderous overdraft

I have to admit to being completely obsessed with perfume. In excess, it is a ruinously expensive habit but since I don't have an addiction to (illegal) drugs or (expensive) shoes, I can just about support it. Books don't count as an addiction, more as a necessity, and since I'm lucky enough to work in a place where they are at best free and at worst subsidised, I don't even include them as an expense. I have a wardrobe at home and at last count two of its shelves and one of its drawers were full of perfume bottles, meaning that the less important stuff (clothes) ends up crammed into a separate drawer and permanently in need of an iron. They subdivide into: summer and winter, daytime and nighttime, work and weekend, serious and tarty, and the immensely important Perfume That Makes You Feel Good/Clean/Fresh When Hungover*. I completely understand people who have one perfume and always wear the same thing, because it's the whole Proustian madeleine syndrome of "Ah yes a fugitive waft of L'Air Du Temps will always remind me of Kate" etc etc - and it fixes people in your olfactory memory. I can't do it, though, as I all too frequently find myself getting bored with whatever I'm wearing and have to wear something else. Usually other peoples' perfume is out of bounds, and I have had bouts of terrible guilt about this, i.e. the time I "stole" Mitsouko off my friend Catherine (not the actual bottle, just the wearing of it) - is it a sin on a par with actually stealing something real? Or wearing the same dress to a party? Which may be why I end up wearing more and more obscure perfumes**. My favourite pilgrimage, and I can't use this word too strongly, is every couple of weeks to the perfume hall at Liberty's. Selfridge's is too vast and has too much unnecessary tat (celebrity perfumes for those who want to smell like Paris Hilton - which is what exactly? Spilt booze and some bloke's aftershave with a base-note of grubby $100 bills??) - and Harrod's is a no-no as I won't willingly put a penny into the Phony Pharoah's pocket. Liberty's is my Mecca, my Garden of Eden, my Narnia. They have scents and potions you will, trust me, never even have heard of. I may have mentioned that I'm a smoker, and in a way this may be a blessing, as my sense of smell is already as keen as a bloodhound's, and if I hadn't dulled it to an acceptable level I would probably pass out in a swooning ecstasy on crossing the threshold.

*Clarins' "Eau Dynamisante", Penhaligon's "Bluebell", Philosophy's "Pure Grace", Annick Goutal's "Eau Du Sud"

** Ineke's "Evening Edged In Gold", Comme Des Garcons's "Rhubarb", Saira Schwarz's "Lucid Agony", Demeter's "Lavender Martini"

Yes, there really is a perfume called Lucid Agony.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Thoughts on a forthcoming theatre trip.

I always, always pretend it's CULTURE that lies behind my stupid quarterly outings of reckless and frankly ill-advised binge-drinking; the premise is that we meet for lunch, we go to The Theatre where we are nourished by Art, then we go for a civilised meal afterwards and discuss, as only the recently culturally enlightened can do, the weighty issues of Drama and Its Place In Society.
Sadly, in practice, what always happens is the following: meet for lunch, have something irrelevant compared to the bottle of wine each we consume. Go to theatre (it's always the same 5 of us so we can't even pretend we thought it would turn out any differently). Go see something light but with artistic merit (last time, "Glengarry Glen Ross", this time "The Deep Blue Sea"). Drink more at the interval. Come out going "Hmmmm not sure about that second act". Get lashed in some overpriced central London watering hole between end-of-matinee and start-of-dinner. Lurch ungracefully into restaurant going "Toldja, dinn I tell ya, shoulderv gone to see that new Indiana Jones film". Get, oh GOD, so very very much drunker. Spend Sunday crying gently into a large box of tissues while watching "Ratatouille" in pyjamas, frankly unable to remember much about the play, which to be fair simply existed as a time-filling ruse to stop us getting paralytic before 4pm anyway. I think it was about estate agents. I think the next one has Greta Scacchi in it. Since I will almost certainly forget my glasses, it may well have Alice Cooper and the Krankies in it, I will never be entirely sure.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008


The wonderful world of the non sequitur (an occasional series)
And this is only in the last 4 days...
-"Would you like a bag?" - "No thanks, I'm paying by card"
-"No, it wasn't a hardback, it was orange."
-"I'd love that card in the window with the kitten." - "What, this one?" - "Yes, the one with the frog."
-"It was by that Japanese author - oh, I know, Martin Amis."
And my personal favourite, heard on a tannoy in a russian accent on Eurovision Day, appropriately enough... "There is good service running on all London Underground line. District is good, Piccadilly is good. For detail of essential work over Bank Holiday Weekend, please to inspect the poofters on display at the station entrance".
OK, I know, not a non-seq, unless London Underground actually does have an exhibition of homosexual gentlemen in selected ticket halls (and why not? Ours are the finest in Europe!) but my best recent Freudian mis-hearing.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Not Based On A True Story!

I've just been re-reading the fabulous (quite literally) "The Uses Of Enchantment" by Bruno Bettelheim. He was a child psychologist who believed that fairy tales (and myths, and legends etc) were a way for children to understand early traumas, or to describe their fears and view of their lives. His theory, boiled down, was: everybody has a favourite story, and the substance of the story can be a key to how the person views their own life and situation. Little Red Riding Hood appeals to women who feel they're in danger from real-life "wolves", Cinderella to those who know deep down that a handsome prince will see through their rags and recognise them for the princess they are, Jack The Giant-Killer to men who feel powerless before a bullying father, an aggessive boss, or any situation they feel dwarfed by. Etcetera, etcetera (as Yul Brynner so rightly said). When you start thinking about it, you have one too. It may not be a fairy tale, it may be a film plot ("Oh my GOD we're just like Harry and Sally"). There's something very comforting about this theory though - it makes me feel not only that millions of other people have similar hang-ups to ones' own, but also that people were having the same hang-ups hundreds of years ago. Mine is "Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady" - which answers the question "What do women want?" ...

Monday, 19 May 2008

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.

The rapid encroachment of old age is never fun, apart from being able to say "I was doing that before you were born!" to younger siblings/cousins. My personal demon is the failing eyesight, which is a sod because while for most people it's the close-up vision that goes, for me it's distance. I have glasses, and wear them to watch TV and films etc, but there never seems any point in wearing them to work as everything is within 10ft of my eyes. The fact that they make me look like a nerdier and older version of myself doesn't help. I know I'm a nerd, you know I'm a nerd, but there seems little point in advertising the fact to complete strangers, especially if within 10 feet of me I am unable to see them as they're too close for my glasses. I know which bus to get on because it becomes legible when it's near enough to flag down. I am familiar enough with the stock in the shop to say "Oh yes the David Mitchell, it's that mauve and blue one there". HOWEVER at the weekend, walking sedately round a park with Mr Fishwife and my mother, I spent several minutes trying to work out what the striking exotic orange blooms at the edge of the lake were, before being informed that they were the feet of a dead duck lying on its back in the shallows.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Reading Age - bah, humbug

Competitive parents beware
The concept of "reading age" is a funny thing. Those with children will be familiar with it, those who work in bookshops too - at some unspecified point in the school year it appears that somebody in authority Decrees what a child's reading age is (for the uninitiated - not remotely dependent on chronological age!) and suggests that they read accordingly. Which is fine - some kids read better and faster at earlier ages than others. In practice, however, it becomes another cause of panic for the parents - is he reading "the right age" of books? A nervous parent came in and asked for teenage books for her 9 year old, as he had recently been assessed as having a 14-yr-old reading age. It was totally in vain to tell her that most teenage books these days are entirely concerned with Issues that 9 year olds may be uncomfortable with, i.e. drugs, sex, people-trafficking, ASBOs, unwanted pregnancy, knives, mugging, and all the other joyful trappings of an ordinary teenager's life. "Oh, but he's terribly intelligent." she said, entirely missing the point, waving aside our protests and buying the poor child a copy of "American Psycho"... well, obviously not "American Psycho", but why even go on? Somewhere out there in Southwest London is a bewildered 9-year-old who will henceforth be terrified of girls, drugs, psychopaths, going outside at any time of day whatever, etc etc..

Political satire, ooh controversial
I was sitting in a friend's garden yesterday with various other people, some of whom genuinely had the day off, at least two of whom were "working from home" - ie feet up on a deckchair with laptop on. At one point my friend Eamo had to call his IT department to speak to someone called Osama about his inability to get email - whether he admitted he was trying to get emails while sitting in someone else's garden is a moot point. I only mention this because there is something profoundly ironic and unintentionally funny about someone on the phone saying "Can I speak to Osama please? .. Oh, he's not there... Do you know where he is?"