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.