Established 2003. Now incorporating The Sudbury Hill Harrow and Wherever End Times

Monday, September 26, 2005

Short story


"That night my brother woke me to say he'd heard strangers in the house. I told him this wasn't true, but he insisted I go downstairs and check."


Moorish Girl meets Salman Rushdie

And he has her book, and wants her to sign it

Brilliant. He likes her blog too. One of the most outstanding literary journal entries I've ever read, just from the human interest point of view, I think.


Blair says 'don't force me out'

The Observer | Politics | Britain to pull troops from Iraq

"Britain has already privately informed Japan - which also has troops in Iraq - of its plans to begin withdrawing from southern Iraq in May, a move that officials in Tokyo say would make it impossible for their own 550 soldiers to remain."

They've got a tiger by the tail. Bush's pillion passenger is looking travelsick. He's about to cut and run too. To luxurious retirement, at your expense.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

peak oil blues

light sweet crude
can't get enough of you


Inside the walled garden

Charleston is a literary and artistic Ali Baba's cave. If you go to the Small Wonder short story festival there, it's worth going early and taking a tour of the house. Virginia Wolfe lived there for a while with her sister Vanessa, before filling her pockets with stones and wading into the river Ouze. The rooms of the house are covered in paintings, fragile murals, decorations - every inch had to be beautiful. There's a sculpture of the head of a boy, a gift from Renoir, as well as many rare and wonderful paintings. The tales of tortuous relationships would put any fiction to shame. I'm reading more about it in "Deceived by Kindness" by Angelica Garnett, which I picked up in the shop there on the recommendation of one of the marvelously enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour guides. The house is restored and preserved by the Charleston Trust. T. S. Eliot read from his manuscript of The Waste Land for the first time ever in the sitting room there, and somebody fell asleep during the reading. Another speaker said that somebody had fallen asleep while Maynard Keynes read something, which sounds slightly more plausible. Whatever. There are lots of funny and amazing stories like that, and a lot of sad stories too about the place. I spent a sunny morning in the walled garden, working on a short story, on a bench with nobody else around, just fruit trees, flowers, bees, and statues. A party of schoolchildren passed through later.


They are watching

Friday, September 23, 2005

Notes from Small Wonder 2005

The Short Story Festival


Rachel Seiffert and Tobias Hill are two excellent short story writers. Tobias read a story from his two years in Japan. Shades of Murakami I thought, and none the worse for that. I referred to Rachel Seiffert recently when I bought her collection "Field Studies" on the strength of a marvelous reading of her award-winning story "The Crossing" on Radio 4. She read an extract from "Second Best" the closing story in the book. I thought she would have done better to read one of the shorter stories in full. Interesting.


Zadie Smith read from Martha and Hanwell. She has a strong, sonorous voice and read without any sign of nerves or hesitancy. There is a relentlessness to her writing, which she almost acknowledged when she stopped, by saying 'It could go on for ever.'

Zadie stayed till the first interval of the short story slam. This year's theme was "Revenge". I thought the first group were the best, including Sean Lusk's piece which nearly won it for him again this year. His comical massage parlour nightmare had the audience in stitches but in the end took second place to a wicked "hell hath no fury" piece Thump Sandwich by Tessa Sheridan, which proposed new uses for kitchen utensils. It was great fun, but even though they managed to fit 18 entrants by the end, my name never came out of the hat. I think mine would've been the only political piece; you can read it below.


William Boyd's story "Seven Lunches" was highly amusing, though his commentary put me in mind of an uncle who knows all about cars or electronics and likes to explain this to you. He expounded his thesis that the short story is a better subject for film adaptation than the novel, the length of a standard film being what it is. My companion fell asleep during his talk, but to be fair to Boyd, she fell asleep during most of the readings.

John McGahern made a great impression on people in the audience who didn't already know that he's one of the best writers around. On the question of whether people recognised themselves in his books, he said that when he had portrayed a little man who sat on the bar all day and talked about sex and football (in The Pornographer I think, not sure) six people had gone into the local solicitors to enquire about the feasibility of suing him. The solicitor told them if they were to have any chance of success they'd have to decide which one of them it was. McGahern's conclusion: there must be a lot of people in North Roscommon who sit on the bar all day talking about sex and football.


Grace Paley was too ill to attend, had to cancel at the last minute, but had been so looking forward to the event that she took the trouble to make a video, taken by her daughter, to talk to the audience. It was the highlight of the festival, she is a life force all right.

Her recollection of segregation and relating of it to her own black grandson was wonderful. She recalled two bus trips from New York to southern states, one in which her mother had refused to move to the front when they crossed into a segregated state, where blacks had to sit in the back of the bus. In a depiction of this incident she had written that her mother argued with the driver, but her sister later informed her that her mother had merely said 'No' firmly, three times. We were reminded about the disgrace of black soldiers in the second world war being forced to sit behind German prisoners on buses.

Grace Paley's parents had fled the Russian pogroms, and the irony of this manifestation of racism in the so-called "land of the free" was brought home to her when she made her own bus trip south. As before when they crossed the state line the segregation was implemented, and she was sitting at the front of the boundary with the back of the bus. The bus was crowded and a black woman carrying a young boy, heavy and asleep hanging from her neck, wouldn't take the seat but through exhaustion agreed to let her child rest on Grace Paley's lap. At just 21 she thought ahead to when she would have a child of her own, feeling that same weight comfortably pressing her down. At the end of the journey a white man turned to Grace and said, 'I wouldn't have touched that thing with a meat hook.' Later in life, she felt that she'd already held her own black grandson sixty years earlier.

The boy appears briefly as people and dogs come and go in this home video. I hope the video will be seen more widely, it's fascinating and touching. Ali Smith and Paul Bailey talked about her and read from her stories, and she read her story "A Conversation with My Father" as well on video. Grace Paley is that rare thing, a U.S. socialist. Before saying goodbye, she referred to our shared opposition to the war in Iraq and the thousands of deaths it has caused.

The cherry on the icing of the festival was Simon Callow, who brought two of Charles Dickens' short stories ("Going into Society" and "Doctor Marigold") to life, in a tour-de-force performance. We were reminded that Dickens was not just an author but a performer, a superstar of his day. The stories amply demonstrated his mastery of an audience, by turns making them laugh and cry.


There were other delights I hardly have time to write about, such as poets on short stories, including a surreal story by Sean O'Brien satirising the literary scene. (In spite of the title of this piece, I didn't actually take notes, only mental notes.) There were crowd pleasing pieces by Romesh Gunasekera and Sophie Hannah - hilarious story about babies writing thank you cards etc, and killingly logical poem telling men to take one of these things and do it properly: fidelity or an affair (halfway through affair, man goes on guilt trip about family... "not very good at it / but at fidelity, you are also shit. Choose one thing and do it properly..." something like that.)

In the same session, the refreshingly serious David Constantine read from his collection Under the Dam, concerning frozen bodies exposed by melting glaciers - held in youth, revisited by children now older than the dead - with all the pent-up deluge waiting in valleys to burst out and so on. Constantine talked about the supremacy of life over art, how all writing must end as pointers outwards or inwards towards reality, and never to forget that, or try to place art above life, or try "to contain" perhaps. (I can't remember his exact words.) Sean O'Brien commented afterwards that by contrast, his writing concerned people who held art to be above life and who in his surreal world prefer to live in books and libraries.

I couldn't make it to Ian Rankin's reading, unfortunately. You can see from the program that I also missed several other interesting writers.



American diary #3 - Evacuation Rita

Kelly Peck

Urgent calls from sisters and mothers. They listen to weathercasters with symptoms of hydrophobia. Sleep? To keep the peace we pack the SUV. We leave at 2 am. By 2:10 we are heading north on the toll road. The Transit Authority has waived the tolls. This 3-lane highway meets the interstate 30 miles from here, near Old Town Spring. From there, Interstate 45 rolls through the heart of Texas. In Dallas, I-20 is coast-to-coast. I-35 heads north to Oklahoma City, Wichita, and Kansas City. It stretches to Canada. The night speed limit is 65 mph, day 75.

We take turns driving. Satellite radio pours out Bach, Sinatra, Earth Wind and Fire, and Mary J. Blige. Hurrican news. Rita winds are 175 mph. If there was a Category VI hurricane, this would be it.

I'm curious. How many people are in this exodus? Figure: Each vehicle takes up 3 yards. 1760 yards in a mile. I count 7 45-foot semi trucks per mile. Bumper to bumper, 580 vehicles, or 1000 people per mile, per lane. We've got two lanes. At I-45, the governor has ordered the four south-bound lanes converted. Now they go north. Eight lanes, 8,000 people per mile. Last evening the radio said this column was 100 miles long. Same scenario with Interstate 10 West, and highways 59, 290 and 90 North. 30 lanes, 1,000 people per mile, 100 miles. Three million people.

The radio says the Authorities hadn't planned for this.

We've been on the road for 10 hours. Didn't stop to pee. We've driven 30 miles. Used almost half a tank of gas. The Interstate with all 8 lanes was moving 1.5 mph.

At this rate, Dallas is two days away. The hurikan would pass us at Dew, Texas. It has a convenience store. I'm hoping the Authorities are re-routing fuel.

We turn back. It takes 30 minutes to retrace our 10-hour crawl.

We plan. We can camp out if necessary at a building made of cement and steel. It has recessed windows. It's like one of those movies. The trained professionals move in. Set up an assembly line. We rustle up trash barrels. Line them with plastic bags. Fill them with good water. Move everything off the floor and away from windows.

Work out how to leave our vehicles one on either side of the bayou. If it floods we can drive anywhere. Or bike.

Back to the store. The shopping carts available have a wheel that locks if the cart is taken out of the lot. There are no others. I help a shopper load her car. I get her cart. The place is abuzz. Thirty racks, 10 shelves high are emptied of breads and rolls. The produce department has half a box of apples left. No one buys potatoes, books or magazines, yoghurt, dairy or frozen foods. The water and soft drink shelves are empty. The canned goods shelves are normal. A few exceptions. There's been a run on garlic pesto. The only soups left are beef stock, and cream of celery. I get the last bag of ice, and the last ice chest. It has a New Orleans Saints logo.

I try to help a policeman. He just got off duty. I find him a box to carry his groceries.

People watching. A girl who could be a fashion model strutting the potato chip aisle like a runway. A geezer has emerged from his den for the first time since Eisenhower was President. He's pale. A Carib who has been in "plenty hurikan before." A half-Oriental who tried to cut in front of me. He got huffy.

The checkout lines are controlled chaos. I see carts full of candy and sugary treats. One woman's cart holds more beer than I've had in the last 20 years. No food. Just beer, wine and coolers.

I tell the cashier what an adventure this has been. We laugh. He comes out of his funk. These are the heroes. Instead of providing for their families, they serve others.

To get gasoline, it takes two people. One to wait in line, the other to direct traffic. The lines are 25 cars long.

The cell phone networks are overloaded. Have been for three days. Every fourth call goes through. I keep my calls short. Reach a friend. She invites us to her ranch. They raise sheep, goats, watermelon and water hyacinths. I advised her dad on hydraulic ram pumps. He is a Buddhist. This is his retreat.

I know back roads. We can get there tomorrow. Now it's late. Between us we've had 4 or 5 hours sleep.

There's not been a drop of rain. The storm starts Friday. The hurikan Saturday morning. If it comes. Maybe it'll go to Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley. The crops need the rain.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Telegraph quote of the week

The war in Iraq was based on a lie - and policing Basra is an illusion (Boris Johnson)

You don't have to be a genius, like Boris, to figure that out.

PM cusses Wales

The guilt about Wales

"The gap between Tony Blair's appearance and the reality, between all that squeaky-clean preachiness and the shoddy, self-serving reality of his quicksand mind, is now a well-established feature of British politics." (Guardian)

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Mam's fish bar

diamond geezer

"Her warm and genuine smile beamed out from beneath a shock of red wiry hair, swept back and piled high on top of her head."

Franchised restaurants are boring monocultural morgues.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Cross-network Hurricane Katrina benefit concert tonight

Stars pitch in for Katrina benefits (CNN)

"Among the latest musicians announced for 'Shelter from the Storm: A Concert for the Gulf Coast' are Sheryl Crow, the Dixie Chicks, Randy Newman, Neil Young, Rod Stewart, Alicia Keys and Paul Simon."

"Shelter From the Storm: A Concert for the Gulf Coast" is a live, one-hour, commercial-free telethon to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. It will air at 8 PM Eastern time on Friday, September 9 on ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, The WB, UPN, and a number of other television stations around the world.

Thanks to Cheryl of Border Crossing for this.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Registering for school, displaced by the deluge

The Smell of Cypress: Schooldays

"Each family came through the center that had been set up for registration and filled out the necessary paperwork then went to the tables to choose three uniforms, searching for the right sizes, looking for empty rooms to try them on."

A teacher on school registration day meets hundreds of displaced people, with stories of when the water rose, of children rescued from the flood, babies drowned and an alligator taking an elderly man.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Amuigh faoin despair

Irish coral reefs bulldozed by deep-sea trawlers

"Deep-sea fishing trawlers are bulldozing 4,500 year-old cold water coral reefs off western Ireland, a British marine biologist said on Monday." (Reuters)

Sunday, September 04, 2005

American Red Cross

Donate to Hurricane Relief 2005

Who wouldn't be angry?


RE: Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem

If non-Arab, non-Muslim people are angry reading these reports, what on earth must the victims feel? It's no wonder sympathisers all over the world plot the most heinous revenge. The actual Palestinians are still under the heel, why should the world not support them? Where is the International Brigade of our time? You know the answer. Yes, it's not judicious to say these things, because our masters have in mind to shut us up. Why don't they instead police Israel, and make it get inside its borders and stay there? This has gone on for far too long, the impunity, avarice, Anti-Arab racism. How is it that Israel can train 200 nuclear weapons on its neighbours with impunity? The stupidest part of it all is that it's comletely self-destructive. It only gives justification to some idiot to blow them up with another one. Why are the generality of politicians and power-grubbers so asinine, venial and short-sighted? Rage is everywhere. The forums of the world are aflame with rage and violent rancour. It's because of the lazy, dimwitted, self-serving hypocrites who rule this world. They ruin everything.

Furious, Willesden

Saturday, September 03, 2005

"It's another world" - American diary - #2

Bears scream like women

Kelly Peck

I was staying at a fishing lodge in the mountains. Just below in an oak grove was a confluence of five streams. Native Americans considered that a sacred space.

A mystic had built the lodge of native stone and hand-hewn beams. He built the flue as he'd been taught, and never had smoke inside. Legends told of visions that he and others had had there.

My favorite canyon I called Indian Creek. I took a roundabout way to the headwaters, so no one knew my secret spot. I picked herbs and steeped them in the waters to make sun beer. It was not alcoholic, nor did it contain anything that would get you high. Other than the water itself. The water was alive, at the spring. Farther down, the life went out of it. I lived for three days on that sun beer, hiking in the mountains.

The fire was low. We heard him coming down the canyon. No one was brave enough to go out and look. That bear screamed like a woman for 20 minutes, while our conversations died. We looked at each other, some in terror, some in wonder. He continued down canyon. No one went outside until the sun was above the trees.

Kelly Peck is "chief pimp poet and bottle-filler" of Urge Vitamins*.

*Is that a rock band? Ed

Friday, September 02, 2005

Earth calling, Earth calling. Is there anybody out there?

A Poem for Space

I'm voting for A Martian Sends A Postcard Home by Craig Raine.


Can you spot the difference?

Turn up your brightness

This has Red stumped.* (Feargal)

*Statistically improbable phrase

Telegraph quote of the week - No. 4

In its recent final exams more than 105 per cent of entrants achieved honours degrees mostly in such subjects as skateboarding studies and Belgian pastry studies. (Peter Simple)

Malignant critics have suggested that there is something "phoney" about these striking results. To them the vice-chancellor, Dr Harry Goth-Jones, replies: "On the contrary, it is the result of hard work all round and devotion to the ideals of democratic education. Next year, if all goes well, as it will, we expect to reach 120 per cent."

Peter Simple just pipped Kenneth Clarke at the post. Otherwise Telegraph quote of the week would have been "We have been chasing votes up the age ladder, down the socio-economic scale and into the South-east of England."