tag: Books

Nov 2009

Something for the weekend

Something of a departure from the type of music I occasionally post here. I’ve been reading a lot about Brendan Behan lately (though not, I must admit, reading a lot of Behan’s work — which is close to the top of my ‘to do’ pile). Behan was a writer, a drunk, an Irish revolutionary, a convict. And many other things.

His first play was The Quare Fellow, set in Mountjoy Prison in Dublin and inspired by his own time spent there. The play opens with a song… a dirge almost… which has proven both enduring and influential, and has been covered by a large number of artists including U2, Bob Dylan, Cat Power, The Pogues and every single folk band in Ireland.

Exactly which version is the definitive one has, I’m sure, been the subject of many a Guinness-fueled dispute. For me though, it comes down to one of the two versions by The Dubliners. And as much as I love Ronnie Drew’s vocal, it’s the Luke Kelly vocal that I come back to most often.

The Auld Triangle by The Dubliners, with Luke Kelly taking lead

I’m intrigued to note that a collection of Brendan Behan’s aphorisms has been published. It’s out of print apparently, but thankfully Dublin still has a few decent second-hand bookshops.

I have never seen a situation so dismal that a policeman couldn’t make it worse.

The Bible was a consolation to a fellow alone in the old cell. The lovely thin paper with a bit of mattress stuffing in it, if you could get a match, was as good a smoke as I ever tasted.

I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper and the old men and old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.

Brendan Behan

1 comment  |  Posted in: Media » Audio, Video

Jun 2009

Dublin, statues and Ulysses

I’ve written in the past about the way a city’s statues go some way towards revealing its soul.

And let’s face it, the whole idea of statues is pretty amazing in the first place. Imagine if we encountered a previously undiscovered sub-species of chimpanzee who left intricately carved versions of their ancestors in the places where they gathered. Viewed objectively, it’s a strange thing for an animal to do. It’s a bit like leaving huge signs all over the place with the words “We’re really scared of Death” printed on them. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it.

Still, however you explain it, there’s no question that a place reveals much about itself through its choice of statues. Certainly at the most basic level, the statue is a reassurance to us all. “Death is not the end”, it whispers, “For I am still among you”. But statues of anyone will fulfill that role. What’s revealing is our choice of exactly who we choose to call back from the dead to remain with us.

Take London for instance… it’s big enough and old enough to contain statues of people from all walks of life. Engineers, nurses, scientists, fictional cokeheads, the lot.

But mostly it’s soldiers. Lots and lots of soldiers. Men who excelled at killing people from beyond the city walls, or who were cruelly killed by people from beyond the city walls. And we invite them back to stand silently among us. One of them stands atop a pedestal so high, you can’t really see him clearly.

Here in Dublin, the situation is quite different. There’s plenty of statues to fighters, certainly, but they tend to be rebels and revolutionaries, which alters the message significantly. And they’re equalled in number by poets, musicians and radical socialists. As well as the occasional statue to the ordinary people of the city.

The stone celebration of military conquest that is so ubiquitous on the streets of London (and pretty much every city in a nation that once possessed an empire) is almost entirely absent here in Dublin. This is both a result of, and a further influence upon, the collective psyche of the place. Statues create a positive feedback loop that help solidify a culture.

June 16th

One of Dublin’s most striking statues, of course, greets you from the corner of North Earl Street as you walk up the city’s main thoroughfare — O’Connell Street. There he stands; artist and revolutionary thinker; James Joyce.

James Joyce statue

Many cities celebrate their local artists just as much as Dublin celebrates Joyce of course. But June 16th in Dublin is quite unique. I’d planned on doing the whole “Bloomsday thing” this year — y’know, donning period garb and following in the footsteps of Leopold Bloom’s Great Wander. I’d probably skip the breakfast of offal, but I figure I could make up for it with a couple of extra pints along the way. Sadly the day just crept up on me, and I realised too late that it was this week. Silly me.

To make up for it, though, I have vowed two things. Firstly to re-read Ulysses (the single greatest work of literature in the history of humanity) before June 16th next year, and secondly to make absolutely certain that appropriate clothes are hired for both myself and Citizen S in plenty of time next summer. Anyone else up for it? You’ve got a whole year to plan it. And even if you don’t feel like dressing in a turn of (last) century stylee, it’ll still be a fine day out.

There are sins or (let us call them as the world calls them) evil memories which are hidden away by man in the darkest places of the heart but they abide there and wait. He may suffer their memory to grow dim, let them be as though they had not been and all but persuade himself that they were not or at least were otherwise. Yet a chance word will call them forth suddenly and they will rise up to confront him in the most various circumstances, a vision or a dream, or while timbrel and harp soothe his senses or amid the cool silver tranquility of the evening or at the feast at midnight when he is now filled with wine. Not to insult over him will the vision come as over one that lies under her wrath, not for vengeance to cut off from the living but shrouded in the piteous vesture of the past, silent, remote, reproachful.

James Joyce | Ulysses


— That’s your glorious British navy, says the citizen, that bosses the earth. The fellows that never will be slaves, with the only hereditary chamber on the face of God’s earth and their land in the hands of a dozen gamehogs and cottonball barons. That’s the great empire they boast about of drudges and whipped serfs.
— On which the sun never rises, says Joe.
— And the tragedy of it is, says the citizen, they believe it. The unfortunate yahoos believe it.

James Joyce | Ulysses


Mr. Bloom walked unheeded along his grove by saddened angels, crosses, broken pillars, family vaults, stone hopes praying with upcast eyes, old Ireland’s hearts and hands. More sensible to spend the money on some charity for the living. Pray for the repose of the soul of. Does anybody really? Plant him and have done with him. Like down a coalshoot. Then lump them together to save time. All souls’ day. Twentyseventh I’ll be at his grave. Ten shillings for the gardener. He keeps it free of weeds. Old man himself. Bent down double with his shears clipping. Near death’s door. Who passed away. Who departed this life. As if they did it of their own accord. Got the shove, all of them…

James Joyce | Ulysses

I didn’t search for those passages. Just opened three random pages and got three amazing pieces of writing. There’s not a single page in the 900 that doesn’t crackle with energy, beauty and insight.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Media » Photos, Opinion

May 2009

Some links and a video

Here’s a round-up of some of the blogging that’s caught my eye lately…

I’ve known Merrick for about 15 years now (a fact that makes me feel terribly old… were the St. Rock’s Day Parties really that long ago!?) He’s a good enough friend that I’ve been able to overlook his psychotic hatred of donkeys. A hatred I brought to public attention here, and which may well merit a blog-post of its own some day. His sustained attacks upon one of the few champions that these poor, downtrodden animals have in their cold world of suffering, are essentially the equivalent of eating donkey steaks every day, washed down with a nice warm mug of donkey blood. Vegan? Schmeegan!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending Chris de Burgh as an artist. He’s really not very good, but the first couple of albums have nice tunes on, which is more than you can say for Huey Lewis. Am I right?

Anyhoo, Merrick’s writing (except on the subject of donkeys) is wonderful. And his blog really is one of the best out there. I want more people to visit it as his posts deserve nice long chunky comments threads. While most British bloggers have been having a pop at the British National Party and their leaflet campaign, Merrick’s post on the subject is the one you need to read (British jobs for Polish workers). His post on the MPs expenses brouhaha — Levelling the expenses playing field — is also excellent (and I’m not just saying that because it quotes me a couple of times) and contains the best solution I’ve heard yet regarding the controversial Second Homes Allowance. Just make MPs eligible for housing benefit in London. It is, after all, enough. Isn’t it?

JG Ballard. 1930-2009

JG Ballard
Although it was a wee while ago, I’d like to take a moment to mark the passing of JG Ballard. He had a huge influence on my intellectual development. The Atrocity Exhibition hit me like a freight train in my first year at university. I went on an all-Ballard diet for a while and, having read pretty much everything he’d written up until that point, emerged somewhat freaked out… my dreams, ever-after, have often taken me to landscapes that could only be described as Ballardian. Or would “Ballardesque” be better? Have we established that yet? Anyway, another person who was profoundly touched by Ballard’s work is my friend Gyrus. His short piece, Ballard dies, is worth a clickthrough.

Other thoughts

Also worth your clicks are David Byrne’s musing posts on the internet, resource depletion and socialised medicine (Senigallia — You Get What You Pay For) as well as his latest post… on… well… buildings and food (The Best). OK, so it’s mostly just “food” but the line was too good to pass.

Oh, and in the spirit of my recent, Where’s Scully when you need her? post, check out Sellafield robots stealing nuclear waste. Is this the end for humanity? over at Nuclear Reaction. Run for the hills!

And here’s something for the weekend. Enjoy…

NONE more funky.

9 comments  |  Posted in: Media » Video, Opinion

May 2009

It's not your brain, it's just the flame

Fame is weird. It makes very little difference whether 10 people know you or 100 people know you. But when a million people know you, everything changes. And nobody can remain unaffected by it. Though some carry it better than others.

I’ve met a fair few people over the years who have attained, or had thrust upon them, varying degrees of fame. Mostly, due to circumstance, musicians. I was struck by how there is a palpable burden associated with it. I’m not talking about wealth or talent or anything like that… I’m talking specifically of fame. Of being known (or more accurately, having a specific, and more than likely distorted, version of yourself known) by a significant proportion of the strangers you meet. Needless to say, for most, there are compensations that ease the burden and they can achieve some level of balance as individuals.

But the downsides are there and sometimes can’t be ignored. The biggest downside is paranoia. Fame breeds paranoia like rabbits breed… well, smaller rabbits. And it can breed arrogance. Serious, megalomaniacal arrogance. Which is a really crap combination. As a result, some of the famous people I’ve met have been extremely difficult to like.

And no. No names. It’s one thing to comment upon the public work and utterances of a person — that’s as much up for grabs as any other part of culture — but blogging behind a real person’s back seems wrong to me. On the other hand, it’s probably fine to say positive things about the people you meet.

Take Eric Clapton for instance. On the two occasions I met him back in the 90s, he was just about the nicest person you could hope to spend time with. His music isn’t really my cup of tea, and the media has made him out to be a bit of a right-wing reactionary. So I was — unjustifiably — expecting him to be a bit of an arse. He wasn’t. And I — quite rightly — felt like a bit of an arse for my prejudice. He was like the coolest uncle you could possibly have. Someone who’d seen a bunch of stuff that you were unlikely to ever see, but could communicate it to you without ever seeming condescending or aloof.

Of all of the well known people I’ve met though, nobody carries fame half as well as Julian Cope. I’ve no doubt it’s caused him his fair share of problems, but he’s worked hard to put it to good use. Most don’t. He’s getting radical, idealistic and subversive messages out into the hands of — well, he’s not selling like Coldplay, but his voice carries further than most. And at the same time he’s remained one of the most likeable, decent people you’ll have the good fortune to bump into. Intelligent, funny and frighteningly well-informed.

A description that also applies to Dorian Cope, his wife and recent addition to the list of bloggers. Her blog, On This Deity, sets out to be

An alternative “On This Day”, On This Deity aims to bring light to and celebrate culture heroes, outsider icons, beloved immortals and symbolic events in history. I might not be able to commit to a daily entry, but will attempt several-times-weekly!

So far it’s been excellent. A wonderful blend of the personal and the analytical. Writing filled with insight and humanity (e.g. 18th May 1980 — the Death of Ian Curtis or 13th May: “Poetry is in the Streets” as One Million March in Paris, May 1968). I recommend it as a worthy addition to any discerning blogroll. See also Merrick’s shout.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Dec 2008

Parrots, the Universe and Everything

I’ve promised to write a response to this comment on a recent entry. But I’m really under the weather at the moment, so it’ll have to wait a wee while. It’s just a bad cold (or a mild flu bug) but it’s far from conducive to coherent thought (yes, yes, how could I possibly know the difference?)

Instead I’m going to post yet another YouTube clip. This time though it’s not music, but an hour and half long lecture given by Douglas Adams a few weeks before his death. It focuses pretty much entirely on his book Last Chance To See and I’d like to thank Toby for drawing my attention to it.

Yes, in these days of mouse-click attention spans, an hour and a half is a long time. But you’d be a fool to miss this funny, sad and informative talk.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Media » Video

Dec 2008

The Meaning of Liff

Via John B comes the news that the splendid Douglas Adams and John Lloyd collaboration, The Meaning of Liff, can be browsed online.

Check it out here.

Glorious stuff. Every time I flick through The Meaning of Liff I resolve to start incorporating some of the words into everyday conversation. After a couple of decades, however, I’ve still only ever used ‘Kentucky‘ and ‘Epworth‘ more than once, though the observation made in the definition of ‘Aberbeeg‘ is one I’ve often mentioned to others.

I’d like to also take this opportunity to recommend Last Chance To See. In my view this is probably the best book Douglas Adams wrote (and I say that as a big fan of both the Hitch-Hiker’s series and the Dirk Gently books, of which I wish there’d been more). If you haven’t read Last Chance To See, then please, please, please grab yourself a copy (it’ll hardly break the bank). It’s as sad as it is funny. And it is very very funny indeed.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Announcements

Aug 2008

A person of good character (pt 1)

The book-meme post got me thinking about literature (as it was bound to do) and about what makes good literature. Leastways in my eyes. Clearly I’m not the first person to tackle that question, and I suspect there’s little truly original to be said on the matter. So this won’t be a long insightful (or inciteful) essay on the subject of literary value. Instead it’ll be another bloody list, which takes far less time and effort, and won’t be out of place here in the blogosphere.

And it’ll be a list of characters. You see, I thought about literature and the myriad interacting factors that make for a good piece of fiction. There’s plot, characters, dialogue and that indefineable thing called “style”. Those would be — for me — the Big Four. Obviously there’s plenty of other factors too (political position, theme, structure, setting and so forth). And there are those who would insist that “theme” is a far more important factor than “dialogue” for instance. Or that the political message of the book is as important as anything else. It’s a subjective thing.

The best novels have them all of course; a great plot, wonderful characters with whom the reader can strike up a relationship based upon empathy rather than mere “interest”, believable dialogue all tied together with a writing style that allows the words to flow into your mind, rather than appear before your eyes. Add a political message that one agrees with, a theme that flirts with redemption but never to the point of fantasy, a story structure that doesn’t have you wondering what the hell is going on half the time (occasionally being forced to wonder what the hell is going on is a good thing; do it too often and the book becomes less interesting), a setting you can either identify with or is gloriously exotic, and so forth.

Eventually you end up with a Pynchon novel, of course. But you knew I was going to say that.

I figured the easiest of all those factors to identify would be “good characters”. Incidentally, good characters almost always need good dialogue… otherwise they cease to be good characters very quickly… but the two are indeed quite separate and I’ve read books with great characters but iffy dialogue (The Great Gatsby) as well as the converse (can’t think of one off the top of my mind, but there’s more than a few dull characters in the world of literature who are rescued by the author’s ability to write a good line of dialogue or two… in most of Woody Allen’s movies for instance, the characters rarely get truly fleshed out, but who honestly cares when they’re saying the things he writes?)

Anyways, as an antidote of sorts to the book-meme post which contained a good deal of negativity, I now present my list of the finest fictional characters ever created. Not a duff one among them. And these are “fictional” rather than “literary” characters as there are one or two from more modern media. As usual… no specific order to these… just writing them down as they come to me.

  • John Constantine: My favourite fictional character by a country-mile. There’s no order to his list, but if there were, John Constantine would still be first. Originally a creation of Alan Moore in his Swamp Thing stories, John Constantine is nonetheless as much a Garth Ennis character as a Moore character. Ennis wrote many of the best Hellblazer stories (the graphic novels in which John Constantine is the anti-hero) which is really where the character sprung fully to life. Constantine is a magician. Not a stage illusionist, a real-life magick-user who consorts with demons and angels as well as all manner of low-life human nasties. He is bitter, cynical, self-obsessed and haunted by a horrific past… yet he’s also incredibly likeable. He cannot be relied upon to Do The Right Thing, though he often does so reluctantly. In fact, in probably the best of the Constantine stories (The Long Habit of Living) he knowingly and deliberately places the entire human race in serious jeopardy in order to cure his lung-cancer. He’s an utter bastard who you’d stay as far away from as possible were he real (he generally ends up being responsible for the grisly death of his close friends) but who you root for without reservation while reading the stories. Never, ever, ever, ever see the movie.
  • Sherlock Holmes: Most people know all about Holmes, so I won’t go on too much about him. Like most of the literature of that era, the Sherlock Holmes stories often feel — to me — as though they’ve been caged by the culture they came from. As though there was so much more beneath the surface that had to be left unsaid because of the phoney morality of the time. All the same, Holmes somehow escapes the cage (I think Mycroft may have smuggled in a key somehow) and becomes a wonderfully 3-dimensional character as the stories progress. Most of the other characters are merely props, of course, with which to explore the methods and psychology of Sherlock himself. All the same, because he is such a wonderful character, that flaw (and the many others) don’t overshadow the stories. Personal favourites? Probably the two stories that introduce his two greatest opponents; The Adventure of the Final Problem (Professor Moriarty) and A Scandal in Bohemia (Irene Adler). Jeremy Brett is the definitive screen Holmes.
  • Agent Dale Cooper: Created by David Lynch for his TV series Twin Peaks, Dale Cooper is an FBI agent with a difference. When I mentioned him before on this blog I wrote: “A latter day Sherlock Holmes (who switched the cocaine and opium for something a little more psychedelic), Cooper attacks problems with a singlemindedness that usually appears anything but, and a method that is often – quite literally – madness itself.” Mind you, there’s an obvious mistake in that description (Sherlock Holmes’ narcotic of choice was morphine rather than opium).
  • Zoyd Wheeler, Brock Vond and Frenesi Gates: There’s just no way I could pick a single character from Pynchon’s Vineland. Like almost all of his novels, it’s an ensemble piece, and choosing one character above another would be impossible. As it is, I’ve left out a few others who are worthy of mention (Takeshi, Prairie and — of course — DL). Yeah, I’ve heard the objection that “they’re not characters at all!” and certainly Zoyd is not merely a man, he’s also the unrealised dream of the 1960s, Frenesi isn’t just his ex, she’s also the inherent contradictions of feminist politics and Brock isn’t just a total asshole, he’s also The Law. But that’s what makes Pynchon so wonderful in my eyes. They feel like real people to me, even in those passages when they are obviously being used primarily as symbols to make a political point.
  • Doctor Benway: OK, hardly a well-rounded character. Hardly more than a scary bogeyman in fact. But this Burroughs creation is nonetheless one of the all-time stand-out characters in modern literature. “Did I ever tell you ’bout the time I performed an apendectomy with a rusty sardine can… … …?” The following short scene says more about Benway than I ever could…

    … incidentally that line near the end is “some fucking drug-addict’s cut my cocaine with sani-flush!” The bizarre decision to cut the word “fucking” makes it a little difficult to make out.

  • Harry Haller: The protagonist of Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Harry Haller is a total outsider. Alienated from society, from almost all human contact, he sees clearly the absurdity of human existence. He is at once repelled by, and attracted to, a society he can never be part of. Haller is Nietzsche, he’s Hesse himself, he’s even — some have argued — Carl Jung (the “magic theatre” he discovers and explores being no more — or less — than his own psyche). Certainly for a period in my teens, Haller was me. Losing himself in the intoxication of alcohol and narcotics, and finally in his desire for Hermine, the beautiful dancer, he seeks salvation in oblivion. The ultimate existential hero. “The thought of suicide is a powerful solace”, writes Haller reproducing one of Nietzsche’s more famous aphorisms, “by means of it one gets through many a bad night”. Haller’s subsequent abortive suicide attempt is one of the funniest tragic scenes in fiction.

Hell, this could on forever and I’ve left out some true greats. It’s a decent start though, and I’m going to add a “Part 1” to the title of this entry in the possibility (though not the assurance) that I’ll continue it later.

Notable absences

  • Leopold Bloom: despite being the central character in the finest novel ever written (actually, I have some sympathy with the view that “Dublin” is the central character of the book, but all the same) Bloom wouldn’t feature as one of the great literary characters. Which is clearly deliberate on Joyce’s part. Bloom is a passive observer (almost always). A rather limp Everyman who, even when he provokes a reaction from the world around him, is generally doing so accidentally, and as a result of being misinterpreted or misunderstood. It is only at the very end, with Molly’s wonderful “Yes!” that he finally escapes his role as voyeur and fantasist. Bloom is not a Great Character, because Ulysses is about viewing the world through impotent eyes. Eyes that have no Greatness behind them until that very last scene.
  • Legolas (the elf): Tolkien was a master at creating an internal world for children (or adult fantasists) to disappear into. He wasn’t necessarily a great writer of characters. But Legolas deserves a mention, even if only in this second list, because I probably spent a good third of the time between my 9th and 11th birthdays being Legolas. Outwardly, I was a very quiet child. What was going on inside, though, was anything but.

6 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Aug 2008

Well read?

It’s a blog meme. Another one.

This time though, it’s not about music but about literature. Specifically it’s about the books nominated by the BBC’s “Big Read” as being the 100 best in the English language. Actually, scanning the list, there’s a few translations on it (The Bible, Anna Karenina, One Hundred Years of Solitude, etc.) so I assume it’s “the best ever” rather than the best in the English language (though the small number of translations obviously reveal the Anglocentric nature of the list).

That said, the fact that there’s not a single book by Thomas Pynchon — who would have at least 3 in my top 10, let alone top 100 — suggests that whoever compiled the BBC’s list (possibly “the public”) don’t share my view of what makes good literature. In fact, the more I look at the list, the more I cringe at the utter dross to be found on it, and all the excellent writing not there. I suspect my response to this meme will be relatively controversial as I can count on the fingers of two hands the number of books written prior to 1920 (or thereabouts) that I consider worthwhile.

Anyways, the BBC apparently reckons that “the average adult” has only read 6 of the top 100 books. It kind of goes without saying then, that I’m a long way from “average”, though to be honest, I feel certain that the BBC is short-changing the public with that claim. Surely most people have read more than six from the list, even if only at school.

So yeah, via Phil at The Gaping Silence, on with the memery…

1) Look at the list and bold those you have read.
2) Italicize those you intend to read.
3) Underline the books you love.
4) Strike out the books you have no intention of ever reading, or hated.
5) Reprint this list in your own blog so we can try and track down these people who’ve only read 6 and force books upon them.

  1. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
    Let’s kick off with a sound kicking. Jane Austen (like the Brontes, Thomas Hardy, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens) is staggeringly over-rated. Criminally so. It still mystifies me how anyone can read this pre-modern toss and not find it contrived, stultifyingly-dull bullshit.
  2. The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
    Read this when I was a kid and it had a deep and lasting impact on me. Looking back on it, there’s flaws a-plenty, but it’s definitely some of the finest children’s literature ever written (even if that wasn’t JRR’s intention).
  3. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
    See #1
  4. The Harry Potter Series – JK Rowling
    I read a quarter of the first one and saw the film. Neither made me want to journey any further with Rowling. Ursula K. LeGuin did it so much better.
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
    A work of genius. My taste in literature tends towards the American. I blame a shop-lifted Bukowski when I was 11 years old for that. To Kill A Mockingbird was borrowed from the library soon afterwards, though.
  6. The Bible
    I’ve read it start-to-finish (skipping a few chapters of who-begat-who) twice. Both times it left me feeling confused and a little depressed. I mean, most of it isn’t even particularly well-written; how the hell did it cast such a dark shadow on the human heart?
  7. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
    See #1
  8. Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
    I suspect regular readers will already know my opinion of this book, and of Orwell’s writing in general (finest essayist in the English language). This is his crowning achievement as a novelist.
  9. His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
    I’ve heard the rave reviews. But it just doesn’t appeal to me for some reason.
  10. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
    Fucking Charles motherfucking Dickens! What a complete waste of paper. Yeah yeah, shining a light on Victorian society blah blah fricking blah. I read this at school and recall thinking very early on, “hang on a second, even back then nobody spoke like this”. It’s sanitised, soul-less writing that fails to evoke even a single emotion in me. Just as with Shakespeare; it’s British colonialism that has secured the worldwide reputation of Charles Dickens; nothing to do with innate talent. Nothing at all.
  11. Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
  12. Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
    Don’t need to read it. Hardy is shit. End of.
  13. Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
    This was so highly recommended that I recall being a little disappointed when I finally read it. Still a worthy thing. Not a patch on Vonnegut though, who did this kind of thing so much better, and is unsurprisingly not on this list.
  14. Complete Works of Shakespeare
    Oh come on! The complete works? That narrows it down to a few fools with more time than sense. I’ve read most of the famous ones, a couple of lesser-known ones and a handful of sonnets. None of them roused more than a yawn. Yeah, I know that puts me firmly in a tiny minority. But then, that’s where I’ve always been happiest. Shakespeare is a great writer, Oasis is a great band, Last of The Summer Wine is great television. Seriously, what the fuck does “the majority” know about great art?
  15. Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
  16. The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
  17. Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
  18. Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
    Always felt it was a wee bit over-rated to be honest. But again, like Catch-22, a worthwhile read all the same.
  19. The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
    First one on the list I’ve never even heard of. Guess there were bound to be a couple…
  20. Middlemarch – George Eliot
    Read it at school. Rather wish I hadn’t.
  21. Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
  22. The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
    One of the few great examples of pre-modern literature. Though obviously, published in 1925, it’s actually in the modern era, this is not a post-Ulysses novel in anything but chronology. All the same, it rises above the dry, emotionless bullshit of pre-modern literature thanks to some wonderfully crafted characters. It’ll probably be the only novel of its type that I’ll end up underlining.
  23. Bleak House – Charles Dickens
    Don’t even get me started on this one. I read this as part of a book club I joined at university. I read it under duress (having made my feelings about Dickens well known) but decided I’d stick it out… after all, I wouldn’t like it if the others in the group refused to read my picks. I left the club soon after though… everyone but me claimed to get a lot out of Dickens. And hell, maybe they did. Maybe they weren’t just dazzled by the emperor’s presence. But clearly it wasn’t the book club for me. Thankfully I met my friend Justin soon afterwards, who was reading Gravity’s Rainbow at the time. A far better class of comrade.
  24. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
    To my shame, I’ve still not got round to it. Pre-Joycean Russian literature doesn’t seem to suffer from the same lifelessness as almost all of the English-language stuff (obviously there are exceptions to that, by the way). Or perhaps it’s just the fact that we’re only aware of the exceptionally good stuff over here beyond the translators?
  25. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
    A fine book. And the follow-ups were largely excellent too.
  26. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
  27. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
    A fine novel, but if you’re new to Dostoyevsky, then you should really start with The Idiot, which didn’t make this list.
  28. Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  29. Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
  30. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
  31. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
  32. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
    Complete wank.
  33. Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
  34. Emma – Jane Austen
    I read this. See #1
  35. Persuasion – Jane Austen
    I didn’t read this. See #1
  36. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis
  37. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
  38. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
  39. Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
    Overwrought. Over-rated. Over-long.
  40. Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne
    A classic. A work of towering genius.
  41. Animal Farm – George Orwell
    This is a decent novel, but it doesn’t scale the heights of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell was best as an essayist anyway.
  42. The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
    Frankly I’d rather eat my own flesh than read this airport-novel nonsense.
  43. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  44. A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving
  45. The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
  46. Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
  47. Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
    Far From The Madding Crowd? Bollocks, more like.
  48. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
  49. Lord of the Flies – William Golding
    I actually thought JG Ballard’s quasi-retelling of this story in Rushing To Paradise was ultimately better. Golding’s is a fine book though.
  50. Atonement – Ian McEwan
    Enduring Love was a good novel (shit film though. Really shit film). I’m not sure he’s really written anything half as good though. Certainly I thought Atonement was very weak; like so many on this list, frighteningly over-rated; and more concerned with making sure the reader spots the intricate allusions to literary “greats” than telling a story. A let down.
  51. Life of Pi – Yann Martel
  52. Dune – Frank Herbert
    I read all the Dune novels as a teenager. Yes, even the later ones when he was obviously milking a cash-cow. That said, God Emperor of Dune turned out to be the best in my view (in the sense of the most mind-bendingly far out, which is kind of what you want from your science-fiction)
  53. Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
    Second one on the list I’ve not heard of. Am I missing out, I wonder?
  54. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
    Just fuck off, will you. How much “I’m told this is great, so I’ll vote for it” shit is on this list anyway?
  55. A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
    Meh. Over-rated.
  56. The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
    I’m surprised this made the list as it’s pretty obscure (I think) as well as being rather good. It’s heavily influenced by Borges (of course) and kind of suffers by comparison in my eyes. All the same, well worth reading, both as a commentary on Franco’s Spain, and as a well-spun yarn.
  57. A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
    Not read this one. Safe to say I never will. Fucking Dickens!
  58. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
    One of my favourites. For the ideas, not the writing (which I grant you is a tad ropey at times). One of the few “must reads” in my opinion.
  59. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
    Any good, this? I’ve heard all the praise, but am yet to be convinced.
  60. Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  61. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
  62. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
  63. The Secret History – Donna Tartt
    Third one I’ve not heard of.
  64. The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
    This one’s been recommended by a couple of people whose views I respect. And the synopsis certainly sounds intriguing. On the “will get to it eventually” list.
  65. Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
  66. On The Road – Jack Kerouac
    A classic. People call it over-rated, and then go back to reading Charles Fucking Dickens. They need a good slap, frankly. This is a hugely important novel, and a wonderful read. Another on the “must read” list.
  67. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
    It’s just bad writing. OK? Read some Pynchon ferchristsakes! Something with soul. Something with balls!
  68. Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
    There’s a bigger chance of me eating my body-weight in goldfish than of reading this novel.
  69. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
    Rushdie is another writer I find somewhat overwrought and over-rated. This is probably the best of the three of his books that I’ve read. Still quite dull though.
  70. Moby Dick – Herman Melville
  71. Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
    When you look at the number of books on this list that I’ve read and hated, it’s a wonder I’ve not been put off literature for life. Because this is real, passionate, deep-seated hatred here not some casual dislike. I hate the way Dickens writes English. I hate every word that emerges from the mouths of his cardboard cut-out characters. And I find the social commentary trite and obvious to the point of absurdity.
  72. Dracula – Bram Stoker
    Meh. Good for its time. But that’s not saying much.
  73. The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
  74. Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
    Bryson holds no interest for me whatsoever. I’m willing to be convinced on the matter, but frankly, I’ve never met anyone who felt strongly enough about his writing to bother trying. Which says all I need to know about it.
  75. Ulysses – James Joyce
    Let me start by saying that if I was compiling this list, Ulysses would be #1. It’s one of the very few books that deserves the incredible critical acclaim it has received. In my view, you can firmly locate the beginning of ‘the modern era’ with the publication of Ulysses. For better or worse. It’s one of the very very small number of novels that I’ve read more than once (three times so far, and I’m planning on a fourth next year) and one of the very very small number of things that makes me positively proud to be a human being. If aliens from SpaceLand arrive and threaten to obliterate us unless we can demonstrate our worth as a species, I’ll be there, clutching a copy of Ulysses, and insisting that a species that can produce this novel deserves to survive. People tell me it’s an impossible book to read. I just look at them as though they’re mad. For me, it’s an impossible book not to read.
  76. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
  77. Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
  78. Germinal – Emile Zola
  79. Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
    Meh. Over-rated but worth a read if you’re interested in 19th century England. I was when I read it. I’m not really anymore, but I’m glad I was when I was. Y’dig?
  80. Possession – AS Byatt
    It’s been recommended. Not sure I’ll get round to it any time soon, but it’s another for that “eventually” list.
  81. A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
    Never read it. Scrooged was a funny film back when I was seventeen, though. But that had more to do with Bill Murray than Charles Dickens I wager.
  82. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
  83. The Color Purple – Alice Walker
  84. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
  85. Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
    Supposed to be wonderful. I doubt it somehow, but it’s on the “eventually” list nonetheless.
  86. A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
  87. Charlotte’s Web – EB White
  88. The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
    I was given this as a gift just prior to a trip to the States. I never finished it, and wound up watching Mr. Bean re-runs on the plane instead. Which tells you a lot about the book. I find Mr. Bean very irritating.
  89. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
    I’ve read them all. Every single one. At least twice. Holmes was a hero of mine (still is to an extent) and I could read those stories again and still get a huge amount from them.
  90. The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
    I have fond memories of these books from when I was 7 or 8. Not sure how well Enid Blyton would stand up to an adult-reading, but heartily recommended for 7 year olds!
  91. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
  92. The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
  93. The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
    Not as good as some of his subsequent novels (The Crow Road still being my personal favourite and one that would be underlined were it on this list), but a classic all the same. Filled with disturbing imagery though.
  94. Watership Down – Richard Adams
    Neither the novel nor the film ever really grabbed me the way they grabbed lots of people I know. Not a complete waste of time though.
  95. A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
  96. A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
  97. The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
  98. Hamlet – William Shakespeare
    Not content with having this on the list once (as part of the complete works) the BBC have insisted on putting it in twice. And sadly, Shakespeare’s no better a writer second-time round. Dumb nonsense filled with unlikeable characters, plot holes and incomprehensible dialogue. Fuck off Mr. Shakespeare and take your rhyming couplets with you, you big arse.
  99. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
    Not a patch on Danny The Champion of The World. But a good kids book nevertheless.
  100. Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

So yeah, 64/100 and some controversial statements, no doubt. But what else is a blog good for, eh?

To wrap up, let me add a short list of books that would have made the top 100 if it had been compiled by someone concerned with good writing rather than tradition. No particular order, by the way, and consider them all ‘underlined’.

  • Vineland – Thomas Pynchon
    Considered the least of his novels, I think Vineland is damn-near perfect. Gloriously absurd and vitally important all at once. I would also, genuinely, add every single other novel he’s written to the top 100 list. There’s only seven of them, so if you take out Dickens, Austen, Hardy and Shakespeare you’ll have plenty of room for them.
  • Vermillion Sands – JG Ballard
    One of his lesser known books, Vermillion Sands is actually a collection of 5 or 6 short-stories set in the same town. It’s my favourite of his books, but isn’t the only one that merits mention. Rushing To Paradise, The Day of Creation, Concrete Island, Cocaine Nights and all of his short-story collections are highly recommended.
  • Timequake – Kurt Vonnegut
    Like with Pynchon’s Vineland, I seem — even with those authors I love dearly — to gravitate towards the less critically-acclaimed novels. Timequake is a bleak, depressing and very funny book and is probably my favourite Vonnegut novel. Others I loved… Slaughterhouse-Five, The Sirens of Titan, The Breakfast of Champions, Player Piano and Slapstick (or, Lonesome No More).
  • Collected Essays – George Orwell
    Utterly essential. There’s more wisdom and insight contained in the essays of Orwell than can be found in the combined literature of the preceeding 6 centuries.
  • Dubliners – James Joyce
    It’s not Ulysses. But then, other than Ulysses, what is?
  • Huckleberry Finn / Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain
    Only read these quite recently, oddly enough, and they are far far better than any pre-20th century writing has a right to be.
  • Nova Express – William S. Burroughs
    And you can add pretty much his entire output to the list. To me, Nova Express is the absolute zenith of the cut-up technique. It manages to deconstruct not only language, but the very thought-processes of the reader, while simultaneously telling a story. It’s the novel that The Ticket That Exploded was trying to be, but just fell short of.
  • Tales of Ordinary Madness – Charles Bukowski
    The collection of stories that made me decide to become a writer (after The Lord of The Rings had sown the initial seed). It was the first time I’d read a book that felt genuine and real to me. It’s dark and unpleasant at times, and entirely inappropriate for an 11-year-old. But if anyone wants to trace the major influences on my own strange writing style, then pick up a copy of this book and all will be revealed.
  • Stone Junction – Jim Dodge
    It takes balls to walk in Pynchon’s footsteps. Jim Dodge has them. And isn’t doing too bad a job of it.
  • Steppenwolf – Hermann Hesse
    A huge novel for me in my teens. Helped me realise I wasn’t just mad, and that other people had thought the same things as me. Which was comforting if nothing else.
  • Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said – Philip K. Dick
    Not the greatest writer in the world (technically speaking) but a man with more great ideas than almost anyone else. His short-stories tend to be better than his novels (in my view). No doubt there’ll be those who point to his final three novels as being The Great Ones, and they are indeed Great, but this is the one that had the greatest impact on me when I first read it and the one that has lingered most prominently in my memory.
  • Pattern Recognition – William Gibson
    Although I’m a big fan of his early cyberpunk stuff (I loved his cameo in Wild Palms… “Hi, I’d like you to meet William Gibson, he’s the man who coined the term cyberspace, you know?” Gibson (under his breath); “yeah, and they won’t let me forget it!”) I feel he’s really started to come into his own as a writer more recently. Like Jim Dodge, his later stuff is — dare I say it — “Pynchonesque”.

And there’s plenty more of course. Those are ‘top of the head’ suggestions. My fiction is in another room, so I’m probably missing out someone utterly vital. Looking at the bookshelf in this room, however, I’d suggest that the complete works of Freud (all 24 volumes) should be on the list, as should The Politics of Ecstasy by Timothy Leary, Robert Anton Wilson’s Quantum Psychology, Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions as well as Relativity, Colin Tudge’s So Shall We Reap, Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections, the collected works of Nietzsche, Lacan’s Écrits (still not read most of it, but I recognise its worth) and — it goes without saying I’m sure — Gregory Bateson’s Steps To an Ecology of Mind.

39 comments  |  Posted in: Blog meme

Feb 2008

A book meme

Rob, over at Consider Phlebas, presents this meme for our delight and delectation…

  1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
  2. Open the book to page 123.
  3. Find the fifth sentence.
  4. Post the next three sentences.
  5. Tag five people.

Well, I have a bookshelf right next to my desk here, and there are plenty of books of more than 123 pages. So it’s a tad difficult to say which one is “nearest”. Therefore I’ve decided to grab three; a novel, a psychoanalytic text, and something from the bottom two shelves… the psychedelic section.

First up, the fiction…

He did not feel any temptation to tell lies to her. It was even a sort of love offering to start off by telling the worst.

“I hated the sight of you,” he said, “I wanted to rape you and then murder you afterwards.”

George Orwell | Nineteen Eighty-Four

Then the text-book…

One thing most contemporary critics and psychoanalysts would agree upon is that biological differentiations are inadequate, too many people seeming to cross over, at the psychical level, the “hard and fast” lines of biologically determined sexual difference. We thus begin with the hypothesis that there are males with feminine structure (defined in some way) and females with masculine structure (defined in some way).

What is of interest in Lacan’s way of defining masculine and feminine structure?

Bruce Fink | The Lacanian Structure: Between Language and Jouissance

And finally the more subversive text…

“Give us the child until he is five, and we will have him for life,” bragged some 18th Century Jesuit. The Jesuit order of that time, as Aldous Huxley later noted sardonically, educated Voltaire, Diderot, and the Marquis de Sade; obviously their techniques of brain-programming were not perfect. Nonetheless, most people in most societies do grow up as fairly accurate replicas of the previous generation.

Robert Anton Wilson | Prometheus Rising

I’ll not be tagging anyone with this. Run with it if you’re interested…

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Blog meme

Dec 2007

Archaeologies of Consciousness

Having failed to give the excellent Dreamflesh Volume One the glowing review it so richly deserved here on The Quiet Road, Gyrus threatened to “burn down your home, and the homes of everyone you’ve ever met!” unless I at least mentioned his latest tome.

Archaeologies of Consciousness

Well, he’s a man of his word. So I shall do more than just mention it. I shall post a big shiny graphic showing the rather striking cover (designed by Andy Hemmingway) and urge y’all to get hold of this fantastic anthology.

Entitled Archaeologies of Consciousness: Essays In Experimental Prehistory, it’s billed as a collection of writing on “ancient monuments, prehistoric rock art, folklore, mythology, and altered states of consciousness”. But don’t let what may sound like a specialist book on a selection of niche subjects put you off. The essays in this book are explorations of consciousness, of what it means to be human, and of the environment and landscapes that shaped our development. It’s a book that drags these “niche subjects” out of the cosy, dusty libraries in which they’ve locked themselves and takes them for a much needed hike across a windswept moor to get their blood flowing again.

But what’s it actually about?

[…] in Freudian language [we say] that the operations of the unconscious are structured in terms of primary process, while the thoughts of consciousness (especially verbalized thoughts) are expressed in secondary process.

Nobody, to my knowledge, knows anything about secondary process. But it is ordinarily assumed that everybody knows all about it, so I shall not attempt to describe secondary process in any detail, assuming that you know as much about it as I.

Gregory Bateson | Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art

In the space of these five extended essays and a few shorter bits and pieces, Gyrus boldly strides where Bateson fears to tread.

To be honest, that last line is hyberbolic to the point of sheer inaccuracy, but it’s a good pull-quote. In actual fact, the writing of Bateson and Gyrus complement one another in interesting ways. Both are examining the unsettling, blurred region where a number of disparate disciplines intersect; archaeology, anthropology, mythology, psychology (along with psychoanalytic theory) and biology. Both are aware that, for a whole bunch of reasons, traditional academia finds it difficult to comfortably accommodate research in this area, but are equally aware that for their work to be influential within these disparate disciplines (as it damn well should be), it must be accessible to them.

But where they differ is the fact that Bateson is writing from within the establishment; emerging from it as it were; while Gyrus is approaching it from outside. Both approaches have their strengths and both have certain limitations. Thankfully there’s nothing stopping us from reading both and allowing them to, as I say, complement one another.

One thing that strikes me though, is that Gyrus generally overcomes the limitations imposed by his position as a “freelance” / “amateur” researcher (a tendency towards flights of fancy, tangents and a perceived lack on intellectual rigour) better than Bateson overcomes the limitations imposed by his own (conservatism, unimaginativeness and a tendency to obscure meaning with over-complex prose and jargon).

Now Bateson can’t be accused either of conservatism or a lack of imagination, but his writing does occasionally become rather dense and opaque. In Archaeologies of Consciousness however, Gyrus presents his readers with clear, flowing prose that is at turns poetic, at turns scientific, but always comprehensible. And it’s not the patronising comprehensibility of “popular science” books that spoonfeed complex ideas to a mass market by simplifying them to the point of meaninglessness. This is the real deal… exactly as complicated as it needs to be, but no less accessible for it.

The collection opens with The Devil & The Goddess which I recall reading when it was first published over a decade ago. It was around that time that I first met Gyrus, and during the intervening years — in private discussions and through reading subsequent articles — I’ve seen how his ideas and research have evolved. So it’s interesting to revisit The Devil & The Goddess; not the start, but certainly an important early milestone, on a unique intellectual journey; and to find it’s still vital, still relevant and is filled with the questions and themes that would dominate his work for the next ten years.

Culture and civilization are inseparable from material technologies, and things are no less confused in the technophile / Luddite debate. The real dichotomy to be tackled here is that of harmonious / unharmonious technology. Do our tools help us achieve our desires, or do they become our desires?


This spiritual poverty, this rigid division of life into the sacred and profane (in their modern senses), has only been the norm of human experience for several hundred years, if that. And in their historical accounts, modern scientists have been projecting this division back in time for far too long. A re-vision of anthropology and archaeology is overdue, necessary and, I feel, imminent.

And concluding with…

For ourselves, living in a culture where the dominant spiritual institutions have insisted not only on separating themselves from everyday life, but directing their spiritual aspirations outside this world, it’s evident that a new vision of spirituality more directly concerned with life, the Earth, our bodies and survival is needed. We cannot live on bread alone, but I don’t want to try to live without it. It’s no coincidence that it took an affluent society like our own, where day-to-day existence is taken for granted, to produce a device capable of utterly destroying the biosphere.

… via a route that takes in Shamanism, Satanism, the Kundalini experience, anal eroticism, the origins of blood sacrifice, the Knights Templar and the landscape of Avebury…

It’s the least focussed of the essays in the collection, certainly, but it provides a perfect opener to the book by setting up many of the themes that are expanded upon in the later pieces.

My personal favourites (if one can be said to have favourites among essays on abstract and esoteric subjects) are probably the final two of the long pieces; Form & Meaning in Altered States & Rock Art and Aeons Past & Present. The former contains my favourite line of the book, where the author is examining some neolithic rock art while under the influence of 2CB (a synthetic phenethylamine which is known to produce, among other things, visual distortions not unlike the geometrical patterns found in much primitive art) and has the multi-layered revelation that “There’s no ‘blank canvas’ in rock art!” While the latter draws together theories about time and evolution from a remarkably wide range of sources and makes all manner of intriguing and insightful connections between them, eventually concluding with a call to action in the face of the seemingly paralysing desires manufactured by modern culture.

From the upbeat and characteristically enthusiastic preface by Julian Cope, to the meticulous indices, Archaeologies of Consciousness succeeds in being a well-researched, informative; indeed illuminating; collection of essays which is also a pleasure to read. This makes it a very rare item indeed; so I recommend you grab a copy.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Book reviews