23 December 2011

Toys in My Attic

A bit of inspiration from, of all people, Rod Stewart
The creative mind works in mysterious ways. At least, my mind does when it’s trying to be creative.

Recently, I accepted an assignment to write a video script for a very large, very blue-chip firm. As such things go, it was a plum assignment in reputation terms – and the money was pretty good, too. Besides, I have a bit of a history with this particular firm, and their asking me to do this was a sort of vote of confidence on their part. Of course, all this desirability meant the assignment put a lot of pressure on me, and in my present semi-retired condition I have grown unaccustomed to pressure.

I nearly cracked under it.

For many days I tossed the problem about in my head, trying to think of a thematic approach that would be different from the hundreds of other dull, boastful videos that infest this particular corporate genre. I had a few ideas, hardly better than clichés. Nothing worth sitting down at a keyboard for. And as the deadline grew closer my procrastination grew more obsessive and desperate.

Three days ago the deadline went whizzing by, making that sound the late Douglas Adams used to like so much. I must admit it’s a sound I hate. The only sound more hateful to my ear is the tone I hear my voice assume when I call up a client to beg for more time to complete an assignment. Which, of course, is what I had to do. I must say they were pretty decent about it.

Yesterday evening, after yet another pointless day spent idly surfing the internet while the tide of suppressed panic rose higher and higher within me, I decided, ‘to hell with this. I’ve been mooching around for days trying to do this and it’s just not working out. I’m going out to get drunk.’

Well, I didn’t really get drunk. I went and visited my good friend Mr. Mountain, drank some of his generously-offered twelve-year-old single-malt Scotch whisky, shot the breeze with him and his lissome fiancée for a couple of hoarse and forgot all about the assignment. I didn’t even think about it after I got home – though I was aware, all too aware, that in sixteen hours or so my extra time would run out.

In the shower before retiring, still mellow from the whisky, I found myself humming Rod Stewart’s Do Ya Think I’m Sexy. Now, this was odd: it isn’t a song I like (indeed, it is a song I loathe) and I had cause to wonder why it should have popped unbidden into my head. But I didn’t think about it very hard, and ten minutes later, I was sound asleep.

This morning, while lying in bed half-awake counting cats (they silently foregather in their numbers at the foot at my mattress during the wee hours), I suddenly realized that the solution to my creative problem was sitting fully formed in my head. I could hardly believe it, but a little interior scanning and rewinding told me I pretty much had the whole damn’ shooting-script, complete with soundtrack.

The concept involved the extensive use of tabletop models, judiciously mixed with CGI. I can’t tell you any more about it for reasons of client confidentiality. It’s not a terribly original idea, of course, but it happens to be spot-on for this job. I had a winner! Leaping out of bed, scattering cats broadcast, I dashed downstairs to my computer. Six hours of intense labour ensued, at the end of which the script was complete and on its way to the client.

Now, so far, there is nothing particularly weird about this story. Creative people often sleep on a problem and find a solution to hand next morning. The weird part begins... with that Rod Stewart tune.

Here is a little-known fact about Mr. Stewart: he is an enthusiastic and highly accomplished builder of model railway layouts. In fact, his Three Rivers City layout is famous among the railway modelling fraternity. It really is brilliant, and exquisitely detailed. Of course, Rod can afford the best, but then, he makes a lot of the stuff himself, by hand, and the results are very impressive to say the least.

But never mind all that: the point is that I went to bed humming a Rod Stewart tune, and woke up in the morning with a solution to my problem based on Rod Stewart’s hobby. Obviously, the solution had already begun forming in my unconscious mind, all unbeknownst to me, the previous day.

Or, perhaps, earlier than that. As the morning wore on and my fingers wore down from typing, other sources of inspiration began to identify themselves. I recalled that, two days earlier, a friend had emailed me a YouTube video of an amazingly elaborate model airport made by some guy in Germany. And about the same time, I remember explaining to my girlfriend what ClayMation was.

So you see, the solution had been putting itself together in my mind for days, always somewhere below the threshold of conscious reasoning, while my conscious brain fretted and despaired and engaged in what seemed at the time to be near-continuous neurotic displacement activity.

I wonder if the agony was an essential part of the process.

Of course, this kind of experience is far from unique. Other people report similar occurrences and I’ve had a few epiphanies myself over the thirty years I’ve spent writing things for a living. But this was the first time I’d discerned the action of unconscious creativity even as it was being deployed. It’s far more common, for me at least, to see it in retrospect: to read something I wrote months or years ago and discern, for the first time, how it connected with my life or state of mind at the time of writing. Today, I experienced it in real time

Eldritch stuff, I tell you. If anyone has had any experiences of a similar nature, I would love to hear about them. Post them as comments below, anonymously if you feel more comfortable that way.

Oh, and before I forget: a merry Christmas and a happy New Year to all who read this.

06 December 2011

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

I just put this book down, and as I did, I said to myself, ‘what a load of rubbish.' I was a little surprised at my own reaction.

Some of my favourite writing is by Vladimir Nabokov. Much of it is in his short stories. Of his novels, I loved Pale Fire and enjoyed its tricksiness. I read Lolita and was entertained, seduced and appalled. Other books, like Laughter in the Dark, were less captivating, but throughout it all the brilliance of the author’s style was there to compensate me when my interest in the content flagged.

Maybe I have grown old and cynical, and also perhaps a bit too much of a hack, to appreciate the art in this novel. Unfortunately, the art is all there is to appreciate – the plot is haphazard and the characters repellent or uninteresting. Sebastian Knight, the object of his own half-brother’s biographical quest, is a pretentious, neurotic snob. I found it difficult to take an interest in such a character when it is presented by the narrator as wholly admirable.

Mind you, the narrator – ‘V.’, Knight‘s half-brother – shares at least two of the above qualities. No surprise, since it is Nabokov’s humour to make us wonder whether the two are actually the same man, and if so, whether the man is Sebastian or his semi-sibling, or some monstrous literary Siamese twin. Doubtless it was also the author’s humour to portray a lonely, sick, mostly unhappy auctorial also-ran of unpleasant character as someone admirable, worthy of a biography. But that doesn’t really make me want to read any more about Sebastian Knight, and besides, I object to authors who entertain themselves at my expense unless they are able to entertain me at the same time.

All the other ‘postmodernist’ (really?) tricks – the way the plot of the novel takes on aspects of the plots of Sebastian’s handful of novels, so that fiction holds a mirror up to fiction, and the frequent chess references whose point, I am sorry to say, entirely escapes me – did not add interest or charm to a novel I found significantly lacking in both qualities.

And then, that famous Nabokovian prose... Apparently this was the first novel he wrote in English, so one shouldn’t be too harsh. But Nabokov was always an extreme stylist, one who liked to stretch an image or metaphor till it was on the verge of overbalancing and falling flat. Most of the time he got away with it – this was a man who could describe horse-dung in the act of production in breathtakingly beautiful prose – but for some reason his writing in this book strikes me as often no better than clumsily arch. Perhaps this was his way of portraying the untutored style of his narrator, V. The effect, sadly, is not always that of a bad writer rising above himself; too often it is that of a good writer – indeed, a great writer – missing the mark.

Which, I think, just about sums up this unfortunate novel.

19 November 2011

Their Finest Hour and a Half

Their Finest Hour and a HalfThis novel by Lissa Evans is just about perfect: expertly written in a style reminiscent of the literary fashions of the 1940s; full of wonderful characters that begin as stereotypes and take on flesh in an extraordinary way; expertly plotted and paced, with each development and surprise perfectly timed; unsentimental yet full of feeling; painstakingly researched; and on top of all that, it tells an absolutely fascinating story.

That story is set in 1940-41 and tells of the making of a British propaganda film about an incident that allegedly took place during the Allied withdrawal from Dunkirk. Three plot lines intertwine. The first features a fading former leading man in B-grade British films of the 1930s who has not yet realized that his career has tanked; he’s a typical second-rate thespian, all vanity and superficiality and contempt for humanity at large. The second follows the career of a plain, shy, lonely seamstress who works in the wardrobe department at Madame Tussauds, the famous London wax museum, and has a tendency to attract German bombs. The third storyline centres on a young, pretty Welsh woman, the taken-for-granted mistress of a famous painter, who quits her copywriter’s job at a moribund advertising agency to go and work for the Ministry of Information as a scriptwriter on propaganda films. It is her determination to turn the Dunkirk incident into a film that tells the ‘truth’ about it – not the factual truth, which turns out to be somewhat disappointing, but an emotional truth – which results in the making of the film on which the plot of the book centres. That film, incidentally, is shot on location on a Norfolk beach and in a somewhat dingy studio in South London.

Each of these plot lines contains a love story, but the point of the story is not the progress of the love affair but the redemption or self-realization that results from it. Not all of the stories have happy endings.

Finally, the book contains two really excellent canine characters who are quite as well-rounded and memorable as the human ones. No kiddie business here; the dogs are dogs, not humans in disguise, but anyone who knows dogs well will be able to vouch for the veracity of the character-drawing.

All in all, an unqualified success. I tend to reserve my five-star ratings for world-changing or life-changing books, but this novel, while it certainly doesn’t fall into that category, probably deserves the extra star. It really is that good; my compliments to Ms. Evans.

14 September 2011

A Plain Tale from the Hills

Recently, a magazine I had never previously heard of asked me whether I would supply them with a piece of short fiction. The length requirement was pretty strict. I had nothing that short to offer, so I decided to try and write a story to their specification, something I have never previously done in the fiction line.

I had recently finished (for perhaps the third time) Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills, a masterly collection of short stories originally published in the Lahore Civil and Military Gazette, a newspaper at which he worked as a young man. Rather presumptuously, I decided to try writing a story of the same kind – a kind of student piece in the manner of Kipling, in which Nuwara Eliya, the Ceylonese equivalent of Simla, would provide the frame, just as Simla did for the original Plain Tales. I don’t know how well I succeeded, but the magazine, Himal Southasian, accepted the piece for publication. You can read it here, and I hope you will, though if you can find and buy a copy of the magazine and read it there, that would be even better.

The central conceit, by the way, is stolen from another famous master of the short story, Jorge Luis Borges. Can you identify the story in which it appears?

Thank you, Mr. Hitchens

Letters to a Young ContrarianLetters to a Young Contrarian

Though no longer young, I remain at heart a contrarian, someone who is driven to question conventional wisdom and popular attitudes. Indeed, I feel this is something of a duty – one in which I am far more lax than I have any excuse to be, and clearly far more lax than Mr. Hitchens is. Living as I do in a country that has fallen victim to creeping ethno-religious totalitarianism, my conscience was not simply pricked, but speared, when I read this:

The two worst things, as one can work out without leaving home, are racism and religion. When allied, these two approximate to what I imagine fascism must have felt like.

As we Sri Lankans know all too well, he is right. As we also know, fascism is hard to stand against. Amazingly, Hitchens offers a recommendation for living conscientiously with all kinds of oppression, one he calls living ‘as if’ – living as if one were a citizen of a free society, truly able to exercise all one’s rights and duties, so that one’s way of life becomes itself a form of protest.

In order to survive those years of stalemate and realpolitik... a number of important dissidents evolved a strategy for survival. In a phrase, they decided to live ‘as if’... Vaclav Havel, then working as a marginal playwright and poet in a society and state that truly merited the title of Absurd... proposed living ‘as if’ he were a citizen of a free society, ‘as if’ lying and cowardice were not mandatory patriotic duties, ‘as if’ his government had actually signed... the various treaties and agreements that enshrine universal human rights. He called this tactic 'The Power of the Powerless’ because, even when disagreement can be almost forbidden, a state that insists on actually compelling assent can be relatively easily made to look stupid.

I found this book put heart into me, reinforcing my belief that disagreement and argument are vital to the pursuit of happiness. I am no political activist, but I believe in certain values and know certain things to be true, and I try to live by these truths and values. The struggle is hard and often seems futile, especially when one’s friends and colleagues turn away to embrace the lie. At times like this, it is good to learn that the effort is not necessarily wasted. It is rarely one feels grateful to an author for writing a book. Thank you, Mr. Hitchens.

18 June 2011

Two Novels by David Mitchell

David Mitchell has been swarming up my totem-pole of favourite writers with remarkable agility of late. Years ago, I read Ghostwritten and loved it. A few weeks ago I finished number9dream and was mightily impressed. Now here’s Black Swan Green, another five-star read in my book.

 Black Swan Green

If you’re only a sophomore reader (meaning: if what a book’s ‘about’ is still the main criterion of whether or not you will pick it up and read it), a synopsis of the plot of Black Swan Green may well put you right off. The subject isn’t new, and it isn’t exactly heart-thumping stuff either. An English boy comes of age in a Worcestershire village west of the Malvern Hills. It’s not a particularly remarkable location, neither is it a dump. It’s middle-class Middle England.

The boy, Jason Taylor, is likewise unremarkable. The only unusual things about him are that he stutters, and can apparently write poetry. He is the narrator of his own story, telling us about his life at school, games and fights with other kids his age, efforts to be accepted by his peers, and early adolescent experiments with sex and love. He tells us about his family life even as his home is breaking up around him. Finally, he tells us about a moral decision he made, and we realize that it will determine for good the kind of man he will grow up to be. That’s pretty much the whole story.

But what David Mitchell is good at is making things matter, the way they matter to us in real life. Although the elements of Jason’s story are everyday occurrences, what Mitchell wants is to show us how questions and decisions of vast, life-changing importance can turn on just such trivial events, how our responses to them are shaped by who we are, and how they in turn shape us. Jason, in the book, often uses the word ‘epic’ as a term of enthusiastic approval (as other teenagers might use brilliant, cool or excellent), and one is tempted to read this as an ironic pedal point used to highlight the book’s key conceit. The things that happen to Jason Taylor and those around him in the village of Black Swan Green are small, as things go, yet their implications are epic. This is a book about the heroic character of ordinary life, and as such is is an unqualified success. We tremble for Jason Taylor as we might tremble for Jason of Iolcos. Indeed, we may tremble harder, since it is easier for most of us to relate to a modern schoolboy than to an ancient Attic hero.

This is, above all, a moral tale. There’s not a word of preaching in it, but we are made aware from the outset that is the hero’s integrity that is at stake. The moral issues are presented imaginatively, as well as clearly and comprehensively; it speaks volumes of Mitchell’s technique as a writer that he achieves this in the authentic narrative voice of a middle-class English schoolboy of the 1980s. Even though the reported speech of other, older characters is often pressed into service to help, making this work without ever dragging Jason out of character cannot have been easy.

One is obliged to salute an author capable of such technical virtuosity. Yet technique and virtuosity are not the visible hallmarks of Black Swan Green. Lovers of Italo Calvino will probably find little to titillate them here. This is a book about feeling: about the emotional bases of our shared humanity and how we become the people we are. I have rarely felt so warmly towards a book I’ve just finished as I do toward this one.


I’m not sure if Mitchell‘s premise in this novel – namely, that Japan is a society run by and for the yakuza, who manipulate politicians and bureaucrats like puppets – is true, but the fact that he can actually make a sceptic like me wonder about it is sufficient testament to his skill as a writer. Happily, it is the least of such evidences here presented. This is literature disguised as a thriller, but unlike most literary fiction it has a satisfactory plot and a proper ending. That the proper ending is actually a false one makes it even better.

Indeed, I don’t see how this book could be more perfect.

Like Black Swan Green, number9dream is a coming-of-age novel. Eiji Miyake is considerably older than Jason Taylor; he is emerging from the long, dark tunnel of adolescence, into which Jason is just entering. Jason is a city boy, more or less, who happens to live in a village; Eiji is a village boy finding his feet in the high-tech anthill of metropolitan Tokyo. He is there partly because there is nothing left for young people in his dying, depopulated home village, but mostly he is there to find his father. Eiji and his sister are the children of a rich and successful Japanese businessman, a man of very high status, and a mistress with a drinking problem whom the businessman later rejects. The mistress returns in shame to her home village to bear her bastards (twins, a boy and a girl), whom she then abandons. Eiji and his sister are brought up by their grandmother.

Eiji’s quest for his father forms the backbone of the plot of number9dream. His search takes him on a tour of Tokyo, from the fortresslike office buildings of the rich and powerful to the tacky pachinko pleasure-domes of the masses, taking in along the way such varied scenery as a top-rank geisha club, a sleazy love-hotel, abandoned pork-barrel building-sites and ‘bridges to nowhere’, a central railway station and a street directory’s worth of video parlours, capsule hotels, coffee shops and noodle stalls. Mitchell, who lived and taught in Tokyo for years, is strong on local colour. He has an amazing gift for felicitous description (at one point, he even manages to make the struggles of a cockroach in a sticky trap fascinate us), and generally manages to bring the place to frenetic, neon-dazzle life.

But the real pleasure of number9dream, as with all Mitchell’s novels, is not the setting but the characters. His gift for character-drawing seems to be based on a preternatural ear for dialogue and a clear-eyed empathy that enables him effectively to be his characters. This was apparent in his first novel, Ghostwritten, which was also excellent, but here it is on display in a fuller flowering. Every character in number9dream (and there are many) has his or her unique voice, easily distinguished from all the rest. This is a marvellous gift, one many great novelists lack: male characters in Nabokov or Hemingway, for example, all speak with their author’s voice, or else in some tin-eared simulacrum of vernacular speech. Mitchell has a better ear for individual turns of speech than either of these masters. Best of all, he makes his characters distinct from one another without turning them into caricatures as Dickens was obliged, for his market, to do.

Eiji Miyake’s search for his father is complicated by his father’s unwillingness to be found, as well as by the other imperatives of Eiji’s life, such as falling in love with a coffee-shop waitress who dreams of being, against her family’s will, a concert pianist. The biggest obstacle, however, turns out to be the yakuza, Japan’s equivalent of the mafia, into whose toils he unwittingly falls in the course of his search. Slowly, Eiji comes to learn – and we learn it too, sharing the discovery and his astonishment at it – that Japanese society is run by and for the yakuza, who have all the bureaucrats and politicians in their pockets and who allow the Emperor to continue as a figurehead, just as the shoguns did in the bad old days. In fact, we are brought to believe that the yakuza are simply the modern-day successors of the shoguns, and that Japanese society has changed little in this respect since pre-Meiji times.

Whether this is true or not I cannot tell; I have never been to Japan and have few Japanese acquaintances. However, it would seem to explain a lot of what foreigners find mysterious about Japan: the paralysis of its government, the power of its bureacrats, the silent, cowed conformity of the masses and the country’s apparent helplessness to extricate itself from the mire of stagnation and decrepitude in which it now seems trapped. However that may be, Mitchell makes us believe it, at least for the duration of the novel – another testimonial to his powers as a writer.

But all this is peripheral stuff: at the core of number9dream is Eiji’s story – one that feels, not just real and true, but also important and satisfying. This novel ranks among the best I’ve read.

26 May 2011


A review of the inaugural issue of Ink magazine.

Some people think you have to know a lot about culture and the arts to write about them in a magazine. Not true. I wrote ignorantly about art and culture for years and nobody ever called my bluff. The real qualification for writing about culture and the arts in magazines is being able to write a good magazine article.

What makes a magazine article good? I reckon if it makes people want to read it, and they’re satisfied after they’ve finished it, that’s a good magazine article. Very simple.

Or maybe it isn’t so simple. I’ve just seen the inaugural issue of Ink, which somebody left behind at my house the other day, and it’s pretty bad. It calls itself the March-April issue, though it only came out on 5 May, and at Rs. 200 per glossy copy and very few ads inside, it probably cost more to publish than it will ever make at the newsstands. You can download the whole thing free from their web site, too. Makes you wonder whether they’re really in it for the long haul.

The first thing that jumps out at you from the cover of Ink is a big yellow belly. Was the symbolism intended? I’m pretty sure they didn’t intend for the belly to upstage the magazine’s own masthead, but that’s what it does. Not what I’d want for the first issue of my magazine – but Ink seems to be run by unusually shy and retiring people. They won’t even tell us what their magazine is about. I searched the cover in vain for some paraphrase of the words ‘the hot new arts and culture mag.’ None to be seen. Nothing on the editorial page, either. Why the big mystery? Don’t they want people to buy their magazine?

It gets worse inside. The table of contents is a guessing game: what do you think ‘Beating War with Drums’ is about? Or ‘Dubbed Out Concert Footage?’ Don’t look for explanatory subtitles; you won’t find any. Worse, the table of contents is laid out in some bizarre arrangement comprehensible only to the person who designed it, with some articles left out altogether. Why?

It’s the same precious, sloppy, amateurish story all the way through. This is a glossy magazine, often with several pictures on a single page. The pictures are interesting, yet not one of them – not one – has a caption. Three members of the group of artists known as Theertha are pictured separately in an article on the group, yet none of the photos tells you which man is which! Even reading the article won’t tell you, unless you happen to know – as I do, because I know the man himself – that the founder of Theertha, Jagath Weerasinghe, is not pictured in the article at all. Why was that?

There really is no excuse for this kind of incompetence. It’s not just lousy journalism, it’s commercial suicide. An important reader segment for this sort of publication is made up of the friends and relations of people featured in them. By treating their feature subjects so shabbily, the editors of Ink are deliberately turning away paying customers.

This peculiar reticence also extends to the articles themselves. There are no author bios, no introductory blurbs to tell us what the articles are about. There’s a feature on the filmmaker Vimukthi Jayasundara, with a big photo of him and all, but his name only appears in the body copy of the article – and you have to read up to the fourth paragraph before you even find that. Unforgivable.

As for the articles themselves – the meat of the magazine, the thing you pay your two hundred bucks for – they range from high-school-essay bad to absolutely unreadable. There are three exceptions. Two are by Pradeep Jeganathan: a restaurant review and an article about sushi which seems to be the first in a series entitled Pradeep Jeganathan’s Tastefusion. I say ‘seems to be’ because the magazine designer has got the type sizes and weights wrong again: the series title, which should appear as a header bar, has become the headline, and the headline looks like a subhead. Despite this, the article itself is great. I hope we’ll see a lot more in this line from Dr. Jeganathan: he writes about food elegantly and mouthwateringly and he seems to know his stuff in the kitchen. Best of all, he knows how to write a magazine article. His restaurant review, too, was first class. Absolutely no quibbles with either of these.

The third exception was a review of Blue, a bad and silly book. This was by A.S.H. Smythe, an Irishman (which seems to make nonsense of the editor’s claim that Ink is ‘entirely a Sri Lankan enterprise’, not that it matters). Mr. Smythe’s review is an amusingly-written hatchet job, one that Blue richly deserves, but it is much too long. A piece of fluff like Blue doesn’t deserve more than a paragraph or two – to give it two whole pages is to dignify it above its station. Here again, it is the editor, not the author, who is to blame. The Blue review should have been given some blue pencil.

As regards the other articles, the less said about them the better. Though I’d like to know why some unknown graphic-design student gets a such big feature. Maybe her daddy owns the magazine. Apart from this piece of nepotistic tripe, the other articles are just plain amateurish – written by people who know (or think they know) a little bit about art and culture, but who can’t write a magazine article for toffee.

The above is supposed to be salutary, meaning (as perhaps only Mr. Smythe will understand) that it is intended to cure and preserve. If only for its audacity, Ink deserves to survive. It would be nice to have a real Sri Lankan arts magazine succeed. The chances are slim, though. Our arts and culture scene is tiny, and most of it is not very good. How do you write about dull, unoriginal or ugly art in a way that holds readers’ interest? You can be honest and put everybody down, but how long can that last before people get sick of your ranting? Or you can try to be kind to the undeserving, and end up sounding like one of those magazines which are given away free to anyone passing by, the ones in which all the articles are thinly disguised advertorials singing the praises of the restaurants and other firms that place ads in the magazine. Either way, the reader feels cheated, and won’t come back for a second helping.

If Ink is to survive, it has to go beyond all that crap and become what it really wants to be, and what we all want to see: a really good Sri Lankan arts and culture magazine. To achieve that, it will need a professional editor, a professional designer and some grown-up writers to write for it. It will also need a professional advertising and marketing person with enough power to make the editorial team face a few bald commercial facts. With a makeover like that, Ink may actually have a life beyond its second or third issue. I hope it does, but you won’t find me putting any money on it. Not yet.

23 May 2011

Better Late than Never

That Bob Dylan has attained the Biblically-allotted span of years is in itself remarkable, given the life he’s lived, but mere survival is surely the least of his achievements. As a reason for celebrating his seventieth birthday, it is of little interest to anyone but himself and his dependants. Anyone who has lived through the last decades of the twentieth century will be able to come up with several much better ones. My own are a little unusual, because – in spite of having been a teenager in the Seventies – his music was largely unknown to me until I’d reached middle age and Dylan himself was an old man.

Growing up in Sri Lanka, where records were hard to come by, TV didn’t exist and the one State-controlled radio station seemed to know nothing of Dylan apart from ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, I managed to become a to-the-core rock fan, rock geek and even rock musician without every seriously listening to or thinking about Bob Dylan. Absurd, but these things happen. Our handful of early Colombo rock kids, looked upon with dislike by adult authority and out of the mainstream of our contemporaries’ musical taste, passed precious rock albums from hand to hand (singles were never even thought of) and transcribed them, much worn, to tape as soon as cassette technology made that possible. My family weren’t rich enough to afford lots of expensive LPs, so I was largely dependent on this network for new music. And it just so happened that few of my friends were very keen on Dylan. It was usually either heavy rock or campy musical-comedy fodder for the people I grew up with, so I went through my teens without ever really connecting with Dylan. Like I said: absurd.

Mind you, the little I heard of his work over those years didn’t encourage me to investigate further. I couldn’t really dig what anyone saw in that voice – not just nasal and raspy, but with that nasty insinuating tone to it, like he was sneering at people. And when he took the clothespeg off his nose for ‘Lay, Lady, Lay’, it sounded like he was barking instead. A woman would have had to be nuts to lay across that big brass bed (as indeed, we now know, a number of them were).

There were other things not to like, as well. The harmonica was definitely an acquired taste. The songs seemed to have too many verses, and the music behind the vocal was often a hurriedly-recorded, shoddily-produced mess. ‘Hurricane’ was the first Dylan song I honestly liked, and I liked the way he sang it too, but it kept getting faster and faster till he was just gabbling the words to get them out, and the notoriously lousy Street Legal production turned it all to mush anyway... you’ll note that all these were impressions received from a handful of songs, mostly heard on the radio. I was still ignorant, still saying the ignorant things people who don’t get Dylan say about him, like ‘Bob Dylan is a great poet but he’s a lousy singer,’ and ‘I like Bob Dylan’s songs when other people do them.’ Did I mean Peter, Paul and Mary’s saccharine rendition of ‘Blowin' in the Wind’, I wonder, or Manfred Mann’s cover of ‘Quinn the Eskimo’? What the hell did I mean?

Bob and I had a couple of near misses. Aged about twenty-one, I somehow contrived to learn all of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, and often sang and played it thereafter on appropriate occasions. How did this happen? It must have been included on a tape somebody compiled for me. I liked the trippy words, man... Then, a couple of years later, I heard ‘Isis’ for the first time. I was surprised it was by Dylan (I’d never heard that version of the Voice before) and it sounded intriguing besides. But this happened at a social gathering, and I was in a conversation I couldn’t break away from to listen.

And so it went, until I was about (I blush to confess) forty, and at a serious point of disconnection in my life. After a painful separation and divorce, followed by illness, I had moved to Dubai to start again. I was pretty bruised but not without hope and I also had, as a result of that divorce, a record collection to replace. Unlike most men of forty (I am proud to boast), I was not much interested in replacing long-cherished teenage favourites. My rock-geekhood had metastasized over the years, and my tastes with it, so that I was now qualified to assemble a representative selection of the best rock and roots music albums of the last forty-odd years – modified by personal taste, naturally, and helped along not a little by a subscription to Q. It was at this time that I began listening intensively to Bob Dylan. It is when I heard Blood on the Tracks for the first time.

Do I see you nod knowingly? Ah, you’ve been there. You’re a Dylan fan who’s been through a happy marriage followed by a nasty separation, just like the man himself, and you know just what I’m talking about. All the thoughts and feelings you ever wanted to express in those times, as well as all the ones you never wanted to have see the light of day, are on that album, presented in a way that makes you live intensely through them all over again – afterwards to be comforted, and perhaps a little healed, by the experience.

As for Dylan the artist, I got him immediately, of course. It would be more correct to say that he got me, just as he will get anyone who is willing to put aside first impressions and listen without prejudice for the length of a single song (‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ for preference). I mean, come on – after forty years and forty thousand imitators, how shocking or fundamentally offputting can a funny voice and a scratchy harmonica still be? What do these people do when they hear Tom Waits? Go into spasm?

Still, perhaps the holdouts are on to something, because it changes you, being got by Bob Dylan. Suddenly the whole world looks different. I think the effect is the same no matter at what age it happens, though your reaction will surely be more vigorous if you are younger. For a near-codger like me, discovering Dylan was largely a case of hearing known truths piercingly and humorously stated; for someone in, say, their early twenties, it’s probably more like hearing the news.

There’ll be enough analyses of Bob Dylan, his music and his influence being written and read today. I don’t plan to add to them, beyond stating that, in my considered opinion, he is the greatest artist of the second half of the twentieth century. I came to this conclusion by myself, but have since seen it repeated in a quality British newspaper. To those who would challenge the assertion, I reply as the author of that article did: if not Dylan, then who? Answers on a postcard, please.

Today, this is what I am celebrating: the fact that, about twenty years too late by personal chronology, I finally discovered, experienced and appreciated the genius of Bob Dylan. It was a near thing, and my life would be considerably poorer if it hadn’t happened. I’m celebrating my lucky escape.


To my friends who still resist listening to him, I say: you guys don’t know what you’re missing. And besides, you’re wrong. He’s not a lousy singer and his songs never sound better when covered by other people, they almost invariably sound worse – you can count on some limb of sense or feeling having been amputated. Bob Dylan is not a great poet – his verse struggles on the page – but he is a great songwriter, the greatest of them all. And then there’s the Voice. Nobody else can articulate the scope of meaning and depth of emotion that live in a Bob Dylan song anything like the man who wrote it. It doesn’t even end there: as an interpreter of lyrics, other people’s as well as his own, Bob Dylan has – when he can be bothered – no equal. No Sinatra or Caruso could ever do what he did routinely in his pomp, nor did they ever dare to tackle lyrics as artistically dense as ‘Visions of Johanna’ or ‘Tangled up in Blue’, or an emotional palette as broad as that which includes ‘Idiot Wind’ as well as ‘Romance in Durango’, ‘Motorpsycho Nightmare’ and ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’. Have you noticed that popular singers before and after Dylan sound completely different? Ever wonder why?

There are sublime aesthetic experiences to be had throughout Dylan’s recorded oeuvre – literally dozens of them. There is a shedload of intelligence and wisdom, most eloquently expressed. There are barrels of laughs. But there is something more as well, something that makes the experience of listening to Dylan qualitatively different from listening to music made by other musicians, a sort of combined effect of concert, poetry-reading and after-dinner storytelling. It has had its imitators and tributaries, but the original is still unique. But it comes with a price of entry attached, over and above whatever, if anything, you paid for the record: you may have to rearrange some of your preconceptions before you can appreciate it. But that’s okay; you will be a better person for the change. There’s another damn’ good reason to be celebrating His Bobness’s threescore-and-tenth birthday today.

07 March 2011

Naughty in the Noughties

Something to Tell YouSomething to Tell You by Hanif Kureishi

A well-written, amusing and titillating novel that works well as entertainment but is unlikely to haunt you for ever. The setting is London in the mid-Noughties. The protagonist is a psychoanalyst with a mildly criminal past and some interestingly original views on morality and pleasure. He, however, would be the first to admit that he doesn't have all the answers; indeed, he uses this cop-out regularly in his relationships with family, friends and patients.

There is lots and lots of sex, both hetero and homo, nearly all of it kinky. The gay sex seems to me more realistically and lovingly imagined the hetero stuff, which tends to be more distantly observed.

My main criticism of this generally fine novel is that the bits of the protagonist's character don't quite fit together. This is a shame since the first-person narrative voice conferred on him by the author is strong and convincingly individual. Against this literary weakness, however, must be set a nowadays rare and very desirable strength; namely that the book has a proper ending, a conclusion that ties up all the loose ends and presents the reader with a dramatic and satisfying conclusion. Too many modern literary novels disappoint us with their endings: everything goes swimmingly until the last fifty pages, then it all starts to unravel, or just collapses. Hanif Kureishi nimbly avoids this pitfall to deliver a novel that delivers from start to finish.

Oh, and Mick Jagger makes a cameo appearance. With his clothes on, just in case you were wondering.

01 March 2011

More Scots on Drugs

These Demented Lands
These Demented Lands by Alan Warner

There’s a stain of creepy cold-weather surrealism that runs through modern Scottish fiction – think of Alasdair Gray or Iain Banks, or even Irvine Welsh. These Demented Lands belongs on the same shelf as the foregoing, though it isn’t violent or bleak; in fact, it’s fun.

I worked my way through the first half of this slim novel in delight, thinking ‘I’ve never read anything quite like this before.’ Which is true, pretty much. Further on in, though, I realized with some disappointment that a lot of the colourful stuff I’d been reading wasn’t material to the plot of the novel; and a little while later I realized that there really wasn’t a plot to this novel, either.

Strange to say, I still enjoyed These Demented Lands. The Scots-inflected prose is elegant and highly readable, with occasional rhapsodic elements. The descriptive passages are cinematic or psychedelic, the sequence of events has its own acid-fried logic, there are moments of bizarre yet laugh-out-loud comedy and everything does come together in the end, though it does so in a tearing hurry and not entirely to this reader’s satisfaction.

I realize I haven’t said much anything about the actual story or the characters in the book, or even about its setting. None of that really matters, though. This book is a trip, and a beautifully written one at that. Anyone interested enough to want to find out more should read this blogger's review, which I fully endorse and agree with. Or just read the book.

28 February 2011

Cruel Britannia

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997 by Piers Brendon

Being a product of the British Empire, I have something of a soft spot for it. Piers Brendon doesn’t. This massive book, which took me nearly a month to finish, has almost nothing good to say about history’s biggest-ever empire, concentrating instead on land-grabs, exploitation of peoples and resources, imperial arrogance, corruption and perfidy, military and political blunders, atrocities of various kinds, acts of cowardice and betrayal, policies of neglect and policies of divide and rule. There is, admittedly, plenty of such material to choose from. I don't believe Brendon misses any of it.

What he does miss, apart from a handful of grudging references thinly sprinkled across more than 650 closely-printed pages, is the plethora of benefits that British rule brought the colonies. British-built roads, railways, seaports and airfields were designed to facilitate colonial commerce and project imperial power, yet were of incommensurable value to the local people who also used them. British trade and colonial economic development benefited locals too, and not just the comprador classes. British-run schools and missions were designed to create docile and usefully employable imperial subjects, yet also propagated modern knowledge, helped overcome superstition and ignorance and introduced to subject peoples the selfsame liberal and humanitarian ideas that would, in time, encourage them to demand and win their freedom. If a majority of the world’s peoples today can be termed ‘civilized’ in any sense, then it is the British and their empire that deserve the lion’s share of the credit.

Brendon isn’t interested in any of that. He just goes banging on about the horrors of British rule, even when forced to admit that other empires, from that of Rome to Japan’s notorious wartime ‘Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere’, were far worse. A benign empire is, of course, a contradiction in terms; but I do believe the British tried harder than any other imperial power, and with more success, to resolve that contradiction.

It is hard to understand exactly what the author’s motivation was to research and write this book. Clearly he has an axe to grind and it cuts to the left, but this is just a smear job with no larger political conclusions drawn from it. I suppose there is a market for this kind of thing, presumably among leftist malcontents in the West. Many times I was tempted to quit reading and fling the book across the room. I persevered because of my interest in the subject; you might say I persisted for scholarly reasons.

And talking of scholarship, that in the book appears largely second-hand. Original sources are relatively few. The text is copiously annotated (there are nearly 100 pages of endnotes!) but most of the notes are just attributions of clever turns of phrase Brendon has mined from other people’s work; only rarely do they seem to offer factual support for his assertions. On the subject of my own country many of his statements are flatly wrong, leading me to believe that his scholarship regarding other parts of the erstwhile British Empire is probably just as sloppy.

Brendon also seems to have a personal grouse against Rupert Murdoch, and misses no opportunity to slander the man, the newspapers he owns, and even Murdoch's forebears. Astonishing, that he should descend to such pettiness in the midst of this Herculean literary effort.

Incidentally, and ironically, I borrowed this book from the British Council library in the capital city of the former British colony where I was born and still live. I guess it was put there by some of the aforementioned leftist malcontents; but whatever the cause, its presence on those shelves itself gives the lie to many of Brendon's slanders.

17 February 2011

Keep the Little Monsters at Home

This will be short and sour.

The BBC News Magazine web site has posted an article on the vexed question of toddlers in restaurants. While admitting (as who cannot) that they are a menace, the article goes on to offer an excuse or two for parents who insist on bringing the little beasts along, one of these being the desire to ‘get them used to restaurants’.

Well, I‘ve heard some sorry excuses for self-indulgent doting in my time, but that one takes, if you'll pardon the expression, the cake. Get them used to restaurants? Why, in heaven’s name? So that they can beggar their parents with expensive dining-out bills in early adolescence? Out-gourmet the Guide Michelin before they’re out of secondary school? Or just learn to draw increasingly bitter comparisons between Mum’s cooking and the canard aux herbes Sri lankaise they were served at the Lemon last night?

Do these fond parents really imagine they’re somehow socializing their kids by inflicting them on cringing strangers? What idiots. Toddlers cannot be socialized. They are monsters of id. They aren’t even properly human yet – to all intents and purposes, they’re still little animals, and half-formed ones at that. Besides, research has shown that parents don’t socialize kids; peer groups do. All Mummy and Daddy’s patient training in manners and decorum, all the coaxing and encouragement, all the gatings and punishments, even the beatings used by some parents as teaching aids, count for very little; it’s peer pressure and, a little later, a desire to impress the opposite sex that turns juvenile delinquents (that is, all kids) into socially viable individuals. And even the small contribution parents make in this area cannot begin until a child actually has some consciousness of others’ rights and feelings – a sensibility that does not develop, except possibly with respect to close blood relations, until the kid is well past the upchucking-in-public stage of life. And yes, I know some people never get past it, but that simply means they’re still toddlers in spite of the breasts and facial hair. This is true even if the breasts and facial hair are both on the same person.

Anyway, we all know this twaddle about getting children used to restaurants is just a lame excuse. People bring their toddlers to restaurants for one of two reasons: (1) they are so besotted by the issue of their loins that they cannot bear to be away from them for ten seconds or (2) they have run out of volunteers – even paid ones – for the job of babysitter. In the first of these cases we are clearly dealing with some sort of compulsive pseudonarcissistic disorder, requiring – oh, I don’t know, electroshock therapy and institutionalization, with the kids being taken into care, preferably at some remote, Spartan orphanage. In the second, you and I will be dining next to the quelled and demoralized parents of one or more pint-sized psychopaths, and we might not leave the restaurant alive.

There is absolutely no excuse for bringing children under the age of, say, five, to restaurants. Restaurants are adult places. Adult things are done in them – business, mutual social grooming, status competition and, above all, sex. Restaurants are vital, indeed sacred, to the central ritual of human mating – the gifts of food with which males of our species and its forebears have courted females for at least five million years. No-one, not even the broodiest biological-clock-obsessed thirtysomething woman, wants to be reminded of the consequences of courting and mating while engaged in the actual activity. The presence of children at such occasions is a turn-off comparable with a skip-load of offal being overturned next to one’s table. Indeed, the effect (and the smell) are often identical.

To encourage the restaurateurs of the world to come to their senses and impose a blanket ban on customers under the age of five, I propose that sane adults – which is to say, those unencumbered with children – take certain steps. These will include refusing to sit near family parties with small children, or better still, insisting that they be seated somewhere the sight, sound and smell of the little brutes will not offend other diners’ sensibilities. A quiet back-alley location, behind the restaurant among the garbage cans, would probably be best; as a second option, the manager’s office will do nicely. One might also refuse to pay one’s addition on the grounds that one’s health and appetite have been impaired by the stress of having to eat in public among small children, and furthermore forward any medical or psychiatric bills incurred over the following days to the restaurant management; but best of all, I think, will be to form a lobby group and organize restaurant boycotts. I shall shortly commence a canvass of friends, relatives, correspondents and Facebook hangers-on with this end in view.

As for the offending parents, they will just have to be sent to Coventry, won’t they? There or Siberia.

14 February 2011

The Voynich Review

The 'Galaxy' diagram from the Voynich Manuscript (left-hand page).
Note dark blot in approximate location of Sol.

The Voynich Manuscript is in the news again, this time because a team of scientists has established that it is at least a hundred years older than previously believed. If you haven't already heard of this mysterious and somewhat creepy document, the first link above will tell you all you need to know about it, and this one will allow you to view the Manuscript for yourself (just click on the pictures to see entire chapters). It is, quite possibly, the strangest book in the world.

Out of curiosity, I searched for it on the Goodreads website, where I'm a member, and to my astonishment found there actually was an entry for it. This being an opportunity far too good to pass up, I proceeded to write a review of the Manuscript, awarding it five stars. For your amusement, I reproduce this below. The idea that one of the diagrams represents the Galaxy is not mine; it originates, as far as I know, in this post on abovetopsecret.com.

A Review of the Voynich Manuscript 

No-one who has read this marvellous text could possibly fail to be captivated by its thesis and convinced by its arguments. Diego Almodovar, in his encyclopaedic critical survey of unread and undiscovered texts, Scriptorium Incognitum, devotes an entire chapter to the Voynich Manuscript, following what he calls the 'golden thread of induction' that runs through, and ties together, the various sections modern scholars have dubbed 'astrological', 'cosmological' and 'biological'; he claims that this conventionally indecipherable narrative develops an empirical proof of the alchemical principle, 'as above, so below'.

Almodovar refuses to speculate, however, on what might be the exact subject of the Manuscript and gives no precise listing of its contents. He disagrees with the various assertions of Kircher, al-Khimidi and others who have given their own opinions on the matter. Like Aldomovar, I too am convinced that until the recondite script in which the Manuscript is written is finally translated into a modern language, there is simply no point in making claims in this regard. It suffices merely to read it in the original, making use of the appropriate portion of the Key of Solomon to do so, and absorbing its message within its own peculiar context: that of a culture, indeed a race unknown to us, of whose provenance the only clue we have yet been able to decipher is the fact that one of the diagrams in the 'astrological' portion, when reversed as if viewed in a mirror, is clearly a diagram of the Galaxy with the position of our home star rendered as a broad black dot - more properly described as a blot - and on which a constellation of smaller dots appears in a location almost diametrically across the Galactic centre from Sol.

If, as it appears, the original diagram is in fact a very large-scale map of the Galaxy viewed from a point several hundred light-years south of the galactic plane, then one among this constellation of dots (which the careless scholar might dismiss as fly-specks or the results of a carelessly shaken fine quill pen) may indeed indicate the place of origin of the manuscript, or of its author, or of some being known to the author. Given the late mediaeval provenance of the Voynich Manuscript, this interpretation of the diagram raises a number of fascinating questions. These the text of the document answers satisfactorily, and I would write the answers here but for the difficulty of translating them into any known human tongue.

It is said that the great Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges was familiar with the Manuscript, and was inspired by it to write such well-known works as 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius' and 'A New Refutation of Time'. However, it is not known when, where or by what agency Borges obtained a copy of the manuscript; it is certain he had no access to the original. This is, however, the least of the mysteries the Voynich Manuscript holds for us. I give this book (more properly, this codex) a richly earned five stars.

01 February 2011

The Angels Still Watch O’er Us

Alex Stewart was nearing the end of a long, difficult period of personal change and reappraisal when he first visited Sri Lanka in 1995. He may have felt that a change from his usual London scene would be good for him, and so it turned out. Stewart found his artistic vocation awaiting him here; and with it, a measure of peace of mind and zest for life, things he had thought lost to him for ever.
       Such is the story I have heard about Alex Stewart, with whom I am lightly acquainted in a social way, not at all intimately. In other words, it is gossip and may not be true. Whether it is true or not I really have no idea, but when I look at his paintings of Sri Lanka I think it might be. They illustrate what certainly appears to be a special relationship. Then again, if you look at his paintings of Indian scenes and subjects, they’re pretty similar, superficially at least, to the Sri Lankan ones. How many special relationships can one man have? Does it matter?
       Stewart is, as far as I can tell about these things, a surrealist. Which is to say that his paintings, although figurative, seem to straddle the boundary between reality and fantasy. I suspect this boundary is not fixed as rigidly in the painter’s mind as it may be in yours or mine; in his work it seems permeable, or capable of shifting back and forth, or sometimes, disconcertingly, not to be there at all. Then again, he is on record as saying – in reference to other work, not his Sri Lankan oeuvre – that ‘permission was the key, permitting myself to draw an internal world,’ suggesting that he does discriminate between interior and exterior realities. In a similar connexion he also speaks of depicting ‘the backlot of the mind’s film set, a series of images which when juxtaposed in an infinite combination provide clues and stories to... life experience.’ Perhaps, then, the Sri Lankan and Indian paintings depict the set itself, the film captured in performance – the life experience?
       There is no doubting that the plot is to some degree autobiographical. Stewart isn’t afraid of painting himself, and often appears as a recognizable character in his own work. There he is, pinkish, balding and looking ever so slightly out of place among the sari-draped angels, flying tuk-tuks and the rest of the tropical surrealist jamboree. What’s he doing there? What’s the story? Work it out if you can, or just make something up.
       It would take a better-educated, more perceptive intelligence than mine to parse the grammar of Stewart’s work. Some scenes appear to be just what they are and no more, others are quirky or bizarre without necessarily seeming to refer to anything beyond the frame of the picture, and yet others are clearly freighted with history and personal meaning for the artist but refuse to yield them up readily to the viewer. Maybe I just haven’t looked and thought hard enough, being too taken by the beauty of what I see bother much with the meaning of it. I suspect the artist will think this is fine.
       I really don’t think analysis is the way into the art of Alex Stewart. It’s more about the experience. His paintings are enchanting things, not just easy on the eye but on the heart. Looking at them, I actually feel myself becoming calmer, a gentler person, at least for the duration of the experience. There is something essentially good – morally speaking – about them. Acknowledging the existence of loss, sorrow and wickedness in the world, they reassure us still that these evils are not the whole of life, that indeed, despite their enormous temporal salience and power, they may not matter nearly as much as we think or fear they do. Even in his latest and most sombre collection, which has its première at the Barefoot Gallery this month, the angels still watch over us, and the tuk-tuks still ascend the path of their own headlamp-beams to heaven while their drivers, asleep in the back, dream prophetic dreams. Deep and holy mysteries hide everywhere beneath the mundane surface of things; we need not fear them so long as we respect them. Approached the right way, they are nurturing, fruitful, even benign. It says on Alex Stewart’s curriculum vitae that he is a therapist; certainly, I find looking at his paintings therapeutic. Maybe he finds painting them therapeutic, too, even if the work is not always easy.
       Surrealism, as a rule, mocks or attempts to rearrange the ancient relationship between art and the sacred. Alex Stewart’s paintings, though they partake, at least compositionally, of some of the automatism of the surreal, do the opposite: they reaffirm the relationship. The characters and scenes in them come from a holy place: a very special, mythical island of Lanka that only exists as a sort of epic poem inside the artist’s mind. It is a kinder, gentler and holier place than the wretched, plundered, ruined island of its inspiration ever will be again. Long may it endure. 

Once Upon A Timean exhibition of paintings by Alex Stewart, is at the Barefoot Gallery, Colombo, 11-27 February 2011.