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May 13, 2007

The Blair Bitch Project

Blair's Premiership
2 out of 5 stars

In news about as shocking as a typical My Family punchline, Tony Blair resigned on Thursday, opening the floodgates for the media to pore over his ten years of office and deliver versions of his legacy in handy souvenir pullouts. One wonders what the newspapers have up their sleeves for when he actually goes on June 27th. For what it’s worth, here’s my purely subjective take on his premiership.

Say what you like about Blair, he’s a fantastic politician. He made Labour electable again, but was it worth it? If I take my awkward question to mean was he good for the Labour Party, then probably not. For all the things he’s done to disillusion me, I have a grudging respect for him – sure he’s a shit, but he’s a charismatic shit.

It’s difficult to doubt his good intentions, but even his successes may not be so unequivocal.
- The minimum wage and low unemployment. The least he could do; I reckon more of the workforce is in the informal sector, employed by agencies, with low job security and no prospects, than when he came to power.
- Northern Ireland. There’s finally a power-sharing executive that might just work, but how big was Tony’s role in it since Good Friday?
- Solid economic growth and low inflation. Thanks to the independent Bank of England.
- Action on climate change. To me, this has only taken off since An Inconvenient Truth came out.
- Debt relief and development. What’s actually happened since Gleneagles?

To be fair, crime rates and NHS waiting lists have fallen, though you wouldn’t know it from press coverage.

Anything positive is outweighed by:
- Privatising anything with a pulse with a more-Thatcherite-than-Thatcher zealotry.
- Privatisation by the back door in the form of PFI, which, last time I checked, is still pretty discredited (The Guardian).
- Contracting out public service management to consultants who fuck things up so they can get paid again to sort their own mess out.
- Tuition fees.
- Top-up fees, though they are more redistributive than the Tories’ HE policies.
- Oh, and Iraq: selling out the country’s foreign policy and diplomatic power, starting an unwinnable war on false pretences, and eroding any moral high ground over Islamic extremists by undermining the rule of law and civil liberties.

Two out of five is generous.

The other day I realised that I agree with very little Labour have legislated on in the past few years. So I’m looking forward to Gordon Brown’s inevitable premiership and the new direction he’ll take the party. Apart from expecting “more of the same” I don’t understand the unremitting flak he’s been coming under for the past year. For God’s sake, Gordon’s hero is Bobby Kennedy – the greatest President America never had! They’re all just ants at a picnic.

That said, unlike the jubilant but naive 13-year-old on the morning of May 2 1997, I’m bracing myself for disappointment.

March 27, 2007

Travelling Around the World – a Literature Review

As you know, the main reason people go on holiday is to read novels. And I, while backpacking the globe, was no exception to the rule, getting through the best part of eleven books. I now present my potted reviews for each of them, so when you re-read my travel blogs you’ll know what I was enjoying (or, indeed, not enjoying), literature-wise, at the time.

NB. I didn’t actually take 11 books with me – I variously gave them away, was given them, bought them at second-hand bookshops and swapped them at hostel book exchanges along the way. It is largely the latter that accounts for the randomness of the selection. The bookshelves would frequently have a title from my List Of Books To Read, only it would be in Finnish, so I would have to settle for ones whose authors sounded familiar, or just looked pretty.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (started in Newcastle, finished on a Greyhound in Arizona)
This, along with Catch-22 and Crime & Punishment, is one of the three best books I have read. For one thing, at £1 for 800 pages it was really good value for money. It was written in the early seventeenth century so the translation is pretty close to Shakespearean English; luckily, I’m used to that so I found it relatively easy to read. It’s funnier than Shakespeare. Even if you’ve not read it you’re likely to at least know that Don Quixote is a middle-aged country gent who decides to become a knight and gallivants around La Mancha with his ‘squire’ Sancho Panza in search of adventure. From this simple premise and Quixote’s wild, fairy-tale-influenced imagination, hilarious japes almost write themselves. Quixote’s attempts to rescue damsels, free slaves and defend his lady’s honour leads to all sorts of trouble, and gets Sancho beaten up (or tossed in a blanket) on regular occasions. The second part of the book, in which the first part of the book has been published and read by the characters Don Quixote meets, is pure genius.

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh (Flagstaff – Los Angeles)

Evelyn Waugh was a man.

- Scarlett Johanson in Lost In Translation
Yes, Scarlett, but did it not occur to you that the ‘bimbo’ you’re denigrating was being ironic when she checked in under that name? But this isn’t about overrated films; this is about a relatively short comic novel set in 1920s London high society. Apart from the off-putting joke names, it’s a good read, and very funny.

The Mysterious Flame Of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco (Los Angeles – Beachcomber (unfinished))
Apparently Eco is the thinking man’s Dan Brown, so I was quite interested in reading this, though it wasn’t one of his two books I’d heard of. It’s about an old bookshop owner who wakes up from a coma with amnesia. So it’s basically about him regaining his memory. It’s good until Eco spends way too long describing the childhood house to which he returns and explores as if it’s all new. Thanks to booze, my concentration was shot to bits so I gave up not only on the book but any claim to be a thinking man by picking up…

Angels & Demons by Dan Brown (Auckland – Nelson)
I was given this, okay? And it took me a month to lower myself to read it. So shut up. Like The Da Vinci Code, it’s a page-turner with prose so bad it reads like it was typed with a sledgehammer. It’s also a fun mystery-thriller with interesting ideas about science and religion and it makes me feel clever to be several steps ahead of the stupid characters. It’s basically got the same formula right down to the kindly old man who gets murdered at the start and his sexy young relative who joins Robert Langdon on the investigation. I can’t say whether it’s better or worse than TDVC but the amount of times Brown required me to suspend my disbelief – the Pope’s death not being exciting news, the really fast plane, a stereotypical English tabloid journalist who’d worked for “The British Tatler”, the incredibly nice man being the baddie twist – was audacious. I really fancy writing a Dan Brown-style (but good) thriller. The Bob Woolmer thing has really inspired me, God rest his soul.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (Queenstown – Christchurch)
A rare book that was both on my List and at a book exchange in English. It’s Vonnegut’s personal account of being a prisoner of war and witnessing the carpet bombing of Dresden. I like his freewheeling prose and black humour, but for some reason – maybe I read it really quickly – it didn’t make as much impression on me as I’d thought.

You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers (Christchurch – Moreton Island)
I’d heard of Eggers because he’s one of the hip young breed of authors The Guardian keeps going on about, and loved him so much they had him write short short stories for the Weekend, which I didn’t like and had forgotten about when I picked this up. It’s about two Americans in their mid-twenties, Will and Hand, who decide to travel the world in a week and give away a load of unwanted money. They end up going to Senegal, Morocco and Estonia. The book’s also about the death of their friend Jack and its aftermath, told in flashback. I like Eggers’ dry humour and impressive eye for detail, in particular Hand’s habit of speaking pidgin English to foreigners. Not being a fan of The Catcher In The Rye, however, I didn’t much dig narrator Will’s Holden Caulfield-style angst, which tends to smother proceedings.

Idlewild, Or Everything Is Subject To Change by Mark Lawson (Moreton Island – Singapore)
“Mark Lawson,” I thought, “that rings a bell. It couldn’t be-” I looked at the back cover and sure enough, there was the chubby sometime presenter of Newsnight Review, looking about ten years younger. He’d written a novel in the 90s – a what-if about John F Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe if they hadn’t died when they did. I’ll damn it with faint praise and call it fun. But despite a couple of dodgy twists he’s better than Dan Brown.

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres (Singapore – Bangkok)
It starts off being really funny, then the violence starts and it just gets bleak, and doesn’t really relent. Brilliant. I enjoyed it more than Slaughterhouse Five as an anti-war book, despite this one being fiction. I’d quite like to see the film now, because it’s supposed to be shit.

The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (Kanchanaburi – the Mekong River)
I mentioned indirectly on my Laos blog that I didn’t much care for this book. Sure, it has those classic Victorian literary ingredients: an aristocrat who toys with the lives of others, supernatural phenomena, and opium dens. And there’s Wilde’s famous wit, of course. But things just pissed me off like Wilde revealing little of what Dorian actually does to make his portrait age so quickly, and the story suddenly jumping about twelve years ahead in the final act. The main thing is that when I get IDed nowadays, I can quip that I have a portrait in my attic that looks old enough, and know what I’m talking about.

Thud! by Terry Pratchett (The Mekong – Ha Long Bay)
I used to read Discworld books all the time as a teenager but this was my first for a while. It’s a City Watch book, and they’re usually the best. This one’s great because it explores racial intolerance and multiculturalism – you know, important issues in contemporary British society – by pitting the races of Ankh-Morpork against each other. It’s very clever and given the subject’s sensitivity, well-handled despite Pratchett’s cheeky use of stereotypes.

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad (Hanoi – a GNER train between Doncaster and York)
This is the only book I read that was set anywhere near where I was travelling, i.e. the second half of it is in Thailand (briefly) and Malaysia. Like that other Joseph Conrad book I’ve read, Heart Of Darkness, it’s all about an employee of a trading company who is posted to the jungle and ends up becoming a sort of lord to the people there, and Marlow tells the story. Okay, there’s more to it than that – Jim drifts around Asia to escape the memory of a disgraceful incident in his youth and the novel is all about honour and redemption. It’s a good story and I love Conrad’s hilarious minor characters (such as the notorious Robinson, who is described glowingly as a maniac, then turns out to be a frail, quiet old man), but it’s not exactly a page-turner; Conrad spares no detail and frequently lets the plot slow to a crawl. What makes this more annoying is the fact that most of the book is supposed to be Marlow speaking, and you’d think any sane person telling an anecdote like this would cut down on the superfluous imagery.

Now I’m just reading the news in the hope that I’ll come up with some more blogs.

January 12, 2006

The Da Vinci Code

Da Vinci Code, The
3 out of 5 stars

I know it's very cool these days to say The Da Vinci Code is shit* (Salman Rushdie led the charge), but guess what, I'm going to take one of my traditional fair and balanced (but nonetheless wry) looks at Dan Brown's controversial bestseller.

That's right, it means I've read it. Obviously, I didn't particularly want to give the obscenely wealthy heretic any more money so I did the only honourable thing and borrowed it from Auntie Rona, then read it in about a week.

The verdict? Well firstly, I read it in about a week; not normally an indicator of a good book seeing as I've been reading One Hundred Years Of Solitude, one of the most critically respected pieces of modern literature, for going on 2 months now. But then the former's supposed to be a page-turner, whereas the latter is a 'classic'. And it does the job. The book, as well as famously revealing shocking alleged secrets of the Catholic Church, is a gripping, fast-paced thriller. The problem with this is that Brown uses most of the cliches associated with the genre: the only trait which makes our hero, American symbology professor Robert 'Indiana' Langdon, a two-dimensional character is his childhood fear of enclosed spaces; and obviously, he gets framed for murder; oh, and did you know that British food is shit?

However, this isn't so bad when you factor in the Code of the title. Brown gives you clues to the puzzles which fall across Langdon and his inevitably attractive French companion Sophie's path, so when you solve them before the protangonists, it makes you feel well clever. I have to admit sometimes I missed the clues and realised that Brown had outwitted me when all was revealed. This wasn't bad either as the book would be shit if there were no surprises. Mind, I was kicking myself when I missed the major twist at the start of what will be the last act when the film is made: it involves possibly the greatest cliche of all time. That is the only clue I give.

To be fair to Brown, his book is very clever. I'd be proud if I came up with it. However, what I'd do differently if I then had to go and write it is read the first draft before sending it to my publisher. Dan clearly didn't. The prose is terrible. It's as if he typed it with a sledgehammer and his withholding of crucial information in order to effect an episode cliffhanger is horribly unsubtle. He keeps using phrases like "Langdon cringed" at very unfortunate moments, prompting my thought, "Yeah, you're not the only one, Rob." There are many mentions of the book Langdon himself has written; every time, I imagined how much more elegant his writing would be. Oh, and that's another thing: all the italics! For fuck's sake, you're not writing a blog, mate.

Surprisingly, I have little to say about the religious controversy. The book has undergone many debunkings, by churchies and secularies. The main problem seems to be the near-universal belief in academic circles that the whole Priory of Sion stuff was a hoax. The book has got me interested in the Church's history regardless, and it's good to see that it's sparked debate.

Dan Brown's fighting lawsuits against two people whose research he (allegedly) plagiarised. I suggest to the makers of Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars that they make it three. Those of you familiar with both it and the book will know exactly what I'm talking about.

The film's due out in May, with Tom Hanks playing George Stobbart Robert Langdon and Amelie playing Sophie Neveu. I'm disappointed that they've got Paul Bettany playing Silas, the albino monk; anyone with an ounce of sense would have given the part to Mel Smith.

I'm disappointed I didn't read the book earlier; I have two great, though late, spoof ideas. If I'd still been at Warwick, I would've so written The Van De Linde Code, a thriller set on campus where two students unlock the secret of the Library Holy Grail. I not only missed that chance but the chance of catching the publishers' 2005 stocking-filler season with my so-zeitgeist-it-hurts hip-hop/yoof-speak version, Da Da Vinci Code. Middle England would've lapped it up.

*Yet it also seems very cool these days to say "I know it's very cool these days to say x is shit, but..."

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