Saturday, 29 September 2007

We don't have homosexuals in our country...

Two days in London

Just back from two event-packed days in London. One’s sense of a city is necessarily skewed by what takes place in it, so right now the capital – after two book launches, a meeting with my editor at Picador and the person handling publicity for Little Monsters, the Baselitz exhibition at the Royal Academy and an excellent Chinese meal, not to speak of hours in bookshops and some ground-shaking flamenco (with tapas) - is a buzzing hive of culture, opportunity, food and ever-flowing wine. I can’t believe it’s the same place I sat and shivered and wept in for two whole winters (and more) of my life. But enough self-pity!

First up was the launch for Sea Stories, at Stanfords. This was a very civilised affair, with readings by four of the contributors and a perhaps ill-judged opportunity for questions. I find it hard to listen to prose being read aloud (though I’m perfectly happy – indeed eager - to do it myself!) and suspect that the best work often loses a lot of its resonance in the process, but all four writers convinced me that their stories were well worth the telling, with Sam Llewellyn’s dramatic, slightly staccato style, as though each phrase were a slap of wave on a hull, having, for me at least, the most impact. It’s odd, and amusing, to be in an anthology with writers you haven’t met, like the first day at a new school. There was a hilarious bit on Today the following morning, in which the Lord Admiral of the Fleet (possibly, I’m not very good on ranks), who clearly hadn’t read a word of the thing and more or less said as much – he referred to the contents of the book as ‘articles’ - waxed lyrical about the beauty of sunsets. Don’t let this put you off. You can get it from Amazon.

As far as Little Monsters goes, I now have bound proofs and can see it as a book for the first time. And hey! It is! (I’m far too excited by this to behave in a coherent or useful fashion here, so let’s move on. But it looks fantastic!)

The Baselitz show is a must. It’s extraordinary to see the paintings develop from the early post-war stuff to the latest remixes as he struggles to subvert figuration not through abstraction, which, seen from this perspective, begins to feel like a cop-out, but by cutting and splicing, upturning, reducing, through mockery and quotation and inanity and the sheer physicality of the medium. There’s a wonderful weight of paint and, when that’s not enough, the surface is gouged and carved, to be painted over and gouged again. His sculptures, like Matisse’s, are a painter’s sculptures, but none the less for that, while the final room shows an invigorating playfulness as he picks up and reworks the themes of the earlier stuff. Feet, not always attached, play an interesting ever-changing role throughout the show. Standing in the first hexagonal room you can see the original Oberon (this one here) to your right and the remix (used to advertise the show) to your left. Oddly, there’s no postcard available of the original, which is an astonishing painting, the four marginal heads, curious as aliens, staring down towards you, their only source of light. Don’t miss it. I mean that.

Then, on Thursday evening, Isobel Dixon launched her poetry collection,
A Fold in the Map. I’ll let the poetry speak for itself, as it does, with honesty and dignity and a hard-won lightness of touch. But I will say that I had a wonderful time, meeting new people and finding myself, for the first time since my old poetry reading days, in an environment where writing was simply something one did. I imagine the mood is similar at a plumbers’ convention, and any plumber who’s worked in isolation will feel the same mixture of exhilaration and fellowship that I did. Thank you, Isobel. You also made me laugh so much (I can’t remember why) that I snorted a glass of red wine down my front, although this was considerably later in the evening.

Customer care 2

I was having breakfast a few weeks ago at Birmingham New Street station (I had to change trains. Honestly), in a place called something like the Covent Garden Company. I'd just finished my Greek-style yogurt with sliced strawberry and crunchy bits when a woman came over to clear the table. She wiped the surface with her cloth. We had this exchange.

- Have a nice day.
- Thank you. You too.
- Chance'd be a fucking fine thing.

I treasure this moment of sincerity.

Talking of Birmingham New Street, I once did spend a night there. I was sixteen and I was hitching down to London with my best friend, Nigel Foster, from the Potteries, a first for both of us and conceived, I seem to remember, as a dry run for the great escape. It all got a bit too much for us by the time we'd reached the Second City, so we decided to cut our losses and go to a club called Mothers, which had quite a reputation at the time. (Does anyone remember it?) We saw Soft Machine (with, I think, Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers), and Derek and the Deviants; we were offered, but couldn't afford, drugs. After we'd been thrown out, we caught an all-night bus - with the intention of staying on it all night - but were thrown off that as well and ended up at the station. Where we tried to sleep but were constantly moved on by police. It was exciting in a sub-Kerouac way, and then depressing and extremely cold. No one tried to pick us up. In fact, the forces of evil were pretty much absent that night; no free samples from dealers, no friendly strangers with offers of beds. We caught the first train back to Stoke-on-Trent, where my father was waiting for us in the car. He didn't ask us if we'd had a nice day.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Customer care

My mother’s local supermarket, Somerfield, has rearranged its tills, dividing them not according to how many items you might need to pay for, but the container, trolley or basket, you’ve chosen to collect them in. The trolley tills are where you’d expect tills to be; the basket tills have been siphoned off behind a barrier laden with the sort of goods some supermarket designer must have deemed the most probable impulse buys for basket carriers. I didn’t know this until today. I was emptying my basket on the belt when the woman told me her till was for trolleys only.

- Why? I said.

- Because baskets are over there.

- But why?

- Because I can only take for trolleys.

- But I’ve got enough stuff here to fill a trolley.

- But you haven’t got a trolley. I can’t do baskets. I can only do trolleys.

- But there’s no one here, I say. And there’s a queue over there.

- I’m sorry, but I’ve been told. I can’t do baskets.

- Can you change this? I said, offering her a two pound coin.

- What for?

- Because then I can go outside and get a trolley and put all these things into it and then I’ll be able to pay here.

She thought about this for a moment, apparently on the point of saying that she couldn't do change, then gave me two one pound coins. I left my basket on the floor and went outside to get a trolley. When I came back the till was closed.

This story is true. Up to the point at which I claim to have said, Why. Because I didn’t say anything. I stomped across and joined the basket queue. And I’m still angry.


Watching the South Bank Show about Joan Didion, there’s a sequence of scenes of student disorder in San Francisco in the late 60s. The soundtrack chosen for this was a track from archetypal New Yorkers, the Velvet Underground, specifically, Shiny Boots of Leather. Didn’t this strike anyone as odd, or inappropriate? It’s like accompanying film of the Brighton Conservative Conference with Ghost Town by the Specials.

On second thoughts, not.


My mother’s neighbour brought round some photographs yesterday morning of her daughter and son-in-law’s holiday in Devon. One of the photographs showed the son-in-law performing for the camera, leaning at a dangerous angle on a flight of steps, supported by a hand rail. It isn’t clear where he is: the building behind him might be a piece of industrial archaeology or an abandoned nineteenth century church. Immediately to his right is a pair of Romanesque windows with stone frames and someone, with great care, has decorated each arch with the word fuck, a detail his wife, my neighbour’s daughter, clearly didn’t see when she took the picture.

Friday, 21 September 2007


...not electronically though I may deserve it, but by Elizabeth Baines. See her post, explaining the set up, here. Briefly, I have to share eight random and/or embarrassing facts and/or moments about myself with you, then tag eight more people to do the same thing. It's a sort of pyramid shaming device, which looks as though it might be quite good fun, though I'd always thought that writing fiction was the most efficient way of broadcasting this kind of information. (See the details on cruising in Rome in my story in NW15 for proof of this.) Still, I'm ready to give it a go, a little later than promised. Here are the instructions:

"Each player starts with eight random facts/habits or embarrassing things about themselves. People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names. Don't forget to leave them a comment telling them they're tagged, and to read your blog."

Here goes:

1. On particularly hot days, particularly when I'm invigilating exams, my Birkenstock sandals fart.

2. I was once arrested for stealing a milk bottle (full) from a step. The fine was £6 plus the cost of a bottle of gold top. I later used the summons to make a very badly-rolled joint.

3. I have bags full of second-hand clothes in my wardrobe, bought at the local Sunday market and never worn or, indeed, looked at a second time. I must throw them out.

4. I can't bear Joseph Conrad.

5. As a student I once said that I really liked Heinz spaghetti with lots of grated cheese in it, claiming that it was as good as 'the real thing', which I'd never actually eaten. I recklessly offered to prepare it for a bunch of friends, who said yes. I'll never forget the sinking feeling as I dished it out from the pan. One of them, now famous and a bit of a foodie, has had the generosity never to mention this. (He may have forgotten.)

6. Rings make my fingers look infantile.

7. I was deflowered by a man of the cloth.

8. When I was nineteen I turned down an offer from Lawrence Ferlinghetti himself to work at City Lights Bookshop. I've never regretted it.

I'm not sure I can think of eight people. Let's see.

David Isaak
Kay Sexton
Vanessa Gebbie

No, I can't. That's it. But I'll keep on thinking.

Language slaves

An update on the situation of university language teachers in Italy, otherwise known as lettori. The academic year looks set to begin with the usual mood of rage tempered by resignation as emails from colleagues throughout Italy relate the new attacks on the category, almost but not entirely composed of non-Italians, by the ill-educated, largely unpublished, downright stupid, short-tempered, wilfully or idly vicious caste of native professors and their administrative lapdogs.

Three emblematic situations.

In Viterbo, despite pressure from the unions and lawyers, lettori continue to be obliged to clock in, unlike all other teaching staff, because they aren't considered teaching staff, and to fill in registers and reports of their activities, unlike all other administrative staff, because what they do is teach. For the director of the university language centre, a woman called Alba Graziano who's published a couple of books on George Meredith (one of them in a series edited by, er, Alba Graziano), lettori are tecnico-amministrativo personnel, and that's that, so fuck logic and the evidence of her own eyes. She probably wouldn't recognise a language teacher if it hit her in the face (don't tempt me), but she knows enough about protecting her turf not only to force her language slaves to have their activities timed like office staff, but also to inform them that they're overpaid, under-worked and, in the face of the university contract, which presumably she hasn't - or can't - read, part-time workers, with all the effect this has on pensions rights, and so on. I don't know how much they get in Viterbo, but it's unlikely to be more than the €1,150 I get each month. That's right, about £700. Poor sods. No wonder they're demoralised.

In Rome, a colleague is told that she has to come into the university three days a week to teach her hours, something she's been doing with great success for the last few years in two days. She refuses, pointing out to the rabid barone - responsible, god help them, for timetabling - that her contract says nothing about the number of days she has to teach but only the number of hours. All hell breaks loose. Meetings are held. At the highest level. There is much shouting in corridors as short-fused middle-aged women with too much power and money face the prospect of paradigm shift. The university isn't concerned with the quality of my colleague's teaching, which is recognised as being exceptional, but with punishment and the blind wielding of power. Ironically, the stick it's chosen to beat this particular drum (and colleague) is the contract used for the short-term recruitment of professors. That's right. Professors. Sounds familiar? When it's in the interests of the university to treat lettori like clerks, they're clerks. When, less often, it's in the interests of the university to treat them like professors (i.e. when office staff get a raise and teachers don't), they're suddenly, briefly, hiked up a notch. Until the next time they ask for a piece of chalk.

In Bologna, a colleague asked to have extra holiday to make up for holiday lost through illness this summer, as stipulated in her tecnico-amministrativo contract. She was told that she can't take any holiday during the period of teaching activity. Why not? Why doesn't this contract apply to me? Because I'm a teacher? Well, yes. Er, no. But I can't have time off because I should be teaching? I didn't say teaching! So what do I do? Whatever you do, you can't have time off.

Heads, they win. Tails, you lose.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Mortadella turns

The much assailed Italian PM Romano Prodi, often referred to - without affection - by his opponents as Mortadella, turned on his voters a couple of days ago from the only authoritative pulpit available: Porta a Porta, Bruno Vespa's chat show-cum-political forum for the masses and Berlusconi's favourite soapbox.

Probably in response to recent and entirely justified attacks on misuse of public money, lack of accountability, corruption within parliament, etc. Prodi pointed out that the kettle of the average Italian was in no position to call the pot of his/her elected government black. He didn't refer to anything specific, aiming his comments at sons following in their well-heeled father's professional footsteps, an Italian practice that goes back to the guilds of renaissance Florence and before. But he was clearly thinking of, among other things, the epidemic of bought exams in universities like Bari and Messina as the new academic year kicks in. This, like flu, happens every year but more people seem to have been caught with their cheating little fists in the honey pot this autumn and the university of Bari has just annulled its entry tests to medicine and dentistry, making a lot of doctors' and dentists' aspiring offspring very unhappy indeed.

Anybody who's taken a state exam in Italy will know that no ruse is too complicated or absurd (or expensive) not to be considered as an alternative to studying. Dictionaries in pockets are child's play in a country where mothers sew pouches inside their sons' trousers to hold microscopically reduced cribs. Cell phones, needless to say, haven't helped. But there isn't always need for subtlety. In some cases candidates come into the room with older, wiser heads who simply do the exam for them. In others, they wander outside to consult the books they need, protected by a doting grandmother in the corridor. Attempts to discourage copying are often defeated in court, which all too often prefer casuistry to common sense. A high court decision some years ago said that it wasn't enough to catch a student with photocopied material in his pocket; he had to be seen to be using it. In exam rooms in Italy, where people are crammed in like illegal immigrants on a fishing ketch, this is damned near impossible.

I remember during a language exam some years ago I was sure I'd spotted a small bilingual dictionary between the sturdy thighs of a female candidate. I told my female colleague, who went to ask her to hand it over. The student refused and we were treated to the unseemly sight of my colleague trying to wrestle her thighs apart, until someone pointed out that the girl would sue the university for assault if she didn't back off.

Monday, 17 September 2007

This is not a time for dreaming... the name of a video we saw this summer at the Beaubourg. It's on the lower of the two floors, halfway down on the left and was made by Pierre Huyghe, an artist I've never come across before. I always find videos in galleries difficult because of the way they impose their time scale on you; they won't let you dawdle or speed past them after a cursory glance They have the advantage and disadvantage of narrative, or narrative potential. But this one captured and held me. It re-enacts Le Corbusier's experiences at Harvard (which must have been dreadful if this work is anything to go by) and uses string puppets. There are so many ways in which the work delights: the technical skill of the puppeteer, the emblematic yet personalised nature of the puppets, the teasing way in which it satisfies and fails to satisfy our search for narrative as it veers from one kind of representation to another, from (puppet) naturalism to symbol and archetype. If I remember correctly, Harvard is represented as an enormous malevolent black bird stalking across the stage. At one point the puppets manipulate their own puppets. There are moments of great lyricism as what seems to be an ecological undercurrent finds expression in the growth of a tree. I don't have any photographs of it to show you (obviously), so you'll have to go and see it yourself. You won't regret it.

Friday, 14 September 2007

A rose is a rose

Giuseppe made friends with an Italo-French florist fifty yards down the road from the flat we were in, in Boulevard Saint Germain, and managed to scrounge three separate bunches of roses during our two-week stay. They were just the way he likes them, blowsy and open, with the petals about to fall. He calls them wild, although there is probably nothing growing that's less wild than this kind of highly cultivated rose, with the obvious exception of much of the food we're daily expected to eat.

Hausmann rules, but not always

One of the joys of Paris - of central Paris, at least - is the endless variation on the theme of Hausmann; street after street, quartier after quartier, of houses that follow the same essential rules of architecture, yet each with its je ne sais quoi, a colour, a detail, a proportion of window, almost identical yet not quite; harmony without regimentation, simply because it's better that way. It makes sense.

And then you turn a corner and see two little buildings like this, squeezed into a wedge of space that's good for nothing else, idiosyncratic, unplanned, but still with the single line of guttering to unite them, and the garret window, and the green of the smaller façade tuned into the probably mildewed roof tiles of its slightly more prosperous neighbour, although both of them have almost certainly seen better days.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Burning hills

I wrote about the fires that were devastating the hills around Fondi earlier this summer. You can find what I said here. This photograph was taken a couple of weeks after that, towards the end of July, as we were walking towards our house one night, it must have been around two o'clock. The flames effectively frame the hill, which reaches almost 500 metres above sea level. We phoned the emergency services and a harried fireman said they were putting out fires all along the coast and they'd do their best. This is what the hill looks like now.

Writing as madness

This summer, I saw a painting I'd never seen before, in the Centre Pompidou. Entitled Peinture (Ecriture rose) and covering a fair-sized chunk of wall (maybe three metres by four), it's the work of Simon Hantai and was done in 1958-59, which makes it almost half a century old. It's remarkable for a number of reasons, none of which can be deduced from the very poor photograph of part of it that you can see above, perhaps the most obvious being the fact that the colour pink, despite the work's title, isn't used at any point (as Helene Cixous has pointed out). The symbols on the canvas are references to earlier works but the body of the painting, its essential surface, is composed of writing. Hantai spent a year on the picture, working each morning to cover the entire canvas with meticulously copied extracts from philosophical and religious texts. The effect, of course, is to annihilate their meaning, but it's also a monument to the word as object in the same way that anything produced by a pre-Gutenberg copyist might be considered to be.

Two or three days later we were in the Arab Institute near Notre Dame, an extraordinary building containing a small but fine collection. Among the exhibits was an eighteenth century Iranian copy of the Koran, inscribed on a roll with the same kind of maniacal devotion as Hantai's, and, whatever its intentions may have been - and they were surely diametrically opposed to those of Hantai - the final effect is remarkably similar. In both cases, the actual sense of the word is subsumed in the representation of it as sign. The purpose of this Koran must have been to make the holy word available to its readers, but the manner of its transmittal renders it useless other than as totem. It disappears into the paradoxical beauty of the work as completely as Hantai's religious and philosophical texts, written in what appears to be a variety of coloured inks - red, blue, green, but never pink.

Penis, Paris

The image is rather ghostly, but you should be able to make out the form of a rather substantial male member on this toilet-paper roll. It's isn't remarkable in itself. The penis, after all, is to graffiti in public toilets as Paris Hilton is to gossip magazines. But it was rather odd to find it in the Ladies at Montparnasse cemetery. Don't ask.

Racist lunatic arrested

Good news from Brussels (and how often do you hear that?), as one of the most laughably despicable figures in Italian politics gets picked up by police after attempting to take part in an illegal demonstration against the 'islamisation of Europe'. Mario Borghezio, the ranting turd to the right of the photograph, is a member of the Northern League and, to Italy's shame, a European MP. He became known some years ago when he began to disinfect the train seats used by black women so that Italians could sit on them without dirtying their nylons, an action that should have led to disgrace and political oblivion but, among leghisti, had the opposite effect. He's the kind of person you remember, and remember avoiding, from school: the playground bully who picks on the really really weak then runs to teacher for protection. He despises authority when he's preaching to the racist rabble who support him, yet invokes it the minute he's in trouble (you can enjoy the vision of him bending to knuckle-lick the pope on his rudimentary official site). He's all in favour of violent 'solutions' when addressing the mob, and was once arrested for having set fire to the shanty home of some Romanian immigrants during a torch-lit march, a fire from which the Romanians barely escaped with their lives (two months in jail, never served), but a snivelling crybaby if anyone slaps him. And as an Italian Euro MP, he's among the highest-paid politicians in the world. Poveraccio.

UPDATE: Diddles wasn't given a glass of water for five whole hours. Altogether now - Poveraccio.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

A roof of one's own all'italiana

Just over six years ago, in late June 2001, work on our house was interrupted by the unexpected visit of a local policeman (vigile). Apparently there'd been a complaint from someone, we weren't told who, that we were about to add an entire floor to the house. This was unlikely; the house was already four floors high and we barely had enough money to restore what we had, let alone add to it. What we had done was add what's known here as a cordolo, a band of reinforced concrete that runs along the top of the outer walls, holding the entire structure together and providing a solid base for a new roof. We would happily have done without this; it was expensive and slightly raised the roof, something we felt would reduce the charm of the rooms on the final floor. But our builder and surveyor both insisted and we fell in with their plans. It's hard to find a restored house in Fondi that doesn't have a cordolo, after all. They're as much a feature of the town as the massive cobbles or the old women selling vegetables from their doorsteps.

But the vigile, spurred on by his zealous, newly-appointed superior, decided we'd committed an abuso edilizio. This term covers everything from opening up a foot-square window in a wall to building a three-storied seaside house with mooring point for a couple of yachts in a national park. Berlusconi's villas (and private mausoleum) are notorious abusi, though not much seems to happen as a result. We were taken to a lawyer, the brother-in-law of our builder. He said we shouldn't be worried, that everything would sort itself out, although how this might happen wasn't clear. Two days later, the main door to the house had a police notice attached to it saying that the house was sotto sequestro. In other words, we couldn't even enter the building, never mind continue with the work.

We weren't living there yet, but we'd planned to move in that summer. Only hours before the vigile turned up, we'd carted into the house a pseudo-baroque (1940s) sofa and armchairs we'd found in a second-hand furniture shop on the Pontina. We had to leave our flat in Rome to make room for some friends of ours, so much of the first floor was filled with boxes of books, clothes, stuff, a chandelier Giuseppe had bought from a flea market before we even had a house to hang it in, rugs, beds, kitchen tables and chairs. The house contained everything we owned and loved.

It took us a week or so to have the seals removed from the door, at least for the house's owner. Me. It took over a month to get permission to enter the lower floors and carry on with the work. We were lucky; we moved back into the flat we'd had before, and sold to a friend, or slept downstairs at Sally's. We watched the work continue, the sun beating down into roofless rooms, the shadows of the beams moving across the floors. And then the weather changed.

We applied for permission to put on a temporary roof as rain soaked the newly-laid floors, sank deep into the walls, gathered in puddles, bounced off the marble stairs,warped the new doors. We were told that the half-dozen wooden beams constituted sufficient protection. We tried sheets of plastic, but the wind ripped them off. We tried to waterproof the floors, pretend we had a terrace surrounded by walls with windows and doors, but the rain seeped through. One autumn night,
we were lying in bed in our borrowed flat, unable to sleep for the storm. We pulled macs on over our pyjamas, slipped flip-flops onto our feet; ten minutes later we found ourselves sweeping water out of what was supposed to be a bedroom, shivering, drenched to the skin, crying with rage at the hopelessness of it all. The following day, we put on a temporary roof.

After that, it became what the lawyer calls 'tutta carta', an endless accumulation of documents and applications and statements and testimonials, the file getting fatter and older as the years passed. We thought we might be able to take advantage of an amnesty under Berlusconi 2 (I know, I'm ashamed), but it would have cost more than the roof itself and besides, we only had to wait another year or so for the case to fall off the radar. The statute of limitations for abuso edilizio is five years, but this was extended for those who didn't take advantage of the amnesty. OK, we thought, six years. We're nearly there. And then, this June, we were.

Just over a week ago, the house bell rang. Giuseppe went downstairs to open the door while I squinted down, as I usually do, from my study balcony to see who was there. I recognised the vigile at once. He'd come to see if we'd done any work on the roof. Well of course we had. He said he'd be back with a camera. We went to the lawyer. The lawyer said that the statute of limitation applied to the abuso but not to the violation of the sequestro, which was subsequent to the abuso. How subsequent? he wanted to know. When we told him he said that with any luck the statute of limitation would apply to our second crime if the police didn't decide to speed the whole process up, which was unlikely. I use the word crime because violating seals is, apparently, a criminal offence. In theory, though only that, I could go to jail. In practice, I'll have to give the lawyer his usual whack and may be fined. In the meantime, I have a record.

Two days later, the vigile came back and took his photographs. And now we wait. Contrary to logic and common sense, the longer the business takes, the more it suits us. But, of course, we continue to live beneath a roof of corrugated bituminous stuff that's designed to be used under roof tiles, not in their place. We continue to live in half a house. The hardest thing to stomach is that there seems to be no way to unite the requirements and processes of the law with the facts of the case. No way to simply bring a judge into the house to see what's been done and listen to why we did it.

The biggest irony is that, since we were charged, the use of a cordolo has been accepted by the local administration, which now recommends its use on old houses in the centro storico of Fondi. Unfortunately, this eminently sensible decision isn't retroactive.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Something Rich and Strange

Feeling nautical? Maybe you should read Sea Stories, an anthology of, er, stories about the sea, published by the National Maritime Museum to celebrate its seventieth anniversary. The collection contains a story of mine, entitled Something Rich and Strange, as well as work by a host of others. You can pre-order it here.

And if you'd like to come to the launch (never has the term seemed more appropriate), at Stanfords Travel Bookstore, in Covent Garden on 26 September or Bristol the day after, visit their site for details. I'll be at the London one. I should really be at the Bristol date because my great-grandfather was harbour master there, but I'll be at another book launch (believe me, this is not the way I normally behave). My agent and friend, Isobel Dixon, will be celebrating the publication
by Salt of her poetry collection, A Fold in the Map. More information here.

A l'eau. Ces't l'heure...

The last word on Larry "Wide Stance" Craig?

This comes from Queerty, via Joe.My.God (so you may have seen it already). You may need to click on it to read the fine print.

Friday, 7 September 2007


This bar is just over the road from La Maffiosa, on the corner of rue des Dames and rue Nollet, where we stayed last year. Its slightly down-at-heel exterior makes it look as though it's been like this for years, but it was actually being put together by a group of people last summer. We walked past every day and watched them working on it in a touchingly amateurish fashion, wielding tools with a sort of wonder at their ability to perform the allotted task, hammering and sawing and painting in passionate, neurotic flurries before opening a bottle and sitting around one of the tables to laugh and look anxious and drink, covering scraps of paper with figures and sketchy plans of the place. Never has a drinking hole been christened with such regularity, from conception to birth.

We missed the opening night because it took place on the day we left. It seemed impossible they'd be ready - the tables and chairs were stacked at the back, the lighting was hanging from the walls, the paint on the shelves behind the bar still looked wet. But we're assured they were, and the evening was a great success. Now it's settled into the landscape, attracting its natural constituency, identical to the people who created it.

It's fifty yards from another bar which caters to northern African transvestites, off-duty before heading back to Pigalle, I imagine, or Avenue du Clichy. We had a drink there one rainy afternoon last summer, somewhat against my better judgement. The middle-aged woman behind the bar, generously bosomed and squeezed into a tight black woollen dress, seemed thrilled to see us, perhaps assuming we were there to raise the tone of the place. She scurried across to our table with a dishcloth and a plate of nuts we hadn't asked for. She was about to put the plate down when I
reached for my umbrella and knocked the nuts all over the just-wiped table. With a nonchalance I still admire, she gathered them up in her hand and put them back on the plate. Merci, madame.

I didn't have to eat them, I know. I could have left them on the plate, as Giuseppe did. It was my fault and no one else's that I spent the next two days poised between bed and bathroom, my only significant activity projectile vomiting.

La Maffiosa (sic)

Back to Paris, where we saw this sign outside a pizzeria in rue des Dames. It's extraordinary the extent to which criminality can acquire a veneer of folksy charm. Who knows how long it will be before we see a cartoon image of Mr Weeny the pederast (with dog) outside an amusement arcade (if that's what they're called now)?

Let's hope they spell it right.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

I am human just like them

Johann Hari may have got it wrong about Iraq (and, if I remember correctly, he's acknowledged this more than once) but he's spot on when he talks about homophobia. His article in today's Independent, examining the way gay kids are the victims of bullying in schools, points the finger not only at the bullies themselves (victims of food additives?), but, more significantly, at teachers, who fail to do anything, blame the victim or actually support and substantiate anti-gay behaviour, and, of course, at the government, which seems to think the problem doesn't exist.

He's particularly incensed by the fact that homophobic bullying is more common in faith schools. This is hardly surprising; monotheism doesn't have a great record when it comes to recognising gay rights. But I wonder what would happen if someone suggested that the government fund, or even recognise, a school for gay kids along the same lines as those used for faith schools. It might be a ghetto (though this would be no truer of a gay school than of any other selective structure - including one based on class; it's significant that ghetto is only ever used pejoratively), but I'd rather be in a ghetto than standing alone in a hostile playground.

And if you aren't convinced, read this suicide text, quoted by Hari, sent to his sister by Jonathan Reynolds, a 15-year-old boy who'd been bullied after coming out to friends:
"Tell everyone that this is for anybody who eva said anything bad about me, see I do have feelings too. Blame the people who were horrible and injust 2 me. This is because of them, I am human just like them. None of you blame yourself, mum, dad, Sam and the rest of the family. This is not because of you."
Ten minutes later he'd been sliced in half by a train.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007


If you'd like to read Entertaining Friends, the story of mine that was included in the Granta/British Council anthology, New Writing 15, click here. You can also enjoy the glossary, which explains, among other things, details of Roman topography, past and present, and the meaning of punctum.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Good riddance to...

...Leona Helmsley, the hatchet-faced parasite who said that paying taxes was for the 'little people' and left her dog $12 million. Maybe they'll bag her ashes in one of those neat little sachets designed for pooches' poo.

Little Monsters: proofs and covers

I've just been told that Picador plans to produce bound proofs of Little Monsters, rather than page proofs. I'm one step nearer to seeing the book as, well, a book. This means I'll be able to wrap my single copy of the jacket around the novel it's intended for, rather than other books that have more or less the same dimensions. In Italy, I've been using my Collected Poems of Cavafy. Here, in England, where I'm watching, among other things, X Factor with my mother, it's a 41-year-old biography of Van Gogh entitled the The Man Who Loved the Sun. It's hard not to read some meaning into this. Tomorrow I'll be with Jane in London and I'll have to see what she has on her shelves that fits so that we can admire the jacket's clean lines and singing colours and overall disquieting quality (everyone tells me; I'm delighted) as they should be admired. Unconditionally.

I'm getting excited and nervous. I've spent the last few days reading book reviews and literary articles of one sort or another in the UK press, performing a similar operation to that of wrapping a jacket around someone else's book, i.e. replacing the author's name with mine to see how it feels.