Thursday, 29 March 2007

I'll Put You On My Blog

Kenneth Williams, that most memorable of comic actors and raconteurs, apparently used to threaten anyone who was a tad recalcitrant towards him that he would 'put them in his diary'. I must be one of the few people who have actually slogged through all 800-plus pages of The Kenneth Williams Diaries, and I can attest that they are monumentally dull - only my compulsive need to finish books ever saw me through to the end. (How can so flamboyant a personality have kept such supremely boring diaries?) But I have at least picked up one thing from Kennie. Now, whenever anyone is acting out of line, I go into my best sock-in-mouth Godfather mumble and issue the terrifying threat: 'If you're not very careful, I'll put you on my blog'. It's perhaps not quite the equivalent of a firm promise of kneecapping, but I find it keeps the rowdier elements in line.

On the subject of Kenneth Williams, it's interesting that after his demise he was hailed as a unique talent superior to such cheap camp imitations as John Inman and Larry Grayson. Yet now with John Inman's death, we find that he too is hailed as the stand-out talent in the unlikely cult hit Are You Being Served? It seems that there's nothing like death to get a person a bit of overdue appreciation. Personally, I can't get enough of the great British tradition of camped-up double entendre and have a good mind to form my very own Charles Hawtrey Appreciation Society (Membership: One). But then again I'm also probably the only person on the planet who thinks that George Lazenby was the best James Bond - but that's a long story I had better leave for another time.

Hey, campers, don't be worried by my little blog. As Yellow Pages say, we're not just here for the nasty things like a blocked drain, but for the good things as well. And to prove it, I hereby wish to confer some awards. We have the Oscars, the Baftas, the Emmies, the Tonys. We have gongs dished out by governments and international writing awards, but really the only awards that matter are the ones that are dished out by this website (though there's no prize money, sorry - though I might run to a pint if you catch me in a beneficent mood).

A few years ago I actually tried to get an honour from the British government for my friend David Jack. David founded some thirty years ago the magazine Kansai Time Out, which has been such an essential bridge between the foreign community and the Japanese not only in Kansai but throughout Japan. He has been the driving force behind countless community and charitable projects across the world in places as diverse as Scotland, Canada, Bangladesh and Hong Kong. He's a person I admire, someone who manages to combine a shrewd business mind with an inspirational social vision. He's also provided the platform for countless writers to explore their passions and actually get their scribblings into print.

Some of the most pleasant experiences I've had in Japan are when I've visited David at his thatched farmhouse in the countryside, ate simple fare with him and rambled around his fields, being told about the latest incursion of wild boar into his lands and finding out how his farming and pottery projects are getting on. The rest of the time I get emails suddenly telling me he is up to some film project in East Timor or off to visit some deprived villages in Bolivia.

A few years ago I wrote to the British Consul in Osaka suggesting the British government confer a long-overdue honour. But I was told that I would have to do all the paperwork myself, getting others to support my recommendations. In the end it was all too much bother. For one thing I feel ambivalent about the whole honour system anyway. Be assured that this site is dedicated to the conversion of Britain to a fully democratic republic (I would say the overthrow of the monarchy, but you never know what MI5 are reading) so receiving a badge from Elizabeth Windsor is not exactly part of our programme. Plus, I have a sneaking sympathy with Michael Winner who dismissed his proposed award of an MBE as the type of thing given to toilet cleaners. And I got the feeling that David probably couldn't be bothered with an honour anyway...

So let's cut out the middle woman and just say that this blog site, which is an independent republic seceded from the union, hereby confers upon David Jack a, I mean a lifetime consulship.

And my second consulship goes to Mr. Tago Kichiro. Kichiro was a producer for NHK in London, but gave up this prestigious position a few years ago to pursue his ambition of being an author. As well as penning numerous illuminating articles in the local Japanese press, he has written three wonderful books to date, the first two about Soseki's experiences in Britain and the latest about the Hungarian pianist Lili Kraus and the extraordinary saga of her internment by the Japanese on Java during the Second World War. The book (『リリー、モーツァルトを弾いて下さい』 ) is part of my current bedtime reading.

Kichiro is not only a terrific writer, but is also a charming, kind and fascinating man. I greatly hope his books achieve the success (a film perhaps?) they so richly deserve.

OK, so that's our first officers of the republic. I'll keep you posted on any more appointments.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

A Good Ole Punch Up

Last week I received a nicely worded rejection letter from The Guardian in response to a suggestion I had made to them for a new satirical series. The most remarkable thing about this was how long it took to get a response. I had to hazily cast my mind back into the mists of time to when I actually made the suggestion - October last year I think - meaning that it had lurked in a very deep in-tray somewhere for five months. This almost equals the performance of Kodansha who managed to respond a full year after I had sent them the manuscript of The Tower of London telling me they might be interested in publishing it. By that time the book was on the cusp of being published by Peter Owen. I wonder if there is a publisher out there who is currently penning a letter along the lines of:

Dear J.K. Rowling,

Apologies for the delay in responding to your letter. We have been extremely busy here. However we are pleased to inform you that we might be interested in publishing your Harry Potter book...

On the subject of The Guardian, Peter Owen dropped me a line yesterday telling me that The Guardian is doing a big promotion on the fifty most important books of the twentieth century and wondering whether I would like to plug works by Soseki and Mishima. I'm not exactly a fan of the latter, but I duly obliged. The shortlist will apparently be chosen by a panel of 'experts' (which usually means people who know precisely bugger-all about world literature and want to bore you off your chair about Proust and Joyce for the millionth time). I've seen at least two of these 'books of the century' promotions before (one by The Sunday Times and one by Penguin Modern Classics) and they both managed to completely ignore the entire literature of Asia and Africa. The Sunday Times I think concluded that The Lord of the Rings was the greatest book ever written. Of course it is - if you happen to be an educationally challenged elf who has trouble reading.

It's been an interesting week. On Friday I was invited to a corporate hospitality day to celebrate St.Patrick's Day at a bar on Canal Street in Manchester. The drinking began at 2pm and in true Shane MacGowan/ Brendan Behan fashion we had the bar drunk dry of Guinness by 8pm, after which I repaired to my fine local. The following evening however I got my comeuppance when my jacket, containing my house and office keys, mobile and other things was seemingly stolen from the same establishment and I had to limp in the rain to a friend's house generally cursing humanity. At 1am I faced the grim prospect of having all the locks changed on my house by an emergency locksmith, but then, wonder of wonders, my fine friend Ken received a call on his mobile announcing that the jacket had been picked up by mistake and would be returned to the pub if I could be standing in front of it in half an hours time. Relief was not the word. And faith in humanity restored, I naturally had to celebrate St.Patrick for a third time with a few slow pints on Sunday...

My favourite news item of the week is that Gabriel Garcia Marquez has patched up his thirty year feud with Mario Vargos Llosa after the latter punched Marquez on the nose. Don't get me wrong - I wasn't pleased about the reconciliation, it was just good to know that someone had clocked Marquez. I don't know if it's still the case now but back when I was an undergraduate it was thought that the two great gods of modern literature were Marquez and Milan Kundera and you would meet no end of silly, wispy girls telling you that their favourite book was Love in a Time of Cholera. I naturally felt obliged to read most of Marquez's novels and absolutely everything by Milan Kundera. Now looking back, I reflect that I can't remember a single thing about any of these Kundera books and while Marquez is somewhat better and slightly more memorable, he is still enormously over-rated. The final straw for me came when I read that Marquez was the favourite writer of that uber-slimeball Bill Clinton.

But reading about the fisticuffs between Marquez and Llosa made me warm to them both. There seems to be something about the Hispanic World so that each country manages to produce just one writer of international fame (Mexico - Paz; Peru - Llosa; Argentina - Borges etc) and I always feel acutely my general ignorance, but reading all these Marquez novels somehow put me off exploring South American literature for a while. Yet reading about how Llosa and Marquez squared up to one another made me think of Hemingway and Fitzgerald in the boxing ring. Hemingway always used to compare writers to boxers and would jokingly refer to who would beat whom in a bout (Hemingway was good over three rounds, Tolstoy over fifteen and Shakespeare was the champion). So it's good to see life imitating art by showing that Marquez would have probably emerged with a black eye.

Still, as literature often tends to be far too twee, self-absorbed and removed from visceral passions, it's nice to picture Llosa and Marquez squaring off - I'm sure their books were better off for it.

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Sven and the Shining Path

Far be it from me to divert my many thousands of devoted readers away from this hallowed blog, but I feel I must insert a plug for the blogsite of my dear friend, Mr. Sven Serrano, one of the most entertaining personalities I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. Sven (or the Svenster as we like to call him) is not a man who can not be summed up in a few words. He is an American of Finnish and Mexican parentage who has lived in Osaka, Japan, for more than fifteen years and has a delightful Chinese wife (his fourth wife, but hey, who's counting), an encyclopedic knowledge of twentieth century political history, world soccer and a strange attachment to something called the Church of the Subgenius. We've been friends for over ten years and I can hereby vouchsafe that he's a general wit, raconteur, incorrigible barfly and all in all wonderful company. I think it's worth flying round the world just to go out on a night in Shinsaibashi, Osaka's entertainment district, with him, which is something I look forward to every time I'm in Japan. I also had the pleasure a few years back of flying from the UK to Shanghai to attend his Chinese nuptials and one day I would love to take a road trip in Mexico with him.

Anyone who knows the Svenster will agree that he is the most talented person who has somehow or other not quite found the right vehicle for his talent so it's great to see the boy in full flow these days on his blog. He has an entirely separate blog devoted to soccer and the dozen or so teams around the world he supports (it compensates for not having a truly decent team like Manchester United to apply his affection...), but I shall direct you instead to his main blog where he indulges his other passions, such as his great hatred for the Bush regime and his investigations into such things as Korean pink parlours. His recent posts on the American elections were much better than all the tired articles you find on contemporary politics in the centre pages of newspapers.

Sven should really have his own column in some newspaper, but whenever I encourage him with such things he complains of an acute lack of Sitzfleisch (apparently the German word for the ability to sit still and concentrate) and starts talking about the Russian novel Oblomov whose eponymous hero was apparently something of an archetypal loafer. Sven proudly proclaims his 'pursuit of slack' and his determination to take 'the shining path of least resistance', which seems to mean not putting yourself under too much pressure and only doing things when the urge strikes.

I have to admit that this latter phrase has now entered my own daily vocabulary. Now when I'm stressed and faced with some difficult problem and I opt to take the easiest solution, I'll raise a mysterious eyebrow and say to a bemused companion 'I think I'll go for the Shining Path on this one' or 'the Shining Path is calling to me...' As I get older, it seems the Shining Path is the one I most find myself walking down. But when Sven does raise himself out of apathy and lets loose with full verbal flourish, then the results really are a delight to read.

Write like an Egyptian

I'm still recovering from the shock of watching the repeat of The Great Global Warming Swindle. It was only as recently as last June when I was first introduced (by my fine friend and uber-entrepreneur Simon Moran) to the concept of 'carbon neutrality' and since then - non withstanding my intercontinental jogs - I have tried to do my little bit for the troposphere, convincing myself that turning off every last appliance from stand-by mode would help to stave off Armageddon for at least another five years or so. But now I too am wondering whether this whole man-made global warming malarkey is all so much hot air (ha, ha). The truly spooky thing is that nearly of the media has been presenting the whole CO2 emission equals Waterworld fantasy as inescapable scientific fact.

I wade through hundreds of pages of newspapers every week, but I'm beginning to suspect that I'm wasting my time and that all the great issues of our time - Global Warming, Al-Qaeda, the War on Terror, the Iraq War - are really the very best in modern fiction. I finished reading a few weeks back a little book I picked up on my New Year trip to Luxor, Egypt, called The Illusion of Progress in the Arab World. The author Galal Amin displays a monumental self-regard in his attempt to defend cronyism, conservatism and corruption in the Middle East, but on one point I think he might be on to something. He compares the American obsession with the War on Terror as the equivalent of the daily 'Two Minutes Hate' in Orwell's 1984 and speculates whether Al-Qaeda actually exists at all. Given that the entire argument for the invasion of Iraq was based on a pack of lies, I wonder whether both the War on Terror and man-made Global Warming frenzy are nothing more than mirages cooked up by an incompetent and corrupt government and a hysterical media.

On the subject of Egypt, I should explain my recent obsession with Arabic literature. We should all have some kind of obsessive Causabonish, over-vaunting project that has not the slightest chance of ever reaching fruition. (Readers of The Tower of London will recognise an allusion here to Soseki's tutor William Craig and his 30-year-plus Shakespeare Lexicon project). Mine is an on-off attempt to try and remap world literature from a non-Eurocentric perspective. I've always thought there really must be more to literature than reading another poll telling us that the greatest authors are Tolstoy, Flaubert and Jane Austen. Trying to get to the bottom of what the true map of world literature looks like is, however, a daunting task. For a start, there's about ten lifetimes of reading to be done. Then you're always in the hands of the translators. For example, I've no doubt that the Chinese writer Lu Xun is one of the great writers of the twentieth century, but all the English translations of his works are dire.

Anyway with Arabic literature the main man of the last century is Naguib Mahfouz so I've been munching through a few of his works. I started off with Children of the Alley which is incredibly good. It's Mahfouz's allegorical retelling of the story of mankind and the rise of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and modern science. Excited by this, and reading reports of Mahfouz as being the 'Shakespeare of the Middle East', I started stocking up on his works, planning to get through the monumental Cairo Trilogy and the popular Midaq Alley. At the shop in my hotel in Luxor, there was an entire bookcase filled with Mahfouz's novels, so I eased myself in with some of the thinner volumes such Adrift on the Nile and Akhenaton. But it was definitely a law of diminishing returns. Adrift on the Nile is at best OK and Akhenaton is tedious and uninspired (and this despite the pharaoh Akhenaton being an entirely fascinating subject! I think I must write a book about him myself one day).

Finally I started on Mahfouz's early work Thebes at War, which is laughably awful. Lo, behold noble dark-skinned Egyptians pitted against fair-skinned Hyksos foreigners and cardboard characters everywhere. Far from discovering a treasure trove of world classics, my conclusion is that Mahfouz is a writer who oscillated alarmingly between dross and genius. To all of us who have churned out our fair share of page filler however I think Mahfouz offers a guiding light - keep chipping away at it, keep knocking out rubbish like Thebes at War and one day you too might hone your skills enough to produce a Children of the Alley.

Thursday, 8 March 2007

Buggered by Barry Humphries

My Australian girlfriend abandoned me for her homeland last week and since then my thoughts have wondered across the continents. On the one hand I am battling to get through the novels of that celebrated Egyptian, Naguib Mahfouz (about which much more another time). Then I am half-planning a trip to Argentina. But mostly my thoughts have been running between Japan and Australia.

I was at an Irish wake the other week and somehow or other the conversation got - naturally - on to the subject of Japanese slang. My fellow Irish descendants refused to believe that it was ever really possible to understand full-tilt Japanese vernacular, but I pointed out that it was oft times more difficult to understand a companion speaking in full-tilt Australian than it was a good dose of Osaka dialect. I then proceeded to bring out a few of my favourite Australianisms. Flibbertigibbet. Hoon-booner-doona. And of course boomer. (Answers at the bottom of the page). One of the best investments I have ever made is the 10 pounds I paid for a MacQuarie's Australian dictionary from the local Oxfam and its treasures keeping on delighting me.

My girlfriend has informed me (probably unreliably) that the two great products of Australian civilization are the lawnmower and that plastic round thing with hooks used for hanging up and drying clothes. But for me Australia's greatest glory will always be its language - the English language washed over with the Australian lilt and cadence is like fine whisky soaked in the best sherry casks. I love it when I discover some new Australianism. My girlfriend's parting gift was 'kindie' which is apparently Australian for 'kindergarten'.

The greatest celebration of the Australian tongue must be The Adventures of Barry McKenzie from the 1970's. Barry repeats 'Don't come the raw prawn with me' and 'I must point Percy at the porcelain' a shade too often but it somehow always raises a smile. The film was scripted by Edna Everage himself, Barry Humphries, whose autobiography My Life as Me is my current bedtime reading.

I have ups and downs with books on Australia. Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore is something I have nibbled through on each of my two trips to Australia, but it looks like it will take at least another three trips to see me through to the end. Patrick White I've never made any inroads into (perhaps when I reach three figures) - but with Barry Humphries I am confident I will go the distance.

The descriptions of dour, strait-laced Melbourne in the 1950's are terrific and it's quite a surprise to discover that Mr. Edna Everage is such a sturdy intellectual - sometimes too much so. I find I can't go two pages in the book without encountering some word of ordinary English I don't know the meaning ('homunculus', 'tenebrous' etc). I would usually look these up, but after a while it all becomes too much bother. I dare say this is nothing more than a symptom of my own poor vocabulary, but you begin to wonder whether Bazza has not overly strained at his dictionary to dissociate himself from Edna, Les Patterson and co and assert his intellectual credentials as Melbourne's great Dadaist manque (with an accent).

Anyway having read more of Bazza's autobiog before I went to bed, I discovered he took his revenge on me last night in my dreams. There I was befriended by an ancient Barry Humphries who lead me, a naive youth, on a blissful sunny day through Sydney's botanical gardens. We were so pleased to make each other's acquaintance - I rather think the set-up was related to Kokoro in some odd way. Then he led me back to his immense mansion in Sydney that looked curiously like a converted warehouse from the outside, but on the inside was a modernist palace. The rooms were so vast ...and empty. I asked Bazza whether he was still doing Dame Edna on Broadway, but he smiled and told me he had given up that years ago. Then he took my hand and led me into an inner chamber and tried to make indecent advances upon me. I fled screaming from the premises, and it was all the end of a beautiful friendship.

There is surely a moral here about the dangers of reading books about female impersonators just before going to bed. And my apologies to Barry. I'm sure it was even more embarrassing to him.

Oh well, two blogs in and I feel we've well and truly broken the ice.

The answers to the pub quiz round are: scatterbrain; joy-riding dork; West Sydney scally; duvet; and kangaroo.