How potent cheap music can be

Over the last five or six years I’ve become obsessed with post-war British history. It started as part of an on-going project on the history of British science fiction in which I wanted to look at the literature in relation to the social, cultural, political and scientific milieu from which it arose. But that project is in abeyance at the moment, there are too many other things in the way. But the interest in the social and cultural history has not abated. I’ve always got a book on the subject to hand, by Sandbrook or Marr, Hennessy or Beckett. Maybe it’s a factor of my age, this is mostly the world I’ve lived through; maybe it’s nostalgia: gosh I remember that.

modernity britainCurrently I’m reading the first volume of David Kynaston’s Modernity Britain, which covers the years 1957-59. Kynaston is wonderful if you want to get a flavour of what books people were reading, what television programmes they watched, what wireless broadcasts they listened to, and what they actually thought about all of this. But I only turned five in the September of 1957: how much of this am I likely to remember? Continue reading


Mr Turner

I had a theory about Joseph Mallord William Turner. At an exhibition of his work at the Tate some years ago I noticed a pair of his spectacles in a case with other implements, and the lenses were noticeably thick. It struck me then that the swirling misty vague paintings of his later years are exactly how the world looks if you are very short sighted.


Mike Leigh’s wonderful film, Mr Turner, offers another explanation: a sort of rage at the canvas. In one wonderful scene at the Royal Academy, Turner is putting the finishing touches to one of his pictures. He spits at the canvas, swipes it violently with hand and handkerchief, stabs at it with a brush laden with dense white paint. Painting is no genteel art, but an epic battle as harsh and unforgiving as any of the raging storms he portrays. Continue reading

Intro and Outro

thomas mcmahonThere are writers who seem to fall through the net, who somehow miss out on the audience they deserve. They are known to a few, but the wide and admiring readership they deserve. I would hazard a guess that not many of you know the name of Thomas McMahon, and those who do will almost certainly not have encountered Ira Foxglove. So, let me tell you a little story. Continue reading

Inverse of distraction

At the very moment the book is dematerializing, it is becoming more embodied than ever, the book celebrating the fetishization of the book’s bookishness: design, layout, texture, smell, borderlands. [[there.]]

Ever since the codex took over from the scroll sometime in what we arbitrarily call the middle ages, the book seems to have been under threat. Yet the book as object, as something over and above the contents of the book, is something we have experimented with and changed and revised time without end. Back in the 1960s Ace books introduced their Ace Doubles: you open a particularly garish cover and read a short sf novel which took you to approximately half way through the volume, then you closed the book, turned it over, and found another garish cover which you opened to reveal another short sf novel, sometimes by the same author, more often not. Haruki Murakami published Norwegian Wood as two small paperbacks, one red, one green, contained within a book-shaped box. B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates allowed the reader to assemble the book in any order they chose. In Our Ecstatic Days, Steve Erickson has one long sentence that runs like a thread from page 83 to page 315, cutting through the midst of all else that is happening in the novel. Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions tells its story in two portions, one occupying the top part of the page, the other upside down in the bottom part of the page, so that every so often you need to turn the book through 180 degrees. These, and there are more, many more, are all examples of the physical characteristics of the book being exploited as part of what the book is doing, an enhancement to the story.

In an age of e-readers it is easy for most stories to be translated straightforwardly to the screen, but the textural as opposed to textual characteristics of such books cannot be so translated. Any book that does anything more than simply tell a story defies the digital revolution.

Which is a way of saying you couldn’t, you wouldn’t want to read Lance Olsen’s Theories of Forgetting on a screen. Continue reading

common place

:::: Learning to travel is another way of saying learning to read. (37)

there:::: For five months at the beginning of 2013, Lance Olsen was a visiting fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. [[there.]] is an account of that period.

:::: It is a book about place.

:::: It is a commonplace book.

:::: It is a more or less diary account of his stay in Berlin combined with a variety of apposite quotations, apercus on various subjects, memories of other journeys. He describes it as “a constellation of sense, thought, memory, observation, fast fact scraps” (10). It’s a fair description if not necessarily an exhaustive one. Continue reading


And so we start the celebrations, commemorations, what have you, for the 100th anniversary of the First World War. We have already had a host of books and television programmes, even though we still have a few months to go before the exact anniversary of the point at which Gavrilo Princip fired at Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand, and after that we have four more years of this. And we’ve already had the first controversies. Continue reading

At Home

In the conclusion to his immense tome, The Culture of the Europeans, Donald Sassoon has one of those brief apercus that seems blatantly obvious when you think about. It’s just that we usually don’t think about it.

In reality the home was always the centre of cultural consumption. Of all the cultural forms surveyed in this book, only the cinema succeeded, for a historically brief period, in getting a majority of people to consume culture outside the home. Continue reading