Sunday, 26 July 2015

Why Hodder should give £500,000 to Jonathan Bate, Stanley Wells or James Shapiro

Blimey, I thought, elbowing myself from under the sheets this rain-splattered AM. The sound on the window was like ball bearings jumping in a frying pan and I smartly reached for my ten inch to check for weather alerts. It wasn't too far from here that hailstones recently fell the size of coconuts and I wanted to be sure that I shouldn't slip into my Kevlar PJs before continuing to idle through my Sunday morning.

Now, you might wonder about my proximity to high tech but it's my usual habit to wake and immediately check the news on my Android tablet. I like to know the day's running order and to see what the various tyrants have been doing whilst I was otherwise engaged. It was how I came to see the headline about Boris and why I untangled myself from the sheets as my bleary eyes took in the details. If the reports are correct, Boris has been commissioned to write a book about Shakespeare and Hodder are currently shelling his back garden with half a million in bundled fivers. I expect him to catch them all too, with those big novelty-sized hands of his.

All of this resolved itself into the loud sob I gave before sinking back into my pillow.

I fell back to sleep and had one of those strangely lucid dream sequences which shifted the stage scenery with remarkable fluidity. One moment, I was an MP, spending  my every waking hour trying to help the people of my constituency. The next moment, I was Mayor of London and there wasn't an hour when I wasn't trying to earn the trust of London and improving the state of the city. Then somebody pulled a few ropes and my dream shifted again. This time I was a newspaper columnist and it was my life. Every day I'd devote to writing the most blistering column and earning the respect and trust of my readers. Then, just before I woke up, I was trying with every particle of my being to write the best biography of Shakespeare that I could.

Eyes open, I groaned again. It was still raining and Boris Johnson is still doing none of his jobs properly because he's being paid handsomely to do all four.

I don't quite know what to say now that I'm fully awake. Perhaps my response is just the jealousy of a man who struggles to earn a living from either his writing or his cartoons, no matter how much time and energy he invests into them. £500,000 would set me for life and I'd write twenty books, drawn thousands upon thousands of cartoons... Hell, I'd even do all that for a tenth of that.

Perhaps it's the disgust of a man who finds it hard to value his own work and could not write anything for anybody unless he'd put his soul into it. Perhaps this is what 'aspiration' means in this modern Conservative Britain. Is Boris simply one of those 'hard-working people' the Tories are always banging on about? Or is he simply greedy?

Apparently (thank you Google) as Mayor he earns a recently-reduced salary of £47,970 a year. As an MP he will be earning £74,000 plus allowances. As Shakespeare's biographer, he's going to earn £500,000. All of that in addition to what is apparently a £275,000 salary from The Daily Telegraph.

It would beg the question 'why' if it didn't also beg the equally obvious answer.

Boris is a name. You might have noticed that I've so far omitted the name 'Johnson'  from this post, yet, if you live in the UK, I'm fairly certain you'd have still known who I'm talking about. There isn't another 'Boris'. Boris Becker is 'Becker' and Karloff is 'Karloff'. No other Boris is just 'Boris'.

The name means everything in a culture dominated by brands. The Boris brand is easy to describe. It's fruity, bumbling, larger than life, Edwardian, disheveled, witty and displaying that brand of intellect that is also slightly shallow as befits a man who read the Classics and received 2.2 from Oxford. Boris is the kind of man who can make any dumb idea sound brilliant simply by quoting Phaedrus's fable of the charging rhinoceros. Take some non-cyclists and put them on heavy unwieldy bicycles before throwing them into heavy London traffic? Why, as Phaedrus's rhinoceros says when it's about to gore the baobab tree: 'Boris Bikes are spiffing idea...'

The resulting book will reflect the Boris persona and if it sets the charts alight (and I'd be surprised if Hodder get their money back) it won't be because of the scholarship. There are few major figures in British history about whom we know less than Shakespeare and unless Boris has access to a secret library unavailable to the major scholars, Boris's book will be full of speculation and plenty of the old verbatim, cemented together with a pithy jokes in the style of a slightly glandular Jeeves. Boris's Shakespeare will be the Shakespeare of biscuit tins and tea towels. It will be the flag waving Bard whose history is presented as a homily to modern bombastic British conservatism and the next Tory leader. Huzzah and hurrah!

And no doubt many people will love it. Marketing tends to do that to a book, so long as the book is half decent. They will love it because there is nothing quite so devalued in the world like true scholarship. And that is what is so deeply depressing about this story. It is more evidence to support the hypothesis that this is no meritocracy. We live in a country in which Ian Duncan Smith, author of The Devil's Tune (Amazon, one and a half stars), decides the fate of writers and artists. It's the society where David Cameron and George Osborne talk about hard work, having lived their entire lives cosseted by the establishment.

There are people out there who would leap at the chance to do any one of Boris's jobs and most of them would treat the work with the respect it deserves. There are people who would make better MPs. There are men and women who would make  better mayors. It would churlish to suggest that some would be better columnists than Boris. The Telegraph gig is the one job he possibly deserves given he cultivated the Boris character in his writing. Yet as an biographer, we can only judge his talents based on his prior biography of Churchill which was readable and sometimes funny, but ultimately shallow and reads like the flim of history pasted together with plenty of flam.

It's hard to imagine Hodder throwing half a million at Jonathan Bate, Stanley Wells or James Shapiro to write the Shakespeare biography but for their money they'd probably get one of the best biographies of Shakespeare out there, using careful reading of the texts to justify solid scholarship and serious research to reveal new facets to the man. Yet consider this: £100,000 would be far more than even top academics get as the advance for a book, so why the hell doesn't Hodder commission five biographies from the world's top Shakespearean scholars? Except they won't because names like Bate and Wells and Shapiro don't resonate with the public who salivate at the name Boris.

Why would Hodder want authenticity when they can have Boris at five times the price?


Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Public Servant

It never fails to amaze me that Tories preach low-cost government except when it comes to their expenses. Not that any party is immune to dunderheads claiming scraps on the flawed logic that each of these small expenses mount up over a year. How much is a bad headline worth? I'm sure it's a hell of a lot more than these so called 'expenses'. I'm far less wealthy than any of these Tories yet it would never occur to me to claim pence, even if I were able. I notice that Ian Duncan Smith had his official credit card suspended after he'd maxed it out on expenses. Baffles me. We're all in it together, apparently, but as Orwell might have phrased it, some of us are more in it than others.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Thinking of a happy place: gets even better with each passing week.

I found the site perhaps a year or so ago and I doubt if there's a day I don't visit morning, afternoon, and evening. Psychologically it's such a good place to be that I'm probably living my life on San Francisco time.

To understand my mild obsession, you have to know that I live in a small northern working class town with no culture to speak of. I have to travel miles into either Liverpool or Manchester to find a bookshop. We have none locally and, thanks to government cuts, our local library has already been half-demolished. Not all is bad news, however. As a town we have eight tattoo parlours. I suspect I'm the only guy in town that doesn't have a single tattoo. Not sure if you can understand how that makes me feel except to say that I feel utterly like a freak: hugely overqualified, can't find decent work, and with interests that few people share. And that's why I love Tested. It's a window onto a better world where being a tattoo-free over-educated nerd is the thing to be.

I've never been so proud of being a nerd as I've been since I discovered Tested. It's filled with articulate people talking about things that fascinate them. Amazingly for an American website, it's not shrill. It's not that horrible twisted version of nerddom you find on Battlebots, where the jocks have taken over and the nerds pushed to one side. Tested is pure unadulterated nerd: intelligent, occasionally awkward, but so totally human. I've never bought a scale replica of anything in my life and I don't intend to start now. However, for reasons I can't fully explain, I now find myself fascinated with replicas. Maybe it's the design, the artwork, or simply the craftsmanship. Never before in my life have I wanted to know how to make a foam mould of something yet I've watched more Frank Ippolito videos about learning to mould than is healthy for a man who never intends to make a mould. I even find myself growing interested in technology that has never before really been my thing, such as 3d printing, drones, miniature cameras, and virtual reality.

None of it makes any sense to me yet, somehow, the site makes complete sense.

The site actually makes me want to use a lathe and I have absolutely no reason to use a lathe...

I suppose it makes sense in the way their most casual conversations affect my life. The site is largely hosted by Norman Chan and Will Smith, who carry the weight of the output. Adam Savage, of Mythbuster's fame, is the Big Daddy of the operation and it's his energy which infects everything they do. However, it's Will and Norm that keep me watching because they carry their knowledge lightly, with enough humour to keep it grounded and well away from that Comic Book Guy cliche that makes that entire world so off-putting.

If you'd told me years ago that my favourite website would be about making a replica topiary, I'd have said that you were deluded. Yet that's exactly how I felt watching Savage build a replica of the Overlook Hotel maze a few months ago.

What's key is that the whole thing is largely unscripted and people talk about the things that interest them without dumbing everything down. The BBC New usually begin every story about Pluto by reminding people that Pluto is far from the sun so it's cold. Tested take that stuff for granted and it's a huge relief that they do. When the talk, I find myself feeling dumb because I don't know half of the stuff they know. It triggers my brain into activity and to hunt out answers. I happily stick one of their podcasts on in the background as I work and I'm in raptures because it constantly helps me generate new ideas. I've not read science fiction in too many years but, thanks to Tested, I've rediscovered my love for hard science fiction. It's so good to listen to people who are as excited by NASA's Pluto flyby as I was.

The week before last was Comic Con in San Diego, an event that largely passes me by because I'm not a huge fan of superheroes hype. I don't read any of the comics (I tend to prefer underground comics), though I've a passing awareness of Frank Miller's Dark Knight. I'm not the full-on fan but enough that I've seen the odd animated film in addition to the live action Batman movies. Avengers leaves me cold like near all of Stan Lee's oeuvre, with the exception being Spiderman. In fact, I'm pretty picky in my tastes. I love the best stuff and I'm very dismissive of the worst. Loved the new Dredd movie, hated Captain America.

Yet Tested just knows how to work its way around my defences. Watching a grown man excited by the cooling system he's created for his cosplay replica suit from Kubrick's 2001 is about as good as the internet gets. The fact that he then introduces a second suit for astronaut Chris Hadfield and they begin to talk about how Kubrick got the sound effects for 2001...

Well, this weekend, realising I wanted to write this blog post explaining my love for the site, I thought I'd do that by putting it into a cartoon. So, here is my latest, in honour of what, for me, is undoubtedly the best site on the web.

If you haven't already and you suspect you have an inner nerd, go check out

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Seveneves and the Crazy Final Third: Why?

Why did he do it? Why did Neil Stephenson ruin his own book? There I was, rattling along with what I thought was a sublimely good book. Then the last third happened and all my good feelings for him as a writer disappeared in an instant. Before that point, I was considering buying his earlier books. Now... I'm probably going to leave it a while before I risk again disappointing myself on this scale.

Yet all of this was avoidable. Why did nobody tell him to stop? Why did his editor not suck their teeth and suggest that he end things around page 600? The first two thirds: one of the best science fiction books I've ever read. It really was that good and barely any part of it felt like a drag. I found myself squirreling myself away in gaps in my day, just to guiltily enjoy another few pages. The moment I finish that second third, I thought: wow. Great book. Great ending. Up there with the best of Arthur C Clarke. Then that last third happened...

Why? It could have been a book in itself or it could have been a two page chapter. Other writers have done just that. What was he thinking writing three hundred page conclusion that felt like an entirely different book? I'll be honest. Tonight I gave up. I'd read about 200 of those pages but my mind had gone long before that. I found myself wondering if I had better things to do and I realised that I had. I was bored out of my mind with the endless descriptions of things I just couldn't visualise and so many neologisms that at times it felt like I was suffering from word blindness. I just couldn't read about one more snake like robot whip like tendril doing something, connecting to something, swinging at something, disconnecting from sometime... It was driving me crazy!

Sorry. I had to get that off my chest.

But if you're in the mood for some excellent sci-fi, you should try the first two thirds of Seveneves and then treat the final third as one of those sample chapters to a rather dry and boring sequel that you'll never get around to reading.


Wednesday, 1 July 2015

John Noakes and the Spirit of the Braying Mob

Excuse me if this isn't polished or even interesting. I don't have any careful arguments to weave and, even if I did, I'm not sure I have the care and attention needed to weave them. I guess I'm feeling a bit dejected with the world. I've been working hard all month trying to communicate with the world but the world doesn't seem all that interested in talking to me. Well, screw the world. I can at least talk to myself or, if I'm lucky, some other lone intellects out there that don't belong to a marketing scam robot or some Chinese plastics company intent on filling my comments with spam.

I wanted to write about John Noakes who, you might know, went missing (but was thankfully found) yesterday and I wanted to write about him without using the word 'celebrity'. I despise that word, which has to be the curse of our age. It has been elevated to the point that to possess 'celebrity' means that you're a special kind of person, worthy of special treatment and to be judged against lower moral or artistic standards than the rest of common humanity. For example, I was searching last week for a publisher and I came across one who advertised their interest in humour. You should know how rare that is for UK publishers, who largely take no interest in humour unless it's disguised as some postmodern pastiche of Polish pork butchers in the 1300s. This publisher therefore caught my eye, until I read that writers would have to pay to have their books published. There was, however, an exception. In the case of 'a celebrity', the publisher would be very interested in discussing an advance and contact.

It's a sign of how the world has become. Yet the truth is that people who are celebrities tend to be the dullest among us. To be a celebrity is different to being a writer, a musician, an actor, painter, poet, illustrator, inventor, sportsperson, or even a politician. It's why the very best writers, musicians, actors, painters, poets, illustrators, inventors, sportspersons, and politicians live ordinary lives. They don't wish to live like a celebrity. To be a celebrity simply means that you have fame and, really, there's nothing less interesting than a person famous only for having fame. The other day The Times dedicated a double page spread to Alan Titchmarsh, one of the dullest men on the planet and it was amazing how many dull things the dullest man on the planet had to say in what was, predictably, a very dull article. Yet still: he's famous and because he was famous, he even had his face in full colour on their colour supplement.

Welcome to the UK, 2015. For those that have: here have more. Those without, we want you to have even less.

Last weekend witnessed another visible demonstration of celebrity when Kanye West took the stage at Glastonbury. He walked out thinking, perhaps, that celebrity would do most of his work for him. It didn't. It was a risible performance, highlighting the fact that this was one of the least enjoyable Glastonbury weekends in quite a while. All the excellence was to be found well beyond the headline acts. Patti Smith produced the performance of the festival but I also enjoyed, as you might expect, the show put on by FFS on the last night, which was largely ignored by the media. The media were too busy talking about The Who, who did what The Who have always done but didn't do it with much swagger. The fact that they refused to allow the BBC to broadcast their set was small minded, greedy, or both. In future, no act should be allowed to headline (or otherwise) at Glastonbury if they make non-broadcast a condition of the performance. The question wasn't so much who but why? Why were The Who performing at Glastonbury? I think it was simply because they're a world famous act. They have 'celebrity'.

I arrived at the beginning of this week reflecting, yet again, on how celebrity is ruining our culture. If you're not a celebrity, then you're obviously nobody, and perhaps it's because of the problems associated with being a nobody that an otherwise excellent band like the Fat White Family (a bit blues, a bit Velvet Underground, a lot The Doors) have to resort to the tales of the sordid excess in order to get noticed and then heard. The same is true of writers, actors, artists, comedians. To get noticed, you must doing something in excess. You must run out on stage whilst Kanye West is performing. You must paint your work in your own excrement or blood. You must write your book whilst sitting in a cupboard for ten years and never seeing daylight...

Then John Noakes went missing.

I can't think of many people who have meant as much to me as John Noakes. Yet to describe what he did is to skirt around the phrase 'celebrity'. He was, of course, a TV presenter, which usually is a job that amounts to very little. Presenters are usually celebrities. Vernon Kaye and Claudia Winkleman are both celebrities but I can't honestly tell you of a single discernible skill either of them has to make them worth the money the BBC pays them. Cut their wage to a sixth and you'd still find people equally adept at fronting that kind of show. I'm serious. I fail to understand why the BBC think it important to pay millions to people who are merely presenters. A disembodied robotic voice could link segments together almost as well... Did I say 'almost'? Well, I meant to say 'better'.

Yet Noakes wasn't simply a presenter. He was an accidental comedian. In fact, when I think of what I like in comedy, I think about those qualities that Noakes embodied. He was relaxed and slightly unprofessional in a way you can perhaps see in the very best comedy. You see it in the Marx Brothers but also in Robin Williams or Steve Martin. Noakes made mistakes and allowed people to see his mistakes, a bit like Stewart Lee does when he highlights a mistake and weaves it into his set. Noakes was a clown but doing serious work in the very same way that Clive James would always use humour to make a deeper point. Yet beyond all of that, Noakes was simply likable and so very and utterly human. He was the best uncle many of us have ever had with any degree of regularity in our lives.

When he went missing yesterday, I was upset. I don't know why. I'm not ashamed to admit that when I tried to explain it to somebody later on, I actually found myself getting teary eyed. I didn't realise how much John Noakes meant to me. He must have meant a lot because I even used Twitter to look for updates. Perhaps I wanted to find other people who shared my upset and I was genuinely heartened to find that there were others just like me. It reminded me that not everybody on Twitter is a hate filled troll.

Yet there were, predictably, a few others who saw it as another opportunity to make cheap jokes about the disappearance of an 81 year old man suffering from Alzheimer's. They are the people who made me quit Twitter or, at least, have minimal contact with social media. They are the always-looking-for-a-laugh narcissists, who are always at your elbow playing everything for laughs. They're the Colin Hunts of the online world who give a bad name to anybody who has ever tried to make people laugh for a living.

I suppose what I find irritating about them is that I could easily be one of those people myself. When I first used Twitter, I used it as a way of writing jokes and being 'witty'. Yet you soon find it's an insatiable medium. Your best material is stolen by others and the many of the people also in the business of being funny are quite happy to steal their material from old joke books. People who aren't serious about comedy seem unable to stop trying to be funny. Serious comedians are often described as sulky and miserable when they're not on stage but that's because people assume that to have a comedic outlook on life means that you're always 'up for a laugh'. In my limited experience, it's quite the reverse. It's why I despise Twitter. It's also a place where you're always encouraged to be that little bit more edgy. When I write what I write about real people, I don't mean to hurt them. I write knowing there's a distance between my writing and the chances of their reading what I write. Twitter is very different. Your words too easily end up in their timeline, seen by their eyes. Twitter magnifies the venom and I quit the moment I realised this. I quit the moment people began confusing my comic creation with the real Richard Madeley.

Others didn't share my concerns and still don't. Twitter comedians are no comedians in my eyes. They're precisely the people I didn't want to become when I was growing up. What I wanted to be was some latter day John Noakes, who was a free spirit, fascinated by the world but never to the point of pretension. He was funny but never to the point where it would begin to wear on you. He was balanced pretty evenly in that place where the best human beings exist: good natured, interested and, above all things, simply humane.

It's why his disappearance yesterday upset me. Not because John Noakes the celebrity had gone missing. It was because I remembered John Noakes as simply the best example of a generous, witty but unashamedly joyous spirit there was when I was growing up. He's one of the best examples of our kind and of a better age, before Twitter exposed us all to the vile psychopaths who hurt people in the name of humour. I'm now at the stage when I actively despise people who try to be funny on Twitter. They're little more than piss-soaked mongrels howling at the heels of the braying mob. Yesterday reminded me that they're still out there seeking their celebrity. And the sad truth is: one day their excesses might become so great that they might indeed find it.