Alphabetty

A speed-reading woman has read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (608 pages) in 47 mins and 1 second. Well done, madam. That’s an impressive achievement. The word ‘impressive’, of course, is purely descriptive rather than evaluative and, pedantically speaking, should not be used as a term of approval or, indeed, pedantically, disapproval. But how clever! How treasurable! What a marvellously useful impact it will have on young readers!
Just one question – nothing really important, just a query – did you find that the plot and characterisation and such like got in the way? Had there not been any what we might call texture or structure couldn’t you have turned in something well under 40 mins? Had you applied your skill, for example, to a big book full of just words in no particular order, wouldn’t that have enabled you to make the Potter figures look positively lumbering?
My friend Andrew, back when I was a student, told me about a very big book full of random numbers. The numbers were generated by a great big computer like they were in the olden days and the sum of them was very useful to mathematicians God knows why. Anyway, Andrew said that whilst leafing through the book, in which countless blocks of numbers were displayed in rows and columns, he came across a sequence of identical numbers – shall we say 4444444 4444444 – that went on for half a page before the random numbers set in again. He pointed out that the identical blocks were just as random as the more conventionally random ones. He said that it was possible that the Universe was like that, that is to say, we are living in the 4444444 bit right now where a spade is a spade and at any point the state of this Universe could flip into hardcore random whereupon a coffee table would turn into a pig and that would be just one of many unsettling things as life went bonkers bigtime. This would be about 1964.

False Economy

fork.jpgThe new bionic hand is impressive. The £8,500 prosthetic, unveiled today by British inventors, is extremely versatile: it can point, grip, pick up small objects with precision and perform the ‘key’ operation wherein the thumb is pressed against the index finger in order to turn a key or hold a plate. A caption to the graphics supporting the report in The Independent points out that the hand can also hold a credit card.
The scientists are missing something here – if it can hold a credit card, could they not design one that can only hold a credit card? And if that were feasible – and it doesn’t seem that hard but then I’m not a prostheticist – could not a range of prosthetics be produced that would oblige the wearer to behave in socially constructive ways? A pair of bionic legs, for example, that will only walk to work then go to the shops. A set of bionic eyes that will transport to the visual cortex a landscape devoid of CCTV cameras. The mind boggles.
Rather than piss about with electronic monitoring via anklets and transponders, the feet of offenders could be amputated and replaced with feet that stayed at home.

Toy Boys

The Guardian Media 100 is a list (published July 9) of the most influential media figures in Britain. At the top is Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google ($3.1 bn profit last year). In the photo accompanying his entry Schmidt sits at a table flanked by Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Schmidt is in shirtsleeves and a tie while the other two wear black tee-shirts. The table is made of black glass or something like that and on it are arranged a number of figures and objects made from brightly coloured Lego bricks. The reflectiveness of the glass creates an inverted image of the scene so that everything seen is doubled.
One can discern among the Lego items some funny, smiley little men, a red and white panda, a steam engine and a clutter of what look like chickens or ducks. The Google founders are smiling too but absorbed in moving the Lego objects around. Eric Schmidt is not touching any plastic but he has a benign, amused and possibly hesitant expression. There might even be a hint of disgust there but this would be inappropriate.
Clearly the photographer has had an ‘idea’ for the setup and it has not been resisted by the subjects. But why? Why the imagery of the nursery? Do we believe that these guys are just big babies?
Maybe they are. The West Coast digital scene has, from its earliest days, had one foot in the playroom and the other in the business of creating order. The original Apple guys, Jobs and Wozniak, famously built the prototype in Jobs’ bedroom and garage thereby distancing themselves from the suits in corporate computing and aligning themselves with a notion of creativity as something that happens in a young man’s special place. The pioneers saw no basic antipathy between the digit and the plaything and wrested the computer from its chaste redoubt in the belly of IBM.
Smiley faces beamed from screens, in black on white, and the cute little beige box boinged, gonged or beeped when it wanted you. Young men, already engrossed in the stark facticity of line command PCs, were alerted to a new style of playfulness at odds with the visually drab medium of the Bulletin Board System (BBS). They didn’t flock to buy the box in 1984 but a novel quality, toyness, was detectable in the new machines’ potential for rendering graphics.
The computer as image generator, the programmer as manipulator of its graphical user interface. The images were crude but they sucked harder than text. Not only did they compel more compellingly, they made the screen into a window rather than a chalk board. Five months after the release of the 128K Macintosh, William Gibson published ‘Neuromancer’, a science fiction novel, providing a set of proposals that cast the computer as builder of virtual universes and the user as their author and explorer. The latter would connect his cortex to virtuality by means of an umbilical cable leading from the computer directly to a jackpoint in his neck.
Despite Gibson’s noir tastes, the cyberspaces thus accessed were boxfresh and edenic, they contained conflicts that were instantly neutralisable (you simply pulled the plug out ) and their microbes were, at the end of the day, only ones and zeroes. Toyland was open.
primaries.gifAnxious to be seen as hip while emerging into public consciousness from the worlds of code and control, the designers and programmers and money people all eschewed the pallor and asexuality of hackers and caffeinated kids and plumped for bean sprouts in gaily coloured corporate campus cafeterias whilst sporting chinos and deckshoe leisurewear. Nerd was the new black and then, a few decades later, primary were the new colours of the Google logo.
Given the occult association between digits and toys, is it possible that, in certain digital empires, there may emerge a sensibility so shot through with embedded childishness that the amassing of private data and the capitulation to censorious father figures will be seen just as a game, like Hide and Seek, Spies or Piggy in the Middle?

Kid Pluck

I’m in a sunny park with 20 minutes to spare. A local primary school is holding its Sports Day a hundred yards (make that metres) away. I sit down on the grass and idly watch the action. Much of it is team stuff with balls and bean bags and, given that my own children are not involved, I’m not particularly interested. Then I notice that a race has started: boys and girls aged about six or seven are trotting round a pegged-out track. At the front of the pack, at least 10 metres in the lead, is a boy, small compared to his fellows, running well, with economic armswings, his gaze trained on the grass a few feet ahead of him. I tell myself that the children are probably running a 220 (whatever that is in metres), which would be about right for their age group. When I look up again, they’re coming round a second time. The small boy has increased his lead and the competition behind him is looking dangerously puffed. The small boy shows no signs of fatigue at all. I remark to myself that 440 is quite a push for seven year olds. In my postal district the primary schools are concerned to soften the competitive aspects of Sports Day so that kids don’t feel bad. Obviously not the case here.
I watch more closely as the pack, now a ragged strung out crew featuring a number of pedestrians, moves round to the far side of the track. The kid is a little machine, pounding away out there on his own, still no signs of flagging. His determination is unsettling – how could one so young be so single minded? Perhaps this is what promising young athletes are like.
Then the kids come round for a third time. My God, it’s a 660. And given that 660s don’t exist, it looked like it had to be an 880: half a mile (in metres)! As I’ve remarked elsewhere in these posts, I’m not a big sports fan but I started to root for this kid – not that he needed it. By now the track is littered with the walking winded, many of whom were therefore candidates for the sentimental underdog vote. I find myself, however, regarding the kid as if he were the underdog. The kid, alone against the forces of antikid. The kid, runner for all kids, track pounder for the blue remembered hills of wet games days, the cross country, the sprints, the unpleasantness of the home stretch and all preceding stretches. But more than that, away from the smack of plimsoles and their successors the plimsolls upon balding turves, to the pluck. Such pluck. The pluck of the kid: plucking for kids past and kids to come.

I Have Been Chosen

I had not realised that riches were to be mine quite so soon after launching this site this afternoon. Clearly the site’s promise has been communicated to some powerful people in retailing. These people will have read the post entitled ‘Bunfight in Doge City’ and shrewdly calculated that beneath my sneering dismissals lies a strong desire for nuggets at the wrist:
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Paris – No Details Available

While Paris was in jail she told Barbara Walters, in a phone call, that ‘I have become more spiritual. God has given me this new chance.’ While this may not prove to be an enduring conversion, the avowal does efficiently illustrate how very few options there are in the American personalityscape. If, for example, an infamous consumer of doughnuts felt the need to change their monodiet for health reasons, they might announce, to those entranced by their fortunes, “From this point on I shall eat only three doughnuts per day, the rest of my calorific requirements to be met by fruits, meats and lettuces. In a few weeks I shall reduce to two doughnuts per day and so forth.” Due to the drama attached to matters of dietary modification, the announcement will invariably take another form – “I have cut doughnuts from my life. Henceforth I shall eat only boiled rice.”
This is the ‘dry drunk’ style of withdrawal wherein the sufferer bounces violently off the wall of glut and is promptly impaled on the railings of abstemiousness without ever passing through an intermediate territory. When not only diet but personal psychology is viewed in this way paris.jpg then all change is violent and does not really constitute change – it’s a shift in tone rather than substance. In such a case the startling absence of psychological detail renders the subject a mythical figure – a cautionary, diagrammatic illustration of potential mishaps. Mythical figures are not people, they generally represent single human characteristics rather than the complex of qualities that comprise flesh and blood persons. We devise mythical figures for the purposes of instruction – they’re not supposed to be something you become.

Work Experience

In ‘Stop-Time’, an autobiography by Frank Conroy that I am enjoying, the young Frank spends a few weeks on the streets of New York working a fruit-stall with his mother’s unreliable partner, sometime in the early 50s. He describes his absorption in the most basic tasks:
“…I approached even the smallest transaction with the e´lan of a headwaiter making crepes suzette. Without looking, I’d slip out the appropriate paper bag from a concealed shelf under the scales, lift it high in the air over my head, and snap it down like a whip to open it, at the same time selecting the fruit with my other hand. ‘One pound of fresh seedless grapes,’ I’d say with a certain amount of pride, gently lowering a fat bunch onto the hanging scales. My eye was good and when I missed the correct weight it wasn’t by much. In a single sweeping movement I’d lift the removable tray, insert the narrow end into the open mouth of the paper bag and transfer the fruit with exaggerated care. ‘Some cherries, ma’am? They’re very sweet today, very succulent.’ If they were deaf to my words and blind to my ballet they nevertheless came to the moment when they put money in my hand. At that moment I won the game, or so it seemed to me.”
The assembly line on which workers repeat half a dozen moves all day long is premised on the rejection of fluidity in favour of disconnection. Ergonomic analysts who design such arrangements will identify fluid sequences then dismember them so that no single worker is burdened with overly complicated manipulations and, consequently, acquires no valuable skill and can be readily replaced by a quickly trained substitute. A flow of movement is replaced by a punctuated repetitive cycle. Such cycles would resemble obsessive compulsive disorders if it were not for the fact that the compulsion is externally imposed.
Frank is not on an assembly line but he brings to a potentially predictable job an inventiveness that he channels into choreography. We’ve all done it – just trying to toss a ball of paper across a room into a waste paper basket requires both concentration and fluidity – qualities often seen as mutually exclusive but regarded by, for example, dancers and athletes, as a natural package. Frank probably senses that unless he makes fruit wrapping an aesthetic event it will outstrip him with its meaninglessness.
The best job I ever had – I don’t include writing and making plays because they aren’t alienating – was driving a rescue van for Bike Events on the London to Brighton Bike Ride in the early 80s. I did it for a day. They gave me a portable phone the size of a house brick and told me to drive up and down the route picking up people whose bikes had broken down or who had succumbed to exhaustion or just fallen off. bike.jpgWhen, to my great pleasure, I came across a small human tragedy, I would phone the base camp in Brighton and they would tell me either to take the cyclists to a First Aid station or their bikes to one of the repair stations on the route. It was a lovely day and most of the route was confined, thanks to the skilled route-devising of the organisers, to leafy lanes. I drove carefully alongside columns of hundreds of sweating pedallers, keeping an eye open for mishaps and asking those who appeared to be bonking (a cycling term unrelated to penetrative sexual intercourse wherein the cyclist suddenly runs out of energy and becomes dangerously weak and woozy – a banana will often debonk the sufferer) if they were alright.
As the day wore on I became happier and happier. I experienced the following things:
nobility – I was the selfless rescuer
usefulness – the necessity for my presence was inarguable
responsibility – I had to do the right thing never the wrong thing
amusement – the short wave banter between myself and base camp got better and better. I particularly enjoyed composing florid reports in a clipped WWII pilot’s voice then saying, as required by law, “Over”.
fluidity – the cooordination of hands, phone and steering wheel grew ever more polished
health benefits – my right forearm acquired a pleasing tan

Pat & Viola

Jaye looks at Charlotte’s desk and giggles. “What’s funny?” I ask.
“Charlotte keeps her desk very tidy,” she says.
“Uhuh.”
“Whenever she tidies something up she gives it a pat. She’ll tidy all the edges of a pile of paper then pat it.”
Jaye mimes Charlotte’s pat and laughs a lot. Charlotte grins tolerantly.
In a Ren & Stimpy cartoon, ages ago, Ren or was it Stimpy presents something to Stimpy or Ren which he is proud of. “Viola!” he cries.

Masquetry

There are two main types of shop in Venice. One sells glass, the other masks. The latter comprise both straight copies of traditional forms and less straightforward souvenirs of the elaborate masks worn at Carnival. The traditional masks were in use at least as early as the 15th Century and some of them were originally part of the costume of commedia dell’arte characters.
It is the souvenirs that come to monopolise one’s attention. Where the traditional mask copies retain a degree of medieval mystery and grotesqueness, the souvenirs are a dramatic, not to say melodramatic, departure from anything that was ever worn at Carnival. Some are palm-sized, cast in solid plaster and made to be hung on the wall; others are in light plastic, papier maché or wood and can be fixed to the head.
masks.jpg
Encrusted with glitter, costume jewels, lurid metallic paints, sequins and satins, the masks leer emptily from one shop in three, ancient faces obscured by a creeping, twinkling, radioactive mould. I have no doubt that in February, at Carnival time, they fly from the shelves to the streets where they may mingle with their older, more ‘authentic’ cousins. In this context the masks are masking not the tourist revellers but the function of Carnival itself. There was rather more to Carnival than just ‘being there’. It’s possible that those indigenous Venetians who wish to celebrate Carnival with grave abandon may welcome the opportunity to identify instantly the rubbernecking visitors and behave accordingly. The glitter masks then immediately lose their function as disguise and become badges that identify the wearer unequivocally.
Oddly, the manic tourism and the commodities produced to feed it serve to heighten the ever so slightly tedious (because commodified) ‘mystery of Venice’. The ubiquitous masks drive home the fact that you’re not getting the Venice behind Venice – you’re getting a hystericised Venice in front of Venice behind which may reside the true Venice. So elusive is this final quantity that it may be wiser to forego one’s first visit to the city – it may be only on the second visit that one is sufficiently deterred by the demented white noise of glittermasked Venice to put some work into getting off the beaten track, getting lost and, maybe, finding the mystery thing that everyone bangs on about.
It would be entertaining to think that somehow the Venetians endorse the dementia because it diverts the tourists and prevents them from contaminating the mystery. It’s more likely that they need a quick euro in a sinking city that has only its beauty to offer. The agitated intensity of the glitter masks and the stylistic gap between them and their medieval forebears suggests that both the natives and the visitors are experiencing an impatience with the past. By plumping for the gaudy the visitors have voted against the past as a place where people were different and settled for one where they’re dancers on an international TV light entertainment. The advantage of such a past is that it doesn’t just sort of sit there getting more and more out of date, it is constantly unfolding, with the natives’ support, into a relevant future.

Fizzingly

The Orange Prize is held in the wholly refurbished Royal Festival Hall this year. The atmosphere is bubbly and the Taittinger is being liberally dispensed. Once your glass has less than three inches in it a nicely groomed young person is at your side within moments.
“Would you like some more champagne?”
“I really oughtn’t notter. Tee hee!”
“Sir is such a card!” Glubglub.
When the Orange Broadband Award for New Writers is announced, the winner, Karen Connolly, author of ‘The Lizard Cage’, steps up to the lectern, does the “I wasn’t prepared for this but I’ll just whip out these notes” gag then, as is her perfect right, makes a speech. fizz4.jpg Her novel, I learn, is about the experiences of a Burmese protest singer arrested by the secret police and sentenced to twenty years’ solitary confinement. Not chicklit then. Connolly thanks people like you have to then extends her thanks to some of the Burmese people she has met, some of whom are also interned. Her voice breaks a little as she lists their names. Out in the body of the Hall hardly anybody is listening. Saturated with Taittinger (I do not except myself), the large crowd chatters merrily, scoffs the darling finger foods, hails its chums and kisses them.
A few minutes later the main award – the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction – is announced. It goes to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, set in 60s Nigeria during the Biafra war.fizz5.jpg A great cry of exhultation fills the hall as Ms Adichie steps up to get the statuette (the big cheque comes later). The author is wearing an elegant white strapless dress and a colourful head wrap. She delivers a short, gracious and witty speech, thanks no one, pauses for photos and is out of there. The hall rings with enthusiastic applause.
Now, certain things can be pointed out: it was the main prize so you’d expect bigger applause. Possibly Adichie’s publishers and people were there in greater numbers than Connolly’s. People were drunker by the time Adichie took to the stage. That last one is silly – there was only a six minute gap between presentations. Why then, did Connolly get (almost) ignored? Was it because Adichie is more physically striking? Seems a bit of a cheap point. Was it because her book was better? I bet most people there hadn’t even read it.
Connolly’s mistake, I would venture, is that she made a speech. The old-fashioned sort that lasts more than 40 seconds, the sort the Oscar organisers, among others, are desperate to stamp out. Despite the fact that, in theory, winning an important literary prize is something you would wish to mark with an appropriately scaled response, many awards ceremonies as ‘occasions’ have been absorbed into the presentational priorities of television or the press and streamlined accordingly.
Speaking for myself, I love a good speech, be it at a wedding, funeral or presentation. I have the time for them and I can put up with unsuccessful ones. Watching, for example, the BAFTAs and the stream of potentially amusing or thoughtful or moving award winners hurrying through the statuette gate, I get increasingly frustrated. Surely the main point is to hear their reactions? Can they not halve the number of prizes and double the permitted speech length? What if you went to a funeral and the bereaved said “I feel very sad that my father is dead. He was a great man. Well, that’s enough from me.”?
The odd thing is that the Orange Prize was not extensively televised. It trimmed itself. This is the Stockholm Syndrome. You are not compelled to internalise the values of the broadcast media! Soon the original model will be lost – all ceremonies will focus on tailoring to the exclusion of everything but brief interludes of statuette donation.
I was at the do for about two hours. The presentations lasted about 25 minutes. For the rest of the time we glugged like bastards. Great. But why give us all that booze if all we do is collude in the muted but pervasive cry of “Fast forward!”