Idioms to share #1



“I came to wonder if the game was really worth the candle.”

I found this in Alasdair Maclean’s Night Falls on Ardnamurchan, his account of the remote crofting community where he grew up. It refers to a situation where the returns from an activity or enterprise do not warrant the time, money or effort required (for Maclean the ‘game’ in question was raising cattle, which was at best an uncertain affair) . This expression, which began as a translation of a term used by the French essayist Michel de Montaigne in 1580, alludes to gambling by candlelight, which involved the expense of illumination. If the winnings were not sufficient, they did not warrant the expense.

Tomorrow I shall be looking for conversations in which to use this, especially with people who wont hate me too much for deliberately using a phrase they don’t know, just so I can then say, “Aha! Well, this is very interesting. It all goes back to Montaigne.”

And so on.

Consider the salad

Lobster salad

Lobster salad

D. T. Max, who wrote the excellent New Yorker article on David Foster Wallace, answers follow-up questions here.

Also, here is the new memorial entry from the Forest Cafe’s menu (‘The Pynchon’ is, alas, no longer available):

Salad Plate: (Vegan) £4.20
The D.F.W.
3 (as in the basic numerical unit, also denoted by ‘III’ ‘three’, ‘iii’, or ‘㈢)’ (Arabic font unavailable on this computer)) Salads (erroneous use of the plural fully intended, it being never far from our mind that ‘salad’, being an uncountable noun, does not require (let alone deserve) to have the suffix- s attached) with (as in ‘accompanied by’, and also (in this case, correctly) implying that the noun phrase anteceding the term is greater in quantity than that which follows it) Bread (used here non-colloquially i.e. “n. baked dough made from flour usu. leavened with yeast and moistened, eaten as a staple food” (OED) and certainly not implying that we slip some folding green under your flower petals).

Death to the oral tradition


Philip Larkin on the problems with poetry readings (from the Paris Review Interviews Vol. 2):

“Hearing a poem, as opposed to reading it on the page, means you miss so much- the shape, the punctuation, the italics, even knowing how far you are from the end. Reading it on the page means you can go your own pace, taking it in properly; hearing it means you’re dragged along at the speaker’s own rate, missing things, not taking it in, confusing there and their and things like that. And the speaker may interpose his own personality between you and the poem, for better or worse. For that matter, so may the audience… I think poetry readings grew up on a false analogy with music: the text is the score that doesn’t come to life until it is performed. It’s false because people can read words, whereas they can’t read music. When you write a poem, you put everything into it that’s needed: the reader should hear it just as clearly as if you were in the room saying it to him. And of course, this fashion for poetry readings has led to a kind of poetry that you can understand first go: easy rhythms, easy emotions, easy syntax. I don’t think it stands up on the page.”

Whilst there are glorious exceptions to this, I am generally in agreement. The same is broadly true of prose readings, which I continue to do, but am almost always dissatisfied with. I don’t think I read badly, and maybe some people enjoy it, but the plain fact is that I don’t write stories for them to be listened to. I write them to be read. I don’t want my work to be judged on the strength of my performance. The test is whether it stands up on the page.

Stand by for more reactionary announcements.

Wise Blood


Flannery O’Connor died at 39 from lupus. She also raised peacocks, pheasants, geese, swans, chickens and Muscovy ducks, as this picture (which I would like to think a self-portrait) makes clear.


Wise Blood, her 1952 novel, is a parade of Southern grotesques. It details the heresy of Hazel Motes, preacher and sole member of ‘The Church without Christ’. It is a novel replete with cruelty and meaness. A policeman pushes a man’s car off a cliff; another man visits the zoo each day so he can swear at the animals. When a gorilla famous from films comes to town, he is thankful for “the opportunity to insult a successful ape”.

All of this is immensely enjoyable, and written in very sharp prose. But for me these warped (and often comic) characters failed to resonate. I’m not sure if this is a fault of mine, or the novel. As O’Connor says in her introduction,

“That belief in Christ is for some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence.”

Whilst I don’t think the struggle to accept Christ a matter of no consequence, I, as a secular reader (probably true of her contemporary audience as well) need some help in trying to empathise with characters for whom it is an essential question. Which could, I suppose, beg the question- Isn’t it one of the jobs of the author to preach to those yet to be converted? To create characters and situations so compelling that we care about those involved, even when, especially when, they are wildly dissimilar to us and our secular preoccupations?

It is certainly possible to do so. Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, though its premise is perhaps not initially engaging- an aged pastor in a small town writing letters for his son to read when he is older -is nonetheless one of the most affecting explorations of faith I have read.


Perhaps my problem with Wise Blood was its style- because of the restricted emotional palette, it was too easy to dismiss the characters’ (no doubt theologically interesting) concerns as simply those of grotesques and fanatics. The only other book of hers I’ve read is her Collected Stories, which for many is an unshakeable part of the canon. Whilst this is not a claim I am in any position to challenge- there is too much fine writing in them for that -the thing about reading a life’s work in one lump is that although it allows you to discern certain thematic or formal preoccupations, it can expose a paucity of ambition on the writer’s part. By this I mean an unwillingness to write certain kinds of story or character (it being my assumption that the best writers are capable of doing anything), or an over-reliance on particular narrative forms or plots. Stories that work very well on their own, or in their smaller, original collections, when placed in proximity can undermine each other. With O’Connor, many of the stories start in a comic vein, then abruptly shift to the violent or tragic, a technique I eventually found irksome for its predictability. This is almost true of Wise Blood as well, though it can also be said that no book could fully recover a tragic or even serious tone after a chapter like the one involving Enoch and the Gorilla, which may have started off as a short story then been shoehorned into the novel (purists will certainly know).

Finally, there is at last a definitive biography of O’Connor, of which the reviews are trickling in. I shall read it, if only to learn about the animosity between herself and Carson McCullers, whose work I can imagine she found too whimsical and charming.

A frolicsome crapshoot?


Philip Roth’s Everyman has many simple, devastating things to say about our mortality, and is one of those books that deserve to be read in their entirety in the course of a day (but not, I think, in a single sitting, as this is good for no one’s digestion). I acquired my copy somewhat fraudulently from the PR department of Jonathan Cape, on the proviso I would write a review, and though I am not about to do that, I consider this post, though several years late, my repayment of this debt, in full.

Some reviewers found fault with the novel for its plainness of style and lack of event, but to my mind this was just churlish disappointment at being denied some of the sexual fireworks that have ensured the popularity of his books (though there is, I’m pretty sure, at least one fairly hot scene slipped in between the lifetime of surgical procedures that are used to structure the book. This kind of thematic approach to structure is to my, and maybe other’s minds, a good approach to the question of how we tell the story of another’s life. One can imagine focusing on sex, betrayal, crimes, marriages, journeys, dogs owned, or great Russian novels, depending on one’s purpose).

Having just finished that, I serendipitously came across this article by RICHARD FORD, who is  without doubt one of the most charming and charismatic writers I have paid money to see. During a Q. & A. in Edinburgh in 2007 he digressed to say, “My grandfather was a suicide,” then proceeded to tell us of how his grandfather had lost the farm and the house whilst gambling, and then was so fearful of telling his wife that he shot himself dead. Ford ended the anecdote by saying, “But you’re probably not interested in that.”

The piece has some interesting points to make about Character, and makes me think that writing a kind of representative human depends precisely on emphasising that which is particular and specific, as without these elements, no character, however emblematic they are intended to be, can persuade us into identifying with them. And now, a picture of Ford, with dogs.


The stone-throwing chimp


“Santino the chimp would calmly collect stones and fashion discs made out of concrete even when the zoo was closed, to throw at visitors when they returned.”

Unfortunately, this is not the opening line of a story I wrote. The facts of the matter can be found here.

It’s not the throwing itself that’s exciting, but the planned and actual manufacture of weapons. If I was a monkey in a cage, who was constantly being stared at and commented on  (not as big an imaginative leap as you might think, given that I lived for two years in China, where I was the only foreigner in a city of almost a million) that is precisely what I would do. Though certainly not what I did.

In other news: Monkey kills cruel owner with coconut thrown from tree.

The results


of the Willesden Herald Competition are in. Alas, alack I did not win. But my story, as one of the shortlisted (from, I am told, a total number of 645 entries) is going to be published in the New Short Stories 3 anthology, which can be ordered here

Some have said it “ably and wryly depicts the sometimes quite contrary nature of the male psyche.” (Authortrek). As a taster, (or perhaps, a warning), this is how it begins:


One night, a few months ago, I went into my flatmate’s room. I put back the pillow and then, without thinking, bent down and pulled out one of the plastic trays that slot under her bed. In the first were trousers, t-shirts and shorts, so I pushed it back in, and pulled out the other. In that one there were bras and pants so I brought a black pair to my nose and slowly, deeply, breathed.

I had taken the pillow because a friend was supposed to be staying. When I’d finally made up the spare bed— the duvet cover was a nightmare —I realised there was no pillow and so earlier that day I’d gone into Amy’s room. I didn’t think she would mind: she was in Romania with her adventurous boyfriend.

I remember listening outside while the floorboards creaked. If she had somehow been inside— having returned from her holiday early after breaking-up with Tim —it would have seemed strange, almost creepy, for me to be stood there so long, as if I was waiting for a hole, or crack, to open in the wood.

I pushed the door with my knuckles. It swung in with an unfortunate groan but no one said Get out. I went in and took a pillow, then paused for a quick look round (although she’d lived there eight months, I’d only been in once before, when I had stood and watched while she wrote me a cheque). I saw that the bookcase was full, that she had a thriving yucca and a Vettriano print. I certainly didn’t think about touching the trays under the bed.

When I returned the pillow later (my friend had inexplicably decided to stay in a Travel Lodge) I was pretty drunk. When I brought her pants to my nose, it was mostly as a joke; there’s something unavoidably comic about sniffing someone’s underwear. My thoughts during the three or four seconds that I smelt the spring freshness of the fabric conditioner, felt the softness of the crotch (which although far from worn, felt too thin to be new) were anything but erotic. I smelt them the way you breathe in a rose on your way to the bus stop. At no point did I imagine Amy taking off these pants, slowly, or with a jerk of eloquent impatience.

Final words


There were several forms of disbelief at the suicide of David Foster Wallace last November. First, there was disbelief at the basic fact of his death. Then, on learning the manner of it, there was a refusal to comprehend that someone so brilliant, so devoted to showing the richness of mental life, could be simultaneously  so exhausted by this richness that he chose death as a solution. Finally, there was our childish refusal to accept that there would be no more. The two novels, three short-story collections, numerous non-fiction pieces- maybe half a million words -just did not seem enough. And we wanted to think this was not just our greed. We could not imagine that someone so engaged, so gifted, would not be, in spite of their depression, at work on something.

Well, even we are sometimes right, albeit twice a day. It seems that, yes, there is more. The New Yorker has an excerpt from ‘The Pale King’ which DFW had been at work on for years; the unfinished novel will be published in 2010, and apparently runs to two hundred thousand words. Also in the same issue, a long piece on DFW’s life and death, the best of its kind so far.

I suspect that when the book comes out, it will makes us feel better and worse.

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