The Bombmakers of Aksu


I have a new entry on the The London Review of Books Blog about the recent arrests of some alleged bomb makers in Aksu.


David Foster Wallace was a contributing author to the Oxford American Writer’s Thesarus. This is his note on the word ‘pulchritude’

A paradoxical noun because it means beauty but is itself one of the ugliest words in the language. Same goes for the adjectival form pulchritudinous. They’re part of a tiny elite cadre of words that possess the very opposite of the qualities they denote. Diminutive, big, foreign, fancy (adjective), colloquialism, and monosyllabic are some others; there are at least a dozen more. Inviting your school-age kids to list as many paradoxical words as they can is a neat way to deepen their relationship to English and help them see that words are both symbols for things and very real things themselves.

In the above clip, he responds to the use of phrases like ‘prior to’ and ‘at the present time’, and even finds time to take a swing at ‘utilise’ and ‘individual’.

WARNING: you should only bother watching it if you’re interested in, you know, words.

More on DFW and the Thesarus at Maud Newton

An army with no uniforms

I have a letter in the new LRB (dated September 24) which expands on one of the major causes of unrest in Xinjiang: the massive resettlement of Han Chinese in the province, many of whom are part of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a paramilitary organisation that has a controlling presence in both agriculture and industry in the region. I also respond to the claim (made in a letter responding to my piece) that the reports of atrocities during the riots in Urumqi in early July were in all liklihood true.

When I lived in Xinjiang I thought I understood how pervasive the XPCC presence was. In the process of doing only mild research, I have come to realise that I still underestimated the extent of their influence- they have their own TV station, they have built their own cities, and even have a parallel education system, from primary schools all the way up to university. Although parallels are often drawn between Xinjiang and Tibet, perhaps an equally instructive one could be drawn between the Israeli settler movement and the activities of the XPCC.

Scottish Journey

Canongate Tolbooth

Canongate Tolbooth

The pleasures of travel writing are obvious. We visit places, and meet their inhabitants, with none of the trouble, expense (and sometimes, danger) a real trip might entail. There is no risk of missed connections, inclement weather, of being hurt or robbed (and even if these mishaps occur, it is not to us, which makes them enjoyable). Best of all, there is no chance of boredom, of knowing you are wasting more time and money than usual. In place of the meaningless sequence of events that make up most trips, there is always a purpose, better still, a narrative. In travel books, things are always done for a reason (even if it is only so they can be written about).

Consider then the added appeal of the out of date travel book (by which I mean those that are non-contemporary). One is transported in not just space, but time as well. One need not resent the author for showing oneself up by virtue of having gone somewhere, and done something, which one could easily have done, given enough nerve or imagination.

Edwin Muir’s Scottish Journey, based on his travels in 1934, provides all these pleasures, plus the added one of being about the place I currently live in.

The first sight of Edinburgh after an absence is invariably exciting. Its bold and stony look recalls ravines and quarried mountains, and as one’s eye runs up the long line of jagged roofs from Holyrood to the Castle, one feels that these house-shapes are outcroppings of the rocky ridge on which they are planted, methodical geological formulations in which, as an afterthought, people have taken to living… Perhaps it is the height of the houses, the great number and smallness of the windows, and the narrowness of the space in which one has to walk that give [a] sense of watchfulness and sinister familiarity. But there is in it, too, something of the terror of narrow rocky passes in savage and possibly inhabited regions.

Often, he articulates thoughts that have gurgled in my own mind:

Nowhere that I have been is one so bathed and steeped and rolled about in floating sexual desire as in certain streets of Glasgow and Edinburgh.

The joy of his book (for me at least) is that it is both familiar and strange (a contradictory combination that one, from habit, declines to believe is possible, until it occurs with particular force, from sentence, to paragraph, then page). One sees the city as it was, as it is, as it may perhaps shall be. There is an awareness of what has survived amidst the spill of change.

Edinburgh has a style, and that style was at one time, indeed as recently as a century ago, the reflection of a whole style of life. While the city itself remains, this style of life has now been broken down, or rather submerged, by successive waves of change which were first let loose during the Industrial Revolution, an event that has on a large scale swept from the great towns of Europe the character they once possessed. the waves have almost completely submerged London; but Edinburgh, being a high, angular place, is more difficult to drown. So it presents outwardly the face it had a hundred years ago, while within it is worm-eaten with all the ingenuity in tastelessness which modern resources can supply.

Hear, hear, one thinks, but does not say (after 9 years, still not feeling one has the right).

So although Edinburgh is Scottish in itself, one cannot feel that the people who live in it are Scottish in any radical sense, or have any essential connection with it. They do not even go with it. They look like visitors who have stayed there for a long time.

There is still this air of transiency, of people who were passing through but never made it out the other side. As I mentioned earlier this year, I do still (occasionally) try and move on. It may happen. It may.

Willesden Herald competition


The Willesden Herald short story competition is now open, and worth entering for several reasons.

Firstly, in addition to three prize-winners, they put out an anthology that features the top 10 stories, so unlike many other competitions, there’s a chance of publication even if you’re not in the top 3 (which I wasn’t last year).

Secondly, though you have to pay to enter this year (as opposed to the previous years, when it was free), it’s only £3, far less than competitions like the Bridport prize (about which I should also like to say that no one who places highly in it seems to be ever heard from again).

Thirdly, if we have even a passing interest in having any sort of literary culture that does not revolve around celebrity-written memoir or novels, we’re going to have do some work ourselves. Which means buying literary magazines and supporting small presses, not dutifully, or because we feel we should, but because there’s a lot of good work out there which will otherwise be ignored (especially if, as Mr James Kelman said earlier this week, it falls outside the more heavily-marketed genres).

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