A Working Life

A friend of mine, Erlend Clouston, has been writing a series of wonderful pieces for The Guardian about some of the less glamorous and yet most essential jobs in Scotland. I particularly reccommend the piece on the The Forth bridge painters and the one about a marine engineer on the Calmac ferries.

For some reason, these have appeared in the Money section of the Guardian, rather than in G2, perhaps because they have insufficient celebrity or scandal content. By putting them in a section which few of us read, the Guardian seems to be affirming the notion that these jobs, though essential, are better off unseen.

The Birds of Midway Atoll

I wish the bird in this photo were part of some shamanic ritual, or failing that, an art piece by a hermit who lives on the coast of Novia Scotia. Unfortunately, this is not the case. It, and the other photos below, were taken by Chris Jordan a month ago on Midway Atoll.

These photographs of albatross chicks were made just a few weeks ago on Midway Atoll, a tiny stretch of sand and coral near the middle of the North Pacific. The nesting babies are fed bellies-full of plastic by their parents, who soar out over the vast polluted ocean collecting what looks to them like food to bring back to their young. On this diet of human trash, every year tens of thousands of albatross chicks die on Midway from starvation, toxicity, and choking.

To document this phenomenon as faithfully as possible, not a single piece of plastic in any of these photographs was moved, placed, manipulated, arranged, or altered in any way. These images depict the actual stomach contents of baby birds in one of the world’s most remote marine sanctuaries, more than 2000 miles from the nearest continent.

There’s something about these pictures, and also Lu Guang’s, which troubles me, and not just because they starkly demonstrate the degree to which we have devastated our environment. What I find equally upsetting is how beautiful they are- as if even pollution now has its own aesthetic. Even as we push species into extinction, and ecosystems into radical change, we are making art from these actions. The fault, of course, is not in the photographers, but in those who provide subjects for them.

Cormac McCarthy Interview

Cormac Mccarthy, mid-1960s

A rare, intriguing, and somewhat provocative interview with Cormac Mccarthy and ‘The Road’ director John Hillcoat at the Wall Street Journal.

I don’t find it surprising that he describes the ‘800-page books that were written a hundred years ago’ as ‘indulgent’, though I cannot agree. McCarthy has said he has no interest in authors who do not ‘deal with issues of life and death’, but it seems to me that there are other, equally valid concerns for an author, some of which cannot be dealt with in a concise manner.

Inherent Vice, Chapter 11



Doc gets a postcard from Shasta that reminds him of when a Ouija board sent them on a fool’s errand. When he revists the location he finds a golden building shaped like a fang. Inside he meets Japonica Fenway, a girl from a previous case, who has wraparound hallucinations. After Denis crashes his car, Doc takes it to Tito Stavrou, who tells him he was supposed to pick up Wolfman from Chryskyolodon, but he never showed. And that Chryskylodon is, at a push, Greek for ‘Golden Fang’.

p.163- An amusing alternative postal delivery system- ‘catapult mail delivery involving catapult shells, maybe as a way of dealing with an unapproachable reef’.

p.165- A little extra sensory paranoia to add to all the fears about the living

Around us are always mischevious spirit forces, just past the threshold of human perception, occupying both worlds, and that these critters enjoy nothing better than to mess with all of us still attached to the thick and sorrowful catalogs of human desire.

p.166- During a torrential storm Doc imagines floods that lead to the ‘karmic waterscape connecting together, as the rain went on falling and the land vanished, into a sizable inland sea that would presently become an extension of the Pacific’. Lest we miss the reference to Lemuria, Sortilege has a dream about it, where she reveals that ‘We can’t find a way to return to Lemuria, so it’s returning to us’ (p.167). Just because this is an imagined Eden, it is no less potent (and perhaps painful). Once again, we are dealing with the Fall. Which is perhaps the only tolerable way to explain the present. At least there is the comfort that in the past things were different.

p.166- Doc and Shasta, whose relationship is all but over, make out in a car (this is a flashback) just so they can forget ‘for a few minutes how it was all going to develop anyway’. This is pretty much a synedoche of the novel.

p.170- The Golden Fang Procedures Handbook has a chapter on ‘Hippies’.

Dealing with the Hippie is generally straightforward. His childlike nature will usually respond positively to drugs, sex, and/or rock and roll’

p.171 Doc has a vision of ‘an American Indian in full Indian gear, perhaps one of those warriors who wipe out Henry Fonda’s regiment in Fort Apache (1948)’. Though a comic moment, this is also a nod to a history of disposession, of massacre and counter-massacre.

p.172 Japonica’s delusion (‘actually visiting other worlds’ p. 175)  is not without its truth, and also recalls the figures from the future in Against the Day.

Among those who could afford to, a stenuous mass denial of the passage of time was under way. All across a city long devoted to illusory product, clairvoyant Japonica had seen them, these travellers invisible to others, poised, gazing, from smogswept mesa-tops above the boulevards, acknowledging one another across miles and years, summit to summit, in the dusk, under an obscurely enforced silence.

p.176 Another ominous technological development, when Doc sees people listening to music on headphones,

in solitude, confinement and mutual silence, and some of them later at the register would actually be spending money to hear rock ‘n’ roll. It seemed to Doc like some strange kind of dues or payback. More and more lately he’d been brooding about this great collective dream that everybody was being encouraged to stay tripping around in. Only now and then would you get an unplanned glimpse at the other side.

The disturbing implication here is that all of the experimentation and freedom of the 60s actually helped the interests of capital and authority. That the last thing the latter wanted was a public fully engaged with actuality.

The photos of Lu Guang

I used to live in Shaoyang, a small town in Hunan province, in the south of China. When I told strangers where I was living they said, ‘There are many criminals there’ or ‘They have many oranges’. But the most frequent response was ‘That is a dirty place’. In many respects they were right. There were always piles of litter on the street, some of which were never swept up. The water in the Shao Shui river was a dubious green, like that of a jade milkshake (a colour some attributed to the presence of a dragon that slept in there). Even the people of the town said they disliked it being for dirty, though there was often a double standard at work- those who wiped the seat of a bus or chair in a restaurant, or who insisted on sitting on newspaper, were also the same people I saw throw cans and tissues out of train and bus windows.

But Shaoyang was in an agricultural region. Whilst I often saw rubbish caught in the sluice gates of the dam- and once the burst body of a pig -there were few signs of industrial pollution, nor of the alterations of landscape depicted in Edward Burtynsky’s photos (click on them to enlarge).


Tanggu Port, Tianjin 2005


Feng Jie #4


Wang Zhou #4

Though it is clear from watching Manufactured Landscapes (the documentary about his work) that Burtynsky has a strong environmental stance, his pictures often have a neutrality about them- the sense of judgement witheld. The same cannot be said of Lu Guang’s photos which make plain the environemntal costs of China’s reliance on coal-fired power stations (approximately 80% of their energy).


15-year-old boy from Tianshui, Gansu Province


Longmen town in Hanchen city, Shaanxi Province


Tianjin Steel Plant, She County, Hebei Province, March 18, 2008

Great corrections #1


From a review of the new Jonathan Safran Foer book about vegetarianism in the Nov. 9th New Yorker:

Correction, November 4, 2009: The number of chickens currently being raised in the United States is nearly two billion, not four hundred and fifty billion, as originally stated.

I like that no one noticed this- I wonder how many chickens it would take to fill the US- can someone please do the math?

LRB archive goes to Austin


Galley for LRB contents page

Nearly 600 boxes (or 275 linear feet’s worth) of material from the 30 years of the London Review of Books has gone to the archives of the University of Texas, in Austin. The files contain correspondence (between editorial staff, contributors and readers), typescript submissions and page proofs, complete with annotations. There are also pieces (and here my heart skips a beat) that failed to make it to publication, on which are written comments such as ‘not urgent’, ‘not this week’ or worst of all, ‘Killed’. The only frustrating thing about the scans included in the article is that the annotations on the pages are (no doubt deliberately) not quite legible. More here.

Inherent Vice, Chapter 10



Doc gets a damsel in distress call from Jade, who turns out to be in no distress at all. He ends up speaking to Jason Velveeta, her self-styled pimp, who says the Golden Fang is a heroin cartel. Later he bumps into Coy Harlingen again, who only wants to be back with his wife and daughter.

Not a lot to say about this chapter, other than that the description of the Golden Fang’s operation as a ‘vertical package’ that finances, grows, processes and distriubtes the drugs is little different to that of a corporation (p.159).

Here’s the song that gets to Doc, Roger and Hart’s ‘It Never Entered My Mind’

Here are the lyrics to the song sung on p.160, Dietz and Schwartz’s ‘Alone Together’, which seem a comment on community, and solidarity, but maybe also their limits.

Alone together, beyond the crowd,
Above the world, we’re not too proud
To cling together, We’re strong
As long as we’re together.
Alone together, the blinding rain
The starless night, were not in vain;
For we’re together, and what is there
To fear together.
Our love is as deep as the sea,
Our love is as great as a love can be,
And we can weather the great unknown,
If we’re alone together.

p. 162 A nice piece of genre-appropriate writing here, with the right amount of sentiment.

Inherent Vice, Chapter 9



Doc goes to see Coy Harlingen at the Boards mansion, but is driven away by English zombies and threatening suits. There are two counts of cunninlingus. Clancy Harlingen, Coy’s sister turns up and tells Doc that Mickey had a plan to give away a lot of the money he made.

p.125 Mention of Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa, described as ‘the eternally suspended monster’ (p.126), about as ominous (and vague) a symbol as one could ask for.

p.126 Cantor’s Delicatessan
Georg Cantor (1845-1918) was a German mathematician who pioneered the subject of set theory, now at the foundation of all modern mathematics. He proved that there are different sizes of infinity – for example, the set of natural numbers is smaller than the set of real numbers, though both sets are infinite.

This is perhaps a comment on what can be known, and how even vague concepts like ‘infinity’ or ‘time’ can be broken down (a bit of a stretch, I know)

p.128 A TV soap opera features

‘something called “parallel time”, which was confounding the viewing audience nationwide, even those who remained with their wits about them, although many dopers found no problem at all in following it. It seemed basically to mean that the same actors were two different roles, but if you’d gotten absorbed enough, you tended to forget that these people were actors.’

The implication is that our regular ‘wits’ are insufficient to understand that people are not single, consistent selves, but instead are fractured constellations of memories and competing impusles.

It can also be read as a sop to the critics, or at least those who complain that Pynchon’s work (esp. Against the Day) is hard to follow and lacks fully developed characters (most vocally, Mr James Wood).

It also recalls this passage in V.

Rachel was looking into the mirror at an angle of 45°, and so had a view of the face turned toward the room and the face on the other side, reflected in the mirror; here were time and reverse-time, co-existing, cancelling one another exactly out. Were there many such reference points, scattered through the world, perhaps only at nodes like this room which housed a transient population of the imperfect, the dissatisfied […]

This passage is immediately followed by another swipe at TV, when Doc realises ‘the scope of the mental damage one push of the “off” button of a TV zapper could inflict on this roomful of obsessives’.

p.129-130 has what appears at first sight to be an either paranoid (or highly perspicacious) condemnation of the activities of those in authority.

If everything in this dream of prerevolution was in fact doomed to end and the faithless money-driven world to reassert its control over all the lives it felt entitled to touch, fondle, and molest, it would be agents like these, dutiful and silent, out doing the shitwork, who’d make it happen.

Was it possible, that at every gathering- concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak in, here, up north, back east, wherever -those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear?

But for Doc, and perhaps for Pynchon, this is somewhat over the top- the ‘epic’ sexual drive, the ‘faithless money-driven’ etc. It’s function may be to send up people’s paranoia, and show the desperation with which people construc tales of conspiracy. And in case any readers are still nodding at these sentiments, there is always Doc’s verdict”

“Gee,” he said to himself out loud, “I dunno…”

(The alternative is that only someone in Doc’s state of perpetual befuddlement could doubt this idea).

p.146 Masse shots are forbidden- In billiards, a massé shot is when a player strikes a ball with the cue at a sharp angle and causes the ball to curve drastically or even eventually reverse direction. Given Pynchon’s predilection for the imagery of arcs, rainbows, refraction etc, he is most likely commenting on the status quos resistance to change, especially of a revolutionary nature.

Too long in the library #3


The Dream by Pablo Picasso

When people ask me what my PhD is about (almost a weekly occurence), my current answer is that it’s on Thomas Pynchon and [blank]. At the moment I’m trying some different words in this space- ‘visions’, ‘utopia’, occasionally ‘time’. The combination of these words led me to Frederic Jameson’s Archaelogies of the Future, a book about the constructions and uses to which utopias have been, and might be, put. Though I have a passing familiarity with Jameson’s work from his reviews in the LRB, this is the first time I have been exposed to a book-length display of his erudtion. He quotes this passage by Freud about creativity as a kind of wish fulfilment:

You will remember how I have said that the day-dreamer carefully conceals his phantasies from other people because he feels he has reasons for being ashamed of them. I should now add that even if he were to communicate them to us he could give us no pleasure by his discolsures. such phantasies, when we learn them, repel us or at least leave us cold… The essential ars poetica lies in the technique of overcoming the feeling of repulsion in us.

Jameson puts this is in simple terms I think we can all relate to.

Anyone who compares the fascination we often feel for our own dreams with the boredom that suddenly overcomes in listening to the account of another will know what Freud means.

Art, then, consists of disguising and softening the egotistic content of such day dreams or phantasies, by bribing the reader, viewer, or listener with aesthetic pleasure. In my opinion, there is nothing that needs more disguising than a dream itself. But in their efforts to make the dreams of others interesting, most writers or film makers usually end up with too simplified a product, whose symbolism is too overt. The demons our heroine is pursused by are those we have already seen.

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