Blind Dating in Bishkek


The autumn issue of The Dublin Review has a long tale of the joys and sorrows (more of those) of trying to do internet dating in Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. Suffice to say, no weddings are currently planned.

It begins thus:

September is the perfect month for dating in Bishkek. The intense heat of the Kyrgyz summer has passed, but the days are still bright and warm. In the evening you can eat outside, then stroll through the park, without feeling the slightest chill.

Before I travelled to Bishkek, I’d been living in London for six months, and despite the many possibilities of the place I was in a dating rut. We went to the British Film Institute or the Hackney Picturehouse. We spoke sometimes of Mad Men, sometimes of Breaking Bad, always of Game of Thrones. We were witty and cutting and sometimes we kissed but even after three drinks, with our eyes shut, our tongues entwined, we remained urbane. We were youngish, smart professionals. We were polished stones.

My initial reasons for visiting Kyrgyzstan’s capital had nothing to do with dating. I wanted to do a report on a clinic that treated drug addiction by putting its patients into comas. I had nothing else planned, and knew no one in Bishkek. Three days before I was due to leave, I was checking OkCupid – not with any real conviction, more out of pathetic habit – and saw I had a message from a fifty-six-year-old woman in Uzbekistan. ‘Good face!’ she wrote, which was nice of her, but alas I had no plans to visit Tashkent. It did, however, make me wonder if OkCupid had any English-speaking women in Bishkek on its site.


West Port Book Festival

Dear Readers, I will be doing a reading with Keith Ridgway on Saturday 24th November as part of this year’s West Port Book Festival. Keith Ridgway’s latest book, Hawthorn & Child, has been getting some very good reviews, and I’m looking forward to the event. I will be reading from the novel I am currently working on, so there’s also the enticing prospect of an EPIC FAIL on my part.

You should also check out the many other FREE events in the WPBF – ranging from book binding to Turing-themed collaborations – all of which are testament to the care with which the WPBF has been programmed. It is the boutique festival of boutique festivals. Come along, enjoy the events, and help support the booksellers of West Port.

In Mongolia, ten years ago

July 12th 2000

The skeletons are flashing me a welcoming white smile. They lie in dried up riverbeds, still waiting for the rains. Above them the sky is cornflower blue, interrupted only by the wings of vulture eagles.

The train flirts with the Gobi’s edges. The train guard asks, in a pleading voice, for us to close the windows. ‘We must keep the sand out,’ he says.

Though it is barely 8 a.m., all the passengers are up, even the song and dance troupe: they were still perfecting their version of “Love Me Tender” at 3 a.m. this morning. They are returning from a two-month tour of China laden with toasters, teddies and microwave ovens. On departure the women stripped down to their underwear whilst shouting and brushing their hair, then donned peach silk dressing gowns which they have been lounging in ever since.

We are still several hours from Ulaan Baatar (‘red hero’) and I know little about this country. I am sans Lonely Planet, speak no Mongolian and have absolutely no plan for the next three weeks. I haven’t really come to see Mongolia, but to visit my friend Theo who is a Peace Corps volunteer in a small town. I last saw him two years ago in Edinburgh, when my last words to him were, “See you in Asia”.

July 13th

Ulaan Baatar is a study in Soviet architecture. The buildings all wear the same grey uniform and radiate an air of unshakeable solidity. There are a few attempts at decoration, some lilac walls and orange shutters, but it is too little against the functional. The main square is a mournful place, lost in memories of previous parades. But this is not an unpleasant town; the streets are tree-lined and the buildings are spaced enough to permit frequent glances of the hills. About 700,000 people live in and around the capital, about a quarter of the total population.

I am staying in the flat of a couple that approached me when I got off the train. In China, I would mistrust any such offer, but for some reason I instantly trusted Ariuna and Enkhbat. They run a semi-legal guesthouse from this flat, which belongs to one of their mothers, currently staying in the countryside. Ariuna is a homeopathic doctor. She studied medicine in Irkutsk for 5 years, and seldom saw her husband during this time. Enkhbat is a quiet man who restricts himself to nods. His moustache is a timid curtain caught between nose and lip. She speaks and he accepts, an arrangement both seem happy with. Though I wonder if he missed being told what to do during those 5 years.

The flat looks as if it was burgled yesterday; an absence of mess that can only be achieved by a lack of content, decor by elimination. There are beds, carpets and an old sofa, nothing more except a set of dusty forks in a kitchen drawer that only sometimes opens.

There are two other travellers in the flat: Steve, a 40-ish American with bottle blond hair and an over travelled air and Marie, a quiet Swedish girl that maybe I’m attracted to.

July 14th

Naadam is the most important festival in Mongolia, a week of horse riding, archery and wrestling, which unfortunately ended yesterday. I must settle for repeats of the wrestling final, which was watched with even greater interest than usual, as the reigning champion of the last eight years had abdicated on reaching the semi-final, thus guaranteeing a new champion.

There is no ring in Mongolian wrestling, the aim is simply to throw one’s opponent to the ground. A hand on the ground is permitted, but only one. Enkhbat told me that they used to wear tunics but this was abandoned after a woman entered in disguise and became champion. So now the competitors only wear a small pair of pants and a sleeved piece of clothing that leaves the chest bare.

I imagined that the final would be a short and frenzied episode of grunting. It is anything but. The competitiors stood and stared at each other for half an hour, trying not to blink; it was only when I went to the toilet that one lunged for the other. It was over before I flushed.

July 15th

Last night we went to a rock concert. I was even more loath to go than usual, as the flat is hard to get back into. Sometimes the locks just can’t be bothered, and the whole fumbling process isn’t made any easier by the lack of lights on the stairwell. But it was Marie’s last night, so I went.

There were six or seven bands playing various types of soft metal. I was on the point of leaving during the third group when a couple of kids attempted to stage dive. Security took them out before they got a foot on stage. My renewed interest got me through a few more songs, even one whose lyrics were “Sexy sexy lover/ Tell me there’s no other/ You look like your brother/ When we’re under the covers”.

I stood outside and drank a beer too quickly. Portraits of big men in pants ran around the walls. A drunken man came up to me and tried to engage me in conversation with his one word of English.




“No, sorry, I’m not John.”


He staggered over to some women, perhaps expecting more success with those who spoke the same language. He put his face towards one of them and said something. She pushed him away, hard, and he fell over. He smiled and then was sick.

July 16th

U-B has some great museums, especially the national museum which also serves as the unofficial headquarters of the Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan) fan club. Downstairs there is a copy of the friendship treaty of 198 BC between China and Mongolia, when the former was ruled by the Han Dynasty and the latter by the Hunnu, nomadic tribes ruled by kings called Shanui:

“Let the state holding the bows beyond the great wall follow the rules of Shanui and let the Han govern the state of overcoat and hat which lies inside the great wall.”

Upstairs are numerous portraits of Khan and long paeans in praise of his invasion of China in 1211 AD, and of the period of Mongol rule (1271-1368). I was quite confused beforehand, as a number of people in China insisted that Genghis Khan must have been Chinese as he was the ruler of a Chinese dynasty (the Yuan dynasty, which funnily enough also ran from 1271-1368). I suppose this is just historical face-saving, no different to the way that Manchu invasion and rule is known as the Qing Dynasty (the Manchus also controlled Mongolia during roughly the same period).

The other interesting thing was the display of dels, long belted robes that genuinely are national costumes, in that ordinary people still wear them. One of them looked familiar, a long red dress with a pointed collar on a mannequin whose hair was arranged in stiff bunches.

It took me a moment to realise it was the same as the one worn by Queen Amadala in Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.

Imagine the dishonesty of the museum for trying to make us think that the garment in question was Mongolian national dress. Someone should be told.

Saw a load of anti-Chinese graffiti this afternoon, which had kindly been written in English.

July  17th

Theo lives in Arvaiheer, a small town in the next aimag (province). The only railway in Mongolia is the Trans-Siberian express, which only stops in U-B.  I had to take a minibus, which bumped along slowly for six hours. There was a tub of fermented horse milk between my legs, I was partially deafened by the Aqua songs blasting from the stereo, and the back of my neck was wet. An old, drunk man was sitting behind me with of those spray bottles used for watering plants. After the first few times, I asked him not to. He nodded, smiled, and  a few minutes later, squirted me again. After an hour of me asking, him nodding, then squirting, I opened my water bottle, turned round and emptied onto him. It suddenly occurred to me that he was a very large man. That there were several other such men on the bus, and that compared to me, they were giants.

I sat very quietly after that. In five hours we didn’t passed a single town or village, only scattered ger camps. A ger is a large circular tent comprised of canvas and felt draped over a wooden frame. Most gers have a stove in the centre and beds around the walls. Gers are also known as yurts, though not by Mongolians as yurt is a Russian word and thus associated with the long period of Soviet occupation.

We stopped by a ger camp for lunch. The main dish was tarok, a large charred rodent cooked by having hot stones placed in its stomach. I ate my biscuits and watched the others picking at the carcass. I think it was a marmot. The kind that still carry the Black Death.

We kept passing large stone cairns with bits of bone and bottle, on which blue ribbons fluttered. They are called ovoos, and are sacred sites.

You’re supposed to walk around them three times clockwise saying a prayer. They represent the meeting of Mongolia’s twin traditions of shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism.

July 19th

Arvaiheer is small and isolated. There’s an outdoor market that sells clothes, hats, rope, shoes, bicycles and toys. A line of homemade pool tables stands next to the stalls. The ‘shops’ are converted shipping containers, large metal sheds that mostly sell non-perishable goods. The indoor market has one room for vegetables, one for meat and one for dairy products, or “white food”.  There’s a small bakery, a post-office, the odd restaurant, and that’s pretty much it except for the Naadam stadium. In the centre of town, people live in three and four storey flats but away from here people live in gers and small houses. The place has a temporary feel about it, as if one morning the townsfolk might pack it in wagons and head off.

Everyone seems to know Theo, and not just in the “oh look it’s the foreigner” way that most know me in Shaoyang. It takes twice as long as it should to go anywhere because he has to stop and chat to all the people he knows. I suppose I’m jealous.

July 21st

Theo lives in a ground floor flat. Washing is a challenge as there isn’t a bath or shower. You have to stand in a plastic bowl and pour water over yourself. We spent ten minutes today trying to kill some of the flies. No one seems to knock here; people just wander in and sit down. There were five different people this morning and three already this afternoon. Mucqdul has been here three times today. He lives in the next block with his mother. He’s unlike any other man I’ve seen here. Most of them are large, solid and semi-drunk; Mucqdul is a hunched five-foot. His legs are barely thicker than his arms; his head is an inverted triangle. He’s twenty-seven. We sat on the carpet and played a game with sheep’s anklebones whose rules I don’t understand.

July 22nd

A couple of girls came round this morning. I played chess with the older one, who beat me in ten minutes. Chess is one of the better things that the Russians brought to this country. Vodka is not.

The younger girl is called Bagee, which is quite funny as there’s a popular song at the moment whose chorus goes “BAGEE! BAGEE BAGEE BAGEE!” She brought a tiny baby rabbit that she had found. Its eyes were barely open. We tried feeding it some milk, first in a dish, then on our fingers, then on the end of a cotton bud, all to no avail. I don’t hold out much hope for it.

This afternoon we went to the Nadaam stadium. There was no one there and I struggled to imagine the wrestlers and horses that had packed the place the week before. On the way back we passed an old man that Theo knew a little. When he heard I was English he said that he had been there. When? In 1971, for an archery contest in York. What did he remember? That the tea wasn’t milky enough.

July 23rd

Theo is the nicest person that I know. He never minds when hordes of people come to his house. They are always made welcome. He lets people keep meat in his fridge even though he’s vegetarian. He’s so nice that he has agreed to move out of his flat a month early because the woman he rents it from wants to move back in, even though Theo has already paid for August. From tomorrow we will be homeless. Wherever we end up, I hope there are less flies.

July 25th

We have managed to avoid the problem of being homeless by going camping for the last few days. We pitched our tent near the gers of a family that Theo knows. He’s been trying to encourage more people to grow vegetables so that they are not solely dependent on sheep and goats for income. In addition to the difficulties of harsh winters and summer droughts, there is also the problem that animals will eat any crop or shrub if given the chance. The carrots and beetroot have a high fence around them. The idea of a diet that isn’t based purely on meat and dairy products is still quite new to some people here. We had to show the family how to make a salad, and they didn’t really like it until they had put a cup of salt onto it.

Their ger is the nicest I’ve seen so far. The walls and furniture are painted the same bright orange. The chests of drawers have dark blue lines coiled around their handles. Framed photos of men and horses stand on top of the dresser, crowding around a small altar. Boney M plays from a small tape recorder. Drying meat hangs near the door. A large container of white liquid lurks in the shadows. I worry that it may be airag, fermented horse’s milk, semi-alcoholic and quite frightening to someone who hasn’t had dairy products for over a year.

Theo has been giving me a crash course in Mongolian etiquette, which I am having plenty of opportunity to practice. When you give or receive something, you should always use your right hand; it can then be transferred to your left hand. And if you’re going to trip over the doorstep of a ger, make sure you do so on the way in. This is said to bring luck into the ger. Tripping on the way out takes the luck away.

July 26th

Back in town. Last night we went to the Buddhist temple, as there was a special ceremony taking place. Arvaiheer has even less streetlighting than Shaoyang which makes going anywhere at night rather disorienting. We took a shortcut down a street that Theo called “dog alley”. Dogs with too much wolf blood howled and threw themselves against their gates in frustration. I was ready to offer thanks by the time we got to the temple.

The temple is made from wood and replaces a much older one that had been destroyed (like so many others) during the Soviet occupation. Inside it was crowded. A red line of monks sat chanting in the centre. Om mani padme hum. Banners and flags hung down to head height. A second line of monks sat against the left wall, possibly in reserve. Om mani padme hum. The rest of the space was filled with people from the town, young and old, herders and shopkeepers. Prayer wheels span; incense burned; Om mani padme hum.

Theo saw someone and asked him in a whisper about the ceremony’s purpose. The man replied for several minutes whilst I watched Theo trying to make sense of unfamiliar words. When he had finished I asked him what the man had said.

“He says it is very simple, a very important thing, a small thing… only a single grain of rice.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’m not sure.”

Afterwards we went to Mucqdul’s house, as his mother had kindly offered to let us sleep round there. When we arrived they were watching a video about Jesus. Judas had just taken the thirty pieces of silver. We put our things in the living room, which also doubles as a chapel. It was the first time I’ve seen sanitary towels in a place of worship. When we went back in we found we’d missed the crucifixion. They insisted on rewinding the tape.

When I was laying out my sleeping bag I noticed a lot of small boxes under one of the beds. Mucqdul’s eyes lit up when he saw me looking at the boxes. He crawled under the bed and fished them out. Each one was full of blister packs of pills in various child friendly shades.  It turns out that his mother is part of some pyramid sales scheme for selling medicine. I wonder where his father is.

July 27th

Today we went to a waterfall with Mucqdul and his mother. On the way he gave me a badge bearing the words “GOD PEOPLE!”. I thanked him and put it into the black hole of my pocket. I think he was disappointed that I didn’t put it on.

It was nice sitting watching the waterfall, pretending not to notice the goats sneaking up behind me. Later Mucqdul tried to teach me some Mongolian: ot toloh means “don’t bark at me”; bithi hots is “do you want to count some stars?” He also came up with some rude words for Chinese people, which I pretended to write down. One of them was the name of a black bird that makes a fast twittering sound, apparently mocking the way they speak. Another referred to a person who is not honest in business, someone who gives tea in exchange for furs. What surprises me most is the reasons that people give for disliking the Chinese. I could understand if they said things about communism, China pinching Inner Mongolia, or about all the killings during the persecution during the Cultural Revolution but instead they refer to Genghis Khan. What are they cross about? Not being beaten?

On the way back to Arvaiheer we stopped to give a monk a lift. He was the toughest-looking monk I’ve ever seen. He told Theo that he could speak the language of wolves, tried to demonstrate, then laughed for several minutes.

July 28th

I’m not spending another night in that flat. It has no curtains so the sun wakes you up at half past five and there are more flies than in a slaughterhouse. And if I have to watch that Jesus film one more time…

Mercifully, one of Theo’s colleagues has said we can stay in their bungalow. He owes Theo a favour because he still hasn’t returned the video recorder that Peace Corps provide for educational purposes, the one he borrowed three months ago.

The horizon here is clear, the land a green tarpaulin spread into the distance. Blue above and green below.

We ran into Bagee today. I asked about the rabbit. She shook her head.

July 29th

The quest for sleep continues. When we went to the bungalow there was no sign of Theo’s colleague. His 12-year-old daughter was sitting on her own watching an extremely violent film. She barely looked at us for the duration of the film. When it finished (the evil villain got cut in half by an industrial laser) Theo tried to talk to her but she was already reaching for the next film that turned out to be even more unpleasant. We went out for some food and when we returned she was still glued to the screen. Some other kids came round, armed with a games console. Twelve o’clock came and went and still the films went on. Theo asked when they were going to go to sleep and the girl said they weren’t.

This would have been the moment to assert our authority as adults, but we felt inhibited by our guest status. By two o’clock I began to wonder if I would ever sleep again. I wandered out into the front yard. Everything was bathed in toothpaste light: the lumber pile, scrap metal mound, an old car on cinder blocks. I tried the passenger door handle. It opened and I climbed in. I woke several hours later with a dull pain in my rib caused by the gear stick. Dawn was beginning to dirty the night, smudging grey against the black, smugly announcing another night of failed efforts to sleep. I went inside and found the girl still watching the visual litany of shooting, kicking, punching, stabbing and evisceration. Theo was lying on the floor, awake. He looked traumatised.

We got our stuff together and left. The girl said nothing during the whole time. We walked across town to Theo’s office. We didn’t see anyone else even though it was almost seven. In Shaoyang, the shops would have been open for an hour; people would be getting ready for work or doing exercise. The noodle stalls would be packed with students. But in Arvaiheer, it was quiet and grey. A cold wind roamed the streets unchallenged. Dogs barked and were silenced. I started to miss China, then managed to stop myself.

July 30th

Pathetically happy to be back in Ulaan Baatar, able to enjoy base pleasures. Breakfast at a Belgian café. A group of US servicemen entered. The commander was telling a joke,

“A skeleton goes into a dentists. The dentist tells it to say ‘aah’. He examines the mouth then says, “Well, your teeth are in good shape, but as for your gums…”

Theo laughed so hard he blew the froth off his cappuccino. Afterwards we went to the Korean pool hall.

Theo had some stuff to do so I wandered off to the Gandan monastery.

There were lots of people waiting to consult a lama. I watched one consultation between an old woman and a middle-aged lama. She wrote her prayer carefully on a small piece of paper and handed it to him. He read it then asked her a question. He nodded during her answer and when she had finished, lit some incense and passed it to her. She passed it behind her back three times in a clockwise direction. The lama chanted, clapped and rang a bell. She thanked him and left.

Outside the younger monks were sunning themselves. A couple of them spoke a little English, so we were able to have this edifying conversation.



“Do you like music?”

“Yes, very much. Do you?”

“Yes. Backstreet Boys. Sometimes Celine Dion.”

“What about Brittney Spears?”

“No. She is not good.”

Writing this in a room of my own, finally, without Christians or flies.

July 31st

Passed a building enigmatically labelled “SEX SHOP”. There wasn’t much stock inside, just condoms and forlorn looking dildos, not up to the standard of those in China. They did have a commendable range of health education posters though.

August 1st

This morning I had to step over several bodies on the stairs. They were both young and oblivious to the amount of noise I made. I’ve read about homelessness in U-B, articles about people coming from the country and failing to find work but all those words fail to prepare one for the morning sight of people your own age wrapped around heating pipes who went to sleep wondering if they would wake up. Theo says a lot of people died last winter.

August 2nd

The train puffs backwards, aimed at China, leaving all this space and sky. But there are still a few hoursof Mongolia left, and I am quite happy: today I am twenty-seven and my arms are out the window.


If you enjoyed this post, my book on China is now available at Amazon







Festival readings

A patas monkey

I’ll be reading on the shoulders of a few distinguished folk- first with Ron Butlin, the Edinburgh Makar, and author of The Sound of My Voice and many other acclaimed books, at Wordpower at 1pm on Thursday August 12th.

Then I’ll be reading at the Golden Hour at the Forest cafe on Wednesday 25th Wednesday 18th from 8pm. Also on the bill is AL Kennedy, whose novel Day won the Costa award, and more importantly, is amazing. As in a great book that actually deserved to win. She, like Ron, is also a wonderful reader, so this should appeal to my enemies as well as my few allies: come and see my literary ass get kicked by these people.


During the 2008 US Presidential Election, The Onion ran a series of blog pieces purporting to be by Don Delillo (whose new novel Point Omega is just out), commenting on the political conventions in Minneapolis. There were several reasons why this seemed unlikely. The first was that The Onion is a satirical newspaper, famous for having articles whose headlines are punchlines in themselves (‘Massive Earthquake Reveals Entire Civilisation Called “Haiti”‘; ‘Man Who Enjoys Thing Informed He Is Wrong’), whereas Don De Lillo— one of the most lauded authors of his generation —has rarely been associated with either comic writing or direct political comment. The second was that the tagline for the author read ‘Master of Postmodern Literature’- surely too immodest a title to be taken seriously. Though an entirely accurate (and respectful) bio accompanied each piece (‘Don DeLillo is considered one of America’s greatest living novelists. His works explore themes of consumerism, alienation, and decontextualization, and include such towering postmodernist classics as White Noise, Mao II, and Underworld’), and though I wanted to believe that Don Delillo was writing for The Onion (The British equivalent of J.G. Ballard writing for Private Eye), in the end what convinced me that this could only be a fond parody was that one of the pieces began ‘He speaks in your voice, American’. This is the opening phrase of Underworld,  Delillo’s best-selling (and most praised) novel to date,  and thus not a phrase he seemed likely to re-use.  However, after reading through the pieces again, I had to conclude that they were at the very least a fair imitation of Delillo’s style:

In the air, invisible information. Uploads, downloads. Waves and radiation. Surrounding us both, on every side of the lobby, dozens more do exactly the same, typing with their thumbs into tiny silver death machines.

Whilst I hoped that this was a piece of self-parody, a wink at the notion that in postmodernity every text is a pastiche, even if it is only of your own work, I and most other commentators concluded that it had to be a hoax. The only indication to the contrary was an item in the New Yorker, said ‘to be from the writer himself.

Yes, I posted a blog for The Onion, but this was four years ago at the Republican Convention in New York. Evidently the report has been orbiting the blogosphere all this time. Note the prophetic reference to Sarah Palin.

All this did was muddy the waters, albeit of a debate that was somewhat less pressing than the questions being asked of the US electorate. Even if Delillo had written those pieces, and thus reused his opening phrase, did it really matter? The answer, I decided, was that it did not. And then Obama won.

But yesterday, whislt reading a collection of tributes to the late David Foster Wallace, I came across a piece by Delillo. At the end of his moving and appreciative eulogy (the pieces were first read out on 23 October, 2008 at New York University) there is a familiar phrase.

The words won’t stop coming. Youth and loss. This is Dave’s voice, American.

The idea that one should always avoid repetition in one’s work may be helpful for begining writers (‘the big dog chased the big man into the big field’ is probably not a good sentence) but done deliberately, as for example, throughout Faulkner’s work, repetition can be a very effective device.  Whilst there is an argument that a writer should always be looking for new ways to test the language, it is also true that sometimes the best way to express something has been said before, not only by others, but also oneself.

Pushcart Rankings

A while ago I posted a list of US journals to submit to (courtesy of Bookfox), to which I’d like to add this list from Perpetual Folly, which ranks the journals according to how they are represented in the 2010 Pushcart Prize anthology. Though the two lists have considerable overlap (the domination of Ploughshares and Conjunctions for example) there are also some surprises, such as the Iowa Review and Glimmer Train being much lower down. I hope it will also be useful for alerting people to journals they may not be familiar with (my submissions to Noon and The Threepenny Review are already in the post…).

The Golden Hour Book Vol. 2


Now on sale from Forest Publications, the latest volume of prose, poetry and music (it comes with a CD) from the monthly Golden Hour cabaret at the Forest Cafe in Edinburgh.

It features contributions from Andrew Philip, Alan Gillis, Robert Alan Jamieson, Kapka Kassabova and myself. Ron Butlin, Edinburgh’s current Makar, had this to say about it

‘There is genuine wit, deep feeling and real entertainment in this most enjoyable volume. Light-hearted and serious by turns, ‘The Golden Hour Book Volume II’ contains some of the best and freshest new writing I have come across for quite a while.’

You can now also buy Stolen Stories (an anthology I c0-edited) from the Forest Publications site, as well as many other fine publications.

Vasectomania, and other cures for sloth

A rebellious monkey refuses to give up its glands

A rebellious monkey refuses to give up its glands

Cabinet magazine issue 29 has a fascinating article on the use of monkey glands by Christopher Turner.

The physiologist Serge Voronoff, a Russian working in Paris, was one of the most infamous of the gland doctors. He thought that the lazy, mentally disabled, run-down, and aged could be revitalized by testicular transplants. Many wealthy men underwent the costly surgery; Voronoff transplanted the testes of executed criminals into millionaires. Legal contracts were drawn up with prospective donors, but apparently willing individuals were in such short supply that what one scientist called a “despicable trade in organs” began to develop. According to one newspaper, men were even being mugged for their testicles, “knocked unconscious and then robbed of the long-sought-for organs.”

Voronoff solved this crisis by slicing and grafting the testicles of monkeys onto those of the men who sought his treatment. In his book, Rejuvenation by Grafting (1925), Voronoff promised the patients who acquired his monkey glands that they’d be able to work longer, and that they would be blessed with improved memories, eyesight, and sex drives. He set up a special breeding center on the Italian Riviera for chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans that was run by a former circus-animal keeper.

Sale of stuff

In a rearguard action to gain some shelf-space (and to support various legal ‘habits’) I’m selling some magazines and anthologies I’ve been in. I only have a few copies of each, so fortune will favour the bold.

For £6 (+£1 postage, UK only) you can get a copy of The Southern Review, which my story ‘The Ballad of Lucy Miller’ appeared in. Here’s a short Review of it.


For the same price, there’s the Edinburgh Review special issue on China that has a non-fiction piece about Xinjiang.


For £7 ((+£1 postage, UK only) you can buy a copy of the Willesden Herald Anthology that features my story ‘Amy’, and a fine story by Jo Lloyd entitled ‘Work’. There’s a review here.


Payments only accepted by PayPal. Send the £7 or £8 to

A change in habit

Henry James in 1890, aged 47

Henry James in 1890, aged 47

I have recently acquired two new habits in the way I read. The first concerns how I consume prose. It used to be the case that I would, on finishing a book by one author, make sure to shift to one by a very different author. e.g. from E.M. Forster to Henry Miller (or vice versa). If there was anything as developed as a reason for this (which I doubt) it was to avoid being overly influenced by a particular voice.

My new approach is to do the opposite, to read as much by one particular author as is ‘possible’ (which here depends on how many books by a particular author I have, and if it seems worthwhile to try and do so- answers in the negative include Ian McEwan, John Fowles and Herman Hesse). I suppose I began doing this with Faulkner, partly because the first 5 or 6 were so extraordinary, partly because I wanted to see if there was anything he couldn’t do. The benefits of this are that one gets to watch a writer’s style evolve (in some cases, degenerate into mannerism) and that one can identify central preoccupations (or, to put it less grandly, whether he or she is repeating themselves in an increasingly tired manner e.g. Paul Auster). Currently, I am in a Henry James phase, having read The Europeans (very slight), wandered into Colm Toibin’s The Master, then resumed with The Spoils of Poynton. This is from The Master.

Henry studied Gosse and paid attention to his tone. Suddenly, his old friend had become a rabid supporter of the stamping out of indecency. He wished there were someone French in the room to calm Gosse down, his friend having joined forces, apparently, with the English public in one of their moments of self-righteousness. He wanted to warn him that this would not help his prose style.

The second shift concerns poetry, and is, I now realise, the opposite. Where once I would try (and always fail, except with Raymond Carver) to read a poet’s Collected Works, now I either read a single volume, or start with the latest work. Often this latter work seems best, and one does not thus get bogged down in juvenalia or false stylistic turnings. I’m not sure if this is due to the nature of poetry (as opposed- if it is- to prose) or just my own capacity for enjoying it (five or six poems at a time is usually sufficient).

FAO: Lunatics


A reasonable request from Alexander Waugh:

To the Editors:

Adam Kirsch’s high-minded and misleading review of my book, The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War [NYR, June 11], has caused at least one terrorist lunatic to write to me in a threatening manner. I quite understand that reviewers cannot be expected to tailor all their work to the sensibilities of lunatics, but if there happen to be others among your readers who have also interpreted from Mr. Kirsch’s remarks that I am a “Jew-hating British intellectual piece of dog shit” I would advise them, before putting pen to paper, or threatening to “knock me on my ass,” that they read the book itself, which clearly expresses my huge admiration for the Wittgenstein family and acts as a corrective to most of Mr. Kirsch’s somber pensées.

Alexander Waugh
Taunton, England

Granta, Burnside, Gregerson


Somehow, without quite meaning to, I have been leaving my room. Last night I went to a poetry reading by John Burnside and Linda Gregerson, both of whom, despite my misgivings about readings, spoke (and read) very well. Many of her poems had that longed-for (though not predictable) shift in tone or subject that, when it works, is like the shift from cold to warm when stood beneath a shower. Her most recent collection is Magnetic North.


I only know Burnside’s work through his considerable reputation, as both a novelist and poet. The poems he read (including a long narrative poem about hunting a deer that made me recall, in a pleasurable fashion, Faulkner’s story ‘The Bear’) were mostly from his forthcoming collection, The Hunt in the Forest. In all of them the language seemed vital, rooted in landscape and its traditions (not least those of how we represent and imagine it).


Were this not enough, I also attended the launch of the Edinburgh International Book Festival this morning, held amidst the grandiosity of the Signet Library.


Champagne was consumed. Some items were received. One of which was the new Granta (106), which continues to improve under the editorship of John Freeman (by which I mean that it features more interesting writers, as well as being willing to print work like Chris Ware’s (you will want to zoom in on this:


Issue 107 also promises to be good, with pieces by Kenzaburo Oe and (gasp) William T. Vollmann.

Now it is the afternoon; the fizz has consented to fade. It was very nice to go out. Shall try it again next year.

This Will Explain Everything (call for submissions)


This Will Explain Everything

An open call to comic artists and illustrators.

The Edinburgh-based Forest Publishing is putting together a graphic novel anthology and we are looking for work from artists who combine words and images in various ways.

This anthology is an imaginary encyclopedia: a compendium of knowledge that is true, half-true, false, absurd or very confusing. A reader will come away from this book intrigued, amazed, mystified, puzzled, perplexed, bewildered, bemused and befuddled but not necessarily informed.

Your entry should explain something. It can be a piece of disinformation, speculation or thorough nonsense. It could be about how a tractor works, what heart burn really is, an explanation of long-distance running or zen. Facts are fine but, for this project, they are not the ultimate point. We’re looking for unique points of view on a wide-range of objects and ideas.

When submitting: do consider the different forms of informative imagery you could play around with: diagrams, maps, tables, technical illustrations, instruction manuals etc.

Technical specs:

You can submit multipage strips, spreads or single-page images in colour or black and white. The format of the book will be 245mm x 168mm (portrait) with a bleed of 3mm. past the edge of the page on all sides. If your image reaches the edges of the page, don’t put anything important in the bleed zone where it will get chopped off. If you intend to do a spread, please keep important things away from the centre of the image as there will be a deep gutter. (These specs aside, if you already have finished work in a different format, we might be able to fit it in anyway.)

Submissions should be emailed as low resolution jpegs (make sure that any text is readable, though) to Write ‘Submission’ in the subject line. Alternatively, you can send us a good quality photocopy by regular mail. The address is: Magda Boreysza at Forest Publishing, 3 Bristo Place, Edinburgh EH1 1EY, United Kingdom. If your piece is selected we will ask you to send a high quality image file.

About Forest Publishing
Forest Publishing is a branch of the Forest, a non-profit art collective and vital part of Edinburgh’s cultural life. Since August 2000 we have hosted thousands of free events and nourished scores of local artists and bands including luminaries such as St. Jude’s Infirmary and Aberfeldy. We have put out records, thrown street parties, hosted more than a hundred exhibitions, built a darkroom, offered workshops on everything from Arabic to crocheting, grown a garden, given out thousands of pounds in grants, built a practice studio, started a swap library and a free shop, made friends, battled the bureaucracy, hired out free bikes and much more. In the summer of 2008 we launched the massively successful Forest Fringe as part of the Edinburgh Festival. Thousands of people have participated, volunteered, created and enjoyed the Forest as an alternative to the grim entertainment prospects and corporate art and culture scene elsewhere in the city. The Forest excites and inspires people.

In 2004 we launched a small publishing wing which we have quietly been expanding. Our publications have showcased fine writing, music, commentary and art. The most recent of these, Stolen Stories, was an anthology of rip-offs, published last year to critical acclaim, with support from the Scottish Arts Council.

At the risk of being thought helpful…




Here’s a handy list of publications to send stories to (thank you Bookfox)  most of them in the US. Those who only accept postal submissions will want a SAE for a reply- which means finding US stamps (94c), messing around with International Reply Coupons (expensive and a hassle for all concerned) or contacting the editor directly and pleading that you are resident in the UK where the postal system is run by jackals and bears. The latter can actually work.

The list is by no means exhaustive, and I would question the inclusion of Epoch in the ‘Highly Competitive’ Section, as it’s just starting out and has a somewhat fresh-faced look (so says the old man of the sea). Otherwise it’s a good place to start, and will be invaluable in helping you to decide how bad you should feel about a given rejection. (you’ll have to paste this one in- it resists becoming a link).

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.

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