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JUNE 2011

Two Lunatics
Apologies to Anthony

Ebooks - An Update


I’m on my way to Eliot House on Deansgate to return a 3CD set of piano works played by Martha Argerich when a geezer, about thirty, accosts me as I cross the little square in front of Starbucks at the end of Brazenose street. He assures me he isn’t a tramp, gesturing by way of confirmation to his smart black shellsuit, but seems anxious and agitated in keeping with his plight. He has just been released from the Police station in Bootle street and now needs money to get back home to Stockport. It’s an almost convincing performance; he does look a bit stubbly and unkempt but not unusually so by Manc oik standards. Then again the stranded traveller is a classic scammer’s trope and had he been a young girl with a ripped corsage who’s just been raped and robbed I might have gone for it. He doesn’t specify the sum required but I guess the fare to Stockport is going to be getting on for a fiver. This plea is therefore quite an advance on the poor vagrants sitting on cardboard asking for change. However we don’t get to negotiating the amount or asking just what he was nabbed for or whether he really did it. No, I sympathetically say I have no change (something of a lie since I do in fact have a couple of quid in my pocket) and feel a bit insulted that he thinks me daft enough to tap up. 

Later at Eddy’s a genuine vagrant is trying to sell the proprietor a box of goods. He’s hunched in an old mac and wears a grey bobble hat. He looks ill. Eddy is warning him that if he carries on like this he’ll soon be dead. He leaves without making a sale. When I ask why he’s going to die Eddy gnomically remarks “He abuses himself”. Eddy is in fine fettle and completely recovered after an alarming dose of the shits a fortnight earlier. Then he thought he was going to die and even phoned NHS direct. He weighed himself during the crisis and found he’d lost a stone in 24 hours. “I couldn’t believe where it was all coming from” he exclaimed wondering if it was possible to actually shit the whole contents of your body. I saw him just after this attack and airily tried to reassure him that it’d be a bug rather than colon cancer. As La Rochefoucauld says we are all strong enough to bear the misfortunes of others. But Eddy was convinced it was shits like nobody has ever had and that he was at death’s door (perhaps a door marked GENTS on this occasion). I concluded that Eddy is not quite a hypochondriac but rather a valetudinarian. I will not insult my readers’ intelligence by explaining this distinction. 

The conversation turns to fish. Eddy is a keen angler but rarely eats what he catches. I am the opposite; I’m a keen eater of fish but never angle. I extol the virtues of brill which Eddy has never heard of. He had a disappointing haddock the other night. I agree the haddock is a plebeian menu item far inferior to the magnificent cod. I describe the brill and how to cook it. He becomes animated. He wants me to bring him one next week. I tell him what it would cost. His dealer’s mentality kicks in. He has recently been catching superb rainbow trout which he guts, decapitates and freezes straight away. If I bring him the brill he’ll bring two trout in exchange. I’m not a great trout fan finding the freshwater variety a bit brackish – sea trout are better - and anyway on my excellent fishmonger’s stall I see trout every week. I’m not sure that two trout would be worth one brill but Eddy, now in full salesman mode, emphasises that these are rainbow trout with big tails and are huge. I wonder though if they’re wild rather than farmed (like salmon which is now one of the cheapest fish you can buy) and Eddy returns to his pitch saying he’s caught these himself (he swings an imaginary rod) and that they’ve been eating only “insects and stuff” – they are in fact as wild as hell unlike salmon which are ridden with lice and fed carrots to make them pink. I’m still not convinced and say I’ll do some research on the relative prices of brill and trout. I learn later from someone who knows about these things that anglers pay to fish at trout farms which are stocked for just this recreational purpose. Wild? Hardly.  

During this wrangle who should turn up but Sean Parker, the distinguished author of Junk Yard Dog (see earlier Oiklets). I hand over, as agreed, Tom Kilcourse’s crime novel Who Killed Clarissa which Sean has agreed to review. In the subsequent discussion Sean reveals that he’s a strict follower of Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing (see the Workshop section of this site) and that he rewrote Junkyard Dog eight times. He says one strange fault of the novice writer is a reluctance to throw anything out considering every hard wrought phrase sacrosanct. I agree with this but, while finding Elmore’s rules perfect for the crime writer, can’t help feeling thankful that Joyce and Proust weren’t enrolled at EL’s academy.  

Tom’s book is listed on Amazon.com (ie USA) and will, no doubt, soon pop up on Amazon UK. It can also be downloaded on a Kindle. I put up the cover which is a pic of the author’s mum. She does in fact look very like my mum – a characteristic of the period I guess just as all the women painted by Michael Dahl (1659 – 1743) look like sisters.


Before closing I should advise readers of several new items in Brett’s Bedlam one of which The Dead watch: Underkill confirms my suspicion that the bloke is off his nut. And a work by his mate Michael Bond, an eminently sane person whose latest can be seen by clicking on http://www.bookofhappiness.co.uk

Two Lunatics

I get an extraordinary email from Brett Wilson. He submits a revised version of The Dead watch: Underkill (see Brett’s Bedlam) and tacks on this bizarre addendum 

Marie and I wrote it by producing alternate words, with a rule to stick to words of one syllable where ever possible. The result is like an overwrought Ouija board session, but might be good reading for a fourteen y.o. into fantasy/horror. I've removed some of the adjectives and repetitions. 

This is literary lunacy and confirms Brett’s status as the craziest oik on our books. If he was running Man U he’d no doubt tell Wayne to strap his left leg to Ryan’s right and avoid passes of more than 20 yards. 

Brett is a passionate experimenter and although I too find Raymond Queneau an excellent writer and Georges Perec worth a read (strange absence of English practitioners in this field – one might cite BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates and of course the king – Laurence Sterne) I must say this kind of buggering about is generally only of interest to the author(s). 

Poor Marie shackled to this madman. She too is piling up a massive art crit archive which I am wondering what to do with. She violently prohibits inclusion in Brett’s Bedlam. Perhaps she needs her own niche – but I’d have to preface it with my own introduction since I find myself completely at odds with her method and conclusions. But is she a crazy oik? Most certainly – in her own way madder than Brett.


Not been to Glossop before. Jim Burns said there was a good bookshop there and the place was only half an hour away. It’s a Pennine town, narrow and almost ribbon developed due to the constraints of its topography. It’s the birthplace and home town of North West artist Geoffrey Key some of whose works grace my walls. You could see his beloved Nab (a much painted hill – Geoff’s Mont St Victoire) as you drive in. It’s in Derbyshire but even so, driving to it along the M67, you could still look back to view the monstrous shard of the Beetham Tower on Deansgate – where’s that crusty old curmudgeon Prince Charles when you need him? 

The bookshop was George Street Books (on George Street of course) a converted end terrace house – in fact the house goes round a corner. The stock is on two floors and is expertly organised by a knowledgeably proprietor. The trouble with knowledgeable proprietors is that there are rarely any bargains to be had, unlike say Eddy’s unit on Manchester’s High Street. Eddy does have an encyclopaedic knowledge of cigars, angling apparatus, pinot noir, postcards and fag cards but he wouldn’t know a rare literary classic if it jumped up and bit him on the arse. At Eddy’s you can get a bargain. But at George Street Books – no. They’re even a bit pricey. And odd – a large selection of JB Priestley and almost as many Howard Springs. Do people still read that stuff?  

We did come across John Lucas’s work on Dickens, Melancholy Man, for three quid, much defaced by scribbled annotations. Even so, apparent rarities need to be checked and back home I found clean copies of this going for 37P (plus £2.80 post) on the internet. Soon punters will be visiting bookshops with Ipads checking prices and availability in situ. Yep, and soon there’ll be NO bookshops to visit – which is why the Oik is anatomising these vanishing shrines. The proprietor at this one has a sofa under an upstairs window and a pot of coffee bubbling away in another room – help yourself; very welcoming. Scarthin Books at Cromford (another Derbyshire location) is the epitome of this model. I checked every book on the shelves except the vast racks of modern paperback pulp fiction and came out an hour later with only the Lucas. John is a fine critic who believes Dickens to be England’s greatest novelist. I can’t concur, and Dent finds him unreadable even though Chas’s one non-metropolitan novel, Hard Times, is set in Preston, Dent’s hometown. Dickens’ failings are obvious – sloppy construction (a malign side effect of serialisation) sentimentality, preposterous plots and an inability to create a believable woman. As Oscar said – one would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell. But the energy and invention in the language is extraordinary. There isn’t a page without something interesting or funny on it. I’ve always been a sucker for the baroque, mannered, elaborate style – Sir Thomas Browne, Dr Johnson, Gibbon, de Quincey, Firbank so I find I can put up with Dickens simply for these effects.  

Back on the High Street we look in a few charity shops. How they smell of death and decay (it’s all them old clothes). But there is one good one in Norfolk Square. Wandering into this small civic gem with its lawns and statue is like having your straitjacket loosened so you can take a deep breath. At the back of the square is the Oxfam shop – nothing but books and cheap as if it didn’t have a knowledgeable proprietor. I find Roger Lewis’s biog of Burgess in hard back and vol 2 of Burgess’s memoire You’ve Had Your Time. I got the first volume Little Wilson and Big God out of Central Ref last week – more of which later. Also a big, fat wrist-bending hardback The Genius of Germany by Peter Watson. This was reviewed respectfully in the TLS only last October. Also for £2 the paperback of Amis’s The Pregnant Widow. I’d already read this, again courtesy Central Ref. Oiklet readers may be puzzled thinking my pastiche of Julian Barnes reviewing this work (See The Vanity of Authorship in Oiklet  6) represented my own view – but no. Mart, like Dickens, has obvious failings as a novelist but his use of language is so good as to make these excusable. Let’s celebrate the things writers do well rather than carp uncharitably at what they don’t. 

The Va Bene Italian restaurant in nearby Norfolk Street is acclaimed – and rightly so, but at noon there’s no one in the place. We are served by a pale, fine featured girl with an odd accent – Manc oik but with exotic inflections – not Italian. She is in fact Slovakian. The food is worth the trip but the bookshops? Probably not. If you were an impoverished dosser on your way up to that other hippie mecca Hebden Bridge (a haunt of lesbians I read) you could easily stop off in George Street Books, tank up on free coffee and settle down on the sofa with a first ed of Henry James’ The Sacred Fount (£10). I thought of buying it but considered it too dingy. Better getting the latest Library of America compendium which also includes The Wings of the Dove

Apologies to Anthony 


But about Burgess – I feel guilty. My snooty assessment in Oiklet 10 (Burgess Redux) was based on Lewis’s mad biog. I still think this is a hoot and well worth reading but more than a tad ad hominem? It could be used as a paradigm of the technique. Poor old Ant – how could he be blamed for his ragged barnet and odd teeth? I started off on vol one and was immediately gripped. It is vastly entertaining and should be read by all manc Oiks. Set in 1920s Manchester much of it is very recognisable. He begins in Harpurhey but soon moves to posher Moss Side (now a Caribbean slum – Ant informs us). He was a precocious, four-eyed little sod, a barmpot polymath even at eleven. He read Don Quixote at the age of ten and adds “I have read it four times, the second time in Spanish”. He describes the life of manc catholics in vivid detail. One funny line echoes the experience of Ron Horsefield in the forthcoming Oik 10. 

I would often as not walk down Moss lane East, passing Whitworth Park with its pond and meteorological station and its highly regarded art gallery from which for some time I was banned: in the company of other kids I had sucked at the marble breast of a Greek goddess and had been ejected by one of the curators. (p91 Vintage Classics Edition).

Later, aged 18, he tosses in another bizarre detail.

I was sent to a farm equidistant from Holyhead and Amlwch, with no public transport available to either place of temptation. The farm took in the odd holiday boarder, and I had a sitting-room to myself as well as a double bed — a mockery really. The farmer and his family spoke only the dialect of Welsh proper to the north of the principality. The girl who waited on me was named Selina. She was an intense, dark, handsome girl, or had been before she lost all her front teeth in a motor-cycle accident. She brought in whole joints of Welsh lamb and massive deep-dish puddings, which I naturally assumed were all for me. In fact, I was supposed to take my cut and send back the rest for the family, but it was difficult to convey this in sign language. So I ate monstrously, though not all: the family did not quite starve. I needed solid nourishment to tackle Kant's Critique of Pure Reason in a bad translation.
(ibid p134).

Even hyper critical Martin Amis is impressed by this book. He sums up AB thus: 

Jack Wilson’s greatest project was Anthony Burgess. Like all writers he had to systematise a self; he had to cobble something together out of his admitted shortcomings (coldness, coarseness, sharp appetites) as well as manifest and superabundant natural gifts. The man who emerges is a composite glued together by energy.
The War Against Cliché p126

In another critique of Burgess in the same volume Mart makes an interesting distinction: 

It was in Joysprick (1973), I think, that Anthony Burgess first made his grand-sounding distinction between the 'A' novelist and the 'B' novelist. The A novelist, apparently, writes in what we commonly regard as the mainstream: he is interested in character, motive and moral argument, and in how these reveal themselves through action (yes, oh dear me yes, the A novel tells a story). The spunkier and more subversive B novelist, however, is quite interested in these things but is at least as interested in other things too: namely, the autonomous play of wit, ideas and language (no, the B novel doesn't necessarily tell a story at all). Certainly, ambitious novelists tend to get more B and less A as they develop. The Portrait of a Lady is very A, whereas The Ambassadors is clearly hoping to be B. Mary is contentedly A, Ada haughtily otherwise. A Portrait of the Artist is aleady fairly B, and Finnegans Wake is about the most B novel we have. In Joysprick Burgess described himself as a 'minor B novelist'. He too, though, used to be happy enough being A. The Malayan trilogy, the Enderby books - these are all pretty A. A Clockwork Orange is definitely B-disposed, and the more recent MF, in which, for example, the protagonist's skin-colour (black) is revealed on the penultimate page, has nothing A about it whatever. Abba Abba, appropriately, mixes the two; it is at least as A as it is B.

ibid p113

 Yes Mart - quite so. You can put me down as an aspirant B.

Ebooks – An Update 

I remain pretty sniffy about these things. This may be just old fartism but I’m not one of those who trots out that old cliché about not being able to read an ebook in the bath. Course you could, it might be risky but even if you dropped the thing it's not going to kill you like when Bond throws an electric fire into the villain’s tub. No, I’m not prejudiced – I’ve had a reader (Sony) for well over a year. Being a gadget freak I’m fascinated by having 500 books on a thing the size of a Penguin (book not biscuit) but I rarely read anything on it although I always take it abroad. The first time I went abroad, to Spain driving through France, I had a bag with 28 hardback volumes in it. Franco was still in power I believe and there was nowt much else to do.Yep, madness. Now I can take 500 no probs. But do I read them? Rarely. I usually become absorbed in the Figaro or menus.

But do people read these things? Ebooks are selling like hot cross buns – maybe fans are just stacking up stuff like those barmpots with 10,000 songs on their iPods. Three recent accounts suggest the way things are going but it’s for sure ebooks are becoming a great fad and everybody is piling into the technology.

First account is of a geezer in the USA, a complete unknown, self publishing, who's just sold over one million ebooks. Yep, one million. He charges only 1$ per book. Greedy mainstream publishers of course stick to the proven capitalist model – sell for as much as you can get regardless of what it actually costs you – so they pitch their prices at slightly less than a paper entity even though the electronic version costs them bugger all. Perhaps the 1$ million seller phenomenon will concentrate their minds – but probably not, they’re business men, accountants etc.

Story two. JK Rowling, probably the most successful writer of modern times has set up a website and will issue Harry Potter ebooks exclusively. Cheeky cow! It’s as if the Beatles had dumped their recording company and set up one of their own. If they’d done that they’d be squillionaires too by now.

Story three. This week's TLS : 

The idea that a name on a title page doesn't actually bear any relation to the author of a book is not exactly a new one. Recent revelations about a Syrian lesbian blogger who turned out to be a Scottish (mar­ried) man, Tom MacMaster, have prompted the former Editor of Granta, Ian Jack, to reveal in the Guardian how he was almost duped by "Albania's second greatest living writer", Jiri Kajane', in 1998. Stories sent in to the magazine by "Kajane", who had been published by journals in the United States, turned out to be written by his "translators", two Americans whose day jobs, as an FBI investigator and psychological coach to a baseball team, the San Diego Padres, were apparently not exotic enough to furnish publishable material. Not very many people seem to have been taken in by the hoax, or to have noticed Kajane, except when one of his stories was published in an anthology along­side better-known (and more verifiable) names. That was when a reviewer fatefully ranked him as second only to Ismail Kadare among living Albanian writers (is it possible that the list in the reviewer's head was not very much longer than two - or one, before he came across Kajane?).

The two men behind the deception appear to have perpetrated it simply in order to have a better chance of being published. With the explosion of self-publishing online, that seems less of a concern. Indeed, Kajane's latest offering is an e-book. But a different sort of problem has emerged with the self-publishing arm of Amazon.com. It has begun to be overwhelmed with spam - that is, with computer-generated material posing as genu­ine books. Reuters reports that enough of this material is bought by the unwitting to make it worth some spammers' generating up to twenty "books" a day "without writing a word". It's enough to make one long for some form of "filtering" device, a sort of liter­ary junk spotter, like a publisher, or a critic.

Yep, it’s getting like the wild west out there. All the old certainties are evaporating – all that is solid melts into air (as Marx said). The two media will no doubt complement each other – just as radio wasn’t annihilated by TV. Both paper and electric do things the other can’t do (you can’t, for instance, wipe your arse on an ereader – this disadvantage is not generally made known to the innocent gadget freak but such limitations do emerge once the novelty has worn off.)