About Me

"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Zadie Smith's NW and the number 37

Zadie Smith back on her home ground of Kilburn, Kensal Rise and Queen's Park in N-W
Some swear by the A-Z, I prefer
Zadie Smith's N-W as she re-traces the map
 of the   London of her youth in N-W
Sitting on a shabby balcony in SW4 and looking across the Thames mudflats towards the higher ground of Wembley and Harrow-on-the Hill, and reading - drinking in - this delicious book, NW.

Am a big besotted fan of Zadie Smith, have been since before I read a word of White Teeth. Like  millions of others I fell in love with the idea and the image of Zadie, back in the late 1990s. And the book was damned good, as has been all that followed it.

But NW is different again, in the way she swoops back down into those postcodes of her own childhood. It's a fabulous movie of a novel and the images come relentlessly, in sharp focus, layering up effects of colour and emotion, setting off  strange resonances you don't even notice until 50 pages or so later.

I haven't enjoyed reading a novel so much since the summer of 1973 when - after years of trying and failing to read Ulysses -  it flew into my head and life over a four-day series of train journeys across Italy.

So now after all this praise, the boring OCD point of this  stupid  clump of words, my complaint.  Even before I get to page 161 of the hardback  edition, I am getting worried because the number 37 strand is building towards something all too familiar.

Like Leah, I have a thing about numbers, and all those things she says about 37 - on page 37, in the first of four chapters numbered 37 - are true. Shit and fuck, she's going to blow this with a bus route reference.

And then on page 161 she does blow it : "When they reached the corner by the MacDonald's, Leah Hanwell said to Keisha Blake: 'Actually I think I might get on the 37, go the Lock, see that lot.' "

Bugger it, she means the 31. I only know this because in the 70s I lived in Chalk Farm and went to work on Belsize Road, just off Kilburn High Road,  every day on the 31. And then I moved to Beaufort Street just off King's Road and again I could take the 31 bus almost door-to-door,  if I didn't cycle.

The 31 was the best tourist bus in town in those years. On a Saturday, hit Camden Lock market in the morning, scour the record stalls, go to Rhythm Records  and the Compendium bookshop, jump on a 31outside Camden Plaza cinema, get off at Westbourne Park tube statiuon, walk for 5 minutes to Portobello, scour the stalls there, drop in at Rough Trade, see a film at the Electric or just buy loads of cheap fruit and veg and stroll down to the Gate, get on another 31 to World's End, if you were in time and did not have too many carrier bags, even stumble into the Oxfam  shop next to Vivienne Westwood and see if there were any great Chelsea luvvie-donated bargains to be had, as there sometimes were.

Now living in south London - quick pass the spitoon - and occasionally boarding the 37 bus to Brixton or  to Peckham, via Camberwell - well, obviously this bus will never even begin to rival the old 31 in my personal pleasure bus route-map. Up to the late 80s I think it went as far west as Hounslow - but never strayed into any of the NW codes, however tempting they might be. (For bus route freaks, see this  item on flickr ).

So what? One digit wrong? wtf? I agree, within a page or two I was back in Leah and Natalie's world, even more so in poor  Felix's world. But in a novel in which details seem so important, then a wrong digit sort of hits you. Probably it's another deliberate device and there's a whole layer of cleverness that I am completely missing.

And I don't mind because I love this book in the same way as I love London, even the NW bits of it - and I am about to start re-reading it.

As a final sad footnote, I stupidly decided to use my favourite bus routes as my winning National Lottery formula. Here are the numbers I chose in about 1994:
11, 22, 31, 35, 37, 38

You can have them for nothing, which is about as much as they have won me in the past 20 years.

And for a really good, fair, and well-informed review of this book, read Philippa Thomas's at London fictions

Monday, 26 August 2013

Notting Hill, the Carnival, and the weird transitions between London postcodes

Notting Hill Carnival 2013:
I spent most of last two days in London W10 and W11. Yes, am an addict, and my drug is the Notting Hill Carnival. Been there most years since 1977, sometimes just for a few snatched hours, sometimes - as this time - for the duration. Sometimes with friends or children, but more often alone.

This year was again wonderful, the weather was perfect, the crowds were huge but mainly amiable, the masqueraders seemed even more beautiful and talented than ever, the sounds were sharper, the scents sweeter, and the old medicine seemed to be as strong as ever it was.

God knows, I am 60, I could never dance in public and I am worse now than ever I was. I don't even get drunk or stoned, particularly,  but I do get very high on the atmosphere, on the sound and physical experience. Seven hours walking, two tins of Red Stripe and a pack of peanuts and ready for more.

The crowds today were by no means the biggest ever, and yet every so often you'd get into those human funnels where you realised you had no choice, you were no longer a free individual, you had to move according to the crowd, to get through to the next space.

During these progressions you make brief eye contact - and sometimes involuntary contact of large areas of other parts of the body - with dozens of strangers. Some are trying to dance, some are trying to move on, some are trying to sell you something, some are out of their heads with joy, some look frightened, some are threatening and (if you are lucky) elbowing you out of the way.

Typically, if the music's good, at the end of the tunnel I turn round and go back through it again, just for the hellish joy of it.

Try doing this in All Saint's Road at 4pm on the Monday of Carnival. Or on Ledbury Road, or around Gaz's on Talbot Road.

The route takes you back time and again to the Carnival procession, and each time you see to meet the same big Trinidadian floats with the pounding soca, the head-dresses and flour and chocolate-smearing and pigment-hurling and the ropes and the grinding of bodies against bodies and the machine-gunning electronic sounds, the MCs' endless goadings and geeings-up, their stern reproaches to a crowd which isn't responding enough, kicking up the dust.

And already it's 7.30pm and there's still a line of  six or so big floats lined up down Westbourne Grove, things seems to be cranked up beyond maximum for these last precious minutes of Carnival. We all know there's nothing to look forward to from tomorrow except nine months of winter.

Light fades, I'm off on a bike through the orderly streets of Bayswater, prim Moscow Road etc,  and through into the park, down by the Serpentine and suddenly gliding into a world which retrieves memories of Istanbul and Dubai, a Middle Eastern evening, families out wandering, threes of women in full black burka, the children let loose,  cycling, scooting, skating around their parents and big brothers and sisters, the families crowding out the cafĂ© and restaurant, all moving, slowly in the same formations you might see in Beirut or Cairo or Riyadh, I suppose, I imagine.

It works tonight in that magic August twilight. The air still warm enough, and lightly scented from the rose gardens. It is still wonderfully balmy in the dark green dusk.  Next week it may well be gone, it will just be a London autumn evening. Cycling on, down across Knightsbridge, the streets choked with the huge parked Range Rovers and Bentleys and Mercs and so on of these families, often showing Gulf state number plates.

Two minutes later passing the bus queues around Sloane Square, lots of Carnival leavers finding their own routes back south of the river, the strange meetings of these different worlds within  two or three postcodes, from the Carnival heartland of W10 through the mixed ethnic flavours and dead poshness of W2,  W11, SW7,  SW3....then over the bridge into the  homeland horror of SW4.

Stranger still is the way I assume I know which person is the child of super-wealthy Gulf state family, in London for the summer, and which is the teenager trekking back home to some council flat in Streatham after another great Carnival.

On this August Bank Holiday evening, the scented groves of Hyde Park work some magic, and I am completely subject to its spell.

I know nothing but I once again feel like Jah Wobble's last lines on that Invaders of the Heart album, Take Me to God:  ".....I Love Everyone..... L-o-o-o-v-e-a-a-a-h-h-h!!!!"

Friday, 23 August 2013

Watching books die, slowly

I just finished selling books for a charity, and it was a grim experience.

I did it for a year, I was paid to list donated books onto an Amazon seller site; an online chairty bookshop, in effect, competing with hundreds of others of independent dealers in the UK and worldwide. All using the same system to spearhead their virtual sales machinery.

After a while, once the number of titles on offer passed a critical point (around 3500) , the operation seemed to lift off, and sales would begin to soar with little or no further effort, for a while. And then my work was cut out, packing, franking these books, then dragging them in an old ladies' shopping trolley up the hill to the post office.

With more effort - maybe six days instead of three per week, more help, more co-operation, it could have been so much better, and so much more money might have flowed in.  But this particular charity seemed to have a terribly bi-polar approach to selling books.

One thing I learned was that the hottest-selling books - apart from the obvious new bestsellers, which we didn't generally get - are quite tricky things to predict. But if you can predict them, you will do very well.

For example, best-sellers from 2 or 3  months ago might sit on the shelves for months, for years -  but a series of Freud's writing, or a desirable paperback imprint of modern classics - not just Penguins, though they are sure-fire sellers - but newer rivals like Vintage,  or an out-of-print biog of a disgraced Radio 1 DJ,  or a of recently deceased politician - all these things will sell in flurries, if you happen to have them on your shelves. For example, five copies of the new Vintage edition of Jeanette Winterson's Oranges are the only Fruit sold on the day I unpacked them.

Sometimes it's a simple mention on a TV show or in a review somewhere - or it's Radio 4 serialising some forgotten classic.

And then of course there are the seasonal staples. I hate to confirm that in January sales of all those dreadful dieting and exercise books that had sat on the shelves for months did suddenly pick up. As did demand for the self-help titles, the more optimistic the title the better.

Charlatan business guru type texts also do depressingly well. Spinning out the obvious into 12 long chapters full of homilies and cringe-making down-home parables.

The worst thing about this job was seeing how rapidly the value of what seemed to be fine books plumetted. In general, it seemed, most titles were destined to lose value, week after week, until they join that huge ocean of Amazon floaters, bobbing around on a sea of drowned and brine-sodden paperbacks, all available for one penny or less plus  the standard postage rate, in Amazon's case, £2.80.

Of course one longed to find books that had high value and small size - small enough to qualify for "large letter" postage rather than "small parcel". Some of the most profitable sales were in fact of slim volumes of paperback poetry - £5 or £6 cover price, 81p postage. In this respect we were lucky, every so often. The high point of it all, for me, was opening a box of donated books and finding a mix of recent titles from someone like Bloomsbury, Vintage, or Hogarth Press, sometimes they were proof copies or damaged stuff, but usually there were plenty of saleable books. We'd get US and Australian editions,  translations into all the languages of Scandinavia, review copies, stuff that had obviously languished in a warehouse for decades.

And just occasionally you'd find the right buyer at the right time, before the value of that heavily sun-burned bonkbuster trickled away into the sand.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Immersion therapy at the Brixton Splash

Bugger Ascot, Wimbledon and Henley. My summer season begins and continues mainly within the confines of SW2 and 9. I've already talked about the Lambeth Country Show - which this year coincided with  two of the best summer days for a decade, which always helps.

Last weekend, this local season peaked with the Brixton Splash - a more intense and music-centred affair that, for the space of a long Sunday afternoon sees the streets around Brixton market and the newly-poshed-up Windrush Square turned into dance floors.

It's like a little bit of the Notting Hill Carnival sound system scene had detached itself and floated down south of the river. And the systems here are massive - on a par with the biggest crowd-pullers in W11, and the streeets just heave.

The live acts on the stage outside the library (under that old Bovril ad) are strictly local, with a roots and old-school bent. Little known outside their own scenes these acts had no trouble surfing the goodwill of the crowds last Sunday, everyone seemed pleased just to be there and soak up the sun and the drinks.

So, another version of my old dream - a Caribbean street party, yet again, in my favourite place. How could I miss it?

I keep moving around the triangle, squeezing through the heaving crowds around the sound systems, and can't help noting that I am about two and a half times the average age here. What's lovely is that it doesn't matter.

It has to be said this bit of Brixton can often seem like a street party, even on a cold winter Saturdays - the sounds and the smells of Jamaican  and Trinidadian street partying are never that far away.

The police presence was heavy and highly visible - especially around the Atlantic Road/Coldharbour Lane and Rushcroft Road junctions, where, late in the day, big groups of of kids were standing around in that way, facing off each other, all enjoying the musicv and yet somehow all waiting for that moment when the music stops, with the biggest gang - all dressed in fluorescent yellow and black, the cops, were also playing their traditional  wall-like role.

You can't forget that a week or so before this event, there was a violent eviction of squatters from some of the flats in Rushcroft Road.

I slipped away as the light started to fade and sounds of sirens picked up.

See some nice pics from the Splash on the Weekender Life website!


Friday, 9 August 2013

BBC Radio London's cussing policy: what a load of c**p!!

Do not get me wrong (and do not forget that this is a phrase always used when you're about to say something bad about something)....no, honestly, I mean, really, I do love my local BBC radio station. That is BBC Radio London 94.9 fm, plugged.

But - BUT - why do they have to be so craven about the poor dear English language?

Why when some fired-up guest or phone-in listener gets carried away and says something like, "Well God knows what Dylan thought he was doing but  his singing was a pile of crap" does Robert Elms have to jump in with massive apologies and reprobations, "he means a pile of rubbish, sorry about that, sorry, you know you musn't say that"....blah, blah.

I feel so sorry for Mr Elms and his fellow daytime presenters, they have to do this so often, these well-handled apologies. What percentage of their listenership is really going to be offended? The Robert Elms Show is well known to have  massive following among London cab drivers, who are famous for their delicate linguistic sensibilities. God forbid we should cause a stampede of outraged taxi drivers to their GPs for tranquillisation, having heard  Doug from Lewisham say "shite" live on air.

So why can't people use these words on BBC Local Radio when on BBC Radio 3 or BBC 4 TV they can - and most certainly do - throw fucks and cunts and shits  around at will all night long? I don't get it. OK, so they are doing this late at night - but so what? Do all impressionable people go to bed at 9pm?

Are they saying that a local radio audience is not capable of understanding or dealing with colloquialisms?  If arse and cunt were good enough for Chaucer, are they not good enough for daytime radio and TV?

Background to this rant:

I love BBC Radio London. I have relied on it for decades. As GLR it used to give me Charlie Gillet and some wonderful black music shows. I spent whole nights in the darkroom with crazyall-night phone-ins as background - a bit like being tuned in to the Samaritans at times.

Now it's survived another round of cuts,  has slimmed and tensioned itself for the Cameron era. It still has some great stuff, but also...well, also.

I am a sort angry addict of the Robert Elms Show. I think Vanessa Feltz is perfect and brilliant for the early morning news agenda and phone-in stuff, and the handover to Elms is always a lesson in how to to do this sort of local radio splice or segue.

I say local radio - but in truth this station has a bigger and better audience than most national radio stations. This much is apparent (a) in the outcry the BBC experienced when it planned to chop most of the daytime programming, and (b) in the quality of guests that Elms, etc, attract.

The Elms show occupies the lunchtime to early-afternoon slot. It is a show with a loyal following and  a sort of clubbable, rathe blokeish atmosphere. It's understood that the main thing we are all going to be talking about or listening to is London itself. In case this sounds just too much like a diamond geezer fm, Elm also has a great roster of regular expert contributors.

Elms is smart and a good presenter, very smart as you'd expect of the 1980s Blitz club boy, the chief face of Face magazine.  I don't love Robert Elms but I do take my hat off to his reinventions of himself and his very well-turned radio skills. Check out his interview with Ginger Baker if ever you doubt this.

Maybe it's my age but I feel I know him, I instinctively know that we will disagree on a lot of things and agree on many others. Thank god for these institutions - Feltz, Elms, the Listed Londoners, the Four-fers, the Cover-to-Covers.

Thanks also for the scatty, crazy 1960s dolly-bird, only partly reconstructed, Jo Good. She's another blog entry on another day, another treasure in the making.

But as for this antedeluvian ban on crap and shit and arse and suchlike - well - to effin' hell with it!

Monday, 5 August 2013

"Go home or face arrest" campaign: do they actually want more riots?

In all the rows over the government's latest wheeze to cut down on illegal immigrant workers, two pretty obvious objections do not seem to have been raised.

The “Go home or face arrest” poster campaign is such  a brilliant idea,  you have to wonder which super-brain adviser thought it up. Problem: there are too many immigrants entering the country and working illegally.    Many of them cannot even speak English, we are told. Like, we are so great at speaking foreign languages wherever we decide to plonk of xxxl arses.

Anyway, this is what our marvellous government, led by the splendid estate agent-in-chief David Cameron thinks is the  "big problem" facing our "big society".  Solution: Stick an enormous poster on the sites of  mobile hoarding vans and drive them around areas where it is assumed most of these illegals carry out their nefarious business. Such as Brent.

Make sure the poster is as nasty and threatening as possible: "106 arrests last week in your area".

Above, make sure it is in language that your target audience understands. That's, er, English?

The campaign has been rubbished by almost all, including the party it was clearly meant to undermine, UKIP. It's crass, offensive, stupid, everyone (well, almost everyone) agrees on that. Except the Governement, which seems to believe the £10,000 pilot was a success and is now talking of extending it around the country.

Amazing that Boris should support putting these large, polluting vehicles on the already over-crowded roads of north west London. They pollute not just with their exhaust gas but also with their hideous message - and with the sheer ugliness of the huge poster design and the ludicrous vehicle that is displaying it.

It's like they are asking for new riots. I would be sorely tempted to throw something at one of these vans if it came down my street. I hope they pay their drivers very well.

Footnote: eventually even the government realised this jolly little brainwave wasn't really helping anyone, and the minster responsible - Home Sec Theresa May - scrapped plans for a national "roll-out".
Read more here.