Digital Muzak: How they sell us our iPhones

The life force of a digital device, a mobile phone or a handheld tablet, can give the impression of something magical. The glowing screen and pulsing ribbons of light, the élan vital of this little rectangle of plastic and glass is spectral and, for some at least, no less than spellbinding. Out of electrical impulses fired around tiny circuit boards, overlayed with a framework of dense computer code, comes a pixel-precise organism that speaks and listens, sings and plays, and travels with us wherever we go. An organism that we may even love.

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Embarrassed yet? Some naked truths about life drawing classes

For the last six weeks I’ve been going to life drawing classes at a local college. Just as you see in films or on TV, the disrobed figure sits in the centre of a room with a circle of easels surrounding them. Behind the easels, artists drag charcoal blocks or dab Indian ink or smudge oil pastels across the paper, and try as best they can to render a decent likeness of the posed model in front of them.

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A Time of Gifts: Fermour and the memoir

As a form of literature, the memoir has often struck me as an odd. The author assembles a small museum of personal artifacts for the purpose of describing a story. The writing is somewhat feigned: episodes have the ring of fiction, and we must suspend disbelief that life and narrative have intersected so well. What makes the memoir especially perplexing is that, generally speaking, the better the storytelling the less likely we are to stop and question if it really did happen like this. The more extraordinary it sounds, the more likely we are to succumb to its charisma.

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Leonard Cohen Has Died

Leonard Cohen has died. I can think of no-one whose specific blend of personal traits has inspired me so strongly. He always bore an attitude that I have seen nowhere else, a combination of discordant attributes that, in the harmony of his method, seemed entirely consonant. The novelist Tom Robbins perhaps caught it best, when he compared to Cohen to the strange concoction of Zorba the Buddha: “Such a man knows the value of the dharma and the value of the deutschemark, knows how much to tip a waiter in a Paris nightclub and how many times to bow in a Kyoto shrine.” Robbins is describing a fantasy figure, but I agree with his instinct to reach for the apparently contradictory to capture Leonard’s style.

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Review of ‘The Human Document: The Photography of Persuasion from 1930s America to Present Day’ at Mead Gallery, Coventry

There are few social-documentary photographs more well known, nor more heavily plundered for significance, than those of rural America from the era of the Great Depression. Black-and-white shots of sharecroppers, cotton pickers and economic refugees from the deep-south, the photographs contained in this exhibition have become part of a sort of American folklore, a complex heritage that has engaged sociologists, art historians and critical theorists in broad scope.

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Remain or Leave?

The Brexit referendum is now decided, and the fall-out is now unfurling like a virtual-reality landscape. Nothing can be predicted; nothing is unexpected.

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Review of Barbara Walker’s ‘Shock and Awe’ at mac Birmingham

In the victory parades in Paris that crowned the end of the Second World War, the Allied Nations agreed that Black soldiers – those mainly from the colonial troops of West Africa – should not be permitted to attend. The leader of the Free French forces, Charles de Gaulle, made it clear that he wanted only white Frenchmen to lead the liberation of Paris.

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Short story ‘Meteors’ to appear in Firewords Quarterly

fireword-quarterly-sissue06-cover-largeI’m happy say I’m about to be published in the literary magazine Firewords Quarterly, whose latest issue, available from April 2016, has as its theme ‘secrets’. Firewords publishes short stories and illustrations, four times a year, and is fast growing as an indie publisher of repute. My own story is a work titled Meteors, a piece I am very proud to share as my contribution to the latest issue.
Copies can be purchased here.

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What would I want a car for?

At the age of 37 I’ve recently come into possession of my first ever car. It has happened sooner than I expected. I thought I’d make it until at least my mid-forties before succumbing to the conveniences of my rattletrap. It has come about by chance really: this old Ford Fiesta used to belong to my partner, but a rapid succession of breakdowns and hindrances (flat tyre, flat battery, knavish servicing) left her exasperated and on the look out for a new specimen. Now the rusty workhorse is mine to roll around in and concern myself with the road-worthiness over.

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All Rhodes Lead to Historical Feud

History is not fixed. The point is, it can be re-judged for its faults.
This assertion, and others like it, have been utilised by a group of University of Oxford students known as the Rhodes Must Fall movement, a campaign to depose the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the front of a building at Oriel College. Cecil Rhodes, the Victorian business magnate, imperialist and undoubted racist, has fallen out of favour.

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Room With a View: What’s it Worth?

Views of the Alhambra.
I’m in Granada, Spain, taking in views of the Alhambra from my hotel room. The extra supplement we have paid for these views is both easy and hard to justify. Common wisdom knows full well that rooms with a view usually stretch the promise, since what is viewed is more often than not merely glimpsed, obliquely or “only on a clear day”. The phrase partial view is the poorer cousin and should be treat with even more circumspection.
And yet on this occasion, views of the Alhambra are really quite good. I can see the fortress of blocks of the Alcazaba, and part of the palace behind, and the hilltop setting, and even the misty line of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains in the distance. I’ve taken several photographs, not as views-from-my-room but simply as worthwhile views.
Our hotel view of the Alhambra, Granada, Spain
Granada as a city has disappointed me a bit. I came here a decade or so ago and all I remember are the jewel-like attributes of the Nasrid Palace inside the Alhambra. What I’ve forgotten is the large sprawling town that surrounds it, seeping inexorably into the broad mountainous plateau on which the city stands. The city is much larger and more lived in than I remember. For the tourist there is no gain in seeing the rows of car dealerships, high-rise apartment blocks, factory buildings, McDonalds outlets, advertisement hoardings, and so on. These things are a blot and a burden – the things that tell us we are in the wrong part of town. We prefer our trinket shops and Flamenco shows, our white-washed buildings and old world atmosphere. Even the touts offering Segway rides up the cobbled streets are a distraction.
Thus, there is something reassuring and yet deeply troubling about these views of the Alhambra. Between the hotel window and the monument I can see nothing but pretty tiled rooftops and a winding street. The view we have paid extra for is not just about what we can see but also what can be edited out. The town is reduced to a single transaction, a line of light between my window and the great building up there. An abstraction.
It is this sort of worry, in my reckoning, that leads some people to want to re-appraise the touristic facets of the general urban swathe. They sense the pathetic aloofness of the tourist who angles his camera lens to cut out all but the most desirable components of the shot, as if to take home pictures of dustbins, car parks, scrub land, building sites, suburbia, etc., would be an embarrassment or a travesty. The same could be said of the tourist who pays extra for a room with a view. Such aloofness is absurd-seeming because it wishes and pretends the earth to be something different to how it is. And yet what is travel but a series of imagined perfections?

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60 year since the death of Thomas Mann

The writer Thomas Mann died sixty years ago in Zurich. Since that time his reputation as a major figure in modern European literature has remained, more or less, in tact. Yet unlike Proust, Joyce and Kafka, to whom he has often been compared, he is too rarely spoken about as a writer who affected the course of literature. For an artist who explored the psychological impact of human and creative aspiration, often told with great humour, his popularity is surprisingly thin.

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The Portmanteau Press

If the latest portmanteau is to be taken seriously – Grexit, a combination of the words Greece and exit referring to the possibility of Greece leaving the Eurozone (Dear future, has this now happened?) – the squashing of words together now has a foreshadowing aspect. Others have arrived portending further Greek quandaries: Grexodous, Grepicentre, and The Grelephant in the Room.

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Review of ‘Oppenheimer’ by Tom Morton-Smith, RSC, Swan Theatre

How do we depict the past? One way is to travel along the byways of hindsight, to remember with knowing sobriety the magnitude of some event and then sift through the circumstances that led up to it.
The danger of hindsight is that it can so easily lead to a patronizing perspective, to judge the past by its moral acceptability. It is easy to wag one’s finger and roll one’s eyes, and say “how could you?”.
This might very well have happened in Tom Morton-Smith’s new play, Oppenheimer, which is showing at the RSC’s Swan Theatre from 15th January to 7th March 2015, before transferring to the Vaudeville Theatre, London for an 8 week run. The play explores physicist Robert Oppenheimer’s leadership of the Manhattan Project, which secretly developed the nuclear weapons that were dropped on Japan in August 1945.
The explicit theme of Morton-Smith’s play ask us to consider the onward march of science, namely that if science makes the most fantastical ideas seem imminently possible, does it also make them inevitable?
The momentum of historical circumstances, especially seen in the rear-view mirror, may suggest that fate was already sealed. With the rise of fascism in Europe during the 1930s, and the implication that the Nazis could develop extremely powerful weapons after having split the atom, President Roosevelt established the Manhattan Project in 1941. Robert Oppenheimer was appointed it’s director and set up a new research station at Los Alamos, New Mexico.
But there is, or course, the human element. How responsible should we hold Oppenheimer and his fellow scientists for the development of the most destructive weapon ever invented?
The strength of this play is it’s refusal to take a judgemental position. When seen through the viewfinder of hindsight, a story like this can gain mighty resonance. Since we already know the ending, we can discern the plotting all the more readily. We know where those thoughts and those ambitions will lead, even (or especially) when the characters themselves do not. Yet Morton-Smith, Angus Jackson (director) and the excellent cast, manage to keep us guessing. The staging is a characterised by a constant procession of scene-swapping, giving the play a brisk, excitable air. The floor of the entire stage is a blackboard, upon which equations are chalked throughout the duration of the play. In some of the most successful passages, the stage is transformed into a lecture hall – a free-standing blackboard is whisked on and the players address the audience directly. The ensuing lesson is bombastic and played with great animation, enforcing the idea that the characters are most at home when pure physics is the topic at hand. I enjoyed these sections the most, when a palpable sense of energy emanates from the young theoretical physicists who interchange, line by line, to deliver an ever more crucial finding in the infant science. The overall effect is a play that simmers at a high heat from start to finish, never hitting a complacent note or settling on an easy assumption.
Realism is approached through the dress and accents, which are authentic and broad approximations of 1930s America. Some of the truisms are forgivable – the jazz party at the start of the play is less imaginative. Yet overall the action is fresh. The Oppenheimer presented here is not untouched by imagination, nor unmoved by wit and emotion. John Heffernan is persuasively enigmatic in the role. From the opening scene, when he addresses the audience promising that whilst he can make atomic physics clearer he can not make it more simple, the acting is wry and precise. Heffernan also has the ability to slow the action down, inserting pauses and silences into scenes that are otherwise hectic with dialogue. This has the effect of de-cluttering the stage, but also on occasion to disrupt the rhythmic pace of the action. Nonetheless, he delivers a potent performance that holds the attention.
The play succeeds because it does not try to flatter us into thinking we know the future any better than the characters depicted. If we seize the past in order to bolster our contemporary perspective, this play shows that the subtly of our approach is a recognition of our shared humanity.

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What are stories worth: a quick note

I recently read an article by Lincoln Allison titled Are Novels a Waste of Life?. The question of the title explains all. For Allison, it is the sense that time is being wasted that destablises his ability to finish a novel. “Life seems too short for other people’s imaginings,” especially when there are more pressing fact based writing to consume. “Making intelligent young men read the Brontë sisters when they have never even heard of David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion or John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty might just be the worst idea in the history of education.”
These stark ideas led to me to seek out an alternative position, and by chance I found it that same day on BBC Radio 4 in the guise of a Will Self point of view. (The Power of Fiction)
Self examined the ability of novels to lure us into a belief that a fictional character has time and choice ahead of them. He states that whilst we don’t credit Anna Kerenina any existence beyond the pages of a book, “we certainly do believe that Anna Kerenina believes herself to be a free agent responsible for making decisions that will alter the course of her life” – and yet we only need to turn to the last page of the book to see that her future pathway is resolutely mapped out. It is this aspect of fiction that Self believes we find storytelling so affecting and believe in their self-consciouses so whole heatedly. Why? Because in truth we all suspect that our lives have far less “wriggle room” for contingency and free will than we typically state, and that secretly our lives have a last page that, if we were able to turn to, we could read the denouement of the story we privately entertain has a fixed, predetermined ending.
My own experience of reading fiction has always been tied up with the new possibilities of seeing that I might thereafter consider a choice I could make. Voices speak to us through words; fiction fosters new vantage points.

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Review of ‘So Long, See You Tomorrow’ by William Maxwell

In Virginia Woolf’s experimental novel The Waves, the wistful Bernard reflects “I have lost friends, some by death [...] others through sheer inability to cross the street.”
The manner in which friendships meet their end, from the profound to the questionable, is a paradox that echoes through So Long, See You Tomorrow and helps propel the book into the moving work of fiction that it is.
Two friendships occupy the heart of Maxwell’s novel, and they contrast in virtually every detail. The first is in fact hardly a friendship at all. The book’s narrator, looking back from the perch of old age, recalls a single summer playing on the scaffolding of a building site where he makes the brief acquaintance of another boy, Cletus Smith. They spend a few simple hours together, and only scant details about the encounter remain: “I seem to remember his smile, and that he had large hands and feet for a boy of thirteen.”
Despite it’s brevity the friendship comes to dominate the thoughts of the aging narrator, since a deeper connection unites the two boys, that of having to come to terms with the loss a parent at a young age. For the narrator, this understanding can only occur in retrospect – “There is a limit, surely, to what one can demand of one’s adolescent self” – and begins with his recollections over the early death of his mother. Changes in the family situation are soon afoot, with a new stepmother to get used to, and later, the family’s upheaval to Chicago.
Details of the second friendship occupy much of the second half of the novel, and describe the story of two local tenant farmers, one who dies at the hands of the other, with whose wife he has been having an affair. The jilted husband is the father of Cletus Smith; he later commits his own life to barrel of a gun, thus leaving a second child parentless.
The structure of the story is serpentine, slipping back and forth in time, and side to side between characters. Maxwell employs a paired-down prose that is direct yet not unyielding. Upon moving into a new home, the boy narrator finds it “too new to be comfortable. It was like having to spend a lot of time with a person you didn’t know very well.” On his bedroom wall he pins a map of North America “[...] with coloured pins for all the radio stations I had picked up. The pin that gave me the most pleasure was stuck in Havana, Cuba.”
On the surface, there are some issues with the structure. The first half of the novel, told from the point of view of the narrator, offers an explicitly partial view of the world. In the assembling of the facts of the murder trial he seeks out old newspaper clippings, realising “[...] I didn’t need to remain in total ignorance about something that interested me so deeply.” Yet as the book develops, the central voice is granted much greater omniscience, so that the domestic, familial and even private interiors of all the other main characters are obtainable for description. As the door to others’ private thoughts is opened further, the novel is able to map out the visceral territory that prefigures the murder of the tenant farmer in all its emotional detail, thereby leaving behind the personal perspective of the boy narrator.
What emerges in the later stages is a patchwork of perceptions that are subtly drawn, each character expressing loneliness or a sense of distortion at the challenges they come to face. In this way the reader is allowed to amass a series of viewpoints, ever widening to the personal circumstances of all those directly or indirectly affected by the events of the affair and consequent murder.
The shift of narrative perspective is a function of the narrator’s imaginings, his way of exploring the predicament of the boy he never knew. In this way, the narrator makes atonement for the guilt that he comes to feel after one day, following his move to Chicago, he is surprised to see Cletus Smith walking along the hallway of the big city school, so much so that he fails to utter a word to him. The issue of the shifting perspective is rendered unproblematic when read as an elusive reliquary of fictional memories.
Maxwell stresses the tangible momentum of relationships; how they move irresistibly along upward and downward curves. There are no grotesque caricatures of malice – every personality occupies a landscape of comprehensible desires, so that even in their wrongdoing they are nuanced and sympathetically rendered.
In interviews Maxwell declared the influence of Virginia Woolf on his development as a writer. In So Long, See You Tomorrow the narrative perspective splinters into a refracted series of episodes that recalls Woolf’s stylistic inventiveness. The reconstruction of this “fragile house of matchsticks” superbly describes the very blurred distinction between interior imaginings and exterior realities.

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