No, really, surely you ARE joking, Mr Feynman

Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman front cover

Knowing from experience how deflating a poor review can be, I have a rule that if I don’t get along with a book I usually simply put it aside without hurling vitriolic abuse at the poor author on Amazon. I can’t really see the point. Writing a book is damn hard enough without some talentless hater pouring scorn over your labour of love. However, if the author is deceased I figure I probably won’t be hurting their feelings, so I sometimes waive my rule.

Also, like a lot of wannabe novelists struggling to earn a living, it’s often rankled me that publishers who casually toss the manuscripts of unknown writers onto the slush pile with barely a second glance will fall over themselves to publish the floor-sweepings of celebrities. There seems to be one rule for the rich and famous and another one for everybody else.

I read one such book recently, Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman by, you guessed it, Richard Feynman. To say I read it is a bit of a porky. I actually got about a quarter of the way through, by which time I’d almost lost the will to live.

If you’ve never heard of him, Richard Feynman was a Nobel prize-winning scientist who was part of the team that cooked up the atom bomb in World War Two. Like most people who’d read a bit about him I knew he was a brilliant physicist. He was a maverick who had a knack of explaining really complicated things in simple ways, so he became a pop star of the scientific world. When I saw this book on Amazon I put it straight in my cart and headed to the checkout without even bothering to sample the ‘look inside’ free section at the beginning. I was sure it would be an entertaining read. I won’t make that mistake again.

Sadly, from page one I found this book to be a real slog. It seemed to me little more than a brain dump of dull and self-indulgent anecdotes from Feyman’s life, that were about as entertaining as the instructions on a soup packet. The chapters read like the rambling diary entries of a socially-challenged teenager who’s convinced he’s secretly the most gifted story-teller since Cervantes. The book’s title is a dead giveaway. You could almost hear Feynman laughing aloud at his own jokes as he wrote, but they just weren’t funny. I also found Feynman’s somewhat conceited view of himself a bit surprising for such a great scientist, and quite off-putting. There was hardly a page where he wasn’t telling us how he outsmarted someone, proving some poor sap was an idiot and he was the only one with any brains. “The world is full of this kind of smart-alec who doesn’t understand anything,” he smugly notes, like some pub bore bragging about besting his neighbour. He seemed to spend a fair bit of time perving after women too in his stories, but hey who am I to talk. Anyhow, after fifty pages I tried skipping forward to a few later chapters but they seemed just as irritating, so I gave up.

In doing so I’m sure someone will tell me I’ve missed out on some wonderful scientific insights. That may well be the case but hey, life is short and there’s only so many great books you can read without wasting time on disappointing ones. I think I heard somewhere that Feynman’s book had been based on recordings of conversations someone had taped with him. If that’s so, it would explain the clumsy prose style and awkward sentence constructions. Thank god Feynman had such a brilliant career as a scientist, because he was no writer, based on this title.

If I was rating it out of five, I’d give this book no more than two stars. If it had been written by anyone else I don’t think it would have seen the light of day. That said, I’m sure it may still appeal to any Feynman worshippers or disciples out there, eager to devour the most trivial fact they can find about his life. But if you’re not one of those, and you’re looking for a well-written autobiography by a born story teller, I would check out the free sample on Amazon before parting with your dosh. I may pick up this book again at some point in the future to see if the later chapters yield up some gripping scientific yarns, but for now it is firmly back on the bookshelf. RIP, Dick.


Reality TV: Brave new world or the end of civilisation as we know it?

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According to Wiki, in Stephen King’s futuristic 1982 novel Running Man:

“The global economy has collapsed and American society has become a totalitarian police state, censoring all cultural activity. The government pacifies the populace by broadcasting a number of game shows in which convicted criminals fight for their lives, including the gladiator-style The Running Man, hosted by the ruthless Damon Killian, where ‘runners’ attempt to evade ‘stalkers’ and near-certain death for a chance to be pardoned and set free.”

On the show contestants are routinely killed with extreme brutality to satisfy the public’s growing addiction to graphic violence. History has turned full circle. We’ve slipped back two millennia to the days of the Roman amphitheatre. In a world of cares and troubles and hum drum 9-5 jobs, we demand our human sacrifice. Reality TV delivers.

I have a bone to pick with reality TV. Is it just me, or does anyone else think we’re heading for hell in a handcart of the kind imagined in Stephen King’s dystopian vision? Sky was the Trojan horse, of course, the Greek bearing gifts, not least in its promise of a thousand channels offering ever greater choice with game-changing content. Well, we certainly got the choice. Yet many would argue that 24/7 wall-to-wall telly has led to a noticeable dumbing down of content.

It became a live issue for me the other night when England were stuffed by Uruguay in the World Cup, thanks to the Mad dog of Montevideo, ‘three bites and you’re out’ Luis Suarez. Like a lot of guys, there’s always a period of introspection after your team loses. You just want to be left alone with your thoughts. To grieve, as it were. After the game I was searching for a non-news or sports related channel where I could bury my sorrows without having the national catastrophe replayed to me in slow motion, over and over. For ten minutes I scrolled up and down Sky’s one thousand two hundred and fourteen channels. I couldn’t find a damn thing. Not a single sausage I wanted to watch. The documentary channels which can normally be relied upon in an emergency, were mostly showing repeats of series I’d seen a dozen times. This was something that had never happened to me in the old days of four-channel terrestrial TV. Yet in the age of round the clock telly, even those bastions of reliability the BBC and Channel 4 had been sucked into a spiral of ever dumbed-down eye candy in their desperation to protect their market share from the gaudy neighbours at Sky. I can’t tell you how depressing I found this. To have a thousand channels and not find a single thing worth watching, felt like a black day for British telly. It occurred to me that this was the belated cost we were paying for inviting the Trojan horse of Sky into our homes.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Luddite. Life without wall-to-wall Premier League and NFL Sundays would be unthinkable for me and millions of other sports fans. And a world without Friends, Sopranos and Breaking Bad could hardly be described as a return to some golden age. But here’s the rub. For every Game of Thrones and Mad Men there now exist a thousand pile-em-high and sell-em-cheap programmes which are cluttering up the airwaves with homogenized garbage. I’m mostly talking about the genre that has come to dominate twenty-first century television as we know it. Reality TV. It’s cheap, quick, and unhealthily addictive – fast-food for the lobotomized masses. Shows like Big Brother, X Factor, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, The Biggest Loser, Dog The Bounty Hunter, The Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers, Highway Thru Hell, Swamp People, Swamp Loggers, Hoarding: Buried Alive, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, Traffic Cops, Motorway Cops, Night Cops, Cops With Cameras, Street Wars, Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, Extreme Makeover, Britain’s Got Even More Talent Than Ever Before, America’s Next Top Clothes Horse, Raising Sextuplets, Hotter Than My Daughter, Touch the Truck, My 600 Pound Life, Obese: A Year To Save My Life, Extreme Celebrity Detox, The Only Way Is Essex, Storage Wars, Shipping Wars, Pawn Stars, Meet the Sloths, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, The Real Housewives of Orange County, The Real Housewives of New York City, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, The Real Housewives of New Jersey, The Real Housewives of D.C., The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, The Real Housewives of Miami… I mean, WTF? Does anyone REALLY give a flying one about all these fake ‘real’ housewives? Who is watching this garbage? Who is asking for it? Why is it on my TV? Then there’s The Apprentice, Young Apprentice, Six-Week Old Baby Apprentice, Foetus Apprentice (you see where I’m going here?) Once a formula is proven to sell, it is cloned mercilessly. Ad nauseam.

The phenomenon of reality TV may not be the end of civilization as we know it, but the dubious moral precepts it now streams into our homes around the clock should give serious cause for concern. We were all shaped by the telly we grew up watching as kids, and like it or not the moral compass of today’s generation of children is going to be largely set by the amount of junk we feed them. Do we really want our child’s goal in life to be an appearance on Big Brother, or Toddlers and Tiaras? Do we want their ideas of right and wrong based on the Jeremy Kyle Show? Their notions of normality shaped by The Rich Kids of Beverly Hills or 16 and Pregnant? Many of these so-called ‘reality’ shows routinely glamorise greed, vulgarity and materialism of the worst kind. Most worryingly of all are the ones which seek out the weirdest, trashiest people they can find to base a series around, turning bigots, racists and chauvinists into media celebrities.

Let’s not kid ourselves, this is about a ratings war. It’s all about the money. Keeping bums on seats. Programmes about Kierkegaard’s influence on the existential philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre are a tough sell. We’re in the middle of a dog-fight for viewers that has led to ever more controversial, provocative content that appeals to the lowest common denominator, to our basest appetites. The Holy Grail for TV producers is to be not just the show everyone’s watching, but the show everyone’s talking about. For that you need some blood on the floor. On franchises like The Apprentice and X Factor where participants are routinely reduced to tears by the savage maulings of judges, humiliation is the name of the game. You end up, of course, with televised wife swaps and celebrities swallowing live cockroaches. You end up with post-modern ironies like Reality Ex-Wives, a reality TV show which profiles women whose marriages have fallen apart after appearing on reality TV shows. And if you’re not careful, you end up with bodies. On sidewalks, in ambulances, in police cells and morgues. In the States, where they’re always a few years ahead of the game, the rising number of suicides among eliminated contestants from reality TV shows is a worrying trend.

If it’s so bad for us, why is it then that we’re so hooked on reality TV? One reason could be the illusion of ‘community’ it conveys. That thing that no longer exists in our modern metropolitan lifestyles, where big city dwellers are as likely to talk to their dogs as the neighbours. Instead we now hang out in cyber-space, where we discuss the latest episodes of our favourite shows. It seems we’ve become a nation more able to relate to people on a screen than in real life. Another reason could be the illusion of power reality TV sometimes gives us, by allowing us to participate in the format. Beset as we are on all sides by recessions, job losses, corrupt politicians, calamitous world events and a whole heap of other forces beyond our control, these shows where the nation decides the fate of participants can provide a sense of purpose in an otherwise disenfranchised and nihilistic daily existence. This is a new kind of democracy, where people vote with their remotes rather than the ballot box, about the things that are important to them now. Like who should stay in the Big Brother house, and who should go. Such shows also hold out the hope that however obscure and humble our origins, however meagre our talents, however little work we put in, we can all be famous one day. One recent survey showed that around half of all teenagers in the UK now hope to gain fame by appearing on reality TV, rather than doing something meaningful with their lives. As Martin Amis presciently pointed out back in 2001, in The War Against Cliché, these days:

“You can become rich without having any talent (via the scratchcard and the rollover jackpot). You can become famous without having any talent (by abasing yourself on some TV nerdothon: a clear improvement on the older method of simply killing a celebrity and inheriting the aura). But you cannot become talented without having any talent. Therefore, talent must go.”

When you take away the talent, all that’s left is what’s on the surface. Perhaps that’s why the cast of many a contemporary ‘talent’ show wouldn’t look out of place on a low-budget porn movie, or in a zoo. Mostly they seem to involve clones of empty-headed bimbos flaunting boob jobs the size of footballs in ever more revealing, clingier outfits. Cameras zoom in salaciously on cleavages. Waxed legs grow longer and tanner by the series, skirts shorter and tighter. Chic ankle tattoos are de rigueur. Botoxed lips shimmer with glossy kissability. As for the dudes, those gladiators of hubris who cram their gym-pumped, ripped torsos into crisply-tailored suits or pre-ripped jeans and tees, this new breed of hombres pluck their eye-brows and fuss over strands of immaculately-gelled hair. Popular styles include the Dragged Through a Hedge look, the Wind Tunnel, the Baby Bobby Charlton and the Loo Brush. To borrow a phrase from Radio 4’s John Humphrys, reality TV has provided us with a freak show to gawp at.

I often find it ironic that the genre goes under the label ‘reality’, when it produces some of the most formulaic, stage-managed melodrama on TV. Perhaps the reality lies in the mirror these awful programmes hold up to our increasingly celebrity-obsessed, intellectually-impoverished times. Life for most of us has become a milk-shake of simulated reality sucked through the straw of digital media. Junk food for the brain. The TV equivalent of a Big Mac. It’s the soma drug predicted by Aldous Huxley in his equally prescient 1931 novel, Brave New World. Christ, how that’s come true. The sad thing is we appear to be more addicted to it than ever. We’ve voted with our remotes and got the reality we deserve.

To quote from another Martin Amis book, in his 1985 Moronic Inferno he wondered if one day the book’s title might be more prophetic than he imagined:

“It exactly describes a possible future, one in which the moronic inferno will cease to be a metaphor and will become a reality: the only reality.”

Was Amis ahead of his time? Have we already got there? I’ll leave you to decide.

This is the backdrop against which I’ve set my latest novella, Reality TV, now out on Amazon. It’s a darkly humorous dystopian tale. The story opens with strange goings on in the household of a family of telly addicts in London as they settle down to watch their favourite reality TV show. As the evening goes on and the show unfolds, events get more and more disturbing. I’ve used magic realism to give the tale a surreal twist. Without giving away too much, you’ll find the blurb at the end of this post.

I feel a little guilty about abandoning Smashwords for the launch of this book. I’m a big fan. In my opinion they do a lot more to nurture writers than Amazon. And they actually answer your emails. Whereas Amazon, especially its e-publishing arm Kindle, largely leave you to your own devices (like those other faceless giants Google and Microsoft). They not only don’t answer your emails, they don’t have an email address where you can reach them in the first place. Too big, powerful and greedy to be bothered with mere individuals, they hide behind the internet, and leave their users to stumble around in the dark trying to find solutions in online forums. However, Amazon also dominate the e-book market, so no author can afford to ignore them.

So far I’ve e-pubbed all my previous three titles – Sex on the Brain, Sticky Pages, and The Six Wives of Henry VIII – on both Amazon AND Smashwords. Smashwords kindly distribute to partners like Apple, Barnes & Noble and Sony, which has meant that up to now readers have been able to pick up my titles on ipads, iphones and Nooks. Sales haven’t been huge, to be honest, but every time someone buys one of my books it feels like a miracle to me. I’m so proud and grateful, and just keep my fingers crossed they enjoy it.

Then a couple of years ago Amazon launched KDP Select, an e-publishing platform that allowed authors to leverage, among other benefits, free or discounted promotional days intended to increase book sales. The downside was, KDP Select insisted on exclusivity. You couldn’t join the party if your books were also on sale elsewhere. For that reason I resisted the temptation to join at the time. I have a fairly low opinion of bullies, as anyone who reads this blog will know.

So far, I’ve mostly been watching from the sidelines while the KDP Select debate has played out among e-book authors. While some have enjoyed huge success, claiming to have grown their fan-base and sales significantly, others have said the promotional days just encouraged thousands of people to download their books for free (most of whom would probably never read them) and they never really saw much upturn in paid-for sales when the free giveaways came to an end. Lately, authors seem to agree that Select was more effective in its early days, but the numbers signing up have diluted its effect, which has tailed off some.

I’ve decided the only way I’m going to find out if KDP Select can help me reach a bigger readership, and ultimately sell enough books to make a living, is to try it for myself. So that’s the reason, and the only reason, why I’ve decided to launch the book solely on Amazon at this time. The lock-in period is 3 months at Select. After that, I can opt back out and make it available to more readers on Smashwords and other platforms, tablets and devices if I choose. Ninety days isn’t so long, I figure. (For more info on the KDP Select in/out debate, see this great post by Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, on the dilemma authors face and why on balance it’s probably best to steer clear of KDP Select.)

Here’s the blurb to Reality TV. If it sounds like your cup of tea, you know the drill.

“Meet England footballer and walking brand David Crimp. Adore his vacuous bimbo of a WAG Lara. Across the table in The Murderers restaurant sit monocled conceptual artist Damon Twain and his young Chinese bride Chu-Chu, the ravishingly beautiful chart-topping classical violinist. Who will win the big eat off on tonight’s show? Which unlucky contestant will get the mystery food-poisoning dish?

The fare is served up by host Soup Dogg, the black rapper and media darling with enough Michelin stars to fill a page of Amazon book reviews, fruitier language than a compote with Tourette’s, and more moves than a break dancer on fast-forward. He’s sick, he’s slick, and he’s down with the kids.

When these A-listers go head to head on Sty Transatlantic’s flagship Sunday night programme Humili-ATE (think Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares v Weakest Link) it’s about to turn into the reality TV show from hell. Throw in a dash of controversy to boost the ratings – tonight’s guest kitchen crew of category A prisoners from Glasgow’s High Security Prison, HM Barlinnie – and you pretty much have all the ingredients for a recipe for disaster.

Meanwhile surreal things are happening down in West Ham, where avid Humili-ATE fans Gazza and Tanya Mason find their telly taking on a strange reality all of its own.

The steaks are high, the curry’s a dog, and there’s something dodgy going down in the restaurant toilets.”


Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Farage

Nigel Farage

 

One of the most unedifying spectacles in recent times has been the scandalous smear campaign conducted by the chattering classes against Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party, in the run up to today’s Local and European Elections. Farage predicted this would happen. As UKIP’s message begins to resonate with an increasing number of the electorate, it was inevitable the establishment would gang up on them sooner rather than later, borne out of a mixture of ill-concealed fear and loathing. But if I may offer a note of caution to David Cameron and Ed Milliband, it’s this. Loathing views that are increasingly held by the people you’re asking to vote you into office, might not be the smartest tactic. Same goes for selling newspapers and broadcasting news programmes too. These are your potential customers you’re bad-mouthing.

The level of scurrilous accusation, name-calling, muck-raking, mud-slinging and scaremongering that has gone on these last two weeks, as mainstream parties and their cronies in the press and at the BBC finally woke up to UKIP’s surging popularity, has taken the level of political discourse in this country to new depths. The almost forensic level of interrogation the party and its members have been subjected to, unprecedented among all the other parties, has actually made me ashamed of our so called free press. Completely biased, and grinding a shameless axe with every key-stroke, one hack after another has been queuing up to try and put the boot in, to dig up some sordid fact, make a grubby allegation, to see if they could make something ‘stick’. Anything. The way Nigel Farage has remained above it all, continuing to talk about real policy issues in the face of some gutter journalism, does him great credit. He emerged the only one sounding like a grown-up in an increasingly childish debate. And you know something else? Many voters like myself who resent being treated like children, or lectured to by prigs who think they have a monopoly on being right, are becoming more confirmed in our conviction that voting for UKIP is the right thing to do. The more this ‘Loony liberal lynch-mob’ (as Jeremy Clarkson recently referred to them) tries to tell me how I should think and speak and act, the more they drive me in the other direction. I like Nigel Farage. He’s a maverick. A rebel. He speaks his mind, talking the kind of common sense that the man and woman on the street understand. The kind of sense they’d almost forgotten politicians used once to speak, in this age of spin and sound-bite and fudge. Most worryingly of all for them, he’s got in spades the two qualities they most lack. Charisma, and gravitas. And I’ll be voting for him and be damned what they think.

I’ll be voting UKIP later today for two main reasons – Europe, and political disaffection. Firstly, I abhor the EU. I think it’s become a bloated bureaucratic monster that eats £billions of money each year that we haven’t got. We pour literally £millions into its mouth every day, as a net contributor, and seem to get mostly trouble back. This ultimate ‘big brother’ organisation is a far cry from the ‘Common Market’ of trading nations we joined forty years ago. This de-facto European Super-state which won’t be satisfied until it has its own army and own exchequer (god help us) into which it will pour your taxes, now sticks its nose into just about every aspect of life of every member country. It meddles with our laws and customs, telling us what we can and can’t do, over-ruling our own judges and overturning home-grown laws and customs that have evolved over thousands of years and are rooted in who we are as a nation and a people. The EU doesn’t give a damn. If it wants to make a law, it makes it, and imposes it on us whether we like it or not. Who voted for these faceless politicians and lawmakers who over-rule our nationally elected ones? I certainly didn’t. Do you know any? I’m sure I don’t know the name of a single foreign MEP. Yet these people now have more power over our lives than the democratically elected MPs we vote into our own Government. It’s completely insane.

As for the myth often put about by shameless Europhiles that leaving the EU will be disastrous for British business, it’s a blatant lie, little better than an unsubstantiated scare story, Nick Clegg’s favourite line. Some of the richest nations in Europe are thriving precisely because they chose to remain out of the EU. Both Norway and Switzerland (the WORLD’S fourth and eighth richest countries in terms of GDP) have been booming in their ‘splendid isolation’. Britain has always enjoyed, and always will, good trading links with many nations, which will continue whether we are in the EU or out. If we continue to produce popular British products and services that are in demand at competitive prices, other nations will continue to buy them. In fact, being in the EU actually harms our ability to trade oversees because it bars us from negotiating our own global trade agreements. The Americas, Asia, China, Africa, Russia and the Far East are all massive growing markets on which we should be increasingly focusing our attention, instead of worrying about paying protection money to some cosy cartel closer to home, as many Europhiles seem obsessed with.

My second reason for voting UKIP today is one of political disaffection. I’m just about done with most of the mainstream UK parties and the insipid, shallow, gutless, greedy, corrupt excuse for politicians who run them. Tories, Labour, Lib Dems, I’ve had them, up to here. This feeling has crept up on me in middle age as I’ve witnessed the gradual marginalisation, and eventual dying out, of a once widespread breed of courageous ‘conviction politician’ from the political landscape. People of the stamp of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn who, love ‘em or loathe ‘em, at least stood for something. John Major seemed a decent man, but every Prime Minister and leader of the other mainstream parties since then has seemed to stand for nothing more substantial than the goal of office itself. And they’d sell their grannies to get elected. When it comes to policies, beliefs, vision, you can’t put a cigarette paper between them. They’ve become indistinguishable. Driven by no higher ideal than their ambition for office, they try to be all things to all people, and end up being none, as they drift increasingly to the centre, merging into a grey, inoffensive, ineffective cloud of nothingness. Of absence. Our politicians aren’t there for us, any more. They’re there for THEM. They’ve sold off the family silver to private businesses that most of them will end up on the boards of. And as we’ve recently discovered, while these paragons of virtue are swift to condemn anyone else for stepping out of line, most of them have had their hands in the till the whole time, as the expenses scandals that are STILL being exposed, are demonstrating. Anyone else would have been sent to prison and been given a criminal record, yet most of them get away with it, simply because they made up their own rules. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as a famous person once said.

No wonder a growing number of British people are getting more and more disillusioned with mainstream politics. More disenchanted. More disappointed. To watch how the Lib Dems finally sold out on their beliefs at the last election, prostituting themselves as the Tories’ bitches just for the mere whiff of power (not even the whiff, but the illusion of a whiff, as it proved) was the final straw for me. Nick Clegg? Integrity my arse.

The only thing most politicians seem half-competent at doing these days is posturing on the world stage, getting us embroiled in foreign wars that are none of our business. Wars we no longer have the armed forces to prosecute properly, because they’ve all been sold to the scrap yard. Wars that are costing £billions in revenue, and the lives of brave servicemen and women. Those lucky enough to return safely home are invariably treated like dirt, or made redundant, by the Whitehall bean counters who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

All I know is this, you might as well blindfold me and ask me to pin a tail on a donkey, as ask me to choose between the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats at today’s elections. None of them represent me, or the things I care about, any more. They’ve ALL sold their traditional supporters down the line, along with their beliefs. Rubbish UKIP as much as you like, but at least they stand for something. They may not yet have MPs or be credible as a governing party in the immediate future, but they sure as hell can help change the debate, and bring an end to the political engineering that has been selling this country down the line for decades. For me and an increasing number of British voters, UKIP are the only party who seem to be standing up for some very important things we care about. Wanting to protect our jobs, our safety, our culture, laws and traditions, isn’t a racist agenda, as a few on the fascist-left have claimed. It’s a patriotic agenda. A dirty word for the lynch mob perhaps, but not for me. For too long we’ve let shadowy spin-doctors and corrupt politicians sell us down the line, at home and in the EU. Today’s our chance to stand up to them, and be counted. Our chance to start taking some of that democratic power back into our own hands. If anyone feels like me but hasn’t voted yet today, go out and put a tick in the box for UKIP now. Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Farage. I’m putting my coat on right now and taking a stroll down to the Polling Station. If you don’t, or if you vote for one of the other mainstream parties, you’ll continue to get more of the same – waste, corruption, deceit, posturing, mis-management, war, and greed. Blair, Cameron, and Clegg. Need I say more?


The day I met Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If there was a poll for the most beautiful woman who ever lived – the most desirable, sexiest creature ever to walk the planet – Marilyn Monroe would have to be up there. Adored by men and women alike, judging from the millions of her images still being shared and posted and favourite every day on sites like Pinterest, the thousands upon thousands of boards and galleries set up in homage to her, Marilyn’s timeless allure is as powerful today as ever.

Generations of teenagers have grown up with posters of Marilyn blue-tacked to their bedroom walls. Like many an adolescent I often dreamed myself to sleep making passionate if amateurish love to her. I still have that poster rolled up in a trunk in the attic. I don’t think I could ever bear to part with it. Like an old Hendrix LP, it has become part of my identity, and remains a nostalgic memento of that heady crossroads in my life when I changed from boy to man. Oh how I miss my youth.

For me one of the greatest tragedies of the Twentieth Century was the day we lost her. In my own personal timeline it ranks as one of the blackest days in history, right up there with the deaths of Rupert Brooke, Jimi Hendrix and Duncan Edwards. Mercifully, thank god, Marilyn Monroe still lives on in her funny and glamorous movies, in the millions of gorgeous photographs taken, the books written and documentaries made about her. She is still provoking desire, providing succour and inspiration, all these years later.

In fact, in my short story The Blonde Bombshell, I reveal shocking new evidence that Marilyn Monroe never actually died at all, but lives on as fresh and lovely and vivid as ever, in the rural backwater of Norfolk, England, in 2014.

The Blonde Bombshell was originally published in my 700 page short story and poetry collection, Sex on the Brain, but you can read it here for free. Get the tissues ready guys, and enjoy.


52 Pick-up by Elmore Leonard – book review

52 Pick-up by Elmore Leonard

 

Flawed but highly readable early crime thriller by the daddy of naturalistic dialogue

Local businessman Harry Mitchell is the respectable, hard-working boss of a small Detroit engineering company. Happily married to his wife Barbara for twenty-two years, he has a mid-life crisis affair with a young model from a nudie bar. Turns out the model works for some local hoods who start blackmailing Mitchell, threatening to expose him if he doesn’t pay them large. That’s where the novel starts. The main storyline is about how Mitchell handles his predicament.

As you would expect from Leonard, even though this was one of his earlier books written in the 70s, it cracks along at a fair old pace. The characters’ dialogue is trademark Leonard – sharp, witty and believable. Leonard had the best ear for realistic urban dialogue of almost any writer I know. He was also a great believer in ‘taking out the boring bits’ – long narrative descriptions which slow the story down. In 52 Pick-up he pares those back to a few sparse details about drugs, guns, and engineering processes necessary to give the story ballast and credibility. But in terms of pacing a story, Leonard is still the gold standard. Any writer starting out would learn more from simply reading his work than they’d get from a lifetime of Creative Writing class.

Okay, now to the main flaw of 52 Pick-up, as I saw it. The blurb on Amazon says, “But they’ve picked the wrong man, because Harry Mitchell doesn’t get mad – he gets even,” and for me that was the main weakness of the book, in terms of the implausibility of the hero’s go-it-alone actions. At several points in the story, especially the beginning, you are yelling at Harry Mitchell to simply go tell the police. Job done. Then of course Leonard wouldn’t have a book. Which is fair enough, but Leonard never really solves the implausibility problem, or gives us a believable enough reason why Harry Mitchell wouldn’t go to the cops. There’s a slim bit of back story about his war record which attempts to convey an ‘inner steel’, but it doesn’t really explain why he’d act so irrationally. Mitchell is supposed to be an intelligent, law-abiding, self-made businessman. Yet when any sane person would want the law on their side he comes up with one phoney, half-assed excuse after another why he needs to do it ‘his way’. The most plausible reason of all – to keep it secret so his wife doesn’t find out – is discarded less than a quarter of the way into the book. After that, his continued pig-headedness is never really justified, from the reader’s point of view. Go. Tell. The. Police. You keep saying it to yourself, on every page.

Also, the way Mitchell reacts to horrifying events like murder, rape, having a burglar in your bedroom or a gun pointed at you, without even breaking sweat, just doesn’t ring true. His macho cock-suredness lacks the vulnerability, for instance, that gave the Paul Kersey vigilante his credibility in Death Wish. It also leads, ultimately, to a frankly unbelievable denouement at the end of 52 Pick-up. Without giving away too much (mild spoiler alert!) the author asks us to believe in ‘happy ever after’, when in reality the ramifications of Harry Mitchell’s actions at the end of the novel would have been catastrophic for his future – his liberty, his marriage, his family, his business, his reputation – all the things supposed to be most precious to him.

Despite these flaws in a relatively early Leonard book, I still enjoyed reading it. The story never flagged and the suspenseful end to every chapter left me eager to read the next. I’d probably sum it up best by saying I’d rather read a bad book by Elmore Leonard than a good one by a lesser writer. 52 Pick-up fits that description perfectly.