Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The 1000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Finished it. The last third is as good as anything he’s done, which is to say very good indeed. He habitually writes in short stories, linked short stories presented as novels, like my last book, TENDER. 1000 Autumns is essentially three novellas, the first weak, the second an improvement, and the third excellent. So, a qualified recommendation. But there’s a humanity underpinning his writing, a belief that honesty and kindness are the best options in human relationships, that I find very attractive. He's not interested in cheap, attention-grabbing tricks, melodrama introduced to make the plot work, or as an excuse for some purple prose, his stories are inventive and surprising, the ideas bubbling beneath them are always at least interesting, his language is beautiful and distinctive, his characters engaging and his research – which I was a bit snippy about below – unsurpassed. And they're about to start filming his masterpiece, CLOUD ATLAS, I believe. Films of books, that's a whole different discussion ...

Monday, August 22, 2011


Up on stage. Dragged up on stage by an unusual comedian at the Edinburgh Festival, in front of maybe 300 people, squinting into the dazzle, trying to smile, wondering what’s happening to my lips. It was embarrassing of course, but fun too, even while I was up there I was enjoying it, it was memorable. That was The Boy With The Tape on His Mouth, a man doing an hour’s show with his mouth taped up, using mime and physical comedy and the audience; child-like, playful, sophisticated, bit of Tati, one of my highlights. The other would be A Slow Air by David Harrower, lovely play at the Traverse, about family, a brother and a sister, estrangement, something I always seem to be looking at in my fiction, beguiling. And the wonderful story-telling of The Man Who Planted Trees, with the very funny dog puppet, the surprising and engaging kids’ show, Boxes and Bubblewrap, Michael Morpurgo doing his gentle, moving thing in Private Peaceful, and Neil Gaiman at the Book Festival, being pleasant and interesting, though I’d have liked to hear him read.

So that was a success. Daughter desperate to return next year. Son a little more luke-warm, a little less surprised by it all. Walking down the Royal Mile among tightrope walking jugglers, fire-eaters, strangely dressed performers accosting us to hand out fliers, he’s earnestly asking me, Who would win in a fight between Caligula and Blackbeard?

In other news, The 1000 Autumns of Jacob de Z … a bit disappointing. I love David Mitchell, but I’m not enjoying this very much. Jacob de Z’s a bit dull, the thriller story of the second part’s an improvement but not very thrilling and with a predictable (inevitable?) twist. Just beginning the third part. When you admire the visuals on a Pixar film, you know there’s something wrong with the story. Here, I’m admiring the research.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


It’s poverty, it’s bad parenting, it’s police harassment, it’s failed education, it’s lack of aspiration, it’s lack of discipline, it’s the glamorisation of criminals, it’s adults spending too much time trying to be like cool kids instead of showing kids how to be like adults, it’s defining people by consumerism then denying them consumer goods, it’s straightforward greed, it’s gangs of criminals, it’s the cult of self-esteem, it’s lack of role models, it’s the closure of youth clubs, it’s all a bit depressing. Hard to imagine a way back from this. It would take enlightened, longterm work by politicians who weren't going to be influenced by unpopularity, looming elections or the Daily Mail, who were dedicated to perceptive, compassionate, hard-headed policies aimed at improving all the above. Like I say, hard to imagine.

Monday, August 08, 2011

A Different Life

So, after February 1982 (see below) there were about two years where my life was arranged by illness. Chemotherapy, knee replacement, physiotherapy, radical surgery. What does it mean, to be ill? It means being a step back, being passive while other people do things to you, and for you. Doctors and nurses clustered round me, prodding me, examining me, made me feel important. Or they left me alone, walked past, checked a chart without a word, made me feel neglected, ignored. Powerless, either way. I lay in my hospital bed and watched somebody die in the bed opposite, and I was sad and scared while watching it, but grateful to be there, to witness it. I lay there while friends and family visited. I lay there and craned my neck so that I could look out of a window at what was going on in the street outside. I sat in other people’s cars as they drove me to and from the hospital, and looked out at what was happening in the ordinary, breathing world. You’re behind a window a lot, or feel like you are, looking out at life going on elsewhere.

Once a friend called Robin drove me away on a morning when I couldn’t have chemo because my blood count wasn’t right. We drove up the hill out of the hospital, on a beautiful sunny morning, and he put Beethoven’s violin concerto on, and it felt like the world couldn’t be more perfect than this: being driven away from hospital by a friend, in sunlight, with the music playing, and not having chemo. Your values are rearranged when you’re ill. You’ve entered a different world with different rules and when you leave it – if you leave it – you’re changed.

That period has influenced everything since, has made me a different person. I’m more or less with Nietzche on this:

As far as concerns my own sickness, am I not infinitely more indebted to it than to my health? It is to my sickness that I owe a higher health.

OR: What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

(I haven't read Nietzche, I heard the first quote in a lecture, and saw the second at the beginning of Conan the Barbarian. It seemed clever to me at the time, and apt, since I was in the midst of illness, but it’s become a cliché, and lost it’s power. Thanks, John Milius.)

I try not to be romantic about it. If I could keep the change but lose the experience, then I’d do it. But if I could only lose both the experience and the change in myself, then I’d most likely do that. And then I'd be an altogether different person, living a different life.