The Brown Wedge

Dec 04

Thankyou Santa

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Thankyou Santa

This kind of thing is why Grant Morrison is my favourite comics writer:

“The Fortress appears in issue #2, stuffed with a ton of new toys and gets haunted by the bandaged ghost of the Unknown Superman of 4500 AD. The Kandorians finally get out of that bottle. Superman gets a new power. Clark Kent winds up sharing a prison cell with Lex Luthor in issue #5. The Bizarro Cube Earth invades our world in an epic 2-part adventure (no ‘decompression’ here!) and we’re recasting the Bizarros as a frightening, unstoppable zombie-plague style menace. Bizarro Jor-El and the Bizarro JLA turn up in the second part of that story too. What else? We meet Earth’s replacement Superman and Clark Kent takes on a new superhero identity…Ten of the 12 issues are complete short stories in 22 pages, so lots of stuff happens. And it all links together as a maxi-arc or whatever they call them these days, entitled ‘The 12 Labors of Superman’.

Superman’s Rogues Gallery is pretty weak, so I’ve tried to add some characters I think might enhance the mix. Solaris, the Tyrant Sun from the DC 1 Million series gets a makeover and a return visit, and I figured Superman could use a ‘Subhuman’ counterpart, so I’ve created Krull, an evolved dinosaur dictator who rules a monstrous civilization at the center of the earth. He’s only in the story for a few pages but the concept is strong and feels like one that could be used again. Then there’s the Abominable Snowman, a tragic scientist who’s a bit like a refrigerated Incredible Hulk and turns up for a couple of pages. Superman needs some good tough monsters to fight, so I’ve tried to think along those lines.”

Yes, it’s nonsense. I know it’s nonsense. But my god it looks like entertaining nonsense.

Dec 04

The Scavenger’s Tale by Rachel Anderson

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The Scavenger’s Tale by Rachel Anderson

This is an interesting and impressive novel. It’s slim and simply written: she also writes children’s novels, and brings that clarity and precision here, but this would surely be too harrowing, morally in particular, for a child. It kind of put me in mind of a cross between Oliver Twist and 1984, with a strong dash of Leon Garfield.

It’s London in the nearish future, some years after some vague conflagration, a repressive and poverty-stricken place, visited by sick tourists, since the only things of value still on offer here are medical skill and quaint sights. Our protagonist is a teenage boy, struggling to sustain a meagre existence for his motley adoptive family of ‘dysfuncs’ (suffering from Down’s Syndrome, cerebral palsy and other such conditions) by scavenging in bins and on the Thames, until everything starts getting far worse, and sinister truths are revealed – these are pretty much given away by the blurb, and you’d have guessed very quickly anyway.

It’s nonetheless a brave novel, as our hero is so far from heroic – there’s one breathtakingly shocking and distressing scene, an instant moral and practical choice that he makes, something that rings true, but I’ve never seen its like before. This is halfway through, and the rest can’t quite live up to that moment’s impact, and the end fizzles rather. Her crisp writing carries you through with enough pace that this doesn’t hurt it too much, and it’s that and the one striking incident that will make me look for more by her.


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“Hoyt began moving his lips as if he were trying to suck the ice cream off the top of a cone without using his teeth … Slither slither slither slither went the tongue, but the hand that was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns … “

Winner of this years Literary Review Bad Sex Prize for worst sex writing. Tom Wolfe (the author of said passage) would probably argue that it is meant to be bad. To which I would say – in a Mandy Rice-Davis accent natch: “well he would say that – wouldn’t he?”

Dec 04

Japanese Gardens by Gunter Nitschke

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This is one of Taschen’s wonderful art books – I think they are sometimes disdained because of their mass market production and remainder shop appearances, but they are superb books, always with very high quality text and imagery – we shouldn’t think less of their standards because they are easily and cheaply available! Anyway, I extract from this a brief description of what Nitschke sees as the five great types of Japanese garden:

1. Heian palace gardens. Large ponds, interesting rocks (the single most indispensable feature of the Japanese garden throughout history), winding streams, all oriented and arranged according to Japan’s version of Feng Shui. Designed to be enjoyed around the pond or boating on same.

2. The dry garden. This is most famous from the Zen Buddhist temple gardens consisted of raked gravelly sand, with occasional groups of interesting rocks in odd-numbered arrangements (groups of 3,5,7 were prominent), but had wider application, where grass-and-tree gardens had rock compositions suggesting dry ‘waterfalls’. Designed for meditation from the veranda of a temple building, or viewing from similar fixed points.

3. The tea garden – a path to the small and humble teahouse wending its way through a modest and rustic garden, quiet in colour, designed to create the right mental state (humility, calmness, receptiveness, etc.) while approaching the tea ceremony, and for recuperation between its stages (full-scale, it could take four or five hours). Carved stone lanterns and blocks with water-filled indentations first appear.

4. The garden designed as a series of scenes: paths took you from one carefully composed setting to another. Often these scenes (there could be a hundred or more in large gardens) were designed to evoke or symbolise some famous or mythical site, so we get mini-Fuji hillocks and so on. Strangely trimmed shrubbery, sometimes cubic in form, makes its debut.

5. The author is struggling a bit by the very varied modern era, and grasps at the new use of dressed stone, interesting rocks (still a mainstay) that are cut and carved rather than natural. The fact is that design now is much more varied in style and setting, and is often now centred on commercial buildings, in front of or even in the lobby area, and uses a very wide range of techniques and aesthetic approaches, for diverse purposes. The book is rather cursory in this area, sadly – its one weakness bar the very occasional moment of over the top mysticism by the author.

Dec 04

Happy Now by Charles Higson

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Happy Now by Charles Higson

Is Higson our leading renaissance man? Modest success as a pop star, writing for Reeves & Mortimer, a leading performer in The Fast Show, and also a fine novelist – I suppose Jonathan Miller ranks higher in such a comparison, but Higson’s talents deserve great credit.

His novels are thrillers, of a distinctively British kind. There are no drawing rooms or exotic poisons, but his characters have a frustration and anger that is unmistakeably British, as well as lives and speech patterns. This novel orchestrates a successful middle-aged man with severe anger control problems (for which he blames his father), a former weed who has taken up karate to make him more manly, and someone who sneaks into others’ homes to masturbate. He constructs it superbly, choreographing the three into an eventual meeting and then dealing with the spiralling and violent repercussions. It’s terrific entertainment, funny, exciting, nasty, even with some of that cringing recognition that much of the best recent British comedy offers – if you imagine a violent remix of The Office, with David Brent losing his temper and showing up at work with a shotgun, you’ll be somewhere along the right lines.

His prose is sometimes rather basic, though always lively, and I can’t see him getting near any literary award shortlists in the foreseeable future, nor would I rank him with the best current US crime-thriller writers (such as Block, Burke, Vachss), but his are very enjoyable, strong and compelling novels.

Japanese Inro by Julia Hutt

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Japanese Inro by Julia Hutt

Inro were small sectioned lacquerware boxes, generally a little smaller than a cigarette packet, which wealthy Japanese wore dangling from their sash-belts from the 17th Century until around a hundred years ago, when Western clothes with pockets made them redundant. They contained either ink seals and blocks or medicines. There were strict laws restricting dress and material and colour for parts of this period, which made inro among the few ways that wealthy merchants, at the bottom of the old caste system, could impress people with their money and taste. They were fashion items rather than art objects – the best Western parallel may be jewellery.

This book is produced by the Victoria and Albert museum, and focusses on inro at a craft and antique level, rather than as art, which is where my interest lies. The level of craft is, however, extraordinary and fascinating – a single inro could take a year to make, with over 100 layers of lacquer which each take a couple of days to dry, and with the intricate image produced by sprinkling powders from a narrow tube, plus small flakes of pearl shell, gold and other materials.

I find a lot of inro breathtakingly beautiful, but it is unclear in most cases whether the image is created by the maker of the inro, which was normally a family shop rather than entirely by one individual, or simply copied from a painting or print. Nonetheless, as an amateur in love with them as objects of art, attribution doesn’t matter to me; nor does any notion of auteurish credit or purity; and the divisions between art and craft have always been much more complex and equivocal in Japan than the West, besides being places at different points.

A final point, which is confusing me. My editor here, Tim Hopkins, brought an auction of Japanese items happening this coming week to my attention. It includes several inro, and I could afford to buy some 19th Century ones, for anything from a few hundred pounds each and up. I do have spare money these days, but the idea of actually owning works of art seems utterly alien to me – I was an adult before it occurred to me that stepping into an art gallery was an option open to me. I think it will take some considerable time before I can seriously think about taking this further step.

Dec 04

“The Hemulen was white with ire”

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Tove Jannson wrote two picture-books-for-moominloving-tots: Vem ska trosta knyttet? (1960) and Hur gick det sen? Boken om Mymlan, Mumintrollet och lilla My (1952). When I discovered they’d been republished (as Who Will Comfort Toffle? and The Book of Moomin, Mymble and Little My) , I got very excited (and ran out and bought em) (actually they came out in 2003 so my actually running wz a bit needless). Then I got very picky and territorial.

See they’ve been “rewritten”, and a bit of the power of such books is of course unchanging ritual: THEY NEVER CHANGE howEVER OFTEN YOU READ THEM. As you will recall when v.small you wz being read to (by a different relative than usual, say) and they GOT SOMETHING WRONG!!

Anyway the new versions are handsomely turned out, and the small-print details at the back suggest care and thought went into the reworking: a a literal translation by Silvester Mazzarella turned into verse by Sophie Hannah (“one of Britain’s best-selling poets” acc.the jacket quote; “a real star” acc.the Daily Telegraph).

But yeah, I got picky. First, the verse seemed to demand a fairly monotonous singsong, diDUMdiDUMdiDUMdiDUM. Second, if you gave into this, you find yrself having to say names with completely the wrong emphasis: “Beyond the forest, bathed in light/the air tastes fresh. The grass glows bright/The sun shines down on fields of flowers/MooMINtroll’s walked for hours and hours…” and “HeMULen, with a vacuum hose/had got some house dust up his nose/Spring cleaning (though it wasn’t Spring)/was Hemulen’s most favourite thing.” I didn’t like having to say MymBULL for Mymble, let alone T’FULL for Toffle.

What turned me round comes on the facing page to the vacuum hose lines: “She cut the tube and pulled it back/Mymble and Moonmintroll were black/with dust from head to toe. My laughed/”Blimey, the two of you look daft!’ OK, first, no one can be meant to read any way but “BLImey!’, and second: Little My gets to say “BLIMEY!”

In other words, the basic rhythm is presumably meant to be much freer, and you stress to taste. And once I realised this, I got over my peeve and started to like it: the old version at this point had a ghastly couplet along the lines of “The vacuum tube rose high’r and high’r/the hemulen was white with ire” – and I’m fairly sure either My or Mymble cursed that *other* whiskered bad-poetry standby “Fie!” at some point. Which suggests the earlier version was probably rubbish.

[innovation note: Hur gick det sen? Boken om Mymlan, Mumintrollet och lilla My – with its holes cut in the pages to barrel us through to the next bit of the story – predates B.S Johnson‘s Albert Angelo by 11 years. Hur gick det sen? means “Guess what happened next?” and Hannah makes a neat job of varying this every time (“Now guess what happens: YOU decide” – how would i not love this proposal?)]

CONCLUSION: if yr reading it to small someone else, do a bit of practice first – there are a few tongue-twistery passages

Dec 04

The Man Who Ate The 747 is a cute little book

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The Man Who Ate The 747 is a cute little book. It is a romance which is neither Danielle Steele doorstep thick, or branded via Mills & Boon. Romance fiction has a bad name, and yet historically the romance was a more than respectable genre. Ben Sherwood’s novel probably escapes obvious pigeonholing by virtue of being written by a man. Ah, the enlightened 21st century.

The book feels a touch off though, for no reason of its writers devising. The tale concerns a loveless researcher for the Guinness Book Of Records. Now you might say that he is loveless because he is a right wing, racist reactionary scum, but the book is not about Norris McWhirter. Nor does The Man Who Ate The 747 mention the word Guinness. Instead it constantly refers to The Book in hushed tones that this Christmas stocking staple possible does not deserve. Obviously trademark issues have intervened, but it does make the sweet tale of courtship via ingesting aviation appears to take place in a parallel universe.

Bus stop top fun

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Bus stop top fun

From Hoxton to Clerkenwell (haven’t checked out the return route yet), on the route of the 55 and 243, next to the Foundry, Old Street station, Turnmills, Yo! Sushi, Clerkenwell Screws and the Yorkshire Grey. Variously, 8 breakfast sets (tray, bowl, spoon, open pint of milk) lined up, a sign I couldn’t read because I was sat on the inside seat on the bus, turf, a small pink cuddly toy on a round black thing*, c. 15 beer cans with whited out labels giving only generic details of contents, and two pictures, one of a doric column, one i couldn’t quite make out, that are slowing disintegrating due to rain. Thank you for brightening up my morning.

*not entirely sure this was part of the project, but that’s part of the fun…

Dec 04

Hard-working words

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Hard-working words

I saw in Smiths last night that Stephen Donaldson had written one last Thomas Covenant book. Imagine my delight! Not at the existence of the book, you understand – more tedious leprosy shenanigans I expect – but at Donaldson’s dusting off an all-time classic of the pull-quoter’s art –

“Comparable to Tolkien at his best”

This used to be on every Covenant paperback. It worked, too – as a Lord Of The Rings fan I borrowed one of them from the library. Too late I learned just how much work the word “comparable” was doing. Oh yes indeed you could compare them. Compare them all you like, in fact – the result will be the same. As a reader I was disgusted. As a marketer I doff a belated cap.