Monday, September 29, 2008

currently listening...

1. Stricken City - Tak O Tak (buzzy, energetic indie pop from this new London group - recommended)
2. Neil Halstead - Witless Or Wise (Neil's Oh! Mighty Engine LP has been the slowest burning record of 2008 for me, but I think it's probably my very favourite)
3. The Wave Pictures - Our Perfect Lovers (quite amazing that the Just Like A Drummer mini-LP contains so many brilliant, brilliant songs. This is the best).
4. Dinosaur Pile-Up - Love Is A Boat And We're Sinking (loving the simplicity of this one; looped, wonky guitar riffs always work a treat; and some great harmonies, too)
5. Peggy Sue - All In My Grill (I challenge you listen to Rosa and Katy's take on the Missy Elliot track without bursting into laughter. As they do).
6. Frokost - Hanging Out With The In-Crowd (from their really good The Sound Of My Wooden Chest LP, which I picked up in NY)
7. Underground Railroad - Sticks And Stones LP (grunge is back. Again?)
8. The Vivian Girls - LP (only just heard this, so will hold back on the enthusiasm for a bit, but I think this'll be on my record player a lot this autumn)
9. Jenny Lewis - Acid Tongue LP (Still struggling with Rilo Kiley, despite Dan's promptings, but I like this new album a lot)
10. Aaron Neville - Hercules (old New Orleans funk from a Soul Jazz comp; came across it on shuffle and addicted now...)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

polar books

This bookshelf, via Rosie's lovely Old Old Fashioned blog, is absolutely brilliant! How cool is that! Sadly he costs a pretty sum; two thousand pounds. But that seems almost worth it, somehow.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

east village colour

This won't look very good in the narrow confines of my blog template, but below is a set of photographs I've stitched together; the subject is a long wall in Manhattan's East Village, culminating in a little pub (shown above) called The Mars Bar. Click on the long image and it should show you a close up.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

fox on parenting

I check out of my apartment today, so I should really be jumping up and packing so that I can get out early and spend as much time in NY as possible, but actually I'm lying in bed watching Fox News; a channel which has provoked much horror and fury over the week, but right now just laughter, as they had some idiot on just now promoting his new book, called 'How To Raise a Happy Child'.

Here's the first question he was asked. "So, how would you react if you're child came to you and said, Daddy, I'm bored?"

I take a look at the guy. He looks like a lawyer, not a father. He thinks about it for a moment. I look in vain for a glimpse of human kindness in his eyes. He replies.

"I'd say, son, it's time to take responsibility for your life".

Thanks, Dad, that'll work.

no more diapers

Of course everyone has a story about a New York cab driver, so I'm offering nothing new here; but my journey from Newark Liberty into Manhattan earlier this week was a journey which lived up to the billing. The stereotype of NYC cabbies – or hacks – is that they talk fast and furious, negotiate the roads with psychotic abandon, and are, basically, nuts. The other stereotype, probably the truer one, is that in the yellow cabs of New York City you see immigration in action; wave after wave of economic migrants working the roads, united by their ambition for something better on the one hand and the depth of the story which led them there on the other. Somewhere between the two stereotypes is the fact, probably, and my hack was located exactly there. He was friendly, jovial, welcoming, and also hard to follow, disconcerting, intimidating – each in turn and all at once.

I climbed in the cab at the end of the afternoon, but having flown across the Atlantic I was shattered and at the tail end of a long day, my body telling me it was coming up to midnight. But when the driver – a tall, lean guy with a five o’clock shadow - welcomed me warmly I tried to engage him in conversation, and when I explained my job was treated to a loud and familiar story; that one day he would write a book and everyone would read it. It would be a life-changing book. We talked about the importance of reading, the importance of stories, and I believed him when he said that his life would be a story worth reading of – colourful because of where he came from and where he ended up, and important because it was true. At the same time, of course, I shrank back a bit – when I tell people I’m a publisher they often tell me that one day they'll write a book. I live in fear of them asking for a business card. And I spotted quickly that residing amongst the good humour there was a good deal of frustration. The book would tell it how it is, he told me, would talk of mis-justice and poverty, and the moral worth of the city he worked.

Where do you come from originally, I ask him, because he’s telling me about coming to the US. He tells me he is from Morocco, and so I tell him of the time, just the other week, when I ate at a restaurant in Southern Spain, and could see the North African coast on the horizon. As I say it, I speculate that I may be making a mistake. I’m right.

"What did you see between Spain and Morocco", he asks, and my heart sinks.

"Gibraltar", I tell him.

"And do you think that it is fair", he asks me, "that Gibraltar is considered the property of Britain".

I tell him that I don't know a lot about it, but that it doesn't seem fair to me, no – a response he scarcely notices as he launches into a long, protracted and hard-to-follow rant about imperialism, about the way the rich always fuck over the poor. Because I suspect I'm broadly in agreement with this, feeling that there’s a terrific unevenness in the world, I nod and provide the odd uncertain endorsement, which he occasionally acknowledges, but not always warmly – often I find I've either misunderstood a poorly explained point, or he suspects me of being a hypocrite or a rich-boy, and glances back sternly, repeating, "you understand what I’m saying?", again and again, to which I can only answer, falsely, "yes".

In Morocco, he tells me, everyone is happy. "But in Manhattan everyone goes to a psychiatrist. Why is that?"

He expects me to answer, but I'm growing weary and irritated now, refusing to provide him with responses. "There is no morality here", he says. He waves across the Hudson, which I'm getting an especially good look at, as he has completely missed a turning and is now having to take me in over the George Washington Bridge, doubling the length of the journey.

He's wistful for a moment. "It's beautiful. Do you have a camera?".

I shake my head.

"Over there, it is fun, yes?" He asks. I say yes. "Drink. Eat nice food. Go shopping. Nice girls?".

I realise that he's not talking up Manhattan at all, he's talking it down. Drink, food, girls – these things are not enough. I don’t tell him that they sound exactly like enough to me.

"And they all end up in psychiatrist!", he shouts. "Normal man, comes to New York, drinks, eats, fucks girls, gets to sixty and now he sees the psychiatrist. And then – pffft – all of a sudden, shits himself. And he is dressed in diapers. Diapers!".

I'm frankly a bit surprised that the conversation has taken this turn, so elect to stay quiet for a bit.

"In Morocco, no-one sees psychiatrist. No one wears diapers, shits himself. So what is it about this place that makes people like that?".

I don't answer so he repeats the question. I have a half-hearted go at trying to answer – mumbling something about economics and leisure time, but he cuts me off with another question. "Who decides that it costs sixty dollars to take this cab into Manhattan?", he demands. "Do I decide?". Before I can answer, he tells me no, he doesn't decide, someone else does. And he hammers the steering wheel with his fist – not angry, but vexed. "And it’s fucked up, man", he tells me. "Fu-ucked up".

After a bit more of this, his mood turns a bit sunnier. "This is what my book will be like!", he tells me. "You see, it will deal with big subjects! New York Taxi Driver, oh yes. I have lived in Spain. I have lived in Africa. Now. America. Is this not a good story?".

I tell him he should write his book, wishing I could append write it and shut the fuck up, to the suggestion.

"This is a good conversation", he declares, all smiles. He turns round – without slowing down – and shouts "high five".

In the most embarrassing, British way, I flap my palm against his. Despite everything, I'm sort of enjoying myself – it's impossible not to enjoy being driven across the Hudson, watching New York shimmering in the sun ahead of me. And this is, I keep reasoning to myself, an experience.

We've crossed into Harlem now, and I'm pleased for a moment that the journey has taken this wayward route, for it's a part of the city that I mightn't otherwise had time to see. It's amazingly vibrant, full of people, kids, old men sat in the sun. Everyone looks happy, I think.

"Here", the hack tells me, "everyone is happy. No psychiatrist. Because family is strong, you see – parents know where there children are, what they doing. Good place. I lived in Harlem. And where I lived in Morocco was like this too. Good community. No diapers".

Before long, however, we're heading downtown and the change of scenery effects another change in his temperament. He's back to cursing Manhattan morality, cross because he saw two kids skateboarding through lower Harlem, one Hispanic and one African-American. "What do you think happens when these different cultures mix?", he asks me. It's the latest in a series of questions I don’t want to answer, so I decide to stay silent, and let him rant while I sink into the back seat. By the time we finally reach the Upper West Side, where I'm staying, I shake myself awake to find him calm again, describing the contents of his book once more. "All the psychiatrists", he says, "they will be out of business when this book arrives. Do you know what it will be called?".

I can see my apartment block now, and the cab is stationary. I fumble for my money and pass him a wad of notes. I suddenly want to hear the answer.

"What will you call it?", I ask.

He makes me give him one last high five.

"No More Diapers", he tells me.

Friday, September 19, 2008

eat the rich

Really enjoying Tibor Fischer's excellent 'Good To Be God' at the moment which, apart from having a great plot, is full of wonderful, bleak one-liners and moments of throwaway, on-point philosophy. "This might be extremely superficial", his protagonist speculates at one point, "But the extremely superficial, like a tissue, can often get the job done."

The book is dark, funny and a bible for the ill-of-luck; brilliant stuff. When I've finished it I may come back to it here, so apologies if you read all of this again in days to come.

Here's the last paragraph I read before I wrote this; which I love.

"The rich who've made themselves rich I dislike because they,typically, think it's something to do with them. It's like the guy with the winning lottery ticket thinking he controls the lottery".

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

muscles abound

One thing I have noticed about New York is the way in which the city, by which I mean both the local government and the populace, confers an image upon public servants (policemen, firefighters, even roadworkers) which really emphasisies physical strength. In everything from information signs to commercial toys, NYC workers are physically brawny, tight-clothed, bursting with testosterone.

How different this is from the police officer or roadworker who inhabits the popular imagination of the Brit, who seems to see them primarily as irritants or beurocrats. If I had to imagine a young police officer back in the UK I'd probably picture an officious youth, a touch on the scrawny side, with a wispy upper lip.

But it's certainly hard to spot a cop over here who isn't barrel chested, muscles climbing up from his shoulder blades into his neck. Obviously, particularly since 9/11, it's been natural for firefighters to be - deservedly - stereotyped as heroes; but it's interesting how physical strength, toughness, manliness clearly permeates through NYC society. It doesn't take a genius to work out that this image resonates with the mythology of the American Dream; the American, after all, started with nothing and pulled himself up; he aquired not only a nation, but serious muscle definition, along the way.

tips for travelling

Travellers, I am about to dispense to you - for absolutely no charge at all - the two most useful tips you will ever be given about the art of exploring cities anew. They won't let you down. By all means do your other research first - I spent an eight hour flight over the Atlantic learning about New York City's boutiques, record shops and drinking dens - but attend to these basic, essential tasks, too.

When you look up places to go, look up some really dull things too. Look up supermarkets.

In my first four hours in NY I had a really, genuinely wonderful time drifting through Greenwich Village - of which more later - and quite marvelled at the fact that I was walking through an area which has captured my imagination for most of my life; even if my mental image of the area was utterly misleading. Once there, of course, I simply couldn't tear myself away from the area until I reached absolute dropping point, at which point only two clear priorities for the evening remained: getting to the subway, and picking up a bottle of beer and some groceries to see me through the evening. So I boarded the subway - a deliciously exciting experience, sorry - and travelled up to 73rd and Broadway, where my apartment is, and, drawing on the last remnants of my energy, strolled around looking for a supermarket where I could grab some food.

Cue an hour of directionless, listless, indecisive walking. Conclusion one: there are no supermarkets in the Upper West Side. Conclusion two: there almost certainly are, but I walked down all the wrong streets. After a while, a kind of grim, determined pessimism set in and I started actively walking past potential vendors simply because I had kind of accepted the idea that I was destined to spend the night walking and yearning. And the sad truth is that this happens to me every time I stay somewhere new.

Lesson two is related to lesson one. It is that early on, inevitably, during your search for a supermarket, you will pass a burrito house and briefly consider going in. No matter what happens that evening, no matter how long it takes, you will - equally inevitably, with absolute certainty - end up going back an hour later and ordering the meal you earlier rejected.

So just get it the first time, seriously.

Here, after all that, is my first meal in New York. It may not look like much, but it tasted fucking unbelievable.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

first sighting of NY

(You can kind of see it in the distance, if you squint).

Sunday, September 14, 2008

collecting junk in the sun

I can scarcely describe how lovely it was this weekend to walk around Brighton in the sun; after weeks of rain and a depressing absence of summer, at last we have blue skies and a warm breeze. Hurrah. Of course, everything looks wonderful in the sun, so a walk through the lanes and the farmers' market proved ludicrously expensive, as books, beers, food and fanciful objects were swiftly and ill-advisedly acquired. By the time I'd reached the market on Upper Gardner Street, thankfully, I was spent up - so the following toys escaped my sun-stroke afflicted impulse purchasing. Definitely a good thing.

Friday, September 12, 2008

overtired speculation

I stop being impressed by temperature once it goes above 100 degrees centigrade. Any hotter is just boastful, don't you think? It's like when footballers get paid £150,000 a week; I just blink, uncomprehending. The train which caught fire in the Channel Tunnel apparently reached temperatures as high as a thousand centigrade, I just read. But I can't imagine there could be anything hotter than, say, 500 hundred centigrade. It's surely just showboating. You can tell I didn't excel at science at school.

My friends Sam and Laura moved to Paris on Wednesday. I thought something was up with Sam when we said goodbye, and he was shouting "come and stay anytime, whenever you like, tell your friends!". That's funny, I thought - he really does want us all to come and stay with him. Weird.

I didn't know then, of course, that he was planning on shutting the tunnel behind him, so now there's no way through.

Monday, September 08, 2008

games and evolution

Got a bit excited at lunchtime reading this in the paper, thinking that it looked really good, if a bit outside of my normal interests. Spore is, apparently, the computer game of the moment - the new creation by the chap who designed the Sims series, and a complex and rather fascinating idea. Handing you over to Naomi Alderman:

It's easy to get started: simply pick a name for your tide-pool-dwelling amoeba, decide whether it's carnivorous or herbivorous, and start zooming around the water, finding food and gathering enough points for a DNA mutation. Like other simulation games, Spore rewards thought and effort, but it's also simple enough for anyone to enjoy passing half an hour growing a tiny creature into a larger one. Eventually your species will develop enough to form rudimentary legs and crawl to ground. Then it's time to mutate some more, develop intelligence, form tribes, civilizations and eventually travel off into space.

With its educational subject matter, Spore is the kind of game any parent should be pleased to find their child absorbed in, and although it wears its learning lightly, the brutal truth of evolution is hard to miss. How do you succeed as a carnivorous creature? By hunting other smaller creatures, of course; even if they're squeaking pitifully as you devour them. And if you focus your creature's development on features that will help you hunt, you might find that you, in turn, are unable to escape becoming prey. In Spore, nature is red in tooth and pixel.
All of which had me thinking, hmmm, that does sound interesting, and wondering if I should get a copy and try it out. With a few honourable exceptions (Frogger, Matchday II, Prince of Persia, Championship Manager) I've pretty much proved impervious to computer games, but this does sound fascinating. So just spent five minutes looking up the game and reading reviews and, guess what? More detail just provokes the same feeling that most games do; disinterest. It's not that I don't have interest in the technology, the narrative or the societal implications of gaming; I just don't want to play them. And yet I've spent the afternoon working on the computer game based books I am shortly to publish. Hmm.

Still, I bet some of you are interested in Spore, hence the post. Dave? Sam?

Thursday, September 04, 2008


I'm just about to leave Spain and return home, and I'm just sat contemplating whether there's a word for the strange mixture of shock, elation and hysteria one feels when waking at a work conference, knowing that there are tasks to complete despite the fact that one was up drinking 'til half past four.

I've decided the word is something like 'still drunk'.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

fish and africa

Work trip or not, it would be pretty hard not to enjoy the food here in Southern Spain, where I'm spending a few days for a work conference. Last night we ate in a beach-fronted restaurant just outside Marbella, which offered a curious, delicately spiced combination of Spanish fish dishes and, oddly, Japanese cuisine. Most important of all - apart from the fact that the Rioja was excellent - we had a panoramic view of the Mediterranean, with Gibraltar clearly visible before us, a long, high rock like a stepping stone. Some way behind it was a faint but mysterious coastline, sat further back, nestling in the mist; the North Coast of Africa. And propped delicately above it was a pencil thin sliver of moon, dyed orange from the reflection of coastal lights. It was, as I hope the above implies, very beautiful indeed. The urge to escape the confines of work and take a boat to Morocco is impossibly strong.