Riddley Walker

April 26, 2023


I just finished reading Russel Hoban’s 1980 masterpiece “Riddley Walker.” It took a lot of thought to get through it (for reasons explained below) but it was time well worth spending. It is a wonderful short novel.

The novel is set many many years after England (and presumably the world) has been devastated by nuclear war. The descendants of the survivors live at something like an Iron Age level amid the decaying ruins of towns and cities. They scratch a bare living by farming, foraging, and manual labour, in isolated settlements surrounded by packs of feral dogs. Whatever government exists proclaims its rule via travelling puppet shows.

The eponymous hero of the book, Riddley Walker, is the son of a “connextion man” — a kind of shaman — who inherits his father’s role when the older man dies in an accident. He learns through arcane songs and tales how the “clevver bloakes” in “time back way way back” destroyed the world by their manipulations of the great power of atom splitting. But the secrets of chemistry and physics have all but been lost.

After leaving his group, Walker wanders around southern England and becomes involved against his will (and often his knowledge) in plots to regain access to nuclear weapons. But throughout, young Riddley remains his own man.

The difficulty in the text comes from the language used. It is written in a made-up language that some essayists have called Riddleyspeak. This is Hoban’s vision of what the dialect of southern England might become after so many generations. It almost forces the reader to read the text out loud in order to gather the full meaning. As a Londoner myself, I found most of this quite easy to follow, but I am sure that with some patience (and sounding out the oddly-spelled words) anyone interested will get the hang of it.

A strange book, but a really good one, too.

Jack Kerouac at 101

March 12, 2023

Jack Kerouac, beat extraordinaire, would have been 101 years old today had he not died too early at 47.

Before he died, though, he gave us such triumphs as On The Road, Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, Mexico City Blues and so much more. His writing did not appeal to me so much for its literary quality (unlike, say, Ken Kesey or Richard Brautigan) but for its attitude.

Fame and alcohol did him in, and near the end he turned decisively against the counter-culture that he had helped foster.

It has been a while since I read him; perhaps this year I should go back and revisit my youth.

Don Marquis — Forgotten Genius

March 11, 2023

Sometime in my very early twenties, near the beginning of the 1970s, someone turned me on to Don Marquis and his 1910s/1920s stories about Archy the cockroach, a writer of free verse, and Mehitabel the alley cat who thought she was a reincarnation of Cleopatra.

Archy would supposedly leave poems on Marquis’ desk that the cockroach typed by jumping up and down on the keys. There were never any capital letters or punctuation because he couldn’t use the shift key.  Here is a typical poem “The Wisdom of Archy“:

as a representative
of the insect world
i have often wondered
on what man bases his claims
to superiority
everything he knows he has had
to learn whereas we insects are born
knowing everything we need to know
a louse i
used to know
told me that
millionaires and
bums tasted
about alike
to him

In “Archy Hears from Mars,” extraterrestrials reach out to the roach by radio because humans proved too hard to contact. Upon their request that he tell them about his planet, Archy explains:

[… ] it is
round like an orange
or a ball
and it is all cluttered
up with automobiles
and politicians
it doesn t know where it is
going nor why
but it is in a hurry
it is in charge of a
two legged animal called
man who is genuinely
puzzled as to whether
his grandfather was a god
or a monkey
I was reminded to re-read these wonderful works by an article in the Poetry Foundation by Kathleen Rooney who tells the story of Marquis far better than I ever could.
It would be marvelous if another generation of young readers could be captivated  by this brilliant writer.



Happy Birthday Khalil Gibran

January 6, 2023


I am not a particularly spiritual person, but I have always appreciated the philosophy espoused by Gibran’s “The Prophet“. I have been particularly attracted to his views on Love …

“When love beckons to you follow him,

Though his ways are hard and steep.

And when his wings enfold you yield to him,

Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.

And when he speaks to you believe in him,

Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.

Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,

So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.”

and Children:

“Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts.

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.”

Gibran was born 140 years ago today in Lebanon.

Writers’ Earnings 2022

December 6, 2022


The occupation of “writer” continues to produce poverty-level earnings for most, which raises “serious questions about the sustainability of the writing profession in the UK.”

The median earnings for a professional author in the UK is just £7,000, down 33% since 2018. Some writers’ organizations are concerned that writing could become “the preserve of the privileged”. Nicola Solomon, chief executive of the Society of Authors, said

“Almost all of the people whose creativity and passion make the industry’s existence possible can only realistically be part of it with other jobs, or when they are supported by others, or through personal wealth,” which “paints a picture of a writing profession that is inaccessible and unsustainable for too many.”

The report also found a gender pay gap of 41.4% between men and women, with women experiencing a 21% drop in income in real terms between 2017 and 2020, against 10% for men.

Geek Love, Again

December 3, 2022


I just finished Katherine Dunn’s very dark novel Geek Love.  It was my fourth time through. I read it first in 2000, when it was given to me by the ever-loving as something to read on the plane to and from Wichita, Kansas, where I was courting her.  I read it again perhaps five years later.  And I read it again in 2014 when I wrote the review that follows.  There aren’t many novels I’ve read four times, so it clearly had an effect on me, and keeps drawing me back.

It is hard to call Geek Love anything but deeply twisted and darker than dark, chronicling the story of the Binewski clan.  Ma and Pa Binewski, proprietors of a failing traveling carnival, set about creating their own brood of extreme human oddities who make the carny famous and prosperous as their living freak show moves through small-town America.  The tale takes us across decades as the strange family dynamics play out between the strange siblings and their parents.

The novel is filled with extraordinary characters and bizarre incidents, richly imagined and brilliantly drawn. Murder, sex, and cultish megalomania reign almost unchecked by compassion and tenderness.  

This is Gothic on steroids.

In Honor of Hilary Mantel

September 24, 2022

Dame Hilary Mantel, the great historical novelist famous for the “Wolf Hall” books about Thomas Cromwell has died at the age of 70. She will be sorely missed. The following is one her most valuable lessons for all historians:

“Evidence is always partial. Facts are not truth, though they are part of it – information is not knowledge. And history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record. It’s the plan of the positions taken, when we to stop the dance to note them down. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it – a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth. It is no more “the past” than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey. It is the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them. It’s no more than the best we can do, and often it falls short of that.”

Learning to Appreciate Gertrude Stein

June 23, 2022


I have been someone who admired the idea of Gertrude Stein from afar; I’m sure I read some Stein decades ago but really was too lazy to work my way through her word soup of a style. However there is an article this month on JSTOR Daily that helps me have a better understanding of this fountainhead of modernism.

“The work of … Gertrude Stein is at times puzzling, but always delightful because language becomes a playground, a landscape populated with metallic swings which sway sideways; monkey bars with labyrinthine constructions; everything necessarily, and properly, out of joint, like Hamlet’s time/sense. Stein warps reality to give us a taste—or perhaps an impression of—beginning and beginning again, but from different points within the Venn diagram of paragraphically rich distortions.”

The author links Stein’s modernism with one of my favourite genres, the detective story. Stein

“believed that detective fiction—in the American tradition of Dashiell Hammett … could lay the groundwork for a new type of fiction. Stein was a modernist in that very modernist way of not being easy to read, or to understand, whose works fractured narrative expectation from word one.”

A good brief history of Stein’s work and its intermingling with the development of noir and early sci-fi makes this a worthwhile read.

Bloomsday 2022

June 16, 2022


Today we celebrate one of the great works of modern literature — James Joyce’s Ulysses which takes place on 16th June 1904.

I forgot in advance and so did not prepare my grilled kidneys for breakfast — maybe next year I’ll remember.

Jack Kerouac at 100

March 12, 2022

Jack Kerouac, beat extraordinaire, would have been 100 years old today had he not died too early at 47.

Before he died, though, he gave us such triumphs as On The Road, Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, Mexico City Blues and so much more. His writing did not appeal to me so much for its literary quality (unlike, say, Ken Kesey or Richard Brautigan) but for its attitude.

It has been a while since I read him; perhaps this year I should go back and revisit my youth.

Remembering Steinbeck

February 27, 2022


Today would have been the 120th birthday of Nobel Prize-winning novelist John Steinbeck.

I read Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden and Of Mice and Men when I was a young man. And I adored the comic genius of Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row. But it was In Dubious Battle that helped fix my political course.

I believe Steinbeck’s reputation is mixed these days: the right hates him for his pro-union leftist works, and some of the left dislikes him for his Vietnam reporting. Regardless, he was a terrific writer who rarely failed to entertain and educate.

Happy birthday!

Ulysses Comes To Bloom

February 2, 2022

Today is the 140th anniversary of the birth of the almighty James Joyce, and it is also the 100th anniversary of the publication by Sylvia Beach of Joyce’s Ulysses.

Millions upon millions of words have been written about this incredible work and I can add nothing of great value except to declare it, in my opinion, the pinnacle of modern (perhaps all) literature. While I treasure Nabokov and Brautigan and Dylan Thomas (and even enjoy Finnegan’s Wake more), the style(s), the erudition, and the sheer bravado of Ulysses always leaves me breathless.

Time to read it again, I believe.

Richard Brautigan

January 30, 2022


Today would have been the 87th birthday of Richard Brautigan.

There were entire decades during which I read and re-read the complete Brautigan canon every single year. After Dylan Thomas, Richard Brautigan was my most important influence.  He was especially valuable to me in giving inspiration and value to my flash fictions and poems.

I read and re-read the koans that are the stories in “Trout Fishing In America“, the utter tripiness of “In Watermelon Sugar,” the essential genre pastiches such as “The Hawkline Monster,” “Sombrero Fallout,” and “Dreaming of Babylon“, the straightforward vulnerability of “The Abortion.”  And the poetry.  Every year I read them, for decades.

I recently read “Trout Fishing” and “In Watermelon Sugar” for the first time in a long time, and I may go back to reading Brautugan every year again.

For Holocaust Memorial Day

January 27, 2022


“Shema” by Primo Levi, written just one year after his liberation from Auschwitz

You who live secure
In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.

Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.

— from If This Is a Man (tr. Ruth Feldman and Brian Swan)

Shane Koyczan’s “A Tomorrow”

December 31, 2021


I am so happy to end this year’s posts with a wonderful new poem by our own Shane Koyczan:

In Honour: Dylan Thomas

October 27, 2021

Alfred Janes - Dylan ThomasToday would have been the 107th birthday of Dylan Thomas, one of the finest writers (for me, perhaps, the finest) of the generation before mine.

Thomas was very popular when I was a boy and I was lucky enough to be in two different productions of “Under Milk Wood“, as well as doing a solo turn reciting large sections of “A Child’s Christmas“.  For decades, at least into my 40s, much of my own work was highly derivative of Thomas’ style, with aggregations of melodious adjectives cascading through the sing-song lilt of a Welshman speaking English.

He was a master poet, able to craft the most exquisite sonnets and villanelles, difficult forms to manage, concerning both the ordinary and extraordinary things of life and death.  “The Force That Through The Green Fuse“, “Fern Hill“, and his paean to his father’s death, “Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night“, are sublime beyond measure..

His mastery of prose was equally fine, shown best in “A Child’s Christmas In Wales” which needs to be heard as read by the poet himself.

And then there is the extraordinary masterpiece, the radio play “Under Milk Wood“.in which Thomas’ talent, both as a writer and as an observer of rambunctious village life, are shown to the full.  If you can get a chance to listen to the Richard Burton version, then that is an experience not soon forgotten.

Thomas didn’t think much of being Welsh, let’s be frank about it.  And in just a couple of weeks we will celebrate the 68th anniversary of his sorry and inebriated death at the early age of 39. But he was an original, a genius, and I suspect he got more out of his 39 years than most of us do with three-score-and-ten.

The Ormsby Review Again

October 17, 2021


About a week ago I wrote a post praising the Ormsby Review. It seems I should have waited a week because today is the 5th anniversary of their founding!

Never mind; any excuse to publicize this excellent Review is worth it.

Fran Lebowitz

August 27, 2021

A few weeks ago I caught Fran Lebowitz being interviewed on a late night talk show.  I had heard of her but never read any of her work.  She was quite interesting in the interview and I duly ordered a copy of The Fran Lebowitz Reader from the library. I guess others had seen her interview because I was third in line for the only copy. I finally got it last week and began to read.

The book is a series of short magazine-style pieces, reprints of her books Metropolitan Life and Social Studies, some  of which were first published as magazine articles in Interview, Mademoiselle, and British Vogue.  I enjoyed the first few pieces, and I can see why she was considered a sardonic wit, perhaps a new Dorothy Parker. Unfortunately, I quickly became bored with the style and the viewpoint; after a dozen or so pieces, you knew what was coming in the next chapter, and the writing seemed no longer witty but, rather, repetitious and small minded.

I suspect part of the problem is the fact that these were written in the 1970s and 1980s. Our television schedules these days are full of brash, outspoken commentary by highly intelligent women. Compared to them, Lebowitz in this collection comes across as little more powerful than a pre-sensimilla spliff. And, like a forty-year old roach, her writing hasn’t aged well.

That’s a shame because I was looking forward to it.

The Petticoat Lane Spieler & The Modern Novelist

August 19, 2021

When I was a lad in East London in the 1950s and early 1960s, one of my favourite experiences was to visit Petticoat Lane market on a Sunday. It was — maybe still is — a great open air market specializing in shmutter; thousands of cheap clothes on racks. But there were also stalls selling everything from jellied eels and junk, to carpets and suitcases. It was always packed.

The modern TV infomercial salesmen have nothing on the spielers down the Lane. My favourite was always the china seller; I could listen to his spiel for hours. He would be selling dinner services and tea sets, and he did it by adding each item one by one to a precarious pile on his stall or, most famously, on his arm. “You also get six side plates,” he’d yell, and somehow add them to the pile. “And wait, we’ll also thrown in ‘alf a dozen tea cups, and the saucers wot goes wiv ’em.”  Eventually, he would have dozens of dishes and cups and plates and soup tureens and sauce jugs in a miraculously balanced heap. And he would sell them all for a bargain price.

It was a great show and one of them is featured at the very beginning and very end of this nostalgic short about the Market:

The whole point of the spiel was to sell the dishes of course, but he did it by showing how clever he was piece by piece. Oddly, I was reminded of this as I read Alvaro Enrigue’s 2013 novel “Sudden Death“, which ranges in time between the conquest of Mexico and the Counter-Reformation period of Europe straddling the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

I enjoy erudition and learning new stuff but, in this case, at least through the first half of the book, I kept thinking that the author was trying too hard to show how clever and learned he was by piling one exotic fact on top of another, over and over again. The book is certainly more full of facts than it is of plot.

The link through the book is a pallacorda match between the Italian artist Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, played with a ball stuffed with the hair of the beheaded Anne Boleyn.  Much of the artist’s early career is covered in episodes, as is the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, and Papal politics leading to and from the Council of Trent.  The book swings back and forth in time and location, and the author occasionally breaks through the fourth wall by directly engaging the reader with twenty-first century concerns.

It took me a while to get into this book. The style, while choppy in narrative, is lively and vulgar and delivered in short bursts. Many of the passages are lyrical and, it cannot be denied, an enormous erudition is brought to bear on questions of art especially. What stays with me most is the view of the Conquest from several Mexican points of view.

When I was in my teens, I always finished up my visits to the Lane with a drink at Dirty Dicks pub. It gave me the time to recover from the excitement of the crowds in the Lane and to contemplate what I did and didn’t buy. Similarly, I think it will take me some time to fully appreciate the quality of Enrigue’s work.

A Real Trip Down Memory Lane

August 15, 2021

Neville, Richard, (1968), OZ 11, OZ Publications Ink Limited, London, 36p.

Neville, Richard, (1970), OZ 31, OZ Publications Ink Limited, London, 48p.

You may have to be as old as me — and possibly brought up in London — to remember OZ, one of the greatest magazines that, between 1967 and 1973, straddled the period from the summer of love to the much harder seventies.

OZ exemplified that era so perfectly with sex, drugs, politics, progressive art, and rock n’roll oozing between its covers, eager to be free. It was in OZ that I first became acquainted, for example, with Robert Crumb’s subversive drawings, and with so much more.

I lived then in a suburb of west London where it was almost impossible to find copies of OZ, and so it also became a great reason to adventure into downtown to find a store that carried it.

Now, Richard Neville, the original editor, has made all copies of OZ available online. Marvelous memories on every page.  We are really lucky to have this artifact of a very different time.