Tuesday, August 31, 2004

John Rechy: City of Night

I do not usually read what are today referred to as ‘gay’ books, since I am not of the homosexualist persuasion. (Though I have to admit that my daughter once asked me why it was that all my friends were gay. I felt obliged to point out that I did have one or two friends who could pass for straight – at any rate on a dark night, and provided you ignored the way they walked.) Anyway, when clearing out a bookshelf yesterday (as one does, if only to make room for new stuff), I came across a classic which deserves a mention here.

The book, of course, is City of Night, by John Rechy. And it’s still in print, I see, after forty years. This is a novel, allegedly, and in the 1960s I once had an argument with a gay friend about whether it could have been written if the author had not actually lived the life which is described in it. My friend argued that the story couldn’t possibly have been invented, and that it must all, basically, be true. I took the view that it could, in theory, have been a work of pure invention. And I still hold that opinion today, though in reality I don’t think there is much doubt that the book is heavily autobiographical.

City of Night, in summary, is a first-person account of the life of a male prostitute in urban America, presumably in the 1950s and early ’60s That description probably makes the book sound sordid, and I guess in a way it is; but many people have found it rewarding and it seems to be taught at Yale, for heaven’s sake. I had thought that American universities had succumbed to political correctness to such an extent that all that could be studied there these days was the King James version of the Bible. But apparently not.

John Rechy’s famous novel begins with a couple of paragraphs which, for my money, constitute the most mesmerising start of any novel ever written. But I have to admit that my circumstances are unusual and my reaction is probably atypical. Here is what Rechy says:

Later I would think of America as one vast City of Night stretching gaudily from Times Square to Hollywood Boulevard – jukebox-winking, rock-n-roll moaning: America at night fusing its darkcities into the unmistakable shape of loneliness.

Remember Pershing Square and the apathetic palmtrees. Central Park and the frantic shadows. Movie theatres in the angry morning-hours. And wounded Chicago streets…

And so on.

Once Rechy has completed a chapter on his – sorry, his character’s – early life in El Paso (which isn’t very interesting), he begins to talk about the life of a male hustler in and around Times Square, which is interesting. At least to me, because it just so happens that the ten blocks or so which surround 42nd Street constitute an area which I was once very familiar with.

I first went to America in 1958, when I was a very impressionable eighteen years old. I had just spent seven years in an English public school, a school which in terms of its attitudes, beliefs and judgements was not so much out of date as stuck in a time warp, back in the nineteenth century. And, when I first began to walk the streets of New York, what is now described as the culture shock was enormous. The sheer wealth and size and richness of America, not to mention its sexuality, knocked me sideways. It was as if I had just been released from a long sentence in prison.

In those far-off days I had a job which involved working in the centre of Manhattan – on West 41st Street to be precise – and I would typically finish work somewhere between midnight and three a.m. Afterwards I would perhaps go for a meal in one of the cheap eating-houses, or see a movie in one of the many cinemas on 42nd Street, or walk a few blocks north to the Metropole Café, where all the great jazz names performed sooner or later. And then I would walk back to my room, down on 26th Street. So I think I can safely say that, one way and another, I saw a glimpse or two of John Rechy’s world -- if only, I hasten to add, as an outsider. Certainly even I was aware of the youngmen, as Rechy calls them, and their middle-aged, desperate, frantic customers.

Until yesterday I had not read Rechy’s opening lines for about 38 years, but I have never forgotten them. Because they encapsulate the way in which I came to think of America, at least for a while. And if I ever want to remember what it felt like to be eighteen, all I have to do is read the first few chapters of City of Night and I can smell and see and feel every detail.

Later on in his text, Rechy says this:
...even before I got there, New York had become a symbol of my liberated self, and I knew that it was in a kind of turbulence that that self must attempt to find itself.
Once again, I find my own thoughts and ambitions, as an eighteen-year-old, mirrored exactly by Rechy's words. I went to New York, from England, precisely in order to 'find myself'. Though as it happens I chose to do so in ways rather different from those preferred by Rechy. Is it any wonder that I have kept this book, and remembered its hypnotic opening, for so long?

My old paperback copy of City of Night (dating from 1965) is falling to pieces. The back has become detached, the pages are loose, and the paper is turning a nasty brown colour. But it has been returned to the shelf.

Monday, August 30, 2004

Modern fiction is so tedious

In last Saturday's Times, James Delingpole wrote a column headed 'A novelist writes: modern fiction is so tedious.'

In the first paragraph he reveals that Juliet Walters, a reviewer at the Montreal Mirror, has described him as the greatest English novelist since the young Martin Amis. Mr Delingpole thanks her for what he interprets as a compliment. Well, if it is a compliment, it's a backhanded one. Describing someone as the best English novelist since the young Martin Amis is a bit like telling a woman that she's the most beautiful creature you've seen since Godzilla.

Anyway, to the point, which is the second half of Delingpole's heading. After some muttering about the Booker prize long-list, a yawn-making event if ever there was one, he says, quite rightly, that life is too short to bother with contemporary fiction. He adds that he recently had dinner with a literary editor and a book reviewer and they both felt the same way. Neither of them could think of a novel that they had read in the past year that they had properly enjoyed, apart from one by Wilkie Collins.

Well, my friends, the solution to this problem is all very simple, and is offered in this blog on an almost daily basis. The rules for enjoying your fiction reading are as follows:

1. Ignore anything literary, particularly if it's just out.

2. Investigate the past.

3. Poke your nose into the much despised genres, such as sci fi, fantasy and crime. True, you will find an awful lot of garbage. But what is garbage to you may be a source of joy to somebody else. And vice versa.

4. Read this blog. I do my best, as and when I find something remarkable, either old or new, to draw it to your attention.

Friday, August 27, 2004

More thoughts on randomness


In his book Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Nicholas Taleb says ‘All my life I have suffered the conflict between my love of literature and poetry and my profound allergy to most teachers of literature and “critics”.'

The man has sound instincts, you see, not to mention a greater capacity than most of us for detecting bullshit.


Taleb makes the point that modern behavioural science demonstrates that our cognitive apparatus exerts far less influence over our actions than does our emotional machinery. He adds that this is a circumstance which we need to be more aware of, if only for our own protection.

In few areas of life is this problem more obvious than in the world of writing, where it is almost invariably the case that a writer will make her decisions on the basis of emotion rather than on a calm assessment of the facts. Among writers, hope, naivety, and blind optimism reign supreme.

The writing world is absolutely teeming with people who are filled with an alarming ambition to be rich, famous, and admired as a ‘leading writer of our time.’ (Quite why and how they have acquired this burning ambition is difficult to say, but it doubtless has something to do with the fact that (a) they are trusting souls who tend to believe what they are told, and (b) they have been told lots of things by teachers of Eng. Lit., who, it is well known, firmly believe that the world is flat, that the curve on the horizon is an optical illusion caused by your new glasses, and that the moon is made of green cheese. Cheddar, actually. The result of being taught by such people is normally a complete failure of the rational processes. Equivalent to an amputation of same.)

If our would-be writers were clear thinkers, they would take a hard look at the facts and conclude that their chances of success as a writer, on the scale which they envisage, are somewhat similar to the likelihood of their being kicked to death by a donkey on their next trip to the seaside. Success is remotely possible, in other words, but not very likely.

But ambitious young (and old) writers don’t assess the situation rationally, do they? As you and I know full well (in some cases from painful personal experience). No, all our ambitious young writers plough on regardless, wasting endless hours, expending vast amounts of emotional and intellectual energy, and not a little money, getting nowhere fast.

A writer who doesn’t think clearly is a writer who is going to get into a whole heap of trouble, and sooner rather than later.


Taleb is quite taken with the Greek philosopher Solon (known as the lawmaker of Athens, died 559 BC).

Solon makes the point that a success which is delivered by Lady Luck can also be taken away by luck (and often rapidly and unexpectedly at that). Once again, publishing and writing are two areas in which this is often demonstrated. A writer who has an early success, typically on the basis of an autobiographical novel, may subsequently have absolutely no real idea as to how that success was achieved, and may well struggle to repeat it.

If you want examples of such problems, writ large, consider the lives of Thomas Heggen and Ross Lockridge. Both of these men had massive successes with early novels, Mr Roberts and Raintree County respectively, and both had difficulty with going anywhere after that. Both men committed suicide. Their lives and deaths have been studied in some detail in John Leggett's Ross and Tom, and make sobering reading for anyone who is working on a novel. Perhaps, come to think of it, compulsory reading.

Conversely, good things which come with little assistance from luck are more resistant to randomness. So it pays to learn your trade. For instance, James Siegel, about whom I was less than enthusiastic yesterday, has at least this virtue: he has learnt his trade. He knows how he did it. Siegel could no doubt go on producing books like Derailed for as long as he can be bothered. In fact he could produce them for longer than he can be bothered, because the trend among successful writers these days is to sub-contract the tedious business of actually writing the book. Once you have a brand name, such as James Patterson, Lawrence Sanders, or V.C. Andrews, any skilled professional can produce another of the same, working to a template known as a ‘bible’.

I note that, in commenting on Fooled by Randomness (having first read the whole thing), I am still only on page 12. But you and I may both weary of more. We shall see.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

James Siegel: Derailed

From time to time in this blog, I may well have expressed a preference for fiction of the commercial variety rather than the literary. And I am certainly not going to change that view. I do have to make plain, however, that there are limits. Or at any rate there are constraints. In other words, I don’t like my commercial fiction to be too damned commercial for its own good. A case in point is Derailed, a thriller by James Siegel.

Siegel is an interesting character. He is vice chairman and senior executive creative director of the advertising agency BBDO in New York, and seems to write at weekends and when commuting. In that respect he strongly resembles James Patterson, a thriller writer who wrote several books in his spare time while he was still chairman of J. Walter Thompson, which is yet another advertising agency.

In a recent interview, Siegel tells us that he is now forty-plus, and that he has been writing since his youth. As a young man he wrote a couple of novels which never made it into print, so when he hit forty he decided to have another go. When he had completed his new book, Epitaph, he approached Sara Ann Freed at Mysterious Press, and asked her to read it. (Sara used to publish my own detective novels when she was at Walker, years ago. I once showed her round the city of Bath.) I imagine that Siegel told Sara what his job was, and she, realising that he was not short of intelligence and writing skills, agreed to read the book. Having read it, she recommended a good agent and he landed a two-book contract.

So, we have an author who has been writing (i.e. practising his skills) for well over twenty years, and a writer who is quite smart enough to do his research. Research, that is, on how to bolt together a commercial novel. There is quite a lot of information available for those who take the trouble to burrow for it. Plus, of course, you can read successful books for yourself, and analyse what factors they have in common – in much the same way, I imagine, as an advertising man looks at a competitor’s campaign and works out what made it sell soap.

Now to Derailed. The plot concerns an advertising executive, a married man with a child, who commutes into New York. One morning he sees an absolutely fabulous-looking woman on the train, gets into conversation with her, and begins an affair. When they go to a hotel to have sex, a bad guy bursts in, rapes the woman, steals our hero’s cash, and departs. Later, he blackmails our hero for every penny he has. Things get worse from then on.

It has to be admitted that the structure of Derailed is clever, up to a point, the characterisation tolerably sound, and the story moves at a fierce pace. Siegel has done his homework: he has studied the structure of modern thrillers, worked out that sudden surprises and unexpected plot twists are big plus points, and has included the necessary number of same. And my guess is that Siegel has had more than one conversation with his fellow advertising executive, James Patterson, about how to tell a tale. The 53 chapters average about 5 or 6 pages each, which is very Pattersonesque.

What then, is the problem? Why, in short, do I find Derailed so unsatisfactory?

Well, let me go back a bit for younger readers. In the distant mists of time, when people actually went to the theatre, and authors wrote plays which actually got produced, there were several well-tested formulae for a popular success. The three-act structure was then the preferred arrangement for a play, and one pattern for a box-office hit was as follows: in act one, get your hero up a tree; in act two, throw rocks at him; and in act three, get him out of the tree, and preferably married to the girl by the time the curtain comes down.

So far so good. Siegel follows this formula to the letter. He gets his hero into trouble, and then bombards him with rocks of formidable size and weight from all angles. The protagonist finds himself in every sort and kind of trouble: he is being blackmailed, his wife hates him, his daughter is dying, the police keep knocking on his door, the man he recruits to help him ends up dead, and so on.

But Siegel has forgotten one important factor. In getting your hero into trouble, it is not wise to have him act like a complete idiot. Otherwise, why the hell should anyone care? And the first and most major problem with Derailed is that the hero acts like a complete arsehole. He is presented to us as an intelligent and successful man, with a basically sound marriage. But he embarks on an affair after little more than a friendly smile. The guy is a shit, a fool, and a clown. So when he gets beaten up and finds himself having to sit there and watch while his girlfriend is raped it is hard to feel much sympathy for him.

That’s the first problem. There are others. There’s the fact that the surprises and plot twists are not really very surprising (at least not to someone like me who has plotted a few of his own). Then there’s credibility: lots of problems there. Just by way of example, would a couple wanting to have illicit sex really go to such a sleazy hotel? There are many more comfortable places to go, and our hero could certainly afford one. Neither do I believe that it’s quite as easy to adopt a new identity as Siegel would have us believe – not in the present-day United States. And the whole story-within-a-story framework of the book is totally unconvincing if you stop to think about it for one moment.

So, there we are. Derailed is entirely typical of the kind of slick, ruthlessly professional commercial fiction which publishers just love. They have orgasms over this kind of thing. In London, Derailed was advertised on the underground, and probably got the full publicity treatment in other respects as well.

And the result? Well, on Amazon.co.uk there are three five-star reviews, so Derailed obviously found and pleased its audience. But its audience, if I may say so without sounding too condescending, is probably young, somewhat naïve and inexperienced, and relatively undemanding in what they require from a thriller over and above a page-turning impulse.

Such readers are not like me. I am old, cynical, bitter, twisted, awkward, difficult, fussy, and generally hard to please. In a word, grumpy. But I am ever optimistic, and perhaps next week will bring something about which I can be genuinely enthusiastic.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Foreign Affairs: Erotic Travel Tales

I don't know about you, but I get a lot of emails with very dubious headings. 'Lebsian (sic) wh_rz (sic) suk (sic) kokx (sic)' and stuff like that. I never read them, of course. Well, hardly ever. And if I never visit the sites they link to. Or if I do it is strictly in the interests of research, because my dedication knows no bounds.

Anyway, amidst all the usual rubbish in my inbox I found a message from one Jibby Collins, headed 'Book release: Mitzi Szereto's hot new anthology "Foreign Affairs: Erotic Travel Tales".' Ever alert (on your behalf) to interesting developments in the book world, I followed this up.

Turns out that Mitzi Szereto is a very active lady. She has written about a dozen books all told, and is one of those up-front, available-for-interview erotic writers; not like some we could mention, who lurk permanently behind a pseudonym. She also photographs rather well. Not, of course, that I would ever be guilty of making a sexist comment of that nature, but I just thought you ought to know.

Mitzi has both written her own stuff and edited anthologies of other writers' work. As an author she seems to be best known for Erotic Fairy Tales, which is a collection of reworked versions of familiar stories. So Cinderella's Prince turns out to be a shoe-fetishist, which doesn't surprise me in the slightest. I have doubts about that fairy godmother too. (In English pantomimes, the Dame is always played by a bloke in drag, and the Principal Boy is a girl. The main requirement for the part is that the actress should have absolutely wonderful legs. I remember once -- No, sorry, got distracted there. It's writing about sex books that does it.)

Mitzi also writes as M.S. Valentine, under which name she has produced a variety of books such as The Governess, which is described thus: 'Lovely Miss Hunnicut eagerly embarks upon a career as a governess, hoping to escape the memories of her broken engagement. Little does she know that Crawleigh Manor is far from the respectable household it appears to be. Mr Crawleigh, in particular, devotes himself to Miss Hunnicut's thorough defiling.' The beast. Well you wouldn't want to read that book, obviously, but it's the sort of thing you need to know about in order to avoid making embarrassing faux pas. And somebody is certainly keen on The Governess. On the day that I write this, a dealer is offering a used copy of the first edition on Amazon.co.uk for £60. No, I don't understand it either. Perhaps there is a whole gang of Mitzi groupies who are collecting her early stuff.

But back to Foreign Affairs: Erotic Travel Tales, which is the basis of this post. It is the third instalment of Mitzi's travel tales series and features the work of both best-selling novelists and new arrivals, though I must confess that none of the names are familiar to me so I can't tell you which is which. The publisher, Cleis Press of San Francisco, claims that an earlier book in the series, Erotic Travel Tales 2, is the first collection of erotica to feature a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Now who could that be, I wonder.

Cleis Press, by the way, seems to have been going for 25 years or so and publishes some books with a very definite literary flavour. Coming soon, for instance, are the letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. But the vast majority of the books on the list are about sex. Well, that's fair enough, but nobody is going to get rich that way. My belief is that books about sex do not sell nearly as well as people think. There's too much of the real thing around.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Henry Porter: A Spy's Life

It seems that I am reading the thrillers of Henry Porter in reverse order of publication: so I began with Empire State, his third, which I mentioned on 23 July, and I have just finished A Spy's Life (number 2). On the evidence so far it will do me no harm at all the read the first of Porter's books, Remembrance Day.

A Spy's Life strikes me as being a very professional piece of work. A little too long, of course, but most books are nowadays. The first half works better than the second. And some of the dialogue is not as expert as reviewers would have you believe: at times the characters deliver a political speech rather than engage in a realistic conversation. These, however, are minor flaws in an excellent book for the beach or plane.

This is, of course, commercial fiction, so the outcome is never in doubt. The hero triumphs, finds himself a good woman, and defeats the forces of darkness. But I doubt whether, on the beach or plane, you would want anything else, would you? The author is intelligent, thoughtful, and has taken the trouble to inform himself about the workings of the UK's intelligence services -- not to mention those of other nations as well.

In the nature of things, thrillers probably appeal more to male readers than female. But then you knew that already. As for the plot -- well, it's a thriller about spying. That's all you need to know.

Comparisons have no doubt been made with Le Carre, Robert Harris, and others of that ilk. But this guy doesn't need comparisons. He can stand up on his own, thank you very much.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Random thoughts on randomness

Here, as promised, are some random thoughts prompted by Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book, Fooled by Randomness. Said thoughts come in no particular order, but they relate, loosely speaking, to books and publishing.


A reviewer of Taleb's book points out that 'we view the world through the lens of survivorship bias -- we tend to consider only the few winners and not the many losers in a particular endeavour.' Well quite. And in few areas is this more the case than in relation to writing books in general, and fiction in particular.

Suppose you are a young man with a passion for cars. You want to make a career in the motor trade. Two options: you can either become a greasy-handed mechanic, or a suit-and-tie salesman. Either way, unless you are a complete idiot, you have an excellent chance of getting a job of some sort. Turn up on time, work reasonably hard, keep your eyes and ears open, and you will make some progress. You will at least earn a living.

Is this true of a young person with a passion for writing books? Hell no. First, you have to write a book, which is likely to take you a year of your spare time. Then you have to try to interest an agent or a publisher. Any idea of the odds against that? Enormous, is the answer.

But let's suppose that you succeed in getting published. What is the most likely outcome? It is that you will be allowed to publish a couple of books, that no one will take much notice, and that your publisher will then dump you, and you will have nowhere else to go. End of 'career'.

Does any wannabe writer ever understand these simple facts? Well, maybe, and if they do then you and I will never hear about them, because they will go off and do something sensible, like breeding budgerigars or making quilts. But even I -- and goodness knows I am not a high-profile person -- even I am regularly approached by ambitious writers who seem to think that I can make them rich and famous.

These people tend to have a number of crystal-clear characteristics. First, they are rabidly ambitious. Second, they are convinced that they have more talent 'than quite a few of the people being published today', and they say so. And third, they exhibit no awareness whatever of the statistics relating to would-be writers, published books, and the proportion of published books which actually make any money or achieve any degree of recognition for their authors.

It is not a sin or a crime to be young, inexperienced, ignorant, and hopeful. But this combination, in relation to writing, does make you peculiarly vulnerable. And I get nervous on behalf of divine innocents when I see their vulnerability. It will end in tears, I say to myself. And it frequently does.


Which follows on somewhat from one. Publish, say, a hundred novels a year, written to a decent professional standard, and the simple laws of probability dictate that some of them are going to do better than others, either in terms of critical assessment or sales, or both. Publish a hundred novels a year for five years, and it is quite likely that one of them will get some word-of-mouth recommendation which builds the thing into a reasonable seller if not a smash hit.

Will you, as the publisher, ascribe this phenomenon (as it should properly be ascribed) to sheer luck -- the working of the law of averages? No, of course not. You will ascribe it to your own brilliance as a publisher. ('I always knew that book would be a hit, Daphne,' says Nigel, the Managing Director of that well-known firm Clapham & Irons. Which is why Nigel paid the author a £500 advance, and limited its publicity to a page in his catalogue.)

Saying that a book which takes off unexpectedly is the result of chance is not to deny that the author possesses talent and has exercised considerable skill in writing the book. But all our hundred books a year are of professional standard -- I said that at the beginning, remember? And, in all probability, every one of those hundred authors was convinced that her book would catch on once it got into print.

After a book has achieved a certain momentum, of course, repeating the success is not too difficult. Nigel, the MD of Clapham & Irons, will probably be prepared to invest in a decent advertising budget, and, provided the author can go on turning out professional stuff, a career of sorts can be built. It's not really all that difficult, though author may get weary of repeating the same book with small but significant alterations. But then I dare say that dentists get a bit bored with filling teeth.


And another thing about random events. They do not occur at evenly spaced intervals. Many types of cancer, for instance, can be thought of as a random event, in that we do not know what causes them. So, in a city of a hundred streets, you do not get one case of cancer every ten streets. What you get is 1 case in Street 5, 3 cases in Street 22, four in Street 23, then nothing until Street 55, when you get 4 cases, and so on. Random.

How does this relate to publishing? It relates in this way. In any given centre of publishing, say New York or London or Paris, there may well be fifteen firms which each publish a hundred professionally written and competent novels a year. And what happens is that surprise hits are not distributed evenly between those fifteen firms. Surprise hits occur at random.

So, in London last year, our friends at Clapham & Irons did not have just one novel which suddenly took off unexpectedly -- they had ten of them! Wow!

'Daphne,' remarks the MD Nigel modestly, 'people say that I have a flair for this business. And they are absolutely right.'

Bollocks. Total, complete and absolute bollocks. But then, since there is so much of that substance floating around in publishing anyway, hardly anyone notices.


The 2004 edition of Fooled by Randomness is substantially revised and enlarged over the original 2001 edition. Taleb tells us that, in general, publishing a second and revised edition is a smart move. He claims (and he is more likely to know than you or I) that books have bubble dynamics. This means that a new edition of an existing non-fiction book is 'far more likely to break through the critical point than a new one.'

I can't say that Taleb produces the figures to prove it, but the idea is at least worth thinking about. And I know of at least one case in point. I have a friend who wrote a non-fiction book which was published by an academic publishing company back in the 1980s. When the first edition was sold out, the rights in the book were sold to a mainstream trade publisher, who issued it with revisions and a slightly altered title. Publisher 2 didn't do all that well with it, but when the rights reverted again the book was sold for a third time. Publisher 3 has issued a succession of versions, with slightly differing titles, new covers and revised and updated content. The book is currently doing very nicely indeed, and both author and publisher intend to keep it alive pretty much for ever.


In his acknowledgements, Taleb thanks the Hollywood agent Jeff Berg 'for his insights on the wild type of uncertainty that prevails in the media business.' You can say that again. Remember William Goldman's dictum about making movies: 'No one knows anything.'

In a later book, Goldman points out (a) that the film Titanic has been one of the most gigantic box-office successes of all time, and (b) that, even on the night before the film went on release, the producer had absolutely no idea that it would be any sort of a hit at all.

More randomness later. Maybe. Depending on random events in the life of this blog.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Fooled by Randomness

A while back (24 March) I mentioned that I thought that Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Fooled by Randomness would be worth reading. And I can now confirm that it definitely is. Published by Texere, the book first appeared in 2001, and a revised and expanded second edition was issued earlier this year.

What is the book about? Well, the subtitle is ‘The hidden role of chance in life and in the markets.’ This tells you quite a lot. Incidentally, the emphasis in the subtitle has changed from the first edition: now ‘life’ comes first, and ‘the markets’ second, whereas previously the position was reversed. This reflects, I think, the author’s realisation that he has much to say which is of interest to the general reader as well as to the financial world.

When the first edition appeared, reviewers generally saw Fooled by Randomness as a book about investment management. And Taleb himself makes the point that, when trying to summarise what his book is about, journalists tend to make mistakes. So I am going to be cautious in what I say here. But I think it is fair to say that Taleb does argue that much of the apparent success which is enjoyed by investment-fund managers is due not so much to skill on their part as to pure chance. Or luck, if you prefer.

I have no difficulty in accepting this argument. I am, after all, old enough to have witnessed the rise and fall of such alleged masters of the financial universe as Bernie Cornfeld, Jim Slater, and Michael Milken. Such people, Taleb argues, very naturally perceive any success which they enjoy as being the result of their own amazing intelligence, which is, of course, far superior to that of their competitors. But sooner or later they discover, the hard way, that they are not quite as clever as they thought.

This thesis has many implications, not least for those of us who are trying to build up a pension fund, or have inherited a lump sum which we wish to invest safely. For that reason alone, Fooled by Randomness would be worth reading. But there is far more to it than that. And, as I suspected back in March, much of what Taleb has to say is highly relevant to the worlds of writing and publishing. Before too long, I hope, I will be posting a number of ‘random thoughts on randomness’ in the context of books and publishing.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

English as she is tort and spoke by the English

The Times for Wednesday 18 August carried an article by Alice Miles, from which I will quote at length below. But if you care about the English language at all, you might wish to read the article in full.

The English language was invented, so to speak, by the English. In the past, English writers were generally held to have exhibited some skill in the use of the language. The Oxford English dictionary is, I suppose, the recognised authority on the spelling and meaning of English words. But what Alice Miles tells us, courtesy of an email from someone who marks examination papers in English Literature, is that English schoolchildren are no longer taught how to spell, how to punctuate, or how to use grammar an orthodox way.

There is nothing particularly new about this revelation. We have known it for some time. But readers outside the UK may, I think, be a little surprised by how far we have gone down the road to more or less complete illiteracy.

First, a few words of background. For some fifty years now, the final examination taken by children in English schools, if they stay on until the age of 18 or so, has been known as the 'A' level. You can take 'A' level exams in a mass of subjects, but they are fairly specialised, and most school-leavers take about three subjects. For arts students, History, English Literature, and French might be a suitable combination; for a science student, Maths, Physics, and Chemistry. The examination papers are marked by human beings, rather than machines, and on the basis of these marks the candidates are awarded a particular grade, of which A* is apparently the highest.

Here is Alice Miles's report of what one of last year's examiners told her about the marking process, together with his comments on what this means in terms of the candidates' skill with the English language:
"A* grades are given out like sweets at a children’s party to youths who not only cannot spell or punctuate to save their lives, but who cannot do something much simpler than that, namely copy words which are printed in front of them,” he writes. “I marked nearly a thousand English Literature papers. Of those, over a hundred wrote ‘Literature’ wrongly (e.g. litriture) on the front of their answer-sheet, in spite of the fact that it was there in big letters on the question paper.

"I marked approximately 700 essays on An Inspector Calls, by J.B. Priestley. The candidates had the book with them in the exam-room, and the name Priestley is in large letters on the front of the book. It was also printed as part of the wording of the questions. Yet over 95 per cent of my candidates wrote either Priestly or Preistly.

A similar number misspelt the characters’ names Sheila and Arthur. “Yet these words are printed on almost every page of the text which they have on their desk.”

He continues: “I was also forced to award ludicrously high marks to candidates whose command of English grammar and/or sentence structure was simply non-existent. Upwards of 150 candidates will have been awarded a C (or better) who wrote ‘could of’, ‘might of’, ‘should of’. The pronouns I and me were used interchangeably by large numbers of candidates (as in ‘Me and Mr Birling have done nothing wrong’ or ‘The Inspector was so rude to Mr Birling and I’). Neighbours-speak was quite common, as in ‘Then Shelia (sic) was like, what?’ (meaning she was surprised, I supposed).”

This examiner was not allowed to penalise such basic errors. “I don’t want to award A* in a subject called ‘English Literature’ to a person who knows no English and cannot spell Literature even though it’s printed in front of him/her. And yet I had to, again and again and again. I was told repeatedly, explicitly, and unambiguously, that I was to mark only the ideas expressed, and not — not even a tiny bit — the way in which those ideas were expressed.” The instructions given to him by the examining board read: “There is NO Assessment of Written Communication on this paper.”
My comments on this state of affairs follow:

I have for some time been of the view that the English (specifically) were driven insane by the two world wars which occurred in the first half of the twentieth century. In the first world war, our brightest and best young men were killed in vast numbers. In the second world war, the same thing happened again, only this time we lost many women also. We were also rendered bankrupt.

The psychological impact of these losses, and the consciousness of those losses, should not be underestimated. Post the second world war, the English clearly became deranged. Society became flooded with well-meaning do-gooders who bumbled about in the most hopeless manner.

The insanity led to a number of public policies which were idealistic and well-intentioned on the one hand, and unrealistic and unachievable on the other. We took the view that everyone has the right to good health, so we tried to provide state-of-the-art medical treatment for every citizen (and some non-citizens), as and when need, instantly, and free of charge. In immigration policy we took the view that everyone deserves the chance of a better life, so we would open our borders to pretty much the entire world. And in education we noticed that no one likes to be punished, so we abandoned any form of discipline in schools. I have a young relative who actually enjoys teaching in a comprehensive school (a rare circumstance), and he recently applied for a job in a new school. As part of the selection process, he was asked to teach a lesson in front of observers. 'You're too strict,' he was told.

Above all, we decided that no child should ever be allowed to feel a failure, so we arranged, as far as possible, that no one should ever fail an exam. This year, the pass rate in 'A' levels is 96 per cent.

The result of all this well-meaning bumbling is that, for the last forty years, English education has been a catastrophe. We have a world in which English children, educated in English schools, not only cannot use the English language to communicate their feelings, hopes, wishes, and ideas - but they cannot even copy down correctly a word which is in print in front of their very eyes.

I have been known to say that the last great privilege of the Englishman is that he can still afford - just - to ignore politics. But by God I am beginning to wonder.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The illusion of fame

Those of us of a bookish disposition should never forget that there are plenty of sensible people who never read a book from one year’s end to the next. Furthermore, it is possible to be wildly famous within the world of books and yet not make any impression whatever upon the consciousness of the non-book-reading populace. This is rather nicely illustrated by a story about the poet Swinburne.

In the nineteenth century, poets were at least as famous as novelists, if not more so. The list of household names, then and now, is lengthy: Byron, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and so forth.

In his day, Algernon Charles Swinburne was at least as famous a poet as any of those listed above. Indeed in 1892, when it was necessary to appoint a new Poet Laureate, Queen Victoria is reported to have said to Gladstone: ‘I am told that Mr Swinburne is the best poet in my dominions.’ And this was true. But it was also true that Swinburne was a republican with a private life which bordered upon the scandalous, and so a second-rate but much safer man was appointed in his place.

Swinburne was born in 1837 and died in 1909. He rose to fame in the 1860s and thereafter was not only famous but notorious, because his poetry was considered dangerously sensual. Even after his death his reputaton was such that, with the funeral scarcely over, the Canon of Canterbury Cathedral preached a sermon condemning Swinburne in forthright terms: he held the wretched Algernon personally responsible for the sad decline in sexual morality.

It seems, however, that Swinburne was not famous throughout the land. There were places in which the passage of this blazing meteor across the literary sky went entirely unnoticed.

In 1923 (give or take a year or two), Sir Osbert Sitwell found himself seated at luncheon next to a old gentleman who admitted to being eighty-six years old. In due course, the old boy began to reminisce about his time at Eton.

‘If a man – or a schoolboy for that matter,’ he said, ‘does not get on well, it’s his own fault. I well remember, when I first went to Eton, the head-boy called us together, and pointing to a little fellow with a mass of curly red hair, said, “If ever you see that boy, kick him – and if you are too far off to kick him, throw a stone.”

‘He was a fellow named Swinburne,’ the old man added. 'He used to write poetry for a time, I believe, but I don’t know what became of him.’

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Margery Allingham -- queen of crime

It's time I got around to writing a piece about the late Margery Allingham (1904-1966).

There are several sound reasons for mentioning the great Margery: one, she was an extraordinarily good English crime writer, and I am rather partial to such; two, 2004 marks the centenary of her birth; and three, I have just finished re-reading all the twenty-some novels in her canon, in chronological order, and a very rewarding experience it was too.

On examination, however, I find that it is not necessary for me to write very much at all, because there are a whole gang of Allingham enthusiasts who have done all I would wish to do, and more. Visit the web site of the Margery Allingham Society, and you will see what I mean.

The web site offers an admirable biography cum summary of her output by B.A. Pike, taken from volume 77 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography. If I quote the first paragraph at some length it will at least demonstrate why the lady has so many admirers:
Margery Allingham is pre-eminent among the writers who brought the detective story to maturity in the decades between the two world wars. She created an aristocratic, unassuming detective called Albert Campion, who matured from “just a silly ass” of the 1920s to an eminent intelligence veteran forty years later. He ranks high among the great detectives of fiction but does so unobtrusively,
disdaining self-advertisement. Other recurrent characters contribute richly to the Campion series: Campion’s wife, Amanda; his manservant, Lugg; and his police associates, Stanislaus Oates and Charlie Luke. The novels and stories in which they appear are among the most distinguished in the genre – vivacious, stylish, observant, shapely, intricate and witty. They are unfailingly intelligent and imaginative, even when they do not wholly succeed.
The Allingham Society web site also offers: a detailed bibliography; an account of the life and character of her husband, Philip Youngman Carter (the marriage was not without its strains); details of the Society’s activities and publications; links to other relevant sites; and much more. There’s enough there to keep you going for a very long time.

Allingham's 'masterpiece' is generally held to be Tiger in the Smoke, and it is certainly very good. But if you want a single book to test the flavour, try Police at the Funeral. First published in 1931, it is very much of its time, but it is hardly fair to criticise a long-dead author for showing her age.

Personally I like Allingham for two principal reasons. First, she was very English. She wrote about English people, many of them deeply and sometimes alarmingly eccentric, but no less interesting for that. And, secondly, she was a wonderfully stylish writer, without ever falling into the trap of ‘look at me aren’t I awfully clever’. They just don’t make ’em like that any more. Or, if they do, no one has had the courtesy to tell me.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Sex in the eighteenth century -- and later

Saturday's Times carried a review of a book about sex in the eighteenth century - Lascivious Bodies by Julie Peakman. The review was accompanied by illustrations of lesbian nuns and information about flagellant brothels and the like. Nothing new in the book, as far as I could see, but of course I have to remember that not everyone is as old as I am. That being the case, I thought I would mention a few other famous books on sex. Somebody will no doubt be hearing about them for the first time.

First – not that they are in any particular order – I should mention a book called Tea Room Trade, by Laud Humphries. It is, apparently, over thirty years since this famous work was first published, but it seems like only yesterday.

A tea room, it appears, is what the Americans used to call a public lavatory. Or at least that was what gay men used to call it. Maybe they still do. In England the term was ‘cottage’, and hanging about in them for the purposes of homosexual liaison was known as cottaging.

Tea Room Trade, I hasten to point out, is a serious work of sociology. The author, Laud Humphries, was apparently an Episcopalian minister before he became a sociologist (other inernet sources describe him as a Catholic priest). His research methodology, so far as I can make out, involved nothing more complicated than hanging about in public lavatories (of the male variety), and seeing what happened. He posed, in short, as a participant, sometimes acting as the lookout while two other men got it on. This was, to put it politely, a method open to misinterpretation, and was seriously risky. But, after a considerable amount of said hanging about, Humphries accumulated enough material to write a book.

I never read Tea Room Trade from cover to cover, but I did take a look at it in an academic library some twenty years ago, and the story that sticks in my mind is that of a respectable hospital doctor. For years – years, mind you – this doctor had been in the habit of stopping off at a particular tea room on his way home from work. Virtually every day he would go in there, and virtually every day he found someone who was willing, to put it crudely, to suck his cock for him.

I found this story absolutely amazing when I read it, but I never doubted for one moment that it was true. The risks involved were so enormous, as George Michael has amply demonstrated to us. The story simply illustrates, should you need it illustrating, that you and I know very little of what goes on in other people’s minds and lives.

Another interesting book on sex – and I haven’t read this one, either – is The Technology of Orgasm, by Rachel Maines (1998). This book reveals that, until the 1920s, women who were diagnosed as suffering from ‘hysteria’ were treated by having their genitals massaged – by male doctors, if you please – until they achieved orgasm, and were thus released from the tension which was causing their ‘hysteria’. Well, nice work if you can get it, is all I can say.

Once we approached the end of the nineteenth century, it began to be possible to create electric ‘massage machines’ which relieved the doctors of this tedious task, or at any rate enabled them to complete the treatment within ten minutes instead of, perhaps, an hour.

This is the story which Rachel Maines tells us in The Technology of Orgasm. And apparently, if internet reports are to be believed, the university at which she then worked promptly sacked her for publishing the book. There you go, see. I was under the impression that it was the duty of all universities to support research into difficult and controversial subjects, despite opposition from the forces of darkness. I was also under the impression that there was something in the American constitution about freedom of speech. But obviously I was wrong, on both counts.

Finally, a few books which I remember from even further back. In the 1950s, when poking about in secondhand book shops, it was not uncommon to come across two books on the classical world: Sexual Life in Ancient Greece, by Hans Licht, and Sexual Life in Ancient Rome, by Otto Kiefer. Both of these are still readily available secondhand: try abebooks.

I never read either of those books all the way though, either, and all I remember from dipping into them is that fashionable ladies in the ancient world were in the habit of getting rid of pubic hair by singeing it off. A hazardous enterprise, I feel, but then the ladies have always been prepared to suffer to look beautiful.

Finally, I must mention Sex Variants, by George W. Henry (1941). This was another serious academic book, a study of what are now referred to as gay men and lesbians, but it seems to have been read more by general readers than specialists. In any event, there are, once again, masses of copies available on the secondhand market.

It is forty years since I last saw Dr Henry’s book, but I seem to remember that it consisted, at least to some extent, of first-person accounts of the gay or lesbian life. One of the fascinating case histories which it included was that of a black woman who had somehow or other ended up in the court of the Tsar of Russia. She had been in much demand as a sexual partner, and had many affairs with both men and women, but preferred women on the whole.

Of books about sex there is absolutely no end, but that will do for the moment.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Don't mess with my prose, man

By pure coincidence, yesterday brought two reminders that writers are, in some areas at least, sensitive souls.

First, I was reading (still) the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, and came across an item on Wilkie Collins. In 1875 The Graphic was serialising his novel The Law and the Lady, and the editor saw fit to delete a few lines from one paragraph. The paragraph in question described an incident in which -- steady now, steady -- a young woman was kissed on the hand. Worse yet, the dastardly fellow who had pressed his lips to her flesh also put his arm round her waist, and she was forced to cry out for help.

Well, I think you will agree that the editor had little choice but to curtail this paragraph, on the obvious grounds that it was objectionable.

Unfortunately, Wilkie Collins found the amended paragraph to be more than objectionable: he considered it actionable. He sent in the heavy mob, in the shape of his lawyers, who reminded the editor that the terms of The Graphic's contract with Collins required that the great man's prose had to be printed as it stood. And not as the editor thought it ought to stand.

In the next edition of The Graphic, therefore, the editor was obliged to print a grovelling statement in which he drew the readers' attention to what he had done, and what he was now forced to do, namely print the paragraph, all on its own, as the author had originally written it.

This had the effect, of course, of highlighting in the public eye something which otherwise would probably have passed unnoticed in 99% of households. As is usually the way with attempted censorship, sales of the book almost certainly went up as a result.

And here is another such incident, from more or less the present day.

Following the recent death of the once-famous newspaper columnist Bernard Levin, yesterday's Times carried a letter describing how Levin too had once objected to even a tiny alteration in his copy. Somebody on the staff of The Times, it seems, had had the temerity to change the phrase 'giants in the earth' to 'giants on the earth.' A small change but one which, I am sure you will agree, entirely distorted the sense of what Mr Levin had to say.

Levin wrote a note to the management of The Times, outlining this hideous crime, and saying that he had three comments to make to the person responsible:
  1. I would rather he didn't.
  2. He has involved me in the greatest crime in my calendar, to wit, misquotation (the phrase is from Genesis, generally attributed to God, who should know).
  3. Same as 1, above.

Yep, like I say, writers are sensitive souls, at least in some areas. You may, possibly, seduce their wives, embezzle their money, and steal their parking space, without so much as a murmur of reproof. But start tinkering with their punctuation, man, and you better watch out. They may just come looking for you with a sawn-off shotgun and blow your goddamn head off.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

The art of self-publicity

Yesterday we noted how a modicum of qualifications can be transformed into a reputation as a world leader in a particular field of endeavour. And that reminds me of a few other examples of the same thing which may, perhaps, be useful to the ambitious writers amongst you.

About 25 years ago I was involved in organising a series of lunchtime concerts in the classical music mode. These were intended to inject a little culture into relatively unsophisticated students of engineering. There wasn’t much budget for these concerts, which could be attended free of charge, so for the most part we used solo performers, rather than quartets et cetera. Most of these performers were either just beginning their professional careers or were women who had given up the touring circuit in order to have children but still wanted to keep their hand in.

One of these keen young professionals was a pianist. I forget his name so we’ll call him John Smith. He was talented (up to a point), ambitious and clever. But John had realised that there is a hell of a lot of competition in the music business (as in writing) and he had decided to help himself along a bit.

John had noticed that the small-town newspapers in England (and, I dare say, everywhere else in the world) are keen to find material to fill up the white space. He had also noticed that, if you send such papers a short and snappy press release, they will often print it pretty much verbatim.

So, what John did was this. He would get himself booked for a very modest tour of very modest venues in various parts of the country. And then he would send a press release to any daily or evening papers in the first of these towns. The press release included a statement something like this: ‘John Smith is quickly acquiring a reputation as the most brilliant pianist of his generation.’ And – ahem – who, precisely, took the view that John was the most brilliant and so forth? Well, it was his Mum, actually, but John didn’t mention that.

Newspaper number one generally printed John’s press release without changing a word. So for town number two, and newspaper number two, John could quite legitimately put out a press release which included the following: ‘John recently gave a successful concert in Smalltown, and the Smalltown Chronicle described him as ‘one of the most brilliant pianists of his generation.’ And for this press release John would add bit more. ‘John Smith is acknowledged as possessing a dazzling technique.’ Who had acknowledged this? Well, once again Mum proved to be an excellent judge of such matters.

Ten or twelve towns, and ten or twelve concerts later, John had assembled a dazzling array of quotes, something like this:

'The most brilliant pianist of his generation’ Smalltown Chronicle
‘A dazzling technique’ Hicksville Gazette
‘A fabulous performer’ Nowhere Herald
‘A thrilling bravura performance’ Crapsville Argus

And so on. All of these quotes were perfectly genuine and he could flourish a handful of press cuttings to prove it.

I don’t know what became of this young man because I don’t keep up with the world of classical music but he may well have gone far. Modesty, it is said, is the enemy of talent, and it doesn’t do to be backward about coming forward.

How does this technique impact upon writers? Well, you will have to work out similar dodges for yourself. But if you want a few hints, the best source of these is the indefatigable M.J. Rose, who has turned herself into something of an internet legend and now has several books to her name. Ms Rose has written at least one ebook on how to make yourself famous, and also offers online courses too; but they ain’t cheap.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Gillian McKeith: You are what you say

Gillian McKeith is the star of a recent television series, You Are What You Eat. You may well have seen it. If not, I have to say that the programme is something of a freak show, exhibiting for our entertainment some enormously fat and unhealthy people. These monstrously unfit and unattractive souls have their health dramatically improved by the star of the show as a result of her persuading them to eat something sensible instead of the incredibly fat-soaked, early-death-inducing processed junk food that they have been greedily stuffing into themselves at every conceivable opportunity. And even at a few opportunities which were not conceivable.

There is, of course, a book to accompany the series. I haven’t read it, but I have read one of McKeith’s earlier books, Living Foods for Health.

First, what of the author? Well, her book mentions ‘qualifications, degrees and a doctorate (PhD)’, and also lists such institutions as the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Edinburgh, and the American College of Nutrition, amongst others. The wording was suspiciously vague to my eye (I have a most cynical turn of mind), particularly in that it failed to tell us where she got her PhD. So I googled the lady to see if I could find out what came from where.

Turns out that someone has been there before me. A website called Precautionary Tales has a contribution on McKeith from ‘Robert’, dated 27 July 2004. According to Robert, McKeith’s management – he provides a link to NCI Management – claim that she has a first degree from Edinburgh, which is a university of some standing; the subject was reportedly Neuroscience Linguistics and Language. She has an MA in Health Systems Management from the University of Pennsylvania. And the PhD is from the American College of Nutrition.

So, as Robert points out, McKeith’s first two degrees, though awarded by excellent universities, are not wonderfully relevant to her website’s claim that she is ‘the World’s Top Nutritionist’. (He reproduces the claim from the home page of the site.) And the PhD turns out, on the basis of her own management’s evidence, to come from one of those places which, to put it as tactfully as possible, have an extremely modest academic reputation. ‘Could it be,’ asks Robert, that the “World’s Leading Nutritionist” got her PhD from a postal course? And what is the value of such a course?’

Robert’s criticisms seem to have struck home. As of today, 10 August, the NCI Management page on ‘Dr’ McKeith contains none of the details of McKeith’s qualifications which Robert evidently found there. Neither does the page claim, as it apparently once did, that she is the world’s leading nutritionist. Today she is a ‘world-renowned nutritionist.’ Similarly, McKeith’s own website today provides no details at all of her qualifications, and contents itself with quoting the Daily Mail, which described her as ‘the World's most acclaimed nutritionist.’ (Note to American readers: the UK Daily Mail is not widely regarded as the journal best placed to assess the value of scientists' achievements.)

Incidentally, there is further discussion of McKeith's ideas etc on later editions of the Precautionary Tales site, 3, 4 and 5 August.

All of which is a shame, because for a minute there I thought we had a genuine high-class academic in the field of nutrition writing a book for the illumination of the masses. But it turns out not.

Never mind, the question at issue is this: does Living Food for Health contain any useful information? And I rather think it does. For example, McKeith explains clearly the theory about potentially clashing food groups. I have often heard about this in the past but never previously understood it. (One suggested rule is, don’t eat protein at the same time as carbohydrates.)

As for the rest of it – well, I doubt whether most people will want to eat seaweed, as McKeith advocates, and the lady doubts it herself. But as she says in the book, it is her job to set before you what she has learnt and what she believes. The rest is up to you. You can either take it or leave it. As for me, I shall use bits of it and see how I get on. At my age I need all the help I can get.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

The strange case of Dr John Bodkin Adams

A letter from some relatives who live in Eastbourne reminds me that on a recent trip there we were shown the premises once occupied by Dr John Bodkin Adams, who is regarded in some quarters as a forerunner of the medical mass murderer Dr Harold Shipman.

Eastbourne has for many decades been a favourite retirement town. Set in Sussex, beside the sea, it is where you go to spend the last years of your life – especially if you have money. It is a genteel, relatively quiet place, the very opposite of a rough-arsed northern holiday resort such as Blackpool.

It was here that, in the 1950s, Dr John Bodkin Adams practised medicine. And, because the population of the town was then, as now, heavily skewed towards the elderly and the well-to-do, his patients included a large number of wealthy widows.

What happened to Bodkin Adams is a longish story, and it is well told in The Strange Case of Dr. Bodkin Adams, by John Surtees. The subtitle is ‘The life and murder trial of Eastbourne's infamous Doctor and the views of those who knew him.’ The author, it seems, is an Eastbourne man, and he has traced and interviewed many of those who knew the doctor. I was not too impressed by the production values of the book; but never mind, the story carries one along.

In the 1950s, the gossip in Eastbourne was that Bodkin Adams’s technique was to persuade a wealthy widow to write a will which left him her money, and then to do her in with an injection of powerful drugs. This gossip eventually reached such a crescendo that the police seem to have felt forced to launch an investigation. While the investigation continued, the press took over the role of spreading the word – ‘Inquiry into 400 wills’ was one gleeful headline. Bodkin Adams was eventually arrested and was prosecuted for the murder of just one rich old lady: Mrs Edith Morell. He was put on trial at the Old Bailey in 1957.

Every aspect of the criminal investigation and the trial is fascinating, and perhaps the most interesting aspect of all is the brilliant cross-examination of some of those who gave evidence against the doctor. Mrs Morell had been cared for on a 24-hour basis by a team of four nurses, and they had all been closely questioned by the police. They had testified that yes, it had been Dr Bodkin Adams’s practice to inject his patients with grossly excessive doses of pain-killing drugs such as morphine. They, the nurses, had been deeply shocked and suspicious, of course. But they were mere nurses; what could they do? That was the general tenor of their evidence.

As the trial proceeded, the outcome looked increasingly bleak for the Doctor. But then the defence counsel rose to cross-examine the first of the nurses who had given such apparently devastating evidence. Questioning her in the mildest of manners, he elicited the information that, during Mrs Morell’s last illness, all injections given to her had been carefully recorded in a notebook, together with details of her condition at any given time. This was standard practice for any terminally ill patient. Would this book, defence counsel casually inquired, support every detail of what the nurse claimed to remember? Oh yes, was the confident, and foolish, answer.

Whereupon defence counsel produced the actual notebook. There were eight of them all told, and they proved, on examination, to contain every detail of Mrs Morell’s treatment for several years before her death. The police had overlooked them, but Bodkin Adams’s solicitor had found them bundled behind a desk at the doctor’s home. And guess what – when the court came to examine these carefully maintained records, the nurses who had written them found, to their deep embarrassment, that their memories were all too fallible. The truth was, of course, that they had allowed themselves to be infected by the rabid dog of Eastbourne gossip. At least one of the nurses was shown to have told an outright lie.

In the end, the jury took only 45 minutes to find Bodkin Adams not guilty, and a number of legal reputations were made and lost as a result.

What was the truth of the matter? Was Bodkin Adams a mass murderer or not? You will have to read the record and make your own judgement. The police certainly thought he was guilty of many murders, as did the press. I had a friend at the time whose father was a Fleet Street journalist, and he told me that the word on the Street was that Adams had killed so many, and seemed so likely to kill so many more, that the police had been obliged to prosecute even though their case was ‘not quite ready’.

My own view is that Bodkin Adams was not a mass murderer at all. But he was, I would say, very definitely a mercy killer.

Remember the circumstances of the time. Bodkin Adams had been trained in the 1920s, when doctors really had very few effective remedies in their bags. What good they did was mostly achieved through a confident bedside manner, reassuring the patient that all would be well. By the 1950s doctors had acquired the early antibiotics, but for many terminal diseases they still had little that was of much use, apart from pain-killers.

And consider the nature of the Doctor’s practice. He was largely concerned with elderly patients who had led very comfortable lives. What did these patients fear most? They feared an agonising and prolonged death. So they would have talked to the Doctor about this possibility, over and over again, urging him to promise that he would not let them suffer. And he, I am quite sure, would have promised. It was how he earned his fee.

When the time came, it seems more than probable that Bodkin Adams did ease his patients’ passing into the next world. And if they, in anticipation of their gratitude, had left him something generous in their will, what was he supposed to do? Send it back?

The practice of mercy killing is seldom discussed in public, but it is a problem which faces every doctor. And it is not as if Bodkin Adams had no precedents. There is, for example, the well-documented case of King George V.

In January 1936, after several months of ill health, the King contracted bronchitis. It soon became obvious that the end was inevitable, and on the evening of 19 January the King drifted into a coma. The court officials realised that, if he lived past midnight, the announcement of his death could not be included in the next morning’s edition of The Times. And so, in view of the old man’s suffering, and in view of the passing time, the King’s doctor (Lord Dawson) decided to inject three-quarters of a grain of morphine and one grain of cocaine into the jugular vein. It was obvious what effect this would have, and the nurse in attendance refused to do it. Lord Dawson did it himself, and within fifteen minutes the King had died.

I do not suggest that Bodkin Adams knew about the death of George V. I merely point out that many a doctor has given a similar injection to patients in a similar position, without any publicity and without being prosecuted for it.

Mr Surtees is not the first author to write about this case of Bodkin Adams, of course. Sybille Bedford wrote an account of the trial in 1958: The Best We Can Do (Collins). And after the Doctor died, in 1983, we had a little flurry of books: Where There’s a Will, by Rodney Hallworth and Mark Williams (Capstan Press, 1983); Two Men Were Acquitted, by Percy Hoskins (Secker and Warburg, 1984); and Easing the Passing, by Patrick Devlin (Bodley Head, 1985). Perhaps it is a measure of the fascination of the case that all of these books appear to be readily available from Amazon.co.uk, even today.

You can also read an account of the affair online.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Gerard Jones's farewell -- or au revoir

Gerard Jones, of Everyone Who’s Anyone fame, sent me an email directing me to the update of his site.

It turns out that Gerard has had enough. For the time being at any rate. Instead of regularly updating his site he’s going to do something different, though what it is he’s not yet sure.

Before leaving, however, he makes an exit speech, in which he tells the book world exactly what he thinks of it. And, as you would expect if you’ve ever read any Gerard, he is not too impressed. Here is just a sample of what he has to say about publishers:

These guys have no clue what a good book even is anymore. They're schlock peddlers, first, foremost, last, always and only...and that they pass themselves off as the guardians of great literature makes it almost funny in a sad, sickening sort of way. They're the guardians of schlock. Schlock sells. They're the guardians of superficiality and stupidity. Superficiality and stupidity sells. Whose fault is that? Not mine. I don't read their stupid books. I write good books, instead, and even if I just read them myself and nobody else ever reads them I'm way better off in the long run, in the grand scheme of things, than I would be if I tried to please these useless, heartless, brainless,shameless, moneygrubbing morons.

He writes rather well when he gets up a head of steam, don’t you think so? I really like ole Gerard. He at least is not likely to get ulcers from repressing his emotions.

Meanwhile he links us to an article in the Christian Science Monitor, which, he claims, says much the same things as he is saying, except in politer language. And he’s right, broadly speaking.

The article is written by one Gail Vida Hamburg who evidently has a ‘political novel’ coming out next year. Meanwhile she berates the publishers of this world for putting out ‘too many books of questionable literary quality.’

Well, stap me vitals. I never thought that I would be cast in the role of defender of the publishing establishment, but I have to say that I disagree with both Gerard and the lovely Gida over this one. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to criticise commercial firms for acting in a commercial way. And God forbid – please, please forbid – that anyone should succeed in persuading the Governments of either the USA or the UK to put out subsidised literary fiction, on the entirely spurious grounds that it is somehow good for people’s souls. We already have far too much of that sort of thing as it is.

Gail Vida Hamburg goes on to heap praise on the UK book world, which, she says, promotes its young writers and encourages reading. She quotes Booktrust and the Book Marketing Council as examples of UK organisations which do this noble work. Well, up to a point, yes. These organisations do ‘encourage young writers’, but only if you belong to the literary genre. I don’t see many arty-farty bodies supporting, say, writers of romantic fiction. Neither would I expect the Arts Council to give you a grant if you’re working on a detective novel.

Gail Vida Hamburg seems to be yet another example of the literary fiction fan who seems to think that the rest of us have a moral duty to share their rather odd enthusiasms, and that we are somehow demonstrating our intellectual inferiority if we happen to prefer, say, crime fiction or science fiction. Well, sorry, but I find the intellectual case for that wholly unconvincing.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Literary anecdotes

Another book which is suitable for bathroom reading is The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes. First published in 1975, it is edited by James Sutherland.

The book is arranged chronologically, and it consists, fairly obviously, of stories about literary figures from the past.

The first thing one notices is that literature is evidently a fairly new invention. We begin with Caedmon, from the seventh century, but by page 6 we are already up to the sixteenth century. We end with Dylan Thomas, who died in 1953.

I am currently about two thirds of the way through, but here are a few thoughts on the sections read so far.

During the English civil war, George Wither fought on the side of Parliament. But when he was captured by the royalists, Sir John Denham asked the King not to hang him, because 'as long as Wither lived, Denham would not be accounted the worst poet in England.'

Now there was a character called Denham in fiction. He was, of course, the small boy's sadistic tutor in Algernon Swinburne's unfinished (and deeply scandalous) novel, Lesbia Brandon. Swinburne, who was said to have read everything ever written in five languages, may well have known this story. Do you think it was a little conceit of his, to name his villain after the self-confessed second-worst poet in England?

When I was a small boy myself, oh, vast numbers of years ago, it was the practice to respond to any bully's insult with a bold yell of 'Same to you, with knobs on!' Followed by a determined run for safety. Now I discover, I think, the origin of this witty piece of repartee. It was John Milton, no less. Dryden requested something from Milton which he was not keen on, and in his 'gently ironic' response Milton made 'an apposite reference to the then fashionable metal knobs worn at the end of laces.'

The book of anecdotes also sheds light on the the origin of the claim that someone has stolen one's thunder. In the early eighteenth century there was a playwright called John Dennis, and he seems to have invented a piece of machinery which reproduced, rather convincingly, the sound of a heavy storm. (The book does not tell us, but I believe it involved rolling cannonballs in a metal drum.) Dennis used this device in one of his own plays, which was produced at Drury Lane in 1709. The play was not a success and was taken off after a few performances. Later, Dennis went to see the play which had replaced his own, and to his fury the management made free use of his thunder machine. Dennis was incensed, and cried out in a transport of resentment, 'That is my thunder, by God! The villains will play my thunder but not my plays!'

Well, that's theatrical managements for you. Always the same, darling.

More bits and thoughts may follow.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Colin Watson -- crime writer extraordinaire

There are at least three reasons for recommending the crime novels of Colin Watson. As detective stories they provide a respectable puzzle; they are written in wonderfully elegant prose; and they are funny. If that isn’t enough for you, you’re in the wrong blog.

Biographical details about Watson are sparse; the books themselves seldom tell us much about the author. But he seems to have been born in 1920, and he worked as a journalist. He produced the first of twelve crime novels (plus one other) in 1958; the last book appeared in 1982. And he died far too young in 1983. Along the way (1967) he picked up a Crime Writers Association silver-dagger award for the quality of his output.

Almost all of Watson’s novels are based in the fictional town of Flaxborough, the location of which is always left vague. If forced to guess its position, from the evidence in the books, I would have said Norfolk, but Watson apparently worked in Lincolnshire. In any event, he chose to be imprecise; the explanation, I feel sure, is that much of what he wrote about was based on his experiences as a small-town newspaperman.

Watson usually has the same cast of policemen: Inspector Purbright, Sergeant Love, and of course, the Chief Constable, Mr Chubb. Some of the villains appear more than once, too -- Miss Lucilla Teatime, for instance. But Miss Teatime almost counts as an honorary police person: she is utterly criminal in both intent and action, but she nevertheless sometimes sees it in her interests to provide the Inspector with a little assistance. (Mr Pratchett, you will recall, also has a character called Teatime -- a young man from the Assassins Guild. Though in his case the name is pronounced Tay-atty-may; he is from the Italian branch of the family no doubt.)

It has often been suggested that the names of Watson’s characters alone, like those of Wodehouse, suggest the generally humorous tone of things. Through these pages stalk such stalwart characters as Harold Carobleat, Stanley Biggadyke, Mrs Flora Pentatuke, and the Fleet Street journalist, Clive Grail. But do not be misled by the labelling; these are serious people, and the villains among them are capable of very nasty acts indeed.

As for the elegant prose – well, it would be invidious to give too many examples as they always look rather feeble when removed from context. But, taken from a book opened at random, I rather like this: ‘Anderton grinned and made a rapid chewing motion. Bradley, fearful of impending expectoration, drew back a little.’ All right, so I’m easily pleased.

The BBC wisely bought the television rights to Watson’s books, and they made an entertaining seven-part series in 1977; Anton Rodgers played Inspector Purbright and Brenda Bruce was Miss Teatime.

I read all of Watson’s Flaxborough series as and when they first came out, and I have recently re-read them in chronological order. They remain a rare treat, and are much recommended to anyone with an affection for the crime-fiction genre or for English eccentricity and humour.

Finally, let it not be forgotten that Watson wrote a scholarly and entertaining study of the crime-fiction genre itself, entitled Snobbery with Violence.

If you would like to see a bibliography of Watson’s work, you can find one here. And there is a longer essay on the man and his work written by Jeffrey Ewener.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Graham Greene: The Confidential Agent

In July I spent some time discussing The Third Man, a film scripted by the English novelist Graham Greene. This reminded me that I hadn’t actually read a lot of Greene’s work, so when the opportunity arose to buy a battered secondhand copy of The Confidential Agent, I took it.

The Confidential Agent was first published in 1939, when the Spanish civil war (1936-39) was fresh in everyone’s mind. Quite a number of idealistic (and left-wing) young Englishmen had travelled to Spain and fought there against what they regarded as Fascist forces.

Greene was, I suppose we must say, an essentially serious writer, but he divided his work into what he called novels, on the one hand, and entertainments, on the other. On the title page, The Confidential Agent is firmly labelled an entertainment, but it is, I suspect, quite serious enough for most people.

The story is told entirely from the viewpoint of the protagonist, who is known to us only as D. He is a citizen of a country, never identified, which is deep in civil war, and he has been sent to England to negotiate a contract for coal with the English mine-owners. If D.’s side get the coal, they will probably win the war; without it, they will certainly be defeated.

The plot is built entirely around the dangers and difficulties which D. encounters in trying to carry out his mission; for there are, of course, enemies all around him. He is watched, chased, and attacked by everyone: the other side in the war, his own side (because they don’t trust him), and, before long, the English police. And there is, what a surprise, a love story built in.

The Confidential Agent struck me as being literate, intelligent, and thoughtful; given the author, it could hardly be otherwise. But it does show its age. Had I not been stuck on a vastly overheated train, which was an hour late, I might not have persevered with it. Overall it is an interesting piece of literary history, but not perhaps a book which I would urge you to add to your must-read list.

Subsequently I read Greene’s account of how the book came to be written. In 1938 he was in the middle of a ‘proper’ novel, The Power and the Glory, which was not going well. Furthermore, it seemed unlikely to earn him any significant money. So, dosing himself with Benzedrine, he wrote The Confidential Agent at the rate of 2,000 words a day, in the mornings, and carried on with his ‘serious’ work in the afternoon.

Greene claims that, when he began the book, he had no real idea of where it would end, but I can’t say that I noticed this improvisatory element as I went along. I did, however, feel that some of the plot devices were decidedly dodgy. Coincidence plays too large a part for my taste; D. will keep bumping into the same people, for no apparent reason. And, since the book covers only a few days, I did find it quite hard to believe that a young, rich, and beautiful English girl would (a) fall in love with him and (b) walk off hand in hand with him into a most uncertain sunset. None of that, however, seems to have bothered the reviewers or readers of the day, and I suppose, when one compares it with what else was available in the thriller line in 1939, one has to admit that it was a classy piece of work.

The Confidential Agent was later filmed, in 1945, starring Charles Boyer, Lauren Bacall, and Peter Lorre. No doubt the plot and the characters were fiddled with to suit Hollywood purposes. I can’t imagine Lauren Bacall playing a debby young English gel, can you?

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Andrew Crumey: Mobius Dick

A few weeks ago I read a half-page review in the Sunday Times (I think it was) of a book called Mobius Dick, by Andrew Crumey. The review was an enthusiastic one, and it gave a warm recommendation of a book which had every appearance of being a work of science fiction – for want of a better description – so I made it my business to get hold of a copy.

Well, sadly the novel didn’t turn out to be as interesting as I’d hoped. But I learnt a little in the process of reading it.

To begin with I learnt something which hadn’t been mentioned in the review that I read, namely that Crumey is the literary editor of The Scotsman. Well, that explains a good deal. You remember that last week I pointed out that a writer will benefit greatly from being a member of one or other of the various mafias. And, when it comes to getting favourable reviews from newspapers, there is one small but perfectly formed mafia which packs a punch like no other: it is the literary editors’ mafia.

Let us suppose, for the sake of example, that you are the literary editor of the Daily Globe, and you have written a book. The one thing that can be guaranteed, and is an even safer bet than that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow morning, is that every newspaper in what used to be called Fleet Street will review your book.

This is true for others in the newspaper business too, even if you have not quite reached the vertigo-inducing heights of a literary editorship. Being a mere junior reporter will do the trick. In fact, you can probably be the third cousin twice removed of the lady who cleans the editor’s office, and your chances of getting your book reviewed will be much improved.

Why is this so? Well because sooner or later every literary editor is going to write a book himself; or herself. And when that day comes he is naturally going to want to be reviewed, so that he can sell lots of books. So, obviously, he makes sure that he reviews the books written by everybody else in the newspaper racket, just to ensure that he gets a favourable reception when it comes round to his own book-plugging time.

And in case you are sniffing in a somewhat superior way, and thinking how shocking this is, let me point out very sharply that there is nothing immoral or improper in this practice. Goodness me, no. What is the golden rule of morality? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So, naturally, every literary editor in Fleet Street will ensure that a book by another literary editor gets at least a half-page review, because that’s the way he himself wants to be treated, next year or the year after. When he finally gets around to writing that novel or whatever. And it follows, therefore, that the fact that Crumey got a big write-up in whatever paper it was that I happened to be reading is not an example of corruption and mutual back-scratching of a dubious kind. Dear me, no. Not at all. It is an example of morality at work. And we would all be better off if there was more of it. I’m sure you agree.

Not everyone does agree, however. This being the world of writers and publishers, there is always someone who grumbles. And shortly before his death, the literary agent Giles Cooper wrote an article about the Fleet Street mafia, criticising it in fairly outspoken terms. He drew attention to the fact that a recent novel by, I think, a reporter on the Evening Standard, had been given lots of column inches, while a much better book (naturally) by one of his own clients (also naturally) had found it hard to get any sort of a mention at all. Was this fair, he asked. And he made it clear that, as far as he was concerned, it was not.

This Times article was, as you will appreciate, a total waste of time. Giles Cooper knew perfectly well how the world works, and he was just taking the opportunity (a) to get his clients mentioned, and (b) to earn a few guineas.

Back to Mobius Dick. If you want to have a really good laugh, try reading the sycophantic and gushing review of the book which appeared in the very newspaper for which Andrew Crumey is the literary editor, namely The Scotsman. ‘Andrew Crumey writes like a dream,’ it begins. Yup, folks, but it could be a nightmare. I nearly fell off my chair laughing. I believe Private Eye has an award for this kind of thing.

Mobius Dick is a hard book to summarise, but briefly it seems to be about the possibility of parallel universes in which things do not happen in quite the same way as they do in the universe with which you and I are familiar. A number of ‘real-life’ historical figures make their appearance, among them Erwin Schrodinger, Robert Schumann, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche again, you see. That son of a bitch gets everywhere; he was in a play by George Bernard Shaw a few days ago.

If I read Mobius Dick correctly, these real-life personages do not have quite the same characteristics and history in the novel as you and I are led to believe they had in the ‘real’ world. Always assuming that we can tell the difference between the real world and an imagined, or parallel one. There is always at least the possibility that we, the readers, or perhaps the characters, are victim to the False Memory Syndrome. What we think we remember as true may just be an idea which somebody has planted in our brains to see how we react.

If that sounds confusing, it is, at least for me, which is one of the reasons why I didn’t like the book all that much. Andrew Crumey, however, has a PhD in theoretical physics, so he probably finds it easier to follow than the rest of us.

One of the redeeming features of Mobius Dick, which kept me reading a little longer than I otherwise might, is Crumey’s sense of humour. At one point he portrays one of his characters, Harry Dick, as receiving ‘writing therapy’ from a woman who has had no less than 17 short stories published. ‘So you see,’ she says, ‘I really am a genuine writer.' One of her stories, she explains, was a three-page tale (Gash magazine, Issue 4) in which an old woman looks out of her kitchen window. ‘That woman was me, really,’ she explains to Harry. ‘But the whole point, do you see, is the moment when she notices the wilting hydrangeas and it brings everything back. We call that sort of thing an epiphany.’ Well, that’s the polite word for it.

Of course there is nothing desperately new, or of itself interesting, in writing a story about shifts in time and space. It is a practice which goes back at least as far as H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine of 1895. But if such a story is to become really involving for the reader, you have to care about the fate of the characters, and I’m afraid that, in this instance, I for one did not care. For a much better treatment of similar ideas, try Alfred Bester’s Tiger, Tiger (aka The Stars My Destination).

Final thought. Mobius Dick is, by any reasonable interpretation, a work of science fiction. But the author, I remind you, is one of the literary elite, and his publisher is Picador, a stronghold of lit’ry stuff. And, my dears, the lit’ry elite would rather cut off its right hand than admit that it has anything to do with that sordid, grubby and downmarket stuff called science fiction. So you will look for this phrase in vain in any of the publisher’s publicity for the book. Instead we are told that it is ‘an homage to classic literature and an indictment of cultural relativism.’ Makes it sound really inviting, doesn't it?

Sunday, August 01, 2004

John Lawton and the English past

Last week I promised to write about a novelist who uses the past history of England, as a backdrop to his books, to rather better advantage (in my opinion) than Jake Arnott. His name is John Lawton, and he writes books which are in the crime fiction/thriller category. Comparators: Alan Furst, Philip Kerr, perhaps.

Lawton is reportedly a retired TV producer who has turned to writing fiction; and he does it extremely well. In 1995 he began with Black Out, which, as the title suggests, is set in the second world war -- 1944 to be precise. We are immediately introduced to his lead character, a policeman called Frederick Troy. At this stage of his career Troy is a mere Sergeant, but he has an intriguing background, being the son of a distinguished Russian emigre. Lawton provides us with not just a good thriller, but an intriguing set of insights into what wartime conditions were really like -- as opposed to many of the myths.

In 1996 Lawton produced Old Flames, which is set in 1956. Here Lawton again develops his plot against the background of real events, in this case chiefly the visit to London by the two Russian leaders, Bulganin and Krushchev. A real-life embarrassing incident, when British intelligence seem to have lost one of their operatives while trying to spy on the Russian duo, features heavily. And Troy, you will remember, is the son of a Russian and so speaks the language.

Third in the series (1998) is A Little White Death, set in 1963. Amazon lists a non-fiction book called 1963: Five Hundred Days, which is also by one John Lawton, and I think it must be the same author. The year 1963 was a big one in English history, being flanked by the unmasking of a Russian spy at the end of 1962 and the Beatles first trip to America in early 1964. In between we had a few things like the Profumo scandal and the resignation of a Prime Minister. It is against this background that we see Troy in action yet again.

Fourth in the Troy series is Riptide, in which Lawton takes us back to 1941, but still with the same lead character. And a fifth book, Blue Rondo, is due for publication in March next year. That one is to be set in the late 1950s.

Lawton seems to have spent some considerable time in the US, because he has also published a novel with an American background in much the same style as his Troy series. This is Sweet Sunday. The lead character here is Tudor Raines, a New York private eye, and the date is 1969: Vietnam, Woodstock, et cetera. I did not personally find this as interesting as the books set in England, but US readers would probably hold the reverse view.

All in all, Lawton is a literate, thoughtful and skilled writer in a genre which is often regarded as inferior to the literary novel. The latter view is complete balls, of course, and most people, fortunately, have the good sense to ignore it.