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Friday, 23 December 2011

Merry Christmas, and thank you

It was Maria Zannini who cajoled me into writing a blog. I thought she was mad. What to write about, and why? But she has good instincts and all these years later I'm still scribbling. And grateful. It's helped, maybe, in developing a 'voice', and, as important, created the discipline of routine. Then there're the friends I've made, along with old students who have suddenly discovered the alternative Mike Keyton

Only now the juices are drying as Christmas overwhelms in all its joy and various commitments. Not forgetting drink. So it's goodbye from me until the New Year, when the burbling will begin afresh.

Merry Christmas and thank you, Maria, and Merry Christmas to everyone misguided and/or generous enough to follow me:

Jason Hanrahan, Henry Lara, LD Masters, Sam Waters, R, Mac Wheeler, Stephen Tremps, Angela Brown, Jackie Burris, DRC, Adam M Smith, Joy Ann Ball, Misha Gericke, Laura Riley, Malin Larsson, Sue Gagg, Mark Ward, Nikki, Claudia, Vero, Susie Q, Shirley Wells, L J, Carlos, Renee, Seattle Friend, Gwen, Regan - or is that Sue - Diane, Terri, Kerri, Angela Brown, Brian Wilkinson, Marguerite Butler, Andy Bruce

Saturday, 17 December 2011


Wonderful picture from the New York Times. But oh for an Heironymus Bosch to do it full justice.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Black pudding in Aberdeen

Black pudding is a visual feast. It glistens and crumbles on the fork. A single mouthful justifies the millions of years that have led to perfectly formed mouths and taste buds.

The one served at the Ardoe house hotel sat on the plate between the bacon, sausage and fried egg. It looked inoffensive. I savoured the moment before cutting into it and raising it to my lips.

It was like chewing pulped cardboard with the faintest aftertaste of manure. Must be some mistake. Nothing can go wrong with black pudding: a savoury mix of barley, pig fat and blood. I left it for a bit and attacked the egg; went back to the black pudding. Dry. Definitely something wrong. Manufactured slurry. A normal person would have left it. The world is full of black puddings.

I tried again, caught by obsession, a history of childhood rationing and just plain stupidity, until the damn thing was gone.

What was I doing at Ardoe House glooming over black pudding?

We had gone to Aberdeen for our son’s graduation and arrived at Jury’s Inn hotel just after midnight. This was after a ten hour journey by train which involved a 90 minute wait for our final connection on a freezing Edinburgh station. Arctic winds screamed through flesh and bone and precipitated hallucinations. How else could I explain the vision of a man with a Desperate Dan chin, clad only in red T shirt and knee length shorts? He stood arms folded, oblivious to the polar weather. His legs bulged in a Macdonald tartan of varicose veins, the only hint of discomfort. And then he vanished.

Eventually we stumbled into the foyer of the Jury Inn, seeking a warm bed and looking forward to breakfast. Unlike the Holy Family, we had booked our rooms weeks ago and confirmed it earlier that morning, warning them that we would be late. ‘No problem’ we were assured.

Only there was. The young male receptionist told us we didn’t have a room. His tone of voice suggested mild displeasure, as though we were somehow to blame for him being in this embarrassing situation. The mild displeasure turned to puzzlement when we didn’t turn cartwheels of joy on finding out that they had found another room for us in a hotel, which involved a ten mile taxi-ride.

Voices were raised, and then a young Irishman emerged and did brilliantly what the young receptionist should have done in the first place. He once again explained they were victims to a double-booking made by a central computer and that as a result the hotel was full and then, instead of just making the best of a bad situation, he exceeded anything we’d anticipated: The alternative hotel was superb (apart from the black-pudding, but I absolve him from blame for that) Our night there was at a discounted rate and our second night at the Jury’s Inn, for which there was a room available would be complimentary – breakfast included.

The following day a free taxi took us back to the original hotel. We were treated like VIP’s and I realised for the first time what the very rich take for granted.

The lesson is that most cock-ups can be resolved through charm – being Irish helps – and daring to be generous. I feel now like some kind of unpaid ambassador for the Jury Inn chain. Ardoe House too, though my stomach is preparing a Minority Report on the Black pudding.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Closing Doors

My motto has always been to open doors; kick them if they’re stiff. But what if there are no doors? My son achieved A* at GCSE A level in subjects such as maths and physics, Latin and Greek etc. He has an Oxford degree and an MSc in Library and Information Studies. And like a million others is now on ‘Jobseekers Allowance.’ The point is not that my son is particularly hard done by but that the phenomenon is so widespread.

The New York Times tells the story of: Willie Osterweil who graduated magna cum laude from Cornell and found himself sweeping Brooklyn movie theatres for just over seven dollars an hour. Rebecca Chapman who has a master of arts in English and comparative literature from Columbia University, and the previous summer was unable even to find a non-paying job.

As galling was the lack of courtesy shown by prospective employers who couldn’t be bothered to email or otherwise inform her she hadn’t succeeded this time. My son has had similar experiences from institutions that no doubt have a shiny little logo to advertise that they are ‘Investors in People’.

But what I love about New York is its energy, along with its ability to turn problems into solutions…of a sort.

They, along with other ‘over-educated’ and unemployed graduates, meet in a pokey, book-shelved apartment on the Upper East Side. They meet under the banner of ‘The New Inquiry’ edited by Rachel Rosenfelt, and with such a diverse and multi- talented, but unemployed group, the discussion is by turns frivolous and deep. The magazine has no end of contributions – though I must confess little enthusiasm for ‘Kanye West’s effect on the proletarian meta-narrative of hip-hop’.

The novelist Jonathan Letham refers to them as ‘…the precursor of this kind of synthesis of extra-institutional intellectualism, native to the Internet, native to the city dweller.’ Sounds grand. I would call it old fashioned savvy and ‘get up and go’.

Ambitious members of ‘city’s literary underclass’ ignored by the publishing establishment have gone out on a limb, emulating the literary salons of the 1920’s.
The New Inquiry is now planning to print a quarterly edition along with an iPad version for two dollars a month – and doors are starting to open. People are taking notice.

They may have not so much found but created a door that will lead to great success. Equally it may turn out to be a short-lived dead end. But, importantly, it is keeping the spirit alive.

“This is my fantasy: a room full of books, people talking about books — it smells like books,” says Ms. Chapman, the journal’s literary editor, though she also points out that at twenty five and with a good degree from Cornell, a master’s from Columbia, its galling to be unemployed and living at home with your parents.

Similarly, Tim Barker enjoys discussing ‘…ideas at an extremely high level, without worrying about status or material support of traditional institutions: publishing houses or universities.’ But he too points out that his ambition had been to be a history professor – and those doors are closing fast – not just sticky, but bolted and barred.

To paraphrase Earl Grey on the eve of the Great War ‘The doors are closing all over Europe. Who knows when they will open again?’