Everyone knows everything in London
Metropolitan ennui obviously has an upside. Alex Renton, formerly arts editor, features editor and chief feature writer for the London Evening Standard (you don’t get more metro than that) tells me that he doesn’t know “what to think about anything anymore.” Alex now works for Oxfam in southeast Asia, a morally invigorating job. But being ripped from the womb of cultural London seems to have had some disquieting side effects. What do you think about crisis at the ICA, Monsters Inc, or Philip Pullman’s Whitbread triumph, if you don’t know what “everyone is saying,” or-indeed-if “everyone” happens to be Cambodian? Alex is not sure if he’s meant to like Philip Pullman or not (dear, oh dear). Obviously, he isn’t that worried about the crisis in British conceptual art, because he didn’t know that Ivan Massow had been sacked as ICA chairman for calling it “craftless tat.” But if he had heard Jonathan Miller on Radio Four declaring haughtily that none of the yBAs had come within a mile of “anything I would recognise as a concept,” Alex would have been his old, assured self, dismissing a) Jonathan Miller or b) Ivan Massow or c) people who took either them or the art world too seriously. There’s a lesson about London here. You don’t need to know very much to know everything (as long as you’re actually there). The city makes cultural tourists of us all; and even the specialist critics who tell us what to think become tourists as soon as they stray off their patches. It’s pretty depressing to imagine that Alex, as he rides between Bangkok and Hanoi, misses this third-hand experience of the bright lights. So, I raise a pint of drizzly after-show bitter to the old smoke (and, by the way, Monsters Inc is just slightly overrated).
Waiting for the great castration novel
Thinking of expats and the Evening Standard, my good mate, Pete, rings up from Sicily to say that he is very unhappy with a book review I wrote for the Standard’s book pages. I don’t dare imagine what cultural sadness has sucked Pete away from his Latin life to read it on the ThisIsLondon website. He is writing his second novel, getting a screenplay developed into a film, and living with a beautiful Sicilian woman who manages luxury villas on the island. Can it be that this isn’t enough? Yes, it can. The description in my little review of the poet James Lasdun’s novel, The Horned Man, has thrown Pete into despair. Amazingly, it appears to be identical to the synopsis of the book he is currently writing-especially regarding themes of violent emasculation and female mutilation. I reassure Pete that Lasdun is pretty cowardly on this front, so the way is still open for him to seize the high ground and wildly splash his gory bits about for the edification of the publishing world. Literary London is surely aching for the first hyper-graphic castration novel. Of course, if you must live on a Mediterranean island, then don’t expect to keep in touch with the murky throb of the English metropolis. That’s why people live in the big cities which make them so unhappy-to stay connected. Clearly, it’s worth it.
Saving Stephen King from elitist bullies
Getting all the best literary insights from the Sun, we read the most thoughtful account of why Stephen King is planning to hang up his pen and retire. King has always horrified rival authors with the monstrous abundance of his output, haunting bookshops with more than 60 books in 28 years. But now the Sun claims that, despite earning ?30m a year through his books and the movies of his books, King is really the victim of persecution by that lord of dark lords, the snobbish literary critic. I have heard King himself on this subject, complaining that his work isn’t taken seriously by the suits in academe. The mystery here is not why King, or the Sun for that matter, should mind if a few bookworms don’t put the author of The Shining and The Green Mile on their college courses, but how this myth of elitist persecution grew up in the first place. I check with the New Yorker magazine, which has published four short stories and two factual pieces by King over the last eight years. Appearing in one of the world’s most exclusive journals is surely a pretty good sign of respect from the high brow. “We like to think so,” says Bill Buford, the New Yorker’s literary editor, who compares King’s attention to the detail of language with that of Richard Ford, E. Annie Proulx and Don DeLillo. This kind of serious comparative assessment is, however, insufficient for the Sun, which wheeled out a rogue academic from Essex University to demand that the master yarn-spinner be taught at university along with Shakespeare and, er, JRR Tolkien. Buford, who can’t believe King is capable of giving up the day job, is equally nonplussed about his absence on course lists for the great American novel. “I’d have to take VS Naipaul’s line on that one,” he said. “Why would anyone want to teach fiction in the first place?”
The last word on idolising pop
There’s nothing so moving as the passion of the people when their voice is raised. So, to the stuff that really matters. Should Will have won? I didn’t actually see an instalment of Pop Idol, but I was at a fun ecstasy party where the television was on when Will’s victory was announced (I almost got a glimpse of the screen). “I can’t believe they didn’t give it to Gareth,” someone next to me, who looked around 33, despaired. I felt a terrible pop-culture ennui descend on me; until the guy explained that he writes tunes for the industry (sweetly, he sang me a Corrs song which he had authored). Ah, it’s his work! The taste of 8.7m British viewers was, understandably, of some importance. I clung to this epiphany. But then he went on to explain that practically everyone at the party emerged from the Manchester club scene. They grew up to the pulse of hard core, indie, ecstasy-soaked Mad-chester, and reached adulthood by lamenting that Will beat Gareth. Someone, tell me what to think.