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the interrogative mood. an addictively readable experimental novel, which is not a sentence i write very often. funny, surreal, intriguing and peculiarly moving in places. but no narrative, no characters, no location. just questions. about 3,000 of them. one after the other. and nothing else.
do you ever hold hands with anyone? if you do not, are there circumstances in which you would hold hands with anyone? if there were a gun case full of guns, yours or someone else's, and one of the guns was dirty and fouled from use, would you want to see that one gun got cleaned? if you were at a landfill and saw a large pile of girlie magazines, which you do not customarily look at, beside a large pile of unopened tins of skoal, which you have never used, would you go over there and take a pinch of snuff and have a look at a magazine? do buzzards give you the creeps? have you ever constructed a sandbox? if you once owned a slide rule and do not have it now, do you know what happened to it?
it works i think for several reasons. partly because it's a joyous celebration of the sheer mind-bending variety of stuff that goes into a human life. and partly because the reader is the hero. the book asks the question but we have to answer them. and it really did teach me things about myself which i had never considered before, and forced me to retrieve things i had completely forgotten (i did indeed have a slide rule and it was my father's and it was wonderful and i can practically smell it but i suddenly realise that i have no idea where it went and there's something terribly sad about that).
martin amis on the bbc other day: if i had a serious brain injury i might well write a children's book... i would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register that what i can write.
wind in the willows: one, time's arrow: nil.
though i'm never sure whether he actually means these things or suffers from a form of intellectual tourette's.
the weasly word is register, self-aggrandising whilst being vague about his own superior skills. register meaning more intelligent? register meaning more sophisticated?
because there there's an interesting debate here which has been sidelined by the entirely justifiable fight to raise the status of writing for children. yes, writing for children is as difficult and as valuable and as worthy of praise as writing for adults. but it is nevertheless different. with exceptions (mostly when it comes to writing for teenagers) it's shorter and simpler and tends to avoid certain subjects, not just sex and death but more often the tedious pre-occupations of grown-ups. there is sometimes heroin-addiction and sexual abuse in children's books. but there are seldom mortgages and office politics.
there's something else, too, something which fascinates me, something i have never been quite able to put my finger on and which i find myself calling charm, meaning both the warmth given off by certain people (or books or illustrations) and the elusive faerie quality of a spell. because it seems to me that the younger the readers of a book, the more its success depends on this charm. it's easy enough for most readers to say why they like, or dislike, Tolstoy or Evelyn Waugh, to explain how their novels work, and which aspects of them work well and less well. but you can't do the same thing for where the wild things are or winnie-the-pooh, or if you do it's mere post-rationalisation of a gut reaction. and the quality is most noticeable in books which, by any other standard measure, should be dreadful. reverend audley's thomas the tank engine series, for example.
i teach creative writing every now and then. i feel reasonably confident that i can steer most students towards writing better for an adult audience. but if a student is writing for children and their work doesn't contain that charm (whether sweet, or quirky, or surreal, or transgressive) i find myself completely at a loss. at some level, i think it is a quality that writers simply have or don't have.
on saturday morning I went to blackbird leys library in oxford to take part in a read-in as part of the national day of protest against the planned library closures. it was very very sad to stand in a building full of books and light and warmth and passionate people that will, if the government and the local tory council get their way, be boarded and shuttered and left to rot. i feel i should write something more about it here. but philip pullman has spoken eloquently on behalf of everyone in oxford (here it is) and I don’t think I could say it any better.
the reduction in the disability living allowance, the rise in student fees, slashed hefce funding to universities, the removal of the educational maintenance allowance, monumental cuts in council budgets, the massive and dangerous rearrangement of the national health service… i really do feel that the government of the country has been placed in the hands of a small group of self-serving, hypocritical, lying, under-qualified ideologues who are incapable of feeling empathy for people outside their own gilded bubble, who are deaf to any voices but their own and intent on using supposed fiscal prudence as an excuse to do what they have long wanted to do, radically reduce state expenditure and kickstart the process of privatising everything from health care to education to arts funding. and all of this under the orwellian banner of 'big society'.
darcy padilla has won the w eugene smith award in humanistic photography for this. it's heartbreaking. but there are real human beings out there living these kind of lives