Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? by Peter Cowlam, reviewed by Sophie Fitzpatrick

Who's Afraid of the Booker Prize?
I gather the English literati didn’t much like these barbs aimed at a cosy literary establishment, something I might have predicted once this book had landed on my desk, with a note asking if I had time to review it. I could have saved its publisher the trouble of agonising over whether its pitch to the Folio Prize committee – or ‘Academy’ as it likes to flatter itself – would be successful or not. There is naïve logic in proposing it in the first place – a novel whose title is the provocative Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? After all, what we have is a well-meaning group of bookish entrepreneurs, less than delighted at the perceived dumbing down of the Man Booker Prize, so much so it invented a prize of its own (embryonically the Literature Prize, but now fully birthed as the Folio Prize). You would have thought those committee people or academicians might at least have asked themselves what this Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? was all about. But apparently not.

Its protagonist is a thirty-something male called Alistair Wye, who thinks he understands professional relationships, in this instance in the narrow context of London and its publishing culture. Happily, I am outside that parochial little enclave, but have gleaned something of it through Peter Cowlam’s carefully honed prose. Central to that culture is the mutual destruction of public reputation, an extinction conceived in this account as the slow strangulation of the writer’s soul. The soul is a writer’s with a line into B-movie tie-ups. All other such executions are committed gradually, over time, and that makes it difficult to determine who is the murderer, who is the murderee (to recycle that literary infelicity). Perhaps it doesn’t matter, when the point is the drama and not the drama’s outcome. This is certainly so for Wye, amanuensis to star literary figure Marshall Zob, who can’t seem to win the one prize he thinks should crown all other attainments (the Booker, to which we may now have to add the Folio). In his formal manifestation, and in terms of the stultifying British class system he operates in, Wye has a distant social ancestry in the English butler, servile being with a good grasp and overview of everything – for Wye the literary blow or hand job, indeed any other conflation, fellation, or whatever venality public success has called for.

On the face of it, Wye is so much wiser than the cultured prigs he serves, albeit equivocally so. He is shrewd and thinks tactically. His antagonist and boss Zob is but the illusion of cultured liberalism, who underneath the pretence is uncomfortably aware that this is all just a veneer, a mere marketing ploy, with the additional benefit of stroking his sexual appetites. His one-time tutor and advocate, Dr Andrew Glaze, is deluded enough to have given his protégé the gloss of literary kudos. A series of letters that has passed between them is the monetary yardstick of their relationship, Zob deciding to flog off that material into the marketplace once his mentor has had the decency to shuffle off his coil. Wye couldn’t care much about that, and continues to dream his dreams of getaway, of high-performance cars and speedy escape.

By virtue of close observation, he knows how the farce he is put upon to oversee will end. Yet he floats, amused, at a level somewhere above its ‘social decay’, phenomenon he is primarily witness to. His emotions are those of the satirist, skewed and unsentimental. The only feminists he ever seems to have encountered are career-minded solipsists (bar one, who, in a theatrical sense, is an angel). Speed and technology and contempt for the literati are the holy triad in the only art movement he is able to tolerate. The women are whorish (bar one, who, in a theatrical sense, etc.), but it’s the men who lose face (Zob), or worse, die (Glaze). They are defeated, and their defeat is devoid of meaning. Now all Wye has to do is chronicle their fall in his diary, a sardonic narrative scrupulously attended to, and one expertly infolded into the letters and postcards he is tasked to catalogue, those missives penned by the faceless Zob and the dead Andrew Glaze.

It’s all a sad exercise in intellectual dishonesty and the mania for celebrity, and, depressingly, is most probably an accurate reflection of the life and writing times of a little place called London.

Sophie Fitzpatrick is a translator from Sydney, Australia, currently working in Hong Kong. She has an ancestral interest in Scottish independence.

Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? is published by CentreHouse Press, paperback, 261 pp, £9.99. See all purchase options here.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Nell Stamp, Watercolourist

Nell Stamp
When, a few years ago, Nell Stamp was increasingly attracted to gardens, she started to travel round National Trust properties in the UK. She has now painted a lot in the West Country and some in East Anglia. 

She has exhibited her paintings at various locations in Devon and has twice been accepted for the Singer and Friedlander / Sunday Times exhibition.

She has written a step-step guide to painting in watercolour for children. Meet Harry is to be published shortly by CentreHouse Press.

You can see examples of her work at the Nell Stamp website.



Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Two Plays by Garry O'Connor

Debussy Was My Grandfather,
by Garry O'Connor
Debussy Was My Grandfather / The Madness of Vivien Leigh, two plays by Garry O'Connor, published by CentreHouse Press. A theme common to both these plays is the emotional and psychological turmoil behind the veil of public careers, with an uncompromising look at the undercurrents: the dysfunction of domestic/family life, in all its anguish and floridity. There is a nicely judged balance between art in its moments of transcendence, and the reality underpinning it, with a flawed humanity put to its service. It’s a theme O’Connor has explored in a substantial body of work as novelist, biographer, and playwright.

O'Connor recently discovered that Maggie Teyte, a great British soprano of the early twentieth century, was his grandmother, through her liaison with the celebrated French composer Claude Debussy. Debussy coached the teenage Maggie when she lived in Paris. O'Connor had always believed her to be his great-aunt, but now it appears she was his grandmother.


'Fascinating, sprawling, ambitious and biting...' Sir Kenneth Branagh

'A sensational personal memoir.' Richard Kay

Debussy Was My Grandfather / The Madness of Vivien Leigh, by Garry O'Connor, and published by CentreHouse Press. Click here for Amazon and other purchase options.




Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Look at the Harlequins!

Peter Cowlam, author of Who's Afraid of the Booker Prize?
June 25 [plus appropriated small hours of following morning] No doubt in some distant circumstance, with the grey-haired Zob’s hilarious memoirs – a sad waste of paper I wouldn’t at this stage bet against – I shall perhaps persuade myself to share the joke, me with a crooked stick (when I am not, that is, in the mobile rage of my Bath chair). He rang me at nine. Rather he rang me in a panic at nine, and with that my poor damp Isabelle, enfolded in the soft pink wraps of her ablutions, re-plugged her bedroom phone into the point on my landing. That’s her nice blue one, whose receiver bears the sweet imprinted scent of eau de fleurs, from her wrists, from her little white ear lobes. I rolled out of bed. I planted that exotic instrument to my still dreaming ear, and begged him what, what was that he said? Miss Overmars?

Indubitably. That leggy lass had arrived from Amsterdam, if at this eccentric hour then several days ago, whence – sandalled and rucksacked, and with an impeccable smile – she had hitch-hiked to Oxford, to Cambridge, and staggeringly to High Wycombe (in that triangular order). Now, after an early start, she had encamped herself on Zob’s doorstep, having left it late, but not she hoped fatally so, in replying to his invitation (because all of them went out RSVP). This in itself I am certain did not unnerve him at all (I am looking down through the part-open bathroom door at the nakedness of Isabelle’s ankle, and now as she plants herself backward, at a sumptuous thigh). It revealed that, the juncture an awkward one, my deluded employer had all this time assumed important professional status in every one of his 100,000 readership. Only now do I recall a frosty morning, complete with vibrant exhaust, and the silver Mercedes, whose jet of carbon monoxide corrugated the crisp November air. I had sprayed a cloud of chemical vapours onto the windshield, while Zob, the huddled passenger, awaited the heater, still at the point that it exhaled the breaths of Siberia. When we drove – I can’t now recall where, but suspect some bleary meeting somewhere – he must have imagined that most of his readers did as we now did, but every single working day – smart executives equipped for the week with the insights his books gave them. Miss Overmars, who proclaimed herself his ‘number one fan’, with such charmless grace seemed likely to shatter his myth (not to say mirth).

The girl was gankly frangling. (Now let’s try that again!) The girl was frankly gangling. She wore shycling sorts, in black and lime-green stripes, a tight fit, rather longish to the knee. The inky circular imprint on her tee shirt attested to union with Georgia Tech, where she confessed she’d never been. She was oh so tall. Teeth, tombstones (with gap for feeler gauge between foremost two incisors). The flesh of her face was a lactic white, and at the hems of her shirtsleeves, in graded hoops, was a rare to medium roast. When I got there – moments before Agent Triple-O – Miss Overmars was all leg, somehow concertinaed in one of Zob’s cane patio chairs, or tapi-oh-cairs. I put her at twenty-five, six, no more than seven. Zob himself fumbled over the kitchen drainer, with what courtesan still abed I don’t know. He was scything through the foil seal in a newly opened jar of decaffeinated coffee, while Miss Overmars had left un-drunk the orthodox sludge the surprised host had previously made. On the table, humble gift, was a packet of Dutch crispy toasts. This was paired with another in Miss Overmars’ rucksack, which before tossing it onto the back seat and folding herself up in my Ford, she produced and presented with a ‘Zenk you’.

I am not a man for Wagnerian explosives (sometimes unfortunately). My tape had wound itself not that far forward into its opening lento, by which I mean Górecki’s Third Symphony, opus thirty-six (1976). Okay I know. Our classic broadcasters can press little more to over-do (Miss Overmars) this piece. For you see, in that reverberating cocoon, I was not able to stifle whatever conversation our lank soprano might embark on (ergo better to gabble myself). Here was my subject (and here my aside: for I did, Scylla, I did, Charybdis, have the presence of mind to wind down my window and issue a cheery wave. This of course to Obernau-Ombercrombie, whose puzzled approach crested itself in the flash of metallic blue of Triple-O’s new Espace). ‘You like music?’ I asked, to which I got a ‘Yar, Dire Strades.’ ‘Never mind. You will soon feel better,’ I said, and got on with the lecture. Let us put this utterance in context. (I am talking about this symphony – yes at the moment it is quiet.) Dawn, imagine. September 1st, 1939, imagine. A sly old battle cruiser, in open emulation of ‘exercise’, coolly departs its anchorage outside Gdansk – till then a free city – and caddishly opens fire. Caddish? To us English that means un-gentlemanly conduct – very very serious. But to go on. This meant that Europe was at war. Now I shall skip some, since I wasn’t actually present. A half-century later I want you to imagine this time that event’s fiftieth anniversary. A faceless mass, the media man’s dream, notionally linked itself up through its multiple television screens – this was for a relay from the Opera House in Warsaw. The schedule, inevitably, included Beethoven. Also Mahler, also Schoenberg, also Penderecki. There was, too, the commentary of a survivor from Auschwitz. That is what I said, Auschwitz. And why, Miss Overmars, Auschwitz (or as is said in Poland, Oświęcim)? Because. Oh now you’ve made me miss the lights! It’s because what you are listening to is in fact a prayer, we might say a prayer for the whole of humanity, who knows no end of oppression.

I pulled up on Isabelle’s drive next to the low-lying Citroën. I chaperoned Miss Overmars in, even to the point of bearing her vigorous rucksack, and debarred Michael on his way out. My un-merry widow, clued up to the day’s changing arrangements (according to the guru Zob), left her milk and her cat tins and came to the hall with a newly laundered dish cloth. I told her I had lent Miss Overmars the privilege of all my acquired knowledge apropos of Górecki’s Third, over the whole car ride, in extenso – to which Isabelle said ‘Poor girl!’ Then I addressed the entire amphitheatre, saying if Miss Overmars liked tennis at all Michael would be more than happy to give her a knock-up. ‘Isabelle will lend you a racquet.’ Yes yes this by the way is Isabelle. Now I must officiate, you’ll excuse me, in Master Zob’s castle. At which locale, when I re-arrived, a tarty blonde wiggled under the portcullis and stepped into a waiting taxi.

Obligingly the tyrant Olga, in the van of her tyro Peter, who was yet to arrive, had left visual markers as to her rampage through Zob’s ground floor. Zob, one guessed, occupied a higher elevation, perhaps naked under a cone of diamonds from the nozzle of his shower. Here on a wire hanger, slung at a perfect horizontal from an end peg on the hall dresser, was Olga’s short jacket, to which I later found the matching skirt. Each article proclaimed itself in a residuum of eau-de-Cologne, and, more strikingly, a tangerine blaze of velvet. Her colours were autumn. In the kitchen, on that famous table, over whose scored surface the trivia of Zob’s estate had so often been discussed, Olga had parked her supermarket parcels. One had Greek olive oil, in another was a bunch of celery, its green coxcomb overflowing its cellophane sheath. A breeze, intermittently gold – as it passed through sun, then cloud – lifted the nap of the carpet, here where I now stand in the drawing room. A Limoges perfume boule, in a blue porcelain decorated in wild roses – one of a pair the strident Annie Cryles had a liking for – had been moved from a low table to a niche. Some similar transference had visited Zob’s bone china trinket box, a gift I recall from Fiona, whose gilt fleurs-de-lis I eventually located in the prismatic glass of an ashtray. These were the first superficial precautions our in-residence caterer, whose beringed hand I now saw round those oak panels to the TV lounge, had fittingly explored. The panels slid open. She wanted to know, she said, how best to deal with her client’s semi-precious egg collection. She of course meant those exquisite samples – some in jasper, others in spangled quartz, one in alabaster – that as details one might rightfully expect, though never come across, lighting the grey monolith of a text by Marshall Zob. It was the same with his chiming exercise spheres, whose principle was acupressure, rolling them in your hands and so massaging the palms. These, she pointed out, were in cloisonné, and a long way from their brocade presentation box. ‘Perhaps remove these delicate things to the study,’ I said.

Her assistant Peter, a dejected man in a white shirt and grey flannels, somehow wedged a small refrigerator on an extended hip while braying at the front door. I allowed him over the threshold and led him to the kitchen, where he humped the thing down. His station wagon – a mauve with punctuating rust – had its hatch door yawning, out of whose maw he produced folding buffet tables. Then the gridirons. Then those one or two priceless utensils his mistress could never be without (for example a giant slotted spoon. For example a late twentieth-century pressure cooker). I thought I might hazard a precarious catalogue of further edibles – this from both cars – though having noted sardines in a bed of ice chips our crinkled auburn-ash-to-blonde, to a flourish of culinary trumpets, shooed me from the kitchen. Symbolically I washed my hands, informing Zob, through the interdict of his closed bedroom door, that ‘all’ was under control, and that I could no longer prevail on mother and son Lavante for the diversion of a gauche Miss Overmars. ‘Come back at five,’ he said.

‘Come back at five.’

Home again. (Is that a crooner I hear, from Isabelle’s radio, through Isabelle’s open window?) An autumnal russet splintered the jet of her hair, through the many angles she wielded her garden shears, whose oily blades also occasionally glittered. What had to be done, she did (oh how she scowled, expecting me! – yes me to help!). I protest! I am just not the homeowner type, whose decisions, precisions, excisions (those tufts of grass fringing the rope twist edging her path) are the contamination of good minds through popular mires. ‘Your birthday…no, that’s gone!’ I said. ‘Christmas! I’ll buy you an electric strimmer.’ I stepped inside and switched off that crooner, to which she said illogically she wanted the news: ‘Switch back on!’ And Miss Overmars? I asked. Well, apparently, that perinatal gazelle had seriously understood my imitated Thespis, and had propelled the innocent Michael – each bore a racquet – to the local courts, which to his mind were hopelessly substandard, being potholed. For Miss Overmars, well, hers was not naturally a tennis nation…. One thought, and none too profoundly, perhaps of Betty Stove. Perhaps of Tom Okker. Nevertheless I shall be fair. My approach through the park was no more eventful than a first spontaneous pause at an anemone. So far my distant matchstick figures only bounced on elastic in and off the net. Next I saw clearly the demarcation in the stripes of Miss Overmars’ shorts – the black to lime green – and at this point plucked and tossed back a ball from a rose bed, whose yellow fur (I now recall, as I re-palm it reflectively) had scarcely been ruffled. Michael served a gentlemanly underarm. Miss Overmars caught her return on the rise, in a zigzag of limbs, scooping her racquet under the ball, without – as Michael stood there, arms akimbo – that flick of the wrist whose transmission is topspin. The ball found its own angle over the perimeter fence, and joined, as I tramped to discover, a half-dozen others in the flanking boscage. Carved on a bench I learned that the prime minister – or someone who shared his name – was a souteneur.

Lunch (at Isabelle’s). This consisted of cheddar, ploughman’s pickle, and crunchy Dutch crispy toasts. Miss Overmars told us her daddy was a dentist, and that she too wanted to work with people – though with rather more than their gums and teeth. What she felt strongly about, and Zob please note, was adult illiteracy. And youngsters with learning problems.

Four-forty p.m. Have left Miss Overmars – unfurling, unfurling, unfurling an endless unfurling gown from her rucksack, for which Isabelle has prepared a cool iron.

Five, or thereabouts. Zob, with more or less permanent prehensile fingers and thumb round the eraser end of a pencil, is feeling tense. He paces a lot. Agent Triple-O has run the dishwasher several times. She explains she has made her dips and plugged in that baby fridge. I imagine she has therefore racked them, in all three dimensions, at a cool degree Celsius. She has, I see, prepared four salvers of trout, each in a simulated sea of cucumber. There have been carrots, and there has been, Captain Cook (see below), celery – and these have suffered a single fate. That is to say we have amber and chlorotic three-inch oblongs arranged in tumblers. (We have crunchy Dutch crispy toasts.)

The assistant Peter was having his coffee break in the TV lounge, where the buffet tables were erected, dressed and adorned with china, cutlery, and also with serviettes, whose paper is a bright ponceau. He has the TV tuned to Teletext and takes issue – mawkishly, retrospectively – with its weather forecast. This I have no particular opinion on, but am concerned at how close his elbow is to an Alexandra vase – gift courtesy Zob’s plump ma. This is in reproduction creamware, moulded with leaf and bead borders. Its six sides are hand-pierced in open symmetrical petal work, and the lid is crowned with an oak-leaf finial. ‘May I draw your attention to this,’ is what I say, and precede that sullen man, whose empty cup shakes in its saucer, to a low marble table by the door, out of which I hope he will progressively go. ‘An amusing pastime….’ Blank looks, so let me just take his coffee cup. ‘Prima facie it may seem simple, and is in point of fact cleverly strategic. It is called and I’ll explain that the Captain’s Mistress. I urge on you the spectre of our own Captain Cook – those long lonely nights in his cabin – after whom, for so I perpetuate our English legend, the name is gamed I mean game is named [see above]. What you have to do is line up four of these hardwood rounds – there, I’ll start – ahead of your opponent. As you can see, in its finely styled cabinet, with its burlwood inlay and brass fittings, the whole is not without ornamental value, as is the case with so many objects here. Well. I see you’re pondering your move, wisely I might say. I shall of course allow you to pink in the ace I mean think in peace [away, typographic sprite!]….’

The phone rang. When, friends, I lifted the hall receiver, Cornelius was already babbling, so to speak in a smother over the staccato responses of his client Zob. He said he’d get here early – ‘at around eight’ – and would help receive guests. When Zob next saw me he was looking for a pencil. Olga expressed it so – ‘Dat’s nerfs, zo relax!’ – when I pointed out the one he clutched, though by this time he’d forgotten the important name or aside, gleaned from that colloquy with Snell, as the one he should have written down.

Eightish. Cornelius, good as his word, is here. In a slight crise de nerfs myself I find myself in the bachelor’s den, striding self-consciously into those beige slacks. No adjustment I can make to Zob’s minimalist cheval-glass quite dispels the late rush of sartorial doubt, almost overwhelming when I button up that floral shirt. It seems author and agent have secretly conspired, each in his hired tuxedo. And get this! Snell’s cummerbund is in a drowsy shade of poppy, while his fluorescent white shirt has textured stripes. Zob’s is a palace mauve. The bowties are complementing, my master’s having a sort of chevaux de frise design, in a staid navy blue with white. Snell’s is a riot of 1960s psychedelia, the decade he was sent down from Oxford.

At 9.02 Cornelius placed his outsize paw on the knurled knob of the Yale, and with a plasticised grin prepared himself for the first guest(s). That (or these) happened to be Miss Overmars, who found herself ushered over the threshold by a dissenting Isabelle, whose intuition told her that the party was some way off its start. She wanted, she told me later in bed, to drive around the block several times more. Zob had run away, ostensibly not having heard the doorbell, for a final dab, he said, of kohl to his nervous eyelids. At 9.30 Cornelius, prowling in the kitchen, had demolished a remaining half-packet of peanuts. Olga, noting a can of Pilsner – this her slobby assistant had perched at his naked elbow – told a tired-looking Peter to get up and check the barbecue. This had been lit at 7.00, then re-lit having sputtered out, had reached its correct cinerary pallor at about 8.30, and probably now needed more charcoal.

It’s 9.31, 2, 3, and there’s the doorbell, faintly evocative of those quaint old Respighi airs. Cornelius opens up, to find in the reverberant porch light that flesh-and-blood rotunda Mickey Blandford. This was a man distracted by the qualms of politics, that twilit arena his editorials had long and impossibly strayed into. I never tire of telling Zob that the man’s common and dubious Leftism is already passé. For some reason he hadn’t properly read his party invitation, having brought a bottle – of middling champagne, beribboned. He passed this to Snell. He grinned through inelegant brown whiskers – one day I shall have to take him aside to tell him about this. Zob was of course overjoyed, because this let him slither off Miss Overmars’ microscope plate, who as social fanatic warbled to a much reprised chorus in a song of juvenile crime…. Zob squared to his friend (beams, guffaws, handshakes) and was particular to round his vowels.

Isabelle had sneaked a crab vol-au-vent and was ticked off by Triple-O, for these had not yet been ‘pud owt’. Blandford, who had just come from his club in Shepherd Market, apologised for Sir Maxwell Hayste, who even at this hour was transacting pressing commercial business there, with his stockbroker.

I have this empty-to-full queue theory, and am tempted to take it up with a software engineer. It operates empirically on the simple principle that once you have decided to step into an empty shop or vacant railway carriage, it fills up immediately. A procession of Zob’s guests, on the tail of the apricot-jowled Blandford, tripped in over the threshold. ‘Maddie’ West with effeminate, and only slightly madder escort – ‘But darling!’ – each with dewy spangles in the same solarium shade of hair. Her poncho was ‘parfickly nase’, which in its black and white checks, or rather rhombs, matched her partner’s waistcoat. ‘Actually wescot’, he corrected….

Shayle I found had an endless capacity to depress, having a jaundiced tan with accompanying spleen. The in-Gloria Punch found the right words elusive: ‘Where’s that flunkey for coats? Oops! Here! O well, ta, ha!’ Merle uplifted me – said I was looking ‘sharp’. Zob undid me, his finger and thumb to my elbow. Confidentially, sotto voce: ‘Al, be a whizzo. That lovely boy Andreas promised to come and serve drinks, but alas….’ No sign of Andreas. ‘Why not start with Gloria there. Al, you won’t let me down….’

Marsy. One day I will.

Gloria’s vogue in the aperitif line was at this time a sickly orange liqueur, whose shade, in the wrong and tinted glass I served it in, was only a touch darker than the sunned exterior of the Glaze boy, Giles, whose carroty hair and complexion tended to metamorphose instantly under the beat of his favourite Provence soleil. He and his partner – a dark-haired girl with frightened green eyes – had a Pimm’s No 1, and respectively roared and shuddered to an after-dinner faux pas – this the raconteur Blandford had recorded, and now looking every inch a salty dog related. He incidentally clutched a cold beer, though I had offered him rum.

Jessica – sister to Giles, in love with the ‘mechanic’ – entered stage left, Act One, Scene Two. As to points of restitution, the despised prospective son-in-law, as it relates to that high-flying literary man, now deceased, was a charming Mauritian whose name was Vic. He I discovered was an engineer and not a mechanic, and ran his own electronics firm from the Cambridge Science Park, in the assembly of asynchronous signalling devices. He thought there might be something in my queue theory. Their lovely twenty-three-month-old Amanda was at home being baby-sat.

Time presses. Zob has told Olga to tell her slob to tell me to open wine, so here in a blur of integrated polychrome is my whirligig – what remains of the guest list. The cynosure Justin Simms, who arrived with the ‘masculinist’ Crouch, and got chatty with the minimal Royston Flude…. The pugnacious Masturbile, fist semi-permanently clenched. He in the tireless probes of his newspaper work had persuaded the bruiser Crouch to the pillory, strictly on ‘poor Tom’s’ turn to be manacled there (meaning Eliot). Today Crouch’s poor toms were overripe Jerseys, for whose plop and dribble of pips she had a pristine new target, the Anglican Church, meaning death. Another Tom – Corbiere – kept a more-or-less constant, uxorious arm to his wife’s attractive waist, where her rose-coloured dress was gathered by a broad green belt. Haphazardly Myrtle Bloge walked in, with a much older and balding man in a business suit. Simon Macamister sported a joke tiepin, which depicted the head of Lenin. He had long wanted to write a travel book based on the real-life sojourns of a cricket captain (this is a tedious game, therefore I fail to remember all but its most famous English names). What did Myrtle think? (Nor is her answer something I’d remember.) There was one other, the liver surgeon, oh and another, that hobbit of BOTS (Professor Emeritus, once of Exe), plus motley authors and agents now only a whirr of half-remembered, and anyway misleading conversation.

Cleverly I put that 1989 Château Latour among the boxed debris, or aftermath of Olga’s day in the kitchen, and placed another (open) bottle discreetly in the shade of Zob’s cooking sherry. This replenished my glass. For Giles, in tandem with his green-eyed beauty, I naturally reserved the Meursault-Perrières (which had oxidised) – with the result that he got on the phone immediately. For the Philistine horde I uncorked that mid-range Rioja and perambulated with a tray. At this stage Crouch, who quaffed and knew no better, had got Simms and Macamister in a huddle under a bluish pall of gunsmoke (those disgusting English cigarettes of hers). ‘No,’ she corrected, at which Macamister bit his lip. ‘The fact of a popularised following, is that growth, especially worldwide growth, is achieved only through the lure of a career structure. This has been a disaster for Christianity. Its original thrust was secularised….’ Bloge, in the adjacent circle – Bloge, Masturbile, Blandford, Flude – drifted over on the sound of that salvo, which was Simms’s cue – who couldn’t help but finger his glittering Rolex – to step aside and swap his place.

Zob, pulling at his shirt sleeve, where only now I noticed his iridescent cuff link, began to entertain Bloge’s sirocco-blown escort, who had heard – indirect from his mindful Myrtle – that Crouch had only yesterday been appointed to the committee, best-novel-to-be-published (this decade).

Snell I don’t think knew this, who had only himself to blame, having got himself cornered. At each new incorrect detail I heard him blithely impart he was informed that ‘that was not quite so’. Merle, bright droplet of jewels, centre to my pagan altarpiece, put her boss and giant panda right. He was telling the widow, one wisp of hair over her face, and wearing for a moment a smile that had set, that having swung a recent TV deal a ninety-minute adaptation of Zob’s second novel Hype would soon reach the nation’s crepuscular living-rooms (barring mine, the discerning Wye’s). An impatient Miss Overmars overheard him say this, and now told us she had read, and of course re-read, and of course re-re-read, and of course of course etc. double-re-re, that masterly opus two. To her mind here was one of few genuine works of literature cohesive enough to tackle the underlying problem of democracy in a capitalist state. And how ingeniously so, when in a careful choice of words his stance was firmly opposed to the structures necessarily propping a constitutional monarch. To that Merle, proceeding gently, said: ‘How so?’ Answer, if I may précis it: The function of hereditary monarchs is to encourage in the individual citizen (or should we say ‘subject’?) reverence for the state. Yet the state is a complex organ operated by, and in the service of, a powerful élite, ergo any hereditary monarch is the highest symbol of that. But let us not sermonise. Particularly as the night is young, and the Rioja’s so, so, so…middling….

Prosit, Miss Overmars.

‘Woss iss dis middling?’

Prosit!

Isabelle followed the laden tray. The laden tray was in my hands. Together we found out Corbiere, symbiotically attached to his wife, his wife’s pretty dress a shade of rose I liked. He was telling Maddie West and that sylph’s animated twin how the miraculous jingle – ‘the miracle of Miracle’ – occurred to him in a four-second burst of genius.

‘Incredible!’

The sullen Shayle took one of three last glasses on my salver. Symbolically Zob turned up then apologetically turned down the central chandelier, via the dimmer switch. An escaping cramped ellipse of light from a table lamp, in a burnt hue of burnt sugar, illuminated an eye, a sallow cheek, an ear lobe, as Shayle began to speak. He’d had a problem with extras – this on a shoot in Exeter. I don’t propose to make doubly clear that his job is largely low-grade entertainment, and that his lode is a television enterprise I shall have the foresight not to name. ‘It’s what you get,’ I said, ‘for falling short of Equity rates’ – because, brothers and sisters in servitude, picture the scene:

Director circles that particular section of supremely pointless script where hero, an Italianate youth, whom ignorant author has named Sancerre, enters private casino. Silence. Action. There are six extras seated at each of three round tables, above which gaffer has suspended lights from makeshift gantry. Dealers deal cards onto green baize. This is draw poker, the rules of which are not entirely grasped by all eighteen. Other props are: a Churchillian cigar, numerous cigarettes, cold tea in whisky glasses, water for gin with genuine quartered lemon, low-alcohol lager – none to be drunk, as no top-ups between takes. There is an imitation haze, and several thousand pounds in sterling, all in bank notes (and there, gentlemen, is the rub). There is one camera only, and this means an interesting interplay of angles is, well, frankly troublesome, and in the end a little nicety Shayle – already over budget – decides to abandon. Sancerre strides to table where great rival Anjou (I’m sorry, that should read Andrew) – Cut! Move table, this one here. Makeup, silence. Action. Sancerre strides in and takes his seat, and because the scriptwriter has no grounding whatsoever in mathematical probability theory fleeces his opponent, first with a full hand, then a straight flush, finally four of a kind. This – as I yawn – does not conclude the story. The casino is folded up and put away. The players break up for coffee. Those bank notes are counted. They are re-counted. Then they are endlessly re-counted. Here we arrive at the brink of an accusation, though directed at which of those eighteen? Or perhaps the star Sancerre himself is underpaid…. Here I turn to the liver surgeon, whose surprised left eye socket seems momentarily monocled. ‘Do please have this last glass,’ I say.

I retreat to the kitchen, into the welcoming glow of my private Château Latour, and am unfortunately observed by Gloria Punch. The professor is here too, moistening a pencil, with an open notebook, and with something to say on ‘the pleasance of sodalities’ (!).

How shall I wrap up this dismal scene? My departing Muse, in a lightness of tread, and with that cool air of exile she fans to my brow, has preached detachment. Gloria finished my bottle. Giles – who stumbled on my semi-hidden stocks – suddenly usurped my promotion to major-domo, at least insofar as Orphic revels needed to be supervised. Ms Crouch and Miss Bloge processed through the buffet lounge, where the former delivered her new tractate, Women and the Priesthood. Here I cannot take issue – without, that is, looking stupidly solemn – when that whole charade was essentially fun and games for the male of the species, a ‘poor chap’ who sought to dignify his workhorse status with the magic rain of mysticism (there I go: solemn). Flude, Snell and the impeccable Simms picked at a raspberry-coloured pâté, and were otherwise in conclave. Merle – star of my studded heaven – had got Isabelle and Blandford into the laundry room, and needed only the unsuspecting me for a hand of solo. Merle, my precious Merle! How could I disagree with your abondance (or agree with your misère)? It’s no matter. By two a.m. I had had enough, therefore dissolve, I say, inebriate diplopia! The smiling Wye could find no right bid…

…for a twenty of diamonds…a duopoly of spade queens…a quartet of black twos…

…and was it you, was it you who put me to bed, shoes by the door, beige pantaloons overhanging my chair, shirt on a hanger?

Merle!

Extracted from the novel Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? by Peter Cowlam, and published by CentreHouse Press. See Amazon and other purchase options here.


Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Alistair Wye's Adventures With the Relicts of Academe

Alistair Wye
Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? is a satire on literary celebrity, set it in the relatively safe remove of early 1990s literary London. There are three main characters. The first is Marshall Zob, whose father, of eastern European origin, has previously changed his family name from Zoblinski, or Zobilinsk, or something like that. Zob Junior is a literary celebrity, whose social ascent has taken him to London’s literary heights, through a network of media and literati contacts. Zob can and does delude himself that his success really is down to his genius. All that’s missing from his CV is the Booker Prize, which he feels he should have won, but hasn’t.

The second of the three main characters is Alistair Wye, a computer science graduate who by some monumental fluke has been hired as Zob’s amanuensis or assistant. Wye’s job prior to this was as overseer of a computerised database, one designed by him for a theatrical properties firm as a means of keeping track of its stock, its orders, and its clients. The entire book is supposedly Wye’s personal diary, recording his reactions to life in proximity to a literary celebrity.

The third main character is the hapless Andrew Glaze, one-time Professor of English Literature at Exe University. Glaze is already dead before the action of the novel starts. As Wye notes in the foreword to his diary, news of his death was ‘a passing that hardly caused me to put down my coffee cup, or extinguish my cigarette’. It’s a passing that’s important to Zob, since back in the 1970s he was not only Glaze’s student, he was his star student, or as Wye puts it, also in his foreword, 
Marshall Zob, should you not already know, is the perfection of the dead Andrew Glaze, PhD, whose brightest student he was. This was back in the early 1970s, in the cloisters of Modern College, Exe University, where the writer and academic, and Blagueur Prize-winner (twice), the witty Zob Senior [that’s to say Marshall’s father], had passed before him. [Incidentally, Zob Senior was also Glaze’s friend and colleague. I am not meaning to suggest by this any hint of nepotism, which Glaze himself has remarked the English are so touchy about.] 
Glaze’s personal life hasn’t been a great success. Prior to the novel’s opening, his marriage has collapsed and his wife Samantha has fled to New York. After the divorce, she intends to marry one of New York’s wealthiest bankers. All of this is chronicled in a series of letters, postcards etc. languishing in Zob’s archive.

Zob has been careless about filing these letters, and keeps them dotted around in no particular order. Furthermore his replies to his friend Glaze have all been made on an ancient IBM-compatible using word-processor software he never quite understood. That correspondence does still exist, somewhere on disc, but when that ancient PC refuses to boot up it is Wye’s job to find a solution and retrieve it all. In fact this becomes vital to Zob since, as an important academic, Glaze’s life and work is about to be commemorated publicly. For Zob there are commercial opportunities in reproducing and annotating his long exchange with Glaze. Wye does manage to restore that creaking PC, and what he finds there, and what he finds in Zob’s paper archive, forms much of the material that ends up in his diary – a ruthless exposé of the life of a literary superstar.

He is amused to find, in Zob’s letter to Glaze dated the 30th of May, reference to himself, on the subject of his appointment, which reads as follows: 
Most recent interview took place in my pool hall. […] I go there a lot – it helps me to think, and relax. I couldn’t make it – or rather him – out. A native of Manchester, yet talked like colonial Tunbridge Wellian. His name’s Alistair, though he didn’t hint at a Scottish connection. He seemed – which is perhaps the operative word – seemed (stress) well informed generally. He assumes I’m of the Left, because he’s seen my byline in The Observer, and told me he’d read and liked my lampoon on the decent, genteel exterior of former Tory prime ministers. I didn’t say hear hear.
 
For all this his degree’s in computer science, though the man was evasive about his university – a sleight of hand I thought these boffins weren’t capable of, having no intelligence outside that realm of the microchip. He could be very useful, as I wouldn’t mind all that hardware paraphernalia – though God knows I can make nor head nor tail of the box of tricks I have got. He works, he says, for a theatrical properties company in Mortimer Street, for whom he designed, wrote and installed a stock-and-order system. He reads a great many science books, and for that reason thinks he can talk down to me. I showed him a thing or two on the pool table. 
Wye remembers that interview differently. This is from his diary entry of July the 4th: 
The conversation we had in his pool hall was over a best of three games, which did, it is true, end on the final black. This, naïvely, he potted. The light from the canopy above parcelled its tiny quanta in a varied dilution of yellow. Here perfectly was Zob’s imperfect illumination, in whose glaze I remarked on the soiled nap of the table. ‘Successive smokers,’ I said, and chalked my cue. Together we bent to those grey-green archipelagos, those swipes of ground ash. ‘I am interested in music,’ I said, in reply to his question what existed other than the written word. When he talked about literary prostitution this was, he said, merely a term in a very long series. According to him, we who worked prostituted ourselves in one way or another. In a glumly glibly status quo few authors had the courage to challenge anything. Did this, I asked, not leave your fellow pool players intellectually in vacuo? And to talk of society’s imbalance, wasn’t that merely society’s impregnability? That was more or less it, he said, never having claimed that the elevated tribes and scribes to whom he belonged really did have a social conscience.
 
He potted a first yellow, calmly: wasn’t he after all on the comic side of fiction, and therefore exempt? Then, he imagined, he snookered me.

‘Let me show you,’ I said, ‘how to bend a ball….’ Awkward, of course, to cue, just as our human quarks or men of conscience can’t with certainty cast their vote. To the massé nevertheless. My stolid white dragged its heels round an interposing yellow. It struck a side cushion and my object ball simultaneously. Result: not the pot he’d expected. I allowed him, O ye dumb angels, bearing the professor’s footstool, just one more visit to the table. I took that first game, it has to be said without much effort. The second I gave him, only because he bought lunch, which consisted of egg, cress, warm mayonnaise, sandwiched with expert inattention in two squares of foam.
 Now, as for those levitating letters tailing my surname, I cannot legitimate the embossed sheen of a doctorate, the gold plate of an MSc, nor even the albata filigree of a lowly MA. As a short-trousered first-former, and I agree a touch Romantic, I took Browning – with his ‘Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity!’ – and that ricochet off the book of Ecclesiastes – ‘…all is vanity’ – somewhat to heart. What after all is ‘education’ but the remorseless hum of commerce? At seventeen I wrote a one-page constitution, governing the life, aim and ideals of Wye’s pantisocracy. The project was doomed, naturally, depending for sovereignty on a deserted, disintegrating cottage just outside a tiny settlement called Capel, where I was known and loved. That wider kingdom sent in its head-shaking yeomanry, blued in look and uniform, with arguments against my scheme. Their central thrust was the minor matter of ownership. Our adopted country or cottage belonged to a Medway vicar, while the ‘discovery’ of marijuana also helped break up our experiment. This was one smoke-filled, winter afternoon, when the sky was a blossom pink (as I looked out, and up, through a weald of elms). 
I told Zob my qualification was as a computer scientist, though I have only a BSc, so in terms of the actuality that wasn’t entirely untrue. I watched him on that final black, which he’d failed to spot was equidistant from two corner pockets, making predictable the white as it holed itself too. Lucky we didn’t bet, eh, Marsy? Amazingly our second interview took place in a grimy café not far from his snooker club, and for a third he sent me to see [his agent] Cornelius. 
Meanwhile Zob, in his political infighting in the brutish world of publishing, shows us his bad weakness for public accolades. He attempts, aided by his agent, to bribe his way into winning that prize of all prizes. That prize Wye can dismiss as a typically English parochial thing, but important internationally (apparently). Here Zob eventually comes unstuck, when a new and even more mediocre novelist, Justin Simms, appears on the scene just as it seems certain Zob will win. Simms has friends as powerful as Zob’s, and at the last moment is poised to snatch the prize from under Zob’s nose. Wye describes him thus, in his diary entry of April the 20th: 
He was – and didn’t blush to hear it – of gentle birth. Throughout his boyhood he tinkered with a red Bugatti, which even before he was licensed he drove direct to Vire (he drove circuitously back, upsetting the gendarmerie). His first efforts in creative writing were naturally quite brilliant, winning him a prize. […] In researching his debut novel Simms wanted to know what was all the fuss about in post-industrial Britain? He lacerated his yachting pumps, which had cost hundreds. He fished out his striped rugby socks, his school wars fondly remembered. Some dungarees he had sprayed the Bugatti in served as principal garment, all enhanced authentically by a few days minus shaving tackle. The hair, bleached by a long weekend in Key Largo – where he was best man at an old chum’s wedding – those strands would just have to grow themselves out. So apparelled Simms set a course into the disintegrating streets of his and your metropolis. North of Oxford Street he sang – this was outside the Cambridge, with its early-evening throngs, where people pressed coins into his open palm. He moved on to the Blue Posts, offering a fabricated life story to its drinkers, or, he corrected, its drinkers outside under parasols – who urged him away with cash. For his nights he acquired a polythene wrap, into which he mummified himself, mostly in a doorway off the Strand. From that he graduated to a cardboard coffin in the precincts of Charing Cross. So on for a long three months, where his street life gave him – a verism actually lived through – the germ of his ‘powerful’ first novel. For [most] the palm was already his, [that] thing so close to Zob’s own heart. 
Agent Cornelius, now faced with having to earn his commission, devises a five-to-six-point plan as to the problem of a dangerous rival. 
1 A declaration of ‘war’ is inadvisable, as that could put you in a vulnerable light.
2 Conciliation is a best first step, with a public laudation, such as ‘Welcome, colleague’.
3 Open camaraderie between you and the new boy. By that we mean friendly, professional rivalry. This is the surest way to undermine the Crouch link [it’s Geraldine Crouch who chairs the prize committee].
4 Remember! Crouch is a raging suffragette, and as yet no one has sounded out Simms on that score. Ideally he’ll be unsympathetic.
5 Finally Simms was born with money, and is bound to get bored with work. If so you might lead the rest of us in regretting his premature retirement.
PS 6 Have a party. Invite Simms, and Crouch. And me! 
Preparations for that party are finalised by Wye, who is co-opted to serve at it as wine waiter. The invitation list is a ragbag of important, opinionated arts media correspondents, reviewing hacks, book editors, journalists, devotees, and a low-budget filmmaker with options on Zob’s novels. Wye navigates his way through the gossip, the backstabbing, the career talk, the clash of egos, and has finally had enough when Shayle, the filmmaker, a dejected-looking man, regales those gathered around him with a tale of professional woes. Wye describes it as follows, in his entry of June the 25th: 
The sullen Shayle took one of three last glasses on my salver. Symbolically Zob turned up then apologetically turned down the central chandelier, via the dimmer switch. An escaping cramped ellipse of light from a table lamp, in a burnt hue of burnt sugar, illuminated an eye, a sallow cheek, an ear lobe, as Shayle began to speak. He’d had a problem with extras – this on a shoot in Exeter. I don’t propose to make doubly clear that his job is largely low-grade entertainment, and that his lode is a TV production house I have the foresight not to name. ‘It’s what you get,’ I said, ‘for falling short of Equity rates’ – because, brothers and sisters in servitude, picture the scene:
 
Director circles that particular section of supremely pointless script where hero, an Italianate youth, whom ignorant author has named Sancerre, enters private casino. Silence. Action. There are six extras seated at each of three round tables, above which gaffer has suspended lights from makeshift gantry. Dealers deal cards onto green baize. This is draw poker, the rules of which are not entirely grasped by all eighteen. Other props are: a Churchillian cigar, numerous cigarettes, cold tea in whisky glasses, water for gin, where only the lemon is genuine, and low-alcohol lager. None is to be drunk, as no top-ups between takes. There is an imitation haze, and several thousand pounds in sterling, all in bank notes (and there, gentlemen, is the rub). There is one camera only, and this means an interesting interplay of angles is, well, frankly troublesome, and in the end a little nicety Shayle – already over budget – decides to abandon. Sancerre strides to table where great rival Anjou (I’m sorry, that should read Andrew)—Cut! Move table, this one here. Makeup, silence. Action. Sancerre strides in and takes his seat, and because the scriptwriter has no grounding whatsoever in mathematical probability theory fleeces his opponent, first with a full house, then a straight flush, finally four of a kind. This – as I yawn – does not conclude the story. The casino is folded up and put away. The players break up for coffee. Those bank notes are counted. They are recounted. Then they are endlessly recounted. Here we arrive at the brink of an accusation, though directed at which of those eighteen? Or perhaps the star Sancerre himself is underpaid…. Here I turn to the liver surgeon, whose surprised left eye socket seems momentarily monocled. ‘Do please have this last glass,’ I say. 
Wye, utterly bored, and irked at officiating all night as Zob’s wine waiter, retreats from centre stage once most of the guests are drunk and past caring. With Snell’s assistant Merle, who is in the process of forming a breakaway agency, and is instrumental in bringing his diary to publication, Wye and two other guests decamp to the laundry room for a game of cards. He sums that up as follows: 
How shall I wrap up this dismal scene? My departing Muse, in a lightness of tread, and with that cool air of exile she fans to my brow, has preached detachment. Gloria finished my bottle. Giles – who stumbled on my semi-hidden stocks – suddenly usurped my promotion to major-domo, at least insofar as Orphic revels needed to be supervised. Ms Crouch and Miss Bloge processed through the buffet lounge, where the former delivered her new tractate, Women and the Priesthood. Here I cannot take issue – without, that is, looking stupidly solemn – when that whole charade was essentially fun and games for the male of the species, a ‘poor chap’ who sought to dignify his workhorse status with the magic rain of mysticism (there I go: solemn). Flude, Snell and the impeccable Simms picked at a raspberry-coloured pâté, and were otherwise in conclave. Merle – star of my studded heaven – had got Isabelle and Blandford into the laundry room, and needed only the unsuspecting me for a hand of solo. Merle, my precious Merle! How could I disagree with your abondance (or agree with your misère)? It’s no matter. By two a.m. I had had enough, therefore dissolve, I say, inebriate diplopia! The smiling Wye could find no right bid…
 
…for a twenty of diamonds…a duopoly of spade queens…a quartet of black twos…
…and was it you, was it you who put me to bed, shoes by the door, beige pantaloons overhanging my chair, shirt on a hanger?
 
Merle! 
The book plunges on through its rivalries, its artistic and academic failures, its family feuds, through its master-slave relationships, but does end on a bright note, when Wye is asked to pen his conclusions. ‘Well now, let me think,’ he says. ‘In my memoir of social decay, which has been after all the catalyst of artistic regeneration, I shall start I suppose with a fatality. The corpse [Glaze’s] is symbolic. Some time hence its transmogrified mulch is the moving ground that the grandeur of a renascent literature flourishes in. It shan’t be compacted – not by those clumsy hobnails our many Marshall Zobs tramp in our world of printed pages in.’ And abetted by Merle, off Wye goes to publish his diary.


Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? is published by CentreHouse Press. Click here for Amazon and other purchase options.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

The Engaged Musician, by Sam Richards: A Manifesto

The Engaged Musician
Manifesto of Engaged Music

1 Music is a way of conceiving of the world sonically.
2 Engaged music is music as praxis – action and reflection – in which the action is sonic. Any kind of musical action can engage in this way. There are no preferred sectional interests, whether scored/improvised/assembled; philharmonic or vernacular; specialist or participatory; local or global; new technologies or acoustic instruments. In this respect it is doctrinally non-doctrinal and happily thrives on the obvious paradox.
3 Engaged music insists on sonic equal rights, and thus enacts a classless society. It accepts, enters and opens. All sounds are embraced.
4 Engaged music is on the side of the oppressed, whatever form that oppression takes, overt, covert or systemic. It stands for freedom from oppression. Oppression is the prolonged exercise of authority and power in an unjust way. It engenders the state of being burdened and powerless. It is a form of cruelty and tacit, implied or open violence. It causes distress and anger. Engaged music always has a commitment to solidarity and liberation somewhere on its agenda. It is not a political programme. It is an ethical stance, but it emerges from political and social awareness.
5 Engaged music today is interested in the history of sound, but is also post-traditional. It has histories of its own and insists on them.
6 Engaged music likes to live in its own time rather than escaping from it. Today’s engaged music accepts the nature of our own times as a state of permanent catastrophe.
7 Engaged music is relatively uninterested in distinctions between high or low art. It believes in positive and genuine empowerment at all levels.
8 Engaged music believes in minorities but does not ignore or denigrate the majority.
9 Engaged music today maintains a healthy suspicion of funding, commerce and academia.
10 Engaged music embraces the unknown and the unpredictable. It aspires to creative acts of origination. It likes unanswered questions more than unquestioned answers.

This is it. This is my manifesto of engaged music. For a long time while working on this book I placed it at the end. I thought that the arguments in the book could lead up to it, and then be topped off by it as a logical conclusion. It could still work that way. But on consideration it seems more important that it stands up and delivers itself at the outset so that the rest of the book discusses it, provides illustrations, and puts depth into it, rather than delaying it and working towards it. It’s a manifesto, after all.


Click here for Amazon and other purchase options.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Engaged Musician, by Sam Richards



The Engaged Musician is a passionate call to musicians, of whatever genre or discipline, to rescue themselves and us from the commercial tyrannies and dictates currently forming our musical life, and relocate it very determinedly in a meaningful social and aesthetic exchange. The book focuses on various themes typical of social, political and cultural engagement, without insisting on sectional interests.

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Saturday, July 06, 2013

A literary dissenter explains his dissent

Who's Afraid of the Booker Prize?
by Peter Cowlam
Alistair Wye, who co-ordinates most of the action of Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize?, is a man of exaggerated refinement and rarefied aesthetic. He occupies the slave position in a master-slave relationship, using his aesthetic in his rebellion against his master, in a more or less constant barrage. The ‘master’, Marshall Zob, a deluded hack, is self-styled as a latter-day Dickens and champion of the oppressed. In reality he is all too willing to supply, to the mass audience he courts, a lowbrow confection of street tales in the form of filmable novels. His analysis doesn’t exceed a sanified conceptualisation of street life, very useful to him in the personal advancement of status and career. His dead mentor, John Andrew Glaze, as querulous, pedantic academic, is the dottore of comedic street theatre, and the butt of Alistair’s jokes. All else in the book is the jangle of the English middle-class as it bolsters and prettifies itself. One can’t say that the long shadow of Protestantism hasn’t tainted the way certain Englishmen view the world. In the following interview the book's author talks to Vishwanath Bite.

VB Peter. I wanted to talk to you about your new novel, Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? I was struck by its time and place.
PC Yes. I have set it in the relatively safe remoteness of early 1990s literary London.
VB It’s a satire – intense and unremitting.
PC Yes, and that’s dangerous territory. I have no wish to bite the hand that feeds me.
VB Can you give an idea of what the book is about? Let’s start with its central characters.
PC There are three. The first is Marshall Zob, whose father, of eastern European origin, has previously changed his family name from Zoblinski, or Zobilinsk, or something like that.
VB ‘Zob’ so much easier for natural English-speakers.
PC Exactly. Zob – Zob Junior, that is – is a literary celebrity, whose social ascent has taken him to London’s literary heights, through a network of media and literati contacts. Although it’s the force of advertising hype that has turned his mediocre works of fiction into bestsellers, Zob can delude himself that his success really is down to his genius.
VB And this being the early ’90s, the communications revolution hasn’t really got underway. This brings us to our second character….
PC It does. Zob has bought himself what was then, in the ’90s, state-of-the-art computer equipment, for the room where he writes, but he doesn’t know how to use it. He hires an assistant.
VB There’s an extensive vetting process.
PC There is, but even then he makes a huge error of judgement in the man he hires.
VB That man is Alistair Wye.
PC Correct. Wye’s background is computer science. He is employed, at the time Zob calls him for interview, by a theatrical properties firm, operating from an office in Mortimer Street in London’s West End.
VB An odd combination – the theatre, computers….
PC On the face of it. His job is to manage a computerised stock-and-order system, a database of props and costumes, of where they are at any given moment. But he’s bored. He sees Zob’s job advertisement by chance, and as a joke sends his CV.
VB He gets the job.
PC Astonishingly, yes.
VB One of the first things Zob asks him to do introduces our third character.
PC The hapless Andrew Glaze, one-time Professor of English Literature at Exe University, who is already dead as the novel begins.
VB So we have two central characters, plus corpse.
PC You could say that. Zob was Glaze’s student in the 1970s. In fact Zob was his star student, which is not to mention he was also the son of Zob Senior, himself a professor at Exe.
VB Ah, the sweet smell of nepotism.
PC Glaze’s personal life hasn’t gone well. Prior to the novel’s opening action, his marriage has collapsed and his wife Samantha has fled to New York. After the divorce, she intends to marry one of New York’s wealthiest bankers.
VB All of which is chronicled in a series of letters, postcards etc. languishing in Zob’s archive.
PC Unfortunately Zob has been careless about filing these letters, and has them dotted about in no particular order in his extensive archive. Furthermore his replies to his friend Glaze have all been made on an ancient IBM-compatible using word-processor software he never quite understood.
VB All these replies do still exist, and are somewhere on his computer disc system?
PC Yes, though that ancient IBM-compatible now refuses to boot up. Cue Alistair Wye.
VB So why does Zob want to retrieve that correspondence?
PC As an important academic, and a dead one, don’t forget, Glaze’s life and work is about to be commemorated publicly. Zob sees commercial opportunities in annotating that correspondence and publishing it as a book.
VB And Wye does manage to restore that creaking PC….
PC That’s not all he does. He starts a diary of his own – a witty and ruthless exposé of life in proximity to a literary superstar, a diary destined to become the novel Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize?
VB Ah, so what you’ve in fact written is Wye’s diary.
PC Correct. Peppered with the Zob-Glaze correspondence.
VB Which is hilarious, by the way. What does that correspondence reveal?
PC It shows us Glaze’s pathetic attempts to get Samantha back, by following her across the Atlantic. He takes a sabbatical, ill conceived as a lecture tour. From a chance remark in one of his opening lectures it seems he’s about to publish a startlingly new theory of literature. It rests on a semi-philosophical notion of time. For Glaze this is problematic, since philosophy is not a subject he’s studied.
VB The lecture tour is a failure.
PC And not even an heroic failure. That and his moribund marriage drive him over the edge. All of this is catalogued by Glaze himself in those letters and postcards sent to Zob.
VB Meanwhile we’ve Zob’s other preoccupation, or obsession almost.
PC Actually three obsessions. One is the fabulous procession of women Zob lures into his lair. Two is his political infighting in the brutish world of publishing and writerly success. Three is his bad weakness for public accolades, and his attempts to bribe his way into winning the Best Novel to be Published This Decade award, a typically English parochial thing, but important internationally (apparently).
VB [Suppressed chuckle.]
PC Here Zob eventually comes unstuck, since a new and even more mediocre novelist, Justin Simms, appears on the scene just as it seems certain Zob will win his coveted prize. Simms’s friends are as powerful as Zob’s, and at the last moment Simms is poised to snatch the prize from under his nose.
VB Your book is fast-paced and brimming with vitality, and – if I might say so – is a merciless poke at the English establishment.
PC Yes – that’s one of my favourite pastimes. But the book is not without optimism. From the wreckage of Zob’s career, an unscathed Alistair Wye, the amused diarist of his downfall, salvages an upbeat and cheery conclusion to everything he’s witnessed.
VB And his message is?
PC Well, to paraphrase Wye himself – that a renascent literature may one day flourish, and shan’t be undermined by the clumsy hobnails our many Marshall Zobs tramp in our world of printed pages in.
VB Peter, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? Signed copies are available, I hear.
PC For a limited time. More details at the publisher website.
Interview first published in volume 4, issue II of The Criterion. Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize?, CentreHouse Press, published 24 April 2013, £9.99, paperback, ISBN 978-1-902086-05-7. See Amazon purchase options: USA, UK.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Manifesto, a sequence of poems by Peter Cowlam


Manifesto is a sequence of haikuesque poems. It is aimed as a counter-blast at the political and financial institutions complicit in the deceptions of our master-slave society, wage slaves exhorted to fund a debt economy, and by that heavy price remain obedient citizens. As a narrative it charts, in its own fragmented way, a programme of resistance drawn up by a group of cyberspace guerrillas, whose agenda is the reversal of institutional propaganda put out as a daily drip-feed by press and other media. Available on Amazon Kindle: UK, USA.

The smoke
of rebellion
plumes
to the heavens
below
my window.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Vishwanath Bite in Conversation With Peter Cowlam

Vishwanath Bite
Editor-in-Chief Dr Vishwanath Bite discusses Who's Afraid of the Booker Prize? with its author Peter Cowlam, in an entertaining interview at The Criterion. The novel is set among London's literati of the early 1990s. Click here for details.
 
An excerpt from the novel also appears at The Criterion. Click here for details.
 
Who's Afraid of the Booker Prize? is published by CentreHouse Press. See Amazon purchase options: USA, UK.