Archive for the 'books' Category

Cartooning at the New Yorker

22 November 2014

Bob Mankoff

Robbie Cottrell’s excellent service The Browser, in which he reads the web and points you to the best bits of writing and journalism, pointed me this week to something I’d never have come across through my usual sources: a short review by Cody Walker of the memoir by the Cartoons Editor of the New Yorker, Bob Mankoff.

Now, I’ve always loved the New Yorker, although there’s too much in there to read every issue, it’s still a treat for a train journey. Some of its writing is still among the finest American reporting, and, of course, it’s famous for its cartoons. Those were what I came across first, since when I was a lot younger I used to read a lot of James Thurber‘s collections of writing and drawings, which sadly seem to have fallen out of fashion now. Through that I found my way to his memoir of the New Yorker‘s infamous founder and longserving editor, Harold Ross, The Years With Ross. Ross’s approach probably wasn’t the only was to run a magazine, but it certainly worked.

But back to Bob Mankoff. Thurber was one of the people who set the tone for the New Yorker cartoon, and there’s a kind of a template for them: whimsical but knowing, wry, complicit with the reader. One thing I learned was that the Cartoons Editor of the New Yorker looks at about 1,000 cartoons a week, and passes on 50 to the Editor, who will use about 17.

And there’s a laugh-out-loud moment as well, for which it helps, I think, to know that Mankoff is Jewish:

Bragging to his friends, the elder Mankoff said: “They laughed when my son said he was going to be a cartoonist, but they’re not laughing now.”

The image at the top of this post is courtesy of the Westport Library, Connecticut, and is used with thanks. A Browser subscription, which gives you access to the archive and unlimited articles, is a modest $20 a year.

The Memorial for the Missing at the Somme

14 January 2014

Source: Wikimedia

Why Gavin Stamp’s book, published on the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, and why now? I’ve owned it for a few years. I think perhaps I was trying to find a way to think about the Great War on its anniversary without going back to the literature or the history, which I think I know quite well; this was a more elliptical approach.

And in truth I knew little of the War Graves Commission, other than that a grief-stricken Rudyard Kipling was its literary adviser; it was a huge and heroic undertaking which I plan to write about a little more.

The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, like the Cenotaph, was built by Sir Edward Lutyens, whom Stamp describes in at least two places as the greatest English architect of any generation, which may come as a disappointment to Wren or Hawksmoor. But he makes his case well, well enough for me to want to visit the Memorial and go and have a better look at the subtleties of the Cenotaph. The Memorial, in particular is built as a series of interlocking arches, the better to make the space for 60,000 names of the British and French missing.

As for the missing, in what was surely the greatest disaster in terms of British military history – so many lives lost for so little gain – Stamp quotes some lines from Sebastian Faulk’s novel Birdsong which are worth repeating here:

“‘These are just the … unfound?” She looked at the vault above her head and then around in panic at the endless writing, as thought the surface of the sky had been papered in footnotes. When she could speak again, she said, “From the whole War?” The man shook his head. “Just these fields.”

Stamp’s account of the battle and its aftermath also makes me want to read Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme, which, I suspect, will also be an elliptical approach to the dead.

Image: Wikimedia

Domestique: Riding for the team

23 September 2013

The sports story template is Rocky, basically: athlete tastes success, athlete suffers failure, athlete faces down demons to snatch success from the jaws of failure. Indeed, I listened to a presentation recently by the publisher at the justly admired Yellow Jersey Press when he said that when he bought the rights to Bradley Wiggins story after his Tour de France victory, and then published in time for the Christmas market, they basically structured it as “Rocky on wheels”.

Another cycling story, that of the insufficiently recognised Graeme Obree, also fits the template, not least when turned into the film The Flying Scotsman.

So it comes as a shock – and maybe a surprise – to open a sports autobiography in which the protagonist never won anything as a professional – at least not individually – and who admits, quite early on, that the pressure of winning was too much for him.

Charly Wegelius was an expert domestique – and by the end of his career, at least, pretty well paid for it. His book, Domestique, is about the frustrations and pleasures to be had from putting your talents at the disposal of your team.

There’s an illuminating passage about the fragility of the life of the professional cyclist during a chapter on one of his Tours de France, as his bike buckles on a descent and he braces himself for the fall.

“A crash, no matter how seemingly innocuous, can be all it takes to start off a chain of events that can end a career. … There is nothing worse for a manager than having one of their twenty-five riders unable to compete. The pressure is passed on to other riders and the management themselves while they try to fill the gap left by an injured rider. … 

There is simply no room in the twelve or twenty-four months on a rider’s contract for time out for crashes. People often marvel that cyclists continue to race with horrific injuries, and think that cyclists are tough. It’s not that cyclists are particularly robust guys, it’s just that they don’t have a choice. … If a rider can get to the finish then at least he has a chance to race the next day. If he can do that then he won’t abandon his team in the race, he won’t lose race days, and he won’t be seen as a problem to anyone.”

The classic in this genre is Eamonn Dunphy’s Only A Game?, about the life of an end-of-career professional football player in the second tier of the English league. There are some cricket equivalents (Peter Roebuck’s It Never Rains onwards). The only other book I know of that sheds similar light on the life of the cycling domestique is Matt Rendell’s A Significant Other (maybe also Le Metier by Michael Barry.)

But a brief memo to the publisher, Ebury Press: in the fact-checking department, David Millar famously stopped half a metre short of the finish line of the Altagliru in protest, not 150 metres. And Alberto Contador won the Tour de France in 2007 and 2009, but not in 2008. And please, proof it one more time before you publish it in paperback.

Mick Farren and ‘The End’

4 August 2013

I’ve been meaning to write briefly about Mick Farren since I read of his death at the start of the week. Farren was something of a counter-cultural polymath; he was a music journalist, provocateur, novelist, and from time to time a performer as well. (His 60s band, the Deviants, spawned the Pink Fairies, who were as influential as they have been under-regarded). But you can read all of this in Richard Williams’ generous obituary

I wanted to mention something from his first novel, Texts of Festival, which I read some time after it came out in 1973. My copy has long vanished, but it’s set in a post-apocalyptic depopulated world in which infrastructure has been destroyed and energy is scarce. I’d describe it as a “Mad Max” novel except that it predates the movie by six years. 

Anyway, the settlement has a creaking music system held together now by string and sealing wax, and so old and close to breakdown that it can be played only in one circumstance – if they get attacked. In this eventuality they must put on the Doors’ sing “The End” and play it at maximum volume, all the way up to eleven, while hoping the sound system doesn’t collapse under the strain. 

Spoiler alert: and so it comes to pass. 

The image has stuck with me for more than thirty years. And how many novels can you say that of?

There’s also a fine obituary by Ian Fraser at Terracope.

Chasing down Lance Armstrong

28 July 2013

It’s hard to know how to categorise David Walsh’s curiously titled book, Seven Deadly Sins*, about Lance Armstrong’s career as a doper-cyclist. Sports book, obviously: he memorably quotes another writer as describing sportswriters as being like the piano players in a bordello, and Walsh makes his living as Chief Sports Writer on the Sunday Times. Memoir partly, because Walsh was himself at the heart of the pursuit of Armstrong, a co-author of the French language L.A.Confidentiel which put many of the claims about Armstrong into the public domain (to the extent that the libel laws permitted) in 200[4???], and he was name-checked by Oprah in her interviews with Armstrong in early 2013. 

It’s something more as well, something halfway between confessional and ‘I told you so’, because it takes a certain kind of craziness to stay with a story for fourteen years, especially when it’s damaging your reputation – not least because your target is taking frequent potshots at you – and even your closest friends are telling you it’s time to lay off the Lance stuff for a while for your own good.

This is a story about cycling, to be sure, and a well-written one, and every cycling fan should read it to understand how deep in the mire their sport was in the late 1990s and much of the 2000s, and how compliant the governing body, the UCI, was in all of that (of which, more later).

But it’s also a story about power and its discontents, about journalism, and about whistle-blowing – what makes people decide to do the right thing even when it comes with a heavy personal cost. The rest of this long post follows after the fold. Read the rest of this entry »

The Fear Index

6 January 2013


Others have queued up to praise The Fear Index, which has been published about eighteen months now, and I’m not going to dissent from that view here. It weaves an engrossing dark thriller around (slight spoiler alert) a real event in 2010 – the flash crash – which wiped out 9% of the value of the Dow Jones Index in a few minutes, mostly through algorithm-based high frequency trading. (The chart below from Forbes shows the value of the index and the volume of trades during the crash). There is a long official US report, and a less compelling piece of futures work on high-frequency trading by the UK Government’s Foresight department. (The best account I have read is by Donald MacKenzie in the London Review of Books).


Robert Harris started his career as a journalist and a non-fiction author, and these skills don’t desert him. I started mine as a financial journalist, and still follow the area, but didn’t spot a clanging note. I had managed to guess the villain ahead of the reveal (small spoiler alert) but then you need only to read a small part of the singularity literature to realise that advanced machine intelligence aspires to a condition of godliness. All the same, the twist at the end was still a surprise.

If I have a criticism, there were places where it was overwritten, especially in the first half. The entire retelling of the Hardy/Ramanujan taxi story, for example, was ponderous, but perhaps when you have been as successful as Robert Harris editors are less attentive, or perhaps they were publishing at speed because of the topicality of the flash crash. I also was unpersuaded by Hoffman’s decision to plunge alone into the low-rent hotel in pursuit of his tormentor. Shades of Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter’s house: good for driving the story along, less good for its credibility.

On the other hand, there are moments when you hear an author’s voice coming through his characters. I enjoyed the moment particularly when the hedge fund investors, taken for their expensive lunch after the presentation of the new investment fund, are bitching about high marginal tax rates. Hoffman, the other-worldly genius who has written the software, and cares little for money, comments to himself,

“I was remembering now why I didn’t like the rich: their self-pity. Persecution was the common ground of their conversation, like sport or the weather was for anyone else.”

Unbound, rebound

20 November 2011

I’m fussy about my notebooks. Small enough for a coat pocket, big enough for diagrams as well as notes, plain not lined. I also write in fountain pen quite often, so the paper has to be heavy enough for ink (not true of the ubiquitous moleskine).

So when I found myself short of something to write in while in Brecon recently, I was intrigued to come across a line of notebooks called Rebound Books. I’d not seen them elsewhere. They had covers of actual published books, and some pages from the actual book interleaved with new blank pages, made from surprisingly good quality reclaimed paper.

It turns out that they’re made by the Brecon branch of an international charity, L’Arche, which creates communities for people with learning disabilities, helping them by providing meaningful work. For the charity, the rebound books are a way of re-using books which had no secondhand resale value, and which would otherwise end up in landfill (I drafted this post in a Rebound notebook made from a Romanian language guide to a monastery). The project won first prize earlier this year at the Hay Festival’s Dragons’ Den event.

From a user’s perspective there’s something quite stimulating about turning a page and finding an illustration or a fragment of a story on it. The idea probably doesn’t scale that well, but I’d have thought that the charity will want to spread the idea from Brecon to their other communities. And maybe other social enterprises might want to franchise the idea.

You can have a look online. They also do mail order.

The pictures in this post were taken by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

Yellow jackets

8 October 2011

Publishers mostly believe – probably rightly – that their brands make little difference to book buying habits, because readers are more interested in authors. But this isn’t always true. There are moments when publishers break these surly bonds: one thinks of Penguin, especially in the days of their colour-coded jackets, of Picador in the ’70s, of Calder and Boyars. Design always has something to do with it.

I was thinking of this because I noticed some science fiction and fantasy reissues – in the distinctive Gollancz yellow – to mark the 50th anniversary of Gollancz. (They seem to have been out for a few months but I noticed them only because of the ‘serendipity search function’ of a bookshop window.)

I read more science fiction when I was young than I now care to remember, much of it from the library, and the Gollancz yellow jackets did for a title exactly what good branding is supposed to do; they acted as assurance in a market where quality was variable. A yellow Gollancz science fiction title was invariably worth reading.

The list of the Gollancz 50 reissues can be found here. I’ve written here about Pavane by Keith Roberts, one of the 50.

The pictures in this post were taken by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.


All about the bike

3 July 2011

The first weekend of the Tour de France is a good moment to review It’s All About The Bike, and from what I’d heard about it before I read it I’d expected it to be more about components. This isn’t a complaint. Robert Penn’s book is about his journey to build his perfect bike – frame, wheels, groupset, handlebars, even to the saddle – and along the way he meets a lot of people who are among the best at making such things.

But as he goes he tells us a lot about the history of the bicycle, its explosion as a social phenomenon in the late 19th century, and the way it has developed since. And it’s also – intriguingly – a history of innovation, as Penn traces the way in which the problems of the early designs are overcome to produce the modern bicycle, which remains the most efficient way we have discovered to turn energy into movement.

One of the biggest early problems was the design – before gears were invented, the pedals were attached directly to the front wheel, so the only way to get more distance for each turn of the pedals was to increase the size of the wheel. Hence the ‘ordinary’ or the ‘penny-farthing’, described by Penn as “a technological cul-de-sac”. He quotes Mark Twain’s account of his cycling lesson on the ordinary (“you don’t get down as you would from a horse, you get down as you would from a house afire”). Accidents were so common on dreadful roads that it gave us a hatful of new expressions, including “to come a cropper”. One of the unsung heroes of cycling’s history, James Starley (of whom more shortly) nonetheless managed to ride the hundred miles from London to Coventry on an ordinary in a single day.

Once the ordinary gave way to the ‘safety bicycle’, with its familiar diamond shaped frame, records began to tumble. By the 1890s, a good racing bike weighed in at 10kg, even if decent gears took another thirty years to arrive. Some of the feats of the riders were breathtaking:  in 1899 Charles Murphy, paced by a train, rode a mile in under a minute on planks laid between the tracks.

As for Starley, he was a self-taught mechanic who had a gift for invention. He was the son of an agricultural labourer who left home for London at 15, then moved to Coventry where he set up a sewing machine company before turning his attention to bicycles in the late 1860s. He invented both the tensile spoked wheel and the differential gear as he wrestled with the limitations of early bicycle design.

His nephew John Kemp Starley continued the family tradition. His Rover Safety bicycle, first manufactured in 1885, is now recognised as the first modern bicycle. Starley had set out “to design the lightest, strongest, cheapest, most rigid, most compact and ergonomically most efficient shape the bicycle frame could be”. In doing so, he transformed the bicycle market. He floated the business and built the largest cycle works in Coventry, then the centre of the world’s cycle industry. It later became the Rover car company, though he didn’t live to see it. He died suddenly at the age of 46; 20,000 people attended his funeral and every cycle firm in the city closed for the day as a mark of respect.

The sections of the book about assembling the dream bicycle have some fine moments as well, whether it’s listening to the frame-builder Brian Rourke talking about setting up the frame, or being given some industrial gloves at Continental in Germany to take his set of tyres out of the oven. The passage in which Penn describes the California wheel builder ‘Gravy’ Gravenites build his wheels has a quiet poetry to it.

All of this is given credibility by Penn’s own history as a round-the-world cyclist. He knows what he’s writing about, and has had the scares, some mentioned here, to prove it. And like all good cycling books, the minute I finished it I wanted to go out on my bike. So I did.

The bat in the castle

13 March 2011

I’m going to Prague soon, so I’ve been doing some research. One thing I stumbled on was an entertaining review of Václav Havel‘s memoir of his time as President of the fledgling republic. Two quick extracts, one reflective, one largely metaphorical. The first is about the different between politics and drama, no matter how dramatic politics sometimes is:

As a playwright, he understood the theatrical nature of politics. All politicians must have “an elementary dramatic instinct”, he writes. But a major theme in this book is how often this desire for structure and order is thwarted by events, dear boy, events. Whereas drama gives meaning and structure to existence, “Politics is more of a strange, never-ending process with no clear turning points and no unambiguous and immediately recognisable outcomes.”

He found the Presidential Castle full of concealed wires and microphones when he arrived. But one theme cropped up again and again in his memos:

One repeated request appears to symbolise the continued presence of the former regime: “In the closet where the vacuum cleaner is kept, there also lives a bat. How to get rid of it?”

The bat and the vacuum cleaner. You could make it up, but it seems he didn’t have to.


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