Review: Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops

You know what kind of book this is: the kind of book that’s shelved under “humour” or “novelty” or “gifts”; the kind of book they stack next to the checkouts in case of impulse purchase.

It’s fine. It took me about an hour to read, cover-to-cover. I’m not sure quite what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this, exactly; somehow I thought it might be meatier, or have a more coherent narrative.

Instead, it’s a collection of one-liners and anecdotes about dealing with bookshop customers:

Customer: Do you have that book – I forget what it’s called; it’s about people with large, hairy feet.

Bookseller: Do you mean hobbits? The Lord of the Rings?

Customer: No…erm – The Hairy Bikers.

Some of them are funny; some of them are disturbing (the customer who, on being told that the LGBT+ fiction is shelved with the rest of the fiction, looks suspiciously at the book she’s holding and sidles out); some of them shed light on the troubles independent booksellers are facing (customers asking for recommendations and then buying on line; customers asking for discounts). It’s perhaps a little nose-tapping, especially when it comes to the latter issues: “well, of course that’s ridiculous and I wouldn’t do that,” says the wise reader, but the fact is lots of people are doing that, or these anecdotes wouldn’t exist in the first place.

Anyway. It’s a diverting enough read. Borrow it or give it as a gift; probably not worth buying it for yourself.

Film Review: Fyre

We’ve all heard about Fyre Festival by now, but just in case: once upon a time, two years ago, one Billy McFarland, in partnership with rapper Ja Rule, convinced a lot of mostly ordinary middle-class professionals to part with large amounts of money in exchange for the festival experience of a lifetime: a holiday on a Bahamian beach, gourmet food, luxury villas and charter flights provided, with major bands like Blink 182 headlining.

The whole thing was a massive disaster. McFarland had no experience of running a festival, and several hundred people turned up in Great Exuma to find disaster-relief tents, sad cheese sandwiches, no music and no immediate way of returning home. (The charter flights stopped coming when everyone realised the scale of the cock-up.) More seriously, the organisers decided to ply attendees with free alcohol to distract them from the realities of the situation, and there was nothing like enough water available for several hundred drunk people in Bahamian heat.

It’s compelling stuff, the kind of thing that’ll send you down an internet black hole if you let it, seeking out all the gory details. Hence Netflix’s documentary Fyre, which came out a couple of months ago. It splices together talking heads from various levels of the organising team with footage from the “event” itself to look at how Fyre Festival evolved from a fantasy into a flawed, then failed, project. There’s no interview with McFarland himself, or Ja Rule, which feels…appropriate, in a way. These men put a large number of people in real physical danger and relieved a much larger number of their money. Do we really need to hear their side of the story?

What Fyre does have, though, is a lot of executives frantically trying to make excuses for themselves. It seems that anyone with an ounce of decency and/or professionalism left the project early on, when it became clear that no-one up the chain was managing anything or listening to major concerns about things like, say, infrastructure on a remote island. So you have to wonder about the people who stayed – who are, in this documentary, engaged in some frantic backpedalling, busily blaming McFarland for the fiasco while apparently blithely unaware of the damage they themselves have done in enabling him to continue with the project as it spiralled out of control.

Which, nevertheless, makes this an amusingly meta piece. Who can tell what’s true and what’s just image protection? It’s a question Fyre Festival attendees might well have asked themselves, given the promises made in the extraordinarily effective social media promotion campaign for the event.

And Fyre, fun though it is, proves as unable to fulfil its potential as the eponymous festival. Like all schadenfreude, it scratches an itch but doesn’t satisfy; there’s always the urge for more gossip, more scandal, more of some platonic “truth” that is in actual fact inaccessible. It comes from the same unhealthy, aspirational, insubstantial culture of oversharing and overselling that made Fyre Festival in the first place.

Review: Imaginary Cities

Publisher Influx Press describes Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities as “a work of creative non-fiction”.

“What does that mean?” asked the Bandersnatch.

“Poorly footnoted?” I hazarded.

I was being flippant, of course, but even so I think that’s a good way into what Imaginary Cities is doing, and what it’s not doing.

It’s not an academic study. It doesn’t proceed by evidence-based argument or by logical progression. Or, for that matter, by rigorous citing of sources. Where an academic work is univocal, advancing one opinion in the context of a wider cultural conversation, Imaginary Cities is polyvocal, and contains multitudes.

It is, as its title suggests, a look at the city: that is, the city as it has been imagined and constructed in fiction and art and theory and criticism, from the oldest symbol ever found by archaeologists, a 50,000-year-old red disc painted on a cave wall (perhaps “the singularity that is the pupil of a human eye,” “the fulcrum on which the entire visible universe pivots”, and thus our starting point, chronologically and philosophically, for thinking about space and ultimately architecture) to the apocalypse-emptied cities imagined during and after the Second World War. It spans a vast body of thinking about cities and architecture, from the writings of le Corbusier to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. It works in a sort of stream-of-consciousness fashion, moving from text to text in a way that resembles the mental “hyperlinking” of early medieval Biblical scholars: Anderson creates loose chains of linked ideas, and leaves it up to the reader to make the links explicit.

So: polyvocal. It’s a book that admits many different views of the city, and many different constructions of what a city is and what it’s for. Some broad themes emerge: in particular, the idea that all architecture is rooted in a desire to build utopia (“Anyone who build anything, be it a shed or the Shard, is utopian-minded”, as Anderson writes in Strange Horizons). Anderson’s writing leans liberal progressive, and he pays close attention to the ways in which this utopia-drive can be tyrannical and/or colonialist, authoritarian visions handed down by a self-selected elite to the hoi polloi who don’t get a say.

He also constructs the city as hodge-podge, as bricolage, a patchwork of different utopias – a construction that nicely mirrors the polyvocal construction of the book itself, a patchwork of utopian visions and dystopian nightmares. Both the book and the city, therefore, are imperfect, defined by their gaps and crevices and imperfections as much as they are by their triumphs and their grand ideological edifices.

So: Imaginary Cities may be poorly footnoted (a shame, since I’m sure it deserves a more rigorous response than I have time to give it). It may feel rushed towards the end: more a list of sources and quotations than a productive series of linkages. There may be places where entire chapters seem to have been switched around late in the game (the Situationist term “spectacle” is first used about twenty pages before Anderson defines it in a subsequent chapter). But, as the dead spaces and discontinuities and construction zones of any real city are indispensable parts of its whole, so these imperfections are part of the book’s energy. Imperfection gives both book and city vitality: the sense of a movement, however illusory, towards perfection, towards utopia. Word and space are collapsed in Imaginary Cities into one; we read the city, we traverse the book.

Jeez, this is like catnip to me. I want more creative non-fiction like this, please and thank you.

Planet Earth II Review: Deserts

David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II is admittedly not this blog’s usual fare.

But I did watch last Sunday’s episode, after a day’s hard NaNoing, having had no previous experience of it (including the 2006 series), and two things really struck me about it, both of them things you wouldn’t necessarily expect from what’s essentially a wildlife documentary.

The first was the self-conscious artistry of the show: it’s stunningly shot, artfully narrated and constructed with a very obvious eye to storytelling.

The second was the taut and ambiguous environmental politics that clusters around it. It’s obviously going for observational objectivity, at least on the surface, observing the wonder of nature without commenting on wider-world issues – a kind of snapshot of desert life, without interpretation or commentary. But, of course, true objectivity doesn’t exist, and we should be wary of anything that makes a claim to it.

Where do I start? Well, if Deserts has a theme it’s that of fragility. This is an episode that’s keen to remind us that nature is red in tooth and claw indeed; that all the ways mankind has invented of killing each other is matched and more than matched by the inventive barbarism with which evolution has equipped the animals of our planet. Here, we see the butcher bird (a cheerful creature that looks not unlike a jay or a magpie) impale prey animals on spikes as a larder; the blind and extremely fluffy golden mole which swims through desert sands swallow insects whole from beneath (surely the inspiration for China Mieville’s Railsea); the sand grouse risk its life carrying water (in its chest feathers) to its family 120 miles away.

But it’s about fragility in a wider sense, too: no wildlife documentary can skim over the fact of dramatic and possibly catastrophic climate change, and with deserts getting hotter and drier by the year there’s an ever-present sense of threat hanging over everything that happens in the episode, the warning that all this wonder and strange savagery could be swept away in the blink of an eye.

And I think this temporal, this historical fragility is encapsulated in the case of the locusts. One of the episode’s segments features an enormous locust swarm, which the episode’s HD filming captures lovingly, as a thing wondrous and amazing and “wow, look at what nature can do”.

And yet – we’re told, both in the narration of this sequence and the diary section at the end where the filmmakers relate how difficult it was to find any bloody locusts (my favourite part being where they were in a helicopter saying “Look! Is that a swarm?” and the pilot said, “No, it’s just smoke”) that such swarms devastate crop fields that people are relying on to survive.

It’s a segment that’s brilliantly demonstrating the constant tension between the need to conserve nature and the need to keep people safe and alive and happy.

It’s not a conundrum to which Sir David offers any answers; partly, I suppose, because there aren’t really any good ones. But it’s this tension, this focus on the fundamentally untenable state of affairs in which what’s good for nature isn’t what’s good for us, that made Deserts, for me, so much more memorable than wildlife documentaries usually are.

I Survived A Zombie Apocalypse: Ep. 3

“Something whispers in every silence and there is writing on every wall.”

Kate Heartfield

Yes, I am still watching this.

I’m still intrigued by the concept, although it’s becoming more and more contrived as the days wear on. I’m still kind of fascinated by the people who signed up for this whole trip. And, well, it’s easy enough to watch in the evenings.

This week, the producers are obviously focusing on the contestants who rarely leave the base. On another water-fetching excursion (which at least has the excuse of being a genuine survival activity, unlike the other two challenges, which involve gathering cleaning supplies and vegetables, both of which I feel are luxuries if you are about to be eaten by zombies), the voice in the ceiling encourages anyone who hasn’t left the room in 24 hours to do so, for “fresh air and exercise”. Yep, those are priorities right there.

In any case, it does allow us to see Jackie and Sara emerge blinking into the light of day, which is not always complimentary. Sara in particular has been dedicating her third day of zombie apocalypse survival to a screaming row with Amena, for reasons. They’re both kind of insufferable, actually: the zombie apocalypse really shows you who the nice people are.

Still, it was good to see some variation on the usual run out, run back mission structure. The last mission has three contestants sitting in a room for three hours waiting for instructions; one has to dress up as a zombie to get past them (nonsensical given the backstory of the programme, but who’s complaining), one has to run past some chained-up zombies (very tense), and one has to climb some scaffolding. Inventiveness. Possibly.

Gods, I’m tired.

Still. Onwards into zombie-apocalypse land. See you in the afterlife.

L-space News: I recently discovered the yearly Tournament of Books over at The Morning News; this year’s Tournament started this morning, and I’ve spent all day talking with random Internet strangers about David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. Try it, it’s fun!

The Great Comic Relief Bake Off: Ep. 1

“Who doesn’t like a good cake analogy?”

Erin Morgenstern

It’s not the real Bake Off, but it’s close enough for now.

The Great Comic Relief Bake Off is a celebrity special, so it’s a little different from the proper show. The bar is lower, the contestants are chattier, Mary Berry is nicer (if that is actually possible), the bottoms are soggier. As it were. Joanna Lumley is a delight, Dame Edna Everidge is profoundly, deeply irritating, Jennifer Saunders is funny in a matter-of-fact kind of way. It’s all very Bake Off-y; Britishly humorous, mildly competitive, lashings of chocolate. This is exactly what you need for your lunch break. And possibly all lunch breaks ever.

(Sorry, I’m kind of tired today.)

I Survived A Zombie Apocalypse: Ep. 2

“It may be that, deadened by information, we are glad of these awful, intent and nameless beings as to whom no information is to be had.”

Elizabeth Bowen

Oh, yes. I’m back in zombieland for more apocalyptic fun. Gods alone know why.

Actually, the second episode was rather more engaging than the first. The “survivors” were given three tasks which kept the tension up nicely and meant that the more Big Brother-ish segments of bickering and group politics were kept, thankfully, to a minimum, even if “going out to check the missing-persons list” feels a bit contrived as a reason for risking your life (even fictionally) in a zombie-infested wasteland.

The main reason this all seems a bit unrealistic, though, is the slightly debonair way in which the contestants are taking this. (Of course, this is inevitable unless, like Derren Brown, you want to traumatise your participants.) It transpires that at the beginning of the second day they have no water and little food left, which seems ridiculous given that they had to drag in a whole crate of the stuff on day one. Their approach to conservation of resources becomes clear later on in the episode, when they finally receive some supplies from a successful mission: “Let’s all have a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit!” (Incidentally, no-one thought of drinking boiled rainwater until quite some time after it became evident that the water was running out.) It’s absolutely clear that everyone is treating this as a sort of mildly uncomfortable backpacking trip rather than a zombie apocalypse, and no amount of painstaking set construction and fake “death” scenes can change that vibe.

Because when a contestant “dies” (read: gets caught by an actor in zombie makeup), it’s not enough that they leave the show. Oh, no. We have to have a display of prosthetic blood and guts, because otherwise we, the reality TV generation, will not understand that They Have Left. This isn’t, strictly speaking, the BBC’s fault, but I do think it says something unpleasant about our watching habits when scenes featuring a zombie tearing someone’s entrails out manage to filter even into a gameshow. Like: we know this is fictional. The entire set-up is so deeply unrealistic in all of its details that no-one could take it for reality, or even for a zombie drama. There’s no claim for accuracy of representation that the show can make to justify that rather disturbing violence.

Why am I still watching this, then? Well, because it’s on, I suppose, and also because it’s genuinely an intriguing premise, mixing fiction with reality in a way which, if it isn’t quite unique, at least feels fresh. I hesitate to use the word innovative, but I wonder, will we be getting Game of Thrones-themed gameshows soon? Gameshows with alien invasions? If someone made a steampunk gameshow I would be their friend for ever.

I Survived the Zombie Apocalypse: Ep. 1

“She and her friends had reached the same sad age when one can change no longer, and can only become more oneself.”

Elizabeth Bowen

Oh gods. Can I actually be bothered to write about this?

I Survived the Zombie Apocalypse is a BBC Three invention: a reality gameshow about a group of people trying to survive the zombie apocalypse. As I remember, Derren Brown did a similar thing with his Apocalypse (although the single participant in that “experiment” was not actually aware that the whole thing was an elaborate hoax, as these contestants clearly are), and both programmes fall down on the same point: there’s a sense that everything is pretty much manufactured for maximum drama, so that the contestants are not so much surviving through skill as through luck, or the whims of the producers.

Of course, this is probably also the case for less obviously staged gameshows like I’m A Celebrity, but it’s particularly glaring here for the simple reason that zombies don’t actually exist, so it’s not like responding to a known threat. It’s a group of people running away from some actors in bad makeup. Somehow the tension isn’t really there. It feels more like a camping holiday than anything else.

Still, there are some amusing characters in the group. Well, perhaps “amusing” is the wrong word. “Funny for about five seconds, and then deeply annoying” is probably closer to the bone, especially in the case of Thom, who has an obsession with telling the same story about Lady Gaga every ten minutes and not contributing anything else. Or Amena, an athlete who’s more interested with making eyes at Kavon (sample quote: “Girls come on to me more than I go on to them”) than in, you know, helping. Or Megan, who “just wants everyone to be happy”, no joke.

It’s an inventive concept, though, and there is the possibility of some genuine scares coming up later in the series. At the moment it feels a bit too Big Brother-ish to be really engaging.

Now You See It: Ep 1

“Memory plays tricks. Memory is another word for story, and nothing is more unreliable.”

Ann-Marie MacDonald

Oooh. look, the BBC has a new magic show! Hurrah, right?

Unfortunately, it actually turns out to be something like You’ve Been Framed but with magic. So while it’s mildly interesting if you haven’t seen the clips before (which you might have, since they seem to have been garnered from sources many and various), mostly because of Mel Bake Off Giedroyc’s gently humorous narration, you’re not going to need to be glued to it every week. It’s just scheduling stuff, really. Disappointing; it’s been ages since I’ve seen any really good magic.

When’s Derren Brown coming back, again?

Dogs: Their Secret Lives

“It is when we are most lost that we sometimes find our truest friends.”

Cynthia Rylant

So my parents quite recently acquired a pair of rescue dogs, turning the household from a one-cat family to a two-dog-and-one-grumpy-cat one. Apparently, this means that we now have to watch every single dog programme there is on telly, and, in case you hadn’t noticed, there are a LOT. Especially in the run-up to Christmas, when people like to look at cute things and be cheerful.

This particular episode of Dogs: Their Secret Lives is, according to the Channel 4 website, a sort of round-up affair, revisiting dogs that have previously been seen on the show because they were too fat or too neurotic or whatever to find out How They Are. Spoiler alert: they’re all better. Of course they are.

There’s an overweight King Charles spaniel who’s blatantly being fed on the sly at the owner’s pub (though the obviousness of this does not stop the presenter, vet Mark Walker, from rigging up cameras to keep an eye on the animal); a little black bull terrier type who won’t go outside; and a Scottish terrier who attacks his owner’s husband on a regular basis. It’s a little like Supernanny for dogs. (Superpetsitter?) Except that, unlike Supernanny, which was simply gratuitous voyeurism, Dogs: Their Secret Lives actually offers a few interesting tidbits, like the fact that dogs actually respond differently to different human emotions. You know you always secretly thought that your dog knew when you were upset? Turns out you were right.

It is, admittedly, fairly average fare for a Monday evening, but there are worse things to watch than fluffy happy doggies, and it’s amazing how much less annoying ‘average’ can be when you’re also preoccupied with counting stitches.* It’s certainly a good deal less irritating than, e.g., a nonsensical episode of Doctor Who (which is to say, all episodes of Doctor Who), and definitely more soothing than The Apprentice. So I’m not, on the whole, complaining.

*I’m sorry to go on about the knitting, but it is actually very diverting. And satisfying. There’s nothing like looking at a row of good purling (or even mediocre purling) to cheer you up.