Home and the hearth

My novel, “Sons and Fascination” published in February 2011. Whilst not appearing soundtracked by resounding praise and blanket review coverage, I have nonetheless been pleased by people’s reactions. Ultimately, it is a novel about a search for home, especially the search for home and self that begins when your current home and situation is rendered alien by events. In that way then, of course it is a postcolonial book. It is very much a book about those questions of identity, of having to pretend to fit in, of being and feeling somewhat apart from things. It is a book written by a son of Punjabi immigrants, who is living now in London. It is a book written by a son who has seen his father and his ilk disenfranchised but who has seen them behave like children, and not men. In the words of the Manic Street Preachers, “I lost my language easily”. I only had to look away and exercise all the impulses to follow my own creative whims.

Of course, the fact that the characters are not brown means there is no hook for the reviewers to hang it on. It means it will not rise like fluffy bread to the attention of the doyennes of the prizes and it won’t make headway through the love in that categorizes the modern literary scene. But that does not matter to me too much. Home and hearth are present in every sentence, as is the disaffected mien of callow, directionless youth. We are given goals but denied the meaning they used to have. We are given platforms but have nothing to say, our place as social media engines secure and our lives the biggest drama we know of and conceive. So I do not crave adulation for my book. I crave acceptance for what it is, though: a resigned sigh, a plangent love letter and a sortie into the brittle steppe of middle modern style, neither for, nor against. We are unexceptional in many ways.

“I’m Not Saying Anything, I Say Too Much”

I spend the afternoon doing cover briefs.  I have to get data from a content management system, out into a spreadsheet, then put some of that data back into another spreadsheet, then type the relevant bits back into the content management system, then press a button, to generate a design brief, and then record that I have done it on the second spreadsheet I mentioned.  The drip coffee has taken on the burnt smell of a mild cigar and I am particularly enjoying it.  I feel dessicated as I haven’t drunk enough water and yet I feel, also, that I have somewhere the beginnings of the next book.  I have two false starts – two 5,000 word nubs on my PC with different elements to them and I think that one of them will win. I think back to the third, which is even larger – I have over 10,000 words, but Gareth and his friend Anthony will have to remain in stasis just that bit longer.   I write in bursts, after long deliberation, I rarely revise, rarely edit.  I am not a re-writer.  I edit down, through the layers, sifting, removing, but I like the way the words feel against each other, usually first time.  My Facebook Author page doesn’t yet have 50 ‘likes’.  I wonder if this defines me.  I don’t think that it does.

I have spent large parts of the day silently, and non-so-silently getting worked up about the quality of the poor facsimile editor of my copy of Bellow’s "Herzog".  It’s the 2001 Penguin Modern Classics edition with a Malcolm Bradbury introduction, all nicely typeset.  They have even thought to re-set the dedication.  It is just the text itself, all 300 odd pages of it, printed on thin, flimsy paper and slightly blurring through poor facsimile technology.  Big husks of words are missing.  It gives me a headache to look at it. But perhaps that mazy, headache feeling is what you need when you pick up "Herzog".

I pine for the sentences of Don DeLillo, cool and calm and soothing in their metronomic power.

Breath Is In, Breath Is Out

Does anyone remember Blackfriars Station? Even for the most ardent commuter it must be little more than a dull, sensory memory, rekindled by a smell or the announcement of its continuing closure. We inch past it as the District Line trundles eastbound. Delays on the way into work today (faulty Jubilee Line train near Canning Town) and on the way home (signal failure at West Ham). I had left early in the hope of getting a hair cut. That is looking unlikely. The frustration and resentment have nowhere to go. We just get angrier and angrier as we inch onwards, as the platform fills up.

Delays on the Tube share a lot with late buses, less so with delayed trains. With a train, you have a reservation, and you sit there, abject, glum, but aware that your train is still your train. With the Tube, more and more people arrive, and the platform is ever more full. People eye each other, suspiciously. Eventually, there such little available space that people begin to bump into other people like a smoke or a fog that is thickening. And the train arrives from wherever, going wherever, and it is, fundamentally, already full. The room on this delayed train is at a premium – who will triumph in finding a place? And, even more fundamentally, is it worth it? There will be another train along shortly, also delayed, but with less people. You are, at the basic level, already late.

Should you ‘seek alternate routes’? I remain convinced this is a placatory ruse. I sit, I read, I might pop up to street level for a pint, and then come back when, like a bad hangover easing, the trains have somewhat sorted themselves out. You can breathe, eat, concentrate again: you aren’t going to pass out at your desk. The trains are nicely stacked, two minutes apart. The anger can subside, if you let it. But of course, this doesn’t take into account the frantic paper flipper beside you, or the idiot with the Apple own brand headphones turned up to maximum. These things remain human and ubiqitous, inescapable, death and taxes. There it is, in mono and too loud, the bored voice of your unrepentant driver. Mind the closing doors.



Some thoughts on my visit to Chicago, then. I’ll write it up properly at some point, I’m sure (maybe not, actually).

– It really is windy, all the time. The wind is fierce near Lake Michigan, in a kind of unrelenting blast that is unlike any wind I’ve ever felt. It’s mesmerising, until your eyes run and you can feel your fingers anymore. All the time though, it’s there: open a map and it will blow back into your face, just on the street.

– They’ve built massive four lane freeway right down most of the prime lake shore front. The shore path itself, much touted, is crumbling re-inforced concrete that in parts is difficult to walk on. It hasn’t been kept very well at all. It’s hard to get to – three public subways for about 20 blocks worth north/south. As you walk down this AMAZING lakefront, all you can hear is CARS CARS CARS unless you have headphones in.

– Chicago has loads of prime river front, but the bank-level ‘River Walk’ actually makes you do the little bits one bit a time, climbing stairs to get back up to street level, cross the road, and then get back to river level. So that too is a bit rubbish.

– Navy Pier is rammed full of tourist sh1t and very little else. It is the most visited tourist attraction in the State of Illinois. Visit it for some sad pre-made churros rotating under a light and a $6 Haagen Dazs milkshake.

– The John Hancock building is iconic in a way the Willis Tower isn’t. It dominates for miles around. When you run down Lake Shore Drive towards the city, it’s all you can see.

– Deep Dish Pizza is basically quiche without the egg. It’s like eating a brick of pastry and cheese.

– The bottled water is weird – you can get Evian, Perrier and San Pelligrano fairly cheap ($1.50/500ml) but they have all this weird Dasani-esque purified ionic water with added vitamins ‘for flavour’ (I sh1t ye not). All of it is nearly $2 a bottle.

– Even the Tropicana Orange juice (from concentrate) has ‘natural flavours not from original juice’ (that is, more orangey than orange juice). I couldn’t believe it either. I found a $5 300ml bottle of pomegranate juice but even that was from concentrate. You can buy cheese (US and foreign) in ‘cubes’.

– Duty Free Smirnoff Red and Black in US airports is sometimes brewed in the US Smirnoff plants. Which kind of … defeats the object of ‘Russian’ vodka. But explains why THREE LITRES was $19.

– Anyone in the service industry (waiters aside) will mostly likely be coloured. It’s finely gradated: they have, for instance, in some restaurants, Mexican/Black guys who fill your water and white guys who come and take your order. Don’t ask the water guy for a fork – he will just refuse to pass on the request. Hotel Doormen will be black or Hispanic. If you see a beggar, they will be, 90% of the time, be black. Head down into the EL and the demographic shifts immediately too, in a way that it doesn’t on say, the Tube (even downtown, say Grand Station on the Red Line, which would be, say, Embankment for us).

– People in Chicago are WAY, WAY more polite than in New York. If some one gets in your way, they will almost always apologise, even if it wasn’t their fault. You can instantly tell the tourists from out of state because they are the ones who expect you to press the lift buttons for them because you are Indian.

– Beers are around $5-$6 on draft, which makes them around $4 for 0.5l after sales tax. Maybe this was just Downtown. I felt sad at that fact.

– It’s very hard to find a curry house in Central Chicago. The best (most satisfying) meal I had was probably a take out chicken shisk kebab in a pitta.

– People in American art museums don’t mind talking VERY loudly about the art to a) themselves b) their partners c) their children. One whole family was loudly popping gum in unison at the Modern Art Museum whilst watching a video on the history of Chicago which doesn’t dwell too long on how the land was stolen/repurposed from the Native Indians.

– I saw once Chinese guy (tourist, local, out of towner, who knows) lean on and then tap a pricless Rodin sculpture. I rebuked him. He didn’t give a sh1t and went back to pushing the pram they’d loaded with bags instead of using the cloakroom like everybody else had to.

– One universal – people would rather take a shitty picture of a priceless work of art on their mobile phone than stand and actually LOOK at it, and then buy a high quality repro, should they like it. This happens in all art galleries, around the world, especially the Louvre.

– No one was that fussed by ‘Nighthawks’. At the Tate Modern, you couldn’t get close to it. Everyone wanted to look at the ‘Ferris Bueller’ picture (including me).

– Grant Park and Millennium Park are a bit rubbish really. The Buckingham Fountain is turned off when it’s off-season, which is a bit naff.