Thursday, December 15, 2011

One of the most unexpectedly enjoyable books I read this year was Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860). It's a wry, chatty and opinionated masterpiece of cultural history that is so full of great passages that I can hardly decide what to put up here. So here are a few anecdotes selected almost at random:

"The citizens of a certain town (Siena seems to be meant) had once an officer in their service who had freed them from foreign aggression; daily they took counsel how to recompense him, and concluded that no reward in their power was great enough, not even if they made him lord of the city. At last one of them rose and said, 'Let us kill him and then worship him as our patron saint.' And so they did, following the example set by the Roman senate with Romulus."

"The famous Cardinal Ippolito Medici, bastard of Giuliano, Duke of Nemours, kept at his strange court a troop of barbarians who talked no less than twenty different languages, and who were all of them perfect specimens of their races. Among them were incomparable voltigeurs of the best blood of the North African Moors, Tartar bowmen, Negro wrestlers, Indian divers, and Turks, who generally accompanied the Cardinal on his hunting expeditions. When he was overtaken by an early death (1535), this motley band carried the corpse on their shoulders from Itri to Rome, and mingled with the general mourning for the open-handed Cardinal their medley of tongues and violent gesticulations."

"These people were far from being irreligious. A herdsman once appeared in great trouble at the confessional, avowing that, while making cheese during Lent, a few drops of milk had found their way into his mouth. The confessor, skilled in the customs of the country, discovered in the course of his examination that the penitent and his friends were in the practice of robbing and murdering travellers, but that, through the force of habit, this usage gave rise to no twinges of conscience within them."

"Ermes Bentivoglio sent an assassin after Cocle, because the unlucky metoposcopist [Cocle] had unwillingly prophesied to him that he [Bentivoglio] would die an exile in battle. The murderer seems to have derided the dying man [Cocle] in his last moments, saying that Cocle himself had foretold him he [the assassin] would shortly commit an infamous murder."

"Cardano admits that he cheated at play, that he was vindictive, incapable of all compunction, purposely cruel in his speech. He confesses it without impudence and without feigned contrition, without even wishing to make himself an object of interest, but with the same simple and sincere love of fact which guided him in his scientific researches. And, what is to us the most repulsive of all, the old man, after the most shocking experiences and with his confidence in his fellowmen gone, finds himself after all tolerably happy and comfortable. He has still left him a grandson, immense learning, the fame of his works, money, rank and credit, powerful friends, the knowledge of many secrets, and, best of all, belief in God. After this, he counts the teeth in his head, and finds that he has fifteen."
"One way of solving the problem of existence, after all, is to become so closely acquainted with things and individuals we once saw from further away as being full of beauty and mystery, that we realize they are devoid of both: therein lies one of the modes of mental hygiene available to us, which though it may not be the most recommendable, can certainly afford us a measure of equanimity for getting through life and – since it enables us to have no regrets, by assuring us we have had the best of things, and that the best of things was not up to much – in resigning us to death."

from In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower by Marcel Proust
"Cold narrow scalpels attack the shapeless bloody blob as it lies there in your chest like a live thing in a hot puddle, a cauldron of tangled juicy stew, convulsing, shuddering with a periodic sob, trying to dodge the knives, undressed of the sanitary pod God or whoever never meant human hands to touch. Then when the blood has been detoured to the gleaming pumping machine just like those in those horrible old Frankenstein movies with Boris Karloff the heart stops beating. You see it happen: your heart lies there dead in its soupy puddle. You, the natural you, are technically dead. A machine is living for you while the surgeons’ hands in their condomlike latex gloves fiddle and slice and knit away. Harry has trouble believing how his life is tied to all this mechanics – that the me that talks inside him all the time scuttles like a water-striding bug above this pond of body fluids and their slippery conduits. How could the flame of him ever have ignited out of such wet straw?"

from Rabbit at Rest by John Updike

Saturday, December 10, 2011

"After the Nevada State Prison warden, George W. Cowing, was unable to find five men to form a firing squad, a shooting machine was requisitioned and built to carry out the execution."

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

"If we look through the aperture which we have opened up onto the absolute, what we see there is a rather menacing power – something insensible, and capable of destroying both things and worlds, of bringing forth monstrous absurdities, yet also of never doing anything, of realizing every dream, but also every nightmare, of engendering random and frenetic transformations, or conversely, of producing a universe that remains motionless down to its ultimate recesses, like a cloud bearing the fiercest storms, then the eeriest bright spells, if only for an interval of disquieting calm. We see an omnipotence equal to that of the Cartesian God, and capable of anything, even the inconceivable; but an omnipotence that has become autonomous, without norms, blind, devoid of the other divine perfections, a power with neither goodness nor wisdom, ill-disposed to reassure thought about the veracity of its distinct ideas. We see something akin to Time, but a Time that is inconceivable for physics, since it is capable of destroying, without cause or reason, every physical law, just as it is inconceivable for metaphysics, since it is capable of destroying every determinate entity, even a god, even God. This is not a Heraclitean time, since it is not the eternal law of becoming, but rather the eternal and lawless possible becoming of every law. It is a Time capable of destroying even becoming itself by bringing forth, perhaps forever, fixity, stasis, and death."

from After Finitude by Quentin Meillassoux trans. Ray Brassier

Thursday, November 24, 2011

I am about to send Sceptre the final set of copy edits for The Teleportation Accident, which comes out in July next year. While I was working on those, I noticed that the selection of animals named in the text seems unusually diverse for a book that is not explicitly zoological in theme. So here, as a very early preview of my second novel, is an alphabetical list of all 48. I think in an ideal world the release would require no further promotional materials of any kind.

electric eel
grizzly bear

Saturday, November 19, 2011

I'm pleased to report that Boxer, Beetle has won the 2011 UK Writers' Guild Award for Best Fiction Book.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Saturday, October 15, 2011

I have an essay in the Guardian today in honour of the 50th anniversary of Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which I'm especially happy about because at the moment I'm living twenty minutes from Jane Jacobs Walk in the West Village. Here's an interesting remark by David Harvey that I didn't have room for in the piece:

"The superimposition of different worlds in many a postmodern novel, worlds between which an uncommunicative “otherness” prevails in a space of coexistence, bears an uncanny relationship to the increasing ghettoization, disempowerment, and isolation of poverty and minority populations in the inner cities of both Britain and the United States. It is not hard to read a post-modern novel as a metaphorical transect across the fragmenting social landscape, the sub-cultures and local modes of communication, in London, Chicago, New York or Los Angeles."

Hysterical realism predicted the London riots!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Boxer, Beetle is out in the US today! And I'm doing two events in New York.

On Thursday 29th September, the launch of Slice Magazine's 9th issue at 61 Local in Cobble Hill.

On Wednesday 12th October, Literary Death Match at Drom in the East Village.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

In September I'll be moving to New York for a while to coincide with the US publication of Boxer, Beetle. So if you'd like me to read at your event or sign at your bookshop, please get in touch. I also need somewhere to live! So if you have a room to sublet, please get in touch too. My email address is

"My coming to New York had been a mistake; for whereas I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration in the teeming labyrinths of ancient streets that twist endlessly from forgotten courts and squares and waterfronts to courts and squares and waterfronts equally forgotten, and in the Cyclopean modern towers and pinnacles that rise blackly Babylonian under waning moons, I had found instead only a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to master, paralyse, and annihilate me." - HP Lovecraft

Friday, July 29, 2011

The new king of Burma in 1878:

"Thibaw suffered a great propaganda defeat in his very rise to the throne. It had been an immemorial tradition when a new king succeeded for there to be a 'purging of the real according to custom' – i.e. a massacre of the previous ruler's kinsmen. Since Thibaw was distant from the throne, he had to kill eighty-three members of the royal family. The killings were spread over two days and were carried out by members of the Royal Guard. As was customary, the princesses were strangled while the princes were sewn into red velvet sacks and gently beaten to death with paddles – it being taboo to shed royal blood. Unfortunately for Thibaw, this took place in an age when worldwide communication brought such goings-on to international attention. The details – including the fact that the mass of corpses buried in a palace courtyard creating a gas which caused the soil to erupt, so that it had to be trodden down by elephants – were all reported in the West, especially in England, where they excited very unfavourable comment."

from From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe

Monday, July 25, 2011

I'm doing two events in August: on Wednesday 3rd at Dialogue Books in Kreuzberg, and on Sunday 14th at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Monday, July 04, 2011

On Tuesday 12th July I'll be asking China Miéville about his superb new novel Embassytown at a Pages of Hackney event at Moving Architecture in Clapton. Email to reserve a seat (£3). I find it very hard to think of a British author whose new books I look forward to with more excitement than China's so I'm really happy to be doing this – please do come along.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Tomorrow night (Saturday) I'm going to be reading a short story I've written about Kreuzberg at a SAND event in Kreuzberg. Full details here.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Nietzsche on the French Revolution in Beyond Good and Evil: "Noble and enthusiastic spectators across Europe have, from a distance, interpreted their own indignations and enthusiasms into it, and for so long and with such passion that the text has finally disappeared under the interpretation."

Also: "Every morality, as opposed to laisser-aller, is a piece of tyranny against both 'nature' and 'reason'. But this in itself is no objection; for that, we would have to issue yet another decree based on some other morality forbidding every sort of tyranny and unreason."

Also: "Even treating something in a profound or thorough manner is a violation, a wanting-to-hurt the fundamental will of the spirit, which constantly tends towards semblances and surfaces, –there is a drop of cruelty even in every want-to-know.
Big fan of this diagram from the Wikipedia page on comas.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Recently I was asked by Damian Barr on behalf of the new W Hotel in Leicester Square to be one of ten writers to choose ten books each for the hotel's library. I decided not to include any prose fiction because no one pays £500 a night for a room in central London in order to sit there reading Vanity Fair (which Bret Easton Ellis picked) from beginning to end. Here's my list:

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Lorenzo Petrantoni's cover for the UK edition of Boxer, Beetle has won one of the 2011 V&A Illustration Awards.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Now that I'm sort of weakly trying to revive my brief training in philosophy, I decided I should read the Tractatus at last, and was pleased to find that it's very short. This is my favourite statement so far:

"4.463 The truth-conditions of a proposition determine the range that it leaves open to the facts.
(A proposition, a picture, or a model is, in the negative sense, like a solid body that restricts the freedom of movement of others, and, in the positive sense, like a space bounded by solid substance in which there is room for a body.)
A tautology leaves open to reality the whole – the infinite whole – of logical space: a contradiction fills the whole of logical space leaving no point of it for reality. Thus neither of them can determine reality in any way."

One imagines a series of spaces like rooms along a corridor – some airless vacuums, others filled all the way up to the doorway with solid concrete, most in between. Hotel Borges?


"5.511 How can logical – all-embracing logic, which mirrors the world – use such peculiar crochets and contrivances (Haken und Manipulationen)? Only because they are all connected with one another in an infinitely fine network, the great mirror."

Monday, May 30, 2011

Sibling rivalry in Indonesia:

"In the late nineties Suharto's daughter Tutu proposed to construct a three-tiered above-ground transit-way through the heart of Jakarta while her brother was simultaneously planning an underground system through the same area."

from The Politics of Power by Denise Leith
South African mercenaries in Iraq:

"They were always very nicely turned out, with shirts and trousers pressed - unlike the Brits, who rarely bothered with an iron - but many of them were badly shot up, with fingers missing and scars all over their body. They also had terrible brown-stained teeth. Most had served in the Special Forces in the 1980s, fighting jungle wars in Angola. During a three-month combat tour, they couldn't use toothpaste because the smell of it could warn the Angolan scouts in the close-quarters fighting that dominated the conflict. As a result, all of their teeth were completely rotten. Once, Mark [Britten] was talking to a South African in his fifties when two teeth simply fell out of his mouth onto the table in front of them."

from War PLC by Stephen Armstrong, in which we also learn that Group 4 Securicor is Africa's largest private employer, with 82,000 employees on the continent.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

"The parrot fish... inhabits more exposed areas of sea and has to create its own protection when sleeping. It does this by secreting around its body a slimy envelope, which is distasteful to predators. In the morning it packs its bags, so to speak, by eating the envelope."

from Sleepfaring by Jim Horne.

Also apparently dolphins don't dream, because they only sleep with one half of their brain at a time so they can keep going up to the surface to breathe, and "the confusion in having half one's brain dreaming and the other half awake would be bewildering to say the least. Each side of the dolphine's brain can be sleep deprived separately, simply by waking the animal up as soon as this side sleeps, while letting the other side sleep normally." Which is like something out of Philip K Dick.

Also "hibernation is not a profound form of sleep, as is commonly thought, because hibernating mammals still have to arouse from hibernation in order to obtain some sleep."

Monday, May 09, 2011

On Tuesday evening I'm doing an event at the Akademie der Künste on Pariser Platz with the French novelist Vincent Message. An actor will read in German from the first chapter of Boxer, Beetle and then I'll be answering some questions in English.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Tomorrow I am moving to Berlin to take up a three month writer's residency at the Akademie der Künste. Goodbye London!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

"Of the first twenty-five [Doges of Venice], according to the chroniclers, three were murdered, one was executed for treason, three were judicially blinded, four were deposed, one was exiled, four abdicated, one became a saint and one was killed in a battle with pirates."

"It was essential to the Venetian system that any citizen showing signs of self-importance or dangerous popularity should at once be humiliated, to prevent the emergence of dictators and pour encourager les autres. If you refused a command, you were disgraced. If you lost a battle, you were impeached for treason. If you won it, and became a public hero, you would probably be charged, sooner or later, with some trumped-up offence against the State. The fifteenth-century general Antonio da Lezze, for example, defended Scutari for nearly a year against Turkish assaults so ferocious that a cat, stealing out one day across an exposed roof-top, was instantly transfixed by eleven arrows at once, and so sustained that afterwards the expended arrow-shafts kept the place in firewood for several months; but when at last he surrendered the city to overwhelmingly superior forces, and returned honourably to Venice, he was immediately charged with treason, imprisoned for a year and banished for ten more. In Venice a great commander was always a bad risk, and he was seldom left for long to enjoy his gouty retirement."

"In 1649 a Venetian doctor offered the State an 'essence of plague' to be spread among the Turks by infusing it into textiles sold in enemy territory: the Republic did not use his invention, but to prevent anyone else getting hold of it, instantly locked the poor man up in prison."

All from Venice by Jan Morris. This book is a good demonstration of why I do not believe that a novel in which nothing happens is more "true to life".

Monday, April 18, 2011

Here is a podcast about zines I hosted at Dazed Live. I'd never hosted anything before and the panic is audible in my voice for about the first fifteen minutes but then I really got into it.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

From Michael Sorkin's Twenty Minutes in Manhattan:

"The failure of [modernist] planning is not in its effort to be comprehensive or to equalize access to necessary facilities. It is, rather, the attempt to rationalise choice on the basis of a homogeneous set of subjects, a fixed grammar of opportunities, a remorseless segregation of uses, and a scientistic faith in technical analysis and organisation that simply excludes diversity, eccentricity, noncomforming beauty, and choice. The utopian nightmare."

Boxer, Beetle, summarised.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"During a party in Weimar in the winter of 1785, Goethe had a late-night conversation on his theory of primary colours with the South American revolutionary Francisco de Miranda. This conversation inspired Miranda, as he later recounted, in his designing the yellow, blue and red flag of Gran Colombia, from which the present national flags of Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador are derived."

Monday, April 11, 2011

From the New York Times, 1887.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Some talks I'm doing near my flat this month

Tuesday 5th April: at the London Writing Book Group in Bethnal Green Library

Saturday 9th April: with Jamie Shovlin at Dazed Live in the Tramshed, Shoreditch

Saturday 16th April: at the symposium for The Nature of Change: Hybridity and Mutation in the Old Truman Brewery, Shoreditch

Wednesday 20th April: with Hugh Frost of Landfill Editions at Land of Kings at the Print House Galler, Dalston

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

In this month's Dazed & Confused I interview two guys with unusual jobs: John Drengenberg, who tests safes in a laboratory with cutting torches and nitroglycerine, and Wilf Blum, who dives for sunken treasure off the coast of the Dominican Republic. Also jewellery designer Noemi Klein and artists Jennifer Lewandowski and Sam Levack. The whole issue is themed around money – which was sort of my idea! – even the fashion shoots.

Monday, March 21, 2011

I'm reading The High Window, Raymond Chandler's third novel. Two years ago I wrote here about how an odd passage in his story "Red Wind" comes across as a little self-referential joke about the conventions of detective fiction – or perhaps not just detective fiction, but literary realism more generally, and the accumulation of surface detail that constitutes the springs in its mattress. There's a comparable bit in The High Window:

'Okay,' I said. 'It wasn't a girl. She had help. It was a man. What did the man look like?'

He pursed his lips and made another steeple with his fingers. 'He was a middle-aged man, heavy set, about five feet seven inches tall and weighing around one hundred and seventy pounds. He said his name was Smith. He wore a blue suit, black shoes, a green tie and shirt, no hat. There was a brown bordered handkerchief in his outer pocket. His hair was dark brown sprinkled with grey. There was a bald patch about the size of a dollar on the crown of his head and a scar about two inches long running down the side of his jaw. On the left side, I think. Yes, on the left side.'

'Not bad,' I said. 'What about the hole in his right sock?'

'I omitted to take his shoes off.'

'Darn careless of you,' I said.

No explanation is given for Mr. Morningstar's eidetic memory. He just happens to be a character who talks like a narrator!

The High Window also contains a few paragraphs about Bunker Hill, at the beginning of Chapter Eight, that rank among Chandler's very best descriptive passages. Reading Chandler after so many decades of Chandler imitators and Chandler parodies, it's sometimes easy to forget that he's not writing about some unreal and self-contained Marloweland, he's writing, brilliantly, about a specific city at a specific time. While researching The Teleportation Accident I've got through a lot about Los Angeles in the 1930s, but there's no non-fiction book that's as useful as Chandler.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

From From Nazis to Nasa: The Life of Wernher von Braun by Bob Ward:

'Von Braun's avalanche of fan mail ran the full spectrum. One woman wrote, "I only have one question before I sign off: is it possible for one to attain sexual pleasure from sending up rockets?'... One of the strangest letters, an ominous one, came from a correspondent in Germany claiming to represent a "world-famous rock'n'roll group". All that the band wanted was for von Braun to secretly bring to America a pretty, 14-year-old German girl whom they had marked for stardom as a singer. They would pay him well for his trouble but, if he didn't cooperate, it would be "death for you and your wife".'


'"It was my suggestion,' Dr Generales recalled years later, "that before he attempted a lunar flight, it might be worthwhile to try it with mice as 'passengers' first. Wernher agreed it was a good idea. And so we found ourselves spinning white mice on a specially mounted bicycle in Wernher's rooms." But disaster struck some of the experiments, as the home-made centrifuge, designed to simulate rocket take-offs, spun faster and faster, the blood of "a number of these unfortunate beasts" was flung against the ceiling of the room – with unpleasantly messy results, as von Braun later reported. "Our... inquisitions were summarily interrupted by my landlady's violent objections to a ring of mouse-blood upon the walls of my otherwise neat Swiss room." Medical student Generales dissected the mice and reported to his space-minded friend that the high acceleration had caused cerebral haemorrhages in the subject animals.'

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Boxer, Beetle is now out in paperback. Also, next Saturday I will be appearing briefly on BBC2 as part of a Culture Show special about new novelists.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

"References are something of a speciality for me": on recording an amateur DVD commentary for Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010)

My three favourite cultural experiences of 2010 (that involved leaving the house) were 1. Punchdrunk and ENO's The Duchess of Malfi, 2. Mountain Man at St. Augustine's Tower and 3. Inception at IMAX. I love Inception. I spent a lot of time last year thinking about Inception, reading about Inception, writing about Inception, and talking about Inception, mostly with my friend Bea, who loves it as much as I do. And on the DVD of Inception, there's no audio commentary by Christopher Nolan, so last week Bea and I decided to record one of our own. In the annals of audio commentaries recorded by people who were not themselves involved in the making of the film, can it take its place alongside, for instance, Peter Bogdanovich on Citizen Kane? Well, I haven't heard that one, so for all I know, yeah, maybe.

Or maybe not. We hadn't really prepared, and although Bea and I both have quite a lot to say about Inception, the film is 142 minutes long, and we definitely don't have 142 minutes of insights about Inception. We have, on a generous estimate, 20 minutes. So, like real life, the commentary is mostly composed of pauses, repetitions, banalities and digressions. Other problems here include my mis- and over-use of words like "materiality" and "Borgesian" in an attempt to justify this project with respect to my status as an aspiring public intellectual; Bea's insistence, based largely on the presence of Leonard DiCaprio, that Inception is a sort of crypto-sequel to Titanic; my own forlorn determination to prove, with frequent but vague references to certain personal misfortunes in the period of the film's release, that Inception is the greatest break-up film since Swingers; Bea's intense but ambivalent relationship with the feminist conceptual framework of her Film Studies MA; the cocker spaniel barking in the background; and so on.

Oh, wait, have I inadvertently make it sound fantastic? Forget that.

Anyway, we had fun doing it. And next time, we'll do better. (What film shall we pick? I vote Cloverfield, another Hollywood blockbuster that made cry and probably shouldn't have.) Do we seriously think anyone will listen to the whole thing? Well, maybe. For example, you may recently have thought to yourself, "I am on the internet and I would like to lose all my remaining respect for '20-something hipster novelist' Ned Beauman, but I can't just look at his Twitter feed, which is the usual method, because he's not on Twitter – what shall I do?" In that case, this is your lucky day. I suggest you put on your DVD of Inception, turn the sound down, pause it at 0:00:01, download this file, start both simultaneously, and join Bea and me as, like Mal and Cobb, we wander aimlessly through the unpopulated landscape of our own minds.