Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Remembering Rand

In 1957 Ayn Rand published the metaphysical SF novel “Atlas Shrugged” which has been re-issued and is selling well; so Existentialist Man poses the question “Did Ayn Rand predict the current economic collapse in her work?”

“Since I am to speak on the Objectivist Ethics, I shall begin by quoting its best representative-John Galt, in Atlas Shrugged: "Through centuries of scourges and disasters, brought about by your code of morality, you have cried that your code had been broken, that the scourges were punishment for breaking it, that men were too weak and too selfish to spill all the blood it required” - The Opening of The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand

As a businessman and scientist I have always been interested in science and mystery fiction, as well as philosophy and reality. Pondering on the current economic collapse, I was intrigued what SF has to say about this situation. I always thought that the civilization / reality we have crafted around us would collapse [in golden age SF traditions] by an asteroid impact, an alien invasion of Triffids, a virus destroying plant life, Body Snatchers, a Mega-Volcano eruption, or a Nuclear Exchange, Martians or a man made virus escaping. It seems that Amy Rand’s 1957 novel ‘Atlas Shrugged’ was closer to the reality we see emerging since the economic crisis, as reported by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian -

Some products do comparatively well in times of recession: alcohol, chocolate, cinema tickets, cigarettes. But one surprise bestseller of the economic Armageddon is a decades-old science fiction novel about an imaginary economic Armageddon - popular now, its fans insist, because the collapse of civilisation it describes is on the verge of coming true.

Sales of Ayn Rand's 1957 book Atlas Shrugged - a hymn in praise of radical individualism, extreme self-interest and laissez-faire capitalism - are surging as the crisis deepens, according to TitleZ, a service that tracks sales trends on Amazon.

As of yesterday, the book's 30-day average rank on the website was 110, far above its average rank of 542 over the last two years. On 13 January it even briefly outperformed Barack Obama's wildly popular work The Audacity of Hope. Yesterday it was in 55th place, between The Reader and a book on cultivating very small gardens.

Atlas Shrugged tends to inspire either cult-like devotion or sarcastic mockery in readers, who are either thrilled or appalled by Rand's vision of a world in which the "men of the mind" - inventors, entrepreneurs and industrialists - withdraw their labour from a society intent on bleeding them dry with taxes and regulations.

Furious at being exploited by the government on behalf of the masses, who are described as "parasites" and "moochers", the striking capitalists retreat to a camp in the mountains of Colorado, protected by a special holographic shield.

Starved of their genius, society collapses and wars break out until eventually bureaucrats are forced to beg the rebels' leader, John Galt, to take over the economy. There is a reason, then, that Amazon categorises the book as fantasy. But Rand adherents see looming parallels in today's Washington.

The Obama administration's support for beleaguered homeowners and banks, they argue, smacks of tyrannical socialism, forcing the strong and successful to prop up the weak, feckless and incompetent. "The current economic strategy is right out of Atlas Shrugged," the commentator Stephen Moore wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal. "The more incompetent you are in business, the more handouts the politicians will bestow on you."

Obama's frequently expressed view that the crisis demands that all Americans make sacrifices - and that those earning the most will need to "chip in a little more" - would have disgusted Rand, who believed that altruism was evil.
Read the full feature here

These are surreal times indeed and worrying so perhaps it’s time to listen to what Rand described in ‘Atlas Shrugged’

Atlas Shrugged sweeps the reader into its own world of larger-than-life characters—including the productive genius who becomes a worthless playboy and the great industrialist who doesn’t know that he is working for his own destruction. The story is a mystery about a man who said that he would stop the motor of the world—and did. Society disintegrates, food shortages spark riots, factories shutdown by the hundreds. Is this man a vicious destroyer—or the greatest of liberators? What is the motor of the world? What is required to restart it?

The answers emerge in the novel’s logical yet astounding climax. The answers are of profound significance not merely for the resolution of the story’s central conflict— but also for man’s life in reality, today.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Existential French Bookstore

I love bookstores and have visited many over the years throughout the world; but perhaps the most existential is the renowned Shakespeare and Company in Paris. Of course from the land of Camus and Manchette it is little surprise to find such a curious bookstore. In today’s Guardian, novelist Jeanette Winterson has a feature article on the history of this Parisian tourist attraction for Bibliophiles who visit from all over the world. Winterson’s piece reminded me of when I spent an entire day browsing reading and talking about books, which was one of the most remarkable memories of Paris I have.

Winterston reports today –

Way back, in 1913, the original Shakespeare and Company was opened by a young American called Sylvia Beach. Her shop in rue de l'Odéon soon became the place for all the English-speaking writers in Paris. Her lover, Adrienne Monnier, owned the French bookstore across the road, and she and Beach ran back and forth, finding penniless writers a place to stay, lending them books, arranging loans, taking their mail, sending their work to small magazines and, most spectacularly, publishing James Joyce's Ulysses in 1922 when no one else would touch it. Hemingway was a regular at the shop, and writes about it in his memoir A Moveable Feast. His spare, emotional prose makes a poignant story of those early days, when material things weren't so important, and if you could get time to read and write, and live on cheap oysters and coarse bread and sleep by a stove somewhere, then you were happy.
It was Hemingway, as a major in the US army, who at the liberation of Paris in 1945 drove his tank straight to the shuttered Shakespeare and Company and personally liberated Sylvia Beach. "No one that I ever knew was nicer to me," he said later, rich, famous and with a Nobel prize.

But after the war, Beach was older and tired. She didn't reopen the shop that had been forced into closure by the occupation. It was George Whitman who took over the spirit of what she had made, but not the name - until 1962, when Beach attended a reading by Lawrence Durrell at the bookstore and they all agreed that it should be renamed Shakespeare and Company.
George took in the beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Henry Miller ate from the stewpot, but was too grand to sleep in the tiny writers' room. Anaïs Nin left her will under George's bed. There are signed photos from Rudolf Nureyev and Jackie Kennedy, signed copies of Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs.

George opened his doors midday to midnight, and the deal then is the deal now: sleep in the shop, on tiny beds hidden among the bookstacks; work for two hours a day helping out with the running of the place; and, crucially, read a book a day, whatever you like, but all the way through, unless maybe it's War and Peace, in which case you can take two days.

George still reads a book a day, and gets very cross if he hears that anyone is wasting his time. You can be bawled out of Shakespeare and Company just as suddenly as you are invited in. The spirit of the place has to be honoured, and there are no exceptions.

At any time there are six or more young people from the compass points of the world, reading, talking, thinking, boiling spaghetti in the kettle, running across the road to the public showers, stacking, carrying, selling, stock-taking, and all in a spirit of energy and enterprise that is not to be found in any chain bookstores. They stay for two weeks or two months, and some just sleep outside on a bench until there's room inside.

If you are a published writer, then you might be able to stay in the tiny pod of the writers' room, and huddle against an ancient plug-in radiator and not worry too much if the electricity goes down and you have to abandon your laptop for a notepad. "There was no running water, no electricity when we started," George says. "It didn't matter. That stuff doesn't matter. Books, people, ideas, that's what matters."

Thousands of people have come through his doors, slept in his shop, eaten at his table, and many of them still write to him, or return. There's nothing quaint or historicalised about Shakespeare and Company. The values, the ethos and hospitality don't change, but the shop goes forward with the times. In 2006, aged 92, George retired, and his daughter, named after the original Sylvia, took over. She was 25 - the age difference tells you a lot about George, his appetites and his energies.

Sylvia lived in the shop until she was seven; then, after her parents' divorce, she went with her mother to be educated in England. It wasn't her intention to take over the shop, but she was drawn back in, and she has made it her life. "When I first arrived, we didn't even have a phone and Penguin was threatening to cut us off for not paying their bills, so I had to run round St Michel looking for a pay phone and ring Accounts in Essex." She adores her father, and is committed to carrying on his legacy - but in her own way. "Dad was furious when I took out one of the beds and installed a computer. When I told him we were going to start a literary festival and a publishing business, he said: 'Who's gonna cook for all those extra people?'"

Read all of Jeanette Winterson’s Guardian feature on Shakespeare and Company here and next time you find yourself in Paris and need something to read that will feed your mind, then head to Shakespeare and Company

More information here and notes from the 2008 literary festival here the next one is in 2010

Directions Here

Shakespeare & Company
37 rue de la Bûcherie
75005 Paris
Tel : 00 33 (0) 1 43 25 40 93
Mon - Sat 10am - 11pm
Sunday 11am - 11pm

History of Shakespeare and Company Here

Monday, March 2, 2009

Peace comes to TV and Cinema

I have followed the complex world of David Peace since he debuted with his ‘Red Riding series of “novels”. These books are a fictional re-telling of the Yorkshire Ripper case. I was impressed that it was UK independent publisher Serpent’s Tail that first published Peace. I was fortunate to interview David Peace a few years ago for Crimespree Magazine when he launched GB84, a fictional and politically charged look back at the British Coal Miner’s Strike in 1984. I interviewed David with fellow Northern Crime Writer Martyn Waites in the Yorkshire city of Leeds.

A section of my interview was featured at The Rap Sheet, and naturally I was interested in his response to my asking about the origins of the Red Riding series -

AK: So how did you get Nineteen Seventy Four published, as I understand you had a series of rejected books in your third drawer?

DP: Lots, in fact. ... In fact, one of the reasons why I went to teach abroad was that I couldn’t get my books published. I wrote Nineteen Seventy Four purely for myself, to amuse myself in Tokyo. My dad came out and he read it, and told me that I should give it another go and submit it. He also brought some books by some new British crime writers and told me that he thought that Nineteen Seventy Four was better than those he had just read. I read them too and felt the same. I went to Serpent’s Tail first, as I admired what they were publishing--Walter Mosley and George Pelecanos; in fact, they had just published the early Nick Stefanos novels at the time.

Now David Peace has been in the press a great deal of late due to the screening this week of the Channel 4’s adaptation of the Red Riding series, as well as the Film Adaptation of his fictional re-telling of the Brian Clough Management of Leed United Football Club – ‘The Damned United’.

The Observer’s Euan Ferguson meets the three film directors behind Channel 4’s Red Riding series –

The three individual directors of Red Riding, the C4 trilogy adapting David Peace's haunting evocations of 70s and 80s Yorkshire - interlinking tales of very fallible coppers, very noir hacks, very human killers - are sitting down talking about the process for pretty much the very first time. They had a couple of suppers together way back at the beginning, but today, they're talking, really talking, for the first time.

Julian Jarrold, James Marsh and Anand Tucker, three very different directors, were trusted by producer Andrew Eaton with his long-term labour of love: the on-screen evocation, after it had been wrestled into a blinding screenplay by Tony Grisoni, of Peace's sprawling, unforgiving series of books set loosely around the time of the Yorkshire Ripper. The result is whatever the plural is for more than one tour de force. We're only in March, but if it doesn't clean up at next year's awards I'll eat that chintz. The filming, of three discreet but linked films (1974, 1980, 1983), had, by definition, to dovetail, collide, overlap, but the directors didn't.
"We tried not to liaise too much, really," says Jarrold. "The freedom we've been given is incredible. But, in a way, the script was so strong that it would have been hard to misinterpret."

While The Times runs a profile on David Peace

Peace was born in 1967 and was raised in Ossett, near Wakefield, where his parents were primary school teachers. There was plenty to read at home, ranging from his mother’s “religious” books to his father’s library of fiction: “We had the Penguin Classics as well as things like Raymond Chandler and Ernest Hemingway, and local writers such as John Braine, Alan Sillitoe and Stan Barstow [who lived in Ossett].” He spent as little time as possible at Batley grammar school, diverted by mischief and comic books: “I would have wanted to be a comic-book writer if I could draw.”

He bought Das Kapital when he was about 12, “though I didn’t read much of it”, and subscribed to Soviet Weekly and Peace News. Clubs and drinking had more appeal: “I was the kind of person who was beaten up a lot. Usually it was brought on by the fact that I’d insist on having the last word on any subject.”

In the musical thrall of the Sisters of Mercy, at about 13 he joined a band, yelling his own lyrics in pubs and at gigs supporting the miners. Peace’s father was branded “Red Basil” in the local press for giving harvest festival donations to striking miners’ families rather than to needy pensioners. “[The Ripper] dominated the conversation. A lot of the time you were really sick of it; you just wished it would go away.” On the day Sutcliffe was arrested and charged in 1981, Peace bunked off school to witness the scene outside Dewsbury magistrates’ court, although he denied that he joined in the mob’s baying. After “a bit of messing about”, he ended up at Manchester Polytechnic in 1987, but left the following year to attempt the great British novel, roundly rejected by every publisher in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. “At the time I thought I was the William Burroughs of Manchester. Looking back, it was pretentious rubbish.”

While the Guardian has a fascinating interview with Peace

He casts around a bit in his childhood. His parents were both primary school teachers, he went to Batley Grammar. Who knows? "Partly it was Yorkshire. Looking back, it often seemed tinged with violence to me somehow. It's quite a hard place, I suppose, and for a while I was the kind of person who was beaten up a lot. Just in pubs and wherever. And usually it was brought on by the fact that I'd insist on having the last word on any subject. Then further back there was all the Ripper stuff. I remember saying in an interview once that I used to worry that my dad was the Yorkshire Ripper. That is true, but only in the way that everybody feared their father was. That was the effect it had. What I was trying to convey was the level of paranoia it created."

To start with, Peace relieved his angst in a band he likes to think sounded like a cross between the Fall and the Birthday Party. He wrote the lyrics and screamed them, at local pubs and miners' benefit gigs. "And then there was an obsession with Joy Division, and all that, dead poets. My dad once pointed out to me that all the writers I admired had killed themselves. He was right."

In a sense, moving to Tokyo seemed to lock him into some of that gothic sensibility, at least in his work. He's charming, modest and relaxed in conversation, a good listener, but he describes himself as obsessive in some respects also. "If I like a certain writer or a band, you know, I definitely have to know and probably own everything they have done." That kind of obsessive tendency seems to inflect his writing in different ways. At times, he gets so entranced by the rhythm of a paragraph or the cadence of a phrase that he seems to want to keep turning it over, endlessly. It's hypnotic, crafted and sometimes alarming. I wonder if, to begin with, he thinks the style had anything to do with his day job, parsing sentences for uncomprehending Japanese students?

"Friends have said that. I don't know. My wife isn't a fluent English speaker. Perhaps that has made a difference to how I write. What I do know is I walk round this room and say everything out loud over and over to get it right. Or sometimes I'll get a kind of obsession where you will have to have in a sentence the first word as six letters, the second as five, the third as four and so on. Mad stuff. That became a problem. If you look in Tokyo Occupied City, there are bits that are left over from the months I was doing that. Balancing the number of words in a line."

Those months, he suggests, coincided with a period of depression that began around the time he turned 40, two years ago. "There were things going on at home, problems with being in Japan. But it was the writing really. One of the points I reached was a sense that language had no meaning." He laughs now. "That was quite disturbing." In the end he wrote his way out of it, tried on different voices. "If I had been in Britain, I would have sought some help, but that wasn't an option here."

While Peace wrote a fascinating article for The New Statesman about the case of The Yorkshire Ripper –

The hunt for the man who would become the Yorkshire Ripper began in Leeds on 30 October 1975 with the murder of Wilma McCann. His first four victims were described by the police and press as "good-time girls" - prostitutes. But then, in June 1977, the Ripper killed a 16-year-old shop assistant. This murder caused public outrage, bringing intense pressure on West Yorkshire Police, pressure that was to increase with each murder and assault. In April 1979, the Ripper killed another "innocent girl" in Halifax. It was in the aftermath of this tenth death that the police decided to release excerpts from a cassette tape and letters that they believed had been sent to them by the Ripper.

No one who heard the tape will ever forget the Geordie voice that taunted the police and threatened to kill again. Nor will anyone ever forget the siege of fear it laid to the entire north of England. The tape convinced senior Yorkshire detectives that the Ripper was from Wearside. They believed that the tape and letters contained information that only he, the killer, could have known. They also believed the Ripper had left behind clues that would eventually help catch him, and so launched a million-pound publicity campaign to "flush out the Ripper". One clue was the reference in the first two letters to the murder of a woman called Joan Harrison in Preston, Lancashire, in 1975. This murder was now regarded by West Yorkshire Police as the work of the Ripper.

Three murders later, two uniformed policemen approached a parked car in Sheffield's red-light district on 2 January 1981. Inside it were a prostitute and her punter. The punter was Peter William Sutcliffe, a 34-year-old, married lorry driver from Bradford. He was not a Geordie. But, two days later, he confessed to being the Yorkshire Ripper.

Twenty-two years after the arrest of Sutcliffe for 13 murders and seven assaults, there is no end in sight for the communities he terrorised. Uncertainty remains as to how Sutcliffe could have done what he says he did and why, and how the police could have let him and why. Sutcliffe's trial at the Old Bailey and the subsequent review of the police investigation by Sir Lawrence Byford, the chief inspector of constabulary for England and Wales, should have answered the public's questions. Neither did.

Look out for Red Riding on ITV this Thursday [in the UK] and I am pretty sure DVD releases will follow shortly.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Enter The Barbarians

This economic gloom is really hitting the worlds of publishing and books hard, and it makes me very sad.

Though there are some surreal sides to the effect the economic downturn is having on books, as reported in a piece at January Magazine.

We all need to enthuse as many people we know about the importance of reading.