Beware Your Chair!

Don’t sit down. Your chair will kill you.

At least that’s what Olivia Judson, an opinonator (why does this make me think of “terminator”) for the NYT and author of Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation (which I have read and enjoyed for its titillation as well as its probing insight) has declared.

It seems as though the innocuous, inanimate chair is as harmful as an evangelical. Too much derrière in it and you’ll either put on pounds or be prone to health problems and meet your maker much sooner than the maker of your chair.

It’s depressing news since I spend about 8 to 12 hours a day sitting. Of course I break it up with a good dose of writing, reading, relaxing, and sitting. But I do take about a half hour to a forty-five minute walk each day and am up and playing with my four-year-old daughter and up and down to the toilet, too.

And what does this mean for pilots? Should they get out of the cockpit more often? Jog down the fuselage and disarm suspected terrorists themselves? And what about lap dancers? Are they at all worried about the amount of time they are sitting in strangers’ laps? Or does their jiggling and dancing counteract the sinful act of sitting?

Instead of her prolonged dirge to our Deaths by Chairs, I wished Judson had come up with some solutions — besides exercising as the antidote to a sedentary life (haven’t we known this since sitcoms became popular?) — as to how to fix the working environment that expects you to sit for 8-plus hours. Surely we need to change that work environment first? Which isn’t going to happen any time soon unless we are all prepared to give our out-worn reality a good quantum kick in the backside and start living the way the quantum world imagines we should be living.

At least, I would argue, sitting doesn’t create a moral schism. Look at Tiger Woods. Here’s a man who was on his feet all day and yet he fell into a pit of infidelity and is now sitting on the cucking stool.

Plus the Right Honourable Lady of the Chair has failed to mention that it is, at least in America, a person’s constitutional right to sit — or stand. Just because I prefer to sit should not make me out to be a glutton for punishment, should it?

And since I started on this site the lost art of insult, here’s one to deal with those saintly standers who wish to pull the chair out from underneath you.

“You bucket-seat scurf, may your cushions disown you and your buttocks find no rest in this world.”


The Black-Out Book: 500 Family Games and Puzzles for Wartime Entertainment. This book was originally published and disturbed at the time of the London Blitz. It’s a fun read full of brainteasers, quotes, riddles, poems, limericks, cartoons, astronomy lessons, word games, and more miscellany. And it’s got wonderful vintage illustrations and fonts. It was written as a paean to domestic life, or as the great C.K. Chesterton puts it: “Of all modern notions, the worst is this: that domesticity is dull. Inside the home, they say, is dead decorum and routine; outside is adventure and variety. But the truth is that home is the only place of liberty, the only spot on earth where a man can alter arrangements suddenly, make an experiment or indulge a whim.”


Friendly Fires. This St. Alban’s trio pull a lot of the DNA for their songs from the Talking Heads, Heaven 17, Haircut One Hundred, New Order, the Foals, and even strands of early Duran Duran. My daughter and I have been dancing crazy to it.

Colossal Youth by the Young Marble Giants. I recently got this post-punk Cardiff band’s only album and it’s amazing.  They created a real pioneering sound that nobody else was doing, creating a moonage music that is so withdrawn and crackling with stillness and with an ambient mood of solitude and stealth. Their music is like floating through a molecule and finding the electrical charge of silence. They create this grand minimalist sound around the female singer’s voice, Alison Statton — and her voice is like one you’d find in a busy factory, singing to herself of the beauty of the outside world. Plus they sound even better in headphones.


Quips, Cusses, and Curses

I’d like to get my hands on Robert Graves’ book Lars Porsena — On the Future of Swearing. In it he laments about the decline of good Anglo-Saxon blasphemies and takes his rapier wit to the censorship laws of 1962.

Which got me thinking. What ever happened to the lost art of insult? Shakespeare’s characters are well-known for their sharp retorts and rejoinders. The Anglo-Saxons knew how to fling pungent put-downs and ego-crushing maledictions. Even politicians used to have verbal Greek fire to spit. Lady Astor, Churchill’s nemesis, once told him: “If I were your wife I’d put poison in your coffee.” To which Sir Winston Bulldog replied, “And if I were your husband I would drink it.”

So with Voltaire’s droll dictum, “Degenerate suns make a graveyard of the sky,” I have decided to offer a few insults that might help a person get through their day.

I shall start with an insult that can be used effectively against the menacing powers of the librarian. The one that glares at you when you return an over-due book or is visibly disgusted and slides Olivia Judson’s Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation across to you as if it’s smut.

Here is the insult. And it’s best to say it in a steady, unflustered way and swish your long scarf around your neck when you are done as if you are an infamous picaro.

“You bibliodreck! I hope your fucking heart expires on the pages of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.  And thank you for renewing my book.”

The Session of Sweet, Silent Thought

The Books section of the Guardian has posted advice from a broad spectrum of writers about 10 Rules for Writing Fiction inspired by Elmore Leonard’s ten commandments. It’s a cool list of writers that includes Jeanette Winterson, Michael Moorcock, Philip Pullman, Sarah Waters, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Anne Enright, Geoff Dyer, Will Self, Neil Gaiman, and more.

It’s fascinating what each writer considers important to the writing experience. There’s some gems there as well as duds. The best advice I took away from it would be this holy trinity: Write, edit, and edit some more. The most pointless don’t was this one from Richard Ford: “Don’t have children.” Total crap. That’s like saying don’t have sex unless you mean to have offspring. Actually his rules are the weakest of the bunch. Which leads perfectly into this advice from Moorcock: “Ignore all proferred rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say.”

And to get semantic, I’m not sure “rules” is the best noun to use. I’d use “advice.” Rules imply an explicit adhering to, and if I come away with anything from these rules, I think it is use at your own discretion.

Here are the 15 I would be able to live and work with, tacked up beside my writing desk along with the most useful advice I’ve come across in a long while: “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

1. Write

2. Love what you do. (Winterson))

4. Trust your creativity. (Winterson)

5. Do it every day. The most important rule of all and, naturally, one I don’t follow. (Dyer)

6. When people tell you something is wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. (Gaiman)

7. Never take advice from anyone with no investment in the outcome. (David Hare)

8. Write whatever way you like. Fiction is made of words on a page; reality is made of something else. It doesn’t matter how “real” your story is, or how “made up”: what matters is its necessity. (Enright)

9. Write for tomorrow, not today (Motion)

10. Always carry a notebook. The short-term memory only retains information fro three minutes. (Self)

11. Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom. (Winterson)

12. Stop reading fiction, it’s all lies anyway, and it doesn’t have anything to tell you that you don’t already know (assuming that is, you’ve read a great deal of fiction in the past). (Self)

13. Have more than one idea on the go at any moment. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the later. (Dyer)

14. Protect the time and space in which you write. (Zadie Smith)

15. Hold the reader’s attention. (Atwood)

All’s Fair in Flambé & Flaneur

Thank god for procrastination.  Without it I’d be successful to the point of boring myself with faux melodramatic episodes. I’d believe I couldn’t do any better since what I’d achieved was more than most people ever dreamt.

Translation: I should be working on my writing. But what’s the point, I sometimes giggle, of stretching your longbow if the arrow’s the size of a dart?

Or to put it another way: What’s the point of wearing a wetsuit when your own skin is just fine. Or what about this: Some days I just don’t want to do what I have to do.

Responsibility. Where in the evolutionary scheme of things did this monster rear its ugly head? Was the fish responsible for the amphibian that crawled on land? Or was the amphibian responsible for the fish it left behind? Was the ape responsible for the man who walked away from the tree? Or the man responsible for the ape he left hanging?

I think responsibility became important only when the evolutionists and the creationists had to decide which was more likely: nature or divinity.

And responsibility has been torn, bruised, and dislocated ever since because humanity can’t decide who it should be more responsible to.

In such light, my hesitancy seems well-balanced, I think.


The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death by the Housemartins. Phenomenal, timeless album, even after 20 odd years. And listening to it on vinyl only adds to its beauty. It’s northern soul. And now I want to go and listen to the Beautiful South and maybe even get an earful of Fatboy Slim.


The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti. Great swashbuckling tale that takes place in a New England of farming towns and whaling ports and features a one-handed orphan who takes up with a charlatan. It’s a quiet read with no fancy narrative tricks or big ideas, but Tinti is a fantastic storyteller who spins a gothic adventure full of memorable characters.

The Marzipan Pig

So it started like this. The confectioner had suddenly lost his marzipan pig. One minute it had been quietly standing amid a field of rich green fudge, the next, the chocolate and praline gate was open and the hedge of nougat had been munched.

Flustered into a fit that resembled a good peaked meringue, the confectioner donned his lace bonnet and called for his wife, the butcher.

She came after the clock’s sugared hands had moved exactly ten minutes around the citrus face. Her apron was bloody. Crimson stains trickled in the deep crevices of her large hands. A plucked chicken was slung over her shoulder, its pinpricked bag of flesh lathered in golden slabs of butter.

She had not seen the swine. And she had the casing of sausages waiting to be stuffed.

Close to hysterics, the confectioner raced to the milliner. The boar-faced milliner with pork-chops whiskers was dusting off a porkpie. He had seen neither trotters or wiggly tail of the porker.

On the edge of a nervous breakdown, the confectioner dashed to the chandler. He was melting the fat of a pig in a gargantuan vat.  Beside him stood an army of tiny candles in the shapes of piglets.

The confectioner felt a constriction twinge across his chest. He would try the undertaker. She was daintily applying rouge to an old sow’s sagging lips. The family’s crest, a boar’s head under which stood a pork barrel, hung over the corpse, the porcine features uncannily resembling the dead woman.

On the point of a mental breakdown, the confectioner crawled to the ostler. He was reclined on top of a hogshead, hogging a flagon of Old Thumper close to his piggish snout. He snorted at the confectioner and squelched his big black boots, made by the famous shoemaker Mr Pigstick, in the mud. He had not seen the marzipan pig. Although he had two cinnamon mares, a chocolate pony, and a lovely almond-eyed gelding.

Tears welling in his eyes, the confectioner turned to leave, his heart heavy like a sack of hard sugar never to make icing again.

And then he saw it. His pig. His marzipan pig.

The poet’s daughter with pigtails was sucking on the wiggly pink sugar tail. Already the pig’s eyes were gone and one of its legs was reduced to a sugar stump.

Bristling, the confectioner approached the little girl. She smiled and bit off the marzipan pig’s head.

The confectioner dropped to his knees. His face disfigured into the likeness of a wild boar before the spring rut. “Where did you get that pig?” he grunted.

Smiling demurely, the girl replied, “From your shop, stupid. You sold it to me this morning.”

Every Man In His Humour

John Crace is a cherry on the top of the literary world. He’s a writer for the Guardian’s Books section who pens the “Digested Read” column. In it he satirizes the most popular writers, going after clunky plots, pretentious styles, risible dialogue, and anything else he can sniff out with his wonderful sense of play. He says he does it as a semi-serious critique and to entertain. And I wouldn’t argue.

As a reader and a writer (who has a short story in an upcoming sci-fi anthology, Timeshares, out on March 2 by DAW Books) I like his style of critique. Most reviewers of books these days are nothing more than panting tongues who never find a thing wrong with the story. It’s all a bunch of positive ions with a net electrical charge of loss. And I mean loss for the potential reader.

I’m not advocating for scathing reviews that butcher, but I am looking for clear, insightful, literary criticism. And it doesn’t have to be dull and serious and over a person’s head — as Crace has amply proved.

A good review can help a reader decide if in the great overload of books to choose from, a certain title is worth the time and money.

But I’m the first to admit that I hardly ever buy or take a book out of the library (which is the finest example of democracy at work) based on a review. I find books to read by browsing bookstores; reading authors that my favourite ones suggest; or even checking out the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” at Amazon. Rarely do I pick up a book because of a review.

That’s my own bias, of course. I’m just not that interested in what someone else has to say about a book before I’ve read it unless he or she says it in a way that captures my interest. And as I’ve already mentioned, most of the reviews I do read, when the bug bites me, I find are paying lip service to the author, rolling around in the author’s patch of clover and telling you to do the same. Nettles to that.

Not John Crace. Every “Digested Read” gets to the fibre of the book through his satirical take. Yes he can be cruel at times, but the best satire is a way to get to the difficult places in a narrative (or even in life), places we might otherwise over-look because it’s easier to ignore the demanding.

Crace is like a particle accelerator as he sends the beams of his satirical and critical mind (like protons in opposite directions) into a book and then smashes the narrative up and lets you as a reader sift through the critical explosions that should result in a Big Bang of new thinking, seeing, and even understanding.

The thing is, though, who is going to parody Crace?

She Walks in Beauty

Every once in a while a man must unbutton his cerebral duffel coat and get in touch with the flesh and blood of his mortal coil.

I work in the magazine business, so from time to time I look at magazines. One that recently crossed my messy desk was the cover of New York magazine. With most regional magazines I blink, and the covers with indigenous non-entities fade to black.

Not this particular one. I put it down to the voluptuous redhead in a corset on the cover.

That bodice-wearing redhead is Christina Hendricks and she is being heralded as the poster girl for a new kind of beauty. Which sounds like a media hammer to the head if ever there was one. I believe beauty to be in the eye of the beholder, and I’ve always considered a voluptuous shape beautiful. Still, it’s refreshing to see a full-figured woman on the cover of a magazine instead of the usual lo mein suspects. I’m glad that society is once more embracing women with figures that Chaucer would be proud of.

I’m sick of seeing the Deathly Hollows models who look like they’ve just clawed their way out the of the tomb and rattled themselves off to the front pages of glamour.

When a woman walks in beauty like the night, she should do so with some Rubenesque curves and have a shapely figure mama. Looking like a sister of Venus is so much better than resembling a scion of the Grim Reaper.

Plus corsets are damn hot. And I say that objectively, with a bit of the deconstructionist, post-modern, Metamagical Themas in me having an outlet.

It’s no good being recondite all the time if a man can’t sometimes get a whiff of his pre-cognitive self.

Right, nuff said about modern women in Victorian corsets, you’ll think I’m hot off the griddle.

“Poetry is, above all, a singing art of natural and magical connection.” Brendan Kennelly, Irish poet