That’s Fantastic, Mr. Fox

I’m reading Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox to my four-year-old daughter. She loves it, especially the enjoyable rhyme about the rotten farmers:

“Boggis and Bunce and Bean

One fat, one short, one lean.

These horrible crooks

So different in looks

Were nonetheless equally mean.”

It’s a rhyme worthy of being sung by Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon.

Dahl is a fantastic writer. He knows how to flip the adult world on its soft head and with a big, brash show announce, “Look at our wonderful and absurd antics.”

And Wes Anderson’s film is right on. I think Dahl would have loved it. Anderson likes to portray the dynamics of dysfunctional families and the beauty that lies within those crazy cracks and faults, and Dahl’s Mr. Fox and his family was a perfect choice.

There is something fantastic about a wild and wily fox outsmarting greedy and slothful humans. And the simple as well as annoying act of stealing chickens reminds me of the myth of Prometheus, stealing back fire from Zeus.

And it feels so right that Ted Hughes, sickened by the strictures of his English degree, encountered a figure with the body of a man and the head of a fox who put a bloody paw on his papers and said, “You’re killing us.”

And if ever there was a trickster, it had to be Roald Dahl.

I remember when I first read James and the Giant Peach, I pestered my parents to buy a peach tree for our back garden in Wales. I must have been desperate to have talking insect friends and to sail away over Carmarthen Bay, heading toward the Emerald Isles or farther, maybe, into the land of Tir Na n’Og.

My parents ended up getting pear trees. Which I now see as a fantastic adult prank.


The Phantom Tollbooth. This has been called a contemporary Alice in Wonderland. And it is. Norton Juster writes like a madman who can’t get enough of the shape, the sounds, the taste, the meaning, the history, the wonder of words. And he does so much with so little: A bored young boy.


Love Hysteria by Peter Murphy. The Lord of Goth’s finest solo album. Murphy moves through each song like a snake shedding its skin. It’s a hypnotic album for late-night listening when the house has that deep-set silence that seems inexhaustible, but isn’t.

Go Away White by Bauhaus. Yes, I’m having a Goth relapse. But Bauhaus, along with the Smiths, Japan, and Echo and the Bunnymen, and Joy Division, put the “kick” in my teenage self. This album is on par with The Sky’s Gone Out and In The Flat Field.  And as is to be expected, it mixes elements of Murhpy’s solo work with Love and Rockets. I want to go and unearth my Anne Rice and drink from the cup of solitude. Or listen to Bowie’s Scary Monsters.


Spring Surprised Us

April the cruelest month! No way Mr. Eliot. Not this year.

Elm trees are swarming with white blossoms. Armies of forget-me-knots are thick with green and sending out a few reconnaissance blue flowers. Daffodils are swaying like mad yellow dogs. The forsythia is like liquid gold drizzled along the fields and roads.

Only this morning a platoon of wild turkeys skulked through the back garden, the Jake leading a harem of Jennies, the male’s feathers like an Indian’s headdress. And they want to breed, but not out of a dead earth. Their earth is powered by the dynamo of the green fuse, lighting the garden with green filaments of grass.

At night there are the peepers with their amphibian broadcasts from the small pond outside my window.

And when the moths clamber at the windows with anxious wings, I can’t help but feel the same small excitement as the insects as I finish a sentence in my novel.

It’s the small acts that surprise us the most.

“The way I look at it is this: the rich man is not he who has plenty of money, but he who has the means to live now in the luxurious surroundings given us by early spring.” Chekhov

In Cars

I was listening to NPR this morning and because it’s poetry month they had a section on poetry for awkward adolescents — and who hasn’t been one of them? Jesus, I’m still awkward.

There’s a poem in the collection by Stephen Dunn called “The Sacred” that’s terrific.

I want to exist like that young poet in the poem who sits in a car before he can drive; just sits there with the radio turned on, understanding “the bright altar of the dashboard,” alive to the idea of motion even though he is sitting still.

There’s something primal about that need for a space of one’s own or the chance to fly free from a situation or circumstances or just to be oneself.

This line glimmers, like a penny in a pool. “The key/ in having a key/ and putting it in, and going.”

And I can feel myself putting a key in the ignition for the very first time, that exhilaration, that trepidation, that animal instinct to begin. And I remember the very first time I unlocked the back door of my house and wandered off on my own to some wet and muddy field in Wales to hear the crows and see the sheep stream along the nibbled grass like an army of fleeing responsibility.

What has happened to that sacredness that Dunn explores in his poem?

Now I get into my car and it’s a burden to start up the engine and drive into work. The magic sound of the engine coming alive is like a cruel laugh. The motion of the car mechanical and humdrum. The emptying gas tank little more than an annoyance. The blinking signal a mind-numbing distraction like the miserable news on the radio. And even the radio pumps out crude oil and no amount of fishing for a channel to listen to can bring you satisfaction.

Where is that poetical car? Where is that car that can take me anywhere?

I think all I have to do is put my foot to the pedal of my heart and I’ll find it.

Slightly Foxy Pages

I was in aisle 5 today at the grocery store, where all the canned food is shelved, and a friend asked: “Have you ever been to Hooters?”

I went to one in Florida. It was all tits and asses. Not that I minded. But, I was trying to eat a chicken breast sandwich. And when I went to leave a tip, the Hooter started swirling a hula hoop.

Same kind of thing happened to me in Amsterdam. I walk into this strip joint, and the scruffy guy in the glass-encased booth shouts to me: “You need to be fully clothed to come in here.”

I had more luck in Galway. There was this strip joint there that was called the Celtic Tiger. I went in dressed like Boadicea and actually got a pole dance named in my honor.

Not so lucky in Las Vegas. I started yelling “Is that full-grain leather?” when the dominitrix came in with leather bodice and braided whip. I left with a fat lip.

Bit more luck in Munich, though. When the call girl asked me if I liked tea bagging, I pulled out my teapot, cosey, and pack of PG Tips and replied, “Jesus, yes. The stronger the better.” I left reformed.

Some sound writing advice from Norman Mailer:

“Over the years, I’ve found one rule. It is the only one I give on those occasions when I talk about writing. A simple rule. If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time. Count on me, you are saying to a few forces below: I will be there to write.”

Here’s another about the art of being controversial:

“Look, most writers who are timid are afraid of pissing people off, because they feel they’ll lose part of their audience. My feeling has always been that one mustn’t be afraid of that. It’s much better to write with the notion that if you’re good enough, you can change people’s lives. That’s one of the powerful motives of writing, to feel that you’ve enlarged other people’s consciousness. And the way you do that is you open their minds. Now that can be painful and irritating and annoying or worse for people, but you can’t look back.”

And here’s a good one about knowing when your work is done:

“When I read it, I don’t wince, which is all I ever ask for a book I write.”

His Bright Material

I love this quote from Philip Pullman. He’s one gem of a writer — by which I mean he mines the minerals of the self and the world and makes us all the richer for it.

He’s currently got a new book out called The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which is part of the Canongate Myths series. It’s made the religions hordes want to throw him to the lions. In the book he contrasts the prophet Jesus with the manipulative Christ. He’s well-known to get a hairball when it comes to religion, but he’s such a thoughtful and imaginative writer that you can’t help but see him not so much kicking religion in its neutered parts but more like he’s got the real insight, some more truthful human understanding about our lives that is far more fascinating than what’s preached to us from the Gospels and the commandments.

I try to live and think like this each day, but it’s fucking hard because it is so easy to slide into despair and become miserable even though I know it doesn’t help.

“I came to realise that this world was actually rather a good place, which is full of things that make you laugh and things that make you happy and things that make you feel good physically, and so I gradually abandoned the idea of the evil demiurges who had created this ghastly world, and realised actually that this is our home, it’s where we belong, and there ain’t no elsewhere.”

This One’s From the Hip

I am easily impressed, but I’m also hard to impress. This may sound like it’s contradictory. It’s not. Live with it a bit and you’ll see why.

What is it about some writers who have more to say about the state of the literary nation in regards to technology than they do about the art of writing or even a story itself? They’ll spout all kinds of wonderful predictions about the future of books and the springing tiger called ebooks. But they’ll say nothing about a story well told.

When I read Dickens or Philip Pullman or David Mitchell or Jeanette Winterson or Roald Dahl, I don’t think, damn, wish they had more gadgets. I’m bowled over and feel like I’m staring my atoms in the face when I read their work. Because it’s the story, not how it is presented that makes me feel my heart thump in my chest.

For all we know, technology may reach a point where if you want to read a book, you’ll swallow a pill and as it dissolves on your tongue the words will pop into your brain and that’s how you’ll experience a book. But the point is, it’s not the way it gets presented, it’s the way it is told. The lasting taste will not be the pill, sugar-coated as it most likely will be, but the lasting taste will be the writer’s use of language; the story that sinks in like a new life; the way the story makes you re-imagine the world around you and you in it; the richer emotions, ideas, and dialogue that makes you try harder to feel, think, and speak.

This is what it’s all about when it comes to books: the story and how it makes a life with you. It’s not about the gadget that brings it to you.


A best-of collection of Frank Sinatra. Can’t beat Frank and spring, windows open, forsythia spread thick like golden butter, and the leaves on the trees feathered for flight.

He Knows his Buffing From his Brushing

I’m a man who loves to polish his shoes and boots. Learnt it from my grandfather who was an artist when it came to brushing and buffing.

He’d lay down the daily paper, the Daily Mail, on the kitchen floor, and on one knee he’d unscrew his tin of polish, gently rub the bristles of his brush into the wax, then work it into the leather, a deep concentration on his face. Then he’d put the shoes or boots aside; let them soak up the polish while he dead-headed the geraniums. After about ten minutes, he’d kneel once more and buff the shoes with his polishing brush until they shone in his hands.

I like to sit in my favourite chair at home with my tin of Kiwi polish and brush and buff using the same two brushes my grandfather used. They are ancient now, the brush I use to apply the polish like a battered old badger with bristles missing and stained by polish. And the buffing brush has polished so much, its bristles are uniformly misshapen as if a strong gust of wind is always blowing.

And I just came across an article in the Guardian on how to get the perfect shine. Here it is:

1. Remember, you can’t cover dirt with polish. Dust and detritus should be removed using a cloth or brush, and the shoes allowed to dry naturally.

2. Apply polish using a dedicated shoe-cleaning cloth or a brush with natural bristles. Work the polish in — shoecare is as much about nourishing the leather as approving the appearance.

3. Don’t use too much polish — a little dab will do. Dampness in the cloth can help.

4. Allow 10 minutes drying time and then buff to a shine using a different cloth or brush. Wear with pride.