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Saturday, 28 February 2015

All Ears About Leonard Nimoy

The world was touched by yesterday’s news of the death of my old friend and one-time pupil Leonard Nimoy. As Spock his  air of noble detachment, his calm acceptance of adversity, and the vast power of his intellect, combined to make a character all could admire.
I first met the young Lenny in 1964. Having successfully read for the part of Spock, he had suffered a complete loss of self-confidence just as shooting was to begin, a reaction all too common among actors landing exceptional roles. In Lenny’s case it was his dependency, as a method actor, on the availability of a role model which caused his self doubt. After all, where in the world was the person with the extraordinary combination of qualities he was expected to portray? Where was the calm kind and wise paragon of detached high intellect upon whom he could model the lofty character of Spock?

It was Gene Rodenberry, the producer of Star Trek, who found the obvious answer, and sent Leonard to me. I must say that my role as Nimoy’s mentor was a largely passive one. Leonard was a skilled, capable and resourceful actor, and was quick to assimilate my mien and mannerisms. Coincidentally I was advising both LBJ and Breshnev about their respective space programmes when Leonard was with me, and I think he was fired a little by my enthusiasm for space exploration.

The attributes that the character of Spock inherited from Leonard’s time with me were not just behavioural. Few know that I have inherited from my mother’s side a rare characteristic – slightly pointed ears. The words elfin or pixie-like will suggest the effect. It was Leonard’s idea to copy and exaggerate my appealing otic peculiarities, and the rest you know. I sometimes wonder whether he had been subconsciously prompted in his actions by the last role he had played before auditioning for Spock, that of Mark Antony. It would have been a natural reaction in a person who had night after night uttered the beseeching words ‘lend me your ears’.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Human Rites, Writes, Rights or Wrights?

Following the trend set by the Lib Dems, who earlier this week published only the first page of their manifesto, I have given instruction to my agent to publish the first page of my new novel, a forthcoming masterpiece of literary fiction which has been evolving on the den Sushing laptop since the G8 summit, where I sketched the opening chapter to escape the tedium of the plenary speeches. The novel enjoys the phonetic title 'Hjumən  Rajts', leaving you, the perplexed reader, to determine whether the second word is intended to mean 'Rites', 'Rights', 'Writes', 'Wrights', or some subtle combination of those words. So you see, even from the very start, the work raises provocative intellectual questions.

Expected to become an immediate sell-out and collector's item, the highly abridged, first-page version of 'Hjumən  Rajts' is to be available in hardback only, £15.99 rrp, with a handsome dust-jacket featuring a painting by the author. For those too excited to bear the wait, the text of the first page is presented below. Note that any re-production of any portion of the text, except such re-production made solely for charitable purposes, is forbidden and will be punished to the fullest extent allowed by international copyright law.

Hjumən  Rajts
E den Sushing
Savant Press, Nassau
Chief Translator Artema Pantreris

Would you like to know how a1 giant of post-modernism approaches the creation of a masterpiece of literary fiction? Read on! Having devoted my intellectual energies in recent years to my other specialist fields of study- anthropology, neuro-science, quantum cryptography, 'warm neutron' predictive tectonics, didactic gradualism, string theory, global warming, macro economics, computer-aided genomics, semiotics, philology, comparative lexicography, and so on, and so on, and so on- I have embraced an overdue return to my first-love, literary fiction. Just as I write this, my first work of fiction for almost a decade, so you will read it; together we will be, figuratively at least, experiencing the creation of a literary meisterwerk from two perspectives, mine that of the author, and yours that of the enlightened spectator.
For any author creating a novel there are, of course, certain decisions to be made concerning the story to be told: the temporal and geographic settings; the tone of voice; the number, gender, age, and personalities of the main characters; the target length; the chapter structure; the plot- you can imagine the list. A mistake made by merely good and lesser authors is to consider any of these decisions important, when in truth none of them has a role in the creation of a truly 'great' novel. Indeed, what clearer proof of this can there be than the results of my recent work in the application of XLML2 to enable automated 're-skinning' of major works of literature. For example, take my re-skinning of War and Peace3 to become a novel set in the Japan of the early shogunate period; superficially the original and its re-skinned counterpart are as unalike as can be, yet each bears the identical message for humanity.
In fact, the criteria that must be satisfied by a novel if it is to be a great novel are these alone: it must provoke self-improving thought in the mind of the reader; it must entertain; and it must be largely original.
The intelligent and logical reader will conclude that one consequence of the aforementioned criteria is that a truly great novel may not be written in the first person unless  the central narrating character is one able to provoke thought, entertain, and be original. Quite so. However, in my case there is one obvious gambit, which is to write in the first person with myself as the central character. Who, after all, has a better track-record in provoking thought? Who more entertaining? Who more original? So let that choice be considered made. And for my convenience, if no other reason, let us set the novel in the current time, albeit with some flashbacks.

1 Possibly 'the' giant of post-modernism. This part of the Professor's novel was drafted in the p'Tang dialect of Tibet, in which the definite and indefinite articles are written identically (translator's note).
2The eXtensible Literary Mark-up Language. A formal prescription for encoding figures of speech explicitly. See the press statement which accompanied its launch here.
sThe re-skinning was completed with the support of research workers at the IBM Thomas J Watson Research Laboratories, Armonk N.Y. in 2012.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Feeling Overwrought

A problem of the truly prolific writer is to keep track of the treasured words once the avaricious agent gets hold of them, especially with all the new-fangled publishing formats we're confused by nowadays. Search my name on Amazon and you'll find hardbacks, softbacks, audio-books, podcasts, manga-streams, tweet-weaves, snip-vines, me-mozaics,  and countless other forms of publication upon which the fans shower their money. Half the time I don't know stuff's published until its waved under the nose with pens by the autograph hunters.

This morning was a case in point. Working through the papers over breakfast, I got to the New Yorker, unfolded it, and blow me down if the front page wasn't a Searle caricature of yours truly as Gulliver looking down at a dozen or so Lilliputians, among whom could be recognised Huxley, Russell, Godel, Bacon, de Beauvoir, Keynes, Feynman, and so on. To right, just above the little figures at the bottom, was the caption: 'Peter Frith on Essay den Sushing'.

Anyway... flick to page 2 of New Yorker..scan introductory column headed 'This Week'...yep, there we go- little bit of blurb about me... true polymath, giant of post-modernism, statesman, champion of women's rights, towering intellect, Nobel oversight,  etc etc, recently published book 'The 'Best of' Essay den Sushing', review by Frith on page 5.

On the one hand it was a complete surprise- I'd no idea that the anyone had been working on a collection of my best work, let alone that one had been published and sent to the New Yorker for review. And a damned thick book that would be. On the other, with so much superlative writing to my name, you'd be puzzled why a 'Best of' wasn't cramming the shelves years ago.

Fair enough so far. Nod to maid to top up coffee. Take next mouthful of nourishing breakfast. Turn to page 5. Start to read Frith's review:

"Welcome over-due publication of the best of den Sushing. Editors faced difficult choices. Unparalleled breath and depth of insight. Unique cocktail of humour, invention and serious message." And so on.

Reach seventh paragraph. See the words "den Sushing's occasionally overwrought prose style". Experience moment of disbelief. Re-read the words to be sure.  Drop scalding coffee on thigh.  Almost choke. Spray stream of toast crumbs and caviar over nearby secretary... OVERWOUGHT PROSE STYLE?????!!!!!!!

F***ing Firth. Overwrought prose style? I suppose he considers Hussein Bolt overfast, the oceans overwet, the Mona Lisa overpainted, Bach's cannon overmusical, the Great Pyramids overmonumental, our dear Queen overregal, my quantum electrodynamic calculations of the magnetic moment of the Higgs Boson overprecise, the...

Ed- don't forget the style guide. Looks to me like we're forgetting the style guide.

Eh? What? Oh, right, yes, but those ******** ***** ******* at the ********** New Yorker had better look out.

Ed- and the Defamation Avoidance Policy. Let's not be forgetting that either.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

The Glib Dems

At the House of Commons this morning a harassed and despondent Nick Clegg entered the gentlemen's toilets as I was washing my hands in preparation for leaving them (the toilets that is, not the hands). I acknowledged his presence with a fractional nod towards his reflection in the glass above my sink. After the customary preliminaries- his fawning, mine perfunctory and austere-  an impromptu consultation took place in which he sought my advice on the best way to counter the portrayal of his party as superficial and ill-prepared which was gaining currency following his decision to publish only the cover of the Lib Dem election manifesto. Looking him squarely in his tear-moistened eye I told him that the only course of action was the obvious one- he should publish the remaining page as soon as possible.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

C.J. Sansom's Cover Story

For entertainment certain cheap trashy paperbacks cannot be beaten. At Davos I almost missed my keynote speech, so absorbed was I in the latest C.J. Sansom. Perhaps 'in' is not the mot juste here, suggesting, as it does, that my attention had been gripped by the words inside the book; for it was the wording on the cover which wholly occupied my mind for the two hours and thirty seven minutes by which my talk had been delayed pending the arrival of an unpunctual Barrak Obama. The words- a quote from an un-named critic at The Sunday Times- were remarkable for such a complete absence of literary sensibility that ones mind could not completely contemplate the sort of conspiracy of incompetence that must have led to their publication. The author of the words was clearly borderline illiterate. Some sub-editor at The Sunday Times had been sufficiently uncultured to allow the words to appear in the review section of that publication (the literary review section, mind you). The publisher of the book must have failed to spot the gross literary shortcomings of the words to be emblazoned on its cover. I mean... words almost fail me. I'll tell you what, here's the quote. Read it yourself, then you'll see what I mean...

'So compulsive that, until you reach the end, you'll have to be almost physically prised away from it.'

Where does one start? So much to criticise. Let's begin with punctuation. What is the purpose of the two commas? Surely the sentence (rubbish as it is) would scan more straightforwardly without them. And then, why bother with the interpolated words at all? Surely if the sentence read 'So compulsive that you'll have to be almost physically pried away from it' the reader would gather that the extreme degree of compulsiveness would probably abate once the book had been read. Or did the critic suppose that readers might be concerned that they would be inseparably attached to this supremely captivating book for ever? And then there's the 'away from'. Why include the word away? And then there's 'physically prised'. Confusion with what other common sort of prising was the literary critic taking care to avoid? Emotional prising? Spiritual prising? Immaterial prising? And the ambiguously-placed 'almost'. What is its focus? Did our literary critic mean prised in an almost physical way (presumably some specific point along the non-physical-to physical prising continuum)? Or did the critic mean physically prised almost, but not quite, to the point of being 'away from' the book? Or did the critic...

Connoisseurs of literary humour world-wide: You can see why he nearly missed his speech. He can go on for hours about this sort of stuff. Sure he's a critic's critic alright.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

The Comedians

This morning I hear that Robert Peston, the erratically-spoken 'Business Editor' of the BBC, is to present a radio programme on financial inequality, featuring 'politicians, policy-makers and a comedian'. Any listener sufficiently able to tolerate Peston's discordant delivery to leave the radio playing throughout the broadcast will face another challenge: how to tell which of the speakers are not the comedian.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Excellence in execution

Naïve, childish, ill-informed, unproductive, futile, pointless, illogical... these adjectives and others like them might equally describe the arguments we hear about the privatisation of the NHS, or the idiots propounding them, who are unable to distinguish between the qualities inherent of a process and those of its execution. To put it more simply, privatise the NHS in a good way and good will result; privatise in a bad way and bad will result.

So too the arguments that are pointlessly made for and against the return to public ownership of the British railways. I have no doubt that a promptness and reliability to make Mussolini beam could be achieved were our railways in the hands of intelligent, well-motivated, capable, experienced, diligent civil servants. Equally we could have a chimps tea-party on rails if the idiots at my local council were put in charge.

Take the example I overhead on the radio this morning- an argument over the Macadamisation of schools. There are some, it seems, who assert that academic standards would assuredly be raised if all schools were to become Macadamised. Utter nonsense, of course, as a general and unqualified assertion. Certainly if it were well done- if the playground was tarmacked to an exacting standard, with perfectly undeviating planes, a tightly compacted and impervious surface, subtle and artistic falls, consistent radii at corner details, and so on- then the aesthetically disciplined neatness of it all might be expected to instil a more-potent esprit de corps among the pupils, leading to a more-stoic and purposeful attitude to study. But a quick tar-spray and chip by the cash-in-hand gang that did the head's driveway last Friday is likely to have the converse effect. The shabbily uneven surface, the wobbly and crumbling edges, the overall effect of slapdash and lethargic workmanship, will inevitably erode the morale of the student body, and lead to falling standards not rising ones.

The lesson is that whether something is good or bad depends not on what it is but on whether it is well or badly done. Take this very post. At heart a trivial pun on the resemblance between academisation and Macadamisation, inherently worthless. And yet, faceted and burnished by a master of literary comedy it becomes an exquisite jewel of humour at which you, my reader, may only stare with breathless reverence.