Friday, June 15, 2007

The pros and cons of Google

Also in today's blog
Shock on page 12 of A Passage to India
Comment problems

While in hospital in April, I was given a pot plant which last week put out five bright scarlet flowers; unexpected behaviour considering all the flowers so far have been pale pink and completely different in appearance from the new flowers.

On Sunday morning I typed what I thought was the plant's name into Google's search slot. At the bottom of the first page of links was a message – "Did you mean [plant's name spelt differently]?"

Clicking on the message brought up pictures of my pot plant. I was greatly impressed by Google's helpfulness.

However, returning to my home page, I found Google had installed its search facility in the left hand sidebar in place of the History/View/Search facility and I couldn't find a way to uninstall it. An agitated search of Google's help pages followed. No help there. Eventually I discovered that the cure for the problem was simple. All I had to do was hit the History button and the left hand side-bar was back to normal.

But I don't think Google should have done an installation without asking permission. That said they are a wonderful resource.

Shock on p 12 of A Passage to India

Re-reading, after a long interval, E M Forster's most famous novel, which I didn't enjoy the first time, I came upon this on p 12 of the Penguin paperback edition..

"The hookah had been packed too tight, as was usual in his friend's house, and bubbled sulkily. He coaxed it. Yielding at last, the tobacco jetted up into his lungs and nostrils, driving out the smoke of burning cow dung that had filled them as he rode through the bazaar. It was delicious. He lay in a trance, sensuous but healthy, through which the talk of the two others did not seem particularly sad – they were discussing as to whether or no it is possible to be friends with an Englishman. Mahmoud Ali argued that it was not, Hamidullah disageed, but with so many reservations that there was no friction between them."

It was "as to whether or not it is possible" which shocked me. Four unnecessary words. Surely a good writer, re-reading that paragraph would have deleted "as to" and "or not"?

At his page at Wikipedia, I read that Forster "spent a second spell in India in the early 1920s as the private secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas. The Hill of Devi is his non-fictional account of this trip. After returning from India he completed his last novel, A Passage to India (1924), which became his most famous and widely-translated work."

Unless it picks up in the second half, I'm still baffled by why it has been reprinted so many times when a far better book, Peking Picnic, has not.

Comment problems

Richard Havers managed to get his interesting comment on yesterday's blog online, but Jenny Haddon, who has just finished a strenuous two-year term as Chairman of the Romantic Novelists' Association, was unable to post her comment on Ann Bridge successfully, and although a copy of Adrian Weston's comment was in my Yahoo Inbox early yesterday, so far it has not appeared under Comments on the blog.

So I'm posting it here –

"Sadly, what I suspect it will take to resuscitate Ann Bridge is a glossy Fiennes studded film adaptation of Peking Picnic (which I have to say would make a fabulous film) - so whoever it is that her rights reside with. Get busy - put it in front of the Hollywood (and UK) scouts!

I'd say K. Scott Thomas as the central character... or in this ageist world is she too old?"

Thanks to Google and Wikipedia I've learnt that Kristin Scott Thomas is 47. Have seen a couple of her films, Four Weddings and The Horse Whisperer, but can't remember her clearly. Which is not to say she wouldn't be well cast.

There's an interesting piece about the book by a present-day foreign resident in China here.

Extract: "Thanks to the author’s detailed descriptions, Peking Picnic actually proved a worthy guidebook, illuminating the former life of the ancient courtyards and lending us insight on how they’ve changed over the past 70 years. As we strolled through thousand-year-old gardens we discovered a well-trodden path toward enlightenment … though thankfully, unlike the characters in the book, we returned from our wanderings unmolested by warlords."

PS the last link brings up a 403 Forbidden message. But if you hit the link in the message, the article will come up. I have emailed the site's webmaster.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Hitchens brothers and Charlton Heston

Also in today's blog

Can you name the six countries bordering Iraq?
The Actor's Life
The Hestons' long marriage

The Hitchens brothers and Charlton Heston

"Christopher and Peter Hitchens are two of Britain's most famous scribes, but they appear to agree on nothing. After their latest public spat, James Macintyre, who has known both brothers for many years, dissects their very odd relationship."

This comes from a June 11 article, The Anatomy of a Row, in The Independent.

Another para I copied is -

"But Christopher soon moved to America to cultivate his status as the quintessential Englishman abroad, writing prolifically for a wide range of publications including left wing journal The Nation, and gradually beginning a side-career of controversial television appearances. As an opponent of the previous Gulf War, he shocked viewers by challenging right-wing actor Charlton Heston to name the countries surrounding Iraq (Heston could not) before telling him to "keep your toupee on"."

I wonder if Christopher Hitchens could name the six countries bordering Iraq, or if he looked them up before the interview?

I'm have to admit I could name only three, the Middle East not being a part of the world I've visited or, apart from reading Stark and Thesiger, ever taken much interest in.

[Although I have just read and was shocked by a column on Baghdad in today's The Times headed "Don’t you get it? It’s a jobs surge we need. Camilla Cavendish on an overlooked blunder in Iraq."

Camilla Cavendish has been a McKinsey management consultant, an aid worker, and CEO of a not-for-profit company. She is now a leader writer and columnist on The Times. After reading today's piece, I shall keep an eye out for her byline.]

An Actor's Life

I thought Hitchen's crack about Charlton Heston's toupee was rude.

In 1979 I spent £6.95 on a hefty hardback – more than 500 pages - The Actor's Life, Journals 1956-1976 by Charlton Heston.

It starts, "Early in 1956, I started keeping a work journal. Why just then, I have no idea. It would have made more sense in 1946, when I went to New York, or when I got my first Broadway part the next year, or my first leading role after that, or when live TV started to heat up for me, or when I came West to do my first film, in 1950."

In the front of the book I've pasted a clipping from The Bookseller 21 April 1979, a photograph of Heston at the Allen Lane launch party at the National Film Theatre. With him are his editor Paul Sidey, his UK publisher's chief non-fiction editor Peter Carson and the MD of Mowbray's bookshop John Garmonsway. Where are they now? I wonder.

The Hestons' long marriage

Charlton Heston was 20 when, in 1944, he married Lydia Maria Clarke who, 63 years on, is having to cope with her husband suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

In The Actor's Life he records how Lydia went through a prolonged spell of severe migraines, possibly caused by distress at his frequent departures on business trips. He spent as much time flying round the world as does Macmillan CEO Richard Charkin. [See link in sidebar].

When their two children were on vacation and Heston was on location for a film, his family accompanied him and Lydia enjoyed being abroad. By the end of the book her migraines seem to be over.

Overall, their relationship proves that young marriages are not necessarily reckless if the couple are a level-headed pair who marry for the right reasons.

Tomorrow : the major pros and minor cons of Google

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Why has A Passage To India survived better than Peking Picnic?

Also in today's blog

Should blogs be long or short?

A comment by Adrian Weston sent me off to St Peter Port's public library online catalogue to check the presence of books by E M Forster and Ann Bridge.

In case you didn't read Adrian's [see photo] comment, it was –

"… Peking Picnic is probably a more successful novel than A Passage to India, because it has slightly less ambition (I don't mean that negatively). A Passage to India is a deeply flawed book, that fails/falls on several key points - but is also an enduring one. The points of similarity are quite simple - both Forster and Ann Bridge cast a central western woman in a role of quiet visionary, exemplifying the Forsterian mantra of 'only connect'. I think it is interesting in that I would hazard (and I have not read either book inside of a decade so I might be misremembering) that both have broadly humanist agendas. Also thinking back, I suspect I'd more readily re-read Bridge now than Forster...."

My public library may not be typical, though I suspect that it is, in having one copy of Peking Picnic and 26 entries for Forster, including videos.

At an online page of books recommended to anyone going to China, I read

"The best single-volume introduction to the people of China and their world is Jasper Becker's The Chinese (John Murray, 2000). Longtime resident of Beijing and former Beijing bureau chief for the South China Morning Post, Becker delivers an immensely readable account of how the Chinese got to be who they are today; their pre-occupations, thoughts, and fears; and the ludicrous posturings of their leaders."

Further down the page was – "Ann Bridge, the wife of a British diplomat in Beijing, wrote novels of life in the capital's Legation Quarter in the 1930s (cocktail parties, horse racing, problems with servants, love affairs -- spicy stuff in its day, and best-selling, if now largely forgotten).

This is an unfairly dismissive summary of Peking Picnic which studies the human condition of many nationalities, including the Chinese, in far greater depth than the reviewer suggests.

What infuriates me is that no biography of Bridge has been published. One was written some years ago but is now in limbo, partly, I conclude, because the writer's agent had suffered a personal tragedy at the time it was offered to him. The book did need first class editing by someone familiar with Bridge's novels and her own excellent Facts and Fictions.

Should blogs be long or short?

Some time ago a comment suggested my blogs were too long. I've been thinking that over and have realised that, with the exception of Grumpy Old Bookman [see link in sidebar] most of the blogs I read on a daily basis are short-ish.

In future I'm going to try to stick to a top limit of 500 words which is 2,500 words a week, quite a large output with much else to do in my writing life. [Today's blog is 542 words]

Tomorrow's blog will be mainly about the diaries of an internationally famous man I bought in hardback 28 years and have been re-reading this month with possibly more interest and enjoyment than when they first came out.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The frescoes that worried Mussolini

Also in today's blog

The Cardinal's Mistress
Down with focus groups?

Yesterday I mentioned a story, in the January 1994 issue of The World of Interiors, about Rome. It was headed Hotel Ambasciatori, followed by -
"In 1927 the newly unveiled frescoes at the Hotel Ambasciatori made it the most fashionable place in Rome. Mussolini, however, feared that his intimacy with one figure portrayed would be exposed; within months the frescoes were covered up."

The artist who painted the frescoes was Guido Cadorin from Venice, "using members of the city's high-life as his subjects, dressing them up and showing them on the terrace of a grand villa as if at a ritzy party. Although the traditional composition is reminiscent of Veronese's famous frescoes at Villa Maser in the Veneto, the style is straight out of the roaring Twenties: women with bobbed hairstyles smoke cigarettes on long art-deco holders or flirt with men in dinner jackets. They might have walked out of a Scott Fitzgerald novel."

Today Cadorin's frescoes can be seen in Rome's Palace Hotel.

The person responsible for the finished frescoes being hidden was
Margherita Sarfatti, an art critic and Mussolini's mistress. She insisted on being included in the frescoes.

"Cadorin was flattered and irritated in equal measure," the writer of the story, Marella Caracciolo, tells us. "He could not forget that Mrs Sarfatti had always snubbed his art…Her wish, however, was an order he had to submit to."

It wasn't until after the war that Cadorin's frescoes were uncovered. "But by then the artist's moment had passed; he was now a disillusioned middle-aged professor at the Fine Arts Academy of Venice."

I wish I had remembered The World of Interiors story about Cardorin when I was in Venice with a painting group a few years ago . There was an exhibition of his work at the recent Biennale.

The Cardinal's Mistress

Did you know that Mussolini wrote a novel called The Cardinal's Mistress?

I found details about it in the Memorial Library at the University of Wisconsin. It was translated by Hiram Motherwell and published by Albert & Charles Boni, New York, in 1928.

"Mussolini wrote this historical novel, set in sixteenth-century Trent, in 1909 when he was secretary of the Socialist trade union in that northern city, still part of the Austrian Empire. It was one of only two forays by Mussolini into the writing of fiction; the other was a short story written at about the same time, a morbid tale of suicide and betrayal."

"Born and raised in a family of modest means, his father a blacksmith, Mussolini received little formal schooling. A tattered Italian translation of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables mysteriously appeared in Mussolini's village when he was twelve years old and is credited as being a profound influence in his young life. Its mark is reflected in The Cardinal's Mistress."

Down with focus groups?

Re Min Hogg's dislike to focus groups [see yesterday's blog], there's an interesting piece about them here.

Extract: "Graphic designer Chip Kidd was horrified by a news story last year that revealed that not only were focus groups involved in the design process, but that after "two years ... and more than 50 hours of focus group feedback", the publishers got it so horribly wrong."

Monday, June 11, 2007

The greatest love story of the age? I doubt it

Also in today's blog

Min Hogg : founding editor of The World of Interiors

The front and inside front cover of this week's issue of The Bookseller advertise a book described as "the greatest love story of the age."

"Living at the heart of the Sixties revolution of sex, drugs and rock and roll, Pattie's story is electric."

The Sixties were my thirties and, while I may have heard the name Pattie Boyd at the time, she didn't make a strong impression and I shall not be reading Wonderful Today, an autobiography written "with Penny Junor" [see photo] in which, so the ad tells us, Ms Boyd "finally breaks her 40-year self-imposed silence".

"What was the truth about the bizarre love triangle with George and Eric? And why did the greatest love story of the age end in tears?" The Bookseller advertisement asks.

No doubt Wonderful Today will climb high on the bestseller lists. If you're interested, last year the Daily Mail ran a story about Ms Boyd, Eric Clapton and George Harrison.

I agree with one of the comments on this story. "The majority of these celebrities are very messed up people. They sell their soul for fame. There are far better people to admire. Whatever happened to integrity?"

Min Hogg : founding editor of The World of Interiors

On the bottom shelf of the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in our sitting room are 16 open-backed cardboard magazine files containing magazines to which, back in the Nineties, I used to subscribe – Gardens Illustrated, House & Garden, Vogue, Harpers and The World of Interiors.

Yesterday afternoon I spent half an hour in the garden with the January 1994 issue of The World of Interiors in which there is a marvellous story about Rome which I'll tell you about tomorrow.

Meanwhile you might like to read an interview with Min Hogg, the founding editor of TWofI and, by the sound of her, a fascinating character.

Extract : "Given her reputation and noted expertise, it came as a shock to the interior design world when Hogg announced last November that she was resigning as editor of the magazine that she launched from these very rooms in 1981. Although the upmarket publication sells a modest 65,000 each month, its influence is enormous and its ideas and concepts are much copied."

"A visionary editor of the old school, Hogg always refused to have anything to do with focus groups or marketing ideas and her abrupt voluntary departure seemed as unlikely as the Queen Mother suddenly announcing she didn't want to be royal any more. Despite protestations from her Conde Nast bosses Si Newhouse and Nicholas Coleridge, Hogg - who says that she is in excellent health - was still determined to leave."