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Saturday, May 29, 2010

FILTHY ENGLISH by Pete Silverton

What an utterly marvellous book this is.

Right, now I’ve established that, I have some personal connections to fess up to – but first, a warning: this book is about swearing, so this review is going to contain some VERY RUDE WORDS.

So if you have a problem with that, don’t read on.

Fuck shit cunt tits arsehole motherfucker piss. OK?

Confession, the First: The author is an old colleague of mine.
I first met Pete Silverton when I went to work as a commissioning editor on You magazine in the mid-1980s. In those days it wasn’t a women’s interest title as now, but something more wide-ranging, with a strong emphasis on fabulous writing.

(That was also where I worked for the greatest editor of my career, the late-lamented, wonderful John Leese, who died far too young. I still miss him.)

Pete was one of the magazine’s team of crack freelance writers and I got to commission some great things from him. It was always a joy as his copy would flow in, on time, very funny and not needing a word changed.

So although we never became close friends (we didn’t go to each other’s houses, which is my personal definition of that) we do go back a bit. Like 25 years. And I always liked him.

Second Confession: I am quoted in this book.
Pete contacted me out of the blue last year and asked if he could interview me for it. It was around the time In Bed With was coming out – the collection of sex stories written by leading women novelists, which I co-edited with Jessica Adams (it was her idea), Imogen Edwards-Jones and Kathy Lette.

Not surprisingly, considering the brief – ‘write a short story of an explicitly sexual nature, really really filthy’ - that book contains a lot of cunts, fucks, tits, cocks etc. and Pete reckoned I would have some insight into how women feel about the use of those words, most particularly: cunt.

I don’t know about insight, but I certainly have a lot of opinions about it.

Which leads me to..

Confession Three: Next month Pete and I are appearing as part of the Women’s Word festival at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, to discuss this issue. The session is billed: ‘What do you call yours?’.

If any of you can come along, it would be absolutely great to see you. Here’s a link to the festival, which has a lot of other great events at it too (but obviously, this is the one you should come to ha ha ha).

Now I’ve got all that out of the way (will five Hail Marys be enough?), back to the book. To partially quote the author: it’s absofuckinglutely great.

Among many other bit of fascinating linguistic ephemera, he tells you that the particular style of word structure is called ‘infixing’. It’s common in Eskimo and Tagalog, but rare in English.

Pete then makes the point that to use the word ‘fuck’ in that way – a word that in itself describes an insertion – adds another whole layer of power to it.

He looks at swear words at this micro linguistic level, but also in their widest global, historical, cultural and sociological contexts. Not forgetting psychoanalytical, of course.

What I particularly love about it, is that he manages to convey all that information – some of it, academic to a degree of quite bonkers intensity – with the same lightness of touch he brought to his articles for You magazine.

The book is very funny. The writing very witty. And the tone very personal, because he manages to lay all the info ‘n’ facts down on a bed of personal memoir, which in Pete’s case is well worth reading.

He started his career as a rock writer, going on tour with the Sex Pistols among many other highlights. I particularly enjoyed a scene where he remembers time spent with the late Tony Wilson, of Factory Records/Joy Division fame.

He earns his place in the book, because the term ‘wanker’ became applied to him to such a degree, that he couldn’t walk through is home town of Manchester without it being shouted at him – and seeing it graffitied all over walls.

For someone like me, who always approaches non-fiction with some trepidation – I had to read so much of it at college, I’m slightly, pathetically phobic now about anything that doesn’t have a story – this provides the perfect sweet medium to relish absorbing all the other stuff.

So Pete, my old mucker, I salute you. You’re a clever cunt. And a funny fucker.

Reading satisfaction: 8
Un-put-downable-ness: 6
Recommend to best girlfriend: 8
Recommend to mother: 0
Recommend to niece: 8
Recommend to gay best friend: 8
Recommend to man pal: 9
Recommend to Helen Razer: 10
Read on public transport: 9

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


This is a little in-between books offering for you - and a distraction for me from editing the novel I'm working on. I need a break.

I’ve been making my living as a writer for over 25 years and I still have to knock myself out on the editing. I’m doing the pre-typesetting edit of my new novel (number six) at the moment, and I feel like my brain is dripping out of my ears. The level of concentration required is almost physically painful.

I’m very lucky to have a wonderful editor to work with. She can remember that I have used phrases like ‘I burst into uncontrollable giggles’, ‘we were all absolutely hysterical’ and ‘his eyes twinkled as he slowly undid his belt’ before, with 300 pages between them.

So take a bow, Ms Jocelyn Hungerford. You're my pal.

All writers need editors. I once spent a day with one of my all-time literary heroes, Peter Carey (I got to take him to Australian Fashion Week, it was a total blast) and in between fashion shows, I sat at his feet and asked a few questions about writing.

I was editing my first novel for publication at the time and finding it very hard, so I asked him if he still worked with an editor – I thought someone on his level might be above it.

I remember his reply so clearly: ‘Every. Single. Word.’

He’s won the Booker Prize twice, remember. Twice. So every time I think I can't stand it another minute going over page 615 for the nine hundredth time, I think about him saying that and get back down to it.

Or I take a little time out to look at this blog, which I was put onto by my lovely friend Derek Brown (find him on Twitter @dbrown_esq, he’s really worth a follow).

Here is the link to Hot Men Reading Books

And above is my Man of the Month. I'd love to know who you like.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

COLD TO THE TOUCH by Frances Fyfield

In my last but one posting (Wolf Hall) I mentioned my problem finding a title for my new novel.

My most recent post was on the theme of sychronicity.

So I find it almost exquisitely pleasing that one of the key people on my own ‘title committee’ came up with the name for this post’s book - which I had already nearly finished reading, when I stumbled across Mind Tricks. Shazam!

My very dear friend Barbie – who came up with the absolutely perfect title Cold To The Touch - is also a good friend of Frances Fyfield’s, so we're friends-in-law. We all had coffee together once.

All of which I tell you, so it is properly open and transparent that this is the first book I have discussed on here where I have a personal link to the author.

It’s also the first crime novel I’ve written about, because apart from the necessary obsession with Raymond Chandler in my late teens, crime is not a genre I’ve ever been particularly drawn to. Frances Fyfield’s books may have changed that.

I read Blood From Stone – for which she won the 2008 ‘Golden Dagger’ CWA Duncan Lawrie prize, the Man Booker of the crime fiction world - because I liked her so much when we met. And I enjoyed that so much I read this one. Now I’m going to ask Barbie what to pick up next.

What I particularly admired about both books is their cool, measured tone, which bespeaks Ms Fyfield’s former life a solicitor working for the Crown Prosecution Service.

That ability to step back from grisly scenarios and situations, and describe them vividly with great attention to detail, without it ever becoming lurid, makes compelling reading.

It also bypasses one of the reasons I have steered clear of crime and thrillers in the past: I can’t bear gratuitous ghastliness. There are so many horrid real things on the news, I just can’t understand why anyone would seek out additional fictional ones (I feel the same about violent films).

I’ve never quite recovered from reading Last Exit to Brooklyn and the tiny snippet I read from a review of American Psycho has added a truly horrific image to my mental lexicon that I have never been able to erase.

But as I don’t want to be condemned to a literary diet of Miss Read, I have to step outside my comfort zone sometimes. And, of course, I do also understand that it’s necessary to describe and explore the human capacity for cruelty. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away, however much I would like it to.

Done well, it throws light upon such behaviour, helping us understand what makes people do it - and making us consider whether, in the perfect storm of events, we could possibly sink that low ourselves.

Perhaps it’s also our post-religious way of warding off the evil eye. By studying evil, we can avoid it.

But my own phobias about violence and cruelty weren’t tested by this book. While there is a lurid murder in it, its real subject is human character and relationships.

Examining – with forensic detachment, but not without empathy - how the small details of our lives and circumstances, can lead to catastrophic events and shape how we deal with them.

It is also a quick and satisfying read. And I absolutely did not guess whodunit.

Reading satisfaction: 8
Un-put-downable-ness: 5
Recommend to best girlfriend: 7
Recommend to mother: 10
Recommend to niece: 6
Recommend to gay best friend: 7
Recommend to man pal: 8
Recommend to Helen Razer: 5
Read on public transport: 8

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mind Tricks, Ancient and Modern by Steven Saunders

Here’s something you won’t know about me: for several years I studied neuroscience. True. Go on, ask me anything about the hypothalamus.

It was part of my study of psychology which I did for A-level and then for another two years at uni – until the statistics and animal testing side of it sent me screaming into the gentler arms of Art History. A subject where no one will ever ask you to do something unpleasant to a baby chick or pick up a white rat.

It was my own fault. If I’d researched my university choice better I would have known that St Andrews psychology department was firmly in the Skinner camp. Which is the empirical, hard science end of it. Lots of rats running around in mazes.

But although I ended up disillusioned with my course, I still found all the stuff about brain anatomy and chemistry absolutely gripping. Snap my synapses, baby. Equally, my interest in the diametric opposite end of psychology’s sweep - the philosophical jag, where you find Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung – never lost its appeal.

Freud is over-dug and some of Jung’s ideas have been tainted by association with New Age’s daffier dingbats, but the ideas of subconscious, ego, Zeitgeist, Collective Unconscious, and Synchronicity have always made perfect sense to me. (Even Sting couldn’t put me off.)

Why am I telling you this? Oh yes, because it all came bolting back together yesterday, when I was browsing in a bookshop and had a moment of gripping synchroncity. Looking at some attractively packaged small volumes on a rotating stand, I picked out Mind Tricks. Or my subconscious did. Ooooh.

Opening it randomly (or was it random? *waggles head knowingly*) I found myself reading a sentence that related exactly to the basis of a neurolinguistic programming technique I have recently learned, which has enabled me to recover very quickly from a long dreary illness.

(It’s called the Lightning Process and if you, or anyone you know has any form of chronic fatigue – I strongly recommend you Google it.)

The next page I turned to explained exactly the memory system that Hilary Mantel describes her superhumanly clever hero Thomas Cromwell using in Wolf Hall – the last book I wrote about on here. Cue spooky music…

So I immediately bought the book and sucked it down on a two-hour train journey. It’s a great little read, putting the points over amusingly and succinctly, with just 300 words and some jolly illustrations for each topic.

It might not appeal to everybody, but what I found so satisfying about the whole experience is the way it brought together those two arms of psychology which have always interested me.

Being synchronistically relevant right now, because the most interesting thing I learned from the Lightning Process is that all these ancient mind-over-matter techniques - from fire walking to hypnosis - far from being magical occult oogi boogie, can now be very exactly explained using the most advanced brain-mapping techniques. Neuroscience, innit?

Or to put it in terms that any student of psychology would understand – the grand canyon between Skinner and Jung now has a rock solid scientific bridge over it.

Reading satisfaction: 5
Un-put-downable-ness: 3
Recommend to best girlfriend: 5
Recommend to mother: 0
Recommend to niece: 5
Recommend to gay best friend: 5
Recommend to man pal: 6
Recommend to Helen Razer: 4
Read on public transport: 10 (very light)