Quote of the Day – Arundhati Roy

Thanks to a dreadful Guardian interview I have discovered the incredible Arundhati Roy. I had vaguely filed her in my mind as a contemporary novelist. How wrong. She is an artist, feminist, social activist and genius for life. This is an excerpt from her essay The End of Imagination.

There are other worlds. Other kinds of dreams. Dreams in which failure is feasible. Honourable. Sometimes even worth striving for. Worlds in which recognition is not the only barometer of brilliance or human worth. There are plenty of warriors I know and love, people far more valuable than myself, who go to war each day, knowing advance that they will fail…. The only dream worth having… is to dream that you will live while you’re alive and die only when you’re dead.

Life in a List

Perhaps my time at Q magazine is to blame for my obsession with lists. Four years of “100 Greatest Albums”, “20 Worst Rock Haircuts” and so forth turned my brain into a list-generating machine. I like lists, though. They reduce life to neatly quantifiable parts. Black and white. “To do” and “done”. The problem is getting sucked into the mind-set that if something doesn’t fit on, or add to, an arbitrary list it isn’t worth doing. We spend far too much time actively striving to fit ourselves into lists. Ask any resume writer: the key to selling yourself is to look great in bullet-points.

Life doesn’t work like that, though. Meaningful achievements and valuable experiences alike tend to resist being whittled down to fit into tidy lists. Not that there is anything wrong with a little list-making. Sometimes it’s nice to look back at a resume, a journal, a series of (god help us) Facebook status updates, and remember what we’ve done. But we should never confuse who we are with what we put down on a piece of paper.

Snipe ‘Everything In Media Isn’t a Downer’

As I mentioned before, I write a media column for London alternative newspaper Snipe . I’d sort of forgotten about writing this column, but reading it back, I quite like it, and repost it here to prove that, despite my incessent bitching about the evils of the media, sometimes there’s good stuff too — and I don’t even mind admitting it.

Off Fleet Street: everything in media isn’t a downer
Sunday 3 October 2010

For the most part, the media consists of slick sales-pitches. It wants us to buy something, believe someone, serve somebody. Occasionally, however, a piece comes along that offers more than platitudes and does more than prescribe. These magical little moments occur when, and where, they are least expected. Recently, I picked up the October issue of Red for a swift goggle at Vanessa Paradis and came across ‘Why Giving Up Is Good To Do’. A brief, but imminently sensible article critiquing the notion that whatever it is you’re doing, you have to keep doing it till the bitter end. Author Anna Pursglove’s remark that: “The sky… does not fall in when you admit that you never should have done it in the first place or that it worked for you once, but doesn’t any more,” was exactly what I needed to read at that moment.

Other chance encounters have radically altered my way of thinking, have given shape to half-formed ideas, thrown me a life-line. Once, for no good reason I can remember, I bought a copy of Hello! There, in a very small column, lay a quote that still echoes in my head. Tilda Swinton, when asked “Do you take life as it comes or do you try to arrange it actively?” responds: “There are only two questions in life: ‘Who am I?’ and ‘How shall I live?’”

Those few words flashed like neon amidst the pages of consumerist nonsense and celebrity gossip. That was the first, and I think the only, time I’ve seen a philosophical question on the pages of a weekly glossy. I tore out the page, folded it up and stuck it next to my passport; it comes out when I start to drown in details need to be reminded that ultimately life is a creative act of self-definition.

Interviews can offer sublime moments. American style mag BlackBook ran a Q&A with Chrissie Hynde that has become a fixture in my scrapbook. In it, the great Pretender levelled on the ridiculousness of competitive consumer culture, saying: “I left the States when I was 22 [because] I saw that I was going to be trapped into buying a car so I could get to work so I could pay for my car, and I thought, that’s not for me.” Later, she remarks: “I just tread my path and stick to the plan. And if anyone wants to come along and be part of it, that’s fine, and if they don’t, fair enough. I’ve never left my philosophy to join someone else’s.” Hallelujah. “I just tread my path and stick to the plan,” is a sentiment worth digging through hundreds of hair tips and restaurant reviews to find.

Media is in a bind. The more people are exposed to radical ideas about self-realisation, creativity and shunning consumerism the less likely they are to spend time and money to gawp at TV presenters and philandering footballers. Luckily, media can be delightfully self-defeating. The powers that be want to sell, sell, sell (ad space, ideology, whatever) but they sometimes do good despite themselves.

Channel 4’s Faking It is a case in point. Though it unapologetically light entertainment, it conveyed the message that—given determination and the proper training—anyone can do almost anything. The sugary reality TV format coated the sharp political truth that most people are constrained not by inherent inadequacies, but by social and educational opportunity.

Ultimately, for all its absurdities, media can still be transcendent. There is a line in my favourite book—Franny & Zooey—in which the narrator refers to: “the rising of a truth, fragmentary or not, up through what often seemed to be an impenetrable mass of prejudices, clichés, and bromides.” Such moments of truth are rare in the popular press, but thankfully not yet extinct.

Secrets of Success


Absolutely love this quote from righteous babe Ani DiFranco. I saw her in concert once, many years ago, and she had a fantastic joy and energy. She’s one if the visionaries for whom life and art are inextricably linked.

People who are just starting out are always sort of coming to me for advice as the example of “independent girl,” and lots of people ask, well, how did you get the booking agent or the national distribution or the tours? And I look at them like, “Good lord! Relax!” I mean, how I did it was to not care about it and to not even think about it for years and years. All I thought about was getting the next little gig in the little bar, and I get this sense that people want me to give them the secret formula or the magic trick to make it all happen. I think low expectations are really useful, and a lot of patience. — Ani DiFranco

(from Mother Jones)

Imagining Jonathan Franzen

Posted by Cila Warncke

I find literary interviews marginally encouraging. Selfishly, I’m pleased to hear Jonathan Franzen took nine years to complete his novel ‘Freedom’. A paragraph lifts my heart like a balloon, then pricks it:

It isn’t just that the latest novel took nine years to finish. It is also that, within that period, only a little over a year was spent actually writing it. He looks back on that year with something approaching joy. “Most of those months were heaven. I was miserable much of the time, but miserable in the happiest way.”

Imagine, interjects the journalist. “If being miserable in a happy way is his idea of heaven, imagine what the first wordless eight years were like.” Before there is time for imagining, though, it’s off again on anecdotes about Oprah’s Book Club and defunct comic novels. There are two reasons for the athletic leap from “agonisingly blocked” writer, wearing earplugs to drown the world out, sitting in a bare room waiting for inspiration, to the feted, Time-magazine cover star, and putative “Great American Novelist”. For one, a newspaper interview does not permit lengthy discursions on the emotional cost of the writer’s life. For the other, it’s simply too monstrous. To truly imagine those empty years – and not just the recent nine but, especially, the glossed eighteen years spent writing his first three novels – is to go someplace most of us hope to never have to go.

It is tacitly agreed in our culture that we only talk about valleys from the safe height of the mountaintop. No-one, I suppose, much wanted to interview Franzen during the “Days spent asking questions about certain characters in certain situations, trying to work out chronologies, logic trees burnishing off into infinity. [Days writing] Horrible, unreadable, intensely boring stuff.” Triumph we want a piece of, vicariously; of despair we have enough ourselves. Yet that is the bulk of life. We may wish to live like mountain goats, skipping from one high stony perch to another, but reality is a long trudge through boggy lowlands and hands-and-knees clambering through briar-patches. Most of the time we don’t even have the satisfaction of recognisable trauma; of the literal cliff-hanger which provides, at least, the adrenaline-kick of danger, the satisfaction of instant feedback, of adversity overcome. Catastrophe is almost as disconcertingly elusive as victory. In between lies existence.

Imagining that burns like looking into the sun. We don’t imagine the humanity-defying impassivity of time and space because it is unbearable. Car crashes, divorce, a death in the family, the loss of a limb; these are sufficiently big and bad enough to reduce to neat packages of cause-and-effect; stories with morals. There is no way to rationalise getting out of bed every day and not knowing if what you are going to do that day will make a difference to anyone, not even yourself. Where are the words for how it feels to go to a room and sit there, putting one word after another like the footfalls of some poor fool lost in the Gobi? Against trackless time humility, arrogance, hope, and fear are just postures. No-one can feel any one thing, in any one way, over those years. Time erodes everything, especially the possibility of capturing a fragmentary truth or beautifully expressing an idea.

Worse than having nothing to say is the possibility of discovering that, as T.S. Eliot put: “one has only learnt to get the better of words/For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which/One is no longer disposed to say it.” Imagine waking up each day with the bated-breath dread that everything you did the day before, everything the last month, year, decade has lead to might be undone by an unsolicited burst of inspiration. Even the shadow of that thought petrifies me. I would be afraid to speak, afraid to love, afraid to read, afraid even to dream; afraid that the weight of the world, balanced on a pin-point of inspiration, would shift an atom left or right and obliterate forever the idea I was fighting to express. I wouldn’t be afraid of running out of ideas, but of never finding my feet amidst the torrent.

Everything we think we know we learn by a slow process of mistakes and misdirection. We learn heat burns by putting our hand against the stove. I can’t think of anything more terrifying than waking up every day knowing that it might be the day where a newspaper headline, a chance conversation, or a memory, might trigger a realisation that will turn a lifetime of hard-won truths to stony lies. No wonder we use platitudes like shields. It takes years of education and inculturation to build the flimsy shelter of conventional morality. To admit that there is no singular truth, no Platonic ideal, is to gaze into the pitiless inadequacy of our emotions and coping devices. It is to realise that the creative act is not a thrilling distillation of one sensation, or attitude, but a ceaseless struggle through head-high jungle armed with a dull machete and no clear sense of direction. It is to fight the temptation to differentiate between success and failure. It is to accept there are no answers but go out looking anyway.

Food for Thought

Posted by Cila Warncke

After managing to avoid waitressing for, oh, 15 years, I have tumbled into restaurant-work like a full pint glass pitching off a wobbly tray. Catastrophe, right?

Yet, like the sound of smashing glass, strangely satisfying. It’s going to be messy. I’m going to hate myself, my colleagues and my customers on a regular basis, but there is a perverse joy too it. In the middle of a real rush waiting tables is like trying to put Jenga together, from the top, while someone pulls it apart from the bottom. There is the added frisson, in my new place, of the tables being nestled so closely I wind up swiveling between chairs like a drunk trying to line-dance. There are a dozen other delightful wee challenges. Tables too small to hold our giant pizza platters. A touch-screen computer you need a hammer to communicate with. Mountains of cutlery to be polished. Stairs strewn with laundry bags full of napkins, high chairs and random piles of crockery. Not least, there’s my inability to comprehend broad Glaswegian – especially when shouted by cooks.

The compensation is not the pay, which is rubbish, but the sense of being part of a large, harried, dysfunctional family that copes. This is what keeps people working in restaurants long after they could and should have found something better to do. Every day is a reenactment, in miniature, of the heroic quest: hope, strife, crisis, the struggle against odds, catharsis, and finally calm. It is conflict-drama-and-resolution, broken into shifts. Humanities students are particularly susceptible to the lure of this never-ending stories; hence why all restaurants are chock full of former English majors. We could get better, or certainly less strenuous jobs, but we can’t help falling in love with being involved in what is essentially a never-ending soap opera with added plates.

Glasgow Not Quite Fighting Fit

Posted by Cila Warncke

Two Scottish food groups

Experts say “The Scottish population seems to be living dangerously”. Unfortunately, not in a Aston-driving, sky-diving, lady-killing kinda way, a la favourite son Sean Connery. Instead, risk-taking Scottish style involves scoffing burgers, downing “the equivalent of 46 bottles of vodka each in a year”, smoking furiously and not taking any exercise (apart from walking to the offie).

Glasgow seems a poor place for a vegetarian long-distance runner to set up house, but this isn’t the first time I’ve spent in a city awash in cheap booze, bad food and hard drugs. I lived in Philadelphia for three years. If anything, West Philly is far less salubrious than the west end of Glasgow. If you wanted fresh veg there you had to go to the over-priced salad joint on campus. The only local supermarket was a hot, crowded, piss-scented emporium surrounded by iron bars. Grocery shopping usually meant going to the 7-11 on the corner and buying bagels, Kraft Singles, and breakfast cereal. The native delicacy is the Philly cheesesteak: fried steak, smothered in cheese, served up on foot-long baguettes drenched in mayonnaise. Makes Irn Bru ice cream floats look like health food. Glasgow, in fact, has health food stores. Within metres of my flat is an array of shops including Roots & Fruits and Waitrose where I can merrily fill my basket with fresh veg, oat milk (really), quinoa bars, posh olive oil, dense rye bread and all the things dear to my health-geek foodie heart. And you can go for a run here without worrying about crossfire, which is something of a luxury.

The difference: the west end of Glasgow is relatively upper-crust, West Philadelphia isn’t. The Glasgow University study reporting 97.5% of the Scottish population has at least one of five “major risk factors to health” – cigarette smoking, heavy alcohol consumption, poor diet, physical inactivity, and overweight – tersely notes “The most important determinants for multiple risk factors were low educational attainment and residence in our most deprived communities”.

Education is even more important than economics. Eating nutritiously is cheaper than eating processed food. I’ve fed five a homemade feast of sweet potato & cashew curry with rice, salad and chapatti for less than the price of a Supersize Big Mac meal. Yet people persist in thinking that eating well means spending big. A basic problem is that deprived areas lack access to fresh fruit and veg, or reasonably priced basics like rice, flour and pulses. Why? Because retailers don’t see a market there.

This is where education comes in: shop owners need to be educated that being poor doesn’t automatically mean wanting to live on crisps and cola. They need encouraged to open shops in poor neighbourhoods, otherwise people have no choice but to eat badly. Consumers need education too. Part of the problem is the machismo in British food culture. Men eat meat, salad is for girls, etc. Perhaps there is an argument for letting troglodytes who buy into that crap eat themselves into an early grave. But it wouldn’t hurt to get into schools and persuade the younger generation there is no glory in being a fat, wheezing, heart-attack-waiting-to-happen. If we (the government, parents, the medical community, volunteers, whoever has the opportunity to pitch in) could make that happen perhaps future health statistics won’t be quite so dire.

What Are You Writing For?

Posted by Cila Warncke

This is one of my favourite Bill Hicks clips. I love the way his face conveys astonishment, scorn, outrage, and despair all bundled together so seamless-awkwardly it can’t help being hilarious. He doesn’t have to clap hand to forehead; the words make the motion for him. “What are you reading for?” is a patently silly question. Reading for something is hardly reading at all. Note how people instinctively make a distinction between books they’ve read and books they’ve read at another’s behest. “I read that for school,” is understood to be subtly yet substantially different from having simply read.

This, I know. Yet somehow it has, till now, escaped my attention that the same differentiation applies to writing, or any creative endevour. Hicks’ joke isn’t a mere jab at ignorance (unkindness is rarely the beginning of insight) it is about an attitude. The face on his verbal punching bag is that of righteous American productivity. The held-to-be-self-evident truth that to be worth doing something must result in demonstrable rewards. It is, at heart, an attitude that holds Michaelangelo to be important because he was commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and not the other way around. Historically, our culture confuses prestige with importance, and money with success.

Art cannot breath this air.

Stumbling along, mistaking productivity for creativity, I’ve failed to write anything worth reading. Not because there’s something wrong with the way I line up words on a page (not-art can still be artful) but because my intentions are bad. If it is to be art, it must be created out of a sense of urgency; it must convey truth, or illuminate beauty; it must be profoundly selfish.

I cringe to think of all the hundreds of hours and thousands of words I’ve frittered on writing for. A deep-rooted habit, it will be hard to break. Writing for has a veneer of industry and respectability and thus serves a superficial social impulse; it makes me feel like the worker worthy of her wages. It also kills cold everything that matters. Break it I must. Now, how?

Barry Hannah – Further thoughts on Ambition

Every once in a while I read a sentence, or a few, that makes my eyes roll back in awe. It’s been happening regularly since I began High Lonesome by the late, great Barry Hannah. His sentences are like Muhammad Ali right-hooks: works of art that knock your breath out. Not only stylistically; they are tooth-jarringly true. Take this from ‘Repulsed:

There’s never really time to develop one’s ambitions. They just throw you out there and you grab on to something handy like an amateur, in terror. Hardly time to hide your cheap scotch and prepare a face. Pa, for instance, had chosen wrongly, rushed to life insurance when he wanted to be a cowboy…

Is a better, sadder, funnier, more powerful indictment of cowardice imaginable? I’ve read Thoreau, Greer, McCarthy, Van Gogh, and Fitzgerald express the same sentiment and Hannah might just trump the lot of them.