jenny diski

This was the headline the London Review of Books team gave to the late and much missed writer Jenny Diski’s 1994 piece on Roald Dahl, where she reviewed Jeremy Treglown’s biography of the author.

The ‘Stinker’ of the title referred to Dahl’s dreadful anti-semitic comment : ‘Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason’.

Diski, as ever, is very good on the foibles: ‘There is something in us that wants good writers to be good people. There’s also something in us that knows pigs can’t fly.’

Diski saves her best quote for the end, where she quotes from Treglown on the ultimatum that Dahl’s American publisher Robert Gottlieb of Knopf sent the English author:

‘In brief, and as unemotionally as I can state it … you have behaved to us in a way I can honestly say is unmatched in my experience for overbearingness and utter lack of civility … unless you start acting civilly to us, there is no possibility of our agreeing to continue to publish you.’

Diski’s sign-off: ‘Apparently, everyone at Knopf stood on their desks and cheered as the letter went off.’

The review is here:





Durrell’s Corfu

White House Durrell

“The little bay lies in a trance, drugged with its own extraordinary perfection – a conspiracy of light, air, blue sea and cypresses.”

This beautiful phrase from Lawrence Durrell wasn’t actually about the bay where he and his family had a house in Corfu before the outbreak of the Second World War; rather, he was speaking of nearby Paleokastritsa but he could just have been talking of the bay at Kalami where the family lived their curious life together:

The Durrells in Corfu

The Durrells left Corfu in 1939, never to return, and Lawrence famously regretted his own writing about it, thinking that he had encouraged the mass tourism which he abhorred. Yet on a recent visit, the beauty of those bays in both Corfu and neighbouring Paxos remain intact, seeming quite able to absorb the bobbing white charter yachts and the ferries filled with selfie-sticked visitors. There is an uncomfortable snobbishness inherent in the denigration of tourism – it’s OK for me to visit, but not you. The Greek islands seem still to offer a lesson in kind welcoming.

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What is that song you sing for the dead?

It’s a couple of years since the American artist Sufjan Stevens released his album Carrie and Lowell, a cycle of songs inspired by the death in 2012 of his mother Carrie. Carrie was an alcoholic and schizophrenic who left the family when he was young, only to be reunited later on when his stepfather, Lowell (with whom he now runs his own independent record label Asthmatic Kitty) encouraged her to contact him again.

The album gained universal plaudits when it came out: devastating, compelling, heartbreaking. In it, he tells extraordinarily poignant stories of seemingly random incidents: when his mother left him in a video store, when his swimming teacher who held him “like a father” couldn’t pronounce his name and so called him Subaru.

The most overwhelming song, in both its emotional intensity and its lyrical skill, is The 4th Of July, in which he sings of the night Carrie died in hospital. “It was night when you died, my firefly.” He captures with such dexterity the swings from introspective depth to stark banality which moments such as that bring: “I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best, though it never felt right” he sings, and then a few seconds later, “The hospital asked, should the body be gassed, before I say goodbye, my star in the sky.” I watched him sing that song at the End of the Road Festival in 2015 and towards the close, 10,000 people quietly sang along with him as he repeated: “We’re all gonna die.”

Sufjan’s trademark vocal delivery – the multilayered whisper – delivers these lyrics with the same level of raw revelation as Dylan did on Blood on the Tracks in the ‘70s. When Dylan wailed on Idiot Wind, “I can’t even touch the books you read” he plumbed the same grief-ridden depths which Sufjan appears driven to on this album. There are similarities between the two, not only in their unassailable status as lyricists, but also in the restlessness which characterise their careers.

With this album, however, Sufjan comes close to both an artistic and existential despair which is as unsettling as it is compelling. As he says in one song:

“What’s the point of singing songs, if they’ll never even hear you?”

The Way of Life


My friends at the social enterprise publishing house, The Word Machine, have put their edition of Tao on a free offer as an Amazon Kindle download for the next five days, so do go to Amazon here to download your free copy. It is I think the most beautiful of the many translations of the Tao and was written by the late American poet Witter Bynner.

As he says in his introduction:

“Legends as to Laotzu are more or less familiar. Immaculately conceived by a shooting-star, carried in his mother’s womb for sixty-two years and born, it is said, white-haired, in 604BC, he became in due time keeper of imperial archives at Loyang, an ancient capital in what is now the Chinese province of Honan.”

For those who have not read a translation of the Tao and wonder what the fuss is all about, it essentially does what it says on the tin: it outlines a Way of Life which these days might be termed sustainable. Written as a guide to those who govern, it provides sensible advice on the management of societies while simultaneously offering profound thoughts for the individual on how best to conduct one’s life.

Here’s the second of the eighty one verses:

People through finding something beautiful
Think something else unbeautiful,
Through finding one man fit
Judge another unfit.
Life and death, though stemming from each other, seem to conflict as stages of change,
Difficult and easy as phases of achievement,
Long and short as measures of contrast,
High and low as degrees of relation;
But, since the varying of tones gives music to a voice
And what is is the was of what shall be,
The sanest man
Sets up no deed,
Lays down no law,
Takes everything that happens as it comes,
As something to animate, not to appropriate,
To earn, not to own,
To accept naturally without self-importance:
If you never assume importance
You never lose it.

The Stab In The Back


When I was earning very little reading manuscripts for Robert Hale in 1982, I got an evening job working at the pub opposite the old Daily Mirror building in Holborn Circus. The pub was called The White Hart, although it was known to everyone connected with the Mirror as The Stab In The Back. In those days, the newspaper was printed in the Mirror building and the pub had a self-regulating and mutually approved apartheid system: the printers drank in the saloon bar at the back, the journalists drank in the lounge bar at the front. There was a wide doorway connecting the two, but the two tribes kept to their own, tending only to merge when a particularly raucous song begun normally by one of the printers would be carried along by some of the hacks.

I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed such industrial levels of drinking since. During the evening, I would sweep around the shelves against the walls and pick up semi-finished G and T’s and half-full pint glasses. Journalists would leave their drinks somewhere and forget they’d ordered them so instead would just come up to the bar and order more. Every so often, in perfect order and never late, one or other of them would heave himself or herself off a bar stool and head back up to the office to write some copy. The leader writers in particular were masters of timing, leaving just a few minutes before the leader column needed to be put to press.

They were raucous and argumentative and terrifically horny. Often after the chaos of Last Orders, I would have to help amorous couples into the back of black cabs, pretending not to notice the musical chairs changes from the previous evening. The hacks tended to be more reactionary than the printers: once, I was spotted by one of the journalists while I was sitting in the back room during my tea break reading the newspaper. “He’s reading the bloody Guardian, the bloody Leftie!” he shouted, and I came out to howls of abuse.

One evening, one of the more famous columnists was particularly worse for wear, having come back from Buckingham Palace where he’d received an Honour for his reporting during the Falklands War. We had a regular in the lounge bar who was one of the few drinkers there not connected with the Mirror. He was known to be deaf and dumb and he normally sat sipping a pint on his own at the bar. The famous columnist spent a long time trying to explain patiently to him exactly what it was about his superlative reporting which had merited the Royal honour. Eventually he gave up, slurring something about “where’s the bloody respect I deserve?” As he staggered off to speak to someone else, the deaf and dumb man looked at me, smiled and winked.

The Daily Mirror building is now a Sainsburys with the London HQ of the chain occupying all the floors above it. The Stab is a Pizza Express. I’m not sure I even know where the Mirror is based any more.

Le Doulos

Le Doulos, the 1963 film by French director Jean-Pierre Melville, is showing at the BFI in London at the moment. Allegedly the favourite filmscript of Quentin Tarantino (not necessarily an endorsement) this is a remarkable film, filled with knowing and lingering camera shots (particularly on hats, as the title refers to both a French word for hat and French slang for police informant). This is noir without the glamour, an unremitting and relentless plot which eventually leaves no-one a winner. Look at the still below: Serge Reggiani and Philippe March can barely withstand the intense gaze from Jean-Paul Belmondo. And let’s not even get started on those raincoats.

Le Doulos

Past Caring

I first worked in a book publishing company in 1982 after I left university. My job early on at Robert Hale was to read the slush pile, which was what everyone used to call the daily arrival of physical manuscript submissions from authors and agents. It was a very disciplined process: Rupert, the post manager, would bring in the huge pile into my tiny little office about 1030 and I had to go through them all by 1230 and produce notes on each one in time for Mr Hale, the MD, to decide on each before he went to lunch. My notes would either suggest rejecting, further reading by me that afternoon, or sending out to one of our external readers. Past Caring came in direct from its author, Robert Goddard, and I remember suggesting a second read that afternoon, which I did. It was obviously very good: well written, with a tight plot based on an historical theme, which Robert went on to assume as rather a leitmotiv of his career. We published it in hardback:

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I think Mr Hale, or perhaps his Rights Director Betty Weston, sold the paperback rights to Transworld and Corgi, and before we knew it, Robert had signed up to them for his next three novels and we never saw him again. It was perhaps a sensible decision for him, as Hale as a small family firm didn’t have the commercial clout of Transworld, but I recall we were all a little sad to see our discovery disappear so quickly. Robert went on to have a stellar career which he absolutely deserves, as he’s a great writer. Robert Hale, such a quietly dignified and idiosyncratic publishing house, continued doing things in its own stubborn way up until last year, when Mr Hale decided to call it a day. I don’t think anyone who’s worked in that world will ever quite be past caring of the delights of those small publishing houses.

Havana, 1961

I’m doing some work for a publishing company at the moment on a story set around the time of the Cuban revolution of 31st December 1958. As part of the research, I came across this extraordinary documentary by the French Marxist filmmaker Chris Marker. He was in Cuba at the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 and that upset colours the tone of the film, giving it an elegiac quality which led the French government to ban it on the grounds of its anti-Americanism. But what Marker is already mourning in 1961 is the loss of innocence of the revolution itself. The dance sequence that begins 40 minutes in is utterly beautiful.