Friday, February 5, 2010

Layer 238 . . . Writing, Culture, Byng, Obama, Cooperation, and Doing Something Meaningful.

After a week of being quarantined with a heavy cold I'm starting to feel as though life could be returning to what might be called normal.

Radio 4's The History of the World in 100 Objects this morning focused on the first writing tablets.

"The development of writing has had more impact on mankind's development than anything else."

Writing is essential for human civilisation.

Writing confers power.

It seems to have been invented more or less simultaneously in Mesopotania, Egypt, China and Central America.

"Writing made a decisive difference to the whole history of the human species."

It's tempting to suggest (in jest) that writing even preceded reading, but clearly they're the yin and yang of literacy.

Dipped into The Culture Show last night hoping to see this -

The Culture Show
Thursday 4 February
7.00-8.00pm BBC TWO
Andrew Graham Dixon presents this week's edition of The Culture Show which features an interview with Martin Amis on the release of his eagerly anticipated new novel, The Pregnant Widow.

Set in the summer of 1970, this semi-autobiographical comedy of manners focuses on how a group of young men and women respond to the sexual revolution and the rise of feminism.
Instead I caught this part of the programme -

In a week which sees the release of many of the biggest books of the year, Jamie Byng, head of independent publishing house Canongate, reveals his hot tips on what to publish and when.
Interesting guy, Mr Byng.

Barack Obama's publisher: Wild child Jamie Byng

By Rowena Mason
Published: 3:24PM GMT 13 Jan 2009

Can Jamie Byng really have been the wild child entrepreneur of the publishing industry? Slightly disappointingly, he is sipping herbal tea. A few years ago, he was the publisher not afraid to talk about his former penchant for drugs and club nights in the same breath as promoting his Booker Prize-nominated novels. Now what people want to know about is his gamble on the potential of two obscure books written by a little-known Chicago lawyer named Barack Obama.

Remarkable tales emanate from Mr Byng in an effortless way. He is the former work experience boy who staged a buy-out of the company within a few years of walking through the door and the publisher who secured Bob Dylan and the Dalai Lama to introduce new editions of bible books.

His stepfather is Sir Christopher Bland, ex-chairman of BT and the BBC, and properly addressed, he is the Honourable Jamie Byng, son of the Earl of Strafford.

Over Christmas, Canongate had the top two books in the paperback fiction chart – Obama's autobiography, Dreams From My Father and his non-fiction manifesto, The Audacity of Hope – and a top 10 in the hardback chart – The Mighty Book of Boosh by comedy duo Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt. All three books were in Amazon's top 10 bestsellers and Canongate has now printed 1.55m Obama books.

It was 2006 when Mr Byng heard from an Australian colleague about Obama's books, which were out of print for several years before being resurrected by a New York agent. He was captivated and finally secured the UK and Commonwealth rights two years ago, as Obama announced his intention to run for the presidency in February 2007.

"Publishing the books of the President-elect is beyond our wildest dreams," Mr Byng smiles, casually slouched on the sofa of his Notting Hill home. "All of us were amazed by his wisdom, insight and the beautiful prose in the books he wrote in the early 1990s, before he went in to politics. It is an example of publishing led by the heart as much as the head."
[Strange error this - according to my copy of "The Audacity of Hope" it was first published in the USA in 2006.]

So how does he spot, acquire and retain the best talent in the face of competitors with larger chequebooks? For Mr Byng there is only one answer: "passion". You get the impression that the worst possible insult would be to describe him as lacking this quality, a word he uses dozens of times.

"You can be passionate about fiction and poetry, but non-fiction is harder to feel passionate about – Obama's books are an exception, because they are so passionately written," he gushes.

Listening to Mr Byng talking on the TV reminded me that I'd bought the two Obama books to give as Christmas presents just before Christmas 2009, and whilst I'd eventually decided to keep them for myself I haven't actually got round to reading them.

So now I'm reading "Dreams From My Father" at bedtime and "The Audacity of Hope" on waking up. We'll see how it goes. The 'Prologue' of 'Hope' is certainly a reminder of the wonderful speeches that Obama has made, especially before taking up office in the White House. The quality of his thinking and the effectiveness of his language and communication is really quite amazing.

Since the Martin Amis book has been critically panned I'm pretty sure the Obama books are better reading options.


Meanwhile, the website that Byng has put on the 'net for Canongate is very interesting.,com_home/Itemid,37/

The first thing you see is a kind of Thought for the Day at the top of the page. It looks like there's a number of quotations that appear in turn, each time you click on the site. The first one I saw was, "Anarchy is not being out of control. It is being out of their control." (Jim Dodge) []

Welcome to Meet at the Gate, a site that seeks to provide a dynamic and interactive forum for great writing, intelligent and lively debate, and recommendations you can trust.

Although launched and hosted by the independent publishing house Canongate, Meet at the Gate is not a typical publisher's website. Yes you can search the Canongate catalogue and find out more about the excellent and diverse array of books and writers we publish, but Meet at the Gate has much broader and bigger ambitions. It's about the creation of a cultural hub, one that is totally independent in its spirit and content, a place with a particular focus on books, film, music and websites that will help guide you to the most interesting stuff around.

We hope that you find this site inspiring, informative and illuminating and that it encourages you to contribute your own personal recommendations, passions and opinions.

Happy reading.

The MATG team
Other "thoughts" from the site -

"What are you painting [writing]? Whatever emerges!" - Cervantes

"The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation." - Bertrand Russell.


This is what Obama says about cooperation, on pages 1 and 2 of his Prologue,

"Everywhere I went I'd get some version of the same two questions.

"Where'd you get that funny name?"
And then, "You seem like a nice enough guy. Why do you want to go into something dirty and nasty like politics?"

It signalled a cynicism not simply with politics but with the very notion of public life, a cynicism that . . . had been nourished by a generation of broken promises.

I understood the skepticism but there is - and always has been - another tradition to politics, a tradition that stretched  from the days of the country's founding to the glory of the civil rights movement, a tradition based on the simple idea that we have a stake in one another, and that what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart, and that if enough people believe in the truth of that proposition and act on it, then we might not solve every problem, but we can get something meaningful done."
I seem to remember saying something about our interconnectedness in the previous Layer. (237 - The Meaning of Life)



Kirsty Young's castaway was the classicist Mary Beard.

A professor at Cambridge, she's that rare thing: a university academic who writes for the masses. Her popular books, blog, articles and reviews have led to her being called 'Britain's best-known classicist'.

But while her research is steeped in the ancient world, her commentary is all about the here and now. The classical world speaks to us, she says, and makes us see our own world differently.

Record: It's All Over Now, Baby Blue - Bob Dylan
Book: Treasures of the British Museum - Marjorie Caygill
Luxury: The Elgin Marbles.

      Bob Dylan Bob Dylan — It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

      Composer: Bob Dylan
      Bringing It All Back Home, CBS, CD32344
      Janet Baker (with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Anthony Lewis) — Dido’s Lament

      Composer: Purcell
      Dido and Aeneas, Decca, 4257202
      Elizabeth Kenny — Lachrimae

      Composer: John Dowland
      Love Bade Me Welcome, Bis, 1446
      Aretha Franklin & Annie Lennox — Sisters are Doin’ It for Themselves

      Composer: Lennox/Stewart
      The Best Girl Power Album…Ever, Virgin, VTDCD 123A
      Roy Harris (with the Pump and Pluck Band) — The Man that Waters the Worker’s Beer

      Composer: Paddy Ryan
      Tale of Ale, Free Reed, FRCD23
      Janis Joplin Janis Joplin — Me and Bobby McGee

      Composer: K. Kristofferson – F. Foster
      Pearl, CBS, CD64188
      Ralph Kirkpatrick — The Aria from Bach’s Goldberg’s Variations

      Composer: Bach
      Goldberg Variations, Deutsche Grammophon, 4394652
      Kathleen Battle — Endless Pleasure, Endless Love
      Composer: Handel
Ms Beard seems something of a leftie, the offspring of leftie parents - a teacher and an architect.

She was daring enough, or foolish enough, to be one of those people who said in print after 9/11 that the USA was bound to experience such blowback after so many years of being the world's bully. [A strange thought that in the era of Obama. Hard to imagine BO wanting to bully anyone. Remember Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld though? They, and their ilk, haven't gone away.]

She's a fan of Dylan, Aretha and Janis, but chose some of their least appealing tracks - to me at least. These people are 3 of the true greats of music, who produced many more brilliant tracks than the ones chosen here. And how come she chose so much dross for her other tracks? Though I enjoyed The Man that Waters the Worker’s Beer.

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