Archive for September, 2013

Moral squalor – the crime of reading while being poor

September 16, 2013 2 comments



Phillip Pullman has been talking about original the very modern sin of illegal downloading, which he called ‘moral squalor.’ This made me cross. Why? Because I was about twenty-five years of age before I regularly bought brand new books and contributed to the coffers of their authors. But I read a lot before I was twenty five. I can’t begin to imagine who I might be today had I not read a lot, in the old days of the non-virtual books and the various ways one could obtain them without paying full price. And increasingly, I have no idea how a young and impoverished me of the future will get to read so much and remain on the right side of the law.


I’ll give you a relatively recent example of what I’m talking about. Right now I am counting down the three weeks ‘til Diane Setterfield’s second novel. (October 10th, people.) This is because a former housemate once bought The Thirteenth Tale, and left it on our kitchen table. Since I had absolutely no faith whatsoever in this housemate’s literary taste I ignored the eulogies and sneered at the book, until the Saturday afternoon I picked it up and read the first page. I picked it up at about three o’ clock. I finished it twelve hours later, having missed a friend’s birthday. The Thirteenth Tale is really very good. 


But you may note that I didn’t buy it. I borrowed it, which I think might be the non-virtual predecessor of ‘illegally downloading.’ But the Thirteenth Tale is the sort of book you want to read again, and so two winters’ later I bought it. Being the sort of book you also advocate on behalf of, I then lent it to a friend. And then bought another copy for myself. And then lent that to a friend. I doubt I currently own a copy of the Thirteenth Tale, but I’m quite sure I will buy another in my lifetime. And I will buy a shiny new full-price copy of Setterfield’s second novel when it comes out in three weeks.


A lovely story, everyone will agree. Finding an unexpected book in the depth of winter and falling in love with it and passing it on, like some kind of irritating prophet who bashes everyone over the head with other people’s holy books.


Suppose for a moment I had downloaded The Thirteenth Tale.


Aha, you say. Wait! I see the flaw in this slippery-slope-property-is-theft fallacy. In the real world, you subsequently bought new copies of the book when you gave one away! For every copy that was read, a new copy was bought.


Well, here’s the thing. I can’t remember whether those copies were new or second hand. I really can’t. I’ve been buying second hand books since I was about six. They were the only books I could afford, poor little Dickensian child that I was. Jumble sales and second hand books shops; graduating to Amazon in the digital age. This is not illegal. But it is much cheaper than a new book, and it denies the author their cut. Second hand books and borrowed books: the bedrock of my education.


As a result, there are two things I dislike about e-books:


  1. There does not appear to be a mechanism to re-sell them when they are rubbish (therefore allowing someone else to buy them second hand)
  2. There appear to be arbitrary limitations on lending them to others when they are brilliant.



To ‘lend’ a kindle book that you have purchased, with your money, and of which you are therefore the owner, the following rules apply:

You can lend a Kindle book to another reader for up to 14 days. The borrower does not need to own a Kindle device and can read the book after downloading a free Kindle reading app.

Note: A book can only be loaned one time.


One friend in all the world may be trusted to borrow the book. It’s very Lord of the Rings. Which few people will read in 14 days, so there’s not much point in lending that particular favourite.


It’s enough to make you question whether you have really bought an e-book, or are merely leasing it. Of course, you’re paying roughly the same price as you would for an old-school hard copy. And when we bought hard copies, it was traditional to ‘own’ them once the money had exchanged hands.


It’s always fun to bring up the time that Amazon surreptitiously and remotely deleted all copies of Orwell’s 1984, as though their customers had never bought 1984 and as though Amazon were unfamiliar with either 1984 or irony, and so I shall: Amazon once surreptitiously and remotely deleted all copies of Orwell’s 1984. 


So here’s the thing: I’m not advocating anyone breaks the law, but honest to sweet virtual Jesus lord and all the little e-books, the day they decided to sell us things that would not in fact be ours, did it not occur to them that people might laugh in their faces, flex their ingenuity, and find any way they could to screw them six ways to Sunday? It really should have occurred to someone. Because the only appropriate response to someone who asks you to ‘pay full price’ for something that they openly admit they do not intend to ‘sell you’ is the oh-so-modern ‘lol.’


Over the last few years, one quality has emerged above all others, when it comes to deciding to pay full price for a cultural artefact in order to support its creator. Whether I like the creator. It doesn’t mean they have to be ‘nice’ – I bloody hate ‘nice’. They might be interesting, or their cultural artefacts might be so compelling that I will ignore their crimes, their sins, their politics. There are lots of things to consider when hovering between the ‘buy new’ and ‘buy second hand’ or ‘don’t bother returning friend’s copy until they hunt you down with a weapon’ – the artist’s finances certainly come into play. I am more likely to financially support a band or an artist that I love when I think they might need the money.


And it turns out I’m a lot less likely to support those who whine about the moral squalor of reading while being poor.

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Crash! (How Satire was Saved)

September 14, 2013 Leave a comment

I don’t usually do much in the way of book reviews in this blog. But I do frequently moan about the ongoing campaign by certain politicians to end satire by constantly doing things and passing laws that really should be reserved for satire, thus leaving no material for the simple satirist.  Right now, for example, the Tories are planning to bring back National Service. Really. There’s a bill. And I’m too worn out to even be sarcastic. I’m just listening to ‘Yes Sir, No Sir’ by the Kinks. And wishing someone would re-invent Spitting Image.

But this summer I read Julian Gough’s ‘Jude: Level 1.’ Now, I bought this book a year or so ago, on the basis of something I can’t remember. I then read the back of the book, was put off by the fact that the humour appeared to be based on the idea of a man with a penis for a nose, and dumped it in a pile of unread books to wait for a day when I might be in the mood for Pinocchio-related penis puns. Which it turned out I was this summer. No, I don’t remember why that was either.

In any case, I read about fifteen pages and laughed a lot, and then started to run about, waving the book vigorously in people’s faces, shrieking ‘OH MY GOD, HAVING TO LEARN IRISH HISTORY HAS FINALLY TURNED OUT TO BE WORTHWHILE!’ When this didn’t win any significant new readership, I sat them down and locked them in rooms and made them read the first fifteen pages until they agreed that it was magnificent. Then I took it away because I wanted to finish it. I’m going to quote far too much of it now:

 “It was in this place…” he said, with a generous gesture which incorporated much of Tipperary, “… that Eamonn DeValera…”

         Everybody removed their hats.

         “… hid heroically from the Entire British Army…”

         Everybody scowled and put their hats back on.

         “… during the War of Independence. It was in this very boghole that Eamonn DeValera…”

         Everybody removed their hats again.

         “…had his Vision: A Vision of Irish Maidens dancing barefoot at the crossroads, and of Irish Manhood dying heroically while refusing to the last breath to buy English shoes…”

         At the word English the crowd put their hats back on, though some took them off again when it turned out only to be Shoes. Others glared at them. They put the hats back on again.

         “We in Tipperary have fought long and hard to get the Government to make Brussels pay for this fine Interpretive Centre and its fine Car-Park, and in Brünhilde DeValera we found the ideal Minister to fight our corner. It is therefore with great pleasure, with great pride, that I invite the great grand-daughter of Eamonn DeValera’s cousin… the Minister for Beef, Culture and the Islands… Brünhilde DeValera… to officially reopen… Dev’s Hole!”

         The crowd roared and waved their hats in the air, though long experience ensured they kept a firm grip on the peak, for as all the hats were of the same design and entirely indistinguishable, the One from the Other, it was common practice at a Fianna Fáil hat-flinging rally for the less scrupulous farmers to loft an Old Hat, yet pick up a New.

         Brünhilde DeValera took the microphone, tapped it, and cleared her throat.

         “Spit on me, Brünhilde!” cried an excitable farmer down the front. The crowd surged forward, toppling and trampling the feeble-legged and bock-kneed, in expectation of Fiery Rhetoric. She began.

         “Although it is European Money which has paid for this fine Interpretive Centre… Although it is European Money which has paid for this fine new eight-lane Motorway from Dublin and this Car Park, that has Tarmacadamed Toomevara in its Entirety… Although it is European Money which has paid for everything built West of Grafton Street in my Lifetime… And although we are grateful to Europe for its Largesse…”

         She paused to draw a great Breath. The crowd were growing restless, not having a Bull’s Notion where she was going with all this, and distressed by the use of a foreign word.

         “It is not for this I brought my Hat,” said the Dignitary next to me, and spat on the foot of the Dignitary beside him.

         “Nonetheless,” said Brünhilde DeValera, “Grateful as we are to the Europeans…


         …we should never forget…






         Fifty thousand right hands began to drift, with a wonderful easy slowness, up towards the brims of fifty thousand Hats in anticipation of a Climax.

         “…are a shower of Foreign Bastards who would Murder us in our Beds given Half a Chance!”


It can be read in full here, for no money whatsoever.

Having spent what is probably too much time thinking about it, Brunhilda deValera’s flamboyant speech is my second favourite comic scene of all time, ever. For the record, my favourite is Uncle Podger from Three Men in a Boat, so no one’s ever going to beat that.


It’s easy to mock the Ireland of Yore, with its funny ways and farmers. It’s probably going to be harder to satirise the tragic human cost of a bankrupt country that spent all its money on, well, what I can only describe as five years of the most boring conversations of my life. Five years of obsessive compulsive conversations about house prices and the price of house-tax and the price of things that go in houses and the price of things that go outside houses. For the non-house-buying participants in these encounters, it was a sort of death by a thousand conversations about houses. It was so boring that just the word ‘house’ took on a strange, Pavlovian resonance that still sometimes makes me want to buy a plane ticket to London, even if I am already in London.

I really wanted a satire about houses seven years ago. But I’m prepared to settle for one now. Which takes us up to ‘Crash! How I Lost a Hundred Billion and Found True Love.

Jude paid £10 million for the very last, end-of-boom, Irish property. Which was a henhouse without a roof. From what I remember of the endlessly tedious national conversation of the time, that wasn’t a bad price for a henhouse without a roof. But the bad times have rolled round, he’s behind on his payments, and a number of important EU officials have decided Jude’s henhouse is a symbol of the entire European fiscal catastrofuck. They’re no longer building our interpretative centres with their money, oh no.

‘We ‘ave come to solve your problems,’ he said.

That was an immense relief. I had worried they might have come to cause me more.

But their solution, which will come as no surprise to anyone who’s glanced at the news over the past three years turns out, in a nutshell, to be this:

If there’s one thing we have learned over the years in Europe, it’s that every problem can be solved by making it bigger.

Crash, on the other hand, is short wee thing, but it turned out that was all I needed. Faith in satire has been restored.

At least until I see the news again.

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