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Midnight’s Children deserve your time

Midnight’s Children is hard work but it’s well worth the effort to read this crossover blockbuster from the early 1980s, which won the glittering literary prizes while simultaneously being so popular on the streets of India that pirate booksellers wrote to the author thanking him for providing them a living.

Salman Rushdie’s second novel is about growing up in modern India and paints an intensely vivid picture of the young nation after its independence from Britain in 1947 – which must have been a pretty intense time. It’s dense, misleading, whacky and intoxicating: a fantastical tale and a tragedy. I’d also be willing to bet its crazy world is plenty more true to the reality of India than any number of Instagram snaps of the place.

At the heart of the story is the narrator Saleem Sinai, a man born on the stroke of midnight on Indian independence day. Over the course of the novel’s 600-or-so pages, Saleem shows how the big events which shaped modern India in the years after its birth are all his fault. The timing of his birth bestows him with supernatural powers and he’s not the only one… enter the other children of midnight.

Saleem the narrator is unreliable and the tangential prose I struggled with at first. Rushdie lays the detail on thick and there’s plenty of incredible fabulist incident (Rushdie helped establish magic realism in western writing), which may push right up against the boundaries of your credulity and patience, if you like your novels to proceed in a step-by-step way and free from excessive adornment by the writer. I’m a big fan of Rushdie and found Midnight’s Children the most challenging of his novels to get to grips with. But my failings as a reader never sunk my enjoyment of this feast of a novel and I’m very glad about that. The prose style is a large cake laden with decoration, but its all executed with humour and lightness of touch which is its own magic.

There are so many ideas bursting out of this story and Rushdie cooks up a perfect blend from them all. Herein lies Midnight’s Children big achievement for me. The reality it constructs feels pretty close to what reality is really like: where the past, present and possible futures are constantly bumping up against each other in our thoughts and feelings and revealing themselves in daily life in odd ways. Rushdie’s is a style which is idiosyncratic and won’t appeal to all tastes, but it sure does mine. For example, the recurring motif of jars of chutney which capture the sense of the places, times, people and feelings is original and powerful.

Despite this, I did end the novel with a hashtag problematic sense of satisfaction. Was I satisfied because this rich novel nourished me, or was it just because I’d made the finish, like a mountaineer who clears the summit after losing his boots near base camp? It’s probably a mix of both. Midnight’s Children tells its story generously with a grin on its face and it’s as fresh as water splashing on your face, even all these years after it appeared in the world.


Liu Xiaobo memorials in water: a Poem

I wrote this upon the death of Chinese freedom activist Liu Xiaobo and the commemorations in his memory by fellow activists which involve water. It’s a beautiful, apt statement they make. Poem is called: The wave which wouldn’t break.


The wave which wouldn’t break

that’s meant to wash the Power away

Which torched the activist’s body then dispersed his ashes over water

To stop him becoming an emblem,

has turned the oceans of the world against itself instead.


And now keeps watch for the rising tide of history

And the guy who’s gone from a cell bed to literally everywhere.

Today officials dream of a flood and go rushing to therapists through streets where water laps at their feet.


People power – a force of nature is coming, or not.

It is contained by a dam;

The People’s Republic of China dam

And has been for a long time.

Where will the great wave go to

Which would wash away the Power

And lift the world a little higher up?


The dam stands strong.


Let this wave not forever be

The only wave which didn’t break

in history.

Mega Corp (Uber) denies cashing in on terrorism. Mega Corp (Uber) is cashing in on terrorism, evidence suggests. Mega Corp hands back tainted revenue (yay)


Everyone’s doing their bit to fight terrorism today!

Uber has made the news for refunding customers who were charged extra for taking a cab during last weekend’s terror attack at London Bridge and in its aftermarth.

But the company’s PR team told me at the time that its controversial – and lucrative – ‘surge pricing’ tool had been suspended during the incident. Which means there should be no money to refund.

(nb: Uber’s parlance for squeezing its customers – as opposed to its drivers as standard – is ‘Dynamic Pricing’).

Uber’s claim that there was no dynamic pricing in place fell to pieces in the face of the evidence mounted up on social media, which all suggested the truth was the precise opposite of what Uber told me in the above tweet.

Note Uber’s reasoning: ‘Demand is off the chart! They omit: ‘Due to a deadly terrorist attack!’

Vomit-inducing behaviour by this Mega Corp – but probably pretty predictable for any fan of dystopian science fiction set in a nightmare near future (or  today).

Uber’s problem here was two-fold: pumping up its revenue at a time like last Saturday night created the impression (however scandalous) that it sought to profit from terrorism. Also, all the evidence suggested that the opposite of what Uber told me was actually the truth.

I sent another tweet asking about the gap between Uber’s statement and the evidence of the receipts. For a long time there was nothing, then – like an Uber cab appearing at your door late – I received a tweet!

Turns out that the extra cash DID roll in from ‘dynamic pricing’ during the London Bridge terror attack.

Bad Uber.

However, the world’s most favoured but least popular taxi firm said it’s going to hand back all the extra £££ it made from reaping the London Bridge whirlwind, last weekend.

Good Uber.

Chess is stupid and I am stupid to carry on

This blog is about my affair with the game of chess – a game for Kings, holy fools and cheats with engines.

I’ve been playing chess pretty solidly for 18 months; at least an hour a day and sometimes a lot more. It’s been a serious commitment of time and effort, which is why it feels apt to write down a realisation that’s dawned; that my chess quest may well be over.

Why now? Well, I’m someone who writes to discover what he thinks; writing is not for me the final stage in a process, like inscribing a name upon a trophy for a winner. Here at the start, it’s hard to say precisely why my chess quest may be over. There are some factors which I can identify and there’s probably others which are invisible, which this keyboard I’m typing on may cause to reveal themselves.

One factor is this video I came across last week, on YouTube. This guy who’s moaning to the camera is the owner of one of the top chess brains in the UK – yet he doesn’t have two pennies to rub together. He’s the sort of guy about whom fellow players on chess servers (I use, username: Angkar) talk in awed tones of an ability which appears quasi-mystical to us patzers toiling away in the 1200-1500 range (or lower). Yet this incredible ability doesn’t add up to a row of beans for him. And this is bad news for a certain popular argument regularly made in the game’s favour – one which irritates me; that chess is good for life, that you learn helpful skills from chess, that playing chess is a kind of high culture which enriches the player. Personally, I’m not convinced at all. Playing chess hasn’t made me more brainy or effective – the reality is mostly the total opposite.

It is true that chess holds prestige in popular culture – despite being largely ignored by the mainstream media. (Yes, serious players do whinge about the diminished status of chess today, compared to how it was back in the USSR). But just look at the absurdly high price for chess lessons, which are often more expensive than learning to drive or learning an instrument. High prices usually denote a exclusive cache of some sort. People generally do respect the feat of playing chess well (well, I do), but I reckon a lot of this is essentially sentimental and rooted in a lot of cultural baggage. I’m not convinced its charms translate into real life. Someone said in Stephen Moss’s excellent book, ‘The Rookie’: ‘Chess is only like itself.’ Life is not like chess – although there’s enough similes, metaphors and aphorisms in popular use all over the place to dispute this!

I swallowed an image of chess as a sort of classy mental Olympics – at which drinking and smoking are allowed. But this is a mirage: in reality, chess isn’t a night at the opera, it’s an endless slog up a mountain which is totally shrouded by mist, so that you can’t see the summit. You scramble ahead a few steps and then trip over some obstacle you never even saw,  going tumbling down, arse over tit. Becoming a good chess player is a real accomplishment – I can say this because I’ve tried for 18 months. Maybe this is why there’s so much complaint about cheating on the big chess servers (at least on, at present. My favourite chess YouTuber, Grandmaster Simon Williams, has lost to lower rated cheaters so often recently, that he now has a cheat alarm which blares loudly when some moves are played that seem suspiciously out of character by an opponent. Do cheaters desperately want a taste of the prestige which comes from winning at chess – this odd prestige which the game is laden with? I’d say they definitely do. I have same appetite – though I’ve not stooped to the truly tragic act of running an engine to swindle a win. I’m entirely self-taught and no doubt a few hours of lessons would do wonders for my rating. The risk that I’m losing to players using engines (even at my level) is enough to sour my enjoyment.

Another factor (and a very significant one) is form: at time of writing I am struggling to beat a boiled cabbage at chess. The issue is that my vision is poor. I’d really make a poor visionary in Biblical times; my visions would be full of disaster and calamity. My chess vision is a barren wasteland, with a solitary bin burning in the distance and a dog eating its own vomit close by. My queen’s been killed too many times by my own hand and I’ve missed simple tricks that led to me being triple forked and so on and on. It’s just dis-spiriting.

More seriously and related to this is that chess has revealed something in me which has lain dormant for a while; my competitive urge. I revealed it by accident in the paragraph above, when I mentioned ‘my rating‘ – not ‘my knowledge’ or ‘my skill’. What I want most of all in chess to get my rating up as fast as possible (so it looks like my rating line graph has an erection – all stonkingly rampant and vertiginous. Achieving this means taking points off other players by beating them – the more crushingly the better. This is the urge to dominate and destroy and it’s ugly. When I talk about improving at chess, what I really mean is getting my rating a few points higher. Understanding concepts of positions, space and time? Nah. I hate losing a game so much that retaining my composure is a painful physical effort. Put me in front of a screen with a live game and there I’ll be at the end of it; knuckles white from gripping so tightly, mouth contorted with gnashers on display, face reddening, my brain overheating, dreams of destroying worlds screwing my head, ready to vent spleen at my nearest and dearest. Being this angry, you become a parody of yourself. When I win, I’m ludicrously elated – like a small giddy child on his birthday. It’s absurd; heightened emotions like this, about something which is essentially totally pointless and unimportant as a chess game.

Another reason for feeling my chess quest could be over is pretty obvious: I suck at chess! A 1200 or so rating on (my highest ever is just below 1300) ain’t nothing to write home about. Yet it’s all I have to show for 18 months of time and effort. According to Grandmaster Gergory Serper, a 1200 rating means you can win a game against someone who doesn’t play chess. That’s it. Wow. I can honestly say I know next to nothing about chess and this is after 18 months of playing more than a thousand games, watching hours and hours of videos, doing thousands of puzzles and spending money on chess books. Maybe I’m just not cut out for the game. Chess certainly is very tough and the scale of the challenge has led me to the big question: why? For what reason am I expending time and effort on chess? Why bother learning the principles of development in the opening, only for your opponent to bring out the queen on move 2 and then cause havoc on your king-side, gobbling up your pieces so that it’s time to resign around move 10? This is just too aggravating. Becoming objectively good at chess requires a monk-like dedication to the cause and objectively that’s not going to happen at my stage of life, when I don’t have oodles of free time on my hands to dedicate to the task.

Chess is a deep game and a deeply silly game. (Just look at Bobby Fischer, the King of Chess, whose lasting legacy for me is that he proved it is possible be a genius and an idiot at the same time). Up to now, I’ve played chess because I love it. But I’m falling out of love; it looks like chess and me has been an enjoyable if tortuous affair, but not a champion love. This isn’t a cause of regret.

The feature image for this blog post is from here.

iPhone Autocorrect fails so hard it wins

Autocorrect on my iPhone just took to a whole new level a very dull email I was typing about a contract. As my fat fingers punched away at the screen, typing the phrase ‘Can you please send…’, Autocorrect delivered big time.
It decided the next words in my email should be ‘U.S troops’ and inserted this phrase in to the sentence.
‘Can you please send U.S troops’ I was about to ask the letting agent sitting at her desk. I bet that’s a request she doesn’t get every day.
It was a shame to delete this accident, but renting in London is no laughing matter. So I did.

‘The Soul of Corporate greed’ – Ready Player One fan fiction

Ready Player One is a great modern sci-fi novel which I loved reading in just a couple of days. I’ve written this piece of fan fiction about the story’s arch villain, Nolan Sorrento. Ready Player One is a classic tale of good vs bad and as usual, it’s the baddies who get all the best lines. The set-up is a search for an ‘Easter egg’ of ultimate power (not a chocolate egg) which is hidden somewhere inside a fully immersive virtual world called the OASIS. Much of humanity spends all day inside this OASIS simulator cos real life sucks so bad (I do enjoy dystopias, though I wouldn’t like to live in one). SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read this unless you don’t mind discovering how Ready Player One ends. My story is Sorrento close up, in the first person. And he ain’t happy.
Hope you like.

‘I am Nolan Sorrento. I’d say call me IOI-655321, but that would be inappropriate at present, for a number of reasons.
You may know me as the chief operating officer of Innovative Online Industries. More likely, you know of me from the hunt for Halliday’s egg in the OASIS. If so, then you will definitely know of me from what happened as a result of the search for the damn thing. But actually you don’t know much at all, so allow me to fill some gaps.
You saw the news feeds. I have. It is not pleasant viewing. It cannot be denied that the egg hunt did not progress to the advantage of my employer, or myself. I haven’t plugged in to the OASIS since I was abruptly escorted from the haptic chair in to a police car by two officers, at the exact moment of our defeat. Since then, I’ve not had the desire to plug in and anyway I could not do so, as my movements are somewhat restricted at present by my detainment at a police station. Yes, fate is a strange mistress.
My own status is currently, shall we say, unresolved. It is true I am no longer in possession of the senior ranking you know me to hold. My employer has suspended me – on full pay – pending the outcome of a criminal investigation in to three ludicrous allegations: that I masterminded a large explosion which resulted in a large number of deaths, also that I ordered the murder of an individual who tragically plummeted to his death while on a balcony and also that I planned to kill at least two others. It will be a miracle if I am convicted of these preposterous allegations. I look forward to resuming my work at IOI soon.
Now then, I know what is the common view of me among you bovine masses who today plug in to that online utopia, the OASIS, to hide from reality and escape the inanity of your lives. I know about your hatred and disdain. I do not cower before it, nor from you insects. You hold no power over me because you mean nothing. Never did and never will. You think I am a devil at the controls of a demonic company that nearly succeeded in kicking over the virtual sand castles you’ve all made inside the OASIS? We wanted to – heaven forbid – make some money from the thing. Money which could pay for your jobs, pay wages, increase prosperity in the real world. If you have a problem with that, well then you’re the dangerous one, not me. Yet somehow it is a fact that today the mob is happy with the state of things.
Today the OASIS is in the hands of a bunch of sanctimonious young worthies – Parzavil, Artemis, that lot. They all have more money than sense and think that throwing cash at problems is the solution. Everyone outside their magic circle is reduced to the status of their client, merely quarry for these uber privileged kids to feel good about themselves by donating to ’causes’ and ‘charity’. And you all are expected to be grateful! Let me tell you these elite-level busybodies really turn my stomach. Well you are welcome to it, I hope you like it. You can’t say you didn’t ask for it. It certainly is a PR victory by them on a massive scale and the IOI communications team could learn from it, for future reference.
We at IOI know we face a challenging public relations environment, but I don’t believe we deceive anyone; we are simply an ambitious company willing to do what it takes. Let me reveal what society has missed out on, with the result of the egg hunt. Had IOI been victorious – and everyone knows I tried my hardest – then the OASIS would have become a type of upmarket resort; somewhere you go to recharge and refresh, ready to return to the real world with renewed vigour for the challenges at hand. There are enough of those, aren’t there. Jobs at the Grand OASIS Luxury Resort would have been created for all levels of player. Your online earnings would have been convertible in to real world money; increasing real-world wealth and your personal prosperity, let me remind you again. Sounds good? That’s because it was.
Open your eyes. Humankind has not benefited one iota from the result of the egg hunt. This is obvious to anyone with eyes who lifts up their OASIS visor and looks around. Parzival has not liberated you all from the clutches of some dastardly ‘Sixers’. What he has done – along with his accomplices – is condemn millions of people in the real world to continued dependence upon a part time paradise. What of all the players who supported him by showing up at the crystal castle for the final battle? I’m talking to you. Are you wealthy now? No, you are where you always were; hooked up in your silly suit pushing around thin air in your basic home, while the counterfeit reality of OASIS thickens like concrete around your soft minds. In what kind of world is this outcome a common victory? Serfs.
I can’t finish without pointing out the role an influential and responsible individual had in this whole mess, someone who’s shown himself to be a real low quality person. Yes, I will name names: Ogdon Morrow, OASIS co-founder. He should know better. Morrow should have known better than to aid and abet the lunatics in seizing control of the asylum. He should have seen clearly that success for IOI was synergistic with his own publicly stated position on the OASIS. He was a critic of what it had become. My victory – my employer’s victory – would have unleashed change upon that place. But this person opted for the easy route – to be popular. It’s crystal clear now that to Morrow nothing matters more than rolling back the (several) decades by spinning tracks at a virtual nightclub. Truly desperate stuff. In the final reckoning, this pensioner has shown himself to be nothing but what he always was; an approval-seeking PR man.
But now I really must stop. The lawyers are waiting, another meeting beckons and I’m back in my element.’

 A Soviet snack bar for modern workers of today

Back in the USSR, they ate this snack. Sojove Rezy (meaning Soya slice, I’m told) has made it unchanged through glasnost, perestroika and the break-up of Czechoslovakia. Even the wrapping is the same today as during the Cold War, apparently. Orange coloured, grainy textured and very filling, is this hearty little bar. I enjoyed it at Bratislava airport. Admittedly Sojove Rezy is not as elaborate or delicious as other confectionary which Slovakia does so very well (yes, I’m thinking cream cakes). But this contrast between it and something like a decadent, bourgeois punch torte cake, makes Sojove Rezy an authentic slice of culinary history from the age of Soviets. Workers, Forward! to the sweet shop.

There’s something about hotel rooms…

…Or there’s something about some hotel rooms. I wrote this to try capture the feeling I had in one hotel room in particular. It may have been in Bratislava near the airport, around the turn of 2015. I wonder if the room’s creeped out more guests since then. This piece is called Hotel Cadaver.

Hotel rooms are the worst places in the world. They can swallow up a person and make them disappear, even though every straight, tidy line of them is visible and covered by light. There is something eerie about entering a room where you know somebody has been only very recently, but of whom there is now no sign whatsoever. The human element is purged in hotel rooms. A predatory plant closes around an insect which has stopped to rest upon its plump red petals, and then consumes it silently, leaving not a trace behind. And we like it this way. What does that say? It says I like a room which looks clean as a cadaver. Maybe this is why I dislike the surgicaly bright and sharp lighting of the room. It belongs to the operating table and later in the morgue and yet here it is lighting a bed containing warm, living bodies. This frosty white light is fit only for post-mortem, not in a place for dreaming and making babies. But a hotel room in which the human presence remains is just as bad, in a different way. It is a newly discovered crime scene of dishevelled sheets, discarded detritus and DNA evidence shed by somebody who was in a hurry to leave. Unmistakable odours belonging to a perfect stranger linger and become an invisible presence of decay. It’s always shocking to discover a room like this; to stumble in to a most private sphere. Later, Housekeeping arrives wearing gloves and with detergents and large bags for disposal. Knocks respectfully at the door and enters. Later is seen leaving, carrying bags: contents unknown.

Inside the cave (overstimulated in Laos) 

I went Laos in September 2015 and in Vang Vieng, I took a trip in to a cave one afternoon. I was the only one there. It was an odd experience for me. Hope you enjoy.

I walked alone in to the underworld through a low hole in the mountainside. In to the darkness I shone my torch and its light threw up staggeringly high, dark shadows on the walls. It was mountains within mountains in here; folds and creases of antediluvian rock making jagged new peaks and plunging ravines in the spotlight; all moving and dematerialising, then reappearing as the beam swung round. I made a noise, the echo came calling back, faint and from somewhere much deeper in the darkness, out of sight of my eyes. It was raining outside and I was the only person here; no locals or foreigners were to be found. I was alone inside this timeless place of dark and shadow. Or I was alone? Pressing on through the gloom, there were rustling noises above my head and when I snapped my torch in their direction, I caught small, fleeting shapes fleeing the light. ‘Bats’ I said aloud. ‘Bloody bats.’ This was an alien landscape; pressing in all around me were unusual formations of rock, probably moulded over millennia by water which began dripping when Eden was still open and was still dripping now, long after hell has been shut down by society. This accidental space, moulded by tectonic forces and invisible to the outside world, existed outside of my experience, out of any experience in the open air. It was like time had been driven out of this place so as to let the cave endure by itself the weight of mountain permanently upon its back. What can live in a place like this? Presently, I became aware of being in a large space and I felt suddenly small and vulnerable here, what else could be in this underground ocean of dusty, stagnant air, hiding from society. I felt like the swimmer who goes under the waves and senses at once the darkening blue limits of vision all around  him, who knows that somewhere close to him but out of sight – is an big bad whale. I pictured a scaly green hand laying itself on my shoulder, or something horrible coming out of a wall and scuttling fast down the sides toward me, its bristles on end with malign intent. I quickly made my escape and was happy to step outside in to the drizzle, to put behind me this mountain which was now covered by mist at its summit, and towered high in to the sky.

Hello, welcome to my corner of the web

I’m writing this first post in Slovakia, in a town called Trencin. Slovakia is a gem of a country, a hidden gem perhaps, since it seems to be in the Czech Republic’s shadow in terms of fame. Well, that’s a good enough reason for me to pay a visit!. There’s plenty of delicious schnapps to sample (at all times of day) and the food is hearty and delicious. It’s where Central Europe meets Eastern Europe and the traveller can enjoy  classy buildings from the age of Austro-Hungarian Empire and also some relics from the Berlin Wall era: no prizes for guessing which wins in the beauty stakes. I thoroughly recommend a visit to Slovakia if you wanna get off the well-beaten track, it’s a wholehearted, picturesque place. Nostrave! (Cheers)