A former student of Zadie Smith’s recently tweeted a telling anecdote. Some years back, while teaching creative writing at New York’s Columbia University (she’s now tenured at NYU) Smith handed out a laughable, pitiful, woefully sophomoric short story, and had the whole class critique it to pieces before admitting that it was one of her own.
PHOTOGRAPHY and manned flight are roughly the same age. The latter may be a little older – the Montgolfier brothers sailed over Annonay, France in a hot-air balloon some 30 years before Nicephore Niepce took the first heliographic picture from the window of his Burgundy estate in 1826. But aerial photography was born soon after that, as balloonists brought some of the earliest cameras aloft in their baskets, while Victorian meteorologist E.D. Archibald tied them to kites, with explosive charges on a timer to trigger the shutter.
CONSIDER Gotham City. A fictional, fanciful place, dark and dirty but not without glamour or grandeur, where threat posed by petty criminals and super-villains is forever set against the hope of protection and salvation symbolised by The Batman.
On a recent Saturday morning, I caught The Cervantes Train from Madrid’s Atocha Station. Don Quixote greeted me on the platform. He was dressed pretty much as described in the novel that made him immortal: a lesser nobleman of La Mancha from the early seventeenth century, passing for a knight in flimsy (cardboard) armor, and carrying the (padded foam) lance with which he tilts at windmills.
FIVE YEARS after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, the port of Onagawa has a craft beer bar, an artisanal coffee house, a Spanish tile factory, and a workshop where electric guitars are carved from local cedar, all laid out along the new Seapal Pier shopping precinct, at the town’s own Ground Zero. None of these were here before March 11, 2011, when the quake sent a wave of almost fifteen meters through Onagawa Bay and over the waterfront – destroying more than seventy percent of the town’s buildings and killing about eight percent, or one in twelve, of its residents.
AT this late stage of his life and career, Don DeLillo has been called a prophet so often, for so long, that he is now being sold as such. The publicity materials for his latest novel draw heavily on quotes and blurbs from peers and critics awed by Delillo’s prescience – his spooky receptivity to currents and portents in the culture, his novelistic gift for reading runes in news and sports and weather reports, then telling us how we’re going to die.
IN the interplanetary debris field between Mars and Jupiter is the asteroid 46610 Bésixdouze. Discovered in 1993, its name was suggested by Czech astronomer Jiří Grygar in honour of The Little Prince. The title character of that singular cosmic fairytale by Antoine de Saint-Exupery fell to Earth from a fictional asteroid designated B612, so this coding was rendered into phonetic French and hexadecimal notation for its real-life namesake. The author himself had drawn those specific figures from the registration of a plane he flew as an airmail pilot over the Sahara Desert in the 1920s.
FOR years he was a ghost. Then, suddenly, a corpse. On the night of May 1, 2011, President Barack Obama announced that US forces had located and killed Osama Bin Laden at a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. More of the details emerged in later statements from the White House, Pentagon and CIA, some of them contradictory.
ON a recent visit to Morocco, I had a touch of déjà vu. It was my first time in the country, my first sight of the capital, Rabat, and the Kasbah of the Udayas. But walking up the outer staircase of that 12th-century fortress, a vivid image came to mind – a lucid memory of a silver car flying down these same steps, through the air, in the opposite direction. “Maybe you’ve seen Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation?” asked my guide Aziz Goumi. Oh yeah, I thought.
ON December 5, 2015, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that the long-lost San José treasure galleon had been found at last, some 307 years after it was sunk by English warships off his country’s Caribbean coast. The vessel was carrying a fortune when it went down – bullion, coins and gemstones en route from the mines of the New World to the coffers of Spain’s King Phillip V and his French ally Louis XIV.
EDINBURGH smells of sea salt and brewer’s yeast. The Scottish capital is a touristy city, pretty as a snow globe and selling the most superficial brand of Scottishness at its romantic, historic center – toffee, whisky, tartan, bagpipes. Beyond the well-preserved world heritage sites of its gothic Old Town and neo-classical New Town, it is also a prosaic modern conurbation, ringed with affluent suburbs such as Craiglockhart, and comparatively deprived housing schemes in neighbourhoods like Niddrie and Craigmillar, which still suffer from some of the gang and drug problems that blighted them badly in the 1980s.
IT WAS the first confirmed sighting of Jason Bourne in almost eight years. A recently released photograph showed Matt Damon getting into character on the set of the new Bourne film, as yet untitled. He’s shirtless and conspicuously ripped, strapping up his knuckles like a prizefighter, gaunter and tougher-looking than in the original trilogy.
MADRID turns awfully cold in December. The city sits high and dry on the Meseta plateau, about half a mile above sea level but nowhere near the sea. As the temperature drops, the engine fumes rise into the still air to knit a winter cap of smog overhead that locals call “the beret”. Pollution is a major issue in the Spanish capital. Homelessness is another.
THERE was once a tiny island in the Parana River, barely big enough to give a fisherman a seat or save a drowning swimmer. That river was and is one of the most turbulent on Earth, crashing down through Paraguay and making a musical sound where it rushed around that particular rock. For centuries, native Tupi and Guarani people had called it “Itaipu”, meaning “singing boulder”.
THE whole world remembers what Neil Armstrong said about small steps and giant leaps as he climbed down that ladder to the moon in 1969. Fewer Earthlings could now quote the words spoken by lesser-known astronaut Eugene Cernan when he stepped lightly off the lunar surface three years later. “America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow,” said Cernan, the commander of Apollo 17. “We leave as we came, and, God willing, as we shall return … ”
In the early 1990s, Susannah Clarke started making notes for a story. She was teaching English to Fiat automobile executives in Turin, and then to equally “sweet and overworked” Basque business types in Bilbao. But she was also thinking idly about the English winter, and the picture on a jigsaw puzzle she used to have, which showed two old gentlemen in 19th century wigs, reading books in a huge library.
THE street where Jimmy McGovern lives is not like The Street he writes about. His house is surrounded by tall trees. They look best, he thinks, at this time of year, most of them having turned to gold. Leafiness is not the only difference between this side of Liverpool and the postwar dockside where he grew up. But from his perspective, McGovern hasn’t moved far, or changed much.
SUKKWAN Island, Caribou Island, Dirt and Goat Mountain. For a while it seemed that David Vann was not only building a body of work – and quickly, at a rate of almost one book a year – but also drawing some kind of map.
AN army brat born in Munich and raised on US bases in the Philippines, Japan, and the outskirts of Washington D.C., Denis Johnson had seen the world before he published a word. He started pretty early though, with his first poetry collection at the age of 19, and has since written stage plays, crime thrillers, foreign correspondence, dirty-realist short stories and post-apocalyptic fictions, a monumental fugue of a Vietnam War novel, Tree Of Smoke, and a luminous Old West novella, Train Dreams.
CONSIDER the macaw. The brightest bird in the rainforest comes in three main colour combinations – blue and yellow, red and green, and the particularly eye-popping scarlet macaw, its luminous plumage tinted with the full spectrum and tapering to iridescent golden tail feathers.