THE whale was never just a whale. After 160 years, there is still no end to the meanings read into Moby-Dick, and the titular monster prevails as symbol for anything and everything that we doubt or dread, including existence itself, and whatever something or nothing that might lie beyond. From Matt Kish’s point of view as an illustrator, this made Herman Melville’s “damned whale” extremely tricky to draw.
THE Cobden Working Men’s Club was the first of its kind in London, built in 1870 for the confluence and improvement of serious-minded proletarian males. Its Victorian façade has been preserved with a grade two listing, but the refurbished interior is now occupied by a private membership of high-profile unisex patrons from the arts and media. There is still one smoke-filled back room that seems to be an original feature. And there are three men inside who look like they’ve been coming here for a century – men who roll their own cigarettes, cultivate facial hair, and work for a living. Nick Cave sits behind a dark oak table, flanked by two of his Bad Seeds, who have also joined his new splinter group, Grinderman.
TWO people climb a mountain, connected by a rope. They go up together in concerted motion, taking turns to carve out a path. If one falls, so does the other. This method is known as “alpine-style” – the purest kind of mountaineering. It has the simplicity of a proverb and it loads the rope with meaning. When Simon Yates cut the cord between himself and his friend Joe Simpson during their fraught descent from the summit of Peru’s Siula Grande in 1985, he was taking the only possible, practical action. The act itself was resounding. There were only two people on the mountain, but everybody heard about it.
AFTER his kidnap in Beirut on April 11, 1986, Brian Keenan did not see the sun for 1596 days. Held hostage by members of the fundamentalist Shi’ite group Islamic Jihad at various locations around Lebanon, he was eventually released on August 24, 1990. Blind Flight, the new feature film based on Keenan’s ordeal and that of fellow hostage John McCarthy – who was not released until one year later – condenses their experience into a screen time of 96 minutes.
DUBLIN is the one city where people know Roddy Doyle when they see him. It’s the only place he has ever lived, and up until his new novel Oh, Play That Thing!, it was the only place he ever set his stories. Today, he tells a true one from a few weeks ago. Doyle was waiting for a friend at Tara Street train station, and a bunch of little hoods were hanging around nearby. In Glasgow they would be neds, in Dublin they’re called gurriers. One of them broke off and came over to stare at him. “Are you Roddy Doyle?” he asked. “Yeah,” said Doyle. “So what?” said the kid, and walked away again.
MAGGIE Cheung is in the Leather Room. One of the three most famous Chinese women in the world – the other two being her fellow actresses and former co-stars Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi – she sits on an ornamental armchair, surrounded by red and gold gilding, panelling and drapery, in a theatrically decorative corner of Edinburgh’s Prestonfield Hotel. Conde Nast Traveller recently described this place as “so extravagant it’s like walking on to the set of some flamboyant costume drama”. Cheung has appeared in dozens of such movies, and looks as if she belongs here. But the actress herself has never felt that she belongs anywhere, and particularly not on a film set.
AFTER a major heart attack last June, the world-renowned explorer Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes spent two days in oblivion. His heart was shock-started 11 times, but he remembers nothing. “Total blackness,” he said when he came out of it. “So if that’s dying, I’m a lot less worried about it than I was before.”
Around the time that David Mitchell was writing his epic, polyphonic, pan-historical novel, Cloud Atlas, a 13-year-old Japanese boy named Naoki Higashida was working on a kind of memoir about his own autism. Naoki’s condition was severe enough that he could only do this by pointing to the relevant characters on a custom-made cardboard alphabet grid. With great effort and patient assistance, he compiled a list of answers to the most frequently asked questions about his behaviour. The resulting book was titled The Reason I Jump, and first published in Japan almost a decade ago. David Mitchell didn’t hear of it until years later, when his own young son was diagnosed with autism. “Before that, I had no reason to know anything about it,” says Mitchell.
This is war. A convoy of highly-trained, heavily-armed, hyper-caffeinated American Marines rolls towards Baghdad in open-top Humvees, down a highway that Saddam Hussein ordered built in his own honour. En route, these men follow poor instructions and bad directions, taking friendly and enemy fire while struggling to obey changeable rules of engagement that needlessly endanger their lives, and result in numerous civilian deaths. They complain constantly, swear pornographically, and sing past or current pop hits when bored, which is often. It makes for phenomenal viewing. “And it’s all true,” says David Simon of his new seven-part miniseries Generation Kill, scrupulously adapted from Evan Wright’s non-fiction book about the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. “Evan really did get the perspective of these guys in the Humvees. This is what they thought and feared. This is where their anger was rooted. This is how they regarded command. We wanted to get it exactly right.”