Animal Farm, George Orwell


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Animal Farm
Penguin Modern Classics

It’s about thirty years since I last read Animal Farm and I would say that I definitely enjoyed it more now that I’m older and more experienced.  (I don’t think that I could comprehend actual tyranny when I read it in my youth).

Although it is a satire on Soviet Russia it seems just as relevant today.  I’m dismayed by the current political climate, as it seems we have learned absolutely nothing from history.  Indeed, we seem to be stuck in some sort of time loop where the evils of both Communism and Fascism are in danger of revival.

I’m mightily sick of politics, particularly the politicisation of absolutely everything, whereby I can’t even enjoy a nice cup of tea without thinking about colonialism and cultural appropriation.  George Orwell loved a cup of tea, by the way.  He took it very strong, like ‘builder’s tea’. and would think my wishy-washy ‘just show it the tea bag’ brew, a complete waste of time.

If you are tempted to read or re-read Animal Farm then I would recommend also reading Orwell’s original preface, entitled Freedom of the Press.  In it he explains the political climate of the time and his struggle to get the book published due to the English intelligensia’s veneration of Stalin and the Soviet regime.  In his defence Orwell quotes Milton:

“By the known rules of ancient liberty”

and then goes on to say:

The word ancient emphasizes the fact that intellectual freedom is a deep-rooted tradition without which our characteristic western culture could only doubtfully exist.

“Liberty”: that is, freedom of thought and speech, were vitally important to Orwell.  He identified in the British press of his era a tendency towards self-censorship that we would perhaps now call “political correctness”.  He justified the publication of his fable against totalitarianism in the these terms:

If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.

In fact, even though Orwell had a specific totalitarian regime in mind when he wrote it, I would say that you could gain a great deal from reading it, even if you knew nothing of Soviet Russia.  Though, because of Animal Farm, I now intend to gen up on the Russian Revolution, but first I am reading Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.  

I’m only a few chapters in, but I had a shiver down my spine when I read Orwell’s description of revolutionary Barcelona, as the experience was obviously a direct influence on his final novel Nineteen-eighty-four.  I’m not sure why, but I felt there was something uncanny in reading of his true life experience and seeing how it developed in his fiction.  For that reason, I feel compelled to read everything Orwell wrote, to see how it all fits together and how it culminated in one of the most influential novels of the twentieth century.


Me Before You

Me Before You
Jojo Moyes

Then said his wife unto him, Dost thou still retain thine integrity? curse God, and die. But he said unto her, Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? In all this did not Job sin with his lips.

Job 2:7 – 10

On Saturday, after a day spent packing boxes and painting over my daughter’s Sharpie doodles on the walls of my bedroom cupboard, I crashed out on the sofa and scrolled through the uninspiring offerings on Netflix.  I know, I thought, I’ll watch Me Before You, just to confirm how truly dreadful it is.  Even if the film is rubbish, I’ll have Sam Claflin’s gorgeous face to admire for a couple of hours.

I’m really not a chick flick or a chick lit person.  However, I have to say that I quite enjoyed the film, in a brain dead sort of way.  So much so, that I decided to read the book the next day.

I had seen a lot of controversy stirred up on Twitter about its apparent ‘ableism’ and wanted to see for myself, if the novel was really saying that it was better to be dead than quadriplegic.  My conclusion is that it wasn’t saying that at all.  It takes great pains to include the idea that there is a possibility of a different sort of life for someone with a spinal injury, even one that includes love or adventure, if that’s what the person wants.  However, life in a wheelchair, isn’t what the disabled character, Will Traynor, is prepared to endure, as it also comes with a great deal of pain, illness and a complete loss of control.

Anyway, that wasn’t what interested me about the novel. What I found incredible, was that Jojo Moyes had the nerve to examine the topic of euthanasia within the confines of the romantic comedy genre.  Is chick lit the place for such a weighty discussion?  I suppose that within a culture where most people’s opinions are formed by red top newspapers and the BBC, it will suffice.  In this novel, the two people who seem to have any moral objections to ‘assisted suicide’ are middle-aged mothers, who are also Christians.  The romantic lead, Louisa’s main objection, is that Will’s decision to end his life, is in effect saying that she is not enough.  Her love for him is not sufficient reason for him to want to live.

Which is fair enough, because she has all the emotional maturity of a fifteen-year-old.

I think that we are heading down the road of acceptance of euthanasia without any proper debate.  It is a creeping acceptance by degrees and before you know it, those who can afford to end their lives, at the time and in the manner of their choice, will no longer have to fly to Switzerland to do so.  I’m not really sure how I feel about this.  I worry that it is open to abuse and a recent case in The Netherlands, where a woman in her twenties was allowed ‘assisted suicide’ by her doctors because she had ‘incurable PTSD’, really caused me concern.

It seems to be taking the matter of death very lightly.  The idea that life is about fulfillment and happiness is a very modern falsehood.  Life is largely about suffering and how you deal with it.  If you’re not prepared for this fact, then of course you will want to check out as soon as the going gets tough.  Perhaps we should be arming ourselves with ways to deal with loss and grief and pain, rather than presenting death (painless, sterile, clinically induced death) as the easy option?

In Me Before You bereavement is an emotional event which can be alleviated by the panacea of inherited wealth and a nice trip to Paris.  In Me Before You, death really is a simple matter: one which can be arranged as easily as booking a holiday.

High Rise

7993637950_a7218e4030_zImage copyright Phil Loach

J G Ballard

I was slightly disappointed with this book. Ballard is a wonderful writer: it is full of pithy sentences and has an interesting premise, but I felt that it lacked suspense and an emotional hook. Its emotional detachment meant that I didn’t really care what happened to any of the characters. However, I understood why it was written that way, as it underlines the social engineering aspect of the high rise experiment. In fact, I read that J G Ballard’s first draft of the novel was written in the style of a social services report.

The novel is set in a huge high rise building, which is populated by affluent, professional people, such as doctors and orthodontists. However, their middle class manners soon break down as the building descends into promiscuity, hedonism, tribalism and violence. There is no catalyst for this entropy, nor is it as a result of any ideological force; it is almost as though disintegration is written into the fabric of the building. The high rise is an entity with a self-destruct mechanism built-in: like a ticking time bomb.

As a student, I lived in a ten floor tower block near Hulme in Manchester.  At the time, I ascribed the residents’ degenerate behaviour to our youth and access to cheap alcohol.  However, while reading High-Rise, I began to wonder if the building was also in some way to blame. As in J G Ballard’s novel, there was a tribalism and antagonism between floors, which manifested in raiding parties, theft and wanton vandalism. Strangely, the most disruptive floor was the one at the top of the building, which we put down to the predominance of male students; they would engage in senseless chaotic acts, such as wedging the lift doors open, or stealing clothes and throwing them out of the windows.  However, this is as far as things went – the atmosphere in the halls of residence was one of stupidity and high jinks, as opposed to the brutality of High-Rise.

High-Rise is the antithesis of Le Corbusier’s ‘machine for living in’, where the architect envisaged that his pristine tower blocks would produce social order, rather than moral decay.  The tower block in High-Rise becomes more like the infamous Pruitt-Igoe, a housing development in St Louis, Missouri, which became a  hotbed of gang violence.  Although, in the case of Pruitt-Igoe, it was the neglect by its owners, which precipitated the buildings’ descent into hell.  At first, the residents protested about the lack of building maintenance, and the disintegration of the forsaken development’s physical structure, led to a rupture of its social fabric, culminating in a downwards spiral into chaos.

The same is true in High-Rise.  Only here, the residents are not the poorest members of society, but supposedly the British class system’s more ‘civilised’ subjects; arbiters of sophistication and good manners.  The enthusiasm with which they embrace the psychopathic elements of their characters, makes this a fascinating novel, although I felt no emotional investment in their survival.


You can have too many books…


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or what homelessness has taught me.

I’m between homes at the moment.  In that I’m in the process of being evicted and have nowhere else to go. So I guess that makes me technically homeless.

I just wanted to share my thoughts on this with regards to possessions.

Possessions are a burden.
I had seen this meme on the internet and always thought that it sounded a bit new age hippyish. However, in light of my current circumstances, I can see a great deal of truth in the statement. The rest of the quote reads, that the reason they are a burden, is that you have to take care of them. To which I would add – yes, but you also can’t take them with you.  I mean this spiritually, but also practically.  I have accumulated many hundreds of books over the past ten years in my home and I now find that I will have to pay someone to move them, or get rid of them.

Yesterday, a lovely Oxfam volunteer drove away with her car loaded with my surplus books.  I probably have the same amount left to take with me to my next home (think positive).  Deciding which ones to give up wasn’t altogether simple; some I hadn’t even had chance to read yet; others were classics that I’d read, but reckoned I could pick them up again very cheaply if I desperately needed to, or else borrow from the library.  Some were ones I’d kept because I liked the cover, or were anthologies I’d held onto because they had just one short story or poem in them that I really loved.  However, I had to be ruthless.

I still have numerous boxes of my favourites, but I realise that even these need to be held onto lightly.  To cling to objects is just going to cause you pain.  Better perhaps, to see them as things over which you have temporary stewardship.

And the future?  Well, the booksellers in my town are going to be seeing less of me.  I have some new rules:

Not to buy books on impulse.

Only buy books that are beautiful – otherwise you may as well get them on Kindle.

Go to the library first.  Public libraries will order books for you, if they don’t have them.  Better to see if it’s a book that you will enjoy and re-read, than waste money on something that will end up going to the charity shop next time you move house.

All the money I’ve spent on books this year, I could have been putting by for a ‘rainy day’.  Lesson learned.

However, if you’re rich – buy as many books as you like! Create a huge fuck off library.

I know I would.

A Confederacy of Dunces


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So dry your tears. Fortune has not yet turned her hatred against all your blessings. The storm has not yet broken upon you with too much violence. Your anchors are holding firm and they permit you both comfort in the present, and hope in the future.
― Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

“Oh, Fortuna, blind, heedless goddess, I am strapped to your wheel,” Ignatius belched. “Do not crush me beneath your spokes. Raise me on high, divinity.”

Fortuna’s wheel has recently taken an unpleasant turn in my life, which has resulted in a frantic burst of activity to keep myself afloat.  The past week has been a flurry of job applications, form filling and other brushes with bureaucracy.

More mundanely, I also had an hour to kill at the supermarket, waiting for a taxi, and I happened to spy John Kennedy Toole’s, A Confederacy of Dunces on their charity bookshelf.  I pounced on it, even though I already have a beautiful cloth bound edition at home, because I knew that at least with Ignatius J Reilly for company, the hour would pass quickly.

I read this book last year and absolutely loved it. Ignatius J Reilly is one of my favourite characters in literature.  Why? Well, I hate to say it, but because I can see a lot of myself in him!

Ignatius has a master’s degree and is obsessed with the late Roman philosopher, Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy; and writing one paragraph a month on this great work, is the nearest the indolent slob gets to any form of industry.  Yes, Ignatius is very lazy, but he is also pretty much unemployable, due to his unique mindset and eccentric behaviour.  Later in the novel, we see him attempt to hold down jobs as an invoice clerk and a hotdog salesman, with hilarious results.

Now, I’m far from feckless and unemployable – in fact, my jobs are so numerous that I have to leave many of them off my CV.  However, I do find it very difficult to get corporate jobs, as I’m a bit too, what shall we say? Individual?  A case in point, I failed to even make it through the psychometric test for a supermarket cashier job this week (for the second time in my life, in fact).  The rejection email helpfully suggested that I read the questions more carefully next time, but I know this wouldn’t do any good.  In true Ignatius J Reilly style, I maintain that my mode of thinking was correct and that Sainsburys are a bunch of idiots.

Unfortunately, like Ignatius J Reilly, I’m so out of step, that I think this quite a lot of the time.  Although, unlike my literary hero, I don’t think that the collapse of civilisation was ushered in by the Age of Reason:

“With the breakdown of the Medieval system, the gods of Chaos, Lunacy and Bad Taste gained ascendancy.” Ignatius was writing in one of his Big Chief tablets.[…] “Merchants and charlatans gained control of Europe, calling their insidious gospel “The Enlightenment.”

Though it may well have been. My own personal bugbear is the rise of bureaucracy; which removes the individual from all state and corporate processes.  In fact, I had a flash of enlightenment while walking round the Holocaust galleries at the Imperial War Museum one day – that the slaughter of millions was made possible by the efficiency and refinement of the Deutsches Reich’s bureaucratic machine.

Anyway, I digress.  Plus, I’m in no way suggesting that Sainsburys are akin to the Nazis. I’m just not their type.

Oh, Fortuna, please smile on me soon.

What I’ve read this week


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I’ve been brushing up on my postmodernist theory this week.  I’m not sure why exactly.  I still have a few university text books in my possession, from twenty years ago, and I spotted John Docker’s Postmodernism and Popular Culture on my bookshelf and started leafing through it.  No doubt there are more up-to-date overviews of Postmodern theory available, but as academic books go, it’s quite accessible.

I was reading about Frederic Jameson’s, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, in which he discusses the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles as postmodern space (although other cultural theorists say it’s actually Late Modernist architecture due to the lack of pastiche, blah, blah, blah…) and I started wondering if I’d ever stayed there.  I’ve definitely been to a hotel in the states with glass elevators and a revolving restaurant, but really don’t remember much about it.  Perhaps there are lots of similar hotels in California?

Anyway, this memory loss is quite postmodern in itself, as my amnesia puts me in mind of Blade Runner’s Nexus 6 replicants, who can pass as humans, partly because they have implanted memories.  Perhaps I’m a robot?

I also stumbled across Donna Haraway’s, A Cyborg Manifesto, written in 1984, which is incredibly prescient and actually highlights much of what I dislike about destructive postmodern Feminist ideology, in that it sees all established taxonomies as problematic and envisages the “utopian dream” of a “world without gender”.  In Haraway’s view the hybridisation of people and technology (I guess what we, nowadays, would call transhumanism) provides a challenge to dualities such as human/machine, natural/artificial, self/other and so on.  I’d say it was all pretty wacky, if it wasn’t actually happening at this moment.

My brain is currently a jumble of all the things I’ve seen and read this week and I find that the only way to make sense of them is to write – but not fiction, because it’s like when you have too many windows open on your computer and your screen freezes.

I could try writing a dystopian story, in which the hero goes to a hotel in a desert and can’t find the entrance and then gets lost in its city-like interior space, which is a jumble of stylistic parodies and has a confusing layout and perhaps this experience would induce in the hero, “a state of terror proper to the schizophrenic, of too great a proximity of everything which touches, invests and penetrates without resistance”, as described by Baudrillard.  Perhaps the hero will never be able to find his way out and will be doomed to wander the corridors forever?

I have been that person.  As a child, I would be sent out with an empty ice bucket and some unfamiliar money and somehow end up getting lost and wandering round the hotel for hours, because for some reason, even if I could remember our room number, it seemed to bear no relation to what I was experiencing.  If you watch the video below, you will discover that the Hotel Bonaventure has the effect on visitors of making their internal GPS systems malfunction.

I’m not sure if Will Self ever gets lost*, but he managed to walk from London to New York without getting run over; which, considering the unfriendliness of urban planners towards pedestrians, is quite an achievement.   I also read his Psychogeography this week and found it entertaining.  My brain being what it is at the moment, I can’t think of anything else to say.

I should probably read something less stimulating next.

*If Will Self does ever get lost, then he probably says he was being a Situationist, to save face.


Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K Dick


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I’m not a Dickhead.  This is the first Philip K Dick novel I’ve ever read (and quite possibly the last).  I thought I would give it a go, as it’s the book on which Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is based, and I was interested to see how they would compare.

I have a strange relationship with the film Blade Runner, as I was first introduced to it in a darkened lecture theatre, rather than seeing it at the cinema.  There was a brief introduction by the lecturer, in which he told us that the movie was an example of postmodern cinema, and he kept pausing throughout, to discuss elements of Film Noir pastiche and so on.  So you see, I have never been able to relate to it as an ordinary, passive viewer, only as a student frantically scribbling notes on an A4 pad.

I can see what my lecturer meant.  If I ever had to explain postmodernism to someone who has been in a coma for the past twenty years, then I’d make them watch Blade Runner first.  Though, postmodernism is so ubiquitous a term nowadays, I imagine that everyone else has a handle on it.  Do I like the film?  Not especially, but I am sort of obsessed with it.  I enjoy it as visual spectacle and think the cityscapes are particularly wonderful (can you believe they are just little cardboard models?).  In terms of plot, dialogue, and so forth, it is quite superficial, but to misquote Leon in the movie, it’s like an itch I can’t scratch.  It even crops up in a story I wrote, as a perpetual source of torment – an essay that the story’s heroine can never finish.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is very different in atmosphere to the movie Blade Runner, although the main plot elements are there.  The novel is a product of the late 1960s, first published in 1968 to be precise, and seems very influenced by the drug culture of the time and Philip K Dick’s own prodigious drug intake.  The ‘Mood Organ’ which allows Deckard to dial an emotion (like taking uppers and downers), the shifting sense of reality, the paranoia, the eastern mysticism of the Mercer cult and the novel’s shallow philosophical musings reek of pot smoke, dirty Afghan coats and patchouli oil.  In fact, they put me in mind of a bloke called ‘Simon the Hippy’ in my halls of residence, who used to get stoned and talk boring bollocks at me.

Perhaps the anti-Vietnam war protests and political assassinations of the era feed into it too.  Although Dick has said that he was preoccupied with Nazi Germany at the time of writing.  Rick Deckard struggles with his task of killing an android he feels empathy for, leading him to question the human/android distinction, and wonder if it doesn’t “violate his own identity” to do so.  Add to this, Deckard’s constant fears that the Voigt-Kampff test, used to identify an android, may not be accurate and might lead him to accidentally kill a human.

Like the movie Blade Runner, these philosophical themes, such as ‘what makes us human?’ are not dealt with in any meaningful way, they are mere conundrums for the brain, or frustratingly unscratchable itches.  But for me, reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was very much like being forced to discuss the meaning of life with Simon the Hippy.



The Intellectuals and the Masses, John Carey

intellectuals massesMy copy of this book, which I bought in the early 1990s, has managed to stay with me through twelve changes of address and a depressive episode in which I gave all of my books away on Freecycle.  It is very creased and battered – it has character, you could say – and is much loved.

I read it again this week, for the first time this decade, and found that I still really enjoyed it, but now have the discernment to pick apart some of its argument.

The premise of Carey’s book is that early twentieth century literature, I suppose what we would call Modernist literature, was a reaction to mass culture.  Though more than this: it was an attempt to make literature too difficult for the ordinary person to understand.

He takes the examples of D H Lawrence, H G Wells, Graham Greene, T S Eliot and Virginia Woolf, among others, and shows how they abhorred ‘the masses’, inventing dehumanising terms with which to describe them, such as swarm, herd, beetles and bacteria. The intelligensia, Carey says, objected to a whole host of modern developments, such as democracy, railways, radio, Universal Education, tinned food, newspapers, bicycles, cameras and the suburbs and invented ways to exclude and destroy these symbols of degeneracy in their writing.

However, where I think Carey’s argument becomes a little far fetched, is in seeing the novels and poetry of these writers as part of a genocidal impulse, which found ultimate expression in Hitler’s gas chambers.  Perhaps some of them did think this – I’ve read some of Virginia Woolf’s diaries and in one entry she describes seeing some ‘imbeciles’ at Kingston-on-Thames and wonders if they shouldn’t just be killed.  I suppose I think Carey’s greatest mistake is in grouping all of these writers together to fit his argument and taking his hypothesis to a wild extreme.  Carey even tries to shoehorn Sir John Betjeman into his thesis at one point, though having seen the wonderful Metro-Land many times, I can’t see how anyone could argue that Betjeman disliked the suburbs.

Clerks were particularly despised by twentieth century intellectuals, which being an invoice clerk myself, I found quite amusing.  However, Carey fails to mention that T S Eliot was himself a bank clerk.  Perhaps some writers did hate the suburbs and find them ugly, but destroying the suburbs in a piece of fiction, doesn’t mean that you would actually like to see millions of people wiped out in reality.

Carey has a couple of chapters on H G Wells, who in The War of the Worlds has a martian spaceship land in Weybridge and then unleash destruction on Shepperton, Woking and Richmond.  As Carey says:

Towards the end, the narrator walks through suburban London – Mortlake, Putney, Roehampton, Fulham, Ealing, Kilburn, South Kensington – and finds it quite empty of people.  Vegetation is returning.  A red weed, introduced from Mars, spreads everywhere, burying the remnants of houses in its rampant growth.

On Putney Hill, the narrator meets an artilleryman, who rejoices in the devastation and exclaims that, “all those damn little clerks” ought to die!

Does this mean that H G Well thought the same?  I don’t think so, but Carey seems to suspect him of playing out destructive urges in his stories, because he was upset about urban encroachment into Bromley, the rural hamlet where he grew up:

In fantasy he took – again and again, and with mounting savagery – a terrible revenge on the suburban sprawl that had blighted Bromley.

In his conclusion, Carey also has a pop at post-structuralism (because it’s too difficult) and people who don’t like television (because they’re obviously intellectual snobs).  He also says that he admires some late-Twentieth Century poets, such as Ted Hughes, because even a schoolchild could understand them.  Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t think that the job of literature or poetry is to be easy to understand, or that accessibility should be used as some sort of benchmark of literary or moral worth.  There is still a place for ‘difficult’ fiction and God help us if authors feel they have to cater to the average Sun reader in order to avoid accusations of elitism.

I’m off to open a tin of spam and read The Wasteland.

Money, Martin Amis


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This isn’t a review.  I wouldn’t be so cheeky.  I just wanted to get down some thoughts on Money, before my memory of reading it evaporates (for my own benefit and for the edification of the two or three people who read this blog).

This was my first Martin Amis novel (yes, I know, I’m rather late to the party) and it seemed to me to be a masterclass of ‘voice’.  I’ve said before that I’m a dabbler in fiction writing and find voice difficult to get to grips with.  (To be honest, as my characters are based on me, they all have my voice!).  However, John Self, the main protagonist of Money, is clearly nothing like Martin Amis.  I’ve seen Amis on TV and he is erudite and intellectual, where John Self is not.  In fact, in a metafictional flourish, Martin Amis actually appears in this novel as himself.

So that’s interesting.  What is also interesting in Money, especially if you happen to spend a great deal of time thinking about cities, are the locations: London and New York.  I’ve never been to New York, and in any case, John Self hangs out in the seedier parts of the city that I’d probably avoid, with their ‘singles bars’, brothels and porn emporiums.  I once read a piece, written by Christopher Hitchens, about visiting a brothel with Amis, which was probably research for this novel.  Anyway, it doesn’t matter that I’ve never been there, as this novel is set in 1981, which no longer exists.

London in the novel is grey, like ‘washing up water’, and we experience it filtered through the eyes of a money and pornography obsessed slob, which is funnier than it sounds.  It is a satire on the greedy 1980s, so all of the excesses that you might associate with that decade, are given a comic twist by Amis, and end up in the arena of Rabelaisian grotesque.

Los Angeles also makes a brief appearance in Money, in the memory of John Self, and from a psychogeographical point of view it’s a highlight of the novel.  I have been to LA and couldn’t wait to leave.  As someone who can’t drive, and has to walk everywhere, it’s tantamount to purgatory.  John Self sums it up beautifully:

In LA, you can’t do anything unless you drive. Now I can’t do anything unless I drink. And the drink-drive combination, it really isn’t possible out there. If you so much as loosen your seatbelt or drop your ash or pick your nose, then it’s an Alcatraz autopsy with the questions asked later. Any indiscipline, you feel, any variation, and there’s a bullhorn, a set of scope sights, and a coptered pig drawing a bead on your rug.

So what can a poor boy do? You come out of the hotel, the Vraimont. Over boiling Watts the downtown skyline carries a smear of God’s green snot. You walk left, you walk right, you are a bank rat on a busy river. This restaurant serves no drink, this one serves no meat, this one serves no heterosexuals. You can get your chimp shampooed, you can get your dick tattooed, twenty-four hour, but can you get lunch? And should you see a sign on the far side of the street flashing BEEF-BOOZE – NO STRINGS, then you can forget it. The only way to get across the road is to be born there. All the ped-xing signs say DON’T WALK, all of them, all the time. That is the message, the content of Los Angeles: don’t walk. Stay inside. Don’t walk. Drive. Don’t walk. Run!