I know some people are fretting about Brexit, and others about the drive-by violence the President is doing to the US constitution, but what preoccupies me and the nation’s allotment-holders at the moment is news that the RHS is warning of a ‘bumper year for slugs’. The slimy little bastards not only ate every single lettuce seedling I planted last year, but they have taken to invading my kitchen in the night and dying extravagantly, and in a way that makes a stain, on hard-to-clean surfaces. The RHS is currently conducting trials on five different alleged slug repellents — copper tape, horticultural grit, pine bark, wool pellets and broken eggshells — to see if any of them actually works. You’d think someone would have done this already, slugs not being a new thing. The results will probably come too late for me: I’m going to crack and scatter chemical-blue slug pellets all over my allotment and around my fridge by the end of the week.
But if some good comes out of the trials let me know. It may not be too late to resolve the Northern Irish border problem with a row of eggshells; or go to Washington and put a line of wool pellets between the executive and the judiciary.
Speaking of The Donald, I’ve been enjoying John Niven’s forthcoming novel Kill’ Em All, which sees the return of his magnetically loathsome antihero Steven Stelfox, a Simon Cowellesque former music industry A&R man. Stelfox is energised by the Trump era, and he makes the interesting claim that POTUS would have thrived in the record industry. He understands the two key principles: never ever alienate your core fanbase; and it is impossible to underestimate the tastes of the public.
Remember 25 May? GDPR day! After weeks of forlorn, passive-aggressive emails from yoghurt companies, pizzerias and gardening-supply shops, begging us to let them stay in touch, the great silence fell. No more spam. Or, at least, that was the idea. I even anticipated feeling forlorn, for a moment or two, as tumbleweed blew across my inbox. But it never happened, did it? I seem to get just as much rubbish as before. Or did I positively opt in to all that spam way back when? Search me. If you subcontract your memory to the internet, it can do what it likes to you, evidently.
Doing the rounds lately has been a Facebook post by the vampire writer Anne Rice, in which she boasts of having refused to let her work be edited since 1988. ‘I requested of my editor that she not give me any more comments […] I asked this due to my highly critical relationship with my work and my intense evolutionary work on every sentence in the work, my feeling for the rhythm of the phrase and the unfolding of the plot and the character development. I felt that I could not bring to perfection what I saw unless I did it alone.’ I dare say her then editor will have cried great heartless tears of mirth and thought: ‘Your funeral, crazycakes.’ Dunning-Kruger strikes again. The writers who most resist editing are always the ones most in need of it.
The best stylists can tell when they’ve been improved. The cloth-eared can’t — and because they can’t, the issue becomes about power and ego rather than about which way of putting something works better. In the years I’ve edited others, I’ve experienced many hissy-fits from second-rate writers who think they’re first-rate; none from first-raters who know they are.
This week we’re going to be recording a first for the Spectator Books podcast: music. When Paul Kildea talks to me about his new book Chopin’s Piano, he’s going to have an actual piano on hand to make his musical points. God, I hope he doesn’t ask me to identify any tunes. I’m a complete ignoramus when it comes to classical music. But then learning is part of the pleasure of recording these podcasts. And of course, you learn from your mistakes. Among the things that didn’t make it to transmission lately: me inadvertently muddling astrology and astronomy in conversation with the theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli; me asking St Paul’s biographer Tom Wright whether he believes in God, to which he replied: ‘Well, I was Bishop of Durham for seven years…’
It’s turning into a good year for the non-awarding of literary prizes. The Nobel Prize for Literature — always an absurd proposition — has taken the year off after the Swedish Academy turned out to have been bunging family members and countenancing the sexual harassment of passers-by. And the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic writing is skipping a year too, because the judges didn’t find any novels funny enough. A welcome trend to set, but a dangerous one. Imagine the epistemological contortions if Marvel Comics this year fails to award a No-Prize.
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