Dahl on the life of businessmen and writers

In the following excerpt from Roald Dahl’s Boy, he’s left public school at 18 to take a job with Shell Oil company. He is taking their internal training courses and is learning the business.

…[E]very morning, six days a week, Saturdays included, I would dress neatly in a sombre grey suit, have breakfast at seven forty-five and then, with a brown trilby on my head and a furled umbrella in my hand, I would board the eight-fifteen train to London together with a swarm of other equally sombre-suited businessmen. I found it easy to fall into their pattern. We were all very serious and dignified gents taking the train to our offices in the City of London where each of us, so we thought, was engaged in high finance and other enormously important matters. Most of my companions wore hard bowler hats, and a few like me wore soft trilbys, but not one of us on that train in the year of 1934 went bareheaded. It wasn’t done. And none of us, even on the sunniest of days, went without his furled umbrella. The umbrella was our badge of office. We felt naked without it. Also it was a sign of respectability. Road-menders and plumbers never went to work with umbrellas. Businessmen did.

I enjoyed it. I really did. I began to realise how simple life could be if one had a regular routine to follow with fixed hours and a fixed salary and very little original thinking to do. The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him. If he is a writer of fiction he lives in a world of fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not. Two hours of writing fiction leaves this particular writer absolutely drained. For those two hours he has been miles away, he has been somewhere else, in a different place with totally different people, and the effort of swimming back into normal surroundings is very great. It is almost a shock. The writer walks out of his workroom in a daze. He wants a drink. He needs it. It happens to be a fact that nearly every writer of fiction in the world drinks more whiskey than is good for him. He does it to give himself faith, hope, and courage. A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.

Roald Dahl's "Boy"

A very nice habit we picked up from Liz’s parents was her dad reading to her mom. We’ve adapted that to me reading to Liz before she turns out the light for bed (I’m an owl, we stay up later). After much experimentation, we’ve decided that memoirs are the best before-bedtime subject matter. Even then, there’s an awful lot of variation in memoirs that makes them entertaining enough to read aloud and keep our interest for the weeks it takes to read 10-20 pages a night. Roald Dahl’s memoir Boy, published in 1984, is a fine example of the kind of memoir we enjoy. It’s well-written, with vivid scenes, conversations, and observations; it doesn’t sag, get overly poetic in description, or droningly philosophic in its digressions. It satisfies also what I recall Roger Ebert quoted George C. Scott as saying he wanted to see in movies: show me people I’ve never seen before, in a place I’ve never been before, saying things I’ve never heard before.

Boy covers Dahl’s first 18 years, growing up in England, attending public schools, and then his transition to manhood, just before he joined the RAF in WWII. It’s a time when boys were brutally caned by headmasters and housemasters for utterly capricious and arbitrary reasons, motor cars attained high speeds of 30 miles an hour, and anesthetic was never used when visiting the dentist or lancing a boil (he describes watching, fascinated, as a clever doctor performs the latter operation on a sick boy). Liz almost screamed several times: “Why aren’t they using anesthetic, for God’s sake?!?”

But Dahl is describing the past, a foreign country and, as LP Hartley said, “they do things differently there.” On the occasions where a serious operation is needed–his sister needs an appendectomy, his nose is sheared off in a motorcar crash and needs to be sewn back on–the doctor comes to their house, lays a clean cloth on the gardening table, soaks cotton in ether to knock the patient out, and gets down to it. Otherwise, Dahl reports, anesthetic was simply not often used in the 1920s and ‘30s, and one was simply expected to take it.

Liz also had me skip over the numerous passages devoted to boys being whipped, caned, and treated like dirt by the adults and others with power over them; the cruelty Dahl describes is simply too harsh to take. In one episode, he describes the boys perusing someone’s caned bottom and admiring the housemaster’s technique with the cool attitude and commentary of connoisseurs. Dahl at one point apologizes for telling so many of these stories, but the book is a skimming of the memories that made such a deep impression on him that they were the moments that stood out. Being whipped by a master who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury was enough to convince him that this God business was obviously wrong; and he said that, as an adult, sitting on a hardwood chair for too long awakened the feelings he had as a child sitting down after being caned, and he would have to stand up.

It’s an unsentimental look back at his life, funny, gentle, and at times horrific, very well told.

"Dreams with Sharp Teeth"

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj5IV23g-fE&hl=en&fs=1&w=300&h=242]

Thanks to the glory of Netflix, Liz and I saw this documentary that I can assure you never visited  the Carolina Theatre. It's a bio-doc on the writer Harlan Ellison, 72 years old at the time of the movie's release in 2007, and covers an impressive sweep of his life, with samples of him reading from his stories, talking heads quotes from friends and other writers about his influence and the impression he's made on their lives, and various NSFW-language interviews that evoke the man's history, philosophy, irritations, annoyances, and, now and then, joys. (The YouTube video here is from the movie; it's HE in his most typical mode of full-flow righteous anger--well-deserved, in this case.)

I was introduced to HE as a sophomore in high school and didn't look back for nearly 15 years; his personality and writing were vivid, electrifying, throat-grabbing--uncompromising, is the word that leaps to mind. Uncompromising to the point of lunacy, sometimes, but all in the name of dignity, self-respect, and justice, which for HE are paramount virtues.

"Dreams with Sharp Teeth" was a real test, as Liz had never experienced Harlan and was put off by his abrasive and, it must be said, obnoxiously show-offy personality. But she said she grew to like him better as the movie went on; you see the grit, energy, anger and just plain orneriness (an old-fashioned word that Harlan would love) that took a bullied little kid from Painesville, OH (a metaphorical town name, if ever there was one) to Los Angeles and success, of a sort. The movie confronts the fact that, although his writing has always been admired by his peers and lauded by fans, his career never really took off. His labor in the vineyards of genre fiction, teleplays, and short stories won him many writers' awards, but not mainstream success.

The documentary recognizes the respect that is paid to his longevity and his highest writing achievements--especially some of his most important short stories from the 1960's, such as "Repent Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman" and "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." But he still remains a marginal literary figure, it seems to me, a miniaturist in a culture that likes The Big Novel, the province of a dedicated few. His legacy, in addition to his thousands of stories and awards, may be more in the writers he has inspired who've gone on to produce Babylon5, the revamped Battlestar Galactica, and other TV series, or had more commercially successful writing careers themselves (such as Dan Simmons and Neil Gaiman, who pay tribute to HE).

As Gaiman says in the interviews, HE's greatest creative act has been this character called "Harlan Ellison." Partly sincere, partly schtick, with a freakish a memory for cultural and historical details, a fast-talking patter, and in-your-face energy--an electrical storm front on legs--driven by a hair-trigger temper and a determination to prove he's better and smarter than the bullies around him.

He says, in a poignant reflection, that being beaten up every day by bullies makes you an outsider. I think that, in many ways, large pieces of him are still hurting and still wants a happy childhood.

Another legacy of his childhood is that he sees the world as a big bully that shouldn't be let off the hook. In fact, the bully should be shamed, kicked where it hurts, and his nose should be rubbed in it. ("Revenge is a good thing," he says in a 1981 TV interview.) It powered his writing and his political and civil rights activism, his numerous lawsuits against studios and networks, and made him a fiercely loyal friend and ally. But it also meant he couldn't pick and choose his battles because everything--from a Writers Guild contract to the wrong brand of yogurt at the grocery store--demands a shouting confrontation, and if you cross him, then get ready for screaming phone calls.

While he never got to be one of the writers of great movies, as I think he dearly wished to be, it's hard to imagine him being happy on a movie set. To have the sort of control he wants, he'd have to do what his acolytes have done: become the producer and helm the entire enterprise. But that would mean he'd have to be the boss, and I'm guessing he'd not enjoy that role. He considers writing his holy chore, not producing or directing. Although I think he'd love meeting and kibitzing with the actors (his life's wealth could be said to be the devoted friendships he's gained of rich and famous people), he'd be driven to mania and a rusty chain saw by the thousand compromises and trade-offs that are a major movie production.

And also, he's always been an outsider; to be a producer/director would mean having to work inside the system, and he couldn't flatter and cajole the suits whose primary concerns are the budget and the schedule, not the story. HE knows his confrontations and lawsuits have  poisoned the studios and investors against him and made him virtually unemployable except by a few younger-generation writer/producers who see him as a mentor who inspired them when they were teenagers. He says he has accepted that condition--though it's hard to be sure. Regret and disappointment are other  major themes in his work.

The movie is a wonderful hagiography of Ellison (much better than the similar "The Mindscape of Alan Moore" in 2005) though it does assume that he's loved by his fellow writers, which isn't always the case. "The Last Dangerous Visions" issue is lightly touched on and then set aside. There has been some criticism of the movie because none of his enemies are interviewed--HE reportedly told the director, Erik Nelson, that he's known by his impressive enemies list and they should have a hearing in the documentary--but Nelson replied that HE was his own worst enemy.

I've grown up seeing HE's image in photos and television interviews, and it's poignant to see how he has aged. The geeky kid in his teens becomes the slim, handsome, dynamic ladies' man in the 1970s and 1980s, and now is a round matzoh ball who looks like Larry "Bud" Melman. The fire is still there, but the heart attacks, surgeries, chronic fatigue syndrome, and other maladies (none of which are described in the documentary) are catching up with him.

I came to HE's writing first via The Glass Teat, which a high school friend introduced me to. For the next 15 or so years, I became an Ellison fanatic, read all the stories, interviews, columns, etc. His last great book of stories, to my mind, is Strange Wine. He's written some remarkable stories afterward--"The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore" was selected for Best American Short Stories 1993--but I've not enjoyed them as much as I did his early work. His art has evolved from pulp genre fiction, to his own brand of fantasy, to, in the last 20 years, a Borgesian lyricism and vision, with non-linear stories that are collages, impressions, prose poems, descriptions of mood and interior states rather than character. That I can't connect to this vision--which eschews the traditional short story and plot props I'm accustomed to--I will take the blame for. As an artist, HE  continues to evolve and follow his muse where it leads him; not all of his old fans can do the same.

I was often struck by the fact that HE wrote two or three novels during his years as a pulp writer, but none afterward. I think this was a shame and a missed opportunity. It could be that his inclination was more for the pointed message, the singular effect, the impatient prophet--maybe he had too many things to say--a sprinter, rather than a marathoner. Of course, the screenplays he wrote (such as his famous unproduced screenplay for "I, Robot") also took as much time and measured energy to write as a novel. But I think movies called to him as an artist in a way novels couldn't.

The documentary features television interviews from his heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, and a small tour of his remarkable pop-culture museum of a house, which is stuffed to bursting with books, ephemera, and toys. It struck me as the magical treehouse his 8-year-old self would have wanted to live in, a very safe and cozy Xanadu (complete with secret passageways and pizza) that's retreat and recharging station and probably everything HE would have ever wanted.

It will be odd the day I wake up and hear that Harlan is not part of the landscape. I wonder whether he will see death as a bully or a friend.

Where to start. For the fiction,  The Essential Ellison is a good but large and baggy collection; Deathbird Stories is an earlier and more compact volume that contains many of his classics. Dangerous Visions is his groundbreaking SF anthology; I've not read it in decades but still remember some of its stories. His Dream Corridor comics are interesting curios, but not essential.

I daresay that his reputation, like Gore Vidals, may rest on his essays, which are remarkably supple yet all of a piece. It's in these essays (and the introductions to his stories) that the Harlan Ellison voice and "character" were forged, and I can recall more happy moments reading them than I do his fiction. Sleepless Nights in the Procrusteam Bed is the best nice-sized volume that shows his range. The Harlan Ellison Hornbook reprints his 1960s essays and they're all immediate and throat-grabbing. Harlan Ellison's Watching contains his fugitive movie criticism; The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat contain his classic dissections of network teevee in the 1960s--truly a snapshot of another era and full of opinions that are still scarily relevant.

In the 1980s, he started a fan club thing called The Harlan Ellison Record Collection, which made available recordings of him reading his work. (This was pre-Internet days, kids -- it was all done by mail and Pony Express.) Listening to him performing (not reading, performing) "Prince Myshkin, or Pass the Relish" and "Waiting for Kadak" are more fun than reading them. I also hugely enjoyed the 60-min interview of his "Loving Reminiscences of the Dying Gasp of the Pulp Era"; he clearly has a great nostalgia for that period of his young manhood, and there are times he can sure sound today like a cranky old man lamenting the good ol' days.

But it's the recordings of his public lectures that are the most entertaining. Of the On The Road series, my friend Scott says that the preferred order would be vol. 2, then 1, then 3.

Link harvest


  • James Fallows on the China Xinjiang / Uighur controversy: “The point about separate fact-universes is one of the sobering marvels of the modern info-age. It’s true within the United States, as discussed long ago here; and it’s true between countries, as China, Turkey, and the rest of the world all digest different versions of the Xinjiang ‘truth.’ Main point: the internet, mobile phones, and other info technology, far from eliminating the country-by-country differences in information and belief, in some ways may increase them, as each little info-sphere is able to reinforce its own view of the world.”
  • Wonderful account of a man remaking his life as a pen-and-ink artist of theater rehearsals. I’m officially jealous.
  • Garden path sentences.
  • Personal informatics.
  • The fate of the Neanderthals. Modern humans have driven thousands of species to extinction without exerting itself; this explanation makes perfect sense to me.
  • Funny, rueful poem: “Rereading Jane Austen’s Novels”.
  • Evan Dorkin’s you-were-there account of seeing Monty Python’s stage show at NYC’s City Center in April 1976 (complete with some Playbill scans). Now that is a birthday gift worth remembering.

There are times when I am terribly presumptuous, to visit my personal feelings on other people’s way of living a life. In truth, I’m very egalitarian in that way. I’m an elitist because I think there are too many stupid people in the world. But one must not pity them; one must take an AK-47 and kill them. You just need to kill as many stupid people as you can find. Go out in the streets and ask them if they have ever heard of Guy de Maupassant. No? Bam, you’re dead. Have you ever heard of Bessie Smith? No? Bam, you’re dead.

Readability and toread.cc bookmarklets

Here are two bookmarklets I use every day. (Bookmarklets, you ask? What are they? More here.) The beautiful thing about bookmarklets is they should work from within IE, Firefox, Safari, or any web browser that lets you put a bookmark in its Links bar.

Because I read lots of articles and blogs online, I click the Readability bookmarklet a lot. (In fact, it's the rightmost link on my Links bar in both my work and home browsers.) Lifehacker has a good mini-explanation with video of what it does, but essentially the Readability bookmarklet strips out all the page and font formatting and presents just the text, sans background, affiliate links, banner ads, etc. Select the settings you want on the Readability site, drag the bookmarklet to your Links bar, and away you go. As Lifehacker notes, it's not perfect, but it gets the formatting right for me about 98% of the time.

Yes, some web sites like NY Times or New Yorker have printer-friendly pages, but they're not always reader-friendly pages. With the Readability-formatted page in the browser, I can quickly read a narrower column of text on a gray background, which my eyes find more restful than glaring white.

I can also print the reformatted page, which looks great, or save it to PDF. I generally prefer the Readability version over any web site's printer-friendly version.

I also like using the Readability bookmarklet with my toread bookmarklet. The toread.cc site bills itself as an "email-based free bookmark service." Which is accurate but sounds klunky. Delicious, which I use heavily, is also a free bookmark service. (I don't use browser bookmarks anymore; it feels so '90s.) But Delicious doesn't let me search the contents of the pages I've saved, so I should make good notes or provide good tags that will enable me to find the link again later.

What I use toread.cc for is as a way to archive web-page receipts, web pages with information I may want to access again someday, or web pages I may want to read later. When I'm on a page that has text I want to keep, I click the toread bookmarklet, and the entire page is emailed to my Gmail account. (I specified my Gmail address when I signed up for the service.)

Because I use Gmail, I can now search the full text of these saved pages and generally find what I want pretty quickly--which is the chief advantage of using this method over Delicious. Using toread is a way to build up a personal web archive in a painless fashion.

I don't store everything I read online using toread and Gmail, only stuff that I think I'd like to hold on to "just in case" (which is the clutterer's curse). If I'm doing lots of web-based research on a topic, then I'll use Delicious to group a large number of sites under a single tag and harvest the sites later. More likely, if I read a poem from Poetry Daily or an essay I particularly like or a computer tip I want to have on hand, then I'll use toread.

When used with Readability, the toread service helps me to archive clean-looking pages that don't have billboard/classified-ad clutter that permeates web and blog design these days. (And my toread bookmarklet is on the leftmost side of my Links bar, so I don't accidentally click it when I really want to click the Readability bookmarklet.) (Do I like to complicate my life with these rules, or what?)

I don't trust that pictures or graphics are saved via toread; I think they're included as links in the email. If the original site goes down, then it would take the graphics or pictures with it. So I tend to focus on text-based material.

Incidentally, I sometimes find that when I go back to read pages I emailed to myself, I've sometimes lost interest in them and wondered why I thought I wanted to read them. These tend to be deep-dish think-pieces from Arts & Letters Daily. So, using toread provides cooling-off time between "Ooh! New thing! Must read! Must distract myself!" and "Hmpf. Why did I save that?"

Another reasonable objection to using toread could be, "Aren't you just junking up your Gmail?" Maybe. I have a filter that labels every email from toread.cc as "Later." So, yes, there are many to-be-read emails in the "Later" bin, but they can be filtered out of searches or I can search only within the "Later" bin; both options allow me to narrow my focus as needed.

I also feel that, geez, don't we already know how to delete, sort, or file emails? Could it be any easier? Try sorting and deleting Delicious bookmarks; it's better these days but not as easy as email. Email, for better or worse, is the world's most oft-used app (no matter the application nor whether it's web-based or computer-based) that, presumably, most people already know how to use. Why not push the stuff I want to read or do through my email application? It prevents me from having to learn a new application and, filing-wise, I now have one place to search for that needle in the haystack, instead of several different services (or the whole web, for that matter).

Note: I see that toread also offers a service called news.toread.cc, that uses data collected from the toread.cc service to show what people are bookmarking. It's rather like Delicious's home page showing what people are bookmarking. Just pointing this out if security is an issue.

I do know what the deal on the comic is: It’s $2.99 for 23 pages of story and art (the first issue is 23 pages, the others are 22), wonderfully painted by the talented and popular Jill Thompson (Scary Godmother, Magic Trixie, Sandman et al). Dogs and cats versus the supernatural. Come on, that sounds okay, doesn’t it? It’s at least half as good as a kid bitten by a spider who gets superpowers and can’t make money even though he invents all this great stuff and sews a costume all in one night. Don’t you think? Well, okay, maybe not, but it’s still okay in my book. And it’s only three bucks! Three lousy bucks. Cripes, you people, really, don’t tell me about the economy, I don’t want to hear that jive talk. Just take it out of your mom’s bag, or your dad’s wallet. Bring some beer bottles in for redemption. Roll the town drunk. Busk. Do something. Hell, my daughter has three bucks, and she’s only four. Don’t give me any excuses this September. Please. I beg of you.

Old-world skillz

Cassettes of varying tape quality and playing time
Image via Wikipedia

I do not know how Michael Leddy finds so many great items for his Orange Crate Art blog. I was struck by his link to this column by The Providence Journal's Mark Pantinkin on certain specialized life skills we (of a certain generation) accrued growing up that aren't needed in this day and age. There's a hint of grumpy old man in his tone, but not too much.

Some of the skills on Pantinkin's list overlaps with mine: the high-beam toggle on the floor, the rotary dial phone, threading the film in the camera, using coat hangars (and aluminum foil!) to improve TV reception, and dropping the phonograph needle on a turning record.

My own modest list would include:

  • Black and white darkroom skills, especially threading the film, in the dark, onto wire reels that I then dumped into the fixative. If the film touched itself along that spiral, the outcome was just ugly.
  • Using a pencil to re-wind slack cassette tape onto its spool.
  • Affixing labels to 3.5-inch floppy disks.
  • Creatively naming computer files within the 8.3 scheme.
  • Using a proportion wheel to size photos for a newspaper page -- and keeping your distance from the hot wax machine.
  • Inking and running my dad's offset printing presses, and then running the pages through the collator, folding machine, and stapler. I can still hear and feel the loud, mechanical rhythm and sounds of those machines.

But that said, some skills have not passed away from this ever-progressing world:

  • The Frugal Liz prefers her $20 Whirley-Pop over any microwave popcorn.
  • I still write letters and cards to my friends, and Simpsons stamps are preferred.
  • Banjo strings still go on by hand one peg at a time.
  • A safety pin keeps paired socks together in the wash.
  • The Sunday funnies, even in their sadly depleted state (the News & Observer only has 4 pages of strips run really small), still make fun birthday gift wrapping in a pinch.
  • We still have two-stroke lawnmower engines, shoelaces, eyeglass screws, and other physical artifacts of the daily world that will require specialized skills for a while yet.

I would add, though, a few new skills I've picked up:

  • Working with blog software
  • Using Snopes.com to sniff out urban myths forwarded to me by well-meaning people
  • Navigating Gmail using the keyboard shortcuts only
  • Seeing Netflix movies over my wi-fi connection (instant gratification -- though I do miss the Mom and Pop video stores)
  • And, alas, becoming better than I want to be at troubleshooting Windows and Macintosh computers