Dogmatika Interview

February 2006

Rob Newman

How did the last good book you read end up in your hands, and why did you read it?

Ooh what a good question. I found a tatty copy of Robert Bolt's 'A Man For All Seasons' in Oxfam. I've been asked to write a play by the Tricycle Theatre in London and so have been reading more plays lately - to see how it's done. I have also read the first couple of chapters of 'Confessions of an Economic Hitman' by John Perkins. Good title, isn't it? It was brought back by my partner from the USA. It's a memoir of his time working for the financial consultancy front organisations which set up Third World countries to be bled dry. His firm were fronting for Washington-dominated international bodies the World Bank and IMF. But I'm not sure if it's a good book. Yes and no. When he tries to give the big picture in the preface and prologue (yes he has one of each) the writing is woeful and he attempts to sensationalize a terrible dry-hump.
But when he gets into the nitty-gritty of what he did, where he was, what he was thinking and how much he enjoyed it at the time -i.e. when he divests himself of moral distance - then it's a completely different and quite brilliant book and it's a cynch to see why the book is a New York Times bestseller.

What's the most overused word about your work?

It's more a phrase really: not quite what we're looking for.

What cds are you listening to? Who are your favourite musicians?

I'm listening to the Beatles. I got the White Album on vinyl. I love dancing and the best dance record for ten years is Beyonce's Crazy In Love. I know, I know, this type of content isn't why you set up your litzine, but that's the track I'm playing again and again to dance to in the living room. Also listening to Trinidadian calypso singers Lord Invader and the Mighty Terror while playing along on my ukulele.
Let us discuss lyric in the popular song... A friend burnt me a copy of a cd by Irish folk singer/ songwriter Declan O' Rourke which is otherwise unavailable in England. There is one track - track 3 - called 'Galileo (Someone LikeYou)' which I have played twenty times in a row for a whole week, singing along to it and getting a friend to write out the chords for me. It is an exquisitely beautiful song, but - and isn't this always the way nowadays? - the only scratch in its perfect surface is the lyrics. Let me qualify that. The lyric is a wonderful concept - the young Galileo falls in love and the experience gets 'the better of his scientific mind' and he wonders romantically who lights the stars at night. It's not a hymn for intelligent design, but like Louis Armstrong's 'Wonderful World', a record of that state of being when you are so lit up that it seems absurd that the world cannot be motivated by the same feelings of wonder that you yourself have begun to see in everything. Another place that state of mind is described is when Levin falls in love in Anna Karenina. Anyway, the lyrical maculations are these:

Galileo fell in love
As a Galilean boy.

What? The second line means nothing. He was from Padua, not the sea of Galilee.

There's one other minor flaw in this masterpiece, one lyrical stumble, 'to his blind undying day he looked up high and often sighed' . I don't know what the word blind is doing there. Galileo is associated in my mind with telescopes. More than that, with women and telescopes because in Brecht's 'Life of Galileo' the randy bishops of the inquisition use the astronomer's telescope to spy on topless women bathing on the rooftop.

What's the best cure for writer's block?

Having an idea in your head and/or something to say.

Who are your favourite heroes in fiction?

The Mayor of Casterbridge.

And villains?

Bill Sykes - just for the clothes.

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good place to start.

Eduardo Galleano - Uruguayan, non-fiction writer, enchanting, angry, poetic and revolutionary. A good start might be either 'Upside Down' or Part 2 of his 'Memory Of Fire' trilogy which is called 'Century of the Wind' (published by Norton). In a non-linear way he tells the story of twentieth century Latin America by asigning each year - more or less - an anecdote or true event set in one town or another (not just the Latin American ones, sometimes Washington, London, Madrid or New York too if that is the root of the evil). So you can dip into these books. There is also his 'Book Of Embraces' and 'Open Veins of Latin America - 500 Years of the Pillage of the Continent' . He also writes about soccer and occasionally for the New Internationalist.

Which literary character do you most identify with?

Billy Liar

One book you wish you had written, and why.

I most often wish to have written Anne Tyler novels simply because of the person I would have to be and the life I would have to have been living to have written them. To have written her novels I would have had to have become be an understanding, sociable, loving, interested, observant, thoughtful, connected, in-the-moment person who took life seriously in all its manifestations be they ever so humble. She makes you feel that to write well is to live well. More than be able to write well I would like to be able to live well like that and understand well like that and to be that kind of soul.
If there's one novel though that would be Jeffrey Eugenides' 'Middlesex' a) because it's the best novel for decades and b) because I wanted to be the best Greek novelist.

Which painting, or other piece of art, best describes you?

I can't think what visual art describes me, but I can tell you my favourite. Is that any good to you?
My favourite piece of visual art is the slapstick routine performed by Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin when they are both well into their sixties. The routine is at the end of the indifferent melodrama 'Limelight'. Then suddenly, the two masters onstage together. Buster is playing piano and Chaplin is playing violin. Well, that's the plan. It's funny and moving. This is the last hurrah of two all-time geniuses. And the sketch is full of loads of surprises as if they are just inventing slapstick there and then, loads of gags and twists you have never seen before. They are performing to an audience who are really above this kind of comedy, and so there is an embattled dignity about the two men who are dressed for concert recital in stuffed and padded tuxedos.

Do you have any interesting scars?

A cicatrice on my inner right forearm got picking elderflowers one night in Dol-y-Bont in west Wales. I slipped climbing onto a corrugated iron roof with Ceri Jones when we were both 18 and cut myself on the sharp edge of the roof. We sat talking on the roof with a colander full of elderflower blossoms by a stream. The elderflower tree belonged to an old lady called Mrs Roberts. So I'm lucky that the only scar I have reminds me of a sweet time. In London I see men with scars on their left jawbone from someone who must have swung a bottle or a knife in a bar. I am thankful not to have to be reminded, as they are, every time they look in the mirror, of a bad time, but of a sweet time by a river in the moonlight. An altogether different order of memory, unless of course it was sweet old Mrs Roberts who slashed them for not asking permission before scrumping her elderflower, in which case their memory would be pretty similar to mine: tin roof, white blossom, a stream, a crescent moon, blood.