I know that giving a voice to the man and woman in the street is supposed to be one of the web’s greatest triumphs, but there’s nothing like reading ‘customer reviews’ to make me want to let off all the nuclear weapons in the world. I would love to be able to turn these reviews off, to hide them on Amazon and iTunes and everywhere else, but I can’t. We’ve all been empowered to ‘have our say’, and the universe is stuck forever with screen acres of the illiterate bleatings of people who’ve come to believe that having an forum is the same as possessing an opinion worth uttering, and who spew their bile with the pompous self-righteousness of the boring and self-obsessed everywhere.

And of course I don’t mean you, dear reader — I’m sure your reviews are all terribly well-struck, insightful and charmingly apposite. I mean… all the rest of them.

My confirmed iJunkie status in the iPhone App Store, for example, means I am now heartily sick of the phrase ‘Does what it says on the tin!!!’ — a sturdy and unobjectionable standby at first, but now, really, stop it. The one that most makes me well up with hate, however, is ‘nuff said’ — used to confer a god-like authority upon whatever spasm of prejudice has just been bleated from a sock-reeking bedroom in Nowheresville.

‘This book sux – nuff said!’ Or ‘iTunes iz a rip-off: there album price is 7.99 but U can by it for 7.98 secund hand – nuff sed!’

And yes, (sic) throughout, obviously. The entire sodding internet should have (sic) after it.

These are, of course, exactly the kind of people who get livid at being charged 59 pence for a piece of iPhone software — on the grounds it ‘should’ be free — despite being very much not the kind of people who’d bother to learn how to code, join a development program and then spend hundreds and hundreds of hours bringing a product to market. And there’s also a reason why the man in the street is just a man in a street — he doesn’t know anything. This is possibly going to be unpopular, and I’m sorry if it sounds elitist, but I simply don’t subscribe to the notion that every human utterance commands respect, regardless of the particular human involved. Everyone deserves to ‘have their say’, do they? Really? Why would we think that? Why? I don’t poll high street strangers for a medical opinion, nor do I trawl the food courts of malls for plumbing tips: so why do television news stations do it for commentary on foreign policy? And why does the web do it for music and literature? Sure, you may welcome the opinion of friends on such matters (people who’ve already proved their critical mettle, or whose preconceptions you are familiar with, and can make allowance for) — but why should I take it from unknown randomers, who for all I know may not event have the brains to sit the right way on a toilet?

Because the internet is the ultimate reality show, that’s why, where anybody is allowed to have a go. It doesn’t matter that Big Brother has finally been canned (THANK GOD) — because we’re all now starring in our own tiny corner of the web, where anyone who can reach out of their cage far enough to peck out a few misspelled words on a keyboard is apparently entitled to respect. Well, sorry, but not from me. I know it’s dreadfully unfashionable to give a toss about stuff like spelling and grammar and punctuation — and that I probably sound like a broken record on the subject — but shouldn’t there at least be some kind of peer review, the most basic of tests to gauge whether an opinion is worth hearing? Websites that encourage ‘feedback’ should have a grammar checker, for a start. Not a super-strict one (my own word-use hardly conforms to Victorian ideals, and nor need it) but just enough to weed out the most brain-curdling errors. And I don’t mean that the post should merely be corrected — I mean the post should be disallowed. If you can’t take the time and trouble to learn how to write a coherent sentence, then why on earth do you believe people should listen to what you have to say?

This applies particularly to the books section of Amazon, and I’ll concede that (as a novelist) I could appear have vested interest in stifling the god-given right of the consumer to HAVE THEIR SAY. That’s really not the case. You’re absolutely entitled to hate my books. Go for it. While no-one enjoys a bad review, you take them on the chin from the well-informed or well-intentioned, you develop a thick skin, and you learn to glean useful information and insight from worthwhile criticism. But why should anyone care about the opinion of someone who can’t get it together to learn the basics of written self-expression? How is it valuable for some moon-faced knee-jerker to trash a year’s work in thirty seconds — when those thirty seconds is all it would have taken for him or her to learn the difference between “its” and “it’s”? If people can’t learn this, then they shouldn’t be allowed to post. Frankly, if they can’t learn this, they shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce.

The reason I feel most strongly about all this is that — with the exception of occasional dizzy-headed reviews along the lines of “This single is grate, I herd it on the TV and now Ive bought it, you should to!” — so many of these reviews are negative, people using their fists to hammer out twenty word disses of absolutely no critical value. This adds nothing positive to the sum of human experience. And I’m not being fascist here — quite the opposite. The ‘everyone deserves their say’ mantra is a merely a marketing ploy sharpened into an instrument of social control, a repressive tolerance that is international in scope and embraced by the target demographic with alarming enthusiasm. Marcuse nailed it many years ago: powerless to effect real change in our so-called democracies, instead we’re given the opportunity to make countless tiny and trivial choices, to be ill-informed attention whores on television, to review and pontificate our way to fifteen megabytes of online fame (and yes, I do realise I’m doing it too). The web merely makes this even easier and more pervasive, providing a specious form of continual (apparent) self-empowerment that achieves absolutely nothing — meanwhile filling the online universe with the kind of verbal swill you’d change seats in a pub to avoid.

And now it can’t be stopped, or turned off. We are being vox-popped to cultural death. Wasn’t the BBC’s slogan something like ‘Nation Shall Speak Unto Nation’?

The internet’s will be: ‘Moron Shall Review Unto Moron – Nuff Said’.

Amongst the many changes I’m going to make when I come to power is this: replacing all of the information on the outside of spaghetti packs with a single, large numeral, indicating how many minutes the pasta needs cooking for.

Why don’t they do this? I don’t need all the other information. I don’t need a logo, or a cheery life-affirming slogan, and I certainly don’t need an ingredient list for the product. I know what’s in spaghetti — spaghetti. I don’t need recipe ideas, either: I evidently already have a dining plan, or I wouldn’t have bought the frigging pasta in the first place, would I? I don’t go out and speculatively buy random ingredients in the hope they’ll come in handy some day, nor do I skittishly swerve at the last minute and make something completely different to what I’d intended, just because the pasta manufacturer’s marketing department decided to fill up a bit of space with a recipe from an entirely unknown and untested source. For all I know, it could have been made up by the knuckle-dragging intern working in the post room. Do they have post rooms in pasta companies? I don’t know. Presumably the process requires some kind of communication with the outside world, but maybe they do it all via email now. Anyway.

It’s not just the pasta guys, either. You buy a little jar of Thai green curry paste, and guess what? There’s a recipe for Thai green curry on the side, as a kind of “Hey — why not consider making this?” gesture. What the fuck did you think I was going to do with the stuff? Spread it on toast? Give it to the cat? Use it as an ointment on intimate regions of my so-called body? Do you really think I’m the kind of person who’ll enter the kitchen without having some kind of game plan in place? Do I look like that kind of a asshole? Yeah? YEAH? Do you want a fight?

I don’t need this. I just need to know how long the sodding stuff needs boiling for. The figure given will be wrong , of course — no pasta ever actually takes the amount of time that’s claimed on the packet, the true period being a factor of some ineffable intersection of pasta quantity, water density, room temperature, size of pan, cast of the moon and god knows what else — a combination which St Peter whispers in your ear when you finally approach the pearly gates, but that is up until that time utterly unknowable. And yes, of course, the real test of pasta’s done-ness is always going to be in the taste and texture, I know this, I really do: but it’s still reassuring and helpful to have a guideline before you start, and the bottom line is this is the only piece of information I or anyone else needs when squaring up to pasta preparation.

So… get onto it. Don’t make me get my chainsaw out again. Nobody needs to get hurt over this. Whoever out there has control of these things, make it so. Now. I’ve got a dinner to cook.

When I was a kid, bin men had an aura, a mystique, something of the night about them: fierce, semi-mythical beings who came with the dawn and hefted sacks of household trash into the grinding back-ends of their trucks, before rumbling ominously away. Their speech was a sequence of impenetrable grunts and howls; their clothes looked as though they had been worn for decades, or secreted like outer skins. The only contact normal citizens had with these creatures was the ‘Christmas box’: a seasonal cash offering given to the member of the tribe that walked most convincingly on hind legs — this ritual having (to my childhood mind, at least) the flavour of a bribe to ensure that the bin men not sneak back in the night to wreak havoc upon the houses they serviced, stealing one of the occupants (or their children) and dragging them away to a dread kingdom given over to the very hungriest of ogres and trolls.

These men were known and recognised, however, components of the landscape and hard-working members of the community, doing an unattractive job with a sense of purpose and pride — or at least, resignation. That’s all gone now, evidently.

We’d noticed during the week that the pile of trash at the side to the house was getting bigger, rather than smaller, and when the truck swung by, my wife went out to enquire why this might be. One of the new generation of bin men — a sour-faced runt wearing a nice, clean fluorescent jacket — told her the bags hadn’t been taken because they were ‘too heavy’.

The bags in question were a little bulkier than usual, and my wife had struggled slightly carrying them out to the bin (it’s my job normally, obviously, but I hadn’t been around at the time). My wife is a woman, however, and not a husky one. Not a man, certainly, and not a bin man in particular — someone whose job might, you could think, occasionally involve lugging things heavier than cotton wool.

To make her point, I pick up two of the offending bags at once and carried them to the back of the bin cart (withstanding a deliberate attempt by the driver to move the vehicle away from me). It made no difference. The bags were staying where they were. At some point one of these men had tentatively tugged at one of the sacks, muttered ‘Ooh no, health and safety…’ in an injured, self-righteous tone, and left it there to rot.

So what were we supposed to do? Call the council, we were told. And do what — ask for them to send some men instead? Or command them to use the big rusted key to open the shed at the back of the depot, where lurks a last remnant of old skool bin men, chained to a post in darkness, fed with scraps of carrion, kept for the occasions when a profligate household needed a slightly-heavier-than-usual bag carried a few feet from curb to cart?

In the end, it was neither. We spoke to a woman at the council — who promised she’d send an Incident Investigation Team around. (How did we survive, in the old days? How did we cope when ‘incidents’ like this went un-investigated? How did they spend our taxes?) And, to be fair, the very next day a man came round and ‘investigated the incident’. He rapidly determined that the bags were not excessively heavy, and they were later removed by a crack squad of Slightly Heavier Bags Than Usual Specialists, wearing protective suits carved from the finest topaz, their cart a golden chariot that shone so brightly it became almost invisible in the slanting morning sun.

One by one, our archetypes are being eroded. Cooks are no longer fat, mercurial men and women in blood-streaked aprons — but slim ‘chefs’ in spotless whites, who spend more time on media training and business studies than in learning ingredients: only ever taught by another chef, never by their mother or grandfather or wayward aunt. Pop stars aren’t lean misfits determined to carve their names in in our aural memories, but sleek performance school graduates looking for a reality television boost straight to HEAT magazine stardom. And in this context, it probably makes sense to have bin men too feeble to actually carry anything.

But the reason why we had archetypes is that they structured the world, helped it to function and make sense. They worked. The bin men in our street evidently… don’t.

And the class warriors out there reading this can pipe down: I’m very aware that I write this from the position of being an effete over-privileged bastard of a novelist, who does nothing more strenuous most days than type, and wouldn’t know hard work if it slapped him in the face. Do I want the bin-man’s job? No, of course I bloody don’t.

But if I had the job, I’d be doing it. I’d be wearing the layers of clothing and bellowing weirdly at my workmates as we hurled bags heroically into the truck. I’d regard a little muscle strain as a sign of how butch I was, rather than grounds for landmark legal action in the European Courts. I — or one of my fellow bin men, who could speak a little more clearly — would be turning up at your door come the festive season, too, expecting something in the way of a Christmas bonus. And we’d deserve it, and you’d better hand it over — or you really might find one of your children carried away in the dead of night.

Assuming he or she wasn’t too heavy, naturally.

Well, it’s 1:40 am and I’m awake. No real idea why. Could be delayed jetlag, I suppose, though I’ve been back a week and I don’t like the idea of jetlag anyhow. I feel I should be able to hop insouciantly between continents like some some globetrotting gazelle, a citizen of the world not bound by trivialities like time zones. Maybe not. Either way, for something to do, as I sit here in the study listening to a fox making disquieting noises in the street outside, I thought I’d make another list — and this time it’s of some of the best places to sit and have a cup of coffee.

1. Bryant Park, New York
My most recent haunt, and a pretty well-known one. I happened on it as a result of mere hotel-proximity, on my first grown-up visit to the city four years ago, and have sunk many a happy coffee in it since. I don’t know what it is that makes Bryant Park quite so restful. It’s basically just a large square of grass, with beds and paths and trees on three sides and stairs leading up to the rear of the Public Library on the other. It could be the presence of very tall buildings on all sides, which gives something of the quality of a hidden garden. It could also be that, standing bang in the centre of Midtown as it does, it’s the New York park that contrasts most strongly with the streets around it. I have even toyed with wondering whether the fact this block held, for the second half of the nineteenth century, a reservoir, has something to do with it — a large body of water somehow changing the energy field. Though that just sounds like so much new age bollocks, really, not least as throughout 1970s the park was by all accounts an excellent place to score drugs or get cataclysmically mugged, which you might expect to have muddied the energy waters somewhat.

Anyway. There’s lots of places to sit, and a bar in the evenings, and free wifi too, though I can’t always get that to work. This actually makes it even better. I like places where I can’t be in contact with the outside world. They’re increasingly few and far between.

2. Outside Les Deux Magots, Paris
Another non-controversial choice, unless you’re achingly cool. People have been knocking back café crème outside this St Germain hotspot for a long time — it was a popular haunt for Satre and Simone de Beauvoir, not to mention Hemingway and Camus. I tend to wind up spending a good few hours outside the Magots whenever I’m lucky enough to be in Paris, not least because there’s a great bookstore just behind it (the name of which I forget: maybe I’m more tired than I thought). Yes, it’s a tourist trap, but you know what — when I’m in Paris, I’m a tourist. Actually, outside pretty much any Parisian café will do, so if you’re worried about not seeming cutting edge enough, why not hop on the Metro to the outskirts of town and find somewhere there instead. Don’t feel that you have to come back, either.

3. Outside the Seattle’s Best opposite Pike Place Market, Seattle
Especially early in the morning, so you can watch the market swinging properly into life.

4. The Meeting Place, the seafront, Brighton
The fact that the coffee here is actually pretty dire possibly indicates that the quality of the beverage on offer is not of paramount importance. With the sea, gulls, and the teetering remains of the old West Pier to gaze upon, it’s a good place to be. If the weather’s dire (which is far from unknown in Brighton) then outside the Starbucks in the Lanes is a decent second choice. (And don’t give me any crap about Starbucks not being proper coffee. Of course it’s proper coffee, you muppet. It’s not the best coffee in the world — but it’s good enough. Disliking things just because they’re popular does not make you cool. What are you, fourteen? Get a couple of extra shots in your drink like a grown-up, and go peddle your angst elsewhere.)

Hmm. Four isn’t many. I notice that I don’t actually have one for London, for example. Perhaps you need to not be local, for the perfect coffee-sipping experience… Or maybe I just haven’t found it yet. I notice also that all these places are outside. This is partly due to the smoking thing — I like a cigarette with my coffee, and there ain’t nowhere in the civilized world they’ll let you do that any more. But it’s also that I associate coffee with watching the world go by. Tea is for drinking indoors. Tea is self-referential, a medicine. Coffee is for turning outwards and taking in the other: and therefore part of the essence of a classic coffee-drinking spot is it allows you to observe a corner of the universe — without necessarily feeling that, right at this moment, you have to be an active part of it.

Christ, it’s half past two. Better try sleeping again, not least as tomorrow I have a day designing stuff for WHC2010. May your Fridays be golden. And if you’re at a loose end…

5. […]
Suggestions, please.


I went out for dinner last night by myself, picking somewhere fairly randomly on 8th, close to the apartment I’ve been borrowing. It was a nice place. Buzzy, not overtly unfriendly, and did very good New Mexican food.


What perturbed me was that I noticed — while lurking outside having a cigarette between courses — their delivery menu featured, amongst other things, T-shirts. The place didn’t seem to be a chain, and yet, it had clothing for sale. Said shirts had the restaurant’s slogan on them (do restaurants need slogans?), and I can’t remember exactly what it was, but basically it was existential self-definition in seven words or fewer, and the caption indicated that such a garment was quite the thing for anyone who was willing to ‘tip it, flip it, and make the world their way.’


Now, I’m from England. Our restaurants don’t come on like that. They don’t feel the need to provide life coaching. They concentrate on providing food. I tried to imagine the above, or something similar, happening in a gastropub in London: me walking in, going up to the bar, and the guy there shouting — 


“Yo! Welcome, friend! Are you ready to tip it, flip it, make the world the way you want it?”


‘Well, mainly… I just wanted a beer.’


‘Dude, seriously — tell me you’re going to take this world, scrunch it up in a ball, throw it up in the air and then kick that motherfucker through the goalposts to Successville.’


‘I’ll have some crisps, if that’s what you mean.’


I have trouble even being the second-best I can be, and I can’t see a restaurant — however fine their deconstructed burrito with watercress, avocado and pickled this-that-and-the-other might be — changing that any day soon.



I’m still in New York, and hacking up and down the streets for a few days has reminded me just how much I love good food stores. I can browse in these places for hours, even if I have no intention of buying — doing so with almost the same level of beatific absorption I attain in bookstores. A quality food purveyor reminds you just how wonderful it is that we have to eat (and also how lucky we are to live in privileged countries, where what we eat can be an existential choice, rather than a matter of bitter existence). Finding an awesome food emporium is like discovering a tiny, wood-paneled and coffee-infused independent bookstore that somehow happens to stock as much as a big chain, only in far more interesting ways, and studded with prizes the big guns don’t even know exist. Wandering around these places is a kind of meditation, and time spent there will find your heart rate slowing and brain waves settling into a contented hum.

Or… maybe I’m just a pig.

Either way, my top choices in this very provisional list come from America, possibly controversially. The rest of the world — and even many Americans, it seems, certainly the ones living near the coasts — tend to portray the United States as a country where the ill-informed and massively-sized chow merrily down on any old crap, so long as it comes by the bucket-load, and are never happier than when stuffing a burger into every orifice. Yet the average Publix or Ralphs will have deli and meat and fish counters that would put European specialty stores to shame, not to mention acres of choice in more prosaic departments. No self-respecting American supermarket is going to offer you just one of something, be it a tin or jar or packet: they will have a choice of nineteen different brands, and many of them will be good. Unless you’re specifically looking for patés, cassoulet and the like, you’re a lot better off here than in the average French hypermarket…

1. The Westside Market on 7th Avenue (at 10th), NYC
New York is, of course, one of the great food cities, with food supplies in breadth and depth. An unassuming deli can turn out to have hot and cold food choices stretching for ten yards, not to mention a perfectly competent sushi chef beavering away in the corner. The Westside Market actually did my head in (more so than the oft-lauded Garden of Eden chain, excellent though they are). I went into near-catatonia with Opportunity Cost Anxiety at Westside, wandering round open-mouthed, like someone in town not so much from the sticks, as from the 8th century — painfully aware that I’ve only got one stomach and only had so many self-catered meals ahead of me. So I settled for buying merely seven times what I needed, and walking with a pronounced list for most of the time. It was worth it.

2. The Broadway Market, Seattle
A big, spacious store, this doesn’t have quite the sense of lunatic crammed-in cornucopia as the best New York markets, but you still want to check it out. As an added but unrelated bonus, in side streets nearby there are some extremely attractive Arts & Crafts bungalows, if you know where to look (or, like me, wander around like a lost dog until you accidently come upon them). Broadway is a bit of a hike from downtown, but it’s worth it. While you’re in the city, don’t forget Pike Place Market. It doesn’t count as a food shop, but is a cool place to walk around (especially early in the morning, watching tough-looking guys bellowing weirdly about fish) — and there’s lots of other food-related goodness in the surrounding alleyways. Seattle’s not just about depressed bands and perpetual drizzle: the food there is good.

3. Hédiard, Paris
I find the much-vaunted Fauchon (just across the Place de la Madelaine) a bit pretentious: there’s a lot of nice food there, of course, but it’s too mannered and arch, packaged as if to be part of some grandstanding gift basket. Hédiard feels more homely and comfortable, and has more game on the savoury stuff, too. There’s another great general food store in Paris, just the other side of St Germain, but I can’t remember what it’s called. Feel free to remind me. And yes, if I was including food markets, then France would move up the list, as it would if I was talking about the effortless ability of just about anywhere to chuck together a simple meal of greatness. But I’m not. Nor am I talking about indoor multi-outlet food markets of the kind Toronto has, fan of these places though I am (and I’m receptive to tips as to where to find others, too). I’m just talking about food shops here. Read the title of the blog, and don’t give me grief.

4. Selfridges Food Hall, London
It’s very good — by all accounts Harrods’ is even better, but that’s too far West for me, and I find the whole idea of Harrods obscurely annoying, for some reason — but it’s not really a patch on any of the above: and oh my God it’s expensive. Deciding to buy a picnic in Selfridges Food Hall is like picking up a copy of the Guttenberg Bible to read while you have a poo. It does have European items like rillettes, however, which can be tough to find in American stores. Though not in France, obviously. Duh.

Four is a weird place to stop, but I’m missing a number 5 for the list — not to mention 6 through 173. So — what have I missed or not yet encountered? How have I been stupid and wrong-headed and completely like a nutbag fool? If I should be in your (or any other) neck of the woods, where should I go to stare longingly at stuff?

Tell me. And be quick about it.


Columbo-style, I’m adding just one more tip to my list for travelers. This one applies specifically when travelling to the US. And it is… Don’t have the same name as me.

I arrived at JFK at 4:20 yesterday afternoon. As has happened several times in the last couple of years — I believe it’s been three out of six trips — after having my fingerprints, retina and soul scanned in the immigration line, I got yanked out and sent to Mordor (also known as the Homeland Security Zone), which basically involves being led ignominiously away from the desk (and the doors that lead to baggage claim and taxis and an interesting evening in a new city), and being put in a dire room full of signs in Helvetica, with the other miscreants, bastards and potential undesirables — without the slightest indication of why this is happening to you. Usually it only takes thirty to forty five minutes to sort out the problem (the nature of which I’ll come back to). This time I eventually left Mordor at… half past eight.

Yep. That would be four of your Earth hours. Over half the time it had taken to fly from London to New York.

The reason for this is that… I am not the only Michael Smith in creation. Now, I have been known from time to time to put certain events down to a being I call ‘Bad Mike’, an naughty alter ego who comes out under the influence of alcohol and does the things which, the following morning, most make me wince and moan and want to bite my own head off. Well, it turns out Bad Mike is real, and is out there, really doing really Bad Things. I have the same name as this guy, and therefore I get pulled over.

I doubt he has the same middle names as me, and I know he doesn’t look the same, but that doesn’t appear to make a difference (at the beginning of the process, anyway). By now I even have a vague picture of what this man might look like. The first time this farrago happened, for example, my innocence was eventually proven through a lack of prison tattoos (evidently a distinguishing feature of Bad Mike). You might have thought establishing this would only take a few minutes, but no, it took forty five. Yet tattoos weren’t even mentioned yesterday, so maybe Bad Mike is chimerical, a shape-shifter. Perhaps sometimes he has yards of Aryan Nation tats, sometimes he doesn’t. Or maybe there are several Bad Mikes. Maybe we are legion — though actually I think I prefer the idea of one uber-Bad Mike, bestriding the realms of ill-doing like a colossus.

Yesterday, when, after two and a half hours of not being talked to at all, I was eventually assigned a handler, I actually asked him what Bad Mike had done — and was told that I didn’t want to know. I should probably have tartly replied that I was a mystery and sometime horror writer, responsible for a trilogy of serial killer novels amongst other dark fictions, and could probably handle it. But by that point I’d forgotten I’d ever been that person or done those things, and had become instead a small and irritable cog in someone else’s machine, capable of nothing more than furiously watching a lovely spring afternoon turn into evening, through the tiny sliver of window afforded to the bad and stupid amongst whom I now numbered myself. To be fair, my handler was extremely civil throughout, and even apologized a couple of times during the hour and a half it took for the call to come back from Washington DC to confirm I was self-evidently an effete Brit writer who couldn’t even stick to one genre for any length of time, never mind forge a successful career as a ravening psychopath. But to sit there while two of my handler’s colleagues worked for a while, then talked about going to get their dinner, then went for their dinner, and then came back and worked for quite some time…

It’s lucky I’m not the real Bad Mike. That’s all I’m saying. You can do a lot of damage with an iPhone, I would imagine. Though of course I wasn’t allowed to use my phone, and got barked when I tried. I had an armed escort to even go to the toilet.

The whole experience was… not good.  

Eventually, just at the point where I thought I was genuinely in danger of losing it through frustration and nicotine withdrawal and a gut-wrenching certainty of my own innocence, they let me go. I hadn’t done anything, as I’d known all along. I hadn’t even not done anything, like failing to get a visa or work permit. I’d just had… my own name.

So, to recap, that’s my final tip. Don’t have my name. Oh, and Bad Mike, if you should happen to be reading this, please either change your name or STOP DOING BAD THINGS.

Still, on the upside, it turns out that just along the street from my hotel — where I have a room so small it doesn’t even have a fucking chair — is a place called Virgil’s, that not only does very decent barbecue, but knows how to use an apostrophe.

So, you know, it’s all good.

I’m heading off to New York today, for a week of research and a few small BAD THINGS-related events. At the time this post goes up, I’ll actually be at Heathrow, fretting vaguely about departure gates and hoping I remembered to bring a nicotine patch. I like traveling very much indeed, but it does come fraught with many needling little existential moments — and so I thought I’d share a few of my valuable stock of tips for the mildly neurotic traveler…

1. Don’t wear a jacket, especially if you’re flying.
A jacket is a pain in the ass when you’re traveling. It will make you feel hot, swaddled and hassled as you heft your bags in and out of public transport, and around the airport, and will then have to be folded and stowed during the flight, basically by screwing it in a ball and stuffing it in the overhead, which means your garment will look dreadful before you’ve even left the runway. If your destination is hotter than your departure point (which, starting from the UK, is usually the case) you’re going to then be saddled with a bulky piece of clothing which you don’t want to wear but have nothing else to do with.

So instead wear layers on your top half – a T-shirt and a loose sweater – and combat trousers below. It’s just as easy to access your passport and documents, and far less grief, and I don’t give a crap whether combats are fashionable any more. Plus the lack of swaddling may make help you to feel insouciant, which is always a good thing when traveling.

2. Pack light
Obvious, but so, so true. Don’t stuff your shoulder bag full of things you aren’t going to need while actually in transit. A laptop (and only if you’re really going to work), a book, a magazine, a pad, a copy of your travel documents. Maybe some candy. Nothing else.

For your main bag, reckon that you’ll wear at most seventy five percent of the clothes you think you’ll need, and hoick some out accordingly. Take books that you’re not too bothered about bringing home: leaving them in hotel rooms as you finish will free up extra space for the journey back. And bear in mind – assuming you’re not going to some war-torn and god-forsaken corner of the world – that there will be stores at the other end. You can buy stuff there, and leave what you don’t need. Don’t stuff your cases full of pointless objects that you can temporarily own at the other end.

The one exception to this rule, if you’re English, is to take some proper tea bags — especially if traveling to the US. America pretends it has tea, but it doesn’t. Liptons seem to have a lock on teabag production there, but whatever they put in those bags, it sure as hell ain’t tea. It’s fine when cold, but horrible when hot. Even if you put three in a cup and leave them to brew for ages, it doesn’t taste right. If, like me, you need a couple of cups of tea before it’s safe to foist yourself upon other people, take your own bags or pay the price. Buy some milk from a corner store (or local equivalent) when you get there, too. This isn’t a matter of being tight —it’s just a lot easier than getting some up from room service. Plus you should always visit a corner store at least once in every city and country you ever visit. Corner stores tell you more about where you are – and its people, available goods and common practices — than any tourist agency or guidebook ever can.

3. When staying in hotels, don’t have the room service breakfast.
Seriously, don’t — no matter how how enticing that multiple choice hang-on-the-door thing looks when you stagger back at the end of the previous evening. Not only will it be head-spinningly, outrageously, depressingly expensive, it’ll very likely be crap. The only notable exception I’ve found to this is the Pacific Palisades Hotel in Vancouver, which does (or did, this was a few years ago now) a fabulous breakfast to the room: all others have been disappointing, especially at the price. Plus there’ll be some massive trolley or tray which you either have to put up with taking up valuable real estate afterwards, or else slip out into the hallway while wearing a gown or a towel.

Worse, having booked the delivery the night before may send you into a paroxysm of anxiety about whether you’ll be awake in time, and what will happen if they knock on the door and you’re not — and if you sleep in a state of undress there’s the issue of how you quickly find something to wear while they let you in… all of which means you’ll sleep far worse than you would have otherwise, even if you’ve promised yourself a lie-in. And then you have to stand awkwardly to one side while a smirking flunky delivers food which you won’t like, but have paid – you’ll discover when you check out — about $54.75 for. Seriously: two rack rate breakfasts, add some money for you having ticked things you didn’t realise were optional extras, add another three bucks delivery charge, and a few more as you round the total up because you’re not absolutely confident whether the delivery charge means you have to tip or not… You could have walked into the nearest diner and treated everyone at the counter to hash browns and champagne for about the same money. It’s not that I care that much about a few extra bucks, but there’s such a thing as taking the piss.

So instead, just have a cup of tea in the room (see Rule #3) and get your arse out onto the streets. Find the nearest non-frightening café or diner and go nuts: it will taste better, feel like a go-getting and authentic experience, and is guaranteed to cost less than half the hotel price.

4. Book the evening meal during the day
One of my biggest personal faults, especially when traveling, is excessive awareness of potential opportunity cost. I’m forever not doing things because I’m worried it might not be perfect, or there might be a better alternative, or I should wait, or have done it sooner. When traveling alone I have more than once ended up with a very, very average meal because I couldn’t choose between the good-looking things on offer, and didn’t want to waste my hunger on an average meal (one of the perils of caring slightly too much about food).

The only near-solution I’ve found to this is to spot somewhere good during the day and book a table for later. You tell yourself you can always do something else, or cancel — and you can do these things — but at least it gives you a target. This is especially important when alone. When you’re traveling with a loved one, the evening meal is one of the best parts — selecting a restaurant, wandering over there, hanging out, drinking a little too much of the local wine or beer, bonding excessively with the staff or another couple in the bar… the whole (slightly disreputable) nine yards. When abroad by yourself, it’s very different. Few restaurants go out of their way to make the solo diner feel truly welcome, and the evening meal thus tends to be a short, sharp affair that dumps you back at the hotel much earlier than you’d banked on. Either that or you resort to room service, which will leave you feeling feebly unadventurous — with even more time on your hands, in a hotel room that now smells of french fries and loserdom.

Book a table. Take something to read. Be brave.

5. Try not to be insane
My biggest travelling anxiety relates to the Airport Math required for the journey home. I know what time I need to fly, of course, but if it involves a 17 or 19 in the 24 hour clock I get all confused and neurotic about it, because to me 17:00 looks so much like it should be seven o’clock. Then I’m not clear on whether, post-9/11, I have to be at the airport two or three hours ahead. Then there’s working out how long a cab will take in an unfamiliar city with unpredictable traffic conditions, plus how much margin you should leave for the taxi being late arriving at the hotel in the first place. All of which is complicated by the fact that, as a smoker, you want to spend as little time as possible in an airport’s departure zone, without missing your flight: which adds additional stress to Security Line Math, and how Far Away Is The Gate Math and not to mention the How Early Before Takeoff Do I Actually Need To Be Standing There conundrum.

I actually got halfway through writing a piece of software into which you enter all these variables with the aim of it giving you suggested timings, with (naturally) ludicrously wide margins for error built in: but then ran into the limits of my own competence (as is so often the case). If anyone out there fancies coming up with something attractive like this for the iPhone, then I will kiss you on the head.

In the end, I don’t really have a tip for beating Airport Math. Try not to be a complete nutcase, I guess. Or work the whole thing out definitively ahead of time, nail a schedule to your forehead — and ask passing strangers to tell you what to do, and when.


I love words. Well, who wouldn’t — they’re such cute little things, aren’t they? Apart from “shitknife”, I guess, which doesn’t sound very nice. A lot of writers appear to think of words as necessary evils, however, finicky barriers to be withstood in the pursuit of plot and character and the bestseller list — and in a way, they’re right. The novelist Samuel Butler once defined a definition as “the enclosing of a wilderness of idea behind a wall of words”, and there’s some truth in that (though presumably Butler defining the word “definition” put that idea behind two walls, which would be enough to freak any young notion out, pretty much permanently).

Often you find that while trying to express something, or describe a situation or character or atmosphere, every word you set down seems to get in the way of what’s in your head, rather than delineating it. Sometimes, too, after a long day spent worrying words into their sentence-shaped pens — like particularly dim-witted sheep, or sheep who’ve heard that bad things happen in the pens — you can wish the little letter-faced bastards would sort themselves out for a change.

Being a writer or reader doesn’t mean you have to care about words, any more than enjoying classical music means you have to bone up on the history and construction of violins… But I happen to like words as well as stories, and I thought I’d share some of my favorite books on the subject — on the off-chance someone might be vaguely interested. If you’re not, then stop reading now, and let’s not waste any more of each other’s time. Go out and kiss a stranger instead. But don’t say I told you to.

First, there’s the reference works, from standard compendiums like the CHAMBERS DICTIONARY OF ETYMOLOGY or the BLOOMSBURY DICTIONARY OF WORD ORIGINS or the HENDRICKSON ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WORD AND PHRASE ORIGINS — all of which are great, and in the company of which you’ll be able to while away many a minute — to hardcore word-bothering tools like Sweet’s STUDENT’S DICTIONARY OF ANGLO-SAXON.

Then there are books which provide an overview of the language as a whole, a nicely accessible example of which is MOTHER TONGUE. Bill Bryson’s affable canter through the history of English has all the trademarks of his most engaging and least superficial work — entertaining anecdotes, a well-drawn historical through-line, and an easy, conversational style. It’s not short on substance, either — and serves as a great introduction to caring slightly too much about words. David Crystal’s THE STORIES OF ENGLISH is more scholarly in tone and depth, and thus a good follow-up: it contains a wealth of great material and background, split up into bite-sized pieces — and is about as comprehensive a guide to the history and development of the English language as any non-maniac could hope for.

English ain’t the only fruit, of course, hard though that may sometimes be to remember on the Internet. Mark Abley’s SPOKEN HERE is one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read — a passionate discussion and analysis of how languages change and fight for life, while coming to both enshrine and create their society in which they are used. More lightweight but still diverting works in a similar vein include TINGO, by the impressively-named Adam Jacot de Boinod, and IN OTHER WORDS, by the much more conservatively-monikered C. J Moore, both of which provide lots of interestingly culture-specific words and ideas (and example from which, ‘Shibui’, I used as the very first entry in this blog).

Words don’t just change — they die, too. Jeffrey Kacirk’s THE WORD MUSEUM is a fascinating collection of words that have fallen out of use… but which are often oddly compelling. I’ve always liked ‘peaceparting’, for example, once used to describe a non-arduous death. Charles MacKay’s out-of-print LOST BEAUTIES OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE is another great resource along the same lines. Original published in 1874, it documents — with a pedant’s open irritation — words which were drifting out of usage at the time. One of the things that’s interesting about this book — and I’m deploying the word ‘interesting’ in quite a loose sense, obviously — is the number of words which MacKay cites as dying, but which remain current in our time: often I suspect this is because although the term may have been losing currency in the UK in his time, it was still in common usage in the US, and has now happily slipped back into what is now International English. An older alternative is the DICTIONARY OF OBSOLETE AND PROVINCIAL ENGLISH, by T. Wright.

For both Wright and MacKay you’re going to have to get upside eBay or AbeBooks — and the Wright is going to set you back a few quid. But I’m currently loving WORDS, WORDS, WORDS – SOME CURIOS FROM A WORD-COLLECTOR’S CABINET, by A. Smythe Palmer, a beautiful Victorian volume I picked up for £3.50 in a second-hand store. And then there’s WHY PICCADILLY? by E. Stewart Fey, which falls into the sub-category of words and names specifically relating to London, but has a charmingly idiosyncratic 1930s style — and was a battered and water-stained bargain at 95p. Books on words are often out there to be picked up for next to nothing, as fewer and fewer people give a toss, presumably. Care about what celebrity halfwits are doing with each other, and you’re a successfully-integrated member of society. Give a damn about how our language and words came into being and apparently you’re some kind of geek. Well, so then call me a geek, say I, but don’t stand too close while you’re doing it, because I will probably punch you. Or hit you. Or belt you. Or… Some manifest some other word enclosing the wilderness of thumping within its walls.

I’ll end on another favourite, an this time one you should be able to find relatively easily: NTC’S DICTIONARY OF CHANGES IN MEANINGS. This book is Word Nerd heaven, tracking the shifts in meaning of hundreds of words over time — tracing not just their origins (as with most etymological texts) but how words have followed their own journeys over the centuries — fascinating for appreciating how some retain shadows of former meanings, contributing to the subtle nuances they have now.

Words don’t just tell their own histories, of course, but ours too. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a writer or a reader, communicating is what we all do, all the time. If you’re living in a world where ideas are hidden within walls, then surely it’s worth knowing who built those walls, and what from, and why… the better to comprehend the wilderness inside us all.

By the power invested in me, by me (and I yield to no higher authority, except my wife, obviously, and my publishers, and the cats… Actually, come to think of it, I’m most people’s bitch) I’m pleased to announce the result of Giveaway II — to mark today’s US hardcover publication of BAD THINGS.

Once again selected by the extremely useful (in this very limited context) http://www.twitrand.com, the winners are…




In the interest of full and honest disclosure, I should admit that the second name out of the virtual hat was in fact the excellent @stephenfry. My assumption is that he’d be very unlikely to spot a tweet informing him of this fact. If @stephenfry or one of his familiars happens to spot this announcement, however, I would of course be delighted to send out a copy. Well, fairly delighted. I have got other things to do, you know.

Please email contact@michaelmarshallsmith.com with the following information:

1. Your name
2. Your address
3. Who you’d like the book dedicated to.

As before, if for whatever reason you’re not bothered about receiving the book, let me know, and I’ll draw again. So there we are. Going to be a little while before another book comes out, but I’ll sure find some other excuse for a little giveaway action during the long, slow months ahead. So be nice. To each other, to the environment, to your pets…

But especially to me.

Says Who?

Michael Marshall (Smith): novelist, screenwriter and sitting-place for cats.

Go to Official Site.

Said When?

March 2017
« Nov    

Category Menu

How Many?

  • 38,776 hits