Sunday, February 08, 2004

Concerning Music, the Newgate Chronicles, and the Unreliability of Long-Forgotten Blue Peter Annuals.

Hello Neil,

I read the following in Friday's "independent":

"A group of top-flight authors has been persuaded by a Brooklyn-based amateur rock band, One Ring Zero, to provide song lyrics. Among the 17 lyricists are Neil Gaiman, Dave Eggers and MArgaret Atwood, as well as married couple Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt, residents of the writerly Park Slope district of Brooklyn. The band is now recording and their CD will partner a book of lyrics, "As Smart As We Are", due in May from Brooklyn's indie Soft Skull Press- which itself sounds like a heavy metal band."

I was wondering if you could shed any light on your involvement in this project (if you have posted it in your journal, I msut have missed it, sorry)


Richard Porter, Sunderland.

I really have mentioned this a few times, but they were scattered mentions over the months.

One Ring Zero are Michael Hearst and Joshua Camp. About eighteen months ago I got an e-mail from Michael (who had been given my e-mail address by Magnetic Field/Future Bible Heroine Claudia Gonson) telling me about their project -- to make an album of songs by authors -- and asking if I'd write a lyric for them. They also sent a couple of CDs, which I loved. Exotic and odd, in all the right ways.

Back in March 2003 I said of it Heard all the One Ring Zero authors CD. It's lovely stuff, hard to pin down. My favorite song is probably the one with Daniel Handler lyrics "Radio", but there are a lot of really good songs on there, and they all feel different. Most of them are sort of bouncy -- I'm reminded a little of early They Might Be Giants, in that it's sort of eclectic, literate pop and no two songs sound anything alike (and if you don't like one, there's another one along in a minute). The song that they made out of the lyrics I gave them, "On The Wall", is just a voice, piano and cello, and reminds me a little of the songs on the Costello-Brodskies "The Juliet Letters".

Here's one article about it:

And to save you poking around the One Ring Zero Website, you can listen to the first half of Daniel Handler's marvellous "Radio" at

You can read about the CD at, where you will also learn that the title came from Jonathan Lethem's cockroaches, and that Viggo Mortensen describes the CD as "either a well-orchestrated booby-trap for music lovers everywhere or simply one of the most irresponsible and psychically disturbing free-for-alls in recent memory".

It's one of the very few songs I've written in the last couple of years; I wrote the end-song lyrics for Mirrormask a few weeks ago, and Dave has already recorded them in demo form ("you have to imagine I'm a beautiful Scandinavian lady with a nice voice," he said, warning me about it); I wrote a song called "Unresolving" for a Chris Ewen project last year, to a melody of Chris's I'd used for the theme of "A Short Film About John Bolton", and two original Folk Underground songs which wound up on Buried Things.


Valentine's Day is coming sooner or later. It's possible that you may, somehow, have missed the Valentine's Cards at In drawing your attention to them, I am not proposing that you send one to anyone you love, might love, or are hoping to sleep with. I am especially not suggesting it if the person or people you send the card to also reads this journal.

It wasn't my idea. Honest.


Dear Neil,

Ready for a random, obscure question? Here goes: once upon a time, a couple (few?) years ago in an overblown naval base called San Diego you were giving a talk. (Random recollection - this may have been the year Chip Delaney was there also.) And during your talk someone asked what you were reading at the time, and the book you said you had on your nightstand at the moment was some kind of non-fiction miscellany of grisly crimes and murders and misfortunes and whatnot... you recalled a story about a young teenager who contracted herpes (or something worse) and believed that in order to get rid of it he would have to contract it to someone else so he lured a child onto the roof and... so on and so on.

Anyway, do you have any idea what the name of that book was?

Alfonso Aguilar

Sure. I was either talking about "The Newgate Calendar", or a book called "Lives of Remarkable Criminals" (while I remember the horrible story of the young man in question, I've forgotten in which book it appears -- both are very similar). You can read the Newgate Calendar at

The full title of the edition I own is (ahem) The Newgate Calendar or Malefactors' Bloody Register containing General and Circumstantial Narrative of the lives and transactions, various exploits and Dying Speeches of the Most Notorious Criminals of both sexes who suffered Death Punishment in Gt. Britain and Ireland for High Treason, Petty Treason, Murder, Piracy, Felony, Thieving, Highway Robberies, Forgery, Rapes, Bigamy, Burglaries, Riots and various other horrid crimes and misdemeanours on a plan entirely new, wherin will be fully displayed the regular process from virtue to vice interspersed with striking reflexions on the conduct of those unhappy wretches who have fallen a sacrifice to the laws of their country by the way, and it makes wonderful bedside reading.

The full title of the other is LIVES OF THE MOST REMARKABLE CRIMINALS. Who have been Condemned and Executed for Murder, the Highway, Housebreaking, Street Robberies, Coining or other offences. Collected from Original Papers and Authentic Memoirs and published in 1735.

I don't think either book is in print, but you can find them for sale online fairly cheaply (and fairly expensively as well).

My bedside reading of the last few days has been Jim Steinmeyer's Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear, the story of the Golden Age of stage magic, and the amazing personalities -- Maskelyne, Devant, Houdini, Thurston, Kellar and the rest -- who made it happen, who built the grand illusions, who decided that it might be a good idea to saw a lady in half, and so on. It was a gripping and delightful book which a) anyone with any interest in stage magic and illusion should read, and b) is quite excellent, informative and necessary and c) disappointed me. I think it only disappointed me because I'd read "Art and Artifice", a privately printed, low printrun book, in which Steinmeyer's inner magic-geek runs free, with occasional diagrams. He was writing for magicians in "Art and Artifice", and the sense of discovery and joy as he figures out how you recreate Morritt's disappearing donkey, or David Devant's Moon Moth Illusion was almost tangible, whereas in Hiding the Elephant it feels as if he's keeping his geek-self in check, and giving a much more sober view of the history of magic to the wide world of readers.

Although it's possible, on reflection, that my disappointment comes from another source.

When I was about six, I owned a "Blue Peter Annual". A cardboard-covered compendium based on BBC show Blue Peter. (A hasty look at eBay tells me it was probably this one:

Well, I owned that one anyway. Whether it contained the bit I'm about to discuss, I cannot say for certain. It was a long time ago.)

And one of the articles in the Blue Peter Annual in question was about unsolved mysteries. The biggest Unsolved Mystery, it said, was Houdini's Vanishing Elephant. He vanished it once in a New York Theatre, in 1925, above a tank of water. (This is technically true, as there was a water tank in the Hippodrome below the stage, although I don't think it was full at the time.) The article also said that Houdini's secrets had been sealed upon his death, and would be released to a waiting world on (if I remember correctly) the hundredth anniversary of his birth, in 1978. (Or possibly 50 years after his death, in 1976.)

Which was the kind of thing which, when you're not very old, and it's 1966ish, seems infinitely impressive. I imagined Houdini marching this elephant down the aisle, through the terrified people in the audience, all of them suddenly realising how very big an elephant is (I'd only recently discovered how very big an elephant was myself, and also that the surface of an elephant was not the smooth plasticky grey I'd expected, on a visit to Chessington Zoo). I imagined Houdini marching the elephant up, onto a couple of boards above an enormous tank of water, a flash of light or a raised and dropped cloth, and then, nothing. An empty stage. "Aha!" Houdini would have shouted at the audience. "You are baffled! You must wait another forty-five years to learn my secrets!"

And here I was, lucky enough to be of a generation that would learn Houdini's elephant-vanishing secrets. And I'd still be young enough to appreciate it. It wouldn't be like the millennium, where I'd be almost forty.

I wondered if it would be on the front pages of newspapers in 1976. I was pretty sure it would be. I mean, if the world had been wondering about this since 1925, it was bound to be big news. I even wondered about it, from time to time, as the Seventies rolled on...

And, of course, it never occurred to me to doubt anything that I had read. It was in the Blue Peter Annual. There may have been things more reliable and accurate than a Blue Peter Annual, but I certainly hadn't run across them. It had a photo of Christopher Trace on the cover, for heaven's sake; how much more reassuring than that could you get? (Of course he'd left the series by that point, under a mysterious cloud which I knew nothing about.)

And unfortunately, the actual vanishing of the elephant wasn't anything like my six year old imaginings at all (for a start, he did it nightly, not just once). Not only that, but the bit about the secrets being revealed in the 1970s was simply made up by someone who needed a hook for their bit on vanishing an elephant -- Houdini's secrets really went to his brother. And one of the things that was most disappointing for me reading the Steinmeyer book was the moment when I learned that most of the audience at the Hippodrome never really saw the elephant vanish. It went into a wagon on the stage, and was not seen again. Some of the audience could see that the interior of the wagon was empty. For the rest, the sight-lines were wrong, and they had to take Houdini's oddly-enunciated word for it.

So it's quite possible that, somewhere inside me, there's a disappointed six year old going "But... is that all there is?"

Hiding the Elephant
really is an excellent book (please ignore the grumbles of the man behind the curtain). I learned a lot from it, and it was a delight. It also features some wonderful ink portraits of the dramatis personae by Wm Stout. Whose own page, with illustrations, posters, and a way of buying the book, signed by author and illustrator, with a Stout drawing in it, is at


And that was a much longer thing than I meant to type, when I sat down. So I shall go to bed now, although not before putting up a healthy and useful guide to anomalous spots:, and, to make up for having mentioned Blue Peter, a show I never really liked, because it was the kind of programme that adults would approve of you watching, I shall mention how delighted I was to find out, via chocnvodka, that The Clangers Were Really Swearing. Bless them.