Unpublished In Tel-Aviv

A very bookish protest…

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Last night: what could be more absurd than the sight of museum employees demonstrating for fair employment conditions? A scraggly group of a few dozen camped out in front of the old town hall (most recently the site of the Lebanese US Embassy in ‘Homeland’), singing songs and chanting slogans; the friends and family of the tour guides at Beit Bialik, the former home of Haim Nahman Bialik, Israel’s first National Poet. Scruffy, academic, educated, solidly middle-class, these were not the typical downtrodden and destitute, not residents of Channel4’s ‘Benefits Street’. Yet here they were on a chilly winter night, protesting the Tel-Aviv municipality’s hiring policy that condemned them to life on ‘freelancer’ contracts devoid of social security, health benefits or a state pension, and banned them from unionising or even talking amongst themselves while on the job. In the build-up to the protest, two “troublemakers” had already been fired without warning.

On September 3rd 2011, one in every 14 Israelis made their way to Tel-Aviv and marched from Habima Square to Kikar Hamedina in the name of social justice. On that sweltering summer night, the country euphorically announced its frustration with the economic status quo, a simmering anger that saw dozens of encampments spring up, all taking their lead from the hundreds of tents on Rothschild Boulevard, at the centre of the UNESCO White City.

A boy holds a sign reading “Social Justice”; September 3rd, 2011, Kikar Hamedina, Tel-Aviv

Israel suffers from a parasitic industrial ‘free-market’ oligopoly. In the early 2000s, Bibi Netanyahu, as Finance Minister, privatised a swathe of state industries but didn’t disolve the monopolies those giant companies had enjoyed since the state’s independence. Buoyed by a captive, skewed market, a few ‘industrialist’ families (relabelled as the notorious ‘tycoons’) became very very wealthy, and a city that was already the most expensive in the Middle East saw prices skyrocket even as income stagnated.

After that night the euphoria broke like a fever dream, and the balmy summer passed. The people went home, the tents disappeared, and the city enacted a series of underhanded measures to make sure that the door was closed on a season of remarkably courteous, civil rage. All that remained was the status-quo-ante, and the pockets of protest that periodically fizzle into life (sometimes with tragic consequences) before extinguishing again into darkness.

 

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Of course, yesterday there were the usual suspects of hard-core protesters and representatives of the local communist party, there to whip the crowd into a frenzy and elicit support for the next election, but generally this was a good natured protest of quiet, young, educated people (many of the slogans were puns on Bialik’s works) asking for the basic security that a public-sector job should provide.

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They are hardly alone: when I worked in the Knesset in the mid-2000s, I was stunned to discover that the diligent, talented researcher ants at the Knesset’s own internal Research and Information Centre, as well as being squirrelled away in a windowless, airless subterranean room beneath the amphitheatre, were all on short-term contracts for which they had to reapply every six months.

You’d expect issues like this to gain traction, but Israel is not a normal country, and Tel-Aviv is not a normal city. There is always the Palestinian threat, the Iranian threat, the ‘infiltrator’ Sudanese-Eritrean threat; always the simmering culture wars between Eastern and Western Jews, between the religious and the secular. Police have been given powers to break up threatening protests while intimidating potential popular leaders, and the economy is so concentrated that one break could send shockwaves throughout the country.

So a good-natured demonstration with very valid concerns splutters for an hour as locals gaze at the hubub as they walk their dogs, and a police car sprays everyone with blue lights as the cops themselves, bored, play with their phones. Then everyone goes home, and another cause is lost to the Tel-Aviv night.

Of loss…

Loss.

Last week, my wife lost her father. It was as sudden as it was expected; as expected as bolts of lightning can ever be. And in the time since, our entire little tiny world which was just beginning to come together, has crumbled to its core.

He was a wonderful man. A grizzled New Yorker; an endangered species. Lou Reed is gone. Bob Dylan’s surely not far behind. Steel-tough yet soft and sentimental, he was always genuinely pleased to see me. He always offered an ear and a shoulder, and more than once offered too much of his time and invaluable help when others disappointed.

He was a great, quiet man, and he is greatly missed.

All that is left is the vacuum of his absence. My wife is a mess. My daughter is internalising all the sadness that surrounds her and is acting up and lashing out. Others that I have come to care deeply about are scarred and damaged. Everyone is walking wounded, doing little more than existing in the moment in the most basic, inhuman way.

Like now: my wife is lying beside me. My own brother – who came for the shiva (seven days of mourning) – is meeting his office colleagues even as he could not find the time to meet me. And my wife doses, wakes in fits and starts. I am no help to her. Not here. But not not here, either. And so I exist as this presence that does absolutely nothing. That can do nothing, even as I am hurting in my own, tiny, insignificant way.

There is only one thing worse than seeing those we love in pain: being unable to heal that pain.

Reviewing ethics…

Here’s a picture of someone else’s cat.

An author, unpublished or not, knows. Knows the process, knows the joy, knows the pain. We should (if we’re good), peddle in empathy, in understanding. After all, there are differences in approach, in aim, in style, in purpose. So perhaps we shouldn’t comment on the fruit of others’ toil – at least not in the negative. Maybe if we don’t like, we just don’t get it.

But what to do if you read a book so brazen in its smug shittiness, so flawed in its reach and scope, so nauseatingly shallow and undercooked that it offends the craft? And then: what if that book in all its conceited mediocrity has been heralded as the second-coming, as a great work by a new literary genius, as the voice of a till-now silent minority? What would you do then?

I’ve browsed Goodreads for user reviews and the majority are glowing, even though they seldom delve deeper than “I like the book because it had a good story” (no it didn’t). I’ve also googled journalistic reviews, and most puffed and fluffed and praised; only one cut to the core of my criticism with deft precision. In a world so skewed, isn’t it also my job to alert others this pretender, to point and laugh and sneer and yell: “she’s naked!” and bring the whole house of cards tumbling down?

But…

What if one day someone did the same to me? And what if one day, finally published and beginning the slog towards a body of work, my secret (guilty?) reviews are unearthed and my tastes, over and above my produce, are deconstructed and used to colour my books themselves? Should I be quiet now in fear of the future, or should I yell and stab and redress the balance and then simply settle back and wait for blowback that may never arrive? Also: are my views less valid by virtue of my literary aspirations or, on the contrary, are they more valid and even necessary?

Or – do I just think too much? (A distinct probability.)

On another note: what do you do when you discover that a successfully published friend has submitted glowing reviews of their own books on Goodreads under a pseudonym? OK, so the reviews and their five-star ratings are probably lost in the impenetrable maze of computational matrices – assuming that this is this is the only pseudonym used - but is that not a bit… immoral?

Or: if in an election a politician can anonymously vote for himself once, is it so wrong for the author to review his or her own book? Just because I wrote the damn thing, does that necessarily invalidate my opinion?

Who knows. Don’t mind me. Keep moving. Nothing to see here. Madman talking and all that…

Enjoy the cat.

One is the Loneliest Number (but not in Tel-Aviv)…

Alone, not lonely.

Much of our lives are experienced alone. How strange then to realise that cities respond to this aloneness in different ways.

Now back in London for a few weeks – bereft of The Baby, The Wife and also The Dog – I am surprised at how unwelcoming this city, my city, is to the one without the two.

It’s not overt or aggressive – there have been no altercations or open rudeness. But there is a definite suspicion that surrounds me and an unease that defines every interaction: an unspoken question-mark that seems to hover over me even in bastions of solitude such as the coffee shop, the cinema, the museum or the park.

Has it always been there, here? Though the feeling is definitely familiar, perhaps I’m only able to quantify it now because my time in Tel-Aviv has allowed me to view London with an outsider’s eyes. Perhaps it is naiveté, but had I to guess, I would have supposed that the larger, more populous and heterogenous city would be the more accepting, but the opposite seems true. In London, much of life is to be experienced in private: grief,  joy – even children – all to be locked away in the confines of a limited group. All that should remain visible are the anodyne vessels (never singular), crucial to the smooth-running of the town. Minimal friction between constituent parts.

London in macro has no time for individual stories, and so someone standing alone (bereft of companionship, of conversation, of an easily identifiable current purpose) threatens to demand a relationship beyond the please, the thank-you, the sorry.

Maybe that’s all London’s famous politeness is: the avoidance of extraneous humanity.

Tel-Aviv is the polar opposite. It is a rambunctious city that heaves along in fits and starts, propelled onwards by its interactions and a continuous, mutual, and many-sided explosion of minute relationships. The solo is welcomed, enveloped, even celebrated and rather than precluding inclusion in society’s activities, being alone dictates participation.  It’s exhausting, but it also removes the stigma from the uncertain and drags the lone individual from the shadows and into the light.

There are consequences of this systemic openness. I have never seen pain so public, nor chronic isolation and vulnerability so visible as in Tel-Aviv, and I have never been made to feel more awkward in daily life. But I have also never felt so un-judged, so comfortable irrespective of circumstance, so free to just do, to just be. And whereas the pangs of uncertainty that I am now feeling here in the city of my birth, tripped off by loneliness, can spiral – invisibly – out of control, in Tel-Aviv they are kept in check by the brazen – and sometimes infuriating – inquisitiveness of its people.

There is something incredibly life-affirming in visibility.

Violence for violence’s sake…

In our neighbourhood:

Car parked; baby and wife disembarking. A car barrels down the road far too fast, driver staring out of side window, and barely misses them. Freaked out, I yell:

“Hey! What the hell are you doing? Watch out!”

The car comes to a complete stop and then, sloooooowly, reverses backwards towards me, the door opening. A man glares at us with cold, dead eyes. He doesn’t utter a word.

“There’s a child here,” I say, but my wife was already white and shaking and telling me in hushed tones to just stop talking, turn and walk away.

She starts yelling, screaming, shaking, crying: “What, is this what you do? When all a man tries to do is protect his child?”

I have learned to trust my wife’s instinct about this place, and so by this point I was turning the corner. Every step he follows me with those cold, dead eyes.

When we regroup a few streets away, she is a mess. He had been brandishing a hammer.

He never said a single word.

The worst bit is that this is not the first time I’ve been threatened in my own neighbourhood for simply acting like a human being. This city is full of wonderful people. It is a place full of debate and argument and creative energy and the best of humanity. It is also full of animals, far larger, far less moral, and far more dangerous than its dogs and cats.

Yemenite Sh!t,,fit,,,

You can’t make this up…

 

These were posted all around our neighbourhood. Bear in mind we are both not Yemenite, and have dog. Oops.

Important Message

To the renters and the new apartment owners who

in the last few years or months

joined our beloved neighbourhood, THE Kerem Hataymanim

Our fathers are the founders in 1905.

From the Original Keremites

IT’S TIME THAT YOU UNDERSTOOD THAT YOU ARE GUESTS in our neighbourhood AND NOT THE RULERS,, You were accepted in a very cordial way,,, This is how we are,,!!!, Appreciate it,, It seems as if a few of you are trying in a very ugly and conniving way to cause a split in the people of the neighbourhood,, For your benefit,, personally and it seems also politically,, KNOW THAT WE ARE AWARE OF THAT AND OUR EYES ARE OPEN to vehemently keeping the tradition, the beauty and the character of our neighbourhood,, You are trying to supposedly show a wish to improve our neighbourhood especially its cleanliness,, Just so you know you are the ones making our neighbourhood dirty with the astonishing number of dogs that you have brought with you into our small

neighbourhood,, YOUR DOG POO HAS BECOME LIKE MINES in the streets of the neighbourhood, there have never been dogs (maybe very few) in our neighbourhood,, And from this it is understood that very few of you bother to clean after your dog poo,,,,,,,

Firstly you should,,, Look at how you behave,, Personally to keep the cleanliness of your environment,, And then when you will get to a level of keeping clean we will happily hear comments in writing or in saying to improve

Our neighbourhood,,,,

Be humble in your approach, This is message number 1

We will not snooze and we will not sleep!

The neighbourhood veterans! Its lovers and those who are always proud of it forever !!!!!

 

Being an Unpublished Author, I’m tempted to comment. But really: I think it just speaks for itself,,,

Four wheels bad, two wheels good…

My (sympathetically pimped) corkinet.

Tel-Aviv is a tiny, ultra-dense city (at least the part of it you’d want to visit is – not counting the sprawling ‘gush dan‘ suburbs). About 8km long (from Jaffa to the Yarkon River) and 2km wide (from the sea to the Ayalon Highway) it’s plagued by the twin hells of terrible traffic (about 500,000 cars commute into the city every day) and scant public transport. No wonder locals try and find ways to live a car-free existence.

Bike lanes have proliferated in the past few years (along with the lurid neon-green Tel-O-Fun rental bikes), usually divvying up the boulevards between two legs and two wheels. Cycling is fine in the winter, but in the summer, with temperatures hovering around 35C (95F) and humidity in the mid 80%s, it’s not exactly pleasant. So intrepid Tel-Avivians have searched for another, less exerting, form of transportation that maintains all the convenience of the bike without the exertion.

Enter the “corkinet”.

I have no idea why it’s called that, when all it is, in essence, is one of those kiddie-scooters with an electric motor on the back. Technically, they’re not legal, but as any true Israeli will argue (at length), they’re not illegal, and that’s what matters. You can’t import them, but you can import the parts and assemble them here. It’s a truly competitive market, with at least four bona-fide manufacturers spread throughout the city.

Although you’re not (technically) allowed to ride them on the pavements, or (technically) on the bike-lanes, or (technically) on the street, that makes it a free-for-all: basically you can do what you want and the police just turn a blind eye.

I must admit, at the beginning I was saddled with the typical Londoner snobbishness. I had to fight to hold the Lazy bastard! in whenever I huffed and puffed in the sweltering heat only to be overtaken by someone looking effortlessly cool, straddling their corkinet as if they were surfing. But when an orthopaedic medical issue (don’t worry – soon to be repaired) fucked up my mobility and meant I could not longer cycle, on my wife’s orders I grudgingly made my way to Gan Hachashmal’s Trekker ( the closest dealer) and walked out with a white board suspended between two tiny wheels.

And you know what? Perhaps I could have been a bit wrong. Just a little bit.

My corkinet is immense fun. It is also economical to run, cheap to buy, and quite simply the fastest mode of transport there is. In such a compact city, with a top speed of 25kmph and a range of about 20km on a full charge, it just makes so much sense and is proving to be pretty much the perfect method of urban transportation. And I can even convince myself I look young and cool (though I know I don’t).

People have taken to accessorising them with seats, baby-chairs (I’ve seen a dad, two kids and a baby squeezed on one) and all kinds of baskets, bags and surf-board holders. Me? I just kept mine simple: a few decals and a bag for the lock.

Now if only I could convince The Wife to let me put The Baby on the back…

The Yom Kippur that was…

Another year, another Yom Kippur. I fasted (The Baby, The Wife and The Dog did not) and by midday my head was swirling and thoughts were entering and leaving my head in a disorganised and uncontrollable manner. The chaos was not unpleasant – a bit like the drugs I no longer use, but the throbbing headache that birthed itself mid-afternoon and grew and grew until the fast’s end at 7:25 I could have done without. The Baby joyously slapping stickers on my forehead too…

As usual, Tel-Aviv was magical: crickets chirped, children played and the hidden sounds of the city broke free of the yoke of modern life. Usually I take photos; this year I decided to take videos to try and convey the magic of the Day of Atonement in the Promised Land. As no-one is mobile beyond a bike, this is Tel-Aviv unfiltered – exclusively of and for Tel-Avivians.

It was a holiday of two parts:

First, the night:

Allenby Street by King George

Everyone – and I mean everyone, is on the streets. Legal and illegal migrant workers congregate (Yom Kippur is the one day of the year the former do not work and the latter do not fear the immigration police), children draw on the tarmac between zooming bikes, quasi-religious dressed all in white amble to and from the myriad of tiny local synagogues, and dogs run free. It is wild and messy and inspiring…

Habima Square

…until we reach Habima Square (by the Mann Auditorium and the Habima Theatre), full to bursting with local families and a new level of intense. Even The Baby joins in, trying to throw herself down the tree-hillock to almost certain death.

Part two: the next day after thirsty, starving, sleep, and the city is deserted. The revelry is over and scant few people, bar those at the beach, venture out into the blazing sun. I sin just a little and go out on my corkinet to properly take in the barrenness of the larger streets.

A single lost religious man on Yitzhak Sade St.

Even the Ayalon Highway, the artery that runs North-South through the city, connecting Tel-Aviv and its northern suburbs to the airport and Jerusalem, is completely empty. Only children on bikes zip past and a few couples walk along the endless tarmac hand-in-hand.

Hashalom Exit of the Ayalon Highway (Azraeli Towers)

Tel-Aviv doesn’t need no stinking zombie apocalypse to stage its own 28 Days Later. It does it every year.

Shana Tova everyone.

Buying gas masks for dogs isn’t as easy as you’d think…

Save kitty!

In Israel there’s a concept of “this year’s war”. It implies inevitability, projects normality upon a reality where peace isn’t really peace but rather the absence (for now) of outright war. This year’s war? Who knows – could be Hezbollah (Lebanon), Assad (Syria) or some combination of the above with – at least unofficially – Iran. As Obama threatens to discuss strikes with Congress on its return today, just across the border one of our many friendly neighbourhood dictators gasses his own people. So Tel-Aviv is preparing itself for the possibility of regional blowback.

This preparation is partly mental (how do you rationalise this constant threat? I still don’t know), partly practical. Queues form at local post offices (“would you like a gas mask with your international mail?”), people prepare contingency plans should rockets tipped with chemical warheads fly towards us.

All apartments and houses in recent buildings must have a ‘mamad‘ or ‘safe-room’: reinforced concrete with metal shutters. They are hot, uncomfortable and claustrophobic and, as are usually viewed with resentment and disdain in times of not-war, counting as they do towards Tel-Aviv’s notorious letting ‘room-count’, despite protecting us – or so we are told – in all circumstances bar a direct hit.

Thanks. I feel much safer now.

The window in our ‘mamad’ – complete with steel curtain.

Only one problem: these mamads don’t take into account the threat posed by non-conventional weapons, and as any student of the warped logic of deterrence knows, Syria’s answer to Israel’s alleged (cough cough) nukes was one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical and biological agents.

Our family gas masks

 

So that brings us to the gas-masks, safely and inconspicuously stored in the entrance cupboard with the vacuum cleaner and the coats. Only: what about The Dog (formerly Young Dog)? Turns out the state doesn’t consider itself responsible for canine welfare, and trying to form a seal over pet hair is not that easy, so after searching the internet at length I finally settled on the only apparent option: a contraption not unlike a plastic bag that fits around a crate. This is attached to a filtration unit whose batteries – we’re reminded – “only last for six hours! Don’t forget to change them!”

Reassuring.

Just like everything else.

Shana tova everyone!

Of hacks and hopes. (On getting a professional edit.)

Is this “9.51 hours of work” worth $1426.50?

Being unpublished is tough. Writing involves just one person and one mind, and until the work is transcribed it exists only up there, completely unconveyable in anything but the most pitifully inadequate form. But, if you’ve never written a book and think that once all the words (so so many words!) are committed to paper the hard work is done, sorry. The bad news is: That’s when the real angst begins.

The work sits there, heavy in your hand like a sack of potatoes and equally as useless. It’s at once both complete and completely inadequate; nothing more than a poor pastiche of what it could be and what it still is in your head. “The first draft of everything is shit, is never more true than in the eyes of the author himself.

I grew up an isolated, solitary child – not by choice – and so my natural instinct was to tackle the task of ‘improving’ the first draft of Unpublished Novel #1 (i.e.: turning the rubbish I’d created into the masterpiece I knew it was capable of being) all on my own. While the first major edit to turn Draft 1 into Draft 2 – essentially a complete rewrite – was entirely worth it, as the five years progressed the edits became increasingly desperate and inconsequential until I finally realised the obvious: I was too close.

Unpublished Novel #1 was shelved soon after. It remains unfinished: ambitious to a fault, I need so much more experience before I can do it justice. But, I learned: as soon as I finished the first draft of Unpublished Novel #2 I googled, I read, I reread the bible (AKA “The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook”) with an explicit purpose: find a reputable editor.

My gut selected Hillel Black. Why? His decades of editing, his years in publishing, his self-proclaimed bestsellers and his Jewish roots (stupid – after all the aspiration is for Unpublished Novel #2 to transcend narrow ethnicities to the universal, but hey, I wanted to limit the chances of disappointment). A cordial if impersonal eMail exchange ensued and a deposit invoice was sent in one direction, and the manuscript was sent in the other.

The problems began almost immediately. Despite the promises of a quick turnaround, weeks turned into months and my eMails were shrugged off with the a flippant and disingenuous “I’ve been busy, I’m working on it and I’m enjoying it tremendously”. Finally another – larger – invoice arrived via Paypal together with a tracking number premised upon payment.

It arrived:

There were coffee-stains on the cover and the thick stack of papers seemed well-thumbed, but with every page the scribbled markings grew increasingly infrequent until, by chapter three, they disappeared entirely. While I had asked (and paid for) a thorough edit including a ‘book doctor’ appraisal of themes, tone, characters, pacing, writing style etc to the more pedestrian copy-editing of punctuation and spelling, what came back was… nothing. To add insult to injury, the attached double-spaced half-page of ‘comments’ (scanned above) referred to a book of two sections and two narrators (mine at that point had three of each), and included scant few specifics to signify that he had read the manuscript at all, let alone critically. Two stories? It’s one story told by three narrators! What exactly had Mr. Black been doing for those invoiced 9.51 hours?

Confused, I called his number. He answered the phone disoriented, didn’t remember who I was (though he claimed he did), didn’t remember my book (though he claimed he did) and then asked if I’d paid (unfortunately I had). Fuming at becoming the very definition of a freyer, I put the phone down and screamed and yelled and probably punched a wall.

It wasn’t just about the money – though nearly $1,500 is a huge amount of cash – it’s more about the inherent vulnerability of the unpublished author, a vulnerability that this vulture was preying on with full remorseless knowledge. Yes, he could be a drunk, he could be a fraud, he could be many things, but irrespective, he – a professional hired for an explicit purpose – had not deigned my work worthy of reading. No. Money has little ability to smart so sharply.

I took it badly. Thoughts of dead-end vacuous day-jobs in dimly-lit cubicles became alluring, even with their implicit promises of  gold watches, spiritual unfullfilment and a long, slow death. After all, why go through this isolated, isolating experience to be so painfully wounded before the slog towards publication has even begun? These are dangerous thoughts, and though I entertained them too long I picked myself up enough to return to my list and select the editors which seemed the farthest away from the wily Mr. Black – a collaborative association in the UK.

It is early days yet, but so far the Oxford Editors have thoroughly impressed. Though I was still wary and suspicious they talked me through the process, skimmed the manuscript and then selected an editor from their books who they felt was the best fit. Following a cursory read she and I spoke and she so eloquently and passionately critiqued the novel in overview (now in four parts) that I understood her to not only grasp its intent and aspirations, but also my ambitions for it.

As the name suggests, they are based in Oxford and the next time I am in England I will meet her to microscopically dissect the manuscript. I do not want to be too optimistic, but I am allowing a little crack of light to remain. Until then, here’s the first line of the book:

“She told me to get out, so what could I do? I got out.”

She said she thought it was the best she had read in a long time. What do you think?

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