When Faber & Faber announced in June they were offering TS Eliot's The Waste Land as an iPad app, a lot of us Luddites snorted and rolled our eyes to heaven, and said, "My dear, what would poor Tom Stearns have made of this?" But we agreed that, if you really couldn't get to grips with the actual words of the Modernist masterpiece, the app certainly offered you a lot for £7.99 – recordings of the poem being read by Alec Guinness, Ted Hughes, Viggo Mortensen and TSE himself (sounding like a depressed bank manager throughout); a dramatised, intensely physical reading by Fiona Shaw; and hyperlinked commentaries from 30-odd literary chaps from Seamus Heaney to Craig Raine.
It was a veritable feast of Eliotiana. In recognition of the poem's difficulty, the poet had, of course, provided his own footnotes, many of them playfully misleading, when it was published in 1922 – now here were a few hundred more, handsomely filmed by the BBC and produced by Faber's high-tech collaborator, the Touch Press. It was a lovely package for the baffled poetry lover and it would sell, I confidently predicted, ooh, 13 copies.
Well, I was wrong. The Waste Land app scorched up the iPad book charts. It's beaten all rivals, including the immensely distinguished Angry Birds. TS Eliot is at Number One in the digital literary hierarchy for the first time since he won the Nobel Prize in 1946. Its success has taken everyone by surprise, including its publisher. "We're completely astonished," Henry Volans, Faber's head of digital books, told me, "and we have absolutely no idea who's buying it. We suspect it isn't literature students, but general iPad users who've always wanted to understand the poem."
To my great surprise, its success has rather changed my mind about technology and books. Speaking as a resolute Kindle-hater from Day One, a caller of anathema upon all attempts to turn literary classics into comics, condensed booklets or multimedia extravaganzas, I find myself thinking, "Blimey, a poem with at-a-click spoken voices and techno-footnotes, that's a good idea." The idea that there's a poetry audience out there that isn't saying, "I can't understand a word of this" but "Oh good, perhaps I can understand Eliot at last" is immensely cheering, even if you have to spend £450 for the privilege.
Where do we go from here? Faber were so caught on the hop by The Waste Land's storming the charts, they don't have a follow-up ready. "I'm looking through lots of difficult, important, universal works at present and considering what might be done with them," says Volans. "People clearly like books which are a bit difficult but are worth investigating."
If they want books that are "difficult but worth investigating", Faber are spoilt for choice. They could start with Ulysses (published the same year as The Waste Land), offering a parallel text of Homer's Odyssey alongside James Joyce's own, a blizzard of footnotes that would link the book's million or so cross-references and classical allusions, plus a reading from Molly Bloom's rude soliloquy by, say, the husky Dublin blues singer Imelda May. Or they could publish Tristram Shandy, a massive shaggy-dog story, with an ever-growing shaggy dog on every page. As for Lady Chatterley's Lover... This, ladies and gentlemen, is undoubtedly the future of the book. What's not to love?
Nigella as nature intended? Call the police!
Neighbours of Nigella Lawson have complained that the flirtatious chef has been wandering about her Chelsea home in the nude. It's outrageous isn't it? These poor neighbours, going about their ordinary business, late at night or first thing in the morning, have had the undulating curves of one of the nation's great beauties forced upon their shocked eyes. How awful. It seems that, after some building work, a bathroom door has not been installed at the end of an upstairs gallery. "It isn't a case of deliberately looking in," whined a spokesman for the neighbours, "but there is a view into the bathroom, and anyone glancing in the direction of the loggia can glimpse what's going on." They forgot to add, "...while standing on one leg, and manipulating the solar telescope through the attic window."
They'll be banning the javelin next
I laughed when I heard about Boris Johnson and the shooters. The Mayor is to give away 125,000 Olympic Games tickets to London schoolchildren – but not tickets to any of the nine events featuring firearms. Too risky. Johnson and the Games organisers fear there'll be trouble from the anti-gun lobby if children are allowed to watch contestants shooting pistols at targets, shotguns at clay pigeons. It would only inspire them to go rioting, apparently. Giving kids tickets to the "50-metre rifle, three positions" event is simply asking for trouble, three times over.
"I agree with Boris," says Danny Bryan, founder of Communities Against Gun and Knife Crime. "It is good kids should enjoy the Games, but there's no way we should glorify guns."
For heaven's sake. Is there any point in telling Danny and Boris that the Games do nothing of the sort, that they glorify marksmanship, precision, a steady hand and a hawk-like eye?
And if you're afraid of giving children the wrong idea, why stop with guns? Can you let them attend archery events, and run the risk that policemen will be punctured with arrows like pin-cushions when things next kick off in Hackney? Shouldn't you ban the javelin event, if you don't want the air at the next London riot to be filled with flying spears?