White Heat

Hard, Soft & Wet

first published in 1998 (Flamingo)

Looks at the first generation of people to take the information age for granted, in particular their dreams, ambitions, aesthetics and assumptions.


Thor, Heida and I have drunk a good few strange beers before we stumble into Bar 22. It’s eleven-thirty. Thor and his band are already twenty minutes late for the video shoot.

Ach gott, says Thor, wrinkling up his nose, We’ll get round to it.

Bar 22 is Reykjavik’s only gay haunt. We’re here so Thor can prove he’s not homophobic. Only the bar is virtually empty.

How humiliating, we’re showing this woman from England the only gay bar in Iceland and there aren’t any gays.

They’re all upstairs, says the barman, in English.

Oh hang on. Thor points to the door. There’s one.

The three of us set our gaze on a middle-aged man standing just inside the entrance to the bar. Thor waves him in, shouting:
Thossi, come here. This woman wants to meet Icelandic gays.

No don’t, I counter. I mean, yes, fine.

Here’s proof. The middle-aged man hand me a plastic-backed card reding: This is to certify that _ is an Honorary Member of the Youth Association of Gay men and Lesbians of Iceland. I was too old to be a full member, says the man, sadly.

See? Says Thor, belching. A queer.

We stagger back to the bar with Thossi and order some more beers. Heida points to the clock on the wall. Twelve-twenty.

Don’t you think we ought to check to see if Torfi’s waiting for us?

Ach, gott, no, mumbles Thor.

I’ve always wondered what it’s like making a pop video. This from me in a slurred and strangely distant voice. Isn’t the lip-synching kind of embarrassing?
Ach, no, it’s a cinch. You stand there and when the director says ‘go’ you open your mouth like a fish and writhe around in agony with the guitar.

By the way, I add – I’ve only just noticed that the bar is going in and out in a funny way, as though shrugging itself into life – I listened to your tape. I thought it was pretty good. Pretty bloody good.

Fuck off, says Thor. Ach, look, there’s another one. A man in a cravat climbs the stairs towards the bar, waves at Thor and Heida, who wave and smile back.
Stop it. We all begin to giggle

Listen, about the music, says Thor. Don’t ever say that again. Don’t ever say pretty bloody good again.

Piss off, Thor, I reply, Stop being so proud.

No, you piss off.

No, you. Piss off everyone, says Thossi.


Thanks to the strands of autobiography, the book has a kind of novelistic density and narrative coherence which means that ultimately it is rather moving, something of a novelty for books about the Net
Jim McClellan, The Guardian

McGrath writes with intimacy and her astute portrayals of people, conversations and encounters give the book its edge. This is a story in which everything grows up, old, or at least used to the digital world. What begins as an alien culture, young and seductive, becomes familiar routine and far more diverse by the end of the book. First waves of enthusiasm give way to the reflective waters in which the book so elegantly swims….It is a compelling parable, and McGrath is perfectly poised to record the unique qualities of this slice of history.
Sadie Plant, The Times

In a candid travelogue, McGrath recounts her romance with the nebulous world of the digital generation and her encounters with the newbies, hackers, sippies, slot freaks and virus writers who inhabit it. She travels to isolated new towns in England and Wales, the former Easter bloc, freezing Reykjavik, sketching in the real world with its intense smell of gasoline and eucalyptus, and the virtual world full of caffeine, cliches, vampire lifestyles and astounding innovations. Throughout, McGrath is a sharp and convincing observer.
Eithne Farry, Time Out

Meditations on the digital generation and how technology reconfigures our notions of intimacy, freindship and even personality itself. McGrath travels the world meeting hackers, e-mail junkies, skip raiders and virus writers, piecing together an alien culture. Anecdotal and discursive, this is the book which opens up the electronic frontier to those still left out in the cold, the volume McLuhan would have written were he to be still surfing the Nineties.

A travel writer and explorer, writing of an unchartable and possibly illusory world, McGrath sets out to stake her claim to this ever-changing digital age, perpetually on the move between Britain and American, with stops in Iceland, Russia and Germany. Yet like any good travel writer, her perspective is always more powerful for the fact that she remains somehow an outsider to that world. It’s an ideal standpoint to produce this personal memoir and guide to the follies and revelations of the electronic frontier. Reading Hard, Soft and Wet one cannot but feel that you have received a vivid, quirky and shrewd insight into a frontier, the possibilities of whch are just starting to be explored.
Tribune Magazine

You can disagree with McGrath but you can’t fault the quality of her observations or her writing.
New Scientist

This is a warm, humorous and charming book, reflecting the author’s own uncertainties about what the future holds. It captures the vital chaos of the digital generation as it prepares to break into the mainstream – and that is an achievement.

McGrath is such a good writer that even a cynical Luddite like me could love her book. She has a sharp ear and eye for dialogue and detail and a nice dry sense of humour…She’s created a travel book that’s all about looking for a faraway place called the future. Hard, Soft and Wet represents a perfect match between form and content.