Monday, April 21, 2014

I can be a Science Fiction Writer If I want to

Like my reading, my writing began with Science Fiction. There was nothing to be written about the bog standard comprehensive I went to, the small dormitory village where I lived, the unexceptional nature of my family and friends, even my own solipsistic uniqueness. There were, however, robots, and spaceships, and quite soon after fantastic scenarios that can only be described as SF (though later, some people would prefer "fiction", yeah, right.)

So my first stories were almost all SF ones, yet though I enjoyed the odd space opera (Hello Blakes 7, and later Battlestar Galactica), perhaps the grounded-to-earth SF of the 3rd Doctor Who or "Quatermass" were more my thing. Looking back, I was writing a kind of cyberpunk before I'd read William Gibson (and when I read  "Neuromancer" I was disappointed, though I came round by "Count Zero"), but hardly surprising given my diet of William Burroughs, Douglas Adams, George Orwell, "Blade Runner", the Jerry Cornelius novels Iand "Howard the Duck." So, over the years I've written quite a number of stories that can only be classed as SF, and quite a number, as well, that though not in anyway futuristic, are steeped enough in that genre's willingness to bend the present, might as well be.

Yet I've never had a straight SF story published. Over the years I've sent a few things to Interzone, and maybe other magazines that have come up. Its not that I'm over literary, but that I'm probably over literary for the straight SF magazine, where anything that hints at the literary tends to get sniffed out pretty quickly. I'm often reading on SF blogs a distaste for mainstream writers who "write SF" as a one off, but either get it wrong, or just use its tropes (e.g. "Children of Men", "Never Let Me Go"), but it strikes me its a 2-way street. When I write an SF story, I don't think "ooo, I'm writing speculative fiction" or "fantasy" or "slipstream" or whatever, I just think, "good, some proper SF." I would love to see a book in the Soviet yellow of those old Gollancz, or with a pulp drawing like a NEL paperback.  And yes, I read a little SF now and then, usually, it has to be said when the tedious lack of ideas of so much contemporary fiction gets on my nerves, and yes, I wince at the casual sexism that still seems to be at home in any future sex scene or the clunky writing that often comes with even well-acclaimed fantasists. And yes, I don't really get SF's grubby younger brother (sister?) "fantasy." A post-punk dislike for progressive rock's obsession with stairways to heaven etc. means I've never read Tolkein, and probably never will. (Though  I loved the Narnia books as a kid, so maybe its just something I grew out of.)

I've often read SF writers say that they choose to write in the genre as it gives them more options about talking about the contemporary world, which I understand, but I wonder why then you would "only" write in that genre? To be honest, most of my recent stories are hard to  categorise, and one that I thought was going to be an SF story (its about surveillance culture and piecing together what happened to a disappeared child from the available footage) turned out to require a more realist take. Similar, a story I've coming out later in this year could be classed as speculative or slipstream, but I really don't know whether or not it is. Writing about the internet and new technology often puts my stories in a day after tomorrow which may or may not be  SF.

Who knows? I can be a Science Fiction writer if I want to... yet getting these things published might be another issue. We seem to increasingly want a sort of pluralistic world, whether its in poetry between the experimental and mainstream, or in fiction between genre and general fiction. Readers are apparently not able to pick up the nuances or the differences - though a few writers, the late Iain Banks (through the ruse of the M. pseudonym), China Mieville, and Margaret Attwood for instance seem to be able to skip across borders very like the detective in Mieville's "The City and the City." So I had a dream the other night which I thought would make a good story. It's essentially an earthbound adventure story, as close to Edgar Rice Burroughs as J.G. Ballard, but with elements of both, and yet, eight thousand words in, I realise in my head I think of it as an SF story - though so far there's not a single element that could definitely be construed that way. And "construed" is a good word, because I guess I'm writing it to be as interesting as I can - and that means taking the best bits from adventure/thriller fiction, but with the best ideas from SF, and, I hope something of the literary skills of my general fiction. Lets see how it goes. I suspect I won't try and sell it as an SF story, but who knows?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Easter Things

I don't seem to have had much to write about recently. I'm sure there's plenty of literary debates going on, but with limited time to read, I've not a lot to say about stuff. Last week I made it to see one of my favourite writers, Ben Marcus, the American "experimentalist", who read at the Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester. I was asked to blog about it for the Manchester Literature Festival blog, so you'll find my piece there. I'm currently reading his excellent novel "The Flame Alphabet" which I'm sure I'll blog about here when the time comes. Not many writers who make me starstruck, but he's one, and interesting, as he was talking I realised that part of it was some kind of shared concerns and consciousness - after all we were born in the same year. Yet isn't that weird that you can feel that with someone from the US? I wonder if our English-speaking culture creates a shared understanding as well as a shared culture. I think the key thing may be that the cultural signifiers are often the same. Its like when you meet someone your age who was into similar music to you; there's an identification wherever you came from. More interesting for me, as a writer, is where I think I was when he had his experimental breakthrough novel "The Age of Wire and String" in the late 1990s. I had been trying to writing something - anything - and part of that had been to take on more conventional styles than some of the stuff I had been writing; I felt like I had to get someone to listen to me, and the easiest way was to write in a familiar language. Marcus offered an unfamiliar language, and part of me has always responded to that. Anyway, that's digressing a bit - my MLF piece describes his point of view a bit more in detail.

***

Over Christmas I spent a while sending out stuff and in dribs and drabs it comes back. But a couple of things got published. As well as three poems in "Bare Fiction",  I was very pleased to have a non-lyrical piece of art/music published online in "Verse Kraken." Actual proof of my cross-disciplinary work, I think.

***

There sometimes seems to be a writing event every night, and a writer on every corner, and blogger Simon Savidge addresses this in a new posting for "Fiction Uncovered." "Some authors had been trying for several years, some for several decades" he writes, about the annual selling show that is the London Book Fair. It's strange in some ways, that we should think of this of as in any way odd. For surely the best writing is a compulsion whether or not it finds an early audience or a publisher. I've seen writers have early success that has then seen them give up at the first hurdle. I guess I've always seen writing as much about exploration of process as end result, though I'm always intent on "finishing" whatever it is I'm working on. Seems that these are the only bits I have any control over. The "getting published" is out of my control (not to say, we can't make it easier for ourselves.)

***

My other obsession is, of course, music, and tomorrow is "Record Store Day" when men of a certain age (not only men, and not only of a certain age) queue for several hours to buy an overpriced piece of vinyl of an album they already own in three different formats, and which they will never listen to. It is of course, brilliant that this is the case. Though I can't help notice that there seems a lack of "specials" (other than special formats) this year, and prices have crept up. Piccadilly Records in Manchester is one of the most popular destinations in the country and so "getting there early probably means four hours before it opens. On past experience, and with nothing specific I want, I'll head down mid afternoon and pick up any dregs. Not quite true that there's nothing I want. I'd be tempted by the Psychic TV live reissues, a few of the 10" and 12"s on offer and also by a couple of 7" boxsets by Dinosaur Jr. and Dead Kennedys - I suspect that most of these might go really quickly, so unless I get sleepless at 4 in the morning, I'll just have to give it a miss.

***

Everything seems late this year - Easter, spring, my hayfever - which means that there's probably lots piling up in the next few weeks. I'm looking forward to the next Other Room even though its a while away - featuring Leanne Bridgewater, Agnes Lehoczky, both of whom are brilliant live, amongst others on 4th June. With no Manchester International Festival this year, (its bi-annual) there is, I think an opportunity for that June/July period to be filled with the unexpected, and I hope promoters and festivals and organisations take hold of it - as I somehow expect next year's MIF, coming as it will after the General Election, might be a massive event. With my art-loving hat on I have to mention the next Castlefield Gallery show curated by Bob and Roberta Smith which features art by "offenders"  - an oft-overlooked outsider art community, that its great to see in the gallery. The show is intrigueingly titled "Snail Porridge." And at the start of May - May 1st to be precise - Emma Jane Unsworth launches her 2nd novel "Animals" at Waterstones, with, no doubt, a large % of the Manchester literature scene in attendance.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

April is the Coolest Month

I've been in Barcelona for much of the last week - and that was immediately after this year's typically excellent FutureEverything festival in Manchester. The two cities have a lot in common, or at least a lot of connections between them - but I wasn't quite expecting Thursday's torrential rain to be one of them!

Much as I enjoyed the visit, it was for work, and I didn't find time to read, write or listen to anything all week, so I need a bit of a cultural top-up now I'm back. Its 20 years since Kurt Cobain died and since "Definitely Maybe" by Oasis.  I was pretty established in Manchester by 1994, and had moved into a decent sized flat in West Didsbury after 18 months in Eccles. Here I recorded a new cassette "Seventy Mauve", which at the age of 27, was probably me at one of my musical peaks. (The last seven tracks of my 90s compilation "Nineties Sell Thru" are taken from it.) Nirvana and Oasis seem to owe something to each other. For a start they both achieved the seemingly impossible - breaking out from, respectively the American hardcore, and UK indie scenes into becoming briefly, the biggest bands around. The massive sales of "Nevermind" saw Nirvana retreat into the more left-field sounds of "In Utero", and - we know now - dissolution and heroine. "(What's the Story) Morning Glory?"  - Oasis's 2nd album - is still one of the top 5 bestselling albums in the UK of all time; and led to cocaine, excess and declining artistic returns. There the similarities stop of course; for Oasis wanted to "Live Forever" whilst Cobain wrote a song called "I Hate Myself and I want to die." This is not just a difference between American and European sensibilities, or a tale of two working class heroes - rather, in some ways, I suspect the commercial success of grunge paved the way somehow for a British rock band like Oasis. Both bands, remember, were purveyors of rock classicism, but for Nirvana is was Boston and Sabbath, whilst for Oasis is was Slade and the Beatles. Post-Morning Glory Oasis were as relevant I guess as the Foo Fighters were after Nirvana died, retaining a large part of the audience, but losing a large part of the point.

Anyway, I was reading about Oasis on the flight over and will probably come back to them in a bit. Culturally Nirvana remain the bigger draw, not least because of that violent ending (after all the antagonistic Burnage brothers are still both with us, thankfully), and I notice that the winner of this year's Sunday Times short story prize is for a story entitled "Nirvana" by Adam Johnson, whilst the bookshops are full of a novel called "In Bloom" by Matthew Crow.

My Nirvana shelf now runs to 10 CDs, which isn't bad for a band who only lasted for 3 albums. Like all great rock bands I don't listen to them with nostalgia, but as if they were minted yesterday. The same applies to Oasis's first couple of years, but less so to the "Britpop" phenomenon that came in its wake. If we are nostalgic now for Sleeper, Ash and Supergrass its probably because "rock music" has pretty much died as a vital charting phenomenon in the years since, caught between reality TV, autotune and protools, and R&B.

Literature seems a little less allied to fashions, though I'm curious at how easy it is for an individual writer - particularly like me, one who is not in any way part of the industry - to be curiously always separate from the fashion. So its been particularly pleasing that a couple of seeds I sowed in the early part of the year have borne fruit. I have 3 poems alongside a somewhat stellar line up in the 2nd issue of poetry/plays/fiction magazine "Bare Fiction" (available mail order or from Foyles, Charing Cross Road.) Very pleasing to be alongside writers of the calibre and originality of Hannah Silva, Ira Lightman, Isobel Dixon and others. And I've also got a piece of "hybrid art" (it contains no words, so I hesitate to call it poetry!) in issue 2 of "Verse Kraken" a wonderfully clever online magazine which uses "spurs" to encourage new, original work; again I'm alongside quite a few artists/writers whose work I admire.

I'm back in Manchester, and leafing through my Facebook events (funny how we still using the page metaphor), I see that this Friday is Ben Marcus, the American experimental prose writer, at the Anthony Burgess Foundation.  I'd recommend to anyone interested in the cutting edge of American fiction to come along. The following day is the Manchester print fair, a regular event in the calendar now, which celebrates print in this age of the virtual. Go in the afternoon so you can stay around for a one-off poetry event - No Spy Zone - poets responding to the NSA/GCHQ surveillance. The glacial pace of the poetry world means that poets are sometimes seen as apolitical, yet it was Carol Ann Duffy joining other writers outside Pentonville Prison recently that got the national media interested in the ban on books in prisons; and it is local poets who are able to respond quickly and imaginatively to our new surveillance culture. You probably won't find much evidence of it in Poetry Review, or on Front Row, of course, but I'm increasingly of the view that the commodising of art culture is part of the problem. D.I.Y. is not just out of necessity, but a preferred mode of operation.

See you all there.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Suburban Imagination

One of the most damning criticisms that literary critics sometimes use is to describe something as "provincial." Yet, though there might have been a time when writers and artists were gathered in cultural centres like London or Paris, it seems to be a rarer occurrence than the opposite. Successful writers find themselves going wherever they can make their writing unencumbered. In the first half of the twentieth century this even meant finding places where writing would be away from censorship - hence English and American writers based in Paris and elsewhere. I guess we see with Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, that even our Western democracies are sometimes highly deficient when it comes to providing sanctuary for those with something to say.

I'm not so sure our world cities are quite so amenable (or cheap) as they used to be: so whether a contemporary Lawrence, Vidal or Burgess would find their various remote hideaways so plausible is hard to know. The "international" writer can apparently survive anywhere not far from an airport after all.

Yet I'm less interested in this internationalism than in what is sometimes lost of the imagination when it moves into the hub of contemporary life, rather than being external. Surely it is the suburban imagination, and the running away from the suburbs into some counter-life which inhabits much of the great pop music; from Bowie and Roxy Music, to New Order and Joy Division - though I'm not sure we cultivate that same sense of distance nowadays: who even knows where bands originate from?

I was listening to a digitisation of a cassette I recorded in early 1985 - so nearly thirty years ago, which I was just turned 18 - and what's surprising is the breadth and depth of my deeply suburban imagination at that time. I had yet to travel abroad or work or live away from home or have a girlfriend or earn money or go to university, yet my imaginative tapestry was already quite rich; what it wasn't was in any way provincial, though there's definitely some naivety as well.  I was creating characters in my songs; writing about God and the devil; namechecking worldwide terrorist atrocities from napalm to Northern Ireland;  and still occasionally writing breathlessly teenage love songs. 

There's a trend of late for YA or Young Adult fiction, and I've even heard of it as referring to fiction that was aimed at "up to 25 year olds". Its a strange infantilisation of the imagination. Certainly our creative opportunities were more impoverished than anyone writing or recording today; yet somehow we found a way - whether it was Science fiction or horror novels, VHS films, or vinyl records. Actually when you look at what my cultural diet was - Stephen King, Douglas Adams, "Dracula", Troma movies, Channel 4, "Blade Runner", the Cure, Simple Minds, Velvet Underground, Love - its hardly surprising that there's hardly a provincial bone in my intellectual body. There's something about the suburbs that makes you crave for an "otherness" wherever you might find it. In a big city like London or New York, or even Manchester, you can well believe that the whole world is at your fingertips or at least not further than a dark alley or a closed door away; but in the sticks you have to create your own openings between the neatly-coiffured lawns and quiet cul-de-sacs.

When I went to Lancaster University in 1985 it was life changing, life affirming in many ways, but in one way it always disappointed me: for much to my surprise I found myself more cultural (or at least counter cultural) knowledgeable than many of my peers (and quite a few of my lecturers); rather than interesting me in new worlds, more often they were playing "American Pie" on their acoustic guitar, listening to Pink Floyd and the Beatles, reading middle class fiction and watching "Top Gun."  I was the one with the Psychic TV t-shirt, the Test Department records, and "Last Exit to Brooklyn" and "Blood and Guts in High School."

In a sense university "mainstreamed" me in a way that probably wouldn't have happened if I'd stayed outside in the culturally bereft Midlands - there I'd have had to continue to mark out my particular, peculiar space, probably whilst holding down a dreary job at the tax office or Woolworths or whatever. My first novel, still hidden in my bottom drawer, and begun a couple of years later, was set in my Midlands landscape but, like Iain Banks, whose work I very much admired at the time, one scarred by secrets.  I obviously don't regret leaving the somewhat stultifying world that I grew up in - and I'm aware that most people I've met since who share some of my cultural markers also grew up in similar places, with that similar suburban imagination. We had to leave, but in leaving to the bright lights of the big city I think sometimes we can lose a little bit of our imagined sense of cultural place, by virtue of being in an actual one.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

It All Happens Here

Well, its been very busy this last week or so, and will get busier I think. I went along to hear Evie Wyld read from her second novel "All the birds singing" at Anthony Burgess on Monday; a very good crowd for a Monday night, and good to see MMU supporting its current students, with a couple of readings as "support." I was planning to repeat the visit on Thursday for Olivia Laing, but a friend was around, and we stuck in the Northern Quarter catching up.

The Manchester Histories Festival begins today - and there's things on all week. I really like the Histories festival, because sometimes you get the sense that Manchester, unlike York or Chester, isn't seen as a particularly "historical" town. Yet there's lots of local groups, and lots of layers of history even in a city that really burgeoned less than two hundred years ago. Next Saturday there's a full day celebration in the Town Hall, which in previous years has been great, but there's also lots of things going on in the city centre and elsewhere all week. One literary response to the festival takes place at Blackwells on Thursday: Ruined is a literary architectural dig, short stories about lost places in Manchester.

Whether by accident or design next weekend also sees the history being joined by the future - with the 2014 FutureEverything being a  few days of music, art, conference which is a full programme after last year's more limited event. Again its at the Town Hall - but also around the city - particularly around the Co-op section of town near Victoria.

Bridging both of these next Saturday evening will be a fantastic light display around Albert Square as part of the Big Digital Project which has involved communities across Greater Manchester creating images to be projected in each borough, which will be brought together on Saturday for a unique presentation.

If you're in London next week then its the launch of issue 2 of Verse Kraken, the magazine of hybrid art, which I'm pleased to say I'm a contributor to. The launch is at the Dogstar in Brixton.

Lots of art going on as well. I've really enjoyed the Artists Room presentation of Bruce Nauman, the American artist, which is on at Preston's Harris Museum, and proving that painting is far from dead, a wonderful collection of work from Iain Andrews, including a spellbinding diorama is on at the Castlefield Gallery.  Last night was the opening of Horse Falling, a temporary shop in historic Ancoats, on the corner of Great Ancoats Street and Jersey Street. I missed the launch but hope to get there shortly.

So, it really does all happen here... enjoy.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Elbow's Post-Rock Triumph

I go back a long way with Elbow, the Manchester band whose sixth album has come out this week. That statistic in itself seems amazing. They were "the most likely to" in the late 90s (alongside baggy survivors Doves) but their debut e.p. "Noisebox" featuring "Powder Blue" limped out on a small label in 1998, and it wasn't until 2001 that their long-delayed debut album "Asleep in the Back" came out. I'd seen them loads of times before then, and they were both different than other bands of the time and fitted in. It's worth recalling that their use of interesting sonics was already their on that debut E.P. so though the debts were there to Radiohead and especially "OK Computer", they were already exploring a different unfashionable terrain. Also, given that the other Manchester bands of the period were guitar bands like Nine Black Alps, Doves and Oceansize, they packed a reasonable sonic assault.

Yet over the years Elbow have not so much morphed into the stadium act and national treasure they are today, but slightly adapted the formulae that were there at the start. Here's a band, after all, whose second single was the heart on sleeve "New Born".  A band who has always been more than a sum of its parts, I don't think we particularly noticed singer Guy Garvey's lyrical eloquence at first - though we've always loved his slightly droll honeyed vocals, which have always had more width to them than Thom Yorke's and more earthiness than Chris Martin's. When Coldplay thundered onto the stage there was always a wonder whether the world had room for more than one post-Radiohead band, especially when Coldplay were so successful; but Elbow were always pursuing a different agenda.

That first album was painstakingly assembled after a number of disasters, and even includes the exact mix of "Powder Blue" from that original E.P. The band have always been aware of their sonic possibilities, and very early on that moved away from the rock template of fast bit/slow bit which has sustained millennial rock ever since the Pixies and Nirvana. Early Elbow showcase gigs often contained only five or six long songs, and though not many people mentioned the dreaded "prog rock" the people who got them liked that they had that more nuanced musicianship.

The two albums that followed on from their well regarded debut were more commercial, rockier in parts, but like a lot of bands during the decade, you felt that there might be a sense of diminishing returns, despite great songs like "Grace Under Pressure". The most important track from this period however came in"Station Approach" which opened "Leaders of the Free World." This beautiful song was picked as a favourite by non other than John Cale. Here was the Guy Garvey we'd come to know as a great northern story teller, nostalgic for the home town that him and the band could never quite come to leave (and that the "town" was both Bury and Manchester, and a certain mythical place of their childhood memories was part of the charm.) The Cale reference wasn't surprising, for Cale - particularly the mid-period sonorous ballad writer of "Music for a New Society" became another touchstone for Garvey's singing; not the kind of influence you'd find in Coldplay, however many times Eno produces them.

It was three years until their fourth album, which was self-produced and released via a new record label. "The Seldom Seen Kid" was the record that took Elbow to another level. Their songwriting had always been good, but here, you felt only Nick Cave was as consistently excellent, and whilst Cave will never be a mainstream love, Elbow had perfected the large stadium live set, whilst connecting with the audience far more intimately than other bands in that arena. In many ways the musical template that the band were now putting together behind Garvey was more "post rock" than "indie" or "alternative", where dynamics of the sound were manipulated to create a sonic canvas on which Garvey's northern poetry could gambol in surprising directions. Live this would expand into longer expanding crescendos whilst on record what might have been criticised for being "mid paced" in a lesser band, was increasingly intimate. This mix of the intimate and the expansive is the magic alchemy that I don't think any of their contemporaries have managed to perfect.

"The Seldom Seen Kid" mixed a knack for northern soap opera with a much wider sense of togetherness. A track hidden away towards the end of this album, "One Day Like This" was picked up by the BBC for its 2008 Olympic coverage, and though a minor hit it became Elbow's most recognisable song - a veritable anthem. In addition the album won that year's Mercury Prize.  The companion album, "Build a Rocket, Boys" came out to equally good reviews and sales, and by this time Elbow were an "event" band, appearing with the Halle orchestra or at Jodrell Bank, or, amusingly, having a beer brewed for them, by local Stockport brewery, Robinsons. Like a lot of much loved bands they have a very loyal local following, and yet this tight knit local band have a far more mixed following than the usual "football crowds" of the Roses or Mondays. At the same time Guy Garvey became more of a household name through fronting a radio show on Radio 6, where his good taste and dry manner became very popular. Knowing that you'd probably bump into him in Big Hands or the Temple of Convenience down Oxford Road highlighted the charm of a band that could remain local heroes whilst conquering the world.

The last band to breakout on any kind of scale from Manchester, their sixth album, "The Take Off and Landing of Everything" on a first listen refines the Elbow style even further. Finally there's the confidence to move away from anything remotely "rock" - ("Neat Little Rows" on the previous album was fun, but felt a little out of place) - into a multi-instrumental soundscape that perfectly suits them at this time in their career. Always adept at poignant tunes, some of the music is as beautiful as ever, and here the lyrics expand to talk of the changes in life, as a band gets into its forties. At the same time, Garvey the observer, finds new subjects following a sojourn in New York where he was invited to write a libretto. Musically the band have never sounded quite so subtle, and if on occasion in the past, their tendency for the big crescendo and trumpets and choir, has had elements of crowd pleasing about it, here the light and shade of the record seems carefully balanced. Always a good rhythm band, the slow songs are never entirely slow, the bigger songs, never too ungainly. Like Nick Cave's new Bad Seeds, recent Radiohead, and even the Coldplay of "Viva La Vida", Elbow have kept making vital rock records by bit by bit replacing the usual tropes of rock music with their own subtle colours. Over a decade and a half into releasing music, they remain a local triumph.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

A Head Twists on Both Ways

I've always been interested in the differences between poets and fiction writers, partly because I'm someone who writes both - yet historically, there are very few writers who were equally good at both. Hardy and Lawrence come to mind; yet other examples are quite few and far between. Yet many contemporary writers try both. Sometimes its clearly a sidetrack, such as novels by Sean O'Brien or Simon Armitage. Often, one is abandoned at some point, like Larkin's fiction, or Sarah Hall's poetry. In other cases, the success of one overwhelms the other - thinking of Margaret Atwood's fiction over her poetry, for instance. Some novelists have been "occasional" poets - think of Anthony Burgess's "Byrne" and his translation of "Cyrano De Bergerac."

Since the start of the year I've been mostly writing fiction, and the notebook that I carry around with me has been nearly empty as a result - for though its not always the case, I tend to write poetry longhand and fiction to computer. A lot of emerging writers on the contemporary scene seem to write poetry and short fiction - and there's a point where I was beginning to think that it is the novel that is the outlier, and that short fictions, flash fictions, prose poems, poems are all very closely related; yet I realise there's probably something else going on here.

A bit like a toy doll, being a writer gives you a head that twists on both ways: and sometimes that's prose and sometimes that's poetry, and it seems when it's the one, its not the other and vice versa. At least in my experience. For when I'm writing a story I'm concentrating on structure, often colouring in an idea that I've had so that the "boat" is watertight; yet with a poem, though I'm obsessing about line and form, its more like a colander or garden riddle, something which contains and holds, but which lets the detritus escape. I visualise the two forms in that way, as well - so I think of a poetry in abstract terms, as a visual or musical representation that is nice to look at, but ideally can't be paraphrased; whilst a story is more sculptural, or filmic, a physical thing with a particular corporeality to it.

And it seems that my head needs to be recalibrated for the different tasks, the different skills. There are moments of crossover of course; stories that are as mysterious and abstract as certain poems; and poems that tell a story. Recently I wrote a poem about a drunken writer in the bar who "used to be someone", but the poem didn't really work. I realised suddenly that this was the subject for a story - and the story, when completed, did the job perfectly well. I'm not sure it would work the other way round... yet looking at those writers who have written successfully in both formats, I think its often that their concerns are shared between the different medium.

For despite the apparent ease with which poets try their hand at fiction now and then, and the likelihood that most fiction writers have some poems somewhere, they generally do seem different breeds. The main difference is in their reading. I know lots of poets who hardly ever read long fiction - and this might be why the "short story" appeals to them, as something they can fit in with their poetry reading. Similarly, though for different reasons I think (poetry getting less publicity than novels for instance), most of the novelists I know might enjoy the odd poetry reading but they rarely read or buy it. Oddly, on Facebook, the poets are far more active than the novelists - finding an outlook for all those words they don't have room for in their poems perhaps, whilst the novelists are in a corner scribbling down any conversation for later re-use.

Yet given a clear wind I've written a novel in a year, rarely more, though its been a while since I've had that clear wind. Whilst a collection of poems would take me, I reckon, four or five years. The sustained poetry writing that some of my peers do, as its "what they do", is something that doesn't come into my work pattern.

So here I am, apparently writing fiction - short, and long - again; poetry hasn't so much taken a back seat, as is sitting their on the hob in a slow cooker, slowly gaining flavour as I try and put together a full collection. The calibration of my head is different and I've written two stories since Christmas, with three or four in various states of disrepair. There are poems as well, of course, but they feel accidental of late. 

As someone who writes both, and, I hope to think, with equal faith in the mediums, I wonder if "success" in a particular direction would send me into one camp or another. There are plenty of contemporary writers, like Sophie Hannah, Nick Laird and Helen Dunmore who manage to keep both plates spinning, so its maybe not that unnatural a balance - the irony is that "literary" kudos attaches more to poetry, whilst monetary success often attaches itself to long fiction. Beginning to read Eleanor Catton's massive "The Luminaries" I'm not exhausted as much by the length, but the longeurs. For though I've been writing fiction of late, its been of the compacted variety - the pace of a long novel is both more sedate and much baggier. The pleasures are shared equally between the mediums.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

What We Talk About When We Talk About England

I feel that we're going to get a lot more talking about England over the next few months, if only as a counterpoint to the Scottish independent debate. In a curious piece in the Observer from David Vann talks about his mother's "ideal place" being a thatched cottage in Devon. Its perhaps not only Americans of a certain age who see England through its most ridiculous clichés. Bill Bryson's ironic travels round England offered a curious mix of nostalgia and condescension that we don't mind because Bryson is so obviously a certain type of Anglophile. Yet it got me thinking how absurd that this non-typical version of England is still seen as "typically" English. Perhaps we do the same when we go to America, though I'm not sure - that country-continent is so vast that we surely don't talk about New York and mean America? (Though the "Great American Novel" is often a West Coast Jewish novel...)

Those writers who to my mind seem to write best about the country - E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy - are often one kind of outsider or another, so there's much to be said for that outsider's perspective. "Howard's End", "The Woodlanders" and "St. Mawr" for instance, are of a particular time and place, that nonetheless resonate with a timelessness. They do not need to even mention England to reek with it. (All are to a lesser or greater extent about class, for a start, and about outsiders.) Rather T.S. Eliot's England than John Betjemans. Being English, of course, is different if you're from the home counties than the English Midlands or further north; though as a Midlander I've always felt that we are comfortable in our Englishness in a way that eschews any unhealthy nationalism. An invaded England would see the Midlands conquered as it was during the Norman invasion, but we are far enough away from the borders that such a takeover is never, to my mind ever going to change our Midlandsiness. Kent may be forever French, Lancashire Irish and Northumberland Scottish, but the Midlands is always Mercia.

In Vann's piece, that he's rewriting "Beowulf" made me smile - this is as mythical a part of England as the perfect cream tea. For "Beowulf" only reappeared a couple of hundred years ago. "The English no longer care much about their older tongue" he says and I'm not sure if its meant to be a rebuke. The English language is one of our great marvels, an Anglo-Saxon infected by French, that in some ways is as adaptable as the English spirit, and its origins, I think, are less interesting than what we've done with it since. This Old English epic was only published in 1815, so remains a strange kind of myth - one that opens a window on the past, that we then know was shut closed. For if there is an England it exists surely in the gap between our myths and our history, and perhaps more so than other nations, exalts that gap. Our patron saint, George, is himself a cipher, as "real" as Captain America or Spiderman, whilst our most exalted king, Arthur, is mired in myth, was king of a region not a nation. England, in this reading, exists before the Norman invasion, and the English, as opposed to Celts or Britons, existed in the centuries before William the Bastard, when we were in turn ruled by a series of invading kings, often from the further north. Auden's view that the north was one country crossing the North Sea, is one that gives an alternate seeing of England, that nonetheless would have resonated before the 11th century.

We existed before the Normans, and didn't become them, though the nature of our country changed.The Anglo-Saxon chronicle, that Old English history of ours, survived a little after 1066; but our lands, our monasteries, our territories, our religious sees and secular fiefdoms were handed over to leaders and priests who prayed in Latin, who spoke in French. When our literature reemerges in the 14th century, it is recognisable to a contemporary reader. England and its language have survived, and will thrive. 

Yet though the English language is part of what I think of when I think of England it is only part, after all we bequeathed it to the United States, Canada, Australia, India and elsewhere - increasingly we have bequeathed it to the world as its second language; yet this version - and I write this after four days in Rome, where our colleagues from round Europe converse exclusively in English - is not the language that I grew up with. It has less colour, is more functional; if anything it lacks the variety that the spoken English of an England of distinct regional identities had.

For language is also political. Whether its the "received pronunciation" of the old BBC presenter, or the more recent "estuary English" of TV soaps, there is always a determinism in official forms. Once, it was the written form that would be seen as the language of officialdom, and it still exists in our laws and bureaucracies, but mass consumption media such as radio and TV mean that our dialects may well merge or die out entirely in the next generation or two. Out of this, and if Scotland became independent, it is not hard to imagine that a new England would emerge, that would be increasingly dominated by London and the South East. English nationalism in this instance becomes an oxymoronic southern English nationalism.

But if character can survive the Normans, I think it can survive Alex Salmond and the Bank of England. Its always ridiculous to allocate verbs to a diverse people, yet as the comedian Al Murray - Pub Landlord so acutely skewers, there are certain recognisable English traits that we laugh at their absurd truth. I do think that though I relate to our national creation myths - Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood and his Merry Men - our contemporary fantasies, Harry Potter et al, are recognisable only as shadows of a wider tableau of English storytelling that seem more about a surface England of boarding schools and country houses, that are only "mine" from a distance. Our ruling classes have always been adept at changing the story. Whether its the adoption of Windsor by our Germanic monarchy or the popularity of Downton Abbey as an "upstairs downstairs" soap opera for all. England's ability to absorb outside influence, in language, in nationality, remains one of its defining traits - but here, I can see that Scottish friends would have be as making the cardinal sin of using English and British interchangeably. Where England doesn't exist it is because it has taken on the mantle of that larger version. It was the British Empire, it is the OBE that a colonial writer might rightly object to, not an "order of England".

From my perspective; Midlands born and bred, Northern-inhabiting, I am comfortable with "an" idea of England. But is it real? Am I equating a white, working class, provincial Protestantism with an idea of "nation"? Yet all of those terms I would have issues with myself - yes, they are part of the mix, but the whole of "England" is more than that. Our create intellectual heroes are still rarely celeberated; I'm thinking of Tom Payne as much as Alan Turing; whilst our artistic heroes are often those who gave us the official version: the German Elgar, Gainsborough's horses and Constable's countryside; the William Blake of "Jerusalem", the Tennyson of "Charge of the Light Brigade"; the Kipling of "If." The underplaying of our radical inheritance remains, too, an English trait. For a revolutionary England is always not far away, and as much a myth as St. George and the dragon. For England is also Orwell, whose twin satires "1984" and "Animal Farm" are quintessentially English in that they are "couldn't happen here" yet are "about" here. It is why our greatest writer's greatest works are about a Dane, a Scot, a Moor, and two Italian lovers. Shakespeare, my Shakespeare, is not part of my Protestant inheritance, his plays are set anywhere other than Stratford, yet we visit his birthplace and say "yes, this is England", the same as in the Parsonage at Haworth or the beach at Aldeburgh or looking out across Grasmere.

England contains multitudes, and yet becomes reduced, sometimes, to images of London buses, and Devon teas, of thatched cottages and Policemen, of the First world war soldier and the khaki-clad squaddy at Camp Bastion, of Gazza and Rooney and Bobby Charlton, of Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, of David Bowie and Morrissey, of Mr. Bean and Alan Partridge. Any attempt to create another pantheon becomes either subsumed (the punk replacing the beefeater) in the official record, or becomes an alternative narrative that runs only in parallel, part as laugher track, part as barely audible hum. Yet it is the hum that I sometimes hear more clearly. Whether that's Derek Jarman, Wyndham Lewis, Louis Macneice, Cornelius Cardew, George Eliot, Alison Lapper, Gillian Wearing, David Hockney, Marc Bolan, John Peel, Mark E. Smith, Barbara Castle, Bruce Chatwin, Emily Pankhurst, Tony Benn, Magnus Mills or Brian Eno.

For England is no longer an island, it has borders, and even borders within its borders; yet we have characteristics of an island race. We speak only our own language, and refuse to teach our children any other, whether French, German or Mandarin; we are confident enough to set our art anywhere in the world, and call it our own, but strangely weak enough to want our incoming artists to become English as T.S. Eliot did. Then they become our own.  The greatest sin an Englishman can do is leave; which is why we've never forgiven Auden; yet beautiful as the land is, we don't even notice how many millions of us now choose to live abroad. Whereas the Irish diaspora can always be welcome back home, ours are not even acknowledged. Yet, our "ambassadors" are often best let go - after all what good does Tony Blair do us sitting at home brooding over what might have been? What role could we find for David Milliband that could use his skills for us? If Rebekah Brooks escapes censure, do we really think there's a job for her here? But these mega rich aren't likely to be the ones who want to come back on their death bed, though I imagine they will continue to pontificate on England from afar. 

When Michael Gove or other Conservatives talks about our history it is a partial, simplified one that seems to see history as a grand narrative, punctuated by battles and statues. Yet, as we see in more fraught areas of the world, nation is as much about character as it is about language, location or political organisation. It is why self-determination remains such a key demand from people across Europe and elsewhere, for culture and custom may become subservient, but character seems to stubbornly remain. I can't imagine living anywhere else, if only because I feel English, yet is my own little Englands, and Little Englanders I have frequently tried to get away from. England and Europe are the two poles to my identity and they don't seem particularly contradictory; though I wonder whether like someone checking my horoscope I am looking for those traits in myself that are most obviously Piscean or those Piscean traits that are most obviously me. My England, its safe to say, will not be the same as yours - it will certainly not be Michael Gove's, and that described by David Vann is no more real than Coronation Street to a Salfordian.

Monday, March 03, 2014

The Luzhin Defense by Vladimir Nabokov

I don't find time to read enough "classics", though whenever I read an old book I find different qualities than in newer fiction. Asking on Facebook which Nabokov I should read apart from "Pale Fire" and "Lolita", a range of selections came up. I wanted to read one of his Russian novels, and The Luzhin Defense (or "The Defence"), his third novel, written in 1930 under his émigré pseudonym "V. Sirin" intrigued me.

Chess is one of those pastimes that has fascinated other artists, whether film makers, songwriters or novelists, though like cricket, its a game that I understand only in the rules, not in the nuance. Luzhin is a young boy from an aristocratic St. Petersburg family whose world will be disrupted by war and revolution, though neither of these events really impinge as much as the personal horrors of being bullied at school, or his estranged unemotional family. The book is in some ways a biography of a man, in the same way that John Williams' "Stoner" is, but that conventionality only goes so far with Nabokov of course. In other ways, the life story is an extended metaphor, a game of chess in itself. Nabokov writes beautifully of course, and Luzhin's (it rhymes with "illusion" appropriately) childhood is told with the same sensitivity to a lost world as we find in his later exemplary memoir "Speak, Memory."

Once Luzhin's chess ability sets him even further apart from his dislikeable peers, he becomes a driven child, taken on by an impresario who acts as a second father, but with no more empathy than the first one. Luzhin's father is a writer of boy's adventure stories, plucky tales, where "Tony" is a fictionalised version of Luzhin. Such unwanted fame gives Luzhin even more trouble at school and it is obvious that he is a disappointment to this weak man, whose own marriage is compromised by his affair with a younger aunt. His mother is a willing invalid, and Luzhin's childhood is as brutally unpromising and damaging as so many in literature. The usual opportunities for a quiet child are not his, either, though he enjoys Phileas Fogg and Sherlock Holmes, as much for the structures of their adventures and deductions as for the escapism. Nabokov rushes us from this early pre-chess life, and the subterfuge he has to undertake to play the game, and we find Luzhin again in a post-revolutionary Europe, a ridiculous figure, his Grand Master status on the wane as other younger players usurp his techniques, and making money from playing "blind" exhibition matches, whilst reaching a limit in the grand tournaments he competes in throughout Europe. His parents dead, and, with his powers waning, his mentor moving off into the new movie business, Luzhin finds himself checking into  a health spa that he remembers from his childhood, where a younger Russian woman, herself an émigré from the revolution living in Berlin, takes an interest in him, half out of curiousity, half out of pity. She has unwittingly hitched herself to an impossible task: for Luzhin himself is as unknowable and as abstract as the game he plays.

Their awkward courtship, where Luzhin asks for her hand more like a drowning man than a suitor, sees him entering into the pseudo-Russia of the émigré community, where entire apartments are decked out in nostalgia for pre-revolutionary Russia. Luzhin's chess playing sees him reach a limit in competing against an Italian Grand Master, and he collapses mid-game, his "defence" against this formidable opponent apparently unknown, and becoming a puzzle for chess fans ever afterwards.  Picked off the street by a bunch of German revellers who assume his prone state means he is one of their own party he is dumped at this fiancées house, where the disapproving family at least take on the role of his repair and convalescence.

Released from the asylum, Luzhin is recovered, but his ailment is seen as being his obsession with chess, and he not only has to give up the game, but for all mentions of it to be avoided. Only after he marries, does the impossibility of this separation become apparent. He only needs the hint of the game to recall the puzzle that he left following his breakdown, and unable to mention it to his wife, in an unconsummated marriage, he begins seeing the world around him as a giant chess game, with repeated patterns and moves from his childhood. Life, like the game, becomes a project which he has to solve, and Luzhin's "defence" is as impossible in life as it appeared in the abandoned game. As the past refuses to leave him alone, with his chess mentor wanting to use him in a film (or as gambit to bring him back into tournament play), his wife wanting him to visit the grave of his dead father, an old school acquaintance bringing back memories of his unhappy school days, and a young Soviet woman who knew his aunt coming to visit, he sees that the chess game of his life is being played around him again. Locking himself in the bathroom of his apartment he scrabbles to find an escape through an open window. The novel ends with the door bursting open, and his fate ambiguous.

It's a short, compelling novel in many ways, though its the early part, in Russia, which - like "Speak, Memory" - is the most exquisitely written. In other parts, one is reminded of the essentially comic side to much of Nabokov's writing. Certain scenes are Mr. Bean-like farces of near-physical comedy for the inarticulate, lugubrious Luzhin to fall around in. I'm reminded of later, darker characters - from absurdist drama perhaps - in this Luzhin. He's what Americans might call a putz. How can we have such sympathy for such a man-child? I think that Nabokov's metaphor possibly extends here. For "here he is", Old Russia, and look what you've done to him - took him away from his homeland, and his usual methods, as absurd as they were, and put him where exactly? He's a travelling freakshow. There seems a Weimar-ish absurdity to this portrayal; a character in a freak show that chimes with the times. Yet the chess motif is also vitally important of course. Though the signature of the book may not be structured too tightly to that of a game, it is structured: and part of the unreality of the novel is this use of metaphor. Yet it is a playful construction, rather than a restrictive one. Later Nabokov would be more elaborate in his scaffolding, but here's there's something of a construction nonetheless.

Reading a more minor work by a major writer has its own pleasures. There's none of the "Lolita" theme that Martin Amis has worried about as being his repeating trope, though there is the idea of aman who is unable to function in the adult world - whose marriage is that of mother/son, nurse/patient - and seems to be a lens through which Nabokov can offer both candour and absurdity. For despite being a burlesque figure (I'm reminded of that other misfit in a poor marriage, Quoyle in Annie Proulx's "The Shipping News") it is through his obessions and innocences that we see the world that is described. Like "Citizen Kane" there's a prelapsarian moment which becomes the point where all things went wrong; where the young boy is told he will now be known by his family name "Luzhin"; yet there's no "Rosebud" for Luzhin, rather, he hangs onto chess as a life raft that takes him away from a world that is infinite in its disorder. In one of many affecting scenes, we see him looking at the atlas of the world and finding no sense of order or meaning in the way the planet's land masses are laid out. The chess board offers this secular man a sense of spiritual meaning like no other thing; yet in its infinite variations, there is also the impossibility of a life "won". I liked the book a lot.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Haring through March

Years take a while to start these days, don't they? But yesterday was 1st March and if 2014 is going to mean anything, then it needs to get its act together. A year from now we'll be gearing up for getting rid of the Tory/Libdem coalition that has wasted so much of the country's energies since elected in 2010. A hundred years on from the anniversary of the Great War, its ominously we watch the troubles in independent Ukraine. Can Russia ever be powerful without being dangerous? That a united Europe remains more an ideal than a reality is highlighted by the sabre rattling to the north. I have just returned from Rome, where colleagues from across Europe met, perhaps for the last but one time on a project that has been running just over two years. A Europhile before my recent travels, I've strengthened my belief in Europe the more I've seen in it, and coming back to large queues as mostly British people have to show their passports to get back into their own country, I sometimes wonder at the logic of this petty nationalism. In or outside of the European Union, we will, I suppose, always be grateful for a queue.

I've some time off, but its already filling with activity - and annoyingly, major changes at work might mean I have to go in for a critical meeting next week. My cultural fixes have been anything but cerebral this last week or so, so I'm determined to read a bit, to write a bit, to listen a bit, to watch a bit, to see a bit.

A new exhibition of work by painter Iain Andrews is beginning at Castlefield Gallery on Thursday as well - so another thing I'll miss the launch of, as I'm up in Newcastle, improbably seeing some roots reggae at the Sage.

Though I'm sad to miss it, I urge Manchester literary types to get along to Blackwells on Friday where Birmingham's Charlie Hill, and Manchester's Nick Royle and David Gaffney will be reading from and discussing their "Books" (the title of Hill's new novel). The following day, Poets and Players return to the wonderful John Rylands library with three poets and some music. Its usually a pleasant event, as well as being free.

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There's an interesting feature by Robert McCrum today talking about the fate of midlist writers, whose advances (and sales?) have collapsed.  A little light on fact, as is his tendency, it makes a serious point about our literary culture - in that it is no longer a given that a writer will be read, remembered or even published, however much acclaim they receive. I met Paul Bailey back in 1998 when we were studying on our  M.A. and he was a shadow from the past (albeit an entertaining one) back then; I don't think any of us - particularly those of us not living in London or having had a very non-literary job for years - felt that a writing career was a road to riches; and there's always an element of thinking that for there to be room for younger writers, then some of the older ones need to make way. Yet, I think this is exactly the sort of thinking that has impoverished the country over the last few years: beggar my neighbour and I'll feel better. I know several acclaimed younger authors who gave up or delayed writing after a first, second or third book - as their advances shrunk or their book deals disappeared. Maybe there are other solutions out there. A writer like Rupert Thompson or Paul Bailey has a suitably impressive back catalogue, yet there's no heritage industry like there is in music (unless they are regulars on Radio 4 or the festival circuit, performing "the hits"), and yet there's much to admire in these writers' work. They, at least, are still writing, yet as I mentioned recently when talking about the mid-90s chemical generation authors, whatever happened to them all? In this literary steeplechase, I begin to think my own (unpaid) marginal position has its advantages after all. I don't think literature deserves or needs special pleading in this day and age, and wish McCrum and his co-editors would look deeper into the fervent and fecund literary undergrowth that I'm involved with, but at the same time, a culture that doesn't value its culture, becomes a society that doesn't recognise its culture, and in the end, won't be able to recognise itself.




Sunday, February 23, 2014

Why I Hoard

I picked up another half dozen books yesterday from the Oxfam in Chorlton; it was actually a specific trip there, as I'd not been for ages. I got W.N. Herbert's "Bad Shaman Blues", a Creation records "books sampler" (which I may already have...but probably not), a Richard Yates novel I'd not heard of before, another novel, and a fascinating looking book called "Recording Conceptual Art" with interviews with various artists that were made in the 1960s (the book is more recent.) There's a tottering pile of books on the table, that I've not yet looked at since another charity shop trawl on Monday, and there's a couple of things arrived in the post this week.

Looking at my packed shelves yesterday morning, I picked out Nicholson Baker's "The Size of Thoughts", a collection of his essays and started reading his essay from the mid-90s (published in the New Yorker, so available to subscribers), "Discards", which is an elegy for the library catalogue. Libraries are on my mind, as Manchester's magnificent Central Library reopens in a couple of weeks. There was some hoo-ha when it closed about books being got rid of or pulped; and I'm assured that the new library will still have books at heart its heart, though not necessarily as literally as before, where the book stacks themselves were the load bearing walls of the central dome. Yet there's a word of caution, when the word "books" is absent from that press release, yet "Apple Mac" computers get a mention. In fifty years we may well have no idea what an "Apple Mac" is (its a bit of anachronism even now - as their business has moved primarily to the iDevice motif) but we'll certainly know what a book is. Baker's article was a precursor to a later one about archives removing and destroying their "physical collections." This earlier article is a period piece, of course as we know how online catalogues and searches have changed since 1994. Nowhere does he predict that the internet might end up being the greatest "card catalogue" of them all; or that something like Wikipedia might enable the kind of army of fact checkers that he could never envisage. But he does quote the systems analyst Jim Bradley who talks of a "short dark age of scribalism as we transcribe from the original records into the electronic form" - a process that continues today (Google book search etc.) - but acknowledges there will be a "blot on the historical record."  In other words - in the remorseless move of technology we'll gain much, (and he's been proven right), but in the transition something is lost, just as when we move from one home or city into another we may discard things in the clearout.

Some of Baker's caveats about electronic catalogueing are no longer an issue - or less of an issue - as searches are now far more intuitive than they used to be, though "colocation" (locating similar items together so that books about Madonna the pop singer are not inadvertently catalogued with books about the Madonna) remains problematic. We had a debate a few years ago about "search" vs. "social". I reckoned that "search" was the way that librarian's catalogued; not knowing the value of an item, but knowing the value of the collection; whilst "social" was the way people actually retrieve items, through recommendations or other leaps of logic. What I'd misunderstood, of course, was the extent to which librarians have always done this. That the catalogue is the early version of Amazon's recommendation engine. As Baker points out, a librarian might cross reference "Censorship" with "See also Freedom of Speech" whereas a computer might not knowingly understand the binary. In general we have moved on: but I've always said that there's a bit of a year zero for the internet - pretty much at the time of this article; and twenty years ago. Look up something prior to 1994 and its less likely to be on there. In other words, although Wikipedia, AllMusic, IMDB, the Internet Archive, and UbuWeb have done a fine job in many ways; they can never make up for the fact that only since 1994 has the digital record also been the contemporary record.  Prior to that you need the physical artefacts, the newspapers, magazines and books of the day.

We are lucky that books are such steadfast items. They last well (though there's another erosion that surely takes place with the cheap British paperback of the last thirty or so years - already looking woeful compared to older versions); they are easy to store and index (their spine is a catalogue item in itself; their retrieval mechanism, the flickable page is unrivalled - replicated of course on electronic devices like the Kindle); and, most of all, pace Fahrenheit 451, we cherish them.

What Baker does say, which I think does sometimes get lost in the modernisation of our library estate is a simple thing. "The function of a great library is to sort and store obscure books." In other words: the role of the library is not purely that of the "lending library" with Catherine Cooksons and J.K. Rowlings read dozens of times; it is also about the unread. Manchester Central Library was, and is, a reference library, and acts as one node on a network of libraries throughout the UK. In other words, books don't necessarily need to be popular or read; but they do need to be stored, they do need to be catalogued and they do need to exist and be available. There have been some great initiatives in digitisation of late, that we shouldn't knock, such as the British Library making available PhDs online, 300,000 catalogued, 100,000 available as full digital texts, with others available on order. No one can surely deny the potential value of something like this, and the advantages it holds over pure paper based storage (And bear in mind that each of those PhDs will have a substantial reading list which will in itself be a mine of information). But of course, this is only possible because the paper was so carefully stored, and catalogued. Just to test it out, I looked up a friend's PhD from a few years ago, and it came up within seconds.

Yet we live in an age of unparalled publication - and whereas in the past, all books were ISBN'd, that's no longer the case. The "legal deposit" that I even did with our small magazine "Lamport Court" may well cover the majority of books, but not all. A friend - researching Manchester history - found the local newspaper archives brilliant until the eighties, but then as local newspapers became less papers of record (court reporting, government business etc.) our record becomes less certain. Hearing of a family friend who had passed away I went online to see if there was an obituary in the local paper, only to find that there isn't actually a local paper anymore. In this world the library becomes even more important as a professional resource. Its wonderful that Manchester and Birmingham, two cities built as much upon their intellectual property as on physical production, have recently invested so much in their city libraries, both of which I hope to see within the next month or so; but  I wonder who would start a career in librarianship these days? Have qualified librarians been replaced by counter assistants? Not quite yet, but a librarian doesn't just value the contents of books, but the books themselves, though I accept that can be in electronic as well as physical form.

Like Baker's computer scientist, I'm an optimist regarding technology. Software, after all, is always in "beta", it gets better. (And then it gets worse, but that's another question.) But looking at a shoebox of old family photographs, you can't help but wonder where my shoebox will be when my time comes? There are whole periods of my life that aren't recorded - and no amount of Facebook timelines will replace that. There must be lots of digital "early adopters" who have fading self-produced photographs from around the turn of the century, and a non-compatible disc from a broken camera. I only hope you didn't keep your baby pics just on there...

We do learn things from the physical object - and maybe that's our job as much as the library's. Just as the BBC were incapable of storing their Dr. Who episodes carefully, or the legacy of iconic labels like Factory records or Immediate ended up in skips and lockups, after the company's failed, I'm no longer as sure that our library system is as capable of storing our contemporary media culture. There is too much, it is too fast, there is little compulsion on us to catalogue properly.

So I go round the secondhand shops, I create my own collection, haphazard, as yet uncatalogued - and I'm sure I'll use portable scanners, and online databases when the time comes - because not only does it seem the best way to have at hand much of the information I want, but its also vital in terms of context - whether I'm researching something for a poem or story, or simply wanting to understand more about a subject.  We live in a rich country, a steady environment. One of the surprises I've had with Welsh and Scottish devolution is that more hasn't been done around cultural preservation. Imagine an independent Scotland - so much of its history and culture intertwined with England's yet spread out among museums and collections in both countries. Manchester has kept a commitment to its archives, libraries and other intellectual assets that is admirable, and - with the edifice of beautiful buildings as "cover" (for nobody gets nostalgic about a book warehouse on an industrial estate), if it hadn't been done now, I hate to think what a "privatised" public sector might have prioritised in five or ten years time. The irony about modern Conservatism is that the pull of its economic policies is anything but conservative. Yet all political parties are increasingly staffed and led by technocrats, who are the same administrators that Baker rails against. Like hospital bosses wishing they didn't have to deal with patients, a library administrator who's dismissive of the books and other assets that justifies his very existence is a liability waiting to happen.

My personal collection is tiny - personal and impersonal at the same time, but with a good eye to my particular tastes and directions of travel. I'm no completist, no first edition-ist, but I realise now, when I see a book that I've not seen before, there might be a sense that I never see it again. Self publishing, short run publishing, small press publishing - all these things are as ephemeral as yesterday's newspaper or your last Facebook status - but in them may lie greatness; but that hardly matters; any library - however small, however large - is more than the sum of its parts. For Baker's essay bemoaning the loss of the card library was saying something profound, but simple, that we don't know what it is we are losing. Anyone who has transferred their files to a new computer will be livid that the metadata on the original is so often lost, so that dates of creation are replaced with a new date, 1st January 2014 or whatever, the anonymous physical file has transformed itself, stripped itself of contextual meaning, because in the end it is only what we tell it to be, it is not an "it" in itself.


Monday, February 17, 2014

My Writing

I'm not a doctrinaire kind of writer though I like the ideas of manifestos, and am more than happy to start a work from something "high concept" rather than the story or the characters. My writing covers fiction and poetry and I guess they have certain things in common: a tendency towards the contemporary, including referencing of pop culture; a political awareness - however slight, however non-party political; a general preference for the surreal, even if in a worldy context - i.e. at the edge of believability; an interest in language and form to tell a story; and, probably informing all of this, an unwillingness to manipulate the reader. I don't know if this makes me a particular type of writer - I do feel affinities with writers like David Rose, Lee Rourke, Nicola Barker, Magnus Mills, David Mitchell, Jon McGregor whose work inhabits imagined realities. I've referred to this kind of writing as "neurotic realism" in the past - in that it uses psychological and literary tropes over a, generally, realistic contemporary, to differing degrees. It interests me that there are a generation of writers who slip seamlessly between contemporary fiction and a sort of slipstream/fantasy work. It seems that the material might be mundane or everyday, but the approach is fantastical.

In this, I do think that I take bearings not from the American writers I admire, so much as that twilight British modernism: B.S. Johnson, Doris Lessing, Anthony Burgess, Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard and John Fowles that was primarily writing in the sixties and seventies. It is these writers, I think, that my generation - writers born in the sixties and early seventies primarily - take some kind of bearings from; rather than Murdoch, Lodge, Golding, Kingsley Amis, John Wain, Graham Greene, etc. Heirs of Huxley more than Orwell perhaps. Those influences I perhaps had growing up - Martin Amis and Ian McEwan - I've mostly shaken off; I think due in part at least to be the different times in which we've lived. Their best books have a cold war sensibility, in Amis's case a mordantly funny existentialism living under fear of the bomb; in McEwan's a sense of never-ending middle-class dread that shows his debt to Golding at least. We've lived in more straitened times, and I think our writing is less concerned with the winds of change, than in how we can carve out our own oasis. Remove the memories of the Second World War, and the existential threats of nuclear bomb and Russia, and our fiction plays out in a more demarcated space.

I'm not sure whether or not that equally informs my poetry, but perhaps it does. I'm rarely confressional; though might write about real things, and do think the tendency to the autobiographical is part of that "reality hunger" that David Shields refers to. Without an audience, its hard to know what kind of "audience" one is looking for, but coming from a pretty average background, I've always been democratic in my aims, even if I'm sometimes auto-didactic in my methods. I want to write a work that dumbs up, not dumbs down. Poetry, of course, obsesses about style and schools, and the idea of shifting on an axis that coincides with both formal and experimental schools at different times seems to be at odds with this binary. I think one is constrained here by the poetry I grew up with, even into my twenties, where Eliot and Pound aside, modernism was hardly mentioned, let alone anything since. Its perhaps not surprising that I have at various stages found much to admire in Lowell, MacNeice, Browning and Gunn, poets who have made leaps or slithers across the same glass; or simply through their own originality, can be co-opted by one side for their strangeness, and rejected from the other side for the same.  Lyric poetry, like the short story, is a writing that denies itself a place in manifestos - partly because it is too small to align, but also because they are both malleable enough forms to do both things. My longer fiction never made it into publication, but has an equally uneasy relationship between the everyday and the surreal.

So as one continues to write, its surprising how little one has boxed oneself into a scene or an attitude. I'm somewhat pleased, if a bit perplexed by this. Perhaps I'm always going to be a project writer finding interesting things to do or say in different places, and finding the right apparatus to do so. This approach sees me more as one of those divergent artists who experiments with a range of styles. Yet I'm far from being a polymath, these adventures feel minimalist, un-showy. I'm not sure there is much of history of minimalism in literature outside the haiku and the poetry of Ian Hamilton, yet it surely has always existed. It perhaps has to mean different things in narrative writing than in the showing of fire bricks of four minutes or so of silence; yet I think it can be there.

Looking at the work I've done over the last couple of years it seems perplexingly diverse, unconnected to itself, yet over my whole writing life I return to themes, I stay somewhat within the parameters of my somewhat limited experience, and yet I automatically jump into different spaces when the work requires it. Every story and poem is different, and the idea of being able to write a book of poems or stories that are connected either in style or subject, would seem an impossibility, yet I would baulk at being called a dilettante; for the underlying themes of my work are often quite consistent; there's a constant moral and aesthetic centre, which only makes sense to describe in relation to the work itself, which of course, I would hope does the describing for me.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Minimalism Maximilism

The art year is kicking in strong. There were two galleries with openings in Manchester last week. On Thursday I went for a "catch it while you can" "launchpad" show at Castlefield Gallery. Jenny Core's curated show, "The Drawing Project" is only one until next Sunday, but go see it whilst you have the chance. All artists "draw", often as the work in progress, sketching out ideas, or filling notebooks. This show brings out the hidden nature of this transitory work in a number of intrigueing, often minimalist interventions that see the Gallery opened out again after a number of shows where bits have been cordoned off. Its a quiet, subtle show, but not without its surprises. Clare Weetman's video installation of a residency in Istanbul, and Hondartza Fraga's minimalistic multimedia works in particular are highlights.

Contemporary galleries like Castlefield are able to showcase subtle works well, but when we look at our great public galleries, such as Manchester Art Gallery, we expect something of "scale". More recently, Manchester Art Gallery has shown willing to open out all aspects of the building, and no more so than in the new exhibition by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos. Her "Time Machine" exhibition gives this versatile artist the opportunity to explore a number of different forms - but what they all have in common is a sense of scale. Vasconcelo's work is a like that of a surreal feminist Terry Gilliam; from the giant textile baubles hanging in the atrium to the remarkable room filling installations of the main show, to her interventions in the existing collection, there's a confidence about these pieces that not only need to be seen to be understood but to be lingered in. In the main exhibition, there are only a few major works, but each of them will repay audiences from lingering longer than you might usually do. Seeing the gallery taken over by such unusual chimeras made the preview audience gasp with surprise, but also laugh at her humour and audaciousness. The MAG show is on for a while - and, though I didn't have time to check it out at the preview - is alongside an appropriate re-hang of twentieth century sculpture from the gallery collection.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Seven Ages of Prince

1. R&B Auteur


He begins, like so many others, a 70s soul and funk artist, and his self-performed/produced debut was standard fare for the times. It was false start, only the lewd "Soft and Wet" hinting at what was to come, as he seemed to make clear on the sophomore collection by calling that one "Prince." Here he is half naked, staring at the camera, a skinny guy with long hair. The record includes his first hit, "I Wanna Be Your Lover," a brilliant piece of new wave dance pop; "I Feel for You", a later number for Chaka Khan, "Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?" and other deep cuts that are well worth replaying.

What came next was a sidestep but an important one. "Dirty Mind" is one of the great funk records of the era, and his "blackest" record outside of the disputable "Black Album." "When U Were Mine" is the pop hit, but its the sleazy title track and the raw minimalistic "Head" that gave this album its rep. Not such a big record at the time - and virtually invisible in the UK at that time - its the album that really showed that he wasn't keen on just being the "next" Rick James or similar. 1981's "Conspiracy" continues in the same vein, but on the cover he's a suave southern gentleman, edging towards his purple period.

2. Global Superstar 



Prince's 5th album "1999" was a crossover record. A mostly successful double album (he still plays deep cuts like "Something in the Water" and "Let's Pretend We're Married" in his live set) its nonetheless not any kind of prog rock statement but a series of killer dance grooves. The epoch defining "1999" and rock crossover "Little Red Corvette" amongst its massive hits. He was toe to toe with Michael Jackson at this point, "Little  Red Corvette" his "Beat it", before "Thriller" hit the stratosphere. You wait twenty years for a black superstar and then two come along at once.... the control freakery had been lessened somewhat as "1999" features a named band, The Revolution. "1999" - the single - made him visible in the UK, but there was still a sense that he was a niche artist, R&B, dance floor music. The next record saw an end to that. "Purple Rain" might be the most achieved statement in rock history since "Sgt. Pepper." A mega selling record, that was actually a soundtrack to a low budget but elegantly classic film of the same name. Prince, the recluse, plays "the kid" in this "A Star is Born" style movie. But the songs in the film are perfectly placed telling the story; and even better, are utter classics. "When Doves Cry" came as the preview track, and what a preview it was - terse, minimalistic tale of domestic violence - eschewing a bass line for a staccato beat - it was a massive hit. "Lets Go Crazy" was a successful retread of "1999" whilst the epic "Purple Rain" was a guitar anthem to match Guns N' Roses or Lynyrd Skynrd. With this record and movie Prince had turned into a megastar.

3. The Imperial Phase



Six records in, Prince had made it in every way. His songs were being covered by other artists - he was acting as a mentor to chart acts as diverse at the Bangles and Sheena Easton, as well as fuelling spin off acts like the Family, Madhouse, The Time, Sheila E and others. A "Purple Rain Pt. 2" would have been expected but instead he used this platform to go left field. "Around the World in a Day" was a surprisingly tentative record. Its first single "Paisley Park" more notable for naming his new studio; whilst "Raspberry Beret" was a Beatlesque piece of power pop. Long tracks like "The Ladder" and "Condition of the heart" spoke of a more ambitious musical canvas. Yet it was a sidestep from "Purple Rain" and sold much, much less. There was no film this time - though the crassly psychedelic cover hinted at the film in the listeners head. Tellingly it wasn't really  a soul album at all.  Having moved our expectations, the next record "Parade" was remarkable. A film soundtrack to the black and white "Under the Cherry Moon" this fantastic record is an art pop masterpiece yet includes bonafide number one hits (in the US at least) in "Girls and Boys" and the skeletal "Kiss." Where did this come from? There are jazz interludes, and the beautiful Joni Mitchell-esque "Sometimes it Snows in April." A near perfect record that most artists would never have been able to top - the news that his next record was a double (like "1999") got us excited, but not as excited as the first single. Prince "first singles" had become a tradition - sparse, maverick and ahead of the game, "Sign O the Times" was a beautiful bleak song about crack addiction. The double album was mostly without the Revolution. Prince in his studio churning out hardly finished demos. Not since "Revolver" had a major record been so scrappily produced. Yet he knew what he was doing. In the over produced eighties, simple sounding tracks like "Hot Thing" sounded underproduced but have remained fresh years on. Its a treasure trove. The frankly amazing "If I was Your Girlfriend" (Prince as lesbian), the rock pop "U Got the Look" (Prince as Roxette), the new wave "I could never take the place of your man" (Prince as the Cars), the beautiful ballad "Adore"(Prince as Smokey) and the live funk jam "Its Going to be a Beautiful Night"  (The Revolution as Parliament) among its treasures. Despite an opening salvo in "Alphabet Street" as good as any of his other first singles, the next album "Lovesexy" was transitional. It ran as a single sequence - its intricately produced, a studio record first and foremost. It feels like his first record made specifically for CD. It came out after rumours of a dark funk record "The Black Album" leaked - and only one track from the latter made the cut here.

4. Prolific Pop Prince 



Prince fans were the luckiest fans in the late 80s. Whereas Michael Jackson took years between records Prince was ridiculously prolific, and each of his last four or five records had been an advance, musically, if not in sales, on the former. It couldn't go on. Not that the albums after "Lovesexy" were bad, but they no longer had the shock of the new. Sometimes there was a sense that he was spreading himself too thin - e.g. on the soundtrack to "Batman", very little of which made the actual film, or on the sprawling "Graffitti Bridge" where acts on his record label such as Mavis Staples made guest appearances. The new wave and sinewy Revolution had been replaced with a new band, the more funky, live-focussed New Power Generation. If "Batman" was a soundtrack that wasn't heard in the film, "Graffitti Bridge" was a soundtrack to a film (his third) that nobody really watched. The songs are occasionally filler though "Thieves in the Temple" was a big hit. Perhaps realising he was losing his audience a bit, his next album, "Diamonds and Pearls" was his biggest pop record since "Purple Rain" and songs like the title track, "Get Offf" and "Cream" were bonafide classics to add to the collection, the latter another to his collection of U.S. number ones. Next time we saw Prince he was in dispute with his record label, the word "slave" on his face, and a new "symbol" replacing his own name. Ridiculously perhaps, he became known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince as he extricated himself from his Warner Bros. contract. The "symbol" album was hardly affected - it included the self mythologising rap "My Name is Prince" and unplayable on the radio "Sexy MF" - his most jazz influenced song since "Controversy." With 3 double albums in a row, and rumours of much unreleased material, the next record, the underwhelming funk album "Come" was perhaps a letdown. Yet these years though hardly imperial still saw Prince in the 90s as a major star, with many pop hits. The albums that followed would be enough for most artists' career - the poppy "The Gold Experience", the finally released "The Black Album", and the somewhat scrappy "Chaos and Disorder" were topped with a triple CD, "Emancipation". All contain gems. During his dispute with Warners, a self released single "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" became his only UK number one (though he has written number ones for Sinead O'Connor and Chaka Khan.)

5. Emancipated Prince 



Part of the Warners dispute had been Prince wanting to release what music he wanted when he wanted rather than following some kind of career path. Yet we'd seen how prolific his discography was. Emancipated Prince would release and market his own music. The long rumoured quadruple album "Crystal Ball" came out on his own label, and was an archive trawling exercise, matched by Warners on the forgetable "The Vault". Prince albums for the next few years would be far from being "events" slipping out unnoticed, marketed directly to fans or by mail order (or in the early 2000s as internet downloads). "Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic" was licensed to a new label, but sold poorly. Prince continued to play live - but often his sets had nothing in common with his latest record, and versions of old songs were stretched out, funkified, changed beyond recognition.

6. Back in the Game 



The diminishing returns of this fan-club only Prince were suddenly reversed in 2004 with a reinvigorated Prince putting "Musicology" out through a major label. This and the following "3121" were triumphant returns to form - even if they appealed more to fans who now appreciated his remarkable musicianship rather than a wider pop audience. That said, the latter's "Black Sweat" was kind-of a hit. What happened next was odder than the internet only instrumental albums or the boxset of bootlegs. Prince released "Planet Earth" his most straightforward album for years through British newspaper the Mail On Sunday. With most of his sales from tickets for his popular live shows, this seemed a way of getting a new album into as many hands as possible without a hit single or radio play. The covermount was repeated for his next UK album "20Ten" - experiments in distribution we can line up with Radiohead's "pay what you want" model for "In Rainbows." In between these records, the latter of which was bizarrely not released in the US, a US-only (and then mail order) triple album LotusFlow3R/MPLSound came out with a 3rd disc from new soul prodigy Bria Valente. A harder edged more "classic" Prince sound, its a better record than the covermounts that preceded and followed it - yet has never had a retail release in the UK. To me, the run of albums from "Musicology" to "20Ten" show a revitalised Prince, enjoying his music, and happy to dip into his vast back catalogue of tropes. None are essential, but none are negligible.

7 3rdEyeGirl and the future



And why am I even writing an article on Prince in 2014? It turns out that Prince is back and this time he's got a band in tow, the all female 3rdEyeGirl. After a love-hate relationship with the internet, last year 3rdEyeGirl started posting on Twitter, and a number of singles appeared to download including "Rock and Roll Affair" a Purple-Rain-era style pop rock record. Then in January Prince started doing unannounced pop up gigs with his new band in the UK - first London - and rumour has it in small venues in Manchester this week. This is the artist who last time he played extensively in the UK sold out 21 nights in a row at our biggest indoor arena, the 02. In usual Prince style there have been no interviews, no explanation... but as we ponder whether he'll ever release deluxe editions of his back catalogue, or bootlegs or live albums (the rumour is that he's waiting till all his "rights" revert back to him) we've got the excitement of the man himself...playing and making new music. In a moribund musical landscape, once again the purple one is front page news.





Monday, February 10, 2014

Harvest by Jim Crace

I have always rated Jim Crace, though looking back I realise this is only the third or fourth of his books I've read - funny how you sometimes neglect even the writers who impress you. I was surprised when I heard that "Harvest" was likely to be his last book - I hadn't quite realised he was the generation of Barnes and Amis.

Like so many of his novels "Harvest" takes place in a confined ecosystem. Crace's stock-in-trade is the circusmscribed world that though familiar is also, in his always elegant prose, somehow cut-off. Therefore "Continent" was an unnamed land; his masterpiece "Arcadia" was a generic city; and his Jesus novel "Quarantine" saw him spend forty days in the wilderness. In "Harvest" the "action" takes place in an unnamed hamlet in a past England, waiting for enclosure. There's little clue as to when or where it takes place - and I'd hazard a guess at the 12th century, in the old Wessex - but it could equally be pre-Norman, or even much later (when the Enclosures acts finally cut off the remaining common land.) I say 12th century Wessex as it was only in Wessex and Mercia where the pre-feudal commons systems survives the Norman invasion. The enclosure of the land is not so much a "modernisation" as the usurpation of English land rights - "the commons" - by others. (If its as late as the "enclosures" then it feels somehow anachronistic - as there's not even a church here; surely not possible much after the 12th century?)

The novel is the first person story as told by Walter Thirsk. He's an incomer into the unnamed Hamlet, and arrived with the incumbent master, who was the most benign of fiefs, until his own wife's death - heirless - meant that the land's title reverted elsewhere. Thirsk has had a similar bereavement. He came to the settlement, married, and then worked the land - yet he is still an incomer - and worse, as a widower who has not then taken another wife (though he has a woman whose bed he shares), is viewed with some suspicion. Yet that suspicion is based as much on family ties - or lack of - as anything real. For the Hamlet is home to several families whose blood ties are clannish. Yet despite this they rub along together, for the feudal system sees them working together on the common land for the common good, farming their own strips, but working together to bring in the harvest. It was a way of life that in this aspect remained unchanged even as recently as the 1970s when my grandparents brought in the hay, with the help of the other locals.

Yet things are about to change in the unchanging landscape in which Walter lives his melancholy widowhood. First there are newcomers, who, by common practice, have a right to be there, through their setting up of a dwelling and lighting of a fire. These newcomers: an older man, a younger man, and a mysteriously alluring slight young woman, have chosen a bad time to arrive. Just as the harvest has been brought in - if they become part of the settlement will they want part of the bounty that they did nothing to collect? Yet such questions go unanswered. Some of the master's birds have been taken, and it is the newcomers who are blamed. The two men are taken and put in the stocks for a week, a punishment less than would be warranted for such theft, but more than is required, given that in all probability they are innocent. This year's harvest celebration is haunted by this unspoken guilt. The woman, unnamed, transfixes the men of the settlement - and perhaps the women also.

But it is not these interlopers who are the biggest difficulty. A man, nicknamed "Quill" (in this book everyone has a common name, before their real one), is taking stock of the land. At first we think he's a Domesday assessor but he seems to be working on another errand. The master's rights on the land are limited - there is a new lord, who arrives later in the week, his plans are to replace the open crop lands with enclosed pastures for sheep whose wool can be sold at market. What we are seeing here is the change in English life from a subsistence economy to a rentier one. Instead of a small plot of land, governed by historic right, and kept alive by the mutual agreement of the master and his "tenants", these rights are to be overtaken by the land rights of distant capital owners. Coming out as it has in the midst of this coalition government, one can't help but see "Harvest" as an allegory, of what happens when men are stripped of the right to work for their own well-being, in the name of a rapacious capitalism. For these farmers, think zero hour contracts.

In Crace's enclosed society, the changes that happen this week are as fast as the events that overtake the community in "Straw Dogs", where a newcomer tips the balance. This is in someways a more benign world - it has survived without expectation from the outside world, but when the villagers rise up in anger at the way they are being treated, they know as well that they have no "rights" on their side - that the absent law will come at them in full force.

The first half of the novel has its faults. Not least that the events that happen seem forced in some way. Thirsk is part of the problem. He is a romantic narrator, but not necessarily an accurate one. Yet he's also distant - a Jamesian hero in a Meville-ish world. When the newcomers arrive he hears only of the woman second hand. He's absent from most of the actions in the novel, piecing them together through hearsay. Although this serves a purpose it also creates a certain lifelessness - after all this small hamlet is hardly large enough to sustain secrets, never mind indifference. In the second half of the book, as events unfold as small cataclysms that one by one change everything, you begin to understand why he's got this role. He has to be outside in order not to be caught up in it all. He can be friend to the master, concerned for the women, in love with the mysterious outsider, considerate to her pilloried husband... all seeing, but also strangely distanced from them all. In a different space and time, his knowledge could have been used to mitigate disaster - yet he's powerless to do so; seeing one thing lead to an inevitable other.

At the end he's a last remainder of what has happened: the only witness. Yet, this too has its faults. For we are none the wiser about what really has gone on. His inferences are suspect; his confidantes fled. The allegory has taken over in some ways - and the "real" people of the Hamlet dissipated to the winds. How can it have happened so quickly? It almost feels like the witchcraft that is hinted at. Here, Crace's tendency to set his books in an unspecific place comes undone a little. There are two many unanswered questions. How come this Hamlet never quite gets a church? Where are the passing tinkers and showmen that country folk are used to entertaining as they pass by? How come the village's history can be undone so quickly, so carelessly? It is an allegorical transformation and as such works up to a point. Crace's lyricism is careful but admirable. Yet it takes the action of the novel's second half to really take off. At first we are annoyed by the stubborness of the picture not to come into focus. Our unreliable narrator fails to see his world clearly enough; too much is inference or conjecture.

Worst of all, and the thing that stops the novel from succeeding fully, even on its own terms, is the figure of the unknown woman. Not once in the book does the narrator have a genuine moment with her. She is from afar, referred to as tiny, young, witchlike, yet impossible to know, given that the one time the village meets her  - he is not there. He therefore conjectures what she is like; imagines that she has been discovered and bedded by any one of the village's men or the ominously strange "Quill." It is this lack of a genuine encounter which stops the novel from coming alive. How can we care about characters that are invisible? Its as if the woman and her family are merely a plot point that, though central to the telling, are actually not that important - as outsiders to the village, they are the spark, not the fire.

Like Barnes in "Sense of an Ending" or Ishiguro in "Never Let Me Go", Crace' skills as a novelist ensure that we are kept waiting on the denouement, yet like those books, the characterisation and the back story seem more suited to a long story than a novel. In a fable, its not necessary to know who, where and when these people are, in a novel, I think it is. At times "Harvest" has a quiet power, and its beyond eloquent in its central concern - this destruction of a way of life - but I'm not sure it manages entirely to ensnare the reader. We are left, like Walter Thirsk, an outsider, and our time spent here has left us with little more than when we arrived.