Saturday, April 09, 2016

The Long Game

Amongst the various topics I've strayed onto on this blog, I'm not sure I've ever written about football. But I can't not do at the moment. My team, Aston Villa, are about to be relegated from the Premier League, after a catastrophic season, where they have won only 3 of 33 league games all season; are 9 points adrift; and have just lost their 8th game in a row. Football is all about winning and losing, and the football league is a brilliant invention that still perplexes Americans, for instance, who don't quite get that there should be no divine right to be a member of the elite. Of course, few sports are like football, with its "pyramid" of teams, and long institutional history.

Villa are part of that long institutional history, one of the 12 teams in that first ever football league, when there was just a single division. As teams formed around the country - extending the sport's popularity from the north and the Midlands - so did the league expand, eventually to four divisions featuring 92 teams. Nowhere else in football has that pyramid been so effective. Wigan Athletic and Wimbledon, both top flight teams at some point, both came from the non-league; though its interesting that since there has been automatic promotion and relegation from the league to the non-league (surely a contradictory term?) no team has quite risen through the pyramid. But it may one day happen.

That first league was won by the invincible Preston North End, who retained it the year after, and never again. Villa were one of the big teams in the 19th century and early 20th century, though faded somewhat after the thirties. The first ever league goal was scored by a Villa player, one Gershom Cox, unfortunately it was an own goal....

So, in Kipling's words, triumph and disaster are never that far apart when you follow a football club. I was frankly surprised when I realised that Villa's last relegation was as long ago as the eighties. Surely for such a big club, with a venerable history, next season will see us bounce straight back? Not so quick. The Premier League has been dominated by four clubs, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City,  the latter two funded by billionaires - they wouldn't have been listed in any "big six" back in the mid-nineties even, despite their own long histories. This season, either Leicester (who have never won the league) or Tottenham Hotspur (who last won it in 1961), are going to break that hegemony, joining Blackburn Rovers as the only other Premier League winner. Blackburn, like Leeds, Derby, Nottingham Forest and now Villa, are a league winner who have left the top flight with no immediate sense they will return.

When I was born Villa were a club in the doldrums. They were briefly in the third division. In those days, it seems there was rarely big money changing things, rather, clubs were reliant on a clutch of players, either locally born and bred, or brought together through good management and coaching. Once at a club, players often stayed there. Before television money transformed the landscape, where you were in the league structure hardly mattered - the fans would come anyway - a cup run would allow you to dream, and occasionally your club would fall or rise. So when I was seven and started supporting Villa, we were the Midlands underdogs, in the old second division, and the year I started following Villa was the year we got promoted. WBA, Wolves, even Coventry and Birmingham were more popular clubs amongst my peer group. (Our nearest team, Walsall, was the kind of well run, but small town team that has always existed in the shadow of bigger clubs.).

The late seventies were great - we won the league cup, then, remarkably, the league, and even more remarkably the European Cup. Ron Saunders was our genius manager, and nobody really knew or cared about who ran or owned the club. That 1981 Villa team was very like the Leicester team of this season. Unfancied, with a core group of players who played every game, and had the season of their life. That year, it was Bobby Robson's Ipswich who were heralded as the new heroes, and the two unfancied teams jostled it out at the top, in a rare off-season for Liverpool. Villa spluttered over the finishing line, whereas Leicester, remarkably, seem to be keeping ahead of Spurs.

But at the bottom of the league, who cares about championships, except to remember we once had one - in my living memory. We had a couple of good seasons in the 90s, but things had fallen off by the time Doug Ellis sold the club to the American Randy Lerner. Luckily he'd also appointed Martin O'Neill as manager, who had to put together an entire team from scratch and we just missed out on Champions League football three seasons in a row. Since then there's been something rotten in the state of Villa. A succession of badly chosen and inept managers; transfer fees from players sold being wasted; good players (such as Marc Albrighton - now with Leicester) seen as surpluse to requirements; and a quality of football that can only be seen as abysmal. Even as late as last season we had an F.A. Cup final, albeit one where we were exposed by an imperious Arsenal, but the previous game, in a semi against Liverpool, we were as good as we've been in years. There's a whole team of Villa alumni playing for other top clubs - Barry, Milner, Cahill, Crouch, Albrighton, Benteke, Delph, Young - and its been a shame that in the modern game we've not been able to keep our best players.

This season, if this had been a boxing match, Villa would have been put out of our misery months ago, but we still have to limp through 38 games. I've never been a regular at the ground, having lived away so long, so can only feel sorry for those fans who go every week. Unlike other clubs Villa tend to stay loyal to the managers, and players, partly because of how low our expectations are - but partly I think, because of  a respect for the history of the institution. However badly we've been treated by poor ownership, useless management, and underwhelming players, it is that long history that matters.
Next season, in a lower league, and with a clean out of senior management already having taken place, a new Villa could rise... our history demands it, but, of course, we have been here before. Few of us think we'll just bounce back into the top flight - but hoping that we're not going to be forever isolated, like Forest and Leeds, from our golden years.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

A Modern City

I was in Eindhoven for the third time this week. Last time there was a palpable excitement, bunting on the streets, as PSV Eindhoven were about due to win the Dutch league for the first time in years. The "P" in PSV is for Philips. This is a town that exists because of its mercantile-industrial past. When Philips rocked up there, it was a tiny place, but grew as the Dutch company became one of the world's leaders for electronics. All those companies and industries that dominate are impermanent, developed through innovation, technology and consumer need. I took the photo of the coffee shop above because it has the old Philips "badge" no longer on an industrial building, but as an adornment to a cafe.

For Eindhoven is still a prosperous town, but the manufacturing takes place elsewhere, as it does for most electronics companies, and Philips makes its money from R&D and its vast patent store. Its much less of a consumer brand nowadays, though I'm still using a Philips CD player I bought years ago. Like Nokia in Finland, a big company in a small country can sometimes seem to be over-important; and as their business changes the jobs change as well - so ex-Philips employees create start-ups, work for innovation companies, deliver services.

Our UK industrial heritage sometimes seems to have gone straight from raw materials - like coal and steel - to services, without the intermediate "making" of things. A late friend worked for the steel industry in the eighties and nineties until he was laid off. As an ex-steel worker the dole left him to his own devices; there was a view these were low skilled jobs that couldn't be replicated. But as China opened up its economy in the early 2000s, demand for steel rose and he went back to work in his old job. Of course, China was already involved in over production, but its only now the fallout of that is coming back to haunt the over-leveraged British steel industry. Its absurd in a world where we are worried about climate change, economic growth and resource security that we haven't got any sort of industrial policy - but that's Tory governments' laissez-faire attitude for you. If there wasn't the backdrop of the European referendum (more later), we might have some common sense on this matter, but for now, don't expect any.

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I was over in  Eindhoven for a brief break, to see friends, to go to a conference - all good. But after also being to Nottingham and London (twice) in the last two weeks, I'm glad of a weekend back in Manchester - and geting back into some creative projects.

Somehow during this period, I managed to complete a new album under my Bonbon Experiment name. You can download or stream the 9 track "Vulcanicity!" here for free. In my previous post about songwriting, the song I mentioned in the introduction ended up different than I expected, as "Threshold Horizon." Like I said there, most of the tracks came music first - though I had the titles "Canal Pusher" (a Manc urban myth that was too good a title to waste), "The Girl with the Caramel Eyes" and "Standing Water", just not much else. It's been invigorating to make some music again - especially recording a whole album in about six weeks. I've always been better at doing things faster.

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 Intrigued to see that rapper, poet, performer, playwright Kate Tempest is now a novelist. The review in the Observer indicates that she's gone back to the story that forms her debut CD, so maybe the desire to "colour in" the outline of a story that means a lot to you is a strong one. Its not that unusual to revisit the same or similar material in different format of course, and that means both "brand" and subject will no doubt appeal to her existing audience. Poets writing novels don't always make the crossover, so it will be interesting to see how this most popular of performers has done.

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Being away means I've missed quite a few things going on. There's always lots of literary activity in Manchester of course, but also elsewhere. My friend Melissa Lee-Houghton has an essay in the new Poetry Wales, an issue focused on "desire", which I'm looking forward to. We went to see Katherine Angel read at Castlefield Gallery last year, and it got us talking about the subject, and wondering about how writers approach it. 

Both of us will be reading at "Reading the Other" a new collaborative event where writers read each other's work. It will be at Sand Bar, on Grosvenor Street on Saturday 16th April. Will update with the details when I have them. 

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Sunday, March 27, 2016

Shampoo Planet by Douglas Coupland

One of the reasons I review old books on this blog is that I'm interested in seeing fiction with a bit of a perspective, particularly the near-past. Nothing dates like the recently contemporary. A companion question might be: what happens to the zeitgeist writer when the zeitgeist changes?

One such writer is Douglas Coupland. I read most of his earlier novels, but the last book of his I picked up was "J-Pod" his sequel to the classic "Microserfs," and that was a decade ago. It's 16 years since I heard him reading from "Miss Wyoming" stood up in a long-gone nightclub on Oldham Street, Planet K. (Those were the days, when writers read in night clubs, and the audience was young enough to watch standing up).

Somehow I missed "Shampoo Planet", his second novel - which came out in the 1990s pretty quickly after his iconic "Generation X." In a note at the back of the book Elizabeth Young says that "Shampoo Planet" is about the younger generation (what we would eventually call Generation Y, or in the UK, "Thatcher's Children"), a more consumerist generation. In reality, Tyler, our first person hero, is not quite the consumerist that Coupland would write about so effectively in "Microserfs." The family - the dysfunctional working class family - has often been as much as a subject for Coupland as the family - the dysfunctional middle class family - is for Jonathan Franzen. Tyler is the oldest son of Janine, a classic hippy mother who gave birth to her son in a commune in the early seventies. Though new age-y and hippy still, Janine has a pragmatic side to her that comes from bringing up three kids. Like Saffie in "Absolutely Fabulous" the kids take on the role of being the sensible ones. They share a phrase "Earth to Janine" whenever she gets a bit too new age. With a dropout hippy father (more later) and a deadbeat partner (or ex-partner, the book starts with Janine throwing out the useless Dan), its no wonder that Tyler is a bit more of a pragramatist. The "Shampoo" of the title refers to his obsession with different hair products, though that's a little bit of an affectation - not just for Tyler but for the whole book.

Tyler has just returned from an adventure interrailing round Europe, before he finishes his college course and goes and gets a sensible job in hotel management or something similar. He lives in Lancaster, a dead beat town in California, where everyone used to work for "the plants", chemical works that are now being decomissioned. His generation haven't got the jobs their grandfathers and fathers would have had, but instead survive on the McJobs and call centre jobs that make up the service industry. (Later in the book, Tyler bemoans McJobs, and wonders who ever came up with the idea? A nice little in-joke as it was Coupland's phrase that then got wider currency.)

We meet his sensible, practical girlfriend Anne-Louise, and his younger materialistic hippy sister and younger brother, and a group of slacker friends all far more content with life in Lancaster than Tyler is. He has been to Europe, and has a secret. The secret is Stephanie, a rich French girl who took him in and became his girlfriend for those last weeks in Paris, and was everything that Anne-Louise wasn't, uncaring, materialistic, world-weary. Of course, when Stephanie and her friend announce they are arriving in Lancaster his world is suddenly more complicated.

Tyler is typical of Coupland's bright laconic narrators, an innocent abroad in the world on the cusp of life changing. In five years times, unknown to Tyler, his type will have the world at their feet, as the internet and computers change everything - but at present, he's not even sure there's an opportunity there, as his geeky friend makes money from software, whereas he just plays computer games. Whereas his mother's profundity is lost in a hippy dream of crystals, candles and the like, Tyler's world is moulded by management books, hair products, going to the gym and a sense of being straight in a world of chaos. He dreams of a job for a multi-national in Seattle, the kind of life that will eventually come his way (and is model for Coupland's later Bright Young Geeks' novel "Microserfs.")

In between a thin plot that sees him losing Anne-Louise, but moving briefly to Los Angeles with Stephanie, who is using him as a stepping stone for her own ambitions (modelling, older men), visiting his old hippy father Neil (ten feral kids, no electricity, two wives), and keeping his mum from getting back with Dan, the book is really a series of riffs - the kind of zeitgeist ruminations that Coupland made his own. Travelling up the coast with Stephanie Tyler starts writing "fortune cookie" style messages on dollar bills in felt pen. These are not so far removed from the statements that Coupland collected and showed in his recent work that was part of an exhibition last year in HOME in Manchester.

The smalltown life in the novel is beautifully portrayed, and is what makes it still readable a scarcely believable quarter century after it was written. Coupland was brilliant and seeing the world that was coming as it was forming. His American teens interrailing are more believable than Franzen's character in a gangster Lithuania in "The Corrections", and indeed, the great thing about Coupland's book is how well he writes about the young people who are his protagonists. Through Tyler's eyes we see the small town world he's from. His best book, "Girlfriend in a Coma" would take these themes and make them more explicit, with a much stronger plot, but there's plenty to enjoy in "Shampoo Planet," whether its the Amway style networking marketing craze that spreads quickly through the village, or Tyler's tendency to give things his own "branded" nomenclature. Read Ben Lerner or Tao Lin or  Joshua Ferris today, and there's lots of echoes of Coupland in them, but perhaps because his characters are so everyday, he somehow seems to still resonate more than all of them.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

A Life's Work

I was reading an article about Updike in The Guardian by his biographer, Adam Begley, where he talks about Updike's best work being his short stories. In the article, he lists ten favourites. Updike was famously a regular writer for The New Yorker, and you could argue that our idea of the genre of the "New Yorker story" comes partly from Updike (and Cheever.) Of course, Updike was a prolific writer, over 20 novels for a start including the Rabbit novels and "The Witches of Eastwick", also a successful (and to my mind, excellent) poet, and writer of reviews, correspondance....and short stories.

His short stories are collected in two volumes in the "Library of America" series, and Begley says there are 186 collected across those two books. Whereas we understand, I think, a little of a poet's "collected" - short but intense books from Eliot or Larkin - much more prolific complete works from Auden or Hughes; the sense of a collection every four or five years. Popular novelists tend to be prolific (Stephen King) whilst literary novelists often only slowly pile up the volumes or - in some cases - are parsimonious with their finished works (Heller, Pynchon). But what does a good writing life mean for a short story writer?

The Updike collected presumably doesn't include everything he wrote, but heading up towards 200 stories for a long writing life seems a good life works in itself. More than most I'd imagine, though short story masters have sometimes had much shorter writing or publishing lives (Fitzgerald, Carver, Salinger, David Foster Wallace) for various reasons.

Of course, we can't all be Updike, and certainly can't have such an illustrious history writing for the New Yorker, but I guess the imagination is the thing. I've wondered what makes a good "haul" for short stories in a year - even in poor years I've written three or four, and usually aim for twice that number. So having begun writing regularly from about 1996 - so twenty years - I seem to have completed about 125 stories in that time. 200 would seem a good target for a lifetime writing.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Poetry Not Poetry

About once a year I give up poetry, usually at the point that I start writing poetry again. It is the nature of the beast, I think. I've not been reading much poetry of late - I wonder if there comes a point when you're only really interested in reading new stuff, and when I mean new, I mean genuinely new. There seems to be, somehow, a bit of a return to safeness, to nature poetry, elegies, to a non-demotic language. There are good poems and books out there, but sifting them becomes harder. There's an unshifting, unshiftable mainstream in British letters, that feeds into a somewhat complacent culture - what's to write about? The anniversary of the first world war.... more classical tropes. I liked but haven't given it enough time, Sarah Howe's award winning "Loop of Jade." I was less enthralled by Claudia Rankine's "Citizen," but again I need to find time, to give it time. Besides, if we're talking about American racism, I've been listening to black American rap music for thirty years; its not a subject I've been tone deaf to. Listening to Kendrick Lamarr's highly politicised album from last year I was reminded of a brilliant, but forgotten rap album from 1992, "Tricks of the Shade" by the Goats. Elsewhere, cheap publishing options mean there are a plethora of small presses, pamphlet presses that those more embedded in the poetry scene seem to be better than me at engaging with. Over five years after my Salt pamphlet I've an ever shifting "collection" of poems, that I'd hope to come out at some point, but as ever, the restlessness of my style probably stops them from cohering.

That said, I've kept going to a few things: hearing quite a bit of live literature this year, and, accidentally, if not reluctantly, have started performing poetry live again. I've a couple of small gigs coming up, and its good to road test new material. I'll be in Didsbury this Thursday, The Word is a newish night compered by Fat Roland at Home community cafe, next to the church, opposite the Art of Tea on Wilmslow Road.

There's a fun exhibition on at Manchester Art Gallery currently, The Imitation Game, curated by Clare Gannaway. It takes the idea of "the Turing test" - at what point does A.I. (artificial intelligence) become aware enough to appear human. This is art as technology, technology as art; various exhibits are animatronics, robots, and the playful nature of the show means that there is both a sense of wonder and a purposeful engagement. One such outcome is the end result of Ed Atkins' "Performance Capture" piece from M.I.F. last year, and on Thursday night Paul Granjon gave a fun performance with mini-robots, cheesey songs and even BBC Micro programming, as accompaniment to his "robot" exhibit. The exhibition catalogue is well worth getting, with some explanatory essays alongside images of the show.

The Paul Granjon performance, like seeing PINS Andy Warhol/Velvet Underground night last week, reminded me how strange, how unusual, how unique so many events are in Manchester; and I'd be surprised if there's another city in the UK - in Europe? - where the fringe, the off-piste, the unusual is as potentially central to our cultural life.

I've been trying to write a long post about the European literary imagination, as I'm despairing a bit of both the Brexit lies, but also the Stronger in Europe campaign's appeal to our wallets rather than our hearts. For me, Europe has to be an imaginative as well as an actual union and community - and we are the better for that shared imagination...more next time....but in the mean time, the poem I've written about my European-ness will no doubt have a second outing at my reading on Thursday.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

The Lost Art of Songwriting

Because I write poetry as well as music, people often assume that I write songs from the words first. It happens this way very occasionally, though not as often as when I find myself with a few sung lines, and nowhere near as often as my usual way of songwriting, which is to create some music and then add the lyrics afterwards. Last week I recorded this way, a little three minute piece with three slightly distinct sections. Usually I might "scat" sing over the top to get some lyrical ideas, but the song's structure means that this one needs to be somehow about something. I'm still working on that...

The classic songwriting partnership would be a melodicist and a lyricist. I was reading an interview on the reissue of Elton John's hit-filled masterpiece "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." Retreating to the ("honky") chateau in France where he recorded many of his albums, after an unsuccessful session in Jamaica, Bernie Taupin would come up with the lyrics and Elton would write the music. They wrote and recorded the album in a matter of days - this, remember, is a record featuring "Candle in the Wind", "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting", "Bennie and the Jets", "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road", "Harmony" and "Love Lies Bleeding." Retrospectively "Saturday Night..." would be described as being about remembered nights out in the Midlands, whilst "Candle in the Wind" wasn't written by a Marilyn Monroe, rather, her story fitted it the better. Given the lyrics of the Sci-fi band "Bennie and the Jets", Elton felt a funky track would work best, and it became number one on black radio in the US before topping the pop charts.

Similarly, during their imperial period Morrissey would sit in one room of the studio and Johnny Marr in the other, and they would miraculously come together with songs like "This Charming Man" and "How Soon is Now." If Bernie Taupin would trawl his childhood loves of westerns and adventure stories for songs, Morrissey's were a mix of his childhood in Manchester, and a fading British culture (sometimes explicitly so: "This night has opened my eyes" being a straight lift from Shelagh Delaney's "A Taste of Honey.") Pre-Google a writer could keep ahead of his audience by just having read and watched wider than them. How many Joy Division fans in 1979 were aware of Ballard ("The Atrocity Exhibition") or Burroughs ("Interzone".) Good writers create their own mythology however...the yellow brick road is now as much a John/Taupin invention as a Frank Oz one, and the latter is anyhow filtered through the wonderful film version.

A song can be about anything, yet sometimes it seems that the temptation is to make all songs generic. Yet for every contemporary R&B song that is a bland love lyric, the hits tend to have something that makes them standout - either quirkiness like "Umbrella", or contemporary awareness like "Poker Face" or "Hotline Bling."

As a songwriter its right never to waste a good title. The one bit of advice that Adam Ant took from Malcolm Mclaren was to put his art school sloganeering into the songs. "Adam and the Ants" became "ant music for sex people" in explicit manifesto song "Antmusic." If McLaren's version, Bow Wow Wow, became less famous, its perhaps because the art house obscurity - "Louis Quartorze", "Chihauhau" - ignored McLaren's own advice. Their biggest hit was the sloganeering "Go Wild in the Country."

How songs come into being is always fascinating. The "scat" singing I use is very common. Famously, "Yesterday" was originally "Scrambled eggs" until Paul McCartney found the right words for his soon to be immortal tune. Nirvana's songs were partly so successful because Cobain had problems remembering words - hence the repeated refrains, and layering of different chorus hooks in a song like "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Coming up with words can be difficult - even for the best writers. Dylan, whose archive has just been sold to an American University, was a magpie for words, but however much lifting there might be, there's a Dylanesque vision there. Yet Dylan collaborated on lyrics for "Desire" for instance. And there's nothing necessarily wrong with a repurposing - such as the Pete Seeger's  "Turn! Turn! Turn!" finding inspiration in the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Poetry and songwriting are odd bedfellows, though many have tried. There are few lyricists who really deserve to be read on the page like poetry, but then again there are few poems as weirdly effective as Oasis' "Live Forever" or "Wonderwall." Critiques of "bad lyrics" from non-bookish writers like Noel Gallagher sometimes miss the point I think - this stuff is hard!

Though there are a million creative writing courses there are far fewer songwriting classes, and I guess that's because not all writers are good musicians and not all musicians are able songwriters. One without the other doesn't really work. the Elton/Bernie approach is quite rare - and its notable that when singers sing other peoples' lyrics, like Elton, like in the Manic Street Preachers, the songs are often difficult ones for other people to cover. Elton or James Dean Bradfield takes the words and makes them fit the structures of the song, sometimes hilariously, but mostly so you wouldn't notice.

Songwriting in the 21st century is not as hit and miss as in the past - bands want a "hit" on their album as much as Heart did when they recorded "Alone" or Simple Minds did with "Dont you (forget about me)" - bands who usually wrote their own material getting the biggest hit of their career with someone else's song. Call in a Max Martin or one of the other celebrity writer/producers that record so much of contemporary pop. Martin is third only to Lennon and McCartney in American number one credits. Think of that....ahead of Elton John, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Smokey Robinson, Carole King, Bob Dylan, Bacharach and David - Max bloody Martin, writer of "...Baby One More Time" and "I Kissed a Girl." But, wait, aren't those classic songs now in their own right, that launched careers for Britney Spears and Katy Perry. But the Co-write is the lifeblood of contemporary music - there's one co-write on the new Rihanna album that features eleven names. Some of this is sample culture, where a sample means a song is a hybrid hydra with many heads. Sometimes its because the star came up with the concept, someone else wrote it down. But, this goes back forever. Didn't Elvis get a co-write on "Heartbreak Hotel" because he saw the newspaper article with that heading and knew what a hit looked like?

When I started writing songs again in 2007 after a bit of a hiatus, one of the best early songs was called "Sad Lovers of Twilight" which was a phrase I'd written down one night on a scrap of paper. Or I thought I had. When I came across the piece of paper a few years later, it said something slightly different. I can't recall now where the change came - probably in the recording process.

If songwriting is a lost art its perhaps because of a couple of things. The post-Beatles consensus was that bands had to write their own material. Amazingly, them, the Stones, the Who, the Kinks et al proved themselves the equals of the task. The professional songwriter still existed - e.g. the aforementioned Carole King - but by the early seventies even they were going solo - King's "Tapestry" was a songwriters' greatest hits done her own way, which was for a brief period one of the top ten selling albums of all time. It seems that the fecund nature of pop music in the sixties, seventies, eighties, even nineties meant that this model continued untouched. The great thing is that these "amateur" songwriters were able to take the culture in different ways. Yet since the millennium the idea of the "band" is one that has lost some of its currency, especially at the top of the charts. Indeed you have to slightly admire the otherwise ever-more bland Coldplay for their determination to still have hit singles - but they too, bring in hired help, with "all songs arranged by Coldplay and Stargate" on their newest album. We're in the age of the "featured artist". I noticed on the Brit awards how interchangeable the acts seemed - almost as if they were now soundtracking the stage shows they were putting on. It allows and enables a teen star like Justin Beiber to "grow up" by bringing in some top songwriters. The second contemporary trend is related more directly to technology. The "song" as something that can be played on a piano or an acoustic guitar is still there of course - just listen to the buskers on Market Street next time you are passing - but the "song" as it comes to fruition is a now a ProTooled, cut and paste melange. Producers like Calvin Harris and Mark Ronson are even more magpie-like than Dylan or Noel Gallagher, picking the shiny bits and putting them together. We're in a post-sampling world, where if you want a bit of Chic on your record, why not get Nile Rodgers in to provide it for you?

For the unknown young songwriter, its the same as ever I guess - from Frank Turner to Ed Sheeran there's a way forward that doesn't now require transit vans and having conversations with your drummer - a loop sampler is all you need. Yet where music goes beyond the few lines re-warbled on the X-Factor it requires something more I think - the glory of pop music has been its reinvention over the year, and though a new song might always have earlier echoes (where there's a hit there's a writ) the unique circumstance of young bands with rudimentary material, but a personalised vision of the world, has been the lifeblood of the artform since "A Hard Day's Night." The best songwriters have a mythos, a self mythology about their work - Dylan, Ian Curtis, Joni Mitchell, Kurt Cobain - that somehow connects beyond a brill building hit.

As I sit there humming tunelessly over my new musical backing, I'm looking for something more than just a melody line, but something that converts words into meaning, that creates a soaring sense of something with just a few words, or a clever turn of phrase that nobody's used in quite this way before.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Oh, God that time of year again...

It's my birthday next week, an ominous rather than a momentous one, as I'll be forty-nine. How did that happen? Maybe adulthood will kick in soon, maybe not...

But before then there's still time for a bit of culture. I'm hoping to get along to the Anthony Burgess Foundation on Monday for Japan Now: Takasha Hiraide and Kyoko Yoshida. It always surprises me how little foreign literature we know these days, so this is a rare opportunity to find out about two contemporary Japanese writers. We all know the Japanese are obsessed with cats and Hiraide's "The Guest Cat" was a bestseller, whilst Yoshida is a dystopian short story writer. What's not to like?

My own chequered reading career continues next Thursday at Speakeasy at Sip Club, the new Stretford-based literary night that I'm going to for the first time and have signed up to the open mic. Its the day before my birthday (and my birthday clashes with a friend's 40th) so this is my unofficial birthday/literary drink if anyone wants to join me in the 'burbs. Earlier in the evening and just next to the tram stop (so no excuses for not doing both) is the new exhibition at Castlefield Gallery, an exciting exhibition of international so-called "outsider artists".

Out in the wider world, its been a funny couple of weeks, with the EU referendum negotiations completing and various arms of the Conservative Party manning the barricades, Dad's Army style to "leave Europe." It would be an absurdity and I wonder how it has come to this, but unfortunately it has, and depressingly there is a real risk that we could "Brexit", the least attractive neologism for some time. Any club with Boris Johnson, George Galloway, Michael Gove, and Nigel Farage as members, I don't want to be part of.

In the entertainment world, we're still mourning David Bowie, and his albums still hover near the top of the charts, whilst "tributes" from Lady Gaga at the Grammys and Lorde at the Brits, seem to indicate that none of our contemporary male "stars" have anything of his panache. I liked the Lorde tribute though "Life on Mars" feels overdone these days -  weirdly I think her song "Royals" from a year or so ago, was like a synthetic teen version of "Heroes" in some ways, with its sense of hope and longing. Only Rihanna (who I should really write a blog post about at some point) was equally uplifting at the Brits, though I do find that I like Adele's "When we were young" much more than the ubiquitous "Hello" - basically I like one song an album with Adele it seems, so this is her "Rolling in the Deep" or "Chasing Pavements" this time round; its got a bit of "Born to Run" to it, I think. Interestingly, as a connoisseur of past Brits' fiascos, I get the feeling that everyone these year was swamped by the pyrotechnics (literally so in Justin Beiber's case) of it all. Not for the first time, I think a lot of modern music suffers from only being a soundtrack to its own stage show. The "stars" are merely ciphers in this new spectacle, necessary but disposable. More to discuss later!


Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Dreamers by Gilbert Adair

The late Gilbert Adair is perhaps unique amongst British writers of his generation in being so much of a European writer. He lived in Paris for many years, and "The Dreamers", a rewrite of his first novel "The Holy Innocents", is set around the events of May 1968 in that city. The story was made into a film by Bernardo Bertolucci, and the rewritten novel, as he says in his afterward, takes on both a new name and something of that film's nature.

The story itself is a simple one. Three young cinephiles meet up every day after their school and college to watch every film they can. Matthew is an American studying abroad, whilst Theo and Isabelle are the twin children of a famous minimalist poet. For a long time they are those accidental friends who have become acquaintances because of a shared interest, but when Henry Langlois, curator and founder of Cinémathèque Française is removed from his post by the culture ministry, the cinema goes dark for days, causing uncertainty and protests. Matthew, a quiet American, who goes to confession every week,  and whose life till this point has been lost in the dreamy otherworld of the hardened cinephile, tentatively calls Theo and suggests they meet for a drink given that they are not going to be going to a film. It's the start of a new phase to their friendship.

Matthew gets invited back to their large flat, and meets the formidable poet and his devoted wife. The poet suggest Matthew stays the night, and in fact, he never leaves, as the next day the poet and his wife are going to their cottage in Normandy leaving their children on their own. Matthew is already in love with both the twins, but they filter their emotions through the films they see. Looking for the bathroom on his first night there he catches sight of Theo and Isabelle sharing a bed, entwined. Shocked and at the same time excited by their intimate incestuous secret, Matthew spends the day times holding this to himself. They begin playing a game of "Home Movies" where they get each other to guess the film reference in something they have done or said.

At a certain point, the small monetary forfeits aren't enough for Isabelle, who tells Theo to undress and masturbate. This he does, then puts his clothes back on. For two days there is nothing more happens then Theo has his revenge, and he makes Isabelle and Matthew forfeit by having sex with each other. Matthew is suddenly thrown into a confusion but of course, this has been the plan all along. With the parents away, and forging letters to each school explaining they are off sick, they begin an other worldly life in the flat - making love, running around naked, reading, talking about films. Their only sojourns out are to get food, and here they steal it from the supermarket, champagne and lobster and other expensive items until they are under such suspicion that they can't do it anymore.

In the isolation of the apartment their bacchanalia becomes more extreme - they are hallucinatory through starvation and even become ill from a poorly-judged eating of cat food. Yet they are happy in their world, except the closeness of the sister and brother is becoming ruptured by Matthew as the third part. This is the bit that I vividly remember from the film - this strange, unwholesome threesome, that moves from "innocence" to something much darker.  As Theo eventually physically takes Matthew, the circle of their desires and lusts and fears is closed. The world outside is of no interest to them until a brick comes through the window and Theo taking the lead, they go out onto the streets of Paris and realise a revolution has been taking place around them without them realising it. They bump into an old friend of Theo's and in the final part of the book become embroiled in the battle for the Latin Quarter, the protest turning nasty, and eventually deadly.

It's a sharp, short novel, with a clean, luminous prose style, that perfectly fits both this world of sexual innocence and depravity that they are exploring, but also seems right for this sense of a new world coming into being - a world, of course, that never quite happened. By seeing the Paris riots not close up, but accidentally, after we've been closeted with the private world of Matthew, Theo and Isabelle, the effect for the reader is like it is for them, coming out onto the Paris streets and the accompanying violence, after the blissful sojourn - the teenager paradise they've been living.

A vivid, graphic novel, its one I've wanted to read for a while. Its style reminds me a little of Duras's "The Lover". Though the book is a tragedy, its not written in that way, for the majority of the book is with the three young people, and though the incest at the heart of it is complex, its seen as a matter of fact, rather than anything more sordid. The brief scene with the twins' parents shows us some self-absorbed adults blissfully unaware of what's happening in their children's life. Left to their own devices - like the siblings in "The Cement Garden" - they look after each other.

What I liked about the book was that it doesn't have a moral tone at all - like Fowles in "The Ebony Tower" for instance - we are meant to take these characters as they are. Perhaps a sexually daring book even for 1988, I think reading the 2003 rewrite its more morally daring - so many of our contemporary novels have a moral framework to them, whereas this seems amoral. Adair, who was gay, but whose first novel was only published in his forties, maybe wanted to write something that was allegorical about desire - or in a world where nothing is really shocking anymore, this incestuous menage a trois still manages to be, yet the book is written with a great deal of subtlety that means the reader accepts the unworldly scenario without concern - being drawn into the private world of the three teenagers.

In one scene Isabelle is reading a novel by Queneau, and of course Adair is most well known for his translation of "A Void", the George Perec OuLiPo masterpiece which doesn't include the letter e. In an afterward Adair speaks of changing "The Holy Innocents" substantially for this version, though one assumes that the fact that it had already appealed to film makers, means that the essence of the book remains the same. Certainly, the intellectual nature of the characters - their love of movies explored in detail throughout the book - is an added pleasure. When we finally slip onto the streets of a Paris in revolt its like a newsreel coming to the life, with Isabelle, Theo and Matthew suddenly thrust from their privacy blinking into an even more dangerous world. 


Monday, February 15, 2016

The February Blues

February is often the cruellest month, take note T.S. Eliot, as the delayed worst of winter often hits at this time. We've had few weather warnings, and, my, has it rained, but its actually been the mildest of winters. The post-Xmas January blues  - all those people giving up alcohol, going to the gym, and taking back unwanted Xmas presents - not to mention the endless colds and lurgies, mean that I've tried to keep busy since the new year. Mid-February I'm now having a bit of February blues, as the weeks skip by and the best-laid-plans, resolutions and ideas fail to come to pass, or at least happen quickly.

That said, I've been nothing if not active: went to see the BBC Philharmonic perform Shostakovich's "Leningrad" symphony on Saturday, which was fun, rousing and inspiring in equal measures. Can't be many seventy plus minute pieces of music that seem, if anything, too short. The time whizzed by. I'm not much of a classical music buff, and growing up, despite a few exceptions, I associated classical music with all the wrong kind of things: po-faced concert halls, middle class and middle aged people who didn't like anything with spirit, the BBC establishment... this world existed (and exists) so far away from the rock and roll world that became my obsession that its no wonder I didn't investigate much. Alex Ross's "The Rest is Noise" book a few years back, as well as a longstanding interest in modernism in all its forms, shook me out of my indifference and I began to not just listen to the odd few favourite pieces, but also to read about the composers, understand a little of the history. It's one of the best books I've ever read for being a potted education and chimes with my own tastes - for 20th century work, rather than earlier epochs. That was the other thing I learnt - the "classical" badge was a broad one, and I needed to find my own favourites, just as I did in pop and rock. The avant garde leanings of bands I like, such as Sonic Youth, has always helped with a crossover, and its still the case that the repetoire is too loaded towards the pre-20th century canon that doesn't do a lot for me. (Yet I'm wary of dismissing it: a piano recital a few years ago at Salford University paired John Cage's early piano works, which I love, with the Mozart that had inspired him.)

There are quite a few gallery openings at the moment - HOME, Castlefield, and Manchester Art Gallery in the last fortnight - and I need to revisit them all. There are a couple of literary highlights coming up as well: The Other Room on Wednesday should be really special, featuring sound based work from Mark Leahy and others, and I'll hopefully be doing my first reading of the year at the open mic at Verbose next Monday, alongside some non-fiction from "the Real Story" readers. I'm planning on roadtesting a couple of new poems, as I've some longer "sets" coming up.

Ah, poetry... however much I try and spurn you, you keep fluttering your eyelashes at me. I guess when I'm concentrating on fiction it takes a necessary back seat, but some gets written nonetheless. Though I'm finding it harder to read poetry at the moment - though I've been to three or four poetry readings this year already so certainly still getting my fill. My 6-year old "Playing Solitaire for Money" collection had a couple of people asking after it recently, and being complimentary which was nice, though it does seem a long time ago now.

I think my real February blues are because I've not had enough time to do anything in detail - just snatching a few hours here and there - its after all six months since I had a week off without any commitments (Christmas being a bit all consuming.) I need a holiday - not in terms of place so much as getting away from my everyday routine.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

Some inevitable spoilers below if you haven't read the book or seen the film!

I had somehow never got on much with John le Carré, though I'd certainly started a couple of his novels over the years. However, this was the first time I'd tried to read his breakthrough 3rd novel "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" and it lived up to its reputation. The ultimate cold war thriller, it begins with an ending, the attempt of a contact in East Germany to get West after his cover is blown. Using the pre-arranged cover documents he gets as far as the No Mans Land at Checkpoint Charlie, with his agent waiting anxiously at the other side. He is killed just yards from safety, and with it the ring of informers that  Alec Leamas has been cultivating is finally no more, having been wiped out in a number of weeks. Called back to London, he expects this to be the moment when the secret service lets him go, the inability to infiltrate East Germany after the wall has gone up, highlighting the impotency of his own side in "The Circus." Yet, they still have a use for Leamas, one last job. There are lose ends to tie up, and a plan to take down the German who has been destroying their network, the notorious Mundt. 

The book changes gear, as without letting the reader on to the detail, we follow Leamas in his cover, as a down on his heels and resentful ex-spy, kicked to a desk job then out of the service, drinking too much, with no money. He finally hits rock bottom when he hits a man and ends up in prison. On coming out of prison he is approached, a series of Soviet agents take him on and he agrees to turn for a price. The road leads not to redemption and escape but to beyond the wall, as its an East German Jew Fiedler who is the man paying for his information. In isolation in East Germany he spills the beans, and the information he gives - including the minor apparently inconsequential information is enough to ensnare Mundt who is their shared target. Fiedler suspects Mundt of being a British spy. Leamas's information, a back story built up to ensnare Mundt is a clever construction that confirms what Fiedler already thinks. At one point the operation is blown as Mundt's men come to them and both Fiedler and Leamas get badly beaten up, though the latter has killed one of his assailants. Taken to the Polish border for a secret court, the true surprise of the novel is revelaed to Leamas at the same time as the reader. For Leamas had a brief affair whilst in his down and out phase with Liz, a young idealistic communist in the library he started doing some temporary work at. Though he had kept her out of his former life, he had told her that he would have to leave to do some other work, and that it would be goodbye - and to protect her, she should not try and follow him. This turns out to be the corroboration that is needed to prove that its a set up job - for after Leamas has gone to prison, his old "friends" at The Circus, including George Smiley, John le Carré's supreme creation, come to visit her, and more importantly pay off her debts. Mundt knows all this and has engineered the dupe that is Liz to visit East Germany, where she is now brought into court. Knowing the game is up, Leamas tries to take on the blame, but admits it all, knowing that both of them plus Fiedler could die. 

For Mundt actually is the prime asset of "Control" - the East German network that Leamas was working was one step down, but only Mundt could provide that level of access. Having a spy at the top of the German secret services was worth any kind of collateral damage, and once the diligent and ideological Fiedler began suspecting his own boss, it became a necessity to protect Mundt. Leamas, in an echo of his author's dislike of the service he was working for, is already of the view that the world they work in is dirty and corrupt, but this proves to him that his own side is worse or no better than the other side. Yet he has undertaken his side of the bargain - he wants to be the spy who comes in from the cold. Liz, who has given him reason to try, to live, is also the necessarry bait for the double cross. Yet Mundt and his own side are able to give them a last chance, if only they can get back over the wall in a short interval when the lights will be looking elsewhere. 

All of the above is plot, but the novel's power - now as then, I imagine - is partly due to what
le Carré had noticed as the wall went up - this was more than a physical wall, but a metaphorical one, a psychic one, separating out one side from the other, with a cruel brutality at its crossing point, which offered a brilliant structure for any novel about spies. Almost contemporaneous with its erection, in this book he virtually invented the cold war thriller. Whereas Fleming's Bond was amoral but on the side of the angels, here, the ambiguity and the double-crossing is built into the game. Black is white, white is black. Yet though there's this dark European sensibility at play, the book is successful as a thriller, a taut, concise series of vignettes - there is the Orwell-styled fall into dissolution, the cat and mouse game as Leamas gets picked up and prepared to betray his side, the tense one-to-one of the interviews with Fiedler, and the final set piece of the court scene with Mundt; in between there are brief flashes of violence, and a few scenes where the complexities of the operation on the British side are fleshed out. 

The book was a bestseller and from being a spy who wrote in his spare time, now le Carré was and would continue to be one of the most anticipated novelsits in the world. The mentions of "Control", "The Circus" and Smiley in this book read like familiar cues to even someone like myself who has hardly read him, so popular have the tropes been - alongside the cinematic versions - yet Smiley's books would be later. Leamas is a useful fool, a man without past, and without future, and the final scenes at the Wall, bleak, without redemption, are a powerful end to the book. It is hard to imagine a modern editor letting such an ending through - yet its critical, I think. 

What I enjoyed was how contemporary it read, despite its world now being pure history, albeit one in the memory. I suspect one of the reasons the author is always held in such respect is the modernity of his prose. Certainly the cod-cold war of Ian McEwan's "The Innocent" and even the more comic "Sweet Tooth" exist in the world that le Carré describes here. That said, there's the tautness of the good thriller, the popular bestseller. The convolutions of plot don't quite all tie up, but that's okay as well, as the double bluff of the spy world means that nothing is quite as it is. The logic is tight enough, and the unravelling at a particular time - that slow release of secrets is deftly employed.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Wet January

Of all the months to stop drinking, January must be the most stupid. After all, what else are you going to be doing? It rains every day, you're back at work, you've not seen half of your friends since that drunken Xmas do in mid December, and to top it all the cultural options are severely limited. Yes, by the third week, there's suddenly a surfeit of Oscar nominated films, but it can sometimes seem that we're expected to be accidental Puritans in January.

For my part I had a cold first week back at work, so I'd have missed anything going on if anything had been going on. By week 2 I was craving cultural experience. My friend Gareth Smith had a free show at the Whitworth Art Gallery with "The Winter Fly", a charming 30 minute animation with live score for piano and cello. It's also on in Liverpool next week and this Saturday in his home town of Hull. Suitable for all the family! I love things like this which are so unexpected - and it was great to see it in the Whitworth in front of an audience of close to 200.

Sunday before last was Delia Derbyshire Day, a quirky celebration of the late electronic music pioneer. Though her connection to Manchester isn't an obvious one, we now host her archive, and moreover, I think the city had adopted her as a kind of kindred spirit. Whereas most celebrated musicians are often blessed with an official history, Delia is intrigueing because of how mysterious both her life and work were. A BBC employee for many years, her most famous work was the arrangement of Ron Grainger's "Doctor Who" theme, her contribution to this iconic piece incalculable. As part of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop she was a rare female pioneer in electronic music. Because her career after that - and until her death - was so apparently insubstantial, Delia is fascinating for both her own work, and the "what might have been." This year's Delia Derbyshire Day saw a sold out programme at Home, with two films for which she'd created the soundtrack, and then two artistic commissions that used her work - as a female electronic avant garde pioneer - as their starting point. In addition, a live "pop up" performance in the foyer of Home saw Janet Wolstenholme perform an eclectic soundtrack of improvisational sounds inspired by Delia.

The big draw of this year's day were the two films that included Delia's music. "One of these days" a Dutch film from 1973 sees the camera following a beautiful artist through her day, responding to the world around her, with Delia's music composed alongside the film maker's vision. Its a powerful piece of verite, half drama, half faction, and fascinating to see the Amsterdam and Rotterdam of the early seventies so vividly. It was great that the director, Madelon Hooykaas, was able to come along. The second film is more of interest for its historical anomaly - Delia's piano music accompanying a 1980 film "Two Houses", a time when it had been thought she was no longer creative. The film itself - arts council funded - is a curio, a slow rumination on regeneration, through two different stories of houses being renovated. The film uses still photography and voiceovers to tell its story. Perhaps we've seen too many house makeover shows now, but despite its careful aesthetic it seems mainly of historic interest.The other side of Delia day - alongside her own work - is commissioning artists who can take inspiration from it, and this can be about the music, or about her technique and persona. MMU's Mary Stark meticulously edited film collage played to a soundtrack of Delia's sounds, and in its frenetic editing reflected Derbyshire's own process. Though finished just days before, it echoed an aesthetic that seemed of that late sixties period of experimentation - reminding me a little of a short film from fellow School of Art alumni, John Latham, that was revived a few months ago at the Holden Gallery. An opposite approach was taken with the 2nd commission, by the Architects of Rosslyn who performed a live soundtrack to a series of short films by the excellent Di Mainstone. These films, short intense performance pieces, beautifully executed were accompanied by a mix of musical instruments - acoustic and electronic.

Manchester is quickly becoming the capital of the semi-improvised performance, I think, with a fluidity between musical collaborators that encourages the unexpected. At Poets and Players at the Whitworth, three poets, Zaffar Kunial, Maurice Riordan and Caitriona O’Reilly were joined by Kirsty McGee and Chris Davies. A quickly assembled tribute to Bowie by the musicians was a lovely version of Lou Reed's "Satellite of Love", whilst McGee, whose music has been featured in a movie by Danny Boyle, also gave us her party piece of "Somewhere over the Rainbow" on a Jew's harp.
This was one of four literary events I managed in January - Melissa Lee Houghton at Manky Poets in Chorlton, Verbose last Monday in Fallowfield featuring tutors from the short story course at Edge Hill, and last night Leanne Bridgewater reading her new collection - a long fragmented piece called "Confessions of a Cyclist" - alongside James Byrne at Storm & Golden Sky in Liverpool..

I somehow also managed a couple of proper gigs - my first visit to Hebden Bridge Trades Club to see Lonelady supported by ex-Pipette, Welsh language electronicist Gwenno, both were excellent. Hebden has on the one hand made remarkable progress since the floods at Christmas, on the other, you realise that though the TV cameras have moved away, the devastation was massive, and sandbags, closed shops and cafes, and piles of discarded possessions indicate some of the awfulness people have been through. Finally, in this month of clearly not staying in much, I caught on Thursday, Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright-Roche in a wonderfully intimate performance at Ruby Lounge. With a family dynasty that includes Loudon, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Rufus, and Suzy and Terri Roche, they played songs from their recent album written by most of them, with a great self-deprecating conversation with the audience in between tracks. A truly treasurable concert.

I'm probably a little too blogged-out to write up whats coming up in February, other than this week the art season kicks off again including the 30th anniversary of Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art on Thursday, and the latest show at HOME on Friday by experimental film makers AL and AL.  


Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard

You think you know what to expect with Ballard, but that doesn't stop each book providing its own surprises. "Concrete Island" is one of the lesser known books from his imperial period of the early seventies, coming between "Crash" and "High Rise", his dystopias for the car and tower block. In some ways "Concrete Island" is implicitly at the junction between these two books. A reckless driver finds himself crashing off the motorway and his car coming to a stop on the "concrete island" at the centre of the motorway system. Whereas "Crash" is a novel about speed and obsession, "Concrete Island" is as hermetic as the sealed island that Robert Maitland finds himself on. He was on his way back home to his wife after a week with his lover, and caught between the two women in his double life, neither will miss him immediately - assuming he is with the other. In the boot of his car is a dinner suit and six bottles of wine, and a toolkit. This castaway is singularly unsuited to the unexpected situation he finds himself in. He tries to walk up the embankment and finds himself unable to wave down the fast passing cars, and any attempt to cross the road at the end of a blind tunnel would almost certainly see him knocked down. Yet to make the absurdity of his situation more believable, Ballard has him injure his leg making every tiny task more difficult. He is a vain man, unhappy in his life, privileged but soulless, and more than anything, without the necessary mental tools to plan his escape from this situation. The book, though dark, is something of a comic turn, for his attempts at escape are risible. His writing gets washed off the wall, his attempt to cross the road sees his leg seriously damaged. He can see the London skyline and his other life, and at one point even thinks he sees his wife rushing past in her car, oblivious to the secret of his disappearance.

Maitland is a hopeless Robinson Crusoe, the book's obvious literary ancestor, and like Crusoe he finds a Friday at some point - or rather there are two others who inhabit the island. A young woman, Jane,  comes here in between prostituting herself, scuttling on and off the island through a service tunnel, buying wine and cigarettes with her money; and a large, mentally-retarded man, Proctor is also on the island, living off the scraps from an illegal tip. This world is a deliberate grotesquerie, and on encountering his fellow islanders, Maitland plays them against each other. He ends up sleeping with the woman, and treating the man as his slave, riding on his back around the island. The story sees Maitland becoming more and more dependent on the island, and the idea of returning back to his previous life becoming unbearable to him. We begin to realise that he could have always escaped but has chosen not to, the island offering him the isolation and escape from his real-life problems that he was unconsciously searching for when his car went off the motorway.

So the book is a small, perfectly formed allegory - Ballard adept as ever in taking the logic of his illogical situation as far as it will go. The external world is deliberately excluded - everything takes place in this one small isolated place, like in a Beckett play. Indeed there is something stage-y about the story, and echoes of "The Tempest" as well as "Robinson Crusoe" come to mind. Whereas earlier Ballard's can sometimes seem confused in part, by this stage in his writing, everything is carefully planted, the prose deadpan and descriptive. Maitland, Jane and Proctor are perhaps the book weak point, as the three characters seem paper-thin, and almost from a seventies sitcom. Maitland is the typical Ballard "hero", a man of a certain age and class, whilst the other characters are respectively a stereotype and a grotesque. Yet it is never the characters in Ballard that matter, more how they interact with the vividly imagined environment. Here, the thin premise is spun out expertly across the short chapters, and bit by bit we realise that Maitland has found his home here on the island.

It may not be his standout novel, the premise little more than an extended short story, but its hermetic nature is its strength, and you finish reading it, as always with Ballard, having your own perspective on the world subtley changed - becoming part of his concrete environment. 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

This Saddest of Weeks

This saddest of weeks got sadder with the news of the untimely death of the American poet C.D. Wright. She's not a household name (which poets are?) but it has been clear for some time that I'm not alone in appreciating her work. I first came across her in Poetry magazine, and for one of the few times when reading that magazine, the work leaped out of the page and made me want to read her books. There was an anthology available on import (since reissued by Bloodaxe in the UK) which I bought. The poems I'd read were by no means representative, but I wasn't disappointed, far from it - the reason being that she was one of the most diverse of American poets, moving from beautiful lyrics, to prose poetry to experimental sequences - yet none of these detours detract from her ability to communicate fully to the reader. The book she collaborated on "One Big Self", a book of poems and portraits about prisoners in the U.S., is as good an example as any; absolutely unique but open and communicative.

I never got to hear her read - she came to the UK last year, but only appeared at events down south. Despite the North's large number of poets, events, festivals and publishers, we let ourselves down by failing to attract the best of American and other writers. Her death was apparently sudden and unexpected, and I know very little about her as a person, yet I love her poetry without reservation. Contemporary American poetry can sometimes seem hard to unravel; there are so many poets, producing so much work; but I don't think things change that much - you just need to find one voice that you connect with and that's enough. I know little about American local differences (she is always referred to as an Arkansas poet, a southern poet), but that goes to show how our uniqueness is what can make our work travel globally, rather than our homegeneity. There are some good (though never typical, she was never typical) examples of her work on the Poetry Foundation website, but I often come back to the lovely "Lake Echo, Dear." Asked to read at Stirred, the Manchester women's poetry night, they ask all readers to read a poem by a female poet that you love. I read this one.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Blackstar RIP

I switched on the TV this morning half way through a tribute to David Bowie whose death was announced overnight. I had spent much of the weekend listening to "Blackstar", his stunning new album. Every Bowie album before this one had Bowie's face on the cover, in a myriad of different versions of this "chameleon" artist, but this one has only a black star. This turns out not to be an artistic sleight of hand, but a deliberate ending. What does "Blackstar" refer to? critics had asked, wondering if it was Isis or something else sinister in the world - now we know, I think, that black star is death, his death, his cancer.

When he retired abruptly from performance a dozen years ago it was never really stated what the problem was - but after a return to large arena gigs to accompany the "Heathen" and "Reality" albums, it seemed like it must be serious. When "Where are they now?", the nostalgic single, and its accompanying album "The Next Day" dropped it was a return to form, a brilliant piece of marketing, and a relief that Bowie was still there, still making important music. In some ways, the news that "Blackstar" was coming out was less climactic - as we'd already had the avant-jazz track "Sue" and its b-side "Tis Pity She's a Whore", as his career retrospective "Nothing ever changes", apppeared last year. The new album is a beautiful piece of work - seven long tracks - musically inventive, with Tony Visconti proving once again at what a genius producer he can be, when adorning rock and roll artists with strings, brass and other instruments. Bowie's voice is fragile but strong. Three days after its release its almost unbearably poignant to listen to this valedictory statement - every song speaks of what we now know but which, enigmatic to the last he kept from us. Here, the performer of "My Death" and "Rock and Roll Suicide" has gone further into that unknown future than ever before - one can only marvel at the strength for this not old man to commit to tape these songs of finality. How can someone curate their own death? Well Bowie has managed it, with a dignity and a credibility that has always been his touchstone.

There will be another chance to annotate his career - this being his 25th album there is plenty to talk about. But for now I can only talk about the personal. This death feels too young, too soon. That Bowie as a personae should have been given a longer life. The documentary from the mid-seventies when the Thin White Duke is pale as death, a living embodiment of the alien he played in the Man Who Fell to Earth, sees an artist at the top of his game, but at some kind of bottom in his life. Yet a decade later he was a crowd pleaser, a pop start again, playing to arena size crowds whilst getting some acclaim for a variety of dramatic roles - from Elephant Man on broadway, to Baal on TV, to the 2nd world war drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. In reality Bowie the chameleon, the shape-changer, is overplayed. The two roles he will be most remembered for dramatically are the alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth and the goblin king in Labryinth, both fantasies which chimed with Bowie's own other worldy personality. For despite or because of all the costume changes, Bowie's "bowieness" always shone through. It had to in some ways. He'd spent the late sixties chasing down possibilities in various mod ensembles, not sure whether he was a cabaret act or a rock and roller. By the early 70s, attached to Hull's renamed Spiders from Mars, he had become the biggest star on the planet. Where Ziggy began and Bowie ended is hard to say.... the reinventions afterwards were almost always musical ones, whatever the appearance said.

I first heard "Space Oddity" when it was a belated number one in the mid seventies, but it was probably "Ashes to Ashes" which first won me over - this retread of Major Tom's life was also an iconic video latching onto the nascent new romantic movement. I had the "Very Best of Bowie", an exemplary K-Tel compilation which was an easy primer for new fans to get into this established artist. In a sense, Bowie as an icon was over at the point I discovered him, but here's the vital thing - for people of my generation, he became "ours" as much as the glam rockers ten years older than us. It was a confusing time - "Let's Dance" became his bestselling record, and the tours that followed were massive extravaganzas, but the Bowie albums I was playing time and again were his seventies classics, cheap on Nice Price editions, "Low", "Hunky Dory," "Ziggy Stardust" and "Diamond Dogs." The first time I heard the track "Ziggy Stardust" was actually Bauhaus's immaculate cover version, yet Bowie was already everywhere in my life by 1980-1. My friends didn't listen to old stuff, and here's the strange thing, though the whole world is mourning him today, I struggle to think of any friend who was a Bowie fan, at least not like I was a Bowie fan - liking the seventies stuff, but also buying "Tin Machine" on the day of release. It's easy to make a case for Bowie in the eighties and nineties as being another lost megastar - yet really there's only two albums, "Tonight" and "Never Let Me Down", both dreadfully produced and with too many cover versions that let him down. Around the same time one off film and TV songs like "Catpeople", "Absolute Beginners", "Underground", and "This is Not America" were far better than his concurrent album releases.

I finally got to see him live in the late 90s, when "Outside" had been followed by a new tour where he retooled old songs with his new band, and had toured the US with Nine Inch Nails and others. At the Nynex arena as it was called then, I had a close up view of my hero at last through a stunning set of old and new. It hardly matters that his post Scary Monsters work would always be in the shadow of what had come before - you can make a good case for nineties songs such as "Thursday's Child" and "The Heart's Filthy Lesson", as well as early 2000's album "Heathen" - the reality is that by this time the many ages of Bowie were unforgettable, so that playing "Hunky Dory" or "Station to Station" nearly thirty years after they were produced didn't seem silly - his music, out of time, has always sounded contemporary. You could argue that the records that might have dated a bit - "Aladdin Sane" or "Let's Dance" or "Black Tie, White Noise" were too close to the sounds of the day, whilst things like "Diamond Dogs" sit outside of time and fashion.

I've listened to these albums and more - swapping my favourites as the years go by - picking up golden era reissues such as live album "Santa Monica '72" or "Bowie at the Beeb" with more glee than "Earthling" or "...Hours." Since his golden era you can probably say Bowie's albums function in pairs - "Tonight" & "Never Let Me Down", "Tin  Machine I & II", "Outside" and "Hours", "Heathen" and "Reality".... and finally "The Next Day" and "Blackstar." For the casual listener their have been various greatest hits, singles collections etc. as well as reissues, boxsets etc. All the usual paraphernalia of vintage rock artists.

Yet now we see Bowie's career as a whole it seems more stunning than ever - a remarkable creative life lived and performed across six decades. Like many artists of his generation there's much more to him than the perceived popular image. If the Beatles had their love of Monty Python, one of Bowie's last TV appearances was on Ricky Gervais's "Extras", playing himself; he might have loved William Burroughs' novels but he also loved Viz comic. Oddly enough the most surprising persona was Bowie as family man, married to model Imam, with a young daugher - along with his son, the film director Duncan Jones - these are the ones who will be truly feeling the loss today and in the months ahead. His late 90s album "...Hours" is musically conventional but a song like "Thursday's Child" is amongst his most melodic and personal. The Bowie lyrics are generally enigmatic - the "space" theme continuing through much of his career. Yet even when he embraces alienation - on "Station to Station" or "Low" - its far from being a desperate state. There's always something too obviously knowing about Bowie's musical intelligence - the music as persona. It's what makes stage-y songs like "Five Years" brim with emotion or why a concept album like "Diamond Dogs" is not ridiculous in its dystopian trope. The songs tell their own story - or if they only tell half a story, then so what? He could be as simple and straightforward as "Fashion" or as oblique as "Breaking Glass."

For me, Bowie has always been there, and offered a way to live - a way to think. That it was never dogmatic (in the way that maybe Springsteen or U2 is), is half the joy of being a fan. Lots of people on the internet have been saying Bowie made it "ok" to be "other" - yet I'm not sure I agree with this entirely. The seventies Bowie, with his androgyny and his shocking identity changes is a different beast than the one I grew up with - urbane rather than mysterious. I've never seen people dressed like Bowie - he was too unique. I guess what I'm saying is that the hall of mirrors of Bowie's career enables us all to find a suitable place in relation to him.

So, today, tomorrow, the next year, he is gone and we have the music and all the other stuff to take an interest in. It seems hardly believable that this greatest of all British artists is no longer with us. I'm still processing the sadness, but also the personal investment I've made in "loving the alien" that is David Bowie since  was 12 or 13 years old. It may well be the best investment I ever made.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey

Australia is a vast country, with a relatively short written history, and Peter Carey, as its most successful novelist has chronicled considerable parts of it. It's perhaps not surprising that he'd come along eventually to the Ern Malley incident. A country with a certain cultural cringe, because of its colonial roots, its geographical location and the down-to-earth nature of its population, it was ripe for the hoax perpetuated in 1944, whereby a "fake" poet Ern Malley was created, and his work sent to the Modernist journal "Angry Penguins", which, having thought it had found a hitherto unknown modernist genius, published them - only for the subterfuge to be revealed shortly afterwards. In the conservative Australia of the forties, these poems were then prosecuted for obscenity.

Carey uses the bare bones of this story - the fake poet, the publication and exposé, and the obscenity prosecution - to craft a shaggy dog story whereby his version of Malley, Bob McCorkle, appears at the trial of the editor, David Weiss, as if magicked from thin air. Yet, such impossibilities aren't handed to us straight but through a series of filters. A young lesbian editor goes to Kuala Lumpur on a whim, accompanying the famous, but mediocre poet John Slater. Sarah Wode-Douglass is our narrator, and she is looking back on this impulsive visit that changed her life. From a high caste British literary family, she is resentful of Slater as being the man she holds responsible for her mother's suicide, one of many misunderstandings throughout this baroquely layered novel. Arriving in Malaysia, she finds herself intrigued on encountering an ill-dressed white man, Christopher Chubb, in a bicicle shop. In many ways, the novel is primarily Chubb's story, for he was the one who conjured McCorkle into existence and wrote the initial poems.

It was odd starting reading this after Ian McEwan's "Sweet Tooth" a couple of weeks ago, as certain echoes of that book's literary milieu were to be found early in the novel. Yet despite the hoax having taken place thirty years prior to the action (the telling of it is two decades further on), it is not Australia where the majority of the story is set but Malaysia. A diligent editor, Sarah, is shown a slither of writing by Chubb, that she immediately recognises as the masterpiece that editors are endlessly searching for. Though he makes too little of it, Carey is very good on identifying that desire of editors to somehow discover a genius from the wrong side of the tracks, outside of literary scenes and fashion - the one great poem that makes the years of publishing average, competent work all worth while.

Yet we take an age to get to Chubb's story - for Chubb's story it is. He holds back from Sarah, and Slater keeps telling her to have nothing to do with him. (The truth is, if the slippery Slater had been communicative with his travelling partner from the start, there wouldn't be much novel left.) So the story is one of those where an unreliable narrator (Chubb) weaves a story that could be truth, could be lies, but does so in such a convoluted way that the reader, rather than be charmed by his circumlocutions gets frustrated. There's always been more 18th century than modernism in Carey's work, and this has something of the Tristram Shandy about it. Yet it seems somewhat pointless, for whereas Sterne was taking pleasure in the withholding - avoiding telling the story - Carey, through Chubb, is determined to get the story out, albeit at length, and somewhat tediously. At some point in the novel, the reader realises we are stuck with Chubb's unreliable retellings - rather than the story itself - and it becomes quite a chore to read.

Carey has always been a great one for grotesques (the Dickensian side of his work, evidenced particularly in "Jack Maggs"), but we have Chubb and McCorkle to deal with here. They are, we are partly to believe, the same person - after all Chubb wrote McCorkle into existence, but as if bored by this possiblity, McCorkle gets to take on more and more a life of his own - and in Chubb's telling, takes over his life, including stealing his daughter, whose presence in Kuala Lumpur explains his still being there. This magic realism probably requires the more mystical eastern setting, but in some ways the two elements of the book - that very Australian story of Ern Malley on the one hand, and the mysterious Malaysian story on the other - gel very badly. It feels like a mis-selling of the book, for though he uses the Ern Malley affair in detail (including the Malley poems and associated real life examples), that seems just a hook on which to write a story of eastern intrigue. Even if we accept that Chubb and McCorkle are probably different - the latter a phantasm created out of thin air - the story he tells, a certain picaresque "down and out in Kuala Lumpur" feels rich in colour but poor in substance. Even as Chubb regales his story, he includes other people's stories, little anecdotes about Malaysia's chequered history; mostly gristly in nature. The conceit joining the Malley story with the Malay one being that there is a book of poetry that McCorkle wrote here which is a masterpiece, and encompasses the whole history and geography of the country. What editor can resist? Of course, Sarah gets pulled along; but this reader at least had long ago lost patience.

Part of the novel's problem is this layering of stories - long, and long winded, they don't have the necessary energy and brio, let alone necessary veracity, to pull the reader along; moreover this foregrounding of a retold past doesn't work well as each time we are brought back to the present - like realising in "Wuthering Heights" that we are actually back in the parlour listening to Nelly Dean - it feels livelier than the story being told. Carey doesn't help us out much either - no speech marks or other delineating punctuation to remind you which "I" is speaking, and yet its all a bit with one breathless voice. The women in the novel are, without exception, treated awfully - from poor Sarah strung along by Slater's indifference, to the women keeping alive McCorkle's legacy without knowing exactly what it is. The story, it seems, is about these dreadfully self important poets and their egos and insecurities and unwillingness to let go.

You're never exactly bored reading Carey, of course, there's a breathlessness to his prose, and like that other writer who set books in Malaysia, Anthony Burgess he revels, a little too much I think, in exotic places and the language to describe it. But if its not exactly boring, it is frequently dull, a worse crime perhaps - and the reader is sometimes no different than poor Sarah sat in the over-hot hotel desperately hoping these old men will get to the point and tell her what she needs to know.

It's a minor work, perhaps, from a major writer, who I've frequently enjoyed, but not one of his best, by a long way.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

In 2016

I'm not a great one for New Year's Resolutions, as I guess the things that I wanted to do, I will try and get on with anyway, however long they take - yet I have to think of 2016 as a bit of a new start as, along with rather too many other people I know, 2015 seemed a bit of a slog. Having lived through a Tory government for the much of my early and adult life, I'd hoped I wouldn't have to go through it again but here we are....and just as Thatcher and Major never did a single thing to help my life, I'm not expecting much more from the P.R. man that is David Cameron.

Anyway, politics aside, there's always football to look forward to...unfortunately the last time my team Aston Villa were this bad, Margaret Thatcher was in power. Perhaps I will have to look elsewhere for solace.

This blog is about creative things, and for all 2015's faults, I was pleased to attend so many artistic, cultural and literary events locally. I'm not sure if anything stood out particularly, but having two-three things to go to each week has been a great way to keep chipper when other things haven't been going so great. I didn't read or watch anything like as many things as I'd have liked and in 2016, if I'm anything I should probably try and be a bit more discerning.

There's always a strange dichotomy in a creative person's life between the outward manifestation of your work and what is actually going on. After a flurry of stories and poems published early in the year I seemed not to get much work out there after the spring. Yet, this hides away the actual creative work I did during the year. I've been working on a novel for two years, and though finding time for it intermittently - and it being some way off being complete - 2015 was the year it got itself a title, a shape and some bulk. From being a piece of writing to a novel-in-progress. After two years of writing inevitably I'd like to get it finished as soon as possible, but these things do take time.

The idea of the time that things take was most obvious in a story I wrote over the summer from an idea I'd been toying with for something like eight years! I'd even started it a couple of times but found it hard to get into the story until this summer when I approached it from a different angle. In fact, most of the writing I did this year came at things from a different angle, and was the better for it. I think I'd lost a bit of faith in the "writing" of stories, becoming more enamoured of the technical exercise - but this was the year I started to loosen up a bit. I think having concentrated on poetry the last few years, the different approaches to each work mean there are different muscles need oiling. I know a lot of poets do move on to write short fiction or flash fiction (and vice versa) but I find creative prose and creative poetry different beasts in many ways.

As for poetry I'd almost say I'd not written much, and my notebooks - full to brimming the last few years - seemed much emptier than usual, at least until the last month or so when I wrote a long sequence which I hope to get published some time in 2016.

I've not released any new music during 2015 - despite completing the best part of an album by the spring - and a priority will be to finish that album, albeit a year late.

So in 2016 I hope to see the impact of this "quiet year" somehow, perhaps a few of these things will find a home, also, I hope that this new focus on prose will continue to develop as its definitely a muscle that needs to be used, whereas poetry is always there in the background if I need it. The world around us is not going to get any easier - with the refugee crisis continuing, as well as the rhetoric (and reality) of austerity. The irony of being on the left is that you see the Tory party as never building anything, never creating anything; destroying rather than empowering - yet one can't rejoice in their destruction being what will ultimately lead to a different government, as the damage done is alway so great. The latest example will be the EU referendum. I cannot seriously believe that "Brexit" will happen despite a hostile press and right wing politicians crying out for it. The British are notoriously cautious when it comes to constitutional change; but also the absurdity of this offshore island deliberately isolating itself from the continent across the way will surely become more apparent. As a Europhile I feel I know and understand its faults, but can't see how an unprecedented exit from Europe can in any way help me or the country - for once I think the interests of both are aligned on staying in. The best we can hope for of course is that this unecessary distraction will split the Tory party, without destroying the country in the process.

It is against this hostile backdrop that creativity, music, art, literature becomes more important than ever - and it does seem that our insatiable need to be entertained has moved beyond hackneyed soap operas and reality TV shows. If the American "boxset" has been the art form of the 21st century its helped the BBC and European broadcasters begin to up their game. If only cinema would get over its comic book fetish and do the same. I do worry a little for fiction, as ever; I don't think the "resurgence" in short fiction indicates any kind of golden age - if anything there seems less tolerance for experiment and innovation, and too much concentration on a certain kind of craft. All art needs a bit of an edge, after all. The "world" fiction we have now seems to sometimes be a dilution - everyone writing in English, becoming a kind of Globish. I'd much prefer the idiosyncracies of Bellow's Chicago for instance. Small presses and the like are the "go to" places for translated fiction as well as poetry, short stories and new writing to an extent that seems more valid than ever.

What I think we do see sometimes is that the simple expediency of the mega-product (whether J.K. Rowling's world, "Game of Thrones" or "The Force Awakens") means that there becomes a thirst - small at first, but likely to grow - for backstreet vendors with grubbier tablecloths and less predictable menus. From out of this, as ever, is where inevitably something new will come which will be big enough to challenge the mainstream. (Remember George Lucas began with cult movie THX 1138!) At the moment there seems to have been a little bit of a severing between the main street and the back streets, like the latter is no more than a shanty town, and gentrification shunts the latter out in art as it does in urban locations; I feel this can't last. A lot of this will come down to the audience - and surely a young, multi-cultural audience will eventually tire of the mainstream's clear lines.

So in 2016 I will do more of the same, but with an eye above the waterline, looking to surface. I know from my friends and acquaintances in the arts, music and literature scenes in Manchester, that I'm not swimming alone, but part of a diverse, abundant shoal. Let us swim upstream together.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

"Sweet Tooth", Ian McEwan's 2012 novel offers quite a few of this writer's familiar signature marks - its suitably tricksy, and revisits the not unfamiliar territory of the British secret service. It's also his most entertaining novel since "Atonement", with which it shares a female narrator who is conversant in secrets. McEwan has always written intriguing female characters, but by giving us Serena Frome's narrative in the first person, we are drawn deep into her story from the off - even though, in another familiar move, she is telling the story retrospectively from the vantage point of several decades since the story took place.

Frome, daughter of a bishop, (again, McEwan's characters are frequently this distinguished) has gone through an ill-advised mathematics degree at Cambridge(she'd have been better studying literature, but read novels in her spare time), to landing a job at MI5 following an affair with an academic Tony Canning, who still has connections with the service. When he leaves her suddenly, she is left embittered, but has been successful in her application. The MI5 she joins in the early seventies still sees women as part of the typing pool (though a thinly disguised Stella Rimington makes a cameo appearance, indicating how things are changing). The service is still obsessed with cold war machinations even as the new threat of the Provisional IRA changes the rules of the game around them. McEwan deals deftly with the geopolitical world of London in the early seventies, but the book is not really about this. For Frome has been asked to be part of a cultural sting, where MI5 will finance a young writer as a way of countering Soviet propaganda, in an operation called "Sweet Tooth". The young writer, Tom Haley is struggling at one of the new universities, with a few well received short stories in small magazines, but he is finding it difficult to write a longer work.

Haley, of course, is a surrogate for McEwan himself, and the novel is brilliantly evocative of the early seventies in London, with walk on parts for Ian Hamilton and Martin Amis, as well as regular sections discussing literary themes of the day. (On meeting Tom Maschler, the publisher, Haley praises "Portnoy's Complaint" though not having read it.) After the first section of the novel, a rich autobiography of Frome, as she moves from Cambridge to Whitehall, the "sting" where she approaches Haley kicks off the main plot, with the beautiful Frome falling for Haley - having first read and admired his fiction. In a typically metafictional way, we get paraphrases of some of Haley's stories, dark, unsettling fictions not so unlike McEwan's own. The joy in this is that we're not expected to take any of this too seriously - it may well be the most entertaining novel he's written, particularly if you are willing to wallow in the indulgence of his literary references. There's a lot of similarities to Muriel Spark's equally tricksy "Loitering with Intent" - another novel not afraid to play around with the memories of an earlier literary millieu to comic effect.

Serena and Tom's love affair is in itself a cloak and dagger affair, revelling in that sense of half truths and secrets that are both the writer and the spy's trade - towards the unexpected reveal at the novel's finale, we'll find how closely the two mirror each other - though it mostly involves prolonged time in bed, following from visits to nice restaurants in London and Brighton as Tom spends the stipend he has received as a beneficiary of "Sweet Tooth." He finally starts work on a novella, a bleak dystopian drama, Beckettian in its worldview, which appals both Serena and her handlers, but nonetheless wins the "Jane Austen Prize". Such tissues of lies have to unravel, especially in a McEwan novel, and he's at his ingenious best as he sets up his unlikely scenario only to then bring it crashing down. If there's a fault, its in the sense that for once there's very little at stake, other than a broken heart or two or a compromised literary career. The spies are seen as playing parlous games - serious, yes, but hardly relevant to the world that's going on around them. At the three day week breaks and Harold Wilson replaces Ted Heath again, the backdrop doesn't become anymore important. Serena prefers romances, whilst Haley likes the metafictional, and it could be said, as characters in their own novel, that McEwan gives them both what they want. Tricksy, as I said, but elegantly done.

I found "Saturday" and "On Chesil Beach" unsatisfying works in many ways, the first because of its ludicrous premise, the second because of the coldness of its central story, so this is the first book of his since "Atonement" that I've really enjoyed. Its as light a work as "Amsterdam" and as playful as his mock cold war thriller "The Innocent" but in telling his version of the early 1970s from this distance its a welcoming and entertaining novel. Serena makes a good unreliable narrator, her unsuitability for her job in MI5 providing much of the comedy, even as she exposes the horrible sense of entitlement of the sad men who are promoted over her. She goes to see pub rock bands with her working class colleague, and is disapproving of her more hippy-ish sister. There's plenty of nice little jokes mocking the pretensions of the time - and in Haley's stories, McEwan gets a chance to revisit some of his own dark little tales, with some relish it must be said. What plot there is gets neatly wrapped up, and there's more than a few Macguffin's along the way, In the end, its perhaps an indulgent little novel, but one in which McEwan gets away with writing about writing and recalling his own early career from the early seventies, which makes it something of a joy to read.

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Summer Book by Tove Jannson

Usually when a writer passes away, their reputation fades, but occasionally the opposite happens. It seems the more that we all find out about Tove Jannson, previously mainly known in the UK for The Moomins, the more that we want to know. I had been meaning to read "The Summer Book", the most revered of her 14 books for adults, after seeing an exhibition of her work and life in Helsinki last summer, (blogged about here) and finally have gotten around to. Re-published recently by A Sort of Books, its had several reprints since, unusually for a work of translated fiction. Written in the early 1970s after the death of her mother, its a somewhat unclassifiable work. Though ostensibly a novel, the short anecdotal chapters have the character of short stories, and the subject matter is fused with memoir and memory. Seen as a classic in Scandinavia it certainly deserves a much wider readership.

Sophia is a young girl being looked after her grandmother, whilst her father works, on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. The novel is in the third person but takes us into the perspective of both Sophia and her Grandmother, the one at the start of her conscious life, and having lost a mother, the other at the end of theirs. This unusual pairing, with the father always off the page, creates an idyll in the "summer" they spend on the island. In Sophia's world the island is vast, but in reality it has room for just one dwelling - theirs - and is isolated from even their neighbours, with weekly trips to the nearest proper island taking around two hours each way in a boat. On the island there are enough differences in the landscape to enable all sorts of adventures - so that even a six year old is safe left alone. This otherworldliness, like a personal Narnia - or more accurately the isolated landscape of the Moomin family - is as much a character in the novel as the two protagonists. Grandmother has forgotten what it was like to be young and Sophia helps her remember, but at the same time she is in loco parentis for the young girl and has to slip out of their fantasy world every now and then to provide the necessary life lesson.  The chapters are mostly short - some tiny - and cover everything from small discoveries in the natural landscape, to the games that the child and grandmother play, to those vivid periods when the idyll is interrupted: a friend who comes to stay and breaks up the perfect harmony between the two of them; the adoption of a feral cat; the visitors who their father goes off drinking with on their boat causing them resentment at not being invited to the party for being "too young and too old". There's also a climax of sorts with the great storm that could have drowned them all, had their father not managed to get them to safety in an attic room on higher ground.

Yet its not just a "what we did on our summer holidays" - but a story with a philosophy at the heart of it. The grandmother is old and fading but wants to continue as long as she can to pass on wisdom and guidance to her granddaughter. Her own memories are like from another life - yet she was responsible for allowing equal treatment for girls in the boy scout movement, enabling women to be allowed to go camping. At one point its said that she was born in the 19th century, and though history doesn't intrude, not in this isolated place away from the Finnish mainland, there's a sense here of how long lives are both part of the history that takes place around them, but also separate, on their own track. In this way, though there are some mentions of God (the Grandmother is too old to believe in the devil and in a rare rebuke of her granddaughter asks that she lets her have her conviction that there is a God, but no devil, for she needs the promise of a good hereafter) it feels more naturalistic and than that, with nature, and our response to nature being at the heart of this simple telling of a summer.

Seeing Jannson's work in Helsinki last year, her art seemed to find its necessary narrative in the strangeness of her imagined Moomins, a popular mythologising of the Finland she grew up in. Reading Esther Freud's introduction to this edition (I'd suggest you read it like I did at the end), we find that this novel was written partly about her own mother and her niece (also Sophia) and it reads like a memoir in large part. I'm reminded of Natalia Ginzburg's "The Things We Used to Say", another novel that defies classification but weaves its spell through small anecdotes, and remembered moments. Yet such a litany would not work on its own, it is the quiet authority of the author, who through grandmother and grandchild, finds a way to connect to universal truths.

A short poignant book, it felt the sort of quiet, steady novel I needed to read this Christmas, out of season perhaps, but at a time of year when family and stillness are on all our minds. Like her art, her life (recently the subject of an autobiography) and the Moomins, Tove Jansson's adult fiction is a great rediscovery from this much loved author. There's a photograph at the beginning of this edition with a little blonde Sophia, and the much older "grandmother" - Jansson's own parent - and the book brings to life the relationship in that small static image.