Monday, December 31, 2007

Dangerous Books for Boys

The Guardian's round up of the 100 bestsellers of 2007 is a dispiriting list in one sense, scant on literary fiction, and with both the mega sellers of recent years (J.K. Rowling) and the standard bearers of popular fiction being high sellers. The remarkable power of the Richard and Judy book club acts almost as an A&R department for fiction (mainly fiction), whilst celebrity books from everyone from Russell Grant to Peter Kay to Nigella Lawson to Jeremy Clarkson also do well. But there's a couple of things, behind the figures, that are worth commenting on. Given the sheer piles of rubbish that dominate the bookshop shelves - "toilet books" as we used to call them, combined with a mass of celebrity books - fiction dominates the list. Also, I'm beginning to think that the real dangerous books for boys - to take that bestselling title literally - is fiction for men; of which there is surprisingly little. I commented a few weeks ago about being unable to find a decent book at WH Smiths for a train journey, and looking at this list what is clear is that pretty much the only books selling to and for men are detective thrillers (to women as well, of course) and non-fiction. Bill Bryson, Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Dawkins are the writers du jour for the male half of the population it seems. I think the publishers are clearly missing some kind of trick here. In the 70s, presses like Virago and the Women's Press were developed both to rescue fallen female authors from history's dustbin, but also to respond to an audience of women who were not being particularly well served by the publishing industry. I'd say its pretty clear that the same industry is providing a disservice to men these days. The high water mark of "High Fidelity" and "Trainspotting" for instance, just brought on a subgenre of "endorsed by Hornby/Welch" books that had none of the brio of those originals. If men aren't particularly drawn to female authors (though I would draw most men to Nicola Barker, for instance, and say, "read her"), then its the male writers who are failing to engage, and publishing seems able to find one offs like "Vernon God Little", far easier than it can nurture a writer or two who could be as prolific as Burgess, Amis senior, Mailer or DeLillo. More writers like (but not "like" since they are all their own men) Will Self, David Peace and David Mitchell in other words - writers not afraid to change and experiment from book to book, but with a sensibility that might just appeal to that other half of society currently avoiding Jeremy Clarkson's mullet.

Friday, December 28, 2007

More books, more films

Two more films from books that I saw last night, and just a brief comment about each. "The Kite Runner" is well worth seeing, if only for the glorious cinematography. The book, by Khaled Hosseini, I've not read, but was an international bestseller - one of that new breed of one off books that seem to hit a chord everywhere. What's interesting about the story, as its portrayed in the film at least, is how if a writer tried to do a similar story in the contemporary west would be deemed melodramatic. Perhaps it inevitable that in writing about a part of the world in turmoil - I watched this film about Afghanistan, with many scenes set in Pakistan, merely hours after Benazir Bhutto's murder - you have to focus on a small human story. Like "Atonement" its a story about a child getting things wrong, and dealing with the consequences much later. Its positively Dickensian in its coincidences and sentimentality - so perhaps an acquired taste.

"Control" on the other hand seems to have been with me all my life - Joy Division were the turning point in my musical education, though Ian Curtis was already dead (aged 23), and though a "cult", apart from "Love will Tear us Apart" they were unknown to the mainstream. That small discography of theres has grown in stature ever since. "Control" has deservedly won awards, but its as small a film as you might imagine - a film about divorce, and epilepsy (its from Deborah Curtis's memoir, at least partially) as well as music. It does that rare thing, makes some sense of a suicide; and you never feel that it is the "doomed" Ian Curtis of legend, but a young man struggling with problems he feels are insurmountable. The lyrics, carefully applied across the films, come across as poems of the soul, relating to real events rather than some adolescent doom-mongering. There have now been 3 films (this, 24 Hour Party People and the recently released Joy Division documentary) about this story, as well as numerous books. Each has to recreate the classic scenes - The Sex Pistols at the Free Trade Hall, the appearance on "So it Goes" - as imitations, and make up the rest, so little footage of the band survives - and with the dead all around Joy Division: Martin Hannett, Rob Gretton and now Tony Wilson, these also have to be imitations.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Perils of Adaption

I caught "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" last night on TV. I grew up with the books and the BBC TV series (yeah, I know it started on radio, but what am I, stone age man or something?) and they are in my psyche. I never expected much of the film, I guess, but it was the utter pointlessness that got me. The first half hour is okay, but its then flitting from planet to planet like a bad episode of Space 1999, and though its clearly far bigger budget than anything the BBC could ever do, you get the feeling that Douglas Adams inspiration was partly the inventive naffness of BBC space sets, whilst putting things into space that were never quite meant to be there. Its prescience - Wikipedia as the guide anyone? the Babel Fish? - is strong, but never as important as how down-to-earth it is. Phrases like "Don't Panic", "The answer is 42" and "Life, don't talk to me about life", have a kind of universal usage. The Vogons of the film were even bigger bureaucrats than the books - and for a vaguely anarchic child - part of Hitchhikers appeal had been that it really laughed at the nonsense of British life (and it is a very British film), whilst celebrating a certain adventurous eccentricity. In contrast, the American version has Zaphod, with a rubik's cube of heads rather than the extra one that the BBC gave him (more realistically I thought), Trillion's entirely unconvincing as a brunette rather than a blonde, Marvin looks less like a real robot than some advert for toilet cleaner, and the overriding aesthetic seems to have been taken from the later (i.e. not v. good) Monty Python/Terry Gilliam movies. The story arc of the books was bulked out alot with the extracts from the Guide itself, and these get less space in the film; the TV series covered the first 2 books after all. Perhaps they were hoping for a series of sequels? One can only wonder at the utter wastefulness of it all. No wonder Douglas Adams died.

In contrast, I'd seen "Children of Men" recently. I read the P.D. James novel years ago, and despite a great premise, always felt the book left a lot to be desired - certainly no classic of dystopian literature. In truth, she's not a writer I've ever found particularly readable. The film isn't quite as good as some of the reviews would have it, but it comes close - getting quite deeply into the psychological jolt of what a world without children would be like. In some ways, though, you can almost imagine we're already there - in that I know so many forty somethings who either haven't got, or don't want or can't have children. One does wonder if the anarchy and loss of hope that the film portrays as the result of no more children being born, could exist for particular groups of society even as the rest of the world keeps procreating away happily.

With the BBC triumphant again with "Cranford", and the Coen brothers apparently having a return to form with a literary adaption, its always fascinating to see how different works have different after lives. I've read definitely sniffy reviews of "The Golden Compass" and "The Kite Runner" for instance; yet "Atonement" is tipped for an Oscar, despite it proving as curatorially eggy as past McEwan adaptions.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

End Games

The year comes to its end game - earlier it seems each time. With Christmas being next Tuesday, a whole week away, I find myself in the unusual position of finishing a week early - me, a usual Christmas eve worker. But this year, I'd some holiday to use up, and I've various things to do before xmas, so that's me done. I realise that I've been so busy the last couple of months that virtually everything has lapsed: from paying bills to writing Christmas cards, never mind the more creative end of things. But the little annoyances have piled up the last week or so, and I guess I'm a bit at end of my tether - time to finish off. Will probably end up spending xmas working out whether I can take Amazon to the advertising standards for advertising a 10 CD David Bowie box set which they clearly have no intention of ever sending me, (or even having in stock.) Arguing with Amazon is probably like arguing with the air. They usually shake their virtual shoulders and go "it's not me, mate." But with all the talk of eCommerce etc. if even the market leader can't actually say what it says on the tin, then perhaps the "e" world is at its creaking peak. I don't know. I was asking a 20 year old last night what her favourite single of the year was: she looked at me like I was strange, after all in iPod world - what's a single? The charts is full of Christmas downloads this year. Its democratic capitalism in action.

The lit. story of the year may well have been the Eagleton v. Amis debate - but since they didn't debate for real, then not sure that it was a story after all. Saying all Muslims are terrorists is plain silly, but calling someone a racist for saying that there's a problem somewhere is also plain silly. (And yes, I know that simplifies, and misrepresents again, again, again, but I've neither the time or energy to get between those too colossi) And news that Eagleton is being sacked/removed from University of Manchester because of its ongoing funding crisis (such a selling point as it tries to become a world class university! Three nobel laureates in Economics and it can't budget properly...)feels like the endgame, whether its related or not, deserved or not. I'm not particularly looking forward to Amis's "campus" novel (a genre I despise), after all, you can probably write it yourself, "Ahmed, leader of the newly formed Sons and Daughters of Islam - a feminist-terrorist Islamic sect - supped furtively on the officially forbidden (but necessary for "cover") Boddingtons bitter as he looked with a lot of contempt, and not much less lust, at a row of nubile female students, off their tits, and pole dancing to Grease Lightning."

I've enjoyed writing and recording some music again this year - and will continue to do some for a bit yet - when I get the time. My poetry has fallen away a bit - I need a little mental space for it, and fiction remains difficult when I'm so time poor. Oh, I turned 40 as well, which means that bits of me have started falling off. Everything in my life is too tentative to be anywhere near middle age, whatever the clocks says. Yet, hankering after music and books, and some distant aim around them, is surely either prolonged adolescence, or wistful nostalgia, and I'd have generally said I don't do adolescence or nostalgia. Perhaps they are the same thing. The Booker shortlist is waiting for me at Xmas, so I'll try and read a few of the zeitgeist books, though I'm pretty sure the exciting stuff in literature is now so far away from the "official" version that it might be twenty years before someone gets round to mapping it. The fabulists, the crime tellers, the science-fictionists, the graphic novelists - are these our golden writers now? It hardly feels like an Edwardian age, but perhaps it has some of that period's safety and security, at least in middle England, and we're wanting our "Heroes" and "Battlestar Galactica" and "Dr. Who" as much as they wanted King Solomon's Mines and War of the Worlds. Once I work out how to get a vampire into my Mancunian novel, I'm sure the story will fly.

So, I'm sitting here, writing a longer piece than I intended, because I've a million things to do over the next few days, and this is the least important, perhaps, sitting here, whilst a ham simmers a way in the kitchen and the frost outside disappears in a bright wintry sunshine.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The play's the thing

Interesting piece by David Edgar in the Guardian wondering why new writing in theatre is no longer an arts council priority. He talks about the "supply side" - i.e. lots of actors wanting to come out of university and do more physical based theatre. It's hard to know whether this is an issue or not - audiences certainly want (or can be more engaged by) a range of types. I'm more interested in written drama but even here there's such a variety - or possible variety. I've seen both "Shopping and fucking" and "The Weir", and though the latter was entirely traditional and the former was far more "modern", I felt that Ravenhill's play was already a little past its sell-by date when I saw it in Manchester. It may well be that by the time I'd seen it, I felt I'd seen so much of this kind of in-your-face funny-urban-trauma drama, on film, on stage, in performance. The dark sleepy ghost story of "The Weir" still stays with me however. As Edgar points out, there's lots being written - but is there an appetite for new plays? As Fictionbitch recently pointed out there's a question mark about who goes to new theatre (at least outside of London.)I guess my own instinct, at least up here, is that there is more of a performance based ethos, but its not necessarily a lack of writers, but a tendency to need regional or local theatre to have an educational or social purpose as well as a literary or dramatical one - always a dangerous game. I remember having a small piece performed at the Contact one time, and because the actors were young, working class Mancunians, it changed the piece - which was basically set in a school less urban, and more middle class. Not necessarily for the worse, but it wasn't this writer's intention - and in the end I didn't finish the play, because I could see it would have very little hope of being put on in one of the youth orientated theatres I was aiming at. Over the last few years Manchester's 24/7 festival has taken some of the techniques of street theatre ("Lets just do it!" "Lets have a festival!") and opened it out to dramatists and directors. Never has there been so much new writing put on in Manchester. The question is, who's watching?

Monday, December 10, 2007

My Other Blog's a Porsche

It's been quite a while since I've made any of my stories available on line, and I guess, having a few people asking me about my writing recently, it's time to let a few see the light of day. So, if you'd like to have a Christmas read, there are 3 new (but old) stories ready to download on my other blog. "The Personals" is a little experiment in form; "A Cold Night for Drowning" appeared in "Lamport Court" a few years ago, and "The Counter" is that perfect story for Christmas, a little modern ghost story.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Christmas overkill

Its not just that you need to start preparing for Xmas earlier each year - its just that there's so many things to fit in before then. I've got a lot to do at work, including chairing a panel next Thursday night; we've got our Christmas party the following Tuesday; I've got to go visit my sister and see her newborn; I've got to get everyone's presents; I've got a hospital appointment; and I'm already exhausted! The idea that I might glug gluwein at the xmas market, catch a carol concert, read the Guardian's books of the year; watch "Bee Movie" or go to see the Pogues or any of those other perennial Christmas shows is laughable. Where do people find the time? The Christmas meals have been packing out the pubs all week; last night I was one of 10,000 seeing Ian Brown at the old GMex (yeah, I know its called Manchester Central, but nobody knows what that is!) and today has been a right-off as a result. I feel it should be wind-down time, but I'm just feeling a bit wound-up and exhausted. I haven't even thought about Christmas cards, or stamps, or wrapping paper or when's the last day to buy anything off Amazon. In fact I've still got my overnight bag unpacked from going down to Birmingham a couple of weeks ago. Has it been a good year? Too early to make those kind of assessments; head's still in a blur. As noted elsewhere, its probably the time of the year when you start thinking "I haven't got time to blog anymore!" At a recent event in Manchester, Will Hutton, speaking for the Work Foundation, talked about the different nature of creative economies, and the creative individuals that make them up. Until we can put a value on a writer, a musician, a creative, we won't really value what they are genuinely adding to the economy in the same way as a retailer or a manufacturer. Whether its me, Elizabeth Baines, or J. K. Rowling (i.e. the unpublished, the recently published and the massively successful), the monetary value can be anything from nothing to that of a small corporation. My "brand" - e.g. this blog etc. - might be utterly worthless, but we just don't know. There will somewhere be a blogging Kafka, asking for his executors to delete all his files (and being refused by the monolithic Google); and somewhere a blogging Keats, career stymied by a bad blog post. I would imagine the economic value of Kafka to Prague, Czech Republic, Europe and the world is probably more than say, BMW, - from the books themselves to the Kafka coffee shops, to the influence on other cultural artefacts, to the Kafka key rings and mugs, to the tourists and the airlines. How much "value" will the BBC's production of Cranford, add to the Cheshire tourist industry, for instance? Of course, there's too many wannabe poets, writers etc. but that's like saying there's too many banks, insurance companies etc. - overproduction is a symbol of a successful industry not a failed one. You could argue, that more should be published, in order to increase the chance of new brands coming up that can displace brand Harry Potter or brand Stephen Fry. Literature and pop music are the two art forms we are really good at (unlike, say, visual art or classical composition, at which our successes are fitful) and yet neither receives much in the way of public funds. Yet these are the things that we can be distinctive at; and, even if they don't go global, a local success (the 10,000 people at Ian Brown last night) is not only a real one, but one which can't easily be "imported". In other words, the knowledge economy requires putting a real value on creatives and creativity. That Santa Claus, for instance, what a brand he is!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Forsooth!

Since I was at school during a time when it wasn't an ideological debate but just something that you did (if you happened to be between the ages of 5 and 16) it always seems (a) amazing that I turned out to learn anything and (b) that most of my classmates also learnt things (like being able to spell and write etc) without ever coming close to an exam. So the Comprehensive system kind of worked; it didn't exactly push people like me - but we did our exams okay - and the less able weren't that badly disadvantaged (example: a few years ago my dad was getting new double glazing and the cheapest quote was from a firm owned and run by one of my peers, who, when I knew him, was an archetypal thick as shit skinhead thug.) So what is one to make of this most bizarre of studies from OFSTED. If ever there was a bureaucracy less likely to stand up for poetry, you'd think OFSTED was it, yet, apparently, maybe this is where bureaucracy has its uses - against the very nothingness that it usually inspires. Apparently, poetry in schools is taught badly, that a very narrow and unchallenging number of poems is popular, and most teachers don't understand it.

Our kids are being taught this "classic" from Alfred Noyes -:

"The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight, over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding-
Riding-riding-
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door."

Which is purple prose to make even a beetroot blush. Poetry is an unforgiving beast, but there are good poems out there in the world that probably deserve to be central to the curriculum.

I wrote this WHEN I was eight-:

"When the world was young and full of love
Down came God from the world above
He gave Pandora a magic box,
Pandora, who, was sly as a fox,
Tried to open the box, but no!
She tried again, and lo!
The box was open and out had flown,
All the evils, she gave a grown,
They stung her friends as they flew past
And evil was in the world at last."

It's still the only poem of mine I can recite word for word, and I remember even at the time hating the fakeness of that "and lo!"

Which is to say, that poetry is not la-la-la stuff but a challenging thing, and stuff like Spike Milligan (funny) and Walter De La Mare (pretty) isn't really where its at. I'm not entirely sure at which point you should introduce Keats and Donne, but surely if even OFSTED thinks we're getting poetry wrong, we can begin to see where the problem lies about appreciating it later in life...

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Strange Inspirations

Though perspiration is famously more vital to writing than inspiration, I'm convinced that it's inspiration that matters. That's why I hate the idea of "morning pages" - writing every day, to what purpose exactly? Yet, I guess, when you work full time at a demanding job, like I do occasionally (it's always full time, occasionally, and recently, demanding), perspiration be damned, you need some inspiration to sit down and free the muse. I'm reminded that, inspiration be damned, a nice red wine also helped free the muse (doesn't it sound like a Facebook group? 38 members.) But inspiration's what I've been lacking of late. I've had "ideas" but not "imperatives" which is not the same thing at all. I guess, the imperative for alot of writers is probably a cheque in the post or a competition, but without that, then you need to develop different ones - and I always used to be quite good at coming up with something; yet it's that which I've been lacking the last couple of years. And what, pray, is my imperative now? It's not that simple, of course. But it seems I need to have a sense of innovation to my writing to really compel me to start writing again. A few years ago I wrote a story, "I am no one" which was so non linear that it stopped me writing for a while - since how could I go back to "normal" stories after going out on the edge? The answer of course is finding some middle ground. Earlier in the year I read quite a bit, a few books like "The Damned United" and "The Book of Dave" being contemporary novels with the innovation I've been longing for - add in a bit of sci-fi and a sprinkle of Borges - and I've thrown off the straitjacket that I'd grown into, and starting writing something interesting again. Yes, that's the key. So for the first time in years, I've written 3 short stories in a matter of weeks, all very different, but all notably different, interesting, even experimental (though I use that word with a peg on my nose.) A bit of sci-fi here, and a bit of wine with a friend here, and a bad day at work over there, and voila, the chef is back in the kitchen. Or something.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Waiting for some mundane SF

I was fascinated to read that next summer's issue of the venerable Interzone will be a "mundane SF" edition. I hadn't heard the term before, but I kind of like it. Very of its time, I think.

"What makes a story mundane? A few simple rules:

• no FTL travel or communications
• no aliens
• no time travel
• no parallel universes
• no immortality or telepathy"

Not quite sure what FTL travel is - it reminds me of the bus service around Stoke (the immortal PMT!) With Geoff Ryman, one of our more interesting writers, in the seat it should be a bit of a ride anyway.

For more on this sub-genre of a sub-genre check out the Mundane SF blog. Interesting that the universally panned "The Carhullan Army" from Sarah Hall has won a prize. I thought it sounded quite an interesting book, but read the first page, and went "hmmmm". Anyway, the blog's very articulate author makes the point that "mainstream literature is doing an end-run around the outside of SF to connect with the real future of life as we will come to know it. Clearly the world is ready for this kind of thing, even if most SF writers are incapable of such imagination. What it is going to do is leave SF behind playing with its 1950's dated tropes of space ships and little green men." He's probably right. I went looking through the 60 or so stories I've written in the last ten years - a flurry of sci-fi ish ones about 10 years ago, then nothing much, but then the last couple of years, I've been a-dabbling again. Of course, just as I've written a new sci-fi story that is definitely mundane, I discover that I've missed another boat, cos the closing date is already gone. Ho-hum. But maybe not. I'm beginning to think that we may be at the beginning of some kind of revival of imaginative fiction. I blame the Booker; it usually helps to do so! But, really, what I'm saying is that the published genre fiction has for a long time been so far up its own genre (and badly written?) that its been difficult for people like me (though there are no people like me) to pick up those books - whilst the mainstream lit writers take on it (with the honourable exceptions of Will Self and David Mitchell) has been like your uncle dancing at a wedding (or a dalek salsaing at carnival if you prefer). The world from now on is straightforward: the crap that's going on - terrorism, global warming, et al - and the bitter, post-modern, uber-unrealistic alt. realities of "The Mighty Boosh", "Spooks", M.I.A., Burial...etc. and ALL in the same book. Now, fools, go on and write it.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Why Don't We Love Science Fiction?

"Why don't we love science fiction?" asks Brian Appleyard in the Sunday Times, partly in response to the release of a new version of the Brian Aldiss edited anthology "A Science Fiction Omnibus" in Penguin Classics. At nearly 600 pages its a must-have, though you have to wonder whether "bulk" is really the best way to read science fiction - after all it is the short novel, the novella, the short story, even the micro-short story that has characterised the highlights of the genre. My NELs, Savoys and Pans seem slightly grubby, but ever so accurate. The best of the genre of course began in trash magazines, and I guess if I'd been twenty years older, I'd have those as my most treasured possessions. Appleyard makes the valid point that Sci-Fi is the necessary counterpoint to science, and mirrors the new developments in scientific fields, whether its Asimov's robots or Gibson's cyberpunk. That said, its a lazy article, that you feel could have been written without change pretty much any time in the last 20 years. I feel that my generation - the Star Wars generation, if you like - have no problems with sci-fi, are simply not snobby about it; along with the noirish detective story its as much a part of my literary upbringing as anything else. I've written here before of how many mainstream writers, rather than being snobby about sci-fi, have been turning to it - Michael Cunningham, David Mitchell and Kazuo Ishiguro in the last couple of years alone. The old story of Rushdie's "Grimus" being withdrawn from a sci-fi award (and imagining a parallel world with, one presumes, no fatwa, no "Midnights Children", just a reputation as a slightly odd sci-fi writer, certainly sounds appealing to those of us who've never been a fan....) because it would "label" him, would probably happen to any writer even today, hence the M. in Iain M. Banks. Yet Appleyard also points out that we're happy to like fantasy (speak for yourself Brian!) as childrens books for adults. He's right in wondering whether China Mieville is sci-fi, or just plain weird. I guess when I recently read the very enjoyable "Perdido Street Station" I felt that it was essentially a crime noir in another world, and since we neither knew or cared where that world was (in space? the future? another dimension? behind a wardrobe?) what we lost in allegory we gain in versimillitude.

I was thinking about my own writing and wondering which of it I'd even class as sci-fi? Very little, in the space opera sense (and perhaps I should write some more), but much of it in the Harlan Ellison or Borgesian sense - of a world of possibilities. Aldiss argues that we're living in a sci-fi world; Appleyard disagrees, saying that science fiction comes into its own as the most "hardcore realism." I'll drink (moloko? pan galactic gargle blasters?) to that.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

No Books for Sale

I was at Leeds station on Thursday coming back to Manchester after a conference and hadn't got a thing to read. I'd read the Guardian on the way over, so thought, I may as well pick up a book from W.H. Smiths. Not something I'd usually do given that my house is papered with unread books. Its all buy one, get one half price, trying to sell you two of something when you only want one, of course, which seems a bit strange since surely most railway station purchases will be "impulse buys" for the train etc - and yet the standalone price of paperbacks, £8.99 or whatever, is getting a little steep. (Digression: I bumped into a production manager from Harper Collins last night and bemoaned the quality of paper of most contemporary paperbacks. There was a reason for it, he said, but the answer, alas, is lost in the alcoholic haze...) Anyway, I hadn't long, so I looked through the bestsellers etc. Amongst the identikit covers of the top ten (all pastel, with flowing script, like "get well" or "sympathy" cards) there were only 2 books that weren't explicitly aimed at women readers, "Brick Lane" at number one, and "Atonement" at number three. And of course, I've long ago read both of these books. So there I am, looking for a book, in a bookshop and there's nothing for sale. Yes, there are shelves and shelves of other titles, but again, with Christmas coming, its more humour, gifts etc. than anything real. And thinking about it, I couldn't think of any writers I'd just pick up there and then had they been for sale. Meeting a bookseller friend last night, he said that they sell books mostly by samizdat methods now, getting them into the shops almost under the cover of darkness, putting them on the shelves out of season, pointing out good titles to prospective customers. In short, what the job used to be, before it was reduced to piling them high and selling them cheap.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

41 Years of Hurt

The jokes came quickly: What's the difference between Lewis Hamilton and England? Lewis Hamilton's got a place in Switzerland next summer. After the reprieve of Israel beating Russia, an expectant (too expectant?) nation watched England squander our get out of jail card. I watched the beanpole Crouch knock the ball down to his non-existent partner about half a dozen times in the first of half, proof, if proof be needed, that England can only play 4-4-2. And the next day, with a manager shuffled out of the door (and like other disastrous failures such as Adam Applegarth at Northern Rock, pocketing a wodge as he does so), the scribes are worried about what it will do for the economy next summer? Our team of glorious Autobiographers (AKA the Golden Generation) may have to move on to the genre of misery memoirs, though its notable how perky Steven Gerrard's performance was yesterday for Liverpool, in comparison with midweek for England. I had that sinking in the stomach that reminded me what it was like to grow up in the seventies (and briefly, around 1978, become a Scottish fan!) - ah, another generation gets used to not getting what they want. With Alastair Darling/Gordon Brown's current Winter of Disc-content, you get the feeling that what we need now is a good dose of Thatcherism. (AKA 13 years of bloody great hurt.) I found it a lonely place to be, caring about the English results, when I was meeting a lot of people from the arts, at an event we held in Birmingham. We talked about what a cultural Olympiad might look like in 2012? (Cheap, I think, given the way the funding has been squirrelled away for sport.) Its strange how few of our writers ever write about sport. You've got Amis's Keith Talent, I guess, if darts count, and in the Information, everything seems to revolve around some racket sport (tennis? squash?) in a way that has scared the middle classes every since Harold Pinter's "Betrayal." There's hope of course; David Peace's monumental rewriting of the Cloughie myth in "The Damned United" is a reminder that the two most-hoped for next-England-manager-candidates are both echoes of ol' big head: Martin O'Neill, as someone who learnt his trade under him, and Jose Mourinho, as the contemporary manager who most embodies Clough's strange mix of charm, success and frailty. Come to think of it, if Peace ever gets to write about our contemporary world, then Spartak Chelsea might be a worthy subject. I've tried to bury myself in the Guardian's quixotic task of listing "1000 albums you should hear before you die" which has been instructive on two levels. (1) there is more good music out there than I'll ever get to listen to (2) having listened to a few of my A's this week, I can categorically state that "Knife" by Aztec Camera, "How to be a Zillionaire" by ABC, Marc Almond's "Mother Fist" and the Jam/Lewis produced Herb Alpert album "Keep Your Eyes on Me" aren't a patch on Aswad's "Live & Direct", and "Show Your Hand" by Average White Band. The latter were a Scottish funk band, just to prove that anything - even jokes about English, rather than Scottish, goalkeepers - is possible. I'll get back to you when I've reached the B's. I could be some time.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Manchester in London

I was in London for a meeting on Friday, and decided to pop over to the reopened Royal Festival Hall in the afternoon. Popping into the poetry library it was interesting to see that their current writer in residence is Lemn Sissay - and even more intriguing was that the previous weekend there'd been a posse (is that the right collective noun?) of Mancunian writers down there, no doubt having it large, with Dave Haslam on the decks. There was a nice little display of Mancunian magazines from PNR to Ugly Tree as well. Now, I guess its no surprise that a Lemn curated night would be a speakeasy/Green room type event and I'm sure everyone had a whale of a time - but it does make me wonder if Manchester is still only seen, in terms of literature, as being a bit edgy, a place of outsiders, rough around the edges. There's a truth in that, of course, since I'm still hard pressed to think of a contemporary Manchester-based novelist who sits at the heart of the culture - despite the 15 years of creative writing courses, and a wide range of books with some connection to the city. Maybe novelists aren't ever that associated with place; or perhaps, with our Steve Coogans, Tony Wilsons, Carol Ann Duffy's and the like, we've a fair enough smattering as it is. I still think there's room for a big, vital novel about - rather than just set in - the city, and I'm just surprised it's still not arrived.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Different Engine

This blog was started to be a bit of an opportunity to discuss the creative process - and occasionally even veers in that direction. Yet, its far easier in many ways to be a pseudo-critic talking about, say, Doris Lessing, or Norman Mailer, than it is to get back to the basics of my creative process, my creativity. It seems a little ridiculous that anyone would be particularly interested in what I have to say about Mailer or Lessing - I'm no expert on either - in fact, there are few writers I'm an expert on. Fitzgerald and Chatwin maybe, but even there I could do with a bit of re-reading, and as for poetry, my expertise is limited, spread thin, a little Ashbery here, a little Donne there, enough to be conversational, not enough to be academic. The only writer I know inside out is me, myself and I, and I'd even have to add a caveat or two there - so little have I written over the last two or three years. Only a year ago I wrote a little novella, which I'm painfully aware I've not done anything about really, aware that its length; its completeness, probably don't help it in any way. So, how ridiculous that I'm now contemplating not only a novel, but a big novel, bigger, longer, larger than any I've attempted before - with a bizarre schematic that includes all human life. Such an impossible task. Yet, I'm kind of liberated by the thought. This is no easy lay. This is love or nothing. Something to get my teeth into and not worry too much about whether its publishable, libellous, believable or even writable. Step at a time. So by thinking bigger I can create something more achievable - isn't that weird? Yet I'm wondering if that's not what I need. And in some ways the models are there - even now, just writing a few tentative lines, plotting a few subplots, I'm galvanised by thoughts of "Daniel Deronda" and "Bonfire of the Vanities." The vehicles are there before me, I just need to insert a different engine.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Late Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer is dead, age 84, an old man's death rather than anything more in keeping with his fiction. Hard to imagine the world of American letters without him, and his prose style, which was as suited to journalistic as novelistic aims, will ensure he is remembered - even if he missed out on the Nobel in the end. A few years ago, he was over here for the London Literature festival, and a friend of mine, the writer Mark Powell, was on a panel with Mailer - and, along with the BBC producer, the agents, and the other writer went back to his hotel. The BBC producer has bought him a present of a bottle of bourbon, and he generously opened it to share with the others in the room. The other writers had better things to do than have a drink with Norman Mailer, but my friend stayed the afternoon, draining half the bottle with him. In other words, despite popular success, Mailer was also a writer's writer, or, in a world where even writers need role models, the kind of writer that young men in particular would want to become. Oh, and the Fall named one of their greatest songs, Deer Park, after his novel of the same name. American literature is a little less interesting with his passing. (And for a far more authoritative view of Mailer's actual career and legacythan mine, read the Sharp Side.)

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Morning Stories

I've got a dozen stories in various stages of completion (or incompletion, really), and its not something that I'm particularly proud of. Trying to settle down to write something, anything - I've a bigger project bubbling, but the problem is that it's only bubbling - I went back to one of them this morning, and, importantly, got to the end. You can write a story at one sitting, but I'm generally a two sitting person - since the 2nd half is perhaps the more important, after the scene setting has been done, you need to come to a conclusion. The story I was working on this morning is a particular example because its quite technical in a number of ways. For a start its in the 2nd person, secondly its got to intertwining strands/characters that only come together at the end, and thirdly its based upon an "imagined" history - a "What if?" scenario if you like and so has its fair share of (recent) historical detail. Because it is an imagined story - it couldn't have happened like this - and it involves real (famous) people it brings up a lot of questions. I was on jury service for the last two weeks, and it got me thinking a lot about truth, and about "stories" - or how we make narratives of events that happened, and what we keep in and leave out. In this story, for instance, which is set in 1983 and is partly set during the recording of an episode of "Top of the Pops" there are probably a dozen "source texts" I could have read to find out more details to make the story truer - yet because the actual meeting in the story didn't happen, probably couldn't have happened, such veracity seems ridiculous. The truth in the story is true only to itself. A.S. Byatt in the Guardian yesterday(it doesn't appear to be online yet) talks about her access to their Digital Archive, and her character's seeing details of Edward VIII's abdication on newspaper bills - which, given the less prurient reporting of the time, is unlikely. Yet, my story has a humbler relationship with the truth, its fed through my memories of the early 80s and "Top of the Pops" and doesn't really require the insider insight - so much as my own imagining of it. How arrogant of me! But, I guess I don't see it like this, I once wrote a story about Martin Amis living upstairs from the narrator - which he patently never did either. Perhaps I prefer this kind of pseudo history, Moorcock's used it a lot I know - and it seems particularly right for popular culture where much is invented anyway, and the myth is far more interesting regardless.

The story will still need some work of course, but getting to the end was pleasing. And I might try and attempt to finish a few others in the pile.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Season is (Almost) Over *

The literary season is over for another year. The prizes have been doled out, the festivals sold out. Writers, weary, sated, fed (oh, how fed) can return back to their garretts (or 4-bedroom houses with a view overlooking the Severn) and wonder at the exhaustion, the elation of it all. Some, no doubt, will be fingering through the manuscripts of the day job, as creative writing lecturers or writers in resident, and some, no doubt, will be picking up their quills/Mont Blancs/Olivettis/Dells & Apples to start anew. By all accounts, Cheltenham et al were tremendous successes this year, queues round the block, tickets sold out, multiple conflicting events fit into a couple of weeks. Then there are the "newsworthy" joints, the Booker, the Frankfurt Book Fair, where the industry gets in gear and celebrates or speculates, accordingly. I think we have to accept that the literary season is as embedded in certain calendars as the "Season" or the Football season for other demographics, and let's be honest about it, the literary season is the end result of the middle class colonising of literature. Yes, its no longer a bohemian pursuit, or a tawdry one, or a worthy one, but a very middle class one - yes, we're all middle class now, of course, but its Oxford and Cambridge who still dominate, and its a very middle class sensibility that reduces literature to a glas of wine, a reading, and a meal afterwards in the nearest Gastropub. Its not a complaint - I'm as prone as those as the next man (and, if proof be needed, you can see me at Elizabeth Baines' eminently enjoyable launch on Monday) - but when an event becomes just one of many at a festival, and a festival becomes one of many festivals, and those festivals become a season, Hay in the Spring, Cheltenham in the Autumn (and nothing in the summer because the audience are away in Tuscany, naturally), you realise its become as redundant as a signpost for the language, the spirit of the age, or the creative zeitgeist as the party conference season is for debate and the issues of the day. I looked in vain, even in Manchester's little version, for anything edgy, and realise that this isn't the point. The "product" now, is similar to what you get on hand at the Royal Exchange Theatre or the Bridgewater Hall, a pre-defined repetoire, (Attwood to Zadie perhaps), augmented only by celebrity pseudo-literature (memoirs of actors et al), with an audience shipped in regularly from Wilmslow who know what they like, and like what they know - the word "literature" in the festival names is there only as a cipher, to keep out the young, the neophyte, the boheme, the poor, the working class, the crusty, the down-to-earth. Literature in this context is a cultural package holiday for the middle classes - and why not? They're the ones buying the books (and the wine, and the meals), happily paying literature's bills (those pesky writers) in return for what is little more than a cultural spa weekend. I have heard people arranging to meet "old friends" there every year, probably booking their favourite restaurant in Ludlow as we speak. In any other context we'd happily ignore it for what it is, "marketing", our modern age's only truly defining creed. Just let's not pretend it's anything else. For those of a messier bent, post-season, you might come along to the 2nd Matchbox event at the Thirsty Scholar on 14th November, here in Manchester, with Matt Welton, Tom Jenks and Scott Thurston.

* see comments

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Collectors

I've rarely read so much instant comment to a Guardian Blog as to Jon Wilde's piece yesterday on him buying records/cds rather than a house. Here I am, surrounded by similar piles in someone else's stately pile, and I can't go as far as regret. Brighton, as he acknowledges, was once world capital of second hand record shops, but is suffering a bit these days. I kind of think its gentrification rather than demand - though over a period of time as less stuff gets released on vinyl (or indeed CD) - less stuff is available via the second hand market - and then there's Amazon. I'm not a vinyl fetishist in any way; I bought my first CD in 1986, ("Brotherhood" by New Order) and they've given me a fair share of thrills as well as disappointments. The recent Domino reissues of albums by bands like Pavement have been as lovingly packaged and compiled as any vinyl. I still prefer the 7" or 12" single to the abomination that is the CD single - and if its, say, "The Smiths", or "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" or "Hejira" I've never replaced or augmented my vinyl copy with the CD version, yet there's a whole world of albums that CD has made available to me - particularly the old soul that Jon Wilde so loves - that I'd just not have got hold of otherwise. I miss the "2 sided album" that you only get with vinyl (ok and with cassettes, but since machines learnt to play both sides after each other that kind of got ruined) and still find it temperamentally impossible to play side 2 first, without playing side 1. Yet, having just been listening and loving an album by Tricky, "Vulnerable" from 2003, I realised I was sorely in need of the rest of his collection, and for a tenner, thereabouts, got the CDs from EBay. I reckon for certain people, certain types of music, CD, as it disappears into download, will have its own intriguing cachet. Remember how shiny and modern they looked back then? I was speaking with a friend at the weekend as she offloaded most of her books to the charity shops - feeling that she was just carting round these musty volumes from spare room to spare room - and for what purpose? She's 2 children now, and I guess her priorities have changed. I explained that in some ways my books, records and CDs were my "footprint", a sense of self that I can't even begin to explain away - the whole is bigger than the parts. And, yes, something of that is the fact that I still buy these things, and grew up in a house where books were generally absent, records were rare. And, as jobs and careers and relationships haven't quite worked out as I've hoped for, this has been a one constant. Last year, spurred on by the "Hacienda Classics" CD that came out, I thought I'd digitise some of my own favourite house records from that era. I ended up with 10 CD worth of house music - almost all from 12" and 7" singles, or from "Jack Trax" type compilations. It felt utterly pointless and yet at the same time absolutely right. I've begun to inherit collections from friends now; records and books, and sure enough, as my friend pulled up at the station she said, "have a look in the boot, see if there's anything you want." I liberated the poetry books, of course, glad to give them a good, appreciative home - even if I still don't own my own place either.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Liverpool City of No Culture

Well, its Liverpool City of No culture for me - I applied in the online ballot for 2 events, Britten and Taverner, and today got back a "you were unsuccessful" email. I'm sure its all fair and above water, but there's a sense of "why bother?" They add, "there's lots of free events you can attend", like I care about that. I'm not a great one for booking months (years?) in advance so when you try to and still get knocked back you think, "Okay, if that's how its going to be." I'd kind of thought that even though they would be popular, that prebooking would get me in to at least one of them. Perhaps there was a Manchester postcode filter, who knows? Yeah, yeah, just sour grapes I know. But like when I applied for the Commonwealth games ballot it just made me think, if my money's not good enough then so be it. With that, there were tickets going spare much nearer the event of course. After leaving things a little late for the Manchester Festival (lack of meaningful publicity in their case), I was determined to plan ahead this time. Ho hum.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Cold

I've always liked writers to be on the sickly side, it seems far more achievable than this alpha-male powerhouses, meeting world leaders whilst writing their magnum opuses. But you always forget how even a simple cold is perfectly capable of stopping you in your tracks. I would add, that it almost seems designed for that very reason. In other words, I've looked ahead at the next few weeks and just about planned how I'm going to do all the things I have to do in a way that is relatively sane, but there's no slack at all built into that schedule. I woke up on Friday with a bit of a sore throat, and shook it off, but two days of irregular sneezing and now I've a fully blown cold, just ready for the week ahead. So everything is now dependent on which way the cold goes. I was - and am - looking forward to Elizabeth Baines's book launch tomorrow, for instance - but of course the hour has gone back last night, the rain's have started coming, the air will soon be filled with firework dust and ash, and I can see me hurtling into Chorlton on the 86 with a hacking cough that would disrupt the proceedings. Even tonight's 30 year re-run of the sublime "Abigail's Party" (BBC4, 10 o'clock) now feels beyond me, I'll have to remember how the video works - and fine a tape. It's hardly Robert Louis Stevenson or Keats, or Virginia Woolf or the Brontes, but there's nothing like a bit of feeling sickly for one to get back in touch with one's romantic, poetic side. I don't think I'll quite relapse to the extent that I've got "In Rainbows" on a loop, (I think the new Thurston Moore album "Trees Outside the Academy" is far better, anyhow). I suppose the upside is that if the cold gets worse I can batten down the hatches, unfreeze some soup, and surround myself with poetry books. I'm beginning to feel better alredy.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Collecting (Poems)

Ah, the nights are drawing in again and 'tis at this time of year that I sit down and begin collecting my poems together for another yearly pamphlet. Except, last year's I never quite got round to finishing for one reason or another - and this year, surely poetry has taken the rearest of backseats. But its October and the regular Poetry business pamphlet prize is always worth a look at, not that I've ever been shortlisted, longlisted or even distantlisted. but as prizes go its one of the nicest and simplest (and if the entry fee's a little higher, you only can assume its money well spent in that its encouraging poets who've enough for a little collection rather than the pay-per-poem contests that predominate.) What I like about it, is that it aims to do a real service to the poets who enter - by taking them and their aspirations seriously - after all, all pamphlets are judged anonymously, and it aims to do what all of us want, to produce a few well-promoted slim volumes as the prize. A prize, in other words, more valuable than money! And I've said before how I've become quite fond of the "pamphlet" as a way of showcasing a couple of dozen poems - not too few, not too many. Perhaps its the same amount you'd find in one of those lovely Penguin Modern Poets collections, sharing the space with 2 other like minds. I'd like to think so anyway. Perhaps Salt should inaugurate a Salt Modern Poets as a way of linking their catalogue with that illustrious past. I'd like that. But then I'd like to think that my latest "pamphlet", pushed together against the Poetry business deadline, is a valid one. You try and tell a story, putting some arresting poems at the start, creating an arc of subject and style, so that at the end, the reader would go back, rediscovering a few gems, but being impressed by the whole. As an inveterate compilation tape compiler, I'd love to be a poetry collection compiler - mine are fine, but my betters would be better (to go Ogden Nash-y on you). I think it must be the best of jobs, don't you? Compiler of the "Portable Faulkner", or of "The Essential Velvet Underground", or of "The New York Poets". Better that than "Fifty Poems about Cats" et al, where the subject matter is the only thing that matters. "Fifty Poems not about cats" would be good, mind.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

J.K. Rowling Wins the Nobel

...albeit in Ted Gioia's alternative universe.

Carving up Carver

Its interesting to hear that Tess Gallagher is to bring out a new version of Raymond Carver's famous, "What we talk about when we talk about love." This version will restore the cuts that his editor, Gordon Lish made. Critics seem to be of the opinion that the new book will do Carver a disservice - after all, it is far his clipped prose that he is most famous. I'd forgot that the book came out as late as 1981, since in my head his stories are so associated with the early seventies, working class America before and after the oil crisis. I like his work, but don't pretend to be have read all of it, and, it would be fair to say that I find some of the stories a little dated - in that they are so rooted in their blue collar past that is so different than the world we've grown up in. I imagine, Reaganomics in America was equally as devastating to that world as Thatcherism was in the UK, perhaps more so, in that we'd never had an American Dream to live up to - had "never had it good" really. So, given the more lyrical concerns of his later stories, I think we should welcome these new versions of Carver classics, stereo mixes to the beloved mono perhaps. It may well be, that the parochialism I sometimes find in a Carver story is less so in the new versions. Whichever, it will be a useful opportunity to re-read, contrast and compare.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Literary Season

It does seem very much like the literary season, with festivals to the left and right of us, the Booker announcement next Tuesday, and Doris Lessing winning the Nobel. Last, first. Its been heartening to see so much praise for Lessing, from the literary community mostly. As is often the case with literature you'll rarely hear a politician's voice. Yet is strange isn't it? Literature remains one of our greatest assets - as well as an important strand of the economy. Lessing was a writer I first encountered at university where we covered "The Golden Notebook" as part of our Women's Literature course, and "Memoirs of a Survivor" as part of our contemporary literature class. The latter class was notable for the mediocre novels on it (David Lodge's "How Far Can You Go", Ballard's "Empire of the Sun", Murdoch's "Under the Net), and then, to read "Memoirs of a Survivor" was to be transported somewhere else. I was amazed to find such an imaginative work amongst English writing. Its still a favourite, though I doubt it would be to everyone's taste. When people talk of Lessing deciding to write sci-fi, they seem to forget novels such as this which use some of the techniques of imaginative fiction, and use them in a modern way, but aren't in any way space opera. Yet it was always there, this imagination, and its why "The Golden Notebook" endures - a long book, but with a structure that allowed it to cover many different things. But just as labelling some of her work science fiction, labelling her as a political writer is both right and wrong. The brilliant "The Good Terrorist" dissects the left of the early 80s, through the "good terrorist" of the title. Through it she exposes some of the contradictions of the left, then and before - its sexism, its mysoginism, for instance - or, the way that the "middle class" left often had such a contempt for the ordinary people it was trying to liberate. Yet Lessing is not a polemicist; like Atwood, I think she is more interested in the observation of interesting things, people and stories, and looking for a method in which to do that better. Her books will continue to be read and studied; and to form a formidable body of work that covering half a century or more of writing will take more than a Nobel prize to deconstruct.

At yesterday's Manchester Literature Festival "double header" at Whitworth Art Gallery, Roddy Doyle praised Lessing, when he was asked what he read (fiction, contemporary and the classics was the general answer). It was the first time I'd heard him read, but it was wonderfully entertaining performance. His new book - of short stories that he'd written over 8 years for a Dublin based multi-cultural newspaper, in small episodes - seems to be a perfect introduction to his writing, and a chance for him to engage more fully with the contemporary reality of Ireland - always his subject, but as he said, one that had changed considerably in the last 20 years. Veterans of Manchester Literary events await the "mad" question that inevitably occurs towards the fag end of the evening - but poor Roddy got it from the first questioner. "I really liked the story," the woman intoned, poshly, "except the ending." He was incredibly gracious in response to this, but is probably still shaking his head at it, in a bar somewhere.

I've read Doyle, though I'm not someone who reads all his books, but I've never read either Maggie O'Farrell or Booker listed Anne Enright. Although they both read very well to a packed room, I got a sense they're not my kind of books. Anne's novel "The Gathering" is about a large dysfunctional Irish family, after bad news concerning one of them, and reading it an hour after hearing Doyle, you were struck by both the similarities and differences. She read it wonderfully, yet is sounds a despairing tale, and moreover, the narrator's hatred for her own mother - her anger - was a little too raw for my tastes. In the questions at the end, there was a point made that we are more uncomfortable when a woman is angry - thinking her unstable - than a man - thinking him strong. There's an element of this, I guess, yet, it seemed about "intent." Enright seems to be wanting to explore that anger, get to the bottom of what caused it, whereas perhaps male anger always has consequences rather than causes, and that it is the consequences that matter to the writer in those cases. Perhaps the difference between an interior and exterior novel. O'Farrell's novel was about secrets as well, about incarceration, lies and families. I came out a little exhausted, thinking, is this a male/female thing or something else? I could imagine having written the Doyle story, but the dark depressing experiences of these two books, where do they come from - and why were the writers attracted to the stories, or the readers attracted to the novels? "The Golden Notebook" and "Memoirs of a Survivor" are both partly about breakdown and mental illness, but Lessing found ways of exposing those themes that still seems contemporary. I'm wondering if a readership primed by Princess Diana's public interviews, and memoirs like David Peltzer, needs its suffering upfront, raw, on the page from the start - however accomplished (and both readers seemed accomplished), the writing is that describes it.

After the readings I walked home, since it was the Eid festival and Rusholme was inpassable, a sign of our contemporary reality, that rarely finds its way into fiction. I once included the local Mela in a short story, that in itself had nothing to do with multiculturalism, yet was utterly aware of the city in which it takes place. Doyle made the point that this story, the first he wrote - was about an Irish family and how they react to a stranger in their midst - but later, he began to write equally about the experience of the arrivees themselves.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Too Much Going On About Now

I'm home. I could have been at the Geoffrey Manton with Salt v. Transmission in an MMA style literary smackdown. I should have been at the Town Hall for a drinks reception for the Urban Screens Conference. But I was at the Manchester Blog Awards last night, straight after doing a presentation at Central Library, and today was at the conference until about 5; then tomorrow, after another day of conferencing, I'm going (in person? in avatar-mode?) to Lets Go Global's Second Life debut in All Saints Park. Then Saturday's some literary festival stuff, and I still haven't caught "Control." I've not listened to the Radiohead album yet. The fridge is full of dead salad (the only kind I ever own!) and I'm in the middle of mixing a new track. That's why I'm home then. There's too much going on about now - and I could feel a cold looming today (though it was freezing in the Great Hall, which might have explained it) with Manchester immersed in early morning fog. And I want to write something intelligent about the welcome news that Doris Lessing has won the Nobel for Literature but am too tired to do so.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Love Will Tear Us Apart

I'm yet to see "Control", the bio pic of Ian Curtis that opened on Thursday, but will try and fit it in during the week. In preparation, perhaps, I'm playing their music, that is, Joy Division's music. Its easy to forget - amidst all the talk of them being "legends" with that short clip of "Shadowplay" on So It Goes, or "Love Will Tear Us Apart" back in the top 50 - the way I discovered them, how they came into my life and changed it forever. My story, I once thought was unique, but since I've spoken to loads of people (mostly men, admittedly) who can repeat the same thing. It may seem hard to believe that there was a time when Joy Division weren't famous - and perhaps they always were - but music moved on quickly in the late 70s, early 80s, and the nostalgia industry had hardly begun. I was fourteen, it was the start of what must have been my fourth year - the start of preparation for O levels. Never someone who fitted in at school, I think adolescence, slow and awkward in my case, must have thrown me all out of kilter; though there's probably few or no pictures from that time. I'd been into music for a while, but a few old records - the Very Best of David Bowie, Blondie, ABBA, "A Day in the Life" - with pop music of the day heard very second-hand. Everyone at school seemed to have an older brother or sister who'd trained them in music since they were 11 or 12. Instead I was amazed by the carbon copy of the Beatles that you could hear on the Stars on 45 medley. I'd bought the album, and pause button ready had been trying to recreate my own medleys. Money was tight so if I bought a record it had to have 3 or 4 hits on it, songs that I liked, I'd never liked the ska of the Beat, or the mod of the Jam - and was even less fond of the heavy rock that most kids seemed to be into. It was into this context, that one night I happened to switch on the radio after 10.00 and hear John Peel. Whether for the first time or not - I think I must have heard it before and that this must have been a deliberate ruse - I'd somehow worked out that this was the only way to hear different music. Perhaps I saw it as a secret "crib" method, to catch up with the music before I got into the playground. He played the whole of the 4th side of "Still", the soon to be released posthumous album from Joy Division. I was transfixed. I'd never heard of them - I'd never heard "Love Will Tear Us Apart" incredibly - but this dark, dense music - and side 4 of "Still" includes some of their best songs, albeit live. Over the next couple of weeks I turned on the album charts to hear a couple of other tracks, but it was probably a month - so maybe late October, early November 1981, when I finally tracked down this starkly packaged double album at Fred's records on Cannock market. It felt like buying contraband, the word "Still" on the front - but, at £4.99 for a double, a bargain. Fred, as ever, handed it over in a brown paper bag. I took it back home and played it through headphones on my dad's stereo. Whereas he'd tolerated Beatles, ABBA, even Blondie, Joy Division, where - to him (and gloriously, to me) - all the songs sounded the same, a bass-heavy thud, with this almost incomprehensible vocal grumble over the top -for the next few years any record I'd play that was loud he'd say, "is this Joy Division?" So, "Still" is my favourite Joy Division album, partly because it was my first, and I didn't know anything about Ian Curtis being dead, not then, or that the band was no more and about to raise up as "New Order." My more savvy mate, Dave, already had "Love Will Tear Us Apart" and "Ceremony" - and would soon get "Closer" and "Unknown Pleasures" and the odd singles ("Atmosphere") that made Joy Division such a difficult band to collect. I guess, in 1981, "Still" was much more than just a new album, it was the only way of getting a Joy Division compilation. It also included this strange bluesy live cover "Sister Ray". I read the credits (Morrison - Reed - Tucker - Cale) but had no idea it was the Velvet Underground, another band I'd read about with intrigue. The live album was even muddier than the stark demos on the first disc, but with songs like "Shadowplay" and "Isolation" seemed to compile the best bits of their first two albums. I guess the stark beauty of "Closer" and the visceral power of "Unknown Pleasures" were later loves, and it was this murkiness that dragged me - and my friends towards "Still". By this time I'd begun to spend a precious few pennies on Record Mirror or - occasionally - the impenetrable NME, and must have edged towards an understanding of what Joy Division were, where they'd come from. But, remember, there was no Mojo, no internet, no mention of them in rock encyclopedias, and no information at all on those bewildering Factory sleeves. I'm looking forward to "Control" not to see my landscape - I'd have been 10 in 1977, Curtis and the rest of Joy Division were the generation before mine - which was suburban, but safer, already (post-Thatcher) undergoing change. Its interesting that its in black and white - I remember the seventies and early eighties, the early eighties in particular, most definitely in colour, a washed out colour from old photos perhaps, but the promise of new fabrics, burgundy jeans and yellow jumpers, leading to the extravagant dressing-up box of the New Romantics. Black and white was heavy metal colours; yet by the time - three years later - when I went to see my first night club gig (the Cocteau Twins at Birmingham Powerhouse) my transformation had completed, the black and white of the underground venue, and, as I walked down the stairs, the original (and now much played) version of "Sister Ray", by the Velvet Underground, played in full as the DJ waited for the place to fill up. We'd got there much too early. I was too young for Joy Division, but they were my band in a very private way, and one that over the years I've been shocked to share. I would soon see a very different New Order live, and years later, when they played outside the Town Hall welcoming the Commonwealth Games to Manchester it seemed absurd to hear my favourite, "Temptation" (7" from John Menzies, Walsall), played in this corporate square. Even this year, I heard "Love Will Tear Us Apart", played by Nouvelle Vague at their Manchester gig, and the crowd kept singing the chorus after the song should have stopped, a secular hymn, a shared experience. I'm saying, in some ways, that though Joy Division were the start of things for me, they were also the end of things as well. That lineage between the Velvets, Iggy Pop and Bowie and Joy Division was very real - but the only band to really take on from Joy Division was New Order, who went the direction that perhaps the Ian Curtis of the 2nd side of "Closer" would also have followed had he been able. I don't see echoes in the bands supposedly influenced by Joy Division, since they remain, with that small, repackaged, chaotic back catalogue, uncategorisable, still metallically modern, a band that I know many people adore - but who would, I guess, remain as impenetrable as ever to many. It might seem quixotic that "Still" would still be in my all time top ten albums, slightly ahead of "Unknown Pleasures" and "Closer", but there's something in it unformed-ness, its starkness, its murky depths that remains, for me, the essence of so much of my musical loves, desires, hopes and despairs.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

In Praise of Amises

It is with a sigh that I read that Terry Eagleton has criticised the Amises in his new book, according to the Independent, via Ready Steady Book. This is all 2nd and 3rd hand of course, and Terry's an old hand at self-promotion for his somewhat endless stream of books, yet there's something disconcerting of this Marxist critics continued criticising of writers, in the case of both Kingsley and Martin Amis, for their politics (and personal life), rather than their books. But of course, Eagleton's take on literary criticism always seems to be pop-cultural lite, leaving the book at the door as soon as he can, and then going on about his same old tropes. I'm far more interested in Kingsley Amis than I ever will be in Terry Eagleton, and the description of him as "a racist, anti-Semitic boor, a drink-sodden, self-hating reviler of women, gays and liberals" doesn't ring true from what I've read. Its a reductionist reading, partly of a (deliberate) persona, and partly retrofitting contemporary mores to earlier times. Yet, I can only defend the books, not the man, and they have far more humanity, and humour, than this preposterous description would admit. Yes, "Stanley and the Women" is a misanthropic piece, but its one of his very worst novels as a result. As for Martin, it should be obvious that his politics are the least interesting part of him; somehow he needs the big threat, the big subject, to kickstart the baroque satires of his best fiction. Our interest in both father and son is for their writing, primarily their fiction. Eagleton, 9 books this decade and counting, doesn't interest me in the slightest. A quote from Eagleton's Manchester University profile reads "'Pure' literary theory - Formalism, semiotics, hermeneutics, narratatology, psychoanalysis, reception theory, phenomenology and the like - have taken something of a back seat these days to a more narrowly conceived theoretical agenda, so it would be agreeable to see a resurgence of interest in these regions." Not sure what that keen Grammarian, Kingsley, would have thought of these being called "regions" (like the North West or the Midlands perhaps?), but its the "agreeable" I like. I was lucky enough to avoid theory during my university literature career, and actually read the books, not the meta-texts about the books. It still seems the only correct approach.

Robert Wyatt, English Treasure

With a new Robert Wyatt album out next week, I thought I'd dig out a little piece I wrote about Wyatt, close to being my favourite artist - with a personal selection of his greatest at the end.

ROBERT WYATT - ENGLISH TREASURE

Robert Wyatt is a unique artist, without comparison within rock music of the last 40 years. As the drummer and occasional singer with sixties avant-rock band the Soft Machine, he had a place in one of the pivotal times for music. Musical friendships formed at that time have endured, even if the so-called “Cambridge scene” that gave up Soft Machine, Gong and Caravan and their various alumni, seems self-indulgent in retrospect. Soft Machine, along with the Pink Floyd, were leaders of the psychedelic avant garde of late sixties London, performing at the famed UFO club, and, over a period of 4 albums becoming a concert and late night radio fixture.

Part of Wyatt’s appeal is that although as a musician and singer he is far closer to the improvised jazz scene, he has always shown both a pop sensibility and an affinity with certain elements of rock music. That he played with Jimi Hendrix in the late sixties, has worked frequently with the rock guitar greats Dave Gilmour and Robert Fripp, and has recorded songs by Neil Diamond, John Lennon, Elvis Costello and Chic, shows a remarkable breadth of appeal and influence; yet throughout this, the percussive expertise, the nods to improvisation, the innovative if apparently na├»ve piano playing, and mostly one of the most uniquely stylised and recognisable vocals in twentieth century have created a consistency that has survived and surpassed all fashions. Running in a wayward parallel path to British pop and rock music of the last four decades, Wyatt has emerged periodically, as almost a reminder of so much of that music’s shallowness. Whether it was his top 40 hit from the early ‘70s covering the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer”, the anti-Falklands Costello song “Shipbuilding” from the political charged early ‘80s, or the surprise 2004 Mercury Prize nomination for his “Cloudcuckooland” album.

My own acquaintance with his music began in an unexpected way. Every week, Radio 1 would play the new singles, and usually they would be predictable, unexciting, and bland. One week, it played a song called “Grass.” I only heard it on the radio the once. It had an Indian styled percussion, a voice that was English-accented, deadpan, and woefully unprotected by the mix, and strange, yet poignant lyrics. I remembered the name, Robert Wyatt, but in those days pre-CD, pre-internet, it was impossible to find the record. When I did, on a Rough Trade compilation of singles, “Nothing Can Stop Us” I was devastated to find that none of the other songs sounded a bit like “Grass.” Yet, over time the album became an unexpected favourite, prompting me to seek out his ‘70s work, in particular the album “Rock Bottom” and his post-Soft Machine band Matching Mole.

After he left Soft Machine, with some rancour, he created an avant garde solo album “The end of an ear” before coming up with a new band, Matching Mole, so-called because it was an English hearing of the French for Soft Machine. That first Matching Mole album included “O Caroline”, a beautiful ballad, that remains one of my all time favourite songs. Yet, this was as nothing to “Rock Bottom.” An album unique in the pantheon, it’s six songs are orchestral in scope, pastoral in feel, and a mix of immense sadness and inescapable hope. Wyatt, shortly beforehand, had become wheelchair bound through falling off a balcony, drunk. Instead of ending his career, it somehow began it. Unable to live a “normal” rock star life, the convalescing Wyatt, supported by his partner Alfreda Benge, (a painter who painted most of his album covers), created one of the masterpieces of ‘70s music. “Progressive” but also timeless, its mixture of sophisticated musical textures, and plaintive childlike lyrics and singing, becoming one of the most critically acclaimed albums of 1974. The next Virgin album “Ruth is Stranger Than Richard” was more of a jazz album, though it did include “Soup Song”, a typically humorous song about er… soup.

By this time, Wyatt was becoming increasingly politically active and engaged. As a singer exploring different styles he took influence from around the world, and although he was mostly sceptical of music to “change the world”, he saw that music could come out of struggle and reflect that struggle for the wider world to see. Increasingly during the eighties and nineties his music would reflect this world-view. Covers of “The Red Flag” and the “International” sitting besides songs dedicated to East Timor and even the soundtrack to the anti-vivisectionist movie “The Animals.” As a singer and musician however, this activism has never obscured the need to entertain. Rather, Wyatt seems similar to the protest singers of previous ages, reflecting the concerns of his audience, or of the age, but remaining, first and foremost, a musician. And if some of those equally committed singers such as Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg and Paul Weller, have dipped out of direct polemic, as their influence has reduced, for Wyatt, it seems that his almost negligible commercial presence (his recordings have generally appeared for the independent labels Rykodisk and Rough Trade), has allowed this continued freedom to operate as a lone political voice. Rarely able to play live, his “help” has been frequently offered via guest appearances on a large number of recordings, from Phil Manzenera’s “Diamond Head” album, to Working Week’s “Venceremos” single, to Ultramarine’s “United Kingdoms” album. Being a Robert Wyatt fan has involved keeping an eye on the sidetracks and back alleys of contemporary music.

Since “Old Rottenhat” in 1985 he has, to some extent, had a more regular career, albeit with quite long gaps between albums, with “Dondestan”, “Schleep” and “Cloudcuckooland” being careful, considered works, each one being welcomed by anyone who has ever been beguiled by his remarkable voice.

My personal Robert Wyatt "best of"...

SHIPBUILDING Single
Written specifically for Wyatt by Clive Langer and Elvis Costello it was possibly the only explicit anti-Falklands song to receive airplay and make the charts.
KINGDOM “United Kingdoms” CD by Ultramarine
The UK dance scene had fractured by the mid-90s and more ambient/pastoral sounds were as welcome as harder beats. Ultramarine inspiredly collaborated with Wyatt on their 2nd album “United Kingdoms.”
TEAM SPIRIT “Ruth is Stranger than Richard” CD
“Ruth…” is a sophisticated jazz album from 1975, like an English Steely Dan, and this driving rhythmic track is its standout. Features Eno on “direct anti-jazz ray gun” (which clearly failed!)
LULLALOOP “Cloudcuckooland” CD
“Cloudcuckooland” was a surprise near-hit in 2004, being shortlisted for the Mercury Prize. Essentially a “double album” it was Wyatt’s most complex and achieved work for years. Written by his wife, Alfreda Benge, this track features Paul Weller on guitar.
A LAST STRAW “Rock Bottom” CD
“Rock Bottom” from 1974 is almost impossible to extract from, its 6 long songs forming a beautiful whole. The album was produced by Nick Mason of Pink Floyd.
FREE WILL AND TESTAMENT “Shleep” CD
Signing for reissue label Rykodisc after years on Rough Trade seemed to cause a renaissance for Wyatt, 1997’s “Shleep” a quietly pastoral album.
I’M A BELIEVER Single
The unexpected Monkees cover was an unexpected 1974 hit, but the BBC infamously wouldn’t let a singer in a wheelchair appear on Top of the Pops in case it upset the viewers. A follow up cover “Yesterday Man” was almost as good, but didn’t make the charts.
O CAROLINE “Matching Mole” CD
The most traditional track Matching Mole recorded, it shows Wyatt’s soon-to-be more apparent romanticism to the full. It’s also one of my favourite songs of all time.
FOREST “Cloudcuckooland” CD
“Cloudcuckooland” is a suite of songs, of which “Forest” is one of the most affecting, with backing vocals by Eno and guitar by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour.
GRASS “Nothing Can Stop Us” LP
An Ivor Cutler song, and my own introduction to Wyatt. The deadpan south-east accent and intentionally hilarious lyrics show the lighter side to Wyatt’s muse.
INSTANT PUSSY Smoke Signals Live by Matching Mole CD
The scat-sung track from Matching Mole’s debut recorded on tour in Europe in 1972.
FRONTERA “Diamond Head” LP by Phil Manzanera
From 1975 and a hidden highlight of his career, co-written with Roxy Music’s Manzanera on his 1975 album “Diamond Head” this is an early sign of his interest in latin rhythms and voices.
WINDS OF CHANGE “Cloudcuckooland” CD
The politically charged days of the mid-eighties saw a number of collaborations of which this joyous track, with the SWAPO singers from South Africa, produced by Jerry Dammers of the Specials AKA, was a highlight.
SEA SONG “Rock Bottom” CD
The opening song of “Rock Bottom.”
AT LAST I AM FREE “Nothing Can Stop Us” LP
A Chic album track that had Wyatt not decided to cover, may have stayed in unexpected obscurity. The lyrics clearly had political currency, but it’s the beauty of both song and vocal that astound. Liz Fraser would cover it in a similar style for Rough Trade’s 25th anniversary.
THE AGE OF SELF “Old Rottenhat” LP
Essentially his first proper album since “Ruth…” “Old Rottenhat” is a series of glorified home recordings, mostly politicised.
LOVE Uncut Magazine Lennon Tribute CD
A recent cover version of a John Lennon solo song that perfectly matches song and singer.

Post

There's another postal strike today. It seems a weird inconvenience in the world of email. (The internet doesn't strike.) And I'm all for a better postal service, better post offices etc. and would probably even be able to tell the government how here it was continuing get it wrong. And so sympathy for striking posties aside, it is an inconvenience for us writers. Last time, I was sending some poems to a poetry magazine and whether that was the reason or just coincidence, my SAE got separated from its parent and returned empty a few days later. This time, I was thinking of putting together an entry for a pamphlet competition (I'm off for the day), and now think, oh, what's the point? since the post office will be closed and the boxes sealed. With writers being one of the last groups who relies on the post its a bit annoying. Not as annoying as the "lost parcel" from Amazon of course. Rather than use reliable Royal Mail, they've started using unreliable Home Delivery Network, for some of its deliveries, and its been stuck in their Farnworth depot for a week. They didn't leave a card (though they said they did, must be all those card thieves at my flats) or any other way of arranging delivery, and even though Amazon have contacted them, not a dicky bird. It's annoying thats all. Annoying.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Houses of the UnHoly - Like Punk Rock Never Happened

Radiohead's last album "Hail to the Thief" was predicated on George W. Bush being a trickster and a huckster. Yet Radiohead themselves know a little about the old P.T. Barnum. No longer popular outside their large fan base, their new album, like Prince's is available for free (or nearly) as a download that you can "pay what you want" for. Yet, knowing their (ageing) fanbase might like the convenience of MP3, but also likes the physical touch of product, they've announced that "In Rainbows" will also be available as a special edition release. Not since the mid 70s and prog-rock has such lavishness been expended on the packaging. For £40 you get the download, the CD, the album as double 12" vinyl, another CD (b-sides? Out takes?) and a lavish box. Bypassing record labels and the like (though inevitably using the fulfilment services of that same record industry, rabid fans (and are there any other sort with Radiohead?) will be forking out the equivalent of 5 chart CDs for the physical product. You have to admire the two-way street here - its free (for the music) but a fortune (for the package.) Radiohead have been here before of course - Kid A and Amnesia was essentially a double album ripped apart to maximise income. Yet like a huckster in a temporary shop on Oxford Street, selling you something you don't want, with the promise of giving you a bargain, Radiohead will surely pull the wool over their fans eyes, so shocked to be given such short notice of the new album. The download is available in ten days, the package just in time for Christmas. It will be a beautiful thing, like an edition of McSweeneys, but they're the ones pricing the lavish package as a thing to die for (or fork out £40 for.) What I say is: Pay nothing. Make your own packaging.

OverCultured

Whichever way I look at it, I go to on average one cultural event a week, and that's often enough, or all that I can manage. I feel very uncultured sometimes - not catching this programme, reading this book, or going to this concert or play. I'm almost pathologically allergic to festivals - all those options in such a short space of time - oh, and I've got a day job. But last Saturday went to see Hoi Polloi at the Lowry, Monday caught "Atonement" (the movie) and last night saw Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express at the University. Theatre, film 'n' rock then. No wonder I don't get time to write much. How on earth does Mark Lawson do it? Does he clone himself or something? Ah, think of all the cultural roads less travelled through making those particular choices. So, its with some foreboding that I've preregistered for the Liverpool 08 festival of culture, putting my hat in the ring for concerts by John Taverner, and, excitingly, Britten's "War Requiem" at the Anglican Cathedral. I rang a friend up to say, what are you doing next June? And she said, "why, are you getting married?" Yep, booking a ticket that far in advance is long enough to meet someone, fall in love and arrange the wedding. I could be anything or anywhere by then. But I guess its good to plan ahead. Start thinking like this and I could get my cultural itinerary fixed for the next year or so.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The IT Crowd's Over

I quite enjoyed the 2nd series of the IT Crowd but it was the most uneven comedy I think I've seen since the first season of "The Young Ones". Set in the systems department in the basement of a large company, the first series was full of knowing jokes about nerds, the tension being caused by them having a female (and non IT literate) boss. Why the 2nd series was better because the dynamic between the 3 came centre stage - Jen was, in her own way, nerdy, and yet trying to be sophisticated. The first episode when shes goes on a date, that turns into a works outing, to a musical called "Gay - the gay musical", was genius, as was the Dinner Party episode - but the rest of the series, moored to the office, was far less convincing. All sitcoms have their ups and downs, but rarely have I seen a show that was so variable in both its tone and quality - yet, it only ran for 6 episodes. Last night's final episode was the worst of the series, a real disappointment, but its obvious why, Jen and the nerds were in different parts of the building for most of the episode, and the comic tension was totally dissipated.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Juxtaposition

On the side of a bus in Manchester yesterday was a big advertisement for the film "Run, Fatboy, Run." And on the back another advertisement for "Wayne Rooney - the Story so far", which I felt was a bit unfair on the Man Utd player. Such juxtapositions can be an advertisers' nightmare, and the web makes it worse, as those advertisers who used Facebook found themselves advertising on a BNP page. So much for affinity marketing - after all fascists need moble phones as well. You can read the Guardian's book pages and get opposing views in different articles - say, if there was an avant garde poet cheek and jowl with the new Carole Ann Duffy, you might find both reviewers would talk about them in glowing terms (different reviewers, more than likely). When this happens is an editor being merely mischievous or is it healthy? I'd say the latter, of course, though I bumped into a poet who attended the Amis/Banville/Self "debate" on Monday, who felt that they were all singing a little from the same hymn sheet, and a contrarian voice (or perhaps someone younger - or without a penis) might have made a it more of a debate. I wasn't there of course, so there might be other interpretations. The literature festival, coming up, and you look a little in vain for contrarians, and yet, in a small way this must be a victory for the sense of literature as community and for the programming of what is a relatively small lit fest on only its 2nd year. Yet I crave a bit of juxtaposition - David Peace on the Booker list, or M.I.A. vs Amy Winehouse in a tag wrestling match perhaps. One of my reasons for a continued obsession with Fitzgerald/Hemingway's friendship/falling out, is because, though supportive, both American writers, and clearly forging a new fiction together, they are so different - if there wasn't the friendship it would be hard to put the books side by side. Even when your comparing the French literary community of "Tender is the Night" and "A Moveable Feast" your coming up against contradictions, in style, in attitude and finally in personality. If "The Old man and the sea" and "The Last Tycoon" had both been their first rather than last books would we have ever even put them on the same page? And what I'm getting to here of course, is the work itself, that though we perhaps crave coherence and stability in our lives and friendships, in love and art it can be opposites attracting, and the juxtaposition is what we want. How else can you explain our new way of listening to music - random play on an iPod - so you can have Carl Cean's disco anthem "I was Born this way" (I'm happy/I'm carefree/I'm gay) next to some cock rock from AC/DC. What I want, I think, is safe old literature to begin embracing juxtaposition, taking a John Ashbery poem like "How much longer must I inhabit the divine sepulchre" with its endless juxtapositions, and saying, "yes, this is the model, this is literature."

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Amis in St.Anns

I'd kind of forgotten that its a "new era" at my alma mater, University of Manchester, where a newly minted (and suddenly taken serious Creative Writing school has been established.) Martin Amis begins to earn his crust in a debate (sold out, and I'm busy anyhow) with Will Self and John Banville at St. Ann's church this evening. As an alumni of the old creative writing course, wonder if we're being written out of history, Stalinist style? Perhaps not, the events are on their website if you can find them, and I can get ready for Christmas with a further dose of Amis, this time on "Literature and Terrorism", perhaps proving that my idea for a "9/11 101" course wasn't too far fetched. It will be interesting to see what he covers. I'm always a little dubious of thematic books/courses/lectures etc. since inevitably you go hunting around for works that fit the theme, rather than necessarily what's good, what's bad. Of course, you often get a better sense of how writers are wrestling with issues from bad books as good books. Back to tonights event I'd have loved to hear what they've got to say, "literature in the 21st century", being the theme. In about 1998 I wrote an essay about the fiction writer in the 21st century, calling for more stories, more engagement with the times, more proper books, big and small, rather than the fag ends of postmodernism and the like. I suggested as well, that the era demanded the earnest Edwardians, rather than the shock of the new that would come with the modernists. In retrospect I was complaining about a literature that doesn't engage, that avoids the issues of the day, and which hides behind new orthodoxies of "literary fiction." The prediction pretty much came true, of course, from "The Life of Pi" to "White Teeth", from Michael Faber to Sarah Waters, from "The Corrections" to "Atonement", "proper novels" have been in vogue. Even David Mitchell's valid success is based upon a love of the story, a lack of obfuscation. It will be interesting to see what Amis - with a decade out of the fictional world before his more recent "Yellow Dog" and "House of Meetings" - Self, masterly in "The Book of Dave", but with a few years when his drug habits were more important than his literary habits, and Banville, belatedly given an award for "The Sea", and in many ways, the kind of post-Joyce novelist I felt whose time had gone, will think about the 21st century novelist. All of them, of course, are 20th century novelists. Will they be predicting the future? Tearing up their own books in despair at the Young Turks? Or upping the drawbridge against anything that doesn't conform to their own ideal. I hope that someone who goes feels able to post on their own blog, or in reply here.

Friday, September 21, 2007

700 Penguins and no cold feet

I was in Waterstones today and saw a book that was a real pleasure. 700 Penguins does what is says on the tin, and takes the covers of 700 Penguin books and compiles them in a single book. I'm not alone in finding Penguins iconic, but what's great is the range and the quality of the work. You begin looking at your Penguins again! I flicked through and found a few iconic ones I loved, but, though coffee-table art books are well down my list, I'm sure I'm going to invest in this one.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

On Tour

I feel like I've been on tour the last week: London, Luton, Cannock, Cambridge, Bury, finishing off in Wythenshawe tomorrow. Work mostly, but you end up with a bit of a screwed up sense of perspective and place. A mix of meetings and presentations, so the only time I've spent at home seems to have been over an ironing board. I've not listened to any music, read anything more exciting than a newspaper, and I need a break from it. That's why I've got a little culture lined up, going to the Lowry to see a theatre piece "Floating", and have finally arranged to go and see "Atonement." Was almost put off by the half price copies of the novel, with its pretty-film-people cover, that was the most prominent thing on offer at all those railway stations I'd passed through. Obviously the week's most exciting news was that Roman Abramovich had bought Northern Rock - or have I got that wrong? Oh, that was it, Portugeuse police have made Jose Mourinho an Aguido. Something like that. "Aguidos" will make a great title for a song, of course, "We are suspects/but there's no crime".

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Forty-Seven Years in the Universalist Ministry and other rare books

Fascinating to read the list of "most sought after" rare books from Bookfinder.com - truly bizarre, some of them!

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Booker & Mercury

Yeah, I know it sounds like a team of fictional detectives, dour serious Jim Booker and flighty, intuitive Liz Mercury, but given that the shortlist of one and the winner of the other were both announced this week, I thought I might try and put a bit of perspective on things. I used to devour news about the Booker - and the BBC used to show the ceremony every year, possibly the only time it ever gave ANY time over to books. Was it last year or the year before it gave up on the show - and just shoved it into Newsnight or something? I actually complained to them and got back one of their "we know better than you" responses. I pointed out they could put it on BBC4 if they cared that little about it. Fact is, the Booker show was a really nice format - small extracts of the novels, a panel discussion, a chat to the Bookies, and then to the ceremony itself, all over in half an hour. Since "Life of Pi" won it in 2002 there seems to have been a little uncertainty about what it's about now. That book, DBC Pierre and a few others on the shortlist, were clearly enjoyable one-offs, rather than debut novels by potentially great writers. The last couple of years - with Banville and Hollinghurst - a new seriousness has returned, and seems as misjudged as those "one offs". I guess the comments about "On Chesil Beach" reflect this. McEwan may well be our most consistent novelist, but that every work should be automatically a Booker nominee seems to miss the point somewhat. I'm pleased that Nicola Barker is on the shortlist, I've not read "Darkmans" yet, but think her previous short novel "Five Miles from Outer Hope" is an unacknowledged little masterpiece (and quite a bit longer than "On Chesil Beach" for that matter). The longlist was quite historical and there are times when you think the Booker is becoming our "best history novel" prize. Part of the question over McEwan is whether his best books are past, present and future. My favourite novel of his is "The Innocent", a cold war thriller, closely followed by the contemporary "Enduring Love". The most disappointing I've read was Booker winner "Amsterdam" and his sci-fi novel "Child in Time." I think "Atonement" is a great popular work, but is a bit of a shaggy dog story at heart and "Saturday" is an interesting but minor work. I'd be surprised if any of this year's list is as good as David Peace's "The Damned United" or Will Self's "Book of Dave" or Magnus Mill's "Three to See the King", which are among the best eligible novels I've read in the last few years. In other words, where I once found a good number of writers and novels from the Booker list, I think its an uncomfortably mix these days between agreable lit-lite ("Life of Pi", "Fingersmith") and something worthy, but somewhat old-fashioned, ("The Line of Beauty", "Never Let Me go"). Old fashioned is perhaps not something the Mercury can be accused of - Klaxons winning over more traditional bands. Though, much as I like their album - its full of hits, very of its moment - it reminds me of bands like Lo Fidelity All Stars, Carter USM, even Mansun, rather than being quite as futuristic as the band claim. But then when I've been listening to "Kala" the new album by M.I.A., as well as the shortlisted "Maths & English" by Dizzee Rascal (inevitably, far better than his debut, which won), pretty much everything else sounds old fashioned. I'm presuming "Kaya" will be eligible for next year's prize, which, in any sane world it will win.