Saturday, October 14, 2017

A Noble Prize for Ish

The Nobel Prize for literature is always a surprise. Though people still get surprised by it, wondering why, for instance, a slight, but popular novelist like Murakami hasn't won it. I don't know why Murakami keeps coming up, perhaps as a Japanese novelist with a worldwide audience, but if there's a British equivalent (there isn't really), then its certainly not Kazuo Ishiguro, who shares heritage and a Japanese name but little else.

Ishiguro is the first British recipient since the British-Zimbabwean-Iranian Doris Lessing. Unlike Lessing, Ish grew up in the UK, as well as coming of age in the early eighties and quickly becoming part of its literary establishment, albeit off in a side room somewhere, rather than front of house. A graduate of UEA, he was always mentioned as a second to McEwan as an outcrop of it's famous creative writing course; and a Nobel prize of course puts that to bed - and gives the UK's first city of literature its own Nobel laureate.

I recall reading "A Pale View of Hills", his debut, in the mid-eighties and enjoying it alot, though it did feel a somewhat slight, thin book, and I need to re-read it. "Remains of the Day", his third novel, didn't sound at all like my sort of thing - that default position of the English novel - a nostalgia for a country house past. I probably saw the film at the time but only read the book years later. Of course its much more than that. Ishiguro had found a perfect subject to match his interest in the unsaid, the understated, the dignity and otherwise of repressed feelings, yet one that was not set in Japan, but in England, albeit a version that was already much gone in the early eighties. It was of course a brilliant move, as it's a book that is both about the English establishment, and critical of it, and it is also a sad, human love story. Its fascinating that this would be the book that he would write. I've always wondered if McEwan, who actually comes from a very stratified British background, looked at the success of "Remains of the Day" (and later "Birdsong") and led to his own exploration of the upper class reticence that we find in "Atonement."

"The Unconsoled" - again a book I read along time ago - was my favourite of his at the time. It was another about turn. A sign that this novelist was wilful in his choice, not just of subjects, but of styles. Here we have the opposite of his Booker winner, instead of specific place and character, we have an unknown country, an unnamed protagonist. Ishiguro has never been a prolific novelist - the books seem to all come out as surprises, presumably after working on them for a few years. Perhaps this explains their diversity of theme and style. They have been popular around the world. I remember one interview where Ishiguro mentioned that he would make his language simpler, aware of the role of the translator; so he's not a writer unaware of his standing, but I was disappointed to hear this from a writer. In some ways this indicates his strengths and weaknesses. There are few writers able to build up such an accumulated atmosphere, from small moments, yet it isn't the prose that does the work so much as the accumulation. I always thought his next great success, the dystopian novel about children harvested for their genes, "Never Let Me Go", was a novella or a long story extended to novel length unecessarily. For me, the decision to set it in a fictional time place - a world that is deliberately anachronistic - was its real weakness; a sign of a novelist unable to quite deal with the contradictions of his ideas. The private school the characters are at is as if from the 1950s, and the echo of fifties Wyndham and other dystopian writers, is there, yet it is set in a notional seventies and eighties. Technology has gone on a different track, an alternate past, rather than alternate future. It makes for an odd read. Yet the humanism of the novel comes through in the end and what turns it into a great book; though I found so much of the set up unconvincing. With novels that also dabble in detective noir and fantasy history he's an impossible writer to characterise, certainly braver in his choices than McEwan or Amis for instance. Like Julian Barnes every book is different, and his lack of or avoidance of a signature style has made him convincing across the genres, whilst at the same time his books do share something - and I think this rather than prose style is what the Academy has praised - a certain atmosphere, a quietitude. His characters are almost always unknowing of their situation, accepting of their lot, until it is almost too late. It seems, in this instance, to be an update of more wilful writers like Beckett and Kafka; but there is no nihilism in Ishiguro, there is love,  and hope, and that humanism.

The Nobel, of all prizes is no judge of literary excellence, but it is it's own strange reading list; international in scope, adverse for whatever reason to the greats of American literature, and prone to like hyphenate writers - whether that is in their nationality, like with Ishiguro or Lessing, or in art form. His books, never frequent, have slipped to five year intervals, with the story collection "Nocturnes" splitting the decade between "Never Let Me Go" and the poorly received "The Buried Giant." At sixty-two this is hopefully no end of career prize though one wonders how this often garlanded, but similarly reticent writer, might be changed a little by the global status the Nobel gives him. An interesting, and worthwhile rather than worthy choice.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Perhaps it was the idea of the film that had put me off reading this novel previously. In the 1980s there seemed to be a whole range of slick adaptions of 20th century literary classics – mostly from Merchant-Ivory though “The Sheltering Sky” was Bertolucci – and Bowles’ debut novel probably got tainted by it; though I’m pretty sure I’ve not seen the film either.

Port Moresby is with his wife Kit on an escape from a devastated post-war Europe. His father has died leaving him the money to do as he pleases – anything other than work – and he insists that he is a traveller rather than a tourist, though he always carries too much luggage, speaks only European languages, and insists on staying in the best hotel wherever he is. They are joined on this trip by the younger Tunner, an amiable adventurer who has fallen in love with Kit, but truthfully, is in love with them both in some way.

The style of the book shifts in terms of sympathies – written often as not in a localised internalised third person, only zooming out every now and then, a technique that creates the quiet claustrophobia that sets in from the very first page.

They are in Northern Algeria, but Port is unhappy there. His relationship with Kit is now sexless and they have adjoining rooms. He wants, more than anything it seems, to be away from everything, to be alone, but he can’t quite manage that true adventurer’s calling, and has dragged her and her luggage – and at the last minute, his friend Tunner – along for the ride. Port hates the world he has come from, hates Europe, America, and civilisation, but he also dislikes the colonial French, and more than that he loathes the Arabs and other indigenous populations, whilst being drawn into the potential excitement of an unmediated world. Kit, on the other hand, is there because she is scared of losing him – though in many ways he is already lost – and because her fear requires her to have someone to hang on to. Tunner’s puppy love asphyxiates her and she just wants time spent with Port, but when they are together they argue, or worse, fail to communicate. His very seriousness – his existential consideration of where he – they – are going is in itself something that Kit finds hard to take seriously; it as if the very emptiness of his life, and of his dreams, is now so obvious that she can only be drawn along with it. Her vibrancy is an affront in some ways to Port; who does as much as he can to hurt her, and in doing so, to double up on the hurt he feels himself.

He might be devastated to know she has been unfaithful to him, but before this happens, he thinks nothing of going off into the town and finding a young woman prostitute, who then steals his wallet. He is an American out of sorts in a world that is still in bits, and yet he is enough of an American to resent the theft, to want to use his money as more than currency – hating the haggling of the Arabs he meets, but at the same time wanting to always buy more than just a good or a service with his money. He at one point sees a blind woman dancing in a bordello, and is desperate to have her, but she is gone before he can make it happen. He is certain he has lost the chance of love.

The book is nevertheless one of stories told. The famous story of three girls who go to have tea in the Sahara, and are found with only sand in their cups. The great desert is always on the corner of the tale, until, as they head further south into it, it also becomes the tale, and in the third part of the book, becomes Kit’s very existence.


Along the way they keep bumping into an English con man and his mother/wife, who they try and avoid, except when it is expedient to take a lift with them. By separating himself from Kit and Tunner as he goes south with them – leaving them to take the train – Port seems to be willing the action to happen; yet he doesn’t find out about the betrayal (his betrayals of Kit are the greater.) There’s a compelling existentialism to all of this. The man who has no longer got a belief in anything, and the woman for whom there is still hope – but where the hope resides in her husband. Throughout, the prose is remarkable. The interior knowledge we have of each of the characters only makes more complex their motivations, rather than allowing us to understand them. The usual motivations – money, lust – are replaced by different ones; of living a meaningful life. A dark reading of the novel could see it as being a book about the devastation we all must feel, when we realise life is not leading to something, as much as away from something. Port’s illness manifests itself as he takes them further and further away from civilisation; where only Kit can see him suffer. In this she finds her own motivations to live – but then – unable to escape and lost in a desert where she could just as easily perish, she becomes herself another victim of circumstance; perhaps achieving the negation of personality that Port was looking for. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

20 Years Ago

This weekend sees the students returning to Manchester and local kids giving up their summer jobs to head to other cities. It suddenly struck me that twenty years ago I was also starting at University of Manchester, for my M.A. in novel writing.

In truth, I'd been prompted to memory by the documentaries about Princess Diana's death. I'd left my job in Croydon the previous week, with a short break before starting at University. My dad had taken almost all my stuff back up, leaving me with just a suitcase for my final week in London in a now spartan bedsit. I'd woke up on the Sunday morning to be told that Princess Diana had died in a car crash in Paris. "Oh, really?" I probably said, and rolled over and back to sleep. Diana was only a vague presence to me in 1997 - she'd left royal life, and all the soap opera that came with her marriage breakdown. I'd never had much time for her, but had a vague respect that she'd done some good work recently around land mines and AIDS; but tabloid Diana, with the tacky boyfriends and paparazzi followers was something that had passed me by. I'd been living in London for a year, and I'm pretty sure she'd not been a presence in the city during that time - the dog days of John Major's failed minority government and the triumphalism of Tony Blair's electoral landslide. At the same time I was listening to an eclectic mix of music - the Britpop overflow of rubbish like Stereophonics etc. that came along in the wake of Oasis's regal success and overbloated third album "Be Here Now" only just giving way to the more cerebral pleasures of Belle and Sebastian, Spiritualized, the Verve and Radiohead. I'd write about a lot of this - music, politics, art - in the novel I was beginning to think about.

I went back to London for a week, and the indifference to Diana was hard to hold, given the hysteria that took hold of the country during that week. Alone in my bedsit I found myself drawn to the rolling coverage and even to some extent drawn in. On the morning of the funeral I meant to get up early and join the throngs on the Mall, but then I must have stayed up late, overslept, and watched it on television - or more likely saying my goodbyes to the city that had been my home for just less than a year, glad to be returning to Manchester.

Before I decided to go back to college I'd been seriously writing for several years. The old "bottom drawer" novel had been followed by one that I'd written in Manchester in 1994-5 in between the day job, called "Lineage" which got shortlisted for the Lichfield prize, the first time anyone outside of friends and family had given me any approval. Until then, I didn't know if what I was doing was "real" writing, or, like my music, I was just an enthusiastic amateur. Going down to London I'd at least met a few writers and other creatives. There were a group of poets who used to meet up in a pub in Brixton, scabbing drinks, and not, as far I could see, writing all that much. There was the odd journalist or novelist I'd meet at a party, either rich, drunk, debauched or more often than not a combination of the three. In London I'd tried to begin a literary life: I'd had a few things published, a few poems in little magazines, whose titles I noted down when I visited the poetry library. Who knew that Smiths Knoll, the Frogmore Papers, the Rialto, Other Poetry, Iota, Fire et al, were where the action was happening? At the same time I was visiting art fairs at Exmouth Market, foolishly failing to buy Tracey Emin postcards as the YBA ship began to sail. I attended a poetry group once or twice at the local library but the room - or the poets, it was hard to tell - smelt of wee, and I didn't go back.  I also started a quirky magazine called "Bananas from the Windward Islands". Quirky because I didn't put the poet's names on the pages of the poems, as I wanted them to speak for themselves. I got it photocopied at a local print shop. Somehow I also got involved in a letter exchange with a woman who asked for contributions which she'd then photocopy and then send round to the others in the exchange.

None of this was particularly satisfying, and I wrote another novel, and started a further one, in the long evenings, after a boring day at a hated job. At some point I applied to the UEA and had an interview where Andrew Motion, his painkillers wearing off after a long day interviewing me, didn't exactly show much interest in my prose (which I was there for) or my poetry (which I wasn't.) The other writers being interviewed that day were literally the first novelists I'd ever met - but several had already had their books published so I was "competing" if that's the right word, with a disadvantage. No matter, when I applied for the M.A. at Manchester with a short story, I was informed before I left "don't worry, you're on the course" - which was a good job since I'd already handed my notice in.

So twenty years ago I'd downsized to a student house - with three other post-grads, on the edge of the notorious Nell Lane estate in Chorlton - and was about to change my life. Whether it stayed changed is another matter, twenty years on, still working the 9-to-5 in a more interesting but none arty job; with a chequered history of publications and readings behind me; but with a good proportion of my friends now being creatives of one sort or another.

Though I was twenty thousand words into a noirish futurama called "Sleeping Next to God", I was advised to start something new. I thought I'd begun the novel which would become "High Wire" on the computer but a few years ago found a first few pages in a neat longhand. That novel was set in London - beginning on election night 1997, and ended several months later with the Thames Festival where the tightrope walkers Didier Paquette and Jade Kindar Martin crossed over the Thames in mid air. I'm guessing had it been published than any sequel could well have started with Princess Diana's death and funeral. That tightrope walk would at least give me novel its title.


Around this time I caught a taxi in for my first day at college, as I wasn't sure which buses went and I was running late. I queued up and met one or two of my future friends and fellow students. I must have met the tutors Michael Schmidt and Richard Francis (the latter having interviewed me) shortly afterwards. So everything had changed, and maybe if my life since then my life has bounced back into a more familiar shape; the life of letters never really presenting itself; then so be it; I'm still writing.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

"Day of the Locust" is a novel that I've always been meaning to read, and despite its short length never quite got around to. A novel about Hollywood, by one of American fiction's sharpest literary observers, it didn't disappoint, though it wasn't the novel I'd been expecting.

For in "Day of the Locust" published in 1939, this is not the Hollywood of the winners, but of the losers, the no hopers. The "hero" of the piece is Tod Hackett, a young artist who has been brought out to Hollywood to design scenes for the movies. He's by nature then an observer, rather than a major participant. In his own time he is painting a large nightmarish tableau of Los Angeles in flames. Set during the great depression, Hollywood is both a promised land and a chimera. It is the escapism for the masses, but also, for those who flock there, like a gold rush - full of promise, but with few benefiting by hitting a seam. Into this millieu Tod falls for the beautiful but talentless actress Faye, and through his pursuit of her, comes into contact with other characters - a cowboy extra, Earle, a dwarf, Abe, and Homer Simpson (!) a lonely man who has moved to Hollywood for his health and becomes embroiled with Faye's circle.

It is a dark, noirish book, that reminds one of Jim Thompson or other noir writers as much as Fitzgerald for instance. The difference with Fitzgerald is a telling one - for in his unfinished "The Last Tycoon" Fitzgerald, as always, is fascinated by power - the powers that make Hollywood happen; whilst West finds himself looking at the ordinary people, the joes with the unmet dreams. For this is a novel about Hollywood's dualism - the characters are all there because of the "Hollywood dream" but are clearly living it as nightmare. For the beautiful Faye, she is treading the boards on the way to some low level prostitution, sleeping with clients to pay off the costs of her father's funeral. Her father is an ex-clown who now sells polish door-to-door. Homer Simpson is living off - and lets Faye live off - his earnings from a scrupulous life as an accountant; he is incapable of becoming anything other than Faye's victim, the more he takes care of her, the more she despises him. She refuses to sleep with Tod because he is neither handsome or rich, so he tries to take revenge through fantasising about raping her. Everyone in West's Hollywood is dirtied and tainted by the town.

There's a brilliant scene where a wild party kicks off at where Faye is staying at Homer's. Earle and his Mexican friend are breeding fighting cocks, and Abe, the dwarf, and Tod's scriptwriter friend Claude want to see a cock fight. The cock fight is vividly portrayed, violent and bloody, and the blood lust that leads to the cock fight seems to feed into the atmosphere of this pivotal evening - where Simpson will see Faye's lies for what they are, and she will leave him - her future unknown, but predictably grim.

Unlike Faulkner and Fitzgerald who went to Hollywood as famous writers, West was an unknown, and his Hollywood career was hardly anymore illustrious - yet out of it came this great novel. It's style is a mix of the real and the impressionistic and it is the latter that makes the novel flow so effectively. The Hollywood of the dream and the nightmare come together at the end where there is a film premiere taking place, and crowds of people turn into a virtual riot in which the novel's characters get caught up in. The title - "Day of the Locust" - echoes the Biblical plagues, and it is this frantic final scene where it appears that Hollywood falls in on itself.

A fascinating and original novel that I'm glad I've finally got around to reading.

7 Towns in 7 Days





There's an oft used cliche about southerners never venturing north of Watford, but there is, of course, the corollary to that, the northerners who've never ventured much further south than Euston. Take a look at the map of England and there are whole chunks at the edges, we're a geographically bulbous nation, and each of those bulges is a potentially unvisited land.

So it was, that I went to Kent for the first time last Friday. The initial impetus had come from my writer friend, Adrian Cross, who, alongside Richard Skinner, who runs Faber Academy, had been involved with the wonderfully named "Margate Bookie" - a literary festival taking place each August in the seaside town. He'd told me some time ago that they were hosting a Vanguard reading there, and I should come down. 

With this "hook" I decided to extend a weekend into a week and visit Kent - or at least as much of it as I could manage in the time, and via public transport. Growing up, our next door neighbour was from Kent, so it was a county which I had a vague idea about, if nothing more. Mike had a "posh" accent (though it might just have been southern) and God knows how he ever ended up in the rump end of Staffordshire. I'd read Canterbury Tales, and more recently Graham Swift's "Last Orders", and new Tracey Emin had grown up in Margate, but that was pretty much my mental mapping of the "garden of England." 

Independent travel is supposed to be easier these days, with the internet, but I struggled to find a room in Margate for this August weekend. Eventually a phone call to the Tourist Information got me a place, a rather delapitated but grand old hotel in the Cliftonville area of Margate, where for years London boroughs have been sending their asylum seekers. Margate is a town on the up, or trying to be, but it still has a nice mix of the seediness which Emin so graphically depicted, its historical role as a favoured seaside destination, and a newly arrived "hipster" class, opening art galleries and coffee shops. Yet, Swift's use of it in "Last Orders" still seems appropriate; it not quite East End on sea, mine was one of the few more northern accents, just as my trip to mid-Wales last years saw me surrounded by holidaying Midlanders. 

The weather was a little temperamental over the weekend, with the sun coming in and out as the clouds hovered in and out of the sea. The Turner Contemporary, the city's flagship arts venue, a beautifully realised building, so named because Turner was a frequent visitor and painter of the town (as was Paul Nash), looks out on the bay, and this weekend was a heavily used venue with a bookshop for the festival as well as hosting various events.  The gentrification of the place is a little overplayed - on the Friday night we stopped off in two small pizzerias only to find that both were fully booked, and ended up in an adequate but traditional curry house. A wonderfully named Wetherspoon's (The Mechanical Elephant) and two Costa coffees are the chains along the seafront. 

On the Saturday I caught the circular bus that runs between Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs, and got off in Ramsgate. This is more harbour than seaside resort, though there's a small beach. It did the job however, as I managed to get a pot of seafood for £3.50, whilst watching the world go by. I also found, two stops off the bus, Michael's Books, a great little warren brilliantly priced, which was worth the delay in getting back to Margate. In the evening, in the Sands hotel, Vanguard readings saw six novelists present from their very different books, before a small literary quiz led by David Quantick, the music journalist, who now lives in Hastings, down the coast. Several of the writers were based in and around Margate, as it becomes, thanks to better train links easier to get to from London.

Finally going round the Turner Contemporary, the main gallery space is taken over by a Phylida Barlow exhibition. Barlow - who is representing England at the Venice Biennalle this year - is a sculptural artist of intense materiality. Her vast pieces made up of the found and reconstituted, often industrial materials, but there surrealism has an abstraction to it that seems particularly appropriate to our contemporary over-saturated world. I liked the work alot. 

In the afternoon I caught the train to Canterbury where I based myself for the next three days. The town was apparently badly bombed during the war, and there's a sense that the centre - all shopping centres and walkways, surrounded by a ringroad - could be anywhere in England. Whereas in York or Chester the Cathedral towers over the city, visible from everywhere, here the Cathedral is not immediately visible above the modern buildings, but go down an alleyway and into the winding streets around it, and there you are, able to enter one of the country's great religious buildings, and still home to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The cathedral is a marvel - both in terms of size, and its accumulated histories.  There are plenty of mentions of the murder in the cathedral, of Thomas a Beckett, by supporters of Henry II, and you can buy the Richard Burton film from the cathedral shop. So much history as well... its easy to see the brutality of Henry VIII towards the church as a one way street, but throughout Europe, non-Catholics were persecuted and sought refuge elsewhere. One group of French protestants ended up in Canterbury, and they still worship in the cathedral to this day. Yet, though this a working cathedral, at the centre of the life of the community and town, the marginaisation of the Church of England in our contemporary life, seems to find an echo in this immense monument - its daily cost ("we receive no government funding"), the ignored instruction in the Crypt, to "keep quiet", the £12.50 entrance charge - this is a draw for tourists, a must-visit building, yet as distant from our lives as Norman castle. Yet, there was a table set out where you could write a prayer that would be set on the altar during the following morning's prayer, and I wrote one down. It can't harm... after all, it is the superstition of churches that I like. My love for the metaphysicals is based upon them writing at a time when God and the devil felt like living presences, rather than abstracts - and that belief in actual ghosts it what I find compelling.

Canterbury has a range of other historic sites and a river running through it, but its an inland town, and I was craving the sea again, so the next day, with the Monday's overcast clouds shaken off, I headed to Herne Bay and Whitstable. Herne Bay is like a Victorian seaside resort from central casting, with a restored bandstand, and pier jutting out into the bay, with kids' crabbing, a Punch & Judy show, rides and stalls. Then on to the port of Whitstable. This was very different. The beaches were smaller, and the real business of the town is fishing - with restaurants next to the companies packing and selling the oysters. ,In the town itself, two streets wind round in a leisurely fashion, and are full of restaurants, coffee shops, gift shops and the like. Not far from the University of Kent, the town feels richer and more affluent (not just the £28 seafood platters!) than the other
resorts.

On my last night in Kent I moved further along the coast to Folkestone, and met up with a friend who is from the area, in neighbouring Hythe. Hythe is another small port town. It was at the frontline during the Napoleonic wars, and a Military canal snakes elegantly through the town. It faces another threat now, from developers and gentrification as the traditional fisherman's beach is being targetted by developers wanting to build expensive beach side apartments. A light railway goes through the town, heading down the coast, and though it's a small town it has a distinctive feel to it. Folkestone is more spread out, and juts out from the cliffs that overlook France across the water. Just along from Dover, these cliffs are also white chalk. Grand buildings along the seafront speak of better days, and my friend showed me round the permanent artworks from various previous Triennials, Folkestone's signature art event which is taking place again in a couple of weeks. New artworks from Bob and Roberta Smith are appearing already, alongside past ones from luminaries such as Yoko Ono, Tracey Emin, Cornelia Parker and Mark Wallinger. 

The fast train to London takes less than an hour from Folkestone now, on the HS1 line. It's an interesting comparison with the under investment in the north. The distance is about the same as from Liverpool to Leeds, yet this part of the countryside, though no doubt needing more work and investment, has a much smaller population - what gentrification is taking place you can tell is an overspill of London's monied world. Yet its instructive as well - this part of the world - where I could previously have only mapped out "here be dragons" now feels real to me - I managed 7 towns, six along the coast and the county town of Canterbury, over a very busy week, and yet leaving Folkestone station at midday I was back at my flat in Didsbury by four o'clock. I hope it won't be my last visit. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Filling the Creative Space

As is my wont, I have been sidetracked from one of the many projects  I should have been finishing, into a new little project that reached up and grabbed me last weekend. I started recording a long instrumental using just my Roland Juno 6 Synthesizer, and it ended up as a 25-minute piece reminiscent of the multiparted Tangerine Dream influenced electronica I recorded (with pretty much the same setup, give or take an effects processor or two) in the mid-80s. (e.g. here and here).  This has now morphed into a new quickly recorded album which I'm expecting to finish just over a week after starting.

As ever with a new project its not as simple as just the music or the writing - there is the whole stuff around it. What is it called? What is it about? (Given that the instrumental has no words...this is important). How do I present it? (On its own? As part of an album of contemporaneous stuff?) And each of these decisions creates more decisions. I've long wanted to call an album "the Return of the Juno 6" as both a factual description of my much beloved synthesizer (though its never entirely gone away), and as a bit of a spoof western title. Who are or were the Juno 6? I guess like Magnificent 7 or Hateful 8 it depends on who you're talking to and at what time. I like the idea of the "Juno 6" being like Neil Young's Crazy Horse, coming together when the need arises then going their separate ways. Yet there's just me here - so the "six" is that imaginary band that I've never quite got together - and probably as much about different versions of myself as anything else - or maybe its my influences.

So with the music almost completed, a title and a cover concept in the works, I find that the graphic art on the cover lacks something. It needs some kind of image for the centre piece - but what is it? Stringing together pictures of influences was my first idea.
Here we have Vaughan Williams, John Denver, Robert Southey, Delia Derbyshire, Pierre Henry and a teenage version of myself, all with some oblique influence on the words and music within. (And it is oblique: there's a John Denver sample on a track I don't think I'm going to use or finish, whilst Robert Southey told the first story of "Goldilocks" which relates to a single line of a particular song.) But that doesn't feel right either. 

I'm going to go for something more abstract - some collage. I've always loved Frank O'Hara's poem "Why I am not a painter". where the poet visits his friend, the painter Mike Goldberg. Its as good a description of the creative process as you'll find. "It's got sardines in it", says Frank, "yes, it needed something there," tMike replies. He visits again. The sardines have gone. "It was too much," says Mike. When the painting is exhibited its called Sardines. Of course, they are no longer there, but they were there, during the process. It is enough. But its as much that first thing: what was there during the process - that need for something there.

I think any artist will recognise it. You've wrote a piece, or painted something or made a collage, or a piece of music, but its just not yet itself. Whereas Michelangelo could see the finished piece in a piece of marble, the blank page is multifarious, it could become anything. Why and how it becomes this rather than that is what is part of the process. So my cover for "Return of the Juno 6", even though its unimportant, needs something in it, and its not a collage of famous influences. It wouldn't surprise me if it takes me longer to get this sorted than the writing and recording of the album itself, yet in some ways its the same process. The beauty of writing instrumental rather than lyric music is that the something you need has to come from the music, whereas its always possible to scat sing your way over the top of an otherwise uninspiring bassline or chord sequence. Sometimes its the non-tangible, the metadata that matters....so that my song "John the Replicant" only made sense right at the end when I appended that title to it; (it also was the last track recorded for the "Traipses" album which waited about a year for it to come along.)

The more we find out about famous albums we realise how non-sequential they are: that songs are sometimes hangovers from years before; and I guess as writers and painters we are jealous with our creativity, we hoard our good ideas; like a decent farmer, in times of abundance we store them away - and don't tell our neighbours - bringing them out only at another time, when there's a creative space to fill and we need something to fill it.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Big Names Booker

This year's Booker prize longlist will no doubt please the booksellers. No small publishers (just big indies, Faber, Bloomsbury, Canongate; majors and imprints) - lets hope this is just an anomaly, not a trend - and most of the "big" names who released books that qualify, find themselves on the list - mammoth books by Paul Auster, and past-winner Arundhati Roy, alongside Zadie and Ali Smith, and acclaimed story writer George Saunders for his first novel, and probably favourite, Irish historical novelist Sebastian Barry. More interestingly perhaps, Jon McGregor makes an appearance with his new novel, "Reservoir 13" - his first for seven years - and Irish writer Mike McCormack's prize winning "Solar Bones" arrives a year late, after finding a British, as well as Irish publisher.

First thoughts on the Booker since it let in the Americans has been that they do a bit of cheese slicing, a third British, a third Commonwealth, and a third U.S.  It does seem increasingly an arbitrary list. In the past the Booker was notorious for longlisting books still in manuscript, so the general reader couldn't get to read them - this year both the Saunders, McCormack and Colson Whitehead's acclaimed "The Underground Railroad" feel like they've arrived here last on a very long tour. I guess we're all  a little fluid on when books are published these days. Naomi Alderman's "The Power" which won the Bailey's Prize is nowhere to be seen, surprisingly. As ever, the longlist is a little bit of a distraction - often it seems a little bit of a sop to newer writers, giving them a bit of time in the sun, this time its the bigger writers who may not make the cut.

There will be a couple of months for the longlist to get attention before the shortlist is announced. There's certainly enough interesting books on this year's list to make it potentially a break with the past but as Booker shortlisting is mostly about horse trading between several judges I wonder how that will manifest itself.

Our three big arts prizes - the Booker, the Turner, and the Mercuty, also released this week with a mix of Radio 1 pleasers (Alt-J, Ed Sheeran, Blossoms), and grime (Stormzy, J Hus) - seem to be struggling for relevance in an age where on the one hand the "game" is very much controlled by a non-pluralistic media, and on the other hand, where the best work is happening far away from the mainstream with little interest in being co-opted into "safe" spaces.


Monday, July 10, 2017

A Creative Mini-break

As a friend said, Manchester International Festival offers a "holiday in your own city" and to my shame the last couple of times I've hardly taken advantage of it: two years ago, I was busy with work and away for half of it and two years before I was recuperating from an eye operation and not feeling like excitement of any kind.

This year I took some time off, checked the schedule and decided that this middle weekend would be the perfect time for a creative mini-break. Life intervened as it always does, and a friend's 50th in London took me away for 24-hours. But, still, I feel like I've experienced a bit of MIF this year, and with a week of it still to go, it aint over yet.

A week before I'd gone to see New Order and attended the public event "What is the city but it's people?" a wonderfully life affirming piece of public art/theatre. Then this Wednesday it was the Manifest fringe arts festival launch - where the city's small galleries, pop up spaces, studios and project spaces come together for a city wide art tour. I saw a mesmerising performance from Ruby Tingle in Chethams on Wednesday before an impromptu MIF "gig" - minimalist composer William Basinski - at Festival Square. All of this and more I talk about in my new forum for everything arty and contemporary - my new Interesting Drug podcast which I hope to publish every three or four weeks for your listening pleasure. Its on Mixcloud so I can include music in the podcast - and its about 15 minutes of chat for 45 minutes of talking.

On Thursday night it was "Available Light" at the Palace Theatre, and tonight I'm going to "Returning to Reims" at HOME. During Friday I took advantage of the Manifest programme and visited a range of galleries and project spaces. Manifest is over for now, but some of the shows that are featured in it go on for a few days and weeks yet so check them out if you have the chance.
The swift trip to London was meant to include some more art but it was such a lovely day I just mooched around Russell Square, and dropped £50 on magazines and books at the LRB bookshop. London does sometimes seem to be a different city culturally as well as in every other way - there's simply not a bookshop in Manchester that matches LRB, Foyles, Tate Modern or a number of others unfortunately.

So last day of my cultural mini-break and its now raining - ah, Manchester, so much to sodding answer for indeed - so I'm going to write up a few poems, send a few off, and head into town later before the play at HOME. Next weekend as MIF comes to an end I'm seeing Lets Eat Grandma on Sunday afternoon before heading to Ceremony the final event near HOME/Bridgewater Hall.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

My Life With New Order

It may seem ridiculous now, but at the time - 1982, 1983 - I had only the vaguest sense of the connection between Joy Division and New Order. I came to the former via the posthumous outtakes album "Still" - a life changing moment - but in those days the only way you found out about music was the weekly music papers, and they were not prone to nostalgia. That Ian Curtis had died, I must have known, but I don't think - coming to Joy Division after his death - that I knew what he looked like. Today, a large picture of him smoking a cigarette is the centrepiece of a new exhibition at "True Faith" the Manchester International Festival exhibition featuring work inspired by Joy Division and New Order at Manchester Art Gallery.

In the mean time, my friend Dave said that New Order were the new band that had formed after Joy Division. Their first single, "Ceremony", did sound like the same band, though the vocal was tentative and back in the mix. In the mean time, the album, "Movement", looked unobtrusive with its blue abstract cover, and the music inside sounded equally tentative. The song I most liked, an outlier (as Peter Hook shares the vocal), was "Doubts Even Here."

Yet over the next couple of years New Order became far more than the band that had come out of the tragedy of Joy Division. "Everything's Gone Green" with its obtuse title and slight dance feel, was good, "Procession" - its B-side - was as majestic as its title, but it was "Temptation" that glorious northern attempt at new wave soul, "oh you've got green eyes, oh you've got blue eyes....", that was the record I adored. It was - I think - the first single I bought with my own money. Going into the record shop....wait....going into John Menzies, the newsagents in Walsall, I asked behind the counter, I think, for the 12" but they only had the 7" in stock so I got that version and took it home and played it to death.

Oddly enough New Order weren't the band who I loved most over the next few years. I tended to tape their records off Dave, who would religiously pick up each new single as it came out. He'd got a job at 16 after his YTS ended, so had more disposable income than me, staying on at sixth form, and then going to university. Yet along with the 3rd member of our group (and we were briefly a group - Damn the Visual - as well as a group of friends), Dan, we went over to Birmingham Powerhouse to see them. This must have been about 1984. By this time they'd released the seminal 12" "Blue Monday" as well as its follow up (which briefly I preferred) the out and out disco record "Confusion." "Blue Monday" was seminal to me in a number of ways. At a 5th year disco the girls danced, the boys didn't. No hardship, to a soundtrack of Wham! and Culture Club. Then on came "Blue Monday." "Come on guys," I said. "Let's dance." I danced. How I danced. If hearing "Still" had been the thing that freed up my ears, then that first dance to "Blue Monday" freed up my body. I danced. I danced to the beat. To the rhythm. People stopped what they were doing and watched. Over the next week I walked the corridors of the school to sounds of ridicule, and occasionally praise. I dared to break some kind of code that I didn't even understand. But I did understand the music. "Blue Monday" was modern music. In January 1984 I would take ownership of my beloved Roland Juno 6 synthesizer, a relationship that continues to this day, though without a drum machine or proper recording equipment the pristine modernism of "Blue Monday" was never achieveable.

I seem to remember "Power, Corruption and Lies" being a bit of a disappointment - especially in relation to "Confusion" and "Blue Monday." The only pure electronic track - "586" - was sort of an early version of "Blue Monday" - the rest of the songs were more solid, but weren't the expected futurism. Yet, there was also "Your Silent Face", a song so gobsmackingly gorgeous, that even its lyrical crapness, "so why don't you piss off?" seems an acceptable piece of balloon puncturing. Its hard to explain to people how fast things moved back then musically. I was listening to SPK, Einsturzende Neubauten, Test Department on the one hand, Tracy Thorn and Aztec Camera and the Go Betweens on the other. My favourite band were the Cocteau Twins, and New Order - and the Cure - sat either side of me - as bands I loved, but didn't quite feel an ownership towards; perhaps aware by then of that back story. But also - their rare interviews were inconclusive, they seemed unwilling and unable to articulate their music; their Factory record sleeves gave no games away. Who'd have thought that there would be all these books, biographies, autobiographies, films, documentaries, exhibitions all these years on?

The first album of New Order's that was truly mine was "Low Life" which I bought on the day of release to get me through my A levels. I played it non-stop for a month then probably not again for five years. But I love that album, every note of it. I saw them on tour again at this time, at the Tower Ballrooms, Edgbaston, a strange venue on the edge of a reservoir away from the centre of Birmingham. My memory is of a chaotic start - of technology breaking down; possibly even a broken bass string. I don't think the album was out yet so all the songs were new and strange - they began, according to Setlist.fm with "Sunrise" and would encore with "Confusion".  Actually, that reminds me. At that earlier gig at Birmingham Powerhouse they'd left the stage and yet the stage lights had stayed on and the crowd stayed calling out for more even though we knew that New Order didn't do encores. I looked around for Dave and Dan but couldn't find them so assumed they'd stay. I waited maybe twenty minutes or more and then they came back on and gave a blistering version of (I think) "Confusion." It turned out they'd gone to the car thinking it was over, where we were being picked up. They were just about to leave - stranding me in Birmingham - when I eventually turned up, full of excitement at the unexpected encore.

By the time I was at University New Order's perceived futurism was now a given. A run of amazing singles, rarely off the albums, or when they were, in very different versions, were the soundtrack to many a university club night. When the CD player became the latest new thing, pretty much the first album I bought on the format was "Brotherhood", a strangely dense and unflinching album, and there wouldn't be another studio album for three years, when a retooled, loved-up band would translate their role as dance pioneers into the rhythms du jour of 1980s acid house via the "Technique" album. In the mean time though there was perhaps their finest hour, the double CD compilation "Substance" which brought together those expensive 12" singles and their b-sides, often dub or reworked versions. I think I asked on an earlier post if there was ever a better run of singles than those early Jesus and Mary Chain singles, but perhaps New Order is the answer. From "Ceremony" to "Touched by the Hand of God" there is a virtual soundtracking to the decade. Only "Blue Monday" and the beautiful "True Faith" were big hits - and it was a constant frustration how Radio 1 and the BBC were so reluctant to play or show this wonderful band - like ignoring the Beatles in the sixties. New Order didn't do themselves any favours. Still staying in Manchester - a city I first visited in late 1985, before later making it my home - the Factory aesthetic, a situationist play, that had more to do with art that commerce, saw them "invest" in Dry Bar and the Hacienda, not realising that all the money they were making was being immediately blown by Tony Wilson's schemes. This is a well worn story - but the Hacienda had a role in their music of course. For New Order, were veterans by now, but as bit by the dance bug as a younger generation. After all "Blue Monday" was almost a proto house record, or  a proto hip hop record - take your choice - they influenced both genres.

But "Technique" and their only number one, the unexpected football anthem, "World in Motion", was also kind of an ending. At their commercial peak they had one more album in them, the untypical "Republic", with its plethora of remixers and versions. And a band who had previously not released singles from albums, released four from this one. But there was a reason....Factory records, which had been riding high with both New Order and Happy Mondays, had overstretched at just the wrong time - another recession, remember Norman Lamont's "green shoots of recovery?" - and, as documented in the film "24 Hour Party People" the excess was catching up. By the time "Republic" came out it was on London records. Peter Saville still designed the cover - an advertising pastiche this time - and the record was a massive hit, but with the death of Joy Division producer Martin Hannett, and the ending of their label, as well as the ongoing problems of the Hacienda, it was hardly a surprise that the band stopped.

As the eighties became the nineties New Order, never the most reliable of live bands, had nonetheless become a massive festival draw, not just in the UK but around the world. But putting the band on a hiatus after "Republic" they all started working on other projects none of which had the impact of New Order. (Though Sumner's Electronic came closest.)

Absence makes the heart grow fonder - and relocated to Manchester for a second time after a brief spell in London - I heard that they were forming and playing a gig at the Apollo. I managed to get tickets - this is 1998 - and got to see a band who I thought I would never see again. Not only was it a triumphant return, but for the first time, they made peace with their past and included Joy Division songs in their set. I had always seen the bands as two separate entities, but post-Factory, this unity would become more and more important, despite the ongoing issues in the band itself. In some ways, this restart was also an ending - I remember seeing most of the Manchester "faces" at that gig, people you'd seen off an on at other concerts. When in 1998 there was the handover of the Commonwealth Games to Manchester for 2002, I was amazed to hear that one of my favourite bands was playing the handover ceremony in Albert Square. There felt a massive vindication that this wayward, independent band, whose classic "Temptation" the BBC amongst others had hardly played, as being too obscure, were now the standard bearers for this civic occasion.

It could have been left like that of course. But New Order were never destined to be a heritage act. Their alchemy has always manifested itself in the songwriting. Both "Get Ready" and the later "Waiting for the Sirens Call" albums had brilliant lead singles, even if the more rocky album tracks were less effective. Few bands that long into career would still be in contention even. The once inscrutable New Order became, at some point over the last decade or more one of the most documented bands in pop culture. Several movies feature Joy Division, New Order and Factory records as their theme; everyone associated with them has written their story, at least once; and that civic acceptance has continued to this day - with a generation of Manchester politicians and civic leaders having grown up with the band. There's also sadness. The untreated wound of Ian Curtis's early death is a central theme to some of this memorialising. Curtis and Joy Division are now canonical. But the other deaths - Hannett, Rob Gretton and especially Tony Wilson, seem to have robbed the city of its officer class. Manchester, never knowingly a sentimental city, can get a bit teary-eyed about Wilson, and by association Joy Division/New Order.

The band, remarkably, carried on after a final split with Peter Hook, bringing back Gillian, who had left to look after family a decade before. A new album repositioned the synthesizers and the dance sensibility centre stage. They tour incessantly, whilst Hook's band "The Light" do the same, at smaller venues, providing fan friendly renditions of back catalouge albums.

Amazingly, in its ten year history, New Order have been a notable absence from the Manchester International Festival's line up - despite music being such an important strand. So this week, i went to the first night of their residency at MIF, at Granada Studios, where Joy Division's first TV performance, on "So it goes...." (also the subtitle of this collaboration with Liam Gillick) took place. Not knowing what to expect - a gig? an art piece? We were told there would be a Synthesizer orchestra. I imagined a retooled New Order, ditching the guitars, but thankfully it wasn't this. They know what they do well. Spread across the stage as they normally would be, and behind them, hidden away in 12 identical boxes, were 12 keyboard players from the RNCM, who were being conducted from the stage. The setlist was one that not even the most attentive fan could have guessed at, with old songs, obscurer songs, deep catalogue cuts from across their career, and only two or three of their most popular hits -  no "Blue Monday", and no "True Faith." It felt like that promise of futurism that was there from nearly the start, was still very much a driving force. A few years back I saw Peter Saville's cover for "Power, Corruption, and Lies" - a typical appropriation - at the V&A in their post-modernism exhibition. New Order, very much a northern working class band, somehow have always stretched way beyond those imaginary limitations. They are accidental post-modernists, perhaps their own Year Zero moment, with the death of Curtis, meaning they had to forget, then remember again the past. Alongside this series of concerts, a new show opened at Manchester Art Gallery last night, introduced by Sir Richard Leese, the leader of the council. He made the point that in naming an exhibition after a thirty year old song - "True Faith" - we are seeing how pop music, once ephemeral, can become our new "classical" canon. Of course, New Order were never quite pop music - but they were pop music nonetheless - and its fascinating to think how a song or a piece of art can last longer, and resonate further, than a city's regeneration, than a political epoch.

Not for the first time, I think this might be a suitable ending for my story with New Order, but its already had so many different phases, I wouldn't bet on it. For now, if you've got a ticket to one of their shows, you're in for a treat, and for the rest of us, the show - art inspired by Joy Division and New Order - is on now at the Manchester Art Gallery.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The End of Cultural History

When Fukuyama wrote about the "end of history" in 1992 he was prompted by the fall of communism in 1989. taking the intellectual gamble that the "cold war" and its ending was a defining moment. Debunked somewhat since - not least by 9/11 - there's a certain sense-making that went into that declaration. The short twentieth century would be one that began with the shooting of the Archduke Ferdinand and ended with the fall of the Berlin wall. Had she been of the persuasion to argue with cultural commentators, my grandmother (1904-2000) might have found a problem with such neat boundaries.

It is in our nature - or at least it has been - to package up the past into manageable historical chunks. Whereas history follows the flow of political and economical upheaval, culture is both more malleable and more troublesome. We teach culture through its epochs, we exhibit it according to a timeframe, as a new show at Liverpool Tate - covering Weimar art 1918-1933 - again shows. Here a political boundary frames the cultural boundary; ending with an abruptness that we know from our history books - and from, say, Isherwood's "Goodbye to Berlin."

I picked up an educational art book this week - "Modernism in Dispute" - which came out in 1993, and traces modernism throughout the 20th century. Its final chapter, through concentrating on the sixties, does include art up to a Richter picture from 1989, very close to the time of writing. Yet the 1990s seems the last point that we have a clear view of the cultural world with an obvious cut off point (the millennium), even if it is only now that we are beginning to historify those movements - YBAs, Britpop, grunge. A recent comeback by TLC, has seen some quick flicking through the cultural history books to anoint the original incarnation as the start of a process that continues unabated through Beyonce, Rihanna and the rest. Yet even the nineties seems under, or un-documented in some way. You'll look in vain for a book on the "nineties novel" for instance - though it can be argued that it was the high water mark for that form; and as for poetry any discussion of "modern" or "contemporary" poetry seems to stretch way back - the deaths of Hughes and Heaney hardly being enough to put them on the history shelves.

I think part of the reason for this is that cultural lives are so much longer now than they used to be; with a demographic audience bulge - the baby boomers - refusing to give up house space (literally: they own all the houses) to the younger generation. So a venerable poet like Sharon Olds or Michael Longley can be shortlisted for contemporary prizes, not as a long service award, but on the merits of their work. (I won't comment on the merits - but it would an unusual poet to write their best work so late in their career.) The music industry is even more prone to this. At Glastonbury, at least one eighty something - Kriss Kristoffersen - was making his debut, whilst headliners included Barry Gibb, Chic and the Jacksons, which would have seemed historical in 1980. In this context the member for Islington appearing to rapturous crowds seemed positively youthful. Not that I'm not unaware of my own creeping years - with nineties icons Foo Fighters and Radiohead headlining two of the days, it could be argued it was a line up made for people now in or beyond their forties.

The other reason we don't seem to have much cultural era-defining these days, is that the "end of history" was closely followed by a new year zero: with the creation of the world wide web. Someone somewhere should be doing a PhD on the relative "online" presence of cultural materials pre- and post- the web. From the mid-90s onwards, the breakdowns between eras has been stopped by us being in the first tranche of the new information age. Twenty years seems hardly enough to process the cultural impact of the web - and it seems because of this people have stopped trying. By this time in the 20th century Ezra Pound had marshalled his Imagists to create an anthology, whilst a series of Georgian books stood in traditionalist opposition. We live in a an age of cultural plurality, where the Rolling Stones are still touring, Carol Ann Duffy and Billy Collins are the most well known poets of the time, despite their more iconic work being long since past, and where we are just about celebrating (if that's the word) two decades of Harry Potter. The cinema of this new century is predicated on franchises that were nurtured in the last - either film ones such as the Star Wars universe - or from that glory of post-war American culture, the comic book superhero. Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump and Theresa May will all be aware of Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman and Planet of the Apes - even if Ghostbusters and Star Wars are aimed more squarely at my generation.

It seems that the speed at which modern cultural consumption takes place now puts demands on its producers; so that the boxset serial is now an industrial product running for between five and ten years. In this landscape a single book, or a nascent poetry scene, or an emerging art style, find it hard to find traction. I suspect in twenty years time there will be celebrations of artists, writers and musicians that we are missing as we speak, simply because of the over-production of cultural artefacts.

With Manchester International Festival starting on Thursday for just over two weeks, this biennial is now old enough to have its own history, and has certainly changed the cultural landscape of the city, though whether it has had as much impact culturally as economically is another question. There are a series of debates at this year's festival, but they are primarily about the world, not this small part of it: yet surely there is a time for some cultural reflection on our blockbuster culture, of which MIF is now part? Have any of the shows that it has put on lifted themselves into some kind of cultural status? I'm not so sure...rather it seems that this is the new travelling circus, rocking up in a new city every couple of years, and putting on an extravaganza that we are unable to match when it's not here. Glastonbury, that doyenne of festivals, has the same sense of itself as cultural event. But looking back historically, festivals and Expos and the like were always about the potential to create change, rather than simply replicate themselves: so Monterey and then Woodstock are iconic showcases of sixties music; or the Armoury Show was when European modern art exploded into Britain. Perhaps our very connectedness mitigates against that these days? I will look for signs of cultural seeds taking root over the coming weeks.

So if there is a book on, say, 90s poetry, or first decade or art, or the novel in the internet age, I'm yet to read it. Perhaps Fukuyama was expecting too much of humanity's political and economic elites, and should have addressed his argument at a more socio-cultural level. It may not seem to be an imperative that we "fix" this lack, but without the commentary, without the critical culture, without the sense of unseating icons, or making the case for new ones, the culture itself stultifies, into mere commodity.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Manchester: City of Literature

On Thursday I attended the official launch for the bid for Manchester to become a UNESCO City of Literature, part of its creative cities network - an excellent initiative that sees cities worldwide networking and creating partnerships and exchanges through their mutual love of different art forms. I was at the launch a few years ago in Norwich when they announced their bid - and let's hope we're successful, and also, that it kickstarts a more wider understanding of Manchester's role as a literary as well as a sporting and music city. The full press release can be read here. 

It seems only appropriate, since its something I don't think I've blogged about directly before, to consider my own take on Manchester's literary history. On a personal level, if its true that I first came here for the music, I actually came back for the literature, specifically to study on an M.A. under Micheal Schmidt (who was there on Thursday) and Richard Francis at the University of Manchester.
But outside of the personal, I think Manchester's literary history is undoubtedly tied up tightly with its political and economic history. Though the city goes ways back - to Roman times - the modern city is Victorian, though, arguably, we can see that over the last twenty years, its moving to a post-industrial architecture that sits along the Victorian, and it is the late twentieth century - of a declining urban centre - which is being erased. But one of the great things about books, of course, is that they can last much longer than the edifices that possibly inspired them. In a cosmic game of paper > scissors > stone paper outlasts stone more often than not; though Manchester's history has it both ways - a first folio of Shakespeare sitting in the gothic splendour of the John Ryland's library - one of the 4 libraries, alongside Chethams, Portico and Central - which sits at the heart of the Manchester bid.

English literature casts long shadows, and its sometimes hard for newer trends to overthrow them. Its fulcrum remains London, of course, with its many publishing houses, and its multitude of writers. As the centre of political power it was always the centre of cultural power as well. Our poetry - rarely urban - nonetheless is centred on the capital, our most lauded writers, Shakespeare and Dickens are both umbilically linked to there. Yet, our literature when its mapped out - there are plenty of literary geography's of Britain - tends to be elsewhere: in the shire counties, in the market towns, particular of the English Midlands and later, at the political fringes, in Scotland, Wales or Ireland. In this context Manchester might seem a literary backwater: yet by the 18th century, with the industrial revolution in full swing, the burgeoning middle classes - made wealthy through this new industry - were creating the cultural institutions in the city that stand to this day: from the Lit & Phil, to the libraries, to the University. Yet, its not wrong to say that Manchester's literature was intrinsically linked to the age of enlightenment: where political tracts from Chartists to Marxists to Left book Club members sat alongside scientific literature, economics, and moral works from non-conformists preaching to the working classes.

In such an age, imaginative literature sometimes seems an indulgence, and if there's a core failing in the city's literary figures, it might be this: that we are too drawn to realism. Yet that too has its advantages. Our earliest figurehead, Thomas de Quincey, is most famous for his "Confessions of an English Opium Eater", and the most interesting works about Manchester in the 1990s were Jeff Noon's "Vurt" and "Pollen", psychotropic cyberpunk fantasias set in a recognisable Manchester. Cities are magnets for writers - so that any literature of the city tends to be catholic in its appreciation. We count as our own those born here such as de Quincey, who despite a very Mancunian waywardness left and held right-wing political views, those who have studied here, and Anthony Burgess, who rarely returned to the city but was prone to such statements as the "the novelist is Mancunian"; those who have taught here - such as W.G. Sebald, Michael Schmidt, Carol Ann Duffy; and those who have visited here - there's a blue plaque for Charlotte Bronte on the side of the Salutation pub.

In this reading of the city - you'd have thought Manchester, with a newly educated middle class, the John Owens University, and a heady mix of methodism and later Marxism, alongside an incoming population of Irish labourers, would have immediately created its own literature, like other urban centres in the USA for instance. Whereas the 18th century novel had grown out of that grubby trade, journalism, by the mid-19th century, there was an audience for magazine writers, and from the serial, would come the hardcover three volume novel. Elizabeth Gaskell moved to Manchester after marrying a Unitarian Minister. His chapel was on Cross Street - where de Quincey was born, and where today Carcanet Press has an office - and she would eventually move to the suburbs, and a house on Plymouth Grove which has been recently restored. In novels such as "Mary Barton", "Cranford" and "North and South", as well as her "Life of Charlotte Bronte", she became a major writer of the period, and is both revived (in film and theatre) and read today. Dickens - who would write about Preston in "Hard Times" - was a friend. "Mary Barton" is set in Manchester, and seeing a dramatisation at the Royal Exchange a few years ago, adjacent to where it was set, highlighted the importance of literature in documenting realistically a fast-changing world.

Realism was and remains the Manchester literary idiom. It's there in the 1876 novel "The Manchester Man" by Isabella Banks, in Walter Greenwood's  1950s "Love on the Dole", through to Tony Warren's concept for a northern drama, "Coronation Street" , and later still Andrea Ashworth's domestic violence memoir "Once in a House on Fire." Amongst other novelists we find the forgotten Manchester Grammar School boy Gilbert Cannan, who Henry James referenced in his essay on promising novelists, and the very much remembered University of Manchester graduate Anthony Burgess. I've not yet managed to read any of Cannan's work, but Burgess is now celebrated in the city in a way that was hardly imaginable twenty years ago. An emigre writer, and initially a composer rather than a writer, his most famous books are international in focus, are linguistic fantasias in style; yet he would write about Manchester in one or two novels, such as "The Piano Players" and in particular the first volume of his autobiography.

Later on, novelists like Booker winner Howard Jacobsen, whose "The Mighty Waltzer" reminisced about his North Manchester Jewish youth, and my old tutor, Richard Francis, whose comic novel "Taking apart the Poco Poco" takes place in Stockport, have used the city as a backdrop as well as having lived here. Its strange how little the city has featured in fiction; perhaps its frequent setting for TV dramas - "Cold Feet", "Cracker" and "Queer as Folk" as well as "Coronation Street" - and films - Manchester noir, "Hell is a City", "The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue", "Control" and "24 Hour Party People", and "28 days Later", Manchester almost always depicted as a gritty northern city where anything can happen, has made it more difficult for its writers to ground something in this place. There are exceptions of course and younger novelists like Emma Jane Unsworth, Joe Stretch and Chris Killen have used the city as a backdrop to 20-something lives, none more successfully than Gwendoline Riley's first two books, "Cold Water" and "Sick Notes." Then again there is Shelagh Delaney's remarkable debut play "A Taste of Honey" and its equally excellent movie.

If the city has not yet spewed up its version of Chicago's Saul Bellow, or a "great city novel" to rival those American urban writers, perhaps this is as much to do with the British literary scene - both concentrated on London and likely to dismiss anything outside of M25 as parochial (whilst Zadie Smith's "NW", set in a single postcode, would never receive that epithet!)

Twenty years ago Penguin, in conjunction with City Life magazine and editor Ra Page, came up with a collection of Manchester stories, realising, correctly, a groundswell of writers based in and writing about the city. Inevitably, in a music obsessed city, it also included contributions from Shaun Ryder, Mark E. Smith, Dave Haslam and Tony Wilson. The only surprise was that Alex Ferguson wasn't included. Yet amongst that predictable positioning, the range of writers was impressive, and if there was a second volume today, it would no doubt be more so. Like Iowa, famous for its Writing Workshop, or UEA, for the UK's first creative writing M.A., with wide ranging writing schools at MMU, Manchester and Salford Universities (and outlying Bolton), its tempting to see Manchester now as a finishing school for writers - cosmopolitan enough to be a good alternative to London, cheap enough to make it attractive to talent on a low income, and with enough of a literary scene - particularly live literature, to help nascent talent develop. Last years Booker longlist had two Manchester connections, ex-student Wyl Menmuir and tutor Ian McGuire, whilst Carol Ann Duffy, as professor of poetry at Manchester Met has continued the city's thriving poetry reputation.

Ah, yes, poetry - again, I've struggled to know what to say about Manchester and its poetry. There are probably more poets in the city than ever before, and certainly than other cities. Our most famous names are transplants such as Jackie Kay and Carol Ann Duffy, or ones who have left like Sophie Hannah and Lemn Sissay; there are many poems about Manchester - as a number of anthologies ("Best of Manchester Poets", "Sculpted: Poetry of the North West") have indicated. There's an experimental poetry scene to rival any in the country, and performance poetry, at least that of a certain variety, feels like it began here, and still thrives in a range of nights, and through initiatives such as Contact Theatre's "Young Identity" group. After the terrible events at the Arena a few weeks ago, it was a poet, Tony Walsh, who found the words for the city's grief. Yet again, though there are many poems set in the city, or about the city, I'm not sure there are many that are emblematic. Just as film sometimes seems to be the city's driver of narrative, so music can sometimes seem to be the driver of it's poetry; "The North will rise again," "Manchester, so much to answer for."  "To the centre of the city where all roads meet, waiting for you." "When the rain falls hard on the humdrum town." "Please don't put your life in the hands of a rock and roll band." "You're like Manchester, you've got strange ways." "Spend a year in a couple of hours on the edge of Beasley Street."

The next few months and years will hopefully see more focus on bringing together this scattered history - a tableau of influence and connection that is as random as any city but together pulls into some kind of word tapestry. Manchester, city of literature, it has a ring to it.




Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Cop Hater by Ed McBain

I don't read that much detective fiction but when I do I've always liked the hard-boiled or the noirish. Oddly I've never picked up an Ed McBain before, despite being a big fan of one of the writer's other pseudonym's Evan Hunter, whose 50s jazz noir "Second Ending" is even more a favourite than "Blackboard Jungle" (the template for the notorious "Rock Around the Clock" film.) I picked up "Cop Hater" as its the first of his 87th Precinct novels. In an introduction to this reissue he talks about how he had the idea to write a series of books about a group of cops rather than a single cop or detective - and how any "murder" story tended to be a bit fake when the protagonist was anyone other than a cop - e.g. a private detective.

"Cop Hater" has the same clipped style I remember from the Hunter novels, but though a genre book, its not all about the action. Starting with the murder of a plain clothes policeman, this novel puts the precinct at the centre of the action - as the various cops we are introduced to are all potentially lined up as the next to be killed by the "cop hater." Yet McBain moves out of the precinct and into the homes of the men who have to keep the city safe. They are all individuals with their own personalities and home lives. Steve Carella and Hank Bush are the duty detectives who go out to find out why the first cop was murdered in cold blood. They find the smallest of clues: half of a footprint. First of all they think the answer must be in the files - particularly when the partner of the first cop is also killed. Yet they can't find any examples of motive.

The city - a city like New York in its size and ethnic mix, with a river running through it - is as much a character as any of the cops. Its the summer of a heatwave, and the heat makes everything seem hard work. The city newspaper, a scandal rag, is desperate for an angle, and wonders if its teenage gangs who have killed the cops. One journalist, Savage, starts taking things into his own hands, acting as an agent provocateur, leading to another cop being injured with a zip gun from one of the teenagers.

Carella is in love and his girlfriend, Teddy, is a deaf mute. He has promised to marry her, but like all cops' wives and girlfriends she fears for him not coming home. Meanwhile Carella can't get out of his head images of his partner Bush's descriptions of his florid wife, Alice, who always wears black lingerie. This is a book that is determined to be a raw and edgy read, and that kind of edge is what makes the book still highly readable so many years on. The 87th Precinct stories would continue throughout McBain's long career, all set in the same district of this imagined city.

It's been a really refreshing read - McBain's approach influencing later police dramas like "Hill Street Blues" whilst at the same time taking inspiration from "Dragnet" but taking things in his own gritty direction. I'm sure I'll look to reading some more after finally getting round to this "debut" episode.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

EEK! by EEK! - new electronic music


EEK! by EEK! is a new project of electronic instrumental music. 8 tracks of jittery electronica taking in old school techno, acid and trance, and mixing with contemporary dubstep, glitch, its ideal for Sunday morning listening or Saturday night jigging around.

My first release for six months - this is a 30 minute side project that harnesses the digital sounds of the Korg Volca FM with the analogue Korg Monotribe, ably assisted by my venerable old Roland Juno 6.

Just over 30 minutes - across 8 instrumental tracks that are free to stream or downloadable for 25p each or £2 for the album. ENJOY THE EEK!

https://bonbonexperiment.bandcamp.com/album/eek 

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

In this Pulitzer Prize winning debut novel Viet Thanh Nguyen tells the story of what happened after the Vietnamese war to the diaspora of his people, through the effective telling of its narrator, a Captain in the South Vietnamese army. From the start we know that the Captain is telling the story as a confession to the Commissar, and that he is was a spy on behalf of the Viet Cong. It is this retrospective telling, and the Captain's dual role, as being an intimate of the American-supported forces in Saigon, as well as an undercover agent, only known as such by his childhood friend Man, his "handler", that gives the tale its power. For here we have a classic unreliable, but compelling narrator, in the vogue of Tristram Shandy or Huckleberry Finn, a witness to events, but also, because of his "mole" status, a morally compromised one.

Nguyen has said in an article that the novel was a long time coming and one can imagine why. The Vietnamese writer was born in 1970 and so is not the generation of the older captain, but finding a way of telling this story, one that has been so co-opted by the America that he went to and grew up in, cannot have been easy. The Vietnam war is perfect for there to be a "double agent" or a "mole". The Americans were always uncertain which Vietnamese could be VC. The Captain is also another kind of "double" for he is an outsider amongst his own society because of his parentage. The "bastard" son of a catholic priest and his much loved Vietnamese mother, he had grown up as someone unaccepted - until he discovers two close friends, Man and Bon, who become his blood brothers.

The first scenes of the novel are both comic and filled with tension as we are in the last days of Saigon, and as the "fixer" to the General, our narrator is sorting out  a plane out of Saigon, arranged by the Americans, knowing that if they are left behind they will surely be massacred as Saigon gets sacked by the VC. Here is the conundrum of the spy. He is at the heart of the operation doing things to defeat an "enemy" who he actually supports. His job is to report back, it is his "handler" who has to decide what to do with the information. Suitable bribes are paid but its still a chaos at the airport as they escape and amongst those who don't make it are Bon's wife and child who are cruelly shot as they run for the replacement plane. Amongst the three friends, Man is the communist, Bon is on the side of the Americans and the Captain is in between, his other loyalty to their friendship.

He gets out and to America and the General, his supporters, and their families are now in California, taking jobs in restaurants or as menial workers after once being part of the ruling class in their home country. The Captain seems happiest here. His ability with the language landing him work, and he even finds a lover through his job, an older woman at the university. It is a transactional relationship, which suits the spy. In America though, the General begins to develop the counter-revolution, wanting to build a force to send back to Vietnam, and begins soliciting support and money from American politicians. Through this an opportunity comes for the Captain to go to the Phillipines as an adviser to an auteur who is making a film about the Vietnam war. The novel begins feeling very much like a picaresque at this point, as these scenes of the post-Vietnam life are held together by the Captain's presence there. He is supposed to be there to make a more sympathetic portrayal of the Vietnamese - but this film is a fictionalised version of "Apocalypse Now", and the Vietnamese - extras pulled from the refugee camps - are there purely for a dubious authenticity. Here, the spy narrative seems to slacked a little - after all what role is he over there for? As supportive of his own side of the General's?

For the war is over, but in the aftermath, the repressions of the VC regime are what keeps an opposition going in absentia. "Nothing is more important than freedom", runs the line which has kept the Captain believing  - yet the novel skilfully tracks what that means. For the peasant supporting the VC, it is taking back a country that has been run by foreign powers for so long, and giving that power to the people - yet by the mid-1970s the template for communist revolutionary states was no longer about Marx but about its Totalitarian nationalist leaders. Dissent was not allowed, and by the time - at the end of the novel - that the Captain returns to Saigon - he finds that American music is banned as "yellow" rather than "red" (aka. "communist") music. Yet in America freedom is one that sees the American's invading another country in the guise of protecting freedoms. The Cold War, it is commented, was actually very hot.

"The Sympathizer" is a long book but its pleasures are many. The Captain is allowed to give voice to poetic digressions at times, where the complexities of the world he finds himself in are delineated. The plot sees him as very much a follower - first of the communists, and then of this bosses, whose orders, which include to kill, he has to follow to protect his cover. The first of these murders is morally ambiguous perhaps, even though it is a "trumped up" charge that sees an allleged "mole" in the camp killed, so protecting himself. The second is harsher, and we see how morally compromised he has become.

Joining the counter-revolutionary advance group - a futile suicide mission - he is captured and finally comes to face to face with his handler, and throughout with his past. The things we haven't been told, are the things he has kept from himself. At times this part of the novel gets a little caught up in its ambiguities and the author's desire to retain his narrator's sunny disposition. He just about pulls it off, I think, in what is essentially a comic book about the most serious of times. In this at least, you can see that it takes on that masterpiece of contradictory wartime madness that is "Catch 22", and if it owes something to that book's clever irreverancy, particularly in the role of the Captain, who is essentially a figure on the peripherary of the action, it does so in a way that works. For if there is a moral conversation that the book tries to have - it is to highlight the absurdity and contradictions in war. With its main character being half-white, half-Vietnamese, we are given both sides of the argument, so to speak.

For what do we know of Vietnam other than through the prism of our memories? The Vietnam war was opposed in the west mainly because of the western lives it would take, and - belatedly by realisation of the horrors imposed to try and "win" it - rather than what is best for the Vietnamese people. For the tragedy of these wars of deliverance is that the new regime, a pariah state in many ways, kept together through a political absolutism, and fearful of its own dismantlement, becomes every bit as repressive to its people as the one that came before - or the one that might have replaced it had it lost. This book is highly sensitive to these challenges but withouthhaving any trite answers the author perhaps overplays the contradictions.

As a debut novel it has some debut novel faults; it does seem to have gestated over a long period and its length seems more about being a comprehensive statement rather than for any necesssary unity. The scenes for the auteur's film are the weakest in the book, as if they came in from another earlier attempt at the novel.  Towards the end, as we understand why this is a confession, and why it is being written, the Captain becomes the victim, being tortured by his own side for his own contradictory nature. There seems an attempt to over-justify what has just happened: the secrets that he has kept from himself show he is as tainted by war as anyone, that "judgement" in war is based as much on who you did it to, as what you did. The reader comes away a little more numb, a little more appalled, yet I'm not sure anymore enlightened, other than to realise that this is not quite the comic novel is sets itself up as, but something more. By the end the Captain has become of what the west calls the "boat people".  Because of the years of tragedy since that time I'd almost forgotten about this period. With Vietnam liberalising over the years, and never becoming the atrocity that was Cambodia under Pol Pot, its easy to forget where we were in the nineteen seventies. This novel does a powerful job of helping us remember, but its also a joy to read, full of delights, and having found the perfect funnel - the "mole" - through which to tell the complex story, a worthy prize winner, without ever being merely worthy.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Sadder Manchester

I woke up in the early hours of Tuesday morning, and got up to get a glass of water. Checking my phone I saw that some people had declared themselves safe in Manchester - the Facebook application it uses during terror attacks. It couldn't be, could it?

Of course, we now know that a murderer walked into the entrance of the Manchester Arena (still known as "Nynex" or "the M.E.N" depending on your age) and blew himself up in the most crowded area - as parents waited for their children to come out of the Ariane Grande concert, or were leaving quickly themselves. There are 22 dead, including the murderer, and a large number seriously injured. The home made bomb made to inflict the most damage. The youngest dead is an 8-year old girl.

On the Monday morning I had been at a session with the leader of the council and the new chief executive, where the discussion had all been about planning for the future, and - despite all the cuts the public sector has faced since 2010 - a sense of hope and optimism. 24-hours later their agendas will have been upended, as the worst terrorist attack since 7/7 bombing in London, and the worst loss of life in Manchester since the second world war had taken place.

A pop concert is the "softest" of targets of course, but along with football matches and shopping centres, its long been realised that this is the nightmare that we hoped would never happen. Its impossible to find the right words of course. On Tuesday the office was preternaturally quiet, as the need to get on with the mundane daily work was a relief from thinking too much about what had happened. By the evening their had been the announcement of a vigil outside the Town Hall. It was short, inclusive, poignant, with an absolutely on-point poem by my friend Tony Walsh aka Longfella Poet.

There was hardly a space outside the Town Hall on the most gloriously sunny night of the year so far. The crowd though was a young one. The young of Manchester drawn from their daily business - work, school, college - knowing that there's nothing unusual about the rite of passage of a concert at the Arena, that it could have been any one of them there - not just the unlucky few amongst the 21,000 crowd. Afterwards I went for a beer with my friend, and then walking back an hour or so later, the square was still busy, as if people needed somewhere to be. The city hadn't shut down, the people hadn't cowed with fear, rather they had come to show they cared, they had a need to be part of something collective. I suspect part of the youth of the crowd was because older people - those with families - would have wanted to rush back to be with their own, to hug them tighter than before, to be with the ones they loved.

I had tickets to see White Hills, a U.S. psych band, who were playing to less than a hundred people in the Soup Kitchen. A world away from the Arena, but connected as well - and they recognised how important it was that we'd still come out. Not an act of bravery, I think, more an act of confirmation - to our lives, to art. On the tram home there were Simple Minds fans from a gig at the Bridgewater Hall, whilst the Arena had cancelled, inevitably, that night's Take That concert.

Manchester has been here before of course: though in the all the reminiscing about the 1996 I.R.A. bomb it suddenly dawns on us how lucky we were that it was a bomb aiming to destroy property, not to kill people, remarkable that nobody died (though a previous I.R.A. bomb had killed.) Time will tell how different this feels. It does seem a different world, but despite the pessimistic views of the right wing press and politicians in particular, that difference is a world that begins, I think, to look like a new century, not the old. None of us can be unaware of the major human disasters in the civil wars of the Middle East, but it doesn't feel like a clash of civilisations that is taking place here; our Manchester feels - and felt yesterday - like a place of strength and optimism, however depraved certain events such as Monday can appear to be.

Undoubtedly over the next hours and days, the media scrum will give us as many dangerous angles on what has happened, as insight. Whilst the officials look at the risk of further atrocities, we'll all be overwhelmed by the individual tragedies that have happened. The unnecessary election taking place on 8th June seems even less relevant (yet is probably more so) though one hopes that politicians on all sides will be able to resist making political capital. Soldiers on the streets - as we've seen in Paris and Brussels - is not  a sign of confidence, but of fear; let's hope it is only a short term change.

I wanted to write something about this - because its happened here, in the city I've lived in for over 20 years, but  I find myself unable to move beyond the pure facts; my own numbness - today I saw some flowers - and a teddy bear - being moved to St. Ann's Square from Albert Square - and I almost broke up; is an irrelevance compared with that of those who knew the dead and injured.  There is a flower shrine now in St. Anne's Square, and there will be a national minutes silence tomorrow. I'm sure other tributes, as well as collections for the families, will follow. I am grateful at how many people have been in touch from around the world: Manchester is truly loved by those who have visited it, or know people here, and that love seems to be echoed by the love people have for their own city. I've lived here long enough to have some reservations about the "special" nature of the city and its people - in many ways, its friendliness is not universal, like all cities, it can be a lonely, dangerous, even alienating place, particularly with its culture of alcohol, football, and some of the violence that sometimes accompanies it; the new city is as shiny as the beautiful yellow trams, yet the grime under the fingertips of the city has always been as appealing as its bright lights. For a couple of days at least our eyes have had no time for the rough sleepers, and spice addicts, as their difficulties seem a distraction.

For the murderer was also Mancunian borne and bred, even if that hideous ideology of the suicide bomber, comes from conflicts half way across the world, the city will come together and has come together - but just as during the riots a few years ago, the idea that "this" can't happen here of all places, is clearly a chimera. There will no doubt be time for more reflection, more analysis.

Now, it is necessary to remember. To feel sorrow. To feel proud. As the world's media camp on our doorstep, to speak truth to them - that we don't feel hate for the killer and his ideology, but puzzlement, acknowledging it as a warped view of our city's reality that has no truth to it.  I'm going away overnight on Friday, and I'm glad I'd got that booked. Next week is Whitsun week - many of the people who died, were injured, or knew people who were, would have been looking forward to a long weekend, or a week off school or work; just as those attending the concert would have been looking forward to a night watching their favourite singer. Our dreams, our hopes - particularly for the young - seem particularly strong this week; but it is also right that we feel sadness, and yes, anger, that for some those hopes have been taken away.


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

In Favour of Artistic Failure

 Rovio published 51 games before it came up with "Angry Birds," Pulp had been going for a dozen years, releasing a stream of singles and albums, before "Common People" was a hit. In the "start up" and entrepreneurship field, the phrase "fail faster" is used to encourage a culture of constant reinvention, and in literature, of course, there is Beckett's ever useful line: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better." 

Yet when I think about artistic failure I don't think these really cut the mustard. Those games, those albums, are the finished article. They are perceived failures, but they were created with the idea of becoming a success. This year we've heard about the Swedish "Museum of Failure" with a corporate mis-steps such as Colgate Lasagne. We can learn more from failure, says its founder.

Ah, this is getting closer. The thing about artistic failure is that it is more noble than success. The success is always, paradoxically, a failure in some way - for it is at a point of completion that is good enough to succeed, it is all it will ever be; whilst the artistic failure is still possible...the unwritten or unfinished possible. So we are intrigued by the film that was never completed, the song that has never seen the light of day, the work curtailed by death. "The Pale King" may never be as successful as "Infinite Jest" but it has one advantage over the earlier novel, because Foster Wallace died before it was completed it joins that list of might have beens. We can see the flaws in even a masterpiece like "The Great Gatsby" but in "The Last Tycoon" - unfinished at Fitzgerald's death, and with the completed parts as good as anything he'd written, we have the tantalising hope of what might have come. It's why "Sgt. Pepper" or "Pet Sounds" may never quite satisfy us as much as the unfinished - and belatedly completed "Smile". What might have been? 

In music we are seeing a sense of "completeness" - where we now have access to ALL of the recordings of "Like a Rolling Stone." We know that one we know so well is the work of genius, but seeing the versions that fell short, or may have gone in a slightly different direction is a fascinating stretch of history. Because however "perfect" the final rendition, these are still the works of man. A "live" creation on a particular day, or over a particular week or month, where a myriad choices lead to the finished work. What seems obvious now - when you listen to the mastertapes, was a result of chance, of serendipity - of Al Kooper happening to be in the studio and playing the organ that way... 

If the contemporary boxset reissue fascinates its less about this "versioning" I think - and more about the tantalising sketches that could have become something else. On The Police's last but one album they had a number one hit with "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic" a song that had lain unfinished from early in their career. This is not uncommon. We are finding out that Prince's back catalogue was a composite - similar to Neil Young, or even David Bowie at times - finding songs from earlier periods that "fit" and then completing them. Of less interest are the demos without the band of Robert Smith, or Fleetwood Mac. Those versions feel like templates of the more famous versions. 

I've been playing and compiling some old and new music of late, and in both cases, as I try and work out what is "the best" - or what tracks should make it onto my new album, I'm also drawn to the ones that didn't work out. I've got a natural sympathy for the runt of the litter, the song I never quite got right, or the poem that didn't really find its way. I'm fascinated, I think, by the mechanics of that failure: is it because I couldn't qutie get the lyric right or the drum beat or the recording - there's something wrong with it which means the piece got abandoned. I've long ago realised that I should try and get as close to a finished work as possible, and yet sometimes the abandoned piece is far off, but still has a certain magic - a feel to it that might not be replicated in the more stately performances, or the more honed pieces. With about fourteen songs recorded for a new album - and with ten "chosen" - I find myself drawn as much to the songs I'm about to leave off: in their failure, and they are failures, something not quite adding up, there is the germ of something else - of some future success that is less easily recognisable. 

It sometimes seems that some poets in particular only manage "gems" as if they only have to unsheath their metaphorical quill to write with authority and genius. It won't surprise you that I'm usually less interested: it seems the abandoned fragments, or the things that stretch away from the usual style, are the more interesting somehow. Perhaps there's something of Picasso's "to finish (a painting) means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul" in this. The finished work, is it ever finished, or abandoned, let go? Or simply let into the world in its best bib and tucker with a dollar in its pocket and a hope that it will somehow survive?

We see in literature in particular how what once was strange and difficult becomes easier through repetition or replication. So "The Shadow of the Wind" is an enjoyable pastiche of Borges, without the depth; or a consummate writer like David Mitchell, in his apparent ability to do anything, may well be disguising the impossibility at the heart of his endeavour - "Black Swan Green" a scarcely concealed bilgdungsroman that pretends to be a novel but is sort of a collection of stories, and the Russian dolls of "Cloud Atlas" giving us a dazzling display that disguises the fragmentation therein.

I sit there wondering about all of this and thinking that because the next thing you write is - like all the last things you wrote - an attempt to banish the white severity of the paper, it also is the most exciting, for it has not yet failed, and better still, it has not yet succeeded. It's the artistic failure, not the success, that keeps one going - and those "runts" remain as fascinating for their knobbly uncertainty as the things that worked, the alignment of the stars that somehow makes a work "succeed."