Saturday, August 30, 2014

Ideas and Time

Ideas can take a while to have currency - meaning to be taken seriously as a genuine tender. So ideas have their time; they also have their elasticity - an idea that exists in a theoretical sense can change dramatically (even on its head) in practice, or be used for that purpose. Religious theology sits at one extreme - both in the sense that there is "only one book" and the endless interpretation that theologists extrapolate from that.

A historical perspective is helpful. Surely, we know there were political as well as social and theoretical reasons how Christianity became the official religion of the Roman  Empire, though the ideas itself are sophisticated. One God rather than many; a son who came to earth as man to save us; the idea of "love" replacing "fear" in the lexicon of believers.

You can say that political ideas are often less sophisticated, more prone to corruption - ends justifying means. Ideas, are, I think ticks that attach themselves to the body of our society's wildebeest, at first unnoticed, then symbiotic in some way. The idea of an independent Scotland for instance; or paradoxically a Britain distanced from Europe.

I sit there thinking that we should surely be more European than ever now - not just because of the market opportunity, but because the idea of Europe embodied in the European Union should surely have taken hold now. Not for the last time, I find myself on the wrong side of history. There seems an inevitable pulling away from Europe which is fuelled by a strange right wing Conservatism. It is not the old stagers of the Tory party who are anti-Europe but people my age and younger who joined parliament in 2010 or the one before. Some of this is about power of course: a distinct ruling class that are angry at anything that takes away from their "right to rule". For all Europe's faults, its mandate is a sophisticated one: not one of particular democratic vote (for one side or another), but a sense of the demotic, the agora, the populus. We haven't a constitution like American proclaiming "the pursuit of happiness" as a right; but we have a multi-state organisation based on the idea that equality between the massed citizenship is what matters. The mechanisms to ensure that happens are necessarily weak (and you could argue have been broken by the Frankfurt bankers) but they remain - enshrined in laws such as the social chapter.

Yet in the week that Conservative of around my age skips over to UKIP causing an unecessary election, the tab of which has to be picked up by the taxpayer, who might rather prefer it to be spent on helping those in need, I worry that the ideas of the time are now not mine. I see Europe, and an enlarged Europe, north to even include Russia, south and east into Turkey as a historical opportunity, but no longer a historical inevitability. Why are so many Europeans coming to Britain? (And its not just Romanians and Poles, now its Italians and Spanish.) The economic opportunity; the ubiquity of English; our socially liberal mores; the sclerotic systems of favour in their own countries... yet at the same time that we appreciate the cheap Aldi and Lidl, the wide range of foods in the supermarket, the Danish crime dramas, and Swedish pop music, and beach holidays away from the British summer, we as a nation aer edging away from all ideas of Europe.

And I sit there and wonder "who are these people?" who take the advantages of Europe but have created a bogeyman of it. We have been a European state forever, with a German royal family... and our lands owned by a succession of Norman placemen, leading up to and including our current prime minister. Part of me remembers Christopher Isherwood's "Mr. Norris Changes Trains" and the dark forces moving in the background  that him and his intelligent young friends knew about but couldn't see. Ideas that become of a time require actors to enact them. I cannot for a minute understand how someone - politician, individual, newspaper editor - could have a twenty year or more seething resentment of Europe. Its like the Europe I know is "unseen" as the cities in Mieville's "The City and The city".

We know an idea can have currency. Scottish independence seems to be one that has and doesn't have it. We are unseeing - those of us without a vote - because it `has not been something that has ever really needed us to think of it. We don't resent the Scots, hell we've even made Dr. Who Scottish. Its a like time since Tartan armies broke the Wembley goalposts or even had a side to support that could be a genuine rival to our equally disappointing English side. What's the bit in Trainspotting? "Its nae good blamin it oan the English fir colonising us. Ah don't hate the English. They're just wankers. We are colonised by wankers." 

History seems inevitable in retrospect; at present neither Scotland leaving the Union or Britain leaving the EU seems inevitable; but they both seem possible. The failure of them to happen will be the bigger shock I think - for what then? The split in the Tory party over Europe does seem inevitable at some point - and that must be what is exercising the brains on the far right. A bit like the American Tea Party, ideologues who have misjudged the time will find themselves with a world that they didn't want or expect. Let us hope so.

In art, ideas also have a tendency to find their appropriate time. The cult artist (Velvet Underground for instance) depends on it. The artistic ideas that matter are the ones that both seem right of the time but make the earlier times seem irrelevant. Cliff Richard made little sense once the Beatles came along, Prog Rock seemed indulgent faced with the Ramones and Sex Pistols; once Picasso or Henry Moore had remade how we look at the human form it was hard to go back to a representative version.

Sometimes ideas flounder on the margins for years.  I don't remember hearing the names Rachel Carson or Jane Jacobs during the eighties and early nineties, but their classic books get namechecked all the time nowadays. Yet we have strange countercurrents as well. Green issues seem to have either been mainstreamed, found wanting or ignored by a new generation of consumers. The urban regeneration of our cities continues as the embedded interests in gentrification are able to drown out any other voices.

I've often wondered where my generation went - between the punk rockers and the ravers was there room for us as well? Our endless Western recessions mean that as I approach fifty I don't know what a fifty year old should be like now; what they should look like; what they should feel. The radical who becomes a conservative requires self-interest along the way; my generation struggle with the baby boomers above us taking all the air sometimes.

Its often possible, as a writer, or musician or an artist to wonder what happens between being the outsider firebrand and yesterday's news. We sometimes miss the boat; like a relationship that spirals from heady first date to messy divorce without the steady years or marriage in between.

Life - I suspect - gets in the way, so that ideas we should have been pursuing at an earlier age are left to the ideologues: we then get a skewed version offering us a "choice" that we never asked for and don't need.

Friday, August 22, 2014

I'm "working on my novel"

The artist/provocateur Cory Arcangel recently published a book of "tweets" with Penguin (of all people, do Penguins tweet?) consisting of people's tweets where they are "working on a novel." ) Its one of those ideas, like Michael Landy destroying all his professions or Gormley's fourth plinth piece, which you kind of wish had stayed in one of those infra dig exhibitions of "ideas for art" rather than becoming an artwork in itself. Not that its a bad idea in itself, its just that the idea is so small, and even snide, that the work itself becomes much bigger than the intellectual frame of reference. Since any of the contributors in that book would probably have given a limb to be published in book form by Penguin, their being raw material for a trashing of creative dreams (or ironic commentary on our self-aware status alerts if you prefer) seems a little crass.

And I'm only saying that because of course I'm "working on my novel," though - and not because of Cory Arcangel's admittedly funny piece - I tend to now say I'm writing my "work in progress" or (as a few friends put it on their Facebook status) WIP. "Work in progress" has a long cultural history of course, being the original "name" or at least description for "Ulysses" by James Joyce. I appropriated it for my stream-of-consciousness prose poem sequence "Extracts from Levona (a work in progress)" because I liked that sense of unfinished business, as well as the anonymity it gives you. I have many "novels" which never got past a few pages, and quite a few that limped into 10-20 thousand words, without ever seeing the light of day, so "work in progress" is a good way of keeping your eye on the ball. Arcangel, to be fair, was, I think, interested in the idea of "working on a novel" as being something like the character in Camus's "The Plague" who is sure that his novel will be on the right track, as soon as he nails the first line, and of course, on detailing this regularly to the doctor in the story, dies before he achieves it. (Camus also wrote the "Myth of Sysyphus" so he knows of what he writes.)

Anyway, I've been "working on a novel" for a while now, since the start of the year, actually, where a little short story project I had ended up creating a bit of a template for a longer piece, which coincided with me joining a writing group. I'm nothing if not reliable when I join such endeavours, and rather than flitting from piece to piece, have continued with the "work in progress" whilst at the same time being (a) not entirely sure where I'm going with this and (b) wondering if it has the legs to be another "novel". Anyway, the writing group helped me hone my intentions, give it a title, and, now, eight months on, see me write most of the first half of it. Its kind of looking like it might be a (short) novel after all.

This week, for the first time in ages I've had the time to sit back down with it not as homework for the group but really getting stuck into it - over three or four days I've put together a third of what I've written to date. But how do I know its got "legs"? Well this morning I woke up with the characters speaking to me. Not in a hearing voices sort of way, (though it can come to this), but them jostling in my head for a bit of room. Whatever other plans I had to day went out of the window and I set down to get them down on the page. I've always felt myself even more of a fake calling myself a novelist than a poet, as my previous novels remain steadfastly unpublished, and its been several years since I've finished anything of serious length - yet long fiction has been what I set out to do from when I was about twenty one or so (and probably before then, though it was getting a computer that made me convinced I was able to be in this for the long haul). I've puzzled a little to why I've stopped aiming at novel writing. Most of the excuses have seemed practical - it takes a lot of time, you then have a "thing" that is competing with every other novel in the world for attention - but some have been aesthetic as well. Do I really want to add to the world's slush pile of books? Have I anything particularly special to say, or a particularly good way of saying it? Given that I can answer those questions via a poem or a short story I guess I put novel writing a bit to one side. The "big novel" of my dreams remains a mirage, (or a mountain), yet hearing those voices in my head this morning I remembered what you can do in a novel that no other form of writing can give you. It enables you to expand on character so that your creations do take on histories and futures of their own. Even as I frantically fill in the backstory of character's that a few pages before were mere ciphers, I realise their lives are becoming more than just "scenery" to the novel but are at the heart of it.

There's a peculiar excitement when this happens - and its one I'd temporarily forgotten about - one that the character in "The Plague" never understands, and one I wonder if Cory Arcangel has considered. For its only in the writing of the novel, not the thinking about it, or tweeting about it, or saying you've "got a novel in you" to mates down the pub, that the damn thing actually comes into existence, and whereas Cory's art project was probably just a matter of process once he'd had the initial idea, (and don't get me wrong, I like and appreciate artistic process), the novel has a tendency to defy any sense of over-ordering. Apparently Iris Murdoch used to write 30,000 synopses's before writing the novel itself - which sounds a little like a first draft to me. I have published writer friends who start with order and have to go through chaos before they come out the other side with an order that make sense. For me, I tend to have a big idea, and often a destination, but very little idea about the route or the method to get there. I'd forgotten, it seems, that there are unexpected pleasures along the way. Waking up with your characters doing your work for you, is one of those, and I thought I'd share it.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Books by Charlie Hill

I read and reviewed Charlie Hill's debut novel "The Space Between Things" a while back. Published through a tiny press, and often chaotically edited, it had enough vim and humour  - as well as a subject matter, the forgotten road protest/dance movements of the early 90s - to make me look forward to what he wrote next.

"Books",  a short, funny novel that has come out from Birmingham's Tindal Street Press, is a much tighter affair than his debut. We are still in the world of a scruffy Birmingham demi monde, but here this backdrop is less what the novel is about. Richard runs a bookshop in a marginal area of the city - picking up trade from the students on the one side and the suburbs on the other. Yet after his girlfriend leaves him for another man and - worse - starts reading "The Da Vinci Code" he decides that he needs to have a midlife crisis and become as bad as he can be: which means drink, drugs and one night stands. Now, although that was pretty much the plot of that debut novel, in "Books" its merely the character design.

For in Richard's world there are two types of books; good ones, that "hit you over the head", and the rest. It is not Dan Brown that is the model for the latter type, but Nick Hornby oddly enough. Gary Sayles (note the surname) has written three protracted-adolescent ladlit novels, but is having an abrupt change into the midlife crisis novel for his fourth "The Grass is Greener." Yet Sayles is like the Jack Vettriano of writing, able to nail the vapidness of modern taste without a smidgin of irony. His books are written for accountants, middle managers and office workers. They see in him their own lives, not savagely ridiculed, but reflected back to them with a smug sense of recognition, and they sell by the bucketload.

Yet the novel begins in an odd place. Richard has gone on holiday on his own, and there in the same hotel is another displaced Brummy, Lauren, a psychology researcher at the university, and keen amateur photographer. Richard is bowled over by her, but in his being "bad" phase, doesn't quite know how to get involved with her. Fate intervenes, as a woman drops dead in the hotel bar, whilst they are both there. This becomes the unexpected connection between them. For Lauren is researching just this kind of sudden inexplicable death, and Dan has a theory... that it is the books that are killing people. For the dead woman had the new Gary Sayles book in manuscript. Sayles is books are not just bad, but potentially lethal, and this latest one is so designed to appeal to its demographic that it inadvertently puts them into a catatonic state from which they can't recover.

This central theme is deftly played with, as they form an unlikely double act. She's as lost as he is, having been driving the car during a crash that killed her boyfriend, whilst his business is almost an anti-business, refusing books he doesn't like, chasing out the wrong kind of customer.  There's a bit of opposites attract about the love story - in that he brings her out of herself, mainly by him annoying her, whilst in Lauren he's found someone worth staying around for. But their growing interest in each other takes place mostly in moments, for each scene of the book is there for a reason.

The structure of the novel does a good job with what could be difficult material. How can you keep the tension up when you know there's a book out there that kills? Richard's in an unique position - as he runs a bookshop - he tries hard to get interest from the press, but his "press contacts" already know of him as a conspiracy nutter, so that doesn't work. Lauren doesn't at first believe his theory, but comes along to it. In a controlled test, he gets to read Sayles' previous novels, to see what affect they have on him. The theory is he's had enough Bukowski etc. to offset the effects - and it seems that maybe its only the new novel that is so toxic that it kills, and only then those who've been made immune by his previous books.

Describing such hokum is probably unnecessary - for in this short, fast, pacy novel you go along with whatever Hill throws at you. When he places us with Gary Sayles - who is beginning to believe his own hype even though his books are surgically rewritten to make them even more appealing to a demographic - there is a darker side to the comedy. A 3rd strand of the novel emerges as well. Two impossibly comic performance artists have decided to make Sayles their next project as they poke and provoke the mainstream. For me, this was the strand of the novel that worked least well. The novel is quite old fashioned in some ways, provincial in the best way - i.e. set in a noticeable place, but whereas the drunken bookshop owner, lonely female academic and megastar novelist all could be archetypes they seem believable, whilst the two performance artists seem drafted in from central casting from a sitcom from 20 years ago. Its all good fun however, and the humour - which I enjoyed in his previous book - is not lost in this more refined setting. In fact, the structural tightness of the novel really helps, as it allows little set piece scenes to drive the plot along as well as being funny. The short chapters and long descriptive chapter titles are in themselves partly satirising the Nick Hornby type of "list" novel.

Comedy perhaps changes less than other genres, and there's quite a few echoes of David Lodge's "Nice Work", a similarly staged love story set in Birmingham. As the publication date of Sayles' novel gets nearer we head to London for the big launch. Sayles has had a new idea - he will leave the people behind and say goodbye by getting someone else to read his work. The performance artists have been posing as his biggest fans. In the mean time, there is something familiar about Sayles' wife that Richard can only just recall. In a flurry of chaos all the plots converge on a brilliantly stage managed final few scenes, where inevitably Richard and Lauren's madcap plans can hardly change the trajectory of publishing history.

What makes "Books" so refreshing is that its a high concept idea that is then deftly played out in an everyday scenario. Although Hill relishes the digs at popular fiction, it is, in some ways a Hornby-like book itself, with a nice old fashioned love story behind all the frippery. Hill is far more interested in the humour than the satire, so though there will be a pang of recognition next time we pick up a Dan Brown or whatever, we never feel that he's laughing at us, but bringing us along for the ride. After all, his "hero" is a total mess despite reading all the right books.

Friday, August 15, 2014

East of England

Usually when I take some time off, I just go for the R&R option, stay local and then half way through my break think I should go somewhere for a day or two. This year I needed to get away and with a friend being free last weekend in Nottingham, I decided the direction I would head in would be the east. You could even say the far east, given I got as far as Cromer. Along the way stayed in Norwich for three nights, and caught up with an old friend in Cambridge.

Nottingham has always been a favourite city - like Manchester but a bit more compact. Unlike Manchester its independent scene seems more integral to the city. The various alley ways off the Lace Market enable small retailers (including the new bookshop Five Leaves) in the heart of the city. The Northern Quarter used to be a little like this, but is now mostly bars and eateries, not a bad thing, but leaving one to wonder where you might set up an independent bookshop in Manchester with sufficiently low rent and high footfall.  In one of the 2nd hand record shops I ummed and ahhed over "Some Time in New York City" by Lennon, with the 2nd album "live" with Frank Zappa and Neil Young's never-on-CD "Journey Through the Past." Both were a bit expensive (and are rare for a reason, neither are particularly good!)so I stuck with Lennon's posthumous "Milk and Honey" and Siouxsie and the Banshees "Hyeana."

On then to the Nottingham Contemporary, a fantastical futuristic new gallery that looks like its landed in the city from another planet. I'm a great fan of architectural contrasts - far better than "faux" assimilation, or the apologetic modern box. Yet inside the gallery disappointed. We seem to retain a real problem in the UK with historical moderrnism, let alone our more contemporary art, and its something I've seen before at the Sage, in Middlesborough, and even to a lesser degree at the very popular Tate Modern. We've built these new spaces to showcase an art that the British have always been slow to embrace. The current shows in Nottingham seemed to exemplify this. Carol Rama's show, part of a touring retrospective, shows an interesting international artist, with links to Dada and surrealism, and an edginess to the work. Yet the works are presented with little commentary, and even titles and dates of composition are kept separate from the works themselves. We are left with a pretty show, but with little comprehension. The dialogue with Danh Võ's installations in the adjoining gallery seemed tenuous at least. Danh Võ seems emblematic of our problem; an avowedly international artist - Vietnamese born, refugee in Denmark, and now based in Mexico City - his work - a mix of found works (photographs etc.) and installations that pre-date his own mid-70s birthdate they would, I think, be politically resonant in Vietnam or even New York, but here they seemed to exist without context. The gallery space, so exciting from the outside swamped the work, the white walls and open glass windows exposing the two installation pieces, rather than enhancing them. Context isn't the only thing in art, but this felt without context, and the work itself didn't seem strong or individual enough to make the difference. Leaving the space, a little disappointed, I noticed that the art books in the shop were pushed back into one corner, whilst gifts and children's stuff dominated the space. It seemed at one with our uncertainty over the role of contemporary art in a civic space - great building, lovely cafe, but what on earth should we put inside it? A room of Rama's work apologised in advance for having work of a sexual nature in it.

Avoiding rainstorms (mostly) as hurricane Bertha spluttered over the UK, I travelled down to Norwich. Its a lovely journey through ever-flatter countryside, passing through small towns on the way. Norwich is one of my favourite cities, far enough from the bustle of London that it doesn't feel like a commuter town, and at the same time with a lively local independence, showcased in the many little record shops and cafes down St. Benedict's road and elsewhere.

But if I was going to be in the east, I wanted to see the sea, and so headed off to Cromer on Monday for the first time. If you wanted a seaside town out of central casting, Cromer would fit the bill.  A steep seafront that leads down to exemplary beaches, wooden groynes and a pleasant pier (off which children were sat crabbing) bringing back memories of other similar places. I sat watching the sea's undulations; it was a luminous green for much of my time there. Walking up past the town I headed towards an old lighthouse which overlooks the Royal Cromer Golf Course, an expensive links at the top of the headland. If this was my Sebaldian journey, it came without any of the baggage that the misanthropic old German had, and instead brought back warm memories of childhood excursions - England at its best.

Heading back into Norwich to meet a friend, it was great to be in such a different landscape, an England that seemed to hark back, old churches, farms and fields, and every now and then a moderrnist jolt: a solar farm glinting in the sun. I didn't in the end get to see much of Norwich's sites, or (an earlier plan) go to Ely Cathedral - the trip a mix of seeing thnngs and stopping for a rest. I made it out to an earlier exemplary gallery, the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts at UEA, here was a fascinating exhibition by John Virtue, a painter who began in the North West, but whose name was new to me. His giant monochromatic seascapes were impressive in every way. Was it that this show resonated with where I had just been, or was it simply more successful art? An accidental find, but a worthwhile one.

My trip east ended in Cambridge, where I slumped with my bags on Parker's Piece watching the world go by before catching up with friends. 

So yesterday saw me heading back to Manchester, seventh train journey in six days, quite a complex itinerary given the idiotic pricing models of Britain's train companies, but at least I only had one short delay. Manchester's trams were looking less reliable as I headed back during rush hour, wanting to get home to then go out again. I was glad I made the effort, as there's an intrigueing book-themed exhibition at Anthony Burgess, around the work of Micheal Butterworth, whose long history intersects with Michael Moorcock, UK Sci-fi, "New Worlds", Savoy books and more. Free to look around, there's also an evening of talks and films a week on Tuesday which is recommended.

As Anthony Burgess Foundation leaps back into life for the autumn, where it will host many events at the literature festival, where its programme is now available - I'll probably do a piece on what I'd recommend later on. Butterworth edits arts journal "Corridor 8" and this home to intrigueing new arts journalism prompts me to remember that the Burgess/Observer arts journalism prize is open to entries for its 3rd year. 

The evening finished at Castlefield Gallery, where as well as linking up this "response" show with Manchester Art Gallery's Ryan Gander exhibition, the zine "Shrieking Violet" celebrated its latest edition and 5th year. Its on sale in the Cornerhouse and Piccadilly Records or online here. My piece on "the secret history of the synthesizer" is included.

So, after a few days being wined and dined by other cities, Manchester did its best to whisper a few sweet nothings in my ear on return. Our relationship will survive a little longer, perhaps, despite the lure of other places!

Monday, August 11, 2014

First Novel by Nicholas Royle

A couple of years ago Nicholas Royle, the Manchester-based novelist (and academic) introduced Nicholas Royle, his namesake, the academic, and now, debut novelist. The idea of the doppelganger is a key one in modernist fiction, but its only one of the tropes that Royle employs in last year’s “First Novel.”

Royle, a creative writing lecturer living in Didsbury, Manchester is writing about Paul Kinder, a creative writing lecturer living in Didsbury. As an actual neighbour of the writer, the veracity of the novel, from named roads, to “The Art of Tea” bookshop, to my friend, the writer Elizabeth Baines who makes several walk-on appearances, I can vouch for. Yet “First Novel” is a hall of mirrors. Kinder is running a course on “First novels” yet his own first novel is not so much hard-to-find as impossible to find. It came out on a small press, was hardly reviewed, hardly sold. When old copies come up Kinder buys them. He lives alone. We suspect his wife has left him with his children (though the truth of this will take a while to emerge). He is obsessed with the local characters round Didsbury village, including Overcoat Man, a man he has seen attacked by a group of young people, some of whom he suspects are in his class.

Yet the novel is fractured and fragmented from the start – this scene doesn’t happen in either this book, or the book Kinder is writing – though it sort of comes through in one of the scenes he asks his class to write.

At the same time one of his students, a talented young girl called Grace is writing a novel that has some power. We get key extracts from the early part of the book. It’s a somewhat traditional, but vivid, tale of an incident in the early 60s in Zanzibar, and that follows the life of the RAF airman Ray whose life was changed by it.  Ray becomes a poet, and has a son Nicholas, who he pretty much abandons – partly out of the tragedy that strikes him, partly as he comes to terms with his own homosexuality during the 60s and 70s.

Kinder is not particularly enjoying his job. He seems to know he is a fraud, and a fellow lecturer comes up to him at one point, as he reads something out at an (actual) Manchester literary life and criticises it for being very like “Fight Club.” It dawns on the reader eventually, that Royle/Kinder has got his excuses in first. It’s a hint if you like that this novel you are reading is somehow the one that Kinder is writing.

Though its not explicit we understand that Kinder is writing a book about the airport. These bits of the book are Ballardian, as he drives out to the airport and watches the planes fly overhead. At a party he meets pilots and air hostesses who all seem to live in Didsbury (which was news to me!) because of its proximity to the airport. When a newcomer speaks to him at these parties, the slightly comical Lewis, it seems that the plane motif has a more serious angle, for Lewis has his own secret, his own tragedy. The flying lore creates a postmodern tone to the novel, as does Kinder’s obsession with both the rooms of writers in a Guardian series, and the spines of books. Kinder collects white spined Picadors and different series of Penguins. These OCD-like traits seem to be part of his hold on reality. Kinder’s first person narrative frequently offers a choose-your-own-adventure trope. After dismantling the Kindle work has bough him he muses “I would be able to put the Kindle back together again, or I won’t.”

That either/or – the two possible paths is both reminiscent of the fatalism of Luke Reinhart’s “The Dice Man” and also the truth facing any writer. The characters have choices, but the writer has to choose.

As the book progresses, we get more of the story Grace is writing, but to confuse things we also get a story that another student Helen writes: where she follows Kinder home, and begins a fascination and flirtation with him.

The novel’s timescales sometimes confuse. We are set in an actual but specific near-present. The tram has yet to arrive in Didsbury, but is coming. We know of his wife, Veronica, but do not see her. They married early and had children too fast – but these reminisces are of an earlier life, in London. When does Kinder’s debut novel fit into this? Lines are blurred. At the same time there are obsessions that are only partially explained. It is Paul Auster-ish world of false trails and possible clues. He is obsessed with the Co-op Pyramid building in Stockport, and goes as far to ask a Co-op bank worker out in the hope of getting to see it.

At the same time Grace’s novel is changing. The somewhat evocative colonial novel, is turning into something that is far more expositional.  Yet though “First Novel” is quite cutting about the type of writing – good, bad and indifferent – that comes on a creative writing course, I don’t think we’re intended to make judgements on this. For the stories in the novel are themselves all versions of truths and it is when these versions begin to mould into each other, as fact and fiction intermingle, that the novel’s dark intent becomes clearer.

There’s a temptation in a novel that is so meta- in some many ways to play at its own game. Surely it’s the Paramount Book Exchange “on Shude Hill” not “in Shude Hill” as it says on the novel’s first page. Is there an indulgence in the naming of some of the books being mentioned? Or is this partly a detective game for book sleuths? Real life plane crashes and a notorious North West murderer make unexpected appearances, blurring still further the fact/fiction line. Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster have walk on parts, are thanked in the acknowledgements and the former’s debut novel (the Blindfold) which is perhaps not widely known, has an important role to play it seems. There are some nice literary digs – at the middle class writers who all seem to have the same desk; the same highly expensive chair.

But Royle, whose short stories and editing of short stories are what he’s most known for, is not a writer to ever suffer hubris even in a longer work like this. If the many pieces don’t quite fit together seamlessly, they require a considerable scaffolding and the edifice, though it might look like toppling at some points, never quite falls down. There are echoes of a few prevalent themes in contemporary fiction in the novel. Zadie Smith’s essay comparing Joseph O’Neill and Tom McCarthy as two different routes for contemporary fiction always seemed to miss their inherent similarities. “First Novel” has echoes of “Netherland” and “Remainder”, with a protagonist who seems caught in a place from which he can’t escape. The twists at the end are Royle the short fiction writer not so much pulling the strands together (they are simply too twisted and layered for that) as pulling a rabbit or two out of the hat.

Knowing both the writer, and his milieu I guess I’m in on quite a few of the in-jokes, but even if I wasn’t it seems a particularly satisfying and knowing contemporary satire. If it doesn’t quite know whether to take its philosophical points seriously or not, this is at one with the novel’s existential admittance, that it might be all serious, or then again it might not; it might be all true, or then again not.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Become a Better Writer

Last year, despite a number of troubles, the art I completed was really good. I recorded an album, quickly and coherently which was as good as anything I'd done since restarting recording in 2007; I wrote fiction  that was strange and to the point; my poetry felt achieved.

This year, because of a number of troubles, the art I've been working on seems tentative and amateurish, even misguided. I've pretty much given up on music after a bit of persistent cough around Christmas, and the few bits I did seem rough and lazy. My poetry has been either entirely absent, or in a few bursts, seems ephemeral, under-thought. I have written quite a bit of fiction, but seem to be unable to grapple with the nuts and bolts of what I'm writing.

What is it that makes us become a better writer? It is, I think, the writing. Write more. Write more often. Take my music; in 2012 I did a silly project where I recorded an E.P. every month - close on 50 songs in all. By the end of the year, I was particularly efficient. That confidence spilled into last year's "Kleptomania" where I took some old unrecorded tunes and made them flesh.

Working on poetry or fiction seems a different matter. If writing is like climbing a hill, its one designed by Escher. I don't think we ever quite know which way is up which one is down.

And writing is also about reading - and exposure to other works. Yet I'm often surprised how some writers seem stuck in a groove of their own practice. You see it most often where writing has a bit of a beat imperative. At some point in literary development, "beat poetry" stopped meaning "Howl" or "Kaddish" with its subtleties and inflexions and became some degradation of this - a visceral shout. Whenever a male writer tells me he never used to read, until he discovered one writer, I know that writer is going to be Bukowski. At the other end of the scale, I picked up a recent poetry magazine off the mat, and opened it up to find, despite a strident editorial, poem after poem that was set in an unchanging, somewhat unchallenging nature.
There are certain writers - popular writers, funny writers, rhyming writers - who never seem to develop beyond their initial schtick. Do they try other things and just realise they're no good at them? I suspect its the other way round: they become good at a thing and stick to it tightly. The guitarist the Edge still plays like he's in his first bar band. Being a member of U2, perhaps it was safer that way. And schtick is not reserved for the populists. A Prynne or an Ashbery may have veered quite a lot during a long writing career, but its often within a familiar trajectory. Yet if we read "The Tennis Court Oath" its the unfamiliar trajectory (as far removed from the plain speaking ironicism of O'Hara for instance as its possible to get) that stays with us. I read later Ashbery with enjoyment, yet I'm rarely astonished. He used to do astonishment.
Maybe I'm talking about different things. Maybe I don't get better either. Maybe I get worse. I certainly know that I can lack the inspiration and the discipline that I once had. I started thinking about unfinished grand projects today. Grand projects are what you have when you're writing isn't yet good enough to simply be. Grand projects are castles built out of air. Unlike in the real world, however, in the imaginative world, those grand projects are at least partially possible. And I think I prefer grand projects than small ones. Chances are if you're a miniaturist writing a love sonnet then that perfect sonnet will still pop up as a libretto in your unlistenable six hour opera.
I guess we only get to see what people show us as well. I went to hear Will Self give an extemporised lecture on "urban psychosis" to go along with the MMU  exhibition of the same name. In retrospect, at least a third of Self's talk was about his observations as he walked from his hotel (on Deansgate) to the venue (on Oxford Road.) Come to think of it, its hardly long enough a walk to be called a "derive". Yet catching myself walking down Whitworth Street the next day I found myself in Will Self world. The observations were attached to a much wider body of learning. Fascinating, fantastic stuff, yet I'm still stuck in the first dozen pages of his Booker shortlisted "Umbrella".  Perhaps we want our writers (our musicians, our artists) to be more like themselves. Its why Lou Reed's "New York" or Bowie's "The Next Day" were returns to form - they were returns to the artist's formalism. Not everyone can be a Bob Dylan. I picked up his 80s album "Infidels" at the weekend and been playing it non stop. Its almost a new wave album (and he jokingly went one better and performed with a new wave band some of the tracks on Letterman). It would have been the first Dylan album I remember coming out - but I was listening to the Cure, Cocteau Twins, Psychic TV  - I had no need for "new" Dylan, even as I still spun "Like a Rolling Stone."
So sometimes creativity is its own reward. I'm not a journalist peering into lives and backstreets looking for an interesting story. (I don't know many journalists, but the ones I do, are inherently curious, whilst not wanting to let you know much about themselves. That's why journalists make bad novelists, or maybe its bad journalists make half-way decent novelists; because the latter's curiousity always stems from the solipsistic impulse.)
Perhaps to become a better writer we have to become a different writer, maybe many times. If this is the case you can perhaps understand why some writers baulk at the effort, stick with what they know, with how they already do it. Yet there's diminishing returns I think, particularly if your canvas is quite narrow in the first instance. Though expanding it can be difficult as well. What to make of Geoffrey Hill's late career prolificness? Has Simon Armitage reverted to earlier modes after the stylistic expansion of "Seeing Stars"?  I for one am glad the new Manic Street Preachers album sounds like early Simple Minds. I suspect they won't make a career of it however.
And I'm writing this blog post late at night, unable to sleep after a tired evening. Something in the air this week has been making me feel unwell. Manchester is a polluted city, in many ways, and sometimes you need more than a face mask to keep it out. The nicest thing someone once said about my writing (and this was years ago) was that "you get better" and (here's the rider) "people don't do that."
I've always taken this to mean that I am not there yet - if "there" is a particular branded place. Yet I am not that person. I think I always write about the same things; but probably its true, in different ways. To get better you sometimes need to get worse. I think competence is overrated (but incompetence needs to be fixed.)
I'll stop now.

Friday, August 01, 2014

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

Though not particularly a plot based novel its impossible to honestly review this without giving some spoilers about the story. There's an uncertainty about what's going to happen that I wouldn't really want to spoil, so read this with caution, but if you think its not your kind of book, hopefully I will convince you otherwise.

Having gone from obscurity to prizewinner "A Girl is a Half-formed Thing", debut novel by Eimear McBride has catapulted the Irish writer into a literary A list. No overnight success - she'd tried unsuccessfully to get it published before revisiting it with the boutique Galley Beggar Press - its been a strange kind of word of mouth success.

Telling the first person, stream of consciousness story of a young girl, whose brother is damaged by a brain tumour, its subject matter is not particularly an easy, or an enticing one. Yet, almost uniquely amongst contemporary fiction it has been lauded not so much for what its about, but the way that its been written. For the book is written entirely in a stream of consciousness,  from when the protagonist is just beginning to be aware of the world, through childhood, and into a confused, stressed adulthood. McBride not only maintains the voice, but gives it credence through the different phases of a person's life.

The voice itself feels heavily accented, with that wonderfully circumlocutory turn of phrase of rural Ireland. Its a tone that's set from the first page, and the cadence quickly establishes itself in your head. Yet its not Molly Bloom (which might be the obvious starting point) or even the comedy Irish of Mrs. Brown; instead, McBride gives us a dauntingly accomplished female consciousness that seems at the same time intimate, and unique. The verbal tics - full stops rather than comments; phrases being cut off before the verb - create a musical lilt that is not only funny, but also stops the flow ever becoming boring. There's a dramatic quality to this (McBride trained in drama), which is why, for a book written in a particular idiom, it rarely sags or becomes boring.

Getting into the book takes a few pages, and in many ways, the childhood, though important, feels a little generic in parts. The brother, several years older than his sister, appears in fragments. For though he has a brain tumour which has made him "slow", his religious mother will never admit there's any problem. The disabled brother comes alive through fragments - like all siblings they argue, but even as she becomes the "older" one, through her intelligence and experience, she is far more than her brother's protector (and even fails to do that in some ways.) Faced with questions at a new school about his scar he stymies conversation (and rumour and bullying) by saying it was a knife fight. When the truth comes out he is pilloried, butt of all jokes, and the younger sister sees this but can do little about it.

As dazzlingly engaging as the writing is, in the early part of the book, I wondered to what I extent it would be enough. For this tale seems one that has been trodden over so many times, especially lately. It's a story about the overhang of Catholic morality and hypocrisy in rural Ireland and the damage it inflicts on different lives in different ways. Their mother cannot admit there is anything wrong with her son, and her husband leaves (to the "I told you so" of her distant family). She is compromised - as one of a large family - by the patriarch, who can only see bad in her, though his own life is one of bullying determinism. These are lives from the fifties dragged into a more modern world. For the children are growing up in the late 70s/early 80s - "Star Wars" and video games have permeated even this highly religious state. Like Colm Toibin's "The Blackwater Lightship" or Anne Enright's "The Gathering" this is another story about a family circumscribed by fate, but almost incapable of escaping from the overhang of their religious upbringing and society.

Yet things are changing, and when the girl grows up, she flees to England to university. I was surprised how firmly established the book was in that early 80s period, a time of naïve, somewhat innocent change, perhaps happening swifter than its characters often knew. Our girl has done all she can to escape the stultifying family, but of course, its the family that won't let her escape: so that when her uncle comes to stay, it is a combination of his insouciance and her awakening teenage emotions that lead to a symbiotic, abusive relationship that will infect every aspect of her young life.

In this context, the book is much more about her, than her off-stage brother. She is the classic convent girl, letting rip with drink and sex, but without the self-worth required to make it what she really wants. Everyone in  the story seems full of self-hatred, but also caught up in a family web that they somehow endure. When she returns to find her mother complaining about her brother's laziness, she tries to intervene, and tells him to try harder; but she has intervened in a pact that her mother won't let her into. There's a complex interplay: her relationship with her brother; his relationship with both her and her mother; and the abusive uncle, and random men who become some kind of escape route for her unhappiness, and the bottled-up feelings of her childhood.

If it was this alone, then once one gets over the sheer depth of loathing in families in contemporary Irish fictions (so redolent of "The Gathering" in particular), there would be little there - the story would seem relentless, a kind of literary misery memoir. But "A Girl is a half-formed thing" is that rare thing, a book that cannot justifiably be paraphrased; its hard (even from the reviews I'd read) to explain the sheer pleasure that McBride gives the reader. Its not just that the narrator is funny, or that her stream-of-consciousness is so vivid, so peculiarly hers; there's something else as well - an innate playfulness and intimacy about this novel that, although its intense, means that its never difficult. For whereas Molly Bloom may have used all the words in Joyce's armoury (and many of his wife's) this narrator is sensual rather than intellectual. We get only imprints of the physical world. There are no phrases about moving from place to place, or drawing scenes. All we have is the flood of feelings and you have to read every word to place yourself in the centre of the novel.

This pleasure continues throughout the book; its perhaps the most sensory experience I've had reading a book since Saramago's "Blindness." In that novel the lack of sight is telegraphed through the prose - and here, McBridge similarly gives us an essence of a person, when that person is deprived of the usual familial love. Brought up by a mother alone; whose own emotional strength is almost all directed to her difficult elder son, the daughter drifts into disaster.  There is an element of the dramatic writer in all of this - you sometimes wish McBride would pull away a bit, allow her character something normal, give her some more air in which to breathe - or even let her meet another human being who isn't going to abuse her - yet the novel clearly has a desire to tell this story entirely through sensory experience. The only longer blocks of prose are verbatim prayers. We are in the strange, unsettling netherworld of Christ's suffering here. I'm reminded, not just because of the sexual abuse, and the manipulative family, of Lars Von Trier's "Breaking the Waves." Like the young woman in that, a religious upbringing has skewed the sense of self.

There have been quite a few articles lately about how disabled people are portrayed in novels. It was the theme of the fiction/non-fiction treatise "Fuckhead" which I recently read; are characters with a disability allowed to be themselves, or is the disability there to be a morality tale, a cipher of some kind, for the able-bodied characters? Even though we see her brother from a distance, he seems to be more achieved than this. He is unable to interact with his sister, or the world, except in what might seem a crass or simplistic way; yet interact he does; and unable to make changes, he accepts something of his life. That his devoted mother, and errant sister are both so distracted by their own share of life's troubles means that we sometimes do see him as the embodiment of Christ, "suffer little children" indeed... yet I think he is much more than that. He is as much a victim of their love, and their inability to let him out into the world, as they are. He brings the world in -  video games, too many sweets. Towards the end of the book something else happens which brings his sister back into his orbit.

These later scenes are protracted, hard to read, sometimes harrowing, and for the reader, emotionally overwhelming; but even here McBride's clear purpose and driven sense of retaining the complexity and veracity of the consciousness with which she is writing mean that we are taken along with it. Language breaks down even further as things get worse; and yet we are also there in her brother's room as the doctors and nurses and well meaning praying friends of her mother come by. Seeing her brother worsen, we are lead through a fracturing of consciousness, matched by the girl's own lack of self preservation. Throwing herself into the one meaningful relationship in her life, that with her elder brother, there's no longer room for lies and equivocation. At its peak I defy anyone not to find tears in their eyes.

It sometimes seems that all contemporary novels are similar: that they rarely use language in such a complete way as McBride does; but also bothat they play to some kind of agreed list of rules, that are about preserving a certain type of literary decorum. This novel goes the opposite way; it twists the reader, refuses to let you off the hook. You are in this girls' head, and will stay there until the last page. At times uncompromising, its never disappointing - the reviews can only begin to give an idea of the payback you get from sticking with it. I've read other overwhelming adventurous one offs over the years - "Fugitive Pieces", "The God Of Small Things" - here the canvas is even smaller, but even as someone who might have felt a little tired of the subject matter, I felt a great sense of connection, and - as a writer - a massive admiration for the bravura shown.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Height of Summer

A while ago, I was talking to my friend Natalie about how technological and musical advances were intertwined, and how it constituted a secret life of the synthesizer, where electronic music would crop up in unexpected places ("Here Comes the Sun", "Innervisions") and how technological advances would create unexpected turns in music (house music, Rihanna's "Umbrella"). Anyway, she asked me to contribute an article to her always fascinating zine, "The Shrieking Violet" and I'm pleased to say the new issue with my piece in is now out - to buy at Cornerhouse or Piccadilly Records in Manchester - or to download and read online here. Even better, there's a launch party at Castlefield Gallery's late opening on Thursday 14th August. And that's an evening to make a night of it - as a new exhibition of called "The Use and Abuse of Books" is taking place at Anthony Burgess Foundation. Linking New Worlds, Savoy Books and recent art object/magazine Corridor 8, it should be a fascinating show...and timely reminder of another strand of the NW avant garde.
I've often thought that part of Mark E. Smith and the Fall's appeal is their tapping into some deep gothic horric in the city - a Lovecraftian undercroft that echoes with what Will Self reminded us last week, was the city as being built on slave labour, Manchester-Salford as the 19th century Dubai.  As we see another lining up of statement buildings, each one as heavily facaded as the fake sets that the tourists see in the Coronation Street tour (or the SF/Western "Westworld") its worth reminding ourselves of other counter cultures. My synthesizer essay squeezes in under 2000 words, but it could easily have been five times the many connections I left out.
This week as the news is nightly witness to other horrors, including the nightly bombings in Gaza, criticism of which Israel seems deafer than ever to, the ominous anniversaryising of the first world war (in the aftermath of which some of the catatrophic middle eastern borders were first drawn up), takes place; heavily mythologised (often in an exemplary way, to be fair) on the BBC and in the newspapers.  More intrigueing is a picnic as part of the "My Poppy" project - a digital arts project developed by Lets Go Global - which takes place on Sunday afternoon 2pm-4pm.  I'm hoping to combine this with the vinyl and book fair at Stockport market place on Sunday - so I may be heavily laden if the last one is anything to go by. (Note to self: finish listening to what I bought last time!)
The day before - and to bring us a bit full circle - I hope to get to Francis McKee's talk at Castlefield Gallery looking at an "open source" approach to the arts. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

It's Booker Time

Having belatedly opened up the Booker Prize to American authors this year, this year's Booker controversy was.... that there was no controversy. A few raised eyebrows that Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch" didn't make a list that found room for established younger Americans like Joshua Ferris.  A mild demurrance at the gender ratio (10 men, 3 women) which should keep the Women's Prize for fiction safe from extinction for another decade; and a question mark over whether we'd just replaced one lot of overseas writers (the Commonwealth) with another (Americans.) As for big names missing... they found room for the new Howard Jacobsen, whose last book "The Finkler Question" was a surprising (and somewhat second rate) Booker winner. The truth is that "the big names" aren't big anymore.... its a long time since an Amis or McEwan was up their with their best work and seems increasingly unlikely that those writers will have a late career renaissance.

Bear in mind that "Money", Amis's masterpiece, was his fifth novel, and look whose on the longlist, the brilliant David Mitchell with his fifth novel "The Bone Clocks". That his brilliant "Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" wasn't shortlisted still remains a mystery to me. Ali Smith is at an equal career point. These are now among our leading novelists, not the older generation. It's very hard to know who should have been on the list and wasn't because of the usual quixotic nature of the Booker timetable. By my reckoning five books are yet to be published including Jacobsen, Smith and Mitchell. Silly me, as a reader, thinking I might try out this year's hot novels on my summer holidays. Maybe longlist sales are so slight that the publishing industry doesn't care - the main purpose of a longlisting is to have a line to put on the cover of the paperback and a bit of an in with booksellers. I guess I've not yet got round to last year's Charlotte Mendelsson, Richard House or Alison Mcleod anyway.

There's a silly editorial in the (paywalled) Times which in the absence of controversy brings up the old saw that genre writers should be considered for prizes as well. Clearly they'd booked the editorial spot and then had no controversy to fill it with!

With two of the most astute contemporary literary lovers, academic Sarah Churchwell and critic Erica Wagner on the panel I'm sure this year's list will both literary and readable -

I would even say that this is probably the first genuine Booker list to be a truly 21st century list. Smith, O'Neill, Ferris, Mitchell and Powers are the writers that you'd expect to be coming into their prime, whilst its good to see Neel Mukherjee, who I met in Norwich a few years ago, making the leap from his enjoyable debut, to prize-contender with his new novel.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

This Week in Manchester

I attended the 24:7 theatre festival last night. This fringe theatre festival is a compact, vibrant few days of creative new work. Its difficult to know what to go to - and I got the times wrong of the show I was planning to go to so had to change at the last minute. The show I attended "Anonymity", I cannot recommend enough. Gareth George's play sees two strangers working at either side of a white line working in the basement of an anonymous building. They both have secrets - are unknowable - and the job that they are doing they have only the vaguest understanding what it is. There are elements of Magnus Mills's "Restraint of Beasts" though its more obvious theatrical precursor is Pinter's early work "Dumb Waiter". Like that we are in a world of hidden motives, lies and conspiracies. When the woman from upstairs comes down to see if they might help her out, the story becomes even more sinister. If it doesn't all quite add up, the three actors are great at heightening the tension of a terse, funny script. There's a sense of our contemporary milieu where everyone is trackable in the desire of these three characters to stay anonymous.

As well as 24:7 there's the  Manchester Jazz Festival on all week in Albert Square, so plenty of opportunities to stay out if the sunshine keeps the rain away. (And as ever in Manchester, we make sure our outdoor events are still under cover.)

Friday I'm at a sold out Will Self talk at MMU's Holden Gallery, accompanying the excellent "Urban Psychosis" exhibition.

On Monday after next, the Wolf Magazine, one of the country's better poetry magazines, is coming up to  Manchester for a free reading at the  Anthony Burgess Foundation. Book (free) tickets here

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Writer in a Political World

There was a revival of a quotation by Marxist-theorist Terry Eagleton,  That "there is no
eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life". The quote - originally from 2007 - perhaps coincided with the falling away of a generation of writers who were also political activists, or activists who were also acclaimed writers. Since then we have lost two political writers old enough to recall the Second World War, Lessing and Pinter. I suspect the firebrands that Eagleton missed were always in short supply anyway. The quote was recalled by John Pilger, in an interesting piece on the way our news media is increasingly becoming an unreliable source.  Though there remain plenty of journalists who also write fiction, its more often the celebrated novelist who gets asked their opinion, whether it Pullman on humanism, Amis on terrorism or Rowling on social issues.

Many of our best contemporary writers are explicitly addressing the complex world we are in - A.L. Kennedy, China Mieville, David Mitchell, David Peace, Nicola Barker, Tom McCarthy for instance - though maybe only Mieville is as equally known for his political viewpoints. 

The disconnect between writers and politics is, I think, a real one, in many ways. English literature is backwards looking, even in a poltically charged novel like "Wolf Hall", and whilst subsequent poet laureates, Motion and Duffy, have spearheaded left-leaning political campaigns, they've done it against a background of increasingly conventional writing. Late period Pinter turned out small, polemical poems that had none of the nuance of "The Birthday Party" or "Betrayal", yet to be politically engaged is surely to be direct. Its the politicians who mangle language ("Spare room subsidy" or "bedroom tax"?)

I've rarely known a period when there are so many writers who are political. Almost all the younger poets I know are to some degree or other activists - whether contributing to campaigns and campaign anthologies such as "Poems for Pussy Riot", or running politically inclined readings.

Our "major" writers are part of an establishment that may not be as well off or as politically connected as Gore Vidal in America, but are definitely part of that very British (or very London) "clique" that revolves around Radio 4, the broadsheets and the Arts Council. We've always been sniffy about the arts in Britain, so that though we are happy to place a banker at the heart of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, writers are expected to be mere entertainers or informers.  I wait for Simon Armitage to be made a minister for business for instance. When Ian McEwan was interviewed a while back he talked about how for a brief moment he thought he could somehow get to Tony Blair and convince him of the folly of the war in Iraq. His own Iraq folly, the novel "Saturday" managed to skirt around its major event, the Stop the War march, to concentrate on a middle class drama of stranger-danger. Robert Harris, a writer who was closer to Blair at one point, damned him in his novel "The Ghost." Harris, who has written about the machinations of power in ancient Rome, could recognise the contemporary parallels.

But if you are someone like myself, who is struggling to get any recognition as a writer - then however political your work might be - its not likely to be a big selling point. I felt my poetry collection "Playing Solitaire for Money" had its fair share of politics (walk on parts for Saddam Hussein and the Taliban), but because I also write about other stuff, it often gets ignored.

The world moves on so fast that the writer can be left behind - however engaged. Simply binaries that sustained political writers in the West since at least the 1930s, have all but disappeared. The writers I listed above are humanists above all else, though the explicit story of Peace's Red Riding novels is the corruption of the great British police force. Domestic drama is becoming stranger than fiction, as a cavalcade of 1970s light entertainers are convicted of sex offences. It appears that Malcolm Maclaren, Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols were after all the good guys, not the moral turpitude that the establishment had them as at the time.

The two terrible events of this week - the escalation of the bombings in Gaza (culminating - though that's probably the wrong word) in the killing of four boys playing on a beach, followed by yesterday's downing of a passenger jet by surface to air missiles fired from Ukraine - are the stuff of HBO drama. Jack Bauer must be on speed dial.

Would a writer dare interact with these scripts? Who are the good guys in a Ukraine where the far right have also been on the rise, as Russia goes back to the Soviet playbook. KGB Putin is no longer the statesman that we had hoped for a  few years a back, but a cold war villain. Funnily enough I have recently written stories about a U.S. drone in Afghanistan and about Putin, yet they're not in the shops yet (though the former will be published later in the year). I've always written about politicians, conspiracies, and issues, though I can't say that the publishing world has been biting my hand off to read or publish them.

More explicitly "left" artists - poets such as Keston Sutherland, Sean Bonney or John G. Hall - have done a good job of carving out a niche that provides a satisfactory art but with an unequivocal political intent - but of course, when Maxine  Peake revived Shelley's "Mask of Anarchy" last year in Manchester, what was notable (to me at least), was that the festival programmers hadn't gone looking for any modern Shelley's. Reading about the Spanish Civil War and the International Brigades, the artist and thinker in me, wonders whether the young Asian men going to fight in Syria should not be seen as terrorists but as the equivalents of Orwell, Hemingway, Laurie Lee and others who fought in Spain. Hard one, given the brutal medieval ideology that seems at the heart of some of these conflicts.

What we need more of, I think, is writing that has not a liberal western handwringing to it; or an inbuilt anti-American bias; but first hand experience of a world that we only see down the lens of TV or internet.

Manchester's Comma Press is about to publish "The Book of Gaza", latest in its series of city-based short stories. Here though, the writers and editor are not passive bystanders of world events, but as the tightening of the noose around the prison camp of Palestine continues, trapped within a territory that is currently being bombed. It may seem trite to try and promote a book on the back of a tragedy, but given that this book was commissioned and written when the conflict had gone off the front pages, I feel that if there's ever a time to read about Palestine now is the time. Whatever my thoughts on the crisis or the leadership of both Palestine and Israel, as a writer I know that any power I have rests not in my activism but in my words. There are times when words aren't enough.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Who needs an International Festival anyway?

Every two years Manchester doesn't have an international festival. I mention this because we're in one of those years and cultural Manchester must surely wonder what to do with itself? It doesn't have a problem of course - for blink, and you'd almost think this was a festival year. We've got a new Ryan Gander exhibition on at Manchester Art Gallery, a career retrospective of a still developing artist who studied on the interactive arts course at MMU. A "head to head" exhibition in parallel with this has just opened at Castlefield where newer emerging artists engage with Gander's work. I'll try and give a proper overview of both of these shows another time. On Friday, the latest show in the gem that is MMU's Holden Gallery opened - "Urban Psychosis" is a finely curated exhibition of works that consider the madness and oppression of the city. Rather than see the city as "smart" or a place that adds 15% to GDP, here the city is seen as a place where its inhabitants are captured citizens. It was great to see Gillian Wearing's early work "Dancing in Peckham" if only to smile at the slightly hazy definition of mid-90s video tape technology; whilst I was pretty blown away by the urban abstracts in Catherine Yass's work, and seeing one of Sophie Calle's urban instruction works here reminded me of the great retrospective of hers I saw last year. Well worth a visit - and I'll be back in a fortnight where (obviously) Will Self will be in conversation about the show and the theme.

If music is more your bag, then you might have found your way down to Castlefield Bowl for an exemplary 90 minutes by Pixies, or, the following evening by James. The previous week, I bumped into friends who were going to see some Steve Reich pieces performed at the Bridgewater Hall. Any of these would have been surely a highlight of an MIF year! With both the Manchester Jazz Festival and 247 Festival of new theatre due to start this month there is plenty - too much - going on every night almost. This week alone, I'm trying to fit in a Video Jam at Manchester Art Gallery as part of the Gander  programme on Thursday, with the Manchester Digital barbecue, and a drop in day of digital stuff at central library; whilst literary stuff in the city continues unabated - I missed "The Other Room" which clashed with the Gander opening; and last week's short story slam; last night's "Paradox" and will no doubt also miss this weeks Tales of Whatever.

We had a nice debate last summer about whether we were OD-ing on festivals and biennials (Liverpool's biennial opened a couple of weeks ago) and generally the artists in the room felt these things were a good thing for the city, both as audience and often providing some useful work or volunteering experiences. Yet we also felt that its near impossible to compete with the big shows - unlike London where everything is so spread out, and audiences might well be as well - in Manchester there is a bit of a finite audience, or rather that one audience might only rarely slip over and try something else. One problem with DIY culture is that it becomes just that - every little thing becoming its own mini-ecosystem. I don't think this is any more of a bad thing than having some of the international superstars and original new shows that MIF will bring us next year; but I wonder if there might be something more that could be done to bring it all together? Maybe a regular arts show or magazine.... just a thought. For now you have my blog, and the other ones in my sidebar.

If I'm not at any of these things don't worry, because in twitterspeak #amwriting. Being such an art scenester I do have to occasionally remind people that I sometimes have to disappear off to create some stuff. I've been finishing a couple of things off for submission, ploughing on with a longer piece which six months in has now got a structure and a direction of sorts, and after a bit of a drought, writing a number of poems.

(And by the way, in case you're wondering who needs an international festival? We do - but I'm glad that in the year's its not going on, there's no longer the summer art drought that we used to have. With both the Whitworth and Home opening in the next year, I suspect our next year without a festival will be even bigger.)

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Writing without Feedback

Sometimes, when we read about our favourite novels we think of them as being immutable works of art: and in some ways they are; as a book gets published it becomes generally the version that we'll read forever. But there are some notable exceptions of course. "Tender is the Night"was for a long time available in a re-ordered version, which is chronological. The "original" (which has now been restored in all available editions) is not without its structural problems, so you can perhaps understand why Fitzgerald's novel was messed around with. John Fowles spent a lot of time and energy rewriting "The Magus", though its so much a novel of its time, I doubt there will be many who compare both versions. Publishers have given us "Stephen Hero" as an earlier version of "Portrait of the Art as a Young Man" and at least two versions of "Lady Chatterley's Lover." Poets often chop and change their "selected" works throughout their career, and in the case of someone like Auden, change the poems themselves.

When you're writing without a publisher or agent on the horizon, to "second guess" what the market wants is a difficult job, and - especially in the case of a novel - a long book might still only receive a cursory glance. On the other hand much more experienced writers sometimes seem to be entirely unedited these days.

Looking back through some old work today - stories from around 2002 - I'm reminded that much of what I've written over the years has existed entirely without feedback. Sure, I did an M.A. in novel writing in 1998, and that novel was worked over - at least the first few chapters - by students and tutors on the course; but the final thing, though it got a reading and a mark came out of the door unchanged from the version I completed. At one point, I can't quite remember when, I restructured a couple of chapters but that's all. It is, for all its faults, all my own work.

More recently I've been in a writing group and its helped chivvy me along and make me aware of things such as perspective in the novel I'm writing. Its given me some ideas - though perhaps reading the other writers' work intently is what gives you more ideas (not that their books are the same, just you can learn from other's works in progress I think.) With poetry I realise that workshops and me are a bit of a dead loss. I take along poems that are not quite there, and I rarely manage to make something out of them despite the valid criticisms.

I think that I'm a just a writer who has a bit too clear an idea of what he wants to do, and its not that I don't accept - or need - feedback, just that the work doesn't easily give in to it. In some ways this is a real positive - as I can see, even in much older stuff, how strong my vision for a particular piece was. the downside, I think, is that you're always writing in a bit of a vacuum, that however many other writers' you read, you don't quite get a perspective on your own work. I guess its like when you hear your own voice for the first time: "do I really sound like that?" you say. Many years ago, sending a short novel off for a competition  I had only the vaguest idea that my writing was even competent. It got shortlisted, which meant the world to me - as until then only friends had ever read my work. At least I wasn't incomprehensible.

Reading old stories I find that generally I have put the work in (there are unfinished pieces where I haven't), but its hard to know where it was I was coming from at the time - and therefore would be hard to rewrite them now. Checking things out, I've written over a hundred short stories, only a few of which have been published. What does that great wave of "unpublished" stories mean? I say "unpublished" but not necessarily "unread" - I used to hand them round to friends for commentary. Though not, I think, for feedback. It always pleased me that my stories were generally seen as readable. Occasionally I'd write something a little more experimental or different and these stories always seemed to get better feedback than I'd expected.

Yet I think there's a difference between this, and getting things published. I think there's a particular difficulty in sending things off to magazines and competitions - whether poems or fictions - you need to consider the amount of submissions they'll get. They are looking for reasons not to publish you, as much as to publish you. I used to be quite good at this tightrope - but over the years, seem to have lost the knack.

I think there's an element of self-destruction in having written so much. I'm unlikely to want to rewrite what I've already written, or even go back to old themes. Yet however "good" an old story is - I don't think its likely I'd send it off to get published now. When I put together a poetry collection I did go back four or five years for some poems, and I was surprised how many unpublished ones I chose, often ahead of published ones. With stories I'm not so sure - maybe the feedback a story needs is the follow-up story? Styles change, subject matter changes, one's use of language changes.

Writing is a solitary pursuit of course, and often lasts a long time without an audience. "Greats" like Golding and Fowles and Kafka took a long time to get their work appreciated - and didn't always have a local reader either. Even someone like Joyce who was self-proclaiming (and being proclaimed) as a genius from an early age wrote "Dubliners" in something of a vacuum. I think the only reason we are able to write without feedback, fearlessly, believing in what we do, is because we're not entirely alone but carry with us the many books we've read and admired. Whether our peers or predecessors, these are the books we are most often in a dialogue with.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Poetry and/or Prose

I've always written both poetry and prose, but not always at the same time. When I was most definitely a fiction writer I continued to write poems sporadically, without really thinking too much about it. I've got poetry from when I'm 8 or 9, and I realise I've always written it, so that's nearly 40 years of doing something "sporadically".

Since 2010 when I had my Salt Modern Voices pamphlet published I've definitely been taking it more seriously, or rather, I've always taken it seriously, but been less circumspect about referring to myself (or being referred to) as a poet. It seems less fake than referring to myself as a novelist, when despite writing a few of them, I've never had one published.

Yet its still the case that I've very rarely just written poetry. I know a lot of poets who only write poems - or rather, they write plenty of prose in the form of reviews, Facebook postings, blogs, non-fiction etc. but never write short stories or other imaginative fiction. And quite a few of the fiction writers I know rarely if ever write poetry. Its also about inspiration. I've always read novels - but there are some poets who only read them rarely - and obviously some fiction writers who never once read poetry. You can pretty much go to any literary night in Manchester and there's a possibility that you might bump into me, but I can also pretty much tell you who might be at the poetry nights but not the fiction ones and vice versa. Strangely, even when there's a predilection for experimental work (such as the avant garde poetry night "The Other Room") quite a few of the poets I know from there have little knowledge of experimental or innovative fiction.

I've sometimes joked that poetry and prose are like the farmers and the cowmen in the song from the musical "Oklahoma", that they should be friends!

For myself, of course, I'm poet and prose writer in the same head, the same skin - and I don't think one has ever quite taken precedence over the other. Yet I do think that there are times when the space required for the one leads to less space for the other - and there definitely seem different parts of the brain, or at least different emotional skills, required for both. Oddly enough I've never felt that comfortable writing drama, which always feels much more of a craft than the other forms of writing - to my mind, its as far from writing lyric poetry as you can get, yet I know there's often a crossover between poets who write plays (and of course there's Shakespeare.) Ironic, as well, that though the workshopping of poems is commonplace I find it hard to do so - much harder than with fiction where, frankly, I always appreciate a different eye.

If maybe fiction is my head, poetry my heart, then like when you're young and falling for a friend, yuo sometimes muddle up the two. It might just be my artistic side, but I find there's often a little too much heart in my head, and maybe a little too much head in my heart, which probably explains why I'm drawn to both art forms. But though I'm drawn to them, I'm not one of those writers who essentially writes the same thing in different formats (e.g. always writing autobiography, or about nature.) I think its about different sensibilities: like wanting some music to dance to, and some music to cry to.

If I've been more poetry the last few years, I'm thinking I've shifted back a little in the last 9-12 months. I've certainly written more prose than for a good while - several short stories, as well as beginning a couple of thwarted novel ideas. Though I still take my notebook with me everywhere the poems dried up for a little while earlier this year. I think though I've always said I need more time to write prose, I need more emotional space to write poetry. I know plenty of poets in particular who use the art to help them through difficult times - but when the times get too difficult they just can't write.

I think for me things get a little confusing as I also write music - and it seems that it is that rather than poetry that usually disappears when I write prose - that's simply the time element I think. I pretty much stopped writing and recording music from 1999-2006 and that coincided with me writing lots and lots of fiction. Poetry as ever came and went, but was always there.

I suppose these musings aren't particular original and it might make a difference if I was particularly well known for one thing or the other - yet it seems in the cottage industry of contemporary literature, there's a lot more crossover than their used to be. I've heard of short story writers sending off poems, and poets dabbling with short stories. I guess the internet plays its part as the same sites that take on poetry often take on prose, and competitions from the MMU's prizes, to the Bridport, often have fiction and poetry strands. I don't think there's a common aesthetic between my poetry and fiction, other than a general tendency towards the urban and the contemporary (and a smattering of the surreal) - its not like I just write about one thing even in one of these genres. I've occasionally took a poem and rewrote it as fiction; and then there's the prose poem and flash fictions that sit uncomfortably in the hollow of the venn diagram between the two.

In my head, I'm currently a prose writer - but whether that means the heart is just taking a bit of time off from beating overindulgently, or a mature decision based on my ambitions for my work, I'm not sure I'm the best person to say. Call me a poet if you want to, it may turn out that I am one - if not this week, then maybe next.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Inevitably there are a couple of spoilers in writing this review, but hopefully nothing that you wouldn't get from reading the blurb and the first few pages of the novel.

Bestselling authors into their fifth decade are not expected to change the template much, but Stephen King, in his last few books has tackled American history in the time travel novel "11.22.63", future apocalypse in "Under the Dome", revisited his earlier horror classic "The Shining" in "Doctor Sleep" and now, in "Mr. Mercedes" has written a contemporary crime thriller.

I probably stopped reading King's books avidly around the mid-90s, partly as he branched out into expansive fantasy novels, and partly as my taste's changed. Yet "11.22.63" which used a wormhole into the past to look at Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination is close to a masterpiece,  and having found it hard to get started on a few recent novels, I picked up his latest "Mr. Mercedes" on a whim in Sainsbury's - after all, King is never anything less than readable.

Atypically for King this is a crime novel, with a retired detective, finding it difficult to cope with the loneliness and inactivity of his new life, finds himself drawn back into an old case, an unsolved crime where an unknown assailant drove into a queue of people queueing for jobs in the harsh economy of 1997. As ever with King, he flinches neither from the horror and carnage of the scene, nor from describing the humanity of the victims. It's a harsh, and somewhat grandstanding start. When the killer contacts retired detective Bill Hodges its through a letter that tells him to log onto a website "Under Debbie's Blue Umbrella" which is a social network for private, untraceable conversations.

Taking the bait, but determined to turn the tables on the killer, Hodges starts this symmetric communication by pressing the killer's buttons. He doesn't believe the killer is who he says he is. But we, as the reader, know different, for King gives us the two sides to the story - we meet Brady, "the Mercedes killer", living at home with his alcoholic mother, holding down two normal but low-grade jobs as computer technician and ice cream salesman. Its an old, but effective technique. In this book, King telegraphs his intentions early on - its a cat and mouse story, like the Michael Mann film "Heat" or even Forsyth's classic "The Day of the Jackal".  But its also clear where King's latest reboot is coming from - he mentions The Wire, Dexter and the BBC's Luther. Its obvious that these 21st century masterpieces in storytelling - some of which probably owe quite a lot to the influence of Stephen King - have been feeding back into his own work. Though early in the book, you feel that it is more second tier stuff such as "The Mentalist" or "Hannibal", exciting but formulaic procedurals, that "Mr. Mercedes" most resembles.

I was enjoying the book from the start, but it takes a while to get into gear - as the lone detective, unable to call on the old resources, except as occasional flavour, takes a while to get things together. He knows that the mass killing weren't the only victims of Brady, for the lady whose car was stolen to commit the crime was also somehow culpable. This slight twist is in fact King's way of getting us deep into his tale. We hear nothing more about the victims of the queue, but King tracks down the sister of the woman who owned the Mercedes. Here we have the typical King gothic. The rich but mentally disturbed family who can be preyed on by the psychologically disturbed Brady. Brady himself is a fascinating creature, one of King's many darkly imagined murderers, whose own life, full of sexual abuse, domestic tragedy and sexual frustration feeds into his crimes.

Hodges pulls together an unexpected support team to help him in what becomes a race against time once the killer strikes again. Yet though we keep moving back and forth between the two - King is a master at keeping options open. Some of the stranger machinations of the plot have purpose later on, and if during the first half of the book I was enjoying it, but aware of it being high class schlock, by the second half I was gripped.

Impressively, King understands modern technology and incorporates it into this novel which feels genuine. Whereas a writer like Robert Harris (and his editors) struggle with even a basic understanding of modern tech, or younger writers might throw in emails and social media nonchalantly, King is both inventive and plausible. Under Debbie's Blue Umbrella (the marketing people have set up a site so it actually exists!) is a highly plausible private social network rather than a reworking of Facebook or whatever, whilst the electrical gadgetry that Brady uses is both possible, and neatly described. (Brady's invention he calls "Thing 2", enabling him to unlock cars with a few electronics from Radio Shack.) Whereas classic King sits in smalltown America, this is a novel of the small modern city - and deftly centres it in our modern world, of scarce jobs, mobile phones and (a highly plausible) boy band.

To say any more would be to provide real spoilers from a novel that is an excellent read. Whereas the King of the 70s and 80s used to invent rabid dogs, ghostly cars and firestarter children as a surrogate for America's malaise, the contemporary King doesn't need to - the horror is there in our murderous, abused children, their anger hardly fictional compared to the mass killers we see on the 24 hour rolling news. In the crowded world of crime fiction, King doesn't essentially add anything new, but brings his usual talents to bear on a compelling cat and mouse story. At first, the "love interest" of the 60 something Hodges seems contrived - a middle aged writers fantasy that, like in the Stieg Larsson books, or "Luther" sees the messed up investigator getting into bed with the first young woman he meets on the case - but even this becomes a key aspect of the plot. If the novel ends up a little conventional in its outcomes, its none the worse for that.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Tove Jansson

The Moomins were absent from my childhood. It seems that though the books were in English by the late 60s/early 70s, I never really remember them, and by the time there was a TV adaption I was too old for them, yet I've got vague unsubstantiated memories of the latter - one of those foreign import TV shows that the BBC used to fill its schedule with. The Moomins were these strange looking creatures living in a strange land. Had I encountered them at the right time I'd have probably been a fan.

Despite this being my fourth visit to Finland, and having seen Moomin toys all over (as you see Smurfs and Tin Tin in Belgian) I'd not given much though to their creator, the Finnish (but Swedish-language) writer and artist Tove Jansson, but in the centenary year of her birth there's a lot of activity going on. From a new biography, to English issues of her adult novels and stories, to various exhibitions of her work.


In Helsinki this week with work, I found an hour or so before my flight visit a retrospective of her life and work at the Ateneum Gallery. Its an appropriate location, as Jansson studied there when it was the Finnish school of art. Born in 1914 into an artistic family her talents soon became clear and she began painting and drawing. The retrospective unpicks the fame of the Moomins and puts it in a context that gives due precedence to her other work. There are large early tableaux that are fairy tale or fantasy scenes, and it seems that she was always fascinated by the mystical side of Finland's natural world. Yet if there was an openness and flowering in North Europe in the years between the wars, particularly as post-revolution, Russia's grip on its neighbours lessened, the coming storm of World War Two had a major effect on those artists who were in their twenties and thirties when it began. Jansson became an illustrator for a Swedish satirical magazine, poking fun at the Nazis - though a not unfamiliar humour to British eyes, there's a whole different level of bravery for writers and artists criticising these forces in countries uneasily neutral. 

Part of a Finnish demi monde, it seems that Jansson spent much  of her life with other artists and intellectuals, but her politics were through the eyes of an artist. When I recently saw the Hannah Hoch exhibition at the Whitechapel in London I was struck by Hoch's war, which she survived to moving to an anonymous suburb of Berlin where nobody would think she could possibly be the radical artist of the 30s. After the war Hoch returned to her work with a new vigour, and a sense of inculcating the fantastic into her work; and there seem some parallels with the younger Jansson here.

Jansson had long parallel careers as artist, writer and illustrator, and in her art she's a highly credible 20th century painter. To my mind the best works were some of her large fantasia scenes, which seem drawn from dreams and deftly use a wide palate of bright colours, with echoes of Van Gogh in some of her oils, particularly in her still lifes and self portraits. Her use of colour is particularly striking, even when, in line with the trends of the time, she becomes more abstract and expressionist in the 50s and 60s. The sea pictures she did around this time capture something of Finland's natural rawness. Yet I can't help but thinking that in the Moomins, however commercially successful they were, she finds a genuine mechanism for mixing the myth and reality of this northern land. As well as the books, she wrote and drew a comic strip for years, where the tiny frames are as immaculately drawn as her larger pictures. But in addition, either for the fun of it, or for dramatic adaptions of the Moomin world, she had a part in making various Moomin houses. Her other art is never less than accomplished, but its subject matter is often quite straightforward, still lifes, landscapes and immaculate portraits that on their own wouldn't elevate her beyond many of her peers. It seems that in Moominland she found an alternate world where she could speak more clearly about the world. Its perhaps no surprise that she also illustrated the Finnish translation of "The Hobbit.".

In this sense, her later move to acclaimed adult fiction makes some kind of sense, as Jansson seems a brilliant storyteller, and this sense of narrative is a track through different decades of her art. I was intrigued by the self portraits, as repeated time and again through her life, you get a sense of a complex woman trying to understand who she is and what she feels. There's a lovely short cine film of Jansson on a beach, and its carefree and happy. In the Moomin stories there is always the contrast between the threat of the outside world and the safety and security of home. Finland has a small population, but a large and proud history, and from Sibelius, to Jansson to "Angry Birds" it often has an enlarge cultural footprint. The Moomins became particularly popular in Japan, and Helsinki positions itself (as its geography allows) as between east and west.

We are beginning to see more exhibitions on 20th century female artists, and this careful curation of Jansson's life was well worth seeing, and I'm intrigued to read the biography and some of her adult stories. I've not got the emotional connection to the Moomins that those who read them as a child might have, and still find them slightly odd and otherworldly. By seeing her other work, its fair to say that the "day job" of writing the Moomins was not all that she did, but also that its an important component of her work artistically as well as in the wider culture. If her other work sometimes lacks depth of subject despite its artistic quality, in Moominland she's created something that retains an essence of the strangeness of this beautiful far northern country.