Saturday, November 15, 2014

What you don't know, right?

To be entirely truthful my least favourite literary aphorism is "kill your darlings" to which I usually say, "mine are packed off and in a witness protection programme in Utah."

But my second least favourite bit of advice is "write what you know." That should be clear from anyone who's read the Henry James essay which this blog is titled after. His point was that a good writer could observe without being, that a little distance is sometimes useful, and that the imagination is boundless. Yet the "write what you know" trope still persists, is even more prevalent than ever I think, in a literary culture that is at time celebrity focused, public, and solipsistic.

So write what you know...except. The short stories I've had published this autumn are respectively about a female food journalist in Afghanistan, a male gigolo having an affair with the Russian president, and a paranoid lighthouse keeper on his last day in the job. I hope it goes without saying that these are entirely works of the imagination. As  a writer I have veered between the confessional and the imagined to some considerable degree, and in general I don't think it matters that much - the idea is the thing, and the writing, and you need to create a believability or else the story will fall flat. And, yes, however far from your own life and experience the story is, there will be a little bit of genuine experience that slips in. To give one example - in "Dear Papa", the Afghan set story in "Fugue" - the woman narrating the story in a letter back to her father talks about going to a little Afghan Restaurant on Islington High Street as Clinton sent the bombers into Afghanistan in the 1990s. It was me in that restaurant, and I'm pretty sure it was Islington High Street, and yes, there was a story on the news about Afghanistan being bombed. Yet the rest of the story is imagined - I've never been to Afghanistan, I've never been a female food writer etc.

The other side of it is that when you write a first person narrative, people inevitably assume its you - at least to start with - so when narrating as a woman, this literary cross-dressing has to be flagged in some way, possibly to the detriment of the story - or when writing about things such as sex or family it should go without saying that this is not a story about my sex life, or my family. If we all inevitably take things from our own experience and throw them into the melting pot it obviously can confuse the issue but if being a "professional" in my approach to writing means anything it is that I do don another persona when I'm writing, and wedge a stick in the door to keep my other self ("the real me") from entering unexpected.

And this is what non-writers perhaps never get - that writing about the real stuff of one's life is much, much harder than making things up. We're living it, not reflecting it. How to describe that heartbreaking love affair? How to get over that family fall-out? How to understand that stupid bit of drunken revelry? They can all feed into your fiction - and will do - but unless that's your schtick I don't think its a clear unfiltered journey.

The other thing, and here's a secret, is that when we make things up and set things in Afghanistan or outer space or in 18th century France or on a desert island or in Swindon or any of those other places we've never actually been - that's when we feel more comfortable at slipping in a bit of truth. Though to be fair, I don't think I'd write about Swindon without going there - I like the veracity of place so that even a small detail can add benefit to your story - I'd have probably chosen Luton or Slough or Kettering, places I have been at least once. 

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Pace in a Story

The British short story is a strange kind of animal. Whereas you might think of a story as some kind of mongrel, pulling bits from elsewhere - fable, poem, novel - we have an obsession in Britain that is akin to the various categories you find at Crufts. On the one hand our "best in show" winning the BBC Short story award or the Sunday Times prize can often be an otter hound or similarly oversized dog, our magazines - and quite a few of our open entry prizes - inside that only a bichon frisé might apply, with 2000 or 2500 word limits as standards.

The American short story on the other hand doesn't think of a short story as a particular breed of little literary dog, it understands that it is a genre in itself which though sometimes tiny, is more often quite long. 

I'm writing a story at the moment and its definitely a story - not a novel or anything so grand. Yet there are a cast of six or seven characters, a definite setting, a complex time sequencing that includes flashbacks to tell the story. I've written 2000 words this morning without pausing and I realise the story will be lucky to come in under 6000. In other words, I'm again writing something that's pretty unpublishable or unplaceable - though as its a ghost/horror story "after a fashion" it might have a life. 

Yet I'm not writing it at some length out of some misguided belief that very short stories are always wrong - like the bichon frisé they can be fine if a little precious - but because this is the length that the story wants to be. It has its own pace, and its own need for a certain accumulating of detail to enable the ghostly bit of the story to creep up on the reader. Its not always the case, but for once, as soon as I'd had the idea ffor this one, I knew exactly how it should be told. Of course, when I get to the end I may have made a pig's ear of it, but for now at least, it feels I'm writing something with a little bit of heft, and moreover, which will reward the reader for the time it takes to read. That its 3 times as long as a 2000 word story shouldn't be in any way a bad thing.

Of course, writers know this, even if publishers and editors and judges don't.  I can understand competitions not to want to have stories of only 5000 words + yet the prestigious BBC Short Story Award seems to be geared (given the length of the radio slot allotted to the shortlisted stories) to prefer the longer story - yet here's the rub, the only authors who will regularly get longer stories published are the already well known - those with book deals. 

The last longer story I wrote sits stubbornly in my unpublished pile - and yes, I can see that it might have some of the characteristics of a scene from a novel, with its unhurriedness, its sense of place, person and detail, yet its exactly the length and pace that it should be.  I have no answer, and as a writer I'm abundantly clear that I should see a short story as being "without chaff", so I think my tendency has been to write shorter over the years (and yes, those three stories I talked about coming out this autumn are all sub 3000 words), but when you begin writing something and the pace is so obviously write for what you want to write, its hard to think about cutting it down to size - yet harder still, once you've finished it, to see it unloved and unread. 

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Dead Lines and Post Scripts

It was Halloween last night, and that seems to also be the deadline for quite a number of competitions and submission periods. So in my spare time this week I've been sending this and that off. The Siren anthology launch for "Fugue" at the London Review Bookshop went well by all accounts last week, though I had to cancel at the last minute because of a late running hospital appointment. Life and art not synchronising too well at the moment unfortunately.

At least with email submissions - and increasingly the use of the Submittable software platform - its a bit easier than it used to be. I no longer need a pile of stamps and SAEs and regular trips to the post office. So not much more posting of scripts these days, at least. The Post Script to the Fugue launch is that they sold quite a few copies on the night and it will be on sale at the bookshop as well as from www.thesiren.co.uk and other online retailers.

I was looking through my short story list and if you go back far enough, I've written around 130 - but thats in twenty years - so what's that, an average of 5 or 6 a year? Not all of them are great of course, but I guess I'd find enough for a collection or two in that pile.  For if the short story is in ascendant its because lots of people are writing them, maybe more than reading them. There's still a bit of a tendency for the well crafted character story - the ongoing British fascination with the New Yorker perhaps - yet I'm always more drawn to the Borgesian end of things rather than the dirty realist end.

Special FX at the Royal Exchange is a free Friday night event - an hour of pre-show performances - music, comedy,and last night the short fiction readings of "Bad Language." Four readers, including novelists Emma Jane Unsworth and Alison Moore, both of whom are featured in "Curious Tales" - a limited edition illustrated Christmas ghost story book available to pre-order now.  Perfect Christmas present! We weren't quite gathered around a roaring fire, but it felt suitably spooky, despite the unseasonal warm weather. Emma will also be in Manchester the week after next for Chaos to Order - a week's cultural residency at the Central Library curated by the band Everything Everything.

Regular events continue in Manchester even as the seasonal specials gear up - and this afternoon at 5pm there's a Peter Barlow's Cigarette reading at Waterstones with four excellent poets (and wine.) Then the next Other Room takes place on 27th November at the Castle. I'm away this week for a few days but hoping I get back in time (and with energy) to see 2 Finnish poets reading at the Anthony Burgess Foundation on Friday - from a new Arc book "Six Finnish Poets." Given my obsession with Finland I will certainly be getting this.

A busy Autumn means I haven't had much chance to get to see much art even though there are two major shows currently on in Manchester, the Sensory War at Manchester Art Gallery, and the cross-city Asian Triennial. However, I did very much enjoy the opening of an exhibition dedicated to artist as "collector" - (Dis) order: a compulsion to collect. From a George Perec list of his year's eating as you come in through the door to an exemplary selection of Ian Hamilton Finlay miniatures its a suitable neat and probing show, with Torsten Lauschman's brilliant assemblage of obsolescent technology "Piecework Orchestra" an undoubted highlight. 

Musically, a highlight has to be some of the talks at this years Lounder Than Words festival, especially keen on hearing Marcus O'Dair from his new book on my hero Robert Wyatt.(See this short piece I wrote on him way back in 2007).


Monday, October 27, 2014

3 Stories

I've written more short stories during the last year than usual, so its probably not surprising that I've been more successful in getting them published - still, its still an unusual time to have three stories being published in quick succession

You can find new work by me in the following

Fugue - The Siren Anthology ed. Lucy Carroll - buy here

Confingo Magazine #2 - buy here

Black & Blue Writing - Revolution issue - buy here

All three stories are very different - but if you're looking for some exciting new fiction, each of these will offer much more than just my work.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Come and Hear Fugue

The first of the 3 publications I have stories in this Autumn, an anthology of new fiction called "Fugue" is being launched this coming Friday at the London Review Bookshop in central London.

I hope any London friends or literary types who are free on Friday might be able to come along to support this and hear several of the contributors, including myself, read from their stories.

If you want to attend please RSVP the editors at contact@thesiren.co.uk 

More details about the book at the Siren website 


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

War, History and the Booker Prize

Fear that the Americans were coming would change the nature of the Booker prize proved unwarranted. For if their are three things that past Bookers have shown us, about this prize's distinct characteristics: it likes commonwealth writers; it likes historical novels; and its particularly susceptible to books about the first and second world war. Richard Flanagan's "The Narrow Road to the Deep North" based on his father's experience in building the Burma railway for the Japanese during the 2nd World War is therefore a quintessentially Booker novel. I've not read Flanagan's novel yet, though he seems to be a highly regarded writer (and here's another trope, like with Coetzee or Mantel, a well regarded novelist who ups his or her game can sometimes win the Booker as some kind of "promotion" - not necessarily a "lifetime service" award), but it made me wonder about the Booker and its relationship to historical novels, and particularly war novels.

The last three Booker winners are large historical novels, Flanagan following on from Catton's long shaggy dog story about gold mining in New Zealand and Mantel's 2nd Thomas Cromwell book. Both of those books seem to be about societies on the "cusp" and in many ways, at a time when we are seeing a rush into print by established authors of ever more dystopian fictions these could almost be seen as part of the same trend. That most un-Booker of novelists Martin Amis wrote something along the line about all novels being about "the millennium" at the time that his millennium novel "London Fields" came out; and - taking a cue from both the older statesmen who were old enough to remember the second world war and his own generation who briefly, if sometimes disastrously, wanted to change the world, Amis always seemed most comfortable when living under an existential threat.

I sometimes think that some novelists look back to history in two ways: both as a way of finding meaning in their own life, and secondly to give a gravitas to their story. After all, even an ostensibly non-war novel like "The Great Gatsby" is heavily defined by its place and time in the aftermath of the Great war, (which allows Gatsby to find both his fortune and his mystery.) Is it because Amis's generation and those younger than him are rarely likely to have fought in a war that they need to look for different archetypes? The recent Salinger biography (wrongly in my opinion) saw "Catcher in the Rye" through the funnel of Salinger's war time experiences. Heller and Mailer became great American novelists because of their wartime experiences.

The "West" (even those bits of the West transplanted to Tasmania where Flanagan lives) are no longer where the "action" is in 21st century life as we are seeing from the current news. There is still a desire, I think, to tell stories that deal with the larger issues, and yet for a western writer this can either mean appropriating someone else's story, or - perhaps not so problematically - finding those stories in history. Occasionally, such as in Kevin Powers' "The Yellow Birds" a writer is able to take his own story and make it real; yet more often these stories are not ours anymore.

Looking back over the history of the Booker prize, its "Commonwealth" make up was vital from the start, and if history had a place it was part of this ongoing narrative between Britain and empire, which by the mid 1970s had seen Farrel's "The Siege of Krishnapur" and Naipaul's "In a Free State" successful winners. Yet, as someone who was at school in the 1970s we hadn't yet succumbed to seeing the Second World War, at least, as history - it was often current affairs in some way - with"Dad's Army" on the television, a residual anti-German feeling from the older generation, and bombsites and munitions works still visible in towns and countryside. Those who had fought in either war tended to keep quiet about it and we were still visibly shaken by the long trauma of the western twentieth century - perpetuated in no small way by the Cold War and the Russian occupation of Eastern Europe which meant that talking about recent history was to risk breaking contemporary eggshells.

Early Bookers are full of obscure titles, but it seems that "Goshawk Squadron" by Derek Robinson (shortlisted in 1971) and Thomas Keneally's 1975 title "Gossip from the Forest" are both set around the First World War. Can "Schindler's Ark", Keneally's 1982 winner, that led to the film "Schindler's List" be really the first Booker shortlisted novel to be set during the second world war, or address the holocaust? A quick trawl through unfamiliar titles implies it might well have been. By the 1980s it was unlikely that a writer would have fought in the war, and memory was turning into history - 1979 had seen "Sophie's Choice" by William Styron also addressing similar territory to Keneally.

Since then however, the number of stories from both world wars have multiplied seemingly endlessly. Its interesting how relatively circumspect British writers have been - though more recently novels like A.L. Kennedy's careful "Day" come to mind - but it was probably Canada's Michael Ondaatjee and his 1992 winner "The English Patient" which really exemplifies the Booker war novel. Able to use the war as setting for a more poignant love story, it became a bestselling book and also a successful film. Since then we've had Pat Barker's first world war trilogy, with its Booker winner "The Ghost Road", "Atonement", McEwan's shortlisted novel with vivid scenes of the first world war, Barry's wonderful "A Long, Long Way" which tells the story of British soldiers returning to Ireland to find themselves caught in a civil war, Sarah Water's "The Night Watch" and now the Flanagan. I may have missed a few along the way.

Writers such as Anthony Burgess and Leslie Phillips wrote about their military service early in their careers, several American masterpieces came out of World War Two ("Catch 22", "Slaughterhouse 5" amongst them); survivors stories from Primo Levi and others have had a profound impact on later 20th century literature; and compelling narratives still emerge from both world wars (and increasingly the "smaller" wars that surrounded them). What was once experienced is now imagined or researched. In some ways, this has to be a good thing. Our best writers aren't necessarily the ones with the most direct experience. The essay from which this blog takes its name talks about this idea of authenticity - that you don't have to have lived in a barracks to write about it (Graham Greene, in "The End of the Affair" suggest that you might need to have slept with a soldier however).

The books that have retained their force tend to be those that are not just looking unflinchingly on conflict (after all in an age of electronic media, we can see the horror for ourselves, or a parallel genre of film making has given us its own series of masterpieces around conflict), but where a human story is played out. We long, I think, for heroes, especially those who do not think of themselves as such. More recently - and from the reviews of the Flanagan this comes into it - we are now seeing the post-traumatic-stress war novel, where it is the aftermath of that horror that is interesting the writer rather than the psychopathy of the novel. You see this in "Day," in David Rose's "Vault", in "The Yellow Birds," even in Anne Micheals' "Fugitive Pieces" and Bernard Schlink's "The Reader" and now perhaps in the Flanagan. This is another kind of untold story. For so many survivors of both world wars went to their graves without telling their story. The quiet dignity of the last Tommy, Harry Patch, is emblematic of that generation who gave all. The PTSD war novel - rife in the 1970s writings after Vietnam (think of Andre Dubus's short stories for instance) - seems to be a way of placing our postmodern knowledge of the psyche in a genuine cauldron of fire. In reviewing "The Yellow Birds" I was critical of Powers' tendency to describe in great beauty a scene that had nothing non-generic about it. The Flanagan book sounds both powerful history, and some kind of personal testimony (to his father who died shortly after he'd completed it, and whose story it takes from).

In a year when "the Americans are coming" and where there was a highly contemporary novel - Joshua Ferris - as well as a powerful piece of experimentation - Ali Smith - experience has, it seems triumphed. The best historical novels of the last few years - David Mitchell's "Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" or A.L. Kennedy's "Day" never made the shortlist. Flanagan is a writer in his fifties, his father fought in the second world war - for those of us even slightly younger it doesn't exercise quite the same unique pull, though the endless stories continue to pile up from a conflict that engulfed the world. The Booker has always been disposed to the grand narrative; it is drawn, as well to empire - a post-war Europe rarely interests it - yet I wonder if rather than being a sign of any particular trends, Flanagan's win is a neat bookend to a period that probably began with Keneally and "Schindler's Ark." There will, I am sure, be other war stories to be told, maybe even other war stories that win - but as even the second world war fades into history, and as the challenges of the 21st century become ever more crystallised (this year alone: Islamic State, Ukraine, Malaysian Airlines, Ebola, UKIP etc.) perhaps even the Booker will move away from these familiar narratives.




Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Diverse Writing

I think it was Eno, possibly in an interview but maybe in his book "A Year With Appendices" who made the distinction between two types of artists. Ones such as himself who were always trying different approaches, different pieces of work and ones like Joni Mitchell (I think he gave her as an example) who continue re-articulating the same deep track. One can argue about this of course (surely Joni's development of her songwriting from folk to pop to jazz shows a genuine diversity of practice, whilst Eno's reputation could arguably be said to rest on his electronic ambient soundscapes.)  There's some truth in it certainly: there are artists who continually explore a single (if not simple) idea such as James Turrell's light sculptures, and then others who turn to different modes and materials (think of Hirst or Emin's constant shifting of their mode, if not their method).

In writing I think its not so much that writers don't do different things, but that they become defined by some aspect of what they do, to the extent where it can be difficult for them to be noticed when do anything else. Yes, we might note Hilary Mantel's diverse portfolio of very different books before "Wolf Hall" but it will be interesting to see how, once she completes the Cromwell trilogy, a future non-historical novel might be received. Her success has come to define her, so that her French revolution novel can be included as example of her mastery of historical writing, whilst her other earlier novels (and her current book of short stories) may seem less vital as a result.

For short story writers - despite the diversity of the form - it seems even harder to slip out of what's expected. In an early Helen Simpson book there was a single fantastic story amongst the tales of middle class life; a perfectly good story I seem to remember, but its overshadowed by the majority of her work. Even young writers I know become easily defined by a particular theme - Zoe Lambert's war stories; or Adam Marek's quirky fantasies.

I've always been of the Eno school, shifting between different things, different aspects, even though I could draw some quite straight lines between my work - whether in poetry fiction or other forms. Yet as the majority of my work remains unpublished I'm not sure I have a particular persona to how my writing is perceived. By coincidence this autumn I've got three stories being published, and another couple of poems. For those who might think I generally write about an everyday contemporary life not unlike my own (which I sometimes do) the stories couldn't be more different - what they share is a sense of other place, of other lives, and hijack purportedly realist scenarios for something a little odder. I'll write more about them when they are published - but if you lined them up alongside my last published story - last year's "The Cat", and recent poems - I don't think there would be a sense of any coherence whatsoever. Even potential structural similarities seem redundant.

I don't think its that I'm particularly diverse, just that the ad hoc nature of my publications means that there's been little chance for anyone to see a coherence or a range to my work - which, just as I did in "ordering" my poetry collection a few years ago - is there, if not always obviously so.

***
Its the Booker Prize ceremony this evening - I'm out of the country so will be checking on the web when I get back from dinner - I don't think there's been a particular buzz about one book or other this year, despite this being the first year when American books are included, and the absence of too much historical fiction. Perhaps Ali Smith's is the one novel that I've heard people talk about, though not necessarily entirely complimentarily. It seems a list that has reverted to what some of those lists of the 80s were - full of solid potential. One will rise above the others of course. I'll be interested to see which way things go.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Rediscovering Dylan Thomas

The Manchester Literature Festival is in full swing, but I'm away for most of it. Yesterday I looked at what was on and determined to go to something, decided on Peter Blake at the Martin Harris Centre, talking about his visual interpretation of Dylan Thomas's "Under Milk Wood". Its the 100th anniversary of Thomas's birth this year - he died so young, aged 39, in 1953, that its hardly imaginable that its only now. Peter Blake has been working on illustrating "Under Milk Wood" for nearly thirty years - a somewhat obsessional commitment from an artist who is himself in his 80s now. The in conversation took us through the history of "Under Milk Wood" and how even the earliest version of the text (bizarrely in an American woman's magazine) had accompanying illustrations. Thomas's "play for voices" was originally commissioned for radio, and despite a 1972 movie (and another in the works) it is a sound piece which remains so mesmerising, whether the classic Richard Burton version, or the more recent George Martin produced version. Yet unlike so many of today's contemporary "film" poems, the language is as rich as anything he wrote.

Thomas is one of those poets who is so familiar, and yet at the same time, that familiarity makes you sometimes not see him properly. A genuinely popular poet, then, and today, Blake made the point that "Under Milk Wood" was popular with his generation at art school. Listening to it again today, its a fascinating work, allusive, funny, rude, and charming all at once. It does seem sui generis, a tone poem for the senses. It comes out of modernist practice I think, (remember "The Wasteland" was originally called "He Does the Police in Different Voices" and Eliot had also written a number of pieces for "voice"), yet seems to anticipate both the pop art surrealism of the Goons and the elegiac English erotica of Dennis Potter. It was no surprise to find that it was Lennon who had Dylan Thomas on his list of famous faces for the Sgt. Pepper cover that Blake designed.

What was fascinating about hearing Blake talk about the book - as well as the slow process of its completion - is how Thomas's surreal imagination, and elegantly witty poetry was such a challenge to the artist. If some books are "unfilmable" this was a text that in some ways was "un-depictable" yet this appealed to Blake's maven-like sensibility. He divided the pictures into dreams, places and characters. The characters were pencil drawings, often taken from photographic archetypes (of Elizabeth Taylor for Myfanwy or anonymous pictures for the policeman or Nogood Boyo), whilst in the dreams and scenes he was able to create creative montages, sometimes literal interpretations of Thomas's work, other times more speculative.

For "Under Milk Wood" seems to be one of those pieces of work (and Thomas is one of those writers) which constantly finds new audiences. Watching the BBC drama "Dylan in New York" he is constantly referred to by his American backers as "the greatest living poet" and his posthumous reputation in the public imagination is both for his poetry and the life: the womaniser, the drinker, the poet figure of myth. Yet it is the work, then as now, which stands out. If there are moments in "Under Milk Wood" when "Ulysses" comes to mind, they are the only obvious reference points, its such a uniquely conceived piece of work, both in form and content. The whole piece feels like a dream - and we were shown a promotional video for the forthcoming new film adaption which seemed one part Terry Gilliam, one part Peter Greenaway. Yet at the heart of "Under Milk Wood" - a piece Thomas had been thinking of and part writing for years - is a beautifully observed nostalgia for a time and a place, and the richness of the human experience depicted within it, is what makes it such a well loved piece.

Thomas, I think, has never been exactly out of fashion - at least not with poets and readers - but the dry anecdotal poetry of the seventies, eighties and nineties meant that he didn't seem a particular influence. The prevailing greyness of English language poetry since "The Movement" was almost designed to be anti-Thomas, yet his reputation has outlived all of them, bar Larkin. Perhaps he is one of those artists who is so much of a one-off, that his work would always be very different than the prevailing trends. If we sometimes see him as a post-war poet, he published widely in the late thirties and forties as well. Most poets I know find something to like somewhere in Thomas, and he'll be one of the few 20th century poets that non-specialists will instantly recognise.

The Blake conversation was a fascinating insight into an artist responding to another artist. Is there a word for this kind of reverse ekphrasis? The anniversary this year has seen a number of Thomas related activities including an exhibition of Blake's "Under Milk Wood". Though he has finished both the exhibition and the book he admitted that he is till tinkering with some of the pictures, an obsession coming to an end, but not yet totally done with.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Censorship Today

I grew up in the censorship days. Mary Whitehouse strode the seventies like some cultural domestos, bleaching out any life from our culture. Then in the 80s we had Mike Read with his queasiness about the lyrics of "Relax" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (if only he'd shown the same queasiness about the behaviour of some of his fellow DJs....) and in the 90s Tipper Gore's PMRC and its attempts to ban Giger's poster for the Dead Kennedys, and the insistence on Parental Advisory stickers on LPs... and then there was that bizarre period of the first Gulf war where you could watch the soldiers on the TV news every night but Bomb the Bass was no longer allowable to be mentioned and Massive Attack had to lose the second word of their name. I would slip into my local record shop when nobody was looking and likely a teenager looking for jazz mags would say "have you got the new NWA LP?" which the shopkeeper would knowingly slip in brown paper bag from behind the counter.

This I felt was a war that for freedom of speech that bit by bit we were winning - that in a liberal democracy (despite our Tory leaders) history was on our side. Censorship was surely like a curtain in a Girly show, once it had revealed what was behind it, there was no pulling back the drape. Besides, there was a sea change in our behaviours - from what was public to what was private. The home VHS meant that whether it was a dirty film shipped illicitly from Amsterdam or an art house movie, it could be watched in private behind closed doors. Britain had always been behind America - we weren't a country at home with "Emmanuels" never mind "Deep Throats" - far more likely to titter at "Confessions of a Window Cleaner". Britains abroad might enthusiastically sunbathe topless, but the Brits behaving badly in Marbella and Magaluf was still to come. The Only Was is Essex, Big Brother and the like were a long way off, even if the working class male pinned Sam Fox's page three picture to the garage door instead of the artfully posed Pirelli calendars that adorned such places elsewhere in the world.

I was surprised to find out that Channel 4, that institution of cultural licentiousness (Michael Grade styled as "pornographer in chief" by the less frisky tabloids) was an invention of Thatcher's first term, the drive for free markets making her turn a blind eye (not for the first or last time) to what those markets might unleash. Indeed, its public-private nature meant Channel 4 was indeed taxpayer funded. Art or porn? Well, the private sector would come up with topless weather girls and the  Daily Sport, making art house movies a different kind of subversion.

In the anything goes of the internet - everything is "available" - whether pornography or bomb making instructions, meaning that for the first time limits on free speech or laws on censorship had to be drafted that saw people convicted for possession of images as well as the making of them. Yet there has always been a good reason why things in art are judged differently than things in life. Otherwise Sophie Hannah's bringing back to life of Hercule Poirot would see her banged up for the "murders" in her novels, rather than applauded for resurrecting Christie's inscrutable Belgian. Art is allowed to make things up, to say unpalatable truths, to be gristly in its depiction, to titillate, to terrify, to entertain through whatever means, to show what is beautiful and what is ugly, to illuminate not only our dreams but our nightmares. It was realism that scared the censors - whether a divorce in a Noel Coward play banned by the Lord Chancellor or a sex scene in a D.H. Lawrence novel that a judge might not want his servants to read. The innocent Alice in Lewis Carroll wasn't seen as a proxy for his interest in young girls, nor (until much later) was T.S. Eliot's anti-semitism much challenged even as they were opening the gates on Auschwitz.

So what a country or culture censors is not just (or mostly) about the what is banned but about the why? There's a strange move - coming from America, but heading our way - which insists almost on everyone's right to be offended, and for that offence to be listened to. Some of this, very unfortunately, is coming from the left, from oppressed groups, who see an opportunity to lift oppression through some kind of censorship. For people of my age and older it seems hard to reconcile a reduction in the language we use as being anything other than an oppression in itself; yet acknowledging that its better world that ethnic origin, for instance, is no longer turned into an everyday slang. What is more worrying is when what spills over from wanting mere good manners on a public forum such as Twitter or Facebook to demonstrations against particular artistic depictions. I grew up in an age when  I expected - even wanted - art to offend. Now we seem to have the worst of both worlds, an insouciance about commercial depictions of sex and violence, with ad agencies happy to push the envelope around what is acceptable, and a worry that anything in art that "triggers" a response from the audience is therefore an offence.

There's a bit in the West Wing where one of the staffers makes the point that he doesn't really know whether a particular piece of art is offensive or not, but he certainly knows that he shouldn't be the one making the judgement on that. History is full of banned works, and "bans" are rarely permanent (or if they are maybe the art has disappeared). The artistic establishment is often the first barrier to new art - and acts as a censor in terms of style and sensibility if not always in terms of taste. I cannot remember the last time I saw a show in a gallery which took a potshot at the commercial world for instance; there's not much biting of the hand that feeds going on these days.

But its in the wider context of anti-terror legislation, government cut backs and much else where art has to try even harder to be against the grain. We've a history of mainstream culture slamming the door on even its favoured sons and daughters: whether its the ending of Fatty Arbuckle's career or the aftermath of Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction. You'll look long and hard to find anything offensive in contemporary poetry, beyond the usual shoutyness at a slam, and there's even an annoyingly predictable benign liberalism about much contemporary art which though politically I might agree with, is disturbing in its singularity of the vision (or even the "version"). You could say that liberal art currently acts as an allowed and allowable safety valve against the mainstream. Oh, look, that nice Carol Ann Duffy is complaining about books being banned in prisons; oh, there's that sensible looking Ian McEwan writing a book mildly criticising Tony Blair. Art as visceral as "The Lonesome Death of Hatty Carroll" or "Piss Christ" is rarely to be found. Its why those of us in the west who immediately responded to Pussy Riot weren't bandwagon jumping, but recognising that it is universal, uninformed power such as exists in amorphous bodies like state and church which is the hardest to pillory through art. Pussy Riot were the canary in the coalmine of Putin's contemporary Russia, we felt. (And as an add-on, as gesture art goes, it was great).  There seemed genuine shock from certain quarters that "much loved" Hilary Mantel could write a story called "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher." Of course in this internet age of thought-crime, had Thatcher still been alive, and had it have been someone with, say a Muslim name, writing this on an alt.lit. blog then he or she would probably answering police enquiries.

There's a history of authoritarian crackdown on contemporary art and yet we are seeing two things at present. Individual or community offence is being mobilised against art that doesn't agree with a particular line or point of view; and on the other hand a lumbering state apparatus which in the name of wars on terror and God knows what else, is quick to say a quick word in the ear of the sponsors. The BBC went from being scared to air a documentary about Jimmy Saville's child abuse offences, to wiping any re-broadcast of any Radio 1 DJ's "Top of the Pops" appearances once they'd had a conviction. I wonder to what extent you can write people out of history? Will in 50 years time there be a cult of Saville? One hopes not, but just as there were books published in the past which in retrospect (and probably at the time) have dubious references, they did exist, and tell us much more about that time than an airbrushed version of the same. If you want to see what the 70s was really like then an old episode of "Minder" with all its casual sexism and racism would probably be a better place to start than the airbrushed history books. (And part of that airbrushing works the other way. The joy of the recent film "Pride" was in the linkage it made between miners and the gay community both being equally victims of police state tactics under Thatcher. If we forget that there was racism in the 70s, then do we also forget that there was also "Rock Against Racism?" )

As a writer and creative you write what you want and need to write, but is there also a point where you self censor? On the odd occasion I've stuck my head above the parapet on social media it has been to defend free speech. Its hard though - because if you just say something when some idiot wears an anti-police t-shirt that is clearly offensive (but supporting their right to wear it), it appears you are on the side of the idiots. Yet it seems that social media (this blog included) gives people so much more access to writers, actors, musicians, that there is no longer the mystique there once was. And its not just mystique. One writes often from a persona, and that persona isn't always the nicest person in the room or the world. Yet as a person (as a writer), yes, I'm thin-skinned, I want to be liked. Art sometimes seems a strange thing to go the wall for compared with politics or other rights, but I think if we fail to understand the dynamics that see art being criticised we will miss them in the wider society.

Art remains our barometer, and as my grandad used to say, the glass is rising.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Where's the Poetry....?

I've been quite immersed in the poetry world the last few years. I think I decided to step back a little from it, or maybe it just happened. I read a few poems at the St. Ann's Book Fair in June, but that was about my only poetry "gig" this year. The last night I read at, I changed my mind at the last minute and read a short story.

And though I've not consciously stopped going to things I've had quite a busy time, and just haven't caught so much as I usually do. Looking at the list of Next Gen Poets, I'd read 6 or 7, and as the annual prize season comes round, books I really should have taken a look at, like Kei Miller and Liz Berry's which respectively won Forward best collection and best new collection last night, I've not got round to. I missed the very well attended Free Verse Book Fair in London as was travelling back from somewhere the day before.

Part of my disengaging is simply lack of time, but also the group I'd been involved with, North West Poets, after a couple of years of busy activity, has had a bit of a hiatus. Poetry might be there on every supermarket shelf, but if you don't go looking for it, its easy to miss. I realise that I usually buy more poetry collections than I've done this year as well. I think apart from Toby Martinez De La Rivaz's "Terror"  and Mark Burnhope's "Species" I've not picked anything up recently. I had a bit of flurry of subscribing to magazines, but some of those subscriptions have dropped off, or have proven a bit disappointing.

I guess poetry remains a bit of a maze - and after a couple of signature anthologies a few years ago -  things have reverted to type. Carol Ann Duffy is still poet laureate, Simon Armitage is still our best loved poet. John Cooper Clarke and Roger McGough are still national treasures. Poetry Review is as solidly predictable as ever.  I realise there's not one magazine that really does a good job at taking the temperature of contemporary poetry, though I think the Rialto, Oxford Poetry and the Wolf might manage it between them.

And I need to make more of an effort. Guess what, its  National Poetry Day tomorrow. There's a strange but potentially interesting event with Jeffrey Wainwright at Anthony Burgess tomorrow night.  A "poetry inquisition" - well there are some poets I'd like to see face an inquisition, the always erudite Wainwright is thankfully not one of them. (I wonder when words lose their impact - there was recent anger on Facebook about a "First Word War" poetry slam.... yet we can happily appropriate the Spanish Inquisition. We're some way off a Poetry Pogrom I hope, unless you count the last kerfuffle at the Poetry Society.)

Then this Saturday, two poets I do admire, Richard Barrett and visitor to the city Jonty Tiplady are performing at the always enjoyable Peter Barlow's Cigarette.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why I Record Music



My parents tried to harness my musical ability. On my dad's side of the family there had always been a bit of amateur piano playing, and they always sung along. We had a wheezy little electronic organ; then an acoustic guitar I had problems getting my fingers (or my brain) round; then my sister took up the mantle (a double bass) and was the family's serious musician for a number of years.

Yet I'd always sung along, even when my voice was breaking (sorry, mum), and though painfully shy at anything musical in public, I always liked music, and would spend some of my spare time making up imaginary bands, albums and songs. In truth, I was doing this before I developed my own taste in music. As a thirteen year old it doesn't make a lot of sense why every song's about love, when you're still at least partly interested in dinosaurs, science fiction and football.

When I was 15, I formed a band of sorts with my mates, and we used to make an unholy racket in the living room, commandeering the family organ, and along the way some biscuit tins and a typewriter (it made some nice bell noises.) When I was nearly seventeen I got a proper synthesizer, not unreasonably thinking that if I couldn't read music, I could at least make some interesting noises.

I've been recording music ever since. Because I'm a writer people often assume that I write some lyrics and then try and fit a tune to them, and though this occasionally happens, its mostly the other way round - I record a backing track and try and develop a song over the top of it.

There are probably less people who've heard my music than have read my writing which takes some doing but I give it my all, even if I know that I'm neither a particularly competent singer or musician. What I am good at, I think, is finding new sounds, and turning them into new songs. The act of creation is what it's always been about for me. And whereas you write a story and probably don't ever want to re-read it again for another ten years, when I records some songs, I've a ready made CD to listen to.

So I've been spending this weekend on what by one count (mine) is my 32nd full length album, going back as far as 1984. (There are plenty more than that - if you include side projects and the like - but I've a "canon" and I intend to stick to it.) I hadn't recorded much this year, but in a week's holiday in the summer hooked up my new (but old sounding) Korg Monotribe - a drum machine/sequencer/analogue synth in a box without a keyboard - with my ancient (but timeless sounding) Roland Juno 6 - so that the former could power the arpeggiator on the latter. This was pretty much how I made music and wrote songs for years, a drum beat and a sequence giving you the rudiments of a song without much difficulty. When my drum machine broke a few years ago I found different ways of doing things, but the Juno occasionally got sidelined as a result.

Rather than just record a song or two I found myself recording best part of a new album - which this weekend I've completed, through a few tweaks, and a couple of new songs to replace a couple of earlier tracks that didn't make so much sense now that the album had a shape.

As ever, I'll probably be the main listener - particularly when one track is a 15 minute instrumental electronic jam - (my "band" names is Bonbon Experiment after all) but I can't say anything other than its been an absolute joy to put together. So recording music gives me pleasure in a way that poetry or fiction often doesn't. I think its because its just about the only time I ever "make" something. I was crap at all those handy things you did at school in woodwork, metalwork and home economics, and have never been much good at painting, D.I.Y. or even computer hardware. But what I can do - is take a few slithers of sound and make something lasting from them.

Because I do like to sing as well, and because I can write lyrics, (though its often the hardest part), I guess I have to do something about that side of things as well. I still like coming up with titles - though the best on the new release - "The Marsupial Consumes its Own Weight in Feathers" is, you'll be pleased to know, an instrumental, whilst the title track of "Meet the Relatives" has spawned a cover concept that has seen me hunting charity shops for odd looking "band members." The other songs tend to be about all sorts of stuff of course. There's a bit of nostalgia on this release, and in some ways, my lyrics are also in some kind of "persona" as in the political pop of "Helicopters" which mostly exists so I could use the line "she looked like she’d stepped from a Murakami" (I then had to write a whole song around it so it made some kind of sense.)

I've still not graduated to the guitar (though I did buy one a few years ago in the forlorn hope that I'd have got over my caggy-handedness), but do refresh my set up with a new instrument or effects unit every now and then. The other thing people expect when I say I record electronic music, is that they think I use a computer to do it - here's my own Ludditism, apart from an odd tweak in Audacity, I'm still doing everything offline, pressing "record" and "stop" on a physical recorder (even though its now digital rather than analogue.)  My 8-track can only hold 99 tracks, so I had to run on the "tape" (not that it is tape) to record the last couple of tracks as I'd filled it for the second time since 2007. The job of downloading the master files can wait for another day.

In the mean time - "Meet the Relatives" (BDM 132), by some reckoning my 32nd album, is available to stream and download here.   Now, back to that novel....

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Circle by David Eggers

"The Circle" in David Eggers novel of the same name is an unhealthy amalgam of Facebook, Google and Apple with a smidgin of Amazon. It has grown to obliterate previous social media and search rivals, and the genuis triumvirate that run are respectively a Howard Hughes-ish inventor/recluse, a money making business man, and a public facing show man. The employees of the Circle live on a campus (very Google) in San Francisco, and it is the one company that every aspiring graduate wants to work for.

Mae is one such graduate, and in her early twenties she movies from working for the moribund utility company in her hometown (which is near, but not quite Fresno), and follows in the footsteps of Annie, who was her room mate at college and has apparently pulled some strings to get her a job at The Circle, first of all in Customer Experience, a glorified call centre, where the ever optimistic Circlers "zing" or otherwise connect with customers around the world, and ask for instant feedback on how they've done. So now, so SEO, though in these first chapters, as Eggers takes us around Mae's first few weeks in the Circle, there's something a little strained about the world he describes. Unlike Douglas Coupland's "Microserfs" and "JPod" Eggers doesn't seem to have a particularly deep take on this kind of world - and the campus he describes is a strange mix between a 1990s call centre and a Xanadu like fantasy. This not-quite-in-the-future world sees Mae as a willing dupe, a country girl at heart, who bit by bit gets pulled into the all encompassing Circle lifestyle, where not only your work life but your weekends and evenings should ideally be spent with your workmates. She makes several missteps, but is so keen on being a good Circler, and with Annie as her mentor, she apologises each time she fails to give all of herself to the corporate love-in.

Mae's a bit of a blank slate on which Eggers can draw his story. She has a traditional family back at home, but her dad is suffering from M.S., and her one boyfriend from back then, Mercer, has put on weight, makes chandeliers from discarded antlers, and is increasingly an embarassing reminder of her non tech past. That said each visit back home shows us Mae as being a little more than a customer service girl. She goes kayaking on a deserted lake, and sips tea with the old couple who live a life of isolation out on the lake. In a prose more vivid than he uses for the flat modernity of the Circle, Eggers describes a raw world of natural beauty.

Neither does Mae neglect her emotional needs - quickly falling into a dismal sexual pairing with another Circler, who promptly videos her giving him a hand job, and posts it online, oblivious to her complaints, saying that nobody other than him will ever see it amongst all the other videos. Then she meets the mysterious Kaplan and has sex with him in a toilet cubicle. For a while she gets drawn towards this mysterious stranger who neither her nor Annie can find details of within the Circle's comprehensive database.

Bit by bit Mae is given more responsibilities, becoming ever more dependent on the Circle as it rolls out new products and services - such as miniature cameras that can capture everything in perfect detail, or a new chip that can be embedded into children to stop them from being abducted. The benign aims of the Circle see it going wider and wider into an all-seeing-I and the aim of the Circle becomes clear, it must be made complete.

Yet though this is a very believable dystopia, Eggers is much too friendly a writer to over play the dark side. Mae is a willing dupe, a useful fool, and we go along with her as she one by one alienates those from her past, as well as her scepticism about the Circle. Her desire to make up for past lapses see her volunteering to become "transparent", where almost everything in her life is on camera. She quickly becomes a walking Big Brother contestant, everything she sees being seen by her millions of followers. At the same time her parents and Mercer become increasingly exasperated at her for not being "present" as they talk to her, whilst she "zings" her million followers.

In Mae, Eggers has created a very believable carrier for this satire - and the book really comes into its own once Mae, rather than joining some resistance led by Kaplan as the reader initially expects, becomes more and more important to the inner circle. Yet at the same time as Eggers is deft at explaining her dependency on the new media, he occasionally has a deaf ear. When the real world occasionally intrudes - such as a mention of Edward Snowden - it feels forced; and in a few scenes where he tries to create a broad comedy through a long list of Mae's new routine, checking this and that social media, he simply lacks the satirical edge that you'd find in Brett Easton Ellis or David Foster Wallace.

In many ways, the book is much more of a pageturner. Reading his debut memoir "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" I remember how despite the pyrotechnics, "Here's a picture of a stapler...." etc., there seemed to be a more traditional novelist underneath - adept at the mechanics of family, and prone to a not untypical sentimentality. So there's nothing particularly dark here. The sex tape doesn't rear its head again; the old couple on the river are not returned to. When one of the leaders of the Circle brings back three exotic creatures from an underwater trench, Mae is there to film their feeding, and you feel tension for a moment as it looks like the shark will take off the feeders hand, but no, things move on. At first I thought this unwillingness to take such narrative chances was a real weakness in the novel, but as you come into the final third, you realise it is the immersion of Mae in the Circle that is Eggers' intent. The darkness is in how close to our own reality this.

In Huxley's "Brave New World" you could easily read the world of ready sex and soma as being some kind of utopia, bread and circuses to subdue the masses - until he brings it into perspective by the interruption of the outsider; again, a similar technique is there in the subduing of Alex in "A Clockwork Orange." Yet our outsiders here are only seen through Mae's prism as she becomes ever closer to closing the Circle. You stay with her, and rather than shock, feel a certain acceptance at how easily we could fall into totalitarianism.

It's somewhat overlong, as many contemporary future fictions seem to be, and lacks a cutting edge, falling a little between two stools - a day-after-tomorrow extrapolation of where we are now vs. an SF reimagining. Compared with the strangeness of Ben Marcus's "The Flame Alphabet" it feels like a kid's comic strip, yet Eggers' is at his best when detailing the human, and the changes Mae goes through, from a sceptic to the most vociferous exponent of the Circle are deftly handled. As it ends, you feel you've been told a cautionary fable, rather than experienced a nightmare. As I finished the book, I was sat on a Virgin train, and going to the toilet, a disembodied voice follows you in there, and tells you what not to dispose of down the toilet; when I mentioned this on Twitter, one of Virgin's social media team replied to me. We are already some way down the rabbit hole.

Monday, September 22, 2014

On England

I stayed up far too late on Thursday, fascinated by the raw politics of it all. More was to come when I woke the next morning. First, David Cameron's breakfast speech which wiped out all attempts at "No" campaign solidarity and tried to trap Ed Milliband in a bear trap. Cameron, the P.R. guy, is at his best and worst when making snap decisions. The rest of the time he couldn't run a bath, which gives us the messes they have left behind in government, but he's a smart man of the moment. Relieved no doubt as not being the PM who broke up the Union, he promises a federal Britain, and an answer to the West Lothian question, whilst, as ever, not having any answers.

For federalism in Britain is fraught with difficulties given not only out decades of centralisation, but the nature of some of the questions.

Briefly, how could a federal Britain contemplate a European exit? If a referendum takes us out, then regions that voted emphatically to stay in, would be less empowered than now. How does the devolution of powers (and taxing powers) to regions such as Greater Manchester square with more cuts coming down the road, as soon as next March? A Conservative party that abolished Regional Development Agencies (replacing them with many more Employer led Local Economic Partnerships, with supposedly more power, but much less resource) is surely incapable of a regional policy? Yet its attempts at gerrymandering things so that is has more of a say in the North have failed dismally. Our Police Commissioners were elected with tiny turnouts; the system for elected mayors, which gave us a contest in Salford, but not for Greater Manchester, was equally flawed. Never mind their opposition (along with the Labour party) to a cocked up AV campaign.

The only constitutional change we have really seen since 2010 is the fixed term parliament - and it is this on which Cameron has his eye. Railroad Labour into some kind of consensus on a yet to be defined English federalism as a result of the promises made by all three leaders in Scotland only last week, and the distinctions between the parties at the next election might be even more difficult to discern. Certainly the West Lothian question - how can Scottish MPs vote on English matters? - casts a long shadow, though if we had a genuine divvying up of powers, then surely these devolved questions wouldn't come before parliament at all. And since no Tory will ever mention it, I don't see how an unelected second revising chamber, packed with placemen, hereditary Lords and a smattering of Bishops, can be immune from any constitutional upheaval.

Yet if we are to have some federal system, the left (and the left in the North) are yet to come up with a convincing solution. For every call for more decisions to be made in the North, one wonders where the people's voice is in this? It seems inconceivable that the Tories would recreate the metropolitan authorities - in which case have we got a version of what we have now. Can a federal Manchester really have legitimacy without some kind of proportional representation? And where would be the boundaries of this new Mayoral kingdom? Does Wigan, for instance, see itself continuing as one amongst ten?

The much maligned European Union takes money from member states such as the UK (including Scotland) then redistributes it. My salary has been pretty much paid for most of the last fifteen years by aspects of this redistribution. Those Tories and UKIPpers opposed to the EU always talk about the money we spend, not the money we receive back. This redistribution, essentially an attempt to bring the poorer parts of Europe (including in the UK) up to the levels of the average, is surely the only mechanism that could work in the UK - yet again, the "neighbour renewal" monies that Labour redistributed in this way, were cancelled with a penstroke in 2010, whilst specific funding around transport, housing, green energy and growth are subject to competitions between cities and regions. Our X-Factor economy may be good Saturday night viewing, but doesn't do much for Britain in the long run. When London politicians can prioritise new vanity schools in areas without need, ahead of providing places for all, we know we are in the politics of the madhouse.In other words the logic of Union is not "he who pays the piper calls the tune" but a desire to move to a more equal country - where the "shared" services such as defence and foreign policy and EU membership are counterbalanced by a redistribution from the richer areas (and from the richer sections of society) in order to improve on the things that bind us together. Scotland has more land mass and colder winters than the rest of the UK, it should be for the body collective to pay for those conditions as it should be for a rich London to invest in the regeneration of northern cities. (And if thats not the case: then surely the time comes when a "land tax" or something similar extracts value from our rentier culture?)

It is the Labour Party Conference this week, and rather than the Cricket captain's advantage of batting first it feels like going into the crease before the other team has turned up. What Labour need to do is not dance to a Tory agenda, though the monotrack of the media makes this difficult. The logic behind the "Yes" campaign after all, was a dialogue that was ignored by an uninterested London-centric media. I head down to London today for a conference, where I'll be talking about international cooperation between cities, its not a conversation that I want to be sent to the margins.

Coincidentally I just picked up Alasdair Gray's 2000 anthologgy "Book of Prefaces". In his own preface he writes "as a Scottish socialist who thinks home rule a necessary step toward making a humane democracy..." before quoting approvingly Shelley's statement from 1820: "If England were divided into 40 republics, each equal in population and extent to Athens...under insititutions not more perfect than those of Athens, each would produce philosophers and poets equal to those (if we except Shakespeare) have never been surpassed." The logic of the Union in 2014 has changed, it can no longer be an extension of a settlement set out by William the Conqueror and his sons, even if so much of the apparatus of land ownership and top-down political control would be recognisable to an 11th century Lord.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Autumn Calling


We've had a bit of an Indian summer this last week or so, though having been in Amsterdam and Milan in the last twenty days my sense of things is a little confused. Amsterdam was great as ever, and as our conference was a little out of the centre, I spent most of my time in different parts of the city than I usually see, at least until the Thursday night when I finally made it to Paradiso, the city's legendary night club and venue. Milan was much more of a flying visit, and our meetings were out on a business park thirty minutes from the centre. I got to walk down the main shopping street on the way to dinner one evening however, and it was thronged with the young and beautiful and fashionable as it was Vogue fashion night. (This is becoming a habit, I was in Lisbon when it was as well.)

I might write about the Scottish referendum later. I stayed up until the first results gave the sense that it was going to be a "No" vote - which for all the promises, is the most anti-climatic of things. All those arguments about who funds the BBC, or where RBS will relocate to, or whether Scotland would be allowed into the EU were suddenly unecessary. Other arguments will follow. The biggest shock, of course, was Alex Salmond's resignation. Knowing when to go; that's not something you often get from London politicians.

One of the most interesting bands of the last couple have years have been the scuzzy punk rap duo Sleaford Mods. Since the last band to come from Nottingham were probably Paper Lace, they're something of a revelation - and a word of mouth success. In the current music environment there's no mainstream/alternative dichotomy, in that everything's kind of mainstream - what there are rivulets of independence fed by Bandcamp sites, and word of mouth touring. Like Fat White Family, Sleaford Mods feel utterly unquantifiable, though John Cooper Clarke, the Streets and the Fall have all been mentioned. Which goes nowhere near describing a song like "Donkey" (See above). The band are in their forties, and so was part of their audience, we recognising kindred spirits, but there were quite a lot of younger folks in Club Academy for a tight rollicking 50 minutes last night.

This weekend Rogue Studios is open to the public and if I can I will get along tomorrow - some of the city's best artists are based there. More earnestly, the Labour party conference rocks up in Manchester this weekend - and, post-referendum, so will the media. Expect a few fireworks. I managed to somehow find time to go along to a book launch at the Central Library. Writer Phil Griffin and photographer Jan Chlebik have created a wonderful artefact together bringing together words and pictures from several decades of a changing Manchester.

If any Labour delegates stay around after the conference they'll have plenty of art to see as the Buy Art Fair, Manchester Contemporary and Asian Triennial are all arriving with a kind of coordinated art dance - with previews throughout the city on Thursday and Friday. The following week ANDFestival's "Watch the Skies" weekend takes place at Jodrell Bank.

The week after will see the start of the Manchester Literature Festival which runs throughout October.  With more events than ever this year, its probably a good idea to do some preplanning about which to go to. I'm away for the start of the festival and not sure if I'll get back for the launch of my friend David Gaffney's collaboration with artist Alison Erika Forde "Men Who Like Women Who Smell of Their Jobs."  Its a good month for titles in Manchester as the Castlefield Gallery exhibition, "A Joyous Thing with Maggots at the Centre", offers a first solo show by Hardeep Phardal.

I'm also looking forward to two of my favourite contemporary poets, JontyTiplady and Richard Barrett, who will be performing at Peter Barlow's Cigarette in Manchester a fortnight from now. 

So see you around, I guess. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

"Consider Phlebas" was Iain Banks' first published SF novel, and the first to feature "the culture", a pan-Galactic civilisation, descended from humanoids, but which has evolved machine intelligence to such a point that the machines have become their "God." Its pure space opera, in that an incomprehensible galactic war is going on between the Culture and the Idirans, and a "changer", (a race of human who can take on the characteristics of others), Bora Horza Gobuchul is fighting on behalf of the Idirans. A classic mercenary he has chosen the Idiran side because they at least are organic creatures, whilst the Culture have evolved so that their society is controlled by machines.

SF is at its best when it can assimilate a wide rang of ideas, and the ideas in "Consider Phlebas" are about what makes a perfect society. Yet the book itself is an adventure story. At a time when his non SF books "The Wasp Factory", "The Bridge" and "Walking on Glass" brim with fantastic imaginings, and believable characters, "Consider Phlebas" feels like a very early work, good fun to write, and even to read, but which gets caught up in its own invented mythologies. The story itself finds Horza on the point of death, before escaping. A series of unusual events see a "Mind" - the Culture's controlling machine intelligences - escape an attack and end on a planet of the dead, where Horza once lived and worked with other Changers, including his lover. These semi-religious planets are almost shrines to a previous culture, indifferent to the great space war happening around them. But before Horza can get there he ends up with another bunch of mercenaries on the nicely named Clear Air Turbulence, a bandit ship led by Kraiklyn, a battle hardened captain, who has little sentiment for the various waifs and strays who crew the ship. After a disastrous raid on what should have been an easy target, the reduced band falls under Horza, who has changed again, to look like Kraiklyn.
Kraiklyn is heading to a game of Damage, a high stakes game of chance taking place in a doomed outer space cluster which is soon to be destroyed by the Culture. Before he gets there Horza finds himself nearly a victim of a group of crazed cannibals. 

At its best there's something Swiftian about these episodes, though Horza is a strange Gulliver. He acts as a bit of a mouthpiece for the book's philosophy, but the book rarely stops for long enough, as Banks goes into describing another strange world or scenario. I liked the Damage game section best of all - though its echoes of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker novels, and "The Restaurant at the end of the Universe" are an obvious one.

The quest to find the "Mind" seems a somewhat pyrhic one - yet Horza has personal reasons to go there as his old girlfriend is still there. Yet at the same time he has gone to bed with Yalson on the ship. In the meantime a Culture agent, who had been trying to kill Horza at the novel's start gets herself captured by him at the Damage game, and becomes a prisoner, as the crew head down to the planet of the dead.

This final section of the book took me a while to finish. The ancient planet has already been visited by some Idiran's and Horza's allegiances are now no longer so certain. For his old lover is dead, along with the other Changers. The search for the "Mind" feels a little like a shaggy dog story - and in these pages we've got a complex chase through the workings of the old planet, where ancient trains are awakened as Horza still goes looking for the mind, whilst also chasing the remainder of the Idiran soldiers.

There's much of interest in this first SF novel, and the Culture would be the main setting for the majority of his SF novels over the next thirty years, yet I found it a bit of a challenging read. The characters are, like so often is the case in hard SF, hard to visualise or love. The motley crew never comes alive, and you get the feeling they are like the characters in a disaster movie, ready to be picked off one by one. Horza himself is more of a cipher, whose role in the story is rarely heroic. The divide between "man" and "machine" is touched on throughout - a drone who gets annoyed that he is treated as a machine, the warrior Idirans who only really care about death or glory, the impossible intelligence of the Mind, the respect between Horza and the Culture agent - yet the novel is primarily an action novel, and yet the detailed action scenes lack pace. I'm sure I'll come back and read another Culture novel at some point, but after a run of books which I couldn't put down, this older novel was a bit of a disappointment. I got to the end, just as Horza does, but it was a close call.

Bone Clocks, Next Gen Poets and MacGuffins

I've not had time to read or write since coming back from Amsterdam last Friday but been busy one way or another and keeping a north eye on what's going on.

The Booker Prize shortlist was announced and David Mitchell fell off again, with The Bone Clocks. Seems Amazon had expected it to be on there as the price of the hardback had fallen to £8 from £20 which will be cheaper than the paperback when it comes out. I try and buy hardbacks of new fiction if I can, so that was good. I look forward to reading it when I get the chance. The shortlist looks interesting, and it has to be a good thing that that usual Booker staple, the historical novel, is for once absent. Its not that historical novels are intrinsically bad - but its got to be good that there's a contemporary list for once.

It was also the Mercury Prize announcement and amongst the other obscure bands was Kate Tempest, the performance poet. Quite a week for her, as she was also mentioned amongst the Poetry Book Society's 20 Next Generation Poets. There's a nice website you can read them and hear them reading, which is good. There are 2 Salt Poets on the list, including Luke Kennard, (he surely had to be there), and one can only think there would have been a few more had they not stopped publishing single poetry collections recently. Its quite an international list - Mark Waldron, Jane Yeh, Emma Jones, Kei Miller - which indicates that the British poetry scene remains amenable to incomers. There are obvious names missing, and some names here I don't really know, but with Melissa Lee Houghton, Emily Berry, Luke Kennard, Heather Phillipson and others there are plenty I like and read. It seems a wider breadth than the list from ten years ago, reflecting that increased plurality in British poetry. The somewhat odd rules for inclusion mean that some poets have been published too late or too early, others haven't made it past pamphlets yet, and its a "generation" in name only, as the age range crosses five decades.

Yesterday I went to a design workshop for a new digital app being developed by Manchester's ever inventive short story publisher Comma Press. Building on their existing expertise in the area, they've got funding to create a new self publishing platform called the MacGuffin and it will be interesting to see how it develops. Writers, literary professionals and digital types did an intensive morning, before retiring to the pub. Good to meet some new people, and like a new magazine or a new night, the MacGuffin might in itself inspire some particular submissions.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Not a Poet at Present

When I applied to go on the creative writing M.A. at UEA I was interviewed by Andrew Motion. I was applying to write long fiction, but I mentioned that I'd recently had a few poems published, and how much I'd enjoyed Les Murray's Subhuman Redneck Blues. "Yes," he agreed, "but you're being considered here for the fiction course." I agreed. "I'm not sure what I want to write, but I think its long form fiction."

Perhaps this was why I didn't get on the course. Who knows? I was interviewed by the novelist Richard Francis having read a short story of mine, and was on the Manchester M.A. in novel writing instead. One of the draws of the course was that the other tutor was poet-critic-editor Michael Schmidt. "I enjoyed the Sophie Hannah book you just published,"I told Michael, "I bought a copy for a friend." I'm not sure we talked about poetry anymore than that. I was there to write a novel after all. (Both Schmidt and Motion have of course written fiction - the rules are different once you're already published it seems.)

In the early 2000s i co-founded a poetry magazine "Lamport Court" - to which my own contributions (chosen by my co-editors) were a story and a long stream of consciousness extract from a "poem" that would eventually appear in my "poetry" book "Extracts from Levona." (I had to explain - and still have to explain that "Levona" wasn't a girls name, but in fact "a novel" backwards.)

When my collection "Playing Solitaire for Money" was published by Salt in 2010, I decided, reluctantly perhaps, that I should concentrate on poetry, after all, I'd had hardly any fiction published for years. It was important than some poems in that book were recent ones - as otherwise what sort of poet was I? One that didn't write poetry!

A few years ago Parameter magazine - a poetry magazine I'd long admired - published something of mine - but it wasn't a poem or a story, instead a cartoon strip called "Treeville" which was partially (but not entirely) about poets, but contained no poetry. 

Last year I wrote a poem about a washed up writer who could no longer write, but sat at the bar and was always referred to as a poet. The poem didn't quite work and a few months later I realised why - that it was really a short story, which I duly wrote.

Earlier this year I decided to put together the best of the poems I'd written since the Salt book, even though I knew Salt was no longer publishing single poem collections. The group of poets I'd met over the last few years were always putting together interesting projects as well which I'd sometimes contribute to. One of which, "Verse Kraken" the online magazine of hybrid art, I quickly submitted a piece to - it got accepted and only then did I realise, as it consisted of two pictures, with two soundfiles, that it was not even slightly a poem.

So now I've been trying to write some more fiction, having had stories accepted for two or three places recently, and yet I still write the odd poem. There are a dozen or so out there at the moment looking for homes in magazines. Whereas even last year I did quite a few readings, I've only done one  recently, at the St. Ann's book fair. When I read earlier in the year at Paradox I chose to read - at the last minute - a short story, not a poem (even though that's how I was announced!

Well, I've always written poetry, but I'm not a poet at present, though I even managed to write one last week in Amsterdam (and not a word of fiction.) Without a book out, or any readings due, what else can I say? But then again, (see above), I never have been, have I?

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Scottish Independence and Culture

With today's headlines seeing the "Yes" campaign ahead in the polls for Scottish independence for the first time, I wanted to think about what  a "yes" vote might do for culture. Apart from a few threats about how an independent Scotland would "lose" the BBC, I've not seen much on the subject - though I'm sure some have been considering it.

For it strikes me more and more that "culture" is sometimes what defines our togetherness, as well as our separation. The Scottish Commonwealth Games ceremony had more in common with the closing ceremony of the London Olympics than with Danny Boyle's mostly successful re-imagining of the opening ceremony: and music lovers must have been squirming in their seats at Susan Boyle, Rod Stewart and the Proclaimers, all, I hasten to add, artist's with a time and a place in the national (Scottish/UK) conversation, but hardly symbols of an independent future.

This year's Booker prize's belated opening up to Americans means that it is now open to all English language novels, so even if an independent Scotland wasn't in the Commonwealth there would still be eligibility.  Ali Smith is on this year's longlist (shortlist released on Tuesday) and must have a good chance of winning it, if this not year, at some point. Our preeminent novelist has a Scottish name -  Ian McEwan - yet his Englishness is without doubt. Meanwhile, John Burnside, another Scot, won this year's Edge Hill prize for short story collections. British poetry has for some time had an emphasis from the Celtic fringes, with our poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, and the poetry editors at Cape and Picador, Robin Robertson and Don Paterson, also being Scottish. Our most successful novelist J.K. Rowling chooses to live in Edinburgh, the first city to become a UNESCO City of Literature. You could argue that an independent Scotland might have to create some kind of cultural shift, with rather than the best  or most ambitious of their writers heading down on the East Coast Mainline to a London publishing industry which has a strong Scottish flavour, that a new Scotland would see its literary heritage as an increasingly important competitive advantage, as exportable as whiskey.

English literature has more than its fair share of Scots (and Irish, and Welsh) writers under its banner - only susceptible to a murmuring of discontent when the language of those outer provinces strays too close to its roots (London moaned about the dialect heavy James Kelman winning the Booker, but not the more accessible Roddy Doyle.) If Hollywood Scottishness has provided a name for a certain kind of breastbeating patriotism through Mel Gibson's entertaining, if historically dubious, "Braveheart", I suspect that most people in their forties - have a more nuanced idea of Scotland based upon a different set of cultural references, with Clare Grogan, pin up girl of Altered Images and "Gregory's Girl" our favoured Scottish archetype.

It seems to me that Scottish culture flourished remarkably during the mad and bad Thatcher years. The list of Scottish post-punk and new wave bands is not only impressive but would coincide in many places with a list of my favourite bands from anywhere. Altered Images, Primal Scream, Aztec Camera, Orange Juice, Mogwai, Cocteau Twins, Simple Minds, Belle and Sebastian and Jesus and Mary Chain take up a disproportionate part of my record collection. None of which, it has to be said, sound remotely bagpipe-Scottish - which always makes me wonder about the distinction between a culturally backward looking mainstream and a forward thinking youth. Which one will an independent Scotland fall for?

Elvis Presley made his only stop in the UK in Scotland, on a flight back from Germany. Yet rock and roll embedded it quite strongly in the Scottish psyche, as did punk and house music during later periods. I suspect distance from London enables the building of new scenes which may have more time to embed than in other cities. Though the music, television and film businesses, if they have a British presence will still tend to be in the South East, Scotland's publishing houses remain; and its Edinburgh festival and fringe are in combination the only time that the luvvies decamp from the South Bank. Our comic heritage - Beano and Dandy - come from little Dundee, and that history has surely bleached into the number of graphic novel writers and games designers and developers who have come from Scotland.

In these many ways we see that Scotland is culturally both independent and interdependent with London in particular.

In a dependent nation or region whatever attempts there are to create a national cultural conversation - through a "national" theatre or "publishing programme" fall a little flat because of the contradictions of history. That most Welsh of poets, Dylan Thomas, sounds so English in his voice that a contemporary listener can almost feel cheated.

I suspect in a globalised world, Scottish culture may well have started to suffer in the same way as its football; starved of investment, isolated, and possibly seeing the best of its talent leave, but also begin to lose an independent identity. We are a generation or two moved on; where it is the TV talent show the X Factor which soundtracks family Saturday nights. Deep-rooted traditions in church and union club are echoes from older generations.

Yesterday I found myself at the Manchester Spanish festival in Albert Square, following a week in Amsterdam. It helped me stave off the moment of being immersed in being English or British again. Language is part of this of course, but so it cultural context. The Spanish singer's words might have been new to me, but at least one of his tune's was "Loch Lomond" which is about as traditionally Scottish as you can get. I'm not sure where the Scottishness is in "Never Understand" or "I Travel" or "Pearly Dewdrops' Drops" or "Stars of track and field" but I'm sure their uniqueness comes from being in a culture that is looking forward not backwards.

The reality of small countries is that they can thrive - and will thrive - as long as they are not broken on the back of a threatening neighbour (Russia in Ukraine), or in thrall to a stateless global capitalism (Iceland, Ireland) - but that their very smallness means that have to reach out in many ways much more than they did as a region of a bigger country. In other words I can imagine an independent Scotland to become a cultural powerhouse in some ways, attracting artists, writers and musicians from elsewhere in the world, as much by its English language, its hospitable cities and countryside, and its relative proximities and distances - far enough and near enough to  London, but also linked through history and family and culture to the worldwide diaspora of Scots.

On a recent trip to Finland, I attended an exhibition of their most famous export, Tove Janssen, creator of the Moomins; there was both the international familiarity of her creations, but also their somewhat uniquely Finnish strangeness. And she was a Swedish speaker. Culture, in other words, is multi-layered, and our religious, work and community backgrounds inform it as much as our education, tastes and media. The Celtic revival in Ireland was a precursor to Irish independence. I'm not sure I've seen such a similarly unique Scottishness now, yet I think in many ways this is because Scottish culture is such an integral part of British culture, that unpicking where Arthur Conan Doyle's Scottishness ends and Sherlock Holmes' Englishness begins is an impossible task.

A close "No" vote will almost certainly have ramifications, even if not as cataclysmic as a "Yes" vote - yet I think culture may well be more interesting if the latter takes place. London may have time for Edinburgh in ways that it rarely has for Birmingham or Newcastle or Manchester, but if its in a different country, I think the rump of the UK will begin to feel the loss quite quickly. Culture, after all, can be the bit of a country that stays through generations of political impotence; so given political potency via an independent Scotland I imagine a revived cultural confidence.

Britain will be the loser of course, culturally as well as in other ways, yet you have to wonder how we got in this mess? Cameron, Brown and Blair, our last three Prime Ministers, are all Scots by origin or birth, after all. Did their dual identities mean they were oblivious to what was happening - or was their subservience to a hated economic Thatcherism so great as to deafen out other voices? Scotland isn't without its own incompetences of course: Edinburgh that city of architects and engineers had the massive cost overruns of their parliament, the delayed and devalued implementation of their tram system, and of course, the disaster - far from traditional prudence - of Royal Bank of Scotland and Bank of Scotland's financial overreach. Yet I can't help thinking, just as Europe feels a richer tapestry for the interwoven histories and futures of its languages and peoples which are steadfastly strong - whatever UKIP says - in a Eurozone of free movement of people and a usually shared currency, that our own "union" of states, English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish has - though not without difficulties - allowed for an enrichment. Whatever the results in a fortnight - our joint futures are enhanced by our differences, not as in some parts of the world, reduced by them. Culture - that so often misused word - is undoubtedly at the heart of whatever answer we need to start composing.

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.