Wednesday, February 03, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Wet January

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 16, 2016

This Saddest of Weeks

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

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

Monday, January 11, 2016

Blackstar RIP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 10, 2016

My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

In 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 01, 2016

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Summer Book by Tove Jannson

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 21, 2015

Write About Now

In my writing group everyone has a self-defined role. I'm the one who points out the anachronisms. I do it in contemporary fiction as well. What is truth anyway? Dave Haslam wrote a book about the 70s called "Not ABBA", so annoyed was he at the constant reduction of the seventies to a band that were, yes, very popular, but probably weren't played out that much at discos at the time - not when you had northern soul, disco, funk, power pop, glam etc. Picking up an old tape of singles I'd recorded in 1989, its noticeable that the Stone Roses appear stuck in between 80s remnants such as the Wonderstuff, and that the "baggy" records that are ubiquitous at retro discos are much outnumbered by obscure house and new jack swing tracks that we actually listened to at time. In Booker winning "The Line of Beauty" Alan Hollinghurst's "eighties" is a much praised confection, but how real is it really? The gay man dancing with Mrs. Thatcher, its centrepiece of historical rewriting, is actually not that surprising - she had a penchant for the gallant and flamboyant after all - less convincing is the absence of Hi-NRG music from the sountrack. Film versions of the eighties pull out the cliches, and modern actors and actresses often get their "eighties gear" from central casting as accurate as when the Two Ronnies dressed up as characters in the Regency court.

It is my conviction that fiction's veracity is perhaps one of its highest callings. I have read about the 1832 reform act in my history classes, but I visualise it through the lens of "Middlemarch" - even though that too was a historical novel at the time. It is why historians like looking through contemporary documents. But contemporary documents only tell a partial story - they can't tell you what its like to live through a time - what it feels like to be, say, 18 at Woodstock or at the Sex Pistols, or an 80s rave.

I've always written fiction in the moment. It's part of what I do. Its not a lazy option, as I find having a time and a place fixed can be endlessly helpful in making the story and characters - the made up bit - work for me. But nothing quite ages like the contemporary. At what point did we go from it being ostentatious to give a character a mobile phone, to being silly not to? Reading through old stories for a pamphlet I'm preparing, I found characters sitting at "the end of the non-smoking section" of the bar. I'd forgotten that before the indoor smoking ban, bars that had more than one space, frequently had a smoking and non-smoking section. Maybe such pedantic detail sounds awkward in a story, and a good editor would get rid of such hostages to fortune - but maybe not - maybe the period detail is the important thing.

So I'm being sparing with my editor's pen when going through these stories. I'd forgotten, as well, that the Arndale bus station wasn't a victim of the 1996 IRA bomb, but of the regeneration afterwards which shut off Cannon Street. I regret I wasn't taking photos of the world around me in the nineties, but at least I was writing about the world I lived in. There is a visuality in verbal pictures. I've been struck this year, more than any other, how distant my remembered Manchester is from the one that now exists - the plethora of bars and restaurants - the sense that we don't go out in hope that something will turn up, but use our smart phones as instant gratification machines. Also, I was younger then, I am older now. I am surprised at reading about a life that didn't care too much about when the last bus or train was, but instead went searching for another bar, another band, another something.

Write about now, and you will have something that is more than the story, more than a diary entry - but a version of yourself that you have long forgotten ever existed, and that's whether you're a protagonist in your own life story a la Caulfield or Copperfield, or whether you're the guiding hand. As I look around and find our newly gentrified world less interesting in some ways, I also realise that the stories are still there. I'm glad I've got this snapshot of Manchester, a city I've lived in longer than anywhere else, and which I used to regularly write about. I'll hopefully have a little selection of these old stories ready by the New Year. I hope that they are more than  just nostalgia, as once they were contemporary.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Year in Song - Best Records of 2015

Each year there seems to be more "end of year" best of charts than the last. "Album of the year" has gone to Sufjan Stevens, Kendrick Lamar, Julia Holter, Grimes, Tame Impala and Bjork on this side of the Atlantic. Holter managing to top the usually esoteric Piccadilly Records poll as well as the Uncut best of. High places for New Order, Jamie XX, Father John Misty and Courtney Barnett. Close observers will notice how few of these artists are British, which may be why the obscure Benjamin Clementine topped the Mercury Prize. Also, a quick check across the pond and the top 4 on Pitchfork are all on the list of albums above, with Tame Impala number one. We can honestly say that the Pitchfork-isation of British music is now complete. I suspect this is the inheritance of a generation who voted for "Automatic for the People" and "OK Computer" as the best albums of all time.

How tasteful they all are! I've yet to hear the Bjork album, but wonder if it can ever be as good as "Post" or "Homogenic", respectively her angriest and best records, whilst I picked up Holter based on these recommendations and its not really forced its way on to my record player as much as a true classic surely would. This is also the year I didn't get the Fall album when it was released. "Sub Lingual Tablet" having some great tracks but also some throwaways.

Although I've probably spent more time listening to catalogue music than ever before there's been a clutch of new albums that I've liked for various reasons.

Great name, great band. I'm frankly amazed this album wasn't in everyone's top ten. It's lively, loud, fun and in its own way, pop. Short stabs of guitar led energy, with enough sonic difference to make this much more than just another indie album. I saw them live in a tiny venue at the ever reliable Sounds from the Other City and they were a highlight of the day.

My friend Julie Campbell's second album "Hinterland" was a revelation - literally so, as she'd kept these songs from us until they started filtering out last Christmas. The album is a near perfect selection, with the "singles" "Bunkerpop" and "Groove it Out", complemented by the immense title track - but not a single filler to be found. She's been able to tour the album to ever bigger crowds during the year  and the songs just keep sounding better. It made a fair showing in a number of best of the year lists, and got great reviews, but the fact that it didn't get the ubiquity of Jamie XX and others, probably indicates how little attached to any prevalent zeitgeist it is - sounding perilously modern and quirkily retro.

I saw these ex-Egyptian Hip-hoppers last year at SFTOC but the album slipped out to indifference earlier this year. No idea why, as it seems to fuse that Cocteau Twins/shoegaze classic sound to an inventive electronica far better than most. Maybe the album's a little lightweight in parts, but I keep coming back to it, and its best songs are superb.

Whilst their debut album "Girls Like Us" had a killer title track and managed to translate their just formed live energy into a frenetic suite of pop-punk, "Wild Nights" is a more considered and accomplished affair - but whereas girl bands in the past have sometimes brushed up, added a musical lipgloss and lost some of their brio as they hit the charts, the route Manchester's PINS have taken was a different one. Garage band turned surf-pop, whilst the fun and exuberance remains. In a more sensible world "Wild Nights" would have soundtracked the summer (it soundtracked mine) but of course our summer was one of those touch-and-go ones where you were lucky to manage more than one al fresco drink before the rain came down. Another SFTOC alumni (a pattern emerging here) they are still playing a wide mix of venues, and were a great support for Wire earlier in the year. Still emerging, but still fantastic.

Their 3rd "proper" album, I saw them live in the autumn playing to much larger crowds and teetering on the edge of possible parody as the students and beer boys swelled the audience - yet they were still pretty mesmerising, and the reason is that the songs on this album were as good as the ones we know and love. The tumult of lyrics matches Mark E. Smith at his finest, whilst the taut beats, just a backing tape on stage, fizz out of the speakers in the living room. Despite the contemporary nature of their lyrics in Cameron's Britain, its the oddball tracks like "Tarantula Deadly Cargo" which set them apart. John Lennon once said he wanted his albums to be like newspapers, before coming up with his weakest album, "Some Time in New York City" - Sleaford Mods are like newspapers, but as likely to be the sports pages or the Fortean Times as a Daily Mirror op ed.

John Grant's "Queen of Denmark" became an unexpected pleasure and the songs were strong enough to dominate his excellent live album with the  BBC Phil last year. Second solo album "Pale Green Ghosts" ditched the alt country stylings of Midlake for some more electronica, and was enjoyable, well regarded, but didn't grab me as much. His third album is the most out of kilter record from a semi-major artist all year. No surprise, really, as he's moved to Iceland, announced to the world that he's HIV positive, and is the wonderful sound of a great artist doing whatever he wants. It's strange, unsettling, beautiful, and sonically the year's most fascinating record.

This album came out with every cover a "unique" one. Marketing gimmicks sometimes indicate something to hide, and perhaps this didn't quite have the success of their previous records, but I loved it. Probably my favourite electronic-inclined album of the year with just a great feel all the way through, and full of good songs.

At over 70  minutes its too long, but Janet Jackson's return is also a return to form, working with Jam and Lewis again, it sounds as immaculate as you'd expect - her voice is fantastic and seems such a different instrument than so many of the soul divas we hear nowadays. My favourite Jackson track was always the pillow whispering of "Let's Wait Awhile" and there's still a sense that she understands the dynamics (and the dynamics of the love song) better than most. If it tails off towards the end, there's enough to like in the first three quarters of the album to make it a genuine contender. With her brother gone, and neither Madonna or Prince at their best on recent albums, its good to see one eighties superstar still making a great record.

I don't remember Sleater Kinney being such a darling of mainstream critics when they were around first time, being definitely a cult band even when their mesmerising final album "The Woods" came out. This return perhaps lacked the strangeness of that album but brought the energy of their earlier work to the fore, in a powerful blast of playful, energetic noise. They even got a place on Jools Holland, the UK's own music heritage programme, but like Sleaford Mods, sounded too good for that haven of the middlebrow. Its a great rock record, which in 2015, where such beasts were rare, was reason enough for it to be lauded. 

"Uptown Funk" dominated the year (alongside Taylor Swift - both came out last year however), so perhaps the album was never going to be quite as big a success. Any doubts that Ronson is a magpie rather than originator probably went out the window with "Uptown Funk" itself, but the album is a veritable jukebox. Its also a great fun party record, with that track still likely to be on rotate as long as their are cocktail bars and hen parties. I like the album alot - in a year that mainstream pop became ever more in the model of Max Martin etc. and where a certain timorously thin pop-soul a la Ed Sheeran/Justin Beiber dominated the charts - it was a record that even old duffers like me could get behind.

So that's 10 for now - with some time over Xmas I'm sure I'll maybe add a couple of others I haven't yet got round to listening to or remember one I bought but had forgotten.


Saturday, December 12, 2015

Have an Indie Christmas

I missed last week's "Independent's day" shopping, but there's still time to get some interesting Xmas presents. Yes, you can get that John Lewis coffee maker, that Surface Pro, that True Detective boxset, that hardback cookbook, but lets be honest, they'll all be half price from 26th December and all your friends will also have them. So here are a few "indie" solutions that can make any stocking bulge happily....

Confingo Magazine is now 4 issues into its life, and has a mix of photography, stories and poetry, as well as an artist/author interview, in a lovely perfect bound A5 format. Available from HOME and Magma in Manchester and online, a 2 issue subscription is now only £9.  Order issue 4 before Christmas and it will be specially wrapped.

Anyone who saw Lonelady on tour earlier this year might have remembered Julie Campbell's fetching "BEAT" t-shirt which she wore at a number of gigs, including the Manchester one. Now you can own your own, in various sizes for just £20. There are also some limited edition posters available. A great present for someone as you've surely already got the album (out on Warp) which has featured in most of the year-end "best of" charts.

I attended the last of the year's Other Room events on Wednesday and picked up the very hefty "Out of Everywhere 2" - an anthology of innovative poetry by women which is surely one of the year's most important releases. A follow up to a previous anthology, this one, edited by Emily Critchley features a large number of British innovative women poets, puncturing a scene that has sometimes been too hermetic for its own good. Reality Street have done us great a service with this one.

And a great bookend to this would be "Boooook" a biography of legendary concrete poet Bob Cobbing which came out earlier this year from Occasional Papers.  

Short story collections are great gifts to give as they can be dipped into whereas a novel can be more "Marmite" - two recent ones by Manchester writers are highly recommended. Elizabeth Baines' second collection from Salt, "Used to Be" and H.P. Tinker's "The Girl Who Ate New York" will both be popular gifts (if you can bear to part with them).  Some great anthologies and other books are available from Manchester's Comma Press as well in their Xmas Sale.  As for stocking fillers, Nicholas Royle's Nightjar Press has had a resurgence this year, and loose change will get you single stories in a handy format to keep you out of harm's way whilst the Queen's Speech is on.

Music fans who still have access to a cassette machine could do worse than investigate Sacred Tapes - which releases a fascinating number of "noise" and related releases, again for little more than the price of a latte.

I didn't have too much published myself this year but was pleased to see my poem "In Search of Dubnium" in the lovely "My Dear Watson: the very elements in poetry" which remarkably sees poets tackling science, with one poem for each element in the Periodic Table. Available online from Beautiful Dragons. 
And finally a limited edition that is perfect for those cold spooky nights in. Curious Tales are a collective of writers who like doing something different at this time of year and their latest book (limited edition, natch, once it's gone, it's gone!) is called "Congregaton of Innocents" and channels Shirley Jackson. 

Hopefully that will keep you - and Santa - busy until the New Year. 

Sunday, December 06, 2015

The First Bad Man by Miranda July

Miranda July has written award winning short fiction, and is an actor, performer, director, artist and "The First Bad Man" is her debut novel. In this strange fable, our narrator is Cheryl Glickman, a 43 year old woman who has worked for years at "Open Palm" a not-for-profit that develops self-defence courses for women. She appears to be that member of staff who has been there forever, who appears to run the place, but has been overlooked for management or other senior roles - yet nobody can imagine the place without her. Yet at 43, she lives alone in a spartan apartment where she cuts down on washing up by only ever having one cup, one plate.

When Clee, the difficult teenage daughter of the owners of "Open Palm", the vile Carl and Suzanne, comes to stay with Cheryl it creates a rupture in the ordered, insular, self-obsessed life she has created for herself. Cheryl's narration is highly unreliable, and we never quite get under her skin. She has a fantasy about the ageing lothario on the company board, Phillip, and wherever she goes she is looking for phantom children, who she names as Kubelko Bondy. Even through her own narration she comes across as lonely, caring, vindictive, and envious of the world - someone who has let life pass her by without knowing quite how or why. Clee original stays with another staff member but then moves in with Cheryl. She accepts it, as she accepts everything that her bosses put her way, but she also resents this imposition on her life, in her one bedroom apartment.

Clee is as archetypal a teenager as Zappa's "Valley Girl" and has a shadowy life she keeps from Cheryl. At some point their non-verbal communication ends up with them playing out the scenarios from old VHS tapes created by the women's self defence programme that is "Open Palm's" main "product." These scenes of unexpected violence are described in detail but without much commentary. This odd, abnormal world is always played deadpan. "The First Bad Man" of the title is one of these scenarios. I'm not sure it works as the novel's title, too loaded, perhaps.

At some point we find that Clee is pregnant and the novel steps up a gear, with the difficult pregnancy, birth and aftermath, with a poorly baby, bringing Cheryl and Clee closer together and briefly in love with each other. As she says later in the book, she moves from guardian figure, to mother figure, to lover. Yet never are they genuinely friends - rather these are two lost women who are brought together by that most unexpected thing, a baby that one of them was going to give up for adoption. This sense of loneliness, followed by hope, followed by the conflicting thoughts of what a baby means - how the "mother" is the person who looks after him day in, day out, whatever the absurdity of the family situation. Cheryl is open to love - with Clee, with the ageing Phillip, with baby Jack - but holds it back, is uncertain when it arrives, thinks it is about to be withdrawn. In many ways her character doesn't change - even though she's only 43, she seems much older, stuck in a tiny tableau within the big city.

The novel starts with her going to see a psychiatrist, and these scenes turn out to be pivotal to the little bit of plot there is. The strange psychiatrist's waiting room, where the receptionist - for 3 days a year - is the psychiatrist the rest of the time is an absurdity, I'm reminded of the quack doctor in "30 Rock" for instance. Yet in this waiting room of the trusted psychiatrist the various trysts in the novel are played out, like a contemporary village square.

There are some profound moments in "The First Bad Man", and the book is more absurd than laugh out loud funny, yet I struggled with it. It did feel overlong for the source material, a series of episodes to keep the momentum going, with the insularity of this small group of absurdist characters more like the screenplay for an indie movie than anything else. It certainly feels very zeitgeist-y, and there's even a quote from Lena Dunham on the cover, but whereas it might seem to be in the same territory as A.M. Homes' "This Book Can Save Your Life" it's canvas is more miniaturist, to that book's weaving of an equally small cast into a much larger scenario. Part of the problem for me was that despite being pretty grounded in its world, everything is done ironically. This doesn't feel like a real company, or a real flat, or even a real psychiatrist, and its not just Cheryl's filtered vision. The book was highly recommended to me, and I can see that its strangeness and absurdist vision could be compelling, but I got bored a little too often, found the writing elegant but flat, and the humour was of a very droll kind. Having not read her short stories I can't compare, but it did feel that the material was stretched out, that this kind of world works better in shorter form. Its far from being a bad book, and the central conceit - that love can be unexpected and appear anywhere - is neither sentimentalised or laughed away. A short epilogue - a mistake I think - leaves you with the knowledge that things turn out okay, but it reminded me of a lesser Coen Brothers movie, absurd for absurd's sake, nothing much existing beyond the screen (or in this case the page.) As someone who enjoys surface, (and enjoyed the equally self-contained "Leaving the Atocha Station" for instance), it surprised me how much effort this book took me to read - I think something about the prose style just made me weary. Maybe just one of those "not for me" books.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Today's British Novel is Not Remarkable or Interesting

I had a bit of a find the other day in Oxfam - a whole shelf of old Grantas, including some very early numbers, including the very first issue (albeit a reprint) from 1979.

"It is increasingly a discomforting commonplace that today's British novel is neither remarkable nor remarkably interesting..." begins a strident editorial by Bill Buford (I assume), to introduce an issue entitled "New American Writing." Granta is still with us though Buford has long ago stopped being its editor. An American in England (isn't that always the case?) his energy could be seen to coincide with the energising of the English - British - world novel in English over the next few years. 1979 wasn't perhaps seen at the time as a golden year for fiction. The obscure Odysseus Elytis won the Nobel; Penelope Fitzgerald won the Booker with "Offshore". In retrospect there were some important books published: Calvino's "If on a winter's night a traveller", Angela Carter's "The Bloody Chamber" and Douglas Adams' "Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy" and Norman Mailer's "The Executioner's Song" amongst them. It was also the year of Jeffrey Archer's "Kane and Abel" and Barbara Taylor Bradford's "A Woman of Substance", mega-bestsellers which would perhaps herald the book trade of the next decade as much as "Star Wars" from 1977 had altered the film business.

That first line is written in a kind of literary English that was not uncommon in the books of the time, but feels old fashioned now, too clever by half. The rest of the article shies away from the controversial opening, to become more of an academic essay on the reluctance of British (English) fiction to take on board experimental or international influences.

Granta gives us Joyce Carol Oates, William Gass and Donald Barthelme amongst others in that first issue. The third issue of the magazine is provocatively titled "The End of the English Novel" but then does something quite impressive: it extracts from "Midnight's Children" and "Riddley Walker" and also features Christine Brooke-Rose and Angela Carter. By 1983 and issue 8, "Dirty Realism", we have what might be Granta's finest hour: "Richard Ford, Jayne Anne Phillips, Raymond Carver, Elizabeth Tallent, Tobias Wolff, Bobbie Ann Mason, Frederic Barthelme, Carolyn Forché and others."

I used to pick up, and occasionally buy Granta, but over the year's it seemed to lose some if not all interest in fiction - often having themed issues which non-fiction or reportage or memoir. Looking at the steadily growing strip of Granta's on my shelf, I see its width has increased as the years went on. There have been other signature issues - particularly its Best British Novelists selections every ten years, which have slowly seemed last canon-forming as time has gone on; and a willingness to use that "brand" to showcase Best American or Best Brazilian novelists as well. 

Fiction of course, is ever in crisis, as magazines like N+1 and the White Review have talked about more recently.  In an ever more fragile media age, we've become less adept at tracking those writers that matter, and, indeed, there seem some "big books" that have proven near impossible for their authors to write beyond (e.g. Yann Martel or Arundhati Roy, to name two Booker winners.) Every year another crop of debutantes, and yet it seems some of those themes of that first editorial - that the British novel can be parochial and uninteresting; that we lack an interest in novels from other cultures, or writers who are more experimental; or that we show little appetite for the more inventive American fictions, continues. A literary magazine can only be a snapshot of course, and Granta also became an imprint. The "Best novelists" issues suffer from being extracts, however apt the choices, and there's always been something very partial about Granta's approach to literature (no poetry for instance, little interest in drama), whilst at the same time, its aesthetic and familiarity makes me joyful every time I pick up a second hand issue that I've not already got. I have to say most of the 2ndhand copies seem relatively unread - but that's the fate of the successful literary magazine - as soon as its got a subscriber base, it becomes less able to take risks, and less of an impulse purchase (and at its current bookshelf prize - almost that of a hardback of a trade paperback, it probably never will be.)

However, we're not so keen on literary magazines in the UK as elsewhere in the world, and Granta's longevity and international standing have to be applauded. The row of books isn't quite a history of contemporary literature, but its a useful version of it. Its also a magazine that rarely looks back - so the late nineties, for instance, that rich period that in a few years gave us "American Pastoral", "Fugitive Pieces", "Underworld", "The Poisonwood Bible", "Enduring Love" "Disgrace", "Independence Day", "The God of Small Things," "Girlfriend in a Coma", "Atomised",, "Infinite Jest" and "The Rings of Saturn" amongst others, saw Granta publishing very few of these authors,  and seeming happy with familiar names, and the kind of "serious" subjects that made it less of a fiction magazine, and more of a current affairs one. 

The fatter Granta of the 21st century seemed far more open to new writers, and fiction in general, though as the grand old dame of magazines by this stage, McSweeney's would seem sexier, and other newcomers, most recently The White Review, seem more immediate.  

For the casual punter its always quite hard to get a sensible take on the current state of the letters - looking back at that late 90s list now, I probably didn't realise what a golden age it was at the time - though because I had taken two years off to do a creative writing degree I at least had the time to read these great books as they came out. I wrote an essay for PROP magazine at the tail end of the century which was entitled "As if Ulysses had never been written" and predicted that the big books of the next few years wouldn't be experimental novels, but baggy, societal tales, like Dickens, and with Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen and others I was proven pretty prescient.

The 21st century has seen a lot of interesting writers who maybe haven't necessarily wrote their defining book yet - Nicola Barker, David Mitchell, David Peace, A.L. Kennedy etc. - and indeed, it is one of those midlist writers who perhaps defines the age more than any, with "Wolf Hall" and "Bring up the Bodies" Hilary Mantel made historical fiction the most vital writing of the day.  Going back to that Granta debut editorial the focus on "New American Writing" is as a contrast to the unremarkable British variety, yet it has to be said that the more esoteric strand - Barthelme, Pynchon, Gaddis, Barth, Coover - would be a false one, withering on the vine, at least until Foster Wallace took it some place else; whilst the "making" of Granta's reputation - Rushdie in London, "Dirty Realism" stateside,don't yet get a mention.

If you see a pile of old Grantas gathering dust in the spare bedroom or your local charity shop, do let me know, the more I get, the more interesting the story becomes.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Literature Matters

It may seem that literature matters aren't that important when reading and seeing what happened in Paris on Friday night with so many innocent people murdered and injured; we take pause, we grieve, we remember, we are in shock. Shakespeare & Co., the famous bookshop offered shelter for people on Friday I was reading. We are reminded that the only aberration here is not the Eagles of Death Metal band, the restuarants and bars, the books we read - the cartoons that satirise - but the Kalashnikovs, the suicide belts, and the fanaticism that allows them.

Take pause....and then.... its been a creative week, literature matters, so does art. "Can art change the world?" a debate I attended on Thursday night asked, and stuck to the easy bit, the nice bit - yes it can change an individual's world. What about changing the world for the worse? Art as propaganda? Or where art is deemed inappropriate (the censorship that sees art as having transgressive power?) There's probably a mini-essay to be written on the subject. Not a lot we could cover in an hour and a half at Manchester Art Gallery. New art shows popping up all over this week as well, at Castlefield Gallery, at Home, and elsewhere in the city.

I attended the Northern Lights writers conference yesterday, but will probably save that for a separate blogpost, a good mix of speakers and writers, for its 3rd year at the Waterside in Sale. This coming few weeks there's still plenty of literature happening....

....a few highlights....

Given that I first heard Grevel Lindop and Peter Sansom in the nineties, I guess they could be called "venerable" poets - but they're both reading at a free event at Anthony Burgess foundation on Wednesday 18th.

The last Verbose before Christmas, with writers from the Manchester "spec fic" (speculative fiction) group as headliners is a week on Monday at Fallow Cafe.

Its a busy week that one - Bare Fiction comes to Manchester - the excellent magazine of fiction poetry and plays is launching its new edition here on the following Thursday - its at Apotheca bar in the NQ on the 26th.

The winners of the Manchester poetry and fiction prize will be announced at a Gala at 70 Oxford Road (C*r*e*h*u*e in old money, they're apparently not allowed to use the name) on Friday 27th.I'm pleased to see that Lindsey Holland, who started NW Poets, is deservedly on the poetry shortlist.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

"The Only Preoccupation"

On Friday, I took some time out to get an injection of literary life at the first National Creative Writing Graduate Fair (#NCWGradFair) , organised by Comma Press at MMU. A day dedicated to thinking about both practice and the business of writing, it was a sell out, though interestingly I only recognised three or four people from the local literary scene, maybe because of a sense that the day was concentrating on the novel - though short stories, poetry and non-fiction were all well represented in the workshops and the pitches.

For the day was split into two halves - a keynote speech from Adam Foulds, Booker shortlisted writer for "The Quickening Maze", followed by parallel panel sessions on  a range of subjects; and then in the afternoon, the foyer of the Geoffrey Manton building was given over to a "speed dating" session with agents and publishers, with around twenty literary professionals available to give a couple of 15 minute one-to-ones with the assembled writers.

I enjoyed the day thoroughly, and with such a complex series of sessions in the afternoon, was impressed that it ran to time and that everyone got to see a couple of literary professionals relevant to the interests they had signed up with. Yet I realised that I was still printing off my literary CV and novel synopsis at eleven o'clock the night before, as I was still a bit in recovery from being away the week before, and hadn't been feeling 100%.

I've heard Foulds read before, but he was particularly excellent giving a lecture and answering questions for an hour about the literary life. Like myself he'd studied on an M.A. in the late 90s, getting into UEA to write poetry, but drawn to prose during the course of his masters. He was already someone with a poetry track record of sorts - and I was reminded of when I went for the UEA interview and found that two of the people being interviewed had already had novels published, one of whom I bought from the University bookshop after the interview! The big expansion in creative writing courses was just around the corner. He talked about how it worked well to have access to two very different poetry tutors (Andrew Motion and Denise Riley) but at the same time finding a peer group of fiction writers.

If Foulds had seemed one of those writers who "had it easy" - with that early career Booker shortlisting - the real story is more complex. Although he found an agent, and wrote a novel, neither of those worked out. He kept going through making the work "the only preoccupation," a quote I tweeted as it seemed such an important point, whilst doing low paid factory or similar jobs - anything which wouldn't take up the mental and emotional energy needed to make a book as good as it can be. Foulds was incredibly generous in his honesty about his own background and working methods - he doesn't show his work to anyone, for instance, writes longhand, a few hundred words a day is a good day - and also gave us a bit of a helicopter view of what "literary success" means. The star of his year was a novelist who published one short book, and has now moved to Australia and is a teacher - whilst other writers varied greatly in both the speed of their "success" and the continuation of it. There is no "career" in being a writer, just the work of the current book, and if - when - that is published, then what comes next off the back of it is totally unpredictable.

The panel sessions I attended - "working with agents" and "hear from the editors" were equally interesting. The local writer Sarah Jasmon mentioned how the serendipity of meeting her agent and publisher only worked because her book was ready, whilst hearing from Richard T. Kelly who publishes "creative non fiction", it was good to understand a little more about the industry's trends and how writers, agents and publishers come together when they chime.  

As ever when I meet publishers or agents I realise that although that relationship isn't the be-all and end-all its quite important in negotiating your way to a certain level. Someone once said to me once said that what my writing needed was not an "agent" or other advocate, but a "friend", and I guess that's part of it. Certainly having other writers I can show work to is important, but clearly, in a highly competitive market (there were perhaps a hundred people at the event), the need to have someone on your side is important. The creative writing M.A. or PhD - though there are so many nowadays - remains one way to improve your chances, and Foulds' view that it gave him time to write (as well as some literary peers) strikes me as very similar to my own experience. Where I went wrong I think was once the novel I'd written had not found a home, not knowing what to do next - and the job I got was full time and what with other life issues, I never completed the actual "next book" (though I would write other things that were very different).

Its been a while since I've been able to make the writing "the only preoccupation", but I don't disagree with it - its just when, how, for how long.... a good day, and more questions than answers at the end of it.