Sunday, December 07, 2014

Black Dogs by Ian McEwan

Literary reputations usually rest upon a book or a series of books, with the writer's other works acting as a supporting cast, or, as powers decline, an echoing coda. When that writer is still very active, and popular, as Ian McEwan is, there's a difficulty in wrestling that reputation from its current status. I have long wanted to write a long piece on McEwan, at least partly because he has written books that I love, books that I think are incredibly weak, and books which have both his strengths and weaknesses on equal show.

Yet whereas Martin Amis will forever be judged against the high water mark of "Money" and "London Fields", McEwan's career is an interesting weave, with some disagreement as to what might be his "big book." The very short novels and short stories he published in the seventies brought him much acclaim, but it was the five more political novels of the eighties and early nineties from "Child in Time" culminating in his Booker Prize for "Amsterdam" that cemented his reputation. The third of these, 1992's "Black Dogs" was his second Booker short listing, and I remember at the time how highly regarded he already was.

Reading "Black Dogs" for the first time, two decades later, in some ways it seems a period piece, obsessive about the past, and written in a complex, convoluted "high" style that seems somewhat dated. Yet, it is also instructive: in that some of its tropes are reflected in later novels like his massive selling "Atonement" and "Saturday." The novel centres around a scene that is constantly telegraphed, but delayed until near the end, of a confrontation between two black dogs and a young pregnant woman in the aftermath of the second world war in rural France. The teller of the tale is the son-in-law of June, that woman, and his own prevarications and uncertainties tease the reader in the first exploratory pages of the book.

For Jeremy is a writer who, in making up for the death of his own parents in a car crash when young, has latched onto those of his wife as a project. With June in a nursing home, hovering slowly towards her end, he acts as an unecessary go between between June and Bernard, who have spent most of their life unable to live together, but never quite separating. Regular McEwan readers will know that broken families, estrangements and lost children are central to his work. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if his archetypes simply resurface from novel to novel - so that Bernard, a larger-than-life media-friendly Labour politician could be reincarnated as the elderly poet in "Saturday", or that Jeremy himself is the slightly naive onlooker who reappears in "Enduring Love".

The novel is a series of concentric rings that places the personal story around two momentous events - second world war at one end and the fall of the Berlin wall at the other. Like "Saturday", its alacrity - it came out in 1992, not long after the wall had fallen, becomes a way of using immediate history to the purpose of a grander narrative. If Amis always seems a writer who needs the overhang of larger historical events onto which to write his satires, McEwan goes the other way somewhat, amplifying personal tragedies by virtue of the wider canvas. Had I read "Black Dogs" in 1992 I would have baulked a little at the poshness of it all. However small and personal the narratives, McEwan's characters are usually supping near the top table. This sense of privilege is used here as a way of examining conflicting ideas of the world - can we change the world by social good deeds, such as the welfare state as Bernard believes? Or is it more about personal epiphanies, avoiding compromise as June does? They both begin as Communists, but June leaves the party almost as soon as she's joined, whilst Bernard rescinds his membership after the invasion of Hungary.

Yet there's not too much of this historical backdrop - or certainly McEwan doesn't overplay it. The sense from his work - at least up until "Atonement" - that he doesn't so much write novels as string together disparate scenes to make up a more credible tableau is very much the case with "Black Dogs." Why does Bernard insist that Jeremy takes him to Berlin just after the wall has fallen if not for the fact that McEwan couldn't resist writing a piece of drama-reportage there. The small contretemps that happens there is an absurdity: a piece of show theatre as a Turkish man waving a red flag is almost attacked by a group of young Germans with swastika tattoos, until Bernard's semi-intervention, and the appearance of a young woman who comes out of nowhere to embarass the attackers away. Such vignettes are McEwan's staple, and see his writing at its best, as a heightened sense of immediacy and drama comes into these moments.

If there is an overwhelming meme throughout his work its that sense of dread - and particularly the dread of the upper middle classes for something outside of their control. Like the house invasion in "Saturday" or the tragic accident that opens "Enduring Love", "Black Dogs" has at its heart a moment of potentially fatal violence. On their honeymoon, just after the war, June - newly pregnant - and Bernard get separated by a few hundred feet and in that  moment June becomes confronted by two large black dogs, who bear down on her whilst he's back down the path sketching caterpillars. He is the rationalist, and his hobby is entomology, she is the idealist, who is suddenly confronted with something real and deadly. This scene has been forewarned throughout the book, to some extent the delay has become infuriating, but the scene when it happens is done with his customary power. The sense of everything changing in a moment. Yet the tightrope walk of a McEwan novel is not one of actual despair - at least not for his middle class protagonists - but of existential crisis. By the time Bernard arrives on the scene the black dogs are gone, and its as if they are myth. Later that evening they hear that the black dogs were left by the Nazis, and there have been other sightings, other terrible stories. McEwan plays with this beautifully, so that even though we face the horrors, they are as potent if we believe in them as myth.

Yet to get to this point, we've some considerable scaffolding. My favourite of his novels, "The Innocent" is almost a companion piece - and indeed it came before "Black Dogs." But its style could not be more different. Its a noirish thriller, played very straight, half Graham Greene, half "Casablanca", about an engineer working on secret tunnels in Berlin just before the Berlin wall goes up. For a brief moment as Jeremy and Bernard peer over the Berlin wall we are looking into the space that his previous novel has examined. Yet quickly we go back in time - for June and Bernard are that early generation, survivors of history - that they, as young optimists are given the task of changing. In a typical McEwan moment, Jeremy gives us a flashback to when he meets his wife Jenny, and its after a tour of concentration camps that they make love for the first time. The sense that the political and the personal are intertwined, and that our our insecurities - our very English insecurities - can only be unlocked through grand trauma, remains a continued fascination within his work. In this sense, reading "Black Dogs" two decades on, it seems the quintessential McEwan book in some ways, yet overly conscious of itself. The conversations between different belief systems - the spiritual vs the political - seem fusty, as if ransacked from the minutes of some college debating society; and the contemporary world in which its set, the late 1980s, is almost glossed over as the novel concerns itself with the echoes of incomplete pasts.

In many ways its the kind of book nobody writes anymore - erudite, full of ideas, and earnest - and one kind of regrets that; yet I can also see why - and see how his own work has become more immediate, less indirect in telling a story. The Englishness that Bernard and June represent - even with a backdrop of continental Europe - seem lost somehow. In an age of savage cutbacks, technocrats and market-led capitalism, their kind of Bloomsbury-socialism, is long gone. Its an appealingly literary novel that feels fusty for something written by a living writer just two decades ago, and it makes me wonder where we'll place McEwan when all's said and done, whether one or more of his books will last beyond the contemporary.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

Its easy to forget, with the acclaim given to Hilary Mantel's "Cromwell" novels, that the British historical novel has long attempted to do more than just tell a story from the past, but to inhabit it. I've been meaning to read Penelope Fitzgerald for a while, and picking up her award-winning final novel, "The Blue Flower", today, I uncharacteristically sat down and read it in one sitting. This 1995 novel takes as its subject the early life of the German philosopher-poet "Novalis." Born Fritz Von Hardenberg, to a branch of the German nobility, Fritz is coming of age in a world that is in changing frantically. The French Revolution has taken place, and the old certainties of his class are no more - yet at the same time, young, educated men such as himself are looking askance at the old philosophies and trying to rethink the world anew.

The novel begins with him taking a young doctor friend, from Jena, where he has been studying, to his family home, which is in the midst of the thrice yearly wash day. There's a comic element to this opening scene, as we're introduced to Fritz's complex family. His father is a harsh, distant, puritan; his mother - on her way to having eleven children - a timid if fecund creature, fearful of leaving the house. They have an "angel", the Bernhard, a younger son who has the precosity of Stevie the baby from "Family Guy", and who acts as some kind of comic foil in the novel. The sensible sister, and the plodding middle child, Erasmus, are the most fully drawn of the family tableau. Fritz is both an oddity - unable to follow the path set out for him as an elder son - and yet precious nonetheless. His sense of being to the manor born, has transmogrified into him being feted for intellectual capacity, his quick brain, and his unique way of thinking. For his family - rich in land and history, but poor in actual money - his job is to get a well paid sinecure (the nobility are limited as to what work they can do themselves) and marry well. The young poet - student of Schiller, acquaintance of Goethe, friend of Schlegel - is given a job managing the region's salt mines.

Although there's always a sense of wry comedy about "The Blue Flower", we inhabit a world that is wracked with seriousness. The protocols of the time are strictly adhered to in a highly stratified society - yet one which, seen here from the inside, we only get a sense of how chaotic it is; how close to collapse as part of a rotten ancien regime. Of course, the German/Prussian estates are keeping an eye on what is happening in revolutionary France, but this is very much offstage. Fritz is more than just a proto-romantic, he brims with an optimism that his life will not repay.

Fitzgerald's novel, after a few fragmented opening scenes that have a slightly meta- quality to them, soon settles down into a more faithful tale of Fritz being apprenticed to learn his trade, and through this meets the non-aristocratic Sophie, who he falls in love with within the first fifteen minutes of seeing her. The problem is: not only is Sophie not from his class, but she is only twelve years old. This strangely (and thankfully) chaste courtship is the centre of Fitzgerald's novel. She gives us an unfinished fragment of Fritz's - a dreamlike fairytale of a man dreaming about "the Blue Flower." It is the essence of a romantic imagination; this unobtainable essence - and Sophie is a living version of this. Sidestepping her age and her innocence, Fritz's love for her is seen as somehow at one with his vision of romantic purity. But bear in mind this is a novel written in the 1990s - so that though we inhabit this strangely baroque Germany of the late 1790s, and believably so, we have to be aware of a writerly knowingness: that the story of Fritz and Sophie becomes an imagined version of his philosophy and poetry, that was published mostly after his own early death. The romantic cliche begins here in other words.

Fritz's world is drawn with aplomb; like Mantel's Tudor England; Fitzgerald's Germany hums with sounds and smells, and feels just as precarious a time: here illness and the creaking apparatus of the ancien regime are being "thought" out of existence by new medical techniques and new philosophies, yet the brute reality is that the medicine is still rudimentary, and the philosophy is idealistic and unproven. Offstage the early revolutionaries in France have been replaced by the tyrant Robespierre, who himself will be replaced by Napoleon. Fritz's father refuses to read the papers until France has come to its senses.

The book has had a strong posthumous reputation - a well-thought of biography of Fitzgerald appeared last year, the novel won awards when it was published, but it was her last book written in her late seventies. Did it come out of a lifelong obsession with subject or something more prosaic? I'm not sure. It seems an obscure topic - German romanticism - until you realise that so much of English writing was influenced by German archetypes, at least until the middle of the 20th century. In some ways, if Mantel was writing about the birth of protestant England, Fitzgerald is here hoping to rediscover the German romantics. Nazi Germany and two world wars have snuffed out - at least in Britain - the idea of a humane German sensibility - yet its there in "Howard's End" or "The Good Soldier" or even "The Wasteland" and early Nabakov. Like Adam Fould's "The Quickening Maze" a deep engagement with a tiny artistic moment gives the writer an opportunity to explore the ideas of that time both obliquely and in full view.

Yet I'm not entirely convinced, exquisite as the prose is, and as powerful as the book is at evoking a time and a place. By the time the fading Sophie is being treated for her consumption, the novel has become about its particularity, a tragic biography. It stops with the tragedy, avoiding the rest of Novalis's life. In this sense, the book seems more concerned with the formation of his romantic sensibility than being a biographical reworking. At first I felt lost in the book, knowing little of the ideas or history of the time and place, but though Fitzgerald never over explains, the book - though it feels heavily researched - is very effective in how it shares it secrets so I never felt that I had to run to Wikipedia for explanations. Yet at the same time, I finished the novel, not quite as fascinated in the subject as the author appears to be. Like Andrew Miller's "Pure" set just a few years before, we have a historical satire that is perfectly formed for its time and its place, but as enjoyable a read as it was - and like I said, I read it in a single sitting - I wasn't entirely sure why I was spending my time at this particular place and time. Whereas contemporary novels become historical novels over time; historical novels like "The Blue Flower" feel somewhat caught in their own "moment", an object to admire in a museum rather than something that lives and breathes.

Perhaps its enough to bring to life a historical figure - yet the strangeness of his life - that courtship with someone who even at the time was seen as too young to be "betrothed" to him is troublesome from a modern sensibility. Without knowing his work I can't really comment on his writing beyond that quoted in the text. Fictional biographies however "imagined" remain constrained by the historical fact. The book feels like a miniature, beautifully carved, but overly precious. The preciousness suits the subject of course - I'm reminded of Bruce Chatwin's "Utz" or even Bassani's "The Heron". These are books revelling in a privileged class or character, yet not unaware of the crumbling empire beneath.The "point" of historical fiction, beyond the obvious, and done as well as this, is surely to inhabit a moment, to take you back to a time and a place. A writer as precise as Fitzgerald clearly wants us to inhabit this place of early romanticism - rather than right a treatise on it, she gives us a novel set firmly at the moment of revelation. "The Blue Flower" is an elusive idea; but so is the romantic ideal. It is a depressed Wordsworth deep in thought turning a corner on a mountain path and seeing a view of transcendental beauty. This world, this Germany is as alien as a lunar landscape, and there is something fantastical about how she describes the earlier scenes. In this world as well, though it ruled by men, they are often hopeless, whilst the women, powerless as they might be, are the practical ones. In the vast cast of this small novel it is the sisters - Fritz's and Sophie's who take on the burden - or the spurned woman, the niece of his benefactor, who Fritz initially reads "The Blue Flower" to before finding his affections taken by Sophie. It is perhaps this tapping into real familial despairs and sacrifice, rather than the wider narrative, that gives this short novel its moral heft.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Travelling Broadens the Mind but Narrows the Space

I have just got back from a week in wonderful Barcelona. Two weeks before I was in Munich, and I've managed to get to Amsterdam, Brussels, London (twice), Milan and Bordeaux since the start of September, all with work. Its been hectic, hard work, effective, fun, exhausting... and I find myself contemplating "how can I live here?" "should I learn French/Spanish/Catalan?" and "lets come back on holiday next time" and again, and again.

It's why I like returning to places I've been before at least - that they are not just one off memories - sometimes reduced from a sense of place to a series of interchangeable images of airports, conference centres and hotels. "The Grand Tour" that you find in "Portrait of a Lady", "Daniel Deronda", "Tender is the Night", "The Good Soldier"  - even "Mr. Norris Changes Trains" - makes me equate this European movement with literature, with art, and rightly so - and even if I know little about a history of the place I might know something of its literature. Outside of the "Airport novel" (a genre that doesn't seem to exist anymore - perhaps the cheap flights of Ryanair and Easyjet have killed it off) you don't seem to get that much of this sense of (European) place in contemporary fiction. One of the reasons is that contemporary characters rarely have the predefined roles that previous characters do. There's an even more overt internationalisation as well where hyphenate authors see themselves jetsetting between place - Seoul to New York, rather than Paris to Brussels.

So though I'm writing something about place and movement - after all, the last few years have given be plenty of places to set my work, I've come back from this latest stint puzzled and bemused - I think the space I've allowed myself to write has narrowed a little too much. Its become the "airport lounge" itself. Its what I wrote about in my poem "Impressions between Places" in Bare Fiction magazine, and its the world described in the very funny Venice part of Geoff Dyer's "Jeff In Venice, Death in Varanesi" where, with the crowds at the Venice bienalle, him and others move this way and that on a rumour of risotto being served to offset all the booze.

I'm surprised someone hasn't written more about this - a kind of "literature for airports" to steal from Brian Eno - its our postmodern place after all; the mega-airport as the one late 20th century building style of note: yet such is the nature of these places, these Schiphols, these Charles de Gaulles, that they will never be preserved like old railway stations, but ever shifting spaces, like something out of Minecraft. They are Ballardian of course, and yet we lack a Ballard now to describe the post 9/11 version with our shoes being removed, our disorientating funnelling through security with transparent bags with lotions and medicines on show, our printed boarding passes and digital check ins.

So, with the Autumn tour completed successfully, I look forward to a month of other chimeras - the cheery facade of contemporary Christmas capitalism which is surely as relentless as thing as the airport flow.

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 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 

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.