Sunday, July 20, 2014

This Week in Manchester

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Writer in a Political World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Who needs an International Festival anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Writing without Feedback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 04, 2014

Poetry and/or Prose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Tove Jansson

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 13, 2014

Top Music Books

Jarvis Cocker has written a typically diverse and fascinating list of his favourite music books for the Guardian. He knows of what he speaks, being a roving editor for Faber as well. Cocker's own best work is often those songs which tell a story - we were dancing/listening to "Underwear" on a friend's iPhone in a hotel room in Tallinn last night coincidentally!

Anyway, I may not be a Faber editor or have written "Common People" but I do have a bit of love for music books - so here's an alternate list.

1. The Beatles Forever - Nicholas Schaeffner

I was a Beatles obsessive in my early teens, though probably as interested in reading about them as listening to them. I guess it was the start of a wider interest in a pop cultural framework - reading about the Manson cult's obsession with "The White Album" - watching "Rosemary's Baby".... I picked up this book from a bookshop in Bournemouth when on holiday with my family. Its brilliant, but a bit odd. The author is an American whose life was changed by hearing the Beatles - so the familiar story is shortcutted, his Beatles begins in 1964 and is as much about Beatles tribute records and Beatles memorabilia as the music. Somehow this helps tell the story - its also got fantastic photos. I first heard about the "butcher" cover here (and saw a picture of it.) He also continues through their solo years. The story is told better elsewhere, but he's got a lively style and I obsessed over this book for a long time. Well worth hunting down.

2. Wrong Movements - Mike King

I'm a massive Robert Wyatt fan, and with an official biog due this year, its worth mentioning this fabulous - and quite rare - book that came out a few years ago. Its a superior clippings job - telling Wyatt's story through all available sources.  A great book with a good discography (which in the days before Wikipedia was essential.)

3. Head On - Julian Cope

Julian Cope has written quite a few esoteric books now, but this was his first and the best. A rollercoaster autobiography - it benefits both from his being a decent writer, and the iconic nature of his story - from ambitious but unfocussed suburbanite, to off kilter singer in the Teardrop Explodes, to unexpected pop stardom, before imploding under too many drugs. A classic story.

4. Psychotic Reactions - Lester Bangs

Predictable, but none the worse for all that - this collection of posthumous journalism by the best rock writer of all time is something you can pick up time and again. His pieces on Kraftwerk, "Metal Machine Music", Grand Funk Railroad and others are pretty legendary, and he was played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the awesome "Almost Famous."

5. Crass Lyrics

Maybe I've imagined this one as I can't find a link on Google, but I've certainly got a copy of the complete lyrics of anarcho punk band Crass. They were always so much more than noise and this lovely collection does them every bit as much justice as the Patti Smith or Paul McCartney complete lyrics. Given how important their lyrics were politically its a powerful read in its own right .

6. Nowhere to Run - Gerri Hershey

A classic, but vital regardless, this is the history of soul music. A great great story told brilliantly.
I could have filled this list with classics by Griel Marcus, Jon Savage and others, but this slightly lesser known history is exemplary.

7. Touch & Go

There have been a few "collected fanzine" collections, but this beautifully reproduced recreation of "Touch & Go" a magazine and record label synonymous with U.S. hardcore is particularly good. You get to see the evolution of a movement - the early issues are mostly reviewing UK punk and new wave, but at some point the US hardcore scene coalesces, and its around this magazine that it coalesces. As a somewhat sardonic zine, its also funny - so much more than a period piece.

8. Roxy Music - Johnny Rogan

Before he wrote his infamous Morrissey and Marr book, Rogan looked at band rivalry through the lens of art rock legends Roxy Music. When this book came out it was quite hard to find out the full story of their remarkable career - and particularly the strange solo excursions of Eno, Manzanera et al. A very well researched little paperback I'm amazed its not been reissued, but worth unearthing if you can find it.

9. In Session Tonight - Ken Garner 

This wonderful piece of scholarship tells the full story of the Peel sessions - and annotates them all. It even has a CD with it. But its mostly just a great telling of this alternate history that is the Peel session.

10. The Dirt - Motley Crue

Most of my favourite music books are about artists I love, but this is a favourite for other reasons. It tells the mad uncensored story of Motley Crue, from their own mouths. If you ever wanted to know how depraved rock music can get, and how lacking in self awareness this is the book. It really dishes "the dirt" but because they are telling their own story its got a searing honesty that is part comedy, part tragedy. Hasn't made me want to listen to their music, but great fun to read.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

A Good Poet Has Fallow Years

I'm from a farming background; my grandparents being tenant farmers in the Midlands. A good farmer knows that you sometimes have to leave a field to recuperate, and have a "fallow" period. I lived for a number of years in "Fallowfield" in Manchester and never fail to smile at the name; especially given how urban and built-up this student-inhabited part of the city is. Most of the south Manchester suburbs used to be fields, but I'm not sure if "Fallowfield" was some kind of joke or whether there was a farmer Fallow.

Poetry in 2014 seems anything but fallow. Few are the writers who scrimp away their words these days. From our Laureate down to university undergraduates, overproduction is now the norm. I admire poets who seem to write verse every day, especially when they're not too precious about it. Did Eliot or Larkin really leave so little? Some of the "collected works" that you see nowadays are massive - long lives, perhaps, but perhaps also, unedited lives.

I seem to be in a bit of a fallow period myself. I'd been putting together a poetry collection (still am, kind of) wondering where it might find a home, but it was probably spending more time on fiction that has been the real reason for my falling off in productivity. Its not the first time.  I've had a good few gaps where I seem to have given up on poetry, or at least, poetry has given up on me. Sometimes its lack of a subject, but also, I think, I'm not so sure what I want to write at the moment.

So, when you're not writing poetry it becomes hard to define yourself as a poet - particularly in Facebook conversations where everyone is so energetic all the time - reviewing this book, producing this pamphlet, doing this reading. Well, I'm reading next Saturday between 3-4pm in St. Anne's square at the revitalised Manchester independent book market. I'll be reading new poems, but given what I've just said, they won't be that new.

In the meantime, "one I prepared earlier" which was published in "Bare Fiction" earlier this year is now on their website. "Impressions between places" was initially scribbled where you'd imagine, in Schiphol airport, waiting for a plane. I should probably see if KLM were interested in a sponsorship deal!

In the week I will feast on other people's genius, as the Other Room (this Wednesday), where some of my favourite artists (poet seems the wrong word for Leanne at least), Leanne  Bridgewater, Allan Fisher and Agnes Lehoczky will be reading.  I can guarantee it will be more skilful than England v. Ecuador. 

The next month of course will see any poetry readings competing with the World Cup schedule, though basically the crossover of football fans/poetry fans is pretty small from my experience. But as I'm one of that small number, I'll be having to prioritise if there are any clashes.

Finally, I  was going to write a blog post about the much-reported "banning" of "Of Mice and Men" in Michael Gove's new curriculum, but so much hot air has been spilt on the issue, that I'm not sure I want to add to it. I'm not a teacher, nor have any teenagers of my acquaintance about to take GCSE English, and really, they're the only points of view that really matter. For what its worth, we read Steinbeck's "The Pearl" pre-O-level and it put me off for life; but my love of the Metaphysicals, who we did study, I doubt was particularly shared by the 99% of my class who didn't want to grow up and be writers. We need a canon, for sure, but we also need an audience, and if that starts in a different place than where I started, then so be it.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Short Trip to London

I had just over twenty four hours in London. Seems a bit of a waste of an £80 train ticket in some ways, but its nice as well to go down for a reason, pack a bit of activity in, and come back home to the washing up...

I sometimes think London is my Narnia, I've never really lived there (a brief year in Croydon in the 90s), yet have always run there or escaped there, as a place where I belong. But like Narnia its a place where I can't ever stay; there's always the familiar lamp post in the forest, and the exit back through the wardrobe to wherever it is I've come from.

A lot of talk this week about London bucking the national trend and not voting UKIP along with the rest of the country. I can't help thinking that a place that has its own government, its own figurehead of fun, and therefore its own counterbalance to national politics might have no need for another one; besides the complaint about politics being London-centric and a metropolitan elite, means that we're talking about the capital with a mix of anger and envy.

I think the anger and envy comes through when you go down these days. Not just the £80 fare, on a three quarter empty train, but that when you get there, flung into the maelstrom of this busiest of cities, you can't help but be impressed by the transport, at least since the Olympics, and at least compared with the rest of the country. As well as the Tube and trains, with you never having to wait more than a couple of minutes, there's the buses with their bus stop displays and their regular announcements at stops. If London can do this - and have a joined up service that means you can get from any one place to another without buying a myriad of tickets - then surely it should be possible elsewhere?

And that meant that even though the gig was at Café Oto in Dalston, an inner north-east suburb I've never been to, I never had the same qualms I might have about going to and from a gig anywhere outside the centre of Manchester. Or, when we get there, finding an excellent Turkish restaurant on Dalston high street.  

There's never any impediment to spending money in London, of course, so no wonder the economy booms at the expense of the rest of the country. Still, it was gratifying to see a sellout at an experimental noise trios performance even if one of the three is Sonic Youth legend Thurston Moore. Playing alongside drummer Alex Neilson and bassist John Edwards, there was standing room only at the back, as we jostled to find a good view of the stage as the three came on to do the first of two excellent sets of improvisational music. In many ways this is as far from rock music as it gets. Its the impossible sounds that Edwards gets out of his bass that dominate, with Moore's guitar as much about texture as lead, and with Neilson's rhythm-denying drumming creating a strangely powerful thread on which to hang their improvisations. If it occasionally slipped into passages that lacked sonic definition, generally they worked impressively together, and the sound - like the Magic Band playing with Ornette Coleman - was as equally likely to surprise and astonish. Watching the three musicians take it out on their instruments was in itself mesmerising, yet whilst ignoring anything as mainstream as melody or rhythm, they somehow compensated with an often brutal, occasionally beautiful dynamic which I can honestly say sounded like nothing I've ever heard. During the break we spilled out of the hot venue onto the pavement - Dalston definitely approaching peak beard at a gig like this - and stood just a few feet from the musicians who passed the time with the London noise crowd. I finished the evening at a quiet cocktail bar in Islington.

I'd popped into the comics exhibition at the British Library on the Friday after getting off my train - not perhaps the most coherent of their shows, it did, as ever, showcase things I'd never seen or heard of. Interesting that "comics" or "cartoons" have such a long history of satirical opposition; and also that they have been so often - but especially in the eighties and nineties - been a radical or subversive medium. I don't remember "Crisis", which seemed an incredibly interesting magazine, and was surprised to see depite a few references to Viz, no mention of the iconoclastic Oink! Inevitably, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Dave Mckean, Jamie Hewlett and others dominate - after all they're among the leading cultural creators of the last thirty years - and it was fascinating to see some typed out "scripts" for "V for Vendetta" for instance. I did ponder over the final room where the exhibition designers seem to have let form over content dominate a little - with some odd displays, amongst an endless number of V for Vendetta masked dummies, and, puzzlingly, a nod to Alestair Crowley because of his influence on the work of certain comic writers, "some of whom were also magicians."  The British Library does this kind of thing well, but occasionally gets caught up in it own collection, I think.

Saturday saw me scanning Time Out for exhibitions. Checking the Tate website on my phone meant that I ended up going to the wrong Tate for the Richard Hamilton exhibition (their insistence on a single "Tate Website" means that you get well confused where things are) which was having a final weekend at Tate Modern. No mind, we ended up looking round the free exhibition at Tate Britain, which included a "through the decades" look at British art. Its collection is astonishing of course, and there were a couple of my favourite Jacob Epstein's as well as one I'd not seen before; as well as much more modern stuff. The more recent acquisitions felt weak, derivative and somewhat random compared to what had come before, and going backwards through time, it felt like the fifties and sixties was the high water mark for British art.

Late lunch at Wahaca, the Mexican street food restaurants that might be enough to make me move to London, regardless of anything else, and then the train back to Manchester - with, inevitably, a 45 minute delay because of problems with the overhead power lines.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Submissions open for Issue 2 of Confingo

Met the editor of Confingo Magazine, for a drink last night, and he reminded me that issue 2 of his handsome looking new magazine is now available for submissions, and you can buy it online or currently in the Cornerhouse in Manchester. Mostly, new fiction, but with a few poems, and some arresting photography, it will come out twice a year. A cutprice PDF copy is now also available. Subscribe, submit.

In other news, the St. Ann's Book Market, one of the highlights of Manchester's literary calendar is back, and for the first time, in a weather-proof tent as part of the city's spring independent markets programme. I will be reading some poetry there again on Saturday 7th June between 3 and 4pm. Lots of good and varied readers from the NW and beyond, with the host with the most, Gerry Potter, acting once again as Master of Ceremonies.

There's a great playlist of past performances on YouTube here. But more than just readings you get a chance to browse a range of book stalls run by independent publishers, always an eclectic mix of the kind of books and magazines you can't always find in the shops or even online. The book market runs all that weekend.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Rewatching "Star Wars"

That "Star Wars" inspired a radio series called "I've never seen Star Wars" indicates that it is one of the cultural phenomenon which is expected to be near ubiquitous. Yet, there's another way to think about the film: that I've never really seen "StarWars." What I mean by this is that for those of us who were kids when the film came out and queued to see it at one of our provincial cinemas, uncomprehending parents in attendance, its almost impossible to think of "Star Wars" as just a film - without all the other stuff around it: the sequels; the prequels; the Star Wars Universe; LEGO Star Wars; the memorabilia etc. etc.

So when I saw "Star Wars" was on television on Sunday night (albeit under its "new" name "Episode IV: A New Hope") I watched it, not just as a film, but as the place where the franchise started, before all that other stuff. Ironically, of all the "Star Wars" movies its probably the one I've seen all the way through the least times. "Empire Strike Backs" I caught last year; "Return of the Jedi" I seemed to see every time it came on television; whilst the prequels I've somehow caught part of whenever I've had a nephew in the neighbourhood. Yet its probably a decade or more since I last saw "Star Wars" and I'm not even sure I'd ever seen the remastered versions - I'm pretty sure this one was one of those - there were a few bits I just didn't remember, unnecessary scenes mainly.

The film starts in familiar fashion, with that brilliant prologue, as the titles disappear into the screen - has ever a film been so recognisable through its typography? For this is a space movie set in the past - a future past, or past future. Before cyberpunk or steampunk there was "Star Wars" odd melding of nostalgia with technology. What surprised me was how little dialogue is in the first half hour of the film, and how little actors feature. For the first half hour or so we have stormtroopers, droids, spaceships, and various Muppet-like inhabitants of sandy Tatooine, with just a few seconds of Princess Leia, and then a few sparse scenes with Luke and his aunt and uncle. The start must have seemed strange in the extreme to those audiences in 1977, yet we are immediately into a piece of mythic storytelling - we have arrived mid-story - not just in the "Episode IV" but in the middle of an escape flight. Darth Vader's arrival on Leia's ship is an interruption, and she has the wherewithal to send her droids to finish her mission. For Leia is searching for Obi Wan Kenobi "the last" Jedi, who she feels will be able to do something with the plans of the Empire's new battle station, the ominous planet-sized Death Star.

The first words are from the camp hospitality robot C3P0, "We're doomed..." he says echoing Dad's Army - and one notices how many of the accents are English. The Empire's war council are dressed like the Nazi high command but speak in RP. There's some great storytelling in this first "Star Wars" movie. Little touches like the pod being released having no human life forms on it, gives a bit more time to R2D2 and C3P0. Yet the look of the film, nearly forty years on, is still impressive. There's a darkness about the interiors that is classic spaceship décor - not so different than Lucas's debut film THX-1138 or other 70s SF. It did for British TV SF like "Dr. Who". These were believable spaceships, live action monsters, rather than men in monster suits (though Chewbacca carries on that tradition), and, most impressive of all - the light sabres are still the coolest looking weapon you could ever have.

The cinematography throughout is great, but its also got that slow, clipped storytelling of so many great seventies movies, where scenes snap into the next one, yet there's a seamlessness to it that makes use of the big screen. TV this isn't. Part of the grandeur is in the detail. The monsters are still believable, but so are the human stars. Cleanshaven Luke and Han seem less dated than most heroes of that period, even if the first looks like a Lief Garrett at times. Its strange that Mark Hammill wasn't ever a bigger star: the camera loves him at times.

Part of this power is the operatic nature of the story, where John Williams' music comes into its own. There's a lovely bit, I noticed, when we first see Luke, not a big entrance, but just helping his uncle buy a couple of droids at the market, and there's the basic "Star Wars" theme played over the top, not the fully orchestrated one, but just the theme, indicating the appearance of someone special. Similarly, "the Force", that strange magical power that gives the Jedi its power is introduced so subtley as you hardly notice. We see Luke fighting with a training robot, and Han Solo ridicules the idea of such a thing. Yet if the film really works on a human level its because this "band of brothers/sisters" comes together to have an unbreakable bond. I remember the somewhat "will they? won't they?" between Luke and Leia, but its pretty chaste even here - whereas Han's libido is larger than life.

"Star Wars" gets by on big emotions, and big action scenes, but they are ably handled. Even slightly creaky machinations, such as the scenes when they are inside the "Death Star" are handled adeptly. I wondered why Obi Wan Kenobi says that if he is beaten he will come back stronger, and then he waits to let Luke see him beaten by Darth Vader. It is the passing on of the baton - this is their destiny.

Aware that their ship is bugged they nonetheless go on to the rebel base for a final showdown, luring the Death Star to them, having seen it already destroy one planet. This death or glory part of the story is exciting but feels a little overdone now - we've seen so many space flight movies with acts of derring do. Mind you, isn't the dropping of the bombs on the Death Star an echo of the Dambusters? Darth Vader lives to fight another day, but his character is hardly drawn here: yet its quite powerful when he first appears, not speaking but breathing raspily. We'll have to wait another five films before we see how Vader becomes Vader. It was better I think not to know.

Most of all, I was struck by the film being a standalone one. In the 70s sequels were just second rate cash ins, usually done at low cost and often without the cast of the original, trading on the name - but this film, though it already has a sense of its own mythical universe was stand alone for a few years. Lucas was waiting for technology to catch up, to enable the second and third films to take leaps forward in their spectacle, if not necessarily in their content. "Empire Strikes Back" is generally seen as the best of the bunch, though its always suffered because of being bookended by the films before and after. "Star Wars" I was remembered used to exist on its own without the universe that grew inevitably around its massive success. Its a wonderful movie.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Nostalgia, Memory and Writing

I was at "Sounds from the Other City", the multi-venue Salford music festival yesterday, which is ten years old. At Islington Mill at the end of the evening there was a DJ set from ten years ago. Music is such a reminder of a time; though given that I was 37 at that time, and probably less involved in music than I've ever been, it felt like I was trespassing on someone else's memories. Yet the "noughties" hasn't got the same sense of itself than earlier decades - perhaps it will come, but the "forever now" of the internet means that even the music of a particular time doesn't necessarily linger in that decade, like in the past. Yet its strange to think that bands like LCD Soundsystem or MGMT can now be seen as nostalgic.

Yet if music always has a resonance, I wonder about poetry. What are the poems that have made an impact since 2000 - even amongst the cognoscenti? I can remember, outside of poet-friends, perhaps half a dozen. A couple of prize winners, Helen Dunmore's The Malarkey, Don Paterson's Love Poem for Natalie Beridze, the best poems from acclaimed books, Daljit Nagra's Kabba Questions the Ontology of Representation, the catch 22 for "black" writers or Luke Kennard's The Murderer then there's Mel Nicholls' unbeatable piece of Flarf, I Google Myself, or Tom Jenks' 99 Names for Small Dogs.  Also, there have been some stunning books/sequences such as Chris McCabe's Shad Thames, Broken Wharf, George Szirtes' The Burning of the Books or C.D.Wright's One Big Self. Perhaps the most memorable phrase of 21st century is also one of its least lyrical, Andrew Motion's line about the Gulf war, as being about "elections, money, oil and dad".  I'd be interested to know what other "lines" or "poems" we think might last, for surely poetry has to be at least partly about the quotable idea, else its no more use than an old headline.

Going to Bury for this year's Text Festival - the fourth to take place in this brave Greater Manchester outpost - you're greeted by a neon sign at the station "Poetry has been Bury Bury Good to Me" - which like Lemn Sissay's work in Manchester has the advantage of placing poetry in a public space. Silliman, who attended again this year, highlights the international power of language which the Text festival investigates. Yet its hard to know how much notice Bury took - on reaching the gallery there are protestors outside as coalition cuts have led to the library being scaled back. The result, an empty space that is a new "sculpture gallery" that strips back the beautiful room to its essence, will, I think become a loved triumph over time - yet art/culture have their work cut out when they are placed against being able to pick up a thriller from the local library or borrow some children's books.

It is a nice irony that the opening exhibition of "sculpture" is purely made up of words. Laurence Weiner's work has been exhibited in Bury before, and there's a certain contradiction to opening up a sculpture space with what most people wouldn't consider sculptural. Yet it also makes sense, for here the floor is empty - bar a couple of temporary pieces. In this, the paradox of language, that it makes so much happen yet doesn't take up physical room, unlike so much else in the world. Ironically, this weekend saw the hollowness of Morrison's supermarket projecting their "cheap bread offer" on the Angel of the North. Its a crass gesture, but you could possibly argue that Anthony Gormley got there before himself with that empty gesture of contemporary ennui that was his fourth plinth piece "One and Other." Crass exploitation of art is nothing new. The art will survive, however many parodies of the Mona Lisa we've seen. These Weiner pieces do seem to overemphasise our reverence for a certain American conceptualism and this show seems less vital than, say, the current Nauman exhibition in Preston. But in some ways it acts as a frame in which the gallery's other works can be more easily hung. language "polari" in the basement, and "The Language of Lists" as the main show.
I enjoyed the redundant typewriters of the "Typing Pool" which enables anyone to participate on these obsolete machines (see my piece above) and the exhibition acts as an opening onto this year's other shows.

One of the strengths of the Text Festival is its sense of continuation, both in terms of existing traditions that embraces US conceptualism and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, Bob Cobbing's energetic UK cottage industry around "concrete" poetry, and more contemporary movements at the edges of current artistic/literary practice. A debate on Saturday afternoon saw Canadian Derek Beaulieu, another friend of the festival, riff on poetry's invisibility. A poem was projected onto a large building in Canada and it was ignored, just as smaller works are ignored - something about poetry (unlike Morrison's advertisements) creating nothing but indifference. In some way's this is poetry's triumph - that it exists as almost an offcuts tray of language, not at its centre. Yet those of us involved with it see something of interest in that contradiction. The text festival's ability to uncover hidden language and hidden meaning puts an unusually strong light on the  work. Perhaps I don't respond to the Weiner only because I prefer my writing to be small, hidden away, read not shared. In Tony Lopez's book about the text festivals, Beaulieu talks about sending an empty box to Bury via UPS, but them refusing to let him do so unless he put something of value (in this case a blank piece of paper valued at 3 cents) in the box. Language's ubiquity makes its value hard to measure it seems.

The afternoon saw a series of readings from Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, (who published my first collection "Extracts from Levona"), which had its genesis at a previous festival. I hadn't realised that the humble name came from a desire to write or publish "kitchen sink poetry" (interestingly modest aims compared with the axe wielding Bloodaxe for instance!) Yet the list has grown so that it includes, yes, the confessional work of the originator of that name, Richard Barrett, as well as hand on heart Bobby Parker, but also finds room for Anglo-Welsh poet, Rhys Trimble, the collage/found pieces of Anne Matthews and Tom Jenks, and variously compelling work by Tim Allen, Lucy Harvest Clarke and Debbie Walsh.

I wasn't able to stay for the evening's show from conceptual poet Caroline Bergvall or return for the Sunday events as I was going to "Sounds from the Other City." Before my immersion in the sounds of 2004, I caught a number of interesting acts, the febrile Young British Artists who started slow in a mid-afternoon slot but were on fire by the end, echoing Husker Du or At the Drive In; melodic power pop from Happyness, who I assumed were from Canada, but were actually from South London; the Kate Bush/Florence and the Machine channelling (but to my mind, more a retake on late 90s trip hop aritsts like Nicolette/Lamb) Bernard and Edith, and finally PINS, returning to the festival where I first saw them, but now absolutely owning the grand, large stage of the beautiful Peel Hall at Salford University.

A good weekend was had by all.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Great Week for Literature

The lit season is coming to a climax... actually, it never really stops does it, but probably slows down a bit in the summer as the literati head on holiday. So April and May are periods of Peak Lit. This week's crazy...

Tonight its Bad Language at the Castle - always a good night if you're in town and like your literature washed down with some decent ale. Ex-Tindal Street's Luke Brown is the headliner so see for yourself whether his novel "My Biggest Lie" is a "delicate delineation of grief and loss" (Jenn Ashworth in the Guardian) or has "multiple flaws", (Max Dunbar in 3AM Magazine).

Tomorrow its the literary equivalent of the homecoming gig, when Emma Jane Unsworth's second novel "Animals" is launched with a cast of thousands (well, a few) at Waterstones. I so wanted to be at this, but something's come up and it's going to be a squeeze to make it, but don't let that stop you.

Then Friday its the launch of the latest instalment of the inestimably good Bury Text Festival. The arts on for a few weeks but there's a whole range of readings all day Saturday and Sunday, so do get on that tram and get along to one of Greater Manchester's gems of a festival.

Its a couple of weeks off, but it looks like another work trip means I'll miss the launch of Michael Schmidt's "sequel" to his monumental "Lives of the Poets", "The Novel: a biography" at Anthony Burgess on Wednesday 15th May. More known for his poetry knowledge, I studied my M.A. in novel writing under him back in the day, and he brings an equal fervour to great prose. This book's been a long time in the pipeline and I'm sure it will be a fantastic event for all literature lovers.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Welcome to the Age of Meta-

The financial crash of 2008 would, in a sane world, have been the last time that reality would have been obscured by the smoke and mirrors of an antique religion - in this case late capitalism. All those AAA rated securities had behind them something "real", a mortgage, a promise, however tenuous this was. Yet our addiction, it seems is not any Maslow hierarchy of real needs, but a complex patterning of systems that are, at best, signifiers of the real, and at worst, nonsensical replacements for it.

The information age is already dead, so welcome to the age of Meta-, where it is the descriptive signifier, rather than the thing itself that matters. Yes, we always knew a note or a coin was a "promise" rather than an actual thing; yet we are sophisticated enough to take that - as long as its not a forgery - as the best way of exchanging value. For most of us, the money in our pocket - in our accounts - is as real as the things we can buy with it.

Yet the world has long gone beyond even tenuous links between the signifier and the signified. When the NSA collects our phone conversations, it is not what we say that is inherently value, but who we say it to and when - the metadata. "The Wire" looks positively quaint now, with its pagers and mobile phones, and long range cameras providing a "proof" of drug exchange; even "virtual real estate" like that we had in "Second Life" seems reassuringly solid compared to the mathematical extrapolation of  "currency mining" in Bitcoin. This week we heard that the Gherkin, London's new skyline centrepiece has gone into administration. It won't affect the building or its tenants or even the desire of architects and property developers to redraw London's skyline with many less impressive towers, yet it's a perfect example of the age of Meta-. Here's a building built specifically for its anchor tenant, the previously anonymous Swiss/Re insurance company, that was then sold on at a profit to a number of speculators, who, because their debt was priced in Swiss Francs, which have now gone astronomical, have found their "asset" unaffordable. The normal world - you build something, you inhabit it, you own it - that's not enough in the age of meta-.

But it wasn't the only example this week. David Moyes was sacked as Manchester United manager. "Football manager gets sacked" is hardly news. Yet it was the 24 hours leading up to this sacking that even the BBC, still supposedly a news station, where the news took hold after several Sunday papers lead on it. Here's a thing; if the Man United board hadn't been about to sack Moyes on Monday (and maybe they did hope to keep him till the end of the season), in the age of meta- it was already more "real" than the reality itself - a man doing a professional job in a game that always has, whichever you cut it, exactly the same numbers of winners and losers each season. So, just as it had been for the  politician Maria Miller a few weeks before, the speculation was showcased as news, and then the news itself - the sacking, the resignation - comes afterwards. What is "real" about any of this? An amply rewarded Moyes wakes up on whichever morning it was, and he doesn't go into work, he sits at home, his bank account several million pounds richer, his reputation (surely the original currency of the age of meta-) worth far less. All around the country you'll find people in jobs or applying for benefits also spending all their energies dealing with the exigencies of the age of meta-, where the "disability" that a person has, for instance, doesn't change, merely the coding of it. In the public sector, the coalition's cuts are still going on - arts organisations and councils continually spending time when they should be doing something, instead dealing with the meta- age.

And it gets worse. Is there anything more meta- in 2014 than the awarding of Sainthood to two dead Popes? What strange rituals have survived the enlightenment to such an extent that a flesh and blood man, who died within recent memory, is canonised as a result of "verified" miracles. If all awards are essentially a layer of meta- recognition, Sainthood, must be the most meta- of all.

Our house prices earn more whilst we go out to work than we earn whilst at work - our daily lives are now punctuated by Buzzfeed quizzes and "15 best" lists - and even an exaltation of the physical, the buying of vinyl on record store day, can seem another triumph of the meta- for these artefacts are not for playing, so much as possessing, the songs may as well be unplayable in those grooves as long as the cellophane that wraps them is unbroken.

I've often read about the distinction between the "real" world and the "virtual" world, but now we have this "meta-" world that is, to all intents and purposes, more real than either. The old philosopher's problem of a tree crashing in the forest - ("does it make a sound?") - has become our new normal. It would have surely been enough for me to not write these few hundred words, but simply to talk about it, as if I had done so.

For in the age of meta- nothing exists unless it is tagged, linked, reflected on. Like a never-played b-side on an old 45, it exists, for it was written and recorded, but it hardly exists at all.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

Whereas we would once find in American fiction a tacit celebration of America, however multifarious, however broken and flawed, more recently - and often enough to be more than just a trend - we have seen writers perching their narratives on the edge of the contemporary, at the point of breakdown, whether in the earthquake zone of LA in A.M. Homes' "This Book Can Save Your Life", the timewarped alternate histories of Roth's "The Plot Against America" and King's "11.22.63", or the post-apocalypse depicted in Cormac McCarthy's future frontier novel "The Road." To this list we can now add Ben Marcus's "The Flame Alphabet."

A suburban couple are packing to leave their house and possessions behind them, not only that, but their teenage daughter, Esther, will also be left behind. For she is the carrier of the contagion that is steadily killing them. In a brilliantly original conceit, the words of teenagers and children are killing their parents. "At first we thought we were bitten," begins our narrator, as he describes the steady sickening of his wife Claire, and then himself. It becomes clear over time that it is their teenagers who are killing them. In recognition of generation gaps everywhere, Esther's hatred for her parents' ministrations and care for her, is accentuated into something toxic so that when she blasts at them, they are made physically ill. This state of affairs, means that the sullen, unresponsive teenager becomes isolated from them, yet so great their love for her is that they keep pushing her, only for a torrent of words to come close to killing them.

Yet such a conceit, occasionally funny, but more often portrayed with a great sense of malevolence by Marcus - you can almost feel the palpable tension in their home, as they try and navigate this new state of toxicity - is not enough in what is a substantial novel. For the couple are followers of a secret religion. They are "forest Jews" who worship in private, each couple given their own "Jew hole", a secret place in the forest where they can "listen" to prayers and incantations through some antique orange-wired phone system. Common to readers of his short stories, this warping of a familiar world is part of Marcus's stock-in-trade. He is far less interested in describing the practicalities of a world that is otherwise the one we know, with cars, houses and canned food - and much more interested in creating a warped layer within it. 

One feels that there are probably numerous subtexts - beyond the obvious ones of subjugation and anti-Semitism - in this hidden Jewish religion relating to the nature of the Jewish religion, and its embodiment in the Torah, the word of God. I'm not knowledgeable enough about Judaism to be sure - but its not really that necessary - for this secret language, where the listeners become "conduits" to a private messaging channel, which in the slightly steampunky descriptions feels like a combination of CB radio and secret "numbers stations". Yet this is a fixed line network, that we begin to think only exists through the self-deceptions of its few adherents.

As the language plague spreads, and becomes more dangerous, there's a worry that its only the Jewish children who are spreading it, but it becomes more widespread, so that the children have to be quarantined in the city's where they live, and the adults are kept out by loudspeakers blasting out children reading Aesop's fables.  Yet it is not so easy to leave a child. Addicted to the secrecies of their religion our narrator begins various "smallwork" to protect him and his family. Here the similarities with "The Road" are quite acute, this is a man who will do everything he can, however misguided, to protect what he loves. A stranger appears in his life, the red-headed Murphy, a non-Jew who appears over-fascinated in this private religion and particular in the "listener", a personal receiver that each worshipper has as a conduit to scripture. As the plague grows, it begins to be discussed in the media. "Experts" look to find cures to see how it travels to understand how to protect against it. There is a chorus of philosophers, a man called Burke, a man called LeBov, the Rabbi Thompson, and then, making himself known to our narrator, Murphy, a red-haired stranger who appears overly interested in him, his family, and his attempts at self preservation.

There's something compelling about these layers of mystery in the first section of the novel. There's a genuine sense of dread, as the everyday certainties of life get pulled apart not just by the plague but by the rumous attached to its spreading. Bit by bit we see that normal society is a construct that can be pulled apart, even as much as dragging parents from their children, who are left to run feral in noisy gangs, before they too, at a certain shift into adulthood, will begin to feel the language toxic.

In the 2nd part of the novel, our narrator escapes, but it is a futile escape - too late for Claire who is too weak by this stage - and with no real sense of where he's going he gets bundled into Forsythe, the experimental research facility where they are researching language - for now it is not just children, but language in all its forms that is toxic. In a fiendishly imagined lab of silence, he comes up with new versions of old languages that are then tested on unwitting volunteers. Its seems language, meaning, even the symbols - the alphabet - are equally toxic. As soon as we understand, we suffer. As Claire is brought to the laboratory, he begins to understand his own role here - that he is seen as someone who may have some knowledge of a cure. Murphy and LeBov turn out to be the same person. The secrets of the Jewish communication are seen as somehow necessary in finding a solution, even as they look to discover a diabolical serum that can allow conversation of some sort.

This long second section is perhaps less successful than the opening. Marcus's world is so skewed that its hard to retain a sustained imaginative understanding of it. Our narrator is unreliable, scheming, kept going by irrational thoughts and surreptitious plans about bringing his family back together. Whilst Murphy/LeBov seems almost a cartoon villain, a creature of an undeclared establishment who is doing what is necessary. It perhaps lacks some of the narrative coherence of the best SF but instead has a complex, multi-layered patterning about the world. I'm reminded of that other brilliant but flawed future-society that has developed a new language, Will Self's "Book of Dave" where the central conceit is so brilliant, but, like in "The Flame Alphabet", it is sometimes hard to truly imagine the strange world that the books exists in - so little is explained, even though our narrator tries to explain where he can, he is also coming from a position of ignorance.

When Claire comes into Forsythe, we can see that the possibility of the redemption - of the family getting back together again may be the conclusion of this strange, unsettling book - but Marcus seems less interested in this kind of narrative tidiness. Our characters are adrift in a madness of their own - pumped up by adherence to a scripture, that we're never entirely sure if its not they themselves who are making up, and sharing across the underground network. The novel seems to be setting up that without language all the things we take for granted - love, family, sex - become almost impossibly devoid of meaning. The scientists in Forsythe tap each other on the shoulder as a prelude to unemotional sex. Our self-preservation as a species sees many willing volunteers come into the facility to be "test subjects" lured, perhaps, by the sense of a possible reunion with their children. This muteness, like the "Blindness" in that Saramago novel, creates a bleak feral society. There's a touch of the generic in this - which goes back to the laboratories in books like "A Clockwork Orange" and "1984" and surely has at least some of its potency in our knowledge of Mengele's labs. There's little explicit in this book that can describe motive - like "The Road" or "Blindness" this is a fallen world without cause - in this there are devils and angels, yet seen through one man's perspective we can only imagine some kind of pre-science world of superstition.

For the language plague creates the same myths and uncertainties and fears as the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s or the black death - and our solutions, even in an age of science, are as likely to be anecdotal or based on faith as on any real evidence. As our narrator escapes - his captives apparently placing too much faith in his secret language, when it proves no more rewarding than any other "cure", we expect perhaps some kind of epiphant. But Esther, who in the early pages of the novel is a brilliant creation, becomes only a chimera in this language-free world. How can love survive without words?

"The Flame Alphabet" is ultimately a powerful, yet frustrating novel of complex ideas, that themselves are never over-explained, but leave the reader wondering what he might have missed - whilst as the same time enjoying the genuine strangeness of Marcus's imagined world. There are no convenient answers, and like the man determined to protect his son on "The Road", this desire to bring back a family which is almost severed beyond repair leaves us saddened, wondering at the toxicity, not just of language, but of the ideas and thoughts that sustain it.

P.S. Having just read Nicholas Lezard's review in the Guardian from when it came out, I think he gets a bit to the heart of the book's strange beauty, which my more literal reading above skirted round a little.

Monday, April 21, 2014

I can be a Science Fiction Writer If I want to

Like my reading, my writing began with Science Fiction. There was nothing to be written about the bog standard comprehensive I went to, the small dormitory village where I lived, the unexceptional nature of my family and friends, even my own solipsistic uniqueness. There were, however, robots, and spaceships, and quite soon after fantastic scenarios that can only be described as SF (though later, some people would prefer "fiction", yeah, right.)

So my first stories were almost all SF ones, yet though I enjoyed the odd space opera (Hello Blakes 7, and later Battlestar Galactica), perhaps the grounded-to-earth SF of the 3rd Doctor Who or "Quatermass" were more my thing. Looking back, I was writing a kind of cyberpunk before I'd read William Gibson (and when I read  "Neuromancer" I was disappointed, though I came round by "Count Zero"), but hardly surprising given my diet of William Burroughs, Douglas Adams, George Orwell, "Blade Runner", the Jerry Cornelius novels Iand "Howard the Duck." So, over the years I've written quite a number of stories that can only be classed as SF, and quite a number, as well, that though not in anyway futuristic, are steeped enough in that genre's willingness to bend the present, might as well be.

Yet I've never had a straight SF story published. Over the years I've sent a few things to Interzone, and maybe other magazines that have come up. Its not that I'm over literary, but that I'm probably over literary for the straight SF magazine, where anything that hints at the literary tends to get sniffed out pretty quickly. I'm often reading on SF blogs a distaste for mainstream writers who "write SF" as a one off, but either get it wrong, or just use its tropes (e.g. "Children of Men", "Never Let Me Go"), but it strikes me its a 2-way street. When I write an SF story, I don't think "ooo, I'm writing speculative fiction" or "fantasy" or "slipstream" or whatever, I just think, "good, some proper SF." I would love to see a book in the Soviet yellow of those old Gollancz, or with a pulp drawing like a NEL paperback.  And yes, I read a little SF now and then, usually, it has to be said when the tedious lack of ideas of so much contemporary fiction gets on my nerves, and yes, I wince at the casual sexism that still seems to be at home in any future sex scene or the clunky writing that often comes with even well-acclaimed fantasists. And yes, I don't really get SF's grubby younger brother (sister?) "fantasy." A post-punk dislike for progressive rock's obsession with stairways to heaven etc. means I've never read Tolkein, and probably never will. (Though  I loved the Narnia books as a kid, so maybe its just something I grew out of.)

I've often read SF writers say that they choose to write in the genre as it gives them more options about talking about the contemporary world, which I understand, but I wonder why then you would "only" write in that genre? To be honest, most of my recent stories are hard to  categorise, and one that I thought was going to be an SF story (its about surveillance culture and piecing together what happened to a disappeared child from the available footage) turned out to require a more realist take. Similar, a story I've coming out later in this year could be classed as speculative or slipstream, but I really don't know whether or not it is. Writing about the internet and new technology often puts my stories in a day after tomorrow which may or may not be  SF.

Who knows? I can be a Science Fiction writer if I want to... yet getting these things published might be another issue. We seem to increasingly want a sort of pluralistic world, whether its in poetry between the experimental and mainstream, or in fiction between genre and general fiction. Readers are apparently not able to pick up the nuances or the differences - though a few writers, the late Iain Banks (through the ruse of the M. pseudonym), China Mieville, and Margaret Attwood for instance seem to be able to skip across borders very like the detective in Mieville's "The City and the City." So I had a dream the other night which I thought would make a good story. It's essentially an earthbound adventure story, as close to Edgar Rice Burroughs as J.G. Ballard, but with elements of both, and yet, eight thousand words in, I realise in my head I think of it as an SF story - though so far there's not a single element that could definitely be construed that way. And "construed" is a good word, because I guess I'm writing it to be as interesting as I can - and that means taking the best bits from adventure/thriller fiction, but with the best ideas from SF, and, I hope something of the literary skills of my general fiction. Lets see how it goes. I suspect I won't try and sell it as an SF story, but who knows?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Easter Things

I don't seem to have had much to write about recently. I'm sure there's plenty of literary debates going on, but with limited time to read, I've not a lot to say about stuff. Last week I made it to see one of my favourite writers, Ben Marcus, the American "experimentalist", who read at the Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester. I was asked to blog about it for the Manchester Literature Festival blog, so you'll find my piece there. I'm currently reading his excellent novel "The Flame Alphabet" which I'm sure I'll blog about here when the time comes. Not many writers who make me starstruck, but he's one, and interesting, as he was talking I realised that part of it was some kind of shared concerns and consciousness - after all we were born in the same year. Yet isn't that weird that you can feel that with someone from the US? I wonder if our English-speaking culture creates a shared understanding as well as a shared culture. I think the key thing may be that the cultural signifiers are often the same. Its like when you meet someone your age who was into similar music to you; there's an identification wherever you came from. More interesting for me, as a writer, is where I think I was when he had his experimental breakthrough novel "The Age of Wire and String" in the late 1990s. I had been trying to writing something - anything - and part of that had been to take on more conventional styles than some of the stuff I had been writing; I felt like I had to get someone to listen to me, and the easiest way was to write in a familiar language. Marcus offered an unfamiliar language, and part of me has always responded to that. Anyway, that's digressing a bit - my MLF piece describes his point of view a bit more in detail.


Over Christmas I spent a while sending out stuff and in dribs and drabs it comes back. But a couple of things got published. As well as three poems in "Bare Fiction",  I was very pleased to have a non-lyrical piece of art/music published online in "Verse Kraken." Actual proof of my cross-disciplinary work, I think.


There sometimes seems to be a writing event every night, and a writer on every corner, and blogger Simon Savidge addresses this in a new posting for "Fiction Uncovered." "Some authors had been trying for several years, some for several decades" he writes, about the annual selling show that is the London Book Fair. It's strange in some ways, that we should think of this of as in any way odd. For surely the best writing is a compulsion whether or not it finds an early audience or a publisher. I've seen writers have early success that has then seen them give up at the first hurdle. I guess I've always seen writing as much about exploration of process as end result, though I'm always intent on "finishing" whatever it is I'm working on. Seems that these are the only bits I have any control over. The "getting published" is out of my control (not to say, we can't make it easier for ourselves.)


My other obsession is, of course, music, and tomorrow is "Record Store Day" when men of a certain age (not only men, and not only of a certain age) queue for several hours to buy an overpriced piece of vinyl of an album they already own in three different formats, and which they will never listen to. It is of course, brilliant that this is the case. Though I can't help notice that there seems a lack of "specials" (other than special formats) this year, and prices have crept up. Piccadilly Records in Manchester is one of the most popular destinations in the country and so "getting there early probably means four hours before it opens. On past experience, and with nothing specific I want, I'll head down mid afternoon and pick up any dregs. Not quite true that there's nothing I want. I'd be tempted by the Psychic TV live reissues, a few of the 10" and 12"s on offer and also by a couple of 7" boxsets by Dinosaur Jr. and Dead Kennedys - I suspect that most of these might go really quickly, so unless I get sleepless at 4 in the morning, I'll just have to give it a miss.


Everything seems late this year - Easter, spring, my hayfever - which means that there's probably lots piling up in the next few weeks. I'm looking forward to the next Other Room even though its a while away - featuring Leanne Bridgewater, Agnes Lehoczky, both of whom are brilliant live, amongst others on 4th June. With no Manchester International Festival this year, (its bi-annual) there is, I think an opportunity for that June/July period to be filled with the unexpected, and I hope promoters and festivals and organisations take hold of it - as I somehow expect next year's MIF, coming as it will after the General Election, might be a massive event. With my art-loving hat on I have to mention the next Castlefield Gallery show curated by Bob and Roberta Smith which features art by "offenders"  - an oft-overlooked outsider art community, that its great to see in the gallery. The show is intrigueingly titled "Snail Porridge." And at the start of May - May 1st to be precise - Emma Jane Unsworth launches her 2nd novel "Animals" at Waterstones, with, no doubt, a large % of the Manchester literature scene in attendance.