Sunday, March 29, 2015

Revival by Stephen King

Recently, faced with "readers block," I've found late Stephen King a good way of unblocking. But what King was I reading? "11.22.63" was a time travel story squarely set in the uncomplicated fifties that he's so good at evoking; "Mr. Mercedes" managed to be a detective story where the only horror element was in the world we live in today, whilst at the same time managing a not-embarassing take on the internet.

"Revival" is back to classic King territory - a slow burn horror story. I was interested by its premise. A young boy finds himself under a shadow of a charismatic preacher who loses his faith when tragedy hits his own life. The young boy finds his own way through life by picking up a rhythm guitar and playing for twenty years in road bands, before his heroin addiction brings him down. King has always had a good ear for rock and roll, even if I can't quite remember him writing an overtly rock and roll novel before; add in religion, smalltown Maine, and a P.T. Barnum-like evangelical miracle worker harnessing the power of lightning, and there's all the elements of a classic King. Sadly, "Revival" doesn't manage to mix them together well.

Jamie Morton is playing soldiers, a happy child in large religiously-inclined family, when the new charismatic minister, the young Charlie Jacobs arrives, to be followed shortly afterwards by his beautiful wife and their young son. Everyone falls in love with Jacobs and he's a well drawn picture of a charismatic religious leader ending up in a small community and having an impact on all their lives. Such a man would surely move on soon enough, but fate sees him abandoning the church with a final terrible sermon where he doesn't believe in God. The young Jamie was the first person he spoke to and he a lingering fondness for the Minister, having been shown early on Jacobs' interests in home made electronics. But Jacobs doesn't experiment just to provide a link between science and God, he believes in "the secret electricity" - which as the novel progresses we only learn has been studied intermittently over the centuries, but the books in which it has been mentioned are banned or held by collectors. Such Crowley-esque mystery is more Dan Brown than usual, and King's heart hardly seems to be in it. We have to take the supernatural on trust here. Considering how other worlds have been so believably intertwined with ours in books like "Firestarter" and "The Stand", it seems strange how perfunctory this is.

As Morton grows older, tragedy hits his own family, but we already know there is a "shadow" over his life. It is the adult Morton who is telling the story and on the first page he calls Jacobs his "fifth business". Yet for much of the novel the shadow that the preacher casts seems a benign one. First, he has his own tragedy, his own darkness, and then when Morton finds him again, this time as a carny, making magic pictures of pretty girls to take home from the fair, the musician is at an all time low, a heroin addict just wanting the next score, having just been sacked from the second rate band he's in. I never quite buy Morton's heroin addiction - he seems a jobbing, amateur musician, and there's little in his background to suggest that he would succumb to being a drug addict. Besides, when Jacobs, now going under a different name uses the "secret electricity" to enact a cure, we suddenly have a clean musician. When he next encounters Jacobs, he's more of preacher than a carny. He has started giving out miracle cures. Yet these cures have side effects, and Morton becomes concerned that Jacobs is dabbling with a darkness that is destroying people's lives. But none of this feels particularly convincing. The "secret electricity" is perfunctorily explained; so that when once again Morton becomes involved, he has to wait with an ageing Jacobs for a storm after a benign summer, before the electricity can be used again. Morton knows there is a darkness to the "cures" that Jacobs gives out, but because he is telling the story - and similar to "Mr. Mercedes" this bit feels a bit like a detective tale - we are at a distance from the reality. Everything bad happens offstage. Morton himself has occasional voices in his head; his brother Col, who was the first of Jacobs' "cures" has no problems at all. It is other people - his mother, his sister - who have had natural tragedies in their life. Jacobs wasn't there for them, but this is not even touched on. There seems little reason for Morton's curiousity, and even when Jacobs approaches him because his first girlfriend has come to him asking for a cure, it seems an absurd piece of machinery.

In many ways, this is a classic bit of shaggy dog storytelling. By the end of the book Jamie is sixty - placing the childhood start of the novel in the early sixties. The whole novel is just a preamble for a set piece straight out of  "The Monkeys Paw", with one final cure being attempted by a near-death Jacobs as he wants to open the portal onto life after death. We never quite understand the motivations and there's an irony that in a book of the supernatural, a logic to itself is what makes a book like this (like his early novels) believable or not. This tries too hard to come up with something plausible, yet I go the sense that it could have been done in a condensed short story if King hadn't wanted to spin several hundred pages of chance encounters before the denouement. Yes, the ending is genuinely dark and scary, and we finally agree with Morton that it would have been better had he never met Jacobs, so dark was the aftermath of his ministrations. It feels a little that King wanted to finally write that "rock and roll" novel whilst also having a good go at the evangelical placebos of a credible middle America, and they all got thrown in to this idea of "Revival" - a musical concept; but also straight out of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," - reviving the  monster - whilst also having something of the showman "religious revival."

Plenty there in other words for a compelling novel, but for once in King, none of the ideas really convince. The longeurs of the timescale, the nature of Morton as a retrospective first person narrator, the somewhat dashed off rock and roll elements - none really convince. When Jacobs is on the page it sizzles a bit more, yet we are always in Morton's words, and so we see the incarnations with a cynicism, that makes us wonder why he's continuing with the story. Without believable motive, the sense of uncovering or even understanding the nature of Jacobs'' experiments, exposing his evil in other words, seems contrived. That it is the last few pages, after the final denouement, that are the most effective, highlights how much the novel structurally misfired for me. The writing is the slackest I've read by him for a long time, for the second novel in a row (following "Mr. Mercedes") a middle aged man falls far too easily into bed with a much younger woman, and even Jacobs, who at times seems a genuinely intrigueing character - as a man who has been tainted by his curiousity, a bit like Frankenstein, or the hatter who goes mad from too much mercury poisoning - is dealt with lazily. Not one of his best.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Lost Art of the Greatest Hits Album

When you are a kid, the Greatest Hits album is probably all you know. Those bands you heard growing up before you could afford to buy the records have kindly put all their hits in one place. Its no surprise that some of the biggest selling albums in the UK (ABBA, Queen) and US (Elton John, Eagles) are Greatest Hits albums.

Once upon a time, in the sixties, artists tended to not put their singles on albums,  yet those compilations, "A Collection of Beatles Oldies," "Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy" and "High Tide and Greeen Grass" were not big sellers at the time - coming so soon after the records themselves had come out. The baroque names probably didn't help either. I suspect they were probably priced more expensively as well - and also had to compete with the new album by the Beatles, the Who or the Stones as these bands developed so quickly.

So it was really the seventies where the Greatest Hits came into its own. Artists might be recording an album a year and a Greatest could give them a bit of a breather, and pull together the songs that had been played on the radio. Elton John, Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles and others were album bands who also had hit singles, but a Greatest Hits drew in the casual fans, the ones who'd heard that early song on the radio or perhaps bought the really big breakthrough album. There's sometimes some odd choices on these mega-selling records. "Border Song" on Elton's for instance. They are of their time as well - all three of those artists would have second volumes of greatest hits which would include some of their biggest later hits. Frequently a Greatest would be a way of getting mileage out of the back catalogue of an artist who'd just had a massive hit single. ABBA's Greatest Hits for instance was a bestseller, but made up for the fact that few people bought their first three albums despite some hit singles. As they became massive stars, it ended up being the first album that people bought by them.

As a regular trawler of second hand record sellers I've been picking up Greatest Hits. You might not think you need Cat Stevens in your life, but a collection without "Wild World" or "Father or Son" is slightly bereft - a Greatest Hits solves the problem. By the late seventies TV advertised Greatest Hits crammed more than the regular 10 or 12 sides - so the fidelity sometimes suffered. But New Wave and New Romantic bands are surely as well served by their greatest hits as individual albums. Want "Call Me" by Blondie? Then you need the exemplary "Best of Blondie" - only a shame that this iconic collection wasn'tm reissued on vinyl recently when their other early records were. (It had the advantage of being released before their less than stellar "The Hunter" album.) Madness, Human League, OMD - all bands that are probably best served on a decent best of.

The CD kind of ruined things of course. The 70 plus minute length meant that a greatest was no longer a sharp forty or fifty minute party record, but something crammed with every single, with the boring slow tracks as well as the pop songs. For Greatest Hits sensibly tended to be aimed at the seventies house party. Who needs that half paced love song that was the third single off the album? Of course, there are exceptions. ABBA Gold probably couldn't be beaten, whilst Madonna's "Immaculate collection" is amazing for the tracks it misses off (including a couple of UK number ones).

Nowadays of course there is every kind of compilation - even bands like the Smiths have spawned half a dozen. If in doubt, stay with the singles, as these were the tracks that meant the most at the time. I was as surprised as anyone how fantastic the Beatles' "1" album was - by concentrating on just their biggest hits it turned them from rock legends back into that brilliant pop band that they started out as. Latterday bands such as James are best showcased on their best of - whilst some bands who had just one great album and a smattering of singles - like the Stone Roses - seem odd in a  Greatest Hits context. That Greatest Hits by Guns n' Roses and Red  Hot Chilli Peppers have been so successful indicates the patchy nature of so many of their albums and must be a good way for a young rock fan to pick up a single disc best of - yet they hardly seem classic collections.

The days of bands releasing two or three singles a year off each album, moving on, maybe having a non album hit or two, seem long gone. Often there's one massive album and a longer career that's underwhelming. I'm sure boy bands like One Direction will have massive selling best ofs, but there's a cynicism to modern musical careers that means we've only had one song from Adele for instance since her mega-selling "21".

Growing up, I experienced the sixties mainly through compilations - the Beatles Red and Blue albums; Rolling Stones' Hot Rocks; Bob Dylan Greatest Hits; best ofs by the Small Faces and Jefferson Airplane; soul compilations of the Temptations or Isley Brothers or Booker T and the MGs.
Now, I quite like putting on a crackly old record, like Roxy Music's Greatest Hits (see above), a slightly odd choice of tracks, that nonetheless works as a great party record. Even hated bands like the Eagles can be made palatable by the filleting of a Greatest Hits.

Some Favourites.

1. Best of Blondie

Good as their albums are, this brings all their best tracks together. Non album song "Call Me" gets a run out, as do early non-hits "X Offender" and "Rip Her to Shreds." If you only listen to "Parallel Lines" (virtually a greatest hits in itself) you miss such gems as "Presence Dear" from the album before.

2. Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits

This was my first Dylan album and perhaps it should still be my favourite. Its a great track selection. Whether they were all hits or not, I'm not sure - but like alot of "best ofs" it serves as a track listing for the songs of his that lasted. Further volumes are weird and career spanning collections just to diverse - this is the one to go for.

3. Roxy Music Greatest Hits

"Virginia Plain" and "Pyjamarama" can't be found on their other albums - it tends to the rockier side of their back catalogue - and it finishes before they resumed with "Manifesto" - but its such a listenable record even if it feels like Eno has been asked to stand outside.

4. The Temptations Greatest Hits

Mine's a TV compilation with a terrible cover - but it brings together their late sixties psychedelia like "Ball of Confusion" and "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" with their earlier classic Motown. Cheap Motown compilations have been a joy throughout my life.

5. Celluloid Heroes - the Kinks

Seventies Kinks are a mixed bunch - weird double albums, concept albums, and no hits - yet "Celluloid Heroes" is a brilliant distillation of this period. Like the Stones "Rewind" it takes an unfashionable period and compiles it well.

6. Uncut Funk: the bomb - Parliament

In the late eighties it was hard to find Parliament records so when this brilliant compilation came out I bought it and played it to death. It has a picture of George Clinton surfing two dolphins on the cover, a brilliantly funny funk dictionary on the back. What's not to like?

7. Once Upon a Time - Siouxsie and the Banshees

Despite being dark and gothic on their albums the Banshees were also a brilliant pop band and this timely compilation of their imperial period is stunning, not a bad track on it. Twice Upon  a Time - double the length - and from their later career does a good job as well, but this is the one you need.

8. Snap! - the Jam

I wasn't a great Jam fan but this compilation convinced me. Originally a double album I've the slightly reduced track listing of the CD - a collection that crams as much of the band on as it can and yet never goes slack, surely the sign of a good band? The underrated Style Council are equally well served by the "Singular Adventures of..." compilation, which fillets even lacklustre albums for gems.

9. The Whole Story - Kate Bush

A classic compilation that still sells well today. Kate's early success tended to overshadow the songs that came after (at least until "Hounds of Love") but this brilliant selection gives equal billing to "Army Dreamers", "Babooshka" and "Sat in Your Lap." It means that a song as weird as "The Dreaming" is in pretty much every household in the country.

10. The Collection - Jefferson Airplane

I hardly knew the Airplane until Castle Communications started issuing cheap double albums/single CDs in the late eighties and early nineties. Cheap to look at, they were nonetheless intelligently compiled. For a while I thought this was the only Airplane I needed, but of course, they were a quality band and I've since investigated much further - but this was where I came in. I've also got great Castle albums by Melanie, Small Faces, Motorhead, and the Lovin' Spoonful. Worth picking up if you see them.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Gentrification of Urban Literature

I may not have grown up in an urban environment but I grew up as a writer as an urban writer. It was the only thing worth writing about if you came from the dullest of suburbs. The city was exciting. It carried on after dark (and in those days of restricted licensing laws, actually came back to life after dark after a six o'clock switch off), it threw all kinds of lives together in a melting pot, it had its own edgelands - abandoned estates or tower blocks where the police wouldn''t go.

The cityscape was an excitement that I couldn't avoid as a teenager, even if it came with danger and occasional fear, because it also came with opportunity. The music I loved took place there, both because bands themselves migrated to the cities and because that's where they played, and where I'd have to go to see them. The places they played might be swish nightclubs on a weekend, but would be handed over to guitar bands midweek; or more likely they were odd, scummy, barely legal places with sticky floors and unheralded entrances, down uninviting side streets.

As a teenager I quickly grew tired of fantasy and science fiction, and part of the reason  why was that the realism that existed in the city was equally as strange, equally as alluring. Whether drugs, sex, music or simply neon lights and speeding cars on rain-streaked streets, this was futuristic and fantastical to my mind. The hidden venue down a back alleyway, the first time down a darkened staircase, the opening out into a cramped emporium of sounds and sights for sore eyes? This was William Burroughs via "Blade Runner" and the Cantina-scene in "Star Wars". And it was in Birmingham or Manchester or Leeds.

Yet come out of these dives and the world was like the dystopia of "Blade Runner" or later "The Matrix" or "Strange Days." Our urban environment on film has been for  a long time a noirish nightmare of shadows. The abandonment of our cities - the no-go areas and slums - speaks of a traumatic human history, just as the great civic buildings, speak of their previous pre-eminency. And part of the allure of these urban spaces was the real story that took place there. After all I grew up during a period when cities were all but abandoned by our central government. With a critical election coming up in a few weeks, its worth remembering that the Conservative Party not only fails to win inner city seats, but has no real idea of what cities are except as speculative property plays. Like cartoon characters, the modern Conservative party makes it money in the city and then retires to its landed estate in the countryside. The riots of the Thatcher years; the long-running sores of the Irish "Troubles"; these held back cities from gentrifying even as elsewhere in Europe the city - which had never suffered quite so much of a battering as its blighted British or American equivalent - made a comeback.

Look around now, though, and a gentrification of our cities has taken place. The process of prettifying old manufacturing areas, and turning the old factories and warehouses into offices, shops and flats is close to completing in so many of our cities. Whereas spacious lofts might once have been taken over by artists in unsavoury parts of the city, nowadays its the property speculators who cut these spaces into multiple apartments, encouraging a new urban consumer - young, affluent, requiring to be near to work - into the city. Our gentrification is almost complete, and at the same time our literature surely gentrifies as well. John Lanchester's "Capital" for instance, which is less about "capital" as in money than our capital city, and takes place primarily in a rich suburban street. Or even Zadie Smith's "NW" where the council estate where her characters grew up is left behind, a place separate from the gentrified city. Our new urban literature is as much a daughter of "Sex and the City" and "Friends", a young urban middle class living in expensive rentals, defining themselves by shopping and lifestyle, as it is by their urban environment. Tao Lin describes the interiors or apartments and writes about lives looking inward to their computer terminals or mobile devices, but the external environment no longer matters, is no longer there. There would be little sense of a believable "fall" from the gentrified city to the slums, the kind of journey you used to find in "Bonfire of the Vanities", not when everyone is an Uber away from the yoghurt bar. The need to go down to Chinatown for your noodles is alleviated when a designer noodle or sushi bar has opened on every regentrified corner.

What might be better for our life - though one wonders about this as well, so dependent on debt-culture, so much of it being speculative property plays, so much of it fuelled by a shifting workforce - where our inner cities have gentrified, and the "problems" are either dispersed or ignored, also has a damaging effect on our art. For the artists studios get moved out. The dive bars and venues close down (The Roadhouse in Manchester being the latest to announce its closure), the marginal areas like London's Soho become inhospitable to anything other than mainstream culture. And with it goes our urban literature. The problems mostly still remain: just count the homeless on our streets as the refuges and hostels get closed down in the name of "austerity". When Galbraith talked of "Private Wealth, Public Squalor" did he envisage at time when even the public area would be privatised for profit, and the "squalor" would become outsourced to those who are least able to resist it? If our cities become walled estates, then so to does our urban literature.

Yet literature has to remain its relevance. We see how contemporary writers seem to struggle with the issues of the day - see the rash of post 9/11 literature, few of which have enhanced the writers' reputations. But even our urban crises are giving out different stories that literature has to find a way of telling. The riots in Manchester in 2011 were the opposite of previous rounds of rioting which tended to happen in marginalised areas of the cities; this was an imported opportunistic riot that grew via social media and disappeared almost as soon as it had begun. For the ongoing narrative in our urban environment is about gentrification and speculative property development. Forget that  Manchester had a record low number of new house starts in 2014, for the cranes in the city centre are rising again. I go round Europe a lot and in Amsterdam, Brussels, Barcelona, London and elsewhere I've rarely seen so much building work going on - large civic projects like Crossrail and HS2 are in some ways land clearers for the private developments that come in their wake. Old London has survived many things, from the Luftwaffe to urban blight, but its finding itself helpless at the onslaught of sovereign wealth funds as they offer a "scorched earth" policy for non-productive assets, such as the music shops around Denmark Streets or the night time economy in SoHo.

On the one hand one can't be too upset at losing illegal brothels, condemned buildings and fire-risk underground cellar venues, but its what they are being replaced with that shocks. Privatised public spaces, with security barriers; expensive rabbit warren apartments; empty office blocks sold off between developers as corporate property ploys; and much of it dependent on the infrastructure of public money that is being squeezed out of services and thrown at infrastructure projects as right wing austerity policies have calcified the economies, and old style Keynesian pump-priming has been required instead. But if earlier recessions got rid of bloated or unnproductive firms and companies, this new model seems to be bolster the fortunes of the property and finance sectors, where the former's tangible asset props up the latter's intangible one.

For an urban writer the story becomes more difficult to tell. Do we interiorise so our characters spend all their time looking at their tablets and moving between restaurant and coffeeshop like the world has reduced to the set of "Friends"? Or do we try and tell the story through its new institutions - its zero hour contracts, its passive non-unionised workforce, its hidden armies of contract cleaners and security guards, its call centres and marketing companies. Its a grimmer prospect for a writer than the squats and slums of Hulme or the crumbling urban heat of Brixton. A Martin Millar or Irvine Welsh or William Burroughs would surely struggle here. The crumbling nowheresville of urban loneliness has been exported to small towns and provincial suburbs, in the hidden lives of those refused benefits  or sanctioned for missing an appointment.

If urban literature offered something other than an exciting colour, it was because it was the place where society interacted, came into touch with each other. Our contemporary solipsism, where the girl down the corridor from me puts on her headphones even as she throws out the trash in order not to have to say hello to anyone, is the endgame of this debt-led economical model. For all the problems of the urban wastelands I grew up with, they were also creative hotbeds of possibility - designed and adapted by the young, the marginalised, the new, and the uncomfortable. Our current world offers up a consumerist panacea....we don't need something like Google glasses - we are already living it.

As the empty tower blocks fill up with temporary agency staff; as the bars get more expensive and the restaurants heap up the calories on mega burgers or speciality pizzas, as the drugs get taken behind closed doors by burnt out accountants and marketing consultants... as the last dive venue puts up the "For Sale" sign and the last second hand shop moves out to the declining highstreets of suburbs and districts, we need new words for our Bourgeois-opolis, our Google-towns. The world's problems are increasing, yet our urban centres are becoming Westworld-style theme parks away from the reality. How to write that? How to read that?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Coming Up

In my head I've not been blogging much - but I think its probably because I've not done too many "catch up" blogs on what's going on out there. I don't really want this to just turn into a "review" blog so I will try harder....

Today... you can go to Poets & Players at John Rylands for poetry superstar Alice Oswald. I imagine it will be packed so get there early.

On Monday, we've a whole raft of superstars, the FlashTag flash fiction collective - kind of like WWF but with words or something. I think it will be Fat Roland, Benjamin Judge and Sarah Clare Conlon reading at Verbose, alongside an "open mic". The last two events were packed so come early. Both Fat Roland and Benjamin Judge did a reading last night at SFX at the Royal Exchange, so if that was a preview, you are in for a treat.

And the megastars keep on coming, as the very funny (and very good) Chris Killen will be reading in real life from his new novel "In Real Life" at ever entertaining Bad Language.

Then the Manchester art scene will be out in force on Thursday night for a final showcase of New Art Space Federation House developed by Castlefield Gallery. It should be fantastic. Details are here - and its from 6pm-9pm.

Enough to be going on with? I do hope so.

I'm now off to Levy Market where there's food, drink, fleas (its a flea market innit?) and musical performances.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Underworld at Albert Hall Manchester

The first thing you notice on arriving at Manchester's Albert Hall to see Underworld is the sparse stage layout, with two Apple Macbooks, to the left of a bank of keyboards hidden from view.

When "dubnobasswithmyheadman" was released in 1994, the World Wide Web was in its infancy, and though computers were used widely in music, they were nowhere near as powerful as they are now.

The concept of bands touring their classic albums is one that can seem purely nostalgic, and surely for electronic dance music, which is so often singles-orientated and defined by its time, the idea should be ridiculous. Yet, "dubnobasswithmyheadman" was and is an exception to these rules. As Karl Hyde admits from the stage, he doesn't like to look back, so was uncertain about this tour. Yet last year saw a massive 20th anniversary reissue of what in effect was their debut album (they sensibly kept the name Underworld from an earlier pop-rock incarnation) and its such a seminal piece of work that performing it live makes a strange sense.

Go back to the early nineties, and the "revolution" in dance music that had begun in 1986 with "Jack Your Body" and Chicago house, had hardly petered out, rather it had morphed into a more generic "dance" music. Technology had improved for a start, so that whereas earlier house tracks had been built round tiny samples, it was now possible to build much more complex tracks. You could go to a gig to see top 40 indie band and there would be only a couple of hundred people there; yet go to a rave the next night and there might be two thousand. It was this world that Underworld understood, explored and exploited. By putting their rock band sensibility to use behind a club type record they took dance music away from its instrumental tendencies and infused it with a lyrical sensibility. Listening to Hyde as his deep murmuring vocal underpins the brooding opener "Dark & Long" its hard to think of  a precedent. His often surreal phrasemaking is a poetry of urban life that perhaps owes something to Lou Reed, but musically, I can only really think of early Eno or mid-period Cabaret Voltaire as being anything similar.

And if Underworld sounded pretty unique in 1994 its why their sound hasn't really dated twenty years on. Tracks like "Mmm...Skyscraper I Love You" and "Spoonman" are long, multi-part songs that are like electronic versions of "Midnight Rambler", "Heroin" or "The End". There's also something of the metallic darkness of early Sisters of Mercy, especially "The Reptile House", in these brooding songs. Yet because they are underpinned by an insistent trance like rhythm (and "trance" was a sub genre they virtually invented on this album) even the darkest songs are danceable and mesmeric. Playing the whole of that first album and then contemporary singles like the Voodoo Ray-like "Rez" and finally the triumphant nineties anthem "Born Slippy NUXX" their two hour set is as perfectly judged as a good DJ set. And you realise how "dubnobasswithmyhead" - an unheard of double album - is so perfectly judged, including previously released 12" mixes alongside slighter songs that give the audience a breather. There are a couple of moments that if not dated, seem of their time, such as the reggae/dub style "River of Bass" (itself closer to the Trip Hop sound that was happening around the same time) and "Surfboy" (which incorporates elements of Deep Forest/Cry Sisco style jungle samples); but otherwise the decision to tour a twenty year old dance record makes perfect sense.

The single that followed the album, "Born Slippy" came out unheralded, though I was a big fan at the time, but when it was used as the soundtrack to film du jour "Trainspotting", it went to number two in the charts, not only their only top ten hit, but an anthem for that generation. Its depiction of a night out, with cries of "Lager, lager, lager" was both celebration and warning, yet it became - like "Born in the USA" - an anthem liked by the very people it was probably critical of. Caught in the middle of air-thumping men of a certain age during "Rez" and "Born Slippy" in a slightly too-packed Albert Hall, it reminded me of the way that the celebratory nature of early nineties techno, exemplified by Underworld and by the communal Megadog gigs, quickly became as unruly as Oasis at Knebworth. Twenty years on, the lads still want to be lads. Despite that, the gig was a triumph, and a reminder of the ambition of electronic dance music in that era. There was hardly anyone in the audience under forty (at £30+ a ticket, perhaps no surprise), but it did make me wonder what a new generation would be listening to which had the same kick.

I'd been making electronic music myself for a decade when Underworld appeared, and I immediately recognised a music that had managed to achieve that mix of the rock band and house music that I'd suspected would come along at some point; what's remarkable is how finely achieved it was, how unique, and, two decades on, how well it stands up.

(Try this track of mine, "Forcefeeding" from 1991, I needed the skills of a Darren Emerson to take my pseudo goth EBM in a more commercial direction!)

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes' 2010 novel "Zoo City" received quite a lot of attention when it came out and deservedly so. Ostensibly d a fantasy novel, the fantasy is so well grounded in a raw, contemporary, noirish Johannesburg, that the central conceit - that murderers summon up an "animal" from the undertow as a physical representation of their crime - becomes something that the reader soon takes on board, despite its strangeness. Part of that is South Africa itself, where black magic and the rituals that go with it are seen as being part and parcel of everyday life. The novel's feel is not a million miles from noirish films like "Angel Heart" set in a juju-obsessed New Orleans.

Zinzi December has a sloth for company. She is "animalled" and lives in Zoo City, a dangerous slum which has become home to others like herself. She has boyfriend Benoit, who has a mongoose for company and works as a security guard. Her own life is complicated - a drug habit means she's in perpetual debt to her dealers, and paying it off bit by bit by running email scams for them. Being "animalled" also gives her a psychic power, she can find lost things, and she makes her little money by doing this. When she goes to help an old lady find a ring that has gone down the toilet, it's just a normal job, until she comes back to find the old lady has been killed.

She's dragged into a world that she was trying to avoid - and gets asked to "find" a missing person, one half of twins - a pop music duo who are the latest big thing and are being moulded by a music industry big shot, the appropriately horrible Odi, who lives as a recluse yet has his fingers in lots of different pies. In her "former life" Zinzi was a journalist and she looks up her ex-beau Gio for help. Its a complex plotted novel with a large cast of peripheral characters who all have something to do with the conspiracy that's taking place, but its Zinzi, our feisty, flawed narrator who keeps things interesting. Animalled people are massively attached to their animal, so any separation from her sloth can cause great anxiety, yet at the same time, though some find it exotic, its also a sign of her outsider status.  And animals come in all varieties from tiny birds to a gigantic crocodile. It seems that these "familiars" reflect the status of the crime; in Zinzi's case, there are mitigating circumstances, her guilt is palpable, but sloth is a reflection of her conflicted personality - it sleeps most of the time, is sensitive and caring, yet has dangerous claws that can inflict damage - a bit like Zinzi herself.

Holding all of this together should be the hard part for any writer, but Beukes is adept at doing so. From the first few pages you can believe the world in which you've stepped. The fantastic tropes of the Undertow and the animals are explained away in a few extracted articles or academic papers, strewn throughout the narrative. This is the Ellroy of L.A. Confidential technique and it works really well once you get used to it - enabling Zinzi to stumble through the wider plot. For though she knows something bad is going on, and that she is becoming implemented, she becomes involved as the hustler that she is - with nothing much to lose, she decides to go along for the ride.

In many ways, the genre here isn't fantasy at all, but like Mieville's "The City and the City", a noirish crime drama. Zinzi is not so different in her accidental P.I. role than V.I. Warshawski in Paretsky's series of novels. Yet there's something other worldly about the novel that cleverly sees that traditional South African superstitions and magic are perfectly fitted to a contemporary fantasy noir.

There are times when the plot seems to get too convoluted, and some of the minor characters take on important roles, without the reader being entirely clear who they are. Yet there's a powerful driving sensibility from Zinzi's narration which holds the attention, even in a 400 page novel. As the plot points unravel and we see - at the same time as she does - what's really going on, what's also excellent is that there's no easy denouement. This is a cruel, Manichean world, where the Undertow has made a physical manifestation of people's crimes. Zinzi can't escape her fate, but she has to live with her actions. 

I thoroughly enjoyed "Zoo City" - and it seems, with her second novel, Beukes has managed to do something both original and familiar, with the setting in contemporary Jo'Burg, and its Zoo City slum, a brilliant setting for this fantastical modern noir.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Explaining Writing to a non-Writer

I've been blessed with a lot of non-writer friends in my life. I'd say that non-creative friends were my default in reality. Partly this was from where I was growing up, in a school and village where creativity was seen as decidedly abnormal (the school was particularly anti- creativity). Then at university, the "college" system at Lancaster meant that my best mates were studying engineering or physics or economics; not necessarily non-creative in their own way, but distinctly non-imaginative. Yes, they consumed culture, but they didn't make it. As I then worked as a computer programmer for 9 years, I was definitely an "outlier" in that world. Forget all that stuff about "get your kids to code" as being a creative discipline, the majority of programmers are not imagineers, but problem solvers. Because my own creativity has been very much at the right-brain end of the spectrum - making things up, flights of fancy, being more about the idea than the craft (I will come to that) - the differences with even some of my more creative friends has been profound.

With an old programmer friend visiting this weekend I mentioned my continued writing/music and he's known me nearly 30 years so he knows its part of me, but he was absolutely uncomprehending about the "need" to be creative as its something that's not at all in him. Yet he likes music and science fiction and films and art galleries....just has never had any desire to be creative himself. In the 70s and 80s you could get away with that in schools, though I'd thought that things had changed over the years at least with a broadening of the idea of creativity (rap music as valid as classical etc.), but we keep hearing that the liberal arts are being squeezed out of schools in favour of more vocational works.

Any way, we'd had a couple of glasses of wine so I tried to explain my creativity to him. I said that I though there were two axes (science types like graphs!), one of which has CRAFT at one end and IMAGINATION at the other. So my sister, who is a classically trained musician is very much at the craft end, but has rarely, if ever wrote a song; whilst I, who can't play for toffee, has been songwriting for thirty odd years. The sweet spot of course would be somewhere in the middle - a good musician writing good material. But there's also another axes I think - so imagine this as two pieces of wood nailed together like an X - which is about content, which is about what you write. Some people writer purely from the heart - i.e. if its not about them or happened to them, they can't imagine it - whilst others write from the head, e.g. researching a subject that particularly interests them in some way or another, or taking an idea and writing about it. Again, the sweet spot is probably in the middle - taking a subject that interests you (think of Kazuo Ishiguro's tendency to take big themes, but within them have more minor, personal keys, about love, family, memory, loss) - and personalising it in some way.

So explaining writing (or art or music) to a non-writer (artist, musician) this seems quite a useful way of putting things. It also says that someone who isn't creative might well be if they find a reason - e.g. my friend is a care worker working with the seriously disabled, there might be a time when he wants to articulate what he sees in some way, and perhaps abstract art might be a way of doing this - but that it might not necessarily be in the same quadrant as myself.

As a Pisces I'm always expected to be creative and dreamy, but there's always been a tension between head and heart in my work - I'm emotional and analytical (which explains how I ended up in computing in the first place, but also explains why I left) - and in reality I've always written from the head not the heart: part of this, I think, is making up for my perceived deficiency in craft. Writing is different than art or music, in that the facility for it is comes from the "head" - from "learning" - rather than pure instinct/ability. We all (or most of us) verbally communicate; not so many of us sing or paint. I suspect, though I may be wrong, that growing up as an incredibly imaginative child in a world that didn't really value the imagination (and rarely nurtured it, outside of my parents supporting for my strangeness!) meant that I had to overcompensate on the logical side - I had to find a justification for what I was doing, which took me into writing more analytically.

I think this is partly why I still like writing and making music, as it feels instinctive, purely imaginative, whereas in prose and even poetry, I'm constantly weighing up between the imaginative me, and the intellectual me. I rarely feel comfortable with "first person" in this sense, and if I like the confessional mode it is that strand of intellectualised confessionalism that you find in Lowell or Bishop, or going back, in Donne and Herbert. The frame in which my creativity works best needs to have at least some structure to it.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

I must have seen the film "The Godfather" half a dozen times. It remains one of the supreme pieces of storytelling in cinema, not least for the way that Michael Corleone, at the beginning of the film a returning war hero who wants nothing to do with his Mafia family, has turned into the successor to his father, the next Don Corleone.

Reading Mario Puzo's original novel, a bestseller that came out three years before the film, I'm struck by how many of the iconic scenes from the film are straight from the book. Copolla, after all, was a late attachment to the film.

"The Godfather" tells the story of Vito Corleone, Don of one of the New York Mafia families. The novel begins just before the wedding of his only daughter Connie, taking place at his home. We are given sketches of several characters who are going to ask the Don for a favour on his daughter's wedding - a favour no Sicilian can resist. The wedding itself is a lavish affair, and brings together the whole family but also the wider Corleone "Family" the enforcers of this criminal underworld. Drawn together by blood ties that stretch back across to Sicily, and over decades, the New York of 1945 - familiar to us from the ticker tape parades of Pathe footage - remains a place where communities still live in ethnic enclaves and where the law often holds less sway than the Mafia. Yet its also a parallel world. Outside the wedding the policemen patrol taking car number plates to see who is attending the wedding of Don Corleone's daughter. We are introduced to Sonny, the hothead elder son, who whisks a way a bridesmaid for the start of an affair on his sister's wedding day, to Fredo, the softest of the three sons whose portrayal in the movie by the wonderful John Cazale is the one character in the novel that is expanded in the movie; and finally to Michael, a returning war hero who defied his father by fighting for country rather than family - something incomprehensible for a Sicilian, used to the corruptions of state power - who brings with him his girlfriend, Kay, an All-American girl.

This long book is a massively successful page turner - but what is so compelling about it, even for one so familiar with the film is Puzo's absolute control of describing this alternate society that exists besides normal American society. Its rules - such as the "omerta", vow of silence - to its roles, with layers of deniability between the "Don" and his captains and the operations underneath - are made clear and vivid from the start. Here we are seeing a man at the height of his powers, a Ceasar receiving tribute. Yet what is equally brilliant is that such a world doesn't happen by accident, and doesn't remain unchanged through luck. The "families" of New York - swelled by Italian immigrants and soldiers returning from war - are at a critical point. The illegal gambling and alcohol, and strongarm smuggling that served them so well from Prohibition through and past the war, may not be enough in the new world. Drugs are the new "cash crop" and younger hotheads are wanting a piece of the action. The "older heads" are only a generation or two from their arrival in America. Corleone himself is named after the village he came from, having being smuggled to America after his father was killed. His own "early life" when he challenges the local hoodlum is sharply drawn (but the story is excised from the film narrative and used in "Godfather II".)

Yet when his refusal to join the drug trade leads to another attempt on his life, there is another war. A war that claims many casualties - including his own elder son, betrayed by his sister's husband - as well as crooked policeman McCluskey, which brings down the whole weight of law on the Mafia operation. The reason that gangsters stories so fascinate in movies and books is because of how they reflect the dark side of the society we live in. The human frailties that lead to prostitution, drugs, alcohol and gambling create a skewed morality where the illegal activities are "taxed" - but not by the state but through their enforcers both in the underworld and the police. With the whole book taking place within the enclosed world of the Corleone Family Puzo created a superb alternate society, where issues of fidelity, love and honour are played out daily, but without the more distant codes of a more advanced society. Michael Corleone who avenged his father being shot goes to a Sicily he never knew and lives a different life there for a couple of years before circumstance - his discovery and betrayal, the explosion that kills his Italian peasant wife, the death of Sonny - bring him back to face his destiny.

Set primarily in that 10 year period after the war the book is a brilliantly constructured story, that I was surprised to find as compelling to read as to watch. Puzo writes in a cool, objective prose that though it rarely develops into poetic raptures, is fresh and journalistic and adept at knowing how to tell bits of the story. When something bad happens we have often been elsewhere with one of the other characters and only then get the full truth of the story. It seems to me a book that is a genuine classic in its genre, as much for its writing as for the originality of the subject - which has now become such a cliche. In Vito and Michael Corleone he has created two of the iconic characters of the late 20th century. Hard to imagine reading this in 1969 without thinking of Brando or Pacino in the main roles, but so perfect are both of them for it, that reading the original novel there's nothing that seems wrong about that casting.

Not all of the novel makes it into the movies. I can see why the extended bits in L.A. and Vegas are excluded, featuring the singer/actor Johny Fontane (much closer in the book to Sinatra than in the film) as they feel like short stories almost, but in the book they are there for a good reason - to set up for the move West of the Corleone family and the rise of Las Vegas that will follow. I suspect that the hard boiled L.A. noir of Ellroy takes a little from Puzo's book as well as from the noir thrillers of Chandler etc.

I started reading this on a tired Friday night when I wanted an easy read, and it proved to be an inspired page turning choice, every bit as compelling as the film. The novel is highly economical with its storytelling and this is also what comes across in the film, yet every character has a reality to them that makes it far more than a potboiler. "The Godfather" was, of course, the invention that made Puzo. There are later novels that revisit the scenes but of course it was the filmed story - in "Godfather II" and less so in "Godfather III" - which occupied much of his career.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Shortly after I'd started reading "Gilead", Robinson's prizewinning novel from 2004 it was listed as being one of the best novels of the 21st century by American critics. Highly acclaimed for her first novel "Housekeeping", "Gilead" was published nearly a quarter of a century after her debut - though she's since written two more novels.

"In 1956, towards the end of Reverend John Ames's life, he begins a letter to his young son," summarises the back cover, and that's the form of this insular novel. Ames is a third generation "preacher", his grandfather was an evangelical preacher of legend - some of them unsavoury - whilst he has settled down into an urbane life in a dirty poor Iowan town "Gilead" that exists merely as a staging place on the road to Kansas or St. Louis. Ames' life took an unusual turn late on when he married - for a second time - and he has a small boy. The elderly religious pastor, renowned only for his kindness and dedication, with little of the fire of his notorious grandfather, has been at home with his books for many years, a dedicated community figure, even as the congregation reduces and the span of history avoids this dusty outpost.

The setting of the novel seems important - for it places Ames as born around 1880, another world entirely, and his grandfather's main claim for fame was being an abolitionist who ran away with the Yankees during the civil war. Race is an underlying theme of the novel, though in mostly white Iowa, it is hardly present, until the last quarter of the novel, when a revelation brings home the still burning issues of segregation in America three generations on from that nation-defining war. Yet it would be wrong to say that "Gilead" is a novel that aims to take in the whole of America, for its scope and ambitions are far more closely defined than that.

In choosing the epistolary form we only have Ames as company, and though he is "open" with us the reader as he is addressing his young son, it is an "openness" that conceals. His own status as a "good man" is one that he struggles to reconcile with a sense of underlying failure. Yet so strong is his belief in God and the scriptures that he turns to the written word as being the best place where he might find the answer, even as life offers up both wonder (in his late marriage) and torment (in the return of his namesake John Ames Boughton to stay with Rev. Boughton, his ailing oldest friend.) Beginning almost as a sermon, Ames tells his histories - primarily focussing on his grandfather - less so on his own father - but interjects a present story, as his health fails, as the people around him interrupt his life, as he struggles through another Sunday. "When you do this sort of work, it seems to be Sunday all the time," he observes, sardonically. It is this tone of voice which is one of the books sustained pleasures. We are in the company of a good, learned, honest man, but he is no paragon, he is not a pious man. When parishioners go all "hell and brimstone" on him, having heard some preacher on the radio, he reminds them that the loneliest place, is that part of yourself where God has not reached.

Its a highly religiously-charged book, but never offputting as Ames spouts scripture, or scriptural commentary, or talks through his own sermons. In this, Robinson successfully manages to give us a philosophy wrapped tightly within the insides of a quiet novel. There's something very homespun about Ames, even though he's studied widely, and is something of a theologian; just as he's had to tone down his more bookish tendencies for his congregation, he carefully explains his reasoning - leavened with much doubt about meaning, albeit with no doubt about God - to the audience.

Gilead is hardly a place at all - yet it stands as some kind of monument to certain passings of American history. That man stopped off here to do various bits of work, and that manifested itself early on in the building of several ramshackle churches. It seems an America yet to be touched by, or even close to being bypassed by the twentieth century. Here in 1956, neither great war deserves more than a passing mention,the much more recent Korean war may not have happened at all, and Elvis Presley and rock and roll are yet to make it to this outpost of American conservatism. That placing seems somewhat deliberate, yet its also a little odd, for the young Ames as he remembers it are not about leaving (though his brother would, and eventually his father), but about an earlier past that was already fading when he was a young boy. He remembers vividly going with his father to search out the last resting place of his itinerant preacher grandfather - and tries, in the early parts of the book, to piece together the family secrets that drew a line between his grandfather and father. This idea of a struggle of what is good or right seems to be at the philosophical heart of the book. His grandfather may well have killed a man, and hidden fugitives from justice, yet in that man's philosophy it was his the right thing to do. Far worse is the betrayal of family, or the failure to stand up for your own kind.
John Ames has struggled all his life with these questions.

Knowing he is dying, knowing as well that at seventy seven, his free spirited young son, aged seven, will hardly remember him once he's gone, he worries about having not left enough of his legacy for his son and wife, having married so late, he never thought to put a little aside for himself. His long term friend Rev. Boughton is iller than he is, has a vast family, but is made unhappy that the favoured son, the one he named John Ames after his friend, has been away for so long. When the news comes that the son has returned, the older Ames is worried about what it meanss, for John Ames Boughton has never had faith, always got in trouble, and yet remains much-loved by his sister and father. That Ames is suspicious of his namesake manifests itself in awkward conversations, and even more awkward occasions where he suspects an interest in his young wife, and that the younger man might be a threat to the future happiness of his family.

Such are the small plot points and tensions of "Gilead." Its a languid read, but beautifully written, and Ames' tone is pitch perfect throughout. His own character remains a little opaque. Here is the sense of a life lived well, yet nonetheless wasted. Yet Ames' own redemption - for no sins as such - will come towards the very end, as he finally comes to love John Ames Boughton. This idea of delayed destiny - of God's purpose - seems to be one of Robinson's more subtle aims. The other, somewhat contradictory, is that for all the "goodness" of this small religious community, the wider tides of social change mean that the task undertaken by his grandfather to free the slaves, still remain in segregated America a major sore and rift. Yet these moral ambiguities, large in themselves, but filtered through small, if not insignificant moments in Ames's life, and through the voice of Ames himself, are filtered down to such a degree that I think it would be wrong to call "Gilead" out either as a moral fable or as philosophising text. More, it seems, that her fascination is in finding a way of documenting one particular smalltown life, where American history collides only tangentionally with, and that as this is that of a religious man, that much greater themes, of moral authority, of man's relationship with God, are interweaved carefully with it.

I read the book in several chunks, as the slow languid pace and the elegant prose are richly rewarding, yet aren't necessarily compelling you to turn the page. Its a book of details, many of which are only hinted at, because of Ames being such a careful storyteller. It is neither self-justification or explicit memoir - rather a careful sermonising of a family history by a man who has spent his life reading nuance into the words that he carefully puts together every Sunday for his congregation. Not for the first time, an American fiction that is so based in a devout religious community seems alien to a secular English reader. The fascination in some American - and Irish - fiction with a slightly pre-modern world where the church and its morality are all encompassing has its interest, always, but can also be somewhat inert at times. The book is immaculately put together, never that easy in the epistolery form, yet there are still some problems with it. When John Ames Boughton finally reveals his story, the retelling verbatim by Ames doesn't fit with the roundabout tone of the rest of the novel, and the revelation itself, a somewhat sleight of hand, seems leaden, almost unbelievable in this book's context - its clearly a deux ex machina to bring together an understanding between the two men. That said, its a quiet, powerful novel that I'm sure I'll be thinking about for quite some time.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Digital Dark Age

Vince Cerf, one of the founders of the internet has warned of a "digital dark age." Not because of an anti-technology bent such as you might find in Andrew Keen but because of the pace of change. Technology - and technology devices are moving at such a pace that increasingly we'll find it harder to access the photographs, films and emails that tell our story. In this context the idea of a "dark age" is where future historians have lost the information about our age. The ultimate irony that our information rich age may lead to an unplanned information drought. Few companies survive more than a couple of generations, hardly any for a  hundred years or more. Those future preparations - rich people cryogenically freezing their brains for future revival - are gambles on more than technology, but a faith in a technological progress that history doesn't always identify.

Shelley's classic poem "Ozymandias" with its idol fallen into the sand that has seen an empire perish is the most brilliant invocation of this. Yet Cerf is not a naysayer, he has a possible solution (technological of course), a cloud-based virtualisation of every "player", every software "viewer", so that we can in thirty years - regardless of where it has been moved or passed on  - replicate the experience of opening a JPG or a PDF of Word file.  Backwards compatibility lasts only so long. Even our word files - surely as ubiquitous as anything in the computer world - might find themselves unreadable in Windows 20, or - more likely - Microsoft as a company may have gone the way of DEC or ICL or Mercury Communications.

Anyone who creates for a living should be aware of this - and the idea of digital curation is a really current one - much debated in art and archive circles. This week the magnificent Whitworth art gallery reopens in Manchester - as lovely as the new space is, the true wonder is the Whitworth collection - hidden in basements and vaults. Yet as we move into an age of a reduced public sector what happens to those archives? Nicholson Baker has written eloquently of what happens when you lose the physical object to digitisation - that you also lose the context. That "save" icon on your computer represents a floppy disc that anyone under, oh, twenty five say, will have never seen in real life. Even now we find that old things are being found, which were thought lost, up in attics of houses when someone dies, or forgotten in archives and libraries. Like the reporter searching for the meaning of "Rosebud" in Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane", the sledge with that name on it, could just as easily be put on the fire as the house gets cleared out. As family lines decline or move out to other parts of the world - what do we carry with us? Photographs...memories....letters.... something - but modern life doesn't do too good a job at collecting those. A person's iPod might be a physical replica of their favourite records long after they've gone, but when the machine stops working....

I have a long history of interest in the subject of obsolescence in media. It fascinates me - as it seems that by putting our work down at all, we are creating an impermanent permanence. I am still scarred by a poem that got lost when I was eight years old, the only copy bundled away as my parents got angry at the mess I'd left things in. Since then I've mostly been careful but have had several purges. I used to overwrite cassette tapes not having the spare £1 for a new one.

At least there used to a physical product. A few years ago I realised I'd stopped printing off most of my work - and it just existed on a series of hard disks - and in fear I realised that I wanted a paper copy - I began archiving work to Lulu which allowed me a physical version. These non-books are a personal safety blanket. The thing about digital is that it only exists when there is a second copy - for the stand alone copy is fragile. Yet if you make music what do  you keep? The original tapes/mixes or the just the finished object.

Cerf's plan seems a good one - a cloud virtualisation engine where different versions of software can exist for ever more. I hope he's got a version of an Apricot programme which I wrote my first novel for instance! Of course the digital object is perhaps no more vulnerable than the physical one. The "lost works" of antiquity are many... we don't know if Beowulf is the only story of its kind and quality or one of many, its survival only coming to light in the early 19th century. I suspect it is safe enough now. We then have those handed-down stories, Socrates known through Plato's dialogues, or the New Testament stories from nearly a century after the events, or Franz Xaver von Schönwert's fairytales lost in an archive for 150 years and only recently rediscovered.

Concern over what we have lost are nothing new and imaginative writers have often played with such thoughts - think notably of so many of Borges' short stories - but then again, read Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production"  to consider whether we are going backwards or forwards. The specific of digital virtualisation - that it will be the machines or the software that stop us from playing or reading or looking at things we take for granted now - are new, as is the seemingly endless amount of information out there. A few years ago I was at an art group that was clearing out their office as their funding had ended. They had bin bags full of  VHS tapes of short films that had been entered into a festival. I imagine I haven't kept the original letters or original text that was sent in for Lamport Court, the magazine I co-ran ten years or so ago, though some may have survived.

It seems to me there are several layers of archivist. The personal, the public, and the professional. The personal is often the artist (or if we are talking of personal data, the person who stores your family photographs - I bet its your dad). The public is that which exists many times. Surely a record that has been made available in a million copies is unlikely to be forever lost. Then the professional: this blog for instance was being archived by the British Library, though I just checked and they stopped doing so in 2012... did they run out of money? Did my blog stop being important? Who knows? Then there's the Wayback machine which does a phenomenal job of snapshotting the web - will these things survive? And that's before you start talking about the unexpected event - the wars and natural disasters that can take apart even the best laid plans. I read with interest Peggy Guggenheim's autobiography recently where she talked about hiding her collection of art as the war started and then removing it to America as the war ended. This is a mix of the personal and professional. Like the BBC cameramen who kept a tape of David Bowie on Top of the Pops or an old Dr. Who episode - its much harder for things to be lost than you'd think.

Where Cerf is right I think is that a generation now creating and preserving work is not even aware of the limitations of the impermanent. Whereas a writer, painter or musician will have good reason to keep some tabs on their work even if they never look at it again, who now keeps old emails - whether personal or business correspondance. My Gmail goes back nearly ten years now but my Compuserve and Demon and Tiscali accounts before then are long gone. Even this blog - I did attempt to extract it a few times in the past, but if some trick of fate means that Blogger disappears, will I have the energy to find it from some digital archive?

I wrote last year about "the end of memory" - where tasks we used to undertake, such as remembering phone calls and directions, are being replaced by always on immediate technology. Maybe our experiential culture means that we no longer have much time for history. Is this a complacency I wonder? "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." In our late capitalist consumerist world, Apple or whoever don't want us to be nostalgic - whereas in the 80s and 90s they wanted us to re-buy what we had already had, a continuing repetition of nostalgia, now - whether its the Premier League with its Year Zero approach to past history, or Spotify with its all you can eat buffet of songs from every era without any historical context - nostalgia is only valuable as a product. Remake, remodel indeed. When something doesn't work - Windows 8, Apple TV, Google glasses - they get sent to the dustbin of history. There's always a new piece of kit to be sold to us.

And this is at the heart of things I think - that as we live in an experiential culture where every minute should be filled, we no longer have the necessity to be bored like I was so often as a child, and scarcity which saw me spending hours deciding which particular record to buy or devouring every book as if it was my last, is no longer available to us.  On demand TV, YouTube and everything else provides us with no need to look back. It possibly explains the first person of so much contemporary fiction; and also, when we do look back, whether Downton Abbey or Wolf Hall it is to make history also a product. Taken into the political sphere - a right wing government like the current coalition wants to create a narrative that implies a reduced public sector is the only option; whilst the left struggles with narratives that aren't backward looking. Our Conservatives no longer conserves, our socialists no longer have a collective vision for the future.

An absence of history - at school, in the fast rebuilding/regenerating of city centres and fast growing cities in the far east - seems to suit the relentlessness of contemporary capitalism. In this context complaining to Flickr or Google or Microsoft because they have extinguished our online album, removed the service we stored everything on, seems to place the consumer in the role of curmudgeon. The generation that embraces digital and analogue - my own generation - sits uncomfortably between the two: we haven't the photo albums that our dads kept, at least partly because we haven't always got the shelves or sideboards or lofts to keep them in, but neither have we the insouciance to let the "cloud" take over - that somewhere in the future it will be possible to search out that old photograph, that old email, that needle in the digital haystack.

If it is a digital dark age I think it will be in patches - there are patches we've already lost - and I don't think any preservation programme can really counter our personal and technological flaws. More worrying the movement to private collections via Google books, rather than public libraries and archives which are either no longer funded, overwhelmed with content, or have got rid of the trained staff who can interpret these collections, means that we may well look back at these early days of the 21st century and wonder why nobody noticed.

Monday, February 09, 2015

This Week...

Having quite a few interests means that I sometimes end up with clashes that aren't clashes to anyone else.

This week is a case in point. If you're in Manchester the next few days and feeling cultural then fill your boots.

Wednesday I could split myself in three....


Next Generation Poets at Waterstones 

More poetry... 

The Other Room at the Castle 


Richard Dawson at Soup Kitchen. 

Thursday is of course art night....

Castlefield Gallery Launchpad: For Posterity 

...or photography night

Manchester Modernist Society website launch

...or digital night

Digital Innovation Manchester - The Shed launch  

Friday is a night of Manchester's creative women...

fiction ...

Rosie Garland's "Vixen" at Waterstones

and music....

Jane Weaver at Gullivers (sold out) 

And thats without the Whitworth Gallery relaunch weekend. I was there on Saturday for a "friends and family" night and its already looking very special. 

More stuff next week as well... but that's enough for now!

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Still Appeal of Writing Poetry

As someone who writes I occasionally find myself wondering why I write a particular way or in a particular format. As a lyric poet, poetry causes me some particular challenges. Whereas with fiction I feel able to pull out of the hat a ventriloquism if the story demands it, apart from a few "voiced" pieces, poetry needs to sit with, and sing in your own head and voice. "Finding your voice" is what young poets are told, especially if they are too influenced by a particular model writer. We all have a voice, but it would be absurd to think that each of us can create something unique and lasting. Our fragments come together and more often than not are an accumulation of what we have been reading, or of how we think.

We find our own ancestors of course - and in some ways that's been a little bit of the problem for me with the favourted sons and daughters of contemporary British poetry. There's no Celtic in me, despite red hair, and neither have I ever been particularly entranced by rural England, or the sentimentalised past, or even the present nature. Part of this, probably comes from having a background - in the industrial Midlands - where my grandparents were tenant farmers. There's little sentimentality from me for that life. Besides, born in the 1960s, from an early age I was promised modernities - whether it was gleaming new toys, colour television, the VHS tape or CD, or - as a teenager - new films and music. My world is one different than a generation that had folk memories (or real memories) of a bucolic countryside.

Yet take away nature poetry, take away sentimentality, take away elegy, and a lyric poet isn't left with all that much. I never succumbed too much to the anecdotalism of the New Generation poets either - it seemed a thin gruel (at least in my own seeing, my own life) to write about. A fantasist in my fiction, in the more rarified world of the poem, the temptation is to use the language to dig around your own life, confessionally at first a la Plath, but afterwards, I think, writing a poetry that is from yourself even if not about yourself. It's why discovering "For the Union Dead" by Lowell was so important to me - this was a mini-film; a public poem; a history poem. The American voice - the American line - is one I've been taken with ever since reading Prufrock, or slightly afterwards, Cummings. It doesn't always easily sit with a working class vernacular voice like the one I grew up with. The cadences of the Black Country remain in my thoughts even where they haven't remained in my speech. (And because I was such a constant reader, I don't think I ever read in my head in a parody of Black Country vernacular, my brain was being retaught from the inside.) That said, the demotic voice is one that appeals to me time and again in poetry, whether its the Metaphysicals, Wordsworth and Keats, Louis MacNiece, or Americans like C.K. Williams. Older poets, of course. Partially because its hard to find my "contemporary". Armitage is a couple of years older than me, some of the emerging poets are much younger; those who are at least a decade older than me that make up so much of the poetry establishment, don't seem to be ones I have much time for - like your older brother's Slade records, you probably had to be there at the time.

But I've strayed a bit from what I was wanting to write - which was less about the "fit" but more about the "why?" I sometimes think I write poetry because else where would all that thought and writing that doesn't easily fit into fictional prose go? In other words its a creative medium vast and wide and untravelled enough to always bring me back to it, however lame my particular crossings have made me. I suspect the glitteriness of a good poem is what appeals - whereas a good sentence or a nice story or a powerful piece of prose can be enlightening and invigorating, they can't encapsulate in the same way - they are partial art, to a greater good, a greater aim. This writer, at least, even though I probably share my time (and my gifts) between prose and poetry, continues with the latter because of the possibility in the latter. Probably why I'm never very good at workshopping my poems (whereas I'm happy to workshop prose), there's something unknowable I'm working at: the sense-making of the poetry workshop can sometimes be antithetical to my my effort (though I will probably aim to solve the same problems that they bring up, albeit in my own way.)

For a good poem seems to have a lot going for it, but a lot that needs doing to it. How to come up with an idea that hasn't been expressed before? At least not by me.... How then to find the cadence that will suit the words? How to muddle between the lazy assumptions of an easy lyricism, and the extra mile required to stretch out the line? (I'm not Whitman, I'm not C.K. Williams, neither am I Emily Dickinson or Emily Bronte). The form, then, like a template that you can tweak endlessly, like the three minute pop song, or the  Knock Knock joke. Yet we want to transcend the limitations of the latter - even if we're writing another sonnet. Its a complex recipe, worthy of an Ottolenghi cookbook, and its not surprising that sometimes I find I've not the ingredients, the tools or even the technique. Poetry though is more like a classic dish than something newly minted, and we put our own regional tastes on it. I wrote a poem last year where I compared nationalities via their different types of meatballs - faggots, albondigas, kofte etc. - the House of Babel may have many different languages, but we have a surprising propensity to share variants of our peasant food.

I think the demotic in this instance allows us to pull in the words of now, and has to. An American novel will be packed with brand names, as part of that daily mythologising they do; I distrust a plain poem that has only words that could have equally sat in a 19th century describing, just as I distrust those poetic words that the workshop is so keen on tossing out. I've just got the new biography "Young Eliot" and I look forward to retreading Prufrock and those other early poems, yet reading it as an 18 year old in 1985, it felt like a bygone age, even though I recognised the impulses. Perhaps that unwieldy name? Whatever, our formalism - not just in poetry but in life - separates us out. As I head into my late forties and the poems I write that people prefer are using a type of pseudocode, a knowing appropriation of language (Facebook LIKEs etc.) that I know will as likely be faded into memory in five years as any contemporary references - but these are just sprinkles of coconut on a seventies sweet, that will then brim with nostalgia at some later point.

For sitting down, with an idea, a line, a faithful nine syllable opener "Of course I never sailed to Europe..." I feel the old excitement again: and this poem, this tiny thing, suddenly seems a vast but honourable project. The second verse has already lost the magic of the first, I've already distrusted my poetic instinct in terms of making literal sense, but I'll keep at it... something more than a crossword, less than a cure for cancer, but in a still appealing place in the middle.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

There are Different Forms of Contemporary

Reading "Wolf Hall" it brought Tudor England into the present. Impossible of course, for the difference between then and now as so great as to not even work as a distended metaphor. But it tells us other things about ourselves. It is the birth of Protestant England; the birth of a process of independence from Rome and Papal rule, which allowed the growth of the English language; it also was an age of superstition, torture and state sanctioned murder - not so different than the world today if you know where to look.

I've always considered myself a contemporary writer - so that when people ask me I tell them  I write about the world we live in. And its true, I do, and will continue to do so. But looking at what I'm currently working on I realise there is a difference between being set in the contemporary world, and being about the contemporary world explicitly. Increasingly my concerns and interests are not about today, but have a wider scope - even if for reasons of expediency and style  the majority of my fiction is set in the day either before or after today. 

History becomes interesting not as setting, but for reasons of understanding. None of us rocked up in this world from nowhere. Create a character and he or she will have a history, a back story. There seems in an old country like Britain, a difficulty here - hence the continued obsession with class in the English novel - since change is difficult, it does not happen lightly to an individual. The fictional "life story" of rags to riches you might find in "Earthly Powers" or Jim Crace's "Arcadia" can hardly happen in contemporary Britain without a "windfall" of some sort. I've talked before about a certain kind of neurotic realism in contemporary British fiction where character/heroes are essentially static - the world happening to and at them, like in Nicola Barker's "Clear" or Tom McCarthy's "Remainder." We are adrift in a world where its hard to make our way, but harder still to be defined by our family and upbringing. In the TV sitcom the world of "family" has so often been replaced by that of "friends" (or "Friends") for we are uncomfortable with our historical place. Only late in their careers have - in "The Pregnant Widow", "Sense of an Ending" and "Sweet Tooth" - have our leading novelists gone back to what is now history - the sixties and seventies.

This lack of perspective is what creates difficulties for the young novelist trying to say something about their contemporary world - even about themselves - whilst at the same time not been pulled back into a BBC costume drama type of past. We don't seem to be in a world where the flux you find in F. Scott Fitzgerald or Hemingway for instance - men who had (like their characters) gone to make their way in the world - is even possible.

Yet writing about the present has its own foibles. The first person present tense of so many contemporary novels on the one hand; or the creative imagineering of impressive feats of historical ventriloquism on  the other; yet I think - and this is me writing in my forties - that when I want to write about the "contemporary" I now think of something different than I did even ten years ago. Now, I'm beginning to see that its possible to assemble my characters' lives from a meaningful history that in itself is now withered enough to allow change. I've suspected that a few writerly choices as to when things are set are to do with the fast changing technological times we live in. The simple thriller can't be as simple in a world of sat-navs, GPS, mobile phones and internet; similarly setting a book in the mid-90s safely puts us in a less technologically frantic age. We'll get used to it of course - I don't think one made too much notice of whether it was telegraphs or telephones, or motor cars or horse drawn carriages in "The Good Soldier" for instance.

The contemporary therefore becomes a useful setting, without being what the novel is necessarily about - yet I don't think I'm that concerned with the historical past so much as the social one. How my grandfather differed from my father differs from me seems an interesting story - more so than setting something in the 1930s or 1950s or 1970s. There are other writers who are more comfortable there. Similar to my writing of poetry, that is not so much about myself, but has come from myself in some way shape or form. I think I'm going back to an argument I've made here before - negating David Shield's "Reality Hunger" - that I'm much more interested in making things up. The world gives us plenty of setting to do this in; but even in a long piece, its surprising how soon your characters begin to crowd out everything else, wanting the room to tell their stories - and that aim you had to reflect on, say, the  Nixon administration, or punk rock, or Greenham Common, gets reduced to mere colour. Like in life, so in novels, so much of history is off stage. It's why I preferred "Wolf Hall" - with Cromwell on the rise, to "Bring Up the Bodies." The latter is too dependent on the court of Henry VIII, of which we both know too much, and paradoxically will always know too little. A Richard Yates novel - or "Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson which I'm currently reading - can tell us more about the times I think, through its concentration on a microcosm of those times.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The 21st Century's Best

Its taken a while, but as we enter into 2015, the first "best of the century" list has been produced (or at least the first I've been aware of.) The BBC's international culture site asked a number of American critics what the best noels of the century so far were. Its an intrigueing, if somewhat populist list - populist in that most of these novels had won prizes. I was surprised that Zadie Smith's engaging, but adolescent debut "White Teeth", is still being gushed about, even if it's probably - just about - her best novel (though not her best writing: some of that's in "NW" and her recent "Emperor of Cambodia"). Its a very Anglo-centric list - I guess translated novels take a while to come through - though the late Robert Bolano is included for his "2666." I've read only 8 of the top 20 (or is that quite a good showing?) so can't comment on alot of them. I was surprised to see "The Road" so low, as for a moment it seemed to be the exemplar novel of our times.

A couple of things are of interest I think. Firstly, that the "new novel" has made a good showing. Whatever you think of them, the books by Junot Diaz, Jennifer Egan, Bolano and Smith's flawed but adventurous "NW" are novels which play around with form.  They are tricksy sons and daughters of David Foster Wallace or grandchildren of Vonnegut and Barthes, rather than a new new realism. In fact, that kind of techno age knowingness, Brett Easton Ellis - Jay McInerney, has disappeared (and their own books are no longer like that either.) Perhaps there diminishing returns from a certain kind of brash zeitgeist surfing - so, no Douglas Coupland for instance. Not so many older novelists in there either. It seems particularly negligent that Roth's "The Plot Against America" isn't in there - but neither is that other great counter-history, Stephen King's "11.22.63." The British novels that have crossed the ocean, with the exception of New York based Zadie, are, somewhat predictably, of the Merchant-Ivory persuasion; so great as "Wolf Hall" and "Atonement" are, one can't help wish that America would look to us for something other than prettied up history. I'm not particularly keen on Hollingsworth's "The Line of Beauty", its let down by the Jamesian nature of his prose, elegant but somewhat defeated by his subject material I thought (I preferred "The Stranger's Child", though some sections of that book were much better than others.)

Secondly, British readers will not be that aware of a couple of books on the list. Edward P. Jones "The Known World" and Ben Fountain's "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" are both new names to me. Similarly if this was talking to a wider pool of reviewers I kind of think that writers like David Mitchell, Kate Atkinson and David Peace might have made the list - never mind outliers like Tom McCarthy or A.L. Kennedy.

Thirdly, there does seem a little bit of inertia in the choices. Franzen's "The Corrections", McEwan's "Atonement", even the Junot Diaz, strike me as books we may well like now but tire of, or not return to. Time might tell. 

I'm sure I've missed some and there are books that I really should have read but haven't (for instance I've been carrying "Gilead" with me for a month now without having had a chance to get into it) and my number one choice is a personal favourite, that nobody else seems to have read or been as enchanted by, but I'm convinced will grow in stature over time.  So here's my off the cuff list for now....

1. Three to see the king - Magnus Mills
2. A Visit from the Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan
3. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet - David Mitchell
4. Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel
5. A Girl is a half formed thing - Eimear McBride
6. The Damned United - David Peace
7. 11/22/63 - Stephen King 

8. The Plot Against America - Philip Roth
9. The Road - Cormac McCarthy
10. Life after life - Kate Atkinson
11. Five Miles from Outer Hope - Nicola Barker
12. The City and the City - China Mieville
13. A Long, Long Way - Sebastian Barry
14. Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
15. The Sisters Brothers - Patrick De Witt
16. Summertime - J.M. Coetzee
17. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz
18. Lunar Park - Brett Easton Ellis
19. Platform - Michel Houellebecq
20. Vernon God Little - DBC Pierre

(rather than alter the list above I'll add any ones I've forgotten here with relative position....)
4 - The Book of Dave - Will Self. 

Other Thoughts 
The Junot Diaz novel began life as a long short story which was then expanded. "NW" and "A Visit from the Goon Squad" could both be seen as collected shorts in some ways. Maybe the renaissance in the short story is as much about revitalising what can be done with the  novel as anything else? 

Also, looking back to see when things were published I had to dump "The Savage Detectives", "Atomised", "Enduring Love", "Wide Open", "American Pastoral", "How I Came to Marry a Communist", "Disgrace" and "The Poisonwood Bible" because they were all published in the nineties. I haven't the time now but maybe its time to sit down and write an essay about the stunning fiction of the last decade of the 20th century?  

Verbose - at Fallow Cafe - Monday 26th January

This Monday, 26th January, recover from your haggis with a night of live literature - the Wee Timorous Beasties performing will be David Gaffney, Elizabeth Baines, host Sarah-Clare Conlon, Sian Cummins and myself - but with ten open mic slots already booked it should be a diverse and interestign evening. Get there for 7.30 to make sure you don't miss anything - fiction, poetry, who knows?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Can we be our own Greatest influence?

After his patchy eighties - "Tonight" and "Never Let Me Down", the misunderstood Tin Machine period - the world wasn't exactly holding its breath for a new album, when "Black Tie, White Noise" was announced in 1993, and news that Nile Rodgers, who'd produced his bestselling "Lets Dance" was at the helm, didn't really help either - as despite its commercial success it had appeared to precipitate Bowie's decline. Yet when "Black Tie, White Noise" came out it was an artistic return, that also gave commercial success - going to number one in the UK charts. Moreover, it saw Bowie engaging not just with music, but with his own music. In some ways its a great example of a mature artist looking over his career and not picking the best bits as such, but remembering what different elements worked for him. So we have a return of Ronson, who would pass away later that year, but had done a Bowiefication on Morrissey a year or so before (Bowie would cover Morrissey on the album), the updated R&B (Al B. Sure! on the title track) echoed both his work on "Lets Dance" and his longstanding dance interest on "Young Americans", "I feel free", a Cream cover could have been seen as an updating of Pin Ups, the instrumental interludes that he'd written for his wedding were reminiscent of the Eno Berlin years....

There comes a point when an artist can stop looking for new things, new places to go, but rather can go back to their own points of influence, their own career, and start exploring paths that they either abandoned too early, or which have a resonance. Neil Young, Eno, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed are all artists who - after apparently searching for new sounds for years and across albums at some point came to the conclusion that there could be honour in looking back; and that the looking back could be productive. Thus "Time out of Mind", "Ragged Glory", "Harvest Moon", "Small Craft on a Milk Sea" and "New York", like "Black Tie, White Noise" and "1. Outside" could be seen as - if not career highlights - at least positive additions to the personal canon.

For less successful or iconic artists its no less the case. And I think it applies to writers as well as to musicans - and probably to artists and film makers as well. I'm not talking about retreads - "Godfather 3" etc. - so much as there comes a point in life, career, where the searching is different than it was before. Its not that you know everything, but that many of the touchstones that you have explored or want to explore have already been exploited by your art. Often, I think it is the coordinating of these touchstones that becomes the key thing. A good example would be one of my favourite writers, the late Bruce Chatwin. Before "In Patagonia" he had been a travel writer for a sunday paper, and worked at an auction house. Yet his nascent writings - a grand, large book about nomads - that he'd been writing during these years, failed to emerge. A reading of his letters (more often postcards) and biography gives us the genuine Chatwin - a voice that would be recognisably reproduced in the travel books "In Patagonia" and "The Songlines" but also in the fictions "Utz" and "On the Black Hill." The obsessions - travel, nomads, collections, history, home, outsiders, solitude, rootlessness - are there in the letters and postcards from the sixties and seventies; many of the places he visited - that intrigued him were to reappear in his fiction and his other writings - yet it was the synthesizing of these that mattered. Chatwin died too young, but left a near perfect selection. There was no final act for him.

Where there isn't a great publication history, where writing has to be fitted in alongside the work, the home, the family, the children, illness, addiction, whatever, it can be the same thing. At times I've been struggling of late to understand what I want to write about, what is/are my "subjects" - partly because I have sometimes covered these, but also because currently I'm not in a state of mind where worldly concerns really explode into my fiction or poetry, rather I'm increasingly taken by the structural idea, the process of doing, even the granularity of words and language - these are metaphysical concepts rather than themes or subjects. Yet over the last few days I started something new, again, where I realised that I was pulling together various strands that go back to before I wrote my first novel, back to concepts I first explored when I was sixteen or seventeen, in unpublished books of scribbles - my equivalent of the "nomads" book is a story called "A novice in the land of fakirs" - a Burroughsian scrabble of words and ideas that never cohered into anything; yet remains there in my past thinking.

Sometimes, its fine to look not at other writers, but to our troubled, troubling past and wonder whether we are not our greater influence. This time, late in the day, with maybe some of the tools to better achieve what we were reaching for first time out.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The New New

Every year, the new...

Every year, the new you - and every year the new, new. Art doesn't come popping out of an egg, its gestation period can be much longer or a one night stand that comes to live nine months later.

The media is eager to tell you about the new new. Each year again as if its an epoch. Fine and dandy, but so manufactured is this now, that I imagine if anything really new came out of it, then it would not even be on the radar. It takes time after all. The old new or new old is just as enticing - so good to see Manchester author Chris Killen, back with his sophomore novel "In Real Life" featured here in the Guardian. His debut came out in 2010, so an age ago in modern media terms, but in art terms, not so long. (My own poetry pamphlet, shorter than his debut novel, was published then as well, anyone interested in a follow up?). Another friend and Manchester-based author, Sarah Butler, will have her second novel out this year as well - yes, yes, we all know each other a little bit, its a small town!

But the new, new continues unabated and the Observer's taken to running round the publishing houses asking which books they are hyping (sorry, which good new authors have works coming out) in the new year. Obviously they're looking for this year's "The Miniaturist", but of course, these books would have all been signed up long before Jessie Burton's bestseller had hit the shops. It's a long list, and there's some interesting books, even if there was something a tad depressing about reading the first five "best new authors" were respectively, an award-winning comedy writer, John Le Carre's granddaughter, a journalist, a literary agent and a "multi-talented musician/academic" - the slushpile this aint! Anyway, there will be good books on this list, and good writers who come out of it. So take your pick.

Also in this week's Observer was an interview with a previous literary overnight sensation, Alex Garland, who has just directed his first film.  There are few more zeitgeist-y writers than the author of "The Beach", but its interesting that after that first novel was filmed, how the collaborative nature of that genre appealed to him far more than being a career novelist. Not a unique trajectory its true, but fascinating nonetheless.

Maybe it was going to see the Warhol show this week at Liverpool Tate, but it does seem on the one hand "everyone is an artist" but on the other, there are fewer writers that I really find myself interested in. It's not even the split between a mainstream and avant garde, or between commercial and literary fiction; it seems that we're in an age of over-abundant creativity on the one hand, and, on the other very little that stands out. For writers, its not just a hip subject or treatment, of course, but the writing itself, which was why "A Girl is a half formed thing" or "A Visit from the Goon Squad" have been standout books from the last few years.

I've had a chance to catch up with a few things online this week - a fascinating article on a new "portable" David Foster Wallace - I've always liked "collected" or "selected" editions and wish more contemporary authors were available in such a pick 'n' mix fashion, so I might get hold of it even though I've most of the stuff already. Though at nearly a thousand pages, its quite a hefty introduction - perhaps its meant to be the other bookend to "Infinite Jest"! Of equal interest, given world enough and time, I'd like to read this new biography of James Laughlin, the rich founder of avant garde publishers "New Directions." Here we have the publisher as auteur, not only creating a list that chimed with his own tastes, but developing a market for those tastes that created, to a large extent, an alternative canon. There's not a single press that you might go to these days for a similar nurturing role (and New Directions published short stories and poetry as well as longer works, which seems to me essential if you're going to take the literary pulse of the times), though Melville House, Copper Canyon and others are doing a fine job. The old joke about "how to make a small fortune in publishing - start with a large fortune" may mean that the rich gentleman publisher is a thing of the past; but the publishing industry keeps on going - and has even, by some accounts - seen off the e-book.

Tomorrow night, the first prize giving of the year takes place, with the solid T.S. Eliot's taking place in London. Eliot died 50 years ago this year and there's a new biography coming out to celebrate this - which again was extracted in the Guardian this weekend. "Once a subversive outsider, he became the most celebrated poet of the 20th century – a world poet, who changed the way we think", as the Guardian's sub-editor has it. There's not much subversion in the T.S. Eliot prize, unfortunately, which takes the venerable British Anglican poet, rather than the young American firebrand as its model - but that's British letters for you, a somewhat different mix of art and commerce than elsewhere in the world.

Locally, things should start up again in the next week or so - but as I'm not heading to any literary events this week I'll leave a round-up till the next time. The new new will be somewhat old hat by then, all being well.