Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Forensic Records Society by Magnus Mills

The banal doesn't sit well with fiction. The novel insists, too often, on action of one kind or another. It is left to theatre - "Waiting for Godot" perhaps - or comedy, "Viz" or "Early Doors", to find an artistic mode for the passing of the days. Occasionally attempts like Sylvia Smith's "Misadventures" have not been well received. Yet banality is one of the tropes - perhaps the main trope - at the heart of Magnus Mills' is fiction. Perhaps its because most of his characters are workers of one sort or another that this is the case, although in his latest, "The Forensic Records Society", the whole people who actually work are George and Alice, the licensee and barmaid of the pub where the majority of the (in)action takes place.

Two record collecting nerds would sit round each other's house, listening in turn to three records of the other's choice, an unspoken set of rules meaning that their comments on each were of the minimum. They were beyond taste, seeing that as merely opinion; yet tacitly they shared certain values. I'm reminded of when I was a teenager and three of us would come back from Birmingham laden with records and the rule was that we had to listen to the other's purchases, however much we hated them.

James, the leader of the pair, has a plan, that he suggests to the narrator, as his willing foil, that they should start a Forensic Records Society at their nearby pub on a Monday night. They do so, and gradually, draw in other blokes (always blokes), to their Monday ritual. Like early Christians or prototype Marxists, their club develops rules, and is both rigorous in the applying of them, and solemn in the seriousness of their purpose. Time passes in a vacuum, regardless of how many records they play it is always a surprise when last orders is called.

On ejecting one person from the club for arriving too late they find that he has set up a rival - a "confessional" records club, on the next night. Infiltrating this night they find it is very different. That people confess their feelings brought on by a particular record, and pay £5 for the privilege; it is attended by a mixed crowd, women included, and the leader becomes a bit of an icon.  It's like Simon Bates' "Our Tune" mixed with "The Matrix."

In the mean time, the pettiness of James' rules causes disquiet amongst the members, even as they turn up to listen to classic 7" singles. The song titles are planted throughout the book without explanation, so we too can almost become members of the club. There's a debate going on about the "perfect" song - not because of artistic merit but because it lasts for exactly three minutes, the "three minute pop song" being more a thing of legend than reality. This is the kind of thing that gets the men who attend this club excited.

Our narrator, common to many of Mill's characters, is unworldy whilst having a highly developed sense of his own perceptions. He slowly comes to realise that James is seeing Alice, the barmaid, who nonetheless remains incredibly frosty with himself. She has, it turns out, been singer on a very rare demo single, and the plot of the novel - if there is one - swings around this being heard. Alice, in her turn, has strong views on the narrator, describing him as someone who  doesn't like music.

The humour in "The Forensic Records Society" is in how Mills, as ever, works wonders on a tiny, restricted canvas, and draws out of it all its comic possibilities. The uncertain time keeping of the meetings is part of it. In Magnus Mills' world even physics can bend to the comic possibilities of the narrative.

Things come to a head of sorts, when a 3rd rival organisation, playing records that are more "meaningful", comes into existence. There's quite a few nice digs at the world of the record collector in this narcissism of small differences, from those who fetishise the object, to those who want the innocence of the classic jukebox 45. Amongst the many records listed, there are rap and ska and indie and classic rock and soul, but not much room for ABBA or house music or anything too modern. Even an avid record collector such as myself only recognised about two/thirds of the titles.

Its a short novel, but more packed than the above description can give a sense of, since in talking about the banal and the unimportant, there's clearly bigger things going on here. One reviewer calls it Animal Farm "with much better songs", but I always think Mills is less interested in metaphor, than in the small systems that exist within our everyday mundane society, such as the rules of the forensic records society, or the maintenance of headway that bus drivers pursue in a previous of his books. This fondness for an enclosed, regulated society, and what happens when the rules are broken or not fit for purpose is a way of exploring how men (and it is always men, the "love interest" like Alice, is hardly there at all) negotiate the world. That the world is not quite the one we perceive, is part of their charm.

This latest novel seems the closest in many ways to his debut "Restraint of Beasts", and like that its ending is uncertain, and ambiguous. The return to an every day setting after some of the more fantastical or out of time settings of recent novels is a welcome return to his home turf. It's one of his best.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Art Currents

At the start of March I was in Oxford for the first time, ostensibly to see the Jeff Koons show at the Ashmolean, though that was really just my excuse to go down, as I was off work for a week, and needed a trip away. I have always liked Koons, as more than any other contemporary artist he seemed to embody the times in which he creates. Sure, he's a late pop-artist but what he always brought to the table, as good artists do I think, is an unabashed sense of the work itself. Post-modern times require post-modern artists and Koons came at it without shame. His best work, some of which is shown here, really does stand the test of time. His balloon rabbit, made from stainless steel, is an iconic image - I used it as a cassette cover as far back as 1994 - but in the presence of it, you realise how good it really is, unphotographable in a sense, or rather, its reflective surface will reflect back the photographer, so its impossible to get a "clean" picture of it; also, being a 3 dimensional object, its appearance on postcards and the like reduces it to something less than it is, a flat Warhol surface, rather than the Oldenberg readymade that it is more akin to. Similarly, his floating basketballs are things of delicate wonder. You can see where Hirst got his ideas from maybe, though here we get the title "One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank" rather than "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living." Koons doesn't like the word kitsch to describe his work, as that's an arbitration on taste, and in many ways, his work has always been about stripping back the pretension of art to being - like Warhol's soapboxes and soup tins - something that you can imagine anywhere.

The exhibition at the Ashmolean has this first room of Koons classics, which are great to see, but do somewhat diminish what is there besides. The centrepiece of the second room is "Balloon Venus" which sees Koons playing similar games of reappropriation with "antiquities". This dialogue with art is why the show is at the Ashmolean, though oddly, its not really the Ashmolean's art that is being discussed. The superstar artist of course can plonk his franchise anywhere in the world for a few months before moving on. This room of "antiquities" - paintings scribbled on, or large scale recreations of other's works, seems more crass, though they are as bold as what came before. Its clearly monied art that exists because of that money. Its impressive but somewhat lacking in either wonder or humour. I preferred the third room, the Gazing Ball series again finds recreated classical sculptures and the like, but has a blue glazing ball added to each - these, apparently, can be found in the mid-west, as ornaments outside peoples houses, little baubles which you can look in and be reflected back in. They reminded me of the sort of art you see in Dr. Who, in a museum of the future, where Mona Lisa's and David's have been given a SF makeover. Yet, this isn't his purpose - the glazing balls are an American commonplace, which doesn't make them work quite as well in a British context where they just appear exotic.

So it was a small, but interesting show. In the video accompanying it, Koons, looking less like the Anthony Robbins/Jim Carrey of old and a more groomed Nicholas Cage, or perhaps more accurately, a well-heeled business school professor, talks about how having a family changes his views on things. There are no sex games with Cicciolina in this show then. The Guardian review has plenty of pictures, but I agree with the conclusion really, its a show of surface, not much more.

Back in Manchester I managed to get along to Niamos centre, an old ballroom in Hulme which has its own grandeur and is now back in use as a community-run venue. There was a music conference, Unconference, with the band PINS performing alongside others. They have changed lineup since I last saw them, and added more electronica to their garage pop, but it as a fine gig regardless, despite the "suits" in the audience not being as lively as their usual crowds.

I then got over to Bury Art Gallery, where one of my favourite local artists, Sarah Hardacre was exhibiting as part of the "Architecture Now" exhibition. Her prints and collages appear alongside cardboard building designs by Maurice Shapero. I've usually only seen one or two of Sarah's pieces at a time, but its instructive to see a much larger group of them for even if the format is unchanging - seventies porn pictures juxtaposed over urban scenes - what she does with them changes a lot, and seeing a whole group, with some Bury specific ones, made me smile more than the overinflated Koons work did.

Smiling was the order of the day at the third show I've seen recently - with Cherry Tennyson's solo show at Paradise Works. Half of Two Days of Everything brings her work from out of the studio and into the gallery; more readymades, more collages, but here with artefacts rather than paintings. The work feels fully realised, with aspects that are surreal or abstract, but with an impact that seems more subtle than that might apply. These works seem quite architectural in their own way; quite "made".  Its on for the following 2 Saturdays, so well worth a visit if you can find the time.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

This week

Its a busy week coming up with some excellent events on in Manchester.

On Thursday its the new Castlefield Gallery exhibition launch, Ever since CUBE gallery was closed there's been a gap in terms of design-led exhibitions, so its good to see this new show, UnDoing, a collaboration with Manchester School of Architecture. 

Also on Thursday, Brighter Sound have a cross-border collaboration, Both Sides Now, featuring emerging musicians from Liverpool and Helsinki, with mentoring from Manchester's LoneLady. A panel discussion will be followed by a one-off performance of new work. 

Then on Friday I'm looking forward to a talk from Kaye Mitchell, whose new book Avant-garde fiction of the 1960s, coincides with the reissue of Ann Quin's "Berg".  Its £3 to attend and on at the Anthony Burgess Foundation

It's also the launch of the Viva Spanish Film Festival at HOME all evening. 

Then on Saturday, I'm performing poetry at a night of DJs, music and words as a benefit for the male suicide prevention charity C.A.L.M. King Kenton's Greedy Band Selection costs £5 and takes place at Gulliver's on Saturday. Doors from 6pm, it all starts at 6.30pm, and I'll be on around 7.30pn. 


Tuesday, March 05, 2019

All Our Pasts and Futures

When David Bowie came back with his "The Next Day" album it was knowingly an album that mined the various stages of his career. Not because that was all he could do (as the future-gazing "Blackstar" would prove) but because it was some of the things he could do. The cover of that album was a pop art collage recreation of "Heroes", belatedly (since it didn't sell that well), one of his most iconic records.

He is not alone. Zappa's first three albums were cut up collage affairs that mined a multifaceted musical past and pasted them together. In the years to come he would separate out these instincts - so "Hot Rats" was his funky jazz album, "Cruisin' with Ruben and the Jets" his doo wop album etc. There are artists who have a thin seam they mine - maybe Dylan is like this, but he mines it deep. In retrospect the reviled double album "Self Portrait" is the most emblematic of this. Here is Dylan explicitly as magpie. Mark E. Smith was similar: always sounding like the Fall whether he took in garage rock, rockabilly, disco, cheesy '70s pop. British Beat, Krautrock or even Zappa.

I like to think musicians as they get older are able to pull in a wider palette than their forbears. As someone who has only ever used synthesizers in my music I've been always a bit in denial about those forbears - trying (in my own head at least) to emulate non-synth musicians. But I had a bit of a revelation before Christmas when I listened to my albums from '85 onwards in order. I saw that I was working my way through the various archetypes of electronic music - on the way to my own version of this. In 1985 it wasn't very fashionable to sound like early 1970s Tangerine Dream, but that was clearly what I sounded like; but a year later I was stumbling through early electronic new wave like the Normal and Cabaret Voltaire, and onto to electronic pop like Human League, before heading into New Order, house music and maybe rave. Yet my first house track was a few months before I'd heard Jack Your Body, so I went from being an imitator of past styles to being an unconscious designer of future ones.

Listening to my music over the last few years, this mix of the retro and futuristic is something that is at the heart of my musical project. I am past, present and future, but then I always was. Imitators often become the thing they tried to imitate - so Dylan is our examplar of Greenwich folk, or Depeche Mode quickly became the biggest electronic band in the world. I can't pretend any such power for my own music of course, but I think there's a sense that a steady sticking to the same electronica means that its possible to step outside of time somehow and just become part of the historical narrative you were initially imitating.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Resisting Conservative Narratives in Culture


The 1930s have long been on my mind. Weimar art and culture is a vibrant pot that continues to be worth stirring, and its ending as the Nazis came to power, remains the lesser tragedy, given what happened in the war, but nonetheless a tragedy that still resonates. And given that memories fade, or history gets rewritten, art continues to be a rebuke against forgetting.

Listening to Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), and reading about its genesis, its fascinating to consider the piece in its relationship between high and low culture, and between the mainstream and the avant garde. Gay's Beggar's Opera was a popular success, the word "opera" being appropriated for a song cycle that appropriated the best of popular culture of the day. It was clearly something that Brecht and Weill picked up on - and sure enough - from its first performance they had a popular success on their hands, that nonetheless attracted the middle classes to the work, as a "must see."

British and American audiences have mostly come through its songs - "Mack the Knife", the English translation of its most popular song, was one of the most popular standards of the 1950s, widely recorded by a range of popular crooners. By the 1970s Weill/Brecht were well established in the repertoire, and with suitably strong reputations in their respective fields; but its interesting that its been those on the avant garde who have been drawn into interpretations - at least within the pop field, particularly of later work such as "Alabama Song." The drama (and decadance) of 1930s Berlin finds favour with David Bowie, Klaus Nomi, Marc Almond, Ian McCullough and others, whilst being somewhat expunged from the commercial record. It would be a brave and nuanced performer who would bring their work to the X Factor or The Voice.

I've recently been listening a lot to Lotte Lenya, who appears here, and was Weill's partner. Her long career included a role in popular culture as Rosa Klebb in the Bond movie "From Russia With Love", as well as the appearance of one her albums appearing on the cover of Dylan's "Bringing it all back home." For those of us with a prediliction towards the international avant garde, its strange how certain erstwhile popular works ("Mack the Knife" is probably as famous as a song can get),  can retain their cultural currency.

It's no coincidence that both The Beggar's Opera and Die Dreigroschenoper have remained popular works as well as having great success in their day - for I think they have a universality that cleverly taps into various cultural currents. The avant garde, if its anything, is a hybrid, a shaking up of parts: no wonder it is drawn to collage, and that can be re-purposed, think of Burroughs and Gysin's "cut ups" or Kathy Acker's rewriting of classic works. As in literature, so in art, with Hannah Hoch, Andy Warhol, Richard Hamilton and others; and in music with sampling, and unorthodox covers, as well as the cyclical influence that sees Philip Glass reappropriating Bowie and Eno's Heroes and Low to make his most "traditionally" classical pieces.

What I think this shows is that modernity is very rarely derived from nowhere, or without influence, but whether we are talking about high culture or popular culture art forms that are relentlessly squeezed into their prevailing codes are unlikely to extend the form, and eventually become sclerotic and derivative.

Art is a threat because it does not necessarily respond to the prevailing narrative of the times, politically and culturally; and also because, as it is often non-explicit in its politics, it is open to interpretation which the sloganising of the time doesn't allow. In the excellent, though somewhat frightening, TV drama Brexit: the Uncivil War, the successful "leave" campaign is reduced down to the manipulations of backroom psychopaths, manipulating the message through algorithms and simple repetition to the extent that a complex relationship is reduced to a yes, a no, as required by the dumb logic of the plebiscite. In this its clear that art - because it can influence not just the way we think, but how we process complex worlds - becomes even more important if we are to retain a free-thinking capacity. It is no surprise that from the Nazi's crackdown on "degenerate art", to Stalin's policing of its composers, to China's cultural revolution, to the killing fields of Cambodia, to the Lord Chancellor's ban on what could be seen on a British stage, to McCarthyism, and now to the pulling of arts education from schools, the refusal to listen to "experts" across all kinds of fields in Britain and the U.S. today; that culture threatens conservative and repressive narratives in our society by questioning their very validity, and giving us the tools to do so.

A nostalgic art is one that is unchanged and unchanging, so that even fierce iconoclasts of the past become packaged. The sugar coated "Imagine" becomes a regular on Smooth.FM whilst the context behind it, Amsterdam bed-ins, the avant garde albums with Ono, are conveniently ignored; classical music hides behind the tailcoats and opera glasses of upper class entertainment. In The Uncivil War, the actors playing Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, two media-savvy careerists who've been amongst the architects of Brexit, see each other from their private boxes either side of some classical performance. This is where power happens, amongst culture that can no longer shock, or inform. The poetry festival, the blockbuster art show, these are also manifestations of this power, locking people out through their customs or price even as they pretend to an egalitarian. Outside, in a dingy warehouse or pop up space or dive bar, above a pub or in someone's bedsit, is where art is actually happening; if there is a resistance (there is always a resistance) this is where it begins.

And yet, we live in worrying times - and art, like civil protest, is beginning to be repressed as a result. The arrest and imprisonment of civil rights activists against fracking (which was successfully quashed on appeal) had the "couldn't make it up" scenario of happening when a particular judge gave judgement, despite having family connections in the energy industry, and - perhaps a sign of the small pool from which the ruling class comes from - coming from a line of judges which included the overseer of the Pendle witch trials.

More recently, and very shocking, is the arrest and suspended imprisonment sentences of drill musicians for performing their work live is perhaps the most shocking overreach of police and judicial power in the arts that we have seen in over twenty years. Skengdo and AM, names new to me, but big enough in their music community to be playing to large crowds, join a list of artists targeted for their work. It is a dark time.

With Brexit continuing to suck all the air from the room, its easy to forget how little Europe or being part of the European union has been part of our artistic discussions over the years. There's often a parochialism about our island nation that turns inward whenever there appears to be a threat or a difference that we don't understand. Like the cloud that covers the land in Ishiguro's metaphorical novel "The Buried Giant", we prefer the mist of isolation, than to see the ships arriving on the horizon - and that seems to be whether they bring enemies or new goods to trade. We've often, as a nation, punched above our weight creatively, benefiting as often as not, from our isolation, our cold, damp winters, and our English language; but also that's a chimera; many of our most important artists are imports - think Handel, T.S. Eliot, Epstein, even popular favourite Freddy Mercury - or from our polyglot margins, Celts, Scots, Irish, or imports from an English-speaking empire. Our last two Nobel writers - Lessing and Ishiguro - as examples.

This is not necessarily to aim for a political art, but to appreciate how political art can be in and of itself. Brecht clearly recognised the potency of reviving the Beggar's Opera in a different context, and it flew; for a contemporary Britain our narratives need to move past the sentimental. Even the uproar around Danny Boyle's attempts to create a corrective narrative for his Olympics opening ceremony in 2012, now seem partially obscured by what was clearly - in an age of austerity - a festival of bread and circuses. The avant garde - if such exists - and if we are even allowed to use such as French term (for which there is no direct English equivalent) has always been an international exchange of ideas, above and beyond the differences of language and culture; it is resisted by Putin in imprisoning Pussy Riot just as it was in other places and other times. Here and now, we see that government funding for the arts becomes more and more a creature of political whim; May's attempt for a post-Brexit festival of Britain could well fall flat on the impossibility of her uninspiring leadership delivering on any kind of Brexit that doesn't destroy the country. The funding will no doubt stay in place, the chosen artists may well be ones willing to bite the hand that feeds, but as ever, the scale and majesty of officially sanctioned art, can act to nullify even the most experimental of gestures.

At the same time - this weekend in Glasgow to see art - and hearing about a range of D.I.Y. and grassroots events in Manchester, our own resistance is far from subdued. Art on its own as is never enough, as the crowds flocking to Die Dreigschenoper would soon be going about their normal lives, fleeing or dead, or part of the nationalist war machine; its easy to forget (as we stockpile tins and bottled water for a "no deal" Brexit) that we need bread and circuses. Let's be careful who is providing them however, and what are their motives.

Friday, December 21, 2018

More Than Words: Book Design in Contemporary Poetry

Sometimes you only notice things when seeing from a different angle. Having recently moved house, I began unpacking my books, putting all the poetry books in one place for the first time. There are some striking designs in poetry history: the wonderful typographical covers of sixties and seventies Faber Thom Gunns; the stark look of New Directions beat poets; the uniform Stephen Raw covers of my many Carcanet books; the quirky seventies chic of Brian Patten's slim volumes; Penguin's classic Modern Poets series; the Pop Art appropriation of anthologies from Donald Hall and Al Alvarez.




Amidst all of these familiar covers, I began to notice that the most striking volumes were often much more recent ones, from tiny or barely existent presses, from the more interesting of our current crop of poets. The shelves quickly filled with a hotch-potch of different sized books, some reflecting on the work inside - wide pages, square covers chosen to fit in the internal content.

Its always been the way that far more than prose, poetry publishers have had to accomodate different line lengths, and different page designs as a result. The "long line" has challenged the uniform design of many a press. Yet without a broader page size a lot of contemporary poetry falters, feels cramped in a way that its not. Recent examples include "Sea Change" by Jorie Graham and "One Big Self" by C.D. Wright, the latter being testimonies from prisoners, and so having something of the verbatim of prose, those organised as poetry.


The importance of doing justice to the work is not a new thing. Ashbery's long poem "Flowchart" appears in a suitably large format hardback for instance. Even recent anthologies - such as the relaunched Penguin Modern Poets - and small format magazines such as Poetry, have tended to change the "direction" of wider poems, or have fold out pages. 

In the background of all this are the wider changes in the publishing industry, where at the same time as major players reduce their lists of marginal sellers (poetry being one), the slack has been picked up by the ease in which a press can be set up and in a very short time established. Yet its also a sign of how open poets generally have been to producing work in a number of formats and for a number of publishers. 

The pamphlet remains one of the entry-level routes into poetry. Pamphlet series such as the Salt Modern Voices one I was published in, as well as Faber's new poets, have been a good opening gambit for new poets. Yet, more established names have also found the pamphlet works as a perfect model for side projects. Cheap to produce, in limited runs, pamphlets tend to the ephemeral, and as a result we see some of the nicest examples of design - either because they are a one off, part of a generic series, or simply through the accident of materials and publishing method. Minimalism is employed to strong effect on the below examples from Rhys Trimble, Amy De'ath, Matthew Welton and J.T. Welsch - artisan covers offset the poems which are often presented in a very unadorned way, with little design beyond the use of white space. Things of simple beauty. 
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But the pamphlet is not just an occasional project, but a simple distribution mechanism, easy for poets to carry around, to sell at gigs, and short and cheap enough to encourage purchase. For just a few pounds you get to sample the poets work. In some ways the American term "chapbook" seems a better one - and some pamphlets are as long as "single collections" would have been thirty or forty years ago. In some cases, and with prolific presses such as Knives, Forks and Spoons, its hard to see where the gap between pamphlet and collection is. KFS have adopted - as did Salt with their Modern Voices, or Faber with its new poets pamphlets - a uniform design. This again cuts down on cost and production time but also creates a signature that is itself visually exciting, and perhaps even collectible.  In the case of If P Then Q (Holly Pester below) the limitations of publishing platform Lulu encourage a more austere and minimalist design which has its own clarity to it. 



For the bigger independent presses such as Bloodaxe and Carcanet their own "uniform" designs have perhaps begun to look a little overly familiar over the years despite their excellence. Stephen Raw's Carcanet covers have themselves been highly influential, and still have gravitas (see the 30th anniversary Ashbery below) but we've seen recent books from the publisher, from James Davies and Matthew Welton with a new aesthetic,  from designer Luke Allan, which also reflects the particular nature of these poets, experimental, sequential. Similarly, take Bloodaxe and put an artist-poet on their roster and a new look appears, as with the Heather Phillipson below, designed by Phillipson and fellow poet-artist Ed Atkins.  

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Yet its not just an outward aesthetic that new poetry design is reflecting but a range of artistic decisions to do with what we consider a poem at all. The willingness of ZimZalla, Knives, Forks and Spoons and others to put the time and resource into creating more complex creations such as Leanne Bridgewater and Philip Davenport's books below, reflects the hybrid nature of the contents. The books themselves are art objects. Slightly out of scope for here, but ZimZalla has pioneered a range of different presentations of poetry, often as far from a book as you can imagine. Bridgewater and Davenport are both artist-writers and so the works have a coherence. The latter oversaw a major anthology and exhibition of visual poetry. 




The thriving avant garde scene in Manchester means that quite a number of these presses are local, and attached to the now ended reading season "The Other Room." A book table was always available there. This year, a newer press ran and independent book fair in Manchester - and Dostoevsky Wannabe will be repeating this in early February. Their own books are another small press aesthetic - echoing old Penguin/Pelican designs - and again, using print on demand, in this case the much improved Amazon CreateSpace to create their books. The two books Richard Barrett has put out with them - "u make me laugh in a different way" and "The Acts", with Steve Hanson - cover a range of literary styles, prose, poetry, hybrid work, but the shared cover aesthetic makes all of their books desirable. If DW are using the new technologies, another local designer Lucy Wilkinson is using older techniques to create unique and highly desirable little booklets and books - again crossing over between text, poetry, prose and visual art. Her Death of Workers Whilst Building Skyscrapers imprint is politically charged but aesthetically driven. 



Over the last few years Tom Chivers' Penned in the Margins has become an imprint of excellence, and their design has grown to match. His own 2nd collection was radically white text on black background from Test Centre in 2015, so design is clearly at the heart of his own practice. Penned in the Margins books are always attractive such as "Spacecraft" below from John McCullough, but their most effective one to date was Luke Kennard's brilliant "Cain" where the last part of the book - has two texts running side by side and the design is critical to the literary aesthetic. 



Such aesthetic considerations are also at the heart of Amy McCauley's recent sold out collection "Oedipa", from Guillemot. Incorporating design on every page, like the Kennard book, such an ambitious layout might have been difficult to do at a reasonable cost a few years ago, but luckily the advances in print technology and digital design mean that even small presses can be highly ambitious. 

Aesthetic considerations are also behind Chris McCabe's "Shad Thames" from a few years ago, which appears in a box, with an envelope of detritus. Just through my door is the new collection from Richard Barrett under the Happy Books imprint, which comes as a glorious yellow square, with each page as vibrant as the inner sleeve of a record cover. This "Face Book" is a great way to end 2018. Barrett has been published by a few of the presses here - and there does seem a wonderfully collaborative nature to the scene in Manchester - and further afield, that is beginning to show great work, but also make it attractive and relevant. 




Clearly I've become attracted to the special edition, the odd work, the vibrant design. Most of these are single author collections - but its clear that representative anthologies of the future will need to be clever in how they present work given the wide range of original sources as to how it appears. Photography, design, collage as well as words are part of this renaissance in book design in contemporary poetry. Your bookshelves aren't designed to hold all of these of course, and there's something both ephemeral and to be cherished about such small run works, which is at one with the vibrancy of the writers who are producing this work. 

The number of poets who are also designers, artists, musicians or performers means that there is always going to be a fluidity beyond the single volume. Some of the best anthologies reflect this, others - like the Herbert/Price "Contraflow on the Super Highway" from last century or this "Stop/Sharpening/Your/Knives" anthology from a few years back - are coming from the same D.I.Y. aspect. 

I limited myself in this article to books that I own, but there's clearly lots more out there - and I hope even the bigger presses are taking note - and they probably are - such as the larger footprint of the Danez Smith collection below. Like Shearsman's Lisa Robertson selection the larger cover creates a sense of permanence I think. 


 
I wanted to finish this survey with a few other favourites that don't fit into a particular category but showcase that in good poetry you can judge a book by its cover. First, the uniform C.B. Editions design,  in this case D. Nurkse, covering beautifully presented books, both fiction and poetry. And then striking designs from Christian Bok, Warsan Shire, Keston Sutherland, Agnes Lehoczky and Chris McCabe. If you're buying a poetry book this Christmas look out for any of these - the content and the cover won't disappoint.











Saturday, December 01, 2018

Books Furnish a Room

Having just moved house, it means I've also moved around 100 large boxes of books, CDs and records. A month in, and I'm still only some way through the unpacking. This is deliberate accumulation, years rummaging the second hand and charity shops as well as buying new stuff. I seem to have replaced the reading of books with the buying of them.

That's perhaps a topic for another day. Clearly, building a personal library is different than just buying things to read, and the plethora of literary biographies and lit crit books testifies to that aim. But the library only works of course if you can find the books that you have got. With the internet still being quite stubborn about what is available online, it makes this resource both a valuable one and a frustrating one. There's also something about the context of a book - its font, its cover, its binding - which the virtual can never replicate.

More people than ever want to be writers, it seems in an age of instant gratification, the far from instant gratification of writing a novel is high on a lot of people's To Do lists. Perhaps this is the inevitable corollary to an educated workforce, many of whom are in dispiriting or uninspiring jobs. Despite all top employers asking for and valuing creativity, you'll find it near impossible to get a creative job without a hell of a lot of luck, graft and probably privilege.

Yet look at the thousands upon thousands of new flats popping up around Manchester and other cities, and they are hardly endowed with any storage, let alone room for bookshelves. Large glass windows, and integrated kitchen-living spaces reduce the amount of wall space available. We are a society driven by consumption, but have failed to create a space where we can enjoy what we can consume. No wonder the high street is dying to be replaced by "experiences", Years ago a girl at sixth form said she'd much rather spend her little money on a night out than a record, and at the time I disagreed with her - but over the years I guess I became far more outgoing. Yet the endless nights out morph into single memories, just as a pile of records becomes anonymous when hidden in a record case.

Without the charity shop I'm not sure where all these books would go - but even these seem to be reducing the space given over to books, CDs and DVDs. I reluctantly binned a load of VHS videos, thinking nowhere would take them. The one charity shop I know that has some still has them at 5 for £1. DVDs are going the same way - yet our reliance on paid for and subscription services is a risky one. Just as copyright restrictions meant it was often years before much loved BBC and ITV dramas and comedies made it onto a physical media, so it is nowadays, that the dog-eat-dog world of streaming services can see whole film catalogues disappear, even though absolutely everything appears to be on YouTube in one form or another. CDs are the same - the record industry having killed vinyl, only to see it become a revenue life saver, is rapidly killing CDs even though it remains their biggest selling format. One of the things that's happened is that the living room has been handed over to the tech giants who are far more interested in selling you the air that you breathe (or wifi that you watch) and the forever obsolete devices that act as filters than in offering you personal control over your living space. In the tiny city centre flat, where is the value in finding room for DVDs and the like?

Books do furnish a room however, and I'm spending the weekend building more bookcases. There still seems to be something noble and valuable in having, say, all Ian McEwan's novels together. But not just that - over the years I've picked up a few gems. I didn't realise I'd got half a dozen books by Jean Rhys for example, though I perhaps don't need three (so far) copies of "Wide Sargasso Sea", or a library of William Golding in their lovely 60s Faber covers, or those Nabokov reissues from the seventies with a uniform font and design. Putting all my poetry books in one place surprises me with the scope - though notably thin on the Picador-Cape-Faber establishment of the last twenty years, which tells its own story - whilst amongst my "most valuable" books (according to Abebooks at least) are several music related titles, as they rarely get reissued.

The idea of value is one that intrigues me. In a time when our experience of a Cafe Nero or Costa is worth £3 for an hour of contemplation and wifi, usually in a place that is too packed, and untidy, what price a novel? I'd struggle to sell most of mine for more than a penny (plus post and packing) online. Charity shops range from 75p to £3 for often the same book. Though I sometimes complain about Oxfam's prices (on records particularly), I can't criticise them for trying to value the books they sell more than the price of a hot beverage. I undertook an experiment a couple of years ago where I collected books I really loved and bought extra copies from charity shops when I saw them in near mint condition. I then sold them at a book fair for £4 each or 3 for a tenner, with a little bit of a back story. I did surprisingly well. Certain books will always fly off the shelves, the audience, unlike the audience for say, the first 2 Adele albums, is never sated. Recent bestsellers have included "The Handmaid's Tale", "The Great Gatsby" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" though all have been easily available secondhand for years.

The writers whose time has gone, I suspect are some of the big American boys (mostly boys) who dominate my shelves. The sheer prolificness of Roth, Bellow, Updike, Vidal and Mailer, as well as them being bestsellers in a time when books were read in numbers, means that they are as common as the Eagles' Greatest Hits. Rarity is the only thing that really appoints value, yet books are mass produced objects, so outside of small press poetry publications, and genuine first edition hardbacks, is there much that has value? The words should be enough of course, and its fascinating to note the amount of different covers that classics have had over the years, each reprint giving a book marketing department a chance for subtle changes or total overhauls. Beyond the big names, I'm struck by the number of books that already seem forgotten ready for pulping. You can wonder why a book like "Stoner" could be resurrected as a 21st century hit, but then when you see the sheer number of novels, good, bad and indifferent that have never won prizes or been otherwise recognised, its quite humbling as a writer who would still like to add one to the pile.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

A Cultural Catastrophe

History moves like an iceberg cracks, first slowly and hardly noticeably, and then with an almighty jolt, as the fissure becomes a calamitous crack. Brexit feels ever more like that iceberg. It is not a catastrophe built in days, weeks or months, though the running commentary since the vote will no doubt be subject of quite a few history books, but in years. There was a quote on Facebook from Margaret Thatcher, then under Ted Heath's leadership, from 1975, in favour of being at the heart of Europe. That's a time that anyone under forty will have no memory of - yet the iceberg was there.

Increasingly it becomes clearer that the destruction of the European project is a longstanding aim of both a certain crazed variety of elected Conservative politician, but also of a shadowing monied class - international in focus, but parochial in concerns. The "why" of the anti-Europe obsession remains an oblique one grounded in fear, history, and self-interest. Both the right and a certain strand of the anti-European left are prone to conspiracy theories - yet there doesn't need to be a theory, when there is obvious collusion. What those forces are, are partly economic, but increasingly I'm seeing them as cultural. The "culture wars" is currently playing out a potentially catastrophic round in America with the election of a right winger to the supreme court, putting at risk Roe v. Wade, and with it women's autonomy over their body; such madness sometimes seems far away, but in the fringes of the Conservative party conference, a mix of toxic ideas and policies - where the state should have no intervention in our fiscal freedoms, but at the same time should be able to curtail any of our cultural ones - is the tune playing in the background whenever Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg speaks. I'm reminded of that episode of Dr. Who, where John Simms, playing The Master, has a constant refrain in his ear. Such a tinnitus that it cannot be got rid of.

Yet under the British system, the worst kind of government is the weak and the propped up one. John Major, so often given a free pass now he's an elder statesman, oversaw the privatisation of the railways, a disaster that continues to blight millions of peoples lives every day. Moreover, the long, limp years before Tony Blair's "New Labour" put the Conservatives (and the country) out of their misery was a period where a minority government failed to achieve anything. Yet in those years the iceberg continued to crack, modern life was held back, as those in office, but not in power did what they could. And here's the thing - when a government can hardly manage a majority about which restaurant they'll eat at that evening, the idle hands will find other work to do. This is the more benign explanation of Theresa May's announcement that it is not only skilled workers that this country wants, but only those earning £50,000 a year or more. At 51, I've not ever even come close to this figure in my career, yet it is not those, like myself, in everyday jobs, that this is aimed at - but a wider array of creative professions, particularly outside of hothouse London.

It seems that alongside the sidelining of the arts in schools under that arch villain Michael Gove, so that a rebalancing towards science and maths can only happen in fossilised Britain through burning up the opportunities that the creative arts gives, the unspoken assumption between so much of what is currently going on politically is also cultural. A far right, conveniently religious when it suits them, but rarely finding inspiration in a Jesus who loved the poor, begins to want a serf class, understanding full well that you control a population not just through holding back their financial aspirations, but also their cultural ones.

I grew up in the heart of Brexit Britain. The West Midlands is often a bellwether for politics in this country, its large number of small manufacturers, still revered status as "workshop of the world", and current place as an onshore logistics hub for London and the North, means that in good economic times it is bouyant, and in bad times it falls back on itself. Given that it is globalisation that powers the warehouses, big box stores, and business parks of that part of the world, you would think that a cosmopolitanism might have come with the access to cheap goods. But that's to underestimate how cultural all this is. Last time I was in Walsall for any length of time, the idea that it was a Brexit town was not at all fanciful - it wasn't just the poverty - cheap shops selling cheap goods and power quality food abounded - but the cultural poverty. The wonderful New Art Gallery sits alone at one end of the town, stubbornly unable to regenerate the area around it. There are no independent shops or artisan pop ups in Walsall. The one record shop that opened briefly in the Victorian arcade closed as quickly as it opened. A town with a diverse and long standing Asian community doesn't seem to have the vibrant colours and smells of the fresh food market place at least not in the city centre. More recently, that other bellwether of economic life, the Marks & Spencer's, where my mum used to work on the tills for a bit of Christmas money each year, closed down adding another empty unit to a high street that has in recent years lost Woolworths and BHS. I mention Walsall partly because John Harris in the Guardian has recently gone there, wanting to find out what makes Brexit Britain tick.

Growing up near Walsall, it was a microcosm of small towns everywhere - a place, when young to spend a Saturday afternoon - a couple of good record shops, books and magazines from the WH Smiths, and it closed down at five o'clock, where the main cultural activity was buying the "pink" sports paper as it came out, and checking the results in the window of the Rumbelow's. Most of my classmates left school at sixteen whilst 1 in 10 of us went to sixth form, then university. Birmingham was where we mostly got our culture fix whether shopping or music. Walsall and Cannock had small colleges - what used to be called technical colleges - but weren't university towns. It means that young people leave - less of an issue when few went to university, but more so when nearly half the population does. The ones "left behind" never thought of themselves of being "left behind" but as the ones who stayed: family ties are strong, community ties are strong. Working class culture often manifests itself in odd ways.  The soap operas - Birmingham set Crossroads as much as the northern Coronation Street - and music - heavy metal and Elvis depending on your age and generation, were no different than elsewhere. There's a heavily filtered version of mainstream culture that you forget has a pervasiveness until you go back there. The charity shops are filled with "South Pacific", "The King and I", Bert Kaempfert, James Last and the like same as anywhere. People like their spicy food - the balti was a Birmingham invention after all - and they like their cars and their dogs. I sometimes think that the Brexit worm could grow in these places, because of two things - those of us who left and had little reason to come back, and landlocked in the middle of the country, our culture had become stymied, held back, earthy and earthbound, culture, like everything there, needs to be a solid one based upon real things. There is little room for mystery. Heavy metal, the area's one true cultural innovation of the last fifty years, is a manifestation of that normalcy, even though it comes with a countercultural belligerency.

The sweep of cultural influence can only go so far before becoming more a whisper than a roar. If you think, as I did growing up, of Europe as a newly available vista, mysterious, nearby, but accessible only by some effort - passport, plane, new language - that sense of promise can be invigorating: but it never leant itself to anything more than the package holiday or wanting to get away. For those who stayed or went back, culture remains white bread rather than pannini.

The 52 per cent includes some like the diabolical Farage who themselves have European partners and children, and yet still voted to "leave." What "leave" meant is still open to debate. Going through Walsall and Brownhills shortly after the vote I remember thinking I wasn't surprised that they'd voted for Brexit. Whatever dividend Europe gives, culturally and financially, gets laundered through London, then the big cities, so that little is left by the time it arrives at these doors. When you are concerned about your job, your family etc. culture can no doubt seem an add-on. Those of us who craved an escape from Saturday night light entertainment and the like, can now find anything they want on the internet - yet the rabbit holes we go down are likely to be the ones that are familiar to us - whereas the back pages of Melody Maker and the NME, the late night listens to John Peel, the revolving carousel of Picadors in the WH Smiths, these were lifeboats from the Titanic of my life, crashing into that iceberg. I see it now in the slowest of motions. The familiar names from school on my Facebook page are often static ones - others have gone, disappeared; some have died - a few, like myself, moved away, some across the world; the things shared are everyday memes, a lazy cultural currency that pays for less each time.

Yet in a country that still has a growing population, where many different nationalities live and work and speak English, where religion is only a minor pursuit, and where cultural identity (for the English at least) is more about what it is not, than a shared "what is", where our cultural bonding is more likely to be over an American or Danish boxset than the BBC, where those archetypes of literature - the priest, the soldier, the politician, the doctor, the professor - seem less achievable or desirable jobs than cosplaying Pokemon characters, you can begin to see that small shifts in how we are taught, spoken to, manipulated are important ones. When the Nazis first identified "decadent art" they didn't hide it or burn it or persecute the artists as they later would, but actually put it on show in Berlin, and encouraged all to go and see it and mock the pretensions. It doesn't take much though to take away the cultural oxygen from those who might need it most - those who are deprived of it. The middle classes can continue, as they did in apartheid South Africa, to access "dangerous" texts under the banner of art; what is worrying about Britain today is that one of our national characteristics, creativity, is being stifled, deliberately, as part of the cracking of the iceberg. From learning foreign languages, to the books we read at school and for pleasure, to what we are encouraged to study in school and university, a certain illiteracy amongst the ruling classes, combined with the reactionary "little Englander" paucity of ideas behind Brexit, are heading us to a cultural catastrophe, adrift, bereft of meaning, unable to articulate what it is we have lost.


Saturday, September 29, 2018

Slade House by David Mitchell

I've not touched in with David Mitchell for a while, having not read his last major novel "The Bone Clocks", from which some ideas in "Slade House" are pulled out. In essence this is a book of ghost stories. The Slade House of the title did once exist but has since been demolished and built over, but once every nine years - relating to the stories here - its becomes corporeal again, accessible via a small hidden gate in a wall. The tropes of the classic ghost story are all here - the haunted house, the secret garden, and the two mysterious twins who inhabit this place. The story behind what it is, is something stranger and more in the fantasy genre than in the classic ghost story, but the tropes are ably handled.

Mitchell has always been such an adept writer that the many different landscapes in his novels mean that it sometimes appears he can turn his hand to anything, and you can tell he leaps with glee on the ideas here. In the first story, set in a recognisably drab seventies, a young boy is dragged by his mother who is a struggling classical pianist, to play at the big house. On arrival he is met by a boy his own age who seems as much a loner as he is. Mitchell has previously written about growing up in the seventies in "Black Swan Green", the book this most resembles in his past works, as its also a novel that is at the same made up of somewhat distinct stories. Here the stories are sequential, one taking place every nine years. The best is the first - "The Right Sort" - where Nathan is our narrator. A bright but troubled child, possibly suffering from Asperger's or similar, he's a beguiling narrator, more perceptive than all the adult's around him, but also, with his own skewed view of the world, unable to fully understand what is happening to him. His parents are separated and his father is in "Rhodesia" (it's set in the seventies when that was still its name), where he has gone to visit. So unlike his uncomplicated, macho father, he's now tagging along with his distracted, artistic mother. For the first time in the garden of Slade House he meets Jonah Grayer, one of two twins who live there. Time begins to bend, and what appeared to be a magical place, turns into anything but.

The stories that follow take up the plot at nine yearly intervals. Mitchell has to be applauded in the invention he shows - so that rather than each visitation of Slade House into the real world being a repeat of the past one, it also shows changes, as the "operandi" of the two souls who inhabit it - the Grayer twins - becomes clearer.

I read the novel quickly on a short flight to Brussels and back and its as readable as all its work, but, as Graham Greene might have put it, one of his "entertainments." For all Mitchell's gifts, the one place I sometimes finds he struggles with is in writing about the contemporary everyday Britain. The second story, where a sexist policeman is our narrator, feels cliched in the extreme, whilst the third, about a group of nineties students at a party, also doesn't entirely ring true. Combining this with the fantasy elements forms an uneasy mix and tone. He's on a surer footing when telling the story of the twins' lives, as telepaths who learnt esoteric arts - this is Mitchell at his storytelling best, far away from the every day. It's certainly said to be standalone from "The Bone Clocks" but its a reminder I need to read that novel. All the stories here have their merits and feed on from each other and its a very clever book, with a satisfyingly ghoulish ending.  So certainly an enjoyable read, but not essential by any means.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Lit in September.

Hideously busy, with one thing and another, so this is an inarticulate list. Buy, go to, check out.

Michael Conley read from his new fiction collection tonight. Those who have seen him read know that Michael's great skill is to take ideas not just as far as they can go, but further. His story about a group of seals is another of his great animal stories - though he's equally as adept at finding absurdity in the human. Flare and Falter is out now from new Birmingham based publisher Splice. Ably supported by local readers, Kate Feld, Tania Hershman, Abi Hines, Sarah Clare Conlon and Steve Smythe, it was a lovely evening at Didsbury's Metropolitan.

This Saturday is the ever excellent Northern Lights writing conference at the Waterside in Sale, Creative Industries Trafford now venerable event. Despite a plethora of writers and writing opportunities in Manchester, there's never been that much training or support for literary types, so this is a one day conference at a reasonable price that offers a great opportunity for networking, masterclasses and topping up your professional development as a writer. Should still be tickets if you are free on Saturday. Past keynotes have all been excellent - from A.L. Kennedy, Will Self and others - and this year's should be equally good, as its Chocolat author Joanne Harris, already a formidable social media presence, I expect a feisty opening before the day's wide range of workshops.

Then next Friday, its the launch of "We Were Strangers", a book of short stories inspired by "Unknown Pleasures" the iconic first Joy Division album. Nearly 40 years after its release, this album - the only one released in Ian Curtis's lifetime - is now an acknowledge classic. The cover of this anthology, designed by Confingo's regular designer Zoe Maclean, is a nod to Peter Saville's original artwork. Edited by Manchester prize shortlisted author Richard V. Hirst, it is being launched with a reading at Waterstones in Manchester on Friday 13th September, including Booker longlistee, Sophie Mackintosh, alongside Zoe Lambert, Nicholas Royle and David Gaffney.  Its sure to be a good night.
The book is released today, and on sale online from Confingo Publishing in Didsbury.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Viaduct by David Wheldon

There was a brief moment in the early 1980s where strange, short minimal novels, often set in abstract or non-realistic worlds, were being published, partly as the influence of Ballard and Carter seeped into the works of the next generation of writers, and partly, I think, through a sense of longing for a more European cultural scene. Britain, with its rhetoric of stability against any kind of political revolution, is not an obvious place for the stateless work of art, yet our writers - perhaps knowingly hemmed in by our island state, have often dreamt of an elsewhere, or another time - whether a "Flatland", a "News from Nowhere" or the future found through "The Time Machine." Of course, it was also a way of coming to terms with the trauma of the post-war, where, it might be said, we had survivor's guilt. The British response to the Second World War was so often a humorous one, think "Dad's Army". Writers of a more serious inclination were likely to see Europe through a narrow lens, and in the distance, and there books reflected this displacement.

Alongside "Riddley Walker", "The White Hotel", "Utz" and"The Cement Garden", we should perhaps include the debut novel by David Wheldon, "The Viaduct." Wheldon is still writing (a recent story in Confingo for instance), and I only came across his name through recommendations from David Rose and Nicholas Royle. At the Old Pier Bookshop in Morecambe yesterday I came across his debut "The Viaduct" on the way home and read it in a single sitting.

The viaduct remains long after the railway has gone, yet it towers above the anonymous city. A man is walking his dog along the viaduct when another man approaches him and asks what time the train goes and where from. The man tells him the railway was closed a long time before, but of course the vast viaduct still dominates the skyline. The man (later known as "A") has been a political prisoner, but these earlier scene settings - we see the police  visiting his ex-partner in the hope that she is hiding him and they can recapture him for another trial - are merely a prelude. For once he is seen, the man gets chased along the viaduct and only escapes by getting rid of his backpack which contains his seditious manuscript.

He comes into contact with two travellers who tell him he is safe now - that the people in the city will never cross over a certain barbed wire border. We later discover that the ownership of the railway line has been handed over to the various towns and villages it passes through. He joins these two travellers, again unnamed, one is a simple man and a thief who only speaks in sentences he has learnt from others, whilst the other is an outcast for a different reason - he has epileptic fits which change his personality - and he prefers to walk the railway than risk the embarassment of where he came from. This motley crew then starts walking the railway line. There is much talk of where they are going, where the terminus might be. "A" as we now call him is curious about the new life but soon becomes a traveller like the rest. It is summer so they do not need to go into the towns along the route, but in the winter they often do for food. Similarly, life on the rail is harsh and many travellers die.

In many ways the tale is a picaresque fable - with the nature of the world as unknown to us as it is to A. The travellers and the town dwellers are two different tribes, keeping a distance from each other - but occasionally interacting. Some of those interactions have led to suspicion - but mostly it is because those on the rail have reasons to be there, whilst those who are settled fear the travellers - don't really know where they are going or why. This otherworldliness is written in a simple, straightforward prose, which makes the reader empathise with A and the other travellers, at the same time, the characters are philosophical ones, questioning the unknown world they are walking through. All have things to hide, are unreliable tellers of their own tales.  It is the people in the cities and towns who seem oppressed and provincial and somehow threatening.

The book is a short one - and at some point tragedy intervenes meaning that A has to leave his fellow travellers, but like any good picaresque, he picks up others along the way. Yet he is more troubled than the others about his destination. The railroad he is on seems endless, some people have even been born on the track and not known any other life. By the time the truth becomes known, there is an inevitability to it.

It's pointless to ask for an understanding of what Wheldon's world is meant to be - dream world, allegory, future dystopia or Dantesque purgatory - for it exists in a very European tradition of the un-place. Moreover, its strength is something that is beyond the Ballardian trope of imagining a world reduced to a tower block, a traffic island, but something more fundamental. We don't know (like A is Josef K) what he actually did or why, and this is no longer relevant; similarly the railway is surely an allegorical device, like the river Styx might have been for an earlier generation. "Older" travellers remember the railway when it existed, but its almost as if it never did except as a way to delineate the landscape. As the numbers of travellers grow I'm reminded of Magnus Mill's later philosophical book "Three to See the King" or even the film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" - where individuals are compelled to seek a particular place or way of life.

In some ways the book is unreviewable, despite brilliant notices from William Trevor and Graham Greene on the cover. But despite a few occasional moments that perhaps date it (women are referred to disparagingly by the authorities, like in a seventies sitcom; and in fact women are hardly present at all in the novel), it seems ridiculous that it has entirely disappeared. It's a small masterpiece, particularly for a debut novel, that even half a lifetime after it was written still resonates strongly - the sort of short book that stays with you. As a devotee of early 1980s Picadors often with European authors, it fits snugly into that tradition (though it was published by the Bodley Head and Penguin). In 1983 of course, something else happened in the British book trade. Granta published its special edition about the "20 novelists under 40" and the publicity circus around that could well have drowned out any author not amongst the 20. More than that, it ushered in an age of realisms, satirical, dirty and realism, as well as Booker-friendly historical novels. Like post-punk, a genre that sold very little and was a little too cold and unshouty for mainstream exceptance, this sort of brittle fable has never been well looked on by the publishing mainstream with its desire for TV adaptions and beach reading. That said, it's well worth seeking  out.


Saturday, August 18, 2018

Farewell, my Lovely by Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler's novel "Farewell, my Lovely" is a 1940s noir classic, and rightly so; but its also, like a number of other older books I've read recently - "The Man in the High Castle", "The Day of the Locust" - a very strange novel. I'm not sure whether it is it's strangeness or its familiarity - those noir tropes that Chandler partly invented - that make the book so compelling a read.

Philip Marlowe is our hero, a down on his luck Private Eye, who is also our slick talking narrator. He is looking for a missing husband, a mundane job, when he sees a man thrown out - literally hurled out - of a bar. Intervening he gets more than he bargained for, coming across the aptly named Moose Malloy, just out of jail and looking for the barmaid or showgirl that he was in love with when he went in. The bar has changed - its now in a black quarter of the city - and the new proprietors don't take kindly to the interruption, but Malloy is not a man to be trifled with - he is 6ft 5inches tall and a size to match. This man mountain literally drags Marlowe upstairs with him, getting him involved even if he didn't intend to be. It doesn't go well - and Marlowe finds himself having to report a killing to the local police, who, in 1940s L.A. aren't particularly interested in a dead black man.

Marlowe, with nothing much else to do, starts his own investigation, and this is where the convoluted plot kicks in. If Malloy is looking for the mysterious Velma, then this set back is unlikely to stop him. Marlowe tells the police they should look for the lady, but they're more interested in wild goose chases. Marlowe does the basis work himself and finds another dead end but something doesn't quite add up. The widow of the previous bar owner is definitely holding something back - even hiding the photograph of Velma. It seems that the Malloy/Velma plot is a shaggy dog story, when Marlowe gets called up by an unreliable playboy, Marriott, to ride bodyguard with him as he pays a ransom for some missing jade that has been stolen - on behalf of a rich woman he has been spending time with. The money is good, and Marlowe goes along with it, even though it doesn't feel right. He finds himself knocked unconscious and his patron, Marriott, dead. So now we have a real crime. He is partially rescued by a daughter of a cop, and sometime journalist Annie Riordan. She immediately takes a shine to Marlowe, but he only likes dangerous women.

But to detail the plot - which includes plenty of scrapes where the hapless Marlowe gets beaten around, drugged, and even incarcerated at one point; as well as a corrupt Bay City police force; gambling ships off the coast; and a bizarre encounter with a medium - would be to miss the point. Chandler's skills are in the evocation of a down at heel L.A. and the characters that reside there. Marlowe speaks in a coarse street slang of his own, even to Riordan, yet he has a certain rogueish charm, which certainly appeals to the rich temptress he meets when he begins investigating the jewel theft that led to Marriott's death.

The novel was cobbled together from three separate stories, which I think explains its complex structure, but it hardly matters, because though the cloth might be uneven, the weave is expertly done. Who knows what the connection is between this motley crew of characters, the most important of which are missing (Velma and Malloy) or dead, Marriott. Marlowe follows his nose, and doesn't entirely share his hunches with the audience.

Every page is fast moving, yet there's also a tendency to write compelling descriptive passages about the city. Together it makes the novel an absolute joy to read however complex the actual tale being told is. Even at this distance - the book was written in 1940, the prose is alive and exciting, and a template for any number of lesser writers since. Marlowe, famously portrayed on film by Bogart, is himself a fascination of whom we know little of his background, but a lot of his character. This is the first Chandler I've read, and I hope to read more.

Madonna at 60

Madonna has tnrned 60, and if you should never mention a lady's age, I guess this has been hailed as a milestone as much because with her reaching (what once was) pensionable age, so much of our own youth goes with her; but also because of all the massive superstars, few embody youth like Madonna. Where did the years go? And more importantly, what's the party going to be like? Understandably, the Guardian has published a couple of pieces both bemoaning the press that she has got over the year - seeing her as a woman who won't be quiet and an underappreciated genius.  Sure, Madonna has had her fair sure of criticism over the years, and has caused more than an average amount of outrage, but ironically, there are few artists who have had such consistently good reviews for their art - and more importantly, very few of those have continued to sell albums and singles in the millions.

The world that Madonna came out of was the New York club scene, predominantly gay and black. Musically, New York was not only home to many record companies and recording studios, but its backstreets and warehouses held an underground. When Sonic Youth covered "Into the Groove(y)" as Ciccone Youth, it wasn't an alt.rock band taking pop music ironically, but as one time peers on the New York underground scene. Just as Blondie had done half a decade before, Madonna came out of an underground club millieu and took herself to the top of the charts. Her biography is a well known one - arriving in New York from Michigan, waitressing, getting work as a backing dancer, and doing the later infamous nude photo shoot to make ends meet. But there was another side to this. She signed pretty early on - albeit to a singles deal - to the astute Sire records, an indie that had ideas above its station and with bands such as Talking Heads, had turned art rock into hits.

The dance music scene of 1983, when she would release her first single, was an interesting one. On the one hand, new wave and new romantic bands were increasingly hitting big with danceable tracks, like Tom Tom Club's Wordy Rappinghood or Yazoo's Situation, or Thompson Twins' In the Name of Love, on the other black music was increasingly moving away from its soul roots, and production based music - often anonymous one offs - were hitting big. Madonna's first album has the same kind of electronic looping that Jam and Lewis were playing with SOS Band and Change. Her first number one on the U.S. charts - "Holiday/Lucky Star" - would be knocked off the top by Shannon's sublime "Let the Music Play." But whilst this would be a career high for Shannon it would only be the start for Madonna.

Hits with "Holiday", "Borderline" and "Lucky Star" had given her a platform to be more than just another producer's replaceable lead singer. Her second album, trialled by its flirtatious, "Like a Virgin", turned her into a superstar. I was at sixth form at the time, and had liked "Holiday" but this, and particularly the cynical "Material Girl", with its aspirational video, were anathemic to the bands I was listening to - the Smiths, the Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen. The girls understood, as they would throughout her career. Madonna mania - though I don't think it was every called that - saw "Holiday" back in the charts, and as well as the singles off "Like a Virgin", film tracks such as the middle of the road ballad "Crazy for You" were also massive. An astute performance as a version of herself in the film "Desperately Seeking Susan" saw Madonna's "look" appearing on the high street. Talking with a friend the other night, I pointed out that it takes a special kind of talent and empathy for a megastar to make music that can worm all the way into suburban lounges via Top of the Pops and Smash Hits. Madonna spoke directly to every girl who had dressed up, every teenager who'd aspired to something. In retrospect it looks astute, but I think it has always had the value of being real. Cyndi Lauper, the other platinum artist who emerged from America at that time was too studied, too kooky, too much a stage performer even if she had a better voice and (at first) better songs.

For me, it was another soundtrack song, "Into the Groove", that turned me into a Madonna fan. In the forward-looking UK it became her first number one, despite being initially only on "Desperately Seeking Susan" soundtrack. It was quickly added to the "Like a Virgin" album, though its pure dance exuberance was a little out of sync with the rest of the album. In retrospect, Madonna's early career seems incredibly well planned - like Bowie before her, and Prince at the time - each appearance of Madonna had a new look. Whereas Prince would lose half of his fan base after "Purple Rain" with musical about turns, Madonna kept and grew hers with each record. "True Blue" gave her the confidence to channel that obvious influence, Marilyn Monroe, whilst musically it was her most commercial record, Blindingly modern, but retro - and tastefully so - in its influences, it belied the idea of Madonna as someone always out to shock. "La Isla Bonita" channelled ABBA, whilst "Papa Don't Preach" was like a Raymond Carver story in miniature, more acute about young people in trouble than anything that Bruce Springsteen has ever penned.  The album also includes her best ballad, "Live to Tell", and this willingness to show different sides of her, and to tell these different stories - each video being a mini-movie - was at the heart of her imperial period success.

The next album, "Like a Prayer" was her finest, with the title track causing controversy again, through a video that used Catholic iconography (the church had never much liked that Madonna now meant this pop star as well as Mary), but it was also a brilliant, widescreen album, inventive and imaginative. Only the collaboration with Prince was a let down. For those who question Madonna's star status she always comes off as the brightest one in the room - and her occasional collaborations with others have never been amongst her best work. The album also seemed highly personal with the evocative "Oh Father."  As ever she kept one eye on the dancefloor, with "Express Yourself" one of the best that she did with frequent collaborator Stephen Bray, but her newer songwriting partner Pat Leonard was at the helm of much of the album. She's always been very careful in her choice of collaborators, as songwriters or producers, and Leonard and Bray both acted as brilliant foils to her.

As an eighties superstar, perhaps something had to break - her world record breaking "Blonde Ambition" tour, her performance alongside Warren Beatty in "Dick Tracy" (and subsequent soundtrack album, "I'm Breathless") and finally, her brilliantly timed and assembled "Immaculate Collection" double album saw 1990 as the peak of her powers.

Yet, whereas Prince, Springsteen, Janet Jackson and others would have tailspins in their careers, Madonna's next stages were simply less stellar. Life got in the way sometimes - highly publicised marriages to Sean Penn and Guy Ritchie, alpha males who didn't really seem to have her range and class. With Ritchie being a Brit she would relocate to London, which would please out tabloids. Yet the hits and albums would keep on coming. If "Erotica" and "Bedtime Stories" felt less essential, it always seemed because Madonna's eyes were elsewhere. Her film career, again like Bowie she is almost too much of a presence to make it as simply an actor, did well enough when the role suited. Of course she would play Eva Peron in "Evita" the movie, even though her voice, a pleasing, but limited instrument, would struggle with Lloyd Webber's epic tunes. The "Sex" book, a massively selling art-porn book that brought S&M into the mainstream was a sensation of the wrong kind in the early 90s. Madonna's ability to sell sex had always been done with it being on her terms, and I guess it was here as well - but neither this, the raunchy "Body of Evidence" movie, or the sighs of the "Erotica" single were anything as sexy as the work she'd done before. In retrospect, this slightly transgressive period - flirting with both bondage and bisexualism - was probably something she needed to do as a person, but as an artist it seemed only guaranteed to create controversy.

The last thing we expected on a comeback was an album as good as "Ray of Light" - where her new producer William Orbit - gave her a whole new more mature sound. When Madonna gets critical acclaim, as she did for this, she also sells lots of records. A mature record - but still with one foot in the dancefloor. With perhaps the exception of the ill-chosen "American Pie" cover, Madonna has never really embraced rock the way that maybe Prince and occasionally Michael Jackson did. Instead she has always taken elements of other musics, and placed them firmly in her own style, so that the country-stylings of "Don't tell me" on the "Music" album are through the lens of a DJ and dancer. Its easy to have lost track of her over the last twenty years as albums have become less frequent - but both "Music" and (especially) "Confessions on a Dancefloor" are superb records whilst singles such as "Hung Up" and "4 Minutes" continued to give her massive worldwide hits. Over her last two records, "MDNA" and "Rebel Heart", there have been more collaborations, and the payback has been less successful. In the meantime she moved from acting to directing with the film "W.E", about Wallace Edwards, another American woman who found herself in the full glare of the press. The Madonna influenced artists have kept coming in waves, whether its Britney Spears or Nicky Minaj. She's always remained supportive of women coming along in her wake, yet mostly by carrying on doing what she's doing. Controversies have also followed her, because she is Madonna, whether adopting a child from Africa, her relationships with younger men, or probably a dozen other things I've missed. A business woman as well as an artist, she signed Alanis Morrisette to Maverick, the imprint she ran through Warner Brothers until the early 2000s.

With her children growing up and coming into the spotlight, I think the glare of publicity for simply being sixty, is one that she would look wryly on. After all, she has always been in the news - because its Madonna its newsworthy. One of those artists known by a single name, she's never really looked back despite some astute compiling of her music on compilations. Just playing all her singles would take you the best part of a day.

So happy 60th Madonna, and like you sang, Where's the Party?