Saturday, May 26, 2018

Manchester Writers

I've had a busy few weeks and so haven't been going to many literary events but with a few days off for the bank holiday I realised its a bit of a good week for Manchester writers. Last night I went to the Lowry to see Fat Roland perform "7 Inches", a one hour, one man, and lots of paper records show. Those who know Fat Roland from his compering of Bad Language and his many live performances, the idea of a scripted show might seem a bit weird. He'd previously put together a show or two for Edinburgh but this latest, commissioned for the Lowry's new work festival, Week 53 was far more of scripted work. Fat Roland has turned 45 (rpm) and is thinking up of giving up his record shop because he has no customers, no famous people come in, and he's not even sure anyone is going to come to his birthday party. He has a record player that jumps, and records that have been in their racks since the dawn of time (the early eighties.) Studded with popular music references, from the populist - Take That and Ed Sheeran (unaccountably detained at the Etihad that evening) - to the obscure, John Cale's 4.33 and Gorky's Zygotic Mynki - Fat Roland's trademark use of paper props, often scattered on stage during his gigs is here weaponised on an entirely paper/card set with everything lovingly drawn by Fat Roland himself. Such a homage to D.I.Y. record shop culture is tinged with poignancy - of a teenage Fat Roland seeing him have "his dream" but wanting to give it all away to make way for a hipster bar selling "Slop." Much fun, but it was the last night of the run so you'lll have to wait till Netflix picks it up.

Whilst running around the country I took a bit of Manchester with me reading "Zero Hours" by Neil Campbell, the follow up to "Skyhooks" that I reviewed recently. A bit like the Fat Roland show, this second incarnation is conceived more as a full piece than (in Campbell's case) a series of short stories. Bringing the story of "Sky Hooks" up to date, the narrator is now ever more clearly a surrogate for its author, with Campbell's literary career now as much a part of the story as the day jobs he's never quite able to give up. Again, a working class writer finds himself both in and out of that culture - working the mail room at the Post Office now, and later as revolving staff in the council's library service. Along the way is a picture of a many-peopled Manchester. Its a poetic novel despite the dark matter, though lacks the change of colour and scene that "Sky Hooks" had with its visits to New York and Scotland. Here we are in an ongoing bildungsroman of someone not getting any younger, who finds affection from adopting a found pet - a tortoise - who then goes to sleep for months on end. When the tortoise fails to wake up after one hibernation the narrator knows its time he needs to find a girlfriend. Full of one line gems about modern life, and characteristically mordantly funny in that glass-half-full way of the long term Manchester City fan (enjoying the wonders of the current team, but still not quite believing it is happening or will last) if we had a decent media these days, these ruminations from a "zero hours" frontline would make a never-ending narrative. As it is we have the 2nd book of a promised trilogy. Short, but worth your time.

If I missed the launch of "Zero Hours" because of being away that week, I hope to get to the launch of two books next week. On Tuesday sees the return of Manchester's cyber-noir chronicler Jeff Noon, back in the city for an event at HOME to launch his new book. Whilst on Wednesday, the Anthony Burgess Centre plays host to its own director Will Carr and his editing of "The Ink Trade" - the uncollected journalism of Anthony Burgess, that other Manchester literary son - which has already received a lot of interest from the press.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Sky Hooks by Neil Campbell

Readers familiar with Neil Campbell's sharp, short stories will find much that is familiar in "Sky Hooks", the first part of a trilogy of Manchester novels that came out in 2016, with the next instalment, "Zero Hours", launching in a fortnight at Waterstones.  The novel's real time narrator lives in Lamport Court, an actual council block just inside the Mancunian Way, and it is that urban proximity that permeates much of the story. A bildungsroman about the boy who could have made it; on the books at City - the old City, before all the Gulf money transformed this local team into a world name - before a knee injury put paid to that ambition, the narrator begins in that unusual location for contemporary fiction, on the floor of a warehouse. The warehouse provides brackets and other parts for larger companies, and our protagonist ends up in the job because the dole has tightened up, and its a ten minute walk from his flat.

Much of the first part of the novel takes place in the warehouse, and Campbell is unflinching, but wryly funny, in his description of this most mundane of settings. The "sky hooks" of the title are the imaginary parts that a newcomer to the warehouse is sent off to get on his first day, but also acts as a sort of metaphor for the life the narrator now tries to make for himself - looking up into the Mancunian sky and being surprised and delighted to see the peregrine falcons that are nesting above the town hall.

The older fellers in the warehouse have been there donkey's years, and have no ambition other than to get through the day. Campbell's character is evocative about this life - the thirst of the working man after a long day of physical labour; the going to bed at ten o'clock at night to just get the day over; and the desire to obliterate the memory of the week on a weekend. In the warehouse nobody is interested that he once was on the books at City, and throughout the novel, this one achievement is one he can't quite decide whether to let go or to share - like Harry Angstrom in Updike's "Rabbit, Run", there's a sense that the best is behind him. Unlike Rabbit, however, the opportunities for someone in 21st century without an education are massively constrained. Minimum wage jobs, a small flat that is in a tower home to drug dealers, prostitutes and alcoholics. Each walk home is the running of an urban gauntlet. Prostitutes are his neighbours, and at least one of his colleagues on the warehouse floor regularly uses them.

His own sexual experiences are equally futile - paid for sex, one night stands, or lusting after unobtainable girls, his libido fixating on large breasted women, and yet being tongue tied whenever he comes into conversation with them. It a young man's story, and the women pass through the novel as occasional characters.

For the warehouse - though it defines him to some extent - is something that he wants to get out of. First by going on two trips, to a beloved mythical America - first to New York, or, as big Springsteen fan, the grim industrial town of New Jersey; and then to San Francisco where just crossing the Golden Gate Bridge makes the trip worth while. These moments of epiphany are hard won - and going back to the warehouse makes the distance between the dream and the reality even harder to bear. Yet the narrator is not a starry eyed Jude, betrayed by the big city, or a waster content with an unexamined life. What is particularly strong about the book is its resistance to glamourising a new story arc - success is always tiny, and always tinged with failure. I recall reading a couple of episodes in some of his earlier short stories, and the episodic nature of the novel, highlights his strength as a short story writer - yet whereas a short story tends to be a single unit, here, the longer form (albeit in a short novel) provides something else. The best parts are those where there's hardly a narrative bone, in particular - and interestingly, for an urban novel - those scenes where he heads off with just a tent and a backpack, not to exotic places, but to Arran or the lake district. The contrast between nature and the urban city is a palpable one - yet he always has to come back - to work, to earn money.

His progress is a faltering one, through a job in a bookshop, to one in a University library. There are few British writers who write unfailingly well about work, in its various forms, and Campbell does this brilliantly - not just because they are experiences he has had, but because he has a good eye for picking out the absurdities. At the same time, like its author, the narrator is working on a collection of short stories. On launching it, what should have been a moment of having "made it" feels anything but. Whereas Ben Lerner's blocked writer in "10:04" finds out he has a massive advance for his new novel, (like Ben Lerner), Campbell's writer finds himself selling hardly any copies, and being ignored at his own reading.

Though other coming of age novels like "Rabbit, Run" and Trocchi's "Young Adam" come to mind, and Bukowski's working class writer is never far from the scene, there's a tightness to the editing, and a flow to the narrative which brings out the poetry in Campbell's prose. Unusually for a writer whose subject is very much "the street" and "the city" he rarely resorts to slang, and the elegance of the writing, though plain and matter-of-fact, is its real strength.

There are a couple of parts which seem to not quite gel as well as they could - some of the work scenes go on a little, but there's still much joy in the banter of it all, and there is such a cast of minor characters that it's hard to remember which ones matter. If women in the novel are merely there to be stared at, its never done gratuitously, more that the inarticulacy of the narrator around the opposite sex finds its language in how he talks about them honestly. When he does meet someone, Denise, its almost thrown away before it begins, so that one's not quite convinced by the narrator's regret that it is over.

It's interesting that this short novel - which works very much as a stand alone book - is now going to be followed up by "Zero Hours", and possibly a 3rd novel. It's narrator is more Generation Y than millennial, but acts as a lightning rod for the times. Hearing about the broken lifts, and non-existent heating within the tower block next to the Mancunian Way, it seems to presage real life calamities like 2017's Grenfell Tower disaster.

Not all short story writers make the transition to the longer form without losing what has made them strong in the former, but Campbell has succeeded, so that the episodes that form the story - like in David Mitchell's similarly episodic "Black Swan Green" - add to the whole.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Album That Changed My Life

There's a meme going round Facebook at the moment to "post 10 album covers that meant a lot to you, don't explain why...." I've been tagged a few times - but, hey, life's too short etc. Also, quite a few people have ignored the last bit. After all, what's the point of being on Desert Island Discs and just playing the records.

I'm currently playing the Cure's 4th album, "Pornography" from 1982. Its the original vinyl copy I had at the time, so remarkably free of scratches given that I must have played this close to 200 times during that period. I had become aware of a music that existed beyond the top 40 the previous year with Joy Division's retrospective "Still", which I'd heard on the John Peel Show. But it was with "Pornography" that I really found a new album that I could love unequivocally.

I must have heard the Cure by that time - though only really "Primary" and "A Forest" had had any sort of success. Yet, I think there was a sense of expectation when "Pornography" came out. We got it home - me and my two friends, Dave and Dan all bought a copy, rather than let one buy it and the others tape it. It was the default record we'd play when we couldn't agree on another (I don't think we ever agreed on another record that we all three liked so unequivocally.)

"Pornography" is a concept album but not in the seventies sense of telling a story - here the concept is all mood. The first line on the album is "It doesn't matter if we all die" and the last line is "I must fight this sickness, find a cure." It's an album about depression and breakdown. The rouge cover with the three faces of the band members morphed into some kind of Munchian abstract; the stark lettering of the band name and title.

The Cure had begun as a punk/new wave band. "Boys Don't Cry" off their debut would be a longstanding indie disco favourite. Early single "Killing an Arab" showed a darker, but more literary side.  Their debut album was sort of Buzzcocks-like - spikey songs, thinly produced, shrill guitars. By "17 Seconds" they'd perfected a certain kind of brooding atmosphere, which was followed by "Faith" and culminated in the apparent dead end of "Pornography."

Goth - the music that dare not speak its name - was emerging out of the new decade - adding different textures to the post-punk and new wave landscape. Spikey hair and black eyeliner was an unavoidable fashion in 1982. Robert Smith had been touring with Siouxsie and the Banshees, but whereas there music would steadily get lighter after debut "The Scream" (Munch again!), the Cure's was still heading into a ditch.

What is astonishing still about "Pornography" is how unlike every other record - including every other record by the Cure - it still sounds. All three members of the band are credited with keyboards which gives the album a texture - but its Laurence Tolhurst's militaristic pounding drums that set the scene for the record's texture. This nihilistic hammering is relentless throughout the album. Smith's guitar meanwhile is as sharp and inventive as ever (he's one of the great underrated guitarists), that does occasionally stray into tropes and styles used by other post-punk and gothic bands. The chiming figures of the guitar swirl around enabling his single tone vocals to glide flatly over the top.

In some ways you can see why the album was critically maligned at the time.  This was the era of new pop, new wave funk, and new romanticism and yet "Pornography" might well be the least funky album ever recorded.  It seems to inhabit a tiny tradition of repetition focused electronica - think Suicide, Silver Apples - but its also relentless morbid. I used to know every line off the poem. Rather than Bowie/Burroughs still cut ups, these seem deliberate non-sequiturs, collections of haikus in every song, mimicing the music's repetition in a new non-linear song poetry.

Is there even a chorus on the whole album? Only "Hanging Garden" made an odd single; perhaps the vaguely melodic "Strange Day" would have made the better choice. Yet its the other tracks which really stand out. Opener "One Hundred Days", "The Figurehead", and particularly "Cold" inhabit a kind of European classical tradition, austere and monumental at the same time. Coming out of a teenager's stereo in the early 1980s, the somewhat simplistic soundscape would drape itself over everything in the room like a thick fog on the Pacific shoreline.

What "Pornography" also does is show that you can make a record that is on the surface totally unadorned with the things that are supposed to make music palatable, and yet still create something that is immediate, timeless and challenging - and more than that - highly successful. It was a top 10 album, and the uncompromising "Hanging Garden" went higher than the previous year's "Charlotte Sometimes", a much more melodic single.

The single tone of "Pornography" is what appealed at the time - we were listening to some dark symphony - when you put it on, apart from turning over at the half way mark - that was it - forty minutes of unadulterated horror and loathing. If ever an album could seem to be instilled with demons its surely this one - whatever was happening with the band at the time, drugs, breakdown, etc. - was played out in its grooves. That so many people of my age not only heard it, but were obsessed with it, makes me wonder at the zeitgeist we were going through. Yet, for the three of us in my band who had copies, and listened to it on rotate, nobody else in our class at school had any kind of interest in it all. It would only be with a lighter version of the Cure - "The Walk", "Lovecats" and In Between Days" - that they'd become a student disco favourite.

I still love this album, every single sonic moment of it. I bought the CD deluxe a few years back, and it benefits sonically from being remastered. Live, these tracks would take on an entirely different grandeur, so that "A Figurehead" or "One Hundred Years" become anthems - a gothic template that Sisters of Mercy would perfect on mock heroic tracks like "This Corrosion."

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Canon, class and critical culture

When poetry makes it onto the news, its never about the poetry, despite Pound's assertion that it is "news that stays news." I refrained from commenting at the time on the article in P.N. Review where Rebecca Watts, on being asked to review a poetry collection by Holly McNish, from Picador, decides instead to question poetry's broad church and the poetry world's unwillingness to embrace both excellence and access. I broadly agreed with Watts' article, and didn't really notice, to be honest, that she had been a little impolite to McNish, and had singled out a group of young female poets for her approbation. These two things: the sense of an attack on McNish, and the female-target became central to the kerfuffle that had followed. Poets, though they might disagree amongst themselves and in private, are almost apologetically polite in print, particularly when a new collection comes out. After all, you never know who might review yours further down the line.

Yet, a couple of months on, it seems that the thrust of Watts' argument - that poetry should not be apologetic about being an artform; that the imprimatur of prestigious presses and editors and prizes supporting poetry that (perhaps only on the page) falls short of this (in some people's opinion); and the unwillingness to accept that critical culture requires not just to like, but to dislike, are things that should have been debated. It has been interesting as well that the poets and commentators I've spoke to defending Holly McNish or Kate Tempest's work have also been annoyed that Watts lumped them in with Rupi Kaur, the popular "instagram" poet. It has always seemed to me - from themed national poetry days, to poetry for all - that "dumbing down" will always lead to this kind of thing. There have been plenty of writers of light verse over the years who have never been taken seriously as poets, but have given much joy, from Rod McKeun to Pam Ayres. As for the cluster of female poets (being looked at by a female writer), that seems a bit of bad luck; but to be fair to McNish, one wonders whether a new collection by Lemn Sissay or Luke Wright would have been at least given the veneer of a serious review?

Somehow this debate spilled over into a "high art vs low art" debate, and that this was an attack on "working class poets". Despite McNish having a pretty high-end education of her own. McNish is a successful performer who makes a living from her writing. and probably came out of this the better, in the short term, however disappointing it can be for any writer to have their work dismissed out of hand. In the past, of course, there was an easy response to this: write better, write more seriously. It's interesting how snobbish the poetry world has been in the past about incomers - compared to those grown under its own networks and imprints. Mark Haddon, who had one of the most successful novels of recent years, released a book of his poetry to indifference from the poetry world; Felix Dennis, the publisher, and not a million miles from Michael Horowitz and other late beats in world view and style, paid for his own books and tours, before his death - cheerfully telling audiences that the wine was free, if they only turned up; Iain Banks' posthumous collection was received with a respectful silence (and Banks was published alongside his friend Ken Macleod, well aware that an occasional poet who is already a well known novelist could face plenty of ridicule from the once meticulous poetry establishment.) Money talks of course, and just as Faber has benefited from Lloyd Webber's astonishingly successful "Cats", most big publishers with a poetry list can benefit from any unexpected poetry "hits".

Yet the sense prevails that there is not so much a critical culture in British letters, that is interested in identifying, encouraging and perhaps even being surprised by excellence, but an old boy's (and increasingly old girl's) network of interconnections fostered through the BBC, small presses and the like. It would seem somewhat astonishing that McNish would be asked to be the judge on the "Golden Booker" for books that won this decade until you remember that, yes, she has a good education, is an experienced broadcaster, and so is probably capable of commentating meaningful on recent novels and that one of the other judges is the "broadcaster and novelist" Simon Mayo. (I didn't know, but Mayo has published three novels for young adults.) It strikes me that McNish has the easier task of the two - as the Booker winners since 2010 haven't really been that outstanding - with the exception of Marlon James' highly original "A Brief History in Seven Killings." Mayo has "The Life of Pi", "Vernon God Little", "The Line of Beauty", "Wolf Hall" and "The White Tiger" to play with. The Mantel seems the supreme work of literary art of the era, to my mind so it will be interesting to see.

Which brings us neatly(-ish) to this week's TLS. Alex Clark has a three page spread on what they are calling "the new Elizabethans" - i.e. what is the contemporary canon. It attempts to do two things. To list those writers who are currently writing at the top of their game; and to identify those writers who have written the best work since the turn of the century. Its not mentioned explicitly, but these rules are surely to discount the Amis, Barnes, McEwan, Rushdie generation without actually saying so. That said, the list of the "top ten" includes such young bucks as Kazuo Ishiguro, Hilary Mantel and Alan Hollinghurst.

When we talk about "canon" we run into so much historical precedence. We have the "Harvard Classics" - where fiction was originally excluded in favour of philosophy letters and the like at the start of the last century, but was eventually added to - a canon aimed squarely at the aspiring working class or middle class reader who hadn't been to university but wanted to understand the New York papers' culture pages. This list stands up reasonably well, with its mix of American, British and European classics.  If most literary scenes and movements have a tendency to kick the cultural can down the road a bit, simply echoing previous models but in a different way, Modernism crushed the can underfoot and insisted on a new can, that may or may not be much use as can in the expected way. F.R. Leavis and other critics had something to say about a new canon. I think it is interesting that the TLS didn't even go near poetry or drama or non-fiction in its attempt to see what a new "canon" might look like. Yet this seems a mistake: for a literary or cultural landscape needs more than fields of barley, it requires some unloved clumps of bushes, some awkward hills, some wayward streams. More recently, borne on his enthusiasm and reacting against the theorists, we had Harold Bloom, a Casaubon of the reviewing world, who in "The Western Canon" tried to knit everything together in a way that only the massively read Bloom could have done.

Alex Clark writes about this being the start of the conversation - so I guess think of this blog as being part of that. An aside; a few years ago on the list of cultural commentators invited to speak about something you'd have been surprised not to have found a blogger or two. I'd imagine they might still be there; but more likely also writing for this or that paper. The blog community offered a chance to write and talk about books in a different way. It seemed to offer both a push-button publishing platform and a collective conversation. The former is still true: it still is the easiest way to get things online; but the latter has been overtaken by the closed networks of commentariat that you find on Facebook and elsewhere. Comments on this blog have slowed to a trickle, even if I hope it still has a small readership.

Clark mentions a few of the submitters to the TLS list - and there is some interesting detail in the article. The title - "the new Elizabethans" - seems bizarre, even insulting. It's not only Heaney who would grunt that his "passport's green" - particularly on a list that has bit of a new Irish renaissance feel to it. Surely a Queen who is coming towards the end of her long reign is not the right way to define this group of 21st century writers who are all formed by the 20th century? Like all lists you wonder about the omissions. The most glaring to me would be David Mitchell, whose work since "Ghostwritten" has been the most refreshing and inventive of English novelists. It strikes me that there are writers on the list who haven't actually written a standout novel. Mitchell seems to have written at least two: "Cloud Atlas" and "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet". They would sit alongside "Wolf Hall", "If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things", "The Carhullan Army", "Day", "Five Miles from Outer Hope", "Three to See the King", "Vault", "The Damned United". "The City and the City" , "The Book of Dave",  "First Novel", "A Long, Long Way", "Life after Life" and " A Girl is a Half Formed Thing" as standout British and Irish novels of the last few years. Some of these books are undoubtedly personal rather than universal favourites: at the same time there are writers I like (Zadie Smith) where there's not a stand out novel for me and acclaimed writers I can't get on with (Ali Smith, Colm Toibin).

On the other hand it does stand as a different way of looking at things than the Granta lists of "20 under 40". Writers are getting older. Success is coming later. In some ways, the novel as a cultural touchstone seems less important than before - yet this week sees a TV adaption of word of mouth classic "The City and the City" by China Mieville; Ishiguro's Nobel prize probably owed as much to his (flawed, but emotionally wrenching) "Never Let Me Go", as it did "Remains of the Day"; books like "The Girls", "Nocturnal Animals", "Fight Club",  "The God of Small Things", "We'd better talk about Kevin", "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time" have had a resonance beyond the book pages.

Inevitably, in these discussions, that other "renaissance" - the short story - feels a little squeezed out. Very few shorts will have the cultural after life of "Cat Person", but with some of the best contemporary writing taking place in that medium, its good to see novelists who have also written great shorts (Zadie Smith, Jon McGregor, Hilary Mantel) on the list.

It's interesting though: because any conversation about canon immediately goes into what's good or what's bad. I have a first edition of Quiller-Couch's "Oxford Book of English  Poetry", and the canon is pretty set by 1900 or so when it appeared - up until 1850. But the last fifty years are full of sub-Tennyson, sub-Browning late Victorians that were - presumably, the most esteemed peers of that generation. We are yet to see Hopkins; Hardy's poetry; or the forthcoming Modernists. A revised edition at the turn of this century struggles with our own recent past. It seems that the crowd-sourced list here has its problems even whittling down to a "Top 20! novelists. Recent poetry surveys by Nathan Hamilton and Roddy Lumsden have been catholic in their choices: all must win prizes. We live it seems in an era of literary abundance, and yet sales are in crisis, writers livelihoods are precarious. Twas ever thus, of course, but it seems that there needs to be a critical culture that is in and of itself not just a gatekeeper, but can be a revolving watch - so that its not just the same old suspects.

Much of the interesting work in literature always happens at the margins, in small press magazines and in small run novels and collections. There are times when the "indies" are actually more conservative than the "majors" seeing that certain neglected writers have fallen out of fashion. At the moment there seems a general vibrancy. Yet a critical culture needs to reflect this. Ironically, it is book prizes, with their egalatarian judging that has levelled the playing field. McBride's "A Girl is a Half Formed Thing" is famously the novel that got away; until the small Galley Beggar press published it. It seems remarkable - here is a woman who can clearly write, on both a small scale in terms of subject but a grand scale in terms of her ambition - and yet the gatekeepers couldn't see that. These "feeder presses" only exist out of love and enthusiasm, and a little bit of funding. Readership is what keeps them going of course in a way that isn't really an issue for a major press that has so many "banker" brands.

As someone who has always loved literature, but also reading about literary life, I'm a sucker for lists, for canons. It's hard to identify, as I get older, writers that I look out for their next book from the new ones coming along. There have been a lot of over-hyped disappointments over the years. One still hopes that old favourites might have a late career masterpiece in them, like a hurdler winning their final race at Aintree. As someone who has always been primarily influenced and inspired by American fiction, I think the list of British and Irish books I posted above is a pretty good crop, comparable with any other period of British letters I can think of.  Of course, the middle class novel is still alive and well; and the ongoing complacency of those assumptions - both class and generational based - are frustrating. But I worry that the fast culture of social media, and of a generation of academics who are seeing culture (not just literature) through a lens of cultural and social theory remains antithetical to the kind of brave, consistent, outward facing writing I want to see and read. The TLS is clearly trying to start a debate: its likely to be quite a rarified one. I wonder how many of the 200 who responded to its call for suggestions were frustrated by the somewhat "usual suspects" nature of the list? Is a canon something that is - therefore - agreed on, collectively, or something that can be pushed through a particular lens, a particular perspective (such as Leavis, such as Bloom)?

I began talking about poetry as a way into this topic - but I think its somewhat the same thing.  There is nothing controversial in the art world about dismissal of the popular painter Jake Vettriano for instance. Had we got a critical culture of any worth, then there would be no need to diss McNish or whoever, but rather to review them within their own cultural frame; it is that reframing that puts people's backs up. I've seen it in the past when people have commented on YA fiction or detective fiction or similar. These are old, somewhat pointless debates. Yet there is a desire out there for good work; even if we sometimes don't see it. The bookshops - Waterstones, but also the indies - are doing better than they were; the e-book threat seems to have passed; publishers - small and big - are upping their game on design at least; writers, of which I am one, of which there are many, are finding ways to continue writing. At some point you hope that this coalesces into something that is less prone to stagnation or vested interests. For now, we have the conversation. Which is perhaps a start.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Cal by Bernard Maclaverty

Some writers you are aware of, but somehow pass you by, and then, for some reason, they come back into focus. A writer friend mentioned she was riveted by a novel by the Northern Irish writer Bernard Maclaverty, and I'd just picked up a copy of his "Cal", a 1983 novel about the Troubles, that was also made into a film featuring a young Helen Mirren.

The eponymous Cal is the son of the only Catholic man still staying on a particular street in the mid 1970s. His father has found him a job in the abatoir where he works himself, but Cal lasted a week. He is a typical troubled teen. Growing his hair long, interested in girls, subsisting on the dole, and strumming his guitar in his bedroom as he works out how he is going to get out. The Troubles are at a high point. There is a reference at one point to (the still unsolved) 1974 Birmingham pub bombings. The neo-Marxist struggle has become less political and more brutal. A bored or unlucky Cal has found himself the driver helping out a friend, and this has drawn him into to a local, somewhat incompetent terror cell. He stayed in the car whilst a man was killed in his own home.

Their family - him and his father only - are stubbornly resistant against the sectarianism of the time but it coming ever closer. Warnings are followed by the inevitable, a petrol bomb through the door burning their house down. Cal, meanwhile has encountered the new woman working in the library, a slightly older Catholic woman with a child. He finds out she is called Marcella, and freezes, for their can't be that many Marcellas around - that was the name of the widow of the man who was killed whilst he was driver. This secret - this stain - hangs over the novel. He has asked for an "out" from the cell he was drawn into, but of course, there is no way "out", once you are involved. He is hardly a man, and yet his life is virtually over.

In a short, but compelling tale, he shows he's willing to be a hard worker and ends up getting a job on a local farm. The woman who owns the farm and her husband are pretestants, they are also Marcella's step parents. In this claustrophobic world Cal begins to find himself, in a more rural area, away from the killings. Yet it is never that far away. Later in the novel, an explosiion in a field indicates where some local bombers have incompetently blown up a cow. Yet if these moments suggest comedy, there's little of that in the novel - rather there's a more compelling lyricism. A simple, perhaps contrived story, is told with wonderful constraint and stealth by Maclaverty. All the characters are morally compromised - by their faith, by their experience - yet there is a desire to live through even these terrible times, to live, and yes, to love. Marcella has an Italian background. Slowly Cal gets closer to her. But each step closer makes it worse for he cannot tell her that he was there when her husband got killed.

After their house is bombed his father goes to stay with a relative, and falls into a terrible decline, as if the house - the obstinacy of keeping it going despite everything - was the thing that remained for him. Whilst Cal starts living in an abandoned out house on the farm. When he is found out it almost loses him his job (and more importantly: his anonymity - as he has told nobody where he is). He is allowed to continue there and it provides a proximity to Marcella he had hoped for but couldn't expect. He makes a move on her that she hasn't expected, as she is still living a shadow of her former life, and both of them - outcasts in different ways - find love and companionship, but of a kind that is already doomed.

Towards the end of the book the impossibility of Cal's situation becomes clearer. He encounters his old pal and accomplice, and finds himself drawn back in withouth wanting to be. The choice is now his - to go along with the cause, or to betray it. He sees why once you are involved you can never not be. He makes his choice and waits for whatever fate will impact on him.

Maclaverty had moved from Ireland to Scotland in the mid-1970s, and its a book which combines experience with distance. If its a moral tale, like the Troubles themselves, its a tale without a moral absolutism, despite everyone's willingness to subscribe to one: the church, the cause, love. All are compromised by the guns, and by the mutual distrust and hatred. In amongst this, the old ways, where people of different faiths worked together if they had a personal connection, becomes harder and harder to sustain.

By coincidence I re-watched "The Long Good Friday" last weekend. This too also touches on the Troubles. A 1980 gangster movie, with Bob Hoskyns as the London Mr. Big who is trying to go legit by buying up the docklands and using American money to invest in plans for the 1988 Olympic site, the "Good Friday" of the title sees everything unravel because of a deal gone wrong which has seen one of his guys skim some money from the IRA and kill several of their men. A tale of local authority and police corruption at the end of the seventies, the Irish angles seems anachronistic now, but of course is part of those times.

Cal is a novel that deserves to stand as one of the key stories for that period - a subtly rendered love story against a developing  political backdrop, that like all good stories emphasises the impact of large events on ordinary lives. The writing is exquisite, and he's a writer I look forward to investigating further.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

"Golden Hill", the acclaimed novel by Francis Spufford (his debut fiction, but his fifth book) is a picaresque tale set in the small but established town that is the pre-revolutionary New York. Direct off the boat is Mr. Smith, who may be genuine or may be a conman, but comes with a thousand dollar bill - a fortune - that he wants to redeem. The first part of the novel concerns this stranger as he is introduced into American society. A puritan town, with the first wranglings of republican spirit, it also remains a town aware of its provincialism, and therefore able to be fooled or charmed by a newcomer from the old country. These tensions are brilliantly described at the same time as we have to take on faith that Mr. Smith is or isn't what he won't tell us that he is. There is a narrator - who is not our omniscient author, but a third party who interjects on occasion to despair a little at how well or not they are telling the tale - yet we are constantly shadowing Mr. Smith, so the withhelding of information about his true mission - even whether he is a fraud or not - is a frustrating trope at times.

Yet the New York he has landed in - still little more than a village - is as fascinating to us as it is to him. A mix of English and Dutch families, with also, far more noticeably than London, indentured black slaves, who are given a voice by Smith even when they would be mostly voiceless to their owners, the town is beginning its role as a centre of commerce. Sugar beet ships from the West Indies, and in return New York sends back corn and other food stuffs to feed the workforce there. It is still a very early form of economy. Mr. Smith soon finds that local merchants, inns and coffee houses are willing to extend credit (especially to one who is soon to be wealthy), and accept any kind of note or coinage. Though his bill appears a genuine one, the Lovells - who are to cash it - need corroboration for such a large amount, and a letter is sent back to London. In the mean time Mr. Smith dines out on his future wealth. The arcane complexities of 18th century commerce are touched on as lightly as possible, but so important are they to the plot, that it does feel a little too complex for its own good at times. Lovell lends Mr. Smith a sovereign which is almost immediately stolen from him - one of a number of somewhat clumsy deus ex machina that Spufford employs to move the tale on from one act to another. More of that in a bit. Lovell has two daughters, Flora and Tabitha. In the cloistered world of the American colonies, the lives of women, particularly those who are young and connected is a particularly circumscribed one. Tabitha, whom Mr. Smith falls for, is an enigma from the start. A highly intelligent young woman, she takes her pleasure where she can find it...first torturing her sister, and then Smtih, with her penchant for games, for playacting. This playfulness, which totters into cruelty at times, makes her an enigmatic heroine. With Mr. Smith such an unknown quantity, despite his charisma and good looks, her future is also kept on tenterhooks.

For Smith's secret is in two parts - the first part, about who he actually is, is shared half way through the novel, through a letter he writes back to London - but the second part, about what he is doing in America, has to wait until the very end. So its the reader as well as the other characters in the novel that are equally kept on tenterhooks as to who Mr. Smith is. Septimus Oakeshott, a flamboyant functionary working for the governor, takes a liking to Smith, believing himself a good judge of character - it turns out that he both is, and isn't - he is right to trust Smith, but Smith's own reticence means that the trust is betrayed in severe fashion. As the novel proceeds Spufford's method becomes clearer. This is not just an historical novel about the 18th century, it is - in some ways - a version of the 18th century novel. Not just the picaresque nature, or the series of grotesques he flings our way, but in the language he uses, the delight in arcane forms (e.g. the letter that Smith writes is written as it would have been, with painful syntax and florid descriptions and with many words capitalised.) The 18th century novel at its most baroque delighted in both teasing its reader, and performing a moral function. Few contemporary readers of Fielding's Tom Jones for instance, would avoid skipping the moralising, to go straight to the romp. Though Fielding and Richardson are richly evoked, its that naughtiest of 18th century writers, Sterne, who most comes to mind. Though Spufford is telling a story that has an end - the endless evasions and tricksiness of Tristam Shandy are models for much of Spufford's own tale.

I am not always and admirer of historical fiction. "Golden Hill" seems to fall in a tradition that I do admire - the sense of actually being there. We see it in Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall", but also I first encountered this kind of pastiche-playfulness in Rose Tremain's masterful "Restoration" - more recently novels like "Pure" or "The Sisters Brothers" have created a similar sense of time and place - with similar 18th century anti-heroes at their heart. Yet though I enjoyed the novel, and its been very well reviewed, I found it frustrating in parts. The withholding of information is something that tires after a while, and in some ways it strays too close to its 18th century forbears. Pages of description are interrupted by a particular flare up - a chase throughout the streets of New York on bonfire night; an unexpected boat trip with Tabitha. The bits that revel in pastiche become a little tiresome - in jail at some point, Smith keeps digressing in his letter home, to describe the annoyance of his foul smelling cellmate. Whether cribbing from Sterne or Fielding these different turns of pace are a bit disconcerting at times, and feel somewhat inert in parts. Like Adam Roberts' laboured 18th century steampunk novel "Swiftly", the action scenes feel like attempts to move things along, rather than being critical to the story. Here, the double complexity - of a narrator that is neither Smith or omniscient (leading to so much being of the telling being conjecture) - and of a character whose secrets (and therefore credibility) are constantly withheld - makes it one of those books that you feel determined to finish, to find out what's going on, but also a little tired at the effort involved in doing so.

That might just be a matter of taste, however, as one can't deny the overall colour and texture of this book - which though something of a bestseller - is not afraid to be as complex as is necessary in order to tell its tale. Saying any more would involve letting several cats out of the bag, and the novel depends on that sense of stories withheld. The ending, I'm pleased to say, does make it worth the wait, though there's quite a lot of freight along the way - the novel is more serious than it sometimes pretends to be - but like its 18th century precedents, is not afraid to be as fun as it needs to be on the way to its unravelling.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Film and Influence

In the week of the Oscars its worth thinking on reversing the usual formula - that much film takes its inspiration from literary sources - and thinking of the other way round: how film has and can influence literature. When I occasionally get asked what influences my own fiction, I inevitably mention certain writers, or certain tropes, but cinema is also a key part of my artistic back story; both in terms of the cultural reference points that accumulate for a person of my age and background, but also in terms of narrative style.

This year's two most acclaimed films "The Shape of Water" and "Three Billboards" are both very literary in construction, yet don't come off from a particular literary source. It seems that though there are preponderance of book into film adaptions every year, the taking of a "bestseller" and making a film of it makes more commercial than artitstic sense. There are obvious exceptions -  "Gone with the Wind" and "The Godfather" for instance - but increasingly audiences for bestselling books expect a certain amount of fidelity in the film version. It wasn't always the case of course - books were, like anything else, useful source material. In non-fiction in particular, its rare for a filmic life to have not taken one or more particular biographies of a famous figure in order to bring its story to life. Sometimes these feel like parallel versions. Often the best film adaptions come from books that have not been quite so successful. I didn't hear of the novel behind this year's breakout success, "Call me by your name", until the film came out, for instance; "Brokeback Mountain" and "45 years" are both adaptions of short stories; as are - loosely - "Blade Runner" and "A.I." films that go for punchier titles than their original texts ("Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" and "Supertoys last all summer long"). Reading "The Godfather" a couple of years ago I was struck by how closely the first Godfather movie followed the text. Of course, Coppola was a jobbing director at that point, brought in to helm a project that was all ready greenlighted. It is in the sequel - where he collaborated with the writer Puzo - that the "auteur" comes in. Interestingly, those two auteurs, Coppola and Kubrik both found working with a pre-existing book central to their art - and Coppola would even go so far as to launch and fund a short story magazine, Zoetrope All-Story. Most auteurs orginate their own stories however: especially prolific film makers such as Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers (though the latter have had more success recently with adaptions.) I'm often surprised to discover that films that are so obviously visual - such as "Planet of the Apes" and "Bullitt" are themselves from found texts. Writer-directors or writer-director teams often do originate work in the medium; but also use literary texts as more of a baseline to their idea. So, Martin McDonagh, who both writes and directs "Three Billboards", was previously an acclaimed playwright; Del Toro steeps his fantasies in fairy stories and myths (most obviously in "Pan's Labyrinth"), whilst even Tarantino, whose resources come from old pulp films, sometimes seems to be a particularly literary writer ("Reservoir Dogs", "Kill Bill Vol.2", "Pulp Fiction") even if the source text isn't obvious.

The other way round though: how does film influence text? There seem to be three different ways. As film is a much more commercially successful medium, its inevitable perhaps that writers have, over the years, tried to mimic its immediacy. The use of first person narrative is one good example. It does sometimes seem that some contemporary novels are written as prose treatments ready-made for filming. (An obvious example would be Robert Harris's "The Ghost" for instance, filmed as "The Ghost Writer.") A lot of factional novels seem to have this aspect as part of their make-up. A fictional account of someone's life can then be more easily "adapted" into a movie - e.g. "The Danish Girl" - in a way that a biography maybe couldn't have been. By being an adaption of a book, even one which is about real people, the conversion of the story into a fiction has already taken place, as in David Peace's "The Damned United".

The second way that writing is influenced by film will be in a cultural sense. There's a two way street between certain genre writings and their filmic equivalents. Few contemporary SF novels are immune to the influence  of film and TV adaptions. The recurring trend for dystopias clearly owes a lot to film portrayals of the end of the world. Whereas in the 1950s, books like "The Day of the Triffids" or "Lord of the Flies" could be imaginative creations that would filter into film, one can't help but think that many of our modern dystopias avoid doing the heavy-lifting of world-building, because TV and film have done so much of it for us. In "Station Eleven" by Emily St.John Mandel, for instance, the world building is actually a meta-fiction - the "comic" "Station Eleven" that is in itself a description of a filmic view of another world; whilst in "The Road", Cormac McCarthy doesn't even need to give us a reason for the apocalypse his characters are walking through as we have seen it so many times - what he does instead is he doubles up on that devastation so that the book feels more horrific and claustrophobic than any film version can be. Even China Mieville's masterpiece "The City and The City" with its ingenious creation of dual worlds, which the BBC adaption later this year will need to be highly creative to make work, relies so much on cinematic tropes - particularly around film noir, detective fiction and the idea of an "underworld" into which a hero disappears - not so dissimilar to "Chinatown" when it comes down to it. 

The third way, is more about structure and expectation. If once it was the case that the modernist-derived novel - with its interior monologues and concentration on the ambiguity of an unreliable narrator or similar - could be often referred to as "unfilmable", the best films are surely "un-writable." Yet film is a non-ambiguous medium - it is, after all, a simulacrum - everything you see there had to be made flesh. We are no longer in the days of the Saturday morning serial, where next weeks episode of "Flash Gordon" would alter last weeks ending in order to get the hero out of a particular predicament, relying on our poor memories - nowadays everything can be rewound. When a difficult novel like "High Wire" is adapted, film is brilliant at recreating the visual aspects of Ballard's vision, but struggles a little with the writer's somewhat careless approach to plot. Reduced to action, the film's second half becomes a series of scenes, where the descent into chaos has to be shown rather than described. Some novels are all "feel". Yet film has been a brilliant influencer for anyone who is interested in the intersections of story and plot. We all know that the film industry courses give us "seven types of plot" or that the most famous book on scriptwriting is called simply "story": yet do we really analyse what makes story work in films which are famously collaborative? 

In "Star Wars" for instance, the first twenty minutes is virtually a silent movie: it introduces mostly minor characters - whilst waiting for the "lead", Luke Skywalker, to show himself. A novel would surely be terrified at this lead in time (which might be a first 50 pages), and would certainly need to "telegraph" the idea that the hero is coming. Yet Luke - and the Force - is always there - we just haven't been shown him yet. Film having more props at its disposal than just words, when Luke does appear, in a frankly terribly mundane scene which probably was never intended to be his entry point, the Stars Wars main theme by John Williams is carefully extracted and interpolated over the top of the scene. Subliminally we know this is important. That opening twenty minutes of course is perfectly operatic - and being a space saga gives us a spaceship, a villain, a princess, and some comedy droids. Even Shakespeare knew the value of having some alluring minor characters. 

So perhaps thats an influence that is hard to write down - but film structure does provide us with lots of good examples of how we can write our novels differently. Film is particularly good at giving us worlds that are cut off from the mainstream, and in which anything can happen. When Dustin Hoffman and Julie Christie move to rural Cornwall in "Straw Dogs" they are hoping for a rural idyll. Loosely adapted from a forgotten novel, "Straw Dogs" plays with that familiar trope of a "strange comes to town" and turns it on its head. Here, Christie is returning, and it is the town that is the stranger. In a novel there is a tendency to think about "how" your character gets there. In a modern novel as well, how can someone be so isolated? I wonder if Wyl Menmuir's "The Many" had "Straw Dogs" in mind? Or whether it closes a loop with Rebecca du Maurier's "Jamaica Inn"? I remember seeing "Straw Dogs" - not that long ago - and was struck by its upending of various narrative conventions; the unsettling events see the character's change as their situations change. Any writer knows that the hardest task is making one of your characters change during the course of a novel - but film can make this believable. In "The Godfather" for instance, Michael Corleone returns as a war hero, and says to his new wife Kay, that he's not like his family. By the end of the film he's the one doing the killing. Pacino's acting chops provides the brilliance that enables us to believe in this trajectory, but its also in Coppola's narrative decisions that emphasise the parts of Puzo's novel that makes us believe in it. In the novel, its a story about bad people, almost from the get-go, but in the film we can believe in Michael as having a chance of redemption. 

I've also found inspiration in the way a film like the sublime "Chinatown" tells its story. There's little redemption here: the hero is, like the hero in Hitchcock's "Vertigo", chosen almost for his incapabilities. In "The Wicker Man", the policeman who comes from the mainland is incorruptible, and this is what gives him vulnerability. In "Breaking the Waves" Lars Von Trier creates a psycho-sexual drama that is made believable by the vulnerability of its young actress, Emily Watson and  its bleak 1970s setting (and soundtrack). Yes, novels can also do this - I'm reflecting on first reading "The Collector" or "The Wasp Factory" for instance - but it does seem that filmic examples are as equally vital into what makes a story work for me. It's always a two-way street. 

A final point - and I'm sure if I had longer I could make this into a longer essay, with more examples from both sides of the divide - but film is particularly powerful in terms of point of view. The camera rather than the writer becomes the omniscient narrator. For good or for bad, the main influence my own writing has taken from film is that camera eye's view. I've frequently used the localised third person to give me the same tension and claustrophobia of a movie; staying with one character, but unlike in the first person, being able to step outside and do a panning shot, when the need arises. 

Film, and in particular how film plays with narrative, remains one of the primary sources for my writing - it also makes me less forgiving of bad films, or ones that are predictable in the way they show their story; how many superhero origin stories can I cope with? But that's the same with bad novels as well. The relationship between book and film is not just of the first being a cheap first draft of the second; but it is fascinating which stories appeal to film makers - often obscure stories or novels that have in them something that the film maker can use - similarly as a writer, its very easily to be jealous of the resources - sound, vision, acting, soundtrack - at the film maker's (expensive) command, whilst then remembering that our budget doesn't change whether its four men in a room (like "Reservoir Dogs") or the end of the world that we're portraying. 

Friday, January 26, 2018

Bill is Dead (RIP Mark E. Smith)

So in the end, Mark E. Smith wasn't one of the indestructibles, not an Iggy Pop or a Keith Richard, not someone who could escape the likely outcome of dissolute habits, and - more likely - those poor working class Salford genes. His passing this week, though not exactly a surprise, since he had been ill for some time, was still a shock, perhaps more so, because of the sense that he was indestructible. There were no compromises, no second acts with Mark E. Smith and the Fall, though that band went through so many line up changes ("if its me and your granny on bongos" he said, "it's the Fall), so many good times, bad times; there wasn't the solo career, or the forming of the jazz funk band or the cover versions album (though a Fall covers album would be a virtual alternate greatest hits, so good were some of their interpretations, whether obscurities like "Black Monk Theme" and "Mr. Pharmacist" or songs we were so familiar with like "Lost in Music" and "A Day in the Life"), or the writing of the novel (he wrote an autobiography, but it disapponted a little, as he seemed to grow bored with the very idea.)

There's some sadness here - that he didn't escape this particular destiny. The cause of death hasn't been announced yet - but he was a sixty year old who looked older, who had multiple health problems; no doubt intensified by the drink, the cigarettes, the amphetamine lifestyle that fuelled this particular generation of (punk) rockers. Some of the obituaries refer to him as "punk singer" Mark E. Smith - but that seems a category error from the very start. Only a very few, very early songs can be said to be using a punky yelp, his voice quickly matured into something else entirely, a kind spoken singing, as fused with Salford, as Lou Reed's tone was fused by New York. Having survived punk, and actually thrived as a band during the eighties and nineties (cue: psychedelic monster "US 80s 90s", for every occasion there's a Fall song), the first turn for the worse was when the stalwarts of Scanlon and Hanley were promptly sacked, and a new Fall, apparently dragged from local pubs and chip shops in North Manchester, replaced them. Hanging around the Manchester music scene as I have for at least half of the Fall's career, I've inevitably known a couple of his side(wo)men - carefully catalogued in the book "The Fallen" (a book he no doubted hated, or at least said he hated, but is a classic in its own way). That the Fall were a constant to the very end, and that the last incarnation, was one of the longest ones (excepting the departure of his 3rd wife Eleni), actually makes one question that myth of him hiring and firing like a particularly authoritarian football manager. He used the analogy himself once or twice, saying that you had to change the striker - but of course he never changed the real leader of the club, even as in more shambolic later period gigs he left the stage to the band, or even the audience, or sang from behind a speaker stack or backstage.

The audience is another thing entirely. I was wondering whether I should write this piece, as I know there will be endless pieces written about The Fall, by more obsessive fans than myself, by people who had met him or worked with him or been dissed by him. And yes, the majority of those will be written by middle aged white men, carrying a little bit too much weight. Later Fall albums documented this at times: "My Ex-Classmates' Kids", "50 Year Old Man", "Couples vs Jobless Mid 30s" - but then again, Smith has always written about what he can see, part street poet, part Anglo Saxon chronicler, part seer through the bottom of a pint glass. I know plenty of women who really like the Fall, but they are not the obsessives going to every gig or not caring whether Smith is on fire or a charicature of himself, or collecting endless live tapes and poorly recorded live albums. But have my say, I will, because, if not now, steeped in hearing his music and reading about him, then, when?

I'll try and keep the personal anecdote to a minimum. I did move to Manchester for the music - but it was more The Fall, than it was other favourites, the Smiths, A Certain Ratio, Joy Division. Though it was some time until I caught them play in their home city. I'd seen them in Birmingham, Lancaster, Blackburn and probably a few other places, before then. Listening to John Peel in the early 80s, they were unavoidable and it took a while to understand the cacophony - after all this must have been around 1981, when they were at their most wilfully strange - "Slates", "Hex Enduction Hour", "Room to Live." It was something more accessible than first pricked my ears, the Peel session with a song called "Eat Y'Self Fitter", a single repetitive rant, with a great sense of humour to it. "What's a computer? Eat Y'Self Fitter." My own origin story here is that I still wasn't that sure about them as a band, but I'd written a letter to the pop pages of the Daily Express (my parents' choice of newspaper) and though they didn't print my letter, they said I could have a "Top 100" album as a prize. I didn't know what was in the top 100 but had seen there was a new Fall album out - "Perverted by Language" - eventually it arrived. So the Daily Express got me into The Fall! I'm imagining a junior employee swearing under their breath as they head to Rough Trade or the Virgin Megastore to get hold of a copy to send to this spotty fifteen year old the Midlands.

At sixth form, word had got round about the Fall, and my friends had picked up some of their older albums. I taped the ones I hadn't got and looked forward to seeing them live. We stumped up for a shared taxi to Birmingham and saw them in late 1984, around the time of "Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall." Our English teacher was amazed we were going to see them. "They still around?" he said. "I went to see them in 1979, two nights in a row, they played totally different songs each night."

The Fall began as a sort-of punk band, but even at the start had some other tendencies. The major record labels were slow to sign up a few of the early crop of bands. Whilst the Stranglers, the Damned, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Wire and others found themselves on old imprints like United Artists and Harvest, some bands - Siouxsie and the Banshees, Adam and the Ants and the Fall, hung around like the last of the team to be picked. I wasn't old enough, but I imagine, that the implosion of the Pistols, and the sense that none of these bands were going to give the record industry a "Dark Side of the Moon" or "Frampton  omes Alive" left to the also-rans or latecomers signing to some of the new indie labels. Eventually signing to Step Forward, a sub label of Miles Copeland's "Illegal" records/IRS records, it was an odd home for them. That debut album has never been a favourite, though I like non-typical gothic song "Frightened" - its the only record where Smith would share billing, with Martin Bramagh. After that album, the Fall would be his fiefdom alone.

Though punk and post-punk created something of a market - the grimness of seventies England and the lack of resources behind the emerging independent labels meant that few bands sold that many records. The Fall's early albums were released by Step Forward, Rough Trade, Kamera, Rough Trade again (after the latter folded), before finding a relatively comfortable home with Beggars Banquet. In the years since a plethora of labels have taken on the Fall, from one offs, to chancers, to self released ("Cog Sinister"), to more recently finding a better place on reissue label Cherry Red.  One of the many untold stories of the Fall must be about their relationship with the industry - only once on a major - Fontana - and rarely staying on the same imprint for longer than a couple of albums, yet never being without a home (at least in the UK - US releases have been patchy over the years.) Add in the amount of promoters they must have worked with given their relentless endless gig schedule, the number of recording studios they frequented, and the number of festivals they performed at; their relationship with the "industry" is a vast and complex one. Through various managers, wives, and business relationships, the Fall have been sometimes the most chaotic of enterprises, but also an effective one.  Though Smith was always scathing about the obsessive fans who wanted only the old stuff, he was always smart enough to know that these fans were keeping him in fags and beer, and more importantly allowing or enabling the Fall to continue as a going concern throughout its many different incarnations.

The other key quote about the Fall - John Peel's saying "always different....always the same"  is both a truth and an untruth. It's sometimes hard to reconcile different "versions" of the Fall, yet the constant of Smith's lyrics, vocals and vision gives a unity where otherwise there might not be one. In truth, there musical palate has both been narrow and wide - narrow in the sense it usually pairs down to a love of simple noise, of warped rockabilly, or direct garage rock; but wide in the sense that this "template" is wide enough to include electro, techno, Krautrock, reggae, and various other dilutions. Working with numerous different musicians, at least since the late 1990s implosion of the band, has seen Smith being able to plunder the work of a much wider range of songsmiths, only really falling into a predictable pattern with the jobbing band of the last few years. At its best, this creates some great eclecticism, at its worst albums such as "Levitation" and "Reformation Post" are not amongst their finest.

For me, that other cliche, that your favourite Fall album is your first, holds true. It was "Perverted by Language" I pulled out - that original Daily Express provided vinyl - on hearing of Smith's death. It has "Smile", probably the most intense of their many intense pieces of guitar assaultery. (Never a punk band, the Fall were never really a rock band either, but on tracks like this are heavier and more intense than followers such as Sonic Youth). There's also "Hotel Bloedel", the first Brix E. Smith song that appears on a Fall record, a bit of strange psychedelia that is unlike anything else in the catalogue. "Eat Y'Self Fitter" remains a towering achievement - funny, yet repetitive, like John Cooper Clarke duetting with Steve Reich. Better still is the incomprehensibly ambitious "Garden" a piece of unparalleled art rock that could probably fuel a whole career. "Tempo House" recorded live at the Hacienda gives the album a freshness and excitement, Its an album of ambition - building on their last full length masterpiece "Hex Enduction Hour" but with the new tautness of this new (and soon to be relatively steady) line up of Mark and Brix, the two Hanleys, Scanlon and Burns.) The parts fuse together in a way that seems to me to be a career highpoint.

What happened next of course...the unlikely sight of The Fall becoming fashionable, belies the description of Smith as a "punk singer". It can be argued that the wealth of riches of the Beggars years - not just LPs, but E.P.s. Singles (some which charted  - a little), and even a ballet (the collaboration with Michael Clarke's company that led to "I am Kurious, Oranj.") I was at university during these years and seeing the Fall during this time was glorious. I even met them when they came to play at Lancaster. Mark scowled and read the college paper whilst I talked to Brix and Craig with the (later to be well known) journalist Amy Raphael. Brix had asked if I could get her a portable TV to watch Dynasty (it turned out it was on the wrong night), whilst they had mistakenly asked for a "fish and chip supper" as their rider. (The fish hut on campus was the worst fish and chips in the North of England.).

Other bands would come and go in my affections but the Fall would remain - mostly reliable, even if bewilderingly prolific. Later, buying a book called "The Fall: a Users Guide" I was amazed reading the discography how much stuff I had missed - b sides, extra tracks on cassette and CD versions, live recordings.  The Fall back catalogue was growing at exponential pace.

Most surprising perhaps was that even as the music industry passions changed - from punk, to post-punk, to new romantic, to goth, to indie, to Madchester, to Britpop - the Fall were never quite entirely in or out of fashion. Odd cultural things would happen as well such as an old track surfacing at the end of Jonathan Demme's modern horror "The Silence of the Lambs." In Madchester, though Smith was scathing of how his city had become an "idiot joy showland" he nonetheless duetted on a top 20 hit with the most trad of all the Manc bands, the Inspiral Carpets. As house and techno developed, quite a few DJs noticed the syncopated, Can/Krautrock nature of some of the Fall's material, and how an abrasive voice like Smith's could make a nice counterpoint to electronic beats. This would culminate a few years later in the worthwhile (if not quite the triumph we'd maybe hoped an electro-Fall album might be), collaboration with Mouse on Mars, an album under the Von Sudenfed name. Along the way, there were other surprises. A couple of reggae singles were surprisingly effective - "Kimble" and "Why are People Grudgeful?" - as surprising were the Top 30 cover of "There's a Ghost in My House", a Northern Soul classic, or the effective versions of the Kinks' "Victoria" (Dave Davies tweeted this week how much he liked the Fall version), or the driving disco of "Lost in Music." Despite his reputation, Smith was also an amenable collaborator when it came down to it. He seemed to enjoy the chance to be a bit of working class grit amongst the posh kids on the art shows, at least now and then - and for all his dismissal of much popular music, the Fall were inspired choices for the charity NME version of Sgt. Pepper, doing a wonderful version "A Day in the Life."

By the mid-1990s I think the potential of electronic music to add something to the Fall sound had been integrated - if not fully - particularly on albums like "Shiftwork." He would record a mundane techno track with D.O.S.E. at PWL studios, and in interview would mention how he liked Stock Aitken and Waterman's novelty track "I'd rather jack" by the Reynolds Girls. At some point, things came together into a top ten album - though chart placings were never really the issue. Around the corner though was a certain chaos - Smith at forty had left Brix, and the band soon went as well (though she came back as a band member briefly, inexplicably on the bright and excellent "Cerebral Caustic.") Fall albums were no longer events, and the changing line ups over the next few years, as well as changing labels, was matched with the release and reissue of a vast quantity of substandard compilations and live CDS. At some point a whole load of demos and outtakes were thrown out on three apparently random compilations "Sinister Waltz", "Oswald Defence Lawyer" and "Fiend with a violin." These tracks were often interesting, never crucial, and so random in terms of how they were compiled that it was seen as a cynical exercise aimed at fleecing the completist fans. For a band who were so often vital live, the number of gigs being cancelled, or where Smith was obviously drunk or a in a bad way, or came on late, or finished early, increased. I saw them at an outdoor concert at Castlefield Bowl and they were both chaotic and wonderful at the same time. It was the first time I feared for Smith's future. I'd always thought here was an artist who was uncompromising, doing things his own way, and different, rather than kowtowing to the record label or music industry, but it seemed like he was no longer in control of the narrative. "Levitate", "The Marshall Suite" and particularly the dreadful "Are you are missing winner?" saw a massive fall off in quality  though every album - even that last one - would have its standout moments.

It was quite a surprise that after a little gap there was a new Peel session that as good as anything they had done. Rumours of a new album. "Country on the Click", and a series of small gigs in Manchester. With a new band line up, new songs, and seemingly a whole new attitude, this Fall - eventually caught on record on "The Real New Fall LP" - were the best they'd been in decades. Songs like "Blindness" and "What About Us?" were classics that could hold their own with earlier favourites and live they were astonishing - ending as an old style review passing the mic round the audience who would sing the lyrics to "Big New Prinz" - "he is not appreciated" pointing at Smith.

For a while Smith even embraced the internet - making friends with the fan-obsessive Fall website and forum - until it became unofficial again after another falling out - and briefly agreeing some kind of amnesty on live tapes which began to appear as downloads for a few quid. For a band so extensively recorded live, their's not a truly satisfactory live album released - one wonders if whoever now looks after his estate might take a more measured view now the focus isn't just on new material and new recordings.

Of course, things couldn't last - in America Smith fell out with his band in mid-set and ended up in jail for a couple of nights - and would then play and record with an American pick-up band for a while .When 3rd wife Eleni joined the band on keyboards she was no Brix, but adding a little sparkle on stage, as well as the tinkly amateurishness of Fall keyboards, it gave a little bit of light to the band's now customary pub rock sludge. Over the year's the Fall "sound" has changed in subtle ways, and the last version was something dark and guttural, reminding one of pre-punk bands. Sometimes this was good - but the last time I saw them live - just before "Your Future, Our Clutter" came out, it was clear that the new Fall was a sound I wasn't quite so enamoured with - heavy, lacking in subtleties, with Smith's lyrics often reduced to a yowl. They were some way off their peak yet could occasionally still throw in a great track like "Bury" and live they would pull out a very few back catalogue songs - usually murky rockabilly numbers like "No Xmas for John Quays", "White Lightning" and "Mr. Pharmacist."

The touring remained relentless but sometimes Smith was hardly there, other times he was in a wheelchair or helped by a stick after a fall and breaking a hip. More recently, over the last year, signs have been ominous, with gigs and other appearances cancelled at short notice. His last album, "New Facts Emerge" was surprisingly his strongest in years, the somewhat sullen sound of his current band finally finding the right kind of groove, against which his mostly incomprehensible singing makes a kind of late period sense. Fall gigs over the years have been as much testing ground for new material as representations of whichever album has just been released.

Over the next days and months, we'll probably get plenty of new information about the last year of this great, unique, artist - at the same time, it seems fair to say that he remains in many ways unknowable in his drive and genius. A non musician who so much depended on the sounds around him - (his two spoken word solo albums are mostly just curiousities) - yet something of a genius in th way he could bring the best out of untried musicians. Nobody (except probably Bramagh) has really gone on to a good musical career after being part of The Fall. When the ex-Fall Hanley and Scanlon formed a new band they got the opposite of Smith into sing, an appalling long-haired rock singer. It was one of the worst bands I ever saw: yet made up of core components of one of the best. Lists of favourite Fall songs have been circulating all week - and though most have concentrated on early work, there's been enough on recent albums for even the jaundiced fan to feel that the Fall were still a thing not a nostalgia act. If Peel's death brought a shutter down on one important relationship - documented on the exemplary boxset that brings together all the BBC Peel sessions - the story still had some time to run; but now, to all intents and purposes it is over.

I was sad, very sad, not because it was so unexpected, but because I had hoped that Mark E. Smith might finally be taking a pause to get his health back in order; yet it was obviously too late. He didn't quite die on stage, but with gigs scheduled (or cancelled) up until the last, the idea that this ill man was going to leave us was still, we all hoped, some way off. Like Dylan, or James Brown, he seemed unable to stop doing this strange thing of performing as "The Fall". It could sometimes seem an act - a piece of art theatre more than music. At other times it was the finest rock and roll experience you could experience. The records had become adjuncts to the story - maybe they always were a little - there's not one you'll find in the nostalgia lists, as "you must buy this one" - though the ones that come closest to universal approval - "Hex Enduction Hour", "Perverted by Language" and "This Nation's Saving Grace" - are as good as place as any to start. Their Beggars Banquet A-sides compilation is as close to a "best of singles" as they ever did - though there's now a career spanning 3 CD (or 7 CD inc. b-sides) compilation from Cherry Red for a more vast listening experience. The number of books about the Fall has grown massively in last few years - Smith's autobiography joined by memoirs from Brix and Steve Hanley for instance. I sometimes think I feel I know too much, and yet also know next to nothing at all.

The bookish nature of auto-didact working class Grammar school kid who left school at sixteen, lived in a house full of sisters, stuck out against the prevailing winds of Manchester music business approval, through over 40 years of music making, over 30 albums, and hundreds upon hundreds of songs; named his band after a Camus novel, and namechecked H.P. Lovecraft, Nabokov and Ballard amongst others; wrote songs about eveything from nostalgia for seventies sweets, to poisoning by chemical companies; seemed to create a mythos that was grounded in a Manchester that is both real and a made up land of "city hobgoblins" - using a twisted beat poetry that only really works when combined with his narrowly effective vocal delivery, part shout, part scream, part growl. Somehow, off all the bands who started out in 1977, he was the only one who really believed totally in the ethos of outsider art, of being able to change things through creativity, and of being forever looking forward not backwards. In amongst the sad feelings this week, there's been something else, a crystal clear admiration for I know not what; for unlike other rock idols, Smith never wanted you to follow him, nor him to guide; rather it feels as if the example of being The Fall was enough, however irrational and unreplicable it might seem. I am the lesser for his being gone, and I am the greater for the many years that he has been in my life.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Whole of an Artist

I first became aware of Frank Zappa as a 14 year old poring over rock encyclopedias - and then seeing some of the strangely titled records in the record shops. I didn't hear any until much later, when, I think, Marc Almond, one of my heroes, included an extract from "Uncle Meat" on a show of his favourite albums. (He also included "Berlin" by Lou Reed which I quickly bought - Zappa would have to wait.) At university, a friend taped me "Hot Rats" which I sort of enjoyed, though it wasn't usually my kind of thing and at some point I picked up CDs of "Uncle Meat" (which I found a little disappointing) and "Cruising with Ruben and the Jets" (which I loved). An older friend was a fan, and when his back catalogue got picked up by Rykodisc I got the two "Cheep Thrills" compilations. All the Zappa I could possibly need....

...then on a trip to Newcastle I picked up the Uncut special on Zappa to read on the train. With a review of every single album, I quickly became aware of how little I had heard...of how much there was. A few albums later - "Bongo Fury", "Roxy and Elsewhere", "Mothers Live at Filmore" - I was surely sated. Then a reissue of his first three albums in a cheap box, oh go on then. At some point I have to admit that I have around 20 Zappa albums. The bits I like - the crazy psychedelia of the early cut up albums, the doo wop pastiches, the over the top guitar wig outs - and the bits I didn't - the frat boy humour, the overly precious jazzy instrumentals, the somewhat proggy tendency of the songs - at some point become merged, sometimes in a single album or single song. Okay, I'm a fan now, I guess. But there's not just these twenty albums, there's another twenty, and another, and another....

Zappa it seems is one of those artists who is a genre to himself. I'd add in Prince, Dylan, Neil Young, Eno, Bowie, George Clinton, Rundgren - probably a few more. Once you start buying them you can't stop. The bad becomes almost as important as the good....

I remember Malcolm Cowley on William Faulkner writing that his best work wasn't a particular novel but the "whole" of the saga, or individual scenes or stories - probably a necessary statement given his choosing of extracts for the "Portable Faulkner". Few writers are at a quality throughout their life - there is apprentice work, there are sidetracks, there is hack work. I recently hovered over an unmade F. Scott Fitzgerald film script in a secondhand bookshop before realising it wouldn't add anything to my knowledge of Fitzerald (I've two different versions of the "The Last Tycoon.") Whereas a novel tends to be a complete work its often not as simple as that. Early versions of "Lady Chatterley's Lover", "Sons and Lovers", and "A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man" have been published for instance - there are two versions of two of my favourite novels, "Tender is the Night" and "A Clockwork Orange." The "best" novel of the 20th century according to one poll, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" by Junot Diaz was initially a much shorter work published in a magazine. Are multiple volume books like "The Lord of the Rings" or the Patrick Melrose novels single or multiple works?

What I think is interesting is that even as we look for the "perfect" work - the Stone Roses debut, or "Blade Runner" or "The Life Times of Michael K" - the artist is only accidentally responsible for this. Artists like Neil Young, Frank Zappa and Prince didn't just record an "album" but compiled one from different tracks. Young's recent "Hitchhiker" was an album of acoustic demos from the early 1970s which has seen most of its tracks released over the years in different versions on different albums. There are tracks on the last album of Pixies' original incarnation which appeared on their original "purple tape" sent as a demo to 4AD records. Even David Bowie - who would often go into the studio with nothing written - would resurrect a 1973 song for the "Scary Monsters" track "Scream like a Baby" - and "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic", a number one for the Police, was from a Sting demo that had long lain unrecorded.

Going to an art gallery, I'm often interested in career retrospectives. Over the years some of my favourite shows have been like this - Basquiat, Hannah Hoch, Jackson Pollock, Tove Janssen have all been career spanning shows that have absolutely fascinated me with the progress of their work. Much as we can talk about art without talking about the artist and their life (and the times in which they live), the art is often enhanced by an understanding of the circumstance of its making.

Back to Zappa, I think he'd pretty much stopped releasing proper albums around the time I got into music (his hit single "Valley Girl" from "Ship Arriving Too Late to Save A Drowning Witch"), and what would come next would be a range of curated albums - taking old live tapes and manipulating in the studio. Since he died we've had one of the most comprehensive reissue programmes ever. Certainly collections like "Lather" (which was stripped apart for 3 albums in the late 70s) and the recent expanded "Uncle Meat" are worthwhile additions to the canon; they feel like the have the imprimatur of the artist, even though he has left.  Yet though we are all interested in posthumous releases by artists we love - such as Prince and Bowie and Amy Winehouse - the posthumous releases are rarely an embarassment of riches.

Now, where can I get a cheap copy of Zappa's "Jazz from Hell".....

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Dwarves of Death by Jonathan Coe

Jonathan Coe is a novelist whose fiction I've long intended to read, having only read his B.S. Johnson biography "Like a Fiery Elephant" in the past. Most well known for his fourth novel "What a Carve Up!" I plumped instead for the short novel that precedes it "The Dwarves of Death" partly because it adds to that interest micro-genre of novels about imaginary bands.

There are three imaginary bands in this 1990 satirical thriller, the Alaska Factory, the Unfortunates (after the B.S. Johnson novel) and the titular Dwarves of Death. Bill is the keyboard player in the first of these. He dropped out of Leeds University to follow his piano teacher to London, and has an admin job whilst moonlighting occasionally in a jazz bar, a place where he accidentally met his sort-of girlfriend Madeleine. "The Alaska Factory" are a mismatch and Bill's synth, which he lugs across London on the bus, isn't a good fit. His band's shadowy manager, Chester, suggests he leaves them and joins The Unfortunates, a darker band, whose sound needs filling out.

Bill is our genial narrator, but an unreliable one, in that he gets nearly everything wrong. Part dreamer, part innocent, he also is self-obsessed, not noticing what's around him. His old girlfriend from school, whom he has not been in touch with since coming to London, he realises seemed to see right through him - know before he did what he wanted to do. What he wants to do in London is vague. His relationship with Madeleine is one of bad dates and poor communications, and they never get further than a kiss. When she says she wants things to change, he misinterprets it as she wants him to marry her, when she's finally trying to bring the whole thing to a close. He shares a flat with Tina, sister-in-law of his piano teacher, on a grotty south London estate, but never sees her as she works shifts. They leave each other increasingly terse notes. Its obvious that Tina's boyfriend is abusing her, but not to Bill. The third woman he has an interest in is a Scottish barmaid at the pub that the band meet in.

This predictable life of late '80s London, is a recognisable but sterile one. A city in decline. Britpop hasn't yet happened - and there's no mention of the house music or other black formats which leading to warehouse parties around the M25. The Alaska Factory sound like they might be a Keane before their time - Bill's tastes run to the melodic, whilst The Unfortunates are much more intense, probably a late goth band of some sort. Yet the music is a bit of a red herring. For the story starts - and is flagged on the cover - with Bill's first meeting with the Unfortunates, in a house that their manager has provided for them. Left behind with the singer as they head to rehearsals, the singer waits in for a parcel from the shadowy man who lets them have the house. Its a mistake. Two assassins, hooded, come in to kill him. Bill hides in a corner and escapes - but is suddenly a fugitive. He never gets to join the now singerless and aptly named Unfortunates.

The novel then goes back to how it all begins and we get a comic tableau of his London life. He's like a Nick Hornby character, but without any pretension of success. The writing is often engaging and comic even as we cringe at Bill's description of situations - spending his money to taking the very ordinary (but beautiful) Madeleine to see an Andrew Lloyd Webber and spending all his time slagging off it and her love for it. Actually, as much as Hornby, its Ben Elton I recall, whose first novel "Stark" was a well read favourite from 1989. As a comedian Elton's novel was more a series of skits strung together with a bumbling hero - and in some ways "The Dwarves of Death" - its thin plot aside has a similar characteristic. An elongated piece about waiting for a bus in South London could almost be a piece of contemporary stand up.

For it turns out the Dwarves of Death were the most obscure of the obscure punk bands to come out of Scotland. Luckily Bill's friend from home is an obsessive collector and even sends him his impossible to find 2nd single. It turns out that there is a coded message in the b-side of the single - and Bill has unwittingly got involved in a revenge drama involving the barmaid and the owner of the recording studio they use.

The plot feels a red herring in many ways - Chester's getting Bill to join the Unfortunates is a pure plot device - and in what is a readable, satirical story, we realise that this is much more a dark coming of age story, with Bill having tried London, having got into all sorts of unexpected trouble, before finding what it is he really wants from his life.  Even though its set in 1988, it feels more dated in its style than its subject, the writing chatty but occasionally infuriating, as Bill, a likeable sort, proves to be a bit of a well meaning fool. That pre-internet world - where you would write a letter to old friends, or leave a message on an answerphone and not know if it had been picked up - is brought to live vividly.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Includes some spoilers.

Naomi Alderman's prize winning novel "The Power" begins with a familiar framing device. There are emails from "Naomi" to "Neil". The latter has written a history - albeit a somewhat fictionalised one - and wants the former's opinion. He is an archeologist and historian, looking back on a period of (from their perspective) ancient history. The past though is in our future - and this is where the novel begins, in our present day. The "looking back" is from a perspective of several thousand years in the future.  I'll come back to that frame.

In the present of the novel - we begin at the necessary place, when "the power" first comes to the girls. Teenage girls are the first to discover they have it - its an electric shock they can use when they touch people and things, sometimes little more than a tickle, but if they learn to control it, enough to injure or kill or worse. Like the history that it purports to be, it takes us through several origin stories. The abused girl Allie, who uses it on her foster father; the British girl, child of a gangster, who discovers the power, when her mother is attacked, the Nigerian man - soon to be a journalist - who uploads the first video of the power in action to YouTube, and an American politician who discovers it is better to hide this skill. Over time these stories will converge. Allie is the most interesting of the four characters. She runs away and guided by a voice in her head, she comes to an isolated convent where the nuns take her in. This all woman environment is where she begins to develop a new personality, a new name, and a new religion. She begins to call herself Mother Eve, and as her power develops and the voice in her head gets stronger, she begins to be a leader amongst the women.

There's a fifth story. In Moldova, a male leader dies and is replaced by his wife - who quickly declares a new country, run purely by women. Meanwhile the British girl's father realises what an asset he has in the power of his daughter, and she begins to control his drug business. When she turns up in America on the run from a revenge attack, she turns up at the convent and Mother Eve realises she has a soldier.

The power is something that appears to have always have been there but dormant - or possibly not - as some kind of nerve agent added to the waters during and after the war like flouride, so that all women now have it within them. In some ways the origins of the power matter less than what it means. Some people immediately realise it means everything has changed. Men can no longer rape or hurt women without being hurt back. In small doses it can enhance sex games. Yet at the same time this affront to masculine power means there's a counter revolution. On 4Chan like websites men use aliases as they plot revenge and converse freely of their hatred for women. Alderman, who used to develop stories for interactive game environments, is one of the few writers who is not phased by writing about the internet, but does with total confidence. It is one of the book's strengths. Compare with Eggars' "The Circle" where you get the feeling that the digital side is something he's researched.

Alderman has always been an interesting and ambitious writer, and this book really plays to her strengths. There's a lot of cleverness to her vision of this new world, a lot of spirited invention. As the book continues we move into a less speculative realm - as the action speeds up. The women's power shows itself via a "skein" that appears around their collarbone. There are men who have it as well. In the background there is the sense that this change is happening so rapidly that laws and technology can hardly keep up. At the same time the fear of these women leads to theocratic regimes in particular clamping down on the new reality - in the new Moldova, there is a war going on. Tunde, the principal male character in the novel, is now a celebrity journalist sharing his stories via his internet channels - being asked to report on the latest outburst of the phenomenon.

The pace begins to hot up - centred on the new female republic where for various reasons all the main characters have now ended up. The plot is labrynthine and breathless. Having given us plenty of explanation about the new reality, we now accept it. Like in China Mieville's "Perdido Street Station" or Lauren Beukes' "Zoo City" the new reality is no longer seen as strange. It sometimes seems the women are now almost like superheroes and the power is their super power. Though it makes the book a thrilling page turner in this latter part, I felt the move out of America leads to us losing something of the everyday strangeness. In this lawless eastern country its like anything can happen without consequence. The politician is now a senator, having finally shown her power on the televised debate. She has set up training camps for the girls in a public-private partnership. Mother Eve can only feel safe by owning the whole world - the voice in her head tells her so. Whilst Roxy, the young British girl, is now queen of the drug runners, and a new drug "glitter" which enhances the power, is being shipped across Europe.

In between chapters we have some line drawings of artefacts - a reminder that this is a "history" being told from a distant future. We now understand why - for Alderman is providing us with a satirical parallel of the world we live in. Imagine: after five thousand years of a woman-led world, can you imagine a male-led one that may have existed before? I understand why she includes this - and it adds a philosophical layer to the novel but in some ways it seems awkward, unecessary. The women taking over will lead to a war - a mighty catastrophe as men, now the weaker sex, are subjugated under their female rulers.

The novel is a deserved prize winner - it adds a substantial imaginative offering to our lists of dystopian fiction, with a distinct twist to it - but though its immensely fun to read, it does at some point, move from a strange evocation of this new world into something more like a comic book or video game. By the end there's a feeling there's no real consequence - yet there is, as the major and minor characters discover - and an awkward love story adds to that sense of flippancy. It seems to lack the intense strangeness of Ben Marcus's not entirely dissimilar "The Flame Alphabet" for instance (here it is teenagers rather than girls who are different.) I think the creation of a new religion - led by Mother Eve - feels the main story in the first part of the novel, but then it just becomes one strand of several, and the least dynamic one. I guess in the desire to create a real page turning adventure and bring us to a place of satisfactory climax, we lose some of the the depth of thought and characterisation that I so loved earlier in the novel.

So, not quite a masterpiece, but certainly one of the most rewarding and readable novels I've read for some time. In an age of dystopias it seems  a particularly original one. At times its as dark as an HBO boxset and it does feel like a novel written in and for the Netflix age. The return to the framing device at the end makes explicit what we already know - that it is our known world that is the unbelievable one, not the one of the novel, where women have all the power.

Friday, December 29, 2017

A Working Class Writer is Something to Be

In the twenty or so years that I’ve been trying seriously to get published I’ve seen schemes for writers aimed at a range of different constituencies: women, BAME, LGBT, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Northern, under-40s, over-40s… yet the reality of British fiction has always been how class-obsessed it is. If American society’s fault line is race, in Britain – and particularly now in post-Brexit Britain – its class. The achilles heel of British writing, fiction and poetry, has always been class; both in the subjects and characters that are written about and the industry itself – it’s publishers, agents and writers.

Somewhere I’ve a rejection letter or a reader’s note, from when I sent off my novel “Lineage” – which was shortlisted for the Lichfield Prize in 1995, a prize for unpublished fiction – to a London based agency. It basically says, “why should be interested in these characters?” My novel was set in the Midlands where I grew up, in the same working-cum-lower-middle-class milieu that I had grown up in. This was not the working class of Lowry’s smoke-belching factories or of Lawrence’s mining communities (the mine had been closed twenty years before I was born) or the inner city street novelist, but bland, suburban England, run down towns, where the only jobs after 1979 would be in retail and logistics, and where everyone’s dad that I knew worked in a small factory or warehouse, and everyone’s mum worked in the NHS or as a school cleaner or dinner lady. Normal, every day England, comprehensive schools, and indoor markets; WMCs and caravan holidays. Of the 120 kids on my year less than 20 went onto 6th form, and only a handful (including myself) went directly to University. 

There’s nothing to glory in this life – it’s recognisable to many of my friends, and only the location will be different. I find myself envious of those who lived nearer to towns (Birmingham was a good twenty miles away), or had a university nearby, or who had the option of a Grammar or other “special” school rather than the bog standard comp, or who lived in a seaside resort, or in the real countryside. Yet in many ways, “smalltown England”, to refer to the New Model Army song, was where I grew up, and where the locus of my writing comes from – however many years of urban and urbane life I’ve had since. What is worse now than then, in these places, is not so much the poverty of everyday life – more the poverty of ambition. It manifested itself in Brexit - and where I grew up is the heartland of Brexit England. A visit to the wonderful New Art Gallery in Walsall a few months ago reminded me of the limits of cultural regeneration - inside a thriving community glad for the opportunity - but outside, nothing had changed, if anything had gotten worse as recession and austerity had hit the town hard. 

English fiction rarely writes about such places – or rather rarely publishes them. LGBT writers like Alan Hollinghurst or Sara Walters set their novels in the upper classes or in a colourful urban past; BAME writers like Salman Rushdie are able to give us a global canvas; the traditionally middle class male writer gives us characters who are Professors or Lawyers or Colonels or Fashion Designers or Composers, not toolmakers, or factory workers, or clerks.

But of course, the idea that one should just write “what we know” when “what we know” is of so little interest to the London-based publishing trade is also an affront. The provincial writer – or at least this one – is fascinated by power structures, by the rich and successful, and by the hustle of the city. Yet even in my London-based novel “High Wire”, which I completed nearly twenty years ago, the urbane metropolitan scene of art openings, dot com companies, political crookedness, and the like, is interrupted at some point as my protagonist returns to the Midlands to see his dying grandfather in his nursing home. Moving forward to the present, and the last few stories I’ve had published have been about characters far removed from myself – yet, I feel there’s always a groundedness to what I want to write, not too far from the surface.

It’s great to hear that there's a new crowd-sourced initiative has been started by Kit de Waal, a book of new writing that looks to find new voices from working class communities – and will pair newer writers with writers who have come from those backgrounds. You can fund it here - though whether this is the right model for this sort of anthology we'll find out I guess  - surely it would have been good for one of those class-bound London publishing houses to commission such an initiative? Perhaps this became the only route. There are writers I know, such as Paul McVeigh and Lisa Blower, involved with it, and it will surely help shift the dial a little. 

Anyway, its got some way to go until it gets funding - but lets hope it has a galvanising effect on an industry that has been for far too long ambivalent about how many people in this country live. 

Let's also hope - since being "working class" isn't a static state, that it doesn't just become a platform for gritty urban voices, but can also reflect the sort of ordinary background that I came from (the 1930s semi I grew up in is on the left hand side of picture at the start of this article) and that those new voices don't have to just write autobiography - the BBC and the Northern writing agency seem particularly prone to want "northern" writers to write about "northern" subjects - but can write experimental fiction, genre fiction, literary fiction whatever they like.